“And, that,” Robynne sighed as she shoved a delicious slice of blueberry pancake into her mouth, “wash shwen I woke upf.”
Angela looked troubled. “And you are sure the Princess intoned Derision?”
Robynne held up a finger as she chewed. It wasn’t because Robynne was being overly polite; she was far more than willing to talk with food in her mouth. Living with girls had made her very aware of how much being raised by a single man who had never been married may have lead to some bad habits.
No, Robynne held up a finger and used politeness the same way she used a pause button in a video game. She needed to think and analyze. She looked at Angela: bags under her eyes, drooping posture. She was tired. How late had she stayed up playing Aspect Realms? In a way, Robynne was proud. Her little gamer was growing up and being irresponsible, trading sleep for experience points. Then again, Robynne hoped she hadn’t created an addict by accident.
But that look of concern in Angela’s eyes. That wasn’t from lack of sleep. This news was new. A quick glance of the room revealed it was a plot twist that the Princess intoned Derision. Well, except for Noriko whose face somehow always showed less expression than the Sphinx.
“Yeah,” Robynne said with a swallow. “Like, the Shine Maiden really dwelled on that so… definitely Derision.” Angela looked down in confused frustration. Maybe she needed to soften this blow a bit? “I mean, it was clear that the Maiden thought this was an act. Like, she saw cracks in the mannerisms that let her know the Princess was playing a part.”
“This doesn’t make sense,” Mallory grumbled. “I mean, the Soldier was always by the Princess’s side. Why haven’t I had any visions about the Princess practicing with or planning to use forbidden emotions?”
Vivian chuckled. “What? Robynne was complaining that the Maiden was ambidextrous in the last vision and now you’re complaining your character should have known? I really didn’t expect you two to be the ones worried about logical inconsistencies… or are you just jealous that past-life Robynne was past-life Angela’s bestie and not past-life you?”
“Though,” Noriko said without looking up from her pancakes, “at least the ambidextrous nature of the Maiden was clarified.”
Noriko glanced up. “Tossing that ball from one hand to the other. We had similar training when I was young so that we could wield a dagger in either hand. However our balls didn’t respond to empathokinetic stimuli.”
“Oh,” Robynne said with a conciliatory shrug. “I guess you’re right on that point.” Rather convenient how that mystery was solved in the very next vision. “But back to the task at hand, why are y’all so worried that the Princess intoned Derision?”
Angela gave Robynne a confused look. “Because the emotion is forbidden.”
“Yeah. Forbidden in some dead religion.”
Angela rubbed the bridge of her nose in annoyance. “That’s not what I’m getting at. We’ve all had visions that have involved the Princess. I am the Princess reincarnated. I’ve re-lived moments from my past life and in none of them did I remember intoning forbidden emotions. Not even in desperation.”
Mal nodded. “And in my visions the Soldier was always there. Always with the Princess. The lives of the military, particularly the ones who were the Royal Guard, were forever intertwined. The Soldier was raised from a young age to be the Princess’s protector. Same classes. Same eating schedule. From adolescence on. As she got older they only got closer because of how much more dangerous the threats were. At one point the threat to the Princess’s life was so dire the Soldier started sleeping in the same room as her.”
Kara nodded as she flipped another pancake. “Good thing too. That assassin would have killed her if yo… the Soldier hadn’t been in there that one night.” They were catching themselves. Good. Robynne was glad to see they were starting to more regularly view their past lives as different people. Given how poorly they were reacting to the Princess using a forbidden emotion, it was good they were creating some emotional distance from these characters.
“Still wish they could have determined if the assassin was sent by Platicore or the Empress,” Mal sighed. “Would help clear some things up… I think.”
“The point is,” Angela said in an attempt to steer the conversation back on topic, “your vision sort of upsets what we thought we knew. I hope you don’t take it personally but at the moment I’d prefer to believe the Shrine Maiden was somehow interpreting things wrong. I just… I don’t know how to make the pieces fit if she’s right.”
“Fair enough,” Robynne shrugged, pretending that didn’t annoy her. She shouldn’t be too upset, Angela was just being honest, but… no, now Robynne was making the mistake of thinking like she was the one who had made those observations, not the Shrine Maiden. She could forgive the girls for forgetting those people weren’t them, given how she had almost stepped into that trap herself. “But, like, it still shouldn’t be that big a deal if she did intone a negative emotion. I mean, they are facing a literal end-of-the-world scenario. In fact, it’s so hopeless their goal isn’t to save their world, but to guarantee the end of the world so it doesn’t spread and fester somewhere else. The plan is to go undercover in the corrupt royal courts. It’s like being an undercover cop doing drugs to prove he belongs or something.”
“Or something?” Kara asked wryly. “You see that on TV once?”
Robynne shrugged. “I mean, they do lots of research on those shows. It has to have happened somewhere, right?”
Angela sighed and slouched a littled. “I just… this isn’t right. We shouldn’t have bombshells like this dropping concerning me. Why would the Princess, so devout to her religion, betray its tenants so?”
“Well, like I said, it was an end of days scenario,” Robynne reiterated. “All bets are off. Clearly the Princess thought lines had to be crossed in order to save Earth from the Empress.”
Angela frowned. “I don’t believe that. You cannot abandon your principles and say the ends justify the means. That logic leads to all kinds of horrible justifications.”
Robynne shrugged. She could agree with that sentiment in a lot of ways. She didn’t, however, think you could just blanket such philosophy over all of life. Some situations, such as the one their past selves were in, were so horrible Robynne felt you could justify an awful lot. Especially breaking taboos of some religion that didn’t even exist anymore.
However she didn’t want to get into a discussion on morality. It didn’t matter to the conversation at hand. And who was Robynne to tell Angela her personal philosophy had holes in it? Heavens knew Angela had no doubt agonized and examined her morality far more than Robynne had. No, in the scarlette’s mind, only one fact really mattered.
“It’s all well and good that you don’t cross certain lines, Angela. Admirable too.” Robynne did her best to keep her tone dispassionate and even friendly… if those two things could be done at the same time. “But the fact is you aren’t the Princess. She’s someone else in another life with different experiences. She clearly didn’t feel the same way because I stood there and felt the Princess intone Derision.”
Angela’s frown deepened. Robynne had feared she’d respond like this. Angela invested, in her opinion, far too much of her identity in the Princess. Then again, Robynne had to admit it was easy for to think such things since she obviously had a lot invested in the fact that she wasn’t the Shrine Maiden. Either way, in her estimation, they had to mentally divorce themselves from their past lives if they were going to examine the visions properly.
Angela looked away, obviously upset but trying not to let it show. “Maybe… maybe the Princess was masking it somehow.”
“A fair theory,” Robynne conceded, “could be possible. However, like, we don’t have much evidence that the Princess can do that… or that anyone can do it really.”
“We also need to consider,” Kara said while flipping another pancake onto the stack, “that it was the Shrine Maiden who sensed it. It seems to me that, like Robynne, she’s the most magically sensitive of the team. She’d be the hardest one to fool.”
Mallory gave a grunt that sounded to Robynne like some form of grudging agreement. “For the moment, I think we should just accept the vision for what it is and not try to make it fit with the others. These things tend to work themselves out as we get more.”
Vivian nodded. “Yeah, it’s like we’re putting a puzzle together without any image to base it on. Focusing on the big picture isn’t going to be possible until we have lots more pieces.”
Angela grumbled and shoved a large slice of pancake into her mouth. She chewed on it slowly like it was the very metaphor for the idea she found tough to swallow. After pushing it down, though, she sighed, “Well, I guess you’re right. We don’t have the full picture. Besides, Kunapipi told us that the visions are less there for us to know about our past lives and more to help us with something in the future.”
“How do you mean?”
Kara turned off the stove as she completed her last pancake. “As I understand it, Kunapipi said the visions are there to help us learn lessons that will be helpful to us in the future.”
Mal nodded. “One of mine helped me to realize Angela was taking on a tougher load than I realized. It’s what got me to approach her and ask about the drama with Cammy I had been oblivious about.” Mal scowled. It was clear she still was angry with herself that she had missed out on those details.
Angela reached out and patted Mal on the shoulder. “It’s really all right, Mal. I’m just glad you pushed me to open up about it. I was so stubborn about doing things myself back then.”
“I still should have noticed.”
Angela shrugged, clearly trying to make Mal feel better. “You’re no worse than I was. I needed my visions of the Empress to get me to open my eyes to the fact that Cammy wasn’t an ally. I was so completely blinded by the power of her aura that I couldn’t see what a real piece of work she was. If it wasn’t for you, and her kicking me out of Cheer, maybe even the visions wouldn’t have helped.”
Robynne finished her last pancake, patting her tummy. Kara really was an amazing cook. “So, the visions help you in your day to day life with dealing with Cammy? I guess that lends more credence to the theory that she’s the Empress after all, if it’s focused on her.”
Kara shook her head. “It’s not just Cammy. It’s sort of a long story, but I had a vision that made me realize that to actually strike at SilverWar I was going to need to bounce a shot off a mirror.”
Robynne raised an eyebrow. “How did a vision help you realize that? Wait… if you can bounce your light arrows off mirrors why didn’t they, like, bounce off of SilverWar? I assume she was a silverware monster?”
Vivian giggled. “Leave it to you to bring it back to physics.”
“This could be important going forward! If I don’t know how her arrows work I…”
Kara interrupted, “SilverWar seemed to be set up to feed off the fights that happen between roommates over who does the dishes. So, yes, she was based on silverware, but it was all dirty. So not reflective.”
Robynne nodded appreciatively. “See, Vivian? Useful information.”
Vivian stuck her tongue out. Kara just rolled her eyes and pulled out what looked to be… well, Robynne wasn’t sure. It looked like the evacuation chamber she’d used in physics class, but this didn’t have any space for a valve to be attached. She placed a pancake on there, lathered up with butter, and repeated that process several times until the stack was six pancakes high. “Point is, the visions seem to be helpful beyond what they tell us about our past.”
Seeing as no one else was going to ask, Robynne felt she had to. “Kara, what are you doing? What is that thing?”
“It’s a cake carrier. I’m taking what’s leftover from our breakfast over to Eli.”
Mal chuckled. “Sugar, Kara. My brother does not deserve you.”
“Booo,” Vivian called. “Not only are you taking the rest of the pancakes away but you’re bringing them over to Cory and Eli?”
Robynne tried to resist, but couldn’t help smiling. Kara smirked. “Not to Cory and Eli. Just Eli. You want your prospective boyfriend fed you should cook your own food.”
Vivian flopped onto the couch dramatically. “Not only are you going over there, you’re now making me look bad in the process?”
Kara shrugged. “You could easily cook for Cory like I did for Eli.”
“Booooo! I boo you again! We both know that’s not true and even if it was it wouldn’t be as good as your food!”
Mal rolled her eyes. “Kara, you really know you don’t have to do that, right? My brother is already gaga for you ever since you insisted on that arcade date.”
Robynne smirked. She had heard both sides of that date talk about it afterwards. Nothing really happened but they were both being adorably happy about how it went. Which was very good in her eyes. She wasn’t into the dopey soulmate stuff most girls were into, for obvious reasons, but she believed it when it came to Eli and Kara. They were meant for one another. “Oh quit being embarrassed for Kara. Let her dote on Eli.”
Mal raised an eyebrow. “Your motivations are questionable at best, Ace. You’re clearly a double agent on my brother’s behalf. Do you know how hard it will be to live with him if he has a girl like Kara? His ego will inflate to the size of… something bigger than his head.”
“Watermelon?” Noriko offered.
Mal nodded. “Yes. A watermelon. Thanks Noriko.”
Noriko just nodded. Robynne smiled. She loved it when Noriko would get in on the joking action. “I’m on both their sides. I think they are a cute couple, they are both my friends, and as a female I’ve been told matchmaking is my destiny. Consider me a passenger on the Elara ship.”
Vivian shot upright with the biggest evil grin on her face. “I thought you said I was full of sugar and combo-couple names were stupid?”
Robynne shrugged. “You are full of sugar, often more literally than figuratively given how much junk food you eat, but the combo-couple name thing is growing on me.”
Vivian adopted her most wicked grin. “My corruption of you has just begun, my young apprentice! Soon, with Stacy’s help, I’ll have you saying ‘like’, calling me Vivz, watching sappy rom-coms while eating chocolate, and slightly moving objects on Noriko’s desk!”
Noriko twitched. “Corrupt her as you must, but leave my desk out of this.”
“What?” Robynne gestured toward Vivian with both hands. “Noriko, you’re just going to let this happen?”
Noriko nodded, closed her eyes, and finished her last bite of pancake. “I believe you to be a strong enough woman to resist Vivian’s machinations. However, if losing a battle, tactical retreats make sense. I know you are aware of this; I’ve seen you use them in your various video games several times.”
Vivian cackled madly and Robynne smirked. Noriko really was starting to open up. The mirth was cut by Angela’s sigh. “So… I guess we’re breaking this meeting up?”
“It does seem to be winding down,” Mallory agreed.
Noriko pulled out a notepad from… Robynne wasn’t really sure where she had that thing hidden. Did that have notes written on it in… those Japanese characters? Sugar. What was the word for that? She couldn’t just go to SFEERS and say, “Japanese characters.” People like GalleyGirl would jump down her throat at that. Then again GalleyGirl was a fanatic that followed anime with a zealotry bordering on religious fervor. “I have the notes ready to be transferred digitally. I’ll add them to the document.”
Angela nodded. “Thanks again, Noriko.”
“Document? What document? Why didn’t this get brought up last time?”
“As I remember it,” Vivian said, “last time you…”
Knock. Knock. Kn-Knock!
The girls all turned and examined the clock. 9:48 AM. Far too early for visitors. Especially on a Saturday. They all looked to one another and Kara sighed as she wiped her hands on a napkin, went to the door, and looked through the peephole. Her eyes shot wide. She turned and mouthed a single word that sent shivers of annoyance and panic down Robynne’s spine:
What was that donutable woman doing here this early? Was she trying to catch them with Angela and Mallory here? No, she had no reason to suspect they were collaborating. So why was she here, and this early?
Noriko made a few quick hand signals and wordlessly Angela and Mal followed her back into Robynne’s and Noriko’s bedroom. Vivian messed up her hair and adopted a tired face. Trying to look like she just woke up maybe? Was that strategically useful? Robynne followed suit. That seemed to be what Kara expected because she nodded like they all had come to some sort of mutual decision and opened the door.
“Good morning?” Kara said, with a little annoyance in her voice.
“Good morning, Kara! Oh wow! All put together already! You look great.” Gummi donut, even hearing this woman’s voice grated on Robynne. It was strange. Cammy was the one with the big, evil aura and might potentially be the Disk 2 Final Boss in the Empress, but Tanya was the one that caused Robynne to grind her teeth.
Kara squinted her eyes. “Oh, thanks. Um, so you’re one of Robynne and Vivan’s cheer friends?”
“Yeaahhh,” Tanya sounded like a balloon being deflated. Robynne fought off a snicker. Kara knew full well who Tanya was. Heavens knew Robynne complained about her enough. However, the emerelde girl liked to think that she was a mover and a shaker on campus. She was hot and dressed to make sure people remembered her. She made an impression on everyone. So pretending that she wasn’t worth remembering… that was sure to stick in her craw.
Kara turned and kept her voice detached. “Vivian. Robynne. One of your cheer friends is here.” She took a step back and let Tanya in. In that moment Robynne decided not to try to look tired. Her gut told her she couldn’t fake it like Vivian could. Still, with her hair out of her standard ponytail and ruffled up, she should look like she recently woke up. Or didn’t care how she looked.
“Oh, wow! I hope I didn’t wake you two.” Tanya sauntered in like she owned the place. Robynne rolled her eyes at seeing Tanya was, of course, in full cheer uniform. The team didn’t even play until later tonight, and it was an away game of all things! The Cheer Squad wouldn’t even be there. It was like Cammy’s bunch thought they were in some teen drama and had to wear the same outfit all the time or the audience would forget who their characters were.
“My GOD, like, it smells delicious in here! Were you three cooking something?” Tanya flashed Robynne a mischievous grin, “Which football player did you snatch that jersey from, Darling? Seems I underestimated just how much of a cheerleader you are!”
Robynne glanced down. Right. She was sleeping in her old football jersey. It wasn’t her fault this thing was insanely comfortable. Regardless, she had to, as her uncle would say, “nip this bud with a flamethrower.” Luckily, she had just the excuse she needed.
Robynne frowned at Tanya. “It was my father’s. Before he passed away.”
Kara fought off a giggle behind Tanya’s back. Gummi donut, but it was so satisfying to see Tanya squirm after stepping into a social bear trap. Robynne folded her arms, making her displeasure at seeing the sub-captain quite clear. “What are you doing here, Tanya? It’s, like, way too early for a social visit.”
That’s when she noticed Tanya was holding a stack of papers in her hand. Robynne didn’t like the looks of that. “Oh… well…” Tanya stood up and seemingly tried to dismiss her faux pas by moving to the next subject. “I had to get you those flyers for your club’s little video game… shindig thing tonight. Since you are promoting it and such.”
Robynne squared her jaw. Her muscles tensed and she could feel goosebumps raise on her arm. Everything seemed to slow down like it always did when she was in the middle of a fight. Strange how Tanya could elicit that reaction. Strange how Tanya could so easily smile when trying to manipulate people. Looking at that smile, Robynne noticed that Tanya’s teeth were slightly translucent at the edges. This girl bleached her teeth too much. Made sense. She would need an awful lot of bleach to cover up how much sugar came out of her mouth.
Vivian rubbed her eyes and yawned. “Promoting it? Tanya, Robynne and I don’t have any Promotion detail today. We double checked the schedule and everything last night.”
“Oh really? Must have been a scheduling snafu. Like, must be due to how last minute this all was. Stacy had, like, apparently been working with that circle club president guy—cute guy bee-tee-dubs—to get them some promotion for this event. She worked to get it all ready last night and even made the flyers herself out of the kindness of her own heart! Like, isn’t she the best?”
That was bullsugar. Robynne knew it. SFEERS had tons of artists capable of designing flyers. If Stacy made them herself, it was because Cammy or one of her little minions made sure everything got thrown together at the last minute and “asked” Stacy to step up and take care of it herself. Sure, Stacy had been working to get SFEERS some Cheer promotions, as she had promised to Fretribution, but it could have been approved much sooner. No, it had been thrown together at the last minute to make sure that Stacy, who told Robynne everything, couldn’t spill the beans.
This was an ambush.
Vivian gave another yawn. “Tanya, why is this all so last minute? We already made plans for today. I was going on a lunch date.”
Tanya shrugged. “Yeah, I don’t know. Jodi normally handles this stuff but is feeling under the weather. But Stacy suggested you two since, like, you know, you’re both in the circle club and such.”
“You know it’s called SFEERS,” Robynne sneered and looked Tanya in the eye. She was not in the mood for these games.
Tanya feigned surprise. “Oh yeah. SFEERS. I knew it was something round.”
“Excuse me,” Kara said as she walked past Tanya into the kitchen to gather her cake-box-thing.
Tanya raised an eyebrow, “Oh yeah. Sorry to be in your way.” That was weird. Why did Kara do that? She wasn’t going to leave before Tanya, was she? No, she was just…
She was just trying to distract Tanya from Robynne. And maybe give Robynne a chance to cool off. She was misplaying this somehow. Donut, how she hated these games that girls played. She didn’t know any of the rules, but they all acted like they were so clear! Oh sure, they had been trying to teach them to Robynne but… well, Robynne wasn’t very good at being obtuse.
Vivian cleared her throat. “I suppose I could reschedule… maybe. When and where are we promoting?”
Tanya turned away from Kara, who was gathering a few more items for her breakfast delivery to Eli. Robynne almost thought she could see her lick her lips a little at the smell of Kara’s pancakes. Well, it was at least good to know that Tanya fed on actual food, rather than Robynne’s patience. “Oh, Billot Building at 11:30.”
Robynne tensed even more. “The Billot Building?” That was where Club Week had occurred. Right where all the on-campus restaurants were. The heart of Schyuler Adamson University itself. “At the start of the lunch rush?”
“I know,” Tanya said with another one of those self-satisfied smirks that made Robynne want to transform into Spirit Guard Serenity and gut the gossipy cheerleader just in case she was actually one of Platicore’s pawns. “I can’t believe it myself. Your little club goes from no Promotion to the best spot? Stacy must have really sold Jodi on it.”
Robynne wanted to say something about how convenient that was, but Vivian cut her off. “Wow. That is good! What are we promoting though?”
Robynne didn’t like how easily Vivian was rolling over on this. But, maybe she had a reason? Regardless, Robynne knew exactly what the event was before Tanya even handed over the flyers. “It’ll be for the Mega Mash Family Battle tournament they are hosting.”
Vivian frowned. “Is that the game you, Cory, and Eli won’t shut up about?”
“It just came out. So yeah.” Robynne had been looking forward to the event. She hadn’t played the new game that much but it looked amazing on the streams she had been watching. But if she had to promote for it, that meant boys might come to the event looking for her.
“Who’s Cory and Eliiii?”
Noriko had shown a willingness to kill Cammy. Would the ninja settle for Tanya instead?
Kara cleared her throat. “Eli is my boyfriend.”
Vivian smirked. “And Cory is his roommate that Robynne better stay away from.”
Something about Vivian’s tone told her she was supposed to play along. She swallowed down the bile in her throat, both from having to deal with Tanya and for having to pretend her best friends were potential romantic partners. “I’ve told you, Vivz. I have no interest in Cory. Seriously. Besides, it’s clear you’re the one he’s into.”
Vivian laughed. “You’re right of course. Besides, he’s not your type.”
Tanya tapped her chin. “Hmmm, I wonder. What is your type, Robynne?”
That had to be what Vivian was up to: throwing Tanya off the guys’ scent. In planning their infiltration of Cheer, they had realized the thing that could give them away was if Cammy figured out the girls from Robynne’s dorm were hanging out with and dating the boys from Eli’s dorm. It wouldn’t take much to then figure out that Eli was the brother of Mallory Drake who was the roomate of Angela. This game of “Six Degrees of Angela Warrant” felt too big of a stretch to Robynne, but the girls had insisted they had to hide this. Therefore, by getting Tanya wondering about who Robynne’s type was they were throwing her off the gossip scent.
But Robynne didn’t like her hypothetical love life being the meat they used to distract Tanya. Nor did she like the intrigued face Tanya was making. If there was anything a gossip liked more than information she shouldn’t have, it was matchmaking.
Robynne gave a noncommittal shrug. “I wonder the same thing, Tanya. I suppose we’ll find out sooner or later.” She had to get this back on topic. “However I don’t get why we’re the ones who have to promote this event today. I have… an arrangement with Cammy about where I promote.” Tanya raised an eyebrow at that. Intrigue? Did Cammy’s left hand really not know? Was Cammy hiding stuff from even her? No, that couldn’t be it. Tanya would have found that out with or without Cammy telling her. Robynne had promoted with Lilly too many times to avoid that. Robynne liked Lilly well enough but the girl was almost as bad a gossip as Tanya.
So Tanya knew. So why the eyebrow raise? Was this a ploy? Or maybe… maybe this was Tanya indicating she was surprised that Robynne was willing to say that in front of Vivian and Kara? Too many variables. Donut. Why did she ever agree to infiltrate the fudging Cheer Mafia?
Tanya waited a moment before saying anything. Likely she wanted to see what Robynne would give up on her own. However, if there was one thing Robynne had grown used to in the past few years of social isolation, it was silence. Finally Tanya relented with a sigh. “Yes, well, Stacy’s worked, like, totes hard to get your club this kind of exposure. And Cammy prefers it when girls promote their own clubs.”
That was utter bullsugar. Robynne opened her mouth to say something to that effect but Vivian cut her off. “Well that makes sense. No one is, like, complaining about that. But Robynne is just a little shyer around crowds. Did you by chance get us help or something? Because the Billot Building is a bit much for us by ourselves.”
Tanya smiled. It made Robynne’s skin crawl. “Of course! Stacy and Lilly will be helping you two. They’re really excited for it too.”
Another lie. Maybe Stacy was excited. The girl seemed happy to do anything involving cheer. But Lilly? Having to promote for some club she didn’t give two shakes of a stick about? She was not going to be pleased. How could this woman be comfortable spewing constant lies?
“Great!” Vivian said as she held out her hand for the flyers. “We may be a little late reporting but, like, given how last minute all this is I’m sure the Captain understands.” Robynne narrowed her eyes. This wasn’t what she wanted at all. Why was Vivian selling out? Was she intimidated by Tanya? No. Vivian stared down monsters, messed up Noriko’s bed, and occasionally reorganized Kara’s spice shelf. Vivian was not someone who got intimidated. That meant this was strategic.
Robynne did her best to un-stink her face, a term Vivian had coined. Robynne personally didn’t feel she made a “stinkface” that often but Kara had agreed so Robynne had backed down on that argument. Un-stinking her face seemed to work as Tanya smiled like she won something. “Thanks soooo much for, like, stepping up to the plate.” Robynne stopped herself from snorting at that. As if they had a choice. “Be sure to, like, report to Jodi how it went afterwards.”
“Sure thing,” Vivian chirped happily.
Tanya turned to leave, “It was a pleasure meeting you again, Kara.”
“Hmmm?” Kara looked up from the bowl she was washing. “Oh, of course. Nice to meet you too.” She flashed a courteous smile and just returned to her bowl. Robynne could tell that galled Tanya. Kara was good at this.
Tanya grumbled and showed herself out. Soon as the front door clicked Angela, Noriko, and Mal practically spilled out of Robynne’s room. Noriko made a beeline for the front door, lifted herself to the peephole. After a quick scan, she dove to the ground and scanned under the door as well. Satisfied she stood up. “She’s gone. Should I tail her?”
Before Robynne could even ask why that would be necessary, Angela nodded. “Probably should. We need to know if she’s going straight to Cammy or not. This feels like a pretty clear power play.”
“Power play?” Robynne scoffed. “It wasn’t a power play. It was Cammy using Tanya to go back on the deal we made! I’m not,like, supposed to actually promote! She lied through her over-whitened teeth!” She turned to Vivian and pointed and accusing finger. “Why didn’t you let me call her on that?”
Angela straightened up. “She whitens her teeth?”
“Oh yeah. Way too much. Bet she has frequent tooth pain because of it.”
Kara put her hands on her hips. “It’s been like pulling teeth for Vivian and I to train you to spot when people are wearing new clothes or makeup and yet you notice her teeth?”
Robynne shrugged but was secretly proud she finally noticed a detail about someone’s appearance the other girls hadn’t. Vivian and Kara had been trying very hard to train her to notice the things others did without thinking. Her times “promoting” with Lilly had taught her girls could do this in an instant and notice tiny details with Sherlockian accuracy… and Robynne didn’t. Was nice to be the observant one for a change. “My uncle is a dental hygienist. Teeth are kind of important to him. I can also usually tell if someone had braces or naturally straight teeth.”
Vivian giggled. “Dental pigmentation prowess aside, Robynne, of course it’s a power play. And of course we have to do it. Throwing a fit would get us nothing. Worse, it’d ruin everything you’ve been training and working for!”
“Throwing a fit? We had a deal! Cammy’s breaking the deal.”
Angela sighed. “I wasn’t the best at understanding these games at first either. But these power plays are very common when dealing with the complicated social hierarchies with girls.”
Robynne squinted. “What do you mean?”
Mal groaned. “Girls are taught growing up to ‘play nice’, especially when compared to boys. But girls get angry too. So the aggression they take out on one another is an indirect kind of aggression. If I had to guess, Cammy is not happy how you strong armed her into your little arrangement. She’s the top dog, she doesn’t like the fact that you set the terms of your deal.”
“So, this is payback?”
“Partially,” Kara explained as she finished cleaning her bowl. “I think Mal is right about Cammy being mad you set the terms. But this is also a test. She wants to see how recalcitrant you’ll be. To see if you can be trusted for the next step.”
“Recalcitrant,” Vivian mocked. “Someone’s been using her word-a-day calendar.”
Kara stuck out her tongue. “I have a very broad vocabulary, Vivz.”
“So, wait, you’re saying Cammy is mad at me so this is payback but this is also her seeing if I’m trustworthy? That doesn’t make sense. You don’t insult someone then expect you to do them a favor. Besides, she bought me Candystrike and, like, placed Vivian on Cheer. That was what is supposed to ensure my loyalty.”
Angela shook her head. “Cammy will use things to buy initial loyalty but she doesn’t trust things to keep you loyal. She understands that a sated desire can only temporarily motivate. Once someone has the object, loyalty will fade. She wants to see if you’ll behave now that you’ve had the computer for a while. With most girls she can trust that fear of social isolation will keep them in line but you’re a wild card. She’s likely to get more hands on going forward.”
“I’d be more likely to ‘behave’ if Cammy didn’t go back on our arrangement,” Robynne groused. “Not only is she ruining my Saturday but she expects me to promote in the middle of campus itself in that donuted cheer uniform! Short skirts, bare midriff, and I swear my uniform was cut to tease at cleavage!”
Vivian poked Robynne in the side, her voice a mix of understanding and reproof. “You do realize that at this point every other cheerleader, myself included, has had to promote at the Billot Building at some point. And that we wear the same uniform and have to endure the same attention?”
Robynne pouted. She had, at least, a bit of a point. “Fair enough, Vivian, but c’mon! We know it’s not the same for me as it is for everyone else. Ignoring the magical sex change I went through, I get a fair bit more attention than the other girls do because… well.” Robynne gestured to her chest.
Vivian nodded. “Those are two pretty good counterpoints.”
Mal, ever the big sister, gave Vivian a warning glare, “Vivian…” It only succeeded in making the imp of a woman giggle.
“Robynne,” Angela said with an understanding tone, “you know we wouldn’t be asking you to do this if we didn’t think it was important. We still have no idea what Cammy’s aura mean or what her plans are. We need to figure out if she knows she’s the Empress and has a long term plan or if she’s just some anomaly. Either way…”
Robynne held up a hand and gave a long, suffering sigh. “I know. I know. I just… like, I don’t know. I guess I just hoped this would get easier.”
Mal put a hand on Robynne’s shoulder. “It is getting easier. You are handling cheerleader stuff better than before. You just don’t notice because more stuff keeps getting thrown at you. But you’re doing great at your tumbling, by all accounts you’ve made friends with that Lilly girl which is something I don’t think you would’ve thought you’re capable of before this insanity, and you’re even throwing ‘like’ more casually into your vocab so… you’re getting this.”
The color drained from Robynne’s face. “I’ve been saying ‘like’ more often?”
Mallory bit her bottom lip. “Uh… was that… uh… not intentional?”
Robynne expected a cackle from Vivian but instead just got a hand on her other shoulder. “C’mon. Let’s go get ready. I know you don’t want to do this but even if it sucks for us, this is good for SFEERS, right? They’ve been frozen out on Promotion for years. We can muscle through this for their benefit, right?”
Robynne grimaced and closed her eyes. This was the job she agreed to. If they thought this was some kind of test from Cammy then she’d need to pass it. The Cheer Captain had been cagey on what she actually wanted Robynne to do to “infiltrate” SFEERS. That was intel they’d need if they were going to puzzle out what Cammy was actually after.
Robynne nodded and squared her shoulders. “Right. We can do this.”
“Good,” Vivian chirped like a proud mother. “Because if we’re actually promoting you’ll actually have to apply some make-up this time.”
“Do I really have to wear make-up?”
Kara nodded as she finished packing up her pancakes. “It will be expected of you. If other cheerleaders see you actually promoting and you haven’t at least done a little make-up they will think you are either lazy or showing off. Neither will endear you much to them.”
Robynne pouted and tapped her foot against the leg of the table. “You know, Noriko’s assassination option is starting to look more appealing.”
Angela took Robynne’s hand and gave a warm, understanding smile. “Come on. Mallory and I will help you out. After all, it is tradition for a knight to have squires to prepare them for battle, right?”
Robynne couldn’t help but smile at her nerd-in-training. And at Angela who, obviously tired, still wanted to support her friend through, what she knew, would be a difficult time. “I suppose so. I see someone just completed the Sir Davrick questline. I’m going to have a hard time catching up on my healer you keep at this pace you know?”
Angela blushed. “I may be playing it a bit too much.”
Mallory rolled her eyes. “It’s all you spend your free time on. And we’re behind on Her Murder Diary! You’re leaving Ace in the dust and me in the cold.”
Angela’s blush deepened. She threw up her hands in surrender. “You’re right. You’re right. I’ll dial it back.”
Angela was neglecting her friends to play video games? She really was turning into a proper gamer. For some reason, that made Robynne really proud.
Robynne smiled and stood up, mentally preparing herself for the battle to come. “Okay. Thanks for the offer to help. When it comes to makeup I’m still useless.” And thus, Robynne walked to her room to get ready for war. Instead of armor she’d be given a cheer uniform. Instead of a weapon, fliers. Instead of warpaint, lipstick and blush. Robynne knew most wouldn’t see her gearing up for combat, but for her, she’d rather face down one of Platicore’s minions than what she was about to do.
“Let’s do this.”