• Published 15th Aug 2015
  • 1,163 Views, 27 Comments

Romance in Adagio - Desideratium



Octavia. The musical artisan with a preference for quietude. A solitary figure, shrouded in enigma.

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Act 1: The Queen's Gambit

She’s coming your way.

Quick, play it cool, don’t make eye contact. Look down. Act casually disinterested. Don’t be the one to make the first move. Make her come to you.

Try and look as tall, dark, and mysterious as you possibly can.

And whatever you do, don’t give off the impression that you’re madly in love.

She’s coming. Oh, she’s coming closer. She’s walking with that strange blue-haired girl with the purple sunglasses. Quick! Get her attention! Or maybe don’t. Be indifferent, act like you couldn’t care less about what she thought. Girls like that. Right? An unconscious need to win your affection, or something like that. Or maybe she’s the kind of girl who likes to be showered in compliments. You never know until you try.

She passes by. Your words catch in your throat. You don’t know what you would have said, so perhaps it’s for the best that your tongue constricts. Eyes fixed down at the table in front of you, your stomach lurches as you catch a glimpse of the hem of her skirt in the corner of your vision.

You exhale slowly and look down at your hands. You didn’t fully expect that you would actually say anything, but the failure comes as a disappointment nonetheless. Being the new kid in school gives you a fresh start, a clean slate with which to shape yourself however you want, so what do you have to lose? Looking like an idiot in front of an entire cafeteria’s worth of peers, you rationalize. Looking like an idiot in front of . . . her.

Surreptitiously, you glance backward. She sits down with her back to you, the blue-haired girl sitting across from her. The cacophony of the cafeteria fades around you; nobody else in the world matters right now. What matters is her long, cascading hair, the color of pure obsidian. Her slim shoulders leading down to long arms and nimble fingers. Musician’s fingers.

The blue-haired girl looks your way. You look back. She smiles, and stands up. Hastily, you whip your head back around. You focus on your lunch, a simple sandwich in a plastic bag. Over the din of lunchtime conversation, you hear the dull thud of footsteps approaching you. Your heart rate accelerates painfully.

“Hey.”

You look up. The blue-haired girl is leaning over your table, palms splayed out. She’s wearing a frayed white hoodie and cobalt jeans, with an enormous pair of headphones draped around her neck. Her enormous sunglasses giver her an insect-like appearance. Coupled with her eye-wateringly bright hair, she’s a sight to see.

“You’re new here, right?”

You nod nervously. “Yeah. Just last week.”

She grins. “Good. Come with me. You need to find yourself some friends.”

You stare incredulously at the creature in front of you. “What?”

“Friends, companions, shoulders to cry on. You know.” The girl shrugs and runs a hand through her hair. “I’m no detective, but you seem to be lacking in that department. Come on.”

Her bluntness stings. It hurt enough being told that you had to abandon everything you knew and move to a new city, now here this stranger is criticizing you for not being the top of the social food chain already. Or at least, that’s what it sounds like.

“Hold on, who are you?” you ask, not willing to surrender without at least a parting shot.

“Scratch. Vinyl Scratch. Pleasure meeting ya. Now who in the blazes are you?”

You reluctantly introduce yourself. All bravado you had conjured evaporates.

“Pleased to meet ya. Now get your derriere outta that chair.” Vinyl smiles to herself for a second, evidently pleased with the rhyme. “I got someone else you’re needing to meet.” When you don’t respond, she quickly pivots behind you, loops both arms under your armpits, and heaves upward.

“Hey!” you shout. You jerk free from the manhandler and whirl to face her.

Oblivious to your annoyance, Vinyl turns and begins marching back to her table. The table where . . . she is sitting. “Onward, new best friend!”

Your eyes affix on the back of the other girl’s head again. She hadn’t turned around at all during your exchange with Vinyl. Her head is tilted down, undoubtedly focused on her food. Once again, your guts somersault. Your heart rate, already elevated because of Vinyl’s excessive touching, peaks. Without your brain telling your feet what to do, you begin to walk towards the pair. Vinyl pats the bench beside her. Unthinkingly, you sit, looking at your feet all the while.

“Octavia, introduce yourself, darling,” Vinyl says.

Octavia. So that’s her name.

You chance a glance upward. She’s wearing a simple skirt and a dark sweater over a pale pink buttoned shirt. Nice, but not attention-grabbing -- quite the opposite, in fact. The girl -- Octavia -- hadn’t moved, given any indication of recognition, when you arrived. Her only motion is to lift a forkful of rice to her mouth every now and then, eating out of a small metal container. She too is looking downward.

“You’ll have to forgive her,” Vinyl says. “Lunch is a truly enthralling affair.” At her words, Octavia glances up, shooting Vinyl a look of annoyance. Vinyl, ignoring her, turns to you. “This is my bestest friend in the entire world, Miss Octavia Melody.” Vinyl introduces you as well.

“Didn’t you say a second ago that I was your new best friend?” you ask, wondering where your words came from. The confidence that just came out of your mouth definitely did not mean to be there. “Honestly, you’re going to ditch me this quickly?”

Vinyl laughs loudly, and you notice -- to your horror -- that people from other tables turn to locate the source of the noise. “Bwaha, I guess you’re right. Man, we picked a good day to eat in the cafeteria for once. Octy, is it alright if I dump you for this incredibly handsome stranger?”

Blood floods your face. “W-what?”

Vinyl tilts her head slightly to the side; she may have just winked.

Octavia sighs. “We’ve talked about this, Vinyl. You are not permitted to use nicknames with me.”

Her voice is just as melodious and spellbinding as you thought it would be. It’s like chocolate, rich, and smooth, and delicious, and . . . you shake yourself. That’s bordering on weird, champ. But there is something very different about her voice. Her words are soft, carefully orchestrated. They have a natural flow to them, almost musical in nature.

“And you know that I don’t like words with more than two syllables.” Vinyl pouts and folds her arms. “See? Even just saying ‘syllables’ has put me on edge.”

“I’ve heard you say plenty of words with at least three syllables,” says the dangerously outspoken being who has evidently taken control of your vocal chords. This spirited girl’s energy is panoptic -- you’re forced to come out of your conservative shell and participate, for fear of drowning in this sea of vivacity. Excitement builds within you.

“I don’t even know what consistency means.” Vinyl shrugs. “It’s too big a word.”

Octavia has raised her eyes from her lunch and is now watching you and Vinyl boredly, her gaze flicking back and forth between you like a ping pong match. Every time you look her direction, she averts her gaze. Eventually, her attention turns back to her lunch once she’s realized that you’re finished talking. Reminded of something, you spring to your feet.

“Now, don’t think you’re leaving so easily on us, now,” says Vinyl.

“I’m not, it’s just . . .” You gesture shapelessly back at your previous eating spot. “My lunch.”

Vinyl raises an eyebrow. “I’ll allow it.”

Nodding in thanks, you stride briskly to the table, snatch up your lunch bag, and walk back. During the brief moment that you had been gone, Vinyl had stood to lean over the table to whisper something to Octavia. She sits back down just as you do. You don’t make mention of it -- your confidence doesn’t extend that far.

You lean back as far as you can without toppling backward. You’re mystified by this pair of girls, how they could ever be drawn together. Vinyl in an infectious, boundless well of vitality, while Octavia is borderline catatonic. No, not catatonic. Octavia has been fully aware and alert for the entirety of the conversation, but instead declines to participate. Her eyes, so big and purple, are always darting, analyzing every angle. It’s just that emotions seem to be a foreign concept to her.

“You awake?”

Vinyl’s voice snaps you out of your reverie. You look around. Unknowingly, you had crossed your arms behind your head, and you quickly drop them back down to your sides. “Yeah, sorry. Just distracted, is all.”

Octavia’s who had been viewing you with narrowed eyes, looks down to her food again.

“Can’t blame ya, to be honest,” Vinyl says. “New school and all that. Sensory overload, I think they call it. Or at least what that smart kid in Chemistry calls it. Hey, lemme see your schedule,” she says abruptly.

Dutifully, you dig in your pocket and produce a wrinkled sheet of paper bearing your class schedule. You hand it over to Vinyl. She unfolds it and quickly scans the list. “Psychology after lunch, then Physics. Two science classes back to back? Are you crazy?” You shrug and Vinyl continues to read. “Hey, Octy, don’t you have World Literature second period tomorrow?”

Octavia nods.

“And then P.E. with me last period!” Vinyl says triumphantly. “Finally, someone interesting to talk to!”

You barely hear her. Octavia had appeared nonchalant about Vinyl’s comment, but there was a flicker of recognition in her eyes. The revelation was not news to her, which means that at some point during the last week . . . she had noticed you!

“Make sure to get on the coach’s good side early,” Vinyl forges ahead. “She doesn’t like me too much. Dunno why not. Also, don’t try to be too competitive. No offense, but you don’t look like you’re the running and jumping type, and there are plenty of other kids in the class who have that affair nailed down, so it’s probably best if you didn’t infringe on that.”

“Thanks,” you say absently.

“And you’re gonna want to make friends with the Psych teacher too. Dude’s a former wrestler. Great dancer, too. Scares me a little, to be honest. He doesn’t like me either. But if you do your work and don’t be stupid you’ll do just fine. Come to think of it,” Vinyl pauses. “It’s probably best if you stayed on all your teachers’ good sides. Probably healthier.”

“Probably?”

“I wouldn’t know, there aren’t many adults in this school who like me a whole lot.”

“Why not?”

Vinyl coughs, and Octavia smirks. “Because I haven’t done homework since the beginning of the year.”

You stare. “And they haven’t kicked you out yet?”

“They can’t, I’m still passing their classes,” Vinyl says proudly. “I’m a great tester. Homework is only a small percentage of the grade, so if you do well on the tests, you can still keep a B average. System’s broken, yo.”

“What about you, Octavia?” The words escape your mouth and you immediately bite down on your tongue, hard. Why did you do that, idiot? Did you really just ask Octavia a question? When Octavia looks up with a confused expression, you have no choice but to blunder ahead. “I mean, with schoolwork. Do you abide by the . . . lax approach? Or do you . . . I dunno.” You wrack your brain for words. “Do homework?”

Octavia gazes solidly at you for a brief moment, then her eyes drop again. “I do homework.”

“Oh. Right. Me too, I guess.” Nicely done, genius.

Vinyl raises an eyebrow and giggles behind her hand. “Well good on ya. You’ll fit in right well here. Say, where did you come from?”

“Manehattan High.”

“Big city, huh? Hey, Octavia. Didn’t you used to date a violinist from there?”

“No.”

Octavia’s immediate response and Vinyl’s smirk suggest that this isn’t the first time that the joke’s been used. Nevertheless, it makes your insides shift. “What?” you ask.

“Octavia really likes talking about her love life, don’t cha?”

Octavia, unsurprisingly, remains silent. Your odd little group is left staring awkwardly at each other, until the cacophony of the lunch bell throws you out of your trance. Vinyl bounds to her feet, standing up on top of the bench to compensate for her relative shortness. “Welp, saved by the bell! Don’t think this changes anything, Octy! I’m still gonna get those juicy details from you one of these days! Come on, new friend! I’ll show you where the Psychology classroom is!”

“Vinyl, I’ve been here for a week already, I know where it is.”

“Nonsense! You’re like a lost little kitten! And I’m gonna be your mommy cat!” Vinyl lands lightly on the ground. She frowns. “That metaphor sounded a lot better in my head.”

“Yeah, that was a little . . .” You fail to conjure a suitable adjective.

“Awesome?” Vinyl supplies. “I agree. See ya during fourth, Octy!” Vinyl waves at Octavia, who is silently packing away her empty lunch container. Octavia doesn't acknowledge Vinyl in any way. Vinyl loops her arm around yours and begins to tug. “Come on, new friend!”

Stumbling along after the girl, you’re barely able to snag the strap of your backpack before being pulled away. “I told you my name, would it kill you to use it?”

“It might. You never know.” Vinyl throws a look backward and you follow her gaze. Octavia has stood and is walking in the opposite direction. Vinyl grabs your jaw and turns your head back forward.

“What--” you start, but Vinyl puts a finger on your lips and shakes her head. She looks serious, which is strangely unsettling. You wouldn’t have guessed that Vinyl was capable of such a state. Keeping the finger on your lips, she tugs you onward. Once you’ve exited the cafeteria and melted into the throng of students crowding the hallway, Vinyl speaks.

“Sorry. That girl has freaky-good hearing. Not sure why. Thanks for eating with us.”

“Uh, no problem, I guess.”

“No, really. Sorry I had to march you at gunpoint, but I wasn’t taking chances.”

“Taking chances, what?”

Vinyl sighs and scratches her head. “Tough to explain. Short version, I need you to try to be friends with Octavia.”

“Sorry, what?” You’re afraid you may have misheard. Vinyl is speaking softly, and the hallway is loud.

“Really sorry to spring this on you, but could you make an effort to be Octavia’s friend?”

Your breath catches and time slows down around you. “Why?”

“Can you meet me right after school? I can explain it better if I have a little more than five minutes.”

“Yeah, okay. Where?”

“Art building, east side. You know where that is, right?”

“Yeah, I’ve got a drawing class near there.”

“Okay. Groovy. Thanks again, new friend.”

“My name is--” you start, but Vinyl has already disappeared into the crowd.


After a bomb like that being dropped on your life, and with Vinyl’s voice still ringing in your ears, it’s near impossible to focus on schoolwork.

The psychology lecture, a subject you’re normally fascinated with, blends together into a shapeless mass of anatomical vocabulary, a long string that passes cleanly through your head without leaving the slightest of imprints, leaving you totally ignorant of the workings of the central nervous system.

What did Vinyl mean? Why do you need to be friends with Octavia? Is this all some massive joke that they’re playing on you, a ploy to make a fool of you for all to see? Are they just taking advantage of the fact that you’re new here, and don’t know the territory?

But no, that doesn’t seem right. Vinyl may be tough to read, but she sounded truly genuine when she apologized, when she made the request. So unless she’s an amazing actress, there must be something more going on.

But what about Octavia?

During your week of admiring her from afar, you had observed a quiet, studious girl who stayed well out of the spotlight. Very pretty, but adamantly avoidant of attention, unlike many other girls who know very well how gorgeous they are, like that glitzy girl Rarity. When a question was asked, her hand never joined the writhing horde of appendages that shot skyward. She kept her hand, and head, down. But there has to be more to her story than just simple introversion. You know what shyness looks like; you’ve been in those shoes yourself for the entirety of your career in public schooling, but Octavia is more than that -- she’s practically mute.

The sound of your name shocks you away from your thoughts. “What part of the brain controls automatic functions like breathing?” says the Psychology teacher abruptly. You look up to a classroom full of eyes affixed on you.

You quickly glance down at your notes, trying to ignore the rush of blood to your face. Vinyl was right -- the psychology teacher, a hulking titan of a man, is intimidating at times. “The brain stem, sir.”

The teacher grins briefly. “Just making sure you were awake, son.” You smile weakly back, and the teacher goes back to his lecture. You quietly breathe a sigh of relief. The brain stem was one of the few things you had actually written down. Confident that you won’t be called on for the rest of the class now, you allow your thoughts to wander.

Being friends with Vinyl and Octavia . . . it had hurt when Vinyl said it, but she was right: you don’t have friends. Your previous friend group had been small, but tight-knit, and the hardest thing about moving away was seeing the look on their faces when you broke the news. You still talk to them occasionally on the phone or through an online game, but there is still an emptiness in your life because of their absence.

Could this enigmatic duo of girls possibly hope to fill that hole?

The rest of the class period passes in a blur, with your brain only picking up bits and pieces of the lecture. You’ll have to do extra studying to make up what your daydreaming missed, but you think it’s been worth it.

During Physics you’re slightly more focused. Your thoughts still unwittingly drift to Octavia occasionally, but you’re able to keep up with the material well enough. Though not a clockwatcher by nature, you find yourself glancing at your watch every few minutes. But the universe, sensing your urge to get out of school, elects to slow time down, seemingly doubling the time it takes minutes to pass. The material keeps you sufficiently distracted -- it takes your full brain power to muscle through some of the exercises assigned -- but you’ve never been so excited for school to end in your entire life.

Finally, at long last, the bell to leave calls out across the school, cutting your teacher off mid-sentence. Whatever fascinating tidbit of scientific knowledge he had been trying to convey is lost under the pandemonium of students rushing to pack up and get out the door. Despite your eagerness to go meet Vinyl, you take your time putting your books away. As you snap your textbook shut, you sense a presence above you. You look up to meet the gaze of the science teacher.

“How are we doing today?” he asks.

“Fine, sir. Thanks.” You slide the textbook into your backpack and give the zipper a tug.

“Keeping up with the work alright?”

“Yes, I think so. Most of this stuff I’ve already learned, but it’s been awhile since I’ve had to use it.”

“Good, good.” The teacher has a distracted air about him, as if he’s unused to speaking casually to people. He smiles awkwardly, and you wish he wouldn’t. Smiling doesn’t seem to suit his face well. “Well, glad you’re doing well. Keep up the good work.”

“Thank you. I will, sir.”

Still smiling painfully, the teacher goes back to his desk and sinks down into the chair behind it. You hurriedly make your way out of the classroom, navigating through the gaggle of students who still crowd the door.

The hallways are a writhing mass of shouting bodies. As you make your way to the south doors, you appreciate the familiarity of the end-of-school rush. This new school, while vastly different from your old one, is still just a high school, and there are some things that are constant in any school. The sound of screaming teenagers is one of those things, you muse fondly.

True to her word, Vinyl is waiting for you, leaning with one foot propped against the wall of the art building. Her head bobs in time with the bass-heavy thrum emanating from her headphones. Upon seeing you, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a small metal rectangle with a cord leading up under her shirt. She thumbs a button on it and the sound from her headphones stops abruptly.

“How was school, honey?” she says, grinning.

“Fine, mom.” You return the smile and move to stand in front of her.

“I’m guessing you have a few questions.” Vinyl slips the headphones off her ears, allowing them to wrap around her neck. “I’ll let you fire off a few before I say anything.”

“Odds are you’re about to answer most of them, though. You first.”

Vinyl nods. “Fair enough.” She interlocks her fingers and raises both arms above her head. You hear vertebrae pop in rapid succession. “Ahh, man, where do I start?”

“From the beginning?” you suggest.

“Nah, there’s too much. Don’t want to talk your ears off.” She frowns, then turns in a circle, flapping her hands frustratedly. She comes to a halt and puts her hands on her hips. “Short version, I’m worried about Octavia.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s afraid of people.” Vinyl seems more animated than before, perhaps excited to finally say the words out loud. “Most all people. I thought it would just be a funk that she would work her way out of, but it’s been going on for too long, and I’m getting honestly kind of scared for her.”

“How do you know? What if this is just how she is naturally?” You throw a quick glance over your shoulder, looking to see if there is anyone close enough to overhear your conversation. The nearest living beings are a small gaggle of freshman girls about fifty meters off. No trouble there.

“Because I knew her before it happened.” Vinyl’s voice has taken on a grim edge. She sits down on the steps leading up to the school and sets her chin on top of a clenched fist. You join her, hesitantly sitting next to the girl. “Ah, why am I telling you all this? I don’t even know you!” She turns away.

“What happened?” you ask gingerly.

“Not for me to say. Let’s just say that Octavia has had some rough times in the past. The only reason that she puts up with me is ‘cause we were friends before that. My point is is that she hasn’t talked to anyone other than me in years. She doesn’t make new friends; she’s scared of the idea. She’s gone through everyone in the school and decided that none of them would be worthwhile to her. She gives me all these bogus reasons for it, but I think it’s really because she’s scared of them.” Vinyl’s voice trembles, almost imperceptibly. She covers it up with a snort of laughter. “That’s why I nabbed you. A fresh face, someone she hasn’t turned down yet. She even mentioned you, once.”

You straighten, glancing sidelong at Vinyl. “What?”

“Said there was a new kid in her literature class. I didn’t think much of it until she pointed you out yesterday. I thought you looked nice, so here we are. She even said a couple words at you! Not many get that kind of honor!” Vinyl grins and gestures grandly in your direction. Her actions feel empty. “You’re kinda quiet, what are you thinking?”

“I’m, uh . . .” You’re at a loss for words. “I’m at a loss for words.”

“Sorry to spring this on ya.” Vinyl is surprisingly sincere for such a jokester. “I don’t mind if you never talk to me again after that. It felt kinda good to vent, though.”

“I get that,” you affirm. “But, Octavia . . . what’s her story? How’d she get like . . . this?”

“If anyone’s gonna tell you that, it’s gotta be her.”

“Right. I understand. Sorry, I’m prying.”

“I get that you’re curious, but you should know that this isn’t the kind of thing I throw around lightly.”

“Yeah, I imagine. Sorry.”

Quiet overtakes you for a long while. Vinyl stands and stretches again. “Welp, thanks for listening. You’re a real pal.” She hops the last few steps and begins to walk off.

“Wait! Hold on!”

You chase after her. When Vinyl turns to face you, you notice moisture on her face, a single drop slipping down from under her glasses. You immediately freeze. You’ve never been good with crying girls, let alone this girl. The prospect shakes you; though you don’t know Vinyl well, you realize that her cracking like this must be a big deal.

“Sorry to waste your time. You’ve probably got more important stuff to deal with, huh?” Vinyl’s voice sounds a little choked, try as she might to fight it down.

You lower your voice, hoping that you sound at least somewhat comforting. “I want to help, or at least try. What do I need to do?” Vinyl gazes at you in silence. She toys with one of the drawstrings of her hoodie, her fingers twirling around listlessly. Her unresponsiveness makes you uneasy. “Vinyl?”

“Just . . . try to be her friend,” Vinyl finally responds. “I don’t know if she’ll let you or not, so . . . don’t take it personally if she doesn’t.” She rubs her arm and shifts her weight between her feet. This girl is a tightly-wound ball of nervous energy.

“Okay,” you say. “Any idea where I should start?”

Vinyl covertly raises a finger to brush away her tear. “You could start by eating lunch with us. We don’t normally eat in the cafeteria. We normally eat in Room 202. It’s an old teacher’s lounge that nobody uses anymore, since the new one got remodeled. Octavia likes it because nobody bugs us there, so when you come in, try to make sure no one sees you.”

Vinyl’s voice, which had taken a softer tone, gradually brightens back to its original timbre. After sniffling once, she throws a grin on. Her body language suggests that you are not to mention the chink in her armor that you just witnessed.

“Okay,” you reply. “Room 202. Keep a low profile. Got it. I guess I’ll see you then.” You flash a smile in Vinyl’s direction, then turn to go, but the sound of your name being called turns you around again.

Vinyl drops her arms to her sides and smiles sweetly. “Thanks. For everything. You’re a pal.”

“Don’t thank me yet, I haven’t done anything noteworthy.”

“Well, I’m thanking you anyway, whether you deserve it or not. Deal with it.”

You laugh. “See you tomorrow, Vinyl.”


Tomorrow arrives soon enough. Your evening after school had been uneventful, so you had elected to retire to bed early, which resulted in waking long before your usual hour. Instead of going back to sleep, you had done the reading for psychology that you had tuned out on the day previous.

When it came time for school to start, you happily strode out the door, eager for the possibilities of this day.

Now, you sit in World Literature, wondering where the time went, your eyes fixed on the back of Octavia’s head.

The dull lecture on poetry fades to a blur in your ears, so you opt instead to think about the girl in front of you, a welcome alternative in your mind.

Octavia is scared of other people, or so Vinyl had said. Something about that statement doesn’t add up for you, however; she chooses not to interact with people, that much is clear to see, but it doesn’t seem to be out of fear. Her aversion, whatever it may be, doesn't hinder her ability to go about her day, to lead a seemingly regular life. Octavia, to the outside observer, just looks like a very shy girl. For all intents and purposes, she looks . . . normal. And perhaps you’re looking to far into what Vinyl said. Maybe Octavia isn’t the stress case you made her out to be. Whatever it is that keeps her tucked into her shell shouldn’t be too great a barricade.

There is a rustle of movement across the class as students reach into their bags, withdrawing textbooks. You glance quickly up at the black board. The notes on poetry -- scrawled in looping cursive letters -- had been erased. Evidently your poetry section has now concluded. You glance at your watch. Only a half hour until lunch. That shouldn’t be too long to actually pay attention to the classwork, should it?

You do enjoy the subject, though the drone of the teacher has a tiring effect on you. Literature may not be your strongest suit -- that title still lies in science -- but who doesn’t enjoy a good book?

Though committed to completing the work, you still glance upward at Octavia periodically. She’s wearing another sweater today, this one a slightly lighter tint of grey. The shirt under it is lavender. She keeps her head down, her wrist moving briskly across a sheet of paper. You notice that she has several completed pages set to the side, while all the students around her are still working on their first. Looking down at your own work, you cringe at how pitifully little you’ve written. Vowing not to get distracted until the page is completed, you lower your face and begin to write in earnest.

That sentiment lasts all of five minutes. Eventually, inadvertently, your eyes wander upward, finding Octavia’s face. Wait . . face? Your studiousness evaporates -- Octavia is looking right at you. Her head turned back, she regards you with curiosity. As soon as your gazes meet, however, her brow tightens slightly and she turns back forward.

Your tired brain draws a blank. Now what did that mean?

A glance at your watch. Five minutes.

You’re tempted to just throw in the towel and stop working, but instead you lower your nose to the grindstone and muscle through as much of the assignment as you can in the remaining time. The bell rings, punctuating a particularly poignant paragraph you had constructed and you, with some satisfaction, place a period at the end. As always, the teacher’s parting remarks are lost in the clamor of students eager to go to lunch. You hurriedly stow your books away and move towards Octavia, who is standing at her desk, sliding her books one after another into her bag.

“Octavia?” you probe. Octavia turns around, but doesn’t speak. Unsurprising. Before the silence grows too long, you press ahead. “I was wondering, would it be okay if I had lunch with you again today? Vinyl mentioned . . .”

“Yes. She did.” Octavia looks flatly at you when she speaks. She slings her bag over her shoulder, never breaking eye contact.

“Oh. Okay, then is that . . . alright with you?”

Octavia nods once and turns to go. Taking it as an invitation, you follow.


Room 202 is surprisingly . . . nondescript. Though its door matches those to its left and right identically, this room looks much less characteristic. You are, however, judging a book by its cover, since the only view you’ve gotten of it is the door.

“Is this the place?” you ask. Octavia nods in response and pulls the door open, glancing both ways before entering. You follow close behind and accidentally brush her arm with yours. Octavia shies away, pulling ahead of you. On your way, you and Octavia had walked side by side, but always at an arm’s length away from each other. A physical representation of the emotional distance between you.

“Close the door.” Octavia flicks on the lights. The room, a small closet of space, is illuminated by the aging fluorescent bulbs on the ceiling, though the wide window at the far wall had already been letting in plenty of light. A sagging couch sits against the far wall, facing a small table with three chairs. All three are neatly tucked in under the table, whose surface is pristine, as if it was recently scrubbed.

Vinyl hasn’t arrived yet. You had half-hoped that she would already be here, so you wouldn’t have to try to entertain Octavia by yourself. Most of you is simply excited to be with Octavia, regardless of whether the third party is present or not.

As you close the door, Octavia pivots to the side, moving to a small kitchenette on your right that you hadn’t noticed. She places her bag on the floor and begins opening cabinets, pulling seemingly random items out and setting them across the counter. A container of sugar, several spoons, a small tin of something you can’t make out.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

Octavia doesn’t answer the question directly. “Would you like tea?”

Only when she turns, holding a porcelain teapot, do you understand. One of the stove’s burners is now on, a ring of blue flame blazing under the metal grate. You’ve never been much of a tea person, but you don’t really have anything against it either. “Yes please, that’d be nice.”

Octavia nods. She fills the pot with water and sets it on the burner. As it heats, she opens a cabinet and withdraws three teacups with saucers. You consider offering to help, but Octavia seems to have everything under control. She maneuvers the space effortlessly, comfortably, seeming to have done this hundreds of times. “Sugar? Honey?”

“Sugar is fine, and you don’t need to call me ‘honey’.”

A risky joke, but you couldn’t let the opportunity pass. Since Octavia has her back to you you can’t see her facial reaction, but the lack of a glare gives you hope. Instead of responding, she pours some sugar into a bowl and sets it to the side. Smiling at your own wit, you go over to the couch and sling your backpack off your shoulders, setting it down on the cushions, then immediately slump down after it. The couch is extraordinarily comfortable. It would be worth coming here for lunch just for that.

The door opens. Vinyl Scratch slides into the room and closes the door behind her. Moving like a sleepwalker, she wordlessly walks over to the couch and positively dives onto it. Recoiling in panic, you don’t get out of the way fast enough and get an elbow to the crotch.

“Ow!” Your voice comes out higher than normal.

Vinyl, her face buried in a pillow, makes no move to remove herself. Her voice, muffled, says: “Sorry, didn’t see you there.”

“Well . . .” You cringe as Vinyl shifts, digging her elbow deeper. “I am here, so could you, like, sit up like a normal human?”

“But you’re so comfy,” Vinyl protests.

“That’s weird.”

“Only if you make it weird.”

“No, it’s definitely weird.”

“Octavia!” Vinyl calls. “Is it weird that I want to establish physical contact with my new friend?”

Octavia, who had been regarding the two of you with mild amusement, quickly straightens her face. “Yes, Vinyl. It is.”

“Thank you!” you say. You poke Vinyl on the back of the head. “Now scoot.”

Sighing mightily, Vinyl levers herself into a sitting position. “What’s cooking today?”

“Masala Chai,” Octavia responds.

“That a new one?”

“No. You just don’t remember the names.”

“Eh, I’m not the tea nut here.”

Octavia smiles. “I’m not either. I do coffee, remember?”

You realize that this is the first time you’ve seen Octavia smile. The extent of her amusement up to this point has been a faint smirk and a raised eyebrow. She has a nice smile. “If you prefer coffee,” you say. “Then why do you have tea here?”

“Coffee for the early morning, tea for lunch.”

“So that’s why . . .” You cut yourself off. You had just finally nailed down what that smell that constantly surrounds Octavia is: coffee, it has to be. But telling her that you notice her scent would not be a wise move at this stage in the proceedings. Vinyl and Octavia are both looking at you questioningly. “Never mind.”

Octavia, satisfied that the water has heated enough, busies herself with the preparation of the tea. You glance over at Vinyl, who’s leaned back as far as she can, nearly sliding off the couch, her head tilted back and her mouth slightly open. Still unsettled by her close proximity, you stand and move over to Octavia. Wordlessly, you pick up the teacups and transfer them to the table, setting one in front of each chair. You return to retrieve the sugar bowl and its accompanying spoon. As you go, you shoot a sidelong glance at Octavia, who is already gazing back at you, a look of curiosity on her face. On a whim, you give her a smile. She doesn’t exactly return it, but her countenance brightens ever so slightly. You place the sugar bowl on the center of the table. Vinyl grins and gives you a thumbs-up. Not asleep after all.

“Ready,” Octavia says. Carefully, she carries the steaming pot of tea to the table. Having already sat down, you smile politely as Octavia pours the decalescent liquid into your cup. Vinyl heaves herself up from the depths of the couch and slides into a chair as Octavia moves to her cup.

“Thanks, dearie,” Vinyl says. She lifts the cup and takes a deep sniff. Satisfied by the scent, she begins to sip. You follow her lead. Even a tea novice like you can taste the quality of this particular brew.

Octavia finds her seat, setting down a round metal container and a set of chopsticks. She unscrews the top to reveal a bowl of noodles and steamed vegetables. Thin tendrils of steam waft up from her food and the smell permeates the room, intertwining nicely with the scent of tea. You’re reminded of your own lunch, and you reach into your backpack to retrieve it: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of chips. You appreciate the irony of the juxtaposition of your meager meal and the very high-class tea set.

As you and Octavia tuck in, you notice that Vinyl doesn’t have food. “You eating?” you inquire.

Vinyl shakes her head. “Nah, I only eat two meals a day. Lunch isn’t one of them.”

You nod, and silence falls. Two of you eat, and one looks out the window. Like everything she does, Octavia eats methodically. She sits up straight, making you self-conscious of your own slumped posture, but you don’t dare right it. Everything about this situation seems like a social minefield. How should you sit? Are you eating too quickly? Should you try to make conversation? But no, even even with your history of chronic overthinking, this feels just . . . right.

“This is nice,” you remark.

“Think so?” Vinyl says. She had drained her cup and is now spinning it around aimlessly.

“Yeah, it’s good to be able to escape from all the hustle and bustle for a while.”

Octavia nods in agreement. “There is merit in quiet time.”

Vinyl glances down at her wrist, notices there is no watch thereon, then looks back up. “How much time do we have left?”

“About twenty minutes til the bell,” you respond, checking your own watch.

“Plenty of time.” Vinyl leans over out of her chair and reaches into her backpack. After a second of rummaging, she pulls out a large, checkered square and a small velvet bag. You didn’t know what you were expecting, but it sure wasn’t that.

“A chessboard?” you wonder.

Vinyl sets the board across the table and upends the bag. A pile of chessmen tumbles out, clattering across the board. Octavia scoops a handful of the wooden pieces and begins arranging them into their proper positions. Vinyl does the same. You’re tempted to help them set up, but something about this seems almost ritualistic, and disturbing them would be a horrible offense. Octavia is quicker than Vinyl, placing piece after piece one after the other. Vinyl has to think about some of them, seemingly unsure of the correct position. Eventually, both sides of the board are populated by chessmen. White in front of Vinyl and black for Octavia.

“White goes first,” Octavia remarks, smiling, and Vinyl smirks. If there was a joke in there somewhere, you missed it.

The game begins. You spectate over the battle unfolding in front of you, the lines of troops awaiting the orders from their divine commanders. Vinyl is aggressive, sending wave after wave of pieces against Octavia’s defense, only to be beaten back every time. Octavia, a careful commandant, is more patient. Instead of a simple-minded onslaught on the enemy king, she plays the game politically, picking off key players in Vinyl’s arsenal, limiting her foe’s options, all while staying just out of reach of the heavy hitters, specifically a very aggressive bishop.

In minutes, the game turns one-sided. Vinyl is left with a cluster of pieces huddled in one corner around her king, while Octavia is spread all across the board, having only lost two pieces of her own. It takes less than five moves for her to corner the white king, ending the game in a brutal checkmate.

“Checkmate,” Octavia says, somewhat unnecessarily.

Vinyl leans back in her chair, puffing out her cheeks and letting out a long breath. “Whoo, so it is. But I did a bit better that time, didn’t I?”

Octavia smiles and begins to sweep pieces back into their bag. “Sure.”

“Good game,” you remark. “Do you always do this?”

“Get whooped? Yeah, pretty much,” Vinyl says.

You laugh. “No, I mean do you play a game every day?”

“Most days,” Octavia says. “Unless Vinyl forgets the board.”

“Which very rarely happens!” Vinyl adds indignantly. Octavia holds out the now-full bag of chessmen and Vinyl takes it, stowing it back in her backpack. The board follows shortly. “Octy started teaching me a few months ago, so we’ve been playing ever since.” She glances at her wrist again. “How much time?”

“Four minutes and . . .” You do some quick math. “Forty-two seconds.”

Vinyl snorts. “You got your watch synced with the bells, man?”

“You don’t?”

She holds up a very bare wrist. “Nope.”

You all help to clean away the tea set, cleaning the dishes and stowing them away in the cabinets. “Was this tea set always here?” you ask.

“Yes. Since we’ve been coming here,” Octavia replies. “I bring my own tea, however.”

You place the last of the teacups on its shelf, then whistle appreciatively. “And the teachers didn’t lock it up or anything? It’s a miracle that nobody else’s found this place.”

“Truly.”

The bell rings, popping the bubble of your escapism. Only now do you remember that you’re actually in a school. The realization comes as a disappointment. The three of you pack up your bags and stealthily make it out into the hallway.

“I have Chemistry now, where are you headed?” asks Vinyl.

“Math,” says Octavia.

“Theory of Knowledge,” you reply.

“Say what now?” Vinyl raises an eyebrow.

“Y’know, Theory of Knowledge. It’s about . . . y’know, never mind. I wouldn’t be able to explain it if I tried.”

As you turn to Vinyl, Octavia melts into the crowd without saying goodbye. You’re tempted to go after her, but your class is in the opposite direction. At a crossroads, you’re left staring after her.

“Eh, don’t worry about her,” Vinyl says, draping an arm around your shoulders. “You did great today.”

“Did I?”

“She’s been talking to you, hasn’t she? She made you tea and everything! I think that qualifies as a good job. C’mon, we’re gonna be late for class.” Vinyl tugs you along, and you follow without protest. As you walk with Vinyl, she continues to talk. “Alright, whatever doubts I had yesterday, they all just went poof. I got a feeling that Octavia’s gonna have no trouble warming up to you -- you two are practically the same person. No, think about it . . .” She puts up a hand when you start to protest. “You’re both kinda quiet, insanely smart, very eloquent, slightly awkward, slow to warm up to, not very athletic . . .”

“Alright, alright! I get the picture.”

“Oh! And musical! You’re both very musically-inclined.”

“And just how do you know that?” You hadn’t shared that knowledge with anyone in this new school.

Vinyl shrugs. “Just a hunch. But now I know I’m right, though. What is it? Violin? Tuba? Xylophone?”

“Piano.”

“That was my next guess.”

“But Octavia’s musical too? What does she play?”

“She’s the finest cellist you’ll ever hear, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t know the difference between a tambourine and a contrabass. I’ll have her bring her cello to lunch one of these days. Welp, this is my stop.” Vinyl abruptly lets go of you and breaks off from the stream of students. “Same time, same place, tomorrow?”

“Sure.”

“Alright! Stay frosty, champ!”

“See you, Vinyl.”


Days pass. Days turn to weeks. Living with the new school is no longer novelty, but normalcy.

You eat lunch with Vinyl and Octavia every day in the teacher’s lounge.

As time passes, you learn more and more about this eccentric duo of girls. Vinyl lives with her single father, who is mysteriously swimming in enormous piles of money, most of which he uses to dote on his only daughter. With funds being no objection, Vinyl went into music production -- the electronic kind, much to Octavia’s dismay. And she isn’t half bad, you came to realize when she did a show-and-tell one day with an album of hers. Octavia’s mouth had been a tight line for the entire performance, her brow furrowed.

Octavia still retains most of her enigma. While Vinyl is eager to work with you, spilling out her life’s story whether you want to hear it or not, Octavia is decidedly private. You do learn that she is a first-chair cellist in the school’s orchestra, so Vinyl’s praise seems justified. But, despite Vinyl’s earlier promise, Octavia never brings her cello to lunch.

Even though you’ve learned little about her, you’ve still gotten much closer to Octavia.

You’ve had conversations, real conversations with her. Ones that didn’t revolve around one-word answers and awkward back-and-forth. No, you’ve led verbal sparring matches with her, who matches you blow for blow, and even overtaking you many a time. You’ve come to delight in the sound of Octavia’s voice, a veritable symphony of sound, even when it’s shooting your argument full of holes.

Octavia is comfortable talking to you when in the confines of the tea room, as you’ve come to call it, but when out in the wilderness of the school, she retreats firmly back into her shell, speaking very little, if at all. She’ll smile in the hallways when you pass, and that alone is satisfaction enough.

Vinyl and Octavia continue to play chess. Every day another game. Vinyl improves, but almost imperceptibly. It’s the difference between a ten-minute game and a twelve-minute game. Octavia stays consistently good, but you’re hardly surprised by that.

What matters most, is that the two of them seem happy. Vinyl, though she doesn’t voice it expressly, hints that she hasn’t seen Octavia this relaxed in a long time. And Vinyl herself -- though her mood often looks to be a constant flatline at one hundred percent -- seems happier as well.

And you . . .

You’re doing alright too.


“. . . And that’s why dogs are inherently better pets than cats,” Vinyl says triumphantly.

You and Octavia share an amused glance. Octavia raises her teacup to her lips to stifle a giggle. Vinyl’s long and meandering argument on the merits of pets had been an adventure, but you two could only egg her on for so long.

“So there?” you comment.

“So there!” Vinyl affirms. She pounds her fist on the table and the dishes clatter threateningly.

“So be it,” Octavia says. “We’ll relent this time, but you haven’t heard the last of it.”

You stretch, reaching your arms high above your head. The clock on the wall (which Vinyl had installed after a week of asking you what time it was) reads that there is half an hour left for lunch. “Time enough for a chess game?”

“Of course,” Octavia replies. “Vinyl?”

“Gotcha.”

You pick up each of your friends’ teacups and move them to the sink. Behind you, you hear the familiar clatter of chess pieces being dumped onto the table. “Vinyl?”

“Yeah, new friend?”

“Would you mind if I tried my hand at a game?”

Vinyl and Octavia both pause, then look at each other. You were worried that Octavia would be upset, but it seems that the exact opposite has occurred. Her eyes brighten, and she looks at Vinyl expectantly. Vinyl regards you curiously. She looks a little miffed, but a meaningful look from you dissuades her. She shrugs and goes back to setting up pieces. “Sure, I guess we haven’t given you a turn for a while.”

“Or ever,” Octavia says. “You can take whites.” She swivels the chessboard to face you, careful not to topple the pieces. Her excitement shows, whether she’s trying to hide it or not.

“Thanks.” You survey your new troops, lined up and standing at attention. It’s been a long time since you’ve played.

“White goes first.”

“So it does.”

You’ve been watching these matches carefully, studying Octavia’s style, her tactics. She’s masterful at predicting Vinyl’s moves, but perhaps only because she knows her opponent so well. Much of her advantage has come at her reliance on Vinyl not seeing a ploy, goading her into making a mistake. Octavia’s moves are well-planned and always have the bigger picture in mind. She realizes that chess is not a series of battles, but a war. A truly psychological game.

The first move of a game, often overlooked, is just as important a move as any other. An opening move can set the tone of the game.

You move the queen’s pawn forward two spaces.

Octavia mirrors your move, placing the two pawns at an impasse.

Another pawn joins your first, taking its place on the left side of its comrade.

Octavia smiles, and the game begins.

Octavia, contrary to how she’s played with Vinyl, goes on the aggressive early. She sends wave after wave into your ranks, most of which you are able to repel, but with each chipping away at your wall. Octavia suffers casualties as well -- your queen cuts a swathe through the oncoming storm, forcing your foes to regroup and rethink. Seeing an opening, you insert your bishop into a slit in the armor, giving it a perfect line of sight on the black king.

“Check.”

Unfazed, Octavia simply places a rook in the bishop’s line of sight. Unwilling to sacrifice a piece, you withdraw. Now aware of her vulnerability, she recalls several pieces to rally at the king. You take the time to advance your pawns, your slow-moving infantrymen. The game continues on, the two of you trading blows until the number of pieces lining the side of the board outnumber those thereon.

The lunch bell rings, startling all three of you back into reality.

“And it was just starting to get interesting,” Vinyl remarks. Sighing, you move to begin clearing the board.

“Wait.” Octavia grabs your wrist. “I can afford to be late to third period.”

You grin. “Me too.”

“Well I can’t!” Vinyl announces. “This has been enthralling. Let me know how it turns out.” She leaps up and snatches her backpack. “Clean up when you’re done, alright?”

You and Octavia barely heed Vinyl’s exit. The game is back on.

You both go in and out of check, seemingly every turn. Octavia’s queen punches a hole through the wall of pawns and sits just out of reach of both your knight and rook. After brief consideration, you elect to sacrifice the bishop, and move the knight to safety. But Octavia doesn’t take the bishop. Instead, she brutalizes an adjacent pawn and moves to a space that gives her an angle on your queen. Your hand is already on your own queen, moving to stamp out the usurper, but you hesitate. A rook is guarding the enemy queen’s back, ready to stomp you flat if you make a move.

It’s an invitation. A queen for a queen. Do you lose your most valuable piece in return for Octavia’s?

No, you don’t. You ignore the gambit, and instead move to rally your forces around Octavia’s weakened right flank. Octavia, robbed of her chance at leveling the playing field, instead stalks at the knight that you had ordered to retreat. You cringe. That knight had been your cornerstone. Without it, your rebellion dwindles. You have too few pieces to form any semblance of a comprehensive plan. But wait! If you could just extricate your rook and get it to the back row, then put your queen . . .

“Checkmate.”

You look up, confused. “Excuse me?”

Octavia points. During your musings, she had placed one perfect bishop that effectively cornered your king. In combination with the queen that was already in the neighborhood and a pawn (a pawn of all things!), they had trapped your monarch.

“Oh. That was, um . . .” You sit back, still trying to compute what just happened. “Unexpected.”

“Good game,” Octavia remarks, throwing you a sideways smile.

“You too. I, uh, didn’t see that one coming.”

“To be perfectly honest, neither did I. You’re very flexible. It was hard to get a read on what you were trying to do. That move kind of . . . fell into place.”

“Maybe because I don’t know myself. Flying by the seat of my pants, most of the time.” That isn’t entirely true. You did know what you were doing, for the most part. Octavia had just made you think on your feet, was all.

“You’re too humble. You knew exactly what you were doing.”

“Up until the end.”

Octavia nods in agreement. You glance up at the clock. You’re now near forty minutes into third period. It would be tough to come up with an excuse for your tardiness this late in the hour.

“Rematch?”

“Oh yes please.”