Robynne stretched as she reentered her dorm. That had been a very satisfying night… minus the photoshoot with that biscuit Tanya. Still, it had inadvertently given her the opportunity to hang out with Stacy… hang out with Stacy at a nerd get-together. Definitely didn’t see that one coming. She had to hand it to Vivian on that one. Robynne would have never thought to invite her, yet Stacy had a good time. Though she would never say it outloud, maybe she needed to be a bit more like Vivian. If it hadn’t been for her Stacy would have never come.
Outside of hanging out with Stacy, Robynne enjoyed meeting other fellow Knights of the Spherical Table. She got a good conversation in with SaltStorm, and it was always good to have the guild leader liking you. Plus she met a lot of other people in the guild: ergoAwesome, TurtleSmuggler, SpaceCase777, ShadyAce0426, AcidicBase, Jeff, YetAnotherJeff, the… oh who was that guy? The Hispanic guy with the super thin moustache that just didn’t look good… his name had something to do with… was it owls? She’d need to pay attention to people’s names in GuildChat.
She had even met NightKnight. She was going to need to play it careful with him. She had watched enough TV to know the new-kid-moving-in-who-is-better-than-you-in-every-way storyline. He was annoying but that was no excuse for her to just wreck his social standing. He just had some bad ideas and, apparently, was awkward. Well, awkward she could could deal with. Bad ideas could be corrected. She just had to go about it the right way. She had some ideas she could try later.
She had particularly enjoyed meeting ergoAwesome, SpaceCase777, and ShadyAce0426. After meeting the overly-enthusiastic GalleyGirl at the booth and near the beginning of the social, Robynne had worried the club was overrun with cosplayers who’d be dead set on trying to make her play dress-up. Those three girls however showed her that the rabid cosplayers were just a small, however very visible, part of the club.
Even more pleasing to Robynne than meeting her fellow Knights was seeing how much Kara and Stacy enjoyed themselves. Vivian… Robynne had worried this really wouldn’t be her thing especially because she correctly predicted Cory would get too into playing Invokers. Thankfully, enough playful ribbing had made him realize this and he started just walking around with Vivian and socializing with others. She seemed to enjoy herself a lot more after that.
After the social, they all hung out at Cory’s and Eli’s dorm. Robynne needed to be assured that Dale wouldn’t be there since he and his band had a gig that night. Sadly, Stacy bugged out after a few minutes, still needing to get to work on Robynne and Vivian’s photoshoot pictures.
With Stacy gone, suddenly the dynamic of the group changed. Cory was sitting on one couch with Vivian and Eli and Kara were on the other. Robynne and Stacy had been sitting at the table. With the irrepressibly social Stacy there, the conversation had flowed between all six of them as naturally as a river over stones. But without her, the conversation stalled some and Robynne found herself as some kind of third wheel to two separate conversations. It was so strange how one person could completely change the dynamic of five people.
Well, Robynne didn’t want to be a third wheel, let alone two third wheels, so she had said that was enough socializing for one night and headed back to her dorm. Besides, she had been encouraging Kara and Vivian in the direction of Eli and Cory ever since moving in with them. You could only season meat for so long until you needed to just let it bake in the oven. But was never really baked, was it? Donut, her uncle had ruined her ability to think of sensical metaphors..
As Robynne entered her dorm, she found Noriko standing over the kitchen sink, taking a corkscrew to an egg. Robynne was glad to have these little reminders that her life wasn’t ever going to be normal anytime soon.
“Good evening, Robynne. I take it by the silent nature of your entrance that Vivian and Kara are not with you?”
Robynne smirked. “What? You aren’t confident it’d be a quiet entrance if Vivian and Kara were with me.”
“With Vivian, nothing is quiet. She even is a loud sleeper. I have become convinced that her coffin will need to be soundproofed so she doesn’t wake her fellow dead when she passes on.”
“Not the worst idea.” Robynne walked around Noriko and opened the fridge. She took out a can of Pep MD and cracked it open. “I’m glad I can come home to you doing some incredibly odd thing. Let’s me know all is well in the world. Want to tell me why you’re torturing those eggs with a corkscrew?”
Noriko didn’t look up from her work. Instead she stopped twisting the corkscrew, rotated it about in a sort of stirring motion a few times, removed the corkscrew, then emptied the scrambled remains of the egg into a bowl. “I am hollowing out eggs for various kinds of smoke bombs.”
Robynne narrowed her eyes. “You use eggs for those? I thought they were normally in, I don’t know, like paper bags or something. I mean, like, not like the paper bags you’d put lunch in but… you know. The white bags tied with string or something.”
Noriko nodded. “That is an option, but it’s hard to get as good a dispersion of the powder because the paper bag doesn’t tend to open uniformly. Eggs’ shape allows you to transport them safely while still getting a good dispersion when you throw them.” Noriko shrugged and gestured to the bowl. “Plus I have eggs already scrambled for a healthy breakfast the next few days.”
Robynne chuckled as Noriko turned the faucet on and washed out the inside of the egg. “Practical as ever, Noriko.”
“How did your photoshoot with the cheerleaders and the social with SFEERS go?”
Robynne told Noriko about her night. Noriko offered very little in the way of commentary until she got done describing her observations about Fretribution’s aura. “Interesting. Perhaps his aura has something to do with the club’s growth then. If it encourages people to be bolder it would stand to some reason that it has inspired the members of SFEERS to be more aggressive with recruitment than the would have otherwise.”
Robynne nodded. “I was thinking the same kind of thing… though not so wordy.”
“Did he expound at all on the cheerleaders showing up a year before?”
Robynne shook her head. “Not really. He said he actually hoped I might have had more information…” Robynne left the part out about Stacy following that conversation with an offer to make Robynne, Vivian, and herself to stump around campus for SFEERS. “Though it would make sense to me that Cammy arranged for that, thinking her cute cheerleaders would just wrap the entire club of nerdy boys around their finger.”
“That would seem consistent with Cammy DeCroix’s pattern of manipulation and with Angela’s description of her dismissive nature.” Noriko placed the egg back in the carton with the hole she had created facing downward. “Perhaps Angela might have some insight into the matter. She had not been removed from the Cheer Team until months after that event.”
“Huh. That’s a good point. Maybe I should give her a call.”
Noriko shrugged and pointed the corkscrew at the “decorative” stone in the corner of the living room. “Why call when you could just see her face to face?”
“Seems a little intrusive don’t you think? Besides, what if they have friends over or something?”
“The stones won’t work if someone who hasn’t used them are in the presence of the other stones.”
Robynne blinked. “That can’t be true.”
Noriko looked up from her work. “What?”
“That night at the Standridge Circle, when you tried to steal my phone, you did so when we were looking at the stone. You specifically used them as a distraction and neither myself, Eli, or Cory had ever taken one before… and those two still haven’t used them and Mallory and Angela ported right into this room a few days ago with them in it.”
Noriko paused for a moment in that way Robynne had grown accustomed to before clearing her throat. “I apologize. Yes. That is clearly incorrect. That tends to be the end result but there are obvious exceptions that clearly delineate that to not be the case.”
“So it has some sort of protection from the uninitiated. How? Does Kunapipi have some sort of whitelist she’s made? I thought she said she doesn’t understand how any of this Ardent Empire tech works.”
Noriko opened her mouth to say something but seemingly stopped herself. It was almost as if she had just barely registered what Robynne had said. “I… no. It is not a whitelist. I mean, not that we know of anyway.” She looked down at the sink. “I suppose it could be but we believe the method of this… security measure is based on some emotional scan of the people in the room. As you said, it is Ardent Empire technology. I assume it senses for some heightened state of wariness or some such other way to sense if allowing someone to teleport was dangerous.”
Robynne raised an eyebrow. “That sounds a little too ‘wild guessing’ for you.”
Noriko shrugged again, keeping her eyes focused on her work. “It is a working theory. At the moment, it is all I have. If I gain more insight, I will be happy to share it.” She looked back up. “Regardless, you could just go visit Angela to compare your notes, so to speak.”
“Wouldn’t it be a bit rude to just barge in?”
“Normally, I’d agree but the precedent has sort of been set by the other four Spirit Guards that it isn’t rude. After Vivian’s awakening, Mallory and Angela would pop over so frequently they practically treated one another like they were all sharing the same dorm. Now that school has started it has curtailed some but, over the summer, it was a rather common occurrence to just walk in unannounced.” Noriko paused and considered something. “In fact, I think it is sort of a sign of trust or something amongst them. Shows… openness, I suppose.”
“It is just a theory. Psychology is much more Vivian’s forte than mine. Besides, I just came back from there myself. I know she is alone and could use the company.”
“Alone? Mallory isn’t over there? And why were you over there?”
“I was just working over some minor Hush Corps. business with her. As for Mallory, apparently she went for a night out with some girls on the volleyball team. From our conversation it sounded like Angela was a bit disheartened that she didn’t go.”
Robynne bit her lip at that. “You mean she’s sad that she didn’t go with Mallory? Like, she was invited and she turned her down?”
“That seems to be the case, yes.”
“Well… if she regrets it why did she say?”
“If I had to guess,” Noriko said while placing another empty egg shell in the carton, “Angela is not financially well off and on a very strict budget. While she accepts some help from Mallory who is in a far better financial situation… ”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Robynne scoffed.
“Indeed. Regardless, I think it makes Angela feel self-conscious. Mallory is more than willing to share the good fortune provided to her, but I have found Angela to hold back because she doesn’t want to constantly be taking. So sometimes she stays at home on weekends when Mallory goes out to have fun.”
“What? Why? If she wants to go out with her and Mallory’s willing to pay, why not take her up on the offer?”
Noriko cleared her throat. “It is about pride, Robynne. Dignity. One can only accept another’s generosity so much before you start to damage your sense of self-worth. As much an individual as you were, I would think that to be something you understand.”
Robynne frowned. That made sense to her… up to a point. But being lonely on a weekend wasn’t worth protecting your pride. It was just trading one form of misery for another misery that had less friends. Mind you, Robynne had spent many weekends alone ever since she and her ex had broken up, but she had never felt lonely. She had her Uncle or her old Guild to hang out with.
A guild. Now there was an idea. Though Robynne doubted Angela had the computer or even the inclination to game. Still, it would solve the loneliness problem. Oh well, that wasn’t something she needed to worry about right now. “Well, you’re sure it’s okay for me to just walk in?”
Noriko nodded, though she didn’t look up. “Yes. From my experience Angela enjoys surprises more anyway.”
Robynne shrugged and walked up to the stone. She placed her knuckles on it and racked her brain for the code. “Okay… the rock in this room… what was the song the knock was based on again?”
Robynne thought she detected a hint of a smirk on Noriko’s face. “It is based on Crime in Progress’s chorus. Third song on the album Lyric Victory album Angela gave you. And the beat for Angela and Mallory’s place is the chorus to Emotion Sickness.”
Robynne groaned and arched her back. “Don’t remind me. It’s bad enough I had to get these songs out of my head in middle school. Now I have to get them stuck back in my head for super cheerleader homework.”
“A hazard of the job, I suppose.”
“The most hazardous.” Robynne shook her head and closed her eyes. She rummaged through the back of her mind for a song she had heard a million times on top 40 radio back in the day. After she found them she rapped her knuckles on the stone to the beat of the words. “Officer I tell you, don’t know what to do, I am a mess. That sexy girl, she stole my heart, it’s a crime in progress.”
The final knock happened and the stone sparked. She could feel the cool night air rush in. Well, the stone was lit, so there must have been no one watching. Robynne still peeked her head through, just to be sure. It was so disorienting to have her head in the clearing of the Standridge Circle and her body still in her dorm.
How did her body not split in half? Shouldn’t being in two separate places cause the connective tissues to lose grip? Well, the obvious answer was no since she wasn’t decapitated and no Spirit Guard seemed to have lost any limbs walking through the portal. Then again, at every moment her body was being held together by tiny atoms interacting with one another through gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weak nuclear forces. Judging by the cold air rushing in, the molecules from one side of the portal interacted with the molecules from the other side without issue. She probably shouldn’t think of the portals as two sides of a mirror but as if she was walking through a cave’s entrance… if that cave’s entrance glowed and allowed her to cheat the laws of time and space.
Satisfied that the stones were correct and that no one was watching, Robynne stepped through the stone and into the Standridge Circle. Odd, shouldn’t there be cameras on a place like this? Or guards? This was a monolith of ancient origins. Weren’t they worried about angelcakehole teenagers defacing it? Then again, maybe the stones had some effect on them that made people not want to see them. The Circle certainly didn’t receive the scholarly attention she felt it should. Nor the visitors. She’d have expected this thing to have tourists flocking to it hourly.
But no, here she was, alone with the Stones on a Saturday night. It reminded her of her first night here, waiting to meet the Spirit Guard to explain the events of Eli’s arcade. That now seemed like a lifetime ago. In some ways, it literally was a lifetime ago. She definitely wasn’t the man she used to be. She wasn’t a man at all. Though she wasn’t really a woman either. She had been raised in a house that preached the manly virtues of independence, honesty, honor and hard work. However, here she stood with a body so effeminate she could have sworn Pygmalion himself had carved it with his own hands.
The body wouldn’t be so infuriating if she had any way to avoid the attention it brought. It was bad enough she couldn’t get rid of the annoyingly long hair or the obnoxiously large breasts that got in the way. However she also had to deal with guys tracing her figure with their eyes, girls giving her angrily jealous looks, and GalleyGirl constantly trying to convince her to cosplay as some obscure anime character. Even that wouldn’t have been so bad if she didn’t always pick some short, stacked fanservice character who oozed moe characteristics like a lanced cyst.
No. She couldn’t dwell on that. That wasn’t proactive thinking. Instead she chose to focus on her second time here. It has still been light out when she, as Spirit Guard Serenity, had walked into this clearing holding the barely conscious body of Spirit Guard Tenacity in her arms. That was why she had made her sacrifice. Mallory would have been dead without her sacrifice. Eli would have been a broken man, blaming himself for his sister’s death. Given that trade off, Robynne would have made that decision one-hundred times out of a hundred. No question.
She decided to move her mind on a different path. She examined the impressively round and large stone in the center of the circle. The thing had been slightly taller than her when she was a guy. Now the stone absolutely loomed over her. She ran her hand along it’s surface. That night she met with the Spirit Guard, her hand had pushed straight through the rough, rounded surface. But there was no longer anything in the storage stone that was meant for her… though was there something still inside?
Robynne probed the stone as best she could with her empathokinetic sense. She had learned to tune out the Standridge stones’ constant humming. Living with one in her dorm had helped her do that. The hum reminded her faintly of her Spirit Stick, another annoyance she had learned to tune out. But while the Spirit Stick had been a true annoyance, what with it always teleporting to randomly convenient locations from which she could grab it at a moment’s notice, the stones of the Standridge Circle were consistent, like the fan of a refrigerator.
As she reached into the center stone with her extra sense, she thought she could feel something more still inside. Logically, that did not make sense to her. There should not have been anything in there. The girls had all taken their Spirit Sticks. What else could there be? Had the Scholar perhaps snuck a few more weapons in there for them? Robynne pressed harder, both with her hands and her extra sense, to see if she could find out what she was sensing.
The stone wouldn’t give. Robynne grunted and pushed harder with both of her tiny hands. Still nothing. She sighed and just focused instead. As she focused she could feel… something. It was faint… almost like a song being played three rooms over. And, actually, the more she focused, the more it did feel like a song to her. She heard it. Well, not with her ears but… this donuted extra sense never was explainable.
But it definitely felt like a song. It was soft and melodic, yet still had power behind it. As Robynne pondered the music, it reminded her of some of the classic rock love ballads that dotted her playlist. Though distant, she could feel the emotions of the song calling to her. Regret. Hope. Desire. Confidence. Love. It seemed to call to her. To beckon her. The song almost seemed familiar.
She narrowed her eyes. She was having a hard time keeping her mind on the song. She wasn’t used to this level of focus. She sharpened her attention to a razor’s edge, seeking to cut any details she could of this music free from it’s confines.
Her extra sense detected something completely different. It was as if she had been staring at one of those magic images long enough that the 3D picture finally formed. But this thing wasn’t a part of the song. It was outside of the stone completely. She couldn’t locate it exactly. Like a scented candle she couldn’t find, she could smell it but had no idea to the location. But it had a stench that reminded her of being watched. It caused her skin to crawl.
That sensation of intense guilt she had detected in the Food Court before fighting Day LaMode was brought to her memory. But this was nothing like that. That had been such intense guilt that she could practically taste it. This was hidden, or was trying to be hidden. But now, with this level of focus, she could feel it. Like seeing a sniper’s scope reflect the moonlight off in the distance.
Was she in danger? Was she really being watched? Or was this sensation why no one came to the stones? Angela had said there was an eerie beauty to this place. But Angela also felt comforted by the fact that Fate was guiding their lives. Fate. Maybe that’s what this was. Was she sensing Fate herself, watching her?
She didn’t like it. It felt like an invasion of privacy. That’s when it hit her. She had felt this before. She had felt it in the shower the first time she had bathed herself in her new body. Robynne was sure of it. Something was watching her. Following her.
Her mind raced. Could this be Platicore? Did the Spirit Guard’s enemy know their identities and was now toying with them? That wouldn’t make sense, given the background she knew about his past. He’d want to crush the Spirit Guard. Platicore wouldn’t be sending random monsters to random locations if he had the capability to monitor the Spirit Guard in their civilian forms while they were bathing alone.
Robynne stuck her hands in her pockets and extended her middle fingers from within their confines. If Fate was as all-seeing as Kunapipi made her out to be, she’d see that. If it was something less all-powerful, well, they could still go fudge themselves too. She’d need to discuss this with Angela. None of the others likely were sensitive enough to feel something like this. They were…
She lost track of the creepy feeling of being watched. She had lost focus. Sugar. She had let her mind wander. She had needed the music in the stone to give her a target to even get that type of clarity. She supposed she could do it again but she had spent enough time at the Standridge Circle. Empathokinetics or not it still didn’t make sense that no one would come here to at least check on the site. Unlike the night she met the Spirit Guard, the guards wouldn’t be drugged by Noriko tonight. Plus, if the watcher was malicious in nature, hanging around much longer might spook them. She should just get to Angela’s apartment and sort things out there.
Robynne glanced around the stones, struggling to remember which one was Angela and Mallory’s. The stones didn’t look exactly the same, but hey were different enough that Robynne figured she should have remembered. However, she knew each stone was keyed to different song. Robynne simply walked stone to stone, tapping the beat to “We’re Back and Bringin’ It” against each pillar then placing the flat of her palm on the stone. She noted that each stone had that discomforting hum, but each was at a slightly different pitch. Finally, one of the stones lit up. “Seventh time’s a charm.”
As the stone lit up Robynne was hit with the familiar, sweet, floral scented aura that reminded her of balsamic vinegar without the vinegar smell. She still wished she could explain what that smell was like with any sort of intelligence. Regardless of Angela’s unexplainable aura-smell, Robynne stepped through the portal and into the small, Spartan living room of Angela and Mallory’s apartment. Footsteps sounded from the floor above and a door opened. Angela’s clear, confused voice called down, “Robynne?”
“Yeah Angela, it’s me.” Robynne smiled and took a sip of the can of Pep MD she had forgotten she brought with her from her place. The stone dimmed and Robynne let her shoulder relax. She actually hadn’t realized how tense they had been.
Angela hurried downstairs with a bright smile plastered on her face. “What are you doing here? I thought you went to that SFEERS social with Kara, Vivian, Eli, and Cory?”
Robynne took another sip. “Oh that? That finished about an hour and a half ago. Noriko said you were here by yourself so I thought I’d swing by and let you know about all the cheer stuff that happened.”
“Oh, well, I… yes, it’d be smart for us to compare notes.”
Robynne shook her head. “Yeah, it would. But, before we get on that, I just kind of had a weird experience in the Standridge Circle.”
Robynne sighed and began to explain everything that had happened: the song in the center stone, the feeling of eeriness, and the sensation that someone or something was watching him. Angela folded her arms during the story and nodded her head, never interrupting Robynne once. “So then I got distracted by thinking of the possibilities, lost the focus, and then lost trace of the sensation of being watched.”
Angela unfolded her arms. “You know, it’s interesting. I too have have brief… impressions of someone watching over me. It has been in very similar situations too: moments where I have been alone and contemplative. In fact, I can even remember one time sensing it during a self-reflective moment I had myself in the middle of the Standridge Circle. However, it didn’t feel so… eerie as you put it to me. It felt more… I don’t know… watchful? Is watchful even a word?”
“Sounds like it’s a word.”
“Regardless, it had a sort of comforting, just-checking-in feeling to me. Have you considered that maybe what you felt was Fate herself?”
Robynne grumbled and put her soda down. “Yeah. It occurred to me. Though you and I have some differing opinions on the beneficence of Fate anyway.”
Angela gave an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend. However, you do bring up a good point. Maybe it’s our general outlook on Fate that leads to differing impressions? I mean, our magic is based on emotions. It’s not altogether unlikely that how we view someone would color our extrasensory perception of them.”
Robynne bit on her thumbnail and nodded. “Seems plausible. I mean, from my dream I had a few nights ago it was pretty clear that emotions were a two-way street. If you send them out someone else can receive them. And emotions can get misconstrued all the time in real life so why not in empathokinetics?”
Angela smiled at the mention of empathokinetics but didn’t bring it up. Robynne was glad; she didn’t want to get into that discussion again. “Agreed.”
Robynne shook her head. “Still, we’re making a pretty big assumption saying it’s Fate. What if it’s someone or something else like Platicore or, honey, maybe even the Other Power. Or something else entirely?”
Angela shook her head. “If it’s Platicore that would mean–”
Robynne nodded. “Mean that he knew our secret identities. Yeah, I considered that too.”
“It would just be an odd move for him to fight us the way he does if he knew who we were. I feel like he’d be going after people we loved or something like that.”
“Yeah, I came to the same conclusion,” Robynne agreed. “But there is so little we know. What if it’s something else? Don’t we kind of havegot to consider that situation?”
Angela shrugged. “I mean, we need to but I’m just not sure how much we can do. I mean, if it’s the Other Power… that was something even our past selves couldn’t handle and we have no intelligence on. Maybe if we get more dreams concerning it from you or Vivian we can begin to consider that. And if it’s something else… well then we are completely blind, you know?”
Robynne nodded in agreement and groaned. “Yeah.” It annoyed her to admit Angela was right on this, but Robynne herself was usually the king… or queen of not worrying about what she couldn’t control. Until they had more intel, nothing was going to happen. “I just don’t like it.”
Angela nodded her head to the stone in the living room. “Well, who knows, maybe it’s connected to the music you sensed in the center stone. Maybe we should head on over and see if we can figure something out between the two of us?”
Robynne pursed her lips and considered this. “Hmmm.” After a few seconds she made her decision, “No. Probably not. Not tonight anyway. We don’t know what was watching me. If we show back up and start both staring at the stone and trying to figure out what the song is, whatever is watching us will know something might still be in there. If it’s malicious, we could unwittingly be giving it some details it didn’t know before. Plus, as you said, we’ve had these moments of clarity only when we’re alone and, like, mentally quiet. We do need to examine it more but we should probably do it some other time.”
Angela smiled. “Those are all very good points. Some other night then. Regardless, you didn’t originally plan to come over here talking about all this. You wanted to discuss cheerleader stuff? You had your pictures tonight, right? I hope having to wear the uniform wasn’t too upsetting for you.”
Robynne could see an eagerness behind Angela’s eyes. She masked it well. She clearly didn’t want to sound too excited as she knew Robynne didn’t enjoy this task, yet the eagerness was still there. She had waited too long for a chance to put a dent in Cammy DeCroix’s empire. Now, Robynne didn’t doubt that Angela sincerely was worried that Cammy was the Empress reincarnated and was up to some nefarious scheme. However, Robynne also knew Angela had a natural thirst to dispense justice. Add on top of that fact that Cammy had completely ruined Angela’s life… well, Robynne knew Angela had more than Empress-related reasons to care about Robynne’s misadventures in Cheer Squad.
So Robynne started telling Angela about her photoshoot, both the interesting conversation she had with Stacy as she applied her makeup and the pure loathing she had instantly developed for Tanya. Angela gave a funny half laugh, half gag at that news. “Tanya was the worst. Even before Cammy revealed her true nature I really didn’t care for Tanya. Everything was always gossip, gossip, gossip and never a positive thing to say about anyone. The few times it wouldn’t be about gossip it’d be about sex. I made the mistake of telling her I was a virgin once. Suddenly her one goal was trying to end that for some reason. And she’d always talk about it like she was doing me some big favor even though I had made it clear that random, meaningless sex with some guy was not something I wanted.”
Robynne chuckled and lifted her can of Pep MD in salute. “Preach on. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who had issues with cheerleaders and virginity.”
Angela flashed the biggest, most genuine smile Robynne had seen yet. It reminded Robynne how beautiful Angela really was. That had, back when she was a guy, been the first thing she had noticed about Angela after all. Angela pulled a rickety looking chair from their small table and sat down on it. “I have a feeling we’re going to be here a while. Why don’t we take a seat?”
Robynne thought about declining the offer. If she sat she couldn’t leave as easily. But as she thought about that, she was surprised to find she didn’t want to leave really. This conversation revealed something she hadn’t considered: her and Angela had a lot in common. Both of them seemed to take life more seriously than their friends did growing up. Both were single children and, if Robynne had read earlier comments of Angela correctly, raised by a single parent. Both were smart. Both had been ostracized from their social circles by conniving, biscuity cheer captains.
Robynne plopped down on the couch and smiled. “Yeah. I have a lot I need to complain about. Like, a lot. For example, that word. Like. Freaking Stacy never stopped saying it. Or rather, she never stops saying it. Ever. And now I’m finding it worming it’s way into my vocabulary.”
“Oh, but Stacy sounds so wonderful. Don’t let that ruin anything. Plus she did an amazing job on your makeup.”
Robynne rolled her eyes. “That’s what Vivian and Tanya said too… I have to admit it was pretty shocking to see my face covered in the stuff. It… it had a lot more of an effect than I would have predicted.”
“Ohhh? Is Robynne Darling considering doing herself up in the morning?”
Robynne gave her a flat look. “Okay, dumb question.”
Robynne giggled and took another swig. “I had to remove at least the lipstick when I got to the social. I mean, it was bad enough walking in wearing full cheer uniforms. I didn’t want to make it look like I was showing off for all the boys. I’m going to have a hard time making friends with some of the girls in the club, I think. I got a lot of dirty looks from them. Vivian insisted I shouldn’t because Stacy would be insulted when she saw I removed some of her hard work but, in the end, Stacy didn’t say a thing about the makeup so I think Vivian was, as usual, full of sugar.”
Angela sat up straight. “Wait. Do you mean to say Stacy accompanied you to the SFEERS social?”
“Huh, oh, did I not mention that? Yeah. Vivian had suggested it at the photo shoot. Thank goodness she did too. Without Stacy I would have been the perpetual third wheel to Eli and Kara or Vivian and Cory all night.”
“How did she like it?”
Robynne nodded with a smile. “She seemed to enjoy herself. Fretribution, the president of the club, even tried to get her to full on join.” Robynne then winced. “But not before committing us to do promotion work for the club… and suggesting I had only been talking to the President because I was trying to hit on him or something. All while incessantly giggling I might add.”
Angela winced. “Poor girl doesn’t know what a hornet’s’ nest she’s poking there.”
Robynne shrugged. “It’s not her fault. I mean, it’s not like I can expect her to assume she’s talking to someone who has some gender identity issues that psychology doesn’t have terms for.”
“It’s not that,” Angela said ruefully. “I mean… I guess I can just relate to inadvertently sticking my foot in my mouth like that.”
“What do you mean?”
Angela bit her bottom lip. “Well, like, when we had that first meeting at the Standridge Circle. I just sort of, you know, assumed you’d just be happy to join us. Like Stacy I just sort of had my assumptions and ran with them. Though, in her defence, her assumptions were based on the fact that no one could guess at your background so she couldn’t make any good assumptions. Mine were… well mine were just stupid.”
Robynne cocked her head to the side and finished her soda. “What were your assumptions based on? Just the fact that the others hadn’t hesitated?”
Angela frowned and looked at the floor. “My dreams of our past lives.”
This was news to Robynne. “Our… past lives?”
“It’s stupid. I know. But… well… obviously you’ve only had one dream so far. I’ve had twenty-seven. And while I haven’t had a ton that involved you…” Angela winced agian. “I mean, the Shrine Maiden. I haven’t had a ton that involved the Shrine Maiden. I have had a few with me… er… the Princess and the Shrine Maiden when we… they were younger. I’ve also had a few where the Princess talks about the Shrine Maiden while older. One thing was clear, the Princess and the Shrine Maiden were more than just allies. They were friends. Best friends. Practically sisters. They both, from a young age, knew how rotten society had gotten and promised to stand against it. Even in the face of the Empress.”
Angela continued. “I mean, you have had a dream. You know how real they feel. I felt the warmth, the love, of that friendship. Of that sisterhood. I guess… I don’t know… I guess I just assumed we’d show up and, I don’t know, you’d just somehow… know we were best friends before. I just… I guess before you showed up and pointed out the stupidity of this, I didn’t think of these dreams as past reincarnations. They were… I treated them like a part of my past I just forgot. Like it was me who was the Princess. I didn’t really think about the fact that some might not view it that way. Or that it’d carry over. I mean, yeah, you were the Shrine Maiden once but that… well that was a different life. A different time. A different planet and race even! But I didn’t even question that you’d not see it the same way. Despite the fact that you had no clue what was going on, had been raised a guy, and had never had these dreams yourself. I made such a fool of myself that night.”
Robynne had known that Angela took the past life stuff more seriously. However Robynne hadn’t realized how serious that was. It clearly had clouded her judgement. Though, to be fair, how could it not if you had been slowly reliving the memories, experiences, and emotions of a past life? Robynne could relate to how disorienting it had been waking up from the dream as the Shrine Maiden. She imagined what adding another twenty-six to your head felt like. How many times had Robynne been able to imagine herself in her own comic book character’s shoes? The dreams were infinitely more real than some comic book. It only made sense that it’d cloud Angela’s judgement some!
Another thought occurred to Robynne. Angela had said the Shrine Maiden and Princess had promised to stand against the Empress, apparently, when they were still young. In some ways, it seemed they had planned their little rebellion long before the Other Power stepped into the picture. When it came time for someone to stand up to Cammy, Angela hadn’t gone to to any of the Spirit Guard. She had waited for Robynne to step into the picture. These dreams had affected Angela enough that she intrinsically trusted Robynne with some things she wouldn’t trust the friends she had fought alongside for months. There was a heaviness to that realization.
“Angela,” Robynne found herself saying, “please don’t beat yourself up over that. Yeah, I was mad back then. I’ve gotten over it. I’ve had my own dream. I know how, like, muddled your mind gets after them. I can’t imagine how much having twenty-seven dreams can blur the lines of your own life versus the Princess’s life. It’d mess with your head for sure.”
The conversation was definitely too heavy. She had come to discuss the cheerleader stuff. Not all this past life stuff and guilt over how they handled Robynne’s… induction into the Spirit Guard. She needed to lighten things up. “I guess it’s sort of like comic book movies.”
Angela looked up from the floor for the first time since bringing up this topic. “Comic book movies?”
“Yeah. Like, so, people who really are big into comic book movies always hate the adaptations for not being faithful to the source material and stuff. For the purposes of this conversation, you were the comic book nerd who has devoured the entire catalogue of the Ardentian Angels Adventures. Then you found out they were adapting your favorite character, the Shrine Maiden, and you got excited. So you go to the theatre and, oh dear, they got the adaptation wrong. I know what that’s like.” Angela opened her mouth but no words came out. “I don’t know, the analogy made more sense in my head.”
Angela shook her head and smiled then let out a small giggle. “You’ve been hanging around Vivian too much. Your mind went straight to a film analogy. And a bad one at that.”
Robynne stood up and ambled to the kitchen to throw her soda can away. “She’s really the worst influence in the world. I’d rather pick up every cheerleader speaking tic of Stacy’s then have my worldview twisted to see things the way Vivian does.”
Angela laughed even harder at that. Thankfully, Angela moved away from the topic of past lives. “I really like this Stacy. The more you talk about her the more I think she just sounds like an amazing person. I really wish I could meet her.”
Robynne tossed her can into the trash. “Why can’t you? I mean, there is no reason you two wouldn’t get along great. In fact, I really kind of think you two would basically be the best friends ever. You’re both far too helpful for your own good.”
Angela sighed. “I’m fairly certain Cammy has put out the word to all the new cheerleaders on who I am. Or at least had someone like Tanya warn them about me. If Cammy somehow got word I was mingling with Stacy she might cut her off from the rest of the Cheer Squad like she did me. The only reason we can afford to talk to one another is the fact that you can just bypass all of Cammy’s surveillance and walk into my apartment. But we can’t afford to be seen out in public together. We’re going to have to limit our socializing to our apartments.”
Robynne frowned. “You know what. That’s a complete load of bull sugar. Cammy can do whatever the fudge she wants with her Cheer Squad, but honey if we let her still define who you can and cannot be friends with. She destroyed your social circle last year. We’re not letting her do it this year.”
Angela gave Robynne a thankful, but reproving smile. “It’s reality, Robynne. We can’t afford to let her catch wind of this. If she sees me with you or Stacy.”
A smile crept over Robynne’s lips as an idea formed. “That’s why you are going to meet her in the one spot Cammy won’t go. SFEERS. She loathes the club and the people in it. It’s why she keeps dispatching anyone else to go there and ‘deal with them.’ It’s the whole reason she went to such trouble to recruit me. Honey, I even extorted an entire gaming computer out of her just so she could avoid dealing with SFEERS herself.”
Angela grimaced. “Could we not say ‘extort.’ We didn’t extort her.”
Robynne shrugged. “Maybe we didn’t but I most certainly did. Frankly it was the only fun part about this charade so far. I can’t wait to get my components tomorrow and assemble the rig.”
Angela held her hands out as if to distance herself from the uncomfortable word. “We’re playing to her expectations. We wouldn’t be… inducing her into making such transactions if her shallow assumptions about a girl like you didn’t demand you do such things. We’re only doing this to throw her off our deception.”
“Hey, those ill-gotten funds were either going to her pets in the other clubs or me. I know where I’d rather have the funds go. Plus it really pissed her off to have someone make demands at her.”
Angela couldn’t help but give the hints of a wicked grin at that. “Oh I bet it just grinded her gears something awful.”
Robynne nodded and returned the wicked grin. It was nice to see Angela did have at least a small streak of pettiness. As far as Robynne was concerned, if someone couldn’t derive petty joy from making someone like Cammy suffer, there was something wrong with them. “But back to my point. She was willing to pay around two grand to avoid having to deal with SFEERS. She won’t have another pair of eyes there when she’s got me. And I won’t tattle on you. I promise.”
Angela smiled and drew her knees inward. She was beginning to consider the idea. Robynne could tell. “It doesn’t matter. If Stacy doesn’t have a description of me, she would at least know my name. She’d no doubt be told to steer clear of Angela Warrant.”
Robynne snapped her finger triumphantly. “That’s the genius of meeting her at SFEERS everyone there goes by their online handles. No one would use your name!”
Angela bit her bottom lip. “I don’t really have a handle. Or, really, anything much in common with the people in the club. I mean, I don’t play that dance game like Kara and I’m… well I’m not Vivian. I can’t just fit in anywhere.”
“Well, you don’t really need anything in common with them. I mean, Stacy didn’t and she had a good time. Plus this is just an excuse to…” Robynne’s eyes got big. She had an idea.
Angela’s eyes narrowed but her grin widened. “Vivian makes that same expression when she gets an idea that is going to annoy Noriko. What are you plotting?”
Robynne put her hands behind her back and didn’t bother trying to hide her smug smile. “Angela, I have the perfect way to get you to make friends with people in SFEERS so that you’ll have friends there before you even step into any of their socials.”
“Aspect Realms!” Angela gave a quick confused shrug. “That game I’m always playing on my computer? The one I’m really good at?”
“Um, Robynne, I’ve never really played video games before. I don’t know if it’s something I’d like. Plus, well, my laptop is pretty old. Could it even handle something like that?”
“That’s the great thing about me extorting Cammy for a new gaming rig! I had been trying to figure out what I was going to do with my old one. Now I know! I can loan it to you so you can play Aspect Realms with me and everyone else in the SFEERS guild!” Robynne then remembered that Angela was overly motivated by her duty as a Spirit Guard. “Plus, once we get you in with the guild, you have an excuse to come with me to some of the smaller SFEERS events and we then have a way to get you close to club’s president so you can get a feel for his aura. That way I can have a second opinion on what it means.”
“I… well… but…” Angela stammered, looking for an excuse. “I don’t want to just take your old computer from you. You built that yourself, right? It wouldn’t be right of me to just take it.”
“You’re not just taking it,” Robynne countered. “I’m loaning it to you while we’re here at college. I don’t have the space to just have two rigs. You’d be doing me a favor storing it here. Besides, I want it to go to good use. Windswept has brought me a lot of joy over the years. I want to share that with a friend.”
“Yeah, that’s my rig’s name.”
Angela blinked. “You named your computer?”
“Most nerds do.”
Angela closed her eyes and shook her head. “Wow… I… that is really nerdy,” she giggled.
Robynne smiled and stood over Angela. “The point is, this plan is the perfect way for you to build a new circle of friends outside of just us Spirit Guard. Come on. You’ve let Cammy completely destroy your social life. We can’t let her win. Forget the fact she might be the Empress. She’s, at the minimum, a complete angelcakehole. You can’t let her rule your life.”
Angela looked back down and grabbed the edge of her skirt nervously. “Well… it’s just… what if I don’t like it? Your game I mean?”
Robynne rolled her eyes. “Angela, you’re the one who just gave me this whole spiel about how the Princess and the Shrine Maiden were besties for life and beyond. Well, here I am, the reincarnation of the Shrine Maiden, telling you, the reincarnation of the Princess, that this game is awesome, the people who are in the guild with me are awesome, and that you will, at the very minimum, enjoy trying something new with me and the new friends you’ll make in SFEERS. If our past lives can bond over, I don’t know, like, whatever it is they did for fun in the Ardent Empire, then we can bond over a good game. Come on. What do you say?”
Angela looked down at the floor. However, this time she wasn’t trying to hide her shame but the ever-growing smile on her face. “Well… I guess if you put it that way… what do you even do in this game that makes it so fun?”
Robynne smiled and took a deep breath. “Oh Angela… where do I even start?”
Okay, finally got this done! First of all, I just want to say this was one of the most fun I had writing. The conversation really flowed well for me. There are some inconsistencies with items (I think I have Robynne’s soda can disappear) but I’m going to be editing that. Speaking of editing, I sort of rushed this chapter out so please don’t point out mistakes in editing in the comments as I haven’t gotten any responses from my editors yet. They’ll hopefully find those.
I liked experimenting with Robynne’s extra sense. I don’t want to go into too much detail on what it was she was sensing but I liked seeing a few of the theories in chat. It’s one of those things where seeing people guess different things makes me happy because it lets me know my clues are not obvious. I don’t want obvious clues.
The Robynne Angela conversation in this chapter just worked for me. I hope it works for you too. For the record, I have planned for Angela to play some Aspect Realms with Robynne from the beginning. I however didn’t fully plan the SFEERS angle for Angela. But I started writing and things really started to fall into place and made me realize it was the perfect angle.
I think I’ve had Robynne realize her and Angela have some things in common before but this was the chapter I really wanted to hammer it home. They may not have a similar attitude but they do have a similar background. And they are both, at their core, serious people. Neither is very good at relaxing. For Robynne, she even takes her games seriously (hardcore PvP). Once Robynne makes that realization, it affects her perception of Angela a lot. I was happy to finally get to fully touch on it. Plus they haven’t had too many one-on-one moments outside of Angela spilling her past to Robynne. This was a good chance to figuratively let their hair down and just talk.
I also spent a lot of time this chapter thinking of how weird visions would be to experience. To be flooded with a new personality for a single dream but have it happen often. I mean, waking up from dreams where the “rules” are different is completely disorienting as your brain tries to shift back into the real world. Now add in the fact that the girls remember their visions. It’d be difficult to not think of the visions as part of you. It was as if you yourself lived those moments. Things like that affect you. I think it’s important for Robynne to figure that out and start to understand how that has changed Angela.
Well, that’s it for now. Can’t wait to see your comments!