Learning Curve 1

A witch’s abilities wake up unexpectedly and powerfully, and it’s going to take time for her to learn to control them. Her lifelong best friend is unwilling to leave her to face it alone – no matter what he finds himself transformed into by accident. (15 chapters, 37K words)

CW: Several major transformations, with consent, but initially with virtually no control. Minor inclusion of a wannabe-abusive ex-boyfriend. Pansexual characters of various genders. A loving romantic relationship between two men (approximately) with skin of different colours. One small injury with a kitchen knife. Um… that’s about it? My shorter stories don’t really lend themselves much to horrendous warnings. As always, tell me if I’ve missed something you think should be included. – Prysmcat

The bell over the door jingled softly as I pulled it open to go inside.

I expected the little indie coffee shop to be busy, since Tavi hadn’t texted me all day even in reply to my suggestion that we order a pizza and stream a new movie that night—silence usually meant that she was rushing too much to have time to check her phone. It was unusual for that to be an all-day situation, though. The simplest solution had seemed to be a short detour on the way home to catch her in person before she finished work.

There was a lineup, but not a long one, and no more than half the tables had anyone at them. I saw Barry, the owner, working the counter with swift efficiency but no haste, and his daughter Bonnie clearing tables, but no sign of Tavi.

I made my way over to the latter. “Heya, Bonnie.”

She glanced up, and flashed me a smile. Off school for the summer, she spent a lot of time working at the coffee shop—Barry was apparently happy to go along with that, since it simplified any requests for money above and beyond her allowance. “Hey, Sky. Is Tavi okay?”

“What?” Every red alarm sounded in my head. “She’s not here? I haven’t heard from her all day, I figured she got busy.”

Bonnie shook her head. “Never showed this morning. I was all set to beg Dad to not fire her, but he wasn’t even mad. Tavi’s never even late, so he’s actually more worried about her.”

“That’s bizarre. I’ll head over there now and check on her.”

“’Kay. I doubt she was out drinking and has a hangover, but if she’s sick or whatever, tell her she still has a job but it would be a good idea to at least text Dad with a reason or something, eh?”

“Yeah, I’ll do that. Thanks.” I didn’t hang around long enough for anything as unnecessary as a goodbye. Something was obviously wrong.

I was in enough of a hurry that I narrowly avoided bumping into a grey-haired, elegantly-dressed woman who was on her way in. I did my best to ignore her indignant, “Watch where you’re going, young man! Your computer will still be there!” Normally I’d apologize, of course, and backtrack to hold the door for her, but this was an emergency and she’d have to settle for an off-handed, “Sorry,” tossed over my shoulder. I heard Bonnie’s voice as the door closed, though I couldn’t make it out. Maybe she could apologize for me.

I all but ran the whole eleven blocks to Tavi’s apartment. I felt bad about it when several people got out of my way in a hurry. I’m a shade over six feet tall, and my build is in that fuzzy area that makes categories difficult—not slender or lanky but not heavyset or muscular either. I work a mixture of cash and restocking in the mid-sized local instalment of a substantial chain of discount stores—y’know, a bit of everything, from groceries to inexpensive clothing to housewares and electronics; I’d swapped out of my uniform shirt before leaving, in favour of a plain grey t-shirt with my best black jeans and a battered blue-and-grey nylon backpack over one shoulder, so I didn’t think that made me look particularly intimidating. Maybe it was my expression or something. Anyway, they moved, and that might have let me get to Tavi’s apartment building more quickly.

She lived in a small building with only six apartments, two on each floor. I unlocked the outer door, fumbling the key in my haste so it actually took longer, and bolted up the stairs. I thumped on her door, and called her name, but got no response; when I tried it, it was locked. I’d at least had the sense to keep my keys in my hand, and spared a moment to be grateful we’d swapped keys, like we’d been doing for years.

I opened the door quietly, although that was probably stupid after pounding on it. “Tavi?” I called, trying to be audible but somewhat hushed as well, trying hard not to sound like I’d worked myself into a near-panic with speculation on the way over here. Because I hadn’t done that, of course, that would be counterproductive and useless without more evidence and… yeah, okay, I did that. I did remember to close the door behind me, although I didn’t lock it, in case I had to call 911. Mostly on reflex, because Tavi hates housework, I kicked off my running shoes. “Tavi? It’s Sky. Tavi?”

I found her in the bedroom, curled up in her bed under a single blanket. She was breathing fast and I could see the sweat on her forehead, matting her long lemon-yellow hair into damp tendrils.

I knelt next to the bed to smooth her hair back for her. Last month it was orchid purple, and before that, a vivid tangerine. Tavi likes to be different.

She started at the touch and opened her eyes, blinking in confusion. “Sky?” she mumbled.

Then those green-and-tawny eyes widened. “Sky! No, you have to go away! I’m not safe to be around!”

“What are you talking about? Are you sick?”

“Arc… neoarcane syndrome.”

“What? But you can’t have that. You’re not a witch.”

She smiled faintly. “Apparently we were all wrong.”

I closed a hand around hers, regardless of the warning, mind racing.

Witches exist. It’s a generally accepted fact, although inevitably there are people claiming that it’s all a hoax. The public acknowledgement that started in the 1960s hasn’t been universally positive for witches: they’re an invisible minority that are fetishized by some, feared and hated by others, while most of the population is only vaguely aware of their existence and has little comprehension of the reality. It runs in families, sort of—it’s far more likely to appear in some bloodlines, but it doesn’t manifest in everyone, even if both parents are witches and have bloodlines full of witches for generations.

Tavi’s parents are both witches, powerful and skilled enough to have earned some respect. So is her older brother. So are a number of other family members, I’m not clear on the exact details of precisely who is. I do know that they had high hopes for Tavi, who had been bright and creative and clever since she was old enough to show any personality at all. She was raised as though it were a dead certainty that she was a witch.

And then, it just never happened. Sometime around fifteen or sixteen, she should have developed the ability to do small tricks, and somewhere between nineteen and twenty-one she should have gone through a bout of neoarcane syndrome while her innate abilities woke fully, followed by training in how to control and channel and use them. When she turned twenty-four, they decided that it was never going to happen, and Tavi, with mixed feelings but a heavy dose of relief, had gotten on with her life.

“Sky. You gotta go. It’s not safe for you. I don’t… I really don’t want to hurt you. And I’ve got no control.”

“I’m not leaving you here alone!”

“My uncle Glen’s coming. He couldn’t ditch his regular patients. Coming once he’s done.”

“Fine. Then I’m staying here until we know what he says.” I was fairly sure her uncle Glen was a general practitioner along with being a witch, although combining evidence-based science and innate witch abilities in medicine was a highly controversial subject. As I understood it, there were people who distrusted it, and people who actively sought it out but were often angry that it wasn’t possible to just whip up a magic healing potion or cast a heal spell like in a game. I guess fast non-intrusive accurate diagnosis just isn’t enough for some people. “Have you eaten anything all day?”

“No. And not going to.”


“Not. Eating. Period. Food means energy. Energy means more chance of doing something bad. No food.”

I knew that tone. I figured the best bet was to wait for her uncle. “Water, then? You’re going to get dehydrated, the way you’re sweating. There’s no calories in water.”

She smiled faintly. Maybe she recognized my tone, in return. “Water would be great. With ice.”

“Well, of course. What kind of barbarian would bring you water without ice?”

I rummaged around for straws, and found the set of silicon reusable ones. I dropped one into the large glass of water and returned to the bedroom.

Possibly I was being overly cautious, but I kept a hand on the glass while she drank through the straw. She was thirsty, I was sure of it, but doing her best to restrain herself to slow sips instead of draining it all.

She was still drinking when I heard the buzzer for the outside door.

“I can hold it, I promise,” she said. “Could you let him in?”

“Sure.” I used the intercom to check that it was her uncle Glen, not the boyfriend she’d recently broken up with and who had been making a nuisance of himself, before I buzzed him through and opened the apartment door to wait.

“I wasn’t expecting Tavi to have company,” he said mildly. “Skylar, right?”

I nodded. “Just Sky’s good.” Being Tavi’s best friend since we started school together meant that some of her family sometimes recognized me. “I just got here a few minutes ago. Got worried she wasn’t answering, then found out she missed work.”

“The coffeeshop still, right? I’ll drop in there and have a word with the owner once I finish here.”

I’d halfway expected an old-fashioned gladstone doctor’s bag, but he’d brought a heavy-duty blue-and-black nylon bag instead, one with a shoulder strap. As I closed the door, he untied his shoes and slipped them off, then went to Tavi’s bedroom. I followed.

“Well, judging by that aura,” he said, “you’re well into a full-fledged episode. No question about that at all. When did the symptoms start?” He left the bag by the door and came over to sit on the edge of Tavi’s bed.

“Sometime in the night, I think,” Tavi said. “I slept really restlessly and fought the blankets a lot. And look at my poor fish!”

I looked at her aquarium.

One of the three fancy goldfish was now literally striped with rainbow colours, the fin on his back red and the ones on his belly purple with everything between. The fins of another had grown dramatically, and they were now a startlingly bright blue on a pale orange fish. The third was green, and actually looked like it had overlapping tiny leaves instead of scales plus leaves for fins. They didn’t look alarmed, still swimming around doing their fishy thing, but it was quite a sight.

On the windowsill, her thriving aloe vera plant now showed a rather pretty repeated gradient of blue and pink and yellow instead of solid green. I hoped it could still photosynthesize that way. There were plants with coloured leaves that still managed, right?

It figured that of all the manifestations of witchery, Tavi would turn out to be a morph witch.

“I have the proverbial good news and bad news,” he told her gravely. “And you have a decision to make. Now. This is definitely neoarcane syndrome. That means you’re looking at a difficult time ahead. The later witchery wakes up, the more severe the syndrome tends to be.”

“I thought that was chicken pox,” I said.

“That too. I bet you haven’t eaten.”

“Not eating,” Tavi said stubbornly.

“That is one approach. You need to remember, however, that your abilities are going to keep struggling to manifest, even if you’re running on empty. At best, when it ends, it will take you weeks to recover. At worst, you’d be at risk of a seizure or organ failure, either of which can be potentially lethal. Fasting is much more viable with early awakenings that are shorter and milder, and becomes considerably more dangerous with late and strong ones.”

“At least I can’t hurt anyone else!”

“Which brings us to an alternative approach. The fish and the plant make it clear that you’re a morph witch, like your dad. That is extremely powerful magic. It is not, however, inherently destructive. If you can channel it consistently towards a consenting target, you can get through this syndrome episode without halfway killing yourself.”

“I’m not asking anyone to do that! It’s risky!”

“It’s much less risk than you starving yourself. If you’re determined to not eat, then you need to come home with me so I can keep you on an IV, at least, and monitor your condition. Besides, the risks depend on who you ask. Changes you make will depend heavily on your mood and your feelings towards the target, and once you have some control, you can undo anything you’ve done.”

“So you want me to let someone I value risk themself because it’s the lowest chance I’ll accidentally turn them into a slug? No!”

“I’ll stay,” I said quietly.

“What? No way!”

“How are you going to stop me?”

The idea was terrifying. Most witches could do only small things. Some could bend the world in ways that were hard for non-witches to get our heads around: illusionists could leave you doubting what was real, mentalists and diviners knew things they shouldn’t have access to, cultivators made crops grow madly, animalists like Tavi’s mom and brother communicated with and influenced animals of one kind or another, the very rare luck-witches rumoured to have the power to mess with probabilities.

It was also not really in question. Tavi and I had been inseparable for as long as I could recall. We’d weathered the age of classmates fearing cootie-transmission from the other gender, the age of accusations that either I was gay (they made it to the right ballpark, at least, although via the wrong road) or Tavi was (ditto), the age of certainty that we were a couple, all without our friendship failing. We told each other everything we couldn’t tell anyone else. I trusted Tavi more than anyone. Nothing in the world was going to feel worse than walking out of here and knowing that I’d abandoned her, even if she wouldn’t hold it against me.

“Sky! Look at the fish! And it’ll get worse! Morph shock is very bad!”

“I don’t care. I’m staying.”

“Tavi,” her uncle said. “The risks here aren’t about death or permanent physical harm. For someone unwilling or unready, or someone psychologically rigid, yes, morph shock can happen, and it can be traumatic. For someone ready and reasonably flexible, it’s more in the range of potential for some discomfort and awkwardness.”

“I trust you,” I said. “I don’t think there’s any part of you that would actually hurt me.”

“Sky is obviously determined. He trusts you. Do you trust him?”

Tavi said nothing for a long moment.

I circled around to close a hand over hers.

She heaved a sigh. “I might never forgive myself, Sky. Seriously. I’ve got no control. I could end up turning you into anything.”

“I trust you,” I repeated. “And I’m pretty sure I can deal with anything for a few days.”

“What about your job?”

“I’ll call in sick or something.” And really should let my boyfriend know what was going on, but he was working a bit of overtime and we hadn’t expected much contact for a few days. I’d need to do that, very soon.

“Give me the details,” Uncle Glen said. “I’ll take care of it.”

“You lose, Tav,” I said. “Surrender gracefully. It’s you ‘n’ me for as long as this takes.”

“At least a week, probably more like ten to twelve days, depending on the full extent of how strong you are and how good you are at learning. That would be about average for a first episode this late. It would have been maybe three to four days at a more average age.”

“Like Tavi ever does anything the easy way.”

That got a reaction: Tavi glared at me and burrowed deeper into the blanket. “Fine. I’ll turn you into something that can’t tease me when I feel awful.”

“So do I have time to go home and get stuff from my place?” I asked Uncle Glen uncertainly. “Or to check on groceries and do a shopping trip?”

He shook his head. “I’d advise against it. Order anything you need and get it delivered—I’ll help cover the cost, and I think it’s safe to assume that Tavi’s parents will contribute as well. However… Tavi, if you will promise me that you will at least have a glass of juice and a couple of cookies or something while we’re gone, I’ll give Sky a quick ride home to collect anything he might want for the next few days.”

“Since I said I want to be alone,” she groused, “I don’t know how that’s a proper deal.” She heaved a sigh. “Fine. Get me what you want me to eat. Sky knows my kitchen.”

A few minutes later, we left Tavi eating oatmeal cookies, with a glass of orange juice.

In the car, I jotted down my full name and the store I worked at and the name of my manager, along with my phone number, and then had to concentrate on directing him to my own apartment, which was in a larger and more impersonal building.

“I’ll wait out here,” he told me, parking in one of the visitor spots. “I doubt I need to tell you to be quick.”

“Yeah. I want to get something more filling into Tavi. And I don’t like her being alone.”

“Go easy on clothes. There’s no guarantee that anything you currently have will fit you. Or be relevant. Some morph witches do changes that include clothing, and if it’s taken this long for Tavi to awaken, then she’s probably damned powerful.”

“Um… what is she likely to be able to do, then? I mean, I’m not changing my mind, just… so I can sorta be prepared.”

“I have no idea. Sorry. I wish I could give you some kind of warning, but every witch is unique and at the moment, it won’t be her conscious mind making the calls the way it eventually will be. All I can tell you is, try to keep your mind as open as you can, expect nothing in particular, and remember that nothing is permanent. Anything a morph witch does, they can undo.”

“Oh boy. Okay. Got it.”

I made the fastest trip to my apartment I could, tossing a few clothes, toiletries, my phone charger and my laptop, into my hastily-emptied backpack and a duffel bag, then locked the door and raced back downstairs. Belatedly it occurred to me that my fridge might not be a happy place in ten days, but I’d worry about that later.

“All good,” I said, skidding back into the car and dropping the duffel bag at my feet and pulling the backpack onto my lap.

“Seatbelt, please.”

“Oh, right.” I took care of that quickly. “Well, back to Tavi. And let’s hope I’m as adaptable as I think I am.”

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