by Brandy Dewinter
(c 2007, All rights reserved)
Chapter 1 - "Pooh Bare"
"Last one in's a rotten egg!" Taylor Christian shouted, already stripping rapidly out of his clothes as he approached the swimming hole.
"I can't believe you said that, Tay," Corwin Tarrant replied, laughing. "That was old when our grandparents were children."
"Yeah, and so was skinny dipping in this swimming hole," Taylor shouted back, just before he cannonballed into the pond with a quite satisfying splash.
Corwin hesitated as he reached his underwear. He didn't really like skinny dipping, but the thought of going home wearing wet briefs was even worse. He stalled a little taking his glasses off and carefully putting them in a case before putting the case in the pocket of his discarded jeans.
"Oh, come on, Win. Get the lead out. I've seen it all before. It's not like you've got anything to be proud of."
"Ow, that'll leave a mark," Corwin replied. He was a stately lad, tall, well-muscled. . . .
In his dreams, maybe.
In fact, Corwin was a bit on the short side of average, and definitely on the chunky side. The rather significant correction provided by his glasses didn't help his self image any, either. If Taylor were a bit less intelligent they'd make a classic jock/geek pair. They were close enough to that stereotype as it was, to Corwin's constant dismay.
He finally stripped out of his briefs and walked to the pond, easing his way into the more-than-cool water.
"Ah, at last, a bare Win . . nie," Taylor said with a smirk, then his voice took on a thoughtful tone. "Bare Winnie . . . Winnie Bare . . . Oh my god, I never thought of that before."
"Thought of what?" Corwin asked without thought as he tried to adjust to the cold water.
"You're a Pooh Bare!" Taylor announced, then started to sing, "Winnie the Pooh, Winnie the Pooh, fuzzy, wuzzy, silly old bear."
"Geez, Tay, grow up."
"Ha, I'm already more grown up than you," Taylor replied. He swam over to Corwin and said, "Feel my chin."
"I don't want to feel your chin," Corwin said, pushing back.
"No, really," Taylor insisted. "Feel my chin, and my upper lip."
"I'm not going to feel any part of your body," Corwin said disgustedly.
"Eeeww, that's gross," Taylor said with a little kid voice, then he laughed. "You're just jealous because I'm already growing a beard and you're still . . ," he paused for effect, ". . . bare."
"Am not," Corwin insisted.
"Let me see," demanded Taylor.
"Get away from me, you pervert," Corwin said, splashing his friend.
Taylor dived under the water and swam up to his friend. He yanked at some of the straggly leg hairs on Corwin's stationary legs, then flipped underwater and pushed off his friend's ample belly.
Or at least that was his intention. Corwin jerked back when he felt his leg hairs being pulled, and their relative positions changed enough it wasn't his stomach that provided the launching pad for Taylor's escape push.
"Ow! Goddammit, Taylor, that hurt."
"My, my," Taylor said, covering up his embarrassment with bluster. "Mommy's little boy has grown up, if that hurt like you said. Even in the cold water."
"That's not funny, Tay." grumped Corwin.
"A year ago it would have been," Taylor reminded his friend. "Congratulations, I guess."
Corwin wasn't mollified, and he swam off by himself. One thing Corwin could do well was swim - lots of flotation volume helped - and while he wasn't fast he could swim a very long time. Taylor, on the other hand, was pretty quick in the water so it wasn't long before he was swimming along side is friend as they stroked to the far side of the 6-acre pond.
"Actually," Taylor said, trying to ease the argument, "that is good news, in a way. You were sort of a, um, late bloomer."
"Nothing. I'm just glad you finally started, y'know, growing up."
"Fifteen is not that old, for . . . you know."
"Yeah, but you're a year or two behind me."
"So nothing. I'm just glad for you, okay?"
Corwin looked at the boy who had been his friend since before either could remember. "Yeah, okay."
"Besides," Taylor continued, "at least you had that 'Family Planning and Development' course before you needed it."
"Oh, god, yeah," Corwin said, snickering. "I can just see me asking my mom about that sort of thing."
"Yeah, right," Taylor said, laughing himself.
They swam in silence for a while, then Taylor just couldn't stand the silence. "So, are you ready for this weekend?"
"Yeah," Corwin replied. "My dad's going to be out of town on business through Saturday, and Mom said I can camp out with you all night Friday as long as we're home by lunch on Saturday."
"Good," Taylor said. "So, what are you going to bring?"
"The usual, I guess. We can put the cooler on your wagon, and y'know, sleeping bags and things."
"You want to bring the tent?"
Corwin shook his head, "Not unless it looks like rain."
"Good. I like sleeping out," Taylor agreed. Then he turned back toward their clothes on the far side of the pond. "Race you back."
"Yeah, right," Corwin said with a grimace. "Swim for another hour with me, then we'll race."
"Another hour, and you'd have to be pulling me home."
"Exactly," Corwin said, smiling. Still he couldn't quite resist the challenge and without formally agreeing to the race, he started swimming as fast as he could toward the clothes. Not that it did him any good.
The two boys - young men, really - trundled the classic little red wagon down the trail through the woods to the pond. Corwin's father had made the trip with them several times, and had cleared enough of a trail that the only real problems were a couple of hilly places. Corwin's father, Charles (Chuck) Tarrant owned a few hundred acres of heritage family farm. Since it's easy to make a million dollars farming - out of two million dollars - it didn't pay to work the farm for cash crops. He raised enough cattle and grain to justify an agricultural exemption, and because he liked the gentleman farmer image as he rode their tractor around, but he left a lot of the land natural which in this part of Maine meant wooded. For actual income, he had learned and now taught investment strategies.
Taylor's family lived on the next farm over, and were a bit less well off. His father had died in a tractor accident when they were about 5. He had the wisdom to leave a pretty good insurance policy, and it was enough for Taylor and his mother to live on if they were frugal, and they were. Their own farm was now mostly a truck garden and chickens which provided eggs for Taylor's mother, Sharon, to sell. They had a deal with one of the larger farmers to take their produce along to the farmer's market.
The Tarrants and the Christians were the only neighbors within walking distance so it was natural that they would spend time together. When the boys were born, the neighbors were natural baby sitters and each had spent as much time in the other's home as in their own.
Taylor, so they told him, took after his father and would be a classic blond German when his growth spurts settled out. If he had been born a couple of generations earlier and in the old country, he might have been on an Aryan recruiting poster. Which is one of the reasons his great grandparents had left Germany. Corwin took after his own father who, though also of German heritage, was much more "sturdy" peasant stock. That means shorter, and a lot better at extracting calories from food. He had dark hair, though he broke that typical coloring with quite striking blue eyes of his own.
Blue eyes that could spark with fire when he was frustrated, as happened the third time that the little wagon tipped over.
"God damn it to hell!"
Taylor was not sympathetic. "Lighten up, dude. It's not like it hasn't happened before - every time we bring it."
"Oh, I know," Corwin replied. "I'm sorry. I'm just edgy. I haven't been sleeping very well this week."
"Any particular reason?"
"Bad dreams, I guess," Corwin replied, shrugging.
Taylor waited for a second to see if Corwin would explain. When he didn't, the taller boy prodded just a little. "Any particular subject?"
"Not really," Corwin answered, finishing the repacking of the wagon and starting to pull on it again. After this little task was done, he did offer a bit more explanation. "It's like, I don't know, voices in my head or something. Except it's not voices. It's like, images, only with more than just visual stuff. Y'know, like I can feel things or smell things or, sometimes, like, hear things that seem to have some sort of words only it's not really voices."
He sighed and concluded, "It makes it tough to sleep, though. Sort of like if there was an old hoot owl going outside your window, with cats fighting below it, only - like I said - it's mostly not sounds. And I wake up all hot, with my skin itchy, and sometimes I ache. I don't suppose any of that makes any sense."
"Hell, dude, most of my life doesn't make any sense," Taylor replied with a laugh.
That got Corwin to laugh, too, and they walked along in silence for a little while. Then Taylor had an idea.
"Y'know what you need, dude?"
"You need to get laid."
"Yeah, right, like that's gonna happen any time soon."
"Tell me about it," Taylor replied with a wince of his own. "But that's what you need."
"Can't argue with that," Corwin said wryly. "And not that I disagree with you, but is there a particular reason that, um, solution comes to mind?"
"Oh hell yeah," Taylor replied. "My dreams are aalllll about getting laid. And I sleep pretty good, because I for sure don't want to interrupt those dreams. Except . . ."
His voice trailed off any he looked away from his friend. Corwin wasn't about to let an opening like that get away, so he said, "Except . . . ?"
"Well, you know, when you, um . . . . well, let's just say that I'm trying to train myself not to sleep on my stomach any more."
"Oh, yeah. I had that problem, too."
"So," Taylor asked, "is there anyone special that you, um, think about?"
"No, not really. You?"
Taylor shook his head, but he didn't meet Corwin's eyes and that was a dead giveaway.
"Out with it, dude. I know that look."
Taylor blushed and didn't answer. But he knew Corwin would return to the subject as often as it took, so after a few minutes, he said, "Amy Martin."
Corwin twitched a little, but then he grinned and said, "You could do worse."
"Hell, dude, I can't even do that good," Taylor said, grimacing again.
"At least in your dreams you can," Corwin said.
Taylor said, "Yeah, but I better not sleep on my stomach when I do."
"Uh, right," confirmed his best friend.
By this time they had reached their campsite, located near the swimming hole. Corwin's dad had cleared out a firepit and lined it with stones. The boys had long demonstrated their ability to keep a safe fire, at least in low wind conditions like they were experiencing, and they knew better to than to build a fire unless the winds were forecast to be light. So they set up their meager campsite and spent yet another afternoon in and around the pond. Corwin had been reading about gunpowder-age castles, and with his too-typical geek obsession, he had to build one. The ground around the swimming hole was as much mud as sand, but it worked well enough. This was not a child's array of overturned bucket mounds, but a well-laid out fortification with redoubts and ravelins, and the day slipped away far too quickly for their project.
It was well enough along to have at least examples of the key features in place though, which, of course, begged the need for artillery to test the design.
"Not tonight," Corwin pleaded. "Let it stand overnight. We can bomb it in the morning when there's plenty of light."
"Oh, okay," Taylor consented, dropping the rocks he had intended to use.
They started their evening fire with a cool camping firestarter that was a finger-sized cylinder of magnesium with an attached flint strip. A small hack saw blade allowed them to shave off flakes of magnesium into their kindling, and then strike sparks against the flint. In a moment, they had a nice little fire going in the firepit, with plenty of dead branches to feed it. Hot dogs over the flames and potatoes baked in the coals provided all the processed sugar and starches that young men could desire. In their bloated condition after eating, it was almost too much work to roll out their sleeping bags. They managed, though, and slipped into their night's refuge.
In a couple of minutes, Taylor's clothes came out, to be piled on top of the bag.
"You ought to take your clothes off, too, Win," he suggested. "Let them dry out for tomorrow."
"Oh, yeah," Corwin agreed. He hesitated at the last step, but even his briefs joined the pile on his own bag.
They lay there, looking up at the stars in their crystalline night sky, Corwin pointing out constellations and naming some of the brighter stars. Taylor made appreciative noises periodically, but he was not really paying attention.
Corwin snickered and looked over at his friend. "So, Amy Martin, huh?"
"What?" Taylor replied, then he blushed and said, "Yeah, I guess so."
"So, you really like her, or just, y'know, think she, like, looks hot?"
"She definitely looks hot," Taylor said. "But, I don't know, I think she's nicer than she lets on."
"That wouldn't be hard," Corwin said.
"Oh, I just think she's like, stiff, y'know? All snooty and proud of herself and of her, well, her tits. It seems to me like she waves them all over, and she wears such tight clothes to show them off . . .
"Yeahhh," Taylor agreed. Then he blushed again and said, "So, okay, maybe when I dream of her she's a bit more . . . friendly."
"Yeah, right. I'll bet if Amy were here instead of me, and you even looked at her tits let alone tried to cop a feel, she'd scream bloody murder."
"Not in my dreams," Taylor said complacently. "Speaking of which, I have a date with a long-legged blonde with - as you so delicately pointed out - great tits."
"Pleasant dreams," Corwin said sarcastically. Taylor just grinned and rolled over.
"Tayyyylllooor . . . . oh Tayyylllloooor," the melodious voice crooned sweetly. "Taylor, I'm here for you."
Taylor twitched in his sleep and smiled. The vision of his dream crawled sensuously over to him, pendulous bosom swaying gently. She took a handful of silky blonde hair and used it to tease gently around his ear.
"Taylor," she whispered in his ear. "I'll bet I'm better than whatever you're dreaming about."
The young blond man squirmed in his sleep, his sleeping bag tenting up to show his body at least was reacting. The young blonde girl teased his ear again with her hair, then leaned forward so that one of her turgid nipples brushed lightly against his slightly parted lips. With a reflex older than sentient thought, his lips pursed around the hard little bud. They pursed even further to pursue their target when it was slowly withdrawn, but they were not long abandoned. In a moment, soft, plump lips were caressing his lips, and long, delicate fingers were kneading at the lump in his sleeping bag.
"Taylor, you better wake up, or you'll miss out on all the fun," the girl warned. Taylor's hips began to pump up against the pressure of her hand, and his breath began to rasp in and out. The girl leaned forward and kissed him more firmly, sending her tongue on an expedition into his slumber. It was almost enough.
Taylor twitched again, panting around her intruding intimacy, then he stiffened. She felt him pulsing under her hand, despite the thickness of the sleeping bag, and leaned back with a rueful grin.
His eyes fluttered open, to see the girl he had been dreaming about hovering over him.
"Hello, Taylor," she said.
"Amy?" he asked in shock.
"It would seem so," she said.
"How . . . ? What . . . ?"
"Does it matter?" she asked lightly. "I'm here. You're here. The night is beautiful, and if you're not a one-shot wonder, we can have a great time."
"But . . . you were in my dream, and . . ," he looked over to the other sleeping bag, to find it empty, and to find a path through the sand from there to his own bag. "Where's Corwin?"
"Corwin who?" asked Amy. "He's gone."
"Who cares? C'mon, Taylor, you know you want me. And I want you."
"Absolutely, Stud. I think you are so hot! And I am so hot for you!"
"But, how did you get here?"
The beautiful young woman sat back with a pout. "Oh, pooh, what difference does it make? Why not just take advantage of the situation? You know you want to."
"Yeah, but . . ," Taylor said, looking again at Corwin's empty sleeping back, and the marks in the sand.
The girl who looked exactly like Amy Martin stood up and walked over to the other sleeping bag. She pulled on Corwin's t-shirt, which wasn't quite long enough even for teen-age modesty, and sat facing the pond. "The mood is gone, now," she pouted.
"Look, Amy, I'm sorry, but it was just such a surprise."
"Doesn't matter," she said.
"I said I'm sorry. Can we talk about it?"
She turned to look at the boy still half covered by his sleeping bag, to see him scrambling for his clothes. "I told you it doesn't matter," she repeated, then she said, ďStay away from me.Ē
As he watched in the near darkness, it seemed to become easier to see the beautiful blonde girl. Where she had been a dim shadow, now her form became distinct from the background, a dull red color as though she were reflecting light from a dim fire. Then, though the fire had gone out long ago, it seemed as if it were building up, changing from dull red to a lighter, brighter yellow.
ďAmy, are you alright?Ē Taylor asked.
ďStay away from me,Ē she said, her sensual voice now a harsher croak.
ďAmy, whatís wrong?Ē he asked in alarm. He could see now, by the light of her glow, and it was the girl who was glowing, even heating up the area.
ďStay . . . . away . . .Ē she demanded, breathlessly, huddling her arms about her as though she were freezing despite the heat that pulsed from her in waves, wavering and groaning as she was tortured by the fire that enveloped her.
Taylor tried to approach her, to help her in some way, but the heat was too great.
ďAmy!Ē he called, helplessly.
Just at the point where he was afraid the girl would incinerate in her own fire, she shivered and raised her head. Even more quickly than it had risen, the heat died down.
To reveal a different girl than the one who had awakened Taylor so deliciously.
Her hair, originally down a bit over her shoulders, had lengthened to the middle of her back. And the color changed from something obviously fair even in the dim light of stars and risen moon, to something dark and shiny enough to pick up the few highlights that were around. She seemed taller, too, as she sat there. Certainly the t-shirt was becoming even less effective at providing any modesty.
After another moment, Taylor heard a gasp, and then sobbing. The suddenly brunette girl's shoulders began to shake, and - now that she was at least somewhere near a normal temperature - he moved to put his arm around her.
"I'm sorry, Amy, but . . . what happened to your hair?"
"I'm not Amy," the girl said. "Oh, god, I'm Corwin."
"Sometime during the night, I . . . changed. I told you that I was having bad dreams, where my skin felt hot and itchy. This time as I was looking at the stars, I started to feel burning hot. Then I was like, Amy, but, like, the way you described her. More friendly, y'know?"
"You were Amy?"
"Sort of," the girl explained. "I mean, part of me knew I was Corwin, but mostly I was just, like, Amy, the way you wanted her to be."
"Are you telling me that you're gay?"
"No! I mean, I don't think so. I never was before, anyway. But when I woke up, it was like, I couldn't help myself."
"And now?" Taylor asked cautiously.
"Now? I just don't know. I mean, I don't know what I feel. I'm not all . . . aroused or anything, and I'm not about to like, kiss you again, but . . . I just don't know."
"Oh my god, are you really Corwin?"
"Yes," she said softly. "Except, well . . ." She waved her hand over her still very lush curves.
"You know what this means?" asked Taylor.
She nodded. "I had that figured out while I was becoming Amy. I'm a mutant."
"Why'd you turn into a different girl now?"
"I don't have a clue," she said. "I don't think I ever wanted to be a girl, though in my own fantasies some of the times I was like, good-looking and popular and - dreams are funny, like, sometimes they don't make sense - I think in some of my own dreams I was a girl, but that wasn't important in the dream. Being popular and attractive was what mattered."
"Well, in that body, you're certainly pretty," Taylor said with a smile.
"Thanks a lot," she replied, then started crying again.
He just held her gently, for a while they didn't try to measure. When the sun came up, he stirred and said, "I think we should be getting back."
"Yeah," she agreed. "Oh, god, what am I gonna tell my parents?"
"Geez, um, Corwin, it's not like it's your fault or anything. We had the same class on mutants and how it's not something you can change. You either are or you aren't. Apparently you are."
"Ya' think?" she snapped bitterly.
"C'mon, du . . um, Corwin. Let's get you home. Your parents need to know."
Chapter 2 - "Hot Flash"
The Tarrants and the Christians had been no-knock, back-door neighbors since before Taylor had been born, so he didnít hesitate the open the door into the kitchen and call out, "Miss Lizíbeth!"
"Yes, Taylor?" Elizabeth Tarrant said as she came into the room. "Who is this?" she then asked, looking at the tall, shapely brunette with her sonís best friend.
"Hi, Mom," the young woman said softly.
To her credit, Elizabeth didnít react immediately. She looked more closely at the girl before her for a long moment, then said, "Did I hear what I think I heard?"
"'Fraid so, Mom," Corwin confirmed.
"Oh, my," Elizabeth said softly.
"Yeah," Corwin agreed.
"Let's sit down so you can tell me about it," Elizabeth said, going into mother mode. She made sure the two teens had something to drink, and a couple of cookies even though it wasn't yet lunchtime. They talked while she puttered around the room, filling her in on the events of the past evening.
Well, most of them anyway. Neither mentioned all of the details of how the Amy version had come on to Taylor.
"So, when you were, um, Amy, you really wanted to . . .?" asked Elizabeth.
"Yes, Mom, I did," the pretty girl replied. "If Taylor weren't such a nice guy, it might have been . . .bad. But I couldn't like, help myself."
"Indeed, but when he wouldn't take you up on your offer . . .?"
"The, um, urge sort of went away. And then I changed to like, this," Corwin replied, pointing at her current form.
Elizabeth looked at Taylor, "Would you say that was about the time you really woke up?"
"Yes, ma'am, now that you mention it," Taylor said.
Looking back at her child, she asked, "And you say that you've been having bad dreams?"
"Yeah, but never like, as bad as last night."
"So this might be related to dreaming, somehow?"
"Maybe," Corwin said.
Elizabeth stood up and moved to where her transformed child sat. She pulled the frightened young girl to her feet and wrapped her in her arms. "First, and forever, I love you, no matter what. You're my child and you always will be. I'm sure your father will feel the same way. You know that, right?"
"Oh, god, Mom, I'm so scared," Corwin whispered, but she nodded as she hugged her mother in turn with desperate need, no-longer-controllable tears spilling out.
"I know, baby, but we'll work things out."
Still holding her child, she looked at Taylor and said, "Thank you for bringing her home, and I'm proud of you for not taking advantage of her. But I think we need some time to ourselves. Is that okay with you?"
"Yes, ma'am," Taylor replied. He stood and moved to the door.
Elizabeth shepherded her now-daughter into the family room and sat with her on the couch.
"This is quite a surprise," she said.
"Tell me about it," Corwin replied bitterly.
"Do you suppose you'll change back to, um, the original Corwin?"
"Hel . . . um, sorry . . . I wasn't much like the original Corwin even when I was a guy," the young girl said. "I know I was pretty much of a disappointment as a boy. You wanted someone like the Prince of Amber, and got a fat little geek."
"You know I didn't mean that fictional Corwin," her mother replied, poking her, but smiling. "And you have never disappointed me. I've always been proud, and amazed, at how smart you are. Goodness, you already know more about computers than your father and I together will ever imagine. There isn't the slightest bit of doubt in my mind that I'd rather have a brilliant child than a dumb jock. And that fictional Corwin was pretty dumb when you get down to it. Big, strong, and dense."
Corwin, the feminine one, laughed a little from her position in her mother's arms. "Thank you, but Dad would have liked a more athletic son."
"Perhaps. But that doesn't mean he wasn't proud of the son he did have."
The teen shrugged, but didn't say anything. After a moment, her mother tried to return to her subject.
"If you don't change back, we'll have to see about getting you some clothes. I guess it's a good thing that Corwin, I mean, that the other Corwin . . . um, the other version of you was a bit overweight. At least those shorts fit over your hips."
The girl shrugged again, tugging a little at the low-riding cargo shorts.
"But," Elizabeth continued, trying to make a joke, "no teen-aged daughter of mine is going around without a bra."
"Oh, god," Corwin gasped, then buried her face in her mothers shoulder and started to cry again.
Elizabeth stroked her daughter's lustrous dark hair and murmured, "Don't worry, baby. We can handle this."
She continued talking softly. "I suppose at some level every father wants his son to be a tall, strong athlete. Though I'm sure your father would have chosen brain over brawn for you, if he had the choice. Still, it's not unreasonable to hope for both."
"But I think it's just as true that every mother hopes for a beautiful daughter - smart, of course, but pretty and feminine."
"You wanted me to be a girl?"
"No, not really," Elizabeth replied. "Oh, my, that sounded pretty weak, didn't it? I'm sorry. I was pleased to have a son, and very pleased the way you turned out, but at some level, I'd like to have had a daughter, too."
"Well, now you have one," the young girl said, still bitter. "Why didn't you try again?"
"Actually, dear, we did try. But it didn't work. Complications and, well, feminine issues."
"Oh, I never knew."
Elizabeth shrugged and said, "Water under the bridge. But there is one thing we never told you. For a long time, we thought you were a girl."
Corwin looked up at her mother. "I don't understand. I mean, everything was normal, wasn't it? I don't . . . didn't have any strange scars or anything."
"Oh, goodness, we knew you were a boy as soon as you were born. But we had an early sonogram and the doctor told us he thought you were a girl. We even picked out a name, and got girl's clothes for you."
"I don't remember wearing girl's clothes."
"It was just when you were an infant. As soon as you got to toddler size, we bought boy clothes of course. But for the first few months after you were born, you looked like the most perfect little girl you can imagine, at least when you were dressed. I suppose remembering that makes me a bit wistful at times."
"In any event," she continued, "even if you remain a girl from now on, you can be sure I won't be unhappy about that. I just hope you can come to accept it as well."
"You said you picked out a girl's name for me?"
"I expect most parents pick a boy name and a girl name until they know, so that's not unusual. We just thought we knew earlier than most - and then it turned out we were wrong."
"April? Why? I was born in January."
Her mother smiled and said, "Do the math, dear. You may have been born in January, but you got your start in life a bit earlier than that . . . nine months earlier. We wanted to remember that occasion."
"Oh, mom, that's . . ."
"What? You think you were brought by the stork?"
"No, of course not, it's just . . . I mean . . ."
"Your old fogy parents weren't always old," her mother said smugly. "And I've done a pretty good job of keeping your old man interested over the years, if I do say so myself."
"Oh, god, mom, that's TMI."
Elizabeth laughed. "Each generation thinks they invented sex, and that the previous generation just bumped around in the dark or something. I know I did, and I was shocked when my mother had a little mother-daughter talk with me about where I came from. And I don't mean the clinical part of things that you learned in your sex education class."
Then her voice got serious and she said, "If you stay a girl, we're going to have that talk. There's a lot more to being a young woman than knowing about X and Y chromosomes. My daughter is going to be a lady."
"You sound like you want this. What about Dad?"
"No thought for yourself? What do you want? That's another part of you - of Corwin - which has always made me very, very proud. You truly do think of others first. I know this can't be easy for you."
The young woman shrugged again, though she blushed a bit at the compliment. Then she asked her question again with a nudge.
"When your father sees how beautiful his daughter is, I think he'll be thrilled beyond words. . . .though he may spend a lot of time cleaning his guns when young men come sniffing around."
"I'm not beautiful."
Elizabeth pulled her daughter up so that she could look at her. "Corwin, are you kidding?"
Her daughter winced at the name. "Maybe I better be, um, 'April' from now on. I don't feel much like Corwin."
"Even better. But you're changing the subject. Haven't you looked in a mirror, yet?"
"No. God, no."
"We're going to fix that right away," Elizabeth said, gathering 'April' up with a pull on her hands and leading her down the hallway. "It's not fair, of course, with your hair all tangled and no makeup, but . . ."
With a flourish, she escorted April into the master bedroom and pointed her at a full-length mirror.
"ohmigod," April whispered softly.
The girl in the mirror was raggedy looking, with windblown hair and smudges under her red-from-crying eyes. Her shorts were barely holding up on her hips and didn't reveal any curves below. Her t-shirt was dirty and only showed her shape in a couple of locations (though very prominent locations). All in all, it was about an unflattering a look for a young woman as possible.
And she was still spectacular. Without consciously thinking about what she was doing, April pulled the t-shirt closer to her body, and then posed sideways in the mirror. The model-tall figure suffered nothing in comparison to that of the once-displayed Amy Martin. Her other hand pulled her thick, dark hair back from her face to show a long, graceful neck, delicate nose and brows, high cheekbones, and permanently pouty lips. And huge, shimmering multi-toned grey eyes. Eyes that had striking depth despite their lack of apparent color.
"Ohmigod," she repeated.
"Indeed," her mother confirmed. "Let's get you a bath, and then I'll help you with your hair and things."
"I'm not sure I'm ready for that," April said.
"It will do you a world of good. You need to get clean, anyway."
April allowed herself to be led into the bathroom, then stood there numbly while her mother ran a foamy bubble bath. She couldn't keep her eyes from flicking to the mirrors in the bathroom, catching sight of her new form from new angles.
"Are you going to wear your shorts and t-shirt in the bath tub?" Elizabeth prodded.
"Um, aren't you going to leave?"
"We're both women, now," her mother said. She smiled, but it was clear she intended to push April to accept what had happened.
April pulled off the t-shirt, and gasped again as she saw her new bosom in unrestrained glory. She was even more confused when her nipples immediately hardened. One hand tried to hide them, but that didn't help when her fingers brushed the swollen buds, and she gasped again.
Elizabeth gave her a moment to deal with the new sensations, smiling in part at memories of her own, then waved her hand to get April to continue.
When the girl dropped her - or Corwin's - shorts, it was the mother's turn to gasp.
"That's, um, an interesting look, dear."
"What look?" April asked, then realized what her mother had noticed. She had a narrow Brazilian wax trim pointing at her most private treasure.
"Oh, god, I didn't, I mean, it . . . it's just that way. I mean, when could I have . . ?"
"I guess you're right, though I think we're going to have that mother-daughter talk very soon. And if you do change back to Corwin, your father is going to want to talk with you about where you even learned of such a thing." She sighed, and said, "At least you don't need to shave."
"I didn't need to shave yet when I was Corwin, and for sure don't need to now."
"I wasn't talking about your chin, dear. But your legs and underarms are also fine."
"Yes, dear, but we can discuss that later. For now, just clean up. You can get your hair wet, but don't worry about getting it clean. I'll shampoo you in the sink when you're done with your bath."
Elizabeth left and April eased herself into the bath. If her tumbling thoughts had been caught up just a bit more, she'd have demanded a shower instead as Corwin always did, but once the bubble bath was all ready, it just didn't seem right not to use it.
And once she was in, she had to admit it felt very, very nice.
So did washing herself. Very nice indeed. She rationalized that a bit of exploration was required anyway. How else would she know if she were clean? And one bit of exploration led to another bit - very interesting bits.
All of the sudden she looked guiltily around, thinking that her mother was going to see.
"Oh, god, this is too much," she muttered. Before she let herself get started up again, she finished washing and got out of the tub.
"Damn, how am I supposed to get the bubbles off?" she grumped to herself. She couldn't figure anything else out so she just stepped into the shower and rinsed. Then she realized she had forgotten to get a towel so she had to drip her way to a cabinet, and drip her way back to the rug by the shower.
It wasn't until she was wrapping her wet hair in a towel that she realized she had gotten two towels, and had wrapped the first one just under her arms like a girl - both without thought.
She was starting toward the door, wondering what she was going to wear, when she felt her skin begin to crawl and a sense of intense heat begin to build.
"Oh, god, no! What now?!"
Elizabeth was humming happily to herself as she set out the shampoo and conditioner near the kitchen sink. With just a bit of regret, she had decided she wouldn't take April out for new clothes until after her husband got home. She didn't want him to feel she was pushing their new daughter too fast. But delightful little fantasies danced in her head, thoughts of the daughter she never had growing up, becoming first a sweet little girl, then a demure young lady. Even if she wouldn't have all those opportunities, she was going to make the most of the ones she did have.
"I wonder how old April is?" she mused. "She's pretty well developed for a fifteen year old. But girls do mature faster than boys."
A high, crystalline voice said, "Mommy?"
Turning, she saw Shirley Temple, age about six, standing in the archway to the kitchen; not quite the original Shirley Temple of the 30's, but a pretty good copy. The precious little girl had very curly hair, a very short pink dress held out with full petticoats, and a floppy-eared stuffed bunny rabbit under her arm.
"Yeth, mommy. Do we thtill have to wach my hair? I don' think it'th dirty any more."
Elizabeth bent down to the little girl's level and looked into a pair of deep, blue eyes. "Oh my God," she whispered.
"Ith thumpin wrong, Mommy?"
"No, darling. Everything is fine." Elizabeth touched the golden curls adorning the little girl to find them fine, soft, and very clean. The dress was also fresh and clean, as were the white anklet socks and patent Mary Janes.
She picked up her daughter and once again took her into the family room. Sitting in the rocking chair that had been in the family for three generations, she held the little girl and began to rock her.
"Tell me what happened just a little while ago? Did you take a bath?"
"Yeth, Mommy. But, it was funny. I don't 'member it very good."
"You don't remember it?"
"No, Mommy. I sorta do. I 'member being in the tub, but I don' 'member getting dressed."
"Do you remember anything else?"
"Yeth. I 'member feeling all itchy, and hot. I was scared, Mommy, but then it was okay."
"I'm glad, dear. How do you feel now?"
"Tell you what, April. Why don't you just sit here for a couple of minutes, and I'll go fix us some lunch."
"Okay, Mommy. Can I watch TV?"
"Yes, April, you may watch TV."
Elizabeth quickly called up a cartoon channel, and left her daughter raptly engrossed in the actions of talking mice.
"Oh my God," she whispered again when she was safely out of earshot. She picked up the phone to call her husband.
Chapter 3 - "Corwin of Amber"
Chuck Tarrant hurried home after his plane arrived. The call from his wife had been both informative and maddeningly cryptic. Apparently his son was now his daughter, and a mutant. But then apparently he . . . she had changed again, becoming a little girl. Chuck didn't know if the changes were continuing and the child he would find would be his teen boy, a girl infant, or something not even vaguely human.
"Elizabeth, Corwin, I'm home!" he called out as he entered their home, the clichť announcement an ironic claim at normalcy in a most abnormal situation.
"Daddy!" a little girl called, running to his arms. He picked her up by reflex, managing to keep the stuffed animal under her arm from knocking his glasses off.
"Hello, dear," his wife said as she entered the room at a less headlong pace.
Questions without real answers flew between their eyes, then Chuck looked again at the child he held.
"My, aren't you just the prettiest little thing," he said cautiously. He looked again at his wife with a more specific question in mind, to see her lips silently mouth, "April."
"Did you bring me anything, Daddy?"
"Sorry, April, I didn't have time. I'll make it up to you next time."
"'K," she said easily.
The sound of cheerful music in the family room provided him an easy excuse to set her down. "Why don't you go and watch TV for a little while?"
"'K," she said again with equal cheer, and ran off as soon as her feet touched the floor.
The two confused parents moved to the kitchen to discuss their surprising developments. Elizabeth repeated all the details she had received, first from the discussion with Taylor and the teen-aged April, and then with the young, candy-cane sweet child.
Elizabeth buried her head in her hands. "It's all my fault."
"Honey, mutations aren't really anyone's fault. They just happen."
"Not that," she said. "This latest change. It's my fault."
"I don't understand."
"The first time Corwin changed, to that Amy girl, it was in response to Taylor's dream, right?"
"It looks that way."
"Well, I don't know why he, uh, she changed into that beautiful dark-haired teen-age girl. That's not someone I know, and I don't know where that idea came from. But this last change . . ."
Chuck caught his breath. "You dreamed it?"
"Near enough," she said. "I was daydreaming while the teen girl was taking her bath, and wishing we had had a little girl to raise. And then . . ."
"And then a sweet little girl comes out and calls you, 'Mommy,'" Chuck finished for her.
Elizabeth nodded, and tears began silently to run down her cheeks.
Her husband reached for her and held her as she cried. "It's okay, Liz, it's okay."
"It's not okay!" she snapped. "I took a perfectly beautiful, smart, wonderful child and turned her into an empty bit of fluff. Where is Corwin's intelligence? Where is his knowledge? Where is all the work he put into learning how to use computers?"
"First off," Chuck said firmly, forcing his wife to look at him, "it's not wrong for a mother to wish for a little girl to raise. It's what keeps the species going. For that matter, I remember the beautiful little daughter it looked like we had, that we expected, back when Corwin was just a baby. Over the years I've had my own fantasies about a little daughter, watching her grow up, chasing off her dates, walking her down the aisle . . ."
He concluded after an introspective pause, then a guilty look toward where his daughter played, "It could have been me just as much as you that had that little fantasy. In fact, it could have been anyone - any normal, loving, feminine mother. You did nothing wrong."
She looked at him with less guilt, but just as much despair. "But what about Corwin? It's like I ripped a part of him out and threw it away."
"Maybe not," Chuck said.
"Look, Liz, I don't claim to understand this. But I don't think we should panic. It's Saturday afternoon. Let's see what happens over the rest of the weekend. Maybe, like that other girl - Amy, you said? - this will wear off or something."
"Oh, Chuck, do you think so?"
"I just don't know what to think, except that I don't think we should panic. Even if she has to start over from age 6, I think our Corwin's fine mind is still in there somewhere. We'll just have to wait, and hope."
Sunday morning found the situation essentially unchanged. They couldn't quite handle the idea of explaining what had happened to their child, so they played hooky from church. Chuck pushed his wife to join her normal Sunday afternoon card club, though.
"You need to get out of the house for a bit, just as you always do on Sunday. There's a reason the Lord told us to have a day of rest. It'll help you gain perspective."
"But, what about you? Don't you need a rest, too?"
"Yes, but you know my rest is to work on my boat. A lot of it is almost mindless sanding or polishing, something that occupies my hands and let's my mind relax. That's what I'll do today."
"But what about . . . . April?"
"Your dream girl is a sweet, cheerful child. I'll have her play in the yard where I can hear her. Corwin's old swing set is still up, so I'm sure she'll be fine. I'll have her take a nap a little later. Hell, I'll probably take one, too."
"Watch your language with a small child in the house," Elizabeth gently chided him. She took his advice and went to her card club, though. And Chuck lost himself in his boat.
He was building (upside down, in an old barn) a twenty-five foot sailboat, all of wood, clinker-built like the Viking longships, and he had reached the point where he as sealing the wood with a marine varnish. It was a fairly messy job, and required some care to keep the coating smooth and even. As a result - and perhaps because it had been a long time since he had needed to babysit a child - he forgot about his new responsibility, though not about the situation. In the back of his mind the situation was churning, turning from thoughts of a little daughter, to thoughts of a grown up daughter, to thoughts of all the other ways that his child could have turned out differently.
"What if he really had turned out like the fictional Corwin? Strong would still be good, but there's not much call for being a great swordsman nowadays. I wonder how Corwin would have turned out if he had been tall and strong instead of short and fat like me. Would he still have studied so hard and done so well with computers? Would he have been better off in the long run, or worse?"
Taylor's father had been tall, trim, and blond, just as it appeared Taylor would become. Chuck, on the other hand, was average-to-short (at best) and on the chunky side of trim as well. Corwin was . . . had been . . . taking after him.
He snorted and muttered to himself, "I know high school would have been easier for him if he had turned out tall, and as strong as the fictional Corwin. I still think it's a miracle that Elizabeth ever gave me the time of day."
Standing up from his task, he looked at the boat. He sighed and said to himself, "Now I have to move the supports so I can get at the next bit of gunwale. That's always a pain in the ass."
To raise the stern he needed a block and tackle. He rummaged around in his scattered tools looking for the required hardware, which of course he couldn't find right away. And when he did find one of the blocks, the line was missing - implying that is was probably still wound around the block he could not find.
"Here, Dad, let me help," a rich, baritone voice said from behind him.
Chuck turned to see a young man; tall, well-built, with curly dark hair and striking blue eyes. He wore black pants and a silvery-colored shirt, with a dark jacket that wasn't too heavy for the pleasant afternoon. There was a silver rose embroidered on the collar of the jacket.
"Corwin?" Chuck asked in shock.
"That's what most people call me," the young man said, laughing. He reached for the transom of the solidly-built boat. Planting his feet squarely on the packed-dirt floor, the set his back and lifted the stern clear of the support.
"You want to move that brace?" Corwin said, grunting a bit.
After a moment, with a bit more strain in his voice, he said, "Today?"
Chuck jerked out of his amazed stupor and quickly moved the support down to an area of the gunwale with cured varnish, carefully placing a pad in place.
When Chuck stepped back, Corwin lowered the boat into place, then stepped back himself. "Geez, Dad, that thing weighs a ton. What did you make it out of, ironwood?"
"It, um, actually weighs a bit over a ton," Chuck replied. "And it's mostly oak, with some teak."
"I'm glad you didn't tell me how heavy it was before I tried to lift it," Corwin replied ruefully.
Chuck walked over closer to the young man who claimed to be his son. "I, ah, don't remember that jacket before. Where'd you get it?"
Corwin frowned. "You know, I don't remember. It seems like I've always had it."
He shrugged and began to walk around the boat. "It doesn't really matter. So, how's the boat coming?"
"Okay," Chuck replied. "Why'd you decide to come out here?"
"I don't know," Corwin replied. "Just looking for something to do."
He picked up a length of dowel and began to twirl it with showy lunges and mock parries. "Say, Dad, do you think there's somewhere around that I could take fencing lessons?"
"I suppose we could find something," Chuck replied. "So, what were you doing before you came out here?"
"Nothing special," Corwin replied. "What's with the third degree? I figured you'd be happy to have me do something with you."
"Oh, I am. It's just . . . unusual."
"I guess you're right," Corwin said. "I shoulda spent more time with you. I know you'd like that."
"Yes, yes I would," agreed his father. "But I'm about finished for now. Why don't we go inside and talk."
"I don't feel much like talking," Corwin replied. "I really thought we could just . . . do whatever you want for a while."
"And if that's just talking with my strong, handsome son?"
"Geez, you sound like Mom," Corwin complained, then he swayed for a moment.
Chuck moved toward him. "Is something wrong?"
Corwin clutched at his head. "I don't . . . ."
He stripped off his black jacket, and started to raise his shirt. "So hot . . ."
Before he could get his shirt off, he sank to his knees. Chuck moved closer to him, but Corwin grunted out, "Stay away."
The young man's face became very red, and his father could see the same flush on his exposed arms. Then he started to give off heat, and his skin took on a glow that could be seen even in the well-lit work space.
"Stay . . . away . . ."
Chuck didn't have much choice. It felt like he was standing in the open door to an oven, and he had to back off.
"Corwin," he called through his son's pain. "Can you move out of the shed? If it catches fire, you could be hurt."
Through the heat shimmer, Chuck saw the dark hair of his child shake a negative response. He was trying to decide whether to get the fire extinguisher or a hose, when he noticed the varnish on the nearby boat did not seem to be affected by the terrible heat. About the time he realized that nothing inanimate was reacting to whatever was happening to his son, the heat began to diminish.
At some level he knew he had recognized that his child was changing, and he could see what sort of change was involved. But it was still a shock to see an impossibly beautiful, long-haired teen girl stand up where his son had been kneeling. She still work the silvery knit shirt - now scandalously revealing her lack of bra - and black jeans that looked way too tight, yet too well-fitting, to have been those his son had worn.
"Hello, Daddy," she said softly.
"Damn," he whispered in return. "I guess I didn't really believe it until I saw it."
"Yeah," she said. "Kinda hard for me, too."
"Are you okay?"
April nodded. "Yeah. It . . . sucks when it's happening, but as soon as it's done it's like, it's always been that way. At least the body bit."
"The body bit?"
She stood up and looked tentatively at him, then looked away. "Yeah. Other things . . . I guess you'd call them, like, the mental or emotional aspects of the change . . . they're not so easy."
All at once Chuck realized that her diffident look was because she was afraid her father would reject her. It broke his heart even as it pulled him toward her. In an instant, he had his arms around her and was holding her as though she were the most precious jewel ever created.
"Oh, baby," he whispered into her hair.
"Daddy, I'm so sorry. I didn't do it on purpose."
"I know you didn't, sweetheart."
"I tried, Daddy, I tried to be your big, strong Corwin for you."
"Is that what you think I wanted?"
"Sweetheart, I want you. However you want yourself to be. I'm more proud than I could ever say to be your father, regardless of how you look on the outside."
"Yeah, but . . . I, like, felt your wishes, and that's when I felt myself change."
"Into the young man who was just here - the storybook Corwin?'
He felt her head nod.
"So you just . . . decided to make yourself into that person?"
"No," she said. "I don't have any like, control of it at all. But I felt the wish, and then I felt myself changing."
"From the little girl April?"
"Yes . . . well, sort of. I, um, passed through this body on the way from the little girl to the big dude."
"Where did the clothes come from?"
"I don't know. They were just there. Only, when I change to this form, I don't seem to get different clothes. I don't know why."
Chuck gave his daughter another squeeze, then pulled her toward the house. "Let's get you inside."
He couldn't help looking more closely at April as they walked toward the house. Unlike what Elizabeth had reported, this young woman was clean and neatly groomed, as in fact the strong Corwin had been, but there were no signs of feminine fashions. She had no makeup, no jewelry, and her hair was clean but not noticeably styled. With a little shock of discovery, he realized she still wore a man's shirt, buttoning on the same side as his own. It was apparently the male Corwin's shirt unchanged. Yet her jeans truly were feminine and flattering to her shape except for being a bit too long.
When they were comfortable in the house, Chuck said, "Tell me about the time when you were, um, one of the other, um, shapes. What do you remember?"
"I remember all of it."
"Even when you were the little girl April?"
"Oh, yeah. That was horrible."
Her father waited patiently, so she explained. "When I'm one of those other shapes, it's like, I have this compulsion to act a certain way. The first time, when I was Amy, I was . . ." She realized she was talking with her father, and reconsidered her words, ". . . I was ready to do things that I knew were wrong, but I couldn't like, help myself. And as the little girl April, I had to talk like a baby, and had to be too sweet for words the whole time - always cheerfully agreeing with whatever you or mother told me to do."
"And as Corwin . . . ?"
"That was less of a compulsion, I guess, except that I wanted to show you that I was strong and all. And do, um, physical things, I guess. Not read or play a video game . . . or talk."
"And now . . . ?" he gently urged her to continue.
"Now things seem like, okay, except for being a girl. I don't feel like I'm compelled in any way."
"So you think you're just acting like you used to, as . . . I guess I'll call him the 'real' Corwin?"
"Sure. Don't you think so?"
"No, sweetheart, though it's not really a problem. But Corwin hasn't called me, 'Daddy' for a long time."
"Did I call you Daddy?"
"Yes," he confirmed, and then he grinned. "I kinda liked it."
"Oh, Daddy!" she said with exaggerated teen exasperation, then giggled.
"There's another thing. I don't remember Corwin giggling."
"Giggling? Ohmygod. I think I'll shoot myself."
"That would be a crime against nature, beautiful."
"Oh, Daddy," she said again, blushing.
He laughed, then got serious again. "Tell me about the times you turned back into, well, into the way you are now."
April thought for a moment, then said, "I think Mom saw it first. When the dream like, goes away . . . when whoever has formed the wish that has compelled me starts, um, doing things that don't like, fit with the wish or dream or whatever, then I feel a change coming on and end up this way."
"And going the other way, when you become someone else . . . ?"
Before April could answer, they heard the garage door doing up, and then Elizabeth came bustling into the house. "April, honey, I found the most darling little dress . . ."
Then she saw the teen version of April and said, "oh."
"Yeah, oh," April repeated. "Sorry to disappoint you."
"Oh, baby, I'm not disappointed. Surprised, a bit, but not disappointed."
"C'mon, Mother, I know better than that. First off, it was your fantasy that changed me, and the look when you realized your sweet little girl was gone . . ."
"Well, maybe," Elizabeth admitted. "But your father can tell you that I felt really bad about causing that change. Frankly, it's a relief to have you back."
Then she sighed and said, "But I should have bought you a bra instead of a child's dress."
April hunched her shoulders and tried to hide her new assets, blushing madly. "Mother!"
Chuck interrupted this tender moment with a question for his daughter, "Sweetheart, why didn't you change back to the real Corwin when the, um, fantasy broke down?"
"I don't know," she said. "But I sure wish I did."
"I may be able to help you with that," Elizabeth said. "One of the ladies in my card club has a friend who knows this, um, wizard or something."
"Wow, that sounds like a reliable source," April said.
"It's a start," Chuck said. "So, how do we contact this 'wizard or something?'"
"I have a phone number for the friend. Let me try to get something set up." Elizabeth offered. "I don't know if he'll be able to help, but it's the best thing I know to try."
Chapter 4 - "A Wizard . . . or Something"
The man who answered the doorbell didn't look like a wizard. He looked like a normal guy, middle-aged, height maybe a bit above average, weight maybe a bit low for his height. The only really notable thing was a sort of 'cool dude wannabe' look with some pretty nice wraparound sunglasses. As he motioned them into his house, he reached for a light switch.
"Welcome," he said. "I'm James Harrah. And excuse me, but I don't usually keep the lights on so I'll have to get a few going."
Chuck Tarrant nodded, holding his arm protectively around his daughter's shoulders and moving in some older-than-time reflex to interpose himself between his wife and the stranger, even though they were in the man's home at Chuck's request.
After Harrah turned back to them, Chuck said. "I'm, ah, Chuck Tarrant and this is my wife Elizabeth, and daughter, um, April."
"Of course," Harrah said. "Please, be seated."
The man turned his dark glasses to regard the obvious subject of the interview. April looked almost like a typical - though beautiful - teen girl. All of her clothes were new, and looked it, though not particularly noteworthy. Jeans, a knit shirt, and sneakers were almost the uniform of high school girls. And it was clear she now wore a modest but effective bra. Yet she was not entirely typical, either. Her hair was held back by a scrunchy into a low ponytail that kept the mass of it out of her face, but was otherwise rather shapeless, and the face this revealed was bare of any cosmetic enhancement.
Harrah nodded as though this were somehow expected, and then he looked at Chuck again. "What is your familiarity with mutants, and their types of powers?"
"Almost nothing," Chuck replied.
"Then I guess you've come to the right place," Harrah replied with a relaxed smile. Like the old commercial goes, I'm not only the chairman of our local mutant's group, but I'm a member. And my specialty is helping new mutants."
"Mr. Tarrant," he continued, "if you don't mind, I'd like to talk primarily with April . . . ?"
At Chuck's nod, he turned to April and - in some sense she couldn't really define with his eyes hidden by the dark glasses - he studied her intently.
"You, my lovely young woman, appear to be an Exemplar."
After a moment of expectant silence, April said, "So, consider it asked."
Harrah laughed, and said, "And a quite intelligent one as well. I'm happy for you. The combination of Exemplar and intelligence make your mutation very fortunate."
"Hardly," April said tightly. "I was a guy."
"Of course," Harrah replied. "That was obvious from the first. Is it so bad to be a girl?"
"Well, yeah," April replied. "I mean like, on the inside, I'm a guy, and this feels . . . wrong."
"Does it?" he asked with obvious, though not insulting, disbelief. "Don't answer that yet. Let's talk about it first."
"An Exemplar," he lectured, "is a mutant whose body becomes particularly desirable, though not always in a conventionally attractive way . . ."
He interrupted himself to raise a hand and forestall April's own interruption, "Okay, desirable at least by typical standards in society. Can you agree that your new appearance is attractive, at least for a girl?"
At April's nod, he continued, "The reason I did not say 'pretty' is that high-level Exemplars have more than merely appearance changes. You're obviously beautiful. Are you super strong, or invulnerable, or anything like that?"
"Not when I'm, um, like this," April replied.
This did seem to surprise the man for a second, but he clearly decided to table that for a moment. "Then you would seem to be a level 1 Exemplar, about as good as the best of normal athletes, movie stars, and so on. Your mutation could have been - and statistically should have been - much worse."
April's disagreement wasn't confirmed by words, but her attitude showed it clearly enough.
Harrah tried to make his point more real with a personal revelation. "My own mutation, for example, caused me to lose my eyes. You don't want to know what replaced them."
"But you can see?" April said.
"Yes, after a fashion," he agreed. "Mostly I see auras. It's helpful in my work with mutants, but the analogy I use to explain it is that the world now looks like a poorly tuned black-and-white TV - except that the auras themselves have color and texture and patterns. In fact, the reason I can tell you are an Exemplar is not because I can see how pretty you must be, but because you have an aura that I associate with Exemplars."
April nodded, then looked at Harrah in guilty shock and confirmed her gesture with words, "I think I understand."
"I can see your gestures too, April," he said. "Only for me, it's a movement of the part of the corresponding part of your aura."
He waited to see if she had any questions, then moved on. "My mutation allows me to do a preliminary 'screening' of new mutants, but it's not very precise. So I need to ask questions - like whether you are super-strong - to find your approximate level. So, here's another question: How fast did your change take, from your old body to your new one?"
"Which time?" asked April.
"Uh, oh," Harrah said. "That opens a whole new can of worms. I wondered what your earlier comment meant. I think I've lectured enough for a while. Why don't you tell me about what has happened?"
April recounted her story, while Harrah listened quietly. After she finished, he asked, "So, the last time you changed it was all over in less than a minute, though you somehow lost several inches of height and perhaps a hundred pounds of weight? And the time before that, even counting the intermediate step through your current form, how long did it take to change from a 30-pound six-year-old girl to a 200-plus pound man?"
"I don't know, exactly. Maybe a minute - no more."
"Amazing," Harrah said. "Well, that explains some of what I see in your aura. I thought you had a very strong Regen field, but perhaps it is Shapeshifter instead. The difference is too subtle for my senses. There is some thought that there is a Regen aspect to Shapeshifting. After all, if you are hurt and appear to rapidly heal, is that truly healing, or is your body just shifting back to an unharmed form?"
Harrah shrugged And it appears you are a Warper as well. For most people, the change from original form to match the BIT takes days or weeks, and has very little direct effect on body mass. That usually changes through eating or getting rid of, ah, waste material in the normal way. Only Warpers can change more quickly, by creating some sort of effect that allows them to create or eliminate mass without making Professor Einstein uncomfortable. That might also accound for the great strength of your - what did you call him? - your storybook Corwin form."
Elizabeth interrupted their conversation, "What is this, um, 'BIT' you mentioned?"
"Oh, sorry," Harrah said. "That is the 'Body Image Template.' It defines the form the new mutant will have, assuming that there is any body change involved in the mutation. Most do have a physical change of one sort or another, and of course it's fundamental for Exemplars and Regens."
"I didn't choose to be a girl," April insisted.
"No, I'm sure you didn't," Harrah agreed. "The BIT is subconscious. There is no 'choice' involved, any more than the choice to become a mutant in the first place."
"What bothers me, though," he said, "is that you kept changing to different forms, yet without conscious control. The unconscious aspect is what happens when a mutant first assumes a BIT form. Yet most multiple shapeshifters can either consciously control their changes, or the changes are completely out of control - occurring randomly and continually. Your situation is most unusual. It does explain at least part of another aspect of your aura. You are a Psi."
"So that's why I can, um, feel what others wish?" asked April.
"Exactly. Now, can you tell me, do you hear thoughts, or see visions, or just feel emotions? What are the characteristics of your new input?"
"Not really any of those," April replied. "I'm never really aware of anything except a very confusing, um, static sort of thing - like white noise, except it's not really noise, or at least, not only noise. And unlike real white noise, it's like there is something there . . . just out of reach, like if I listened hard enough or concentrated, I could make it out. But I can't. It's frustrating and distracting and . . . and I hate it!"
"Hmm," Harrah murmured judiciously. "Was it like this when you changed to the little girl?"
"No," April answered. "Come to think of it, I was in the bath, and it felt so good, so relaxing, that I didn't really pick up on it at the time, but I think the static reduced at the same time."
"And when you changed to the big man?"
"I don't really remember, except . . . . maybe that little April laid down for a nap or something. I seem to remember relaxing there, too."
"And the times you changed to this form? How was the static then? How is it now, for that matter?"
"It's there," April reported, "but not like, too bad, not as bad as like, before I changed the first time. About like it was when I changed from the big Corwin, I guess. I don't really remember the other times."
Harrah nodded again. "Well, that covers most of what I see in your aura, at least at the level of classifying the types of powers you have. Would you mind answering a few more questions, perhaps do a couple of experiments to get a bit better quantification of your new abilities?"
"I guess," April said.
"Let's start with the BIT for this form. May I ask you, when you change to this form . . . do you need to shave your legs?"
"What?" April asked in shock.
"Do you need to perform the moderately enduring grooming tasks a young woman has to do to meet our social standards? Do you pluck your eyebrows, shave your legs and underarms, anything like that?"
"No!" April said sharply.
Harrah smiled disarmingly, "I'm not surprised. Forgive me for asking, but I can't see directly. Has it been done?"
April blushed, and looked at her mother, but nodded.
"And are the . . . I guess I'll call them 'transient' grooming steps completed for you? Makeup, styled hair, anything like that?"
"No. I'm not about to wear makeup."
"As you wish," Harrah said easily, then he 'hmm'd' to himself for a moment. "That suggests an experiment. As I told you, the BIT is subconscious. Somehow, you are modifying your BIT to fulfill the wishes of those around you, but I'm sure it's all done at the subconscious level. If we would reach that level, we might find a way to allow you some . . . flexibility, shall we say?"
"So I can turn back into a guy?"
"I wouldn't hold out much hope of that," cautioned Harrah. "At least, not from what little I can help you with. But perhaps if we 'free your mind' you'll find some desirable variations you can access."
"What is this, Matrix?" April asked with a scornful laugh. "'Free my mind.'"
"What, just because some movie picked up on an essential truth - at least, a truth for mutants of various powers - that makes it false? Do you want at least to try?"
"So, how do we do that?" April said, unconsciously squeezing her new bosom to minimize it.
"A very good question," Harrah said thoughtfully.
For the first time in quite a while he turned whatever had replaced his eyesight directly on April's parents. "Here's the problem: Your wishes obviously affect April's subconscious BIT. I need to allow you to observe what happens - I'm not about to be alone with a minor - yet in a way that keeps your own desires from affecting the test."
He smiled wryly and said, "And I don't have a TV to distract you."
"I may be able to help with that," offered April. Hanging from her belt in a look that had far too much geek for her current form was a small electronic box. "I have some movies on my PDA."
"Excellent," Harrah said, taking charge in a very direct way. "Here's what I need you to do. If you don't mind, please go over to the patio chairs. Arrange yourself so that you can glance at us occasionally to be sure your daughter is not abused in any way, but as much as possible, keep your mind focused on the film. Concentrate on it, or count the holes in the tiles, or watch the birds fly by - think on anything except us. If you're as good a set of parents as I expect, a part of your awareness will remain on us, and that's all we need."
Chuck looked at his wife, and with her consent nodded. "So, Co . . . um, April, tell us how to access your movies."
April quickly called up the files and pulled a set of earbuds from her pocket. "Iím afraid you'll have to share the ear pieces." She unobtrusively picked a movie that she didn't think her parents would hate - or be upset at her for having - and started it.
Chuck and Elizabeth moved to the patio as Harrah had directed. Despite his admonition to concentrate on something else, for the first few minutes they watched very closely. Though in fact there was very little to watch. Harrah just sat there and talked some more to April, who sat and mostly listened. After a few minutes they made an effort to watch the movie instead. It might have been the actual effort to concentrate - not their success in becoming absorbed in the movie - but after what seemed like a short time, They realized that Harrah was standing up and shaking April's hand.
They quickly moved back into his living room, and then gasped in simultaneous shock as the caught better sight of their daughter.
"God bless America," Chuck said reverently, while his stunned wife murmured something too soft to hear.
"What's wrong?" April asked in alarm.
"Not a blessed thing," her father reassured her.
"Dear, you look fabulous," Elizabeth said, finally finding her voice.
"You already said that, Mother," April replied, not understanding.
"You don't know what happened?" Elizabeth asked, demonstrating her own lack of understanding.
Harrah acted to clear things up. "April, Mrs. Tarrant, let me explain. April, while you were in a trance, I suggested that you were incomplete, that you had not achieved your Body Image Template. I did not - and this is important - suggest any particular Body Image Template. I just suggested that you had not completed your own transformation. What your parents have apparently noticed - I had only an inkling through your aura - is that you have become even more beautiful than before. If I had to guess, I'd assume it was that you now have cosmetic and hairstyle enhancements more typical of a stylish young woman, and perhaps some jewelry?"
April's hand flew to her face, then to her ears which she had just realized were displaying rather large hoops. "Ohmygod."
"Yes, indeed," Elizabeth said, then glanced around. "Since Mr. Harrah does not seem to have any mirrors, you'll have to take my word for it that your face is expertly made up - perhaps a bit dramatic for a daytime look, but then most young women seem to overdo makeup. But you have mascara and eyeliner, some nicely shaded eyes, darker lips with definite gloss, and some very artful contouring with blush and powder. It's very striking, and makes you even more beautiful. And your hair is styled in soft waves that have wonderful energy. Didn't you notice the comb?"
With that prompting, April's hand now moved above her right ear, where a comb held back a sweep of hair, keeping it out of her face in a graceful arc. "Where did this comb come from, and the earrings? And why didn't I notice?"
Harrah shrugged. "That is for those who are more skilled than I to determine. At one level it was all in your subconscious, of course. As I told you, one of your powers appears to be Warper, which in this case is now demonstrating a Manifestor aspect. I suspected as much when you told me that in some of your transformations you had manifested clothing. Many Warper manifestations tend to look like flaming energy swords and so on, but Manifestors can create physical objects from nothing."
April's hand had continued to twirl a lock of silken hair. "Will I stay this way - did you make it so that I will always do the makeup thing?"
"I don't know, and not specifically," replied Harrah. "I don't do post-hypnotic suggestions. They're too dangerous. If your subconscious accepts that you can do this, and that it's appropriate for your BIT, then it will do this or something equivalent. In that also - as your mother can tell you - you are lucky. Millions of women would kill for the ability to have perfect makeup and hair with no effort. I don't think it's really makeup, by the way. Can you wipe some of it off?"
April looked confused, then tentatively wiped at her cheek. Looking at her fingertips, she didn't see anything, but . . .
"Here, dear, let me see," Elizabeth offered. She took a tissue from her purse and wiped it against April's lips. Pulling it back, she looked and said, "Nothing. That's certainly not lipstick."
"Do you, um, have a mirror, Mother?" April asked, further confusion apparent in the mixture of fear and anticipation in her voice.
Elizabeth offered her a compact, and April flipped it open with unconscious eagerness.
"Holy shi . . . sugar," she said when she saw her reflection. "I never . . . wow!"
"Indeed, wow," Chuck repeated. Turning to Harrah he said, "Mr. Harrah, thank you a million times. To see our daughter lifted to such a pinnacle of beauty . . . to allow her to realize just how pretty she can be, that is a very, very great gift."
"Actually, she should be thanking you, not me," Harrah said. "Let's sit down again and I'll tell you a few other things I think I've discovered."
They arranged themselves in the living room again, and Harrah explained. "You haven't really described the original Corwin, but I'm going to assume he looked like a younger version of you, Mr. Tarrant . . . ?"
At their nod, he continued, "I can't really tell what you look like, of course, but your aura demonstrates a bit less than average height and a bit more than proportional weight.
A young man like that might wish for greater personal attractiveness. And when a mutant power manifested to transform that young man into a BIT . . ."
April interrupted. "Yeah, so why didn't I turn out to be like the storybook Corwin, then? Tall, and strong, and, y'know, good-looking?"
"Ah, that is actually a tribute to your parents, and a reflection of your culture," Harrah replied cryptically. "Many young men would have done exactly that, transformed themselves into the image of masculine attractiveness, even exaggerated it with extra strength, and so on. It's quite common among those with the appropriate power."
"What are you saying, that I wanted to be a girl instead?"
"No," Harrah said. "Instead, what I'm saying is that you weren't afraid to be a girl. Not even at a visceral level."
Harrah looked at April's parents. "As I said, I think it is a tribute to you that your son . . . your child . . . values women as much as men, even at a subconscious level. Not many young men feel that way. I'm not the expert to explain it fully, but I think it does all of you credit for April to have turned out so accepting of others."
"So, I'm going to continue to look like this. Makeup and wavy hair and all?"
Harrah shrugged. "I just don't know. It's clear what your BIT is now, but the fact it seems to change with the wishes of others bothers me quite a bit. The mental or attitude compulsions that go with those transformations - like the little girl speech you described for the young April - bother me even more. I'm afraid you are quite vulnerable right now."
Chuck Tarrant asked sharply, "What can we do to protect her?"
Harrah replied, "As I said, I think you need to see some real experts."
"Where do we find such experts?"
"I know of a place, a boarding school in New Hampshire, called the Whateley Academy . . . ," began Harrah.
Chapter 5 - "April Fools"
Despite the wizard's explanation that her BIT was subconscious, over the next couple of weeks April had tried very hard to gain control over her form . . . with no success. She hadn't even managed what seemed like a secondary thing, to change her hair from a dark to blonde. Nor - and on this she had concentrated very, very hard - had she been able to reduce her more-than-ample bosom. Apparently her own wishes, no matter how heartfelt, went unmet.
Even cutting her hair hadn't changed anything. Her mother had been horrified the morning after they had visited Harrah when April came down to breakfast without her thick cape of dark hair. Since there had been no other changes, Elizabeth realized immediately what had happened. With a second to reconsider, she'd have bitten her tongue rather than speaking. Instead, she blurted out a question for which she already had the answer.
"April, what did you do?"
Her now-daughter just shrugged.
"Oh, April," Elizabeth said sadly. Then she shrugged as well and said, "Very well. I'll see if I can get you into Angela's to get that trimmed up more appropriately."
"Don't bother," April said. "It's not like I'm going anywhere, anyway."
"Oh, April," Elizabeth repeated herself. "You know you can't hide in the house forever."
"No, just until I figure out how to change into a guy."
"Honey, you know Mr. Harrah said that wasn't likely. At least, not likely to be something that will be stable."
"Yeah, like I'm all that stable now. I'm gonna go crazy if I have to be this big-boobed bimbo for the rest of my life."
"No daughter of mine will ever be a 'bimbo,'" insisted Elizabeth.
"Good, we're agreed," April declared. "No daughter, no bimbo. Problem solved."
This time, Elizabeth did manage to stifle whatever she was going to say. In silence, she fixed her child some breakfast and in silence they passed the day. April spent most of the day in her room, and those times that Elizabeth checked on her, she found the young woman concentrating fiercely, but without apparent effect.
The next morning, her hair was once again very long, beautifully full, and smoothly shaped, her face reflected all that cosmetic enhancement could provide, and her curves remained . . . well, they remained.
Each morning after that, her hair and face appeared salon fresh. Her body appeared freshly shaved, or waxed, or whatever it was that girls did. About half the mornings, maybe a bit more, as she finished drying her hair some sort of stylish adornment appeared to manage the amazingly heavy mass of midnight that draped almost to her waist. If not, she'd grab a scrunchy and make a ponytail out of it. After a few days, she quit undoing any enhancements that had appeared by themselves. Somehow whatever her subconscious created always seemed to appeal to her, at least more than any alternative she could make happen, so most of the time her hair looked like it had been deliberately styled.
And everyday, as she dressed in her standard jeans and t-shirt and sneakers, earrings decidedly too noticeable for her peace of mind would appear out of nowhere.
She had discovered that the changes to match her normal (hah!) BIT were not limited to her physical appearance. She couldn't really tell this 'from the inside' as it were, but her mother had pointed out any number of feminine little mannerisms, from the unthinking ease with which she dealt with her flowing hair throughout the day, to the way she sat with her knees demurely together, to her speech patterns. She never felt compelled to act in any particular way, but when she didn't think about it, she behaved just like she had been born a girl who was becoming a very beautiful and stylish young woman . . . as long as 'stylish' included a tendency toward very unisex clothes. Despite an obvious wish from her mother, April had never tried on any overtly feminine clothes (beyond the non-optional bra and panties). She wouldn't wear a dress, or shoes with any sort of heel, or even carry a purse.
It was a sign of just how bad her life was, April thought, that she was almost happy to look the way she did. In the two weeks since she had visited James Hannah, she had transformed three more times - or six, counting the changes back to April. The first time was when she had decided to "treat" herself to another bath. It was just as sinfully pleasurable as she had remembered. Lots and lots of pleasure, in fact, as she had "cleaned" herself. . . . thoroughly. That had left her limp and floating on a sea of exhausted bliss.
Then she had stood up and dried herself. Halfway through drying her hair - which took forever - she had felt a flash of unbearable heat. What stood up in her place had been some sort of amalgam of Pam Anderson, Anna Nicole Smith, and every other oversexed blonde bimbo that Hollywood could imagine. She had practically thrown herself at her own father, and thank God that Taylor Christian hadn't been anywhere close. As best they could figure out after-the-fact, that change had been caused by some passing boy's particularly intense fantasy. Chuck had remembered a high-powered car going by much too quickly for the little farm road past their place. The blonde woman - call her 'April the Third' - hadn't cared. All she wanted was to get laid, and she wasn't particular about the arrangement of naughty bits on her partner. If Elizabeth had been handy, that would have been just fine, but Chuck would do.
That change hadn't lasted long. The porn aficionado in the car was long gone when she made it into her father's workshed - wearing a tiny little too-tight mini and hooker heels. As soon as her father realized what was going on his horror had broken the compulsion and 'April the First' - or, as she decided was appropriate - "April Fool" had returned . . . still in the miniskirt and ridiculous heels but now dark-haired and decidedly not interested in sex with a man.
The next transformation had been when she was lazing on the couch after supper one evening. She had not really been interested in the TV and had eaten more than her girl form needed leaving her as torpid as a pig-stuffed python. She remembered what had followed all too clearly.
A "comfortably" padded, mature woman with unashamed grey hair walked into the kitchen. "Elizabeth, dear, would you mind if I visited for a little while?"
"Mother," Elizabeth asked in surprise. "I didn't hear you come in."
"You were working too hard, sweetie, as usual," her 60-year-old mother had replied. "You always keep your house so beautiful and inviting. I know you don't really have time for an extended visit to my place, but I do get lonely now that your father is gone, so I just decided to invite myself over here."
"Well, you're welcome as always, Mother, but, um, we're in the middle of a bit of crisis here."
"A crisis?" the older woman repeated. "Why donít you fix us a cup of coffee and tell me about it?"
It had taken Elizabeth almost five minutes to realize it was April, not her mother, who was sharing a cup of coffee with her. And it was Elizabeth's tears that broke the compulsion when she did. That was the first time that Elizabeth had seen an actual transformation, and the heat and torture inflicted on her child had broken her heart again, compounded with a massive, unsupportable load of guilt. It had been April who had comforted Elizabeth, despite the pain April had so recently endured.
The third - and so far, last - transformation had been an unauthorized experiment at which April discovered more than she wanted to know. It began with a phone call.
"Yeah. Who is this?"
"It's me, Apr . . . um, Corwin."
"Oh . . . . yeah. So, um, how's it goin'?"
"Not great. Hell, it sucks. And I think it's getting worse."
"Well, for one thing, I have to go away to this fancy boarding school in the middle of New Hampshire or something."
"You're gonna be a preppie? Oh, God, I can't wait to see you in your uniform. Shirt and tie. Shined shoes. Blazer with the little school crest."
"In your dreams," April replied. "Look, Tay, before they ship me off to some stuffy mausoleum, I need to know something."
"I need to know if I can control this . . . this thing that's happened."
"Okay. What can I do?"
"Meet me, at sundown, at the swimming hole."
"Okay . . . . um, Corwin . . . do we tell our parents?"
It was only a few hours till sundown. April snuck out of the house with plenty of time to spare, leaving a TV going in her room. She'd done it before - or actually, Corwin had - but her parents had never noticed. When she got to the swimming hole, she found Taylor waiting.
"Whoa, dude . . . I mean, Corwin . . . you look . . . great!"
"I call myself April when I look like this," she said quietly.
"Oh? Sorry, I didn't . . ."
"No big deal," she interrupted. Then she sat down rather heavily on the sleeping bag she had brought, looking out over the pond.
Taylor looked around in confusion, wondering - in part, hoping - what bringing along a sleeping bag was supposed to mean.
He stood there awkwardly with no place to sit himself except on the sand, and would that be a good idea? If she wanted him to sit with her, would sitting on the sand be a rejection? Or would sitting next to her be forward?
Taylor was well on his way to becoming a 'hunk' by high school standards, and he was beginning to learn how to take advantage of that with high school girls, but this . . . person he thought he knew was beyond belief. He felt way worse than inadequate. There was no way he would have approached a goddess like this. But . . . she had invited him! For what?
"So, um, April, what can I do to help you?"
April, despite appearing to have her attention off somewhere in the distance, was just as confused. The last time she had been alone with Taylor she had been Amy Martin, and under a compulsion to find him sexually attractive. He had rejected her, and then all sorts of strange things had happened.
In the confusion, she had forgotten something that hadn't changed. At least, not fully. She no longer felt that overwhelming compulsion to have sex with her best friend . . . but she sure felt a desire for it! When she had walked up, as soon as Taylor had turned around she felt a hammer of arousal. Another minute of looking at him and she would have seduced him, whatever it took. No, she wanted to be seduced by him. She wanted him to hold her, and to kiss her, and when they finally made love beneath the stars it would be a glorious moment she would cherish forever, not the bitch-in-heat rutting of April the Third.
Instead, April sat down and looked over the pond to get her mind on something else . . . anything else, than the handsome young man who was there with her. Alone. In the soft twilight. Alone.
"April?" Taylor prodded again.
Not trusting herself to look at him, she started talking to the far bank of the pond. "Do you remember when we were here before?"
"Do I remember? Holy shit, I haven't been thinking about anything else!" Taylor moaned internally. But all he said was a quiet, "Yes."
"You were dreaming about Amy Martin, and . . . um . . . I turned into her."
"You want to be Amy again?"
"No! I want you to, um, wish for me to be, like, Corwin again, only better. Taller, stronger. No glasses. Like in the Amber books. You know."
"What? Just, like, wish upon a star or something?"
"No. You need to like, dream about me as Corwin of Amber, only my age. Only you don't need to really dream, just think about that image of me. Can you do that?"
"I, um, guess," Taylor agreed tentatively. "Should I, like stare at you or something?" "Not that staring at you would be a hardship or anything."
"No, I don't think so. In fact, I think you probably shouldn't look at me at all. Every time I've transformed, I've been out of sight of the person doing the wishing."
"Oh, okay," Taylor said. "So, do I start like, now?"
"Give me a minute," April replied. "I need to be, um, relaxed. Every time it's happened, I've been really, like, relaxed." She blushed as she remembered that for two of the transformations, she'd been floating in the aftermath of a massive sexual climax. April wasn't about to tell Taylor that, but her body remembered and she hoped he wouldn't be able to see the hard little telltales that had popped up with her memory.
She unrolled the sleeping bag, but didn't get into it. She just stretched out on top of it and contemplated the stars.
"Are you going to go to sleep?" asked Taylor.
"No. It doesn't happen when I'm asleep. Then it's just this frustrating noise, only more than noise, like, almost visions that I can't quite make out, and, I don't know . . . it's just confusing. But I only seem to change when I'm like, relaxed but not asleep."
"Oh, okay. So, I just start, um, 'wishing' now?"
"Not so much 'wishing' as just . . . call it daydreaming about me being Corwin of Amber. Only at the right age."
"Okay," Taylor said, but his tone had little confidence.
For her part, April tried to lose herself in the starfield. Corwin had been enough of a geek to know most of the constellations, and she found she had to suppress that or she'd end up studying the stars instead of allowing herself to relax.
"I should have gotten into the sleeping bag," she mused. "I know a way to relax myself."
"Damn," she thought a heartbeat later. "That didn't help a bit!"
Especially not with Taylor sitting only a couple of feet away. In the dark. Alone.
Counting stars isn't quite like counting sheep, but it is at least as mind-numbing. Apparently that's what was required, for once April's mind was captured by the unending task of counting dots of light, she slipped into an almost-trance that kept her own subconscious from dominating her BIT.
They both knew when it happened, because the flash of heat that heralded the change was bright enough to catch Taylor's attention in the dark. That didn't stop the change, thankfully. In moments the heat died back to reveal a tall young man lying where April had been.
"Yes!" he shouted. "It worked!"
"Cool, dude," Taylor agreed.
The new-and-improved Corwin stood up and flexed his considerable muscle. His outfit was a bit inappropriate for rural Maine. Not many wore silver swords at their sides. But he would take it, and happily.
Taylor put a bit of a damper on Corwin's cheer. "So, how long does this last?"
The new Corwin thought about it a second, and shrugged. "For as long as you want it to, I think. As long as this is 'right' as far as your image of me, I'll stay this way. At least, I hope so. Every time before it only changed when the, um, dreamer thought something was wrong. Like when you realized it wasn't really Amy who was coming on to you. So, just keep thinking of me as Corwin, um, Corwin XL, and you'll have a very strong friend for life."
"But, what about your parents?"
"They'll go along. They're parents, and get all caught up in the bullshit about what teenagers are supposed to do and all. But they're basically okay. They both know how important this is to me."
"Cool," Taylor repeated. "So, what's next?"
"We go home, I guess," Corwin said. He rolled up the sleeping bag and then paused.
"Thanks, dude," Corwin said, holding his hand out to his friend.
"De nada, big guy," Taylor said, shaking his hand. "Glad to help, and I know you'd do the same for me."
"Well, I'd try," Corwin promised. He shouldered the sleeping bag and looked up the trail. Taylor nodded and they moved along in silence for a while.
They came to one of the steeper places on the trail and Corwin scrambled up it, then waited for Taylor. Once again he extended his hand to help his friend up the final portion. When Taylor was steady on the top and they had started forward again, Corwin said quietly, "Y'know, dude, I don't think I ever thanked you for, um, for being nice that first night. I woulda done something . . . hell, anything if you let me."
"Yeah, well, that's part of what made it not right, y'know?" Taylor replied. "There was this sense of . . . unreality. Not hot chick is gonna throw herself at me like that."
"Don't sell yourself short, dude," Corwin said, laughing. "Man, if you ever repeat this I will deny it - right before I kill you - but April thought you were hot."
"No!" Taylor said, but he grinned.
And then Corwin stumbled. Taylor heard a grunted, "Oh, shit!" and his friend began to glow again.
"Oh, shit," echoed Taylor. "Dude, I'm sorry man, I didn't mean it! It was just for a second . . ."
Corwin didn't respond, beyond an irregular shaking of his head that might have been due to the tortuous heat. The only good thing was that it was over quickly - no matter how long those few seconds seemed - leaving April kneeling where Corwin had stumbled.
"Corwin, um, April, I am so sorry," Taylor said, trying to apologize again.
"Not your fault," April said tightly. After another moment she stood up, looked at her body to find that her bra had rematerialized along with the need, but that her clothes were now the black and silver of Corwin XL. "I'm the one who brought up April."
"Sorry, dude," Taylor said softly. Regardless of any fault, he was truly sorry that his best friend's dream had been shattered.
With unconscious reflex, he bent to pick up April's sleeping bag. "Are you okay?"
"Do I look like Iím okay?" April replied sharply.
"Actually, April, you look great. But . . ."
"Yeah," April said bitterly. "Yeah, I'm okay. Let's go."
They walked along in silence for a while. April had her head down and Taylor was wondering if she were crying. That bothered him on several levels, from the sadness of a friend to the chivalry that couldn't stand to see such a pretty girl be unhappy. He struggled for a while to think up something funny or silly or . . . something that might cheer her up.
What he came up with could have done more harm than good, but it started him snickering to himself, mostly with the thought of how the Corwin XL dude would have killed him even for thinking about it.
"What's so damn funny," April demanded after Taylor's laughter had become undeniable.
"Oh, I'm just thinking it's pretty cool that I'll live through the rest of the night."
Taylor picked up his pace, getting a few feet further ahead of April. "I just figured if you were that big dude, 'Corwin XL' you called him, you'd kill me for what I've been thinking."
"Don't be too sure I won't do the same," April warned. "So, c'mon, out with it."
Without warning, Taylor kicked it up into a jog and called back over his shoulder. "So, April, do you really think I'm hot?"
With that, he dropped her sleeping bag and took off at a dead run. April's eyes spit almost visible fire and she started to hurdle her bag to get him. "Taylor Christian, I will kill you if you even breathe a word of that! Do you hear me?"
He must have heard her, because his laughter drifted back to taunt her. April kicked the sleeping bag in frustration. But then she started to laugh herself. Slumping down to sit on the roll for a moment, she thought to herself, "It could have been worse. He could have seen me as April the Third, bimbo maximus."
"Are you still, like, homicidal?" Taylor's voice called out from the darkness.
"Yeah, dude, just trying to decide where I can run better barefoot or wearing these medieval boots that came with Corwin XL. When I figure it out, you're history." April said, but her voice held laughter, not anger.
"Okay," Taylor said. "Until you do figure it out, can I walk you home?"
"Why thank you, kind sir," she said, standing and dipping into something that was more bow than curtsy.
"My pleasure, milady," Taylor replied with equal formality as he stepped back onto the trail. He picked up the sleeping bag and motioned April forward.
April blushed, though it was thankfully hidden in the darkness. "Smile at me like that one more time, and it will be our mutual pleasure." But what she said out loud was, "C'mon, we better get home."
Chapter 6 - "Roommates"
The headmistress of Whateley - Mrs. Carson to all but very close friends, of which she had very few - closed the file on another new student with finality.
The decisiveness her action portrayed was undermined totally when she sighed.
So many of her students had challenges to overcome. Some had mutations that were literally killing them, and she couldn't do anything about it. Others took extraordinary support to stave off that same end. Some, who were in no physical danger from their mutations were nonetheless threatened by personality challenges that might make them dangerous to others. And some, like the newly arriving girl, had vulnerabilities that were all the more troubling because they were so poorly understood. Mrs. Carson did not doubt James Harrah's assessment and report, though she would of course see that the girl was tested by her own staff. Yet even the preliminary analysis indicated someone who could literally be made over in someone else's image of desire. How could she keep someone like that safe, while still allowing her the socialization that was so important a part of a teenager's transition to adulthood?
She sighed again, and as the nearby clock tolled out the precise hour, she pushed the buzzer on her desk.
"Are the Tarrants here yet?" she asked, knowing the answer but using her question as an excuse to explain not inviting them immediately on their arrival.
"Yes, Mrs. Carson," the disembodied voice replied.
"Send them in please."
As they entered, Mrs. Carson's first impression was that the photo included with the girl's application did not even begin to do her justice. She had the presence and grace of a higher-level Exemplar than Harrah's report had indicated, and despite the dry numbers on the form, she hadn't consciously absorbed that the girl was nearly six feet tall. Yet it was equally obvious that she was uncomfortable with her new appearance.
"Please, sit down," she offered to the family.
"I'm glad to welcome you to Whateley," Mrs. Carson said after they had seated themselves in chairs facing the desk, "particularly so in April's case."
April sighed, but quietly.
"Miss Tarrant," Mrs. Carson continued, speaking directly to April, noting yet apparently ignoring her wince at that form of address, "all of our students are unique, but your particular manifestation of mutant powers leaves you quite vulnerable. I'm concerned about your well-being."
Then she looked at April's parents. "You may feel you should discount my own pride in our academy, but I honestly believe this is the best place to protect April as she learns to fulfill her new abilities."
Turning back to April, she said, "But that does not mean you won't face challenges. In fact, we do that deliberately. Hopefully, and by the record of our experience, the challenges you face here will not be as difficult as those you would face in the outside world without preparation."
"What concerns me the most, Miss Tarrant, is that you do not seem to have control over your transformations. Your record indicates that you can tap into great power. Consider the energy balance when 100 pounds of mass suddenly vanishes. Where does it go? Can you learn to channel it? What happens if you cannot? It is sadly not uncommon for mutants manifesting their transformation to 'burn out,' becoming consumed with the heat of their own changes. You appear to have a borderline burnout every time you transform, for all that there do not appear to be any adverse after-effects."
"The good news," Mrs. Carson said, turning back to April's parents, "is that I truly believe we can help her. We have staff with not only specialized experience and training, but in some cases mutant powers of their own. The combination can be extremely effective."
Then, for the first time, she smiled, "And we also have an excellent academic program. Something to challenge the part of April that was coming along so well as Corwin."
She stood, providing an obvious end to the interview. The Tarrant family stood at that signal but April's father had a question.
"Mrs. Carson," Chuck asked tentatively, "I was impressed with the brochure, and with what I've seen of campus, but . . . no one has told us how much this is going to cost."
"It's not that we won't pay whatever it takes," he continued quickly. "We want what's best for our . . . child, but I need to figure out what sort of arrangements we'll have to make."
Mrs. Carson smiled again. "That's a bad news and good news story. April's application indicates you have provided the appropriate financial records to Ms. Hartford. She will have analyzed them and have a recommendation for you. It is quite expensive to sustain this institution, and she will provide a summary of our costs so you can see what a 'fair' share would be. That's the bad news."
"The good news," she continued, "is that some of our alumni have been very generous and we have a very active scholarship program. I make it a point - regardless of what Ms. Hartford will tell you, though don't tell her I said this - I make it a point to ensure that no student with as great a need as April will ever be turned away for financial reasons. In the end, give what you think is a sustainable burden on your family, leaving a little in reserve for the things April might not absolutely require but which every young woman deserves. It will be sufficient."
"Thank you," Chuck replied, obvious relief written on his face.
"No, thank you," Mrs. Carson said, "for giving us the privilege of seeing April grow into the woman she can become." Once again, the headmistress noted but did not comment on April's wince at that future.
Their interview with Ms. Hartford was more . . . trying. If they hadn't met with Mrs. Carson first, they might have blown off the whole idea of Whateley and tried to find something else. Which might have been Ms. Hartford's actual goal. It certainly didn't seem to be her goal to help them untangle a bureaucratic maze. And the imperious bureaucrat was obviously unimpressed with their manners, their appearance, and most of all, April's clothes.
"Young lady, I do hope you realize you won't be able to dress that way on a regular basis," Ms. Hartford said when they reached the point in reviewing the school manual that addressed dress codes. "This institution has a much more becoming uniform, and you will be expected to wear it other than on exceptional occasions."
"What, um, counts as an 'exceptional occasion?'" April asked.
"It's all covered in the student manual. You'll have to look that up yourself," Ms. Hartford said sharply.
April sighed and said to her parents, "Well, Taylor warned me I'd need the tie, and shined shoes, and a blazer with a school crest."
"Absolutely," Ms. Hartford confirmed. "And, for young women, an appropriately neat skirt."
April moaned, "Oh, God, kill me now!"
"Hmmph," was Ms. Hartford's reply. The glee in her eyes did not agree with her apparent disdain.
When it became clear - finally - that the Tarrants would not be dissuaded from enrolling April at Whateley, Ms. Hartford grudgingly admitted defeat and sent them on their way to Poe Cottage. Or at least, sent April to Poe and her parents out of Ms. Hartford's domain entirely.
"Bye, honey," Chuck told his reluctant daughter. "Write when you can, or at least, e-mail us. And you can call any time."
April nodded, trying not to let them see the shine in her eyes.
Elizabeth hugged her, and whispered, "You'll be fine, dear. A skirt isn't so bad. And I'm sure you'll make lots of new friends."
"It's not the skirt," April said, her voice tightly trying not to sob. "It's . . . I'm just . . . oh, god, what's gonna happen the first time I change? What's gonna happen if I turn into that bimbo April the Third again, and it's not Daddy who I see first?"
"That's why you're here, sweetheart," Chuck replied. "They'll watch out for you, and this environment is more controlled than you'd be out in public. You couldn't just stay in the house forever."
"Right now, that sounds a lot better than this prison."
"It's hardly a prison, dear," Elizabeth said. "And if they can help you become happy again, then it will have been worth it."
"Yeah, right," April said.
"Dear," Chuck said, addressing his wife. "I think we need to go. April, you remember, inside that beautiful young woman is the smartest kid in school. Don't let your outside get in the way of the wisdom and intelligence and, well, kindness that you have always had. And remember, it doesn't matter what you look like on the outside, not to us. You're still our child and we love you."
"God, that makes it sound like you think I'm ugly."
"You know that's not true, April," her father chided her gently. "But that just makes it better."
"Yeah, right," she said again.
Elizabeth hugged her again, and kissed her forehead though she had to stand on her toes to reach. April looked uncertainly at her father for a moment. Chuck and Corwin had never been touchy-feely types. But the instant her father's arms opened, she flowed into them and huddled into his shoulder. That was the end of her self-control, and she cried helplessly while her father patted her gently, yet with equal helplessness.
As such things do, a couple of minutes of crying actually helped, and in a moment April was able to stand back and wipe at her face.
"At least this warpaint doesn't smear," she said wryly.
"A blessing indeed," her mother said, and reached for one last hug. This was a closure though, and with a tentative wave, April saw them off, then turned toward the cottage that had been pointed out to her.
She rang an entrance bell and waited. It wasn't a long wait. Short enough, in fact, that she was afraid someone had been watching and seen her lack of self-control when her parents had left. But then it didn't matter much when the person responding to the door turned out to be a middle-aged matronly woman who was cheerfully non-judgmental.
"We seem to get a surprising number of mid-term transfers, such as yourself," the woman began. "Or, in your case, I suppose it is more of a late start, since you only missed a week or so. By the way, I'm Mrs. Horton, and I'm the house mother - as I'm sure you figured out. If you have any problems, my room is the only one on this floor. The freshman are on the second floor, with juniors and seniors above. The rest of this floor . . ."
The woman's brief tour droned off into irrelevance as an avalanche of students crashed through the front doors behind them. April had to look, to see what other mutants looked like.
Mostly they looked like regular people. There was one girl who had weird blue hair and looked almost like a comic character, some anime thing. Corwin had never been into anime, so neither of course was April. And another one looked like she was only eleven or twelve years old, too young for high school in any event.
And then there were the - what had the wizard called them? - Exemplars. One girl was a friggin' giant! She must have been almost seven feet tall, but she looked like Miss America scaled up to an outrageous degree. Or better, she looked like a Barbie doll scaled way, way up . . . and way, way out. Yet she carried if off beautifully, like an imperious yet graceful lion.
"Wow," April said softly.
"Oh, that's Hippolyte," Mrs. Horton said. "However, since classes are obviously out, let me find . . ."
"Belle, would you come over here for a moment, please?" Mrs. Horton called after she had looked around for a moment.
A dark-haired, slender young woman who would have been a head-snapping beauty in any other group disengaged from her friends and walked over. A cheerful smile lifted her into an even higher plane of attractiveness, so much so that it almost forced April out of her bad mood. In the first place, it was hard not to smile back. In the second place, Corwin had always been disappointed in pretty girls with bad attitudes, and looking at Belle, April decided she was going to be one of the cheerful ones, if it killed her.
"Hello," the girl said, holding out her hand to April. "I'm Beltane, but everyone calls me Belle."
"Hello," April replied. "April Tarrant."
"That must be your real name?"
"More or less," April said, not willing to broadcast the nature of her transformation.
"You'll need to come up with a code name, did they tell you that?"
April shrugged. "I think so. It's been kinda . . . overwhelming."
Mrs. Horton interjected herself back into the conversation. "Take care of her, would you, Belle? Give her the standard tour, and then take her to Harmony's room. I'll take care of the bedding and things."
"Yes, mum," Belle said with a cheeky little curtsy, earning her a pretend swat from the housemother, plus a twinkly smile.
Belle led April out of the cottage and toward the administration building that April had visited with her parents. When they were safely out of earshot of anyone else, Belle said, "So, I'm guessing you're not looking forward to the school uniform, particularly the skirts."
"Oh, god," April moaned, then she looked sharply at her tour guide. "I, uh, don't wear, um, skirts much."
"Like, never, before your transformation?" Belle asked. Then she leaned close, and didn't quite whisper but made it clear she was protecting something she knew April didn't want to become general knowledge. "I know you're playing for the other team, now."
"How . . . ?"
"Lots of things," Belle said. "In the first place, you're way too pretty to be natural. You're obviously an Exemplar - lucky girl!"
"That doesn't mean that I, y'know, changed."
"Not by itself, but your actual clothes are stridently unisex. You could at least have put colorful laces in your trainers. And I know you hadn't made it to your room, but where's your purse? I totally don't believe that you can manage all that hair without a brush. Or that - if you had grown up with girls' styles - you'd even try."
April didn't reply, except to finger-comb some of her mass of hair back into better order, not that it was really needed.
Belle smiled at the unconsciously feminine gesture. "But I'm cheating. In fact, I'd have known your situation even without the clues. I get to give the tour to all the defectors in the battle of the sexes. I'm one myself."
"Oh, yeah. My real name is Kendall, but I don't look much like the student in my grade school photos."
"Wow. I never would have guessed."
"Thank you," Belle said, smirking and dropping into another quick curtsy. "Poe Cottage has all the . . . sexual variants. If you were gay or lesbian, you'd have a different escort. If you were none of the above, you wouldn't be in Poe."
"So all the other students who we saw . . . ?"
"Yep. Not a single one of them fits in a neat little social pigeonhole. See, you're not a freak."
"No, I just play one on TV," April said, finally relaxing enough to smile. Then she shook her head when Belle's eyes got wide again.
When she was really sure that April was joking, Belle explained, "We have one, you know. Actually, she's both staff and a student, but she's been on TV several times, and as an admitted mutant. Though when you meet her, freak will be so not the way you think of her. She's . . . well, she's even prettier than you."
"Good for her, I guess," April said. "If that's what she wants."
"Want doesn't have much to do with it," Belle said. "If you figure out how to control your BIT, let me know. There's some guys - or whatevers - in Hawthorne who would give anything to look like a human being. Of either gender, and even an ugly one."
"Oh," April said quietly.
"Yeah," Belle agreed. Then the decided to lighten up the mood. "So is that the extent of your powers - maximum beauty with minimum bother? Pretty cool, like I said."
"I wish," sighed April. "The real problem is that I keep changing."
"Really? You mean, like, bigger boobs or something?"
"No," April said. "God, no. Don't even think that!"
"Chill. It's not like you'll change just because I made a joke."
"Actually, I might. That's the point. I seem to transform to match the wishes or dreams or like, desires of people around me."
"Whoa. That could be cool, but it could be a problem, too."
April grimaced. "Totally. I've been a six year old girl, a blonde bimbo maximus who tried to seduce her own father, and a tall, strong, good-looking guy. Twice on the strong guy."
"You tried to seduce your own father?"
"Yeah. When I transform, I get the whole package. Body, clothes, and . . . attitudes."
"Whoa. Bummer. At least, bad news if you catch the wrong dream. But kinda cool if you get the right one."
"Yeah. I tried to force it, by having a friend dream me into the tall guy I wanted to be. But it didn't last very long. This is the only form that seems to last."
"You could do worse. You are gorgeous, after all."
"Gee, thanks," April said bitterly. They walked along silently for a few minutes, then April reached out and touched Belle's arm. "I'm sorry. You're right. It could have been worse. It's just so . . . different. I . . . I'm scared about what will happen. I almost seduced my best friend. Twice. Once even while I was like this, with what must be my basic like, 'attitude.'"
"So, is he cute?"
April blushed. "Well, yeah, but . . . he's my best friend."
"Sounds like a great place to start," Belle said, smirking. Then she laughed out loud when the continuing blush on April's face showed she was considering the possibilities.
"You'll do fine," Belle promised. "I know it's strange right now. You have a lot of social baggage to overcome. But it's clear your new body works just fine . . . including that 'attitude.'"
"But," April said, leaning in close to whisper. "I still feel attracted to like, girls, too."
"Good thing you're in Poe, then," Belle whispered back, then winked at April.
Belle took April on the tour, showing her the Crystal Dome cafeteria and pointing out how to find the labs, the class rooms, and the staff offices.
"Who is your advisor?" she asked April.
"A, um, Dr. something," April answered.
Belle laughed and said, "Like that helps. A lot of the advisors are doctors of one sort or another."
April slid a hand into her tight jeans and pulled out a piece of paper. "Here's my schedule for the week. It says I have an appointment tomorrow with a, um, Dr. Bellows."
"Oh, good. He's a nice guy . . . for a shrink."
"He's a shrink? A psycho doctor?"
"Don't call him that," Belle laughed. "He is a psychiatrist, and sounds like exactly the right advisor if you're having trouble with a Psi power."
By this time they were back at Poe. Belle took April up to the second floor and delivered her to her room.
April's first impression of her new roommate was that someone had broken in and tied her up - by her hair. What looked like hundreds of strands of very long, crystal-clear hair - the free ones reaching to her knees - were tied to a wire grid that looked sort of like a bedspring stood on end. The girl stood several feet back from the grid, facing it, and seemed to be moaning with a weird, multi-tone chord that went from almost inaudibly high to a deep bass growl that couldn't possibly come from a girl.
"Ohmigod, what's wrong?" April asked, moving forward.
The girl twitched when she heard April's voice, and tried to turn to look, wincing when her hair got pulled. Then the hair untied itself from the grid and draped itself into a long train behind the girl, who turned to face the intruders.
Belle stepped forward, "Harmony, this is your new roommate. April Tarrant. She hasn't got a code name yet. April, this is Emily Cunningham, code name, 'Harmony.' I'll leave you two members of the grey-eyed, long-haired, hot-bod squad to get acquainted."
Emily stuck out her hand in an abrupt, almost masculine gesture. She didn't look masculine, though. Though slender, her curves were accented as much by an amazingly tiny waist as April's were by her more . . . . developed shape. The theme of Emily's transparent hair was continued with translucently pale skin and an elfin, ethereal beauty that made April look to see if her ears were pointed (they weren't). Everything about her seemed delicate, and elegant, as though she were forged from perfect crystal. The effect was accented by eyes that were such a pale grey that they seemed almost colorless - except when surrounded by all that shimmering hair.
"Hi," she said. April shook her hand and nodded.
"I take it that you were like, doing that . . . deliberately?" she asked her pale roommate.
"Yeah, that's my power," Emily replied.
"Tying yourself to things by your own hair?" April asked in disbelief.
"No, ditz, but I can see why you might think so," Emily replied. She held out the palm of her other hand to show a finger-sized block of pale rose crystal. "I tune crystals. It gives them special powers, like, oh, generating force fields, or emitting laser beams. This one was going to be an MP3 player."
A forest of hair lifted behind her like she had encountered a massive static electricity field. "I use my hair to generate the tuning tones. I can like, anchor the strands, and then make them vibrate. It's why I'm called 'Harmony.'"
The clear strands dropped back into a cape behind the slim girl, and she put the crystal on a desk cluttered with others in odd shapes and colors.
"'Was' going to be . . .?" prompted April.
"Yeah, if I get interrupted, it messes up the crystal. I'll have to start over."
Harmony shrugged. "No big deal. I mess up a lot for other reasons. I can fix it later."
April looked at the crystal again. "How do you like, download songs to it? Do you just make your own?"
"No," Harmony said. "It's going to have a Bluetooth receiver."
"So, you're like, a electronics whiz, too?" April asked, impressed.
"Bzzzt," Harmony replied. "Try again. They tell me my hair is like . . . what was the word? . . . piezoelectric crystals. They can turn physical vibrations into electrical impulses, and vice versa. So I like, listen with my hair to a Bluetooth receiver, and then I can like, sing to a crystal and make it match what I heard."
"Wow, that's pretty cool."
Harmony laughed, a full belly laugh that showed a depth of emotion that didn't seem to fit with her delicate appearance. "You probably won't think so when I get to singing to my little toys at all hours of the night."
"Yeah, well, it could be worse," April said, then just stood there in confusion.
Harmony leaned comfortably against the wall, close enough to be attentive but not so close she intruded into April's space, and said, "Now is the time when roommates usually tell each other their powers. Other than being a kickass gorgeous Exemplar, what are your powers?"
April began yet another recounting of her history, ending up with a sigh as she got to the part where she was going to need to wear a skirt.
"It's no big deal," Harmony said. "You get used to it."
"Yeah, right. Like you know."
"Oh, yeah I do," Harmony said with a smile.
"You mean . . . ?" April said.
"Yep. I'm another traitor to my birth plumbing," Harmony confirmed. Then a very bright blush showed through her glowing skin. "When I like, go over the top, I hum. I was spanking the monkey one night, and started humming, and all of the sudden it hurt like a son of a bitch. A couple of days later, my boy bits had shrunk out of sight and new bits were sprouting."
"That was a couple of months ago. My hair started to grow, and turn clear, and I just felt like, attracted to crystals. I started humming to them and, well, things just sort of happened from there."
"Don't you want to be a guy any more?"
"Not really," Harmony shrugged. "I'm totally better looking as a girl than I was as a guy, and I like what I can do with crystals. And they don't get on your case here in Poe if you're attracted to girls - that hasn't changed for me - even if you look like a girl. Overall, I'm okay with it."
"Good for you," April said quietly.
"By which I take it that you're not okay with your own change," Harmony said.
April shook her head. "I'm trying to deal with it, but I keep hoping that one of my changes will make me a guy, and it will stay that way."
Harmony shrugged, then said. "Your choice, but I am curious about one thing. If you don't like being a girl, why the big, flashy earrings? Those things could almost be used as bracelets. Don't get me wrong, they look great, particularly on you. They accent your - as they say - 'swan-like neck.' But I would have thought you'd choose tiny little posts or something."
"I didn't choose these," April said. "Every morning, when I get dressed, they just appear."
"You mean they just manifest, out of nothing?"
"Totally cool. And they stay? I mean, they don't like, fade after a few minutes?"
April nodded again. "At first, I took them out, and the things in my hair, and whatever. But . . . well, they do look nice, so after a while I just didn't bother. I still take them out at night."
"Wow, you could get rich. Make big gold hoops and sell them! Or, can you do diamonds?"
"It doesn't work that way. When the new ones, um, 'manifest' the next morning, the old ones disappear. I don't know how it works. And I don't control it, at least, not consciously."
"Well, I can't explain it either, of course, but it sounds very powerful," Harmony said. "So, you got the really good package. Exemplar pretty, with automatic makeup, hair, and even jewelry. That's way cool! And I'm totally sure they'll figure out how to help you control the other changes."
"If you say so," April replied dismissively, but she looked thoughtful.
Chapter 7 - "I'll Try"
Dr. Bellows had the charming amiability of a country doctor, though the diplomas on his walls spoke of sophistication and broad-ranging inquisitiveness. He had also seen students with mutations that would give nightmares to those outside Whateley. When the tall, amazingly pretty girl entered his office she was well within the range of 'normal' for Whateley, so he had no trouble appearing natural and relaxed as he greeted her.
"Come in, Miss Tarrant," Dr. Bellows said warmly, "or should I say, 'Dream?'". He noted April's reflexive wince at the first form of address, and a frown at the second.
"They told me that I had to pick a code name - even if I changed it later. It was the only thing I could think of at the time."
"I see that the tech tried to record it as 'Dream Girl.' You insisted on just 'Dream?'"
April shrugged, then looked around for a couch but found only a couple of easy chairs set to the side, near a desk with a regular executive's chair on one side, and a couple of leather-upholstered visitor's chairs on the other.
"Looking for the couch?" he asked with a smile.
April jerked, then blushed.
"Most of what you've heard about shrinks is wrong," he said. "The part that's right is that we like to listen while you talk. Most people prefer a more balanced conversational setting."
"Um, okay. So, do you like, want me to talk about my code name?"
"If you'd like, of course, but we can get to that later. First off, I am your advisor as well as your shrink, so we need to talk about your powers."
April had been tested in ways she had never imagined, especially in something that called itself a school. In her school career, most standardized tests were designed to obscure actual results in imparting knowledge, and in no way challenge students lest the school's competency be revealed. And she couldn't imagine any regular school examinations that involved deliberately inflicting pain, however temporary. That was no fun at all.
She was, on the other, pleasantly surprised to find out she basically didn't get tired. She wasn't particularly fast in running, and she got out of breath if she pushed hard enough, though it took a lot longer than it had for Corwin. But her recovery time was awesome. Ten seconds after nearly passing out from lack of air after driving herself deep into oxygen debt, she wasn't even breathing hard or sweating. A few minutes after getting some pretty good bruises including a black eye in a sparring match (which she lost, badly), all her bruises and a scraped elbow were healed without a trace.
On the other hand, despite some pretty high-powered investigators, she didn't seem to have any active abilities in either extra-sensory perception or magic. She could receive thoughts from strong telepaths, but her score on the typical ESP tests with normals was just a little better than random chance. She had not been able to perceive what they called, "ley lines", and no one had a clue where her body mass changes or object manifestation came from.
"Let's see . . . Shapeshifters are notoriously difficult to classify. I see that you are assessed as an Exemplar 2 - probably because of your stamina and recovery times, since you demonstrated no other better-than-normal abilities," Dr. Bellows reported. "And a Regen 3. If it weren't for your transformations before you came to Whateley and the report on your aura from Mr. Hannah, we wouldn't have assessed you with any Shifter, Warper, or Psi skills at all."
April pulled off her left earring, a two-inch dangler that looked like snowy lace with an embedded three or four carat diamond, and handed it to Dr. Bellows. "Yesterday, my earrings were large gold hoops. This one just like, appeared today while I dressed. You can keep it if you want, to prove that it will disappear tomorrow morning. I left the other one with the lab dudes so that they could examine it."
"Oh, I never doubted your powers," Dr. Bellows explained. "I'm just reporting that they don't seem to be testable with our normal methods."
He perused the notes on her testing again, then turned to the report on her prior experiences. "I think, since the transformations occurred while you were quite relaxed, that we will have to schedule an evening session."
"It doesn't work while I'm falling asleep," April said.
"Yes, I see that in your report. But I also see that you transformed once after a heavy meal, while you were dozing on a couch. I'm sure we can repeat that setting."
"Oh, yeah. But, what will I be turned into? I mean like, who's going to do the dreaming?"
"Whom would you prefer?"
April blushed again, and didn't meet the doctor's eyes.
He smiled and said, "Yes, we'll need to talk about that as well. You have a fine, healthy body. I would be more worried if you did not feel any sexual arousal than if you did. But I don't think we'll try for any sexual content in the test transformation. Perhaps we'll have one of your friends - would Beltane be acceptable?"
April nodded, but asked, "What will she wish for?"
"I suppose that's for the two of you to work out," he said. "I'll see that she's notified about the test, perhaps after dinner tomorrow?"
April nodded again, and Dr. Bellows turned to a different portion of April's file. She found that she needed to take Civics (ugh!), English (bleh!), and Math (okay). Those were expected. But she was surprised to see classes called, "Powers Theory" and "Powers Lab" on her schedule as well. "What are these, Doctor?"
"Those are required of all Whateley students. The first deals with the nature of mutant powers, and your section is specifically focused on those with Psi powers. I think we'll treat your physical abilities as Exemplar/Regen until we understand your Shifting better, and the path to that is through understanding your Psi abilities. There are other classes for gadgeteers, or devisers, or bricks."
April nodded, so Dr. Bellows knew she understood the colloquial labels. "The Lab deals with the controlled exercise of your powers."
"I wish," April said.
"Oh, I think we'll be able to help you with that," Dr. Bellows promised.
She looked sharply at him to see if he were just saying what she wanted to hear, but he appeared to be genuinely confident. Then she read through the rest of her schedule and saw something she didn't like at all. "Self-defense? In the test today, I totally got killed."
"Which is all the more reason you need some training. You, in particular, are vulnerable to exploitation. If someone wants to take advantage of you, we want you to have - literally - a least a fighting chance."
"That will take a lot of work. I was so not athletic as Corwin, and I don't think this body is like, built for combat."
"You might be surprised. Some of our martial arts instructors have turned regular young women, not even Exemplar 1's, let alone Regens, into quite competent defensive fighters. If you give it your best, and I expect you will, you'll do fine."
She shrugged again, but she looked interested in the possibility.
"So, is that it?" she asked when Dr. Bellows had said nothing for several minutes while he made notes in her file.
"I would like to ask you just a few questions," he said. "Just to set some goals. For example, considering your powers as you understand them now, what would you like to be able to do with them?"
"Turn myself into Corwin XL," she said without hesitation.
He frowned at first, but it wasn't a judgment on her goal. His frown turned into a smile when he found the reference in his notes. "Ah, yes, that's the name you have for the tall, super-strong man who is the embodiment of the fictional character."
"Okay," he continued. "I'll accept that, but I have to tell you that when a person's BIT is as well-integrated and complete as yours, it's not likely to change. I understand about the transitional forms, but you do seem to keep coming back to this one."
"But I don't want to be a girl," April protested.
"Perhaps," Dr. Bellows said, not really agreeing. "But your subconscious does."
"But I never, when I was Corwin, wanted to be a girl. Where did that come from?"
"Let's start with what you may consider to be a less important parameter, but one I'm sure satisfies you. Your new stature. From the report, it would seem that your original form was rather short, and likely destined always to be that way. Now you are quite tall for a girl. In fact . . . let's see . . . at just over 180 cm. you are taller than an average man."
April nodded at his observation, letting her soft grey eyes ask her question.
"So," he continued, "your subconscious valued height, and when your mutation included Shapeshifting that acted as an Exemplar/Regen aspect in your new, ah, 'design,' you became taller."
"I guess I can see that, but what's that got to do with being a girl?" she asked.
Dr. Bellows leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers, then twitched and smiled at the stereotyped habit. "In that, I concur with Mr. Hannah's explanation. Let's consider it in parts. Other than being short, did you think you were attractive, as Corwin?"
April shook her head in a strong negative, sending strands of living ink whipping around her face.
"So, along with being taller, you had a problem with your self-image in attractiveness as well. When you were Corwin, who would you have considered the most attractive people you knew, or even knew of, like a movie star? Did you find men attractive?"
"No!" she said sharply, moved to a verbal response at this question.
"So, if you were asked to choose the most attractive image you could imagine, it would have been a woman, right?"
"Well, yeah, but not for me!"
"Because I was a guy!"
"So, what is it about 'a guy' that makes being one more desirable than being attractive?"
She shrugged. "I don't know. It's just like, that's what I was. I mean, what I am."
"If I had asked that question of a lot of young men, do you suppose they'd say, 'I don't know?'" he asked.
"I don't . . ," April started, then stammered to a stop.
Dr. Bellows smiled and continued. "Most young men would have no trouble describing what made being a guy better. They'd talk about strength, or liking sports and hating shopping. They'd talk about the respect men get in our society, and how women tend to be patronized. If they were inclined to bluntness, they might talk about not wanting a monthly 'curse.'"
Before April could say anything, he continued. "And most young women would be ready with similar comments on why being a girl was better. Some would be mirror opposites like a preference for shopping over sports, but women tend to focus on personal relationships, on best friends and sleepovers."
"Some, of either gender, would be so focused on sex itself - which way the bits were supposed to fit together, and in particular which set of bits they wanted for sex, that nothing else would matter. Yet you didn't have any explanation at all."
April looked at him with a frown. "So I'm like, a freak of some sort?"
"Not in the least," Dr. Bellows said. "Some students who end up changing gender do so because they place a greater value on things typically associated with the opposite gender. Their history shows a tomboy background, if they were originally girls, or perhaps a notable lack of interest in sports or outdoor activities if they were a boy. Those are not automatically signs of gender issues, of course, but that history often shows up in gender changes."
"I, well, I wasn't really into sports," April observed. "So you're saying that I really did always want to be a girl, even if I didn't know it?"
"I don't think so," Dr. Bellows said. "Your background shows interest in camping out, and you tended toward what are called, 'first person shooter' video games which are more typical for boys. No, I think you were a pretty normal young man in your interests."
April frowned again. "I'm getting confused, Doctor. So just why did I change?"
"It is my opinion, and that of Mr. Hannah, that you are one of the unfortunately few people in our society who respect those of either gender equally. While you were happy to play combat video games yourself, you were - even at the subconscious level, and that is very rare - you were equally respectful of those who preferred other things."
He wrapped up his explanation by tying the loose ends together. "So, you - like most young men - thought a pretty girl was the most attractive of all people. Yet you - unlike most young men - did not have a counterbalancing prejudice toward the gender-typical things you had personally enjoyed. They were not a major factor in your own sense of value for someone. So, when you subconscious was integrating your new powers, it selected the best option. The beauty of a woman, combined with extra height, your own intelligence, and so on."
Then the doctor grinned and said, "Though it's obvious your personal image of feminine beauty has a healthy dose of Playboy in it. You do realize that the only reason their skin looks as flawless as yours is because of some extensive airbrushing, don't you? And that most of those models have other . . . enhancements as well? Figures like yours are seldom natural."
He didnít wait for an answer before continuing, "The result is a subconscious interpretation of the 'best' person you can be as the person you have become. Tall, as attractive as your imagination can conceive and someone who, by the way, retains all of Corwin's mental abilities. Those are deep-seated aspects of your personality, and frankly, they do you credit. Changing them - even trying to change them - would likely change something fundamental to who you are, to whom Corwin was, and to whom your parents want you to be."
April sat silently, trying to absorb Dr. Bellows' comments. After a moment, he continued, "So, assuming that the form you find yourself in now is going to be your primary form from now on, what would you like to do with your powers?"
"Turn them off," April said almost as quickly as her first response. "I'm afraid of what I will turn into, and the . . . static is always at least annoying, and sometimes drives me crazy."
"Very good," the doctor said. "Those are very concrete objectives, and while I wouldn't characterize your best option as 'turning off' powers that make you unique, I think we can certainly set a goal of allowing you to control them instead of letting them control you. If you never find value in them, it will amount to the same thing."
April nodded again, looking down at her hands as she contemplated what the doctor had said. After a moment she looked up, and Dr. Bellows was gratified to see hope and even a bit of happiness in her eyes.
"I think that's enough for today," he said. "But I think we should meet several times a week to talk about your adaptation to the shape your subconscious has chosen."
He sighed, then continued, "I'm afraid I must ask you to start on that by wearing the school uniform. I have informed Mrs. Horton of this need, and I'm sure she will have arranged for you to have the required clothes in your room when you return. Your roommate can help you with anything you find difficult. And I have scheduled you for a physical examination with Dr. Tenent - Ophelia Tenent, also known as Caduceus. She will help you with some of the more personal aspects of your new femininity."
"Oh, happy, happy, joy, joy," April sighed in turn.
Her appointment with Dr. Tenent was scheduled in place of her first Powers Theory and Lab classes, which made sense since she didn't have a clue how to do anything with her powers anyway. The logic did not comfort April when she was handed the obligatory hospital gown with built in draft. She shivered on the exam table by herself for long enough that she was seriously wondering if someone were playing head games with her, when a beautiful woman with wonderfully full and bouncy hair even longer than April's entered the room.
"Good afternoon, ah, 'Dream,'" the woman said, then despite the lab coat with its prominently displayed name tag said, "I'm Dr. Tenent, but you can call me Ophelia, or Caduceus, or, 'Hey, you,' if it makes you more comfortable."
April just nodded, not quite willing to reward the doctor's levity with a smile.
The doctor consulted her notes, and reported, "Of course, the powers evaluation took care of basic parameters like height and blood pressure, so we don't need to repeat those. In a moment my nurse will take a blood sample, but with your powers I don't think we'll find anything out of order. My goal today is just to establish a baseline in case anything happens in the future, okay?"
April nodded again, and though she didn't notice it herself, Dr. Tenent was gratified to see a bit of relaxation in her taut body.
Then April tightened up again, this time in surprise, when a lock of Dr. Tenent's hair - seemingly on its own, without the doctor even looking in the same direction - reached over to a wall rack and pulled off one of those little examination lights with the built-in magnifying lens.
"Oh, sorry," the doctor said. "I forgot that I hadn't explained my own powers. I'm principally a sorceress - or perhaps 'wizardess' if you're uncomfortable with some of the traditional aspects of sorcery. In addition, I seem to have a low-level Esper capability, mostly connected with understanding the ailments of my patients. The physical manifestations of my mutation are mostly connected with my hair, as you have just seen, though I lucked out with a bit of Exemplar as well, just as you did. Together, they help me with what you might consider the more unusual aspects of our exam."
That didn't really help April relax. Her mind wasn't ready to guess at what a place like Whateley would consider 'unusual.' But it turned out to be things as simple as having soft yet heavy thud on her back while Dr. Tenent held the stethoscope to her chest, and vice versa. And she had a flash of envy when she realized Dr. Tenent's hair was holding a clipboard while another lock actually wrote notes, both simultaneous with the doctor's real hands holding a tongue depressor and the magnifying exam light. That demonstration of powers seemed to change April's mental image of the doctor, and she became Caduceus in the younger woman's mind.
"Okay, Dream, it's time for the part we all enjoy the most," Caduceus said gently. A long strand of hair reached out to touch a buzzer, while soft masses urged April to turn and sit on the bed as the doctor's real hands started to arrange the stirrups. A nurse entered, apparently in response to the buzzer, and she helped to arrange a little pillow under April's head.
The nurse - her name tag read a very mundane Jane Wilson - whispered to April, "Just relax, honey. We've all been through this, and it's undignified but necessary."
"It sucks to be a mutant. It sucks to be a mutant. It sucks . . ," April chanted to herself as undignified didn't begin to cover what the doctor was doing.
"Well, April, you seem to be a fully functional, supremely health young woman," Caduceus reported.
At some level April accepted that to be good news, but it triggered her spider sense, and she waited for the other shoe to drop.
The bad news started out with a confirming question. "How long has it been since you first transformed?"
"Three weeks as of yesterday," reported April.
"Yes, well, in another few days, you'll have your first menses," the doctor reported in turn.
"Oh, god," April moaned.
"As this will be your first time," Caduceus continued, "I won't pull any punches. I'm afraid you will almost certainly find it frightening and very unpleasant. We won't know until it happens whether you'll tend toward heavy flows and cramps, or get off lightly. Nurse Wilson will instruct you in the fundamentals. Please pay attention. This truly is for your own good, and you will need to know what she explains."
One of the doctor's hands reached out to cup April's cheek in a kindly caress, while thick ropes of soft hair did an even better job of giving the young woman a gentle hug. "Let me know if the cramps get too bad. I'll give you something for them, but you should try ibuprofen first."
"I'll finish with a bit of good news," Caduceus said. "It may not seem like it, but based on your Exemplar/Regen status, I expect you'll have a light and endurable menses."
April looked at the doctor to see if she were sincere, then shrugged. It wasn't like she could do anything about it - anything except run, don't walk to the campus store and get a very large bottle of ibuprofen.
Later, complete with instructions from the nurse, feminine hygiene 'samples,' and a stock of similar items obtained with much blushing at the campus store, April changed into her new martial arts gi and reported to yet another eagerly anticipated - NOT! - opportunity.
There she met Ito-sensei, a tiny man with a very large presence.
"It is my understanding," he began, "that you have had no martial arts training at all."
April nodded, realizing as she did so that non-verbal responses were becoming even more of a habit for her than they had been for Corwin.
"Good," Ito-sensei said surprisingly. "It means you have no bad habits to unlearn." Then he pointed at the wall of the exercise room, called a dojo, according to Corwin's eclectic memory. "If you would be so kind, please walk over there and return."
When she had done so, he said, "Now, please do so again, only this time, I want you to calculate the number of seconds in a year, to the best of your mental ability."
April's arched brows lifted even higher, but again she said nothing and did as requested. She remembered that there were 86,400 seconds in a day, so she only needed to multiply that out by 365, and . . ."
"Very good," Ito-sensei said, interrupting her. "Now, of you would please, sit down in that chair." He pointed to a folding chair set up near the edge of the dojo.
"Do you want me to keep up with the calculation?" she asked.
"Not right now," he replied. So she did as she was told, and looked at him after she was seated. "Very well, if you would return?"
"This is totally pointless," she thought. "If learning martial arts is all like this, I'm outta here."
"Once again," he was telling her, pointing at the chair, "picking up your calculations where you left off."
Once again indeed, and then only to be called back to the sensei after she had sat the second time.
"Miss, ah, 'Dream,'" Ito-sensei said, "Before you can learn to defend yourself against others, you have to stop fighting yourself."
"Is that supposed to be one of those zen koan things?" April asked. The tiny man frowned and she realized she had been a bit flippant. "I'm sorry, sir, um, Ito-sensei, that was . . . impolite."
"Yes, it was," he replied sternly, then paused expectantly.
April thought furiously, trying to figure out what was obviously a test. Corwin had seen enough martial arts movies to realize that all the students were almost cartoonishly humble before the senseis. She put her hands in the sleeves of her gi, bowed - keeping her eyes on her sensei - and said, "I beg your pardon, Ito-sama. I should have realized that, regardless of the source of the truth you shared, it was intended for my benefit. And, since it was offered after observing my motion, it was relevant to my situation. I must admit, I do not know how or why, though."
Ito-sensei returned her bow with dignity, and then his eyes twinkled in the faintest hint of a smile. "A very good first lesson indeed. It offers hope."
"Thank you, Ito-sama."
"Why did I ask you to move about, and perform the mental exercise?"
"Oh, god, I'll bet I never get a straight answer from this guy. Only questions that are always deeper tests than they seem."
She thought some more as her sensei patiently waited. "But there's something about this guy. I'll sure he could kick anyone on campus around the dojo without working up a sweat, but it's more than that. He has a . . . presence. He has so much dignity that it makes you want to . . . live up to his standard somehow, as a pearl of great price."
"'Before you can learn to defend yourself against others, you have to stop fighting yourself,' he said," she thought. "That's obviously relevant. If I just say he wanted to see how I moved, I'm missing the deeper question."
"Ito-sama," she began tentatively. "The mental exercise would seem to be intended to distract my conscious thoughts from my movements. Are you saying that my conscious thoughts and my, um, motions are in conflict?"
He nodded his head in a motion more like a very small bow than a simple affirmation. April felt ridiculously gratified to have earned this reward. She almost smiled, but instead dropped her own gaze in a return bow.
"Miss Dream," he said. "You are not the first student whose changes have required a new set of motions. Some are not blessed as you are with beauty and grace, and wanted to deny their changes with a hatred that you do not need to overcome. Nonetheless, you must accept your new form, or we will not be able to help you."
April couldn't quite stop a shrug, which earned another frown despite her immediate follow up with another bow. "I'm sorry, Ito-sama. It is . . . difficult for me."
"Most worthwhile things are," he said without immediate forgiveness. Again, he waited expectantly.
It was just . . . wrong to disappoint the honorable man. He wanted to help her, had the skills to help her, and if she didn't accept them, it was not only an insult, it was almost profane. Like defacing art or something.
"Very much like that," she realized. "For him, this truly is martial 'art,' not just fighting."
"I'll try, Ito-sama." As she said it, April realized she meant it . . . but still did not know how to go about it.
Her confusion must have showed on her face, along with her decision, for once again she was rewarded with a small nod and a hint of twinkle in the sensei's eyes. "I will arrange suitable instructors for you, from among the students."
"Thank you, Ito-sama," she said, and realized she meant that, too.
Chapter 8 - "Corwin Who?"
April's instructors also turned out to be students living in Poe Cottage. She was sitting in her room idly surfing on her laptop, trying not to make enough noise to distract Harmony who was crooning into one of her crystals but not - at the moment anyway - adding additional tones through tied-off strands of glass-clear hair. The pale girl didn't seem upset when they heard a knock at the door, and stood up quickly to open it.
Standing there were the little eleven year old Asian girl, and a slender redhead who had the same sort of ethereal elvish quality as Harmony, in this case confirmed by pointed ears. She was also so flat-out gorgeous that for the first time April felt actual envy at the way another girl looked. It was hard to say why. She had a nice figure, and wore clothes even April could tell were expensive. But there were other fashion queens on campus and April knew her own measurements were better, as such things are usually assessed. But she also knew that if anyone came into a room with just the redhead and herself, no one would even realize she was there.
Which, come to think of it, was pretty much the way April had reacted to the two of them in her doorway. The little Asian girl was quite pretty herself, and would certainly become even more so as she grew up.
"May we come in?" the Asian girl asked.
"Of course," Harmony replied. "What can we do for Team Kimba?"
"Actually," the redhead replied, "we've been asked by Ito-sensei to speak to Dream."
"Wow," Harmony said with mock excitement, "here only one day and you're already running in the upper social crust. Team Kimba no less, and at Ito's request. I'm impressed!"
"Team Kimba?" April asked.
"That's not really why we're here," the Asian girl said. "But we're part of a little like, study group we call Team Kimba. It's no big deal."
"No big deal," Harmony repeated with a snicker. "Just knock off the Alphas, foil a ninja attack, and . . . let's see . . .a demonic invasion, and what all else?"
"None of which is relevant to this," the elegant redhead said. "Ito-sensei asked us to talk to Dream."
April stood up and sighed. "I know. He told me he'd have someone come."
She walked over to the two visitors and said, "As you have figured out, I'm April Tarrant, also, I guess, Dream."
"Jade," said the small Asian girl, holding out her hand.
As April was shaking the younger girl's hand, the redhead said, "I'm known as Fey, with an 'E.'"
April nodded at Fey, then said, "What do I need to do?"
Jade said, "All Ito-sensei said was that we should help you. It's one of his tests that we should figure out how ourselves."
April nodded again, groaning a little. "I so hate that. I met him once for like, an hour, and he did it to me like, four or 5 times."
The glamorous Fey bestowed a sympathetic smile on her, then said, "Maybe it would help if you told us what he had you do."
"He just had me walk around a little, and then sit down. He made me do it twice, once just like, normal and the second time doing some complex arithmetic in my head, obviously as a distraction."
"Oh," April continued, "he told me that until I quit fighting myself, I wouldn't be able to learn to defend myself against others. Or something like that. From him, it sounded profound."
Jade giggled, and Fey gave an elegant little laugh that somehow wasn't really a giggle. They both also nodded their heads, understanding completely.
"So, maybe you should do that again," Fey prompted.
April shrugged and tried to repeat what she had done before, complete with the math in her head.
"Oh, my," Jade said. "Yes, I can see what he meant."
"Indeed," Fey agreed. "So, April, how long has it been since you defected?"
"What?" April asked.
"I can see why Ito-sensei picked us," Jade said, smiling broadly at April.
"Indeed," Fey repeated. This time, she reached out her hand to April and said, "Welcome to the club."
April turned to Harmony and said, "You knew about them?"
Harmony nodded, then said, "Yes, but it's not something I tell anyone else. If someone wants to talk about themselves, that's their choice."
April sighed, and nodded. "So, what is this obvious-to-everyone-but-me terrible thing I do?"
"You're fighting yourself, as Ito-sensei said," Fey replied. "When you don't think about your walking, you walk like a graceful, poised, and very feminine young woman. But when you think about it - which is stronger when you know someone is watching you - your motions are very conflicted."
Jade picked up the explanation, "Both Fey and I are aikido students. One of the obvious conclusions from Ito-sensei asking us to work with you is that he thinks you should learn aikido. That's a good choice, because it doesn't take much strength. Fey and I are pretty small - or slender in Fey's case, except for the obvious places - so we need that. In your case, you're big enough to put up a fight even without techniques as efficient as aikido."
"So why does he want me to learn that?"
"Because it will force you to come to terms with your new body," Fey said. "I had to go through that. Jade was actually pretty good at aikido even before she came to Whateley, but . . ."
"But for some reason," Jade interjected, "I'm not growing like I should. I'm really 15, not 11 or 12 or whatever you think I look like."
April's eyes showed her surprise, and disbelief politely held in check. But a moment later she decided that might have been unfair, so with another glance she sent a silent apology.
"You don't talk much, do you," Jade continued. "Harmony, have you been telling her to stay quiet so you can sing to your crystals?"
"No," Harmony promised, then she grinned. "I think she's just a quiet type. Some people find that desirable."
April decided she needed to upset their neat little characterization of her by saying something. "You guys sound like Ito-sensei. Telling me my motions are 'conflicted' doesn't tell me what to do about it."
"How long have you been changed?" Fey asked again.
"About three weeks."
"In that time, how often have you worn a skirt? Or heels? I don't know why you do such a fabulous job on your hair and makeup, then wear those denial-of-self clothes."
"Here we go again," April thought. She launched off into her tale, including the various transformations she had experienced.
"So," Fey said, "the only time you've worn a dress is when you were, um, basically a six-year-old? And the only skirt and heels you've worn were with that bimbo outfit, and for less than an hour?"
April retreated to her habitual silence and nodded.
"Oh, babe, you got it bad," Fey said, while Jade frowned.
The little Asian looking girl said, "You shouldn't deny your femininity like that. It's . . . precious to look so beautiful, and to be a woman . . ." Her voice trailed off wistfully.
This time April shrugged, looking a bit guilty. Then she got angry. "I am so not gonna turn myself into some bimbo slut! Been there, nearly took on my own father and woulda took on the Marine Corps Marching Band if they'd'a been handy. I'm so not signing up to that sort of . . . compulsion."
Fey reached out and gently touched her arm. "And we're not asking you to. But you can be a woman without being a bimbo. Don't you agree?"
With that, something came over Fey and she looked . . . regal. She looked like a very, very beautiful, very, very feminine, but supremely dignified queen. A queen whose imperious nature would not accept insult lightly.
April had to fight a compulsion to kneel before that majestic presence. She dropped her eyes to reduce the power Fey was showing and managed to limit her response to a bowed head and a whispered, "Sorry."
As though a crackly energy had left the air of the room, the tension eased and April looked up again. Fey was frowning, but introspectively. Then she surprised April by apologizing herself. "Sorry, that's my, um, alter ego, Aunghadhail. She's a queen of the Fae, and kinda touchy."
"Wow," April said, hearing an almost echo from Harmony. "Remind me never to get you mad at me."
"That would be a good idea," Jade said, laughing. "The first time she had like, PMS, we had an honest-to-god thunderstorm in our hallway. Complete with lightning and rain."
"Don't remind me," Fey said.
April groaned, then blushed when she realized it had made everyone look at her. "Sorry, I was . . . thinking about something else."
"Oh, dear," Fey said, picking up on the unstated concern. "Well, it can be . . . endured. I won't play little Mary Sunshine and tell you it's no big deal, but after the first time, at least you'll know what's going on."
"Not that it makes it any better, at least for the first couple of days each time," Harmony said in sympathy.
Jade looked sadly at the three taller girls, and sighed. Something in her manner clued April that she shouldn't push, but she made a note to ask Jade about her sadness sometime.
Fey made an obvious attempt to lighten up the conversation. "Okay, I think we've figured out what Ito-sensei wanted. Jade and I will set up training sessions for aikido. After a couple of sessions at the dojo, we'll show you some katas you can practice anywhere. For the rest, I think you're just going to need girl lessons, particularly fashion lessons."
"Believe me, tall, dark, and lanky, you need 'em," Jade said cheerfully.
"Hah," Fey returned, poking her smaller colleague. "Like you're the one to talk. She's not going to wear Hello Kitty t-shirts."
Jade tried to protest. "I don't . . ."
But Fey overrode her. "In bubblegum pink."
"I . . ," Jade tried to argue again, then blushed. "Okay, I do have one. But I mostly wear it to sleep in."
"Which is another problem," Fey said, then she looked stricken. "Oh, Jade, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to . . ."
"It's okay," Jade said, smiling gamely. She looked at April and explained, "I'm a ward of the state. So I don't have much spending money and most of my nightclothes are just worn out day clothes."
Her good humor returned quickly, and she pointed at Fey, "While Fey has a clothing allowance about the size of Al Gore's electric bill. You should see the stuff she buys."
Now is was Fey's turn to blush, and use her hands in a fruitless attempt to hide her silk and fine wool outfit.
"So," Jade said, turning back to April. "What sort of budget are we working with here?"
"I, um, don't know," April admitted. "I think I'll be able to like, get what I need, but I'm not sure I can like, throw money around."
"Sounds about right," Fey said. "I have a bad allergy to synthetics, so I have to wear natural fibers. If you don't have a problem like that . . . ?" She waited for April to identify any issues, and when she didn't, Fey continued, "Then I think we can meet a reasonable budget."
Before April's new mentors could get down to serious shopping plans, there was another knock at the door.
Belle was standing there. "Dr. Bellows said I should go to dinner with you, April, and then we were to go to the lab?"
"Oh, yeah," April said, then looked around for a clock. "Is it dinner time already?"
"Oh, yeah," Jade echoed in a deliberate parody. Then she grinned and asked, "Aren't you hungry?"
"Not really," April answered. "I can eat, and food still like, tastes good and all, but I don't seem to get very hungry. On the other hand, if I do eat, it doesn't seem to matter. I mean, I get full for a while, but in a little while I'm back like I was."
"Meaning you don't get fat if you eat a lot?" Harmony asked.
"I don't, um, think so," April answered. "At least I haven't yet."
"Ohmigod," Harmony sighed. "Beautiful, no-bother hair and makeup, and you don't have to worry about your weight. I so totally hate you."
"Me, too," Belle said with a matching sigh. Then she grinned. "However, we may still let you sit with us while we eat."
She turned to Fey and Jade. "Are you coming?"
Fey declined politely, "If you don't mind, we told Kimba we'd eat with them."
Belle and the two from Team Kimba had never even sat down in April's room so they were as ready to move on as when they had arrived. April still wasn't carrying a purse and her makeup and hair were automatic, so she was ready as well. Harmony, on the other hand, had a flurry of preparations to make. It didn't take her long - particularly since her own crystalline hair formed itself into a neat, rippling cascade even as she was touching up her face. In a couple of minutes, the young women were walking toward the Crystal Hall and dinner. Jade and Fey waved at their friends and peeled off to join them, leaving Harmony and Belle to accompany April.
They were watched - or at least observed - by most of the students already in the hall. Fey turned heads wherever she went, and April was becoming aware that she did, too. Crystal Hall was large enough that no one had to feel crowded, so the groupings around the cafeteria demonstrated preference rather than necessity. With typical high school social dynamics, there were the 'in' groups, often with wannabes at near-by tables. The Alphas held court in one area, while the Cape Squad flexed and strutted in another. And, as in most teen social situations, there were social misfits sitting by themselves. Scattered around were the in-betweens, oftentimes proud in their independence from the 'in' group gaggles, other times clearly wanting acceptance that they were unlikely to achieve.
One of the isolated diners was a pixie of a girl, though she did not appear unexpectedly young, as Jade did. Hilari (not at all related to hilarious, despite the coincidence in letters) Springs silently sneered at the elegant Fey as she joined her clique from Poe. She glowered at the tiny Jade, the only other diner with a similar stature to Hilari. She knew them both, and both were stuck up bitches too proud to associate with Stiletto, as the isolated girl termed herself. She tried to deny how short she was with very tall, spiky heels, but she liked the name because of the association with danger more than because of her shoes.
Stiletto studied the new girl, the tall one, who was escorted by Beltane and the girl with the long, transparent hair. The new girl was well up into the Exemplar levels. Stiletto styled herself an Exemplar 1, despite her lack of stature and the fact Whateley had not given her any credit there. If they had seen the way she looked before her mutation, they would have. She had changed from a chubby little ball with mousy brown hair into a curvy young woman when her mutation had manifested. It had taken a while, and the techs at Whateley had tried to tell her it was more puberty than an aspect of her mutation, but it didn't really matter. Her hair had remained the uninteresting brown, but it was now dyed jet black, with electric blue accents that matched her eyes. She was pretty now, and she knew it, and she was proud of it, and it didn't matter that others were taller. Not much, anyway, and she could look them in the eye when she wore her heels. Unless they were really tall, like that new girl.
Whateley did assess her at Psi 1, a projective empath. She could make people feel what she wanted them to feel. At least, sometimes. And if they weren't too resistant to her projection. It was enough of a mutation to justify her place at Whateley. It was also enough to attract a stream of friends. Not that she actually needed any. Particularly not the kind that didn't really respect her. She wasn't one to put up with stupidity in those around her, and if they wouldn't accept her short temper along with her short stature, then to hell with them.
She happened to be between friends at the moment, which is why she was sitting alone. Stiletto tried to decide if she wanted the tall girl as a friend or not. On the one hand, it would make her look even shorter. On the other, it would make the point that just because someone was taller than Stiletto didn't mean they were too good to associate with her. It might be nice, at least for a while. Until she lost her temper again and yelled at the new girl, or slapped her. Both of which Stiletto had a history of doing. She didn't take shit from anyone, tall or strong or boosted in other ways, like the Team Kimba clique.
The pixie with the stilt heels gathered up her things and left the cafeteria, seething at all the shallow friendships around her.
"Can I help you with your tray?" the rich, resonant voice asked April.
She turned to the source of the question, and then looked up at the incredible eyes of a tall Cape Squad member, complete with dark red spandex and thickly draped black cape. Despite the costume colors, her first impression was of a young Superman on a very, very good day. His eyes were a royal blue so pure it demonstrated why that color was considered regal. His blue-black hair gleamed in the light, including the near-obligatory curl in his forehead. And his smile . . . there weren't enough watts in a powerplant to match that smile.
"Um . . . excuse me?" she stammered.
"I just wondered if I could help you with your tray?" he repeated, repeating the smile as well.
"I, uh, can, um, I can handle it."
His smile transformed into an intimate little grin and he leaned over to whisper, "Of course you can. But that doesn't mean I don't want to help."
Belle's laughter broke the intimacy. "Watch this one, April. He's a smoothie."
"Why, Belle, I don't know what you mean," that rich baritone voice said.
"April, Harmony, let me introduce you to Sean Watkins, also known as Meteor. He is, as you can plainly see, a card-carrying member of the Cape Squad."
"Guilty as charged," he replied, without any indication of remorse. He turned that smile back on April and said, "So, is your power the ability to make smiles bloom wherever you go, like Spring sunshine?"
"Uh, no," April replied. "That's, like, my real name. My, um, code name is Dream."
"Ah, an even more apt appellation," Meteor said easily. "And you still haven't answered my question."
"Question?" April repeated numbly.
"Can I help you with your tray?"
"Oh, um, thanks, but, um, I'll, like . . . um, no thanks."
"Oh, well, perhaps another time," Meteor replied. "I'll be around."
As he walked off, Harmony reached out and slapped April on the shoulder. "I hate you. I hate you. I hate you."
"Ohmigod, here hardly a day and you have the tallest, coolest, most dreamy member of the Cape Squad groveling at your feet. I totally hate you."
April blushed, then a frown appeared. She leaned close to Harmony and whispered, "I, um, thought you didn't, y'know, like boys."
"I didn't say I wanted to bear his children," Harmony replied. "Though a girl could do a whole lot worse. But despite the little tattletales that are showing so proudly through your top, there is more to relationships than sex. He's a cool, powerful, good looking dude and I'd have been thrilled to have him as a friend back before my change. Nothing wrong with wanting it still."
"Oh," April said quietly. "So like, he just wanted to be friends?"
Belle laughed again, loud enough to turn heads at several tables. "Oh, God, girl you are soooo totally clueless! Didn't you see that package? It's a miracle he didn't pass out from lack of blood in his brain. You give him the 'just friends' line and he'll probably melt the Arctic ice cap looking for enough ice for cold showers."
"I didn't, um, notice," April said, blushing again, but with a speculative look in her eyes that set both Belle and Harmony into uncontainable laughter again. Then, just as the decibels were ramping down enough for conversation, she set them off with another question, "So, why did he pick me?"
"Oh, God, you are too much," Belle gasped.
Harmony swallowed and took several deep breaths, desperately trying to keep her own giggles under control. "First, you're drop-dead, howl-at-the-moon gorgeous. Second, you're the only girl in here within six inches of his height, aside from the bricks who are more likely to compete with him than let him be a gentleman and carry her tray."
"And third," Belle picked up, "you're the new girl in town. He wanted to get his claim in before anyone else snatched you up."
"But I'm not like, looking for a boyfriend right now."
"You can say that all you want, but until you get your nips under control, no one is going to believe you," Harmony said.
Belle picked up on another part of what April had said, "'Right now?' So that means you're considering it for later?"
"No!" April said, but she blushed again and her only response was another giggle explosion from her friends.
Mercifully, they had arrived at an empty table and the logistics of getting their trays unloaded gave April a chance to recover. It wasn't enough of a chance - at least, not based on her blush . . . and a few other signals - but Harmony decided to take pity on her.
"So, what's the big experiment tonight?" Harmony asked, changing the subject.
"I'm not sure I know," Belle replied. "April?"
The Shifter brunette shrugged and said, "One of the times I transformed, I had just eaten and was like, relaxing. Dr. Bellows wanted to try that again."
"And I'm invited because . . . ?" Belle asked.
"Someone needs to, um, dream up my new shape," April said. "At the time, you were the only person on campus I knew - beside Mrs. Carson. When Dr. Bellows asked if I minded if you tried to like, send me a dream, I said okay."
She turned to Harmony and said, "I'm sorry. I didn't really know you then, but I'd have been happy to have you do it instead. Maybe you still can, if Belle doesn't mind."
"I don't mind," Belle said, "but perhaps we should let Dr. Bellows decide. What sort of body change could you want? You're sizzlin' hot right now!"
As they worked their way through their food, April tried to tell them about Corwin XL.
"So you want to be this fantasy character from this old story?" Belle asked.
April shrugged, but nodded. "It was what my dad wanted me to be. And he's a pretty good dude. Tall, very strong, and wicked with a sword. Pretty cool."
"But a guy," Harmony confirmed.
"Yes, of course," April said.
"Then I think Belle will need to be your guinea pig," Harmony said. "I think it would be like, desecration to turn you into a guy. You're totally too beautiful for words, and too perfect for any other image of you - except maybe in an elegantly feminine gown and soft moonlight. I just couldn't wish for something like you want. Sorry."
"Thank you, I think," April said. "I'm flattered, especially since you're so pretty yourself."
Harmony snorted, but she blushed as well, a very obvious response through her pale skin.
"No, really," insisted April. "I feel like a muddy rag next to you. You have a purity that I can't begin to match."
"Purity?" Harmony asked, laughing. "Yeah, right. Don't let the lack of pigment fool you. I'm so not pure."
April said with a grin, "Maybe, but you look like an angel."
Before Harmony could reply, April turned to Belle. "So, can you help me?"
"Oh, I can try," she said. "I'm an equal opportunity luster. Your Corwin sounds pretty dreamy - but I may have a hard time getting Harmony's image of you out of my mind."
Harmony blushed again, but she shrugged as well. "Well, I do think you're beautiful, and even though my body changed . . ."
"It's okay, Harmony," April said. "I understand. Um, is this going to be a problem for us as roommates? I'm not like, ready for . . . y'know."
"No problem," Harmony said with a rueful grin. "Wandering around campus with all the Exemplars . . . well, I've learned self-control."
Harmony followed up with a laugh and added, "Mind you, it wasn't easy."
"Tell me about it," Belle confirmed with a grimace. "And I get, ah, distracted by the guy Exemplars, too."
"Poor girl," Harmony said with laughing sympathy. "Twice as much eye candy. What a burden!"
April blushed, trying very hard not to remember the way her body had reacted to Taylor Christian. Or Fey. Or Harmony. Or Meteor.
Harmony laughed. "Uh, oh, I see conflict. Gee, April, after Fey and Jade get you into frilly clothes, we may have to get you some horizontal therapy to help you decide."
Belle and Harmony both broke out in a giggle fit at April's renewed blush, but they also gave her a warm embrace to show that they were teasing her out of friendship. Though Harmony's hug might have had an extra squeeze of something or another that April didn't want to figure out just yet.
Chapter 9 - "Vulnerabilities"
Dr. Bellows was waiting in the lab when April and Belle reached it, along with the usual assortment of lab techs. They were surprised to see a comfortable living room arrangement set up in the lab. The couch and chairs, entertainment center, and tasteful lamps might have been in an average American home - if it weren't for the short partitions pretending to be walls but barely tall enough to hide all the softly humming machines.
"Hello, ah, Dream," the psychiatrist greeted her. "And Beltane, thank you for coming."
They nodded. Dr. Bellows continued. "We have some data we want to capture, so if you would both be so kind . . . ?"
He pointed at metallic caps sitting on a nearby table. They approached them with some trepidation when they saw antennae sticking out.
"So, Doc, does this thing get HBO?" Belle asked. "If you're planning to fry my brain, you should know it's already been done. I had a physics test today."
He smiled, then shook his head. "No HBO, I'm afraid. In fact, no reception at all. They're just wireless EEG machines."
Belle smiled as she picked up one of the bowl-shaped helmets. "Well, don't blame me if there's nothing to record."
"Dream?" the doctor said, pointing at the other sensor.
April shrugged and picked it up. In a moment, she had it in place. Dr. Bellows looked out of the living room set at a technician seated behind a console. He got a thumbs-up, and another nod when he indicated Belle as well.
"Okay, Dream, tell me again about the circumstances of your transformations."
April recounted her transformations once again, this time focusing more on the situation of the change. After she finished, Dr. Bellows summed up.
"Okay, except for the one anomaly of the drive-by fantasy, all of your transformations have been when you were essentially isolated, with one person around to provide an uncluttered dream image. Do you have any idea why that one drive-by image triggered a change?"
April blushed and looked down. Without meeting the doctor's eyes, she murmured, "Well, I was pretty, um, relaxed. After my bath."
"Indeed," he said, and April did not notice the twinkle in his eye. "Well, we're not really set up to replicate the bathroom scene, and I am the only doctor here so we'll decline to provide that particular fantasy to the lab techs. Perhaps we can make do with this more mundane setting."
He leaned over to whisper to April, "Don't be ashamed, girl. I consider it a very good sign of your future happiness if you've accepted some of what your new body can do for you."
She blushed again, more fiercely than before, but after a moment she looked up at him with gratitude in her eyes.
Dr. Bellows looked at the technicians, who were themselves noticeably flushed, and asked. "Does that give you enough of a baseline on Dream, including her memories of the transformations?"
At their nod, he continued. "Very well. Dream, why don't you just watch TV for a while? And Belle, if you would walk over here?"
In moments, they were set up for the experiment. The only show on TV was a documentary on plankton that was entirely too educational for April's continuing interest. It was, however, enough of a distraction that she soon quit thinking about the lab equipment behind her couch. Belle was given a few simple manual tasks to do to keep her hands busy yet let her mind roam.
The experiment was almost ruined by one of the lab techs. He called excitedly to Dr. Bellows, "We have an indication of communication!"
Pointing at a pair of traces he said, "Look, these leads are showing the same data for both Belle and Dream. Well, they were anyway."
Dr. Bellows frowned at the tech for his distraction from the focus the experimental subjects required. However, in a moment he relaxed. While Belle's trace had made a significant change at the technician's call, April's continued to show the once-matched profile. In fact, it strengthened, and other leads began to show the same pattern.
"Oh, god," April moaned from the couch. "Here it comes."
She slumped into an almost-boneless mound on the comforting seat, her eyes closing but not in a sign of relaxation. Instead, though her body seemed relaxed, her eyes showed a tight frown.
Then she began to glow.
"Doctor," one of the techs called, "she's entering burnout. We need to start cooling her down, stat!"
"Wait," Dr. Bellows commanded.
"But her temperature . . ." persisted the tech.
"According to her reports, she's been through this before. Have the ice water tub standing by, but let's see if she stabilizes."
By this time, April's glow was well beyond a normal burnout anyway. Everyone observing it unconsciously stepped back, as though from a too-hot fire.
Almost as soon as the temperature became intolerable - even for the observers - it seemed to dissipate. In place of the lovely young brunette, a slender man reclined. He stood, brushed at some lint on a gaudily frocked surcoat, and smiled. He wore a classic pirate's outfit, with a loosely ballooning shirt, over-the-knee boots with a gilded cuff at the top, and a long silver sword hanging from a baldric.
"Good day, gentle sir, and lady," he said grandly. Turning directly to Belle, he moved over and took her hand in his own. Leaning over to kiss the back of Belle's hand with a roguish smile, he said, "I believe I have you to thank for my new form, milady. I am most grateful. Though I fear your fantasy is not from the same motif as I had expected."
"Oh, um, sorry," Belle replied, blushing at the gallant's continued pressure on her hand. "I guess I was, like . . . y'know, with the sword and all, this is what . . . y'know."
"And a fine image it is indeed," the man said lightly. "I have no complaints."
"It would seem she has focused more on Errol Flynn - or perhaps Captain Blood - than Corwin XL," Dr. Bellows observed.
"Indeed?" the pirate said. "I suspect you are correct."
He looked back at Belle as though he had resented the interruption. He still hadn't released her hand, and he used that to pull her arm gently within his own. "Perhaps, Milady Beltane, we could discuss your fantasies as we return to our humble Poe Cottage. Together."
He turned to go, escorting her to leave with him, when he stumbled and moaned. "Sink me, but here it comes again!"
Belle watched in horror as the slim man slumped to the ground. He began to radiate heat immediately and despite her desire to help, she had to stand back.
In moments it was over. April lay there, the gaudy pirate's outfit the only evidence of her recent transformations.
"Oh, April, I'm so sorry," Belle wailed.
April groaned and looked at her friend. "S'okay. I sorta expected it."
"Indeed," Dr. Bellows said, joining the discussion. "And why was that?"
"The fantasy pirate character was too . . . fantasy," April explained. "I expect Belle felt something was wrong . . . ?"
She glanced at the other young woman, who nodded. "As soon as the image seemed wrong to her, the fantasy collapsed and I was back to . . . . well, I guess I should say back to myself, since I seem to be stuck this way."
April still sat on the floor, huddling her arms around her legs in dejection.
"I'm so sorry," repeated Belle, kneeling beside April. "Maybe we can try again, after I read those Amber books so I have the right image in my mind."
April tried to say something, but before she could she sagged into shaking sobs. Belle held her and patted her arm helplessly.
"Actually, April, this is good news," Dr. Bellows said, crouching beside the two girls.
April couldn't respond through her tears, so Belle asked, "How can that be?"
"April is still wearing her sensor helmet," Dr. Bellows said, reaching out to unbuckle the strap and remove it. "We have a record of both transformations. I think that will be very helpful."
"If you say so," Belle replied. Hugging April again, she urged the still-crying girl to her feet. "We'll be back at Poe if you need us."
The young woman who entered Dr. Bellows office two days later looked to be the very epitome of preppie style. She wore the Whateley Academy uniform: a dark blazer with the school crest prominently displayed, a crisp white shirt with tie and Poe Cottage brooch . . . and a skirt. The skirt was a black and white, per regulation . . . though her long legs made it seem very short.
Dr. Bellows thought that April looked distracted. He waved her to the comfortable chairs without any comment, allowing her to compose her thoughts before intruding. April smiled and moved to sit. With natural ease, she swept the brief skirt under her to prevent wrinkles as she sat, crossed her legs discreetly, then looked at the psychiatrist. Her eyes cleared as she did so, now brightly focused on him.
"I must say, Dream, you look very nice. And very comfortable in that outfit. I'm impressed."
"Thank you, Doctor," she replied. "I've never been one to like, do things half way. Since everyone seems to think I need to like, totally embrace this girl thing, I guess I better do it."
"That's a nicely positive attitude," the doctor replied. "But I noticed your distraction when you entered. Is this troubling you?"
"Some," she replied. Then she smiled with a very demure blush. "Actually, I was doing math problems in my head. If I think about other things, my movements are not, um, in conflict."
"Ah, yes, I see the hand of Ito-sensei in this."
She nodded, then pulled at the brief hem of her skirt. "I guess I'm finding that the more I like, do this, the easier it becomes. I'm not to the point that I'm, um, happy to be a girl, but I'm like, trying not to fight it any more."
"I'm pleased," Dr. Bellows said with a kindly smile. "If it's any comfort, I think you are probably in whatever passes for a normal range for your sort of transformation. Some have considered it a blessing and a wish come true. Others have . . . never overcome the struggle. Most, like you, are resilient and open-minded enough to cope, in time."
He leaned forward and lightly touched her shoulder in reassurance. "In fact, most have come to accept it happily, looking forward to their new opportunities rather than dwelling on what might have been."
"What might have been," April repeated wistfully. Then she shrugged and smiled wryly. "I think this is where I'm supposed to remember that the old Corwin was going to be a short fat geek, with thick glasses."
"Well, if it helps . . ," Dr. Bellows said, smiling himself.
He leaned back into his chair, opening a folder. "I have the results of your transformation experiment. Are you familiar at all with brain waves?"
"Doesn't it like, take a brain for that?" April asked blandly.
Dr. Bellows laughed, and handed her a data trace. "Brain waves are grouped based primarily on the dominant frequency, which tends to resonate across the brain so that it is shown on several traces at once. As you might expect, the waves that oscillate slowly, known as delta waves, are usually associated with sleep. You said you don't transform while you are asleep, so those do not seem to be significant in your transformations. Theta waves are the next higher frequency, and they are often associated with daydreaming or fantasizing."
"Those sound important," April observed.
"Yes, they are," he replied, then continued. "The next frequency band describes the alpha waves, and those are what makes someone receptive, alert yet relaxed. Another important band for you."
April nodded, then asked a question with an eyebrow.
"Higher yet is the beta band, which is dominant in a busy mind, and gamma, which is a sign of anxiety. Are you with me so far?"
At April's confirming nod, he continued, "Now here's what we found. As you can see in this trace, your theta waves started to echo Belle's. That's a sign of your Psi talent."
April reached out a slender finger to indicate another portion of the trace. "These also started to change, but Belle's did not."
"Exactly," Dr. Bellows said. "Can you describe the change?"
"It looks like harmonics of the theta wave," April observed.
"Very good. Your brain shifted to a more active dominant mode, but this mode kept a resonance with the triggering fantasy you picked up from Belle."
"Awesome!" April said, becoming excited. "If I can totally like, keep my mind out of that resonance thing, I won't keep changing."
"Yes, and no," Dr. Bellows said, reining in her enthusiasm. "It would not be healthy for you to suppress your own theta waves. What we need is a way for you to control your receptivity to the fantasies of others."
April thought for a second, then laughed. "Are you really telling me that I need to go around wearing a tinfoil hat to keep out mind attacks?"
"That's a bit extreme," Dr. Bellows said, smiling. "And in fact, I'm really going to recommend just the opposite."
"You want me to be more receptive?" she asked in surprise.
"Yes, and no," Dr. Bellows repeated his early comment. "There is another characteristic of your transformation that may offer a solution."
"The heat?" she asked.
"No, though that's a good guess," he said. "What I had in mind was that the transformations collapse as soon as the dreamer loses their focus. This is where it gets difficult . . ."
"Now it gets difficult? I don't like the sound of that."
He sighed and leaned back in his chair. "One of the biggest problems we face is that your transformations are subconscious and involuntary. The subconscious is notoriously tricky. Even if - say, through hypnosis or something - we were able to suppress your subconscious receptivity, we'd be putting a plug in a stream that might start building up dangerous pressure. And we might not be able to see the pressure until it was too late."
April nodded silently again, waiting for the doctor to proceed.
"So we think the best answer is for you to, ah, train your subconscious."
This time April did not immediately nod. She thought for a moment, then said, "By setting me up to transform for like, anyone who has a strong fantasy? I might be bouncing back and forth all the time? That is soo uncool, and God knows what I might become."
"There is that risk," the doctor agreed. "However, it appears your BIT is actually stabilizing. Most of the recent transformations have been very short term."
April sighed, "And so you think that having me like, endure a lot of changes would - what did you say? - 'train my subconscious' that I need to be less receptive? Some sort of, y'know, aversion therapy?"
Dr. Bellows nodded. His eyes were sympathetic, but calm. "Yes, we think that is best. As I said, the subconscious can be tricky, and all we are recommending is that you not fight your own mind."
"Oh sh . . . pardon me, doctor. But this sucks."
"I can see how you would think that," he agreed. "But I honestly think it will lead to a point where you can control your transformations, at least to the extent of filtering unwanted changes, if not to the control of actual voluntary shapeshifting."
"In other words, I'm like, totally unlikely to become Corwin XL again. At least, not a stable change."
"I'm afraid so. Is that so bad?"
She smiled, with a little genuine humor. "I'm working on that. But my, um, time of the month is going to start in a couple of days. I may shoot myself when that happens."
April's smile continued, and continued to show humor, not bitterness. "Just kidding, of course. I'm actually past the point of like, 'grimly enduring' this transformation. I am totally better looking than my old geek body ever would have been, and I've made some good friends. And, as everyone keeps telling me, I got a pretty good deal with automatic makeup and hairstyling. It could be worse."
She pointed at her head, "I know that, up here." Then, pointing at her heart, "I'm just having a little trouble with it down here."
"Well, that's progress, isn't it?" he asked gently.
"Oh, for sure, a lot of progress from where I was," she agreed. Then she flipped the hem of her skirt a little. "Though wearing skirts . . ."
She shrugged and asked, "So, is there like, anything I need to do for this 'train my subconscious' thing?"
"Yes," Dr. Bellows said. "Whenever you get a chance, just walking between classes or eating dinner, try to let your mind relax. You don't really need to be drowsy. Just let your mind go into a free association mode, open to whatever ideas pop up. It might actually help with your other task, of reducing the conflict between your motions and your body."
April nodded. "And if I start glowing . . . people will be okay with that?"
"Well, you need to avoid it during the red flag days, but for the rest . . . this is Whateley, after all."
She sighed, and said, "Maybe it will distract me from my, um, monthly. Being on fire has got to hurt worse than the cramps, doesn't it?"
Dr. Bellows nodded, but they both knew he didn't really know. It was something that no man could really know - unless he were no longer a man.
She stood up and made a deliberate attempt to lighten the mood. She smiled ruefully and said, "I have to get to my next class. And it's totally a windy day out there so I have to be so extra careful."
"By all means, don't let me make you late for class . . . or worse," Dr. Bellows said with an encouraging smile of his own.
Chapter 10 - "Moonlighting"
Ito-sensei looked up as the young woman entered his dojo. Quite a distance up, as it happened. She was indeed a tall girl. He was both pleased and concerned with what he saw. The conflict in motion that this student - Dream - had demonstrated at their earlier meeting was significantly reduced. She now moved with grace and poise, though not with the sort of exaggerated femininity her model looks might warrant. Her lightweight gi molded itself to her form with a similar balance, unambiguously but not blatantly demonstrating the feminine curves she possessed. All that was improvement.
Her expression, in contrast, was a tight, harsh frown very discordant on her lovely features. He thought to inquire about it, but that impulse died to a self-control so ingrained that not the barest hint showed on the surface.
Instead, he started with gentle praise. He bowed in response to her bow, and said, "I see progress. Congratulations."
The praise did not ease her frown. If anything, it deepened into a scowl. Her response was more grunt than voice. "Damn little."
Ito-sensei met this unladylike comment with placid, though implacable, silence. After a moment she blushed and bowed again.
"I beg your pardon, Ito-sama. I am . . . experiencing one of the aspects of my newfound . . . biology for the first time, and it is unpleasant. That is no cause to be rude to you, though. I am sorry."
He did not reply with words, but he returned her bow, then motioned her to move onto the mat.
"Dr. Bellows has indicated that you need to enhance your receptiveness," he began, still standing at the edge of the mat near a small table. "I will show you an exercise for that."
Ito-sensei picked up a simple blindfold, and moved to join Dream in the sparring area. She expected him to hand her the mask, but he placed it over his own eyes instead.
"Attack me, please, in any manner you choose," he instructed.
Dream hesitated. "I'm sorry, Ito-sama, but I do not believe that would be a good idea at this time."
A small smile showed below the blindfold. "Because of your new experience?"
She shrugged, then realized that wasn't very useful. "In part. But even back when I was Corwin I was never very good at, um, violence. The only time I might have tried to hit someone was when I was so angry I couldn't see straight, and even then I would have been like, clumsy and weak. That person was smart, but not, like, physically competent. My new body is much more capable, but my current, um, emotional state will mean that any attack I make will be like, totally clumsy and not representative of what Fey and Jade have been showing me. It won't be fair. Yet I feel like I am on the edge of losing control of my emotions, and so I might, like, forget we are just sparring. It is not a, um, good combination."
"Ah," he said, the smile more distinct. "Rest assured that I will not find fault with your instructors, regardless of what level of skill you show. And allow me the dignity of my own decision on the risk to my person."
Dream frowned, feeling a sense of patronization from the sensei that irritated her even further. Well, she had tried. She set herself in a balanced stance, paused for a moment to center herself mentally, then quickly sent a long leg sweeping at Ito's ankles.
One of the characteristics of aikido is that it is primarily defensive. It focuses on using the momentum of attackers against them. This is its strength and its weakness, for if the opponent is not attacking, there is no momentum to use. Dream knew this, but - in that wheels-within-wheels game so favored by Ito-sensei - she knew that he knew that, and knew that she knew that he knew that, and . . .
Her attack was not intended to succeed. It was intended merely to make Ito-sensei move. And in moving, offer her the opening to use the aikido skills she had been studying. She knew (and knew that Ito-sensei knew) that she was merely a beginner, but a sense of pride made her want to impress him with her progress at least.
That was the positive side of her move. The negative side was that she was cramping with her first ever menses, she was bleeding in a place she didn't even have a few weeks before, and it was just, flat-out, disgusting. She was pissed off in general about all the changes, and in particular at the thought she'd have to let her body be manipulated by anyone with some kinky fantasy. So the idea that she could just take a swing at someone was not to be passed up. Even if she did it clumsily and weakly.
Ito-sensei was not there when her leg swept by, of course. Somehow, as her ankle passed where his leg had been, something - she thought it was the ankle that was supposed to be there, but perhaps it was the other one - something "assisted" her ankle to speed up, and the next thing she knew she was twirling too fast and spiraling to a graceless thump on her well-padded bottom.
She bounced up as fast as she could, to find Ito-sensei reset as though he had never moved.
It was too much. Dream launched into a furious, senseless, skill-less attack with fists and feet and whatever else she could send his way. She even tried a head butt that would probably have broken her own nose if it had landed.
Not that landing a blow - on the blindfolded sensei - was a real risk. No matter what she did, her flailing attacks either met empty air, or a blocking wrist that seemed as yielding as a bar of iron.
The effect this had on her emotional state was not surprising.
"Damn you, damn you, damn you . . ." The litany of curses was distorted by her sobs until the latter words were recognizable only by association with earlier repetitions. Her fists balled up and tried to hammer on his chest, only to find themselves locked into immobility.
She sagged against the slight form of her sensei, but even that was not to be. Instead, he guided her slump to the ground, leaving her kneeling, then slipping even lower to lie with her chest on her knees and her head on her wrists, shaking with gasping tears.
Ito-sensei had silently lowered himself to a kneeling position as well. His quiet voice murmured in her ears, penetrating despite her pain and hopelessness. "I'm sorry, my child," he said. "I should have respected your sense of yourself."
"No, Ito-sama, I'm the one who screwed up. I've embarrassed myself, and my instructors, and . . . . and you."
"Gentle child, how can you embarrass yourself after correctly recognizing your own emotional state? That is the most fundamental of all insights, and achieved despite great trial."
"But I was just . . . angry, and out of control, and then I couldn't seem to stop crying."
"Yes," he said quietly, lifting her chin to see his own smile, the blindfold no longer hiding his eyes. "But you kept your body centered and balanced throughout - a tribute to your instructors. And despite your anger and despair, you never really wanted to hurt me - a tribute to your respect for me."
"I tried to hit you every way I could think of," she insisted.
Ito-sensei smiled again and said, "Do you think I could not feel you pull the power from your attacks?"
"But that's just . . . I mean, when I was Corwin, I was always afraid to hit anything. Afraid I'd hurt my hand or something."
"Do you feel that fear now?"
"Well, sure, I mean, why not? Inside, I'm still the weak little geek I've always been."
"Are you really afraid of hurting your own hand, with your regen powers?" he asked. "Is that why you move with such grace? Did you as Corwin feel such anger? Or such despair?"
"But that's just the hormones. I'm, you know . . ."
"Thankfully, I do not know," Ito-sensei corrected her. "It is a trial I am glad I have never had to face. But regardless of the source, is that not a change in whom you have become? Now?"
Dream shrugged, not meeting his eyes. "I don't know, sensei. I just don't know."
"And from such a recognition comes the beginning of wisdom," he said, somehow not being pompous despite the platitude.
He sat back on his heels, relaxed yet alert as always. "It is clear that this session did not proceed as I had expected. Yet perhaps there are lessons that might yet be learned. What did you observe from our, ah, encounter?"
"That I suck as a fighter, that being a girl sucks when you're on the . . . when your biology rears its ugly head, that I'll never be able to control myself or my body. Does that about sum it up?"
"I think not," Ito said, showing a wry smile. "Let us remember together the sequence. Your first attack was a leg sweep, correct? And you did not expect it to be successful. Why not?"
"Well, because you're, like, an expert. And I'm just a beginner."
"So the blindfold I wore made no difference?"
Dream shrugged again. "Obviously not. But I suppose the next question is, 'why not?'"
Ito-sensei waited patiently for a moment, then offered, "I assure you, Dream, that I do not possess any mutant powers, in particular no esper powers that allow me to see despite the blindfold."
She sat back on her own heels, concentrating on his question. "So, you didn't need to see me to know what I was doing. I suppose you could hear me."
"Yes," Ito-sensei said. "After sight, hearing is the sense people consider most important. Do you suppose that told me how you were attacking?"
Dream hesitated for a moment. "I don't see how it could. Did it?"
Ito-sensei smiled his small smile again. "What else might have contributed?"
"Well, I guess you can tell more or less where I am by scent, since Fey has me using scented soaps and things. And . . . did you, like, feel me through the mat?"
"Very good, child," Ito-sensei praised her. "Not many think of that. Now, here is the crucial question. If I felt your movement through the mat, and listened for sounds, and savored your scent, and then analyzed all those inputs and estimated what you were doing . . . if I did all that, do you think I would have been successful in blocking your attacks?"
Dream looked at him thoughtfully. "I, um, don't know. I, like, don't know your skills."
"A fair response," he said. "Let us consider a similar situation. Suppose you were to walk across the dojo to that towel over there with the intention of picking it up. Would you need to determine the precise distance in order to know when to bend over and take it in your hand?"
"Well, no. You just, I mean, it's like depth perception and all that, but you don't really need a number for like, the exact distance. You just know."
"Indeed," he agreed. Rising silently to his feet, he extended a hand to his student. "And that is what you need to achieve. To 'just know' without analysis. To open your entire mind to the sensations you receive, building an internal image of your surroundings that does not depend on only one sense, but on all of them."
Ito-sensei handed her the blindfold from wherever it had been hidden. "Like most people, your sight overwhelms your other senses. Take the blindfold. Find a quiet place and put it on. Then, without letting any one sense dominate your awareness, absorb the world around you. Build in your mind a similar world, as full and complete as you can. With your particular skill, once you, ah, tone down the volume of your sight, you will be able to pull in not only the image of your ordinary senses, but an awareness of the dreams of others around you."
Dream took the offered aid, and looked thoughtfully at her sensei for a moment. "Why do I need the blindfold? I mean, I could just, like, keep my eyes closed."
Ito-sensei smiled again, gently but with a twinkle of tease. "Ah, but then you would be thinking about keeping your eyes closed, instead of about your surroundings."
Dream frowned, but nodded. Her slender fingers betrayed her troubled thoughts as they twisted the soft blindfold while she moved away.
"So," Harmony said cheerfully as she placed her tray next to April's. "How'd your session with Ito go?"
"Oh, god, don't get me started," April groaned, burying her face in her hands.
"That good, huh?" Harmony said, smiling. "Been there, done that - or had it done to me. At least you don't get bruises."
"Not on the outside," April said. "On the inside, I'm black and blue through and through."
"Yeah, well, been there, too. He can make you feel like a fool without moving a muscle or saying a word."
April groaned again. "Yeah, and the whole time he comes across like this kindly uncle who wants you to feel good about yourself even as you're totally melting away."
"Oh, god," Harmony said, rolling her eyes with exaggerated shock. "He's got us doing it, too. Here we've been talking for five minutes and still haven't said a single specific thing."
"Hardly five minutes," April said. "But you're right. Anyway, he put on this blindfold and then had me attack him."
"Like he needs his eyes to see us coming," Harmony replied.
"Yeah. I couldn't touch him, except when he decided to block my swings instead of just avoiding them."
"Sounds about right," the crystal-haired girl said.
"Yeah, well, it get's better. I got so angry I started just flailing away, and the next thing I know I'm crying my eyes out. God it sucks to be a girl."
"You'll get used to it," Harmony said. "Do you need some Midol?"
"I'm so full of ibuprofen now I'll probably set off drug dogs at 100 yards."
Harmony laughed, and patted her friend on her shoulder. "This is what, your second day? I'm betting you're already over the worst of it."
"Oh, god, let it be so," April moaned. She picked at her food and looked around the Crystal Hall. "That's not really the worst of it, though."
"There's more?" Harmony asked.
"He wants me to wear a blindfold, and just, like, sense what's going on around me. He says it will help me learn to receive fantasy images. Like I want that."
"Well, you told me that's what Dr. Bellows recommends."
April sighed. "Yeah. Tell you what . . . you find me anyone, anywhere, anytime in history who liked aversion therapy, and I'll feel better about this."
"When are you supposed to start?"
April shrugged and looked around again. "Right away, I guess. But I'm really worried about doing it with some of these guys around."
The Crystal Hall had the usual assortment of students. The Alphas must have been busy at the moment, doing something to which their hangers-on were not invited. That left a hole of unoccupied seats in one corner. The Cape Squad was in attendance though, and about half of Team Kimba. Plus the usual loners, including one dark-haired girl wearing ridiculous heels who made April feel uneasy for some reason.
Harmony looked around as well. She smiled at her dark-haired roommate and said, "So, whose fantasy would you like to make real?"
"Oh, god," April moaned.
"No, really," Harmony insisted. "There are some nice guys here. Pick one, and, like, free your mind."
"Guys?" April repeated.
That brought a burst of fire to Harmony's translucent cheeks. "Or a girl," she whispered.
April paused, then leaned closer to her friend. "Did you ever, I mean, after you changed . . . . did you ever wonder? About guys?"
"Yes," Harmony said quietly. "Sometimes my, um, new equipment gets this . . . ohmigod . . . need for what some of those guys have. But I just . . . I mean, some of the Exemplar girls are just so . . . totally awesome that I just . . . like, I feel those urges, too. And even though my body wants the guys, my mind says it's not right."
"So, what do you, like, do? And I don't mean cold showers."
Harmony laughed. "Well, those do work. Sometimes. Though the cold water makes my little . . . additions so hard that sometimes it makes things worse."
"Yeah, so . . . ?"
"God, girl, are you horny or something?" Harmony stalled. "What's with all the questions?"
"I'm sorry," April said, then she sighed. "It's just . . . before I came here, we had a bathtub, and . . ."
"Oh, yeah," Harmony said, filling in the rest with her own memories. "So you must be feeling better, if you're thinking of, y'know."
"If you say so," April said, but she looked thoughtful.
Harmony pushed a bit, "So when are you going to like, try the fantasy thing?"
"I don't know," April said. Then she looked more sharply at her friend. "Harmony, what was it like, when you got your powers? How did you learn to control them? Things like, y'know, your hair?"
"Well, I told you the basics," Harmony said. "I don't really control my hair - not like Caduceus can anyway. It's like a reflex. When I need a tone I can't like, sing directly, a strand of hair will reach out and wrap around something, then start vibrating. Or when I'm trying to like, listen to something electronic, a hair will tie itself off and I'll start to like, hear the electronic vibrations. The hairs do that pretty much by themselves."
April said, "Awesome. But, I've seen you make your hair look totally sleek and smooth, like you brushed it or something."
Harmony nodded. "Yeah, I do have some control. I guess I've trained it a bit. I can make it behave about like, well, like you can make yours behave. Take on a bit of style and wave. And I've learned to have it sort of, um, flick out of the way when I sit, so that I don't sit on it."
April sighed. "It sounds like you have some control over yours. My hair just does its thing each morning - or later in the day, if it gets windblown. I never know if I'm going to have a ponytail or something fancy until I look in the mirror every morning."
"Don't complain," Harmony said. "You look totally great, all the time. Remember, Meteor hit on you, not on me."
"Don't remind me," April said with a frown.
"Why not? You're beautiful. He's beautiful - and comes with all the right accessories."
"But you said . . ."
"That's for me, girl," Harmony interrupted. "Not for you. You were a guy for, what, fifteen years? And as a Regen, God only knows how much time you've got in front of you. You might be happier with boys."
April shuddered, but her own little tattletales showed the idea wasn't as unpleasant as she tried to pretend.
Later that evening as they were getting into their beds, Harmony asked, "So, did you ever do the blindfold thing?"
"I'm not ready for that, yet," April replied. She could hear her roommates sigh, but the crystal-haired girl said nothing.
Harmony woke up to the feel of a gentle, cool breeze on her face. Poe was old enough that it had windows that could be opened, and she thought perhaps one had come unlatched.
When she opened her eyes, she saw that one of the windows was indeed open. April was standing in front of it, bathed in soft moonlight. She wore a diaphanous nightgown that caressed every generous curve, rippling slowly in the breeze past the open window.
April was standing . . . bathed in soft moonlight.
But April wasn't looking out the window. She was looking at Harmony. Her long, dark hair lifted lazily in the breeze and framed her luminous eyes. The moonlight backlit her gown to show that the curves revealed by the snug garment were all her, and all girl. When it was clear that Harmony had awakened, April seemed to float over toward the reclining girl. Her arms lifted languidly as she began a slow and delicate ballet of perfect grace, always moving closer toward Harmony.
In one of her turns, April started to hum - except it wasn't really the buzzing hum that most people produce. April's tones were so painfully pure and clear that it seemed like even Harmony's best crystals were muddy and broken in comparison. It took Harmony a moment to recognize the melody: old Andrew Lloyd Webber love song. As though April had known when Harmony was ready, she began to sing:
I don't know how to love her . . .
What to do, how to move her.
I've been changed, yes really changed.
In these past few days, when I've seen myself,
I seem like someone else . . .
Yet . . .
If she said she loved me,
I'd be lost, I'd be frightened.
I couldn't cope,
Just couldn't cope.
I'd turn my head.
I'd back away.
I wouldn't want to know.
She scares me so.
I want her so.
I . . . love . . . her . . . so.
Chapter 11 - "Powers Plus"
April's ballet ended with her at the edge of Harmony's bed, leaning over with her cape of dark hair sheltering and surrounding them, trickling its way to intermingle with the reclining girl's clear tresses.
Harmony whispered, "April, are you okay?"
"I guess we'll have to find that out together," April murmured huskily. "But I'm shooting for a lot better than just, 'okay.'"
Her hand reached out to caress Harmony's shining hair, and she slid a curved hip to rest on the edge of Harmony's bed. "I always thought your hair would be stiff, like little crystal wires, but it's so soft," she whispered in mused wonder.
Harmony felt her own hand reaching out to April's much darker tumbles of silk. "Not as soft as yours," she said. "Nor as full. It's so heavy."
"Um hmm," purred April, leaning closer to Harmony's pale face. The dark-haired girl grinned and said, "So heavy I can hardly keep my head up."
She leaned lower and let her lips touch Harmony's lightly, so that at first neither was sure if they had touched at all. April's tongue slipped out to dab at Harmony's lips. "You didn't get all your lipstick off. It's an interesting taste, and feel. I may need to start wearing lipstick just because . . . because I can, now."
"So, you're okay with being a girl?" asked Harmony.
"I like being what you want me to be," April whispered, then she dropped lower to capture the pale girl's lips without any further hesitation or uncertainty.
Their passion heated up their kiss, leaving their lips swollen and hot, their bodies pulsing with energy, their . . . .
"April, please, you're . . ."
Harmony pushed her roommate back, struggling out of her covers to keep the bigger girl from kissing her again. It was a short struggle. In another heartbeat, April had slumped to the floor and begun to glow.
In moments it was over. The wave of impossible heat had come and gone, leaving no damage in its wake despite temperatures too fierce to endure. April shivered and wrapped her arms around her legs.
"No, April, it's all my fault. I shouldn't have been, um . . . I should have been, y'know, thinking about like, something else."
April shrugged tiredly and stood up. She looked down at her form and said, "Well, at least it looks like I get to keep the nightgown."
"You didn't change a bit," Harmony observed. "Why did you get so hot, if you didn't change?"
April sat down on Harmony's bed again, this time leaning toward the wall at the foot of the bed. "This thing is about, y'know, attitude as much as like, physical shape," she said. "Actually, I guess this is flattering. If the only thing you'd change about me is my clothes . . ."
"Oh," Harmony said quietly. "I guess that's the problem. When you said you wanted to be whatever I wanted, it was like, I knew what had happened."
April reached out to pat Harmony's knee through the covers. "That's probably what changed me back. It happens. I think I might have stayed in the fantasy longer with you, maybe because you didn't change me much."
"Other than being able to sing," April added with a smile - a small smile, but beginning to show genuine humor. "The real me totally cannot carry a tune in a basket - with handles and a lid."
Her roommate laughed and said, "Are you sure? Just because the old you - Corwin - couldn't like, sing doesn't mean you can't. Give it a shot. What was that song again?"
"Not on a bet," April replied, laughing for real.
Harmony's face showed a return to seriousness as she asked, "So, is that like, what your transformations are like? All that heat?"
"Yeah," April said. "Though, maybe it wasn't as much this time."
"You mean it's usually worse? Ohmigod. How can you stand it?"
"It's not like I have much choice. If I could like, turn it off, I would."
Harmony pulled her feet out from under her covers and moved to sit close to April. She reached out to embrace her quiet roommate and said, "Oh, April, I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault," April said, returning the hug.
"Well, actually this time it was," Harmony said. "But we gotta figure out a way to control this."
"Can't argue with that," April said. She didn't let go of Harmony, but she did reduce the pressure of her embrace, and Harmony took that as a sign to let go. The crystal-haired girl stood up and moved to her dresser. That turned her back to April.
"Is something wrong, Harmony?" the dark-haired girl said, standing again.
"Not, um, really," Harmony said. "I just, um, think I'll go take a shower."
She turned back to look at April, then a rueful smile lifted the corners of her full lips. "A cold one."
"Oh, Harmony, I'm sorry . . ," April began.
"I'm not," interrupted Harmony. "Oh, I'm sorry you have to suffer through those changes, and I'm sorry that I, um, pushed you into something you didn't want to do. But damn, girl, you're an awesome kisser. I'll remember that kiss forever. But I may need to make myself a tinfoil hat if we're going to get any sleep."
She stepped back to April and embraced her again. It wasn't as sisterly as the last hug they had shared, but it wasn't quite another invitation, either. "Or at least let you go to sleep first."
She released the taller girl and turned toward the doorway. As she reached for the handle, April said, "Harmony? I, um . . . you totally didn't push me into anything I didn't want to do."
Then she grinned and added, "I even like the nightgown - and lipstick."
If Harmony won the resulting blush contest, it was only because her translucent skin couldn't hide any of the glow.
A brighter-than-moonlight glare awakened April the next morning. The still-open window allowed the rising sun to shine in her eyes, and the effort to turn away woke her up enough that she could hear the multi-toned chords of Harmony tuning another crystal. April waited quietly in bed until Harmony's tones faded away and the crystalline strands of hair unwound themselves from the metal frame to drape smoothly behind her.
"Hi," April said quietly, not wanting to startle Harmony as she widened her awareness from the glowing gem in her hands.
"Good morning," Harmony said in return. Then she immediately began a worried explanation, "Look, April, about last night . . ."
"Look, Harmony, about last night," April interrupted, the patter of her voice matching Harmony's but the volume several decibels higher. She smiled as Harmony stammered to a stop, then continued. "It's not like this is the first time this has happened. It is the first time someone didn't try to like, 'improve' me somehow. Like I said, that's totally flattering. I'm not complaining, so you don't need to apologize. Okay?"
Harmony shrugged, then her face lit up with her own smile. "Is it okay if I give you this, like, peace offering anyway?"
She held out the crystal she'd been working on, allowing April to see it. In her hand was a quarter-sized red disk, faceted about a central point at which it was perhaps half an inch thick.
"What is it?" April asked, though she stood to reach for it with obvious interest.
"I guess you could call it a, um, biofeedback device. It's tuned to the theta band - I looked up what that is while you were asleep. When it picks up your brain waves it will like, vibrate with an equivalent frequency - so that as you get closer to the theta band you can tell."
"How does it work?"
Harmony laughed and said, "Beats me. I made another one once, for a guy who needed a heart monitor. He had this bulky EKG thing he had to lug around, so I like, listened to the monitor with my hair and all. Then I could make him one from a crystal. I just, like, imagined this reacting to brain waves instead of heartbeats."
"Hmm," April said with a giggle, "we do know you have an awesome imagination."
Harmony laughed with her, then offered her the crystal again. "The only thing is, I don't know if it will work if you like, wear it on a chain or something. The guy's heart monitor was on a chain, but it hung close to his heart. We may need to figure out a way to, like, get this close to your brain. And I think it may need to be held tightly enough to get bone conduction or something - sort of like EEG contacts. I haven't figured that out, yet."
"We'll work something out," April said. She took the crystal, then hugged Harmony. Since she was still wearing the delicate nightgown, the effect the embrace had on her twin advertisements was immediately apparent, and she stepped back with a blush.
"Sorry," April murmured. "I think I'll go take my shower now."
She quickly gathered up her soaps and towel, then went to the door. As she reached for the knob, she said, "A cold one."
When April got back from her own cold shower, she went about her normal morning routine without much thought. Her long hair took a while to dry, but it styled itself with nothing more than a brush to straighten the thick flow as it warmed up. Without looking in the mirror, she knew her face was taking on the look of expertly applied cosmetics, and she felt earrings tug at her ears.
Then she felt something else.
A headband of some sort had appeared on her forehead, reaching back under her dark hair. She turned to look in the mirror and was surprised to see a golden crown or tiara, smooth except for a single peak in the center, resting above her eyes.
There was a hole in the middle of the tiara - a hole that was a perfect size for the red crystal that Harmony had tuned.
Harmony came back in from her own morning shower to find April holding the tiara, with the crystal newly inserted into the receptacle in the golden band.
"What's that?" Harmony asked.
"My subconscious playing tricks again," April said. "Today, when I was drying my hair, this just like, appeared."
Harmony asked, "With the crystal in it?"
April looked up at her as she raised the tiara to her forehead. "No, but with a perfectly sized place to put it. This is spooky."
Harmony nodded, then said, "Cool. Try it on."
The tiara wasn't really a complete circle. The two arms of the band would spread enough to fit around April's head. She slid it into position under her hair, and looked at Harmony.
"How stupid does this look?" asked April.
"Stupid? Not at all. In fact . . . . ohmigod!"
"You totally look like Wonder Woman! All you need is a bullet bra and short shorts. Oh, and a golden lasso. God, you're hot!"
April had been regarding herself in the mirror, at first with concern, then with a bit of a smirk as she realized Harmony's description was valid. "Holy Amazon Princess, it's a good thing I can't like, fly or whatever. I'd totally have to join the Cape Squad."
"Just wait till Meteor sees you. He'll flip!"
"Do you really think so?" April asked with an introspective smile. Then she gasped and said, "Oh, Harmony, I'm sorry. I mean, after last night . . ."
"After last night, you so still need to decide who you are," Harmony said. "We can't, y'know, do anything until you get yourself sorted out. If you like, decide you like boys, then that's okay. You gotta be whoever you are."
April reached out to embrace Harmony again. "You're really sweet, y'know?"
"Yeah, spun sugar," Harmony said with a laugh, gathering up a handful of her crystalline hair. "Does it work?"
"The crystal?" April asked in turn. "I guess so. I'm, like, feeling a buzz. Is that going to keep up?"
"It should," Harmony said. "As you get your mind into the theta wave state, the buzz will slow down."
"I may have to take it off most of the time, then," April said. "But I'll keep wearing it for a while to see what it's like."
Harmony nodded and April squeezed her again, then gathered up her backpack. She still wasn't ready for a purse, but the all-purpose carry sack sufficed for the few things she had to have with her that she could no longer put in pockets. Her first stop for the day was with Dr. Bellows, and his eyebrows raised in silent question when he saw the tiara she wore.
It wasn't the only change he noticed. Her makeup - or appearance of makeup - was more subdued, more like a stylish high school girl than a centerfold model. There was also an awareness of herself in little things, the way she brushed the hair from her face, a slight shrug that seemed to settle her clothes a bit more comfortably as she prepared to sit . . . all these showed an integrated personality. The small gestures were neither inherently masculine nor feminine. They were, however, tuned to her new form, and Dr. Bellows considered that excellent progress.
One thing was not progress, though. She still appeared distracted, as though the only way for her to move so naturally was if she forced herself to think of other things.
"You're looking nice, Dream," he said to begin the conversation.
"Thank you, Doctor," April said in reply. Then she smiled. "I see you noticed my new . . . accessory."
"Yes," he said. "It's a rather unusual fashion statement, unless you're Lynda Carter."
"Who?" April said.
"Never mind," Dr. Bellows replied with a smile. "Do you want to tell me about your crown?"
April pulled the band from her forehead and handed it to the doctor. "Harmony tuned a crystal that may help me like, reach that theta wave state you were talking about."
The psychiatrist examined the golden tiara for a moment, then handed it back to April. "Biofeedback?"
"That's what she said," April replied, nodding.
"Do you wear it all the time?"
To this question April shook her head and said, "No. I wear it when I'm like, walking between buildings and, y'know, like that. Sort of to get used to it, and to see if anything I do makes a difference in the buzz."
Dr. Bellows looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, "Biofeedback is funny. People find that they can adjust things without really understanding what they're doing. At some level, the mind integrates the feedback data with physical responses and can achieve amazing results."
"So, this is a good thing, right?" April asked.
"Probably. Ordinarily I don't like students using untested equipment on each other, but at Whateley so many of the students have gadgeteer or devisor skills that it's unavoidable. Have you had any problems with it?"
"No, not really," replied April. "The buzz can be distracting, but not as much as like, doing math problems in my head," she said with a reassuring smile.
Dr. Bellows looked thoughtful again. "You say Harmony made this for you?"
At April's nod he added, "I didn't realize she could manipulate gold as well. I thought her power was limited to crystals."
"Oh, Harmony only did the crystal," April said. "When I was drying my hair this morning, the tiara thing just like, manifested itself. Complete with hole for the stone."
"Had you seen the jewel first?" the doctor asked sharply.
"Yes. She showed it to me before I took my shower."
"Oh," he said, relaxing. "So there was no precog involved."
"No," April said. "Though I didn't really know how I was going to like, use the crystal before this appeared."
"It seems your subconscious is still very active for you. In the general population, of course that's always true. It is unusual for your powers to remain fully at the subconscious level, though. Most students achieve their BIT and then remain stable. If they can manifest objects, they quickly learn how to control it."
"I wish," April said, sighing.
"Still, I think this tiara will help you learn control eventually. Are you trying anything else?"
"Ito-sensei said I should try to close my eyes and like, get in tune with the world around me," she reported. "I haven't used the blindfold yet, but I do try to like, listen better, and things like feel the breeze as I walk and stuff like that."
"That sounds pleasant, and valuable whether it leads to control or not," the doctor offered.
"Yes, it is, actually," April agreed. "I think this afternoon I'll find a quiet place to sit for a while and try the blindfold thing. Do you think I should try the tiara at the same time?"
"Yes," Dr. Bellows said. "As long as you feel comfortable."
"Okay," April agreed. "I'll let you know if anything happens."
Dr. Bellows regarded April again, and asked, "Are you using conventional makeup now? Your cosmetics appear a little less dramatic than before."
"Oh, that's Fey's doing," April said.
"She did your makeup for you? She's quite talented."
"No, she just, like, showed me what good styles are for girls. Once I knew what was appropriate, that just started happening. Corwin was totally like, limited in his understanding of girls' styles."
"Indeed," the doctor replied, laughing. "It seems his, ah, study material was a bit more . . . mature than, ah, Seventeen."
"Tell me about it," April said, grimacing, then laughing at herself as she realized she had unconsciously thrust her new bosom out even as she complained.
"You're coming along very well," Dr. Bellows said. "I'm proud of you. It's not an easy transition to make, even for those who face only a single new form. Have you had any more transformations?"
"No, not really," April said, but she blushed and the doctor wondered what had happened. After a moment, when she had not offered anything more, the doctor sighed and let it go.
"I see from your instructors that you're doing well in all of your conventional classes, but you still haven't made much progress in Powers Lab."
April nodded. "I'm sorry, doctor, but I just can't like, seem to make anything happen. It just happens to me, sometimes, but . . ."
"Don't be sorry, April," he said. "I know you're trying hard. Just hang in there. I have every confidence in you."
"Yeah, well, I so wish I did," she replied, but he could see that his praise had lifted her spirits, as he had intended.
"I think I'll tell your Powers Lab instructor that you're going to be doing a bit of self-study this afternoon, under my direction. That should give you time to try your blindfold and tiara. Will that be okay?"
"Of course," she said, smiling brightly. "Cutting classes - with permission - is one of my favorite things."
Sean Watkins, aka Meteor, didn't deliberately follow the tall, dark-haired girl from the Crystal Hall after lunch. Really, he didn't. He just happened to be headed more or less the same way. Discreet - at least for a Cape Squad member - inquiries hadn't identified any other interests in her life at the moment, so Sean felt he still had a chance with the new girl.
For some reason Dream as wearing a golden crown, and Sean figured that was enough of an excuse to start up another conversation, but he wanted to find an opportunity that didn't look too forced. The 'can I help you' gambit hadn't really worked, though anything that allowed him a chance to talk for a while had value as long as she didn't pull out the pepper spray or something. Not that pepper spray would hurt him. His mutation had turned him into the basic 'flying brick,' and it had come with some of the other Superman attributes, like protection from poisons or other chemical assaults. Too bad he didn't get the X-ray vision, because he'd really like to have been able to see what she looked like without the Whateley uniform.
"Now that was a bad thing to think about," he said to himself. "If I walk up to her now, with my dick demonstrating 'Man of Steel' again, she really will go on the defensive."
So he continued not to follow her for a few more minutes until she sat down on a semi-secluded bench in a little grove of trees. He was about to move up to comment on her tiara, when she surprised him by immediately leaning back and closing her eyes.
"Not a good time, yet," he decided, so he found another nearby bench and sat down himself. Pulling his long cape around to where he could get at it, he took a sketch pad and pencil from the pouch.
There was an unwritten but powerful social obligation for flying bricks to become good guys, and that was fine with Sean. He truly wanted to use his powers to help other people. It wasn't really required - socially, since there wasn't any real way to enforce it except through social pressure - that all flying bricks become members of the Cape Squad as well, but Sean had never been one for halfway measures. Once it was clear that he was on the superhero track, he had thrown himself into the role with all his newly developed abilities.
Yet, lurking inside the tall, super-strong dude with the impossibly perfect physique was actually a very insightful artist. Sean knew he'd get a lot of teasing for showing such a soft and emotional side so not many people knew of his talent, and fewer yet that he had continued to draw even after his transformation. But his art pad and pencil were always with him, either in his cape or his backpack depending on the dress code for the day. When he saw Dream leaning back on the bench with the soft sunlight filtering through the trees, the boy's desire to approach a pretty girl had surrendered to the artist's desire to capture a pretty scene.
His pencil moved rapidly over the pad, first filling in rough shapes for context and proportions, then moving on to add details that showed the specifics of the image. Dream's long, dark hair draped over her shoulder in sharp contrast to her pale skin, and both demonstrated the interplay of light and shadow that had drawn him to begin sketching in the first place. As he filled in the details of her face, he began to focus on the tiara.
And then his composition began to change. The golden circlet with the red jewel, her rich, dark hair, and her long, toned limbs became the basis for a different image. Instead of Whateley's uniform, Sean drew her with a golden eagle spreading its wings across her impressive torso. Star-spangled tights and red boots were added quickly as the image that had grown in his mind became more real before him on the paper.
The portrait had become complete enough that Sean was actually concentrating on it instead of looking for additional details from his subject, when he became aware of a glow from Dream's vicinity. Looking up, he saw unbearable heat shimmering off her form, which had tightened from repose into a straining tension. Yet through the distortion, he saw that Dream had changed - or had disappeared to be replaced by the Wonder Woman of his drawing.
In moments the heat dissipated and the distortion cleared. Sitting before him on the bench was his portrait come to life. In basic features she was still Dream, but the Wonder Woman outfit was complete down to the golden lasso at her hip. The artist within Sean saw other changes immediately, though. This young woman had a confident power that Dream had lacked. The spandex-clad superheroine stood up and ran her hands sensually down her curves.
"So, Meteor, you've been following me," she said in a low, husky voice.
"Uh, not, um, really," he said.
"Oh, don't worry. Iím not upset," Wonder Woman said. "But I knew you were there all the way from the Crystal Hall."
Sean blushed, and shrugged, no longer trying to deny it. The raven-haired beauty walked over to him and said, "So, what ne'er-do-wells are around for us to capture?"
"Sure. That's what supers do, right? Capture bad guys."
Sean shook his head, eyes still wide in shock. "Not, like, in school. Maybe if we went into town, but we're not supposed to do that, and we're not supposed to show our powers outside of school."
"Great Hera, of what value to society is that? Aren't we supposed to help out those in need?"
"Yeah, but we're like, students now, and we're not supposed to do that until after we graduate."
"Oh, well, things are different on Paradise Island," the superheroine said. "I suppose we'll just have to find something else to do."
The possibilities resonating in her throaty tone blew away any chance Sean had of keeping his arousal hidden, and despite his invulnerability it became actively painful in another second when Wonder Woman glanced down and smiled.
He stepped back in hope of a little psychological as well as physical distance, and asked, "I'm sorry, but . . . are you really Dream?"
"I'm your dream," the woman said softly. Before he could say anything more, she turned and took a couple of quick steps, then flew into the air.
"C'mon, slowpoke," she called over her shoulder. "If all you're going to do is talk, I'm gonna have some fun!"
Sean just stared for a second as the lithe woman rocketed upward, then began a graceful aerial ballet tracing a sinuous path through the upper branches. But as she began a pass over his head he leaped up to pursue her.
That started a dashing chase through the branches. Wonder Woman flowed among the branches with grace and precision, never touching one yet never slowing her pace. Meteor was not quite so controlled. Yet his pace was just a bit faster than hers through the simple expedient of blasting through smaller branches that she avoided. Just as he reached out to capture a slender ankle, Wonder Woman shot straight up toward a billowing cumulus cloud and disappeared.
However, she was moving fast enough to leave a definite disturbance in her wake and Meteor quickly closed the distance again. Just as they exploded out the top of the cloud, now several thousand feet up, he reached out again and snared her foot.
Just as they exploded out of the top of the cloud . . ..
"Wait up," he said, then enforced that by pulling her closer. "This doesn't make any sense."
"Don't go there, Sean," Wonder Woman said. She quickly abated her own flying to allow herself to be captured by Meteor. "Please."
"But Wonder Woman doesn't really fly," he protested. "She, like, glides on the air currents, but she can't like, power herself around like you were doing."
"I told you not to go there," the woman said through gritted teeth. "Oh, god, here it comes again."
With her words her body began to heat up, and soon to glow. Though he was not hurt by the heat, it surprised Sean and he dropped his captive. She fell away with a pained cry.
Meteor altered his own path to pursue the falling girl. Just as he reached her again, the heat faded and Dream was once again wearing her Whateley uniform, presenting Sean with a flailing view of what she had been careful to hide under her skirt before.
"Nice panties," he mused. "I wouldn't have thought she'd be wearing a sexy dark thong with those innocent white knee socks, but it's a totally hot combination."
He quickly gathered her into his arms, which had the added effect of placing her face close to his own. He looked into her frightened eyes - which weren't actually all that frightened. Instead, they were heavy-lidded and sensual.
"My, my, Meteor, you are really a naughty boy, aren't you," she said, then began to heat up again. This time he didn't drop her, enduring the pain that he knew wasn't really harming him and wondering how she could endure it as well.
When the heat faded, the girl in his arms had an entirely different outfit. This one was a dark purple catsuit, with tall black boots and long black gloves. And a cowl, from which her black hair spilled. The red jewel that had been on Wonder Woman's tiara sparkled brightly from the middle of the dark cowl. It was the one constant in her apparel, though under the costume she still had the same features and form despite all the clothing variations.
The girl in his arms twisted liquidly until a hard nubbin on her ample bosom rubbed against the spandex over his chest. She began to nibble on his chin with little play bites, and then her tongue reached out to slide along this neck.
"So, naughty boy, now that you've caught me, what are you going to do with me?" she purred.
"This just doesnít make any sense," Sean said. "What is going on?"
By this time he had reached the ground again. His passenger showed no inclination to give up the support of his arms as she rubbed herself against him. Using a surprisingly strong arm around his neck, she pulled him down until her full lips met his startled ones, and the heat that poured through her kiss made him think she was transforming again.
Which actually turned out to be the case. The moments of flaring heat passed, and Dream was once again in her normal form, this time changed back into her Whateley uniform as well.
The first thing she did - before she tried to get free of his grip - was reach up and take off the tiara.
"Wow," she said.
"I guess so," Sean replied. "What happened?"
"That's my power," Dream explained. "I transform to match people's fantasies. The crystal was supposed to help me reach the state where I'm like, receptive. I think it worked totally too well."
The young man frowned. "Bummer. Iím sorry, Dream, I didn't know."
"I know," she said. She reached out to touch his cheek. "You were gentleman enough to pass when I offered you a chance at something more than a game of aerial tag, and I appreciate it. It's just so frustrating that I can't control it. Someone's fantasy takes over, and I'm totally out of control until they like, realize something is wrong."
She reached down to tug her skirt into order and looked around. "I seem to have misplaced my backpack."
"It's over there," he said, pointing. "I'd offer you a lift, but I guess you can do it on your own."
"Actually, I can't," she said. "Unless someone's fantasy includes super powers, I'm just a normal girl."
"No way," he said gallantly. "You're far and away the prettiest girl on campus."
"Thank you, kind sir," she said softly, dropping her eyes. "You truly are a gentleman."
"Thank you, Dream," he said in turn. "But I meant every word of it."
He bowed and gave his cape a playful flourish. "So, does that mean you'd accept an offer of a lift?"
Dream blushed quite brightly at the opportunities in his tone.
Then she nodded
Chapter 12 - "Captivating"
When Harmony reached her room after class, she found her roommate huddled on her bed, her knees drawn up under her chin. A furrow of concentration marred the dark-haired girl's brow, and she barely glanced up from the object of her attention when Harmony entered.
In front of April, on the bed, was the tiara with the red crystal. April regarded it as though it were a mystery, and perhaps just a bit as though it were something to be feared - a trap for the insufficiently wary.
"Are you okay?" Harmony asked.
"Yeah," April said. "Now."
April shrugged off her concentration and looked up at Harmony. "I can fly, Harmony. Or I could if I could control this damn power."
"You can fly?"
April nodded. "This afternoon, I was trying to relax and let my senses absorb the world, when I was transformed."
"That's like, good news, right?"
"I don't know," April said. "I was wearing this tiara thing and found a quiet place to sit. Sean followed me, and he was thinking . . . I mean, his image of me was like, Wonder Woman."
"Sean?" Harmony said, grinning. "Don't you mean that obnoxious, pushy, Meteor guy?"
April didn't rise to the bait. "After I transformed, I could fly. Myself, and like a rocket. Ohmigod, Harmony, it was . . . awesome!"
"But Wonder Woman can't really fly," Harmony said. "She just like, glides on air currents. That's why she's got her invisible plane."
"Tell me about it," April replied sadly. "Sean knew that too, and that caused me to transform back. In mid air."
"Oh," Harmony said.
"Yeah, 'oh,'" April repeated. "But I was still wearing the tiara, and before I even hit the ground - well, Sean caught me, but before we reached the ground - I had transformed again . . .into Catwoman."
"Cool," the crystal-haired girl said, eyes widening.
"More like hot!" April said. "If we weren't still in mid-air, and if Sean wasn't such a gentleman, I'd have . . . . well, I'd have done whatever he wanted. God knows I wanted him!"
"oh," Harmony said softly.
"Yeah, 'oh,'" repeated April again. "Oh, Harmony, when you . . . when I . . . last night, I wanted you totally as bad. Honest, I did. I'm just so screwed up, with this power I can't control!"
The tall girl started getting angry. "This damn thing," she said, picking up the tiara, "made me transform twice in just a couple of minutes, and not like, just passing through like when my dad changed me from the six-year-old to Corwin XL. This was totally two distinct transformations."
Harmony asked her question again. "So, is this, y'know, a good thing? Are you gonna use the tiara again?"
April shrugged. "I guess it did what Dr. Bellows wanted. I transformed again, and the second time I wasn't really drowsy or anything. I guess it's trained me to be like, receptive to the theta waves of those around me, even if I'm alert like when Sean was holding me."
"Oooh," Harmony said breathlessly. "I think I'd be paying attention if he was holding me."
"Yeah," April agreed, unconsciously demonstrating her body remembered the event with . . . sharp clarity.
She looked up at her roommate. "And I could fly, Harmony. Honest-to-God, up-up-and-away, flying. We paid tag through the treetops and he caught me inside a cloud. Ohmigod, Harmony, that was sssoo totally hot! Ever since I was a little . . . little boy I've wanted to fly. I cried for days - I mean that, days - when I found I was going to need to wear glasses and I couldn't be a jet pilot. And now, locked inside me, in my new body with whatever mutation I got, is the power of flight! And I can't get to it!"
She jumped up and began to pace around the room, still carrying the tiara. "I can't control it! Whatever my mutation really is, I have these awesome abilities inside me somewhere. I can fly. I can be strong. I can be like, anything! But I can't control it."
"Damn it, Harmony, it's like I'm a starving orphan hanging just outside a bakery full of doughnuts, and I can smell the baking, and sometimes the baker hands me a treat and it tastes so good. But it's only sometimes, and I can't walk inside on my own, and it just like, makes me even hungrier! I have got to learn how to use this thing." She put the tiara back on her head, and her eyes got a little vacant as she felt the buzz of the too-high frequency of her primary brain waves. Way too high, in her current agitated state. In a moment, her roommate could see her visibly calm down a she felt the feedback from the sensor.
Harmony tried to help her roommate become more relaxed with the mundane. "Speaking of which, it's time for dinner. Are you hungry?"
"I don't really get hungry any more, Harmony. I was just using the bakery thing as . . . oh, god, I'm actually learning English . . .as a metaphor."
"Actually," Harmony said with a snicker, "if you say, 'like' that makes it a simile, not a metaphor."
April stopped her pacing abruptly. "What?"
Harmony giggled, then deliberately changed the subject yet again. "So, did you kiss him?"
April's mouth dropped open as she tried to catch up with Harmony's wild topic shifts. When she did, her answer was a fiery blush that caused the crystal buzz to ratchet up again.
"Ohmigod, I want to hear all the details," Harmony demanded. She pushed April toward the door. "But while we're eating."
Stiletto watched as the tall, dark-haired girl from Poe and her transparent-haired roommate entered the Crystal Hall. As usual the short girl was sitting alone, grudgingly watching as other students greeted friends and flirted. It was time to move on to a new friend of her own, and she had decided that Dream was a good candidate. Stiletto had been observing her for some time, both in the Crystal Hall and outside it.
Conveniently, Stiletto's roommate had some sort of off-campus project going that would keep her out of town for a few days. The empath would have talked with Dream earlier that day in fact, but that arrogant asshole Meteor had trailed the other girl too closely for Stiletto to approach. It worked better - to be specific, Stiletto's projective empathy worked better at making others feel the way she wanted them to feel - if they were alone. So she finished up her meal and left the hall, finding a place to sit where she could watch Dream.
Dream and Harmony finished their meal relatively quickly, which pleased Stiletto. And then even better, Harmony waved and said something about the library, leaving Dream to walk home alone. As soon as the crystal-haired girl was out of sight, Stiletto walked toward Dream. The taller girl had some sort of crown on her head and was looking around for something, presumably a place to sit and enjoy the evening. None of the close seats were very inviting - too much nearby traffic - so Dream headed down one of the trails into a secluded area with more trees.
"Perfect," thought Stiletto. She turned her projection power up as strongly as she could, sending strong desires for a very appreciative, even submissive attitude on the part of her target. She wanted the girl to be almost childlike in her respect. Stiletto went a little over the top, in fact, and deliberately so. If half of what she was sending actually took root in Dream, about as much as Stiletto could really hope for, then she'd have enough control to keep the other girl attentive and friendly.
Dream passed in and out of sight a few times a she walked down the curving path, but the sound of her shoes or a glimpse of her long hair always provided assurance that Stiletto was in range for her power to work. Finally, Dream sat down, leading Stiletto to wait just out of sight, pushing her desires at her target as strongly as she could.
When Stiletto finally rounded the corner, she saw that Dream was smiling with anticipation, looking up as she approached.
"Hi," she said to the seated girl. "I'm Stiletto."
"Hello," Dream said brightly. "I'm happy to meet you."
"I'm happy to meet you, too," Stiletto replied.
"We're going to be friends, aren't we?" Dream asked with a smile. "I hope so, anyway."
"I hope so, too," Stiletto said. "Why don't we go back to my room and we can talk?"
"Okay," Dream said.
"This is working even better than I thought," decided Stiletto. "My powers must be getting stronger."
Stiletto, or Hilari Springs, was a resident of Dickenson Cottage, an all-girls dorm. The house mother didn't worry about girls inviting other girls to their room, and no sign-in was required. In fact, only the house mother and one other girl even saw Hilari walk in with the taller girl. Since Hilari's temper was well known, along with the resulting short term nature of most of her friendships, it wasn't surprising to see a new girl with her. But the new girl must be a Whateley student so she was old enough to choose her own friends. Both the house mother and the observing student forgot the incident almost before Hilari and her friend were out of sight.
Once they reached Hilari's room, she looked around in disgust. "Damn, my roommate didn't clean up before she left." The fact at least half of the clutter was Hilari's didn't really matter because even if her things had been neat, the room was still a mess.
She turned to Dream and asked, "Would you mind straightening up a little while I go down the hall for a minute?"
"Whatever you'd like is fine with me," Dream replied. She immediately began to gather up the clothes that were strewn around, making a pile of those that were obviously too big for Stiletto and another of those that would fit the smaller student. Shoes were equally obvious, due both to size and the towering heels that Stiletto favored. Once Stiletto was satisfied that Dream really was doing what she had promised, the projective empath left the room to see who else was in residence. Dream was a tall, shapely, breathtakingly beautiful young woman - just the kind the best cliques attracted - and Stiletto wanted a chance to show off her new prize.
For some reason, none of the other residents of Dickenson who were around at that time were particularly interested in meeting Hilari's new friend, so she returned to the room alone after about half an hour. It appeared that Dream had been busy while she was gone. The room was all straightened up, the beds were made, and the clutter of paper was gone.
"Where's my term paper?" Stiletto demanded.
"I don't know," Dream replied placidly. "I just gathered the litter up and threw it away. Was your paper in there?"
"Yes, you idiot!" Stiletto snarled. "Find it!"
Dream walked directly to the waste basket and pulled out an array of paper. . . dripping paper, with the remains of a soda anchoring crumbs of chips of some sort to the soggy sheets.
"Damn it, you ruined it!" shouted Stiletto. "And I had notes all over those pages that still need to be put into the saved version."
Dream just shrugged, holding the papers in her hand.
Stiletto had firmly told herself not to lose her temper again, particularly not right away with her new friend. But the sight of the stupid moose of a girl just holding the dripping papers was too much. She wound up and let go with a swing that hurt her hand and rocked Dream's head back.
"Shit, that tears it," she thought as she shook her hand to make the sting go away. "She'll run now for sure."
But Dream did not run away. She just stood there for a second, then murmured, "Thank you, Miss Stiletto, for correcting me. Please correct me again whenever I displease you."
Dream's body stiffened into something like attention, though she kept her head bowed as she repeated more loudly, "Thank you, Miss Stiletto for correcting me. Please correct me again whenever I displease you."
Stiletto's eyes widened, and she gasped. "You mean you want me to hit you?"
Dream kept her eyes down, and her voice was without expression. "My wants are unimportant. Only your wishes matter."
"Yeah, right," Stiletto said in disbelief. But she noticed that Dream's lip had split and was beginning to well with blood. It was clear it would soon swell. A puffiness around Dream's eye hinted that there might be a bruise forming there as well.
"Oh my God, I really hurt her, but she's just . . . taking it. Maybe she even . . . likes it?" Oh, God, that's kinky, but . . .
She put a bit of swagger into the sway required by her tall heels, and stepped up to Dream. "So, only my wishes matter? Then here is my wish. Kneel down and kiss my boot!"
Without a word, Dream gracefully folded her legs and knelt at Stiletto's feet. Her lips touched the toe of first one, then the other boot. She was about to return to the first toe when Stiletto stepped back.
"Ohmigod, this is so cool! My very own personal slave. Now that's power! The cheerleader types can be Queen Bee over their cliques all they want. That's power of a sort, but nothing like this! My power of mind has finally gotten as strong as it should be. Oh, god, I'm gonna get some of those stuck-up bitches next. I'll have my own little army of worshippers."
Dream had leaned back on her heels after Stiletto had stepped back. She waited erectly, her knees together and her hands resting on her thighs. Her long legs gleamed in the harsh overhead light, and her dark hair glistened like a curved mirror with bright highlights surrounded by inky blackness.
"Did I tell you to stop?" Stiletto demanded. Her right foot whipped out to spear Dream in her ample bosom. "Get back to work, and this time, lick them!"
Dream's gasped with pain at the impact of the pointed toe of the boot on her tender breast, but her pain did not deter Stiletto in the least. Just the opposite.
"I need something better to hit her with," the angry girl thought. "Something for all the times the 'beautiful people' have looked down their noses at me because I'm short, and because my power isn't . . wasn't . . .very impressive. Well now it will be. Now they'll all pay. Starting with Miss Tall-and-Gorgeous."
Stiletto stepped back again. "I'm going out. You get my term paper together. The first draft is on the computer and you can just figure out how to get my notes off the mess you made!"
"Yes, Miss Stiletto. Whatever you say."
"Yeah, you just remember that," Stiletto said as she left the room.
Harmony approached the Cape Squad corner of the Crystal Hall with some trepidation. They didn't always wear capes and spandex, some of them hardly ever. But they were clearly Cape Squad members regardless of how they were dressed. For one thing, they were all high-level Exemplars, and though they were committed to being heroes instead of villains, they were more than a little arrogant, particularly when they were in a group. The best she could hope for was condescension edging into patronization. The worst . . . well, unhidden laughter at students of lesser power was not uncommon.
But she had a problem, and only one person she knew might have an answer.
"Sean?" she said, approaching Meteor, who wore the unofficial but ubiquitous alternate student uniform of jeans and a polo shirt. "Could we talk for a moment?"
"Um, sure," he said, rising from his seat. The whispered snickers and suggestive comments he could pretend to ignore triggered a blush Harmony's pale skin had no hope of hiding.
"Sorry," he said as he walked with her to a quiet space. "They're sorta . . . full of themselves, y'know?"
"Yeah," she agreed with a sigh.
"So, what can I do for you?" he asked.
"Have you seen April?" Harmony asked.
"No," he said. "Not since the day we, um . . . did she tell you about that?"
"Yes," Harmony replied. "She was, um, excited about it."
The crystal-haired girl blushed again, then said softly, "And about being with you."
"Really?" Sean asked with excitement. "I thought, since I hadn't seen her for a few days, that . . . well, that she was mad at me."
"Not at all," Harmony said.
Sean dropped his voice to a whisper. "Not even that I, um, kissed her?"
Harmony's eyes focused on an inner memory for a moment, and a smile tugged at her lips. "No. Though the way she told it, it was more like she kissed you."
This was enough to trigger a blush even on Meteor's rugged features, but in a moment his own eyes lost focus at a memory that - judging by his smile - was quite enjoyable.
"Oh, God," she thought, trying to remind herself. "I like girls, not boys, but that smile. Ohmigod. Down girl! Besides, he's taken, and by my best friend. But holy shit that's a lethal smile."
"So?" Sean prompted. "Do you like, have a message for me from April? And why didn't she just like, talk to me herself?"
"Oh!" Harmony said. "That's why I came looking for you. I haven't seen her in like, two days, going on three. And I wondered if she had been with you?"
"No," Sean said, frowning. "Three days?"
"Almost," Harmony confirmed. "Since Friday at dinner. After we ate, I went to the library and she was going back to the room. But when I got home, she wasn't there."
"Where do you think she went?"
"I don't know," Harmony said with a shrug. "That's why I wondered if you had like, been with her."
"I don't think she's that kind of girl," Sean said with another frown.
"She might be any type of girl," thought Harmony. "Do I tell him about her power? He already knows about the shapeshifting, but does he know about the personality changes as well?"
Harmony abruptly sat down at a nearby table. She looked at her hands for a long moment, and one long lock of hair drifted around her shoulder so that her fingers would have something to do. Sean waited patiently, until she looked up at him.
"April didn't tell me how much you talked about her power," she began.
Sean shrugged. "Hardly anything. Just what I observed. She's a shapeshifter, and she can fly."
"Sometimes, at least on the flying part," Harmony said. "April's power is that she becomes someone's like, fantasy person. If that fantasy includes flying, then she can fly."
"That's pretty cool," Sean said. Then he blushed again as he remembered April's second transformation. His memory triggered another response as well, one his well-tailored jeans couldn't hide.
"Yeah," Harmony agreed, trying not to notice, "except she doesn't really control it. She can't like, turn it off. If someone had a nasty fantasy, she'd be helpless to stop them. She told me that before she got here to Whateley, someone driving by turned her into a sex-starved bimbo and she tried to seduce her own father."
"Oh, damn, that sucks," Sean said. "So you mean, when we, um, . . . that was just because of my fantasy?"
"Not totally," Harmony said. "Or at least, even if it was just your fantasy, she . . . don't tell her I told you this . . . she was like, glad you were, y'know, interested in her. And that's after she was back to being April."
"Oh. Cool," Sean said with a grin and a pulse revealing his too-obvious interest, then he frowned. "But now she's gone?"
"Yeah. And I'm afraid she got like, caught by someone else's fantasy. The fantasy doesn't end until the, um, dreamer feels that something is wrong. And if she's been captured by someone who's not as like, nice as you are . . ."
"Yeah," Sean said, his features taking on a very determined scowl. "If somebody has taken advantage of her . . ."
"Yeah," Harmony said. One part of her liked his possessive attitude toward her roommate's safety, but another part of her was afraid of this rival for her best friend's . . . attention. Affection?
"Do you have a clue where she might be?" he asked.
"Not really, but . . ," Harmony said. As she interrupted herself, strands of her hair began to drift up, looking for something to use as an anchor.
"If she's still wearing the crystal I gave her, then maybe I can find it," she said.
Standing up, she walked from the cafeteria with Sean in close company. She moved directly to a section of wrought-iron fence, and her hair reached out to entangle the bars with an array of clear threads. Sean stood quietly while she concentrated, trying not to fidget.
After a couple of minutes, she sighed and her hair began to unwind from the bars. "Nothing. At least, nothing I can say for sure is from her crystal."
Sean looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he said, "Okay, let's think about this. If it's been a couple of days - and nights - then she's not just wandering around campus. She's either in someone's room, or she's holed up somewhere else."
"There are a lot of somewhere elses on this campus, Sean," Harmony said.
"Yeah, I know," he said. "But that's too big to work on right now. If we get to that point . . . well, she might not even be on campus for that matter. We'll have to get security involved. But we might be able to check out the dorms ourselves."
"How? I told you I can't pick up anything from the crystal."
"Not from here, you can't," Sean said. "But if we like, stand just outside each dorm in turn, then do you think you might be able to . . . whatever it is that you do?"
"Maybe," Harmony said thoughtfully. "It's totally worth a try."
"Where do we start?" asked Sean.
"Not Poe," Harmony said. "Mrs. Horton would have known if she came in with someone . . . or maybe I should say, if someone came in with a stranger, since April might not look anything like herself."
"That's a good thought," Sean observed. "We can ask the house mothers in each dorm. And that also means that she's not likely to be in a guys' dorm. I mean, she might have visited for a little while, but not for days at a time."
"What if she's not a, um, she anymore? I mean, she might have transformed into a guy."
"Really?" Sean said, looking vaguely ill. Then he shrugged and said, "Well, if she, um . . . if Dream is a guy, then, um, he is not as likely to be in trouble, so we should start looking for a girl."
"Right," Harmony said. "Besides, April hasn't transformed into a guy for a while, and even then it was only for a couple of minutes."
"So, she's really like, a girl?" Sean pushed.
"Oh, yeah," Harmony said with a sigh, remembering the night April had come to her in moonlight and nightgown. "So, where do we start?"
"Whitman or Dickenson, I guess," Sean said. "Only I won't be able to get upstairs in either, unless I fly up to an open window."
Harmony nodded, then started walking toward the girls' dorms. "Maybe I can get a reading once we get closer."
That turned out to be the case, once she was close to Dickenson. She found a chain-link fence that was strong enough not to flex and had enough places for her to anchor her hair. Once again long tendrils of transparent strands reached out to tangle themselves in the metal grid, and she closed her eyes in concentration. Sean slowly moved to where he could see her face, trying not to disturb her. At first her expression was not encouraging. She frowned sharply, seeming to pull herself away from the fence to increase the tension in her hair.
"That's gotta hurt," he thought. "Some of her hair looks like it's about to be pulled out root and all."
Then Harmony's frown changed from one of frustration to one of concentration. Another tendril snaked out to wrap itself around a higher part of the fence, and she froze into rigid stillness.
Her eyes opened and the hair relaxed back around her. "She's here. Or at least the crystal is. Second floor, back corner."
Sean looked up with a frown of his own. "I can't go in through the front door. But I think I'll fly up and hover outside that corner. If you call, I'll hear you."
"Sounds like a plan," Harmony said, then moved to the front door of Dickenson Cottage.
Once inside she saw a host of young women, ranging from killer beautiful to painfully plain. Her crystalline hair was a bit more dramatic mutation than many of the others showed, but not so much that anyone went running for the housemother. She quickly reached the second floor and headed for the corner she had sensed would hold April's crystal, and hopefully April herself.
She had to stop and tie her hair off to a doorknob to refine her location on the crystal, and she was about to enter her near trance when she heard a sharp splat, as though something soft had been struck by a flat object. Something told her that the source of that sound was her target, and she quickly moved to the appropriate door.
It was locked, and a quick shove didn't seem to help.
"Sean!" she yelled. "Can you hear me? She's in here, and I can't get in!"
Apparently Meteor could hear Harmony's cry, because almost as an echo of her call she heard a crash from the other side of the door.
"What the hell is going on?!" Meteor's deep voice boomed loudly enough to shake whatever remained of the windows.
That was too much for Harmony. She took a heartbeat to center herself, then used one of the self-defense techniques that Tolman-sensei had shown her to send her foot through the door near the lock. Her foot didn't really penetrate the door - that was just her mental image of where it would end up. Instead, the door went crashing open and Harmony followed it into the room.
There she saw April, Meteor, and a shorter girl - Stiletto, if she remembered correctly. April, wearing her tiara, was kneeling on the floor. Her face was a mass of bruises and one eye was swollen shut. Her clothes had largely been ripped off and revealed matching bruises on her arms and torso. And were those burns? Something that looked angry and seeped. One of April's arms didn't seem right, either. There was an extra angle just below the elbow.
Meteor had Stiletto backed into the corner. It wasn't clear that he was actually touching her, but his massive presence walled her off as thoroughly as a concrete barricade. The girl still held a sorority paddle in her hand, upraised like a shield between her own form and the bundle of swollen boulders that had ripped their way through Meteor's own clothes, demonstrating his power - and his anger.
Harmony knelt quickly by April's side and cried, "April, honey, what's going on?"
The dark-haired girl looked up at Harmony with the anguish of hell in her eyes. She opened her mouth but nothing came out.
The short girl snarled at Meteor, "Get away from me, you asshole. She likes it! She wants me to do this to her. It's none of your damn business anyway!"
Harmony ignored the other girl's words. Tears were trailing streaks of mascara down her face, but despite a tightness in her throat that barely allowed her to breathe, she managed to whisper to Meteor. "Sean, help me. We need to override this bitch's fantasy. Concentrate with me."
Sean didn't leave the room's resident, but he turned to place his back to her. The girl used this as an opportunity to slam her paddle into the back of his head, but if he even felt it, nothing showed. He looked at April and closed his eyes.
When Harmony saw this, she closed her own eyes and thought of her lovely roommate from before she was hurt. She reached out and hugged April into her arms, concentrating all her mind, all her strength . . . and all her love into the pure image in her mind.
Chapter 13 - "Fear Factor"
Stiletto yelled from the corner behind Meteor. "Leave her alone. She's mine! You can't have her!"
When her demands were ignored, Stiletto closed her own eyes in concentration. The room took on a strange, time-stopped nature. Each person in the room was frozen into stillness, to the point that the ripples of paper and clothing from the air currents swirling through the destroyed window seemed wrong somehow - as though a still photo had inexplicable moving elements.
The first change from the stillness was not motion. And it was too fast for any physical reaction. In one moment, April's broken body heated to bright incandescence. In another, the heat was gone, leaving a beautiful, perfect form in its place. April, fully healed, opened her eyes and gasped, "Thank you."
Then she looked at the girl holding her, and gasped again. "Ohmigod, Harmony, you're hurt!"
Harmony's body had recoiled from the intolerable heat of April's transformation, but not quickly enough. Angry red blotches marred her porcelain skin, harbingers of even greater damage to come.
"It's okay," Harmony whispered, but the pain in her voice revealed the lie in her words.
April reached out to embrace her roommate, and only then realized that her clothes had not recovered as readily as her body. And that there was a man in the room. A man who, for all that she knew he tried hard to be a gentleman, had not been able to avert his gaze from her all-too-revealed body.
Her eyes met his, triggering a blush on both their faces, and he finally looked away. That turned his eyes on the fourth person in the room.
"You filthy little, half-pint bitch," he snarled. "How could you do such despicable things to such an innocent girl?"
"Innocent?" Stiletto repeated with a disbelieving sniff. "Hardly. She could have left at any time. Instead, she kept asking for more, until I told her to shut up."
Harmony had taken advantage of the moment when Meteor looked away to snatch a blanket off one of the beds in the room. She draped it around April, who smiled gratefully then looked at the young woman who had tortured her.
"She never stopped me like, physically," April confirmed, "but she has a mental power that made me want to stay. She bragged about it, and about how she was going to get like, other slaves to join me."
April sighed and wrapped the blanket around her as she slumped tiredly into a chair. Pulling the tiara from her head, she looked at it and added, "Mostly it was my own transformation that held me here."
"Your own transformation?" Stiletto repeated.
"My power - my curse - is that I transform into someone's fantasy or dream person," April said. "Your fantasy made me submissive to you. It's happened before."
"You've been a slave before?" Stiletto asked. "So you do like it!"
"No!" April snapped. "I hated every second of it. It hurt! You broke my damn arm, you little piece of . . . But the transformation forced me to be what you wanted, and you wanted a slave. No one else has been a bitch who wanted me as a punching bag."
If this accusation embarrassed Stiletto, nothing showed on the outside. Her lack of remorse angered Meteor again, and he picked the small woman up in his massive hands until she was nose to nose with him.
"If you ever come near her again . . . if you ever come near anyone else on campus again, I'll know. My friends and I - you know, the Cape Squad - will make it our mission to follow you. If you ever approach anyone we'll tell them just what kind of monster you are. Say good-bye to the last almost-friend you ever had on campus. You're going to be as alone as we can make you from now on."
Harmony heard that warning, but it wasn't enough. The red splotches on her skin and the pain that went with them were thankfully fading rather than intensifying. Her own BIT was strong enough to provide a bit of healing power, and April's transformation had always been inexplicable anyway - providing a perception of heat but not actually harming anything. With the lessening of that possibly psychosomatic pain, her own anger had grown. Strands of hair reached out to form a parabola around her head with the axis pointed toward Stiletto, and Harmony growled out a command to Meteor.
"What are you going to do?" April asked.
Harmony didn't answer. She just glared at Meteor until he moved out of the way. Stiletto looked like she wanted to run, but the corner that had trapped her while April's own trap had been released still offered her no place to go.
The long crystalline strands of hair began to vibrate, some of them becoming even more difficult to see as they rapidly oscillated. April felt a deep, uncomfortable churning in her abdomen, and she grunted her question again. "What are you doing?"
"Just giving her a taste of what will happen if she stays around here," Harmony said. With her words Stiletto doubled over in pain, then collapsed to the floor.
Harmony held her pose for another moment, a moment in which Stiletto's body tightened into a fetal ball as she keened out a deep, desperate moan. With that sign of the effectiveness of her attack, Harmony's hair dropped back into a cascade down her back, and she walked over to the still-moaning girl.
"Get out of Whateley. Don't ever come back. Every time I see you, and I'll search you out if I hear you're on campus, I'll blast you with cramps worse than all the women since Eve combined. I'll rip your guts out from the inside. Do you hear me?"
"Harmony," April said. "Don't . . ."
Meteor stepped between the pale girl and the one writhing on the ground and said, "I can't let you do this, Harmony. She's a sick, perverted piece of filth, but you can't become what she is."
April stood up and moved between her friends. "You guys don't understand. She didn't even know! She's slapped a few friends around - which is why even with her power she didn't really have any friends - but she didn't know she actually liked to hurt people until now. Her fantasy was in her subconscious, but it might never have surfaced if she hadn't met me. I did tell her I liked it, and she didn't know it was a compulsion. She needs help, but even she didn't know it before . . . this all started."
"How can you say that after what she did to you?" Harmony asked.
"Because it's not the worst thing that could have happened," April said, tears filling her eyes. "I almost seduced my own father, Harmony! This power that controls me just sucks! Pain that passes is not as bad as . . . other things."
April looked up at Meteor and reached a hand out to touch his cheek. "I'm glad you're a gentleman, Sean, because I would have done anything you wanted the other day. And that might have had long-term effects that neither of us are ready for."
Then she looked down at the young woman on the floor as though she were a particularly odorous piece of garbage. "Don't ever come near me again. Don't ever use your power to hurt someone, even if they say they like it. And for God's sake, get some help."
"That's not good enough," Harmony said. "April, you're an angel, but I don't want her on campus." She looked down at the diminutive girl and said. "I meant what I said. April may have mercy on you, but I will not. Get out of Whateley."
She put her arm possessively around April, and then looked at Meteor. "You probably need to fly down again. We'll let Stiletto explain the mess in this room. I'm taking April home."
"Maybe I should fly April back to Poe," Meteor offered. "She's not really dressed for an evening stroll."
April looked up at her massive rescuer and smiled. "That's sweet, Sean, but I'll be okay. We'll talk tomorrow. Okay?"
All he could do was nod, then step to the window to fly away. Harmony had never released her roommate from her protective embrace. She used her hold to steer April toward the broken door, bestowing one last glare on the room's occupant. "Hang around if you want, Stiletto. Give me an excuse to prove that I mean what I say."
April and Harmony left the cottage quickly, ignoring the inquisitive glances and managing their exit before the house mother appeared. As they walked back to Poe, April said. "I didn't know you could make your hair work without like, an anchor. Or that you could focus it so well."
Harmony smiled. "I didn't either. I guess I just got mad."
"Thank you," April said, snuggling into Harmony's arms. "For rescuing me, and for . . . caring so much."
"Oh, April, I do care. So very much," Harmony said.
Pressures from her hands seemed to urge April to turn and face her, but April gently resisted. She actually moved out from under Harmony's arm, not aggressively, but with a light twirl on her toes. "Y'know, now that I'm away from that little monster, I feel fine. Once my transformation happened, all the aches and damage went away. I'll bet I could beat you back to Poe."
Harmony's expression first showed hurt at April's movement away, but then she smiled and said, "You're on. You go first. I want to watch when that blanket flips up and shows your cute little tail."
"Ohh," April said, blushing again. Then Harmony laughed, a quite feminine giggle that had been sounding more often lately in place of her less-delicate belly laughs. She started to run after April, who giggled in turn and led her back to Poe.
The next morning, Harmony saw April put the tiara in her backpack.
"Are you keeping that thing? I figured you'd smash that crystal into sand by now."
April shrugged. "I'm not going to wear it. That's for sure. But the time with Stiletto has to qualify as aversion therapy if anything can. I have an appointment with Dr. Bellows, and I guess I'll like, wait to see what he says."
Harmony frowned. "I don't think that's what he had in mind. That was awful."
"Yes, it was. But the time with Sean was . . . nice."
April smiled at the memory, unconsciously licking her lips, and unaware that her body sent an even stronger signal - or two. She looked at her roommate and blushed, then frowned when she saw the hurt look in Harmony's eyes. April sent an apology without words toward her roommate, and after a sigh Harmony caught the message and sent a forgiving response back with her own gaze.
"Just let me know when you make up your mind, okay?" she asked softly.
April nodded, but she frowned again at the choice before her.
A lingering effect of her attempts to learn to control her power was an increased awareness of the world around her. Ito-sensei's suggestions had opened that awareness of the positive aspects of nature's beauty . . . and Stiletto had taught her to beware of the dangers lurking within teenage angst. The pleasure side of her new awareness was energized by the soft breeze fragrant with pine, by the twitter of territorial pride from birds both melodious and dissonant, and by fleeting coolness of cloud momentarily hiding the warm sun.
Then the pain side of her awareness was triggered by a plaintive cry. It had a croaking sound not too different from some of the bird calls, but there was an intelligence behind the cry. And in a moment, as she began to listen, a communication.
"Ow! Dammit, Sssshedu, leave me alone!"
April didn't consciously head that way. But the pain in the cry was too close to the pain she had felt for days in Stiletto's thrall. She had been a prisoner in her own body the whole time, fully aware of every pain, every humiliation, but powerless to do or say anything except what Stiletto desired. Forced even to feel what Stiletto had wanted, so that the short girl's empathic skill confirmed what April's compulsive words had said . . . while deep in her soul she shrieked with terror and pain. In her heart, "Leave me alone" had been a mantra that dominated her thoughts, a crutch she had used to shut out as much of the pain as she could, for as long as she could. April couldn't ignore that prayer, uttered with heartfelt need by another.
In a secluded clearing, hidden by trees and a hill but not too far from the walk between Poe and Shuster Hall, April came on a pair of mutants who would have been in the tunnels on anything but green flag days. One, the one being tormented, was a lizard morph, obviously from either Twain or Hawthorne. He had a tail longer than his bird-hipped legs, hands ending in three clawed fingers, and a long, scaled face. He was panting so he was probably still warm-blooded, though he had a neck frill to reject heat.
After a moment, it was clear he also had a lizard's ability to regenerate lost limbs, courtesy of a demonstration forced on him by his tormentor.
The other student was another body morph, this one a classic imp or demon. He had brick red skin with little stub horns, cloven hoofs, and a snaky tail that whipped sharply back and forth. The imp - apparently Shedu - was carrying a barbed trident that was either a devisor tool or a focus for his own power because he used it to shoot crackly blasts at the dodging lizard-boy. One bolt had taken off a leg causing his target to fall in an unbalanced tumble. The imp-boy waited for the few moments it took, less than a minute, before a small leg had appeared then sent another blast at his target. It missed, deliberately, but trying to dodge it caused the lizard-boy to push with his immature leg, sending him tumbling again.
He laughed at his target and said, "Whasammatta, Squamata? It'll all grow back. Think of this as Powers Lab."
"Dammit, Sssshedu, it hurtssss! Just leave me alone!"
There is was again, the demand that April had made the center of her life for two infinitely long days and nights. The one she couldn't ignore.
"Hey, leave him alone," she demanded.
"Oooh, baby, anything for you," the imp said laughing. Then he sent another shot at Squamata, clipping off the lizard-boy's tail.
"Just stop," April said again. "You made your point. You're powers are better than his. So why not just declare success and move on?"
"Because I don't want to," Shedu said. He waved his trident in her direction as a threat, then sent a quick blast at his real target, leaving the boy with one less arm.
"Leave him alone, you bastard," April demanded, stepping closer.
"Why," Shedu demanded. "Are you gonna take his place? Your legs are way too pretty to chop off. Why would I want to blast you?"
"Why would you want to blast anyone?" she asked. "Just because you can? That's so immature."
"Ooooh, ow, that'll leave a mark," the imp said with a laugh. "Immature. Wow."
He sent another blast at the lizard boy who was trying to limp away. It took out his good leg, leaving him crawling along on one arm and the growing stub of his tail.
"Don't run away, Squamata, or I'll take off all your limbs at the same time."
"Don't you dare," April said. "You've tormented him enough. Pick on somebody else."
"You volunteering?" asked Shedu. "I'll make you a deal, and it won't cost you an arm and a leg, either."
"You and me, right now. Right here. I get your body, and I let Squamo have what's left of his. Only I won't use my trident. I'll use my club."
His grabbed his crotch to make it clear what club he was offering.
"You wish," she said. That was all the excuse that Shedu needed to send another blast at the crawling lizard boy.
"You really are a bastard," she said tightly.
"Yeah, well, if you looked like something out of a nightmare instead of a goddess, you might not be so kind and cheerful either," the imp growled. "If you looked like I do, I might be telling you to leave him alone."
Leave him alone. If she looked different, the tormentor would leave his target alone.
April found her hands reaching into her backpack to pull out the tiara. She watched as they shook with suppressed rage, and more than a little fear, while they moved the crown up to her head.
"Fine, you piece of shit. I'll be your dream, just leave him alone."
She felt with her mind for the fantasies around her. One reached out to her, but it seemed to slide away, held off by some sort of barrier, or maybe an incompatibility. It bounced off her mind a couple of times, as though searching for a way in, when another thought speared into her awareness like it had been pulled on a string.
Shedu watched the intruding girl carefully when she pulled a crown out of her bag. He didn't know what her powers were, and if she were one of the Cape Squad he might have to run. That seemed more than a little likely when he saw the golden tiara with the red jewel tucked up under all that dark hair. "Damn, if this girl is a Wonder Woman wanna be, I'll get my but kicked but it might be worth it."
But the dark-haired girl didn't continue any further changes into the Amazon Princess. Instead, with a groan, she slumped to the ground. Her body began to give off heat, heat that built until it caused even the devil-form tormentor to step back. "What's that matter with her? She'll be nothing but ash in a matter of seconds. I better get out of here or someone will blame me."
Shedu turned to run when he felt the heat begin to subside even more rapidly than it had built up. He turned back to look at the huddled girl and froze in shock at what he saw.
The slumping dark-haired girl was gone. In her place was a bird-woman - a blonde, with long white wings that shielded her body. She still glowed, but it was a nimbus of light that surrounded her with glory. The tiara that the dark-haired girl had donned gleamed on her forehead, but there was no other sign of the one who had demanded Shedu stop his attacks.
Then she stood up. And up. The dark-haired girl had been tall, just a bit taller than Shedu. But this woman was a giant half again that big. Her wings spread out to reveal her whole form - a form stunning in it's terrible beauty.
She was an angel. A fierce warrior of God, complete with sword of flame. Her wide-spread wings lifted her effortlessly up into the sky and she began to fly toward Shedu.
"Shedu, demon imp, cease thy torment of this boy!" a voice roared, huge with power, resonating in his very core, yet still pure and musically clear - a feminine song of glory.
"Wh . . . what?" he stammered.
"Thou shalt not harm those who harm thee not!" the voice tolled. "Or harm such as thou cannot imagine will return on thee a thousand fold!"
Thou shalt not harm those that harm thee not!"
That was enough. Shedu's legs finally started working again and he ran for Twain faster than he had ever moved before. His tailed whipped out to balance his turn, and caught on his trident.
"Shit, I forgot my own power," he thought. Looking back over his shoulder he gathered up his energy and focused it through the talisman he carried. A crackle of near-solid lightning leaped at the looming angel and detonated in a thunderous boom.
Which had the sole effect of making the angel really, really angry. Nothing else had changed, not even to the loss of a single feather from her beautiful wings.
"Shedu, demon imp, thou wert warned!" the angel announced. She twisted in flight and then her sword of flame started to descend into line with the now-running demon like the slow, yet inevitable doom of a falling mountain.
A line of intolerable brightness flashed from the sword to the dodging devil-boy. It struck the ground a few paces behind him and the soil exploded. The shock wave tumbled Shedu off his feet and rolled him down the hill toward a wooded ravine.
The sword beam wasn't absorbed by the ground. Leaving behind a ten-foot wide crater, it bounced up and took out half a dozen feet of retaining wall near the Twain building, and from there ricocheted further to knock down a service chimney and gouge a channel through the roof of the dorm. It was on enough of an upward trajectory by then that nothing else was touched as the beam sped up into the sky, apparently undiminished by the destruction in its wake.
The angel had turned to follow the boy into the ravine, but seemed to falter once he reached the bottom. Her great wings, which hadn't seemed to need to work hard to keep her aloft, rippled with an unfocused shudder and the angel's steady path dipped toward the ground. The dip became a drop, as the flying form fell ten feet to the ground, landing with grace but clearly unable to fly any further.
And then the angel collapsed, her inner glow of light transforming to heat that threatened an incineration as complete as her sword had achieved.
In moments it was over. April crouched on the ground, moaning at yet another pain-filled transformation. The only signs that an angel had existed were the destruction from the sword of flame, the tiara gleaming on her head, and a snowy white robe that covered but did not hide her shapely form.
Chapter 14 - "A Matter of Control"
It didn't take long for Campus security to show up. Explosions tend to do that. Missing chimneys and roofs and other structural components are another pretty good summons for those charged with keeping order. They found April still crouched, hugging her knees in silence, wondering what had happened.
Shedu wasn't quite so concerned. He probably would be, when he woke up, but something had introduced itself to his head as he slid into the ravine. Squamata was somewhere in between - aware enough to be concerned, but relieved enough that Shedu was no longer tormenting him that he was quite happy to talk with the guards. He was chattering away when Ms. Hartford came up. Apparently her sources of information on campus goings-on were almost as good as those reporting to Security.
"It was awesssome! Ssshe jussst, like, became an angel. A beautiful angel, with white wingssssss and thisss really cool sssword. And ssshe whacked that basssstard Ssshedu but good.
"So she attacked Shedu without provocation?" Ms. Hartford asked.
"Not hardly," Squamata said. "Ssshe had lotsss of provocation. Ssshedu was . . ."
Hartford interrupted. "We'll have to have a formal investigation. Using lethal force against a student is a very serious offense. Officer, take this woman into custody at once!"
Chief Delarose had arrived as she made her pronouncement, accompanied by Dr. Bellows. "I'll take care of security matters," the chief said.
"Then do your duty," Hartford demanded.
"I hardly think that taking this young woman into custody will be necessary," Dr. Bellows said. "She is a student and patient under my care. Leave her to me."
"I'll thank you not to give me orders concerning Security either, Doctor," Delarose said.
April interrupted their turf battle by the simple gesture of reaching up and taking off her tiara. She looked at it with a combination of longing and revulsion, then rose gracefully to her feet.
"How is Shedu?" she asked calmly.
"He'll be okay," a guard said from the bottom of the slope into the ravine. "I think he was just scared as much as injured. In any event, other than a headache, he'll be fine."
"He'll still need to be checked at the infirmary," Ms. Hartford declared.
"Of course," Chief Delarose confirmed. Looking at April he asked, "Are you hurt, young lady?"
"No," April replied. "Though I need my backpack. Right now."
"Why?" he asked.
"Because I think I better put this away before it causes even more trouble," she said, indicating her tiara.
"I'll take that," Ms. Hartford declared. "If it's a student-created artifact, then it should be controlled by Administration."
Chief Delarose laughed. "I don't think so." He held out his hand to April. "I'll take that young lady. And then we'll have a little talk."
April shrugged, but handed the crown to him without argument. She looked at Dr. Bellows with a question in her eyes. He nodded assurance to her, but also moved to stand with her. "If there is to be any interrogation, I insist on being with her. I'm her advisor and her therapist."
"Administration must be represented as well," demanded Ms. Hartford. She extracted a cell phone from a waist holder and turned her back on the others before starting an urgent, whispered conversation with someone on the other end.
"Of course," Chief Delarose said again, with a sigh. "Shall we say . . . my office, in about five minutes? That should give us all time to walk over there. You won't give us any trouble, will you, young lady?"
"My name is April Tarrant," April said. "Or perhaps, 'Dream' if you want to use a code name for the records."
"Very well, ah, Dream. Come along?"
Dr. Bellows nodded at her again, but he did not move from his position at her side as they began the walk to Shuster hall.
The crowd was too big for the chief's office, so he commandeered a small conference room and casually pointed out chairs for everyone. Dr. Bellows politely helped April, who was still wearing the flowing white robe, into a chair but he remained standing near her, his hand resting protectively on her shoulder. Ms. Hartford looked around like she was expecting someone - or perhaps she was just expecting someone to help her with her own chair. When neither expectation was met she sat primly, her frown growing as she opened her mouth to speak.
"No," Delarose interrupted her. He stood at the head of the table, but did not take his own seat. "No more speeches from anyone. I will conduct this, ah, enquiry myself. You may witness, but not interfere."
Dr. Bellows didn't take the chief's order. "I'm sorry, but as Dream's therapist, I truly believe I must have a chance to talk with her first, in private, and with doctor-patient confidentiality."
"Not gonna happen, Doc," Chief Delarose said, putting a hand out to halt Ms. Hartford's own angry demand. "If she truly has used deadly force on another student, this is more than a therapy issue. At least, for right now."
He turned to the seated girl. "Dream, while I can't allow the doctor - or Ms. Hartford - to discuss this with you first, you do have the right to an attorney. Do you want one?"
"Am I under arrest?"
"No," the chief replied. "But this is an enquiry into a possible crime. As such, anything you say can be used in any later, ah, proceedings that arise. Do you understand that? And understand that we'll pay for the attorney if you need one? I don't want you to feel that you are forced to talk with us without benefit of counsel."
Dream looked at Dr. Bellows, who frowned, but did not offer to make the decision for her. After a moment she looked back at the chief and shrugged. "I don't think I need an attorney."
The chief smiled and visibly relaxed. He pulled his own chair out and sat down, leaning comfortably on the table. "Good. I know this is a standard 'good cop' line, but I truly want to help you, starting with truly understanding what happened."
Nonetheless, he reached out and turned on a recorder. "This is an interview with a Whateley student known as Dream. I'm Chief Delarose. With me also are Dr. Bellows, who is Dream's faculty advisor, and Ms. Hartford from school administration. I'm going to keep this informal. If at any time it appears that more formal procedures are appropriate, I'll so note. In particular, Dream has agreed to speak without having an attorney present, and if at any point she feels uncomfortable with that we'll stop and make the proper arrangements."
He looked around the room, then sat back for a minute. A decision formed in his mind and he looked directly at Dream. "Y'know, I'm going to break procedure because I want to hear from someone else before I hear from you, but I don't want anyone else talking with you before I do. So I'm going to ask the closest thing we have to a witness, Squamata, to come talk to us. Dream, will you promise me not to say anything, and in particular, not to interrupt anything he might say?"
At her nod, he looked at the other occupants of the room. "That applies to the rest of you as well."
He reached up to his radio microphone and said, "Send in Squamata, please."
The knock on the door that followed shortly on the chief's summons was not the lizard-boy. Instead, a technician from one of the labs stood there, a box in his hands.
"Oh, good," Ms. Hartford said. "It's about time. Bring that in here."
"What's going on?" Delarose asked.
"I'm protecting us all from the danger inherent in Dream's power," she declared. "Including Dream."
She reached into the box and took out a metal helmet. It looked something like a scuba diver's wetsuit helmet, except that it was metal, and rigid except for hinged flaps that were obviously intended to close at the neck of the wearer. With a lock.
"Come here, Dream, and let me put this on you."
Dream looked at the heavy device and shied away. "Doctor?" she said plaintively, looking at Dr. Bellows.
"I will not allow that monstrosity to be put on my patient," he declared.
"It is standard procedure for out-of-control mutants with dangerous mental talents," Ms. Hartford declared.
"Not at Whateley," the chief countered. "They may lock people into those things in the outside world, but not here. Not on my watch. Not with a student."
"But it's for her own safety!" Hartford insisted. "This student has transformed multiple times, without control, and has already used lethal force without provocation."
Her voice took on a saccharine, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone. "It's not Dream's fault. When she transforms, a new personality takes over, depending on the nature of the intruding fantasy. Even she recognizes that she doesn't control what happens after that. And when Doctor Bellows asked her what she wanted most, it was to find a way to turn her power off. This can help her do that."
Dream flinched away again, and Dr. Bellows moved forward. "No," he said bluntly, but with firmness quite at odds with his normal genial nature.
"No," the chief said with equal firmness. "She has managed up until now without such a device, and we don't yet really know what happened out there. Let's get a little more information first."
Dream was not comforted by the implication that he might change his mind and allow Hartford to lock that thing on her head. But any further protest, by any of the parties, was interrupted by another knock on the door. This time it was Squamata, who looked fully healed from his earlier injuries aside from some very short pants legs and missing sleeves.
"Thank you for coming," the chief said courteously. "This is an enquiry into what happened out there today, and we're interested in what you observed. As you can see, this is being recorded."
Squamata glanced at the recorder, then shrugged. "It wasss more than obssssserving. I wasss being attacked when - I never did get your name - ssshowed up."
"Dream," she said softly, still looking at the helmet on the table as though she were afraid it might inch closer if she blinked.
"Right. Dream. Well, thankssss. Ssshedu wasss really hammering me when you ssshowed up."
He looked at the chief and continued. "Ssshe told him to leave me alone, and he sssaid . . . well, he made her a pretty rude offer."
"So that's when she attacked him?" prompted Hartford.
"No! I keep telling you, ssshe didn't attack him!"
"So where did all the damage come from? Did Shedu do it?"
"No," Squamata said. "He'sss not that powerful. No, ssshe did it, only it was after he tried to attack her."
Delarose tried to get the discussion back to the facts. "So that's when you say she turned into an angel. A real, live, wings-and-all angel?"
"No," Squamata contradicted him again. "Ssshe turned into an angel firssst, but all ssshe did wassss warn him off. That'sss when he attacked her with hissss pitchfork thing."
Dr. Bellows interjected, "So Shedu used deadly force on her, before she responded?"
"I don't know if it wasss deadly force," Squamata said with a sigh. "Ssshe had seen him attack me, and it looked worssse than it wassss, sssince I damage pretty easssy even though I heal very fasssst. I don't know if hissss pitchfork thing iss powerful enough to kill a regular perssson."
"Of course, Dream didn't know that," Dr. Bellows stated.
Chief Delarose tried to regain control of the interview. "When Shedu attacked the, um, angel, what did that do?"
The lizard-boy shrugged. "Nothing, ssso far asss I could tell. Except that it made her mad enough to sssend a blasst from her ssword at him."
"So the blade she manifested was a power sword that hit him with an energy attack, not just an edged weapon?"
"Well, sshe didn't actually hit him. Ssshe hit the ground, and the blasst sssort of bounced from there."
"How many times did Shedu attack her?" Hartford asked.
"Well, he tried once, but like I ssssaid, it didn't really hit her. It was ssort of, absssorbed or ssssomething. Ssshe was glowing and it looked like the glow jusst . . . ate hissss power sshot."
Chief Delarose asked, "After the angel shot her sword at Shedu, what happened?"
"I don't really know," Squamata said. "I wass ducking. I think Ssshedu just losst hissss balance and rolled into the ravine. When I looked up, the angel wasss landing and then ssshe ssort of ssat down. That'sss when the wingsss dissssappeared. And the ssword, I guesssss."
"According to my report," the chief said, "that's also about the time that my guards showed up. Nothing much seems to have changed from that point. Shedu woke up and was taken to the infirmary."
Squamata looked around, wondering what he was supposed to do now. The chief waved him toward the door without any further words, and the leathery boy slipped silently away.
"Well, that makes things pretty clear," Hartford said briskly. "After she knew she was in no danger, she attacked Shedu with deadly force, injuring him and damaging several pieces of Whateley property. I think this helmet is the least of the protections we - that is, she will need."
"You mean the least of the restraints," Dr. Bellows said sharply. "I suppose you'll want her in a shielded cage in Hawthorne, too."
"Well, now that you bring it up . . ," she began.
Chief Delarose didn't let her take advantage of that opening. "I think that's a bit premature. We haven't even heard from Dream yet."
Before she had a chance to talk, there was yet another interruption. This time the door to the conference room was thrown open without prior warning. Actually thrown, in this case, ending up on the far side of the room.
"April!" two voices shouted in unison - or at least in synchronization, because one light soprano and one deep baritone were hardly on the same tone.
It was too much for the chief. "Damnit, that's enough! You two, out! Now! And no more interruptions."
"Sorry, but we can't do that," the young man who entered - Meteor - said. "April needs us, and we're not leaving her alone again."
"Besides, this is all my fault anyway," Harmony added. "If I hadn't made that crystal . . ."
"If I hadn't just left last night, after we rescued her . . ," Meteor began.
"Rescued her?" Dr. Bellows repeated.
"Yeah, from . . . well, we took care of it, but we knew she needed our help, and we shouldn't have left her alone. We won't do it again."
Meteor didn't actually change size, at least in the sense of getting taller or heavier. But his muscles bulged enough that he might as well have, and it was clear no one in the room had the power to move him against his will.
Which was, of course, the cue for yet another person to enter the room.
Ms. Carson walked carefully past the wreckage of the door frame, and looked at the tableau before her. She looked at Meteor and smiled - a smile that had a warning and utter confidence she could back it up, "Sean, don't threaten my security staff. I won't like it."
"Nice of you to invite me," she said blandly to the room at large, though her glance lingered on Ms. Hartford longer than on any of the others. The smile she wore changed for just that moment, a promise of a different sort than she had sent to Sean.
"So, where are we?" she mused. "I saw Squamata leaving, so I assume he's had a chance to talk with you. And for all their loyalty, my understanding is that neither Harmony nor Meteor were actually witnesses to what occurred this morning, though I believe I heard something about a rescue? Shall we begin there - or at least, at the reason Dream needed a rescue?"
She took a seat at the other end of the table from the chief, which suddenly became the head of the table and it was clear this was now her meeting. Everyone else sat down as well, following her lead.
That pause was enough to get at least four explanations going simultaneously, overlaid with at least two interpretations of 'what needed to be done.' She ignored them until she was seated, then stilled the room with a glance.
"Dream, as the most interested party, why don't we begin with you?"
"Where do I start?" she asked.
"Assume we are aware of the basic facts through your last conversation with Dr. Bellows. He did not, of course, discuss anything personal, just the facts of your attempt to tune yourself to your theta waves, and of Harmony's crystal assistance with that endeavor. I assume from today's little excitement that you had some success?"
"I don't know if that's what I'd call it," Dream said with a sigh. She launched into an explanation of her transformations since Harmony had given her the crystal, up to the point where she had been captured by Stiletto.
Now Ms. Carson was the one to sigh. "A light begins to illuminate. Ms. Springs left Whateley this morning for another school. Her parents concurred, perhaps because of the damage to her room?" The last was a question asked of no one in particular, but with a glance at Meteor. He started to say something, but then sat back.
"Quite," Ms. Carson said. "In context, then, it appears that you found, ah, Stiletto's power quite compelling, to the point that your friends took it upon themselves to, as they said, rescue you?"
"Yes," Dream said. "I was trapped, and it was . . . bad. I don't know what would have happened if they hadn't come."
"Neither do I, dear, and for that you have my profound apologies," Ms. Carson said. She returned to the topic. "You did not mention any physical transformations while you were, ah, with Ms. Springs?"
"No ma'am," Dream said. "I don't always have any physical changes. There's always a flash of like, heat, but it doesn't last very long if there's no physical change. Sometimes it's just like, an attitude, or . . . compulsion, I guess."
"And the nature of the mental compulsion with Stiletto?" prompted Ms. Carson.
Dream buried her face in her hands as though hiding from the world, and shuddered. "She wanted me to . . . want to be . . . hurt."
"You mean physically injured?" Ms. Carson asked for clarification.
"Yes," Dream said, nodding behind her hands. "She . . . beat me, and . . . .other things." Her voice started to climb as she continued, "And I had to tell her I liked it, that I wanted more!"
It was too much for Harmony. She left her chair and wrapped her arms around her roommate. Meteor was not far behind, looking on helplessly as Dream cried into her friend's shoulder.
A fierce look came over Ms. Carson's fine features, and she said firmly, "I will be contacting Ms. Springs' parents, and also the headmistress at her new school." Then she sighed and said, "Again, Dream, I am very sorry."
"It's over now," Dream said. "Part of all this is that my body healed as soon as I was no longer like, fulfilling her desire to be . . . hurt."
Ms. Carson said, "Now, as to what happened this morning? Why were you still wearing your tiara?"
"It didn't start out that way," Dream said. "I took it off as soon as they freed me from Stiletto's fantasy. I was just, y'know, taking it with me to Dr. Bellows to see what we should do next. I mean, as far as like, aversion therapy is concerned, after the time with Stiletto . . . well, if that wasn't enough, then nothing would be."
"I would imagine," Ms. Carson agreed, sending her frown this time toward the psychiatrist.
Dream heard the tone in Ms. Carson's voice, and looked up at her therapist. Then she looked at Sean and blushed. She ducked her head and said softly, "Not all the transformations were, um, bad. Some were . . . nice."
"Indeed?" Ms. Carson said, though a smile lurked in her eyes at this revelation.
Then she became serious again and said, "So why did you put the tiara on again this morning?"
"I found, y'know, Shedu tormenting, um, Squamata, just for meanness. It was too much like what had happened to me. I totally could not just like, walk on by."
"And so you put on your tiara? Why? Did you expect to become Wonder Woman again?"
"No," Dream said. "It was after Shedu made an . . . offer of what it would take to make him stop, and I thought that if I like, gave him what he wanted then he'd leave Squamata alone. But I couldn't like, let him do that to me, y'know, the real me? I mean, I'm not . . I've never . . . done anything like that. So I thought maybe if I like, became someone else . . ."
Her face firmed up with a fierceness of her own and she said strongly, "I couldn't just let him pick on the liz . . um, on Squamata. I had to do something, and that's all I could think of. I was so totally mad that, well, maybe I just didn't think. Maybe I did want to become Wonder Woman or something, but that's not really what I expected. But I had to do something!"
"Indeed," Ms. Carson said again.
"Elizabeth, if I may," Dr. Bellows said, the first interruption of Ms. Carson's meeting.
He looked at Dream and said, "You said you were angry when you transformed this time?"
"And when you're wearing the crystal that Harmony provided, you can transform even when you're not drowsy?"
Dream nodded again.
Dr. Bellows looked back to Ms. Carson and said, "One of the things we discovered is that Dream can pick up on theta wave harmonics - multiples of the basic theta wave structure. It would appear that she has developed the ability to 'tune in' to someone's desires even when neither party is actually in the daydreaming state; when they are, for example, angry or excited."
Ms. Hartford sniffed in disbelief. "I hardly think that young Mr. Shedu's fantasies involve an avenging angel. Just the opposite, I would imagine."
"You may be on to something there, Amelia," Dr. Bellows said, then he turned to Dream. "Did you notice anything different about this transformation, while it was starting?"
"I guess," she said. "It seemed like something was like, blocking him at first, then a different, I don't know, input came right through to me. That's when I started to transform."
"Into the angel, right?"
"Tell me," the doctor said, falling into a therapist mode. "Do you often dream of angels? Particularly angels of biblical power? Do you think of yourself as an angel of the Lord?"
"No," she said, "not that I remember. And I totally don't think I'm an angel. God, no! Oops." She looked around as though expecting to be struck by lightning for her blasphemy.
Dr. Bellows looked thoughtfully for a moment, then an idea came to him, accompanied by a broad grin.
"My dear, we may need to change your code name," he said cryptically.
"I don't understand," Dream replied, voicing sentiments shared by the others in the room.
"We may need to call you, 'Nightmare,'" he said smugly.
When none of the others picked up on his meaning, he explained. "I think that if you are angry when you transform, you can pick up on the subject's fears - or nightmares - instead of their fantasies. I expect our imp-form student, young Shedu, does spend a lot of time thinking about his opposite - the angel to his devil - and fearing them."
Ms. Carson rejoined the conversation, "So, the only time she will become this angel of - as you said - biblical power is when that is the nightmare of the person she is attacking?"
"I'm not sure I'd use 'attacking' in this context," Dr. Bellows demurred. "After all, Shedu had already attacked her. She was just defending herself."
"After she knew his powers were no threat to her," Ms. Hartford said. "It was hardly a justifiable use of deadly force."
"Excuse me," Dream said. "But I didn't try to hit him. I aimed to miss, to scare him. That was his nightmare, to confront the power of God that his very body seems to oppose. But his nightmare wasn't to die by the hand of God, or His angel. He's looking for redemption, not destruction."
"How can you know that?" Ms. Hartford said in disbelief.
"I always know what's going on when I'm transformed," Dream said sadly. "I just can't control it."
"Exactly," Ms. Hartford said, looking pointedly at the metal helmet.
Ms. Carson stood up, but didn't immediately move away from her position at the end of the table. She looked at Chief Delarose to confirm that he would accept her authority as she pronounced her decision.
"Very well. Who has the tiara now?"
The chief indicated himself, so she continued. "Give the tiara with the tuning crystal to Dr. Bellows. At his discretion, and with suitable controls on the attitudes of people around, he can work with Dream to continue her attempt to control her power."
She looked at Dream herself. "You did indeed use deadly force, though I am inclined to believe that one with the power of God behind her would not miss by accident, so I accept that you were not really trying to hurt Shedu. Nonetheless, there was quite a bit of material damage done and you - angel or not - obviously did not exercise due care. As a result, you will serve detention for such time as it takes to repair all the damage. Personally. I hope you remember how to handle a hammer, because Twain needs a new roof. Not to mention a new chimney."
She turned to Meteor next. "As you seem to have caused damage to Dickenson last night, and wrecked this conference room's door today your detention will consist of working with Whateley maintenance and repair crews for two weeks on a schedule that they will provide, which will include helping Dream repair the damage she caused."
"And Harmony," she continued, "there is no excuse for not telling us that Dream was missing for two days. I am quite disappointed. However, I think we will take advantage of your particular talents. Do you think you can tune another crystal, one that will suppress rather than enhance theta waves?"
"Um, yes," Harmony said thoughtfully.
"Very well. First, you will create such a crystal. Then you will deliver it to Dream, who will wear it except as directed by Dr. Bellows. And in the meantime, you will help Dream and Meteor with the repairs to Twain and surrounding areas. I'm particularly thinking you should work on filling in the crater that was left from Dream's sword of power, so bring clothes you don't mind getting dirty - and work gloves."
Harmony groaned, but nodded.
"Does everyone agree with this?" she asked. If anyone disagreed, they said nothing.
With that, Ms. Carson moved toward the doorless doorway into the conference room. As she reached that entrance, she looked at the heavy helmet still sitting on the middle of the table. "And get rid of that thing. If I ever see anything like that again, without my personal and explicit concurrence on the need, Stiletto will not be the only one looking for a new school."
Chapter 15 - "Why Did You Put On The Tiara?"
Dr. Bellows was his normal, genial self later that afternoon when April finally had her long-delayed appointment.
"Come in, Dream. I've been looking forward to this."
"Thank you, doctor," she said politely. At his offering gesture, she took a seat in one of the comfortable chairs.
"You've had a busy few days," he observed with a wry smile.
"Uh, yeah," she agreed.
He sat back in his chair with an attitude of calm openness. "We don't need to go back through the facts of what happened. I'd like to talk about what you think it means."
"What it means?" April repeated. "I'd think that's obvious. It means that my power is dangerous, and out of control, and . . . it sucks."
"Just bad things?" he asked.
The doctor nodded, then added, "But not exclusively."
"Close enough," she said.
"Then why did you put on your tiara when Shedu was tormenting Squamata?"
"If only bad things - 'close enough' - occur when you use your powers, then why did you put on your tiara when facing Shedu?"
"I told you," she said. "I had to do something."
"To make yourself his slave, as you had been Stiletto's slave?"
"If that's what it took," she said, grimly remembering the situation.
April looked at the doctor with exasperation. "Because . . . because I couldn't let him do that to that lizard-boy."
She sat up stiffly in her chair and challenged him. "Are we to the point that you're going to respond to everything I say with a question?"
"Perhaps," he said with that wry smile. "At least, I probably will until you find the real answer to my questions."
"What do you want me to say?"
He shrugged. "Whatever you think is right. Why did you invoke your powers to confront Shedu? If they're nothing but trouble, then why did you think they would help?"
"As a distraction, if nothing else. If all my powers did was make me turn purple with green spots, I could distract him."
"Is that what you expected?"
"You know that's not what I expected," she said. "It was just, like, an example."
"Of course," he agreed. "In fact, your powers are a lot more than merely a distraction."
He steepled his fingers before his lips, then said softly. "Using your tiara was a very brave, very selfless act. You had just experienced the worst sort of compulsion, and you were facing someone who had made clear his intentions to do additional unpleasant things to you. Yet you willingly did what you thought would be demeaning and even disgusting - and to protect someone you didn't even know."
The doctor leaned forward in his seat and spoke with more energy, "That was very noble of you, and nothing that followed, including the fact you ended up with great power instead of humiliation, reduces the honor of that decision."
April blushed at his compliment, and relaxed again in her chair.
Dr. Bellows continued, "But it also means that you don't think your powers are only bad news. At least, not bad overall, however unpleasant they may be for you."
April just shrugged, but her eyes were thoughtful.
The doctor continued, "The subconscious is a funny thing. Harmony's crystal helped you train yours, to the point that you can transform much more readily than before."
"Yeah," she said bitterly.
He smiled gently. "That's actually good news. It means that you can be alert and actively using your mind, instead of surrendering much of your control to your subconscious. That's an important step."
"If you say so," she said, but once again he saw a flicker of hope in her eyes.
Leaning back in his chair, he folded his hands in his lap and prodded April with another question. "Tell me what you were feeling when you were Wonder Woman."
"I wasn't really Wonder Woman, just like, Sean's dream of Wonder Woman."
"Close enough," the doctor said with a smile, pointing his finger at her with a 'gotcha' shot.
April sat thoughtfully for a moment, then grinned. "It was . . . wonderful."
Dr. Bellows groaned. "Oh, April, please don't tell me you like puns. And here I thought you were a nice girl."
She giggled, then frowned when she realized she had made such a girlish sound, then smiled again anyway. "It was awesome," she said. "I've wanted to fly like, forever, and it was no-kidding, blasting through the sky flying. And I felt strong, and fast, and just, like, wonderful. Great. Excited."
"Special?" the doctor offered.
"Well, yeah," she said.
"Like your powers made you unique?"
She nodded, beginning to see his point.
"Even the less-desirable changes . . . didn't they still make you unique?"
"Sorry, doc," she said. "I agree that I did feel special - as in unique - but unique is not always good. There are some students who are very unique, and suffer every day because of it."
"You're right, of course," he said. "But tell me what else you felt."
"What do you mean?"
"How did you feel to be flying with Sean?"
"You mean like, playing tag through the clouds?"
"Yes, and I also mean . . . how did it feel to have a handsome young man pursuing you?"
He didn't bother to repeat himself. An arched eyebrow requested her to answer his question.
She looked at her slender hands for a long moment, then avoided is gaze by looking out the window. Dr. Bellows sat patiently, and finally she looked back at him.
"I liked it," she whispered.
"Did you feel compelled to like it?"
"No," she said softly. "That wasn't part of the transformation at all."
"That sounds like it was a pretty pleasant experience with your powers. Have there been any others?"
"Yes," she said with a blush.
He prompted her. "There's at least one you haven't told me about, isn't there?"
"Yes," she repeated, her cheeks blushing even brighter. Again she couldn't quite look at him, now apparently studying the display of his credentials, though not really reading any of them.
"I changed once for Harmony."
"What was her fantasy? For you, I mean. I'm not prying into her private thoughts."
April looked directly at Dr. Bellows for a moment. "She didn't change a thing, except . . . to make me more like, feminine. And maybe more, um . . . sensual."
"Did you enjoy that?"
Her hot cheeks proclaimed her answer. Her dark hair nodded in confirmation. After a moment, she took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. Looking directly at Dr. Bellows, she said, "This is private, right? No one else will know?"
"Absolutely," he assured her.
April's blush flared brighter than ever, but she said, "I kissed her. And I liked it. A lot. But it's turned out that I also like the other parts of being a girl. Being more feminine, and more like, sensual. I like the feel of long soft hair on my shoulders. I like the smooth, soft nightgowns I wear. If she like, dreamed the same dream again, it might not be any change at all. Except maybe that I'd be able to sing - which I can't do now."
"How do you know?" he asked.
"I've never been able to sing at all," she explained.
Dr. Bellows just smiled in silence. Not being able to sing was so much a part of April's self image, from when she was Corwin, that it actually took her a few moments to realize why the doctor was just sitting there. Then it came to her and her eyes got very round - as did her mouth.
"Oh my God," she gasped. "You mean?"
"Do you want to see? Sing something."
"I couldn't . . ," she protested, but the introspective smile that followed said she would indeed try out this possible new talent.
"Excellent!" Dr. Bellows said, accepting the promise of her smile and not her denial. "I must say, Dream, that I'm very happy for you. Accepting your new life is going to be so much better for you than hating it. May I ask, do you still wish to be Corwin? Even Corwin XL?"
April frowned. "I don't know. I don't want to disappoint my parents . . ."
"Do you think they'd be disappointed to have a beautiful, courageous daughter?"
April ducked her head shyly at the compliment, but she smiled. "Not really."
The doctor leaned back in his seat with a grin. "I'll bet you wondered if our conversations would be private because you think people would be upset that you kissed a girl. Well, my dear, in some places that would be true, but not here. If you still respond to the same sorts of, ah, attributes that attracted you as Corwin, then no one here will blame you for it."
April smiled in gratitude, but then frowned. "Um, Doctor, Harmony is not the only one who . . . attracts me."
"Oh?" he said, another lifted eyebrow conveying an invitation to explain.
"When I was Wonder Woman . . . or actually, when I was Catwoman right after I was Wonder Woman . . . I kissed Sean."
"Was that the result of a compulsion?"
"Not really," she said. "I think the transformation, like, released some inhibitions, but it didn't, like, force me to do anything I didn't want to do."
"So," Dr. Bellows said with a genial smile, "you enjoyed that, too."
"Oh yeah," April said, her breath catching for a moment.
"Oh, dear," the doctor said, but his smile took away any real concern. "You do have a problem then, don't you?"
"Tell me about it," April sighed.
"I'm not about to tell you how to work out your love life," he said with a chuckle. "If I knew how to handle that, particularly for teen-agers, I'd be rich. Let's move on to another topic." He reached into his briefcase, and then frowned. Shuffling through the papers again, he found only a small red crystal.
"I was going to give you your tiara, but it seems to have disappeared."
"Yeah. I told you that my jewelry disappears overnight."
"But this has only been a few hours."
She shrugged. "Like you said, it's my subconscious that does that. I guess mine thought I wasn't going to get it back, so it like, let go of it."
Dr. Bellows smiled at her convoluted pronouns, but said nothing about her sentence construction. Instead, he handed her the red crystal.
"Well, you can have this anyway."
"I thought Ms. Carson said I was only to use it under your supervision," April said.
"Yes, and I'm giving it to you for the purpose of experiments, with appropriate supervisory guidance. Here is that guidance: Use the crystal as you think best."
"I don't understand," she said.
He smiled. "I trust you, Dream, and I trust your subconscious mind. Frankly, I'm very encouraged by the fact you were able to shield yourself from Shedu's fantasy. I think you'll find that you can do that as long as you're reasonably alert, even if you're not angry. Use the crystal if you want help to transform."
"Anytime I want?"
He nodded, then went on. "I'm more concerned about preventing unwanted transformations. If we can figure out a way to do that - perhaps with the help of another crystal from Harmony, as Ms. Carson directed - then you'll actually have things pretty well under control. Use the suppressing crystal whenever you want. Most of the time, probably. If you want to transform to fulfill a fantasy for someone you trust, then use the red crystal and be happy. If you feel a need to come to the rescue of another tormented student, then use the red crystal and be full of righteous anger. I expect you'll find those options to be quite interesting. If I were fifty years younger and had a young woman who could literally become my fantasies . . . well, I'd find that very interesting indeed."
"Dr. Bellows!" April said, giggling.
"Just pick the right companion, young lady," he said with mock sternness.
April giggled again, then stood as she realized that his light-hearted comments were a sign that the interview was at an end.
"Oh, Dream," Dr. Bellows said as she walked toward the door. "Now that you have some idea of what control feels like, from when you were able to shut out the fantasy and allow in the nightmare, I think you'll be able to make better progress in Powers Theory and Powers Lab. I'll adjust your schedule to see that you're in the right types of classes."
April nodded, once again looking thoughtful at the idea of gaining real control over her frustrating abilities.
The next step in that control was to be external, though. And it turned out to be more difficult than any of them had expected. When April returned to her room, she found Harmony gazing at a crystal with what looked like her usual intensity. But in another moment April realized that none of Harmony's hair was stretched out to provide any activating tones, and in fact Harmony looked distracted rather than concentrating.
April tried to move carefully so that she wouldn't disturb her roommate, but as soon as she moved into the crystal-haired girl's line of site, Harmony jerked and her eyes focused on April.
"Oh, hi," Harmony said.
"Hi," April repeated.
Harmony tossed the crystal on her desk in frustration and sighed.
"Problem?" asked April.
"Yeah," Harmony said. "I just don't have a good idea on how to go about this suppression thing."
"Oh," April said. "So it's not just like, the reverse of the other crystal?"
Harmony frowned. "I don't think so. There's a big difference between enhancing something your mind does anyway - theta waves - and suppressing something your mind needs. I don't want to cause a bigger problem than we solve."
April sat down and put her head in her hands. "Damn, this subconscious thing sucks, y'know? It's like there's someone else in my head with me, and they seem to have as much control over my life as I do."
"I expect every mutant in this facility with a BIT they don't care for would say that same thing. At least your basic BIT turned out pretty well."
"Thanks," April said. "But it doesn't solve the problem."
"No," agreed Harmony. Then she smiled brightly and looked at her roommate. "So we'll do what all frustrating problems require. Let's go get something to eat . . . preferably with chocolate. After all, it's dinner time."
Chocolate didn't solve their problem, but it didn't seem to hurt anything either. Neither did a good night's sleep. The next day when they reported for detention to repair the damage that Dream-as-angel had caused, Harmony still hadn't been able to tune a crystal to block intruding fantasies.
Under the direction of Stan and Morrie, the maintenance crew, Harmony started the grunt work of filling in the hole blasted in the grass. April started hauling blocks to repair the damaged wall. Sean was there too, and started on the roof at Twain.
April's regen-like powers protected her hands from being scraped or torn by the blocks she carried, or at least protected her from the consequences of those scrapes. But the regular maintenance guys didn't know that and when Stan saw her working without gloves he came striding over. "What do you think you're doing?" he demanded.
"Moving these blocks, like you told me," April replied.
"That is most certainly not, 'like I told you!'" he said firmly. "Where are your gloves?"
"I'm like, a regen, so my hands heal right away. I don't need gloves."
"Yeah, but they still hurt, right? That's not necessary, and I won't have students on my maintenance teams hurt for no purpose."
"Sorry," April said, but she smiled because it was clear Stan was way too kind to be as domineering as his words would indicate.
"Take a break," he commanded, "and get some gloves from the supply shed." With that he rushed away to address another repair task.
April sighed with guilty relief at the excuse to stop hauling the heavy blocks for a while. "This would be a lot easier if I were as strong as Wonder Woman," she muttered to herself.
Looking up at Sean hovering in the hair as he placed roof shingles, pushing the nails in easily with his thumb, triggered yet another sigh - and another guilty twinge as she remembered how it had been to play tag through the clouds with the handsome young man.
"I shouldn't feel that way about a guy," she thought. "At least, not when I feel the same way about a girl."
Her body wasn't as reluctant to appreciate what she saw, as her new tattletales were only too proud to show. April hunched her shoulders and ducked her head, hoping no one had seen her little - actually, not so little - displays.
She was suddenly aware that she was wearing some sort of jewelry in her hair - a light chain that surrounded her head, leaving something to dangle on her forehead. April reached up and took the chain off to find what she would have called a necklace if it had manifested around her neck instead of her head. The dangly portion was a pendant with an obviously missing part - a part just the right size for the crystal that she carried in a pocket of her jeans.
"I could actually wear this as a necklace," she mused, "except it's also the right size to wear on my head, like some exotic Hindu princess. That would put the jewel right where it needs to be to sense my brain waves."
April came close to throwing the jewel-less pendant away. "Damn you, subconscious, quit nagging!" she growled, not caring if anyone heard.
But she didn't throw it away. Instead, she looked up at Sean. And at her not-quite-healed hands. And at the pile of blocks that needed to be moved to the damaged wall. And at the pile of bricks to repair the Twain chimney.
Her fingers traced the shape of the blood-red crystal through the pocket of her jeans. It wasn't really a subconscious act when she reached in and touched it. There wasn't anyone to blame but herself when she pulled it out. Nor when she confirmed it really would fit in the pendant.
She almost dropped it though when she felt more than heard a thump behind her, and turned to see Sean standing a few feet away.
"Are you okay?" he asked. "I saw Stan talking with you and he seemed like, agitated. Is there something I can help you with?"
"Oh, God, Sean, I don't know," she cried. April held up the crystal she still clutched in her hand. "I was thinking about using this."
"Oh," Sean said quietly.
"Yeah, oh," April said. She looked down at her hands as she explained. "I was thinking about all the work we have to do, and how weak I am like this. And how strong I know I can be. Inside me, somewhere are great powers. But I just can't get to them!"
Looking guiltily at Sean she admitted, "I was gonna ask if you'd like, change me into Wonder Woman again. I've gotten more sensitive and I think if I used the crystal that I could make a change that like, I wanted."
Then April looked up at Sean's perfect blue eyes and said, "At least, I could if that's what you wanted."
"Me?" he said in surprise. "But I could make you . . . . anything. I could make you a slave like Stiletto did. I know what that thing can do to you!"
"Yes, you do," she said softly. "But I realized as I was standing here that I truly do trust you."
"Oh, God, April, don't . . . You're so . . . pretty, and nice, and perfect that I'm not sure . . . not sure that I trust me. Not that much. Why don't you ask Harmony instead?"
"She doesn't see me like you do," April said.
"But what if I like, screw up somehow? What if I turn you into something you don't want? What if my own subconscious gets in the way?"
"I'm not worried, Sean," she said, reaching out to touch his hand. She pulled her hand back after a second and fit the crystal into her new pendant, then draped it so that the stone lay on her forehead.
"Think of me as Wonder Woman again," she asked. "Only like before, where I could fly like you do. Would you do that for me, Sean? Can you think of me that way again?"
"Oh, God, April. You're always Wonder Woman in my dreams! Playing tag through the clouds was just awesome. I totally can't think of anything else! But I may want it . . . too much."
"I trust you, Sean," April repeated. She knelt down, then rested on her heels, calmly looking up at the tall young man.
His face showed worry to the point of pain, but also a desire he could not hide. For a long moment, he just looked at the beautiful young woman. Then he nodded and closed his eyes.
Chapter 16 - "Choices"
April was expecting the pain of a fiery transformation, so when it came she bit back the groan her body demanded. She certainly didn't want Sean to feel guilty about doing what she had asked him to do. She was surprised, though, that the pain was not as bad as she expected, and did not last as long. She also wasn't Wonder Woman. Her sense of self, of her size and shape, didn't seem to have changed which meant she wasn't the superheroine she had been before.
"What did you do to me, Sean?" April asked sharply.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I couldn't just make you into like, a copy of someone else. I . . . like you just the way you are, well, with the powers you wanted of course. Honest. Except . . ."
"Except what, Sean?" she demanded.
"Well . . . I guess my fantasy for you was more like Supergirl anyway. The first time I was like, thinking about the tiara too much, but now . . .
April looked down to see that Sean had instead given her a Supergirl-style costume, complete with miniskirt, knee-high boots . . . and a cute short cape, though the colors were a match for Meteor's fiery red and gold rather than the Girl of Steel's red and blue.
"Real subtle, there, rockhead," she thought. She was about to grab a lock of her hair to see if Sean had made her blonde as well, but even as she thought about reaching for some she realized she had already known it was still dark and long. In fact, other than her costume, she wasn't aware of any physical changes at all.
She frowned as she absorbed the modified transformation, prompting Sean to apologize again. "I'm sorry, April. I'll, um . . . if this is wrong . . ."
"Stop!" she commanded. "If you think something is wrong, I'll be changed back."
April stood up and took the red crystal pendant from her forehead, draping the chain once again as a necklace. When she felt she was not at risk of an immediate retransformation - something that had happened before with Sean - she smiled at her muscular friend. "It's okay, Sean. I'm cool with it. But this doesn't mean I'm going to start coming to Cape Squad meetings."
"Oh, no, that wasn't . . . well, you'd be welcome, but . . ."
"It's okay, Sean," April repeated with an even bigger smile. "I'm flattered you see me this way."
Testing out her powers, April let herself hover up until she could lightly kiss the cheek of her still-taller companion. "Let's get to work."
With that, she flew over to the pile of blocks that she had been slowly moving to the wall, and gathered up an armload. Sean watched her, blushing and looking away when the short skirt failed to preserve her modesty from that angle. Then he launched himself up to resume his work on the roof of Twain.
Harmony watched them. In fact, she had watched the entire scene, including the way April had been observing Sean work before he approached her. The crystal-haired girl had seen April kneel down, offering herself to become whatever the Cape Squad member wanted, and then rise up to kiss him before flying back to her duties.
"It looks like April has made her choice," Harmony thought, blinking back tears. "It was stupid to think a girl that gorgeous would be satisfied with me. She could have anyone on campus, including the superheroes. Who wouldn't want Sean?"
The world seemed to go dark around her as though the sun had gone behind a thick cloud. Except it was more than that. Sounds became muted, even the breeze seemed to die off. Harmony realized her long, transparent hair was rising about her, the ends seemingly vibrating into nothing but air. It wasn't like when she was tuning a crystal, where she needed the tones supplied by her hair to focus into a very tight space. Instead, it was as though her hair were rejecting that sort of focus, trying to block out and dissipate instead of concentrate energy.
It fit her mood. Harmony was quite satisfied - happy would not apply, but she did feel a sense of rightness - to shut out the world. She turned back to her laborious task, moving dirt from one place to another.
No one noticed the distorted area around her, particularly since April and Sean were putting on a pretty good show of their own. Sean had apparently learned bricklaying somewhere, because he was expertly mortaring in the new chimney, with a lot of help from April. She would sail a heavy bag of mortar up to him in a seemingly effortless toss, then fly up with a staggering load of bricks. By the time she was at the level of the chimney, Sean would have mixed up the mortar and be ready for April to fling bricks at him with machine gun speed. Sean caught and placed the bricks as fast as she could throw them until her arms were empty. A few finishing touches as she darted down to the ground again, and he was ready for another bag of mortar and another pile of bricks.
"We're a good team," Sean observed, not too many minutes later when the job was done.
"Yes, we are," April said casually. For the first time in quite a while she looked around for her roommate, and noticed the bubble that surrounded Harmony.
"Uh, oh, something's wrong," she said, dropping rapidly to her friend.
Harmony was oblivious to the flying girl's arrival. She was focused on the drudgery of her task; mindless, repetitive, tiring, and dirty. It seemed appropriate that her life should be so unpleasant. Something nudged her, but she ignored it. It was only a touch, like a moderate gust of wind that gently pushed on her whole side at once. Except, unlike wind, it didn't seem to move on by. Instead, it withdrew.
April pulled back after trying to move closer to her roommate. There had been a resistance as the dark-haired girl pushed into the distorted area. It wasn't a lot of resistance, not even enough to stop April in her baseline form, but it was surprising and April had stepped back, then pushed harder.
That startled Harmony, and she jerked as she looked around. When she saw April, still in her Cape Squad costume, she looked away. Crystalline hair settled quickly about the pale girl as she looked back at April. With that, the aura disappeared as well. The frown on Harmony's face, and the tracks of her tears, did not fade as easily.
April asked, "Harmony, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," Harmony replied softly, looking down at her mud-stained gloves, then back up. She didn't want to show her tears, but she just had to look at April.
"She is so gorgeous," sighed Harmony to herself. "That costume shows off all her curves, and those incredible legs go on forever and ever. It's no wonder Sean loves her."
Harmony scowled, but kept her thoughts to herself. "But he doesn't love her like I do. He doesn't know her like I do, and so he totally can't appreciate her."
April saw the scowl and asked again, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I told you," Harmony snapped. "I need to get to work."
"We need to talk," April announced. Yet instead of forcing a conversation, she moved to the pile of dirt that Harmony had been using to repair the damage from the angel's fight with Shedu. With a blur of speed, the pile of dirt seemed to melt into the hole. In seconds, the blur slowed down to show April stamping her boots - heels and all - to smooth out the last lumps.
"Now, we go somewhere we can talk," she declared. Without further explanation, she gathered Harmony into her arms and launched into the air. Harmony squeaked in surprise and clung tightly to the bigger girl, squeezing their soft forms together in a way she couldn't help but enjoy despite her unhappiness.
"Oh, god, I want her so bad," Harmony thought - but again she kept her thoughts to herself.
The distraught passenger was expecting to go to their room in Poe, but April carried them to one of the secluded places in the woods, landing lightly near a bench. The super-powered teen set Harmony down as though she were the delicate crystal her hair seemed to indicate, then sat beside her.
"Okay, out with it," April commanded.
"Why do you care?" Harmony asked bitterly.
April just sat there quietly. After a moment, Harmony buried her face in her hands and started to cry. April used that as an opening to wrap Harmony in a tender embrace again.
"Because I do," April said softly. "A lot."
"Huh?" asked Harmony.
"I care about you . . . a lot," April repeated.
"But . . . you, I mean, you like Sean!"
"Yes, I do," said April. "That doesn't mean I can't like you, too, and care for you, too."
"But, what I mean is . . . y'know, you like Sean."
"Yes, I do," April repeated. "I still remember what it was like to kiss him. Hell, it still makes my nipples get hard. Like right now."
"I can tell," Harmony said, unable to suppress a giggle. Then she got somber again. "So, you've decided."
"Decided what?" April asked blandly.
"That you like boys now," Harmony said quizzically, unsure why April was being so dense.
"Yes, I do," April said yet again. "But I like girls, too. Sean's not the only one that my body remembers kissing."
"Oops, there they go again," she added, preening just a bit to make it even more obvious. "This one's for you."
"Dammit, April, what are you trying to say? You can't have it both ways. Do you like boys or girls?'
"Crap, Harmony, how the hell am I supposed to know? All I know is that I get to this funny farm and my roommate is a girl - a totally cute girl by the way - and my little heart goes pitter patter. And then this big hunk of a guy hits on me and parts I didn't even used to have get all hard and achy. You act like it's a damn choice or something."
"This has been a bitch since the first time I transformed. In the beginning, I didn't want to change because I thought I was 'supposed' to be a boy and the things that went with that - particularly things like only liking girls. But I remember from the very first night I became April - even after the compulsion thing as Amy Martin was over - that my body was very, very interested in Taylor Christian."
"And of course that made me feel ashamed, and perverted, and all sorts of ugly things, because in my mind I was totally still a guy."
She hugged Harmony with just a bit more force. "And then, ohmigod, your fantasy hit me and we kissed and I never wanted anything more in my life - both my body and my mind."
Harmony looked up at her dark-haired roommate. "But, that was just it. You were confused. And then you met Sean."
"And then I met Sean," April repeated. "And then things got like, totally confused."
April sighed. "I've been waiting for things to like, settle down. In some ways, they have. Iím happy to be a pretty girl instead of a nerdy boy. I hope my parents will be happy, too. Dr. Bellows thinks they will. Fey has been helping me with styles, and my stupid, stubborn subconscious seems eventually to get the message and make my appearance a little more appropriate for a high school girl instead of a centerfold."
"Yeah, right," Harmony said, snickering again. "Your makeup - or whatever it is you do - may be toned down a bit, but I still look for the staples when you get undressed at night."
"Oh you do, do you?" April said sharply. Then she giggled, too. "I, um, still look when you get undressed, too."
"But you like Sean," Harmony repeated.
"Yeah, but so do you," April said. "Don't you?"
"No, I still like girls. I mean, he's . . . hell, he's decidedly hunkalicious, but like I said. I still like girls."
"Tell it to someone who doesn't see you hold your breath whenever he looks at you, and doesn't see you squirm like you suddenly have ants nibbling at your naughty bits, and . . ."
Harmony blushed, and started to say something when April laughed and added, "That, too. With your pale skin, you can't hide a blush at all."
"Yeah, but . . ."
April interrupted her again. "Why does it have to be either/or? That's what's been bugging me. Since I've been here, I've kissed two people. You and Sean. And both were awesome. And totally hot! Why should I have to give either part of that up?"
Harmony shrugged. "You just do. You're either straight or gay, and you can't choose."
"What about if I'm bisexual?" April asked. "Or you are?"
She sighed. "This has become so political. The rednecks say that if you ever in your life had a single homosexual urge you're a queer and damned forever. And the gays say essentially the same thing. If you ever have a single gay thought, you're gay and that's all there is to it. But what if people are more complex than that? What if people - at least a lot of them - are not 100% either way?"
Harmony shrugged. "What difference does it make?"
"It makes all the difference!" April said. "That means we - humans - are more than biology. It means - at least for the ones who are somewhere in between - that we can choose who we want to spend our life with, and base our choice on the heart of the person we love, not the plumbing. Is that so bad?"
Harmony frowned, and shrugged. "So what are you saying? Do you like Sean, or me?"
"I like you both, ditz!" April said, laughing. "And I know you like both Sean and me. And what's wrong with that?"
She slipped out of Harmony's arms and stood up, but it wasn't a rejection of their closeness. "Do me a favor," April asked, pulling the necklace up around the crown of he head so the red pendant once again hung on her forehead. "Dream a fantasy of me."
"But I like you just the way you are," protested Harmony.
"Exactly!" April said. "When you dreamed of me, you didn't change a thing except to make me a bit more feminine - which I appreciate, now. Your fantasy for me is that I just be me!"
April leaned down and hugged her roommate again, then kissed her quickly, but firmly. "That is so totally flattering. Of all the people whose dreams have touched me, you're the only one who ever wanted me just as I am. And I love you for it."
Harmony's memory had drifted back to that night she had changed April, and it had an effect that they both should have expected. April groaned and slumped to the ground. A brief flare of heat flashed into the still glade, leaving a single change in its place. Now, instead of a Cape Squad costume, April was almost clothed in a decidedly more revealing nightgown.
"Ohmigod, April, I'm sorry," said Harmony.
April smiled, "I'm not."
She stood up and sat next to Harmony again, moving the pendant back down to her neck. "Look, it's fun to fly, and like, be strong and all, but that's not really who I am. Or, at least it's not only who I am. I'm Dream. My 'thing' is to be what other people want or need me to be, and I'm okay with that. I'd like a little control - which you're going to help me with - but I'm not just another flying brick. My power allows me to do things that even Sean can't do. Why should I limit myself to one dream?"
"Or limit myself to one dream lover?" she said softly, leaning over to kiss Harmony again.
Harmony was not receptive to this advance. She challenged April's lack of commitment. "So I'm, like, supposed to just sit home quietly while you go out with Sean, grateful for any time you choose to give me?"
"Why should you do that? Why not come along?"
"Yeah, right, and be a dumb third wheel while you two get up close and personal. No thanks."
April laughed. "Y'know, for someone so gorgeous, you sure have a killer inferiority complex."
Harmony growled some wordless denial, but April pushed on. "C'mon, Harmony. Be honest. You know you're beautiful. Your hair is just fabulous, and you know damn well that if the old male you had seen a girl as pretty as the new girl you, he'd have been drooling. But you - Harmony - are unique. Totally. Would you give that up to be just another exemplar - even if you felt it gave you a better body?"
Harmony shrugged, but her eyes showed her thoughts were running deep.
April giggled at her seriousness. "And Sean knows you're hot, too. I've seen the way he looks at you. If you didn't wave your preference for girls around like a flag, you'd have any number of guys sniffing after you."
She hugged the crystal-haired girl again. "Look, Harmony, I don't know where this is all going. I just know that I don't want to like, turn my back on any choices yet. I'd rather turn toward those choices and try them out. Is that so bad?"
"But . . . what will Sean think?"
"Hell, girl, if we both wave our redesigned tails at him, he won't be thinking at all!"
Harmony gasped. "Ohmigod, are you, like, thinking of a threesome?"
April's gasp said she hadn't been thinking that . . . but her lacy nightgown didn't hide the interest her body had in the idea. After she managed to get her heart started again she grinned wryly and said, "Okay, that's totally too much to think about tonight. Let's go home."
"Um, April," Harmony said, "are you planning to walk clear across campus wearing that?"
April looked down at her revealing attire, then quickly demonstrated that she had her own problems concealing a good blush. She had no solution except a sudden modesty that made her try to use her hands in a hopeless attempt to provide a little cover. Way too little, for the challenge they faced.
"Um, Harmony, could you help a roomie out?"
"Doesn't it hurt to transform?"
"Every damn time," April sighed, pulling the crystal up once again. "But it passes. And if Peeper gets a photo of me looking like this, it will haunt me forever."
"Don't even go there," Harmony said with ostentatious grumpiness, then she snickered. "God knows that the way you look right now is going to figure in my dreams for a while."
Harmony concentrated, and in a few moments April groaned and slumped to the ground. But when she recovered, she was again wearing a very flattering Cape Squad costume. However, when April tried to pick up Harmony, she had to struggle to lift the smaller girl. And a quick experiment showed she couldn't fly any more.
"I guess Sean is the only one who has like, a clear enough understanding of the superhero stuff to make a superpower fantasy," April said with a sigh.
An unasked question showed on Harmony's face, but April shrugged. "This costume is okay. I'm sure Peeper has a photo from when Sean and I were working on the chimney. Besides, like I said, in Sean's fantasy I'm just another flying brick - female version - and those are a dime a dozen around Whateley. But the geeks are still talking about the night Team Kimba appeared in nightgowns. That I don't need."
The two girls walked silently across campus toward Poe. And they got most of the way there before Harmony had a question that could no longer be contained.
"April, do you suppose Sean is like, faster than a speeding bullet?"
"Oh, god, I hope not!" April said, laughing.
Chapter 17 - "What Are You Afraid Of?"
April awoke in the middle of the night, but at first she wasn't sure why. There wasn't any noticeable sound, at least, not after she was awake enough to recognize anything. Perhaps there had been some sound from outside that was penetrating enough to wake her up even without repeating. The weather was pleasant and they had left the dorm windows open, allowing moonlight to illuminate the room softly.
That was enough, as her mind began to absorb her surroundings. She saw Harmony hunched against her metal frame, tuning a crystal. That was reassuring, actually. Harmony had done that often enough since April had moved in that it was a comforting sign of normalcy - or at least as close to normalcy as Whateley ever got. Of course, that just begged another question, or two or three.
April didn't want to interrupt Harmony again, so she sat quietly watching her roommate. That provided substance to another question. April didn't hear anything. When Harmony tuned a crystal there were usually a host of tones from pure sweet chords to angry dissonances that only she could create. This time the room was oddly silent . . . though not still, as April realized after a moment.
There was an irritating hum in the air, yet not a hum of sound. It was a vibration that could be felt but not heard, and it seemed to be concentrated about three inches behind April's eyes. As she watched, the intensity of the vibration seemed to cascade upward with exponential growth until she was about to interrupt her roommate just to beg for relief from the pain.
That didn't turn out to be necessary. With a groan revealing her own pain, Harmony sat back - or tried to, her hair was still tied to the metal array - and opened her eyes. As her hair untangled itself from the grid, she contemplated her latest creation.
"What is it?" April quietly asked.
"Oh!" Harmony said, twitching at the sound. "I didn't know you were awake."
"It's only been a couple of minutes," April said.
"Yeah, it did get kinda bad at the end," Harmony replied. "But I think I got it done."
"Got what done?"
"Your like, shut-off switch," Harmony answered. "Here."
She tossed a glowing blue crystal at April. The dark-haired girl was afraid she'd drop the gem and see it shatter on the floor, but it arrowed for the crevice revealed by her scoop-neck nightgown as though it had a homing function built into it.
"What is it?" April asked as she fumbled for the stone.
"It's a like, disrupter," Harmony explained. "Yesterday, when I was, y'know, depressed, my hair set up a sort of exclusion field."
"I remember," April said guiltily.
Harmony smiled to show no remaining unhappiness and continued. "While I was sleeping, it came to me that I had been going down the wrong path trying to get you something to protect you from transformations. The first crystal provided you feedback when you were achieving resonance, and I was looking for some way to suppress that resonance . . ."
"Yes?" April encouraged.
"Well, my exclusion field showed me a way just to block it out - to keep it from ever reaching you - instead of trying to suppress brain waves you might need for yourself."
"Oh, yeah, I can see that," April said excitedly, finally managing to get the crystal out of her nightgown.
"So that thing should keep any mental emanations from getting to you - at least, keep them from getting there without being scrambled.
"Wow!" April said. "That's so cool. Totally. A personal like, thought screen? Think what someone would give for protection from like, espers and telepaths."
"No one needs it more than you, roomie," Harmony said softly.
"Only from some people, 'roomie,'" replied April with a smile. She got out of bed and found the red crystal on its chain. Not surprisingly, the blue one fit neatly into the same pendant. There was a difference. The blue one glowed softly. "What keeps it going?"
"It's got a little internal power source I got from a devisor friend. I was thinking I'd use it for something else, but this is perfect. As long as you keep it somewhere close to body heat and within a foot or so of your head, it should work fine."
"Awesome!" April said. She slipped it into the pendant and put the chain around her neck. "I don't feel anything different," she reported after a moment.
"I think that's okay," Harmony said. "It's only supposed to work on like, mental emanations, not on light or anything. And the vibrations are all way outside what you can hear."
"Cool!" April repeated. She moved over to her crystal-haired roommate and wrapped her arms around the smaller girl. "You don't know how much this means to me."
Harmony was happy to return the embrace, but after a moment she pulled back. "I don't, um, we shouldn't . . ."
"Harmony. . .Emily . . ," April said, using her roommate's real name, the one not associated with her powers, "this is the real me, hugging the real you. This is not about dreams and fantasies - except the ones that we make real ourselves."
"Oh, God, April, I know," Emily whispered. "That's what I'm so afraid of."
April didn't move for a long moment, then she let her arms drop. "Okay," she said quietly.
"It's not that I don't want you! I totally want you, so bad it hurts. But . . ."
April waited for her roommate to finish.
"Don't you see, April? It can't be that way. It can't be that you do this just after I give you something. Iím not just looking for gratitude."
"Damn, girl," April said, smiling now that she understood. "If you think I'm only hot for you because I'm grateful . . .!"
Harmony giggled, but then she sighed. "No, I don't think that, but . . . maybe we should like, wait until . . .y'know, the, um, moment is not like, a coincidence?"
"If that's what you want," April said, sighing herself, but then she smiled. "Though it's a damn good thing you gave me this crystal, because without it, my dreams would affect everyone in Poe! This disruptor thing does work both ways, right?"
"It better," Harmony laughed. "The way you're advertising in that gown, you don't need any help to show what you're thinking about."
"Oops," April said, blushing, then she counter-attacked. "Well, this is all your fault, y'know. You're the one that like, showed me how nice it is to sleep in something soft and pretty."
"Ohmigod, there's an image to keep me awake tonight."
"Serves you right," April said grumpily. But she slid back under her covers and arranged herself for sleep. And of course it was an accident that she just flipped her long dark hair into a cape framing her face, and another coincidence that she took a couple of deep breaths to stabilize her breathing.
It wasn't a coincidence that she giggled, though.
Dr. Bellows was his usual genial self as he welcomed April into his office. "It would seem you're getting your talent under control," he began.
"Maybe," April offered carefully as she sat, a seriousness lost in the smile that followed. "I have to admit, I did find it convenient yesterday."
"Yes," the doctor said, returning her smile. "It seems you put on quite a show . . . and completed your detention assignments well ahead of schedule."
He sat back and indulged himself with his favored fingers-steepled posture. "So, have you decided you like your powers now?"
April frowned. "I'm not sure. They can be way cool, if I can find someone I trust to, y'know, send me a dream. I trust Sean of course, and Harmony, and a few others, but . . ."
She stood up and began to pace. "Dr. Bellows, like a lot of guys, growing up I always dreamed of flying. Being super-strong and super-fast and other things like that add to the dream, but flying all by itself would be, like, totally awesome . . ."
"But . . ?" prompted the doctor.
"But what happened with Stiletto scares me. A lot."
"I imagine it would. What do you think you should do?"
That stopped April in her pacing. "You're asking me?"
"Of course," he said easily. "In the end, the decision must be yours."
"Only if I stop the unwanted transformations," she said. "Otherwise the decision is in just about anyone else's hands - not mine."
"Can you stop them?" he prompted.
"Maybe," she said. She showed him the two crystals she now wore. One, the blue one, she wore in a necklace pendant. It met Harmony's criteria of being within a foot of her head, and it was certainly kept warm where it nestled. The red one was dangling from one strand of a double bracelet she had conveniently manifested when she was dressing that morning. The manifestation of jewelry was still subconscious, but it was working fairly well, particularly now that Fey had helped her with more tasteful styles.
"What happens if you feel you need to change?" asked Dr. Bellows.
"I'd rather not change ever again than become . . . what I was with Stiletto," April said cautiously. Then she shrugged and admitted it was not a one-sided decision. "But it only takes a couple of seconds to slip the bracelet off my wrist, and it's actually a single long strand. It's enough to make a sort of crown when I want to use the red crystal. I can get rid of the blue one, too of course. In fact, the chain has a breakaway link . . . my subconscious being helpful again. I like, so wish I could get my subconscious under control."
"As do we all," the doctor said gently. "I know it bothers you to be out of control and you've had some bad experiences with changes, but at some level you do find your powers useful, don't you?"
"Of course," April agreed. "But it's sort of like, making the best of a bad situation. If I'm going to change anyway, then I might as well try to make it helpful."
"Like when you asked Sean to change you into a superstrong flyer?"
"Yes," she said. "But that was before Harmony made the blue crystal for me. At the time I guess I was like, thinking I was going to have to learn to use the transformations. I'm not sure I'd do it now."
Dr. Bellows looked thoughtful and waved his arm for April to sit again before he raised another issue. "Did you ask Sean to imagine you as a super-powered girl, or as a super-powered guy?"
"I don't think I picked either one. He did that."
"Why didn't you ask him to make you into a guy?"
"I didn't even think of it at the time," April said, smiling, "and I know that's significant. I guess I'm okay with, y'know, being a girl. I don't think I'd like, hate being a boy but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that any more."
The doctor nodded. "That's good. I'm happy for you. It's a difficult transition, and you've managed it very well."
April blushed at the compliment, but nodded.
The doctor leaned back in his chair and asked another leading question. "April, do you dream?"
She looked at him in surprise. "Sure. I guess so. I mean, doesn't everyone?"
He nodded, and continued. "Why don't your dreams cause transformations in you?"
"I don't know," April said. "Why don't they?"
Dr. Bellows leaned forward and looked at her intently. "How do you know they don't?"
"What?" she asked in confusion.
"Well, from what you tell me, your makeup and hair are done for you, and your jewelry manifests itself. Those changes started once Mr. Harrah hypnotized you with the suggestion that your prior transformation was incomplete, right?"
At April's nod, he continued. "So, at some level, your form is reacting to your image of yourself. As that image matures, as it did with Fey's help on styles, you might find further changes."
"April," he explained, "I think you should be able to tap into your own power. Now that you've been with us for a while, it's clear you are primarily a shapeshifter, with warper powers. The fact you have, ah, locked in a reference shape is not exactly surprising, but it's uncommon. Most shapeshifters are continually shifting, and usually without conscious control."
"Oh, that would be horrible," she said.
"Yes, for most of them it is unpleasant," he agreed. "Tell me, when you were Corwin, did you read a lot of fantasy stories, or comic books? Or play video games?"
"I guess," she said.
He smiled to lower the level of intensity in their discussion. "I think your subconscious recognized the danger of out-of-control shifting, probably because you were, ah, prepared for inexplicable phenomena due to your interest in fantasy ideas. So it seized on a reference shape and locked to it."
Now he leaned back and closed the loop on the foundation he'd been building. "However, I think just as you were able to modify your appearance of cosmetics, and your jewelry, that in time you'll be able to modify more about your appearance. Deliberately, and by your own choice."
His smile was genuine with pleasure at the good news he could give her. "And since your warper powers allow you to fly, and to create energy swords, and so on, you should be able to develop those skills as well."
"Wow," April said softly. "That's like, awesome."
"Yes, it is," he agreed.
Then the doctor frowned. "I'm afraid I have another challenge for you, though. There are still some concerns among the staff on the extent of your powers . . . and the risks."
"Ms. Hartford?" April asked sharply.
"It doesn't really matter," Dr. Bellows replied, but in his manner she knew she had guessed correctly. "The risk is still relevant. We need a controlled test."
"Uh, oh, here is comes," April muttered.
"Yes, I'm afraid so," confirmed the doctor. He sighed and sat back in his chair, his posture establishing a professional separation between them, and establishing the authority of his position.
"Your powers have been confusing, both to you and to the staff. As a result, you've been excused from many of the classes that other students take. Among those are self-defense classes. I know you've had some private lessons, and tutoring from other students, but you haven't really participated in a class setting."
April shrugged, watching him closely for the rest of the message.
He nodded at her patience, and concluded. "You are to report to Ito-sensei this afternoon for a class. Are you familiar with the 'capture cage' exercise?"
She shook her head, but he did not explain. "All I will say is that it is intended to be a test of your abilities, and of how you react under stress. It will be a challenge, but I have every confidence in you."
"I wish I had that sort of confidence," April thought as she stood to leave.
April tugged at her gi, trying to shift it to be less revealing. Not that it showed much skin, but it was a new silk one that Sean had gotten her, and she hadn't realized it would conform so well to her body. If she loosened the belt, the resulting gap threatened to show a lot more of her assets than she wanted, so she had to keep it snug. The setting had a lot to do with her discomfort as well. She stood, barefoot, on a thick mat, carefully not looking at the large cage that dominated the bay of the dojo.
Trying not to look at crowd gathered around, either. "I'd be uncomfortable no matter what I was wearing, with all these people staring at me," she thought. "I shoulda insisted on a percentage of the gate. There must be a hundred people in here. Faculty, staff, and it looks like just about every student I've ever even said hi to."
"I wonder who I'll get. Fey could stuff me in that cage even without her magic. For that matter, tiny Jade could do it, and that would be embarrassing."
But I could survive the embarrassment. And at least they wouldn't damage me . . . much. Thank God I'm a regen."
Ito-sensei stepped out onto the mat. April remembered to bow to him, searching his face the whole while for a smile or sign of encouragement. With no success, as his expression was calmly neutral.
Ignoring the spectators. Ito-sensei spoke to April. "It is my understanding, Dream, that you now have an amulet that inhibits your changes."
She nodded, but said nothing.
"And one that enhances your tendency to transform?" he asked.
She nodded again, wondering what point he was trying to make.
Solemnly, Ito-sensei regarded her. "Without your transformation power, you are essentially a normal human. Whateley may not be the best place for you."
"What?" Dream gasped, a shocked response echoed by many of those in the room.
"If your amulet keeps you from any further transformations, then you are merely a low-level exemplar and essentially within human norms. There has been some discussion . . ."
As he said this, Ito-sensei's eyes flickered toward the area where Ms. Hartford stood. Dream knew Ito-sensei would never lose his concentration like that, so it was obviously a message.
". . . that we should merely make wearing the amulet permanent, with an appropriate irremovable collar, and let you go back into a normal school."
Dream clutched at the chain holding the blue crystal. Permanent? Never again to fly? And she'd have to leave both Harmony and Sean.
"However, perhaps your powers may become useful to you," Ito-sensei continued. "Today, we will let you decide."
Dream looked sharply at him. "Let me decide?"
"Yes," he confirmed. "You will face another student today in a test of how well you can use your powers - or in your case, whether you can use them at all. If you succeed in placing your opponent in the cage, then you can stay at Whateley. If not, then your powers are not of effective use. They will be suppressed, and you will leave Whateley."
"That's not fair!" Dream said.
"Is it not?" Ito-sensei challenged. "Why not? This is a very expensive institution. Why should we waste resources on those who have no abilities beyond those on the outside?"
"But . . . I may be able to learn . . ."
"Many things 'may' happen," Ito-sensei said, interrupting her with uncharacteristic rudeness. "But if you cannot demonstrate any abilities beyond those of ordinary humans, they will happen elsewhere. At least for you."
Any further words Dream might have said were lost within an even more dramatic gasp as her opponent stepped onto the mat.
"Oh, God," she moaned, "this is sooo unfair!"
A moving mountain of utterly black flesh approached. Even walking normally, it seemed the mat bounced up and down with his massive tread.
Ito-Sensei was implacable. "Your opponent is Slab. If you can close the cage on him, you may stay at Whateley. If not, you will become just another pretty girl in the outside world."
With that, he stepped off the mat to the position of referee.
Slab was a foot taller than Dream, and so wide he appeared squat. His body was smoothly rounded, as though there was a cushioning blubber layer under the skin that was no-doubt tougher than it looked. If Dream had seen him around campus, she'd have made sure to give him a wide berth so that not even a hint of offense could be taken. Some bricks had that sour, 'just give me an excuse' attitude, and this Slab was one of them.
"This is stupid," Dream snapped at Ito-sensei, then looked at Ms. Hartford. "If you wanted to throw me out of Whateley, you could do it without humiliating me first."
"Where's the fun in that?" Slab said, drawing her attention back to him. He was ostentatiously bowing toward Ito-sensei, grinning at her despair.
"Fu . . screw you, fatso," Dream said. "I'm not gonna let you paw at me."
"Listen, babe," he said, still patiently waiting for Ito-sensei to return his bow and allow the match to start, "you're going in the cage. You can do it the hard way - and if I happen to find out if your curves are real along the way, then that's part of my reward for winning - or you can do it the easy way and just walk in on your own. But you're going in the cage."
Dream looked back at Hartford and snarled. "Y'know what? You can take this damn, pompous school and all the self-absorbed, stuck-up, 'look-at-me-I'm-so-special,' students in it and stuff it all where the sun don't shine. But I'll be damned if I'm gonna let you put a collar on me like some pet dog."
"Braaackkk, buk, buk, buk, braaaackkkk!" Slab clucked. "I think I smell chicken."
"Yeah, who told you to think?" she snapped at him.
"Who told you to live?" Slab said, then looked again at Ito-sensei. "Sensei, I am sorry for the lack of respect shown you by my unworthy opponent, but I'm getting tired of bending over. May I start the match?"
Ito-sensei looked at Dream with a quizzically raised eyebrow.
"All right, fine, get on with your little game. But it'll take this pile of crap and three more like him to get a dog-collar on me," she warned. She turned to face Ito and bowed abruptly. Dream didn't wait for Ito-sensei's confirming bow or command to begin. As soon as her head dipped, she lifted it and moved away from the towering man-mountain.
One hand reached up to snap at the chain around her neck, pulling the blue crystal away and throwing it in Harmony's general direction. Before Slab had straightened from his bow, she had the red stone unwrapped from around her wrist and draped over her head, the crystal centered on her forehead.
And then she disappeared in a blinding light that caused Slab to squeeze his eyes tightly closed.
Chapter 18 - "You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Angry"
"Enough!" Mrs. Carson's voice cut sharply through the dojo.
When Slab's eyes cleared, he saw the Whateley headmistress standing across from him. His opponent, the tall dark-haired girl, had disappeared - apparently running away rather than face him. But that didn't seem to be very important. What was important was the fire in Mrs. Carson's eyes. She was standing there, fists clenched on her hips, and glowering at him.
To his surprise, she didn't say anything more to him, at least not right away. Instead, she turned to Ito-sensei.
"Master Ito," she began, "I have had grave misgivings about these cage matches for some time. I understand the need for sparring matches among students as a way to force them to learn creativity and adaptability, but the potential for humiliation has become an unacceptable risk. Particularly in such a mismatched pair."
She looked at the audience, finding Ms. Hartford in the crowd, then looked back to Ito. "I am sharply disappointed that such an inappropriate match was selected. I had thought better of you, despite what I'm sure was pressure from others. However, regardless of the pressure you might have received, I will not accept any instructor at this academy threatening a student with demeaning and permanent penalties, including suppression of powers we exist to help them learn to control."
With that, she turned away from the martial arts instructor, but for Slab this was bad news for it meant her attention was once again on him.
"And you, Slab, why did you agree to participate in such humiliation of a fellow student?"
The huge Exemplar seemed to shrink before her gaze. Despite his bulk he was overmatched by the righteous power Mrs. Carson displayed. He looked away, seeking support from Ito-sensei and his friends, but Mrs. Carson's silent fury demanded his attention as though it were a physical grappling hook.
"I just, um, Ito-sensei told me . . ."
Mrs. Carson interrupted him, stepping closer. "Just following orders, Mr. Lundy?" she said, rejecting the informality of a code name. "Have you been sleeping through your history classes? Just following orders has never been a defense against morally indefensible behavior."
She took another step, her hands still clenched into fists at her side. Despite the martial arts setting, there was no physical challenge in her posture. She was dressed in a smartly tailored business suit and held herself much too rigidly for a balanced attack. Yet her anger gave her so much immaterial energy that the air about her seemed to crackle.
"And why did you demand that she enter the cage on her own?" she asked.
"What?" Slab replied, confused by the significance Mrs. Carson attached to that particular issue. "I guess, if she didn't, y'know, resist, then she didn't have to worry about getting hurt."
Mrs. Carson did not find this argument convincing. "Dream is a quite competent regen, Mr. Lundy. Short of something which kills her instantly, she has little need to fear physical injury. She is much like you in that regard."
"It still hurts," Slab said.
"Yes, it does," Mrs. Carson agreed. "But physical pain is not the only pain. Physical pain she could accept, and she could demonstrate honor even in defeat against someone with such powers as you possess."
She advanced on him another step, getting close enough to feel the chill that surrounded Slab. It did not stop her, and despite their relative sizes, Slab found himself stepping back from her. "But that wasn't good enough for you," she declared. "You felt a need to humiliate her, to treat her with disdain, and to let her know how little you respected her. In effect, you declared her to be a coward. Such an attitude is extremely disappointing in one with your abilities. Will you start thinking of all those with less strength or with greater vulnerability as contemptible, Mister Lundy? And once you decide we are all unworthy of your respect, what then?"
"I don't . . . honest, I was trying to give her an easy way out . . . I didn't mean to . . ."
"Easy way out?" Mrs. Carson repeated. "You think that emotional pain is easy? That being derided as a coward is easy?"
She stepped back with a scowl, withdrawing from Slab's presence as though she were uncomfortable even to be close to such a creature, though not because of the chill which surrounded him. Her discomfort was with the person inside the hulking body.
"I do not think Whateley can be associated with someone who has so little concern for fellow students," she declared, prompting a gasp from the entire audience. "If you have so little empathy for others, then in the future it is clear you will gain a horrific reputation among those whom you disdain. And that reputation will reflect badly on Whateley."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Carson," Slab said, and his deep rumble carried true overtones of remorse. "I didn't mean to hurt her like you said, emotionally. I was just, y'know, trash-talking her a little before the match. I'm sorry."
"So you say," Mrs. Carson replied, obviously unconvinced of his regret. "Words are, for all their painful power, cheap."
"Honest, Mrs. Carson," Slab said. "I'm sorry. I'll do whatever you say to show that I'm not really, y'know, mean."
She lifted an eyebrow at his unlimited promise. For a long moment, she said nothing. Then she sighed and her tone became at least a little softer as she tired to explain her concern.
"I really believe that we at Whateley help our students," she said. "Vulnerable, hurting, at-risk young men and women come here as a refuge from the anger of the outside world. They come here because our reputation is one of honor, and of even-handed respect for all students. If we lose that reputation - for example, because Whateley students and graduates are seen to be arrogant, self-serving and cruel - then how many parents will be more afraid of what we do than grateful? How many students will never find their way here to be helped? I can't take that chance."
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Carson," Slab repeated again. "Isn't there anything I can do?"
She looked away for a long moment. He was almost sick with relief when one of her still-clenched fists gradually relaxed. A slender finger came up to tap on her lips as she thought.
Finally she looked directly at him. "Perhaps we should let the punishment fit the crime," she said. "Have you ever lost a cage match?"
"Uh, no, um, not yet," he said, once again confused.
"Then perhaps the proper, ah, penance for your disdain of Dream is for you to do in fact what you demanded she do as part of your, as you say, 'trash-talking.'. Are you willing to do that?"
"Do what?" he asked.
"Go over to the cage and enter it of your own free will, closing the door behind you," she said. "Demonstrate that you understand the non-physical pain of humiliation by, as it were, walking in the shoes of those you disdain."
"Just, get in the cage?" Slab asked. "That's . . . um, that doesn't make any sense. Dream is gone."
"This is not about your opponent," Mrs. Carson declared. "This is about your attitude toward your opponent."
Slab looked at her in surprise, and to the extent emotions showed on his rounded features, he frowned.
When he did not immediately move to do as she had demanded, Mrs. Carson's face showed a frown of her own and she made the situation unambiguous. "Mr. Lundy, you may either enter the cage, willingly, or you may proceed directly to your room and pack to leave. I am not foolish enough to assume anyone on the Whateley campus could force you to obey. But similarly, no one can force you to empathize with others. This is not about force. Demonstrate a willingness to be a good student, or leave. That is your choice."
Slab looked at her with dismay apparent even on his thick features. And confusion. But after a moment, he shrugged and turned toward the cage. He actually had to turn sideways and squeeze his way into the cage, nearly dislodging it with his bulk. Clearly, putting him in the cage when he didn't want to go was not going to happen. But he managed to get in and turn around.
"Close the door as well, Mister Lundy," Mrs. Carson demanded.
With another shrug, he pulled the door shut with a dull clank.
Mrs. Carson's shoulders sagged with evident relief. She walked over to the cage and touched the bars with a sense of wonder.
Speaking softly, she said, "I'm sorry, Slab, but I tricked you."
"Tricked me?" he repeated.
"Yes," she confirmed. "I'm really Dream. I'm a shapeshifter."
"But . . . Mrs. Carson?"
"In a funny way, you can think of this as a compliment," claimed the woman standing outside the cage. "One of my powers is to become someone's fantasy. Another is to become their worst nightmare."
"My worst nightmare?" the mountainous student again repeated her words.
"Yes," she said, still speaking with the cultured diction of the Whateley headmistress. "It's clear you do not fear any student powers, or combination of them. You only fear your own power, and the possibility that you will somehow become evil. I think you're a nice guy, Slab, despite the intimidation you project."
"Anyway," she concluded. "I became what you fear most - expulsion and ostracism from Whateley, in the form of Mrs. Carson's authority."
"You're not really Mrs. Carson?" Slab said numbly.
She didn't say anything. But she did answer, with a demonstration. And a moan, as the pain of transformation claimed her again once she had shown Slab that his nightmare was not reality.
"At least they're happening faster," Dream thought as another flash filled the dojo. When it cleared, the tall young brunette was outside the cage, leaning on it as her pain passed.
The audience had been shocked when what they thought as Mrs. Carson had threatened a student with expulsion. They were astounded when it turned out that it wasn't Mrs. Carson after all. Someone - Dream did not know who but she had a guess - started to clap as the tableau before them began to register. Dream was standing outside the cage, and Slab was inside. The isolated clap grew to be raucous applause, complete with whistles and cheers.
Dream looked at the crowd and frowned, then motioned them to silence. "Why are you cheering?" she demanded. "Didn't you listen to what I said?"
Supposedly the cage suppressed a student's powers when they were within it, though it had never been really tested with a mutant as strong as Slab. Nonetheless, Dream reached out and opened the door for him.
He stepped from the cage with a rueful smile, and managed a quiet whisper despite the resonance of his deep chest. "I act like a big, slow, brick, but I'm a bit smarter than most people think. Being tricked - particularly by someone with an unknown power - fits my image a lot better than losing a physical battle. Just don't try that particular trick again."
"Deal," she whispered back.
She then walked to Ito-sensei and bowed very low. "Ito-sama, I apologize for my disrespectful comments to you, and for appearing to question your method of instruction."
Ito-sensei returned her bow, and it was all Dream could do to suppress her own gasp when she realized he was actually smiling at her.
"It is I who should apologize to you," he said gravely, despite his smile. "Just as your threat to expel Slab when you were in the persona of Mrs. Carson was false, so too was my threat to expel you. And we would never put a permanent collar on any student. It was intended to make you angry so that your power could be used in your defense. And it does seem to have worked rather well," he concluded with a hint of smug satisfaction.
"Ya think?" Dream snapped. "You might, like, tell me that's what you wanted. I can get angry for lots of reasons. Including being manipulated."
Ito-sensei regarded her calmly, as though he knew what would happen next. Perhaps he did, because it was fairly predictable. Dream's champions showed up as soon as she started to show emotion again.
"Here, April, I think you can use this," Harmony said, offering her the blue crystal. Sean hovered protectively (almost literally, but he managed to keep his toes on the mat) though whether he intended to protect April or protect Ito-sensei from Dream was unclear.
April laughed, calming down when she saw the concern on her friends' faces. Then she frowned and looked thoughtfully at Ito-sensei again. "Holy crap, I wonder what sort of nightmare could scare Ito-sensei. And I hope to God I never find out!" She bowed again and pulled at the lapels of the woman's suit she still wore. "Are we done, Ito-sama?"
"Yes, Dream, though you should plan on additional sparring matches in the future."
"I was afraid you were gonna say that," she sighed.
The crowd dispersed with Ito-sensei's words, all except for April's friends.
"Ohmigod," gushed Harmony. "You beat Slab! Nobody can beat Slab. Not even the Cape Squad."
"It was a trick," April said.
"Sure," Harmony said. "But it worked! That's so cool!"
April shrugged. "It'll never work again."
Sean disagreed. "Don't be too sure, April. Oh, I don't think turning into Mrs. Carson again will work, but everyone is afraid of something. Whatever the niche is in their armor, you'll find it."
Harmony giggled and poked at his rock-solid chest. "Yeah, right. What are you afraid of, Sean?"
"That's for me to know . . ," he said with a smile, letting his voice trail off.
The attention he focused on the crystal-haired girl brought a bright blush to her translucent cheeks. She ducked, but in a moment she was looking to see if Sean was still looking at her.
To find that he was, with a most intriguing smile.
"Oh, god, why don't you two get a room?" April said with a laugh.
"Three's company, roommate," Harmony declared brightly. "Wanna share?"
"Uhhh, that's not fair!" protested Sean, trying to turn a groan he couldn't control into a joke.
No one was fooled. Not that the tone of his voice was the only clue to where his thoughts had traveled.
"Okay, the joke's on me," he said. "Just remember, he who laughs last and all that. I owe you one."
"Promise?" Harmony said, then giggled at the renewed pain that showed on Sean's face.
"Girl, you are soo bad," April laughed.
"Look who's talking," countered Harmony.
April opened her hand to show she still had the red crystal, which she wrapped quickly around her wrist. On a hunch, she took off the chain around her neck and held it, with the blue crystal, in her hand.
"Let's go get something to eat," she suggested, leading them from the dojo.
They were barely out of the dojo when Peeper and Greasy scurried up to block their path.
Greasy stood back just far enough to get them in his camera, while Peeper began a monolog into the microphone he carried.
"Here we are with Whateley's newest superbabe, six feet of beauty with all the right accessories . . . Dream!"
"Go away," Sean growled.
"Freedom of the press!" Peeper shouted. "If you lay a hand on me, I'll take you to court!"
"Deal," Sean said, balling up a fist that looked about the size of a basketball.
Peeper cringed and stepped quickly back, but he motioned Greasy to keep the camera rolling. "Dream," he called, "I just have one question. Inquiring minds want to know!"
April shrugged and looked at Sean for advice. He shrugged as well, so she looked back at the would-be reporter. "Okay, what's your question?"
"Yesterday, when you were helping Sean with the Twain chimney, it was you who flew up to his level carrying bricks, right?"
"Yes, and that's a fairly stupid question even for you. Good-bye."
"No," he said scuttling back in front of her. "That's not the question. Here's the deal . . . you were wearing a sort of Supergirl outfit, except the colors were different, right? It had a miniskirt and cape and all . . ?"
April didn't answer the question directly, but she didn't push past him either, which Peeper took as an opportunity to continue.
"So, eyewitness accounts differ, and in the interests of journalistic accuracy and the historical record . . ."
Harmony interrupted him, "When have you ever been interested in accuracy? And don't flatter yourself that history will give a flying f . . flip . . . about anything you say."
Peeper ignored her and got up in April's face with his question. "As I said, eyewitnesses don't agree, so we want the facts straight from the source. Under your skirt, were you wearing a black lace thong, or - considering how dark your hair is - were you au naturel and showing fur?"
All the color drained from April's face, and she froze as though she had run into a wall, too shocked even to breathe. By the time her arm started to move to slap Peeper - or knock his head off entirely - the smug ambush interviewer had skipped back out of reach, a smirk proclaiming his success. Sean, who might have done the gallant knight bit, was frozen as well, blushing with as much heat as Dream during one of her transformations. Only Harmony seemed to be able to move effectively. Her hair started to rise into the parabolic shape she had learned to use on Stiletto.
Before she could get tuned up, she felt a hand on her arm. April stepped forward and got in Peeper's face. Her raspy snarl sent shivers up his back and brought a green tinge to his face even as he found it incredibly arousing. "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."
Peeper caught the reference, and though he tried to appear brave, his voice quavered. "Yeah, well, tougher babes than you have been angry with me. I like it!"
"Don't be so sure," Harmony said, stepping up beside her. "She just beat Slab in a cage match. Because he made her angry."
"Beat Slab?" he repeated. "In a cage match?"
Greasy spoke up for the first time, parroting a different part of Harmony's statement . . . as he moved further back. "Just because he made her angry?"
Sean finally managed to get his own embarrassment under control. Very ungallant memories of what April had been wearing under her tiny skirt had pretty much shut down his higher level processes for a couple of moments. Now his anger became the stronger emotion and he reached out to grab Greasy's microphone.
"Did you know . . ," he began, in what would have been a conversational tone except for the rumbling growl underlying the words. That and the fact he was crushing the microphone into the size of a marble. " . . That a few days ago, Ms. Hartford was trying to get Chief Delarose to classify Dream as an Ultra-Violent? The last time she lost her temper she took out half the roof on Twain, and blew a hole the size of Crystal Hall in solid ground. That is, after all, why we were doing the repairs."
"Uh, yeah, we, uh, heard that, but . . ," Peeper stammered.
"But you didn't think a pretty girl like me could be that . . . bad?" April said softly, her throaty tone suggesting that 'bad' could be very, very interesting. Then she snarled. "Well, believe it. I can be your worst nightmare, and I'm sure a slug like you has some pretty nasty demons lurking in what you use in place of a brain."
She flicked her slender fingers at him like she was shooing away a gnat, and took hold of Sean's hand. When she tried to take Harmony's hand as well, she remembered she still had the blue crystal and its chain in that hand. When she looked, the stone was once again attached to the chain and ready to wear. "Thank you, subconscious," she thought mirthlessly as she put the chain around her neck again. Peeper's eyes bulged as the blue stone disappeared down the front of her blouse. But he didn't say anything more as she took Harmony's hand and pushed past the intrusive snoops toward the student cafeteria.
"God, I hate those guys," Harmony said as they entered the dining hall. "I don't know why they let them stay here."
"I'm getting the impression that it takes quite a bit to get expelled," April said. "Thank God that Stiletto was over the line."
"That girl was sick," Harmony said with disgust.
"Yes, exactly," April said. "I hope she's getting help, wherever she is . . . as long as it's far from here."
"Amen," Sean agreed.
After they gathered up their meals, they sat together at one of the non-clique tables.
"Don't you want to eat with your Cape Squad friends?" Harmony asked innocently.
"Not today," Sean replied blandly.
"Don't like the competition?" April asked, giggling before her own pretense of innocence had a chance to get started.
Sean didn't bother answering her, though at her comment he sat in thoughtful silence for a moment. "Y'know, I never would have thought of tricking Slab into the cage."
"Did you ever fight him?"
"You mean 'spar' with him, right?" Sean corrected her with a grin. "Unlike Dream, we're taught to keep our emotions under control, so it's never a real fight."
"Yeah, whatever," April said. "So, did you?"
Sean shrugged, but nodded. "Brick fights are sorta . . . dull actually. We can knock each other through the wall, but it doesn't do any good. If he gets a hold on me, he has the strength to put me in the cage, except I just fly up where he doesn't have any like, leverage to move me. Unless he gets a good choke hold to put me out - and I can hold my breath a really, really long time, plus I'm totally careful about not letting him get that sort of hold on me anyway - he can't get me near the cage. On the other hand, he's too strong for me to hang onto if I'm trying to move him toward the cage. So basically the sensei calls it a draw whenever he feels we've done enough damage to the arena."
"Wow," Harmony said, batting her eyes at the heroic young man . . . just before she giggled and smirked at April.
Sean showed he still remembered how to heat up his cheeks, even more so when he realized she was teasing. Then he tried to get back on his topic. "But no one has tried to trick him into the cage before. I wonder if there are other ways to do that."
"Like what?" asked April.
"Damn if I know," Sean sighed. "That's the problem. But I'll bet you opened a whole new tactical can of worms."
Harmony laughed, "Please, Sean, not while we're eating. Some of what Whateley students eat is bad enough."
"Eeeuuwww," April said. "New topic, please."
"Okay," Harmony offered. "What about your powers. Are you okay with them now?"
"Okay with them?" April repeated. "I don't know. It's not like I have much choice. But thanks to you, I'm not afraid of them anymore."
"Good for you," Sean said. "So, what's next."
April sighed. "According to Dr. Bellows, it's time for my parents to visit."
"oh," Harmony said softly. "When?"
"Like, this weekend," April said.
"Good luck," Sean said. "Now, if you ladies will excuse me, I have some studying to do."
"Yeah, me too," Harmony said, but there was an undertone of menace in her voice and a look of determination in her eyes.
After Sean walked off, April said, "Okay, roomie, out with it. Just what are you planning to study?"
"Oh, just some Powers Theory stuff," she said.
April took a long look at her, then laughed. "Y'know, girl, you better never get in like, a poker game. With your skin, you can't bluff worth a damn."
"Don't I know it," Harmony said with a grimace. Then she smiled and it was clear she wanted to share her idea. "I was just wondering what I could do to Greasy's camera, and Peeper's microphone, if I could like, tune them a little."
"Ohmigod, yeah. Like, explosions and shocks and . . ."
"You're not thinking devious enough, April," Harmony said. "How about if every time Peeper tried to say something, it recorded a sound like a really juicy fart. And maybe if all Greasy's camera records ends up as Veggie Tales or something."
"Oh, yeah," April said. "If their stuff just blows up, then they'd know to fix it. Hell, they're gadgeteers enough they probably have all sorts of protections from shocks and things. But something like that . . ."
Then she frowned and asked, "Can you do that?"
"I don't know," the crystal-haired girl replied. "But I'm gonna find out."
Chapter 19 - "You've Been Working Out"
Taylor Christian watched the gates of Whateley grow in the windshield of the Tarrant's Mercedes E430, wondering for the fiftieth time if he had made the right decision when he agreed to join them for the visit to see April. He'd written his lifelong best friend a bunch of e-mails, and had received replies. But they were . . . sterile somehow, with facts but no real sharing.
Because of that, his own e-mails had been shallow as well. After all, he wasn't about to pick at the changes that had happened to Corwin . . . or April. What if the changes were still a very sore subject? And if the big issue were off limits, then any other personal things would have been kind of artificial, unless April initiated them. After all, she already knew just about everything about Taylor. He hadn't been the one that . . . changed.
But dammit, he couldn't just let the best friend he had ever had drift away! If Corwin had . . . moved on and didn't want Taylor as a friend any more, then fine. Let him say it to his face! Or April. Damn, he kept forgetting. She was April now. April's e-mails hadn't talked much about more transformations, just that there had been some and that they had all been short term. Taylor figured that meant she was reverting to girl form in between. So, after a few months, she probably felt more like April than Corwin. The question was: Is that what April/Corwin wanted? And if it wasn't, should he be sympathetic, or tell her that she needed to learn to deal with it?
April had mentioned making some new friends. So had Taylor. He'd been spending a lot more time on sports since Corwin left. When Corwin was around, Taylor had been a lot less athletic than he wanted to be, mostly so that he didn't make his pudgy friend feel even more inadequate. With increased activity came a bit of muscle bulk. He'd made the football team and . . . well, the cheerleaders were getting very friendly. Second-base friendly, with a real chance at more than that. And with some real foxes.
Unfortunately, they were about as shallow as April's e-mails. Did that mean she'd become an airhead, too? Or at least that she was acting like one, thinking that made guys like her better? God help him, but their stupid act worked, too. He'd fallen for it more than once, getting all protective and really, really liking the feeling of being needed - and therefore valued - by a beautiful girl. It was only later that he realized some of those girls were way above him in grades so they weren't really as empty-headed as they acted.
Grades were another issue. Without Corwin to tutor him through their classes, he'd had to work really hard to keep his grades up. He'd taken his friend for granted on that.
When the car made it onto campus, Taylor saw the usual preppy uniform sort of thing, with a surprising number of awesome looking students - guys and girls both. *"Ha!"* thought Taylor when he noticed, "Even the girls wear a tie. I warned him!"
Mister Tarrant pulled the car into a visitor slot at the administration building - it said so on a sign outside the door, plus it had a fancy, red-bordered school flag beside the US flag - and shut it down. Taylor managed to get out fast enough to help Miz'Liz'beth with her door, earning a smile from both of them. He reached the door to the building first, too.
"So this is what the Ivy League is like," he mused as they entered. The place reeked of more money than his entire family had ever had, ancestors included. He hadn't exactly been eavesdropping earlier - more just being there while they talked to each other - but he had heard the Tarrants say that April had gotten a scholarship for most of her costs. Good thing.
The office of the headmistress had a waiting room but they didn't have to wait for longer than it took the secretary to announce them. Mrs. Carson, Taylor saw on the nameplate, welcomed them into her inner office and waved at a couch and comfortable chairs. Taylor thought the woman was incredibly . . . proper in some way. Not prim, like a spinster, just proper, as though the right way to act was so ingrained in her that nothing else existed. One expected to see her standing before a gently rippling flag, upholding Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
"You must be Taylor Christian," she said before anyone had a chance to introduce him - or at least, before anyone did. "I'm Mrs. Carson, headmistress of Whateley. April has mentioned you. I'm glad you could come."
"Um, thanks," he said. "April mentioned me!"
Chuck Tarrant waited until the women were seated, then found his own chair. As he was lowering himself into it, he said, "I'm glad you agreed to our request that Taylor come with us. He and Corwin have been best friends for a long time, and I thought it would be, um, comforting for Corwin to have him along. I mean, for April."
Mrs. Carson frowned at the reference to Corwin, but said nothing as Mr. Tarrant corrected himself.
"I must say, Taylor - do you mind if I call you Taylor? - that April's description of you doesn't do you justice," she said with a smile. "I wonder if she'll see you the same way now that she has . . . adapted to her situation."
"Has she?" Elizabeth Tarrant asked sharply.
"Yes, I believe so," Mrs. Carson reassured her. "For some time now, her biggest issues have been her powers, not her basic transformation."
Mrs. Tarrant frowned. "Her powers?"
Mrs. Carson nodded again, then looked thoughtfully at a folder on her desk. She didn't open it, but it was clear the data within were the source of her briefing. "I asked you to meet me here before you see April, because there are some things you - all of you - need to know."
Mrs. Carson continued, "April's powers are very much greater than we originally thought."
At this, all three of her visitors stirred nervously, but none interrupted. "You know that her basic mutation causes her to be transformed into someone's dream or fantasy. However, we have discovered that she can become someone's nightmare as well."
"Nightmare?" Chuck Tarrant repeated, as his wife gasped in alarm.
"Yes," Mrs. Carson said firmly. "If April becomes angry, she can pick up on what someone fears instead of what someone wishes for, and at least once has demonstrated great and destructive power as a result."
"Was anyone hurt?" Mr. Tarrant asked.
"Not due to April's actions. In fact, she was instrumental in preventing harm to another. But the, ah, side effects of her actions did considerable damage."
Mr. Tarrant winced, provoking a smile from Mrs. Carson. "You need not fear a 'bill' for the damage. It was repaired by students - including your daughter - as part of their detention for causing it in the first place."
Now it was Mrs. Tarrant who interrupted. "Detention? Has April been getting in trouble?"
"Not really," Mrs. Carson assured her, though there was an echo of unsaid addition that at least Taylor noticed. "In fact, other than that one incident which was a surprise even to April, she has been quite well behaved."
Mrs. Tarrant breathed an obvious sigh of relief. That might have been premature, based on a gasp that followed a few minutes later as Mrs. Carson's next topic was revealed.
"Mr. Tarrant," she began, "I believe you said that during one transformation - Corwin XL, April calls him - your child was unusually strong?"
At his nod, she continued, "Well, it seems that under the right circumstances, April can possess even more of what would be called 'super' powers. She can, in fact, fly."
"Like, on her own?" Taylor asked.
Mrs. Carson nodded.
"Cool!" Taylor said.
That brought a smile to Mrs. Carson's face. "Young man, you are a good friend to have. Your response shows pleasure for your friend, where many would feel jealousy or envy."
Taylor blushed, both at the compliment and at the knowledge that he did feel some envy for April's powers . . . though not at the price.
"It will help April to know that her family and friends still love her. Some of our students become so isolated here at Whateley that they are never comfortable in the outer world. You are her bridge, and I hope you will still care for her as much as you did before."
"Of course," Mr. Tarrant said with a frown, irritated that it should even be a question.
Mrs. Carson just smiled her calm smile at his irritation, yet her serenity chastised him gently because it made it clear her concern was based on too many similar situations.
She glanced at a clock, then concluded her report. "April has obtained some devices which help her control her transformations, or more accurately, control her receptiveness to input dreams or nightmares. She still cannot deliberately change herself, but she can protect herself when that is appropriate, and - with those she trusts - she can enhance her receptivity. At some point, she may offer to let one of you transform her. Pay attention to her emotional state. If she is angry, it may have consequences that none of us wants. On the other hand . . . well, it's a great responsibility, but one that I hope she learns to share appropriately."
Just then the clock chimed pleasantly, to be interrupted by a buzz from the phone on Mrs. Carson's desk.
"Send her in," Mrs. Carson said while pushing a button on the instrument.
The door opened, triggering a stampede of blurted comments.
"Oh, my . . ."
"Dear Lord . . ."
"Holy sh . . . sugar!"
The last was from April, who blushed and seemed embarrassed to see her lifelong friend. She glanced back through the still open door and frowned, then moved into the room.
All of the visitors had seen April in her transformed state, even after James Harrah had helped her to recognize that she could enhance her hairstyle and appearance of cosmetics. But this girl was spectacularly more beautiful than they remembered. She moved with easy grace, yet appeared poised and comfortable in a way that made her outward appearance seem a natural reflection of an even more desirable inner beauty.
Part of that was the more subdued look that Fey had showed her to use in place of the pin-up cosmetics, but most of it was her erect, balanced posture. Nothing she could say would prove her acceptance of her new form as well as her proud, happy carriage, so much in contrast to the somber attitude that had dominated her when she had left her home. Her Whateley uniform reinforced the image of sophisticated yet demure poise - even if her mother's first thought was that the skirt was too short.
April's father was the first one to rise to meet her, and his open arms were another wordless message that no amount of words could have enhanced. "I'd forgotten how beautiful you are," he whispered to her.
"Oh, Daddy," she said softly, losing any chance at further words of her own when she felt tears fill her eyes.
"And how tall," he said after a moment, releasing her from his embrace to hold her at arms length and look at her . . . look up at her. He was several inches shorter, despite only a modest contribution to her height from stylish pumps.
"You are so lovely," Mrs. Tarrant added with a tone of wonder as she sought her own embrace. She pushed an errant lock of hair from April's shining eyes and repeated, " . . .so very lovely."
"Thank you, Mother," April responded to the compliment, blushing again.
Taylor hovered nervously in the background. Wrapping his arms around the goddess would be just fine with him, too, but his friendship was with Corwin. If this was still really Corwin, then, well, guys didn't touch each other much. And if Corwin was gone, then he had no particular claim to closeness with a gorgeous girl he didn't even know.
"Hello, Taylor," April said. Then she smiled and said, "You've been working out."
"Yeah," he admitted, ducking his head shyly.
"Looks good on you," she said with a teasing grin.
"You're, um, looking good, too," he said, then grinned. "Not much like Corwin, though."
April stepped away from her mother. Running her hands down her sides, she smirked and said, "Oh, there's still a geek in here somewhere."
"Not from where I'm standing," Taylor said, following her hands with his eyes for as long as April gave him that excuse, then forcing himself to look at her eyes. Her luminous gray eyes.
"God, you're beautiful," he sighed.
April blushed and ducked her head, hiding behind the waterfall of dark hair.
Chuck Tarrant frowned, and was about to say something when his wife put her hand on his arm. Elizabeth Tarrant asked dryly, "Do you two need some time alone . . . to get reacquainted?"
"What? Oh, um, sorry," Taylor said, blushing madly and stepping back.
April twitched at her mother's tone, and then frowned, for some reason looking at the door to the office.
She looked at Mrs. Carson and asked, "So, what have you been telling them that I wasn't allowed to hear?" She asked it with a smile that showed trust despite her accusation, and Mrs. Carson gave her an answering smile.
"Actually, nothing," the headmistress claimed. "They can tell you everything we discussed. I just wanted to explain a few things to them before they met you."
April rubbed at a chain that, under the pressure of her fingers, Taylor could see around her neck under her shirt . . . blouse, whatever they called it. "I've got the blue crystal," she said cryptically.
"I was sure you would have it," Mrs. Carson said.
She rose and escorted her visitors to the door of the office. "You know the public areas of Whateley, April. You're excused from the campus if you choose to go out to dinner, or you can take them to Crystal Hall."
When she opened the door to her office and looked into the anteroom, she turned back to smile wryly at her guests. "I should have known," she said.
In the outer room were two other students. One was a pretty girl (though not in April's class, Taylor thought) with strange, very long crystal-clear hair. The other was . . . . trouble. He was tall, with muscles even the new-and-improved Taylor could never hope to have, and deep blue eyes, and glossy blue-black hair. Taylor felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, though all the guy did was smile politely as he stood.
April said, "Mother, Father, I'd like to introduce my roommate, um, Emily Cunningham - we call her Harmony - and Sean Watkins. They're my best friends."
"Oh, and this is Taylor, Taylor Christian," she added, pointing at him. "He's a friend from . . . well, from forever. We're neighbors back home."
Harmony's eyes widened at the name. "I remember her saying in an e-mail that her roommate was named Harmony. They must have talked about me, because she recognized my name," Taylor noticed, and it helped just a bit to overcome the slight he felt at almost being forgotten in the introductions, and demoted from 'best friend' to just 'friend.'
Taylor was trying to learn a good handshake; firm, with a casual show of strength that seemed effortless enough not to be a challenge. He tried it out on the big dude, or at least intended to. Unfortunately, he might as well have been grabbing a brick. As far as he could tell, the guy never even felt it. His own hand closed on Taylor's with less apparent pressure than Taylor had been trying for, firm but with absolutely no sense of strain.
"Damn, this dude's a mutant . . . well, I shoulda figured that. But I think he must be superstrong. At least I didn't try one of those squeeze-till-it-hurts games."
They all stood there awkwardly for a moment, strangers with a single point of intersection in April, and even that diluted by the broken linkage to Corwin. Mrs. Carson noticed, and helped them along. "You two may be excused from campus for dinner this evening as well, if the Tarrants are willing."
"Of course," Chuck Tarrant said. With that implied suggestion, he motioned them toward the door. "Does anyone know a good restaurant in - what was the name of the nearby town?"
"Dunwich," Sean supplied. "There are a couple that I've heard of, but . . ."
Mrs. Carson came to the rescue again. "I suggest Antoine's. Which is, despite the name, a family-style restaurant with a quite conventional menu. You can't miss it on the main road through town."
"Thanks," Mr. Tarrant said. "We'll give it a try."
As they walked to the exit, he frowned. "Uh, oh, our car only holds . . ."
"Don't worry about it, Mr. Tarrant," Sean said. "I can get there on my own."
"Do you have your own vehicle?" Mrs. Tarrant asked, then she frowned at April. "I hope it's not one of those motorcycles."
"No, nothing like that," Sean promised with a smile, provoking a titter of laughter from the two girls.
Harmony's laugh ended in a frown. "Oh, I can't go into town like this," she said, pulling at her impossible hair. "We're not supposed to be like, obvious when we're off campus."
"Oh," Mr. Tarrant said, "then I suppose we can go to this . . . what was the hall Mrs. Carson mentioned?"
"Crystal Hall," Harmony supplied, "but that's not necessary. If you can give me half an hour, I can fix it."
"Of course, dear," Mrs. Tarrant said. "Shall we meet you in your room at that time?"
"In our room?" April repeated. "Um . . ."
"Better make it an hour, then," Harmony said, looking at April.
"Uh, yeah, that would be better," April agreed.
Mrs. Tarrant sighed. "April, I do hope you keep your dorm room neater than your room at home."
"Oh, um, sure," she claimed, but the guilty look on her face gave her away.
"Very well, then," Mrs. Tarrant said. "One hour. And you can be sure I'll want to see the room now."
April and Harmony looked at each other, then shrugged. "Okay," Harmony said.
Sean said, "If you don't mind, since the other guys aren't wearing ties I'd like to stop by my room as well. I'll meet you in town in, say, an hour and a half?"
Mr. Tarrant nodded, looking at the tie April wore. She smiled and pulled it off, tucking it in her purse. Acting as tour guide, she took them around the campus, pointing out the areas that the public were allowed to see. Some of those were still quite impressive, though not even April was fully aware of just how unusual some of the laboratory equipment was. Or the laboratory equipment operators. It was a red flag day though, so they didn't see anything more notable than Harmony's crystal hair.
How much of her available time Harmony spent on straightening the room wasn't apparent, but when the arrived it was reasonably neat, though Harmony was herself absent.
"I wonder where she put all her crystals," April mused. But at least the beds were made and the dirty clothes hidden out of sight.
Mrs. Tarrant was nodding her satisfaction when a girl came bustling in - a girl with shoulder-length blonde hair.
"Harmony?" April asked in surprise. Of course it was her, but . . . "She looks really cute like that."
"What did you do with all your hair?" Mrs. Tarrant asked.
"Oh, it's all in here somewhere," Harmony said, laughing. She wore a comfortable bulky sweater, and lifted the pale tresses falling over her collar to show her even-paler real hair disappearing inside the thick knit.
"Are there a lot of problems when you go into town . . . you and the other, ah, students?" asked Mr. Tarrant.
"Not really," Harmony assured him. "But most of us don't like to be, y'know, stared at. I mean, most people who are like, different get looked at a lot in just about any town, and for most any difference."
"I expect you're right," Mr. Tarrant agreed. "So, are we ready to go?"
"I just need to change my skirt," April said, diving into the room's closet.
"I hope it will be into something a bit longer," her mother called after her, prompting a snicker from Harmony and a frown from Taylor.
The skirt, when April reappeared, might have been slightly longer - with all those legs showing it was hard to say - but it was quite a bit tighter and the net effect was even more revealing. The frown on her father's face said he was going to have something to say about that, but Taylor headed him off at the pass.
"Wow!" he said softly.
"Thank you, Taylor," she said demurely, then spoiled the image of innocence with a giggle and a twirl.
Chuck Tarrant couldn't chastise his new daughter when she was so happy with her life, so he just sighed and pointed at the door.
With no further dissent, they made their trek to the car. Taylor dutifully held Mrs. Tarrant's door for her, prompting another giggle from the girls. Harmony was about to pile in the rear seat of the four-door sedan on her own, but April held her back.
"Let's see if he'll hold our door, too," she whispered to her roommate.
"He's majorly cute," Harmony whispered back. "I'll let him hold anything of mine that he wants."
April's giggle was too loud for politeness, but aside from a frown on Mrs. Tarrant's face, and a blush on Taylor's, there were no repercussions. And Taylor did hold their door. The way things had worked out, April was closest so she dived in and slid over to the far side. He was waiting for Harmony to get in the car as well when she pushed at him.
"Go on, Taylor. You should sit next to your friend."
He shrugged, but didn't really argue. That left him surrounded by nubile young females, and while he wasn't as smart as Corwin, he was not totally stupid.
On one side was Harmony, and Taylor thought she was just wicked pretty. Even with her spectacular hair hidden, she was different from any girl he had ever met. Harmony's beauty was somehow . . . fragile. Her pale, smooth skin and delicate features made her seem like fine china that would shatter at a sharp glance. She was so slim, too, though all that did was prove a slender girl could still be very feminine. It brought out all the protective feelings he'd begun to recognize were a major lever for him, but even recognizing it didn't keep it from working. Best of all, in addition to her terrific looks, she had been just bubbling with cheerful energy and that was a big plus, too. Taylor was shy enough himself to appreciate - really appreciate - a girl who could help with the conversation.
And on the other side . . .
On the other side was April, and she was just too pretty to believe. No one real, no one that any real people actually knew, could be that awesomely gorgeous. The news was full of celebrities and what they looked like when they weren't all glammed up for the cameras . . . and most of them were skanks. So pictures, movies, all that was just faked. No one really looked that good.
No one would call her slender. She looked sleek and powerful, a living cliche of perfect womanhood - the hunting cat who was mistress of the human jungle.
"Yeah, be honest with yourself, dude," he thought. "She's also got bewbies that can knock a man's eyes out at twenty paces, and you for damn sure know it."
And she was sitting right next to him. Turned a little bit toward him so that her headlights were flashing in his eyes.
She was even tall. Real tall for a girl, almost as tall as he was. Taylor knew that all his protective reflexes were alive and well, but as he sat there next to the girl who had . . . consumed his childhood friend, he realized that there was something even better than the feeling of power that came from protecting a petite girl. There was the feeling of power that came from being part of a balanced pair who could support each other.
"Whoa, this must be the place," Mr. Tarrant said from the front seat. "There's, ah, Sean, wasn't it?"
"Damn!" Taylor thought, scowling.
Chapter 20 - "I'll Be Anyone You Want Me To Be"
Taylor followed April from the car and suppressed another scowl at her cheerful, "Hello, Sean."
He tried to keep his irritation under control, but it just wasn't fair. "Even her voice is perfect,' Taylor thought. "Musical and feminine, without a bit of shrillness. Just freakin' perfect. Just like . . ." - and here his mental voice dripped with saccharine sweetness - "'. . . Sean.' Nobody real can be that built. He belongs in a comic book."
"You coming, Taylor?" asked April. The others were at the door and looking back at him. He hadn't moved once he got the door on the car shut.
"Just freakin' perfect. Now they think I'm an idiot as well as a wimp."
Hurrying along after them, he had the presence of mind to look for any steps or inclines. He definitely didn't need to trip and fall on top of everything else. It kept his eyes down anyway, so he didn't have to look at the way the April was fawning over the powerful mutant guy. Her and Harmony both.
The girls did their girly thing, ordering salads with some fancy rosemary-raspberry stuff on it. At least Mr. Tarrant ordered a steak and baked potato, so Taylor could too. Sean smiled and ordered the same, catching April's eyes for a moment. She grinned with some sort of shared secret and Taylor realized he was missing something again, something that they found obvious.
"Do they feed you well at the school?" Mrs. Tarrant asked Sean.
"Yes, ma'am," he said politely. "You can get about anything you need, and plenty of it."
"I expect it takes a fair amount of food to feed someone as big as you," Mr. Tarrant said ruefully.
"Yes sir," Sean agreed.
Harmony laughed and said, "If this was Whateley, he'd get like, three of the meals he ordered here."
"Oh, if you want more . . ." Mr. Tarrant said.
"No, thank you," Sean said, frowning at Harmony. "In fact, since I knew we were coming here, I stopped by the cafeteria before I left. I don't like calling attention to myself with, y'know, too much food. This will be just right."
The rest of the meal was more of the same, at least from Taylor's perspective. Everything he might think he could do, Sean could do so much better that the very idea of competition was silly. And the girls just took it all for granted. Of course Sean was bigger and stronger and more manly than anyone else. Of course his appetite was huge to go with his strength. It would probably turn out he had a genius IQ as well. Sean changed the normal high school standard so much that Taylor went from - in what he had thought was an honest self-appraisal - a reasonably attractive guy to a wimpy little kid, a jock wannabe tolerated by the real athletes out of politeness.
And April just wasn't Corwin anymore. She giggled, nudging Harmony under the table to share some wordless alert at whatever she found funny. When she did talk to Taylor, she turned her haunting grey eyes on him and made it seem like he was the center of her universe - just before doing the same to Sean. She picked at her food - something that Corwin had definitely never done - yet it didn't seem faked. Maybe she really wasn't hungry, but that was just part of the same problem. Taylor was hungry. The Tarrants were hungry. Corwin would have been hungry. Why wasn't April?
She sure didn't seem like his childhood friend when every movement had such grace that even a high-order babe like Harmony seemed clumsy in comparison.
It was a relief when the meal finally ended. Not surprisingly, the girls needed to go 'powder their noses' - as Mrs. Tarrant explained - as soon as they were done eating. Even April, though to Taylor she still looked perfect. He excused himself as soon as he could without looking like he was following them.
"I think I need to get a little air," Taylor said to Mr. Tarrant. "Maybe the long car trip is bothering me or something."
"There's a little gazebo thing out back," the ever-helpful Sean said.
Taylor just nodded, but with no place better to go, he took the suggestion.
April found him out there a while later.
"What's wrong, Tay?" she asked.
"Nothing," he replied curtly.
"Hey, dude, don't try that on me," April said, the words of Corwin achingly out of place coming in her pure tones from her perfect lips.
Taylor just frowned and looked away at the forested hills.
"C'mon, dude, tell me what's wrong," she asked again.
"I am," he snapped.
When he didn't reply she sat down next to him and asked again, "What do you mean?"
"Careful," he sneered. "Wouldn't want to get muggle cooties on you."
"What the hell are you talking about?" April demanded.
"That's what you perfect people call us, right? Muggles?"
"Perfect people?" April repeated. "Is that what you think?"
"Give me a break," Taylor said bitterly. "Don't tell me you haven't looked in a mirror. You and Sean. Hell, even Harmony."
April sat back sharply, looking at him with a frown. She opened her mouth to say something, and then closed it, still looking at Taylor.
"Okay, dude," she said softly, "you gotta promise never to tell my parents what I'm about to tell you, okay?"
"Whatever," Taylor replied.
"Not good enough, Taylor," April said. "I want your promise."
"Yeah, okay, I promise. Nothing to your folks."
"One of the things I have learned from all this," she began, "is that 'perfect' is in the eye of the beholder . . ."
Taylor looked like he was going to say something, but she waved him to silence.
"Let me tell you what one person thought was perfect. One person wanted a punching bag . . . someone who they could beat up on and - this is disgusting - who would like it. And for a while, that was me."
"You know what my mutation is," April said. "I become someone's dream or fantasy. Well, for one person, I became a punching bag. She beat me bloody over and over again. She burned me. She broke my arm. And I had to tell her I liked it!"
Her voice had been rising with her memory, until she was groaning with anguish. Taylor couldn't let her cry out all alone. His arms wrapped around her and he stroked her lush hair, pulling her head into his shoulder.
"Shh, April, it's okay," he crooned.
She shuddered in his arms, but after a moment she stilled.
Lifting her head, she found Taylor's eyes only inches from hers. "I'll tell you what perfect is, Taylor. Perfect is someone you can trust. It doesn't matter what they look like. It doesn't matter how fast they can run or how much they can lift. It's all about trust."
She shrugged gently out of his arms and stood up. Reaching inside her blouse, she pulled out a chain with a gleaming blue pendant. As she was taking it off, she said. "I've been a masochist, a pirate, Wonder Woman, an angel, and Mrs. Carson . . ."
She unwrapped her bracelet and arranged it so that the red crystal rested on her forehead. "I'll be anyone you want me to be, because I trust you. If you think I'm too pretty to be with you - not that I agree - then make me as ugly as you want. If you want me to . . ," she shuddered again, but continued, " . . if you want me to be a porn slut and give you a blow job right here, all you have to do is wish for it."
She sighed and finished her offer. "That's not who I am now, but it's who I can be if that's how you see me, and I want to be perfect for you."
Taylor's mom didn't raise no fools, and he certainly wasn't going to pass up an opening like that. He stood quickly and wrapped her in his arms. "You're perfect for me right now," he whispered.
Taylor walked arm-in-arm with April as they went back into the restaurant. He was smugly gratified to see a frown on Sean's face, and didn't notice a pout on Harmony's. It wasn't like he had a lot of time to notice, because as soon as they were in sight of April's parents, questions were incoming.
"What did you two do out there?" Mr. Tarrant said sharply.
"Nothing," April said blandly. "We just talked."
Mrs. Tarrant frowned and said, "That answer might work better, dear, if you were wearing the same clothes you wore when you left?"
"Oh, this little thing? It's just something I slipped on," April said with a giggle.
In place of her schoolgirl blouse and snug denim skirt, she now wore a cheerleader outfit, though not in Whateley colors.
"I don't, ah, recognize the uniform," Sean said cautiously.
"It's my high school," April said. "Or actually, the high school I would have, y'know, gone to if I'd have stayed home. Coolidge."
"And why did you change clothes out there?" Mr. Tarrant asked archly. He frowned at Taylor and was obviously going to say something.
April interrupted, "Oh, Daddy, chill. It's part of my power. I can change clothes without like, stripping." She did a little hip twitch while humming a bump-and-grind tune, then giggled again.
Taylor's smug grin didn't slip at the gathering storm around his friend's parents. He was too busy watching Sean's distress.
"You let him . . .?" Harmony began.
April put her hands on her hips and glared at everyone - everyone but Taylor. "Look, everybody, chill! Okay? Taylor is my best friend from before we could like, talk. If I can't trust him, then . . ."
She looked at her mother and said, "You should trust him, too. You know Taylor. You know that the very first night I changed, he could have done anything he wanted with me. And he didn't. But I'm not that little six year old girl you wanted either, so if he likes me in a cheerleader outfit, then why not?"
Then she sighed and relaxed. "Besides, we didn't, like, do anything."
If Harmony noticed that April had her fingers crossed out of sight of her parents, she didn't say anything.
April sighed again and said, "Anyway, this is probably as close to a high school cheerleader as I'll ever get."
Mr. Tarrant sighed himself, and reached out to his daughter. "April, honey, we need to talk."
"Oh, Daddy," she sighed, but she dutifully walked aside with him.
Taylor stepped over to be with April's school friends, and invited Mrs. Tarrant to join them as well.
"Is she like, happy?" he asked Harmony. "Really?"
"I think so," Harmony said. "Now that she can control when she changes. Don't you think so, Sean?"
"Yes," Sean replied. "Oh, she's got the same strains as the rest of us . . ."
Sean looked at Harmony and they both said in unison, with a laugh, "Hartford!"
Then he resumed his comment, "But she's coping, and the teachers here are just awesome. She'll be okay."
Mrs. Tarrant's shoulders relaxed, and it was clear she had been desperately hoping for a good answer.
"Did she ever, um, ask you to change her?" Taylor asked next.
"Yes," admitted Harmony. "But it was totally in public." "Well," Harmony thought, "at least it was a public place, even if it was dark and we were alone at the time." "Same with Sean."
"She asked you to change her?" Taylor asked with concern.
Sean laughed, relieved to know that April's friend from the past wasn't as confident about April as he had first seemed. "Yes, but it was so in public. We were repairing a chimney with half the students watching, and she asked me to change her into someone who could fly, and was like, strong. Y'know, that sort of thing."
"No, I don't know," Taylor muttered.
April's raised voice cut through their conversation. "Mother, would you talk to him? He still thinks I'm six years old, too!"
"No, honey, I don't," Mr. Tarrant said patiently. "But you're still underage, and . . ."
"Daddy!" April said, pouting.
"Mr. Tarrant," Harmony said. "April is okay. We like, watch out for each other. And her friends, like Sean, are nice guys. I promise."
"Dear, we may not have a lot of choice," Mrs. Tarrant said. "Unless you're thinking of taking April out of the school . . ."
"No!" April cried, and though it hurt Taylor to think of his friend being so far away, he recognized her dismay as proof of her happiness here.
"No, of course not," Mr. Tarrant said, recognizing it also. He looked at Sean and said, "I'll expect you to watch out for my daughter too, young man."
Sean's face flushed and it was clear he was conflicted, but like all teens he was at a disadvantage. Parents had managed to survive their own teen-age years and already understood that struggle, so Mr. Tarrant knew that using the honor of this particular wolf to guard his little chick was the best way to keep them from doing something they'd regret.
Taylor thought that was a pretty good idea, too.
That seemed like a completion to the incident of the clothing change, so they said good-bye to Sean and made their way back to Whateley, and to Poe Cottage. When the time came, Taylor's face flushed a little but he didn't hesitate to pull April behind a not nearly large enough tree and kiss her soundly good-bye. The frowns that created on everyone else's faces didn't bother him noticeably. It might even have been part of the reward. It also made it clear whether he thought of her as Corwin any longer.
Mrs. Tarrant asked her directly, "Are you happy?"
April grimaced and said, "Well, there are a few jerks around here, but . . ."
She hugged her mother and smiled. "Yes, Mother, I'm okay. It's high school, but it's okay."
Then it was her father's turn with a bit deeper question. "Are you happy being April?"
"Are you disappointed that you don't have a son any more?" she asked in turn.
He looked shocked. "Good Lord, no! I mean, Corwin was a fine young man, but you don't seem to have lost anything that made him special, and you've added so much . . ."
"Yeah, about six inches in height, and some other, ah, things as well."
Mr. Tarrant laughed. "You know I don't mean the physical things, though you are very beautiful. I mean the joy, the energy, the . . . I don't know, the life you have now."
April blushed, but she nodded. "I've had a lot of help from some very good friends, but I think you're right. I am more alive now than I ever was before."
"Good," he said. "Now you be a good girl!"
"A good girl, Daddy . . . . or a nice girl?"
"Don't even go there," he ordered sternly, though his smile undermined any censure.
As such things do, the final round of hugs and good-byes took a few more minutes, but it wasn't long before the Tarrant parents and one 'majorly cute' guy were heading out the gates.
When April and Harmony got to their room, the crystal-haired girl pulled off her blonde wig and shook out her long hair. "God, I hate that thing. It's hot, and after a while the real hair down my neck gets all twisted."
"Poor baby," April said without sympathy. "Did you see the way Sean was looking at you? He ssoo totally likes that look."
"Yeah, right, like he even knew I was in the room."
"Oh, he knew," April insisted. "It's a cute look for you."
"Why, you wanna try it?" Harmony said, handing the wig to the dark-haired girl.
"Oh, God, no, don't even think it. I might wake up blonde in the morning if my stupid subconscious likes the thing."
"Hmm," Harmony said, holding the wig up near April's head, "I wonder what Taylor would think."
That brought a quite effective blush to April's cheeks, and prompted a giggle from both of them.
Harmony leaned close to April, though they were alone in the room, and whispered, "So, roomie, tell me the truth. Just what did you and Taylor do out in the gazebo?"
"Well, first he told me that I was perfect," April said, then she giggled. "Though he did actually have a couple of ideas."
"Ooh, like what?" the crystal-haired girl demanded.
"Oh, I couldn't tell," April said righteously. Then she snickered and reached over to turn out the lights. "But I could show you," she murmured into the darkness.