“And that’s when I stormed off,” I told the other freshmen.
After I had walked away from my table during Middy, I approached Lilly and requested that she accompany me for a walk. She was already done, so she practically jumped out of her seat. Helena and Angel Wang, a freshman Hunter, were also seated at her table and offered to come with us. I dumped my leftover food and returned my tray and dishes to the front tables, and then I led the other three toward the field where P.H. was held.
P.H., short for Physical Health or Physical Hour, was one of two mandatory classes at the Academy. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the entire student body spent the period after Mid-Night Meal in P.H., while all the non-athletic professors have a free period to finish Middy, plan lessons, run errands, etc. It also gave students who take part in athletic clubs a chance to practice with their teams; those in more than one club simply alternate depending on the day. All students not in an athletic club simply take part in the universal P.H. class.
The other three joined me in the freshman locker room to change before Middy ended. I was sitting on a bench and tying my sneakers when I had just finished venting to them. Angel sat beside me, their gorgeous royal blue eyes watching me intensely.
“You’re not very good at this ‘friendship’ thing, are you?” they blurted out.
Lilly broke out in a series of chortles over the unicorn’s blunt question. Helena had let slip the tiniest gasp.
“Angel! That isn’t very nice of you to say,” she opined.
Though I was, too, put off by the Hunter’s honesty, I sighed. “No, they’re right. I’m not very good at social interactions–I just fake it half the time.”
Lilly scoffed. “Seriously, Car? When are you going to give yourself some credit?”
I frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean that you’re just like everyone else here: you’re doing what you think you should do in order to get by.” She rounded the bench to stand before me, her hands on her hips. We had all changed into our gym clothes: black t-shirts with black track shorts, both lined with white. The shirt depicted AOA’s crest over the left breast, and across our shoulder blades read, “FRESHMAN.”
“You made friends with upperclassmen!” Lilly said.
“Sage and Gal hang around because I’m Axel’s adopted kid sister,” I counted on my fingers. “Renette and Sofia have me for A-1, and they’re friends with Gal so they joined me when I went to visit her. Max feels obligated to protect me because of our father, Diego and Oreste were only at our table because of him, and Jett sat with us because he’s new and doesn’t know anyone but Axel–”
A sharp pain erupted on my forehead as Lilly flicked me. “Ow! The hell, Li–”
Wisps of shadows pooled around her feet in intangible puddles and smokey piles. “Uh, Lilly? Your shadows are showing.”
My old friend took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as she willed her connection with her affinity to fade. The shadows dissipated into nothingness, leaving Helena, Angel, and I to gawk at the heir.
“Sorry,” she grumbled. “That’s been happening more and more lately. I need to work on controlling my emotions.”
I stood and offered her a half-smile. “I guess we all have things we need to work on.”
“You’re right about that,” Lilly acknowledged. “Though I’m pretty sure you’re worked up over the wrong thing, Car. Your problem isn’t that you don’t know how to make friends–it’s that you have trouble seeing the friends that are right in front of you. Life isn’t one big game of chess–the people you allow to get close to you aren’t pawns or rooks or knights, they’re people.”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other as I mulled over her words. I don’t know how to be any other way.
“I should apologize to them, shouldn’t I?”
The other three nodded. I nodded as well, just in time for the bell to ring signalling the end of Middy.
“I should go wait by the sophomore locker room so I can talk to most of them,” I sighed. I was about to head toward the exit when I wrung my hands together nervously. “Uhm, I just want you three to know that I don’t think that I would gain anything from being friends with you, so…”
There was an awkward pause–and then there was pain.
“You idiot!” Lilly punched my shoulder a little too aggressively. “What the hell kind of a way is that to say that you’re glad we’re friends?”
“Lilly, please–!” Helena rubbed my shoulder and scowled at Lilly. “What if you leave a bruise? You need to be more careful!”
Angel chuckled, their eyes now the shade of dandelions. “Well, I see one benefit of being your friends: you’re all so entertaining.”
Apologizing to the upperclassmen was easier than I’d thought. I stood by the exit of the sophomore and waited for the first familiar face.
Renette came out first with a boy I didn’t recognize.
“Renette!” I called out to her, my hand raised in a small wave. She idled by the exit, waiting for me to approach; the other student stood by her side, his brunneous eyes studying me. “I wanted to apologize for the way I acted at Middy. It was rude of me, and uncalled for.”
I was about to walk away when I added, “Oh! And thank you for everything today–for talking to me, coming with me to visit Gal, and sitting with me at Middy.”
Renette snorted out a laugh. “Uh, Cari? It’s cool. You don’t need to be super formal with me, remember?”
“R-Right,” I simpered. “I, uh, need to go and apologize to more of my friends, so I’ll see you around, Nini.”
The color in Renette’s cheeks seemed to deepen as her eyes widened slightly, only to relax as she smiled sweetly. “Go get ‘em, kid. See ya.”
I smiled and waved at the guy who had waited for her before I returned to my spot by the sophomore exit. I didn’t have to wait long; Axel and Galiana were out next, whispering amongst themselves. I approached them without uttering a word, my mind racing as I thought about what to say.
Axel was the first to notice me; he grinned in my direction and stepped aside, leading Gal straight for me. “Hey kid!”
“I’m glad you found the way out of the locker room okay,” Gal remarked, her expression filled with relief. “My first day, I was practically lost in the locker rooms. I followed Sage into the wrong one at first, so I couldn’t even find my locker. Then when I did go into the right locker room and change, I had seen the direction the other freshmen had gone in to leave, but I couldn’t discern the exit from the restrooms and professors’ offices.”
Axel rolled his eyes. “I swear, that has only happened to you.”
“Guys–” I tried to interject, but Sage, Max, and Jett jogged over from their locker room.
“Oh! You found your way out okay,” Sage noted. “Gal got lost last year.”
“I just told her that!” My guide told them. “The freshman locker rooms are a labyrinth!”
“Not even close, Gal.”
“Were you even in the right locker room?” Max asked. “I remember seeing you in the sophomore locker room last year–”
“She followed me in, even though Stedelen had explained the locker room situation in homeroom,” Sage explained. “He catered to her grade, and she still managed to fuck it up.”
“Guys, I wanted to–” I tried again, but to no avail.
“Okay, but when was someone going to tell me that the locker rooms and bathrooms were all co-ed?” Jett piped up, genuine concern on his face. “ ‘Cause that would have been nice to know. That’s not exactly common in America.”
“Word of advice from someone over one hundred and fifty years your senior,” Axel offered. “America sucks. And I’m as American as they get.”
“True as that may be, it’s not an American thing to find it odd,” Sage shared. “It’s a human thing. Humans have a hard time accepting those that are different.”
“Are we talking trash about humans?” asked Oreste. He and Diego had just exited the senior locker room and jogged over. “Because I was getting a mani-pedi on Saturday and this one lady–”
“I’M SORRY!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, my hands gripping the bottom of my shirt in frustration.
The students walking by glanced over in confusion, startled by my outburst. Axel and Max exchanged relieved smiles; the rest of the group appeared amused as they watched on.
“Good!” said another voice, colliding with me from behind. I rubbed my shoulder just as Sofia peeked her head out from behind me, a mischievous grin on her lips.
She winked at me, forcing heat to spread across my cheeks. “Don’t do it again. Li’l rude ass.”
I pouted my lips and looked away. “Yup, that’s my rap name. I’ll remember this when I’m famous…”
My friends’ laughter warmed my heart; Galiana pushed past both my brothers and hugged me tightly. It ended as abruptly as it began, but it was not unwelcome.
“Thank you for apologizing,” Gal smiled. “And good luck out there!”
I cocked an eyebrow as my eyes darted between each member of the group. “Out there–?”
“All freshmen on the field!” The call was shouted through a megaphone held by a titaness. Her brown eyes were on me, and her free hand was gesturing to the group of students to her left.
“Oh! Um–” I waved to my friends and jogged over to the professor. As soon as I was close enough, I added, “Sorry, professor.”
“I don’t judge students based on the way they act on the first night, Ms. de Ardo,” she commented. She had the megaphone tucked under one arm as she marked me as present for the period. “I find you’ll all show yourselves around week three. And it’s Coach Mnemosyne, though I’ve been going by Coach Nemo for a couple centuries now.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Coach Nemo.” I nodded respectfully before glancing over to my peers. “Um, may I ask why we’re separated from the other students?”
The titaness could barely hide her grin. “Since the upperclassmen have all gone through this, they get to sit this one out.”
In response to the befuddled look on my face, the coach nodded in the direction of the other freshmen and added, “Well, go on! We’ll explain everything in a couple minutes.”
I joined my peers as stage fright creeped up on me. When I peered over to the left, all the upperclassmen were seated on the bleachers, whispering amongst themselves. I found Axel and the gang easily; they were seated at the top, grouped together with the members of the Journalism Club.
I frowned, and then it hit me: we freshmen were going to be evaluated, and the rest of the school would get to sit and watch as we humiliated ourselves.