“I can’t believe it’s this cold!” Holly said, shivering even within the thick, puffy blue coat she was wearing. “It was seventy three days ago!”
“Welcome to New York,” Tierra said with a smirk, shoving the door open ahead of her and holding it to let the others pass. A tall blonde girl zipped in between Holly and Seika, muttering a quick “‘Scuse me!” and then sprinted down the hallway, causing one of the guards to call ineffectually after her, “No running!”
“What was her rush?” Nikki demanded.
“Dunno,” Seika said, puzzled. “That was Cordy Ingemar, she’s second on the cheerleading squad. Maybe she’s late for a practice.”
But if that’s the case she’s going the long way around, Holly thought, but then shrugged. The bell had rung and they didn’t have long to get to homeroom.
The usual stream of announcements was interrupted by Principal Robinson. “I am sorry to announce that one of our students, Glynnis Van Buren, has passed away due to a fatal accident late last night. We will have a moment of silence to respect her memory.”
The shock of the announcement itself was enough to enforce the moment of silence; people were still absorbing it by the time the principal’s somewhat gravelly voice spoke again. “The Counselling Office will be open to anyone affected by this event.”
Holly was sure no one else heard any other announcements; she certainly didn’t. “Who was she? I don’t think I knew her,” she whispered to Seika.
“Wasn’t she a sophomore?”
“Yeah,” said Tom Pratt from the next row over. “New on the cheerleading squad.”
“God, how terrible,” another girl — Dylan, Holly thought. Name I always associate with guys, but hey, things change.
The whispered conversations were still subdued; mortality had brushed close by. And a lot worse is going to happen to a lot more people if I screw all this up. Large high schools usually lost a person or two across four years; as Steve, Holly could remember one of his classmates not showing up to school and finding out that he’d had an accident with a thresher.
But it won’t be accidents this year, not once our enemies get moving.
With an effort she shoved the issue out of her mind. World-saving heroine or not, she still had schoolwork to do, and until the next manifestation, she might as well do as well as she could.
Now that she was adjusting, she could apply a lot of Steve’s experience. Yes, some of the methods for classroom teaching had drastically changed, but it sure didn’t hurt to have those twenty extra years of knowledge. She still had to do the work, but boy did it go faster.
That did make her feel a little guilty, looking over at Seika. Holly was staying neck-and-neck with Seika in all the classes, but Seika didn’t have Steve in the back of her head; she was doing it with inherent brilliance and focused determination.
Eh, it won’t matter. She won’t be competing with me when the real timeline comes around.
Of course, that would mean that she wouldn’t be Holly’s friend any more, and the thought hurt. That was another feeling to shove away, though. Neither of us will remember it. It won’t matter.
But somehow, that made this friendship all the more important.
Mrs. Rizzo greeted them with a pop quiz, plopping sheets of paper facedown on their desks. “Keep them facedown until I finish explaining. I see you trying to peek, Gerald! There are five questions on this sheet. You will choose three and answer them. They are essay questions” — a weak groan rose from the class — “but not long essays. One or two paragraphs should be enough. You will mark the chosen questions by circling the number. If you have time and want to try, you may select one of the other two questions for extra credit; mark that one with a square. And don’t forget to fill in name, grade, and class at the top or I’ll dock you ten points for laziness! You have thirty minutes. Now . . . begin!”
Biology questions were easy, and Holly finished the selected three in fifteen minutes, picked a fourth, and finished that well before time was up. She put down her pencil at about the same time Seika did.
“Did you do an extra credit? Which one?” Seika asked as they left the class.
“Sure, number four. Right after I finished the one about the Coelenterata.”
“You mean the Cnidaria,” Seika corrected her.
“Aaaaaugh!” Holly smacked her forehead. “Damn my . . .” — she barely caught herself in time — “my dad’s old-fashioned books! Rizzo hates people getting the names wrong!”
Seika’s smile was at least somewhat sympathetic. “I know, but what can you do? At least you can afford to lose a few points, right?”
Holly rolled her eyes. “I guess, but still . . . ugh! What a stupid mistake!”
The mood around the school was still subdued by the time lunch rolled around, but sitting with their little group lightened things. “Meeting still on for tonight?” Tierra asked.
“Far as I know. Nikki? Didn’t you say something about having to cut out early?”
Nikki tossed back her now-violet-dyed hair and shook her head. “My parents were going to go out which would’ve stuck me with Jill and Aaron, but the people they were going with called this morning and said they were sick, so no, I’m good!”
Caitlin reached out and snagged the pickle spear off of Seika’s plate. “Hey!”
“Oh hey, what? You never eat your pickles!”
“You could ask!”
“Too late, I’m already eating it.” Caitlin made a big show of stuffing the whole spear in her mouth, making all of them break up.
Of course, right now either Seika or me could blow them away in the eating department. The worst trial school currently presented was that they couldn’t eat as much as they wanted to without making spectacles of themselves. Seika had discovered that the day after her first transformation. She didn’t quite keep up with Holly in the eating department, but she was now eating more than anyone else in her house, easily.
“Um . . . excuse me?”
The voice was as completely familiar as it was unexpected, so Holly jumped a little in her seat. Luckily so did the others.
Richard Dexter Armitage stood there, a few feet away, looking uncertain and nervous. His eyes flicked toward Holly then looked around at the others, then down at his feet.
“What is it?” Tierra asked. “Who’re you? No, wait . . . you’re in junior year, right?”
“Yeah. Dex, Dex Armitage. Sorry to bother you, but, um . . .”
“Well, go on,” Nikki said. Holly was still trying to figure out how to react. His nervousness was making Holly nervous. What’s wrong with me?
“Well,” — Dex took a deep breath — “I, um, heard you guys talking a couple times and then saw you’d started a new club and it was about Steampunk Adventure, and it’s role-playing and I really like gaming and my old group broke up and I was wondering if I could join yours, but I mean it’s okay if I can’t, because I don’t want to push, you know, and maybe you just wanted it for your own group so maybe this was a bad idea, you know, maybe I should just forget it, sorry, um . . .” The whole huge unfinished sentence exploded out of him like foam from a shaken soda bottle, and the blond-haired skinny form was already partly turning away.
Caitlin blinked and Nikki giggled — not unkindly, but Dex’s cheeks went visibly pink. Jesus, I’d forgotten how utterly terrible Dex was with people he didn’t know. Once he knows you he’s sometimes too loud and sure of himself, but before?
Holly held up her hand. “Hey, don’t run off yet, we didn’t even say yes, no, or maybe. Give us a chance before you decide for us, huh?”
“Oh. Uh, yeah, sorry.” He went even pinker and winced. “Sorry. Sorry, I’m really, you know, bad at this.”
“Dork,” muttered Tierra, but her tone was more sympathetic than the word would imply.
“So you’re asking if you could join the game, right?”
“Right.” Dex straightened the slightest bit, and caught himself before he apologized again.
“You game already?” Seika asked. “We’re using the Spirit of the Century rules with some mods, you know it?”
“Oh, yeah, cool system,” Dex said, some animation entering his voice. “Like the character generation, the way it links characters together.”
Holly could see Seika relax a little. That was the right reaction, Dex; showed you’re ‘one of us,’ and did it by mentioning one of the parts of the system that isn’t about kicking people’s asses.
“I dunno,” Tierra said. “We’ve got a lot of players already . . .”
“But you’ve got a couple NPCs you’re always relying on,” Holly pointed out. “If Dex could play someone that’d take their place — ”
“That’s mostly a support role, though,” Nikki mused. “Don’t know if –”
“Hey, I’ll try anything,” Dex said, then winced again. “Sorry, didn’t meant to interrupt.”
“At least you recognized it before I kicked you.”
“Sor — ”
“You can’t join if every third word out of your mouth is ‘sorry,’ though,” said Seika emphatically.
“Sor — ” Dex broke off and then burst out laughing.
Never noticed he has such a bright smile before. It lights a room.
“Okay,” Dex said. “I, um, apologize for interrupting your lunch, but does this mean . . .”
Holly looked around. “Well . . . all in favor of giving Dex a chance?”
Seika and Nikki’s hands went up immediately; after a moment, the other two joined. Holly raised hers. “It’s unanimous, you can join. Provisional member. We’ll see how it works out. Okay?”
“Great! I mean, I’ll try really hard.” He ran his fingers distractedly through the long golden hair. “Guess a support role’s a good idea. My . . . old GM, he told me I needed to learn to not be a star all the time. Bet he was right. Usually was.”
The sadness in his voice made Holly’s gut tighten. Wow, I’m haunting myself while I’m still here, even.
“Okay, then we’ll see you tonight right after school.”
“Great! I mean, really! I’ve got my books in my locker, I’ll bring ’em!” Dex practically skipped away, clearly buoyed by relief that he hadn’t completely messed things up.
“This’ll be okay, right?” Caitlin asked, looking a bit uncertain.
“Dex? I think he’s fairly harmless,” Tierra said. “Plus they’ve got the guards staying after now for all activities, after the freakshow last month.”
“We’ll see. If he doesn’t work out, he goes. No problem,” Holly said.
They had to finish eating a little faster to make up for the conversation, and then there were the afternoon classes. In the middle of English, Holly found herself unable to wait; nature was calling with an urgency she didn’t recall from Steve’s prior life. Dr. Beardsley granted her a grudging pass to go to the bathroom.
As she put her hand on the handle, Holly became aware of someone speaking inside the bathroom; it would’ve been completely inaudible during a change of classes, and even now it was faint. Whoever it was, they were speaking in very low, urgent tones.
“. . . that way!” the other girl said. A pause. “I know I did, but the last time was different!” Another pause. “No. Why can’t you fix it?”
Talking on a cell phone?
“No,” the voice said, and the girl sounded horrified. “Go away.”
Holly gripped the door handle again. Somehow she had a feeling she should enter. “Go away”? Is that something you say to someone on a phone?
“No, I mean it! Go! Don’t come back! I never want to speak to you again!”
There was a rushing sound of footsteps and Holly barely stepped back in time to avoid the door as it whipped open and Cordy Ingemar ran out. She was already turning to run down the hallway and didn’t even notice Holly standing there, but even from the side Holly could see glittering tracks of tears on her face.
Cordy also wasn’t carrying a cell phone.
Holly went inside cautiously, the hair on the nape of her neck stirring, goosebumps rising on her arms. On the counter was a small purse, with a smartphone’s shape visible — a phone sealed inside a zipped inner pocket. Cordy wouldn’t have had nearly enough time to put that there.
She looked around, tense, listening, watching. All was silent. The broad mirrors reflected the empty stalls.
There was no one there at all.
"Princess Holy Aura" by Ryk Spoor, last updated Mon Oct 16 21:14:35 EDT 2017