“… I still can’t believe they had lobster on the menu… Just what kind of school is this?!”
Of course, my question was purely rhetorical, partially because I already knew that the place was completely artificial and thus unbound by common sense, but mostly because there was no one else around to answer. After he stuffed his face full of lobster meat (which he declared tasted like chicken, go figure), Josh left ahead of me while I finished up my own meal, a small serving of lasagna. He told me he wanted to check on Angie and the new girl, and since I didn’t have any good reason to hold him back (not to mention, my mouth was too full to answer properly), I let him go without further ado.
There was still a good fifteen minutes left of the one-hour lunch break, which at first sounded excessive, but after seeing the scope of the cafeteria and its dishes I could completely understand the need. Of course a longer lunch break meant that afternoon classes ended later as well, so the school day would end just after 3 PM, but it was only to be expected. Anyways, I finished up my plate and left the cafeteria just a few minutes earlier and decided on a small detour prior to returning to the classroom.
I rounded another corner and breathed deep in relief as I found myself at the door of the nurse’s office. For a second or two I was afraid I got lost again, but by then I had at least grasped the layout of the school. As for why I was here… The class rep told me that the nurse was looking for me, so I decided to get ahead of any possible complications and see him as soon as possible, meaning right then and there.
I lightly knocked on the door and it opened to a crack. Apparently it wasn’t closed properly, so I opened it further as I looked inside.
“Mr…” What was his name again? Something about legumes… Ah, right. “Mr. Peabody?”
“O-ho-ho! Come in, come in!”
It was impossible to mistake the combination of that jovial voice and annoying laughter. I stepped inside and found the old man… well, to be fair, he was probably only middle-aged, but either way, he was sitting by his desk and welcomed me with a smile half-hidden under his mustache.
“You were looking for me.”
“O-ho-ho. Indeed I was.” I sat down onto the bed by his side without any prompting. He didn’t seem to mind. “It is about your question from yesterday.”
It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about, but then saying that my interest got piqued would have been an understatement.
“You mean about the amnesia.”
“O-ho-ho. What could you mean?”
“Your laughing. It’s… wait, didn’t we already have this conversation?”
“O-ho-ho. So you can remember that much. Good, very good.”
By this point my first rush of curiosity subsided and I started to feel quite uncomfortable, which turned into outright worry the moment I noticed the large rubber mallet on his desk.
“What’s that for?”
“O-ho-ho. I sadly couldn’t give you an answer yesterday, so I consulted my medical journals and picked the most effective treatment option.”
“Indeed! Apparently all you need is a single good whack on the…”
I stood up and casually left the room before he got even halfway through his spiel, and for a moment I thought he would continue talking without even noticing, but then he called out to me just as I was about to close the door behind myself.
“Wait, where are you going?”
“But we haven’t applied your treatment yet!”
I paused and tried to imitate one of Josh’s deadpan glares. I presumably did an inadequate job, as the nurse kept doing practice swings with his hammer.
“Sorry doc, but I already tried that.”
His last swing wilted mid-motion and he gave me a disappointed ‘Oh.’ I decided not to stick around, lest he would try to hit me just to be sure, so I gave him a wave and scurried off post haste. Once I was out of sight I leaned against a wall and sighed. Hard. What a colossal waste of time…
Well, it wasn’t that I had high expectations in the first place, but the guy was supposed to be a trained medical professional. I was expecting some questions, or maybe a boring info-dumping session about amnesia littered with Latin terms I would have had to look up later, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a friggin’ hammer! What is this, Looney Tunes?
I was just about to be on my way back to the classroom when I was caught off guard by a sharp ‘Ha!’ coming from behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and found the new girl standing straddle-legged in the middle of the hallway, one hand curled into a fist and placed on her hip while the other extended towards me and ending in an accusatory finger. Needless to say, she was also glaring at me. People around me did that a lot lately. I wonder if that’s normal?
Anyways, I suppressed my urge to say something along the lines of ‘Ha what?’ and instead I just shook my head and walked up to her.
She blinked at me, her fierceness slowly faltering, but then she forcefully set her mouth in a thin line and pointed at me again.
“Did you think you could hide from me?!”
I looked left, right, then behind myself and turned back at her with a wry smile.
“Oh no, I have been found out! I was certain no one would find me at my trusty hiding place, a well-populated and open corridor!” I exaggeratedly hit my forehead with the heel of my hand. “Oh, wait. No, that’s the exact opposite of a hiding place. What was I thinking? Oh the humanity.”
I actually managed to say all that with one breath and without breaking my poker face. I’m not going to lie, I was actually a little proud of that. My accuser out of the blue, on the other hand, seemed more and more flustered by the second.
“Don’t try to make a fool out of me!”
‘Why would I? You are making an admirable job yourself!’… Well, that was what I wanted to say, but after my pointless meeting with the nurse, I really wasn’t in the mood anymore.
“I don’t. By the way, could you step to the side? You are holding up everyone.”
She glanced around and it apparently just dawned on her that she was standing in the middle of a crowded corridor. Her face abruptly flushed red and she even let out an admittedly cute yelp as she scampered to the side to let the traffic flow again. I shook my head with a grimace and followed after her.
“So, what is this whole thing about?”
“Don’t act innocent!” She hissed at me. While she regained some of her composure, she still seemed pretty flustered to me.
“Which one in particular? I do a lot of those.”
She glared at me even more fiercely and I think I even saw her clenched fists trembling.
“Why did you go out of your way to refuse my invitation? What is your agenda?”
“Your motive, your plan, your scheme, your…”
“I know what the word means; I just don’t know what the hell you are talking about!”
She stomped her feet and leaned in to glower at me from even closer, though since she was almost a head shorter than me, it only worked if I looked down on her. Maybe that annoyed her too?
“You went out of your way to escape my invitation with him! Did you really think I wouldn’t find it suspicious?!”
“Him?” I parroted uncomprehendingly before I realized what she was talking about. “Oh, you mean Josh?”
“Yes!” She yelled so loud even some of the placeholders turned our way. Maybe they were more susceptible to her because she was a transfer student and was supposed to be interesting? Food for thought. Anyways, she looked around and asked, “Where is he anyway?”
“Oh, he actually wanted to check on you so he left a few minutes ago.”
All of a sudden all the anger in her face fell away to reveal a dopey expression.
“Josh. He said he wanted to see how you and Angie were doing, so he left the cafeteria ahead of me. Didn’t you meet him on the way?” She shook her head. “Oh well, I guess you missed each other.”
She suddenly began stomping her feet with a growl reminiscent of a revving chainsaw and gave me her most fiery glare yet.
“Why didn’t you stop him?!”
For a moment all I could do is to stop myself from burying my face in my hands.
“First you are angry because I went away with him, now you are angry because he is not around anymore? Would you please make up your mind, princess?”
To my sincerest bafflement, she seemed to panic for a moment and jumped back a step. I cocked my head to the side and she nearly poked out my eye as her hand lashed out to point her accusatory finger at me again.
“I knew I heard it right the first time around!”
“You heard the what the when?”
If I sounded completely confused and worn down by the erratic pace of the conversation, it was only because I kept my cool. I was actually screaming in frustration on the inside.
“Why did you call me that? How did you know? Who sent you? Are you here to interfere with my…?”
She kept on asking questions, but I didn’t really listen as I was still trying to figure out the answer to the first one. What did I call her again? I replayed our conversation in my head and finally realized.
She once again let out a weird sound (something along the lines of ‘Yafuu!’) and jumped back, looking left and right like a frightened wild animal caught in a corner by a pack of wolves.
“Stop saying that!”
“Because I said so!”
“… And that should matter to me because…?”
“Arggh!” She began shaking and her head slowly started to go from beet red to a shade of purple.
That couldn’t have been healthy, so I gently patted her on the shoulder and told her, “Hey, calm down, calm down. Everybody’s looking.”
In the span of three seconds her face went from purple to red to normal to deathly pale as she glanced around and noticed the placeholders staring at us. She then looked at my hand on her shoulder and squeaked again; jumping back so far she was once more standing in the middle of the corridor.
“I hate you!” She declared while stomping her feet. She did that a lot. “I hated you from the first time I saw you! You keep getting in my way, you are annoying and you smell bad!”
“Well, excuuuuse me, princess!” I answered with a frown of my own as I folded my arms.
She let out another yelp and before I knew it she was already sprinting down the corridor, pushing the placeholders aside like an angry bull on the streets of Pamplona. She rounded a corner… then a few seconds later she poked her torso around the same corner, pointed at me angrily and yelled, “This is not over yet! I will get you for this!”
I rolled my eyes, raised my hands to my mouth to form a funnel and answered, “Whatever you say, princess!”
She nearly fell out of the corner with another squeal but caught herself at the last moment, glared at me one last time and began running again. Once I was sure she wasn’t coming back for another bout I dropped my shoulders in exasperation and groaned loudly. Yep, definitely a tsundere.
Afterwards my return to the classroom suffered no further setbacks and I arrived a good five minutes before the next lesson started. Josh and Angie were already (or still?) talking by my desk while the princess was nowhere to be found. That was odd, but I didn’t really mind at the moment.
I waved to the guys, who were arguing about whether a lobster or some kind of rare beef tasted better, and plopped down onto my chair, ready to record my previous discoveries in my notebook. Then I remembered something and turned to Josh instead.
“Hey guys, got a sec?”
“Hm?” He and Angie both looked at me curiously. “Yes?”
“Guys, give it to me straight. Do I smell?”
The two of them gave me sardonic looks that were mirror images of each other. If synchronized deadpan was an actual sport, these two would have had a head start towards the Olympic gold. At last Angie leaned closer and took a whiff.
“Hmmm… No, not particularly.” She took another whiff and suddenly she perked up. “Oh, wait… is that citrus? I actually kinda like that.”
“Probably my shampoo,” I answered absent-mindedly.
“Why do you ask?”
“Nah, just checking…”
It was about this time that the princess entered the classroom with a huff and a puff. She sent me a glare when our eyes met, but then she averted her gaze, strutted over to her desk and sat down without even acknowledging my existence.
I didn’t really mind, but I couldn’t help but wonder where she had been. She left before me but arrived later, and judging by her heaving, she must have been running for a while… Oh well, maybe she just got lost. She was as new to the place as I was, so it wouldn’t have been unusual if she took a wrong turn somewhere and couldn’t find her way back. I mean, it’s not like everything had to have some deeper narrative meaning. Sometimes simple explanations can work too… Right?
The afternoon classes were exactly the same as the morning classes in practically every regard. Once again all the lessons were taught by Mrs. Applebottom, I once again had to struggle to catch up to the curriculum, I once again spent all the breaks with the gang and I generally had a fair amount of fun.
Well, okay, on second thought there was a slight difference. In the morning the princess sitting right in front of me didn’t seem to be aware of me, while at this point she was actively trying to deny my entire existence. At least when she wasn’t sending death-glares my way, anyway. There was little functional difference though, so it didn’t actually change my school life experience.
It was exactly at three in the afternoon when the final lesson ended with the ring of the familiar Big Ben chime and the entire class erupted with noise, completely disregarding that the teacher was still there. Not that she minded, as she only bothered to finish her last sentence about the geopolitical tensions that led to the First World War before she just snapped her book shut and marched out the door. It wasn’t even a complete paragraph, for crying out loud! That’s a placeholder for you…
I stretched on my chair and also began to pack my bag when Angie sneaked up to my desk.
“Hey Leo, wanna go home together?”
I blinked at the directness of the question and sent a sneaky glance at Josh. My friend gave me an amicable smile, but then he finally realized the reason behind my hesitation and cut in with a cough.
“Just until the crossing, of course.”
“Yeah, of course,” Angie nodded twice.
“Then sure. Let me grab my stuff and I meet you at the lockers.”
“Oh~kay!” Angie giggled and all but dragged Josh out through the door. She seemed to be in high spirits. It suited her.
It was only then that I realized that the two exiting the stage left me alone with the princess, but when I cautiously looked around, she was nowhere to be found. I furrowed my brows. Where did she go? And when? She must have left while I was looking over to Josh, but that was like, what, three seconds? Did she jump out the window in that time or what?
I shook my head and stood up. Don’t look the gift horse in the mouth, they say. If this way I could avoid another round of awkward and annoying comedy play, I was not complaining. I walked down the rows while dodging the other students when my eyes were caught by the class rep still sitting at her desk. It looked like her bag was already packed and she was just calmly staring ahead of herself without a word. I hesitated for a moment, but then I had an idea and decided to call out to her.
“Hey there, class rep.”
She shuddered and looked up at me like I startled her even though I walked up to her right in her line of sight.
“Oh… Hello Leo. Can I help you?”
“I really hope so.”
Once she confirmed I had business with her, the tension visibly escaped from her shoulders. I had a niggling suspicion since this morning, and this moment only reinforced it; while it didn’t really show while she was performing her duties, she was a bit socially awkward when it came to small talk. It wasn’t to the degree where she would be considered shy, but she definitely looked uncomfortable while she had to talk with people when it wasn’t about schoolwork.
Anyways, she looked at me with expectant eyes, so I cleared my throat.
“Say, class rep?”
She suddenly puckered her brows an interrupted me.
“Why are you calling me that?”
“Because you are the class rep. Anyways,” I continued before she could interject again, “I wanted to ask you if you could lend me your notes.”
She blinked at me in surprise.
“Don’t you have yours?”
“Sorry, I wasn’t clear enough. I meant last year’s notes.”
She blinked twice this time and even frowned a little.
“I… I am not sure I still have them…” She faltered uncertainly. “Why do you need them?”
“Well…” I deliberately scratched the back of my head before I answered. “You see, last year I transferred fairly late, so I didn’t have to worry about it too much, but I am not sure we had the exact same curriculum in my old school. I want to make sure I don’t miss anything that might be on future tests, so I wanted to borrow your notes so I can cross-reference things.”
“That’s… actually very diligent of you.” She told me with an approving smile.
“Thanks,” I answered with a chuckle. “Could I also ask you to give me some pointers? Only if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, of course…”
“Of course, I will see if I can find my notebooks and I will gladly help if you have any questions.”
“Thank you very much.” After this exchange, we stayed perfectly still in the empty classroom for several seconds. It was getting really awkward, so I lightly cleared my throat. “Say, aren’t you going home yet?”
“In a minute,” She told me with a small smile. Then it was silence again.
“Do you… want to go home together?”
Her eyes fluttered wide open for just a moment.
“You and me?”
“Um… who else? Plus Josh and Angie too, of course.”
“Oh…” The class rep averted her gaze with an awkward smile. “I see. It’s been a while, so I was caught off-guard.”
“So, are you coming?”
“Sure,” She declared with a nod and stood up.
I patiently waited for her to pack her bag and we finally left the classroom side by side. We quickly reached the stairs leading to the main hall and I couldn’t help but smile all the way. I was bothered by my lagging behind the others academically all day, and while it was something of a whim, having the class rep’s notes would surely help me catch up to the others. Originally I wanted to ask Josh, but this was obviously the smarter idea. No offense to the guy, he wasn’t dumb by a long shot, but there was just no competition.
We reached the shoe lockers in no time. Josh and Angie were already by the entrance and waving, though the girl had a question mark written over her face when she noticed the class rep at my side.
“Be with you in a moment!” I yelled over to them, but it seemed like they couldn’t hear it properly over the noise the other departing placeholders made so they walked over to me instead. Oh well, it didn’t make much of a difference in the long run.
“Is Ammy with you?” Josh asked once he was within earshot.
“Yeah. She looked a little lonely, so I decided to invite her along. Is there a problem?”
Josh grinned at the class rep, who was currently busy studying her own shoelaces like her life depended on it, and he shook his head.
“Nah, the more the merrier, right, Angie?”
She didn’t seem as enthusiastic about going home together as before, but Angie still managed to sound cheerful enough. In the meantime, the class rep broke off from the group to find her own shoe locker and so did I. I opened the cabinet and as I did so a small piece of white paper flew out with the draft.
I was too surprised to react fast enough, and by the time I recovered it, Angie already took note.
“What do you have there?” She asked on her tiptoes, trying to get a better look.
“Nothing in particular, just a piece of paper.”
The girl’s eyes suddenly glinted mischievously and she waved to the others.
“Guys, come quick! Leo just got a love letter!”
I aimed a barbed look at her but she only gave me a toothy smile in return.
“A love letter?” Josh arrived first and he started to rise onto his toe-tips to get a better look as well. It didn’t really occur to me before, but I was actually the tallest person in the group by far. Using my newly discovered physical superiority I raised the paper high over my head and silently glared at the others to express my disapproval. After a few seconds they finally got the message and stood down.
“Is there a problem?” The class rep looked around one of the large lockers with a quizzical expression.
“Leo just got a love letter,” Angie repeated, and to my sincerest surprise the class rep immediately walked over and grabbed hold of the two gawkers.
“Let’s give him some privacy then.”
She began dragging away the two and I just had to wonder how great the difference was between her normal mode and her authority mode. Still, she didn’t have to go that far.
“Wait, you really don’t have to do that.” She looked back at me questioningly and I waved the letter in my hand. “It obviously isn’t for me.”
“How can you be sure?” Josh asked.
“I can’t but...”
“Then read it already!” Angie demanded with hungry eyes and finally gave in.
I took a deep breath, raised the piece of paper to eye-level and began scanning the lines. I nodded once or twice for good measure and once I finished I let out the breath I was holding in a sigh.
“Just as I said,” I told them as I pocketed the piece of paper. “It is actually for a girl. The poor guy must have been really nervous and put the letter into the wrong shoebox.”
“Oh…” Angie was deflated for a second, but then she perked up again. “What are you going to do?”
“What else? The letter said the girl should meet him behind the school, so I should go there and give back the letter. Otherwise he might think he got rejected.”
“Awwww…” Angie cooed. “That’s really nice of you.” She skipped over to me and began poking my side with a cattish grin. “You might look all tall and burly but you are actually a big softie on the inside.”
“No, I’m not,” I told her in a voice I hoped was somewhat sulky. I probably succeeded, as she giggled in response.
“Should we wait for you?” Josh inquired.
“Nah, this could take a while. With my luck, I will probably have to listen to the guy spilling his heart out about his unrequited feelings and all that jazz.”
“A huuuuuuuge softie!” Angie laughed. “Seriously though, for a moment you were disappointed it wasn’t for you, right?”
After a moment of hesitation, I decided to go with the brash solution, so I just brushed her off with what I supposed was a suitably embarrassed roll of the eyes and walked past her. She giggled in return, so I hopefully succeeded.
“So… What about me now?” With the ‘authority mode’ gone, the class rep’s voice sounded timider that usual. Josh turned to her with a curious expression.
“What do you mean?”
“I was invited by Leo, but since he is not coming anymore…” Her voice trailed off into mumbles.
“Don’t worry about it.” Josh smiled warmly at her and grabbed her arm.
“Yeah!” Angie agreed with a huge nod and grabbed hold of her other arm. “It’s been ages since we last hung out together anyway!”
“Back in middle school?” Josh turned to her and Angie nodded again. “Now that you mention it… Wow, it has really been a while.”
“Let’s make it count then!” Angie declared and began pulling the nervous class rep, who in turn had Josh trailing behind her. They waved to me one last time before they left the building, which I obviously returned with a smile, and off they went. I made a mental note about how the childhood friends and the class rep apparently went way back, but I shelved the thought in favor of the more immediate issue.
I took out the letter and read it one more time. It was probably obvious already, but it wasn’t written by a guy. In fact, I pretty much lied through my teeth from beginning to end, though I had a good reason for that; this wasn’t a letter of love, but one of challenge.
‘I hereby challenge you to honorable duel in order to settle our feud. I request your presence at the rooftop after school hours are over. Fail to show yourself, and you shall be forever known as a despicable knave and a coward. Signed, Eleanor Dracis.’
I tried, I really did, but there was just no way I could do this without actually facepalming, and thus I soon found my head buried in my hand. It was strangely relaxing. But alas, having my head buried in the proverbial sand wouldn’t have solved much of my problems, so after I was sure that the trio was out of the gates I took to the stairs and began marching towards what promised to be a giant pain in the ass…
A loud, metallic bang.
A long, violent rattle.
The sound of several kicks landing on a door.
“Argh! I can’t believe this is happening!”
While all of this was going on I stood quietly behind the bend of the stairs leading up to the roof access door and was massaging my temples in exasperation. I mean... I wasn’t expecting much in the first place, but the sight before me was just sad.
I was well out of sight, but I held my breath for a moment as the princess looked over at my direction. After she decided I wasn’t coming yet she began angrily stomping up and down in front of the door again like an enraged bull.
I suppose I better explain how the current situation came about, right? Well... there actually isn’t much to elaborate on; the situation kind of speaks for itself. But then again...
“Open, open, open!”
The princess began kicking the door again and for a moment I couldn’t decide what to groan about; her display of uncalled violence upon inanimate objects or her strange need to speak out all her thoughts aloud. I decided to go with the former, as I realized I have already been baffled by her monologing when I first came to the stairs. For a while I even thought she might have noticed me and was putting up a show, but the longer I observed her, the less likely that sounded.
Still, at this rate something would get broken (either the door or her feet), and I was too tired to deal with either of those on top of all my problems, so I took a deep breath, steeled my nerves, stuck my hands into my pockets and began walking up the stairs as casually as I could manage.
Unexpectedly, I got no reaction. She just kept kicking the door like I wasn’t even there. How rude.
“K-hm!” I loudly cleared my throat and she finally stopped her first-degree battery and assault upon the poor entrance. She didn’t say anything though, just froze mid-motion.
The silence stretched for a while until I got tired of waiting and cleared my throat again and spoke.
“I’m sorry to bring bad news, but you cannot go up there.”
“And why is that?” She hissed back at me over her shoulder.
“Because... it’s locked?” I stated the obvious.
“It’s your doing, isn’t it?”
“What’s my doing?”
“The door!” She pointed at it, then me, then at the door again as if she couldn’t decide who to accuse.
“… So let me see if I got this straight: You think that I somehow not only found out that you wanted to ask me to come here, even though I never had any chances to find your letter, but I had somehow got here before you, even though you left the classroom before me, rushed up here, somehow locked the door, and then ran away and hid for no reason whatsoever?”
“If you put it like that…” She wavered for a moment, but then she whipped her hand to the back and pointed at the door. “But then how do you explain that!?”
“That’s always closed.”
“Don’t take me for a fool! The girl already took me up here today!”
“The girl...? Ah, you mean Angie?” I was actually a little surprised by this. I thought she asked to meet me on the roof because that was the stereotypical thing to do, but apparently she did so because it was a place she already knew. “Yeah, they only open the door during lunch break.”
“Oh.” Color me damned, she actually looked crestfallen for a second.
“Don’t worry about it. You just transferred, you couldn’t have known.”
“H-H-How dare you!? I don’t need your comforting!”
It was at this point that the princess, nostrils flaring and shaking her fist, began teetering on the edge of the steps. If I had time to do so, I would have facepalmed. I wasn’t surprised though. I mean, what else was I supposed to expect in this situation? The whole 'pretty girl falls onto the hapless guy on the stairs and he accidentally cups a feel for comedic effect' thing was old as dirt and was so obviously telegraphed it was almost painful.
However, since I was expecting it, I already made my preparations. By the time she began to lose her balance I was already moving, dashing up the steps two at a time. Her eyes widened in shock and she flailed her hands defensively which, surprise-surprise, only made her tip over completely.
She didn’t fall though. With one last leap, I reached her, ducked under her arms, grabbed her by the waist and raised her off her feet before she could gather momentum. She let out a surprisingly cute squeak and froze in what I presumed was shock, her feet ineffectually dangling in the air under her.
She was... Well, I wouldn’t say she was heavy per se, but she was heavier than I expected. Even more surprisingly, I had no problem holding her up. I saw myself in the mirror, I knew I had some muscle, but seeing it in action was something else.
Speaking of muscle, she was also harder than I expected. Girls were supposed to be soft, right? Not her, apparently. Maybe I just wasn’t grabbing the right place (nor did I have any inclination to do so at the moment), but her side and stomach felt as hard as a pumped tire. Maybe she was working out?
Anyways, while I was pondering these kinds of things she just kept staring at me without moving a muscle. It felt pretty awkward, so I decided to put her down. First I needed better footing though, so I stepped up to the top of the staircase and gently placed her onto her feet, making sure she wasn’t about to tumble down again.
“You...” Still looking like a mannequin set in an awkward pose, the princess gave me a look halfway between fury and wonder, so... Furnder?
“Me?” I prodded her after she refused to continue for a minute.
“... caught me.”
I nodded with a smile.
“I’m in awe of your astute skills of observation.”
I made sure to give her a sour look long enough for her to realize how displeased I was with the absurdity of her question, but she just kept gazing at me furnderingly. Or was it furnderously? Coming up with new words is hard work.
The point is, I raised my hand and swiftly flicked her right in the middle of the forehead. She let out another cutesy sound and clasped her hands over the point of impact, finally breaking her out of the mannequin routine.
“Would you please start using proper sentences?”
“You hit me!” She yelled at me from only a couple dozen centimeters away.
“That’s a start, though I expected something more elaborate. B minus.”
“You. Hit. Me!” She yelled each word separately for emphasis.
“Aaaaand here you go, slipping back to sentence fragments. Bad form princess, bad form.”
The word had the desired effect, as she immediately cringed and jumped away from me. Thankfully it was in the direction of the locked door, so I didn’t have to dive after her for another rescue.
Once at a distance, her glare returned to its original, pure hostility and she raised the familiar accusatory finger in my direction.
“Stop saying that!”
“Why? Should I call you your highness instead?”
“No! Stop trying to blow my cover!”
“... What?” For a good five seconds we both stared at each other in silence. “So, you want to say you are actually...?”
“Argh!” The princess suddenly screamed and held her head in her hands. “I wasn’t supposed to say that! You! This was your plan all along!”
“Whoa, hold on a moment. I can’t follow your logic.”
“Who sent you! Why do you...!”
“Stop,” I told her flatly as I raised a hand, fingers posed ready to flick. She immediately shut up and raised her hands to cover her forehead. “Good.”
I groaned and tried to digest the information while also stopping the girl from flying off the handle. Despite my best efforts, I sighed again. I was doing that a lot these days.
“Okay, from the beginning. What are you accusing me of?”
She seemed uncertain, but answered nevertheless.
“You were sent here to provoke me and get in my way.”
“How should I know?”
“And you are a princess.”
“You already know the answer to that.”
“Oh-kay... Let me see if I got this straight.” I rubbed the bridge of my nose and began. “So you are accusing me of being sent here by someone to provoke you into revealing your identity, which would be bad for some reason, and the avenue I chose to do so was at the door leading to the roof, where we were all alone and you only revealed something we are allegedly all aware of. Is that the gist of it?”
Her glare slowly dissolved as she began thinking, and after a few seconds she began shaking her head.
“It sounds silly. You must be really bad at your job.”
This time she had no chance to defend herself as I flicked her right between the brows.
“Awawa! You hit me again! You hit me twice now! No one hits me! Not even my father hits me!”
“Do I look like I care?”
She honest to goodness growled at me and stomped her feet.
“Fine, what do you want from me?”
That gave me a pause.
“What do 'I' want from 'you'? Weren’t you the one who called me out here?”
“Then why do you keep getting in my way?!”
“When did I ever get in your way? All I was ever doing was trying not to get involved. YOU are the one who always came after me!”
“Because you were interfering! You didn’t even let me talk to him!”
“Who? Wait, you are talking about Joshua again, aren’t you? Just why would you...?”
I could hear my voice trail off as the waters of recognition slowly seeped into my conscious thoughts, followed by a veritable dam-breaking flood of implications. For a moment I staggered and had to place my hand against the wall to regain my balance.
“Oh my god...”
“What?” The princess looked slightly unnerved at my sudden outburst, but she kept glaring defiantly anyway.
“OH. MY. GOD!”
This time the volume made her jump back with another 'Gyafuuun!', or some similarly cutesy yelp. Either way, I wasn’t listening, nor did I care. My latest revelation blew away so many of my preconceived notions that I couldn’t spare the brainpower.
The princess was not aimed at me. From the very beginning, she was after Joshua... Which meant that the guy had three girls pining after him. That not only blew apart the initial love triangle I was expecting, but it also completely changed the genre of this setting!
This wasn’t just a rom-com narrative… This was a harem-comedy!
That might not sound like that big of a difference, but it suddenly put a ton of details into a different light. For the most obvious example, it meant that I wasn’t the 'protagonist'! It was Josh all along! That fact alone turned half of my observations on their heads!
“I should have noticed sooner. It should have been obvious the moment you insisted on inviting Josh in particular.” I looked up from my musings and found the princess staring at me with wide eyes, her face pale but her ears bright red, an impressive feat of contrasting emotional responses. “So you are after him, huh?”
After a moment of hesitation she nodded, her lips curling up to an almost vicious smile.
“The cat’s out of the bag. I guess I have no choice but to...”
“Well, good luck, I guess,” I told her, cutting her off as I began walking down the stairs. “I guess you are going to need it, with all the competition.”
“What? What do you mean?” I couldn’t see her expression, but her voice sounded a little panicky.
“No time, you will see it yourself.” I turned my torso to glance and wave over my shoulder at her and in a moment I could practically feel the blood escaping my face.
“Wait!” She yelled as she reached after me... and magnificently managed to miss the top step in the process and began teetering on the edge.
“O-ho-ho. Don’t worry, it’s just a little strain,” The jovial man in the white coat told us with a smile and he patted the princess’ ankle, eliciting another stifled ‘Owie!’ from her. “You are lucky you got here before I went home.”
“We know doc, you have already said so,” I grumbled while I gently massaged the bump on the back of my head adding yet another landmark to the already hilly geography of my cranium.
Once again the situation probably speaks for itself, but let me elaborate for clarity’s sake:
So, the princess predictably fell down the stairs and I, the selfless gentleman that I am, jumped after her and tried to save her. In the end the only thing that accomplished was that we both tumbled down (thankfully without any comedic ‘landing in an awkward position’ or ‘touching an inappropriate body-part’ wackiness), but taken that we were both alive and only suffered minor injuries, I was going to shamelessly attribute that to my heroics. Yay me.
Anyways, after we landed and I confirmed that I didn’t break anything, it turned out that the princess had strained an ankle, and after much protesting she allowed me to carry her to the nurse’s office, where the annoying old man was just getting ready to leave. And thus we reached the present, where he was looking at me inquisitively.
“Stop that, I told you it’s creepy.”
“So you hit your head, young man?” He wiggled his brows, completely disregarding my request. “How are your memories?”
“Memories?” The princess looked over at us in puzzlement.
“No change,” I glared at the nurse and shooed him away. “Shouldn’t you worry about her leg instead?”
“Fine, fine.” He walked over to a cabinet and glanced inside. “O-ho-ho, it seems like we are out of pressure bandages. I better go and get some.”
Without saying a word more he put on a wide-rimmed brown felt hat and left the office. The door didn’t even have the chance to close before the princess repeated her question.
“… He is… a bit weird in the head.” I deflected, though I suppose I wasn’t entirely off the mark either. “He is obsessed with figuring out the link between head trauma and memory loss. Look, he even has a mallet he hits people with.”
She glanced over at the rubber hammer on the desk and shuddered.
“I was wondering what that was for…” Suddenly she frowned at me, as if remembering that she wasn’t supposed to have friendly conversations with me. “And you took me to a place like this!? How irresponsible can you be?”
I sighed for the umpteenth time today.
“You are aware that he is still our school nurse and the only medical expert around, right?”
She gave me a loud ‘Hmpf!’ and looked to the side. It was at this point when the awkward silence was supposed to settle down on us, but I cut it short with a question.
“So, why are you after Josh?”
As usual, the princess let out a cartoonish sound effect (it seemed like this was her character tic or something) and nearly fell off the bed.
“Ha… haha… W-What could you mean?”
“Oh please,” I shook my head. “I saved you twice today, I think I deserve a little honesty.”
The princess looked at me intently, then suddenly she averted her eyes in apparent embarrassment.
“You already know the reason,” She mumbled sulkily at the wall to the left. I could feel the corner of my mouth twitch in response.
Well, duh, of course I knew the reason. Josh was the protagonist in a harem narrative, therefore girls were attracted to him like moths to a flame. However, there had to be an in-universe reason for that attraction. Angie was a given, childhood friend romance is a staple of the genre. As for the class rep, I just discovered that they might have known each other since middle school, so their acquaintanceship was old enough to create some kind of romantic spark. But the princess? She just came out of nowhere (correction: ‘from the mainland’, which for all intents and purposes was the same thing anyway) and had no prior history with Joshua… or did she?
“Of course I know the reason,” I stated with a hint of irritation, barely stopping myself from adding ‘probably more than you do.’ “What I really want to know is why ‘you in particular’ are interested in him.”
I must have hit a nerve, for she suddenly twitched and looked back at me with giant doe eyes before she turned away and began sulking again.
“I can’t tell you.”
I raised a hand and extended two fingers.
“Twice. That’s two times. One plus one. The number with the hook top and the flat bottom. That’s how many times I stopped you from breaking your neck.”
All of a sudden the princess let out a distasted groan and raised her hands into the air.
“Fine, fine! I get it, stop harping on it!”
I waited for her to stop waving her hands before I continued.
“…” For several seconds she just stared at me with a conflicted expression until she waved for me to come closer. I followed her request and sat by her side on the bed.
“… You see…”
“Well…” At last, she buried her face in her hands and shook it violently for a moment before she looked at me with determined eyes. “Listen, you have to promise me that you aren’t going to tell this to anyone. Especially not him.”
“You mean Josh?” I thought about it for a moment and concluded that, unless what she was about to tell me posed a danger to him, which I sincerely doubted, I had no obligation to share it in the first place. As such I gave her a firm nod. “Sure, I can promise that.”
“Do you swear?”
“Sure, I can do that too, but I don’t see…”
“Swear on the…” She paused for a moment. “Do you have a religion?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You don’t ‘think so’?”
Her mouth twisted in a small grimace. “Fine, then swear on your family.”
“I don’t really have one.”
“Oh…” For a moment her frowning grimace was overcome with a flash of sympathy, but an instant later it was back in its previous state. “Then any other symbol? Nationality?”
“Nah, I don’t really have any attachments like that either.”
“You want to tell me you don’t have anything?” Her voice was actually more stunned that frustrated, though I guess I could only tell it because I was already so familiar with her annoyed tone.
“No.” For a little while she kept blinking at me, and for some reason I couldn’t help but feel she pitied me. It made me feel a bit uncomfortable, so I let out a forced cough and made an offer. “How about we forget about the whole swearing business? You just have to trust the guy who saved you twice a third time.”
“I told you to stop harping on that. Also, you didn’t really save me the second time.”
“Oh, do you want to tell that embracing you while you were falling and putting my body between you and the cold, hard ground wasn’t even the least bit helpful? That you would have been okay without me putting my body and life on the line for your safety without a second thought?”
“Well, no, but…” She suddenly shook her head and glared at me with crimson cheeks. “Fine, I get it! I will trust you, so stop embarrassing me!”
Wait, just when was I embarrassing her? I mean, yes, I was trying to embarrass her, but not ‘embarrass’ her in that sense… Whatever.
The princess took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling, probably collecting her thoughts, before she spoke in a soft voice.
“He and I… We actually met. A long time ago.”
“When you were kids?” That much I expected. I figured she had to be a forgotten childhood acquaintance or the like.
She nodded and continued, “My father was visiting relatives in the area and he took me with him. We were staying in the same mansion I live in right now. One day I was bored and wanted to look around the neighborhood, so I asked Sebastian…” She paused for a moment and clarified, “Sebastian is my butler.”
“I know.” The princess raised an eyebrow in response, so I quickly supplied the answer: “This is a high school. Gossip runs rampant around here and a butler stands out.”
It seemed like my explanation satisfied her for now, as she nodded and began to speak again.
“There was this public park near the mansion that had a playground.”
“And that’s where you met him?”
She nodded. “Yes. He was playing with some other kids from the neighborhood, and when he saw me and Sebastian walking in the park, he just ran up to me and invited me to play.” Without any warning, the princess’ face bloomed into a smile that was both nostalgic and a little melancholic. “When I asked why he wanted to play with me, he just gave me this giant smile and told me that I was pretty.”
I chuckled. I could totally imagine a kindergarten-aged Josh doing that, and the image was somehow both hilarious and heart-warming.
“Over the next two weeks, we played in the park almost every day. I even had to sneak out of the mansion alone once. I was scolded for an hour that evening, but it was worth it.”
The princess’ pure smile seemed to be contagious, as I suddenly found myself grinning warmly at her. Over the next twenty or so minutes she gave me a jumbled, hard-to-follow but overall adorable account of her play-sessions with Josh. It was like a highlight reel of all the laidback, silly stuff every kid would do during summer vacation, yet from her mouth, it sounded like some kind of life-changing experience. Then, at last we reached the crux of the story.
“… One morning my father told me he finished with his visits and we would return home the next day. That day I went to the park again and told him we would never meet again… and…”
“Let me guess,” I said as I raised a hand. “He made you pinky-swear that you two would meet again one day…” I told her and based on her reaction I was spot on, so I decided to stretch my luck and added, “… and get married.”
Her reaction was more extreme than any of her previous freak-outs. If I didn’t reach out to her at once she would have probably completely fallen off the bed in a flailing mass of limbs.
“H-H-How did you?! Did he tell you that?! When?!”
“Calm down,” I chided her. “I just guessed.”
“How could you guess something like that?!”
“Well, it was pretty typical,” I began, but then I decided to soften my words a little, “I mean, I don’t want to undermine the weight of your promise or anything, but it is something that tends to happen between kids.”
“So… It’s not strange? You are not going to laugh at me?”
“Why would I? I think it’s cute.” At this point I was able to reflexively catch her as she began squeaking and flailing again. “I wish you would stop that…” I breathed while rubbing my face with my free hand.
Just then she stopped as abruptly as she began.
“Wait, you mean these kinds of promises are common?”
“Well…” For some reason, I felt my choice of words was very important. “I wouldn’t call it common, but it’s not unheard of.”
“So… Could it mean that… he didn’t mean it?”
I gave her a flat look.
“How should I know? You should ask him.”
“Because… it would be embarrassing. And what if he didn’t remember the promise? Or didn’t think anything of it?” She suddenly gasped. “What if he doesn’t even remember me? He didn’t seem to recognize me, what if…?”
I placed a finger in front of her mouth and she finally fell silent. I let out a hard breath. Teenagers and their over-complication of romance. But then again, what did I know? I was supposed to be a teenager too.
“So, if I may ask, what was your plan if you never wanted to directly confront him? Invite him to lunches, hang around him and hope for the best?”
“Well…” For the first time since I knew her (which admittedly was only a few hours, but still), she looked meek. “You think it won’t work?”
“Oh, it would,” I told her frankly and to her obvious surprise. “Sooner or later, I mean. But doing that would probably take a while, lead to a bunch of misunderstandings and would only really happen when something needlessly dramatic comes around. You should be better off by just telling him and be done with it.”
“I… don’t think I can.”
She gave me a flat look.
“You know all too well how complicated the situation is.”
I wanted to tell her that I didn’t, but our dear nurse chose this exact moment to barge into the room with a giant cardboard box in his hands.
I reflexively stood up to help him carry the thing.
“O-ho-ho! Thank you, young man.”
“What the heck is this?”
“Why, they are bandages, of course!”
“Do you want to turn her into a mummy?”
“O-ho-ho. Of course not. I just thought that I might as well get some spares if I was at it.”
I put down the box and asked the question that has been silently plaguing me ever since he left.
“Just where did you go anyway?”
“O-ho-ho, just over to the storage room.”
“For half an hour?”
“I thought I would give you youngsters some privacy.” He leaned closer and whispered, “I hope you didn’t forget to use contraception.”
For a moment all I could do was to blink at him.
“Contraception. It is the…”
The old man began a long-winded description on the usage and benefits of contraceptives, but I didn’t really catch most of it as I was too busy fighting an inner battle deciding whether I should just brush him off or apply his own rubber hammer to his head. In the end, the calmer response won over, but only because I couldn’t have been sure that the rules of slapstick would apply if I did that, and I was in no mood to explain a hypothetical corpse with a mallet embedded in his cranium.
Once he finished his diatribe he flashed a mustachioed smile and reached for one of the rolls in the box, and without any further words he began applying it to the princess’ ankle. She squirmed a little but didn’t seem to be in too much pain.
“O-ho-ho. That should do it. Try not to strain your leg for a few days and it should heal in a jiffy!”
“Thank you.” The princess nodded to him and then looked at me. I took it as my cue to help her onto her feet.
“Can you stand?”
She wobbled a little but managed to stand tall.
“I think I will be okay.”
“Are you sure? I could carry you again if you…”
“Out of the question!” She snapped. “Riding on you once was more than enough!”
“O-ho-ho! The vigor of youth is truly amazing!”
“She didn’t mean it that way.”
“What way?” The princess blinked blankly.
“The way you didn’t mean it,” I answered before addressing the nurse again. “Is there anything else, doc?”
“O-ho-ho. Nothing I can think of.”
“Good,” I clapped and rubbed my palms together. “We should get going then. It’s getting late.”
Without further ado, I pulled the princess through the door (making sure she wasn’t straining her feet, of course), and before I knew it we were already in the main hall. I looked at her bandaged feet and asked, “Do you need any help?”
“No, I’m fine!”
“With the shoes, I mean? Wouldn’t it be hard to get your feet into them?”
“I’ll improvise,” She huffed and limped across the hall to her shoe-locker. I shrugged and went the other way to grab mine. Thankfully this time there were no letters attached to my shoes, so I swiftly slipped into my sneakers and skipped to the door to wait for her. I suppose we could have parted at this point, I wasn’t really responsible for her or anything, but it would have just felt weird if I left an injured person behind like that. After several minutes of waiting, I found her peeking around the lockers and glaring at me resentfully. Once it became obvious she wouldn’t come over I silently grumbled and walked up to her instead.
“What’s up?” She didn’t say anything, just turned her face away from me with a ‘Hmpf.’ I glanced down and found the reason why she didn’t come out. “So the shoe didn’t fit after all?”
She was only wearing a shoe on one foot while the other was only halfway in there and had her walk on tip-toes. I shook my head.
“That won’t do, you are only going to hurt your feet even worse if you try to walk like that.”
“Then what should I do? Go home barefoot?”
“Well, I could still carry you.”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” She pouted at me and tried to stomp her feet, but the moment she raised one she cringed and I had to catch her.
“Whoa, easy there. You are really going to hurt yourself at this rate.” Before she could say or do anything, I reached down and snatched the shoe off her injured feet.
“Give it back!”
“I will, once you are back at your place safe and sound.”
She gave me one of her most fiery glares yet, though it was slightly undermined by her pouting and the wet blotches in the corner of her eyes.
“You are infuriating! Why do you insist on getting in my way all the time?!”
I thought about the question probably a bit longer than I should have and at last I just shrugged my shoulders.
“I suppose because, against my better judgment, I am worried about you.”
She made another ‘Gyafuu!’ sound… or was it ‘Hawawa!’? One or the other. Anyways, once she got over her first overreaction she pointed her finger at my nose and yelled,
“Stop it then! Stop worrying about me! Stop complicating things!”
“… I don’t see how helping you complicates things. As for not worrying about you, that’s something you should fix yourself.”
“Yeah,” I nodded vigorously, “You are just too over-the-top and clumsy and it makes me want to look after you. I just keep getting worried that you would do something silly and injure yourself again.”
Instead of the yell I was expecting, the girl just slowly, very slowly, started getting redder and redder, and before I could even react she rushed past me towards the door.
“Hey!” I yelled after her, raising the hand holding the shoe over my head. “You forgot this! And you are going to hurt your leg if you run like…”
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” She yelled back from the entranceway. The automatic door behind her opened by itself. “I hate you! You are annoying, nosy and you still smell weird!”
Before I could react to her declaration she turned around, leaped forwards… and hit the glass door with her forehead at full force. As it turns out automatic doors close after a few seconds if you don’t go through them. Who would have thought?
“Hey! Are you all right?” I rushed up to her while she was still cradling her head on the carpet and kneeled beside her. “That sounded painful. Can you stand? We should go back to the nurse’s office and…”
Before I could say anything else she looked up at me, her face still red as a lobster and tears streaking down her cheeks. Most importantly, even though she had a large lump growing on her forehead, she could only muster a blank look as she gazed at my face from up close. Then she let out another yelp, jumped back with the agility of a cat and rushed out the re-opened door.
“I will get you for this!” She shouted between stifled ‘Ow!’s as she ran down the walkway and out through the school gates. I could only stare blankly after her dust-trail.
“You will get me back for what?” I mumbled as I stood up again and hung my head. And here I thought we were actually starting to get along. That girl was about ten different flavors of weird.
I glanced at the shoe in my hand and on a whim I decided to stick it into my bag. I will give it back to her tomorrow, I thought to myself as I walked through the entrance as well. At last I sighed, even deeper and harder than usual.
“I was right… this really turned out to be a pain in the ass.”
It was still in the late afternoon when I got home. Originally I planned on going on a shopping spree after school, but the princess’ challenge and the aftermath torpedoed my plans. Maybe on the weekend, I decided after throwing my bag into a corner in the living room. Then I wondered, just how much foodstuff did I have anyway?
My brief inventory of the fridge and the cupboards revealed a new and baffling fact: The place was stocked. And I don’t just mean I still had a lot of food left; the fridge was literally stocked with fresh milk and ingredients. Not only that, but the trashcan was also emptied and the mess I made with flour the day before was completely gone too. It was as if someone had cleaned and replenished the place while I was away. Maybe my non-existent parents weren’t so non-existent after all?
No, this was different, I concluded after returning to the living room. While the place was cleaned, the paperwork I gathered the first day was still stacked exactly the same way I left it. Not only that, but my room was also in the same condition I left it. There also wasn’t any message or sign of life left behind. That could only mean one thing…
“The zombie maids are also ninjas!”
I nodded to myself and smiled ruefully. For some reason, the idea didn’t seem half as silly as it should have. But then again, there was another possibility.
“Maybe the world removes clutter after a while and resets when no one is looking. Maybe to reduce resource usage?” I pondered as I grabbed hold of my notes to make some new entries. While I was at it I also noted some of the events with the princess. “Now that I think about it, I never really asked if she was an ‘actual’ princess or only metaphorically. Like a ‘yakuza-princess’ or the daughter of some CEO…”
After I made a reminder to myself to ask her about it when I would return her shoe, I finally rested my backside against the comfy sofa in the living room and let out a breath of delight. I allowed myself a brief break, during which I absently stared at the ceiling and let my thoughts run free. It only took a few minutes, but it felt really reinvigorating. Finally I stood back up, grabbed an industrial-sized cookie-jar filled with chocolate chips from the kitchen counter and returned to my room to begin my main task for the evening: transcribing my notes to the computer.
In retrospect, I suppose I should have written them there in the first place, but then I would have also needed a separate way to make quick notes on the fly during school. Maybe I should get one of those handy tablets? Or stay analog and just get one of those pocked-notes old-timey journalists carried all the time? Decisions for another time.
Once I arrived in my room I placed the cookie-jar onto the left of my PC desk, my notebook onto the right and I limbered up my fingers in preparation for a lot of typing. Then I froze mid-motion and looked at the random page where my notebook opened. It was the one dealing with the observations I penned the first day, most of which today’s revelation proved to be misinterpretations, but there was one entry in particular that made me stop in my tracks. It had a huge question mark at the end that made it jump out from the rest and it read ‘Idiot Friend: Joshua?’
Now I knew that I was really off the mark with that one. Josh was obviously the hero of the story, which also meant I wasn’t. Then the gears in my brain began creaking again and I could feel my eyes open wider than I ever thought possible.
“Oh my god… Oh. My. God!”
For a moment I almost felt faint and had to grab hold of the desk for support, but there was no question about it. Josh is the hero. The hero always has a male friend tagging along for comic relief. I am his only male friend. Q.E.D…
“I AM THE IDIOT FRIEND?!”