|This story contains adult content.|
|Work on this story is on hiatus.|
|New sections of this story will start with the first sentence of green text.|
Freshmen at the Hobbes Athenaeum occupied a very low place on the totem pole. Its founders had been English immigrants and brought all their ideas about education from there, though over the decades American pedagogy had slowly seeped in to the curriculum. Americans did magic very differently from their European counterparts. And at the college level it required knowing the basics of elemental manipulation backwards and forwards. Everybody grew up learning basic cantrips and even a little divination in high school. It was here that the truly talented began to shine.
"Patrick! Stand right where you are!" his Sophmore tormentress commanded. She was taller than him by two inches, and had a bosom that looked like a ship under sail under her clinging white Victorian robe-dress. The young man froze in place, eyes darting about on the tiled courtyard, before he found the spot again. "You can't move until your counterpart arrives."
Today was euphemistically called "The Grand Tour". Each Freshman and Freshwoman were assigned a Sophomore of the opposite sex. They had to follow them at a distance no farther than seven feet, winding on a long walk around the entire campus. With the body-clinging, lace-trimmed robes the female students wore, it could be a treat to watch from behind. But Patrick wasn't about to start leering at that sourpuss.
He tugged on his own blue robe, turning up the cuffs to frown at the runes someone had drawn there with a sharpie pen. In two colors, no less, he thought. They were a flowing runic script he didn't recognize. But he didn't have another robe, and the uniform was absolutely mandatory during official class hours. But something was obviously up. Nobody else's robe had been vandalized. Now they were making him stand on a certain spot on the cracked terrazzo courtyard between the Men's and Women's Residence Halls. The buildings themselves had been here at least sixty years, and the courtyard had overgrown oaks and purple-leafed Japanese plum trees.
The Freshwomen were just completing their own march around campus, coming from the opposite direction. Patrick smiled at the six girls. This year's entering class was very small, six women and eight men. That meant fierce competition for the available females. And all six were quite beautiful examples of womanhood, in Patrick's mind.
Their robes accentuated their best features. Hips and bust, they were actually more like quasi-Victorian dresses with low necklines, the tops clinging to their curves, while the bottoms flowed downwards like a waterfall and floated magically over the ground so they didn't get dirty. In contrast, Patrick's blue robe was all angular and short, with multiple layers that suggested physical strength, with broadened shoulders. These differences reflected the nature of magic itself.
They were walking precisely along a tile arc around him. He noticed that the prim-appearing girl at the very end of the line was looking at him with a very anxious expression on her face. The twelve students stopped, and the last girl's guide tugged on the front of her robe. "Well, go on, Cindy. Do it," he ordered. He was the spitting image, in attitude, of Patrick's own female guide.
She had long, straight dark blond hair and was maybe three inches shorter, with an athletic figure and great hips, though a little overripe in the breasts for his tastes. She bounced a little bit as she walked, though her pretty face was marred by anxiety. Patrick could tell she was looking at his face very closely, lips pursed pensively. Finally, she stopped in front of him. "Trade," she said.
"Trade what?" Patrick replied, one eyebrow raised.
"Give me your robe, and I'll give you mine. It's tradition," Cindy explained, one of her classmates behind her pulled down the back zipper and she slid her arms out of the sleeves, revealing a white satin bra and a fashionably pale, creamy complexion.
Patrick's own guide elbowed him in the ribs. "Do it, Plebian," she said. "It's tradition. This used to be an all-female institution, you know."
"Um..." He stammered, eyeing the frilly feminine garment that was now being shrugged off of the freshwoman's shoulders. Some sort of symbolic crossdressing? His classmates and the other Sophomores were all watching, expecting him to follow through. His roommate snickered, clearly glad it wasn't himself. Just how was that robe of hers going to fit, anyway? Maybe that's what the runes were for, though it seemed more complicated than needed for something that simple. "Um, okay."
Patrick's old-fashioned robe took a little doing to remove, with several buttons down the front at least he didn't have to pull it over his head. But he wore nothing underneath but boxer shorts. So the two of them were now standing half-naked in the courtyard, surrounded by nearly thirty of their classmates, some of whom began to chuckle, then laugh.
Cindy handed her robe over, and he gave her his. She shrugged it on almost right away, and it fit her like a tent, leaving him to puzzle over just how hers was going to fit.
"It'll fit," the sour female Sophomore said. "Trust me. Like a glove."
"Magic, of course," he said to nobody in particular. He noticed that the inside of the robe-dress also had runes written inside. Except they were an angular script instead of the flowing versions inside his. Getting into this would take some doing. Dropping it to the ground, he stepped into the circle created by the skirts, then reached down to wiggle it up over his hips while putting his arms through the sleeves.
He had help. Rhonda, the Sophomore who had led him around for the past two hours, zipped him up. For a moment he was amazed that the fabric didn't rip. In fact, it felt quite soft against his skin.
"Okay," Patrick said, blushing at the continued sniggering from his classmates. He looked at one in particular, his roommate and friend of his who hadn't said a word through all this. "Now what?"
The runes flared.
Patrick felt his insides convulse, and he nearly doubled over in the not-quite-pain. His entire body felt like it was made of clay, the feeling of a mana-surge flexing against his body, changing it, twisting it. And there was a singular sound from his chest, like half-melted butter being poured on a countertop.
When he regained his senses, he was staring at his own face. Except... it was higher than it should be. And it had an expression of absolute shock and dismay. His reflection then fumbled for his robe's buttons, opening them... all strange, since these were sensations he didn't feel himself doing... and pulled out a white satin bra.
Wait a second, he thought, mind sputtering. He looked down.
And got a face full of cleavage. "Um..." he stammered. No. Not he any more. Not with that voice, and certainly not with that weird feeling between her legs. "What the... what the hell? Transfiguration? You swapped us?"
"Precisely," Rhonda said.
"Sorry," "Patrick" apologized, before going to take Patrick's place behind Rhonda. "They made me do it. It really is traditional here, believe it or not. We'll talk later, okay? Compare notes?"
"Um," Patrick stammered, cupping her breasts for a moment. Everything felt wrong. But the sensations were so overwhelming it was all she could do to keep on her feet. She was still wearing boxer shorts under the robe. Cindy had helpfully laid the bra over her left shoulder. She stared at her new cleavage. This is graduate-level magic! she thought. Wasn't it against some kind of regulations to use it on Freshmen--or Plebians, as they called them here? "Holy shit!"
"We'd better trade shoes, um, 'Cindy'," "Patrick" said. As a woman he had worn a pair of open-toed sandals with a small heel. Now his size-twelve feet spilled over the edges. "I wore sandals just for today," he explained.
By comparison, Patrick's smaller feet slid around inside her cavernous sneakers. She stumbled over next to her male-body double and sat down, pulling the robe-dress up so she could slide off socks and shoes. They came off without untying, revealing a pair of near-perfect feet.
"I'll miss those feet," he said wistfully.
Rhonda's male counterpart scratched his chin stubble and looked at her. "Should we have them swap underclothes behind the bushes?"
"No, Cramer. I don't want to make things more embarrassing than things already are for them," the black-haired Sophomore said in a surprisingly sympathetic tone. Then her voice hardened again. "Get going, pleebes. Shoes on."
That done, they were told to stand back-to-back, close enough so that their butts touched. They were then given a sheet of vellum, the border of which was covered in more runes. Patrick knew enough to recognize a geas-spell when she saw one. They were ordered to recite.
"I do solemnly swear the following. I will take the name of my female opposite and, to the best of my ability, under the watchful mana of this geas, continue her life unbroken and in good faith. This I swear, and from this day forth for the duration of this Hostage Exchange, I am Cynthia Ilene Kern."
"...Patrick Robert Rowe," her male-body double completed with a note of regret.
At the end, she could just feel the binding of the geas around her as the vellum flared and evaporated into clouds of spent mana. She couldn't even think of herself with the name Patrick now. The bindings tightened around her mind, bending it. Okay, fine. I'm Cynthia, she grumbled. Damn it. What is this? Some kind of twisted pleeb hazing?
A third member of the conspiracy stood up on one of the planters. He was gray-haired and old enough to be one of the professors. "I am going to let everyone know that the geas extends beyond Patrick and Cynthia, here. Unless you know the dispeller, all those in this courtyard will be unable to discuss the matter with anyone outside this group. To the world at large, even to their own families, these two are the very same people. Okay?" He looked at the swapped duo and smiled. "This doesn't mean you two can't have some fun. I'm Professor Rangel, and I'll be supervising this so-called 'prisoner exchange' in the War Between the Sexes. Off you go."
That done, the newly christened "Patrick" marched away, under Rhonda's close watch, moving all wrong. There was simply less hip than he was used to. Everyone else laughed as "Cindy" watched wistfully and slipped into the perfect-fitting sandals. "Shit," she muttered.
"It's not ladylike to swear. Get marching, Cindy," Cramer told her with a dry grin. "We just have a couple more laps before we'll let you go back to your dorm rooms. You'll get used to those boobs and the name before you know it, Cyn-thee-ya."
The dorm buildings were four-story structures, the female version dating back to the founding of the Athenaeum in 1895 as a college of "practical witchery for women" as they called it in those days. Cynthia didn't know much about the university's history, though the events of the past hour had certainly piqued her interest. All that concerned her now was expectations, her own, and what her classmates expected of her.
She was hard-pressed to keep up with Cramer as they quick-marched around the pathways that wound in and around campus, going the opposite direction than before. The satin bra was still slung over her shoulder, and her chest bounced in the bodice. But even that wasn't so strange, compared to the rolling of her hips around her not-really-empty groin. Alien, alien. It was one thing to see female anatomy in an issue of Playboy, and quite another to experience it from the inside.
The other female pleebs kept taking glances at her whenever they turned corners, while the male Sophomores steadfastly kept from leering at any of the pleebs in front of them. She swallowed, realizing Cramer was a good six inches taller. And she certainly felt much lighter, even in the cumbersome robe-dress.
The group passed the male pleebs only a third of the way around. They were moving quite fast, and as before, Cyn--she felt some pressure from the geas--Patrick was bringing up the rear. He gave her a helpless shrug as they went by. "I left some things for you on mmmmuh... the desk!" he shouted, face twisting as the geas changed even that seemingly innocuous line of thinking.
It was nearly five in the evening when they finally arrived back at the entrance to the Regina Wood Hall, the women's dorm. Cramer and the five other male Sophomores stopped them in a line in front of the main entrance, which was on the side opposite from the courtyard. There were a couple dozen upperclassmen and assorted faculty walking around--the library was just a hundred feet away. So the geas was now in full effect. Otherwise Cindy knew there would be sniggering.
"Okay, girls. The Grand Tour ends here," Cramer said. "You're officially off class time, so you can go dress in your street clothes and go eat or whatever it is you girls like doing. I highly recommend getting acquainted with the library. You'll be using is a lot the next four years--or longer if you opt for graduate study. Good evening, girls."
It seemed someone knew how to find cracks in the geas, Cindy thought with a mental grumble.
The young men left, without so much as a leer, and went back towards their own dorm.
The young woman next to her, a taller brunette with shoulder-length hair and brown eyes, immediately grabbed the bra that was still draped over her shoulder and hid it under her arm. She smiled warmly. "We'd better go up to our room," she said. "You left a few things for yourself up there." From the look on her face she knew more than she could say here.
The newly-female Plebian followed her inside the dorm. Cindy truly didn't know what to expect. The dorms were strictly single-sex, even down to the ward-spells and mundane security guards. Letting any man through if the wards failed (or were disabled by masculine ingenuity) meant instant loss of job for the guard, so they were sticklers about it. The same went for the men's dorm. So even with the geas and the new body, Cindy felt just a little strange walking right in, though she really belonged there now.
The building hadn't been updated since the Eighties, and it showed with the worn carpeting and flickering light fixtures. Rooms were assigned by class order, with the patricians--seniors--having their own rooms on the bottom floors, and plebeians bunking two-to-a-room on the fourth. Since this years entering class was so tiny, the juniors and sophomores even had rooms of their own. The building housed a hundred students in a space intended to hold twice that many.
"You remember the room is pretty cramped," Alicia was saying carefully as they rode the ancient, rattling elevator up. There was a junior in there with them. She had her nose in a book of runes. When she got up on the third floor, her roommate stared after her. "Now there goes a dedicated student. Classes don't even start for almost a week."
The top floor was empty, with only the florescent sconces providing light since the ceiling rods weren't working. Alicia snapped her fingers and created a white witchlight to see by. Feeing a little numb, Cindy followed her wordlessly until they reached their room.
It was a little smaller than the rooms in the male dorm. Two beds, two desks, one huge shared closet, two footlockers. But what really caught Cindy's eye was just how amazingly neat it all was. Move-in Day had only been yesterday, and Patrick's room hadn't even been unpacked yet--except for the computer and a few other bare necessities. There were even sharpened pencils in the holder, and in the center of the desk sat a day planner and a handwritten note sitting atop a new white MacBook.
"Rhonda came in last night and told us what was going to happen," Alicia explained. "It really is tradition. Something having to do with when they first admitted male students in the early Fifties. She didn't want to do it, but Rhonda was very persuasive. So she spent all night getting things ready for you. I've never met anyone more obsessively organized." The taller girl sat down on her bed. The springs creaked, then tossed the bra she carried to her roommate. "Want some help putting that on?"
Cindy caught it awkwardly, then held it by her fingertips as if it was mana-active. "Oh God. I really do have to wear these, don't I?"
"I only met you yesterday," Alicia said. "Frankly I... um... I want to help. There's a lot of stuff you probably don't know, and you swore to..."
"Live her life 'unbroken'. I know! How am I supposed to do that?" Cindy interrupted unhappily. Just how long was this supposed to last? A day? A week? Or God forbid, a year? Longer? It'd be easy enough to fool people for a few days, but after a while people would start to wonder about a pretty girl who couldn't dress herself in the morning. So maybe her roommate's offer wasn't so unwelcome after all. "Thanks, Alicia. I'm going to need it."
"Don't mention it, Cindy. Look, I'm going to get out of this stupid so-called 'uniform'," she continued. "I don't want to make you so uncomfortable so soon, but I think we're going to see each other's boobs a lot. I can see you looking at that note, so maybe you should just sit at the desk and focus on it while I change clothes. Then I can leave the room while you change yours. Okay?"
"Sounds good," Cindy muttered. "I guess."
The dark blond girl sat with her eyes fixed on the day planner, then picked up the note. It was a tight, precise script that almost might have come off an inkjet printer. It wasn't a long note. Clearly she hadn't really known what to say.
- Dear "New" Cindy,
- I hope I've anticipated your needs correctly. Alicia and I spent the whole night trying to imagine the situation for you--and also for me, to be honest. In my day planner I've written down some necessities--when my period is, which brand of tampons and panty liners I like, what I generally like to eat to keep fit, the contact information of various old boyfriends and other friends who might give you a call. On my computer are some family histories and descriptions of my parents and younger sisters. All sorts of things. I even marked what colors I look good in and what styles of clothes I like to wear.
- We're not supposed to be able to consciously screw up each other's life. And I'll do the best I can not to foul up yours on accident. I sincerely hope this switch will help us grow as people. We're supposed to be able to meet each other regularly for advice and stuff. Guess I'll see you--me--around.
Morbidly, she opened the day planner and started flipping through pages. Finding today's date, not too far ahead were several days marked with yellow highlighter along the top. The five days after those were marked with red highlighter, heavy at the start, getting lighter towards the end. And written in pen in each respective section: PMS, and Menses.
Blanching, Cindy put her hand on her belly, holding her legs together, when Alicia finally put her hand on her shoulder. "All done, Cindy. What are you..." she looked over her shoulder. "Oh. Right. Um, that. Well, we'll worry about that when it comes. I pulled an outfit for you to wear, okay? Let me know if you need help putting on the bra. Here, let me do one thing before I go."
The brunette helpfully pulled down the zipper on the back of the uniform.
"I'll meet you downstairs at the courtyard entrance living room," Alicia said. "No pressure or anything. Take your time."
Cindy was left to her own devices.
I'm getting out of this filly robe, she resolved. I feel like Cinderella in this thing. With the zipper already undone, she pulled her arms out of the sleeves and pulled the skirts down off her hips, doing her level best not to really look at herself. The boxer shorts she was wearing were simply too loose and came down with the skirts, leaving her completely nude.
This isn't my body, she thought, quickly pulling on the panties Alicia had put on her bed. I'm just... borrowing it. She picked up the bra and with quick, practiced ease hooked the front together and adjusted the straps. And I'm supposed to act like nothing has changed. How am I supposed to do that if I can't even dress myself? Er... wait a second.
She reached back and easily found the hooks, then released them. The bra came off. Then she repeated the process: hooked in front, slide cups around front, shoulder straps through, adjust. All done in less than ten seconds. Her body seemed to know the motions, as if from years of practice. "Um... okay. Some kind of skills transfer?" she wondered aloud.
The denim shorts and the snug red tee-shirt weren't any big deal, though the way the shirt fit around her chest was an interesting sensation in itself. But there was also a feeling like she was missing something. How else can I test this hypothesis?
In the top drawer of the desk was a makeup mirror and a series of neatly-organized containers that included just about everything a girl could need, including something called "runeshadow" she was unfamiliar with. "Okay," she said. "Let's see here..."
As before, her body knew the motions. But it felt a bit mechanical as she applied a small amount of foundation and a few other highlights. She wasn't about to cake it on, though, so after a bit of lip gloss she put it all away and looked at herself in the mirror again. She couldn't help but laugh. "This is so, so weird."
She did her long hair the same way. The locks of lanky, straight dark blond hair were going to be troublesome. A few drags through with a brush and they crackled with static electricity. She tied it back with a scrunchi, grabbed the matching denim purse off the windowsill next to her bed, and pronounced herself ready to meet the world as a female.
Cindy grimaced at the view, both in the mirror and simply from looking down. Like it or not, she had sworn to continue with this girl's life as if she really was her. Honor--and the geas--demanded that she make the best of the situation and follow through with her superlative effort. At least the exchange spell had given her some basic skills. Perhaps there was even more. Okay, maybe not the world. Let's start with just campus.
"Don't I need some kind of athletic supporter or something?" Cin... the geas gave his mind a squeeze... Patrick grimaced as he removed the satin panties off of his hips. They certainly weren't made for a man, having no place for a package. He was trying really hard not to look at the dangly things. But they somehow felt really, really vulnerable.
His roommate sat with his back turned, appearing to look at something really interesting out the window. "Nope! It all just dangles. But if you want to switch to briefs, there's a Target about a mile away. My 'rents took me there a couple days ago before Move-In."
"Okay, okay. I get it, Carlos," Patrick grumbled. He found it hard not to stare at the broad expanse of his chest, for the first time since childhood not to have the view obstructed by what were really two bags of fat and nursing machinery. There wasn't really a six-pack to be had, but at least his borrowed body wasn't overweight. But he was almost as pale as his old body. If it wasn't for the dark, curly chest hair it would look almost feminine.
"Can I remove the blinding runes now?" Carlos complained. "Please tell me you at least have your boxers on."
"Er... just one second," Patrick stammered. He pulled a pair out of the still-unpacked suitcase and pulled them on. Then he started fumbling for something to wear that matched well. Khaki shorts and a polo shirt. He was finding that his body already knew the motions, even though these particular garments weren't really that different. "All done."
Carlos drew a couple angular runes in the air, which flared and evaported, then blinked a few times. He rubbed watering eyes. "Well, you look pretty good. I guess now we get to pretend like we've known each other for five years." There was a note of resentment in his voice.
"You're part of the geas, Carlos. You can go talk to her anytime you like if you're out of earshot," he replied.
"I think that would be just a little awkward, pretty girl like her," the brown-haired young man replied. He chuckled. "Besides, I'm almost wishing it was me."
"Really?" Patrick's doppelganger said.
Carlos shrugged. "Only almost, 'Patrick'. Kind of like how a soldier will take a bullet in the shoulder to save his buddy in the platoon. He still wouldn't enjoy it very much. Let's go eat! I'm starving."
The women's dorm had a fairly large living space on the ground floor filled with well-worn and threadbare couches, easy chairs, and a few tables for studying. One of the Juniors smiled at Cindy as she came out of the elevator. "Hey, welcome to Hobbes," she said enthusiastically. "Something happen to your bra? I saw it over your shoulder earlier."
"Oh... the underwire, um, was pinching me," she stammered.
"Those uniforms are meant to be worn without," the Junior pointed out. "They were invented before the bra, in fact. Later on you'll learn how to augment your uniforms with runes. It'll be very comfortable and supportive." She smiled widely, holding a clipboard. She was about the same height as Cindy, and dressed in a pair of jeans and a blue camisole. "I'm Tanya Pearson. I'm also the dorm's Resident Assistant. If you have any problems, you'll come to me first. Your name is?"
"Um, Cindy Kern," she replied, trying to recall if this person had been in the courtyard during the geas. It didn't seem like it. So to her, Cindy was just another girl like herself.
"Glad to meet you, Cindy. And you're in 402 with Alicia? I just wanted to let you know that there's a mandatory meeting at eight o'clock for everyone to go over ground rules. Wear your peejays, too. It's casual and we're all about to get to know each other in our jammies. Okay?" She smiled welcomingly.
"We'll be there, Tanya," Cindy replied. She looked over at Alicia, who was looking at a magazine on the couch. The brunette looked up and gave her roommate a measuring look. "Well, what do you think?" Cindy asked.
"Too much eye shadow. You look gothy," she replied, standing up and walking over next to her. This kind of conversation didn't activate the geas. "Um, just because you know how to put it on doesn't mean you know how much." she whispered. "But at least I don't have to start with the basics." Alicia seemed relieved at that. She looked down at Cindy's feet. "You'll have to let me polish your toenails, later. You still look kind of plain if you're going to wear those sandals all the time."
Cindy flexed her dainty toes. "Why bother?"
The other pleeb shrugged, then opened the door. "Because it'd look cute on you, Cindy? Let's go eat something."
On Move-In Day the college had made a special effort to appear very appealing to parents, especially in the Student Union. But now the inside of the circular, domed building was dark and gloomy, and half the female students were toting witchlights that orbited their heads like tiny multi-colored moons. Cindy waited in line with some degree of anxiety, arms comfortably folded under her breasts, trying to appear casual. Behind her was a rather large, male Junior still in his uniform robe, though it looked rather more ornate than the ones the Plebeians got. He smelled heavily like cheese puffs and Doritos, and stood way too close for comfort.
Once, he bumped into her. And not by accident. Not with that smile. "Sorry 'bout that, lil' lady," he apologized with a Texas drawl that sounded completely fake.
"Can you back off just a little?" she replied, holding her purse more closely and moving her forearms over her breasts instead of under. Unfortunately all that did was make her feel squished. "I'd really appreciate it." The line inched forwards. Alicia was talking to somebody on her cell phone, so she wasn't able to intervene. Cindy doubted her new friend even knew what was going on. "You're invading my personal space," she said primly.
The borderline-fat Junior snorted, but allowed her a few more inches between them.
By the time they were at the front of the line and got their food, Cindy peered into the darkened space. Just yesterday someone had set up a "transparent ceiling" like some of the larger universities with large magic departments had. It was gone now, leaving just dusty, cobweb-covered rafters and dirty skylights instead of a starry night. Why did I even decide to come here? she grumbled to herself. It looked better kept when I visited last Fall.
At least the food still looked decent enough, certainly no worse than the hot lunch line in high school. Chicken sandwich with mayo and lettuce, and onions, fries, piece of chocolate cream pie for dessert, and a diet Pepsi. The man at the checkout counted it all up and she swiped her meal card just behind Alicia, who was only just finishing her talk. She smiled at Cindy. "Old boyfriend. He went to the opposite coast for college, though. But we're still friends."
"I don't have any attachments," Cindy replied. She felt an emotional twinge from somewhere akin to where the extra skills had come from. Just what else had transferred? Or maybe that was just something that had come with her. Patrick's last year in high school had been a total wash in the girlfriend department.
"Are you sure about that?" Alicia asked.
The new girl nodded. "I couldn't tell you how, but I am. Hey, I think there's an open space right over..."
She saw Carlos first, sitting in a pool of light near the middle of the dining area. Her male doppelganger was half in darkness, peering at the overcooked hamburger patty with a grimace on his face. Seeing her real self from the outside like this sent chills up Cindy's spine, though the geas gave her enough emotional distance to keep from just running up to him and demanding her own body back. He hadn't seen her yet, so Cindy slipped behind Alicia and started looking for two open chairs as far away from him as possible. "How about right there?"
Alicia shrugged. "Fine with me, Cindy."
There were some faculty members in the dining area, too. And when she was halfway through her mostly-edible meal, she saw Dr. Rangel. He was hard to miss, weaving his way through the crowd, rather singular in his ornate blue-silver robes. He stopped at Patrick's table, so she watched them out of the corner of her eye, wiggling her fingers in a rune pattern that would allow her to listen in on their conversation.
For some reason, the spell fizzled. What the...? I didn't see any warding runes in here! Cindy thought. She'd used that spell dozens of times, but... The young woman groaned when she realized. "Duh!"
Alicia looked puzzled. "What?"
"Tell you about it later," Cindy replied. It was one of the few higher-order spells she's learned on her own--and it wouldn't work for a woman just like the men in the room couldn't do witchlights. I don't have the right channels for that kind of magic any more, she thought ruefully.
Now Patrick and the professor were both looking in her direction. They left Carlos where he was sitting, the young man following Rangel through the crowd, over towards Cindy's table. She swallowed her last bite of sandwich and started wondering just what was going on.
"Miss Kern, I need to speak with you and Mister Rowe for a few minutes," Rangel said. "Please follow me to the library."
The body-swapped students walked uncomfortably side-by-side behind Dr. Rangel, trying to look out of the corners of their eyes rather than at "themselves" directly. The geas actually made it easy to think of the person next to them as someone else, and the bodies they now possessed felt superficially natural. But after only a few hours, everything still felt alien and new. They were in a state of physical limbo, their altered body-consciousness at least allowing them to function. Cindy felt like she was getting used to the bra, at least.
The library was the newest building on campus, only two years old. But it blended in well with the rest of the campus's century-old neo-classical style. The walls had only begun to get the coat of ivy that characterized many of the other campus buildings. Hobbes wasn't technically an Ivy League school in anything but a literal sense.
The middle-aged woman behind the circulation desk smiled at Dr. Rangel and the students as they walked in. She seemed to be the only person in the library. "Trudy's already upstairs in 205, Mick," she said. She looked at the two students. "My, aren't the pleebs looking good this year. You two make a nice couple, if I may say so."
Cindy felt herself blushing, and Patrick looked embarrassed as well.
The library's new addition was impressive, with almost the entire first floor a computer/digital scryer lab. The empty Reference Desk was at the entrance, and just beyond, a staircase that went up to where most of the books were held. Cindy had been through the building that morning on the first stop on the Grand Tour--or rather, she had been where Patrick was right now, though he actually seemed more interested than she was at present.
Inside the small conference room sat a motherly woman with a well-preserved look about her, and the feeling of power emanating. Cindy could almost see the aura that surrounded her. She stood up and smiled at the newcomers. "So, these are them. Splendid." She had a warm, friendly voice.
The three of them entered and closed the door behind them. Trudy made a hand gesture and muttered and incantation. "And we're private. Good evening to both of you. I'm Dr. Trudy Short, and I'll be Cindy's Mentrix."
Cindy was halfway seated when she said this. The young woman looked up. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Trudy and I thought we'd have a short meeting tonight to help put your minds at ease," Rangel explained. He reached into his robe and took out a scrying bowl that to the uninitiated could not have obviously fit inside. But Rangel was a top-level mage, by the symbols on his robe. That garment could hold anything short of a motorcycle. "We're going to start with a history lesson." He smiled at Patrick. "I believe you know something of that already, don't you?"
"Um... yes," he replied. "Guess I should elucidate?"
"Leave that to the bowl, young man. But I will start."
"Morton Hobbes founded this university to be a female-only institution at the close of the Nineteenth Century. Though the Administration was all male at first, by the time the Second World War ended most of those men had been shaken out. There was no glass ceiling here.
"The GI Bill that passed in 1944 provided for the college education of many men after the War. The Athenaeum had fallen on hard times by then, and was looking for more money. To take advantage of that money, they opted to admit men for the first time."
"You can imagine that didn't go over well with a lot of the students, staff, and faculty," Trudy added. "There was a near-mutiny on the Board of Trustees. But in '50 the changes were finally approved, and they admitted the first male Plebian class of sixteen two years later, along with two graduate students."
"It's impossible to describe what happened that first year," Rangel continued. "So I thought I'd just show you."
Cindy and Patrick looked into the scrying bowl, which wasn't itself anything special. Just a brass bowl with standard runes you could buy at Wal-Mart. The image inside was in color, seen from the a ceiling angle. Cindy gaped. "You had a scry-corder in the early Fifties?"
"We spared no expense," Rangel said. "It was actually there for security because someone didn't want to trust the young men. Unfortunately the 'camera' didn't last past the first week. You're about to see why. This is the fourth floor camera."
There was a clock visible just down the hall. From the dimmed hallway, it was around three in the morning. The image unpaused. For a few seconds, nothing happened, then the viewpoint shook a bit.
A pink fog flowed out from inside what Cindy knew was a custodian's closet. It crept along the floor with a purpose, flowing inside each and every room.
A few second later, there was a scream that rose in pitch from beginning to end. It was quickly joined by other shouts, and voices that changed from masculine to feminine. The doors burst open, and some very pretty girls in men's pajamas started running around in a panic. The tableau froze. There were ten girls in view in various states of duress. In some cases their sleep clothes had even been changed into nightgowns and chemises, and still changing in others. Perhaps racy by Fifties standards, but rather subdued today.
"There were some very vocal advocates for keeping the school all-female, and they went to great lengths to maintain that tradition," Trudy said. "That was the one-and-only 'girl bomb' I've ever seen, anywhere. It changed every man in the building, even the guard. The only one to escape it was a graduate student who was in the library."
"He was in the library at three in the morning?" Cindy said. "Er... wait. What does this have to do with us?"
"We'll get to that shortly," Rangel said. "The female graduate student who set the bomb was found and expelled. It took a week to change all the 'girls' back. Things would probably have stopped right there, if it hadn't been for our dedicated male graduate student."
Patrick found himself smirking. "Oh, that can't be good."
"From the spell-fragments in the local mana field alone, he reverse-engineered the 'girl bomb' and created one of his own--doing the opposite, of course. We still don't know how he got into the women's dorm to plant it. At least he limited the number of victims."
Trudy smiled. "To make a long story short, Plebeians, the War Between the Sexes was quite literal for the entire school year. Either side kept finding inventive ways to tweak the other. They weren't always physical changes. One prank turned all the clothing in the men's dorm into something fitting for a two-year old girl."
"There was the one that gave the girls men's body hair," Rangel added.
"I think we get it," Cindy said, trying to absorb this. She added what she'd just been told to the geas she had recited. "Let me get this straight. I'm guessing that this 'Hostage Exchange' was meant as some kind of... some kind of truce?"
"More like part of a treaty to end the war," Trudy said. "Done in secret at first. It turned into an official tradition that lasted for a quarter century."
"Gerald and I were the last," Trudy said. "Before some killjoy feminist decided to put a stop to it."
"Now, now, Trudy. Bitterness doesn't help," Rangel chided. "Our point, students, is that you are participating in a revived tradition on this campus. We've done this before, we know how to handle the situation and any problems that might turn up."
"Like our parents?" Cindy said. "There' going to be soooo pissed off when I tell them about this once I'm out of this geas!"
"Miss Kern," he replied pointedly. "Tonight we simply wanted to give you some background. Something for you to think about. Why would something like this have lasted for twenty-five years? Believe it or not, there are still over fifty of us out there who know what it's like to be the opposite sex firsthand." He smiled dryly. "In fact, Trudy and I never swapped back."
"No regrets from me, Gerald," Trudy added. The way they looked at each other was one of comradeship, though there was something else there that wasn't so pleasant.
Both Plebians stared at them, finally catching up. "Um..." Cindy stammered. "This means you..."
Trudy slid her business card across the table as Professor Rangel picked up the scrying bowl and tucked it back into the cavernous storage inside his robe. He was already standing up. "See me tomorrow in my office, nine a.m. sharp. Both of you. This is just the beginning. Even with the geas we have to lay down some ground rules and frankly, cover our behinds legally. Good night, both of you." She made a gesture with her hands again, and the privacy field faded.
The body-swapped students were so stunned that they couldn't follow.
It was abundantly clear to Patrick that his female doppelganger was taking this harder than he was. But then, he'd had almost eighteen hours to prepare for what was coming the next day. He was very, very tired now. Though it was mostly just physical exhaustion. Rhonda and the Sophomores had run them hard around the campus paths. In the sultry late summer heat outside the library, he felt himself sweat. He and Cindy hadn't said a word to each other since the two administrators left. There was some mutual anxiety between them. They seemed to know the basics of being male or female, but anything deeper was an unknown. There were so many questions he wanted to ask her.
Patrick stood alone with Cindy on the library steps, just looking at her and trying to find something he could ask openly without evoking the geas. She was looking at the pavement, with a thoughtful expression he recognized as an ingrained habit of his in that body. He continued to find himself at a loss for words, and wondered if it was his new male brain. He wanted to say something to comfort her, very strongly. "Look, it's been done before," he finally said. "A couple dozen times. We'll get through this."
She was looking at the business card Trudy had given them. "She's one of the Trustees. I'm amazed they'd be in on this." She looked up, finally, right in his eyes, and sighed. "I'm never going to get used to that."
"Um... what?" he asked, knowing what it was.
"When I look at you, I don't see myself anymore. I just see a nice-looking guy. It's really weird. But I can't look in the mirror either, and..." she came to a halt. They were no longer alone on the concrete steps. The librarian was locking up. At this point they apparently had reduced hours, before the semester started. Patrick tried to get around it. "See you tomorrow, then?"
Cindy nodded, smiling back as if she was a smitten young woman. "Dorm Courtyard sound good? Eight thirty?"
"Kind of early, but sure. I think I saw a few spots on the tour..."
"See you then," she replied. "Good night."
Patrick watched her walk away, and found he was looking at her behind as it swayed away into the twilight. His loins stirred despite himself, and he grimaced. Okay, that's just too messed up. That's... uh... a really nice body that's walking away. Crap!
But apparently the one he now possessed didn't know that, and didn't care. Okay, so that's what that feels like. Erk. He felt himself blushing, then checked his watch. He still had an hour until the mandatory dorm meeting. Think I'll just walk around a bit until things go soft.
One of the previous graduates who had done well for himself had also had a dry sense of humor. The men's dorm was officially Robert Hall Hall. Everyone just called it HH for short. There were actually more male students than females gong to Hobbes now, something that would have irked the genius graduate student who had created the girl bomb over fifty years before. Patrick doubted that she would have approved of the treaty, either.
A fifteen minute walk had cooled his ardor, though not his embarrassment. But it was abundantly clear that his body was creating quite naturally to a pretty girl. I really had no idea... erf... Cindy had that effect on men, he thought. He sullenly shoved his hands in his pockets. Stupid geas.
As he went inside, there were already other young men gathering in the living area. The dorm smelled differently than the women's counterpart. Though the security guards didn't allow food that spoiled easily, things inevitably were snuck in, went bad, and gave the place a reek of mold, sour milk, and food decay with undertones of ammonia disinfectant and bug spray. Patrick felt like pinching his nose shut, but he'd just have to get used to the stench. But just how much of it was just how guys smelled?
Maybe the original Patrick wouldn't have noticed it. But his doppelganger certainly did.
There were only seven other male Plebeians, and one of them was "his" own old friend Carlos Mendez. He was trying to stay cheerful and friendly, but the fact that they had a history together was making this swap more complex than Patrick had expected. He was sitting in a chair, reading an issue of Golem Mechanics that looked like it was five years old. Carlos sniffed a couple times, then looked right at him. "Dude, Patrick, go grab a shower before the meeting. Everyone'll thank you."
"Uh... okay," he stammered. Crap. Sometimes I feel like I can't even talk. It wasn't as if his emotions weren't there, they just didn't have the same direct connection with his mouth that he was used to. His real mother had warned "him" to watch "his" mouth on numerous occasions. Hope Cindy didn't pick up the same habits. Heh.
The elevator smelled worse than the living room, so he trudged up four flights of stairs. No bra, no breasts, no bounce, no problem! he thought. In some ways, he was enjoying himself. He was taller, stronger, and faster. He had tried, and failed, to imagine what this was like the night before. Now he didn't have to try--it was all there, in flesh, blood, and a Y chromosome. "Best man I can be," he muttered, trying to cheer himself up. Gender Wars? Hah!
He grabbed a towel and bathrobe out of his suitcase, resolving to get everything organized after whatever Dr. Rangel was planning the next day. I don't have to be exactly the same as him, do I? he wondered, leaving the dorm room for the communal bathroom on that floor. Or maybe Cindy's just a neat freak and I kept some of her habits.
The showers were a half dozen double-curtained stalls. You were supposed to pull the first set, undress, take your shower, then dry off. He had used the versions in the other dorm the night before, and these were no different except for some raunchy writing on the stall walls. He took off his shirt and shorts, neatly folding them on the bench, having removed his shoes back in the dorm room, then dropped his boxer shorts.
"Oh my g..." he sputtered.
Patrick had gone to the urinals twice already, but steadfastly refused to touch it, or even look at it. He was still woman enough--and prudish enough--on the inside to have never actually seen a penis in the flesh. But now it was his flesh. And a morbid curiosity kept him from tearing his gaze away from it.
He wiggled his hips, watching it flop back and forth. He tried to recall Ninth Grade Health Class, when they had gone over both male and female reproductive anatomy. At least he could recall all the parts. It's just that they were part of him now. Definitely a him. "Ugh..."
Feeling some bladder pressure, he let go, still not touching it. It came out in a thin, yellow stream that splattered against the blue tile.
"I heard that! Stop pissing in the shower!" someone growled. "At least turn the water on!"
"Sorry!" he replied, hastily turning the hot and cold handles on. He was immediately splashed with lukewarm water. Okay, Patrick. Just wash up and be done with it. You're going to have a dick for a while yet and it's nothing special...
Hot water showered against Cindy's chest. The air was filled with fog as the hot moisture rose up from floor to ceiling, beading on the pink tile behind the shower head. God, that feels good, she thought. The showers here were better than the ones in HH. The water felt somehow softer, and the lavender soap from her personal care kit filled her nostrils. Cindy sighed, feeling calm for the first time since the whole thing started. The lathered soap felt quite nice, and she sighed with relief. However long it lasted.
She wasn't the only girl in the bathroom. All the other showers were in use. She could hear the others as their feet pattered around on wet tile floors. Other girls, she thought, trying to soothe the stormy emotions that seemed to have tight control of her actions. I'm one of them, for now. So just go with it.
Despite that forced self-assurance, she felt a little bit like one of those girl-bombed men from '52. She could easily imagine going to sleep in a place that had seemed very nice, and getting a rude awakening as a pair of breasts arose on her chest and her dick got shrunk inside her body--she had experienced just that a few hours ago, after all. There must have been a time when they were told there was a chance it was irreversible. What a scary few days that would've been.
What really caught her interest, though, was the male genius who somehow reverse-engineered female magic and made a version that worked for him. Then the revenge taken on a baker's dozen of girls-turned-guys. I want to shake your hand, whoever you are, she thought, going over her legs with a washcloth. She realized that they had some stubble on them, and frowned, adding another very feminine thing to her body care list.
Turning the hot water back on, she stood beneath it for a couple minutes, putting all fear, uncertainty, and doubt out of her mind. Trying to imagine herself as a woman in all ways, not just physically. Trying to imagine being Trudy, who had been changed and never looked back. Trying to imagine having a different family, having boyfriends, playing with dolls...
And drawing a frustrating blank.
At least the physicality didn't require imagination. All she had to do was admire the view, and the reflection in the bathroom mirror.
"Meeting in ten minutes, girls!" Tanya called from the bathroom entrance.
Cindy hurriedly toweled off, having lingered long enough in the water to look a bit like a prune on her fingertips. She wrapped her long hair up in a towel to dry it, then picked up the sleepwear she had brought with her. It was, if anything, even more feminine than the university uniform. A tee shirt and loose-fitting pants. But the shirt was white with small pink horses on it, and the pants were a red/black plaid. They smelled faintly of the lavender perfume that her body's real owner seemed to favor. The pajamas were soft and well-worn. Putting them on felt familiar and in a sense, and gave up on any semblance of manhood, even in a woman's body. There was no way Cindy was any kind of tomboy.
These were just the more tame sleepwear. Cindy had slips, camisoles, and chemises all organized by style and color. Over a week's worth to choose from. But somehow, all she could think of was having to launder it all so it wasn't ruined. I don't know anything about doing laundry. Guess I'll have to ask Alicia...
She left the other girls to primp in front of the mirror, deciding to use the last few minutes to head back to her room to grab something to write with and on. Cindy looked at herself in the makeup mirror and tried to smile like the pretty girl she was. Dirty blond hair, pointed chin, prominent cheekbones, green eyes, cute nose, and all pleasant curves. She dumped her dirty clothes on her bed, then took a moment to unwrap the turban-like towel. Damp hair clung to her shoulders, seeping through her night shirt. "Crap! Too soon."
"Five minutes, girls!" Tanya called down the hallway. "Be there or get the first week of housecleaning all to yourselves!"
"Crap!" Cindy squeaked.
No time to wait for the elevator. She raced down the steps two at a time, her breasts giving her a firsthand demonstration why women as ripe as her needed sports bras. With every two-step leap, her breasts momentarily rose, free of gravity, then slammed down uncomfortably enough that she slowed down to a more sedate pace the last two floors.
Alicia waved from the two-person couch up front, gesturing to come sit next to her. Cindy smiled in relief, then took the offered place. Witchlights of various sizes floated around the room like roving constellations. Two of the Sophomores seemed to be having an impromptu competition. They kept snapping their fingers, and a new pair of witchlights were added. A dozen of them bobbed against the ceiling. "Just made it."
"Your hair's a mess, Cindy. Just... make yourself comfortable. Hmm..." Alicia looked thoughtful as her roommate took her advice. Then she muttered something under her breath, and the new girl felt a warmth over her head and shoulders. "That should take care of your wet hair."
Cindy smiled at her warmly. "Hey, thanks."
The brunette smiled, then leaned forward to whisper. "Don't mention it. It's pretty girly magic. I'll teach you how. Oh, and sit still. I think you'll look great with a couple braids. You have enough hair for it."
A minute or so into the braiding, Tanya came in right as the clock struck eight. The Junior wore a long night shirt that went down to her knees, and from the looks of things, nothing else. "Okay, everyone. Let's start with some basic ground rules."
"Rule one, no guys. If you sneak a guy in here, you'll be keeping this room clean for the next week. We're down on janitorial staff so we have to do our part to keep the place clean.
"Rule two, no sneaking in guys who disguise themselves as girls, with either magic or mundane means." That rule created a lot of giggles. "Y'all think I'm kidding? Then you don't know anything about this college. The gender-changing pranks here are legendary, especially since the grad students happily get involved. We're talking actual transfiguration, y'all. You'd be surprised what some guys are willing to do to see a pretty girl over here."
"Even making themselves into one of us? Why don't they just look in a mirror, then? What total pervs," someone said from the back of the packed room. There were at least fifty people in here, though the pleebs had reserved places up front, so it was probably a transfer student.
"This rule runs both ways, 'ladies,'" Tanya pointed out. "If we find that you've turned yourself into a guy to sneak in to the other dorm, you'll get two weeks of clean-up duty instead of just one. Capiche?"
The rest of the meeting droned on and on for the next hour and a half. Cindy tried to pay attention, but other than the first rules, it was just standard "don't do this, don't do that" stuff that was in booklet form on the shared bookshelf in the dorm rooms. She was much more conscious of being in a room full of girls in their PJs, and not feeling anything beyond wondering how some of those outfits would look on her. She almost didn't notice Alicia trying to hook her braided hair up over her ears. "I'm not Princess Leia!" she said, turning to face her. A couple of the other pleebs giggled.
Alicia shrugged, smiling apologetically. "Sorry. It's hard to resist. Would you prefer a single braid?"
The meeting was breaking up now. It was getting close to ten, and Cindy was starting to feel quite heavily exhausted, as if she hadn't slept in a night or two. "No, it's okay for now. I'm just going to hit the sack."
"Sleep sounds great," Alicia agreed, yawning and stretching. "We were up all night chatting about stuff, remember."
It took hours for Cindy to settle herself. Part of the problem was just the bed itself. The thin mattress with worn-out springs that went creaka-greaka-creaka if she moved too much. They made a lot of noise from both sides of the room, though Alicia finally found a comfortable spot. Cindy listened to her breathing slow. Only a little light from outside penetrated the curtains, but it was enough to see by.
Cindy slid the covers down and stared at her personal mountain range. For thirty minutes she had tried back, side, and for only a few minutes, belly. It has to be the mattress, she thought, folding her arms around her sagging breasts. She was sweating a little, and really too tired to think clearly. Midnight had come and gone and it was pushing one in the morning.
Eventually she achieved a fitful doze...
Then came a sound like a mad chickadee from the windowsill. Cindy was so tired it failed to register at first. But by the time it rang the forth time and the voicemail got it, her eyes were open.
The phone started up again.
In the bed across the room, Alicia moaned. "Get that phone or I'm going to toss it out the window, mmmkay? It's five freaking of the clock! It better be good."
Cindy fumbled for the phone, fighting for consciousness amid the still-weird physical sensations, and the thought that whoever was on the phone had better be a wrong number. She flipped it open with one hand. "H'lo?"
"Good morning!" said a cheerful, somewhat screechy voice on the other end. "Still in bed, Cindy?"
The geas took over slowly. This was a long-familiar voice, but her fatigue left the old friend's name on the tip of her tongue. "It's too early, whoever you are. Call back later?"
"We've known each other since sixth grade and you don't know my voice?" the girl replied, sounding hurt.
"Humor me," Cindy replied, groping for something to say.
"It's Lydia, silly. You haven't called me for two days! You were going to tell me all about your move-in and that Grand Tour thingie."
"Lydia, I'm three hours behind you," she replied irritably. Wherever this knowledge was coming from it was a Godsend. "I've had a really busy two days, okay? Just because you ended up at BU..."
"Oh! Right, right," Lydia replied. There was a note of shock in her voice, as if this wasn't the call she expected. "I'm so, so sorry. But you know me."
"Curb your enthusiasm a little, okay? Let me go back to sleep and I'll call you later," Cindy replied. Her brain felt full of things, shadows of activities the two of them had done since they were twelve. The two young girls had marched through puberty together, mutually supporting themselves. But they were as unlike each other as night and day. "Chat at you later, Lyd."
"G'night, Cyd," she replied, then she hung up.
Once that was done, all the shadowy pseudo-memories vanished again. For a moment there she had truly felt like a completely different person. "That was really weird."
"Who the hell was that?" her roomy asked.
"Should've asked me ten seconds ago," Cindy replied. "I could've recited all sorts of things. All I can tell you now is that she's an old friend of my doppelganger. Lydia, um... Harker, I think."
"She sounds like a total airhead," Alicia replied sourly.
Cindy felt a surge of anger at the insult. The memory shadows returned again. "She's smarter than she sounds!" the dirty blond replied vehemently. "She's the sweetest girl I know..."
"Whoa, just hold on there," Alicia said, sitting up in bed. "I'm sorry. That's just the lack of sleep talking." She glared at the clock. "I'm going back to sleep."
"Splendid idea," Cindy agreed. She pointedly shut off the cell phone and pulled herself back under the covers.
This time, sleep sucked her right down into blackness.
Cindy was shaken out of a dream violently enough that the images turned to tatters before she could remember any of them. "I'm up! I'm up!" she exclaimed. She opened her eyes to see an apologetic, and dressed, Alicia. "What is it?"
"Don't you have a meeting with somebody at nine this morning?" the brunette young woman replied. "It's quarter 'til right now."
It took a few seconds for her words to register, but when they did, she catapulted herself out of bed. "Crap! I'm going to be late!"
She tossed on whatever was close at hand and clean, putting it on without a thought for whether it matched or not. She grimaced at her reflection in the mirror on her desk, but this would have to be good enough for this meeting. She even went without a bra, and was halfway out the door.
"Cindy! Purse!" Alicia shouted.
The young woman caught the tossed handbag, then rushed out at speed.
I'm showered, I'm dressed, and shockingly, I'm early! Patrick thought. No Monday Morning Mussies, as Lydia always called it. As organized as Cindy was, she could never get out the door on time on Monday mornings, no matter how hard her parents tried. This was a habit he didn't mind having.
He made sure the hem on his polo shirt was tucked in. Wardrobe could use more variety, though. They were new clothes, at least. Polos, slacks, and not a single pair of jeans. What kind of guy doesn't wear denim? he asked himself. He puts his hands in his pockets. Me, apparently.
It was a small campus, but like most institutions of the arcane, it was situated where there was a higher mana-replacement rate than most on the west coast, by virtue of being located close to the Columbia River. Magic and flowing water went together for some reason, making the normally gel-like mana flow more easily. In the parched West, this made the Pacific Northwest a veritable oasis. There were supposedly ways of temporarily making mana flow more easily, but that was post-graduate stuff. Patrick could only say he had mastered witch... er... Nearing his goal, he absently snapped his fingers a few times. Not even a flicker. "Come on..."
"You're early, and that won't work," came Dr. Rangel's voice from behind. The Quad was empty, and half the building the two men were about to enter was surrounded by vacant scaffolding and tattered plastic sheeting. "It doesn't look like much, but at least they finished the roof and windows before the money ran out."
"The place seems a bit run down," Patrick said hesitating a little to voice his opinion. The brick-faced building showed signs of layered anti-weathering protection runes instead of finishing up the incomplete façade behind the tarps.
Rangel nodded apologetically. He appeared to be about 45, but with a full head of hair and a full beard, now turning iron gray. He was two inches shorter than Patrick, a little plumper, but magic had a way of keeping good mages very well preserved until advanced age. So he could be anywhere from 40 to 60. "We've had a sharp drop in enrollments the past three years. The money dried up for all the improvements we'd planned. We were fortunate to finish the library on time. The mana-flow around the university is the best we've ever had, believe it or not. You're the smallest entering Plebeian class, ever, I'm afraid."
He was in street clothes not much fancier than Patrick was wearing. He fished a key out of the breast pocket of his blue button-up shirt, then opened the door. The inside smelled dusty, the hardwood floors showing the gray wear and tear of decades of feet. "It's just us inside, Mr. Rowe. If you have any questions you want to ask me, go ahead."
Patrick found himself at an uncharacteristic loss for words. He was more curious than angry, though he felt a smoldering resentment coming from somewhere. But the man in front of him had been in the very same place. "Er... why did you stay like this?"
"Ah, a personal question. Let me leave that for later, if I may," he replied. He looked at the young man's face. "Did you shave this morning?"
The pleeb blushed a little. "No, actually."
"Neither did I. In fact, I don't know what I even look like without a beard. No matter. We're not going to my office, mind you. Follow me."
The finished half of the building, from what Patrick could see of the hallways, was quite nice. The long corridors leading to the faculty offices were paneled in light-colored woods, the fixtures were all new, though there were a few burned-out bulbs. Half of the sconces were rune-lights that seemed to provide most of the illumination.
Right down the center of the entranceway was a whitewashed plywood partition, clearly intended to keep the weather out while construction workers did their thing on the half being renovated. To Patrick's surprise, Professor Rangel opened up one of the padlocks leading to the uncompleted half and beckoned the young student to follow. "It's safe," he reassured. "They were about ninety percent finished, but the building inspector still wouldn't certify it for occupation. It's just missing some carpeting and paint. We had to divert funds elsewhere. Something of an emergency..."
There were numerous footprints in the dust, and recent ones. Apparently they were using this unfinished space despite what the law said. Patrick followed Dr. Rangel halfway down the hall. "Trudy will try to intercept your counterpart. In the meantime, there are some people you need to meet."
"Meet?" Patrick asked.
The older mage opened the door. The smell of coffee and donuts wafted out of the room, catching two of the three people inside in mid-bite. Patrick felt a stab of recognition, despite not knowing any of those faces. But there was only one group of people they could be. "Um... Dad. Mom..." he stammered, flooded with conflicting feelings. The faces, and the smells, evoked fleeting memories that weren't really his that vanished when he tried to grab hold of them. But it was the oldest person there who was really a shocker. A man in a plaid flannel shirt with a kind, wrinkled face. "Gramps?"
"Damned good to see you, boy," the old man said. "But then, yer only halfway him, right Dr. Rangel?" There wasn't a trace of rancor in his voice, just good humor. "Where's the little lady?"
"Her mother told me she always runs late after the weekend," Rangel replied. "She'll be along, eventually."
After running halfway across the Quad, Cindy realized that going without a bra was perhaps the worst idea she had had yet. Not just because of the bouncing, but the way people looked at her. Making matters worse was the slightly chilly air made her nipples stand up hard, almost painfully so. So she slowed down and folded her arms under her breasts to support them, then she looked down. What am I wearing, anyway? She hadn't really looked too closely, just grabbing anything out of the closet.
Where did I get this thing? L. L. Bean? she wondered, pulling on the navy blue dress, pausing for a moment under the shade of a fragrant pine. It certainly looked like something one could just throw on for comfort, rather than looks. But she realized she'd been completely on automatic from the moment she'd sprang out of bed. Okay, so more habit trading. I can deal with that...
"Good morning, Miss Kern," came a voice she had only heard the night before. She turned to find Trudy standing there, a measuring-but-friendly look on her face. "Sleep well?"
The young woman nervously combed her fingers back through her unruly dark blond hair. "Um, I had some trouble. New place and all that," she replied, wanting to say much more but unable to. "I'm sorry I'm late."
"I've spoken with your parents, Cindy, so I expected this. There's food in Dr. Rangel's office. Shall we go?" Trudy was dressed semi-casually in a red dress with a low neckline, and on examination, nylon stockings and middling heels. Her hair had a reddish, auburn tint and she obviously used her magic to style it. The attractive older woman smiled. "Or we could wait a minute or two."
There were enough people in earshot now that the geas was in full force. "I rushed out the door..."
Cindy paused, her mind grinding to a halt, as three people moving at a fast walk were coming down the pathway from one of the college's main parking lots. She had never seen them before, and was quite certain of that fact. But the bespectacled, curly-haired woman with a harried expression, followed by two young girls, was waving at her. "There's my daughter!" she said, loudly enough so everyone in the Quad heard it. "Cynthiaaaa!"
"Oh God, Mom..." the young woman muttered, flush with embarrassment. All three of them looked just as hastily dressed as she was. And the family resemblance became obvious as they got closer. The girls looked to be twelve and sixteen. What am I supposed to do now?
"Don't panic," Trudy said quietly. "Just go with the flow. What you need to know is already there. We've thought of everything."
When they got within earshot, Cindy called out as the pseudo-memories returned, just like the night before. "I thought you guys left yesterday morning?"
Cindy's mother looked at Trudy, nodding at her, while the girls peered at the older sister closely. "We were... held over, dear," she said with a smile and a wink. "But we can't really talk about it out here, can we Trudy?"
"Let's get this show on the road, shall we?" the Trustee replied. "Follow me, Mrs. Kern."
"Just call me Wanda," the curly-haired woman replied. Cindy startled a little as she grabbed a hold of her daughter's hand, then squeezed it gently with a knowing smile. And you can call me Mom, of course, came the woman's cheerful thought in Cindy's head. Your mind is not quite the same shape, but I imagine we'll get along just fine. Though I see we're going to have to work on those bad habits you've kept...
Cindy was so stunned that her "mother" knew about this that she let Wanda lead her along as if she was a dog on a leash. She knew! She knew, and from the looks her younger sisters were giving her, they knew about this gender-swapping tradition, too. From what Cindy knew from the transplanted--or was it copied?--memory-shadows, it was amazing that they weren't telling everyone in the Quad.
Trudy led them into a building that looked like somebody forgot to consider inflation when they budgeted the renovation. She was surprised when they went into the unfinished portion, but that feeling was quite mild compared to the next one.
"The Rowes got here before us?" her mother--or rather, her body's mother--said. "Oh, dear."
"Only by a half hour or so," Trudy reassured. "Don't worry about it."
"I'm just sorry my husband couldn't be here. But he had to go home. Out of vacation time," Wanda continued.
Trudy opened the door inside the uncarpeted corridor.
Cindy's parents--her real parents, not the ones her body belonged to--were sitting inside eating doughnuts, and the faux-Patrick was in there with them, looking extremely uncomfortable. His eyes went very, very wide when his real mother and sisters entered. The two younger girls still hadn't said a word, at least audibly. They were whispering to each other. But it was one of them, the sixteen year old, who said something first. "Hey, sis. You ended up a hunk!"
"Hunk of what?" the younger girl asked dryly, breaking into a giggle.
Patrick looked like he wanted to run and hide for an moment, then he just sighed deeply. Then, a growing outrage that Cindy started sharing almost immediately. "Pardon my French," he started. "But... what on God's green Earth is going on? You're all in on this? What the Hell?"
Cindy was absolutely speechless. She couldn't form words in to express her sheer, white-hot outrage even the geas could not withstand. She walked over to stand next to her male doppelganger to show some solidarity.
Instead, the outrage at her family turned to embarrassment at the body she now possessed, and the fact that the real Cindy was in her own.
"We'll explain everything," Professor Rangel reassured. "Oh, and one more thing." He shut his eyes and muttered something under his breath. A runic chant? "For the duration of one hour, the power vested in me as University Archmage, I hereby declare the geas in abeyance."
Cindy... once more became Patrick, at least in her own head. And the act was enough to make her doppelganger stop cold. "Aaaarrgh..." he exclaimed, taking a few deep breaths. "For the life of me, I can't figure out why that spell is so strong."
"Its original purpose was to prevent friends and parents, and most importantly, the college Administration from discovering just what the conspirators and swappers were doing," Trudy explained. "It's really quite ingenious. The male and female versions of the spell were created by those two expelled graduate students in '52..."
Patrick frowned at her real parents, ignoring the explanation for the moment. "How long have you been planning this? And for God's sake, why?"
Her father, a former military man, gave her a level look. "You've never known me to not be straight with you, right?"
His temporary daughter spread her arms. "Which is why this just doesn't make any sense, Dad. C'mon. I think I deserve an answer. I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, even for something this egregious."
"Truth be told, 'son', there's more than one reason for it. But the most important one is your mother, grandfather, and myself all think that it will be a great experience. And in the long run, it'll make a better man out of you," he said. And he said it with such conviction that Patrick found it hard to think of a rebuttal. "I'm sorry for the secrecy, we all are. But it is tradition..."
"Tradition!" The real Cindy scoffed. "Okay, so this is some kind of treaty. After I saw that scy-record last night I believe something bad did happen here fifty-five years ago. But I fail to see what possible benefit this could be to me, Patrick, or anyone else!" he exclaimed.
Trudy smiled a little. "You were both Honors students. You got out of the Trunk studies in your Junior years, faster than most of your peers. Both of you are quite aware that the higher magics are gendered--the Branches in the Twin Trees of Magic, with the basics in the entwined Trunk."
"And the upper Branches only rarely overlap, or twine together," Rangel added. "But when they do, wonderful things happen. Wonderful things." He gestured at a pile of blue-covered books sitting in a corner. They weren't normal books, with plain covers with gold lettering on the spines. "Incredible things."
"'Crossover' studies," Trudy supplied. "Do you know the term, either of you?"
Cindy shook his head, but Patrick knew. "Er... something I saw in the course catalog," she said, combing her fingers through her unruly hair. "Um, basically grad students deliberately doing gender transfigurations on themselves to see if they can learn how to do magic that... way?"
"More than that," Rangel said. "But that's the general idea. It's the hottest area in grad and postdoc studies right now, though academia mostly kept quiet about it. Don't want to stir up certain groups. The point is, by accident we were the first, and all that scholarship in the corner was produced by our students since about '55, who either swapped back and went on with their educations, carrying the experience with them; or they remained swapped like Trudy and I, and did even more."
Trudy took her turn. The two of them seemed to know each other well enough they could complete the other's thoughts. "Men can't do female magic, and vise-versa. But a man in a female body can, and do it differently than a naturally-born woman, mostly because we weren't raised female. It's very much a fish out of water scenario, but it results in unconventional thinking, innovation, and a greater success at finding those upper-level crossover branches that are so in demand right now."
"Um..." Patrick stammered, nervously folding her arms. It was a lot to absorb. She looked at her parents and grandfather. "You really think this will make a better man out of me, Dad? Gramps?" She looked at her mother. "Mom, you too?"
None of them answered, but it was the real Cindy's turn to speak up. He fixed his mother with an iron stare. "This is just like you. I can't believe you volunteered me for this! You know how I feel about guys!"
"I can't think of a better way for you to overcome your fears than to walk a mile in their moccasins, Cindy dear. I think you'll find they're more afraid of you, with a figure like yours," Wanda replied. She looked at Patrick's family. "Don't you think so, Roger, Charlene? What about you, Mr. Rowe?" she said, smiling at the old man.
"Damn straight! Meeting your Grandma the first time had me shaking in my boots," Gramps said. "I don't have a lick of magic talent in me, Patty. You've got an opportunity to know how to do witch-magic. Never pass up an opportunity for knowledge! You'd be a fool, if you do."
Patrick hadn't seen her grandfather in three years, since the death of his grandmother. He'd always been a blunt-spoken old coot, and that statement was completely in character for him. "C'mon, Gramps. 'Patty'?"
"You sure ain't a Patrick right now, though I guess I should be calling you Cindy."
"*I* am Cindy!" Patrick's doppelganger huffed. He turned to his mother. "Mom, I should have been consulted. Really! I feel awful, seeing Patrick's body in the nude. It's mortifying! And to think that he's... she's..."
"You're both eighteen," Professor Rangel pointed out. "Which is why we're going to give you an out. You can stop this right now, if you want. Right this instant. But I want you to really, really think about this. In twenty five years we had this tradition, not a single student opted to swap back before the year was up. Not one. And some years we had multiple pairs."
Hungry, Cindy picked up a doughnut and started eating it. He looked at Patrick, who was still blushing. Seeing himself from the outside like this still felt very surreal. "One question. Why don't you just change us into opposite-gendered versions of ourselves instead of doing it this way?"
"Good question," Trudy said. "Call it... ease of transition. Ease of fitting into your new roles without having to make up personal histories up out of whole cloth. It's very, very important that you're able to interact with your peers and friends as a man or a woman, while retaining your ability to think out of the gender-box.
"You see, you'd get the proper physical magic channels and the ability to work that magic, but everybody would know your history. They would treat you quite differently. This is basically what's going on in the graduate studies--we actually have a pair of graduates working in this area right now--but we know that our traditional method will work much better. Think of it as... cross-fertilization. I'll leave it at that. Think about it."
"We're going to leave the room until you call us back in," Trudy said. "You two need to discuss this with each other. I'm confident that you'll choose to continue with this. But in case you don't." She took what looked like a rune-burned popsicle stick out of her purse, scored in the middle. "Break this, and you'll be back to normal. It's your choice. You're both old enough to make it."
They were left alone with a half empty box of doughnuts, and to their mutual embarrassment. After a couple of minutes, Cindy finally picked up the enchanted popsicle stick. Knowing that there was an easy out had caused most of his anger to evaporate, down to a slow simmer. "It was fun while it lasted, eh?"
Patrick folded her arms, blushing a little. "It doesn't have to end, you know. They made a good case. Just look at that pile of books!"
The young man shrugged. "It doesn't have anything to do with us. C'mon, 'Patty', let's just end it."
The dark blond young woman tilted her head. "Aren't you the least bit curious?"
"Don't tell me you swallowed your father's 'make you a better man' speech!"
"He's never lied to me," she pointed out. "If you've got some of my memories like I do yours, you know I'm right."
"And you'd know my mom is a self-righteous bitch," he retorted, waving the runed stick about. There was a building pressure in his bladder, and the quicker he got this over with, the better. "If I'm reading these runes right, we have to each grab an end, then snap..."
"Let's not be hasty. Just think about this for a few minutes. You can hold it."
"I don't want to hold it! This is... this is so weird. I can't even describe..." He grimaced, and looked at the man inhabiting his body. She sounded just so reasonable. "Okay, okay. Make your case."
She sat down in a plastic chair. "It's weird. I grant you that. But you know what? Maybe our parents are right. And it's not like this is a totally new thing. I'm willing to be you for a year. From what I've seen already, you're a bit of a neat freak. But that's really no big deal."
It was hard to resist her smile. Cindy knew that was her body, but the one she possessed didn't know that. He found himself drawn to her curves, and especially her bust. It felt like her mere presence was turning his mind to mush, but there was also a background worry. Do all men feel like this when they're with a girl? he wondered. "You really mean that? I guess I should be flattered."
"Our parents chatted with each other like they're already old friends. Did you notice? They must have been planning this since last year." She reached over and picked a couple of doughnut holes out of the pink box. "What harm can it do us? I'm sure they've thought it through."
Cindy smiled wanly, but his resistance was crumbling. "Okay, you could be right. But I'm going to have to spoil your appetite. If we're going to follow through with it, there's some things you need to know about being me, and being a girl."
The young man chuckled. "Stay seated, my girl. This is going to be a little brutal. The short of it is that I--or rather, you--are a classic late bloomer. You didn't have any boobs to speak of until the beginning of your Junior year, and by the end you went from Most Taunted to Most Wanted. And you finally got your first period, too. Ah, what a wonderful experience that was." By the disgusted look on her face, she did remember it. "Patty" turned a little pale. "Ah, now you see," Cindy said. "Three years on, and I'm still not used to it."
"If you can handle it, so can I!" she said firmly.
"Taking it like a 'man'? No. You'll have to learn to take it like a woman, every month for the next twelve. Let me describe the whole icky process..."
By the time he was finished, "Patty" was looking a little green around the gills. She dropped the doughnut holes back in the box, then took a couple swallows of orange juice to hold back the nausea. Cindy went on. "It's awful. It's disgusting. It's absolutely part of being female. If you want it for the next year or so, you're welcome to it. I have to admit, that part I'm not eager to get back."
She narrowed her eyes. "Don't go thinking being a man is a cakewalk, either. Just because you pee standing up..."
"If you have anything comparable, I'm listening."
"Um... I don't really think there is. At least on a purely biological level."
"I rest my case. You think you're woman enough to handle that? Huh? Are ya?"
"Well, if you can do it..."
If nothing else, the prospect of a year without tampons, without PMS, without bloody discharge, and without being ogled, appealed more than any reason his mother could come up with. Being a man will be a breeze, Cindy thought, also thinking that he'd changed his mind rather quickly. He now had a good reason not to switch back. One that was entirely his. "How about a wager?"
"What? Like a hundred bucks if I make it through one month?"
"To start with. I think anybody could make it through one month. The real key here is persistence, knowing that you'll have to go through the same thing every single month. Call it two hundred the second month, but if you want to change back before then, you owe me a hundred. Next month, another hundred. And so forth. Call it twelve hundred for the full year, but if you don't last that long, you'll owe me the same amount. Deal?"
Cindy knew that look on her face. Uncertainty, doubt, and a little anticipatory nausea. Whatever memory-shadows were present, she visibly girded herself, then offered her hand. "Deal. But the same goes for you, 'handsome'. If you want out before the year's up, I still get the full amount. Frankly, I don't think either of us really know what we're getting into. But that's half the fun, eh?"
He smiled, grasping it, amazed at just how much smaller it was inside his own. They shook. I have a firm grip, too. "Something like that. I guess you're officially Cindy, now."
She nodded. "And you get to be Patrick. One year."
Afterwards, Patrick wondered what made him follow through with it. Masculine bravado? No matter the actual reasons, he felt committed now. And with only a few days before classes started, there were things to do, anatomy to get used to, and a "best friend" who was giving him the cold shoulder.
"You aren't a man," Carlos said in a flat, no-nonsense tone. "You look like a man, you have all the right bits. But you aren't a man."
Patrick set down the shirt he was folding. "Okaaay. What do I have to do to prove myself?"
"Get your swim trunks on. There's a spot I've heard of that I've been wanting to try." He opened his dresser drawer and dug around in it, taking out a pair of blue swim trunks, then he grabbed his towel. "I'll change in the bathroom and meet you downstairs."
Patrick obediently changed clothes, then pulled on a tee shirt before taking the flip-flops out of the shared closet. His side was only partly organized, but he had no trouble finding anything. There's nothing better than an orderly dresser. But for some reason he had brought a lot of junk with him. Why did he need a stack of comic books? This was supposed to be a learning institution, not a frat house.
Carlos was just outside the front door with his towel over his shoulders, and bare-chested to boot. The young Hispanic man rolled his eyes. "Dude, you can take off your shirt. It's hot out."
"Um..." Patrick stammered. There was still enough girl in him that the idea of going out shirtless still felt strange, and a little indecent. "You really think I ought to?"
"The idea is to let the girls see you." Carlos sighed. "Never you mind. I think there's supposed to be a lake around near that wooded fork in the path we passed by on the Grand Tour. You remember that?"
"I think so. That's along the riverfront, isn't it?"
Carlos gritted his teeth. "Just follow me."
While the Athenaeum had been set up by a man, Hobbes had had women involved in the design and construction of the grounds as much as possible. There were numerous gardens, statues of famous witches, and curving pathways that sometimes took roundabout routes through the natural landscape on the Washington side of the Columbia river. Female magic was more influenced by the natural world than its male counterpart, especially lunar influences on mana-flows, and a walk in the woods could clear the mind and make it ready for spellwork.
Carlos was barefoot, and walked briskly over grass, flagstones, and then dirt as they arrived at the wooded fork. He never paused once to see if Patrick was still following him, expecting that even through the drying undergrowth he wouldn't get lost. Eventually Patrick heard the river in the distance, and the scent of brackish water. The college was close enough to the river's mouth so that salt water could intrude. "Hey, Carlos! Just where the hell are we going?"
"I'll know it when we get there!" he shouted back. "In fact, we're right on top of it! Come on!"
It was a ten-foot cliff overlooking a pond about a hundred feet across, with a huge pine tree clinging to the edge. About fifteen feet out there was an old hemp rope hanging from one of those branches, dangling down so that the end was just about waist-level. Patrick peered at it for a minute before he realized that Carlos was putting his towel down at the base of the tree. "What do you plan on doing?"
There was nobody around, so they could talk freely. With the thin walls of their dorm room, he couldn't say much, though he seemed to find ways around the geas. "Look, so-called 'Patrick', you may look like my friend, but you're not him. Hear me? My friend is probably sitting in his room and staring at his breasts. In your body, chica. You just think about that, hard. Me? I'm going for a swim. If you can follow, maybe I'll reconsider being pissed off at you. But you ain't no man."
Carlos turned away and walked over to where the edge of the short cliff was directly across from the rope. Taken aback by the rebuke, Patrick finally stripped off his shirt and kicked the sandals off, though he was careful to drape his towel over a low-hanging branch. He felt the breeze against his bare skin, then gave his chest hair another one of the innumerable tugs that had become habit over the past few days. Somehow, having hair where there was none before was just the reminder he needed that it was all real.
He looked up just in time to see Carlos scribble some simple air-runes before he broke into a short dash. There was only a few feet to get up to speed, but the runes behind him flared, and he leapt...
There was a blast of wind behind him, kicking up dust, leaves, and a shower of pine needles. He flew too far. "Shit!" he shouted, waving his arms wildly.
Missing the rope completely, though he still made a grab for it, Carlos pitched head first down into the pond with a huge splash.
Patrick's eyes widened, he started to look for a path down the side of the cliff, just in case Carlos was drowning. But the young pleeb promptly floated to the surface, treading water. "Shit!" he repeated, teeth chattering.
"Try, try again?" Patrick said.
Carlos pointed. "Can you do that? And none of the girly magic, chica. We learned that jumper spell in Basics last year! Do you know it? If I've heard right, you're supposed to." He smiled. "But be careful, hear? If you don't push yourself at least as far as the rope, you'll land in the shallows. Probably break a leg. Or your head."
There was an unspoken sentence there. Are you man enough? Patrick thought. The boys back in high school always seemed to take silly risks. Mystifyingly immature, to Cindy's view. But here he was, now a man himself, being dared by someone who was supposed to be his best friend. Patrick--the real one--wasn't a risk taker by nature. But Carlos always seemed to push him along.
Patrick felt conflicted. On one hand, it was stupid macho crap. Taking silly risks for no real reason. Why should I bother risking my neck? he wondered. Carlos was still treading water in the secluded pool, waiting for him to make good on his promise. He honestly couldn't think of any reason just to refuse and go back to the dorm room. But... No. Something bothered him. He'd made a decision. To not follow through would be... not honorable.
And this was the real-Patrick's friend, and his roommate. He felt like he was already messing up their friendship just by being male. "Give me a minute, Carlos."
"Show me you're man enough to ride that motorcycle your parents got you!" Carlos shouted.
And that was something else. Apparently the real Patrick had gotten his motorcycle license recently. There were spells that could keep the rain off of the rider, and motorcycles were cheaper than cars, and better on gas to boot. The new Suzuki was going to be delivered in about a week. He wondered if he should tell Carlos that it wasn't a motorcycle per se, and decided against it.
Male magic was structurally different than its female counterpart, though supposedly not so much at the Basic level. What Cindy had learned her senior year in high school amounted to feeling her way through the spellwork, bending her emotions through all the right directions in order to achieve the desired effect. Male magic was generally learned by rote. Almost anybody who could copy the runes correctly could perform magic, though it was a lot like learning a new written language. Either you got it, or you didn't. Air runes were supposed to be one of the hardest disciplines, since they had to be written with the index finger just before casting.
Patrick plunged into his pseud0-memories, and tried to remember the motions Carlos had gone through just before he'd jumped. A whole tangle of angular squiggles fought for attention in his mind. Which was the right combination? Earth, wind, fire, water, and a vague fifth "element" to tie them all together. But these were just air-runes.
There was also the matter of channeling just the right amount of mana through them. Less than the correct amount, and the spell would fizzle. Too much, and he'd fly all the way across the pond instead of landing where Carlos had, or the runes would just burn out and there'd be no effect at all.
At least, if the memories in my head are right, he thought. He remembered both sets of classes now, and the female courses were the stronger. He had to fight through 18 months of Honors Witchery coursework in order to reach his transferred masculine skills. Um... no. Wait, wait...
How was he supposed to get good grades if he couldn't remember the simple things?
A trio of female voices interrupted Patrick's train of thought. They were familiar voices to boot, and before he could reach for his shirt, Rhonda and two of her sophomore friends came down the pathway, chatting about the upcoming year. "I can't believe they replaces Merganser with that... that cow!" she exclaimed. "I was looking forward to that class!"
"Oh, no you don't!" Carlos shouted. "You either jump, or I lose all respect for you."
Patrick grimaced. And that's what the girls saw when they arrived.
"Hey there, Patrick," Rhonda said. "Don't let us stop you."
The young man swallowed. All three girls were wearing bikinis in various colors, and they were all quite, quite pretty. Rhonda was a dark brunette with a well-developed figure. The other girls were similarly beautiful, in their own way. All of them knew the truth. And, to a woman, they were all smiling.
Patrick dropped his shirt. "Just... just give me a minute."
He'd get one chance at this. Carlos had missed, but could he really afford to with the girls watching? Just Carlos watching was one thing, but suddenly the stakes were much higher.
The simplest runes were pictographic, roughly similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Patrick envisioned a pair of wings, then took his place where Carlos had. With his friend still treading water, and three girls in bikinis looking on, he carefully wrote the runes in midair. Only to have them fizzle.
"You have to do it faster than that!" Carlos said. "Air-runes don't stick around! That's what makes 'em so hard."
The girls giggled. Patrick felt a blush threaten. Don't think, just do it!
When he needed it, it was supposed to be there. He drew the runes in the air, and dashed for it.
It felt more like a boost from below than behind. The wind carried him in a rising trajectory, and he struggled to keep his legs together. He only had a split second to grab the rope...
The rope slipped right through his fingers--barely. I... I missed!
And he was headed right for dirt on the opposite side of the pond! "Shh..."
Just before impact, he came to a stop, floating in midair. He felt the grip of not one, but two spells keeping him from ending up with a broken neck. Still in midair, he was pulled backwards over the center of the pond. He also caught a glimpse of Carlos scribbling more air-runes, and a the trio of Sophomore girls, all chanting the same cadence.
They dropped him into the water.
When he came up for air, Carlos was laughing and the girls were coming down the embankment.
"Maybe I should be going," Patrick said, swimming towards the shallows.
"Don't leave on our account," Rhonda said. "Patrick, nobody makes that jump on the first try. Least of all the swappers. I doubt even Carlos made it."
"Damned good try, Patrick," Carlos added, emphasizing by sweeping his arm through the water to splash his friend. "Try, try again?"
"We'll make sure neither of you end up in the Infirmary," Rhonda said. "You're not supposed to be doing this without someone to catch you, anyway. And that's our job."
"Really?" Carlos said. "I thought..."
"There's risks, and there's stupid risks," she said pointedly. "I saw you headed this way so me and my friends rushed to get down here." She smiled warmly at Patrick, who simply could not stop looking at them. Rhonda and her friends spread out their towels on the narrow beach at the bottom of the path. They were obviously enjoying his discomfort. He simply couldn't stop looking at their breasts. "I imagine we look rather different to you now. Well, enjoy it while you can. Winter's coming, and you won't see this much skin for much longer."
Now, coming out of the pond, he really did blush. He wasn't sure what kind of response that comment was supposed to merit, but from his experience in his old life, the only ones he had ever heard sounded lame. Are they taunting me on purpose? "You all look great, really."
"Thank you, Patrick. We'll be your lifeguards while you boys take your flying leaps," Rhonda said, settling down on the tiny beach.
Both boys took five more attempts to grab the rope. There were a couple near-misses, but since the gusts of wind set the heavy rope swinging with increasingly wider gyrations, they simply had to give up. Channeling that much mana at their current skill level, in quick succession, was physically exhausting to boot. Patrick found he just didn't have the stamina to make a sixth attempt. He could barely tread water.
Carlos lurched up the cliff side to make one final attempt as Patrick came up out of the water near where the girls had set up shop, tanning themselves in the dappled shade. Rhonda's friends had mostly remained silent, though Patrick suspected they were mindspeaking to one another. There had been a few unexplained giggles. Rhonda put her hand on his thigh as he walked by. "Can you be a dear and put some sunscreen on my back?"
Her touch felt strange. "Um... Me? Why?"
"You know when to quit. I saw the look on your face back there. You're not going to do it again. So while you wait for Carlos to prove how macho he is, you can make yourself useful and keep my back from getting sunburned," said Rhonda, a twinkle in her eye.
It was clear Carlos wasn't going to try again for a while. He looked winded, and landing in the water from ten feet up could hurt if you ended up in a belly flop. Patrick's roommate's eyes widened when he saw him kneel down to pick up the bottle of sunscreen. He squeezed some out with a wet squip, trying not to think to hard about what he was doing. His body had other ideas, though.
He started working the lotion into Rhonda's shoulders as the bikini-clad girl thoughtfully angled herself so he could reach the bare skin down to her waist. Thankfully she only had shoulder-length hair, so he didn't have to move any out of the way. She turned her head back. "I'm sorry I was such a jerk on the Grand Tour. It's tradition."
"Is this tradition, too?" Patrick said stiffly. She had this wonderful, feminine smell that tickled his brain.
"Feels kind of awkward? Well, I'm sorry about that, too. We want this to be a fun experience for both of you.
"Frankly, Patrick, I envy you. You get to be a cute guy for a year. Once it's over with you'll have to share all the secrets you've learned. Reading about it in the Archives just isn't the same."
He raised an eyebrow. "Including how to get a pretty girl to let you rub her down with sunscreen?"
"Mmm Hmm. Speaking of that, you missed a spot."
Carlos glowered enviously at him from the top of the cliff, but it wasn't really an unfriendly look. On the contrary, after all their shared failures, he seemed just slightly mollified. Patrick was obviously in his good graces again, if only on probation.
Carlos caught the rope on the sixth try.
Why do women spend so much time shopping? Cindy wondered. There were still a couple days left before classes started. The girls had spent the morning getting registered, though for the most part her classes had already been agreed upon between herself, Trudy, and her parents. So she had spent the morning playing with her new MacBook in the dorm room. When Alicia had returned, she insisted on going out. Now they were in the nearby town's tiny mall. In a swimwear store.
"I can't believe you didn't bring a swimsuit," Alicia said.
"I didn't see the point." Cindy shrugged, sipping an Orange Julius. "I didn't come here to have fun. I came here to learn."
"Don't be such a cold fish," Alicia said. "Besides, you need to use those gift cards your mom gave you. There's how much?"
"Maybe two thousand dollars? I dunno." She hadn't looked at the gift cards too closely. Her mother had made a point of making them only valid at specific stores--places like Express, The Gap, Hollister, and other very fashionable places. Cindy had never paid much attention to fashion, at first not having any reason to with a chest as flat as a board until her Junior year. But even then, as she had developed into womanhood, she hadn't felt like flaunting it. Cindy had inherited these transplanted feelings from her body's original owner. "Um... I haven't been swimming since I was sixteen. I think."
"Look, someone like me can only wish she had your figure," Alicia said, though she was certainly a nice-looking girl herself. "Show it off a little. See how the guys react. Here, try this one. I think it's your size."
The store was having a sale. Everything was half off, and the place was full of women looking at swimsuits. Out in public, Cindy felt more than a little awkward. The only thing she could do was "ride the geas". Apparently Cindy had been very accurate about her hang ups. I don't have to be her exactly, do I? Her experiences were supposed to be a guide, not a railroad track she couldn't deviate from.
Wanda had said their minds were similar shapes. Well, maybe it was time to experiment a little. Cindy smelled an opportunity. Besides, it wasn't as if anyone in here would know there was a male mind in this female body. She eyed the red bikini Alicia had picked out, then took it. "I'll be right back."
"That's the spirit." She picked an aquamarine one in a more daring style off the same rack. "I'll try this one."
It was a lot like putting on a bra, except there was nothing supposed to go on over it. Cindy tied her hair back into a ponytail and stood in front of the mirror. Her reflection looked back with pursed lips and a good helping exposed cleavage. She cupped her breasts a little, adjusting them in the bikini top. Just a few days ago she would have loved to see a body like this up close. Now, she just had to look down.
"Let's see how you look, Cindy," Alicia said from behind the door.
For the life of her, Cindy couldn't imagine wearing this. She only opened the fitting room door with great reluctance, to see the dark-haired Alicia in the aquamarine, flower print tankini. She looked stunning. From the look on her face, she thought Cindy did too. "Buy that. I'm serious."
"I don't have a gift card from this store," Cindy pointed out, folding her arms under her breasts and blushing a little. I guess I do look hot.
"Then I'll buy it for you. C'mon, Cindy. You look gorgeous. Guys will fall all over themselves just to talk with you."
If she was going to be in character, she would have just taken it off and left the store without it. Her mother had been trying for months to get her to wear something that better flattered the body Nature had given her. To feel good about how she looked. Cindy didn't have the heart to tell her mom that she really didn't see the point. Boys could like her as she was, or not. She wasn't going to spend valuable time and energy on pointless primping. Oh, she still wore makeup and earrings, but there was a point where it just became excessive.
Alicia had called her a cold fish, an observation that Cindy agreed with. Patrick had known a few girls like Cindy in high school. Unapproachable ice queens nobody wanted to ask out. The worst spent time taunting the boys, going so far as to take them out for dates and then cruelly dump them on their doorsteps to watch them squirm. Not to say some of them didn't deserve it, but...
I never did anything like that, she thought, though she had gained that notoriety anyway. It was more that being a late bloomer had made her suspicious of any guy who had asked her out, and a lingering bitterness at being treated so horribly before then. By the time she'd graduated she wouldn't have given most of the guys the time of day, let alone dated any of them. And the girls...
After she'd bloomed, the girls had been worse. Suddenly she'd become dangerous competition, provoking them into doing things that even now made her alternatively feel angry and betrayed. But now she was thousands of miles away from those backstabbing bitches, some of whom she had once called friend. The only friend she'd had left was Lydia. And now she was thousands of miles away, herself.
Cindy knew all these things without thinking, because of the emotions the bikini evoked when she'd put it on. But she was still mostly an outsider looking in. Still a man in a woman's body. Why did I want to do this again? she wondered. Being a girl was hard. It was complex. It was...
Despite the hardships, wonderfully, terrifically different. She was actually starting to cautiously enjoy herself. Everything felt fresh and new. Even the problems she'd inherited didn't feel hopelessly unsolvable. She hoped Patrick was enjoying himself, too.
"I guess I do look pretty good," Cindy said. "Thanks, Alicia. I'll take it."
"We need to get you in red. You look good in red," Alicia said. "And green, and blue..."
Two hours later they had gone from one end of the tiny mall to the other, actually buying little but trying on much, just to see what Cindy liked. Alicia was all smiles, having spent most of that time encouraging her new friend to experiment. To branch out a little. To stop being such a cold fish. But being called that multiple times started to wear thin. "Now, just wait a second, there," Cindy said. "I'm not really that bad, am I?"
Alicia looked left and right, then took them into a secluded nook in the corner of one of the clothing stores. She put her hand over her chest and spoke quietly. "Cindy dear, there's really two things going on here. First is that I want you to enjoy being a girl. I don't care if shopping is stereotypical. It's what we women do with our friends to have a good time. Estrogen? We're soaking in it.
"Second is that the owner of that body really is a cold fish. But I see a lot of potential here, since you're not exactly her. And if we're going to be living together in the same room, I think it would do both of us a world of good if I could help you come out of your shell a little and have some fun. Okay?" She looked up a little, then smiled at her. "Don't look now, but we're being watched."
At Alicia's urging, Cindy had dressed in a less conservative and more colorful outfit. The new fabric felt a little harsh against her skin, but the rouge tank top and brown knee-length skirt exposed enough skin to make her feel slightly exposed. Add hoop earrings and three-inch heels, and part of her felt wobbly. She'd known that dressing this way would likely attract attention, but she apparently looked good enough to being a couple of young men in to get a closer look inside the women's clothing store.
She tried smiling back, until she saw the frat house pins on their shirt collars. Phi Beta Chi. These were Juniors, at least. Someone from their fraternity had actually approached Patrick practically on Move-in Day, practically demanding him to join. Having done some research on this particular fraternity, he'd turned them down.
She gave them a cold look. "Move along, boys. Nothing to see here."
"Costs nothing just to look," the first said.
Alicia gave her a nudge. "Oh come on, Cindy. You can be nice."
"No, I don't think so," Cindy said with arms folded over her chest. Then, to the men. "I mean it. Move along, guys."
Alicia sighed and ran her fingers through her hair in exasperation as the three young men finally got a hint and left. "Well, you could at least be more subtle about it. Geez."
Cindy shrugged. "I thought I'd try the direct approach, first."
"I see we'll have a few masculine habits to work on, too. You're supposed to be thinking like a girl, aren't you? Well..." The lights went out. "Well, crap."
The entire mall was blacked out, and the outage lighting was barely working, casting only a few dusty beams into the darkness. The building was old enough not to have skylights, which made it into a dark cave. Alicia snapped her fingers, and a tiny green witchlight about an inch across appeared next to her face. "I could use a little help here, Cindy. This is the best I can do."
"Um..." Basic Light-making was one of the earliest, and easiest, forms of female magic. Cindy had apparently spent a month learning just that single spell. She'd passed with flying colors, so there was no reason why her faux-self couldn't...
Emotion, intuition, desire, imagery, and a snap of the fingers. After enough practice that's all female magic really required. Since it was intuition that guided the mind and the heart, for the longest time there had been no formal teaching methods in witchery. Before the 1870s it'd been all one-on-one. It'd been thought inferior to men's sorcery for centuries.
But now there were at least as many professional witches as sorcerers.
"Power with feeling, shape with desire, create with gesture," Cindy muttered, remembering her shadowy coursework. So, I'm supposed to bend reality to my will? Or something? It can't be that simple. She snapped her fingers.
A blue spark appeared in the air for a moment, then flashed out again.
"Not enough feeling, as my mom would say," Alicia said. "Our magic thrives on emotional energy, girlfriend. Maybe you're not feeling girly enough. It's not just a matter of saying 'fiat lux' and scribbling some nonsense in the air. You have to feel it."
"It" being mana. Feeling the mana flowing around you. Desiring to make it into a useful shape. And a gesture to call it into being, like Samantha on "Bewitched" wiggled her nose.
Cindy snapped her fingers. A white globe three inches across flared into being, shining with as much light as a sixty-watt bulb. It lasted all of ten seconds before it went out again, while Alicia's still shone with a steady, if sickly light. The other girl sighed. "Better. We might as well go back to the dorm and practice. I promise, cross my heart, that by the time I'm done, you'll be thinking girlier than I am."