Chapter 3: Classroom Games

And I know she's pulling tricks on me
But she glows, there's something about her
And I'm lost in her mystery

- Hell on High Heels, Pretty Maids

Kirby Complex
7 September 2006

Having started her day before dawn, Tansy was glad she'd managed to take a nap after dinner or she'd probably have been asleep on her feet as she approached the Department of Mystic Arts. It was an article of faith among the faculty of the Psychic Arts programme that the teachers they shared the building with had much nicer rooms for themselves burrowed beneath the basement but Tansy doubted she'd be finding out for sure today: Basic Mystic Concepts was in a ground floor classroom.

"Don't tell me you're the teacher!?" protested one of the three little girls already in the room.

"She is not," an irritated voice came from behind Tansy. "Take a seat, Solange."

Tansy, who hadn't realised she was being followed, gulped and obediently took a seat. She didn't know the teacher's name but that didn't mean she didn't recognise the woman. 'Mrs. Snape' might not be the most powerful or the influential teacher of the Mystic Arts at Whateley Academy but it was well known that she was the one with the shortest temper. Given her tall, slim build and fondness for long black dresses she also reminded Tansy irresistibly of Morticia Addams.

"My name," she announced, "Is Miss Grimes and I will be introducing you to the very basics of magic. This is supposed to be a theoretical class but if you work hard, youmay be allowed to try some practical effects."

The girl who had spoken earlier raised her hand.

"Yes, Irene?"

"Why is she here?" the girl asked, pointing at Tansy. "I thought that this was a class for Junior High students?"

"Tansy is just starting her magical studies, just like you. Normally she would be joining the Freshman students, but there was a scheduling conflict."

_She's good,_ Tansy admitted. _If didn't know better, I'd believe her._ Then she saw Grimes eyes focus on her and couldn't help but stiffen slightly. _Could she know about you?_

_It's entirely possible, she must be fairly adept,_ agreed Fenryk. _Still, just because she suspects I'm here doesn't mean she knows what that means._

"We will begin by discussing some key terms." Grimes snapped her finger and a marker levitated to write the words 'Mage' and 'Wizard' on the whiteboard behind her. "Do any of you know the difference?"

"Sure, Harry Potter is a wizard and Jordan Winters is a mage!" chirped up the blonde munchkin sitting between the other two small girls.

Tansy slumped face first over the textbook she'd just pulled out of her bag, for the first time in her life ashamed of hair colour. _Maybe if I dyed..._

"And why would you say that Harry Potter is a wizard and not a mage?" asked the teacher drily.

"Ah..."

"That's what I thought. Guessing about magic, Estelle, is a very reliable way of getting things completely and tragically wrong. I suggest that you refrain in the future. Tansy?"

"Huh?" Tansy asked.

"The answer... assuming that you, unlike these three have looked at your textbooks."

She hadn't but fortunately she didn't need them for this information. "A mage is anyone who uses magic, a wizard is a mutant who can naturally draw on essence to use in magic."

"Half-right." Grimes cut her down to size before she could even direct one superior look at Estelle. "Both terms can be applied to any magic user. The terminology is something that we magic users - whether mages, wizards, witches or whatever - create to help ourselves. With that said, there is a degree of standard classification which for the purposes of an MID is referred to as the 'Wizard-trait'. Any mutant who practises magic will have the abbreviation WIZ applied to their card - so you can expect an update to your card shortly Tansy."

"At the speed of bureaucracy, no doubt."

"That is correct. Now, some mutants do have a natural, instinctive ability to access sources of Essence, but in theory anyone can learn that ability. All four of you have been assessed as WIZ-0, which is to say that you have no more ability to draw upon the various sources of Essence than a baseline human. Your Principles of Magic classes will teach you how to make use of Essence but one of the foundations of this class will be to teach you all how to accumulate and handle the Essence. Needless to say, the consequences of getting this wrong can be quite disasterous."

Tansy took notes and wished fervently that she had a higher level of Exemplar mental traits. An eidetic memory would save her so much time and effort repairing the damage that typing all the time did to her fingernails.

"Why are you really in our class?" Irene asked as they were packing their bags. It was after midnight, evening classes for Mystic Arts deliberately scheduled for that so that rituals drawing essence from that mystically significant moment could be enacted. Grimes had told them she would demonstrate next week, maybe even let them try. "And don't try telling us that tall tale Grimsey spun."

"Grimsey?" Tansy asked, slightly incredulously and more than slightly sleepy. Not that she wasn't used too late nights, but not followed by early mornings. _Why did I let you talk me into this schedule?_

A slight jolt of electricity banished all thought of sleep.

_Oh yeah, that._ She shook her head and decided to turn the question back on the little snot. "Well why do you think we got put in the same class?"

"You're really twelve, like us?" asked Estelle.

"We're thirteen," hissed Irene and Bethany (the third little girl) in unison.

"Nope." She closed up her laptop and put it in her bag.

"You got held back?"

Tansy eyed Bethany with narrowed eyes. "Can you think of any way that that wouldn't get me mad at you?"

She shrank back. "Um... no?"

"So, did you say that?"

"No?" she squeaked.

"Smart girl."

Estelle listened to her dog - that she'd somehow managed to bring to Whateley despite all the rules against pets, on the grounds that he was her familiar - and then announced: "Buttons says it's because you're a big meanie."

Tansy could feel Fenryk laughing at her. "Well I guess that just goes to prove what I thought from the moment I got here."

"What's that?" asked Irene.

Tansy shouldered her bag and picked up her crutch. "The dog's smarter than all three of you."

Sitting quietly at her desk, obscured from her students by a glamour, Elyzia Grimes barely managed to keep from laughing out loud.

.o0o.

Dickinson Cottage
9 September 2006[/b]

While there would be Flight Lab sessions every other Saturday, the first one wasn't for a week so Tansy was - after two days of lessons - more than happy to skip breakfast and remain curled up under her covers. She'd propped up her laptop beside her bed and was typing away, interspersed with various barely audible muttering.

"Unless you're researching Anglo-Saxon profanities, I doubt that that's homework," Sahar observed from the top bunk, probing for a reaction. From what she'd seen last year, Tansy was pretty much the last girl she'd want to be rooming yet: there was nothing she could learn from her that wasn't obvious to everyone who saw her. Tansy Walcutt possessed money, beauty and power unimaginable to almost anyone else that Sahar had ever met... and coupled it with a lack of morals that a Lebanon pimp would envy and goals lower than the gutters Sahar had crawled out of to get into Whateley.

In her heart of hearts, Sahar suspected that Tansy was probably the roommate she deserved.

And yet, this year...

This year she was different. Actually treating a few people with at least a semblance of courtesy and consideration? Kicking herself free of the Alphas and into a social freefall out of - if the rumoured contents of her letter of resignation were to be believed - moral repugnance.

Sahar had given serious thought to the prospect that she might be rooming with an imposter.

Or was Tansy actually trying to turn over a new leaf? To reform? On the face of it, the idea was ridiculous, but if it was true and if Tansy were to succeed...

Did that mean there was hope for Sahar as well?

"I'm trying to pick a new codename," Tansy admitted. "But everything I try is in use, either by real supers or by one of the comic companies."

"Have you tried Jezebel?"

"Isn't that biblical? I'm already using the name of a saint." She typed it anyway. "Hey!"

"Sorry, I am still trying to get used to American humour."

"Of course you are," Tansy replied sceptically.

"So why do you wish to change your codename? You know that the MCO dislikes making changes to their records and your file's almost two years old with them." All Whateley students had to have Mutant ID cards issued by the Mutant Commission Office, no later than the first holiday after they enrolled. For Tansy, like most of the Juniors, that had been the Thanksgiving weekend of 2004. In theory the MCO was simply an international advisory body regarding mutants, but in practise many countries (including some US states) had granted them police powers. They were also active in maintaining public awareness of the 'threat of (rogue) mutants' in order to maintain their funding. Most mutants despised them and the antipathy was returned in spades.

"There are strings that can be pulled," Tansy said vaguely. "But there's no point doing anything until I pick a new codename."

Sahar nodded. "Perhaps you could follow Jobe's example?"

"Jobe?"

"A freshman. He -"

"Follow a freshman's example? Are you mad?"

And sometimes Tansy reverted to type. Sahar sighed and rolled back over, going back to her book. "And don't you have detention today?"

"Oh... nuts!" Tansy exclaimed, checking the time and then throwing back her bedcovers.

.o0o.

Whitman Cottage
10 September 2006

"Ladies, ah would lahk to raise new business," Elaine 'Doc' McNally announced to the other girls gathered around their table in one corner of Whitman Cottage's library. The redheaded sophomore laid an envelope before them and pushed it forwards. "Tansy Walcutt."

"Walcutt?" Becky Corbin looked up. "What about her? She's practically turned into a hermit since the Alphas booted her."

"Not quite," Doc's roommate Maggie interjected. "She's dropped by Venus Inc. a few times. Said something to Poise about rushing a few of the Poe freshmen."

"And a little bird - Angel - tells me that she was havin' a very quiet chat with Kodiak Thursday morning, right at the crack of dawn," Doc added to the pile. "But before y'all start yammerin' on -" She gestured to the envelope. "- the Alphas didn't boot Walcutt. She quit."

"No way!" Maggie exclaimed. "Walcutt ditched the Alphas? What sort of crazy talk is that?"

Dee Castle pulled a pair of disposable plastic gloves out of her purse and donned them before opening the envelope. Her eyebrows raised. "Well, it's as advertised. Although if she really gave this to the Alphas, I'm surprised she's only got a broken leg."

"Ah don't 'spect Donny is too happy with her, no," agreed Doc, leaning forwards. "And little as ah like to admit it, she's not quite dumb enough to miss seein' that. So why'd she write this?"

"Blackmail?" suggested Maggie. "They'd have to have something pretty damn bad on her to make her write something like this, but it'd be one hell of a revenge to force her to."

Simone Bender shook her head. "Say that it is, how would we ever find out who was out to get her. The suspect list would be practically everyone on campus."

"And what secret would she have anyway? That's she's fewer morals than a rattlesnake? I think word got out already."

Maggie and Dee chuckled at Doc's summation of Tansy's character but Becky frowned. "Maybe she's up to something. You said she was closing up on some Poe froshes? Which ones?"

Maggie shrugged. "Most likely the ones that Pattie Horton and her little band got thrashed by, she was there after all. So that's the Ryoko lookalike, that redhead that Mystic Arts is all cuckoo about, the Goodkind..."

"Whoa, wait a minute, a Goodkind? And Walcutt might be hooking up with 'em?" Simone exclaimed. "I'm not sure who to feel sorrier for."

"Everyone else," said Becky grimly. "Nikki Reilly is the redheaded wunderkind of the Mystic Arts because she's got more ability to tap into Essence than practically anyone they've ever seen. Throw in the girl who tore an entire range apart Thursday evening and you're talking serious power. Then there's the Goodkind and Walcutt money backing them, and if the other girls involved are even half as powerful then she's going to have quite a hit squad at her disposal."

"There's a guy with them isn't there?" asked Doc?

"Yeah, the cute one who decked Tazer." Maggie paused dramatically. "We could rescue him. Doc could hide him under her bed..."

"Ah am a proper southern girl," the redhead corrected. "Ah keep gentleman callers in mah wardrobe, not under mah bed."

"But anyway, we have what might be a major problem. Because I have no idea what Tansy Walcutt would do with all that power at her disposal." Becky grimaced.

"Other than the obvious?"

The other girls looked at Simone. "Th' obvious?" asked 'Doc.

"Kicking Donny and Hektate out of the Alphas and making their lives a living hell."

"Well Ah guess we could foil Walcutt's evil plan afta' she's done that," the southern belle proposed thoughtfully.

"Doc!"

"Aw come on! It's kinda hard to peg those two as being the lesser evil here," she defended herself.

.o0o.

Range Four
13 September 2006

"So what exactly do you have here?"

Tansy had had a delivery from Sin d'Rome the previous afternoon and the result of that was now in Erik Mahren's hands, awaiting his evaluation before she could use it in his class. "An automatic grenade launcher, Corporal," she told him, realising that he already knew that but also that she was being tested. "The ammunition loads are based upon military 40mm grenades, however they are air-launched rocket-propelled and come in a variety of lethal and non-lethal types."

She tapped the underside. "Two drum magazines fit here and here. The forward magazine is the primary loading mechanism and can feed rounds back to the firing mechanism as fast as they can be fired, which comes to one-seventy-five per minute. The rear magazine is computer controlled for selection of specialised rounds, although maximum rate of fire from that is only seventy-five per minute."

"It doesn't feel very sturdy," the ex-Marine observed.

"The materials are ultra-light according to the manual. The fully loaded weight is eight pounds, but it would be around five times that if made from conventional materials."

"And what would firing one of these grenades off inside the range bunker do, Solange?"

"In theory it would not detonate due to the safety features, Corporal. In practise I hope that it would prove lethal to me as that would probably hurt less than whatever you did to me."

Mahren humphed. "There are a number of ways this could end up doing far more damage than one of our M-203 machine guns."

Tansy waited for him to say more, and when he declined to do so, asked: "With respect, corporal, is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"'With respect'?" he asked incredulously. "Where did you get that from?"

"Um, a movie." _Oh not again!_

"Well surely, Solange, you know that anything said 'with respect' is never actually respectful." He shook his head. "Drop and give me fifty."

With a groan, the girl dropped to a front rest position. She paused as Mahren lowered the bulky weapon, placing it across the back of her hands. "And get rid of the cast before tomorrow's lesson," he added in a quiet voice. "You're not fooling anyone."

_Well, what do you know?_ Fenryk noted wryly. _You get to use the gun and he's taken a shine to you._

_If he likes me, why is he torturing me?_ she wondered as she did another press up.

_Because it's for your own good, silly girl._

Then Tansy's eyes narrowed dangerously and she snapped her head to one side in response to a sudden surge of fury. What she saw had her heart racing and pupils dilating: Counterpoint was staring right at her through a scope... a scope attached to one of the M-203 machineguns. She could tell the moment he recognised her fear - partly from the spike in his emotion and partly from the way his tongue licked across his lips.

But he wasn't the source of anger: Erik Mahren crashed into the student like a train, blindsiding him completely. The gun went flying and the young mutant hit the floor, surprise etched across his face. Perhaps it was that surprise that accounted for his second mistake: twisting into a kick that crashed into the Range Instructor's ribs. Without breaking stride, Mahren caught hold of the limb and yanked and twisted. There was a sickening pop and Counterpoint screamed.

For a moment Tansy thought that Mahren would kill him and she gathered her focus for a psychic jab to break his flow, but before the worst could happen, the ex-Marine took a deep breath, winced and then headed for the Range's landline telephone.

"Security. ... This is Mahren, Range Four. Send someone to drag Counterpoint over to Doyle. I imagine he'll Regen given time. And put him on the banned list."

MegaDeath laid down his own weapon, a particle cannon of his own making (Fenryk yearned almost poetically to compare its effects to what Tansy might produce if she cut loose with his lightning) and picked up the M-203, clearing the bolt. "Not loaded," he reported.

"Doesn't make a bit of difference and you know it," Mahren rasped.

"Not to me either, sir, but to her." Mega-Death nodded in Tansy's direction.

_Well at least you didn't wet yourself this time,_ Fenryk observed as Tansy fought off the shakes at her having had a gun pointed at her.

"I'm fine," she insisted, hating the slight quaver in her voice.

Mahren groaned. "I'm too old for this shit," he muttered. "Mule, check everyone's weapons back in and do not fuck this up. MegaDeath, you check in Counterpoint's and then... after you give me fifty... make sure Solange gets back to Dickinson."

.o0o.

Whateley Academy
13 September 2006

"You don't need to do this," Tansy told MegaDeath as they left the Range. "I've managed to get back to Dickinson on my own just fine so far."

"Not last Wednesday," the inventor pointed out. "You think Counterpoint would have tried that when you were part of the Alphas? You don't have that safety net anymore."

"Like you care."

"I really shouldn't. You think I didn't notice how often you or one of your 'friends' was around when I start 'dricking out?" He shoved his hands into the black labcoat he was wearing in lieu of an overcoat. "But Mr. Mahren told me to make sure you made it, and I'm not going to let him down."

"What if -" Tansy twitched and broke of as Fenryk shocked her. "Sorry," she said grudgingly.

Harvey gave her a skeptical look. "Right, like I'd believe you mean that."

"I am!" she protested. _Who does this damn labgeek think he is, questioning me?_

_Apparently someone sick and tired of you sniggering at him behind his back._

_Hey, I laughed at him to his face too._

_Then it's only fair that he should laugh in your face, isn't it?_

_Shut up. This worked on Ayla._ "I guess I deserve that."

"You know, it's a lot easier to sympathise with you when you're not talking."

Tansy opened her mouth to to respond but Fenryk zapped her again. _If he likes you better when you don't talk, then shut up._

_What? You want me to be a nicer person to him too? Can't I just be a better person to people who aren't nerds?_

_Would you like me to exclude the GSD students? And anyone in Hawthorne?_

_Yes please!_

_No,_ he growled and zapped her for good measure.

MegaDeath eyed her cautiously.

"What?"

He looked away. "The way you just twitched. Down in the workshops we'd call that a warning sign."

"Warning of what."

His silence was answer enough.

"I'm not one of you 'drick-cases!"

"It's not just Devisors, who get it, you know," he pointed out. "Maybe you should get yourself checked out."

"I'm telling you -"

"Well, look who it is."

Tansy turned and saw Nancy, Hayley and Barbara along with another girl she didn't know. The four of them had spread out into a loose line, just close enough that she couldn't get through without forcing herself into their personal space, but just far enough apart to block the path. For a moment she was glad to see them but then she recognised Nancy's tone. "Nance'," she greeted their leader with a warning note in her voice.

"Oh I'm sorry, are we interrupting your lunch date, Tansy?"

Tansy heard the words but couldn't make sense of them for a moment. Her? Dating the school's most notorious case of Diedrick's Syndrome?

"You're getting me mixed up with Montana," the boy snorted. "Th- I'm not gullible enough to fall for what are laughably called her feminine wiles."

_Oh crap, he's going to 'drick out._ Tansy saw that the unfamiliar girl's eyes were narrowed in concentration and played a hunch, hitting her with one of her techniques - a subtle psychic jab that caused a 'hiccup' in the mental processes. It didn't last long, but if you were doing something that demanded concentration then... She saw the girl flinch as her psychic efforts collapsed, but it was probably too late.

"You protest too much," Barbara insisted. "You're doing everything but holding hands."

_This is much more fun when I'd doing the taunting,_ Tansy realised.

"The great MegaDeath does not hold hands with an intellectual lightweight!" the boy bellowed, drawing attention from the other students now spilling out of their classes for their lunchs. "You are not, none of you, worthy to even be my lab assistants!"

"Well who'd want to be your lab assistant?" Hayley asked.

"All of you, for you desire wealth and power and know that the great MegaDeath shall have both!"

"Seriously?" Tansy asked. "I already have quite a bit of both. You don't have anything to - auk!" she yelped as MegaDeath spun her around and into his embrace. "I hypothesise," he growled, "That your heart will beat faster and your breath grow faster now that you are in my arms."

"Let me go,you idiot!" _Everyone can see this! This is a disaster!_ She reached for Fenryk's power to use against him but it eluded her. _What are you doing?_

_This hardly merits letting out our secret._

"The experiment is completed!" MegaDeath roared out as she struggled to get away. "The result: complete proof of the passions aroused the merest proximity to the Gre-"

Humiliated and more than a little afraid of what the raving scientist would do next - it wasn't fair! Labgeeks shouldn't be allowed to have muscles, no matter how much PT Mahren put them through - Tansy had jabbed her knee up between the boy's legs.

Unfortunately it had much less effect than she had hoped for, the main force of the blow striking MegaDeath in the thigh rather than the groin. While it cut the boy's diatribe off, it also caused him to fall over on top of her. "Get off of me!" she screamed, pushing at him.

"Then let go of the Great MegaDeath," he yelled. Pushing at her. This, of course, put his hands somewhere that Tansy didn't really want them.

"My god! MD is raping Solange in public! Or is it the other way around?"

"Doesn't anyone have a camera!" called another voice.

Then: "This is Peeper on WARS, right here outside Laird, where Solange and MegaDeath have been caught in the throes of passion..."

Strong hands grabbed MegaDeath and hauled him off of Tansy. She looked up and saw Hank standing over them, holding the Devisor off the ground.

"The Great MegaDeath will reward you greatly for rushing to his aid."

"Do I want to know what you were doing?" Ayla asked, crossing his arms.

_Oh not him._ Tansy looked up. "Now you see, this is why I wanted to hire Tennyo as a bodyguard."

"Oh, this happens a lot?"

_Behave,_ warned Fenryk.

"He's got Diedrick's," she mumbled reluctantly. "It's not his fault."

The crowd ooohed and Peeper pushed forwards, the freshman extending a microphone towards Tansy. "So, everyone wants to know, is your secret love affair with MegaDeath why you got thrown out of the Alphas."

"I wasn't 'thrown out', I quit," Tansy said clearly. If she could salvage anything from this, getting that straight was her first priority.

"You heard it here first, folks. Solange quit the Alphas for the sake of her relationship with MegaDeath."

If Tansy could salvage anything from this, making it clear that she'd not been thrown out of the Alphas was her second priority, right after making clear that she and MegaDeath weren't dating. Unfortunately Peeper had retreated with his microphone and was already pointing it at the ranting MegaDeath. The implement did what nothing so far had done, it shut the lanky boy up.

"So, MegaDeath, important question: your girlfriend, C-cup or D?"

Tansy started to cry.

.o0o.

Whateley Academy
13 September 2006

Tansy's stomach rumbled as she and Nikki walked out of Kirby Hall. She'd missed lunch due to the whole MegaDeath thing and getting her cast removed. Through the tail end of the afternoon classes Tansy had been uncomfortably aware that if she made too much of a pig of herself dinner, she'd probably fall asleep and not wait up for Basic Mystic Concepts. Given that Bethany was soaking up the course material like tissue paper and water, and that the four girls in the class were all fiercely competitive, that was not an acceptable risk.

And Grimsey would probably be unhappy too.

"So will you drop by Venus Inc. after dinner?" Tansy asked. She could swear that Nikki - who had picked the codename Fey - was blossoming day by day at Whateley. In fact, there was now the unsettling suspicion that before too very long went by Nikki might not be her protégé in the club but a genuine rival.

Still, as long as it wasn't this year, Tansy could probably make it more of a 'grooming her successor thing'. After all, once Poise graduated there was only one logical choice as leader of Venus Inc. _Of course, if I was still an Alpha I could have taken over instead of Poise having it her way this year._

_And do what, exactly?_

_Be in charge, of course._

_By which you mean, do pretty much what Poise does except drive out of the club anyone that disagrees with you?_

_Well I can't let them make trouble in my club, can I?_ However, Tansy had to admit that Fenryk had a point. She should think of some project that she could set Venus Inc. to when she was in charge. Something spectacular to make it clear that she was better than Poise.

"Sure," Nikki agreed. "Do you want to try to get Hank to come along again?"

"I'm sure Poise would make him welcome." The two girls giggled. The first time that Hank had set foot in the clubroom, Poise - who had been struggling to find a suitable young man for some shots - had almost crushed him against her chest. While the young PK-superman hadn't objected to proximity to the shapely Exemplar, he did turn a most amusing crimson whenever she was around.

"And I think Tennyo was talking about maybe having some shots done of her bal-" Fey cut off as MegaDeath rose from the bench where he'd been waiting for them.

"Oh, what do you want?" Tansy sighed. She'd had quite enough of him for the day.

"I can't believe that I have to say this - to you of all people - but I owe you an apology. I was supposed to... I don't... I mean, even when I'm 'dricked out I shouldn't..."

Tansy was deeply, deeply tempted to rip into him for the 'you of all people' crack, but she knew Fenryk wouldn't let her, and it wouldn't do to be less than gracious in front of Nikki. "I understand, naturally if you had been in your right mind you wouldn't have gotten fresh with me if I was the last girl on Earth."

"I wouldn't go quite that far," he mumbled under his breath, obviously not intending the two girls to hear him. "Um, well, that's all I had to say."

"Then I think it's my turn," Tansy said. "I owe you an apology as well. I'm fairly sure that one of the girls with Nancy was pushing you to 'drick out, and she'd only be doing that to get at me indirectly. So if you hadn't been a gentleman today, escorting me back from Range Four, you'd probably not have been hit with that."

He scowled. "Well, no good deed goes unpunished."

"Want to come with us for dinner?" Nikki asked. "Since we're all friends now?"

"Thanks, no. I don't want to be the next Montana?"

"Huh?"

He didn't reply, turning sharply and heading for the nearest stairwell back down into the Workshop tunnels beneath the campus.

"Montana?" Nikki looked at Tansy. "I'm guessing he doesn't mean Hannah Montana?"

"Montana - his real name's Sebastian - is a Junior from Twain Cottage. He looks sort of like Bigfoot... or maybe Chewbacca." Tansy swallowed. This admission was going to gall. "I'm sure Ayla and Beltane have filled you in on all the horror stories about me."

Nikki nodded. "So you... did what, to him?"

"Strung him along and then dumped him, playing it for maximum humiliation." She let her shoulders slump. "I've done some really dumb things, Nikki, but that was vicious."

The younger girl put her hand comfortingly on Tansy's shoulder. "Have you apologised?"

"He'd rip my face off before I could say a word!" protested Tansy.

"Look, Tansy," Nikki told her firmly, "You're right. Ayla and Belle both told me what you've been like in the past. And they've also told me that you've not been doing that sort of thing, this year. But most people think it's just that you're being more subtle. But if someone like MegaDeath sees that you're trying to make things right, then they'd have to accept that you're really trying, and give you another chance."

_Oh my god, she's a Disney princess._

_She's not wrong. Wherever this Disney is, they seem to raise their royalty well._

_Disney's not a place, it's... it's complicated._ "I know," she admitted out loud, "But the thing is, when it comes to Montana, I wasn't exaggerating about the 'rip my face off'. He really would do that."

.o0o.

The Workshop
14 September 2006

"Hi, Harvey."

MegaDeath straightened at the sound of his name. "Doc? What brings you down to this neck of the woods?"

The Lit Chix' gadgeteer sashayed into the workshop, apparently unaware of just how snug her jeans and T-shirt actually were. Normally, the workshop's denizens would just have taken it for granted that she was genuinely ignorant (and in many cases thanked god for it) but, perhaps due to yesterday's experience he was now feeling suspicious of women.

_Great, I spend half an hour with Solange and I'm turning into Montana._

"Ah heard about yesterday and..." She looked embarrassed. "You're not really datin' Solange, are you?"

"For the..." He paused in calculation, "forty-seventh time today, no, I am not dating Solange. Counterpoint decided getting banned from the Ranges was a fair price to pay for eyeballing her with the scope on a M-203 - unloaded, fortunately - and since she looked a bit shaky I was dumb enough to volunteer to make sure she made it back to Dickinson."

"You poor sap."

MegaDeath shrugged. "Honestly? She's actually been more or less tolerable in class. Anyway, there was a run in with some of the Alpha's junior bitch squad, I 'dricked out and we had a collision. Everything else was in Peeper's imagination."

"No surprise there."

"Exactly."

"And so there's no truth to the tale that you had your hands on her goods."

Red crept up Harvey's face. "Not deliberately," he said with forced calm. "And yes, Elaine," he emphasized the girl's hated first name, "I do remember what happened to Montana."

She rolled her eyes. "Sorry, Harvey. I just can't get a handle on what she's up to this year."

"I can't help you there. Machines, I can manage." He tapped his octobot and then shrugged. "People, girls in particular, are another matter."

"Harvey, Ah am a girl."

"And a fine example," he agreed. "You're snoopin' again?"

Doc shrugged. "Just curious. Ah can't see that partic'lar tiger losing her stripes, but ah'm damned if ah can see what she'd get out of callin' the Don out like she did."

"Well she's been behaving herself in class, at least the one I have with her." MegaDeath paused. "Calling his high and mightiness out?"

The redhead's white teeth flashed in a grin. "I happened across a copy of her letter of resignation from the Alphas and it's a doozy." The grin turned into a grimace. "She actually claims she's walking away because she has morale scruples about what t' rest of the Alphas were up to. Which is good, coming from her. Don't let that pretty face fool you."

A sudden recollection of that face crossed his mind's eye. "I'll keep my eyes open."

"Ah'd be obliged." Doc turned to leave and then paused. "Keep an eye out for her new crew too."

"There a redhead with them? Pretty one, with big green eyes?"

"Yep. Nikki Reilly, one of the Poe freshmen."

He hesitated and then: "They invited me to go have dinner with them yesterday."

"Well now, that is interestin'." Doc thought a moment. "No offense, MegaDeath, but sounds like they're tryin' to set you up for something. Maybe as their 'man inside' for the Workshop. It's just a theory, but Solange might be lookin' to set up her own faux-Alpha group by fishing in the younger years. She's got some hard hitters together and lord knows, they aren't hurtin' for cash."

"Well if all she's looking to do is take down the Don and Hekate then more strength to her."

"Y'all are preachin' to the choir," agreed the stacked sophomore. "But there's such a thing as collateral damage and somethin' tells me that neither one of them would roll over easy. If they turn Whateley into a battlefield then a lot of folks could get hurt."

MegaDeath nodded. "Like I said, I'll keep my eyes open."

He waited until Doc was gone, then quietly packed away his octobot project. That could wait for a while. He'd seen Doc and her friends go off on some pretty wild tangents sometimes, but if they were right this time...

The Devisor placed his particle cannon on the worktable and opened up the casing to examine the workings. While the weapon was impressive on the range, it had also cut out repeatedly and needed constant babying, something that had earned the scorn of Mahren. "I can do better than this," he assured himself and started unscrewing the galvanic discharge plates. "I will do better," the inventor repeated, as much in hope as anything else.

.o0o.

Melville Cottage
19 September 2006

"Well, that broken leg certainly slowed Solange down." Hektate set her glass down and gave Aries a golf clap. "She was probably healed up before she even left Doyle."

"How was I supposed to know she'd get a Healer to fix her up?" the boy asked. "It's not as if she's got any friends worth mentioning."

"You see?" Hekate said sweetly to the Don. "Sending boys to do a woman's job? It never works."

"And you can do better?"

The witch shrugged. "Well I'm certainly not likely to forget that Solange has never needed friends as long as she has money."

"Yes, yes, dear." The Don raised his own glass for Cavalier to refill and then gave the 'hit squad' an amused look. "Icer, cool this down for me." Condensation formed on the glass. "Ah, perfect."

There was an awkward silence and then the leader of the Alphas shook his head. "Perhaps you have a point, Hekate. You boys can lay off Solange, see if maybe you can do something about her freshmen friends. The Goodkind's some sort of inter-sexed freak, you should be able to work with that."

"Fine. She's all yours Hekate." Aries walked out of the room, glad to be out of it. Hitting Tansy had been mildly satisfying, but afterwards? There wasn't anything heroic about it. It wasn't even as if she'd done anything to earn it, for once. Fact was, he'd not heard anything to say she'd been up to anything since the summer.

The Don watched Hamper and Damper follow Aries out. "Icer."

The white-haired boy paused. "Yeah?"

"Keep an eye on Aries for me. It's a little too convenient that he believed her leg was really broken."

"Right." Icer nodded and then continued.

"You don't trust Aries?" asked Hekate. "He doesn't have the balls to cross you."

He leant back into his chair. "Perhaps. But then, nor did Solange. It's almost as if she were..."

The girl brushed Cavalier aside and perched herself in the Don's lap. "You're not the only one who suspects that. The Mystic Arts programme didn't just put her into the kiddie class of magic because it keeps Hartford happy. It's to give Grimes a chance to check her out over time. And reports for this are going straight to Carson."

"And you're not worried?"

"Please." She took his glass from it and sipped. "They've been poking around at Skybolt and Cavalier for months and they've found nothing. Whatever they find out about Solange can only cloud the water."

"Alright. So what do you plan to do about her?"

Hekate kissed his cheek. "She thinks she's got potential as a mage but she hasn't established even the most basic of defenses. I think I'll give her an example of what a real mage can do, especially when she has a coven to support her. All we need is the right moment and she's going to be a helpless witness, listening to herself talk herself into more trouble than she can manage."

"An object lesson?" Don asked. He reclaimed his drink. "I like the way that you think, my dear."

"Of course you do," she assured him.

"However, what happens if the right moment doesn't happen?"

"Oh Sebastian, we're talking about Solange. She has far too many enemies for her own good."