Linda Boyd stood in the hallway of her high school's main building, discreetly off to the side, letting the bulk of an old cupboard partially hide her as she watched the students streaming through the door on their first day back.
She wasn't fooling anyone. She did this every year, a habit almost as old as her career. She was too busy to keep up with what most of the students were up to throughout the year - her attention was reserved for the most troublesome cases - but at least she could have a good look at everyone now and make a note of anyone who caught her eye. As far as she was concerned, this had more than amply proved to be a good use of her time. She always stood in the same spot; after the second bell rang and she'd written down the names of everyone who was late she would return to her office, staple the sheets in her clipboard together and archive them with the ones from the previous 17 years.
Every little detail mattered, after all; managing a school was all about preserving order amidst chaos. She repeated that to herself over and over, like a mantra, even as reality fought hard to erode her hard-earned sanity. Because this year was already shaping up to be the worst she'd ever experienced.
There were more people flowing through the door than ever before; more people, but far fewer students than last year. A few months ago Linda had naively expected that everything would be solved by now, that the people running this country would have fixed their mess, but... no. Parliament bickered and squabbled and then went into recess without doing anything. In retrospect, that wasn't too surprising, based on their previous track record.
Linda understood that these kids weren't to be blamed for the virus that made obsessed people, people with a crush, crushers, shrink - and that it *was* important for society to adapt such that the affected, the little people, could live in comfort and safety; she wasn't one of those bigots who despised them. But as long as the poorly written legislation remained in place, anyone affected could be owned by anyone else - regardless of age, situation and previous relationship - the only requirement was for the legal guardian to truly be an object of obsession for the shrunken crusher, and to be themselves unaffected by a crush. A recipe for disaster, written by overpaid idiots. Worse, it was legally irreversible.
Which is why the french language teacher, Gerard Meier, now stood by the door. His job today was to request of all students who came in with an Extra - a little person under their guardianship - their government-issued Extra card and to write down the Extra's ID Number, so they could later be validated using the appropriate government website. Linda had figured one teacher would be enough for the task.
She should have assigned three. She had stupidly ignored the early warning posed by the gaps in student registration... Her worst fears had come to pass. Rather than subsiding during the summer, the misguided *fashion* among her students of becoming each other's guardians had accelerated. There were two types of teenagers walking in through the door; most of them were tall, confident, boisterous. And they carried or towed at least one little Extra with them. Many had two, which was bad enough. Some had as many as three, which was nearly inconceivable.
The second type of student was in the minority. They had no Extras... Yet. Most of these were the freshmen, and they were going through that door for the first time. Most of the freshmen and their few remaining elder peers stared at the kids with extras in obvious horror and concern, which Linda could understand perfectly, and some of them looked awed, which concerned her a lot more. She noted down a few, memorizing their faces for later confirmation. She had a great memory for faces.
A group of students moved out of Gerard's station and she frowned. There was so much that was wrong about their demeanor she couldn't resist. She stepped into the middle of the hallway, raising a hand. "Stop," she said.
The kids halted immediately and their inquisitive eyes fixed on her. "Good morning, Mrs. Boyd," a couple of them said politely. She had previously noted, without paying too much attention, how tall her students were this year, but as she stopped in front of them, she couldn't help but remark *how* tall. Jesus, what did they feed these kids nowadays? Based on her recollection they'd all grown during the summer.
The tallest of these, right front and center of group, was Max, a first class troublemaker. Friendly, polite, cleanly dressed, Linda could never find anything to criticize about his behavior - he'd even been the first to greet her just now. But she knew he was the leader of this gang, and she'd never forget he'd been the first to become an Extra's guardian, kicking off this whole mess. Closing in on 2m, he loomed above her, reminding her of his brother, who had graduated last year, though he cut a much more slender figure. He seemed healthy and tanned. The crew cut he used to have during his first few months as a freshman was long gone, and his blond hair was now neatly combed.
"You can't bring a child with you to school," Linda said, calmly pointing up. A chubby infant in a onesie sat on Max's shoulders, placidly looking down on her. He had a pacifier in his mouth.
"He's my little brother and Extra, Mrs. Boyd," Max said, and gestured back to Gerard. "Mr. Meier has his EIN."
Linda frowned. "But... Children can't become crushers," she said. Or could they? God, please, no.
Max flashed a lopsided smile. "Oh, Joe wasn't a child *before*, Mrs. Boyd."
It took all her control not to show surprise or dismay. Joe. His elder brother, who had graduated last year. Yes, she recognized his features now, behind that round face and that ridiculous pacifier. He caught her eye and nodded at her.
She wrenched her gaze away. "Where's Tyler?" she asked Max's chest.
Max glanced at the boy standing next to him - Jeff, who everyone knew was his boyfriend. They had a cute, very public and very loving relationship. Jeff had changed the least of the people in front of Linda. He might or might not be a few cms taller, but was still the placid, broad shouldered boy she remembered. He reached up, unzipped Max's backpack and brought out Tyler, who was appropriately dressed in miniature clothes. "Hello, Mrs. Boyd," Tyler said. He was only 5cm tall, and his voice barely reached her.
Unwillingly, she gave a single nod. The new rules against naked Extras had been a small victory for her. Their lawyer had worked hard to make sure they were foolproof, and she intended to honor the strain in their budget by enforcing them tightly. All students had received a notification about the prohibition against Extra nudity. "Fine, you can go," she said. But, as the group started moving again, she raised a hand to block the girl who had been waiting right behind Jeff. "Not *you*." Max and Jeff stopped and turned to wait for their friends.
Barbara looked very different from how Linda remembered her. She'd been a short, immature girl with an attitude. But over the summer she'd grown a head taller; she was now taller than Linda - taller than Jeff, who was standing next to her. Linda could tell from the girl's contemptuous sneer that her attitude was worse than ever.
Lean and hard, Barbara wore an outfit that was mostly black leather. Her shoulders, midriff and legs were all exposed. She wore shoes with heels, too, making her appear even taller. She had pointy silvery earrings on both ears and a new piercing through her chin. She wore her hair chin-length. Two Extras some 15cm tall that Linda had never seen before were squeezed through her leather top, each snug against one of her small breasts. Barbara wore no bra, and the faces of her Extras were turned inward, toward her skin. They were both clothed.
"*Your* clothing isn't appropriate, Miss Jackson," Linda said frostily.
Barbara rolled her eyes. "Why? It's not like I'm showing my tits."
"Your tone isn't appropriate, either," Linda said.
"For fuck's sake," Barbara said. "Why are you picking on me already? I like these clothes. My Extras like these clothes. My friends like these clothes. Everybody likes these clothes except for *you*, boomer."
"Miss Jackson, are you trying to get punished on your first day?"
Babara flushed. "Well, what the fuck do you want me to do? This outfit-"
"Please, Mrs. Boyd, can you forgive her being cranky? It's the first day of school, she's not used to waking up so early anymore!" Sammy stepped between them, blocking Barbara from view and speaking over her. He flashed Linda a sunny smile.
Linda knew Sammy as a pleasant, sensitive boy, unfailingly nice to others, the kind she would have liked to have as a son if she'd had any children. The last time she'd seen him he'd looked two or three years younger than his age. Now he reminded her of a stick bug. All legs and arms, Sammy had undergone a growth spurt as extreme as any she'd ever seen. He'd shot up to Max's old height, and was now the second tallest of these kids after Max, though still as thin and pale as ever. His Extra Bea stood at the back of the group; she was still much larger than most of the others in this group, coming halfay up Sammy's thighs, and a new one she didn't immediately recall stood next to her - same size, same modest clothes, same contented expression.
"It's not just the attitude, Sammy," Linda said, mellowing a little. "She can't be dressed like that at school. There must be rules. Order."
"But other girls wear tops sometimes, right?" he asked. "And they don't get in much trouble at our school. Are these clothes so bad? They're what Barb feels comfortable wearing. They make her happy. And look, she dressed Jaden and Elliot," he added, stepping aside and pointing out the Extras. "She's trying to follow the rules!"
Linda took a step closer to Barbara, frowning at the diminutive teenage boys. The implication was that they normally *weren't* dressed. Both of them were older than the girl, and both had their faces buried in her skin. Gritting her teeth, she snorted.
And deflated. As much as she hated to admit it, the Extras didn't matter. They belonged entirely to Barbara, and as long as the law existed and she could do nothing about it. And no matter how... distracting Barbara's outfit was, Sammy was right; there wasn't a rule against it, not specifically. Not yet.
"I'll let you off with an apology this time," Linda said in as severe a tone as she could muster.
"And you won't bother me about how I dress?" Barbara asked, but Max punched her lightly in the shoulder. "I mean, I'm sorry... For... Calling you a boomer..."
That's what she thought she'd done wrong? Linda closed her eyes for a moment, groaning inwardly. "Get the hell out of my sight," she said. They all rushed past her, students and Extras, with a passing "Thanks!" from Sammy.
Or at least that's what she thought. When she opened her eyes there was still one young man in front of her.
"That was really hot," he declared.
She recognized him immediately. During his freshman year she'd kept an eye on Fred, who'd been an overweight, anxious, withdrawn boy. Now, two years later, he was a different person; happy, healthy, noticeably more muscular than even at the end of last year. His height was half-way between Barbara's and Sammy's. He had a single little Extra nestled among his curly locks.
"Were you with *them*, Mr. Miller?" Linda asked, jotting down a note. "Aren't you a junior?"
"We became friends over the summer," Fred said. "Seriously, though. I love how you handled them."
"Mr. Miller, I'm not sure what you're trying to say. Are you asking me to give you detention, is that it?"
Fred took a step closer. "Maybe. Will you be there?"
She rolled her eyes. "Get to class. You have only a few minutes left."
But he took one more step closer, and now he was standing right next to her. His eyes met hers; his mouth was a little open. She could smell the warring scents of his sweat and his aftershave. "How had I never noticed how attractive you are, Mrs. Boyd?" he said, looking at her hungrily.
Linda Boyd hadn't been an educator for more than twenty years without having learned how to deal with a situation like this. Placing her hands on Fred's chest, she shoved him firmly away. He stumbled a couple of steps and gave her a half-amused, half-wondering smile. "Keep your hormones in check, Mr. Miller," she said severely. "I suggest you find someone your age to try your half-assed lines on. Intrude on my personal space again and I'll call the cops."
"I don't like girls my age," he said. "I've always preferred older women. Big women."
"I'm serious! You're beautiful, Mrs. Boyd." His smile appeared genuine. He didn't take another step closer. "You know that, right?"
"I'm very flattered, Frederic, but I want you to get to class *right now*, or you will face disciplinary action."
He stared at her for another moment before snapping a salute. "Yes, ma'am!" He turned on his heels and ran away down the hallway.
With a sigh, Linda turned and headed back to her office, trying to put the exchange out of her mind. But on the way, despite her best effort, a hint of color crep into her cheeks. She clapped her hands on both cheeks as soon as she had the thought, angry at her treacherous mind.
The truth was, Fred was becoming a very handsome young man.