The classroom was either small or else appeared that way due to the shelves which lined two of the four walls. These were home to a variety of jumbled objects from books to board games. Eleven (?!) desks had been spaced in a loose semicircle facing the whiteboard at the front of the room; its blank surface currently doubling as a projection screen showing a map of the country and its attendant states. In short, it appeared exactly as any grade school classroom ought to look if one ignored the desk themselves: a fact that did not go entirely unnoticed.
For a moment Jake couldn’t help but wonder if he was in the right place. The fact that he was here at all certainly seemed to suggest so—since the wrist tag hall passes they’d been issued wouldn’t have allowed them access otherwise—but so far nothing about the room itself was anything like what he would have expected a Disguise Elective to be. No make-up stations for one, nor open wardrobes brimming with outlandish outfits and false moustaches. The casual ‘huh’ from the raccoon entering behind him he took to mean that Mitch’s reaction was along the same lines as his own. Next to gym, Poisons and Munitions this class looked entirely mundane.
Choosing places next to each other, they negotiated the seat plug with some difficulty before slipping both arms into the straps that would hold their wrists in place. The handler had been right. Already it felt easier than the last few occasions, though the plug inflating to lock them in place still took Jake by surprise. Next to him, Mitch shivered and shook through the mandatory toilet routine even as the rest of the class found their seats. All eleven desks were occupied in no time at all, their occupants going through some stage of the scrubbing process that would continue throughout the session’s duration. Restlessness was beginning to settle in as cubs fidgeting in their seats looking around for signs of their absent instructor. As always, the raccoon voiced their unspoken concerns.
“Is this guy—gah!—comin’ or not?!” Mitch squirmed reflexively as the rod burrowed its way into his shaft. “We don’t have all day!”
While less assertive, the tingling threatening to build as similar diagnostics were run on his privates made Jake inclined to agree. That was when one of their number simply…stood up.
The unexpectedness of that action in relation to his own plug activity was such that for a while Jake could do little besides blink in surprise. It took a little longer after that to realize that the newcomer 1) wasn’t a cub; and 2) was the only one among them actually wearing clothes. Once these two facts became apparent, one had to wonder how anyone could have overlooked something so obvious at all. From the murmured whispers of surprise around him, apparently others were just as confused by how they could have missed it up till then.
“H-hello class,” said the person-who-was-definitely-a-teacher-and-not-an-inmate. “Welcome, um, to Disguise 101,”
Whatever he had been expecting; it certainly wasn’t this. There was nothing ominous or deadly in the way that this person addressed them at all; absolutely nothing in their tone to suggest anything remotely related to assassination or what Mitch would call ‘badassery’. The restless murmurs of his classmates seemed to concur with this analysis. There was an almost imperceptible stammer in the teacher’s tone and awkward pauses in speech that communicated hesitation or uncertainty. Nor was the choice of clothing anything memorable—just a dull practical combination of shirt and slacks, paired for some reason with a medical mask over the muzzle. In short, this person rather resembled an actual teacher—which made it all the more surprising in a place like this.
The illusion; if illusion it was, appeared near-perfect…with only one thing out of place: try as he might, Jake couldn’t get a sense of race, species or even gender from their instructor at all. The movements and manner rather put him in mind of a fellow rabbit, but there was something ‘off’ about the appearance; something that suggested deformity which for some reason invited sympathy rather than distaste.
“For t-those of you who’re new, I’m Mr. B-benjamin,”
Again followed one of those disconcerting flip-flops of realization that resulted in Jake blinking in disbelief at how he’d missed identifying their teacher’s apparent gender all this time. Apparently such revelations would turn out to be a fairly common sensation and one that they would have to get used to for the rest of the semester. It would be several seconds before he realized that attendance was being taken and Mr. Benjamin was addressing him directly. “H-here,”
“Here,” the raccoon was looking as though Xmas had come early. Which for him, it probably had. The fact that Mr. Benjamin was nowhere near Macron or even Randy’s standard as a disciplinarian was painfully obvious. No doubt Mitch thought it was something that could work to his advantage.
“Here,” catching each other’s eye, jackal and raccoon traded identical evil grins that promised chaos and mayhem somewhere in the next thirty minutes. Jake’s only response was to sigh. Had his arms been free, he’d already be facepalming by now.
When the last name (Wolfgang, Elias) had been called, Mr. Benjamin turned to address his class. The non-threatening aura he’d been associated with still predominated and Jake remained convinced he was a bunny; mask or no mask. “As you already k-know, our Elective is on D-disguise. In our next few s-sessions we’ll be looking at the underly-lying theory of disguises as well as the tools available to us. To that end, we’ll be exploring your various interests,” ignoring the projected map, their instructor busied himself jotting a list upon the board. “Art, music, hobbies, etcetera,”
If this wasn’t the most bizarre class he’d taken, it certainly came close. “Wait, art? You mean, l-like drawing and stuff?”
“Certainly, Mr. Cottontail—if that’s what you’re good at, or what interests you,” Mr. Benjamin made several branching paths on his list. “Chess, checkers, drawing, sculpting…each of us has an area of expertise and it’s my job to help you discover what it is—”
Out of the corner of his eye, Jake noticed Mitch stick his tongue out while the instructor’s back was turned. Travis sniggered.
“We won’t be doing any dress up then?” by this time Mitch had graduated to face-pulling, each one more entertaining than the last. Some of the class stifled giggles at these antics while others like Eli rolled their eyes.
“That depends, Mr. Malcolm. By dress-up, do you mean…THIS?”
Before any of their number could react, Mr. Benjamin spun round, closing the gap between them at a speed completely at odds with his earlier relaxed pace. Momentum brought him up close to Travis, where he leant in and tossed a face-mask aside in one smooth action.
“Yeep!” Jake couldn’t blame his younger classmate for shrieking or even for voiding his bladder; since he was certain he might’ve done both under similar circumstances. Confronted by the truth, it seemed impossible how anyone could’ve taken what was obviously a fennec fox for a rabbit just moments before. Yet the sharp intakes of breath and their classmate’s accident proved exactly that.
“There there,” Mr. Benjamin tousled the pup’s headfur affectionately, keeping one eye on catheter as he did so. “Let it all out. There we go,”
“You’re..you’re a fox,” Travis looked somewhat dazed; though whether it was from the revelation or from the probe stimulation was anyone’s guess.
“Very astute, Mr. Small. As you so eloquently put it,” firm paws rubbed briskly along the squirming jackal’s underbelly, coaxing forth the last stubborn squirts to remain. “I’m indeed a fox,”
His gaze swept over each of them in turn. Jake flinched when the fox strolled his way, but luckily instead of ‘helping’ as he had Travis, Mr. Benjamin only gave his cup a cursory tap before moving on.
Dramatic though it had been, the demonstration had succeeded in getting everyone’s attention. “As you’ve no doubt seen, disguises involve a little more than dress-up,” the fox’s muzzle quirked slightly in a smile. “Oft times, an operative will find themselves in situations where they lack the range of… attire required to change their appearance. Should they then give up? Abort their objective? No,” Mr. Benjamin wrote the word ‘DISGUISE’ in capital letters on the board, underlined it twice and then drew a circle around it for good measure. “What do disguises involve? How did l deceive you?”
“You cheated,” Travis scowled petulantly, still smarting from that earlier humiliation.
Jake winced, but Mr. Benjamin only flicked his ears in amusement. “Exactly. But how did l cheat? Anyone? Yes, Mr. Savours?”
“You wore a mask,” Mitch pointed out.
“As you say,” Mr. Benjamin retrieved the item in question, tossing it from paw to paw. “I also wore tweed, pocket protector and slacks—civilian attire, in other words. Not to mention cologne of a generic nature to hide my, uh, characteristic musk. P-put them all together, a-and…” he adjusted the mask around his snout. “Voila—goodbye carnivore, hello nondescript herbivore,”
Jake blinked. Despite the illusion being revealed for what it was moments earlier, now that it was in front of him again he found it hard to separate the truth from what he was seeing. In his current persona Mr. Benjamin had straightened his posture, adopting one that made him seem taller than his actual height. The timbre of his tone had changed as well, adopting the same almost-stutter that he had in their first meeting. Drawing an arrow from the word Disguise; their instructor penciled in ‘Attire’ next to it.
“You changed your voice,” volunteered Eli from some desks away.
“Indeed I did,” Mr. Benjamin drew another arrow from Disguise and labelled it as ‘Tone’. “It was a little more than that, however. Not only did l change my tone with a stutter, I also used different choices of words,” he scribbled ‘Diction’ off to one side. “This is an advanced technique, however. It is best avoided unless there is no other alternative, because of how easy it is to forget and slip into your ’normal’ way of talking. If you can, it is usually best when disguised to not say anything at all. Anyone else?”
To his surprise, Jake found himself stepping on the footrests that would flag himself for attention. “Y-you also changed your…height? Stood straighter and…walked slower?”
“Well spotted,” the fennec scrawled a third arrow along with the word ‘Posture’ next to it. “This cannot be stressed enough. Many people put too much store in the attire of a disguise instead of the ‘spirit’ of it. You could spend a fortune on costumes and accessories yet still fail if you miss this one fundamental point. The costumes are not the disguise. They are only tools to help you achieve it. You can do without them in a pinch, if it comes down to that. Because at the end of the day, the disguise depends on you. Ultimately, you will be the one fooling people with your deception—not your clothes. This,” he gave another of his wry smiles. “…is also one of the reasons why they have you practice Stances so much, apparently. If nothing else, they build flexibility and give a good grounding into the type of postures that a person can adopt,”
Many in the class were looking interested now after that demonstration. Travis for one seemed to be giving their teacher his undivided attention, though whether it was sincere or merely a precursor to whatever prank he and Mitch were cooking up remained to be seen. Having spent some time thinking it over, Jake supposed Mr. Benjamin’s explanation was as good as any. Knowing that there was some point behind the embarrassing positions they had to commit to memory almost made it tolerable somehow. At least there was a secondary reason to it all that wasn’t simply an excuse to draw attention to and shame inmates as much as possible.
While he was mulling this over, the lesson continued. “Disguise—should you choose this field of study; you’ll find it as useful a tool as any of the others taught here; if not more. Some of you might be surprised that it requires less preparation or materials than you are expecting, for one. A skilled operative will be able to improvise from what is available at hand, so there is no real need to invite suspicion by obtaining contraband. You don’t need props like weapons to use it, or computers to apply it. For that reason alone, personally I find it far more practical than knowing how to shoot or swing a weapon. Take away the katana and the samurai is helpless. But an expert in deception always has options available to them, even if their costumes are taken away. With enough experience in this area, a person can conceal their identity or even pass as somebody else just by changing their gait or posture. In our sessions we will be exploring both the theory behind as well as the practical application of disguises both specific and generic. The one that I used today was generic—that is to say; I was going for a rough impression rather than committing to any particular identity. Did anyone happen to form any impressions about what species I was before I took off the mask?”
Murmurs and general head-shakes accompanied this remark. When called upon one by one, it soon became apparent that others had also for some reason taken Mr. Benjamin to be a fellow member of their species—like Jake, Claire had thought the instructor a rabbit as well. Marcus had seen him as a skunk. As for the predators amongst them; when quizzed many admitted to assuming Mr. Benjamin to be a rodent or some other twitchy animal. “The generic disguise has far more practical applications. It is easier to put together, does not require much preparation and is ideal when you don’t need to impersonate a particular person. There are some downsides, however. Can anyone tell us what they are?”
Melissa raised a paw, “Um, people see it differently? Like,” Mr. Benjamin nodded for her to continue. “When you first came Claire was saying something about how it’s strange for a rabbit to be teaching this class, and then I looked at you but…”
“But you weren’t completely sure of what you were seeing,” the marker squeaked as it added more notes to the whiteboard. “With generic disguises, a person simply aims to convey a vague ‘idea’ or impression upon others: complacency, terror, unimportance, sympathy and so on. It is possible for the expression of this ‘idea’ however; as Ms…Savours so clearly pointed out, to take on different meanings depending on who is witnessing it. My aim in this demonstration was to appear harmless and ordinary, but as you know different people have different ideas of what represents these traits. Which is why some of you,” he nodded at Claire, “appeared to see me as a member of their own species—and what could be more uninteresting than someone, even an adult, who’s just like you? Others,” here their teacher’s gaze seemed to linger on Travis. “Might have seen me as something they deem inferior or below their notice. Either outcome was acceptable in achieving my aim. The problem lies in the discrepancy that would arise if people had a chance to talk with each other and compare their impressions,”
Still facing the whiteboard, Mr. Benjamin ran a paw over his headfur, tilted his ears and adopted a surprisingly convincing stoop. When he turned around again, Jake could almost swear it was their grizzled Munitions teacher glowering down upon them. “Constant Vigilance! Never do such-and-such without supervision! Never play with bullets or strange explosives! Always wash your paws, and then maybe—MAYBE you might make it through class with your tails intact, and develop whiskers as awesome as MINE,”
That did it. Mitch collapsed into paroxysms of mirth; something Jake would have thought impossible before this point given their awkward seating arrangements. Nor did he appear to be the only one. Travis was cackling like a hyena, Marcus and Eli snickering despite themselves. Even Jake had trouble suppressing a smile. The parody was perfect. Mr. Benjamin waited patiently for everyone to regain some semblance of control over themselves before continuing.
“I understand that many of your teachers tell you something along these lines when you first enter our Electives. You’ll be glad to know that all that doesn’t apply with mine. So go ahead, apply what you learn here—if you can—and see if you can pull the wool over my eyes. Or the eyes of your handlers, for that matter. Over the next few lessons we will be developing your strengths and interests; these will be the tools you use to further sell your deceptions. Now let’s begin—”
It was by far the most ordinary lesson that Jake had encountered thus far. For the next forty-five minutes Mr. Benjamin gave every impression of being a normal teacher delivering an introductory lecture on the importance of what he called ‘secondary-skills’ to an assassin’s toolkit. The ‘busywork’ when it came, was equally bizarre but not any less enjoyable for it—their teacher merely assigned them to do whatever interested them within the bounds of class resources. No mention was made when Melissa went back to writing her blog, and he even passed the paper plane Marcus was folding without comment. Emboldened by these indications, Jake decided to doodle something with the desk stylus. He was almost disappointed when their plugs disengaged to signal that lessons were at an end.
Only then did he notice that Mr. Benjamin had been standing over his shoulder the entire time watching him doodle Rocket Rabbit with unfeigned interest. Perhaps it was mostly the cologne, but he also didn’t feel quite as uneasy with the fox so nearby as he might’ve been under normal circumstances. Nor did he flinch (not much at least) when the teacher tousled his headfur and complimented the work.
Perhaps he mighthave a favored Elective after all