Chapter 2: Out of the Alphas

Way too long I've tried to be
What I never could be
For too long you've rolled the dice
But you can't control me.

- Superheroes, Edguy

Melville Cottage
5 September 2006

Sebastiano Lorenz Valensuera y Ramierz - known to most of Whateley Academy as The Don - crumpled the letter in his hands. It took every iota of his concentration not to erupt in unseemly fury at the contents. _How dare she!? How dare she!? That worthless little trollop._

"Looks like she has a spine after all," Kodiak observed wryly from where the senior was leaning casually against the wall of the Alpha clubhouse. "Who would have thought?"

The Don recognised the mockery in Kodiak's voice but let it pass. Everyone had thought that the towering senior would lead the Alphas in his final year and even if he'd elected not to openly challenge the younger Alpha when push came to shove, neither believed that they were really friends and there was just enough doubt as to who would win in a no holds barred battle that The Don chose to tolerate him.

Kodiak had managed to hold his own - briefly - against the current Champion and for all his own heightened physical abilities the hispanic student did not have any doubt that he could not afford to let the senior get his hands on him in a fight.

"Solange brought a certain something to the Alphas," he said once he was sure that his voice would display only his usual urbanity. "Her money, mostly. We hardly need her, but nor should we tolerate these insults."

"What did Hartford have to say?" asked Hekate.

"Oh the usual. It reflects poorly on the reputation of the Alphas." The Don shrugged dismissively. "Which is true enough. I think Solange needs to learn how important a support structure the Alphas are... and how vulnerable she can be without that."

Kodiak shook his head. "Count me out. She's hardly a challenge."

"Of course not," Hekate agreed sardonically. "After all, it would be beneath the real Alphas to concern themselves with some drop out. Still, a word in the ear of those girls who used to follow Solange around should take care of the matter. After all, without her to sponsor them as Alphas they need to prove themselves." The witch pursed her lips thoughtfully. "It's really quite out of character for her, almost as if..."

"Sometimes people change, isn't that right Cav'?"

Jean-Michel Cardan - codename Cavalier - looked up from where he was polishing the Don's shoes and nodded. "Very true, sir."

The Don nodded. "Sometimes they do... which may mean that someone else is behind her. Excellent point, Kodiak." His eyes flickered towards Hekate. "If this is the start of someone moving against us then we need to know who. See what you can find out, all of you."

Then he gestured towards the fifth person in the room. "Skybolt, my dear. I have a use for your mouth."

Kodiak pushed off from the wall, all too aware that Cavalier - Skybolt's boyfriend until Christmas last - hadn't batted an eyelid at that statement. _Dammit, what'd he do to you?_ The last thing he heard before he closed the door behind him was Hekate's amused chuckle.

The senior's mood was grim as he descended the stairs towards his room. He'd been searching for months for an answer to that question - an answer that would let him get the turd currently ruling the Alphas like an absolute monarch dethroned. At this point the fact that it would push him to the top of the Alphas was almost secondary to. The Alphas had been left to him by Freya, even if it had been plain by her graduation that the Don had managed to gain an edge somehow that no one wanted to challenge. That made the group his responsibility and making good the damage that the arrogant Psi was doing would be a herculean task... one that would be harder the longer it took to oust him.

_And you would be better?_ challenged the spirit that had guided him since childhood. _Are the privileges he sports not those you would consider your due?_

"It's not the same," he growled under his breath as he opened the door to his room. He had it to himself for now, although probably he could expect some mid-year shuffling to push someone up and into the room with him at some point. "Yeah, I push people. But someone who can push back, they deserve my respect. Someone pushes back at Donny-boy and he'll tear them down. His only angle is to trample everyone else."

_And you do not challenge him because...?_

"You know why!"

_Do I? When you won't even admit it to yourself?_

Kodiak's eyes slipped to the window and across the campus towards Whitman Cottage, hidden behind Dickinson Hill. _Because I'm safe from him, but people I care about aren't._

Bear's voice was gentle in his mind: _And does she mean more to you than the Alphas?_

Kodiak's fist hammered into the wall, venting frustration at the situation. "Dammit." Then he saw the bricks and mortar crushed by the blow and repeated himself. "Dammit." Starting the year with more property damage. Just wonderful.

.o0o.

Poe Cottage
5 September 2006

Ayla was surprised to find Jade lying in ambush for her when she got back from the Campus store. "Can I help you?"

"I think someone's looking for you," the smaller fourteen year old said seriously.

"What!?" The trans-gendered boy grabbed her and pulled her into his room. "Who?"

"She said her name was Solange." Jade looked around the room and relaxed a bit when it didn't look very different from the one she shared with Tennyo. Maybe Ayla wasn't as well off as she'd implied.

"Doesn't ring a bell. Maybe its a codename. Are you sure she was looking for me?"

"Well whoever she's looking for was a boy when she knew them and from a rich family. I don't know any of the boys except for you and Hank but you're rich and I thought if any of the other boys were rich you might know."

Ayla grinned briefly at being called a boy but then remembered himself and re-assumed his usual gruff demeanor. Jade didn't understand why he'd be happy, since he made a much better looking girl than she did. "Hmm, well I can ask around. Did she tell you anything else?"

"Just that she'd met them at a school called Chilton."

"Oh crap."

"What?"

"She is looking for me. I went to Chilton and believe me, I'd know if any of the other freshmen had been there." Ayla frowned deeply. "But in that case, who is she and how did she learn I was here? None of my family would have told her and no one I used to know would recognise me now."

"I can find out!" offered Jade quickly.

"How?"

"Well maybe not how she learned you were here, but she told me she's in Dickinson Cottage, so I can charge Jinn into something very small and then she can sneak into Dickinson and wait for someone to use her name and then..."

"Too many 'ands', dear," Ayla interjected in imitation of Beltaine, the girl who'd acted as guide to the two of them and the other four transgender freshmen the previous day. "And what if no one uses her real name. If she introduced herself as Solange then maybe everyone calls her that all the time. For that matter, maybe she changed her name when she came here."

"Oh," Jade slumped. "Well maybe Tennyo will have an idea how to find out!" She jumped out and ran out of the room, leaving Ayla blinking.

"That girl's got the strangest mood swings..." She shrugged and started unloading the course books she'd picked up from the campus. Once she'd figured out who to talk to, she could probably find out who Solange really was. The question that was really worrying was what she planned to do once she confirmed that Ayla was really Trevor J. Goodkind. _I don't think Mrs. Horton or Dean Shugendo would be happy if I blow the secret of Poe Cottage on my first week here._

The door swung open again to admit Jade, Tennyo and and Beltane, who was followed by a small column of bandsmen playing 'Secret Agent Man' on kazoos. Ayla rolled her eyes and decided to ignore them.

"What's this about Jade wanting to go spy on someone over in Dickinson?" asked Tennyo. "She said something about someone trying to find out your secret identity so you need to discover her secret identity first so that you can keep her from revealing yours?"

Jade stamped her foot. "That's not it at all."

"That's what I got though," Tennyo said with a shrug. "Are you suren talking super fast isn't your superpower?" She crossed her legs and perched herself in mid-air, drifting casually through the air towards the window. The fact that she was doing so at something of an angle didn't seem to bother Billie Wilson, who's mutant manifestation had transformed him into an almost perfect duplicate of the anime character Ryoko from Tenchi Muyo!

Jade humphed and conspiciously turned her back on Tennyo, an ostracism that might last for as many as five whole minutes if yesterday was anything to go by. "Anyway, Beltane said she knows Solange!"

"Oh?"

"Sure," the Junior said with a shrug. "Everyone knows Solange, whether they want to or not. Scratch that, especially if they don't want to. And right now she's the hottest gossip in the school?"

Ayla raised an eyebrow and waited for the punchline.

"Her real name's Tansy Wal-"

"WHAT!"

The band flickered, their forms blurring and going silent as Ayla's shout startled Beltane, and then they snapped back into focus and piped out an exagerated 'Dun dun dun', before the girl dismissed the ectoplasm she'd made them out of. "No, Walcutt, not what."

"Dammit, I should have known the bitch would be here!"

"Ah," Beltane said, nodding wisely. "Then you have met her."

"Oh yes, I've definitely met her," Ayla agreed. "Please tell me she's some sort of hideous monster with hooves and horns."

Jade shook her head. "Actually she's really pretty. I wish I looked like that."

"Figures."

"If she looked the way you hope she'd be in Whitman or Hawthorne," Beltane told them. "Dickinson Cottage is where they put girls who look normal, or nearly so. Tansy's one of better looking girls in the School unfortunately, and believe me, she lords it over everyone else."

"So why is she hot gossip?" asked Tennyo.

"Well last year she was in the Alphas - the cool kids - and only slightly behind Hekate in the hotly contested 'biggest bitch on campus' stakes but this year she's out. Now she says - I heard this from someone who heard her talking in Crystal Hall last night - that she quit because the other Alphas are too evil for her to stomach."

"What are they doing, sacrificing babies?"

"Either that or wearing unfashionable shoes, which would be a high sin in the eyes of the Church of Solange," Beltane agreed. "I mean, the Don and Hekate can be pretty nasty pieces of work but the idea that they're doing something that Solange can't stomach is pretty far fetched. More probably Hekate managed something to push her out and she's spinning a story to make herself sound better."

"I could believe that," agreed Ayla. "And if she's trying to find me, it's certainly not for my health."

"Old enemies?"

"You could say that. She was a fat little blob at Chilton, a couple of years ahead of me, so that made her my sister Heather's natural prey. So as soon as Heather left and I started, Tansy turned around and decided to get her revenge on me for everything Heather did. As if I was responsible."

"The cycle of revenge..." Beltane agreed solemnly. "When will someone give peace a chance?" Coming from a self-admitted practical joker, there was a certain... black-kettleness... to the remark.

"Well I don't want anything to do with her," Ayla decided.

Jade nodded. "I can tell her that no one matching that description is here," she offered.

"Won't work," the junior told her. "Sooner or later word will get out that there's a Goodkind on campus and she'll know who it is."

Ayla nodded her head in agreement. "And I'm going to get enough trouble from my family's reputation without having to deal with Tansy sharpening her claws on me. Hmm. You said she was out of the Alphas, right? So who is she hanging with right now?"

"I think she's trying to patch up a new clique out of the freshmen in Dickinson. What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking that if she's on the outs with the Alphas, she's not going to have any back up. Tansy's the classic bully: she'd never dare to start anything that might involve her getting pounded. The main concern is that she might go after my friends. Jade, could you see if you can round up Toni, Nikki and Hank? We'd better fill them in on this."

Beltane grinned. "Sounds like you have things well in hand." She followed Jade to the door.

"I could do with your help too."

"Right now, the best help I can do is play Sergeant Schultz. If anyone asks me if you were laying an ambush for Solange, I can honestly say that 'I know nothing'," she finished in a bad German accent.

.o0o.

Dickinson Cottage
6 September 2006

To her own surprise, Tansy woke with a smile on her face. One thing that she'd not considered with the bunk beds was that every movement that either of them made shook the bed slightly. Sahar, it turned out, was not given to peaceful slumber and it had taken almost an hour for Tansy to get to sleep.

Looking at the clock she was surprised to see that she had overslept by an hour. Fortunately classes hadn't begun yet so she wouldn't have to rush breakfast.

Sahar must have woken earlier because she was sitting at her desk, looking at something on her laptop. With the added space that stacking the beds had given them, they'd moved the desks to face each other, up against the window so that each of them had a view out of it: Sahar down over Dunn Hall and the woods to theeast of the campus, while Tansy could see Schuster Hall and the other central buildings. She looked up when Tansy sat up, narrowly missing catching her hair in the springs that supported the other girl's mattress.

Gingerly Tansy pushed back her duvet, expecting to be sore from the blasting that Fenryk had given her the day before. However, there wasn't even any residual stiffness.

_I'm learning to be more precise,_ he told her. _Causing you permanent injury doesn't help either of us._

_Obviously wrecking my life doesn't count in your eyes._

_From where I'm standing, you seem to have been managing that perfectly well without me. Petty bullying isn't much of a life._

Sahar's uncanny eyes remained fixed on Tansy as she started to get her bathgear together. Unlike less prepared girls, she'd obtained a string back to hold all the bottles, with a drawsting loop that she could use to hang it off the shower rack.

"What are you looking at?" Tansy demanded.

"I'd say some kind of elemental spirit." Sahar dropped her eyes back to the screen of her laptop. "Something that you picked up over the summer?"

Tansy's jaw flapped loose for a moment. It hadn't occured to her that Sahar might be able to detect Fenryk. "Something like that." She grabbed hold of her bathrobe and escaped from the room before the conversation could go any further, assuming that Sahar even had any further interest.

Another advantage of being late was that the queue for the showers wasn't as late as it could be. Sharing bathing facilities was torture enough, Tansy thought, without having to queue for them, but as it was she only had to wait a moment at the counter before one of the stalls was free and she was able to use it.

_What do we do about Sahar?_ she asked Fenryk. _She could blow the whole plan of keeping you secret!_

_I'd suggest staying on her good side then," the spirit replied.

_This is Sahar. She's gotten close to half the Psis on campus and then backstabbed them when she had what she wanted. Being on her good side isn't a good sign_

_That sounds more like her being on your good side, and we don't have to worry about that._

Tansy turned off the water and reached for her towel. _What are you implying?_

_Just that you don't trust her, so we can be sure she hasn't got to you. I wouldn't say that you don't have a good side._

_Thank you._

_Just that it's a bit of a redheaded stepchild when it comes to the rest of your personality._

Tansy groaned and rested her forehead against the cold tiles. _Why did I decide that this was preferable to dying again?_

Fenryk apparently didn't think that that was worth replying to directly. _My advice is simply not to make a big deal about it. If she doesn't know it's a secret then the information won't have any value. Of course, if it comes up in front of that Anna girl, you'll look like a complete hypocrite - pushing her to take Avatar class when you can't be bothered..._

_You think I should take it?_

The spirit barely paused to think. _I think you gave Anna good advice: you'd need to ask an Avatar who's taken it. Sooner or later it'll come out that I'm riding you and it might be a good idea then. For now though, keeping me a secret isn't a bad idea._

_But why would I be asking someone about the Avatar class if I'm not admitting that I'm..._ Tansy broke off. _Aha! I can say that I'm asking on her behalf. So not even do I have a reason, but it makes me look magnaminous!_

_I don't think that that's word that you're looking for, but I agree. Take her and introduce her to someone that can advise her._ Fenryk paused... _Oh, and shouldn't you be sorting out your classes today?_

_I'll take that Criminology class that she's taking,_ Tansy told him. _From the description it covers the basics of looking for clues, so I'll know what I should hide to stop people from finding clues leading to me... or to plant clues pointing at other people._

Fenryk snorted. _I'll let that reasoning go for now, but it sounds like a reasonable plan. So that's your fifth period, what about the third?_

_Oh I don't know,_ Tansy said as she towelled off. _Nothing looks good there. Maybe Mrs. Hawkins will give me a free period there, since I've got to get up at the crack of dawn for flying and take an evening class as well._

_She might, but I won't. You're still packing that force pistol, right?_

_Of course!_ The compact energy weapon was marketed as a holdout, but Tansy knew that it could be a handy equaliser if someone was ever desperate enough to get physical with her. There were any number of students who posed a serious threat to her in a fight, but firing the pistol would't just deter them it would also alert security and then she could have the book thrown at them.

_Do they only come in that size?_

_Of course not!_

There was a hungry sound to Fenryk's voice. _Excellent!_

.o0o.

Dickinson Cottage
6 September 2006

"You've got a guest," Sahar observed as Tansy walked back in.

"I do?" She looked around the room, not seeing anyone.

Sahar pointed out of the window at the flying girl hovering outside, wrapped in a black cloak. "It's a good job for her it's a green flag day. Someone you know?"

Tansy looked out the window. It was impossible to tell for sure because whoever it was wore sunglasses, but she didn't think that the girl was even looking at her, instead just knocking gently on the window pane. "I don't think so. Are you sure she's looking for me?"

"Hello, Solange?" the voice said, barely audible through the thick double-glazing. "Hello?"

"Yes, I am," Sahar deadpanned.

"You make an excellent case." Tansy unlatched the window and opened it a crack, readying herself to yank it closed if it turned out to be a trick. "Hello?"

"Hi!" the girl said cheerfully. "Solange? I'm Jade's sister, Jinn!"

Tansy blinked. This girl didn't look like Jade very much - if anything, her face looked more like... Madonna? "Are you wearing a mask?"

"Um, yes." She sounded embarassed, as well she might. "I sort of have to. Does it show?"

"A little. Are you taking costuming class?"

Jinn nodded.

"Then they'll help you with that. So what can I do for you?" Tansy felt excitement. Had Jade found Trevor? Had he been beaten like a bass drum by all the girls in Poe?

_You have an unhealthy obsession with that idea,_ Fenryk noted.

"Jade told me you were looking for a friend of yours and I think I might have found him. He used to go to Chilton and he's a freshman, like us."

Jade was a freshman? This girl looked the right age, but she'd have guessed no more than twelve for the little chink. Well, perhaps the younger little sister was one of those Devisor brainiacs. "Well that sounds promising." And she said him, so they must know he was a boy... For a moment Tansy went back to her fantasy of Trevor taking a beating but then reality intruded. Jinn's voice certainly didn;t suggest that she considered him a disgusting pervert, so he must be either innocent or had managed to weasel his way out of it.

"Can I come in?" asked Jinn? "I can't see you through the window and it's kind of weird talking to you through it."

Tansy filed that away as a potentially useful blind spot in the girl's powers. "Of course. Give me a moment and I'll get the window open a bit wider."

"That's okay, I can manage."

Tansy backed up and watched in surprise as Jinn seemed to flow through the narrow opening, paying no heed to the difficulty it should have posed for her. So she was a shifter of some kind, perhaps? "Welcome to my little domain. This is Sahar, my distinguished co-ruler."

Jinn curtseyed with a giggle that definitely reminded Tansy of Jade's. Chalk that up as one piece of evidence for the sister story.

"Excuse me if I get dressed while we talk," Tansy said. "I'm running a bit late today and I want to get my classes finalised."

"So," Jinn asked coyly, "This guy you're looking for... were his initials T. J.?"

Paydirt! "You're right," Tansy confirmed as she took off her bathrobe and went to the dresser for her clean underwear. "That must be him. Is he alright? I'd think he would be having some trouble with his family.

"Weeeelllll," Jinn actually pressed her fingers together. "I'm not sure he'd like if if was talking about him behind his back. I mean, you say you know him but he says he doesn't know a Solange..."

_Busted._

_Shut up._

"Oh yes, that's my codename. My real name is Tansy Walcutt." Tansy held up two blouses, comparing them in an effort to decide which to wear. "I imagine Trevor will remember the name, but not all that fondly."

"But I thought you were friends with Ayla!" Jinn clapped her hands over her mouth and Tansy smiled like the cat that had got the cream, setting aside the blouses.

"Ayla is it? Ah, I take it that the changes must have been more drastic than I'd heard if Trevor's using such a feminine name."

Jinn headed for the window. "I think I should be going now."

_Well, this is going swimmingly,_ Fenryk observed. _Clearly she's well aware of the gender issue so it's unlikely that your old enemy is making use of it in the way you envisaged._

_I know. Oh well._

_Ah, ah, ah. I'm not going to let you leave it at that,_ the spirit ordered. _You really don't need another enemy right now and if you leave it at this then that's what you'll have to deal with. So you're going to patch up this feud._

_And why would I do that?_

_I think you remember why, child. I'm not asking you to make up with his sisters, just with him. And if that means apologising..._

_To him? But he- !_

_This isn't a request._

"Jinn, wait!" Tansy rushed to the window and threw it open before Jinn could get too far away.

The girl obligingly slowed, although she stayed well out of reach. "What?"

Tansy leant out, urgently. "Please could you take a message to Ayla for me. I want to meet him. Her."

"He prefers him."

"Okay. Just... tell him I want to apologise." The words almost stuck in Tansy's throat.

"You do?"

Tansy nodded with something approaching sincerity. Eating crow to Trevor would be abject humiliation, but she could say with absolute certainty that it was less daunting than Fenryk deciding to electrocute her to death. And he did sort of have a point: Trevor could make life very difficult for her, since he'd have all sorts of ugly blackmail material from when she was 'Tubby Tansy'. "I'll understand if he doesn't want to see me, but please could you at least ask him for me?"

"Well..."

"I never lied to your sister, Jinn, or to you. I already owe her a favour for finding him and I'll owe you another if you can tell Ayla what I said."

Jinn hovered in the air for a moment. "Alright. But all I'll do is ask. If Ayla says no..."

"Okay, that's fine. Thank you!"

The flying girl nodded and then looked Tansy over. "Aren't you cold?"

"What?" Tansy looked down and realised that she was leaning out of the window, wearing only her underwear. "Eeep!" She threw herself backwards into the room again, throwing her arms across her chest. Outside, she saw Jinn throw a jaunty wave before dropping out of sight, presumably to make her way back to Poe on the ground.

"Well that went smoothly," Sahar noted drily. "What's the next step in your master plan?"

"Grovelling abjectly," sulked Tansy. She made a decision over the blouses and then went into the wardrobe for one of the treasures within. In this case, a pair of leather pants. Since she was stuck with the role of rebel against the Alphas, she was certainly going to look the part.

"Right, so there's this boy that you hurt, and now he's a girl and in Poe and you want to make up with him." The red rings around Sahar's eyes were almost glowing. "This all sounds terribly familiar to me for some reason."

The other girl shrugged indifferently. "Well don't look at me. I've no idea what you're thinking of. I just don't want Tre- uh, Ayla, coming after me. I'm going to have enough trouble with the Alphas."

"You think a Freshman can be that much of a problem?"

Tansy groaned. "Oh I've not doubt at all of it." She thought a moment and then picked an example. "Trevor was a freshman at Chilton when he organised a boycott of the cafeteria because the food wasn't up to his standards. And apparently he did the same at every school he went to, starting from elementary school."

Sahar raised an eyebrow. "Is that impressive?"

"How many six year olds do you think can force the administration of their school to do something they don't want to?" Tansy asked rhetorically.

"I doubt he can achieve the same here, given the appetites involved."

"Oh you're right. I'm sure that with eight years to prepare he'll be much worse. Nothing I can't cope with of course, but I'd rather not have to worry about the Alphas and Ayla... or worse, them making common cause against me." _Okay, Fenryk, I admit it. This is a better idea than I thought._

.o0o.

Crystal Hall
6 September 2006

Being out of the Alphas meant not having anyone to eat lunch with, Tansy noticed, unless you counted Fenryk, which she didn't. She was about to contemplate her options on finding one of the Freshmen from yesterday whose company she could bear when Jinn skimmed silently across the floor to meet her, followed by another girl with improbably blue spikey hair who was carrying approximately enough food for a twelve person banquet piled high on two trays.

"Solange," Jinn said solemnly. "Ayla thought that you might want to talk over dinner."

Tansy nodded and took her own, tray which she'd considered reasonably full until she saw the small mountains of food being carried by Jinn's companion. _Well, at last I can take a little satisfaction in the idea that at least this conversation will probably spoil Ayla's appetite._ "I don't think we've been introduced," she said to the flying girl, who looked her over for a moment before replying.

"Call me Tennyo." She frowned a bit. "You used to be an Alpha, right?"

Tansy hid her annoyance at the reminder. "Yes."

"Do you know three chuckleheads, all with crewcuts. Twin blonds and one with white hair? I had a run in with them a couple of days ago at the train station."

Hmm. Well that wasn't hard to guess. "Sounds like Hamper, Damper and Icer. The Don brought them into the Alphas to use as muscle. Damper can knock out most people's powers, Hamper can mask them from surveillance and Icer's got a nice, low evidence attack: what's odd about ice and cold water in New Hampshire? Particularly once winter sets in."

"Hmm." Tennyo shrugged, revealing that she hadn't bothered with a bra today. "They didn't seem all that tough."

"If that isn't just bravado then I'm in the market for a bodyguard," Tansy offered.

Tennyo laughed and then blinked. "You're serious?"

"Well it would be easier if you were in Dickinson, but there's no helping that. They're not all that keen on moving people between cottages except into Hawthorne when they have to."

"Hawthorne?" asked Jinn.

"All the cottages have their niches, I'd expect you know that in Poe."

The other two girls looked at each other and then nodded. "So what's Hawthorne's niche?" asked Tennyo.

"Students who can't control their powers or who need a specialised environment just to survive. I've never been in there, but Hawthorne's set up to support them."

"Is that common?"

"Oh, I don't know exactly." Tansy thought a minute. "I guess there's maybe sixty or so students there," she said uncertainly. "Some of them pretty much never leave."

Jinn did a bit of mental arithmetic. "That's one in ten out of the whole campus!"

Tennyo flinched and Tansy nodded. "Yes. We're the lucky ones."

The three girls reached the table and Tansy looked at the four freshmen already there. Well, it would be more accurate to say she looked at one of them. For a second she was frozen in indecision: should she befriend the adorable redhead in preparation to stab her in the back or just skip straight to begging to suck on her toes?

A pulse of electricity snapped her out of it. _Glamour,_ Fenryk warned her laconically.

"You know, using a glamour on me isn't very nice," Tansy warned the redhead, bolstering her mental defences as much as possible. With an effort she pushed the inappropriate urges down to a dull roar.

The younger girl blushed and looked at the table embarrassed - not the sort of behaviour she'd expect from a Goodkind, but darned cute none the less. Okay, so she wasn't likely to be Ayla. "There's nothing I can do about it," the redhead said apologetically.

"I see." Tansy refocused on the rest of them. One boy - also cute, and filling out nicely. Pity he wasn't a year or two older. Still, if that was Trevor he'd not be calling himself Ayla. There was also Jade, too young, which meant that Ayla was either the black girl or the delicately-built punk girl. A quick look at their expressions made it clear which was which: the latter had the 'when royal-we rule the planet we will crush you like the insect you are' expression that Tansy had hated on Trevor's face. It really clashed incredibly with the torn jeans, the band T-shirt and rebellious hairdo. Tansy put her tray down in front of her. "Hello Ayla."

"Tansy," Ayla replied in a neutral voice. "It's been a while."

"May I?" Tansy indicated the chair facing her.

The Goodkind nodded slightly and sipped from her waterglass. A certain tension went out of the rest of the group as they sat down but Tansy and Ayla continued to eye each other like duellists. The first clash of dominance hadn't been a clash, Tansy had let Ayla play host - treat the table as her home ground - and that wasn't what she'd been expecting.

_I hate this, I hate this._ It would have been immensely satisfying to simply take a seat, giving unspoken warning that she was a junior and they were only lowly froshes.

_You're doing very well. Just remember you're trying to make peace._

"How did you know I was here?"

Tansy paused in cutting what the kitchen staff called a steak philadelphia - it compared poorly to Ayla's stuffed croissant. She wondered where that had come from - there had been ordinary croissants available but that one was something else. "I met your brother Paul at a party a week or two back."

"Paul wouldn't tell you about me." Ayla spoke with confidence that wasn't entirely ill-placed. The Goodkinds were big on maintaining an image of family solidarity, no matter how inaccurate it might be at times.

Tansy reached into her back-pocket, absently noting how Ayla's eyes - and those of the boy - focused on her blouse as she wiggled to get at what she wanted. "Here." She placed her MID on the table where Ayla could see it.

It took less than a second for Ayla to put together Tansy's PSI rating and her having met his brother to mean: "You - !"

"If I can, so can others." Tansy lifted her glass of mineral water and sipped from it. "I presume that you can take it from here."

Ayla glowered and then nodded curtly, not so much in agreement as in acknowledgement that Tansy had done her a favour by telling her. As peace offerings went it wasn't all that impressive but that wasn't the point.

They ate in silence, Ayla trying to savour her meal. Around them Ayla's friends tried to make conversation but it always died out awkwardly with looks at the pair of them.

"Look, are you two going to kiss and make up?" That question came from the black girl who Tansy gathered was called Toni.

Ayla looked vaguely disgusted, although Tansy could pick up at least a slight tinge of lust as well. Not that the latter was at all unusual for boys around her. "We're not going to kiss, no."

_You're not going to get a better opening,_ Fenryk pointed out.

_Thank you Oprah._

_Who is this Oprah and why do I feel like I've been insulted?_

"Toni does have a point though." Tansy put down the fork of cheesecake that she'd been about to eat. "Look, I want to meet you -"

A heavy hand landed on her shoulder.

"What!?" she snapped, snapping her head around. She found herself staring at the muscular chest of Aries.

"Tansy, the Don wants a word with you."

This wasn't good. Everyone on campus knew that Aries was the Don's good friend. Everyone in the Alphas knew that it was more like minion and while the trio of Hamper, Damper and Icer made up one half of the Alpha's hit squad Aries was the other half all on his own. Under the right circumstances, Tansy might be able to put one over on him but these weren't the circumstances.

"I'm done listening to Donny-boy, Arn," she told him, recalling he didn't like being called by his real first name Arnold. "If you're smart, so are you."

"It's not that simple, Tansy and you know it."

"Hey, 'scuse me," Toni said to the towering Junior. "We're having a conversation here. Could you go wait your turn?"

He ignored her. "You know there will be consequences if you don't come."

"I've spoken to him plenty of times and I don't recall any coming being involved." There was a muffled chuckle from someone. "Go break a leg or something."

Aries shrugged. "Your call." He turned away with a casual wave of one hand.

_I don't like the way he said that._

Fenryk didn't reply, which Tansy took for agreement. She turned by back to Ayla. "Sorry, old business. What I was trying to say... what?"

There was an odd expression on Ayla's face. "I don't think I've ever heard you say sorry before. Excuse me while I savour the moment." She paused. "Oh, and you have more callers."

_Given I just ditched the Alphas, I'm surprised I'm so popular._ Tansy turned around and saw the Whateley Academy Martial Arts Cheerleader Squad approaching in attack formation.

"Which of them is Sailor Moon?" piped up Jade curiously and Tennyo laughed out loud.

"What are you laughing at, frosh?" demanded Ginger, Patty's redheaded sidekick. "Clear off, we want a word with Solange."

"Well since you asked so very nicely," Ayla drawled. "I don't believe that we will."

"Look, you're new here," Patty said condescendingly. "Obviously you don't understand how things work around here."

"Oh, I've got a pretty good idea. After all, it's not as if Whateley has intermural sports teams, so you're obviously hookers dressed up as cheerleaders."

Tansy choked at the expression on Patty's face. _Why didn't I ever think of that as a put down? It's perfect!_

_The boy is strong in the ways of the snark,_ Fenryk agreed. _Watch out!_

Tansy turned just a moment too late to avoid getting brushed aside as Pattie tried to charge over the table and kick Ayla in the face. Tansy was kissing the floor so she didn't see how that went but since the next sound was Pattie squealing in pain, she correctly deduced that it didn't go well. In fact, Pattie felt rather as if she'd kicked a brick wall and adding insult to injury, the flat-chested little freshman simply raised an eyebrow, as if to say 'was that it?'

Gem and Tazer, also known as Kelly and Ginger powered up and tried to charge after their leader. They met Toni and the group's token boy Hank coming the other way. The black martial artist latched onto Gem's neck and shoulders, although it didn't stop her from contiuing towards Ayla.

Tazer got off one bolt of energy into Hank, which he simply ignored, punching her below the ribs. She doubled up and the flying boy put his fists together and delivered an overhand blow that sent the girl crashing down to the floor - unfortunately, on top of Tansy.

"Get off of me!" the blonde protested. The only reply she got was an electrical jolt, although one that was nothing like as bad as what she was getting used to from Fenryk. _Hey!_

_Not me this time. Still, if she's zapping things then maybe no one will notice a little discreet..._

_Say no more!_ Tansy jabbed two fingers into the most available part of Tazer and for the first time let loose with the one benefit she got out of having Fenryk in her head. The other girl literally flew off her with a high-pitched screech. _Cool!_

_I said discreet!_ snapped Fenryk.

_It's not like I've had any chance to practise._

"What did you do to her!" cried out the new addition to cheerleaders, a little twerp about half Pattie's size who was currently being backed off by by Jinn and Jade. Hank, his opponent out of action, was now wrestling with Pattie and getting envious looks from Ayla as the boy-girl and Tennyo tried to get Gem under control.

Tansy shrugged. "I guess she zapped herself. What a loser."

Rather gamely the little girl tried to get past Jinn to reach her. "You're not getting away with this!"

Tansy was really hoping that the littlest cheerleader would be dumb enough to throw a punch, particularly with Adam Ironknife and his little band of followers about to arrive but instead she backed down. _She must be the one who has their team's collective half-wit today._

"Settle down, all of you," snapped Adam, who was in his full Stormwolf, Auxiliary Agent of Security mode. Of course by the time he and the rest of the Betas had arrived it was pretty much over: Hank had Patty in a full nelson, Tennyo and Ayla were pinning Kelly (aka Gem) against the table and Ginger seemed to be out of it with Toni and the redhead (whose name was Nikki) checking her for injury.

"Thank you for your swift arrival," Tansy snarked.

"Can it, Solange." He looked around. "Okay, all of you come with me. We can sort this out at Kane Hall."

.o0o.

Security Offices, Kane Hall
6 September 2006

Being frog-marched into security was a new experience for Tansy and one that she hoped she wouldn't be repeating too much. The staff there were obviously used to dozen-strong bands of teenagers being marched in because they had a waiting room all set up for it. Ayla and her friends were pointed to one corner, and Tansy and Martial Arts Cheerleaders (sans Tazer, who'd been carried off the school clinic to be given a check out) to the other. Tansy did try to protest that grouping but apparently neither the Betas nor the two security men who stayed in the room was interested in her protests.

_At this rate I'm never going to have to apologise,_ she thought hopefully.

"This is your fault," Pattie hissed to her.

Tansy leant back and arched her immaculately cared for eyebrow. "How is it my fault you picked a fight in front of half the school?"

"If you hadn't been sitting there, we'd never have run into those disgusting froshes!"

"And you're the one who put Ginger into hospital!" chirped mini-Pattie. "You're going down."

"Funny, it looked to me like you went into a snark-off and managed to lose not only the contest but your cool as well. The great Yellow Queen lost the verbal battle with a freshman, took it physical and... oh look... you got beaten there as well. I'm sure the Alphas will rush you any moment now.

"Shut up! Like you're the one to talk. Who was it who got kicked out of the Alphas again? Someone not a million miles away, name rhymes with Pansy..."

"What!? I didn't get kicked out, I quit!"

"Sure you did. Because you'd just drop out of the Alphas after spending most of last year doing everything short of turning tricks to get into them."

"Well you shouldn't be far off being a member yourself then, with your new themed cheerleader approach."

One of the security men walked over and glared down at us. "Cut it out you two. If you start another fight in here, we'll separate you with firehoses."

Tansy could have sworn she heard someone mumble "I'd pay to see that," from the opposite corner of the room. From the way Nikki and Tennyo had both elbowed him, it was probably Hank.

Pattie humphed and looked conspicuously away from Tansy, starting up a conversation with Kelly and the new cheerleader, who as apparently her sister who was in the Junior High year. Tansy made a mental note to treat the girl with more respect. One detail she recalled from Power Theory back in her own Freshman year was that the younger a mutant manifested, the more powerful they were likely to turn out to be. She might have been up against a real powerhouse that she hadn't even known about.

After a moment, Chief Delarose came in. "So what was so important that you decided to trash part of the cafe before classes have even begun?" he asked drily.

Tansy hovered right on the edge of pointing out that it was Ayla's crass (if incredibly apt) zinger that had provoked Pattie into throwing the first punch (or possibly kick, since the cheerleader had been limping on the way to Kane Hall). That would get them both detention, and Ayla would probably never want to talk to her again...

Except that awkward as it was, outside of the other Venus Inc. girls, the best chance Tansy had for anyone to hang out with at the moment was the Freshman class Dropping one of the Poe freshmen into trouble wouldn't do her any favours in the long run.

"Well?" asked Delarose. "No one has anything to say?"

Tansy raised her hand.

"Yes, Solange? What's your excuse?"

"Oh I was right in the middle of it," she said breezily. "Not that I wanted to be, but such is life. However, these four " she pointed at Jade, Jinn, Nikki and Patti's sister Beatrice "- didn't get involved that I saw."

"Well I would have!" all four protested hastily.

Ayla and Tansy slapped their foreheads in unison.

.o0o.

Whateley Academy
6 September 2006

"So, Solange." Delarose had cornered Tansy while Pattie and her crew were sent off. For obvious reasons, security didn't want both groups leaving the offices together. As Pattie had thrown the first punch she and Kelly had been given detention every evenings for the next week emptying bins for Campus services, with the same for Ginger, less time spent in Doyle Medical Complex. It wouldn't do the cheerleader's reputation any good to have been publically beaten down by a bunch of freshmen, even at what had been two to one odds. "One thing still bothers me about this."

"Only one?"

He nodded thoughtfully. "Why were you having lunch with freshmen from another cottage?"

Tansy humphed. "Well I could say that that's not really your business, Chief Delarose," she stalled, quickly formulating a cover story.

"I suppose you could."

"Actually, I'm rushing them."

There was an almost synchronised mumble from the Poe crew as they held back from denying it, wondering what she meant.

"Rushing them?" Delarose frowned. "I thought you were out of the Alphas?"

"Oh I am." Tansy smiled brightly. "But that's not the only club I was in. I mean, just look at them." She pointed, picking out Nikki in particular. "Can't you just see them on the cover of next year's prospectus."

"Ah... I see." Delarose shook his head.

"Chief?" a voice called. "We're getting interference on the cameras around the Quad. Looks like someone's running an experiment they shouldn't be, again."

"And it's only Wednesday," he sighed. "Okay, I believe that Miss Horton and her companions have had enough time to get clear now, so you can go. Don't forget to report to Campus Services, those of you who have to."

Since Ayla had - perhaps wisely - decided not to admit exactly what he'd said to provoke Pattie, she'd also been given detention, although only for two evenings, playing assistant to the motor pool. In contrast, Tansy and the other four Poe freshmen would be doing the same for maintenance of the many many tunnels under the campus. Jade and Beatrice were leaving with nothing but a lecture. Such was the power of pre-teen cuteness.

"So," Hank asked as they walked out of Kane Hall onto the Quad. "What club are you in?"

"It's called Venus Inc.," Tansy explained. "At the risk of being obvious, quite a few of us on campus got quality transformations when we manifested, so it's a group of us who take advantage of that."

Hank fell over his own feet and fell face first onto the paving. Pretty much all the Poe crowd were blushing furiously.

"How do you mean?" asked Jade innocently.

"Modelling of course!"

There were several sighs of relief and at least one of disappointment. Tansy gave them a look. "What did you think I meant?"

"Okay, now you're just poking fun at us," Ayla grumbled.

Tansy reviewed what she'd said and flushed. "Not what I meant at all!"

"What are you talking about?"

"Never mind!" Tennyo told Jade firmly.

Tansy backed up, holding her hands out to simulate camera shots of them. "Actually... well it was only a cover-story but you've all got potential..."

"Thank you, no," Ayla shook her head.

"Not my scene," Hank agreed.

The junior smiled. "You mean you don't want to be around a number of rather attractive women as they're getting in and out of semi-revealing clothes."

"Um, uh, well..." he spluttered.

"No fair using feminine wiles on the unarmed," Toni chastised Tansy. She paused. "Even if it's a riot."

"...thanks, Toni."

"I might give it a try," Nikki said with cautiously.

Jade's face fell. "I don't think I can. I'm not... pretty like you are."

"No, but you're pretty like you are," Tennyo reassured her. "If Tansy's asking Hank then it's not just for the girls with lots of talent."

"How delicately put," murmured Nikki.

"You're very welcome, Jade," Tansy assured the girl.

"We're getting a bit off topic." Ayla shoved her hands into the hip pockets of her jeans. "You had something you wanted to say to me, Tansy?"

_Oh great. Now I'm back on the hook._

_Yes, you are,_ Fenryk agreed. _In fact you were never off the hook._

_A girl can dream, can't she?_ Tansy nodded. "You're right. Of course I keep getting interrupted..." She looked around, but no one seemed to be there.

"Something wrong?"

"Just wondering if the next interruption missed their cue."

"You think they have a schedule?" asked Ayla drily.

Tansy shook her head. "No, just it just seems to be how my luck is running toda-aah!" She managed to see a blur a second before something snatched her leg out from under her as she was in mid-step, dragging her with hip-straining force for a split second. By throwing her hands around her head, it the blonde girl barely kept her skull from cracking against the paving as she tumbled to the ground, the sharp pain from her leg let her know that she hadn't gotten out of whatever had just happend unscathed. "Oh god!" she whined as her elbows also protested the scraping she'd taken as she landed.

"What happened? Are you okay?" Hank asked - he'd caught Jade, who had also gone flying, apparenly having been brushed by whatever had hit Tansy.

"Sure, I'm doing this because it's so much fun!" Tansy bit out, twisting to try to keep her leg from pressing against anything.

Ayla looked around. "It felt like someone brushed against me just as you fell..."

"Yeah, I saw someone," Toni agreed. "Going too fast for me to get a good look at them." She paused. "Hmm. I wonder if I could sort of speed up my perceptions with my ki. That would have helped."

"Worry about that later," Ayla ordered, looking around. "Did anyone else see them?"

Hank and Nikki shook their heads. "I did," Jinn confirmed. "He went that way!" she pointed towards the corner of Schuster Hall.

Tennyo levitated upwards, staring in that direction. "I don't see anyone!" she called back.

Tansy groaned and looked around as best she could. 'Go break a leg or something,' she'd told him. Yep, there he was, jogging up the path from a completely different direction. "What an unfortunate accident," Aries said innocently. He pulled out his cellphone. "Would you like me to call one of the paramedics or has someone taken care of that already?"

.o0o.

Doyle Medical Complex
6 September 2006

Tansy was checking her email when the door opened and Ayla walked in as if he owned the building.

"I thought visiting hours were over."

"I asked nicely." Ayla walked over to the chair by Tansy's bed. "How's the leg?"

"A clean break, apparently. Fortunately I'm an Exemplar so there should't be any complications. I should be out of here tomorrow for my first class but I'll need a crutch for weeks..."

"That's not too bad."

"Well if I wasn't an Exemplar they might be willing to get someone here to to patch it up straight away just in case of complications, so in an odd way I'm going to recover more slowly than I would if I didn't have a BIT." Tansy closed down the laptop. "Alright, before we get interrupted again, I owe you several apologies."

"I'm listening."

"I'll spare you the excuses and the whining about your sisters. My problems with them were none of your doing and it was stupid and cowardly of me to take them out on you. I'm sorry. I... I'll try not to do it again." _There. I said it. Are you happy now?_

_Are you happier?_

Ayla nodded. "You know, Jinn's an empath. She tells me that you weren't entirely happy all the times you tried to apologise before."

_Dammit!_ "That's true."

"And Beltane told me quite a bit about what you've been like these last two years and I have to say it sounds very much the way I'd expect given how you behaved at Chilton."

_This was a complete waste of time. And now I have a broken leg._ "I imagine that she can tell you a great many stories like that. Most would be true."

The boy although Tansy couldn't help but notice that he didn't seem at all male (even the body language was subtly feminine) nodded. "So with that being true, Tansy, why exactly should I trust you?"

Tansy thought desperately. Surely there had to be something she could cite, something she'd done that would convince Ayla to make a truce. Some argument that would convince Ayla to side with her rather than simply standing back and watching the Alphas tear her apart like this. _Help me, Fenryk._

_Be honest, girl. If you have nothing... admit it._

_You can't be serious!_

_By all means, if you have another plan..._

Tansy slumped back into her pillows. "You shouldn't," she admitted. "I really screwed up." She was horrified to feel tears forming at the corners of her eyes. There was an uncomfortable moment as Ayla looked away and Tansy wiped her eyes.

"Look, I don't like you," Ayla pointed out. "I've never liked you. But I guess with everything that's happened..." She rose to her feet, brushing her thighs off to avoid meeting Tansy's eyes. "Well. Alright. We're square. For now. But I'll be watching you."

Bemused, Tansy watched her leave. _Did he just say that? He... believed me?_

Fenryk sighed. _You've got a long way to go._

_What does that mean!_

.o0o.

Whateley Academy
7 September 2006

Kodiak and Sahar were waiting for Tansy when she walked out of Doyle, eyeing each other suspiciously. Still trying to get a good rhythm with her crutch, Tansy looked them over sceptically. "Did you two start dating or something?"

Sahar made a face. "Don't be disgusting." She placed the heavy bag she was carrying in front of Tansy. "It was right where you said it was."

"Thank you." Tansy pulled out her phone and hit a speed dial. "Henry. Yes. Thank you. If you could transfer $1,000 to Miss Vesmarran's account. Yes, as before. Thank you." She closed the cellphone. "The money will clear some time on Saturday."

The other girl nodded and then yawned. "I'm going back to bed. Have fun with, whatever you're doing."

Kodiak chuckled as the girl wandered back into the darkness of the pre-dawn Campus. "You had to pay her a thousand bucks just to bring your bag to you?"

"And a few other things, none of which are any of your business. What do you want, Wyatt?"

The senior ran one hand through his shaggy hair. "I'm not out to get you, Tansy. The Don's pretty much pissing himself laughing about Aries breaking your leg so you've probably got a day or two before he thinks something more needs to be done to remind you that you're on his shit list." He reached down and took her bag.

"Hey!"

"Relax. I'll walk you to wherever you're going."

Tansy stared at him. Something about his powers protected him from Psionics, at least to an extent, but as far as she could tell from his face, he was sincere. Besides, if Kodiak wasn't the subtle type: if he was out to get her then he wouldn't bother lying about it. "Fine. Laird Hall."

"Flight, I hear? You developing TK?"

She shook her head, aware that he gave an appreciative look to the way her long hair brushed against the curves of her snug sweater. "No, I've got a jet pack. The same kind security use sometimes."

"Why the sudden interest?"

"Don't be a dumbass, Wyatt. We both know I'm in a war and that I'm badly outmatched in raw power. If technology can make up the difference I'd be a fool to ignore it."

"Flight, Defensive Driving, Heavy Weapons... and magic?"

"Hekate," Tansy said with a grimace.

"It's not going to put you on a par with her, you know. I hate to say it," Kodiak said with a grimace. "But between her, Spellbinder and Conjure the Don has access to more magical expertise than just about any other group on Campus. One term of classes isn't going to do very much."

The girl didn't reply for a long moment as she hobbled along the path, the muscular Avatar having to shorten his stride to keep from loping well ahead of her. "It's better than nothing, which is what I have now."

"There is that." He weighed his next words carefully. "So why'd you do it?"

Tansy weighed the odds of her survival if she told him everything. Kodiak was an Avatar, and a strong one, he might know a way to keep Fenryk from harming her. Not all that good, she concluded. "Ever looked in a mirror and not liked what you were seeing?"

"Once or twice," he admitted. "It's none of your business what for," he threw her earlier barb back at her.

"Whatever it was, are you going to do it again?"

"It isn't always as easy as that."

She paused and waved her crutch at him. "You're just a font of wisdom, Wyatt."

Tansy had seen Kodiak call up the bear before but never so close. "Don't sass me, girl," he growled, swelling up. Fur covered his bare arms and she could see fangs in his mouth. "If you know one damn thing that will get rid of The Don..."

"If I knew that then I'd have told Carson and he'd be in MCO custody right now, probably with a Lady Astarte-sized boot print decorating his groin," she shot back with false bravado. _Fenryk?_

_I'm here, child._ For once Fenryk's voice was a comfort and she could feel not only the lightning inside her but also the cool assurance of a seasoned warrior.

There was a spark of respect in Kodiak's eyes as he looked at her. "Maybe you would. Which is damn strange because last year, I'd have laid odds that you'd have used the information to blackmail the Don and Hekate into giving you power over the Alphas."

Tansy couldn't help but smile at the idea. _What I could do with that sort of a hold on them,_ she thought dreamily.

_Screw people over for your petty amusement?_ Fenryk suggested. _Of course, that's pretty much what the two of them do already, so what difference would it make?_

She stumbled to a mental halt? _What? What do you mean?_

_Think about it,_ he commanded.

"Maybe you're right," Tansy admitted to Kodiak, looking away to hide her confusion.

He grunted noncommittally and they walked in awkward silence until they were almost to Laird Hall.

"You took Avatar I," Tansy asked him.

"Yeah, Doc' Bellows was pretty firm that it was a requirement. Why?"

Tansy shrugged. "There's a freshman I know who was told it could wait. Just wondering if that was good advice."

"Probably not. I guess it's like any power. The more you know, the less likely you are to take a bite to the ass."

"Huh. Wish I knew that yesterday." Tansy squinted, the sky now lightening and revealing more of the campus although the sun itself remained below the campus. I see some people coming," she warned, looking south towards Poe Cottage. "Unless you want to be seen with me..."

The senior handed the bag to her, reaching out to steady her as she staggered trying to balance the weight. Then he backed away and left her to meet up with the two girls from Poe, chuckling at the startled expression on the white winged one's face as her companion flew forwards to solicitously help Tansy with her bag.

"What do you make of her?" he asked out loud, but there was no reply from Bear. "Yeah, same here."

.o0o.

Range Four
7 September 2006

Erik Mahren frowned as he saw Tansy Walcutt limp through the door. He'd been surprised to see the former-Alpha's name down for this course. The rest of the class was a mix of Devisors testing personal weapons, Energizers with some sort of ranged blast and military types stretching the latter definition to include not only the JROTC kids but also Counterpoint, who wouldn't be allowed in any military worth discussing by the standards of Drill Instructor Erik Mahren, USMC, but nonetheless considered himself to be a soldier.

What he hadn't heard was that she was coming in injured. "What happened to you, Solange," he demanded.

For a moment he thought he had his first case of someone trying to yank his chain to see what he'd do - she'd been a real trial in basic pistol qualifications two years ago but the girl lowered her eyes and for a wonder, neither whined to nor snapped at him. "My leg mysteriously slipped out from under me on the Quad. Sir."

The pause before the last word raised Mahren's temper a notch, but she added it quickly, as a correction not insolence. Still, it was mistake. "Give me fifty, Solange." She blinked. "Sir?" There was a harder edge to the word this time.

"Seventy-five," he amended. "Don't call me sir. I work for a living."

"Press-ups?" her voice was incredulous, but she moved out of the flow of other students and dropped to one knee before letting go of her crutch.

"I'm sure an Exemplar won't find doing so with one leg too much of a challenge," he said. "Mega-Death. Spot her."

The boy blinked and stepped aside to crouch beside the girl.

"So, what am I supposed to call him?" Solange asked between two push-ups, gritting her feet as her sore leg brushed the ground again. "Other than a sadist?"

Mega-Death grinned, and then remembered who he was watching on the floor. Just another Alpha who'd been more than willing to prod him into a Diedrick's fit the previous year. After a moment he decided that giving her bad advice might cost him his hard-earned re-instatement of access to the ranges. He'd violated three range rules the year before, earning a literal boot to his ass from Mahren, forcing him out of the door and into the snow. Getting back in after being banned was almost unheard of and there was no way in hell that any of the Range crew would give him a third chance.

"To his face, Teach' is fine and so is Mr. Mahren."

"And behind his back?"

"Our dread master of ordnance," the Devisor intoned solemnly. "Although the Bastard King of the Range got a lot of votes too." He eyed her slow progress. "Are you going to be much longer?"

"I'd ask you to give me a break, but I've already got one," she grunted. "I haven't done a press-up in years."

"Ah, in your own time then," he said agreeably, focusing his attention on her rear end as it rose and fell. Her sweater had slipped a little from the waistband of her jeans, revealing an inch or so of skin.

Mahren shook his head as he watched them. "Take your meds while you're at it!" he yelled at the boy. "The rest of you gather round here."

He produced a cased round of ammunition from his jacket pocket. "This is a .50 calibre BMG round, used by any number of militaries around the world for going on ninety years. It's primary uses are in heavy machine guns and sniper rifles. Typical muzzle velocity when fired are almost three thousand feet a second, depending on the exact type and it can be fired accurately over ranges of up to two thousand yards. Spinning it slowly between his fingers he moved the round in a direct line towards the face of Malachai Diabolik. "Techno-Devil," he said when the boy's eyes were beginning to cross, focusing on the tip of the bullet, "What happens to a mutant when one of these hits them in the face?"

"Um, they die?"

"Probably, yes." Mahren put the round away. "There are exceptions, such as Mule," he pointed at that individual, "Who will be assisting me today. However the rest of you are not exceptions." He turned to Counter-Point, who seemed about to cite his own invulnerability. "Counter-Point, what do you think would happen if you were hit in the leg?"

He shrugged. "Might lose it. Teach'." There was definite insolence in his voice.

"Correct. And you might, being an mid-level Exemplar, survive the shock. But my money is on the BMG. Those of you who are not which is everyone would not be that lucky. For that reason you will all, without exception treat the weapons you use in this class with the utmost respect. There will be no horseplay, which includes but is notlimited to pointing any weapon including for those of you here using your mutant abilities, said powers at another living soul. And if for any reason you should cross me MEGA-DEATH!"

The boy jerked upright. "Sir?" Then he cursed as he realised his slip.

"What will I do to anyone violating range safety regularions, Mega-Death?"

"Boot them."

"Right out the door. Which will be followed by your being dragged to the infirmary, for the removal of my boot from your ass if nothing else, while Mrs. Carson decides if you should be prosecuted for attempted homicide."

He swept the group with his eyes, calculating the odds of anyone provoking him. Not yet, although he was sure that someone would. "Am I understood?"

There were muttered agreements from everyone with him.

"Solange?"

"Crystal huff clear," she panted.

"Good." He paused. "Gimme fifty, MD. You know better than that."

With a grimace Mega-Death dropped into a front-rest position and started pumping. To Tansy's annoyance, despite starting when she was two-thirds done with her own allotted penance, the lab0-geek was done before her. _Then again, he doesn't have a broken leg,_ she reassured herself.

Once they were done," Mahren produced a remote. "We'll start with a little video montage of past accidents on the range. Barf bags are on the side table. Anyone who throws up on the floor gets to mop it up."

.o0o.

Whateley Academy
7 September 2006

Sahar was waiting for Tansy outside Range Four and, as arranged, she was not alone.

"You're doing favours for Solange?" Banned Aids asked incredulously. "Wow. Just when you think you can't get any lower."

"She pays promptly," replied Sahar with apparent indifference.

"I'm grateful for your assistance," Tansy offered sincerely, but it didn't seem to make a difference to the senior.

"Okay, fine, let's get this over with." He followed her into the Range's girl's restroom without batting an eyelid: no one was likely to spot them there during the lunch hour and Sahar was guarding the door. "Sit down somewhere and drop your pants so I can take a look."

"You're such a gentleman."

"Trust me, you don't have anything I'm interested in," he assured her. With a grimace, Tansy propped herself against the edge of a stall while she unbuttoned her jeans and pushed them down to her knees before waddling into the stall so she could sit down and take off her shoes before working the jeans over her cast.

"That'll do." Banned Aids dropped to one knee and took hold of her leg at the knee and ankle. He closed his eyes in concentration. "Right, this shouldn't be a problem. Sahar said it's worth a thousand dollars to you?"

"One thousand dollars for you healing me and you keeping quiet about it," she corrected him.

"What's the big secret? It's not like everyone doesn't know there are Healers around."

Tansy sighed. "I doubt it's an accident I got a broken leg after I let The Don know what I really think about him. If the Alphas see me appear to be suffering for it, then it might be a little while before they decide I need another reminder that I'm not in The Don's good books."

"Ah. So it's not a pity ploy to win over the Goodkind and her buddies?"

"God, no!" Tansy paused. "Pity? They pity me!?"

"The whole, 'I'm lying in a hospital bed while apologising' sounded a bit contrived to me," Banned Aids told her. "This is going to sting a bit, by the way."

Tansy chewed on her lip as Banned Aid went to work, his powers vastly accelerating the natural rate of healing in her leg. _Pity? I'm Tansy fucking Walcutt. No one pities me!_

_Of course not. You don't need sympathy._

_Right,_ she agreed.

_And that's why I'm not offering you any. Just a bolt of lightning up your ass every now and then. I'm sure Mr. Mahren would approve._

To distract herself from the temptation of admitting that some sympathy from Fenryk was exactly what she'd been fishing for, Tansy took out her phone. "Do you want the money in your school bank account?"

"That'll do, yeah."

Tansy dialled through to her bank and gave the necessary instructions. "You'll have the money by Saturday," she promised.

"Good." Banned Aid released her leg and stood. "That's done. You'll probably have pins and needles for a few minutes." He seemed totally unmoved by her legs, which Tansy felt was most unfair given that the limbs in question were on par with the rest of her. He glanced at the door. "And just for reference, Poe look after their own. If you get up to any funny business with them even the Goodkind then this is the last time I'll heal you. Ever."

"Noted." Tansy thought that over for a moment. "So why do this."

"A thousand bucks is a nice start to the year. And you did side with them against the Yellow Queen. That gets you a little slack."

His words continued to bother Tansy as she got dressed again. By the time she got to the door, he was gone and Sahar was also leaving. For a moment, Tansy considered chasing after the other girl but besides being demeaning it would probably give away that her leg had recovered.

.o0o.

Laird Hall
7 September 2006

"Tansy!" The aforementioned junior was ambushed as she went into the lecture theatre. Lunch had been blah she'd not risked the Crystal Hall, instead visiting the small burger bar that served as an auxiliary source of food for the student body. Between the uninspired food and a Physics class that would have been boring even if she hadn't covered the same material over the summer, it was fair to say that Tansy wasn't being particularly attentive so it was fortunate that the ambush was benign.

"Oh my god!" Anna cried out, seeing the crutch. "What happened to you?"

"Someone knocked me over. An accident, hopefully"

There was a scoffing sound and Toni bounced up. "'An accident,' she says. Do you have any idea who it was yet?"

Tansy rolled her eyes. "Yes, but without evidence there's no point going to Security. I need to do a better job of watching my back."

"And a very nice back it is too!"

"Thank you." How much soda had the girl drunk for lunch? Or scary thought was she always this energetic? She glanced at Anna. "Have you met Toni?"

The other Dickinson girl shook her head. "I don't think so. Um, do you mean someone broke your leg on purpose?"

"Toni, this is Anna. She helped me out a couple of days ago..."

"It wasn't anything special."

"Maybe for you, it wasn't." The girl was almost criminally modest, Tansy had noticed. A little positive reinforcement and she was practically eating out of Tansy's hand. Then again, a bag of nuts might have had the same effect. "And Anna, this is Toni. She and I did time together at Security."

"Don't tell my brother that," Toni said quickly. "Vince's into that whole 'gangsta-rap' thing and if he hears I got arrested he might try to one up me or something."

"My lips are sealed."

"So how come you're in a freshman class, Tans'? Aren't you a Junior?"

"Anna made it sounds so interesting I thought I should give it a try," Tansy explained as they took three seats together. "And it's not uncommon to mix year groups for specialised classes like this one."

Anna looked on the brink of tears. "But what about whoever broke your leg?"

"There's not really anything I can do, right now," Tansy admitted. "I mean it could have been an accident and it might not have been the guy I think it was. Security has to work on the basis that everyone is innocent until they're proven guilty and there's no proof at all."

"Yeah... and how's the leg?" Toni asked with a sly wink. The difference in the ki flows between yesterday and today were fairly obvious but Tennyo had told her at lunch that Tansy had been noticeably limping that morning.

Tansy gave her a blank look. "It's... broken," she lied. "I just took a painkiller," she added. _Crap! Is it obvious that it's been healed?_

"Okay," Toni said with a broad grin and a conspiratorial tap of her nose. "Say no more. Hey, do you think that this class would teach me how to find the missing bust?"

"I don't think any of the three of us is missing a bust." Tansy glanced illustratively at the respectable contents of the younger girls' school blazers.

"No, I mean Edgar. You know, the bust of Edgar Allan Poe in our lobby?"

"It's missing?"

"Yeah. Mrs. Horton's real mad. It'd be like beaucoup points with her if I could find out who took it."