Cold as Fire (DotCom & Myrrha)
A few days left, maybe less, before the brilliant foliage communicated its surrender by dropping from the trees, leaving the skeletal fingers of bark-covered branches to reach, naked, into the chilly air. The topmost fireweed buds had broken open a couple weeks prior, signaling the end of summer and the beginning of the impossibly short autumn. Now the rich, magenta blossoms swayed hypnotically in the evening wind, coexisting for such a short time alongside the trembling aspens dressed in gold.
Laina felt as though the rich colours buoyed her, extricated her from the cacophonous school bus and thrust her into an alternate reality. The first week in September, only two weeks into the school year, and Laina's enthusiasm for school had already oxidized into anxiety. Bartlett High School, one of the five public high schools in Anchorage, was not particularly demanding on its own -- no IB program, no stringent g.p.a. requirement. No, Laina's pressure came from within, a molten desire to push herself, excel at everything she touched. The junior had a bad case of perfectionism, and it showed in her class load: Spanish IV, Advanced Computer Programming, AP Language and Comp., Pre-Calc/Trig., AP U.S. History, and AP Biology. It had seemed like such a good idea last spring, especially with college looming on the horizon.
Now, Laina pressed her nose to the thick window of the school bus, her wire-rimmed glasses almost scraping against the pane as she watched the streams of colour drift by, wondering what she had ever been thinking.
"I might not make it to Christmas," she mumbled in typical dramatic fashion.
By the time she reached her stop, life was looking up, at least a little bit: Laina remembered it was Friday, which meant D&D in a few hours with the crew. Quite the introvert, Laina found it difficult to reach out and forge friendships, but she had managed to find her way into something of a geek clique. The two short blocks from the bus stop to their apartment passed quickly as Laina filled her mind with ideas for a new character. The light breeze buffeted her crisply, hinting at the cold to come.
When she arrived home, Laina locked the door behind her and fixed a snack in the kitchen. Their mother, Michelle, wouldn't be home from work for another few hours. Laina would miss both her and Violet, her twin, by at least an hour. Violet had practice, as usual. Where Laina put her talents and effort into academic achievement, Violet put them into dance. Laina was used to quiet Friday afternoons, however, and she grabbed a package of Pop-Tarts, a soda, and a banana before heading to her room.
It was a small apartment, two bedrooms with a modest living room, tiny kitchen, and two bathrooms, but it was home to the three, and Laina loved it. The window in the room Laina and Violet shared overlooked an abandoned lot, which wasn't a view in itself, but the absence of a building gave them a clear line of sight to the Chugach mountains. For the past several days, the mountain caps had sported a sprinkling of termination dust, the term affectionately given to the first mountain snowfalls which signaled the onset of winter. With the apartment all to herself, Laina could've done anything, but the recent anxiety of her course load still weighed heavily on her mind, and she booted her computer into Linux to mess around with the coding assignment for her computer science class.
"Stop it, Vi," hissed a voice to her immediate right.
"I'm sorry! I'm trying. I'm nervous."
"Yeah, well, you and me both."
The two girls--best friends and rivals both since early childhood--sat side by side, fingers intertwined between them on the grimy gym floor. Violet kept jiggling her leg, and Mia was having none of it. In her defense, though, they'd been kept waiting almost an hour for the casting results of the school's second annual Christmas show. This year, it was to be a ballet, and all the major roles would be played by the senior and junior dance groups, with other, minor roles going to theater students and anyone else who chose to audition.
The cast turn-out was larger than anyone had expected, nearly forty members in all, and only one or two doubling. The smallest roles, like the children at the Christmas party, the parents, the snowflakes, had already been handed out. Then Miss Nelson had moved up through the list, handing out larger parts to the other dancers. Now, as usual, it was down to Violet and Mia between the roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In terms of stagetime, Clara was the larger role. But the Sugar Plum Fairy was always played by the prima ballerina in real companies, and Vi knew that was the spot both she and Mia were vying for.
It didn't hurt that the Nutcracker/Prince was a visiting dance major from the local college.
"And," said Miss Nelson, all pomp and circumstance as the gymnasium fell quiet to hear the final casting decisions, "in the roles of Clara, who, as we discussed, will also be leading the Snowflake and Flower Waltz" (the theater kids might not get it, but the members of the dance troupe understood this was an unscripted conciliatory prize for the 'loser' who played Clara), "...Violet Henson."
The room erupted into applause even before Miss Nelson could finish her sentence, though Violet heard her clearly over the crowd: "Which means Mia Lyon, you're our very first Sugar Plum Fairy!"
Violet squealed and and put her hands to her mouth, grinning through her fingers at her long time friend. Mia looked at her, caught somewhere between concern and glee.
"Vi, I'm sorry, I--"
"It's okay, Mia," Violet said, only half lying. She really was happy for her friend--if any scouts came to the show (unlikely), they'd spot both of them, so that was fine--and there was plenty of time for disappointment later. "Really. Congrats. We still get to spend too many hours practicing together."
Mia looked hesitant for another second before laughing. "Vi, I got it! I'm the Sugar Plum Fairy!"
"I know!" Vi said mechanically. "You'll be great, I know it."
"You, too. And if I break my leg, I fully expect you to step up."
Violet laughed, a sincere laugh this time. "Shhh, you're gonna jinx it." She rapped a few knuckles on the gymnasium floor. "Now, let's discuss what practice time is gonna be like with your prince!" And both girls dissolved into cheeky giggles.
It was going on 7:30 when Violet stepped out of Mrs. Lyon's car, her backpack and gym bag flung over her shoulder. Practice had run longer than usual than night, what with the reading of the roles for the winter show, and discussion of added and cut dance numbers. Ultimately, Violet was feeling pretty good about her role, or at least better than she had. She knew Mia was still hiding how excited she actually was for Vi's sake, which she guessed she appreciated, but it'd be nice to get inside and take a long hot shower anyway.
She waved over her shoulder, pushing her dark bangs out of her eyes. "Bye, Mia. Thanks for the ride, Mrs. Lyon!"
"Bye, hon," said the other girl's mother. "And congrats! Tell Michelle I said hi."
Violet grinned and nodded. "Will do. Have a nice weekend!" She turned back to her apartment, watching her breath fog in front of her face. It was already cold, and so early in the school year, but Vi didn't mind. She loved the cold weather. She loved how quiet the snow made everything, when it sucked up the sound in the forests and threw tangerine-colored sunlight from the mountains into her bedroom in the mornings.
Of course, it was also a busy time of year, too. The Christmas recital for the community ballet was coming up, and Vi's role in that was even smaller. Then again, maybe it wouldn't be so bad. The school show promised to be time consuming, and she had things like finals and Christmas shopping to worry about.
She yawned and shuddered as she stepped into the relative warmth of their cozy apartment. It wasn't much, but it offered a spectacular view of the mountain range, and sometimes, when no one else was home, she could push some furniture around and warm-up right there in front of the window, using the unbroken perfection of the skyline like a canvas.
"'Lo?" she called into the quiet apartment. "Anyone home? Mom? Laina?" Oh, wait. It was Friday. Laina was gone with her own friends...which meant Vi had their shared bathroom to herself. Nice.
Half an hour later, she emerged, hair dripping, clad in her pink and blue pajamas, and ready for bed. She had to be up early tomorrow, but she wanted to tell Laina about the show, too. Maybe her twin could make her feel a little better about it.
Meanwhile, Vi set up her laptop to watch old Batman cartoons, dozing lightly until Laina returned, or her mother remembered some chores for her to do. Whichever came first.
The computer science assignment had proven more engrossing than Laina expected -- and more involved. Each question actually had five or six parts to it, so what looked like ten problems was, in reality, closer to 60. Yet Laina had trudged through it, finally tearing herself away at the last moment. Their mother still wasn't home, though that was usual for a Friday evening. For most evenings, really, given her shifts.
At ten 'til five, Laina saved her progress and gathered up her gaming equipment: a dark blue set of dice in a black velvet bag and her personal copy of the D&D Player's Handbook, 4th edition. Corbin, her DM, would have extra blank character sheets; supposedly, he was working on a slight modification to some of the information in order to implement something new in this campaign. The crew had been in the middle of a previous campaign before the summer hit, but with Zach moving away and Drew defecting to the jock crowd after making the basketball team, Corbin had decided to start over once the new school year hit.
Laina surveyed the room critically, checking to make sure she had not forgotten anything, before leaning over to lock her desktop. Both she and Vi had their own laptops, presents from their Aunt Coral, who lived in Florida and saw them once every few years. But Laina had scrimped and saved to buy a gaming desktop (albeit refurbished) in order to play Ragnarok Online, which wouldn't run properly on the cute and lightweight Macbook. Locking the computer wasn't strictly necessary; Laina kept any important files, like snippets of her writings, password protected themselves. But it was a habit she had acquired after the last year of CS classes at Bartlett. The professor, Mr. Hawthorne, was something of a stickler about secure work stations, and drove the point home by pranking students who left their computers un-passworded. After the first few times of returning to her desk to find her computer's desktop background changed from the plain black default to rainbow My Little Ponies, Laina had been more careful.
Now, she flipped off the light, grabbed her backpack with the gaming supplies, and stopped for a moment in the bathroom, examining her reflection. At 5'7", Laina was fairly tall for a girl. She tended to dress her lithe body in baggy jeans and t-shirts, which is what she wore at the moment: dark blue, loose-fit jeans and a loose black t-shirt decorated with the phrase, "You killed my father. Prepare to die." Although she had stuffed her dark, springy curls into a bun, a few stray tendrils had escaped, sticking out at odd angles. If she had been a glamourous sort of person, or perhaps the sort of person who used styling products, the curls might've framed her face becomingly. As it was, they did whatever they pleased, and she largely ignored them. After taking a moment to clean the lenses of her glasses, Laina double-checked her pocket for her phone, ID, and keys, then locked up the apartment and waited on the steps for her ride.
"No, you can't enchant the wooden carving to become a vibrating dildo." Corbin's voice sounded slightly strained, but Laina couldn't stop giggling.
"Clearly, I can, since I'm a bard, and I have such spells that address such things," Jase countered, waving his character sheet while thumbing through the Player's Manual, looking for the spell descriptions to prove his point.
"If Jase can do that, then I call first dibs on it," Nathaniel insisted, raising his voice to be heard over the noise.
Laina quieted herself and stole a glance at Corbin. At 17, he was a year her elder, and attended East SWS (School Within a School) as a senior. His longish, black hair had fallen into his face as he buried his head in his hands in mock frustration. It was three hours into the D&D meeting and they still hadn't finished the character sheets. Half-empty soda cans littered Corbin's dining room table, along with empty pizza boxes and piles of crumpled napkins. Not for the first time, Laina wondered how Corbin's parents put up with all of the mess -- why on earth did they let the crew keep coming over? As she watched, Corbin lifted his head and looked right at her, giving her a wry smile. His bright green eyes belied his amusement at the entire debacle, and Laina let out a breath.
"Jase, the answer's no," Corbin repeated.
Jase, who had found the appropriate paragraph in the manual, thrust the book toward Corbin. "Here, it says right here, I can do illusions, including the illusion of sound and lights."
"Sound and lights are not vibrating enchantments."
"Maybe not, but lights can make something look like it's moving using shadowy effects."
"That's not the same as actually moving it."
"But it looks the same."
"Okay, but what's the point of a piece of wood that looks like a vibrating dildo if it doesn't actually vibrate?" Corbin asked, exasperated.
"That's for me to know. Who may grasp the mysterious ways of the minstrel? Who can know his myriad secrets? Who can--"
"Fine. Just... shut up," Corbin interrupted with a grin, handing the manual back to Jase, who fist-pumped his victory.
"This is gonna be interesting," Laina murmured.
"Only if we ever actually start the campaign," Corbin replied.
By the time 9:30 p.m. came around, most of the snags had straightened themselves out. Laina's cleric had taken shape rather nicely, though she still hadn't decided on a name. She offered to help Corbin clean up the dining room, but he waved her off.
"Nah, it's okay. I'll see you next Friday."
In the car with Jase, Laina rubbed her hands together, thinking of how much colder it would be in just a few weeks. The heater kicked in quickly, though, and Laina relaxed into the sounds of Jase's iPod playlist. He was the only one of the crew who had both a license and his own car, and he had graciously offered to give Laina rides to and from the Friday night get-togethers.
"So, what are you going to do with that enchanted wood?" Laina asked, curiosity overcoming her better judgment.
"Now, if I told you that, it would ruin the surprise," Jase cooed, taking one hand off the steering wheel and poking Laina's shoulder. "You'll find out. In good time."
As they pulled into the apartment complex, Laina said her thank-you and goodbye, and skipped up the steps, letting herself in. It was just after 10:00 p.m., which was a bit early to come home from D&D, but Laina suspected something was up with Corbin that caused him to cut things short. She'd have to ask him sometime when she could catch him on AIM. For now, though, she hoped Violet was still awake. All of the dancing stuff ran together in Laina's head, but she vaguely remembered today being the announcement of the parts in the school's production of some musical or ballet thing that Vi had auditioned for. Corbin had mentioned it the other day; he was in the school's audition-only jazz choir, and would be singing with the other choir members at some point in the production.
Laina was careful to be quiet, just in case anyone was sleeping, as she pulled off her sneakers without untying them and locked the door behind her. From the configuration of lights, it seemed their mother had already gone to sleep, but it was a pleasant surprise to find Violet still awake in their room. Setting her backpack by her desk, Laina settled in on her bed, sitting cross-legged, facing Violet.
"Sooo, how'd it go, sis? Parts were announced today, right?"
Vi sat up when she heard her sister's keys rattle in the door. Lately, nights like these were the only time at all she got to see her sister. Though they shared a room, their schedules seemed to clash almost constantly. In some ways, it wasn't so bad. Violet had tired long ago of people using herself and her twin interchangeably. They weren't even identical--her twin had curly hair where Vi's was straight and thick, and the other girl was taller and more slender than Vi's squat figure--but people liked to lump them together, anyway.
Besides, even with your twin sister, there was only so much together time you could handle. It just so happened that Violet, who, she knew, had a tendency to be a little clingy, missed her sister. Or she did when she had the time to. It was the beginning of the school year, which meant the time not spent in the dance studio was spent puzzling out math homework on her bed. She lacked her sister's academic prowess, opting for standard courses instead of her sister's AP.
But even though the two didn't have much in common, Vi tried to make time for her sister, and had fallen into the habit of staying up to meet her sister, if only to recount her day and listen to her sister's. If they couldn't see each other, this was as good as things got.
"Right," she said, shutting her computer as Laina entered the room. She shrugged. "I'm Clara."
She'd explained the various roles to Laina back at the beginning of the school year, but if her twin struggled to grasp the minutia even half as much as Vi did with Laina's gaming jargon, a refresher course wouldn't hurt.
"She's not the Sugar Plum Fairy," Vi went on, toying with the hem of her pajamas. "But the amended the part, so I get a few extra dance scenes. It's something, I guess, and it gives me more time to work on the Christmas recital at the community center. D'you think you'll be able to come?"
Then she gave her sister a cheeky grin. "How 'bout you? How was your day? Dungeons tonight, right? Friday? How are the boys?" Vi had never been able to grasp all the rules of her sister's gaming nights, but she did know she got together with a few of her guy friends to play, and Violet found that endlessly fascinating. For all her time spent out and about, Vi had always been painfully shy around boys, and even the few in her dance classes were either gay, or in the closet. Fortunately, when you had a twin, you could practically lead a double life.
Laina used the time Vi spent asking her questions to decide how to respond. Should she share Vi's disappointment and commiserate about the role? Should she gush excitedly and tell Vi Clara was just as good?
Laina tried to think of an equivalent situation. It stumped her until she thought of the AP exams coming at the end of the school year. Although students could take AP classes without taking the corresponding exam for each, part of the point of the class was to attempt to get college credit for the coursework. Even without that option, Laina would've taken the AP classes anyway. Usually, the best professors taught those courses, and students had the opportunity to learn so much. Besides, Bartlett weighted AP course grades, so an A in an AP course was really a 5.0, which would boost Laina's g.p.a. considerably -- if she got As.
But the exams were an important part. Most had multiple choice, short answer, and true/false questions, and some even had essay questions, as well. In fact, some, like the AP Language and Composition exam, required a five-paragraph essay in response to each of the three questions, and, as the exams were timed, it came out to approximately 35 minutes per essay. Laina's professor in that class, Ms. Morrison, had already begun training them for the experience: every week, she passed out a question used on a previous exam and gave the class 35 minutes to write a well-reasoned, thorough, five-paragraph essay. At the end of the week, the students peer-edited each others' papers using the AP testing service's own criteria.
The exam scores ranged from 1 to 5. A 1 was pretty much unacceptable. From there, it got complicated, as different colleges accepted different scores. A local college or university might take a 3 on the exam, but Ivy League schools took a "Five or Forget It" stance that intimated many students.
Laina tried to imagine coming home and telling Vi that she had gotten a 3 on an important AP exam... good enough to maybe get college credit at a local school, but not enough to get credit at a place like Princeton. Would she want Vi to commiserate with her, tell her it must suck? Or would she want Vi to be excited for her, be happy that Laina had earned a 3, tell her how smart she was and how she could still get local credit for it?
All of these thoughts flew through Laina's head in the short moments it took Vi to ask her questions about D&D, and Laina came to a decision.
"Vi, Clara? I'm so excited for you! I told you you're super talented!" Laina figured her opinion of Vi's dancing talent counted for less than nothing, considering how little Laina knew about ballet, but she hoped the sentiment expressed her love and support. "I know you're prolly frustrated about not getting the fairy, but I know you know you're amazing. And, like you said, now you'll have more time for the community thing."
Laina slipped off the bed and crossed to Vi, then wrapped her arms around her twin, giving her a soft hug.
"And of course I'll come. To both of them. So, tell me again what all Clara does? What will you be wearing? Do you kiss anyone?"
There was less than nothing Violet could do to keep the smile off her face from the moment Laina opened her mouth. When they were much younger, Violet had secretly thought her twin possessed magical powers. Part of it was jealously--she had just finished reading the first book in the Harry Potter series and had been convinced that, like Harry's aunt, she was the non-magical sister, and had gotten no Hogwarts letter. Part of it, though, was sincere appreciation and awe. Different hobbies, interests, schedules, friend groups meant the twins saw less of each other nowadays, but moments like this made Violet remember why she loved having a twin. Several of the girls in her dance classes didn't believe she had a twin, especially when she told them Laina was much more physically crafted to be a dancer.
"She's gorgeous," she'd say, "all tall and leggy. She'd be perfect as a ballerina."
Not that Violet wasn't a decent dancer--she was just a little more squat than the average ballerina at her level. It was something she'd reconciled with long ago.
She grinned sheepishly at her sister and tugged her down to sit beside her. "Thanks, Lai. I'll save you a seat--front row center." She paused, giggled, then added, "It's the best place to see all that sexy male dancer ass."
She shut her computer and put it behind her, so she could turn to face her sister in full. "The only 'person' I kiss is a twelve-inch model nutcracker, so I dunno if that even counts. Clara's supposed to be a little girl, so everything is very chaste, all 'girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes' but I get a few solos, so that's pretty cool." She shrugged. "The fairy doesn't even come in until the second half, so I guess it's okay."
She paused again and looked up at her sister through a fringe of bangs. "And don't tell me that wasn't total avoidance. You started a new campaign with your 'Dungeon' friends recently, right?" Violet's understand of her sister's gaming habits could be called tenuous at best, but she got to see her sister so rarely, and given Laina's attempts to follow up on Violet's activities, she figured it was the very least she could do to keep in touch with her twin.
"Do you have your character all sorted out yet? Have you killed any monsters yet? You do kill some monsters, right? Whose place were you at tonight?"