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Goodbye to Blueberry Pie

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(Takes place directly after events in "Let's Get It Started.") 

By the time Raina and Anibal walked into the cafeteria, the lunch rush was long over, but the dinner crowd had mostly not begun to arrive yet. Raina'd made good use of her time in the locker room, changing back into civilian clothes that were considerably more flattering than the workout uniform and doing something to her hair that made it shinier and more wavy than before. She smiled at Anibal as she took a tray from the pile near the door. "Looks like they're just finishing up the first batch of burgers, our timing's pretty good." 

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Aníbal had also changed his clothes in the meantime, exchanging the blue and gold Claremont jumpsuit for a crisp powder blue cotton dress shirt, a camel hair sport coat and a smart pair of jeans. It was only the cafeteria, he reasoned, so he dressed casually. Nothing worse than being overdressed for the occasion. He followed Raina's lead and took a tray from the pile. The smell of grilled hamburgers filled the air, reminding him of just how hungry he was. He had no idea what the quality of the food was at the cafeteria. It was probably not comparable to what he had at home, where a small army of chefs was on call to cover the Herrera family's needs, but he was resolved to get used to Gringo cuisine and be treated on the same terms as all the other students. His father used to tell him stories of Alexander the Great and Napoleon sitting down to eat supper with the common soldiery - a parable meant to teach him valuable lessons about management theory and cementing loyalties. Aníbal didn't recall the last time his father had lunch with an employee, but presumably, like most parables, it wasn't to be taken literally.

"Yes, looks like it.", he replied to Raina with a smile and scanned the room for a good spot to sit. Somewhere nice and secluded, where they could eat and chat in peace. Luckily, there didn't seem to be much of a queue yet, and the cafeteria was nearly empty.

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The cafeteria food looked reasonably appealing, if nothing compared to a normal meal at Anibal's home. Raina filled her tray with a hamburger and french fries, a salad, a soda and a slice of pie before heading with Anibal over to a two-top in a sunny corner far from the other students. "So how do you like it here so far?" Raina asked as she sat down and began organizing her meal for consumption. "I mean, aside from the crazy sadistic training simulations, obviously. I'm kind of hoping that was an aberration." 

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Aníbal was used to fancy haute cuisine, but he could still enjoy - and often preferred - the simple, hearty dishes that were staple foods of Mexico's lower classes. After Raina filled her tray, he examined the selection, trying to find something he recognised from back home, but to no avail. All the same, he thought. What Americans called "Mexican food" was usually an altogether different beast. Not wanting to fuss around too much and keep Raina waiting, he took a burger, a side of fries, a plate of salad that at least somewhat resembled the kind he'd eat back home, a glass of orange juice and a chocolate muffin, and also took along a lonely bottle of hot sauce that was sitting on the glass counter. They sat down at a nice table for two, away from the others. 

"Actually, I only arrived yesterday", he replied to Raina's inquiry while adding an ungodly amount of hot sauce to the inside of his hamburger bun, "So I haven't really had the time to see the sights. And yes, I hope the exercises won't all be this bad. I think this might have shocked them as much as it shocked us."

He took a bite out of his hamburger, grimacing as he chewed the morsel.

"Mmmf...", he hummed with a frown after a few moments, "Too mild."

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"Not that much to see on campus," Raina opined, "the grand tour takes about ten minutes. You could try putting some jalepenos on that," she suggested. "I don't like 'em, but I think there are some up there next to the pickles and stuff on the salad bar." She took a dainty bite of her own burger, which apparently passed muster, chewed carefully and swallowed before saying anything else. "The classroom building looks like a couple of typical high school hallways, except it's weird because there's no office, gym, library, any of that stuff. It's all in separate buildings. Did you get assigned a roommate?" 

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Aníbal turned towards the salad bar, but quickly dismissed the idea of going back for jalapenos with a lazy wave of the hand. American food was blander than his usual fare, but it was tasty enough. He could tell the ingredients were picked with care, a cut above the stuff one could get in regular fast food joints. Clearly, whoever was in charge of nutrition at Claremont took the health of its students seriously. 

"I'll live", he replied after swallowing and washing it down with a sip of orange juice. Raina described the Claremont campus in brief, and he nodded, having seen most of those places already.

"I meant the city, not the school. It's funny... I was actually born in Freedom City, but I only visited a couple of times since then. Always just for a little while.", he continued, toying with a french fry, "And no, I don't think I've been assigned a roommate yet. The administrator said they'd put me in with someone shortly though."

He bit off half the french fry, as if to try the flavor, and then approvingly popped the rest into his mouth as well. 

"What about you?", he asked a few moments later, "Are you from around here?"

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"Nope." Raina shook her head and set down her burger. "Not even close, really. I grew up in a little town in Indiana, that's just a little ways east of Chicago," she added, in case his US Geography was not great. "My family lived there for generations, my dad was the mayor, all that kind of thing. But who wants to live in Indiana when you can come to Freedom City, right?" she asked, deftly eliding over a mountain of unpleasant realities and uncomfortable accusations. "There so much to do around here, it's crazy. Where did you grow up?" 

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"Oh", he replied with interest when Raina mentioned her hometown. His knowledge of US Geography probably dwarfed the average US high-schooler's knowledge of Mexican, or for that matter American geography. With a wistful smile, he remembered the song from a cartoon that helped him learn the 50 states of the EE.UU when he was a little boy. Baton Rouge, Luisiana, Indianapolis, Indiana, y Columbus es el capital del O-hi-o... He took a bite of his hamburger and nodded, only half in agreement, as Raina explained her family background rather tersely and suggested Freedom City was a more interesting place to be. Small towns could get suffocatingly dull, sometimes, but they had their charms. He noted the detail that her parents were apparently well off - you don't get elected to office in America without spending a lot of money, even in small-town Indiana. Clearly, Aníbal thought, she came from a "good family". His grandfather would approve.

"Me? Mostly Ciudad de Mexico. Benito Juarez.", he replied after having chewed and swallowed another bite of the burger. It then occurred to him the place name was likely meaningless to someone not Mexican.

"Benito Juarez borough. It's the richest neighborhood in Mexico.", he added, "Also one of the most crime-ridden. Papa rarely let me go out without someone to keep an eye on me, especially since this thing with the cartels started... He was afraid I'd get kidnapped. I also spent a lot of time on my grandfather's ranch, riding horses, hiking, that sort of thing. It's out west, near Guadalajara. My mother's family has huge agave plantations in Los Altos."

He took another sip of orange juice.

"Heard of Miramontes Tequila? My grandfather's distillery makes it, and Papa's company is the exclusive worldwide distributor.", he revealed, feeling a little awkward as he usually did when discussing his rather privileged background. "Monty", as it was affectionately known in the US, was fast becoming the thinking douchebag's drink of choice on the club scene and at frat parties, cutting into the market share of the other brands and even being name-checked in a couple of rap songs. This brought Herrera International a lot of money, but also a lot of worries about brand dilution. In a business that revolved around image as much as taste, one couldn't have the wrong people drinking your product in the wrong way, lest it lose its premium cachet.

"So... I guess we're both new in town, then.", he continued with a smile, "Maybe we can go see the sights together, when we have the time."

 

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"I've never been to Mexico City," Raina admitted freely, "just Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta when I was a kid. We would go all over the place on holidays, either me and my family or me and my friends and their families. Puerto Vallarta was fun for the horseback riding, but Cabo had way better shopping," she decided. Her eyes widened a bit when Anibal namedropped Miramontes Tequila. "Wow, that's your family, huh? Everybody's heard of that." She grinned. "My best friend in middle school, she had an older brother in college who kept a whole cabinetful of liquor where his parents wouldn't find it, but we did. At her birthday party, we took tiny little tastes of tequila and whiskey and Jaegermeister, then rolled around pretending to be wasted. He must've had good taste, cause he had a bottle of Miramontes." Raina forebore from mentioning that she'd thought it had tasted just terrible, much worse than the bubblegum sweetness of the Jaeger. 

"Seeing the sights sounds like fun," she agreed, cutting into her slice of pie with the edge of her fork. "I hear we're supposed to get at least some Saturdays free, we could make a day of it. I hear Pyramid Plaza is pretty cool, and the Sentry Statue, Freedom Park, the theaters... there's a lot to see besides the museums they keep dragging us to."  

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Aníbal perked up when Raina mentioned having been to Puerto Vallarta as a child. "Puerto Vallarta! That's in Jalisco, where my grandfather lives. I went there a few times with my parents too. I had my first... It's nice.", he blurted out and trailed off awkwardly mid-sentence, his eyes darting to the side, "Never been to Baja though. We'd mostly go to Europe for the holidays." He laughed heartily as Raina recounted her middle school experiments with booze. His own middle-school experience was quite similar. The other kids called him "el tequilero" due to his family's business, and prevailed upon him to obtain some of the family liquor for parties. The boys pretended to drink. Aníbal was the only one who didn't pretend. He woke up in intensive care the next morning, his father perched at his bedside like an angry buzzard. Fun times.

The mention of Saturdays off was heartening. If today's exercises were anything to go by, education at Claremont was a gruelling affair, and any breaks were welcome. Besides, he looked forward to seeing the city, preferably in good company.

"One Saturday then. Sounds good.", he said, his gaze meeting Raina's for a few moments before he lowered it to his food. He took another bite and chewed, thinking.

"We can see them all, or as many as we can fit into the day. They have those guided bus tours, but I never liked those. I like to blend in with the local people, see the city like it really is, not like a tourist sees it, you know?", he continued after swallowing the morsel, "Also, you mentioned museums? Did you go to one recently? How was it?"

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Raina got a very odd look on her face for a moment, then she laughed. "Weird," she said with great certainty. "It was super weird. See, we were supposed to be doing this incredibly boring school project, but while we were going around, we saw this creepy statue making this grotesque face. I got in close for a better look at it, and Robin dared me to kiss it, so I totally did. Then the statue exploded and turned into Fred, have you met her yet? She goes here too now. And then Fred turned into a monster, and we had to fight her till she turned back into Fred, and we got to skip the rest of the homework assignment. But other than that, it would've been really boring," she assured him cheerfully. 

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Aníbal took another bite of his burger, letting Raina speak. He listened to Raina's account of her museum trip with a raised eyebrow and an expression of increasing bemusement. Every sentence she uttered seemed to raise far more questions than it answered. The story, told in its broadest outlines, somehow managed to be both perfectly coherent and utterly insane. Weird, indeed. There was something hilarious in the cheerful way she told the tale, as if such events were a normal occurrence. Of course, given the nature of Claremont, they pretty much were.

"That is weird.", he replied, finished off his hamburger and took a sip of his juice, "Well... At least it ended well. I haven't met this Fred yet, but now I'm intrigued." For a few moments he looked at her, still looking confused but making a brave effort to keep a straight face. Then he burst into laughter.

"I'm sorry, it's just... Who kisses a statue?! What's wrong with you, chica?", he playfully teased Raina and leaned back in his chair, looking straight into her eyes, "And there are so many handsome boys at Claremont..." 

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Raina gave him a look of playful outrage. "It was a dare!" she reiterated. "What was I supposed to do, not kiss the statue? If you're gonna be asking hard questions of anybody, you should ask Robin why she wanted me to kiss the statue in the first place. That's what's really messed up." She picked up another french fry with the tips of her fingers, quite primly, and ate it. "I suppose you've never done anything at all ridiculous because someone challenged you to do it?" 

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Aníbal continued to laugh as Raina played along and mounted a jocular defense of her actions. "If Robin told you to jump off a bridge, would you do it? Clearly, she's a bad influence on you", he mock-scolded her before biting into his muffin, clearly not taking the whole thing too seriously. 

When Raina delivered her own challenge, he hummed and waved his hand dismissively before swallowing the mouthful of muffin. "Me? Never.", he affected a pose of theatrical seriousness, a devilish gleam in his eye suggesting he wasn't being entirely honest, "I am a sensible, well-bred young man with a good head on his shoulders."

He paused for a moment and stroked his chin, the serious facade cracking slightly.under stifled giggles.

"Well, there was that one time I was dared to put on a dress and sing an Ana Gabriel song...", he continued with a wry smile and quickly shrugged it off, as if it did not compare to Raina's museum antics, "But that's perfectly normal! Not ridiculous at all. And I may have been a little drunk at the time."

He took a sip of his orange juice.

"And my friends may have recorded it and put it on YouTube", he added, looking away awkwardly.  

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Raina grinned delightedly. "Oh wow, that is suddenly right at the top of my must-watch list. I'm sure Merlin can find it for me, no matter how it tries to hide." She took another bite of her pie, then waved her fork in a litle circle as she added, "And of course I'd jump off a bridge. I can totally fly. Jumping off bridges is fun!" She raised her eyebrows and leaned towards him. "Play your cards right, and maybe sometime you can jump off one with me. If you're brave enough." 

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Aníbal stuck his hand in the inside pocket of his jacket after Raina expressed her desire to watch the video. When she continued, he grinned widely, leaning towards her. "Oh, I've got some tricks up my sleeve. And bravery? I used to go skydiving before I knew I could fly, chica.", he replied, teasing her, "I could take you sometime, if you want. It's fun. A little less fun when you know you'll stay in the air no matter what, but still..."

He finished off his orange juice and pulled out an expensive-looking, very thin smartphone from his coat pocket, along with a pair of attached earbuds. After a few moments of tapping and swiping on the screen, he presented it to Raina.

"But first... Here... You don't have to look for it.", he continued with a smile. He didn't know who this "Merlin" or "Marilyn" person was, but his or her services weren't necessary.

"So, first, a little background. We were playing Truth or Dare, and someone asked me what was the most embarrassing music that I secretly liked. I said Ana Gabriel's rancheras. She's... You probably never heard of her. My Mom likes her a lot. Enough said.", he clarified, "Then, later, Vicente, who's my good friend - he's the pudgy one in the video - dared me to sing an Ana Gabriel song while wearing his sister's quinceañera dress. So I did."

The video, entitled "Nuestr@ Aní canta su canción preferida xD", had a couple thousand views, and the likes outnumbered the dislikes by a considerable margin. The top rated comments were "jajajaja ya lo sabíamos hace mucho tiempo...", "sólo buenos amigos, nada más ;)",  and "Aní tiene mejores piernas que yo T_T", the only English comment a lone "I'm in the weird part of YouTube again, aren't I?". It was recorded shakily and the lighting was pretty bad, but she would clearly make out it was a party. The camera centered briefly on a pudgy young man in a tacky shirt who made a theatrical announcement in a thick Norteño accent, and then turned towards a doorway. There she could see Aníbal, perhaps a year or two younger than now. Back then he apparently had a floppy, asymmetrical teenage mop top, rather than the more conservative cut he had now. He was wearing a blue satin dress, the kind girls in America would wear to prom, and holding a bottle of Corona in his hand. He stumbled drunkenly into the room, finding it hard to retain balance on high heels, while the rest of the party attendees laughed, applauded and wolf whistled. 

Soon, a tinny karaoke version of a song started to play from a nearby laptop, and Aníbal belted out a heartfelt, drunken rendition of a ranchera song about forbidden love between a poor girl and a rich man, masterfully affecting the Mexican diva's vocal mannerisms and using the bottle of Corona as an imaginary microphone. The performance was punctuated by howls of teenage laughter, as Aníbal did his best to make the instigator of the dare, his pudgy friend, as uncomfortable as possible: rubbing his shoulders, sitting in his lap, pressing his face to his chest and running his fingers through his hair. At the end of the song, a "Beso! Beso!" chant started up, and he violently kissed his friend on the lips, knocking them both off the chair as the others cheered. The video ended there.

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Raina took the phone with a grin. "I appreciate a confident man," she told him, then touched her necklace and hummed a few bars of music under her breath. Putting the earbuds in, she watched the video, first in wide-eyed silence, then in torrents of giggles till she had to wipe tears from her eyes. "You are a phenomenal dancer," she told him at the end of the video, and now she was speaking in flawless Spanish herself. "I think we may have to arrange some kind of talent show here on campus. It would be a crime to put your light under a bushel." 

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Aníbal watched with interest as Raina performed her little ritual before watching the video. He had seen her do something similar earlier, during her exercise. It was clearly something associated with her magic, but he had no idea what exactly the humming did, or how precisely it was connected to her abilities. He sat back as she watched the recording, and felt relieved when it made her laugh so hard she teared up. It was a risky move, showing the video, but he was glad it paid off. Her laughter seemed genuine, not one of mockery but of enjoyment. He found it a useful way of winnowing out overly uptight and conservative girls early on, and was happy Raina turned out to be open-minded enough to enjoy a bit of silly fun. Making a girl laugh was always a plus, regardless of how he did it. Now I've got you...

He was taken aback when Raina suddenly spoke up in fluent Spanish, with barely a hint of an accent. Brujería, he thought. That's what the humming was for earlier. Either that, or she's kept her knowledge of Spanish a secret until now. He smiled back. 

"Well, señorita Sanderson, you continue to surprise me", he replied to her in smooth Spanish, "Thank you for the compliment. I don't like to brag, but yes, I can dance pretty well. Especially when I'm not drunk or wearing 7 inch heels. What about you? Do you have any talents other than all this mystical stuff?"

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"Well, I can wear seven-inch heels," Raina quipped back, still in Spanish, "that's a life skill right there. Let's see, my non-magic skills. I can plan a dinner party for twenty from soup to nuts, I can ride horseback, I have fantastic fashion sense, despite what you may see before you." She grinned ruefully. "I'm pretty good in school, when I feel like it, and I'm not a half-bad artist. Oh, and I have a familiar who can do things with computers that I don't even know how to describe, but I think that might fall into the mystical skills category." 

She sat back, wiped her mouth daintily with her napkin. "So how about you? Go on and brag a little, what are you good at, besides your marvelous singing voice?" 

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Aníbal listened with interest as Raina rattled off her prodigious talents. All of those were things a girl from the upper class was pretty much expected to acquire through her upbringing. Well, except for the familiar spirit - that one was definitely out of the ordinary. He had only the vaguest idea what such a creature was, bits and pieces of information picked up from folklore and books about ancient beliefs, but he had no clue if any of it accurately described the real thing. It was odd that she drew attention to her clothes, which were indeed rather plain. Then again, Aníbal thought, she'd look good in a burlap sack. Although that would probably be quite itchy. When she turned the spotlight on him, he grinned.

"What, are you building a file on me?", he teased her and leaned back in his chair, "Let's see... I can dance, like I said. I can play the piano really well - jazz, Latin, classical, you name it. I can hold long, boring speeches on any topic you might choose in no less than five languages, I can ride a horse, and I can talk anyone into anything, especially if they're gullible pretty girls. They don't stand a chance."

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Anibal's list of accomplishments seemed to be at least moderately impressive, judging by Raina's attentiveness, and the grin she gave him for the bit about boring speeches. The last comment, though, earned Anibal a deeply skeptical raised eyebrow from Raina, who wore the expression like one born to it. "And you've practiced this skill a great deal, I take it?" she drawled, folding her arms across her chest, half-amused, half ready to be annoyed. 

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It took all his self-control not to grin as his remark produced the desired effect. "Oh yees... I'm a real Don Juan. Ask anyone at my old school, Aníbal el Animal's done it with half the girls of Colegio Walcott. And half the girls from Colegio Miranda, too, but they only count for half points. I break so many hearts, it should be illegal. You better watch yourself, chica, 'cause I'll...I'll...", he intoned with seductive mock-seriousness before bursting into laughter. One didn't have to be an expert people reader to notice his tongue was placed firmly in his cheek during the entire monologue. Whatever powers of persuasion he possessed were clearly not being used on Raina at the moment. He gave a defeated shrug before continuing.

"No, no, not really. I said I can do it, not that I did. It wouldn't be right to toy with a poor girl's heart. I only use my powers for good, like a true caballero.", he said with a flourish, much more earnestly than before, but still clearly not taking things too seriously. 

The truth was, of course, complicated. Teenage boys generally liked to portray themselves as far more experienced than they were, and often bragged about their sexual prowess in front of their friends. At the same time, most of them rightly suspected the tales their friends told were a heavily exaggerated load of bull. Aníbal never bragged about sexual conquests, which led his friends to the only logical conclusion: he was getting more action than the rest of them put together. His denials only strengthened their belief - only a true player would deny he was a player, after all. With his chiseled physique and classical good looks, he could at least portray the role convincingly. In truth, he did have some experience in that area, but precious little of it was with the opposite sex. Girls chased after him far more often than the other way around, but rumors would start to fly the minute he so much as greeted a girl in the hallway. 

"Besides, in Mexico, all you can do is practice, anyway. Girls back home are not easy like girls in the US.", he teased Raina with a devilish smile and leaned back in his chair to move out of the range of any (well deserved) incoming blows. "No offense!"

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By now Raina was giving him a flat-out unimpressed look, her arms crossed over her chest as she leaned back in her chair, her eyes slightly narrowed. "Have you ever noticed how when somebody says "No offense," it's always because they've just said something that makes them look like an asshole?" she mused aloud. "But what really impresses me is the bravery some people have in doing that exact same thing to someone they know could set them on fire with a happy little song in her heart. And you were doing so well for a few minutes there, too!" 

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Aníbal nodded in agreement as Raina mused about the uses of the phrase "No offense". The joke didn't go over well - that is, it went over precisely as he expected and intended it to. When she delivered her not-so-veiled threat, he cocked an eyebrow and observed her for a few moments, not so much surprised as impressed by her aura of cold menace. 

"Oh, don't worry. I can still salvage things.", he replied confidently, leaning forward again. The ironic macho posturing and the teasing smile was gone, and the real Aníbal gazed into her eyes, coolly relaxed. "I told you I was brave earlier, didn't I?"

"And besides, I don't mind playing with fire...", he said, looking down at his tray. With a wry, feline smirk, he idly pointed his fingers at the empty glass next to the plate. It shook for a few moments and then promptly tipped over, but did not hit the tray, instead ending up floating about two inches above the surface. It then began to slowly levitate until it was suspended in mid-air between them, gently swaying on the air currents. Raina could feel a very subtle breeze on her face. He turned the cup upright with a flick of the wrist and let it land in the palm of his hand, then put it back in its place.

"... because fire can't burn without oxygen.", he continued, looking up at Raina again, "And that's my domain. If you set me on fire, I'll just extinguish it with my mind. I can do that. Or... I can help a tiny little flame become a roaring bonfire, make it burn hotter than it would otherwise. Fire and air - I guess we complement each other nicely, no?". 

 

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Raina watched the little display of power, interested in spite of herself, but reminded herself to stay on target. "It's not impossible," she allowed, "but fire can also suck all the air out of a room, or a strong enough wind can blow it out. Not exactly a perfect fit. And I think we were still on the topic of why you're being an asshole. Unless you're actually trying to get me to set you on fire, in the hopes we can spend some quality time together in detention, I guess. But I gotta tell you, it's not exactly a romantic destination." Her posture was still closed off, arms folded and body angled away, but she wasn't actually leaving, not yet. "Did they let you get away with that at your old school, just cause you're so pretty?" 

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