I showed up to school just a little early, and made certain I was seen in the halls. The message was clear: I was not going to run away. I spared a look at the cluster of Los Fieles near the main entrance. They were afraid to so much as look at me. Any other day, that would have made me feel warm and fuzzy inside, but this wasn’t any other day; I had a mission to carry out.
The glares from students, and the occasional teacher, were even more hostile today than yesterday. I forced myself to smile and pretend I didn’t care. I couldn’t make myself believe it; there would only be bad ends by the time this was over.
I saw Cassie in the hall and crushed the desire to go talk to her. If anyone in this building would know those rumors were lies it should be her, and she couldn’t even give me a damn phone call.
Well, fuck her then. I kept looking forward and walked straight for the offices. I would not give her the satisfaction of knowing how much her betrayal hurt.
“Hey, Jensen in?” I asked the moment I stepped in. The secretary was a student, one of the seniors, and she looked at me like I slathered myself in dog shit. I pretended not to notice and smiled pleasantly. It wasn’t like I planned to stay around that much longer anyway.
“Yes,” she said as she pressed a button. “Parker’s here to see you.”
“Send him in.”
I didn’t wait for her to say anything, going straight for the door. Mister Jensen was all smiles when I stepped in. “Good morning, Zach, I wasn’t expecting you so early. You could have slept in.”
“Actually, I can’t,” I answered. “My power removes the need to sleep, even if I wanted to.”
“We should all be so lucky,” he said with a smile that I wanted to punch off his face. “So, this is everything you need.” He pushed a sheet of paper and pen over to me, as well as a manila folder.
I picked up the pen. “What’s all this?”
Mister Jensen’s smile looked just a little more forced, then he started talking. “It seems unlikely your… difficulties… with the other students are going away any time soon. I took the liberty of putting together your transcripts, complete with your adjusted final grades, in case you want to transfer to another school. There’s also a letter of recommendation and Outreach contact information, in case you’re interested. There are programs for people in your situation.”
I listened as he spewed his bullshit. I wanted to scream at him that I wasn’t a damn victim or tool, and I wasn’t stupid enough that I didn’t see what he was doing. Being treated differently was not what I wanted, all I wanted was to have the god damn school do its god damn job, but that wasn’t happening. Instead, I just grit my teeth and read the letter in front of me.
Blah blah, absence related to powers and injury, blah blah troublemakers in school causing difficulties, blah blah no fault of mine, blah blah school letting me off easy. Truly the nicest expulsion letter ever written, complete with signatures from all my teachers for bonus ‘fuck you’ points. All it was missing was my own, which I added to both copies before standing. “Whelp, better get to class.”
The look on Jensen’s face was priceless. “Pardon? You don’t have to go to class, Zach.”
“Oh, I know,” I said while trying desperately not to laugh. “But there’s nothing that says I can’t, either.” Still, I shouldn’t push too hard, time to throw him a little bone. “Thanks for the recs, though. Hopefully my future school will have fewer rats.”
I picked up the papers and turned around. “And rodents.” Then I walked out without waiting for him to come up with an argument.
The lit teacher seemed surprised to see me, but said nothing. I sat down with my book and read along with the class. We, or they, now, were on ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, which I liked so much better than Gatsby. After class I waited for everyone else to leave first, before setting my book down on the desk. “Here, just turning my stuff in.” A blatant lie, but I didn’t care if anyone believed me.
Physics, I didn’t even pretend I was paying attention. I just doodled new costume designs, ones that didn’t involve Cassie’s input. She convinced me to run with blue, and now I was toying with other options. Black and red was all over the place, and I wanted to stand out at least a little, so I was thinking gunmetal grey instead. Unfortunately, my art skills were limited to stick figure pornography, which it turns out isn’t all that useful. On the plus side, I now had a part time job with a bunch of theatre geeks.
During lunch, I just found a wall to lean against, in full view of everyone. I’d tripped my respawn a couple times, just to keep up this mask of cheerfulness. Pretending I didn’t want to scream at everyone in the school was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done. “Well, halfway through the day. Then I’m done with this bullshit forever.”
“Talking to yourself now, freak?” I turned my head to look at the source: one of the football players that didn’t usually hang out at the ‘cool’ table. I didn’t even know his name.
“Just my invisible friend.”
“Weirdo.” He turned and walked away.
I waited there, just quietly smiling, until the lunch bell rang, and even then I planned to be the last one out. I wasn’t in a rush, and bio wasn’t by favorite subject.
“Umm.” Amy interrupted my thoughts. “I just want you to know not everyone thinks you… did those things. Okay?”
“Thank you, that means a lot.” She rushed off, and I started on my way to class. For the first time today, my smile was genuine. I still wasn’t looking forward to bio, but at least I had something nice to think about until the bell rang.
It was gym class that really mattered. Normally I exiled myself to the weight room or track. Today I walked right into the group with the other kids. I knew the coach wasn’t going to actually let me play whatever it was, but I wasn’t here for that. I weaved my way through until I was right behind Alex.
“Why’d you do it?” I asked him the moment the coach started talking. His body tensed, and he glanced around at the other kids. No one heard me except him.
“Yeah, I get that it sucks that you no longer get your wins the easy way,” I continued quietly. “Ferne’s power backing you up, well, I got a taste of it myself and it sure beats hard work. But that doesn’t explain why you stabbed me in the back.”
Alex kept looking forward, but his fists were clenched. Just how much of his composure was his own, and how much of it was Ferne’s upgrades? Did those upgrades stick around after her death? Just how much of a boost did she give him?
Time to twist the knife. “Interesting detail. She let me cop a feel before she died. Well, helped me cop a feel, I could barely even lift my arms, she actually had to lift them for me. Pity I had to blow them up.” He was shaking now, and his feet shifted. I knew exactly what was coming. “Not much to look at, but damn were they f-”
He turned and clocked me right in the face, hard enough to knock me off my feet. The brief touch contact told me he fractured his hand with that one. I respawned, and got a really good look at the rage on Alex’s face for the first time. He was crying.
“Bennett! Parker! Explain!” Coach Murray stomped toward us.
“Just goofing around,” I lied through my smiling teeth. “We’ve both been a litte restless lately, so we’re just having a bit of a spar. Maybe Alex went a little overboard, but with my power that’s fine. Think we can sit out the usual class and have some real fun instead?”
Murray didn’t take his eyes off me. “That true, Bennett?” He looked like he wanted to suspend me, but he knew I was out soon and I wasn’t the one who threw the only punch. I had everything I needed for an assault charge right now, and I was letting it slide. Murray needed that, if he wanted to protect his precious star athlete. “This is just a couple boys roughhousing?”
I looked at Alex and smirked. The challenge was right there in the open, now.
“Yeah, Coach.” Like Murray, Alex did not take his eyes off me. “With the season over, I’ve been itching for something a little more physical.”
That’s a good traitor. He could have backed down, and every intelligent bone in his body probably screamed he should. Running from an Imbued didn’t even make you look like a coward. Or maybe it was the implied blackmail that sealed it. I did just say I knew he was using her powers to cheat, and I believed him when he said his football career meant everything.
“I’m sure you can find a spot near the equipment shed,” Coach Murray said after a moment. “Keep it smart, don’t want to have to explain this to the nurse.” If this school had any professional standards, those words should have cost him his job. Unless I was wrong and encouraging students to beat the shit out of each other was allowed these days.
Oh well, it gets me what I want. I just smiled at Alex. “Gotcha, Coach.” I turned and started walking for the exit, Alex right behind me. Neither of us said a word.
The equipment shed was actually three small buildings set in sort of a triangle. They created a blind spot where no one would see what you were up to unless they were right there. In warmer weather, the gangers came here for fighting or fucking, but it was mid January and we had the place to ourselves.
I didn’t bother turning around before speaking. “So, you gonna answer my question, or do I have to beat it ou-oof.”
He punched me right in the kidney, and fuck did that hurt in the moment before I duplicated. He was already swinging again, and this one I dodged.
“Damn, you’re slow.” I slapped him in the face. Yes, slapped, not punched. I was here to humiliate him, not hurt him. “Lemme guess, you only know how to fight because of that whore.”
It was one explanation. Or maybe he was too upset to fight smart, or training with The Bastard just made me a better fighter than some highschooler. I didn’t care, except to find more ways to goad him.
“Don’t you fucking talk about her like that!” Alex charged forward. I let him collide with me, then twisted and brought us both to the ground sideways instead of him on top. It was a painful way to hit the ground for both of us, the difference was I recovered instantly.
I copied on my feet, then stepped back for him to get up. He was finally starting to realize how stupid this fight was.
“Please, you think you were special?” I asked. “She was giving it out like candy for nothing more than a smile and a handshake.”
“I was her masterpiece!” Tears started coming from his eyes. “She was capable of empowering me better than any three others.”
The implications hit me. Her power used, in her own words, ‘love’. The girl he said he was waiting until after highschool for. Even that time he talked to me in the bathroom, what felt like a lifetime ago. A lot of little things just fell into place. “Is that why you were so nice to me? It was all part of this fucking project of hers?”
He laughed painfully. “Took you long enough to figure it out, Parker. That’s what Ferne did, she found the losers like you and helped them, gave them a chance to make something of their lives. She was a saint.”
“A ‘saint’ that helped you win a bunch of football games and cheat the system by turning them off and back on again.” I ignored the part inside me that wanted to cry. “I don’t know how you expected it to work, I’d think it was pretty fucking obvious to make sure people weren’t cheating off the field.”
“I didn’t need her power to win games,” Alex stated. “I needed it to save people. The skill, the charisma, the intelligence to bring it all together. Those were the features Ferne gave me. I never cheated the game, even once.”
“And that’s why you started that fucking rumor.” I had my answer. It burned like I swallowed a gallon of battery acid, but at least I knew the truth. “Probably went to her other loser projects and got them in on it. All you need is one or two girls to lie, and others would come out just to grab at the fame or get rid of me. Revenge for me taking away your easy mode.”
“It was justice,” he growled. “You murdered her, and you got away with it because you’re a fucking superhuman. Well, fuck you Parker.”
“I know I can’t kill you and maybe I can’t get you thrown in jail, but I can take away your precious reputation. It’s not enough, it will never be enough, but you,” he emphasized by pointing at me. “You do not get to walk away from this untouched.”
“Dude!” What the fuck. “It’s not like I shanked Mother Theresa in a dark alley! Ferne was eating people every time she restarted your abilities! That’s not hyperbole, she was literally taking human beings and using them-”
“Those perverts weren’t people,” Alex interrupted. “She went after god damn pedophiles, used their memories to find their pervert friends and used herself as bait to take them off the streets permanently.”
Oh god. “You knew. You’ve known this whole time.” My blood froze, I never expected Alex to be in this deep.
Alex lunged toward me and punched me again. I didn’t bother trying to dodge; I welcomed the burst of pain, even if it only lasted a heartbeat. “Burn in hell, Parker.” He turned and stalked off.
I stood there in stunned silence until I was sure he was gone. “Did you get that?”
A rumble started around me. “Every word.” A moment’s pause as a recording device dropped into my waiting hand. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“Me, too.” I started walking to the entrance. I had to grab my backpack, signal Muwth that this was a ‘success’, for lack of a better term, and go home. “Me, too.”
It was a good thing I got those recommendations already, because after today I wouldn’t be on speaking terms with anyone in this school.