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Like the fog, Ethan returned to Misty Oaks, a familiar and undeterred force. The first one of his friends he saw was Alex who he met in their dorm room playing a new game on a new console. Apparently he’d had a very, very good Christmas. Of course Alex came from money so this was probably just a standard Christmas for him.

“Nice new Sweater Ethan,” Alex said looking away from the screen long enough to glimpse Ethan’s new Salamander House sweater.

“Thanks I got it for Christmas,” Ethan replied. “I see you had a pretty good Christmas as well.”

“Yeah not bad, though I didn’t get the flamethrower I asked for,” he said shrugging.

“Flamethrower?” Ethan asked raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, you know so one of you can burn all of those things down on the third floor,” Alex said with a grin.

“One of us?” Ethan asked amused.

“Well, I’m not going near those things again,” Alex said like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Still my mom seemed to think that a flamethrower was dangerous and illegal, so you three are on your own.”

Amused as Ethan was he wasn’t letting Alex out of assisting the group that easily.

“Oh you’re helping, you’re part of the diving club just as much as the rest of us,” Ethan said.

“I tried to help and failed,” Alex said shrugging. “I’ve got nothing left to offer.”

“Aren’t you always talking about how smart you are?” Ethan asked staring at the other boy. “Or is that all talk? Because if the three of us solve this one without you it will just show that you really aren’t any smarter than anyone else. Actually it would probably put you on the same level of intelligence as Stewart.”

This was a cheap shot and Ethan knew it, but even if Alex did have a serious phobia when it came to spiders he also had a serious ego and Ethan was not above exploiting the latter. He knew that comparing Alex to Stewart who he thought of as a neanderthal would really get under the boy’s skin.

“Fine, I’ll help think of a solution,” Alex said stiffly, “but that doesn’t mean I’m going back in there.”

“That’s all I’m asking for right now,” Ethan said smiling.

This was a good start. With Alex working on a solution to the dungeon Ethan felt accomplished already and happily set off to find Bella to check up on how his best friend was doing. He hadn’t seen her in a month and if he was being honest with himself, he missed her. She was a reassuring presence to have around, plus she was the most caring person he’d ever met.

He found Bella outside of the dining all and they embraced quickly, both apparently happy to see each other. As it turned out she’d had a wonderful Christmas of spending time with her family and cooking the most amazing sounding dishes with her mom. Most of the dishes like bacalao a la vizcaina and pavo navideño Ethan had never heard of before but when Bella described them to him they sounded amazing and honestly better than the ham his family ate for Christmas.

Lucky for Ethan, whose mouth was watering, they were outside of the dining hall and it was dinner time. Sure the food in the dining hall wasn’t nearly as good as what Bella described, but it did the trick of sating his hunger.

Quin was the only one out of Diving Club that he didn’t see that night. In fact he didn’t see her until the early hours of the morning on Tuesday, a full day after classes started. She didn’t say anything about how her Christmas went but looked happy to see him. She even expressed surprised delight when he pushed them to run further than they used to and then admiration at how his workout routine was improving his strength and stamina.

“Like you said before break, I’m weak,” Ethan said during their cooldown walk. “I made a decision over Christmas that that is going to change. If I can’t even beat Stewart in a fight, what hope do I have against The Black or the dungeon.”

“If you’re serious about that, there’s equipment in the basement of the gym you can use,” Quin said. “It’s pretty good stuff.”

Of course it’s good stuff, Ethan thought. This school doesn’t spare any expenses for anything.

“I’m glad to see you back,” Quin said somewhat awkwardly, “my morning runs have been rather quiet for the past month.”

Was she actually expressing, or at least trying to express, enjoyment at having another person around? This was Quin, she never told or showed others she cared about them.

Not knowing quite how to respond, Ethan shrugged and said, “It’s good to see you too.”

His class were all the same, well except for history which was now US History from 1861-1941, aka Civil War to just before entering World War II. Mr. Darnell taught this version of the class as well though, which Ethan was thrilled to see, and it was in the same room, on the same day, at the same time, so it felt like a continuation of the previous US History class.

Drawing and Painting was as awful as it ever was, even though he was absolutely determined to get a better grade in it this semester. Unfortunately he had what amounted to zero talent in it and Ms. Phelen showed no signs of letting go of her almost unhealthy dislike of him.

On the plus side Mr. Thorton, his soccer coach, must have found out about Ethan’s situation because it seemed to Ethan that he was determined to do all he could to help Ethan get an A in his class. The man must have been worried about Ethan’s ability to participate on the soccer team during the fall semester and was going to do his part to help get Ethan the grades he would need to lift the suspension on extra-curricular activities. Of course he wasn’t just going to give him an A, but Thorton made sure Ethan understood every little thing they went over and even assigned him extra homework he could turn in for extra credit.

It meant extra work for Ethan, but honestly he was happy that Thorton cared enough to try and help him out. If he could get an A in Biology it would definitely help improve his GPA as well as maybe help him look better in the eyes of Tanaka. Actually no matter what he did, he’d probably never look good in Tanaka’s eyes.

Algebra was no better and if he was honest with himself the C he earned in that class during the prior semester wasn’t for lack of trying. Realistically he probably couldn’t hope for much better than that and would again need to lean on Bella just to pull off that grade.

Computer Science and Health though were a different story. Both of those classes he should have done better in but his complete lack of interest in Health had manifested into a very poor effort in that class during the fall semester. Most of what was discussed like how fast food was terrible for you, was just dull as could be with the exception of when images of naked people were thrown up on the screen. Ethan certainly was far from the only person in the classroom to pay closer attention during those parts of the lessons, though looking back on it he couldn’t remember a single thing their teacher said at those times.

Computer Science actually started off a bit better this semester because Stewart who normally got into it with Ethan during that class was now choosing to pretend like Ethan didn’t exist which suited him just fine. It would keep him from getting into trouble during class and allow for him to listen and absorb what they were supposed to be learning.

His other major distraction in the class, Jenny, was still a distraction but less so, mostly because after losing his fight against Stewart in front of her he was two embarrassed to look at her. Mostly he just hoped she didn’t see him, though that would be unlikely with her sitting next to Bella and Bella sitting next to him.

Regardless he knew that while Math would be a struggle to improve his grade, he could definitely improve his grades in these two classes this semester if he just made sure to take his schooling seriously.

While Ethan was telling Bella about his academic situation over dinner one night he managed to coax her grades out of her. The girl was a straight A student, which really wasn’t surprising at all to him. She was that exceedingly rare combination of natural intelligence combined with a strong work ethic.

Usually in Ethan’s experience, the naturally gifted students he’d met were quite lazy. They’d easily skate buy with mostly A’s and a couple B’s without trying. If they were extremely smart like Alex, they’d get all A’s anyways. It was endlessly frustrating to Ethan, that he’d work ten times as hard as them and still end up with worse grades.

Now that he and Alex were actually friends he tried not to begrudge his roommate over the disparity between their luck. It wasn’t Alex’s fault that he was born with high intelligence and into a wealthy family while Ethan received neither. He mostly succeeded, though he’d be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that he was still a little bitter about it.

His other two classes, English and P.E., were pretty much identical to how they were during the fall semester. English was still all about reading classic literature and then “interpreting” the meaning behind the words. It wasn’t Ethan’s favorite, but it wasn’t hard.

P.E. still felt more like recess than an actually class, but he was totally okay with that, after all he’d gotten an A in the fall so apparently he was really good at playing. Quin came right at him in whatever they were doing and he had to admit that while he didn’t quite understand why she was so determined to beat him at everything, he enjoyed the challenge.

Gavin still spent most of these classes making flippant jokes and trying his best not to participate in any physical activity. He succeeded about half of the time because he could make Ms. Rockfort laugh and she genuinely seemed to like him, even though she disapproved of his laziness in the gym.

The humourous redhead was interesting in Ethan’s eyes because the two of them were almost exact opposites. Everyone liked Gavin. Ethan couldn’t think of a single person that didn’t enjoy his company but the other boy didn’t seem to have any close friends as far as Ethan could tell. On the other hand, Ethan had only a couple close friends and whatever Quin was. He had quite a few people that disliked him and his list of enemies seemed to be growing longer by the day.

“Xena, you do know that hitting on someone doesn’t actually require you to hit them, right?” Gavin called to Quin after she placed a particularly vicious hip check on Ethan in the middle of a basketball game.

Ethan was sent sprawling to the hardwood floor which felt typical of his interactions with Quin in P.E. class. Since the beginning of the year, like several of the boys in his class, he’d closed the gap on their height difference but she was still a couple inches taller than him.

He looked up in time to actually see her face redden as she muttered, “I have no idea what you’re talking about Gavin.”

“Sure you don’t,” Gavin replied with sarcasm dripping from his tone. “I mean I get it, he’s a solid seven or eight, but if you keep beating him up and messing up his face, he’s gonna drop to like a four and then he’ll have to wear a paper bag just so the rest of us don’t get sick looking at him.”

Quin was about to respond when an exasperated Rockfort snapped, “Mr. Lloyd you’re supposed to be playing the game not sitting on the bleachers making remarks.”

“Sorry Ms. Rockfort,” Gavin said grinning. “I’m just trying to coach these kids. You know turn them into something respectable because without me they’re all likely to turn into monsters when they grow up.”

“More like that they’ll turn into monsters if they listen to you too much,” Rockfort muttered under her breath chuckling at her own joke.

“Well come on guys, pass me the giant orange,” Gavin said climbing down off of the bleachers onto the court. “Let me show you how to score a goal here and win some sporty-ball.”

Rolling her eyes Rockfort turned around shaking her head but still had a smile on her face. That was the effect he had on people. He was ridiculous and tiresome, but he was funny and always entertaining.

Spring semester sports held tryouts and clubs took applications that week but since Ethan was on Tanaka’s official “Banned from Fun” list, he ended up just going to class and the library to do homework. Bella stayed in Model U.N. which she said was a lot of fun, but Ethan really failed to see how negotiating fake trade deals and treaties between random countries would be fun.

Alex didn’t say he joined any clubs but Ethan knew he was in a couple because he would be gone for hours from their dorm at night during the week. Quin meanwhile, joined the women’s track team to “stay in shape” for the upcoming soccer season though Ethan was pretty sure she’d be fine even if she didn’t do track with all the running the two of them did on a weekly basis.

The one thing they didn’t do the first couple weeks back was to actually attempt the dungeon. None of them were especially anxious to try it again and some of them, mainly Alex, were almost opposed to the idea.

Aside from their lack of motivation towards retrying the third floor, no one had come up with a reasonable idea for dealing with all of the spiders. Alex for all of his smarts was still stuck on his flame thrower idea but Ethan was tired for mentioning how unrealistic getting one was, not to mention that they were just as likely to burn themselves as the spiders if they did get one by chance.

The only other thing anyone came up with was Quin mentioning calling a pest control company and having them go down there but this presented a multitude of issues. For starters the dungeon didn’t make sense the way everything else in the world did and they were likely not to be believed.. Secondly they’d probably get whoever they threw down their killed and none of them wanted that on their conscious.

“Well we’ve got to go back down there sometime,” Ethan said a little annoyed at Alex.

“Sure, once the sun has flared up and burned all life on those mountains, then we can head back down there,” Alex replied. “Until then all we can do is be patient.”

“Alex, come on man,” Ethan said shaking his head. “Aside from the fact that the dungeon will come after us eventually, don’t you want to discover who was behind the attack on your brother.”

“Of course I do, I just don’t want to get eaten alive by spiders to find out,” Alex said shrugging. “Besides we don’t even know that the Black is even down there.”

Sighing Ethan said, “just please try to come up with some way to defeat them.” After looking at the other boy again he added quickly, “A realistic option.”

“I’ll try to think on it,” Alex conceded, “but I haven’t been able to come up with anything yet so everyone should be trying to think of solutions.”

The truth was Ethan was trying to think of solutions but no matter how hard he racked his brain he was coming up blank. He knew if both Alex and Bella were struggling he was going to be useless anyways. At least Quin came up with pest control. That was, if nothing else, creative.

The end of January brought on a very important day for Ethan, his birthday. He turned fifteen on the twenty-eighth and Bella somehow got a small cake and made the diving club sit down in the dinning hall and celebrate.

Fifteen didn’t feel any different than fourteen but then Ethan never felt any different on his birthdays. He knew he’d grown over the past year and he was definitely proud of how his physical stamina and strength was coming along in comparison but the changes were gradual and by the time he’d realized he was getting taller or stronger he was already used to it.

“Happy Birthday Ethan,” Bella said smiling across the table at him. “Sorry there’s no candles but they don’t allow any fires in here even the small kind. I asked them about a few candles and a candle lighter and they said even that can start a big fire so it was a no.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Ethan replied smiling. “This is more than you should have done to begin with.”

“Happy Birthday,” Quin said. “I didn’t realize you were so young?”

“What do you mean so young?” Ethan asked defensively. “When’s your birthday?”

“In September,” Quin said flatly.

“Oh so you have a few months on me no big deal,” Ethan said rolling his eyes. “I know for a fact Bella’s is in March and well I have no idea when Alex’s is.”

Alex was sitting at the table with them but wasn’t paying attention to their conversation and was muttering to himself.

“A candle lighter,” he said softly under his breath, “that might just do the trick.”

“Alex,” Quin said punching him hard on the shoulder causing him to cringe away from her.

“Ouch, what was that for?” he snapped looking annoyed with her.

“Aren’t you going to wish Ethan a happy birthday?” Quin asked.

“Oh happy birthday Ethan,” Alex said sounding irritated with Quin still.

Ethan laughed at the sour expression on his face and said, “thanks man. When is your birthday anyways?”

“It’s in March,” Alex replied rubbing his shoulder.

“Same as mine,” Bella said smiling at him. “Maybe we can have a joint celebration.”

“Uh sure,” Alex responded.

“See, not that young,” Ethan stated smirking over at Quin.

“So you’re saying I shouldn’t see your age as an excuse for the lack of muscle in your upper body?” Quin asked with a mischievous look on her face.

“Hey, it’s definitely there,” Ethan snapped defensively. “It’s just a little hard to tell, but it’s definitely there. See you can feel a pec right there, I didn’t used to have that back at Thanksgiving.”

He’d grabbed her hand and pulled it up against his chest over his heart as he spoke. He did have some muscle there, it wasn’t very big, but it was there and he wasn’t going to let Quin pick at him for this.

“I see,” Quin said averting her eyes and sounding a bit embarrassed or uncomfortable.

Ethan was surprised by this reaction. He didn’t think she got embarrassed or uncomfortable about anything. She didn’t even have an issue with searching all the girl’s bodies for dungeon marks back when the Black first appeared.

“Are we going to eat or do you just want to keep feeling him up all day?” Alex asked.

“Let’s eat,” Quin said quickly pulling her hand away and going bright red.

Alex smiled to himself, apparently delighted that he’d gotten her back for the punch earlier. Bella pulled out a butter knife and sliced the cake into four parts, one for each of them. As she dished up each of them Ethan took pleasure in the realization that he had friends. It wasn’t a feeling he was familiar with, but it was one he could definitely get used to.

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