Notes: And we’re back to the main story, and somehow I wrote over 3k of it in two hours, so let’s hope it’s comprehensible. A little illumination, a little introspection, a few pointed threats…all in a day’s work.
Title: The Academy
Part Eight: Hit Me Where It Hurts
If there was one thing that Ten hated above all else, it was waiting. Sitting around with nothing to do and no way to get something to do because ze was, ostensibly, being punished…well, it really was kind of punishing. All Ten could do to get through it was to try and make the wait as punishing for the people around hir as possible.
Ze and Valero sat on opposite sides of Admiral Liang’s antechamber, waiting for their sponsors to arrive so they could go in and get chewed out together. Which, hah, if inconveniencing hir sponsor was supposed to make Ten feel extra bad, the admiral was going to be sorely disappointed. Ten’s sponsor hated hir, and the feeling was mutual. The thought of Barré hoisting himself out of bed and running to the admiral’s office just to be told off for not being more responsible for Ten…well, sweet didn’t really do enough to describe it.
But Barré wasn’t here yet, and neither was Valero’s sponsor, so they only had each other and the two security officers assigned to watch them while the admiral and Master Sergeant Jessup dueled over their fates. Ten didn’t know what was going to happen, but ze figured the punishment would land somewhere between scrubbing latrines and expulsion. Second warning and all that, but on the other hand ze hadn’t started it, and Ten also could count on the sympathy vote for the black eye and the huge swelling bruise ze could feel puffing up on hir right cheekbone. Not to mention the bloody nose…Ten checked to make sure the dried blood was still crusted on hir upper lip. Perfect. Now ze could look small and pathetic and be sort of believable, as long as ze didn’t laugh or something to ruin it.
Bored. Bored, bored, bored. Ten kicked hir feet against the base of the bench ze was sitting on, making it thud.
“Stop it,” Valero snapped.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
“Stop it, you chummy little sack of wormbait!”
“Is that an insult on your planet?” Ten asked idly, still thudding hir heels against the bench. “Is it bad to be wormbait? Wait, does that mean I’m bait for worms, or bait made from worms? Because either way, it makes me feel useful.” Valero glared angrily at hir but didn’t reply. “On Solaydor, for example, if I wanted to insult you I’d call you…” Ze looked Valero up and down. “An unfashionista, maybe. Or better yet, just an un. Uns are what we call people who have no function in society. Before at least you were decorative, like a lamp, but now—well, with that hair, I mean—”
“If you,” Valero breathed, her expression murderous, “don’t shut your hateful mouth, I swear that the next time I get you alone, I’ll—”
Ten and Valero looked over at the door, both of them startled. Ten hadn’t even heard the man walk in, and ze was usually more observant than that. Both the security officers looked relieved. This was someone who could control Valero then, probably her sponsor. And oh, wasn’t he pretty? Wavy brown hair, golden tan skin, ridiculously fit…and angry. You couldn’t see it in his perfect face, but Ten read it in the stiffness of his shoulders and the tension in his voice. Valero clearly saw it too.
“Kyle, it’s not my fault.”
Oh, the infamous Kyle, captain of the paraball team. Ten froze for a second as the young man’s eyes flashed toward hir, then forced hirself to relax. Just because Valero’s sponsor had the eyes of a viper didn’t mean he was going to strike.
“Really,” Kyle said mildly, turning back to look at Valero. “Because from what the master sergeant told me when he called me ten minutes ago, this—” He gestured at Ten, “really is your fault. So is breaking a table and trying to headbutt an alien. The only alien on campus, the one that people are falling all over themselves to get a glimpse of, much less an invitation into his quad.”
“To be fair, she’s never really gotten an invitation,” Ten said cheekily. “She just shows up.”
Kyle turned and stared at hir again, and Ten shrank back despite hirself. This man was packing some serious intensity. After a long moment he looked away, and Ten could breathe again.
The door to Admiral Liang’s office opened, and Master Sergeant Jessup called out, “Senior Cadet Alexander, Cadet Balteran—get in here.” Valero stood up shakily, her eyes on the ground, and Kyle took her elbow and walked her into the office. It shut after them, which gave Ten a chance to come to grips with what ze’d just heard.
Alexander…Senior Cadet Alexander, and he had to be a Legacy or Valero wouldn’t have anything to do with him, and Alexander was an old-world name, Central System for sure, and as far as Ten knew there was only one Alexander with the pedigree to be a Legacy, which meant…
Holy whoa. Kyle Alexander was the younger brother of the President of the Federation.
Raymond Alexander was at least a full generation ahead of Kyle; he’d been in politics for the past fifty years, and President for ten of those, half of the terms he was allowed by law. The Alexander patriarch who spawned both of them had had a reputation as a playboy, not a politician—it had been sheer bad luck that his ship had been attacked by pirates as he traveled between central planets. Foster Alexander had, by all accounts, behaved very heroically as he fought to save his crew and his youngest children, who were travelling with him, but didn’t make it out alive himself. His commission in the military, even though he hadn’t been active duty for decades, made all his children eligible to be Legacies.
Kyle must have been one of those kids. He’d been there when his father—and mother, Foster’s fifth or sixth wife, Ten thought—had been murdered. That was…rough, Ten acknowledged. Very, very rough. But then, whose life was a perfect party? Ten was effectively an orphan, Darrel hated his family, Grennson was a stranger in a very strange land…the only person Ten could think of who had it close to perfect was Cody, with his doting dads and his high-performance bike and his “I like everybody” personality. Cody and his inoffensive nature, his adequate but not exceptional intellect and his natural cuteness. What did Cody have to be sad about? Nothing.
Well no, not nothing. There was something there, something different about him, and Ten felt on the verge of a revelation, especially after tonight. Cody was lying about himself. Ten just wasn’t sure exactly how yet. Ze’d figure it out, though—Cody wasn’t a very good liar. Ten felt sure that with just a little more time and the right questions, ze’d be able to—
“Tiennan!” Barré hissed, slinking into the room and onto the bench next to Ten. “For the love of God, what did you do?”
“I set myself on fire, what do you think I did?” Ten demanded, instantly irritated. Ze and his sponsor weren’t a very good match. Barré was a genius at chemistry, but way too cautious to ever come up with anything spectacular. He was all about “improving current chemical processes to reduce waste and blah blah blah,” which was so boring that Ten hadn’t been able to keep hir eyes open during their introduction. That had gotten them off on the wrong path, and two months in things weren’t any better. “I got beat up by a stupid Legacy,” Ten continued.
“For the love of God, don’t call them that!”
That was the other annoying thing about Barré. He referenced God in almost everything he did. “Why are you even here?” Ten asked. “We haven’t even seen each other since the first week of classes.”
“When Admiral Liang himself asks me to come to his office and explain the actions of my plebe, I obey,” Barré said gloomily. “Even when that plebe is you. God is punishing me with you, I know it.”
“But why is he punishing me with you?” Ten asked snidely. Barré didn’t answer, he just sank his head into his hands and whimpered. Wuss. It was no fun to tease someone who refused to tease back. Ten went back to thunking hir feet against the bench, hoping to get a rise out of hir sponsor, but Barré seemed immune to any distraction from his misery.
A few minutes later, the office doors opened and Valero and Kyle emerged, Valero looking incredibly chastened. She walked straight over to Ten and said, very stiffly, “I apologize for losing my temper with you. It won’t happen again.”
“That sounds like a promise destined to be broken,” Ten said.
“For God’s sake, be gracious,” Barré muttered.
“I’m just telling it like I see it!”
“I personally guarantee that it won’t happen again.” Valero shrank a little as her sponsor spoke, blushing so hard that her skin almost matched her hair color. “Random violence is never a good solution to interpersonal problems,” Kyle continued.
Well, that was…true, if weirdly phrased. Ten nodded. “Okay.”
Barré nudged him. “Now you.”
“Now me what?”
“Now you apologize?”
Valero scowled, and Barré rolled his eyes. Kyle looked on imperturbably. “For her hair!” Barré said.
“But I’m not sorry for that. I’m just being honest,” Ten added when hir sponsor looked like he might erupt. “She was being mean to Cody, which is like the equivalent of kicking a baby catterpet, and so she deserved it.”
“And she’ll apologize to Cadet Helms personally as well,” Kyle said smoothly, “but you seem the sort to understand that he’s going to have to learn to deal with conflict and verbal defense on his own at some point. I’m not saying assisting him wasn’t warranted, but you denied him the opportunity to fight for himself by intervening.”
Oh, fucking logic. And worse yet, it was true. Cody was too nice, it made Ten want to lock him in their room and keep him with hir all the time. “Fine,” Ten huffed. “I’m sorry I denied Cody the chance to stand up for himself by pouring dye all over your hair, Valero. I’ll give you the solution to remove it tomorrow,” he added in an effort to be extra nice.
Valero still scowled, but Kyle seemed satisfied. “Thank you.” He nodded to them, then turned and left the antechamber, his plebe hurrying after him like a bright orange hazard flag. It would be a shame to wash that color away, Ten thought.
“You two, in,” Master Sergeant Jessup called. Ten popped to hir feet and walked into the office, followed by a very dispirited Barré.
Admiral Liang sat behind his desk, as stylish at midnight as he was every other time Ten had ever seen him. The admiral had an element of elegance that seemed to defy time and space, his own private dimension of class that he carried with him at all times. He should give seminars on that, not graduate level quantum theory, Ten mused.
“So,” Admiral Liang said, a little smile on his face. “Here you are again, Cadet St. Florian.”
“I’ve been told by numerous people that the incident which occurred tonight, while precipitated by you, wasn’t really your fault.”
“That’s true, sir,” Ten agreed, pleased that the admiral saw things hir way.
“Mmhmm. I’ve also been reliably informed that you are still performing experiments in your quad, keeping Class Four chemicals in unsafe containment, and heedlessly involving yourself and your quadmates in unnecessary altercations.”
“No!” Ten exclaimed. “That’s not…I mean, okay, yes with the experiments but it’s all in my room, not in the common area, and the chemicals are perfectly contained because I’m the only one who can get to them and I know how to use them safely, sir, the stuff I poured on Valero is completely nontoxic, and I don’t see why I should be punished for sticking up for a fellow cadet! Sir,” ze added.
Master Sergeant Jessup didn’t look at all convinced, and it sounded like Barré might hyperventilate before too long, but Admiral Liang nodded slightly. “Valid points. Nevertheless, you were warned about fighting, and it can’t be denied that your actions tonight were excessive. You didn’t land the first blow, but you did fire the first volley, if you take my meaning, cadet. You escalated a situation that had no direct bearing on you, and the subsequent brawl disturbed the serenity of your entire floor. Having warned you in the past, and having had that warning ignored, I’m left to come up with an appropriate punishment.” The admiral steepled his fingers.
“We tried physical punishment last time, and that seemed to have little effect on your actions. I suspect I could have you trimming every hedge on this campus and you’d find a way to do it that made it pleasurable for you. Due to your declared major, we can’t bar you from the public labs, and I hate the thought of you resorting to making your own chemicals.” Ten smiled at that. The admiral didn’t smile back. “Expulsion is always an option, but it’s a drastic one, and I feel like expelling you would be doing you a disservice. You’re not a hopeless case, Ten, just a stubborn one.
“Most cadets can be relied upon to change their behavior because of their sense of shame, but I’m beginning to think you don’t have one. So, what is an appropriate punishment for someone as self-sufficient as you?” Admiral Liang leaned forward. “Tell me, what do you think of your roommate?”
“Cody?” That had changed directions fast. “He’s nice enough.”
“Nice to you, even?”
“Yeees…” Letting me do experiments in the shower, cooking me food, telling me jokes—stupid jokes, but he tries—and telling me all about his family… “He’s nice to me.”
“And you, Cadet, are you nice to him back?”
Helping him with his chemistry homework, with his implant, with everything a Fringe kid doesn’t know about life in the Central System, he’s so happy to listen, he makes me feel…responsible. “Yes,” Ten said quietly. “I try to be.”
“Would another roommate be as nice to him, do you think?”
Oh, oh no. “Are you saying you’d move him?” Ten demanded.
“Cadet Helms would be easier to relocate than you, certainly. Not to put too fine a point on it, but no one in your class would welcome you into their quad with open arms,” Admiral Liang said calmly. “I put the two of you—the four of you, really—together for a reason. You have complimentary skillsets, and you in particular are very strong willed. I think you could be good for your quad mates, Cadet, but if you can’t control yourself enough to solve things with your brain instead of your little toys, then I’m not sure you’re the best influence for someone like Cody.”
“But…this…” No, Cody couldn’t be moved, he loved it in their quad. He was like a sponge, he soaked up everything, even Darrel talked to him, Grennson loved being around him, and Ten…
“Please don’t.” Ten couldn’t be the reason Cody was sent somewhere else, ze just couldn’t be. “Don’t move him. I’ll do better.”
“You’ve said that before.”
“But I mean it this time!” Ten exclaimed. “Really! I’ll be better, I swear, just leave Cody alone.”
“I want to,” Admiral Liang said. “I truly want to. And I will, for now.” Ten relaxed with a sigh. “But you have to learn some self-control, Ten, before you draw one of your quad mates into a situation that they can’t help you out of. Something that could get one of them hurt. Do you understand?”
“Your frankness is a gift, don’t ever think that it isn’t,” he added. “I wish more people spoke their minds like you do, there were be far fewer misunderstandings in this universe. But you need to temper it, Cadet St. Florian. And you,” he looked at Barré, “have been underserving your plebe. Managing people is as much a responsibility of a Federation officer as managing your own tasks is, and I expect you to use this opportunity as a chance to learn and improve. You might start by making some room in your own lab for your cadet’s use.”
Barré opened his mouth to argue, then shut it. “Yes, sir,” he said a moment later.
“Good. Good!” Admiral Liang sat back and lowered his hands. “Then I think we’re done for now. Good evening, Cadets.”
“Good evening, sir.” They both saluted, then Barré led the way out of the office door, which shut promptly behind them.
“I can’t believe you’d argue with the admiral,” Barré muttered. “To his face!”
“I can’t exactly argue with him behind his back,” Ten replied. “So…lab space?”
“Fine. Two meters square, but that’s all!” hir sponsor insisted. “And you have to buy all your own chemicals, don’t even think about filching mine.”
Barré scarpered and Ten walked back to Hebe Tower, lost in thought. Admiral Liang was…tricky. Very tricky, Ten concluded. Ten was no stranger to threats, ze’d been dealing with them all hir life and ze was an old hand at playing them out. Punishment? I can handle whatever you can dish out. Expulsion? Fuck you, I can have more fun in a less restrictive environment. But moving Cody out of the quad…Ten didn’t think ze could take that.
And it was stupid to be so concerned about another cadet, it wasn’t like moving out would kill Cody or anything, he would probably be fine, but Cody liked them. He liked where he was, and he was already a little insecure after such a huge change in his life, and yes, fine, Ten was selfish and didn’t want him to go anywhere and fine, damn it, ze’d restrain himself a little if it meant keeping them all together. Even Darrel, although frankly Darrel should have been dragged to Liang’s office too, in Ten’s opinion.
Their quad was dark when ze opened the door, everyone already in bed. Ten locked the door with a thought and headed for hir own room. Ze looked over at Cody, lying curled in a ball, his transmitter still on his pillow. He’d been talking to his dads, probably. He looked…uncomfortable, a line of pain furrowed between his eyebrows even now. But how could he possibly be in pain? Everyone here had painkillers built into the nanos that were refilled with every Regen treatment, and Cody had barely been tapped with that knee, he shouldn’t…
Unless—he couldn’t process the painkillers. Why wouldn’t he be able to do that? Was it a religious thing? God, Ten hoped not…Cody was from Pandora, wasn’t he?
Ten took a moment to look up Pandora’s specs. Class M planet, one small community, some interesting scientific research in genomics and—
Oh fuck. How had ze not seen this before? But there were so many Fringe planets, all of them weird and unique, and Cody seemed so normal, except now Ten knew, almost positively, that he wasn’t.
A natural. Cody was a natural, he had to be.
Well, Ten thought, settling into hir bed but staying awake. There was no way ze was going to sleep, and while ze wasn’t quite rude enough to wake Cody up, as soon as morning came, ze was getting some answers. At least now I know what you were lying about.