A Second Generation Whateley Academy Adventure
Parent's Day Panic
Wasamon, with scenes by Astrodragon and Domoviye
and the support of the usual suspects
------Saturday, November 12th, 2016
Saturday morning under the gleaming dome that gave name to the Crystal Hall was a frantic time at best, giving the impression of a coffee- and syrup-fueled feeding frenzy as the hordes of student bodies fought their own metabolisms by stuffing mass quantities until all was satisfied. This being Whateley, the process took far longer for some than for others.
"Ah, you are going to finish all of that?" asked Calliope in dismay as she witnessed the trays, plural, brought to the table by her friend Morgana. Logically, it followed that the mutant energizer often known as DragonsFyre burned through calories as quickly as she did through school uniforms, but seeing was truly disbelieving in the face of all that bacon, hashbrowns, pancakes, sausages, eggs (poached, omelet), plus cups for milk, orange juice, and coffee. To consider it all made the Italian feel ill to her own stomach, so she focused instead on her humble repast of cut fruits, toast, yogurt, and espresso.
"I've got to keep the fires stoked, now don't I?" Morgana somehow found the space to speak between mouthfuls. "It's a big day, so no use risking it. Whatever would I do if I suffered a sudden attack of hunger and fainted in the middle of a hallway, hm?"
"You'd probably chew the carpet to pieces for the fiber." Her roommate Erica's own breakfast was not as large as Morgana's, but it dwarfed Calliope's by default. "And if you're burning calories that fast, then you're doing it wrong."
The Welsh girl snickered. "Or doing it way too right. In any case, I need to finish up soon..."
"If that's physically possible," teased Laura from farther down the table. The blue devisor's plate, singular, was already clean.
"...and then send Thulia a quick magic-mail before my legal guardians arrive for today's visit."
Yes, that. Not her friend's... mentor? Sister figure? Inappropriately engaging significant other with known personal boundary issues? Whatever Thulia was to her friend, Calliope was certain that the fiery spirit-woman was not the intended sort of guest for the campus's annual Parents Day events. She was not sure what to expect from Morgana's official family, but it was surely not as bizarre to explain. As for her own... "Cosa!" she exclaimed as she noticed the time display on the wall.
"What is it?" Erica asked.
"The families, they are arriving in just over half an hour!"
Across the Crystal Hall, conversation was grinding to a halt as more students noted the time and made their own calculations vis-à-vis how quickly they could cram it all in. The student body hosted a war between metabolism and nerves, and sometimes the nerves won out. Calliope finished her breakfast with some time to spare.
The fact that Morgana finished before her was a fact she chose not to ponder too deeply.
'Gotta pee!' // 'Oh god, this is going to be so embarrassing.' // 'Bathroom! Bathroom! Bathroom! Bathroom!' // 'Why aren't they coming?' // 'Mom, Dad, I know my marks aren't that good, but I-' // 'Today is going to be so much fun!'
Still half asleep, Leslie Walker grabbed her pillow, wrapping it around her head, hoping it would make the voices stop. Of course it didn't do anything. It never did.
'Freak!' // 'I want to go home.' // 'I can't wait to see him again.' // 'Coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee.' // 'Should I get pancakes or waffles?'
Getting out of bed, she put in her earbuds, letting the music overwhelm the voices in her head. It wasn't completely effective, but it was the most relief she'd get until she had a chance for her brain to get it into gear. And then her roommate came back from the shower. Libby Conne saw she was up and her face twisted in disgust.
'Oh joy, she's awake. A hundred bottles of beer on the wall, a hundred bottles of beer, take one down and pass it around, ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall...'
The extra loud thoughts drove straight into her brain, drowning out the music. For her own sanity, Leslie got up, grabbed the bag of toiletries she kept within easy reach of her bed, and fled the room. Most of the girls in the hallway and the bathroom ignored her, much to her relief. The many thoughts melded into background noise, none of them overpowering or too insistent. With the music playing, it was like walking through a large crowd: not exactly relaxing, but bearable.
Leslie raced through her morning routine of brushing her teeth, combing her hair, and washing her face, then hurried back out. She'd showered late the night before, when no one had been around. The one time she'd tried to have a morning shower had ended in a disaster that she didn't want to repeat.
Back in her, thankfully, now-empty room, she put on her nicest pair of pants and sweater, then sat lotus-position on the floor. Breathing deeply, she tried to relax. In her mind she placed down a brick, then another, and another. With each brick the voices in her head faded. When the voices were a mere whisper of incoherent white noise, she opened her eyes.
"Huh, a new record," she said, checking at the clock. It had only taken her half an hour to create the barrier. If she was lucky it would last all morning. Placing her current novel in her bag, she headed out.
"Hey Day Dreamer." Duster, or Garrett Burke if she wanted to use his real name, waved to her as she got close to Crystal Hall.
"Hi, Duster. How are you doing?" she asked. It was hard not to stare at the extremely good looking redhead.
"Really good," he said, with a lopsided grin she found really cute. "My grandpa got a clean bill of health this week so my entire family will be showing up. When are your parents supposed to come? Maybe we can all meet up for lunch?"
"They're coming on the first bus. But I'm not sure about lunch," she said.
The smile dropped just a little for a second. "I understand, you haven't seen them in months."
"No, it's not that," she said. "It's just really noisy today."
He caught on immediately. Even though he wasn't a receptive telepath, every psychic arts student understood how overwhelming crowds could be at times for those who were. "Still haven't perfected your shield, huh."
"It's a work in progress. Right now I've got all the fun of schizophrenia with none of the mind-numbing drugs." She tried to make it a joke, but her smile wasn't enough for that.
'Where is she? We were supposed to meet right here.' // 'Pancakes! Pancakes!' // 'I swear, just one more time, one more...'
The growing crowd of hungry teens, many of them some combination of excited, scared, happy and depressed, battered at her mental shield. "And today is going to be hell with all the excitement and emotions," Duster concluded.
'I just want it to end!' That particular thought was strong enough to send cracks racing through her weak shield.
She nodded, glad that he understood. "I'll be taking my parents around the psychic arts department first thing, so maybe we could show it off together."
'Bacon! Bacon! Bacon! Bacon! Bacon!' // 'I shall devour the unborn progeny of the fowl!'
"I'd like that," he said.
'Oh fuck, they're almost here.' // 'Damn she's hot! I wonder what she's like in the sack?' // 'That's the last time I do it with a speedster, I can barely walk.'
"Huh? What did you say?" Leslie asked, realizing that she'd zoned out for a moment.
'I miss Mr. Happy.'
"I was asking if you're feeling all right."
'My mom is going to kill me.'
"I'm sorry. I-,"
'I'm a damn monster, no wonder they aren't coming.' // 'HELP ME!' // 'I need to get laid.' // 'What is that nerd doing?' // 'I miss you.'
She felt Duster grab her arm and march her away from the crowd. She couldn't concentrate enough to do anything more than follow along.
'Whipped!' // 'Someone wants to get laid.' // 'Spaz.' // 'Is she OK?' // 'None of my business.'
Well away from Crystal Hall and the busier paths, Leslie was able to get her mind focused. "God, I'm sorry. I thought my shield was strong enough."
"It's okay. That place was packed."
She felt her cheeks go red as embarrassment set in. "I haven't had that happen since the first week. But everyone is so excited and thinking so loudly..."
"Stay here and relax. I'll get you a to-go breakfast. Pancakes with maple syrup sound good?"
She nodded, not trusting herself to say anything.
Same cafeteria, different table, different atmosphere. Pat Barnes possessed a peculiar sense of empathy that allowed him to assess and gauge social situations at a glance, and he'd gotten rather good at it in the past four months. The sudden shifts in mood amid the tables of the Crystal Hall were part of the background noise of life, like a drier sort of ocean waves. It was calming, most of the time, but the sudden crash of nervous hyper-awareness that spilled through the cafeteria as everyone realized the time had him wincing and twitching.
"What a day, right?" As was her usual on Saturdays, his adoptive big sister Myra was slumming it at the student tables in her identity as Moonbrook, magical course special auditor. It was amusing to sense how many of Ms. Barnes's English class students had yet to realize. "So what are we all up to?" the elder Barnes continued. "I get to greet all the visiting junior high parents, of course, and Marcus and I have that meeting with Erica's uncle later in the day. Anyone else?"
The kids at the Barnes breakfast table were not the only ones on campus to have no one coming for Parents Day -- having a stable family life seemed to be the exception rather than the rule on this campus -- but that didn't mean they had no plans. "I've got my regular phone call with Dina," he said.
"Be sure to tell her we all say hi!" In the next seat over, his legally certified twin sister Chessa was stuffing her face as only an energizer could. "Wish she were here and all that!"
"I'm sure she wishes it, too," said Myra. "And Nina... are you going to be all right?"
It was a legitimate question to ask the human avatar of happiness, because by her face all could see that she was in fact not. No empathic senses were necessary there. Pat hadn't heard their entire life story yet, only the few bits required to understand why Nina/Noah wasn't ever going to have visitors on Parents Day.
"I'll... I'll be fine. Ish. There's no need to worry," said Nina. Their plate was hardly touched. "B-but thank you for... for..." There was a squeak as Chessa hugged from one side while little Bev Taylor squeezed in from the other.
"You need family time," said Bev, with the solid conviction of someone who was, yet again, not on speaking terms with her big sister Liz. "Seriously, I saw Darcy and Kara a few tables over, and I know they're worried about you, too. And maybe we can all stop by Noelle's place later to say hi? Us lonely hearts gotta stick together!"
"I thought your parents were coming today," said Myra, with all the surety of a junior high school homeroom teacher when speaking of her students.
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean I wanna see them."
"Bev..." The teacher let the syllable linger.
"Fine! After Liz has shown them her labs, we can meet up for lunch, but I am not going down there." Bev crossed her arms and stuck out her lip in a petulant pout. "No way, no how."
Myra sighed. "That shall have to do. But you'd better get going before Darcy and Kara leave without you."
At the far end of the breakfast table, Marcus was chomping through his morning waffles with a glazed look in his eyes. The boy had probably been up all night working on some last little details, and when Pat poked his shoulder Marcus about jumped out of his chair. "Huh? What?"
"Planet Markab to Marcus, Planet Markab to Marcus. Come in, Marcus." Pat had a hand to his own mouth to help with the old-timey radio transmission sound.
"Shouldn't it be 'Earth to Marcus'?" the boy grumbled.
"Sure, but we all know you're a total space cadet."
"Har, har," said the youngest member of their impromptu family unit. Shaggy brown hair stuck out in three directions as he turned his head to look around. "Oh, Nina and Bev just left? And where's Danny?"
"He had some things to go over with Dr. Shu," Myra informed them. "He'll be along, I'm sure."
Pat hoped so. If Danny was discussing what he suspected with Dr. Shu, then the boy known as Wilder was going to need all the support he could get.
"Thanks again, doc."
"It is always my pleasure," replied Danny Fontenot's regular therapist, the one of a kind man whose door nameplate identified as Dr. Hortensio Shu. The doc was... bouncy. Yeah, that was the best way to describe both his personality and his personal resemblance to a basketball around the middle. The way the doc moved, you could almost hear the donk-donk-donk of a ball dribbling along the floor. "Now, I have it on good word from the campus store that they'll have all pre-ordered copies of the new Pokémon game in time for next Friday's release date, so let's see if we can't have a nice, friendly battle over the weekend."
Danny chuckled. "Yeah, Ah'd like that. Gonna whup yer fire kitten with mah happy seal."
"We shall see," said Dr. Shu with his usual calm smile. "Go, go. See your friends, greet your family. And don't forget to bring your grandmother by so we can discuss paperwork."
"A'course, doc." Danny hopped up from his beanbag chair, the one in the shape of a huge, huggable, and famously sleepy Pokémon, and stretched his arms and legs. The long pleated braid on the back of his head went back and forth like a second tail. Rachel had done it up in ribbons that very morning, after their now-regular Friday night fight and snuggle session in the padded sparring cell. She'd brought the make-up kit as well, much to Danny's delight. Anything that made him feel a bit more like Dani and less like Danny was a happy thing.
He hoped his Grandma would like it. He knew she would. He... he...
"It will be fine," said Dr. Shu. "And I would not say it with such certainty in most cases, but yours is unique. She accepted the reality once, and after I explain the steps to her, undoubtedly she will again."
"Hope so, doc." Inside, he was praying. The silent prayers continued out the door to the therapist's office, down the hallway, away from Doyle, across the quad, and through the doors of the Crystal Hall. His braid got no comments, not after a full month of sporting the style, and if anyone noticed the make-up then they were too busy or distracted to hassle him about it. The Barnes table gave him a collective thumbs-up as he passed, which was to be expected.
Danny waved to Pat, his official sponsor for the endeavor, but when he'd retrieved his special tray with its assortment of proteins and low-sugar foodstuffs, he found himself drawn to a different table. Drawn as in pulled. By the braid. Rachel Altus was at the other end. He grunted. At least she wasn't pulling hard.
"Hey, hey, fight-buddy." Rachel hadn't called him her boyfriend for a month now, not since he'd come out to her, and he wasn't sure what he thought of the new nickname she'd chosen. He did have her word that she'd start using 'girlfriend' as soon as it became the reality, at least. "C'mon, it's time for a strategizing session."
"A what-now?" Normally he'd say it wasn't time to plan for a fight, only Rachel tended to plan everything like it was a fight. It was just a part of the package, like the taped-up glasses and the stitches on her school uniform.
Their combat training team hadn't gotten all the paperwork through the main office yet, and he had to wonder how much of that had to do with the girl doing the filing, but they'd been able to stake out a table of their own on the first floor. Currently they were the Fast and the Furry-ous, because they couldn't agree on anything less embarrassing. At least it was accurate. The two girls sitting at the table were the Fast: Avsel with her stampeding spirit powers and Catherine with her electro-zappo bursts of speed. Danny and Avsel also covered the Furry part, sort of. The girl's usual gown and headscarf hid most of that. And of course, he and Rachel could be absolutely Furious under the right circumstances.
"Alright, ladies," Rachel said once she'd seated him down with his tray. "I got confirmation from Mother that she's met up with Mama Brooks and Granny Fontenot, which means that three out of four legal guardians are in the same van en route to here, ETA thirty-six minutes."
"Awweddy?" The word was as well-chewed as his breakfast steak.
Catherine snickered. "Better eat up, fuzzy."
"So," Rachel continued. "Dani and I have some things we need to get taken care of, and I'm sure Mama Brooks is gonna wanna see Cathy's pad, but after that we're all together again, so we need to make a decision about how we're gonna wow 'em."
"Wow...?" English was not Avsel's first language, or even her second, but hanging around Rachel was expanding her vocabulary in interesting ways. "Ah, do you mean to surprise them?"
"More like amaze them," said Catherine. "Make 'em say, 'Wow, that's cool!' and stuff like that."
Danny swallowed his steak down as fast as he could so he could speak before his girlfriend spoke for him. "Ain't startin' a fight, 'kay?" he said.
"Would I... well, okay, would I do that nowadays? It's not the first week of school. I've learned."
Learned the complete student handbook on duels, fights, team matches, and all the rules thereof, forwards and backwards and sideways, they all knew. If there was in any way a chance to have a brawl on Parents Day, the girl with the honey badger spirit for a personal totem would know how.
"So, what did you have in mind?" asked Catherine.
"Well, there are openings in the Danger Room schedule..."
"No." Cobalt eyes flashed in Catherine's dark brown face. "Even if we're ready for that, which I don't think we are, that'd scare my mama to bits."
"Let us show them around the school," said Avsel. "That is enough. And if something happens, then..." The girl's headscarf shifted with her shrug. "It is Whateley. Such things are to happen."
Danny only wished that wasn't so damn true.
"I need your help today," Mrs. Savage said.
Shisa lifted her head and cocked it to the side. The house mother didn't usually ask her for help, aside from offering support to some of the girls that could use a cute cat to pet, helping them forget about their problems for a while. Since today was Parents Day, the girls who were spending it alone could probably use her help. That usually wouldn't be a problem, but she'd been planning on slinking away to a quiet part of the woods and hiding out until everyone was gone.
"M-row?" In her mind, Shisa could hear her speech therapist, Mr. Katz, admonishing her to use a human word. Preferably English since they were in the US, but any language would work in a pinch.
"A new student is arriving this morning," Mrs. Savage explained. "I need you to be at the Schuster admin office in forty minutes to give her a tour of the campus,"
"Me?" Shisa asked, her eyes widening in disbelief. She couldn't picture herself playing tour guide for the day. That was generally reserved for someone who looked like a sapient being.
"Most of the other girls are busy helping out with things, or meeting their parents," the house mother said. "Also, I think you're best suited for this particular student. Just remember to put on your clip."
A tiny flick of her tail was the only sign of her hatred towards the clip. She already wore the stupid coat when outside the cottage, which was too tight and made her fur itchy, and now she had to have her neck pinched all day. "Yes..." she said, letting the word out in a resigned hiss.
Nodding goodbye to the house mother, who was already in motion as she brought order to the next bit of chaos, Shisa jumped off the back of the couch and headed to her dorm room. The hallway was busy with girls getting ready to meet their parents, rushing to finish one last task before they had to head out, comforting those who were all alone, and gossiping with each other about family. It reminded her of trying to walk through Seattle during rush hour. Keeping tight to the wall, her tail held high, she did her best to avoid the gigantic feet and legs.
Reaching her door without getting stepped on, and only hitting a few legs, she stood on her hind legs and placed her hand against the slightly lower than normal lock. The mechanism clicked, and she used her shoulder to push the door open. Picking her cleanest coat from the pile on the floor, she beat it against the bedpost a few times to remove any loose fur and then put it on. She took her time, trying to keep it from messing up her fur or pushing it the wrong way, and she was not very concerned about showing up early to play tour guide . Then she went to the charging box where her clip was. The clear plastic clip went into her pocket; there was no way she was going to put it on before she had to.
Glancing at the door, Shisa shook her head, wanting no part of that chaos. It was an easy jump onto the window ledge. Looking out, she saw a girl heading towards the woods, using her sleeve to wipe her eyes. For a moment, Shisa really wanted to join the girl and share some misery. Shaking her head, she opened the window and slipped outside. Ignoring the height which would see a normal human risking a broken leg, she jumped down, instinctively keeping her body loose, and landed without any problem on the soft grass.
Now where should she go? Her plan of hiding out for the day and ignoring the world was shot. She also had less than no interest in seeing all the happy reunions. Letting out a noisy snort, she headed towards Schuster. Might as well stick close to the building so she wouldn't be late. At least the roof was nice to sit on, and the sun would be nice on her fur.
Although the first-floor seating plan was slowly evolving towards a team- and club-centric model, at the moment it was still dominated by cottage territory. Roommates and floormates tended to stick together, especially among the freshman class, and only gradually did friend out-groups and team affiliations shift things around.
But deep in Whitman Cottage's cafeterritory, there was one little table hidden behind the towering ficus plants that was set apart as special. More than most, the girls in Whitman understood the need for a quiet moment of alone time to pull a lady's composure back together, and by unspoken agreement anyone who took this one table at mealtime was not to be disturbed till she was good and ready. At the moment, Tanya sat there by herself, but she wasn't alone.
Her smartpad was set on its stand, propped to nearly vertical as the video-phone app did its job to connect people across the continent. "Wish you could come," she was saying.
"I know, kiddo." On the other end, her dad's words were momentarily halted by a hacking cough. "Hazard of the business, you know. Emergency medical's always the first to hear that the Uncommon Cold's back in town. Dunno how many times your mother caught that creep, only for him to vanish at the slightest sneeze."
"Yeah, I remember." As supervillains went, the Uncommon Cold was barely C-list, but his ability to annoy people was without peer. The problem was never that he was hard to catch. Far from it, as her dad was demonstrating now, blowing his nose like a bugle horn. The Uncommon Cold just kept coming back, season after season.
"But hey, I'll be fine in time for Thanksgiving, you hear?"
Tanya tried to smile, but none of the muscles wanted to work right. "Just... I really wanted to talk to you, face to face, about..."
It was her dad's turn to say, "I know." His own face couldn't muster more than a general droop. "Your mother always said that crazy stuff happens in the heat of the fight, and... and we had our own chats, our own little confessionals when she feared she'd crossed a line."
"You did?" She'd never realized.
"Not often," her dad admitted. "You weren't around for most of them. Though the way they ended usually, I'm pretty sure you're the result of one."
"Dad!" Her blushes were still mostly red, even if the rest of her tended towards lavender.
"Point being, you need someone to talk to about this on a regular basis. What about your friends? Surely they've wanted to talk about it."
She couldn't see the M3 table from here -- the ceiling got in the way -- but she knew the exact direction. "I... not all of them seem to, to get it.... How I felt, still feel. I mean, they're not bad about it; they want to cheer me up. Only, Morgana's idea of cheering me up is to keep pointing out how awesome she thinks I was in that fight, like... like I should be proud that I sent someone to the infirmary..." And almost to the morgue, she hated to admit. None of them had imagined that Gouyasse would react so badly to the splash bomb of rubbing alcohol, and even so she'd argued against using it, but when they were in the middle of the match and the giant Belgian was threatening her friend and she'd forgotten all her misgivings and thrown the infernal little package, and...
The memory of swollen red flesh and painful howling still floated through her dreams sometimes. The others seemed to have gotten over it, some faster than others. Tanya didn't feel secure talking to any of them about it. Not even Cally. "N-nobody understands..." she mumbled into her sleeve as she slumped against the tabletop.
"Your godparents would," said her dad. "And they should be at your school fairly soon, right?"
"So seize the day and the opportunity. What else do you have planned for today?"
"Just hanging out with Vic..." she admitted.
"Then seize the dude as well."
"Hey, if he can't be a good listener and a better kisser when you need comforting, then the boy's gotta step up his game!" A chuckle morphed into a cough and then back to a chuckle again. "And I'm speaking as the voice of experience here!"
"Dad..." The roll of her eyes spoke her annoyance, but the grin on her face disagreed. "I'll call you later, promise."
"That's my girl." Another cough threatened to rattle her smartpad off its stand as it echoed over the ether. "Gah! Stupid villain germs..."
"I'll let you rest." Tanya mimed a blown kiss at him and then cut the connection.
A few tables away, on the far side of the ficus, Tanya's roommate Sterling was carefully delivering breakfast cereal to her mouth in a slow and consistent manner that would have annoyed most people, if they actually noticed the statuesque teen with the silver hair and pale lime skin. The quirk of the girl's power meant that almost nobody did. It was a wonder no one ever tried to take Sterling's seat while she was still sitting in it, though Tanya knew from experience that as soon as her roommate got up, someone would immediately claim the spot.
The other girl waiting at the table was just as tall and statuesque, if more normal in color scheme. Sera Eir Magnusdottir, also known as Einherjar, looked more like a valkyrie than her namesake warrior spirit. She also looked annoyed at the world, but that was nothing new. "It is about time!" the girl said, with only the slightest of accents to her words. Sera's English was far better than Tanya's Icelandic. "I've been waiting here all by myself."
The spoon paused by Sterling's mouth, then continued. Tanya's roommate rarely spoke up these days.
"Just had to, you know, talk some stuff over with my dad," said Tanya. "You understand, right?"
Sera's mouth might have said, "Yes," but her eyes glared a "Hell no." Sterling simply looked a little sadder. She'd yet to get either of them to divulge the full details of their home lives, in part because she was afraid to ask. It was enough to acknowledge that neither of them were expecting visitors that day. "So... any plans?" she asked.
"No." Sera didn't look at her as she said it, slumping into the cafeteria chair with arms crossed. At the other end of the table, Sterling shook her head and kept chewing.
"Well, I know Silver Sylph's going to be here soon, so you can chat about the old country," said Tanya. "And, Sterling--"
"Who?" The tall blonde glanced around in confusion.
With one final gulp, Tanya's roommate joined the conversation. "I'mma, ah, hang out with Feedback and Kinesio. They don't mind me bein' by, and they're not expectin' anyone, either." The lime-skinned girl's Southern twang was more pronounced than Sera's accent.
Tanya had her reservations about that friendship, since the two Twainees, better known as Skitz and Spazz, were famously the biggest potheads in their grade. But at this point, she was willing to support any attempt on Sterling's part to be social.
"Yer boyfriend's comin'," Sterling said.
So he was. Vic Rivera navigated the tables in the Whitman cafeterritory with a reluctant ease, knowing he was largely tolerated because of his friendship to her. He nodded and howdied his way to their table, pausing to let Whirlibird flutter by with two armloads of trays. "Hey, Tanya," he said when he finally reached them. "Good morning, Sera..." There was a pause as reality percolated through his brain, "...and Sterling."
"Who?" Sera demanded.
Sometimes she wondered what quirk of fate had left her with a virtual immunity to her roommate's no-see-um field that no one else seemed to share. Vic was actually better than most, realizing that Sterling was present within a few seconds.
"Just wanted to say hi before everyone arrives," the boy continued. "My... ah... well, I may just be in hiding for the rest of the day."
She still wasn't sure what was going on with Vic's stepsister or his foster-brother, or even how that situation had ever come to be in the first place, so she couldn't fault him for wanting to avoid uncomfortable situations today. "Call me if you need backup," she said. "I'll do anything for... um." Her ears turned maroon as the words caught up to her. "You know what I mean."
Her roommate actually smiled at that, while Sera grimaced.
"Yeah, I know." With a little salute, Vic ran off.
Okay, she thought, it's just another day at Whateley. Another normal day on campus...
For any one of a million reasons, that did not reassure her.
She was certainly no empath, but that wasn't a requirement to feel the tension in the air. Much like a live wire on the ground, there was a looming sense of something dangerous, something unavoidable. She wondered how many others among the student body had spent the previous evening in frantic cleaning mode. Dickinson Cottage hadn't looked so spick and span since the start of the school year.
Trays were being returned to the wash station en masse as a wave of noise whelmed the mood with even more tension. Across the Crystal Hall, phones and smartpads began to chime with email alerts, some a little sooner and some a little later by the vagaries of connectivity, to form an echoing surf of sound.
Her own phone was one of the first to bleat, and her quick check was purely pro forma: "My family's ride is through the front gates," she announced to the rest of the table, "heading for Drop-Off Site A. Cally? Your brother and dad are on the same transport, right? Shall we go?"
"Ah, yes?" Her roommate wiped her lips with a napkin and got up to move. "Perhaps I should have returned my tray sooner..."
"I've got it," said Bianca. The pale girl had arrived late, and was only halfway through her own meal. "I'm in no rush today."
"Grazie... and, I am sorry."
"Don't mention it." Bianca's eyes were hard, giving the polite response more of an imperative mood.
Given the school's location in one corner of the remote and isolated Miskatonic Valley, it was amazing how well organized the Parents Day arrivals played out. Her Opa had mentioned a vetting process, a series of odd questionnaires, and a strict schedule for when they were all to meet up with the school transportation in nearby Berlin, New Hampshire. Between the logistical issues of limited parking and the Whateley-specific issues of one student-parent perhaps being another student-parent's personal nemesis, it was important to know who was arriving where and when.
On the way out, she saw the table for the newly registered American Mongolian Wrestling Federation. The members were all boys, though she could only put names to a few. Daniel, she'd dated a couple times. It might be worth it to introduce him to the family. Saumer... her heart skipped a beat when she saw the fuzzy-eared kid with the spiky black hair, and not for any romantic reasons. If at all possible, she'd prefer that her grandparents not run into his dad at any time that day. Too many questions would be raised.
"Cosa! Fra, non hai ancora finito la colazione?" Cally stormed over to the AMWF table and grabbed her brother by the ear. "Papà è qui, ci aspetta!"
Saumer's ears swiveled in amusement. "I think she wants you to hurry up, dude."
"No, I am wanting him to have finished already," said Cally. "Not sitting here doing the... oh, what is the best word?"
"Gabbing?" suggested Erica.
"Sì! Yes, the gabbing and the gossiping."
Fra took his last slice of toast, folded it around the slices of bacon and a bit of egg, and then crammed the entire thing in his mouth. With a thumb's-up to his teammates, he ran his tray to the return counter and was back in record time. "I shall see you all later," he told his friends.
"Definitely," said Shawn at the other end of the table. "Arsi says he's going to introduce us to some guy from the Mongolian embassy at our big thing before lunchtime. See you there."
"I would not want to miss that," said Fra, almost convincingly.
Students streamed out of the cafeteria, heading towards the designated pick-up points for the visitors. Along the way they picked up a fourth, Vicky Stone, whose cousin worked with the oldest of the Persico siblings in the MIT labs. Uncle Adolf had arranged for all three families to arrive on the same transport, with Erica's contingent taking up the most space with five visitors.
Every email concerning the vehicles had referred to them as 'transports' instead of buses, and when the first one came to a stop at Drop-Off Site A, the special terminology made sense. The more standard designation almost fit, but there was something about the lines of its design that spoke of rugged and difficult terrain to cross. Also, she had Vicky by her side pointing out every spot where the devisor's practiced eye could find some piece of incredibly non-standard hardware installed. Whatever the transports were, they weren't military grade because most militaries couldn't afford it.
But none of that was important to Erica. Instead, her gaze focused on a tall blonde girl now a few meters away from the transport's exit.
"Penny!" She no longer cared how girly her squeal sounded. She was used to it by this point. The important thing was that her cousin, Penelope Stein, was standing there with her back turned, perfectly lined up for a welcoming hug-blitz.
The older blonde girl side-stepped her at the last second, an arm snaking around to catch Erica around the middle and, using the momentum of the blitz, slinging the freshman over her cousin's shoulder.
"Hey! Put me..." The rest was lost to giggles as Cousin Penny proved just how ticklish Erica could be, with proper technique.
"Cosa..." she heard Fra say. "Not another one."
That was neither fair nor accurate, as Erica would've said if her sides weren't heaving. She and Penny were not actually related by blood, so any resemblance was coincidental to them both being athletic blondes with some subtle augmentations. Erica's were just more extensive.
"Hey there, cuz," said Penny as the tickle-attack finally ceased. "And hey to you two, Calliope and Vicky."
"Hello!" Cally beamed as she dragged her brother forward. "Penelope, this is my brother, Francesco."
"Pleased to meet you."
As their little intro segment played out to the side, more visitors were filing down the steps of the academy's transport. Erica had big hugs for her Oma and Aunt Margit, and a serious handshake for Uncle Adolf. Cally's older brother Claudio descended with a gentleman who was so perfectly his fifty-something doppelgänger that he just had to be Gianluca Persico, Cally and Fra's father. The Italian songstress greeted them with a high-pitched squeal of delight. Fra's face was equal parts happy and worried, but the boy greeted his father with a hug and kisses on the cheek with no lack of enthusiasm as they chattered on in the Genovese dialect of their home.
More people unloaded, meeting their sons and daughters, nieces or nephews with open arms. Her friend Vicky was showing off a new armlet devise to her cousin Carol while Mrs. Stone stood back with a familiar bemused expression that Erica always associated with baseline relatives of tech-minded mutants and other sorts of mad scientists.
Speaking of whom... "Ah, where did Opa get off to?" she asked her grandmother. "Didn't he get on the transport?"
"Oh! that man..." Oma said with the exact same expression that Erica'd just noted. "He's made himself a new friend on the way here, would you believe? Another biodevisor with a different specialization. It's been non-stop shop talk since the parking lot in Berlin. Hans!" Winifred von Abendritter stuck her head back in the transport and shouted to her husband. ""Hans, we are here, and if you do not come down right this instant then so help me I shall replace all of the glass sanitizer in your laboratory with cheap G-Mart window cleaner."
A snort erupted through Erica's nose. That was no idle threat; she'd seen her grandmother do exactly that in the past, causing no end of consternation to her grandfather.
"Yes, yes, dear. I am coming." Opa was the last person off the transport, following behind a thin-faced elder gentleman in a light down jacket. Considering the regular temperatures associated with New Hampshire in November, Erica thought this was a little underdressed. Everyone else, students and family, all had heavier sweaters and coats on, but the man didn't seem to mind.
"We shall have to continue this conversation another time," Opa was saying. "It has been a pleasure, Dr. Carlyle."
"That it has," the other gentleman agreed. "I look forward to reading your paper on homoeotic gene expression. Ah, but we've both got people waiting for us."
"Hey, doc." Erica turned to find Daniel Diggins trotting over. The boy known as Donut was also underdressed for the weather, wearing a light jacket that was nearly a match to Dr. Carlyle's. Apparently the standards for autumn were chillier in Idaho than New Hampshire.
She greeted him with a friendly wave. "Hi, Daniel. Is this your grandfather?"
Dr. Carlyle shook his head and chuckled. "No, I am afraid we are not related, delightful though that would be. I am a friend of his legal guardian, who sadly could not attend today's event. And technically I'm not here to visit Daniel." The man held out his arms like he was about to hug a grizzly bear and yelled, "Cookie!"
"AROOF!" came the response in stereo from the edge of the parking lot, where Daniel's constant canine companion waited patiently with a wide grin stretched across two muzzles, and both tongues lolling. Other parents and visitors were giving Cookie a wide space, which was understandable. Most folks got weirded out by things like two-headed Boston terriers the size of a pony. Students just scritched some ears in passing, said "Who's a good pup?" and kept going on their way. Whateley made a person jaded pretty quickly. But Dr. Carlyle showed no hesitation, wrapping an arm around the base of each puppy neck and accepting sloppy kisses from both sides at once.
"Good thing I brought a towel," said Daniel.
"Seriously." Cousin Penny watched the canine spectacle with shocked amusement. "Y'know, cuz, you tell me about this sort of craziness, like, weekly and I still have trouble believing it."
"Welcome to Whateley," she and Daniel said together. It was such a common refrain that they didn't even need to practice.
"So who is this, then?" her cousin continued, eyeing Daniel over. "Not the boy you were worrying yourself to fits over before the first date?" Her gaze took in the boy's chubby build, close-cut hair, and icing-pink eyes. "Because I'm not seeing it."
"Um, he's, um... Daniel's the nicest kid on campus, and..."
Nice enough to come to her rescue now, in fact: "Croissant?" With a twirl of the hands, the boy produced the pastry fresh out of nowhere. The offering was accepted and found delicious. Cousin Penny had to give it a quiet thumb's-up because she was too busy chewing to say anything else.
"Now, now, Erica," said her grandmother. "I believe we all have different places to be?"
"Sì," Cally answered for her. "My brothers, father, and I, we need some time to discuss the many things, in private." Behind the songstress, her twin brother grimaced. "It may take a while, so I shall meet you later, in the labs or quad or elsewhere."
Daniel was handing Dr. Carlyle the towel. "Bye, y'all. We'll be doin' walkies for a bit." He patted Cookie's side as the dog woofed.
"And I have business in Schuster Hall," her uncle said.
"Really, Adolf?" Margit frowned at her husband. "Is it really the time?"
"I'm sorry, schatzi, but it's only a simple drop-off. I will find my way back to you soon enough."
"We'll be over in Dickinson Cottage first," she told her uncle.
"Then I shall find some kind-hearted soul to show me where to go."
Even if she did not already know exactly what Uncle Adolf was up to, she would've been suspicious. There was no way the man did not have the entire campus layout memorized, possibly down to the proverbially unmappable labyrinth of underground lab spaces. She knew it, he knew it, their entire extended family knew it. They let him go on his business without any further questions asked.
Drop-Off Site B was hustling, bustling, filled with a crowd of students and parents, and Rachel Altus paid this absolutely no mind as she elbowed her way past schoolmates twice her size. As it said on the back of her signature t-shirt, as well as the warm, fluffy jacket she now wore: "Don't Give A Shit." It was the honey badger motto, as well as a philosophy of life perfectly suited to her.
Trailing in her wake, her friends in the Fast and Furry-ous were still learning how to follow. She even heard Dani apologize a few times. Totally adorable. She couldn't wait for Mother to meet them all.
Speaking of the devil in Prada, Rachel spotted her parent by herself on one end of the milling crowd. Father was away on business again, she'd been told. That was life, which was why a girl had to seize the day by the balls. The front of her shirts said "Carpe Scrotum" for that exact reason.
Mother was by herself, but not alone. If there was anything Mrs. Altus knew best, it was how to network, and Rachel had passed word via Cathy's aunt to make sure various parents and guardians met on the transport in. At the moment, Mother was chatting with a pretty black lady who looked ninety-nine percent like her daughter, just lacking the electric yellow highlights or cobalt eyes. Right there with them was a slightly older woman who must be...
"Granma!" Dani vaulted -- that was the only verb that fit. A simple word like 'jump' could not catch the essence of how her fight-buddy's legs took them off the ground, clearing the crowd by several feet overhead, and then landed within a yard of a startled Harmony Fontenot.
"Dani!" The lady was quick on the recovery, too, and the strength of the grandmotherly huglock was inspiring. Rachel knew she'd have to step up her game to match.
"Dani!" And a second squeal announced her fight-buddy's little sister. Michelle, the name was. The girl must've been about ten, and the speed setting on her mouth was set up to 11 as she gabbed her older sibling's floppy ear off.
Rachel left them to that. Sauntering over at a leisurely pace, she said, "Hello, Mother. Did you have a good flight?"
"Tolerable. The final leg was nice, at least. All the pretty leaves this season. And we had much to chat about." Mother nodded to Mrs. Fontenot and Mrs. Brooks, who were being introduced to each other's children now. "And that is your young... ah..."
"Fight-buddy," she confirmed. "Looking good, right? I did the braids and stuff... hm?"
The ten-year-old tapping her shoulder was only an inch or two shorter than she was in height, but the girl was dwarfed in the shadow of a honey-badgertude. "Um, Dani said you did her make-up?"
"Yup, that I did," Rachel said with pride. "You like?"
"Yeah! Could you show me how you did the bit around the eyes?"
"If we got time, sure." She patted the little sister's head. "Afraid Dani and I've got to show the ladies around first, though, and some spots might be kind of boring."
"Yes... that." Mother did not look too happy about the one definite appointment on her schedule for that day. "We might as well get it over with."
"Super. Hey, Michelle, right? Dani and I've got to take your granma to see a teacher -- way boring, by the way -- so how's about you hang out with Cathy and Avsel for a bit, see some of the dorms and assorted weirdness?"
"Okay! And after that, make-up?"
"Absof... ahem, absotively posilutely," she said. Only Mother would've realized what the pause meant, and the elder Altus nodded at her daughter's forbearance.
Sitting away from the crowd, Leslie watched the horde of happy teens meeting their families at the main drop off. Her music was playing and she'd spent an hour building her shields up further, so she was able to handle being near the crowd without risking sensory overload.
She waved at her parents who she could just make out in the crowd, but stayed where she was. They looked a little overwhelmed as they made their way over to her. Turning off her ear buds, she went to hug them. "I missed you guys," she said, burying her face in their shoulders.
'Why didn't she come over to greet us first?'
'No wonder this place is so expensive.'
"We missed you too, honey. Your grandma keeps complaining that the house is too quiet," her mom said.
'No she doesn't.'
'I wonder if I'll get back soon enough to do the hoof trimming job for Mike.'
Leslie kept smiling, even as she worked desperately to reinforce her shields. Her nerves were making a mockery of her efforts, allowing unwanted thoughts and emotions to fill her mind. She saw Duster heading towards the psychic arts department with his family. "Do you want to see where I'm learning about my powers? My teachers have been a huge help."
"Sure, that would be great pumpkin," her dad said, rubbing her head like she was a kid.
'I'm going to need to do some longer jobs to afford all of this.'
'I don't see why this costs so much. It's just a school.'
"I'm doing really well in math. Since half the class are exemplars I'm not at the top, but I've managed to get into the 90's," she said.
'We need to get back to town by four, if we're going to make the plane. Then I can drive out to the ranch first thing in the morning and do the job. I'm going to be exhausted.'
'I should have driven the truck here. There was a load for Boston I could have taken, and I could pick up some cargo there to drive back.'
Biting her lip, Leslie said, "I think a boy in my class really likes me. Would you like to meet him?"
"Really? That would be wonderful."
'After the hoof trimming, I need to go to the Salamanca ranch.'
'How long will this take?'
Forcing herself to smile, Leslie pointed out some of the things around Whateley, keeping the conversation light and inane while struggling to strengthen her shields. The thoughts kept pounding in.
Morgana was trying her best to hide her excitement as the transport rolled in, but it was hard when she felt so much like bouncing up and down. She'd been looking forward to seeing family again, and it felt like forever since she'd flown out of Heathrow. So she suffered the wait as people filed out of the bus at Drop-Off Site B. When she finally saw the pair she was looking for, her arms waved at them with more enthusiasm than accuracy.
"Hey! Uncle Tim, Ceri! Over here!"
She ignored the handful of kids around her, them and their amused smirks at her bubbling excitement, as she slid her way through the crowd to hug her uncle and sister. "How have you been? Was it a good trip? How is Aunty Ree? And everyone else?"
Her uncle managed not to laugh as she rabbited on. Her sister was not so reserved, hugging her tight with a big grin on her own face. "Everyone is fine," said Ceri. "Ree is sad she couldn't come, but you know..."
Morgana nodded. Her aunt had a clinical phobia of flying, and even though she'd offered to come, everyone knew it wasn't going to happen. They could see each other at Christmas, and it wasn't as if phones weren't a thing, after all.
Her Uncle Tim looked her over carefully. Too carefully: that was the experienced eye of a doctor, not an uncle. Then he came to some sort of internal decision and smiled. "You're looking good, Morgana."
Unspoken was the 'compared to the last time I saw you.' Morgana nodded, "I am a lot better, uncle. This place is helping."
The man nodded thoughtfully and might have said something more, but she was now grabbing the two of them and leading them out of the throng around the transports. "Now, I know Ceri has seen some of the school before, but you haven't. So let's play tourist!"
How was it possible for a chair to be uncomfortable for both a cat and a human, Shisa wondered. The hard plastic chair in the administration area was contoured in such a way that she couldn't get comfortable. Judging from the way the other people, patiently and not so patiently waiting, were shifting in their seats, they were as uncomfortable as she was. She'd slept in dumpsters that were more comfortable than this thing.
"Who let the cat in here?" demanded a woman, clearly not from Whateley.
A flick of the ears, a twitch of the tail, a roll of the eyes: she so did not want to have to deal with this crap today. For preference, she'd rather be in the middle of the woods, sitting on a comfy tree branch, munching on a fat autumn robin.
"I am not a cat," she enunciated as clearly as possible, just like Mr. Katz had taught her. The clip pinched her throat, altering the voice box so she could speak properly. While it was nice to be understood, the gadget was still very much a work in progress.
"Oh god!" exclaimed the woman. "Shawn, there's a... a something over here!"
A freshman she vaguely recognized from English class walked over with two cups in hand. "Mom, what are you doing?" he said. "That's just Shisa. We've got classes together. Sorry, Shisa."
She tilted her head and waved her tail to let the boy... Shawn. To let Shawn know it was fine. "No worries."
Shawn's mother took the cup of water and sipped, but continued to stare out of the corner of her eye. The woman was clearly trying to be not obvious about it, which only made it worse. Shisa's reaction was to curl up in a ball and obviously pay no attention. Her ears would let her know when the new student arrived.
She hated this. Trying to act like she was a normal person. It was easier pretending she was a cat around strangers. Most people ignored a stray cat: they were just a fact of life in a city, not worth a second glance. She could get away with so much when they thought she was a dumb animal. What she was doing now was just a pathetic joke.
Maybe she should just slink away, pretend she had never been here. Mrs. Savage would be upset, and they'd have to waste time finding a new guide, but they shouldn't have made her do this stupid job anyways. It was a job for an older student, one who wouldn't be stared at like a sideshow freak. Why hadn't she left the stupid cottage earlier? Then she wouldn't have to be in this crowded office, being gawked at, trying to get comfortable on a chair that had clearly been designed as a new type of torture.
Her ears twitched; a door had opened up.
"Thank you very much for your help, it was truly delightful meeting you," a man said.
Shisa's head jerked up. That voice was familiar.
She gasped at the sight of the two people who had just left an office. One was a middle age man wearing a battered old tuxedo, a threadbare opera cloak, and a top hat that had seen far better decades. A grin framed his face, as if everything was perfectly fine and he couldn't be happier with the world. Beside him was a nervous looking girl in brand new jeans and a stained leather jacket that was too big for her. But what really stood out was her skin and hair. She was a patchwork of pastels in every colour of the rainbow, as if a toddler had been gone at her with a box of old sidewalk chalk.
"Pastel!" Shisa shouted, jumping across the room to land in her friend's arms.
The girl staggered as a heavy cat descended on her, but managed to keep her balance. "Shisa!" she cried, hugging her. "I've missed you so much!"
"What, no hug for Magic Mike?" the man asked.
Shisa stopped nuzzling Pastel, and turned her head to look at him. "What are you doing here? I thought you disappeared after we were arrested." She had wanted to sound angry, but the hurt and sadness was overwhelming.
He fell against the wall, letting out a dramatic gasp as he held his chest as if he'd been stabbed. "Disappeared! You thought I'd run away when you needed me most? I was so busy sorting everything out for you two, I simply couldn't visit until now."
"It's true," Pastel said. "He got the lawyer for both of us, and called my parents so they came and worked out a really good deal with the DA."
Magic Mike took off his hat and bowed, his grin replaced by a rarely seen serious expression. "I'm very sorry that you thought I'd abandoned you. You left quite a mess back in Seattle and it took a fair bit of work getting you into Whateley as part of the plea deal. I hope this makes up for it," he said.
He held out his empty hand, fingers spread wide, gave it a quick twist and was suddenly holding a toy mouse. He was also grinning again.
She eyed the toy, seriously wondering if this would be reasonable grounds for murder. Then she smelled the catnip coming off it, and burst out laughing. "Seriously?"
"Hey! I wanted to do that," Pastel said, pulling another toy mouse out of her pocket.
"I hate you both," Shisa said. Despite her words, she accepted Mike's outstretched arm, climbing onto his shoulder where she wrapped an arm around his old hat for balance. Once she was settled, she began purring happily.
"I did bring something else for you," Magic Mike said, suddenly holding several envelopes. "Letters from Seattle. And the email for Father Liam is somewhere in there, so you can email them back, they miss you."
She felt tears forming and blinked them away.
"I met some of the old gang before catching the plane to get here," Pastel said. "We're all sorry we couldn't call you, but you would not believe how hard it is to get the contact info for this place. And I was so busy dealing with lawyers, catching up with my family, and doing all sorts of things to prepare for Whateley that, well... sorry."
Shisa flicked her tail. "I don't care. You're here now."
Pastel reached up to scratch her furry neck. "Before we start this tour, I have two big questions."
"First, when did you stop being a nudist? And second, how the hell are you talking so well?"
At the far end of campus, where the service road looped around to find the rear lot behind Hawthorne Cottage, Drop-Off Site C was nearly deserted. If a dozen or so students weren't there waiting, the adverb wouldn't have been necessary. Mrs. Cantrel, dorm mother for Hawthorne, was the anchor for the loose mob of kids who were all waiting for family to arrive. Most of them were Thornies themselves, and not advised to stray far from their dorm without supervision. Tanya and Sera were the exceptions, mainly because the lavender wonder was expecting a different sort of visitor from the norm.
When the transport rolled up, it was with the sound of heavy engines firing their cylinders. The others may have resembled buses, for the most part, but this one was far sturdier and more obviously armor-plated. Tires crunched as it parked behind the cottage dorm, and the passengers when they disembarked proved mostly normal at first glance. A few were obvious mutants, with odd colors or extra bits of GSD to make them stand out, but nothing out of the ordinary for Whateley.
Then the rear section of the transport opened outwards, and the vehicle's suspension bounced as one last passenger caused a sudden redistribution of weight. Her godfather, the mutant known as Nemean, was a big softie at heart. Tanya had known that all her life. The fact that his soft, lovable side was hidden behind half a ton of green, scaly muscle, clawed hands, and multiple rows of sharp teeth was not important.
"Uncle Nem!" she called, levitating off the ground a few feet so her waves were more visible over the crowd. "Over here!"
"That is your godfather?" asked Sera in disbelief. "You said that he was big, but..."
"Tanya!" boomed the scaly green giant. "Come and give us a big hug--oof!" Even Nemean had to grunt when a girl-shaped lavender cruise missile hit him in the chest at significant velocity. The rest of the hug went as planned, though.
"Where's Sylph?" she asked him. Her godmother was supposed to be traveling with him.
"I am over here!" The call was lightly accented and quite amused. "We less bulky passengers took the regular way out."
'Regular' was not a word often used with the superheroine Silver Sylph. Tanya's godmother was almost as muscular as Nemean, even if she hid it better, with her proportions set perfectly for the image of a Nordic goddess almost two and a half meters in height. The Icelandic heroine was dressed presentably for a business day in August and did not seem to care at all that it was mid-November at the moment.
"Það eru margar undur í höfuðkúpu..." That was outside Tanya's current ability with the language, but no translation was needed to understand that her friend was impressed.
She elbow-nudged Sera back to reality. "Come on, I showed you pictures and everything."
"Yes, I saw but I did not... ah, I did not see."
A third visitor was walking alongside Sylph, short only by comparison. This lady had a neat, sort of law enforcement uniform with a crescent moon badge. Her skin was as dark as Sylph's was not. "It's been a nice time chatting, you two," the lady said, "but I've got to catch up with my sister and various students of interest. Oh, you must be Tanya."
"Wonderful to meet you. Nola Rizing, Crescent Muse. I'm Zapper's aunt."
"Really? Oh, I see the resemblance." The eyes were different, a warm brown as opposed to Catherine's cobalt blue, and the hair was untouched by electric yellow highlights, but there was little mistaking the similarities in the lines of her face. "I think she and her friends were going to the second drop-off site? Probably to Poe after that."
"Thanks. Hey, Nemean, I'll let you know when I find Wilder so we can arrange a reunion."
"That would be good, thank you." Her godfather still had on his reading glasses, connected by gilded chains to piercings in his scaly frill-flaps. He made no move to take them off, however. "So, Tanya. Is this your roommate?"
"No, just my friend Sera," she said. "Sterling isn't what you'd call a social butterfly."
"Who?" As usual, Tanya ignored her other friend's complete ignorance of her roommate's existence. Some things could not be helped.
"So, um, yeah. Sera? This is my godfather Nemean and godmother Sylph. She's the reason I know any Icelandic. Uncle Nem, Aunt Sylph? This is Sera Eir Magnusdottir. She's the reason I need to study Icelandic more."
"Góðan daginn," said Sylph.
"Og góðan daginn, frú," said Sera. "Is this, ah, your first visit to Whateley?"
Ornaments and charms along Nemean's frill jingled as he shook his head. "We have had business here before," he said. "As guest speakers on various topics, mostly."
"The simulation developers once asked to take his biometric data," Sylph added. "To use as the build base for large enemies in the sims."
The large scaly one harrumphed. "Apparently there are not many of my size and proportions willing to stand still for the scanners. But this is still my first visit to the campus in a non-professional capacity. Where shall we go?"
Tanya had put some thought into that, and her conclusions were not the sunniest on this partly cloudy day. "We'll be taking the tunnels mostly," she said, motioning to the Hawthorne second underpassage entrance, out in the little garden behind the cottage. "First, it's warmer down there, and second..."
"We do not risk scaring too many parents who are still new to this strange new world of ours." Her godfather nodded. "A sage choice, if a sad one. And it is chilly, yes."
----The Tour Begins
It wasn't a half-bad day, Daniel figgered. The sun was shining, the wind wasn't blowing too hard, and it wasn't all that cold for a boy who'd spent his life up to now living near the ski slopes. Whateley itself was pretty as a picture, even if most kids didn't share his opinion of the temperature. As they walked away from the school bus-thing, he could see the statue of Old Man Whateley in front, done up in a heavy snowsuit.
He chuckled a lot more these days, too. It was a crazy-interesting life right now. He just wished his ma and pa could see it. And just like that, he was feeling down. With a sigh he magicked up a donut, simple glazed, and nibbled on it.
"Might I have one, too?" asked Mr. Carlyle. "It was a long trip and all."
Cookie woofed a request for thirds and fourths. Daniel happily provided an apple-cranberry fried pie for the man and pair of beef pasties for the pup. "Um, everything going all right, sir?" he asked as he handed the baked goods over. "Not feeling, ah..."
Mr. Carlyle had a sad smile on as he bit into his pie. "They would not have let me travel this far on my own if they feared a relapse. No, thankfully, the old Doc Talltale is no more."
Cookie nuzzled his cheek.
"Thank you, pup," said the man. "Now, Debbie gave me a list of things she would like to know about your life here."
"Will she... pass anything on to Ma?" Ever since his mutant status had become public knowledge, Daniel was officially banished and shunned by the old community at home, but he'd been gone for a while even before that. Used to be he could call home from time to time, but now he only heard little bits from Miz Debbie, his ma's old friend and his own current legal guardian.
"You know she will," said Mr. Carlyle. "And only the good things, I promise."
"Guess... yeah, good. Let 'em know..." Daniel stopped because he heard his name being called. Cookie had both left ears cocked as well, then two big grins and a wagging tail. Whirlibird was running over -- more like floating, because her legs weren't quite touching the ground. One hand was waving at him, and the other was keeping her grounded by holding on to a lady in a bright red sweater and owlish glasses. The lady had short dark hair while Whirly had pale downy fluff, but otherwise the resemblance was there.
"Hey, Daniel! I'd like you to meet my Aunt Valerie!"
"Nice to meetcha, ma'am."
"Oh, I'm not old enough for a ma'am," the lady pretended to protest. "And you're the famous gentleman."
He could feel the blush. "Guess I might be. How d'you do?"
"I was about to show her the flight field," said Whirlibird. "The club's doing a show for us beginners, so she can see how much I've improved. But I saw you there first and just had to say hi. So... hi!" There wasn't much to the birdy little lady, but what there was went all into the hug Daniel got right then. Whirlibird finished with a peck on his cheek before leading her aunt away.
"And here I thought," said Mr. Carlyle, "that the blonde in the parking lot was your girlfriend."
"Erica? Nah, we went on a couple dates and she realized she wasn't ready for nothin' like that. And Whirly, well... we enjoyed hanging out, but ain't got a lot in common to talk 'bout." Daniel let his shrug say the rest.
Mr. Carlyle's chuckle said even more. "At least I can tell Debbie that your social skills are coming along nicely. Now, pup, how about some catch-ball? Or perhaps frisbee?"
The campus seemed more crowded than usual that day, what with all the family groups wandering around as their offspring showed them some of the more weird and wonderful features of Whateley. For her own part, Morgana was enjoying the chance to show them off, as well as the sight of their faces as they saw some of the kids, not to mention some of the parents. She'd kept her own dragonform on -- Parents Day was a time to show off, after all -- and she remained nonchalant at the occasional look of surprise a parent cast her way. Her GSD was fairly minimal compared to some of the people ambling around.
She saw a few of her friends in their own family groups -- Erica with a group of old folks and a teen going one way, that nutter Ratel and her boyfriend leading some confused parents in another -- but she'd just waved hi from a distance. They deserved their own time with their families. There would be time for juicy details later.
Of course, it didn't take too long before the obvious question got asked: "So, Morgana, how are your studies coming along?"
She tried her best, most innocent look on Uncle Tim, which produced as its only result a very audible snicker from her big sister. "Actually pretty good," she admitted. "I've had a few problems with the magic, but that was because of the... uh... issue I had. Ms Grimes said now things are improving and settling down."
Her uncle rubbed his chin. "Yes I'd like to speak with her about that. How about your other subjects?"
That was more worthy of a shrug. "Power Theory is fine. Mr Bergamot's pretty interesting, actually. Maths is going well, and BMA is fun!"
"I'm glad you're learning to defend yourself. It's an important thing to know."
She winced, just a little. Given what had happened to her since that time she was kidnapped, Morganna could not agree more with her uncle.
Then her sister just had to butt in: "And your French lessons?"
"Comme ci, comme ça." She made a face. "The grammar stuff is fine, but my teacher keeps complaining that I speak French with a Welsh accent!"
Both her relatives laughed at that, but especially her sister. "Yeah, tell me about it," said Ceri.
"It's not my fault! At least I don't speak it like an American..."
Their perambulations had finally brought them to the Magic Department. At first glance, most of it looked like a normal, almost generic school building. All the interesting bits were on a lower level. Suppressing an internal pang of worry, Morganna led them to Ms Grimes' office. The door was open, but still she knocked politely to let her teacher know she had visitors.
"Ah, DragonsFyre," said the school's senior witch. "And this must be your uncle?" The teacher rose from her desk and glided over to shake the man's hand. Morgana watched with a certain degree of suspicion; this looked far too much like Grimes was expecting their visit.
"Thank you for your time, Ms Grimes," said her uncle. "I'd hoped to discuss how Morgana is doing in her magic training?"
The witchy lady nodded, then cast her eyes towards the teen thoughtfully. "DragonsFyre, why don't you show your sister the rest of the building whilst the two of us have a chat?"
That earned her Uncle Tim a deeply suspicious look from both nieces, which he blithely ignored. Morgana sighed at the obvious dismissal. "Come on, Ceri. I'll show you my workroom and stuff."
Ah, the suspicious nature of youth. Annoying as it could be for herself, personally, to deal with unnaturally perspicacious students, still it was a relief for her to see. If decades as a teacher had taught her anything in turn, it was that suspicious students were often correct. DragonsFyre obviously concluded that her uncle had arranged this meeting long before his arrival for Parents Day, and the girl was correct. Ms. Grimes made a mental note to award the girl later. Perhaps with a cookie.
"So, Ms. Grimes," the man began. Dr. Tim Jones was a large man, in presence even more than physique, but he also knew how to hold it back, staying in his chair as a guest whilst she took her place behind the desk once more. "How is Morgana actually doing? She's talked to me, but after all that's gone on these last few months, I'd like to get the real story."
"Of course, Dr. Jones." Tea was poured in small cups to share as she began. "First, let me reassure you: Now that the business with the parasite has been resolved, her magic is settling nicely. It's not quite where we would like it to be, not yet, but she's diligent in her exercises, and by Christmas I expect there to be no further issues. In spite of the problems it has caused her, Morgana is coming along nicely with her practical use."
"And her fire?" The question came with the sound of a man who'd become well experienced with an extinguisher.
"While that is not exactly a magical issue, the earlier problems were all due to the parasite. Without it, her control has improved steadily. I do not believe we shall have more uncontrolled fire issues. A boon for her student uniform insurance policy, but I assume you were more worried about the Christmas holiday?"
He nodded. "I wanted to know what precautions to take, if any. Thank you for relieving me of that particular worry. Now, how is her theory work progressing?"
The smile on her face would likely have made her students worry. It was not a usual expression for her to show in class. "Very well indeed, actually. She is a hard worker, intelligent, and I have few complaints."
Welsh eyebrows furrowed. "Few, but not none?"
"She is a student at this school, so there's never a lack of worries, should one go looking. But for now, my only issue has been the additional work that she's done, the interactions she's had with Thulia. Quite outside the normal first-year curriculum! However, I must say it was all done very well. Morgana seems to have a talent for precision work, which I hope to see her develop as her skills progress."
The man relaxed a bit. "Ah, yes. I've heard quite a bit about Thulia, myself. It did worry me somewhat, although Ceri has reassured me a little on the matter. Interactions with interplanar entities are nothing to take lightly."
Ms. Grimes agreed completely, even as she wished that a year would go by without at least one student or group of students making the attempt. She wasn't sure which was worse, when they succeeded or when they failed disastrously. At least the fiery Thulia was reasonable to work with. "I understand your concerns, but rest assured that we are keeping a close eye upon the situation. We do have some experience in these matters."
"That's good. My experience has been minimal, to say the least. Healers do not usually do much in the way of summoning. However, on an associated topic: When will you be teaching them combat magic?"
"We don't actually call it that," said Ms. Grimes. "We have enough to worry us without accidentally encouraging our more enthusiastic and careless students to get into wizardry duels like in some movie. That said, some aspects of combat applications will appear in the curriculum later in the term, and the BMA class also teaches them how to incorporate spells in with their more mundane combat capabilities." She looked at him again. "I'm surprised, actually. Most healers of my acquaintance would not approve that much of combat spells."
The answering grin was heavy and sharp. "Well, true. I am a doctor, but you see, I was an Army doctor!"
The pair of them shared a chuckle before his interrogation of Morgana's studies continued.
This was not the happy family reunion she might have envisioned. But then, neither had it been the happy first semester she'd hoped for, either. Words had been said; things had been done. She herself had said and done some of them, and while she might never forgive herself fully, still she did not regret them.
Her brother Fra, on the other hand, looked to be regretting everything that had led to him now sitting in a chair at a table in one of the library's private study rooms across from their father, Gianluca Persico. There had been some argument back in Genua, she'd heard, over which parent would make the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to address the events of early October, and the grand Roman tradition of pater familias could be seen in the way which the debate had ended. Their father was not here to see the sights, and his face displayed that frankly.
"You know what we are here to discuss," Gianluca began, in the familiar Ligurian dialect that was so like modern Italian except when it frequently was not. The growly undertones to her father's voice would have made it even more difficult for casual students of the national language to understand.
"Yes, father," Fra replied in the same dialect. "It was a stupid thing I did, reckless, thoughtless, dangerous."
"And you know why it happened?"
Fra's head nodded downward as he stared a hole through the tabletop. "I, I was given a stronger drink than I thought, in the hopes that I would say something..."
"You were lazy," their father snapped. "Complacent. Too proud of your exemplar constitution to know your own limits and too self-centered to see your so-called friends for who they really were. They used you, Francesco, built up your pride so they could tear it back down, and take your sister as well, if they could. Where is your pride now?"
Wherever the answer lay, Fra was slowly sinking down into it. Her brother still had room to grow into his exemplar trait, but he was by no means small. He shrank into his chair nonetheless. "Father, I cannot apologize enough. Not to you, and certainly not to Fio. We, we..."
"We have had our discussions," she confirmed. "Our arguments, both public and private. Things are now settled."
"And these boys who hurt you, Fiorella? What of them?" asked Claudio. Her older brother knew most of the details, but she quietly thanked him and cursed him for turning the conversation this direction.
"Of the ones we can say for certain were involved..." Her grimace needed no translation. "One has been expelled. He was not the leader, but he was given the blame, and so he is gone. Another was seriously injured in a team combat challenge." Injured just as he was about to seriously harm her. She would have thanked Tanya for the rescue, only she could feel how much that event still pained her lavender friend. "A third, a major ringleader, suffered an incident one evening which left him in the infirmary and unconscious for a week. He has kept a low profile since."
"Those Amazons," Fra growled. "Crazy bitches, but sometimes they do right."
Calliope kept her face still and unmoved. Let her brothers and father continue to think that such was the truth behind the fate of Jack-in-the-Box. "And then there is your nemesis," she pointed out.
Her brother's face was incapable of remaining still and unmoved. "Macarthur." He spat out the name. "If I ever lay my hands on him..."
"He will trounce you, again," she said.
Fra continued to sink into the surface of the study room table. "Why do you have to remind me..."
"Will that one be a problem in the future?" asked their father.
"Likely yes," her twin admitted. "For us and for others. It is because of him that I joined my classmates in that wrestling club. We practice, we improve, we coordinate. If Macarthur comes around again, we stand together."
Gianluca's face softened, and he nodded in understanding. "Yes, you are learning. I think we are done, here. And good; my face was beginning to hurt from all those moody, angry expressions. This wrestling club of yours sounds interesting. I would not mind seeing more."
"We are having an exhibition before lunch," said Fra. "Shawn and Arsi should be setting up for it now. We could see the dorms first."
"You three go on ahead," said Calliope. She did not wish to explain how anxious the thought of walking into Emerson Cottage made her, and no one asked her to. A sad nod of acknowledgment from her father was signal enough that he understood. "I shall find Erica and we can all meet up to see Fra get his ass kicked in the wrestling ring," she concluded.
Her twin's squawks of protest were just what she needed to lighten her mood.
It was hard to be nervous when your nerves were electric. That was what Catherine Brooks liked to tell people, at least. It was all fronting, of course, an image to project in the good times so she could hide behind it in the bad. What with some of the creeps and control-fiends on campus, she'd realized early on that if she didn't at least give the appearance of knowing where she was going, then someone else would try to get her on their own path. And the destination was probably not going to be anywhere she liked.
It wasn't even the wannabe villain-track kids you had to look out for, much of the time. Catherine hid a frown as she led her mom, Avsel, and Michelle the long way around a gang of Amazons. The older girls of Poe had staked out a position on one of the little roundabouts in the campus paths, and had that look on their faces like they were hoping for trouble. On Parents Day of all days. Really. She just did not get those girls, and she wasn't about to let them get her.
Thankfully, her mother was too astounded by the daily sights of Whateley to notice the sitch on the ground. "And this is a normal day on campus?" Constance Brooks asked as a familiar two-headed pup romped past with a frisbee the size of a monster truck hubcap in one mouth.
"Cool..." was all Michelle had said in the past five minutes. Just the one word, over and over.
"Um, it's extra-special today," Catherine told them. "Today we've got an audience." She let her own personal light show crackle around her face to emphasize the point. "So half the school's hiding out and the other half's showing off."
A series of student-shaped figures zoomed overhead in loose formation, dipping and swerving as they raced to the practice airfield. "Case in point," said Catherine. "They've been working on that routine for weeks."
"Ah, yes, of course." Mama Brooks shook herself partway out of her daze. "I'm looking forward to seeing your dorm. Do the two of you live on the same floor?" she asked Avsel.
The Kurdish girl tugged at her headscarf. "No, actually. We are the teammates, Zapper and I, but I am living in the another dorm. Whitman Cottage. It is my first time to see in Poe, and I have the curiosity as well. I hear the stories."
Catherine really wished that that word hadn't popped up when it did. "Each cottage has its reputation," she admitted. "Some more deserving than others. Poe used to be for, um, certain problematic cases -- like the kind that requires regular counseling and therapy, if you catch my drift -- and there were a few kids here, back in the day, that people still talk about, cuz they were just plain nuts."
"And now?" asked her mother.
"Now we're all honey-roasted nuts," she said with mock pride. She smiled as her mother chuckled and Michelle giggled. Even Avsel joined in, once the girl had parsed the joke properly.
"Hey now, what's so funny?" Waiting patiently by the front portico of Poe Cottage was her Aunt Renée, looking spiffy in her official uniform with the crescent moons. "Hey, sis. Good flight?"
"Fine enough," said her mother. "Harmony and I had a lot to gossip over."
"I'm sure you did." For all the gap in their ages, her mom and her aunt could've been mistaken for twins. Even the eye-roll was the same.
Catherine bounced over to give her favoritest auntie ever a big hug. "How'd you find us so fast?" she asked.
"Tracker in your mom's purse."
"Hey, you can try complaining after you get taken hostage by a random villain and I have to come save your butt, sis," said the heroine also known as the Crescent Muse. "Again."
"One time, one time..."
Aunt Renée smirked and turned to offer a hand to Avsel for the hesitant girl to shake. "And this must be teammate number one. No one here with you today?"
"My, ah..." Avsel's eyes dimmed from their usual burnished bronze color. "I am afraid I do not know where is my family."
The heroine pivoted from a handshake to a full-body hug in a heartbeat. "Sorry I said anything."
"It, it is the okay." The Kurdish girl wasn't about to escape the hug anytime soon, especially not after Michelle joined in from the other side.
"Touchy subject on campus," Catherine whispered to her mother in an aside. "Who is and is not expecting visitors, y'know?
Avsel accepted a few more hugs from the Brooks family before they could cross the threshold into Poe proper. The foyer and the public lounge looked downright normal that day. She could thank God for small favors later. First she had to get everyone past the front desk.
Currently, the dorm's entrance was being monitored by Pat Barnes, and the young man had dressed for the occasion in a well-fitting suit and green cravat. She wondered where he'd found the time, since he certainly hadn't been wearing it at breakfast. "Filling in for someone?" she asked.
"Yeah, Mrs. Horton needed half an hour free for something, and it's not like I've got anyone to show around." Pat paused, head tilted, then added: "My family all live on campus, you know."
"Yeah." He was an empath or something, she knew, though she couldn't explain it much better than that. Most likely he'd felt a reaction to his first answer, from Mama Brooks if no one else, and felt the need to elaborate. "So, um, you know Avsel, and this is Wilder's sister Michelle. And my mom and my Aunt Renée, of course, here to see my nice, clean, proper, not-at-all-a-mess-yesterday-nossiree room."
"Congratulations," said the young man. "That was almost believable." He timed his ironic wink perfectly to her family's laughter. "I just need to sign you in for the sake of form and... Would you happen to be the Crescent Muse?" he asked Aunt Renée. "The outfit looks like the poster on your niece's wall."
Catherine really could've slapped him right then.
"Yes, actually," said her aunt. "Nola Rizing's my nom-de-cape, of course."
"Pat's a cape-watcher," she warned.
The boy already had his autograph book out, open and on the front desk beside the guest ledger. "I know, it's not exactly polite, but I don't often get the opportunity. Not after I finished asking all the faculty."
With a flourish, Aunt Renée signed both books, with her real name for the ledger and her professional name plus code name for Pat's. "It looks like you got a few more today," the heroine commented.
"Yeah, I ran into Ladybird and her dad on the way over from breakfast, and Bailey's mom insisted, even though she strikes me as more the mercenary type."
"Bailey's up there already?" Catherine tried not to sparkle too much as she asked.
"Hasn't come down yet."
"Another friend?" asked her mother.
"Um, yeah. Neighbor from the opposite hall. Let's get moving, yeah?"
Pat had that face on him, the one that usually meant he was feeling whatever it was he felt about the world. He glanced at Catherine, then upstairs, then at her mom. But most of his consideration seemed to be for Michelle. "So, Wilder's sister, right? I'm guessing they've got your mother--"
"Grandmother," Catherine whispered in quickly.
"--grandmother tied up with something important. Enjoying the tour so far?"
The ten-year-old was nothing but big eyes and smiles. "This place is awesome!"
Pat chuckled. "Yeah, I think so, too. But I can tell you, if you've seen one dorm room you've seen them all, but that won't stop the grown-ups from staying up there for the length of a geological epoch examining every little detail."
Her Aunt Renée chuckled while her mother simply sighed to concede the point.
"So let's see if we can't do something about that... Just a moment." Pat dashed off to the side, through the door that led to the first floor apartments. A moment later he returned with a younger girl, one of the junior high kids with a sour expression and a scorched hairdo. "This is Bev. She stays next door to Wilder. Bev, this is Wilder's little sister."
"Um, hi?" said Michelle.
"I know you're not feeling particularly social today," Pat was saying to Bev, "but you're never going to have a better chance to gossip and chat about stuff."
The junior high girl huffed. "Darcy's back there, too."
"All the better. Look, I'll even jimmy Marcus's door so you can borrow the old Nintendo Wii for some game time. Sound good?"
Apparently it did, because Bev shrugged and waved Michelle over. There wasn't that much of a difference in their heights, despite their ages, but everyone stayed silent as they humored Bev's obvious examination. "Fine. Come on, I can tell you all the crap I have to put up with, having Danny next door."
Michelle giggled. "I've got a huge head start on you, there." The two of them disappeared through the door.
"So, yeah!" said Catherine. "Shall we get going, see the room, all that?" She couldn't miss the nudge of an eyebrow on Pat's face, though she hoped her mother didn't see it. Removing Michelle from the scene meant there was one fewer witness to any embarrassent, which may or may not have reassured her in normal times.
Nerves were electric, nerves were electric...
Her room was still neat, organized, and in one piece. There was no reason to expect otherwise, but the presence of a visiting parent was making Catherine jumpier than her roommate, and Thumper could do pole vaults from a standing start. The room was empty when she showed her guests through, no roommate to be seen in person. She wasn't even sure if Thumper was expecting anybody that day, but the other girl's effort to help make the room presentable was appreciated. "I guess Gayle's busy," she told her guests. Idly, her hands found one of Thumper's many little picture frames of friends and family, one that had fallen over by accident, and straightened it back up. The dark-haired, dark-eyed girl smiled happily in the photo next to a boy in a baseball uniform. "Too bad, I was hoping I could introduce you to her. She's the type who loves to meet people."
"I'm sure we'll run into her eventually." Mama Brooks was examining the room with no pretense of subtlety. "Oh, look, Renée. There's your poster."
The life-size half-bust portrait of the Crescent Muse, New Orleans' greatest hero this decade, was Catherine's pride and joy. And embarrassment, at the moment. She could live with that. "Gayle's got her family pictures and I got mine," she said, mustering up a bit more pride.
"It is a nice room," Avsel declared. "Like mine, but more of the decorations."
"We'll find you some nice stuff," Catherine promised. Her friend and teammate had arrived over the summer with a stuffed suitcase and not much else -- and even that was borrowed, she'd heard. The only extra color she could recall was a rainbow-hued pony doll on the windowsill.
Once her mother was finally satisfied with the state of the accommodations, Catherine gave a shorter tour of the facilities, mostly the showers. Whoever had designed the girl's washroom must've been a mad genius and likely a graduate of the school, and she was not about to describe the full experience to her own mother. That was on the long list of topics to avoid.
As for the short list of topics that regrettably had to be discussed, they ran into item #1 on the way out: Skinny, cute, with brown hair and grey eyes.
"Bailey!" From the squeals, you'd never have guessed that the two of them didn't see each other every day. It was just their thing, as was the quick high-five and fraction of a hug. "I heard your mom's here?"
"That would be me." The woman appeared from the backdrop with a mental -pop- that made Catherine suspect a mind effect. There was no missing the family resemblance to Miss Bailey George. The hair was slightly darker, the eyes the same shade. A little bit taller and a lot more exemplar. Her girlfriend had a ways to go, and Catherine had a lot to look forward to.
Heh, it wasn't like she, her mom, and her aunt weren't practically cloned from the same batch, either. She would have to ask Bailey later what she thought of the Brooks family vision of the future.
"Megan George," said Bailey's mom. The woman was eyeing Aunt Renée's uniform, but said nothing. "My dear little Bailey here was just telling me all about the friends she was making in the dorm, and it's so nice to put faces to names. Catherine, right?"
How'd she guess? was her first thought. The second thought was that she was still holding hands with Bailey, who was famous on campus for being obsessively touch-averse. Of course her girlfriend's mother would realize what that meant.
Time to tick one topic off the short list: "Um, Mom, this is Bailey, my... er... well, we're... dating? For the past month and a half?"
Her nerves were electric, her nerves were electric... and AC stood for Anxiety/Calamity.
"Oh really..." Mama Brooks had her arms crossed, which could be good or bad or something else entirely that her brain couldn't process because at the moment it was too busy repeating its mantra to deal with anything else. "...I can't say I'm surprised. Nice to meet you, Bailey."
"Huh?" The current of her thoughts had expected more resistance.
"Catherine, darling, most girls your age have boy band posters all over their walls. You have pin-ups of every heroine on the gulf coast." A smile quirked one side of her mother's lips. "And obvious chapstick kiss marks on all of them."
"Mom!" Oh, she was about to die... A blush crackled across her cheeks.
"Including the poster of your Aunt Renée in uniform."
"Mom!!" Her face was an embarrassed constellation of bright yellow sparks.
"To be fair," said her aunt, "she didn't know back then. And the poster in her room now doesn't have a single smudge on it. I checked."
Oh, God. Life with her family would be the death of her yet.
Pastel stared wide eyed at the sky where students were flying around, showing off to the landbound crowd. "Is it always like this?"
"No," Shisa said from her perch on Magic Mike's shoulder. "Showing off like this usually gets you laughed at. Today is special." Two years of barely being able to talk had left her with few words, even with the clip making speech easy.
"Are you in any groups?" Magic Mike asked.
She sighed. He was going to recommend she join a group, and he would be right. The man always was, but she really didn't want to. "No. Too much talking. Too boring."
"What about your school job? How is that?"
She rolled her shoulders, the closest she could come to a shrug. "I help maintenance. Get into tight places, fix things, make sure things work, kill pests. I get paid. What will you do, Pastel?" she asked, trying to get the conversation off of her.
Pastel reached up to scratch her neck. "Working in Doyle. They think my power will be useful there. I figure it will be pretty boring. I mean, how much trouble can a school have?"
Shisa burst out laughing.
"What?" Pastel demanded. "It'll be mostly kids complaining about runny noses, stomachaches, and looking for birth control. Won't it?"
Getting her laughter under control, Shisa shook her head. "Whateley is like the street. Full of idiots, bullies and victims. And they all have superpowers."
"Oh joy. Maybe prison would have been better."
"It can't be all that bad," Magic Mike said. "You're still here, so something must be interesting."
"The food is good, and the beds are nice," she said. "Climate control is wonderful."
"See. You think about it and there are three good things right off the bat," he said. "And I'm sure the company is better than what you'd find in jail."
The colorful girl gave them a mock frown. "You both suck at this uplifting thing. So we've been to Doyle, saw the cool stuff in the basement, and watched some of the groups. What's next?"
Before Shisa could answer, a phone rang. Pastel felt her pocket. "Not mine."
Shisa held her hands up, as she didn't have a phone. Jumping down to look around, she tried to pinpoint the source of the noise.
Magic Mike felt at his waist, his coat, his sleeves, finding nothing. The phone kept ringing. Then he took off his top hat, flipping it upside down to look inside. Reaching in, his arm went down, and down, and down, until the hat was up to his shoulder. "Ah, it's mine," he said, pulling his arm out.
"I didn't know you had a phone," Pastel said.
"Neither did I," he replied. He hit some buttons to make the ringing stop and then perused the screen. "Shisa, it's time to show us your classrooms. What's the closest one?"
She looked around to get her bearings. "Psychic Arts. Why?
"Because it will be interesting."
"I didn't know you were psychic," her friend said.
She snorted. "They say I'm a broken PDP. Want me to learn to use my mind powers. Boring, gives me a headache."
"Of course you're broken. They just need to smell you after you've had a few tacos and it's obvious."
That earned a hiss.
Walking towards Kirby Hall, they saw a young girl with her parents walking towards them on the path. "Who's that?" asked Magic Mike.
"Day Dreamer. We have a psychic arts class together. Why?" she asked, curious about what was going to happen next.
"Does she have any problems?"
Shisa thought quickly. She didn't know the girl very well, but they'd done a bit of work together, working on their shielding. "She can't stop reading minds."
He grinned. "We should go and say hello."
Shisa and Pastel shared a look as he strode towards the family with a jump in his step.
"Does he ever stop?" Pastel asked.
"No. He doesn't. Come on," she said. Running to catch up, she jumped onto his shoulder. If he was going to be weird she might as well save her feet.
Leslie tried to think about where she should take her parents now that they'd finished exploring the psychic arts department in Kirby. She desperately wanted to avoid anywhere too crowded so she wouldn't be overwhelmed, but most places of interest on the campus were crawling with people.
"That was interesting," her mom said. "Your teachers seem very happy with your progress."
'Is she reading my mind right now?'
Her dad was watching her as they walked, looking thoughtful and rather proud.
'She'd make a killing at poker. I should teach her how to play. Once she's eighteen I can take her to Vegas.'
"Where to next?" he asked.
"I was-" she stopped in surprise as a man in a battered tux, top hat and cape came up to them. For some weird reason that probably made sense in a different context, Shisa was sitting on his shoulder, and a multi-colored girl she'd never seen before was sticking close by.
The man took off his hat and gave a deep bow. "Hello there, Day Dreamer. Shisa here has told me all about you, and I just had to meet you."
Leslie gave him a confused smile, why would Shisa talk about her? They had worked together a few times in their psychic arts class, but they weren't friends, barely even acquaintances. Even stranger, she couldn't read the man's thoughts. It didn't feel like he had a barrier up; his thoughts were just blank. Where most folks presented themselves like a social media wall, there was only a feeling of happiness and goodwill. "Hi," she finally said.
Shisa had her barrier up, but amused confusion was leaking around the edges of her shield. The new girl was letting her thoughts and feelings of amusement flow freely. 'Doesn't he ever take a break?'
"I'm Magic Mike, it's a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he said. Looking at her parents, he grinned. "Am I correct in presuming that you're the parents of this talented young lady?"
"Yes, I'm Darryl Walker, and this is my wife Monica," her Dad said, reaching out to shake his hand.
Her mom smiled, and turned to the multi-coloured girl. "You're Shisa? That's a very unique name."
"Actually I'm Pastel. I just arrived today with Mike. That's Shisa," the girl said with a grin, pointing at the cat-like girl.
"Pleased to meet you," Shisa said, sounding very amused.
'Oh dear god!' "Oh. I'm so sorry about that," her mom said, turning red and looking very confused.
Her dad just looked confused. 'Is she even human?'
Magic Mike turned to her. "I understand you have a little problem with your powers. And it just so happens I may have something that could help." Reaching into his small breast pocket, he took out a red handkerchief with white polka-dots that he handed to Pastel. Then from the same pocket he somehow pulled out a wooden box that couldn't possibly have fit in there. It was a beautiful glossy brown, about an inch thick, two inches across, and a foot long.
He gave her the box, ignoring the astounded looks of her parents. "Now," he said, "I find that when I meditate it helps to have a bit of incense in the air to help clear the mind. This is a special blend that is particularly good. If it helps, when you're about to run out, just tell Shisa and she can tell you how to get some more."
Shisa's shield faltered for a moment. 'I can?'
"Thank you," Leslie said. "I'll try it tonight."
"You're very welcome. Just remember this will only help, you need to keep practicing if you want to get better. But you seem like a smart girl, I'm certain things will improve for you soon," Magic Mike said. "Anyways it's been an absolute pleasure to meet you all. And now if you'll forgive us, we must continue our tour, have a most wonderful day."
And with that the strange man walked away. Shisa waved at them from her perch on his shoulder.
"Same old Mike," Pastel muttered, shaking her head. "Guess I'll see you around school, Day." Waving good-bye, she trotted off to catch up with her companions.
"Bye," Leslie said, still trying to work out exactly what had just happened. Looking at the box, it had a small hinge that was almost invisible at one end. Flipping it open, there were dozens of incense sticks. Sniffing them, she couldn't place the smell, but it had a very pleasant mellow scent, with a hint of cinnamon.
"That was a very... odd man," her dad said. 'What just happened?'
Her mom nodded. "Very nice though." 'Those poor girls. Thank god, Leslie only has those odd grey eyes.'
"How about we go look at my dorm?" Leslie said. That would probably be safe enough, since the flyers were showing off in a back field and the various clubs were out in the more public areas.
There was a time, once upon a life, where Rachel would've been nervous about waiting for her mom to emerge from a school office. The spirit of Honey Boo-Boo, resident bad-ass badger of the Rosevear Memorial Zoo, had helped her get over that sort of thing soon enough. Honey badgers didn't give a shit, so why would she? Especially when there were more interesting things to focus on.
"Now, this one's from Dani's sixth birthday..." Ms. Harmony had her smartphone out and was taking them on an adorable tour down memory lane. "She decided to start the party early by cutting a piece of the cake for herself."
"Granma..." Even Dani's voice was blushing.
"Oh hush, dear. I was afraid I'd never get to show anyone how cute you were ever again."
"Still cute," Rachel asserted. She mussed up Dani's bangs. Her fight-buddy's blush deepened, but no complaints came.
"Will your mother be much longer?"
That was a good question. The three of them were sitting on the waiting room sofa across the corridor from Dr. Shu's office, and the door had been shut for quite a while. It made her proud to be so topical, that Mother was spending the first half of Parents Day in counseling. Rachel was making the most of this academic experience, that was for sure. She would have to introduce Mother to Officer Canterbury, her actual faculty advisor, later.
By the time the door opened, Mother's face was most inscrutable, which Rachel took as a good sign. "Did you have a nice chat?" she asked.
"It was memorable," said Mother. "You've certainly left an impression on the faculty here."
A deep chuckle showed that the school psychologist had followed Mother out. "A wonderfully appropriate word, impression," said he. "Much like a baseball bat leaves in a car door. I do hope, Mrs. Altus, that some of your concerns have been alleviated?"
"Mostly they've been supplanted by new ones, but I would expect nothing less."
"Thanks, Mother!" Rachel beamed.
"Now, Ms. Fontenot..." Dr. Shu continued.
"You got papers for me to sign, right?" Ms. Harmony was all business right then. "About Dani's treatment options? Bring 'em out and I'll sign 'em."
"Ah, wouldn't you like some explanations?"
The not-so-old grandmother snorted. "Got plenty 'a those in your emails and Dani's emails, and I went and did my own research. Took me a stupid long time to find a site that actually had somethin' constructive to say, but I did. Bottom line, will it do Dani good?"
"Er, it might... now, ma'am," said the doctor. "The hallway's not the place--"
"Don't ma'am me," said Ms. Harmony. "You ain't any older than I am. And it's not like Dani's trying to hide what h... what she's aiming for."
Her fight-buddy put up a good face, but Rachel knew when to hold a hand in quiet support. Not giving a shit didn't equate to not giving a damn, especially not about your friends. And Ms. Harmony was right: Dani was about as out as you could get on campus without using the public broadcast system. The papers that the grandmother and legal guardian was now signing just made it official and gave permission to start hormone therapies. Pretty soon everyone would have to recognize that Danny was actually spelled Dani, short for Danielle.
And if anyone tried to give her shit, well, Rachel was teaching her fight-buddy how not to take any, either.
Parents Day was an oddity in the Whateley routine. Most days, the activity on campus was regulated by a series of color-coded flags or their digital equivalents: Green for normal weirdness within the boundaries of the Whateley student code, Yellow to call for caution and awareness of visitors, and Red for "Don't do it. Seriously. People are watching you, and so are we." It wasn't quite phrased in those terms, but there was a definite feeling of masquerade to it when outsiders were on campus and everyone had to either make a pretense of normalcy or just not leave the tunnels.
But on Parents Day, the usual rules were tossed out. Parents and family members were visiting, quote-unquote normal people who were in on the act and weren't too shocked by what they got to see. And the Whateley clubs were happy to show off.
The beginners flight class was in the air over the back practice field, going through the routines and showing how much they'd learned in the past two months. The course was a requirement to anyone who'd gained, developed, or invented for themselves any sort of flight capacity, if they wanted a license to use it away from the campus. And it was generally a given that if you could fly, you wanted to fly.
Tanya finished her practice routine with a loop-de-loop and settled into a holding position next to her friend and classmate, Whirlibird. The fragile-looking girl with the homemade flight suit had improved a lot since the start of the semester, remaining aloft under her own power even if she wasn't up to much in the way of aerobatics just yet.
"That was very nice," the birdsome girl said. "I wish I could..."
"Give it time," said Tanya. "I mean, remember the first few weeks? You had trouble getting off the ground!" The ground that was now eight meters below them, where spectators ooh'ed and aah'ed. "No joke, but you've got nowhere to go but up."
The girl's smile was shy, but the twirl she did in the air was proud right up to the moment she overbalanced, flapped around, and dropped half a meter in altitude. With much flailing and kicking, none of which helped with PK-assisted flight, Whirlibird righted herself and returned to position.
"Everything okay over here?" The other girl in the course with 'bird' in the code name was not birdsome at all. The sophomore Ladybird was actually in her first year at Whateley, which was why she was in the beginners class with the rest of them. Bright red hair with black polka dots made it easy to guess what species her avatar spirit had been in life. Even now, Ladybird's flight path was slow and bumbly like a beetle on the wing.
"Fine," said Whirlibird. "Just, um, nerves. You know?"
"Yeah, I do." Ladybird settled into a position next to them. "Always hated talent shows in elementary school. At least here, doing the trick at all is a success. I give it another year before my doof of a dad starts bugging me for more complicated, heroic-looking stuff."
"The dork in the fire and ice motif, down in the stands."
Oh, that guy. Ladybird didn't talk about her father that often, so beyond the fact that he did cape work, Tanya didn't know much about him. Not even enough to google the guy if she'd been so inclined. Sitting on a bleacher bench in an outfit that was flaming orange on one side and chilling violet and pale blue on the other, the presumed parent of Nana "Ladybird" Bosch was even louder than his costume.
"So embarrassing," Ladybird groused as her father shouted and waved some more. "At least he can't fly on his own, otherwise he'd be up here with us."
Tanya scanned the bleacher area for familiar faces. Friends and relatives and friends of relatives were cheering on each flyer as their TA Thanagila put them through their paces, or whatever the equivalent word was when no one's feet were anywhere near the ground. At the moment it was Peregrino from Poe, excelling at speed but not at stops.
"Whoa!" the three of them cried as their classmate zoomed past, a little too close for comfort. Tanya snagged the loop on the back of Whirlibird's patched-together flight suit before the girl could panic. "So, where's your aunt sitting?" she asked quickly.
The girl pointed to the far end of the bleachers, where a thin lady in a dark red parka was obviously watching them through a pair of opera glasses. Whirlibird waved and her aunt waved back.
But past that, almost on the verge of the forest surrounding the school campus, Tanya spied a pair of Twain boys heading away from the crowds. Kinesio and Feedback, off to have one of their little chill-outs. Up above, the lavender wonder was perhaps the only person to notice the statuesque sterling blonde with the green skin following them out.
A sigh broke past her lips. She might not approve, but she could sympathize.
It was the usual, loud, boisterous sort of Saturday morning at Whateley, only perhaps a little more so. Saumer's ears were fully dilated into fuzzy parabolas atop his head as he took in the smorgasbord of noise. Some trick of the neural connections routed auditory perception along the same paths as smell or taste giving every shout, cry, or muffled -kaboom- an extra bit of spice.
His dad's first question upon arrival at Drop-Off Site B had been: "Um, wow. Is it always this busy?" to which he could only say "Sorta?" Having parents around seemed to corral the craziest characters, but there was an intensity to the sonic stew today that was outside the norm.
Dad, of course, exemplified the norm. The senior Mr. Saumer was almost abnormal in how normal he was: a forty-something-year-old used car salesman with a beer belly and a bad combover. There wasn't much more about the man that couldn't be inferred from that first impression. The younger Saumer was glad that his mutation had apparently set his own hair to resemble a perpetually surprised hedgehog, standing out in soft spikes between two highly mobile ears. It made the resemblance between father and son that much less obvious.
At the moment, Dad was chatting with some other dad in the school bleachers about some sort of dad stuff, willfully ignoring the ladies flying overhead. What a muggle. Really. No sigh of embarrassment or annoyance passed his lips, not when he could project a dozen or more sighs in his general area, all at the same time and in perfect harmony.
"Excuse me." The voice sent a shock up his spine that continued straight up the ears and into the stratosphere. Firm, masculine, mature, with a touch of icy mint to it: he'd heard this voice before, from a time when his powers were just coming in, and he'd remembered it echoing through his dreams. "I was wondering if you could tell me the way to Dickinson Cottage," the voice continued.
Did the voice match the memory... it did. The face of the man was not one you'd forget, rugged and stony as an Ozark cliff. Twin chips of sapphire burned beneath hair long gone silver. Saumer had last seen it in June. Life at Whateley had taught him that there was no way this was coincidence now.
"Um, hello, sir," he said. "G-good to see you again."
"Ah, so it is you. Young Mr.... Saumer, was it?"
Okay, something was definitely up. There was no way the man, the frickin' secret spy agent, didn't recall anything without reason.
"Why if it isn't Mr. Stein!" Though if there was anyone who could remember names and details better than a secret agent, it was a used car salesman. Dad was already shaking the older man's hand. "Fancy meeting you here. Did you ever crack the case?"
"Justice was served, yes."
"More business today? Whoops!" Dad laughed. "If you told me, you'd have to kill me, right?"
"Dad..." Saumer's eyes and ears all rolled at that.
Mr. Stein's smile was a crack in the cliff face, a crevice at best. "My niece is attending, actually. I am trying to locate her now. Might I borrow your son for a few minutes to serve as my guide?"
"Huh? Sure. I'm not going anywhere for a while, are you, Irvine?" Dad asked his conversation partner. "No? Alrighty then. Hiram, you go help Mr. Stein out and then we can go to that event thing you and your friends are doing."
"Sure thing, Dad." He just hoped that whatever Mr. Stein's real business was, it wouldn't take too long. Dickinson Cottage couldn't have been more than a few minutes' walk away on a straight line down the obvious path. Saumer walked alongside the icy-voiced man for a few yards before he dared speak again: "So, um, your niece?"
"Yes. She's a freshman in Dickinson. You likely already know her."
This time, the breath he let out was for real. A whole lot of things were coming together in his head, little observations and chips of detail forming a conglomerate of memory around the hard core of Mr. Stein's existence. "So you're Erica's uncle, then?"
"She's mentioned me?"
"No, never, but it all fits." Even if he wasn't quite sure what 'it' all was. Almost six months a mutant, and his brain was still adjusting to the flood of data his ears brought in regularly. Things he wasn't sure how to interpret, but which were held in the back of his memory until he could. Mr. Stein had been there that day, when the two men in suits had wiped out his Scout troop in the Ozarks in less than ten seconds, and no one he knew had heard a single detail more about the affair. Saumer hadn't really thought about it in months, except to wonder if his friend, the target of the attack, was okay.
The part of his brain stuck on pattern recognition mode seized that thought, and the rest clicked. Now he only wondered how long he'd known without realizing. He followed Mr. Stein as the man continued straight and unerringly to the front door of Dickinson Cottage. The secret agent man greeted the steely-eyed lady at the front desk with a simple, "Good morning, Elspeth," with the barest hint of a pause before the name. Saumer wasn't sure if anyone would've noticed besides himself and the lady, Ms. Plimsoll, who glared but waved the two of them by.
Their nice, quiet, fraught-nerve stroll with undertones of low-tension panic ended at the door of one of the cottage meeting rooms. Mr. Stein gestured for him to enter, and then the door was clicking behind him with a finality that cut off all sound from the outside. The room's noise cancellation and anti-snoop systems were online, which was either overkill or foresight, and he knew which of the two his money was on. It wasn't a large room, just big enough for a study table and two chairs. He took one; the other was already occupied.
"Hey, Saumer." Erica von Abendritter, Mr. Stein's niece and Saumer's sometime German lab dream-girl. This was maybe the third time he'd ever heard her call him by his surname, as he preferred, rather than Hiram, which he did not. His ears did not fail to catch the undertone this time, and realization bopped him between the eyes with a metaphorical foam rubber bat.
"Hey, yourself." His ears might not hear past the door, but his eyes could see the shadow of Mr. Stein in the window to the room. "Guess your uncle finally found you. Did they catch the two dudes in suits?"
"Those two got away." Erica slumped back into her chair in a way that was strangely familiar once you accounted for differences in build and figure. "And if you can even ask the question, it means you've figured out the rest."
"I guess? I mean, you hardly changed your name."
"Erica's really common, though."
He bobbed his head in acknowledgment. "But really, it was your uncle that got me to realizing. Um, Erica? About what I said at the game session, I... um, that was even more embarrassing than I realized, wasn't it?" Admitting a crush usually was, but oh, had he chosen the wrong person to crush on...
Even the chuckle was the same, allowing for a shift from tenor to soprano. "It was flattering. And massively cringe. But mostly flattering. I really had you fooled for a while, didn't I?"
She nodded. "Operation Snowflake. That's what I called it. As in, where do you hide a snowflake?"
"In with more snowflakes." One ear twitched. "So that's all about being more girly?"
"It was mostly about hiding from the idiot Nazi cousins," she said. "This... this was a result of one of Opa's experiments reacting weird with me, that little vial that he hid in my bag that day, remember? And I had the whole blue eye, brown eye thing..."
The old Eric Schroeder had been... Saumer's brain retrieved the word from an old science lecture on G-View. Heterochromic. His friend's eyes used to be two different colors. Multiple possible reasons, but one of them was: "Human chimerism?" he guessed.
She gave him the thumb's-up. "Bingo. Two sets of DNA, and Opa's serum supercharged one into overdrive. I woke up after the kidnapping like this, and the cousins didn't even know at first. So Operation Snowflake was about me hiding in plain sight as a girl and, well, I'm still working through things."
"I'd imagine. So, um, why tell me now?"
"Because Oma and Opa are currently touring the the labs downstairs with Vicky's mom and cousin," said Erica. "And if Uncle Adolf was enough to clue you in, then there's no way you wouldn't figure things out when you got a look at them. Time to rip the band-aid off."
"Yeah, bumping into them might have been awkward. More awkward."
"Speaking of which, I need to get back to my dad. He's over by the flight show bleachers and we're going to be at the wrestling club event till almost lunchtime. I'll, um, text you if we go anywhere else, so he doesn't, y'know..."
"Do you have my direct text ID?" She didn't give him time to respond. "Here, get your phone out and let's swap contacts. I should've done this after the game day, but I was feeling a bit, you know."
He knew. He was feeling a bit 'you know' at the moment, himself. "We'll, um, we'll talk more about this later, right?"
"You betcha. If you don't mind?" Blue eyes were wet as warm ice.
"Not at all. Heh..." A memory of their last frank conversation in June resurfaced. "So I guess you did end up as a Bond girl after all."
"Puh-leaze, Saumer. If I'm anybody at all, it'd be Jane Bond. You're the Bond boy."
Seeing as he knew she could bench-press a small car, Saumer had to concede that one to her. "Well then, next time I'm kidnapped, you can rescue me."
"Sure. What're friends for?"
Avsel had not known what to expect that day. Such was not an uncommon occurrence in her life, as nothing in the now resembled anything in the then. New rooms, new faces, new weather, new food. There was nothing old, little familiar, and so she lived with a sense of wonder and confusion running through her mind.
Her feet itched in their special shoes. She would run as well, if she could.
But they were still indoors, inside Poe Cottage, where such things were frowned upon. She tended to leave tracks behind her when she joined the wind in its course towards the far sunset horizon. So instead she focused on the polite talk. All was a chance to practice, as Ms. Barnes so often said in class, and she was not the only guest. As the others loitered in the cottage foyer, Avsel put her head through the door to the first-floor dorm area and called, "Mi-shell, are you there?"
"Here!" came the reply. Dani's little sister could be seen in the little common room, waving a white plastic wand furiously in time with flashing lights on the TV screen. Video games were another new thing in this new life, one which Avsel still did not understand. After a moment, the girl's turn ended and she was free to hop over to the door.
"It is an interesting place, is it not?" Avsel asked.
Dani's sister had that awestruck look to her which Avsel knew quite well. "Yeah, really."
Ms. Barnes had told her that the proper idiom was 'like a fish out of water.' It was not too different from what they might say back home. Some things were universal.
"Wish Dani was here, though."
"They will return soon enough," said Avsel. "Did you want to continue on with Catherine and myself, or should I message Dani so she knows where you are? Maybe give you a tour of the bedroom?"
Michelle's grimace said "No" before the girl's lips could form the word. "Dani's room back home was always a mess. Don't see it being any different now."
"That is true."
Catherine blinked over from where Mrs. Brooks and Mrs. George were discussing things as the mothers of the girlfriends. "Hey! What'cha talking 'bout over here?"
"Just..." Michelle waved a pink-tipped finger all around and back towards where Bev Taylor and her friend were still playing their game.
"Yeah, I get that. Wondering if you'll be joining us here someday?"
More worried, thought Avsel as she watched the girl think.
"Maybe? Um, it'd be cool and all, but if it means ending up like Dani..."
"Don't you worry," said Catherine. "We're looking out for him."
"Her." Michelle stuck stubbornly to the pronoun. "She's still my sister, even when she's a crazy cat-man."
"And she is happy to hear you say that, I am sure," said Avsel. "Ah, it looks like the mothers are moving?" At least, Bailey was waving at them to come along as the adults migrated slowly towards the front desk and exit. "So you'll be staying here a while longer?"
"Yeah, I guess."
Catherine already had her phone out. "Letting your br..., ahem, sister know to pick you up in a bit. Shouldn't be too long."
Avsel was already feeling the draw of the door. That part of her soul which made her the Karkadann's Daughter brightened at the thought of the open air and sunshine. Her feet itched more, and she wished she could remove her shoes right then and there. The wait of a few minutes was almost intolerable.
There was one last surprise waiting before the exit, however. At the front desk, Pat Barnes had been replaced by Mrs. Horton, the Poe house mother. She was a nice woman, in Avsel's limited experience. Cheerful, kind, and a friend to all. This made the frown on her face weigh all the more heavily. This look of distaste was directed solely at the other woman standing by the desk, on the opposite side of the counter. "See? There she is," Mrs. Horton snapped. She was looking at Avsel.
"So she is," said the visitor. "Thank you, Mrs. Horton. I shall darken your doorstep no more."
"You'd better not, Sahar." The house mother scowled.
Avsel wondered at first if her eyes deceived her. The visitor at the desk was not someone she had seen in many months, not since she had arrived at Whateley at the start of the summer term. The woman was tall and dark of hair and eyes, with the complexion of the seacoast. Today she wore a suit in dark blue, but around her neck was the familiar charm, the nazar, a bright blue eye to ward off ill curses.
"Miss Chibany?" she said. "Ah, what do you here?"
"It occurred to me that you might be lonely here on Parents Day, and as your sponsor at the school it was my duty to come and see how you're doing." At the house mother's dubious snort behind her, Miss Chibany added, "And as a former student who never had anyone visit like this, I know how it feels. Ah, is Avsel with you all, then?" she asked to Catherine's mother.
"She's my daughter's friend, yes," Mrs. Brooks replied.
"Splendid!" Miss Chibany patted Avsel's head. "It's good to know she's being more social. I'm going to borrow her for a while, do the big-sisterly bit, and perhaps see you all at lunch."
Catherine's aunt, the superhero woman, was taking a long look, which Miss Chibany returned with a friendly nod of acknowledgment. "Her sponsor, you said?"
Avsel moved between them, feet clapping upon the hardwood floor of the front hall. "Yes. Miss Chibany found me in the camps, after my village was destroyed. She helped me to come to this country, and after my powers appeared she brought me to this school. I trust her."
"For what it's worth," said Mrs. Horton from the desk. "I trust her, too. I don't particularly like her, but Sahar's good to her word."
Miss Chibany snickered. "Thank you, ma'am. Come along, Avsel. Let's walk and talk. You look like you need to move some."
That was only the truth. Her feet itched terribly now. Bidding farewell to Catherine and Bailey and giving little Michelle a hug before the girl returned to the game in the other room, she and her sponsor left the cottage. The air and the sun were just as she liked. The temperature was cool, but her soul pulsed warmly. "Ah, excuse me," she said as she undid the lacings on her shoes. The pockets of her coat were deep enough to hold them, leaving her hands free. Avsel flexed one ankle, feeling the odd ways it pulled, then placed two heavy toes to the dirt.
"Your GSD is progressing," said her sponsor, mostly in Avsel's native Kurdish. Some words could not translate. "Does it cause you any discomfort?"
"It is strange at times," she admitted as she finished inspecting her left hoof and brought the other up for its turn. The joints of her legs had turned in odd directions as she developed, and the fact that she could bring one foot up almost to her face, backwards, while maintaining her balance was but the slightest of oddities. Satisfied that nothing was stuck between the cloven toes of either hoof, she returned to a more normal pose and straightened her skirt. "They are good for running."
"I imagine they would be," said Miss Chibany. "I was surprised to hear that you weren't in the school track club. It sounded like a good fit."
Avsel adjusted her headscarf so that it did not pull over the nub on her forehead so much. "Ah, yes. The club captain, Serval, she is... intense, and only in part about running. I did not like to speak with her about the things she wanted. A very angry woman is she."
"Understandable," said her sponsor as they walked along. "The passion of youth, the trauma of being different, not to mention a mutant in today's society. I remember it all too vividly. Of course, that was only eight years ago for me, but it feels like it's been so long since I last darkened Mrs. Horton's day by dropping by Poe." The chuckle only sounded cruel. "I am glad to see that you are making friends in different dorms, though. Some fall into the trap of their own little bubble, letting the dorm define them."
Avsel could only nod. That described Serval, who had little to do with anyone not showing strong signs of gross structural dystrophy. Her hooves clipped and clapped down the brick walkway. They felt more comfortable now, more a thing of her own, but Avsel was not at ease showing them to others. Much like her hair beneath her scarf, some things were personal. The junior who led the Whateley track club did not see things that way, and so the Karkadann's daughter did not run with her.
There were others with whom she would stretch her legs. One was ambling down the same path now. "Ah, Daniel!" she called ahead. "Please be to excuse me, but I can borrow Cookie for a run?"
Her hopeful running partner woofed in happy agreement, both heads grinning from furthest left to nearest right. The pup's single stubby tail wagged.
"And here I thought I'd seen every damn weird thing this school had to offer..." she heard Miss Chibany say in her native Lebanese.
Daniel grinned as he scratched between one set of puppy ears. "Well, we just stopped by Cookie's K9 trainer for a quick pupper-parent teacher conference with the doc here, and I bet they'd love to stretch their legs. Wouldn't'cha, pup?" A double-cheeked licking informed the pup's boy of the answer. "Fine, fine. The doc an' I were 'bout to go look at the school cooking classrooms anyhow. They won't let Cookie down there, not since the sausage incident."
Both dog-heads looked each other in the eyes with the droopy frowns of a shared guilty conscience. It was enough to make her laugh, which was a rarity. Even rarer than that was the hug of thanks she granted the boy. Daniel was sweet as the desserts he named himself for, and she did not know a girl in Whitman who disagreed. With a final word of thanks in her own tongue and a nod to Miss Chibany, she patted Cookie and took off running.
The sounds of a happy pupper followed her all the way around campus.
Room 218 of Poe Cottage had a special designation, as written on the sign board affixed to its door: The Barne. The vagaries of fate had conspired to leave Chessa and Pat homeless, without family, and claiming the same date as their birthday without realizing. Somehow this had led to them legally being named as twins on all the paperwork Whateley provided for students looking to leave their old lives behind. The first month had been rocky, but by now they could pass as easily for siblings as they could for their preferred genders. The fact that none of these things were the factual truth was of no importance.
They'd put together a pretty good space for themselves, though. The Barne contained all their worldly possessions, but what a world it was! Myra had, in her role as big sister, taken the family to a regional flea market in the weeks before school began, handed them each a hundred dollars, and let them go. And thus Chessa's side of the room was wallpapered with old fantasy prints and floral drapes, plus a standing wardrobe for the new girl's collection of cute outfits. A few hangers were left empty on the bed, relieved of the skirts and pink letter jacket Chessa was currently wearing for her picnic study date with Jacob.
Pat was happy for his adoptive sister. She and Jacob were still figuring things out, but they were doing it as a team. He wished them the best with that.
His own side of the room was dominated by an old bookshelf filled with speculative fiction, superhero biographies, fortune-telling guides, and a wealth of LGBTQ literature that was frequently lent out to other Poesies. A little A6 notebook helped him to keep track. Along the edge of his desk was a variety of knicknacks and good luck charms, picked out of capsule machines and tourist trap gift stores mostly on a whim. Colorful crystals, faux-native designs, and plastic hero figurines all co-existed beneath the beatific gaze of an old polished statue of a sumo wrestler hobbit with his feet sticking out front. Pat rubbed the little dude's soles for good luck, then almost knocked the statue off the desk by accident. Frantic grabbing saved it from crashing to the carpet.
Pat blew the annoyance out his nose. It never failed, his power, except when there was no one there to see him screw up. An audience could lift him, guide every move to perfection, but that didn't mean he could do all the cool stuff on his own. Far from it, actually. "Ugghh... I'm such a fake..." he grumbled to the statue of Billiken as he put it back on the desk. "And yeah, I know you're sick of hearing me say it, but it's true."
The effigy of the Little God of Things As They Ought To Be remained silent. Most people would have expected that. Pat knew better, but he accepted the odd divine whims as just one more bizarro item in his life.
The clock on the desk said it was almost time. After a moment of consideration, Pat took off the nice shirt and jacket he'd worn at the front desk, put on a button-up pajama top with nothing actually buttoned, and popped the ties on the wraparound binding on his chest. Without an audience to support the projection of his personal image, the wrap got itchy after a while. And, much as he hated it, he did need to let his chest hang out from time to time, covered but not constricted, so he wouldn't develop sweat rashes or friction sores.
Plus, he had a different audience to think about.
Speaking of the cute little devil, his smartpad sounded the alert on an incoming call. Pat stood the rectangle of plastic and glass in its frame and pressed the ACCEPT button on the screen. "Good morning!" he said as the connection came on line.
"You, too!" came the voice from the other end of a thousand-mile cord in the digital ether. From her home in St. Louis, Missouri, his girlfriend Dina had her face all in the camera view, giving Pat a wonderful picture of her sunny smile, her smattering of freckles across a cutely upturned nose, and big, warm brown eyes.
Wait. He looked in closer. On her end, Dina chewed her lower lip and bit back giggles as the seconds of quiet deepened into a moment of silence.
No, he was not mistaken. There was a definite ring of orange on the inner rim of the girl's irises that had not been there last weekend. Dina's giggles evanesced into the conversational void as she watched the realization roll across his face. "Um, that's... that's really..." he mumbled out.
"There's my favorite stammer," his girlfriend teased. "And yeah, the new color showed up three days ago. It hasn't grown any since then, so maybe my eyes won't be turning full orange." She sounded disappointed at the thought.
"Maybe it's better that way?" he suggested. "Um, I know that's, y'know, a naturally occurring thing for some people."
Dina pouted for the camera. "That's what my dad said. And yeah, it's not an obvious sign, so we got plausible deniability here, but..." She bounced on her bed.
"I want awesome, not convenient!" The flop backwards was dramatic, at least. "Like, bright pink hair and eyes like diamonds!"
"Personally, um, I like your hair and eyes the way they are."
"Aw, thanks. You're looking good, too. I dig the just-slept look. Is that all for me?"
"Er, yes?" He quickly crossed his arms, but the wrap was unravelling faster than he'd thought it would. Not going topless anytime soon, no, but definitely showing cleavage. "I, I don't, um, let people..."
Dina rolled over so her face was more centered in the screen. "I know, Pat. Sorry, I shouldn't tease. It's just... ugh... I appreciate you however you're presenting, and I know you're a guy at heart and soul, but I do enjoy seeing you as female, too. A wonderfully, awesomely, beautifully female man."
Oh yeah, there was no doubt whatsoever which dorm Dina Radford would be in at Whateley. In the privacy of his room, with a thousand-plus miles between him and Dina, his powers effectively offline, he could admit, "O-only with you. I don't, um, think I could handle, um, it... Okay, so I could, but I'd be a, a sobbing mess as soon as I was alone, and..."
"I foresee a lot more phone calls in our future," said Dina. "Even if we're living right down the hall from one another. Or in the same apartment." His girlfriend paused for a particularly devilish smile. "Don't think it would work if we're both on the phone in the same bed, so we'll have to work out other ways to communicate there."
"Dina..." But he was smiling, giggling at the thought. They'd shared feelings before, shared emotions directly with his powers of empathy riding across a kissful connection. If there were ever a person he knew he could be comfortable with as himself, as all of himself, and be able to show the feelings behind the wall of cool that his powers kept in place around his personality... "I love you."
A tear washed across one brown-and-orange iris. "I love you too."
They went for the tissues at the same instant, blowing their noses in concert and then laughing. "So, um, have you shown any powers yet?" he asked her.
"Not that I can tell," said Dina. "I've been trying all the old tests again. Eye-beams? Nope, just went cross-eyed. Super speed? Nada. Strength? I can lift the dog, but that's not saying much. Wall-crawling..."
"How'd you test that?"
"Trampoline and the shed out back." Dina grimaced. "Don't ask for more details. Suffice to say, that didn't pan out. Ugh!" She bounced on her butt a few times, then stood on the mattress and jumped some more. "It's just... so... frustrating...! Knowing that there should be something and just... not... getting it!"
Pat nodded at that. Sudden or slow, there was no good way to get powers, even if you wanted them. Then one of the metaphorical cogs in his brain clicked over, and he watched his bouncy girlfriend more carefully. "Um, Dina?" he asked. "Did you get a new mattress?"
"No...? Same one as last summer, if you recall?"
A smile flitted across his face. "Yeah, I do. Soft, almost felt like a cloud? Um, could you, like, stand still for a sec?" He nodded again as she did as requested. "Yeah, you're not sinking into the mattress at all, even with your full weight in one spot. Try hopping?"
Dina's grin was tight as she performed for him. "Admit it, you enjoy watching me bounce."
His face burned with a rare blush as she cackled. "Yeah, yeah, guilty as charged, but that's not why I asked. It's barely even flexing under you, and you're not going easy on it. Like you're almost lighter than air or something."
"Does this mean I can fly!?"
"Are your feet touching the mattress?"
"Yeah... meh. Doesn't count, does it. So what's going on?"
That was a good question. If only he had an equally good answer to it. "Um... how do you feel right now?"
"Happy and hoppy and light as a feather!"
Okay, there was a thought, and it was backed by a spurt of warmth from his chest. His intuitive abilities didn't kick in all too often, but at least they were independent of any audience he may or may not have available. "I want you to, uh, think about being heavy. Like, focus on it. Think rocks, barbells, cartoon weights with '10 tons' labeled on the side..."
"Don't see what that would... whoa!" On camera, he could see his girlfriend sink a few inches into the mattress as the bedframe creaked. Then the apparent weight disappeared, the mattress snapped back into shape, and Dina was launched to the ceiling. It took her several seconds longer to come down than it should have. "What they hey...?" she sputtered. "I can control my weight?"
"Your mass, more likely," said Pat. "Okay, this is, um, huge. Actual, for real confirmation of powers. Right. Um. Okay, your dad still has the contact info for that DPA agent, right? Get in touch with him, see if you can get a testing appointment at their office in OKC. Not any of the MCO fronts between there and St. Louis. I'll, um, I'll find someone to ask about application forms and referrals and... ah..."
"What?" asked Dina.
With a shaky hand, he grabbed the deck of cards from its drawer in the desk and did a quick shuffle. More heat bloomed against his chest, with a glimmer of red visible through the loosened bindings. Three cards drawn: Two of Cups, Ace of Wands, the Lovers. A happy sigh. "I'll be counting the days till Winter Term begins," he said.
One of these days, she was going to figure out the fastest routes through Whateley's underworld. The main corridor wasn't bad at all, leading mainly between the basements of various cottages and school buildings, with stops at the convenience store and the entrance to the lab spaces. It was that last one where all sense of normalcy ended. The Whateley Labs zone was an over-built, over-engineered, over-hyphenated mish-mash of corridors, chambers, secret passages, hidden rooms, official lab space, unofficial lab space, triple-super-secret lab space, and a hangar for the giant battle robot that had become the school science department's perennial boobie project. For all the laws of physics flouted with regularity within the bowels of the campus, the square-cube law had proven itself the toughest nut to crack.
It was a popular spot for tours. When Erica arrived with her uncle, Vicky "Power Stunt" Stone was giving the usual speech: "...and that's how we got it to stop falling over!" The freshman devisor concluded with a dramatic bow that almost sent herself to the floor.
Vicky's cousin the Whateley alumna clapped politely. "And how long did that solution work?"
"Almost ten minutes!" Vicky said with pride. "We were about to get it to take a step forward when gravity reasserted itself. Why... Oh, hey! Erica's back!"
Her 'howdy' was crushed out of her by a happy hug from her roommate. "How did it go?" said Cally. "Did he... will it cause any problems?"
"All fine," she assured her friend. "More time to talk later, maybe a game session as well. How about yours?"
"É stato bello. It could have been better. It could have been worse. It was mostly about Fra." A frown wriggled across the Italian girl's face. "But more talking later."
"Fun place you got here, cuz." Penny was still admiring the robot. "Every time I think I've seen it all, there turns out to be something even crazier in the next room over."
Now that was a perfect cue if Erica had ever heard one. With a nod to Uncle Adolf and another to Vicky, she said to her cousin, "Have they shown you all the armory labs yet? I heard they were prepping for the school's unofficial weapons fair."
"The what-now?" Penny turned on a heel to face her. "They just let people in to see that stuff?"
She hoped her grin made her look sly and all-knowing instead of a silly girl like she feared. "They do if you ask nicely. How about it, Vicky?" It was hard, but she resisted the urge to wink. Back behind Cousin Penny, the senior partners were all smirks and friendly nudges. Aunt Margit, Penny's adopted grandmother, was doing her best Cheshire Cat impression while the grandchild couldn't see.
"Sure!" said Vicky, staying on script. "You would not believe some of the things we're doing with applied force-field tech. Some of it actually even works most of the time!" The devisor girl hooked Penny by the elbow and pulled her along to a red-marked door around the side of the robot hangar. "And of course a lot of it's re-inventing the flux capacitor these days, but it's like Dr. Speers tells us, you can't learn to make an omelet without inventing a new tool to scramble it in the shell with magnetic turbulence! That's science."
Erica hung back with the senior partners. "Think she suspects anything?" she whispered.
"Not one whit," replied Aunt Margit. "I believe that this place has overloaded her ability to see things as suspicious. Did you get the paperwork done with, Adolf?"
"Yes, schatzi. Payment in escrow at the bursar's office, plus a bonus. The full report was most impressive."
Grinning, Erica dashed on ahead. She did not want to miss the reaction on Cousin Penny's face as the older teen stepped through that door.
"What the heck!?"
And there it was: a look of surprise worthy of framing. It was perfectly in tune with what was on display in the little lab space. On a full-body wire frame, a suit hung. It was not meant for any business of the commercial sort, being nearly a solid piece of material woven into shape with flairs and pockets in strategic spots. A half-cape fell down the shoulders, while a hood and cowl stood on top. The padding and armor inserts gave it an obviously feminine outline, and the insignia upon the chest and wrists was a six-pointed star in silver.
Above all that, literally, was a cheery banner that read, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, PENELOPE STEIN!
"What. The. Heck." Those appeared to be the only words her cousin was capable of uttering. Erica hoped that the brain damage was truly temporary.
Aunt Margit came up from behind to give her granddaughter a hug. "Happy birthday, Penny dear. I know we already did the cake and presents last Wednesday, but we figured that, as you hadn't had a proper present in so long, it would be nice to splurge for your eighteenth."
"Most folks would just get her a car." From the door in the back of the lab, Ms. Barnes appeared in her nice teaching suit. "And it's good to finally meet you in the flesh, Mr. Stein. The stories hardly do you justice. This would be the birthday girl, I take it?" The English teacher looked her up and down. "Hm, we had to fudge a little on the measurements..."
"It should be self-adjusting!" came a shout from the back.
"That's all well and good, Ngaire," Ms. Barnes shouted back, "but we still... oh, everyone get out here so we can show her what's what."
Three students shuffled into the room to join Vicky by the display case: Marcus Barnes, Cally's bandmate Ngaire, and little Twitch from the first floor of Dickinson. Their group project supervisor, Dr. Speers, followed right after.
"What... the... heck..." And Penny remained eloquent as ever.
At a nod from the supervisor, Ngaire perked up and began the explanations. "So the material is all-natural fiber," she said, not mentioning what the source of the fiber might be. The girl's ponytail was only halfway down her back that morning. "It is also layered and woven with conductive and non-conductive elements for the middle strata, while the inner and outer layers are insulated. There's circuitry printed directly into the weave."
"My performance costume, it is made of the same," Cally told Penny. "It is like wearing a computer that connects to your personal devices."
"...and the batteries are supplemented by capacitors which charge off your body heat," Ngaire concluded. "The hood has a veil function to help disguise the face. Peripheral vision suffers, but I've been told that's not an issue?"
Penny blinked and shook her head to clink the broken bits back together. "Er, no. It shouldn't be. Danger sense rocks."
For the next part, Ngaire ceded the floor to Marcus. The junior high boy had made an attempt to slick down his brown hair, but it still stuck out in two spots. "Okay," he said. "First I want to thank you for giving me the excuse to work with porta-tech. I've been wanting to work on my own inventory options, and getting paid to come up with prototypes, whoot!"
"Marcus..." warned Ms. Barnes.
"Oops, sorry." The boy's laugh was nervous as he tussled his own hair. "Okay, so here's your bag. The carry-strap and back of the body seal to the surface of your suit, so you don't need to worry about snagging it or dropping it or whatever." The shoulder purse in his hands didn't look that big, and certainly was not large enough to accommodate the baton he was now retrieving from it. "As you can see, the internal geometry has been fifth-dimensionally partitioned from the external to provide nth-degree refractalization for maximum storage capacity."
"Um, right." Penny accepted it and looked carefully over the exterior design. She ran a finger over the faceted diamond insignia on the clasp. "I don't recognize this brand name. IBOTI?"
"It's Bigger On The Inside," said Marcus sheepishly. "My prototypes weren't, y'know, all that stylish, so..."
Twitch popped in front of him. "So I gave it a makeover!" The little blonde girl danced happily around. "I made the logo and the chameleon circuitry. Once you sync it with the smartphone app I wrote, you'll be able to change it to any color you want. The perfect accessory! Oh, and there are all the toys inside, too!" she continued as one item after the next was retrieved. "We all pitched in on these. Power baton, nighty-night zapper, multivision goggles, grappling gun, gecko gloves and shin shields for wall-climbing..."
"My idea!" said Marcus.
"...wrist-portable force shields..."
"Mine!" said Vicky.
"And I did the Shield of David designs!" Twitch added. "They said your code name was going to be Silberstern, right? The silver star?"
Penny glanced quickly to her grandmother, who smiled back softly. "Yeah... I guess it is," said the older girl. "You like?"
"Yeah! I can't wait to tell my bubby about how I got to help you. She'll be so proud!"
The birthday girl looked at the small arsenal on the table before her, the basic kit of a utility-belt superhero. "I don't know what to say. I mean, wow, this is seriously amazing here. And you all took the time to show me today, when you could be with your families..."
"Brought mine along," said Vicky. "I mean, yeah, they're still outside chatting with Carol's old professor, but still."
Marcus thumbed towards Ms. Barnes and Dr. Speers. "Got most of my family right here," he said.
"Shunned," said Ngaire. "And those sanctimonious jerks can all go to hell."
Twitch's mouth twirled from smile to frown and back. "Daddy wanted to be here today, but his last job went south so he has to lay low for a few months. It's too bad; I really wanted to show him all the cool stuff I've been up to this semester."
"Your father?" asked Uncle Adolf.
"Yeah, Tek Knight."
"I have heard of him," said Adolf. "He has a good reputation for professionalism. More so than his employers of the moment, I am guessing."
The girl pouted. "Oh yeah..."
"Anyway!" said Penny. "I'm having my official bat mitzvah party at the end of July and you are all on the invitation list. Seriously, this is awesome. Could I... Is it okay to try it on here?"
"Penny," Erica said to her cousin. "This is Whateley. You could wear it around campus for the rest of the day and no one would look twice."
Bev Taylor's code name was not just a reference to her ability to create little boom-booms of pure energy. She'd never acknowledged this fact, but everyone understood it all the same. Deep inside her soul there was a metaphorical clock whose big hand counted not minutes, not seconds, but indignations. Every time her current gender was forced in her face, every time someone made an assumption, every time some well-meaning busybody who was probably her sister asked, "Why can't you..." -- the clock was ticking, and when it struck the hour, she struck someone.
Lately the clock had taken more time to reach the breaking point. She didn't like to think about that too hard. Instead, she was happy for the few friends she had who really 'got it.' There weren't many. She couldn't even tell most people what the problem was, because the only thing worse than knowing what was coming was not-knowing. Not knowing how they would react. Not knowing what they would say. Not knowing how long she had on the clock before she blew up and something else exploded. For safety's sake she was hiding in the little common room, the space that really was just a slightly wider hallway with a sofa and a TV between the junior high rooms and Ms. Barnes's house-mom apartment. Her sister and parents were supposed to come by to get her before lunch, so she was trying to keep from running up the clock before then.
At least she wasn't alone: "We need to do something about your hair," Darcy was saying.
Bev could feel the internal ticking. "Why? It's not girly enough?" she snapped.
"No, it's matted and singed. Did you set off another boom-boom in your sleep?"
Her fellow junior high schooler shook a brush in her face. "Bev! This is serious. You can get away with non-girly, but not with looking like you just headbutted a fireplace!"
"My sister does." She pouted, then realized what her face looked like and made the conscious effort to rearrange it to a scowl.
"Your sis can somehow take a fireball to the face and end up with sculpted brows and a perfect smoky eye effect. It's not normal."
"Um... could I help?" asked the third in the room. Michelle Fontenot had sort of gotten dumped on them while she waited for her brother to return from therapy, and Bev knew how long that could take. On the plus side, this was Wilder's little sis, and the girl'd had no problems grokking Bev's explanation of the sitch. The girl was cool for a fifth-grader.
"What did you have in mind?" Bev asked.
"Well, Dani and I used to cut each other's hair. Cheaper than the fancy stylist, right? Might be I can trim it up a little now."
Was she seriously considering to let a fifth-grader wave scissors around her head? Then she recalled the happy, friendly older lady who ran the school's hair salon, with her small talk and helpful suggestions and complete lack of awareness of Bev's situation or how so much of that friendly small talk ticked the hands of the metaphorical clock forward at double time.
Yes, she was seriously considering it. "Fine," she said. "Let's get this over with."
Which was how she ended up sprawled across the common space sofa, head almost falling off the armrest with a wastebasket below. None of the scissors involved were meant for hair. One set was made to cut funny patterns into paper, but it apparently could do layering as well. Maybe. "Stop wiggling," said Darcy. "It's just hair. It'll grow back."
"Yeah, Dani had it all shaved off last August, and look at her now!"
"Him," she growled. Then she winced, as much from her own tone as from the sudden yank of the brush in her hair.
"No," said Michelle firmly. "That's her choice and I heard Granma say Dani was trying to be a girl again, so I'm gonna respect that. So there."
She did not want to be having this conversation right now even though she absolutely did want to have it. "S-sorry," she mumbled. "Just jealous that Danny's even got the chance, cuz I don't."
"Why not?" came the innocent, ignorant question.
"Cuz I got a BIT and he... she doesn't!"
"Body Image Template," Darcy added for the girl's benefit. "That's a metaphysical thing that us Exemplars have that defines and reinforces our body image. Like, I can tell already that mine's gonna be tall and pretty and muscular, just like my..." The words cut off.
Seriously. Life at Whateley was a frickin' minefield, even without boom-booms. "Yeah, well mine was, ahem, 'gifted' to me by my big sister the mad scientist by accident. She'd intended it for a friend. But now I've got it, can't change it, can't even try to change it because you would not believe the horror stories about the folks who tried and failed... And to top it all off, the thing with BITs is that eventually you just learn to accept them, like it's the body you're meant to have. But your... sibling is a Shifter. Change is part of the game, and Danny's trying to change within the rules. So I hate him and I'm cheering for him and... ugh!"
-snip, snip, snip- "I... I didn't think it'd be so tough, goin' to a special school like this."
"Welcome to Whateley," said Darcy somberly. "There's a reason why we have a full psychiatric staff available. It's not usually so bad, but today's bringing up a lot of bad memories for a lot of people. Like..." The junior high girl sighed. "Bev, did I mention that I finalized my code name registration?"
"You did?" She tried to turn her head to look at her friend, only to receive a professional whack from Michelle. "Sorry. Um, what is it? I thought they were giving you extra time for it because of... ah..."
"Mourning period." Darcy sniffled. "I think, I think someone up there in Schuster knew what I'd choose eventually, so they just gave me, gave me time... Rampart. It's Rampart. My, my dad's old code name. Mine now."
For a minute or two, the only sound was the ongoing snip, snip, snip of the scissors as Michelle trimmed around the burnt zone. Then along the ends. Then the neck. Then they flipped Bev over so a ruler could be applied to her bangs for a straight-line cut. The end result, she saw as she looked in a hand mirror, was... crap. That was what happened when you let a fifth-grader go at a disaster of hair-don'ts. It was still an improvement. "Thanks," she mumbled to the girl.
Michelle surprised her with a hug. "No problem."
The door to the first-floor residence hallway rattled as someone knocked. "Um, Michelle?" called Wilder. "You in there?"
"It's your dorm, too, you moron!" shouted Bev. "Why're you knocking?"
The freshman currently-boy came in, ears drooped like the world's most sheepish lion. "Just bein' polite..." he muttered. "Hey, Michelle. You ready to actually go and see some stuff? Sorry Ah ain't been the best guide. Um, Bev? Darcy? Thanks for hangin' out with her. Er, you do somethin' with your hair?"
They all giggled at that, and Bev couldn't even feel the tick inside this time. When Michelle asked if the two junior high schoolers wanted to come along, maybe get some lunch later together, she even surprised herself by saying yes. If anything, the hands on her inner time bomb dialed backwards a bit.
Sometimes all she needed was someone to listen and understand. And give bad haircuts. Life was simple like that.
High in the skies above, suited figures soared and swooped in ever more complicated formations as the Whateley Flight Club signaled the finale to their routines. From the vantage point of those below, it was nothing short of magnificent, akin to watching the Valkyries of ancient sagas patroling the skies of war.
But she was stuck on the ground. Sera Eir Magnusdottir would have given her entire life to this point for that to be different, would gladly have sacrificed her mortal existence for the immortal glory of the maidens of battle, if only she might soar as they did. Soar like she did. Eyes chipped from a glacier's edge followed the figure in lavender with the chartreuse accents. Her friend Tanya was poetry in motion, an edda writ upon upon the winds. A...
She shook her head in the vain hope of dispelling the current of her thoughts. It would get her nowhere.
"That girl really is something, isn't she?" Next to Sera on the bleachers, the heroine Silver Sylph, Ingibjörg, commented in Icelandic. "The very image of her mother, if younger. She will be a beauty to behold, for certain."
"She already is." The truth always came more freely in her mother tongue. Speaking in English, no matter how well she managed it now, always gave her moments to pause her thoughts and choose her words more carefully, but the novelty of speaking Icelandic for the first time in two months made her lips loose and careless. "Ah, that is, she is well regarded by all in our grade."
"I am sure she is," said Sylph. "She also has her mother's spirit and her father's drive. It would be hard not to admire that. Or more."
Her face was the glacier, still and unmoving. Never to crack, never to show... but perhaps suddenly to melt from the warmth of a summery heart. "She is, she is too perfect!" Sera cried. "Strong, fast, elegant, kind, intelligent, charming..."
"And not the least bit interested in girls."
She could have melted straight off the bleachers from the heat of her embarrassment. "Not even capable of noticing interest," Sera admitted. "Or perhaps I am not good enough at expressing it. If I only tried harder..."
Sylph caught Sera's chin as it fell, directing it with two fingers of her left hand so the girl would have to look her elder in the eyes. "No, I am afraid that would not work. It did not for her mother, and as I said, she is very much her mother's child. If you would hear the voice of experience, I would advise you to let her be, let her be the friend you need, rather than the unachievable dream."
Her head shook on purpose to hide the tremors of frustration. "It is not like that."
"If you say so..."
"I do! And anything else is between me and Tanya." After a few deep breaths: "I should go. There are things to do, and you are here for her sake today, not mine." She slid from the bleachers and ran off before Sylph could claim otherwise. The glacial chips set above her cheeks had begun to melt.
Her feet did not know which way to go, and so they led her blindly down a side trail into one of the random clumps of trees to dot the outer campus. Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought to herself. Stupid for fixating on the real friend she'd made thus far at Whateley, the friend with many more friends and even a boyfriend. Stupid for being so jealous of those friends, and especially the boyfriend. Stupid for thinking she ever had a chance, and stupider for clinging to hope and stupidest...
Her brain was still wrestling over the superlative when her meanderings came to a sudden halt. An upperclassman, one of the girls from Dickinson, was busy going the other way with both arms full of costuming project, and neither of them noticed in time.
"Oh, I am sorry!" she bleated in English as cloth and sundries fell to the path.
"It's okay," said the other girl. "These things happen. Ah... Sera, isn't it? I've seen you around campus with that purple girl."
"Lavender," she corrected automatically. "Ah, sorry. It's a habit." She bent down to grab more costuming materials.
"Where's your friend now, Sera?" the girl asked as they tidied things up.
"Still at the flight show. Her godparents are there to cheer for her, so she is good."
The upperclassman was looking her over. "And are you?"
"Am I what?"
"Good? You seem upset."
More deep breaths followed. "It is nothing. I am fine."
The slant of the other's mouth showed an inclination to disagree. "Are you now. Well, if you're free, you could help me carry this stuff to costuming lab and we'll have girl-talk along the way. If that's all right?"
She needed more friends... Sera had known that for weeks, had heard it hinted by Tanya and would certainly have heard it from Silver Sylph if she had stuck around longer. Perhaps it was not a bad idea. "Okay," she said. "Ah, what is your name, by the way?"
"Valentina," said the other girl with a broad smile. "My friends call me Val. I should introduce you around sometime. Anyway..."
This was good, Sera thought as they walked along. She was only half-listening to Val's ongoing chatter, making polite noises and occasionally asking a question to seem like she was paying better attention. Meet people, make friends, broaden the circle around her. Maybe even forget--
A flash of lavender sped over the little woods as Tanya finished the routine. The leaves all shook and fell like red and orange snow.
She would never forget.
As a part of the Magic Arts curriculum, every student was granted access to a shared work space for the purposes of free study and other assignments that might be problematic if done in the dorms. That didn't stop students from doing those things in the worst possible places, but simply having a safe space to work apparently curbed the majority of disasters.
Morgana was comfortable with her own space therein. It helped that she had three other students she actually liked and got along with as her lab team. They hardly ever freaked out at some of the ideas she wanted to test. The safety precautions were also reassuring. She'd dragged a couple of chairs out for herself and her guest while Ceri looked around the workroom with interest.
"Nice. I mean, it should have all those dribbly candles and mouldy skulls like they show on the telly, but it's not bad!"
Morgana made a face. "Oh, and your lab is so much like the mad science labs they show on TV?"
"Of course not! I'm not mad, just somewhat annoyed on occasion!" Her sister waited until Morgana's eyes had finished rolling before she continued. "However... now that we're in private... how are things really going with you? And not just the thing with the parasite. I know that's been cleared up."
Her gaze went off into the distance for a minute as she gathered her thoughts. "Truthfully, it's been hard. A lot harder than I like people to think."
Ceri nodded. "The whole transition thing?"
A nod in return. "I know I can't change it, that I just have to get used to it, but I still don't really feel female. Not deep inside. It's still an act, like being bouncy and cheerful."
The chairs creaked as her sister pulled her into a big hug. "Yeah, I had wondered at the smiles. I thought perhaps you were turning American on us."
"Perish the thought." The small smile on her face right then was genuine enough. "But I'm not forcing it today, not with you guys visiting. But some days, it's either fake it until I believe it or give in to the depression, and that would be bad. Dr Bellows has warned me of what might happen if I do that."
"Hmm..." Ceri's gaze ran up and down. "Well, I must say that you're giving a pretty good imitation of being a girl."
"It's not like I have much choice." She could feel the colour surging in her cheeks. "I am a girl now, physically. And they tell me that it gets easier with practice. I'm just glad that Thulia doesn't care, because the idea of an emotional attachment to a guy..." Now the colour drained as she shuddered to a pause. "... no. I don't think that's ever going to happen."
"Yeah, well you're too young anyway." Ceri kept an innocent face as her little sister threatened her with the barbed cynicism of a raised eyebrow. "Just remember: if you need someone to talk to about this stuff, I'm still here for you."
This time, the hugging went the other direction. "Thanks, sis. I mean, it helps that some of my friends are in the same boat, and we do get help and counselling... but it isn't quite the same."
Ceri nodded. "And of course, if you need any advice about getting... ahem, intimate... with Thulia, I am happy to help."
She thought about that, felt the burning colours light her face, and wisely decided not to say a single damn thing to that.
His phone pinged him a message alert as he and Mr. Carlyle left the cooking labs. "Whoops, that'd be Shawn. Guess we're runnin' a bit behind."
"If you say so," the doc replied. Between the two of them they were holding four bags full of little baked treats called boortsog that Daniel had spent much of the day before preparing. They were simple enough to put together -- the ingredients were the same as regular old sugar cookies -- but the prep was a little time-intensive. The deep-frying in particular had taken most of Friday afternoon, but his usual kitchen study group was nice enough to help out.
"Catch you later, eh?" Hannah Sammish had her mom by the arm, and the older woman looked as scared as her daughter was not of all the weirdness of Whateley. When Daniel had gotten introduced as 'the kid who makes desserts', Mrs. Sammish's sigh of relief could've busted a souffle. He didn't know where Hannah had dragged her mother before this, but from the woman's reaction, it could've been just about anywhere on campus.
"For sure. We can work out our next project menu tomorrow. Sound good?" He accepted the hug and cheek-smooch as a yes. Nothing much to think about, for him. Hannah was the huggiest, kissiest person he'd ever met.
"So..." said the doc as they wandered off. "Are the two of you an item?"
"Me and Hannah? Nah. Never even dated. She's like that with everyone."
"And the girl with the ivy hair?"
"Anaïs and me done a few cooking dates, I guess you could call 'em. Just for fun. She's a good one with veggies."
"The one with the scaled dreadlocks?"
He shook his head. "Jordain was my bodyguard for a day, so we hung out. I helped her get with Franklin, same day, and the two of 'em are still dating."
"But you did date the bird girl, Hans's granddaughter, the Scottish wolf-girl, and the young lady in the headscarf?"
Danny scratched his head. "Well, Avsel's more a joggin' date with Cookie, but the rest... yeah? We're just hangin' out and havin' fun. And cupcakes." He whirled his free hand around and produced one with pink icing to match his eyes.
Mr. Carlyle sighed. "I do worry, you realize. Young folk in your family situation tend to... overcompensate, I guess is the best word. Stretch themselves thin trying to please everyone. For example, how many donuts and other items do you produce in an average day?"
His brain tried to figger it up as his feet carried him along. "Prolly should keep count, but... three, four dozen a day? The lab guys, they told me to keep practicin', and I'm gettin' better at it."
"How many do you make for yourself?" Mr. Carlyle tutted the lack of response to that. "Daniel, I know better than many, perhaps better than any, what effects your treats may have on a person's neurochemistry. And, beneficial or not, they are not a replacement for proper therapy."
"Been gettin' that, too," the boy admitted.
"Good. And proper exercise as well, if you're really comfort-eating that much."
A grin spread like butter on his face. "Got that part covered, doc," he told the gentleman. "And not just rompin' and runnin' with Cookie... hey, pup!" he called.
Cookie skidded to a halt upon the path ahead of them. Avsel followed a second later, leaving cloven hoofprints in the dirt behind her. "A good run," the girl in the headscarf declared. "I shall go locate Ms. Chibany now. Another time, Cookie."
"Aroof!" went one head while the other snuffled its nose at the bag of boortsog.
"Nah, pup. Not for you. Though if you wanna try one, Miz Avsel, you all can head over to where Arsi's settin' up."
"Perhaps I shall. Thank you." The girl brought her hands together, bowed, and then sped off.
Mr. Carlyle scritched Cookie between the left-head pair of ears. "You were saying, Daniel?"
"Just come 'n see."
On a flat, cleared patch of the quad, the grass mostly brown with a few hints of green, his friend Arsi Khan had set up the larger of his traditional Mongolian tents. Next to Arsi's tent -- the proper word was ger, he'd learned -- there was a table with sound equipment stacked on it. Right then Saumer was putting the finishing touches on that while yakking with a guy who just had to be Mr. Saumer, Sr. The resident Mongolian was nowhere to be seen, so Daniel introduced the doc to the co-founder of the American Mongolian Wrestling Federation, Shawn Barker. Shawn was a little taller than Daniel plus a lot leaner, with the vaguely good looks of a low-level exemplar. Blue eyes were bright with excitement.
"Awright, you got the snacks!" said Shawn. "Good! Mom, could you hold on to these for a minute?" he said to a woman in a beige pantsuit and coat now sitting by the table. Mrs. Barker accepted the bag of boortsog blindly, since she was too busy staring at Cookie. Pup just grinned back and licked their chops as they practiced the puppy-eyed beg.
"Arsi back yet?" asked Daniel.
"Just got the message, he's on his way over with the dude from the embassy right now. We got the ring set up and everything."
That was the other item of note in their corner of the quad. Traditional Mongolian wrestling didn't really have anything like a ring or a stage to do it on, and the videos that Arsi had of the sport showed it happening right on the grass of the steppe. For the sake of appearances, the local expert had agreed to a token boundary, similar to what they did in Japanese sumo. Franklin and Daniel's roommate Pete were fixing a heavy rope into a reasonably good circle. It was hard to say who was bulkier, the rhino boy from Chicago or the kid who'd punch your lights out for mentioning a resemblance to clowns, but the two of them seemed eager to put it to the test. Over on the sidelines, Franklin's girlfriend Jordain, she of the scaled dreadlocks, was helping to set out chairs for the audience. Daniel had Mr. Carlyle sit at the near end, next to Cookie's spot as honorary club mascot. It was as much to honor the old gentleman as it was to put a buffer between a hungry pupper and the bag of treats. Mrs. Barker looked relieved.
"Nokhoigo khoriori!" came the greeting as Arsi Khan announced his arrival. None of them actually spoke Mongolian, but the boy had informed them that the traditional phrase for visiting another's ger on the steppe translated as "Hold the dogs, please."
Cookie could very well hold themself. Pup was a good doggy. Daniel gave each head a good-job pat. "Okay," he said. "I gotta go get ready for the thing."
First came the introductions, as Arsi had to show his new friend-group off to the man from the embassy, an older round-faced gentleman named Mr. Norovya. The senior Mongolian kept a thin, serious frown on as his usual face, but showed he had a well-practiced smile as Arsi seated him on a campstool in front of the ger and presented him with boortsog and milk tea.
The sound system crackled to life. "Ladies and gentlemen," Shawn began, the microphone a little too close to his face. "We would like to welcome you all to this demonstration from the American Mongolian Wrestling Federation. And to Assistant Attaché Norovny, let me say..." There was the fluttery sound of notes being pulled from a coat pocket. "Um... Saixan namarjinuu?"
Arsi had told them the words were a polite expression. Thank goodness the Mongolian boy was not given to bad pranks.
"Sain, sain," came the response. Mr. Norovny stood once more to bow towards them, and they all returned the gesture.
Daniel ducked into the ger while Shawn continued on with the simplified story of how the club had started, without getting into too many specifics. Like ongoing feuds with other boys who might well could beat them all up. Some things just stayed private.
He had to listen from the inside, though. The so-called 'tent' was more like a portable cabin, with stout walls that stood in a large circle. They'd all taken turns that week helping Arsi put it together. Well-worn rugs covered the ground, and a table in the middle had their costumes laid out. The Mongolian wrestling tradition had some interesting customs, and Daniel wasn't sure he liked all of them. Especially when he had to wear them. "Well, here goes," he said as he shucked his jacket and shirts.
The tent space was big enough for the entire club, sitting down. At the moment it was just him and John Irvine, the armadillo kid. "Um, I..." John mumbled.
"Second thoughts?" Daniel asked.
"Up to fourths and fifths, I think." The other boy stifled a yawn. "And the cold weather's getting to me. And..." John eyed the table again. "Don't you think this stuff looks kinda... gay?"
Daniel shrugged on his jacket, the tight red cotton item that Arsi called a zodog. It was more of a vest with sleeves and no way to button up. His slight donut belly hung plain in front. "Dunno, don't much care," he admitted. "We're doin' this for Arsi, remember?" He dropped his trousers and pulled up a pair of cotton bicycle shorts that were practically tighty-whities, except they were red like the jacket-vest. Shuudag was the name for that. "And like, sure, I guess I might be embarrassed if it was just me, but it ain't, right?"
John grumbled but began to disrobe. "Right."
Outside, the job of announcer had passed to Saumer. The fuzzy-eared boy had his own built-in sound system, which helped. "So here are the rules!" Saumer boomed. "First, this is an exhibition by the American Mongolian Wrestling Federation, club members only, so sit yourself down, Rachel! I see you!"
"Nuts!" The shout slipped through the door to the ger as more teammates filed in. Daniel nodded to Shawn and Arsi, Franklin and Pete, Sam and Fra. Some of them were also looking at the outfits funny, but Daniel swallowed his embarrassment like it was a stale donut hole and stood proud. If he could do it, with his non-exemplar belly showing, then they could too. And they did.
Saumer was about through explaining the rules for holds, throws, and falls, and the guy from the embassy was invited to referee. Daniel and John stood ready by the door as the start of the exhibition was announced: "And so, without further ado, our first match! In the red... oh, yeah, no corners on a circle... Ahem, on the red side, we have our man from Idaho, but he's certainly no potato! Let's hear it for the student with the sweetest power on campus, Donut!"
Wel, it was time to walk the walk. Arsi had shown them videos of the dances actual wrestlers did before matches in Mongolia, and Daniel wasn't up to that just yet. He settled for bouncing along and waving both arms in the air like he didn't really care.
At some point in the last few minutes, half the freshman girl population of Whitman Cottage had taken seats on the front row. Daniel's ears burned as they all cheered him on.
"Aroof!" And Cookie, too. Good pup.
Saumer was still talking. "And from deep down south not too far a run to the border, we have the armored ace, champion of the land of Nod himself, Dasypod!"
John's exit from the tent was far more timid, and if they armadillo boy could've curled himself fully into a ball then he would've. His version of the zodog jacket-vest in blue was cut to allow him to move with the armor plates and stuff on his head and back, but even so the boy wouldn't want to stress the fabric too much. Having it all come off by accident would not improve John's day at all. At the urging of the Whitman cheer squad, the armadillo boy finally made it to the ring where the two of them faced off.
"Want me to throw the match?" whispered Daniel, as if he really stood a chance. "Let'cha look good for the ladies?"
Between armor plates, John's chin was bright pink. "Um, no, um, let's just get this over with. I'm g-getting cold."
Oh, yeah. Wasn't too windy right then, but it was still November in New Hampshire. They got into their starting poses, and then Saumer blew the whistle.
They rushed at each other, arms up and hands ready to grab, to push against each other, to send one boy or the other to the ground. It shouldn't have been an even contest, only John was a sleepy kid even on a good day. Daniel made a proper show for the two of them, their arms pushing against each other with hands clasped tight. Then, with a lurch, Daniel shoved John away and made a grab for his sleeve. One hand took fabric, the other caught the boy along the stomach -- not hard, just enough to get John to bend as the sleeve arm got yanked. An armored kneecap touched the ground.
"And that's a call from our ref!" Saumer announced. "Donut wins!"
Daniel already had a hand out to help John to his feet. "Good match," he said. "Get yourself dressed 'n warm, okay?"
"For our next match..." Saumer began once more after John had a chance to retreat. "We have the quietest kid on campus, Tiptoe, versus the loudest lad around town... um... me! Playback! Whoops, excuse me..." Bowing to the ladies, Saumer slipped off his coat. Then, with a single pull of the arm and a loud scratch of velcro tearing apart, the boy with the fuzzy ears ripped off his shirt in one go, revealing a blue zodog underneath. The pair of baggy pants he had on soon followed, and then Saumer stood in full Mongolian wrestling attire as the girls all cheered and the guy who just had to be Mr. Saumer, Sr., looked mortified. "The things you can learn in Costumes Lab, amiright? Hey, Donut! Take the mike, please."
Shawn was holding Daniel's jacket out the front of the ger, and he grabbed it gladly. Some pants would also have been nice, but that could wait.
"Okay, um," he said into the microphone. "What he said. Tiptoe versus Playback. We ready to start, sir?"
The man from the embassy nodded.
"Good. Um." He found the whistle on the table and blew it loudly. "Begin!"
From the inside of the ger, with its clear view of the wrestling ring, life was beginning to feel a different sort of positive for one Francesco Persico, and the young Italian man still was not sure why or how. The feeling persisted, however, as he cheered on his friends and gloried in their victories. Who won, who lost, that was not important. They were having fun and showing off. Not even the ridiculous attire of the Mongolian wrestler could dampen the enthusiasm -- though, in all honesty, he thought the outfit had a certain manly appeal to it. Certainly the Whitman girls were loud with their appreciation outside.
Daniel won his round against John, which came as little surprise to anyone who actually knew the two boys. The armadillo avatar regularly forgot to take his medications, and today was no different. John stumbled into the ger and took a sudden nap on the carpets. They all knew to leave him be for five minutes before prodding him.
The match between Saumer and Sam was more surprising, and not only for the announcer boy's sudden costume reveal. Sam 'Tiptoe' Warner was as quiet as his code name, but he took the club's training as seriously as anyone could. The boy's tail, brown-fuzzed to match his hair, whipped and curled behind him as he and Saumer faced off. At Daniel's shout of "Begin!" the two boys were at it with wild enthusiasm. Pushing, grabbing, pulling; Fra was more of a football person, but he'd watched some rugby with friends and the Mongolian style of wrestling reminded him of a two-man scrum. Sam won the round with a grab-and-toss, yanking Saumer to the ground. Their referee for the day clapped as he called the point.
"Good one," Fra said to Sam as the boy re-entered the ger. "You are looking good out there. Ah, both of you."
The Poe boy's smile was as quiet and shy as his code name. "Thanks, um, for noticing. Been trying..."
"We all notice," Fra confirmed. He felt like he should say more, but he wasn't sure what. Or rather, he had an idea of what, but it was not the time or the place. The last real chat the two of them had had, one that did not involve either wrestling or English homework, that conversation had happened a month ago, and it had ended --
"Fra, come on! You're being paged!" Shawn grabbed his sleeve and yanked him away from the ger, Sam, and various lingering thoughts.
"Here we are, folks!" Saumer's voice was too loud and too clear to be from the speakers. "The Italian Rammer, the Man with the Golden Fleece, Ariette! And facing him, straight outta Shaky Town and ready to bring down the house, Tremblor!"
He and Shawn strutted their stuff as they walked to the ring, and the Whitman girls ate it all up. The cheers and shouts made up completely for the ridiculous outfits. What he would have given for such attention, those first few weeks at this school. Both he and Shawn understood how it felt, wanting but not understanding, which was how they had both come under the wing of High Gear in the Outstanding Dudes Society. They had both since learned better as well.
There was a wry smile on Shawn's face as they took their positions. The other boy was thinking the same.
Fra had the advantage of height and bulk, but Shawn had an equalizer. Unlike the competitors in the first two matches, the two of them possessed powers that were useful in a straight physical confrontation. Every time that he grabbed Shawn, by the arm or the vest, the other boy's body seemed to vibrate, to go just out of sync with the world around him. No matter which way Fra's hand reached, Shawn was not there at that moment. The young man known as Tremblor did not press his advantage at first, letting Fra wear himself out grasping for air.
But his opponent had to take action at some point. Fra held back, just a little, keeping a modicum of strength in reserve for the moment when Shawn made the move, when he grabbed Fra's vest with the intent to throw. Then did Fra bring the golden aura of his power to bear. The PK field gave strength to his arms even as it helped to contain Shawn's vibrations and keep the other boy close enough to grab back. And then Shawn hit the ground.
"The ref calls the point for Ariette!" shouted the announcer.
As the crowd cheered, Fra's gaze caught the sight of Sam in the door of the ger, cheering quietly for him. He managed his best American-style grin and mimed a thumb's-up towards the big tent. Sam's tail went straight with surprise, and the boy blushed before miming the gesture back.
Sì, Fra thought. They would need to have a real conversation again, soon.
For a tour she had not expected to conduct that day, for guests she had never expected to have, Shisa's guided showing of the campus was going remarkably well. Hardly anything had blown up so far, and none of it her fault. If it were not for all the people milling about, she might even enjoy wandering the campus with Pastel. As it was, she was grateful to have a hat to ride on. There was simply too much going on at boot level for a lady with a tail to feel comfortable about.
They had visited all of the less crowded facilities at this point, and so she craned her neck to spy a safely populated destination. From atop Magic Mike's top hat, it wasn't hard to locate one upon the quad. And it had all the people she wanted to see as well. "Come on," she said to Pastel as she tugged her ride to turn in the right direction. "Let's meet the girls."
A significant portion of the Whitman freshman class was clumped in one place, sitting in folding chairs not far from a funny tent and a ring of rope on the ground. Everyone greeted her with a "Hey, Shisa" with a few "Who's your friend?" for good measure.
"This is my friend Pastel," she announced. "One guess why. She's in Whitman. Ah, what's happening?" she asked. It was a mixed crowd of parents and girls, several of whom she knew barely in passing. One of the younger Dickinson girls was up front next to Jordain, chatting excitedly about something, while down the line a full set of unattended parents sat. That one woman from Schuster was there, sitting stiffly and keeping a nervous eye on the Twain Cottage's official canine mascot. Cookie was just chilling and smiling.
"Wrestling club exhibition," Faolass told her. The humanoid collie girl grinned. "It's been quite the show so far."
"You missed Saumer's striptease!" giggled Whirlibird. The big-sisterly lady sitting with the bird-girl chuckled and shook her head. Another man down the way, by look and smell related to the loudmouth young Twainee, had an embarrassed blush on his face. "Anyway, we're almost ready for the next match."
"And Franklin's gonna win it!" declared Jordain, with all the certainty of a loyal girlfriend.
"In your dreams," said the younger Dickie-girl. "Humorless is gonna murtilate him."
"Ooh... yins got a crush..."
"Do not!" The girl crossed her arms to pout, flexing a little too hard for her jacket sleeves to contain the bulge of muscle. "...okay, maybe a little."
"Boy drama?" Pastel whispered to her feline friend.
Magic Mike chuckled. "Well, I think I shall sit with the adults. You there, good sir!" he boomed, stepping to a space between Shawn's mother and an older gentleman who was petting Cookie. "Is this seat taken?"
"Not at all," said the gentleman. "John Carlyle."
"Magic Mike. Pleased to meetcha. Ooh, are those cookies?" Hands were pumped as her benefactor welcomed himself all around and then helped himself to some baked goods. Shawn's mother continued to look uncomfortable.
"Sit, relax," she said to Pastel. "Meet the dormmates. I need to take a break." Not waiting for her friend to reply, Shisa removed her hated clip with a loud sigh of relief. Then she ran straight down the row of seats, across several surprised laps. Including that one woman's. The shriek of surprise was delightful. At the end of the row, she simply said, "Up, please."
One doggy head sniffed and looked at her. With a friendly woof, Cookie lowered a head to let her sit between the pup's big, floppy ears. It was so nice to work with a canine who knew its role in the natural order of things. Shisa returned the favor with some ear scritches.
"In the blue," Saumer was loudly announcing in his usual manner, without a microphone, "we have the Shy-Town Shebang, the Baddest Beat-Boxer, the Rap Battle Master Supreme..."
"Only until next time!" shouted someone from the back. Zapper, she saw, from Poe Cottage. Sitting with the crazy Ratel and several guests.
"...the one and only Hardnose!" Saumer concluded to much cheering from the Whitman girls. "And in the red, the Disaster of the Big Top, the Sultan of Seriousness, never a joke and always a threat, let's hear it for Humorless!"
"Woo-hoo!" The Dickie-girl was alone in her cheer, the apparent victim of a Whitman conspiracy of silence, to judge from the hushed giggles. The girl glared at them all, then shouted, "Screw you, ladies! Yo, Pete! Kick his ass!"
The two competitors, one a rhino boy, the other a clown-faced giant, both dressed ridiculously, shared a look of confusion. Then Pete struck a pose for his audience of one while Franklin laughed.
"Okay, okay!" boomed Saumer. "Ready, set... begin!"
--Salkhinymori, the Wind-Rider, Hero of a New Age, Future Champion of Ulan-Bataar
It was going great! Everything was great. Everything was awesome, awesome being part of a team, and the team being awesome and helping him put on this show. Somehow Arsi Khan kept the excitement from showing on his face as he stayed serious for Mr. Norovya. It was not until the assistant attaché smiled that the assistant-assistant attaché for the cultural affairs at Whateley Acadey allowed himself the same.
He didn't actually have that title, not for real, but that was how he saw his mission at the school, how he had felt since the day that the Minister of Strange and Magical Affairs back home had met with him personally to explain why they were sending him halfway around the world to study at the same school where the Iron Dragon had once sent his own daughter.
"Another cookie, sir?" he asked.
"Thank you." Mr. Norovny nibbled another deep-fried boortsog as they watched Arsi's friends Shawn and Franchesko have the first powered match of the exhibition. "This is a good performance as well."
"I am glad you think so, sir." Arsi waited as the man called the point for Franchesko, then cheered both his friends for trying so hard. "I am sure the others are, too."
The next match, as announced by his roommate Saumer, was between the hard-nosed Franklin and the clown-faced Pete. He had made sure to note that no one should call Pete the C-word, however, and Saumer danced around the word as well. Arsi hoped that he could speak English half as well as his roommate someday. The teachers all complimented his enthusiasm, and he felt himself improving.
"These two are quite powerful," Mr. Norovya said as Franklin and Pete slammed together like two boulders. "Strong, but lacking in technique."
"It is why they study. Why I study. We are learning many things here."
"Good." The gentleman watched the bout intently as it continued on far longer than the previous three had. Muscles of steel beneath thick grey skin bulged as they met equal resistance from pistons of flesh under powder-white. Neither one buckled, neither gave way, but all it took was the bend of an elbow as Pete readed for another push, and Franklin had his opponent off-balance and on the ground in a heartbeat.
Mr. Norovya called the point and Saumer announced it. The rhino helped the clown to his feet and they had a friendly clap on the back in the spirit of sportsmanship. Arsi had spent more time practicing that with Pete than he had with actual wrestling technique. Honor and respect to the opponent was a pillar of the bökh, the sport of the steppes.
Pete returned to the ger while Franklin accepted victory kisses from his girlfriend that left red marks and wisps of caustic smoke against his thick skin. Out of all the new words Arsi had learned at Whateley, 'hickies' was one of the most interesting. He did not think they were usually caused by chemical burns, but Franklin seemed proud to have them on his chest and neck.
"And now, ladies and gentlemen!" Saumer was saying. "It is time for the main event! In the blue, we have Hardnose, warmed up and ready to charge against our man in... also blue. Whoops. Ahem. Against the Mongolian menace, the slammer of the steppes, not to mention one awesome roommate, Salkhinymori!"
Arsi stood to bow at the applause. Leaving his overcoat on the stool, he approached the wrestling ring proudly in his zodog and shuudag of bright blue, wearing his leather gutal boots from home. His feet carried him through the traditional dance of lions as Saumer used his power over sound to play a Mongolian fight chant. The others, they may have tried, but they were inexperienced and self-conscious about their outfits. Now he showed them how it was done. Feet stomped; arms waved. His arrival in the ring of rope was met with cheers from the Whitman girls and a friendly thumb's-up from Franklin. Arsi returned the gesture and took his position.
They did not clash, not at first. Arsi knew which of them had the greater portion of raw strength, and he was not going to meet that force head-on. Instead he blocked and deflected, sending Franklin's hands away from anything that could be grabbed. He did not need his powers for this; he had all he needed, and that was experience and training. A deflection to send the boy's arm one way, and a pull to boost momentum. Franklin was getting better, did not lose his balance the first time as Arsi nearly flipped him around. The rhinoceros boy did not keep his feet steady, either. Quick, dashing circles to keep the boy from finding his balance, more blocks and deflections, another move to grab--
The grey-skinned young man in the blue wrestling outfit tumbled to the ground, hitting with a thud that sent all the air out of his chest in a long grunt.
"Point called for Salkhinymori!" came the announcement.
Arsi's hand was already out to help his opponent up. "It was a goody-good match," he said.
"Yeah..." Franklin huffed and puffed to his feet, grunting one more time as Arsi clapped him on the back. "I'mma get you next time."
"Keep on trucking!" Arsi was not sure exactly what that meant, but his roommate assured him that it was good.
The buzz of her phone was felt more than heard through the pocket of her jacket. Erica turned her attention from her cousin's little fashion show for a second to check the message. "Okay," she said to her grandparents. "Saumer says the wrestling thing's over -- Fra won his match, by the way, Cally -- and all of them are taking parents and guardians to a lunch thing that Arsi's arranged with catering. So we should be clear to visit the Crystal Hall in five minutes, no chance of running into inconvenient old acquaintances."
"See?" said her uncle. "It was a good idea to talk to him today."
Cousin Penny was going through a training routine in her new suit, testing the way the fabric pulled as she punched and kicked. "This stuff rocks. No tugging at all." She hopped on her toes, then performed a somersault, landing perfectly with her arms up. "It hardly feels like it's there!"
"Just remember to keep the batteries charged," said Vicky. "The force-shields are lifesavers, not damage-tankers."
"Gotcha." Penny flipped the hooded cowl up and down over her blonde hair. "So. Sweet."
Aunt Margit was over with Ms. Barnes and Dr. Speers. "Thank you again for helping us with this," she said.
"Not a problem," replied the English teacher.
The science lab mentor nodded. "Yes, taking commissions and raising funds is part of the tech track coursework. This has been a good experience overall. Ah, Ngaire?"
"Yes, Dr. Speers?" Electradyne perked up at the sound of her name.
"I left the invoice on my desk. Could you go get it for us?"
"Sure thing, sir." The girl danced out the door.
Aunt Margit had an eyebrow arched. "Ah, the energy of youth."
"They are simply happy to have an excuse to meddle with the fundamental forces of nature," said Dr. Speers. "I remember when I was young in these labs..."
"Got it!" Electradyne was back with the papers in a clear file. "Also, I almost forgot to include a repair tool for if the suit gets a rip," she added, twiddling a lock of hair. "I'll just put it in her bag now."
"Good thinking, Ngaire."
Her cousin was not taking off the new duds anytime soon, of that Erica was certain. She'd seen similar reactions in the costumes lab, when a student's hopes and designs aligned to finally get the look they wanted. Whateley rules allowed students to wear outfits instead of uniforms on green flag days, and the kids were more than happy to do so. It was surprising that more students weren't showing off today. In any case, no one cared if Cousin Penny walked around campus in her new outfit, exactly as expected. The older girl even got some compliments on it as they walked through the quad.
"Anything else we should do before lunch?" Erica asked her grandparents after they'd parted ways with Dr. Speers and the Barneses. Vicky and her relatives had stayed down in the science labs for more science geekery, with Mrs. Stone showing familiar resignation on her face. "I mean, it's not quite noon yet."
"We could go annoy Dierdre some more," Aunt Margit suggested to her husband.
"She's calling herself Elspeth now, schatzi. Leave her be." Her uncle allowed one corner of his mouth to quirk up in amusement. "Erica, we are here to see you, so whatever you feel like showing us is enough."
"Thanks, I..." Her voice wandered as she felt more than saw trouble approaching.
Penny stiffened. "Um, cuz, I'm getting a case of the willies here..."
All in all, it was a natural reaction to have, even if the source did not look that threatening -- not, that is, unless you understood enough Latin to grok her t-shirt. Rachel Altus sauntered by with her usual confidence, followed by a tall woman whose hair color must've come from a very expensive bottle. A little behind the two of them was Wilder with a younger girl and an older lady. Erica hadn't seen him so cheerful in practically ever.
The honey badger avatar, on the other hand, was perpetually cheerful. The girl described it as a psych-ops tactic. "Hey, Erica!" she called. "Fancy a practice match?"
"Rachel..." the woman said.
"Aw, Mother. I haven't had the chance to really show you yet, and it's almost lunchtime."
"I've seen footage."
Her arms set proudly akimbo, Rachel declared, "The live experience is even more awesome!"
Erica sighed. "Oma, Opa, meet Rachel, the fightingest girl on campus."
"A pleasure to meet'cha!" Rachel shook every hand she could. "And who's this?" she asked when she got to Penny.
The handshake and the words were firm and businesslike. "Penelope Stein, Erica's cousin."
"Thanks, I just got them today. You like?"
Warning klaxons were blaring in her skull. With any other, saner person on campus, the interest in fashion might be just that, but Rachel Altus tended to have a one-track mind where everything led back to the same primal interest. She really should say something, do something, only the time for that was probably five minutes ago, before they even arrived on the quad.
"It looks awesome. Do you need help breaking it in?"
And... there it was. The inevitable conclusion of any conversation with Rachel. "Not the place," Erica warned out loud.
"What, you think I'd just throw down here, in the middle of the quad?" said the girl with the honey badger spirit. "It's not the first day of school, you know."
"I know. I also know I saw you do just that, first day."
"Yeah, that was a good one... anyway!" Rachel smiled simultaneously in the past and the present, with possibly a bit saved up for the future as well. "I reserved my usual practice room for the entire day, just in case. Whaddaya say?" she asked Penny. "Friendly practice match?"
It was like watching a train wreck play out in slow motion. Nothing was going to stop this from happening and, truth be told, Erica was kind of curious to see what a matchup between the two of them would look like. And it was one more item for the grand tour.
Penelope Stein had heard stories from her adoptive cousin on a weekly if not daily basis via face calls on the smartphones. More than most nominally baseline teens, she knew what life was like among the young mutant population and how much it differed from the schlocky writing of TV programs like Mutant High or Dream Teen. Thus far into the visit, not a lot had actually surprised her, though much had amazed.
She was wearing the biggest surprise by far, and she was loving every movement in it. Whatever the mystery material was, it was silk and steel in one weave, lighter than the outfit she'd arrived in but temperature-controlled for more comfort. It took effort to keep her attention on her cousin's words as they followed the pipsqueak with the rude catchphrase on her back down into the basement of the gymnasium, where the combat practice rooms were situated.
"Listen, Penny," Erica was warning in a low voice. "I know Rachel doesn't look like much at first glance..."
Her nod was short but affirmative. "I can feel it. Like a low-level threat just being near her. Girlie's dangerous and she knows it. Armband?" The trip of material on Rachel's bicep was hard to miss, but the significance was lost on her.
"Warning sign," said her cousin. "Student marked as Ultraviolent, handle with extreme care."
In front of them, Rachel Altus raised her right arm and threw the horns sign in the air. "A to the fu... frickin' Men, yeah! That's how I like to be handled. Right, Dani?"
"Er, um, well..." The boy who'd been introduced as Danny, code name Wilder, looked about ready to die in front of his family, from embarrassment if nothing else. His grandmother just laughed.
"...she's got really good ears, too," Erica whispered. "What else... PK projection claws on her hands, feet, maybe elsewhere. Tough enough to tank a punch or three."
"Don't forget to mention my ultimate awesome honey-badgertude!"
"...and she never holds back. Expect an all-out assault from the get-go."
"I'll keep the claws in this time, promise!"
Penny was feeling grateful that the costume devisor girl had included a repair tool. It was looking like she might need it soon. "Are we there yet?" she asked.
"Just about!" Rachel announced. "Around this corner, and... oh! Hello, Officer Canterbury."
The woman now blocking the corridor was in her early thirties, wearing a law enforcement uniform in the school colors. The lines at the corners of the eyes and the downward curvature of the mouth spoke of much experience with the student body in general and far too much experience with Rachel Altus in particular. "Hello, Rachel. What are you doing here?"
"It's Parents Day, so we're showing them around! Mother, this is Officer Canterbury, my instructor for my independent study course for criminology and also my faculty advisor. I was hoping I'd have the chance to introduce the two of you."
"My sympathies," said Mrs. Altus.
The officer smirked. "Likewise. Now, Rachel, what are you doing here, specifically?"
"Well, according to the Whateley fight code, Article--"
"Don't quote that at me. It only applies to students, and you were observed challenging a non-student guest to a fight."
Oh, yeah, they were talking about her. Penny tried not to squirm as the officer looked her way. "I'm on board with it. Just turned eighteen, so you don't even need to consult my legal guardians, though they're only a few yards behind us, anyway."
Her grandmother's voice echoed down the corridor: "Kick her ass, Penny dear."
"Will do," she called back. "Once we've got the rules and stuff sorted."
The officer's sigh was long and storied. "Fine. Rachel, what legal excuse have you dredged up this time?"
The fightingest girl puffed up with pride as she made her case. "First, Ms. Stein here has recently come into possession of a combat outfit, as you can see. When did you acquire it?" she asked Penny.
"Just this morning."
"So it was produced on campus by students in the devisor and gadgeteer department?"
"And all materials were properly checked for safety, as per the Whateley general licensing code?"
Penny couldn't answer, but her grandfather could: "Dr. Speers has provided documentation pertaining to the testing of individual devises and components during development, yes."
"Where's this going, Rachel?" Officer Canterbury sounded tired.
The manic pixie fight girl sounded anything but. "Appendix 3, paragraph C, line 2: As pertaining to the testing of devises or devise-derivatives for use in combat, rules outlined in Article 4 of the general licensing code, outside contractors may be hired for the purpose of specialized testing as required, to perform their duties within the general limits of the relevant sections of the Whateley codes. That awesome suit of hers has not been stress-tested under live fire simulation, and as the intended recipient of the suit and its peripherals, Ms. Stein fills the requirements of an outside contractor for specialized testing. Which involves fighting." The girl beamed. "I humbly submit my services to assist in the testing."
Mrs. Altus and Officer Canterbury looked as if they both shared a headache and her name was Rachel. "I don't suppose you'd care for a drink later?" asked the officer to the mother. "Because I really need a stiff one anytime I have to deal with your daughter."
"Five years on the wagon, sorry."
"Damn, I wish I had your willpower... Oy, Rachel!" said Officer Canterbury. "I don't doubt that you got the legalese right, damnit, but unless you can provide a valid form to sign... and of course you can..."
The girl was already presenting her smartpad to Penny, its screen filled with legalese headed by 'Contract for Third-Party Testing of Devises or Gadgetry'. The text was presented in block format, each paragraph another brick in the wall of jargon until Penny's eyes arrived at the line where she had to sign her name with a stylus. The smartpad beeped as she finished. "Signed, sealed, and sent to records," Rachel reported. "Now let's get it on!"
Penny did not need to be told twice. She was already at the door and raring to go. Not necessarily for the fight so much as for the opportunity to stretch and move. For the past few months, her only real sparring partner had been Safta Margit, and while the old lady had the moves of someone a fraction of her age, she still wasn't young anymore. Getting into fights at her own school was a definite no-no as well. But there was a heat to her blood, a will to act out that she'd had since her earliest memories in the foster care system. The physical enhancements brought on by Uncle Hans's new and improved formula only made it easier to accomplish something with that heat.
So although Penny knew she would likely come to regret this, in the moment she was looking forward to stretching her muscles, moving around, and seeing how she did against someone younger than her own grandmother.
Rachel sauntered into the chamber, removing her jacket in one motion and throwing it behind her for the Wilder boy to catch. The girl had on a bright pink t-shirt with the words CARPE SCROTUM in lavender on the front and DON'T GIVE A SHIT on the back. From what Penny had heard from Erica, the t-shirt was practically the girl's trademark costume.
"Testing, testing," came Erica's voice over the intercom. Through the side window of the training chamber, Penny could see the viewing gallery now filled with spectators. Her family looked relaxed and ready to enjoy the show. Rachel's mom looked concerned. The girl's apparent boyfriend was in the middle of explaining something to his little sister, who was finding it all so exciting.
"Okay," said Erica at the microphone. "The timer is set for a three-minute match, victory on points. Honor system, no vital strikes, try not to hurt each other too bad, and claws stay in, Rachel."
"I promised already, didn't I?"
"It never hurts to confirm," came the voice of Officer Canterbury over the intercom.
Penny took her position to start, tensing as Erica counted down from three and shouted "Begin!" Her danger sense, already on alert just from proximity to Rachel Altus, flared to full force. Arms rose to block a flurry of short strikes as the other girl launched from a standing start to land fist-first in Penny's face.
Block, deflect, backstep. Penny was on the defensive from the get-go, edging backwards from the force of the assault. Rachel may have been keeping her claws in, but there was still a silver lining to each punch that promised nothing good.
So far the suit was holding up well, the peculiar weave of its material absorbing the hits, but she needed more. The next lull, the next fraction of a second when the punches slowed, Penny flicked her wrist as she'd been shown and a six-pointed star-shield of hardened light caught the next PK-assisted punch. The energy fields meshed, if only for a blink, and that was enough to pull Rachel Altus down right as Penny's knee was coming up into the girl's gut.
"Point!" Erica declared as her classmate tumbled to the padded floor.
Rachel hit the mats, rolled, and launched herself back at Penny for round two.
Side-stepping the first lunge, pivoting on the balls of the feet to dodge, and yet none of it mattered as Rachel turned on a metaphysical dime to swing a low haymaker straight into Penny's own gut.
That did not hurt as much as it should've, she thought as she picked herself up off the mat. Again the weave of the suit's padding had redistributed the impact before most of it could reach her abs. That most definitely did not mean that it didn't hurt, however. She'd be showing a bruise in that spot for a few days. There wasn't the time to be achy, though. Little Miss Scrappy awaited. As soon as Penny moved to get up, Rachel was arriving with an elbow drop.
The ping of her danger sense was perfectly timed, urging her to roll quickly. When Rachel landed, a black-clad leg was already snaking out to sweep the girl to the floor. The end result was the two of them rolling across the padded mats in a frantic cloud of punches and kicks as one or the other ended up on top. At the very moment her cousin called time on the three minutes of the fight, Penny had a knee down on Rachel's stomach, her hands gripping the girl's shoulders as she slammed her into the floor repeatedly.
"Time!" Erica repeated. "Time! Ti... oh, cut it out, you two! We're missing lunch!"
"Oh!" said Rachel, currently straddling Penny's shoulders with her knees catching her opponent's head in a vise. One fist paused in the air. "I guess we should call it a draw?"
Penny's fists caught her in the armpits, throwing the manic pixie fight girl off and back to the mat. "Sure," she said, taking a deep breath and then choking down a cough. "Maybe some water and an aspirin first?"
She did not let herself fall back to the mat, much though she wanted to right then. Nap time could come later, on the ride away from this crazy school. First she needed to eat so her body could heal up from the idiocy she'd just put it through.
Rachel patted her back and together they kept themselves steady as they left the chamber. "That was a good one," the girl was saying. "Let me know if you ever want a rematch. Where are you from, anyway?"
"Muncie." At least, that was the current place listed on all her paperwork. Why her grandparents had chosen that town to settle in, she'd never heard.
"No kidding? I'm from Terre Haute. We have so got to get together for some sparring practice this summer. But for today..." The girl smacked her lips. "I think the Barneses have their super-duper mad science ice cream machine out in the Crystal Hall today. Let's go tempt fate with the randomizer button, how's that sound?"
It sounded pretty good, actually. A perfect end to an eventful day. Penny let her cousin lead the way back to the cafeteria as Rachel yakked on.
The Crystal Hall was strangely deserted for lunch. A decent percentage of the student body were opting for takeout that day, it would seem, and fully half the usual seats were empty. Friends, parents, and assorted other visitors had no trouble finding a place at any table. By necessity, she was sitting downstairs at the edge of the Whitman cafeterritory where they had space to fit her godfather. Whateley likely had students of similar size and proportion in its history, but if any of them were at school this term, she had yet to meet them.
"They definitely know how to feed you well," said Uncle Nem. One taloned finger wagged at her tray. "It is a wonder that nothing breaks under the weight."
Auntie Sylph chuckled. "You are one to talk."
"Ah, but I am a growing lizardman." His serrated grin was almost as wide as the variety of meats on his carnivore's special double-size tray. It made Tanya's own lunch of two cheeseburgers, double fries (onions and potatoes), super salad, and a large fruit cup seem like nothing much at all.
Her godmother, she noted, had almost as much on the plate as she did. Flying bricks needed their calories.
"It is a pity your roommate couldn't join us."
"Yeah..." Tanya scanned the area for any sign of Sterling, and came up with less than the usual nothing. "She must still be hanging out with her, uh, friends. I'll tell her you said hi."
She didn't see Sera around, either. The Icelandic girl had apparently excused herself with a stomachache while Tanya was up in the air. Perhaps the general Parents Day malaise had hit her, too.
"Sorry we haven't really seen much," she said to her godparents. "I mean, it's mostly just been me flying around."
"And you did it beautifully," Sylph assured her. "I was tempted to fly up there and join you, only dear Nemean would be most lonely."
Uncle Nem growled his disagreement through a mouthful of steak.
"Um, pardon me, but..." Wilder was walking past just then, his own tray heavy with meat and bread. "Nemean, sir? Ah don't know if..."
"Danny!" The table rattled as Nemean rose to greet the young man. Wilder's tray barely escaped in time, aided by Silver Sylph's quick hands. There was nothing quite like one of Uncle Nem's huge, scaly hugs, as Tanya could attest. "I've been meaning to find you. How have you been?"
"Better? Worse? Kinda..." Wilder made a wobbly sideways motion with his hand. "Ah'm gettin' regular sessions with Doc Shu, though. Workin' through stuff."
"That is good to hear." Nemean motioned to the nearest chair. "Do you have a moment to sit?"
The young man craned his neck to check another table in the near distance. Not far off a lady in a pink coat -- his mother, maybe? -- simply waved and returned to her conversation with a gaggle of other moms. Zapper, Ratel, and Karkadann were sitting at a different table with a younger girl and, surprisingly, Time Bomb from Poe. The junior high girl was even laughing at some joke.
"Um, sure," said Wilder. "Guess Ah kin sit a spell. Um, hi Tanya."
"Hi," she replied.
"Ah saw yer big fight..."
"Don't." The word slapped the air.
Wilder nodded. "Yeah, Ah get it. Ain't never good when someone gets hurt. Doc Shu and me talk 'bout that sorta thing a lot."
She could feel a blushing surge across her face. "Sorry. It's just getting... you know."
This was more words than she'd ever exchanged with the boy from Poe. Tanya hardly knew a thing about him, other than the fact that he'd pissed Sera off the first day when they'd arrived together. What could she say... "I like your hair," she finished lamely.
Wilder perked up, back and ears straightening. "Thanks. Rachel does it up for me. The doc thinks if Ah focus on, um, stuff like that as a pos'tive, mah shifter trait could react to it."
"Does he now?" said Nemean. "That would be something, yes."
"Ah think so, too. An' even if it don't..." The young man fiddled with the end of his braid. "It makes me feel better, so Ah ain't gettin' angry so much."
She was definitely missing some of the details and context here, and she was not about to ask for them right now. There weren't many other topics between them, though. "Rachel's been looking happier around Whitman, too," she said.
Wilder's blush was not one of embarrassment, judging from the grin and the direction of his ears. Of course that prompted another question from Nemean, and then another. Before the young man left to join his friends for lunch, Tanya had gotten a better picture of Rachel's love-life than she'd ever really needed. It had her second-guessing her own social skills.
Speaking of which, she wondered where Vic had gotten off to. She would have to find him once this was all over.
Renée Jameson had only visited Whateley once before, as part of a summer crash course on power theory and training when her amateur theatrics as 'Supermuse' one Mardi Gras had landed her a professional hero gig as the Crescent Muse of New Orleans. Out of everything on campus, it was the Crystal Hall that had impressed her the most, and it still did. She looked around the adults table, there on the first floor near the ficus, and saw that the other moms, grandmoms, and assorted older female guardian figures felt the same way.
She was tempted to go back for thirds, but decided against it. No one else seated there had a brick's metabolism, and she'd been hesitant to get even seconds. But at least they could all agree that the ice cream was divine. Hers was a mix of cane sugar caramel and pudding fruit, according to the readout on the mad culinary science devise. Less adventurous adults had consulted the notebook of known codes to input, but Renée had hit the randomizer and enjoyed the results.
"Do you think they'll ever finish?" her sister Constance wondered. At the next table over, Cathy's friends were doing their best to put the buffet out of business. "I swear, the tuition here is worth it just for the savings on our monthly food bill."
Around the curve of the table, the mysterious Ms. Chibany chuckled over her cone of violet-striped dairy deliciousness. "The more things change, the more they stay the same. I recall one holiday where a donor helped pay for the school to splurge on filet mignon for the entire student body. Doubtless it led to the extermination of at least one ranch's worth of cattle to provide such bounty to students who couldn't appreciate it."
"A waste of good meat," agreed Mrs. George. There still had been no mention of a Mr. George, and Renée suspected that there never would be. "But a boon for the beef futures market."
"So you invest?" said Mrs. Altus. The look on the woman's face suddenly bore a much closer resemblence to her daughter. "In what, if you don't mind me asking?"
"In all sorts of things," Mrs. George replied. "I have an intuitive-spectrum ESP ability that lets me process details and make big-picture predictions. It can't account for randomness or acts of God, so it can't be categorized as precognition," the woman was quick to add. "Thankfully. I'd make a terrible Cassandra. What I do isn't so different from what a computer algorithm might achieve, just without the computer. All completely legal. Here, take a card. If you ever want some investment advice, I'm your lady."
"I might just pick your brain about that intuition sometime," said Ms. Chibany.
"And you're welcome to... Sahar? Jordanian?"
Ms. Harmony Fontenot read the business card carefully. "Dunno how much I could spare," the woman admitted. "But I probably should try. Raising grandkids isn't cheap, and if Michelle, ah..."
"That should be a few more years on," Renée assured her. "If it happens at all."
"Don't be too sure," said Mrs. George. "The mean age of mutation's pretty constant, but the median's been dipping steadily over the past decade. There are more outliers on the younger end of the range than ever before. I mean, just look at the junior high crowd over there."
That was the truth. Renée had to admire the teacher who did home room for the nearly two dozen kids aged ten to almost thirteen, most of whom were now on their second or third serving of lunch. "There've been more late bloomers, too," she felt like adding. That was a factoid she knew from personal experience.
"Yes, the age range of first onset is widening in both directions, but the outliers are still weighted to one end. And early or not, the odds are still in favor of her mutating eventually. Having a mutant sibling increases the chances by ten percent over baseline."
"That much?" asked Constance. "I thought they still couldn't predict it that well."
"Oh, they can't. The root factors are too complicated to process, even now. But given a standard background, all known factors controlled for, siblings increase the odds by ten percent. So for instance, if there's a twenty percent chance in general among the group, a little brother or sister has an extra ten percent of that, which is to say a twenty-two percent chance." The brunette shrugged. "Sorry to get in deep, but this is sort of my wheelhouse here."
Ms. Chibany eyed her curiously. "You do genetics, too?"
"Actuarial accounting and statistics. With my abilities, earning my license was a snap." Mrs. George took another spoonful of ice cream. "Okay, diving deeper, the odds also increase if an aunt or an uncle is a mutant, but it's weighted more heavily for the opposite sex. So... does Catherine have a brother?"
"Ah, no." Constance was caught with an ice cream spoon in her mouth.
"Well if you did, then his chances of mutation would actually be as much as fifteen percent over Catherine's, because of Ms. Nola Rizing here. Of course, the big one is if your parents are both mutants, but even just one raises the odds by a lot. More the moms than the dads, but still a lot either way. So I wasn't at all surprised when my Bailey manifested. It would've been less likely for her not to."
Constance looked over to where her daughter was eating. The girl was still holding hands with Mrs. George's daughter. "I see the resemblance."
The brunette cackled. "Between us ladies, I'm relieved. Bailey's got an ESP power like mine, but it's touch-based. She must really feel comfortable with your daughter."
Ms. Harmony spoke up again: "How often do folks end up with the same power?" She was still looking at her granddaughter, happily chatting with two of the junior high girls.
"In the first generation, between siblings? Rarely, except in the case of identical twins. And even then not so common. Subsequent generations, parents to children?" Mrs. George gestured to herself. "Fifty-fifty chance of being in the same trait spectrum, increasing with each generation. We think. Even the oldest mutant dynasties are barely on the fourth generation, so we're still looking for data points. And some traits, like accelerated healing factors, seem to skip generations. But no, it's unlikely that Michelle will develop any sort of shifter trait, much less something like Danny's."
The grandmother took no care to hide her relief. "Thank you. I just get worried..."
"We all do," Mrs. Altus assured her. "Believe me, I do sympathize. We should make a support group for dealing with our daughters' friend group and all the ulcers it will bring. Maybe invite Officer Canterbury as an honorary parental figure." Somewhat appropriately, the woman's cup of ice cream was the same pink as a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, but almost certainly tastier.
Renée raised her cup. "I think we can all agree to that."
Leslie dodged to the side as a little kid almost ran her over, followed by a harried looking father and an embarrassed looking Dickinson girl. Only the protracted mental squeal of delight had given her enough warning to get out of the way.
"So where is this Crystal Hall your house mother told us about?" her mom asked. 'Yay, cafeteria food. Almost as bad as airplane food.'
"Maybe we could go to one of the restaurants in the tunnels? Crystal Hall is going to be packed," Leslie said.
Her dad rubbed her head. "Don't be silly. I want to see how well they're feeding my little girl."
'Might as well save some money, this has already cost a fortune.'
"I'm not sure if this is a good idea," she said. "How about you both go in, and get what you want in a to-go box. We can eat outside, it's a really nice day. I'll get us a table on the edge of the quad."
'Still trying to hide from people. I thought sending her here would help her open up more.' "Don't be silly. It's freezing out here," her mom said.
"I'm not hiding from people. I'm trying not to get overwhelmed," she said.
'Oh god. She's reading my mind.'
'How is she doing that?'
"Yes, I'm reading your mind," she said. "I really don't want to, but I can't help it."
"You're creating a scene is what you're doing," her dad said. 'Why is she still doing this?'
Her mom took a hold of her hand. "You've been purposefully avoiding crowds all day, just like you used to back home. We've barely seen anything except a few classrooms, your dorm, trees, and a handful of classmates. The least you can do is have a nice lunch with us, and introduce us to some of your friends."
"I don't have friends, because I can't handle crowds, okay? Duster is the closest person I have to a friend here, because he doesn't find my powers creepy, and I'm not constantly reading his mind," she said.
Her dad rubbed at his temples. "Please keep it down, people are staring." 'She's not even trying to make friends. What is wrong with her?'
"Leslie, we're worried about you," her Mom said. "We want you to make friends and have fun. The people here are like you, you should have lots in common." 'Maybe we should take her back home, this school clearly isn't helping.'
"Yeah, going back home will go really well. Shouting at my class to shut up during a test was perfectly normal and didn't cause any problems!" Leslie could feel her parents' emotions: they were getting ready to put their foot down. Planning to do what they thought was best for her, so they could get on with their lives and not worry about her.
"Fine," she said. "Lets go to Crystal Hall. The food's awesome, better than any place back home. I can even introduce you to my roommate. Libby and I get along great." Mostly by avoiding each other as much as humanly possible.
Taking long strides ahead, she knew they were following her without even looking. Putting her earbuds in, she cranked the music up nice and loud. If she was going to do this, she might as well do it big. Joining the crowd heading for lunch was like jumping into the ocean and getting caught in a riptide.
'This place is amazing! // 'How much bacon could I get out of him? Oh god! That's a terrible thought! Bad brain!' // 'That Mongolian wrestling thing was pretty cool. Maybe I should join up.' // 'Can you just please go home already?' // 'Jailbait alert.'
She focused on the music to stay on top of the emotions and thoughts. They weren't hers. She was angry. Just angry. She wasn't happy, tired, excited, horny, humiliated, or sad. Just slide through it all like a duck through the water. Let them wash over, not wash away...
'My god. Look at all of this.'
She reached out, clutching what she hoped were her parents' hands. She was angry with them. They were going to lunch.
'I've never seen anyone as handsome as him. God, I'm getting wet'
I'm angry with my parents. We are going to lunch. She repeated the two sentences in her head, focusing as hard as she could on them and the feelings. The thoughts and feelings that surrounded her pulled at her mind, breaking down the pitiful remnants of her shield. Chipping away at her.
'I hate my brother. Why does he get to come here and I don't?'
I'm angry with my parents. We are going to lunch.
'So much food!'
I am angry with my parents. We are going to lunch.
'I'm going to have nightmares for weeks.' // 'Oh man, I'm starving.' // 'This pasta is incredible.'
I am hungry with my parents. We are going to pasta lunch.
'What would she be like in bed?' // 'Don't scream. Don't scream. Don't scream.'
I was hungry with excited my starving parents. We nightmares are food going to scream.
'A great school, going to kiss her, like this and my idiot son can barely pass.' // 'Is, I love you guys, my brother going to be a super, so sad I'm leaving soon, villain?' // 'She's, HATE HATE HATE HATE THIS! blossomed so, stop smothering me, much, .' // 'I'm Dad Willing Stop Sloppy Hot Sis Cool Huge So Itchy Where Who'
I blossoming parents her brother angry. Idiots villains, hungry, lunch.
'Screamhappyhomeworkwhygostopbaconheroesschoolclasseslaidparentssondaughterfoodsteakangrycrazymadkillwronggoodrememberbrothsisermiseruncaunoidguinteiowueaceouwanelaicuelkjioj. IS SHE ALL RIGHT?!'
Leslie didn't realize she was screaming, even as she heard it through the ears of five dozen bystanders. She didn't know she was clutching her own ears desperately trying to make the noise stop. She didn't even feel her head hit the floor as her brain mercifully shut down.
"OK, Mike," Pastel said, "so far you've given presents to three students, got a little boy to stop crying, gave pep talks and advice to five parents, and convinced a security guard to smile more often. We've also walked around the entire campus without managing to get anywhere near my new dorm. Can we please take a break?"
"Lazy," Shisa said. "I'm not tired."
"You've been riding on Mike, me, or a dog all morning, little miss high and mighty. You cannot call me lazy!"
"I just did," she replied, sticking out her tongue.
Magic Mike rubbed his stomach. "Why, I do believe it's time for lunch. We can rest our weary feet while we fill our bellies. Shisa, where's the best free food on campus?"
"Crystal Hall, just follow the path," she said. "It is the best I've had in years."
"Better than a grocery store dumpster dive banquet? Impossible!" Pastel said.
"What a shame," Mike said, rolling his eyes, "I miss rat shishkabob."
Shisha snorted. "Plump rat is delicious. Nice and salty," she said, licking her lips.
"I'm not taking food advice from someone who thinks food that's still twitching improves digestion," her friend said.
She saw Day Dreamer and her family ahead of them. They were stopped in the middle of the path and clearly unhappy.
"Yes, I'm reading your mind," Day Dreamer was saying. "I really don't want to, but I can't help it."
Magic Mike came to a stop, making out to be suddenly very interested in some flowers beside the path.
"What are you doing?" Shisa hissed.
"These flowers are very pretty. I believe they're a mix of roses and carnations. I wonder how they did that," he said, kneeling down to sniff them.
"Can we just keep going. I don't like eavesdropping."
"You love eavesdropping," Mike replied.
"Not so obviously." She turned to Pastel for support, only to see her friend was listening to the argument. The girl seemed lost in thought, and not a happy one.
Day Dreamer stomped off, her parents quickly falling in behind her. That got Mike moving again. They didn't have to go far to reach the main path and be surrounded by dozens of people. Pastel walked ahead of them, getting to within a few feet of Day Dreamer, who seemed lost in her own little world.
Entering Crystal Hall, Mike wove his way between people and groups, trying to catch up to Pastel. There weren't many diners sitting at the tables; most of the rather large crowd was grabbing to-go boxes, filling them up as much as possible at the buffet, and then leaving to watch the group activities outside. That suited Shisa just fine. She wanted a chance to talk to Mike and Pastel in some peace and quiet.
The line suddenly came to a halt.
Magic Mike kept moving, somehow making it to Pastel and the problem without bumping into anyone. From her perch, Shisa saw Day Dreamer violently shaking, her face slack, but her mouth was moving, saying something too silently to be heard in the noisy building.
"Hey, Day," Pastel said, waving her hand in front of the girl's face, "are you okay?"
"Leslie, what's wrong?" the girl's mother asked.
The father grabbed a shoulder, giving the girl a gentle shake. "Come on, snap out of it," he said.
Day Dreamer brought her hands up to her ears and shrieked. Shisa laid her ears back, trying to protect them from the ear piercing wail. Then the girl dropped like a puppet with its strings cut. Her head hitting the floor hard enough to bounce.
Blood started pooling onto the floor.
While the girls parents called for help, Pastel got to her knees, placing her hand on Day Dreamers head. Closing her eyes, the multi-coloured girl bit her lip in concentration. Shisa watched as an ugly, gangrenous green appeared on her temple, making the onlookers gasp in shock and horror. With every passing second, the colour crept over her eye and ear covering the pink, yellow, green and blue pastel pattern of her skin and hair.
The blood stopped pouring out, but Day Dreamer stayed unconscious.
“She's going to be OK,” Pastel said. She touched her temple, self-consciously covering the diseased looking flesh with her hand. “She had a bad concussion, but it's healed. She just needs sleep now.”
A teacher came over, bringing things to order.
Just below Twain Cottage, down the first tunnel entrance and a few meters on the left, there was a small meeting chamber that had not seen use since sometime in the previous school year. The American Mongolian Wrestling Federation had called dibs on it as soon as they realized it was there, cleaning out the dust and cobwebs over the course of a week while Shawn worked through the byzantine process of claims and requests for furnishings. They had gotten floor mats from the gymnasium storage rooms to cover the bare concrete, and they were working on the walls. Franklin and Sam had spray-painted murals onto one side with a gadget provided by one of the Poe boy's floormates. The club logo had thankfully dried in time for the weekend.
Right now, a long row of short-legged tables ran down the hall with sitting cushions instead of chairs. The young men of the AMWF and their guests were all comfortably seated and ready to begin. The Crystal Hall catering service had provided a dozen hot plates, trays of sliced vegetables, and twenty of the school's carnivore specials. Everything was ready for grilling.
They just had to wait for Arsi to make it through his commencement speech. The Mongolian boy had worked hard on it in Ms. Barnes's class, and everyone knew it. So even though their stomachs gurgled, they cheered him on with their attentive silence. After thanking his friends, the school, and the man from the embassy for coming that day, Arsi finished by apologizing for the food. Apparently Mongolian barbecue did not originate from the country for which it was named, but the cafeteria staff had not realized. Nobody present cared, not even Mr. Norovny of the Mongolian embassy. Meat was delicious; meat was good.
"I'm liking this school more now," said his father. Gianluca Persico sliced pieces of mutton with professional precision, laying the strips on the hot plate to fry. "And not just the food. It is good company you keep here."
"Better than your old gang back home," Claudio agreed.
Fra winced. His friends in Genua had mostly been sports fanatics or hangers-on, people who saw his growing exemplar physique and good looks, then assumed that those things equaled success and importance. It had not prepared him well for life at Whateley. "I am learning," he admitted.
To his left, Sam Warner tugged at his knife, now stuck in a knot of gristle. Fra's golden aura flickered as he pulled the blade out for his friend. "Thanks," said the boy from Poe. "Um, how's your dad liking the school?"
They'd been speaking in the home dialect, of course. Fra felt a little bad about that, seeing his teammate there at the corner with no one to talk to. "He... It is to his liking," he said. "Ah, I do not wish to feel you bad, but..." There was a mistake in that sentence, somehow. He wasn't sure what, but the blush on Sam's face told him it was likely something minor but embarrassing. "You are alone?" he finished out loud.
"No parents," the boy admitted. "Not much family. Just an uncle, but he doesn't know where I am and I'd like to keep it that way."
A pause on his side. "I am sorry."
"Don't be." Sam focused on frying his meat. "It's, um, not uncommon for a lot of kids at Poe. I think the only boys in my wing who actually have people here today are Sergio and Kieran. A few others wished they could come, but it just wasn't happening. And then me and Swerve, well... Kind of relieved no one's come."
Glancing around, Fra could see that the rest of the AMWF and their guests were all busy and engaged. Saumer's father was talking with John's about business of some sort. Shawn's mother was speaking with the old gentleman who had arrived with Daniel. Arsi had the ear of the embassy man, while Pete... well, Pete was alone as well, but the dour boy with the clown face seemed to prefer it that way. At the far end of the table, Daniel and the team's two-headed canine mascot kept the red-nosed young giant company anyway. Even Franklin, who was upfront about how his own father was serving fifteen years in the Illinois State Penitentiary, had his girlfriend Jordain there.
But Sam had no one.
Certo che no. Sam had him. Fra's heart dipped in his chest at the thought. "Would you like to hear about my home, Genua?" he asked his friend.
A smile tiptoed across Sam's face. "I'd love to."
Once the sun was firmly up and the morning breeze past, it was a wonderful fall morning. Chessa Barnes had leggings under her poodle skirt, and her pink letter jacket stayed on her shoulders, but otherwise she paid no mind to the temperature outside. This might well be the last good weekend for a picnic in 2016, and so she had the old quilt out on the grass with a goodie basket on the side and textbooks holding down the corners.
Jacob Parelli, sophomore and sometime game-night paladin, was there to help her study, or she was there to help him. Whatever, whichever, an excuse was still an excuse, and even if they'd stuck to the subject, the topics had wandered.
English? Shakespearean sonnets, the romantic ones.
Chemistry? Yes, plenty.
Math? The subtle geometry of how not to mash noses together.
Spanish? They both took it, but in the current moment they were more interested in French.
Chessa was glad she'd applied the flavored lip gloss that morning. Every kiss tasted of strawberries. "Whew..." she said during one short break to catch her breath, lips tingling and body shivering from warmth. Jacob had an arm around her still, so she rolled in to rest her head upon his chest as he held her. One bronzed and faintly scaled hand stroked his cheek. "Ah..." Words failed her.
"Feeling good?" her boyfriend asked.
"Feeling wonderful," she replied. Her hand danced across the lines of his shirt. The exemplar physique was there: not too muscular, not too soft. She nuzzled his chest for a moment before looking up into his china-blue eyes. Jacob must have seen something in her solid green gaze, because the kissing resumed with all the intensity she could ever hope for.
It had taken a month to get them to this point, a month of chatting and holding hands and getting to know one another until they were both comfortable with the concept of romance. Jacob had taken longer to grok the feelings than she had, but eventually they'd figured him to be demi, rather than full ace. The young man needed the metaphorical clue-by-four to the head to realize when a girl was interested, but when he finally realized, and the feeling grew mutual...
He really was a good kisser. Neither of them was ready for more than that, but the kisses? So romantic.
Not so romantic? The notification beep on her smartphone. Chessa ignored the regular -bweet, bweet, bweet- in favor of more delicate smooches, but eventually she had to grumble to a halt and check to see what someone else's problem was that so urgently needed attention.
"What's up?" asked Jacob.
She was tempted to answer inappropriately, but: "The fam's in the hall waiting for me~yee!" He'd chosen that moment to nuzzle her neck, kissing right along the line to her collarbone. After an intense moment of clinging to his chest and gasping for her heart as it stuck in her throat, she managed to continue. "That... that was very, very nice, but w-we should save it for somewhere more, more private..."
Her boyfriend's face had gone beet red. "I'm sorry..."
"Oh, I'm not. It was so good... ahem. Yeah. Family. Crystal Hall. Pronto. Want to come with?"
Jacob was already cramming text books into his bag. "Always, milady."
"How courteous, sir knight." The quilt folded up easily into the large tote bag meant for just that purpose. From the same bag she pulled a silken foulard scarf to fix around her neck. Her skin shivered as the material rubbed across that one spot still warm from the kiss. An idea came to her, followed by a second foulard from her stash of style. "Would the brave knight wear a sign of his lady's favor?" she asked.
"It would be my honor." Her boyfriend presented his elbow for her to tie the silken scarf around. It was dark blue with coppery rosettes.
She cradled his hand against her chest a moment longer, then stood on tiptoes to deliver a tingly peck on his cheek. "Let's get going. They're probably starting the ice cream roulette soon."
Shouldering their bags, his on the left and hers on the right, Jacob offered an arm and she graciously accepted. Chessa stayed glommed onto him for the entire stroll to the cafeteria. If six months ago she had known... well, six months ago, she's still been 'checked out,' as it were, and in no position to know anything. But the old her could not have imagined the happy feelings floating through the new her. Life was good.
"Everything okay?" Shisa asked, as Pastel came out of the clinic.
Her friend nodded adjusting an old baseball cap to cover more of her face. “Yeah. They just wanted to ask me some questions, make sure I hadn't done anything that might have hurt her. And I waited around a bit to see if she'd wake up.”
Pointing to a box sitting on the bench, Shisa said, "I thought you'd be hungry. Brought you a to-go box."
"Thank you! I'm famished. I've gotten too used to having three meals a day." Pastel looked around. "Where's Magic Mike?"
"He saw Day's parents leaving, went to talk to them. He said he may come back."
“So we could see him later today or in a couple of weeks. Typical of him.” She took out a large pastrami sandwich, scooped some sauerkraut onto it, and began eating. “Oh man this is so good.”
Letting her friend eat in peace, Shisa simply watched. She had honestly thought she'd never see any of her friends again. The last day she'd seen any of them had been terrifying, painful, and bloody. Honestly it had been the third worst time in her life -- and considering her life, that was a pretty impressive feat.
She began to purr in pleasure, sidling up to her friend leaning lightly against her thigh. When the sandwich was finished and Pastel started on her salad at a more sedate speed, Shisa spoke. “You haven't fixed your head.”
"I told them I need to transfer it. They said to come back in a few hours and they'd have something for me," Pastel said.
Getting up, Shisa told her friend, "Wait here."
She ran towards a copse of trees, climbing the nearest in a few seconds. Stalking along the branches she saw a squirrel lying flat against a branch, watching her, ready to run or jump as soon as she made a move.
Tensing her legs, she flipped a mental switch, and power poured into her muscles.
The squirrel didn't have time to react. One moment, she was several feet away, and then she was grabbing it in one hand, stunning it with a slap to the head with her other hand, and landing on the ground with her prey. Placing it in her mouth, she trotted back to her friend.
Spitting it out onto the bench, she hopped up. “There you go.”
"You didn't have to do that," Pastel said. "They were going to get me something."
"I like to be sure."
"He's too cute to use. Why couldn't you have found a rat or something?"
Shisa sighed. "Use it, or I'll eat it and get you another one."
Pastel put her salad aside and placed her hand on the squirrel. “All right. Don't kill the poor thing. That's my job,” she said softly.
Closing her eyes, she let out a long slow breath. The ugly green blemish began to shrink, first from her ear and hair, then her eye. The squirrel started squeaking and whimpering in pain, feebly squirming under her touch. When the last of the blemish disappeared from her temple, leaving the normal pastel colours, she removed her hand.
The squirrel shrieked, contorting its body in agonizing convulsions. Pastel looked away, hugging herself until the animal stopped moving. Shisa picked up the corpse and went to drop it in the nearest garbage can. She could have eaten it, but she knew her friend didn't like her doing that.
"So, is every day at Whateley like this?" Pastel asked.
"No. Some are better, some are worse," she said. "But now that you're here, I think there will be more good days."
"I hope so." The girl picked Shisa up, giving her a hug. "God, I missed you."
Hugging her back, Shisa licked her nose. "I missed you too."
For the first time in months, Shisa felt like she had a real reason to wake up in the morning, other than out of sheer spite and hardheadedness.
Myra Barnes spotted her adoptive little sister as the girl floated in, feet barely touching the ground. Chessa radiated happiness almost as much as she did electricity, and the boy on whose arm she was anchored basked in both. As the big sister of the family, she'd had her doubts about the pairing, and she was happy to be proved wrong.
At the moment, she had more practical concerns. "Line up, wait your turn!" she commanded in her best Voice of Instruction. The assorted gaggle of junior high kids, faculty brats, and visiting brothers and sisters hadn't yet learned how to ignore it. "Youngest to oldest -- yes, Karma, that means you go first -- and no shoving! It's not like this thing's going to run out anytime soon."
That thing was the Machine, the original model that she and Derek brought out for special occasions. The dessert line had a more manageable version with input codes going from 00 to 99 for an eccentric but safe series of treats. Theirs went from 0000 to 9999, and they had yet to log every possible result. Next to the numeric keypad there was a big red button. The sign below it read, DO YOU FEEL LUCKY?
Everyone did, of course. Karma squealed with delight at her jelly bean ripple, and the next four contestants had equally tasty, if odd, results. Then Hypergolic pulled a cup of what looked like cookies 'n' cream, but was actually New England clam chowder. The Hawthorne boy accepted it stoically, waiving the option to dump the cup in the back of the Machine and try again. Myra caught the next tragic result before the green-haired Meatball could try a bite. She'd learned to identify the ghost pepper and honey ice cream the hard way.
When everyone had been served and largely satisfied at least once, the English teacher reclaimed her seat at the Barnes family table and enjoyed the scene. Almost everyone in her home room class, which was to say the entire junior high school program at Whateley, had a parent or guardian visiting for the day. The most notable exception was Scheherezade, which was sadly no surprise. The little Arabian princess was getting cooed over by Heartfinder's mother, at least. The Melville girls stuck together.
"Welcome back," she said to Chessa when the girl arrived with her beau still joined at the hip. The two of them even shared a tray for their hamburgers and fries, though Myra didn't doubt that Jacob would be going to get seconds, thirds, and possibly fifths to properly feed the two of them. Exemplar teen boys ate almost as much as Energizer teen girls.
The two lovebirds scooted the cafeteria chairs closer together when they thought no one was looking. So adorable.
"Did you have a good time studying?" It was half a sincere question, half a tease.
"Oh! Um, yes." Myra enjoyed reading the look of guiltless bliss on her little sister's face. "You know, math and science and English."
"And French class." She grinned at how they blushed. "I get it, I get it. Enjoy your lunch, you two."
On her right, Derek was going over the contents of a box with Marcus. The remnants of burgers and fries sat cold on plates nearby. "What are you two working on there?" she asked.
"These came in from my old lab the other day," Derek told her. "Ella forwarded the lot on to me. What you see here are the last remaining pieces of the magic box."
She peered over the pile of junk. "Really?"
"Yes. The parts that survived disassembly and a trip through the compactor, at least." The shake of Derek's head was equal parts annoyance and admiration. "Schroedinger Maxwell truly was a mad genius. No one else could have made these components."
"I for one am glad that it worked," she said. "Second chances and all."
"A pity about the side effects, though." Derek fished out a block of oddly colored glass. "We'll be using most of this to test exotic energy pulses, see if anything will damage it. But there was one piece I was thinking of saving."
"Oh?" Myra had always been good at reading people, and that skill had expanded post-mutation to become a practical sort of empathic sense. She could absolutely tell that her adorkable boyfriend the sane scientist was building up to something, so she let him keep at it.
"Schroedinger Maxwell created some beautiful work," Derek continued. "It was just a matter of repurposing." While her attention had been on the box of scrap, he'd pulled a smaller box from the pocket of his lab coat. Rounded corners, velvety exterior, unmistakable style. She knew what would be inside as he kept talking. "Myra, this was the heart of the magic box, the very thing that brought us together. My life has changed so much since we first met that I can hardly recognize myself, and yet I would have it no other way, not in a multiverse of possibilities. And so I... and so I..." His voice faltered for a second. "I hope you feel the same and... and that we..."
Myra took the little box from his trembling fingers and opened it. Within was a deep red stone, almost purple, with faceting so intricate it was most certainly fractal. The devisor's gem was set in a simple golden band, which proved itself a perfect fit as she slid it onto her ring finger. Then she took his hand in hers so they could admire it together. "The answer of course is yes, you adorkable man."
She only noticed the complete and total hush of all conversation in their area of the cafeteria when it suddenly broke into a thousand cheering fragments of sound, led on and egged on by her three adoptive siblings. Parents joined in as their children explained what was up, and Myra saw Heartfinder jumping for all the vibes of joy the little empath was soaking in.
There was only one thing left to make the scene perfect, and Derek looked too dumbstruck to do it. Leaning in, Myra grabbed her boyfriend, her fiancé, by the necktie and pulled him into the kiss of a thousand lifetimes.
Someone had to show the younger generation how it was done.
After a lunch like that, it was hard to get going. Daniel had learned a lot of new words since he'd started at a real school, and one of the things he'd picked up from his remedial science class described the feeling perfectly: inertia. Stuff that weren't moving didn't want to get moving, and neither did a bunch of boys stuffed full on funny barbecue. Even Cookie looked about ready to roll over and play dead for a few hours till all that meat digested. Unfortunately, they had to get a move on. Eventually.
In a scattered chorus, like sonic sprinkles on quiet ice cream, their phones and smartpads all started beeping with schedule notifications. Eventually was unfortunately now. The school transports would be ready to go in half an hour, taking parents and relatives back to the normal world. Most of them didn't seem to mind as they got up and stretched. Whateley was a place best experienced in small bites, and folks like Mr. Saumer or Mrs. Barker looked like they had too much to chew on, even before lunch. He made sure that every adult he saw on the way out got a boortsog cookie to go, and then he magicked up another bagfull of the Mongolian sweets when supplies ran low.
But finally they were at Drop-Off Site A, now Pick-Up Site A, him and Mr. Carlyle and Cookie. He could see Erica and her friends over on one side of the transport, hugging and kissing goodbye.
"Whoa, pup! Down!" And Cookie was doing the same over here, nuzzling and licking Mr. Carlyle from both sides. Daniel handed the man another clean towel to wipe off the slobber.
"Guess I'll be seein' you at Christmas?" he said. "Um, if we can arrange a flight for Cookie again?" There were airlines that ran live animal freight, but flights were limited for bio-devises, even those with proper documentation, paperwork, and a willing human to chaperone them in the cargo hold. On their first trip to Whateley, Daniel had spent the entire flight reading Clifford picture books to the pup.
"Actually..." Mr. Carlyle patted the pup's heads. "There was something I'd been meaning to ask you. I would have sooner, only Debbie wanted me to see how the two of you were doing first. To start, we found a place that will accept the remaining creatures from Doc Talltale's menagerie. A few rubberados, some conkerdinks, and the survivors of the jackelope pack purge."
"That's great, doc." Daniel tried to sound more enthusiastic for the well-being of several fearsome critters that had tried to kill or eat him him in the past. At least the splintercat was well and dead. "Um, where?"
"There lies the interesting part," said the doc, as if it weren't all interesting. "They're to join the permanent exhibits at the Royal Karedonian Para-Zoological and Botanical Gardens. You know where that is?"
He nodded. The little isle of Karedonia got brought up in a lot of different classes, and for all sorts of odd reasons. He'd heard the royal family had attended Whateley, too.
"Obviously we're not including Cookie in that collection. Who's a good pup, hm...?" cooed Mr. Carlyle over his crazy alter-ego's creation. "But as it is my name down as the creator of those dangerous varmints, I got someone's attention it would seem. I've been invited to participate in the Royal Kennel Association's show for bio-devises this winter, and Cookie would be a perfect entrant. So, if you are okay with it, I'd like you to come along with me as my assistant."
"Really?" Daniel needed a moment to set his head around this. "Um, I don't even got a passport."
"I'm told that the school can help with that. In any case, I know the two of you won't go anywhere without the other for long. We'd be renting a house on the beach. Cody will love it, and Debbie says she wouldn't mind a warm Christmas for once."
Daniel wasn't sure he'd ever had a warm holiday, either. Every Christmas he could recall had been cold and uncomfortable, stuck in the community's church building with two coats on while the Reverend droned a sermon. They couldn't even have a tree. "Honestly, doc? Sounds pretty fine to me. I'll mail the school 'bout passports 'n stuff tonight."
"Excellent." Mr. Carlyle hugged Cookie around the columns of their necks, then spun around to embrace Daniel as well. "Oh, it's good to have a family trip once more. Thank you for the tour today. It did this old man well. Keep in touch."
"Of course, doc." He walked the old gentleman to the transport and handed him one last raspberry apple fried pie for the road. Cookie woofed and howled a farewell as the first transport pulled out of its spot and rumbled away.
"It has been an experience, Rachel."
"You're welcome." She beamed. It didn't matter what nuance or sense her mother had intended, because she was willing to assume the awesome.
The Fast and the Furry-ous were gathered at Pick-Up Site B, minus Avsel and Bailey with their respective guests. She wasn't sure how Ms. Chibany or Mrs. George had got to Whateley, only that it wasn't by the same transport. Over to the side, Cathy was hugging her mom and her aunt, one and then the other and then back again. Dani was huddled with his granma while Michelle chatted with that Time Bomb kid from Poe, whose own parents seemed more preoccupied with their older daughter. She recognized other kids from around campus as they bid farewell to friends and family. Tears were getting everywhere.
"See you at Thanksgiving?" she asked her mother.
"Of course, Rachel dear." The motherly hug which followed was not as tearful or emotional as most, but the girl could still feel the warmth in it. "But do try to be on your best behavior," Mother cautioned. "Your Great-Aunt Matilda will be visiting, and we don't want to spook her into another heart attack."
"I thought you didn't like that -- oh, what was it you called her... That fat-lipped old biddy?"
"I don't. Which is why I have no desire for her to die in my house and then spend her afterlife haunting us," her mother explained.
"Oooh, good call." Rachel hugged her mother back. "Tell Father I said hi, okay? And all the other stuff today, too."
Her mother glanced over to where Dani stood with Miss Harmony. "That shall require a fair amount of explanation," she admitted.
"I know you're up to the challenge. I believe in you."
Eyes rolled as Mrs. Altus thanked her daughter and left to board the transport. Rachel stood at the bend that led out of the parking lot, jumping and waving her farewells in improvised semaphore as the vehicle pulled out.
"What a morning, huh?" she said to her teammates as the three of them walked back to the quad.
"You got that right," said Cathy. "Glad it happened -- glad lots of things happened -- but also glad that it's over." Ripples of static flowed off the black girl as she stretched. "I should catch up with Bailey again, talk it out some more."
Rachel shrugged. "You do you. I'll do..." Her grin went sharp at the edges. "Hey, Dani...?"
"Yeah?" Her fight-buddy knew enough to sound nervous.
"You, me, a slab of peanut butter and chocolate chip fudge, and the usual exercise room." Hooking her fuzzy by the elbow, she led the way back to the Crystal Hall and its dessert lane with only a token protest from Dani. They both had issues to work through, but before all that, it was time to work on being best fight-buddies and future girlfriends.
It tickled her pink to imagine but, as Dani pulled back and their linked arms actually started looking like a couple on a date, Rachel decided she wouldn't have it any other way.
For once, Morgana was glad that she presented as a girl. It made it that much easier to show her emotions as she hugged her family goodbye. As a boy, she'd have been expected to show a stoicism that she really did not feel.
"I'm going to miss you!"
Ceri hugged her hard. "It'll be the holidays soon, and they'll let you out for that, right?"
Her uncle chuckled. "I'm sure you'll find plenty of things to keep you occupied. Which reminds me..." After a moment of digging in his pocket, he pulled out a battered and dog-eared book. "Ms. Grimes told me you were starting on healing magics?"
Morgana looked at the book, and then back at him. "Well, yes. I mean, I don't have the natural talent for it, not like you do, but I figured that some healing spells would be useful. Just in case."
"Sensible. Well, as you can see, I have a present here for you. It's one of my old Army medical magic books, all stuff of the sort you might find useful for people who've been in fights."
"Oh, wow! Thanks!"
Uncle Tim grinned. "While I may hope you don't have a need for it, we both know you will. Now, I think that's our call to board that thing they call a bus."
She wasn't going to tear up, no matter what. She told herself that, willed the little taps behind her eyes to stay shut as she gave them one final hug before watching them get on the transport. Like most of the kids standing around, she waved as the bus drove away, and as soon as it rounded the bend and she was sure her uncle and sister would not see, Morgana pulled a handkerchief from her pocket to dab her eyes. Also like most of the kids standing around.
Well, it was back to normal now. She should go and check up on Bianca. Her roomie from Chicago had been left on her own all that morning, as much as any of them might wish otherwise. It was bad enough for anyone to be alone on Parents Day, but Morgana knew too well just why her roommate's family would never be there. Now that her own family was on their way back, the Welsh dragon-girl could go and cheer the pale mafia maiden up a bit.
It probably wasn't going to work, but she had to at least make the attempt to distract Bianca from the sorrows of the world. Ms. Barnes would still have the Heisenberg Uncertainty Ice Cream Dispenser up and running in the cafeteria. They could take turns pressing the big red button and laughingly dare each other to eat up. That would be worth a little happiness.
They said goodbye to Fra at the front doors of Dickinson, she and Erica. Her brother had a thoughtful look to him; perhaps he had actually learned something important that day. As for herself, Calliope would have preferred a quiet afternoon to finish some weekend homework. That might still have been in her future, but not in her present, as a certain girl was leaving just as the two of them walked in.
Nefertiti "Copacetic" Copeland, Neff to her friends -- and Calliope no longer held that honor. "Excuse me," the dark-skinned dancer said as she pushed past the roommates. The words were polite; the tone was not.
"Buongiorno," said Calliope. Her former girlfriend stiffened as she strode down the front steps, but said nothing in return.
"Leave her be," said Erica. "She won't be changing her mind anytime soon."
"If she ever does..." Calliope murmured. "It is the difficult thing, knowing for sure how someone will react to..." She let that part go unsaid. "You are luckier than I."
"Wishing we were equally lucky. Hey, Ms. Plimsoll," her roommate said to the woman at the front desk. "How's your day going?"
"I have my tea and my reading book," the woman replied. "And your families are departed now? Your aunt and uncle with them?"
Calliope saw blue eyes blink in confusion. "Uh, yeah? Of course?" said Erica. "Why wouldn't they?"
"You can never tell with some people."
She was not about to ask. There had been enough mystery and drama and surprises that day. Right now all she could hope was that they made it to their room on the second floor before anything else exploded, literally or no. She spied their RA, Sister Secret, watching over the common room as little Essemmelle and Hannah faced off against Twitch and Nana in a game of devisor tiddlywinks. The scorch marks on the old card table did not reassure her any.
"Whoo..." said Erica as they arrived safely in the room. "What a day."
"Sì, it felt longer than a single morning. I... I think I shall take a nap."
"I hear you." Erica flopped back onto her mattress. "I can talk to Saumer about stuff later, after I've figured out what I'm even telling him, and... are you okay, Cally?"
The warmth on her cheeks was the flow of tears down her face and onto her pillow. "We, we talk," she mumbled into the fabric. "My family and I. We talk about the important things, but there are times when it feels like they, they do not listen or I do not say, and..." A sob wracked her chest. "It feels like no one knows who I truly am or what I have really done."
There was no reply from her roommate, only the creak of mattress springs as Erica got up, crossed the room, and crawled in beside Calliope on her own bed. Strong, slender arms, ever so pale, wrapped around her, and a favorite t-shirt blotted the tears with its cotton blend. A soprano voice said, "It's okay," although it was not.
But, little by little, it was getting better.
The silence was nice.
Leslie didn't know where she was. She would have to open her eyes for that and she didn't want to. The darkness was wonderful. Everything was peaceful. She didn't want it to end.
She heard footsteps. There were no thoughts or emotions to accompany them; the mind was well-shielded. A door creaked open and the footsteps came to a stop beside her.
"How are you feeling, Day Dreamer?" a woman asked.
She didn't know the woman's name, but she knew they worked in Doyle. It made sense they would take her there. She didn't remember much of what happened, just images and noise, but it must have been bad.
"Peaceful," she said, still not opening her eyes.
"Nothing hurts? No feelings of being overwhelmed?"
"No. I feel good."
A soft hand patted her shoulder. "All right. We're going to keep you here overnight. You had a very bad sensory overload, as well as a concussion, which a student healed. Some peace and quiet is the best thing for you right now. We'll bring you some lunch soon; you're likely starving. If you need anything else just press the button."
Something niggled at her brain. "My parents?"
There was a pause. "Your parents had to catch their plane. After we confirmed you'd be all right, they boarded the first transport. They should be at Berlin Airport right now."
She nodded, not saying anything. The woman left without another word. Rolling onto her side, Leslie wondered how she should feel about her parents leaving without saying goodbye. It wasn't like they were close, she'd been raised more by her grandmother than them. Reading their thoughts just confirmed something she already knew: she was an afterthought.
Opening her eyes, she looked around the bare infirmary room. Her phone was on the table beside the bed, along with a piece of paper.
There was a message waiting for her when she checked the screen. From her parents? Part of her hoped not. She opened it up. It was from Duster:
'Hey, Day Dreamer. I tried to visit earlier but they wouldn't let me in, said you needed absolute peace and quiet. Hope you're OK, I'll drop by tomorrow to walk you back to your dorm. Just let me know when to come.'
Her heart fluttered a little as she read the message again.
Then the paper, the letter. Not her parents' style. Curious, she read it.
Pastel here. Sorry about the weird meeting today, Magic Mike does that sometimes. But you really should try the incense. His advice is always good.
Anyways, next time you see me you don't have to swoon at my feet. I know I'm amazingly hot, but concussions aren't a healthy way to get my attention.
OK, enough with the jokes.
I know how bad parents can be, even if they never raise their voice. If you want to talk about it, give me a shout. No judgment, no giving unasked-for advice, just a friendly ear from someone who has been there, done that, and ran away to get the t-shirt.'
There was a number at the bottom.
Putting the letter and phone back, she stared at the ceiling for a while. The day had sucked. She wanted to cry about her parents. And she was probably going to be considered even weirder than ever, after what happened at lunch.
Still, she was going to stay at Whateley, where she was slowly, ever so slowly, learning to control her powers. She also had one good friend, and there were some nice people here. She could live with that. Things had to get better eventually.
Putting some soft music on, she closed her eyes and enjoyed just having her thoughts to herself.
The day ended as it began: behind Hawthorne Cottage, in the parking lot. The heavy-duty transport chugged in place, steadfastly awaiting its turn as the other vehicles went on ahead. The Thornie parents hadn't gone far from the cottage but, then again, neither were many of their children allowed to stray far. Several moms and dads had arrived to no one and said farewell to no one as they boarded. It made her want to hug her big, scaly godfather all the more.
"Thank you," Uncle Nem told her once she actually let go enough for him to exhale. "It is a pity we must cut our time here so short."
Tanya wiped her eyes. "See you at Thanksgiving?"
"You had better believe it." Auntie Sylph hugged her from behind, arms ever tighter as she squirmed. The Icelandic valkyrie finished with a loving peck on the cheek. "You stay well till then."
"Will do." Tanya managed to worm herself around so she could hug the woman back. "And, um, take care of Dad for me?"
The big, green, scaly monster with the muscles of a modern Hercules shuddered in mock-horror. "Oh! but he has the villain germs! Whatever may we do to fight against such a foe as the Uncommon Cold!"
Her eyes rolled as she swatted him playfully. "Enough of that. I'm serious. I worry about him."
"And he, you," said Silver Sylph. "Perhaps not as much, once we tell him about our visit, but never nothing."
Their companion for the return trip, Zapper's heroine aunt, was walking over with a smile on her own face. "Well, today was an experience," said the woman.
"That it was indeed," Nemean replied.
"Did you have a good chat with Wilder?"
"Yes..." Her godfather had a real smile on, without the teeth showing. "A good child, wouldn't you say, Tanya?"
"I... guess so?" She wasn't sure what else to say.
"Try talking to him again sometime," Nemean advised. "That one knows what it means to regret. It might help you to discuss things with him."
Her face showed her uncertainty and she did not care. "If you say so..."
"Also, that boyfriend of yours whom we never had the opportunity to meet."
The Crescent Muse clapped the green giant on the bicep. "C'mon, it's time to load up. Book club debate, part two?"
Nemean's frill puffed out slightly. "I await your opinions on the next title."
Tanya waved as they boarded through the rear of the transport, waved as the bulky vehicle moved down the service road on tires that did not make enough noise on the gravel. Then she waved to some of the Thornies who were watching through the windows. Some of them waved back.
It was still a lovely early afternoon in November. The skies were clear and blue, the wind brisk. A glance at her phone confirmed that it was still a green flag day. In a glimmer of lavender PK, Tanya lifted off the ground and did a quick circuit of the campus. She saw some friends here, some there. Sera was nowhere to be found. Inside, perhaps. Sterling was just now emerging from the woods with a vague smile on her face. She would need to ask her roommate about that later. But on the trail to the lake...
"Hey," she said as she landed. Vic was sitting on a log bench, his face long and dark with thoughts. "So this is where you've been all day. Got time to talk?"
Her dad was right. Uncle Nem was right. She did need to talk about her feelings more often, and she had friends who might listen. The rest of Dad's advice she ignored. For now. There might be time for that later.