For Rieke, she can sense how food smells or even tastes, but she doesn't have any appetite. She won't be eating anything along with everyone else – and cloistered together as a small group with Werner, she might be able to hide this fact from passersby, but with Pepanin who'll be joining, she'll have to let him know about her true nature, as an android. There seems to be no other choice, though she'd prefer to hide this fact, to avoid commotion.
When the lunch bell rings, the scene of Tybalt and his cronies confronting Romeo is fresh in everyone's minds. The Axe members seem to casually shove Pepanin out of their way, in a such a manner that only those who are actually watching will notice, like Rieke.
"Oof!" Pepanin goes, as he seems to stumble into a desk.
"Are you alright?" Rieke asks.
"Yep.. they're just like Tybalt's cronies."
She follows Pepanin to the bustling second floor, where he swaps his textbooks for the afternoon periods and gets his lunch money. (She's hoping to get back to her own locker to meet Werner on time.)
"This school's so much bigger than my elementary," he goes. "I gotta memorise the layout soon, because teachers won't be so lenient about lateness next week."
There's older kids, walking downstairs in groups to the cafeteria, while the younger grades follow them around, with a few kids who sit on the floor, eating their sandwiches or leftovers.
"Are you buying lunch?" Rieke goes.
"Ermm.." How will she find Werner and friends now? She has no phone, she never really planned with him about where they're eating beforehand. But.. she knows his cell number. "Do you have a phone Pepanin?"
"Yeah, what for?"
"I need to call Werner so we can find him."
"Don't you have your own phone?"
The sunlight seems harsh on their backs as they're descending the staircase. It just feels for Rieke like the summer is still yet not over – if she could walk outside the school, she could have fun just as if it were weeks ago. But seeing all the falling leaves reminds her otherwise. Time is something that passes inevitably, and one day, you may no longer experience those moments again.
"Not yet," she goes. "But I will soon." (Her parents have told her that Cybertronics is working on an arrangement with the mobile providers.)
He hands her the phone, and after a glance at his colourful background, she calls Werner.
The cafeteria is jam-packed with people, who are either lining up in threes for the roasted beef, sauerkraut and potatoes, or they're trying to escape to the lovely courtyard where it's fresh and doesn't reek of food and sweat.
"Hello? Wer ist das?" Werner goes.
"Werner!" Rieke lines up with Pepanin in the cramped lines of people. "I'm in the cafeteria, with my new friend Pepanin. Where are you?"
"The library-" There's bouts of shouting from the phone's speaker. "It's where the computers are, where everyone is playing in multiplayer! It's amazing, you gotta come!"
Rieke gives the phone back as Pepanin takes a tray and a plate, scoops the assorted food (he has an appetite for sausages especially) and pays the lunchmen five euros.
"You aren't getting anything?" he asks her, noticing her empty-handed, and she tells him she's fine.
He looks for a free spot on the tables, and conveniently a clique of punks have left, so Rieke sits opposite him, where she waits for him to finish eating food – it's so inefficient to have to spend time eating to regain energy, when lunch is only a halfhour long.
"You're anxious.." Pepanin points out, seeing her eyeball him eat, as if she's waiting for him to finish fast.
"Is it fine to eat in the library?" she asks.
"Of course not. I can't even bring the trays out of the cafeteria, it's against the rules."
"But Werner and his friends are having fun there.."
"You can go with them, you don't have to wait for me. These sausages are so good.. why don't you eat Rieke?"
"I.." In this crowded area, people can hear what she's saying. "I'll tell you later, when we're alone."
Pepanin wonders if she isn't one of those anorexics who's so worried about their body image that they don't eat – they starve themselves into becoming ideally thin. "Oooh. Are you anorexic?"
"I'm not," Rieke goes.
He finishes eating, and as he goes to put away his lunch tray, he recognises the Axe members who seem to be idly standing by the disposal area, chatting – but to him, it's an idle threat, so he freezes still as they catch glimpse of him.
"Ahhh, Pepper!" It's Khanh, one of their leaders. Her eyes look rough and ruthless. "You're short and stout as always. Tell me, if you took the chance to exercise during your summer vacation like I suggested!"
And they all laugh, shrill and horrid – where everyone pauses to see what's the hubbub about.
Pepanin wants to shrink away, but there's nowhere for him to go, so he just stands there in an indecisive paralysis, as more people seem to join them in their laughter.
That's why he's afraid of them, Rieke thinks. They enjoy intimidating people like him into submission. "Hey.." she goes, taking a step forward. "Leave him alone!" She finds herself shoving Khanh back, and like a set of bowling pins getting struck, they all stumble onto the floor with her.
It shocks everyone to see her do that.
Even Pepanin, who seems slack-jawed – but moreso of the fact she's willing to stick up for him. Nobody's ever done that for him, besides his few friends.
"Who the hell are you, bitch?" Khanh asks. "His widdle sister?" She picks herself and her cronies up – still feeling the presses of the blond girl's hands against her chest, like she's been shoved by two battering rams. "You want to get in our way, be my guest. I promise you'll be hit twice as hard – what goes around comes around!"
Then the young hall monitors arrive onto the unfolding scene, accompanied by a few teachers.
"Break it up! All of you!" they yell. "Absolutely no fighting is allowed on school premises." The teachers, pulling facial scanners from their belts, scan each of them who's been involved. (When the students' photographs have been taken, their faces are also entered into the system for disciplinary purposes.) "This'll be on your records; I'm not sure how lenient they were in your earlier schools, but at the Fassbinder academy, we expect a much higher standard of behaviour for our brethern."
"Yeah.. wahtever!" Khanh goes, sneering at Rieke, before walking away with her group.
("I saw that nasty glare!" exclaims a teacher.)
"Rieke—" Pepanin is panting in a mix of elation and awe. "That was amazing – how did you push them down like that? I can't believe you did that."
"They should be nicer," Rieke goes. "You can be happy with other people without needing to bully them for your own sake."
"Yeah.. but now you've pissed them off. They'll be targeting you from now on." He stacks his lunch tray with the others.
The lunch bell rings.
"There has to be a way to get them to stop," she says.
Afternoon when the class periods are over, Rieke meets Werner at their locker, prepping their textbooks to bring home for studies. The hallways are fairly sparse; many students have left already to line up for the buses.
A few of the Axe group members come by – different ones this time, accompanied by Khanh, all with their menacing glares set on her.
"That her?" they ask.
Werner feels a menacing air, and when he faces away from his open locker, they knee him in the stomach so he keels over onto the floor in an instant, spittle out his mouth.
"WERNER!" Rieke screams.
They're swift to drag Werner away by his legs, giggling, while attempting to pin Rieke against the lockers by her arms. But her flailing is too strong for them to hold; she breaks free of the guys pinning her.
Khanh manages to hold Werner up in a hostage position in front – her arm threatening to strangle his neck.
"You won't hurt my Werner..!" Rieke goes. She lunges after Khanh, who dodges like a bullfighter, and ends up tripping onto the floor for her efforts.
"Hahahah! This is the best you can do for your lover boy?" Khanh blows a raspberry, feeling confident enough to taunt the girl who rammed her earlier on in lunch. "Trip more, bitch."
Then Werner, giving up efforts to loosen Khanh's grip, elbows her behind in the gut – she falls..
"Run!" he yells, and he manages to grab both their backpacks that's fallen to the ground from the lockers – barely avoiding getting snagged by the cronies. Rieke follows him down the halls, grabbing her knapsack from him, all while the Axe members chase them. She manages to sprint faster than Werner, her joints obtaining more power from her energy cells – her skin even sweats.
They sprint around corners, all the way to outside the main foyer, where the buses have just arrived beyond the gates.
The shadows of the leaves shimmer under the light breeze, the sunlight hazing over the area, and Werner is looking for the right bus home. Which one leads back to his neighbourhood? He spots a familiar sign on the #4 bus, when Rieke nudges him – the Axe members are still on their tail.
"Almost.." he pants, noticably out of breath, hearing the recognisable sound of the bus engines starting up, preparing to depart.
Rieke drags him to the bus, knocking on the closed door, and getting the both of themselves safely on – "Phew!"
The members can be seen jeering out the window, the bus pulling out onto the road.
"What was that about?" Werner pants, in a sprawl by the stair, beside Rieke.
After finding a spot on the bus, eyes glancing at them, she explains the situation with Pepanin to him. The Axe members being a part of his last school, how at lunch she saved him from their trouble by pushing Khanh away, and getting cheered on in class as a result, but now being their target for retribution.
"Jeez," Werner goes, "as if school isn't hard enough. But you actually did a good thing for someone; I wouldn't have had the courage to stand up to them."
Their mama and papi are feeling very worried for the both of them – Martin fuming about how young kids can be so cruel, with Rena glad that they're still here, safe and alive.
"I protected Werner," Rieke says, "and also Pepanin too."
Martin promises that they won't have to face such difficulty; he can ask his company to leverage the academy to expel the Axe students to another school, so they'll never bother them ever again.
So for the school days following that, Khanh and her cohorts are nowhere to be seen, and Pepanin introduces them to his gang of friends – there's Rafael, Irene and MJ, and a whole host of other people his grade who are like one well-knit underground community, who congratulate Rieke's bravery and whose joviality make the school a much warmer place.
The assignments they give in the classes are hard and tedious, and with regular homework settling in, you'd be lucky to get an hour's free time before sleeping every night. But luckily, they coordinate solutions and answers over the internet, and with Rieke getting her own phone, she joins in the nightly group conversations with Werner. Funny stuff people have seen, and having Magic: The Gathering matches, and even watching sessions of anime together.
It is as fun as Rieke can remember it, and her marks are generally excellent across the board, along with Werner's (he told her to make a few mistakes every now and then, lest they suspect her of cheating or being an android). She justifies not eating at lunch by saying she's on a special diet.
A year passes.
Werner's voice deepens, and his parents have to buy him larger-size shoes; Rieke notices her chest protruding, the growth of her breasts.
By the end of the school year, Werner is part of the school's multimedia team, where he helps produce clips and interviews for the academy. He makes an interview with Rieke, where she describes her experiences learning from her classes (it's boring actually, but she just puts out some nice words so to not embarass anyone).
The familiar summer air is there again, and once she's free from the school for vacation, she wants to make the most of the days, this renewed sense of freedom that comes when all her obligations like exam studies are over. The very cool air blown over her while taking the tests is like a hint of all the enjoyment later on to come.
But her hopes for a wonderful summer are interrupted when Martin gets an urgent call from work – he tries to hush his voice on the phone, but Rieke can manage to make out his words; he's mentioning her a couple of times, with notions of her health and emotional well-being, and all the happiness she's brought the family.
"Rieke," her father tells her soonafter, "I'm taking you to Cybertronics – they're waiting to hear all your experiences, everyone there. Especially the one who's invented you. You have no idea how much of a success story you've become, for your real mothers and fathers. The whole team's anxious to talk to you; they want to thank you, and tell you what's in store for you next."
"But I thought you were my father," she goes, having grown so accustomed to knowing Martin as such. "And Rena is my mother."
"You were programmed that way. To gradually forget awareness of your real origin as a manufactured being – those were early safeguards in case you didn't take kindly to us."
".. my brain is falling out."