Since Rikk couldn’t move, or even see very well, he talked.

   "I’m sorry, guys, I really am. He seemed like a nice enough guy. A little eccentric, maybe, but… I’ve just got to be a better judge of character."

   Will sighed. Every once in a while, Rikk reminded him why he had taken so long to earn Will’s respect.

   Rumy carefully pursed her lips and carefully parsed her reply. "I forgive you, Rikk."

           Sight was returning to the three of them. They were in a basement, presumably underneath the physics lab where they’d been taken prisoner. Rikk had heard Professor Fitz emphasize that no one should use the gas nozzles in that lab without adult supervision. In that respect, if in no other, he had been honest.

   But Rikk never would have guessed that the nozzles held green knockout gas under fire-hose pressure levels. That was a surprise Fitz had saved until after Rikk had led Will and Rumy into the lab.

   As they had passed out, Rikk had had just enough consciousness left to realize that whatever Fitz wanted them for, it probably wasn’t the discussion of teleportation he’d requested of the three of them. And it probably wouldn’t help Rikk’s GPA.

   They were in a basement, each of them strapped at the wrists, shoulders, and ankles to parallel chairs, each with something metal covering their heads. Rikk looked to his left, but with his field of vision restrained by the straps, he couldn’t see much higher than Will’s jaw. He could see the top of Rumy’s head to his right, though. It looked like she was wearing a colander, except a few wires connected it to the ceiling.

   Rumy had forced herself calm when the gas hit her lungs. That investment was paying off now. The boys… no, men, Will was of marrying age and Rikk was married… the boys had used all their strength to fight the gas, and were now much slower to shrug it off than she was.

   While Rikk was just starting to assess the room, Rumy had been awake for minutes, testing, flexing, and making progress. The straps were tight even on her small bones, but she was not just any girl. She was one of the greatest pupils of The Whatever-Works School of Martial Arts, and she had studied under a sensei who knew every muscle in the male and female body. Slowly, slowly her left abductor pollicis longus worked its way free, then her flexor carpi ulnaris and radialis, and her extensors were almost, almost…

   Rikk sucked in breath and fought to lift his arm. He had none of Rumy’s subtlety, nor technique, nor silence. "HNNNNNNN!" he grunted, gritting his teeth, the picture of heroic determination. Blast it… his… arm… would… lift…!

   It seemed to Rumy, as she stared at him, that she had been trying to concentrate on something, but she couldn’t remember what it was.

   "It’s useless to struggle, you know," said Professor Ignatious Fitz, walking merrily into the basement. If he’d been a few years younger and in better shape, he would have been skipping.

   "But I kinda get off on it. So please, keep right on writhing. I’m an old man. I’ve got needs."

   "You SICKO!" Will spat.

   Rumy looked away, blushing violently.

   "Takes one to know one, kiddo. When you’re my age… and that’ll happen sooner than you think, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, see if YOU don’t have an eye for some pretty little jailbait."

   Having determined his arms were helpless, Rikk had not been wasting time through this talk. His eyes had followed the wires along the ceiling to a large machine in the corner, with several switches and many blinking red, green, and yellow lights… it looked vaguely like the way writers in the 1960s had thought of supercomputers, before they started thinking smaller. There was another colander wired to the machine.

   Any idiot could see that that machine meant Very Bad Things for the three of them. But it took a slightly smarter idiot to notice Rumy’s wrist beside him, half-wriggled loose, and to know that she was their best chance out of there. If he and Will could keep Fitz focusing on them, not on her or on the machine.

   So when Fitz turned back to said machine, Rikk called out. "Ready for that discussion, Professor Fitz?"

   Fitz didn’t stop working. "Sure, and like all good teachers, I’ll tell you the questions to ask. You say ‘Is it possible for an old, decrepit, cancer-ridden genius to trade bodies with a young, strapping chick magnet like Blondie here?’" He pointed to Will.

   "Then I’ll say, ‘Yes.’ Then you’ll say, ‘Oh, go on. Really?’ Then I’ll say, ‘Yes!’ Then you’ll say ‘Yeah, right. Prove it.’ Then I’ll pull this switch here and say ‘Done!’"

   He reached for the switch.

   "Wait!" Rikk cried, sounding desperate now. "Chick magnet? You don’t want him! He’s got gonorrhea! Take me!"

   "You liiiie like a rug. A really cheap, threadbare, practically transparent rug."

   "All right then!" Rikk fairly shouted. "The truth! The truth is… the truth is that Will hasn’t made love in almost a year, but I make love almost every night!"

   Fitz visibly hesitated.

   "I’m recuperating, okay?" Will sputtered. "And April and I had agreed to wait until we were ready!"

   "Really amazing lovemaking," Rikk went on, smiling at Fitz with genuine pride. He’d learned better than to share his unbelievable good fortune with his friends, but now the floodgates were open. "I never knew you could do so many things with clavicles."

   Fitz’s eyes flicked from Rikk’s almost girlish face to Will’s concrete build. "Your first story was better."

   And he threw a switch.

   Will clenched his whole body and clenched his mind, as if he could will himself to remain himself…

   Static crackled blue-white around him, making his short-cropped hair reach up to touch the skullcap. He winced, but refused to close his eyes… if he closed them, Fitz might be the one to open them…

   And suddenly the static was gone… and Will was still there.

   "Nani?" said Rikk. Only it wasn’t Rikk.

   "…the…" said Rumy. Only it wasn’t Rumy.

   "Come on," said Fitz to the stunned looks on all their faces. "You didn’t really think I’d perform this transplant without TESTING my equipment first, did you? The cocker-spaniel-to-a-tabby test was inconclusive at BEST, and there’s no way I’m going to fry my own brains over an untested hypothesis! I mean, what do you take me for," he cackled maniacally, "a mad scientist?"

      Rikk and Rumy had a lot in common at that instant. Both were in each other’s bodies, both stunned and dazed, both trying to make as much sense as they could of a dozen new sensations each, and both trying to fight their way back to reason before Will ended up even worse off than they were.

   Rikk was first. "Nan desu ka?" he said, contemptuously, through Rumy’s lips. "Your mind-to-mind transfer has failed utterly, gaijin! Gomen nasai, but you are the Weakest Link! Sayanora!"

   Of the two, Rikk was the more successful.

   Rumy… who for years had enjoyed a special awareness of her body that most people would never understand, let alone share… looked down at the clumsy, chunky hands with lengthened index fingers on her wrists and said, "Da… GYA?…"

   "Rikk," Will groaned quietly, "The Weakest Link is the weird British game-show import. Iron Chef is the weird Japanese game-show import."

   "I can see," Fitz went on, not even acknowledging their outbursts, "that I’ve failed completely to teach you the scientific method, Rikk. I’m a lousy teacher. I think with Mr. Erixon’s body here, I’ll try a new career as a boxer."

   "NO!" Will’s voice broke… Fitz threw a second switch.

   Electricity shot through Will, locking his muscles in place. No choice about closing his eyes this time: every muscle, even his face, was rock-hard and spasming…

   And then he was in front of the machine, feeling sick and feeble, and looking at his father’s… his face, smiling in cruelty and triumph.


   The triumph lasted about eight seconds. Then Fitz tried to move Will’s arms.

   Will’s body was still strapped to the chair, only now with Fitz inside it.

   Will calmly walked up to him, slapped him across the face a couple of times, and informed him: "You… are a moron."

   "I rearry… really thought," said Rikk, slurring the words a bit in Rumy’s unfamiliar mouth, "I really thought he had something worked out there. Like, after the mind-transfer, his straps would automatically release, or he’d unstrap one of your hands right before it…"

   "When somebody has the TALENT to throw medical science ahead fifty years, and doesn’t think to PATENT his invention, you’re generally dealing with a guy a few cheerleaders short of a SQUAD. Help me here," said Will, unstrapping both Rumy and Rikk. As the role-player in the group, he seemed to be having the easiest time with his new body… it was very weak, but Will knew that wasn’t his fault, and that made the weakness much easier to bear.

   Besides, he didn’t have any gender issues. Rikk was keeping his hands away from his body, as if touching any part of it to any other part would be indecent.

   "Please," said Rumy, just starting to assimilate what had happened to her. Everything was different. She tried to stand and the body was top-heavy, lurching, weights in all the wrong places. She brought up her hand–no, not her hand–to touch her face–no, not her face… "Please."

   Fitz strained and strained against the straps with a fury that Will himself would be hard-pressed to match. His dream, his very life was about to end, just because of one stupid mistake… no, no--!

   "All right," Will said. "Keep that headgear on, you two. I’m going to try and switch you guys back first… but I don’t understand this machine too well. Anything goes foul, like Liverspot Boy here gets in one of your bodies, I’ll need the other one of you to help me restrain him. Okay?"

   Fitz’s arms–Will’s body’s arms–ripped loose from the chair.

      Will gaped for a second, which Fitz used to attack the straps on his shoulders.

      Rikk and Rumy leapt from their chairs, ran a couple of steps, until Rikk tripped over his feet and fell, tripping Rumy.

   Fitz was now nearly free…

   Will pulled the second switch again, the one that had switched him and Fitz before. Another crackling burst.

      It worked. Sort of. Now Fitz was back in Fitz’s body, his hands on the controls, and Will was in the chair with one ankle strap to go.

   And worse: Fitz immediately shouted out, "He’s still coming, Rikk!…" He was LARPing a much better Will than Rikk had LARPed Rumy.

   Will yanked off his skullcap, undid the final strap, and launched himself at the professor as Fitz pulled a third switch.

   There was a roll of thunder and a flash of fire, and when Will got up Fitz was extremely unconscious, and the machine a smoking ruin.

   "Hai-YAH!" yelled Rikk in Rumy’s body. He kicked Will in the butt with all the force he’d learned from watching Bruce Lee movies while studying.

   And fell over.

   "...and since recent market conditions have pointed to a resurgence in the online market, now’s the time we should shift our attention to a seller’s market, in turn."

   Kath was doing well. She’d been doing well at a lot of these business presentations lately. Her superior, Carson Russell, was looking on appreciatively, her colleagues were silent, and only one of the six of them was fidgeting. That was an "A minus" as far as she was concerned. But she would give anything to know what they were actually thinking.

   "This company makes computers. Computers make websites. In the upcoming year, we should stress how easy our computers make it for our clients to express themselves online. Computers are becoming like cars or houses: people look to them as an extension of their identity. And we all want the best identity we can buy."

   It was so much easier to do well, she thought idly, when she wasn’t splitting her concentration. She’d put so much of herself into the Science Fiction Club for so long. Now that she was easing out of the group, she was amazed at how much energy she’d gotten back.

   And like a gypsy curse, that train of thought’s conclusion actually seemed to set her Club cell phone off.

   "Excuse me one moment, ladies and gentlemen," she said, smiling with her teeth slightly clenched. "This is my private line. For emergencies."

   She walked out evenly and calmly, not even giving Russell a backward glance. Even to a superior, you should betray no sign of weakness. Her composure lasted until she was a good half-dozen paces out of the office.

   "Okay, Will, speak," she said, pressing the "SEND" button. "What is it? What? What? Well! I knew she was attracted to him, but I never thought they’d... oh. Oh, you mean... their minds... okay. Gotcha.

   "So what do you expect me to do about this, Will? I mean... I think you know that I do not do well with mind science... People skills? Well, Will, what can I do in terms of people skills that Tim or Shanna can’t?

   "Are you still breathing, Will? It was a joke. I was joking, okay? I’ll be there in an hour. Just try to keep their clothes on until then."

   "That was what you thought I would say?" Rumy fumed. "This is who you think I am??"

   "I’m sorry," said Rikk, in a tone of voice that actually sounded very like Rumy’s. He shrank back into the chair he’d been seated in before, which was easy to do in Rumy’s tiny frame. "I’m sorry."

   Will leaned against the wall, knowing what would happen if he got into the middle of this one but still feeling like a jellyfish for staying out of it.

Not much progress had been made in the last hour. Rikk had turned command duties over to Will, citing disorientation and fatigue. Will had carried the unconscious Fitz back up to street level while Rikk had called an ambulance, and the F.I.B., to take him off their hands.

   Tim had slipped in about fifteen minutes ago, taken in Rikk and Rumy’s situation, pronounced it "too easy," and had let them off without a single dirty joke. Now he was trying to fathom Fitz’s mechanical design sense, which seemed to be inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and Seymour Chwast. But he did listen in to the conversation just often enough to reflect that Rikk was getting a taste of what it was like to be Tim, too.

   "Stop saying sorry! I haven’t forgiven you yet!" Rumy paced unevenly on Rikk’s tall, gawky legs. His body still felt like walking on stilts. "I believe in your American Dream. I believed I would come here and be accepted as myself, for myself, not as some Japlish-speaking schoolgirl stereotype! I thought you, of all people, did see me as more than that! But you opened your mouth as me and an American 1943 propaganda poster fell out! How could you?"

   "Geez," murmured Will, much too quietly for anyone to hear, "it’s like you two actually are boyfriend and girlfriend."

   "EH?" said Rumy.

   "I said," Will grinned depserately, "that you shouldn’t be so hard on the guy, R... Rum’. He was trying to save my life AND get over wearing a bra and panties for the first time in his life."

   "S--," said Rikk, cutting himself off before he could get out the word "second."

   "Hello-o-o-o... Hello?" called out Katherine, groping her way down the darkened stairs to the basement.

   "Katherine!" said Rikk, bounding up to her, thoroughly relieved that someone was there to take the focus off his dialect lapse. "Are we glad to see you!"

   "Yyyyeah," said Kath, trying to reconcile just how weird Rikk’s words, gait, and smile looked and sounded on the quiet, shuffling Rumy-body. Even by her liberal standards, it was a little... disturbing.

   He is always such a coward in domestic matters, Rumy thought before she could stop herself...

   ...then stopped herself. What am I saying? This is Rikk! He was the one who lifted me up in each of my darkest moments, after the alien, after the vampire! He is...

   She swung her arms, finally getting the measure of his body. Objectively, she knew that Rikk was not out of shape. He had always been slender, and his adventurous life with the Club was building agility and muscle. But to Rumy, who could do a somersault kick and split a board with the heel of her hand… to Rumy the body felt… shameful.

   And hers wasn’t flattering him either. He looked so small and lost in it, just the way she had when she’d first come to America… she didn’t like to look at him…

   And then some of his conviction returned. "But why not, Katherine? Shanna could use the money!"

   "If we told Shanna," Katherine said, though she couldn’t meet Rikk’s eyes when she said it, "she would want to tell the newspapers, and the newspapers would tell Alisin, and we can’t tell Alisin."

   "I swore to myself I would be honest with Ali."

"Rikk, put yourself in Alisin’s shoes..."

   "I’ve already got a ‘new pair of shoes,’ thank you!" Rikk took off one of Rumy’s saddle shoes and massaged his/her own feet. "Man, I’ll never understand why they make these so uncomfortable!"

   Katherine’s 200-some pounds suddenly felt very heavy on her own business heels. She ignored it. "Then I’ll put myself in her shoes. So tell me just the way you’d tell her."

   "All right," said Rikk, holding his/her head high. "Alisin, I’m not Rumy. I’m Rikk. I know this sounds crazy, but it’s no crazier than a lot of the things we’ve been through. See, there was this emotionally challenged scientist..."

   "Stop," said Katherine holding up her hand. "I’m here, in Alisin’s shoes, thinking like Alisin thinks. You think these shoes care about the backstory? You really think I’m going to take it in stride that my ‘husband’ is wearing the face (and, not to put too fine a point on it, other parts) of a girl who once beat me half to death? In these shoes? I don’t think so."

   "Yeah," said Tim, "she might freak. She might get jealous, ’cuz Rume just got deeper inta yer skin than she’s ever gonna get. Or she might like ya in Rumy’s body a little too much. Any way ya look at it, you got problems."

   Rikk bowed, then nodded.

   He is a good man, Rumy thought, glossing over the fact that he wasn’t exactly "male" at the moment... and the way he’d jumped from boy to man in her thoughts again.

   "Gimme eight hours here. This guy Fitz was just twisted enough that I got a crack at figurin’ out how he thinks."

   Strangely, the prospect of being stuck in Rikk’s body for hours more didn’t mean much to Rumy. She was lost in another train of thought, altogether.

   He is a good man, but he is not the manga hero that I’ve always seen when I’ve looked at him. The one I’ve chosen to see. He deserves admiration... my respect, my friendship... but not my passion. And now that I can say that... he no longer has it.

   Did this happen to other girls, this disillusionment? Was it really this easy?

   I’m free, Rumy thought, the joy welling up through the amazement. I’m free.

   Rumy’s cell phone-- no, RIKK’s cell phone-- rang out.

   She picked it up. "Hai-- Hello?"

"Hey, babe," came Alisin’s brisk voice. The soundtrack to Honkytonk Bebop was playing behind her. "Just wanted t’remind y’t’pick up the jelly tonight. Not that I didn’ like last night’s little improv... I’m corruptin’ y’more an’ more by th’ day, you know that... but th’ novelty of jelly substitute’s worn off, right n..."

   "I may be a bit late getting home," Rumy improvised. "There’s a... Will’s having a gun-dart, dartgun fight over here, and I, it would not be cool to disappoint him. Uh... ciao!"

   She beeped off the receiver and looked at Rikk. "I’m sorry. I forgive you."

   Rikk’s smile spread easily across his borrowed face. "It’s cool." He grinned. "Word up."

   Rumy looked into the eyes... her eyes... and almost faltered. She’d never seen that forgiving smile on her own face, not after a lifetime of looking in the mirror... but why hadn’t she? Why had she always thought she’d needed to see that smile on someone else’s face, instead?

   I’m free, she thought again. Somewhere, in the furthest corner of her mind, there was a tiny responding thought that began with but. But Rumy did not examine it.

   "I need to go," she said suddenly, looking away, breaking contact. "Out. Walking. Outside."

   "It’s raining..." said Katherine.

   "Cool," said Rumy, walking swiftly... she had mastered the legs at last... up the basement steps. "Good. Beauty."

   She was almost out the door before Katherine had a chance to react. "Right," she said, unconsciously wiggling her ears as she tried to think faster. "I’m going after her. This is the kind of situation you called me in to handle. Will, stay here and make sure that ‘Turning Japanese’ here doesn’t fall into any cursed springs. Tim, get that contraption fixed yesterday."

   "Well, it was fixed yesterday..."

   Katherine was out the door, and into the physics lab. She passed some confused-looking OSHA inspectors who were bent over the gas nozzles, and headed to the outside campus.

   Outside, Rikk-- no no no, Rumy-- was skipping. Skipping and laughing. He (she, bless it, SHE) fell into a puddle of autumn leaves and laughed the louder, piling them onto her/his chest and making Rikk’s body a human wheelbarrow.

   Katherine weighed what she knew about Rumy...

   expatriot / artist / traumatized by vampire / hopeless, self-destructive crush on Rikk / "married" and abandoned by alien / brief, even more misguided fling with a convict / capable of violent rages...

   ...and came to the only sane conclusion.

   "She’s snapped."

   "It’s so good to be alive," Rumy said to the raining sky. "So good."

   "Yes…" said Katherine, feeling as if she was walking along a small cavern in pitch blackness. How much sanity was still there? "Rumy… could you show a little more consideration? I mean, I don’t think Rikk would appreciate it if you gave him a cold…"

   "Hm," said Rumy, still smiling beatifically. "I suppose you’re right." She got up and smoothed the leaves off Rikk’s shirt.

   "Consideration!" she said, suddenly giggling.

   Katherine kept up the empty smile and kicked her cerebellum into high gear. Maybe she’s DRUNK. Side effect of the mind-transfer? This is how she acts when she’s had a few, and Rikk never drinks but I’d peg him for a quiet drunk…

   "Let’s do something, Katherine," said Rumy brightly. "Do you want to do something?"

   Be neutral. Be a yes-woman. "Like what, Rumy?"

   "Oh, anything! The student gallery isn’t far from here. They have a new exhibit, if you’re willing?"

   "Sure thing."

   And if you end up swinging from the wooden mobile like a chimpanzee, I’ll just tell people you’re part of the exhibit.

   Rikk paced uneasily, and unsteadily. In Rumy’s body, it would have been easier to walk like Rumy than to walk like Rikk, but Rikk refused to allow himself even that level of familiarity with Rumy’s body. This whole transfer feels like infidelit–like taking advantage. It’d be easier in Katherine’s body. Rumy’s so much more… innocent, even after everything that’s happened to her… she holds on…

   He felt Rumy’s stomach growl. He’d have to send Will out to get them some ramen… no, cheeseburgers, Rumy prefers American food. She was really diving into a lot of American culture head first. One more thing he admired about her.

   "Progress, Tim?"

   "Progress," replied Tim, "noun, one, headway, advancement, gradual improvement, two, what we are makin’ at th’ speed of monkey evolution. Every time I think I got half this thing figured, the other half gets away from me. It’s like tryin’ ta lick two at th’ same time."

   Long practice told him that neither Will nor Rikk would ever ask, lick two what. Long practice also told him that Will, at least, would imagine several answers and squirm uncomfortably. Will was so cute when he did that, like a little plushie bunny.

   Sure enough, Will was squeezing his fists and trying not to look tense. Tim grinned for a split second, then turned back to the problem ahead of him.

   "I mean, I connect this framistat--"

   And an arc of electricity shot out of the machine, grabbed hold of Tim, and pulled him towards it. Rikk scrambled over as quickly as Rumy’s short legs would allow, grabbed the scruff of Tim’s shirtcollar, and yanked hard. The shirt started to tear, but by then Will was pulling too, and Tim was free and clear.

   "TIM!" Rikk shouted, somewhere between anguish and command. "TIM!" He slapped Tim’s face, making the 37th time that Tim had been slapped by Rumy’s hand. Tim had been keeping count.

   "’Mokay," he gasped. "I’m okay."

   "WHAT IN THE NAME OF CTHULU WAS THAT?" contributed Will.

   "Okay," Tim said, surprisingly calm. "I thot I’d disconnected th’ power, here, but I guess not. Next step is fer somebody… preferably somebody who can stand up without barfin’, an’ that kinda rules me out right now… ta cut th’ power to th’ buildin’. It’s already six-thirty, so we ain’t gonna muck with too many physics classes, an’ astronomy can go f$%* a Whookie tonight…"

   Will stood, walked over, and pulled the switch to cut power to the building.

   Or started to, anyway,

   And promptly found himself slammed against the wall by a yellowish thunderbolt.

   Rikk now scrambled back over to Will, keeping him from falling completely to the floor. In Rumy’s body, that was no mean feat. Will was staring at his body as he slumped to a sitting position.

   "THE HELL??" said Tim.

   "I didn’ MEAN it, okay?" said Will. Only it wasn’t Will. "I know you been dyin’ ta get inside my pants, Willy, but I ain’t gonna force the issue this way! I mean, it’s way too much fun watchin’ ya hidin’ yer carnal need under a mask of hate an’ disgust…"

   "I’m not Willy," said Tim, quietly.

   "Yer not?" said… Tim in Will’s body, Tim-as-Will.

   They both turned to Rikk. "Don’t look at me!" he answered. "I’m still Rikk!"

?   ?   ?"So if I’m still me," said the two Tims, in eerie chorus, "then where’s… hey, ya mind? Yer creepin’ me out here. Stop that! Now look, I know how much fun it is ta repeat everything a guy says, but I’m tryina… shut up! No, you shut up! No, y–"

   "So," said Rikk, pointedly interrupting them both, "the thot plickens."

      "Huh?" chorused the Tims.

   "It’s a old… never mind. The plot thickens."

      "An’ stickens."

   The Students’ Gallery was always a hit-or-miss affair, with a few hints of genuine power scattered among technical exercise, shrill social commentary, and "ooh-I’m-just-so-clever" picture-play. The vine on the wall that was growing plastic grapes just made Katherine remember she was skipping dinner to be here. The "True Towers" mock movie poster, collaging snapshots from the Lord of the Rings movies and footage of the September 11 massacre, made her lose her appetite. One wall consisted of a series of board games, unfolded and framed. Monopoly, Risk, Trouble, Pokamon, Chutes and Ladders... Probably, the artist hadn’t put much thought or effort into them, but they spoke to Katherine.

   They were standing, Rumy’s man-fingers clasped behind her back, in front of a series of branches which had been reconstructed in a manner that resembled a large bonfire. In the center of the "fire" were tiny books: Fahrenheit 451, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and others with their covers burnt off... it didn’t look like a very happy work. But Rumy wasn’t looking at the books. She was looking at the petrified flame... and she smiled as she sighed. Her eyes, Rikk’s eyes, looked as serene as a Buddha’s.

   "Emotion recollected in tranquility," she quoted.

   Katherine made a noise that could have been transcribed as a question mark or three.

   Rumy turned to look at her. "I’ve been wondering, Katherine, why so much of my manga feels... unfinished, when I look back on it weeks after it’s done. And I think that now I know.

   "I have made the mistake of writing about what I’ve been going through in the present, instead of what’s been well and securely in the past. You cannot truly... I think this is the word... ‘process’ your feelings until they are behind you, ne?"

   "I think so. Jesu knows, I’ve been confused enough about my relationships while they were going on. The first one... Dieu, you guys think I’m manipulative... Lenny was a piece of work, all right..."

   "And you thought you loved him until something shocked you out of it, ne?"

   "Well, if you count a year or so in numb disbelief that he’d abandoned me to become one of the younger, hipper deadbeat dads, then yeah, something shocked me out of it. But we’re talking a pretty gradual kind of shock, here."

   A shadow seemed to pass over Rumy’s eyes. The but thought was returning.

   "But surely you have been shocked out of love before, ne? You seem so experienced."

   Katherine looked at her and smirked. "That’s the most backhanded compliment I’ve heard you make, Rumy, and I’ve seen you try to praise Tim the Fanboy’s artwork. Have I been shocked out of love? I guess with Will. I was the one who lied to him, there, but he slammed his heart closed on my fingers, so violently... yeah, I got over him quick."

   Like that, Rumy thought loudly. I’m free.

   Aloud, she said, "So many of my classmates were like that in lower sec... in junior high. Not in love, just in love with love."

   "But you’ve got to consider that Will only thought he was shocked out of love with me."

   "Eh?" Rumy’s voice was cracking.

   I’m free. But...

   "After we broke up, he kept that door shut for as long as he could... and when it opened up, he wanted to get back together." Katherine tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice and wasn’t totally successful. "And, pathetic as that looked at the time... I guess I can understand. Because I did something similar to my second boyfriend, to keep myself from getting hurt. See, maybe your classmates fooled themselves into thinking they were in love, but you can also fool yourself into thinking you’re not. And even though it would be the smart thing to fall out of love with Rikk, you shouldn’t be sure that you already have, just because being in his body creeps you out."


   Katherine threw up her hands. "Like I couldn’t pick up on what we were really talking about here, Tanaka! Like I could be that clueless! I know it’s harder than usual to keep it all straight right now, but I’m not male!--"

   A dart flew between them and stuck itself to a wall. Katherine’s head spun... and her heart sank.

   "Ohhhhh no," said Alisin, regarding her redheaded loverboy and Katherine with equal-opportunity sadism. "You said dartgun fight, you drag me all th’ way out here… dartgun fight y’r gonna get."

   Alisin was tarted up with extra darts belted onto her biceps and hips, and a camouflage pattern that was apparently designed to blend with polluted swamps, a pattern that extended from her combat fatigues and gloves to her hat and makeup. Her dartgun was a repeat-fire model with a revolving chamber. It was bright orange and pink, and no one would confuse it with a real weapon...

   "C’mon, guys, this is me playin’ with matches instead’a hand grenades. This is just play sadomasochism. Make it rewardin’ f’r me. Don’ make me go back to the hard stuff..."

   ...but Katherine had other reasons to panic.

   "Run!" she yelled to Rikk, NO, RUMY, DAMMIT, and shoved her through the exhibits, out the door, into the hall, and halfway through the Drama Department.

   Alisin paused. "There y’go. Man, I thought Will was the other drama queen around here..." They did look really spooked. What if they really were?… No, she and Rikk had settled that. Trust, it was all about trust.

   And then she was after them.

   Rumy was running even harder than Katherine by now, and vaulted a mobile clothes rack on their way outside. She didn’t think about it, or how hard it would be to do in a borrowed body. It was simply before her, and then it was behind her.

   "WHAT DO WE DO?" she yelled, giving away their position as they threw open the double doors.

   "Hhholding... action," wheezed Katherine, barely able to do more than walk at this point. "Whhe jhhust nheed to keep you guys... apart tonight... Tihhm’s working as well as anyone can on thhhis..." They were just ten or fifteen paces from the gallery, about halfway to the History Building’s one-story side entrance. Katherine stumbled… and fell.

   "Hai," said Rumy. Hai meant many things. It could mean yes, it could mean hello, or, as now, it could mean message received.

   Rumy ran another ten paces or so, and launched herself into the air.

   Martial arts, it’s often said, is as much of the mind as of the body. Certainly Rumy’s physical memories let her leap higher than Rikk ever could.

   Just as certainly, it was not Rumy’s best work. She landed HARD against the bottom of the flat, first-story roof, and knew a certain kind of pain that only a male body could feel. Her hands took hold, but Rikk’s body was so weak...

   Not as strong as mine, she corrected. But it is tough. He has recovered from gut wounds, fought infections, married Alisin... he has been brave against pain, and that has made his body strong against it. Some people would not have been able to move at all, after this...

   She got an elbow on top of the roof, then started to swing a leg up.

   About the same time, Katherine went blind. Because she now had a dart stuck to each lens of her glasses.

   "Bang, bang," said Alisin sweetly. "Now, does this mean YOU get th’nickname ‘Deadeye,’ or is that me? How’s that work?"

   "Ha, ha," muttered Katherine, reaching up to yank the darts off her face.

   The sucker heads snapped off the darts' bodies like a tick's mouth parts that keep drinking even after the tick's been squished. "The... what did you use on these things? Crazy glue?"

   "Well, if it popped right off, then what proof would I have that I gotcha? I’m just makin’ sure that nobody tries t’say I didn’ get ‘em when I did! Is that so wrong?... Hey, now that’s ambitious!"

   Without waiting for an answer from Katherine, Alisin walked up to the History Building, just in time to see a familiar head of hair leaving the roof by way of a door to the second-floor classrooms.

   "He musta… musta done some more martial arts trainin’ with Little Miss Ninja Highschooler." Alisin tried to sound casual about the thought, and did a really lousy job of it. Her voice could have frozen milk.

   And if Alisin was starting to get paranoid about keeping Rikk, maybe that was a tool Kath could use.

   "Yeah, he said he wasn’t really up to playing rough tonight," said Katherine. She still couldn’t stand up. "And he seems to think it’s easier to run from you than to tell you ‘no.’ Now, I don’t mean to criticize, but--"

   "Shyeah, right. Y’think he’s too wimpy not to tell me when it’s that time a’th’month f’r him? Y’think we just do everything I want every night?"

   Well... thought Katherine, I did... right up until you said "Shyeah"... and now I’m very, VERY grateful that Rikk isn’t here to look smug at me...

   "After our first big fight, we set up a code word. If he don’ wanna play f’r some reason, he just says ‘break.’ But right now, he is playin’. Playin’ hard t’get, like that scene in Fatal Instinct where th’guy has t’do some breakin’ an’ enterin’ into the chick’s house before he does some breakin’ an’ enterin’ into the chick."

   Alisin wrapped one of her belts around her knuckles, and started walking to the door. "I love that movie."

   Kath was dragging herself upright, but not fast enough to reach her. "Alisin, think of the PROPERTY VALUES--"

   Rumy heard the sound of something breaking downstairs. A window.

   She would never understand why Rikk wanted to be with Alisin. How could anyone love something so... brutal? And if Alisin loved Rikk, how could she… do these things to him?

   She didn’t know, and because she didn’t know, she wouldn’t be able to fool Alisin for five minutes. The best strategy was escape. But she couldn’t jump from this height in Rikk’s body. That would risk breaking one of his legs.

   Hide, then. Hide, and let Alisin pass me, then go out the way she came in. I must be a shadow. I must be silent.

   As soon as she had finished the thought, her phone began to beep.

   Rumy's hands fumbled as she shut it off, but she wouldn't let herself panic. Alisin wasn't coming right for her. She hadn't figured out where the sound was coming from.

   This was a three-story building. Best to hide on the second floor, then leave while Alisin looked on the third.

   She cast her eyes over the darkened halls. Everything looked so small with Rikk’s extra height. Maps of Europe in construction-paper pastels, office doors with yellowed comic strips, numbered classrooms with peeling paint...

   The ladies’ room.

   Rumy stifled a giggle without knowing why. This was embarrassing, not amusing.

   But it was one of the rooms most unlikely to be locked... and probably the last place one would look for Rikk...

   Steps were coming upstairs. Loud steps. Rumy walked over on tiptoe (quickly, quickly), eased the door open, and eased herself in.

One of the faucets had a leak.


   Rumy breathed, silently. Hhhhhhh. Hhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Alisin's voice echoed through the halls. "C’mout, c’mout, wherever y’are..."




"Where arrrre you... I am looking for you... I am looking somewhere to find you, mademoiselle..."





   The footsteps came again. They were going down, not up. Apparently, Alisin wanted to give the first floor a second check... and that meant Rumy couldn’t move yet...


   Something was happening.

   Rumy’s body felt... strange. Something was heavy...


   She had to use the bathroom. She had to powder her nose. She had to do her necessaries. She had to come up with another euphemism to take her mind off what her body was saying...

   She could hold it in. She would hold it in.


Doors opened and slammed downstairs. Alisin showed no sign of leaving soon.

   She was a martial artist... she could master this body... but she wasn’t sure the body could hold it in and run fast enough to get away... better to just do it quickly, while Alisin was downstairs and wouldn’t hear...

   She caught a glimpse of herself... not herself... in the bathroom’s full-length mirror, and stared.

   But... doing it, quickly or slowly, that means taking... that means touching...

   Her cheeks burned...


   Katherine glared again at the small hole in the window Alisin had made, much too small for Katherine to follow her inside. Not that Kath could have followed without totally blowing her cover, anyway. But Plan B wasn’t doing much better.

   "Rikk, is that you?" She clenched her hand around the cell phone, as if she could squeeze the right sound quality out of the phone by force. Rikk’s voice sounded different than it had when she’d left them, just an hour ago...

   "Eh... in a manner of speaking, Katherine. Perhaps you should call me Rumikk."

   "Can you be a little MORE confusing, please?"

   "Gome... uh... sorry. Let me put Tim on."

   The girl who still called himself or herself "Rikk" handed the phone to Tim.

   "Okay, Rikk, Rume," said Tim. "This is prob’ly gonna give Kath a headache, so while I’m talkin’, I want you both ta calm Willy down as best ya can."

   "Yes!" The girl nodded vigorously, then walked quickly over to Will. Or what was left of him.

   Will’s body was sitting in a corner, pounding at his own skull. "GET OUT OF ME! GET OUT! GET OUT! Your thoughts and tastes crawl like MAGGOTS! Your mind is as repulsive as yer fat, hairy, smelly, sexy bod-- OUT OUT OUT OUT OUT!"

   As gently as possible, the girl restrained his hands. There wasn't too much of Will's usual force in them.

   Tim went on. "This ain’t a mind-switchin’ device, like the nutty professor thought it was. It’s kind of like a mind-transplant."

   "What’s the difference?"


   "Well, I wuz puzzlin’ over it for a long time, ‘cause it kept lookin’ like two different machines in one box ta me. An’ sure enough, it was! One’a th’machines takes kind of a ‘photograph’ of somebody’s mind... an’ the other machine xeroxes that ‘photograph’ onto another mind."

   "So when Rikk and Rumy ‘switched minds’..."


   "They didn’ really switch. They both got ‘photographed’... an’ then, one second later, they got ‘xeroxed’ onta each other. The prof-man seemed ta think he was movin’ minds around, an’ I guess he din’t want ta risk two minds in one bod…"

   "So I shouldn’t be thinking of the person who’s hiding upstairs as ‘Rumy.’ She still THINKS she’s Rumy... she’s got some memories and feelings that Rikk clearly isn’t aware of…"

   "Th’thing you really gotta remember is, these transplants ain’t permanent. Some’a them take longer ta fade than others..."

   "Feelings, in fact, that Rikk is MORE unaware of than any other human on the PLANET... there are aboriginal CHILDREN who'd recognize them sooner... no, I mean HE’S got the feelings... dammit, I just had this..."

   "We accidentally turned Willy inta me fer a little while there, but his brain started rejectin’ me within about thirty minutes. See, this thing don’t actually change your neural pathways, so..."

   "I’LL KILL YOU!" Will rose, stabbing a finger at Tim. "YOU DON’T DESERVE TO BREATHE!"

   Rumy/Rikk put her body between him and Tim, holding up her hands and looking into his eyes, a very "Rikk" thing to do, but something Rumy might have thought of.


   "Stand down, Will," said Rumy, calmly, assuming a battle stance. "We both know that if you force me to fight you, you will not win."

   "And the memories, Tim?" Katherine asked. "Do the memories fade too?"

   "Hmmm. Hey, Willy?" Tim asked.


   "Right. What’s my favorite TV show?"


   "Kath wants ta know. She sez it’s important, okay? Ya can kill me in a minute."

   "I-- I--" Will blinked. Some of the tension left him. "I can’t remember."

   "Yeah, looks like th’ memories fade too. Ya gettin’ this, Kath?"

   "I can’t remember... anything!" Will said, the joy welling up through the astonishment. "I remember saying something about hamsters... but I don’t know why! The last hour or so... is a total blur! I... I’M FREE!"

   "Can ya keep it down over there? We’re tryin’ ta have a conversation."

   What was happening to her... to him? She... he... her mind had two voices...

   Let’s start with what we know, the male voice said, all business.

   All right, replied the female voice. I am Rumy... in Rikk’s body... I came in this bathroom to hide from Alisin... I used the toilet, and I’m sorry... and ever since using it... ever since totally acknowledging the body, I have been...


   It’s okay, said the male voice. I’m coming back to myself. I’m sure you are too, wherever you are.

   I... the female voice knew she should say nothing. But she couldn’t hide anything from the male, not here. I don’t want to leave you.

   You won’t.

   I don’t want to give you back to her... I...

Doors were opening and slamming on the second floor now.

   ...She loves you and I am being selfish, the female voice finished.

   You’re not! shouted the male. Or was it the male? The voices were beginning to blend. I am! I’ve the one who’s been ignoring...

   You haven’t been ignoring, you just didn’t know, and why should you know? So many girls ignored you for so long, how could you believe that more than one loved you now?

   You... I... I don’t know what... it’s wrong that I should forget... looking at you, I mean you looking at me, after I held you when you were shaking, there at that convention, and knowing... did I, I mean, did you know you loved me then? It’s fading...

   It’s fading. It’s not right it should fade. It’s not right.

   So do what? Tattoo a note onto yourself? Alisin would see it before you did...

The men’s bathroom banged open. Alisin began checking the stalls.

   Rikk’s hands reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a pen... and drew the words onto the wall of the bathroom stall, before anything could stop them...

   He stared at it for a moment. Conscious thought left him.

BANG went the door.


   Alisin shot a dart onto the side of Rikk’s head with an efficiency that would have done Bobba Fett proud.

   "Yeah," Rikk said, coming back to himself. "You did."

   "Pretty sassy, hidin’ in th’ chicks’ room," said Alisin, magnanimous in victory. "I can’t say I woulda expected it of ya..."

   "Hm," said Rikk, still looking at the wall.

   Alisin walked around and into the stall with him, looking at it too.

   "Huh," she said, keeping her voice carefully neutral. "Two surprises in one. I never woulda figured Rumy f’r the graffiti type. So help me out here, I don’t read Japanese. What’s it say?"

   Rikk regarded the kanji for a moment longer.

   "I have no idea," he said truthfully.