The War of Wind and Moon, Season 1, Chapter 2
“Sorry about that.” Vice Principal Kostopoulos put his phone down and turned a bright smile on Mia. She’d been waiting in his office for ten minutes. “I saw Tak showed you to the office. How do you know him?”
“I don’t really,” she said. “He lives in the flats we just moved into. His Mum offered me a lift.”
“That sounds like Hiroko. You could do worse than make a friend of Tak. He takes his school work almost as seriously as his sport. In fact, why don’t I put you in the same home room?”
“I don’t know if he’d want that…” Mia said but Kostopoulos was already tapping at his keyboard.
“There. Done. While we’re setting you up, here’s a locker key – I’ll show you where you are in a minute… I’ll just print your timetable…” More keyboard tapping and the printer on the corner of his desk whirred and spat out an A4 page. Grabbing it, he leaped up. “Okay! We’re ready. I wanted to have a longer chat but we can do that later. Mrs. Paige is waiting for you.”
Mia hustled to stand and pick up her bag. “Mrs Paige? What class is that?”
“She’s the school counselor.” He turned another enthusiastic smile on Mia but it faded when he saw her reaction. “I thought it’d be a good idea. Don’t you?”
She did not. She may not intend to be a social butterfly for the next four months but it was another thing entirely to be a pariah. She dropped her bag and sat down again.
Kostopoulos left the door closed and returned to his chair. “Mia, you’ve got a lot of work to catch up on. Mrs. Paige can help you plan how to do that and make sure you stay on track – talk to teachers if you need extra help.” He paused and placed his elbows on the desk, steepling his hands in front of him. “If you also want to talk to her about what happened at your last school, then she could help you deal with that, too.”
That answered the question she hadn’t wanted to ask. Of course he knew. Her mother had lied when they’d come for an interview last week but he’d have spoken to someone at her old school. “Who else knows? You and Mrs. Paige and…?”
“I won’t treat you like a child, Mia. I’ve only spoken with it to Mrs. Paige and Principal Clarke – the three of us won’t discuss it with anyone else. But I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t been a subject of conversation among the teachers. These things get around.”
Mia wasn’t a child. She’d assumed the teachers would be talking but that wasn’t what worried her. “What about the students? Do any of them know?”
“Not that we’ve heard, and we’ve been keeping an ear out. If any talk does start, you let me or Mrs. Paige know immediately. We won’t stand for it.”
Mia nodded but had no intention of doing so. What could they do but confirm there was something worth talking about by giving out detentions which Mia would be blamed for anyway?
“So,” he said. “Are you ready to meet Mrs. Paige?”
Mia could see no way out of it. She could invoke her mother but last time Mia had been asked to see a school counselor her mother’s objections themselves had become an issue on both sides. The school apparently believed good mothers were all for strangers poking their noses into out-of-school life and her mother had not appreciated having her motherhood questioned. Mia had paid the price with a new school and new set of bruises.
“Does it have to be today?” she asked. “It’s hard enough being the new girl without also being the girl who had to see the counselor before she was unleashed into the school.”
Kostopoulos laughed. “Fair enough. I’ll talk to Mrs. Paige and get back to you with a time later this week. But I don’t want you trying to wriggle out of then. Deal?”
Mia nodded. “Deal.”
Kostopoulos led Mia from his office into a long corridor lined with lockers and loud with the chatter of students as they stored and retrieved books. This was Mia’s twelfth school in as many years, she should be used to it by now but her heart raced a little faster with each student who registered her as a new face. Not that she didn’t know how to handle the first walk through. She kept her gaze to herself but not downcast, met any eyes that searched her out or studied her, greeted nods with nods, raised brow with raised brow and smiled only when smiled at – nothing marked you for bullying like appearing eager, anxious, or friendly. Mystery was always the best strategy on day one. The longer you could delay others working out what box they thought you fitted in, the better your chance of choosing the box for yourself.
Mia wasn’t the only one suffering through their twelfth first day in as many years, her Gossip was the new kid, too, and it wasn’t like the other children. The heightened emotions of human teenagers made high schools a favourite haunt of wild Gossips and there were an extraordinary number of them at St. Kilda High. Hundreds swarmed the ceiling of the main corridor, wizened legs dangling over the students’ heads like macabre streamers. The creatures’ stomachs expanded as they fed on the kids’ morning exchanges, and contracted as they sidled up to each other, stroking each other’s bellies to share the emotions they’d absorbed.
Wild Gossips were communal creatures. They gathered wherever emotions were abundant, feeding on any human and sharing their experiences freely. The spell used to domesticate Gossips like Mia’s bound them to feeding on only one human and placed a brand on their bellies that never healed and never cooled and prevented communing with their brethren. Wild Gossips never knew the pain of starvation nor the agony of a white-hot brand stretched across a distended belly.
A wild Gossip by the door was first to notice the newcomers. Word spread down the corridor in a ripple of yellow as hundreds of Gossips turned their giant eyes to look at them. Bellies puckering in anticipation of a fresh source, the creatures abandoned their current meals and flooded down the corridor, filling the air with ritual susurration.
“Newsssss!! Newssssss!! Tell usssss. Ssssshare!”
As Kostopoulos showed Mia a locker and left her to settle in, the wild ones encircled Mia’s Gossip and the first of them made its move, reaching for its belly with tiny, limp hands.
“HSSSSSSSSS!” Shrieking, the Gossip recoiled as the brand’s magic seared its fingers, snaked its way up its arms and spread pain throughout its ghostly form. Startled but attracted by the pain, its brethren surrounded the burned Gossip and soon the scalding magic was passing from creature to keening creature. As one group they fled from Mia’s Gossip, pressing themselves to the furthest end of the corridor.
One Gossip hadn’t abandoned the students it was feeding on when Mia entered nor joined the frenzy of pain. The first was easily explained – a bully and with his victim’s collar in his fist was juicier than a new student, but a single wild Gossip experiencing its very own pain was a rare delicacy, several hundred doing so at once was something it shouldn’t have been able to resist. But it had resisted. And now it dropped its gaze to Mia arranging her books in her locker, studied her for a long moment, then did something else no Gossip should be able to. It gave a human an instruction.
At least, it appeared to do so. It dropped to the bully’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. The boy didn’t acknowledge the Gossip in any way but he turned to look directly at Mia. Another whisper and the bully squinted at Mia, let go of the student in hand and headed down the hall toward her. A frisson of excitement rippled through the Gossips. Curiosity dampened their fear and they inched back down the corridor toward the developing scene.
Still fussing in her locker, Mia didn’t feel the bully’s eyes on her. Her Gossip felt only her anxiety somewhat soothed by the calming effect new books and stationery always had upon Mia.
Until the bully tapped her shoulder.
A flash of fear, as rich and deep as it was sudden. Mia swivelled, bringing up her forearm to smack away the offending hand, her fists balled, steel in her eyes. Some of the braver wild Gossips drew closer. Mia’s Gossip swept through the air above her head, syphoning the emotion for itself and scaring off the creatures lusting after it.
The bully’s Gossip made no move, neither to claim Mia’s fear nor the bully’s shock. It simply watched as the bully stumbled back, catching himself before he fell but not before the movement caught the breath of the other students.
Seeing himself the focus of attention, the bully laughed and held his hands up in mock supplication, “Whoa New Girl! Calm down. Just saying hello.”
Three boys stepped from the now silent crowd and took up positions behind the bully, folding their arms over their chests. The small, red headed one raised his chin and said, “Yeah, New Girl. What’s your problem?”
Mia’s Gossip felt Mia realize what she’d done. Regret then determination flavoured her anxiety. Her breathing slowed, her heart rate calmed and a familiar, mollifying smile came to her lips. She forced a chuckle. “Sorry. You startled me. Bit of an over-reaction.”
Before the bully could respond, Kostopoulos appeared. “Everything okay here, Julian?” he asked the bully. “Bell’s about to go.”
Julian’s anger flared, as did his nostrils. “Fine, Mr Kos.”
Mia’s anxiety spiked. She was about to take a risk. “Julian was just saying hello.” She held her hand out to Julian. “I’m Mia by the way.”
A pause as he decided whether to accept her conversational gambit, but he didn’t have much choice but to return her civility. He took her hand, squeezing it just a little too hard. “Welcome to St. Kilda High. I’ll see you around.”
He left with his head high and his boys in tow but it was too late. Too public. The chattering began. The new girl had hit the bully.
Now the strange Gossip shimmied into action, swooping in figure eights over the students’ heads, gorging itself. Schadenfreude was a Gossip’s favourite meal and nothing was as rich a bully’s humiliation.