Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Rivalries: Chapter Four, Part One

Notes: Heeeeeeeere's JOHNNY! Not that Johnny, lol.

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Four, Part One

***

Rivalries, Chapter Four, Part One

 

Johnny Gibilisco pushed his way through the crowd of students surrounding Stheno High, all of them whispering behind their hands and casting sidelong glances at the school. As soon as they realized who he was, they stepped aside for him—“Mr. Gibilisco” was the school counselor, and in a lot of places that would have made him roundly despised by the student population, but at Stheno he was appreciated. He knew every one of their names, even though they had twice as many student as at Euryale Academy, and he did his best on everything from dealing with knacks to coping with bad family situations.

He caught sight of the principal, currently being lambasted by the school resource officer, and immediately veered their way. “Principal Cochrane!” he called out.

Principal Cochrane turned with a look of pure relief on his face. “Mr. Gibilisco, they managed to reach you after all!” Ira Cochrane looked like a middle-aged Santa Claus—graying and portly, with a friendly smile that was nearly a permanent fixture. Not today, though. His suit jacket was missing, and his tie was so loose around his neck that it was nearly untied. “I’m sorry to pull you our of your treatment, but as you can see—” he waved at the school “—this is an emergency.”

“This is a matter for SWAT, is what it is,” Stheno’s resource officer snapped. Julianne Rosewood was a blonde, burly, and a little too eager to use force, as far as Johnny and most of the rest of the staff were concerned. She didn’t have a knack, and used that as a reason to get her department to authorize her to carry a gun instead of the standard taser on school grounds. “That little shit’s already done serious damage to the school!”

“Damage to a building!” Principal Cochrane exclaimed. “My goodness, yes, what a marvelous reason to call a bunch of gun-toting, trigger-happy goons onto the school grounds, so they can hunt down a young man who—”

“Hey! Watch what you’re calling my fellow officers, Cochrane, you don’t talk about the people who protect and serve like that!”

“If you think for one minute I’m going to allow you to send SWAT in after a student in need of help, you’re delusional!”

“Who is it?” Johnny interjected.

They both looked at him like he’d lost his mind. Principal Cochrane recovered first. “Oh goodness, didn’t I say in the message? It’s Roland, Mr. Gibilisco.”

Of course it is. Johnny felt his headache crank up another notch. Roland was a recent transfer, a foster child who thus far hadn’t made much of an effort to get along with anyone at his new school. He was a late bloomer, as far as knacks went, and his previous family—the family that had hoped to adopt him—hadn’t been deemed acceptable to take him permanently after the change. In response that he was going to have to move, Roland had used his knack.

The family’s house had ended up utterly destroyed.

No one was injured, and to their credit the family had still tried to intervene when state authorities took Roland away, insisting that he didn’t mean to do it, but the results of their efforts had been interpreted as “normal families can’t take in children with knacks.” Never mind that most kids with knacks came from completely normal parents who handled them just fine.

Now Roland was under the “care” of a local family with military ties. The husband had a similar elemental knack and, theoretically, could have been helping Roland with controlling his, but from the little Roland had told Johnny in their first few meetings, there wasn’t a lot of bonding going on. He was sixteen, he was angry, and now he was—

A rumble began, quick and shuddering, the ground underfoot going from a complete standstill to jiggling like jello in a second. Kids fell over, careened into each other—Johnny grabbed Principal Cochrane’s elbow to keep the big man on his feet. A few seconds later, it stopped, but the damage that the principal and Officer Rosewood had been referring to earlier was even worse. A long, vertical crack went up the front of the building. It was thin, but it was undeniably there.

“See!” Officer Rosewood shouted. “You see that? This could have been prevented if you let me call SWAT in to take the kid out!”

“Neither you nor any other officer will be taking out a student at my school!” Principal Cochrane shouted right back.

“Ahem.” Johnny cleared his throat. Both of them looked his way, the anger on their faces slowly dissipating. “Let me try to talk him down first.”

“Yes!” Principal Cochrane extended a grateful hand toward him. “Yes, thank you, this is what I had to pull you away from treatment for. This situation calls for delicacy and understanding and tact, not the business end of a gun, and don’t give me any song and dance about nonlethal options. A child with a knack was killed by a SWAT team in Georgia last year by one of their so-called “nonlethal—”

“Principal,” Johnny butted in, both to save time and save another argument, “I think it would be best if I went in after him now. The sooner the better, right? We don’t want the school to fall down on top of him.”

“We certainly don’t,” Principal Cochrane agreed.

“What’s he going to do, talk the kid into giving himself up? Please,” Officer Rosewood scoffed, but she sounded less adamant now than she had a minute ago.

“Talking is always the first and best option,” Johnny said calmly. “And it’s my job, so I’d like to go in and do it, if you don’t mind.”

“Fine. You get ten minutes.”

“What!” Principal Cochrane shrieked, just as Johnny said, “Make it half an hour, and in the meantime you should see about getting the rest of the kids away from here. I think it’s safe to say that there aren’t going to be any more classes today.”

That gave them something new to focus on. “Right…of course,” the principal said, wiping his forehead with the end of his tie. “I’ll get in touch with our bus drivers, make sure parents are being contacted...”

“I’ll back these kids up into the athletic fields,” Officer Rosewood said, scowling but determined. “But half an hour only, Mr. Gibilisco, otherwise I’m getting SWAT in here no matter what you two have to say.”

“Thank you.” Johnny turned to look at the school. The ancient concrete slab reading “WELCOME TO STHENO HIGH” that had hung over the front door since the place had been built in the fifties suddenly came crashing down to the stairs in front of it, shattering. Students yelled, teachers jumped, and Officer Rosewood’s hand went straight to her gun.

Better head in before she gets ideas. You’ll be fine. Juuust fine. Johnny squared his shoulders and marched up to the school, over the remains of the welcome sign, and in through the front door.

Hang in there, Roland, I’m coming.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Rivalries: Chapter Three, Part Two

Notes: A little more background for Charlie and a little info on the mysterious Ari. Next up? NEW POV TIME! Yes, this is a dual-POV piece, get ready to get rocked. Or confused, as the case may be.

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Three, Part Two

***

Rivalries Chapter Three, Part Two

 

“Aaand…done.”

Charlie set the end of the band down with a huge sigh of relief. How, how was it possible that in almost thirty years of life, too much of it spent running his ass off in combat zones, that he’d never discovered all of the muscles that this guy knew about before? Like this one, somewhere in the middle of his back, that was burning like a motherfucker now but would leave him able to stand without feeling like his torso was imbalanced for the next week.

“Good job,” Lionel, his physical terrorist said, handing over a towel. “One more set and we’ll call it a day.”

“I hate you,” Charlie muttered, wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“Now see, if I was a less secure person I’d be worried about that. As it stands, I know I’m in your good graces, so buck up, buttercup, and give me twenty more.”

Charlie grimaced but grabbed the end of the band, turning into the exercise as he did so.

“Good. One…two…”

“Do you call…everyone ‘buttercup’…or is it…just me?” Charlie panted as he did the reps. Some of the other people in the rehab gym were staring in his direction. Whatever, let them get an eyeful. He wasn’t ashamed of his body—he did the best he could with it, and he knew it.

He was way more ashamed of his knack, but that was another thing altogether.

“I save it for the big tough guys who get wimpy around the fourth set, just like you,” Lionel replied. “Which means I pull it out a couple times a day.” He grinned. “What can I say, I get all the fun patients. Thirteen…fourteen…”

Charlie closed his eyes and gritted his teeth. “Seventeen…eighteen…” The last two reps were torture, and when he put the band down again, his whole back shivered with relief. It was like a wire had been cut in two, and he shivered and quaked a bit as his muscles slowly remembered normalcy.

“Lie down on the table, I’ll get you a hot pack,” Lionel said, pointing to the table normally used for prone exercises. They could have gotten a private therapy room for the heat treatment, there were plenty of them available, but Charlie preferred being out in the open. He could handle being in a small, confined space by himself, but when other people got in there with him, he started to feel unsettled.

Lionel came back with a fresh towel, which he laid down on Charlie’s back, then covered with the hot pack. Warmth soaked through the thin barrier into his skin, and deeper, and Charlie sighed as the twitches began to subside. “You seemed a little rougher than usual today,” Lionel noted as he sat down at the end of the table and began to fill out his notes. “Any idea why?”

“I started a new job.”

Lionel’s pen stopped scratching. “Oh right, the teaching job! How was it?”

“Exhausting.” Understatement. “Kids are terrifying. Never have any.”

“Too late, I’ve already got three.” He sounded more amused than offended—it was one of the best things about him, that he tended to laugh instead of huff. He didn’t let patients treat him badly, but he understood bad days. Maybe because he was a veteran too, but probably just because he was had compassion. “And they’re great.”

Charlie opened his eyes and looked at the guy. “Yeah? All the time?”

“Nobody’s great all the time, but I don’t judge my kiddos solely on the messes they make.” Lionel made a few more notes. “Will you go back?”

“Yeah.” He had to. He needed the money…plus, he’d actually kind of enjoyed himself, in retrospect. Being in the academy made him feel like he was actually doing something with his life post-military, something worthwhile. He could help those kids. And if he managed to help them, then maybe he could figure out a way to help Ari too.

Speaking of Ari… “What time is it?”

Lionel checked his phone. “Six-thirty.”

Shit. He had half an hour before their Skype session. “I’ve gotta go.” He rolled over onto his side, sighing as the blissful heat fell away.

“You haven’t had that hot pack on long enough to do much good.”

“I’ll spend some time on my heating pad to make up for it,” Charlie said. Lionel looked doubtful. “Promise.”

“Pinkie swear?” Lionel grinned at whatever expression he saw on Charlie’s face. “All right, if you’re sure. See you next week, then. Be safe. Don’t let the kids get you down.”

“I won’t.” Charlie grabbed his button-down and coat and pulled them on, then booked it for his car. If the lights were on his side, he could be home in twenty minutes. That would leave him enough time to grab a quick bite, which—he should have packed a granola bar or something for after class, because he was starving.

The lights weren’t on his side. He got home with two minutes to spare, just enough time to fling himself down in front of his computer and get Skype running. Ari and his mom were already online. Of course.

They called a moment later. Charlie accepted the call, and smiled when he saw that Ari was leaning so far forward that a view of his nose filled almost the entire screen. “Hey, buddy.”

“Charlie! You’re here!” He leaned back against his mom, relief washing over his tense features. “I was worried something had happened to you.”

Charlie shook his head. “Nope. I’m right here, same as always. When do I miss our talks?”

“Never ever,” Huda, Ari’s mother, said, brushing a strand of hair back from her forehead with an elegant hand. She didn’t bother to look at Charlie, just kept her eyes on her child, like she could measure the level of pain he was in just by watching. Maybe she could, maybe parenthood came with its own set of knacks, but if it did, it wasn’t a knack that could end her child’s suffering. Unfortunately, for now, the only person who could do that was Charlie, just by showing up. It wasn’t a power he felt he deserved.

“Tell me about your day, buddy,” Charlie said, and Ari launched into a retelling of the day’s events—a trip to the library and the aquarium, then writing a report on manta rays. As he spoke, he relaxed more and more against his mother’s side, until finally he looked like any other kid. Once he did, Huda let herself relax too, and smiled at Charlie.

“Did you know that manta rays can jump way high out of the water?”

“I didn’t know that.”

“It’s so cool, let me show you the video…” He shared his screen, and Charlie spent the next ten minutes watching a documentary on manta rays and listening to his stomach rumble.

Ari was yawning by the time the video ended. “I think you’re done here,” his mother said. “Go get ready for bed.”

“But Mom—”

“Go on. Say goodnight to Charlie.”

Ari sighed unhappily. “Goodnight, Charlie. See you tomorrow?”

Charlie smiled for him. “Yeah, see you tomorrow.” Ari left, and Huda got up and shut the door, then came back to the camera.

“What a day,” she said, rubbing her fingertips across her forehead. She had a decade on Charlie, and had been a professional diplomat for twice as long as he’d been in the army. She knew how to hide her feelings. If she was letting them out now, it was either because she meant to or because she was exhausted.

“Tough time for Ari?”

“Not so bad for him today, he had fun. But I spent five hours arguing with the hospital, then with the school. He wants to go back to one, doesn’t want to go back to the other, and generally it’s just a mess.” She looked seriously at Charlie. “Do try to keep this job, all right? I went to a lot of trouble to arrange it for you, and you’ll need the credentials if Ari ends up needing to transition to one-on-one learning, which I hope he won’t, but…” She sighed. “I do hate having to rely on you so much.”

“I get it.” Charlie knew it wasn’t an insult. “I’m sorry.”

“Lord, don’t be sorry, you’re helping me keep him out of isolation and an eternity of tests as it is. And I’m so grateful for that.” She bit her lip. “But it isn’t fair. Not to you or to him.” Or me, her subtext read loud and clear.

“The docs will figure out his knack,” Charlie said, for probably the hundredth time. He was starting to lose faith, but he had to keep the form of it for Huda’s sake. “They’ll find a way to fix the problem.”

“We’ll see.” She smiled slightly, then reached for the screen. “Good night, Charlie. See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, you bet.” The connection ended. Tomorrow. Another day of putting on a brave face, dealing with a principal who hates him, students who would test him to his limits, and another session with Ari.

Fuck it. Ari dealt with worse all the time, and he was eleven. Buck up, buttercup. Tomorrow’s a brand new day.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Rivalries: Chapter Three, Part One

Notes: More Rivalries, yay! A little introspection at the end of the day, and another confrontation with the principal. One more post after this with Charlie, and then we might...SWITCH POVS!

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Three, Part One

***

Rivalries: Chapter Three, Part One

 

The final bell rang, the seniors left, and Charlie finally let himself heave the huge sigh of relief that had been building in his chest all afternoon. God damn, but he’d faced down panels of military brass that weren’t as intimidating as a group of high schoolers who were too self-assured to know what they didn’t know. Fuck, had he been as bad when he was in high school? He didn’t think so…then again, he’d had such a chip on his shoulder that he’d almost killed another student by being an uncontrolled idiot. He was lucky he’d still been accepted into the military after that.

Whatever had happened to Johnny Gibilisco? He’d only seen the other boy once after their duel—in the hospital, when Charlie went to visit him right after graduation. Their meeting had been stunted, filled with hurt and shame and overseen by both of their guardians, which had added an extra level of “ugh, why?” to the whole thing. Johnny had, technically, forgiven Charlie—or at least, he’d said “Forget it,” which to a teenage boy desperate for absolution was the same thing. But Charlie had never bothered to follow up, never looked to see what had become of Johnny, whether he’d ever figured out his knack…

Charlie wasn’t going to try now either, ease of searching for people via social media and freedom to communicate be damned. If he started looking back at his past, he might fall into a black hole and never claw his way free again. It had been hard enough the first time to get over the urge to feel like all his best moments were behind him, and the only life he had to look forward to now was a lesser one, a shriveled reflection of what he could have had. Jeanine, his therapist, had set him right on that front, at least.

“You’re here,” she’d said simply, during a particularly voluble session. “You’re not the same, but you’re still here. And some of your friends, soldiers-in-arms, people you loved and trusted—they’re not. It’s hard not to wish for things to be different. I can’t tell you not to do that, or that you’ll ever stop doing it. But I can tell you that you’re here, in the world, and you still have a chance to make a difference in it. It won’t be the same kind of difference you made before, but you can do it. I think no one on your team would begrudge you that.”

And fuck her for coming out and saying it, but she’d been right. That session was the start of Charlie getting his head on straight—dedicating more effort to his PT, listening to the shield specialists as they’d talked about retraining even when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to be able to do it, getting in touch with Julianna and Sergeant Myers and Ari…

Speaking of Ari, they were supposed to Skype tonight. And Charlie still had to get to the clinic, and make dinner, and plan out the next day’s lessons. He put his hand over his face for a moment and just breathed, taking in the smell of lemon-scented cleaner and, beneath that, the scent of his own sweat that all the bleach in the world couldn’t hide.

“Mr. Verlaine?”

Charlie lifted his head quickly and looked at the door to the classroom. Principal Cross was there, her hands folded in front of her like a ship’s prow, her mouth pinched so tight the lines around it were practically ruched. “Yes?” he replied when she didn’t immediately speak.

“Are you quite all right?”

“Quite.” He kept it short—the last thing he wanted right now was to get into a discussion of the day with someone who was probably counting the hours until she could get rid of him. He stood up and began to pull his papers together. “I’ll be out of your hair shortly.”

Principal Cross tilted her head. “I’ve heard all sorts of…interesting reports about your class today.”

Charlie faked a smile. It was the best he could do under the circumstances, and no matter who he flashed it at, they always seemed to see right through it. “Already? Class just ended a few minutes ago.”

“Class ended half an hour ago, Mr. Verlaine.”

Oh, shit. Time had gotten away from him. Fuck, fuck, fuck, it had been a while since he’d zoned out like that, lost in his own head. He thought he’d gotten over it. Better schedule an appointment with Jeanine. “What’s the consensus?” he asked, not bothering to meet her eyes as he continued to pack up. “Am I the worst teacher ever?”

“No.” She sounded somewhat disappointed by that, too. “The students by and large had positive things to say about their first class with you. Of course, it was only the first class, Mr. Verlaine. You have an entire semester stretching ahead of you. As…novel as you are to the children, it might be some time before the rose is off the bloom.”

“Well.” He snapped his case shut and made sure he wasn’t leaving anything behind. “I’ll be sure to put off inevitably disappointing them for as long as possible, Principal.”

“I won’t have you misleading them,” she cautioned, still blocking the door. “These are some of the best and brightest students in the entire country, each of them gifted with something many people would kill to have. They are to be celebrated, Mr. Verlaine, not frightened into submission about the potential futures their gifts might bring.”

Aha. Someone told her I’m being a bit of a hardass. “Having a knack is a thing to celebrate,” Charlie agreed. “But knacks aren’t purely positive, either. Everything comes with two sides, and I want to make sure these kids understand both perspectives instead of throwing a bunch of hopes and dreams at them and leaving them unprepared for the real world.”

“The real world will come at them quickly enough,” Principal Cross countered, something in her expression seeming almost troubled. “School is meant to be a safe place for every student, and Euryale Academy is uniquely suited to cater to the needs of these very special children. They should take comfort in this safety while it’s available to them. After they leave—”

“Do you have statistics on what happens to them after they leave?” Charlie interrupted, a little surprised he was bothering instead of letting her blather at him and blandly agreeing until she left. But this…this was important, this could be the difference between a student that excelled once they left here and a student that floundered under the weight of their own knack in the real world.

He pressed on. “Because I’d be really interested in seeing if feeding your students a load of fluff about how special they are instead of preparing them for the reality of being used—yes, used—” he emphasized when he saw her shake her head “—for the good of the country, whether that makes them more or less likely to succeed. I went to Stheno, you know, just down the road, and we didn’t have your facilities or connections, but we had a damn lot of students who knew the real score, and a high success rate in the field after graduation. How many of the students here freak out once they get to college, or wash out after they go into the military? How many of them end up in institutions, or under the care of other people with knacks, to keep them from doing the world at large harm? Because I bet it’s probably—”

“That’s enough, Mr. Verlaine.” Principal Cross had gone pale and stiff. “I think…I think you should leave now.” She put her money where her mouth was and turned around herself. He heard her clicking heels disappear down the hall, and wondered what kind of nerve he’d struck.

No time to pursue it—he was already running half an hour late. Charlie headed out the door, kicking it shut behind himself.

He’d dig deeper later. For now, he had a date with a physical therapist who wouldn’t take it easy on him just because he’d had a rough day at work. He hated it, but it was what he needed, and the army was paying for it, so…

Get a move on, Verlaine.

He glanced at his phone again and hustled to his car.