(Read the previous scenes here.)
The chaotic arrangement of boxes— “arrangement” was too kind a word for it, really—made pacing damnably hard. Every time Robert went to shift them into a more useful formation, though, he was halted by doubts. It made no sense to pile them along the wall next to the window; what if they ended up putting a desk there? It all depended on the furniture. And that depended on how this suite was to be divided.
He’d been waiting since yesterday, which didn’t help. All the freshmen were moved in, and the upperclassmen—those not helping with the process—would arrive tomorrow; everyone other than Robert himself was at orientation or supper. They’d timed it well, he had to allow: the grand arrival would occur when no one was looking.
All the better to postpone the inevitable.
Two rooms. Two options for configuration. Friendly roommates, Robert imagined, would place both beds in the inner chamber, the smaller chamber, so that if one were to go to sleep early, the other could stay up and work, or stumble in drunken from a party, without disturbing his fellow’s rest. But only if they were friendly, and could abide such closeness.
In his case, it was likely to be the other option: one roommate in the inner room, bed, desk, and all; and the other in the outer. Which likely meant him in the outer room, since it was the less private of the two. Little as Robert knew of his companion for the next nine months, he could at least guess one thing: privacy would be important.
Footsteps on the stairs; voices in the hall. Robert fidgeted next to a stack of boxes, staring at the door—but it proved to be two girls, arguing about the bookshelf they carried. Sophomores, he presumed, whose luck had not given them better than Earle, where the suites did not allow for the privacy of both. What sadist had chosen this as a suitable location for their experiment, when there were more congenial options, he did not know. Robert began pacing again. When would his roommate arrive?
Now, it seemed. Robert heard no sound, but the hackles on the back of his neck rose. He turned, and found a young man hesitating on the threshold.
Though braced for the reaction, Robert still found himself shivering. That hair-raising presence, an unsettling breath of Otherworldly air. The entryway light gave the stranger a faint nimbus, gilding his pale hair, casting his eyes into shadow. Robert instinctively looked away from them.
But no, this would never do. For the love of little fairies, the two of them were to live together. Summoning up a friendly smile, Robert came forward with one hand outstretched. “Greetings! I am Robert Ó Conchúir. You, I presume, are Julian?”
And then he halted, as the stranger looked blankly at the proffered hand.
I, Robert thought, am a gods-damned ass.
“Yes,” Julian said, as Robert dropped his arm. “I’m Julian Fiain.”
A test? To see if Robert would flinch? Gods knew he did not need to provide his surname, and not only because it was included in the housing information sent to Robert a month ago. Welton University had been in touch well before that, in their desperate search for someone who would agree to share his living quarters with a wilder. Upon being asked how many had refused before they called Robert, the housing representative had admitted to five. Five students who could not endure the thought of co-existing with a wilder in such close quarters. But Welton was determined to treat this one like any other freshman, and so they persisted. They tried Robert on the hope that, being Irish, he might have more tolerance. The same laws governed the Fiain in Ireland as elsewhere, but the high population of bloods there mitigated some of the tension—some.
Julian turned and picked up the two suitcases that sat in the hall, carrying them into the room. Robert jumped out of the way and nearly tripped over a box. He also nearly tripped over his tongue, rushing to fill the silence. “The boxes not yet claimed have been moved to the gymnasium, but it should still be open. If you’d like, I can help you carry your things over.”
“Thank you, but I can manage,” Julian said. The courtesy had the sound of a foreign language, long practiced, little used. But no, that was not fair; surely wilders said “please” and “thank you” amongst themselves. Assuming they spoke at all, and didn’t just exist in a state of constant telepathic communion.
Behind Julian’s back, Robert let his face collapse into a grimace at his own continuing idiocy. I was the best they could find for him? “It’s no problem, really. With two people, it will go twice as fast.”
Julian shook his head. “There’s only one box.”
One box. Robert’s eyes went to the suitcases. One crate—books, perhaps, if Julian was the sort who liked to read an object that could retain psychic traces; likely also his screen and such—and two suitcases, for clothes and toiletries. Either they would be shipping more soon, or his roommate lived the most spartan existence known to man.
He feared it was the latter. “This will never do,” Robert said, and gestured at his own crates. “My things will drown you; I’m a terrible packrat. If I promise to maintain a clear path to the bathroom, will you be all right with the second room? It’s smaller, but then you’ll be able to arrange it your own liking.”
Julian nodded. “That makes sense. I don’t mind a small room.”
And then another awkward silence. If this continued, Robert was going to plant his foot so firmly in his mouth, it would leave a shoeprint on his liver. He elected to head that off at the pass. “Look,” he said, and whatever Julian heard in that word, it made the young man put down his suitcases inside the bedroom door and turn to face him.
Now the pitiless dorm light caught his face, highlighting all the wilder strangeness. It was nothing easy to pinpoint; they looked human. They were human—just less so than the average person. But even that slight difference was enough to stand one’s nerves on end.
“Look,” Robert said again, trying to remember what he had been going to say. Ah, yes. “I am not renowned for my social agility. It is entirely probable that during the months we live together—presuming I don’t give you cause to murder me—I will say one or more boneheaded things regarding your nature. I beg you, not to forgive me for them in advance, but to smack me as I deserve when they occur. Like a daft but well-intentioned dog, I can be taught, and I will do my best to learn. Should I fail . . . well, on average, slightly less than three percent of the freshman class drops out of Welton in the first semester. If I become intolerable to you, say so, and I will move into the place vacated by one of the fallen; and you may have this suite to yourself.”
The most unnerving thing about wilders, he decided while his mouth delivered these words, was not their inhuman air. It was the control they had been taught: control that extended to everything about them, including their facial expressions. Throughout Robert’s speech, Julian stood—not blankly, for that would imply a lack of intelligence or understanding—intently would be a better description. Listening, but showing nothing of what he thought.
Julian’s reply wasn’t much more informative. “I’m sure we’ll be fine,” he said. Then he seemed to consider this and find it wanting. “I’m not easily offended.”
Or at least not easily provoked into showing offense. None of them were. Otherwise there would be more buildings lacking in roofs, and more people hopping about as toads. If anyone could actually transform a human into a toad, Robert thought, it would be Julian Fiain.
“I promise not to take that as a challenge,” he said, and then tugged his shirt straight. “Well. Let us float the furniture into position, so that you may unpack as you choose, and then I for one will be seeking out dinner. You are welcome to join me if you wish.”
Julian refused, of course. But the politeness of the refusal was less stiff than it might have been, and Robert dared hope this might work out after all.
(“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!)