(Read the previous scenes here.)
Everyone knew the urban legends, of course. The freshman empath who snapped under the pressure of her roommate’s stress and, depending on the narrative variant, either drove the offender mad in a sudden burst of telepathic fury, or bashed her head in with a paperweight. According to the empath who sat next to Robert in their class on the Cairo Accords, there was no true historical incident behind the tales . . . but college was trying enough, and the psychic control of most eighteen-year-olds still imperfect enough, that breakdowns of a less violent sort did indeed occur.
Robert—who knew quite well that he had the empathic sensitivity of a whelk—did not expect to have any such difficulties himself.
But as it transpired, empathy was unnecessary, when living with a highly-stressed wilder.
Not that Julian showed stress in the ordinary ways. No breakdowns for him, no shouting or fits of tears; indeed, he hardly seemed capable of such a thing. Robert was just as glad. Strong emotion played merry hell with psychic abilities—one reason why manifestation in adolescence was such a volatile affair—and a wilder in a snit could be expected to wreak truly epic havoc. Which was, no doubt, why they were forbidden to have snits.
But control of the usual signs of stress did not equate to a lack of stress itself. And Robert very soon came to recognize the signs peculiar to Julian: speech increasingly terse and opaque. Fanatical tidiness of person and surroundings. A general impression of rigidity—rather like an antique boiler, whose cast-iron sides only barely contained the mounting pressure within.
One did not have to be a trained psychologist to guess why. A variety of students had already pestered Robert to introduce them to his roommate; two were persistent enough that he had to offer to introduce them to his fist instead. The rest plagued him with questions instead, about everything from what Julian ate to whether he ate at all.
The belief that wilders did not need to eat came about because Julian was, as near as Robert could tell, avoiding the dining halls as if they were infested with cockroaches. He could not blame the fellow. Far easier to take one of the campus’ many portable options and eat somewhere that offered a modicum of privacy. But such practices did not solve the basic problem, which was that Julian had no discernible life outside of class and studying, and sooner or later the lack was going to make him explode.
What god had a sufficiently perverse sense of humour to assign the duty of prevention to Robert, he did not know. Perhaps he had only himself to blame, accepting this assignment of roommate, without asking whether amateur counseling services were part of the package. But the task was before him, and so he set about it as best he could.
“Bah,” he said one evening, when Julian came home from wherever it was he had been. Not class—not at this hour—and certainly not any extracurricular activity. “If I have to read one more word of this patronizing twaddle, I think I will go mad.”
He looked up from the article he was reading, and could not entirely control a flinch. Julian was, for reasons Robert did not want to guess at, dressed all in black. Jeans and a long-sleeved shirt—perfectly ordinary clothing—except that on him, the lack of color was just this side of terrifying. His hair was far too light, his skin far too pale; he looked like a ghost. One that did not want to have a conversation right now.
But Robert had planned this gambit, and having started it, his mouth went blithely on, before his common sense could sound the retreat. “There is a late-night movie being shown in Carson Commons. The Ides of North; I thought I might go. Would you have any interest, yourself?”
Julian had bent to unlace his boots, hiding his expression. Now he stepped out of them and shook his head, still without looking at Robert. That, too, seemed to be a sign of stress, as if he did not want to engage with anyone. Including his roommate. “No, thank you.”
He should drop it; he knew he should. And yet he went on. “Is it class reading that calls you away, or a lack of interest in the movie? Or a lack of interest in movies more generally, I suppose.”
“I have work I should do,” Julian said. Which only answered part of Robert’s question.
Hanged for a fleece, hanged for the mother of all sheep. “But that does not tell me what you think of movies, and whether I should offer such invitations in the future. Surely you must have some hobbies, man.”
“Not movies.” Julian picked up his bag.
“Very well—but what takes their place? What do you like to do in your leisure time?”
Julian drew breath as if to answer; Robert found he was holding his own. Then Julian shook his head, a curt gesture, cutting off whatever he’d been about to say, replacing it with something else. “Do you remember what you said to me on the first day?”
He had said so very many things, his tongue running free out of sheer nerves. Like it was trying to do now. “Er—”
“You asked me to tell you if you said something wrong.”
Robert had not, in a month and a half of living with a wilder, ever looked Julian in the eye. He knew well enough what would happen if he did. But even without looking, he could feel the weight of that gaze on him. It should have shut him up—but he could not help asking. “This offends you? My asking about your hobbies?” He floundered for understanding, as Julian turned to go, and came up empty-handed. “For the love of all the gods, why? It’s a simple question.”
The words pursued Julian to his bedroom door, and there the wilder stopped. Robert saw, with the sudden clarity of adrenaline, his roommate’s hand on the door frame, and the tensing of his fingertips against the wood. He had time enough to note, treat black clothing as a warning sign in future, before Julian dropped the bag and pivoted sharply to face him.
“I have had enough,” he said, in an uninflected voice that sent Robert’s adrenaline spiking, “with being questioned about everything in my life, and the answers being treated like some kind of report from another planet.”
It wasn’t that he was angry—though Robert had no doubt he was, under that frigid self-control. It was the way humanity almost seemed to drop away from him. In that clothing, with that expression and that voice, he might have been something out of the Otherworld. Wilders in the ordinary way of things were unnerving enough . . . but that, Robert now realized, was what they looked like when they were trying to be normal.
His mouth opened, but all his conversational gambits lay in pieces on the floor. “I—”
The tendons in Julian’s neck leapt into relief as he clenched his jaw. “I am not an insect under the microscope. I am not a performing dog. I’m not here to entertain you, or anybody else. My life is none of your business. Get that through your head, and leave me in peace.”
He bit the last words off and turned to go into his room. Before he could close the door, though, Robert was on his feet, and hot from head to toe. “Wait. We aren’t done yet.”
Julian didn’t look back, but he did stop.
“You bloody pillock,” Robert said, furious. “Do you think I don’t know how everybody’s been treating you? They chase after me, too, because they know better than to come after you—some of them. It’s a three-ring circus out there, with you as the main attraction. I get that. But you know, not everybody who asks you a civil question is doing it because they want to run and gossip to their friends. Some of them are doing it because they’re your roommate, and they’d like to go on being your roommate, rather than letting you drive yourself off a cliff in the first quarter of your freshman year. Which is what you’re on track to do, unless you find some kind of life outside of class, studying, and dodging the bastards that want you to dance for their amusement.”
Silence. Robert couldn’t tell what Julian thought of his tirade; he was still in the doorway, one hand on the knob. His roommate might have been about to slam the door, break down crying, or transform Robert into a toad.
He did none of the three. He turned—the other direction, so that Robert could only glimpse the hard edge of his expression—and went to shove his feet into his boots again.
“Give us a chance, at least,” Robert said. “Not everybody here sees you as an insect or a dog.” But he got no chance to say anything more. Julian was out into the hallway, sliding past a fellow who leapt to clear his path, and the door swung shut behind him.
(“Welcome to Welton” is a series of teaser scenes. Teasers for what? The answer to that, my friends, is coming on September 18th. Check back each weekday for a new scene!)