Trace liked the dark corner booth of Rusty’s Tavern. It felt like her own personal guard, pushing unwanted people away. Any time someone looked like they might try to start a conversation, she could just glare up at them and look as menacing as possible, and they normally would leave. The dark allowed her to drink in peace.
Platicore was going to be mad. She hadn’t gotten his latest failure’s empathic capacitor. It wasn’t her fault, but he’d be mad anyway. That new Spirit Guard, the scarlette, had spooked her. Trace had been completely cloaked by the stealth band Platicore had given her, yet that bitch had looked straight at her. None of the other Spirit Guard seemed to notice her before. Could this new girl see invisible things? Was that her power?
Trace was just glad the girl had been too busy with Platicore’s toy to bother investigating. Without any augmentations of her own, Trace would’ve been completely at her mercy. She really didn’t like feeling helpless. Platicore said he’d get her some empathokinetic armor or whatever when he had enough spare investiture, but there never seemed to be enough investiture for anything other than another one of his freaky golems. Trace suspected he didn’t trust that she’d follow him once she had power of her own. He was probably right.
Rusty, the old man who owned the bar, placed a small glass with ice on her table. Without saying a word, he filled it with some Johnny Rider 18. She liked that he never had to ask what she wanted to drink anymore. “You want me to leave the bottle here tonight?”
Trace was tempted. She really liked this brand of scotch; it reminded her of the old Triays’e White Barrel she used to drink back home. However, she knew that if she had to deliver bad news to Platicore again then she didn’t want to do so whilst being a bit tipsy. That could trigger one of his “moods”…
Trace could have just shaken her head but she liked practicing her English with Rusty around. The old man never seemed to judge her when she’d mess up or ask where her accent was from. “Would be better if you did not do.”
Rusty nodded and put the cap back on the square bottle. There was so much more artistry to drinking here. The bottles back home were just bottles. Here the bottles were all sorts of shapes, colors, and sizes. “Just let me know if you want more later.” He turned and started to walk away.
She had returned empty handed after the Polygal incident. She didn’t have Day LaMode’s capacitor yet. She would have it. She’d just get it later tonight. However, if she returned to Platicore with nothing other than news of a new Spirit Guard, he’d be livid. She didn’t want to put up with his whining. “Rusty. One thing more.”
“I need an fruity beer in the bottle.” Trace couldn’t remember what those types of alcohol were actually called. She hoped Rusty would understand what she meant.
Rusty raised an eyebrow, “You mean like a wine cooler?” Trace nodded intently and Rusty folded his arms. “I thought you hated that stuff?”
Trace nodded again. She had tried one once, after seeing a bunch of drunk sorority girls drinking them. Truly, that entire branch of alcohol was worthless, but it wasn’t like she was getting it for herself. “Not for mine consumption. For… friend. To go.”
Rusty shrugged and walked off, “Got a flavor in mind?”
Rusty shrugged and shuffled off. She needed to keep Platicore off her back, and if there was one thing life had taught her, it was that booze was a great way to soften someone up. She had brought him a bottle of scotch once to try and loosen him up. Instead Platicore just complained about how strong the taste was. Well, if he couldn’t handle the stiff drinks, maybe he needed something only sorority girls could handle.
Rusty returned with a green wine cooler, “Lime good enough?”
“Is fine,” Trace affirmed.
Rusty smiled but looked like he might want to ask something. “You uh… enjoy your drink, miss.” Trace was grateful that he didn’t act on his curiosity. She was pretty sure he didn’t even know her name. Trace liked a barkeep who just let her be.
Trace’s pager buzzed and she groaned. Looked like she wasn’t getting any alone time with a bottle of scotch today. She downed what was left of her cup of Johnny Rider 18 with a grunt and slammed her fist on the table. She probably should have just nursed it a bit longer and told Platicore she was a bit further away from a stone. However, she wasn’t bringing him any Investiture tonight. She wanted to be as prompt as possible to avoid a bitch-fest.
As she stood up, a nervous, college-aged looking man peeled away from his circle of friends and walked towards Trace. She groaned once more. This wasn’t what she needed. The guy wore a tight, button up shirt designed to show off his moderately well built muscles. “Uh, excuse me, miss.”
Trace glared. She tried to look as put out as possible. Maybe the guy would just take a hint. “What you wanting?” She walked past the guy and returned the bottle of scotch to the bar for Rusty.
The guy cleared his throat, “Sorry to intrude, but I’ve seen you over in the corner a fews times. It’s very rare that a girl as lovely as you drinks something as stiff as Johnny Rider and I just had to ask…”
Trace pushed her lavender hair back and sighed, “I am busy.”
The guy took a step back and she could hear his buddies at his table stifle giggles. The guy, now hesitant, didn’t give up just yet. “I was just wondering if I could get you a drink and…”
She didn’t get guys like this. She obviously had no interest but he kept trying. Why? How blunt did she need to get? “No. Leave myself alone. Buy dumb sorority girl a drink. I am not of interest.” Trace made a beeline for the door.
As she walked, she could hear his buddies chuckle and wince with a mix of amusement and sympathy. One of them muttered, “That bitch is cold.”
Trace stopped at the door. She turned and stared at the table and their laughter fell silent. Trace had been told her glare could stop someone’s heart. She may have liked this culture’s drink selection, but if there was one thing she hated about this place, it was how she had to hold back.
Back at home she could have decked that guy, and no one would have thought twice. Here, no, there were so many more rules. Someone could insult you but if you didn’t show “maturity” and “restraint” you were somehow the asshole. She didn’t asked to be bothered. Point of fact, she had actually done everything to make it clear that bothering her was something one shouldn’t do. But now she was the bitch because she didn’t humor someone who had clearly ignored all the warning signs. That’s not how it was back at home… not on the Triays’e side of the tracks anyway.
The fact of the matter, though, was that she wasn’t on the Triays’e side of the tracks. She was here, and she needed to keep a low profile. It didn’t matter if she had made it clear she didn’t want to be bothered, this society would find her at fault if she let things get physical. Then, if she made headlines by starting a barroom brawl, she’d have to ignore another of Platicore’s lectures. Plus, that would also cause trouble for Rusty, and he didn’t deserve that.
Trace settled for extending that table her middle finger and storming out. She still wasn’t quite sure what that gesture meant, but she had gathered it was quite rude. She probably should do more research of such things on the internet, but that would require asking Platicore for either a computer or credentials to use some public locale, and she hated asking him for things.
Trace stomped her way across the back alleys until she came to the back door of an unused and rundown office. The alley was empty tonight. Good. She hated having to chase off hoboes. She knocked four times on the bricks to the left of the door. Just as they had before, a small, green portal opened. It was just barely big enough for her to fit in. She squeezed through, and the portal closed behind her.
Platicore’s lair was unlike anything she had seen before. The ceiling was a sea of stars and galaxies, but she could breathe the air just fine. The walls were a mix of neolithic stone carvings and high-tech science equipment she couldn’t begin to understand. The place made no sense but what did in this business? Trace found it best not to dwell on these things.
She could hear the loud crashing of Platicore’s “feet” on the other side of a wall. The bowl-shaped head of Platicore’s power armor peered around the corner. His robotic, wheezing voice betrayed his surprise. “You came rather quickly.”
“I was in the neighborhood.” Trace was relieved that she didn’t have to speak English around Platicore; the translator he built into his suit took care of the obvious language barrier the two would normally have.
“No doubt at your booze house, like normal.” Platicore rolled his eyes, and Trace shivered. She tried to never look at Platicore’s actual, scarred, animal form in the bowl helmet of his power armor. Fate’s Guardian’s freaked Trace out. Animals, especially ones as bizarre and as injured as Platicore, should not be that expressive.
Trace decided to test his mood by giving him both a verbal barb and a gift. Depending on his reaction, she’d know what type of mood he was in. “Don’t be like that, Platy.” Trace placed the bottle of lime wine cooler in front of him, “I brought something for you. They call it a wine cooler. It’s made from fruit. You might like this one.”
Platicore growled. “Do not call me Platy! I am Lord Platicore.”
Trace held her breath, waiting to see if he’d snap. “Most people give thanks when they are given a gift.”
For a moment, Platicore looked like he might snap. Instead, Platicore opened a fold on his armor’s chest, opened the bottle and poured some of the green liquid in. Trace let out a sigh of relief. He was in a good mood. Numbers and letters in a foreign language flashed over his helmet. He nodded, “Well, it is at least not poison.”
Trace raised an eyebrow. “You are familiar with what alcohol is, right?”
“I’m well aware, smart ass. I just mean you aren’t actively trying to poison me.”
Trace groused at the accusation. “Platy, if I wanted to kill you, you’d see it coming. I don’t stab people in the back.”
“How very reassuring,” Platicore’s voice oozed with sarcasm. Trace watched as the wine cooler flowed into a feeding tube within the helmet. Platicore craned his neck and sipped at the liquid. “Mmm. How very delightful.” Trace gave a sigh of relief as he poured more liquid into his chest compartment. “It reminds me of some of what we’d… liberate from the Ardentia royals’ stores during the war. What do they call this?”
“Lime wine cooler.”
Platicore put the cap back on the bottle. Trace never stopped marveling at the delicate tasks Platicore could perform in his suit. The former guardian never left it’s confines. Without it, he had indicated that he’d be unable to do much of anything due to the injuries he sustained while fighting the ever-so-mysterious Queen. “Well, it tastes wonderful. Much better than that swill you brought last time.”
Trace shoved her hands in her coat pockets and glowered at Platicore. If the creature noticed her anger at his dismissal of her drink of choice, he didn’t let on. “Enough diversion. It’s time for us to get to the messy business.” Platicore placed the rest of the wine cooler bottle in his chill box. “My data indicates Day LaMode has gone offline. Those meddlesome Spirit Guard have managed to kill two in one week. This is very troublesome. Since Polygal mysteriously got no yield, we are running dangerously low on Investiture. If Day LaMode did not gather enough Investiture, I might not have enough energy to recharge your stealth band. Please tell me my creation had a plentiful harvest.”
Trace looked away. Here it came. “I don’t know yet. I wasn’t able to swipe the capacitor after the fight. I…”
Platicore turned and his suit stood up to its full height. It towered over Trace. This was bad. He had been in a good mood. She had forgotten how quickly his switch could flip. “You didn’t get it?” Before Trace could even move, Platicore squeezed her shoulder and slammed her back to the wall. Her vision blurred slightly but she could still make out the pure rage that burned in his eyes. “When I freed you from Fate’s holding cells, it was on one condition! Just one! I forgave you for your lack of intel with Polygal, but now you fail me twice in a row! If I didn’t know any better I’d say–”
Trace tried to squirm out of the mechanical hand’s grip, but her shoulder wouldn’t budge. She’d definitely have some bruising. She had to calm him down. “It’s not my fault!”
“Not your fault?” Platicore sneered. “Pray tell, whose fault is it then, you worthless–”
“The fifth Spirit Guard showed up!”
“Come again” She felt the grip loosen; she ripped herself free and rolled away from Platicore. She needed to keep him calm before his temper flared up again. “The fifth… arrived?”
Trace wanted to yell at him for being a psycho. His mood swings were awful. She figured he had a screw or two knocked loose by that fight with that Queen person he wouldn’t talk about. However, she knew that’d just set him off again. And until he made good on getting her some enhancements, she knew she couldn’t afford to take on that powered armor in a fight. For now, she’d just have to continue to placate his curiosity. “Yeah. I got to the mall right as she started fighting your stooge. Short, curvy little thing. Super long scarlette hair. Wore a blue cheerleader outfit… and she looked right at me.”
She could see the embers of his anger stir in his eyes, “And that stopped you from gathering the Investiture after the fight was over? Because she saw you before you activated stealth?”
Trace shook her head, trying to look confused. He liked feeling like he knew everything. Like he was the smart one in the room. Playing dumb often calmed him down. “No. She looked at me while I was stealthed. I approached the battlefield with the stealth band active, and she looked straight at me in the middle of the fight. Like I was more interesting than your little minion.”
Platicore folded his machine’s hands behind it’s back. “Now that is curious… though not entirely surprising in retrospect.”
“Care to fill me in? ‘Cause that surprised the hell out of me.”
The anger was gone as quickly as it had arrived. Trace gave an inward sigh of relief, though she was very careful to not rub her shoulder. Blaming him for his outbursts tended to cause more outbursts. “Yes. The fifth member of the Spirit Guard, the one yet to be seen, was a Shrine Maiden in the Ardentia clergy. She was practically an avatar of tranquility. Such tight control of yourself yields excellent clarity that can border on telepathy if mastered.”
Platicore rushed to his toolbox and pulled out a few gadgets whose purpose perplexed Trace. “Your stealth band doesn’t actually bend light; it plays tricks on one’s perception so that they simply assume you aren’t there, and their brain just, as a result, filters you out. I’m willing to bet this new Spirit Guard actually couldn’t see you but rather sensed your emotions. I’ll need to upgrade your band.”
Trace groaned, “Yeah, so I ditched when she looked at me. I didn’t want her to try to figure out what she was feeling.”
Platicore nodded. “Wise of you. She’s new, so she likely is unsure what it was she felt when she looked at you. Best not to leave an impression.” Trace was tempted to ask for an apology, but she knew she wouldn’t get it. “What were you able to learn, Trace?”
“I learned that she called herself Serenity. And that your monster almost killed Tenacity.”
Trace put his hands flat on the table. “Almost? Almost how?”
“She was about to end the bitch’s life when Serenity arrived to save her.”
Platicore growled and punched through his work table. “Damn them and their accursed sense of timing! Can I not rid myself of one of them? No doubt Charity was there to heal her as well. I could have capitalized on the recovery time… if they hadn’t just destroyed the two constructs I had in the space of a few days.”
Trace took several steps back. If he needed to get his anger out, she didn’t want to be within arm’s reach. She needed to distract his mind. “At least it explains what happened to Polygal’s capacitor. Probably tried to drain whoever this Serenity girl is and shorted out.”
Platicore breathed slowly through his nose and tried to regain his composure. “Yes. You are likely correct.”
“Maybe I could use that intel to try and figure out who the new girl is?”
Platicore waved her off. “I’ve told you it’s a complete waste of time.”
“I don’t see how it…”
“Of course you don’t,” Platicore derided. “What do you understand about the disconnection effect? Nothing. It’s a waste of resources and time. I’ve told it to you a thousand times. I’m not getting into this again!”
Trace thought that was stupid. Sure the Spirit Guard had disguise fields that warped your perception. But if she just kept that in mind as she researched, Trace was sure she could figure out who they were. In the end, they had to be around the same height, build, and had to be there at the time of the attack. Enough detective work should be able to fight any magical shenanigans. However, she wasn’t about to argue with Platicore when he was dancing on the edge of his rage. “You’re the expert.”
“Yes. I am,” Platicore seethed. “Regardless of intel, I still need that Investiture. I barely have enough energy to keep my suit active. Now I also have to modify your stealth band while also making another construct. If I don’t…”
Trace made a beeline for the exit. Showing some initiative would give her an excuse to leave and should calm his temper. “The cops should be winding things down. I should be good to stealth in with no risk of alerting their Hush Corps to my presence. I’ll have it within three hours.”
Platicore nodded, opened up his chill box, and poured more wine cooler into his armor’s chest. “Yes. Of course. Run along. It’s best if you get it quickly.”
Trace couldn’t have agreed more as she exited through the portal. The quicker she found a way to rid herself of this psycho, the better.
Robin scratched her head as she examined the jeans in the mirror. Thankfully, with her hair in a high ponytail, she could actually see her backside in the mirror without her mane of red blocking view. On the downside, that meant everyone else in the mall would be able to examine her backside as well. “Can we seriously find something less tight around my angelcake? I mean,” Robin groaned, “my butt?”
Kara sighed and took another bite of her protein bar. It was her fourth one of the day, and it wasn’t even noon yet. She really hadn’t been kidding about how much her appetite would be affected by having to heal Mallory. “These are loose fit jeans, Robin. I do not wish to be the bearer of bad news, but those jeans aren’t tight around your backside. I think they just feel weird because you aren’t used to your new body yet..”
Robin grumbled. They had driven two towns over since Kessia City’s mall was still closed because of ongoing monster cleanup and repair. They had been combing through various cuts of jeans for nearly forty-five minutes already. Robin was already beginning to be worn out by all this shopping, and it had barely begun.”What about going through the men’s section? Maybe something there could work? And all the numbers are standardized over there, it would take less time since I wouldn’t have to make sure each pair of pants fit because a thirty waist is a thirty no matter who makes it.”
Noriko shook her head. “I’d advise against it. Plus your waist is nowhere near a 30 anymore.”
Robin grumbled again. Noriko’s inclusion on this shopping trip had been a last minute addition. So far, she had been nothing but a finger popping Robin’s soap bubbles of hope for comfortable clothing. “Why so?”
“Well Robynne, you said you want clothing that is comfortable. Men’s clothing would be looser, yes, but they also wouldn’t be tailored to your body correctly. You’d no doubt find them far less comfortable than clothes cut for a woman.”
Kara nodded, “She makes a good point.”
Robin didn’t like it when she made good points. Yet, she had to admit, these jeans that she currently was trying on felt much better than the ones she had started the day with – ones she had arrived in Kessia City as a man with. “Fine. I guess this will have to do.”
Kara gave Robin a conciliatory smile. “I’m telling you, your discomfort is likely more from how different pants feel on your, uh, new equipment down there. I’m sure you’ll be quite comfortable in loose fit once you get used to your new body.”
Robin shivered. “Let’s just get two pairs of these then and agree to never reference my ‘equipment’ ever again.”
Vivian stumbled around the corner with a giant stack of tank tops, short shorts, miniskirts, and dresses. “We’re getting equipment now? I thought we were just getting Rosy here a new wardrobe.”
Robin was seriously regretting letting Vivian tag along. She had let their “choco-phagial therapy session” lull her into a false sense of security. This girl was having way too much fun while Robin struggled with her new clothing issues. Robin pointed to the aisle Vivian had just come from. “Everything in your arms can go back where it came from. I am not a dress-up doll.”
Vivian pouted. “But Kunapipi gave us her credit card and said the budget was as big as it needed to be! Plus, if we don’t dress you up in things we have no intention of buying but you look great in, we’re missing half the entire purpose of going on an apartment shopping trip!” Her eyes plead for Robin to relent.
“Back from whence it came!” Robin commanded with a air of drama she hoped Vivian would respect as a film buff.
Vivian grinned but made sure to arch her back and let out a long, loud, and pained groan. “Fiiiiiiiine, Commander Buzzkill! Cancel Christmas while you’re at it!” Vivian chuckled and returned to the aisle she came from. Robin was not sure if she would ever understand that girl. She was even more confused with how Vivian was treating Cory with a cold shoulder now. The two would obviously get along great. For some reason it hadn’t bugged her too much the night before but the little brunette’s antics were increasingly reminding Robin how well Cory and Vivian had gotten along the night of the Polygal attack.
Kara smiled and took another bite of her protein bar. “I’m surprised you brought her along.”
“Yeah. Not sure what I was thinking.” Robin rolled her shoulders as she tried to discreetly adjust the bra she had borrowed from Angela. Despite their claims to the contrary, this had not made her more comfortable. She would never borrow a guy’s underpants, so why were girls okay sharing bras? Plus the straps kept digging into her shoulders. Kara had said it was likely because she needed a bigger bra.
Robin didn’t like that Kara had said that.
Kara gestured at the pile of jeans. “I noticed you said two pairs though. Surely you mean more than that.”
Robin shrugged. “Why would I need more? They’re jeans. You can wear them a week at a time.”
Noriko stood up and thumbed through a selection of jeans with the same measurements as the ones Robin currently wore. “You need more because no girl who wanted to blend in would go around in the same pair of jeans for a week at a time.”
Robin rolled her eyes. “I’m not worried about people thinking I’m a little messy.”
Kara looked like she wanted to say something, but her mouth was full with another nutrition bar. Noriko spoke in her stead, “That should not be your concern.”
Robin folded her arms, careful to keep herself from pushing her breasts together. She still wasn’t used to that sensation, though she was amazed with how quickly she was getting used to the shift in body weight. “It shouldn’t? Then what should be?”
“Clothes fit a function. For most people, that function is to appear attractive to the opposite sex or to express something of their individuality. In the short time knowing you, however, I get the impression you mostly wear clothes just to keep warm and be comfortable.”
“Yeah,” Robin snorted, “I’m not exactly trying to catch the eyes of other people.”
“Then we are looking for clothes that make you comfortable, but if you dress too comfortably and without any hint of paying attention to style or fashion, that would make you stick out. Disregarding my concerns about any of the Spirit Guard standing out, I gather you want as little attention on yourself as possible, yes?”
Robin squinted her eyes. “Yeah. But, if I dress sloppy, won’t that get people to leave me alone?”
“Maybe,” Kara answered. “But unfortunately with your new body people might instead wonder why you’re slumming it. Girls in particular examine things closely for the girl who doesn’t fit in ‘the box’ of fashion. If you dress sloppy, you’ll likely have a lot of eyes on you and people wondering, ‘what is wrong with that girl? She’s got a great body, yet she dresses like a hobo cat lady.'”
Robin didn’t like the idea of people staring at her. “Okay. I get that, but other than judgemental looks, what other kind of attention would that get me? If it’s just the judgemental eyes I don’t care.”
Vivian popped back around the corner. This time she carried a smaller, more reasonable collection of practical blouses and business skirts. Robin was relieved to see Vivian was starting to address the clothes she would need to meet the campus dress code. Vivian appeared eager to rejoin the conversation, “Some of that attention would just be girls who want to help a fashion disaster. Girls love making other girls feel pretty. It comes from a childhood of playing with dolls.” Vivian dumped the pile of clothing at Robin’s feet with a grin. “On that note, here are some clothes to make you feel pretty.”
Robin gave her a flat look, “I sincerely doubt that you put away all those clothes you previously had.”
Vivian stood up straight and puffed her chest out, “You have no proof I just dumped them in a dressing room.”
Robin shook her head and opened her mouth to speak but Kara beat her to it, “Seriously Vivian? You just dumped all that in a dressing room? You’re going to make employees clean it up?”
Vivian raised a finger. Without a witty rejoinder she just sighed. “Okay, yeah, gotta be honest… I didn’t really think of that. Kind of a dick move on my part when you put it like that.” Then she retreated back to the aisle in shame.
Kara shook her head but continued on, “But she is right. If you are a fashion disaster, you’ll receive more attention. In addition to the overly helpful girls who would want to fix you, you’d also get attention from mean girls who boost their self-confidence by tearing down.”
Robin snorted, “Yeah, I could care less what they think.”
Kara gave a conciliatory nod, “You also have to consider the attention from boys who have been taught by movies that a girl who has a good body but who dresses frumpishly just needs a guy to make her confident in her body and he’ll have a hottie for a girlfriend.”
Robin scowled. “Okay, you know what, as a subject expert on being a dude, I can say I didn’t have any such fantasies and never knew a guy who did.”
Noriko kept her face impassive but reproof was in her voice, “Respectfully Robynne, from what I can tell, you aren’t the most outgoing. Kara likely has a better handle on this than you do.”
Robin’s scowl deepened. “What exactly do you know about me? We’ve roomed for less than a day.”
Noriko shrugged, “After the… incident at the arcade happened I had to run a background check on you. There wasn’t much I could find. You didn’t participate in any clubs in high school, though you were an active football player from middle school up through your junior year. You graduated number seven in your class. Your social media footprint is miniscule; the only place you post anything online is on your Aspect Realms guild’s forum, and it took Will a good while to find even that. If you had friends in high school, it’s curious that you didn’t seem to attempt to go with any of them to college since you submitted no applications for any other colleges. This combined with your sudden non-participation in football your senior year suggests–”
“I get it,” Robin interrupted. She did not like how perceptive her ninja-roommate was. “But that still doesn’t explain why, if these looking-for-an-ugly-duckling-to-turn-into-a-swan guys exist, how I never ran into them.”
“To be fair,” Kara admitted, “a lot of it could just be guys who are too scared to ask out the attractive girls so they ask out girls who aren’t as confident in themselves. Then, as time goes on, and the girl has a guy who is into them, the girl gets more confident and starts to dress accordingly. It might not be the guys doing it on purpose.”
“Still,” Robin countered, “it doesn’t explain why, if it’s so common, I have never noticed it.”
Noriko glanced around the store as if she were checking for assassins in the shadows. “In my observations, women tend to think about relationships in a lot more depth than men. Perhaps it’s societal; perhaps its biological. More to the point, maybe you’re right and there aren’t as many as Kara and I assume there to be. But I have seen them. They exist, especially in the pickup artist community. They are always looking for an angle to work. Add in the attention girls would be giving you as well, I’d say dressing out of style would garner more attention than I think you are anticipating.”
Robin scoffed, “Yeah, so what are you suggesting then? I’m telling you right now dressing up like your average coed isn’t going to get me any less attention and it’s the type of attention I don’t want.”
Kara finished off her protein bar and shook her head. “That’s not what we’re suggesting.”
“Then where are you going with this?”
Noriko approached the pile of skirts and blouses Vivian had left behind. “You’re on campus most days and during school hours students have to abide by the business-attire dress-code. You simply have to look ‘nice’ rather than great to help you blend in.”
Robin rubbed the bridge of her nose. “What exactly does ‘nice’ entail?”
Noriko held up a thin green blouse with short sleeves. “Most girls on campus would wear something like this. Most girls on campus want to catch eyes. The thin-material and tight cut of this top would be an example of what most girls wear to meet the letter of the dress-code but still get second looks.”
“I am not most girls,” Robin reminded the ninja.
“Indeed. I’d recommend something more like this.” Noriko held up a long-sleeved dark orange blouse. “The material is thicker and designed to fit looser, hiding some of your figure without being baggy.”
“But I want it to be baggy,” Robin protested. “I don’t want to show off any hint of my figure. Not even a rumor of it. As far as the rest of campus is concerned my figure should be an urban legend. A myth.”
Kara giggled but shook her head, “But that doesn’t help you with your actual goal.”
Kara stood up and stretched, “Well…”
“When a creature wishes to not be seen, it uses camouflage to blend in with it’s surroundings,” Noriko explained as she cut Kara off. “Your clothes are your camouflage. If you refuse to wear clothes that are at least somewhat similar to what other girls wear, you will stand out. If you stand out, you will get looked at and examined closer.”
“On the other hand,” Noriko continued, “if you wear something that looks like what other girls wear but isn’t as showy, you’re more likely to have eyes pass over you.”
“Except I have,” Robin grumbled, “and I can’t believe I’m saying this, a more traditionally attractive physique than most girls. If I dress with the same rules, I’ll stand out in the other direction.”
Kara put a comforting hand on Robin’s shoulder. Well, Robin knew it was meant to be comforting, but she instinctively shivered away from the contact. Kara frowned, but the look in her eyes told Robin she understood. “Not necessarily Robin. I think Noriko is onto something here. You simply need to dress ‘like’ other girls but wear styles that don’t accent your, uh, natural aesthetic advantages.”
Vivian popped around the corner and returned to the trio of girls, “Wow. That was the most tactful way I’ve ever heard someone say ‘you’re hot,’ Kara. I’m legitimately impressed. You use lawyer language really well.”
Kara shrugged and blushed, “One of my older brothers is a defense attorney, so I’ve picked up a thing or two.” Her eyes narrowed, “You put away those clothes?”
Vivian held her hands up defensively, “Yes, Mom. I put them away.”
Kara smiled and nodded her head, “Glad to hear it.”
Vivian chuckled, “You’re a regular slavedriver, you know that?”
Robin gave an amused snort, “All she did was make you take a look at your moral compass. You’re the one who actually followed its directions.”
Vivian pouted, “Hey, she doesn’t need your help.”
Noriko cleared her throat, trying to get the group back on topic. “Kara, other than looser fitting clothes, what other things were you suggesting for clothes that won’t accent Robynne’s natural aesthetic advantage?”
Robin cringed, “Is ‘natural aesthetic advantage’ going to be a thing now? It’s kind of wordy.”
Vivian shrugged, “We could just refer to it as your ‘hotness’ if you want it to be quicker.”
Robin tossed her hands into the air, “Natural aesthetic advantage it is.”
Kara ignored the semantics of Vivian and Robin’s conversation and gestured to Robin’s hair. “Your most striking feature is your hair. Scarlettes are fairly rare, and your hair is the most vibrant shade I’ve seen.”
Vivian scratched her nose nervously, “You sure her most striking feature isn’t lower? Like, you know, maybe in the torso region maybe?”
Robin gave Vivian a flat look, “Subtle.”
Vivian shrugged, “What? I thought we were trying to be tactful. I’m just not as good at that as Kara.”
“In a crowd,” Kara intoned, “her hair will be what get people to take a second look. That’s what stands out. So we need to pick out colors that mitigate and downplay her hair.”
Noriko nodded. “That makes sense.”
Robin raised an eyebrow, “What colors would those be?”
“Well,” Kara said as she started thumbing through the selection Vivian had picked, “green compliments your hair amazingly well. So no greens. Same goes for blues.”
Vivian nodded. “Plus, white and black go great with scarlettes. So not those.”
Kara pursed her lips. “I agree with you on white but I’m not sure on black.”
Vivian bounced on the balls of her feet. “You kidding? Black and red is like the best evil color motif! She’d practically have to beat off every guy with a ‘bad girl’ fantasy.”
Robin raised her hand like she was in class, “Uh, as a former guy, let me just say, that’s not how ‘bad girl’ fantasies work. You need a bit more than a black blouse to make that your look.”
Vivian waved Robin’s logic off, “I’m sure the black would corrupt you anyway. One week in and you’d be smoking cigarettes and underage drinking for sure. Clothes change people.”
Robin rolled her eyes, “I’m pretty sure you can’t use underage drinking as a verb.”
“Psh. Maybe you can’t. I refuse to be bound by your petty grammar.”
Vivian’s antics kept reminding her of Cory. She decided to change the subject to see if she could both do her friend a solid and make Vivian uncomfortable at the same time. “Okay, Vivian, let me ask you this then: why are you avoiding Cory?”
Vivian’s grin faded and Robin could almost see her shrink back. “I… what?”
“Ever since the night at the Circle, you’ve been avoiding him. All your little jokes and jests you make tell me you two are perfect for one another. So why are you avoiding him?”
Vivian bit her bottom lip, “Uh… I don’t like this change of subject.”
Kara smirked and folded her arms, “Vivian speechless? I’m impressed.”
Vivian cleared her throat. “Uh, that’s uh…”
Noriko raised an eyebrow. “I had assumed it was because she was mad that he found out about her secret identity when she wasn’t comfortable with him knowing about it.”
Robin nodded, “Yeah. I could see that if it were his fault, but it’s my fault. I’m the one that asked them to watch. So why are you treating me fine but ignoring him?”
Vivian glanced to Kara as if she was begging for her to intervene. Kara shook her head, “Don’t look at me. I’m curious to know this as well. You were talking about him like you thought he was the funniest guy ever after your class and lunch with him a few days ago.”
“I don’t know,” Vivian whined. “I just… I don’t know.”
Robin nodded her head towards Noriko, “Is it what she said? Because he knows your secret?”
Vivian shrugged, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable. “I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, I really… I guess I just imagined that I’d never reveal that except to… you know. My soulmate or something.”
Robin frowned. She hadn’t thought of that. A secret this big was supposed to be meant for only those who were special. They hadn’t even shared it with their families yet. Eli could be written off as Mallory’s brother. He might have eventually known. But Cory, even if Vivian was interested in him, wasn’t “special.”
Well, he wasn’t special yet. Robin would see if she could help her friends out. “Look. It’s my fault. Not his. Cut him some slack. Plus, who knows, maybe he is your soulmate.”
Vivian chuckled and looked Robin up and down, “Isn’t that a little too magical for your tastes?”
Robin shrugged and smirked, “Hey, just ’cause I don’t buy into your girly malarkey doesn’t mean I can’t make observations. I’m a ‘woman of science’ after all.”
Vivian shook her head and smirked, “You’re just trying to get me to hook up with your buddy. Your boobs can’t fool me! I know you’re still secretly a dude!”
Robin grimaced at the boob comment but tried to power through, “I said nothing of hooking up. I just think you two have a lot in common. Don’t hold it against him that he saw things he shouldn’t have.”
Vivian pursed her lips. Her lips slowly curled into her familiar grin. “I’ll think about it.”
Noriko stepped in, desperate to move the conversation along. “Speaking of Robynne’s bust, what would we do to mask it’s size?”
Vivian giggled, “Sheesh, Spooky. Put a tarp over her why don’t ya?”
Robynne grumbled, “Can we stop talking about my chest like I’m some sort of anime character? I’m not so big that I’m a fudging cartoon.”
Noriko cleared her throat. If she didn’t know any better, Robin would say the ninja looked a little guilty. “My job is to keep your identities safe. I just want to minimize anything that would get you unwarranted and, I believe, unwanted attention.”
Robin smiled. “And I’m completely on board with that.”
Kara rested her chin between her thumb and index finger. “You know, we could go a step further for Robin’s look on campus. If we give Robin a suit jacket to accompany her look that’d hide some of her bust.”
Vivian clapped her hands together. “That’s brilliant! It’d give her a more no-nonsense look that will scare off some of the boys.”
Robin liked the sound of that. “Okay, I like where this is going, but I thought I had to ‘blend in.’ If none of the other girls wear a jacket won’t that make me stand out?”
Noriko nodded. “A fair point, but female professors and some of the graduate students have to wear the suits as well. There are enough of them around you shouldn’t stick out too much. There could be a potential benefit, since graduate students tend to be older, some of the students your age might think that you are actually older than you look and might avoid you altogether.”
Robin considered Noriko’s logic. It did make sense that it’d make her possibly seem older. After all, what eighteen year old girl would wear a suit jacket if she didn’t have to? Most girls her age were more worried about having a good time than their education. “Okay. So, that makes sense. What about this skirts thing?” Robin frowned. “I’m not exactly excited about that part of the dress code.”
Vivian grinned. “What’s the matter? Not okay with the dress code anymore now that you have to wear a skirt?”
Robin held her hands up defensively. “The dress code was one of the reasons I chose this school. I liked the idea of a school with a more business-like atmosphere. But I thought, and still think, it’s weird that skirts are a requirement for girls. I would have thought they would have modernized some.”
Kara groaned, “Yeah, that doesn’t make much sense to me either. I would have thought the Student Association would have overturned that a while ago, but I guess they think it’s a slippery slope or… something.”
Robin perked up, “Student Association? They are the ones who vote on this stuff?”
Noriko started picking out a selection of suit coats. “Yes. It’s one of the draws for people who want to go into some form of leadership. The Student Association here at SAU has a lot more power than most Student Associations. A few people have run on a campaign to overturn the dress code but they never seem to win.”
Robin squinted. “Really? I’d think that’d be something the student body would go nuts over.”
Vivian shrugged, “Students are notoriously bad about actually bothering to vote. Plus, even if they get a President who wants to change the policy, the Association members who actually get to vote on it are all the representatives from the various frats, sororities, and clubs. Given how steeped in tradition the frats and sororities are, not much ever changes.”
“Still…” Robin shook her head. They needed to get back to the task at hand. “Nevermind. We need to focus. We drove to a mall two towns over and are wasting our Sunday. I want to get this over with so I can go home and play games. We got jeans. We’ll get suits. Then we need to get me some more casual shirts and” Robin sighed, “underwear.”
Vivian rolled her eyes. “You’ll like underwear, especially with girls your size. When you get a proper fitting bra, you won’t have to borrow from Angela and feel all weird.”
As if in response to Vivian’s joke, Robin could feel Angela’s bra straps digging into her shoulders again. “So you say.”
Kara smiled, trying to offer Robin some hope with her eyes. “They’ll have something in your size, I’m sure. Plus, then you don’t have to wear that thick undershirt to keep you decent. That will be a lot more comfortable.”
Robin shrugged. This day just kept getting longer and longer. “Yeah. Probably. Anyway, let’s go find some colors that don’t match me.”
Vivian sighed, “For the record, this goes against every fashion instinct in my body.”
Robin smirked, “Duly noted. Now let’s get to work.”
I will not be commenting much on the Trace section. For obvious reasons, she’s a bit closer to the intrigue of the plot but, needless to say, those of you who knew her from Alpha… she really has very little in common with her old version. I delved deep, with the help of my friend Kami, on what it is Trace would like to drink. He hamered it into my head that drinkers are very particular about their spirits. Didn’t take much to bring that out in Trace, I hope.
Platicore, since he lost an epic battle with the Queen of the Ardent Empire so horribly it burned out his empathokinetic abilities, had to be shown to have had consequences. I figured the best way was to referred to him as scarred, give him a suit of powered armor, and indicate he’s much less capable without it. The lag between Angela learning of her past life and her need to use the tools given to her is how long it took for the crippled Platicore to build his suit of armor.
I am a fan of sports. I have been intrigued by science’s improved understanding of concussions. I have read stories of some of the older NFL players who had more concussions than they initially thought having intense and violent mood swings. I decided this could be an excellent way to describe Platicore, both as a villain and as a person. His wounds are deep and the most dangerous wound was the one on his mind.
As for Robynne’s shopping trip, well, I feel it mostly speaks for itself. I was particularly proud of a few lines of dialogue and I hope it made you laugh.