“How about that one?” Josh pointed at a device sitting in its own little transparent plastic case on one of the myriad shelves in the phone shop. It was relatively big, flat and looked incredibly fragile. In other words, it was just like any other modern smartphone.
“I don’t know… I want one that can take some punishment.”
My friend looked at me curiously as he turned away from the display case.
“Why exactly? Do you want to clobber people with it?”
“No,” I answered calmly, in no way petulant or irritated. “I am just going to store some important information on it and I want it to be secure.”
“Important information, huh?” Joshua seemed like a question was on the tip of his tongue, but in the end he didn’t ask and just shrugged his shoulder instead. “Fine then, why don’t we ask the clerk for recommendations?”
“Yeah, maybe we should have done that in the first…” It was about this time that I became aware of someone insistently tugging at my shoulder. I turned around and found my assistant pointing at a different display case. After the quick nap in the infirmary (and eating the ridiculously overpriced sandwich she made me buy for her), she was in much better shape. In fact, she has been surprisingly eager ever since I picked her up after the end of classes.
Anyways, I followed her finger and found a particularly large smartphone (it was pretty much just a small tablet at that point) at the end. It was covered in a garish pink casing and had a big yellow sticker declaring it ‘The Best Selling Model of 20XX!’.
“Buy that,” She told me with a subdued passion accompanied by another series of tugs on my shoulder.
“… Yes, I can see that. What does that have to do with anything?”
She paused, visibly contemplating for a while, and then her eyes practically lit up.
“Real men wear pink.”
“Pardon?” I asked, doubting my ears for a moment.
“Real men wear pink,” She repeated obediently. “Pink is considered feminine. Most men feel uncomfortable about wearing it because they fear others would think they are effeminate, but by taking it for yourself and using it proudly you tell the world that you are so manly you are above such concerns.”
I involuntarily grimaced.
“What does that have to do with how sturdy it is?”
She fell silent again for a few seconds, pondering even harder.
“It makes people think you are really manly and so they won’t try to break it?”
“That… Ugh…” I rubbed my face to stifle a groan. “Admit it, you just like the color.”
Judy twitched, surprisingly enough, and conspicuously averted her eyes.
“What gave you that idea?”
She clicked her tongue, which sounded really weird when it was done with a poker face.
“I was foiled.”
I shook my head and was about to turn back to the display case when I noticed Josh wasn’t at my side anymore. It seemed like he took the opportunity and slipped away to talk with the clerk while I was with Judy. I walked up to them and my friend immediately beamed at me.
“Guess what Leo? I found the perfect phone for you!”
“Did you?” I asked while trying to ignore the chill of apprehension running down my spine.
“Indeed, my good sir!” The young salesman beamed at me with unbridled enthusiasm and I had to look around for a moment.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Josh, but he only looked at me funny.
“Dear customer, I am honored to introduce you the Megatel 20xx, the latest in high-quality telecommunications technology!” The clerk continued beaming as he put a large box onto the counter. I wasn’t really looking, as I was too busy trying to find the source of my distraction.
“Seriously, none of you heard that?” I turned to Josh and Judy in turn, but neither of them answered.
“The Megatel 20xx is the latest and greatest on the market, an integrated telecommunication and entertainment nexus for the whole family, in your pocket!”
“Oh.” Judy suddenly perked up at my side (well, ‘perked up’ by her standards) and she looked back at me. “I think I heard it. Some kind of music.”
“Yes, telemarketing tunes!”
“What are you talking about?” Josh looked at us like we were talking nonsense.
“Can’t you hear it?” He shook his head and I had to wonder just what was going on. In the meantime the clerk continued his sales-pitch without a pause.
“Sixty-four gigabytes of ram! Thirty-two processor cores! The latest mobile operating system with free apps! A solid synth-diamond screen! No more scratches! Solid 18-carat gold casing! Diamond-encrusted buttons and…”
“Whoa, hold on a minute!” I raised my hand and finally got the salesman to stop before I turned to Joshua. “Is trying to get me to waste my money that much fun?”
“Why?” He smiled sheepishly. “You have enough to spare, and you might as well spend it on something awesome.”
“Sorry, but ‘diamond encrusted buttons’ don’t really fit my definition of ‘awesome’. It’s more like ‘gaudy’ and ‘wasteful’.”
“Do you have it in pink?” Judy asked at my side. I rolled my eyes and cut the clerk off before he could even begin.
“Don’t you have something more… traditional? Something tough and practical, preferably with long battery life?”
The young man looked at me with the disconcerting vacancy of a placeholder before he smiled again and got another box from under the counter.
“We just received this new model yesterday and it should be right up your alley!” He took a relatively normal-looking phone out of the box and showed it off to me with a flourish. “Water and shock-resistant casing, elephant-glass screen and automatic cloud-backup so that you will never lose your data!”
“It’s like gorilla-glass, but better.”
“... What’s gorilla-glass?”
“It’s like elephant-glass, but weaker.”
“... That was... the least helpful thing I have ever heard.”
The man smiled at me, completely disregarding my complaints, and began packing out a series of accessories to the jaunty tune of an infomercial that apparently not everyone could hear.
“But wait! If you buy now you not only get this state-of-the-art, nigh-indestructible pocket-computer, you will also receive a two year warranty, a spare battery, a set of spare cases, a mobile keyboard with stylus, free mobile net for three months, an XXL pack of screen-cleaners and a chance to win a brand new sports car, all for the low, low price of 899 Jen, tax included! It’s a steal, I tell you!”
Josh whistled at my side and gave me a thumb up, probably to encourage me into buying it. Truth to be told, I could probably buy their entire stock of this phone without even denting my account, but I was still somewhat apprehensive about the price and hesitated. At last Josh rolled his eyes and elbowed me in the side.
“Come on! If you want quality, you have to pay the price.”
To my surprise, I found Judy also nodding at my side.
“Et tu, assistant?”
“He is right. You cannot be stingy with electronics, they get outdated fast enough anyways.”
I held her eyes for a second, then shrugged my shoulders in defeat.
“Fine, fine. I'll take one.”
“Marvelous!” The clerk gave me a toothy smile. “We have a number of loan plans you can choose from, and in case of certain carriers you can...”
I cut him short by dropping nine hundred-Jen bills in front of him.
“Keep the change.”
He blinked at me, then stared at the bills in confusion for a good five seconds before he smiled again and took them.
“It is a pleasure doing business with you, sir! Can I interest you in one of our phone plans as well?”
That made me pause for a moment. I had no idea what kind of plan I had at the moment. In fact, I knew nothing about how these things worked. Thankfully Joshua came to my rescue with a big, colorful brochure in hand.
“Check this out! If you take this plan then you can designate three numbers from the same carrier that you can call for free for a year, and then you can renew the contract a year later and get the same benefit!”
“Is that normal?”
“Yeah, most service companies do this kind of thing. It apparently increases loyalty.”
“So you say this is a good one?”
“Yup!” Josh grinned at me. “And I use the same carrier, so you can add me right off the bat!”
“… Why would I want to do that?”
“So that you can talk to me for free?”
“Why would I want to do that? I am already talking to you for free at school, I am happy I can finally get rid of you after that!”
Josh gave me a flat look and then punched me in the shoulder.
“Ow-ow! Just kidding, I’m kidding!” I exaggeratedly rubbed my shoulders and shook my head. “So violent!”
“Shut up and buy it already,” Josh fumed, though from the twinkle in his eyes I could tell he wasn’t really mad.
“Fine, fine...” I was just about to turn to the clerk again, but instead I froze mid-motion as I remembered something and faced Judy instead. “Say, what carrier do you use?”
My assistant blinked at me uncomprehendingly.
“I mean, which company does your phone use?”
Instead of answering Judy fell suspiciously silent. I waited for her to respond for a while, but she didn’t seem to be about to do so, and thus I cleared my throat.
“Judy, you do have a phone, right?”
She still didn’t answer, but for some reason her perma-deadpan seemed to give way to some embarrassment. I sighed awkwardly in return.
“Well, that just won’t do...” On a sudden whim I turned back to the clerk, who was in the middle of packing my new phone into a thick nylon bag. I knocked on the counter to get his attention and then pointed behind me, to the display case not so far from the counter. “I would like that one too, please.”
The young man leaned to the side to look behind me and his smile faltered for a second. “The pink one, sir?”
I gave a huge nod and his smile immediately solidified.
“Most certainly, sir! It is a great choice, sir! It was last year’s best selling model, and while this particular piece’s color scheme is somewhat unorthodox, I can assure you it is...”
The salesman continued his pitch to the grindingly monotonous background-tune even as he began packing the second phone, but my attention was elsewhere, namely the girl harshly tugging my sleeve.
“You really don’t have to...”
“Actually, I kinda do,” I interjected before she could gather steam. “We need a way to communicate, plus it should be a good alternative for taking notes. Really, you cannot get around in today’s world without a phone.”
“But... It costs a lot.”
Now that she mentioned it, I didn’t even ask for the price. Unsurprisingly the clerk was just getting to the end of his spiel as I turned back.
“... and the chance to win a brand new sports car for the low, low price of 599 Jen, tax included!”
Josh whistled again and I rolled my eyes as I placed another set of bills on the counter.
“I would like it to have the same carrier plan as mine.”
“Most certainly!” The clerk answered enthusiastically as he began searching for something in a nearby stack of papers. Meanwhile, I took the two wrapped boxes and handed the pink one over to my assistant.
“I... cannot take this,” Her protests were surprisingly feeble. I just smirked at the display of this unusually timid side of hers and pushed her new phone into her hands.
“Sure you can. Consider this an early birthday present.” She finally took the package and I was about to smile at her reassuringly when a new thought elbowed its way into my frontal lobe. “Speaking of which, I don’t even know when your birthday is...”
Judy shuddered and then pointedly averted her eyes. Puzzled, I tried to lean in to take a better look at her face and, to my minor shock, I found her blushing. Well, okay, very slightly flushed, but it was Judy, so it practically meant the same. After a few seconds of silence she glanced at me and then immediately averted her gaze. At last, after a few more seconds of awkward silence, she uttered a single word.
“... Wait, what?” I sputtered as I straightened myself. “I mean... Seriously?”
She nodded, leaving me lost for words, though not for long.
“Happy... belated birthday?”
She finally looked up at me and was about to mouth a ‘Thank you’ when Josh pointedly cleared his throat.
“Am I a third wheel here?”
I blinked at him in confusion. “Third wheel? No? Why?”
My friend rolled his eyes with a secretive smile and waved his hand dismissingly, but then stopped halfway through the motion and snapped his finger instead.
“Hey, I just realized! She just had her birthday, right?”
“... Yes, that’s what she just said...”
“You know what that means!” He opened his arms and gave us an expectant look, but when neither of us answered he dropped his shoulders in disappointment. “Come on guys! Birthday cake! I know an awesome, high-class bakery nearby!”
I sent my friend a critical look and sighed.
“Is that your next plan for emptying my wallet?”
“Hey, don’t be paranoid,” Josh grinned and patted me on the shoulder, then he turned to Judy. “By the way, I don’t have our friend’s funds, but please accept this.” With that, he handed Judy a long, pink phone-strap matching the color of her new phone. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you...” Judy awkwardly accepted the gift and looked at me like she was asking for help. She probably wasn’t used to these kinds of situations, so I smiled at her reassuringly and helped her put the strap onto her phone.
It was about this time when the clerk finished gathering his papers and presented two identical stacks to us. After some deliberation, we handed our new acquisitions over to Josh, and after filling out the paperwork (during which I learned for certain that Judy’s birthday was indeed yesterday) we received a pair of new SIM-cards and our own copies of the contracts. Normally we would have needed an adult, as we were all minors and thus not allowed to sign these contracts, but I greased the wheel of bureaucracy with a couple of twenty Jen bills and the clerk obligingly turned a blind eye.
Once we made sure everything was in order, and partly due to Joshua’s insistence, we left the shop and headed towards a nearby bakery he was familiar with due to Angie dragging him over there the day before. Speaking of Angie, I glanced over my shoulder and, speak of the devil, I saw a small group conspicuously peeking around a street corner on the opposite side of the street. I sighed and Judy, by this point back in her usual non-flushed deadpan, gave me a questioning look. I leaned closer to her and whispered right into her ear.
“They are still following us,” She was about to glance back, but I stopped her. “Don’t.”
“I don’t want to interrupt them. This kind of thing is fairly normal.”
“Yeah, it’s date-stalking. Girls do that all the time in harem-comedies. Angie is there to keep an eye on Josh, the princess probably wants to catch Mystery Girl X while the class rep is just trying to keep those two on a short leash.”
“I see…” Judy nodded like I just said something profound.
In the meantime, I could see the three of them skulking from one alley to the other. They stuck out from the crowd like a sore thumb, yet Josh and Judy didn’t seem to notice them until just before we entered the phone shop. In fact, Josh was still blissfully unaware of them. Actually, I could go even further; he was showing an absolutely appalling lack of apprehension, and I can say that without holding back because the proto-harem weren’t the only people he didn’t notice.
I carefully glanced in the other direction, making sure I seemed as natural as possible, and I quickly managed to catch a peek of a comet of silvery white hair dashing from one alley to the next on our side of the street. Both her and Angie’s group seemed so focused on us that they didn’t even note the existence of the other, even though all they had to do was to look over to the other side of the road for a moment.
I shook my head ruefully as we finally reached the bakery. To my surprise, it looked like a fairly normal family restaurant, its only unusual feature being the large neon sign saying ‘La Sweets Shoppe’. It took me a moment to decide whether that was supposed to be horrible French or horrible Ye Olde English, but in the end I decided to take a third option and completely disregard the whole thing... but there was another issue that was not so easy to ignore.
I glanced back and caught another peek of the white-haired girl dashing for cover. What was her angle? Why was she stalking Josh? And more importantly, just what kind of crazy shenanigans would she cause today? Actually, that last question was the true reason behind my current conundrum. We were just about to have an impromptu birthday party, and for some reason I wasn’t keen on Mystery Girl X potentially crashing it. But then again, what could I do about it? Or rather, what should I?
The plan came together surprisingly fast, and I had a general idea of what I would do and say by the time Josh was about to open his mouth as he turned to us in front of the bakery. I swiftly cut him short by raising a hand and giving them a regretful frown.
“Crap! I forgot my ID at the phone shop!”
Josh looked at me sideways.
“Yeah, I should go back and get them ASAP. Why don’t you guys go inside and pick a cake while I’m away?”
“... You are not trying to bail on us, do you?”
I directed a hurt look at Josh and shook my head.
“Hey, who do you think I am?” I turned to my assistant and handed her my wallet. “Pick whatever you want, my treat.”
She looked dubious, but I winked at her and she seemingly understood my intention. Or maybe she just reacts very well to winks in general; I considered. Either way, I proceeded to shoo the two into the bakery with exaggerated motions. I barely waited long enough for them to close the door behind themselves before I took off down the street. My target was standing behind a sign-post by a bus-stop and she looked at me like a deer in the headlights as I strode towards her.
She was pretty, though I already expected that much, being a main heroine and all. She was about as tall as Angie, so a little on the short side, and she was wearing a form-hugging black knit sweater, a tiny jacket, a jean miniskirt with black stockings and a pair of fur-trimmed leather boots. Her only accessory was a thin, silvery choker around her neck that seemed to sparkle almost unnaturally in the daylight, to the point I wondered if it had tiny gems encrusted in it.
Her most striking characteristic was, of course, her white hair, glossy and seemingly glowing with a shade of blue. She wore it in a pair of thick twin tails held together by ribbons with small red beads attached to them, which only further accentuated her pale white skin and piercing red eyes. An albino? In retrospect, it should have been obvious from Josh’s description, but seeing the white-haired girl up close was surprisingly eerie nevertheless.
At last, I reached her and flashed a toothy smile to take her off-guard. It worked so well that for a moment it looked like she was about to run away. It only lasted for a second though, as after the first shock her expression suddenly turned rigid and then melted back into an alluring smile.
“Well, what do we have here?” She purred, her voice deep and confident.
I paused for a moment before answering. That was a disturbingly sudden change in attitude. Maybe she was also trying to take me off guard in return? Either way, I let out a pointed cough before I renewed my smile.
“So, you are the mysterious girl who has been following Josh around, huh?” I looked her up and down, though it didn’t seem to unnerve her any further. “Nice to meet you. I’m Leonard Dunning.”
“I know,” She purred again, her eyes practically licking me all over. In her case the unnerving part actually worked, so we were even, I supposed.
“That makes things easier for both of us. You see, I have a request.”
“Oh? And just what could little old me do for such a large, imposing guy like you?” She smiled seductively, and I involuntarily groaned, much to her apparent surprise.
“Okay, I actually have two. Could you please drop the vamp-act?”
“V-Vamp?” She sputtered as she took a step back, her voice suddenly sounding much more natural. “I’m not acting like a... a vamp!”
“Well, you kind of are... I mean, who else talks like that?”
“I wouldn’t know because I am not one!” She protested, her voice getting more and more high-pitched to the point where she actually started sounding her age, an insulted teenage girl.
“Fine, whatever you say. So, can we get back to my actual request?”
“Of cou...” She suddenly caught the fact that her voice was slipping and immediately lowered it to a purr. “I mean, of course.”
I rolled my eyes and decided to ignore her tone for the time being.
“So, you see, I noticed you developed a habit of messing around with my friend, which of course is none of my business. However, we are about to hold a birthday party for my assistant, so could I ask you not to cause any ruckus while we celebrate?”
“.... Is that all?” She smiled at me after a brief pause and leaned forward, a move which would have probably revealed some of her fairly modest cleavage... if she wasn’t wearing a turtleneck. She seemed to notice the problem as well and she awkwardly switched the posture into her running her hands over her hips. “I am sure a guy like you has better requests than that.”
She theatrically fluttered her long eyelashes at me and I could only roll my eyes in return.
“Seriously, just stop this whole charade,” I told her flatly, freezing her mid-motion. “This whole femme-fatale vamp act is getting really distracting.”
“But I’m not...!” She protested feebly, her real voice once again breaking through the facade.
“Okay, then putting that aside, could you please go home for today? I’m sure being out in the sun is not good for you anyways.”
As far as my research told me albinos in harem comedies often filled a niche called ‘The Sick Girl’, a character archetype that was considered ‘moe’, another term that was so ill-defined I only had the barest grasp of it even after several hours of research. It had something to do with being attractive and/or cute based on a set of seemingly contradicting criteria, which being ill apparently fell under, somehow. Either way, whether she was actually sickly or not, being an albino meant that she didn’t produce melanin, the body’s built-in sunscreen, and thus staying outside in the sun was actually risky for her.
Her face suddenly tensed up in an awkward smile.
“W-W-What do you mean by that?”
“Oh please,” I swept my hand in front of her to indicate all of her. “It’s easy to tell even by first glance. The red eyes, in particular, are very telling.”
“I... I’m not a vamp!” She protested again.
“Suuuure, but please don’t change the topic. So, would you let up your hunt for Joshua for the day?”
“I am not hunting!”
“That’s the same thing.”
“Then what would you call your behavior?”
She paused for a second and was about to answer when she once again realized how relaxed her posture and voice had been, so she took up another highly suggestive stance and fluttered her eyelashes.
I groaned and cut her off just as she was about to take a breath.
“Seriously, stop that! I just want you to leave this birthday party alone, but how is one supposed to have a conversation when you—”
I got roughly that far when I noticed that her eyes were widening in shock. I hastily glanced behind me just in time to jump out of the way of the flying tackle that I presumed was supposed to take down both of us. Because of my swift dodge, however, it hit Mystery Girl X with full force and both her and her assailant tumbled to the ground in an undignified sprawl. I didn’t even need to look to know who the latter was.
“Princess!” I yelled angrily at the golden-haired girl lying on the ground. She twitched at the word and looked at me with a mixture of thinly veiled loathing and apprehension before she jumped to her feet... only to fall back onto her knees with a hiss. I reflexively reached out to her and caught her before she would topple over. “Let me guess... You hurt your ankle again, didn’t you?”
“None of your business!” She glared at me, the look in her eyes more petulant than anything else, before she realized what was going on and her head quickly turned left and right. “Where is she?!”
“Where is who?” I looked around with her, and to my surprise I realized that Mystery Girl X was nowhere to be found.
“Argh! She got away again!” The princess fumed, so infuriated that she didn’t even notice that she was clinging to me while I helped her onto her feet.
I looked at her harshly and after she didn’t seem to get the clue I lightly bonked her over the top of her head.
“Ow!” She looked at me wide-eyed, but I didn’t let her talk.
“What did I tell you about tackles?” She was about to protest, so I glared at her and asked again, this time with an extra emphasis on each word. “What. did. I. tell. you. about. tackles?”
She only met my eyes for a second before she sheepishly looked away. “That I shouldn’t do it because I hurt myself...”
I sighed and shook my head.
“Seriously, if you don’t want me to worry about you, stop doing things that hurt you. Seriously...”
“Sorry...” She repeated in a barely audible voice. I sighed and patted her on the head where I bonked her.
“There, there. So long as you keep it in mind.”
I looked up and found Angie running towards us with the class rep trailing further behind her. The moment the princess noticed her she began flailing and tried to stand on her own, which only resulted in me having to catch her again.
“That was dangerous,” The class rep scolded her as she arrived. “You shouldn’t cross the street when the light is still red.”
“Sorry,” The princess apologized again, this time much more readily than with me. It was also about then that the two newcomers noticed me and they both smiled awkwardly.
“Oh, look! Leo! Fancy meeting you here!” Angie promptly elbowed the class rep in the side, at which point she awkwardly nodded. “What a koinkidink!”
“... Sure, let’s go with that…” I murmured as I searched for a better grasp on the princess. “Can you stand now?”
“I’ll try,” She told me, but the moment she put any weight on her ankle she let out a pained hiss.
“Elly, you hurt your leg again!” Angie gasped and fell to her knee to take a closer look. “Aw, it’s swollen. Pain, pain, go away. Pain, pain, go away.”
She kept chanting as she massaged her ankle and I could only frown in reaction.
“We are not kids anymore,” I grumbled, but she didn’t seem to care.
“Try now,” She beamed at the princess and after some hesitation she tried to stand on it again. To everyone’s surprise, she didn’t cry out this time.
“It’s... better?” The princess looked flabbergasted.
“Well, I’ll be damned...” I whispered by her side and I had a feeling my expression wasn’t far from hers either.
The princess took a few tentative steps and looked at Angie with gratitude. She, on the other hand, had her fists on her hips akimbo and grinning like a well-fed cat before she turned to me.
“So, Leo. Whatcha doing?”
I wanted to shout ‘You know exactly what I was doing!’, but I held it down and instead smiled back.
“We were just about to have Judy’s birthday party.”
“... Sorry, I’m drawing a blank here.”
“Oh, her!” She flashed a toothy smile that felt almost too wide on her face. “Why didn’t you say that in the first place!”
I had a feeling she was teasing me, so I didn’t answer. Instead I just turned around and was about to leave them behind when I noticed something on the walkway. I crouched down, picked it up and then put it into my pocket in just one motion.
“What was that?” The class rep asked over my shoulders, once again closing in on me out of the blue and betraying her secret ninja training.
“Just something that fell out of my pocket while I helped the princess up,” I told her smoothly and brushed her off with a smile. “Now then, I better get going.”
“Wait a moment!” Angie stopped me in my tracks by entwining her arm with mine. “You were talking about a birthday party, didn’t you?”
“Soooooooo?” She squeezed my arm, which didn’t really hurt but was obviously supposed to represent her coercing me.
“You want to be invited?”
“Oh Leo, you didn’t have to, but I don’t want to be rude, so I guess I have no choice...”
“Wait, I didn’t invite you yet.”
To my tremendous surprise, I suddenly found my other arm seized as well, and by none other than a beet-red princess. She also squeezed my arm, which in her case actually hurt. I was waiting for her to say her piece, but instead she just looked at me, tried to open her mouth, then froze up, turned one shade redder and squeezed my arm even harder. After she did the cycle the third time I was ready to cry uncle.
“Fine, fine! I get it, I invite you! Sheesh!”
“Oh Leo, you are so nice!” Angie grinned at me and let me go. The princess, on the other hand, began squeezing me even harder, so I had to manually peel her off me. With that done we headed for the bakery, arriving just as Josh peeked through the door. He blinked uncomprehendingly at the sight.
“Where did you guys come from?”
“Long story,” I told him with a weary breath, and he just shrugged.
“It’s cool, we were just wondering how the three of us were going to eat all that cake…”
I could feel the corner of my mouth unconsciously twitch.
“Wait, how much cake are we actually talking about?”
“Well…” My friend faltered. “Have you seen one of those life-size car cakes? You know, the kind that celebrities order for their parties?”
“…” I very slowly set my mouth in a thin line, turned to the three girls behind me and quietly told them over the sound of my popping knuckles. “Girls, could you step back a few paces?”
“Um… Why?” Angie sounded apprehensive but took a step back nevertheless.
“I don’t want your clothes to get splattered with Josh’s blood…”
“Stop touching me!” The princess hissed into my ear, and the stifled groan of despair I let out as a response could barely even begin to convey the exasperation I felt.
“I don’t have much of a choice, now do I?” I retorted while adjusting the annoying package on my back, making sure to get a firm grip.
“Ow! You did it again!”
“As I said, I don’t have much choice. You were strangling me.”
“That’s no excuse! A real gentleman would put up with it!”
This time I groaned aloud and then muttered, “How did it come to this?”
“Mostly your own fault,” Judy stated coldly at my side, her otherwise emotionless voice sounding unusually sharp.
“How was that my—?!” I halted my outraged question mid-word and raised a single eyebrow in the process. “What are you doing?”
My assistant looked over at me, though her fingers never stopped tapping on the screen of her new phone even as she spoke to me.
“I downloaded a word processor and now I am testing it.” Her fingers kept drumming so fast on the touch-screen keyboard of the machine that I wondered if it could even keep up with her pace. “I am making new observations.”
“... Such as?” I asked, against my better judgment.
She looked at her digital notes and said, without looking back, “You graduated from flirting and now you are a full-blown molester.”
“No, I am not!” I objected loudly, startling the princess on my back and nearly dropping her in the process. I quickly readjusted my grip on her thighs and continued to carry her.
“You are touching me again!” She protested on my back and I lightly shook her in frustration.
“I told you, I am only holding onto you.” Judy nodded to herself at my side and began tapping again. I looked at her flatly and repeated, “As I said, I am not molesting anyone, I’m just carrying her! I’m completely innocent! It’s not even the first time this happened!”
“A repeat offender then. I better make note of that too.”
I opened and closed my mouth repeatedly, trying my best to express the depth and profundity of my outrage, but in the end I could only shake my head in despair and reiterate a previous question. Just how did things turn out like this anyway...?
To answer that query one didn’t have to look too far back. The ad hoc birthday party, while starting out on the wrong foot, was ultimately a resounding success. Though it took some very amicable and in no shape or form violent persuasion (if you don’t believe me, just ask my lawyer), I managed to convince Joshua that a life-size Dodge Viper cake was a bit of an overkill for just six people, not to mention imposing a spoiled-celebrity-level hurdle on the bakery staff. In the end I chose a huge, tiered strawberry-cake instead, which was a tiny bit too sweet for my taste, but otherwise I had no complaints about it.
The rest of the party went without a hitch, and while I wouldn’t have called it a blast per se, we had a really fun and relaxed afternoon… though I was mostly just listening in the background as I knew nothing about the most common topics, such as local gossip or the new popular TV shows. Josh didn’t seem to have such reservations, spending a roughly equal amount of time with all the girls, including Judy. Still, all things considered, it was a nice diversion from our unrelated toils and troubles, and it also served as a perfect opportunity to familiarize the group with my assistant.
Once we finished (and they made me pay the bill, of course), we broke into two groups. Angie, Josh and the class rep went one way, the rest of us the other, courtesy of the fact that we lived in two different neighborhoods. As for what led to the current situation... let’s just say, the princess decided to once again reinforce my impression of her being a total klutz by managing to fall over (on flat ground, no less) and hurting her ankle after another of her declarations of undying hatred towards me triggered by an innocent question about whether she would have liked if I took her home. And thus we reached the present, whereas she was situated on my back in a piggy-back-ride, me taking her home anyways, and my assistant picking the worst moment to mess with me.
“Please tell me this isn’t your way of getting back at me for the cake...” I asked the girl still immersed in poking her new toy at my side. Judy looked at me blankly and shook her head.
“Are you sure? You seemed unusually enthusiastic about that car-cake...”
“I wasn’t,” She paused for a second. “Joshua just made it sound really interesting.” She paused again, this time for a bit longer. “I also liked the strawberry cake. And the party. It was… nice of you to indulge me. Thank you.” She said so and returned her eyes to the screen in her hand. For some reason I couldn’t help but smile at her unusually earnest words.
“You are welco...” I started, but my words were cut off alongside my air supply.
“Stop squeezing!” The princess exclaimed on my back while simultaneously putting me in a choke-hold.
“You are the one squeezing! Stop trying to strangle me!”
I shook her a bit and she finally calmed down. For the next few minutes neither of us said anything, so I had some time to think as I looked over the evening streets. The sun was so low that there was only a little of its red light left painting the buildings, yet it wasn’t dark enough for the street-lamps to light up yet. Maybe because of that, but the dim streets of the residential area felt surprisingly spooky, especially with the monotonous background-noises my brain was already filtering out due to sheer repetition. It also didn’t help that there were no placeholders on the streets either. They probably also held to their schedules in the evenings as well as they did in the mornings, I presumed.
I looked up and for the first time noticed the first heralds of the starry sky. It should have been quaint, but at the moment all I could think about was whether the flickering pinpricks of light I could see in the darkening skies were artificial. After all, no matter which of my hypotheses I considered as a basis, they couldn’t be real giant balls of hydrogen-fusion; there was no way this dream/simulation/whatever would detail something that distant and irrelevant. I was just about to wonder whether I should get a telescope to study them when I was startled by a pair of soft mounds pressing against my back. I stiffened for a moment (no, not like that) and glanced back at the princess. She was resting her head over my shoulder and, contrary to just a few seconds before, she was pressing her entire torso against mine. I raised a questioning eyebrow at her and she immediately averted her eyes.
“D-Don’t get the wrong idea!” She sputtered, but instead of separating herself she clung to me even harder. “It’s just cold!”
I raised my brow even further. “Is it?” I voiced my incredulity aloud. It was still early autumn, and while I wasn’t planning to grow bananas in this weather, it was still balmy enough that I felt thoroughly baffled by her statement.
“Yes!” She pouted vehemently.
“Maybe it’s just your clothes?” Judy quipped at our side without looking up from her phone. The princess narrowed her eyes dangerously.
“And just what is that supposed to mean?”
“Actually, that is a good question,” I interrupted, trying to sound reasonable. “You are both wearing the same school uniforms.”
“It’s not what you wear, it’s how you wear it,” Came the ready response from my assistant.
“... And just what is that supposed to mean?” The princess repeated herself, though this time her question sounded more genuine and less confrontational. When she didn’t get an answer she puffed her cheeks petulantly and pointed her customary finger at my assistant. “Why are you even following us around if you only speak to ridicule us?!”
“I’m not following you in particular. I’m with the chief. He is going to take me home afterwards.”
“What?” The princess proceeded to squeeze my neck on purpose, though she tried to make it look like she was just losing her balance. “Are you taking her home with you?! Are you in that kind of relationship?!”
I coughed pointedly and frowned at my assistant. “I told you people will misunderstand if you say it like that.” Judy only shrugged her shoulders and returned to her phone, apparently making some new notes. With that I addressed the princess, “I am taking her home the same way I’m taking you home.”
She momentarily stiffened. “W-W-What do you plan to do to me?! Is that the kind of man you are, one that takes advantage of injured girls!? I should have known! I knew you didn’t smell right from the first time I met you!”
I would have facepalmed if my hands weren’t occupied, so instead I did the second best thing and groaned so loud it hurt my throat.
“No! I am taking you to your home and then I’m taking her to her home!” The princess mouthed a silent ‘oh’ and fell silent. “Seriously, what the heck is wrong with you two?”
Neither of them answered aloud, though the princess did start squirming on my back.
Thankfully, we were near our destination; I could already see the huge brown roofs of the mansion down the street. It was just as needlessly huge and gaudy as I expected. I set my jaw, readjusted the princess on my back and thought about relaxing things while trying to ignore the soft girly-parts still squished against my back.
It only took a few long minutes to get to the mansion gates, but no matter how hard I tried to relax, for some reason the closer we got, the more irritable I felt. Anyways, said gates were overseen by a single black-clad man. He was tall and lean, though not wiry. His hair was pitch black save for two wide strips of pale grey on the sides, a color scheme that was so closely mirrored in his thick goatee that I had to wonder if he had it dyed that way on purpose. The only thing sharper than the pair of dark eyes situated under his bushy (yet inexplicably well-groomed) eyebrows was his suit, a custom-cut ensemble with pure white gloves and shiny black leather shoes. In fact, he was so impeccable just looking at him made me feel frustrated… for some reason. As I said, I was feeling kinda irritated at the moment. Anyways, I could tell who he was without even having to ask; Sebastian couldn’t have looked more like a butler even if he tried.
As we got closer I quickly became aware of the bone-chilling glare he was directing at me, though I was so thoroughly inoculated against those by the princess that I didn’t even mind. I wanted to return the gesture, but by the time we got into speaking distance, he closed his eyes and began shaking his head.
“Again, milady?” He spoke as he glanced up at the girl on my back. His voice was impossibly deep and raspy, like he was smoking cigars made of sandpaper or something. Instead of answering, she only hid behind my shoulders, which made the old servant glare at me even harder. We were off to a rocky start, it seemed.
“Can you stand?” I directed the question to the girl on my back after tearing my eyes away from the man's irritating gaze. She silently nodded, which was surprisingly meek coming from her, and so I let her down. To my further surprise, she was still sticking to my back like she was trying to hide from the scrutinizing glare of the butler.
“This is a different one,” He stated dryly.
“If by ‘a different one’ you mean the guy carrying her home then yes, it is,” I answered in a sour tone, but he was apparently completely ignoring me as he continued addressing the princess.
“Milady, your father might have allowed you this... excursion, but you should not take it as an endorsement of promiscuity.”
I rolled my eyes in frustration.
“Seriously now, does everyone in this town have their heads permanently stuck in the gutter today?”
“I did not give you permission to speak,” Sebastian growled, finally looking me in the eye.
“Then it’s a jolly good thing I don’t need one, I suppose,” I answered with fake joviality before I turned around and faced the girl hiding behind my back. She was red as a lobster and at first refused to stop staring at her toes, but after a few pokes I got her to look up.
“Yes?” She whispered in a very uncharacteristically tame voice.
“Listen, you should stay home tomorrow or your ankle will never heal at this rate.”
She looked at me with wide doe eyes and was about to open her mouth when she was cut off by the outraged hiss of a positively fuming butler.
I looked at him over my shoulder and gave him a huge nod. “Yeah, interrupting people when they are talking is rude. Shame on you.”
For a second or ten the tall servant kept repeatedly opening and closing his mouth like a fish out of water, an opportunity which I used to convey the rest of what I wanted to say to the princess.
“I’m serious, at this rate you might permanently damage yourself. Stay home tomorrow and then rest through the weekend too.”
“But... But I have to go to school...” She protested meekly and I could barely stifle a chuckle. I never thought I would ever see her as subdued as she was at the moment, though I was a little troubled about why Sebastian’s presence led to this kind of reaction. I decided to worry about it later.
“Listen, if you are worried about falling behind in the race for Josh, I will send him over to deliver the homework to you. I might even be able to convince him to come alone so you can have him all for yourself for an entire afternoon. How does that sound?”
She quickly turned a different shade of red (maybe I should put together a color-chart for her one of these days...) but ultimately shook her head.
“What about the girl?”
“... What girl?”
“That prowling succubus,” She hissed, her usual temperament finally showing through her restrained exterior.
“Oh, you mean her? Don’t worry; I should be able to do something about her.”
The princess’ eyebrows shot up at once and she looked at me incredulously.
“Sure, I already talked to her, remember?” As if just remembering the time she tried to tackle me, her eyes twinkled with recognition, though she still looked doubtful. I sighed and smiled at her reassuringly. “She is no more troublesome than some other girls I know; I should be able to deal with her.”
She was still looking at me funny, but before she could say anything more I could see a dark shape reflected in her eyes and she wilted like a flower in the microwave. I looked over my shoulder and immediately staggered back.
“The hell!” I exclaimed as I barely restrained myself from throwing a decidedly non-diplomatic punch by sheer reflex. “Have you even heard of personal space?”
Sebastian wasn’t fazed by my outrage and instead he continued staring at me from a few centimeters away. We were roughly the same height, in fact I might have been a little taller due to my sneakers, but somehow his glare made him seem bigger at first glance. Since standing my ground in this situation would have meant standing so close to him I could feel his breath on my face, I decided to be the bigger man and take a half-step back.
“Just who do you think you are?” He growled, exposing all 52 of his teeth in the process.
“Leonard Dunning,” I answered without missing a beat. “And you are?”
I could see a vein bulge on the old servant’s forehead.
“I am Sebastian von Fraenir, steward and headmaster of the Dracis household’s servants,” He declared between clenched teeth.
“Neat,” I smiled at him in an overt show of nonchalance. “Could you please make sure the princess stays home and doesn’t exert herself tomorrow? I would be much obliged; it takes a lot of effort to look after her.”
I didn’t get an answer. Instead, Sebastian glared at me, but this time his eyes were cold as an iceberg. He raised a hand and the gate automatically opened, letting through two identically dressed (not to mention identical looking) French-maids. I was actually a little impressed, as I thought maids like that only existed in fiction these days. But then again, one could argue that this world was fiction in some ways, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised after all...
The two maids, short and thin with tidy bubble-cuts of auburn hair, got the princess between them and headed towards the mansion. She could barely say her goodbyes before she was taken through the metal gate towards a third maid, a tall young woman with two long braids of platinum-blonde hair, and it immediately closed behind them, leaving me alone with Sebastian. Well, okay, technically Judy was still there as well, but she had completely removed herself from our circle and spent all her time typing on her phone at a good five paces away, so for practical purposes it was just the two of us.
The aged servant looked me over, his eyes suddenly sharp and discerning, even a little interested. Finally he took a sharp breath before asking:
“What did you call milady just now?” His voice was strangely soft, like the proverbial silk hiding steel underneath. I blinked in response.
“Crap... I called her princess, didn’t I?” He didn’t answer, but the twitching of his brows was enough of a clue to guess. “Sorry, force of habit.”
“So you know...”
“Well, it wasn’t hard to figure out.” For the first time, the man’s face showed an emotion different from acidic disapproval as he raised a single, curious brow. “I mean, how many blonde-with-ringlets girls living in a mansion with a grumpy old butler do you know?”
That seemed enough to satisfy his curiosity for the time being and so the butler’s gaze swiftly returned to its normal acidity levels.
“And what exactly do you plan to do with this information?”
“What is your angle?” He growled accentuating each word individually.
“Is being paranoid this common in this household?” The question seemed to take him aback, so after a short grunt I decided to elaborate. “I do not have an angle or agenda or anything. I’m not even particularly interested in the princess beyond finding her amusing from time to time. I am just collecting data.”
“It’s complicated. No offense, but I doubt someone like you would understand.”
Sebastian narrowed his eyes and made his voice drop an octave, which nearly put it into infrasound territory.
“I want this to be clear, boy: You are playing a dangerous game here. If I find out that you pose even a sliver of threat for the Dracis family, you and I are going to play the most dangerous game…”
“You mean the one where we play tennis on the wings of a plane with a live grenade while riding on feral grizzly bears?”
“I... No... I mean... NO!” The man took a step back and looked at me with eyes wide open, an expression that looked downright comical after all this time. “Who even comes up with something like that?!”
“Well, as much as I would like to claim credit, I actually saw this on the net,” I paused thoughtfully and raised a contemplative finger to my chin. “Also, you do not ‘play’ the most dangerous game. The word ‘game’ in that context refers to 'prey', so you should have said we would be hunting the most dangerous game, which I have to respectfully decline. I mean, I know that rich people have weird hobbies, but hunting people is still a little iffy if you ask me.”
Sebastian silently waited for my explanation to end.
“You are right, of course. Only I will ‘hunt’ the most dangerous game, and I am more and more tempted to start right away.”
“So long as we are clear on that.” I smiled irreverently at the man. “Oh, but before I go, remember what I said; make sure she stays home. She is pretty reckless and I wouldn’t put it beyond her to try attending classes anyway.”
“Just go,” The man growled.
“Oh, and before I forget it, you might want to call a doctor. I don’t want to sound like a worrywart, but she hurt that same ankle like five times by now. That can’t be healthy.”
“Fine, now go!” Sebastian snarled between clenched teeth.
“Okay, bye,” I turned around but instead of walking away I did a full 360° turn and smiled at the butler with a raised finger. “Oh, before I forget it, I wanted to tell you that I love what you did with your hair and beard. It looks great. Did you dye the white parts black or the other way around?”
“GO!” He finally bellowed and I did just that.
“Fine, fine. No need to be that loud. See you later.” I waved at the seething man and began walking away. After about twenty meters Judy joined me, her face as blank as ever.
“Your skills at getting under people’s skin are quite impressive.”
“What can I say? It’s a gift.” I answered with fake modesty. "He was also really irritating," I muttered under my breath, but she didn’t seem to care. Instead, she was busy flicking at her phone, making small sweeping motions to scroll through her notes. At last, she seemed to find what she was looking for and looked up at me.
“Question: What was that part about the…” She looked at her notes as if to double-check, though I already knew her memory was better than that. “’Prowling succubus?’”
“Oh, that? It was about Mystery Girl X. You know, the white-haired girl Josh was talking about before.”
“I see…” She poked the screen a few times in response. “And you have already talked to her?”
“Yeah, before your birthday party.”
For some reason the corners of Judy’s mouth seemed to tense up, a small gesture that I would have probably never noticed on someone else’s face. I was really getting attuned to her, I concluded, and I might have even considered that a good thing if her next words weren’t: “So you have already flirted with her.”
“No!” I protested aloud, getting tired of her accusations. “I was most definitely not flirting with her. In fact, if anything, she was flirting with me!”
“Did it work?”
I gave my assistant a look so flat it was nearly two dimensional. “No, of course not! She was terrible at it.”
“I see. So your extensive experience with flirting reached the point where you can criticize others for their lack of technique.”
“No,” I stressed the word so hard it nearly devolved into a grunt. “What I meant is that she was really, really clumsy about it. And no, I didn’t give her any leads, I only asked her not to cause trouble during your party.”
To my surprise Judy twitched awkwardly and pointedly refused to meet my eyes, instead burying herself in her little screen. Maybe she was feeling guilty for teasing me, I wondered? Of course she immediately destroyed the moment by throwing another inappropriate question my way.
“So, are you really not interested in Eleanor?”
I gave her a pointed look and sighed.
“No, I’m not. She is pretty and kinda amusing, but I have only known her for a few days… Though technically the same could be said about everyone else I know, I suppose.”
“What about the other girls?”
This time I gave her a downright severe look.
“Are we really doing this?”
“Research,” My assistant answered bluntly while flashing her phone at me. I sighed once again.
“No, I am not particularly interested in anyone.”
“Could you describe how you feel about them?”
“… Didn’t I already give you my analysis on them?”
“Yes, but I want to know about your personal opinion,” The look she gave me seemed especially serious. “We are supposed to collect observations separately, and I need a baseline to put mine against.”
I clicked my tongue, half irritated and half impressed. So many things happened in rapid succession recently that I completely forgot about the reason why I had Judy along for the ride.
“Yeah, I got it.”
She nodded and tapped on her phone, “Angeline?”
“Well… She is pretty cute and a bit of a troublemaker, but it is fun to be around her, so I suppose she’s okay.”
“I see. Amelia?”
“Oh, the class rep? She is pretty enough, and I especially like her hairdo. She is nice and helpful, but she could use some help with her reservations and I still cannot figure out how she keeps finding my blind spots to startle me.”
“Uh-hm. What about the new girl?”
“Mystery Girl X? She is pretty, I suppose, but I don’t really know much about her. For some reason she was also trying to repeatedly hit on me to change the subject when we talked. I am really curious why.”
I finished speaking, but Judy didn’t say a word. I turned to her and found her looking at me with a small frown, which when extrapolated through her deadpan was effectively a full-fledged glare… but then again, she also had her mouth set in a strange way, so maybe she was… pouting?
“Is there a problem?”
“According to you, you do not flirt.”
“… Yeah?” I answered hesitantly, not really getting where this came from.
“Then how come the first thing you note about every girl is that they are ‘pretty’?”
“… Because they are?” I answered with no small amount of bafflement. Judging by my assistant’s unchanging expression my explanation was unsatisfactory, so I quickly elaborated. “Listen, every girl is pretty in this world. That’s just how this place works.”
“Does that include me?”
“Um… Of course. Why wouldn’t it include you?”
“I see…” She looked away from me to type.
“Speaking of the opposite sex,” I grabbed the conversation by the horns before she could change gears again. “What about you and Josh?” To my sincerest surprise Judy stumbled and nearly fell over before she caught herself. “Whoa! Careful!” I withdrew my extended hand once I was sure she was steady on her feet and shook my head. “Listen, just because you are writing into your phone instead of your notebook, it doesn’t mean the ‘don’t take notes while walking on the street’ rule is suddenly void and null.”
She nodded, though it took some more prodding to get her to put away said phone into the same breast-pocket where her notebook resided just this morning.
“Good. So?” She looked at me uncertainly, so I repeated the question. “I asked; do you find yourself attracted to Josh?”
“No,” She answered with a surprising hardness to her voice.
“Really? You seemed pretty receptive when he gave you that phone-strap.” I pointed at the colored strap poking out of her pocket, which she unceremoniously tucked away in an instant. “Did you get hit by his harem-protagonist magic?”
“Most definitely not,” She answered, and this time I was almost 100% sure that her frown was hiding a pout. I made a mental note of that, then I chuckled and waved my hand dismissingly.
“Sorry, sorry. I just felt like teasing you. It’s not fair that only I get embarrassing questions.” I paused thoughtfully for a second before I continued. “Though to be fair, I didn’t entirely ask you just because of that, I am actually curious if you started to like Joshua. I actually want to know whether he really has something of a ‘harem protagonist aura’ that affects girls.” Judy shook her head a wee bit more vehemently than usual, but I decided not to comment on it. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. He is handsome, but so are most of the guys in our school, and he is not my type.”
“Oh... Wait, you say most guys are handsome?”
“There are exceptions.”
Judy pondered for a second before she answered. “One guy in 3-B. He is obese and wears thick glasses.”
“Oh, him? He doesn’t count.”
“No true Scotsman?”
I wanted to ask ‘Where did you even learn that term?’, but I refrained from derailing the conversation.
“No, he is just an otaku-archetype.”
I sighed. “So you know what ‘No true Scotsman’ means, but not what ‘otaku’ does? I should really give you that list of required reading materials I was talking about this morning... Anyways, an otaku is someone obsessed with a hobby, usually anime, and they are...”
And with that we successfully sailed past the stormy (and awkward) waters of the ‘How do you feel about person X?’ line of questions and instead we fell into the comfortable pace of one of our research discussions, which in this case mostly meant that I was explaining pop-culture- and storytelling-related tropes as she asked them in succession. It was a strangely relaxing experience, and before either of us knew it we were already at the intersection we met in the morning. Without further prompting, I led her down the road on the left, towards her house. We were almost there when suddenly she asked something peculiar.
“Are you really going to deal with the new girl?”
“Huh?” I probably made an embarrassingly slack face when I got hit by the non-sequitur (we were talking about what a ‘donkan’ male lead is like just a few seconds ago, you see), but I managed to gather my wits in a few seconds. “Oh, you mean Mystery Girl X?”
“You promised it to Eleanor.”
“That, I did,” I answered coyly just as we came to a stop in front of her house. Judy looked at me questioningly, no doubt intrigued by the smile on my face as I reached into my coat’s inner pocket and took out a phone. It was a different model than mine, and more importantly, it had a big red heart engraved on its back in a tribal-tattoo style. “She dropped this when the princess tackled her.”
Judy looked at the phone from several angles like it was some sort of artifact she had to study before she looked up at me again.
“What do you plan to do with it?”
“I... honestly don’t know yet, but it should be a good enough excuse to ask her out for a talk.”
“You only met her once and you already want to ask her out on a date? How bold.”
“Why you little...!” I scowled theatrically at the retreating girl. “I thought we were over this!”
We both froze in our tracks as Judy’s getaway-jab was foiled by a painfully energetic voice following the creaking of the front door. In said doorway stood a tall, young woman wearing casual clothes and bunny-slippers, though I couldn’t see most of the former because of the frilly yellow apron she had draped over her. Without missing a beat she opened her arms wide and glomped my unprepared assistant in a giant bear hug, her long, curly ponytail whipping around her head in the process like a brown avalanche.
“Mom!” Judy protested, which sounded especially funny in her stoic voice. “Stop embarrassing me!”
“Don’t be silly, darling!” Judy’s mother smiled as she noticed me. “A friend of yours?”
“Yes. He just took me home.”
“Oh, what a gentleman!” I could only smile awkwardly at the woman’s perma-smile, which was in polar opposite to her daughter’s permanent deadpan. She was one of those moms, the kind you would mistake for an older sister. “Please do come in, we are just about to have dinner!”
“Mom, don’t be overbearing.”
“I... have to respectfully decline,” I wedged myself into the conversation. “I have some important things to do, but I thank you for the invitation.”
“Oh, what a nice boy. Maybe some other day, then.” I gave her a tentative nod and said my goodbyes. I couldn’t even tell if Judy returned the courtesy, as she was completely overshadowed by the adult woman at her side waving after me... with a ladle in hand.
“Well, that just happened,” I muttered to myself while suppressing a smile.
After parting with Judy I headed right home. First I ascertained that the ninja maids have once again cleaned up the place and stocked the fridge in my absence. Once I checked everything and made notes of the amount of different food items in the fridge and in the cupboards for the sake of future experiments with this 'restocking' phenomenon, I returned to my room for a fresh change of clothes. After a quick shower and a bit of evening snack, I decided I was mentally ready for making the call.
As such, I fished out Mystery Girl X’s phone from my bag and sat down onto the comfy sofa in the living room. I undid the simple key-lock on the phone (which, since this was a smart-phone, was more of a 'screen-lock', but let's not get bogged down in semantics) and quickly browsed through the contact list. There were actually only a handful of numbers stored and only one that caught my interest, but that one did so big time. It read *My Esteemed Elder Brother*. Well, that either had to be so tongue-in-cheek that it broke through the skin, or someone was trying to translate an idiom. Either way, after some hesitation I decided to press the dial button.
The phone on the other side only rang twice before a snappy male voice picked it up.
“What is it?”
Hearing the flippant tone suddenly made my brows furrow in irritation. Just why was I getting so easily irritated today? Or better yet, where did all of these infuriating people come from? Anyways, I cleared my through and answered, “Well, hello there,” with mock joviality.
There was a brief but heavy silence on the line.
“Who is this?” The man finally spoke up, his voice lowered into a threatening glower.
“Exactly what I wanted to ask, though I suppose it doesn’t really matter," I answered in a calm and in no way condescending or purposefully annoying voice. "You see, I had a run-in with your sister today and she lost her phone in the process. She should know who I am, please tell her to come and talk to me next time she's skulking around.”
I could hear some commotion in the background and a moment later the voice in the phone gained a quality that I could only describe as ‘velvety’, but I couldn’t help but feel it was just masking a pool of industrial strength smugness underneath.
“Speak of the devil. It seems my dear sister has just come home. Do you wish to talk to her?”
“Might as well,” I told him with a shrug, though of course he couldn’t see that. After a few seconds more a familiar voice wormed its way into my ear.
It was indeed Mystery Girl X, and her voice sounded as husky and suggestive as ever. I took a huge breath and sighed loudly enough so that she could hear it too on the other end of the line.
“I told you to drop the vamp act, didn’t I?”
“I’m not...! I mean...” She pointedly cleared her throat and returned to her seductive purr. “I knew you would miss me, but to take my phone just so I would meet you again? What a naughty boy.”
“Excuse me? You dropped your phone during the tackle.”
“No need to be so defensive, sugar. I understand you perfectly. If you cannot wait, I guess I have no choice but to oblige.”
“No, actually I...” I paused and a sudden thought came to me. “Wait, are you perchance putting up a show in front of your brother?”
“In the park, you say? Under the night skies? How naughty!”
I sighed again.
“Okay, just for the record, could you say a total non-sequitur just so that I can be sure?”
I rubbed my forehead to stifle a chuckle.
“So you are putting up a show. Got it. You said something about the park, does this mean you want to meet me tonight?”
“Calm down, stallion. I need at least an hour to get ready. In the meantime think about me, it will make it all the better.”
“So, at the park, in an hour? Where exactly in the park?” She didn’t answer, so I ventured a suggestion. “How about the large information board by the gates with the rose-bushes?”
“Oh, you know I love when you talk dirty, but everything has its time and place. Very well though, I think we might try what you suggest anyway. See you soon.”
She put the phone down and I finally let the tension escape my shoulders. I was glad she agreed to meet me at the board, as that was the only part of the community park I actually knew. Speaking of which, since I had an hour to waste and got reminded of geography, I decided I might as well actually check a map before I forget it again.
With that rationale in mind, I briskly walked up the stairs and plopped down in front of my computer. I fired up my browser, clicked in the search bar and then promptly froze.
“I don’t even know the name of this place!” I muttered angrily, but then I had a different idea. “What if I search for the school? There cannot be many ‘Blue Cherry Highs’ out there...”
I did just that, and to my eminent satisfaction, I could find my school on the first page of the search results. After that, it only took a little digging to get an address, and once I put that into the online map...
“The hell...? I live on an island?”
It seemed like that was the case indeed. Apparently Blue Cherry High, and consequently I, was situated on the island of Critias in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. A small island by any measures, with only a single town and a few villages around the coast. By the way, this town’s name was apparently ‘Timaeus’.
“Timaeus and Critias... That sounds familiar...”
I typed those key-words into my search bar, and it turned out my initial hunch was right.
“Two books in Plato’s dialogs that talk about the mythical Atlantis… and this is an island in the middle of the Atlantic. Someone thought they were clever. Or at least I hope it’s not a prediction.”
It was around this time that I noticed that nearly half an hour had passed. I spent more time searching that I thought. I clicked my tongue and closed my browser. I needed at least twenty minutes to get to the park on foot, so if I wanted to arrive on time I had to leave soon. I threw a thicker coat on my back (it was well past seven at this point and the evening breeze was getting a little chilly), slid the lost phone into my pocket and left the house at a non-hurried pace.
I didn’t take any shortcuts, mostly since I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t get lost if I tried, yet somehow I still managed to get to the park a good ten minutes before the time we agreed upon, so I circled the place a few times to familiarize myself with the area. The play of starlight amongst the reddening leaves of the large oaks overhead looked surprisingly pretty, and I even spent a few minutes just staring at them by a public fountain. At last, roughly five minutes before the one hour mark, I headed for the actual meeting point, only to find Mystery Girl X coming from the opposite direction.
By chance, the two of us reached the huge information board at the same time and I nearly grimaced when I took a closer look at her. She was wearing a low-cut, sleeveless red blouse, a dark miniskirt, fishnet stockings and a pair of high heels. On an even closer look, I could also see a good amount of makeup on her face, as well as a random assortment of necklaces, bangles and other jewelry. The only two constant things about her apparel were her hair-beads and the silver choker around her neck.
“Ooooh, punctual. I like that in a man,” She spoke in a low voice as she tried her best to walk towards me in a sexy strut, but she either wasn’t used to high-heels or she just hasn’t mastered the technique yet, as she looked more clumsy than alluring. All in all, I couldn’t reign in my frustration any longer and buried my head in my hand, taking her aback to the point where she froze on her tracks.
“Seriously now,” I griped between my fingers. “Just how many times do I have to tell you to drop the act?”
“I’m...” She started to speak but I interrupted her with a scoff.
“And if we are at that, are you serious about those clothes?” She only looked at me sheepishly, so I shook my head in frustration. “It’s not the summer anymore. At this rate you are going to catch a cold!” I fumed angrily for a second or two longer before I decided what to do. “Okay, you stay here… Or better yet, there is a row of benches over there. It’s under a wall, so it should be protected from the wind. I will be with you shortly.”
I didn’t wait for her to answer; instead I took off while blessing my foresight of scouting out the place just a few minutes prior. When I returned a couple of minutes later, I found her sitting on one of the benches I indicated, with her legs gathered under herself in a pose that would have looked demure on any other girl, but with her outfit it seemed anachronistic as all hell. She looked up at me uncertainly as I got near and I handed her one of the paper cups I had in my hand.
“I didn’t know how you liked yours, but I figured you were a latte-person.”
She reached out timidly and took the cup from me, then let out a small hiss as she slackened her fingers around it.
“Of course it is; that’s why I bought it. Drink it slowly, don’t burn your tongue.”
She gave me a sheepish nod and took a small sip. In the meantime I sat down beside her and she shuddered, giving me a suspicious sideways glance.
“How is it?”
“It’s… tasty,” She hesitated for a moment, but at last she took a deep breath and added. “Thank… you.”
“You are welcome,” I told her with a smile and took a sip from my cup. I wasn’t really a coffee person, so mine had even more sugar and milk than hers, yet I still jolted from the slightly bitter aftertaste. “Needs more sugar…”
The under-dressed girl at my side was still looking at me with an expression that was dancing on the borderline between being apprehensive and curious. She didn’t seem like she was about to speak up, so I decided to break the ice.
“Is there something on my face?” I asked her, and she shook her head so hard she almost let some of her drink spill.
“Awawa! Sorry, I didn’t mean to stare!”
“Uh… No problem, I suppose.”
“It’s just that… I… I don’t know…”
“… Why are you nice to me?”
The question took me by surprise so much that I even forgot to shudder on my next sip of coffee.
“What do you mean? Do I have a reason not to be?”
“I… wouldn’t know…” She gave me a timid look before asking, “Could it be that you… fell madly in love with me on our first meeting?”
I blinked at her and then let out a sigh a Hindu universe-exhaling deity could envy.
“Here we go again… What is wrong with everyone today?”
“I’m sorry…” The girl apologized and I could only shake my head.
“No need, it’s not your fault. It’s just that… well, today has been hectic and I am a little tired of these kinds of questions.” I took a deep breath to clear my head and flashed a smile at her. “Anyways, I don’t think we have been properly introduced yet.”
“I am Leonard Dunning, nice to meet you.”
She gave me a tentative nod and answered in a mousy voice.
“I’m Neige Liliam Inanna. The… pleasure is mine.”
“Neige? Is that French?”
“It means ‘snow’.”
“Really?” I was genuinely interested now. “Because of your hair?” She nodded. “I see… Wait, how did they know you would have white hair? Aren’t all babies platinum blond anyway?” Neige only looked at me like she didn’t understand what I was getting at, so I waved my hand. “Doesn’t matter, I was just thinking aloud.”
For a few seconds we quietly sipped our drinks in a surprisingly comfortable silence.
“So… what happens now?” She finally asked me as she reached the bottom of her cup.
“First, this,” With a small flourish I reached into my pocket and handed her the lost-and-found phone. For a few seconds she looked at it like she was afraid to touch it, but at last she tentatively reached for it.
“You are welcome,” I smiled at her reassuringly. The more I talked to her, the more it felt like I was trying to befriend a scared bunny. “As for the other thing we needed to talk about…”
“Yes…?” Suddenly her posture tensed and she looked at me like she was about to bolt.
“Well, I wanted to ask you to please stop stalking Joshua.”
Her shoulders immediately drooped like she just heard some bad news she really didn’t want to face.
“I… cannot do that.”
“Because I need to get close to him to…” She cut herself off and shook her head. “No, I cannot talk about it.”
“Okay then. But why do you stalk him?” The look on her face told me that she thought I was senile and she already answered my question.
“I told you, I need to…”
“No, I mean why are you stalking him? Why don’t you just talk to him normally?”
“I can’t because… I…” She vacillated for a few seconds before she gave me an almost pleading look. “You think I could?”
“Of course you could! Though, first you would have to explain yourself to him properly. You didn’t really start off with the right foot, kissing him out of the blue and then trying to kidnap him and all that.”
Neige flushed lightly, a sight that was surprising in its small scale. Considering her complexion, her blushing should have been much more noticeable than the ones I have seen on the other girls in my social circle.
“But… But… He has guards! They wouldn’t let me close to him like that!”
“Guards? You mean the other girls?” She nodded repeatedly in response. “Well, I suppose they would be jealous, but then you just have to do it in a way they couldn’t object to it.” She looked at me intently, apparently waiting for me to give her actual tips. “Well, for example, there is the option to write him a letter. You could even ask him to talk to you at a secluded place where the other girls wouldn’t bother you. I can even cover for you two in that case. Or, if you are really dedicated, you could always transfer to our school, even if only for a little while. Just enough for you two to get acquainted so that you can be friends afterwards.” It was about this time I noticed Neige was looking at me with wide, unblinking eyes. “Is there a problem?”
“… Why are you helping me?”
I scratched my chin. The truth of the matter was that she just looked so vulnerable that I couldn’t help myself, but I naturally had other reasons. Deep and important reasons that were in no way just hasty rationalizations. No sir.
“You see… Let’s just say I am seeing the big picture, and I want to make these kinds of transitions as painless and hassle-free as possible.”
“I… see.” She wanted to say something else, but then her nose suddenly scrunched up and before I could even blink she let out a cute little sneeze, something I would have expected from a kitten that drank too heartily from the milk-pot. I involuntarily smiled at her and stood up.
“I guess that’s as good a signal that we should call it a day as any. We wouldn’t want you to catch a cold.”
“I’m fine…” She protested with a weak, nasal voice. I handed her a tissue. I always had spare paper tissues on me, they are incredibly useful and versatile; the common man’s towels. She blew her nose and quietly thanked me again.
“Do you live far from here? Should I call you a taxi?”
“You don’t need to…”
By the time she said that I was already in the middle of waving to an empty cab conveniently rolling down the street. The car stopped with a screech of burning rubber and backed up to the walkway. I strode up to the vehicle and Neige followed after me as if by reflex. I opened the back door of the cab and ushered her in. It was a fairly new car with clean seats and a thick plastic shield with a series of small holes separating the front seats from the back and a revolving container set in the middle. It was probably for safety reasons, I surmised. Once she seated herself I moved to the front to talk to the cabbie. He was a middle-aged guy with a well-trimmed beard and a thick accent that I couldn’t identify.
“Ask the lady.”
He turned back and looked over Neige. There were a number of different emotions running through his expression, from surprise to suspicion, with a bit of sleaze in-between. In the meantime she gave him the address, but she spoke so quietly that I could only understand the 87 at the end. The cabbie seemed to understand well enough though, so I gestured to him to lean closer.
“How much will that be?”
The man looked over me, no doubt paying extra attention to my attire and gauging just how much money I could have.
“Well, at this time of day, I reckon about sixty Jen should be enough.”
With that, I reached into my wallet and handed him sixty Jen in notes, plus about twenty more in change. The man smiled and leaned closer conspiratorially while he counted the money.
“You had a good time with your lady-friend?”
I managed to keep my face stoic and answered, “She is my sister.”
“Oh,” The man’s fingers froze mid-motion.
“She is going through a rebellious phase, if you know what I mean.”
“I can see that…”
“I didn’t want her to walk home like that, who knows what kinds of people could roam the streets at this hour. Could you make sure she gets to her place in one piece?”
Just finishing the counting and appearing very satisfied, the cabbie grinned at me widely, revealing a missing eye-teeth in the process.
“Most certainly, sir. Thank you for your patronage.”
I looked over at Neige, who appeared to be eyeing us suspiciously, though I was sure she couldn’t actually hear our whispers from the back seat. I moved to her side and knocked on the glass. After some stumbling and ineffectual tugging she finally managed to get the manual winder turning and she looked at me anxiously through the gap.
“I just wanted to ask you again to think about what I told you. Also, trust me when I say this: The vamp act won’t work on Joshua, don’t even try it.” To be completely honest, I wasn’t completely sure my friend would see through it, but that was one of the complications I wanted to nip in the bud.
“I’m not a vamp!” She riposted, raising her voice for the first time.
“If you say so,” I smirked at her and began to wave as the cabbie turned the ignition. “Goodbye, Snowy.”
She blinked at me, probably not understanding what I said, but after a bit of a slip she waved back, though by then the car was already moving and she was too far away to say her own goodbyes. I watched the taxi get out of sight around a corner and at last I let my posture slacken. I looked up at the sky and by then the night had completely enveloped the town. I put my hands into my pockets and headed home with light steps. A lot of things happened today, I thought to myself as I walked.
Judy collapsing, buying a phone, throwing a birthday party, making a possible new friend (and a possible new enemy)… I could only hope tomorrow would be slightly less hectic. I could really use a breather…