Chapter 7 – Give and Take
August 21st, 2012
Soothing, choral hymns and melancholic melodies aroused Noah from his slumber. Noah's eyes slowly opened and he was welcomed by a swath of warm, sparkling, turquoise light. He blinked and discovered that he was resting on his side on a comfortable, cushiony velveteen couch. His fingers traced along the silky edges as he gripped the seat and pushed himself up into a sitting position. The ocean currents and buoyant sea life swirled and twisted about the tubular room he was in, playing out like some kind of lighthearted underwater-themed desktop screensaver. In the distance, an orca whale hummed and sang, its harmonic reverberations reaching his ears through the chaos of the ocean. It didn't take very long for Noah to realize where he was.
The Velvet Room.
Across the circular, mahogany table, Igor and his assistant Faith patiently waited as Noah acquired a hold on his bearings. Noah looked at them through weary eyes, but he noted that Faith's expression towards him was slightly less frosty than it had been the last time he had been in the Velvet Room. Igor, too, regarded him with a mixture of curiosity and fascination. Noah rested his forehead on the table, a jaded sigh eking from his lips. He acknowledged that this was a much better turn of events compared to giant, grotesque arachnids trying to murder him in cold blood, but all he really wanted to do by that point was sleep.
"Is there a reason you called me here?" Noah asked.
"There is." Faith replied. "However, we do not wish to rush you. By all means, please take your time. We are aware of the ordeal you have recently overcome."
Confusion overtook exhaustion as Noah mulled over Faith's words. "You are?" Noah said, looking up. "Why didn't you do anything?"
"What you have done is out of our jurisdiction." Faith stated candidly. "Do you really believe we would have left you to your own devices had we the means to aid you?"
"Well… yeah, actually." Noah admitted. "I figured that could have been your messed up idea of indoctrinating someone, you know?"
Faith's tranquil disposition sizzled as her golden eyes narrowed in irritation. "Your inability to think rationally is beyond comprehension. You have much to learn."
What the hell? Noah thought, seething with what he felt to be justified anger. The nerve of this girl! What does she know? She doesn't know what it was like. She doesn't know what Matthew and I went through. Noah was on the verge of giving Faith a piece of his mind before Igor interrupted their quarrel.
"You have been summoned to the Velvet Room for a particular reason." There was a patient smile on his lips. "Let us not forget it over needless disputes, shall we?" Igor gave Faith a look that looked very much like a father telling his daughter he had taught her better. Regretfully, Faith shrank into her seat and offered Noah a curt nod.
"I apologize. My primary purpose is to serve, not to hinder. I will try to watch my tongue."
Noah sighed and waved her apology off. "No, I should be the one apologizing. I'm very tired, and it feels like I haven't slept right in days. I'm sorry."
Faith tilted her head and studied him intently. She remained silent, her blank expression betraying none of what she might have been thinking. Igor simply laughed punctually and continued from where he had left off. "Now then," His voice was full of joy and candor as per usual, "Welcome to the Velvet Room. It appears you have managed to awaken a formidable, dormant power residing within the boundaries of your soul."
"You mean my Persona?" Noah wagered tentatively.
"Correct." Igor interlaced his fingers beneath the bridge of his enormous nostril, his unblinking, bloodshot eyes staring into Noah's. "Your 'Persona' is a manifestation of your inner psyche. It is both a physical and spiritual representation of your core being."
There was a stack of tarot cards sitting in the middle of the table. With a lazy wave of his hand, the deck levitated and reshuffled in mid-air before Igor snapped his fingers. A single card jutted out from the median of the deck, and it softly slipped out, coming to a rest in front of Noah. Noah studied the card. On its face, there stood a black figure shouldering a knapsack, like some kind of rogue vagabond silhouetted against the twilight of the morning sky. Behind it a small dog followed in step. Noah glanced back up at Igor, his brows knitted together in confusion.
Igor smiled knowingly, and he continued. "Imagine, if you will, the number 0. At once, it represents both everything and nothing. It is a number which holds infinite possibilities. By extension, its potential for growth is nigh on limitless. At this juncture, I'd like to point out that your power, specifically, is one that is quite different from the many of the others."
"What do you mean?" Noah asked.
"You hold within yourself the power of the 'Wild Card'." Igor answered. "In time, you will come to realize for yourself what that symbolizes. For the time being, however, it would be prudent of you to focus on developing your potential through the power of bonds." Igor shut his eyes and inhaled deeply. Faith picked up from where he had left off, her tone of voice thoroughly businesslike.
"By developing your relationships with those around you, you will, in turn, develop the strength of your Social Links. As a consequence—or perhaps more accurately, benefit—of doing so, the power of your 'Persona' will rise accordingly. Keep this knowledge in mind as you venture forward into the future, as uncertain as it might be. Further trials and tribulations await you in the coming months, Noah Scofield. Your journey is far from over."
To his surprise, Noah had understood relatively all of what Igor and Faith had told him. The more time he spent in this realm, the more he grew accustomed to the rules governing its existence. Noah nodded in answer to Faith's counsels. The Velvet Room assistant nodded in turn, a small smile gracing her stubborn lips.
"Before you leave," Igor said, "take this with you."
An incandescent blue light materialized into a small, silver key on the table in front of Noah. He noticed that the dual mask that had been on the back of the tarot cards was also the design prominent on the handle of the key. Not entirely sure what purpose the key would serve, Noah looked up at Igor for clarification.
"This will allow you to visit this realm of your own accord." Igor explained. "I advise you to keep it on your person at all times henceforth. I imagine you will be making several trips to our world as time marches onwards. Do not be shy, you are our guest and as such you are always welcome here. So go on, take it."
"I don't remember this room having a keyhole." Noah said.
"Does such a device need to exist in order for you to enter into our domain?" Igor questioned obtusely. "Perhaps entrance here requires something much greater than that."
Noah gingerly took the key from the table, pocketing it carefully into his jeans. He couldn't say he was a very big fan of Igor's baffling ramblings, but he was grateful that they were here to help him, even if he never quite understood everything they told him. Thankfully, Noah understood the gist of today's visit. If he was uncertain about his feelings before, they were certainly solidified now, he knew he could not abandon his allies and his friends by the wayside. Absolutely no exceptions could be made. Even shady characters such as Nathaniel could not slip through the cracks. Noah had to give everyone a fair chance, and that included people he wasn't sure he could ever totally trust or even like. Determined, but still unsure, Noah made it up in his mind to always protect his friends regardless of the consequences he might face in doing so. They could turn out to be the most important facets of his day to day life from this point forwards. He had to be smart about things.
Noah's thoughts drifted to Faith, and a matter of mild importance occurred to him.
"Faith?" Noah prompted.
"How may I help you?" Igor's assistant answered.
"Can you leave the Velvet Room?"
Puzzled, Faith frowned before her eyes widened in realization. Catching herself, she shook her head dismissively. "Such a proposition is not unheard of," Faith said casually, "but I am ignorant as to why you wish to know. Would you care to enlighten me?"
Noah bit his lip quietly. Things were starting to get awkward. In truth, he would have propositioned to show Faith around Glasswater in order to get her to lighten up and perhaps open up to him a little more, but on account he realized that he himself knew very little about the town to begin with. He was in no position to go around hamstringing some poor soul along on his woefully misguided tour around a town he was barely familiar with, and someone such as Faith would no doubt be a harsh critic unto his inadequacies. Put succinctly, now was not a good time.
"Never mind." Noah waved, wishing to drop the subject. "Maybe some other time."
"Very well then." Faith said.
"Then without further ado," Igor finished, "until we meet again…" A dreamlike haze of soft, creamy white light surrounded Noah's body as fatigue began to take hold of his consciousness. Willingly, Noah let himself be taken away into a deep, uninterrupted, sleep.
! ! !
"Definitely a secret." Matthew said, quickly.
On their way to Glasswater High School, Noah and Matthew walked side by side as they headed towards the crosswalk where Robin was waiting. They hadn't said much when they had woken up, and breakfast had consisted of cereal and not much else. The two teenagers found it difficult to find the words to describe what had happened after their ordeal at the alternate Glasswater school, and they weren't very keen on discussing the matter with each other, let alone Robin. Noah had broken the silence a little earlier, blurting out whether they should keep what had happened between them or between them and Robin. Matthew had shouted out his answer so quickly as to suggest it had been a reflexive thought. Noah could not blame him.
"Alright." Noah agreed.
The two kept walking together under the weight of heavy-handed silence. This time, however, it was not because of their unfamiliarity with each other. In fact, it was very much so the opposite. If anything, the uncomfortable silence growing like an untamed stigma between them was because Noah knew too much about Matthew. Noah had been able to guess some of Matthew's personal problems by his own deductions, but to have them so shamelessly pushed into the limelight made things between them indescribably awkward.
"Matthew, about last night…"
"What about it?"
"After I… after I dealt with your Shadow, what happened? How did we get back?"
Matthew looked troubled as he stared at Noah blankly. He tossed an aimless glance down the road and blinked, slowly. "I'm having trouble piecing it together, but if I had to describe it in one word, it'd be weird." His lips parted and closed at irregular intervals, as if he were trying to solve a difficult math problem in his head. "The walls, the floors, the ceiling… everything just started deteriorating like someone just splashed a bunch of acid all over the place. But it was unnatural. Even the part I was standing on was gone. For a little while, we were just floating in the middle of this endless nexus of space. It was wild, dude."
"But how did we return from all of that?" Noah pressed.
A frown appeared on Matthew's face and his forehead creased. "That's just the thing," He said. "My room just reconstructed itself piece by piece until we were back. It was like reverse deconstruction. I keep going over what happened again and again in my head but it just makes less and less sense every time. That couldn't have been some dream, we both experienced it detail by painstaking detail, and besides, it felt way too real." Matthew pressed a tight, balled-up fist to his temples. "It was like nothing ever happened."
"I'm guessing you didn't sustain any injuries to suggest otherwise?" Noah said, feeling the aches in his body beginning to make a comeback.
"Oh, I've got plenty of bruises," Matthew laughed, "but that doesn't prove we went anywhere abnormal."
"That's true." Noah conceded, rubbing his chin with his thumb and index finger. "Now that I look back on it, my cell phone was stuck at 12:00 AM for the longest time. I don't think time moves the same way it does in that world compared to this one."
"Dude, I don't even know where to begin with any of that. Whatever the case might be," Matthew said, "we definitely can't tell Robin. I don't want her to get mixed up with any of that stuff. I don't know how or why it happened, but I could never forgive myself if she got caught up in that shit. The less she knows about it, the better."
"I'm with you." Noah nodded. "This is our problem. I'd prefer it if no one else got involved."
Noah smiled at Matthew encouragingly. Matthew tried his best to return it with one of his own. Noah thought it looked a little odd, but he knew that Matthew wasn't used to smiling. He didn't have to be told that straight out to know that. As long as he kept on backing Matthew up when he needed it most, he was confident he would mature into a person who would no longer need to rely on anyone.
At the same time, Noah could not help but dread the future. He wished dearly for Matthew's wishes to not involve anyone else in this ordeal to stay true, but he knew how unlikely that would end up being if Igor and Faith's predictions in the Velvet Room were to be trusted, and he knew that they would not lie to him. If anything, Noah had to keep ever-vigilant around Robin even more than before, because deep down he knew she was in grave danger. If he and Matthew were not careful, someone could end up losing their life in the other world.
Noah's blue gray eyes flashed hot white as he ground his teeth together in anger.
Not if I have anything to say about it.
! ! !
"What's your secret?" A pair of friendly, golden eyes glittered faintly with curiosity. "How do you do it, Noah?"
Noah looked up from his sandwich, his mouth full of chewed up bits of bread, ham, lettuce, cheese, and tomatoes. He swallowed, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and cocked his head at the figure sitting next to him.
"What do you mean?"
"You talk to Matthew like it's nothing!" Seth said, puffing out a breath of hot air. "You don't even know how many times I've tried to talk to him, only for it to end up backfiring on me. And here you come along and suddenly, out of nowhere, you're already best buddies. You have to tell me what you're doing."
"Maybe you're just going about it the wrong way." Noah offered, untwisting the cap to a bottle of water resting on the bench next to him.
It was lunchtime and Noah and Seth had retired to Glasswater's football field in order to eat. Robin was serving detention time in Mr. Schrodinger's classroom for laughing out loud in the middle of class because she had been watching videos on her phone. Matthew had stayed behind in one of his classes in order to get help on studies he was having trouble with. Noah had tiny suspicions that Matthew still felt uncomfortable about the ordeal they had faced, but he was in no position to make any judgment calls. He let the matter be, and he knew that he had Seth to talk to in the meantime.
True to his reputation, Seth was a remarkably easy person to talk to. He was always bursting with energy and ideas and he never missed a single beat, keeping the flow of conversation healthy and alive. Seth was not quick to judge and he always wore a warm, welcoming smile. Indeed, Noah did not know why Seth was having so much trouble becoming a better friend of Matthew's.
"Easy for you to say." Seth grumbled, resting his chin on his knuckles.
The football field was ablaze with activity. Lean, rugged, well-built teenagers charged up and down the white-striped green grass, tossing a red ball amongst themselves. They tackled each other to the ground and laughed the pain away as they played for fun, rather than for competition. Noah winced as he watched them. Watching them slam into each other without restraint caused him to remember the aching coursing throughout his limbs.
There were other students sitting around on the bleachers, much like he and Seth were. Noah leaned back and carefully rested his head against the bench above his. He looked up into the blue, fertile skies and smiled, relaxed.
Noah looked down as a student jogged towards them, coming away from the football game still going on. Noah recognized his short, clean-cut chestnut hair and his turquoise eyes. The young man wore a dark blue sports t-shirt that gleamed with ounces of sweat and mud. The student's basketball shorts were similarly tarnished. The make of its black fabric was just barely visible beneath the accumulation of grass and dirt.
Noah remembered this was Griffith. He was alone as he came to a stop at the foot of the bleachers, his hands on his knees as he caught his breath.
"What's on your mind, Griffith?" Seth called from above.
"You want to play?" Griffith asked once he had caught his breath. Noah looked at the football squeezed beneath the curve of the athlete's arm. Griffith took it from under himself and reared his arm back, tossing the ball in a clean arc towards Seth. Seth stood up and easily caught the ball in mid-air. The gentle giant chuckled and bounced it from one hand to the other, studying Noah out of the corner of his eyes.
"That depends." Seth said, the latter half of his sentence trailing off mischievously. "What do you say, Noah?"
Noah turned around in his seat, his half-eaten sandwich still in his hand. Seth smirked, indicating the ball in his hands with his lips. "You up for a game with the big kids?"
"Teams are already even." Griffith added with his hands cupped around his mouth. "You should join us, Noah. We'll go easy on you!"
The pit of Noah's stomach bubbled as he swallowed nervously. Noah was absolutely terrible at sports. He had, at no point and time in his life, ever been moderately okay at any kind of sport. He simply wasn't made for it. Football, especially, ranked among the sports he was the worst at. His throwing arm was pathetic and he fumbled the ball every single time it came anywhere near him. On top of that, his body was still weak from last night's ventures into the alternate Glasswater High School. As it stood, he was already on the verge of collapse.
Noah looked at Seth, then at Griffith, his expression uneasy.
"Sounds like fun."
! ! !
Lunch had ended, but Noah was dead in the water. He lay on the ground motionless, while Seth and Griffith stood over his body, the two seniors watching him uncertainly. Griffith scratched his hair in confusion while Seth's hands were at his hips, his head shaking left and right in lighthearted disappointment. Most of the other players had already departed to class, and Seth and Griffith had chosen to stay behind to wait until Noah recovered from the physical—and perhaps, more importantly prideful—abuse. Seth bent down and prodded Noah's corpse with his finger.
"You okay, Noah? You can get up. Most of the other guys have left."
Noah mumbled incoherently, his words muffled by the moist foliage.
"Y'know, I've seen some really bad players in my days," Griffith spoke, "but I think this one takes the cake. You're a special kind of awful, Noah. I don't know if I should commend you or laugh at you. Maybe both?"
"Watch it." Seth growled, giving Griffith a warning glare. Griffith raised his hands reproachfully and bent down alongside Seth, chuckling to himself
"You've got spirit, though," Griffith admitted, "I'll give you that much. What you lack in physical strength you more than make up for in heart. You've got a fire in you. In my book, that's just as important as being a good team player. Ain't that right, Seth?"
An audible moan rose up from the grass. Seth laughed and delicately patted Noah on the back. "Don't you worry, Noah. No one's going to make fun of you… too much, anyway."
Suddenly, a voice called out over the distance.
Seth and Griffith's heads turned as a blonde student drew close to them, her right hand shielding her razor-sharp blue eyes from the sun. The girl wore an olive green cardigan that stretched down to her thighs, and beneath it was a long, bright, yellow shirt. Her upper outfit was complimented by a pair of beige shorts that cut off halfway between her knees and her torso. Her golden hair swayed in the sunlight as she got closer and closer to the trio of students in the middle of the field.
"I should have known you'd be out here goofing around on the football field with Seth." Her eyes wandered down to Noah's still form lying face down on the field. She processed the scene as logically as she could, with Seth and Griffith standing over him and Noah all beat and bruised. The girl's mental faculties clicked in place and she gasped, shooting daggers into Seth and Griffith. "Did you… did you beat this guy up? What the hell is the matter with you!?"
"What? Now hold on—" Seth began, but to no avail.
"And you!" The blonde girl scolded, striking Seth's pleas down with righteous anger. "How dare you! I thought you were the one who defended the defenseless, not beat them down when no one's looking. Just because you have the muscle to do it doesn't mean you should. You two ought to be ashamed of yourselves. Maybe when you're picking up pieces of trash by the freeway then you'll realize—"
"Lucia!" Griffith interjected, his voice stunting the flames of her fury. "Calm down and listen! Goddamn, that's just like you! Always jumping to conclusions!"
Seth reached out and tousled Noah's hair. "Poor guy couldn't hack it during a friendly game of football, that's all. No bullying going on here. Frankly, Lucia, I'm offended you would even think us capable of such a feat." He grinned dimly. "We're pretty affable fellows."
Lucia folded her arms and sucked in her lips in, her face going mildly pink. Rather than own up to her mistakes, she stared harder at Noah's backside and frowned. "That's the Junior that just moved here, right? Boa? Loa? You were talking to him yesterday, weren't you Seth?"
"It's Noah." Seth corrected. "And yeah, I was. We're all good friends now, though. As long as Noah doesn't hate us for being too rough with him, at least."
Lucia narrowed her eyes and stared at Seth disapprovingly. "You may not have beaten him up, but you make it hard to believe otherwise."
"Bah, he's fine. Noah's a lot tougher than he looks." Seth picked up one of Noah's limp arms and used it to wave at Lucia. "See that? Cool as a cucumber!"
Lucia cringed, but she could not conceal an amused smirk. "That's gross, Seth. Anyway, don't you think you should take him to the nurse or something? He doesn't look so good."
"Nah," Griffith said. "Noah's just being melodramatic. C'mon bro', the jig is up."
Red in the face, Noah lifted his head ever so slightly, his eyes peeking out from between sharp blades of grass. "Are you sure everyone's gone?"
"Positive." Griffith affirmed. He gestured at Lucia with his thumb. "Lucia's here too."
The blonde student gave a small wave. Noah groaned and gripped the wet earth below him, easing himself up into a kneeling position as he wiped the sweat caked on his brow. Unsteadily, Noah got to his feet and wiped off the green stains collecting around the knees and ankles of his pants. When the most offending stains were gone, Noah looked up and grinned sheepishly at the three senior students who watched him intently.
"These guys didn't hurt you, did they?" Lucia said straightforwardly. Seth and Griffith both gave her pained looks, but Noah laughed and clutched his abdomen in pain.
"Nothing I didn't sign up for." He answered.
"Doesn't really answer my question, but I guess that's better than nothing." She replied, her suspicious tone of voice still not completely gone. "If you're one hundred percent sure you're feeling okay, then you should head to class. Just so you know, the teachers here won't go easy on you just because you're new here. If anything, that only means their expectations for you are higher than the rest."
Griffith came up from behind her and snaked an arm around her shoulder. "Geez-Louise, give the guy a break Lucia! I swear, you can be so cold sometimes." He playfully poked her cheek with his index finger, a sardonic smile stretched across his lips. "You're just a big 'ol softie inside, aren't you?"
Annoyed, Lucia tried to wriggle her way out of his grip. "It's for his own good!" She insisted, her fingers struggling to pry Griffith's muscled arm from around her neck. "You understand, right Noah?" She could barely get him to budge an inch, even as she delicately bit down on his arm with her teeth.
For a reason unbeknownst to Noah, Seth smiled sadly. His eyes were unfocused, as if he were seeing something other than what was going on in front of him. He placed a heavy hand on Noah's shoulder and turned him towards the classroom buildings. Noah looked up at Seth who began to walk away.
"We should get going." He said, looking at Noah over his shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll vouch for your tardiness."
Noah frowned and glanced at Griffith who, currently, was kneading his knuckles into Lucia's blonde hair. "But what about you? You'll get in trouble too."
Seth shrugged and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket. "I'm a senior. Once you're here, people stop caring so much. We get away with a lot more than you'd think. Besides, I know practically everyone in this school. My word will mean a little bit."
"…If you say so." Noah said, doubtfully.
! ! !
"Football?" Robin wondered out loud. "Is that what you spent lunch doin'?"
Noah zipped his bag shut and flung it over his shoulder as he walked alongside Robin and Matthew. "Yeah, I played a short game with Seth, Griffith, and a couple others." He sighed dejectedly. "I didn't do very well."
Robin snickered and promptly shut herself up by cramming several of her fingers into her mouth. "Sorry," She apologized, "Ya' just never struck me as the athletic type."
"Believe me," Noah smiled bitterly, "I learned that the hard way. Lucia was there too, now that I look back on it."
"Oh?" Robin's eyebrows arced suggestively. "The princess of Glasswater herself watched you eat dirt on the battlegrounds of glory?"
Out of nowhere, Matthew laughed, his amusement causing him to crush the box of apple juice clutched in his hand. The contents spilled out onto the sidewalk and he stopped for a moment, examining his failure with trepidation. He directed his attention at Robin as his lips curled into a playful smirk. "See what giving people dumb nicknames leads to?" He indicated the faint droplets with the tip of his foot. "Dumb things happen."
"Bite me." Robin mumbled under her breath before she tipped her nose towards Noah. "Anyways, you got time to hang out with us today or are you headin' straight home?"
Noah paused. If he asked nicely, Catherine most likely wouldn't be too opposed to the idea of him spending a little more time after school with his friends. Regardless, he didn't want to worry her any more than he probably already had.
"I think so." Noah nodded. "My aunt's probably worried sick."
And besides, Noah thought, I shouldn't leave her alone with whomever that guy she's living with any more than I have to. It's bad enough that I opted out of spending my first night in the apartment. An unpleasant implication presented itself to Noah, and his stomach twisted itself into a heavy knot as a response. I hope she doesn't think I'm avoiding her. God forbid my actions have wounded her on a personal level!
Robin's incessant pestering eventually grounded his detachment. When Noah's eyes found their targets, he noticed Robin was grilling Matthew on how their sleepover had gone over the night prior. Evidently, Robin was oblivious to the increasingly uncomfortable expression Matthew's face wore as she bombarded him with question after painstaking question.
Noah and Matthew had done their best to street the topic away from what had happened that night when they had met up with Robin in the morning. It was apparent, now, that their half-baked answers had done little to dissuade Robin's curiosity. Noah did not fancy himself a particularly capable liar. He was also aware that though Matthew was used to diverting the flow of conversation to topics not concerning his own well-being, even his defenses were beginning to wear thin in the brunt of Robin's unaware oppression.
"C'mon, spill the beans!" Robin prodded, tugging Matthew's sleeve. "You guys do anythin' fun? Lemme' guess," She tapped a finger against her chin and smiled. "The forest, right? You guys went explorin' near the caves and the lake and stuff? Or did you sneak into one of 'em adult movies? Ooh, or did ya' go downtown to the clubs and the bars and stuff with fake IDs? I won't tell nobody if ya' did somethin' illegal!"
"Robin," Noah interrupted swiftly, catching up to them from behind, "all we did last night was talk and play video games. Nothing more, nothing less."
Robin's shoulders dropped, as did her glowering smile. "But that's what you guys kept sayin' last time." The disappointment in her voice was palpable. "Why won't you guys tell me what really went on?"
"Come on Robin," Noah pressed, "do you really think we'd do any of that?"
"Don't gimme' that crap!" Robin rebuked, stunting Noah's diversion. "I can see right through ya'!" Her eyes went from Noah to Matthew as they avoided her gaze. She groaned and ran a hand through her hair. "I ain't claimin' to know what's runnin' through your guys' head, but it ain't fair, keepin' secrets bottled up like that."
"What do you really think went on, Robin?" Noah asked.
"I don't know!" Robin cried, flinging her hands into the air. "That's why I'm askin' you two, but you'd think you guys had brain damage or somethin' from the way you two keep avoidin' my questions."
Noah and Matthew traded blank looks. Matthew shrugged and mouthed, 'I got nothing.' Noah sighed, smiled, and reached over, flicking Robin on the forehead with his thumb and index finger.
"Ow!" Robin yelled, rubbing the area where she'd been flicked with her fingers. "What the hell's the matter with you?"
"That's my way of telling you to mind your own business." Noah said.
"Aha! So you're fessin' up!" Robin exclaimed, stopping on the spot and putting her hands on her hips. She leaned into Noah's face and stared daggers into his eyes. "You guys are keepin' secrets!"
"Not necessarily." Noah said as he folded his arms.
"Tch!" Robin spat in disgust. "If that's the way you're gonna' be, then fine, whateva', have it your way! I don't care anymore. You guys can keep your stupid secrets. But I ain't talkin' to either one of you until you tell me!" She held her nose up high in the air and broke into a speedy walk, commanding a good deal of the sidewalk with her swinging arms and exaggerated steps. Noah smiled after her and glanced at Matthew wearily.
"Nice save," Matthew said, "…I think."
It hurt Noah to see Robin so deeply affected by their secrecy, but they had little choice in the matter. If keeping her out of the loop meant saving her life, then neither Noah nor Matthew would ever give up what had transpired that night. The two of them were prepared to bear the entire weight of the burden if it meant sparing Robin the horrors of that alternate reality. It was a risk they were willing to take.
Noah's apartment was on the opposite corner of the sidewalk. Robin was already far ahead of the two of them now, her pace not slowing a bit. Matthew clapped Noah on the back.
"Good luck, dude." Matthew said. "If anything happens, call me. I live just a few blocks from here."
"I appreciate it." Noah smiled. "See you later, Matthew."
! ! !
Noah arrived at the door to room 204. He fumbled in his pockets for the spare key his aunt had given to him. When it was within his fingers he pulled it out and stuck it into the lock, turning the key and pushing the door open.
There didn't seem to be any significant difference from the last time he had been here. Perhaps there were a few more pieces of trash lying around than before, but he honestly couldn't tell. The apartment was still a chaotic mess, and it would have taken hours to clean it all up. Carefully, Noah stepped through the garbage and into the living room. He looked left and saw a man sitting at the dining table.
The man wore a striped red and black flannel shirt with the sleeves lazily bunched up near his elbows. Mounds of stubble dotted the lower half of his face, the severity of his half-baked trim far past a five 'o clock shadow. His hair was cut close to his scalp. Cold, dark eyes simmered beneath his thin, arched eyebrows.
Sunlight skirted the half-turned blinds, silhouetting his worn frame as he glanced up from the plate of cold-looking food in front of him. A brief moment of awkward silence passed as they stared into each other's eyes, neither of them able to come up with a suitable introduction. The man—his mouth still full of mush—resumed chewing loudly, his lips smacking together obnoxiously. He reached underneath the table and wiped his mouth with a large, white napkin. Still chewing, he stood up from the table, his hands wiping against his beige, wrinkled jeans.
Noah swallowed as the man drew closer and closer, his height growing larger and larger with every step he took. Noah found himself craning his neck as he struggled to maintain eye contact. There was absolutely nothing in the man's eyes; they were empty and soulless.
The man's chewing slowed once he stood in front of Noah. He regarded Noah thoughtfully as he swallowed the food in his mouth and cleared his throat.
"You Noah?" He scratched his stubble awkwardly. "Catherine's nephew or something like that?"
"…Yeah." Noah said meekly. "Is she here?"
"Nah." The man replied, thumbing his nose. "She's still at work at the daycare." He looked behind himself at the half-finished plate of food warming up in the beams of sunlight filtering in through the blinds. "Told me to take you out for dinner once you got home. You eat yet?"
"I haven't." Noah said. "I can't say I'm very hungry though."
"Oh." The man shrugged. "Suit yourself. Leftovers are in the fridge of your appetite comes back. You need anything, I guess you can just call for me."
"Sure." Noah turned away and was about to head to his room before he stopped and turned back. "I didn't catch your name?"
"Huh?" The man looked up, halfway between getting into his chair. "Oh, name's Rob. I guess I'm your uncle. Nice to finally meet you, kid." Robert settled into his seat and looked past Noah at the messy living room. "Y'know, ever since we got wind that you were coming over to stay with us, Catherine hasn't stopped talking about you."
"Really?" Noah said, trying to hide a smile. "That's nice of her. I'll have to thank her when she gets home."
"You're all she ever talks about anymore." Rob continued absentmindedly, talking as if he hadn't heard a word Noah had said. "It's always about you, now. Like we adopted you or something."
Noah paused, unsure of how to go about responding to his uncle's admonishment. Awkwardly, Noah nodded and turned away from Rob. He could feel his uncle's gaze boring into his backside as he trudged down the hallway. It made him uncomfortable.
Vague bouts of anger flared up in his stomach as he left the dining room. He remembered, vividly, the feelings he had felt when he had first come into this apartment. It was difficult to forget. Had his uncle been present at that point and time, Noah was sure he would have no doubt attacked him without remorse. Face to face, however, his sentiments were altogether much more different than he had anticipated. It was neither anger nor resentment that bubbled like a cauldron inside of him. On the contrary, the most prominent emotion Noah felt when he looked at Rob as he sat there shoveling unappetizing gunk into his mouth was pity, and perhaps even sadness. It was not unlike how he had gazed upon Catherine when he had embraced her.
It made Noah sick to his stomach.
He sighed as he turned the knob to his door and entered his room. He dropped his bag onto the floor and sat at his desk, staring blankly out the window vista overlooking the street down below.
The very last thing Noah expected to feel for his uncle was compassion. Now, in the turmoil of emotions whipping up like a storm in his heart, he wasn't quite sure what to think about him.
Truth be told, he was finding it hard to know what to think about anything.
Fool (The Team): 1
Magician (Matthew): 2
Justice (Robin): 1
(new) Emperor (Griffith): 0 + 1 = 1
(new) Priestess (Lucia):0 + 1 = 1
(new) Tower (Seth): 1 + 1 = 2
(new) Temperance (Aunt Catherine + Robert): 1