All GHH schools shared the same schedule ; workdays began at eight in the morning. Kids and teenagers poured in, their bags packed, which they carried or dragged along. A few lucky ones flaunted their telekinesis, their backpacks floating beside them casually. Amongst the sea of heads, a few familiar faces; Catherine, Felicio. The two were not in the same division, had a few classes in common. Enough to be aware of each other ; nothing more.
Although Catherine still made a point to remember the names of every kid in her year - she aimed for excellence ; having an exemplary conduct implied befriending them, an exemplary grade implied beating all of them without contest. She was expected to be aware of things. If she let herself go, she might miss an important piece of information, a hint, anything that could prove helpful later.
But all that aside - Catherine wanted friends, as all children do. If she learnt to like other kids' company, maybe she wouldn’t feel envious anymore. She liked to hope, at least. Her intentions were rather genuine - but she was no less helpless. She'd been raised too strictly. Too cold and stiff. Too anxious. Her instinctive reactions felt forced ; it just never clicked. She was seen as weird pushed to the side, away from popular cliques, - and that didn't even account for her ability’s tendency to go berserk. Catherine would often tell herself it was okay; she was only eight. She didn't need to have lots and lots of friends yet. She could just ask the teacher for help. But nevertheless, she was lonely.
As for Felicio, he was actually adapting very well, given he’d never wanted to attend at all. He dearly missed his brother's company, even for just a few hours - but told himself he could at least try and bring some of Brett’s excitement with him every morning. Usually, that borrowed spunk was drained after a single class, and Felicio fell back into a sort of autopilot persona, never starting conversations, just answering when interacted with, vaguely writing down notes, doodling and daydreaming about being anywhere else. He couldn’t relate to the other kids’ drive for heroism like he could with Brett. Without the affection he had for his brother, it was all just jumbled hero talk, gossip about people he couldn’t care to remember the names of, bragging about things no kid their age could possibly achieve, and overall, kids barely any older than him who already had their whole lives planned out, somehow. Despite his utter nonchalance, he was a good student, collecting As without even trying, and having a decent number of buddies.
The school was separated into 6 main buildings, and a few extras that students weren't allowed in. 3 of them were dedicated to typical classes - the "mainline" program : languages, history, science, et cetera. Another building to the "specialised" program : in other words, ability training. It was a large, towering block of reinforced concrete painted with obnoxious colours, with the GHH's initials at the top ; lines upon lines of large windows, the kind that could be seen through from inside, but appeared tinted from outside. Then, there was the restaurant-cafeteria, wherein kids and teachers alike would stuff their cheeks with snacks whenever they got the chance. And lastly, the dorm : like most GHH schools, District 17’s doubled as a boarding school. All in all, the campus was a good 500 square meters, a giant complex, in the middle of a lower-class district otherwise crowded by crass and hectic apartment buildings. The school stood as a separate world, a large circle of government-funded semi cleanliness ; passing its gates truly felt like entering some other dimension - A complex, organized, sanitized world.
The school taught children for 10 years, each age group split into 15 classes, each accounting for exactly 30 students - understand, 4500 kids ranging from 6 to 16 years old. An administrative nightmare. The classes were named by letters; A, B, et cetera till J. A popular game amongst District 17 students, especially midyears, was nicknaming each class based on their letter, sometimes referring to some anecdote or other - though most of the time, they just picked whatever crass word started with the right letter and applied it to the first year’s classes for a good, teenaged laugh. And from today onwards, year 3, class F, would be nicknamed “Fish Face”.
A four-hour-long ability practice class was planned for all of the third years - a sort of friendly, mid-year tournament that was meant to act as a fun way to sort out kids that were still too young for finals. Set to last from eight to noon and lead directly into lunchtime.
Each class had their favourite, be it the teacher’s pet or the class clown - and their classmates would excitedly jump around them, squealing out vaguely supportive nonsense, manifesting their enthusiasm best they could. Almost all favourites were picked for the same reason : a stand-out ability. Usually teleportation, flight, invisibility, something sneaky in that vein. Though at that age, they hardly knew how to use it effectively ; but with their opponents being the same age, it still gave them an edge. A few others, though, were perhaps even more overpowered than their peers ; espers.
For unknown reasons, children generally seemed to have stronger mental abilities than adults. Several theories tried to explain it; maybe it was due to the hyperactiveness of a child’s imagination. But research into genetic science, and therefore the biological mechanics of abilities, had been judged unethical and banned by the high court decades and decades ago, so in the end, no one had the answer. Regardless, esper children were stupidly strong, and those with telekinesis and the like were almost always the top of their class. Mind readers were less fortunate in childhood - and rarely enrolled in GHH schools - but everyone knew what kind of people they’d grow up to be like, so they envied them regardless.
The duels were set to take place on two-meter square mats designed for gymnastics and martial arts. The kids would be paired up in alphabetical order, and face children from a class other than their own. However, ability matchups weren’t taken into account, such that fire manipulators ended up facing water manipulators and whining about unfairness all while getting their fiery butt kicked.
Catherine Yuu faced Gertrude Young, an unremarkable student from class E, with the ability to shapeshift into slime to a disappointingly limited extent : she could extend her arms half a meter longer at best. Still, all Catherine could do was melt the slime into a slightly more liquid slime, ; Gertrude was ultimately declared the victor of their “fight”, which had lasted five minutes - five minutes of human pillows lightly lashing at each other until they hit the time limit. Catherine had to sit by herself for the remaining four hours, though she at least had the light satisfaction of Gertrude losing just a few fights later. Not that she cared all that much. Misses Young didn’t have the profile of someone Catherine would be jealous of : she was almost as pathetic as herself. Instead, the little perfectionist focused on the kids who wouldn’t stop winning. Spencer Church from A, who could create illusory clones of himself. Yasmine Chapman from J, and her ability to shout at the top of her lung… inside of her opponent’s mind exclusively. Felicio Shaw from F, and his rather unremarkable electricity manipulation, who wasn’t a favourite at all but had somehow zapped his way to the top 12.
As more and more students were eliminated and joined the sidelines, whining and kicking chairs, booing their defeaters or cheering on their class’ favourite, Catherine, wide-eyed, was tilting back and forth on her plastic seat, breathlessly starring at the 12 eight-year-olds still standing.
Spencer faced Felicio. The former was on fire, almost literally, incredibly hyped at the prospect of finally winning one of these midyear contests after attending District 17 for two years; the latter was tired and wanted nothing more than to go home and sleep. 4 hours of nonstop fighting was just exhausting… The whole thing made him dread the day he would have to work almost as much every single weekday. Since there were so few competitors left, the mats were now arranged together into 6 by 6 squares, allowing for much more movement during duels. Spencer revelled in the extra space, eager to duplicate into even more hyperactive brats. Eventually, the bell was rung, and their face-off began. Spencer began jumping left and right like some shounen protagonist, leaving behind his illusions to do the same; quickly the mat was clogged up by a squirming mass of tiny hands and feet circling around Felicio, trying to kick at him without stepping on each other. Identifying the boy within the mass of clones would have been difficult; fortunately, Fel didn’t need to at all. He simply induced a current through a random kid in the tornado; growing stronger and stronger, it coursed in a circle through the ring, and short-circuited - the clones began to pop like balloons, producing sparks and sending other clones flying in the air and landing all around and outside the mat, poofing out of existence on impact with the floor. Left was only Spencer, somewhat bruised, burned and very confused; Felicio lightly pushed him out of the mat before he realised what was happening, winning the battle. Spencer broke into tears - hopefully from a broken pride and not from pain. A little guilty, but all too amused by the situation, Felicio found himself barely holding in a laugh and a smug smile. The clone-user was then dragged away to the infirmary, kicking and screaming. He would end up…. fine - healthy enough! Knowing how these duels usually ended up, the school had medical reinforcements ready to go.
And that - was the last duel. Felicio had won the tournament. Wait - really? Even as his classmates carried him out of the gymnasium and to lunch, he was confused. He wasn’t even trying much throughout the first few fights, since he would’ve been happy to lose and get to laze off all morning - and while, eventually, the hype and adrenaline did get to him, he never would he have expected to win. For the first time, he… was sort of glad to be studying here. Man, Brett would not believe it. Felicio laughed to himself - before focusing on the matter at hand ; what was for lunch?
Walking throughout the courtyard, most kids outside of class F were either quiet, or in a sour mood, complaining about it all being rigged, or about the school restaurant’s menu. Catherine thoughtlessly followed the teachers guiding the influx of children to their food source. Soon enough, they were all sitting and chatting loudly. From sheer unfortunate coincidence, Catherine ended up sitting in such a way that Felicio was on the table right across from her, perfectly in view, happily bent over his plate of tuna.
He’d won. Out of nowhere. That kid who never even tried and didn’t even care to be here. He didn’t even want to win. He didn’t want any of this, and yet he had everything she wanted - everything she needed. Suddenly, all the built-up stress, frustration and hatred inside of her, emotions she herself barely understood, rushed back up to the surface of her mind. That rush focused, like light through a magnifying glass, on Felicio. He wasn’t even someone she usually envied all that much. His appearance wasn’t much unlike her own. He was a bit awkward. His ability wasn’t anything special. Just like herself, he was an average kid. But unlike her, he was happy.
Just a thought. A harmless thought.
A strange… urge.
Clay shards shot through the crowded restaurant room, stabbing into the walls, the tables, the chairs, the children, the kitchen workers - and most of all, Felicio’s face. Rapidly freezing then heating up his plate, using her ability more efficiently than ever before, Cat had broken it - blown it up into pieces that nested their sharp ends into his cheeks, forehead, and right eye - on top of it, the fish oil and tuna followed - boiling. Plate shards stabbed into his skin, he fainted before he could scream, passing out from the sheer pain, but not before others took note of the fish lying flat across his face like some putrid mask. A sight that would later be captioned ‘Fish Face’.
Catherine’s heart was running a marathon. She wanted to cry from guilt. This wasn’t the same as her ability’s usual freakouts. This wasn’t an accident, or her ability going rogue ; she had done this. She had finally used her ability properly, purposefully… and done this. In that split moment, this was what she’d wanted. She was in a state of dissociation a kid like her couldn’t quite put into words. She felt completely horrified with her own, unjustifiable acts, and she wanted to play the same prank on herself to make up for it somehow. Yet another part of her had wanted it, and felt… joy. Her permanent smiling facade was straining. Her perfectionism was straining. Everyone else’s effortless success was straining. This… was relieving. It was objectively wrong, and she knew it, but it felt right. Like a weight off her chest. Like whatever was preventing her from using her ability properly had vanished - she’d been freed, and, guided by raw impulse, and this had resulted. Pain and suffering. Just how could she…?
Catherine immediately stood up and confessed her guilt, sobbing warm, heartfelt tears.