In Which Nicki Changes Her Spots

Going to Burlew Hall to pick up Nicki meant venturing into unfamiliar territory, but it almost felt like going home. Burlew was part of a trio of dorms that had been built as part of the same wave of expansion, a cluster that included Harlowe Hall. The plaza in between them had been enclosed and roofed over at some point, becoming a wide lobby-like nexus that connected them. The nexus dorms were almost like a neighborhood of their own within the campus.

I’d been in Pelinor Hall a couple of times during a period of my freshman year that didn’t bear much thinking about, but I’d never been to Burlew. I decided to go in through the nexus, since that somehow felt more public. I knew very well that there was no rule against going into another dorm during daylight hours and that even the restrictions on late-night visiting were seldom enforced, but it wasn’t something I had done often enough to feel comfortable about.

The nexus was the nexus… familiar in its own way as the student union had been. In the latter half of my freshman year, it had been the site of “block parties” for the three dorms, orchestrated in part by Hazel.

It was more of a popular spot during the winter months, when hanging out outside or going to the union or other public hangout buildings meant going out into the bitter cold but people got sick of looking at the same walls. Now, at the tail end of the summer, it was sparsely populated. I saw some people I sort of vaguely recognized. It was nice to see that there were some Harlowites mixed in with the human students… at least, it was a good guess that they were from Harlowe, since they were hanging out just outside it and they were visibly non-human.

The boundaries on that sort of thing had weakened quite a bit, but Harlowe was still the non-human dorm.

It was especially nice to see a group of freshmen from Harlowe who already felt comfortable hanging out outside the bounds of their dorm. I assumed they were freshmen because I didn’t recognize them, and while I couldn’t have named all the junior girls, I was pretty sure I’d have noticed a sphinx at some point during the year. She was hanging out with a girl made out of translucent gel and a girl who looked like she might have had a postmortem condition… if so, then I was doubly sure these were new students. I doubted my own heritage would have been half as interesting to everyone if she’d been around.

Mindful not to stare any more than I’d already done, I headed for Burlew. Still, I thought it was a good omen for the future of the university. When I’d been a freshman, we’d been discouraged from mingling in ways both subtle and pretty heavy-handed. Either that had ended completely, or we had a crop of new girls who weren’t putting up with it.

Harlowe was the oldest dorm in the cluster, and it was blocky and institutional in the extreme. Pelinor was the newest, and its floor plan was kind of idiosyncratic. Burlew had been built a few years after Harlowe and was somewhere in between. The rooms seemed to have different sizes or layouts, to judge from the spacing of the doors, but the layout was strictly linear.

I found Nicki’s room without a problem… not only were they numbered, but the doors in Burlew Hall were decorated with construction paper sunbursts that had the residents’ names on them. There had been something similar on our rooms in Gilcrease when we moved in, but we’d taken them down… I didn’t have anything against the idea of meeting my neighbors, but I kind of wanted to do it on my own schedule, and I didn’t want to be too easy to find. The towers were the largest dormitories on the campus, and that meant that there were a lot of people who had access to the hallways at night.

Paranoid? Maybe, but I preferred to think of myself as being reasonably aware of my own tendency to attract unwanted attention.

It looked like either Nicki had scored herself a single room, or her own roommate had decided not to advertise, either. The only name on the door was Nicolette Harper.

It was a pretty name, but I could see it being a bit much for a person.

I knocked on the door.

“Nicki?” I said.

“Just a second!” she called. “I’m changing.”

“Okay,” I said, wondering if she was getting dressed up. I was suddenly glad that we weren’t fighting in our street clothes anymore. I didn’t tend to sweat much, but I felt ever so slightly classier knowing that at the very least that even if I was coming straight from the athletic center, I wasn’t wearing my workout clothes.

Then the door opened. While I’ve never been a fashion expert, it looked an awful lot like Nicki was wearing the same outfit she’d been wearing in class earlier. The only thing that was really different was her hair, which was down, straight, and a light brown. I’d never seen it in its natural state before.

“Sorry about that,” she said. “I’ve been swimming. Do you mind if I do my hair? It won’t take long.”

“Not at all,” I said. She stepped back from the doorway and I stepped in. “Do you swim often?”

“Not yet, but I hope to!” she said. “I, uh, knew the pool was open to general student use my whole freshman year, but never really got up the nerve to do more than go in and look around. At first, of course, I didn’t even have my suit… but I made a point of bringing it back with me when I went home for fall break, and then I never made it. You?”

“No, I… I’m kind of nervous about water, to tell you the truth,” I said. “And being in public in a swimsuit. I’m honestly not a big fan of showing skin.”

“I’ve wondered about that,” Nicki said. “I mean… I always kind of thought you were an exhibitionist. That is, back when I didn’t actually know you at all. But up close you don’t act like one.”

“I’m really not, in any sense of the word,” I said. “Except… well…” I blushed. “I do sort of have a very mild embarrassment kink, but it’s not enough to balance out my really genuine dislike of having strange eyes on me. I’d much rather deal with the thought of something humiliating be brought up behind closed doors than any actual, you know, thing.”

“I guess I can understand that,” Nicki said. “There are a lot of things that are sexy in principle but… less so, in practice. Would you mind turning your back? It’s easier to glam up when no one’s watching.”

“Sure,” I said.

I didn’t like to judge… I totally did, but I didn’t like to… but glamour had always seemed like a pretty fragile art. It altered people’s perceptions of an object rather than altering its appearance, which made it more susceptible to things like disbelief than illusion did.

Not that I thought much of illusionists…

Professor Stone really had me pegged, for better or for worse, with his “practical enchanter” label. I was into the hardest of hard magic, and my brain just didn’t have much space for caring about the softer arts.

I looked around Nicki’s room while she did her hair up. It was unmistakably a single room… there was only one desk and one bed, and not enough room for another set of furniture.

“I picked this dorm because the rooms have full-length mirrors on the closets,” Nicki said. “Only one on campus, except that fancy all-boys dorm… it’s furnished more like a hotel than a dorm.”

“Yeah, Ian was in there last year,” I said. “We have big mirrors in our bathrooms, but they’re not full-length, obviously.”

“Having a private bathroom might be worth the tradeoff,” Nicki said. “I could get a mirror and hang it on the back of the door.”

“It’s not really private, just… not public,” I said. “I mean, Amaranth and I are sharing ours with the two most polite people in the world, and some of us have… limited needs… but it seems like it could be small for four human girls.”

“Why’d you end up in Gilcrease and not Paradox?” Nicki asked.

“Gilcrease has mixed floors,” I said. “There’s no way to room with Ian or even share a suite with him, but we wanted to be close to each other. It was important that we could get to each other without having to go outside at night, or in the winter. I guess even if we were on different floors of the same tower we still wouldn’t have to, but we’re that much closer.”

“Ah,” Nicki said. “I’ve been thinking about trying to move into Paradox Tower… I’ve been looking into it online and it seems to be the, uh, traditional lesbian dorm. Or certain floors are. Well, obviously, since some of them are full of guys. But I mean, certain of the girls’ floors. But it seems like… well, I’d be trading my single room for a suite with two or three other girls, and at this point there’s no way I’d have anything like a choice in suitemates if I moved. Also… well, it’s not like it would make me any queerer to live in ‘the lesbian dorm’, or even help me find a girlfriend, necessarily. It’s more, you know…”

“The idea of the thing is appealing to you,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “Exactly. I didn’t come out of the closet in high school, and I sort of hardly came out here… I just showed up. I’m not like ‘I’m here, I’m queer’… it’s more just that I’m here. You can look now, by the way. I’m finished.”

I turned around and saw that instead of another bright color, she’d scruffed her hair up into a sort of puffy mane and colored it like a leopard’s pelt… though when she moved her head, I saw that the pattern wasn’t so imprinted on individual hairs but superimposed over the whole thing. Her hair moved when she did, but the pattern remained constant. I supposed that was probably easier to do, but it looked more impressive. Shimmery.

“You’re getting fancy,” I said.

“I just learned this,” she said. “We had to do like a fan of peacock feathers in class, and it’s… well, it’s the same basic idea. I just wanted to see if I could take it in a different direction.”

I found myself smiling.

Soft artist or not, I liked the way that Nicki’s mind worked.

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36 Responses to “Chapter 121: Linear Thinking”

  1. Macci says:


    Current score: 0
  2. Oniwasabi says:

    “Postmortem condition” has to be the most politically correct version of “undead” that I’ve ever seen. I approve!

    Current score: 2
    • JN says:

      Respirationally challenged?

      Current score: 0
      • TheTurnipKing says:

        Depends on how wide you’re willing to throw the net on “undead”.

        Current score: 0
      • Zergonapal says:

        Gee being undead and having asthma would kinda suck.

        Current score: 0
    • cnic says:

      what was the wording in one of the side stories? Something about nobles I think.

      Current score: 0
  3. Potatohead says:


    Current score: 1
  4. Mad Nige says:

    Après Vie

    Current score: 0
  5. Amelia says:

    Differently vital

    Current score: 2
    • hjkgjf says:

      best one, post mortum implies that they were alive and are now dead. Like disabled vs differently abled, adn the more annoying it is to both sides(handicapped bro(friend bro not bro bro) HATES differently abled) the better and more politically correct it is. Bonus points for being longer and therefore slightly harder to say in conversation

      Current score: 1
      • Cadnawes says:

        As a handicapped person myself, I have to say, I prefer that. Nobody’s ever called me “differently abled”, and they better not. One of my different abilities is being incredibly strong despite my eyes not working.

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    • Erm says:

      I remember Terry Pratchett used “Differently Alive” in Making Money.

      Current score: 0
  6. Lunaroki says:

    Typo Report

    I’d much rather deal with the thought of something humiliating be brought up behind closed doors than any actual, you know, thing.”

    Either the “of” should be “that” or more likely “be” should be “being”. The sentence doesn’t quite work right as is.

    Current score: 0
  7. readaholic says:


    post-mortem enabled?

    differently mortality enabled?

    differently vitality heritage enabled?

    also, post-mortem heritage implies possible vampire ancestry.

    Current score: 0
  8. pedestrian says:

    Would vampires or ghouls qualify as ‘carnivorously cadaverous’?

    Would these euphemisms qualify as transcendent ephemerality?

    I would be mortified at my failure to reinvigorate a moribund quip.

    Perhaps I should be pun-ished.

    I am concerned that my wit may be decomposing.

    Current score: 0
    • Anthony says:

      They say that if you travel to Germany, and visit the grave of Lugwig von Beethoven at midnight on a dark, moonless night, if you’re absolutely silent, you will hear the sound of a ghostly orchestra echoing on the wind, playing the great master’s symphonies backwards.

      Why backwards? Because he’s decomposing!

      Current score: 0
      • Erm says:

        In other news, it is indeed possible to groan and laugh simultaneously.

        Current score: 0
  9. Zathras IX says:

    Online, those who are
    Quite visibly nonhuman
    Are invisible

    Current score: 0
  10. Krey says:

    Professor Stone really had me pegged, for better or for worse, with his “practical enchanter” label. I was into the hardest of hard magic, and my brain just didn’t have much space for caring about the softer arts.

    As a physicist this made me laugh, as I knew tons of people in University with the same attitude towards ALL other sciences.

    Current score: 0
    • Cadnawes says:

      Haha, or other FIELDS.

      I’ve met them too. I was an art major specializing in medieval painting techniques like egg tempera and silverpoint. Science and math guys were like “you got it easy.” I’m like “Really? Can you even draw?” The answer was never yes.

      (Nothing is easy if you want to be GREAT.)

      Current score: 1
  11. Anthony says:

    So they have undead (or is that word considered an ugly slur, like “drow”?) that are both sentient enough and free-willed enough to bcome students? It would be fun to get some backstory on her…

    Current score: 0
    • Karr says:

      Wasn’t the unnamed/unnameable emperor a lich or some similarly suggested form of sentient, free-willed ‘formerly living’ entity?

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      • Anthony says:

        Yes, and he’s also way too old to be going to college, and too experienced to need to. 😛

        That’s why I wonder about the girl with the postmortem condition. It just seems rather unlikely…

        Current score: 0
        • Cadnawes says:

          I don’t know, she could have died just as she was getting through high school. The possibilities of vampire or sluaugh (restless dead) spring to mind.

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        • Chase says:

          That’s because you’re a horrible, horrible racist!

          (Sorry, I saw the discussion of PC terms for the undead and I couldn’t help myself)

          Current score: 0
      • Jon says:

        It was strongly implied that the emperor is a vampire.

        It was in one of Magisterion’s OT stories.

        Current score: 0
        • Seajewel says:

          Wrong, it was implied he was a lich.. He was referred to as a “bag of bones.” An ambassador from him was a vampire “the aristocrat’s disease.”

          Current score: 1
    • Zergonapal says:

      She might be a wight, banshee, vampire or ghast. There are actually a large variety of greater undead. In an old D&D campaign the wizard wanted to make herself immortal by turning herself into a liche and using permanent preservation spells.

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  12. Zukira Phaera says:

    If a resurrection doesn’t go quite right and someone comes back as a something of a zombie persuasion and they happened to have been a student before, if they stayed in school would they be there for education or dinner?

    Food for thought.

    //window seat please.

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      Zukria, Would Steff insist on sex with the Zombie student?

      And Anthony, Beethoven…decomposing…hilaristurbing!

      Current score: 0
  13. adsasdf says:

    the leopard doesn’t change his shorts

    Current score: 1
  14. Berm says:

    Remember, the tiger can’t change his spots. Oh, wait! He did! Good for him!

    Current score: 0
  15. Stonefoot says:

    A few comments about Mack, Nicki, or typos and all the rest about the girl with the “post-mortem condition”. I want to know more about the sphinx. Does she like riddles? And just how do you get a girl made of translucent gel? Maybe some transformation spell gone wrong? Or, since golems can be made from different materials, could someone have made a golem out of gelatin? The mind boggles.

    Current score: 0
  16. Skeeve says:

    The sheer amount of world-building that you put into ToMU continues to astound and delight.

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      Alexandra’s efforts are delightful and deloverly.

      Current score: 0