A big thank you to the reader who made the donation yesterday that put us so far over the total that next week is already taken care of! Here’s a bonus story for some characters that are probably a bit overdue.
The mental healing annex of the healing center contained within it a small number of long-term care rooms as well as the quiet, tastefully decorated rooms which served as both practical offices and safe spaces for one-on-one counseling sessions.
The student healers who volunteered to meet the experience requirements for their degrees shared two of these in a rotation, but Theadora Lundegard had one that was ostensibly her own. She permitted students to use it when she wasn’t in.
Thus, even though they’d never visited with her in particular, this wasn’t the first time that Sara and Tara Leighton had been in her room. They’d ignored the comfortable chairs and sat their shared body instead in the dead center of the two-seat divan, speaking to each other in the language they’d shared since they were babies, the language that nobody could understand but themselves.
These various seats were arranged around the illusionary fire that crackled realistically in the brick fireplace with a dummy chimney. The desk was some distance away. Its marble surface was kept clean and free of both clutter and sensitive material, as other people might need to use it.
The twins craned their necks—that and their heads being the only truly independent body parts they each owned—at the sound of the door opening. The owner of the office had just entered, and was striding confidently towards them on one-inch heels.
“Hello, Sara,” she said, smiling reassuringly. “Hello, Tara. I’m…”
“Where’s Edward?” Tara asked. “We were talking to Edward last time.”
“We liked Edward,” Sara said.
“I’m afraid Edward’s not available,” the healer said. “I’m Teddi, and I’m taking his appointments this evening.”
“‘Teddy’ is a boy’s name,” Tara said.
“Well, it isn’t a proper name in and of itself,” Teddi said. “It can be short for Theodore, or, in my case…”
“If it isn’t a proper name, why should we call you it?” Tara asked. “Why introduce yourself by something if it isn’t a name?”
“I meant, as opposed to being a nickname,” Teddi said.
“Why are you so opposed to nicknames?” Tara asked. “What did they ever do to you?”
“I only meant…”
“Do they call you ‘teddy’ because you like to wear them?” Tara asked.
“What?” Teddi asked.
“Do you wear teddies?” Tara asked.
“Are you wearing one now, under your clothes?” Tara said.
“When everybody’s gone, do you shimmy around the office in it?”
“Do you do a little teddy dance?”
“Out,” Teddi said.
“Or do you dress up like a teddy bear? Maybe a teddy bear, in a t…”
“Out,” Teddi repeated, pointing at the door.
The two girls stared at her in shock.
“Out of my office,” she said. “Go. Now.”
“Hang on, you can’t kick us out,” Sara said. “We’re your patients.”
“Yeah,” Tara said. “We’re entitled…”
“Let’s talk about what you’re entitled to,” Teddi said, settling down into a chair. “As students, you are entitled to healing services. As human—as free beings—you are entitled to a certain modicum of dignity. You are not entitled to walk into somebody else’s office and make fun of their name, or take up their valuable time which could be spent giving another student the services that she is entitled to.”
“But… I didn’t say anything,” Sara said. “Can’t I even talk? It isn’t fair to kick me out just because she…”
“Oh, again with this,” Tara said. She looked at the healer. “You know, she used to have a sense of humor, back before the accident. She used to love it when I did something funny, instead of acting like she’s above it.”
“I do not act like I’m above it!” Sara said. “I just think, we’re in college now, and we should be…”
“Oh, like you weren’t laughing. She used to egg me on,” Tara said to Teddi. “She’d be like, ‘Oh, there’s the Brighton boy tying his shoes, go over and kick him over.’”
“I never told her to kick anyone,” Sara said. “Never, ever.”
“Then we got back from break, and all of a sudden she’s dragging our feet every time I go to do something funny.”
“Why do you think it’s funny, kicking someone?” Teddi asked.
“I don’t!” Sara said.
“Hold on,” Tara said. “We’re here to talk about our problems with each other. Not the stuff we got up to in high school.”
“You mentioned it, not me,” Teddi said. “But if you’d like to work through your differences, then I think we have one right here. You say it’s funny, she says it isn’t. Let’s talk about that. Tara, why do you say it’s funny to kick someone?”
“Okay, first off… when you say ‘kick someone’, it makes it sound like I’m going up and stomping somebody in the ribs, or something,” Tara said. “No! I’m just talking about planting a shoe on his butt. He falls over, but nobody’s hurt. Big difference.”
“‘Nobody’s hurt’?” Teddi repeated. “That doesn’t strike you as being mean?”
“It isn’t nice, but… Willy Brighton’s not a nice person,” Tara said. “I mean, you should have seen him. No friends, always staring, dressed like a total gaywad.”
“He was kind of a creep,” Sara admitted.
“And he breathed funny.”
“None of that adds up to ‘not nice’, to me,” Teddi said.
“Well, she’s not explaining it very well,” Sara said.
“Oh, shut up,” Tara said. “You try, then.”
“Trust me, if you’d known him… even the teachers thought he was asking for it,” Sara said.
“Doesn’t sound like school was very pleasant for Mr. Brighton,” Teddi said.
“Well, maybe if he would’ve got some better clothes and stopped shuffling around with his head down… but, anyway, when we came back from break, all…” Tara gestured with her hands, moving them from far apart to very close together. “…everybody’s looking at us like we’re fucking Willy Brighton or something, and I try to set things straight, but she goes weak sister on me.”
“What changed?” Teddi asked Sara.
“What changed?” Tara echoed, incredulously. “We’re joined at the shoulders. We shit out of the same hole. Everybody said we were inseparable before, but now…”
“I’m talking to Sara,” Teddi said. “What changed, for you?”
“Well…” Sara began. “I guess… I kind of got a taste of what it was like… to be an outsider?”
“Oh, shut your fat mouth!” Tara said. “You still thought Brighton was a little freak. You just didn’t want to get in trouble. You’d gotten so used to being the nice one, to watching teachers tell me, ‘Oh, why can’t you be more like your sister?’, and you couldn’t stand the thought of being lumped in with me.”
“Well… honestly,” Sara said. “Is it any kind of fair that I should be?”
“See?” Tara said to Teddi. “She admits it.”
“Well, I’d call that progress, actually,” Teddi said. “You’re being honest with each other.”
“Like we can exactly keep secrets,” Tara said. “I have no privacy anymore. I can’t write in my diary without her seeing, and now that I have a boyfriend…”
“I think you mean I have a boyfriend,” Sara said.
“Oh, shut up,” Tara said.
“How do you handle intimacy?” Teddi asked.
“She’s supposed to close her eyes and just sort of hang back,” Tara said. “That’s what we agreed, when we first talked about this sort of thing.”
“But he’s my boyfriend,” Sara said. “He looks at me when he’s talking.”
“Have you tried talking to the boy about this?” Teddi asked. “See what he thinks?”
“I would, if I could talk to him alone,” Tara said. “But that’s not happening.”
“‘Oh, whatever’, yourself,” Sara said. “You don’t want to ask him which one of us he likes because you know what he’ll say.”
“See? This is what my life is like,” Tara said.
“Our life,” Sara corrected.
“This is what I have to put up with, twenty-four hours a day,” Tara said.
“How long ago did you get… joined?” Teddi asked.
“Senior year,” Sara said.
“Just last winter,” Tara said.
“If you don’t mind a little telepathy, I’d like to join our minds. You can go back in your memories to that time, and the three of us will experience it as a shared vision. That might give me a better idea of what you’ve experienced than anything you could tell me, as well as letting the two of you see from each other’s points of views.”
“It’s not enough that we’re stuck in the same body, you want to sew our minds together, too?” Tara asked.
“Temporarily, and not completely,” Teddi said. “You’ll still retain your own individuality through the entire process.”
“Done cleaning out your locker yet, slowpoke?” Tara asked, swinging her book bag into Sara’s arm. Sara muted her annoyance at the intrusion into her personal space.
“Yeah,” Sara said, slamming her locker shut. “I am so glad they finally ditched the alphabetical order for locker assignments.”
“Tell me about it,” Tara said, though she had in fact been disappointed that her locker would not be right next to her sister’s for once. It stung her to know how happy this development made Sara. “I don’t have to smell your stank-ass sweat socks all the time any more.”
“Yeah, you can finally smell your own,” Sara said.
They both laughed.
“Hey, guys!” their friend, Georgia said. She was in Sara’s skirmish squad. Tara thought she was a bit of a brown-noser and a kiss-up. She wished Sara could see it. “You ready for break?”
“Tell me about it,” Tara said. “I wanted to cut out at lunch, but it’s not like I could give any excuse that would wash with my doppelganger hanging around.”
“I thought you were my doppelganger,” Sara said, trying to laugh off the joke, because that’s all it was. Tara had to go out for all the same activities she did. How did that make her, Sara, the copy? “Anyway, we’re still leaving early.”
“Are you guys still going to your grandma’s place?” Georgia asked.
“Yeah,” Sara said. “We’re leaving next Wednesday.”
“But that’s Eventide Day!” Georgia said. “Didn’t you tell me that your grandma lives in Phale?”
“Yeah,” Tara said, grinning. “She does.”
“But our dad’s a genius,” Sara said, proudly. “He’s got his new teleport system perfected now, and the five of us are going to use it for the round trip. We’ll make it to Phale and back, cheap and easy as sending an a-mail.”
“It won’t work,” a quiet, husky voice said. The three girls turned to see the stocky frame and greasy face of Willy Brighton.
“What do you mean, it won’t work?” Tara demanded. “It has worked. It does work. We’ve all done it.”
“The second principle of balance,” Willy said. “It says…”
“What do you know about balance, Wet Willy?” Tara said. She shoved him hard and he fell loudly against a row of purple-painted lockers, then fell to the floor.
“Tara!” Sara chided, alarmed that Tara had done something so openly and blatantly. There wasn’t even plausible deniability. He’d been facing them when she did it. Then the bell rang, and they high-tailed it for the doors.
“See what I mean?” Tara said. “She was standing right next to me so she acted all horrified…”
“I was all horrified,” Sara said.
“You were horrified you’d be caught,” Tara said.
“Was Willy alright?” Teddi asked.
“Far as I know, yeah,” Tara said. “He was okay when we got back.”
“Do you want to jump to the accident?”
The two girls looked at each other. They couldn’t actually turn their heads very far in those directions at the same time, but they angled them and looked out of the corners of their eyes.
“We can’t tell you about that,” Sara said.
“Our dad would sue you if you read it from our minds,” Tara said.
“Anything you tell me is in strict confidence,” Teddi said.
“Yeah, right,” Tara said. “In strict confidence with you and all your mind-melter friends. How’s it go, ‘telepath, tell the world?’”
“I’m a bonded and fully licensed professional,” Teddi said. “But if you aren’t comfortable… the basic details are in your file, so we can certainly skip to the aftermath.”
“See? It’s on file,” Tara said. “That’s not very confident.”
“Only the barest details, and they won’t be released outside this office,” Teddi said. “But please, let’s move on.”
“Oh, Mom was furious,” Sara said. “She cried for days.”
“She made Dad destroy his device,” Tara said. “She thinks he destroyed the notes, too, but he says he can fix it.”
“What about you two?” Teddi asked. “What was it like for you?”
“We didn’t realize what was wrong at first,” Sara said. “I just felt something on my shoulder, but then we noticed Dad and Brian were staring.”
“Mom started screaming,” Tara said. “We had to take an airship back. She wouldn’t let anybody go back through.”
“We had to learn how to do everything again,” Sara said. “Walk, get dressed, eat… we had to get all our tops altered.
“We didn’t want to go back to school at all,” Tara said. “They had this big assembly with everybody… we were supposed to be there, but we wouldn’t go. We came back a day late.”
“It was awful,” Sara said.
“All our friends… they kept looking at us like we were some kind of freaks,” Tara said.
“Some kind of freak,” Sara said. “Singular.”
“Let’s go back,” Teddi said.
“Here we are, side-by-side again,” Sara said while Tara hung her backpack up. They couldn’t both use their lockers at the same time with any effectiveness, though they’d tried. The door in the middle got in the way. “I can’t believe I had to move lockers.”
“It would have been hard to get from one to the other between classes,” Tara said. She didn’t know why Sara was grumbling about this. With everything that had actually gone wrong, why complain about this? “It’s hard enough walking with your foot getting in the way of mine.”
“At least they gave in and let me have my own,” Sara said. “I can’t believe they expected us to share one.”
“Would’ve been easier, though,” Tara said. “Wouldn’t it?”
“Not the point.”
“Oh… hey… guys,” Georgia said. Jennifer and Cori were both with her. They were keeping their distance. There was a wariness the sisters had never before seen in their eyes, and the smiles they wore were normally reserved for small children or teachers. “I heard you were back today.”
“Yeah,” Sara said.
“We are,” Tara added. “How were you guys’ breaks?”
“Good,” Georgia said.
“Good,” Jennifer said.
“Okay,” Cori said. “Nothing special.”
“Yeah, well, ours was a blast and a half,” Tara said sarcastically.
Everybody laughed nervously.
“You guys getting around okay?” Jennifer asked. “I mean, any problems?”
“We had some,” Sara said. “We’ve mostly got it licked, but it’s going to be a lot of fun at practice, trying to coordinate everything.”
“Practice?” Georgia repeated.
“Uh, yeah, George,” Tara said. “You know, skirmish practice? Hitting each other with sticks? Remember? I know it’s been a long break, but…”
She trailed off when she saw the guilty looks the three girls were giving each other.
“What?” Tara and Sara asked at the same time.
“Bostick said you guys were going to take some time off from the team,” Cori said.
“He might have ran that by us before he announced it,” Tara said.
“Who are the new girls’ squad leaders?” Sara asked.
The girls looked at each other, but said nothing.
“Who?” Sara repeated.
“Bostick split up one squad and combined it with the other two,” Georgia said.
“Did he split my squad or Sara’s?” Tara asked.
“Who’s the new squad leader?” Sara repeated.
Jennifer and Cori both looked at Georgia.
“Look, you guys had an accident, and that’s nothing to be ashamed about…” Georgia said.
“Who the hell is ashamed?” Tara said. “We only got stuck in a teleport accident. It isn’t like our mom banged a half-orc, Jennifer!”
“That’s… she didn’t…” Jennifer sputtered.
“And Cori, maybe if you could fit your fat fingers into a ring, you wouldn’t have ‘cold sores’ all the time,” Tara said. “Mike B. said your cunt looks like something that’s been ran over and left out in the sun, did you know that? And you, George, you gave us so much shit for copying off Wet Willy last semester, but everybody knows the only reason you’re passing naturalism is because you wear those tiny skirts and sit in the front row. Maybe you can teach your new squad how to distract the opposing side? And Cori’s crotch can be your secret weapon!”
“Kheez, Tara, calm down,” Sara said, panic filling her as she saw what remained of their social life crumbling away.
“Did you ever talk to the coach about re-joining the team?” Teddi asked. “Once you were more… acclimated?”
“He burned those bridges,” Tara said.
“Anyway, do you think he’d have made us squad leader after that?” Sara asked. “And how would that work, exactly? Which of us would be in charge? If I couldn’t have my own squad again…”
“It was our senior year,” Tara said. “We’d earned those positions. We’d earned some respect. We had freshmen… we had middle schoolers… pointing and laughing at us.”
“What about the team here?”
“They’d stick us with the freaks,” Tara said. “Just like they did for housing. They told our parents we’d be more comfortable in a ‘diversity friendly environment’.”
“You’re housed in Harlowe, then?”
“Yeah,” Sara said. “It has its high points. I mean, we get free food and all, but the closest thing to normal there, aside from us, is a girl with an eye in her forehead and a mermaid. Everybody else is some kind of a monster or a complete dork.”
“When you say, ‘the closest thing to normal, aside from us’… do you think other people see it that way?” Teddi asked.
“We know we’re normal,” Tara said. “Who cares what others think?”
“Is that why you yelled insults at your best friends in the hallway of your old school?” Teddi asked gently. “Because you didn’t care what they thought about you?”
Tara said nothing to this.
Teddi leaned forward in her chair.
“Ladies… Tara, Sara… I’m going to be honest with you,” she said. “We had a rough beginning here, and even now I’m not sure that we’re going to get anywhere.”
“Who’s fault is that?” Tara said. “You’re the professional.”
“It’s not about whose fault it is,” Teddi said. “It’s about whose choice… it’s up to you here. If you want to proceed, you’re going to have to drop some barriers and be willing to look at some of your thought patterns, your preconceptions about the world. We’re going to have to talk about what your goals are, too… learning to live with each other, learning to live with the world, learning to live with yourselves…”
“I live with myself just fine,” Sara said.
“If that’s true, great,” Teddi said. “But, let’s get down to it: are you two really ready to move forward and figure out your places in the world and what to do with your lives? Or are you just going to keep—pardon my elvish—dicking around?”
Sara and Tara looked at each other.
They didn’t answer for a long time.