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.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Rivalries: Chapter Two, Part Two

Notes: The last class of the day, the SENIORS! Oooh, fun times. Good luck, Charlie, you're going to need it.

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Two, Part Two


Rivalries: Chapter Two, Part Two


Being in the military meant that, once you reached a certain rank and had to manage people—or just had enough years in and were fairly observant—you could spot personnel problems a mile off. It was never as simple as taking someone down a peg, especially when you and everyone else around you had a knack. Attitude problems came from all kinds of directions, and as soon as the senior class walked in, the last class of the day for both Charlie and the group of fifteen students, Charlie spotted at least three different sources of trouble at once.

He should have expected it. Hell, he had expected it. Seniors in a school like this were the ones with the least to lose. They’d already taken all the tests to assure their path forward, and they’d had three-plus years to form themselves into a cohesive unit—or, in this case, carve themselves into factions that probably only united when facing a common enemy. Charlie knew that, right now, he was that enemy. They didn’t know him, didn’t understand his skills or where he was coming from, and had no reason to give him respect—he hadn’t had the forming of them, hadn’t guided them past early fumbles into the state of competency with their knacks that they were in—or at least, had better be in—right now.

This wasn’t the army, either. He couldn’t give problem children pushups or make them gear up and run an obstacle course knack-less if they got in his face. If he went to the principal with anything, he’d automatically lose any chance of gaining their respect. He needed to handle this right.

But what was right?

He introduced himself and went down the attendance list, matching names and knacks to faces. Four purely mental, four purely physical, two ornamentals, three elementals, and two crossovers. Pretty good distribution.

“So,” Charlie said, sitting on the edge of his desk and crossing his feet at the ankles. “Who’s already been accepted to college?”

Ten of the students raised their hands.

“Or a military academy,” he modified, and four more students lifted their hands up. Only one girl didn’t join in, a girl with brown skin and dark hair down her back who scowled at the floor. Charlie checked his list. Elemental knack, premier grade. Shit, she ought to have entrance to any school in the country with a knack like that, all expenses paid. What was stopping her?

Not the time to find out. “How many of you are legacies?”

The hands weren’t as quick to rise this time. Nine of them eventually found their way into the air, the students glancing between each other.

Not surprising. “How many of you have already been offered jobs for once you get out of school?”

All of their hands went up this time. “Excuse me, Mr. Verlaine,” a boy in the front of class drawled, dropping his hand as he leaned back in his chair, his legs spread as far apart as they could go before running into the sides of the desk. Ah, we have a manspreader. Great. “Why do you need to know our plans for the future? Isn’t your job to, like, help us refine what we’ve already got going on?” The look on his face said very clearly Not that you could.

Charlie knew his missing arm was getting a lot of attention, knew it the way he always knew when someone was staring at him—a prickle across the back of his neck, like he’d been grazed there with the edge of an ice cube. It was a wariness that had developed as an effect of his training, a little bit of a crossover bleed that some people with a mental knack could get if they worked hard enough on it. Charlie was almost strong enough with his mental alert system for it to qualify as a crossover, except that—what was there to cross over from, now that he couldn’t make a shield?

Head in the game, Verlaine. “That is my primary job, yes,” Charlie replied. “And to know how to best help you refine your skills, I need to know where you’re going. Those of you heading into the military academies will get worked to hell and back, so apart from making sure you’re ready to handle the first year, I’m not too worried. Those of you who are legacies, depending on the kind of institution, will either have an easier time of it than you should, or a much, much harder time of it than you should. Those of you going into a university that no one in your family has attended before should be as sharp as possible, regardless of prior expectation.”

“I’m going to Harvard in the fall,” a girl in the second row said. She was a knockout, put together in a way that screamed wealth to Charlie. It was a wonder she wasn’t a legacy, honestly. “I really can’t think of any reason they’d have to try and push me out. I’ve got one of the rarest mental knacks in existence, after all.”

Emotional manipulation at a fundamental level. It  was a very rare knack—this was a girl who, in seconds, could plunge someone into a terrible depression or elevate them to a joy so exalted that coming down from the high might kill them. She was almost certainly going to end up either a doctor or a black-ops specialist.

“It’s not that they’d tried to push you out,” Charlie said, going for honesty. Not that this girl probably didn’t already know what was coming at her, but it couldn’t hurt to reiterate it. “It’s that they’re going to want to control you. Whether its out of fear or jealousy or just because someone with a stronger knack can, you’re almost guaranteed that an upperclassman will try it.”

She rolled her eyes. “Who can beat what I’ve got?”

“Dream knack,” the girl who hadn’t raised her hand the first two times said. “Your stuff’s only useful when you’re awake. Someone could get into one of your dreams and put you in a coma. Or an invisibility knack. Wouldn’t even see them coming until it was too late.” Invisibility knacks never made a person actually invisible—they generally made them so unnoticeable, so plain and unremarkable, that it was essentially the same thing, though.

“All we have to do to fuck your knack up is keep you inside, ‘Nanda,” the manipulator shot back. A few of the other kids laughed.

“It’s important to be aware of your strengths,” Charlie said, interceding before the argument could get any hotter. “And I’m pretty sure that most of you are very aware of your strengths. Confidence is important in ensuring your knacks work reliably, after all. But at your level, it’s also important to be aware of your weaknesses. The ones inherent in the knack, and the ones that are specific to you.”

“What if we don’t have any?” the boy in the front—Willard, the sheet said, which had to be a family name, he probably went by Will—asked, with all the cockiness of a teenage boy backed up by a formidable knack.

“Then we make sure you’re right before you leave school, so that you don’t get any unpleasant surprises in the future,” Charlie replied. “What’s your knack, Will?”

“It’s Willard, and I’m a shield.” The kid grinned, and a small, acid green mushroom-cloud burst against the floor in front of Charlie, leaving a scuff behind on the tile.

Oh boy. The most arrogant jackass in his class was a shield.


Just great.

“I want a list from each of you of pros and cons related to your knacks,” Charlie said, ignoring the way his heart ached seeing a shield cast for the first time in months. His own knack rumbled loudly inside him again, thrumming in his chest and throat so strongly he could barely speak. “This will be the basis for a paper you’re going to write later on, and for most of the practical training we’ll be doing this semester. And for those of you who think you don’t have any weaknesses?” He glanced at Willard. “Do some research and revise your thinking.”

“What’s your knack, sir?” Willard asked, all false innocence. If he spread his legs any farther apart, his pants would split. “If you don’t mind me asking, of course.”

Charlie didn’t have to tell them. Just like Principal Cross, he could refuse to say and that would be that.

He couldn’t do that, though. It would just be a different way of jettisoning his chances of gaining their respect. “Shield,” he said evenly, and watched Willard do a doubletake. “And believe me, our knack’s got plenty of weaknesses.” He stood up and went behind the desk. “Everybody get to work.”

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Rivalries: Chapter Two, Part One

Notes: It's my birthday, yaaaay! Have some story to celebrate with me :)

Title: Rivalries: Chapter Two, Part One


Rivalries: Chapter Two, Part One


The sophomores were almost as easy as the freshmen—not as innocent, but not as tutored in using their knacks yet either. There were the standouts among the class of twenty-one, but none of them were approaching mastery yet. The closest were the pair of twin crossovers, ornamentalists to the outside world and mentalists with each other. They’d been practicing together for years, and could talk to each other psychically. They were smug about their powers as only prodigies could be.

“We’ve been good at this for ages, Mr. Verlaine,” the one with the shorter hair—Sophia—said, glancing slyly in her sister’s direction.

Really good,” her twin, Grace, said. A second later their images wavered, then reformed. Each girl was sitting in the other’s seat now. Grace tossed her long brown hair over her shoulder and grinned as the rest of the class snickered. Apparently this wasn’t a new trick.

Wait until the military gets ahold of you. There’s no way you’re headed anywhere else with knacks like that. Charlie could already see it in his head—they’d be incredible assets, but also incredible risks. What if one could feel the other’s pain under extreme conditions? They’d have to learn to put up barriers, and it would be excruciating, and when they finally learned what “alone” was for the first time one of both of them might have a mental breakdown.

He’d seen it before, in some young recruits who’d come on at the same time he had. They’d both washed out, their knacks fundamentally damaged after intense training. He hadn’t kept up with them. He hadn’t wanted to—it would have been too depressing. The rate of suicide among those with damaged knacks was high, and the highest percentage of people with damaged knacks came from the military. People like him.

The tittering was dying away into an uncomfortable silence. Charlie forced a smile. “That’s quite good. Can you do it while running?”

Sophie frowned. “Why would we need to do that?”

Charlie bit his tongue against the truth. “It’s always a good idea to push what you can do,” he replied. “Even if you’re out of breath, even if you’re tired, you want to be able to use your knack convincingly. Any other ornamentalists in the room?” Three other kids raised their hands, two boys and another girl. “Great. Can any of you cast an illusion while running?”

“I can,” one of the boys replied. He had hair that was just millimeters away from being a buzzcut, and the squared shoulders of a child who’d been called to attention more than he’d been hugged. “Not really elaborate ones, just, trees and stuff, but my dad makes me work on it.”

This kid almost certainly had a military father. “You’ll be a good help on that subject then,” Charlie said, and the kid beamed. “All right, where are my elementals?”

The kids were more than happy to show off their skills, and by the end of class Charlie felt like he was getting a handle on what they could all do. He took a break for lunch—brought from home, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a side of tabbouleh—then met with the juniors.

The juniors were next-level serious, facing the crushing pressure of a year that could make or break them educationally while also trying to refine their knacks to a point where they could say they had general mastery. There were twenty of them, and they ran the gamut from stone-faced to jittery to overly ingratiating and bubbly. Charlie knew nerves when he saw them in action, and these kids were nervous.

“What about the standard tests for knack knowledge and practical workmanship?” one of the kids, a girl with short brown and blue hair in the very front row asked as soon as he opened things up to questions. “Can you teach to the test?”

“I could,” which was slightly a lie, because he hadn’t gone over the test material yet, but he could get those resources at any time, “but that would be a mistake.”

“It’s never a mistake to teach to the test!” the girl replied, aghast at the very suggestion. “How else are we supposed to get top grades on it? If I don’t get rated ‘Exceptional’ with my knack, I won’t make it into the university I need to graduate from!”

Charlie pushed aside everything that was wrong with that sentence in his mind—and there was a lot to unpack there—and checked his attendance sheet one more time. “Dahlia Moore, right? Mental knack?”

“Persuasion,” she said confidently.

Oh, damn. “What are the top five professions for someone with a persuasive knack?”

“Politics, sales and marketing, healthcare, media and communications, and influencer.”

Charlie shook his head. “Wrong. Those are professions that benefit from having a persuasive knack, but your ability to use it is rigidly circumscribed by law. You’re not allowed to make people do things that they don’t want to do, in general society. That includes influencing voters, forcing them to take certain pills, getting them to sign contracts that are injurious to their personal finances…”

Dahlia looked offended. “I would never do any of that!”

“It’s easy to think that now, but the truth is, people with knacks like yours in visible professions are never trusted. You’d either have to keep your knack a secret, which is illegal, or go to work in an invisible profession. Do you see what I’m getting at?”

“But…I don’t…” She bit her lip and looked down.

“You want to excel,” Charlie said gently. He looked around the room. “All of you want to excel with your knacks. You want to be the best, and that’s a great goal. But you need to think long and hard on precisely what aspect of your knack you want to be the best at. Persuasive knacks can get good work in the government, but if you’re not careful you’ll be pulled straight into black ops. Do some research on it and get back to me, okay? We’ll look at refining your goals for your knack, and what you need to do to accomplish them. That goes for all of you,” he added. “If you have your future planned out and know exactly what you want to do, that’s great. Just make sure that your skills support your goals.”

“What if our knack is useless?” a boy in the back spoke up, sounding bored.

Charlie frowned. “Like what?”

“Like mine. I always know how to find up and down.”

Huh. Charlie had never heard of a knack quite like that. There had to be more to it. “When you say up and down…”

“Up.” The kid pointed at the ceiling. “Down.” He pointed at the floor. “When they tested me as a kid they had me do it dizzy, in midair, underwater…I can always tell up and down.”

“You might make a great rescue diver with a knack like that,” Charlie offered. “Especially in caves and caverns. Or if your knack is somehow gravity-centric, I wonder what it would do in space? How’s your math?”

“Good,” the kid said, sitting up a little.

“You might be able to do some really cool experiments on the space station with a knack like yours,” Charlie said, warming to the idea. “Like, fundamentals of physics cool.”

Another boy raised his hand. “What about me! My knack is physical, I can lift five times my body weight, but I don’t want to go into search and rescue because I’m afraid of tight spaces.”

“There are so many other great options for strength knacks,” Charlie assured him. “Let’s see…”

The hour he spent with the juniors was the most interesting and active yet. By the time the final class of the day rolled around, Charlie was feeling pretty good about his first day.

Then he met the seniors.