I straighten the papers on my desk, stacking them neatly and setting them aside. It isn't necessary, but it's a good breather while I consider how to approach this situation. The young girl sits opposite me, her hands clenched tightly in her lap, her head down. Her honey-brown hair falls just past her shoulders, and I can see the beginnings of what will probably become a very attractive young woman. But right now, she's timid, and that undoes the grace I think I can see, hiding beneath the early adolescence baby fat.
"Relena," I say, calmly, sighing when she flinches, her attention drawn away from the window and back to me. "I've spoken with your mother—"
"Sorry," she mumbles, ducking her head.
"It's not your fault," I tell her, and get up from behind the desk, moving to sit on the chair next to her. I don't touch her, saddened by the way she recoils just a little. She's both shy and easily intimidated. "Look, the bullies are... well, I know they're part of school. And we're doing what we can to get them to lay off, but—"
"If I were stronger, I could get them to leave me alone, but I know I just make it worse—" Her words come out in a quiet rush.
"Oh, honey, that's not true." I pause, frown, and think about it. I don't know where the inspiration comes from, but I smile widely, and it's enough to throw her off. She raises her head, and I see a flash of the prettiest blue eyes. I wink at her. "I think I have an idea, Relena. What you need is a secret."
"A secret? A secret what?" Her eyes widen, but she looks curious. A good sign. "What kind of secret?"
"The kind you never tell, but always know," I whisper. "You in?"
There's a pause, and she chews her lower lip, thinking it over carefully. Her chin comes up, and she offers me a tentative smile. "Okay," she says, "I'm in."
Relena looks surprised when I take her out of class a week after our first meeting. She doesn't know I've spoken with her parents, but they've promised to pretend their ignorance. There have been two more incidents with the upper-class bullies, pushing Relena into a locker and picking on her family, her accent, her bookish ways. Two seniors reported the incidents, along with the teachers who made the boys leave Relena alone, but she's still shaken up as I escort her to my car. She halts on the curb, a little surprised.
"Miss Bartlett?" Relena glances around, and fiddles with the strap on her bag. "Is this okay? I mean... we're leaving campus," and she whispers the last word.
"That's right. We're going to get you a secret. Hop in." I unlock the doors, and she slides into the passenger seat. I start up the car, and give her a smile that's supposed to be reassuring. "I don't bite, Relena. And I know it may seem weird, but we guidance counselors have cars, and apartments, and sometimes I'm even known to go grocery shopping."
Another good sign.
"Miss Bartlett?" Relena clutches her bag in her lap when we pull up to the low-slung concrete building. "Should I... my bag... " She glances around wildly, and I know she's being eaten up with curiosity.
"Leave it in the car," I say, and get out, dragging out a silver metallic briefcase from the backseat. "This," I tell her, "is the city range. This is where police officers and Sanq agents come to practice their firearms skills."
"Fire... " Relena halts on the steps. "You mean like... guns?" To her credit, she doesn't shrink back, but looks both thrilled and intrigued.
"That's right." I usher her into the building, where I sign in. The guard looks at her, nods to me, and goes back to reading his newspaper. Relena doesn't need to know the guard has a permission slip for her, signed by her parents, with a picture of her so the guard will recognize her. This is her secret, and the fewer authority figures involved, the better.
I hope, at least. That's what I told her father; he could have vetoed the idea, but to my surprise, he agreed. Relena follows me down the hallway, into one of the small rooms outside the range. I set the briefcase down on the lone table, and flip it open.
"This is a Ruger Mark I, a semi-automatic .22," I say. I check to make sure it's unloaded, and explain each step of what I'm doing. Relena watches, and I notice her hands coming up at a few points, as if she's about to request that I hand it over. "Now that I've made sure it's not loaded, I'm going to hand it to you. Remember that you never point a gun at anyone unless you plan to fire it, even if you know it's not loaded. Always act like the gun is loaded... we clear?" I arch my eyebrows, and Relena nods emphatically.
I place the gun in her hands, and she cradles it, giggling a little. "It's not as heavy as I thought," she whispers, turning it around in her hands. She's careful to keep the barrel pointed away from both of us, and I guide her hands to holding it in the proper position. "Wow," she says, and grins suddenly. "I'm holding a gun!"
She's got real potential to be a crack shot, after a little practice. The first time she fires, she nearly drops the gun, and I have trouble keeping a straight face at the sound of her squeaking excitement. Then she calms down, cautiously checks the firearm, settles the ear and eye protection, rests her hands on the padded rail, takes aim, and fires.
Not quite a bull's eye, but damn near close. This time, she sets the gun down before leaping up and down. She even does a little fist in the air motion, and I'm startled by the sudden and radical change from the mousy girl I'd met the week before. Suddenly she's a talkative and energetic creature who's insisting I bring the paper forward so she can save it.
We're there for two hours, until her hands are tired and her wrists have to be aching, but she fires off round after round without complaint. Her jaw's set, her lips in a firm line, and she keeps at it. She never quite duplicates the first shot, but she's getting better; her spray pattern is tight, and she's handling the gun with confidence.
At three hours, I call a halt, despite her insistence she wants to keep going. Hell, I'm exhausted and I only had to watch and give pointers. It takes us another two hours to clean the gun, bit by bit, until it's shining. By then, school's out, but I get her back to campus in time for her ride to pick her up.
She's grinning, and waves to me, but only after making me promise we'll go again.
"Our secret," she whispers, and puts a finger to her lips, then dashes off.
We go four more times, and on the last trip, I present her with a Ruger semi-automatic thirty-eight. Relena is too overwhelmed to protest, which tells me a lot; her upbringing probably would've insisted she refuse. Instead she's on the gun like glue on a stamp, turning it over in her hands and practically dragging me off to try it.
It's a gift from her father. Maybe someday he'll tell her, or perhaps he never will. He and I have spoken several times, when I've called with updates on her progress and the situation with the bullies. There have been only one or two incidents since the first time I met with Relena, but my teacher-sources say Relena's been standing her ground. Her father's a pacifist, and he's mentioned more than once that he's not sure how he feels about his daughter learning to shoot. But, as I told him, she's also female. She needs to know how to defend herself, though I pray to whatever power may be that she's never called on to use those skills.
Someday, the world may be safe. Until then, we do what we can, and hope that every piece of power we put in a girl's hands is power to keep her whole.
Six weeks after our first meeting. Relena leaves me a message that she's going to the range on her own from now on. The guards are used to her now, and they tell me she's in once a week, her chin up, all business-like at fourteen. She's not aware she's their little mascot, studiously cleaning her gun after each time, packing it away in its carrier with the seriousness of a lifetime police officer.
I don't see her for a week or two, caught up in new situations with other students and the inevitable end-of-the-year chaos with seniors on my roster. I'm chatting with the drama teacher when I hear the raised voices of the junior class bullies. Suspicious, I follow my friend to the classroom door.
Relena's standing in the middle of the hallway, her chin up; her expression is somewhere between blank and mildly amused. One of the guys is leaning into her, but she doesn't flinch. She doesn't lower her eyes. She's silent, but she stares him down with perfect composure. I'm not sure what he's saying – something about how ugly she is, how nerdy she is, the usual cruel taunts insecure boys will throw at pretty girls. Relena doesn't move a muscle. It takes me a second, and I realize.
She's sizing him up like he's a target. Cool, collected, unruffled.
The boy's taunts stutter to a halt, and he glances at his friends. They're cowed already, falling back behind the ringleader, who frowns. Several other girls have drifted closer, curious, and the ringleader steps back, disconcerted by the fact that Relena doesn't seem perturbed in the least.
The boy mutters a few more things I don't hear, but Relena doesn't even flicker an eyelash. She just watches him, her eyes a little narrowed, and then she smiles. She's got her bull's eye, and now she only has to fire.
I have to step behind my teacher-friend rather than let the students catch what must be a smug expression on my face. Relena sees the movement, however, and once the boys have ambled off, she turns towards me. The girls are swarming around her, astonished, impressed, but Relena glances past them, to me.
I nod, pleased, and she raises a hand. It looks for a second like she's forming the letter 'L' – then I realize, she's mimicking a gun. She points the barrel of her imaginary gun down the hallway, towards the bullies, and her blue eyes shift to look at me.
"Bang," she mouths.
Then she blows on the end of her finger, pretends to tuck the gun into a holster. None of the girls around her have noticed, too busy chattering amongst themselves and at Relena. She tosses her head, smiling in a self-assured manner, and lets them keep talking while she rides out the adulation.
The last thing I see is the group dragging her around the corner, off to celebrate their vicarious experience of her victory. Relena glances back one more time, and winks.
One secret, I think, and lean against the doorjamb, crossing my arms. Sometimes that's all a person needs.