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Beneath Claremont Academy

8:42 AM July 10, 2017

 

By design the impervium cell was nearly empty. The front wall was transparent due to a process that Winifred would have usually been much more interested to learn about and the cube was large enough to pace about comfortably but the only furniture was a smooth bench large enough to also serve as a bed, constructed from the same material as the walls. There was a television set outside the transparent wall, featuring rather clever motion controls so as to forego the need of a remote control but the young alchemist didn't want it even for the white noise just then. Instead she sat on the bench beside the pillow she'd brought with her, wearing the oversized flannel shirt she'd adopted as sleepwear. She hugged her legs against her chest and pressed her face into her knees, letting out a long, weary sigh as she continued silently reciting the elements.

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There were just eyes, at first: two spots like floating red coals that bobbed into view on the other side of the cell 'window', trailing a smoke so thin it could barely be seen against the opposite wall - a smoke that moved like ink in water. Those grim orbits drew their smoke in a lazy, liquid circle around the television, peering up at it with inscrutable curiosity, before coming back around to rest just outside the cell wall, opposite Fred's position on her bench.

 

This appeared to give the rest of their slowly-flowing form a chance to catch up, gradually filling in the body of a large, sitting dog whose fur wavered weightlessly in a wind no one else could feel. It held there for a moment, watching Fred with an unblinking, lidless gaze, before it thumped its tail against the floor.

 

"Hello!" it said, with the sort of honest and friendly smile only dogs and Cheshire cats could summon. "We could not find you, and so you were lost. But now you are found! This is good."

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Winifred looked up with a start at the voice, grabbing at the only thing at hand and tossing her pillow hastily at its source. The pillow hit the transparent wall with a soft thud and fell to the floor, leaving the dog undisturbed. "O-oh, ah..." she managed haltingly as she recognized the speaker and scrubbed at her face with one sleeve. The dark circles under her eyes spoke to lost sleep while puffy redness and undried trails down her cheeks made it clear she'd been crying recently. "Hello, hound. Is... is something the matter? I'm not sure if the Academy's alarms sound down here..." Guilt mingled with embarrassment in her expression as she struggled to compose herself now that she had an audience. They were hardly able to get through a week without someone having a crisis but she hadn't thought of that before rushing to the subterranean elevator. If Matthew or one of their friends needed her help she honestly doubted she was in any condition to provide it.

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"We do not know. We have not explored here much," the dog replied, getting back up onto its feet. It paced a bit, sniffing at the see-through cell well in open curiosity. "Howl has not called me, nor released me to call one closer to him, so I do not believe there is danger yet. Today," it added, thoughtfully but as an absent aside, touching the wall with one careful paw as if testing the unknown material. "Tonight, perhaps, but we will attend to it. We do not expect trouble from that one. It is why it can wait until tonight."

 

Apparently satisfied, the creature brought its foot down and shoved its head clear through the wall, substance dragging back as if it was stepping through a heavy curtain or thick liquid. But, step through it did, casually pulling itself into the cell as if such a thing were perfectly normal. "Perhaps tomorrow night; it is a concern for later. Why are you in a cage? Howl threatens to cage us when we threaten to pee on things owned by bad people, but both are idle threats. Are you not housebroken?"

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Winifred watched the hound walk through the theoretically impervious wall in nonplussed silence, trying to sort out enough of what it had said to form a coherent response. While there was no question that the dogs weren't any sort of mundane animals what they specifically were remained a mystery that neither they nor Matthew seemed compelled to clear up, leaving much of what they said devoid of context. Not that they generally talked as much as this one was to begin with. She supposed a canine was no better equipped to react to her condition than a human being.

 

"I can see how a cage would be a poor disincentive for you, yes. And thankfully the plumbing of the present day is not so far removed from my own," she told the hound with forced airiness that was undercut by frequent sniffling. She opened her mouth to continue but found her lower lips trembling in spite of her. She worked her mouth silently for several moments, drawing her shoulders together before managing to mumble, "I... I couldn't be around... people today, is all. It wouldn't be s-safe." She stumbled over the last word and hid her face behind her knees again.

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Riley had missed Fred during Advanced Chemistry, especially since he'd been planning to partner up with her to cover the time he'd be missing during his forthcoming week in Pascagoula with Peyton and Riley's extended family. He did a quick check of the library for her and didn't find here there, then the advanced chem lab itself, but there was only so much time before next period. He wasn't too worried - he knew Fred liked to get away and spend time by herself. Still, geez, she must be feeling rough. He'd never asked where Fred went during her occasional absences, figuring that it wasn't any of his business what she did with herself. I should get her something with my trip money. Maybe she'd like to learn to fish...

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Cathy wasn't one to worry unnecessarily worry about people, most at Claremont could look after themselves after all, but sometimes she couldn't help but be a little concerned. She tended to watch people and pick up on their behavior pattern almost as a matter of course, it made thing easier when spotting potential problems coming her way. Today Fred, or her absence, had caught Cathy's attention, she was a creature of habit that keeps a pretty strict routine and Cathy hadn't seen her at breakfast. True she'd been making plans with Phae for a study date, mostly for the study she insisted, so she wasn't worried about it until she missed the first class they shares.

 

One the way back to the Dorms to see if Fred had just overslept after working all night on her makeups, she bumped into Riley and after a momentary pause decided to rope into her hunt, after all, it was his specialty.

 

"Riley, how are you? Have you seen Winifred about, I've not seen her abound all day?"

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Riley automatically covered for Fred, just as he'd have wanted her to do if he was off seeking privacy. "She's prolly fine, she just likes to keep to herself sometimes," he reassured Cathy. "If you want to do her a favor, you should take notes for her in second period." He frowned. "Hope she doesn't get an unexcused, she hates being in detention." 'Detention' at Claremont, which usually meant service work on campus, wasn't actually that bad to Riley's mind - Fred would just be embarrassed to be in trouble. 

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Back in the cell the dog seemed unperturbed by tears and implied violence both, ambling Winifred's way without a care in the world. "I am not a 'people'," it casually noted, voice as dark and smoky as the rest, hopping up onto the bench. The hound wasn't giving her much choice in the matter of closeness, but neither did it make any sudden movements or jarring transitions - instead it quietly padded over to her end of the would-be furniture, head low and always watching her. "Also, you cannot harm us. Not really. Howl tells you this, and I do not think you believe him, but it is true."

 

A soft nose landed on her shoulder, the rest of the creature flopping as best it could without losing that purchase. "Skritches," it said, attempting to work its bright, round eyes into something sympathetic.

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Winifred looked up to meet the dog's eyes before huffing in resignation and adjusting how she was sitting so she could more comfortably reach behind its ears. "It's rather difficult to believe despite your instance but I suppose there comes a point at which I must take you at your word." Scratching around the base of the hound's ears she unconsciously shifted closer until the preternatural beast was nearly sitting in her lap, resting her head in the fur of its neck. The rhythmic motion and comforting presence helped her get herself under control enough to stop her tears as least, closing her eyes and exhaling slowly.

 

She stayed that way for several minutes before softly noting, "I don't really know much about you and your friends, really. You don't seem to use separate names for yourselves. Do you sleep? Do you dream?" The thought had started rooted in curiosity but the specificity of the last question revealed the direction in which her mind was wandering. There was another pause before she admitted in a whisper, "I had a nightmare."

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"We do sleep. And we dream," confirmed the dog, unabashedly turning its head to give her access to better skritching spots. "Dark dreams, and happy dreams. Dreams of old things. We have bad dreams, sometimes, but the pack usually chases them away. This is why you do not hear our names," it added, turning one red-coal-eye toward her. Its tone was almost...admonishing, like Winifred couldn't do something it thought she ought to. "We have names, but you do not hear them, because you do not hear as the pack does, to know the names and chase the dreams. If you could hear I could tell you my name, but you cannot and so I am called Fang, daughter of Slate and Ember. These are the names that Howl uses when he does not speak like the pack, and so they are good."

 

Fang carefully nosed her head across Winifred's knees, happy to slump there a bit in the middle of the girl's anxious curl. "Howl is not Howl's name either, of course. But like Fang, it is close enough. If you want your dreams chased away, perhaps you need a pack, and to hear them properly."

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"Named for your smile, one might expect," Winifred mused with a weak laugh, discarding the pretence of composure to wrap her arms around the big dog in earnest, settling into a more comfortable position while continuing to scratch rhythmically. "Pleased to make your formal acquaintance, Fang." She hadn't giving much thought to the idea of the dogs having parents as such but it made as much sense as anything about about the pack.

 

She slumped against the furry weight, too weary for her usual disciplined posture. "...the dream was about my parents," she admitted without really meaning to, the words spilling out while sounding to her own ears as if they were coming from terribly far away. "They died a long time ago, though it doesn't feel nearly so long to me, of course. I don't know that that's something a pack could chase away and even if they could... I'm a danger to them, Fang. An albatross."

 

The alchemist squeezed her eyes shut again, fighting against a fresh wave of overwhelming emotions. "If I were a b-better person I'd..." Her voice broke and it was a long moment before she could speak again, words coming out in a croak. If she was a better person she'd protect her friends, protect everyone around her. "I'm afraid."

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Approaching with characteristic if unintentional silence Huang made sure to pass Rileys sightlines before speaking.  Surprising the jumpy one with a hair trigger stake thrower wasn't the smart move he'd learned early on after all.  "Buenos dios mi compadres."  He greeted easily because mangled spanish was certainly how one prove oneself to be cool and worldly right?  It always seemed to work in the movies at least.

 

"Fred?"  he asked raising a brow, "Missing class?"  the dhampir frowned slightly, "Uncharacteristically cool.  Maybe she met someone."  he offered with a shrug and a toothy grin at Cathy who's perfect attendance he suspected was only marred by the direct intervention of the resident unholy power.  Looking down at Riley he added questioningly, "Unless there is a new batch of custom hooch brewing?"  

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"You don't quite understand. If Fred had found a partner it would have been all around the school by now, besides I'm pretty sure she’s not looking right now."

 

Cathy got the feeling that Fred was uncomfortable talking about those kinds of things, especially when the subject of her and Phae came up. It was probably partly due to her Victorian upbringing she figured.

 

"It's just in all the time I've known Fred she's never missed a single day, I suspect she'd drag herself to class even she was really, really sick."

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"Fred wasn't at class?" Robin wasn't as quiet on her feet as Huang or Riley; after all, her job was usually to attract attention - or at least soak damage once stealth had failed, so her pocket jingled a little with change as she jogged up the hill towards the small knot of friends that she'd made at Claremont. "She wasn't in the room when I got in this morning, but its not unusual for us to not cross paths don't think she misses class pretty much ever though. Fred takes the school thing seriously." 

 

Robin frowned, straightening up a bit to glance around the field with narrowed grey eyes.

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"I dunno," said Riley. "If she'd gone missing, we'd'a heard 'bout it. Even after that thing with the Raven, they'd'a told us." Especially after that thing with Raven. "She's probably just havin' a bad day," he opinedl reminding himself that someone disappearing from the community didn't mean they'd been dragged into the woods and torn to pieces by bears. Moving past that image, he said, "Fred doesn't like t'talk about it, but sometimes she'll just disappear for a while and I think it's cuz of her thing." He wasn't worried about Fred being eaten by monsters - rather, the reverse. He scratched the back of his shaved head, where just a faint trace of dark fuzz was showing. "If we sneak up on her somewhere, she might, you know," he made claws with his hands, "then she'll feel like dogcrap all week even if we take her down again." 

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"She's not gonna lose it if we sneak up on her," Robin disagreed with Riley, with a roll of her eyes that seemed far too cavalier about wrestling the Alkahest for someone who'd done it on more than one occasion.She flashed a sidelong smile at her boyfriend to take any potential sting from her words as she lightly whacked his shoulder with the back of her hand. There was no force behind it; like most of Robin's movements, she did it with the ease of someone for whom her physicality was utterly natural. "You're right though that if she decides that she's a danger for whatever reason, it'll set her mood off for days. She worries too much. I s'pose everyone's entitled to an off day now and again and if Fred wants privacy, I don't wanna disturb her. Maybe she's working on a pet project and just got distracted?" 

 

Robin's tone was doubtful even as she threw it out there.

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Fang said nothing for a while, a soft canine comfort against concern and loneliness, but at long last she yawned, slumping down to sprawl across Winifred's lap, and leaving the poor girl to support herself or fall over sideways. "It is normal to be afraid," she observed, wriggling a bit to be more comfortable. "All mortal things know fear. You fear that you will hurt others, and this protects them, and it is good. To a point."

 

Her eyes, those twin circles of burning coal, winked out - one got the impression that she'd closed them. "Do you think that your pack would agree? Your friends. You say that you are dangerous, and they act as if they agree...most of them. Howl knows you cannot kill him, but Howl is not always wise. And still, they do not leave your company. They do not cast you out. Perhaps they are all fools, hm?" She yawned again, a too-red tongue curling in the air. "But perhaps not. You think you are a scorpion, but even fools know better than to keep a scorpion's company."

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"You seem to be mixing animal metaphors now," Winifred huffed as she adjusted her posture but continued to scratch along Fang's spine. "You must have noticed that neither common sense nor self preservation is terribly prevalent among the 'pack'. Matthew believes himself immortal and why not; it wouldn't be the strangest thing in this city. Robin thinks she could beat the Alkahest in a fight or at least last long enough for anyone else to make their escape which is somehow sufficient by her standards. Smith remains in case someone should need to fire a bolt between my eyes and Cathy would be cordial to her worst enemy if it came to it." Even as she spoke she knew she was indulging in self-pity and twisting facts to suit her black mood but at least in the moment all of it felt true. "Faretti speaks to me just enough to test how far he can push and Phaedra thinks metamorphosing into an abomination is the most normal thing in the world. Raina is the only one with a proper, rational fear of me. If she hadn't been forced to leave her old friends she would have never even noticed I existed. If I... disappeared they might be dispirited for a day or two but they would be alive and that much safer."

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"I use the metaphors I mean to use," Fang huffed, leaning into the scratching, "but human words are stupid. Howl will age and die as all mortal creatures must, and should. We would not follow him otherwise. For more, you must ask him. But carefully?" One of her eyes reappeared, turned upward to eye the young girl. There was genuine concern buried somewhere in that burning orb, somewhere beneath the constant grief they always gave him. "He worries, though he should not. You have this in common."

 

She closed her eye again, flicking an ear. "They are all pups. They fear and they worry and they cling to others like them. But they grow, and they learn. Your memories are short, because they begin only when you are born. This is human frailty. You will grow old or die young, and your ghost should not be full of regrets." She yawned again, both eyes opening to look out of the cell. "You are not mine, I cannot tell you what to think. But we like you, because you are smart and young and full of skritches. This is enough."

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"Of course, I know Matthew doesn't discuss such things for a reason," Winifred assured the hound before considering the rest of her words. It still hurt, everything still hurt and she was still afraid but it helped. It was good to remember that there were people - for certain loose definitions of the word - who cared and that her friends had their own troubles she wasn't of a mind to abandon them to. She'd already accumulated enough regrets as it stood.

 

Following the dog's gaze out the front of the cell she noted the time on lower right corner of the television and took a deep breath. "Thank you, Fang. For talking with me and staying with me. I... I think I'll be ready to go back soon. Just... not quite yet."

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"She 'needed time alone'," Matt said, flatly - he was glaring daggers at one of his dogs, who could not have possibly looked more guilty - all hunched posture and desperately trying to not make eye contact. "I guess she woke up feeling off, and decided she'd stay away from everyone for their own good, just in case she lost control or something. I sent some dogs out to see if she was okay earlier, and apparently one of them found her and none of the rest thought to let me know that my friend had gone and literally locked herself away."

 

No, in fact, the dog could look more guilty.

 

Matt hadn't been part of the earlier conversations - he'd been "busy", which in his case meant skipping class for some inscrutable purpose, though his absence wasn't the kind of thing that worried or impressed anybody who'd known him for more than a handful of weeks. Still, word had gotten around, and once he'd thought to ask a dog directly he figured he wouldn't keep anyone else out of the loop if he could help it. "She's doing okay, though. Or, better, I guess. Maybe drop by at some point and let her know you were worried, if you were worried."

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Robin swept a glance over the assembled knot of students, "Well, we're not going en masse. That's just overwhelming," she said as if she were leading one of their exercises rather than discussing visiting a friend. Her grey eyed gaze swept over the knot of teenagers, before she called out two of the scouts. "Riley, Huang, you're up. If she is having a bad enough day that its a space thing, you can let us know. It'll bother her less if its you two than the rest of us, an' she'll feel less need to cover up an' its not like either of you  minds skipping class. Make sure you mention that you're s'posed to ask if she needs anything sent down with the next group."

 

She nodded her head at Matt, before turning her attention to Cathy, "You up for doing lunch down there today? Matt n' I can take turns in the afternoon." Robin gave a little shrug, "Sometimes what she's struggling with might mean sitting in one of the containment rooms but doesn't mean its gotta be alone."

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"You think?"  the Dhampir questioned Cathy with a small shrug.  "I mean I Robly was a thing for at least a week before even they noticed."  He pointed out with a nod to Riley and the newly arrived Robin though he nodded thoughtfully at Robins less offensive phrasing of 'Total nerd' and 'bathroom hooch'.  "I could go loo-" he half volunteered before his excellent excuse to skip out on the rest of his classes arrived in the form of Matt and his chagrined psychopomp.  "Locked?"  Huang said with a shake of his head.  "That is not the kind of thing to do solo."  he sighed, "I mean if you can let yourself out it kinda defeats the point,"  he noted quietly, "And if you can't well-"  Taking in the stares of his fellows he stopped short, "Right shutting up now, how terrible she thinks she needs to do that?"  he asked honestly trying to read what an appropriate response might be though given his mannerisms probably sounded more like sarcasm.

 

"Oh captain my captain."  Huang replied to robins instructions with a snappy salute.  "Wouldn't want her getting the wrong idea sending in huggers."  he agreed with a smile to Cathy.  "So where's she hiding out?"  he asked, "Not the basement right?"  he paused, "Cus, Yea not the place for people with a temper..."

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Matt looked down at the dog, who did not make eye contact. "Nowhere we can get to without trouble," he said. "Some kinda brig, she probably got special permission to use it. The dogs don't care, because they go through walls, but getting us in would be trickier and probably not worth it if she's doing better now."

 

One of these days he was going to have to make the dogs teach him their going-through-walls trick. He'd never really gotten a hold of that one, or the walking on water - something about being 'too real'. He'd never been sure if that was some kind of insult. "She oughta be back in her room in a while, though. Dunno if you'll make lunch without breaking in, but if we - uh, individually - can catch her when she's better and in a better place, literally, maybe? Or, hell, if you wanna break in, I'm not gonna stop you. Won't be much good for anything but directions, though."

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