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Bury the Lead

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Above the fold: The most important stories of the day appear on the top half of the cover—above the fold—where they can show in coin boxes or on stacks.

*

Taako’s problem is that he has no respect for authority. Also, he doesn’t follow instructions well, isn’t respectful of others’ time, doesn’t participate in class in a meaningful and healthy way, and once broke a window using magic to cheat in gym—a class which he’s currently failing, mostly because Taako hates team sports and the coach holds a grudge over the window/cheating debacle. Gym isn’t the only class Taako has problems in, but it is the only class where he’s prepared to admit he’s the root of those problems.

Honestly? Fuck home ec.

“Fuck home ec” is a sentiment his aunt would be surprised to hear from him, but she’d never experienced the absolute joke that is Neverwinter High’s Home Economics II: Cooking and Baking. Taako signed up expecting to dominate. He and Lup were raised by the best cook in all of Faerun. Maybe Auntie didn’t have a bakery or a restaurant or fancy cooking awards, but Taako has yet to meet anyone who can come close to roasting a turkey as well as she could. Auntie taught Taako and Lup everything she knew, and if she were still alive today she’d stand in solidarity with Taako. She’d see the great injustice at work here.

Auntie isn’t alive, though, and there isn’t anyone else around to vouch for his side of the story who’s in a position to be listened to.

It’s a good thing Taako’s never had trouble sticking up for himself.

The door to the principal’s office swings open and Taako schools his face, masking the annoyance he feels with cool indifference. Taako is above being sent to the office by a two-bit hack who couldn’t bake a cake if you handed him a boxed mix.

“Well, Taako. I see you’re here again. Should I start reserving a seat for you?”

Taako actually likes Principal Davenport, although he’d never admit it. Davenport has a sideways sense of humour about Taako’s antics, most of the time. Today he doesn’t look amused.

“Wish you would, my man. Cha’boy’s got a thing for the chair with arms on it.” Taako nods his head towards the one chair in the school’s main office with arms, currently occupied by a black girl Taako doesn’t think he’s met before. She’s got her surprisingly white hair scraped back into a bun and her uniform is picture perfect—blue plaid skirt, crisp white blouse, neat tie, regulation knee socks and shiny black loafers—except for her cardigan, which is about two sizes too big and swallows her small frame. The overall look is one Taako would categorize as mousy as fuck. “As you can see, Taako’s chair is currently occupado.”

The girl shifts in place and flushes, her eyes on her knees. Taako wasn’t trying to embarrass her, but he’s still in a capital-M Mood, so here they are.

Davenport just sighs at him, then looks at the girl in Taako’s seat and smiles. “I’ll be right with you, Lucretia. Taako, step into my office please.”

Taako hauls himself up, all over-the-top insouciant grace, and winks at Lucretia before proceeding Davenport into his office.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Taako says, as soon as the door closes. “And listen, Princi’port, the whole crying thing is on Taako, but in my defense Mr. Rick is literally the worst cook I’ve ever met. He had us making ham sandwiches. How is that even an assignment? This is Cooking and Baking two. This is supposed to be the advanced class.”

“I’ve asked you not to call me Princi’port, Taako,” Davenport says, climbing into his chair. Literally climbing, because Davenport may be a gnome, but the office is sized for an average human. There’s a little ladder beside his office chair. Taako’s pretty sure the fact that the school is scaled for medium-sized proportions is racist, but if the principal can’t get things changed in his own office, what’s Taako going to do about it?

“Principal Davenport. Whatever.” Taako waves a hand. “My point about Mr. Rick stands.”

“Mr. Rick has asked me to expel you for your actions in class today,” Davenport says, voice flat. The way he’s looking at Taako doesn’t have the usual amusement bubbling under the surface. He looks like maybe he’s considering the expulsion.

Taako goes still. “I can’t get expelled.”

“You’re the one who controls your behaviour, Taako,” Davenport says. “You’re the one who needs to face the consequences of that behaviour.”

“I can’t get expelled,” Taako says again. “Principal Davenport, come on. All I did was make a good sandwich.”

Neverwinter High is not inexpensive. It’s one of the top schools in Faerun. Notable Neverwinter High alumni include most of the previous Lord Protectors of Neverwinter, the High Cleric of Glittergold, and Selene Brightrunner, voted Faerun’s number one bard three years running. Most of its students are predestined for success—they come from wealthy, legacy families who enroll their children as boarders and then show up to every event the schools has in order to bully the teachers into ensuring little Gwendylynon or Chad does extraordinarily well during the school year.

Taako is not one of those students. Taako isn’t even a day student—who the boarders look down upon with great disdain because day students come from the type of families who can only afford to pay a modest fortune to send their kids to Neverwinter High. No, Taako belongs to the rung under that—Taako is a scholarship kid.

Taako is a scholarship kid who, he’s sure, is here mostly because he and Lup made it very clear that they were a package deal in their applications. His sister is a bright light shining in the darkness and Neverwinter High would have to be crazy to have passed on her, even if she did come with a twin brother.

Taako hates this. Davenport and Mr. Rick have all the power and there’s nothing he can do except appeal to Davenport’s better nature because he knows Mr. Rick. Mr. Rick would love to get Taako kicked out of school. Mr. Rick loathes him.

Davenport leans back in his seat, raises an eyebrow. “Did you or did you not lead your classmates in chanting ‘Take a bite, Rick’?”

Taako pauses. “Okay, yes. Technically I did do that.”

“Taako, do you know how many other students have made a teacher cry?”

“I feel like this is a trick question,” Taako says, after a moment. As far as he knows, no one else has made a teacher cry in the years he’s been at Neverwinter High, except for the time he made Leon the artificing teacher lose it, but Leon had also been referring to Taako openly as a hellion for a month before Taako decided he’d had enough. And Leon hadn’t asked for Taako to be expelled so Taako was inclined to like him more now.

“I don’t just mean in your time at Neverwinter High, Taako,” Davenport says. “In my whole career as an educator. Do you know how many students have made a teacher cry?”

Taako pauses. Squints at Davenport as he tries to weigh his answer. Probably not that many, right? “... Five?”

“One, Taako,” Davenport says. “One student. You are the only student I have ever had to make a teacher cry.”

“Two teachers.”

Davenport frowns at him. “You see why I might consider the expulsion, don’t you? I can’t allow bullying in my school.”

“It’s not bullying! Don’t be ridic—”

“I’m not going to expel you, Taako.”

Taako shuts up fast, before he accidentally changes Davenport’s mind.

Davenport gives him a knowing look. “I’m not going to expel you, but in deference to Mr. Rick and to your own objections to his class, I’m going to remove you from it. I think it would be best for all parties if the two of you had... some space.”

It’s better than being expelled, but it’s still a blow. Rick is a terrible teacher who doesn’t know how to cook and the way he runs home ec is the worst, but Taako likes cooking. Taako likes getting the chance to make good food and to show off and to feed people who appreciate his skills. Taako’s class has come to respect and admire him, at least within the boundaries of the home ec room.

“You can’t just pull me out of a class,” Taako protests. “We’re halfway through the semester. What am I supposed to do for the rest of the year? I need to graduate at some point. Unless you want to keep me here for another year.”

“Gods, no,” Davenport says, which is hurtful but probably a gut reaction and not something Taako should take to heart. “No, we want you to graduate and do well, Taako. We’ll figure out a way for you to make up the remaining credits. Perhaps a correspondence course.”

Davenport opens a desk drawer and pulls out a catalogue. The cover shows young tiefling with terrible glasses smiling as they work on a math problem. It’s emblazoned with the words LEARNING AT MY OWN PACE! in large, block letters.

Taako eyes it with utter disdain.

“See what appeals to you,” Davenport says, handing Taako the catalogue. “Take a seat outside and think about my proposal. It’s a way for you to avoid being held back. I had a meeting scheduled with Lucretia, whose time we’re wasting because of your actions today, so I’m going to ask you to wait while I speak with her.”

Taako gets to his feet, folding the catalogue in half to hide the cover. “Yeah, sure. I’ll wait.”

He knows this is supposed to be an olive branch being extended, that he should be grateful he’s not getting a permanent black mark on his already pretty grey record, but fuck if it doesn’t feel like a blow to be handed a book of shitty correspondence courses and told, essentially, that no one wants to deal with him in their classes if they don’t have to. Lup’s going to kill him.

He takes his seat outside again as Lucretia walks into Davenport’s office and shuts the door. Taako contemplates moving to the chair with arms, contemplates looking at the catalogue of courses available to him, and opts instead to eavesdrop.

Lucretia may have shut the door, but Taako’s an elf. He’s got big ears and nothing to do. He can hear her and Davenport through the door, voices only slightly muffled.

“I sympathize, Lucretia. You know I’d like to support you, but you just don’t have enough—”

“How do you propose I gain support? Everyone knows the school wants to shut the paper down. I don’t see how you can, in good conscience, tell me there isn’t enough sustained interest to justify the cost. Sir, this is important to me. It would be important to a lot of people if you gave it a chance.”

“Lucretia.”

“You’re not even willing to let me fight for it!”

Even if Taako wasn’t an elf, he’d have heard that. Lucretia’s obviously upset, which makes Taako both want to hear all the juicy details of what’s happening inside the room and crawl the fuck away, to where he might not get caught in the wake of some kind of scene. Taako is fine making other people feel emotions, but when their emotions are thrust unwillingly on to him, he doesn’t do so good.

The silence on the other side of the door is very telling. Princi’port would never let Taako snap at him like that.

“I’ll give you until the end of semester,” Davenport says, proving that Taako’s life is unfair and everyone is biased against him. “If you can show me that the school’s paper is a worthwhile investment, then I’ll make sure you don’t get shut down, but you have to be prepared, Lucretia. This is the last time I can pull strings for you.”

“Thank you, sir.” Lucretia’s voice is calm and collected now that she’s gotten her way. Taako doesn’t know her, but he approves. Taako also thinks he sees a way out of his own situation.

When Lucretia opens the door to Davenport’s office, Taako jumps to his feet. “Hey, listen,” he says. “I overheard what you two were talking about just now. I have a proposal.”

Lucretia looks distinctly unimpressed. Davenport looks like he feels a headache coming on.

“Hear me out, Princi’port. You need a place to put me for the rest of the semester, right? She needs help with the paper? I could do that instead of this.” Taako waves at the catalogue in his hand. “This is a waste of Taako’s many skills. Journalism is where it’s at. Don’t let anyone tell you print media is dead. I’m all about preserving the written word and, uh, fair and balanced media.”

These are all terms Taako is pretty sure apply to journalism.

“The school paper is a club, Taako. Not a class,” Davenport says. “As much as I’m sure Lucretia would love to have you join the paper, I don’t think—”

Taako holds up a finger, flipping LEARNING AT MY OWN PACE! open to the table of contents. Lucretia doesn’t look like she’d love having Taako join her paper, but Taako doesn’t need to convince her. The paper sounds like it’s in enough trouble that if Davenport says yes to this, she’ll have to go along with it. He finds the appropriate page number and turns to it, then brandishes it at Davenport. “Really? Because according to this journalism is for sure a creditable course. Just let me do the paper instead, give me a B and call it a day.”

“We don’t have a teacher for—”

Lucretia snatches the catalogue from Taako’s hand and turns to face Davenport too, scanning the course description. “If the paper was part of a course, that would mean it had more value for the school though, wouldn’t it?” Lucretia asks. “If, say, there were students enrolled in a correspondence journalism course who produced the paper as part of their learning?”

“That’s not—that’s not really how those courses are supposed to work,” Davenport says. “They’re independent study.”

Lucretia clears her throat and reads: “Students study the basic principles of print journalism as they examine the role of printed news media in our society. They learn investigative skills, responsible reporting, and journalistic writing techniques as they read, respond to, and write their own news and feature articles. Students conduct interviews, research, write, and design their own publications.” She looks up at Davenport. “I don’t see anything in the course description that says you’re required to work alone. In fact, our version of the course would be an improvement. It would introduce students to the basics of working for a real publication. We’d complete the assignments for the correspondence course, send them off, and produce the school paper at the same time. Surely the school sees the value in that.”

“Lucretia…” Davenport definitely needs a nap. Maybe a drink. An under the radar visit to Pringles behind the cafeteria for that good kush.

Davenport looks at Lucretia, then he looks at Taako. Taako swears, just for a moment, that he sees the old gnome smile.

“All right,” Davenport says. “I can see there’s no stopping you. I’ll allow the paper to count for course credit, provided you also enroll in the correspondence journalism course. We’ll do this on a trial run. At the end of the semester, the Board of Governors, the teachers, and I will make a decision about the paper’s future. Fair?”

“Completely,” Lucretia says, snapping the catalogue shut. “Thank you, sir. You know how much this means to me.”

Lucretia closes Davenport’s office door and turns to look at Taako. Gone is the shy girl from earlier. Right now, she is fierce. “I don’t know why you decided to volunteer to work on the paper with me, but this isn’t a joke, okay? I need this. When I apply for university I want clippings to show the journalism schools. I’m going to win a fantasy Pulitzer one day. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a writer. Don’t mess this up for me, Taako.”

Taako… might have let this get away from him. The whole point of offering to help with the paper was to get out of having to take one of the weird mail in courses, not to have all his options stripped away and be forced into a weird, dying profession. There might have been a course that was much easier to blow off in there. Fuck, he’d probably lost the chance to bullshit his way through philosophy or something. Taako would rock philosophy. He could make up shit better than anyone he knew.

Taako reaches out and plucks the catalogue from Lucretia’s hands. “I resent the implication that I fuck things up. I’m in this situation because teachers find me too intimidating.”

Lucretia pauses, looks Taako over. “Did you make another teacher cry?”

“Everyone keeps saying that like it's hard,” Taako says, rolling his eyes. “Rick deserved it. He had us making ham sandwiches. A ham sandwich isn’t a recipe; it’s a cry for help. I just showed everyone how to make croque monsieur instead. Are we done here or what? I can only use Princi’port as an excuse for not being in gym for so long.”

Lucretia looks Taako over, then nods, once. “Come to the paper’s headquarters after school,” she says. “We’ll figure out how we’re going to schedule this course so we can meet the requirements and get the paper out.” Lucretia pauses. “The newspaper club meets in the library, towards the back. There’s a side room. That’s our office.”

Taako doesn’t spend a lot of time in the library, granted, but he’d always been under the impression the weird door in the back of the room went to a cupboard. He nods anyway. “I know where it is. Don’t you worry your pretty little head. I’ll be there.”

Lucretia doesn’t exactly seem comforted to hear this, but they’re stuck with each other now. Taako’s briefly viable plan of goofing off for the rest of the semester is screwed and he’s pretty sure Lucretia needs him at this point. It’s a weird spot to be in. Being relied on isn’t his jam. Taako avoids responsibility and consequences at all costs.

“You’d better be,” Lucretia says, and marches out of the office in a swirl of blue skirt and white knee socks.

The ‘or else’ is heavily implied.

*

Taako skips the rest of gym. It’s a useless class and a waste of his time, so no big. If Davenport calls him on it, Taako will claim he had to spend some quality time doing a thorough reading of the journalism course description or something. Totally relevant to his education.

He’s waiting outside Ren’s accounting class when the lunch bell goes.

“Taako! What happened with Principal Davenport? I told you we should just follow the recipe,” she says, when she sees him. “How much trouble are you in for making Rick cry?”

Taako smiles because everything worked out, more or less. “Rick tried to get me expelled, but Princi’port wasn’t having it,” he says. “Don’t worry. I’m good. I’m just… not in home ec anymore. Which is fine because my talents shouldn’t be wasted in that hellscape anyway.”

Ren doesn’t look reassured by any of this. “You got kicked out of class?”

“Technically, yes. No big.”

“Taako.”

Friendship isn’t something Taako is great at. He and Lup grew up needing nobody but each other and, briefly, their aunt. When Auntie died, there’d been a lot of arguing amongst distant relations about who was going to take the twins on, so Taako and Lup had set out to make their fortunes. They bounced around for a few years, in and out of caravans, until Lup decided they should apply for Neverwinter High scholarships.

Taako trusts exactly one person in the world: his sister. He knows it’s the same for her, with him.

Ren is cool though. A day student. She’d started out intimidated by Taako, but the fact that Ren also liked cooking and secretly enjoyed the hell out of most of Taako’s shenanigans means he’s graciously accepted her into his life.

“Princi’port worked it out, bubelah,” Taako says. “I’m not thrilled with the solution, but I’m not repeating a year of school or anything. I’m in journalism now.”

There’s a long pause. Ren’s brow furrows in confusion and she tucks a strand of her bobbed, white hair behind her ear. “Taako, we don’t have a journalism class.”

Taako slings an arm around Ren’s shoulders. “Let me tell you all about my brilliant plan to reinvigorate the school paper while graduating on time,” he says. “I’ll explain over chocolate milk and french fries in the cafeteria.”

Taako’s explanation doesn’t actually take that long. By the time they make it through the lunch line with their—soggy, limp—fries, Ren is up to speed on Taako’s current life sitch. They take a seat at their usual corner table and Ren watches solemnly while Taako dumps a crapload of ketchup onto his plate.

“Lup is going to kill you,” she says. “You’re my ex-friend.”

“Lup’s not my mom.” Taako opens his milk and drops a straw into the carton. “It’s not even a thing. I’ll do the paper and pass the class and then I’ll be golden. No higher learning establishment on the planet cares about a teenage elf dropping home ec partway through the semester.”

The doubt on Ren’s face is borderline offensive.

“Don’t you think you should be a little worried? It’s our senior year. This is it, you know?”

Taako rolls his eyes—hard—and slumps forward on the table, stretching out a hand. He lays it on top of one of hers. “Ren, please. Ren, not you too. Next you’re going to be telling me you want to buy class rings or sweatpants with our class year on the ass. I swear to all the gods you won’t peak in high school. Don’t do me like this.”

Ren laughs. It’s one of the reasons Taako likes her, her finding him funny. “There’s a difference between not wanting you to get expelled and thinking this is the high point of my life.”

“Expelled?”

Taako freezes in place and gives Ren a dirty look, then slowly turns to look at his sister. Lup is holding a lunch tray of her own—french fries and strawberry milk—and has a dark expression on her face.

“Hi, Lulu…”

“Don’t you Lulu me, Taako. What does Ren mean, expelled?” Lup sets her tray on the table with too much force and sits beside him, straddling the bench so she can stare him down. “Did you talk to Leon again? I told you to stay away.”

“Okay, it’s not fair that I don’t get to take artificing just because Leon can’t take a joke.” Taako considers lying, then makes a face. Suddenly working for the school paper and not being in home ec will be hard to hide. “But no. I made Rick cry and run out of the classroom today. He got worked up over it and tattled to Princi’port.”

Lup’s mouth betrays her, briefly, as she fights to repress a laugh and nearly fails. She closes her eyes for a moment, taking a breath and schooling her face. “Taako.”

“Lup, it’s fine. I’m working on the school paper for the rest of the semester for course credit. I just mail stuff in for someone to mark and send back.”

“Wait, we have a school paper?” Lup opens up her milk. “I didn’t know you could just do school by mail. I want to do mail school.”

Taako reaches out and tugs on a stand of Lup’s short hair. It’s an unfortunate mottled orange right now, after a failed attempt to bleach her ends and dye them red. “Grow this mess out and you can take the class for me,” he says, tossing his bleached blond braid over his shoulder. “Like when we were kids. I have to go figure out how the paper thing works after class today.”

“I’ll come too. Scope it out.” Lup dips one of her fries in Taako’s ketchup. “Sounds like it could be a pretty sweet gig and we don’t have any classes together this year.”

This is true. Taako and Lup are happiest when they’re inseparable, but in their time at Neverwinter High the school has caught on to the fact that keeping Lup and Taako apart was a much more manageable situation for their teachers. Even signing up for nearly identical course loads hasn’t kept them together this semester. And then there’s the whole participation thing Lup does, which Taako’s not a fan of. Her spending three nights a week practicing with the field hockey team means significantly less twin time overall.

Taako likes the idea of using this school paper as a loophole for them to exploit. “Knock yourself out. Ren, you ever want to be a journalist?”

“Can’t drop anything I’m taking now,” Ren says, making a face. “I mean, I guess I could drop home ec, but it’ll look good when I apply for restaurant management programs, so… sorry, Taako.”

Taako shrugs it off. “Your loss, homie.”

Ren is going to open a restaurant; Taako is going to be a baller wizard and her favourite customer.

Cooking is his passion. He’s really great at it—so is Lup, but Lup wants to go to the Institute of Planar Research. She’s all in on becoming a preeminent scholar and practicer of evocation magic and Taako’s not about to let her go off and get hella smart without him. But—while he sees the appeal of blowing shit up—what Taako’s really into is transmutation. Even the way he cooks, taking a bunch of ingredients and turning them into a cohesive dish,  is arguably a feat of transmutation because his dishes are magical, no matter what Rick thinks.

So he definitely doesn’t need Cooking and Baking II, because the Institute is going to be way more interested in his magicks and his core competency marks. Cooking and Baking II was just supposed to be… fun.

Under pain of death Taako will swear he’s not a planner, that he’s not the kind of person who sits down and maps out how his life is going to go—why bother, when everything changes?—but showing everyone who ever doubted the two of them how amazing the Taaco twins are has been his and Lup’s plan since they were kids. The Institute is a surefire way to do that, even if Taako does hate math.

“We’re going to turn the school paper I just found out about the fuck around,” Lup says, grinning and holding up her fist for Taako to bump.

He does, smiling at his sister. “Fuck yeah we are. Lucretia won’t know what hit her.”

*

The Neverwinter High library is big, but after school it’s almost completely empty. People have better things to do than hang out in a library that looks more like the set of a movie than a place for practical studying to occur. Taako suspects it’s where much of the school’s budget goes—it’s all dark wood and leather-bound books, discrete rows of elegant tables and faux fantasy Tiffany lamps. Garfield, the librarian, only ever seems to appear when someone is about to take out a granola bar or open a bottle of water, and even then he’s only around long enough to shuffle them out the door. Taako has yet to see him help anyone with their research.

The library is opulent and oppressive, grandly insistent on being acknowledged, but not as a place that welcomes students—most people study in the student lounge or one of the dorm common rooms.

Taako and Lup’s footsteps echo as they walk through it.

“We could be murdered here and no one would ever know,” Lup says. “Where did you say the school paper was?”

“Back corner.” Taako leads the way. The door to the paper’s headquarters is cracked open and voices filter through the gap.

“—a good thing if Principal Davenport is letting us stay open, Luce,” some nerd is saying. “He can’t be that bad.”

Taako gives the door an offended look, then flings it open dramatically. He just barely holds back the urge to cast Prestidigitation as he makes his grand entrance. If Lucretia’s talking shit already, then Taako’s going to make himself very visible. “What’s up, nerds?”

There are exactly two and a half people in the office: Lucretia, standing at the front of the room with a notebook bound in blue leather in her hands; a pasty human boy in the world’s worst glasses—who’s somehow getting away with wearing the most normie jeans Taako’s ever seen with the top half of his school uniform—and a kid whose uniform is not only perfectly tailored to his mini-body, but also includes a matching hat with an actual feather in it, making the baby the most fashionable person in the room besides Taako and Lup.

“Taako,” Lucretia says, greeting him with far more dignity than any seventeen-year-old should be able to muster. “And… you must be Lup.”

“I must be,” Lup agrees, wandering around the dingy little office. The difference between it and the library outside is stark. The walls are beige with a faded stripe of Neverwinter High blue wrapping around ceiling.  There’s a worn table in the center of the room with visible dents in the legs and all the seating in the room is an obvious hand-me-down: a few metal stools from the alchemy lab, a wooden chair with graffiti in poorly conjugated Elvish carved into the wood, and a monstrosity of a yellow armchair shoved off into the corner—Taako presumes out of shame. It’s mismatched and ugly as hell. It all pains Taako, but the absolute worst part of the room is the banner hanging behind Lucretia, over the chalkboard, which reads—in fantasy Comic Sans, of course—To Seek the Truth and Maintain Balance!

“We’ve already started our meeting if you’d like to take a seat,” Lucretia says. “We have a lot of work to do. Lup, are you joining the paper?” There’s something in her eyes that says ‘No, please gods.’

“Still figuring that out,” Lup says, pulling out the stool beside the denim-clad dude. “You’re Lucretia? Nice to meet you. Seems like you could use more girls here to balance things out a bit.”

Taako slumps over to Lup’s free side and sits, eying the kid on the opposite side of the table. “Did someone bring their son?”

The kid sits up straighter and adjusts his glasses. “I’m Angus McDonald, sir,” says Angus McDonald. “I’m in AP Elvish with you.”

Taako squints at Angus. He does recall a particularly short student in that class. “I think I assumed you were a halfling.”

“No, I’m human, sir,” Angus says. “Just a little boy.”

Well. Okay. Taako turns his attention to the guy sitting beside Lup. His face is light pink beneath his glasses. “What about you, thug? Got a name?”

“B-barry,” B-barry stutters. “I, uh, I’m… We have Magical Theory together?”

Taako twists the end of his braid in a hand and looks actually-probably-just-Barry over, then shrugs. “If you say so.”

“Oh, hey. You’re in artificing with me,” Lup says, grinning at Barry. “You’re the one who resurrected the bird that hit the window, right?”

Barry goes bright red. “Yes, that’s—it was an accident. I was just… startled.”

Sometimes Taako regrets his lifetime ban from Leon’s classes. Not often, but sometimes.

“No, it was hilarious,” Lup says, grinning. “I thought Greg Grimmaldis was going to shit himself.”

Lucretia clears her throat. “Now that we’ve got introductions out of the way, could we focus?” she asks. “Taako, Lup, you should know that the school’s paper is on thin ice. I’ve struggled to keep it going since I became editor two years ago. And I’ve made improvements, but without a budget or sustained interest, this might be the last year the Neverwinter High News runs.”

Taako wrinkles his nose at the name. “Our school paper is just called The News? I think I found your first problem. Nobody’s interested in reading something that’s just called The News.”

“We inherited the name,” Lucretia says. “That’s not important. What really matters is the content.”

“Well, sure, but you’ve got to convince people to read your paper first.” Taako sees a light at the end of the tunnel, a way to make this situation not totally dull. “What you need is a rebranding. Stir up interest again. Lup, what was it you said to me today when I told you I was going to work on the school paper?”

“I said, ‘We have a school paper?’” Lup grins at Taako, leaning her elbows on the table. “A rebranding sounds fun. Make the paper sexier.”

“It’s a school paper. It’s not supposed to be sexy,” Lucretia says. “One of our reporters is ten.”

“They have a point,” Barry says.

Taako knew there was something good lurking behind those glasses.

“If the paper is becoming a real course, why can’t we revamp it? We could really make it ours, Lucretia. I know you’ve wanted to institute more changes. We could do a relaunch and drum up more interest in the work we’re doing.”

Lucretia stares at the three of them, obviously fighting the urge to reject Taako and Lup’s proposal out of hand. She sighs and throws her hands up in the air. “Okay, sure,” she says. “It wouldn’t hurt to get a little more creative with the paper. And it is a bad name.” Lucretia sits at the head of the table, on one of the stools, and opens her notebook. “If we’re really serious about this, then there are a few things we need to do. Everyone needs to register for the course, obviously. We’ll spend a day brainstorming new names for the paper, but I’m putting my foot down on the layout. We’re not turning this into a magazine, and besides, it’s already going to be a steep learning curve for our two new members without making all five of us learn an entirely new system. We’ll have to decide on assignments for everyone. I think we’ll be able to produce more than a broadside with the additional people power. Maybe a whole spread. If it’s for class credit, we can justify the time.”

Taako has no idea what any of this terminology means. Well, he can intuit what layout means via context clues, but the broad-whatever is beyond him.

“Hold up,” he says. “Broad-what?”

Lucretia looks up at Taako. The despair she feels is plain as day on her face. “A broadside is a single page, double-sided sheet of newspaper,” she says. “With just three of us working on the paper, that’s all we were able to push out for our first issue. A full spread broadsheet will mean four pages of content. It’ll be more work, but more impressive too. You really don’t know anything about journalism, do you?”

“Nope,” Taako agrees. “Not a thing. Simple, idiot wizard. That’s me.”

Lup kicks him under the table. “Don’t be a dick, Taako. This terminology stuff will be in the homework for the course, right? We’ll catch up.”

Lucretia nods, looking down at the list she made in her notebook again. “Good. We need to work fast if we want to relaunch in time for our next publication date. We’ve only got a week until the next issue is supposed to be out.” She springs off the stool and marches to the blackboard. “We’ll stick to our bi-monthly schedule. We’ll all need to provide some content. Barry, Angus, and I can handle the bulk of the work this time around, since the two of you have to catch up with the rest of us. Maybe you can do an article each?”

Lucretia’s writing is precise as she scrawls out their names in a neat row on the blackboard and underlines each. She turns back to the table. “Barry, Angus—what have you got?”

“Reporting on the Board of Governors meetings this month,” Angus says, flipping open a notepad. “There’s some interesting stuff about scholarship funding and the school’s public image. I could do an op-ed on the state of the library as well. It focuses heavily on research, but doesn’t have a robust fiction collection. I’d say that’s a downfall for the breadth that should be expected of us, as students at one of the most prestigious schools in Faerun, and especially for a boarding school. It makes it more difficult to read for pleasure.”

Barry and Lucretia nod like these aren’t the most boring ideas they’ve ever heard.

“I want to do a piece on what students are creating in the artificing classes,” Barry said. “I think it’s really interesting what people come up with based on the materials available to us. I can feature a few objects and get some good quotes, I think. And I’ll do the profile piece this month. Jenkins agreed to be featured.”

“I’ll cover the spending cuts to the school paper and our subsequent rebranding,” Lucretia says. “We can make that a whole sheet. Each of us can say a little about what we want to get out of the class and why it’s important. Plus my usual editorial work and the illustrations for the paper.” She looks at Taako and Lup after she finishes writing all the story ideas down. “Taako, Lup—any ideas?”

“Yeah,” Taako says. “What about something interesting? This is… tragic. No wonder people don’t read the paper.”

Lup kicks him again, which is just rude because all he’s doing is being honest. “What Taako means is that you need something with a little flair. Horoscopes or an advice column or, I don’t know, cover the sports teams.”

Lucretia glances at the board and then looks back at Taako and Lup. “One of you can cover sports,” she says. “It’s true that they’re a large part of student life. It might encourage people to become more invested in reading the paper if there were more human interest pieces. I don’t think we should waste column inches on horoscopes though.”

“I’ll do sports,” Lup says, shrugging. “I can write about the field hockey game on Saturday. Our team doesn’t get enough exposure anyway. Taako can do an advice column.”

Lucretia opens her mouth to protest, but Taako beats her to the punch. “Hell yeah,” he says. “I give the best advice. I can totally do that.”

“I really don’t—”

“If Taako does an advice column, he won’t have to do the research for a full article,” Barry says. “I think it’s a good idea. Lup covering her own game and Taako doing something light means they’ll have time to catch up with everything else.”

Across the table, Angus nods. “It would be good to have some lighter material for the backpage. Maybe we can include a book review too? That would be nice.”

Taako can think of a million things nicer than a book review, but since it currently seems like he’s going to get away with bullshitting his way through an advice column and it’s going to count for course credit, he keeps his mouth shut.

Lucretia looks around the table at her team, and then writes Taako and Lup’s new roles on the board—advice and sports respectively. Angus gets ‘book review’ added to his list of assignments. “We can rotate who does the review,” she says. “You’re right, Angus. It’ll be a fun piece to include. Now, are we all clear on what tasks we need—”

There’s a knock on the door and then it swings open and Magnus Burnsides pokes his head into the room.

“Sorry I’m late,” he says. “This is the school paper, right? Cool. I’m Magnus.”

Magnus Burnsides is one of the basketball team’s star players. He’s cheerfully friendly with most people, but is also regularly involved in fights. Most have nothing to do with him when they start, but somehow he manages to insert himself into them anyway.

It’s the kind of chaotic energy Taako would normally approve of, except that Taako’s antics are viewed by the teaching staff at Neverwinter High with antacid-fueled dread and Magnus’s are met with an indulgent forbearance that is completely and utterly unfair.

Also, Magnus and Lup get on like a house on fire and Taako’s not down with that.

Lucretia, Barry, and Angus look like they’re having similar mixed feelings about one of the most popular boys in school showing up unannounced to their meeting. Lup looks delighted.

“Magnus, are you… joining the paper?” Lucretia asks, as if it pains her to do so. The answer is already an obvious yes.

Magnus wanders into the room, walking around the table to take a seat next to Angus. “Yeah,” he says. “Principal Davenport said it would be a good way to boost my GPA this year. Make me more well-rounded for applications, you know?”

Davenport is evil and Taako takes back every charitable thought he’s ever had about the gnome.

“Well, we… that…” Lucretia looks around the room, for support from some quarter. When none is forthcoming, she nods. “I suppose we can’t object. We were just going over assignments for the upcoming issue. Have you… do you have much experience?”

“Nope, none,” Magnus says. “What do you want me to do?”

There is a long, uncomfortable pause while all eyes turn to the board and the assignments written on it. Taako is gratified to note that the trepidation over his assignment was based on the work itself and not on preconceived notions about his capabilities.

“Magnus can cover the boys’ basketball game,” Lup says. “It’s only fair, since I’m doing my game. We can all work out other things to do later.” She holds up a hand to high-five Magnus, who slaps their palms together eagerly.

“Fuck yeah, teamwork!” Magnus turns to Lucretia. “I like dogs too. Could you use anything about dogs?”

“I don’t… I don’t think we need a column on dogs right now,” Lucretia says. “You can do basketball. We should introduce ourselves.”

“Barry, Lup, Taako, Lucretia, Angus, right?” Magnus asks, going around the room and pointing to each of them in turn. “It’s cool. I know who you are.”

Barry’s face has a clear why on it, but he nods. “Great,” he says. “So… good first meeting of the new team? Come back next time with ideas for a new name?”

“Tomorrow after school,” Lucretia says. “Come back with your course paperwork filled out and with ideas for a new name for the paper. I know some of our new members have other obligations after classes some days, but if you miss the meeting or you’re late tomorrow, I’m afraid you won’t be able to continue on with us. We need everyone to take this seriously if we’re going to make it work. We’ll work out our future schedule after that.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” Taako says, saluting and getting to his feet. “I’m just dying to fill out some forms. Lup, let’s bounce.”

Lup stands too, drumming her knuckles against the table. “Later, nerds.”

They leave the room the same way they entered it—with panache. Lup seems pleased with how the meeting went.

“This is going to be fun,” she says. “Course credit for writing about things I’m doing anyway? Well done, Taako.”

Taako snorts. “You’re the one who suggested an advice column. I can’t believe they’re going to let me do that. What a con.”

They high-five too, grinning at each other.

“I’m going to come up with the best names,” Lup says. “The Neverwinter Never-read. The Neverwinter Gnome’s Notes. Because of Princi’port.”

“You’re thinking too small,” Taako says, shaking his head. “Scale it up. I’m coming in with something epic. I don’t have it yet, but check this space. It’s going to kick ass.”

“Bet I can do better, baby bro. It’ll be my legacy. The best newspaper name this school has ever had.” Lup laughs and knocks their shoulders together.

It’s good to have a class with her again, even if it is a weird correspondence journalism course Taako was essentially tricked into signing up for. They’re going to make this work.

“Infamy or bust.”

*

The thing about an uptight school like Neverwinter High is that when you make your teachers cry, almost get expelled, and generally “act out” like Taako does, they try and make you talk about your feelings. It’s annoying and bad and Taako hates it, but as far as counselor’s go, Merle Highchurch isn’t the worst. He doesn’t try to force Taako to talk about anything he doesn’t want to talk about and he’s not a complete asshole.

He is a weird hippie and a cleric, but Taako can deal with that in exchange for Merle never looking at him with pity over some childhood bullshit Taako feels nothing about.

Taako knocks on the door to Merle’s office, after parting ways with Lup, and opens it to the sight of Merle stroking the shiny leaves of his largest ficus, a watering can in his prosthetic hand.

“Should I come back?” Taako asks. “Do you two want some privacy?”

Merle’s office holds an alarming number of houseplants. Taako spends most of his appointments trying really hard not to think about Merle’s probable fetish. He’s walked in on Merle having private conversations with plants before and it’s a bad scene.

Merle stops petting his shiny-leafed plant and moves to the row of succulents on the windowsill, watering them without turning to look at Taako. “I heard you made another teacher cry today.”

“I've only done it twice.” Taako closes the door behind himself and drops into one of Merle’s chairs. Honestly, breaking Mr. Rick has been a long time coming. Taako’s been open about his contempt for the man from the get go. “Does Pan know you’re a gossip, Merle? Rick’s a loser anyway.”

Merle keeps sedately watering his plants and Taako bounces a foot against the leg of his chair. Merle’s office is small and the sheer volume of plants makes it feel even smaller. It’s kind of nice though. Bringing the outside in and all that jazz.

“I have another course lined up,” Taako says, when there’s nothing more forthcoming from Merle. “Princi’port had it all worked out by the time I got to his office. I’m taking journalism.”

There’s silence from the window as Merle painstakingly waters his plants. “We don’t... have a journalism class,” he says, after a moment.

“We do now,” Taako says. “Sort of. It’s correspondence.”

Merle lets out a bark of hoarse laughter and Taako’s head whips around to level a glare at him. Counselors aren’t supposed to laugh at students. He’s one hundred percent sure of that.

Merle’s turned away from his plants and is grinning at Taako, his one good eye twinkling with deep, deep amusement. “You got LEARNING AT MY OWN PACE’d, didn’t you?”

Fuck Taako’s life. “I did not,” he says. “Not really. Lup’s taking the class too.”

“Sure,” Merle says. “You going to tell me what you did to Mr. Rick to make him cry? Because so far I’ve heard stories ranging from you setting today’s recipe on fire to eating all the ham in the home ec room.”

“Why would I eat that much ham?” Taako shakes his head. “This school fucking sucks. I thought Princi’port would have told you.” He lets out an exaggerated sigh. “I guess technically the ham thing’s the closest? I didn’t set anything on fire. I’m not Lup. Rick had us making ham sandwiches. I made a croque monsieur because Taako isn’t a hack and it’s technically a ham sandwich too.” Taako shrugs, artful and indifferent. “Rick didn’t want to eat it. I told him to take a bite. The class decided they also wanted him to try it. I can’t help it if I occasionally inspire my fellow students to rise up against the tyranny of bad cooking.”

Merle sets his watering can down, crosses his arms over his chest as he leans back against the window ledge. “And now they’re going to teach you how to broadcast your thoughts to the world at large?”

“Scale it down a bit,” Taako says. “Princi’port only made me join the school paper.”

Merle’s eyebrows raise. “So what you’re saying is, in response to you starting a revolt in a single home ec class, Principal Davenport is giving you open access to the press?”

Taako pauses, tilts his head. “Huh,” he says. “I don’t think he thought this through.”

Merle pushes off the wall and walks over to take a seat behind his desk. Unlike Principal Davenport, he’s actually got furniture more or less scaled to work for him. Maybe it’s an administrator thing and Davenport can’t spend money on accommodations for himself. Merle leans back in his office chair and rests his hands on his stomach.

Merle doesn’t pretend to dress professionally. Taako’s fairly certain he’s never seen him wear anything other than his Hawaiian shirts and khaki shorts. The lack of bullshit Merle provides is actually pretty refreshing after a full day of wading through classes at Neverwinter High.

“Do you want to talk about why you felt the need to antagonize Mr. Rick today?”

Taako gives Merle an unimpressed look. “I could talk about it, but it seems like a real waste of both of our time. He’s a shitty teacher and a shitty cook. He wouldn’t last a day doing it for a living. The people would rebel the way his class did today. There’s no tears in the kitchen.”

“Uh-huh,” Merle says. “Look, Taako, you know I like you. That ship’s sailed. Can’t pretend I like Rick too much either, and his class is a joke, but we’ve talked about this before.”

Taako’s pretty sure they haven’t had an in-depth discussion about Taako making people cry before, unless Merle’s referring to when Taako was first mandated to attend these sessions, following the whole Leon thing. “Have we?”

“Self-sabotage.” Merle spreads his hands. “We both know you could have taken an easy A in home ec, but now you’re in a correspondence journalism class and working for the school paper.”

“Like fuck was I going to sit around and let Rick tell me how to make a fucking sandwich,” Taako says. He digs his nails into the palms of his hands. “That’s bullshit. It’s not self-sabotage to not compromise your—your integrity for a fucking grade.”

Merle considers this for a moment, then smiles. “I think the paper’s going to be a good place for you, kid,” he says. “I’ll let Dav know we hashed things out.”

Taako doesn’t get what Merle thinks they’ve done, but he grabs his tote bag off the floor and slings it over his shoulder regardless. He doesn’t need to know to be glad he can leave. The appointment’s over and he can go back to his dorm.

“Cool. Good talk, Merle,” he said, getting to his feet. “Glad I cleared my afternoon for this. See you next week or the next time someone sends me here. Whichever comes first.”

“Have a good evening, Taako.”

Taako’s mostly planning on eating fantasy instant ramen in his room and passing the fuck out, maybe doing some homework, but that’s not any of Merle’s business.

Merle’s next appointment is waiting in the hall outside his office already when Taako leaves. It’s not anyone Taako recognizes—some underclassman orc with emo hair—but the kid leans away when he sees Taako, so obviously Taako’s reputation proceeds him. That’s fine. Taako doesn’t know what this kid thinks he’d do to a stranger in front of the school counselor’s office, but okay. Obviously not one of the brighter problem students at school.

Taako ignores him and heads for his dorm. He’s good at ignoring people. It’s one of his Taako’s defining characteristics. Taako is aloof and detached and generally not interested in whatever the fuck is going on in other people’s lives. He has a small, carefully cultivated circle of two people he likes, and even that’s pushing things a bit. He doesn’t really understand Lup’s willingness to just… care about other people.

They’ve got each other. Who really needs more than that?

*

At Neverwinter High, some seniors get single dorms. It’s the perfect way to top off four years at one of the best high schools in the world. Having your own room is a privilege earned through things like academic excellence. It involves perkily making friends, joining clubs, having a long list of extracurriculars, and stellar grades—not cultivating a fearsome reputation that has teachers cowering and begging not to have you in their class.

By all rights, Taako shouldn’t have a room to himself, but Taako knows how to play the long game. He’s had four roommates and three of them—Avi, Lucas, and Brad—begged to be rehoused before the end of their first semester living together. Pringles doesn’t count because even during freshman year he’d been almost perpetually stoned. And so, after a reign of terror characterized primarily by Taako just… being himself while in their shared space—clothes everywhere, always, very little respect for his room mates’ things—he’d been given the gift of a single room.

His clothes have more or less colonized the entire floor. Taako opens the door and kicks a uniform skirt out of his path—they’re a dime a dozen and he’s pretty sure this particular skirt is actually Lup’s—and drops his tote bag as he walks in.

He uses his feet to clear a path to the bed, flopping down face first into his pillow as soon as he reaches it.

He has paperwork for the journalism course to fill out and plans to make fantasy ramen, but the mattress feels pretty nice now that he’s on it, and if Taako’s honest, the reality of instant ramen just makes him feel sad for the world. When he and Lup were younger and still travelling in caravans, they’d had six months of really good ramen—been taught to make broth rich with pork fat and bone marrow by one of the cooks they met on the road. Rich broth that coated your tongue and was cloudy with flavour. Broth that didn’t come out of a sad little powder packet, dyed an artificially bright yellow.

The food in the cafeteria isn’t much better than instant soup. Then again, considering what Rick teaches students to think of as cooking, that’s understandable. For a fancy school, the food standards at Neverwinter High are real low. If the dorms had actual kitchens or students were allowed hot plates, Taako could make things work, but instead he’s been using Cooking and Baking II as a way to show off his true talents, to try to educate his classmates about real food.

Making Rick cry was totally worth the blow of losing that outlet. Taako wouldn’t take it back.

He rolls onto his side, his back to the door and his bag sitting on the floor beside it. The paperwork can wait for tomorrow.