There was no need, Shiro told himself for the upteenth time, to be nervous about opening a glass door. He’d stood in front of identical ones countless times in the last two years, knocked on the same embossed PRINCIPAL titles in gold and turned the same handles. For as much joy as raising Pidge had brought him, she’d also brought a lot of trouble. The first year he’d blamed it on his lack of experience in discipling a kid who rolled her eyes when he used his “Air Force voice,” the second year he blamed it on moving to Phoenix from Tucson and the observatory that kept her occupied. But now he was coming to terms with the fact that Pidge was a kid who got into messes for any reason and no reason at all.
He’d been hopeful about being stationed in Florida. “Cape Canaveral, right near the space center!” he told her when he got the news. Pidge only moaned that the humidity would make her glasses fog up. He picked a middle school where many of his pilot friends sent their own kids and hoped that with time, she’d settle down.
It was now four months in and already he was here to speak with her principal about a suspension.
“Go on in!” the secretary told him, clasping a phone between his left ear and shoulder as his fingers attacked the keyboard in front of him. Shiro recognized his cheerful accent from the phone call: Hello! This is Coran calling from JFK Middle School! Er, I’m very sorry to tell you that Katie got into a fight this morning and it looks like we’ll need to talk about the penalties for it. Shiro nodded to him and the secretary’s red head disappeared as he ducked under the desk to rifle through a filing cabinet.
No backing down now. Shiro squared his shoulders and turned the knob.
As a kid, Shiro had never been on familiar terms with his own principals. He was the kid who was only called to the office to be congratulated on his perfect attendance record, or to pick up a lunch his mom had noticed he’d forgotten at home. With Pidge, it was different. Principals always gave him the same look, a kind of pained neutrality that masked a deeper annoyance, a scowl that said I don’t want to be the bad guy, but what the hell is wrong with your kid? In the past he’d managed to win some over with the tired-military-man-raising-a-foster-child sympathy act, but the other airmen with families at the school warned him against this before he left to pick up Pidge.
“That new Miss Shahzadi is total hardass,” they said. “Great lady, but won’t take any bullshit. She runs the bakesales like a Fortune 500.”
From this description, Shiro was expecting to be welcomed by a squat, middle-aged nag with decades-old frown lines and a silver librarian bun. Instead, he found himself facing a tall, athletic woman who couldn’t be a day over thirty-five, whose short hair fanned around her face in tight curls. He was at least right about the color, but Miss Shahzadi’s silver locks were clearly a product of fashion, not age.
“Sergeant Shirogane,” she greeted him with a crisp British accent and a very firm handshake, “I’m Allura Shahzadi. Thank you for coming on such short notice. Pardon me for asking, but have we met before?”
“No.” Shiro noted with a slight panic that not only was Miss Shahzadi incredibly good-looking, but also immaculately dressed. He didn’t even have time to change out of his fatigues before leaving the airbase. “We only moved here a few months back, so I didn’t make the New Parent Orientation at the beginning of the year. I’ve tried to come to a few PTA meetings but I never get Thursdays off.”
“I see,” she said. “Well, it just so happens we have one coming up on Monday next week, so I hope to see you there.” It was not a request. She gestured at the chair in front of him—hard-backed, no cushion—and waited for him to sit down before settling herself at her desk.
“So,” she began, folding her hands, “did Coran tell you why Katie was sent to my office this morning?”
“He said that she got into a fight.” Shiro fought to sound calm; he’d spent the whole ride over thinking about Pidge with twin black eyes and a split lip, set upon by burly eighth-graders. “Is she okay? Was someone picking on her?”
“As it happens, your daughter was actually the one who started the ruckus. Apparently she and a boy in her homeroom, Lance Sanchez, were arguing over the action scenes in some movie before first period started. The teacher heard Lance say that women couldn’t hit as hard as men can, and then Katie punched him in the face.”
Shiro stared at her, dumbfounded.
“His nose looks pretty bad, but luckily nothing was broken,” Miss Shahzadi added. “I heard his side of the story before calling you and he confirmed the facts. He even conceded that Katie won the argument, though he was still quite unhappy with the way she chose to make her point. His parents aren’t going to ask for a more severe punishment since no lasting harm has been done, not to mention he and Katie are usually very good friends. I won’t even think they’ll need counseling.”
“I’m sorry,” Shiro said, feeling somewhat like he’d landed on another planet, “you’re saying Pidge—Katie—punched some kid just to win a fight about who’s better at punching?”
Miss Shahzadi glanced to the side, seeming to consider the ridiculousness of this statement.
“Yes,” she confirmed, “exactly.”
She took his stunned silence as a cue to continue.
“Katie’s never been in serious trouble before, but school policy dictates that all participants in a physical altercation must face a week’s suspension.” Miss Shahzadi slid a piece of paper across the desk to him, the heading outlining the school code of conduct. “It further defines participation as making or returning any violent advance, so I’m afraid I must suspend Katie and not Lance, as he didn’t retaliate. I know it seems drastic in this somewhat…unconventional situation, but rules are rules.”
Maybe it was the shock on his face that did it, but Miss Shahzadi softened somewhat. “For what it’s worth, I think Katie is a very gifted girl. She’s excelled in academics here and I know that one mark on her record won’t hold much against her in high school, so long as she continues to apply herself and stay out of trouble. Her detentions aren’t many, but they will stack up over time if she doesn’t change her habits. Perhaps this suspension will even help her shape up in the long run.”
“Well, uh,” Shiro scanned the paper, the words starting to blur together, “that’s good, I guess? I don’t really believe in scare tactics but I don’t believe in punching people for argument’s sake either, so I’m not going to fight you about the suspension. Do they really keep her records from the seventh grade all the way through high school?”
“Ah.” Miss Shahzadi’s eyes took on a knowing look. They were also a distractingly bright shade of blue. “You’re really new to this, aren’t you, Sergeant?”
“You can call me Shiro, but yeah,” he sighed. “I thought it’d get easier after the sixth grade. I had to relearn perfect verb tenses to help with her grammar homework. It wasn’t pretty. And I doubt moving her three times in two years has helped her make friends.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. I’ve seen Katie run around with the same group for a few weeks now. Lance Sanchez and Keith Gyeong are all bark and no bite, and Hani Akana is president of the Cooking Club. Forgiving today’s incident, they’re as harmless as could be.”
She paused, drumming her nails against the desk blotter. “Look, I know it can be intimidating to dive headfirst into the middle school years. I’ll tell you what: we’ll set up a time to do a mini version of the New Parent Orientation to get you up to speed. Why don’t you come by after school on Monday, before the meeting starts? Coran will email you everything you need to know.”
“Yeah, sure, that sounds great,” Shiro agreed, chastising himself for sounding too eager. His kid was still suspended, after all. He stood up to take his leave. “Really, I’m so sorry we had to meet like this. Thank you for everything, Miss Shahzadi.”
“It’s no trouble at all! But if I’m calling you Shiro, you’re calling me Allura.”
At the door she saluted him, palm-out in the British style. It was the cleanest salute he’d ever seen, more perfect than a drill instructor’s, and somehow really, really hot. Shiro carefully chose to remark only on the first two observations.
“I should hope it is.” Allura nodded to a framed diploma on the wall. “You’re speaking to a Dartmouth grad and a former Captain of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines.”
Half of his brain wasn’t surprised. Who else but a seasoned vet could handle hundreds of puberty-stricken teenagers for five days a week, nine months a year? But the other half was blown away. Before he could stop himself, Shiro blurted, “How in the world does a British naval officer wind up as a middle school principal in southern Florida?”
To his surprise, a small smile crossed Allura’s face. “That's a very long story.” She held the door for him, propping it open with her hip. “Perhaps I’ll tell you at the next PTA meeting.”
The smile was still there as he stepped into the main office. To Shiro’s despair, it was ten times hotter than her salute. She gave him a parting handshake—that steel grip again—and because it seemed that despite having no relation, he and Pidge were built of the same stupid, impulsive nature, he took a shot.
“Or you could tell me over dinner,” he offered, her hand still in his, "tomorrow night?”
Allura froze, her face slipping slowly into a look of suspicion. Behind him, Coran was having a very loud conversation with a school sports equipment salesman, haggling over the price of basketballs. All of them flinched as the piercing chime of the class bell rang over the PA, signaling the end of third period. It was, without a doubt, the worst time and place Shiro ever could have chosen to try for a date.
He was preparing to apologize for losing most of his tact and all of his charm in one half-hour meeting when Allura spoke up.
“Sergeant,” she said slowly, in the same can-you-tell-me-what’s-wrong-with-this-picture tone his superior officers used when they spotted a mistake during a plane inspection, “did you just ask me out to try to alleviate your daughter’s punishment?”
“No! I mean I did ask you out, but not to get Pidge out of anything, believe me!” Shiro immediately backpedaled, “But please don’t make her suspension worse, either! In fact, forget I said anything and deal with her as if I never came in at all, treat her like any other kid who punched a friend and we’ll act like—“
“Alright,” Allura shrugged. Shiro caught his breath with relief, but figured it was safest to ask for clarification.
“‘Alright’ meaning Pidge won’t get a double suspension and you won’t hold this against me on Monday?”
“‘Alright’ meaning so long as you have no ulterior motive, yes, I will have dinner with you.” That smile dawned again as she crossed her arms, leaning against the door frame. “Your personal number is the same one listed in the emergency contact information, correct? I’ll call you tonight to give you my address. And I’m a vegetarian, just so you’re aware.”
Shiro was at a complete loss for words. When he found them again, the only one he could manage was a simple, “Okay.”
Pidge wouldn’t meet his eyes when he collected her from her chair in the hall.
“So I’m grounded for a month and suspended forever?” she guessed, her voice flat with defeat.
“A week doesn’t last forever,” Shiro said, “but you got the first part right.” He tugged her to his side as they walked, a lazy half-hug that knocked her glasses askew. Pidge grumbled as she straightened them, but didn’t pull away.
“I guess even you couldn’t beat The Queen,” she sighed, hoisting her backpack over one shoulder. “I thought she’d go easy on me if I pulled the foster kid card, but she just sent me to the counselor right after detention.”
Shiro frowned. “Why do you call her ‘The Queen?’”
“At first kids said it because her accent was funny,” explained Pidge, "but then the Galra boys beat up a fifth-grader and Miss Shahzadi expelled them. Their parents said they’d get her kicked out of the school.” Pidge grinned, clearly excited about the story. “They were yelling so loud that Class 3B could hear down the hall! And Miss Shahzadi told them go ahead and try, the school board would be on her side, she was going by the book. And then she said that getting expelled still wouldn’t fix their kids’ attitude problems. It was awesome! So she's The Queen.”
Shiro hummed in acknowledgment that he understood, even though he really didn’t. What he’d learned very quickly about parenting was that sometimes you had to pretend like everything your kid said made perfect sense. If he was being honest, he was also slightly distracted, thinking about what on earth he was going to wear the next night that would impress a woman who actually dared angry parents to take her to the school board. He had to ask Pidge to repeat herself when he noticed that she’d asked him a question as they got into the car.
“I said, did you like her?"
“Who, Miss Shahzadi?” Pidge nodded. Shiro floundered for the best way to seem non-committal with his answer. Pidge would find out about the dinner soon enough, but every parenting guide said you should let the kid think about the consequences of their actions for at least one night in order for them to really learn, so he didn’t want to change the subject. “She’s…a fair judge, from what it sounds like. She said this shouldn’t hurt your records for high school as long as you keep your grades up, and you and that Sanchez kid won’t have to go to counseling since she knows you usually get along great. Which I didn’t know, by the way,” he added, unable to keep all of the hurt out of his words. “Why didn’t you tell me you made friends?”
Pidge shrugged, already deeply absorbed in some game on her phone. “They’re just a bunch of weird guys. The popular kids made fun of us because we all suck at gym, and then we kinda started sitting together at lunch. It’s not a big deal.” She puffed out her bottom lip and blew her bangs out of her eyes. “Hunk—that’s Hani, my lab partner—did ask me to come over and test out his new computer this weekend, if I wanted…”
“Nice try,” Shiro chuckled, “but still grounded.”
“Shit. I knew you’d take The Queen’s side.”
“Language,” Shiro warned. “And I’m only following the rules, just like she is.” He paused. “Do you like Miss Shahzadi, Pidge?”
“I dunno.” Pidge’s thumbs flew across her phone screen, the tiny chimes of the app increasing in tempo. “She’s nice to me, I guess. Last week I was the only kid in detention so she let me hang out with her and Coran in the office. I fixed her espresso machine and she told me I’d make a good rocket scientist. Keith says he heard she has a black belt too.”
“Yeah. But Keith also believes in Bigfoot, so I don’t know if he was lying or not.” Pidge finally clicked the lock button on her phone, tucking it into the pocket of her hoodie. “It’d be pretty cool if she did, though. I bet she could beat you up.”
“Wow,” Shiro took one hand off the wheel to yank Pidge’s hood over her eyes, “you’d really cheer for her over your old man?”
“You’re not old!” Pidge protested, smoothing her hair back in place. “You’re like, thirty-one! And Miss Shahzadi could totally take you down. When I got sent to the office, she asked me how I hit Lance and when I told her, she said I did it wrong. You’re supposed to aim with your first two knuckles, like this.” She mimed throwing a punch at the dashboard. “Then she said Lance learned his lesson for being misogynistic, which means thinking girls can’t do all the stuff guys do. I think she would’ve let me off if the teacher hadn’t seen it, or if his nose didn’t bleed so much.
“So yeah,” a crooked grin finally blossomed on Pidge’s face, “I guess I do like her.”
Shiro couldn’t resist messing with her hood again, laughing as Pidge tried feebly to defend herself.
“Hey Shiro,” she asked as they pulled up to a red light, “grounded means no visiting Hunk over the weekend, but does it also mean no ice cream?”
He wracked his brain, but couldn’t remember anything in the parenting books that forbade taking your kid for a sundae on muggy Florida morning, especially if you just realized that you would have a week’s worth of lunches to make now that the cafeteria wasn’t feeding them every day, and you were fresh out of groceries.
He settled on, “I don’t know. What would your principal say about it?”
“She’d say, ‘Katie deserves comfort during this turbulent time in her young adult life, Sergeant Shirogane.’” Pidge fluttered her eyelashes, pitching into a very exaggerated, very inaccurate Cockney lilt. “‘Buying her a gigantic chocolate milkshake is the only comfort you can provide. Also, please make some of those red velvet cupcakes with the cream cheese icing for the PTA meeting on Monday because those are my favorite, and once I have one I’m definitely going to fall madly in love with you even if our date goes super badly.’”
Pidge didn’t listen to his Air Force voice, but Shiro could still get her with his Air Force glare.
“Sorry,” she confessed, hunching into her seat, “I was trying to listen at the outer door. I was really afraid I was going to get expelled. I thought you’d be so mad at me that we’d have to move again, or…y’know.”
The light turned green. Shiro flicked his turn signal on and reached over to squeeze Pidge’s shoulder.
“Okay,” he said, “one gigantic chocolate milkshake it is.”