Johann kept quiet that afternoon. His left cheek still burned from Ro’s punch the night before. He still saw everything in his head: Ro’s widened eyes, her dropped jaw, her clenched fist, her terrible strike, her furious shouts over him while he lay on the floor. He finally told Ro that Eloise of the capital was his new girlfriend. He should have expected that.
But it was his life. Not even Rowan of southeast could do anything about who he wanted to be with. Ro could punch him all she wanted, but he was not going to stop receiving all those heart-stopping kisses from Eloise.
He would do anything for her. He already was.
Eloise actually was not so different from other girls. Rowan was more different, Johann mused to himself. Eloise preferred to be in dark clothes, blacks, blues, grays, and browns, but these were always flattering to her figure, close to her body and tight where it mattered. She liked sweet treats. She liked listening to gossip about people. What set her apart from others was one thing: she wanted to be above most people, at least those she could control. She relished the fact that trainees and trainers kept their distance from her, held her in esteem. She would have it no other way.
Johann knew her reputation in the halls, of course. It was a reputation she deserved. But that was not the reason he was drawn to her.
She was beautiful, and she was dangerous. She was confident, intelligent, uncompromising. She was dominant and domineering. She was everything he was not, and wished to have. And in being with her, he felt that he somehow had those traits too.
And she loved being with him, maybe loved him. She loved how he played his music, loved his company. Maybe part of it was that thing Rowan punched him for a while back, but that was not the only reason. What else could one ask?
Granted, most people kept their distance from him, since he was associated with Eloise, but these people also respected him, did they not? And it did not matter much what people thought of him, as long as he could stay with her, and as long as he ultimately achieved his goals.
When there was no one else around, when they were alone, she was quite tender with him, telling him how much she needed him, sometimes how much she wanted him. He probably could have gotten her to bed already, several times, if Rowan did not pop up in his thoughts at the crucial times and scolded him, what the heck was he thinking or doing, that no girl was his no matter how willing they were, until he was absolutely sure of her intentions, that she will beat him to a pulp if he ever touched a girl beyond what she wanted.
To a point, Rowan was right. The silver-haired girl had not asked for it herself, no matter how much she said she wanted him. He sighed. Maybe it was that thing in his voice and his music that she craved, and that was all. But while she wanted it, he would give it to her, because he did not want to be far away from her either. He wanted to follow her where she led, even if it pained Rowan in the end, even if it hurt others in the end.
Johann sometimes still could not believe why he was always with her, why she always stay wound around him. Tonight, he could not believe why she kept kissing him at every corner, claiming him, owning him.
Maybe he had tranced her too. It was the thought that kept disturbing him about their relationship, why he did not dare take it a notch higher. Maybe he was her pawn, he was just being manipulated. Yeah, it had passed his mind too. But she was beautiful, and interesting, and powerful, and he could not stay away, and could not stop.
Eloise had made him observe the effect his music had on the trainees. They stopped whatever they were doing and walked to where he was, listening to him with slack mouths and dazed eyes. When Eloise then told the assembled dazed crowd to spin around until they dropped…they did. To Johann’s amazement.
“The teachers are stupid. They never noticed how special you are,” Eloise told him then. “But I know it. We’ll show them all how special you are. You and me.”
So he began to play for her, honing a set of tunes that had the most dazing effect on people. He would collect groups of admiring girls around him as he played, while Mara or Juno picked wallets out of pockets. He would stun an unsuspecting trainee with a devasting little phrase he discovered, while Eloise asked for lunch, class notes, money, whatever it was she needed.
He never understood why Eloise never seemed to be affected in the same way. Even Rowan felt some effects, whatever they were, that made her punch him every time he tried it.
Ro. He touched his cheek again, remembering last night.
Eloise sat beside him. She snaked her arm across his back, sending tingles through his spine. “The redhead did that to you?” she asked, kissed the injured cheek, making it ache.
“Who else?” Johann said with a sigh. Her perfume, strong, heady, spiked with unusual scents, filled him, made him stop thinking properly. This was the effect his music probably had on others, he mused. If so, what was so wrong with making others forget themselves for a moment, even at the loss of some personal possessions?
Eloise became all-business. “Why are you worried? If I had my way, that redhead would be next.”
Something in him got concerned about that. “Why?” he asked as nonchalantly as he could manage.
“Because she gets in your way, and she gets in my way,” she said. “I won’t hurt her, for your sake. But she’ll stop getting in our way.”
He could not help but agree to that. “Alright.”
Eloise whispered into his ear and wrapped her arms around his neck. “I promise you, nothing, nothing, will get in your way.”
Her voice of ice and steel froze him and hardened him. He plunged yet again under its power and held on. “Of course, Eloise.”
“Now,” she spoke more audibly, so her friends could hear, “about the concert.”
“Yeah, I’ve been practicing.”
“Good, because your slot is assured.”
“What?” He could not believe it.The slots were full for the annual concert by the music guild. To have a slot, especially as a basic trainee, was impossible.
“I told you.” She smiled with love, menace, and confidence all rolled together. “Nothing will get in your way.”
He no longer cared how it happened. He hugged her tightly.
“Disconnect the electric programs to your legs,” Lan said.
Ren, seated beside the redhaired programmer, glared at him. They were at the park bench under a tree. In the end, Ren did take up the fire programmer’s offer. If nothing else, it would help him stand against Eloise in a sudden attack. If it would help him walk without too much reliance on the crutches, that would be better…if he wanted to have a chance at Chie noticing him.
Lan scratched his head. “What is it? You don’t know how?”
“Would YOU want to disconnect your lifecodes?” Ren kept glaring. The electric programs were such a part of his life now that they were as integral as his blood lifecodes to the legs. He could not disconnect them even if he wanted.
Lan sighed. “Maybe I’m saying it wrong.” He looked at the passing clouds for a few moments. Then he stood from the bench. “Lie down, please.”
Ren crossed his arms instead.
“Ren. I’m asking nicely.”
“You’re asking like any old teacher in practical lessons,” Ren grumbled.
“Maybe. I still need you to do it.”
Lan rolled his eyes. “Please do it first then I’ll explain. Please stop being so contrary.”
Ren shrugged but lifted his legs up to the bench. He lay down.
“Thank you,” Lan said. “Concentrate on the offensive programs in your body.”
Ren took a deep breath and tried his best to focus, as Lan wanted.
“Where is most of the strength placed?”
“In my legs, of course,” Ren said. They coursed through him more powerfully from inside his legs.
“You’re unbalanced, then,” Lan said.
Of course he was unbalanced! He needed the added strength for walking! “But…”
“No buts, Ren. First distribute the strength of your offensive programs equally through your body. Reduce the strength to your legs, send them up to your arms and torso.”
“But that won’t let me walk!”
“We will do this slowly. We’ll find the adequate amount for walking. But balance the distribution of your programs first.”
At least the redhead explained what he was doing. Ren tried his best to even out the electric surges. Already his legs felt somewhat weaker.
“Good. Now unbalance it, in favor of your arms,” Lan spoke over him.
“Ren, you’re lying down. Your legs have support right now. Do it.”
Ren raised the power to his arms. They suddenly felt capable of doing anything. Of attacking, fighting, hurting.
“Encode for a fireball…I mean, a small energy ball,” Lan said, walking behind the bench.
“A small energy ball. Draw out your hand, point it toward the open field. Encode a small burst of energy. Then activate it.”
Ren still felt the electric surges through his arms. He drew out an arm and pointed his finger to the ground. He felt the power moving through his arm, to his hand, to his finger, ready to strike at his command.
“Encode. Straight Blast,” Ren said. “Activate!”
A strong electric spark surged from his finger to the ground with a crackle. It made Ren suddenly draw back his arm. He looked up at Lan, who smiled down on him.
“Return the balance of the programs through your body,” Lan said.
Ren, still surprised, did as he was ordered. He had to admit the redhead was right. Because he over-concentrated his programs to his legs, he had no power left to create offensive programs.
“Very good. Now sit up,” Lan said.
As Ren returned to sitting on the bench, Lan sat beside him. “Keep the balance through your body while you’re seated.”
Ren took a while to establish the balance, now that his back and legs participated in keeping him seated. But he found it. “Do I activate another Straight Blast?” he asked.
“Tomorrow,” Lan told him. He looked up at the sky, hands behind his head.
Ren watched the other trainees pass through the clearing while waiting for further instructions. But Lan still kept staring at the clouds overhead.
Rowan waved as she passed from the other end. Trainees giggled at the teacher’s assistant beside him. A few girls stared wistfully at the assistant, their hands clasped over their chest as they sighed. Ren rolled his eyes at them, while concentrating on keeping the balance. It fluctuated with each new emotion or minor change in position.
When Ren himself looked at Lan, he rolled his eyes again. Lan’s eyes had closed. The redhead snored quietly.
Several other clumps and groups of trainees passed the open area on their way to meals or the library. They all pointed and chuckled at the dozing assistant, his frame slumped over the bench, his head rolled up beyond the backrest.
It was getting highly embarrassing. Ren poked the redhead’s shoulder. “Am I going to just sit here?” Ren finally asked.
Lan woke and rubbed his eyes. He yawned. “Are you maintaining the balance through your body?”
“Yes!” Ren glared at him.
“Please don’t be contrary, and observe that you’ve kept balance while sitting for half an hour now. Very good. Notice that you’re not using full power to your legs, but you’re keeping balance.”
Ren suddenly looked at his watch, and confirmed what Lan said. He hated it when the redhead was right.
“Later when you’re in the coffee shop, remember to maintain this balance while you’re seated. For extra practice. Could you maintain this balance while you’re standing?” Lan asked.
“I’ll try,” Ren said, taking up his crutches.
Maybe this tutoring thing isn’t so bad after all, he mused.