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Maya’s alarm woke her up with a series of skull piercing chirps. That was the default alarm sound for her palmtop and she was yet to figure out how to change it. Scrambling from under her warm blanket pile, she managed to shut it off and stare blearily at the screen.
Since when was it March? She wondered. Apparently for several days now.
In her sleep-haze, she continued to ponder this dumbly while climbing out of bed.
It was never the plan to stay so long, but she liked it so much at the Institute. Her power and control class was shaping up to be a treat rather than a chore, thanks to Ms. Keyes and Ms. Brant’s lesson plans, she was starting to make friends; getting along very well with Joy and Steampunk, and through Steampunk, Kura and Tammy, and she never thought she’d feel as safe anywhere after what happened to her parents.
She dragged herself out of bed and laid out her favorite hoodie and sweats for when she got out of the shower. Her mind was still on her many blessings over the year.
Not everything was perfect, of course; there was Betty, who seemed to hate her for the sin of not using her powers; and there had been weirdness at the school in February about evil flowers. But that was all made up for because she knew that every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, she was guaranteed one hour and twenty minutes of bliss.
It started with forty-five minutes of biology class, her undisputed favorite class; even if there wasn’t a lot to like about the teacher, Dr. Kingsbury. Then it ended with a half hour of lunch, where she got to sate the huge appetite that came with using her powers more often.
And connecting the two was Eddie Argent.
They weren’t officially boyfriend and girlfriend, she didn’t think, but they spent as much time together as their limited classes together and largely non-inclusive social circles allowed. In addition to whatever the ‘oddballs’ (as Joy insisted she call the group who hung out during the free period) were up to, they also had breakfast together at Midnight Black every Saturday and Sunday, and spent at least one of those two days together.
But she still wasn’t sure, and she was pretty sure Eddie wasn’t either. The one time they came close to kissing, she couldn’t tell if she was flushing or on the verge of shifting into her fire form and put a stop to things. This left her in an odd position because she really needed to ask some questions, but had no idea of who to approach.
No one else had problems with potentially catching fire when their emotions got too far out of check and she wasn’t keen on talking to an adult about those kinds of emotions. On the other hand, her closest friends now were a girl who had been raised since birth to be a computer, and a bat-girl who would be just as embarrassed as she was.
But whatever they were to each other, Eddie was always there when she got out of biology religiously. The only exceptions had been a day when he was absent from classes with a cold, and the day there was a security alert over the aforementioned evil flowers and, as Eddie’s luck would have it, he was out of school for a doctor’s appointment.
Today was Friday, so her promised eighty minutes was on the horizon. Maya was all smiles as she went about getting ready for the day and headed for breakfast.
Students at the Institute had their choice when it came to meals: they could go to the cafeteria during normal hours and eat buffet style off the daily menu, they could make use of the kitchen in the common room, or, if they cleared it with security, they could go off campus.
Maya preferred the first option most of the time because it afforded her the chance to pile plates high with more food any anyone could imagine such a small girl to eat; but most mornings, she started the day off in the kitchen.
Steampunk was there when she arrived, mechanically draining the row of water glasses arrayed in front of her, as was her morning routine. The range was currently in use by Milo, a wide framed Hispanic upperclassman whose powers she didn’t know, so she went to the table instead of the refrigerator.
“Good morning, Alice.” She chirped.
Steampunk finished her current glass, but didn’t start another immediately. “Good morning, Maya Blumberg. You are well?” That was as warm a greeting as anyone was going to get from her.
Maya wasn’t naive and knew that Steampunk wasn’t likely to soften much anytime soon, but she pressed anyway. “I am. And how are you?”
“My sleep was uninterrupted and I am suffering no disorder.”
“Either of you two want some tofu bacon? I made plenty.” Milo asked from the stove as he slid the pale, crispy strips onto a cooling rack over some paper towels.
“Tofu bacon?” Maya asked, trying not to let her nose wrinkle. Steampunk just shook her head.
“I like the taste.” shrugged Milo. “Plus, the plant kid ate the last of the real thing and the last of the sausage.”
Maya laughed a little. “He was trying to see if he could live off of sunlight this week and got really hungry last night. I tried to warn him that he was too mobile to survive on photosynthesis alone but he’s kind of hard headed.”
Uninterested in the biological failings of stupid super-teen stunts, Milo just shrugged and patted his bacon dry. “Whatever. I’m just pissed, because the cafe never makes their bacon crisp enough and I need my pig-fix in the morning.”
“… but you’re eating soy.” Maya said.
“Pig flavored soy.” He pointed out, starting toward the TV area of the commons with his huge plate of faux bacon.
Pig scented too. Maya’s nostrils twitched when he went past. “Actually… do you mind if I tried one?”
Milo shrugged again. “Why I offered. Trying not to be a selfish shit like my roommate.” He lowered the plate so she could grab one, continuing on once she nodded her thanks.
As it turned out, it wasn’t pig flavored enough and Maya’s nose really did wrinkle.
“Wait, there’s bacon still?” That was Kura, coming in from the girls’ wing with Tammy. “Did Ms. Carol do this week’s shopping early? Because I was going to add gummy bears to the list. We’re woefully lacking in the gummy.”
“Not real bacon.” Maya warned. She was still making a terrible face at the not-quite right taste in her mouth. Milo huffed in mock offense from his place on the couch.
“Oh, hey Maya, Hey Steampunk.” said Tammy.
“Hello, Talia Kaine, Akagi Kura.”
“Steamy!” Kura said with false frustration. She floated over to the blonde and hugged her from behind. For all of her… Kuraosity…, Kura was still wise enough to avoid the hot contact points on her suit. “For the last time, I’m like third generation American. We say the last name last.”
“You’re going to have about as much luck with that as I did trying to get her to call me Tammy once she learned my ‘proper’ name.” Tammy shook her head and plopped down in the seat beside Maya. “How come you’re not down in the cafeteria? We’re only here because Kura’s bacon sense was tingling.”
Kura relinquished her hold on Steampunk to snatch the piece of bacon and pop it into her mouth. “It tastes fine to me.”
“Your powers literally make it so everything tastes exactly the way you want them too. Doesn’t count.” Tammy insisted.
“I said ‘to me’.” Kura scoffed. “But yes: why are you up her, Mai?”
Maya blinked at the new nickname, but didn’t question it. Not questioning things was a coping mechanism inherent to being Kura’s friend. In the other direction lay Kura actually explaining her reasoning, and beyond that, madness.
“Oh, I just felt like making breakfast.” There were fond memories attached to the smell of breakfast, that wonderful mingling of eggs and bacon and slightly burnt toast. When she was feeling good, it made her feel even better.
“But today’s the omelet bar!” Kura protested. “We can’t miss that!”
“Waffle bar’s better.” Tammy said offhanded.
“Nuh-uh!” Kura said with vehemence in her eyes.
Seeing conflict where there really was none Maya moved to mitigate. “You two don’t have to keep me company, Alice is here, so…”
“Who’s Alice?” Tammy asked.
“Steamy is Alice.” Kura said authoritatively. “You can tell ’cause if you put a blue dress and an apron on her, she could totally be Alice.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Tammy said to Steampunk, who simply nodded and resumed drinking her regimen of water from the glasses Kura and Tammy gave her. “But anyway, we can make breakfast too. I mean, there’s eggs here too: we can make out own omelet bar. A better omelet bar!”
“The one downstairs has mushrooms and dried chilies.” Kura pouted. “Plus, we need to tell everyone about Spring Break.”
Maya got up to get started. “Isn’t Spring Break for college kids though?”
Kura shrugged. “I dunno. But we get a week off from here and my parents said I could take some friends with me when we go to Walking Bear this year. I just found out last night, so I’ve gotta tell everyone!”
“The only people from our table missing are Phil and Phineas.” Maya said with her head inside the refrigerator. “Are your parents really going to let you take boys on a ski trip with you?”
There was a lull as Kura considered. “They haven’t said I couldn’t yet.”
Groaning with exasperation, Tammy folded her arms. “Stay, go– let’s just make up our minds! It’s breakfast; I’ve gotta eat. How about we flip a coin. Heads we go downstairs, tails, we stay here. Do you have a quarter, Maya?”
Maya was arranging the things from the fridge on the counter. “I think.”
She kept loose change in her hoodie, an old habit that wasn’t going anywhere. Unfortunately, she also kept anything that looks like it might be useful. Coming back to the table, she started to unload the hoodie: paperclips, nails, twist ties, pens, pencils, two candy bars, three wrapped toaster pastries, packets of ketchup, mustard, relish, mayonnaise, four kinds of hot sauce and salsa, a keyring flashlight, an amazingly superfluous book of matches, lollipops, a glass lantern with a flame inside, a rubber ball, two packs of two different flavors of gum, a set of toenail clippers, folded pieces of paper, a bishop from a chess set, a small, stuffed penguin…
“And I thought Phil carried a lot of stuff.” Tammy said of the ever growing pile of junk.
“What’s this?” Kura picked up the lantern.
Maya was placing a ball of rubber bands She’d almost entirely forgotten the lantern. “Oh, that’s just something Ms. Brant asked me to keep near me—to see what would happen, I guess. Fire gets weird around me.”
“If that why there’s an eye in here?”
“What?!” Maya fumbled the battery she was taking out of her pocket and leaned over to look.
In no time, they were all staring into the glass globe. Even Steampunk’s curiosity had been piqued. Inside, despite having neither fuel, nor oxygen, a sphere of flame burned, and in the flickering shape of the fire, they could see a clearly defined rendition of a human eye. They blinked.
It blinked back.
Tammy jumped back. “Guys, have any of you ever read The Lord of the Rings?”
Maya chewed her lip. “M-my mom read it with me a few years ago…”
She did a double take. That wasn’t a word, or even a sound as anyone who was not her understood them. It was part of the song she heard when fire burned around her, something that her sense could touch but no one else’s could. Except fire didn’t talk or think, it just… enjoyed itself in its feeding and spreading.
At least normal fire did. But what was in the lantern wasn’t normal. And while it wasn’t communicating anything more than the simpleminded joy of fire mixed with something she could only render in her head as an enthusiastic, childish ‘hi’, it was still an entirely new frontier for her.
“I think it’s alive.” She whispered without realizing.
“Maya, it’s fire.” Tammy rolled her eyes. “It can’t be alive.”
Steampunk continued her curious investigation of the flame. “It exhibits metabolism, it reproduces, responds to stimuli and has the capacity for growth. By some criteria, the only thing separating fire from a living organism is the capacity to adapt to an environment over generations.”
“That, and it lacks a genetic definition.” Maya added helpfully. Steampunk nodded slightly.
“Okay, but:” Kura touched Maya’s nose, turning it blue. “Powers. So is this little fire eye thingie alive or not?”
Maya’s cheeks turned red in contrast with her newly blue nose. “I don’t know. Fire gets weird around me.” There was no other explaining it because she didn’t know. She needed to talk to Ms. Brant as soon as possible.
Tammy reached for the lantern. “Let’s let it out and see.”
“No!” It was rare for Maya to raise her voice and it stunned even Kura to silence as she snatched up the lantern. “Fire burns things! And this isn’t normal fire. What if it starts burning and we can’t put it out?”
At the mention of putting it out, the flame guttered in time with the happy little fire-song faltering. It plopped to the bottom of the lantern as if t was made of brilliant orange jelly instead of fire. The eye disappeared, and the little flame-blob managed to look dejected.
“Aw, you hurt his feelings!” Tammy cooed at the flame. “Hey little guy, don’t you worry; we won’t let her put you out.” She waved at it.
The top part of the flame bobbed up as if it was looking up at her, and at the wave, a small flipper extruded to mimic the movement. Then another on the other side, so it looked like an amorphous, bottom heavy little person flailing both arms wildly. It must have enjoyed it, because the fire-song picked up again, as did the general ‘hi!’ vibe.
Tammy grinned. “This thing is adorable. You’ve got to keep it.”
“But it needs a name. Like Rupert, or Earthslaughter the Unkind.” Kura chimed in. The other three stared, each trying in their own way to figure out where that came from. “What? You’ve never played Conqueror Barbarians games? Everyone in those is named like that.”
Maya looked down at the little thing in the lantern. It took notice and flailed one flipper arm at her, the hiiiiii intensifying. As if she needed more complications trying to reconcile what she could do with the science she understood.
“I-I need to go see Ms. Brant. Right now.” She squeaked before bolting from the kitchen.
After a beat, Tammy stood up. “Hope she’s okay I don’t get what the big deal is.”
“She’ll be okay.” Kura said brightly. “Maya just scares easy. I’ll bet she’ll be fine by lunch.”
They picked up where Maya had left off, using the ingredients she’d put out on the counter to get breakfast started.
And while they did that, Steampunk processed what she’d just seen and quietly noted her worry.
To Be Continued…