Jade -1- Coming Out

Jade

1 - Coming Out

Jade 1 — Coming Out
A Whately Academy Tale

By Babs Yerunkle

1: Pop goes the weasel
Topeka, Kansas May 18, Thursday

“I’ve had it with you!”

The shove practically threw Jared across the room, slamming him against the wall. Snapshots and cheap posters rained down. Jared looked for somewhere to run, but he was already backed into the far corner of his room.

He was used to running from his father. ‘Trouble prevention’, as he preferred to think of it; giving father time to cool off. He was often the target of his father’s anger, but this time was worse than any he could remember. Well, worse than anything since the crash that had killed his mother, three years ago did. That had resulted in a DUI conviction for his father, and a beating for him sufficient to keep him out of school for a week.

And if Jared couldn’t think of some way to escape, there’d be another fatality tonight.

“You got any idea how much it’s gonna cost me to get the grill and radiator fixed?”

With a quick backhand the man slapped him into the wall. It wasn’t a hard hit — a few more cracks, some of the yellowing paint chipped off to expose the bare drywall underneath, Jared’s bookcase fell over. Not that his father cared about books. Jared himself rolled from the blow, softening the impact. After bouncing off the wall, he tried to scramble away, out of the man’s way. His fingers clutched at the debris of books and magazines, as if they might provide some sort of shield.

“I wasn’t even there! I didn’t do anything!” His protests sounded feeble even to his own ears.

“Gawd, you probably don’t even understand why I got to get out of this place! Surrounded all day long by my stupid pussy of a son. At least Mike’s has some real men! When are you gonna grow into something a man can be proud of? Not some runty little weakling!”

Jared had years of Aikido training. All the same, he knew he’d never have the confidence to strike back at his father. He could train all he wanted, but when he faced his father, body and mind both seemed to freeze. Even if, somehow, he had miraculously managed to defend himself, he father would only beat him worse for ‘cheating’ and using ‘pajama-fighting tricks’.

His hands scrabbled in the debris, searching for something, anything. He felt the boxing gloves his father had given him four years ago, for his tenth birthday (“So you can learn to fight like a real man”). He knew they still fit. That seemed to be the only thing the old man respected. The stupidest form of fighting on the planet. Oddly enough, that’s what he really wanted to do sometimes — to punch his father’s smelly face in!

“You make me sick,” the man said, unleashing a swift kick to his gut. “How dare you hold those gloves? Look at you! Stupid little runt, with your skinny girl arms! You never even tried that weight set, did you?”

He used it, at least once a day. Sometimes twice. But he never seemed to add any bulk.

“Look at you! You’re no son of mine!” His father reached down to grab the padded training headgear and threw it into his face, hard enough to bruise. Then the old man straightened, as if in sudden realization. “That’s it. That’s the only answer. She musta cheated on me. You aren’t half-Irish. You’re a full-nip bastard! You never even WERE my son!”

And he suddenly knew for a fact that his father was going to kill him. Clutching the gloves and boxing headgear, if felt like his head exploded — before the first punch was even thrown.

*****

He shook his head, disoriented. He felt different. Fundamentally different, but there was no chance to think about it.

What had he been thinking? Lying there, curled in on himself, waiting for his father to beat him to death? After all that practice in the dojo, why did he always freeze when confronted by him father? This time, he resolved, he would finally face this conflict. He would master the fear that had dominated him.

Despite the clear need, he hadn’t been taking Aikido to defend himself. He’d started if for the grace, for the harmony. A school of fighting that believed in non-violence first and foremost, with movement that sometimes seemed more like a graceful dance. Sometimes, when he was practicing, that’s what it felt like — like he was dancing. It was the complete opposite of the boxing gloves that he’d been laced into. How had he gotten here? Had he taken a blow to the head already? Is that why he was so confused?

He must have taken a hit. His vision was swimming. He wasn’t even seeing in color. Everything was gray, but he could see edges, transitions, and surfaces. There were no shadows anywhere, and he couldn’t even see the patch of sunlight that had been coming through the window a moment ago. He’d been hoping to blind his father for a moment, so he could make a run for it. And now his eyes weren’t even working right. He didn’t remember being hit, but there was no time for distraction, not in the middle of a fight. He reached for his ki and sought his center.

The discovery was devastating.

He didn’t have any ki! He didn’t even have any breath! In fact, he had no sense of his body or energy in any way. It was like there was nothing but the gloves in front of him.

Even more impossibly, he had no center, no hara! No matter how he moved his feet, his footing was sound and solid. No matter how he leaned over, he was still in balance. Except that there was no balance! It was almost as if gravity and inertia had vanished. The only components to his balance were, again, the gloves in front of him. Oh yes, and the headgear he wore for protection.

The discovery of perpetually good footing and perfect balance might have seemed a gift to others, but not to him. Him training was devoted to issues of balance and movement. It was devoted to proper breathing and awareness of him body. How could he use that awareness when he had no breathing, and so far as he could tell, had no body?

Utterly confused, he glanced down for a second. His body was there, but it was a mist of silvery sparkles. And he could see right through himself.

And then he understood. His father had finally hit him too hard, and he’d died. He was his own ghost, somehow haunting these idiotic boxing gloves — the last thing he’d held in life.

His father seemed to come to a decision. He threw a punch at Jared’s chest. Reacting instantly, Jared moved to perform a simple oji waza — even with the gloves on, he should be able to block the blow, and then lock his father’s arms.

Of course, his father’s arms went though his without slowing. Fortunately, the punch also passed harmlessly through him. It was hard to forget his old reflexes, but it seemed it was impossible to hurt a ghost by punching it.

Jared chanced another quick look. Now that he thought of it, he didn’t have to turn his head to look — he seemed to be able to see in every direction. But his thinking was still trying to catch up. He might be able to see in every direction, but so far, he was only noticing in the direction he concentrated on. He quickly glanced down at his body. It was still a mist, but his skin seemed to be firming up and forming a surface, rather than the wispy cloud of a moment ago. More important was the fact that Jared was standing in the middle of his bed. That is, his legs passed through the bed to reach the floor.

He saw his first flash of color then, in his father’s face. For a moment, as Jared watched, his father’s face had glowed with an amber color. Not golden, more of a banana tint. Now his anger was rising again, turning his eyes crimson and filling his mouth with the glow of a blast furnace. Jared could see it filling his father’s head and chest, and to a lesser extent lighting the rest of his body.

Jared wondered again. Were ghosts made up of ki? But, whatever he was, it didn’t feel like ki. Just twice in class, he’d felt some glimmering of something. His ki had been a feeling that united the swirling air in his lungs and the heat that filled his muscles. Now, he had neither air nor muscles, and absolutely none of that ki feeling.

“You’re doing this, aren’t you?” his father bellowed. “This is one of them achy-dough tricks, isn’t it? It’s not going to save you, bastard!” With that, the man struck for Jared’s face. He shifted him head and moved to enter inside his father’s arms followed by a quick hip throw. Again, his lack of a body thwarted him. And without the block his arm would have provided, his father managed to hit him square in the nose.

Except that the fist went through his nose without pain or resistance. When it struck the back of his headpiece, though, it pulled uncomfortably. The man grabbed onto the headgear, trying to rip it from Jared’s ghostly head. Jared screamed in pain before somehow, instinctually, “releasing” the headgear. It slipped away, removing the pain and leaving his head feeling lighter.

What kind of move could he use when all he had were boxing gloves? He hated atemi — the striking blows. He’d always avoided those except for the minimum needed for competency in the art. It was part of the reason he fit so well with Aikido.

He stepped back to consider, only belatedly realizing that he’d stepped back into the wall. His face and hands were still in the room, but his body was in the wall.

His father turned from him and looked down at the object at him feet. Jared glanced down and saw a boy’s body, curled around its belly. He was only slightly disconcerted to recognize his own body. Then he saw the small boy move, and he was astonished. That was him! That was his body! It was not only alive, it was glowing in a mixture of colors — the banana yellow he’d seen in his father, a sparkling blue in the eyes and the top of his head, and an almost ultra-violet from deep within the skull.

But if he was a ghost — if he was here — how was his body moving?

Further speculation was halted by the need to take action. His father lashed out with a kick at the cringing boy. Jared instinctively stepped forward to block, sweeping his leg aside and around, but his legs were so much vapor. Instead, his father’s steel-toed boot connected with the boy’s stomach in a sickening thud, and Jared watched as his body was slammed up against the wall and slumped down unconscious. As his father prepared to unleash more kicks, Jared found his dislike of atemi suddenly vanishing. He erupted in a fury.

A chudan-zuki connected in his father’s stomach, surprising the man but doing relatively little damage. But the wild return strike did absolutely nothing to Jared. Another strike, an oi-zuki hit, but without a physical body he was unable to add any momentum.

His father, unable to land a blow, seized his left glove and twisted. To Jared’s surprise, it was as if he weighed nothing. He spun upside down. Even here, he still had perfect footing and no trouble with his balance. It was disturbing. It seemed less like he had flipped, and more like the entire world had flipped over while he remained still. And with his father upside-down with legs spread wide for balance, Jared had a perfect target.

Normally a low blow like this would have been even more distasteful than a strike for the express purposes of harming someone. But he’d seen those steel-toed boots at work. He’d seen his father kick his body. Another kick and there might be two ghosts in the room (although Jared couldn’t understand who was in his body). So he struck. A perfect gedan-zuki, right to his most vital spot. With a moist cry, him father folded forward, slumping against the shelves that held Jared’s free weights.

Jared watched, not quite understanding, still trying to spin himself right side up, as one of the weights rolled off the shelf and then toppled (upward, from him perspective) to strike his father on the back of his head.

It only took a thought and he revolved in place, spinning about his center like a pinwheel. Except that he had no hara.

His father and … his own body… both had muted grayish colors compared to a moment ago. The red glow had vanished from his father. Instead, there was a blackish tinge radiating out from the back of his head, where the weight had struck.

He was definitely unconscious. Maybe worse.

He turned to his own body next. That was also a grayish glow, with a blackish-purple blossoming from the stomach. The bright colors in the face and head were gone. He debated about trying to move his body, but decided against it.

It made a little more sense for his spirit — his soul? — to be here if his body was unconscious, but for a while they’d both been awake. He was sure of that. And when the body finally woke up again, would he go back? He wasn’t sure he wanted to. In his spirit form like this, he felt better than he ever had in the flesh. His body had never “fit” quite right. He wasn’t sure how to describe it. But now, in this spirit form, he felt the difference. For the first time ever, he felt right. He had no ki, no breath, no center, and no body. And despite that, everything was correct in a way that had never been true before. Perhaps he’d achieved a state of grace, being one step closer to the afterlife.

But there was no time for philosophizing. He needed to call an ambulance, and fast! He tried to strip off his right glove, but couldn’t figure out how. His teeth didn’t seem to affect the laces. Now that he looked, the gloves weren’t actually tied. Somehow, the act of wanting it allowed him to slip out of the right glove and drop it on the floor. He reached for himself — his body — trying to feel a pulse or anything. He could feel plenty. He could feel the fading panic in his body, the life-filled flutter of its weak and irregular pulse, but he couldn’t seem to move anything.

Panicking now, he raced into the kitchen. He reached for the phone, but no matter how he tried to grab it, or kick it, or move it, he couldn’t. Him body had as much effect on the physical world as so much fog. The only thing that moved real objects was the stupid boxing glove, still on him left hand. Desperately, he raced back to him room and tried to re-don the right glove, but for some reason, that failed too.

He knew he was running out of time. He moved back to the kitchen and searched quickly for a tool — and spotted the butter knife. Carefully using the clumsy glove, he scooted it partway over the edge of the counter. Finally, he could grab it, clutching it with him “thumb.” Using that, he flipped the phone receiver off the hook and used the knife to punch 9-1-1.

“Hello? This is Jared Reilley!” At least, he’d intended to say that. No sound came out.

The operator spoke on the other end, demanding an answer. Finally they threatened to send a patrol car if no one answered.

Jared’s last action was to use the butter knife to unlatch the chain on the door. He placed the knife back on the edge of the counter, then used the glove to carefully twist the knob of the front door, pulling it open. That would be a sure invitation to the police to come in. Then he “let go” of the glove. He might not be able to touch anything for a while, but at least he’d be able to silently watch. But as he released it, consciousness abruptly winked out.

*****

He knew his father was going to kill him. Clutching the gloves and boxing headgear, if felt like his head exploded — before the first punch was even thrown.

A moment later, the boxing equipment was pulled out of his hands. But then, no punches landed. He looked up, expecting to see his father ready to unleash kicks or punches. Instead, his father was facing... the boxing gloves and headgear, which floated mysteriously in the air. It was almost like an invisible boxer was wearing the gloves and headgear.

As he watched, his father made a jab for the boxer’s chest. That did nothing. It would have hit a real person, but it struck only air. At the same time, the gloves spun through circular arcs. It almost looked like some type of oji waza move. If so, the gloves may have had physical substance, but the invisible boxer didn’t.

He felt a stab of terror as his father snapped a quick glance at him. “You’re doing this, aren’t you? This is one of them achy-dough tricks, isn’t it? It’s not going to save you, bastard!” With that, his father snapped a quick jab straight into the face of the invisible boxer. It passed through the non-existent head, but got caught in the back of the head guard. The padded headpiece seemed to resist, slowly stretching away. Jared could almost imagine sparks or something going off, as the headpiece was suddenly ripped free.

That must have disturbed the boxer, because it backed right up to the wall, so that the gloves almost seemed to have been glued onto the wall like an ornament. The wall over his head!

His father shifted his targeting gaze from the mysterious gloves down to the lump on the floor. The big man gave a nasty grin.

Jared felt a moment of sheer terror as the foot flashed forward, then he felt it rip through his gut and slam him against the wall. Then it went black.

*****

When he woke, he was in a recovery ward in the hospital. The bed was an old enamel-coated metal frame, and the room looked like it had once been white, before the paint had yellowed. Perhaps it had been yellow, and faded over time. The room held nine other beds, but only his was occupied.

As he came awake, he remembered both. He had been lying on the floor as his father kicked him. But he’d also been an invisible boxer. The same scene, the same moments, but he remembered them from two very different perspectives.

He didn’t doubt it. He didn’t think it was a dream or hallucination. It was some sort of miracle, and it had saved his life, he was sure of that. But it had really only postponed the inevitable. Hospital bills on top of everything else would make his father more furious than ever. When Jared finally went home, he knew what would happen. Broken bones, hits that didn’t break the skin but left him bleeding on the inside, and then he’d die.

He knew it, as surely as he knew anything. When he went home, he would die.

The thought terrified him more and more, as he lay in the bed clutching the sheet.

And then the miracle happened again. Something flashed in his head, and suddenly, the sheet was moving as if it was alive. It suddenly slipped free of the bed, bumping the blanket off and then sliding off like some sort of magic carpet.

“Are you me in there?” he asked in wonder.

The blanket paused, then turned and seemed to nod to him. It flew up and wrapped a corner of itself around his hand.

Jared smiled. Despite the massive danger that awaited, he couldn’t help marveling at the antics of this strange, animated piece of fabric.

Eventually, the sheet came back and settled on top of him. There was a sort-of a “pop” feeling, and he suddenly had two sets of memories in his head. There was him-in-bed, which he had definitely been a moment ago, and there was him-in-sheet, which was just as real, and just as immediate. Somehow, for a time, there had been two of him — both as real, as honestly him as the other. Well, that wasn’t quite true. The him-in-sheet had somehow felt truer, more correct, and more real that the version of him left behind in the body. It wasn’t like his soul had been removed — it felt more real than he felt now. It was like the spirit-form, or whatever he should call it, was higher, or better, or improved in some way.

Another thing was becoming clear. Somehow, the spirit-form was connected to material objects — the boxing glove, the sheet. When it “dropped” the last object, it vanished like a popping soap bubble. And that’s when the memories re-appeared in his head.

Could he do it again?

He clutched the sheet and tried to duplicate the feeling he’d had. It wasn’t exactly a push, but it was hard to do —

*****

And he was free again. There was a difference. He wasn’t sure whether it was just as he’d been pushed out, or whether it was him doing it, as he flowed into a form. It was hard to tell, since the intention and direction had been his, and just at the beginning it was hard to tell the difference between the thoughts of him-in-body and him-in-spirit.

Last time, he had flowed into the sheet. He had taken its form and shape, although he provided the life and movement. This time, he’d had more of a sense of himself, and he’d formed a body and pulled the sheet to him. This was the way it had been that first time, with the boxing gloves.

*****

Jared watched as the sheet swirled up. It seemed to be forming a wrap. A toga? No, more of a skin-tight wrap, winding around the body of the invisible spirit-self. He could see the outlines of the body. A corner of the sheet slid up the back of the neck and sat almost like hair on the top of the head.

He suddenly realized something. “Wait a minute — you can’t be me. You’re too tall!”

This had been a sore point for years. He’d always been one of the shorter kids in class, but the last couple of years it seemed like he hadn’t grown at all. Meanwhile, all his classmates were suddenly hitting growth spurts. One of the girls had started the year at his height and was now the third-tallest kid in class.

But not Jared. He didn’t seem to grow a bit. He’d been four-foot-nine for years it seemed.

Yes, the ghost was definitely taller than he was. The spirit, or whatever it was, was as tall as most of his classmates. About middling height, he thought. The height I would have been, if I’d kept growing.

The thought took him by surprise. “Hey, come back! I just thought of something.”

Obligingly, the sheet unwrapped. It was like invisible hands were holding one edge. The invisible hands could be almost be seen by the effect they left, as they moved on the far side of the sheet. Wrapping the sheet around his hands, the invisible spirit used the sheet like gloves, grabbing the blanket and pulling it off. Next, it flipped the sheet out neatly, covering him.

“Yeah? So how are you going to get the blanket back up here, smart guy?”

The fingers trailed along one edge of the sheet, then down to a lower corner. This served as a glove again, grabbing the blanket and flipping it up and over. It took a couple more straightening efforts, but soon the bed was back to normal. Then, there was a rush like wind, and the memories of his other self were back with him.

No, not his other self. His inner self. That was what he’d realized that he had to share. It was the height difference. The spirit was him as he was supposed to be. The height he’d be now, if he’d kept growing. That’s why it felt so right when he was pure spirit. The spirit was him as he was meant to be, not him as he was, in his stunted body. Everyone kept thinking he was eleven or twelve, but he’d just turned fourteen.

Now he had to know for real. How tall was he? Or actually, how tall was he supposed to be?

The first step to finding out was to get a tape measure. He looked at the box of disposable rubber gloves left on the tray beside him. He had a plan for that…

*****

In spirit form, he flowed through the space in the ceiling. Beyond the hanging tiles, there was a fascinating world of pipes and wires. There wasn’t enough space for a person to fit in here, despite what he read in Spiderman comics. But there was plenty of space for a pair of latex gloves and an intangible spirit.

He discovered that he couldn’t poke his ghost-head down through a tile and see into that room. A little of the material that was him had to go into the room before his perception followed. Either that, or a tile had to be moved out of the way so he could see into the room.

He carefully lifted another tile and spotted it: he’d finally found the supply room. And sure enough, here’s where he found several measuring tapes. It was a moment’s work for the gloves to float down and grab the tape. They were as dexterous as human hands, and more sensitive than hands wearing the gloves. It seemed that his sense of touch was on the outer surface of whatever material he inhabited. Not on the inside, as with a normal person just wearing the gloves.

After that, it was a quick trip back above the ceiling tiles.

*****

The next step was getting dressed better. As gloves, he floated over to where they’d laid out his clothes for him. A long-sleeve T-shirt, briefs, and socks. He could keep the gloves for hands. What about his head? He finally settled for a small towel. He could cover his head and let the rest drape down the back. And with a pencil, he could make a subtle mark against the wall and measure himself. He carried the pile back to the bed, so that he could return, and then get re-cast back into the full set of clothes.

It was odd that he couldn’t pick up an object and “add” it to the collection he inhabited, but it was one of the strange limitations of his form.

It was also interesting that, in his physical body, it took effort to pull out his “inner self” — it was like something was suddenly missing. But as soon as spirit-form rejoined physical-form, everything was fine again. He could be cast back out again immediately.

So he dropped the clothes on his body’s chest, then dropped the gloves on top and vanished.

*****

Jared watched as the clothes seemed to inflate. It was definitely like watching an Invisible Man movie — one with great special effects. The towel on the head gave a good indication of height, and his inner self was definitely taller than he was. He was a bit surprised to see that, despite the height growth, his arms hadn’t really gotten much larger. And then he noticed.

At first, it was such an impossibility that he couldn’t believe it. He stared at the invisible figure in underwear and T-shirt, watching the way it walked, bent over, and used the pencil.

Now that he could see it, he couldn’t understand how he missed it before. Everything about the figure made it obvious.

The figure picked up the tape measure and used it against the wall, and held one spot to demonstrate the answer: five-foot-three, a good six inches taller than him.

“Uh huh,” he answered, from his daze. “But I can’t believe you missed the most important part: You’re a girl.”

*****

He’d returned and then been re-cast, over and over. It was coming up on fifteen times now. Every result had been the same. He could be the object, or he could be a girl. Not a boy, not a man, always a girl. He hadn’t believed it. But looking down (or turning his attention downward), the slight mounds of his breasts could be seen. They were small, barely swelling in the front of his T-shirt, but they were undeniable. His gigantic nipples were the most obvious part. Well, maybe not gigantic, but compared to his boy-body…

This time, he was wearing briefs, T-shirt, and gloves only, so he could crawl into bed for a closer check. Jared-physical wanted to examine the outside, and he was extremely curious about what that would feel like on the inside.

So while Jared-physical held the sheets up, he climbed into bed. The sheets came down, covering them both.

He was almost trembling with a mix of anticipation and fear. After all — the other person was just him. He was touching himself, really. There was certainly nothing wrong with that. But still… somehow the idea of a boy touching him there, anyone touching him there…

Jared-physical’s hands slid over his shirt, feeling his narrower waist, wider hips. He could tell, from the inside. The way his hips flared out a bit. Was his butt larger than it was as a boy? It seemed like it. Then the hands moved up to his chest. The fingers traced over him. He could definitely feel the difference. Above and below, there was little skin covering his ribs. It was odd to feel that, since he was an empty shirt. But he could feel the structure of his invisible body, and he knew that to his physical counterpart it felt exactly as if there were a girl in bed, wearing nothing more than a thin T-shirt and boy’s briefs.

The fingers traced again, confirming the presence of his ribs, then moving up to those twin swells of padding, confirming their softness and shape, hands gently cupping his young mounds. He felt his large nipples pressing into the palms. Compared to the boy-body, his girl-nipples consistently stunned him. They were so large!

And oddly, throughout it all, he felt no thrill. No special tingles. Neither pleasure nor pain, as the physical hands grew more bold, poking, tweaking, pinching. He’d been planning to use the gloves to restrain his other self whenever it went too far. But there was nothing. He felt pressure, definitely. He felt his physical body, as it was squeezed and massaged. At least, it seemed like he was feeling a physical body. And he felt texture. Good lord, did he feel texture! It was like his nerve endings were wired straight to the surface of the T-shirt. When boy-Jared rubbed fingers over his nipples, he practically shot out of the bed. It still wasn’t pleasure or pain or interest or irritation. But he could feel so much texture, it was amazing.

He was starting to figure out that he seemed to have more nerve endings in some parts of his “body” than others. For example, the skin of his legs had enough nerves to detect touch, but didn’t seem to have much detailed feeling. On the other hand, the skin of his fingertips was so sensitive that he could gauge fine textures and identify objects by touch. The skin of his nipples seemed to have almost as many nerves as his fingertips, which was a total surprise. His boy-body didn’t have so many nerves there.

Another thing that took him by surprise was how good this made him feel. It wasn’t stimulation from the touching; it was a psychological thing. With every stroke or squeeze, it was confirmed anew that he had breasts. Every time one of boy-Jared’s hands passed up his waist or over his rear, it was clear that he was a girl. And that made him extremely happy. It was a sort of shy pride. It made him want to quietly nuzzle his partner. Which was impossible at the moment, since he had no face.

Why should he feel such happiness and satisfaction in being female? It didn’t make any sense. He was a boy, wasn’t he? But right now, he wasn’t physical-Jared at all; he was his inner self — the way he was meant to be. And that seemed to be a girl. There were implications there, but he wasn’t ready to look too closely at them just yet.

In fact, he wasn’t able to think about much of anything. Boy-Jared was finally moving the target of his explorations. The hands were straying down to his belly, noting the subtle differences from his boy-stomach. Now the hands were touching his briefs.

He knew that he’d scream (or want to, at least) if there was any hint of the ugly boy parts down there. But he wasn’t really sure of what girls were like. What did a girl have?

The fingers teased through the thick cotton, stroking, patting, and feeling. No boy parts, thank goodness. Instead, he seemed to have an elegant smooth contour, which just wrapped smoothly under and came up on his butt. The hand stroked between his legs, feeling, passing from the flat front, smoothly under, and coming out with five fingers spread wide over his butt cheeks.

But… there was a little more detail he could see. As his hand passed down the smooth front, he could feel a bony ridge inside. Then the fingers turned, and passed under him. The hands made another pass. There was a flattish hump on his front side, a small raised area. Just enough to provide a sort of squishy mound. It felt like fat, or extra flesh. And just where the fingers went under, there was more structure there, too. There was a slit that he could feel. He pulled his legs open wider, to give boy-Jared more room to explore.

He knew that girls had some sort of slit there. Everyone knew that! But he hadn’t quite understood the details. Now it seemed like just above his thighs, there were two ridges of flesh. Except that “ridges” made them sound hard. These were soft. Soft, cushiony, fleshy lips that nestled together under his hips, between his legs. When his legs were closed, the lips closed, and all he could feel was a slit running between the closed lips. Like closing your mouth and feeling where the mouth would open. Again, the cushiony sponginess was surprising. Girls had padding in the oddest places. And when he pulled his knees apart, the lips opened, exposing all of him that was hidden inside that innocuous slit.

He couldn’t tell what all of it was. Not with the cotton underpants. But there was a line of flesh down his very middle, and that seemed to split open, too. And there were all sorts of complicated bits down there. The nerve endings were just as dense as on his fingertips or his nipples. He was fascinated by it, and he loved the exploration. Once again, all he could feel was pressure and texture, but he could feel his body. His illusionary, invisible body, but it felt real to him.

And he realized something that he’d been avoiding for a long time. He was a girl. This latest test proved it. He shouldn’t be thinking of himself as a boy in a girl’s body. He was a girl, in a girl’s body.

And he liked it. He — she — he wasn’t sure how to think of himself. He wanted to snuggle in with his partner and keep touching and stroking forever. And another thing — he didn’t want to go back! Boy-Jared was trapped in that stupid boy body. He’d always felt a bit uncomfortable there, a bit off. He’d never known why until now. The answer was here. He felt completely right as a girl. Happy, joyful, quietly proud of herself, delighting in what she was and the shape she wore. He felt good as a girl. Why should he go back to being a boy?

*****

After a half-hour, Jared was startled when the clothes suddenly collapsed. The memories were back. And while he’d been fascinated with the chance to explore a girl’s body, it was nothing compared to the feelings, memories, and emotions that she had felt. It was impossible to think of her in any other way. His inner self — the version of him that was everything he was supposed to be — was a girl. And for no reason he could understand, she’d suddenly evaporated.

Terrified, he tried casting her back into the clothes. He breathed a sigh of relief when the clothes inflated, but he also felt a tinge of jealousy now, too. She got to be the girl, while he was stuck in this dumb boy-body. He hadn’t thought of it like that before, but now the idea wouldn’t leave his mind.

*****

He pretended to be sleeping whenever they looked in on him. He was definitely in no hurry to be released. The last thing he wanted was to go home with his father. So he “slept” and experimented.

He discovered that he couldn’t cast her without “charging up” a physical object. He couldn’t understand why. Perhaps the physical object anchored her spirit form. And she was connected to the anchors — she could move them around. But as soon as she dropped the last anchor, she snapped back into his head. The “charge” lasted about a half-hour, although he could touch her and re-charge, to give more time. Using that trick she stayed out for four hours once, without coming back into his head.

He was also figuring out about his nerves. They got pulled through the entire structure of an “anchor”. When Jared first “charged up”, he could push his self into the anchor (or anchors). If Jared charged himself into a pen, then picked up the pen, his girl-self felt the touch against the barrel of the pen as if someone was stroking her skin and squeezing her, as they wrote with her ballpoint. But it wasn’t like his hand nerves were spread over one part of the pen, while his intimate bits were in another part. Instead, he was the pen. It was hard to describe, but a part of him was the outside barrel, a part was the spring. Several parts of him were the clicker. He could feel all his parts, and feel how they all fit together. He could hold the ball still, so it didn’t roll and no ink came out. Or he could squeeze the ink, so that it out shot out in a blot. He could use himself to write, although his handwriting wasn’t as good as when he was in girl-form. As a pen he could fly around the room as a missile, or unscrew and take himself apart.

As a piece of tubing, he could coil and twist like a snake. As a sheet, he could flap around as a living sheet, unconstrained by human shape and limitations. He could turn into a flying carpet, becoming solid enough for his physical body to sit on, while he flew around the room. He discovered that as a spirit, he was a little stronger than he was in his physical body. And as a spirit, he never got tired.

If he didn’t actively push himself into the object, he tended to form in girl-shape. In that case, he had a body of silvery sparkles (or so it looked to his spirit-vision), all his nerves were in the normal location, and the anchor objects were pulled to his body and wrapped around him like clothes. His nerves seemed to get pulled through the object, so that it felt like the surface of his skin was along the surface of the object. His dexterity was very good in this form — he could thread a needle, write legibly, and do anything that he could as a normal person. And from the outside, it felt like there were a real girl inside the clothes. She was invisible, but you could feel the structure of her body — bony elbows, soft breasts, muscular belly — everything felt normal.

No matter what he did, he couldn’t pick up, or transfer to, or slip into a new anchor-object. It had to be there when was being “charged up.” He could “drop” anything, at any time, but dropping the last anchor always sent him back to his body. He could use gloves to handle normal objects, but he was merely holding them. He had no special connection to them.

He broadened his experiments. If he charged into a pillow, he could be the pillow. If there was a hole in the pillow, he could control every feather (although it became progressively more difficult to keep track of them all).

But he had limitations, too.

First was the fact that the different “parts” of him all had to be within about six feet of each other. His spirit-body wasn’t able to stretch farther than that. And if some piece was pulled out of the six-foot zone, it hurt worse and worse until it broke free from him, or he dropped it. This was the only way he’d found of causing pain for his spirit-form.

Second was his half-hour time limit. It didn’t matter if his physical body fell asleep in the meantime, and he didn’t seem to have a distance limitation (he’d animated a dead fly, and by hopping from doctor to visitor to car to train, he’d managed to get over twenty miles away before the half-hour had passed).

One thing Jared never did, though, was to allow anyone else to know about his “inner self.” Soon enough, he’d have to leave the hospital. When that happened, he intended to use his miraculous secret to help him escape. He was going to run away from home, and never come back. His father wouldn’t be able to find him, and he’d finally be safe.

2: Refuge
Topeka, Kansas May 22, Monday

“…so everything looks good,” the doctor reassured him. “We’re always concerned when there’s internal hemorrhaging, and you were bleeding inside, in your tummy.” For some reason, adults always spoke to him as if he was some sort of half-witted child. “But that seems to be healing on its own. Fortunately there’s no sign of infection or secondary effects. We’d like to keep you overnight tonight for observation, but tomorrow you’ll finally be able to get out of here.”

He nodded quietly, not showing any emotion. Inside, he was already planning to eat the biggest meal he could. He’d sneak out around midnight, right after the nurse checked up on him.

“How’s my father?”

“Well, Miss Baker is here to talk to you about that. She’s a social worker with CPS. Have you heard of that?”

Jared bit his lip. This would complicate things. “Uh, you’re the government group that … takes,” his father had said steals, “children from their families.”

The woman smiled. “Not exactly.” She was a cheerfully plump brunette, not much taller than his girl-form. “CPS is the Child Protective Service, and you and I both know how you got hurt, don’t we?”

Jared didn’t say a word; he just stared at her, waiting for her to continue.

“We step in when parents are hurting their children. We’re here to protect children. Doesn’t that sound like a good thing?”

Again, he was non-committal.

“If you’re in a place where you’re being hurt, we move you for a while to a new house, where people can watch over you and protect you, and where you won’t be hurt any more. Doesn’t that sound like a good thing?” No reaction. “It would help a lot if you could talk to us. Especially if you talked to a judge.”

He knew exactly how well that would go over. His father had beaten him several times about what would happen to him if he ever talked. On the other hand, he was already planning to run away. And since his father seemed to have decided that Jared wasn’t his biological son, any restraint he had once had would be gone. Going home was a death sentence whether he talked or not.

“I think you’d like it.”

“Look,” he finally said. “I’m fourteen, not ten or eleven, or whatever you’re thinking. And I’ll agree to talk to the judge, but only if you can guarantee that I never, and I mean NEVER, go back to live with that man. I don’t even want to see him again.”

She seemed taken aback by that. “I’ll have to talk to the judge, first.”

He reached out, offering to shake her hand. “Let me know.”

As she shook his hand, he make contact with the sleeve of her silk blouse. Should he…? He did.

*****

She came alive. Jared was only touching the cuff of the blouse, but somehow she flowed into all the clothes connecting to that. It seemed to be most of the non-living material touching Miss Baker. Not the hair or surface skin cells, but she flowed smoothly through the garments and purse — blouse, bra, skirt, panties, pantyhose, and onward.

She reeled back, metaphorically. This was way more than she’d wanted! As quickly as she could, she dropped everything, skipping back down until all she still clung to was a single broach on Miss Baker’s chest.

That, she could handle. She smiled grimly to herself. Talk about ‘too much information’!

Miss Baker was just speaking to the doctor.

“How serious was it really?”

“Not too bad. We were lucky. There was no intestinal rupture; the organs appear to be fine. Blows like that are tricky. A weightlifter or boxer has the musculature to take something like that without even blinking. A child is a very different thing. And from the way he was talking, not only is this not the first time, but I think he’s terrified of what might happen next time.”

The woman spoke in a quiet fury. “I just can’t understand the kind of monster that would do that to a — a child!” Finally, she asked, “How’s the father?”

“Still unconscious. We’ve stabilized his head, but there was internal bleeding. It’s too early to tell whether there will be noticeable brain damage. I wouldn’t expect him to wake for another day or two. Even when he does, it may be weeks before he remembers the day of the accident, and he’ll probably never get back the incident itself. Head wounds are like that. You can expect to permanently lose anything from minutes to hours immediately preceding the wound.”

“That will give us time to arrange foster care then.”

“I should think so.”

“Can you keep him here for an extra night, if we need to?”

“One night. As you saw, that ward was empty. I’ll have problems with more than that, though.”

Jared had heard what she needed. No escape tonight. And if things worked out, she might not have to run at all.

3: Facing fears
Topeka, Kansas June 28, Wednesday

Upon hearing the alarm, he moved through the usual motions. Still half asleep, he slapped the alarm off, then slapped the gloves, “charging” Jinn, as they now called the process. It was hard to compare to a physical exhaustion, since it wasn’t exactly, but it felt about as tiring as running up and down the stairs a couple of times. Not bad, but more than a few times in quick succession would wear him out for a bit.

That done, he swung his feet to the ground and rubbed his eyes.

*****

Jinn flexed her fingers in the gloves, ensuring a good fit, then rose up toward the closet. They had quickly realized that gravity had no meaning to her. She didn’t have a body, really, only silvery mist. She could stand upside-down on the ceiling, stand sideways on the wall, stand through the bed and his body, or stand happily in mid-air. She was only constrained by her own imagination. And now that her mind was opening to the possibilities, she was learning to fly. Well, to glide.

It was a heady experience. Admittedly, it didn’t feel any different. There was no wind (not at the modest gliding speed she’d been able to attain). But to be able to glide up high in the sky and look down on the world, to hover at cloud height, or see a bird’s nest from just above, these experiences were fascinating.

Right now she was after a more material form of treasure. Pulling open the closet, she rose up to the ceiling, at the front left corner. A piece of plaster lifted away, revealing a nine-inch hole. The material of her gloves slipped through into the attic proper. No one had been up here since the house had been built. It was here that she kept the small footlocker, filled with her girl clothes, her body stocking, wigs, and all the other vital items she’d been able to collect. This time she’d be bringing down extra clothes.

*****

Jared watched, half-eager, half-afraid, as she came back down with today’s supplies. One brown plastic grocery bag filled with items from the footlocker. The gloves dumped the collection on the bed and the invisible girl began sorting through it. He hesitated, shivering as the floating gloves picked a set of panties with triple frills on the front, handing it to him.

It was the logical extension of what had been happening.

His inner self — they’d named her “Jinn” — was definitely a girl. She was glad to be a girl; it made her feel whole and complete and right in a way that Jared had never felt. She hated going back to his “boy body.” One of the things she liked was dressing up. Skirts, blouses, bras, panties, anything feminine at all seemed to make her happy.

And she’d finally gotten the idea that if she was a girl, and if she was Jared’s inner self and perfect form, then he must also be a girl. Inside. It’s just that his body had gotten things wrong, somehow. And although the ideas made plenty of sense when he was Jinn, once he was back in his body again, he kept hearing objections. Well, mostly he heard the imaginary voice of his father, and the kids in his class mocking him. His father would be so humiliated that he would take the belt and —

But the truth was, he wanted to try on the panties. They were very pretty. He could wear them, and imagine that he was a girl for real. It was getting harder and harder to cope, each time he came back to his physical body. He could wear the panties and they’d never know at the club. If he were honest, he’d admit that he wanted to wear a bra, too, but they’d spot that at the club.

Carefully, he slipped on the panties. They were snug, and fit just right. He had to tuck his boy parts back between his legs. He’d be just as happy if those parts just withered up and fell off.

He’d been letting his hair grow. It wasn’t much yet, but there were other Japanese girls around. Most of them had pretty short hair. Unable to hold back, he grabbed Jinn’s bra and put it on. It was too big for him, of course, since it was an A-cup. But he tried to comb his hair forward a little, hiding some of the more boyish features in his face. He looked at himself in the mirror and tried to imagine he was a girl.

There was a knock on the door that nearly caused him to drop dead from heart failure.

“Jared? Are you about ready? You don’t have much time for breakfast, if you still plan to leave early.” It was Mrs. Lasater.

He dove toward the bed, grabbing the gloves and charging them. As Jinn was flying to hold the door closed, he yelled, “I’m getting dressed! I’ll be right there.”

“Alright. Your breakfast is already on the table.”

Pulling off the bra, he practically jumped into his ugly boy clothes. Checkered polyester pants — no combination could possibly be more hideous. Loafers. A tan polo shirt. Ugg. It wasn’t just that they were such boy clothes. He suspected that even if he liked boy clothes, he would have been made ill by this selection.

With his adrenaline still granting extra speed, he was dressed in a few moments. The gloves floated back, moving around him and synchronized with him, pulling up his socks, zipping his pants, and running a quick comb through his hair. He and she weren’t perfectly coordinated, but they were working on it.

Abruptly, his mind filled with Jinn’s memories as she fell back into him. From the corner of his eye he saw the gloves drop to the bed.

He stepped back to the bed, gathered the clothes and items in his hands, and then charged her again. Before she formed up, he tossed the package out his window, to the ground of the first floor below. Then he walked downstairs to eat with his ‘parents.’

He still wore the panties, and he was very aware of them.

The Lasaters weren’t bad. Certainly better than his own father. But they kept the relationship cool and professional. There was no chance of a real bond forming; they made very sure that he knew they were only foster parents, paid to do a job, and purely temporary.

“Afraid you’ll miss the bus?” Jerry asked, sipping his coffee. “It’s a bit early.”

“Um, I’m going to meet Jinn at the bus stop.” It was true enough. “Don’t want to be late.”

“Are you ever going to introduce us to this girlfriend of yours?” Anna asked. “You’ve been seeing her, what, almost since you moved in with us.”

“Just about,” Jerry agreed. “Over a month now.”

“Uh… it’s kind of up to her. She’s kind of weird.” Like, for example, she had no body, and spent half her time living in his head.

“We’d still like to meet her,” Anna insisted.

“I’ll try to convince her,” Jared promised, stuffing the last of his toast into his mouth.

“You’re probably catching lunch at the club. Back for dinner, as usual?”

“Uh huh. Maybe a little late. I’m going to hit the mall.”

“How late?” He’d heard this tone from Jerry before. Despite the sound of it, it wasn’t so much that Jerry was concerned for him, as that Jerry wanted to scrupulously obey the proper behavior of a foster parent. He did an excellent job. Jared sometimes wished the man had a little more warmth, but he was usually distracted by his own problems.

“Uh, nine thirty. That’s the last bus. That okay?”

“No later than that.”

“Okay.” And he hurried out the door.

*****

He stepped to the bed, gathered the clothes and items in his hands, and then charged her again. There was a moment of disorientation, and then he realized he was standing through the bed, connected to all the items in the bag.

As always, when he came alive as Jinn there was the thrill of realizing the he was a she — that he wasn’t Jared (for the moment), she was Jinn. She might not have a physical body, but she was definitely a girl in this form. Somehow, there was never any doubt of that.

She held her pieces together, but remained passive as she fell to the ground. Once there, she lifted the bag en mass, and quickly glided into the ring of trees at the back of the public playground across the street. Slightly screened, she allowed herself to flow fully into the black, full-body leotard. It immediately inflated, filling out with her form. She ran a quick hand check over the manikin head, blonde wig, oversized straw hat, gloves, socks, and shoes. She “released” her grip on the turtleneck sweater and skirt, letting them settle and drape over her leotard-clad form. It looked more natural that way. She cleared her throat (that’s the way she thought of it) to make sure the speaker was in place below her neck. There was a five-inch speaker today — although with the practice she’d devoted, she could sound almost as good using far cheaper materials. Then she took her seat on the swing and slowly swung back and forth, while she waited for Jared to come out.

She’d managed to scavenge a good collection from the trash bins in the mall. The expired clothes were slated for destruction. The mall rent-a-cops kept people away from the trash rooms, but they never seemed to notice a pair of gloves floating through, sorting, collecting. Slipping through the spaces in the ceiling worked as well as it had back in the hospital. She liked to think she’d remained on the proper side of the moral line, even if she wasn’t strictly inside the law. Everything she’d taken was intended for either the dump or the incinerator. The chipped manikin head, the three wigs, the skirts, sweaters, and blouses. Even the underwear that Jared was wearing.

She swung again, admiring the swish of her skirt as she thought about her problems.

Everything had seemed so wonderful until that first leotard. Jared’s exploration of her body in the leotard had been pleasant for her, and bittersweet for him. More and more, he was thinking of how he didn’t want to touch her; he wanted to be her. And from her perspective, she was beginning to wonder how all of this would feel to a real flesh-and-blood girl. Which left them with the same problem and the same solution. Somehow, Jared had to become a girl for real.

It was so obvious when she was in spirit form. As Jared, she kept remembering words like “impossible.” That was one of the reasons it had taken this long to get him out in public with a simple pair of panties on. But she and Jared were the same person. And they were coming to realize that they liked being a girl, and they didn’t much like being a guy. The feeling was only growing stronger over time. In fact, she sometimes worried that the pressure was getting too strong. She had an outlet, but Jared didn’t. She thought that dressing might help relieve that psychological pressure.

And maybe if she could do more as a real girl — but she wasn’t ready for public scrutiny yet. Her voice was pretty normal sounding now. But once people got closer than about ten feet, they noticed the manikin head and kind of freaked out. She could see it in the precise moment when their auras suddenly flashed into banana yellow or pea green. The large hat wasn’t exactly proper fashion, but it kept her face in the shade. That helped a little, getting her as close as ten feet to normal people. She’d tried both a veil and a surgical mask. The mask might have worked in Japan, but not here in America. The best she could manage was dark sunglasses, Audrey Hepburn style, combined with a black veil and the hat over her head. That worked up to about four feet, unless she really had to interact with someone. Then they always freaked. And she’d have to duck around a corner, drop everything but her gloves, and stuff her ‘body’ away in her purse to hide the evidence before someone could catch her in the act.

Well, if today worked out, she’d solve that problem, too.

She spotted Jared hurrying out with a tinge of orange for his embarrassment at wearing his caddy clothes in public. There weren’t many jobs available for a fourteen-year-old (who looked twelve) and was living in foster care. Being a caddy paid best of all the choices she’d seen.

*****

He immediately saw Jinn swinging on the swings while she waited, like usual. He passed an admiring eye over her. Why couldn’t he look like that? Okay, the veil was weird, but the black bodysuit under her clothes maybe implied some sort of Goth thing. Most people seemed to accept it. He noticed that she still couldn’t swing and make it look natural. The chain hung loosely, as if the swing was holding a weight of only a few pounds — such as some clothes and a pair of shoes. She was going to have to figure out how to be “heavy” when she needed to be.

He ran up to her, and gave her a new “charge” as they touched. Immediately, they both adjusted the bezel on their diver’s watches. Constant practice had increased Jinn’s time to 43 minutes on a single charge. But he’d been keeping her going almost constantly, ever since discovering the power. It had become an obsession with him. She was his innermost self, his better half. So long as she was active, he was walking the world as a real girl somewhere. Perhaps a disembodied ghost-girl, but he needed to get in as much girl time as he could. That was one reason they rode the bus together despite the added expense. The empty bus was a chance for her to “get out in the real world” and feel like she was actually taking part in it. Those experiences were still rare enough to be treasured, and were well worth the cost of bus fare.

Reaching out, he took her hand and rudely yanked her out of the swing.

“Hey! What was that for?”

Despite her tone, he knew she had a tough time staying angry with himself. All he had to do was wait for the end of the bus ride, when they’d merge again.

“Heavy, remember? Real girls don’t float to the ground when they’re yanked out of their seat.”

“Yeah, yeah. You sure I can’t just fly, instead?” She drifted up horizontal, as if lying on an invisible bed.

“NO! Normal weight. Remember that.”

“Slave driver.”

*****

The caddy room was empty, so he ushered her in. She’d gotten the change ‘n’ stash routine down to ten seconds. It was actually kind of disturbing to watch, since the gloves were the last things to go. She pulled off her shoes (and feet, it looked like), socks, hat, hair, head. As she went, the pile of neatly folded clothes quickly grew, but it looked as if she were dismembering herself. Finally, her bodysuit deflated and the gloves folded the leotard, then dropped to the top of the stack and he felt her memories falling into him again.

He quickly hurried outside to set up Mr. Cavendale. Once he knew which ball the man was using, he charged Jinn into it.

*****

Being a golf ball was good training. She’d tried it a couple of different ways. Being in her ghost body, while she ‘held’ the ball in her hand. She’d decided that she preferred just being bonded to the golf ball, so that it became her body. Even without her ethereal body, she was still completely female.

She still wasn’t sure how a ghostly spirit could have a gender, but she definitely had one. Whether in her ethereal spirit-form, or just bound entirely into an object — she still felt distinctly female. She wasn’t sure how she knew, but she did.

And that was exactly what Jared was beginning to fear. When they were in his physical body, he had learned enough to sense that same feminine spirit — only encased in male flesh.

If she’d only ever been Jared, it might have taken her much longer to figure it out. Instead, she had felt her spirit in dozens, hundred of different situations. On the inside, she now recognized that she was the same everywhere. The same girl. But the outside…

She gave herself different names, for convenience. ‘Jared’ for when she was stuck in her physical body, and ‘Jinn’ for when she was out, when she could be a complete girl.

Jared was scared of the idea. He knew that doctors could do something, but that was a pretty big thing to be facing. So as Jared he did his best to deny it, and as Jinn she fumed at her own indecisiveness.

But for now, she stopped her perennial grumbling and concentrated on her training. In this case it required her to be perfectly passive. The first time she’d tried this had been Miss Baker’s clothes. But she’d made some goofs with the golf balls. People tended to stare if your golf ball was whacked into the sky, only to suddenly pause and hang there, before belatedly dropping straight to the ground.

Now she had so much experience with being passive that she could do it in her sleep (if she could sleep in this state, which didn’t seem to be possible). The her-plus-golf-ball always went exactly where it was whacked, and nowhere else. Okay, maybe she’d nudged an occasional putt or pushed a ball to the edge of the rough, but that didn’t really count.

And despite the startling surprise of being suddenly whacked from the tee (it didn’t really hurt), the view as she sailed over the golf course was just killer!

*****

“You ready?” he asked, as he changed out of the atrocious golf pants into cutoffs and a T-shirt.

“Believe it,” squeaked the stuffed kitten that clung to his hair. People looked strangely at a boy with such a toy on his shoulder, but he didn’t care.

*****

“Absolutely the best, most lifelike Madonna mask you can buy.” The man laid it on the counter with care. “If you really want to use it, you’re going to need the spirit gum to apply it. And it should be properly applied, too, blending in the lips and eyelids. I don’t guarantee quality, if a buncha you school kids want to use it for some prank.”

“I’ll take it just like this, thanks.” He carefully counted out the precious cash from his tips.

The mask was magnificent. It looked just like real skin. It moved and shifted, but was nice and thick. It seemed sturdy.

He wasn’t really worried about the eyelids. So what if she was slightly wide-eyed and never blinked? The lips were more of a problem, but the mask had enough to cover the outside of the mouth. For the inside, he had a fake tongue from a gag shop, and dentures liberated from a dentist’s trash bin.

Reverently, he took his new possession with him, going only as far as the nearest handicap restroom. He locked the door to the private room. Whereupon the stuffed animal leapt off his shoulder and glided into his backpack. A flash of memories later, and he took the bag holding Jinn’s clothes, added the mask on top, then charged her into it.

There was the swirl of activity that he’d grown used to, as all the pieces floated up and into place. Teeth, speaker behind the mouth, fake tongue, face in place, black hood outlining the rest of the head, the long blonde wig above that. The masterpiece was the pair of novelty plastic eyeballs. They were oversized, with huge irises that gave her a touch of animé character appearance. It didn’t hurt that the irises were more-than-mutant exotic in color, alternating purple and gold streaks.

She gave the appropriate tugs, as her sweater and skirt dropped into place, falling from her ‘grasp’ as she released her TK hold on them.

Jared stared at her. She was wide-eyed perfection. Not a hint of his own Asiatic eye shape. Impossibly long blonde hair, perfectly managed but loose and wind-blown. Those impossible eyes. She was missing eyelashes on top, but he didn’t care. She opened her mouth to speak. He could see her teeth, her tongue moving in her mouth. It all looked normal and correct.

“You’re beautiful!” he said, in a voice barely above a whisper. She was a fourteen-year-old bombshell. Wide-eyed innocence with her first curves just beginning to show. She was much taller than him — 5’ 3”, and unlike him, she sure didn’t look twelve. She looked fifteen. That was due to the face, which looked so much older than the rest of the body.

“Beautiful?” Her voice was half-joyful, and half-disbelieving. “Really? Ready for the street?” She bent over to retrieve her hat.

“You won’t even need the hat. But I think you will want the sunglasses. Unless you want everyone to stare at you.”

She smiled at him, and her lips actually moved. They stretched — naturally — into the proper shape. The rest of her face responded correctly, looking perfectly natural. This is much better than the manikin head, he thought.

“Yeah,” he repeated. “You’re ready.”

*****

They walked the mall together. She was a real girl, an attractive blonde (that thought still blew her mind). With her was a twelve-year-old boy in cutoffs and a Pokémon T-shirt. They didn’t look quite like boyfriend and girlfriend. At fifteen and twelve, it didn’t quite work. It would have been sister and brother, but her blonde self had no resemblance to Jared.

Still, they managed.

Guys kept coming up to her, saying she looked familiar and asking what her name was. She kept telling them she was new in town, and didn’t know them.

They stopped for a snack in the food court. Jinn didn’t need anything, of course, but Jared had a hot dog.

He looked at her with a wistful look of longing on his face. Under that, she could see the shiny green of envy. She knew that everyone who saw them probably thought he was in love with her, but his want and envy had a very different source.

They looked at a few more shops, and then she spotted something odd. There was a man following them. He was a fair distance back, and she wouldn’t have seen him if she hadn’t been able to see out of the back of her head. This all-around vision took some getting used to, but with the month of practice she’d had, she was now regularly watching in every direction. This fellow has the rosy tint of interest to his aura, but he also had a disturbing silvery sheen to the aura. He had a baseball cap that he kept pulled down, so she hadn’t been able to spot his face.

She leaned over and told Jared what she’d seen.

“Should we look for a security guard?”

“What would we tell him?”

So they decided to get a little cleverer. The first trick was to get Jinn packed away back in the backpack. With someone suspicious following, that left out any plans where Jared doubled-back to pick things up. He might run straight into his follower. His next thought was to use the bathrooms, but he might get cornered there. Finally the spotted a garden store. It seemed likely to be less concerned with shoplifters and less suspicious of teenagers. It also had a number of tall displays that Jinn could hide behind.

They walked in together. Jared casually dropped his backpack on the floor behind a tall rack of fertilizer products. He’d already unzipped it. Jinn stayed with the pack while Jared continued at his same pace.

Jinn didn’t bother folding herself, she virtually stuffed herself into the backpack, keeping the gloves until the last second, when Jared walked back around. A bodiless glove picked up the pack and handed it to him, so that he didn’t even pause in his walk. Then the gloves tucked themselves into his pocket, and she vanished.

*****

Now that Jinn was back, he had a lot more options. It was sometimes handy to have two people, but Jinn’s powers helped her, not him. Now that she was back and he could cast her when he needed her, he had a lot more flexibility.

First he wanted to get a good look at his follower. Was it someone he recognized? Were there more of them, maybe a team? Was the follower being followed? He picked a penny out of his pocket and charged it, then tucked it into the waistband of his pants. The penny slid down his leg inconspicuously, out of sight of the crowd. It lay on the floor, ignored by everyone that passed.

Jared continued on straight, allowing his pursuer to follow in his footsteps.

Jinn returned barely a minute later, quicker than he’d expected. The news was bad: It was his father!

That told him everything he needed to know. He father would either be dragging him home (by force) or just looking to unload some frustration. Probably the first so that he could do the second in private. Either way, it was bad news.

He could probably get help if he went to a mall guard — but all sorts of details might come out. Like his current address. If that happened, he knew his old man would find out somehow and tracking him down. It was better just to avoid any problem in the first place.

He could run for it. That would be his last-ditch plan, because even if he stayed ahead of his father, it wouldn’t do much good to beat the man to the bus stop by 50 feet. But he might get away clean if he used Jinn. He thought as he walked. Jinn could slow his father down somehow — tangle him up or trip him or cause some kind of trouble. Maybe push a heavy box on his head — he certainly deserved it!

Or… Jinn could help him fly! He could cast her into his clothes and shoes, and she could lift him right off the ground. He could jump up someplace impossibly high, or jump down — maybe from the second level to the first level, bypassing the stairs and elevators.

He formed a quick plan. First, he walked halfway down the mall, looking for likely hiding spots. The exit nearest the bus stop had a joke and novelty store. He’d purchased eyeballs, a rubber tongue, and other useful items here. This time, he bought three dozen realistic plastic flies. They were bigger than he really wanted, but it was the best he could do. He put the bag in his backpack, but took a handful for his pocket. Then he headed back in the opposite direction, directly away from the bus-stop exit.

A quick check in the reflective glass of a storefront showed the follower still behind him, five stores back. He could have used Jinn to check, but the whole charge-look-pop-back thing was a little inconvenient. In fact, his plan relied on Jinn keeping tabs on his father. The biggest problem was that if he and Jinn were separated, she wouldn’t know when she needed to come back to him. What if he needed her, but she was off in a different part of the mall?

He thought through his plan again, trying to figure the timing and coordination. Finally, he thought he had it.

The store ahead of him sold fine furniture. Expensive sofas and chairs, dining room tables, beds, and bookcases. It also had the advantage of being a “pass through” store — it was in the middle section of the mall, and its near and far walls opened onto different hallways.

For once, Jared blessed his small stature. He walked up to a table, set with decorative candleholders in the middle. He touched one and charged — putting Jinn into the candleholder, his clothes, shoes, and backpack. She could straddle it all, provided that he stayed close to the candlestick holder.

The salesman looked into the hallway, and Jared ducked under the table. Instantly, Jinn lifted him up. His feet turned out to the sides, to remain flatter. One hand tucked into his backpack. Belatedly, he stuck the other into his pocket. Now Jinn held up everything but his head. He turned that to the side, pressing his ear to the flat underside of the table. His head was flatter that way.

It was up to Jinn, now. That’s why he’d touched the candlestick holder. With part of her “self” up above the table, she’d be able to keep watch.

Quicker than he expected, he spotted the shoes and pants of his pursuer. They walked forward briskly, then paused by his table! Jared tried to breathe as shallowly as he could.

“Looking for anything in particular?” It was the salesman. He touched something on the table, and Jared could hear him readjusting the candlestick holder. If the man pulled it more than a few feet away, it would break free of Jinn and she’d have no way to watch, above. Worse, her concentration might falter for a second, dropping him.

He pressed tighter, trying to hide behind the wood framing that edged the underside of the table. It provided a four-inch lip that further sheltered him.

Both sets of feet moved on. A moment later, Jared floated to the ground. He quickly scrambled to his feet. Doubling back, he headed out the original door. At the same time, he withdrew a black plastic fly, charged it, and flicked it toward the far exit — the exit his father had taken. He set the bezel on his watch — to count seconds, this time. Jinn was to follow for 30 seconds. If she couldn’t find him, she’d pop back.

“You! Kid! Where’d you come from?”

Jared gave a start. He hadn’t expected the salesman to care about a young kid. “What are you talking about? I’ve just been looking.”

He made his way out of the store and past the salesman. He was careful to walk in the wrong direction initially. After a moment, the salesman shrugged and went back to work.

Jinn reported back a minute later. She’d been a “fly on the wall,” sticking close to the ceiling while she followed her father. He was headed in the wrong direction, moving slowly as he tried to inconspicuously look into near-by stores.

Jared charged another fly, and sent it after the first. This time, she had three minutes to find her father. If she couldn’t, she’d come back. He figured he could do without her powers for that long — they were still in public.

For his part, he made his way along he pre-planned route, moving as quickly as he could without attracting notice. Two minutes later, he was outside and heading for the bus stop. Ten minutes later, Jinn still hadn’t returned, which was good news. After thirty minutes, he was on the bus and headed home. That’s when he felt the flush, as Jinn’s memories washed into him. It was hard not to smile.

She’d found her father fairly quickly. He’d still been moving from store to store. She’d flown down, doing her best to emulate the unpredictable flight path of a fly, and lighted atop of her father’s baseball cap. From this vantage, she’d ridden along, perfectly tracking her quarry as he moved from store to store, slowly increasing in frustration. After ten minutes, he’d gone back to prowling the main walkways, hoping to get lucky again. He’d never even thought to look outside.

It was good news that they’d been able to get away so easily. The bad news was that next time his father found him, he probably wouldn’t wait. Given this failure of the subtle approach, if his father spotted him again he’d probably move in immediately to grab his “property.”

But that was a problem for another day.

4: Dressing up
Topeka, Kansas July 25, Tuesday

It had taken nearly than a month. A month of urging Jared to try the bra, see how this blouse felt, try the skirt, let’s do your hair. A month of her being a girl, him wanting it desperately, and going into denial. A month of pointing out how useful the disguise would be, for avoiding his father. And despite their very different opinions on the matter, they were the same person.

The entire difference seemed to be that there were major biological components to emotion and thought. A perfect example was facing up to their father. Jared froze, she didn’t. But they were the same person. Nearly any emotion was richer for him than it was for her.

When it came down to it, he was scared and she wasn’t.

They both knew how much he wanted to do this. She’d had the clothes ready for weeks. But when push came to shove, he chickened out. Well, not today. After waking, the plan had come to her. She’d packed the extra clothes. Of course, he knew that as soon as they merged, but he hadn’t unpacked them.

So she worked on him.

“Look, ever since the bit with your father, we’ve hit random malls, right? And this one is, what, twenty-three miles? There’s no way anyone we know will be there. It’s Tuesday, so the crowd’s light. I’m a brunette now, so your father shouldn’t recognize me. If you’re a girl, he won’t be able to recognize you, either.

He’d finally uttered the fateful words. “I’ll try.”

*****

Jinn studied the new girl with a critical eye. Girl-Jared was wearing her favorite panties with the triple frill. Despite her fears, you could see how happy ‘she’d’ been to slide on the half-slip, to fasten on the small training bra. Each and every step moved her a little closer to being the girl she needed to be. Now Jinn stepped back to examine the entire effect.

The girl wore a light green sleeveless blouse that didn’t quite reach her waist. A glimpse of belly button showed through. Her tube skirt came to mid thigh, and she wore open-toed sandals. There was no way she’d ever pass as a more grown-up girl, not at 4’ 9”, but she looked fine as a precocious pre-adolescent girl — perhaps eleven or twelve. A twelve that looked definitely eager for sixteen. But it was nice to know that the hair worked. They’d been letting Jared’s hair grow out for a couple of months now. It was just long enough for the boy to keep it in a pony tail, low on his neck. The girl wore it loose, brushed out, reaching to almost her shoulders. It hung almost straight, except that it tended to curl in slightly at the bottom. Overall, it tended to emphasize the oval shape of ‘her’ face. It also seemed to hide her, slightly. When ‘he’ had it pulled back, his face was completely exposed. But ‘she’ was almost surrounded by her hair. When she tipped her head forward or looked at her feet, the oval of hair fell in around her face, hiding her.

Like much of his looks, Jared had inherited the hair from his now-departed mother. A complexion that looked slightly tan, a modest Asian cast to the eyes, and that beautiful straight, sable-black hair. Jinn cocked her head, studying the new girl. To be honest, the slightly flatter face made it look like she still had a bit of baby fat (even more emphasized by the shape of her face). The small nose looked good, especially on a young girl.

“You pass,” Jinn decided. “How do you feel?”

They’d carefully picked a name for the new girl. She was “Jade.” It had implications of China more than Japan, but they both like it a lot. “Jade” came out of the stall and looked in the mirror. Suddenly her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. “It feels really good,” she said quietly.

“Ready to admit it? That this is what you want for real and forever?”

“Ji-inn! I haven’t even been out in public yet.”

The taller, older-seeming brunette took the hand of the shorter, Asian girl. “Then come on, girlfriend. We’re finally going to get those ears pierced.”

*****

He walked through the mall as if he were walking the streets of heaven itself. He kept thinking to himself, I am JADE. A girl. I’m not a boy any more. And it worked! People looked, but they gave him normal looks.

His feelings were hardly a surprise, more confirmation. Was this was who he wanted to be? Could he become “Jade” for real? Could he leave “Jared” behind forever?

But it all came down to small steps. Dressing, walking in public like this was something he’d worked up to for weeks. Getting ‘her’ ears pierced made for a pretty big second step.

When the jewelry counter had an unexpected line, ‘Jade’ took a seat and picked up a copy of Seventeen to read. Someday... she thought to herself, daring to dream about being a real girl, and growing up female.

“Shall I hang with you?” Jinn asked her.

Jade shook her head, more than content to be out in public, dressed as she was. “I’d like you back here to hold my hand… when it happens. But my appointment doesn’t come up for thirty minutes. You want to wander, don’t you?”

“And how!”

“Okay, let me -” but Jinn was already extending a hand for a quick charge. Both girls twisted the dials on their watches to mark off 50 minutes from now.

*****

She prowled. She walked the mall, like any normal person. People still gave her occasional odd looks. Many of them would recognize something familiar in her Madonna-mask face. It was a lot easier now that she’d abandoned the blonde wig. So the people would shrug and move on. They usually attributed it to her eclectic clothing selection. Who could follow teen fashions these days? And there was no shortage of oddly dressed fifteen-year-old girls in the mall. So she had a thing for electric blue, or Hello Kitty, or leggings and sandals. Partly it was a mix she was experimenting with, partly it was because she was colorblind, and partly because she was limited in what she could acquire from the incinerator bins.

She came to the makeup counter, but quickly moved on. It was interesting, but she couldn’t let them examine her face too closely. What would they do if they realized it wasn’t skin? So she moved on, perpetually trying to copy the walk and mannerisms of the other girls her age.

The next shop was a bank outlet, where there appeared to be a robbery in progress. After that was the figurines and collectibles store.

She stopped and looked back into the bank. Yep. Every single person with a glassy-eyed stare, except for the man in the tailored pinstripe suite, who seemed to be directing them.

Unsure quite what to do, she stepped in. There was an alarm panic button on the far wall. She began to stride forward.

“Oh Miss!” It was Mr. Pinstripe, calling out to her. His voice was silky and rich. “Miss, don’t you care at all what I say? I’d really like just a moment of your time. I’m sure we’d both be happier if you helped me out here.”

“Yeah, right,” she muttered, heading faster for the switch.

“Stop her!” Pinstripe shouted, and immediately a wall of men and women stepped forward. Before she knew what to do, they had grabbed her by the upper arms and spun her around to face Mr. Pinstripe.

She struggled for a moment. She figured she now had her father beat for strength — but four adults holding her was too much. She still might have gotten clear if she’d dropped everything but her gloves, but there was no way she was going to abandon her face mask.

“Odd. Perhaps it’s the glasses.” He reached forward to remove her glasses, then stopped when he got a look at her over-sized eyes, with the impossibly colorful irises.

She was forced to stare back into his eyes. To her unusual vision his irises glowed ultra-violet. But his pupils — those were harsh, bright points of ultra-violet flame.

“Wow, nice eyes, mister.”

“I should say the same for you, young lady. Well, I suppose that explains it. What kind of mutant are you?”

“Why? You planning to shoot me now? What did you do, hypnotize them all?”

He waved a hand negligently. “They apparently found themselves entranced by the sound of my voice. I admit, it’s a gift I have. As for shooting people — please! I may be a trifle lax about ideas of property and ownership, but I like to think I have some style.” He looked at the wooden populace in the bank office and then shrugged sheepishly. “Well, I was running short, you know. Needed a little withdrawal.” Then he looked back at her. “So young. You aren’t even sixteen, are you?”

That stopped her. “Uh… beg pardon?”

But he was already lost in reminiscence. “Ah, high school. You wouldn’t believe some of the stunts we pulled back then. They wanted me to go pro, of course. Too much trouble, really. I’m happy enough with a nice standard of living. But kids these days? They’ve got no style, no understanding. They get a couple of new powers and they think they can suddenly smash everything in their way.”

He wasn’t making a bit of sense. “Uh, right. Gosh, it’s been really great catching up, but I have to be going…”

He turned back to stare into her face. “Nothing at all. You have a nice resistance, if nothing else. Could you at least blink?”

She shrugged. “Sorry, I can’t. It’s sort of… part of my condition.”

He stared at her again, blinking his own eyes several times. “How very disconcerting.” Then, collecting himself, “well, I must say, you’ve been quite polite — for one of the younger generation, that is.” He leaned close to peer at her again. “Say, you aren’t getting some sort of mentoring, are you? No, ah, older mutants near-by, showing you the ropes?”

“…older mutants?” The thought collided with his earlier comment about her being a mutant. She’d passed it off before, thinking that her fake eyes had fooled him. But it gradually dawned on her that she was a mutant. That is, in her Jared body. “There are other mutants out there, aren’t there?”

The man in pinstripe was scribbling on the back of a card. “Indeed there are, although it’s nice to know that Topeka remains delightfully free of the scourge. Ourselves excepted, of course.” He quietly added, “And this might get rid of you, too.” Then, reaching over, he pressed the card into her hand. “You might give these people a call. It’s worth checking into, at least. Eyes like that.”

Then, collecting a set of money sacks from a pair of helpful tellers and an eager-to-please branch manager, the man in pinstripes sauntered away.

“Ta-ta! Let me know how it works out. Leave a note for me at the alumni association!”

*****

Jared — rather, ‘Jade’ — was still waiting when a breathless Jinn returned.

She doesn’t even breathe. How can she be breathless? He wondered. He didn’t say anything, just raised one eyebrow. They knew each other’s body language.

She sat next to him and leaned close to whisper.

“Mutant! Robbed the bank! I tried to stop him. Somehow, people heard his voice and just did whatever he said. Didn’t work on me, though.”

“Did he hurt you?” Could she even be hurt? He reached over and gave her a quick charge-up, then re-adjusted his watch.

“No. He had them hold me. Said we were the only two mutants in Topeka.” It dawned on Jared that he was a mutant. It was the only explanation for his strange ability to summon Jinn. And he knew there were plenty of other mutants out there -

“That’s not all,” Jinn whispered. “He gave me this!”

She held up the card so Jared could see it:

Whateley Academy
Dunwich, New Hampshire
(505) 666-7777

On the back was scrawled, “Melodious Silvertongue, class of ‘87.”

They looked at it in puzzlement.

“Jade? You’re next, honey.”

Jinn held her hand as she walked gleefully forward. This was now her second step on the road toward becoming a woman.

*****

“Whateley Academy. How may I help you?” The woman on the other end sounded like a typical bored clerk.

“I — I’m not sure. I met this man in a mall, and he said something about mentoring and other people-” his voice dropped “-like me.”

The voice on the other end almost drawled her boredom. “Ah, let me guess. A teenager new to her powers, right?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” He was calling with the Lasaters’ phone. He’d asked permission a week ago, then waited until they were both out of the house for the evening. He was just sure he was going to have to mention words like ‘powers’ and ‘mutant’, and he didn’t want them to overhear.

“Well, honey, we get applicants from all over. I can send you the forms, no charge. You’re advised to be discreet with the material. If that checks out, and I’m not saying it will ‘cause we get lots more asking than actually get in, you hear what I’m saying? But if it does check out they’ll want to give you testing in person for both your academics and so-called powers. And if they find out you’re cheating on any of that, well, more than a few people have been plenty sorry.

“So, you still interested?”

“Uh, yes. Please.”

“Alright. Give me your name and address. The packet should arrive in two to three business days.”

*****

It actually took a full week before it arrived. When the thick package did finally show up, he was so excited that he wanted to read everything at once.

“Here you go, Jared.” Jerry was polite to him, as always. Distant, but polite. “It looks like it’s from that private school you were talking about.”

“Thanks!” He grabbed it out of the older man’s hands and tore up the stairs.

“I don’t want to be a stick-in-the-mud, but you do realize that you’re currently a ward of the state, don’t you? You’d need your caseworker’s approval. And the state isn’t going to be providing tuition for any expensive private schools, much less out-of-state -”

The door slamming cut off the annoying voice. Jared instantly slapped the gloves-and-speaker, charging Jinn into them. That way, he could look through things twice as fast. He ripped open the package while the gloves floated anxiously beside him.

“I’m taking the brochure,” he told her. “You couldn’t see the pictures in color anyway. Why don’t you look over the admission form?”

At first, he was scared. The brochure looked completely ordinary. The front was dominated by a picture of ivy-covered brick buildings, set against a backdrop of stately oak and maple with the riotous reds and yellows of a New England fall. In the foreground a collection of well-to-do students was walking, and seemed to be discussing some academic subject. Three students wore what appeared to be a school uniform, while a fourth wore casual prep-style clothing. One of the students was female, one black. It looked as ‘ivy league’ as you could imagine. He opened the brochure, expecting a discourse on how attendance would improve his chances of entering Harvard.

The interior immediately dispelled his doubts. On the left, a caped figure floated in mid-air, holding a helpless young woman and using his own body to shield her from the incoming rain of gunfire. On the opposite page, a man in a tailored suit held a crown and scepter, while draped negligently over a royal throne. At his feet, supplicants kneeled in homage, amidst a wealth of loosely scattered coins.

Jared’s eyes bugged out and he began to read.

*****

“Okay, listen to this,” Jinn said. “ ‘I can regularly and reliably use the following powers.’ It’s got a check off list. And listen to some of these: ‘Disintegration, Domination, Elemental affinity, Flight, Invisibility, Resurrection (with entries for self or other), Superhuman strength, Time control, Transmutation…’ “

“Anything that applies to us?”

“Hmmm, maybe. Telekinesis?”

“Well, yeah, sort of.”

“Okay. How about astral projection?”

He scrunched his face up. “I don’t think so. Not really. Can’t people like that fly to the other side of the world, just by thinking of it? And they pass through walls and stuff.”

“Okay, no check. How about clairvoyance?”

“Yeah, I guess. That’s probably as close as anything.”

*****

“Here’s something,” he said.

“Who’s the guy in the picture?” she asked, floating in over his shoulder. “I can’t quite make it out.”

The picture was of a gigantic man — probably seven feet tall — hovering angrily above an enraged mob.

“Heinrich Harnhold.”

“The áœbermensch of Berlin?”

“Yeah. The caption says the shot is from 1943, when Germany’s ‘Theme Operatives’ reached their peak.”

“Whoa.”

“It fits. Listen: ‘The Academy exists to prepare new mutants and other students of power to exist successfully in a world of normal men. A world that outnumbers us a million to one. A world that we may choose to protect or exploit depending on our own calling, but a world that we must always respect. For history teaches that when the powerful war against the normal, both sides are devastated.’ “

*****

“We’re going,” she said abruptly. “I don’t care how. We’re going.”

“What? Why?” He tried to look at the admission form she was working on, but it seemed to be about a hundred pages thick.

“Okay, I was filling this out. Listen to this. ‘Sex: Male Female Complicated’ “

“Complicated? What the hell does that mean?”

He got the sense she was staring at him, as in perfect synchronization they said, “Think alike.”

“Okay,” she continued. “So the ‘complicated’ entry cross-references sexual preference on page fourteen, but that sent me on to fill out the following on page sixty-two. ‘Please fill in as closely as possible:’

‘My powers or incidents associated with them, are/have transformed me:

‘to have no gender’
‘to become more masculine’
‘to become more feminine’
‘to exhibit characteristics of multiple genders’ “

They both focused on the second to the last line. It took a moment for Jared to realize what this meant. It was so common that they had a check box on the entry form!

“You’re right,” he agreed. “We’re going.”

*****

Once the reply had come through, it had taken him a week and a half to earn round-trip bus fare to Kansas City. Now he was sitting in a Kansas City police station in a sealed, soundproof interrogation room across from “Sergeant Everest.” This was his “powers” interview. The sergeant was seven feet tall, four feet wide, and looked tough enough to enjoy a diet of nails and bricks. It didn’t help that the interrogation room had a low-level stench of fear, from the thousands of interrogations performed here.

“Okay, this is first of all to make sure you really got the juice,” the sergeant rumbled in a nearly subsonic bass, “and to give a first stab at classifying you. I’m no expert on that, but I can give a starting point. Also, something to keep in mind is that a lot of the stuff on the entry packet is deliberately made up. It weeds out the loonies, and helps in case that info is released to the public. I mean, like anyone’s going to be talking to me, after they’re practiced ‘creating anti-matter’. Yeah, right. So, don’t rely on any of that junk, but use your own words to tell me what you do.”

Jared had been too scared to dress as a girl for this, and now he was almost regretting it. Dressing as a girl always made him a little more comfortable and confident. Of course, being Jinn made him downright cocky. Still, he gathered his courage. He wanted to be completely honest, since this was so important.

“Well, I can sort of ‘charge’ things up. Like gloves. Or whole outfits even. Or just objects like a paintbrush and paint can. And while things are ‘charged’ it’s like I’m two people. The charge lasts for almost 55 minutes these days. Anyway, when I’m her — I call myself ‘Jinn’ when I’m charged into something, it’s like I’m a regular person, but the only way I can touch the real world is through the things I was charged into — if that makes sense. So, if I like charged a pair of gloves, then it’s like my hands are in the gloves. But no matter how I try, I can’t shift the charge into some other object. But I can pick things up with my gloves. Do you understand?”

The sergeant made some rapid notes on his pad. He picked up a thick leather reference book, but Jared couldn’t spot the title. After quickly flipping to an appropriate section, the sergeant asked several more questions.

“Okay, how far away can you be while this is going on?”

Jared shrugged. “Which me? In the physical body you mean? I haven’t really found a limit yet. We got up to twenty miles once, before the time limit ran out.”

“Oh, so you’re awake while all this is happening? Eh, strange. Okay, what happens when the TK construct fades?”

Jared shrugged and smiled. “Then I suddenly remember both of my experiences. Physical and non-physical.” He’d almost said, ‘in this flesh and as her.’

“Okay. Well, let’s get a strength test.” The sergeant gestured at a rack of weights. “Do your thing and let’s see how much you can lift.”

Jared pulled out the pair of gloves that he always carried with him. He decided to add the speaker as well. He charged them, and watched the speaker float into position about where Jinn’s mouth should be.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.”

The huge policeman motioned to the rack of free weights. “Start at the bottom and work your way up. Let me know when you reach your limit.”

Jared already knew reasonably well, but he was pleased that Jinn followed the instructions. He wondered if she was bending down or just sinking into the floor to get the lower weights. Finally, she began to collect combinations.

“It’s getting kind of awkward to hold in one hand,” she admitted. “But it looks like about 180 pounds.”

“Hmm,” the sergeant made a note. “And if you use both hands?”

“You know, it’s odd. I’ve noticed that too, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference whether I use one hand or both hands.”

“Right. How about reps? Can you lift and lower them several times?”

The gloves holding the weights began to bob up and down. “All day long. Or at least, until I run out of charge. I don’t get tired. Of course, ‘exercise’ doesn’t seem to make me any stronger, either.”

“Right. Now a couple of fine tests.” He handed the gloves a pen and piece of paper. “Write ‘Peter Piper.’ You know, the whole thing.”

Jared watched as Jinn put the page on the desk and neatly wrote out the requested sentence. He’d always been proud of his handwriting.

“Okay, same pen, do this maze.” She did. “Good. Now, look through this microscope. You’ll see some tiny beads on that slide. Sort the red ones to the left and the yellow ones to the right.”

The gloves spread in apology. “Do you have a needle or something I can use? And the microscope is just in the way. I don’t see with light.”

“Here.” The sergeant handed her a toothpick.

Jinn fumbled with it for a minute, but was no better than Jared would have been in her place. In other words, not too successful. It wasn’t until much later that he realized that he could have charged up the slide and beads.

The sergeant flipped back and forth in the book, before finally copying some results over to a complex form. “Right. I’ve got your telekinesis down. You’re classed as a TK-2d. Good dexterity, approximately human strength. Let’s look at the Espec side, now.” He peered at Jared. “You can be in the other room, right?”

“Yeah. I mean, she can do whatever she wants, even if I go into the other room.”

“Okay. Step outside. I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”

Jared nodded and stepped outside. It wasn’t very comfortable sitting on a bench, watching sleazy suspects come and go as they were herded around for interrogation. At least they were all escorted. After about five minutes, the door opened and Sergeant Everest called him back in.

“Okay,” the big man rumbled, “what did you see?”

“Uh, sir, I can’t tell you that until Jinn over there lets go and comes back to me.”

“Do it.”

And he remembered. “Oh, yeah. Well, you had us read from that book — Power Classification, Testing, and Limitations. Is Whateley Press connected with the Academy?”

“Uh huh. Keep going.”

“You had me look at the nine of clubs inside that dark box, proving I could see in the dark. I described your aura colors as you tried to make yourself happy and sad. You suddenly lashed out and hit me,” Jared rubbed his left hand, “not that it hurt or anything, and you had me look at some super-tiny etching, but I couldn’t see it.”

“Right. I make that,” again he consulted the book, “An Esper-3 (clairvoyant/aura reader) unlimited range. And for the weird part,” he scribbled on the complex form again, “I’m tentatively putting you down as a manifestor, with a second astral body.” He flipped through the book once more. “Or should that be as a wizard with one spell, or an avatar: disconnected? Damn this new system!”

While the sergeant wrote, Jared collected the gloves and speaker from where they’d fallen.

He finally finished writing. “Well, that’s that. I’ve already seen your academics. Above average, but nothing to write home about. Still, they’ll probably offer you a hardship scholarship.”

Jared couldn’t believe his ears. “What, you mean I’m in? I was able to lift enough?”

“Naw. Your TK’s no great shakes, but who knows, you might develop. The esper-3 is a bit more unusual, particularly with your mobility. Man, we could use you in the department starting today. The perfect spy, undetectable except to specific types of other mutants. It’s the reliability that’s always the hard part, and you’ve got that cold.”

“I’m in…?”

The sergeant slid a sealed packet across the desk to him. “Here’s the final entry forms. I’ll be sending off my evaluation separately. You’ll want to get those in the mail pretty quickly. The new year starts in just over four weeks. If you want to arrange for a scholarship and forms, that’s cutting it pretty close — especially since I see you’re a ward of the state. That means an extra round of paperwork.”

The huge man nodded to himself, then added more quietly, “They told me you were a Category Three. I don’t care about why, although I’m guessing it has something to do with the ward of the state business. You’ll have to give the admissions office your real and assumed names, but for all public activity, you’ll use the new name. Details are inside. Don’t feel bad about it, lots of folks use it. Protecting their families, some types of body change.” He gestured at himself. “It means that you can make up your own handle and identity when you finish the application. Don’t worry. You can choose an official tag later, in your senior year. But this lets you pick one for use with the other students.”

*****

And so it was that Jared found himself on a train speeding toward New Hampshire. He’d gotten a lot more experience dressing. He’d been a girl for almost a day at the time as he wandered malls and meandered though the city with his “big sister.”

It was excruciating and delightful, all at the same time. Delightful as he let himself believe that this was real, that he really was a girl, that he would be this way forevermore. Delightful in being able to act and behave in ways which were finally allowing the real person inside to emerge. He wasn’t sure exactly who she was yet, but he desperately wanted to find out.

He’d read the information through, fifteen different times. The rules seemed to allow it; his unique circumstances qualified him. He was allowed entry under the name, race, culture, gender, and species of his choice, with the rights and responsibilities to dress, act, and in all ways behave appropriate to his assumed identity.

He shrank at the danger and the audacity, but Jinn’s confidence pushed him forward. His entry into Whateley would be his only big opportunity for years to come. Could he pull of the disguise, the lie, in a full-time boarding school? And what if he finally entered puberty? He had a wild idea that the reason he still looked twelve was that his body simply refused to go through puberty as a boy. And while he didn’t want to be twelve forever, that was a ton better than turning into a boy. But… living as a girl, full time? That meant rooming with other girls, sleepovers, maybe they could teach her fashion and makeup. It meant sharing secrets, trying new clothes, and learning how to be pretty. His mind was filled with the wonder that seemed almost within reach. But it also probably meant eternal hatred and being completely ostracized from his school, his friends, and everyone that he’d grown close to if his lie was discovered. It might well mean that he’d be beaten to a pulp or killed, as anger turned to rage. He knew things like that happened.

Oddly enough, the danger didn’t seem to matter as much as betraying the friends. That would be the hardest part.

But the opportunity!

So, with Jinn pushing on one side, and his experience and happiness with dressing pushing on the other side, he ignored his fears. He listed his circumstances (as best he could in the spaces they had on their forms). In his registration, he deliberately gave a new name and gender. “She” was now registered as “Jade Sinclair.” There was a delicious shiver as Jared contemplated that “she” would have to think of herself as a girl, full-time now. She would never more be “Jared.”

Which brought her back to the train she was now on. She had a small suitcase filled with feminine clothing — there wasn’t a stitch of ugly boys’ clothes. This would be all or nothing. Her pierced ears proudly displayed a pair of small Jade balls, to match her new name.

She was about to enter high school, not as the abused son of a drunken widower father, but as the orphaned daughter with a hidden and mysterious past, who had gained an inexplicable ability.

Beside her on the seat, a toy stuffed lion danced and cavorted, as if it were feeling as gleeful as she was. She glanced around, ensuring that it was out of sight of the other passengers, then smiled indulgently.

She couldn’t wait to begin her freshman year!

5: The Dunwich Furor
En route August 31, Thursday

By the second full day on the train, it was less of an adventure. She would have preferred taking a sleeper car, but they were so much more expensive. Her travel allowance didn’t cover it, and she didn’t have the money herself to make up the difference. Instead, she stayed in hotels near the train depot. It had sounded like a good idea when she started out, but Pittsburgh had firmly destroyed that idea.

Having Jinn (as a person) on the train would have cost an extra ticket, but Jade made sure that everywhere else she went, her big sister Jinn went with her. Two girls were far safer than one alone. If worse came to worst, they planned that Jinn would do whatever was necessary while Jade ran for it.

The second night, they stayed in a cheap hotel, a half-mile from famous Penn Station. Penn Station had been a bit of a disappointment, looking more like a 1920’s brick office building than a bustling hive of commerce. Despite hoofing it a half-mile to find a cheaper hotel, she was still set back a hundred bucks. And the neighborhood had seen better days — about six decades ago. Jade had been concerned enough to grab food at a convenience store and run back to her room to eat it there. Just a cheap pre-made sandwich and a coke, but it was filling enough for the night.

She left Jinn on guard (for the first hour, until she ran out of charge), and huddled in the strange, squeaky, lumpy bed to fall into a nervous sleep.

For her part, Jinn turned off the lights and read a sci-fi adventure in the dark (at least, she assumed it was dark). Jinn found that she enjoyed reading — perhaps even more in this state. There was never an issue with lighting or eyestrain, and her reading speed was considerably faster. Comic books, on the other hand, were no fun at all. The colors turned into random blends of gray. Even worse, the colors and shading were all based on fine patterns of dots. In her spirit-form, her perceptions were different. She couldn’t stop seeing the dots. They never blended into an even shade.

So, although she’d picked up a good stack of comics for the trip, she could really only enjoy them as Jade.

She read until her watch indicated that she only had a minute left. Then she undressed, removing the clothes of her “body” and folding them neatly in a pile. The gloves were last, of course. She stood for those final seconds, a naked astral form with only gloves on. They’d managed to get her endurance up to sixty-five minutes. She watched the second hand — yes, she’d definitely gotten a few extra seconds this time! Ten, eleven -

Abruptly the gloves fell to the table, landing atop the folded pile. Jade got a new burst of memories, but didn’t wake. She just rolled over in her sleep.

Her alarm woke her at 4 AM. She needed to catch the red-eye at 5:13, and nothing, absolutely nothing was going to make her miss that train. She planned to wait in the station lobby for at least a half-hour, to make sure she wasn’t late. Her first ritual, as always, was to touch the gloves left by her alarm and charge them. Then, with both of them working, Jade could take her time getting up. Yawning, taking her shower, getting dressed.

She spent a moment to model her training bra in the mirror. It was strange that a stupid piece of fabric made her feel so good about herself, but it did. She took it off and peered at her reflection. Was the bra pushing her into shape, maybe? Giving her a bit of definition? Encouraging a teeny bit of early breast growth? As always, she remained as flat as a board. As flat as a boy (she tried not to dwell on that thought). But there was always tomorrow morning.

Almost done, she managed to fit all her vital supplies in the suitcase. The backpack was for her comics (she could re-read them), her book, room for Jinn’s clothes, her stuffed lion, and room for some sandwiches that she’d buy later. She checked out with the night clerk, and headed for the train station.

As she walked alone through the street, she marveled at how relatively busy this big city was, even at 4:30 in the morning. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, but Topeka would have been dead. She liked the morning’s quiet better than the evening’s chaos. For the moment (she glanced to her side) Jinn was perfect company. Jinn helped her feel less small and alone, in this strange city.

The hot dog restaurant wasn’t open yet, but the sub shop was. Jade hefted her backpack and suitcase into a more comfortable hold, and reached for her money.

“One ham and cheese, two turkey.” The man wrapped the sandwiches — which would have to do for lunch as well — and then counted out her change.

“I’ll take them.” Jinn, in dark glasses again, stepped forward and accepted the sandwiches. She zipped them into the backpack so that Jade wouldn’t need to take it off.

“I could carry things, we know,” she told Jade.

“Running,” Jade said back, in their abbreviated code. Meaning, Remember? If I need to run for it, we’ll need our stuff. You need to worry about keeping us safe.

“Agreed,” Jinn answered back. “But…” I never get tired.

They stepped out of the shop and headed for the train station, now only three blocks away. This street had no traffic at all. No traffic, and no people.

“Is isn’t very smart for a pair of little girls to be out walking the streets alone.” His hand came out of the shadows, revealing a small gun. “I can offer you a little protection, for the right fee.”

One of the best things she’d ever learned from Aikido class was the planning. Every move, every situation. Plan for your actions. How to attack, how to escape. Fallback plans. The encounter a few weeks back with her father had only underscored what happened when they got lax. So they shifted smoothly into Plan A. Jade ran. As she did, she tried to dodge side-to-side, brokenly. Endless discussions on the low accuracy of handguns came back to her. She was forty feet, now fifty feet away, and she shifted to a sprint.

Meanwhile, Jinn immediately stepped forward, as if she had no fear at all of the gun. The man was obviously caught off guard by the unexpected rush from a slight girl in her early teens. Before he could figure out whether or not to pull the trigger, Jinn was inside his guard. She moved in fast, as if she’d practiced a hundred times. (It was actually closer to five hundred.) The move went just like in practice. Inside his guard, her right leg hooked behind his, her arms trapping his in a hold that just happened to move the weapon arm up and away. Instantly tighten and twist and — a man almost a foot taller than her had been tripped backward. Not just tripped, but practically thrown. His gun went flying to the side; she heard a crack from his arm. His head struck the edge of the doorframe with a meaty crunch and Jinn could instantly see the colors in his aura mute, as black blossomed at the back of his skull. From growing experience, she knew he was unconscious, but he probably didn’t have a serious concussion. Then she looked at her arm.

“Damn!”

Not only did he have a gun; he had small stiletto knives protruding from the toes of his shoes. As he’d fallen, he’d flailed upward with one shoe and ripped open the fabric of her arm. She’d flipped him a bit harder than she’d intended.

She looked at it. The rip was on the underside of her right forearm, and was a good six inches long. She could probably sew it up, but she didn’t have a sewing kit. Just one more thing to buy.

She looked at the unconscious man before going after Jade, who was now alone.

It’s his fault I have to buy the sewing kit…

A moment later, she was flipping through his wallet. Twenty, forty, fifty… seven. She tossed the empty wallet back on his chest and hurried after Jade. She paused only long enough to grab the gun, which she disassembled as she ran. One piece flung that way, another piece dropped into a dumpster.

There were two many guns in the world.

*****

There was another train change at Manchester. This train was much older, but it had individual seats that faced each other, four seats around a central table. For Manchester to Concord, the train was full. She thought she wouldn’t be able to let Jinn out, which was a shame. It would be nice if at least one of them could have a good time.

Fortunately, the service was better. A stewardess (Jade wasn’t sure what you called the girl on a train) offered them magazines. The only thing left by the time they got to her, though, was Cosmopolitan. With a sigh, she took it.

“I’m not sure your parents would approve of you reading something like that,” the man across from her said. He looked close to her father’s age.

“Don’t have any. Anyway, I’m older than you think.”

He raised an eyebrow in doubt.

“I am. I’m fourteen.”

“Well, you’re right about one thing. That’s older than I think you are.”

She looked down again, but she was smiling to herself. She got bothered about her age a lot. But no one ever seemed to think she was anything other than a girl. And if Whateley works out, soon I’ll be one.

*****

She put the Cosmopolitan down in alarm. She wanted to be a girl, but there was NO WAY she was ever going to do THAT. Ugh! She couldn’t believe that grownups were allowed to write stuff like that! Had they been serious? She started reading again, to double-check.

*****

She took another break, stunned anew. If this was a regular magazine, then what was pornography? This time, she needed a break for real. If only she could let Jinn out.

Hmmm, just how small can something be, and still hold a charge? She’d charged a fly once. She reached up and plucked out an eyebrow hair (she had too many anyway). Nope — nothing happened. Okay, what was smaller than a fly, but bigger than an eyelash? She looked around for some paper to rip into shreds. Maybe one of these advertisements in that slutty magazine.

Or maybe she was going about it wrong. What if it wasn’t size, but weight? She had the window seat, where…? There was a small crack, with a fine collection of grit in it. She carefully picked out a single speck of grit and peered at it. It was a teeny for a rock, but large for grit — almost the size of a pinhead. She concentrated on it -

There was a wash of fatigue, and she realized she’d succeeded. With a sly glance to make sure no one was watching, she flicked the grit up in the air. She didn’t worry. It wouldn’t be coming down again.

Satisfied, she settled down to study the magazine again. She knew about periods, of course. Heck, if she succeeded in turning into a girl, she’d be having them. In a way, she almost wanted one — icky as they were. It was sort of like a badge of honor that all girls shared. But this sounded like the extreme sports version of periods. She decided she’d better read up on it, so she could be prepared. It was hard, because the author seemed to assume that you already knew what she was talking about….

*****

She had chosen to be the speck. That is, she wasn’t a full-sized ghost pinching a piece of grit; she was a teeny spec. She’d noticed that her hearing was better the larger she was, and her vision got more distance, sharpness, and depth as she got larger. Even as a spec, though, she could hear decently well, and see okay.

It felt like flying, as she zoomed through the overhead shelf, dodging briefcases and carry-ons. After a while, she rolled to the edge of the shelf so that she could people-watch. Well, all right, spy on people. The colors were so interesting. Many people had the light blue that she was coming to associate with contentment, or repose, or perhaps boredom. Someone over there had the very deep blue of depression. And over at the head of the car — was someone very unusual.

The small girl virtually glowed in ultra-violet. Jinn had only seen that particular color a couple of times before. She (Jade, that is) had that glow, buried deep inside her skull. The mutant bank robber had shown this color in his eyes. And this girl — it looked like her entire nervous system was laid out in ultra-violet lines.

This demanded investigation.

The question was: cautious or bold? What if the girl spotted her? After all she knew nothing about mutants, and next to nothing about her own powers. Would the girl spot her? Could mutants see her? She was invisible to Jade, but that might not prove anything. On the other hand, old Melodious the bank robber had thought that she was a flesh-and-blood girl, and he’d had mutant eyes.

She decided to risk it. She lifted up and flew along the upper shelf until she reached the front of the car, the rolled over the edge and hung, as if glued to the ceiling fabric above the strange girl’s head.

The girl was reading a magazine. On second thought, she was just flipping through it. Hmmm, Track and Field. The girl was almost insanely hyperactive. One foot tapping. Pausing to look out the window every few seconds. Flip the pages. Surely she couldn’t be reading that fast?

*****

Jade was engrossed in an article on breast cancer. It wasn’t fair! She didn’t even have breasts yet, and this author was trying to scare her that they’d get taken away again. Or worse.

Suddenly, a wash of new memories came into her mind. Without intending to, she looked up toward the head of the car. Another mutant? She dug out another spec of grit, while wondering if she dared go up to her in person.

*****

After Concord, the train cleared up significantly. The next two stops emptied it further. Then they settled in for the long haul through the mountains. Just two more hours.

Jade looked around the cabin and debated with herself. Literally, in this case, since the last three rows were empty, except for her.

“She’s all alone up there,” she pointed out needlessly, since Jinn had given the information to her before this latest charge.

“What if she doesn’t want to talk?”

“Then leave again,” the little stuffed lion said, quietly. Jinn didn’t want her squeaky voice to be overheard, but the clack-clack-clack of the rails was enough to cover quiet conversation.

“Will you stand lookout for me?”

The lion hung her head. “Duh!”

Jade poked her toy in the nose. “I hope you don’t mind being put into a boy lion,” she teased. “But he was so much cuter.”

The lion bit her fingertip with a soft fuzzy mouth.

Jade giggled back. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

She scooped her stuff back into the backpack, plopped the toy lion on top, and then grabbed her suitcase. Mustering her courage, she headed to the front of the cab. At the halfway point, she passed the last other passenger, a middle age farmer who was catching up on his sleep.

The hyperactive Hispanic girl had obviously seen her coming.

“Uh,” Jade began eloquently, “you wouldn’t mind if I… that is, you’re not busy or anything?”

From this perspective (rather than clinging to the ceiling) she could tell that the girl was even shorter than Jinn was (everyone was taller than Jade), but built! The hyperactive girl had to be several years older than her.

“Heading for the academy?”

“Um,” dammit, what was she supposed to say? “Whateley?”

“Yeah.” The other girl seemed to unwind a little. She thrust her hand out. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Juanita Havier. My tag is — never mind. I think I’m going to be changing it.”

“What?”

The other girl scowled. “Last year, everyone was calling me ‘Quickie.’ I thought it was cute. Wasn’t ‘till summer break that I figured out why they were all snickering all the time. Like, thanks a lot! You’re supposed to be my friends!”

Jade shook the hand. Or rather, had it shaken for her, much the same as she’d been swept away by the narrative. “Jade Sinclair.”

“Jade. Nice name. Hi. What are you, seventh grade? We don’t get a lot that young. Most don’t show any sign until a little later. I guess they let junior high come early, huh? Funny, ‘cause I thought the only ones coming today were going to be… well, that’s probably not important.”

Jade shook her head, trying to figure it all out. She set her lion on the back of the chair to act as lookout, then set her stuff down.

“Setting up a lookout, huh? Clever plan!”

Jade peered at her suspiciously. Maybe this girl could see Jinn. “Yeah, his name’s Kimba, even though he isn’t white.”

“Don’t’ you mean ‘Simba’?”

“No, that came lots later. This is from old comic books my mom used to read to me, when I was just a kid.” Her voice turned wistful. “I didn’t even remember until a little while ago. Now it’s all coming back.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. A lot of things change on you. So… if you don’t mind my asking, and you don’t have to answer, you know, ‘cause sometimes it’s kind of personal, but if it’s no problem, what do you do?”

How to explain it? She didn’t want to go into all the details. What could she say? This was obviously the first practice for what would become a commonplace event. Should she reel out the letters and numbers of the classification the Sergeant had given her?

“Cause just to show you I don’t mean anything by it, I’m a speedster. You know? ‘She runs as fast as ten fast men,’ get it?”

“Huh?”

“Sorry, private joke. We put out our own comic, as a joke. We even tell people it’s ‘New England Comics’ but they still don’t figure it out. It hasn’t picked up so big outside the academy, though.”

Jade ignored the babble and concentrated on what she could figure out. First, that there were all sorts of interesting things going on at the academy. Second…

“You’re a speedster? You mean, you run? Like super fast?”

The short girl folded her arms over her ample chest and smirked. “Faster than this train, honey. And if you’re a speedster too, enjoy it while you can. Let me tell you, you’ll have a real love/hate relationship with your means of support, if you get my drift.”

Jade didn’t. But, “You mean, you could out-race this train? All the way from Concord to the academy?”

“Yep. Actually, endurance is a big factor too. I got the speed, but my endurance poops out just short of ninety miles. I’m going to work on that this year.”

“Oh.” It was suddenly hitting her. She was sitting across from an honest-to-God superhero! “Well, if you can do that, why don’t you?”

The Hispanic girl smirked. After having watching her restlessly struggle with the magazine, she’d obviously been waiting to get back into something social. And she was certainly proving to be a font of information. “First, like I said, there’s the whole distance thing. Second, and a lot of people don’t give this proper attention, we don’t really want to draw too much attention to the academy. So zooming along the highway is a no-no. And as for zooming along the tracks — do you have any idea how filthy these things are? I mean, really, they dump stuff RIGHT out of the train sometimes. Yech!”

Jade was overwhelmed. “Oh, I never thought -”

“Uh huh. The luggage. That’s the main reason. I can do 89.7 flat out. But not carrying no steamer trunk. I can barely lift that thing, with the clothing allowance Mom gave me this year!”

It continued on in this vein for a few minutes, as Jade was rapidly dragged from topic to topic.

“But I never did hear your answer, if you don’t mind that is, about what YOU do.”

“Oh.” She’d had an idea, a bit back. Maybe this would work for most everyone. She reached up and picked up Kimba, stroking his furry body. She knew how good that felt. She looked down at the toy that was now in her lap. “I, well, I bring things to life.”

“Uh huh. How does that work?”

Jade gave a little smile. “Kimba -”

But Jinn was ahead of her. The small toy sudden rose from Jade’s lap and gave a bouncy hop-hop-hop up onto the table and over to stare Juanita in the face.

“Hi, Juanita!” Jinn squeaked. “You’re pretty neat!”

“Oh my GOD!” the other girl practically shouted it out. “Oops, sorry!”

Jade looked back over her shoulder. The farmer looked at them for a moment, then went back to sleep. Maybe he figured it was just two girls talking…

That thought gave Jade a warm glow inside.

“You weren’t kidding, were you?” she said in a lower voice. “That is SO COOL! Well, I mean, it’s probably not so good for fighting evil masterminds, but it’s just like so COMPLETELY great!” She peered at the toy lion. “Hi, little fella.”

“I’m not a little fellow,” Jinn squeaked. “I’m a girl. It isn’t my fault that someone over there forgot that little detail when she was picking out an animal to bring along.”

“Oh, wow. Can you make hundreds of these? Do they last forever? Can you sell them? Everyone will want one!”

“Uh, hold on,” Jade and Jinn said simultaneously. They were blanching at the thought of Jinn being sold into permanent toy-slavery. Being kept away from your other half forever. “It’s only one at a time, and she only lasts for a little while.”

“Still, I’ve got to show Angel. We wrote over the summer. She should be connecting in Lancaster. You wouldn’t believe the strings we had to pull to get to come in today, with the freshmen, but Angel’s a special case.” She leaned in confidentially. “Real family trouble. Anyway, we had to deliberately forgo the very best rooms, and agree to act help out in the cleaning and opening things up. Most of the upperclassmen will be taking their time, coming in. It’s really only the freshmen that are supposed to show up today. But tomorrow, watch out! Rooms are first come, first serve, and well, early bird catches the worm, you know?”

And with the ice broken, Juanita played with Jinn while happily spilling out disconnected tidbits about the wonderful and sometimes disturbing life at the Whateley Academy.

*****

The Lancaster stop lasted for about fifteen minutes. Near the end, a tall girl in a trench coat came on board. Jade thought that the weather was still too warm for a heavy coat, and she would have worn her backpack outside the coat, but it wasn’t any of her business. Juanita hopped up though. Jade realized the Hispanic girl was probably no more than five feet tall.

“Angel! Over here!”

The trench coated girl came toward them and took a seat, without removing her coat.

“You still up for it?” Juanita asked.

The trench coat girl nodded. “I’d like that, if you don’t mind.”

“Mind? Girl, half the cottage would love to have you as a roomie. Not as many of them would put up with the ‘motor mouth.’ And don’t deny it. I’ve heard it often enough.”

Jade studied their new companion. Blonde, lightly curly hair that fell to her hips, deep blue eyes. A beautiful face with a flawless complexion. And it looked like the coat hid a nearly perfect figure.

“I see why they named you Angel.”

A brief frown passed over the blonde’s face. “That’s just my handle. My real name is Mary Goodhope.”

Jade gave a brief laugh, thinking of the conservative televangelist. “Quite a coincidence. I mean, if Reverend Goodhope ever found out that someone who shared his name was also a mutant -”

“He’s my father.”

That stopped Jade dead in her tracks. Oh, she thought stupidly so that’s what she meant by ‘family trouble.’

“You’ve heard the ‘body image’ concept?” the blonde continued.

Jade shook her head. “I don’t think so…”

“Many mutants have a sort of template in their head, an image of perfection. And mine…” She opened up her coat enough to reveal the large white wings folded against her back. “It’s just that Daddy was always talking about… and I guess I thought…”

“Another bad summer?”

“Yeah. He’s on this whole ‘intervention’ kick. You’ve heard of it? Get the person and confront them with their sin, the whole deprogramming thing, then force them to face ‘God’s way’ — which means they’d be pretty much forcing me to…. I don’t even want to think what would happen. At best I’d just be puking my guts out. At worst —“

Juanita moved forward, hugging the much taller girl.

“At worst he’d kill me. And sometimes I think he’d rather have a dead martyr than a live daughter.”

After a moment, Jade responded to Juanita’s not-so-subtle beckoning head motion. She moved in as well to hug the tall blonde.

“Thank you.” Angel reached out, delicately stroking Jade’s face. She seemed calmed by the action. “I’m sorry you had to see that, but some of us have real problems at home.”

Emboldened by the intimacy, Jade dared to ask, “But… you really do look like an angel. Does he hold that against you?”

Angel’s face took on a cynical look for a moment. It didn’t fit well on her face. “It isn’t that. He’d love to use me in his broadcasts. He’d exploit me as much as he could. But there’s one other thing. I think my mutation must have just crystallized it and made it more powerful.”

Jade waited patiently.

“I can touch a girl or woman with no problem at all,” she said, stroking Jade’s cheek gently. “I think it must be psychic. Some sort of resonance. When I touch a man, even a boy, I just start shaking. I get ill, sick to my stomach. I’ve never really liked boys, but this -”

She started to sniffle and Juanita moved in again.

“That’s why her father hates her. His daughter is gay.”

Jade couldn’t move. But she touched my cheek. Does that mean — Is she wrong? Or am I really a girl inside, despite my body?

“Hey, enough of that. You need to help me think up a new name to replace ‘Quickie.’ And I haven’t finished introducing you to Jade yet. Wait’ll you see her power! She’s going to be starting seventh grade.”

“Not seventh grade,” Jinn squeaked out. “Freshman! We’re going to be freshmen!”

Angle goggled, tears forgotten. “Did that toy just —?”

“Yeah, isn’t it wild? C’mere Simba!”

*****

When they finally arrived at Dunwich station, Jade barely had time to notice the ratty little train stop. She, Angel, and Juanita got off together, talking quietly amongst themselves. Angel was holding Jinn just inside her coat. Jinn, for her part, was preening under the attention. Jade couldn’t wait till later, when she’d remember that, too.

Angel barely managed to get her three trunks off the train before it pulled out. Jade was almost glad that she only had a small suitcase and a backpack.

By then, the buses were arriving and the crowd began to grow considerably. Someone had set up a boom box, making it hard to hear Angel.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” the tall girl was saying. “We’ll keep an eye out for our little sister. We’ll make sure you get settled in properly.”

“I’m not sure,” Jade responded. “I think I’m in some sort of special dorm.”

“It’s a ‘cottage.’” Juanita corrected. “Poe cottage. You were supposed to show up today, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Then you’re a new little sister.”

“I don’t know…”

“Hey, Angel, what room did you ask for?” Juanita asked her companion.

“Three-oh-two. It’s not the fourth floor, but at least it’s not one of those freezing north-side rooms, either. We’ll get some sun. And 302 is close enough to the bathroom. And not in the corner. I don’t know if you ever visited Becky before she graduated. Remember? That corner room. I swear, the insulation must have been terrible, because that room was always ten degrees colder than anywhere else in the cottage.”

Jade was about to ask what they were talking about when Angel noticed something.

“I think our time’s up. Look, we won’t be on the van with you froshes, so we’ll have to catch up with you later. Take care of yourself, Li’l Sis.”

Jinn squirmed free and leapt to Jade’s shoulder. Jade caught the toy and looked around, but most people seemed to be focused on the chaos of the moment.

The two girls both gave her a quick hug and began to move toward the back of the crowd.

As they left, it hit her again what she was doing. She was hoping to spend an entire year, dressing, and acting, and being a girl, until she herself was convinced of it. She would probably have a roommate — someone who would hate her if she ever learned the truth. Hell, all the girls would hate her, if they figured the truth out.

And somehow she had to manage the girls’ bathroom, and sleeping, and who knows what else. Gym class! How could she have forgotten about gym class?

This was her last chance to back out. She was dressed oddly for a guy, but she could probably recover from that embarrassment. Did she really need to do this? To spend the rest of her life living a lie, just so that she could try to become a girl, somehow? Was it even possible, or was she fooling herself more than anyone else?

Shaking inside, she looked at all the kids milling around her. There seemed to be about twenty of them. She knew, somehow, that these were the students that she’d be sharing her life with. Could they possibly understand what drove her — why she HAD to be a girl? Probably not. Most of them looked fairly normal. A couple of black girls, a couple of super-attractive girls. More girls than boys. One or two that looked a little odd, but it was hard to imagine that any of them had problems like hers.

She gulped, and smoothed down her dress one last time. She had to believe. Somehow, it was possible for her to become a girl for real. Somehow, she would do it. And until then — she was going to be as much of a girl as she could be.

So maybe disaster would strike and she’d be exposed. She’d face that when it happened. Until then, she would be true to herself.

The loud music abruptly shut off. Like everyone else in the dingy train station, Jade looked over toward the boom box. There was an adult standing there, a Japanese woman in an expensive business dress.

Jade was happy to see another Asian there. It made her feel like less of a minority. It was odd to think that she could be a minority in the middle of a crowd of mutants, but for the most part the kids seemed to reflect the standard American ethnic mix.

The woman herded them into a set of vans. Jade had been worried that they might call her by her boy’s name, but the name called was “Jade Sinclair.”

The first van was already filled, so she moved to the second van, where people were still jockeying for space. She ended up sitting next to a girl who looked Asian at first glance, except for her exceptionally large eyes, big ears, and blue-gray hair. The hair was combed back in a set of not-quite-punk spikes. It was a neat effect. From a distance, Jade had thought it would be stiff or hard, like the girl had used way too much gel or mousse. But up close she could see that each individual strand was soft and free. The girl’s hair just naturally fell… upward. Up and back really. It was really tempting to touch it, to see how soft it was.

The girl glared at her and Jade turned guiltily away, unable to even meet the girl’s eyes. “Sorry.”

“What, you never seen hair that looked like this before?” Whoever this girl was, she had a voice that could cut into you like a buzzsaw.

Feeling worse than ever, Jade leaned forward so that her own hair concealed her face. Then she peered through the screen at the other girl. She also felt Jinn squirming into position to get a good look. “Um, no, not really. I mean, not in real life.” The other girl seemed taken aback by that, so Jade plowed on before she could lose her nerve. Maybe if the girl knew she meant well... “How do you do it? It’s really cool! I saw you in the station, and I thought you’d just used a ton of mousse or something. It’s almost like …” She trailed off, suddenly embarrassed.

“What? Go ahead, I’ve heard it all.”

“Well, it’s like animé hair. Only in real life. You know, animation, uh, Japanese cartoons?”

That was met by a resounding silence.

“Uh, sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it.”

The blue-haired girl waved a hand negligently, as if it were nothing. “Naw, don’t get yer panties in a bunch. I’ve heard lots worse, believe me.” She settled back with a smirk. “Animé, huh? So… if I were an animé character, which one would I be? Which of ‘em has this kind of hair?”

“That kind of hair?” She thought for a moment. “Well, of course, the absolute best, and most popular too —” the blue-haired girl leaned eagerly forward at this “— would have to be Tetsuan Atom.”

Jade was never quite sure if it was in reaction to her statement, or the bump in the road, but the other girl suddenly tipped forward to hit the seat in front of her, face first.

“Wow! If this were an animé, I’d call that a — well, I guess they call it a ‘face fault’ in this country. You see that all the time in animé.”

“I know,” the other girl said, around a mouthful of seat. “It hurts, too.” She seemed to pop right back, though, and rounded on Jade. “Tetsuan Atom?”

“Uh, you know, Astro Boy?”

“I know that!” the other girl hollered. Seeing the looks she was getting, she suddenly toned down the volume, but she was still intense. “How can you compare me to some ancient old wimpy robot?”

“He’s not wimpy!” Jade loved Atom even more than Kimba. “He’s got 100,000 horsepower! Besides, he’s the noblest! And he’s not ancient. They started the remake a couple of years ago. I think it’s still on, some places.”

“Look, just forget it, okay? Different conversation. Spiky hair, gorgeous body, and you were talking about who I reminded you of.”

“Oh yeah.” Jade paused in thought.

“Come on, you must have some idea!”

“Sure, but there’s just so many of them. Hey, you okay? You’re looking sort of twitchy.” The other girl didn’t respond, so Jade just continued on. “Well, if you had a tail, you could be a saiyan, but I don’t think I’ve seen any female ones. And the color would make you a perfect Ryoko, except she’s got cat eyes, and come to think of it, you’d need a tail to be her, too. But you’ve got the attitude just right. On the other hand, if the color was black —”

“Alright! Enough already! Just drop it, okay?” She abruptly folded her arms and turned visibly away to watch the scenery.

“Sorry.”

*****

They drove for miles up into the hills. At one point, they passed across a classic New England covered bridge and through a small town.

“Do you really think I have the attitude right?”

“Huh?” Jade looked toward her seatmate.

“Ryoko. You said I had the attitude right.”

“Well, yeah. I mean, we’ve just met and everything. But so far, you could do a pretty good job. Hey, we never actually introduced ourselves, did we? I’m Jade. Jade Sinclair.”

“You can call me Tennyo.”

“Sure! Hey, that’s a funny coincidence! I mean, you look sort of like Ryoko, who’s from Tenchi Muyo! And if you contracted that you’d get —” It took a moment for her mind to catch up with her over-enthusiastic jaw. When it did, her mouth just hung open as she stared at the other girl in shock. The other girl didn’t just have golden eyes; they were eyes with an impossibly oval pupil, stretched vertically to hold the cat-slit irises.

Tennyo stared back, gradually assuming a smirk as Jade goggled at her.

“It isn’t a coincidence, is it?”

Tennyo shook her head. She had a strange look on her face. Proud and arrogant, but it was a fragile look that could just as easily turn to tears at a moment’s notice.

Jade blinked, trying to figure it out. If she looks like Ryoko and it isn’t an accident, which means that she has somehow done this on purpose! Or maybe on accident. But… This is terrific! Less than an hour and I’ve already found someone who changed her appearance. Now if I could only find someone who’d changed their gender, too, I’d be set! If I could find out how they did it… Gradually her mind came back to where she was, and the girl watching her reaction.

Jade looked up with wonder in her eyes. “That is SO COOL! Are you still changing? I mean, are you going to get a tail and the whole bit? And what about all those cool powers! Naw, that would be too much, wouldn’t it? But if you could — wow! Hey, what were people like in the train station? How did they react to your hair? Did you do this on purpose? Please, can you teach me how? Not to look like Ryoko, of course, one’s enough, right? Well, aside from Minagi. But I mean, picking someone and then becoming them — wow! That is the coolest thing ever!”

“Whoa, settle down. Besides,” Tennyo said, pointing to a large rectangular brick building. “I think we’re here.”

6: Ushered into Poe
Whateley Academy September 3, Sunday evening

She’d had the “Welcome to Whateley” introductory tour. The experience left Jade gaping in astonishment. Mutants, powers, even Champion! And more! The death of Champion and how his successors were chosen! The hall of heroes (and villains)! Underground reactors and secret training halls. It was everything she could have expected from an elite secret school for mutants.

But all of that paled, next to the revelations that mattered most. Five other freshmen, four girls and one guy, who were in the process of transitioning from one gender to another! Including her accidental seatmate from the van, Tennyo! Some of them were willing, some were bitter; Tennyo didn’t seem particularly bothered. And she’d had to tell them about herself! Well, she hadn’t exactly blurted out all the details. She hadn’t come right out and told them she was still a boy.

It gave her a glow that she couldn’t even begin to describe. Every single one of them (even Ayla) was transitioning to become a beautiful young girl. And while Hank was going the wrong way, he seemed happy enough about it, so she was happy for him, too.

Thinking back on it, she had mentioned (fairly strongly) that she wasn’t transitioning or changing at all — her loud cries of ‘I'm turning into nothing! I'm just frozen!’ were probably pretty strong clues on that. And given what she’d said, they might have guessed that she was physically still a boy. She wasn’t going to push it, because she wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize their acceptance.

But between the revelations about the school and the upheavals in her private life, Jade’s mind was reeling by the time they finally got back to Poe. So she felt perfectly justified in staggering through the entryway. She barely noticed Edgar’s bust on the one side. She hardly glanced at the clever scene on the opposite wall of a stuffed raven perched over an ancient book. She barely glanced at the luggage piled haphazardly in the entry. She just staggered into the common room and collapsed on the couch.

She felt, rather than saw, her fellow initiates collapsing around her.

“Come, come,” Belle chided them. “It wasn’t that bad. Buck up. You still have to pick rooms. After that, I’ll leave you be for the rest of the evening.”

Jade blearily raised her head. Toni and Fey were already talking to Belle. Well, that was fine with her. Then her mind kicked into gear.

I didn’t exactly tell them the whole ugly truth, she realized, but they must suspect that I’m physically pretty boyish. And they’re all in the middle of changing… She looked up at the remaining members of their tour. Ayla, the sometimes surly punk-girl; Tennyo, forced to mimic an animé character; and Hank, the newly made boy. Including her there were four of them. Two per room. Obviously neither of the girls would room with Hank, which meant…

Her eyes snapped wide in alarm. They COULDN’T! They WOULDN’T!

She was suddenly terrified that they would. She didn’t want to room with a boy. She didn’t want to BE a boy. She wasn’t going to be! Somehow, she was going to be a girl! She didn’t care what it took, she was going to become a girl!

The first thing to do was to make sure that she didn’t room with Hank. He was nice enough, in a dopey-old-puppy sort of way. But she wasn’t going to dress and undress in the same room as him. She wasn’t going to SLEEP in the same room as him!

Forcing herself not to hyperventilate, she quickly looked at the other two girls. Ayla — there were interesting things going on with that girl. Jade really needed to have a long talk with her, but for right now, the girl was a little scary. Tennyo, on the other hand — Tennyo was sometimes sweet, and sometimes gruff. Probably dangerous (particularly the way she’d said that her energy blasts went off spontaneously, or when she was under stress). But Jade could see something in the other girl’s incredible cat-eyes. Someone she could trust. Someone that, maybe, she might be able to confess the truth to. Someone who could help her, and be her friend.

She realized that she hadn’t had a real friend since her mother had died. The closest had been the other members of the dojo.

She looked at Tennyo again and her heart felt a yearning. Not sexual or romantic (she thought — she wasn’t really sure what those emotions felt like). This was like she suddenly had an opportunity to have… a sister. There was one chance, but she had to move fast. She stood up.

Ayla was already standing, looking around in thought.

Jade found herself drawn almost magnetically to Tennyo. She couldn’t look up to meet the taller girl’s face.

“Tennyo-san,” she said, tentatively and formally. “Would you allow me to be your roommate?”

“Huh? Me?” The blue-haired girl reach back to rub the back of her neck. Jade recognized the embarrassment-gesture; it could have come from the streets of downtown Tokyo. “Well, yeah, I guess. But you might want to know, I sometimes have a little problem with energy blasts. I still have a tendency to blow things up a little, you know? I’m not so sure you want to be rooming with someone who might accidentally kill you.”

Jade’s heart was hammering. She’d just moved from disaster to triumph. She knew the other girl was serious about the danger, but Jade wasn’t the least bit worried. The need inside her, the chance for a sister, the chance for a real life as a girl, they all demanded this. A little danger was nothing in the face of her dreams.

“Please. I understand the danger. May I be your roommate?”

“Well, if you’re sure.” Tennyo slapped her on the back, in an obviously male fashion. “Glad to have you on board, kid.”

Jade couldn’t talk, so instead she just reached out and hugged the girl. Tennyo was a bit stiff for a moment, then seemed to relax. Jade held the hug for a second longer, then stepped away.

“Thank you,” was all she could say before her throat choked up. To cover up her emotional outburst, Jade turned toward the foyer. “Maybe we should get our bags and get a room.”

The beautiful cat-eyed girl nodded and followed her. Of course, Jade’s pink suitcase was under a pair of large steamer trunks. She tried tugging it out before Tennyo stepped in.

“Let me help.”

The blue-haired girl reached down with one hand to lever up the two trunks, allowing Jade to slip out her suitcase.

“You sure got Ryoko’s strength.”

The other girl scowled. “Look, can we drop the whole ‘Ryoko’ thing? I mean, I know what’s happening to me, but it’s a lot to deal with, you know? I need some time to learn how to be Tennyo, before I spend too much time walking in someone else’s shadow.”

“Yes, Tennyo-san.”

“And that’s another thing! What’s with all this ‘san’ business? You don’t have any accent. Are you really Japanese?”

Jade laughed. “My mother was. But me? This is actually the first time I’ve been out of Kansas. But ever since my powers arrived, it’s like my memory has been getting better and better.” At least, when she was Jinn. And Jinn’s memories carried over to Jade. “And I’m remembering more and more of Okasan. It seems like a way to honor her, to try to become a little more of what she was. But you’re right. I’m not really Japanese. Technically, I’m Nisei, but culturally I’m more like Sansei or worse. I guess I’m trying to capture a little bit of my lost culture back.”

“Nisei? Sansei?”

“Second-generation and third-generation Japanese. And since my father wasn’t Japanese, I’m not sure exactly where I’d fall.”

The other girl scratched behind an ear, thinking this over. “Yeah, okay.” She plucked up a carry-on. “Shall we pick a room?”

Jade grabbed her backpack. She felt a bit under-equipped with just one backpack and a small pink suitcase. But Tennyo was even worse off, with nothing but a carry-on. “Is that all you have?”

The older girl shrugged, as if it were no big deal. “I have more on the way, but they messed up my bags at the airport in Concord. They’ll probably get here sometime tomorrow.”

Chatting comfortably, they headed toward Beltane, who waited with a clipboard.

“You’re down to two choices,” their guide informed them. “Two-sixteen, the corner room on the north, and two-thirteen, in the middle on the north. You’ll probably be bordering Boystown with that one.”

Jade suddenly remembered the conversation she’d overheard between Juanita and Angel.

“Nothing on the south?”

“Nope. Last one was two-oh-two. That went to Ayla, as a single. But I just put her there because it was first on the list. She said she didn’t care.”

Jade reached for Tennyo’s hand. “Come on! Maybe we can change her mind!”

“If you do,” Belle called after them, “let me know. For now, I’m going to list you in two-sixteen, next to Toni and Fey.”

“What’s the big deal?” Tennyo called, as they raced up the stairs.

Jade spoke quickly. “Do you want a good room on the south, where we can get some sun, or a cold room on the north?”

Tennyo looked at her. “From the way you’re describing it, a good room, with sun.”

“And the corner rooms are supposed to be extra cold.”

“No thanks, but I don’t really want to stick it to poor Ayla. She looks like she’s already had a rough ride. What’s your plan?”

Jade was being pushed to desperation moves. It was regrettable, but, “I think” she decided, “we’re going to have to ask her.”

*****

“So you want to switch rooms?” the punk girl asked. “Why?”

“You’ll be right next to Toni and Fey,” Jade pleaded. “A corner room, with no neighbors to bother you on one side.”

“Yeah, I see the advantages just fine.” Ayla sounded surprisingly competent. Jade had been hoping to win her over with a blitz, but it suddenly felt like she was talking to a master negotiator. “What I want to know is: if it’s so good, why do you want to trade?”

“I —” She looked to Tennyo.

“Sorry, you’re on your own.”

“I —” What could she say? “I — nothing.” She admitted it. “Nothing at all. It’s cold, and dark, and doesn’t get any sun, like this room.” She sniffed. “I’m sorry.”

“Ah, what the fuck.” Jade was surprised to feel the other girl’s hand on her shoulders. “Sure, I’ll trade.”

“Huh? Really?”

The punk girl shrugged, looking for all the world as if she could care less. “Sun’s over-rated. Too much glare, wakes you up too early. Besides,” she stuck her hand through one of the wardrobes, as intangible as a ghost, “there might be some advantages to the corner.”

Before she could help herself, Jade found herself hugging the other girl. “Thank you!” she whispered.

“No big deal. I haven’t even gotten my stuff yet.” And with that, the girl simply sauntered out.

*****

As they would soon discover, room 202 was just like every room on the second floor. The walls were a sort of ochre yellow. Not a very attractive color, but it was a competent paint job. Nothing was peeling or blistering. The room had wood up to about waist height, and the wood had vertical lines on it. The wood was painted a darker green. A piece of molding ran around the room where the wood met the painted wall, at waist height. There was another sort of molding-shelf about six feet up. The ceiling had a single domed light fixture in the center.

There weren’t built-in closets. Instead, there were freestanding wardrobes, one for each girl. The wardrobes also had dresser drawers in the lower half. Each girl also had a bed, chair, and desk that doubled as a night table. The wood furniture was painted a dark brown. Jade unpacked her backpack on the bed first, getting out the bag that held Jinn’s body suit. She wasn’t quite ready to explain about the rubber Madonna mask, so she tossed her jacket over it. She put her stuffed lion on the desk for now. She was just putting her first dress on a hanger, when she saw Ayla ambling past. The girl had a steamer trunk in each hand, carrying them as if they were made of bulky Styrofoam. There seemed to be something very … solid … about her.

Once she was past, Tennyo said, “You know, I think I’m glad we didn’t end up tricking her out of her room. I get the feeling that she could make an unpleasant enemy.”

Jade just cocked her head and thought about it.

“Hey, Ayla,” Tennyo called. “Need help? You got any more luggage downstairs?”

Jade looked at her one small suitcase and backpack. “She just walked by with two full steamer trunks. How much more could she have?”

“Sure, thanks!” came the shout from across the hall. “There’s two more trunks in the foyer, both tagged ‘Ayla Goodkind.’”

Jade sighed. She decided to rearrange her seven changes of clothes one more time, to see if it took up more space this time.

Not too long after that, Tennyo went walking past, carrying two steamer trunks as easily as Ayla. Jade decided that it would probably be a good idea to stay friends with both girls.

Then she noticed something new. There was a stuffed cabbit, casually tossed onto the pillow of Tennyo’s bed. Jade recognized the toy from the Tenchi Muyo! Animé series. Half cat, half rabbit, the cabbit has been more like Ryoko’s sibling, psychically bonded to her. If she recalled, the cabbit could take three forms, the cat-rabbit shown in the toy, a sort of cat-girl, and a gigantic crystalline spaceship. But hadn’t Tennyo said she was trying to forget about the whole Ryoko thing?

I shouldn’t, she told herself. But she slipped a speaker disk underneath it and charged them both. She had no set plans, but she’d know when the time came.

*****

“I want to look up the friends I met on the train,” she explained to Tennyo. “They definitely have a south-facing room, but I’m not sure whether it was on floor three or four. Want to come?”

The spiky-haired girl scratched her scalp. “No, I’ve got a couple of things I want to ask Fey. Maybe later.”

“Okay.” She decided it was only fair to give warning, though. “Just be careful what you say while I’m gone. The walls have ears, you know!”

“Huh?”

*****

To get to the stairs, she had to negotiate past two rooms with other girls setting up, and four rooms filled with boys (more, if you counted the north corridor). Some of them looked as young as she usually felt. She waved to a couple of boys tentatively as she walked past, but neither side seemed inclined to break the ice yet.

It triggered a disturbing thought in her mind. Was she any different from those gay boys? She didn’t know much about gay boys — what they liked, what they wanted, what they believed. Physically (though it hurt to admit it) she was a boy. But here she was, dressed like a girl, acting like a girl. She hadn’t really thought things through to their true logical conclusion, but she’d casually assumed that she’d eventually end up with a boyfriend, just like any other ordinary girl.

Did that mean that she was gay?

It was a disturbing thought. It wasn’t that she was afraid of being gay. It really seemed like just another label. It was the thought that she’d have to leave the girls’ area, and move down here with the (ugh) boys. The other gay boys.

Maybe when she was a little surer of herself, she could talk to someone about this. But not today. Definitely not today.

She climbed up the stairs, and quickly made her way to the third floor. The southern exposure would be the left hall. She assumed there would be, once again, boys for the first four rooms. But the third floor seemed mostly deserted. There were only a couple of people present. Almost at the end of the floor, she came across an open door and heard Juanita’s voice inside. It was room 302, directly above her own.

“Um, hello?”

“Little Jade!” Juanita cried. “See? I told you that you were a little sister!”

She pouted and drew herself up to her full height. “Little? I’m only a couple of inches shorter than you!”

“Yes. Great in stature, but perhaps still lacking in maturity, no? What room are you in?”

“202, right under your room!”

Angel turned away from her position at the open window. It was Jade’s first chance to see her without the trench coat. With the soft white tunic the girl was wearing and the cascade of curly golden hair, she really did look like an angel. Her smile made her look even more angelic. “I must have missed you, when the tour came through.”

“Uh, I wasn’t on that tour. My group saw the campus.”

For a moment, Angel drew back in shock. “One of the TGs? Don’t tell me a pretty young girl like you is changing into a guy?” Fearful, she drew her hand back.

Juanita whapped her roommate softly. “No, dummy. She’s right under us. She’s a girl.”

“Of course. I remember touching her before.” Once again, she stroked a fine, soft hand across Jade’s cheek. “You must be quite far along. When I touch you, I feel nothing but gentle feminine warmth.”

“I…” Jade’s eyes started to tremble. “Not as far as I want,” she admitted.

“Don’t cry, little sister.” Angel stepped forward, enfolding her first in arms, then in clean-smelling soft wings, as well. “With a soul as feminine as yours, strong enough to shine through the errors of flesh, I can’t help but know that things will turn out correctly.”

Jade said nothing; she just gloried in the incredible embrace. Once more, accepted, she though. It was too good to be true.

*****

Toni and Ayla took desk chairs, Fey dropped down on Tennyo’s bed, and Tennyo floated in mid-air.

“Pretty incredible, isn’t it?” Toni asked. “I mean, from the outside it’s just some dumpy old private school, stuck up here in the middle of nowhere.”

“Not really dumpy,” Ayla corrected. “It’s a pretty sharp looking prep school, even without the dome or that observatory.” She sniffed disdainfully. “Talk about your definition of ‘over the top’.”

“Hey, Fey,” Tennyo called, “we never did get a demo of your powers.”

“Consider yourself lucky. I can’t exactly control them yet, and the results when I do use them are sometimes really weird —” she paused to stare at Tennyo’s stuffed animal in extreme suspicion.

“Case in point,” Ayla mentioned.

“I’m just not sure I’m ready to go to school as a girl,” Tennyo admitted.

“TELL me about it,” Ayla groused.

Toni just smirked. “So whadya wanna do tomorrow?”

Fey groaned, falling back on the bed. She poked the stuffed toy a couple of times, but nothing seemed to happen. “I still haven’t finished unpacking.”

Ayla tore her hair out. “Don’t even mention that! I still have three trunks to go.”

Toni and Fey stared at her. “Three trunks left?”

“And have you seen how small these rooms are? Where am I supposed to put everything?”

Tennyo snickered. “That’s an awful lot of clothes for a person who sometimes sounds like she doesn’t want to be a girl.”

Ayla hung her head. “I know. Sometimes I scare myself. But… somehow, that lingerie just makes me feel so…wicked! It’s like I can’t help myself.” She smacked her head on the desk. “I am SO messed up…”

Toni stood up, stretching. “I’d better finish unpacking, too.” She looked around the room. “Hey, how’d you two finish so fast?”

“I don’t think Jade has very much,” Tennyo explained. “And the stupid airlines sent my bags to Nairobi or someplace. Heck. Maybe I’ll explore a little.”

*****

All four girls stepped out of the room. Jinn thought she could still hear Tennyo right outside, though. Quietly she let out a sound. “Nuts!” she said. “Gotta find someplace to hide all these nuts!”

Sure enough, Tennyo came right back in, looking around suspiciously. Jinn held herself completely passive. It had been hard, earlier, when Fey had been poking at her. The girl had obviously seen something that tipped her off, but she was probably unsure enough of her powers that she hadn’t fully trusted what she saw.

Tennyo turned around to leave again.

“Eat the nuts, or hide them?”

Tennyo snapped back around, stalking into the room. Jinn took the opportunity to admire the spiky-haired girl. She really did look exactly like Ryoko in the animation. She sometimes even had that same little smirk, with little fangs that poked out sometimes. And that hair was fantastic. It was as if each hair was floating on its own. To Jinn, it looked like the silkiest, softest thing she could possibly imagine.

Slowly, the girl approached the bed, looking around for anything unusual. She even leaned toward her stuffed toy, to poke it gently.

Jinn waited…

Tennyo grunted, “Hmm,” as she gave the toy a poke.

At that exact moment, Jinn let out a loud, “AAAAH!” She jumped off the bed and hit the floor running. She discovered in the first half-second that cloth feet don’t get the best traction on hardwood floors, then kicked in her flying ability so that it only looked like she was running. Behind her, she heard Tennyo falling to the floor with a muffled “Ack!”

The chase was on!

*****

“So where’s your little pet?” Juanita asked.

Jade laughed. “I’d better keep her away from you! It feels way too good when you pet me.”

Angel made a strange expression. “I think you messed up your sentence or something.”

“Naw, whenever we merge back together we both become just me. It’s not like I spend half my life living as a toy or something.”

At that moment, there was a cry from down the hall.

“My cabbit! You hexed my cabbit!”

“Wasn’t MY doing! Hey, I’m the one who got mauled! Has that cabbit had its shots?”

The three of them looked out the doorway to see a brown stuffed animal go racing by, cornering sharply to curve around the girls’ bathroom. A moment later, three girls came pounding past.

“You can’t get rabies from a TOY!”

“Mighty lively looking toy! How do we know it’s not possessed?”

The girls rounded the corner in pursuit. Then a guy’s voice sounded out.

“Ha! Outfoxed on the far side. Let’s see you —”

“Hank, LOOK OUT!”

There was a sound like many bodies piling into each other, then a squeaky cry of, “I smell carrots! Miya, MIYA!”

In the room, Juanita and Angel stared out their open doorway.

“Heh, heh.” Jade tried, unsuccessfully to control her blush. “My, ah, roommate. Apparently chasing her stuffed, ah, animal.”

Juanita was quick with the question. “I thought you said you didn’t spend your life being a stuffed animal?”

Jade looked up at her sheepishly. “Only when it’s funny?”

Angel was listening to the chaos as it receded down the hallway. “I’m almost tempted to join the chase myself.”

“You’d better be careful to stay out of the attic,” Juanita warned.

“Are the seniors here yet?”

“I don’t know and I’m not going to check, cause you can be sure they’ll find out if you do.”

Jade gulped. “Then I hope I don’t go up there.”

“Wow, you really are two separate people, aren’t you?”

Jade nodded. “All of a sudden, there’s two of me. Actually, I think I’m a little more self-confident as Jinn. But one second it’s just me, the next second, I’m both of me standing next to the other me. Later on we join back up, and we’re just plain me again, but I remember both of us.”

Juanita rubbed her head. “Too much of that and you’ll give me a headache.”

“Well, that’s part of the reason I came up here. See, I think I’d like to take double classes, if I can.”

“That’s it! Full-blown headache!”

“I’m just not sure if they’ll let me, or how to arrange it, or anything.”

“Hmm, you know, I might have an angle on this,” Angel said. “You remember two years ago, when that Twain kid tried to enroll the robot he’d built?”

“Yeah, but that was a fake.”

“Sure, but they didn’t know it at the time. You could use the same arguments here.”

“I don’t know. Won’t they want to charge double tuition?”

“Not if she’s on a scholarship. Almost half the student body is.”

Jade nodded.

“Okay,” Angel decided. “First I’d run the plan by Zenith. She was a T-girl like you, Jade, but she had the good taste to go lesbian. I think she got fourth floor this year, but I haven’t seen her yet. She should get in sometime over the next two days.”

“She can help me?”

“She might trade some chores over it. Get in early, while you can. She’s the best fixer in the cottage.”

“Fixer?”

“Yeah. Rules, legal stuff, loopholes, favors, trades. On her own she’s plenty sharp, but she can tap into extra skills sometimes….”

7: Kindred Spirits
Whateley Academy September 3, Sunday evening

Jade was cautious when she returned to the freshman floor. Things seemed relatively quiet. “Relatively” being the operative word. The third door on her hallway was open, and pounding music was coming out. Inside was a literal pile of young guys. About a quarter of them were touching, some rather intimately. Two in immediate sight were playing tongue games with each other.

Half curious, half neighborly, and half confused (mostly at her math skills), Jade paused and peeked in the doorway.

“Hi, kid!” one of the tongue-swappers called, amiably. “Come to see if there’s anything you like here?”

“Um… no?” she squeaked.

“Heck, don’t let him get you all flustered, Jade. He’s not nearly as dangerous as he’d like to be.”

She turned to the familiar voice and then goggled. “HANK?”

He lifted his bottle of root beer in a mock salute. “You missed all the fun, earlier.”

“Er… yeah. What are you doing in here?”

He looked around. “Well, my room is next door. Party. Male bonding. You know.”

Jade couldn’t help making a quick glance at the tongue twins, who seemed quite caught up in their ‘male bonding.’ “What I meant was….”

A fairly young looking guy came over and casually draped his arm around Hank’s shoulders. “What she’s trying to say, Hank old bud, is why aren’t you with the other TG dudes, doing whatever it is that they do, instead of hanging around at the gay party?”

Hank nodded sagely. “Ah. That would be because there aren’t any other ‘TG dudes.’ Just me. But at least it’s enough distinction to get me a single.”

Another boy, this one with porcupine hair that shot out horizontally to both sides, joined their impromptu discussion. “This brings up a good point, Hank. Presuming that in your previous life you had — how can I put it inoffensively? —conventional tastes, we might reasonably assume you’d join our band of brothers, as it were.”

Hank was finally starting to show a little blush. “Just pencil me in as ‘confused’ and leave it at that.”

Porcupine-hair turned his attention to her. “How about you, sweet thing? Are you a sister-in-arms, or a T-girl?”

Confused, she looked back and forth between the boys facing her. “I — well —”

Hank shrugged and gave her a smile. “The only reason the network hasn’t pegged us all, already, is that the girls up in Gurlzone haven’t started dropping by yet. From what I gather, the gossip channels are pretty thick around here.”

Porcupine-hair nodded. “It’s a defense mechanism, really.” He gestured into the party. “Most of these guys, they’ve never seen so many like-minded young lads in one spot. It’s a real eye-opener. Of course,” he nodded toward the tongue-donors “there are exceptions. And despite my looks, I’m actually a junior. I just wanted to be on hand to help steer things in the right direction, these first few days. Part of that is letting people know about the network. Don’t expect to keep too many secrets from your friends here in Poe. It’s a bit of a game, really. On the other hand, we expect Poe’s secrets to stay inside these walls. No one gets outted, and we don’t trash other Poes while we’re outside. Inside, when it’s green,” he pointed to the LED above the door, “then this is OUR world.” He made a sweeping gesture. “Welcome in. I’m Rafael Eagan. Junior. Mutant deviser. Gay. How do you do?” He held out his hand.

Jade smiled at him. “Hi.” She shook the hand, gently. “Jade Sinclair. Freshman, uh, weird telekinetic sort of, and I guess… T-girl?”

Raphael nodded. “Transgendered-girl. Becoming a girl. Correct? Almost a shame, since you must have been a cute boy.”

There seemed no threat in his words, and she was pleased by his implicit assumption that she was no longer a boy. “No. I have to be a girl! You don’t understand. I have to!”

His smile was gentle. “That’s part of what this party is about. I understand quite well. You’ll find that all of us here in Poe understand. We all have something burning inside us, something that’s forcing us to feel or act or be a certain way. According to society it isn’t ‘normal’. Just the same, we can’t deny it. Could you force yourself not to be a girl?”

It was still a nightmare she often had. “No,” she admitted. “I mean, maybe I could, but it would kill me.”

“Just so. Far too many boys have forced themselves down that path, desperately trying to be straight. And some of them, it does kill. I just want you to know, whatever their gender, there will be a lot of people in Poe who understand you.”

*****

She was feeling pretty good as she wandered back toward her new room. What had the boys called it? “Girls’ own” or something? She’d thought they would be dividing up into three hostile camps, but this was really a lot friendlier. With a smile on her lips, she turned into her room —

Tennyo was smiling cruelly, smacking some sort of heavy wooden cudgel in her hand. In front of her was a cloth balloon, tied down to a chair. On second look, Jade realized that it wasn’t a balloon, but a stuffed cabbit, wrapped up like a mummy. Even its muzzle was tied shut. There were just little eyes that seemed to glitter at her. Upon seeing her, the cabbit tried to squirm some more.

“Well, well, well,” Tennyo said in a tone that promised pain to someone. “If it isn’t Jade.”

“I–” she looked around desperately for some sort of distraction “surely you don’t think that I had anything to do with…”

At that unfortunate moment, the charge expired. The floating cabbit suddenly dropped to the floor, and Jade staggered at the influx of memories. She didn’t want to, she tried not to, but she couldn’t help snickering. Then she started to laugh.

“Oh, dear. That was a bit much, wasn’t it? At least we didn’t go up to the top floor.”

A growling sound came from Tennyo. “And how am I supposed to unload my frustrations?”

“Um…” Jade looked at her desk and suddenly had an idea. After all, he wasn’t white, and she didn’t really like him all that much. She quickly snatched a speaker disk and slapped it on the belly of her stuffed lion, which she proceeded to charge up. “Here!” She held the lion up. “Here’s the culprit! Knock the stuffing out of her!”

Tennyo suddenly deflated. “Aw, I couldn’t do that. Not for real.”

Jade put a hand to her mouth and spoke conspiratorially. “Jinn can’t actually feel pain, and it’s not like she’s got anything solid that you could hurt anyway. But she’ll put up a good show.”

Tennyo seemed to think about it. “Really?”

“Trust me. If anything did happen, she could always just let go and instantly pop back into me.”

Tennyo took the stuffed lion. “You don’t mind?”

Jade shook her head. The lion said, “Do your worst!” in Jinn’s voice.

Tennyo bopped the lion on the head.

“Ow!”

Startled, Tennyo stepped back.

“Sucker.”

“Why you!” Suddenly grabbing up the cudgel, Tennyo swung at the stuffed lion that had hopped onto her bed. Direct hit! She almost flattened the lion.

“OoooOOoo,” came from under the cudgel.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” Tennyo pulled the flattened toy off the bed.

With an almost audible “pop”, the lion puffed back out to normal. “Not bad. Pretty good hit.”

Holding her cudgel in one hand and dangling the lion from his tail in the other hand, Tennyo said, “This is too good to keep to myself. Time to share the pain.”

“Am I going to regret this?” the lion asked, swinging by its tail.

*****

Everyone was feeling much better, once Toni, Fey, and Ayla had also played “whack a lion.” Some girls from next door had stopped over to investigate the commotion. They looked oddly at everyone beating the stuffed toy, until the lion sprang up and said, “It’s okay, I deserved it!” only to get whacked down again. The girls left quickly.

The five of them seemed to naturally gravitate in toward Toni and Fey. The black girl was just too outgoing and friendly. Her roommate was more cautious, but she was obviously having a tough time adjusting to her transformation. And considering how stunningly beautiful she was becoming, she’d have a lot to adjust to.

The room was a little cramped, until they moved into the next-door sunroom. None of the other freshmen seemed to have realized what a haven they had at the end of the hallway. The sunroom was long and thin — seven feet wide and twenty-six feet long. There was a TV at one end, reading chairs at the other, and couches in the middle. Toni and Fey flopped down on a couch. Jade was starting to feel how late it was, so she stretched out on another. Ayla and Tennyo floated overhead, not taking up floor space, but bringing the group closer together.

In between bouts of “whack a lion”, Toni kept the fledgling conversation alive, almost bouncing off the walls in her enthusiasm. Fey, the fox-faced girl, also seemed somewhat fox-like in her caution. She was obviously still feeling things out, unable to commit herself quite yet. And Tennyo — she alternated between enthusiasm and weird stops, as if she suddenly became aware of what she was saying, and wasn’t sure about it.

“So I’m still a little puzzled on powers,” Toni was saying, as she strangled the toy. “But then, mine are pretty straightforward. Super martial arts.”

“Can you show us a quick demo?” Tennyo said. She was floating at about eye level, as if she were lying down.

Toni shrugged. Her eyes flickered to the curtains covering the windows and the green LED above the doorway. “Well, you know, just really good punches —”

Saying that, Toni spun and with her left hand cocked back, her right hand seemed to flicker forward and back in a blur. There was a sound like a card in the spokes of a bicycle, as the air itself seemed to crack. In a dojo, you’d try to get that ‘snap’ sound in the sleeve of your gi, but Toni was wearing a half-length blue T-shirt that didn’t have any sleeves. Jade was pretty sure that Toni’s punches were somehow compressing the air in front of her fist to give that sound.

“— and maybe some flips —”

From her standing position, without any apparent preparation, she did a forward flip up over Tennyo (putting a hand down briefly on the floating girl’s back as a pivot as she passed by), and landed six feet away facing back toward them.

“Stuff like that, basically.”

There was a pause while the rest of them pulled their eyes back into their eye sockets.

“You know, ordinary martial arts, maybe with a little extra.” She seemed to be suddenly interested in examining the quality of her nail polish.

“Wow,” Jade said, barely breathing. “What do you even call that? Taisabaki waza, or something like that?”

Toni looked at her in surprise. “You practice Aikido?”

“Hai, sempai. But I only have four and a half years of study. But I’ve never even seen a technique like that. Where’d you learn it? What rank are you?”

Toni laughed nervously. “Actually, only gokyu. I started advancing pretty fast, but they stopped when they realized it was all because of ki focusing. I still haven’t finished mastering the basics. What school are you?”

Jade smiled. “Nakamura sensei taught aikikai. He wouldn’t even late me pay, these last few years. He said it was something he owed my mother. How about you?”

“Tomiki-ryu,” Toni answered easily.

“Oh,” Jade said, nodding. “I would have figured you for shin-shin toitsu, with your ki skills. Hey, I heard that tomiki-ryu has actual competitions, and you guys are really focused on kata.”

“Uh huh.” Toni nodded. “That seems to be the major branch out in my area. I never see any of the other schools at any of the competitions —”

“Excuse me!” Tennyo broke in. “Could we return to a language we all speak?”

“Sorry,” Jade said. “But I just discovered that sempai studies the art.”

Toni was looking a little embarrassed. “You can quit with the ‘sempai’ business. I got that at the dojo, too. Look, I’ve got ki to burn, but I might not be so good at showing you the forms, okay?”

“Yes, sempai.”

“Anyway,” Tennyo said, “it’s probably best to maintain a little flexibility on schools and styles. For the next four years we’ll all be attending whatever Whateley provides. So whether it’s Aikido, or Judo, or even one of the hard styles like karate, we’ll be limited to what they offer.”

Toni’s eyebrows went up as she looked slyly toward Tennyo. “You study the art?”

“Yeah, well, maybe I’ve picked up a few throws and stuff, here and there.”

The girls’ eyes met and there was an almost visible crackle of challenge between them.

Fey broke in. “Am I the only one here who isn’t obsessed over some form of martial arts?”

“No,” Ayla said. “I was never that fond of boxing or punching people in the face either.”

“We don’t punch people in the face,” Jade protested, “we let them meet the mat.”

The two non-martial girls shared a glance. “Uh huh.”

Toni shrugged and grinned, her smile eradicating any chance for hard feelings. “Sorry, it’s just that martial arts have kind of taken over my life, lately. And it’s nice to discover that we have something in common beside the, you know, the big thing.”

“Big TWO things,” Tennyo said. “Don’t forget the whole mutant powers bit.”

“That’s what I was talking about,” Toni said. “OH! You meant the whole ‘turning into a girl’ bit.” She waved a hand in the air. “You know, it’s like, ‘shit happens.’ Deal with it and move on.”

“Easy enough for you to say,” Fey muttered. “Maybe you didn’t have your whole life thrown in the toilet.”

“That’s just not fair!” Jade cried out. “You’re probably the most beautiful girl in the entire state! Some of us would die to look half as pretty as you!” Abruptly she turned and ran out of the room.

Everyone looked at each other in confusion. Finally, from underneath Tennyo’s cudgel, the lion squeaked, “Girls. Who can figure ‘em? Must be hormones or something.”

All four remaining girls took turns whacking the toy this time.

“I deserved that.”

*****

Back in her room, Jade wrapped herself around her pillow and cried. What if you have to change when you first get your power? she thought. After all, that’s almost what happened to her. One instant, she’s a guy with confused and suppressed feelings. The next minute, POW, she’s standing there in her spirit-form. What if that was her transformation? What if there was never any more? Only… she couldn’t really believe that her inner spirit, or soul, or whatever had changed in that moment. She’d always been a girl inside; she just hadn’t realized it.

But what if that had been her only chance?

No! She refused to believe that. If all of those beautiful girls had once been guys, there had to be a way that she could do it, too! There had to be!

Now if she could just make up for the fact that she’d made a total fool of herself.

She yawned, realizing how late it was. It was probably past time for bed. Which meant, past time to change into her nightgown.

That thought brought a sudden chill. She knew the other girls were well along in their transitions. While she was not so far along yet (to put it mildly). What if Tennyo spotted her, while she was changing? What would the real girl say? Tennyo even had periods! What would she think? Better to change now, when there was no one in the room.

She quickly changed panties, making sure to carefully tuck herself back. She didn’t have that many clothes, so she decided to user her bottom drawer for dirty clothes. Then, in panties and nightgown, she was ready to head back. She felt a little exposed and didn’t have a robe, so she pulled the blanket off her bed and wrapped it around herself.

*****

She knocked on the sill of the open door. “Hi.” The other girls stopped talking as they noticed her. “I’m — I’m sorry I freaked out like that.”

In the room, it seemed like Tennyo was the focus of attention. The blue-haired girl was upside down, standing on the ceiling. Even so, her hair still fell in its own preferred direction, as if gravity were of no consequence.

Fey looked up at the returning member. “Hi,” she said. “Come on in.”

Jade smiled at Tennyo. Standing on the ceiling was a cool trick the first few times she’d seen it. Of course, she did it often enough herself.

With an odd catch in her voice, Fey asked, “You aren’t really jealous of someone like m-us, are you?”

Jade looked up at her. Looking into those violet, almost-alien eyes she said, “You are so beautiful. I’d give almost anything to be like you.”

The other girls seemed suddenly uncomfortable with the naked need in her voice.

“Well… hey!” Tennyo said. “I was just telling the girls some of the things I do. Didn’t want to show off any energy blasts, of course. That lady did warn us not to destroy anything. I think we were about to hear from Fey, right?”

“Yeah,” Ayla agreed. “We got part of it on the tour — psychedelic squirrels, turning into a girl, forced to buy cool clothes. And which of us can’t get behind that last part? But you never really told us how it works.”

“I told you about getting power from ley lines, right?”

Jade shook her head. “I didn’t quite understand that part.”

“The spirit of the world, all the life in it, all the material of it, are all bound together and interrelated. The combined energies of that collection are conducted along lines of mystic force called ‘ley lines.’”

There was silence for a moment before Tennyo said, “Kid, I’ve been from one side of this country to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange things. But I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.”

Fey just stuck her tongue out at the upside-down girl.

Toni added, “Yeah, remember Fey, hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side.”

Fey massaged her temple. “Excuse me! I was trying to have an origin here!”

Toni held up her hands. “Sorry! Please continue.”

“No, no, you’ve ruined the mood. I’ll just cut to the chase.” She turned her hands upward and shrugged. “I don’t really understand it. That’s why I’m here. Mostly, I just grab a bunch of energy and weave it together. I don’t really know what I might eventually be able to do, and I’m sure not going to chance an outbreak of weirdness tonight.” She glared at the stuffed lion. “Pardon me. ANOTHER outbreak.”

“Weird is as weird does,” the lion squeaked, getting whacked for her troubles.

Jade yawned. How late was it? “Anyone mind if I lie down for a while?”

“Knock yourself out, kid.” Ayla snickered at the joke.

“Can I have the troublemaker back?” she reached for the toy lion.

Fey handed it over, then said, “Wait a minute. You said you were the same person. That means you’re BOTH troublemakers!”

Jade and the lion looked at one another. “No, we’re completely different!” they said in unison.

Everyone glared at Jade. Sheepishly she offered up the lion. “Uh, more scapegoat, anyone?”

Toni laughed. “Get to bed. There’s plenty of couches in here.” But as Jade pulled off the blanket to shake it loose, Toni stared in alarm.

Jade paused. All three girls were staring at her. Had they spotted… something? Was she showing, somehow? Suddenly terrified, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

Tennyo gasped it out first. “…Hello Kitty?” She said it with a tone of horror.

“Hey, beggars can’t be choosers, you know? Besides, I always thought Hello Kitty was cute.”

Fey shook her head. “You really are Japanese, aren’t you?”

Toni shot a sideways glance at Fey. “We can’t all be fashion goddesses.” She tried, unsuccessfully, to keep from peeking back at the horrid emblem on Jade’s nightshirt.

Jade felt the wash of memories as Jinn came back into her. She wished she could lay down in mid-air like Tennyo. Then, realizing that she could, she shook out the blanket, pushed the speaker disk onto the corner, and charged them both. Then she hugged the (now normal) stuffed animal, as the blanket flattened itself out in mid-air, about three feet off the ground. It slowly flowed up to Jade and up her side. She let herself fall over into the soft embrace. Once she was resting horizontally, the blanket folded itself over her. One part lifted up under her head like a pillow, while the other end folded over her feet. Then it floated up to just over head height, where she could participate in the conversation without being in the way.

“Flying carpets, too,” Fey said in admiration. “Versatile power. And I thought I was the one who could do magic.”

“I’m not all that strong,” Jinn’s voice said from the foot corner of the blanket. “Last time I tested, I could only lift about 180 pounds, but since I don’t get tired I can hold that entire weight until I fade.”

“There’s one part I still don’t get,” Toni said, staring at the floating blanket. “Which one are you? I mean, which of you is you?”

“Both” the blanket said. A second later, the drowsy girl echoed, “both.”

“When I’m like this,” the blanket continued, “I’m separate. There’s two of me — one in my body, and one in the object. The whatever-it-is that we’ve charged up. We’re like separate people. I mean, we don’t have telepathy or anything like that, we’re really separate. A minute ago we were the same, but now we’re in two places, get it? And when I fade, we’ll all of a sudden remember both of ‘us’. I mean, the only one of me then is the me-in-my-body, and then I remember both. Does that make sense?”

Fey looked puzzled, but she nodded. “No weirder than magic, I guess.” She snorted. “You know, together I’ll bet we could put on a hell of a magic show.”

“Yeah,” Tennyo broke in, “I could be the levitating lady.”

“That’s nothing,” the blanket said. “I can be the lady that you saw in half. Literally.”

Toni fingered one edge of the blanket, which slapped back at her fingers. “Uh, no offense, but you kind of have to be a ‘lady’ first. No one’s impressed with the ‘saw the blanket in half’ trick.”

“Oh, yeah,” the blanket said. “I guess I haven’t shown you that part yet. Well remember the jacket-and-gloves, from when we talked by the statue? If I put on a bodysuit, gloves, hood, wig, and a really good rubber facemask, I look good enough to pass as a real person. It feels kind of like I’m actually wearing the clothes, and if you grabbed my arm it would feel like there was a person inside. Well, for pressure and shape. I don’t give off any warmth. Blankets and stuffed animals are okay, but I really do prefer to be in girl-shape. I go around that way whenever I can. Then I can be Jinn for real. No one’s really spotted anything unusual.”

Toni leaned forward. “Really? Could you show us?”

“Maybe tomorrow,” the blanket said. “Only Jade can charge me into something, and she’s just fallen asleep.”

As if in response to this, soft snores could now be heard from the other end of the blanket.

“You call yourself Djin?” Fey repeated. “Makes sense.” She’d begun researching magic ever since she came into her powers.

“Oh, what time is it?” the blanket asked. “I forgot to look when I charged up. I only last for about sixty minutes.”

Tennyo looked at her watch. “Seven forty-five.”

“Ouch. We still haven’t finished unpacking, Fey.”

“Yeah. It’s not so bad for me, though. I woke up in a later time zone.”

“Still, it was a big day.”

Tennyo reluctantly agreed. “I guess we’d better take off.” She looked at the blanket. “C’mon, cabbit.”

“I’m not a cabbit now,” the blanket protested. “Besides, you don’t have any carrots. Why should I follow you?”

“‘Cause I’ll lock the door if you don’t. You might be able to slip underneath, but sleeping beauty there won’t be so lucky.”

The two of them drifted in mid-air down the hallway.

“Waaa! My evil roommate is threatening me!”

“Shut up, you! Laundry gets no special rights in this dorm!”

As they disappeared into their own room, Toni gave Fey a sideways glance.

“Enough to make you feel almost normal, isn’t it?”

The fox-faced girl gave a wan smile in return. “For a while. For a while.”

*****

Morning presented Jade with a disturbing problem. She’d have to shower in the girls’ restroom. And although the showers themselves were individual and screened off, there was only a single shared changing room. So how was she supposed to get in and out of the shower without “showing”?

She’d just returned from going to the bathroom. At least the stalls had doors, thank goodness. That still left her somewhat terrified. But it was one of the things she’d have to get over. If she couldn’t stand to use the bathroom here, among other transgendered girls and (presumably) supportive gay friends in Poe, how was she going to cope on campus?

But, of course, that was the problem. She wasn’t transgendered. Not yet. She was just a stupid boy, with a hope and a desperate need.

No! She was GOING to do this. She COULD do it. She wasn’t going to let anything stop her from becoming a girl. If she had to do this, then by God, she’d figure out how to do it right. Let’s see…

First off, she needed her training bra. Or rather, as a boy, she didn’t need it at all. Which was precisely why she did need it — to cover up what she didn’t have. Even more, she needed her panties, to cover up what she did have but didn’t want.

It was lucky that Tennyo had just gone off to the shower. Jade stood and looked at herself, wearing only bra-and-panties, in the mirror on the back of their door.

“Not too bad,” Jinn said beside her. Jinn was currently gloves-and-speaker.

“What do you know?” Jade berated her. “You can’t even see right.”

“I know I can see a small bulge at the bottom of our panties,” the gloves said.

“Yeah,” Jade agreed. “How am I supposed to keep myself tucked in, without walking like a dweeb?”

“Maybe the towel will hide everything,” the gloves suggested.

Jade had retrieved an oversized white towel while she was in the bathroom. She wrapped it around herself, then looked in the mirror.

“Hmmm. The bra straps have to go,” she decided.

“Don’t worry. The towel covers everything.”

They obviously both got the same idea at the same time. If they could trust the towel to stay on, and strategically positioned…

“The towel!” Jinn, in the gloves, said.

But Jade had already had an even better idea. She held out one finger, dangling a pair of small cotton underpants. “The problem isn’t the towel,” she said, “it’s the tuck. So if you —”

“Oh, no!” the gloves said, held up in protest. “No way! You aren’t putting me into a pair of panties again!”

——-

Well, it could be worse, she grumbled to herself. There were all sorts of objects that would be worse to inhabit. And the idea had worked. As a set of panties with a mind of their own, levitation capabilities, and enough strength to lift the girl off the ground, she was able to perform a very good tuck, indeed. Last time she’d done this had been a few embarrassing seconds with Miss Baker. This time, she was actually able to use her TK. Jade had looked into the mirror and announced that she looked just about perfect. In fact, there’d been a touch of wonder in her other self’s voice.

And the way Jade kept running a hand down the smooth front of her panties… it was easily as good as being petted when she was a stuffed animal. Quite pleasant, in fact. She spent a moment wondering how it was that stroking could feel nice, when she had no erogenous zones in girl-shape. After a moment, she decided that it wasn’t quite the same thing. The pets and stroking weren’t really directly pleasurable, but they were nice. It was mostly psychological. Attention, stimulus, a caring touch. It didn’t need to feel sensual in order to be appreciated.

The only problems was that, while she could keep her contours perfect in front, if someone were to look up her skirt (so to speak) they would see the panties clearly wrapped around something that shouldn’t be there. So maybe next time, she’d add a minipad to the crotch. That way, she could hold things in place while still giving a proper appearance from outside.

Jinn figuratively slapped herself. She was getting way too carried away with this.

*****

Jade was beaming, as she boldly walked down the hallway, clad only in towel-and-panties. The image in the mirror had been perfect, absolutely perfect! She couldn’t help but touch herself, stroking the beautiful flat contours of the panties. This is what she’d dreamed of looking like!

Well, she’d dreamed of a little more up top, and maybe a figure. And a face that was a bit cuter, and a lot of things. But she felt like she was making real progress here!

The towel was wrapped just below her armpits (as if she had an actual chest to conceal) and hung down to nearly her knees. But even if it fell away, she’d still look perfectly realistic!

She entered the girls’ bathroom, turned right past the stalls and sinks, and stepped into the common changing area. Tennyo was still toweling off after her shower. Jade could feel her face turning bright red. She used to be a guy? Before she’d forced her eyes to look away, she’d seen enough to know that Tennyo had naturally blue hair, and that there wasn’t the slightest trace of anything male remaining.

There were two other freshmen getting ready. The first was a redhead (although it was hard to think of anyone else as a true redhead after seeing Fey’s flame-red locks). The second was a blonde, about six-foot-one. She had the body of a weightlifter, but managed to look feminine at the same time. Small breasts, sculpted pecs, and she shaved everywhere. Jade deliberately didn’t look.

She was extra careful in the shower. She climbed in and closed the curtain, before carefully reaching through to hang her panties and towel outside.

*****

Back in their room, Jade held her towel in place and tried to figure out what to wear.

Tennyo was wearing tennis shoes, very tight jeans, and a tank top.

Jade wasn’t going to say anything, but she couldn’t keep her mouth shut. “No bra?”

Tennyo looked down. “Why hide perfection?” She grinned. “Seriously, I don’t have a bra that works with this tank top.”

“Go ahead,” Jade said, with her head stuck into her wardrobe, “make me even more jealous.”

“Well it’s not like I asked for this. It was all my stupid brother’s fault. I still feel like strangling him.”

She finished pulling on a yellow sweatshirt and pleated gray skirt. As soon as the skirt was in place, she felt Jinn returning to her head.

The rush of memories was briefly disorienting. Being a pair of panties had certainly been different. And (as she’d spent much of the morning considering) if only it weren’t so intimate, it would have excellent prank potential. Of course, she also thought she could give new meaning to the ancient phrase “living bra.”

Shaking her head at the truly astounding new ideas that had suddenly come to her, she realized that she’d been in the middle of something.

“Hey do you mind —”

There was a knock on the door. Tennyo opened it to see Fey, Toni, and Ayla, dressed and looking ready to go out. “Interested in breakfast?” they asked.

“Ravenous,” Tennyo answered, immediately.

Jade looked up from her packet on the bed. “I was about to ask if anyone minded if I brought Jinn along, too?”

Toni said, “Actually, we were hoping to meet her.”

Jade nodded. “That’s right. I promised you last night.”

“You need to invent some new pronouns,” Ayla grumbled.

Jade reached over to charge the bundle of clothes. In what had by now become rather routine to her, the clothes lifted up into the air, coming into proper position and then suddenly snapping into an “inflated” appearance, as Jinn filled them.

“Sorry,” the other girl said, rubbing her hands against the mask. “Let me just get my face on.”

“You know,” Fey said, “back in the olden days that meant something very different.”

*****

The walk to campus seemed shorter in the bright morning light. Around them, the trees were still green, although one or two were showing the first signs of yellow. There were occasional leaves on the ground, but the brick walkway was kept scrupulously clean.

As Belle had predicted the night before, there was plenty of activity from Melville Cottage, as parents and students worked on moving in.

The girls crested O. Henry Hill and saw the campus spread out below them. Near the center was their destination — Schuster Hall. In an amazing marriage of styles, the ancient concert hall that had once occupied the south end had been replaced with a sparkling glass geodesic dome. That dome (or “Crystal Hall” as it was sometimes called) was the school’s cafeteria and central hangout spot.

“What do you want to do after breakfast?” Toni asked.

Tennyo looked back over her shoulder. “Why, you interested in trying a little sparring?” She was carefully walking on the ground, not displaying any unusual abilities.

“Well, since you bring it up —”

Fey broke in. “How about uniforms? Has anyone bought their school uniform yet?”

Four puzzled looks greeted her question.

“Didn’t any of you read the introductory packet?”

“Well, of course,” Jade said. “But there’s plenty of time —”

“Nope. Best selection and fit is always available on the first day. And remember, they may not be required, but they are highly recommended for official functions and all special events. To me, that sounds like, ‘You’d better have a uniform!’”

“Well,” Tennyo admitted, “I am pretty short on clothes.”

*****

“I just realized,” Tennyo said, unlocking their door, “if you’d been smart you two could have been roommates. Then you wouldn’t have to share a room.”

Jade and Jinn answered in accidental unison. “But we want to share a room with you.”

“Huh. Psychic twins. Figures.” She spotted something on the floor. “What’s this?”

An envelope had been slid under the door. The only notation on the outside was a hastily scrawled name that looked like “T-eyor.”

“Do you suppose they meant to write ‘Tennyo’?” Jinn asked.

The blue-haired girl shrugged. “Beats me. Let’s see what it says.”

She ripped open the envelope, then scanned the message. Her large eyes were expressive as she displayed shock, then fear, then an almost wry disbelief.

“Well, what do you know. Only our first day here, and already we’re getting death threats. Only, not from very competent foes.” She handed the letter over, so that Jade and Jinn could both read it:

Missing your family much?

Don’t worry. However far they may be from your heart and mind, rest assured that they aren’t far out of our sights. Particularly that so-called sister of yours. Play things right and we give both you and her a wide berth, and never talk to you again. Play things wrong and the very least that will happen is that those innocent young girls you’re living with will find out that their sorority sister used to look a lot different.

We’re looking for someone else, not related to you. All you have to do is get the name and home address of every girl living in Poe Hall. It should be easy. Right now, everyone’s moving in. They all have addresses on their luggage.

Write the information down, fold the paper up, and leave it under the bust of Edgar Allen Poe in the entryway to your cottage. Tomorrow night, before 7 PM. No tricks. Complete this successfully and we will never again bother you or yours.

Don’t play games with us, Trevor. We mean business.

Jinn frowned. “But Trevor is Ayla’s old name, so this note was meant for Ayla. Why’d they send it to us?”

Tennyo slapped her head. “I forgot! We didn’t change our room assignments with Belle after we exchanged with Ayla. Whoever sent the note must be using the old information.”

That didn’t make any sense to Jade. “But we already know about Ayla. Do they really think this is a threat?”

Tennyo mused aloud. “If we were the innocent girls the blackmailers think we are, it might hurt Ayla if we were turned against her.” She seemed troubled. “I think we’re going to have to warn Ayla and get some help. But how?”

Jinn immediately headed for the door. “Let’s go find her!”

“Hold on!” Jade ordered. “We’ve got some crook watching for anything out of the ordinary, maybe getting ready to do something drastic. Parents on every floor. I think you look pretty good, but can we take a chance? Particularly if you start spying on people?”

Tennyo nodded. “Good point. The mask isn’t bad, but those eyes… Anyway, I know where we can find more manpower. Or rather, girl power.”

Jade got that immediately and nodded. “Of course! Duh!”

Jinn looked resigned. “What about me? Lookout?”

Jade nodded. She took a small piece of paper from her desk and quickly folded it into a tiny paper airplane — almost a dart — while Jinn folded herself up and packed herself away. As Jinn removed her face, Tennyo said, “Ugh. That’s just creepy. So how are you going to do lookout work?”

Feeling Jinn’s return, Jade turned to see the gloves drop, then took them and tucked them into her purse. She shook her head, as if that would help settle the memories, and immediately charged Jinn into the small paper dart. With a toss, the plane glided in a perfect circle around the room, almost as if guided. “See?” she explained to Tennyo. “Paper airplane. Perfectly innocent to unsuspecting parents.”

“Nice throw. What’s her job?”

“She lodges somewhere near the ceiling and watches. If she sees anything, she comes back to me immediately.”

“Cool! She can keep an eye out for us while we get the others together and decide what we can do about this. Why don’t you go and get Ayla? Bring her over to Toni’s and Fey’s room. I’ll meet you there and we can pool our resources.”

*****

“Who’s ‘Tievor’?” Fey asked.

“I think it’s supposed to say ‘Treyon’,” Toni offered.

Tennyo and Jade were looking at Ayla, who began to shake in rage as she read the note.

Jade whispered quietly, “It’s just bad handwriting, and it was supposed to say, ‘Trevor.’”

“Trevor Goodkind,” Ayla confirmed, hooking a thumb back at herself. “And someone is going to pay for this!”

8: Highs and Lows
Whateley Academy September 4, Monday

Jade studied the ‘introductory packet’ again. It was better than listening to Ayla rant. That girl could go on and on about how she’d been a target her entire life, and how tired she was of it. Now, as a mutant, she’d find she was a different kind of target. But it was up to Ayla how she wanted to handle the blackmail note, and whatever the skinny girl decided, the rest of them wouldn’t get in on the action until Wednesday night.

So Jade went back to her room, stretched out on her bed, and studied the packet. Details on receiving visitors, visiting the near-by town, restrictions on handling the campus newspaper, when costumes were permissible, open display of powers. She studied this last part again. It seemed like just a repeat of the whole flag discussion, but she finally came across a worthwhile nugget:

“No restriction is imposed on powers which will not be noticed by ordinary visitors. Consult with your councilor for additional details.”

That sounded promising. Her appointment was for tomorrow morning; she decided to take Jinn with her.

*****

That night featured the first “Poe Party” presided over by Mrs. Horton, Poe’s “house mother.” They had video games and ping pong downstairs, as well as punch and dancing. Of course, being Poe, most of the dances were girl-girl and guy-guy. Despite that, Jade was still surprised when an older girl asked her to dance.

“I’m not sure I’m very good,” she admitted, biting her lip.

“Then you’ll have to let me teach you!”

The pretty brunette looked about sixteen, and was at least three inches taller than her. The music launched into a fast-paced romp. It was interesting to have the other girl holding her and leading her around, giving her tips on how to move her hips and arms. And although the dancing was fun, Jade found she couldn’t stop looking at her dance partner. She couldn’t stop thinking about how lucky the other girl was to be a real girl. The jealousy was like a razor-sharp stab in her heart. It’s so unfair!

So after three different dances and an ever-increasing depression, she decided to skip out of the dance and headed for the discussion rooms. The sunroom lounges on each floor had been made over into theme discussion rooms. On the second floor, almost right next to her room, the discussion was “Welcome to Whateley.” Which was interesting, but she decided to check out the other discussions first. Next floor up the topic was “being a sexual minority.” Finally, up on the senior floor, everyone was talking about graduation, careers, and the legacy (whatever that was). There was far too much to keep track of, so Jade pulled out the body suit and had Jinn circulate as a real person.

And, as usual, Jade fell asleep long before Jinn, giving one last charge before flopping down on her bed, a pillow over her head to keep out the noise.

*****

Jinn had planned to sit in on the discussions, but found herself gravitating back to the dance floor. She had no weight and no mass — could she dance convincingly? She’d found the trick to be “thinking herself heavy.” She had to draw on her experience in a physical body, and move the way she expected to move. It was all simulated, but it gave a reasonably good impression of a girl subject to gravity and inertia — even if those effects were entirely simulated through TK.

She met the pretty brunette again (who, of course, didn’t recognize her behind the Madonna mask and brunette wig). This time she had a lot more fun. As Jinn, she WAS a girl. There was no question about it. So she felt none of the jealousy or longing that she’d felt in her physical body. On the other hand, there were many other emotional issues — desire, lust, need, fear — that weren’t much of an issue for Jinn. Then again, the whole lust thing was still more of an intellectual curiosity to both of them. She assumed there’d be more developing with that, once she went through puberty.

After a particularly fast dance, the brunette (her name was Tammy) came back with some punch for Jade.

“Wow! I can’t believe you haven’t even broken a sweat!”

Jinn looked down at the glass of punch in her hand. What am I supposed to do with this? “Yeah, well, I’m afraid I’m going to have to pack it up for the night.” She checked her watch. “I only have another five minutes before I evaporate.”

Tammy laughed. “Pretty funny. Honestly — you can sleep in tomorrow. Classes don’t start until Thursday.”

“No, you don’t understand. I really will evaporate.”

“Yeah, right. What’s your power, gaseous form or something?”

Jinn frowned. “Well, promise you won’t freak on me?” She grabbed her left glove and pulled it out of position, to display her empty sleeve.

“Ohmygawd! You’re her! The stuffed animal girl that Quickie was talking about!”

“Quickie?”

“Oh, sorry. Juanita Havier. She was telling us about you.” Something else connected for the brunette. “Oh, and that means you must be the cute little Asian girl I was dancing with before.”

“Well, yeah.”

“Hey, you were getting kind of depressed earlier. Glad you came back.”

Jinn glanced at her watch, frowning. “Jeez, I really want to keep talking to you, but in three minutes I turn into a pile of clothes.”

Tammy giggled. “Only at Whateley! Hey, there’s another party tomorrow night, too. Maybe we can finish then.”

Jinn nodded, heading upstairs to pack her clothes away.

*****

Next morning, Tennyo seemed to be in a fairly good mood. When she left to take her shower, Jade quickly charged up Jinn (in full body suit) to run down and get a glass of orange juice from the fridge on the first floor. She took the opportunity to make Tennyo’s bed and clean up the other girl’s extra laundry. She cleaned up the rest of the room, and laid out all her own clothes for the shower.

Jinn returned, and Jade quickly re-absorbed her, then put Jinn back into her panties for the perilous walk to the showers. She knew it would be more crowded today, and even worse tomorrow, so it was a good thing she was getting her techniques down ahead of time. This time she’d remembered to use a panty liner. It would probably be best to buy a box of them. The thought gave her a happy smile. It was an activity that was just so darned feminine. It still felt a bit odd to sit when she was all tucked up, but anything was better than being a boy.

So she stood there, towel wrapped around her slim frame and panties squirming her into the perfect tuck, waiting for Tennyo to come back.

She picked up the orange juice and held it for her roommate. It was strange. Lately, her mannerisms had been growing to echo those of her mother more and more. And her mother had been a first generation Japanese immigrant. Jade was certainly not. She was pure middle American in culture, but for some reason, it just felt right to behave the way her mother had: feminine, deferential, and demure. She didn’t act like this when she was Jinn, but then, Jinn didn’t have anything to prove.

Jade knew that she was desperate for anything that could make her more feminine. Emulating her mother was just one small way to do that. It made her wonder — once she achieved her dream, once she became a girl for real, would she still act so insecure? She really wanted to know.

Eventually, the door popped open and Tennyo came striding in, her hair already dry.

“Hey, Jade, what’s up?”

Jade waited for Tennyo to close the door, then bowed and offered the other girl the glass of orange juice. “Good morning. I hope you showered well. Would you care for some juice this morning?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess.” Tennyo started to dress, tossing her towel casually onto the bed. She stood there in naked glory, looking curiously at the glass that had just been handed to her. “Uh, what’s up?”

Jade bowed again. “Tennyo-san…” She had to force herself not to say “sama”, but that would probably be insulting under the circumstances. “Your accident… you said it was a million-to-one chance. Please, I don’t mean to bother you with this, but when you became…” she gestured at Tennyo’s currently-naked body “…as you are, when you became a girl, was it because of the drug, or because of your powers?”

“Oh, that.” The blue-haired girl took a chug of juice and set the glass down on her desk. “My accident, huh?” She started rooting through her dresser looking for clothes. With an odd look of skepticism she pulled out a bra. “I suppose I should wear one, even if I don’t really need it,” she muttered to herself. Then she used one of those unconsciously sexy moves that genuine girls performed so easily. She slipped the bra on, automatically arching her back to thrust her chest out, as she limberly fastened the hooks behind her back.

“Well, I can tell you it sure wasn’t the drug. That stuff was pure poison. I’m convinced that any other mutant that tried the stuff would end up dead, and it sure never changed anyone like this before.” She was sorting through panties now. “I think I’d have to chalk it up to my mimic powers, or rather, the mimic powers I used to have before they burned out. That, and the fact that I was apparently a hermaphrodite. Or a semi-hermaphrodite, or whatever. Nothing that really sounds too useful to anyone else. Sorry.” She was now pulling her panties into place, making sure they were tight and snug. “Hope it’s not too disappointing.”

“No. Thank you for your time, Tennyo-san.” Jade bowed again, then left for her shower.

As she left, she heard Tennyo saying, “Did you make my bed? You didn’t have to do that.”

Jade sighed.

After hearing Tennyo’s story, she’d pretty much expected this. But she was going to trace down every single possibility. Somehow, some way, she would achieve her dream.

*****

Her councilor was a middle-aged woman named Terri Larson. Jade had stayed behind, outside the door. Jinn went in for the interview instead. Terri rose to greet her, and Jinn briefly took Ms. Larson’s hand.

“Always nice to meet the entering freshmen,” Ms. Larson said. “You should be aware that, like any other high school student, you’ll need to load up on the required classes for your first few years here. I know that some of the electives must look awfully tempting, but we need to get those requirements out of the way. So, let’s get to first things first. Perhaps you can tell me why you’re wearing that costume, why you look like that, and why you aren’t the Japanese girl that your file told me to expect?”

Jinn gave a sheepish smile. “Busted. I was hoping to convince you to let me take double classes.”

Ms. Larson’s eyebrows rose. “Most of the students want to take less classes, not more.”

Jinn nodded. “Let me bring in my other half, first.” After receiving a nod of approval, she rose and opened the door. “Come on in. We’re busted.”

Jade came in, looking insecure as always. It sometimes bugged Jinn how deferential and meek she looked in her real body.

“I’m sorry,” Jade said miserably. “I just wanted to convince you that I could pass without too much notice, even on ‘red’ days.”

“I’m not sure I understand. Are you two related?” She peered at Jade’s charts. “Your chart says something about manifesting a second astral body, but I shook hands with you.”

Jinn said, “Perhaps a demonstration would be in order.” With that, she released her hold on her current body and ceased to exist.

*****

Jade explained as she gathered up the clothes. “…so it’s only when we re-join that I pick up my memories as Jinn. Well, as that time of Jinn. The two of us are usually only an hour out of sync.” She considered. “Well, no, I’ve gone longer, if I keep recharging her.”

“So only Jinn can use your TK, and only to move herself.” Jade nodded. “But if you attend classes separately, won’t she become the expert on English, while you become the expert on math?”

Jade shook her head. “No, there’s really just me. When I join up again, everything comes together. Then when I split off Jinn, we both have our combined memories up to that point. This just lets me be in two places at once.”

Her councilor looked upward. “I never get the easy ones. Never a simple flyer or super-strong hunk.” With a sigh, she returned to the chart in front of her. “Okay, I’ll have to think about this. Just to help my thinking, can you bring her back — this other self?”

Jade charged the clothes again. It was moderately amusing to watch her Ms. Larson’s expressions as the clothes inflated, and as Jinn ‘put on her face.’

“No way, no how, are you ever going to display that on even an amber day. I don’t know.” She looked between the two of them. “But let’s see what you were planning to take, on this double schedule.”

*****

“No, you’re still too heavy on electives. ‘Flying 1’ is usually a sophomore class. And do you really need it?”

Jinn lifted into the air. “I do fly, sort of. The description said the class would help on all aspects — speed, maneuverability, fine control. I need the fine control, because I’m really flying even when I just walk.”

“Well, I don’t think it will fit in for your first semester. But you definitely need to take ‘Costume shop 1’.”

Jinn nodded. “To help on my disguise?”

“Exactly. Now, Intro to Superpowers has both a theory and a practical. Or Powers Theory and Powers Lab, as we tend to call them. They’re electives, but if you can pull double classes, I think you should take both. But we can’t forget the basics. Even if this double-class idea fails, I want you in for Beginning English, Algebra I, one of the sciences, Civics, and a PE.” She smiled. “Apparently, at normal schools they have problems getting kids into PE.”

“I don’t think normal schools give martial arts as a PE option,” Jade suggested.

“True. I’d also like you to take a language as one of your main line — the classes you’ll keep, even if the double-booking fails.”

Jade had already looked over the list. “You don’t have Japanese?”

“We’re a pretty small school. But we do have Chinese, you’ll notice.”

“Not exactly the same thing,” she grumbled. “If I take Chinese, everyone is going to think I’m Chinese.”

“Surely there’s some overlap? There is with the romance languages.”

“Not quite the same thing,” Jinn said, nearly repeating Jade’s line. “Still… it’s better than nothing.”

“Okay,” Jade agreed. “So on the main line, I have Beginning English, Algebra I, Bio, an hour for lunch, Civics, Chinese, and I end with Martial Arts.”

Ms. Larson nodded. “A good freshman line-up.”

“And on the second track,” Jinn added, “I’ll be taking Costume I, Powers Theory I, and Powers Lab I in the afternoon. Which leaves me with three open slots.”

The counselor nodded. “May I recommend Physics? A lot of TK types find it useful, and it would help satisfy your fundamentals.”

“Okay.” Jinn penciled it in on her schedule. “And I’ll want to take Martial Arts again for my last class.”

“Aren’t you taking that already in your primary line-up?”

“Different body,” Jinn explained. “Different rules. I really need to be completely retrained.”

“For your last class, may I suggest ‘word processing.’ Even if you’ve done some computer work, most students get a lot out of the class. These are tools that you’ll use for a long time to come.”

Jinn sighed. Or rather, she emitted the sound of someone sighing. “It sounds great, but I can’t see a computer screen. If it was a straight typing class…”

“Can’t see the screen?”

Jinn nodded. “I see matter density or something like that. Material types. Not light. So I can’t even tell if a computer screen is turned on.”

“Hmmm,” Ms. Larson considered. “Well, if Jade took the computer class, and you took Chinese…”

The girls nodded in unison.

“Okay, the biggest trick will be putting everything under the single transcript of ‘Jade Sinclair.’ But we’ve dealt with odder things…” She worked on her computer for a few minutes before finally sounding satisfied.

Jade and Jinn both waited in silence. They weren’t about to disturb her. She’d gone from “I’ll think about it” to “let me set it up” in less than an hour. They weren’t going to jeopardize this.

“Anything else? It’s almost time for my next appointment.”

“Well…” Jade was naturally embarrassed to bring it up.

“Money,” Jinn said, putting it in the open. “I was getting measured for my uniform, and they said I needed to check my student account.”

“Excellent,” the councilor said. “You’d be surprised how many students try to ignore that until they’re in deep trouble.

“Yes, your scholarship requires a part-time job for personal expenses and some supplemental fees. We have a variety connected with the school, or you could commute to the local town of Dunwich. They aren’t bothered by the strange, far from it, but they really prefer that everything look normal. So flying into town isn’t really an option. For now, I’d think that wouldn’t be the best job.”

“What does the school have?” Jinn leaned forward eagerly, until she realized the information was on a computer screen.

“Pretty much the standard for young girls your age is cafeteria work. We also have office assistant. Then there are a wide variety of other jobs, not all that suitable for young girls.” She spun the monitor around.

Jade looked at the list and thought. “I could really use some cash as soon as possible. How soon could I start on this one?”

The councilor looked to make sure. “Give me a moment to call.”

After speaking quietly on the phone, she said, “Would this afternoon be too soon?”

For the first time, Ms. Larson looked disturbed. “Are you sure about this?”

“It sure pays better than cafeteria work.”

*****

She met them at the southwest corner of the library. Both wore overalls, of course. The larger, rounder once stuck out a hand. “Good to meet you! Morrie Goldberg,” he said, smiling. Then he turned to the smaller, thin one. “This is my esteemed associate, Stan Lipscowycz. He’s a Polack, but don’t hold it against him.”

Stan shook his head. “Morrie’s got a mouth on him. Don’t let it throw you. So, you both going to the school?”

Jade and Jinn nodded in unison.

“Well, might as well tell us what your powers are. If it can help on the job, we need to know.”

Jade looked at them both, but it was Jinn who spoke. “You cleared for all this? And how can we show you? It’s a ‘red’ day.”

Stan looked disconcerted. “Right. Not like we’ve got powers or anything, but they still yell at us when we aren’t careful enough.”

Morrie grunted and scratched the stubble under his throat. “Good catch, but I guess you super-whatzit types gotta think about crap like that, don’t you? Okay, follow me. We’ll do it in the maintenance area. That’s off-limits to anyone else.”

He walked around to the side of the Beck Library. A small set of narrow concrete steps led down to a basement-level metal door. Morrie fumbled with his keys, then the door smoothly opened. Jade had expected a creak, based on her estimate of the door’s age.

For a moment, she felt a tinge of fear at following two grown men into a secret locked room. Both of them were larger and stronger than her. She kicked herself, thinking that Mr. Larson knew where she was. There were telepaths on campus. She was sure that she didn’t have to worry about rapist co-workers. Besides, she was going to be working with these men.

Her mind did a double take, as she realized the tenor of her thoughts. She was thinking exactly what a girl would think, and that briefly gave her a happy glow. She noticed Jinn looking at her oddly. Her other side was no doubt wondering about her spike of happiness. Well, Jinn would find out soon enough.

Once Morrie closed the door, he said, “Okay, do your stuff.”

Jinn floated up in the air. “I can fly. I can also see in the dark. In fact, I don’t see regularly at all — I don’t see with light, so I’m no good with colors. Oh, and I don’t have a sense of smell. I guess I’m pretty much invulnerable, and I don’t mind getting incredibly dirty, so long as you supply the clothes.”

Morrie nodded. “Yeah, that’s definitely a plus. I can almost see why you picked this job. And how ‘bout your friend, the little chink girl?”

Jade glared at him. Morrie certainly did have a mouth on him. “I’m not Chinese, I’m Japanese! Big difference. Anyway, I don’t have any powers of my own, except…” She looked at Jinn. “Come back.”

Jinn nodded, then collapsed into an empty pile of clothes.

“That’s why I don’t mind getting dirty when I’m Jinn,” she explained. “No body. I’m just an ‘autonomous telekinetic construct’, but I have to be charged into something real. Clothes, a mop, whatever. I can only use my TK to touch and move that object. But if it’s gloves, I can feel things, pick them up like normal hands. When I’m done, I ‘let go’ of that thing and I’m gone. No dirt, no fuss.”

“Well, that’s not too bad,” Morrie agreed, “but since there’s really only one of you, we’ll only be able to give you single pay.”

Jade clenched her teeth. She hated confrontations like this. Jinn did fine, but Jinn wasn’t here right now. So for the moment, SHE had to be Jinn. Aloud she said, “Well, darn. I guess I’ll have to go then. I really need that double salary. And it’ll be more than fair, since I’ll give you at least double productivity.” She began to walk toward the door. “It’s a real shame, though. The reason I did this was because of a move I came up with, a while back.”

While she was talking, she pulled out a broken-off end of a pocketknife, and charged Jinn into it. “I found this in some trash a couple of weeks ago.” The knife blade lifted into the air. “See, I was thinking of self-defense, but I’m pretty squeamish about hurting people. But I love the old kung fu movies, so I got an idea. What if Jinn could make the knife spin?”

And the floating knife began to spin so fast that it became a blur. A propeller. And it remained hovering in mid-air.

“And I thought — what can I do with this? Kill people? Ugh. Mix cakes? Don’t think so. There are machines that do it better. But I realized that I could travel almost anywhere like this. And I could see in the dark, and maneuver however I wanted to.”

The silvery disk rose up to the bare-bulb fixture, orbited around it twice, then descended to a large piece of plastic pipe, about four inches in diameter. It entered the pipe and flew down the bore, spinning all the while.

“And I suddenly thought about this clogged toilet…”

The light dawned in Stan’s eye. It was like he was looking at the Holy Grail. “My GOD! We’ll never have to fix a clog, ever again!”

Jade held up a hand and the knife zoomed out of the pipe and slapped into her palm. It ceased spinning at the last moment, so that she wouldn’t get cut. Jade tucked the broken blade away in a special envelope in her purse.

“But, I’d need the double salary. Oh well.” She turned back toward the door.

“Not bad, kid,” Morrie said. “But to get double salary, you’re going to have to do like us. Down into the sewer pipes, up in the harness, washing top floor windows. And both of youse definitely earn your keep!”

She stared at him. “Anything YOU can do, I can do!”

Morrie smiled thinly. It wasn’t a cruel or nasty smile; it was more like he really enjoyed the game. “Overalls are over there. Don’t think we’ve got a pair small enough for you, but see what you can find.”

*****

“Okay, let me know if the height is too much for you!” Stan called from below.

Jade hung up on the fourth story, suspended by a rope that connected to a small trolley affair in the eaves. She was wearing a set of straps and harnesses that connected to the rope.

“You’re lucky you’re a girl,” Morrie told her from the next window over. “Us guys kinda get bunched up with the crotch straps.”

Speak for yourself, she thought. While both straps technically wrapped around the top of her thighs, between the harness and her clothes she was feeling an awful lot of pressure in the crotch region. Five minutes ago, she had been uncomfortably reminded of the physical differences between her and a real girl. Now that entire region had mostly gone numb. That didn’t seem like a good sign.

“Do I really have to bother with the ropes?” Jinn asked, from her other side.

“Stupid!” Morrie hollered. “You know what color it is today! What are people going to think, if they see you doin’ whatever you want?”

“Yeah, yeah. No need to get nasty about it.”

“Maybe you got a problem with my mouth?”

“No, forget it.”

Jade didn’t join any of the banter. It would definitely take her a while to get used to Morrie. She’d spotted him trying to hold himself back from some particularly vile comment, once or twice. She figured he was trying to act nice on her behalf. She wondered what he’d be like when he really got going. But so far, his language seemed to be more of a game than something that really upset him.

“Okay, both of youse,” he hollered. “Watch the technique.” Morrie kicked his legs up against the sill. “First, you get out of the way of drips. Then you take your bucket — that’s why we’ve got one, and you take the brush. You’ll notice that it’s on a lanyard. Believe me, you’ll need it. Now, you examines the target. See that big spot of bird crap? Fuggin’ pigeons all got perpetual diarrhea or somethin’.”

Morrie proceeded to instruct them in the finer points of window washing. Jinn picked it up immediately, but Jade wasn’t quite so fast. It wasn’t that she was scared, exactly, but hanging from a rope four stories up had a real way of riveting your attention. It seemed even worse, being so close to a building. Hanging in mid-air, or being on a bridge wouldn’t have felt so high, somehow. But here, just on the wrong side of the window, it was impossible not to look down, not to see the three stories that plunged straight down, right between her feet. And she didn’t have the knack with the ropes yet, or much real confidence in them. Still, she forced herself to pick up the heavy brush, reach down into that heavy bucket of cleaning solution, and slop-wipe around the window. She tried not to notice the drops, as they plunged to the ground, so far below. She tried not to notice how each movement made her tip and sway. She just did her best to work the squeegee, and clean the windows completely.

By the time she was done, Morrie was four windows away and Jinn was two.

It was going to be a long day.

*****

Her legs were shaking so badly she could barely stand.

“Not bad, kid.” Morrie clapped her on the shoulder. Behind him, Stan was grinning. “You passed the height test. Pretty good for your first day. Don’t worry. Nothing too high, tomorrow.” Morrie paused, as if to savor the anticipation. “Naw. And later this week we’ll go down under.”

“Don’t forget your nose clip!” Stan said, waving cheerily.

Jade gulped, wondering if they were joking.

*****

The crew were their usual excited selves that evening, looking forward to the party, talking about school or clothes or town, or (in one case) muttering darkly about blackmailers. Jade wasn’t up for it. What she really wanted was an hour-long bath, but the cottages didn’t have any bathtubs. Perhaps that was one of the grand luxuries up in the penthouse.

Not that it mattered. With her little problem, she wasn’t about to take a bath in the middle of a girls’ dorm. Instead, she took a quick evening shower and staggered downstairs to watch the party. She’d turn in early, but she was still getting used to the cottage and she wanted to get a feel for people she’d be living with. And there were more of them tonight, since people were still moving in.

She paused long enough to charge Jinn into her normal bodysuit before they headed downstairs together.

*****

Jinn, on the other hand, felt fine. Physical fatigue? What was that? Likewise, she never seemed to get sleepy. She wondered if she even could sleep in this form.

Hearing the pounding of music from the floor below, she headed down the stairs, hips swinging to the beat. Music and dancing didn’t have quite the visceral impact in this form, but there were compensations. She could dance forever without getting the least bit tired. Whenever she wanted, she was very light on her feet. Lastly, to her spirit-vision, the people of the dance floor were a riotous rainbow of color, golds and bright greens mixing with the more subdued white and sky blue.

There was more variety tonight. She saw Angel on the dance floor, her wings unfurled for the only time Jinn had ever seen in public, dancing with a tall curly-haired girl. And Juanita was almost as easy to spot. She was (oddly enough) dancing with a guy, but he was a speedster, too, and they were doing something that looked more like aerobics for hyped-out bumblebees than normal dancing. Everywhere the air sparkled with the ultra-violet glow of mutant energies, and there were even people flying, which allowed them to pack even more people into the cramped space of the common room.

There was more room to the sides — the kitchen and dining room had smaller groups trying for conversation amidst the rumble from the common room. The library, as always, was only sparsely populated.

There didn’t seem to be any prohibition against it, so Jinn lifted into the air. She spotted a busty blonde in a blue leotard and white cape, sitting cross-legged in mid-air. Jinn floated over next to her.

“Hi! I’m Jinn,” she opened. “And you’re ‘Megs’, right? I think we met on Sunday.” It was hard not to stare at the other girl. Her leotard was legless, and sitting cross-legged as she was, the girl was not entirely modest. There was nothing inappropriate or vulgar, but Jinn was more than aware of the other girl’s femininity and lush contours. She eyed Marty’s breasts with a bit of envy. Those whoppers had to be at least D-cup, and they looked as perky as Tennyo’s.

“Hi!” The other girl slid sideways toward her, so they could speak more confidentially. “Sorry if you’re looking for a girlfriend. It seems like everyone is trying to hook up in the first couple of days. I’m not really in the market, and besides,” her voice dropped a little, “I’m probably not quite what you’re thinking.”

Jinn held up her hands. “No, no, no. I was with Beltane’s group. What did she call us? The ‘gender baffled.’ She told us all about you. Uh, what should I call you? Megs? Marty? Do you have some other name?”

The blonde scrutinized her. “‘Megs’ is fine. I don’t remember seeing you in the crew.”

Jinn shook her head. “No, I’m the small Japanese girl.”

“Pardon my straight lines, but you don’t look Japanese.”

Jinn thought for a moment. “Oh, right. Uh, lemme see. From what Belle said, you create a PK shell, right?” She eyed Mega-Girl. That’s one hell of a shell.

Megs nodded.

“Well, imagine if the shell had a mind of her own, and could exist independently. So you’ve got pretty much no powers, except the ability to create the shell. And the shell is a full girl, only she doesn’t really have a body. And after an hour, she evaporates, and suddenly you have both sets of memories.”

Megs’ eyes lit up. “Are you the one Quickie was talking about? The girl that brings stuffed toys to life?”

“That’s me! Actually, now that I think about it, we have a lot in common.” She leaned closer to whisper quietly. “Only, maybe since my ‘shell’ is independent, it doesn’t seem to be affecting me the way yours is. And let me tell you, I am so jealous! Are there any hints you can give me? I’m sort of stuck in the — you know — starting state.”

The blonde frowned, before finally getting it. “Hey, don’t go pushing things too fast. The transition is nothing to sneeze at. In fact, it’s driving me nuts! It’s like my skin gets all itchy if I don’t wear the right clothes, but I look like an idiot if I’m not ‘babed-out’ like now.”

“At least you’ve got something happening. For me — zip. It’s been driving me nuts!”

“Uh huh. How long have you been ‘suffering’?”

Jinn thought back. “Uh, coming up on four months.”

“Puh-leeze! Come back to me when you’ve been flip-flopping between pink and blue for a couple of years, and maybe I’ll have some sympathy!”

Jinn pouted. “Somehow I thought you’d be a little more understanding.”

“Aw, jeez! Sorry, kid.” The busty blonde reached out to enfold her in a hug. Then, while they were wrapped up in each other (floating above the dance crowd for everyone to see), Megs blurted out, “Hey, this better not be some cheesy attempt to get a girlfriend. ‘Cause I’m sort of, well, not taken, but there’s this thing…”

Jinn giggled. “As if! Honestly, I don’t know what I’m even going after yet. I figure I might get a clue once I start puberty.”

The caped girl looked pointedly at Jinn’s form-fitting black leotard. “Uh, from here it looks like you’ve certainly started.”

Jinn snuggled in the pleasant embrace. “PK shell, remember? My body hasn’t started a thing. No hormones at all.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding donor hormones. I swear! Poe must have more hormones than the other six cottages put together. So, uh, you want to find your ‘real body’ and talk about things?”

“Yeah!”

Just then, there was a loud buzz.

“Down to the floor!” Megs said in her ear. “And try to look normal. No gay stuff.”

“What’s going on?”

They found room near the library. Mega-Girl pointed through the common room to the entry. “See the red light? We’re about to get ‘normal’ visitors. That’s what the buzz was, to alert us. Low profile.”

Jinn didn’t bother to explain about her vision.

The crowd had broken up and was completely re-arranging itself. Jinn and Marty found themselves talking to an extremely tall, attractive … man? He was quite androgynous, and had straight white hair that fell down his back to waist height.

At that moment, the front doors slammed open. “Open up! We have a court order!”

The crowd parted, giving Jinn a clear view. There were a pair of men in dark blue suits. They were clean-cut, and looked to be in their twenties. One was holding some sort of legal paper before him, as if it were a holy talisman.

“Please be calm,” the taller man said. “We’ve been sent here under court order. We’re here to remove a vile serpent from your midst.”

The shorter man took up the speech, as the stepped forward. Not toward Jinn, but toward the center of the crowd. “One of your fellows conceals a loathsome secret! Turning away from the Ordained Course, she has forsaken God’s ways to lust after her own sex!” He licked his lips as he said it. “But we will save you, Mary!” He and the other man had stepped forward to grab the arms of the winged girl, Angel. “We are Holy G.H.O.S.T.! This is an intervention, Mary!”

And before anyone could move, a bubble of ultra-violet light exploded around them.

Beside her, Mega-Girl was blinking.

“What happened, Megs, why isn’t anyone doing anything?”

“They — they vanished! It must be a teleport! One of them must have been a warper! They won’t get away with this! The entire cottage will track them down if it takes every last one of us!”

Exactly as she said, the room had practically exploded into a flurry of activity. Two speedsters had already zoomed out the still-open door. There were people clutching their heads and frowning in fierce concentration. Others were making strange gestures with their hands, while the flying types were picking up people, ready to zoom off to somewhere useful.

“Megs,” Jinn said in exasperation, “what are you talking about? They’re right there!” She pointed to where the two men were dragging an unconscious winged girl, not four feet in front of them.

Mega-Girl looked around in confusion. “What are you talking about? There’s nothing there!”

“What? Can’t you see —” And Jinn suddenly realized that everyone else probably saw with light. Perhaps that explained the sphere of ultra-violet energy surrounding the trio. “Of course! Megs, they’re invisible! Four feet ahead, right there!”

Suddenly sporting a grim smile, the blonde bombshell cracked the knuckles of a white-gauntleted hand. She stepped forward, reaching and feeling about, blindly. “Where, here?” Her hand suddenly fastened around a neck.

Jinn saw the ultra-violet sphere pop, like a soap bubble. Megs had the shorter man around the throat. The taller man was still dragging an unconscious Mary. He looked up in alarm. The entire cottage had gone suddenly silent. Everyone was staring at him.

“Oh, Lord!” He suddenly vanished, leaving Mary and his comrade behind.

“He’s gone for real, this time,” Jinn shouted.

“We’ll get him!” promised dozens of voices.

*****

The party was over for the moment, while everyone finished comforting Mary. The boys were careful not to touch her, but they were giving her both silent and vocal reassurances. The girls were being much more touchy, hugging the winged girl, stroking her hair or wings, or giving her kisses — mostly pecks on the cheek.

“So as near as we can figure, the smaller man, Keller, had a highly limited psychic power. It influenced the brain on a physical level into completely ignoring him. That’s why the psychics and even those with enhanced senses couldn’t track him.” One of the seniors stood on a chair as he explained to the crowd, while they comforted Mary. “The taller fellow, Foyle, was a warper. He could warp light, to achieve visual invisibility, or he could transport himself up to 200 feet away. He must have hoped that would let him get away. Apparently, they could transport a group several miles away, but that took preparation and concentration, which is why they were moving into the library and away from the crowd.”

“What was that whole ‘Holy Ghost’ business?” someone called from the crowd.

Mary finally rose to her feet. She was still shaky, recovering from the drug on the needle they’d stabbed her with. “I…I guess it’s time to reveal my dark secret,” she said in a trembling voice. “My father is the ‘Reverend’ Theodore Goodhope. Those of you who haven’t seen God’s Hour have probably at least heard of him. He strongly believes in ‘deprogramming’, particularly for the ‘sin’ of homosexuality. He thinks it’s caused by exposure to lewdness and immoral scenes in TV and movies. Those men were part of his intervention team: Good Hope’s Own Salvation Team, or Holy G.H.O.S.T. But I never dreamed…!”

Everyone could hear the apology in her voice, and with their hands and voices, they made sure that she knew she was accepted. No one there blamed her for her father’s teachings.

“So what about his thugs?” another student called.

As this point, the crowd suddenly quieted. Mrs. Horton, Poe’s HouseMother stepped forward. She approached the senior on the chair.

“I don’t really approve of standing on chairs like this, but I suppose this is a special occasion.” She held a hand out, and the senior lifted her up, abandoning his pedestal in favor of Mrs. Horton.

She cleared her throat and then spoke to the suddenly-quiet audience. “Well, this seems like a good time to address a topic that you older students have heard me mention before. First, about those two uncouth men who entered previously. Our senior telepaths,” one boy and one girl nodded in the background, “tell me that their minds have been erased of anything that happened today. They’ve been given an extremely powerful compulsion against ever returning to Whateley, and left with a strong impulse to at least examine more tolerant variations of their faith.”

She frowned, and the crowd grew even quieter. “As for the beatings, well, I suppose I can understand. Given what so many have suffered at hands like theirs.” She didn’t say anything at this moment, but for an instant Jinn saw something like a black hole in Mrs. Horton’s aura. It was a sorrow and loss so profound that Jinn had never seen its like. But the housemother continued, with barely a missed beat. “So I suppose you can be forgiven, and they did rather ask for it. And — once their bones heal — there will be no permanent damage. So perhaps we should simply forget about that unfortunate little incident. I won’t feel compelled to mention anything to security.”

Jinn distinctly heard several people letting their breath out in relief.

“But I don’t think we should forget about the good things we have learned here. Those of you who are older students have heard this before, and you will hear it again. All of us here in Poe are a family. A very special family. And like any family, we have our differences.”

Jinn couldn’t be sure, but she thought Mrs. Horton’s roving eye might have rested briefly on Toni and Hippolyta, among others.

“We’ll have our little fights and arguments. But we are a family! We stick together! Remember today, and remember the dangers the outside world can sometimes hold, for any of us. For any of you, because of whom you are. No matter how powerful, no matter how innocent. When you are threatened for who you are, and you know what I’m speaking of here, I want you all to know that all of Poe stands with you. All of us! In this, we are a family, and we are unbreakable! Remember the men who invaded our house tonight. Those foolish, foolish men who thought they could threaten us in our own house. It will be like that for everyone who threatens Poe. Within these walls, you are safe. Safe to be yourself, and safe to rest easily, knowing that you have a haven.”

She paused for a moment, and then seemed to laugh at herself. “Perhaps it’s still a bit confusing for you freshmen and other entering students. This is Whateley, and some of you will find yourself in fights or brawls that sprawl across campus. Please don’t expect us to loom behind you like some rude motorcycle gang. But we all know what makes Poe special. The academy’s board has decreed that Poe’s secret shall remain a secret. Perhaps that is wise. But let me just state it plainly, so that no one can mistake me. No one will be allowed to threaten you because of your sexuality. Whether gay, lesbian, bi, asexual, transsexual, multisexual, or anything else. Anyone attempting such abuse will be dealt with as we saw earlier this evening. And I hope that if you witness such discrimination, on campus or anywhere else, that you will step forward to protect those who cannot protect themselves.”

Then, slowly and carefully, she climbed down from the chair.

“Well? Weren’t you having a party?” And as the music started up again, Mrs. Horton vanished into the crowd once more.

*****

Jade lay in bed, her mind awhirl with the many things she’d seen today.

It seemed to her that she’d started a journey last spring. It was a quest to become who she truly was, to explore the person who’d been hidden inside her. To become that girl.

Here at Whateley, she’s seen the proof that it could be done. She was watching it happen, in a dozen different ways. Somehow, she knew she’d find an answer that worked for her. She was certain of it.

But on the way, she’d found something she hadn’t even been looking for. A home. She hadn’t had a home for almost four years now. She was meeting people who accepted her. Even knowing her weird needs and mixed up sexuality, they accepted her. They might even become friends. Tennyo was becoming a friend. She thought that Toni, Nikki, and Hank were too. Even Ayla, with the bleak and gruff face she put on, was becoming her friend. And the people she’d met — Megs and Juanita and Angel and Beltane and … it went on and on.

Mrs. Horton told her that she’d be safe here, inside the walls of Poe. Jade knew it was more complex than that — there would always be villains and foes that could attack without warning. But despite that, she felt happy. She did feel safe.

And for the first time in years, she felt appreciated. Perhaps even … loved.

She fell asleep with a smile on her face.

Contributor:
Maggie Finson

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