She is sitting in the library, studying. It's her most common pastime, by hours; spending time with her sister is more enjoyable but Jaromira prefers to socialize more broadly and Katarzyna would only get in the way. This is better on net; the two of them share a room, so it isn't as though her sister's time is entirely hogged by the other girls who call this boarding school "home." Or at least "prison." Katarzyna doesn't mind it, though; the school library is excellent, and basic manners and care for the books has endeared her to the librarian to a sufficient degree to lubricate the interlibrary loans process when there's something she wants to read that they don't have.
A moment later she is not studying, because something much more interesting has come up.
She has always wanted magic, does not understand those who are offered it and turn it down. She has not fantasized about it actively in many years--supposedly her great-grandmother's sister was a magical girl, and this is enough to fuel the imagination of a little girl who wants more than anything--but an older girl, who has learned to see the world more cynically, who comprehends statistics--an older girl has better areas to focus her attention on.
She remembers, from her extensive childhood research, that wings are always enough.
She is not choosy. She can be choosy later. For now--a set of generic feathered angel wings, pure white.
Yes, well, her dress sense has been totally irrelevant so far in her life, not being a social sort anyway.
She stands up from her carrel, spreading her wings. The librarian squawks. Katarzyna ignores her, striding towards the bathroom with its irritatingly inadequate but at least extant mirrors.
Alright, the pants are the first to go. The shirt isn't great either. The dress she coveted as a little girl--a knee-length amber gown with short puffed sleeves, a square neckline, and bow in the back--is going to need to be improved upon, but is at least a better starting place than this.
She was wearing pants before. This does not bode well.
She darkens her hair a shade and lightens the dress a few, then remembers that looking human isn't a good bet. The wings are enough, but that doesn't mean they're enough. She points her ears, and then--can she gather her hair into a high ponytail and then turn the ponytail part into heatless flame?
She takes deep breaths. She is over the minimum, she has magic and no one can take that from her. She would rather not present herself to the general public without a halfway decent outfit but if it turns out she needs Jaromira to dictate her look then that's fine. It is much much more fine than accidentally encrypting herself in a panic.
Okay. Calm. Magical girls need fanciness--for that matter, she doesn't love this color as much as she did when she was five. Let's start over.
Hair back to its original color, dress red, hugging her upper torso perfectly but not embarrassingly. Long sleeves ending in pointed cuffs that sweep over the backs of her hands. Embroidery in--what color, fuck--gold--no--yes. Don't overthink it. You don't need a good outfit now, just one that isn't embarrassing. Gold embroidery at the neck and hems and cuffs. Topaz cabochons on the cuffs over the backs of her hands. A gold sash.
Okay. She snaps some selfies so she can get back to this if whatever she tries next doesn't work.
...What does she actually think would look nice?
Seafoam, is the obvious answer, once she actually asks it of herself. Seafoam green, in--hm. Let's just start by palette-swapping the current dress. Seafoam green dress with dark blue embroidery and cabochons, and make her eyes the same shade of dark blue. Lighten all the blue a little so her eyes look less like black with a hint of color.
...Lighten the blue some more, make the cabochons opals, and color her irises to look like blue opals too.
This looks like something she wouldn't mind people seeing, at least. She's not going to get anything really impressive off her own sense of style; anything really interesting is going to need Jaromira's help.
But she can thread silver in with the blue embroidery, and turn her hair silver, and make her feathers silver with a gyrfalcon pattern of crescent stripes on the primaries in opal blue.
...Huh. Well. Perhaps it does something else under other circumstances.
She just did magic!!!
Time to go find Jaromira! Her sister has an actual sense of style, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
She leaves the bathroom and then the library altogether. She will probably get reactions from people in the hallways who are not her sister, but she can just ignore those.
"Sure," she agrees, giving the girls she was with a brief wave before linking arms with her sister and striding off.
She had been hanging out in the dorm area anyway, so it doesn't take long to get back to their room.
She inspects her sister's transformations so far.
"Try a circlet," she suggests, "in titanium anodized the same blue, with a seafoam opal centerpiece."
"Hmm. Let's try making the bodice a bit looser and then adding one of these," she says, gesturing at a picture she's pulled up on her phone, "but in silver for the metal and blue opals for the stones. And we'll probably want to alter it a bit more to avoid the plagiarism thing--let's turn the ropes into filigree like the necklace and tiara and so on, and the centerpiece...how about an eight-pointed star."
"Wonderful! Now, remember you'll be representing St. Lucia Academy, so--I understand that you've had some difficulty socializing in the past, and of course this is completely normal for a girl your age, but with your new gifts we feel it would be more appropriate if you were to put in more of an effort in that area."
"Hmm. Try doing this," she pulls up another image, "with the hair that isn't in the crown braid."
She pulls up another image. "Try this."
Katarzyna stays. Going back to the library would involve more interacting with people than she wants to do right now; the internet is an acceptable source of information, and, when it comes to magical girl stuff, much better than the library.
She waits patiently until the end of classes the next day.
The big public school is in Phoenix, and its magical girl club has seven members not counting Katarzyna:
- Mercedes, the club president, who introduces herself and everyone else, and has green dragon wings and a dragon tail and horns and wears a lot of gold silk;
- Natalie, approximately a naga, probably culturally appropriating the Roma or at least the pop culture conception thereof with that outfit, jingles when she slithers;
- Alexis, with rabbit ears and a cotton tail, leaning unnecessarily on sex appeal for costume interest but also themed around lavender (plant, not color);
- Faith, who is three feet two inches tall and going for a vaguely period effect with her clothes in homespun-ecru and shades of brown;
- Isabella, with pointy swift wings and nothing else, drapey dress over a clingy underlayer in dark red and dark blue festooned with a motif of circles with circle cutouts;
- Gabrielle, yellow ballgown and sunset-colored wings;
- Brooklyn, managing pants with enough layers and embroidery and rose-themed accessories accenting the black and gold base color scheme that it must take her an hour to get it all right every time she needs to redo it, black bat wings with gold tats of roses.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they have a deeper than average understanding of magic's sartorial preferences, due to having a stronger reason to care and an absurdly high magical-girl-per-capita ratio, and given that magic seems to care about something as anthropocentric as prettiness I wouldn't be shocked if there was, in fact, some intelligence behind the allocation of magic, and that the Thaumotologists had some hypothesis about its characteristics that matched reality, but I do not take their premises at face value."
"Broadly accurate. There are other factors, too--I don't only judge based on the people I meet, for example, and since sensationalism sells it's often easier to hear about crimes and other human-caused disasters than, say, the Norman Borlaugs of the world, if you aren't motivated to go looking."
"I don't know if I would find him personally interesting but I certainly appreciate him on an abstract level! There's also the fact that harm is usually easier than good, so if the bad people are doing much more bad than the good people are doing good that doesn't mean the bad people are worse than the good people are good, which is something I might not have thought to factor in if Jaromira hadn't pointed it out."
"I like it too, but I would probably like it less if it took a form other than narrating my internal monologue to my sister and listening to her commentary, supplemented with writing things down when she's not there so I can recount them later. It's so useful to get another perspective."
"She'd be a terrible psychiatrist, though, always getting too personally invested in her patients. It's--remarkable how much I love it about her, I think, given that it's a trait I don't especially want to cultivate myself. Something about the--integrity of it? It's not a good way for everyone to be, but it's a very good way for her to be, and she really commits to it."
Isabella trips when she lands, but arrests the movement and rights herself and proceeds to where everyone's convening.
"Zyna," says Mercedes, when Katarzyna has arrived, "in some magical girl clubs people take turns being surrounded for amateur style nitpicks, but here we do things differently; we all take turns giving presentations on facts about style for magical girls that will be useful to everyone. There's a club rule that even if you're a Thaumatologist you have to give the presentation in secular terms. Sometimes people stay late to do conventional circle critiques, too. While you're listening, if you have stardarters or a ranged magic weapon you may fire at the targets; I'll muffle the sound so you can still hear the presenter. This week it's Isabella!"
Isabella gets up and produces a notebook with her presentation outlined in it. "We don't have a projector yet, do we."
"Right, I guess I'll just demo on myself. I did some research on effective hairstyles. Of girls who participated in the Baseline Comparison Survey or equivalent Canadian research more than half found that as long as their hair was not tangled, split, messy, or otherwise obviously flawed in some way, and it was longer than shoulder length, it was competitive with the best-performing updos and braids in lab conditions while worn down. The reason more elaborate styles seem to perform better appears to have to do with the accessibility of ornamentation and the risk that wind and activity will tangle or damage loose hair; Coast Paladins and other Paladin squads generally have tight updos with stuff in them." While she talks she's occasionally blinking and swapping out her hair to demonstrate examples.
"Wait, what's the Baseless Comparison Survey," says Natalie.
"Baseline," says Isabella. "The Baseline Comparison Survey was a huge project they did in the sixties to figure out general principles of magical girling less obvious than 'wear skirts'. They designed a basic boring outfit that worked with wings and surface or extremity mods except tails, made all the participants wear it exactly so they'd all be taking the same plagiarism penalty, and then tried iterations from there, also all the same across participants, so they could shake out some of the statistical noise from girls going 'well, that helps a little but not very much' and 'ooh the magic really likes that' in lieu of producing numbers. And most of my presentation is about what they found out about hair."
"Go on," says Mercedes.
"Bad hair tanks a look fast," she continues. "Clothes can handle some distressing and still look all right - a few people use something along those lines as their motif - but hair basically can't. You can get away with some sloppiness in styling like messy braids and floppy buns if it suits what you're doing otherwise, short hair is not as hard to pull off as pants, but nobody makes a birds' nest work. Now, the Baseline Comparison Survey did include girls of all races, but since this was the sixties, they dropped girls from the study if they weren't willing to wear their hair in an approximately white-person texture. We have way less systematized data about how natural black hair works, especially since on hair that hangs down by default, length past the shoulders matters - is there an equivalent for natural black hair, we don't know!"
"So racist," opines Gabrielle, who is black.
Isabella doesn't directly respond to that. "The anecdotal evidence suggests that natural hair in assorted styles can perform at top levels; for example, Coast Paladin Keisha Vaughn has dreadlocks. But there's less to go on from a data-driven perspective."
"The rules for hair ornaments seem to be about the same as the rules for other ornaments. The rules for hair color are not - you don't take as much of a penalty for having hair of an out-of-scheme color in the natural human hair color range, your original or not, as you do for having an out-of-scheme accessory or clothing item. Basically, magic seems to consider hair to be an automatic candidate for a statement piece - a thing that's allowed to stand on its own without forming a motif. Both curly and straight hair were found to work, as well as all stages of intermediate waviness; worn down, straight hair works better if you go to knee-length or longer, wavy hair works better between there and mid-back, and curly hair works better between there and shoulder-length. Shorter hair performed worse with a few individual outliers - face shape affects this a lot. Also, all the length-and-curliness rules go out the window if you wear it up. Then it doesn't seem to matter at all. From baseline, statistically speaking, bangs are worse -"
Faith raises her hand.
"- but like everything else to do with how your hair is arranged close to your face that varies with face shape, and 'baseline' here means 'worn down', not your braid crown there."
"Hair that does not behave like any nonmagical human hair - via the application of the magical equivalent of hairspray, or changing its material, or replacing it with a garden of daisies," says Isabella, "is tentatively hypothesized to revert to the standards for elements elsewhere on your person - so it loses the thing about being in human-range colors, its length and curliness are no longer interacting, etcetera - but the Baseline Comparison Survey didn't get very into a lot of alternative hair options and no similarly sized survey has been conducted since. This can still work if whatever weird hair thing you do plays into a motif; Rockies Paladin Miranda Cooper has feather hair that matches her wings.
"A cautionary note," she goes on, "replacing your hair with twenty-seven snakes is known to carry enough points to turn you into a cryptid if applied on top of wings and basic human-range cosmetic cleanup. We don't know if fewer than twenty-seven snakes would have been fine, since this has only been recorded happening the once, but twenty-seven snakes plus wings and cosmetic cleanup definitely cryptidizes you, so don't do it.
"That's what I've got, thank you all."
"I'm not. Got them for my birthday. It's not hard to make two hundred dollars with the right powers, though, my dad's a cop and he hooked me up with a gig where I ride along on car chases and stop the car they're chasing, I can do that again and a few days of being on call and one car chase gets me well over two hundred bucks."
"That makes sense. My reasons, on top of having a rich father, include: 'it seems like an asset when networking with magical girls,' and 'magical girls are, absent relevant powers, not significantly less squishy than baseline humans and I would be surprised if a magical girl carrying stardarters wasn't legal more places than anyone outside of police officers carrying pepper spray or a tazer.'"
"It is. I mean, these won't stop somebody who really wants your purse, they don't even hit hard enough to kill a swarmling that's been around for six hours and you can still kill those bugs if you step on them hard enough, but you can sure take them places. Not on planes, though."
"I cannot imagine the planes are interested in having any weapons whatever on them." She picks up the stardarter; she assumes the magic will ding it for being off-theme but the magic can cope. "I am consoled by the fact that everyone else on the plane will also have been stripped of weapons."
When they get back to the school, the first thing she does is hunt down her sister to talk to.
(It's not gossip if it's the core of your introspection process, right?)
She outlines the club meeting (thus and such was the agenda, this is what my power does) and then launches into details and internal monologue.
"I knoooow." Sigh. "Okay, I have my hair-related notes from the meeting, let's try some things--"
They try some things.
The hair length thing turns out to be less good than keeping it partially up in a hair-flower-thing with gems woven in; of other things they try because Jaromira thought of them, replacing the leg laces on her sandals with helixes like her bicep bracelets, adding toe rings, and turning all the metal in her jewelry into diamond and opal of the same colors constitute improvement. She is mildly put out that she will not be able to see the effect this has on her magic sense until next week when she can interact with other magical girls again.
Katarzyna has a fight with the school administration over them, due to weapons being Not Allowed on school grounds no matter what.
Katarzyna does not win the fight, exactly; weapons are still Not Allowed inside the school no matter what. But she is stubborn and while she isn't good at people Jaromira is, and is on her side. The stardarters and ammo live in an equipment shed, to be picked up when she leaves for a magical girl meeting (...or for other reasons, if she really wants, the administration is worn down into conceding) and returned when she returns to campus.
It's not optimal, but it will do.
Katarzyna spends much of her free time studying, now, but less.
Flying is not against the rules.
"Nothing in particular, it's only that I go to a boarding school and I'm the only magical girl there so outside of a club meeting they ferried me to at a larger school I haven't met many other magical girls. And my power is that I can sense magic! Or, at least, magical girls; I have thankfully not yet had the chance to test if it registers swarms."
"I didn't wanna get too far into the weeds of mental mayhem so I considered doing even less, bare minimum, pointy ears and such, but wings are so practical, so I did that and very, very minimum cosmetic cleanup - plus hair and makeup, those don't seem to affect things the same way."
"I don't--intend to be obnoxious about it--my sister noticed I had a crush on you after I came back and had spent a significant quantity of time telling her how thoughtful and interesting you were--but I like you, I have no intention of making my feelings more relevant than you wish them to be."
"He refers to his mental model of me as 'shoulder Bella' by analogy to 'shoulder angel'. - I stopped going by Bella when I activated, it's not obvious if name aesthetics matter but they might and I didn't feel that strongly about it, but Xander's still allowed to call me that. He can draw. He's not very academic, but he's good at stuff I'm not - the clumsiness doesn't run in the family, that's just me, hence the skating lesson - he's funny, not always in a nice way but in a good-natured way, if that makes sense."
"Like, he'll accidentally poke fun at things in ways that actually upset people, and it'd be predictable if he were really trying not to, but he's not trying to upset people, he's just not trying very hard not to, and he's usually just aiming at keeping the overall mood light."
"That one's good too. Occasionally I take advantage of my naturally overwrought diction to tell someone something explicitly disrespectful to their face in terms they won't successfully parse and a tone that doesn't tip them off, but only if I'm very certain or reasonably indifferent to the consequences of failure."
"Not usually, but how overwrought it is varies, and the high end can get moderately incomprehensible. Speaking like this is genuinely easier for me, in the long run--it makes me think about what I say, in a way that prevents me from saying things I would regret. I used to have problems with that, as a small child."
"No, if she were I wouldn't have dropped it. But when I was a little girl I used to play make-believe that I was one, and draw pictures, and do research, and Mother always encouraged me. But between when she died and when Father remarried, we had a nanny, and when I told her that when I was going to be a magical girl when I grew up she told me the statistics, and when I pointed out that it runs in families she told me that a great-grandmother's sister wasn't a close enough relation to make my chances high enough to be worth counting on."
"I am uncertain. Legally speaking, it would be possible to withdraw from my current school and begin homeschooling, and I am sufficiently autodidactic that I expect to pass any homeschool evaluation tests without the input of an adult, but convincing my father to cooperate with this plan would be more difficult."
"You make me very very happy. When I expressed concern to my sister that having a crush on you put me at risk of becoming one of those objectionable persons who expect reciprocation as their due and are offended when it fails to be forthcoming, she asked me if I would want to hang out with you if I knew for a fact that you were permanently disinterested, and I said of course--simply being around you makes me much happier than I am used to being."
"I am in no way permanently disinterested! Forty percent of the reason I show up to magical girl club is that I now have such a small dating pool I can't rely on encountering people I might like without going out of my way to surround myself with magical girls and I was pretty thoroughly disappointed with the selection till you showed up!"
"Plus as long as it's arranged randomly at least there's a defined point at which you stop planning your life around the possibility. I don't know, maybe I'm just rationalizing because I don't know how to change it. I wonder if you can diagnose incipient magical girls, do you want to strafe an elementary school sometime and find out?"
"So there's different ways to be fast, and what I wanted was sustained overland, not diving - that's peregrine - or short bursts - that's something that eats swifts, I think - and there are still birds that can outperform the swift, but not all their adaptations translate well to a human."
"Thank you. Initially I just went with a pair of generic angel wings--I wasn't trying to achieve flight, at that point, just 'wings are always enough'--and then since I was doing the gyrfalcon crescents thing anyways I just shifted to those once functionality came up, I haven't done all the research I want to yet and that includes into wing designs."
"That makes sense. If I get attached to these I'll keep them as part of the lineup but I don't think I'm likely to mind not always having something I'm attached to. If it weren't for the risk of going cryptid I would probably have played around far more with my body plan than I was ever likely to want to keep."
"It's...very rules-oriented, in many ways. There are schedules we're supposed to adhere to, even when classes aren't in session--you can get away with deviating from them, but not with flaunting it. Many of the teachers are excellent, but some of them are also uncomfortably authoritarian. We have an excellent library. The cafeteria is adequate. Rooms are usually shared--there are singles but not many. I room with my sister; having a roommate I disliked being around would be uncomfortable and I'm glad I don't have to deal with it."
"Yes. I don't love him the way I wish I could, but he is objectionable only in relation to the standards I believe it is reasonable to hold a parent to; in absolute terms he is entirely inoffensive to interact with. I believe if he were a coworker or classmate instead of my father I would like him."
"That makes sense. Since genes influence likelihood of acquiring magic it seems that small towns where the gene pool has stayed relatively consistent over time would be more likely to be demographically unusual than large cities, but in the absence of specific information using general demographics is most likely the best option."
"Oh--a few months ago there was a biology lab assignment and I wanted to do an interesting variation that didn't exactly match the lab handout, so I went to Jaromira and explained the issue and she told me exactly what to say when I was asking permission to do it differently. Two weeks ago we had a group project in history and one of the girls in my group was flat-out insufferable, so Jaromira would distract her any time she started talking, so that the rest of us could get the project done."
Giggle. "Oh, it was definitely subtler than that--Ava, the girl's name was Ava, would say, 'oh, you know what I think we should do here?' and Jaromira would come up with a guess and engage Ava in trying to shoot down Jaromira's idea--and then Jaromira would let her succeed so Ava felt like she was being listened to, and the next time she tried to speak up Jaromira would notice beforehand and say something to her completely unrelated to the project--"