lb_lee: M.D. making a shocked, confused face (serious thought)
[personal profile] lb_lee
Raige at ROAR! (the whole thing)
Series: Infinity Smashed
Word Count: 9500
Summary: When Raige gets an opportunity to play at a local marching band festival, he starts having trouble balancing the parts of his life.  Meanwhile, Thomas crams for his GED and M.D. tries to heal.
Notes: This story was sponsored by the Patreon crew!  It takes place in that yawning period between Shades of the Past and the Next Adventure, also during the Enron trials. M.D. is still in pretty intense mental healthcare at this point, and Raige is in his junior year of high school. For all the marching band notes, those are at the bottom.  There are lots.  I am sorry.

Raige in a T-shirt, wearing his big-ass bass drum, singing 'Need that Sousaphone Healing' as he practices.

Part One: Raige


Wendy Ogata was a fellow member of Raige’s high school marching band, first clarinet. She was short, stocky, wore red cats-eye glasses, and while she and Raige were united in casual marching band camaraderie, he’d never really had the chance to get know her better. Woodwinds and percussion rarely practiced together, and while her clarinet skills were impressive, they were also intimidating, so Raige’s shyness won out.

Until one practice, she approached him.

“Hi, Raige,” she said, “can I talk to you?”

All the other percussionists (who knew full well Raige’s romantic and social incompetence) immediately turned to look. Some held wolfish grins; others went, “ooh.” This only made Wendy look more uncomfortable.

“Uh, sure,” Raige said.

He followed her out of the drum room (a small, ratty place that smelled like sweat and Cheetos) and out around the back of the band hall. The closest thing to privacy they could get was an empty, secluded little alley wedged between the band hall and a hill, littered with cigarette butts. It was a hot day after a long practice, and Raige’s shirt held a perfect sweaty imprint of his drum harness. He shook his shirt out, trying to generate a breeze.

“So… what’s up?” Raige asked, praying he hadn’t somehow offended the clarinets.

Wendy took a deep breath. “This is kind of a weird thing to ask, and I’m so sorry about the short notice and everything, but I’m in a small independent marching band after school and--”

Raige’s anxiety vanished. Well, mostly. “Whoa, seriously? That’s so cool! School kids?”

“No, no, folks from my old neighborhood, friends of friends, that kind of thing. They’re mostly older; Kevin drums with us, remember Kevin?”

“Sure, Keven’s great!” He’d been drum captain when Raige was a freshman, but he’d graduated years before.

“Yeah, totally, but we only have the one bass drummer, aaaaaand she just herniated a disc.”

“Oh. Oh, jeez, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah. But it kind of leaves us in a bind, and we really need a bass drummer sooooo... is there any way you could possibly keep a beat for a set at ROAR?”

Raige heard a buzzing in his ears that sounded like angels. Suddenly the blazing hot sun seemed to only spawn heavenly rays. Then he twirled his stick through his fingers and beamed.

“Hell yeah!” he said.



“What the hell is ROAR?” Thomas asked.

“The Roving Orchestral Activist Riot,” Raige squeaked, bouncing up and down on his cushion so hard that the table of pizza and drinks shook. “Only the biggest street marching band festival in the Southwest! And Wendy, Wendy Ogata, wants me to fill in! Oh my god! Oh my fucking god!” He bounced even harder, and M.D. had to reach to keep the red pepper shaker from falling over. “Do you know what that means?”

“You’re going to be spending the next month high-stepping around a molten parking lot of your own volition?” M.D. asked. “And inexplicably enjoying it?”

“Glide-stepping, thank you,” Raige said primly. “You can’t high-step with #4. But yes!”

He drummed a cadence on the M.D.’s bookshelf/table, and Thomas held a hand over his soda to keep it where it was.

A picture of Raige excitedly explaining to M.D., 'No, see, there's the trumpet, the cornet, the flugelhorn, the...' M.D. looks dubious and says, 'You're making this up.'

“We’re just glad you’re happy, man,” he said, patting Raige on the shoulder with his free hand. He was a singer; he understood Raige’s excitement.

M.D., however, did not. “Isn’t this incredibly short notice? She couldn’t have invited you to this thing sooner?”

“Their original drummer only just got hurt. It was an emergency. And I can totally sprint it in time, it’s not like I need to sight-read or anything. And this is ROAR! This is the coolest thing ever! And it’s Wendy Ogata!”

M.D. looked blank. “Who?”

“First clarinet! The only reason she’s a reserve drum major is that she loved marching too much to go active!”

M.D.’s face remained blank.

Raige resisted a sigh. “She’s really, really, really good, okay?”

“Whatever.”

Raige calmed down a little and looked at them. Thomas looked his usual easygoing self, but he almost always looked like that. M.D. looked grouchy and sullen, but her arms had been free of bandages for a few months.

They weren’t at Tarzan’s Pizza. M.D. hadn’t been back to Earth since—well. Raige had brought the pizzas, red peppers, and sodas to her; it was his time to buy this week, and all their weekly meetings these days were at the communal Treehouse kitchen.

Raige wasn’t sure exactly what M.D. was doing, or how well it was going. She hadn’t exactly been forthcoming, and he was kind of scared to ask. But now he felt guilty for being so excited about the festival; it seemed comparatively trivial.

“How’s care with Scorch and Flame going?” He asked.

She sighed, tugged at her bangs. “Okay, I guess. It’s just… hard.”

“Yeah,” Thomas said. “I still see Jem with the fam every month or so. Which reminds me, Raige, man, will you have time to tutor me still? My GED exams are coming up, and I really want to get ready.”

“Sure, sure,” Raige said. “No problem. I totally, absolutely have this under control.”



Even though it’d been over a year since what Raige imagined as his “adventure” had ended, his life still hadn’t gone back to normal, not quite. The ripples still kept bouncing around, intersecting and rebounding in odd ways—his awkward interactions with his father, questions from his band buddies that he couldn’t quite answer, periodic visits or mail from the PIN or the League. Things still felt unsettled and confused.

But none of that mattered when Raige put on his headphones. When the music started, the rest of the world disappeared. Everything boiled down to the mathematical precision and emotional purity of beat, rhythm, and melody. Everything had its place. Sheet music, harness, posture, sticks. Mark time—hut! One, two, three, four--

Everything else faded away.

But Raige underestimated the time investment. It was October, smack dab in the middle of marching season, which meant that every day had early band practice, then school, followed by more band practice (and, if Friday, a game). Then into the car, grab Wendy, and either practice with her or race to Autumnville to practice with her band. He wouldn’t get home till at least eight, and then he had to tutor Thomas and do his own homework.

It wasn’t as bad as last summer, when he’d had to cram for the whole marching show starting in August, but it was still pretty bad. Raige was used to the adrenaline rush of shotgunning music, but that could only last him so long.

“Dude?”

Raige lurched upright. “I’m not asleep!”

Thomas chuckled. “Sure man, I believe you.”

Thomas lounged comfortably on the floor, books and notes on American history and government spread out around him like a halo. Raige had been lying next to him, head propped on arm, quizzing him on presidents. He might’ve claimed he could’ve stayed awake for a less boring subject, except that he’d been helping Thomas study for a while now, long enough to know that all the subjects were boring. Even Thomas looked a little sleepy, and he was motivated.

He also looked… nice. Relaxed. Raige shook his head and tried not think about it. That was adventure life. This was now.

“Martin van Buren,” he said, and tried not to nod off as Tomas recited facts about Old Kinderhook.



Wendy’s band (well, not her band, the one she ran with) was called Jazzmer. It was made up of a sousaphone, two trumpets, a trombone, Kevin on snare/cowbell, an alto and tenor sax, Raige on bass/cymbal, and Wendy on clarinet and conductor duty, plus a couple colorguard/crowd controllers. He and Wendy were the only kids, and Kevin the only other one from their school. Wendy was in the band because her grandpa (the alto sax) ran it; Raige could only presume that he’d gotten in himself because Kevin had vouched for him, though he couldn’t imagine why.

But he wasn’t complaining. Their music was fun, catchy, designed to get people dancing and chanting. It was also thankfully simple—Raige didn’t think he could handle complicated stuff on such short notice. No fancy steps or solos to learn; his job was to keep the beat at all costs and to manage basic parade lines, which he could’ve done in his sleep.

Wendy did have solos, of course. She and her grandfather had a duet duel planned for Hava Nagilah, a sneaky sliding battle meticulously planned to sound as improvisational as possible. Raige loved to watch her play. On top of her musical ability, she had a sense of choreography that far dwarfed Raige’s own. Brow furrowed in concentration, fingers a blur on the keys, she would sway and swagger through the beat, throw winks and jokes through her music, use her body not just to march, but to dance.

Jazzmer practiced in the Ogata family garage, which was not well air-conditioned. After one rehearsal, when everyone was chugging water and readying to go home, Raige asked, “Where did you learn to march like that? Definitely not at school.”

Wendy grinned. “My grandpa played military style in the Army, then learned show and high step here, and he taught me. School is all corps, and that’s nice I guess, but ROAR is so not the venue for it...”

She went on into the comparative values of glide-step versus high-step, and Raige listened with fascination. He had never really thought about marching as a reflection of music before, but it made perfect sense and he was ashamed not to have thought about it before.

Wendy was going into exactly how she felt about Big Ten marching style, when she suddenly flushed, dropped her arms, and clasped her hands in her lap.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I get passionate about marching.”

“No,” Raige said, “no! I totally get it! Please, keep talking!”

One thing led to another, and when it was time to go, they just kept talking, so they went to grab dinner, and the next thing he knew, their plates and glasses were long empty and they were still talking, comparing and contrasting their high school competitors and analyzing their own upcoming show. As they talked, Raige realized that while he might be able to beat Wendy in raw musical finesse, when it came to march, she was queen.

When they finally came up for air, Raige asked, “Why’d you ask me to come fill in, anyway? I mean, I’m glad, because this is amazing, but Kevin must know a ton of drummers. Why me?”

Wendy fidgeted with her hair. “Well. You know. You’re really good. Kevin gave you a recommendation, and Marissa says you’re cool. I’ve kind of, you know, wanted to get to know you for a while.”

“Oh wow! I mean, I think… well, yeah, thanks!” He could feel his ears burning.

They sat in silence for a while, blushing and not looking at each other, and Wendy tossed some cash down and grabbed her bags. “Oh god it’s late I better go see you Thursday bye!”

“Bye.” But she was already gone.

...

“Dude, she likes you.”

“What? No! Quadratic equation. Do you really think so?”

“Y equals ax squared plus bx plus c, and I don’t think, I know. She busted her ass to get you to this thing.”

“She was just being nice. Linear equation.”

“Y equals mx plus b. Dude, there’s nice, and there’s this. Who’s the love god, you or me?”

“Quadratic equation factorials. And you. Still!”

“Uh, I can’t explain it, but I can do it. Gimme a test equation.”

Raige took a moment to think, then wrote ‘x^2 + x – 6’ on a piece of paper, then passed it to Thomas, who chewed on his pencil for a second then frowned and got to work. His hand touched Raige’s for a moment as he took the paper, and Raige tried to ignore the endorphin rush. He’d been chugging soda all day; his energy was up and down like a yo-yo lately.

“So what’re you going to do about it?” Thomas asked as he scribbled numbers on the page. “Y’all gonna go out or what?”

“Oh jeez, Thomas! Kind of fast for that, isn’t it?”

Thomas passed the paper back, with the equation factored correctly to ‘(x+3)(x-2)’ and gave Raige a raised eyebrow. Out of decency (or maybe incredulity) he didn’t mention that whole… thing him and Raige had done back in Treehouse. “Give me something harder.”

Raige’s face burned, and he snatched the paper back and scrawled down ‘12x^2 – 12’ and ‘12x^2 + 7x + 12’ just to try and cover it up. For once, Thomas wasn’t even in his horny innuendo persona, and Raige’s mind still went there anyway. He passed the paper back and Thomas winced at the sight.

“Can’t say I didn’t ask for it,” he said, and got to work. For a while, there was silence as he worked on the math. As far as Raige could tell, that was all he was focused on, but Raige felt hyper-aware that they were studying in his bedroom, and Thomas was flopped on his bed, and the door was shut which his dad would never have allowed if Thomas was M.D. or Wendy--

“You know you can, right?” Thomas asked. “You’re a free guy. You don’t have to, you know. Pine for M.D. forever or whatever.”

This was only making things worse. Thomas was a guy who really liked girls when they were available, and M.D. was… well. M.D. was still in intensive daily therapy to try and get her psychotic rages under control. Everything was messy and complicated and confusing and--

--And Wendy was a nice normal girl who had passionate opinions about the chair-step and played the clarinet.

“You know what? I think you’re right,” Raige said.

And when Wendy asked him out the next day, he said yes.



Part Two: Thomas


Since moving back home, Thomas had started a mutually beneficial trade arrangement with M.D., bartering granola bars, ginger snaps, and dollars in exchange for Treehouse scrip, sweets, and miscellany. It gave him an excuse to visit Treehouse and all his buddies there, plus check up on her every week. He still wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about her “descent into madness” (as she sardonically put it), but he knew that Raige’s combo of worrying and denial honked her off, so had chosen to deal with joking about it. Maybe it wasn’t the nicest thing to do, but at least it wasn’t pretending she was on vacation.

“Hey!” Thomas called, ducking under the root cage. “How’s it going, crazypants? I got your granola bars!”

M.D. rolled her eyes, but she was smiling when she got up. They swapped stuff, and while she put her side of the barter away, he took advantage of her back being turned to take a quick scan of her and the room. She looked tired, but both her and the room were clean and tidy. That seemed like a good sign.

Thomas leaned against the wall. Anatomical diagrams were pinned to it. “Flame and Scorch treating you right?” he asked.

“I keep expecting them to finally get sick of this and fire me,” she said, pulling the cabinet curtain shut. “But they just keep being nice to me. It’s weird.”

“Aw, they’ve adopted you,” Thomas crooned. “Their little baby dinosaur.”

“Please,” M.D. said. “No adoption jokes.”

Thomas winced. “My bad. Still on leave?”

Her expression lightened. “Nah, they finally realized I was going crazy from boredom. I’m on incubator duty high-set, want to see?”

“Hell yeah!”

Thomas hadn’t gotten to see the incubator very often, even when he’d lived in Treehouse full-time. Local-born children were rare enough to be something special, so people treated the place almost like a church, with awe and hushed gestures of reverence. While they waited to hatch, different eggs were packed in rotten logs, soil, hay, or sawdust, sometimes with warm stones to keep them at the right temperature. After following M.D. up and out to the building, Thomas sat on the packed dirt floor and got comfortable.

M.D. didn’t sit down. After relieving the minder from the shift before her, she got to work. Thomas watched her adjust the egg’s positions, check the eggs for cracks or signs of quickening, monitor the temperatures, take out cold stones, and replace them with warm ones. She looked haggard, but calm and still. Peaceful.

“You look better,” Thomas said. Even though the eggs couldn’t hear him, the incubator invited quiet whispering, like a library.

She snorted and adjusted an egg. “I’m tired and cry all the time.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but you don’t look like an Enron guy the week before shutdown either. You know, all manic like.”

She shrugged. “I guess. I miss the rush, though. Everything felt under control back then.”

Thomas knew he wasn’t really that knowledgeable about M.D.’s ‘before’ period—he didn’t know her as well as Raige—but he remembered the fourth of July last year, when she was gray and listless, and he recalled the bandages on her arms in fall and winter. And everything Raige had told him about the weeks before Thomas met them had made it sound like a hurricane of chaos, with M.D. dancing furiously in the middle, grinning like the devil was after her for unpaid debt.

Plus he’d seen the old scars on her arms.

“Yeah, well, that’s bull,” he said. “Pretty sure you’re remembering wrong.”

She rolled her eyes and carefully started placing stones by the fire to heat, setting a water timer for heating. Thomas got up to help her.

“Where’s Raige, anyway?” she asked. “Band practice again?”

Thomas set to passing cold stones to her, trying not to step on anything. “Nope, out with his girlfriend.”

M.D. froze in mid-stoop, stone still in her hands. “Girlfriend?”

“Girlfriend.”

In the exact same tone: “Raige?”

“Yup. The guy has finally found someone as geeky as he is, bless his soul.” Thomas tried to sound totally unbothered by this; after all, he had no claim on Raige’s love life. “Their kids will probably take over the music world—you know, the really, really nerdy parts.”

“Wait, wait, is this the girl who roped him into that last minute thing?”

“I don’t think she had to try all that hard...”

“Ugh!” She tossed the stone down into the fire, sending up a little flurry of sparks. “I hate her already.”

“Oh yeah, like you can complain about her being inconvenient.” She glared at him; he smiled sweetly. “Jealous, babe? Don’t worry. I’m here for you.”

“I’m not jealous!” She snapped, snatching another rock from his hands. “Why, are you?”

“What? No! I just--” he heard a cracking sound, and for a terrifying moment thought he’d stepped on an egg. But then he looked down. “Oh crap! It’s hatching! What do I do?”

“Get out of the way; that’s what you do!” M.D. hissed, rushing over with shooing gestures. She obviously wanted to shove him, but doing it risked him falling over on a baby monster.

Thomas awkwardly hopped over the nests to make way, and in the ensuing two-hour hatching of the most hideous/cute naked bird thing they’d both ever seen, the topic was forgotten. Afterward, Thomas watched M.D. (covered in bits of shell and goop) present the dry and healthy hatchling to its doting parent, and he saw her smile.

Something deep inside him started to relax. For the first time in what seemed like forever, he wasn’t worried to leave her alone.



Thomas had been studying hard for his GED for ages, pretty much ever since he’d gotten back to Texas and realized two things. First, that a year and a half in Treehouse had royally screwed his educational and social life. And second, adults treated high-schoolers like freaking morons.

Thomas had tried. Really, he had. He’d been so thrilled to come home and return to his family and buddies, and sure, he knew he’d be behind, but…

And now he and Raige were in the same grade. (And Raige was way ahead, because Raige was a Grade A nerd.) Thomas’s reputation was in limbo because there was still no official story as to what had actually happened to him for the past year and a half. (The current top rumors were: he had joined a cult, he’d been shipped off to military school, or he’d become a gangbanger.) Nobody was exactly sure what to make of him anymore.

And that was just the other kids. The adults were a whole other deal. Thomas was used to being treated as a fellow adult. In Treehouse, he’d worked his own jobs, lived in his own space (with Strong-Legs, anyway), and sure, it wasn’t easy, but he’d grown to like the freedom and responsibility. But in school, everyone treated him like an overly hormonal dumbass who couldn’t see further than his own dick. It was crazy-making, and around six months after returning home, Thomas had finally lost it.

“They say my pants are too baggy! Who the hell cares about my freaking pants? Have they seen Aaron Lindenhurst’s pants? You could hide freaking zoo animals in there, man!”

Raige had been clueless. M.D., however, had been the certified class psycho from at least the first grade on, and she’d understood completely.

“It’s too late,” she’d told him. “You’re a Problem now. Prepare to be hounded for the rest of your school life.”

Thomas had hated finding out she was right.

Finally, things had gotten bad enough that Thomas’s family had sat down and come to an agreement: if things didn’t get better by the end of the school year, he could quit and go for his GED on his eighteenth birthday.

And that had been last year. Thank god.

So now Thomas was working part-time at his dad’s friend’s landscaping business and prepping for his freedom tests. Mostly, he studied on his own—he wanted to prove to his folks that he could do it. But sometimes he needed someone to quiz and test him. His folks were busy working, and Christopher was too young, so Thomas had turned to Raige. Might as well put his nerdiness to good use.

Thanks to the Treehouse portal set-up, getting to Raige was easy. So after work, Thomas would go to Raige’s place and get relentlessly quizzed.

Some things, he remembered fairly easily—he’d already learned a good chunk of geometry and trigonometry building in Treehouse, and basic arithmetic was universal. Earth science and astronomy he also more or less had down.

English and algebra, however, remained the banes of his existence.

“You know, I’ve been in ‘the real world’ a while, and I’m pretty sure I will never need this stuff in it.”

“Come on, one more equation. You’ve almost got this.”

Thomas couldn’t lie, he could get further studying with Raige than on his own. For whatever reason, hearing someone explain something clicked better than reading the exact same thing in a book.

It didn’t help that Raige was hot. Good motivation.

But now Raige was at practice all the time, or with Wendy. Thomas tried not to be pissed, (he liked to think himself too cool for that) but come on man, his tests were coming. So he found himself quizzing with M.D. instead while on incubator duty. She wasn’t as good as Raige, but still better than Christopher. Plus, she’d found a way to make English interesting. (“Try to convince me of obvious bushwah. There, now you know why it matters.”)

“So he’s flaking on you too now?” she asked. “Capital of Alabama.”

“Mobile. And whatever, he’s busy with ROAR, I got this.”

“Alaska. I haven’t seen him since he got in.”

“Juneau. I’ve seen him a couple times. I think his life is band practice and caffeine now.” He wasn’t sure why he was defending Raige. M.D. wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t thought privately. “Thanks for helping me out, by the way. And Arizona’s Phoenix. Mix it up, I’m sick of A.”

“Utah, then. And no problem, I have to watch the eggs anyway, I doubt listening to us talk is bothering them.”

“Salt Lake City. And yeah, they’ll come out all educated.”

They went through state capitals. Thomas had almost all of them down, except Vermont and Missouri. The incubator was a good place to study, quiet and warm, and after the first hatching, Thomas kept hoping he’d luck into seeing another. So far, no luck, but hey, it helped get his butt in the studying seat.

They even proved handy in Thomas’s fight with algebra. M.D. used them for test problems.

“Okay, so, uh, the sum total of eggs in here are twenty-four. There are three times as many spotted eggs as there are blotchy eggs, and… uh… four-third times as many plain eggs as there are spotty ones. Tell me how many there are of each, show your work, and no peeking, jerk!”

Thomas slugged through that a while, but he got it, and then as M.D. adjusted an egg, he admitted, “Okay, I’m kinda pissed at him.”

Finally.”

“Like, I get it, busy happens, but come on, I’ve had these tests set for months! This is my ticket out of school bull and into work stuff. I’d be down if he’d, you know, actually warned me, but he’s just been last-minute canceling all over, and Christ is it getting old. No offense, babe, you’re cool too.”

“None taken. My education is mostly off-curriciulum anyway. Speaking of which,” she jerked her head at the water timer, which had stopped trickling, and got up to change rocks. Thomas got up to help; stretching and moving around helped him clear his head.

“Like, it’s not even this Wendy chick’s fault,” he continued as he pulled on the mittens to pass her hot rocks. “I’m totally cool with our little Raige growing up, that’s fine. He’s the one acting weird.”

“You know, I was sort of hoping getting kicked out of school would spare me this banal bushwah,” M.D. remarked, packing hay more closely around one enormous egg. “I swear, this wasn’t a thing back in Canandria… oh, and could you grab that hay bale for me? You’ve got upper body strength.”

Thomas went over, hefted it onto his shoulder, and then froze. A light bulb clicked on. “Oh man,” he said. “I bet I know why he’s doing it!”

“Hormones?”

“Besides that.” He carried the hay bale over, tossed it down, and started pulling it apart and tossing chunks to M.D. “Like, what was going on in those days? All sorts of crap, right? And the past year has been us trying to get it together. You’re dealing with your crazy stuff, I’m dealing with my school stuff, but Raige… he’s just been helping you and me, and just… I dunno, not dealing with his dad stuff.” Among other things. “This is the first time he’d had a freaking chance to do something just about him! So I’ll bet that’s why he’s acting so weird.”

M.D. thought about it, fluffing the little egg nests. “Huh,” she said. “That’s not a half bad theory.”

“I know, right? Too bad common sense isn’t a part of the GED, I’d freaking ace it...”

It didn’t magically make everything okay, but it at least took some of the edge off, to the point that when Raige begged for him to come to ROAR, he felt totally fine saying yes.


Part Three: M.D.


As time went on, it became increasingly obvious that I was going to see neither hide nor hair of Raige until ROAR was over. Even Thomas apparently only got phone calls anymore, the messages of which he forwarded to me during our study sessions.

It was during one of these sessions that I found out about the last meet-up Raige hadn’t canceled with Thomas.

“Wait, you’ve met the girlfriend? Three types of rock.”

“Her name is Wendy, kid; don’t be a dick like Biff and pretend you don’t remember anyone’s name. Igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary.”

“Why didn’t you tell me? What’s she like? Is she evil? Water cycle.”

“I could do the water cycle in my sleep. Switch to something else, I got earth science down.”

We weren’t in the nursery this time. It was my day off, which meant we were studying in my room, rather than Treehouse communal space. Books and dishes were scattered around us, but I’d been drilling him for what felt like eternity, and I was bored of it.

“Three branches of government. So, what’s she like? Come on, throw me a bone here.”

“I dunno, nice? Perky? Kinda shy except for music? Judicial, legislative, executive, and I didn’t tell you, because I’m really not in the mood to hate some random girl who seems perfectly nice, come on.”

“You make it sound so malicious,” I grumbled.

Thomas raised an eyebrow at me. After a moment, he prompted, “Question?”

I tossed the book down with a huff and flopped backwards on my back, crossing my arms. “You know all this stuff already.”

Thomas crawled over above me and grinned into my face. “Your eyes’re turning green, babe.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, sure, whatever, but really, you’re ready for this. You’re stressing out about it, but it’s obvious to everyone with half a brain that you’ll do fine.”

The smile faded and Thomas pulled back to sit against the wall. “Well, I’m glad you think so.”

I raised my head. “Your parents giving you trouble?”

“Nah, it’s other folks.” He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “Kid, do you think I made a mistake quitting school?”

“You hated school,” I snorted. “They treated you like an idiot gangster. Did you really want three years of that?”

“No, but... I’m not smart like Raige is.” He was staring at his hands, frowning, picking at a thread on the cuff of his pants. “Books aren’t my thing. Holding still isn’t my thing. I dunno.”

I got up and crawled over to sit next to him, leaning back against the clay wall. “You might not be smart like Raige is, but I don’t think you’re dumb. You can speak three languages. You actually understand how the Treehouse monetary system works—I still don’t. You can build things and grow stuff and once you get your hands on something, you learn it pretty fast. Plus you’re actually emotionally stable, and I think whoever you work for will care more about that than your stupid high school diploma. They should, anyway.”

Thomas laughed, then bumped his shoulder against mine. “Thanks.”

I bumped back. “No worries. I didn’t even make it to high school, so I’m all for ditching that joint.”

“You seem to be doing okay.” Pause. “ROAR would be your first time back on Earth, right? Since the crash at New Year’s.”

I was a little relieved that he just called it ‘the crash.’ It made the whole thing sound like something normal that could be dealt with. So I took a deep breath and said, “Yeah. And actually, I didn’t invite you over here today just to help you with your stupid tests. I need a spotter for ROAR. You up for it?”

“Maybe. What do you need?”

That I could even ask him at all was proof Scorch and Flame had been doing some serious work on me. I’d been working with them for ten months now, and it had been nothing like the Earth social-workers, or the Jaunter’s League therapist.

Back around New Year’s, Scorch had taken on the first delicate steps with me. He’d sat me down in the privacy room in the healing practice, the one smooth and curved and painted a soothing shade of blue. Once we were both comfortable, he asked, “What is it you’re trying to do?”

I hadn’t understood the question.

“You aren’t eating. You cut your arms. Those are unpleasant things, which leads me to believe you have strong reasons to do them. Am I correct?”

I still felt like I was missing something, but I’d been pretty well-coached on questions like this in the past, even if it was in a different language. I replied, “It’s an attention-seeking behavior to control and manipulate the adults around me. You should ignore it.”

Scorch squinted one yellow eye at me, and I’d been around him long enough to recognize his body language as perplexed. “That doesn’t sound like you at all, not the junior healer I know.”

I shifted uncomfortably on my cushion, carefully scratched at the scabs on my arms.

When he realized I wasn’t going to say anything, he signed, “Is that something you truly believe, or something you’ve been told? Because while both are useful to me, I’m more interested in your beliefs at the moment.”

I sighed and gave up the act. “The rages were almost fun, at first. I felt strong, powerful. Nothing hurt. But now it’s just… out of control. At first, cutting down on my sleep or food worked; I was just too drained to get the mad-on going. And cutting used to stop it in its tracks. But now none of that even slows it down. I don’t know what to do.”

It was the longest I’d ever explained at a time, and when I finished, I crossed my arms and clenched my hands in my sleeves. Despite all my experiences with Scorch and Flame (not to mention my own experiences helping with other self-harmers as junior healer), I still felt like I was at the guillotine.

Scorch was still for a time, pondering. Then he signed gently, “I think it’s admirable, to try and protect your people from your rage. It has obviously cost you much.”

“But it’s not working anymore,” I finished for him.

“No,” Scorch agreed. “It’s not.”

“And I’ve tried to stop. But it’s not working. It comes on so fast, and...” My hands shook, and I let them fall.

“Yes, well, these things certainly can hit quickly. But perhaps, with practice, we can learn what sparks them off, and lengthen the time it takes to become a blaze.”

“Can we do that?” I asked dubiously.

Instead of answering me directly, Scorch signed, “You aren’t the only citizen I know who has experienced this.”

That got my attention. “Whoa, really? Who?”

“Ribbonblack, the night healer, her people were slaves. Some still are, I think. All of this was long ago, and I don’t understand it all, but I was led to believe that their nature was… tampered with, somehow. Some of them were made to be dangerously violent. And when she came to Treehouse, through the world-holes, the stress brought that violence out. She lived alone in the woods as a hunter for a long time, and it was many years before she came back to herself enough to become a citizen.”

I was floored. Ribbonblack was a hugely respected pillar of the community, and had apparently been a trained surgeon even on her own home-world. She’d continued her work here in Treehouse, running the night people’s healing practice. I couldn’t imagine her as a wild animal in the woods.

“How did she come back?” I asked.

“I don’t know; this was before my time. Would you like me to ask her for you?”

“Yes, please,” I signed. “I don’t know that her tricks would work for me, but I’d love to find out.”

“Then I will,” Scorch signed, looking pleased. “And Flame and I will make a room that’s safe for you when you’re unwell. Perhaps, we can learn to delay it long enough for you to get there when you need it.”

I remembered the padded rumpus room of the Jaunter’s League and resisted a sigh. Scorch apparently read my expression.

“You can paint it, if you like.”

I perked up a little. “Can I splatter all sorts of colors on it?”

“Of course. We have some leftovers from past projects; you’re free to rummage through them, see if any suit you. The room is for you, after all.”

“That doesn’t sound too awful.” At least I’d have some choice in what the place looked like. “But what about when I don’t make it to the room?”

“We should plan for that. Would you like to now?”

It still felt like admitting failure, but I couldn’t deny that I wasn’t exactly trustworthy around others anymore. So we sat down and brainstormed some ideas, and it was just as well we did. I went berserk with him just two days later, while doing the nightly sweep and scrub.

When I came to, there was a cushion under my head and Scorch was sitting next to me with a jug of juice and some snacks.

“Are you all right?” He signed to me. “I wore my bite guard, but I’m still much larger than you are.”

The bruises were already starting to form on my arm, in the distinctive shape of his wooden guard. Judging by the soreness in my shoulder, he’d had to drag me down with his jaws, like he did with Number One; the guard had kept his teeth from breaking my skin, but it hadn’t been able to do much for the force of his bite. He seemed quite upset about that, plus the necessity of sitting on me to keep me from going anywhere.

“I don’t like treating my junior as prey,” he signed as I drank and ate. “You aren’t food, and I don’t want you to feel like food.”

“I don’t. You did the right thing; this is what we agreed to.” When I was berserk, there was no reasoning with me, and there was a lot of breakable, expensive things in the healing practice. My sore arm and ribs would heal; the healing practice was more important. “Did I hurt you?”

“Hardly,” he signed. “My hide is very thick. We’ll need to do something about your power surges, though—those stung more than I expected!”

That, at least, was pretty easy to fix. We used the same trick that’d worked on Number One, ages before—tight metal bracelets on my wrists. They shorted the circuit, limiting the damage I could do, as long as Scorch avoided my arms. And once that was out of the equation, there was nothing to worry about; Scorch was a heavyset, low-slung cross between a crocodile and a Komodo dragon, and without electricity, the worst I could do was irritate him.

While Flame was too small to help me while I was berserk, I couldn’t hurt her either. She could just fly out of the way, as long as I gave her an early warning that I was slipping.

And I did learn to give warnings. It took time and effort, but I started learning to recognize when a rage was coming on—the specific feel of the adrenaline, the way my train of thought would start to derail. I still couldn’t stop the fits, but at least I could get a better sense for when they were coming.

“You’re adapting,” Flame signed as I updated patient records. “This is good.”

“Yeah, but I’m still freaking out,” I complained with my free hand. “I’d rather not have to warn you; I’d rather not go crazy at all!”

Flame turned from her office perch and gave me an even emerald gaze. “I am a good healer, but there is no cure for unreasonable expectations.”

Ouch.

Over the course of the following months, I learned to adjust those expectations. While Thomas studied for his GED, and Raige studied for his SAT (or rather, didn’t), I studied psychology—mine. I learned my longer-term warning signs: the nightmares, the lack of appetite, the urge to cut. I learned the difference between anger, even intense anger, and a dangerous rage. I learned that while exercise helped, punching pillows or sparring made things worse. I took copious notes and records on my mental state.

Sometimes I threw tantrums or had crying jags in the privacy of my rooms—not berserk, just frustrated. It was too much. It was unlearnable. I’d never get control of myself; all I was doing was wasting time and taking up space. I’d trash my room and scream and swear and cry, and then I’d clean up and do it all over again the next day.

Sometimes I couldn’t stand for anyone to look at me. Every look seemed full of pity or disgust. On days like that, I’d slather myself in Dead-Carrier Beetle juice, toss ashes on my head, and spend the next day or three socially dead. And then, when I was ready to be a human being again, I’d go to the bath house with Scorch, wash it all off, and try being alive again, see if there was any improvement.

At first, I was positive there wasn’t. But as the months passed, I grew less certain. It wasn’t that I was feeling better, exactly; whatever the feelings were that I was experiencing, they definitely weren’t pleasant. But I was starting to feel more… solid, somehow. Better balanced.

“We are making adjustments,” Flame said when I asked her. “A better psychological posture, hopefully, pulling the crooked parts better into alignment. Does this feel correct to you?”

“I don’t know,” I signed. “Let me think about it.”

For a few days, I did. And then I told her and Scorch over dinner, “I think it does.”

I’d never seen such happy dragon-beasts.

Now I did start to see some improvement, finally. My episode incidence started to decrease. I was thrilled, but Scorch and Flame were not.

“Your rage may have been insulating you from something,” Scorch told me. “We need to be prepared for whatever comes up. Epiphanies, realizations, powerful emotions, things like that.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “This is great! I’m actually starting to act like a citizen in good standing again!”

“Yes,” Scorch explained, “but rage like yours… I think it may serve a purpose.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I retorted. “It’s a glitch. We’re fixing it.”

Scorch did not look convinced. “I would like for you to be right. Let’s see if you are.”

I wasn’t. The memories started within the week.

Well, ‘memories’ is putting it strongly. It implies a movie screen, playing back my time on Della in a convenient story form. Really, it was scraps, sensations, raw emotion.

Oh, and vomiting. Lots of vomiting for some reason.

“This is awful,” I burbled miserably over the basin. “I want to die now. Can I please die now?”

Flame was busy holding back my hair, but Scorch signed. “Don’t worry. Remember the records you’ve taken? It’s always over within two hours.”

“Lucky me,” I signed, and continued retching. A plus of Pidgin Sign; I could chat and chuck at the same time.

Fortunately, the vomiting stage was relatively short. The memories stage, however, was not.

I’m not going to go into those right now. They were scattered, confused, secondhand jigsaw puzzles mixed together after losing half the pieces. I don’t know that I could even piece together a coherent narrative out of it. Suffice to say, I developed far more insight into Number One’s behavior than I ever wanted in a million years.

“Do you want to connect with one of the all-speakers, in search for more clarity?” Flame asked me once.

No,” I signed.

Flame went limp with relief. “Oh, thank the goodness of all,” she signed. “I would’ve helped as best I could, if you wanted, but honestly, I’m not sure there’s anything to find.”

“Me either,” I admitted. “Even if you ignore everything else… I was just so little.”

She was still for a moment. Then she signed solemnly, “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“Yeah,” I signed as my throat closed up. “Me too.”

Ten months was nowhere near long enough to clear out that whole mess. I wasn’t even close to healed by the time mid-October and ROAR rolled around. But I had learned my mind’s patterns and its needs, and while I wasn’t well, I was stable. Sort of. Enough to be willing to face Earth again, at least.

With a little help from Thomas, that is.

“Okay,” he said, after I explained a bit. “So if you sign ‘set’ to me, it’s book it for Treehouse ASAP. ‘Dark,’ I dogpile you and don’t let you up until you sign ‘rise.’”

“Yup,” I said, relieved that he seemed to be rolling with it. Thomas wasn’t on Biff’s level of raw burliness, but I knew from experience that he was strong enough to wrestle me down if he had to, and that he wouldn’t take it personally. “I’m used to signing it here in Treehouse, and at a marching band concert, who knows if you’d be able to even hear me.”

Thomas nodded and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Better keep you in view then, huh?”

“Yes.” For a moment, I almost apologized, but resisted the urge. Instead, I said, “Thanks for being so reasonable about this.”

Thomas shrugged philosophically. “I got a cousin who’s got, like, some kinda neurological stuff going on. Sounds and smells sometimes are too much for him, so he’s sometimes got to warn us before he freaks out. I figure it’s sorta like that.”

“Yeah,” I said. “With more hitting.”

“Hey man, don’t knock my cousin. He bites.”

And when the next week came around, we packed our snacks and water bottles, slathered on sunscreen, and off we went to Autumnville.

All my time in Vaygo, I’d either spent in the ritzy upper-crust Oasis Valley with Raige, or in the slums of the south side ghetto with Biff. Autumnville, it turned out, was somewhere in the middle, filled with hip art galleries, vintage shops, and vegan restaurants. I automatically found myself sizing up Dumpsters and tried to stop.

“You cool?” Thomas asked.

“Sure,” I said, and we followed the cacophony to the main square.

People were all around us. Tattooed and pierced and ordinary, with hair in unnatural colors and bodies in unusual costumes. There were families with children, people walking their dogs, crusty punks and hobos and businessmen, all here for the bands. The streets were closed to cars.

Thomas and I had missed the evening parade the previous day; Thomas had had work, and the time zone difference had been too much for me. So instead, we were here for the ‘roving riot,’ whatever that was. Thomas and I went to a large, colorful tent to pick up a paper program and some buttons depicting an angry Godzilla-size tuba smashing buildings, and we learned that over a dozen bands were roving various stations around Autumnville. Raige’s band wasn’t showing up till later, so me and Thomas were free to wander for a half hour.

I examined the map on the program and pointed out locations. “Okay, we’ve got the Scars and Strikes Labor Band from Phoenix a few blocks that way, the Worst of the Wurst Oom-Pahs from New Braunsfels over there, and Emperor Norton’s Imaginary Symphony from Flagstaff at the playground. Which do you--” I saw Thomas’s face. “No.”

“C’mon...”

“The Worst of the Wurst? Seriously?”

“I gotta support my Texas homeboys!”

“They’re oom-pah, Thomas. They’re obviously from the other part of Texas.”

“Hey man, oom-pah and mariachi got a lot in common. That makes us practically family...”

We played rock-paper-scissors for it. I lost. We went to go listen to old fat guys in lederhosen play polka.

“Wow,” Thomas said later. “They were really bad.”

I just glared at him. With a name like Worst of the Wurst, I don’t know what he expected.

But next up was Jazzmer. At long last, I was going to get a look at the mysterious Wendy Ogata. And Raige too. It’d been so long, I joked to Thomas, I wasn’t sure I’d recognize him.

We made it back to the station in the square, just as Scars and Strikes (dressed entirely in black) stomped off the makeshift bandstand (a subway vent) to the tune of ‘Bread and Roses.’ Raige and company were nowhere in sight. Thomas and I craned our necks, but the crowds made it hard to see much.

Then the doors to the shop in front of us burst open, and out poured the band, dressed in mismatched outfits of all sorts of colors, sprinting in time to a jaunty tune that I didn’t recognize. The crowd parted, and the band bolted into the square, bouncing in time. I could hear Raige’s drum, but not see him.

Thomas and I bellowed our encouragement and flailed our arms, but the crowd was too thick to tell if he could see us. With the noise, he certainly couldn’t have heard us. Thomas noticed and knelt down.

“Up, get up!” he signed.

I clambered onto his shoulders, signing thanks. We got our balance and he stood up just as the song ended.

First, I saw Raige in the back, decked out in drum and harness and an incredibly dorky feathered hat. His nose was covered in zinc oxide. Thomas and I waved furiously, and he grinned back before returning to his playing.

Then I saw Wendy.

She looked… disappointingly ordinary. Not much taller than me. She was wearing a Mandarin collared shirt, black and white striped stockings, and a tam. She wielded a skinny black horn, and she bounced out to the front, braids swinging.

“Hello, Autumnville!” she shouted.

The crowd roared.

A scribbly picture of Wendy in her formal band outfit, dancing

With a grin, she paced in front of the band, half-dancing, jaunty like a rooster, then thrust her horn into the air. “We are Jazzmer, the greatest jazz/klezmer band in the state of Arizona! And we are here to fucking swing!”

With that she swung her horn to her mouth, spun to the band, pumped her fist—one, two, three, four—and the band burst into song.

I signed down to Thomas, “I thought you said she was shy.”

“No,” he signed back, “I said she was shy except about music.”

I will be the first to admit I know nothing about music. That was always Raige and Thomas’s thing. But I do know a bit about swagger and pizzazz and commanding attention through sheer force of personality. And whatever Wendy was like off the bandstand, on it she was a force of nature. She played the crowd like a master. She bounced and danced and kicked while she played. She called the songs like a carnival barker.

“Hava Nagilah!”

“Sousaphone Healing!”

“Llama!”

I wanted to hate her so badly. But I couldn’t. In that moment, I could see why Raige liked her.

But then I forgot her. Thomas was starting to dance under me and I had to get off his shoulders lest I wreck his style.

He wasn’t the only one. The whole crowd was moving. The music was a living pulsing heart, and we flowed to its rhythm. Around us was a fun-house of strangers—a woman in a gorilla suit, a couple dancing in old-timey clothes, a man with a xylophone on his head headbanging so hard that people were getting out of his way, ribbon-dancers and flag-twirlers and small children racing underfoot. A stilt-walker dressed as Raggedy Ann chased a burlap sack turkey with a plastic axe. It was like a hallucinogenic fever dream of color and movement.

With Wendy at the helm, the band pounded on, unstoppable and irresistible, and I joined the rest of the crowd. I danced with Thomas. I danced with the girl in the gorilla suit. I danced with myself. The music demanded no less.

Normally, the Vaygo heat didn’t affect me. But now I poured sweat. I could feel my feet blistering in my shoes. Across from me, I could see Thomas pulling off his shirt, stuffing it down his waistband, but I was barely aware of him, or the band, or anyone anymore. For months, I had been slogging through rage and blood and vomit. Now there was only the beat, only the dance.

Nothing else compared.

After an eternity, Thomas swam into view. His face was concerned.

“Okay?” he signed, and I realized my cheeks were slick, my breathing uneven. My calves were throbbing.

“I think I need a break,” I signed.

It wasn’t one of our pre-arranged signals, but he immediately took my arm (over the sleeve) and helped forge a path out of the crowds and into the comparative cool quiet of the subway station. He led me to a bench and I flopped down, panting.

“Wow,” I said to him, in English now that he could hear me. “That was… intense.”

“Yeah, you looked like you were getting away from me there.” Almost a question.

“Yeah. I—I think I’m okay, though. I just… give me a second.”

“Sure,” he said, and sprawled out on the bench like he did this every day.

It took me a while to get back together. I felt odd, lightheaded, my pulse roaring in my ears. Not an episode, not quite, but something weird. Something powerful.

I felt good.

When I said so to Thomas, he paused in mopping the sweat off his body and gave me a quick look-over, then smiled.

“You look good,” he said. Not in his corn-syrupy lecher mode either. He sounded honestly happy for me.

I thought about it a moment, then said, “I think I’m going to be okay.”

“Yeah,” he said, putting his shirt down and dropping an arm around the back of the bench behind me. “I think so too.”

I couldn’t remember ever feeling that way before. It felt… nice.

“You wanna go home?” Thomas asked casually. “I figure a religious experience will tucker anyone out.”

“Not yet,” I said. “I want to congratulate Raige first on apparently making me see God in stupid Star Wars tunes.”

Thomas laughed and got up, and we headed back to the square. Raige and the rest of Jazzmer would be roaming on to their next station soon. They were on their last set of songs, slowing down to a sleepy dance, and Raige had apparently noticed our exit; I could see him searching the crowd for us as he played, a worried frown on his face.

When Thomas waved, he saw us, and his face lit up with relief. I signed over my head, “I’m okay!” Even his Pidgin Sign was good enough for that.

But then his attention was pulled back to Wendy as she pumped her horn over her head and shouted, “Mark time! Pancakes! One two three four...”

And with a triumphant drum cadence, they marched out to cataclysmic cheers.

Apparently Jazzmer weren’t needed to perform again right away; they halted at an alley between restaurants and set down their instruments to rest. The musicians slugged down water from bottles and alcohol from flasks in their shirts. We rushed over to Raige as he shrugged out of his drum harness.

“Hey man, you were great!” Thomas said, clapping him on the back and hugging him. “Y’all rocked!”

Raige beamed. He was covered in sweat, bright red, and breathing hard, and I realized that I’d missed him. After a moment of awkward hovering, I realized he was trying to decide whether hugging me was okay, so I did it for him.

“Ew, you’re sticky,” I said, attempting to imitate Thomas’s manly back-pat.

“Sorry,” he laughed, pulling back. “Hey, I’m so glad you could make it! I’m so sorry I’ve been busy--”

“Hey!” Wendy called, approaching from behind me. “You knocked ‘Llama’ out of the park!”

“Look who’s talking! That winds battle was epic!” He bent over and kissed her.

A stab of jealousy hit me, and that’s when I figured out. What’d been bugging me, why I’d been so deadset on hating this random girl I’d never even met till now.

Scorch had warned me about things coming up...

Oblivious to it all, Wendy smiled at me and put out a hand. “Hi, I’m Wendy! You must be M.D.! It’s so cool to finally meet; Raige won’t shut up about you!”

I chuckled nervously and pulled my sleeve over my hand before embarking on the world’s most awkward cold-fish handshake.

“Yeah,” I said. “Hi. Cool.”

Thomas gave me an incredulous look, but I ignored him. Suddenly, I was delighted to have Wendy as Raige’s girlfriend. Heck, I was even thrilled about being a mental patient!

Because it guaranteed, a hundred percent, that my feelings about Raige would never, ever need to come up. And as long as it never came up, everything would be fine.

Notes: If you’re curious as to what on earth Raige and Wendy are going on about, this quick vid shows drum majors performing first the glide-step (as they turn and go towards the camera/viewer, the one that kinda makes them look like they're rolling on wheels), then a bounce step that I don't know the official name for, and then the goose-step.

The glide-step is a marching step intended to minimize bouncing around so music can come out steadily.  It looks the most like normal walking.  You can see a clearer example here.  The high-step looks cooler, but is also more tiring. The high-step comes in various forms; there's the ankle-knee form, and the chair-step (AKA Big Ten style), and of course the goose step. (Which I don't know if it's possible to perform while playing.) Raige’s drum is large enough that he can’t do a proper high-step, so he has to glide-step or crabwalk through everything.  You can see what his harness looks like here.

What Thomas says about oom-pah and mariachi is true.  Blame the Texas Germans.  And New Braunsfels has a Wurstfest every year.  I know because I went.

ROAR is based off my local HONK marching festival. The weirdness is just as reported.   You can see some of the sketches from it here. I personally imagine Jazzmer busting out while playing an arrangement of Kirby’s song from the Super Smash Brothers game, but pick whatever you like.

Date: 2017-04-04 05:50 pm (UTC)
weareangels: A white wolf mid-stride on a white background. (LC)
From: [personal profile] weareangels
Ahh, this was so positive and good to read! I also really love Wendy's bandstand antics.

Date: 2017-08-01 05:27 pm (UTC)
pantha: (Default)
From: [personal profile] pantha
Eeee! That was fab. <3

So much to love about this - Raige and his absolute joy with the music, Wendy and her antics, M.D.'s slow positive steps. So much. <3<3<3
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