By the time they arrived at their destination, Ryan was mostly done worrying about his incoming trip with Becker. Instead, he was now terrified at the idea of getting inside the mall. He’d rarely been there before and didn’t really know what to expect.
He was lagging behind just a bit, but that was enough for Sarah to understand he was getting nervous. She decided to rely on what seemed to work with Ryan : Distract him.
“So, not to sound too pushy or repetitive, but have you thought of a name yet ?” She asked, looking at him, while slowing her pace to match his. They might as well take their time, maybe it would help him loosen up a bit.
“No… I just have no idea how to pick.” He sighed, looking at her for a brief moment before turning his gaze away.
“We can look into it later, if you want. I’m sure we’ll find something you’ll like.” Sarah smiled, her hand lightly brushing his arm in comfort.
“I guess,” He answered, before looking at her “Thank you. For everything, I mean. I don’t know what I’d be doing without your help.”
“Anytime, Ryan” She said, kindly. Sarah was glad he was opening up, even if by a tiny amount. It hurt watching him suffer in silence, sometimes, and she just wanted him to be happy for once.
Their conversation had done the trick, seeing as they’d entered the mall and were getting close to a nearby clothing store. Ryan had been too engrossed in their discussion to pay attention to where they’d been going. When he finally realized where they were, his nervousness came back, but Sarah was quick to put her hand on his arm in support. She was there, and she wasn’t going to leave him. Still, she quickly realized they were going to have a problem.
“Ryan… You’re going to need to transform if we want to get you some clothes and make sure they fit,” She started, her tone gentle. “We need to find somewhere no one will see us.”
Right. He’d completely forgotten about that. How could you forget something so important ? Chiding himself, he looked around, trying to spot a place where they could hide. He really should have transformed before leaving school, but the discussion with Becker had disturbed him enough he’d forgotten all about it. Plus, that would have meant riding the bus as a girl, dozens of people around him. That though was enough to send a shiver down his spine.
It was too late now, anyway. The mall wasn’t too crowded, but they’d have a hard time finding anywhere deserted. Plus, there were security cameras everywhere, which Ryan didn’t like one bit. Having someone see him cast a spell was one thing, they would probably rationalize it and be on their way. Having it recorded was another, as it would stand as a permanent proof of magic, and would likely be seen by multiple people.
As they were walking around, they finally found a part of the mall with almost no one, with only a few small shops close. There were restrooms nearby, and after checking no one was in the women’s, Sarah pulled a very reluctant Ryan by the arm through the door, and into a stall, before closing the door.
“Alright, you can transform,” She said merrily. “I’ll stand guard.” Ryan was almost certain she was taking too much pleasure out of this, but complied. Ryan relaxed his transformation spell, and the strain on his magic was suddenly gone. He got out, struggling to walk around in his too-big clothes and shoes, catching a glimpse of his female form in the mirrors attached to the wall. He briefly looked at the girl in the reflection, her wavy ginger hair and freckles, before turning his gaze away.
Meanwhile, Sarah was looking at him. She thought he looked like a little girl trying on her brother’s clothes, but decided it was probably a good idea not to say that out loud. She pulled him by the hand, and they quickly made their way back to the clothing store. Ryan got a few odd looks because of his choice of clothing, but most people didn’t seem to care, which comforted him a bit. He’d expected everyone to look at him, but knew that was probably just the anxiety speaking.
“Alright,” She started, bringing her hands together. “First thing is underwear. Best we do that first, so we can get to the cool stuff after.”
Ryan didn’t exactly think “cool” was the right word, but before he could say anything, Sarah had taken his hand and was pulling him around once again. He was quickly overwhelmed as she swiftly started piling articles of clothing in his hands, a slight blush appearing on his face.
Sarah didn’t want Ryan getting too uncomfortable, and decided sports bras would do for now. She eyeballed his size, much to his discomfort, before selecting a few and moving on. She was trying to be quick, so he wouldn’t have time to get too embarrassed, and it seemed to work to a certain extent. She could see him blushing while looking around, various emotions coursing through his eyes, but he didn’t have to do anything besides following her, which he seemed content to do. Still, Sarah definitely was enjoying this, and she tried once or twice to sell Ryan on some of the cuter options, but he refused every time with a huge blush on his face. She thought the way he would look down and away while holding his arm was pretty cute.
It didn’t take long before they were done, Sarah having decided they’d found enough for now.
“I think that’s everything,” Sarah smiled, before taking the clothing from Ryan. “I’ll go pay for this, since you can’t put it on without buying it first. Look around, see if you find anything you like in the meantime.” And with that said, she was off, Ryan too surprised to say anything.
Left alone in the middle of the store, Ryan was lost, and a bit intimidated. He didn’t know anything about fashion, and wasn’t really sure what to do. He’d always worn plain clothes, grabbing the first clothes that he saw, in an effort to leave as quickly as possible. That wasn’t an option today, however, as he was almost certain Sarah would protest if he did that. She’d gone out of her way to help him, and so Ryan decided the least he could do was listen to her.
While Ryan was wandering around, completely lost, Sarah was taking as much time as she could paying for the articles, slowly making her way to the checkout and chatting with the cashier for a while. She wanted Ryan to have a bit of time alone before she came back, thinking it might help him get a bit more comfortable to look around at his own pace.
When she eventually made her way back towards Ryan, she found him looking still as lost as ever. His eyes were roaming around, not stopping very long on anything, before remaining their course, one of his hands uncertainly resting against his chest, as if he didn’t know what to do with it. In Sarah’s opinion, the girl in front of her looked in every point like a child looking for her mom. Or maybe a lost puppy, she wasn’t sure which fit best.
Taking pity on him, she finally approached, and his gaze lit up when he saw her, relief evident in his eyes.
“Have you found anything ?” She asked with a smile, doing her best to make the question sound as casual as she could.
“No,” He sighed. “I know nothing about fashion, Sarah, I have no idea where to start !”
“Sure, but did you find anything you liked ? She asked pointedly. “Are you telling me absolutely nothing caught your eye ?”
Ryan hated how disappointed she sounded at that, but he was terrified at the idea of telling her he’d seen some things he’d wanted to try on. He couldn’t help but think she’d find him weird if he so much as showed a bit of interesting in girls’ clothing. Unbeknownst to him, his eyes unconsciously strayed towards a hoodie he’d noticed.
Sarah, perceptive as she was, followed his gaze, and it didn’t take her long to spot what he’d been looking at. It was a simple baby blue hoodie, the kind that was made to be worn a bit too large. Not the most daring choice, but Sarah definitely saw an opportunity to give Ryan a bit of a confidence boost, and it was pretty nice looking after all.
“You like this one ?” She asked, approaching the hoodie before pulling it off the rack to get a better view. “it looks nice, and it matches your eyes, you should try it on !”
Ryan shyly approached her, taking the hoodies in his hands and looking at it, before looking back at Sarah, his soft blue eyes looking for guidance. Wordlessly, she took him by the arm and brought him to a fitting room nearby. She gave him one of the sports bras they’d just bought, and practically pushed him inside, before pulling the curtain to give him some privacy.
“Just tell me if you need help putting the bra on, alright ? I’ll be waiting outside.”
With that, Sarah simply waited, leaning against a wall, and took that time to let her mind wander. All in all, she’d expected much worse from today. Ryan was definitely helpless, but he wasn’t putting up much token resistance, like she’d expected him to. Similarly, he wasn’t as good as he probably thought he was when it came to hiding his interest. She’d been able to see it in his eyes, he was definitely curious about some of the clothing they’d found in the store, but he was scared to say so. She also realized he’d been very silent, even more than usually.
Sarah was brought out of her musings when she heard the curtain being pulled. Looking up, she could see Ryan wearing the blue hoodie. Hesitantly getting out of the cabin. He was still wearing his own jeans, which were way too big for him, but there was progress. She though she could even see a hint of a smile on his face.
“One down, a lot more to go,” she smiled. “Come on, we’ll go see what else we can find.”
They got out of the store about half an hour later, Ryan carrying a bag filled with clothes. In the end, Sarah’s enthusiasm had been enough to get Ryan to be a bit more active in their search, and he’d even pointed at a few articles he’d wanted to try. They settled on a few pairs of jeans – even a few skinny ones Sarah had managed to convince Ryan to try – as well as various tops and sweaters, and a pair of black skater shoes. Halfway through, Ryan had suddenly realized he’d need some sturdier clothing for his expedition with Becker, and told Sarah as much. They’d thus bought him a pair of hiking shoes and a sturdy leather jacket, to replace the ones he normally used.
Ryan had taken the time to swap his clothes for some of the ones he’d bought, and he was now wearing his new blue hoodie with a pair of skinny jeans. All in all, he was pretty happy with how things had gone. He’d been really nervous at first, but once he’d gotten into it, his worries had faded to the back of his mind.
A few minute later, both teens were sitting down at a table in the food court of the mall, across from each other. They’d gotten themselves sodas, and were content to sit and rest for a bit.
“Thank you for coming, Ryan,” Sarah said, a grateful smile on her face “I had a lot of fun”
“You’re welcome I guess,” He replied with a small smile. “I should be thanking you, though. I would have been so much more anxious if you hadn’t been there.”
“I could tell you were, at first, but then you got better.”
“Yeah…” Ryan hesitated, before continuing “I still need to pick a name, do you think you could help me with that, too ?”
Sarah couldn’t stop a huge smile from blossoming on her face at that. Giddily, she pulled out her phone, and went to sit down next to Ryan, intent on looking through names together. They quickly got into a rhythm, as Sarah would look through lists of names and read out loud the ones she thought would fit Ryan, who would then note the ones he liked well enough on his phone. It didn’t take more than a few minutes of searching before they found an appropriate name.
“What about Elisa ?” Sarah asked, while scrolling on her phone.
“I don’t like it, and I think I used to know an Elisa, it’d feel a bit like stealing her name” Ryan answered.
“If you refuse the name of every single person you’ve ever met, we’re going to be there for a while” Sarah retorted good naturedly.
“I know, sorry.” He sighed, looking down at his list. He didn’t hate any of them, but he didn’t really like them either. They didn’t feel like they could be his name, as odd as that was to say. Still, he was starting to think he’d have to bite the bullet and just pick one, with the hope he’d get used to it after a while.
“Nothing to be sorry about, it’s your name, you have to like it,” She replied, “What about Erin ?”
Ryan looked up at that, and considered the name. The more he thought about it, the more he found that it felt right. He’d always liked his birth name, and this one sounded vaguely similar, if more feminine. He could see himself being Erin.
“I…I think I like that one”
“You do ?” She asked excitedly “That’s great ! And it does suit you. Are you sure ?”
“No regrets ?”
“No regrets” he smiled.
“Well then, welcome to the new you, Erin” Sarah said before pulling him into a side hug, beaming.
Erin smiled at that. She felt a warmth spread in her chest at the idea of being Erin. For the first time since she’d gotten her bracelet, she felt glad to have found it. Without it, she would never have talked to Sarah, who was turning out to be the greatest friend she’d ever had, and it had helped her realize how bland her life had been up until then. More than that, she felt calm, calmer than she’d been in years, like a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Slowly, she returned Sarah’s hug, basking in the feel of serenity. The future might not be so bleak, after all.
Unseen by any of them, something within Erin’s bracelet changed. Like a mechanism clicking in place, some of its magic became active once more, unlocking a bit more of the artifact’s potential.