Cory kicked the door frame to Rob’s new room twice before he crossed the threshhold. Eli groaned. “It wasn’t booby trapped the last three times you walked into it. Why would it be booby trapped now?”
Cory rolled his eyes at Eli and spoke in his preachiest tone he could muster. “The ninja girl lives in this room- she is a ninja. As in ninja-ing into a room and booby trapping it in the the short time we went down to Angela’s car to get more stuff out is something she could do.”
Eli shook his head as he followed his paranoid friend into the room. “But why, pray tell, would she do that since she knows someone has to move Rob in.”
“She’s a ninja,” Cory continued to lecture. “Her ways are unknowable, mysterious, and sharply metallic yet somehow they don’t make a ‘shink’ sound and… uh… we should be on our guard at all times in this place.”
Eli put his box down and rubbed his temples. “This was a bad idea.”
“What was? Moving Rob?”
“No. Ever becoming friends with you. You’ve got a screw loose.”
“Ha!” Cory snickered. “Don’t delude yourself. You need me.”
Angela walked into the room with another box and a grin. “You two are so odd. Nothing like what I expected.”
Eli could almost swear he saw Cory’s ears perk up like a dog’s at Angela’s last line. “Like what you expected? Pray tell, what did you expect?”
Angela shrugged. “I’m not sure, I suppose. Mallory said that Elijah was more responsible than herself. So that comes to mind.”
Eli unboxed Rob’s various computer peripherals, knelt down, and began attaching them to Rob’s gaming rig. He failed to hide his smirk; knowing that Mallory couldn’t help but admit that he was more responsible than her made him happy. “Just call me Eli. Only my family calls me Elijah.”
Cory chuckled. “I sometimes call him Elijah just to annoy him. Feel free to do it as well. But more to the point Blondie, what did you expect of me?”
Angela glanced up at the ceiling, racking her brain for an answer, “Please call me Angela, and, sorry, not anything that I can recall specifically.”
“What?” Cory asked with the tone of a deflating balloon.
“I mean, I know she’s said a thing or two about ‘Eli’s weird friend,’ but I guess I never associated that with you until now.” Eli snickered from under Rob’s desk; Cory glared at him. “But I guess I just expected less… banter. Your conversations, if I can say this without offending, are really quite odd. You get sidetracked on the most mundane of issues quite easily. And you make mountains out of molehills, though I think you do it more for comedic effect than out of any seriousness.”
Eli poked his head out from under Rob’s desk. “Yeah. Sadly, that does sound like us.”
“The exaggerating for effect is mostly my bit, if I may defend Eli,” Cory added. “And in my defence, even you have found it mildly amusing, Blondie.”
Angela opened her mouth to protest being called “Blondie” again, but the words didn’t come out. Eli figured she couldn’t decide if Cory had ignored her request just to bug her or if he hadn’t heard.
“Don’t take him too seriously,” Eli reassured Angela as he finished putting together Rob’s computer. “I never do. It’s the only way to remain sane around him.”
Cory nodded in support, “It is probably best if you follow his advice.”
Angela kept silent for a moment before she shrugged with a resigned smile. “So very, very odd. But if Robert can get used to you I’m sure I can too.”
Eli grinned and crawled out from under the desk. “Yeah, well… yeah.” Eli scanned the room for any other items to set up or pack away. “So we’ve got his computer stuff set up, bed made, clothes put away–”
“For all the good that will do,” Cory scoffed as he pulled another pair of Robert’s pants out of its box. “I have a feeling these won’t really fit anymore.”
Eli shrugged. “Who knows, maybe Robert will be about the same height and some of it will work.”
Angela pushed her hair back behind her ear nervously. “Well, not really… Robert’s kind of on the short side now. Among other things.”
Cory sighed and put the pants back into the box. “Really wish you had mentioned that before I put most of his clothes in drawers.”
Eli hadn’t even thought about the fact Robert would need a new wardrobe. Where was that money coming from? “Okay, well then, what else is there left in the car then?”
“Nothing,” Angela chirped. “I just put away the last bit of Robert’s food that we found at your place. We’re all done.”
“Really?” Eli asked.
Angela nodded. “Yes. Really.”
“Huh, guess I’m just surprised.” Eli scratched his head and tried to figure out where all of Rob’s possessions had gone. “Felt like Rob had more stuff when we started.”
Cory shrugged and dusted his hands off. “We spent a lot of time back at our place assembling boxes. Much easier to unpack than pack, I guess.”
“So,” Angela said, “do you two want to head back to my apartment to check on Mallory?”
Eli perked up at the mention of checking on his sister. “Really?”
Angela raised an eyebrow, “Of course. I mean, you’re her brother and her…” she trailed off as she looked at Cory.
“Basically brother,” Cory announced.
Eli rolled his eyes, “Don’t flatter yourself.”
“Whatever. You know your dad totally has some piece of his vast fortune carved out for me in his will.”
Angela pushed past the banter, “Elijah, why did you seem surprised that you could come by and see her?”
“I guess…” Eli trailed off as he tried to come up with a tactful way of expressing himself. “I guess at this point we’ve been left out of the loop for so long, got held at swordpoint by a ninja merely for trying to help our friend out… I guess I’m just trying to say it’s weird to suddenly be in the loop.”
“Well you have to understand that…” Angela trailed off and held up a single finger, “Wait, did Noriko actually hold you at swordpoint?”
“Well, not technically,” Eli admitted, “but she did brandish it and make it very apparent that…” A blue light flashed in the living room.
“Hey!” Cory yelled with excitement, “we’ve got company!” Cory rushed past Angela and practically knocked her down.
Angela steadied herself along the wall as Eli walked past her. “He’s rather excitable.”
Eli shrugged. “Teleport rocks are kind of cool.” Eli ran his finger along the wall as he walked out of the room. The girls’ dorm’s walls were smooth drywall as opposed to the rough brick of the boys’ dorms. It figured that they’d remodel the girls’ dorms first.
Eli expected Vivian to walk through the stone. She had stated that she was getting “feminine care products” for Rob, after all. The woman who came through the portal instead had his friend’s jaw nearly on the floor.
She was a short scarlette with waves of red cascading hair that ended just past her curvaceous ass. The scarlette was nearly as short as Vivian, yet she had a figure that could have rivaled any of the girls pictured on Eli’s Invokers cards. Girls weren’t supposed to be that hot in real life unless they were super models or something. Her waist was so tiny that Eli swore an appetizer tray might have a bigger circumference. And her chest was…
This was Rob; Eli made eye contact and knew in an instant that this short, stacked scarlette was Rob. The eyes were different to be sure: Rob’s eyes had been blue… or maybe a greenish-blue. Eli really had never paid attention to the exact color of Rob’s eyes, but this hottie, despite having a deep, inviting shade of green, had the same firm, piercing, always-observing gaze that Rob did.
This stone-cold fox that Eli had instinctually been checking out was his friend. The guilt he had been pushing pushing bubbled up to the pit of his stomach. What had he gotten Rob into?
Rob tried to hide the stab of betrayal she felt. It was to be expected, of course. Fate had cursed Rob with a body most women would diet, exercise, and possibly kill for. Cory’s and Eli’s eyes did what any healthy, heterosexual male’s eyes would do when encountering such a specimen. They examined it; they drank in her curves with a quick but noticeable glance. It was completely normal for guys to do that to a girl they had just met. Perfectly normal.
So why did Rob feel like someone had just stabbed her in the back?
Rob let go of the decorative rock and the glow disappeared. Angela appeared from one of the bedrooms, stopped, and gave Rob an appraising glance. Rob had seen girls give each other the once over before. Maybe it had been sexist of her to think it, but Rob always thought girls couldn’t help but compare themselves to one another. Despite the fact that Angela had seen Rob as Spirit Guard Serenity, the blonde seemed surprised by the girl in front of her. Did the disconnection effect extend somewhat to the Spirit Guards themselves? And was that a hint of jealousy in her eyes?
Rob was thankful that Cory finally broke the awkward silence. “Wow… Rob… uh… you’re really short now.”
Rob decided she wasn’t that thankful Cory broke up the silence. “Yeah… it’s really weird looking up at everyone.”
Eli cleared his throat. His eyes, once more, were full of guilt. “You’re a scarlette too. Guess it figures you end up with one of the hair colors native to here, huh?”
Eli had to stop feeling guilty over this. None of it was his fault; the blame rested at the feet of Fate… and maybe the Shrine Maiden if she botched this reincarnation thing. Either way, Rob needed to put Eli at ease and let him know she didn’t blame him. If she could just get her friends to act naturally around her, and they no longer checked her out like she was some… babe, maybe she could have a shred of normalcy “Yeah, well, my mom was a redhead. I guess maybe… I don’t know. I guess the shrine priestess emotion black magic brought this out, maybe?”
Angela tapped her cheek. “I don’t remember my dreams perfectly, but I think maybe the Shrine Maiden’s hair was this color too.”
Past life talk. So much for normalcy. “Of course it was.” No. This conversation wasn’t relieving the tension. She had to change the subject away from the insanity of changing genders and past lives. “Mallory is going to be okay. I mean, she wasn’t doing well, but Kara was able to do some light show with her hands, and… it was really cool to see how she healed her up.”
That brought a small smile to Eli’s face. “Yeah, Kara told us a little bit before zonking out.”
Rob raised an eyebrow. “Zonking out?”
Cory’s impish grin returned. “Yeah!” He pointed to the couch in the corner of the room. A short bluenette was curled up with a blanket over her, sleeping peacefully. Short? Rob had to remind herself Kara was now taller than she was. “She came in, said, like, maybe five sentences, then was out like a spent light bulb.”
Rob nodded, remembering how tired Spirit Guard Charity had been powered up. Sounded like she hadn’t been exaggerating how drained she’d feel when powered down. “Wow. Just like that, huh?”
Cory nodded and huddled over Kara’s sleeping body. “Yeah. Check this out.” Cory started clapping over her ear and whistling, “Hey sleeping beauty. Wakey wakey. Hey! Can you heeeear me?” Kara didn’t twitch a muscle.
Eli and Angela both gave disapproving scowls. “Would you quit being obnoxious and let her sleep?” Eli grunted.
“It really is quite unnecessary and sort of disrespectful of the effort she just put forth to heal Mallory,” Angela added.
Cory gave Rob a plaintive pout, “C’mon! It’s like she’s in a coma! That’s amazing! I wish I could sleep like that.”
Rob shook her head but couldn’t help but grin a little. “Let her sleep. I need her later tomorrow.”
Angela raised an eyebrow. “What will you need her for tomorrow?”
Rob sighed and pushed some stray strands of crimson out of her face. Her hair wasn’t as obnoxious powered down as it was powered up; it wasn’t like the hairs were actively trying to get into her vision’s way. Yet her hair was entirely too long and inconvenient. Why a girl would ever want hair this length was beyond Rob. “Ms. Kuna suggested I take her with me tomorrow to… get a wardrobe together.”
“Oh,” Angela said with a bit of disappointment. “Well, if she’s not feeling up to it tomorrow, I’d be happy to help.”
It dawned on Rob that Angela was feeling excluded. Odd that amongst all the chaos of the situation that Angela would feel isolated over something as simple as skipping a shopping trip. Rob knew being forced into shopping for women’s clothing would make herself especially surly, and she doubted Angela would be the best person to be around while her sarcasm was on full blast. “Ms. Kuna figured you’d be busy enough tomorrow caring for Mal. I mean, with as stubborn as she seems to be, we’ll need someone to be watching over her at all times to make sure she doesn’t try to overdo it and rips out her stitches… well, not stitches since Charity used empathokinesis to put her back together, but… someone should be watching her.”
Angela squinted and considered Rob’s words. “Oh. That’s a good point.” Angela nodded her head and gave a small chuckle. “That would be just like her.”
Eli nodded with his own slight grin. “Yeah. I once saw her play nearly an entire game on a high ankle sprain. Just gutted right through it. She isn’t the best at taking care of herself after an injury.” Eli nodded and turned to Angela. “If you need someone to tag out with while she’s bedridden, let me know. She’s my sister after all.”
“Thanks, Elijah. I know your sister will appreciate that, and I know I’ll appreciate some help.”
Rob gave a sigh of relief. If she had to go shopping for clothes for her new body, Rob didn’t want a lot of people getting involved. It was humiliating enough without a bunch of people offering their opinions. Plus, Rob felt Kara would be the most understanding; her title was Spirit Guard Charity after all.
Rob felt her stomach gurgle; she hadn’t eaten a thing since the fight. Everyone else seemed to notice the sound too. Angela giggled and pointed to the fridge. “We moved all your food from your old place here, and Vivian brought some Chinese food for us. There is still a bit left if you’d like me to warm it up for you.”
“Speaking of Vivian,” Cory sighed, “I think we should give you fair warning that she hurried off to get something else for you.”
Rob didn’t like the tone in Cory’s voice. “What kind of something else?”
Cory and Eli exchanged nervous glances. “Well, she said she was getting you some,” Eli made finger quotation marks in the air, “feminine care products.”
Rob winced. That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. Feminine hygiene was a topic Rob had planned to put off as long as possible. Vivian didn’t seem the type who would let Rob just ignore the issue. “Well that’s just peachy.”
Angela didn’t seem to want to talk about feminine care products any more than the boys or Rob, “So, did you want me to heat up that food for you?”
Food sounded great, but Rob felt drained mentally. Between the fighting, rescuing, conversations, cover-ups, and awkward socializing, Rob just wanted to be alone, eat something unhealthy, and play some Aspect Realms. “You know, thanks Angela, but I just kind of need to be alone for a bit. I’ll heat it up myself.”
Angela leaned forward, locking her eyes with Rob. “You sure, Robert? I don’t know if it’s the best time for you to be alone. It’s a lot to take in and…”
Rob waved her off. “No. I’m sure. I just, well, I don’t recharge well with others around me. I just… I just need some time to myself to try and process all of this, you know?”
Angela nodded, seemingly placated by that answer. “Well, if you insist then. But if you need anything, and I mean anything, don’t hesitate to give me a call. I can use the stones to be over in a few seconds if you need anything, Robert.”
Robert. It felt weird to be called Robert with the world feeling so much bigger and so many red strands periodically invading her vision. “Oh, just a heads up, we worked on my cover some, and Ms. Kuna and I decided Robert probably isn’t a good name for me to keep.”
Cory and Eli stood up straight at that news. “Really?” Cory asked. “You got a new name and all?”
Eli’s guilt returned to his face. “Makes sense, but if you’re not Robert Dreese, then who are you?” Rob would have to find a way to cure Eli his guilt. It made Rob feel guilty too. Emotions made no sense.
“Decided to keep it simple. I’m Robin Darling now.” Cory’s and Eli’s eyebrows furrowed and Rob could tell what they were thinking. “Darling was my mom’s maiden name. I didn’t want to stray too far from family. Robin was my grandma’s name. It’s close enough that it shouldn’t bug me, I think.”
Eli scratched the back of his head and spoke with a careful tone, as if he was dipping his toe in a pool to check its temperature, “So… do you want us to call you Robyn now?”
Rob shrugged and tried to make it look like she didn’t care. “Whatever you want. I don’t think it’ll be too weird for you two to call me Rob for short.”
Angela put her hands behind her back nervously, masking her unease with a helpful tone, “So do you want all of us to just call you Rob, Robert?”
Rob bit her thumb nail as she considered the question. “Maybe? I mean, I guess I should get used to the new name. I suppose, for now, you girls should call me Robin. You know, to adjust… or… something.”
Angela nodded and visibly relaxed some. “Okay then. Robynn it is.”
“I’ve gotta ask,” Cory interjected, “You’re not worried about the last name Darling at all? It’s sort, you know, comic book-y. You know, attractive girl with a last name of Darling.” Rob was glad Cory had used comic books as the example and not something more crass.
Rob shrugged again. “I mean, yeah, it’s a bit girly, but I’ve known a few athletes with it. It can’t be that bad. Plus, it’s part of my family. I’d like my name to have some tie back to my parents. Besides, how often is my last name going to come up?”
Angela started counting on her fingers. “Well, every time you fill out a form, introducing yourself, dealing with TA’s, teachers in small classes handing back papers, Spacelook profiles…”
Rob waved her off. “Okay. Okay. Yeah, a lot but not in any embarrassing way. And I don’t do Spacelook anyway but, yeah. Okay. I get your point. A girl at my high school had the last name Titterington and another had the last name Bootie. They didn’t have the best time, but we’re in college now. How many people walking down the street will know my last name?”
Cory stuck his tongue out. “Titterington? Seriously?”
Rob nodded with a smirk. “Yeah. Middle school wasn’t fun for her.” She was at least proud to say that the teasing never came from Rob’s direction.
“I’ll bet,” Eli concurred. “So then, name is different. Anything else we need to know about your cover story?”
Rob rubbed her eyes. She was getting tired of having to answer questions. She just wanted to have some time to herself. “Just that I was late arriving to school because I had to help my Uncle finish the harvest, and you met me because you two know Kara and Vivian and I’m their roommate. We then hit it off as friends.”
Angela stood up straight. “Your Uncle owns a farm?”
“Not exactly,” Rob snorted. “He does have a garden with corn in it, but Ms. Kuna thinks with my accent people might buy it if they got curious. Plus, farming is a boring topic, and I probably won’t get asked too much about it.”
Cory grinned wickedly. Eli tensed up. “Whatever you’re about to say, don’t.”
Cory tried to hold in a chuckle and sound innocent. “What? I was just going to say the key to this corn farming story is its ‘kernel’ of truth.”
Rob didn’t want to dignify Cory’s terrible pun with a laugh. She really didn’t. Had Angela herself not allowed a short, yet guilty, giggle to escape, Rob was confident she could have resisted. But Angela did giggle, and Rob, despite herself, started to laugh.
Rob knew what her laugh sounded like, but the sound that came out of her mouth wasn’t Rob’s laugh. It was high pitched, nasally, and had a staccato rhythm. Then again, Rob’s laugh had always been somewhat high pitched and nasally with a staccato rhythm. His uncle had always called it the “baby walrus laugh.” Not that Uncle Taylor had any clue what a baby walrus sounded like. It was just what Uncle called the laugh.
But this laugh was even higher pitched. The nasally sound was accented with a slightly sweet drawl. The staccato rhythm was even more pronounced. It wasn’t Robert’s baby walrus laugh. It wasn’t even a laugh. It was a giggle.
That’s why Rob realized it sounded so wrong. Guys could giggle as much as girls could, but Rob’s old laugh had definitely been a laugh. This was unmistakably, undeniably, definitely a girl’s giggle though.
To add insult to injury, Rob’s giggle mixed with Angela’s giggle accentuated how girly this giggle was. Both of them had tried to hold their giggles back to avoid giving Cory the satisfaction his horrendous pun didn’t deserve. The pair sounded like cheerleaders stifling chortles as they walked down the high school’s hallway and talked about which football player was the cutest.
But of course it sounded like a pair of teenaged girls’ giggling. That’s what Rob was now. A teenaged girl. Pompoms, skirts, twangy accent, new name, long hair, new dorm, shortness, tight clothes, breasts… all these things had hammered away at the point that Rob’s life would never be the same. Yet for some reason, at that moment, hearing her own, brand new cheerleader giggle was the strike that finally drove the nail in his masculinity.
Robin would never hear the baby walrus laugh again. It had been as much a part of Rob’s identity as his face. That was gone. Forever.
Eli shook his head and buried his face in his hands. “Awful. That one was just awful.”
“Come on,” Cory pleaded. “Admit it! That one was good. Even Blondie laughed at it!”
Angela tried to push her smile down, but her face betrayed her. “Wait a minute! What does that mean?” They all laughed, unaware of Robin’s sudden existential crisis.
Had Robin felt anything close to normal, she would have participated in the back-and-forth. But she didn’t feel normal. Surrounded by smiling friends, Robin felt as cold and lonely as an iceberg drifting at sea. She had to get away from everyone. Robin needed to think. She couldn’t get emotional. Not in front of Eli. That’d make him feel guilty. She didn’t want that.
Fortunately, Robin was still smiling from the giggle. She tried to freeze that expression on her face. “Okay. Yeah. That was bad. Thanks Cory.” Then she lied. “I needed that.”
Cory smiled. “Always here to help.”
Eli opened his mouth to protest but Robin pressed forward and kept her frozen smile on. “Thanks again for moving my stuff, guys. I appreciate it.”
Eli squinted. Could he see through her act? “I… yeah, no problem, Rob.”
“It was our pleasure,” Angela affirmed.
“Look,” Robin let the smile fade slightly, “it’s been a long day and I’m famished. I need to eat something.” Robin walked over to the kitchen, trying to ignore how weird it felt to walk with her much shorter legs. She hoped to get used to them soon. “I also need to sort some things out. Thanks for all the help again, but I just need some time to myself. To think.”
Robin pretended to not notice, but she could see Cory, Eli, and Angela exchange confused and worried glances. Cory cleared his throat. “Yeah. Sure. We can do that.”
Eli stepped forward. “You sure, Rob? I mean…” Eli trailed off, the guilt filling his eyes once more.
Angela stepped in. “We’ll clear out if you need us to, Robe… I mean, Robyn. But are you sure that’s wise? I mean, when times are hard I find the company of others to be…”
Robin turned away from the three of them and opened the fridge. She didn’t want to make eye contact with Eli at the moment. “Yeah. I’m sure.” She tried to project more confidence than she felt. “I just need some me time. Haven’t gotten any today.”
Robin found the leftover chinese food in some tupperware. The girls’ fridge… her fridge was much cleaner than the one at the boys’ dorm. It also had more food. Eli had mentioned that Kara liked to cook stuff and even shared some food with him. At least there was one silver lining to having to change roommates.
“They keep their plates two cupboards over,” Angela said.
“Thanks.” Robin opened the cupboard keeping her eyes away from them.
Silence hung in the air while Robin spilled the contents of the tupperware onto a plate. Angela’s sigh broke the silence, and she heard her shuffle away. A few soft taps to the beat of Lyric Victory’s “You’re My Life” preceded the flash of a soft blue light in the corner of the living room. “If you need anything Robyn, please don’t hesitate… I’m just a short teleport away, you know.”
Robin nodded without looking back. “Thanks, Ang. I won’t forget.” She could feel her eyes beginning to well up. Stupid emotions. Robin was usually so much better and controlling stuff like this.
The glow disappeared, and she wiped her eyes with her thumb and index finger as she attempted to feign simple fatigue. She finally chanced a glanced in Cory’s and Eli’s direction. Both wore expressions of concern. Robin tried to change the subject. “You know, she probably would have let you two go through the rock with her. I mean, if you’re going to go see your sister, why not do it in style?”
Cory gave a casual nod. “That would be pretty snazzy.” He was much better at faking this stuff than Eli was.
Eli didn’t seem interested in faking anything though. “You sure about this, Rob? Like, really sure?” Gummi donut. Why did Eli have to make this hard?
Robin fired up the microwave. “Maybe not,” she admitted. “But I know that I feel like being alone.” Robin composed herself and risked eye contact with Eli. “I’ll be fine. Seriously. I killed a monster today. I think I can handle a little dinner by myself.”
Eli pursed his lips and met her gaze for a few seconds. After what felt like an eternity, he nodded his head and looked down. “If you say so. Okay. Just remember, even though you may be in Butterworth Hall now,” Eli pointed out the window towards the field in between all the dorms, “Burton Hall is just across the field. And we don’t care where you’re sleeping. Cory and I still consider it your place as much as this one. Come over whenever.”
“Or just give us a call, and we’ll be over,” Cory added. “I mean, thanks to Captain Casanova here, my GameStation is already here. Gives us an excuse to play it and visit, right?”
Robin smiled. She still felt cold, but at least she didn’t feel abandoned. “Thanks guys. I won’t forget.” She turned back to her food spinning in the microwave.
Her friends seemed to take that as their cue to leave. They pattered and thumped their way to the door. It squeaked open, and Robin winced at how shrill it sounded. She’d need to fix that. The door hung open for a few seconds. “Remember,” Eli said, “call us if you need anything.”
“Anything,” Cory echoed.
“I will.” Robin didn’t turn around. A few moments passed before the door squeaked shut.
Robin stood in the kitchen with only the dull hum of a microwave and the faint, spiced aroma of Chinese food as her company. She hunted around for utensils and a paper towel. The microwave dinged right as she found the utensil drawer. A few short moments later, she stood at the living room window sating her grumbling stomach.
She watched Eli and Cory trudge across the field towards Burton Hall. The setting sun cast a long shadow across the field. Sunset? Just how long had sorting through her new life with the animal-woman taken? And why were the blinds open anyway? Sure the teleport stone was out of view of the window but wouldn’t occasional flashes of light attract attention?
As she watched them walk, neither Cory nor Eli were talking. Their postures were that of tired men. Sure, her day had sucked the worst, but it wasn’t like it had been kind to them. They had nearly been drained by monsters. They had nearly lost Mallory. They had, in some ways, lost their roommate. Sober thoughts like that had a tendency to stress anyone out.
It was just stupid. It was all so stupid. Monsters, questions, and rules kicked her from where she wanted to be. The genesis of Robin’s new life would begin here in Butterworth Hall, room two-eighteen. Thanks to the efforts of her friends and Angela, her stuff was here, but this wasn’t her home. She should have been walking with Eli and Cory. Instead, Robin was watching the long shadow of night reach over campus from a foreign window angry and alone.
Kara snored from the couch. Robin jumped slightly, having forgotten the bluenette was in the room. Kara snored again. Could Kara, through her slumber, sense Robin’s melancholy? Their powers worked on an emotion-based system. Did it work when you slept? Was Kara such a giving soul she could feel the need to reassure Robin even in her sleep?
Probably not. The odds were much more likely that Kara had simply snored, as many people do, in her sleep, and it just so happened to correlate with Robin’s feelings of loneliness. Reality was made of matter, energy, cause, and effect. It was a dangerous path to start ascribing mystical causes to every coincidence that happened in her life. If she began doing that, who knew what else she might begin to expect?
Robin shut the blinds. Staring at Eli and Cory didn’t improve her mood, but she knew something that would. She marched into the room she had seen Eli and Angela emerge from figuring it was where they moved her stuff. When she rounded the corner, she found her bed, desk, posters, and pennants arranged just as they had been in Burton Hall. If it hadn’t been for the pastel yellow paint, Robin would have thought she had stepped back into her old room. She smiled, happy to have this little slice of familiarity.
Robin casually flipped the door shut behind her. Kara may have been asleep, but she wanted to be completely alone and that, in her mind, required a shut door. Robin took a step forward and was rewarded with the sensation of something yanking her head backwards.
“Sugar!” Robin steadied herself and turned around to find her all-too-long hair had been caught in the door. “Rrrg!” Robin retreated back to the door, opened it, and extricated her crimson locks from its clutches. Suddenly unconcerned with the napping Kara, Robin slammed the door shut. “I hate this hair!” She was going in for a haircut first thing tomorrow.
With a huff, Robin stormed over to her desk, leaned over, and powered up her computer. She inspected her monitors and peripherals; everything turned on as it should have. Robin sighed; she was grateful Eli and Cory had managed to reassemble her rig correctly.
As her computer booted up, Robin surveyed the half of her room that belonged to her new roommate: Yukimura Noriko, the ninja girl. Just thinking about her left a sour taste in Robin’s mouth. Ms. Kuna’s claims of her not being murderous did little to dissuade Robin from disliking her, but, in the end, Robin would have rather roomed with her for better internet and privacy than share a room with the supportive but potentially intrusive Angela. That didn’t exactly speak highly of Robin’s priorities or taste in people.
Noriko’s side of the room had nearly zero personality. Her bed had a single white pillow with plain black sheets that were folded so tightly Robin would have sworn an army grunt had made it to pass the drill sergeant’s inspection. Her desk was so clean you could have used it for an operating table. The only thing the desk had on it were a few textbooks, a simple laptop, and a polished black stone the size of a tangerine. Robin was tempted to pick up the rock and examine it, but decided against it; if Robin expected privacy from her sword-wielding roommate, then Robin needed to give her the same.
Most girls Robin knew had a collection of photos pasted to their wall with pictures of their friends, family, and a sea of smiles that let the world know how fun their life was. Noriko had no pictures or posters on her wall. The only thing breaking up the soft yellow paint of the room was a single black and white painting that depicted some sort of mountain scene. The style of art looked Japanese. A few japanese symbols adorned the side of the painting. A momento from home, maybe?
Robin shook her head and decided to leave that mystery for another day. Still, it mystified Robin that Noriko would have so few things to personalize her space. She had figured a ninja would at least have a cool display of weapons or something. At this point, if Robin had told someone she still didn’t have a roommate, some people might believe her.
Robin turned back to her comparatively ostentatious side of the room. She thought about how odd she thought it was that Noriko had no photos like other girls did. Would other people find it odd that Robin had no photos? Whatever. It wasn’t like she was hosting parties, and heavens knew she wasn’t taking any boys back here. The question wouldn’t likely ever come up.
She typed in her password and logged into her computer. Out of habit she opened up Aspect Realms and signed into the Mayhem Templar’s GuildTalk channel. A couple of rounds of PvP would be a great way to get her mind off of… well, everything. In fact, if she remembered correctly, Bluster was only seven more wins away from being able to afford the Battletested upgrade for her off-hand–
GuildTalk flashed and the voice of Tantrall, the best healer in Mayhem Templars, filled her speakers. “Heya Bluster. How goes it tonight?”
Robin grinned. Tantrall had been in the guild long before she even joined. He was one of the few who was around Robin’s age. Almost everyone else was older. They had seen many a digital battlefield together, were about the same age, and more than once vented about crap in their lives to each other. Robin had never talked to Uncle Taylor much about his friendships with his guildmates; he would have found it odd that Rob considered them friends. Rob had, after all, never met them. But when you shared battles, laughed at one anothers’ jokes, and complained about girl problems night after night you didn’t need to see someone to become their friend.
Robin pulled her headset on and lowered her mic to greet Tantrall. Her mouth opened, but no words came out. What was she thinking? She couldn’t talk to her guildies. What would they think if they heard some chick talking on Bluster’s mic? They’d ask questions. Questions that had no good answers. Monsters, rules, and questions. They were now even ruining her hobbies!
She took off her headset and rubbed her eyes. There had to be a solution. Fake a bad mic and just keep playing? Sure, that would remove the fun part of being in a guild but at least she could play, right? But the entire reason she had joined the Mayem Templar had been because they were a good PvP guild with a GuildTalk channel. The conversing had been the entire point.
Maybe she could get a character name change and just join as a supposedly new guildie? But then she’d be starting over and… and she’d be the first girl in the guild since ColderTurkey joined a year and a half ago. Turkey left the guild within two months. It hadn’t been anything big as far as Rob had been able to tell. Just a lot of little things. Poor jokes that were tasteless. Comments about her gender. Picture requests. Well meaning individuals that acted like she needed protection. A few jerks who’d stay idiotic sexual stuff to her and then get their hands slapped by the guildmaster. And then there were the dudes who wouldn’t normally say a single word in GuildTalk who suddenly got very chatty when she was around who seemed dead set on becoming her best friend.
When she left, she kept the drama to a minimum but had talked about how she always felt like an outsider to the boys’ club that was the guild. Rob had always felt she integrated fine, but the sausage fest and little things just added up to her feeling isolated. If Robin attempted a name change on Bluster and tried to rejoin as a girl, would she have to deal with guildies making stupid comments? Would she get overly interested lonely guys chatting her up? Would she get asked for pics? Would she…
“Bluster? Can you hear me? I’m not hearing anything on your end?” Robin winced. She could figure out a long term plan later. For now, she realized, Aspect Realms wouldn’t be a chance for her to just hang out with friends the way it used to be. She quickly typed a hurried excuse about having mic problems then logged off.
What was she going to do? She hadn’t realized until now how much she used the Mayhem Templar’s chat to just shoot the sugar with fellow gamers and relieve stress. How much frustration had Rob vented across GuildTalk? With her frustration level going through the roof, she needed someone she could just…
Her phone rang. It was a classic rock tune. She knew exactly who was calling. Dread overtook her. Uncle Taylor was calling. She knew she had to let it ring and go to voicemail. It’d only be a month’s time, and then she could then explain everything to him in person. Ms. Kuna had said that getting him close to the Standridge Stones would make him more likely to believe this story. Her logic was sound. That was what “had to happen.”
But at that moment, Robin didn’t give a rat’s angelcake about what “had to happen.” She needed to talk to the only person who had been there for her throughout her life. She couldn’t go on with this charade. She needed Uncle Taylor’s help.
Robin tried to fish the phone out of her pockets. The skinny jeans’ pockets were far too small. Any normal girl Robin’s age would be wearing these style of jeans for how they look. Girls didn’t put anything in their way-too-small pockets because they had purses. But the transformation had left Rob’s phone in Robin’s resized pocket, and now she had to hurry to get to the phone before it rolled to voicemail.
With a frustrated grunt, Robin stood up and yanked the phone free from its denim prison. Her finger hovered over the answer button. She wanted to hit it so badly. Why was she hesitating?
A few more seconds passed. It rolled to voicemail. She collapsed back into her chair. She had let it roll to voice mail. She couldn’t answer. She wanted to answer, but Robin knew she couldn’t answer. She could probably get him to believe her if he’d listen; she knew things that only Robert could know after all, but there was a chance Uncle Taylor might not believe her story. And the thought of him not believing her… it would break her fraying composure.
The phone beeped and notified Robin that her Uncle’s voicemail was available. Against her better judgement, she hit play:
“Heya Robert. Jist callin’ to find out how that project you were stressin’bout with them girls went. Call me back when ya git a chance. Real lonely here without ya. Love ya. Bye.”
Robin placed her phone on the desk. Uncle Taylor missed her… him… whatever. She didn’t care about pronouns at this point. He was lonely. She was lonely. Both of them wanted nothing more than to just talk and she couldn’t do a donut thing.
He was just checking on her. He wanted to see how she was doing. To offer advice. And to just hear Robert’s voice. To have contact with the last family he had. Why hadn’t she just listened to him and found a closer college? Why did she have to insist on going somewhere halfway across the country? Because she wanted to get away? Because Mom and Dad met here? What had she been thinking?
Had she just listened to Uncle Taylor, they’d still be together. Neither would be lonely. And Robin would have never had to do this. She would have never moved in with Cory and Eli. She never would have walked into that stupid arcade. She never would have had to deal with fudging monsters and cheerleaders. She should have just listened to him, and she could still be Robert and be free to talk to the only person she truly loved.
Robin couldn’t remember the last time she cried. As her eyes welled up, she couldn’t think of a time she had cried since her Grammy had died. She was seven or eight back then, but that couldn’t have been right. That had been over ten years ago.
As the tears welled up, Robin wondered if the fact she hadn’t cried in ten years meant she was uncommonly composed or dead inside. Normal people cried from time to time. She wasn’t normal. She was a gender-flipped super cheerleader sharing a room with a homicidal ninja and couldn’t even talk to her loved ones without being terrified what might happen.
Robin pushed her keyboard aside and quit fighting the tidal wave of emotion. She wallowed in her forsakenness and sobbed. What the honey was she going to do? Eli and Cory were just as confused as she was. Ms. Kuna was worthless. The other Spirit Guard had no idea what she was going through. Uncle Taylor would be the only person who got her and understood her, but she couldn’t say a fudging word to him.
Robin hadn’t been a girl for even half of a day, and she was already bawling like a baby. How the honey was she going to last a month without Uncle Taylor? Her sobbing deepened as her heart sank under the weight of her isolation. One month had never seemed so impossibly far away.
Cory kicked the door open to Burton Hall’s entrance. Eli rolled his eyes. He never understood why, his friend felt the need to visibly demonstrate his anger. It was childish. The door, predictably, slammed into the adjacent wall. Cory grimaced and gave Eli a sheepish glance. Eli shook his head. “It leave a dent, moron?”
Cory examined the spot it hit. “There’s a dent here, but… I think it was there before. This building has been up for a few decades, after all.”
“Smooth.” Eli shuffled past Cory in a huff.
“What’s your problem?”
“Why do you need to show the world how pissed you are when crap like this happens?” Eli huffed. “You always start banging doors open and stomping around.”
“Do not,” Cory protested. Eli response was a flat, incredulous stare. “Okay, so maybe I do a little. I just… this bites.”
Eli shrugged. “It really does.” He glanced around the Burton Hall commons area. There wasn’t much going on: just a few guys and girls chatting around the pool table and lounging on couches. Eli doubted they could hear the pair’s conversation, but there were eyes on them after Cory’s demonstrative entrance. “But maybe we should talk about this elsewhere.”
Cory looked around and realized what Eli was hinting at. Cory nodded and followed Eli through the door to the stairwell. “Hate that we have to talk about all this in secret. I feel like we’re drug dealers or something.”
“Yeah,” Eli agreed. “I still can’t believe that… this… is happening.” Eli paused as the stairwell door closed to be sure that he couldn’t hear anyone else’s footsteps. “I mean… Rob.”
“And my sister too! And the girls we have the hots for.”
“It’s kind of nutty.”
Eli ran his hand through his short brown hair. “She was this close to dying, Cory.” Eli swallowed down the huge lump in his throat. “I mean, I almost lost her.”
Cory put his hand on Eli’s shoulder. “But she didn’t.”
Eli leaned back and let gravity sit him down on one of the stairs. The steps were cold cement slabs with chips pocking the surface. The Burton building would be one of the last of the dorms on this side of campus to be renovated. The building was really showing the wear and tear of the years.”Yeah. Only because of Rob. Nothing we did.”
Cory followed Eli’s lead and found a seat against the wall. “The way I see it,” Cory started, “our job was to become Rob’s friend.”
“I mean,” Cory lifted his hands in the air as if weighing his words, “you think about all this Fate stuff they talk about. I don’t know about all of it but, I mean, come on. It’s more than a little convenient that Rob happened to room with the guys who were related to one member of the Spirit Guard and had some form of contact with the others.”
“I guess,” Eli muttered as he rested his chin on his knees.
“I mean, let’s say everything unfolds as normal, but Rob has no idea who we are. Does he ever go to Loose Change? Or the mall? Spirit Guard might have died without him.”
Eli snorted. “Counterpoint: Rob would have never woken up psycho-mannequin. Spirit Guard find her and don’t start the battle on unfavorable ground. We have no clue what would have happened. Your theory makes us sound more like the omen that preceded Rob’s damnable bad luck.”
“Maybe,” Cory capitulated, “but all this Fate stuff? I don’t know. Rob was feeling off on the walk to Loose Change. More of that emotion magic stuff. I think Rob would have sniffed his way into trouble with or without us. He’s far too curious, and we’ve already seen that his self-preservation instincts suck.”
Eli gave a begrudged chuckle. “Yeah. The idiot keeps running towards the danger.”
Cory shrugged, “Though we ended up following his lead both times.”
“Yeah. Guess we’re not that bright either.”
Cory rested his head against the wall and looked up the stairway. “No. We’re not. But, I guess my point is, I think Rob would have found his way to the danger with or without us. So why put Rob with us?”
Eli leaned back, “we’re assuming Fate took an active hand in this?”
“That’s the assumption.”
“How would she have done that? Did Fate herself go into the room assignments for Burton Hall and…”
Cory waved him off, “Look, I don’t pretend to know how all this stuff is supposed to work. I’m just saying if Fate is using all this power to get Rob here, she obviously wanted Rob to meet the Spirit Guard before actually getting his skirt on.”
Eli wretched, “Ugh. How much money do I have to give you to make sure you never say ‘get his skirt on’ ever again?”
Cory grinned. “Regardless, I feel like Fate put us with Rob so that Rob would become our friend. Not just to have an excuse to meet Mal. Because, Rob could have met Mal any number of ways. I mean, apparently Rob had a class with Blondie. So Fate didn’t need us to arrange a meeting.”
Eli nodded. Cory had a point there. He started to try and work through Cory’s logic. “So, assuming Fate is taking an active interest in us, which is a big if–”
Cory smiled, “Really big if. I mean, yeah, obviously I’m awesome, but you’re a nobody.”
“Obviously,” Eli chuckled, “but if Fate gives a crap then, we had to become friends with Rob because, what? He needed to be emotionally invested?”
Cory nodded. “That’s my thought. I mean, maybe Rob could turn down helping out some random strangers he met in class, but his friends’ sister? Much harder to turn down.”
Eli’s face hardened. “No.”
Cory glanced back at Eli in confusion. “No what?”
Eli thought back to that shoe store. Rob wanted to be alone as he transformed. Rob knew exactly what he was about to give up. Eli had to push another lump of guilt down. “No. I don’t think Rob only went because Mal’s my sister. Rob would have done that for anyone.”
“I don’t know,” Cory waffled. “I mean, it’s just so much to ask of…”
“That’s just who Rob is,” Eli stated. The discussion was no longer up for debate. “He’s that kind of guy.” Eli stood up. “Furthermore, we aren’t Fate’s pawns to push around the board. We became Rob’s friend because we get along with him and share a lot of interests. Pawns don’t make friends. People do.” Eli winced the moment he let those words escape his mouth.
“Thanks for that, Mr. Saturday Morning Cartoon Public Service Announcer,” Cory snickered. “You want me to go ahead and print that up on a t-shirt for you?”
“Yeah. That came out way more schmaltzy than it was in my head,” Eli admitted.
Cory grinned, “You make a good point though with the pawn analogy, though. After all, Fate’s dealings with Rob shows she turns pawns into queens.”
Eli winced again. “Too soon.”
“What? Queen is gender specific. Pawn is not. It’s funny.”
“Just… too soon.”
Cory threw his hands up. “Fine, different awkward subject. Rob’s new body, or should I say Robin’s new body. Go.”
Eli buried his face in his hands. He simultaneously needed to vent and never talk about this subject. Venting won out. “Ho-lee shit.”
“I know. I mean… Fate’s kind of a dick, right?”
Eli slapped his palm on his knees. “Exactly! Why would you do that to poor Rob? I mean, dude, seriously. I checked her out! I didn’t know it was Rob when I started, but I checked her out! How messed up is that?”
“Completely messed up… but yeah, I kind of did that at the start too.”
“We’re horrible friends.”
Cory held up a finger, “In our defense, we had no idea that was Rob when we started.”
Eli nodded, happy to have someone justify his mistake. “That’s true.”
“How were we supposed to know Rob, our Rob, would turn out to be a smokin’ hot scarlette with more curves than a math lecture about conic sections?”
Eli’s shoulders sagged. “Conic sections?”
“Yeah.” Cory scratched his nose. “Because… curves?”
“Conic sections?” Eli asked again with more emphasis.
Cory stood firm. “Yeah. Conic sections. Math lectures. What? My humor too sophisticated for you?”
“You know,” Eli lamented as he shook his head, “you really used to be one of the funniest people I knew.”
Cory smirked, “That sounds like a compliment, but I kind of get the feeling that it isn’t.”
“Nice catch. Nothing gets by you,” Eli joked. His mind drifted back to that short scarlette with the perfect figure. In his mind’s eye, he lingered on her shirt. It had been so tight and so thin. “Really isn’t fair. What was Fate thinking making her so… so…”
“Busty?” Cory offered.
Eli sighed. He didn’t like how casually Cory used the word to describe their friend but it wasn’t like it was an improper descriptor. “Yeah. I mean, I guess I just figured Rob would turn out a female version of himself. Same reddish-brown hair. Same height. Same overall build. Just, you know, with boobs and a thinner waist. Not that. That’s just… that’s just cruel.”
“It’s almost like,” Cory mused, “Fate’s trying to make up for all the years of Rob not being a girl by just shoving eighteen years worth of femininity into his body all at once.”
Eli squinted, trying to process Cory’s point. After a few moments he gave up. “Those clothes sure didn’t help things either. I doubt Rob picked them out himself. Herself.” Eli groaned. “Whatever.”
Cory snapped and nodded enthusiastically. “I know, right? Those jeans were so tight that–” The door behind Cory creeped open and a black-haired guy about their age staggered in walking backwards. Eli froze and prayed Cory would do the same. Sadly, Cory had built up too much verbal momentum. “–when she turned around you saw her ass was so…” Cory’s brain finally caught up to his senses and he turned to face the interloper.
The guy continued to inch backwards through the doorway. On his back was a backpack so full it looked ready to explode. In his left hand was a guitar case. His right tugged on a large, rolling luggage bag, with three boxes balancing precariously on top. His hair was a mess of black that looked a little too perfectly messy to have not been intentionally styled that way. He turned his head slightly and grinned at the pair. “Hey man, don’t let me end the story. I was really looking forward to hearing the end. Her ass was so… what?”
Eli stood up, eager to change the subject. Why had they stopped in the stairwell where they could be interrupted? Idiots. Mallory, Rob, and Kara were depending on them to keep their identities secret! “You, uh, need a hand with that buddy?”
“Huh?” the guy glanced at Eli, “Oh, yeah. Sure. That’d be a huge load off.”
Cory followed Eli’s lead and snatched two of the wobbling boxes off from the luggage. “Woah, these are heavier than I expected.”
“Yeah,” the guy handed Eli the other box and the luggage case. “Sorry about that. Those are all my pots and pans and stuff. Thanks a bunch guys.”
Eli’s box didn’t seem nearly as heavy as Cory’s. He carried it easily in his left hand and rolled the luggage up the steps. “Pots and pans? Just buy a set or something?”
“Naw man,” the guy said with an easy smile, “just barely moving in. Was in the Caribbean with my family, and we got stuck a few days heading back because of that hurricane that rolled through.”
“Just barely moving in?” As far as Eli could think, none of the other people he knew in the dorm had any roommates that hadn’t shown up. Just their apartment. Cory glanced at Eli with a look that let Eli know Cory was thinking the same thing.
Cory cleared his throat. “Your name wouldn’t happen to be Dale, would it?”
The guy stopped walking. “Woah. That’s freaky. Yeah. How did you know that?”
Eli grinded his teeth together. “Because we’ve had an empty room mate slot for a while and we knew it was reserved for some guy named Dale.” Of course their mysterious fourth roommate would wait to show up mere hours after Rob had tragically left. Why wouldn’t he?
Dale lit up, “No way! You guys are seriously my roomies?”
Cory smiled back and extended his hand. “Name’s Cory Frost.”
Eli tried to muster up a smile but failed. “Eli Drake.” Was this guy getting stuck in a hurricane part of the plan to make sure there were fewer complications with Rob’s departure? Now that he was accepting that Fate could intervene, Eli couldn’t help but regard everything as a possible Fate-driven ploy. Obviously he didn’t agree with Platicore’s goals or methods, but he was really starting to see how the Spirit Guard’s enemy could have been driven mad.
Dale vigorously shook Cory’s hand with a laugh. “Dale Bridges. Awesome to meet you two!” Cory and Eli lead Dale up the stairs to the third floor where they lived. “Can’t believe I just happen to run into both of you here in the stairwell. Must be, like, fate or something.”
Eli clenched his fist. “Must be.”
Cory gave a nervous chuckle. “So you play guitar, Dale?”
“Oh, yeah.” Dale lifted his guitar case as if to demonstrate the point. “I’m actually in a local band: Free Unsecured Network. Nothing big, of course. Just playing in cafes and bars and stuff.” Dale chuckled to himself. “Maybe someday though we’ll hit it big though. Play in arenas, have roadies, and the sweet, sweet groupies. I’m not holding my breath though.”
Cory raised an eyebrow and wedged open the door from the stairwell to the third floor. “Free Unsecured Network?”
Dale shrugged. “We wanted a name that made for a good acronym and was something that symbolized something everyone loves but doesn’t think too much about. Unsecured wifi hotspots are a reason a lot of people go to the cafes we play at. Our drummer came up with the idea of adding ‘free’ to the front of Unsecured Network so our acronym is ‘fun.’ So, you know, there you go.”
Eli shrugged, not really caring too much about band names. He had never been too into music. “Not bad as far as band names go.”
“So what about you guys?” Dale asked with a tinge of self-consciousness. If Eli had to guess, he would have thought Dale felt uncomfortable with how the conversation had been about him so far. “What are you all into?”
Cory opened his mouth but Eli cut him off at the pass, “We’re gamers.” This was the true litmus test. Rob had lit up when he saw Cory’s GameStation for the first time and was eager to have a conversation about the merits of consoles and computer gaming. It was time to see how Not-Rob reacted.
“Gamers? Seriously? Cool!” Dale said it with a casualness that had Eli guessing he didn’t care. “What all do you play? Any Crosshair Eclipse by chance?” Eli guessed wrong.
Cory put the boxes down in front of their apartment and hunted in his pockets for his keys. “Crosshair Eclipse? I have it but we’re not really big on it. Too much no-scope twitch shooting for my tastes.”
Eli smirked. “Whatever. Cory got big into it a few years back and just got super frustrated with online play. He’d rage so hard.”
Dale laughed. “I hear ya, man. I’m not very good either. I mean, I thought I was good but you play online enough you’ll find all the ten year olds who do nothing but play the game and don’t seem to understand how not to shoot you in the head.”
Cory wrestled the door open and nudged Dale’s boxes in with his foot. “I wouldn’t rage that bad, Eli.”
“Whatever,” Eli scoffed. “You started referring to the laser sniper rifle weapon as the douche cannon, and your mother took away your headset so you’d stop getting in shouting matches with people.”
Dale laughed hard at that. “The Parallax Rifle was pretty overpowered. I was glad when they toned down the one-hit kill potential on the thing to headshots only in CE 2.”
Eli sighed and placed the boxes he’d been carrying on the table. Maybe he had been too hard on Dale. Had he met this guy a week ago under normal circumstances, Eli totally would have given him a fair shake. He shouldn’t hold it against him that he was Not-Rob. “I take it you play a lot?”
Dale shook his head and removed his backpack. “Nah. Ever since I started doing more band stuff I got away from playing. My buddies still invite me to a few system linking parties every once in a while, but sadly I only played the campaign for CE3.” Dale glanced around the dorm with a gleeful smile. “So this is the place, huh? Bit run down but not bad.”
Cory frowned. He obviously wasn’t happy about how Eli had characterized him, though it was difficult for Eli to be certain if that was because he implied Cory had difficulty keeping his cool or that he wasn’t very good. “It’s been nice to us.”
“So,” Dale pointed to the two bedroom doors, “Which one am I in? And the RA said I was living with a dude named Robert. He here? What’s he like?”
Eli froze. He glanced at Cory who looked similarly panicked. They hadn’t discussed the reason for Rob’s disappearance. They only had worked out Robin’s sudden appearance. This wasn’t good. “Oh. Yeah. Rob.”
Dale squinted. “Something wrong with Rob? Is he a real tool or something?”
“No!” Eli exclaimed with a bit more anger than he intended. Dale backed up and Eli cleared his throat, “I mean, no. It, uh, Rob is awesome. The best really.” Eli thought back to Rob standing in that shoe store, holding his Spirit Stick. “You couldn’t have asked for a better guy.”
Cory thankfully was thinking clearer. “You actually just missed Rob. He left for home earlier today.”
“Home? Semester just started.” Dale opened up his box of pots and pans and began to put them away.
“Yeah, well,” Cory continued, “Rob’s dad sort of… died.”
Dale stopped looking for places to fit his cookware and turned back to the pair. “Say what? You serious, man?”
Eli nodded. It was a good idea. Rob’s dad had died… fifteen or so years ago. Still, it wasn’t a lie and worked well for their purposes. Why hadn’t Rob used that excuse to explain why Robin was late arriving to school? Seemed more plausible than the weird working on the harvest excuse. “Yeah. Car accident. Rob went home to be with family and get everything in order. We actually just got back from getting all his stuff mailed back for him.”
Dale shook his head. “Wow. That’s… that just sucks.”
Cory nodded. “It really does.”
Dale let out a slow breath. “Feel bad for the guy. Don’t even know him but… damn. What a sucker punch!” Dale shook his head. “That’s a downer.”
Eli nodded. “It’s been a downer kind of day.”
Dale sighed and went back to putting his stuff away. “And here I thought the worst news I’d hear today would be that monster attack at the mall downtown.” Dale stuck his head in the cabinet and shuffled Cory’s and Eli’s unorganized mess of pots and pans. “You two hear about that? I mean, I guess you’ve probably been too busy helping this Rob-dude get his stuff together, huh?”
Cory coughed, “Uh, yeah, we heard a little about it.”
“I heard a little rumor,” Dale’s voice was muffled until he pulled his back out of the cabinet, “that there may have been a new Spirit Guard show up.”
Eli bit down on his lip. How had that gotten out? “You don’t say?”
Dale examined the space he cleared, nodded, then put his pots and pans away. “Yeah. I mean, no one saw her but supposedly some cops said there is a few seconds of security camera footage that showed one in a blue uniform with really long scarlette hair that they had never seen before. Really weird how these monsters seem to disrupt cameras, right?”
Eli almost chuckled. He and Cory had been in the poorly-named Hush Wagon and watched as the Twins coordinated with the ninja to corrupt or delete all but a few seconds of the security camera footage. He got an odd thrill knowing something he shouldn’t. “Yeah. Weird that.”
“But, man, they maybe now they got a scarlette, huh?” Dale grabbed his guitar and backpack and trudged to the too-empty room. Eli felt a stab of anger. How could Not-Rob so casually walk into Rob’s room like that? Eli knew it was nonsensical to feel like that, but after all that Rob had sacrificed, that room felt hallowed.
Dale smiled and, thankfully, put his stuff on the other bed. Eli really would have had an awkward time explaining to Dale why he couldn’t use Rob’s unoccupied bed. “Yeah. Maybe so.”
“Hope that footage goes public at some point,” Dale mused. “Would love to get a look at her.”
Cory grabbed the other boxes and followed Dale into Rob’s room. “Yeah? Why so?”
“Well, for one, every bit of video we’ve seen of the Spirit Guard shows a group of very lovely ladies.” Eli tensed up. His sister was one of those lovely ladies. Dale gave a guilty grin. “Plus I kind of have a thing for scarlettes.”
Eli winced. He looked up and glared, as if to accuse Fate herself. “Of course you do.”
So I had a huge debate on WHERE to end this chapter. The part we ended on, with Eli and Cory meeting their new roommate almost didn’t make it. Part of me wanted to end the chapter with Robin crying to end with a bit of a punch to the gut but I decided that, with chapters being separated by weeks, I’d rather end on something slightly less weighty so you don’t finish reading all depressed. If this were a regular book however and the next chapter was right there, I would have instead ended on Robin crying and began chapter 18 with Dale’s introduction.
For the record, I feel most of us would have been reduced to tears long before Robin. This is why she’s Spirit Guard Serenity and we’re not. I don’t think of serenity as merely staying calm but remaining composed and in control of yourself. But at a certain point I feel it’s healthy, even good, to cry. I just hope the point at which Robin finally broke down felt natural.
For me, it makes sense for hearing yourself laugh with a new voice the first time to be very jarring. Everyone has a unique laugh that we unconsciously associate with our identity. I think it’d be a sharp blow to that self-identity to laugh and have it come out wrong. For me, it felt right to have the laugh be the straw that broke the camels back for Robin.
I also hope the shifting of Robert’s name is working out okay for everyone. Along with pronoun confusion. Robin has a lot to deal with and pronoun shifting is one of them.
I think it was important to have Eli and Cory check out Robin. For one, she is a ridiculously gorgeous woman and I think it’s natural for the male eye to give that a once over at least on instinct. However the reason I feel it’s important is that Robin would naturally, at this point, be much more observing of that happening as, to this point, it hasn’t happened yet. I think it’s especially important because Robin is the type of person who just likes to blend in and have no eyes on her. She’s obviously going to have to adjust on that point some.
One last thing. A weakness of writing a story episodically as I do is that sometimes points can be forgotten over the weeks. After discussion with my editor I’ve realized not everyone may remember why Robin is waiting until her Uncle comes to town to talk to him. Ms. Kuna had posited that the reason everyone treats all this monster stuff so casually is due to an effect caused by the Standridge Circle. The thought was the Ardent Empire created a sort-of curiosity-dampening field that gets people to just accept weirdness and not examine the Empire’s teleport stones too closely. The plan was wait until Uncle Taylor is close enough to the stones to buy the story so that they could avoid any unfortunate questioning from someone not under the Circle’s effects. Questions are an issue to those trying to keep identities secret.
Let me know your thoughts on the chapter,