Hello and welcome back! For those of you who are coming back, that is. For those of you who don't know what this "Magicademy" thing is, it's an urban fantasy series taking place at a college in Southern California, on an Earth where magik has returned, along with the non-human races – elves, dwarves, and the feline nekati. If that sounds like something you'd like, I recommend you check my profile and read the first series, and then the three-part "Summer Break" story. Yes, I know it looks like a lot, but I've been told it reads fast, so no worries.
For those of you who know what this is all about, good to have you back! The fan-response to "Magicademy" was amazing, far much more than I'd ever expected; thank you so much for that. This story begins "Senior Year" for our friends; two years have passed since the end of "Summer Break." Why do the time jump, some have asked. Well, the truth is this: I wanted to do more with this world and these characters, but the thought of writing another three years' worth of stories with nothing resembling an overarching plot didn't sound like much fun. I really didn't want to get started on something that I wasn't going to finish – the last thing I want to do is let down those of you who enjoy my work. Skipping two years to pick up on everyone at the start of what will, for most, be their last year of college seemed like a good idea.
So, enough from me. Let's get started. I don't know about you, but I'm glad to be back...
– Senior Year, Story 1: Returning
"Who says you can't go back?"
Three months was far, far too long to spend in Modesto.
Jacob looked around his apartment, from the small kitchen to the flattened couch, back over his shoulder to the bedroom with a bed that was way too cold when he was the only one in it. Sure, he'd lived here since he was thirteen. But eight years was a long time to live anywhere.
Besides, he had somewhere else to be, somewhere so much better that was waiting for him.
Jacob flipped on his sunglasses and looked down to the bags at his feet. Mostly clothes and books, all in one place, ready for the trip back to Arts Magika University.
He thought back to the first time he'd left. He'd had most of his stuff shipped to his dorm ahead of time, so he'd shown up on campus with nothing but a duffel bag. He remembered showing up at the campus bus stop, standing there staring at everything, feeling like he'd entered the real world for the first time.
Then some crazy guy with braids had almost run into him on a flying carpet he rode like a skateboard, and Jacob's entire life had changed.
Jacob chuckled at the thought. That crazy guy was Aidis, his once and future housemate, the guy who'd helped him get out of the Modesto mindset and into what really was an entirely different world. Learning magik, learning that he was a natural-born and so had his own inherent magik, was the best thing that had ever happened to him.
He paused to reconsider. Okay, maybe second-best.
'Best' would have to be Dhaiiski, his girlfriend of nearly three years. He'd met her during his first week at college, back in a really boring writing class. It'd taken him some time to get used to the idea of dating her – she was nekati, one of the feline humanoids. But after learning that he was a natural-born, Jacob had started to see that he should embrace magik, and embracing Dhaiiski had come soon after that. They'd started dating pretty much on Halloween and he hadn't looked back since.
And now, the two of them were probably going to get married.
Okay, not anytime soon. They both wanted to graduate and get jobs first. But they'd talked about it. And as much as Jacob knew the stereotype of how guys got about marriage, he was completely cool with it. Besides, they were in love, and although last year had its share of rough spots, they knew that they could live together. Why shouldn't they get married?
Jacob felt a slight tingling around his left wrist, and glanced down. Right on time. He grinned. The tingling was from the sort-of watch that Elisa had given him – run by a focus crystal with a mental magik enchantment, it kept track of important times and let him know when he was supposed to do something. The crystal was letting him know that he'd planned to leave right about now and shouldn't he be on his way?
Jacob shook his head. Yeah, this was definitely the kind of gift Elisa would give. The English girl had always been the scholastic type – not completely, it wasn't like she didn't relax or party with them sometimes. But she was the type to always have hear head on her shoulders and stay calm almost no matter what.
Though now that he thought about it . . . Elisa had been through a lot over the past two years. Family troubles had kept her out of AMU for both winter and spring quarters last year; she was about to start her fifth year and swore that it would be her last. Jacob didn't know if it was because of her class load or the family stress, but Elisa seemed to have stopped dating entirely.
Of course, Liz had her own theories about why Elisa had stopped dating, but that was Liz. Jacob chuckled again. The hairless and sort-of volatile natural-born girl had literally blinked into their lives during spring quarter of his freshman year, and had immediately made things weirder. Her inherent magik was different from his – something Jacob had learned over the past three years was that no two natural-borns had things exactly the same. A really, really good example of that had shown up last year.
Anyway, once Liz had gotten better control over herself, she'd mellowed out a lot, though she still had her moments . . . about every ten or twenty minutes. But hey, she kept things interesting. And her boyfriend Cecil was a damn cool guy.
Heading into a second year of living with Dhaiiski, Aidis, and Liz. . . . Jacob couldn't wait. And there was no reason to.
Jacob tilted his head back and focused. Streams of purple energy, his inherent magik, whipped out from his hands and formed large circles, surrounding himself and his boxes. After a moment's concentration, Jacob formed the rings into the columns of a travel magik spell he'd learned from Aidis.
Three months . . . definitely too long.
Jacob focused on his destination. The rings flared, and everything within them disappeared in a flash of purple. There was a moment of disorientation, then–
"Holy shit, dude! Warn me when you're gonna do that!"
Jacob opened his eyes. He was in the living room of Casa de Coo-coo, the rented house he shared with his friends. On one wall, an entertainment center that looked like it was made of blue crystal – the same one Aidis had been using since their dorm days – held the TV and DVD player. The sort-of couch, a giant mass of cushions and pillows all sewn together that they'd dragged from place to place since the first apartment, sat against the other wall. Stairs led up to the second floor, so narrow they had a house rule about not climbing them when drunk. A ceiling fan spun slowly above the living room.
And, standing between the kitchen and the big table where they all ate, was Aidis, looking like someone had just stuck one of his braids into a light socket.
Jacob laughed, then ran a hand over his white hair, checking to see if it'd grown during the transport. Not much; good. That was one thing he'd never figured out – his hair had turned white the first time he'd flown, and it still grew whenever he used his magik much.
Aidis had let his hair grow long over the past two years. It was down to his waist, still in dozens of tiny braids with colored beads on the ends. Aidis himself was wearing a concert t-shirt for the band Hamster Samurai and khaki cargo shorts, as well as metal bands on both arms that held his focus crystals. He also wore a somewhat confused expression on his thin face.
"What?" Jacob asked. "Are you afraid I'd catch you cooking?"
Aidis smirked. "Hey, if I'm cooking, you should be afraid," he said, then grinned. The two of them shared a quick hug, then separated.
"When'd you get here?" Jacob asked. "I thought your uncle had you working all summer."
"Nah, he let me go early when I told him what I'm starting," Aidis said. "Something about grad students needing as much sleep as possible before it gets ugly."
Jacob nodded. Yeah, that sounded about right.
He didn't really know what being a graduate student meant you had to do; Jacob himself was in his senior year and would graduate in summer with a degree in Magi-Biology. Aidis actually had graduated last year, after two years of slacking and two of busting his ass. Sometime last fall, he'd accidentally discovered a new way to transport magikal energy over really long distances, so his favorite professor had taken him on as a grad student. But what that meant other than Aidis having to play teachers' aide and teach some glasses, Jacob wasn't sure.
"That's good," Jacob said. "You heard from anyone else yet?"
Aidis grunted, and almost looked upset. "What, you just got here and you're bored with me already?"
"I've known you for years," Jacob said, then got ready to duck. "I got bored of you a long time ago."
Just as he'd thought, a few of Aidis's long braids whipped at Jacob. He ducked, then thwacked them away with one of the basic moves of a nekati martial art he'd been learning since his freshman year.
"Quiet, pest," Aidis said, then grinned and went back into the kitchen. "Nobody else here yet, but I'm sure someone'll show up soon. Major move-in day and all that, y'know?"
"Yeah." Jacob looked at his boxes, then over at the couch. "What's up?"
The couch waved a pillow at him.
Jacob spent the next half-hour loading boxes into the master bedroom. He and Dhaiiski, as the house's resident couple, had claimed the room for their own when they'd all planned to move in. Aidis and Liz hadn't argued, though Liz did sometimes call it the 'master and servant' bedroom.
She'd never said who was who, and Jacob hadn't asked.
Jacob felt a sudden discharge of magik from Liz's room, followed by a few muffled thuds. He glanced across the hall – her room and Aidis's were just across the way. Liz's room was filled with boxes, more than his own, but she wasn't there. Jacob chuckled, figuring she'd had her stuff teleported in like so many other people. But if she'd done that, she should be here sometime–
A sudden pulse of magik swept over the house. Jacob's vision flashed purple for a moment, but he pulled his magik back in. That figured. That so very figured.
Jacob headed downstairs, and looked into the kitchen. Aidis had his head stuck into one of the cupboards. "Liz's here!" he called.
"Is that why every single pot in here just jumped?" Aidis asked.
"Yeah, probably," Jacob said. "Dhaiiski enchanted those last year, remember?"
"Remember? Dude, who d'you think taught her that weaving?" Aidis walked out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on his shorts. "I'm glad I was just putting stuff in, man. If I'd been cooking, I swear. . . ."
The door swung open, revealing a young woman with white-glowing eyes and no hair whatsoever, dressed in jeans and a white tank top with a denim jacket slung over one shoulder. "Guys!" she yelled. "Welcome home!"
"Says the one on the doorstep," Aidis cracked.
Liz walked in. "There. Happy now?"
"I'd be happier if you hadn't made yourself boom like that," Jacob said, then rolled his purple eyes as Liz stuck her tongue out at him.
"You'll live," Liz said, then walked up and hugged Jacob. "You know me, I gotta make an entrance."
"Don't we all." Aidis hugged her too, then said, "Where's your boy?"
"Moving in, somewhere," Liz said with a shrug. "Poor bastard couldn't get an apartment close to campus, so he's off somewhere in the boonies."
"And by 'boonies,' you mean 'Twelfth Street?'" Aidis asked.
"Fourteenth," Liz said. Aidis winced. "Yeah, I know. Good thing he's got me and a car, otherwise he'd get nowhere."
"I didn't think you could take someone with you when you jumped," Jacob said. One of Liz's tricks was a line-of-sight teleport, something she could only do when she was 'flipped' – she seemed to turn herself inside out, and ended up looking like a glowing white humanoid sort of thing. What was really weird was that her eyes had started being the reverse of her 'flipped' self last year; when she was normal, like she was now, her eyes were just this dimly glowing whiteness, but when she changed, her eyes looked like everyone else's.
Jacob remembered seeing that for the first time, and how it had actually freaked him out. Not much did that nowadays.
"Still can't," Liz said. "But I can get to him, no problem. So if I wanna, like, show up in his bed in the middle of the night, I'm good."
"Yeah, everyone loves a glowing girlfriend appearing out of nowhere," Aidis said, then chuckled when Liz glared at him.
They spent the next hour or so moving everything in. Jacob's magik got most of his boxes upstairs, and he'd just finished putting his clothes in the closet and dressers when he heard the front door open again. He hurried down the hall and looked downstairs, then leaped down into the living room. Dhaiiski was here.
They didn't get any more words out for a moment after that; too busy kissing. He looked down at her when they finally managed to separate.
Some things never changed; Dhaiiski's fur was the same shade of lion-tawny, and her mane – there really was no other word for it – was most of the way down to her knees. Today, she had a few braids in it, each dyed a different color. She was wearing a pair of shorts and a small top; like most nekati, she didn't wear a whole lot of clothing, as the fur tended to make that uncomfortable.
"Missed you," Dhaiiski said, her whiskers twitching up. Her tail was wrapped around one of his legs. "You just get here?"
"Sort of, haven't been here too long," Jacob said. "Missed you too. Where's your stuff?"
There was another muffled thud from upstairs.
"In the bedroom," Dhaiiski said, then frowned. "You didn't see it?" She started grinning a moment later. Jacob laughed.
There was the sound of footsteps on the stairs. "Dhai!"
"Ai!" Dhaiiski separated from Jacob, then scampered halfway up the stairs and gave Aidis a hug. "How're you?"
"I'm good," Aidis started to say, then was nearly knocked off the stairs as Dhaiiski bounded past him. A moment later, excited greetings came from Liz's room as Dhaiiski went inside.
Jacob grinned again as Aidis walked down next to him. "Never changes, does it?" he asked.
"I dunno," Aidis said, looking pensive for once. "After that thing with Dhai's sister, I didn't think they'd be cool with each other anymore."
Jacob shrugged. "It was one time," he said. "Dhaiiski doesn't really hold grudges like that."
Jacob spent the next two hours helping Dhaiiski unpack and making a quick trip to the grocery store with everyone. Naturally, they needed a lot of food; nekati appetites were legendary. But they were all glad that Dhaiiski did most of the cooking – she just had to make something with six portions, and eat three of them herself. It worked surprisingly well.
Once everything was done and unloaded, Jacob threw himself on the couch, and waited as it shifted to make him more comfortable. He leaned back and sighed. The couch was sort of an accident – Aidis had been working on some of his embedded magik when sitting on the couch, back when the two of them had shared an apartment with Liz. Something got screwed up, and the magik Aidis was working with went into the couch instead. Aidis still wasn't really sure what had happened, but now, the couch was . . . how had Aidis put it? Quasi-sentient, or empathic, or maybe both.
Either way, it was really damn comfy and shifted to make whoever was on it more comfortable, so Jacob wasn't complaining. He complained even less when Dhaiiski came over and curled up partway on top of him.
Jacob ran a hand through her mane, then held her close. "Missed you," he said. Sure, he'd said it when she first showed up, but some things were worth repeating. Nothing like Modesto to make him want to be back here. The non-human races, nekati and elves and dwarves, were really damn rare in Modesto.
When Dhaiiski didn't say anything, Jacob glanced at her. Her eyes were closed. He chuckled. Hopefully she wasn't going to fall asleep yet – it was barely afternoon. Then again, they'd done a lot since she showed up.
"I talked to my grandma," Dhaiiski said, her eyes still closed.
Jacob paused. This was about to be either really good or really bad. He took a deep breath. "What'd she say?"
Dhaiiski opened her eyes and smiled, her ears twitching forward. "She thinks it's great," she said. "It's not that we couldn't get married if she said no, but . . . you know."
Jacob nodded, and couldn't keep himself from smiling. Over the past few years, Dhaiiski's family had pretty much become his family too, as he didn't have much of one. Both his parents had died in a car crash when he was thirteen, and he didn't talk to the rest of his family all that much. But he knew how much getting her grandma's approval meant to Dhaiiski.
He was about to say something, but there was a knock on the door. "Aidis!" Jacob yelled. "Get the door!"
"Dude!" Aidis yelled back from upstairs. "I'm not even on the same floor!"
"You've got all year, you can make out later!"
"Think he's bitter?" Dhaiiski asked, then pushed herself off of the couch and Jacob.
"Maybe a little," Jacob said. He and Dhaiiski both answered the door. "Elisa!"
"Hello, welcome back, and so forth." Elisa leaned in and hugged them both, an arm around each of their shoulders.
Jacob bowed his head and smiled. If anyone in their group had been through hell over the past three years, it was Elisa. First, all the problems with the node in her dorm room and not being able to use it because she'd get dependent on it, to the family issues that never seemed to end . . . and then, as kind of an afterthought, there was the hair thing.
Elisa, now nearly done with her degree in Elementalism, had her hair burned off in her Pyrotechnics final, right before the summer of Jacob's first year. She'd gone to Dhaiiski for a spell to grow it back, and. . . . Dhaiiski's spell, meant only for nekati, had given Elisa a bright pink mane that reached down past her feet. Over the past few years, Elisa had managed to get it under control. Mostly. Jacob remembered one time when Aidis had wondered if any one of them were ever going to be allowed to have normal hair.
Liz had thrown something at him for that.
Elisa's hair was now chin-length and dark blue. She was dressed in a billowy black shirt and dark pants, and black strappy sandals. As usual, she wore rings on her fingers and toes, as well as three rings in each ear.
"How are you both?" Elisa asked, stepping back from Jacob and Dhaiiski. "I trust the summer treated you well?"
"Not that much, I was in Modesto," Jacob said.
Elisa gave him an 'oh, stop that' look. He figured that was something you could only learn in England. "I'm sure it wasn't completely bad," she said. "You can tell me all about it later. Is Aidis here yet?"
"Aidis!" Dhaiiski yelled up the stairs. "There's a girl here to see you!"
Elisa gave Dhaiiski a glare, then started laughing when Aidis bounded halfway down the stairs and came to a sudden stop. "Not my fault," she said. "I wouldn't have put it quite like that."
"That was for the makeout comment," Dhaiiski said, smirking at him.
"Yeah, yeah, get me all excited for nothing," Aidis said, coming down the rest of the stairs and giving Elisa a hug. "Do you even count as a girl anymore?"
Elisa glanced down. "One, two," she said. "I suppose that makes me a girl, I trust you haven't forgotten?"
More footsteps came from the stairs. "English!"
"Elizabeth!" Elisa met Liz halfway for a hug, and the two of them then headed back down the stairs to everyone else.
Jacob put his arm around Dhaiiski, trying not to burst into laughter out of sheer joy. So this was the start of the fourth year . . . it'd be hard to ask for better friends. Not to mention really ungrateful. With all the shit they'd been through over the past three years, he could hardly imagine hanging out with anyone else.
"Hey, we gonna go get coffee soon?" Liz asked. "I just got a b-mail from the boy, he's back and unpacked and ready to get back into the swing of things. Or something like that."
"Something like that?" Jacob asked, chuckling. Cecil, Liz's boyfriend, was rarely at a loss for words.
"Yeah, he was all upset 'cause their drummer dropped out and moved to Zimbabwe or something like that," Liz said. She rolled her eyes, or at least something that kind of looked like it – it was hard to tell through the glow.
"Bummer," Aidis said. "That mean Terra and the Espers is doomed?"
"Nah, he'll find someone," Liz said, then peered at Aidis. "You play the drums? You've just about got seventy-hundred hands, you could--"
Aidis held up a hand. "Wait." No one said anything. "The band . . . do they get groupies?"
"Hah! You've been there when they played," Liz said. "Their stuff's good, but it's too weird-ass to get chicks."
"You sure?" Dhaiiski said. "There were a lot of girls around the stage that one time we went. I thought they were really good."
"That's 'cause of the guy they've got on the turntables," Liz said. "Nekati is as nekati does, that's what Cecil said." She grinned. "Don't do the rest of the band any good, though."
"Hey," Jacob said, pulling Dhaiiski a little closer.
"Not your fault they don't have any taste," Dhaiiski said, poking him in the side.
"Do you know anyone else who could drum?" Elisa asked. "I remember their style, it was quite unusual. You'd have to find someone who could keep track of a great many beats at once."
"Hey, I'm outside, can you let us in? Please? Maybe?"
The voice came from the ceiling. They all looked up.
The girl sitting on their ceiling was barely five feet tall, and had dark brown hair in thick dreadlocks that went down to her shoulders. She had a narrow face and wide blue eyes, making her look like she was always surprised. Several piercings went all the way up both of her ears, and she wore a single silver stud in her nose. She was dressed in a plain blue shirt and cargo pants that were several sizes too large, and she was barefoot. Despite her being on the ceiling, her hair and clothes were still in place.
"Girls appearing out of nowhere," Aidis said, then grinned. "I knew there was a reason I came back.."
"Hey, Naomi," Liz said. "You play the drums?"
"Let the rest of me in and I'll tell you," the girl said.
Jacob shook his head, laughing a little as Dhaiiski opened the front door. Naomi had started hanging out with them last year, shortly after she'd arrived. She was another natural-born, which was part of why she'd enrolled – she'd known Liz back home in Chula Vista, and after learning that Liz and another natural-born were at AMU, she'd transferred. She'd also finished college when she was about seventeen, and was here working on her graduate studies.
When Dhaiiski opened the door, Naomi was standing there too. A third Naomi walked out of her, the second one came down from the ceiling, and all three of them hugged everyone in turn. Even after a year, Jacob could hardly tell which one was the real one.
Naomi's natural-born abilities were mostly mental – she had what she called a three-track mind, which meant she effectively had three of herself in her own head. The other two of her were hard-sensory illusions that she'd made for herself, and while Jacob hadn't figured out how she got them to move into and out of herself, he'd gotten used to it.
As much as anyone could get used to Naomi.
"Welcome, welcome," Naomi said as the second and third of her merged into the first, who was still hugging Elisa. She finally let go, then turned to Liz and said, "No!" before rubbing a hand over the other girl's bald head.
"Took you long enough," Liz muttered. "You needed all three of you to say that?"
"No, but I'm not going to leave me waiting out there," Naomi said. She held up a hand. "On one hand--"
"Okay, no," Aidis said, grabbing Naomi's hand. "Please tell me we're not getting started on the hand thing."
"Should I lie? I don't know," Naomi said. "You might believe us if I do."
"Yep, there's the headache," Aidis said. He let go of Naomi, his braids sweeping over to cover his face. "I need coffee. Nowish. Anyone else?"
"Sweet," Liz said. "I'll tell Cecil we'll meet him there. Crystal Ball?"
Aidis's braids pulled back from his face, revealing the top half. He raised an eyebrow at Liz. "We go anywhere else for coffee?"
They headed out into Newman's Dale, the college town right next to campus. Their house was right next to the Uruz Fehu Wunjo fraternity house, home to about two dozen hard-drinking and hard-partying dwarves. Jacob knew that, for the dwarves, hard-drinking and hard-partying was about the same thing, but their house had soundproofing spells in the walls, so it was all right.
Granted, Aidis had requested the sound-proofing spells in the walls for other reasons, but living next to a frat house, it was good to have them anyway.
Jacob looked around as they walked toward the center of town, toward the three circular blocks that made up a lot of ND's food-type area. There were already a lot of people back in town. Today was the major move-in day for the dorms, so most everyone was back at school by now. Hell, people never left ND. Jacob had thought about living here for the past summer, but after realizing that he'd need to find a place and would be the only one of their group here, he'd figured he might as well go back to Modesto.
He glanced down at Dhaiiski. "You all right?" he asked quietly. It wasn't like anyone else would listen in – Aidis was ranting about having to TA classes, Liz was making fun of him for it, and Naomi had demanded – and got – a ride on Elisa's back as soon as they'd left the house. Jacob walked a little slower, just in case.
"I'm okay," Dhaiiski said, nodding. "Just thinking about. . . . About everything."
"How so?" Jacob asked.
"I'm not really sure," Dhaiiski said after a moment. "You ever feel like you're getting too old for this place?"
"Oh, c'mon, you're not old," Jacob said. "You're twenty-two, you've only got a year on me."
"Yeah, I get a lot of jokes from one of my aunts about dating a younger guy," Dhaiiski said with a giggle. "You'd think I was robbing the litter or something, the way she goes on."
Jacob wondered for a moment which one of Dhaiiski's aunts it was, then gave it up as a lost cause. Her family was huge, and that was just the immediate family. Their living room could hold about thirty people, and could sleep about twenty on the floor and couches.
"But it's this place, kinda," Dhaiiski said. "I mean, I'm glad we're here, I'm glad you're here. But I'm also glad we're almost done here." She paused. "That makes sense, right?"
"I think so," Jacob said, nodding. "It's not really weird for me, 'cause it's my fourth year, but with almost everyone else a super-senior or whatever they call it. . . ." He trailed off, grinning at the look on Dhaiiski's face.
"Not my fault I wanted to change my major!" she almost growled. Jacob laughed, darting away from her and around the others. She chased, and they circled twice before he let her catch him.
"Dude," Aidis said. "You gotta start the mating dance already?"
"That's not the mating dance," Dhaiiski said. She turned and leaned against Jacob, her back to his chest. "This is the--"
Aidis covered his eyes again. "Nooo!"
"Hey, don't stop 'em, I want to see that," Liz said.
Somehow, they managed to get to the Crystal Ball without any more trauma. The outdoor part of the place was built sort of like Stonehenge, with stone pillars and arches surrounding a bunch of stone tables.
Someone sitting at one of the tables stood as they walked up. He was tall, nearly as tall as Jacob, with light brown hair that stuck straight up and back before coming to points about five inches above his head. He wore small round glasses, a wide band that held his hair back, and a black vest over a bright long-sleeved shirt. Despite it being only the very end of summer, he was also wearing jeans and heavy shoes.
"Hey, sexy!" Liz called, and the guy spun and posed. "What's shakin'?"
"Just the usual," he said. When Liz reached him, he spun her into a dancer's dip and kissed her.
"Think they'll go for the record again?" Naomi asked. "Maybe."
"I dearly hope not," Elisa said, sounding oddly upset.
Jacob chuckled. He wasn't sure what it was about Liz and Cecil, but they seemed to compliment each other really well. When the two of them finally rose from their kiss, they walked back to the rest of the group.
"Hey, everyone," Cecil said, "what's up?" He looked at Aidis. "Dude?"
"Dude?" Aidis asked, then they both answered, "Duuuuude."
Yeah, everything was pretty much back to normal. Normal for them.
Not too much later, they were all gathered around one of the stone tables, each with some kind of caffeine. They managed to take up an entire table, but mostly because Naomi was sitting in three places at once. Jacob found himself oddly glad that her other selves didn't eat or drink; imagining her on three kinds of coffee at once was kind of scary.
"And so, we meet again," Aidis said, "for one more year of studying and hard work and busting our collective asses for our grades."
"Wait, you have a collective ass too?" one Naomi asked.
"I thought that was just us," another said.
"He doesn't have enough of an arse to be collected," Elisa said, then sipped her coffee as Aidis blinked at her.
"You look at my ass?" he asked.
"Sorry, never quite that desperate," Elisa said, then smirked at him. Aidis muttered something into his coffee. "Oh!" Elisa said. "I'd nearly forgotten, I heard from Ulf."
"Dude!" Aidis said, his irritation gone. "Where is he, anyway?"
"No shit?" Liz asked, leaning forward. She was only halfway on Cecil's lap, so she could manage that. "What's the little guy doing there?"
"Actually, he's rather tall for a dwarf," Elisa said. "Anyway, he's in China, that engineering company he got a job with last year sent him off. He started in on the technical details of what he was doing, but I got lost when he reached something about 'phalanges' or the like."
"Yeah, sounds like Ulf when he gets technical," Dhaiiski said, her ears tilting forward. "Is he doing good?"
"He seemed quite well," Elisa said. "Personally, I think he's just thrilled to be working, and not in school again. He always had such family issues, getting a job doing what he loved was very important to him."
"Oh, crap, right," Aidis said. "The family thing. I got invites for all of us last week." He reached into his homemade sort-of mage robes, an odd garment he'd made from what was once a hooded sweatshirt. They had all kinds of magikal-looking designs on them; Jacob knew that some were real and some were just for effect.
Aidis pulled out what looked like a bunch of leaves. He started to grin. "Okay, three guesses on what these are."
"Leaves," one Naomi said.
"Green leaves," another said.
"Elven wedding invitations," the third said.
Aidis's face fell. "You really know how to ruin good drama, don't you?" he asked, glaring at her.
"Hey, I was surprised," Cecil said. When Aidis turned the glare on him, he just shrugged. "You know, asking a question without expecting an answer's a pretty major sign of pessimism."
"Should I start telling you about my mother now?" Aidis asked.
Cecil nodded. "If you want. Isn't she an elf?"
"One of 'em, yeah." Aidis's expression brightened. "Anyway! Yeah, the triplets got it right. Our boy Tim and his elf-woman are getting married this fall, we're all invited."
"Oh, cool!" Dhaiiski purred as Aidis started passing the leaves around. "I've been wanting to see an elven wedding. I've heard they get really elaborate and all that. Don't they usually have them in forests?"
"They're elves," Liz said. "They do everything in forests."
"Even that?" a Naomi asked.
"Yes, I'm certain, even that," Elisa said. "And I'm sure it makes a sound as well."
"Talk about trees falling," Liz said with a snicker.
Aidis gave her a weary look. "It doesn't involve trees," he said, then shook his head. "I swear, it never ends with you people."
"Oh, like you'd have us any other way," Elisa said, nudging him.
"You know," Cecil said, "denial's pretty common in people our age, defense mechanisms and all that."
"Can I deny a summer in Modesto?" Jacob asked.
"Yeah, probably," Cecil said.
"Can I deny his summer in Modesto too?" Dhaiiski asked.
"Definitely," Cecil said, then laughed.
Jacob joined him. Sure, in a few days they'd all be dealing with classes and homework and tons of reading and all the other stuff that came with doing the college student thing. But for now? It was just good to be back.
"So, in less than a week," Elisa began, "I'll be learning how to sculpt things out of solid fire. What classes do the rest of you have?"
"You're taking another class with fire?" Dhaiiski asked, leaning against Jacob like she was trying to get a little farther away from Elisa. "You sure?"
"Oh, there's nothing to worry about," Elisa said. "The solid manipulation means it'll be warm, but it won't ignite anything. And I'll simply keep my hair short, it shouldn't be a problem."
"You sure?" one Naomi asked, while another tugged on a lock of Elisa's hair. The lock grew as she pulled on it.
"Do you mind?" Elisa asked, suddenly cross.
"Nope," Naomi said.
"Hey, at least you can keep your hair," Liz said.
Elisa looked at her, leaning around the Naomis. "Would you like some?"
"Nah," Liz said, "I'll just wait 'till Dhai's sister comes to visit again, get some of hers."
"Hey!" Dhaiiski said, turning at Liz and just short of snarling. "I thought I told you to leave her alone next time!"
"That wasn't really my fault!" Liz said. She sort-of rolled her eyes again. "I swear, I make out with your sister once when we were drunk and you never let me forget it. . . ."
Jacob just leaned back and laughed as things got even more chaotic. Damn, it was good to be back.
That evening, Jacob stood out on the balcony and looked up at the stars. The balcony was right outside of his room's window, and the house was tall enough that he could see a lot of ND from there. He couldn't quite see the beach unless he climbed onto the roof, but he could hear the ocean. After three months inland, that was enough.
Jacob turned and nodded as Aidis climbed out the window and joined him. "Done playing cards?" he asked.
"Yeah, I think Naomi cheats," Aidis said, then grinned. "Shouldn't play with a dealer who's got that many arms anyway." He walked over and pulled a bottle out of one pocket of his cargo shorts. "Beer for the new year?"
"Thanks," Jacob said with a chuckle. "I think we're going to need a lot of this, this year."
"Yeah?" Aidis gave Jacob a questioning look as a few of his braids twisted open the beer. "You got heavy shit coming up?"
"Sorta," Jacob said. He leaned on the railing and looked up at the sky. "Ever feel like you just got here and now you have to leave?"
Aidis, in the middle of drinking, raised an eyebrow at Jacob and made a gurgling noise. A moment later, he said, "You're kidding, right?"
"You think you've been here too long?" Jacob asked.
"You think I ever want to leave?" Aidis asked with another grin. "Think about it. Where else in the world is this messed-up but this damn cool?"
Jacob took a drink. "Hawaii?"
Aidis nodded. "Okay, yeah. Note to self: try for post-graduate work there. But seriously." He leaned against the railing next to Jacob, looking out toward the ocean. "I get to work with a really cool professor on something I discovered by accident. This is, like, an excuse to stick around. Not a chance in hell I'm giving that up."
"Perpetual student, eh?"
Aidis posed, holding his arms out. "Damn straight." He cackled, then looked at Jacob again. "As of two days from now, I'm a grad student. I'd like to see them try to kick me out."
"Ever heard about being careful what you wish for?" Cecil asked from the window.
Aidis slumped. "Dude. You're ruining my . . . my . . . whatever I had, you're ruining it. Stop."
Cecil climbed through the window, then fixed the band that held his hair back and up. "No worries, man. I've known enough grad students, my brother's like that too."
"Yeah?" Aidis asked. "How long's he been wherever he is?"
"Eight years," Cecil said. "He's got textbooks like you wouldn't believe."
"What's he study?" Jacob asked.
"Chemistry, same as you, sort of," Cecil said.
Aidis put both hands to the sides of his head, his braids holding onto his beer. "Ow. Ow. It's too early for science."
Jacob laughed. "Not you first beer, is it? It's night."
"It's five a.m. somewhere," Cecil cracked.
"Those poor bastards." Aidis glanced at Cecil, then at Jacob, then back at Cecil. "So you left your girl," he said, pointing at Cecil, "downstairs with your girl." He pointed at Jacob. "And there's booze."
"Oh, shut up." Jacob shook his head. "Liz isn't going to hit on Dhaiiski, and even if she does, Dhaiiski's straight. You'll never get over that, will you?"
"First step's admitting you have a problem," Cecil said, then gave Aidis an oddly innocent look when he glared at him.
"The scientist and the shrink," Aidis muttered. "Hell of a way to start the year."
Cecil stepped over and put a hand on his shoulder. "Aidis, my friend," he said, "you have beer, friends, and a house full of bizarre women. Really, you're complaining?"
"He's got a point," Jacob said, grinning. Leave it to Cecil to put that kind of perspective on things.
A moment later, Aidis started smiling again, then downed the rest of his beer. "Y'know, I really should know better than to get all depressed in front of a psych major."
Cecil put a hand over his heart and half-bowed. "We're a rare and modest breed, but we can do just about anything."
"Except grow hair on Liz's head," Aidis said.
Cecil muttered something that sounded like "Oh, yeah."
Jacob leaned back and chuckled. Yeah, this was going to be an odd year – the last year for all of them, or at least, most of them, if Aidis really did want to stick around and be a student forever. Then again, last year, Aidis had been ready to leave, before his discovery. So there really was no way to know for sure.
Not that there ever had been. Which was, among other things, one of the best reasons to stick around and see what happened.
A familiar smell came through the window, and Jacob leaned closer and sniffed. Just as he'd thought. "Dhaiiski's cookies are done," he said to his friends, then stepped back as they both tried to climb through the window at once.
Yeah, nekati cooking was not to be missed. Jacob waited until the way was clear, then waited until the pounding on the stairs was over – better to not trip over anyone on the way down. He paused at the top of the stairs, looking down at everyone.
Elisa, Liz, and two of Naomi were gathered around the table, along with a pile of cards and another pile of food. Liz and one of Naomi were arguing about something, while Dhaiiski and another Naomi were taking cookies out of the oven. Jacob smiled. After living by himself for three months. . . .
No matter what, it was good to be here again.