September 24, 2022 AD. Sunview University, California, USA, Earth
Cam drummed his fingers nervously. It was the day of their next-scheduled session. Ella, Bekah, and Annette had arrived at his dorm on time, but Dinah had not appeared. She was now over 45 minutes late. Ella had mentioned that she had practice right after the session ended, so Cam was worried that if they didn’t start soon, they wouldn’t have enough time. He tried messaging her through Heartmaker multiple times, but she did not respond.
“Are we not going to play today, then?” Bekah asked Cam.
Annette added that “we could not include her.”
“We need to start soon,” Ella said anxiously.
Cam knew all of that. If they did not play here, there was a high probability that the group would fall apart before it even began. He had been a part of a D&M group like that in high school. The DM, a college student Cam only barely knew, wasn’t good about getting the players to show up, so the campaign had dissolved by the third session. He was determined to prevent that from happening now. “We should look for her,” he said. “Maybe she’s on campus somewhere and forgot we had the session scheduled for today.”
“Sounds good!” Ella said cheerfully. “I’ll check the cafeteria. I’m hungry anyway.” Without waiting for further conversation, she left Cam’s dorm. He spotted her jogging lightly through the sunny afternoon in the direction of the cafeteria.
Bekah rose too. “I think she lives with her family off campus. But I don’t know her address…” She looked dejected.
Cam said “do you know if she has any friends? Anyone who would know where she lives?”
“I’ll try,” Bekah said. She also left the room. That left Cam and Annette alone. Cam looked expectantly at her, but she showed no signs of leaving. Instead, she reclined lazily on her chair, picking up her phone.
“What?” she said. “If the girl doesn’t want to play then she doesn’t want to play. I don’t see much point bothering her when she’s busy. It’s too hot out to go sprinting all around campus anyway.”
“Don’t be such a bitch” Cam said under his breath. He thought he had spoken softly enough that she couldn’t hear.
Annette raised her eyebrows. “What was that, now?”
“Nothing. So you don’t have any idea where she could be?”
“Oh, I have an idea, all right. But would you really listen to someone who, in your own words, is being ‘such a bitch?’” Her tone had turned ice-cold. She still looked beautiful, but in her current angry state, the effect was terrifying. Cam gulped. “Well then, off you go. The bitch will just wait back here in case Dinah shows up late. Have fun!”
Cam decided to leave while all his limbs were still attached. He hurried out, but as soon as he realized that he didn’t have a destination in mind he slowed to a casual walk. Where would Dinah be? Most likely, she was just at her home. But if she were home all this time, there’s no way she wouldn’t have her phone with her, he realized. Could she be intentionally ignoring him? It seemed unlikely. She had seemed to legitimately enjoy herself during the last session, cracking a big smile when Cam had described the slapstick way that the Thunder Trio goon was knocked out from Descartes’s—controlled by Dinah herself—fire spell. Maybe she had to leave the area for the weekend? But again, if she enjoyed it so much, surely she would have let him know ahead of time.
Annette thought she knew where she was. He could go back and ask her. But that would probably require apologizing. Cam hadn’t done anything wrong. Well, maybe he shouldn’t have called Annette a ‘bitch’. “But how was I supposed to know that she could hear me?” he complained out loud. A passing pair of girls gave him a strange look. No, Cam decided he was going to figure this out on his own.
He thought back to what he knew about Dinah. Not much, although something did bug his memory. She seemed to be the sort of girl who blended in. Still, when she had arrived at his dorm the previous week, she had carried something that had made a loud noise. Cam pictured it in his mind.
“A textbook!” he said out loud, causing another group of passerby to look at him strangely. She was carrying a huge backpack full of textbooks. So she was in a place that was good for studying, but that wasn’t her home. The answer was obvious: the library. Cam took off at a run.
He was panting when he arrived at the college library. Not because he had run all the way there; Cam was so out of shape that he had stopped running after 30 seconds. “Stupid—sun,” he panted. “Why do you have to be so hot.” He entered the library and was immediately met with a rush of air-conditioned air.
The Sunview University library was not a large building. The majority of the room was taken up by bookshelves. Squeezed into one side was a row of tables large enough to hold several people. It was common for students to sit at the tables when studying. Because the library had a strict noise policy, many students studied preferred to study there instead of the possibly noisy dorms. Cam himself had worked there during finals the previous semester.
Surveying the tables, it took him a moment to spot her. Wedged behind a group of tall students, she was wearing the same grey hoodie she had worn the previous week. She was deeply focused on a textbook. When Cam got close enough, he saw that the textbook was almost unreadable from the number of notes, underlines, and highlights that had been added. He quietly sat down to her. “Hey,” he said quietly.
Startled, Dinah let out a piercing shriek of surprise. Every eye in the building turned toward her, including the stern librarian. “I’m sorry” she squeaked out, receding into her hoodie like a turtle into its shell. “Wh-why are you here?” she asked, not meeting his eyes.
“We had our D&M session scheduled for today. Did you not get my messages?”
Her face turned a deeper shade of red. She rummaged around in her bag for a moment before producing her phone. After she looked at it, she let out another shriek, this one thankfully much quieter. “I am sorry! I am so sorry! I lost track of time, and my phone was in my bag, but that’s no excuse for ignoring you, ohmygosh I am so so so sorry…” She trailed off into barely comprehensible apologetic breaths, her face now the color of a flaming stoplight.
“It’s all right,” Cam assured. “We just wanted to make sure you were ok.” The two sat in awkward silence for a moment. Dinah looked like she wanted the earth to swallow her up, so Cam spoke again. “So…you were studying, huh? What class?”
Wordlessly, she closed the textbook. It was a calculus class. “I’m not very good at math,” she said in her small voice. “But I have to get a good grade.”
“Huh. Is there a test already? The semester just started.”
She shook her head. “I have to get a good grade,” she repeated.
The two sat in silence again. She’s not much of a conversationalist, Cam noted. Not that I can talk. “Do you like studying?”
“I hate it.” The answer came with a sudden passion that surprised Cam. “But I have to study. I’m so bad at everything that I have to work extra hard to keep good grades.”
“But why are grades so important? Is it really the end of the world if you flunk a test once and a while?”
Dinah hunched over, wrapping her arms around her knees. She hung her head. “My family…we’re not rich. I need a scholarship to afford to come to a private university like Sunview. But if I don’t keep my grades above a certain point then I lose the scholarship.” She hung her head even further. At this point, she appeared to just be a grey wool blob with two arms. “Mom was right. I should never have come to this college.”
“If you like, I could help you study sometime.” The words were out of Cam’s mouth before he knew what he was saying. What are you talking about, stupid! he chastised himself. Your grades aren’t nearly good enough to tutor. “I’m good at math, at least,” he kept babbling. “It comes naturally. Well, maybe not that natural. I only got a B- last semester, although I could do better if I tried. So maybe I could help you with calculus. Only if you want. I used to help my friends’ little siblings back in high school, too, so I’m used to tutoring.”
Dinah peeked out of her grey bundle of wool. “Are you sure?” she asked hopefully. Her face peeked out from behind her bangs. In that moment, her eyes met Cam’s.
Cam was awestruck by the glint in her eyes. He had never considered himself good at reading people’s emotions. Still, if he had to name the look on her face, he would call it ‘hope.’ The contact only lasted a fraction of a second, but it was enough to harden his resolve. “I am sure,” he said. He stood up, pointing his right hand into the air, imitating the pose Rachel the cleric had taken when naming the party. “I promise that I will help you overcome this class just like the Sunviewers will overcome the monsters in their way!”
His exclamation might have been a bit too loud, as the librarian began striding toward him with a murderous expression on her face. Time to go, he thought. He extended his hand to Dinah. “Now, let’s go. You have some goblins to kill.” She nodded mutely, hastily stuffing her books into her bag. The pair made their escape from the lair of the librarian before she could tell them off.
The two did not talk on the way back to Cam’s dorm room. Cam made sure to keep several paces ahead of Dinah to hide his burning face. Stupid, stupid, stupid! he told himself. What, do you think you were cool back there, making a fool of yourself in front of this girl you barely know? Comparing studying to D&M? Could you get any cringier? This is why you’ve never been able to hold a relationship, idiot. With this kind mental scolding, he did not try to talk to Dinah. She, too, kept silent the entire way. That only made the awkwardness worse.
When Cam and Dinah opened the door to his apartment, they saw that Ella and Bekah had already returned. Ella waved enthusiastically. “You found her!” she exclaimed.
Dinah rushed into the room. “I’m sorry for being late, everyone. I made you all wait on me for so long.” She looked freshly dejected.
Ella laughed. “Come on, it was barely an hour. Not even close to ‘so long!’” Bekah nodded in agreement.
Annette called across the room to Cam. “Did you get her number?” Cam, who had just taken a drink of water, spat it out. Dinah, too, turned bright red. Cam hurriedly walked over to Annette.
“Why would you ask that?” he asked.
She rolled her eyes. “For the tutoring, obviously. To coordinate. It looks like you rushed back here, so I thought you might have forgotten that detail. I was just trying to be helpful by reminding you. What, did you think I thought you were going to ask her out?”
“No, I—hey, how did you know about tutoring?” Cam asked.
“It’s obvious, right? Ah, never mind. Are we going to start or what?”
Cam shook his head. “Right, yes, of course. We’ll have to have a shorter session today, since Ella has to leave at certain time. Uh, one more thing.” He gulped. Easy there, he told himself, it’s just for the game. Nothing more. “What Annette said about exchanging numbers for coordination is a good idea. So, we should, er, it would be nice if, um, youallgavemeyournumbers.” There, he had gotten it out. That had gone well, probably. At least, it could have gone worse. Maybe.
Ella and Bekah immediately told them their phone numbers. Dinah, her face still a little flushed, silently wrote hers down on a piece of paper. Annette said with a little smirk “are you always this smooth when you ask the chicks for their numbers?” but she told him hers as well. Cam hurriedly created a group chat that he titled Sunviewers D&M.
All that done, he took a deep breath. “Let’s get started,” he said. “Last time, the Sunviewers took a quest to find some goblins hiding in a cave network…”