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Aquerna - Straight from the Squirrel’s Mouth

By Diane Castle


There was no way Anna could beat Força.  She knew it.  He knew it.  The whole dojo knew it.  All he had to do was keep her back with his knives and his dance-fu, and then blast the tar out of her.

Wait?  What had Phase done against Força just a couple days ago?  Well, some of it Anna sure couldn’t do, like just standing there and taking one of Força’s blasts head on and ignoring it.  Or letting Força do one of those martial arts cartwheels right through you and then punching Força hard enough to cream him.

Okay, maybe the way Phase sparred against Força wasn’t really all that helpful for her.

Sensei started them off, and Força tried to blast her.  She jumped straight up and right at him, and he just missed.  She kind of had to do the splits to keep his blast from hitting her right in the knees.  But when he saw her coming at him with her kamas in front, he dove to the side and cartwheeled away.

Anna flipped in the air and landed on her feet.  She jumped out of the way as he cartwheeled right at her and tried to kick her in the head.  She tried a two-handed double strike with the kamas, and he dodged the first one and blocked the second one with a knife.  Then he tried to blast her again, and she had to jump out of the way.

The whole fight went like that.  Whenever he tried to blast her, she had to jump out of the way.  Whenever she attacked him with the kamas, he cartwheeled out of the way.  She thought she’d never ever get a point against him.  But they both made mistakes.  He got in a big blast one time, and it nailed her right in the chest even though she was jumping backward and to the side, and that knocked her down and she landed right out of the sparring circle, so he was leading 1-0 and she figured she’d just end up losing.  But she was extra careful and he kept missing when she jumped away, so he didn’t get his second point, and finally he messed up and cartwheeled the wrong way right into where she was jumping, so she got in a good double chop with the kamas to his neck and ribs.  And sensei awarded her a point for that.  So it ended in a tie, 1-1, which was great!  She was so pleased.  There was no way someone like her could fight someone like Força normally, and she got a tie!

Then the really cool fighters got into it.  Lancer just pounded Aztecka, which was pretty hard to believe, since Az was really fast, and really strong, and really tough.  Okay, Az was a lot faster than Lancer, but Lancer was pretty much indestructible, and when she hit him nothing much happened.  But when he hit her, she went flying.

Then Phase fought Tennyo, which was about the most awesome fight of the day.  Because, well, Tennyo!  Okay, Tennyo couldn’t use her lightsaber or her big energy blast attacks.  But Phase still had to fight Tennyo, who pretty much never lost.  Well, hardly ever.  And Phase really showed just how amazing she could be when she wanted to, since she had all those holdouts and weapons and stuff.  Their whole battle was just… wow.  Even if Phase kind of wrecked some of the mat with that tangleweb bomb at the end there.

Anna was just glad Phase never threw something like that at her because it would probably ruin her clothes and get all in her hair and stick to her skin and everything.  She just had no idea why it didn’t stick to Tennyo’s hair.  Magic?  Maybe it was the same kind of power that made Tennyo’s hair stay pretty much dry in the shower and stay upside down when Tennyo was upside down.

And then Anna figured Tennyo would be really mad about losing, and about getting glued to the mat, and about having to tear her gi off in front of everyone to get loose.  But mainly she was upset about Generator and Plastic Girl.

Tennyo whined, “Jade, you can’t let Ayla pay you to do everything!  And Jody, you too!  Paying you to store all that stuff for her?  And paying you to clean the mat too?  That’s not right!”

But Generator just said, “Well, she asked.  And I’ve got tangleweb loads for my Cobra, so I figure if I don’t have the clean-up stuff around here, I can’t use ‘em.  Plus, she paid me a lot, and you saw.  It was super-easy!”

Plastic Girl just smiled, “It’s okay, Billie.  Really.  Ayla asked me if I’d do it, and she even asked if she was being unfair.  And come on, she paid me a couple hundred bucks just to keep a couple jugs and things in the bottom of my locker, and I just put my shoes on top of ‘em, so it’s not like it’s even inconvenient.  Actually, it’s less bending over, so it’s even more convenient.”

But Tennyo sighed and said, “Jody, you stretch.  There’s no way bending over is inconvenient for you.”

And Jody looked like Tennyo had caught her with her hand in the cookie jar.  She finally said, “I could’ve said no.  She said I didn’t have to, and she said she had plenty of alternatives.  Even if I didn’t believe that.  So what’s the harm?”

And Chaka said, “Besides, I saw there’s two or three whole new mats rolled up and still in the wrappers over in the big storage area, and you just know where they came from.”

Judicator asked, “You don’t really think Phase would just buy new mats for the dojo, do you?”

Chaka rolled her eyes like Judicator just said something really dopey.  “This is Phase we’re talkin’ about.  I bet as soon as she had a weapon that could wreck the mats, she put in an order for replacements.  She’s like that.  She’s gotta handle everything.  If something goes wrong, she blames herself, even if there’s no way it’s really her fault.”

Generator tried a really bad imitation of Phase, even if she did get the ‘I should be in charge’ tones.  “Goodkinds don’t complain, they fix things.”

Chaka snorted.  “Not too bad, but definitely not Vox there.”

And Generator glared at her.  “Well DUH!  Vox is a Siren!”

Tennyo muttered, “Well, I still think she’s got Jody doin’ too much stuff for her.  I don’t care how much she’s paying.”

Judicator said, “What I want to know is what else she has in that little utility belt.  It looks like it wouldn’t hold a postage stamp, but she just kept pulling stuff out, and more stuff, and more stuff…”

Chaka grinned.  “When we got checked in for the holographic simulations, Phase had so much stuff in her belt that they were still checking her stuff over after they covered Generator’s purse and Bladedancer’s bag and the whole rest of the team’s holdouts.  That girl is seriously paranoid.”

Tennyo said, “You’re just lucky you didn’t get the ice egg or the tangleweb ball.”

Chaka pretended to look horrified.  “Oh no, not webbing in the ‘do!  You can’t touch the ‘do!”  And she started acting like she was trying to guard her hair, and pretty much the whole locker room cracked up.  Anna just wished she was cool enough to hang out with Chaka, because Chaka was really funny.

After dinner and some Civics class homework, Anna went over to the clubhouse.  Nate was still calling her Hagrid, even if everyone else in the whole gang was sick and tired of that stupid joke.  And then, when Anna was just figuring on talking about Luce’s date Saturday night, all the girls wanted to talk about Anna’s trip to Boston.

“What are you gonna wear?”

“Do you have to have like a formal dress or something?”

Anna said, “It’s not like that.  It’s nice casual.”

“Well, how nice?  How casual?  Is it casual for around here, or casual for New York City, or casual for Hollywood, or what?”

Anna said what Phase told her.  “It’s just nice casual.  Something better than worn jeans, and a nice top.  And no supersuits and no Whateley uniforms.  So I’m wearing my khakis and my blue cable-knit sweater top.”

“But what about accessories?  You gotta have the right shoes and earrings for that, and are you gonna wear any jewelry?”

Anna ducked her head.  “There’s no way I got any jewelry nice enough to wear for this.  I mean, Phase and Charmer and them are probably gonna be wearing real diamonds and stuff!”

“But what about belts?  And shoes?”

Anna said, “I’m just gonna wear my loafers.”

“Why not your good black flats?  They’re really cute.”

Anna blushed.  “I, umm, kinda cut the end out of one of ‘em the other week when I didn’t have my toenails filed enough, so they’re totally wrecked.  Mom’s gonna kill me if she figures out how many pairs of shoes I ruined since last April.”

“Well, you gotta polish ‘em tonight so they’re ready for tomorrow.”

“And you can borrow my good brown woven belt.  It’ll go great with your khakis.”

Anna smiled, “Thanks.  Thanks a ton.”

But once they worked out about accessorizing for her outfit, they got onto presents, which really made Anna feel bad.  She said, “I’m just glad she said no presents at all, because there’s no way I could find anything she’d like that I could afford.  I mean, I have like ten bucks in spending money for the rest of the week, and there’s no way I could buy anything that a super-rich girl like Phase wouldn’t just throw in the trash can.”

Ree nudged her and said, “You could make one of those cool knit scarves like you made for me.”

That got Anna to perk up.  “Yeah, you’re right.  If I need a good present for someone, I can knit one of those.  I’m just glad I don’t need to start worrying about Phase’s favorite colors and if she’s allergic to synthetics and all that kind of stuff, because there’s no way I could find the right color yarns tonight and get one knitted before nine a.m.”

“Yeah, and Phase would probably have to have rich-girl fabrics too.  Like Solange and her special ‘natural un-dyed taupe’ wool she was blathering about in the bathroom last week.”

“What do ya think they do to the sheep to make ‘em grow taupe wool instead of white?”

“Jeez!  It’s natural.  Lots of sheep don’t grow white wool.  Now those deviser sheep in Australia that grow red or blue wool?  That’s just freaky.”

“Jobe could probably make sheep that’d grow paisley and checks.”

“Poor little sheepies…”

Saturday, January 27, 2007, 8:20 am
Whateley Academy

Anna was already back in her dorm room after breakfast with Ree, and she was really nervous getting ready.  She was still having a hard time believing Phase and all her ultra-cool friends would want her to tag along.  She just really hoped no one waited until she got all the way to the shuttle buses and then laughed in her face and told her to go away.  She knew girls back in Zanesville who would do that.  And Solange would sure do that.  She didn’t want to believe Phase would be like that.  But really, why would someone like billionaire heiress Ayla Goodkind, financial genius, want to hang out with someone like Anna Parsons, junkman’s daughter and one of the biggest losers of her whole school back in Zanesville, Ohio?

She still couldn’t believe Phase would even invite her.  There were tons of kids she knew back in Zanesville who wouldn’t invite her to their birthday parties, and their parties were just at their house or over in the Eighth Street Bowling Alley or at Torino’s Pizza Parlor.  This was a whole trip to another state!  She could believe Phase would invite Charmer, and a lot of the other people who were going.  Even Phobos, since Phase sparred with Phobos all the time last term.  But why her?  She just crossed her fingers and got ready.

She spent an extra long time getting her hair just right, so no one would make fun of her about that.  And she checked that her loafers were all polished and looking nice, and that her toenails were all filed so she wouldn’t ruin another pair of socks and another pair of shoes.  Then she re-did the polish on her fingernails, because that never held up if she did anything serious with her hands.

She’d talked over makeup with Ree and Luce and Mindy and Trish for like half an hour last night, and she finally decided on a real minimal approach, even if the Exemplar girls would show up with perfect skin and gorgeous eyes even if they didn’t use any makeup at all.  So she was using some dark brown mascara and neutral lipcolor, and nothing else.  Plus, that meant she only needed to slip her tube of lipcolor in the pocket of her khakis, and she was good to go.

She had a wallet, but she wasn’t going to take it.  She figured her MID and her school ID and a five dollar bill was as much as she should be taking.  Not that she had more to take, anyway.  It wasn’t like she had hundreds of bucks in cash and fancy charge cards and stuff like that.  No, she had nine dollars and eighty-two cents total, until she got her next ‘allowance’ from Admin for her work scholarship.

She grabbed her coat, and she checked her makeup and hair one more time.  Holy cow, she was more nervous about this than the first time she went out with Jerry!  She didn’t want to get there early and look all pathetic, but she didn’t want to be late, and she didn’t know what to do!

She walked down to the front door and tried to figure out when she ought to leave.  Because it would be way better if she walked down with someone else, but she wasn’t all sure who was going, even if she was really really sure Molly would be going, because she was tight with Chou, and Anna was super sure Phase would be taking Bladedancer.

So it was really good when Anna heard Molly humming as she walked down the stairs.  Anna got a grip on herself and tried to look all calm and stuff, and stepped a couple steps back from the front door.

Molly came down the steps, and Anna relaxed a little bit more.  Molly was wearing khakis too, and a cute button-down top that wasn’t an oxford because it was a nice print and had a soft collar.  And Molly had hardly any makeup on, and sneakers.  But really clean, new-looking sneakers, not like Anna’s running sneakers that were all dirty and scuffed and marked up from running up trees and up buildings and over roofs and stuff.

Anna smiled.  “Hey, Molly!  Are you on your way down to the shuttle?”

Molly smiled back.  “Yeah.  You ready?  I got my coat, so I’m good to go.  And Chou told me not to bring anything except ID, because Ayla’s got everything covered.”


Molly really grinned.  “Everything.  Food, drinks, transportation, you name it.  Wouldn’t surprise me a bit if Ayla had a whole circus rented for us, or something like that.”

Anna blinked at that.  “Really?”

Molly snickered.  “You have no idea.  The first time they went to Boston, Ayla paid the school chefs to make this huge breakfast deal for all of ‘em, including veggie fare for Chou and Nikki, and we’re talking enough food for Tennyo and Lancer on top of everything else.  And Chou said it was really, really good.”

“What was really good?” Charmer asked from the stairs.

Molly said, “Ayla’s food from the first time they went to Boston.”

“And what about the second time?” Charmer wondered.

“School trip with Ms. Grimes driving.  Ayla complained about the food for like days.  She said the food at the police station and the courthouse was so bad she was surprised there were any stray cats and dogs left in the downtown area.”

Charmer grinned, but Anna thought that sounded pretty icky.  Even if she knew Phase had to be kidding about it.  Still, jokes could be like that.  Her dad and uncle made some pretty icky jokes like that, and her mom would just roll her eyes and not say anything.

Charmer said, “That is so typical of Phase.  She is attacked by supervillains, and she complains about her lunch.  One day she argued with Dynamaxx about the best places to eat in Copenhagen.  That would be like arguing with you over where to eat in your own hometown.”

Molly said, “Come on, let’s head out.  I wanna see what Dorjee looks like.”

Anna asked, “Door gee?”

Molly smiled and explained.  “Dorjee.  Chain Lightning.  He’s coming too.  Me and Chou got him to wear something besides the monk-like stuff he always wears, so he’ll look normal.”

Anna didn’t quite get that.  “He’s a monk?  Like sensei Ito but with robes?”

Molly ushered them out the door.  “Sort of.  He hasn’t joined the order, so he’s sort of pre-monk-ish.  And since he’s dating now, maybe he won’t become a monk after all, but he’ll be a superpowered fighter for good.  Part of Team Chou, with me and Winnie.”

Charmer frowned.  “Zat is the part I do not like.  Winnie is not… how do you say… cut out to be a superheroine.  And she got hurt when you broke that spell last week.”

Molly nodded, looking unhappy.  “Yeah, we all got hurt.  Dorjee got hurt really bad, and Chou got banged up, and I got hammered too.  But we couldn’t have done it without Winnie.  She’s really good.  I mean, people make fun of her because she just does feng shui, but really she can do a lot of stuff.  She can pull ley lines away from bad wizards, and some really cool things like that.”

Charmer nodded.  “She pulled a couple ley lines through the dorm floor so our room doesn’t get some of the mold problems some of the rooms have, and I can really tell the difference.  I also wake up with more Essence than I used to have before breakfast, and it’s really nice.  But I do not want her getting hurt.”

Molly said, “Me neither.  That’s why we want Anna and Caitlin to give me and Winnie some parkour lessons, so we can get good at running away and dodging stuff.  Anna’s really good, and everyone says Caitlin is like championship caliber.”

Anna said, “Yeah, she learned from Mister Mahren and some of his friends, and she probably got some extra training from Sergeant Bardue, and now she’s got powers too, so she’s awesome.  She’s given me some really good advice.”  Anna didn’t say that she missed Mister Mahren even if he was a grumpy old guy a lot of the time, and somehow when Caitlin was leading them in parkour runs around campus it kind of felt to her squirrel spirit like Mister Mahren wasn’t really gone.  She figured it was because Mister Mahren had trained Caitlin so much.

Charmer shrugged, in that way French people did that looked so sophisticated and smooth.  “That sounds like a good idea.  I believe Winnie would be happier if she had some friends for the exercises.  And if she lost some weight she might feel better about herself.”

“Yeah,” said Molly.

Anna said, “And then maybe the mean girls in the dorm would stop being such jerks to her.”

Molly smirked.  “Or maybe she could pull a couple ley lines and make their dorm rooms get all musty and moldy.”

Charmer snickered and said, “There are certainly some girls who deserve more than mold in their rooms.”

Anna said, “Nate was pretty mad about girls being mean to Winnie, since she’s one of the Underdogs like me, and what he wanted to do to their rooms was way worse than some mildew.”

Charmer asked, “Who is Nate?”

Molly said, “Miasma.”

Charmer got a wide-eyed expression on her face and said, “Ohhh.  I saw his combat final.”

Anna said, “Be glad you didn’t smell it.  Nate’s my friend, but sometimes we have to make him go eat on the other side of the cafeteria, over there under the big vent fan things where Killstench eats.”

Molly said, “We all have friends who do stuff that bugs us.  You should see some of the things Team Kimba gets up to.  Sometimes I wonder why Hank puts up with ‘em.  Or why Nikki and Toni put up with Hank.”

Charmer snorted.  “It is not as if my friends do not do the same.  Dynamaxx is always ‘hitting on’ the girls, and Cytherea is always doing the same with the boys.  Kismet is always bossy, and Spark is always distracted with her research.  Or with Reach.”

Molly said, “Yeah, sometimes it seems like all Team Kimba does is superhero stuff.  If it’s not huge super-battles with supervillains, it’s martial arts and deviser stuff to get ready for huge super-battles with supervillains.  Like every single one of ‘em is in that martial arts special topics class Anna’s taking, except Fey, and she’s got her own private martial arts teacher, and Chou’s got a private martial arts teacher on top of everything she’s doing in that class.”  Molly looked her way and asked, “So how are you liking that martial arts class?  Chou says you’re working with fighting claws and the… umm… comma?”

Anna remembered when sensei said she should work with the kama, and she hadn’t had any idea what the heck he was talking about.  She smiled in embarrassment when she thought about it.  She nodded, “Yeah.  The kama.  It’s one of those little scythes on a short stick?  You know.  They used their farming tools for weapons ‘cause they couldn’t carry swords around?”

Charmer smiled.  “It sounds like you are enjoying it.  I did all right last term in aikido, but I did not enjoy it all that much.”

Anna looked at Charmer’s wrist and said, “Well, you don’t need martial arts, ‘cause you’re a super-powerful wizard, and you got those charms on your bracelet if anyone tries to surprise you.”

Charmer gave her a weird look.  She sounded kind of uncomfortable when she said, “You are not supposed to notice them.  They are magical tokens that hold prepared spells.”

Anna shrugged and apologized.  “Sorry, but my spirit can feel magic, and it noticed your charm bracelet way before I even saw you using it in class back in the fall.”

Charmer gave her a little smile.  “That is all right.  But I would appreciate it if you didn’t tell everyone, because it is one of my ‘surprises’.  Okay?”

Anna nodded eagerly.  “Oh sure!  We’d never tell anyone!  Right, Molly?”

And then Molly started talking about the secrets she had to keep about Team Kimba, but she just told a little bit about what happened to ‘em over Christmas, and it sounded like about a thousand times bigger than Anna’s Christmas thing with the mugger.  Getting attacked by ninjas while you’re in a wheelchair right after surgery?  Rushing out and saving a kid from an entire Knights of Purity power armor team?  Fighting a supervillain in a museum?  Wow!  Did they even have time to put up a Christmas tree?  Heck, did they even have time to take a deep breath in between superhero things?  And that wasn’t even touching the stuff Molly didn’t say that was about Tennyo and Fey and Phase.

Maybe, if someone asked Tennyo or Fey or Phase about their Christmas adventures, they wouldn’t mind if Anna got to hear too.  Because she was really curious.  People were saying Tennyo flew off somewhere at the end of term and got in huge trouble and had to come back and be grounded all Christmas break in Poe with no one to talk to or anything.

And then Anna spotted Phobos walking their way, so she asked Molly and Charmer if it was okay if they waited for her and checked if she was going to Boston with them and walked down to the shuttle with her, and they even said yes!

Anna liked Phobos and Outcast Corner, since they’d all been real nice to the Underdogs, even Nate, even after that time last fall when Jericho insisted Nate’s gas had made his coffee undrinkable.  But being near Phobos was scary.  And not because Phobos looked all monster-y.  It was because Phobos and her sister had this really icky ‘fear aura’ thing they couldn’t turn off.  So the closer you got to either of them, the worse you got afraid.  And if they were together, the fear aura stuff was like a dozen times worse, and the one time Anna saw ‘em combine into that fear monster thingie, it was so scary she just about wet her pants.  That was the worst thing ever.

So Anna tried really hard to pretend she wasn’t scared while they talked with Phobos and walked down to the shuttles.  Phobos seemed real surprised anyone would want to talk to her, even if she was really nice.  And Phobos was dressed for going out in public, with this cool-looking duster that kind of made her look like an old-fashioned cowboy, and it hid her legs really well, and Anna figured she had her other arms hidden inside it too, so she looked pretty normal from the neck down.  Phobos was also wearing these huge dark yellow wraparound sunglasses that came up pretty high on her forehead too and they looked like they were big enough to hide a whole pair of really big glasses underneath, so they did a good job of hiding that whole ‘extra eye’ deal she had going on.  And her fangs only showed when she opened her mouth real wide or smiled really big.  So the only thing that wasn’t covered up was her green skin, which wasn’t bad, it just looked… different.  And since she was wearing her long hair loose and letting it drape down over her face some, it did an okay job of hiding her face more, so her skin was kind of in shadow some of the time and then you sort of told yourself that her skin wasn’t really green it just looked that way by accident because of the shadow and the red hair.

Anna wished she had hair that gorgeous.  Anna’s hair was kind of bushy and a really blah shade of brown.  Kind of like Hermione Granger in the first movie, only not as bushy and not as long, and more like chipmunk brown instead of ‘gorgeous Emma Watson brown’.  Phobos had this beautiful red hair that was long and straight, and there were probably supermodels who would probably kill to have hair that looked that good.  Anna was totally envious.  Even if she really didn’t want straight hair if it meant she had to have everything else Phobos was stuck with, because she didn’t think she could stand it if she had a fear aura and empath powers and no one wanted to be her friend and she had to feel it when people were scared of her or hated her or thought mean things about her.

Maybe some day Jerry would get the bugs worked out of his secret hair-lengthening formula and she could use it and have really long, really straight, really gorgeous hair that would maybe be a sexy red like Phobos or Fey, or a striking black like Phase or Charmer, or a hot blonde like Mega-Girl.  Wow, if Jerry came up with a formula like that, and girls could have short hair or long hair or medium hair just by shampooing stuff in their hair, every girl in the whole country would be using that stuff a dozen times a year.  You could try a wedge or a pixie cut or cut your bangs, and if you hated it, you just went and used some shampoo, and your hair was back to normal again.  Jerry just didn’t understand how awesomely important something like that would be, even if he did have sisters.

Phobos already knew Charmer, so Anna introduced her to Molly, who was nice and not all freaked out about how Phobos looked.  But then Phobos said, “Oh, you’re Bladedancer’s… friend.”  But she said it with this little smirk, like she knew something, and Molly sort of blushed.  Anna wondered what that was all about.

But anyway, they got into a fun talk about the combat finals and how tons of people liked it when major school jerks got clobbered.  Because Bladedancer got tons of cards and things when she beat up Nex, and Anna got a bunch of stuff when she beat Buster.

Then, while Molly got everyone moving down to the shuttles, Anna told them, “And Hazmat beat Crunch, and he got like fifty thank-you cards.”

Molly said, “And hardly anyone knows Punch, she’s really shy, but pretty much the whole school was rooting for her when she was up against Jobe.”

Phobos growled, “Yeah, well, he’s Jobe.”

Anna remembered how much Phobos and her sister hated Jobe, and she just said, “Hazmat said even the other devisers were rooting against Jobe.  A lot of them really don’t like him because he’s so mean to them.”

Charmer said, “If there is anyone here who has fewer friends than Solange, it would be Jobe.”

Molly said, “I hear even the other Bad Seeds don’t like him.  Maybe Techno-Devil does.  That’s about it.  Even She-Beast doesn’t have nice things to say about him.”

Charmer asked, “How would you hear something like that?”

Molly shrugged a little.  “Ayla.  She’s got more contacts around here than you’d believe.”

Anna was kind of shocked.  She’d heard that people like Thuban spent lots of time tracking down secret information, and everyone pretty much knew the Alphas did stuff like that under The Don, but she had no idea Phase did stuff like that too.  But Anna noticed that Charmer wasn’t surprised at all.

Charmer said, “The Golden Kids talk about Phase, and the general feeling is that a Goodkind would be doing that no matter what, so it is hardly a surprise.”

Phobos frowned, “I don’t think Phase is exactly your normal Goodkind.”

Anna said, “Yeah!  She’s nice.”

Phobos looked at Anna like she totally missed the point, which Anna kind of realized she had.  Phobos said, “I mean, she’s not a mutant-hating creep, like her whole family.”

Molly said, “I don’t know how bad her family really is.  Because Ayla still talks with one of her brothers, and she lives with one of her sisters, and she got Christmas presents from some of ‘em.  And she still talks about her mom and dad like she really misses ‘em.  But her parents kicked her out of the house when she turned into a mutant, so I don’t know what to think.”

Phobos sounded sort of sad when she said, “You can be a monster and still have family that loves you.”

Anna was pretty sure Phobos was talking about herself.  Anna didn’t know what to say to that, since her own family wasn’t even talking to her, and didn’t want her to come home for Christmas, and she didn’t even know if she had a home anymore, or what she’d do for summer vacation.  It would be great if she got to spend the summer at Ree’s house and maybe get a part-time job or something, but really it would be way better if her folks stopped being so mad at her and asked her to come home for summer vacation.  And she really didn’t want to get stuck in one of the Whateley Academy summer programs that they had for kids who couldn’t go home.

When they got down to the shuttles, Anna could see that the Kimbas were all there, and Shroud was looking really human.  Anna had seen her looking like that in martial arts class, so she recognized her right away.  She was standing with Generator and Tennyo, so that just made it easier to remember why she knew the black-haired Asian girl who was nearly a foot taller than Generator.

And Jericho showed up, although Anna almost didn’t recognize him without his usual eye-watering stomach-turning clothes.  In nice clothes, he was really a pretty nice looking guy.  Not that she was looking around, because she really liked Jerry, but if he had asked her out before Jerry came along, she probably would’ve said yes.  And Chaka and Phase just had to go and make fun of him for not wearing his usual awful stuff.

Okay, Jericho kind of went out of his way to tease people and get them to tease him back.  He was fun that way.  But sometimes he didn’t really catch on when people were mad at him for teasing them and just wanted him to stop, and he just kind of acted like they were only pretending to be grumpy at him.  At least when he said stuff to Chaka and Phase, you knew they could zing him right back.  And you knew they would zing him right back, because they were just like that.

But then Chaka bugged Phase about ‘Jadis and Mal’, and the only person Anna had ever heard of named Jadis was a girl who was gonna be a supervillain in a couple years.  Even if she was one of Lindsay’s best friends.  Anna was worried she shouldn’t ask, but it was one of those things you had to ask. “Wait a minute, Jadis and Mal?  You mean She-Beast?  And who’s Mal?”

“Jadis and Malachai Diabolik.  She-Beast and Techno-Devil.”  Fey just said it like she wasn’t the least bit worried about the children of somebody like Dr. Diabolik.  But she was Fey.  She could probably beat up Dr. Diabolik and his whole army of badguys without breaking a sweat.

Anna looked at Phase and choked, “You know them?  Aren’t they like… supervillains?”

Chaka just kind of leaned into the conversation and grinned like she was teasing Phase and said, “Oh yeah, Ayla went to grade school with ‘em.”

Anna had a hard time keeping her mouth from dropping open.  How awful would it be to go to grade school with Jadis and Mal Diabolik?  She knew how awful it was to go to grade school with Billy and Bobby Hadley, and they weren’t going to be supervillains when they grew up.  Okay, they were probably going to be even bigger jerks when they grew up.  But not supervillains.

Tennyo just went right on and said, “And Solange too.”

Eww.  Anna could just see Solange as a grade schooler, picking on all the little kids like the Hadley boys did.  Only Solange wouldn’t go grab you and shove your face in the mud or break your glasses.  No, Solange would pay some big goon to grab you and shove your face in the mud and break your glasses.  Come to think of it, that wasn’t all that much different from how Solange was now.

But Jericho wasn’t bothered about them even a little.  He laughed, “Oh!  Lemme tell you what Mal had to say about Phase when she was little.”

Whoa.  Jericho knew Techno-Devil so well he heard stories from him?  Oh right, they were all in Workshop.  Still, Anna figured people weren’t hanging out listening to Jobe tell stories or anything like that, so maybe Jericho was sort of friends with Techno-Devil.

And really, how horrible did your dad have to be if he ripped out your eyeball and shoved a robot eye in your head?  Ugh.

But the story Jericho started telling was really funny, mostly because Jericho was a great storyteller.  And Anna figured it had to be true, because Chaka already knew the story, and also Phase was just standing there listening and not correcting it or anything.

Still, that was just kind of amazing.  Ayla as a first grader, leading a boycott of the school lunch program at a fancy Montessori school that probably had really fancy lunch stuff.  It probably was true that Goodkinds were different from everybody else.

Molly took Anna’s hand and led her over to Bladedancer and a handsome Asian guy Anna didn’t know.  “Come on, I want you to meet Dorjee.”

Anna didn’t recognize him.  But he looked like an Exemplar, and he was dressed kind of preppy except for the baseball cap.  He looked kind of uncomfortable in the clothes, like he didn’t normally wear anything like that.  Anna’s dad always looked like that when he had to wear a suit.  Anna wondered what he normally wore.  Around Whateley, that wasn’t a simple question.  Not when there were plenty of people like Mega-Girl who wore superhero costumes all the time, and people who wore special protection gear most of the time, and people who wore labcoats almost all the time.  Not to mention the people like Jericho who wore really weird stuff, and the people like Jimmy T who only pretended to wear real clothing.

Anna said hi, and they started talking about the martial arts special topics class that Dorjee wasn’t taking,  Then Dorjee said the really surprising thing.

He looked at Anna and said, “We wanted to thank you for supporting Winnie.”

Anna was kind of surprised, because she didn’t think she was doing anything special, and because she didn’t think anyone would say ‘thanks’ about it.  And anyway, Winnie was her friend, so she wasn’t gonna just stand around and let people be mean to her.  Anna tried to explain about how the Underdogs stuck together, even if Nate’s gas caused plenty of problems, and somehow she got sidetracked on Nate’s poots instead of Winnie, until Dorjee asked a question and she realized she was totally sounding like a bubblehead.

Dorjee smiled at her, but he looked confused too.  Anna figured he smiled a whole lot.  He asked, “And this is why girls are picking on Geomancer?”

Anna had to say no.  It took her a second to figure out how she’d gone from Winnie being picked on to Nate being a gasbomb, and then she realized she’d been rambling like a dope.  She blushed a little and tried to explain.  “It’s just that Winnie’s easy to bully, and so some girls just do it.  And she doesn’t like the other girls to look at her, so it’s easy for the bullies to get her to rush through a shower and then run away without even drying off or anything.”

It was just totally mean, too, because once you got out of the shower you weren’t blocking up the line anymore.  Sometimes Anna wondered if Winnie would be happier over at Whitman with Ree, instead of in Dickinson.  Anna would miss having her around, and Charmer was a really good roommate.  And Ree said sometimes the girls in Whitman were even worse, especially if they thought you were going all ‘pity me’ in front of the GSD girls.  And there was always the big risk.  Getting stuck with Fractious as a roommate, which Ree said was worse than rooming with somebody like Diamondback or Harpy.

Bladedancer wanted to talk about katas for stuff where you used both hands, like Anna’s kamas and fighting claws, and Lancer’s sais, so Anna was happy to chat.  Chain Lightning – Dorjee – was interested too, and it wasn’t like Anna usually got asked to talk about martial arts with real martial arts experts like them, so she was happy to chat.

And, even though Anna thought Chaka was talking about martial arts stuff with Phase and Phobos, as soon as Anna said the word ‘kama’, suddenly Chaka hopped over.  “Hey Chou, you gotta get yourself a pair of kama and work ‘em.”

Anna frowned, “I can see how you could do a cartwheel with ‘em, but how can you flip ‘em like batons?  They don’t balance!”

Chaka grinned wickedly, “I just aligned my Ki with ‘em until I could make ‘em stick to my hands.”

Chou rolled her eyes.  “So no one else on earth would even bother to learn to use their Ki that way.”

Anna just gaped, because that was almost exactly what sensei Ito told her just the other day.  Wow, Bladedancer sure was smart about this stuff.

Dorjee gave Chaka a big smile and said, “I do not have your skills with Ki, so I would probably want to focus on learning a different Ki skill.”

Anna said, “I’m not even good enough to start learning Ki skills, and if I could, the first thing I’d want to learn is that thing where you use the other person’s Ki to dodge their attacks.  That is the coolest thing ever.”

Chaka just looked at her.  “You could learn that.”  She said, “You’d have to learn how to awaken your Ki first, and then you’d have to learn to wield it in some basic ways, and then you could focus on learning that one.  But the first step’s hard work.  Sahar’s an Exemplar, and she can use her Psi skills to ‘ride along’ in my head and see how I do it, but she’s still a goodly ways away from awakening her Ki enough to move to the basic moves.  Still…”  She cocked her head and said, “Oh!  Gotta go!”  And she jumped over two people to dive into another conversation.

Molly looked at Bladedancer with confusion in her eyes.  Bladedancer said, “Ayla shouldn’t have said that Toni was going to jump into every conversation on martial arts.  I think she’s taken it as her mission statement.”

Molly got a really wicked gleam in her eye and said, “So you mean all we have to do is say ‘meteor hammer’ and…”

A second later, Chaka stuck her head in between Bladedancer and Chain Lightning.  “What were you saying about meteor hammers?”

Molly began giggling really hard, and soon they were all laughing, with Chaka staring at them and acting like she couldn’t figure out what was going on.

Anna was still giggling when Mega-Girl flew in.  Anna kind of winced when she did, because it turned out her miniskirt didn’t stay down when she flew, especially when she dropped down and landed.  It was just a good thing she was wearing part of her superhero costume under it, or she would’ve been flashing the whole campus.  If it was Anna in that miniskirt, she would’ve just died of embarrassment.  She made a little note to herself that she was never, ever, ever wearing a miniskirt as part of a superhero costume.  Not even for Halloween.

Anna turned to Molly and whispered, “Didn’t Phase say no superhero costumes?”

Bladedancer said, “Marty has hardly any clothes that fit her, except some really ugly stuff her dad bought that she hates.”

Anna asked, “Is it really that bad?”

Bladedancer made a face.  “Imagine you got a bulky sack dress that would fit Kodiak.  And it’s in a really ugly color that looks awful on you.  Are you going to wear it anywhere?”

Anna winced, “Maybe not.”

Molly said, “Marty’s dad really isn’t taking the whole ‘my kid is sixteen and now looks like a Playboy centerfold’ thing very well.  So she really doesn’t have anything she wants to wear except her costume and whatever she can afford to buy out of her allowance, which isn’t much.”

Anna just stared.  Wow, it had never once occurred to her that maybe someone like Mega-Girl would be wearing her costume all the time because it was the only thing she even had to wear that fit.  But since she was an Exemplar, she didn’t look like that even two years ago, and maybe not even a few months ago, since some of the campus Exemplars were going through this ‘slow change’ thing that was still way faster than normal people changed in their teens, because you just didn’t grow a foot and develop curves like… well, like Mega-Girl, in a year, when you were still like fifteen.

Bladedancer said, “She was so happy when Ayla paid her for doing waitressing last week.  She’s already spent it on lingerie that fits, and probably that skirt.”

Anna admitted, “I guess it’s a good thing mom bought new clothes for me after I lost all that weight, and before she found out I’m a mutant.”

Bladedancer softly said, “A lot of us have the ‘new clothes’ problem.  If Ayla’s numbers are right-”

“And they always are,” said Molly.

“-then a little over two-thirds of us girls have to deal with new clothes for a changed body within five months either way of starting here.”

Wow.  That was a lot.  No wonder the Whateley Academy store had so much clothing stuff.  Anna thought about some of the girls in Whitman, like Diamondback and Phobos and Deimos, and cringed a little.  How would you ever find clothes if you had Diamondback’s body?  Anna couldn’t even figure out how you’d find decent clothes if you had Compiler’s body.  Did they have to sew stuff for themselves?  And oh my gosh, what if Compiler was using her nano-things for clothing too?  If she had an accident, she could end up naked somewhere!

Then Anna heard Chaka off to the side, telling Lancer what she thought he needed to do with his sais to defend against Tennyo’s lightsaber.  She smiled to herself, wondering if Chaka was really going to be able to jump in on every single martial arts conversation for the whole day.  It sure looked like she was giving it a try.

Molly had to be thinking the same thing, because she whispered to Bladedancer, “Let’s split up, and we’ll get as far apart as we can, and at the same time we’ll all start talking about martial arts weapons, and we’ll see if Toni can split herself into four mini-Toni’s and get in on all the conversations at once.”

Bladedancer giggled, and then gave Molly a horrified expression.  “Oh no!  What if she figures out how to use her Ki to split herself into four identical Chakas?  The world would be doomed!”

Molly clapped her hands to her cheeks and did the face from “Home Alone” while Anna giggled and Dorjee looked puzzled.  Smiling, but puzzled.  Anna wondered if he ever stopped smiling.  And she wondered if the girls ever explained all their pop culture comments to him.  If he really was from a place for monks in like China, he might not know any of the stuff about teevee and movies.

Bladedancer looked at Anna and asked, “Have you met everyone?”

Anna looked around and realized she really did know who a lot of the people were, and she’d met a lot of ‘em, even if she didn’t know the redheaded Exemplar girl with glasses who was talking to one of the devisers, or the nerdy looking guy over there, or some of the people walking over with Plastic Girl and Scrambler and them.

Anna said, “Well, I’ve met all the kids in our martial arts class, and I know the Dickinson girls and Jericho and Phobos, and I know who Fey is, like you could not know that, and I know Scrambler and Prism from our aikido class last fall, oh and that’s Vox, I recognize her from aikido too, and there’s some people I know who they are but I never met ‘em before.  Like Mega-Girl and Delta Spike.”  She decided not to say anything about the stuff Jerry had told her about Delta Spike and stuff blowing up in Workshop.

Molly said, “Okay, tell me who you don’t know.”

Anna pointed off to the side.  “I don’t know the girl with red hair or the sort of, umm, nerdy guy with Jericho.”

“Loophole and Mobius.”

Anna said, “Oh!  That’s Loophole?  I oughta know who she is.  Ree knows her.”

“Ree?” Dorjee asked with a smile.

“Rhiannon.  Her codename is Kamuro, ‘cause she can do these sparks from her hands and it reminded Phase of some kind of fancy Japanese fireworks called ‘kamuro’ I think, and so Phase came up with her codename.”

Bladedancer grinned, “We should let Phase open a ‘codename assigning booth’ on campus.”

Molly smirked, “Except for you.”

“Huh?” Anna asked.

Bladedancer rolled her eyes.  “When the team was trying to come up with a really good codename for me, Ayla was being a smart-aleck.  One of the names she made up for me was Pokey Stick Girl.”

Anna couldn’t help giggling at Bladedancer’s expression.

Molly said, “That’s still better than some of the names you made up for Ayla.”

Bladedancer chuckled.  “Oh yeah.  The whole team contributed on that.  Business Babe, Finance Femme, GNP Girl…”

Molly said, “Loan Lass!  That was my idea.”  She smiled naughtily.

Bladedancer said, “I thought your idea was Liability Lass.  Or maybe Lawsuit Lass.”

Molly frowned, “I’m sure I said Loan Lass.”

“Loan Lass?  Is she new?  Did I miss her?”

Anna looked over at the high-speed voice and realized it was Jay Jay.  She must’ve just zipped over.  Anna smiled, “Hi.”

“Hey it’s great to see you again I hear you’re in Toni and Chou’s martial arts class so you must be really good at it you were way better than me last term anyway so we’ll talk later huh g’bye!”  And she was off to the other side of the group.

Bladedancer said, “It’s a shame she’s so shy.”

Anna said, “She’s like that in aikido too.  She can run up to you and hit you like twenty times before you can blink.  Phase would just go super-dense and let her hit and kick until Jay Jay had to go put ice on her hands and feet.  I had to try to jump out of her way.  Sometimes that worked.  Mostly, not.  ‘Specially after she got better at changing directions when she was going real fast.  It was really crummy making a big jump and having her already over there waiting for you to land.”

Anna just sort of hung out with Molly and Bladedancer, because they were really nice, and they didn’t mind if she was hanging out with ‘em or anything.  She kind of people-watched as everyone showed up and wandered around and talked and stuff.  She had been thinking there would be like a hundred kids, but there were only two shuttles, so she was thinking maybe sixty at most.  But it looked like there were only maybe twenty-five or thirty students.  Since you couldn’t count Officer Everheart, who was dressed like a student and sure looked like she was only about eighteen or so, but you couldn’t miss her because she had this odd, faint, sort-of-machinery smell to her.  Anna had noticed Officer Everheart had that smell on her when she was in her Whateley Security uniform, but Anna hadn’t figured she would still have that odd odor on her when she was pretending to be a student.  Maybe she built stuff like Skids did, and hadn’t gotten some of the oil or grease or something off her hands.  Even if it didn’t smell at all like oil or grease.

Anna knew Molly and Charmer and Jericho and Scrambler, and she figured she could say she knew Phase, since Phase had invited her along.  And she knew who all of Team Kimba was, even if Shroud didn’t usually look like a quiet Asian girl.  But Shroud had that funny feeling that reminded her of her squirrel spirit, and she had it whether she was dressed like Shroud or dressed like a pads dummy or dressed like a regular girl.  And Anna knew who Phobos and Prism and Vox were from aikido class, and Plastic Girl from martial arts class.  And she knew who Tabby was, from the thing with saving Chaka from Belphegor’s trap.  Anna was sure that was a real fur coat Tabby was wearing, because it didn’t smell like synthetics, it smelled like treated animal skin, which kind of made her squirrel spirit uncomfortable, even if it smelled like treated predator skin, which wasn’t anywhere near as icky as if Tabby was wearing squirrel fur.  And Anna knew who Bugs and Wallflower and Loophole and Delta Spike and Mega-Girl and Beltane were, from people pointing them out and talking about them.  Ree said Loophole was really nice, and really smart.  And Gary said Delta Spike’s stuff blew up about once a week down in Workshop, and Jerry told her a couple stories about Delta Spike too.  But Anna had no idea about the girl with the red stripe in her hair, or the kind of nerdy guy now talking with Loophole and Delta Spike, or the Hispanic-looking girl who was talking with red-stripe-hair girl.

Anna could just hear Charmer talking with Tabby about Golden Kids stuff, and Loophole talking to Delta Spike and the nerdy guy about inventing stuff with Phase, and the black girl talking with the two Hispanic girls about the surprise party they threw for Phase and how hard they had to work to trick her.  Plus, Chaka was talking to some people about using the bokken or a real sword against her meteor hammer, and Phase was talking about financial stuff Anna didn’t understand, and Jericho was teasing Phobos.

Anna was thinking about maybe walking over and talking with some of the other kids, when she heard Generator squeal, “Hey!  Look at the squirrels!”

Anna whipped around and saw over a dozen of her furry tree squirrels coming her way, to see what she was doing.  HatesCats was in front, because she was the bravest of all of them, and she was always in front, even if that meant she had more scratches and scars than any of the other squirrels.

Bugs gushed, “Ooh, they’re so cute!”

Shroud asked, “Can we pet ‘em?”

Molly said to Bladedancer, “Come on, they’re just the cutest things ever.”

Anna was pretty worried about some of her squirrels maybe getting hurt by accident, so she hurried over to where they were standing there, sniffing at all the people and trying to find her.  She knelt down and warned ‘em, “It’s okay.  But I’m gonna get on the big loud machine and go away until night.

HatesCats jumped up into her arms and asked, “Trap?”

Anna carefully hugged her little friend and said, “No, it’s not a trap.  It’s something special for big people only.  I’ll be fine.”  A couple more of them hopped up into her arms for reassurance, and she gently hugged them.  ”You guys are so great.”

That was when she heard Molly right behind her, saying, “See?  They’re like her pets.”

Anna turned her head to find Molly was bringing Bugs and Generator over.  She gently set a couple of her friends down and said, “No, it’s more like they think I’m family.”

Bugs grinned, “They’re really cute.”  Then she stopped and patted her cheek with one finger like she was thinking real hard.  “Hmm.  You think Gadget can talk to squirrels too?”

Anna thought about it for a second.  Gadget sure looked like a giant squirrel-person.  She said, “I don’t think so, but maybe she can, but I don’t wanna hurt her feelings by asking and being all rude and stuff.”  Because she figured Gadget would be really hurt if you asked her something about squirrels like she had to be all squirrel-like just because her GSD made her look that way.

Generator was holding her cabbit like it was a baby.  Since the cabbit was moving around and looking at the squirrels, Anna figured Generator needed to hang onto her little invention so it didn’t fall out of her arms and get all busted.  Generator and the cabbit both stared at the squirrels that were still in Anna’s arms.  Generator said, “That is so cute!”  The cabbit whispered, “Miya!”

But Jericho was pretty close and he must’ve heard Generator, because he leaned toward them and got that smart-alecky look on his face he always did when he was going to tease somebody, and he said to her, “Oh yeah, ‘cause nothing says cute like rodents carrying diseases and ticks and fleas.”

Anna was glad her little friends didn’t understand English, because she sure wouldn’t want her little friends to get their feelings hurt, even if they did get ticks and fleas and stuff, because – hello! – they were outside in the grass and leaves all the time.

But Jericho couldn’t see the cabbit, since he was behind Generator, so he didn’t see it when the cabbit suddenly stood up in Generator’s arms and put its paws up to its ears and wiggled the fingers on its paws and stuck out its tongue at Jericho too.

Anna couldn’t help but giggle.  Bugs and Molly and Generator all giggled too.  Bugs leaned in and petted the cabbit on the head and whispered, “Yeah, that’s what I say.”  Anna heard her.

Anna was gonna introduce herself to Bugs, but suddenly she heard Officer Everheart yell, “Phase!”  But it sounded like she was shocked, not like she was mad at Phase or anything.

Bugs turned her head at the sound.  Her eyes got even bigger and she whispered, “What was that?”

Generator giggled and said, “Oh, just Ayla being Ayla.  Probably something like she just told Sam she rented out an entire shopping mall for us.”

Anna just stared at that.  She had to close her mouth, because her jaw dropped open.  “Phase wouldn’t really do something like that, would she?”

Generator said, “Maybe not.  But with Ayla, pretty much anything’s possible.  I mean, renting a jet to fly us all to Boston?  Who else would do that?”

Anna was going to ask if Phase did stuff like that all the time, but then Mega-Girl came over and wanted to talk to her about her squirrels, and she forgot about her question, because the Cape Squad people never wanted to go talk to some Underdog unless they had to because it was about some fight or bullying or something like that.  And Mega-Girl was really pretty, and totally looked like she ought to be a real superheroine, even without her usual cape.  And her miniskirt was really pretty.  Anna wished she could wear a miniskirt and not feel all self-conscious about it.  Because Mega-Girl’s mini was really, really short.  Way shorter than Anna would ever wear.

Just when Anna was going to ask her where she got her miniskirt, and if it came in other colors, and in longer styles, Mrs. Carson yelled, “Get on the shuttles at once!”  Anna just about jumped, because she had no idea Mrs. Carson was around.

But it wasn’t Mrs. Carson at all!  Mega-Girl looked over and laughed, because she could see who it was.  But Anna was hearing a bunch of other kids complaining that they were fooled too and it totally shocked them.

It turned out that the black girl in the purple minidress was Vox, which Anna didn’t know was Latin for ‘voice’, but as soon as Anna heard it was Latin, she guessed Phase came up with that name too.  But Vox was a Siren, which made total sense when her codename meant ‘voice’, and she could imitate just about anybody.

Anna could hear Chaka telling somebody, “Oh yeah, Vanessa?  She rocks on this stuff.  She can imitate Beyoncé, and all her backup singers, and her whole backup band, so it sounds like you’re at a concert.  Every time she does it in the bathroom, Ayla makes the same old joke about why the bathroom feels so small.”

So Anna knew Vox was Vanessa, and Vox was really good at more than one of the Siren tricks she’d heard about.  Not that all the Sirens could do it.  Anna had met Chorale, and Chorale couldn’t even sound like a normal human, because when she talked there were all these other sounds like a whole chorus was saying her words right behind her at the same time.  How could you go around in your old hometown and chat with your neighbors if you couldn’t even sound like you were normal?  But Anna had heard that some of the Sirens could do some pretty freaky stuff, like mind control or shattering walls.  She’d seen Vox do the mind control trick in aikido class a couple times.  And then there was Screech, who was really scary, and couldn’t even open her mouth without pretty much disintegrating anything in front of her.  So what did she do when she had a cough?  Did she have to stand outside in an old gravel pit so she didn’t wreck her house and everything?

Anna could see that Vox and Phase and a bunch of other kids were on the first shuttle, so she just sort of followed a couple people and got on the second shuttle.  There were only about a dozen kids on it, so Anna just sat down behind Tennyo and Generator, where she didn’t think anyone would notice.  Shroud was sitting across the aisle from Generator, and Tabby was sitting in front of them.

Jericho and Phobos came down the aisle behind her, so she waved to them and they sat down right behind her.  Jericho folded up his white cane until it was about the size of a collapsible umbrella, and then he tucked it into a pocket inside his coat.  Anna sort of wondered if it was a special deviser cane and a special deviser pocket, because Jericho was really good at inventing crazy stuff.  Jerry said he was way smart.

And Phobos looked different.  Anna’s squirrel spirit could sort of feel some magic around Phobos now, so maybe it was some kind of magical spell making her look like that.  Because it looked like her fangs were gone and her skin was a creamy color that went with her hair, and if you stared at her sunglasses it pretty much looked like she had normal eyes too.  Maybe Fey was doing a spell so no one in Boston would point and stare at Phobos or be mean to her.  That would be really cool.  Maybe Fey could find a way to turn off that fear aura too, and then Phobos and Deimos could have a way nicer time at school and make more friends and stuff.

She wiggled onto her knees so she could turn around and face them.  “Hey, isn’t this great?”

Phobos smiled, “Yeah, it’s pretty fun, so far, and everyone’s been real nice about… you know.”  Anna figured she meant the fear aura thing.

Jericho smiled, “I still think Phase is crazy.  Renting a jet?  And a whole restaurant in Boston?”

Phobos elbowed Jericho.  It maybe looked like she used two of her elbows to do it.  “You already thought Phase is crazy anyway, way before this.”

Jericho just gave her a smirk.  He said, “It’s just not normal for a fourteen year old to be acting like a fifty year old investment banker.”

Phobos said, “And it’s not normal for a fourteen-year-old to be building power armor.”

“Hey!” Jericho pretended to complain.  “I’m fifteen!”

Phobos acted like she was thinking it over.  Then she said, “Then why did Sandra say she thought you were eight?”

Jericho tried to act all upset about that, but he was snickering too hard to make anyone believe it.  Anna had a hard time not giggling.  She really liked Phobos.  She sure wished Phobos didn’t have that awful fear aura, ‘cause it made it really hard to be around her.

She was just about to ask Phobos and Jericho what the rest of Outcast Corner was up to while they were going to Boston, when she heard one of the other girls asking Tennyo and Generator about playing maids for the Golden Kids meeting a week ago that Phase had hosted.  Anna knew a little about how the Golden Kids meetings went, since Ree had played maid one night and had told everyone all about who showed up, and the fancy clothes, and the fancy food, and the waitresses, and the gossip, and everything.

But Anna was kind of surprised when she heard that Phase got them to dress up in naughty French Maid costumes with super-short skirts and high heels and cleavage and all that.  It kinda sounded more like what one of the guys would want girls to wear.  But maybe Phase was trying to impress all the guys who were in the Golden Kids.  It sounded to Anna like Phase managed to impress everybody in the whole school.  Fey and Tennyo and Mega-Girl and Delta Spike and Chaka in sexy French Maid costumes?  Anna was glad she wasn’t one of the waitresses for that, because there was like no way someone like her could compete when someone like Fey was wearing a super-sexy outfit like that.  Heck, there was no way Anna could compete against Fey if she was wearing a burlap bag.  Or one of those bur-whatever thingies that Arab ladies wore that covered you up from your head to your toes.

So Anna was pretty surprised that Generator wasn’t feeling all discouraged and stuff, since Generator and Shroud were cute but not drop-dead gorgeous like the Exemplars.  Generator sounded like she had a great time, and really had fun teasing Thuban about stuff.  And Tennyo had to put her hand over Generator’s mouth to stop her from talking about Thuban, but Anna still heard the part about ‘his scales are really soft’.  And it was kind of funny that Shroud was the one who said Tennyo was no fun.  Anna figured it was one of those sister things, which she didn’t get because she didn’t have any brothers or sisters.

But Tabby just grinned and said, “It was hysterical!  Dynamaxx and a couple other guys were just utter horndogs about the sexy maids, and a couple of the guys kept trying to take pictures.”

Generator smirked, “Fey made us some charms so you couldn’t take a picture of us in our outfits.”

Tabby giggled.  “One of the guys burned out his cell phone, then his video camera, and then his whole laptop, just trying to get pictures of you girls.  And Traduce was a total bitch about the food, and the drinks, and how good you looked, and how bad her soiree looked in comparison.  Her food really wasn’t good, and she really hates being upstaged.”

Tennyo smiled a little.  “Ayla does kind of do the upstaging bit pretty much automatically.  Even when she isn’t trying.”

Tabby snickered and said, “Yeah.  I’ve got next month’s meeting, but Ayla’s helping me out a bunch.  Get this.  She got Charmer to call her dad in Europe, so Ayla could talk to him about non-alcoholic wines for the party, and Ayla ordered like half a dozen cases.  Not bottles.  Entire cases of wine.  I’m not a huge wine and champagne snob, but this stuff was awesome.”

Tennyo said, “Yeah, I can’t see Ayla getting anything that wouldn’t be the best.  The downside is she really hates the Dunn Hall food.  She’s ordered out a couple times and gotten the chefs to make her some special things most of the rest of the time.”

“Order out?  Like from the Dunwich pizza place?”

Generator said, “No way!  This is Ayla we’re talking about!  She ordered out from this super-fancy place in Oregon I’ve never heard of.  And this fancy restaurant in Texas.  And then she paid some teleporter courier to pick the stuff up while it was still piping hot and zip it back here.  She saved some leftovers for me and Billie because Jinn was playing waitress for her, and man was that stuff good!”

Tennyo said, “Yeah, and her birthday surprise was the best lasagna I ever ate in my whole life.  I mean, I’d kill for a pan of that stuff, and I’m not even a big fan of Italian food.”

Generator said, “Yeah.  Typical Ayla.  Chou said Ayla got in trouble because her Christmas gift for her big sister was a car.  A super-expensive car.  Like two hundred thousand dollars worth of car.  Her sister and spouse kind of got all bent out of shape about Ayla spending all that money on them.”

Tennyo said, “Like that was really a surprise, when Ayla paid off their entire mortgage as soon as she had the chance.  Or this thing with Marvel Comics?  She got Nikki’s mom and Toni’s dad to invest in it too, and she made ‘em both a fortune.  And she did the same with Sahar, and she got the money out of this super-complicated loan deal for Sahar with the Whateley Foundation, and this thing is so complicated I don’t even know the name for the kind of loan, much less how it works, but she got Sahar’s sponsors to provide the co-signing part, somehow, and then she made Sahar so much money so fast that Sahar had the whole thing paid off before any interest was even due.”

Tabby said, “That’s really ideal, because then it’s like free money.  You get the money, you make more money with it, you hand the money back, and you get to keep all the new money for yourself.  Not counting what you have to give to Uncle Sam, come tax time.”

Generator said, “Yeah, Ayla’s kind of a crab about the ‘paying taxes’ stuff.  I saw her talking to Sahar and Zenith and making sure they filed all the right forms and paid all the right amounts of money and everything.”

Jericho said, “And she’s already got a tax firm talking to me about the deal she’s arranging for one of my inventions.  It sounds like I’m gonna have to pay my taxes quarterly instead of annually for the rest of my life.”

Anna wondered, “Is that a bad thing?”

Jericho shrugged.  “Nope.  I just gotta get used to the idea of having to pay taxes.  Phase has these accountants doing all the hard work and watching the money.  All I have to do is sign the forms every three months and make sure they don’t decide to steal me blind.”

Anna clapped her hands over her mouth.  She didn’t know whether to blush in embarrassment or break out in a giggle.  Okay, the giggle would be from being embarrassed too, because she wouldn’t say something like that in front of Jericho in like a million years.

Phobos groaned, “Honest to God, I can’t believe you said that in front of everybody.  No wonder you have to eat with Diamondback and Razor.”

Anna would’ve been too embarrassed to say anything else, but then she heard Tabby asking Tennyo about whether or not she nearly got kicked out of Poe and sent to Hawthorne because of all the stuff she kept doing back in the fall.  Anna only knew Tennyo from martial arts class, because someone like Tennyo didn’t hang out with Underdogs you know, but in class Tennyo was really polite and really nice, even if it was way easier to be a good sport when you almost never lost, although Aztecka was kind of mean some of the time after she stomped people into the mat.  So anyways, Anna didn’t know if Tennyo would just get really mad or explode or what.

But Anna totally didn’t expect Generator to jump in and protect Tennyo, because who ever thought Tennyo needed any protection from anything?  She was like super-unstoppable and stuff!  But Generator complained, “That totally wasn’t her fault!  She was trying to be a nice guy, and Montana was just a big fat poopyhead!”

Okay, Anna snorted laughing, because that was just funny the way Generator said it.  Jericho gave her a big grin, too.

But then Tennyo started talking about how awful the start of the school year went for her, and Anna started feeling kind of bad, because everyone had been saying Tennyo was a nutcase who went around blowing stuff up, and Anna had believed all that stuff.  Pretty much.  But Generator and Shroud kept getting her to tell stories, and so Anna heard all about how Montana was mean to her when she went over to see Harry Wolfe even though Tennyo was just trying to make friends at a new school but Montana thought she was trying to be really super-mean to Harry like what Solange did to Montana when he was a freshman, and then Tennyo even tried not to get Montana in trouble but it all got her in even more trouble when Montana or somebody filed a complaint about her.

And then there was the big food fight thing that totally wasn’t Tennyo’s fault and was really Montana starting it, and it cost Tennyo her job working in the cafeteria.  And there was a thing where on her first day working in the maintenance tunnels the older guys sent her to do a job where they weren’t supposed to go, and a ghost tried to help her out with one of the methane slime things and there was a giant explosion in a sewer tunnel and she was lucky she didn’t need air like normal people or she would’ve died.  And Generator said it took like an hour to get the stink off her clothes and her hair and everything.  And then there was this thing where someone in the Alphas got Buster and Negator to bushwhack her when she was walking back from her job in the library, which she really liked, even if lots of kids tried to sneak food into the library and didn’t keep quiet like they were supposed to.

Anna complained, “Yeah, I don’t like Buster either.”

And Jericho smirked, “I kind of doubt he’s real happy with you!”

And Anna couldn’t believe it when Tennyo told her, “Yeah, I loved your combat final.”  After all, Anna knew Tennyo sent that big fruit basket, but she never thought someone like Tennyo would say something like that to someone like her.

Anna blushed a lot and said, “It wasn’t anywhere near as cool as yours.  Yours was awesome!”

Tennyo just shrugged like she wasn’t comfortable talking about what Anna thought was a really super-cool combat final.

But then Phobos started teasing Jericho about his combat final, and Jericho started teasing her back about hers, and people were talking about other combat finals, and Anna completely lost track of time with all the fun stuff people were talking about, right up until she realized they were already at the airport because Tennyo said, “Hey, that’s not the way to the departure gates.”

Anna really didn’t have any idea where they were supposed to go, or what the Berlin airport was like, or anything like that.  She hadn’t taken the plane to get to Whateley in the fall, and she went with Ree over Christmas.  She didn’t even know much about the airports in Cincinnati and Cleveland.  It wasn’t like her family could afford to fly in jets a whole lot.

So that was when she started paying attention to the airport signs.  And the shuttle was going off to the area marked for private jets and the FedEx jets.  Anna had seen a movie where the stars flew in this private jet, so she was figuring it would be one of these things for businesses that had about fifteen or twenty rows and maybe two or three seats for the whole row.

But when they went around the curve of the tarmac, Anna couldn’t see any jets except one ginormous jet that couldn’t be for them.  She wondered if Phase would get really mad if her jet was late.  But that was when she realized that the first shuttle was stopping right over by the gigantic jet.

“It’s a frigging 767!” whispered Jericho.

Anna didn’t know exactly what that meant since she couldn’t tell jets apart, but she knew 767s were really big modern jets.  And that jet was huge.

Tennyo said, “So not surprised.”

Generator said, “Yeah.  Totally Ayla.”

Shroud said, “It’s not like she could’ve rented anything bigger.”

Tabby said, “Typical Goodkind move.  How’s anyone else’s party supposed to compare to that?”

Anna didn’t say anything to that, because the last birthday party she had was her and four of her friends at her house, having some cake and ice cream and watching a couple movies.  She couldn’t imagine having to compete with parties that the important girls back home had, so there was no way she could do this kind of stuff.

The shuttle drove up to the side of the jet, and Anna saw there was a fancy covered boarding ramp for them to walk into the jet.  She knew that wasn’t really necessary with this crowd, since a lot of the ones who couldn’t fly could leap up there without any help, and the rest could get flown up to the doorway.  But they were trying to pretend they were normal, everyday baselines, even if there was no way anyone could really think Fey or Tennyo was a baseline.  Or Phobos.  Or really any of the Exemplars.  Or even Jericho, if he took his dark glasses off.  Or Generator, if you knew she was really fourteen.

Heck, even Anna couldn’t really pass as a baseline if you weighed her and did one of those fancy bone density scan thingies like they did in her powers testing, because her bones were too strong for their weight, and they weighed less than human bones were supposed to, and so she weighed like ten pounds less than a girl her size would, which really made it hard to figure out what her ideal weight really ought to be, so she never knew if she needed to go on a diet anymore.  She used to always know, because she used to be a fat loser who needed to drop about twenty pounds, but now she wasn’t sure anymore.  She figured the mean girls back in the dorm would start picking on her about her weight once they got tired of being really mean to the girls like Winnie.

If she was going to be helping teach Molly some parkour and stuff, then she really ought to try hard to get Winnie to join in and get more exercise and maybe lose some of that weight and get in better shape, so she’d feel better about herself.  After all, it wasn’t like Winnie was a big old lardbucket like Anna used to be, and it was just that they lived in a dorm full of girls who could make Miss Universe contestants cry about not looking good enough.  She wondered how awful it would be to have to shower with girls like Fey and Chaka and Phase, and feel like you oughta match up against them.

So they didn’t all pile off the shuttles, because Phase and Officer Everheart were talking to this ‘Men in Black’ kind of guy in dark glasses and a cool suit, and then the guy was checking kids off with a clipboard that had sheets of paper, like their MID information or something.  Not that Anna thought the MID stuff was all that useful.  After all, what good did it do to look at an MID like Fey’s if it didn’t tell you whether or not she was a superhero?  If Anna had to make up MIDs, the very first things she’d put on the MIDs was a superhero / supervillain / neither thing, and a ‘kills people: yes/no’ thing.  That’s what she’d want to know if she had to protect people in her town.  Not that she was ever gonna be powerful enough to be a real superhero, but if she was a police officer, or working for the Department of Paranormal Affairs, or something like that.

They got off the shuttles one at a time, and Phase told the MCO guy which sheet to look at, and the guy just sort of glanced over the sheet, looked at the kid, and waved them on through.  Anna was kind of surprised, because the MCO guy who had talked to her about her MID back in the fall had been really not nice to her.

When it was Anna’s turn, she stepped up and grinned at Phase.  Phase was all serious business.  She just said to the man, “Aquerna, with an ‘A’.  Top sheet.”

The guy glanced at her and smiled, “Okay.  Go on up.”  And that was it.

But then Phobos was right behind her, and when Ayla said, “This is Phobos.  That’s pee aitch oh,” the guy suddenly said, “Wait a second, her picture doesn’t match!”

Anna stopped walking up the ramp.  She suddenly remembered that Phobos had that magical spell thing on her.  She wondered if she needed to help out or not.

But Phase just said, “That’s my fault.  Phobos is traveling under a seeming.  If you look at her info sheet, it will be obvious why.  Let me get our mage.”  And Phase just called Fey up and Fey dropped the magic spell just like that.  It looked so easy, but Anna knew from Trish, who was a WIZ-1, that it wasn’t easy at all and took a ton of spellwork and a bunch of magical Essence to turn spells like that on and off.  But Fey was just that awesome.

Anna didn’t know whether the MCO guy would freak when he saw how Phobos really looked, or what, so she kind of waited on the steps just in case.  Not that there was anything someone like her could do, if Phase and Officer Everheart couldn’t deal with it.  But the MCO guy wasn’t all weirded out or anything, and he just nodded at her and waved her on.

Anna stalled on the steps and let Phobos catch up to her.  Anna asked quietly, “You okay?”

Phobos sort of shrugged.  Then she grinned a little.  “It went a lot easier than I figured.  I’m kind of used to people doing the whole ‘screaming in terror’ bit, y’know.  He was a little scared, but not nearly as bad as I thought.”

“Well, that’s good.”

“Hey!  Watch where you put that cane!” Phase yelped.

Anna looked down and saw Jericho had pretty much put the middle of his cane right in the crack of Phase’s butt, which was so not nice.

Phobos looked around and groaned, “Oh God, I can’t take him anywhere.”

Anna had a thought.  She asked, “Maybe it’s an accident?”  Even though Jericho sure didn’t sound like he was sorry.

Phobos shook her head.  “Not a chance.  He did it on purpose.”  She sighed and added, “Just like all his so-called accidents.”

Anna was nearly at the top of the covered stairs, and she could hear people saying things like ‘oh my God’ and ‘good Lord this plane is huge’ and stuff, so she figured she knew what she would find.  After all, she’d seen planes in movies and teevee and stuff.  She figured she’d find rows and rows and rows of big airplane seats, most of them empty.

She stepped onto the plane and gasped.  It wasn’t plain old linoleum flooring.  It was really ritzy carpeting.  It wasn’t rows and rows of airplane chairs.  It was expensive chairs and couches and loveseats, all laid out like a giant fancy living room.  She gasped, “Oh my gosh, this is like out of ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ or something!”

Phobos asked her, “Do they still run that show anymore?”

She said, “My mom really likes the re-runs.  It’s kind of corny.”  She didn’t want to admit she used to watch it with her mom, but her mom didn’t want to watch teevee with her anymore, since she was an icky mutant freak now.  Part of it was embarrassing and un-cool, and part of it just hurt.

Phobos glanced at her for a second and then just said, “This is pretty over the top.”

That was when Anna remembered Phobos had that whole empath thing going, so she probably felt Anna’s embarrassment and hurt, and just decided not to make her feel worse by asking her about it in front of a whole plane full of people.  Even if most of those people were staring around at the plane pretty much like she was.

But not Fey.  Fey was camped out in a fancy armchair next to Bugs, and lounging about like she was totally expecting this.  Maybe she was.  She did hang with Phase an awful lot.  Fey said to all the gawkers, “Nah, it’s just typical Ayla.”

Anna kind of stopped and stared at that.

It seemed like a bunch of kids were doing the same thing, because the guy she thought was called Moby or something like that put his hands out and said, “But look at this thing!”

“Yeah, it’s enormous!”


Chaka gave a huge grin and said, “Over-the-top Godzilla-riffic?  That would be Ayla.”

Anna had to nod.  It was just huge.  She couldn’t imagine what it would look like packed with hundreds and hundreds of airplane seats, but for right now it looked ginormous.  In the middle of the plane there was enough room for a dance floor.  Back in the back was a really expensive computer and desk.  There were four absolutely huge flat-panel teevee screens scattered around the plane, each one with remote controls and game controls and stuff in a cabinet underneath.  It was like something out of a movie.

While she was walking around, staring at everything, the two Whateley Security men came up the ramp.  She guessed that meant everyone was done.  They were talking to each other, but Anna was at the other end of the plane looking at the huge kitchen and trying not to listen in on them because they were probably trying to have a secret talk about important security stuff.  Ayla and Officer Everheart came in, and the officer casually grabbed the plane door and shut it like it was easy.  Which was supposed to be hard to do, so Anna had to wonder if maybe Officer Everheart had secret superpowers too, which would be totally a good idea around Whateley, since there were so many superpowered jerks having fights and picking on people and stuff.  Plus, Officer Everheart was like another teenager, so she’d understand how people like Anna or Jerry really felt about stuff.

This jumbo jet was so COOL!  Te whole thing was so cool she couldn’t stand still.  She really wanted to poke around and explore the whole thing, but she was worried it was her squirrel spirit making her nosy, and she didn’t want to make anyone mad at her.  Even if some of the other kids were looking all over the place too.

Then the pilot made his announcement that they were ready to go take off, so everyone needed to put on their seatbelts, even if most of the kids in the jet wouldn’t get hurt if the plane hit turbulence or something.  Heck, some of the kids probably wouldn’t get hurt if the plane crashed right into a mountain.  Still, everybody did what they were supposed to, and went over to a seat and put their seatbelt on.  Generator was already sitting down, and was busy putting a seatbelt on her stuffed cabbit, which Anna thought was pretty silly, but the cabbit was so cute she probably would’ve done it too.  It was even waving as people went past.

Anna sat down next to Charmer, who was busy talking with Tabby about Golden Kids stuff.  Anna didn’t want to eavesdrop, but Charmer and Tabby weren’t trying to be whispery or anything.

Charmer was saying, “…and I believe that my father gave Phase a discount, since she was buying six entire cases, and… it is entirely possible that he gave her a special discount so that she would buy more from him in future.  The Goodkinds have been very good customers for a number of years.”

Tabby just nodded.  “Special customer discounts make sense.  I don’t think my dad’s ever bought from Villabianca, so could you ask your dad how much we’d need to be buying to get a special customer discount?”

Charmer did one of her French shrugs.  “But of course.  However, it might be purchases of some set amount every year, or every quarter, for some time.”

Tabby nodded again.  “Natch.  But I don’t think dad’s importers know as much as your dad does, so it would make sense to switch.  If I can talk dad into it.”

Anna turned to her right.  It was Vox.  Anna asked, “Are they still talking about wines?  They were on that before we got on the buses.”

The girl said, “Oh, they’ve been doin’ the Ayla thing since before I sat down.  I dunno if you remember me, but I’m Vox.”

“Oh sure I remember!  You did that cool Siren thing on Prism one time and just froze him, and you tried it on Phase that time when it didn’t work.  I’m Aquerna.  Or just Anna,” she said.  “Are you from the East Coast?  Because I don’t think I ever heard anyone with your accent before.”

Vox smiled and said, “I’m from Philadelphia.”

Anna said, “Cool.  I don’t think I ever met anyone from Philadelphia before.  I mean, there’s some people at school from like New York or New Jersey, and California girls, and Jericho’s from Texas I think, and Gila’s from Arizona or New Mexico I think he said, and Charmer’s from Europe.”

“And where are you from?” Vox asked politely.

“Umm, just Zanesville Ohio.  Which is like small town Midwest.  I never even met anyone from overseas before I came here, except old Mrs. Winters who was born in England before she got married to old Mr. Winters when he was in England in World War II, and now I’ve met people from like India and Australia and stuff!”

Vox said, “Yeah, Whateley is pretty cool like that.  I’ve met people from Europe and Africa and Southeast Asia, and pretty much everywhere except maybe Antartica.”

Anna said, “Charmer’s from Europe, but she’s way nicer than a lot of the other Europeans.  Kismet like never talked to me, and we had a whole term of aikido together.”

Vox smirked.  “Just as well.  That Dynamaxx is one of the biggest horndogs on campus.  Some of us waitressed for Ayla last weekend, and he hit on pretty much everybody ‘cept Tennyo and Generator.  Maybe Tennyo too, come to think about it.”

Anna said, “Tennyo said the maid outfits were really skimpy.  So maybe he just kinda got carried away.  I mean, Fey in a skimpy tiny French maid outfit?  Prob’ly every guy there was asking her out.”  But Vox was really pretty, even for an Exemplar, so Anna figured Vox knew all about horny teenaged boys wanting dates.  Not that she was going to say so and ask about it, because that would be really super-rude and nosy.

After the jet took off and leveled off, Phase got up and did the introductions.  Or at least she really tried to, but Chaka was interrupting, and she was just so funny.  While Anna was giggling, Vox whispered, “She’s always like this.”  And then Beltane started saying funny stuff too.  And Fey.  And Tennyo.  Phase just let them, with this expression on her face that was all ‘if I didn’t like you I wouldn’t put up with this stuff.’

So Phase finally got to say her piece, and it was pretty much normal.  Do what the Whateley Security people say, which Anna totally would’ve done anyways.  Have fun, which Anna was hoping to do already.  If they didn’t like what was being served, just ask for something else, which Anna was never gonna get up the nerve to do unless Phase was trying to make them eat raw fish or fried squid or something like that.

Vox just whispered, “Like Ayla ever serves anything that’s not scrumptious.”

“That’s kinda what I heard,” Anna whispered back.

But then Anna totally wasn’t expecting the next part.  Phase said, “And finally, no codenames until we get back.”

While some of the Team Kimba girls made jokes, Anna just gaped.

Vox whispered, “Your mouth’s hangin’ open.”

Anna clamped her jaw shut and blinked.  They were all gonna go by regular names?  She was gonna get to call everybody by their real names?  For hours?  This was so awesome she couldn’t stand it!

She sat there and took it all in, knowing she would get to call Phase by her real first name.  And Chaka.  And Fey!!!  And everybody.  Even Bugs.  Bunny.  Anna didn’t know why people thought that was weird.  She thought Bugs totally looked and acted like she could be a Bunny or Buffy or Kitty.

She was so surprised when Tennyo just sort of tried to fade into the furniture when Jade and Jinn did their little talks on either side of her.  Didn’t Tennyo want to say anything?  She looked like she didn’t, but how could somebody as awesome as Tennyo not want to stand up and talk?

She was so not surprised when Vox said her name meant ‘voice’ in Latin and Phase was the one who picked it out.

And then it was Anna’s turn.  She was so nervous it was all she could do not to squeal when she talked.  But she stood up and tried to smile.  She said, “I’m Aquerna, which is a Middle English word for squirrel, so you know Ayla came up with my codename too.  I’m Anna.  And I’m hoping for plenty of cool stuff to tell everyone about when I get back.”

And she sat back down.  Nobody heckled her or said mean stuff or glared at her, so she figured her little talk went okay.  She hoped her talk in Civics class went that good.  She listened while Charmer and Tabby talked, and then the turn went over to Prism and Mega-Girl, and then on around.

It wasn’t until Phase – no, Ayla – started talking about the drinks on the jet and the food at the restaurant, and Toni – she got to call Chaka Toni! – said something that Anna realized Tennyo’s name was Billie.  She kind of looked like a ‘Billie’, since she kind of had a tomboy feel to her and she wasn’t really girly, like her roommate.  Anna wondered if she could call Generator ‘Jade’ in martial arts class, like in the showers or something, or if she’d get mad at her.

She turned to the side and said, “Vanessa?  That’s a cool name.  Anna’s pretty boring.”

Vanessa said, “Nothing wrong wit’ Anna.  What’s your middle name?”

Anna said, “Raquel.  Mom named me for one of her aunts, but dad always teased me that mom named me for Raquel Welch.”

Vanessa just gave her a look that said ‘see, I told you so.’

So then Ayla got Jade to get the cabbit to serve drinks, which Anna didn’t see how it would work, even if there were all kinds of really smart people making little robots and stuff, because Gary and Jerry and some other people had all told her that making a robot act like it was alive and not really stupid was super, super hard.  Gary said even getting one to walk and not fall over took lots of work.  But there was the cabbit, running around like it was alive.  Alive and really silly, and just hysterically funny.  And Jade was pretending like it was alive and not behaving, which was so funny Anna thought she might pee.

“Miya!  Mi-mi-miya!”

“No!  Bad cabbit!  Wait your turn!”

“Miya!  Pththththth!”


Vanessa said, “If you think this is funny, you should’ve seen the first time she sprung the cabbit on the other Kimbas.  They were chasing it all over the floor, and it was ducking out of everyone’s reach.  Jade does crazy stuff like this all the time.  I still can’t even figure out how she does the floating blanket trick.”

“A floating blanket?” Anna had to ask.

“Yeah.  Sometimes when the Kimbas are all studying in their corner in the sunroom, Jade does this weird thing where she brings in her blanket and makes it float in the air, and then she just lays in it like it’s a couch.”

Anna thought about it for a few seconds.  “Maybe it’s a magic blanket from Fey?”

Vanessa grinned.  “With the Kimbas, anything’s possible.”

And then the cabbit came out of the kitchen with a big silver-looking tray loaded down with fancy goblets of juice.  And it was balancing the whole tray on one tiny paw, over its head!  Anna was really impressed.  That Generator was one smart deviser.  Maybe even smarter than Bunny, even Jerry and them all said Bunny was a super-genius who could do devising and gadgeteering both whenever she wanted to.

People were getting up and going to get stuff to drink and walking over to talk to people, so Anna got herself a glass of orange juice.  She felt kind of funny about drinking out of a really nice glass like this stuff was.  It looked like real crystal.  Her mom didn’t have anything that was real crystal except one super-nice serving bowl and a set of four fancy crystal wine goblets that her mom never took out of the cupboard, so Anna’s experience with real crystal was mainly from seeing it in places like Ree’s house or old Mrs. Winters’ house.  But she could see when something wasn’t ordinary glass, and this stuff wasn’t ordinary glass.

She thought about trying something fancy, like the mango juice or the guava juice, but she finally decided she’d be happier with something she knew she already liked.  So she got a glass of the orange juice.  And she was surprised when she took a sip.  It tasted like real orange juice right out of the juicer!  Not the usual orange juice out of a can, but the real thing, with the pulpy bits she liked, and everything.  Real fresh juices and super-fancy crystal goblets?  This was like something out of one of her mom’s romance novels, except it didn’t have all the smutty parts in it.

She went over to see how Phobos was doing.  She scooted into a chair next to them, being real careful not to spill any orange juice on her clothes.  Or on the leather chair.  Or on the expensive carpet.  She was pretty sure the chair and the carpet were a heck of a lot more expensive than her pants.  She smiled and said, “Hi Joe!  Hi Adrienne!  Isn’t this awesome?”  She couldn’t believe how cool this was that she got to call everybody by their real names, even if it was only for a few hours.  Especially some of Outcast Corner and all of Team Kimba!  She just wanted to put her hands together and shiver and make a squealing noise that would embarrass her totally.

But Joe and Adrienne didn’t make fun of her for being so excited, or so not-cool about riding in a private jumbo jet to a private luncheon in a ritzy restaurant in another state just for a birthday party.  No, they were nice and just started talking about how big the jet was, and how nice it was, and how Ayla was trying to set things up so one of Joe’s inventions would make him a millionaire or something, and would make Phase even richer, like she didn’t already have more money than God.  Anna just kind of figured that was what Goodkinds did with their time, since she couldn’t really imagine Ayla doing normal things like camping or going to Disneyworld.  The only other times Anna had ever been in a jet was the one time her parents took her to Disneyworld in Orlando, and they flew both ways, and it was really crowded with tons of kids going to see Mickey and flying home after, and there were some really unhappy babies on both flights.  Anna was glad she wasn’t a stewardess, because she didn’t think she could just walk past a screaming, crying baby and not want to pick it up and rock it and try to make everything better.  Plus, back when they went to Disneyworld she was a fat blob who could never be a slender, pretty stewardess, and now she wasn’t fat or ugly or wearing glasses, but she wouldn’t want to be cooped up inside all day, even if it was in a jet flying to someplace cool.

When Joe was talking about working with Ayla, Anna finally admitted, “I heard from Jerry that she was working to get a bunch of Workshop people doing stuff with her, but Jerry doesn’t trust her.”

But then Joe had to explain who Jerry was, and why Erlenmeyer was being such a big jerkface, and how smart Ayla was about contracts, and what a giant jerkhead Jobe was, even if Jobe was super smart.  After all, if someone like Joe thought Jobe was a brain, then didn’t Jobe have to be like a super-duper brain?  And talking about Jobe in front of Adrienne was just… embarrassing.  How could Adrienne stand to hear people talking about Jobe and not want to just scream her lungs out?

But Joe knew about the weird thing Jobe had been telling her about the brow or drow or prow or whatever thing, which turned out to be even grosser than Anna thought.  Jobe wanted girls to let him turn them into ‘black elf’ freaks, which was like yuck, and it sounded even worse when Joe said most of the Workshop figured the stuff wouldn’t work all the time so girls could die just from trying the stuff!  How creepy was that?  And how big a jerk did Jobe have to be if he thought girls would try it just to get to hang out with him all the time?  Was he insano or something?  Okay, there were sure girls on campus who would do pretty much anything if it got them to be Mrs. Jobe Wilkins, Queen of Karedonia, but this was just wrong.

And not only was it horrible, but Phobos could just name a dozen girls around the school who were so desperate that they’d still try Jobe’s secret drug or whatever it was, and risk dying or ending up having to be his girlfriend all the time.  Ewwww.

She wondered if it would be okay to gossip about this stuff with all the Underdogs, because she knew how much Winnie hated how she looked.  But surely Winnie wasn’t that desperate…  Was she?  She sure was unhappy a lot, and she got picked on a lot.  Maybe, just in case, Anna wouldn’t talk about the drow serum in front of Winnie.  There had to be something she could do to protect Winnie…

But then Adrienne started teasing Joe about what he’d be doing if he’d gone with the rest of the gang to buy some stuff for Diamondback, whose real name it turned out was Sandra and was a long-time friend of Joe’s from back in Texas.  Anna couldn’t help giggling as Adrienne made Joe squirm about them threatening to make him buy the tampons and stuff.  She knew how squirmy her dad got about going to the grocery store to buy pads for her mom, but she didn’t really get that, since her dad handled way grosser things than an unopened box of tampons every day he was at work.  She figured it was one of those guy things she was never gonna understand.

And after a while, Anna realized that Adrienne’s fear aura thing had pretty much faded away unless you got right next to her, which was great.  She just couldn’t figure out how or why.  Maybe Fey was doing some kind of spell on it, which would be really great when Adrienne got back to Whateley.

Plus, Joe was even behaving, for a change.  Well, he was behaving for Jericho, anyway.  Anna thought he was dressed pretty nice, although his shirt was kind of western.  She finally asked him, “So how come you’re wearing a cowboy shirt?”

He said, “This isn’t a ‘cowboy shirt’.  You Easterners wouldn’t know real cowboy clothes if they rode up on a horse and lassoed you.  It’s just something nicer than what I usually wear.”

Adrienne said, “My pop wears shirts like that to church.  With a bolo tie.”

“With a what?”

Adrienne looked at Anna and said, “You know, it’s one of those neckties you see westerners wear in teevee shows.  Instead of a tie, it’s a braided lanyard.  Pop’s all have silver tips.  And it goes around your neck with a fancy clasp to hold it together.  Pop’s got a silver clasp that looks like one of those clasps Boy Scouts use for their neckerchiefs.”

Anna looked at Joe and said, “Oh yeah, you’re from Texas, right?”  He nodded, and she asked, “Aren’t you supposed to be in the Good Ol’ Boyz if you’re a Texan?”

He gave her a scowl.  “Those pricks?  Hell no.  I’d rather have root canal than have to join the G.O.B. and have to put up with those rich asstards Oiler and Fantastico.  As it is, they got Ferret nosin’ around me, trying to bribe me to build shit for ‘em or rat out other devisers.  They’re dyin’ to find out dirt on the Kimbas, after Phase kicked their asses.  I told ‘em Phase is payin’ Bugs big cash dollars to build an anti-Exemplar weapon.”  He laughed.  “I thought Fantastico was gonna crap his pants on the spot.”

Anna wondered, “Well, didn’t Phase – I mean Ayla – pretty much clobber him with one punch right in front of the whole cafeteria?”

Joe gave her an enormous smirk.  He said, “Don’t tell anyone, but she did something way, way worse than punch him.”

“Whoa.  Really?”

He nodded.  “You know how she can change her density and take things with her?”

Anna nodded.  “Sure.  I’ve sparred against her.  She’s really good at it.”

He grinned, “After she wiped the floor with that asshat, Erlenmeyer spotted that some girls were still screaming about their eyes burning from F-head spitting something on ‘em, so he got some samples and analyzed ‘em in his mass spec.  It was capsaicin.”

“Cap-what?” Anna wondered.

Joe explained, “Capsaicin.  The active ingredient in hot peppers.  Phase got some hot pepper and swung through his face while she was less dense.  She dropped the pepper off on his tongue.”

Adrienne gaped, “So she like shoved a handful of habanero pepper into his mouth when he didn’t know she was doing it?  No wonder he went apeshit.”

Joe smirked, “Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”

Adrienne said, “So that’s why he’s so bent on getting back at her, even after she kicked his ass in public.”

Joe said, “Especially after she kicked his ass in public.  And got him about a billion hours of detention.  And apparently got him an F in a course he took last year way before she came to Whateley, even if I don’t see how that one’s supposed to make any sense.”

Anna quietly said, “I’d be pretty worried, if I did that to someone like Fantastico.

Joe said, “It’s not like Phase doesn’t know all that.  She’s got feelers out.  She’s got an intelligence network.  She’s probably got a better idea what Oiler’s cooking up than the F-head does.  She’s a Goodkind.”

Anna said, “But she’s a nice Goodkind.”

Joe rolled his eyes.  “Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”

Adrienne hit him on the arm.  “Joe!”

Anna was gonna check out the big screen teevee that a couple girls were playing a video game on, but she stopped when she walked past Billie and Jinn, who were sitting on a couch talking about the cabbit.  Billie looked up and said, “Hi, Anna.”

Anna smiled, “Hi Billie!  I mean, it’s okay if I call you Billie, isn’t it?”

Billie sort of looked down at her hands and said, “Oh sure.”

Jinn said, “It’s better than what her mom calls her when she gets mad at her.”

Anna grinned.  “I know how that goes.  When my mom gets mad at me, she calls me Anna Raquel Parsons.  Real loud.  Nobody ever uses my middle name except then.”  She didn’t want to think about her mom never talking to her again.

Billie muttered, “This is the thanks I get for letting you hang out with my family?”

Jinn said, “And I got to put one of our devises down the back of Thad’s shorts and give him a super-wedgie after they left!”

Billie said, “You know, mom really chewed me out when she found out about that.”


Anna asked, “How do you give someone a wedgie with a devise?”

Jinn just smiled.  Billie said, “It’s something Jade invented.  It looks like a plastic centipede toy.  It has mobility, flight, clamps, and a lot of lift.  So she can sneak it onto a guy’s back, it crawls into his pants and clamps onto the back of his underwear, and then liiiiiiiiiifts.  Mom said it pulled Thad’s underwear so hard it pulled him out of his seat and nearly up to the ceiling.  And he really yelled a lot.”

Anna said, “It seems like every time I turn around today, I’m hearing about another one of Jade’s inventions.  She must be really smart.”

Jinn said, “I don’t know about smart.  She’s done some pretty dumb stuff this year.  But she’s good at the whole deviser thing.  A lot of the things I use in class are stuff she thought up.”

Anna asked, “Is she gonna have a whole bunch of patents too, like Bunny and Joe?”

Billie said, “Well, there is this whole thing she’s doing with Thuban’s company.  Bio-Regenetics.  But other than that, her stuff is mostly devises that don’t work for anyone else.”

“Except me, because she’s my sister,” said Jinn.  She thought for a second and added, “I guess.  You’d really have to ask her.  She’s the only one who understands this stuff.”

Billie said, “But she’ll talk about it until your head explodes, so be careful when you ask her.”

Anna smiled a little.  “I know about that.  Sort of.  Jerry does that if I ask him about chemistry stuff.”

“Jerry?” Billie asked.

“Hazmat.  We’re dating.  He saved my squirrels after combat finals, and all he wanted was a date.  And he’s really nice.”

They got into a talk about boyfriends, and everyone else’s boyfriends.  It was funny.  Anna didn’t think Billie would turn out to be like that, but she seemed so shy.  It was sort of hard to believe.

Then, after she overheard another conversation, Anna got a moment to talk to Rich and even call him by his first name.  But it was totally freaky about the ‘God of the Sun’ thing.  Part of him was really Apollo?  No wonder he wasn’t interested in someone like her, when he was used to being a real god.  She felt kind of sad and wretched all the way down to Boston airport.

Then when they landed and everybody piled out of the jet, they walked down and found their rides.  Ayla had limousines.  Real stretch limos like at awards shows where famous people in fancy outfits got out of expensive limos and waved at their fans before getting fancy awards.  Anna could hardly believe it.  She ended up in a limo with Chou and Molly and Dorjee and Bart.

Anna just gaped at the inside of the limo.  There was a big teevee cabinet.  And a fridge.  And a fancy bar.  And other cabinets that were probably full of expensive stuff.  And probably more stuff in special compartments all around them.

Chou and Molly looked like they totally expected all this stuff.  Anna didn’t know how they could be so calm about it.  Dorjee was still smiling his gentle smile, but he looked pretty overwhelmed by it all.  Bart was checking out all the electronic controls and stuff.

The fridge was amazing.  The teevee cabinet was amazing.  It was all too amazing for words.  She was so busy looking at everything inside the limo she forgot to look out the windows at Boston, which she’d never even seen before.

Finally, she looked over at Molly and Chou and asked, “How can you be so calm about all this stuff?”

Molly and Chou looked at each other and grinned.  “Ayla,” they both said.  Chou gently said, “This is what it is like hanging out with Ayla all the time.”

Molly agreed, “We so have to invite you over to see Ayla’s dorm room.”

Anna had to close her mouth.  Holy cow.  This was the coolest thing EVER!  Ree and Luce and Nate were going to be SO jealous!  Assuming they even believed half this stuff.

Then they had the whole restaurant to themselves.  Anna thought the jet was the most awesome thing ever, and then she thought the limos were the most awesome thing ever, but this was even awesomer.  How do you get a super-fancy restaurant to let you have the whole place to yourself for lunch?

After they all piled out of the limos – well, Marty had to make a fancy entrance like she was a famous movie star walking into the Oscars, but everyone else just kind of piled out – Ayla led them to a big party room in the back, and explained about all the great food she had ready for them.  Anna hoped she didn’t have the vegetarian options because of her, because she ate meat too.  Although the broccoli quiche sounded really yummy.

But everything smelled delicious.  And Anna got right in line.  Well, Joe came up behind her while she was letting other people go first, and he had his cane out, and he kind of herded her into the line.  He whispered, “Stop being polite.  It makes me look bad.”

But she knew he was just looking out for her, so she whispered, “Thanks, Joe.  You’re the best.”

“Hey, I know that already,” he grinned.

Adrienne leaned forward and said, “Stop it.  His head’s already swollen enough.”

Joe smirked.  “Why do you think I have that ten-gallon hat?  To hold my ten-gallon head.”

Anna giggled as she picked up a big plate.  Everything smelled so good she didn’t know where to start.  She got some chicken.  A big slice of the chicken breast, and a small slice of the dark meat.  Then a small slice of the seafood quiche and one of the broccoli quiche, even if her dad thought quiche was sissy food and wouldn’t let her mom make it.  And a small slice of the seafood pie, too.  Plus some of the tossed salad, which had a really fragrant dressing on it, and some of the roasted vegetables, and a couple of the appetizers too.  Oh man, there was no way she was going to be able to eat dessert, no matter how delicious it looked.

Well, maybe Ayla would let her take the desserts home with her so she could eat them tonight.

She sat down with Marty and Elaine, and started eating.  Oh man, the food was just incredibly good.  “Mmm!”  She tried a bite of everything, and all of it was just scrumptious.  If her mom cooked like this, she’d still weigh way too much, because how could you not eat too much if every meal was this good?

Marty said, “Yeah.  Last Saturday at the Golden Kids thing?  The food was just this good.  Totally different, but still great.  Ayla had us taste everything so we could be good waitresses and tell people what we liked the best in case they asked.  Not that anyone asked.”

Elaine elbowed Marty and teased, “Yeah, all you got asked was if you wanted to go on a date, and how you kept your boobs from exploding out the top of your dress, and if your legs went all the way up.”

Marty shrugged.  “So?  Rich horny guys are still horny guys.  Just with enough money so they have better pickup lines.  And some of ‘em are European and sexy.”

Elaine rolled her eyes.  “And some of ‘em are European and jerky.”

Anna snickered, because she remembered what Vanessa told her about Dynamaxx.

Marty shrugged back at Elaine.  “It was fun!  You know you had fun too.  And Ayla paid us a shitload.  I’d never be able to buy a skirt like this if I hadn’t.  And anyway, most of the guys were cute and fun.”

Anna wondered, “Were the Golden Kids really cute?  And fun?  Or jerky?”

Marty said, “Two jerks.  Three, including the guy who asked me out.  Okay, Dynamaxx wasn’t really a jerk as much as Mister Pickup Line.  I kind of liked him.  A little.  And some of the guys like Tidewater and Premiere and Hatamoto and Thuban were totally smooth.”

Elaine said, “Yeah, that Tidewater’s a hottie.  Shame he’s taken.  And his girlfriend can crush you into a pretzel.”

Marty shrugged, “I think I could take her in a fight.  Maybe she’s a PK supergirl, but I’m a supergirl too.  And she’s no Lancer.”

While Elaine and Marty were talking about guys and the Golden Kids party, Anna could hear the conversations going on behind her too.  Most of the Kimbas and Vox were just teasing Ayla constantly about the food, so Anna guessed Ayla really was sort of a food snob.  After all, she was a Goodkind, so she probably only ate super-fancy food all the time.

And since Anna was kind of listening in on the funny teasing, she heard it when Ayla got that phone call.  When Anna heard that it was from the Boston Police Department, she almost choked on her bite of chicken.

Ayla instantly gathered up the Kimbas and Riptide, and made everyone else stay put.  Boy, Ayla could sure boss people around.  And in what seemed like a couple seconds, they were matching out of the room.  Anna kind of stared when Ayla stopped and kissed Vanessa goodbye.  Anna knew they were friends, but she sure hadn’t thought they were that kind of friends.  Because that wasn’t a ‘hey nice to see you’ kiss on the cheek.  That was a ‘we are way past the third date’ kind of kiss.

Anna wondered if they broke up, if Ayla would want to meet her roommate.  Even if Skids hadn’t come out of the closet yet.

Anna thought the phone call and the big rush off to fight crime was a huge surprise.  Right up until Bunny threw her hands into the air and whined, “Not again!”  So Anna guessed a lot of the stories about the Kimbas were really true after all.  And once Officer Everheart got everyone to sit down and behave, then Bunny started telling people all about the first two trips to Boston, which were really pretty amazing.

It was a couple minutes before Anna heard the skillet crash.  She hoped the mean lady in the kitchen wouldn’t be nasty to anyone about it, because she’d overheard the mean lady being really crabby to a couple people in there.  She knew how awful it was to work for someone who was mean and took it out on everyone else who had to sit there and take it because the mean person was their boss.

But Officer Everheart heard that crash too, and she sure knew it meant something bad, because she made everyone get right up and move to the middle of the room with the bricks on the outside of the group standing guard.  And Officer Everheart pulled out this thing that looked like the biggest handgun barrel ever, with no pistol grip.  Then she gave Lily one look and did a weird hand gesture that looked sort of military, and Lily grabbed two of the kids and just vanished.

Anna looked out from behind Elaine and wondered what was going to happen.  Because there were sounds coming from around them, outside the room.  And she didn’t think everyone who was supposed to be in the group was there.

Which was when Adrienne came walking back from the bathroom.  Anna gasped in horror as a badguy in body armor stepped up behind Adrienne and put a huge gun to her head, shouting for everyone to freeze or he’d shoot her.

Anna stared in horror.  Someone needed to save Adrienne!  But what could a loser like Aquerna the Squirrel Girl do?


to be continued