Robynne was, unfortunately, not a good liar. She desperately wished she was right now; NightKnight’s inquiry had her in a bit of a bind. Being earnest and resolute all her life left her ill-prepared for her current situation.
Oh, she had been lying constantly for the past few weeks about her background. But that had been a carefully crafted story involving fake documents made by the Seikert twins, planting of evidence by Noriko, database manipulation using Kunapipi’s access as a school counselor, and lots of coaching by Angela, Kara, Vivian, and Mallory. With that much support, Robynne could fake anything. But that wasn’t something she currently had.
Part of her wanted to invent some quick story. But that wasn’t her skill. That was Vivian or Cory. She could almost convince herself she had picked up the skill from hanging out with them, but her Uncle had always said, “There aint no virtue in self-deception.” A piece of her mind wanted to dwell on that thought and focus on her Uncle. She would be confronting him with the truth, finally, very soon. But she had to focus on the problem before her.
No, an elaborate story was not going to benefit her. So Robynne went to a tried-and-true method of deception tested by toddlers around the world: a flat out denial said with a lot of confidence. “I didn’t bring it up because we didn’t see anything.” Simple. Noriko had said most of the work of stealth wasn’t being able to climb up walls or hold yourself in the corner of rooms but rather in keeping things simple and just not being in the room in the first place. Can’t be seen if you aren’t there to begin with.
Unfortunately, Stacy didn’t bite. “You didn’t see anything? Man, like, I heard the news of, like, a monster attack on the radio before I even got back home. How did you miss it?”
Bother. Well, now was time to borrow a tactic from Cory: amused redirection. “On the radio? You actually listen to terrestrial radio when you have the summation of all human musical history in, like, your purse?”
“Summation of all human musical history?” Stacy giggled, “LIke, what are you even saying, girl?”
“Your phone,” NightKnight clarified. “She means your phone. It’s always connected to the internet and therefore you can basically get any song you want.”
Stacy dramatically put her hands on her hips and eyed the two of them suspiciously. “On the same wavelength, I see.” Oh great. Again with the matchmaking. Thankfully, Stacy moved on. “Well, Ms. Moneybags, some of us, like, drive old cars that don’t have the ability to sync up to our phones.” She laughed and stuck her tongue out for emphasis.
Robynne smirked. This was working. She leaned into the cheerleader banter hoping NightKnight would get further distracted. Robynne leaned forward and put her hands on her hips in the same pose as Stacy. “Oh yeah? Well some of us, like, don’t even have cars so you can’t play that Ms. Moneybags junk on me.” She stuck her tongue out too to sell the act and hopefully fully distract NightKnight. She hated playing that card, especially leaning over and acting like some anime character to distract him, but she could not afford him taking a closer look at this. Not with his connections to his fellow ConSpiriters.
NightKnight cleared his throat. “Well, but uh, even if… even if you didn’t see the monster you could be a big help for our research, Waveform. I mean, even just details on what you saw could be good. I mean, if we just cross-reference what you, CannedBurrito, and Quack remember…” He trailed off as he must have seen the look of annoyed disappointment in Robynne’s eyes. She needed to get better at hiding her emotions if she was going to further infiltrate Cammy’s Cheer Cabal.
“NightKnight, I, uh,” Robynne fumbled for the words to say as she tried to ignore the clear twinkle in Stacy’s eyes. Stacy may not be an anime fan like GalleyGirl but it was clear she was into shipping. “I don’t really want to talk about this.”
NightKnight blinked. “I… you… don’t? But I thought you, you know, agreed and stuff on this Spirit Guard business.”
“Yeah, I agree that people shouldn’t view it as magic. However, we’re just college students. I don’t know about you but I feel monsters and magical cheerleaders are beyond my paygrade.”
“Well yeah, but… you know… I mean… someone has got to do it. The cops won’t—” NightKnight kept going on, but Robynne wasn’t listening. That hadn’t worked. Why hadn’t that worked? She needed an angle. Something that would get the questions to stop.
She didn’t like it, but an idea formed. NightKnight played a tank. In her experience, tanks were two kinds of people: people who wanted to lead and people who wanted to play out the fantasy of being a defender of those weaker than them. She knew NightKnight favored being a leader; it was why they had a strain on their relationship to begin with. However, his behavior with the fratboy earlier showed he at least had some defender to him.
Robynne squeezed her eyes tight and thought of her Grammy’s funeral when she was young to try and force some tears to well up. Playing this card was emasculating but, well, she was wearing a cheerleader uniform and it fit her perfectly. What was the point in trying to protect that which didn’t exist? “NightKnight… could you just… stop? Please.”
She opened her eyes, not liking that she had to bring to her mind something that hurt so much to get this effect. It made Robynne feel like she was using her grandmother instead of honoring her. She’d get over it though. Especially because NightKnight stood there with his mouth open, looking like a child being confronted by a wild animal he didn’t know how to deal with. “I… did… did I say something wrong? I… I didn’t mean… it…”
Robynne felt bad for doing this. She had made this same face back when she was Robert dealing with some issue or another with Brooke. She wasn’t a crybaby or anything, but Brooke had seemed to always have issues with confronting things head on and sometimes, when they fought, the waterworks would well up. Never uncontrollably. Never in some fake way to manipulate people the way some people did, but they would come. And when Brooke’s tears came, Robert had always felt unsure, awful, and like he was trying to defuse a bomb.
This, Robynne forced herself to acknowledge, was a dirty trick. She would not be using this again if she could avoid it. NightKnight already had confidence issues dealing with her, at least, and maybe people in general. This would not help his issues. But this performance wasn’t solely for his sake. Stacy was inquisitive too, and could be as relentless as a dog chasing a rabbit when it came to getting Robynne to answer questions. So, for that reason, Robynne kept the waterworks coming, though she wouldn’t turn up the volume. She just needed a little for this act.
“I’m sorry but… I’m scared, okay? I came to this college ’cause I wanted to follow my parents’ footsteps. I didn’t know there were going to be monsters. E’ryone around here is so, like, all, ‘oh, monsters. Weird, huh?’ and acting like it’s no big deal. Well maybe people who grew up in big cities think this ain’t a big deal but we don’t have sugar like this where I come from. It’s horrifyin’! I almost was attacked by one of these monsters! Do you know how scary that realization was? That I was almost at ground zero for some who-knows-what ta drain me of my lifeforce or whatever? I couldn’t sleep that night, ‘kay? I almost went home to get away from me. I didn’t think it would shook me like awl this but… it did. So… please… just… let it go? Please?”
She wiped the tears from her eyes and felt Stacy’s arms come around her in a hug. “I’m sorry, Robynne. We’ll let it go. Honest. Sorry. We just… we didn’t know.”
Robynne kept her eyes shut. She knew people would be looking now. That made her skin crawl. She hated being the center of attention. But hopefully this would get NightKnight to back off.
“Y… yeah. Sorry. I didn’t mean… sorry.” His aura shifted away and Robynne opened her eyes in time to see NightKnight retreat in a rush. Just barely in range for her ears to hear, he muttered under his breath, “Idiot. You always do this, you idiot.” His aura limply followed behind him like a loose trail of toilet paper stuck to his foot. It felt… quieter, somehow. Robynne winced. She wasn’t sure exactly how bad she had wounded NightKnight, but she knew she had done damage here today.
Her Uncle’s voice echoed in her mind, “Dont’ go breakin’ somethin’ if ya didn’t intend ta buy it.” She mentally sighed. She didn’t want to, but she knew she had to fix this somehow. It wasn’t NightKnight’s fault he was socially awkward. It wasn’t his fault she had accidentally stolen his PvP group from him. And it wasn’t his fault for being naturally curious and wanting to do something to understand what exactly was happening in his city.
For Robynne’s part, it wasn’t her fault either. She couldn’t help that his former PvP group gravitated to the better player who was easier to deal with. It also wasn’t her fault that she had to keep her identity safe. These things weren’t anyone’s fault. No more than it could be someone’s fault that a hailstorm came and dented their car. Even if it wasn’t anyone’s fault, someone still had to repair it.
So, Robynne would have to fix this damage. But that would have to wait. She first had to deal with the cheerleader currently hugging her. “Thanks. I’m good now.”
“You sure?” Stacy asked, not fully letting go of the hug.
“Yeah.” Robynne needed to let this be natural. What would a girl normally say after this? “Uh, did my makeup run at all?” That was what she had come up with? She mentally chastised herself. Not very empowering.
Stacy didn’t seem to think it out of place and examined her. “Nothing too bad. C’mon. We got most of our flyers handed out. Let’s touch your face up a bit.”
“Thanks.” Robynne was most grateful to see the matchmaker’s glimmer was gone from Stacy’s eyes. That would get annoying if she kept it up much longer. She may have felt guilty for damaging NightKnight but Robynne had no compunctions about shoving a pillow over Stacy’s dreams to set her up. “Sorry to dump all that on you.”
“No. No. It’s totes fine. Sorry I didn’t think about it. I guess, like, I never really considered what being in a major metro area would, like, you know, feel like compared to where you came from. How big was your hometown anyway?”
“Deepwater had a little over sixteen-thousand people. There are definitely smaller towns around us. We actually have a supermarket, restaurants, and a comic book store if you can believe that.”
Stacy giggled, “How on earth does a comic book store survive out in the middle-of-nowhere?”
“They got a good setup. They are a stone’s throw away from the high school. They also moved away from comics some, as that’s going more digital, I guess. They’ve been holding more events. Gets a lot of attendance… though I often got the feeling they were barely scraping by.”
Stacy giggled, “Man, a knockout like you going to a small-town comic book store. I’ll bet you were queen of the nerds down there.”
Robynne winced. Too much. This was too much history she was having to make up. The more lies she told, the harder it would be to keep things straight. “I avoided high traffic times. Hard to be left alone otherwise.”
“Oh, right. That makes sense.” Stacy gathered up her things and Robynne slung her backpack over one shoulder. “C’mon. Let’s go get your makeup touched up.”
“Oh sugar! I’m so sorry, Robynne. Donut, I could have helped. I—“
“No use sweating it,” Robynne said as she and Vivian trudged back down to their dorms. They had just finished lunch. She tried to find a way to have lunch with just Vivian, but couldn’t come up with a good enough excuse to get Lilly and Stacy to not join them. It was only now that she had been able to inform the human energy bar what exactly had gone down.
“I mean, this is a big thing we need to sweat. Like, ConSpiriters know Cory, you, and Eli were at the Buy Bright right before a monster attack!”
Robynne smirked. “Interesting you put Cory first in that list when I’m standing right here.”
“Oh whatever,” Vivian dismissed. “I hid you right in the middle of the list. That’s where you want to be. Hidden.”
“Always with the clever retort.”
Vivian spun with a flare. “That’s my job!” Her ebony hair spun around her, unfurling like a tetherball’s string from around its pole. Her smile disappeared quickly, though. “In all seriousness though, you should not have to deal with this right now. You need to be focusing on you. Your Uncle will be here on Thursday. You gone over the plan with Kunapipi?”
Robynne didn’t want to think about the plan. Thinking about the plan made her stomach knot up tighter. She didn’t want to think about how much was riding on this. She didn’t want to worry about making sure her Uncle accepted this ridiculous situation. No, she wanted to focus on this problem. The one before her. The one she felt she had more control over.
“Yeah, the plan is fine. My Uncle isn’t a big issue. It’s handled.” Vivian gave her a skeptical look. Robynne hated her sometimes. She was too observant. She came across as a goof, but you didn’t make clever retorts without seeing the world for its ridiculous lies.
Fortunately for Robynne, Vivian politely decided to not push it. “If you say so, Rosy. But you really should leave the ConSpiriters to the Hush Corps. They specialize in this stuff.”
“Yeah, okay, that’s fair, but—”
Vivian took Robynne’s hand and looked up into her eyes. Robynne, who hated direct eye contact, tried to look away. “And, speaking as your friend, you do need to focus first on your Uncle. I know you’re getting nervous as it gets closer. But you can’t ignore this one or put it off. We’re here to help you however you need it. Don’t push us away on this.”
She then let go of Robynne’s head and smiled. Not her usual impish smile, but the more genuine one. The one she saved for when she wanted you to know she meant something. The same one she gave Robynne when she came to cheer Robynne up with choco-phagial therapy after the Day LaMode incident. Part of Robynne was annoyed by this. It would be so much easier to just ignore her friends if they just weren’t so donuted sincere about their concern for her.
“This will be the last time I harp on you for this, be-tee-dubz. I figure I don’t have to anyway. You know I’m right.” And like that, Vivain’s normal grin returned. So frustrating. Robynne didn’t want to smile right now, but couldn’t help but smile back.
“Okay, I’ll leave the ConSpiriters to the Hush Corps. But I can’t leave NightKnight alone.”
Vivian sighed, “Conversations sound so weird when dealing with your nerd club.”
Robynne smirked and put a hand on Vivian’s shoulder. “Not my nerd club, Vivz. Our nerd club.”
“I never should have joined in support of you,” Vivian giggled. “But seriously, why can’t you leave this thing with… okay, tell me you learned his real name. I can’t keep talking about—” Vivian made air quotes with her fingers, “—’NightKnight’ or whatever.”
“Oh… yeah. He did… uh… Connor, I think.”
“Okay, so this Connor has an aura now? And you’re certain he didn’t before?”
Robynne shook her head. “He not only didn’t have an aura, I swear his hair changed color, he got taller, and he seems buffer to me.”
Vivian flashed a wicked grin, “Focusing on the muscles, I see.”
“Vivian…” Robynne took a deep breath.
“Hey, I’m just saying, I’ve been watching you. A nice set of muscles does seem to do it for youuuuuu.”
“Could you just focus?”
“I am focusing.”
“On the more important problem.”
“Your love life is the most fascinating problem of all! I mean, do you know how weird your situation is?” Robynne gave her a flat look that made the imp laugh more. “I mean, doy, yes. Of course you do. But, like, from a psychological and biological point of view, this is, like, just the most interesting conundrum to me.” Vivian did a quick cartwheel and then started walking backwards again. “But yeah, that’s odd. Hmmm. I mean… suddenly changing how you look, that’s never happened befo… well… I guess it has.”
“To us,” Robynne agreed.
“Okay.” Vivian crossed her arms and adopted a look of concentration that was only somewhat contradicted by her casual walking backwards. Robynne wasn’t sure how she stayed straight on the sidewalk. “But what does that imply?”
“I mean, we only changed after our initial power up, right? Did anyone change before?”
Vivian shook her head and finally stopped walking backwards. “No. Not one of us. Always after. It would imply he’s ‘powered up’ somehow?”
“But powered up to what? He’s clearly not a magical cheerleader.”
Vivian shook her head. “I don’t know, Rosy. But, yeah, you’re right. You need to keep an eye on this guy. Weird auras out of nowhere can’t be normal. We still should contact the rest of the team.” She whipped her phone out.
“Second team meeting in one day?”
“Yeah… but let’s schedule it for maybe 3:30?”
Robynne’s eyes narrowed. “You’re hoping Kara cooks again?”
“Perish the thought,” Vivian gasped, then giggled. “But do you think she might? I would love any excuse to get double Kara-cooking in a day.”
Robynne chuckled but nodded. “I don’t disagree with the sentiment.” She let the mirth out from her face. “But it’s not just his aura that is the reason I need to see him again.”
“The muscles!” Vivian exclaimed. “I knew it! At first you were at each other’s throats in your online game, but the passion of conflict has fanned the flames of—” Robynne shoved Vivian into a bush. “Ack! Fiend! I have let you hang out with Mal far too long!”
Robynne sighed. Though she felt no guilt for what she did, she lent a hand and helped her friend from the shrubbery. She made no motion to remove the various leaves now attached to Vivian’s cheer uniform. “It’s not that. Quit trying to make that a thing. No, the problem is… I felt like I was working through some of that. Dude is way socially awkward, you know? And I could tell standing up for me, even if I hadn’t exactly wanted the help, took a ton of guts on his part.”
Vivian huffed, picking twigs and leaves off her uniform. “I live with a barbarian.”
“I don’t know,” Robynne mused as she pointedly ignored Vivian’s foliage-based complaints. “I felt like I was fixing things. Like, maybe I was starting to repair the damage to his self-worth I had accidentally caused when I inadvertently stole his PVP group away from him.”
“PVP…” Vivian squinted as she fished the last twig out. “Player versus player?”
It was Robynne’s turn to grin like an imp. “You’re learning.”
“It’s all you and Angela talk about anymore. Regardless, you didn’t do that on purpose. Why do you feel guilty about it?”
“I don’t know… I guess… I don’t feel guilty. Guilty implies… well… guilt. I didn’t do anything wrong. It was just the natural result of being better and easier to deal with than he was. I wasn’t trying to rip his group away from him.”
Vivian nodded. “Yeah. I get it.”
“I just feel bad for him, I guess,” Robynne mused. “I mean, he’s been kind of tough to deal with, but I’ve known guys like him. They just… don’t fit in. Social interactions are just… harder for some reason. I mean, it’s not like I’m a pillar of social grace either. I’ve had my issues and still do, especially with this cheer thing. And I guess I relate to someone taking away something you love and feeling like you had no control over it.”
“No this is the type of psycho-analysis I love. So, you felt like you were fixing that somehow?”
Robynne winced. “Does that sound arrogant?”
“A little, but it also could have been true. I mean, you actually were talking to him. Face to face. The only other time you did that was at that first SFEERS social where there were a billion people. Not exactly a good place to work things out.”
“Yeah,” Robynne sighed, “but then he started pushing the ConSpiriter stuff and I just sort of… shut him down. I feel like I could have handled that better but I’m not sure how.”
“Well,” Vivian said as she pointedly moved out of bush-pushing range, “like you said, you’re not exactly a paragon of social interaction yourself. You can be a tad bit dramatic at times. I still remember you looming along the wall of your old dorm the night after the arcade incident. I swear you could have glared a hole through a penny.” Robynne groaned and gave Vivian a dirty look. “Yup! You still got that glare working! Good to know it made the transition over.”
“You know, you’re not being as helpful as you think you are.” Robynne noted a thick bush coming up on her side of the sidewalk and readied herself for a Vivian retaliation.
Vivian stretched and pointedly looked away from the bush. “I’m tons helpful. I’m so helpful that gyargh!” Vivian tried to throw her shoulder into Robynne like a hockey player checking someone into the boards. Robynne jumped backwards and hooked the back of Vivian’s top before she could go careening into another bush.
“No fair,” she whined. “You are denying my rightful retribution! How did you dodge so fast?”
“One of us spent her high school years learning how to dodge tacklers,” Robynne chuckled, “while the other spent her high school years learning how to cheer on those tacklers. You tell me.”
As Robynne yanked0 0000Vivian upright, the would-be bodychecker groused, “You should have let me crash into the bush anyway. It would have been funnier. Much more cinematic.”
“Ah, but I know how much people like you and Cory prefer life to be cinematic so, of course, what’s funnier for me is to not let you have that.”
“Pure evil.” Vivian straightened her top, then sighed. “Joking aside, I think you’re right about needing to repair your relationship with this Connor guy.”
Vivian nodded and continued downhill. “Excluding the weird aura stuff which we absolutely must investigate, it’s clear that you aren’t comfortable with the way things went down. You have a chance to fix that. And from the sound of it, he wanted to fix things too. Morally and emotionally, it’s the right decision.”
“You know,” Robynne teased, “I sometimes forget how wise you can sound when you aren’t being a total goofball.”
Vivian snapped Robynne an enthusiastic pair of finger guns. “Try not to forget it next time.”
“Aaaand like that, the introspective moment is gone.”
Vivian giggled but tapped her chin. “You know, as I think about it, it is interesting that his aura didn’t appear until after you ripped his group away from him. Maybe that’s connected somehow?”
Robynne shrugged. “Maybe. Then again, there are lots of people on campus with auras. Even strong ones. And we don’t know if that means anything.”
“Well yeah, but only Cammy, the SFEERS president, Dale, and now this guy have had the textured auras you’re talking about.”
“That I’ve met so far. There’s, what, twenty-seven thousand people on campus?”
Vivian’s shoulders slumped. “Yeah… and with such a small sample and such limited ways to test anything… well, we can’t jump to conclusions.”
“Exactly,” Robynne agreed. “This isn’t a clinical trial but a case study. We aren’t going to get to have a control group.”
“And even if we did have a control group,” Vivian snickered, “it probably would be ethically questionable at best to try and rip away something they love away from them just to see if they develop an aura.”
Failing to keep it in, Robynne let a giggle escape her throat. “Yeah. As women of science we must be sure our experiments are ethical.” That caused Vivian to explode in a fit of giggles and bump her hips triumphantly into Robynne’s. She still found the gesture annoying… yet, the more she hung around girls like Stacy, Lilly, and, yes, even Vivian, the more she saw it for what it was. And, much like the criss-cross ponytail she wore, even though it was different, and even though she didn’t tend to like different, she could enjoy it for what it was.