David Barthe-Venter was being ignored. And it was great. Since the morning Adam died (“May he rest in peace,” Mrs Gillespie said every time she mentioned him) Lawrence hadn’t acknowledged his old favourite in any shape or form. Not when he spoke, not when they passed each other in the halls, not even when David mentioned the headmaster by name. He suspected that if he barged naked and screaming at the top of his lungs into Lawrence’s office, the old man wouldn’t even look up from his newspaper.
David had decided Lawrence was trying to guilt him. He also suspected that if he had tried the same trick before he woke up that odd morning it would’ve worked. He probably would’ve begged Lawrence for a thrashing just so he would talk to him again. So that he would tell him he was a good boy again.
Now, though, it was sheer bliss. David hadn’t been raised with any religion—besides maybe the belief in his own kind’s destiny—but he imagined it was like knowing in your bones that God was looking the other way. He knew that would frighten a lot of folks. It would’ve frightened him, too. But now, it meant freedom.
Okay, so that wasn’t saying much. The other teachers still expected him in class. Even if they hadn’t, David had no real aversion to English or maths or history. Really, very little about David’s day had actually changed. But somehow, he found the world easier to move through, like he had stopped swimming against a riptide. Smiles came more readily. He no longer felt the urge to attack his own hands. Even the pains he sometimes woke with had stopped.
And that pale smile he saw in his sleep? Gone.
Whether by her own actions that morning or by simple proximity to David, Allison had become the second target of Lawrence’s one-man ostracism campaign. Basilisk hadn’t called on the girl’s services much lately, nor had the other teachers, maybe out of fear of offending Lawrence, which suited both children just fine.
The pair lay by the river, in the shade of the tree Mabel laser-blasted the day Arnold and Allison first arrived. Its scorched, blackened arm still hung out over the water.
Allison was fumbling with a piece of paper—tongue poking out the corner of her mouth—trying to fold it into a crane. As it turned out, origami was one of the few areas of expertise she hadn’t managed to pick up in nearly nine years.
She tore a corner and humphed. “Weird,” she muttered.
“Hmm?” David was looking out over the river, lifting bubbles of water into the air and watching the little fish within grow frantic at their new, tiny world.
“I can do paper-airplanes, why not paper birds?”
David shrugged. The fish he captured worked up the nerve or terror to plunge back into the river. “Can plane-mechanics build birdies?”
Allison slumped against the tree. “Ha. Ha.” She squinted at the sun. “What time is it?”
David waved his arm. “Well, my watch—oh, wait.”
Allison rolled her eyes, trying not to smile. “Just guess.”
A quirk of the shoulders. “Half past 10, maybe?”
A humpf. “Lunch is ages away then.”
David smiled. “I know where there’s something to eat.”
He led them beyond the obstacle course and the edge of the bush, until they reached an ancient looking rabbit-trap. Opening the hatch and whipping out a rotting storm blanket revealed a pile of packaged junk-food: triple-wafers, tim-tams, and more.
Allison was impressed. And peckish. “What are these doing here?”
David tossed her a packet of barbecue crisps, ripping open one of the triple-wafer packets for himself. “They’re one of Windshear’s snack-stashes. She thinks they’re all real secret, and I guess they are, but I sorta… float around a lot. You see things.”
“Won’t she be mad?”
“You’re damn right I will be!”
David and Allison turned to see Windshear standing between Britomart and Haunt, a private wind upsetting her red pigtails. Brit wore a mask of cool professionalism, while Haunt settled for vague semi-interest.
“That stuff’s mine, Mealy!” the youngest girl shouted.
David sighed. “I prefer Mael, Windy. Or David. Go with David.”
Brit’s eyebrows arched. “Won’t Lawrence be mad?”
It still surprised David how little the idea bothered him. “I think he already as mad at me as he’s gonna get.”
“Wild,” said Brit.
Windshear glared at her chief-minion. “Brit, this is serious!”
That done, Windshear tried getting back to the intimidation. “I’m going to tell.”
“Sure,” Allison said. “I’m sure the grownups are gonna care so much about your racket. I bet you nicked half this stuff from the kitchen anyway.”
“She has a point,” said Haunt absently, busy watching what he thought was a wombat bounding through some distant trees. “Pretty sure your thing is against the rules too.”
Windshear scowled. “You’re a real bad employee, Haunt.”
“That would be because I’m not one, Windy. Because you’re six.”
Windshear growled and ran towards Allison and David.
The boy looked at Allison and grinned, the expression becoming fixed as he went icy. Allison in turn looked straight ahead at the charging little girl and dug her heels in. Żywie’s biofeedback numbing had finally worn off.
She almost laughed as Windshear struck them, the dervishes she had conjured hitting David with less effect than a breeze against a glacier, and with even less to herself. And she had already borrowed Brit’s song. She shot through the gale, tapping Windshear against her breast, which still managed to send her tumbling to the ground.
“Nope, not doing this,” Haunt said as he turned into a blueprint of himself.
Brit sprinted towards David, ice twinkling in the cold air behind her like stars behind an aurora. Faster than he could react, she swung a glowing fist into his head, shattering it.
The decapitated sculpture of David fell to its knees, made an agonized gesture with its hands, and collapsed to the floor.
In spite of herself, Britomart giggled. Then a tendril of water threw her into a tree.
David’s clothes were flattening like the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet, ice-water gushing from his neck hard and fast like arterial blood. It spilt up into the air to form a spectre, halfway between solid and vapour. And it was grinning.
Windshear was becoming rapidly aware of just how much Maelstrom had been letting her bully him all this time. She’d never admit that, though. Not as long as she lived. She returned her gaze to Allison, and pulled herself to her feet, a miniature twister already forming in her hand.
Allison laughed as hard as she could at the little girl, laughter that stopped abruptly as Windshear directed her force not against her enemy, but into the ground around her. The earth at her feet exploded with a deafening crack.
As Allison tried to spit all the dirt and grass out, she saw Brit stagger past her, trying to swat away a cloud of ice-shards—ice shards that were cackling in a most un-David-like manner. It was like a swarm of bees crossed with an exploding window. They were striking her skin hard enough to shatter brick, and so felt to her like mozzie bites.
Brit growled, and vented the kinetic energy she had stored back into the air around her.
Suddenly, the ice that was David wanted very much to be water again. The cloud collapsed like a vertical wave into the dirt.
Before it could soak in, the water rose and coalesced with a splash back into David, human again. “I didn’t know you could make things hot on purpose!”
“I didn’t either.”
Britomart blushed… then she swung her fists at David.
The boy laughed, swerving away from her blows as he stepped backwards right through Haunt.
“Oh, God,” the older boy moaned. He shuddered. “You people are disgusting! You know that?”
David went cloudy, the mist swirling through the air over to where Windshear was advancing on Allison, pooling around her ankles and wrists before freezing solid.
The ice pulled her skyward, screaming as she drifted over the treetops.
“Windy!” Brit leapt into the air in a flurry of snow, slamming into Windshear and wrapping her arms around the smaller girl. “Don’t worry, I’ve got you!”
“How are you gonna get us down?”
Brit’s eyes widened.
Haunt was running under the girls, solid again, and openly panicking for the first time Alison could remember— well, aside from that time with the wall. Allison ran a little ahead of him. Backwards. “Keep up!”
“Don’t—you—think,” Haunt panted, “—he’s going a bit far?”
Haunt was surprised Myriad could shrug without breaking pace. “It’s David. What’s the worst he could come up with?”
“Have you met his mum?” Haunt huffed.
Surprisingly few students or staff looked up as the girl sailed over the grounds. There were about half a dozen students who could manage a feat like that. They would have been more interested if they knew which one was responsible.
Soon they found themselves over the river.
“He’s gonna drown us!” Windshear cried.
Brit tried to reassure her. “I don’t—”
The ice-manacles evaporated.
It wasn’t a great fall. With Brit’s power taking the brunt of it, they slipped beneath the water like feathers from a passing bird. Still, it was bigger in their heads. The two of them floundered as they tried orienting themselves, before a slab of ice shoved them back up into the dry air.
David was rocking on his heels, hands behind his back, the water supporting him as solidly as stone. His eyes burned green. “So, me and Miri are gonna take the snacks.”
“You sure they’ll like them?” Myriad asked.
“Sure,” said David, blinking at her. “Who doesn’t like sweets?”
With his arms laden with junk-food packets, he shoved the barn door open with his elbow, shouting, “Spoils of war! Snack-shaped spoils of water!”
“Shut the door!” Mabel barked.
“…Sorry.” David slid the door shut with his back. “Still, snacks!”
Growltiger looked up from where he’d been spinning straw into silver1. “Neat! Where’d you get them?”
Myriad answered, “Me and David won them off Windshear.” She smirked. “You shoulda seen her face!”
Growltiger’s tail twitched. “You stole them from a really little kid?”
Myriad shrugged. “She had it coming.” She trotted over to where Mabel was laying on her stomach, scratching away at her drawing pad. “You want something to eat, Mabs?”
“I’m busy,” the other girl muttered. “Practising my shading.” Like Adam told her. She grimaced as her pencil pierced the piece of paper. Stupid, sore fingers.
“You want me to leave you something?” Myriad glanced down at the pile of snack-food she was holding. “We’ve got crisps, strawberries and cream, jelly-snakes. The chocolates sorta melted—”
Mabel’s pencil-tip snapped. “Go jump in the river!”
Myriad pouted. “Maybe I will! It’s cool down there!”
While that was going on, David had made his way to the shadowed corner where Elsewhere slouched. “Else,” he said, “Arn? I got some jaffers here. I know you like them.”
“Buzz off,” the boy said. “I don’t wanna talk to you.”
“Because you’re dumb,” Arnold said flatly, before getting back to kneading his fingers.
David frowned. “No, I’m not!”
“Yes. You are,” Arnold growled. “You’re running around like you’re on pixy sticks, all grinning and fighting and acting like nothing’s the matter. You’re just making everything worse.”
David folded his arms. “So you don’t like me being happy? You’ve been weird ever since Adam died. Not even the right weird. Boring, stupid weird.”
“I don’t like you being dumb.” Arnold muttered. “I like happy David. I always wanted to see happy David. But you’re being Dumb David. You’re being ‘Doesn’t give a crap about anybody’ David.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I care about people! I got you jaffers!”
“But you still kissed me!”
David sat down next to him. “I thought you’d like it. Linus’ song said so. People kiss all the time!”
“They do on the continent. Mum and Tiresias told me. And so what if boys don’t kiss? Boys usually don’t zap things away, either.”
“Liking you isn’t a superpower though!” He went red, but didn’t go back on it, even when he saw Growltiger looking at him with complete confusion. “It’s just… weird. I don’t like being weird.”
At that, Mabel shrugged. “It’s not that weird,” she interjected, flicking some hay at David. “Everyone likes David a little. You’ll grow out of it.”
David glared over at the girl, poking his tongue out at her. She replied in kind.
He scowled darkly back at Arnold. “Everyone’s always telling me how I’m supposed to act. What I’m supposed to be. You, Lawrence…”
“And kissing me was like trying to tell me how to be!” Arnold’s eyes started to well. “Couldn’t—couldn’t you have asked?”
“Would you have said no?”
“No!” Arnold almost froze when he realized what he’d said, but he shook himself. “I… I don’t know! And you don’t get to make that choice for me!”
“Welcome to my world!” David shouted. “Everyone makes my choices for me!”
“And that makes it okay to be mean to the ones who don’t?” Arnold yelled. Before the final word had even left his mouth, Mabel’s palm connected with David’s cheek.
For a moment, the barn was quiet. A jaffa cake fell to the floor, unnoticed.
“We’re. Not. Lawrence!” she shouted, angry tears gathering in her eyes.
David didn’t speak for a while. “So what am I supposed to do? Just pretend to be all sad and good and behave all the time? Why does everyone else get to run around and be stupid sometimes?”
“You’re allowed to be happy!” Arnold shouted. “Please. Keep being happy. It’s great! Just don’t be so mean about it!”
David shuffled awkwardly against the wall. “Arn—” A flash, and he was outside, talking to the barn door. “—old.”
Half a second later, a dirty jaffa cake landed on his head. Before it was over, Allison appeared beside him with a snap.
“That… wasn’t great.”
“Shush,” David grumbled. “… He didn’t even keep the cakes.” He looked down at his feet. “I think I need to talk to someone. Allie?”
“Could you go get my pants?”
Allison glanced up and down the boy. “Sure, buddy.”
On the other side of the door, Billy turned to the still fuming Arnold.
“… That would have been easier if he’d been dressed. Wouldn’t it?”
He nodded furiously.
Dr. Herbert Lawrence sat alone in his office, his business done for the day. The Institute’s various sources of income—Ex-Nihilo’s raw material fabrication, Tiresias’ stocks, rent from the family home down in Claremont—were chugging along nicely. The DDHA were making their annual inspection in December, and as tense as those always were, Lawrence wasn’t letting himself worry. If any of the girls were still expecting by then, Phantasmagoria would animate their portraits and have them keep their distance, same as last time.
After that, he thought he might try and bring in more musicians for Myriad.
His slate cleared, the old man was reading an Arthur Machen collection. Currently, he was thumbing his way through “The White People”. That story had always amused Lawrence. The idea that people could only react with fear to flowers singing or stone giving rise to blossoms. Had Machen never heard of curiosity? Wonder?
Lately, though, the idea echoed longer in Lawrence’s head.
There was a knock at his door.
Maelstrom stepped into the office, thankfully dressed and thankfully not screaming. “Lawrence?”
The boy’s teacher looked up at him for a second, then silently went back to his book.
David tried not to roll his eyes. “I’m here to apologize.”
That got Lawrence’s attention. “I’m glad to hear it, Maelstrom. I was beginning to think good sense had abandoned you completely.”
David clenched his fist, but took a deep breath. “I’m sorry about the day Adam—”
“…He was called Adam then, but yeah, the day Panoply died. Me and Miri didn’t know, but I understand. You were sad, and we were being all happy. I’m sorry we barged in like that.”
Lawrence sniffed. “Not good enough, young man.”
“It wasn’t just the context of your behaviour, but the behaviour itself.”
“But we weren’t doing anything bad!”
“Not a very sincere apology I see.”
“What was so bad about what me and Myriad were doing?”
“It’s not how you’ve been taught, Maelstrom. You need to be an example to your brothers and sisters.”
David swallowed. “You’re not answering me, sir.”
“This again? I shouldn’t have to tell you, Maelstrom, I’m not a ‘sir’.”
“You are such a sir!”
Without a word, Lawrence went back to his book.
David shook his head silently. How could a bloke that old be such a baby? And why did he even now still care what Lawrence thought of him?
He stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
“Stupid, mean—can’t even—”
He suddenly found his face in something brown and acrid smelling.
David staggered backwards, coughing. “Sorry, Basilisk.”
“It’s alright, Maelstrom.” He noticed the look on his son’s face. “But you’re not. What’s wrong?”
Once his throat was clear, the boy answered. “I—I tried saying sorry to Lawrence.”
“That morning, when Adam…”
Basil put a hand on his shoulder. “I know whatcha mean. And yeah, that was a bit… jarring. Still, you didn’t know.”
“That’s what I said! But Lawrence said we were bad anyway. That I had to set an example…” David’s eyes started to sting. He hated them for it.
His father frowned. “You know, Lawrence is a smart man. Probably the smartest I’ve ever met. But he’s also old, Mael. Old fellas get funny ideas into their heads. I think Lawrence sometimes gets ‘being a good kid’ mixed up with ‘being a lost Etonian’. His lot, they’re all about dignity and reserve and all that. But that’s not what being good is.” He smiled. “You—you be as silly as you like, Mael. The fact you even tried to apologise means you’re still a good kid.”
Maelstrom stood straighter than years of Lawrence reminding him of posture could make him. “Thanks, Dad.” The word sounded odd in his mouth, but he liked it. “I’m gonna go find Miri. Is that alright?”
Basil’s smiled widened. “Absolutely fine.”
“And do you mind calling me David? More I mean?”
He patted his son’s shoulder. “Course not.”
Basilisk watched his son run down the hall.
He’ll be fine.
1. He’d started with gold, but people kept telling the him it was in bad taste.↩