Set stared out the window beside her desk. Central's skyscrapers reached up past and around her, steel and glass shining in the afternoon light. The school-day was almost over. As soon as this class was over she'd be able to go home. The blue Xweetok glanced at the teacher, an elderly Bori with fiery designs on his ashen fur. Mr. Elm was still droning on about the Council Age, one of the more boring topics. It immediately preceded Sloth's current reign, but everyone knew about what had happened during that scant time of peace.
She sighed, and went back to staring out the window and doodling in her notebook. Behind her, she could vaguely hear some of her classmates whispering and giggling. Probably, they were figuring out another way to torment her. Set didn't care enough to pay attention. If they'd found something new to put her through, good on them. If not, there wasn't any point to it; humiliation only worked when the person being humiliated could feel ashamed for themselves.
Not after all that she'd been put through in the recent years. Bullying, hazing, every form of public humiliation easily imagined and some that required thought, and, of course, the quiet shunning that surrounded her unless someone had decided to torment her for entertainment. The Xweetok turned her eyes to her notebook, sketching out a spaceship. And it was all because she was smarter than anyone else in this room. Not usually because she was younger, or a girl – though some people had used that as their excuse, after she'd shown them up time and time again – but because she was brilliant.
All the teachers agreed, and loved that they could call on her to explain concepts that nobody else grasped, or that they could ask her to help struggling students. She just wished more of them would realize that by setting her apart, they were giving the other students even less reason to try and make her part of them than the boundaries of age normally would. It wasn't even that large a gap – her classmates were sixteen, on average, and she was fourteen, if barely.
Mr. Elm paused in his explanation for a moment, and the room fell silent. Set looked up to see the fire Bori taking a sip of his aromatic tea. He claimed it kept his voice steadier than anything else. About half his students wished that he'd keep it out of the classroom, because, to many of them, it stank. Set liked the smell; Mr. Elm was one of the kinder teachers, if not a particularly interesting one. He continued his lecture, and the class's buzz of conversation resumed. Set continued detailing her spaceship as the class continued, listening with half an ear and waiting for the intercom to sound.
The blare of the intercom let out prompted a cacophony of screeching chairs and pounding feet, and voices rose into a babbling storm as Set's classmates swept around her. She kept all her books neatly stored within her backpack – which rested under her desk – or under her hands on the desk itself, a habit from too many instances of stolen or damaged papers and books. Only when she was the last student in the room did the blue Xweetok move, carefully closing her notebook and sliding the few papers she'd taken out back into their folders. Set stood, unconsciously brushing back short blue hair, and put her backpack on securely.
As she walked out the door into the river of color and shape that was the student body, Mr. Elm said, "Setia?"
Set half-turned. She didn't like her full name – it had too many connotations of bullies – but she respected the teachers' choice to use it. It wasn't as if anyone knew her preferred name, anyway.
"Be careful." Mr. Elm looked concerned; behind his glasses, his eyes were crinkled, and his mouth was ever-so-slightly downturned.
The Xweetok nodded and continued towards the door.
"I see your bruises, you know. The black eyes, swollen lips, the occasional scratch."
Set stopped, one hand resting on the door frame.
"If you ever want to talk to me about the fights you're in, please, feel free. I know how rough the lower districts can be, but you've risen up above your heritage. Setia, I'm proud of you. Please, don't get yourself killed in a territorial fight."
She almost wanted to laugh. Mr. Elm thought she was part of the gang wars. Not that bullying still existed in Song High. He'd rather believe her a brilliant student wasting her intellect. She couldn't really blame him; she fit most of the stereotypes of gang members, after all – short hair; loose, baggy, clothing; wiry body; haunted eyes; unexplained injuries – and nobody would believe her if she did tell. So she just said, quietly, "I won't." Before Mr. Elm had the time to say anything else, she slipped into the stream of students and lost herself in its flow.
Set retained enough awareness to make sure she didn't bump into anyone. That would, after all, simply be an invitation for a belittling remark, and she received enough of those as it was. Especially from—
"Just look who it is now."
"Van." Set turned to face the mocking voice, halting in the midst of everyone. The Rainbow Ogrin's colorful hair – purple shading to blue and red – framed his grinning face quite nicely, and the black jacket he always wore contrasted in quite a striking manner. If he hadn't been the most persistently antagonistic of her classmates, Set would have liked him. As it was... "What are you here for this time?" she asked, keeping her voice steady and her body ready to dodge and run.
"What else, girly?" His dark eyes, large and hypnotic in the midst of a blue-green sea of fur, bore down into hers. "Little Setia's gone and made herself all puffed better than the rest of us again, has she?" He pulled a purple hand out of her pocket and offered it to her. "Time for another lesson, girly."
Set snarled at his outstretched hand and flinched away when he tried to put it on her shoulder as if she were just a child. She was smaller than average – she looked like a child – and he was tall for his seventeen years, but that gave him no right to treat her as if she was still in middle-school. She preceded him out of the school, walking down indeterminable flights of stairs. There wasn't any real point in trying to get away from Van; she'd succeeded once, and the next time she'd tried his friends had been waiting for her.
The Ogrin escorted her out of the school. Set scowled at the giggles and sly looks that some of the older girls gave them, flushing under her dirt-brown fur. Van snorted softly, but the corners of his mouth, when Set glanced at him, were twitching upwards. It just made Set want to hit him even more than she normally did. His hand strayed to her shoulder and squeezed tightly for a moment, fingers boring into flesh. Set opened her mouth for a moment, but then closed it before Van could close it for her.
Van's grunt of satisfaction didn't help anything. Neither did the hand on her arm as he steered her out of Song High, or that the alleyway he led her to was empty of any people other than the two of them. Set jerked out of Van's grip as soon as they got there. "What do you want from me?"
"Depends. What are you willing to give?" Van leaned against the steel walls. One hand was in his pocket; the other gestured idly. "See, the problem with you is that you're so much worse off than the rest of us."
The Xweetok bared her teeth.
"Oh, give it a rest." He sighed. "Lowborn, Setia. That's what you are. A lowborn street rat who's scurrying around the rest of us and showing us up." With a shove of his shoulder, Van pushed himself back upright and stepped towards Set with a slash of his hand. "Blast and shatter, Setia. Do you realize how arrogant you are?"
Set glanced warily around, looking and listening for any sign of Van's friends. He'd never have brought her here alone; too much risk of something going wrong, or of her accusing him of something that he couldn't defend against. At last, she said, "And you're not arrogant?"
"Different sorts." The Ogrin smirked. "My kind is the kind they understand."
"You," Set said, pronouncing each word very distinctly, "are a son of a spardel."
Van raised his rainbow eyebrows. "Coming from you? That don't mean much, sweetheart."
Set opened her mouth. Then she closed it again. Then, too calmly, said, "What did you call me?"
"Setia." Van grinned, showing altogether too many teeth. He tugged at one of his ear-tufts and turned on the ball of one foot. "See, the way I figure it, everyone's ganged up on you. Means there's no way for anyone to care about what the rest of us do. You'll steal all the credit. You always do."
"You do your best to beat me because you're jealous."
"Anything wrong with that, Setia?" Van glanced over his shoulder, face softening momentarily. "Lots of things in life happen because people get jealous."
Set didn't reply. Instead, the blue Xweetok spun and marched out of the alley. She could feel Van's gaze still, making the hair on the back of her neck bristle.
She stopped, hands curling into fists at her sides. One more word, she promised herself. One more arrogant word, and she would give him a piece of his own medicine. They were alone; she had better odds now than she ever would again.
"Why do you bother?" His boots struck the ground, hard sounds growing closer.
Set turned to face him, lips instinctively pulling back in a snarl at his approach.
"Please don't. I'm tired of your posturing." Van crossed his arms and crouched, putting his head below hers for once. It was harder to see him as threatening, when he was looking up at her like this, near-black eyes wide open and framed by dark lashes. The collar around his neck, black leather studded with steel spikes, now seemed a bond, not a threat. He smiled, crookedly. "I really am curious why you bother. Why you care enough to put up with everything."
After staring at him for what felt like minutes, Set dropped her gaze to the side, watching a stray piece of plastic flutter in the intermittent wind. "What else can I do?"
"What do you want to do?"
The word left her mouth before she could stop it. Set stepped back, out of Van's reach, crouched down ready to run, eyes locked on his in fear.
He just tilted his head a little, that smile still on his face. "Go to the Station, you mean?"
Wordless, she shook her head.
"What, then?" He dropped one hand to the ground to steady himself. Lavender fingers against black gloves against gray concrete. Fingers that spun pencils as easily as knives. Fingers that never quite harmed her noticeably, though they always came so close...
"Why do you care?" she asked suddenly. She crossed her arms self-consciously over her thin blue-gray shirt, not quite looking at him. "I mean, why this? Why ask?"
He laughed outright, and she flushed hot red born in equal parts embarrassment and anger. "Setia, why should I not care about the one student of the slums who seems born to go somewhere higher? Who's stretching to reach the sky?"
"You know, girl. You know." He stood smoothly and walked past her, orange-gold fur peeking out between his low-slung pants and high-cut jacket as he sauntered past her.
Set stood there for a moment longer, then turned and followed him, jogging to catch up. "What are you reaching for?"
He barely glanced at her. "Life."
Casually, he drew a hand out of his pocket and slapped her without looking. "Girl. What do you know of any life but your blessedly smart one?" He grabbed her by the ear and dragged her in front of him, looking at her with a smirk. "You don't, girl. So kindly go to Shenkuu and leave the rest of us alone."
This time, when he tossed her aside and walked on, Set didn't move. She just stood there, hand held to her burning cheek, and watched him go. As he reentered the school, his gang settled in around him, a colorful riot of steel and leather. And Van stood in the middle of it, taller than anyone else there, distinctive in his rainbow fur and wild hair. And, she now saw, with the loneliest eyes of them all.
Set shoved her fists back into her pockets and slumped back into the schoolyard. Passing the gang, she heard a single phrase of their talk: "We've got to get them now."
Whoever they intended that message for, and whatever way, Set looked up at it. She looked at the steel and glass rising all around her, reflecting the endless turmoil of Central's sky, and she smiled. For the peaks that passed through the flame-filled smog and into the bird's blue winds. She straightened, and walked back into the school as if she owned it. As if nobody could do a thing to her.
And, for the first time since she had entered Song High, nobody did.