After his three-hour block of core classes, Adric had a journalism elective before lunch. It turned out that Catriona shared it with him, and she designated herself his guide and mentor. They were wrapping up a feature writing unit, and his western European witch teacher shared a couple of online folders with readings and past assignments as catch up. It was a good thing he didn’t have any after school plans, and wouldn’t for a while. He was going to be spending hours every night on homework, probably for the next month.
Catriona walked him to the cafeteria and pointed out the table Simza’s circle usually occupied before heading to the lunch line that met her needs. As he crossed the room, loud with chatter and clanking cutlery, he hesitated when he heard his name.
“How was your morning?” Tricia asked, catching his elbow under her hand. She was doing her best to sound casual, but he could see her underlying concern.
“It was good,” he insisted, but frowned when he recalled his hostile fae classmate. “Mostly.”
Tricia’s blue eyes narrowed. “What do you mean mostly?”
He shrugged. “I have a first generation fae integrator in my core block, and she’s…”
“A bitch?” Tricia suggested.
He wasn’t able to squelch the smile. “Yeah. That’d be about right. I’m the only vampire in the class, and she was pretty unhappy about it.”
“Did she do anything inappropriate?” Tricia asked quickly, her forehead wrinkling the way it did when she was worried. “If she did, you can and totally should report it.”
“Already done,” said a voice at Adric’s elbow. He twitched, surprised anyone could get that close without him realizing it. Simza stood slightly behind him and off to one side. “We don’t tolerate ethnocentrist bullying, and administration takes it very seriously.”
“Uh…” He felt stupid again. What was it with this girl shutting down his brain? He’d kind of hoped ignoring Laurel would make the problem go away. If he proved himself not a threat, wouldn’t that carry more weight than detention, or whatever they did here? He glanced at Tricia, who was now grinning at him. “Tricia, this is Simza, she’s in my core block. Simza, this is my cousin Tricia, she’s a sophomore.”
“Nice to meet you,” Simza said, happiness radiating off her. “Aren’t you on student council?”
Tricia nodded and grabbed the offered hand. “Are you going to adopt him?”
Adric felt his face heat up as both girls looked at him before turning back to each other. What were they talking about?
“That’s up to him,” Simza replied with a wink. “Do you have any objections?”
“None.” Tricia hopped up and down and clapped her hands in glee. “I’ll let you guys get to your lunch.” She patted Adric’s arm twice. “See you later, cuz.” She jogged back between the tables to the group she’d been sitting with earlier.
Puzzled, Adric turned to Simza. “What was that about?”
“We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “But I promised you’d meet my circle, so let’s do that.” She led him over to the end of a table where Zindel already sat. There were several empty seats between him and the next group of students.
“So what is your circle?” Adric asked, hoping to get some insight to his new classmate. “Is it, like, a nickname for your friend group?”
She gestured for him to take a seat across from the werewolf. “Zin, you want to explain?”
Zindel snorted. “Are you familiar with chovihani?”
Adric shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “We didn’t have any Romani in Madison, so I guess it didn’t get covered.”
Simza shrugged. “We’re not a huge ethnic group, and we… we haven’t been the most popular, historically. So there really aren’t a lot of us anywhere anymore. Not even back in Europe.” She pulled a red reusable lunch bag out of her backpack. “Chovihani are essentially the Romani equivalent of a warlock.”
“Magical heavy hitters,” Zindel added. “Their principles of magic reflect other users, but are actually completely different.”
“So, no coven?” Adric asked.
“Most work best as solo practitioners,” Simza said, emphasizing that first word.
“But not you?”
Zindel laughed as if it was the most hilarious thing in the world.
“Zindel.” There was a definite note of warning in her voice.
“Come on Simza,” he pleaded. “It’s not often that your reputation is this untarnished. And even you have to admit, it’s pretty funny.”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She waved the back of her hand at him, encouraging him to continue.
“Simza’s probably the strongest chovihani in the history of our people,” Zindel explained. “All that power comes with a really sensitive control system, which means it’s easy for things to go wrong. Young magic users make a lot of mistakes. It’s just part of the package.”
“Oh.” Adric suddenly understood. He glanced down at her, surprised to see pink in her dark cheeks, far more than a hint. “So you had a few accidents, then?” he asked, determined not to tease, because loss of control was a scary thing.
Zindel let out a bark of laughter before slapping his hand over his mouth and ducking his head to hide his expression.
Simza scowled at her friend, but something about it seemed affectionate. “Few is not how I’d describe it.” She let out a sigh and a half-embarrassed smile made its way onto her face. “Constant train-wreck is more accurate.” She shook her head. “I was home-schooled until seventh grade because I was,” she raised her hands to provide air quote assistance, “too dangerous to be integrated with other students.”
Adric gawked at her. He didn’t even know that was possible. “How… how did you get control of it?” She obviously had; her demonstration in the classroom had been finely nuanced.
“With my circle.” She gestured to the students who had settled around them while she and Zindel spoke. “Historically a chovihani would protect an entire caravan, so she was magically tied to those families, that group, and most of them were regular humans. Something about that connection also served as a fuse or surge protector.” She shrugged. “And I knew that western witches worked best in a group, so I thought I’d see if that helped me.”
“I will never forget all the damn magical theory you made me read,” Zindel growled, though his expression was soft.
She pulled a face at him. “I didn’t want to kill you. Or anyone, really.”
Adric felt a sudden kinship to her. Sure, she could joke about it now, but he could see in her eyes that she remembered what it was like to have no control, to be afraid of what she’d done and could do.
“Anyway, the circle is a little like having a coven, in that it gives me a boost, which wasn’t exactly my goal, but it’s part of the package.” She tilted her head. “But it also gives me control, which is not something that other magic users usually get from a binding.”
“And there’s a joint benefit for the rest of us,” Zindel explained. “I needed a pack, something that served that purpose when I was away from my family for so much of the day. While no one else in the circle is a werewolf, it fills that need.”
“Oooh,” Catriona said, taking the last remaining seat next to Zindel. “Are we explaining the circle?”
“Are you part of it?” Adric asked in surprise. At her nod, he added. “I thought fae magic couldn’t work with other types, like they’re opposites and cancel each other out.”
Catriona shook her head. “That’s a carefully propagated myth, started and maintained by the fae who don’t want to work with others.” She pointed the handle of her bamboo spoon at him and waved it about. “I’m a shape changer, but I couldn’t stay balanced enough to keep to a form.”
Simza giggled. “It was cute.”
“It was distracting.” Catriona let out a huff, making her bangs scatter out of her face. “Having your lab partner randomly cycling from human to peregrine does not create an environment of focus and inquiry.” Her affected tone made it clear that these words were used against her in the past.
“Ah,” Adric said in understanding. The scent of fae and feathers made sense now.
“All of us in Simza’s circle have kind of crazy talent, and none of us are the same,” Zindel picked back up. “On our own, we’re each an uncontrolled mess. With our potential connected, we make each other stronger, and we have an anchor that lets us master our power.”
“I like to say we’re like a tapestry,” Simza added. “On our own, we are loose thread that spills off the loom and blows anywhere. Interwoven, we keep our distinctive color, but we’re contained, held fast, cohesively supported.”