Okay, well, we didn't get any votes so we just went with the name that we liked best. I apologize in advance for the amount of fluff in this chapter. While it may send some of you into diabetic comas, trust me when we say that this is the last you're going to be getting for awhile. Enjoy!
A scuffed wallet and a faded jacket that had once been forest green. The latter was slung over Ivy's arm. The former she turned over and over in her palms, half from nerves, half admiration. Did he take a piece of sandpaper to this or something?
"I doubt it," Aelita replied. Ivy jumped slightly, realizing that she must have voiced the question aloud without realizing. "He probably picked it up at a secondhand store. Sandpaper would not look natural enough. He's nothing if not thorough." As was always the case these days when she spoke of Jeremie, Aelita's voice took on a strained edge.
"I've noticed," Ivy remarked, opening the wallet again and examining the contents again. Ticket stubs, various scraps of paper, a few wrinkled euros… Everything, in short, that would be in a perfectly ordinary wallet. Again, Ivy marveled at Jeremie's devotion to the cover story. "Sorry," Ivy added in a voice barely above a whisper, feeling a twinge of guilt at Aelita's discomfort.
Aelita glanced up from her work at the supercomputer. "It's fine," she said, giving Ivy a small smile. "I really need to get used to it. It's nothing you have to worry about at any rate." Ivy made a small, uncomfortable noise and returned her attention to turning the wallet over and over. The leather was starting to stick to her sweaty palms. "Relax, Ivy," laughed Aelita. "He's going to love it. Trust me, I know."
"That's right!" Ivy looked up, startled out of her embarrassment. "You did this too! Do you remember what it was like?"
Aelita paused, her green eyes sparkling at memories of the distant past. "Oh, it was beautiful," she murmured. "I remember the first time I woke up and everything outside… It was like a different world. All the landmarks I had come to know so well had been transformed. That's one of the happiest days I can remember. Of course," she added, her smile turning a little amused, "XANA kind of ruined snow later that same year. And then when I got my memories back… it was just different. But yes, there's nothing quite like it. He'll love it. Come on," she finished, entering the last few keyboard strokes and hitting the enter key. Ivy felt the thrum beneath her feet that meant that the scanners were at work. "He'll be waiting."
Sure enough, as soon as the elevator doors opened, the clone bounded over to them. "You're early!" he remarked excitedly.
"Yes, we are," agreed Ivy, chuckling at the clone's enthusiasm. "We only had morning classes today because the faculty have a meeting this afternoon."
"Oh!" The clone tilted his head very slightly, which Ivy had come to know meant that he was processing the information. "I suppose that this means that Jeremie shall not be delivering books today," he said after a moment, his excited grin diminishing slightly.
"No," Ivy confirmed. "But…" She hesitated, overtaken by a sudden bout of nerves, and cast a look over at Aelita. 'Go on,' the woman mouthed to her, gesturing to Ivy encouragingly. Ivy took a deep breath and continued. "Jeremie gave me something else to give you… I hope you like it." With that, she held the wallet out to the clone.
If he noticed that the wallet was slick with sweat, the clone gave no sign. He examined the wallet with interest, seeming to memorize every detail of the outside before opening it slowly. There was a slight pause. "That is… a photograph of me?" the clone asked her at last.
"It's your CNIS," Ivy explained in a rush as he brought the identification card closer to study it. "I know you said you wanted me to pick your name, and I wanted it to be a surprise or else I would have asked you, I hope that you like it. If you don't we can get Jeremie to change it. I mean, probably, I think, I know he's already done a lot of paperwork so I probably should have asked. I'm sure if you really hate it though there's no way that he'd make you live with a name that you hate." The clone said nothing, waiting for Ivy to finish. "Um, do you hate it?" she squeaked at last.
In answer, the clone read his new name aloud. "Tristan Beaulieu." His voice was quiet as he stared at the identification card revenantly.
"That's you," Ivy told him in a voice equally quiet. "If you like it."
"Yes," breathed the clone. "Yes I… do." From anyone else, Ivy might have interpreted the hesitation as doubt. Coming from the clone, though, she recognized it as sincerity.
"Well, hello then, Tristan," she said, giving the clone a shy smile. The clone - Tristan - smiled back broadly.
"And the other part?" Aelita prompted Ivy gently.
"Oh, right." Ivy passed the faded green coat to Tristan now.
"Thank you," Tristan said, accepting it with a quizzical expression.
"The deal that was we all agreed upon was that you'd stay here until Jeremie had finished fabricating your identity, and that you wouldn't leave without someone accompanying you," Ivy explained slowly. "I told him to give me the ID when everything was ready."
Tristan's head snapped toward her. "Then… I may…" it began uncertainly.
"You may," laughed Ivy in response. "Put the coat on and I will show you."
The return trip was more challenging than was strictly necessary. In a fit of excitement, Ivy had suggested that Tristan keep his eyes closed so that his first impression of snow would not be the bridge. She already had another place in mind. Although puzzled, the clone had agreed at once. (Ivy felt her heart warm slightly as she noted how much Tristan trusted her.) However, she had not considered how she would get him into the sewers, and taking the long way around would be very difficult. Ivy and Aelita had just been debating whether Aelita should drive them back to campus when Tristan had politely interrupted.
"I believe that I could jump," he stated. "I have a very good sense of balance, and the drop is not that far."
"No," Aelita and Ivy had answered simultaneously.
In the end, it was decided that Tristan would sit down next to the opening and allow Ivy to guide him to the first ladder rungs, after which he was allowed to open his eyes but only to look at the ladder. Truly, the whole thing was a lot of work, and Ivy and Tristan had gotten rather wet sitting down in the snow, which led to a chilly trip through the sewers. However, seeing Tristan's face as they emerged into the park was all worth it.
She remained quiet while Tristan took the whole park in; the few inches of snow that blanketed the ground, how the snow had landed on the tree branches weighing them down and made each individual branch stand out against each other. "It looks pretty amazing doesn't it?" Ivy said softly.
"It is… wonderful," Tristan agreed breathlessly, turning a full circle to take in his surroundings. "There is so much of it."
Ivy could not bite back a laugh. "I suppose," she agreed. "I don't know, it doesn't seem like much to me. It mostly rains here. We have just been a cold couple of days. I expect it's all going to be gone by tomorrow."
"Oh." Now he looked so crestfallen that she could not help but laugh again.
"It is just this part of the country," Ivy explained gently. "In the mountains there is a lot more snow. We get lots of snow back home, and that stays for months and months. I think this is better, in a way, because it's around long enough to enjoy it, but not to become disgusting."
"I do not see how snow could become disgusting," the clone said, looking around at his surroundings again in an almost dreamy manner.
A sudden impulse struck Ivy, one that was too strong and too wicked to ignore. As Tristan turned his back on her, she moved quickly to scoop a handful of snow. The texture of the powder was not the best for packing, and without gloves her hands began to ache with cold at once, but nevertheless she quickly constructed her weapon. Taking aim at his shoulder, Ivy sent the snowball flying in his direction. It connected with Ulrich's hand-me-down jacket, making a satisfying piff as it disintegrated.
The effect was immediate. Tristan jumped and whirled around, his blue eyes darting around, seeking an unseen attacker."What is going on? Are we being attacked?" the bewildered clone asked.
Ivy quickly held up her hands shaking her head grinning "No, no," she started before breaking out into a fit of giggles."It's called a snowball fight. You basically pack snow into a ball and throw it at people until they surrender."
Alarm changed to confusion, and Tristan dropped his defensive stance."It sounds like a very odd way of enjoying the snow," he remarked, frowning slightly.
"Tristan," Ivy said softly, and noticed an odd sort of shiver that went through the clone as she used his name for the second time ever. "It's a game. Play with me?"
Tristan made a noncommittal noise, kneeling down and raking his fingers through the snow."I am not certain that I understand the rules. So I am to take some snow," he started while slowly building a snowball that was sizably bigger than the one Ivy had thrown at Tristan. "And… throw it at you?" Without looking up, he tossed the snowball directly at Ivy's torso.
Ivy, who knew what Tristan was up to, was able to easily dance out of the way causing the snowball to hit the tree behind her, knocking a bit of the snow off of some branches. "Nice shot, but you have to be a bit quicker than that!" Ivy challenged, dodging behind a tree for cover while she built up another snowball to throw.
"Oh yes? Well, we shall see how long can keep running," he called back. She could hear him gathering more snow, and knew that she would have to be quick if she wanted to avoid him again. She leaned out from behind her tree, winding up to throw, but she had not counted on the clone's reflexes. The next thing she knew, a snowball had connected with her face.
"No fair!" she protested, stopping to wipe snow from her eyes. "Hitting people in the face is definitely against the rules!"
Tristan dropped the snowball he had been forming at once. "It is?" he asked, sounding deeply distressed. "I did not know, I apolo-"
He broke off as Ivy's snowball connected with his chest. The girl cackled victoriously.
"Oh, I see how this is played." The threat in Tristan's voice was clear, and his smile turned dangerous. Before Ivy could react, he had pitched another snowball at her middle. She staggered back, caught off guard. Seemingly in the blink of an eye, Tristan had another snowball in hand and was tossing it, not at her this time, but the treetops above. Ivy followed its trajectory with her eyes… in time to see it strike its mark and dislodge the snow on the branch directly above her. "Oof!" The force of the falling snow, while not painful, was enough to knock the girl to the ground.
"Okay, okay, I'm done!" Ivy cried, dissolving into a fit of giggles from her spot in the snow. "I'm down, you win!"
Tristan smiled and offered both hands to Ivy to help her pull herself up. Ivy took them both gratefully, then gave a slight squeak of surprise. "You're warm!" she gasped.
"No," the clone corrected with a little laugh, pulling her to her feet. "You are cold. I do not thermoregulate, so the supercomputer keeps me at a constant skin temperature. Your skin temperature is low right now."
"I see," Ivy breathed. She still had not dropped his hands, finding the warmth too soothing on her chilled fingers. The girl studied her friend's features, noting that his reddish hair and eyebrows were slightly dusted with white power. She laughed again and reached up to brush it away. Tristan's grin widened at this treatment, and he held obediently still. Predictably, his cheek was equally warm, as though the clone was running a fever. Ivy's hand lingered slightly, her smile fading a little. If it was anyone else looking at her that way...
The silence was broken by the sound of a conversation coming towards them. Ivy blinked a few times, instinctively taking a step back away from Tristan and turning around to see if she could locate the source of the voices.
"I'm telling you Milly, the story isn't going to go over well, Principal Delmas is going to shut us down for good if we publish the cafeteria story." A girl in cornrows holding a camera at her side told the girl she was walking with.
"But the public has to know that the school isn't using actual meat for the meatballs and gravy," the red-headed girl said defiantly to her companion.
There seemed to be something...off about the two. For one, they seemed like they could be students at Kadic since they were talking about Principal Delmas, but Ivy did not recognize either one of them. With class sizes being so small these days, Ivy knew all of the students on sight.
"Um, hello? What are you two talking about?" Ivy inquired cautiously, glancing at Tristan. Her friend had gone very still and was watching the approaching girls with narrowed eyes.
The two girls ignored Ivy entirely while they continued their conversation."But it's mainly just speculation. We have no proof that Ms. Rosa is actually using dog meat. It was just a rumor that we heard from Sissi," the brown skinned girl pleaded with her friend as they walked past to the two.
"Okay, how have I not seen you two around campus? Hello? Are you listening at all? I'm trying to talk to you," Ivy questioned getting mildly irritated at being ignored for this long. She reached out a hand to touch the taller girl's shoulder.
"Ivy, stop," Tristan began suddenly, but it was too late.
As soon as she made contact with the girl, The conversation immediately stopped and she whirled around to look at Ivy. Her features started to change, melting like candle wax and reshaping themselves. Her arms stretched and grew, forming sharp angles at the joints. Her fingernails become jagged and unruly. Her eyes rolled back into her head to show only the whites, and as she opened her mouth to give an ungodly shriek Ivy could see that her teeth had sharpened into fangs. Ivy saw this transformation, but was too stunned for a moment to do anything but gape, even as what had once been a girl brought it hand back and made a swipe at Ivy. She let out a yelp of surprise the claw raked across her, tearing her jacket but thankfully missing her chest.
Ivy staggered back, falling against Tristan, and felt a flash of gratitude that he was there to help steady her. The ghoul snarled at her while the red headed girl continued down the path completely unaware of her friend turning into some sort of demon, now speaking to air. Ivy stood stock-still, her brain still trying to catch up with her body.
"Move back now," Tristan's voice hissed in her ear. Ivy started to do as he said, only to find that Tristan had taken hold of her shoulders and dragged her backwards himself. Not a moment too soon, either. The ghoul dived at her feet, trying to tackle her to the ground.
Tristan released Ivy and the two of them backed away, both of their eyes still fixed on the ghoul. "They are not real," Tristan murmured as the thing started to get back to its feet. As if to demonstrate his point, the ghoul suddenly evaporated into nothing.
Ivy exchanged a look with Tristan. "XANA?" she asked aloud. Tristan confirmed this with a curt nod. "You should go back to the factory. I'll be needed here. Michael, too."
"But -" began Ivy.
"No. I stay with you."
Ivy gave a slight sigh, already halfway through dialing Michael's number and turning to jog back toward the main part of the campus. She heard rather than saw Tristan follow her - and also heard the sounds of shouts and screams in the distance.
Michael picked up after three rings. "What's going on?" he asked without prelude. "There are these things - hang on," Michael's' voice cut off for a moment while Ivy heard a door slam closed. "I've got the door, you deal with her," she heard him order someone, then more rustling. "Sorry," he said, his voice coming back at full volume. "Almost got caught. I assume you're at the you-know-where?"
Ivy was uncertain if he had intended to have some edge to his voice, but she wasn't going to deal with that now. "No, I was at the park when…" This was too long of a story, and if her guess was right… "What's happening at school?" the girl inquired instead, starting to run out of breath as she made her way back to the school grounds.
"A bunch of weird stuff. These things are popping up everywhere. They look like kids -" and now there was pounding against the door and Michael's voice grew more strained "-but if you touch them, then they attack you. Cal found that out the hard way, some girl he tried to hit on scratched his face and threw him across the ground. Everyone's scared and running around."
"Yikes... well I'm almost back in the courtyard. Where can I meet up with you?" Ivy asked while going out of her way to avoid a small group of students not taking the time to see if she recognized them or not.
Michael did not answer. He was distracted by something on his end of the phone again. "Lucas, for the love of god can you please get her to stop crying?" The pounding stopped. "Look, it's gone now, see?"
"Lucas is with you?"
"Yes, he's with me. There's a group of us, actually. We're hiding in the gym storage room right now. Figure that way we have something to defend ourselves if one of them somehow gets in. What? Yes, it's Ivy, she's coming." There was a pause for a few moments before Michael's voice returned with a mildly irritated sigh. "Lucas says hurry back and to be careful."
Ivy smiled in spite of the situation as she nodded to herself "Tell him I will. I'll see you in a bit. You guys stay safe as well. Bye," she concluded before hanging up.
"Gym?" Tristan asked as the rounded the corner of the administration building.
"Yes." She did not bother to ask how much he had heard. A thought occurred to her. "Wait," she said, stopping. "You can't come."
Tristan stopped as well, already opening his mouth to argue.
"You can't," she insisted, cutting him off. "Those things, they look like strangers. If the students see you, they'll think you're one of them."
Tristan paused. Judging by his displeased expression, she knew she had won. "You… must stay safe," he told her at last.
"I will. I promise." She nodded. "Get back to the factory. Help them however you can. And you stay safe, too."
"I will," he agreed, then turned his back on her without another moment of hesitation. Ivy took a deep breath and turned the other way to sprint out into the courtyard, prepared for the chaos she expected to find.
And find it she did. Michael had not exaggerated the level of mayhem on campus. In all of the confusion, no one noticed how one of the strangers failed to disappear, or how he moved away from the rest of the group, taking the path behind the administration building to follow three sets of footprints leading to and from the forest - where two had emerged and one had returned alone. And when the hand closed around Tristan's mouth, even if he had not been in the middle of the forest, the collective terror of Kadic Academy would have been more than enough to mask his scream.
DUN DUN DUNNNNNNN. See you guys next week!