Bronde. Way blonder than Charlotte, and straight-haired, and staring like a crazy person, but I was reaching for the right word to describe the blouse, which I do like. So there you go.
Book 4, 10: Pain in the Ass
Charlotte dropped, hard, on her brother’s bed. Her knees, tucked into the full lotus, dug into the piled, unmade blankets, and the sheathed Pearl Harmony Sword bounced slightly on her thighs, in spite of the fact that she was holding it with both hands.
Red dust rose in a little plume, caught in the effulgent light that shone from the Pearl Harmony and its brother, the Azure Tranquility sword, playfully intertwining and overshadowing the grey, wet light of dawn outside.
Charlotte gestured at it. “Is that Mars dust?”
“Yeah,” her brother, Chris said. “Must of tracked it in on my shoes.”
“Auntie Ma’ll kill you if she finds out that you had your shoes on the blankets.”
“Auntie Ma’ll kill me if I don’t get my homework finished, Sis,” Chris said. He gestured at the papers spread on the bed beneath him.
“You had hours to get it done, on the way to Mars and back! Were you goofing off?”
“Chris! You’re going to blow your ride!”
Chris picked up a sheaf of notepaper and threw it down on the bed between himself and his sister. “And I translated an entire stanza of the Analects for Uncle Henry.” Her brother smirked. “And I’ve got all my assignments done.”
“Did John help you?” As soon as she said it, Charlotte wondered if she should have. Her brother could be awfully prickly when his pride was hurt.
But Chris just smirked some more. “Actually, I helped him.”
Charlotte cocked her head at her brother and squinted. Tell me another one, she willed her face to say. John Roy was the second smartest person Charlotte knew, and not just because he had the brains to date her Cousin Amy. “He’s learning Chinese now, and Ms. Grey threw him a curve. Gave an assignment in Traditional Chinese.”
“She probably figured that you’d help him.”
“Yeah,” Chris said. “Amy figured. She was trying to figure out how Ms. Grey knew that our teams would end up going to Mars together. Had her biting her hair, she was trying to figure it out so hard.”
“What were you doing on Mars?”
“Can’t tell you. It’s a secret.”
“Yeah. Need to know. Can’t tell you who sent us, or where we went, or which scary-as-all-hell extradimensional entity we ended up fighting.”
Charlotte pulled one leg out of the lotus and extended it towards her brother so that she could wiggle her toes at him. “I’ll get it out of you eventually.”
“Are you turning into a bad girl, Char-Char? I mean, first the PTA, now this.”
At the dread mention of the Parents-Teachers-Advisory meeting, Charlotte plummeted back on the bed so that her head hit the soft bottom. The slightly pitched roof of Chris’s bedroom, he bedroom that had been hers, too, last year, slid slowly up and down in her sight as the bed’s mattress springs protested underneath of her. “Don’t remind me. Why is there a PTA meeting over me?”
“So dramatic. Wow. Because you got into a fight with a fellow student at the Library, and someone complained?”
“What?” Now Charlotte was really outraged. “I can just see that. Hello, Superintendent Stone? I’m calling from the Library of the interdimensional city of Babylon. Oh? You have no idea who we are? Well, trust, us, we are very important. Well, there’s been a donnybrook in our library that happened when one of your crazy supervillain students attacked one of your non-crazy, non-supervillain students. You should totally the non-crazy one into the office and ruin her week. Because reasons.”
Chris slouched back. “If you think there aren’t any reasons, you really don’t have much practice being a bad girl, Char-Char. You’ve crossed Doctor Cambridge, and she is going to kick your ass given half a chance. How you managed to last an entire summer on West-World with her, I do not know.”
Now, Charlotte was scared. It might not show on the school’s official records, or whatever, but Superintendent Jackson knew perfectly well that Doctor Beverly Cambridge was Tatammy High’s DOSPA liaison, and if Tatammy was in trouble with the Department of Super-Powered Affairs, it was in trouble with the Department of Education, and no-one wanted that.
But she wasn’t going to admit that she was scared, so instead she blew hair out of her eyes and tried to talk tough. “It wasn’t just some oat-planet full of horses and cowboys.” And, the thought crossed her mind unbidden, a beauty contest where I kicked ass. “It was also a summer camp planet. Doctor Cambridge kicked back and drank margaritas with the other counsellors, and Dora, Rose and I made wallets and ate s’mores and sang. Ahem. ‘My paddle’s keen and bright, flashing with silver wings. Dip, dip and sing!’” Charlotte lifted her head to watch her brother’s reaction as she hit the high note.
Playing to his audience, Chris dropped to the mattress, putting his fingers to his ears and rocking from side to side. Charlotte grinned. Maybe ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ next?
But then a sharp rap at the door called their attention. Auntie Ma’s voice came, muffled, through the solid, maple door. “Chris, Kumi’s here.”
With the precise grace of an Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu practitioner, Chris flowed to his feet. In his hand, the Azure Tranquility Sword disappeared with a blink, and a blue-and-white striped golf umbrella appeared in its place. Only a quick pull of his right hand through his hair betrayed his nervousness as he went to the door.
Pooh, Charlotte thought. Her brother had been back for a moment, before the Kumi-worshipping zombie showed up again to eat his brain.
As he began to slide through, as though by an afterthought, Chris turned around and said, “Don’t worry, Char-Char. Everybody’s got your back.”
“Come along, Char-Char,” her aunt said, beckoning her up from the bed through the open door. “There’s congee for breakfast.”
Yum! Charlotte sprang to her feet and practically collided with her aunt at the door when the older woman didn’t get out of the way in time. Instead, Auntie Ma fixed her niece with a bright stare, and, when Charlotte came up to her, slid one age-spotted hand into Charlotte’s hair, holding the dark, brown-highlighted bronde hair for a second before letting it go. Looking more closely, Charlotte wondered if the brightness might be tears.
“You have become such a pretty girl, Char-char. And so clever. Please don’t worry. Your brother is right. Principal Guzman has come up with a strategy. But you must remember to be discrete from here on. Madison will be looking for her opportunities to escalate this. Bruce’s uncle will be talking to him today about some things that your team can do to protect yourselves.”
The dreaded call to the office came at 11:30. Brian, Bruce, Charlotte, Dora, Rose and Twelve were deep beneath Tatammy High’s Old School Building in the Supers annex, doing a self-defence exercise in the Danger Room with El Professore, which had been set to a simulated Martian environment so that the team could fight scuttling, alien space marines with plasteel armour that clothed deadly, organic stingers with razor-edged metal blades that glinted in the light of a weak and distant sun.
It was fun, but if El Professore was going to maintain his threadbare secret identity as Principal Guzman, this was the class to interrupt. Which he did, turning off the holographic simulation half way through. “Charlotte? Dora? You’re wanted in the Principal’s office at 11:30. The rest of you can join Mr. Brown’s class for the shop period and work on your semester projects.”
As the secret door dilated and dumped Dora and Charlotte into the girl’s washroom on the second floor of the Old School Building, Dora announced, “I don’t know why I hang around with you, Char-Char. You’re getting me in trouble.”
“Wait. I’m getting you in trouble. I’m getting you in trouble Isn’t it time for you to play hooky again?”
“That’s not fair. The needfire calls me across space and time to save the…”
“Oh, hey, we all save the universe. Some of us don’t use it as an excuse to get out of math class now and then.” Charlotte took a second to make sure that her brand new, tan blouse hitched up just so over her bracelet, and tucked one wing into her gun-metal jeans.
“Oh, Char-Char, I hope you don’t get into trouble. I’d miss having you around. We have colour complementarity. Though maybe if you lent me your bracelet, I could make it. And your brother did nothing but hang around the house and sulk when he was suspended. Hey! Since when did he turn into the goodie-goodie, and you turn into trouble?”
“Since the wicked witch,” Charlotte said, shortly. But it seemed strange to blame Kumi for Chris getting into trouble less. “Also, do you honestly think that just because you’re the principal’s daughter, you’ll get out of this one?”
“Darn it!” Dora gave an enormous pout as they walked out of the washroom and into the corridor that divided the classrooms at in the west end of the building. The sort of classrooms, because they didn’t have doors hung in their too-wide entrances, and semi-middle, since if you went down the narrow corridors on either side of the classrooms you would get to more big rooms that wrapped around the front of the building. All told, it wasn’t as weird as the fact that you had to walk through a closet to get to the big classroom at the east end of the building, but it was weird.
Not, though, as weird, as walking right into Michael Snow’s stare. He was sitting in the back of the drama class, listening to some substitute teacher (bad sign, if Mr. Burcato wasn’t there!) having drama. Since Michael could barely follow a conversation about the weather without his personal compute, he must be bored.
And, Charlotte figured, Michael was watching for Rose. Because that was how some boys were supposed to be about girls, not like Brian, so cool that Charlotte was still not sure if he even knew if Charlotte existed, in spite of her saving his life back on Landing.
At last, Michael realised that Rose wasn’t with them. Embarrassment spread across his dead-white face, and he dropped his head back to his doodles.
The girls navigated the high-on-crack maze of the Old School Building’s internal architecture to the broad stairs that led down to the west doors, and from there out into the rainy, October great outdoors. A caw alerted Charlotte to Ginger’s presence. Old Crow stood beside her, stiff and tense.
“Oh, oh,” Charlotte said. Sure enough, hidden by the start of the hedge that blocked much of the fence between the school grounds and the park next door, her brother and Mario were pushing each other and generally letting the world know that they really wanted to be suspended for fighting again.
Later, one crisis averted, Charlotte and Dora walked into the cool, modern confines of the boardroom where the PTA usually met.
Charlotte looked around. Principal Guzman sat at one end of the table, with Superintendent Stone at the other. Mr. Burcato sat one one side of the table, with a scowling Madison on the other side in one of those T-topped blouses that oh-so-accidentally drop off to show shoulder in a way that only Madison could think would come off as appropriate here, Doctor Cambridge and, rather distractingly, a blue-skinned, purple-haired woman in a muffling black jacket, long blouse and sensible shoes, the only concession to her unusual colouring being a pink, frilly blouse. The outfit looked so official that Charlotte pegged her for a Library representative.
“Welcome to Philadelphia, Assistant Vice-Director of Library-Community Outreach Nazfre, and thank you all for coming,” Superintendent Stone said, his stereotypically baritone voice sounding incredibly calm. Though given that his brother was a superhero, this was probably not his first rodeo.
Superintendent Stone pulled reading glasses out of his pocket and pushed them onto his face. His short, stubbly wiry hair was neatly cut in a style that verged on an outright flat head, Charlotte noticed. Superintendent Stone was pretty fly for a Philadelphia School Board official. “The matter of which we are seized today is a fight on the grounds of the, ahem, Library of Babylon between two Tatammy High students, Madison Chee and Charlotte Wong. Director Nazfre has informed me that as minority community-outreach is a Library priority, her board is taking a world-of-origin conscious approach to this as a disciplinary matter. In short, she does not wish to bar the alleged violators from Library access, and instead asks the school to take up the matter.”
Principal Guzman cleared his throat. “So if you let hollaback girls from Earth into the Library, you have to except a little of the old street action, and you ask community leaders to keep it to a minimum.”
“Absent your unpleasant slang, that is the essence of the situation,” Director Nazfre sniffed. “I understand that a suspension from school activities is the usual remedy in circumstances such as these. But…” She trailed off in that annoying way that some people did, as though it were too much trouble for her to finish her thought on her own.
“But,” Principal Guzman said, “Ms. Chee has already been absent from school without notice on 11 days this semester, and taken five sick days. Mr. Burcato, her homeroom teacher, has expressed concerns about her academic standing if this continues.”
“I am continuing to work with Ms. Chee on absenteeism and academic performance issues,” Doctor Cambridge said. “We are making considerable progress. Ms. Wong is another matter. She values school highly, and a short suspension would be salutary. From the agreed account of events, Ms. Guzman simply stepped in to separate the combatants, and in her case, a verbal warning should suffice.” Mr. Burcato nodded vigorously, and kind of let the cat out of the bag by glancing nervously at Principal Guzman.
Honestly, Charlotte thought. The two of them were such –they were such obnoxious persons. Give the Principal an excuse not to discipline his daughter, and he’d throw the book at Charlotte just to make them all feel like they’d got something done for the Very Important Person.
“Ahem,” Principal Guzman said. “That is not how these matters work. Ms. Chee is not going to be awarded for being a bad student, even if we can all agree that her issues require continuous, close counselling.”
A look of death flashed across Madison’s face, and her mouth worked as though she were trying to talk. Or yell. Oh. My. God, Charlotte thought. Burcato had put a silence spell on Madison.
Director Nazfre rattled some smooth, low gloss yellow pages in front of her. They sounded unlike any paper that Charlotte had ever heard, and even from her position she could see that its creamy surface was different –better, even—than any paper she’d ever used. The Library might use old technology, but it used the best of it. “Ah. Underprivileged lifestyles are so often a trajectory of tragedy. This is why the Library, in its wisdom, has chosen not to revoke the young ladies’ passes. They will, I am sure, be a credit to their world eventually, given close and appropriate mentoring. The issue, then, turns on Ms. Chee, who was the instigator in the combat, if I understand things correctly.”
“Not as such,” Mr. Burcato got out, before a glare from Director Nazfre reminded him that he was pretending to be a high school teacher right now, and not the mighty Professor Paradigm.
“I understand that this school’s enrichment programme for superpowered students is extremely unusual on your world, Principal Guzman?”
Principal Guzman nodded. “There are only six programmes like it of which we are aware, Director.”
“And Mr. Burcato’s drama class is part of that enrichment programme?”
“Regrettably, DOSPA has vetoed their participation in the programme,” Doctor Cambridge said.
Director Nazfre shook her head, communicating the greatest regret. “One can hardly imagine an arrangement trending more strongly to negative social outcomes for Ms. Chee and her classmates. But, one understands national security issues. Certainly, if the programme’s whole purpose is to serve national security ends, the Library would have to take cognisance of the failure of community outreach in this situation.”
Suddenly, it sounded as though they might lose their Library privileges. Charlotte didn’t know what to think about that. Calling spending your Saturdays reading old books in the Library “boring” was an insult to boring stuff, but it came with spending time in Babylon, and Babylon was wicked cool. Plus there was the whole saving the world thing.
Worse, Doctor Cambridge couldn’t hide her smile. Jeez, lady, Charlotte thought. What did I ever do to you? Worse still, all the adults were talking about how they had to do stuff to Charlotte and Dora, because was too crazy. And that wasn’t fair.
“Ahem.” Principal Guzman cleared his throat. “Not everything in the programme is national security-centric. We have a sport programme.”
Director Nazfre smiled widely. “Excellent. Sport is the perfect community outreach. Many intellectually-challenged minorities are able to achieve successful lives through their natural athletic abilities. It really all comes down to genetics.”
“Sport?” Mr. Burcato sounded angry. Madison stirred behind him, but a subtle gesture with his fingers quieted her down. Charlotte didn’t think that she would even have noticed had the Pearl Harmony Sword not stirred beside her. Evil magic was in this room, and for a second Charlotte had to control the urge to draw and strike Professor Paradigm down on the spot. “Sport?”
He looked like he was going to say more, but another gesture, this time much more noticeable, stopped him. A solid elbow from Doctor Cambridge. “So the drama class will be invited to try out for the Super School Cricket League?”
A pained look crossed Principal Guzman’s face as he nodded.
“Sounds fun,” Superintendent Stone said. “You are going to have to give me a game schedule! Do I have to wear armour or some such?”
Oh. My. God times two, Charlotte thought. I just got the Professor’s Paradigm Pirates Krazy Klown Krew invited into the cricket league. I am so dead when Chris hears about this.