Caution: This Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Teenagers, Science Fiction, Humor, .
Desc: Sex Story: Chapter 1 - A mutation virus intended to enhance the military effectiveness of soldiers is accidentally released upon an unsuspecting world. The planet is drastically changed by the results. This story follows four youths as they go through the process of growing up in a new and much more dangerous world.
The country was in chaos. It had been two years since an eccentric scientist had released a military-engineered mutation virus into society. The result was catastrophe, as humans gained seemingly random powers that had previously been ascribed only to the realm of fantasy. Despite profound changes on both personal and global levels, society had managed nevertheless to cling to the order and rules it was familiar with. That is, until about three months ago.
Some lunatic with an atomic manipulation Gift had leveled a Washington that was already nearing collapse as powers beyond its control raged across the land. Ironically, this man, with the power to create nuclear bombs with his mind, was killed a few days later in a car wreck. For once, the world had reason to be thankful for a DUI.
Civilization on a national level had been nearing an end for quite some time, as most towns were too involved with local problems to worry about national unity. Most large cities didn't go out as spectacularly as Washington, but warring factions tended to decimate their populations in a slower, but almost equally potent, manner.
As if the first day of junior high school wasn't scary enough even under normal conditions.
Saric was in his seat a full ten minutes before the bell summoned forth his first tormentor and instructor. He spent those minutes trying to calm his nerves, to little avail. Order on the national level might be a thing of the past, but Gregory Santorez kept order in Arrowhead, Montana. He was a tolerant man, but those who crossed what was formerly known as the law tended to end up as crispy critters. They didn't call Gregory Santorez "Sparkweaver" for nothing. Right now, Saric felt a bit like cursing Sparkweaver, as it was entirely his fault that school was still in session. Not only did the man keep things orderly enough that public institutions were able to continue to function, he even spent an hour per day ensuring they, and the rest of the town, had the electricity to do so.
Saric looked around the room, noting the cramped feeling and the rather uncomfortable chairs attached to the fake wood desks. He sat in the front row, more from second-rate eyesight than from any real desire to become closely acquainted with the teacher.
The ringing of the bell and the nearly simultaneous entry of his first tormenter and teacher of the day interrupted Saric's thoughts.
Teacher number one, in charge of the ever so delightful subject of mathematics, was a young, well-dressed man, probably only a few years out of college. He gave a brief lecture on how the class was to run, with large amounts of homework, pop quizzes, and other unpleasantries designed to hammer knowledge into the heads of the ignorant and sleep into the head of Saric, who was several years ahead of the class. He got a full five minutes into his lecture before someone asked him the inevitable question.
"Mr. Roe, what is your Gift?"
Roe looked at the girl who had asked the question with mild distaste, then responded, "Sound amplification. I can make any sound within my hearing range louder. Anyone caught sleeping in class will find out how unpleasant that can be."
The subject of Gifts was a happy distraction from mathematics for Saric. Saric's own gift was Charisma. People wanted to follow his advice. He couldn't force them to do anything, but his words carried much more weight than the words of others. Discovering his Gift had been rather interesting for Saric. He had just about decided he was among the few socially rejected Giftless when he noticed that he won most of his arguments, even when others had tried the exact same argument and lost.
Mr. Roe then walked to his desk, picking up a stack of papers. He flipped through them, looking closely at each, and eventually stopped at one with a picture of the girl on it. He then began to read aloud.
"Elaine Derras. Gift: Impersonation". "Lovely, why don't they make it a little more vague? Would you care to clarify what your own Gift is, Miss Derras?"
Elaine stood up, shimmered for a moment, and suddenly there were two Mr. Roe's in the room.
"Let's just say there will be time to prepare a face to meet the faces that I meet". Elaine's voice was a perfect mimicry of Mr. Roe, as was her physical appearance. She shimmered again, resuming her natural form, and sat down.
Robert Roe didn't look like he got the reference, but Saric smiled at Elaine's quote of T.S. Eliot.
Mr. Roe spent the rest of the period asking each of the students for better descriptions of their gifts, as his paperwork was decidedly unhelpful. A few students were skipped, and Saric assumed they had not yet caught the virus that greeted each child at puberty. Just before the bell rang, he announced a graded test would be given the next day to see how much of their previous math classes the students remembered.
Saric left his seat with a profound sense of relief, joining the trickle of students hurrying to get out the door and on to some other class. He reflected on the loss of traffic in the hallways. The battle for Arrowhead between Sparkweaver and Jack Marcon, a would-be despot with the power to send people into a berserk frenzy had been brief, but not without its human cost. Marcon had used his ability to make civilians into his weapons and armor, resulting in hundreds of deaths before he was cornered and hit with a blast of lightning so intense it had left a crater in the spot he had been standing.
Light though the traffic was, Saric would have missed the arrival of one of his best friends, Dennis Klein, had he not heard the telltale flapping of wings. Dennis came out of a side hall, his leathery wings fully extended, their tips nearly brushing the walls on both sides. His face was showing the strain of using those wings. Dennis had only caught the virus last month, and the sickness caused by the mutation was still fresh in his mind. Exacerbating his difficulty with flying was the fact that while his wings had shown up, they hadn't shown up fully muscled, and lifting himself as he was probably exhausted him. He was headed to the same room Saric was walking towards. Saric finally reached the door and hurried in, waving a quick greeting to his gasping friend.
As he sat down next to Dennis, he noticed the girl from last period... what was her name? Ah yes, Elaine. Elaine shared this class with him as well. He subtly admired her from his seat, thinking that if this was her natural form, there would be little reason for her Gift-why change form when her natural flowing, flaming hair, beautiful green eyes, and golden, almost glowing skin marked her as so rare a beauty? Dennis caught his stare and grinned.
"Everybody always falls in love with the red head," he murmured to Saric.
"No. Everybody always falls in LUST with the red head," Saric murmured back with a smile.
Dennis choked back his laughter, trying not to draw too much attention, and was probably successful, as he received no more than the usual stares that went with a ten-foot wingspan.
The two were so busy trying to regain their composure that they nearly missed the entry of the teacher. She looked to be of middle years, with graying hair and faint smile lines marking her face. Saric hoped those lines were a good indicator of her personality. Stepping to the front of the class, she began her standard first day speech.
"Good morning, students, and welcome to World and Post Apocalyptic History class. My name is Amelia Taggert. My Gift is minor healing. If you need to see me outside of class, I can be found in the nurse's office during lunch. This class will be focusing on the events leading up to presumed worldwide collapse of government on the national level. I say presumed because, at the time our news was cut off, most of the other nations of the world had already collapsed.
Now, this being the first day, that's enough for the lecture. You may ask any questions you have, socialize, read, or in any other way occupy yourselves until it is time for the next period."
"Well, that was certainly refreshingly short," Saric remarked with a smile in his voice.
"Yes, and now's your chance to introduce yourself to that girl you were ogling at the beginning of class," Dennis motioned towards Elaine, who was sitting alone, tapping her pencil's eraser slowly against her desk.
"I've got a better idea. How about not."
"Come on, you'll never know if you don't try."
"Nor risk being made a fool of."
"You know what they say; 'nothing ventured, nothing gained.' Come on; go for it. Or would you rather I did it for you. It's going to look a whole lot more conspicuous if I go up to her with my 'oh, don't mind the wings' and point you out."
"In a heartbeat"
Reluctantly, Saric rose from his seat, making his way through the aisles between the desks towards Elaine. He was thankful that the rest of the class was absorbed in their own discussion, allowing him to approach her relatively unnoticed. Mentally, he willed himself to relax, and felt the tension and nervousness drain away from him as he reached her.
"Hi, Elaine. I'm Saric Kelvrosa. We were in math together last period. Great T. S. Eliot quote, by the way."
"Thanks, but I don't think Mister Roe got the reference," Elaine said with a slight laugh.
"Well, it may be just my imagination, but it looks to me as though anything other than numbers is a foreign concept to him," Saric said, counting on his fingers with an intense look of concentration.
"Oh no, he's got room in his head for at least one other concept," Elaine was smiling openly now.
"And what might that be?"
"The most annoying teacher is the most effective teacher," as Elaine said it, her face changed to look like Roe's.
"After all," she went on, in his voice, "It is the responsibility of the teacher to teach, and the responsibility of the student to keep quiet and absorb knowledge, no matter how boringly it is presented."
Roe hadn't actually said anything of the sort, but his manner had seemed to imply it. Saric laughed.
"So, what class do you have next?" he asked.
"Gift Development with Cameron, and you?"
"Well then, it appears we'll be seeing a fair amount of one another."
The conversation was interrupted by the sound of the bell. Students looked up, packed away their supplies, and began walking out the door, joining the stream of bodies that filled the hall. Saric offered Elaine a hand with her things, and together they worked their way through the unfamiliar school towards the next class.
Opening the door marked Gift Development; Saric beheld a large, fenced area that included a track, a few game courts on blacktop, and a large grassy area. A large, mustached man saw the two of them and waved them over to where a small group of students had already gathered. Apparently class had not yet started, as the students were milling around in friendly and rather loud conversation. Among them, Saric saw a familiar and welcome face belonging to Kentaro Ishida. Kentaro was originally from Japan, but he and his family had been visiting relatives in America, and been stuck on the wrong side of the Pacific when things started going downhill. Kentaro took to his new home quite well, though he still had occasional problems fitting in. He and Saric had been friends immediately.
Saric called to him, getting his attention. Kentaro rose from his sitting position, a smile on his face.
"Ohayou gozaimasu, Saric-san. Ogenki desu ka?" Kentaro greeted Saric, as always, in his native tongue.
"Good morning, Kentaro-san. I'm fine, thanks for asking, and you?" Saric completed the ritual.
"I am better than fine. My Gift came to me only a few days ago. I still feel a bit sick, but it is well worth the nausea and headache to gain such a thing."
"So, what's the Gift?"
"Allow me to demonstrate later, but first, you must introduce me to the beautiful lady who accompanied you here,"
"Of course, pardon me for forgetting my manners. Kentaro, allow me to introduce Elaine Derras. She and I have Math and History together. Elaine, this is Kentaro Ishida, late of Japan, and a good friend of mine,"
"Pleased to meet you, Kentaro," Elaine said with a smile.
"Doozo yoroshiku, Elaine-san. I am pleased also to have met with you,"
"I believe you were going to demonstrate your Gift. Please, go ahead," Elaine said.
"See that tree on the other side of the field? Keep your eye on it, please,"
Saric and Elaine turned their eyes to the tree. A slightly blurred Kentaro was already over halfway there. In the space of another second, he touched the tree. A few more seconds brought him back before them.
"As you can see, I've gotten a little faster," Kentaro grinned.
"Incredible, have you clocked your time yet?" Saric asked.
"I have as yet had no opportunity to do such."
"I think we'll have to change that," The voice came from behind the trio, startling them all. They looked up into the face of the instructor, Mister Cameron. He then raised his voice, addressing all students present.
"Welcome, students, to Gift Development. My name is William Cameron. For the next nine months, I will be your instructor, and, if necessary, slave driver. Not to sound arrogant, but this is perhaps the single most important class you will ever take. We live in a frightening new world, and those who cannot make optimum use of everything available to them are unlikely to survive its ravages.
This class replaces your normal PE class, and, as with PE, you will be expected to have a gym uniform in all future meetings. Some of you have Gifts that are, for lack of a better description, potentially messy. You will also be expected to maintain an adequate level of physical fitness. There will be exams every six weeks to ensure that you are fit. If it is found that you are not, you will join a special PE class that starts ONE HOUR BEFORE school begins. Frankly, I don't want to have to be here at 7 in the morning any more than you do, so do us both a favor and keep in shape. I will be available after class to help you with any questions you might have regarding either physical fitness or Gift Development.
With that out of the way, I would like to encourage each of you to do your best. Even the most miniscule of Gifts can be immensely powerful in the right place and time. For those few who have not yet obtained Gifts, your focus will be on how to get around the handicap. Also, please take all available precautions, but understand that should something go wrong, my Gift is suppression, and if need be, I can block your Gifts for up to twenty-four hours.
As I call your name, state your Gift, if you have one, and give a demonstration, if possible."
The first student called, Al Anderson, had the Gift of making illusionary mirrors. The mirrors had no substance to them, but functioned nonetheless as highly reflective surfaces until such time as Anderson stopped concentrating on them, at which point they vanished.
"Mister Anderson, what uses can you think of for that Gift of yours?"
Al apparently wasn't very impressed with his own power and said as much.
"This is an example of an undervalued Gift. Mister Anderson, allow me to point out a few uses your power might have. You can see behind you, you can temporarily blind someone, you can create a signal that can be seen from a distance, and, if you learn how to focus those mirrors properly, you can probably create a laser with them. Furthermore, if you study the old magician's tricks, you'll find a lot of them used mirrors. Learn those tricks, and there's a good chance you'll be able to put them to practical use. That's just what I can think of to start with. You can spend this hour working on moving with the mirror as your guide. I will be coming behind you at random times. If I tap you on the shoulder, you get an F for the day. Every time you see me behind you, touch my hand WITHOUT turning around to face me."
The rest of the students went in a similar fashion. Elaine was told to work on her acting, and to try and pick up the mannerisms of the people she was imitating. Kentaro was given a stopwatch, pointed in the general direction of the track, and instructed to shoot for as fast a mile as he could get. Saric was to practice techniques of skilled speakers, to enhance his natural charisma. Dennis worked on strengthening his wing muscles by circling the class for the duration of the period. The sound of Mr. Cameron's whistle announcing the end of the mental and physical exertions seemed to many to be less a piercing trill and more the tintinnabulation of a bell declaring salvation.
Once the students had gathered, Mr. Cameron began speaking, "You have done well today, for the most part. I expect you to continue to do so. Mister Lenmuir, Miss Shae, and Mister Alvernasse, I expect significant improvement tomorrow, or there will be consequences. Mister Eldath, I want you to be more careful with your Gift. One of your energy spikes very nearly impaled one of your fellow students, and would have, had I not suppressed it.
Mister Ishida has suggested a martial arts class instead of a before school PE class, which will most likely be started as soon as the details can be worked out. While, as before, it would not be mandatory except for those in very poor physical shape, if this class goes forward, I highly recommend that you all take advantage of it.
You have ten minutes until the next bell. By the way, expect to hit the showers in future meetings. I'm letting you all slide today, because I know none of you have a change of clothing. Now, everyone get over to the locker rooms. You will each be assigned a locker before you leave class today. In this locker will be kept anything that might help your training. I will discuss what you might each want to bring with you individually, after I've had some time to think about it."
'Well, that's a cheery thought' Saric thought sarcastically as he headed to the locker. With a mental shrug, he joined the group and headed towards the lockers. He couldn't help but notice that Dennis looked absolutely exhausted.
"Too much wing work for ya, Dennis?"
"He... said if... I touched... the... ground... I'd better... be... too tired to... move, or... I'd get... an F... for the day," Dennis panted.
"He had me start reading a textbook on Public Speaking. Did you know that someone staring unblinkingly straight at you while you're talking is probably not paying attention?"
"I did, but... thankfully, most of the... worst teachers don't."
"That was refreshing," Kentaro had just come up beside the two.
"What was your best time today?" Saric asked.
"Seven seconds per mile best. Average was 8."
"How do you get the energy for that kind of movement?" Dennis had finally gotten his breath back.
"For the most part, I use the energy around me, but after a workout like this, I also eat about three times what you do. I am VERY ready for lunch just about now."
"Wait a second," Saric said, eyes widening, "You've been running about 45 minutes, at about 8 seconds per mile. Do you realize you just ran almost 340 miles?"
"No wonder I am hungry, then!"
The three had entered the locker room while chatting, and each welcomed the relief from the hot September sun.
"Alright, line up," Cameron shouted, grabbing a clipboard from the top of one of the lockers.
Everyone was assigned a locker, then given permission to head off to lunch. Upon receiving permission, Kentaro promptly blurred out the door. Saric and Dennis followed at a more human pace.
Though the line was fairly long, the food was singularly unappetizing. Arrowhead grew a fair amount of its own food, but Jack Rando created most of it. Rando could take nearly any material and make it into a highly nutritious dish. Most people, however, referred to it as "Rando's Chicken Dumplings" because it tasted like chicken, and Rando used garbage out of the town dump for the ingredients, since the nutritional value and taste never varied, no matter what he started with. Usually meals in Arrowhead consisted of dumplings with a side of whatever fruits and vegetables were available. As Saric passed Kentaro, he noticed his friend, true to his word, had gotten three helpings of the stuff. At least food was always available in plentiful amounts.
Overall, lunch turned out to be fairly uneventful. Saric, Kentaro and Elaine headed off to Science, while Dennis headed off towards math. Saric and Elaine gave him their condolences.
The sight that greeted him upon entering the classroom was quite a surprise to Saric. Large wooden cages lined the walls on all sides. Inside were snakes, lizards, turtles, and other reptiles. Above the cages, charts dedicated to just about every imaginable science covered the walls. Immediately visible were a chart dedicated to insects, another dedicated to the water cycle, and a third dedicated to the layers of the Earth. Above the blackboard, a huge poster of the periodic table covered the wall. In the front of the class, a middle-aged man stood smiling and welcoming each student as they entered the room. When all were seated, he began his introductory speech. He had probably already done this several times today, but he still sounded fresh, enthusiastic, and spontaneous.
"Welcome to science, everyone! My name is Ethan Conner, and it will be my pleasure, and hopefully yours as well, to teach you the basics of many of the sciences used in the world today. We'll be covering the bare bones of anatomy, touching on the crust of geology, going into a skin-deep study of biology, learning the AB CO2s of chemistry, and spending a bit less than seven times the amount of time it takes for light to get from the sun to Pluto studying astronomy. And don't worry; I won't be making too many more lousy jokes.
Let me tell you a bit about myself, so you know what to expect from me. I was born here in Arrowhead, but I've lived all over the country. I went to college in California, where I got my degree in teaching. My Gift is True Sight, and it gives me a huge advantage in the Sciences. If I want to know about something, all I have to do is spend ten minutes in close proximity with it, thinking about what one fact I want to know. This does work on people, but you have my word, I will not pry into your personal lives. I can also see through illusion based Gifts.
Remember, in our new world, knowledge is one of the easiest things to lose. Hopefully, each of you will be as interested in seeking it as I am in teaching what little I know of it. As you may have noticed, you have not yet received textbooks from any of your classes. This is due to the complete lack of an ability to replace these manuals. We are extremely fortunate in that we have someone who can repair them via Gift, but until we set up a system, we are taking no chances. With any luck, you'll get your books tomorrow, but Wednesday at the latest. With that in mind, no actual homework will be given until you get your books. Following first day tradition, I'll let you spend the rest of the class socializing. Be ready for serious class tomorrow."
Saric, instead of immediately joining his friends, went to look at the various creatures displayed in the room. Above each cage was a plaque with the name of the inhabitant inscribed upon it. Snakes were a particularly repetitive item, with the largest being an immense Burmese python, cited on the plaque as being 13 feet long and 8 inches thick as of a few years ago, and still growing. Saric wasn't certain whether the snake was staring at him or just sleeping. It was hard to tell with snakes, since they were a bit lacking in the eyelid department. Fascinated, Saric continued his observation of the myriad animals residing in the place that would be his own abode for an hour each day.
Kentaro was still trying to figure out the puns in Mr. Conner's introduction speech. Speaking English was one thing, understanding the myriad expressions and slang terms used was another. While two years in America had given him some sense of the things, he still habitually looked skyward whenever someone greeted him with the question "What's up?"
A tap on the shoulder halted his linguistic ponderings. Looking up, he saw Elaine. He smiled at the welcome distraction; trying to figure out the subtleties of English was often a frustrating experience.
"Mr. Cameron said something about a martial arts class at the end of Gift Development." she began, returning his smile, "He also mentioned your name. I've always been fascinated by martial arts, and I got to wondering, what exactly do you have in mind?"
"Both of my parents are masters in martial arts. My mother is a Shinobi, or ninja. My father is skilled in Aikido. I have been practicing both since I was old enough to stand. As everyone keeps pointing out, it is a dangerous world that we now live in. It is therefore my duty to offer to my peers, if I can, a safety net. Conventional fighting is not very helpful against the most powerful of Gifts, but it offers a chance for survival that is slightly increased, at the least. The only question is, who will teach the class? I have suggested that for the seventh grade, all available martial arts instructors should teach a sample course, and each student should decide which path or paths they will pursue, if any, at the time of the beginning of the eighth grade."
"It sounds like you have enough experience to do some teaching of your own," Elaine commented, wondering if the school would have the sense to include Kentaro, or if they would let a minor factor like his age get in the way.
"If the school accepts this idea, I hope to teach what I can. If they will not allow me to do so directly, I will do my best to serve as an assistant to the teacher, and a tutor to those who do not yet know."
"Well, if they go forward with it, even as no more than an elective, consider yourself to have one student already signed up."
"My thanks, but I warn you, if I am responsible for any part of this class, you will work for your knowledge. I hope you are physically fit, or your first several weeks will likely be rather unpleasant."
Elaine laughed and shimmered for a moment. When her features clarified again, Kentaro found he was staring at his mirror image. She spoke, rather unsurprisingly, in his voice.
"The mimicry is complete, Kentaro. The only thing you can do in that body that I can't is invoking your Gift."
"It is a pity, then, that you will not be using my body. You do not want to... I believe the phrase is 'tip your hand' to an enemy. Let him wonder what your Gift is for as long as he can, and let him think you a mere female as long as he can. Every time he underestimates you, your power over him grows."
"'Mere' female?" Elaine's eyes suddenly had a dangerous glint in them.
"I say only that men tend to underestimate women in combat. A foolish mistake, considering men have an additional, highly vulnerable target, but one that is made all the time."
"In that case I guess I'll forgive you."
"You honor me... sorry, when you are Japanese, everyone expects you to say that sort of thing."
"I'd show you an example of American spirit, but my lawyer is on vacation," Elaine laughed.
"I think that is a demonstration I can afford to miss, though I doubt I could afford the fee you would charge me to witness it."
"Oh yes, you looked at me funny once. That's sexual harassment and worth ten million at the very minimum! Albeit, money is just a bit useless when your entire economy is comprised of one town."
"So, shifting focus a bit, tell me more about yourself, Elaine."
"Well, my mother's name is Diane. Her Gift is telekinesis. I have a younger brother named Alexander. He's about 8 years old, and something of a pain. My father... died a few years back. He never got to see the apocalypse. I sometimes... envy him that luxury, though I certainly enjoy my Gift. My hobbies include reading, hiking, and playing minor tricks using my Gift.
Before the apocalypse, I wanted to be a doctor. Now, it's hard to tell. I don't have the slightest idea what the world is going to be like ten years from now, but I get the feeling it won't have recovered sufficiently that I can pack my bags and go off to college."
"My condolences regarding your father. It is certainly a confusing time. I do not even know how my home country is handling the change. Even if I could go back now, I would not. This town has established a fair degree of order. There is no assurance of that, back home. I am thankful that I have no close family remaining in Japan."
"So, what did you want to be, before the apocalypse?"
"Well, when I was younger, I wanted to be shogun, but as I got older, I began to realize that the odds of becoming such were less than perfect. I decided I wanted to be a sensei-a teacher, though of what, I do not know. Obviously, my lifestyle lends itself well to the teaching of martial arts, but I wanted to teach something academic, if not exclusively, at least in addition to that."
"I hope they paid teachers better in Japan than they did in this country. Here, if you wanted to live in a cardboard box, the best career you could have chosen was that of a teacher. If you really wanted to make money, you went into a much more important career, like entertainment. After all, an education is useless, but heaven forefend we should ever be BORED!"
The ringing of the bell cut off Kentaro's reply.
Saric broke off the conversation he'd been having with Mr. Conner regarding the dietary habits of the numerous inhabitants of the room, and tried to remember what his next class was. With a slight groan, he realized the only things left were English and Community Service, and the latter was scheduled for the last hour of the day. Resigned, he made his way to the next class, noting that fate had granted him a small mercy in the company of his friends.
Dennis took a seat to his left, and immediately launched into a series of complaints about the likely evil of mathematics under Mr. Roe. Saric, Elaine, and Kentaro, who had had Roe for second period, joined in, and agreed to help one another out whenever the man failed to adequately teach his subject. They agreed that, based on his manner during the first day, the odds were good that they would be seeking help from one another quite frequently. Their discussions continued for the next few minutes, until they were interrupted by a rather loud voice coming from the back of the room.
"The teacher's twelve minutes late, and counting. What's the policy for when we can leave?"
Before anyone could answer, the door opened, and a rather harried looking man of early middle years rushed into the room, closing the door with a kick of his heel and putting a rather large stack of papers down on his desk. Composing himself and retreating behind the desk, he opened his mouth, and started apologizing profusely.
"Sorry about that, everyone. I've got a few duties I'm not used to yet, and the schedule still has some kinks in it, so I've been running around all day trying to keep up. Hopefully I can get things worked out and avoid similar messes in the future.
Now that I'm here, allow me to extend a belated welcome to English class. I'm Mr. James, and my Gift is the reason I've been all over the school since the day started. It's classified as Pristine. I can make any inanimate object as good as new, and since we don't have any way of getting things from out of town anymore, everyone wants me to go around fixing things. Some of your teachers may have mentioned a delay in assigning textbooks; that's because they haven't figured out how to go about ensuring that I can keep them in good order.
Back to the matter at hand, though, I cover English a little differently from the classical method. We'll be starting off with a test. Your results on that test will determine what we do here. Since we have a small class load, I can work with each of you individually. Now I'm probably about to make myself the most unpopular teacher in the world, but please get out pens or pencils, the test begins right now. Don't worry, it doesn't affect your grades."
Groans, sighs and black looks met Mr. James, but pencils and pens were brought out as he began handing out copies of the test. Saric was the second person done. Ironically, the first one was Kentaro. Those who were finished were instructed to go into the room across the hall and occupy themselves in whatever manner they saw fit until the bell rung.
Kentaro had been in the room alone for a few minutes before Saric walked in, and appeared to be meditating. Saric sat down quietly to avoid disturbing his friend, but Kentaro opened his eyes shortly afterwards. Turning to Saric, he began speaking, agitation evident in his voice.
"If my English sensei in Japan saw that test, he would have thrown his hands up in despair at the education system in this country."
"I may do the same. Capitalization? He was testing us on fucking capitalization? Anyone who hasn't learned by now that you capitalize the beginning of a sentence may just want to do the world a favor and forever foreswear the art of writing, since the only forum where that kind of grammar is acceptable is closed for the foreseeable future."
"What forum would that be?"
"The Internet; former home of information, porn, and the world's worst grammar in just about every language on earth. Now as dead as the electricity that ran it. Thank goodness we've got Sparkweaver powering the local generators."
"Is this a private conversation, or do you mind if I join you?" Elaine called out from the doorway.
"Feel free. Kentaro and I were just bashing the test."
Elaine shimmered, and her form changed to resemble a rather rotund man with a large mustache and a monocle.
"I say, old chap, don't forget to cross your eyes while dotting your T's," she said, crossing her eyes to emphasize her point.
A few other students had come in, and laughed along with Saric and Kentaro at Elaine. Shimmering again, she reverted to her natural form.
"At any rate," she continued, "I'd say there's a fairly good chance of us being placed in the adva-
"Youch! Damn, I hate it when this happens!" Dennis had just shown up, and looked to be in a good deal of pain.
"What happened, Dennis?" Saric asked, walking over to the door where Dennis stood, with Elaine and Kentaro behind.
"Damn door closed on my wing! Flying is the best thing in the world, but there are times when I really wish I could do it by some other means."
"You going to be OK?" Kentaro asked.
"I'll live, but not happily, at least not for the next hour or so."
"You going to be up for community service in a few minutes?"
"I may not like it much, but I'll be up for it."
"What program are you signing up for?"
"From the list they gave, I think my best option is surveillance. Anybody who tries to sneak into this town with me in the air had better have a damn powerful gun or a mass invisibility Gift. How about you guys?"
"I think I'll go for the hospital. I always wanted to be a doctor, and, while I can't be sure I'll achieve that goal, I suppose being a candy striper is a good start," Elaine responded.
"I'll go for courier service. I will not enjoy it, but I am the most suitable for it. With my Gift, if it takes me a minute to cross from one side of town to the other, Cameron will have my head," Kentaro laughed.
"I'm... not sure. If we had contact with any of the other towns in the region, I'd go for ambassador service, no question, but what good can charisma do in a local setting?"
"You could always convince them that with your terrible class load, you just don't have time for community service." Dennis said, half seriously.
"That's not the way it works. My Gift just nudges people a bit. The more opposed they are to my argument, the less effective charisma is. Besides, power corrupts. Messing with people's minds, even subtly, is a power that is exceptionally prone to corrupt the one who has it. Before I realized this was my Gift, it was always on. I had way too much control over the people I cared about, and when I saw what I was doing, it sickened me. Thankfully, with realization came the ability to turn it off. My brother, Djoser, isn't so fortunate. His Charm Gift is always on. EVERYBODY likes Djoser, and, while he isn't as skilled at changing minds as I am, there are times when he's tearing himself apart, trying to figure out if people are motivated to do things because of HIM, or just because of his Gift."
"Well then, maybe you should go find Cameron and ask him," Elaine suggested, "I'm sure he's got at least five million uses for your Gift."
"The bell's about to ring. We may as well head over to the lunch room where they're organizing this thing and hope he's there."
It turned out that not only was Mr. Cameron in the lunchroom, he was in charge of the entire program. Looking at the masses of assembled students, Saric decided he distinctly pitied the man. Cameron got up on stage, grabbed a microphone, and started in.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, you've all met me earlier today, you know who I am. Due to my previous career as a military tactician, I'm considered to be the local expert on proper application of forces.
In this time of need, the city needs all the help it can get. Those of you who did not sign the opt out form have submitted that it is acceptable for your Gifts to be made public, and we have researched them, and compiled a list of suggested services that you would, we hope, be skilled and happy to give. Those of you who did sign the form will be given three times the standard amount of community service, because you are willfully choosing not to invoke your Gifts for the good of our city, but we respect your choice, and will help you find things that you can do to be of assistance which are not overly unpleasant to you. Please realize that these are only suggestions, and you will be allowed to select any job that you can do and do well. The lists are alphabetized, and in place upon the tables to my left. Please line up by first letter of last name, and we will get this program rolling."
"Well," Saric commented, "this may put a crimp in your plans, Elaine. Somehow I don't expect they'll want you 'wasting' your Gift in the hospital."
"What ethical thing could I possibly do around here that DOES involve the use of my Gift?"
"I'm sure Cameron's written down some ideas."
"If it means working extra hours, so be it."
"Your choice. I think the rest of us will probably end up with ideas similar to the ones we discussed, but you're going to have problems going your way. Best of luck."
At that point, the four separated. Dennis and Saric got into the K line, while Kentaro and Elaine separated into their own lines. Each found their paper, looked over the suggestions, and headed off to various areas. Saric to the counselors office, Kentaro to the post office, Dennis to the ranger station, and Elaine to Mr. Cameron to request alternate placement.
"Comedy? You want me to do a COMEDY routine, Mr. Cameron?" Elaine was working hard to control her annoyance, but it wasn't working very well.
"These are trying times, Miss Derras. People need something to laugh about. You could give them that. Think how funny it would be to use your gift for satire."
"I am quite well aware of the amusing properties of my Gift. I use them quite frequently, in fact, but that's a hobby. This is a duty towards the community, and I want to make more of a difference than a few chuckles!"
"Well, I did say the lists were only advisory. Did you have something else in mind to make use of your gifts? I'd love to offer you a position in espionage, but we aren't really using any of that at the moment."
"What I really want to do, I don't think my Gift will help with. I want to work in the hospital."
"How about a combination of ideas then? You can be the classic candy striper, but throw in a comedy act for the patients. They say laughter is the best medicine."
"Now that, Mr. Cameron, is a good idea."
"Not a problem. That's what they pay me the big... well, maybe not. Who would have thought a little thing like the end of the world would destroy something as sound as an economic system."
"From each, according to his abilities, to each, according to his needs, Mr. Cameron." Elaine's face had shimmered, and she briefly looked like Karl Marx.
"Uh huh. Report to the hospital. I hope you brought your bike."
Elaine winced. That was a disadvantage to working where she wanted to. The hospital was a fair distance from the school. Thankfully, Arrowhead as a whole wasn't very large, or most people would have been left totally stranded. Suppressing a sigh, she went to the bicycle racks to get her only reasonably quick means of transportation. She was almost tempted to shimmer into a more physically fit form. It would cut her time down, after all. Then she remembered what Kentaro had said earlier, and decided to stick with her own form. If he got that martial arts class off the ground, she wagered she would need the exercise.
Dennis was already tired when he reached the ranger station. Walking would have taken forever, but flying certainly was more work, especially for his sore wing. Still, the expression on the face of the ranger lounging outside when he came in for a landing made it worthwhile.
"Good afternoon sir. I'm Dennis Klein, reporting for community service as an aerial scout," he said, smiling and trying to conceal his slight shortness of breath.
To the ranger's credit, he recovered quickly.
"Through that door, go left, first door on the right."
The inside of the ranger station was decorated with pictures of the local area. Waterfalls, forests, and scenic vistas greeted Dennis as he made his way through the reception room and knocked on the given door. A slightly muffled voice on the other side told him to come in.
This ranger seemed better able to accept the sudden appearance of a boy with a set of wings on his back than the last one had, but Dennis figured the last one had received a more impressive introduction to those wings. He merely blinked a time or two, then smiled and rose from his seat. Extending his hand and smiling, he introduced himself as Ranger Swift and got down to business.
"I presume you're here from the junior high community service program?"
"Yes sir. Mr. Cameron thought the best use of my Gift would be aerial scouting."
"I'll have to thank him. Since our choppers were grounded, we've had one heck of a time keeping track of the local surroundings. We damn near let a small forest fire into the other side of town a month ago, because we didn't spot it until it was only a few miles away. Think what would have happened if the wind had been blowing the wrong way that day!" Ranger Swift shuddered.
"It's ironic that even with the Gifts we've been given, we're still so vulnerable to the wrath of nature."
"Indeed it is. So, let's be getting onward towards preventing that sort of thing. How fast, how far, and how high can you fly?"
"I'm afraid I haven't tested my limits, sir, with the exception of how long. An hour currently seems to be about the max I can manage at any given time. I flew over here from the school about five minutes ago, though, if that helps. I was taking it fairly easy, because I didn't want to exhaust myself before the job started."
"Five minutes? As the crow, or in this case, student, flies, the school is at least four miles from here. That means your easy pace is about 48 miles an hour."
"Strange, it doesn't feel that fast."
"Never mind that, let's get you trained in what to look for to detect problems from the air. I want you flying high, since that's probably safer for you in case there IS something dangerous on the ground, so you're going to have to learn to look for little things."
With that, Ranger Swift escorted Dennis out of the office, and into a larger room to begin training. The knowledge was presented in an overhead projector format, and took some time to absorb, but by the time his hour was up, Dennis felt he had made some significant progress.
Kentaro felt like he'd barely left the school before he was at the post office. He checked his watch. 30 seconds. The post office was only a couple of miles from the school. Cameron had better not find out about this, or Kentaro was certain he'd receive a lecture for procrastination. Shrugging, he walked up the steps and into a room cluttered with oversized pictures of stamps and other mail memorabilia.
"May I help you?" The clerk behind the counter asked. He looked a bit bored. Apocalypses probably cut down on letters, Kentaro reflected. At least the world had finally seen an end to the mountainous piles of junk mail, though.
"My name is Kentaro Ishida. I was sent from the junior high school community service program to serve as a courier."
"Great. Maybe we can get information flowing at a decent rate again. We've become the central hub for information exchange. City council members, industry, education, and everything else all communicate with each other through us. I've been thinking they were doing it more out of habit than wisdom, though. These days, it'd be faster to just send someone from one department to the other, directly."
"I can help with that, sir," Kentaro said with a smile. The idea that everyone was just dropping letters in mail boxes when the letters had to be picked up and delivered, at best, by bicycle was something of an irony.
"I'd love to know how. They always used to joke about the postal service being sluggish before-these days we've redefined the term."
In answer, Kentaro ran across the room. The building was reasonably large, but Kentaro had been going full speed, and covered the distance so quickly it probably looked to the clerk as though he had teleported. Once the man realized what Kentaro had done, he became ecstatic.
"Incredible! If you can move that quickly, we'll be faster than we were BEFORE the apocalypse! We might even be able to keep up with the speeds e-mail was achieving!"
"I am pleased that I may be of service. How soon may I start deliveries?"
Kentaro was out the door with a sack of mail and a map of the city so quickly, he suspected the clerk had temporarily stolen his Gift. Once outside, he dropped the polite mask and sighed. He had wanted to do something important, but the best use anyone could think of for his Gift was letter carrying. It was several days before he found out how important his job really was.
"Mostly, Mr. Kelvrosa, it's about listening," the school psychologist continued explaining the idea behind counseling to Saric, hiding her misgivings at placing a completely untrained student in a position like this. She could only hope that he used his Gift well, and truly desired to do good things with it.
"I still don't understand. How can I be of help to someone, any more than any other person of my age, if all I'm doing is acting as a set of sympathetic ears? Charisma is a fine thing, but even I can't project help without saying anything."
"You're also there to guide them along the path they want to walk, so long as that path leads in a positive direction. You cannot change them; they have to want to change. Well, perhaps you can change them, but I think you can see the ethical problems in that. What you can and should do is make their transition easier. Don't worry; I'll be here to discuss how things are going afterwards. As for mediation, just try to come up with the best and fairest solution. You'll probably upset people, but you should at least be able to keep the extensive fights, and the suffering that results from those fights, to a minimum."
"I will do my best, ma'am."
"Good. And Saric, I probably don't need to say this, but remember, anything you hear in these sessions is strictly confidential, with exceptions coming only when your continued silence would do a great deal of harm.
Saric walked out of the counselors office feeling a bit dazed. While he was not averse to helping others, it seemed somehow strange to him to be doing it as a community service. Shrugging, he got on his bicycle and headed home. It was thankfully a reasonably short trip from the school to his house. Saric had come from a fairly well off family in the days before, and the two story house on a well landscaped, reasonably sizable lot indicated this. With a sigh of relief, he got off the bike, put it in its place to the side of the house, and entered the comforting embrace of home.
The numerous backpacks piled in the living room told him Djoser was having some of his friends over again. Djoser might worry about the source of their friendship, but fortunately for him, that didn't stop him from enjoying it. Fortunately for Saric, Djoser was a good sort, and the two got along quite well. A little further investigation, consisting mainly of following the sound of boisterous shouting, lead Saric to the back yard, where an impromptu soccer game was underway. Before he could say anything, Djoser spotted him and called out to him.
"Hey Saric! We're down one player, you up for a little ball kicking?"
"I'd be delighted!" Saric shouted back.
"Hey everyone, even teams! Switch to level goals!" Djoser's voice rang out, halting the game. Looking at the setup, Saric saw that the team that was down a player had compensated with a little help from gravity, as their goal was at the top of the slight incline that was the back yard. The goalies from each team picked up the goal markers and set them up on the sides of the hill. Saric grabbed a little dirt and smeared an arrow on his forehead to indicate which team he was on, and then joined the fray.
The game was going well, with Saric's team slightly ahead, when people began getting tired. The teams slowly decreased in size, until it became a one on one between two people Saric was only vaguely familiar with. Silently wishing his side luck, he turned and walked into the house, wiping the dirt off his forehead before stepping inside. Most of Djoser's friends had already left. The few that remained were making small talk, discussing classes, annoyances, and other such things. Saric joined the discussion by chiming in about Mr. Roe, asking those who had already been his students if the man were truly as big an asshole as he seemed. The reply was not encouraging.
"Fishman Roe? Ouch. Saric, you got stuck with the math teacher from hell. Or at least he would be, if he could only convince the devil he was important enough," Djoser said, frowning at the thought.
"Marcon got the only decent math teacher in that school, remember?" one of the others chimed in.
"Damn mother fucker. I lost some good friends to Marcon. I hope he enjoyed being fried; it's the least he deserves," the speaker turned out to be a surprisingly mousy girl, who, if not for her rage, would have probably been totally unnoticeable.
"No good talking about it. Just brings up bad memories," Djoser said, his voice slightly heavy with sadness. Everyone had lost friends in that conflict. The more unfortunate had lost family.
"I suppose you're right," the mousy girl replied, sighing, and sinking back into a padded chair that seemed a bit too large for her small frame.
"Back to Roe, the only advice I can give you, Saric, is that you'd damn well better know your math, because he'll do everything he possibly can to keep you from learning it, all without even realizing he's doing so," Djoser commented.
"Why do you call him Fishman?" Saric asked.
"Roe is another word for fish eggs. Like caviar, but without the class. So, moving on to a hopefully better subject, who are your other teachers?"
Saric started down the list, and got some comments on every teacher he had. Miss Taggert was the kind of teacher that really wanted to award all A's, and would think of a way to give a student an A, no matter how poorly they did, so long as they gave it their best effort. Coach Cameron, for so he had been known a few years back, was a man of two polarities: He demanded perfection, but didn't ever ask for more than he thought a student was capable of giving. His definition of capable, however, was usually rather different from that of the student. He was also known for not believing that B, C or D were real grades. Conner was a blast to have as a teacher, but he couldn't understand the idea that someone might not be interested in any particular subject. His enthusiasm was infectious for the duration of the class, but homework could sometimes be a real drag. Mr. James was the best English teacher ever. Most teachers shot for a middle ground to teach to, but James had assignments planned out for the kid who couldn't spell his name, the one who could speak and write 5 languages fluently, and every one in between. Saric complained about the ease of the first day exam, and found out to his dismay that anyone who got above 95% in the first exam would be given a second, much more challenging exam. The first exam determined which students were up to a 7th grade level, the second one tested how far beyond that level the rest went.
Saric's parents walked in the door at that point, both of them looking exhausted. They worked in environmental maintenance, keeping Arrowhead fit for life without external regulation. While much of the big industry had been shut down by a lack of exports, pollution was still potentially worrisome if left unchecked. Their arrival seemed to be a signal for Djoser's friends to leave, and in a few minutes, the house was empty of all non-residents. Tired though they were, both wanted to know how school was going for each of their children. Saric began to feel a little like a tape recorder as he rehashed the day's events yet again. Saric's mother had brought dinner home for the evening, though no one was particularly thrilled with the idea of eating it. The family had a garden growing, but their home meals still consisted primarily of Rando's chicken dumplings.
Dinner was over fairly quickly. When it was done, Saric went up to his bedroom and got out a book he was reading. Time flew by for him, and before he knew it, the first day of junior high had come to an end.
Elaine's mouth hurt. She'd begun putting together her comedy routine, and the hopefully contagious smile she wore felt like it had been glued on her face after half an hour. In addition, she'd been learning how to do other things around the hospital to make things easier for the staff. She was glad she wasn't bothered by blood, because the first thing they had started teaching her was how to bandage wounds. She had only watched and listened today, but there had been some hints that she would start doing it herself, next time someone came in who wasn't too badly hurt.
At least she was home now. She had taken the ride slowly, relaxing after a lengthy first day, so it took her a while to get to her house. Her little brother, Alexander, was waiting in the hallway.
"Hey 'Laine, how was the first day?" His voice was half mocking, as always, but the other half revealed a genuine concern.
"Long and tiring, Lex. How about yours?"
"Short and easy, except for getting there and getting home. Did you know that they've instituted a rule that every un-Gifted individual must be accompanied in public places by a Gifted one, for personal protection?"
"Chaotic times, Lex, and no one's more vulnerable than you munchkins."
The word munchkin got her a glare from Lex.
"Times may be chaotic, but the fact that I need a guard, when some bimbo whose only gift is to put spots on walls is allowed to walk around free as the birds, seems a bit unfair."
"No one ever promised you fair."
Lex made a face at that, and walked out the back door to work on his latest antidote for boredom: a tree house. Elaine still wasn't certain how he'd managed to talk the supply manager into giving him the wood and nails. Shrugging, she decided she was too hungry to wait for her parents, and began making dinner for the family. She had just put the finishing touches on a salad that was as fancy as she could make it when her mother arrived home. Seeing her so industriously occupied brought a smile to her face, though the sight of the salad might have had something to do with that.
"Thanks for making dinner, Elaine. They've got me working as finder again, and I swear, if I have to retrieve just one more lost paper, I'm going to scream," her mother said, sighing with weariness.
"My pleasure, mom."
"Is your brother still working on that tree house?"
"I would assume so."
"Call him in, would you?"
"Sure," Elaine replied, turning to the back door, sliding it open, and shouting for Lex.
"Be right there, 'Laine," Lex called, climbing halfway down the steps and jumping the rest of the way.
Dinner was a pleasant affair, filled with laughter and the soft contentment of a good meal after a long day. Elaine found herself dozing, and decided to make an early night of it, though Lex, who seemed to have infinite energy, had already gone back outside to get a little more work done on his tree house before the last of the day's light faded.
Dennis decided that his wings probably weren't going to fall off. They certainly felt as though they were going to, though. The discomfort they were causing him made him almost wish they would. Having bade Ranger Swift a good evening, he had launched himself into the sky in an impressive but painful maneuver, and power-flown his way home, moving as quickly as he could. The extra discomfort was worth the hastened sight of his front door.
Upon entering the house, he decided a shower would probably help him relax. He wished he could lie back in a warm bath, but that was one of many little setbacks that came with the gift of flight. Carefully, he headed upstairs; making sure his tired wings didn't knock anything over.
The hot water did wonders to ease the discomforts the day had piled upon him, and Dennis took the time to reflect. Roe had been a pain in the ass, but he had a feeling the man he would come to despise most was coach Cameron. The man was, he knew, acting towards the good of the students, but a solid forty-five minutes of sustained flight without the chance to rest was a very painful way to build strength.
Reluctantly, Dennis turned the water off, stepped slowly out of the tub, and began to dry himself. Here, too, his wings proved difficult. He had just put on a fresh set of clothing, working his modified shirt onto his torso, when he heard his parents calling from downstairs. Smiling, he walked down to meet them.
They had brought home eggs. Dinner tonight would at least be a change of pace. Before dinner began, Dennis' father went to the side cupboard and pulled out a deck of cards.
"What's the game tonight, dad?" Dennis asked curiously.
"Five card draw, if no one objects."
"Sounds good to me."
"I'll get dinner started. You two start without me," his father volunteered.
The family played cards for several hours, changing games as they went, and keeping amused until they were tired enough for bed. Dennis had done well in poker, and less well in crazy eights, but overall, he decided he didn't care about victory; the joy of the game was what mattered. He walked up to his room, and carefully arranged himself on his bed, managing, for once, not to sit on a wing. He was asleep within moments.
It was silent. Kentaro had lived for a while with his American relatives, but he and his parents had since found a home of their own. The previous owner had died without an heir in the chaos following the apocalypse. While entire families were not usually wiped out, one-person households had quite often been rendered vacant. The house was small, but larger by far than where Kentaro had lived in Japan. Much as he loved his family, he cherished the moments when he could relax in complete silence. His silence that particular day was slightly prolonged, as his parents were home a little later than usual. Kentaro had occupied the time until they arrived doing various chores around the house and yard. He had never had a yard before, and the garden he and his family created for food was both well maintained and visually pleasing.
His mother's voice called him in from the garden, which he had been busily weeding. She spoke, as usual, in English. The family had occasional Japanese dialogues, to maintain their knowledge of their native tongue, but for the most part, they used the language of the land they were now in.
"Kentaro, I received a message from Mr. Cameron saying you wanted to get a martial arts class going. He didn't have many details, other than to request that the three of us meet with the school administration. Care to fill me in on your idea?"
"Certainly, Okaasan, but let us wait until Otousan comes home," Kentaro replied. Much as he had accustomed himself to English, he could never bring himself to refer to his parents by English titles.
The two were not kept waiting long, for a few minutes later, the door opened and Kentaro's father stepped in. He looked over towards his son, and his expression indicated his curiosity. Kentaro greeted him, and proceeded with the explanation of his plan.
"Basically, I feel that it would be greatly beneficial to the students of Arrowhead if they had a physical means of defending themselves. Some of them do not have combat oriented Gifts, and even the ones that do would do well to have a spare weapon in their arsenal. The world is not a safe place now, and we need to do what we can to ensure that our fellow citizens are capable of fending for themselves. To that end, I suggest a volunteer martial arts class, which would occur after normal classes, but before community service. You two would, if you consent, be the instructors, along with any others in this town who are able and willing to teach. I also desire to teach."
"It sounds like a good idea. The school has asked us all to meet with them tomorrow. Knowing how such systems work, even if they accept it, be prepared to wait a few weeks," his mother said, smiling. There was a peculiar gleam in her eye, and a slight smile on her lips; betraying signs of her eagerness to teach again.
"What about the adults, the high school children, and the elementary school students? It is a good thought to help our fellow citizens, but now that you bring it up, limiting ourselves to just one age group hurts the town," his father chimed in, a slightly worried frown on his face.
"Perhaps the school will allow the classes to be open to all? Father, I understand your worry, but I think that our emphasis, at least, should be with people of my age. They are old enough to grasp the consequences of their actions, but not so old that time has robbed them of the vitality nature gave them."
"Hmm. Well, bring it up with the school board tomorrow. For now, let us eat."
Dinner that evening involved an experiment on the part of Kentaro's family. They had been growing some spices, and were trying to see if they could make Rando's Chicken Dumplings a bit more palatable. Their efforts were moderately successful, which pleased them all greatly, as the substance had begun to wear thin its welcome in their household. The evening passed in casual comfort and conversation, and before long, they all drifted off to bed. Kentaro sleepily decided that if this was middle school in America, it had its ups and downs, but overall, it was, he hoped, a foundation on which an entertaining year could be built.