“Good morning, Chief.” Judy greeted me at our usual meeting spot.
“Morning,” I answered off-handedly before leaning closer to her face. She didn’t flinch, though she seemed a little confused by my behavior. “Just as expected. You have circles under your eyes.”
“It’s your fault,” She replied with the tiniest of pouts as she started walking, urging me to catch up with her. “You talk too much and it gets late by the time we finish.”
“Excuse me? Aren’t you the one who keeps calling me in the middle of the night even though I keep telling you to make it earlier?”
“I told you I can’t make it earlier. My parents would notice.”
“And why is that a bad thing?”
For a moment it seemed like she would answer right away, but then she closed her mouth and made me wait for a few seconds. “It would be awkward.”
“I don’t see what you are getting at,” I told her, but before I could ask her to clarify we both noticed Joshua down the street waving at us, and thus the conversation quickly got forgotten.
“Hey guys,” He greeted us with a toothy smile before falling in line on my other side. “What were you arguing about?”
“We weren’t arguing,” Judy answered flatly while retrieving her phone, an action I have long since identified as her way of jumping out of a conversation she didn’t want to take part in.
“Really? It looked like one from where I was standing.” Josh paused and when he spoke again he had a knowing smile on his face. “Oooooh, I get it. It’s one of those kinds of quarrels.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you know,” He answered, his smile gaining an impish quality that would have been more at home at Angie’s face. The girl was a bad influence on him. However, before I could form an eloquent answer that in no way involved embarrassedly punching him in the shoulder, we rounded a corner and the sight in front of us once again derailed the conversation.
It was a rare sight, the princess and Snowy all by themselves. More surprisingly though, the two of them seemed to be staring daggers at each other, and even at a distance I could tell that Snowy was in her vamp mode. It was all in the body language. Anyways, we looked at each other with Josh and hurried our steps without saying a word, though I admit I was tempted to say, ‘You see, that is a quarrel.’
Once we got close enough I could make out snippets of their conversation, though their growling made it somewhat hard to understand.
“I’m just saying, you have to make up your mind!” Snowy hissed with a glare that looked wholly alien on her face.
“It is none of your business!” The princess answered, her glare obviously being much more natural.
“It is! I care about both of them!”
“Oh really? Then who needs to make up her mind? You or…”
It was at this point that the princess noticed us and she paled as she frantically tried to bite back her words.
“Morning,” I greeted both of them with a smile. The princess nodded in response, though her eyes were still wide open and she seemed to be mortified, probably worried about just how much of the conversation we had heard.
Snowy, on the other hand, was flushing red and she cleared her throat and kept sheepishly glancing between us.
“Um… Hi. I didn’t notice you coming.”
“Right…” Josh muttered with an awkward smile. “I guess we should have called out to you earlier, huh?”
“Hindsight, it's 20/20,” I said with a shrug before turning to the still pale princess. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” She squeaked in an uncharacteristically high voice before she caught herself, and before I could say anything else she turned heel and rushed down the street with what I presumed was one of her muffled cutesy squeals.
“Well, I haven’t seen that reaction in a while,” I muttered under my breath, then turned to Snowy. “What were you two arguing about?”
“Um… I can’t… I mean… It’s girl stuff…”
“Oh… I see.”
“You can tell me then,” Judy suddenly declared while pocketing her phone.
Snowy looked at her and her mouth seemed like it was about to say ‘no’, but then she paused, obviously thinking hard for a moment or two, and then she nodded.
“Good girl,” My assistant cooed, which sounded quite weird with her usual flat tone, and patted Snowy on the head. When she noticed my slightly surprised expression she gave me a questioning look and stopped rubbing her head with a final motion that managed to give the white haired girl the mother of all cowlicks. “Is there a problem?”
“No, I was just surprised how familiar you two were acting, that’s all.”
“I’m just doting on my cute junior.”
In the meantime, Snowy straightened her hair and the four of us fell in line and continued our morning commute. For some reason my assistant was really adamant about voicing her opinion on how I couldn’t stop her from being friendly with Snowy even if I tried. I had a feeling there might have been some hidden subtext there, but for the love of me I couldn’t figure out what it was.
We arrived to school with about ten minutes to spare. I nodded at the armband guy by the gate as usual and he returned the gesture, but he seemed to be disapproving of my presence no matter whether I was on time or not. Our group broke apart, switched shoes and banded together again with the perfect timing of a well-oiled machine and we were already walking up the stairs by the time I noticed something that should have been blindingly obvious already.
“By the way, where is Angie?”
Josh shrugged his shoulders. “Early morning tennis practice. They are going to have a tournament soon.”
“Really? She never mentioned it....” I said, but as far as I knew she might have. She had a bit of a motor-mouth, so keeping track of everything she said could be a little challenging sometimes.
Once we reached our floor we said goodbye to Snowy and the rest of us headed for the classroom. I made a special note of Angie, who was sprawled over her desk and all but snoring. She wasn’t a morning person to begin with, so I figured the early practice knocked her out cold. I couldn’t see the class rep at her desk, so I scanned the room and found her standing over by the princess. Josh and I made our way over to them and Judy wordlessly followed after us.
“Morning,” I greeted the two with a reserved smile.
“Good morning Leo,” The class rep answered reflexively, but then she frowned at me, earning a raised eyebrow in turn. “Is this your doing?” She asked while gesturing to the princess.
I followed her motion and took a closer look at the girl in question. She was sitting by her desk as usual, and while she had her head down and buried in her arms, said pose wasn’t unusual enough (at least for her, considering her previous outbursts) to justify the class rep’s question. I looked over to Josh and he looked just as confused as I felt.
“Hey, Elly? Is everything all right?” He asked tentatively while reaching out a hand. The princess twitched and shook her head while it was still buried in her arms.
“Shut up! I don’t want to talk to you!”
“Ouch princess. That’s harsh.” I added, at which she shook her head even harder.
“Shut up! I don’t want to talk to you either! Leave me alone!”
We all looked at each other and the class rep gestured for us to move to her desk. We all did so before she began; “What happened?”
“We don’t really know either,” I told her with the utmost sincerity. “She had a fight with Snowy in the morning, but it didn’t seem that serious.”
“We don’t know, they stopped when we got close,” Josh supplied the answer this time around.
The class rep didn’t say anything and glanced over to the princess, concern clearly showing on her face. After a little consideration, I tapped her shoulder to get her attention and dusted off my best reassuring smile.
“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure they will make up in no time.”
“I don’t know… Telling you off is one thing, but she also chased Joshua away. That’s not normal.”
For a moment I debated whether I should get offended by her jab, but I decided it wasn’t too far off from the truth, so I changed the subject instead.
“Judy said she would get the reason out of Snowy, right?” I nodded towards my assistant and she awkwardly nodded back. “Until then, let’s give the princess a little personal space. Don’t stress over it.”
The class rep didn’t seem one hundred percent satisfied with my suggestion, but ultimately she relented and everyone returned to their seats without bothering the princess. Of course, since she was sitting right in front of me it was a little harder for me to ignore her, but somehow I managed to restrain my nosiness.
It was almost time for the lesson to start when my phone vibrated in my breast pocket. I sneakily took it out and took a peak at the sender before I sent an inquisitive glance at my assistant. She shook her phone in her hand, which probably indicated I should read her text message. I rolled my eyes and opened said message, and before I knew it my eyebrows were already climbing my forehead in surprise.
Somehow, my assistant managed to write about 500 words in the span of the few minutes since she sat down. Not only that, it was an extremely dryly written message that sounded more like a formal letter than something a teenage girl would write… except that it was also full of emoji and other emoticons, half of which I have never even seen before. In retrospect, I suppose her writing style reflected her personality surprisingly well, but it was still a little jarring at the time.
Anyways, to sum up her message; it said she exchanged texts with Snowy and she promised she would tell me what the two were arguing about in private. She also warned me not to get too involved in what was happening and to just observe. I sighed and sent her back a quick reply of grudging agreement.
To put it bluntly, I wanted to get involved, even against Judy’s wishes. While this fight in the morning did shake up the ennui I was falling into, it also smelled like drama, and I really, really didn’t want to have that. Either way, our textual conversation ended when Mrs. Applebottom showed up and we began another perfectly average school day.
At the end of the following break Judy and I went outside to talk, hunkering down near the stairwell out of earshot from the placeholders.
“You can’t tell me?” I exclaimed in a bout of incredulity-induced carelessness. My assistant looked at me disapprovingly and shook her head, so I toned my voice down a little and asked; “Why?”
“Neige made me promise I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Me in particular?” She nodded. “Okay, so how about you tell it to Angie and I ask her?”
“Chief, please don’t try to rules lawyer me.”
“… Yeah, right. Sorry.”
She might have taken pity on me, as Judy leaned closer and whispered; “It concerns your social life. She didn’t want me to tell you because she didn’t want to cause complications for you.”
Well, that was a hint. Snowy was a good girl, so it was something I could imagine her saying, but it didn’t make me any less curious (or worried) about exactly what their fight was about.
“All right then, time for Plan B.”
“Plan B?” Judy repeated after me with a quizzical slant in her face.
“Lunch break on the roof. We are going to gather the entire gang and force Snowy and the princess to interact and make up.”
Judy’s eyes ever so slightly narrowed at my proclamation.
“That sounds like interfering to me.”
I set my jaw and frowned at her comment. “Yes. Yes it is.”
“I thought we agreed we wouldn’t interfere.”
“So you would rather see our friends going at each other’s throats?”
Judy’s expression darkened and she actually returned my frown.
“That’s a dirty question.”
“Your answer?” I pressed, and after staring daggers at each other for a few seconds she let out an indignant huff.
“You see, I knew you would come around.”
“Don’t stretch your luck. I will start to hate you if you keep doing that.”
“Sure, sure,” I placated her with a smile. “Okay, I will take care of the princess, you get the others.”
I wanted to make some plans, but then the bell rang and we had to hurry back to the classroom.
Once lunch break rolled around (meaning two boring lessons later) I gave Judy the sign to start gathering the others. Unfortunately we didn’t agree on a sign beforehand, but I hoped my thumb up and winning smile gave her the right idea anyways. At least she did leave the classroom in the direction of the stairwell, probably going to get Snowy, so that was a start. As for me, I had the much more difficult task of convincing the still lethargic princess to come along with me. I waited for Josh and the rest of the group to leave before I limbered up my shoulders and proceeded to tap the princess between the shoulder blades.
She automatically glanced back, but then she remembered that she should be sulking and she quickly hid her face again.
“Leave me alone. I told you I don’t want to talk to you.”
“Yes, but that was in the morning. Now it’s lunch-time.”
“Shut up. I told you to leave me alone.”
“Oh please…” I stood up and circled around her desk. “Listen, against my best efforts, I still don’t know why you are sulking like that, but you cannot skip lunch just because of that. It’s bad for your health.” She didn’t answer, so I leaned closer and whispered in a low voice, “If you don’t come to eat with us, I might be forced to do something really embarrassing.”
She visibly shuddered and, after a few seconds of tense silence, she peeked up.
“Well, for starters, I might have to pick you up and carry you to the roof.” I could see her eyes widen behind her bangs. “In fact, I will do it in a princess carry. It would be fitting.”
“… I-I will scream and call you a pervert!”
“You do that anyways. People are used to it by now.”
“I-I-I will bite you then! I will bite you really hard!”
“A small price,” I told her as I leaned even closer. I wanted to tease her a little more, but instead when I got closer she jumped out of her chair with an especially long and loud squeak and nearly head-butted me in the process. It seemed like she was about to dart away, so I instinctively reached after her and grabbed her by the hand. The moment I did so her voice abruptly cut out and she gave me one of those rare ‘doe in the headlights’ stares. I shook my head and flared my nostrils.
“Why does everything have to be so complicated with you? Come on, let’s go.” I started to drag her along, but she held onto her desk.
“What now?” I asked as I faced her again. “Do you want me to carry you after all?”
“No! Absolutely not! It’s… I need to get my wallet and…”
“Don’t worry about it, it’s my treat,” Saying so I continued dragging the beet-red girl after me, and thankfully she stopped protesting by the time we exited through the door.
Even though we stopped by the cafeteria to get a pair of lunchboxes (which were tricky to carry since I had to keep holding on to the princess lest she would run away), we managed to get to the roof with at least forty minutes left from the lunch break. Once I opened the door and the princess looked through, she finally spoke up for the first time since we left the classroom.
“I thought it would be just the two of us.”
“I don’t remember ever saying that,” I answered coyly. “Come on, let’s not leave the others waiting.”
I walked up to the gang sitting on the benches near the far corner of the roof and raised my hand still clasped on the princess’ as we got close.
“Sorry for being late, I was weighted down a little,” I looked over to girl at my side and smiled at her, and even though it seemed like she was fighting against the urge, she returned the gesture in a fashion.
I took that as a fairly good indication that she wouldn’t try to run away once I let go of her hand, so I did just that and focused my attention at Snowy instead. To my surprise she wore a disapproving frown that was directed as much at me as it was at the blonde girl.
The princess seemed to share the sentiment, as she made it a point to sit as far from the white-haired girl as possible. We weren’t up to a good start. I needed an ice-breaker.
“The weather is getting chilly, isn’t it?” I opened the conversation.
“Yeah,” Angie nodded with an exaggerated shiver. “Winter is coming.”
She gave me a meaningful look, like I was supposed to react to that.
“Was that a reference?”
Angie set her lips in a thin line of disapproval and casually snatched away a croquette from my lunchbox.
“Hey! What was that for!”
“It’s punishment for being an uncultured swine.” She stated haughtily before throwing the croquette into her mouth. More importantly though, she was derailing the conversation, so I subtly signaled towards Josh for support.
“That may be,” He started uncertainly, “But I think Leo has a point. Soon we won’t be able to have lunch breaks up here. Should we move to the cafeteria?”
“I don’t know,” I spoke while theatrically rubbing my chin, “What do you guys think?”
I purposefully asked the question while glancing over at the princess. She obviously received my intention, as she immediately shuddered.
“I… I don’t know.”
To my surprise (and dread), Snowy let out a scoff.
“What was that?” The princess responded eagerly with one of her traditional glares.
“Nothing.” She said brazenly while opening her own lunchbox. “I don’t think any of us were expecting you to come to a decision in the first place.”
The princess dangerously narrowed her eyes at the comment and I had a feeling this was about to erupt into a full-fledged catfight, so I extended my arm between the two.
“Whoa there, guys. Calm down.”
“I am calm,” Snowy answered with a small pout.
“No you are not,” I countered. “Why are you picking a fight? It’s not like you.”
This time it was the princess’ turn to snort, which then shortly turned into a derisive chuckle.
“Right, like you would actually know what she is like.”
Contrary to my best efforts, it seemed like the situation was only getting worse by the second. Worse still, Snowy suddenly stood up and slipped into her vamp persona with a throaty, “What was that?!”
Not giving an inch, the princess also sprung to her feet with a glower.
“Blood is thicker than water. You might try to act like the good girl, and I played along because Leo asked me to, but I am not going to—!”
I was about to stand up as well to cut between the two, but before I could do that another voice cut off the princess’s words.
“Stop it! Stop fighting!” Josh yelled out, startling everyone present, including me. There was a moment of silence, but then the princess let out a harsh “Hmpf!” and began walking towards the roof exit before I could grab her. Though, to be honest, I didn’t even try. This plan of mine turned into an unmitigated disaster, and keeping the princess around against her will would have only made things worse.
Once she left, Snowy let out a pent-up breath and she slowly slouched back onto the bench next to Josh without a word and began eating with morose movements. For a minute or two the rest of the group kept sharing uncertain glances with each other, but in the end we began eating in silence as well. Needless to say, it was probably the most unpleasant group-lunch we ever had.
It didn’t mean I stopped thinking though. In fact, the situation was driving me crazy. I wanted them to get along. I wanted everyone to get along. I hated to see them at each other’s throats like that, and the possibility that my meddling made it worse left me with a pang of guilt I was unfamiliar with.
I was so immersed in these thoughts that I barely noticed that one by one everybody left the roof. In the end there were only two people left, Judy and I. She moved to my side and whispered; “It didn’t work out.”
“No, it didn’t,” I answered bitterly. “I don’t know what to do now.”
“Nothing?” She proposed. “We should stop getting involved and get back to research.”
“But there is nothing to research anymore!” I finally snapped and yelled at her. I immediately regretted the outburst and hid my face in my palm with a groan. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to shout.”
Judy didn’t answer, but I could see her nodding from the corner of my eye. By that point I was too dispirited by my own words to care though. It was an unspoken truth I have been chewing on for the better part of a week. Sure, there have been a few additions every now and then, but as far as figuring out the nature of this place was concerned, we hit a roadblock the size of a mountain.
We had quite firmly established this world being run on the logic of a school life harem series, and we described and tested most of the elements related to that, but by this point we ran out of even those. Worst of all, said research brought us no closer to the answers to the ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’ questions, arguably the most important ones we had to solve.
I was broken out of my momentary lapse into depression by a soft hand tapping on my shoulder. I glanced up and found Judy holding onto me with an expression that I could tell was pained under her poker face.
“You need to relax, chief. You are getting unhinged.”
I chuckled in self-derision and then looked up at the sky while taking a deep breath
“Yeah, I think stress is finally catching up with me.” I didn’t want to tell her, but I figured it didn’t help that, due to my lack of need for sleep, I had an extra eight hours per day to ponder over these things. It wasn’t healthy in the long run.
“You could use a date then.” My gaze snapped back at her and this time the laugh forcing its way through my teeth was a bit more genuine. She looked at me funny for a moment before she added, with just the barest hints of pouting in her voice: “Well, it worked for me.”
“I know, I know,” I replied while trying to rein in my chuckles. “Maybe you are right. Are you volunteering?” She nodded sharply. “Very well. I will think about it. For now we should get going. The break is almost over.” I stood up and Judy followed suit. We were almost at the door when I stopped and turned to her. “By the way... Thank you.”
She hesitated for a moment, but then a small smile took hold of her lips and she answered “Don’t even mention it chief. This is what I’m here for.”
Needless to say, I couldn’t really focus on the afternoon classes. Although, to be perfectly honest, I never paid that much attention to them to begin with. My sleepless condition left me with plenty of free time to study whenever I wanted to take my mind off of certain things, which happened quite often these days. There was only one problem this time: I was trying to study, but I couldn’t. I had no idea why, but I had a sense of foreboding rising in the pit of my stomach and it always broke my concentration. It must have been the stress; I concluded.
At last the final bell rang and I couldn’t help but sigh in a mixture of relief and exhaustion. The princess in front of me sprung to her feet before the chime even finished, which would have been rude to the teacher if she didn’t immediately cut herself off as usual. I almost smiled about it. I got so used to her cutting the lessons short that I didn’t even take note of it under normal circumstances.
Anyways, as I was saying, the princess stood up and glanced back at me. When our eyes met she gave me an indignant “Hmpf!” and she stormed out of the classroom. It reminded me of her behavior when she transferred, but after all the time I spent with her, her cold shoulder felt especially chilly and even a bit distressing.
I tried not to dwell too much on it and instead I waved to Judy, signaling for her to wait for me. The others left while I was packing my bag, probably expecting to meet us by the lockers, but I had other plans. I waited for my assistant to come over before I stood up as well.
“Are you available this afternoon?”
She gave me a quizzical look in turn.
“No,” I said while trying to keep exasperation from showing in my voice. “I’m still thinking about that.”
“You see chief, this is your problem. You are indecisive.”
I sent a critical look in her direction and followed it up with a mocking little nod.
“Noted. But back to the actual reason I wanted to talk to you: I wanted you to tell me what the princess and Snowy were fighting about so that we can figure out a way to defuse the situation.”
Judy shook her head. “I told you I promised…”
“I know,” I interrupted with a hand raised to stop her. “I know, but I cannot deal with this situation without knowing why it happened. If you cannot tell me outright, at least give me a clue.”
Judy looked around, probably to see if there were any placeholders that could overhear us talking (though I didn’t know why, those guys were still as flaky as ever and letting them hear anything wouldn’t have meant much), and gestured for me to move over to the windows, out of earshot. Once we were there she hesitated for a few seconds, but at last she took a deep breath and spoke in a hushed, though still deadpan voice.
“You are aware that Eleanor likes you, right?”
I nodded immediately. “Yeah, she is tsundere about it, but it makes it all the more obvious. What of it?”
My assistant looked at me like I just said something incredibly dumb, so I wiggled my eyebrows to urge her to continue.
“If you know that much, how can you not figure out the problem? Chief, you are supposed to be smart.”
I grimaced and rubbed my face before I spoke again.
“Fine, let’s just presume I’m an idiot. How is her liking me and her fight with Snowy related?”
“It’s because she likes you, and you are stringing her along.” My assistant finally spilled the beans with clear disapproval in her voice.
“No I’m not,” I denied immediately. “I’m just being friendly.”
“No chief, you are flirting with her. Constantly.”
“No, I’m definitely not.”
At last she shook her head and leaned even closer.
“Even if you don’t think you do, that’s what it looks like, and she certainly takes it that way.”
“But… Even if what you say is true, it shouldn’t matter. She loves Josh.”
Judy stayed silent for several seconds after this. At last she took out her phone and began tapping on it. I waited patiently for her to finish, and at last she turned the screen in my direction. It was a page from her notes, one about the tropes related to romance stories, with ‘Love Triangle’ being highlighted. I let out a scoffing laugh and shook my head.
“Oh please… Like that would happen.”
“Chief,” Judy cut me off with the outmost seriousness as she crossed her arms under her chest. “This world runs on archetypes and tropes. Can you really say this is implausible?” I opened my mouth to answer, but I thought better of it and closed it again. She was right. Damn, she was right. As if waiting for the moment to deliver the coup the grace, Judy added; “If you are still unsure, I can tell you, with one hundred percent certainty that you are in a love triangle. There is no question about that.”
I looked her in the eye and my shoulders dropped in resignation, as if on their own.
“So, that means that I am the one who caused this whole mess? Marvelous.” I exhaled sharply and shook my head to clear it. “But how am I supposed to fix that? And how is that related to Snowy? Don’t tell me she…”
And then, right in the middle of that question, my entire world turned literally upside down. Well, maybe not ‘literally’ literally, but close. There was a flash of nausea washing over me that went away as fast as it came, and when I blinked the world before my eyes appeared inverse, as if I was staring at an old photo negative. I barely had time to process the sight though, as there was another short flash and the scenery returned to normal.
“What the hell?!” I exclaimed as I took a step back and blinked repeatedly. On second thought, things weren’t normal after all. As my eyes adjusted I quickly realized that suddenly all the colors around me got muted and gained a purplish hue. Not only that, but the walls, the desks, even the people were covered in eerie, glowing hairline-cracks that covered them in spider-web patterns. Speaking of people, all of them were abruptly replaced with generic mannequins frozen in place. They were grey, completely bald and featureless.
“Judy?” I looked at my assistant, and to my shock and horror she was also missing, replaced with a mannequin with its hands crossed in a mirror image of hers. I reached out and touched its shoulder. It felt hard but strangely warm to the touch, and as I moved my hand I could feel small jolts of electricity when it came in contact with the glowing cracks.
“Okay,” I whispered as I took a deep breath. “I either went crazy, or something is really, really wrong here…”
I leaned closer and tried to peek at the mannequin’s face, and to my shock I found Judy looking at me… but then her face was gone and I was looking at a featureless face again. It was as if the two images were overlaid on each other, fading in and out as I was looking at it. At last I reached out again, grabbed hold of my assistant/mannequin’s shoulder and gave it a good shake.
There was another flash of light and the two images abruptly snapped together in front of my mind’s eye. I blinked in surprise, and when I opened my eyes again I was face to face with my assistant. Her eyes were wide open and it seemed like she was in the middle of crying out in surprise. Instead she closed her mouth and very slowly looked around in the room.
“Chief… What just happened?”
“I’ll be damned if I know,” I answered honestly as I let go of her. “One moment we were talking and in the next…” I gestured vaguely towards the classroom. “… this happened.”
We didn’t have much time to think about the absurdity of the situation, as suddenly the entire building was shaken.
“Earthquake?” I exclaimed in surprise.
Judy stumbled forwards, but I managed to catch her. As I did so however, something in the edge of my vision caught my attention and drew it to the field outside the window. I had to double-check to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, but once I was certain I tapped Judy on the shoulder and pointed at the sight.
“Please tell me you can see that too…”
She followed my pointing hand and after a few moments of hesitation she nodded.
“If you mean Eleanor and Neige, then yes, I can see them.”
“And…?” I urged her with a question while trying to keep the confusion-infused panic from buckling my voice.
“… They have horns.”
I let out a sigh. Good. I wasn’t going crazy then. The world was going crazy. That was soooo much better.
I unconsciously began taking slow and measured breaths. Right, I needed to keep calm. Calm people live, hysterical people die. Panicking won’t solve anything. Learning about what’s going on solves things, not panicking. Calm, good. Panic, bad.
Following that line of though I leaned on the windowsill and squinted to take a better look. Snowy and the princess were facing each other on the grassy field near the footpath leading to the sports field. They were still wearing their school uniforms, but even from this distance I could see that they had changed.
The princess was standing in what looked like a martial arts stance and her hands were covered in something dark red. At first glance I might have rationalized that it was some kind of glove, but then she also sported a number of horns. From the place I was standing at I could see a pair of long, ridged red horns in a flat S shape arching over her head at a slight angle, while between those there were three smaller, flat horns ending in points; two smaller ones and one big one in the middle. Looking at them together reminded me of a crown or at the very least an oversized diadem.
I couldn’t take as good a look at Snowy, as she was slightly farther away, but she seemed to have a pair of horns as well. Hers were shorter and curled downwards, framing her face instead of arching over her head. Then, right as I was looking at her, her clothes apparently exploded off her body as a pair of large, leathery wings emerged from her back. Once even the last vestiges of her clothes have disintegrated in something that looked like blue fire, I could take a better look at her again. Now she was dressed in something that I could only call black leather fetish outfit that left most of her skin uncovered. She also had long black boots that reached up to her thighs and if her posture was any indication they ended in stiletto heels.
Most importantly though, now she sported organic-looking wings that fanned out behind her before they began slowly flapping and taking her to the air. A small corner of my mind tried its hardest to inform me that wings of that size would never be able to lift a person. Another, much louder part of my brain however, was way too occupied with the fact that she had bloody wings to care about that. I mean… Holy mother of cheesecakes, how was one supposed to think straight after seeing something like that?!
Well, as it happened the pair on the field gave me a perfect reason to do so, as suddenly the princess lunged forwards and raised her right hand in a clawing motion, swiping at the white haired girl before she could take to the air. Snowy responded by pointing her hand at the other girl, and in a split-second a pillar of ice materialized in front of her; which the princess promptly tore apart like it was made of styrofoam. The sight made the blood run cold in my veins and all the confused, intrigued and terrified thoughts vying for the attention of my frontal lobe were silenced by one overwhelming impulse that seared through my mind like a blazing star.
“I have to stop this!” I exclaimed as I turned around and dashed out of the classroom in an adrenaline-fueled frenzy. I burst through the half-closed door, tearing the flimsy sliding apparatus off its buckles and darted towards the stairwell. I somehow managed to cover each turn of the stairs in less than three steps even while weaving between the frozen mannequins, and reached the ground floor faster than I thought humanly possible. I dashed down the alley between the shoe lockers, and to my horror I found that the automatic doors of the main entrance weren’t working. I had no time to look for another exit. In retrospect, what I was about to do was incredibly foolish, but in my defense, I was pretty out of it.
So, I ran back, got down into a runner’s start and sprinted towards the still closed entrance. I figured that the doors must have been made with safety glass to avoid accidents, so I planned on using my shoulder to ram right through it. Since there was a set of stairs on the other side, I even prepared a plan for jumping off towards the left side where I had a better chance of landing on the grass instead of the paved walkway in case I couldn’t stop my momentum. Well, ‘plan’ might be too strong of a word for my hastily cobbled together ideas, but hey, at least I was trying.
Nevertheless, I was still woefully unprepared for what was about to happen. On my last step I braced myself and rammed the glass… only to pass right through it. The unexpected lack of resistance made me stumble for a moment, which I tried to salvage by jumping forwards and rolling like I ‘planned’. My hang-time was actually much shorter than I expected, but I hit the ground fairly well, though I was certain I got some light bruises out of the affair. I got onto my feet in a moment, but when I looked back I froze for a second as I realized I was on the grass a good three meters from the edge of the walkway, way further than I even hoped I could jump. Under other circumstances I would have been shocked and wondered what just happened, but then a low, rumbling noise from the direction of the field erased any such stray thoughts and I broke into a sprint once again.
I rounded the main building at a pace where a single missed step could have introduced my face to the ground before I could even blink. I didn’t care though; my adrenaline-fueled heart was beating in my ear like a war drum and tuned out any thoughts not related to getting me to the girls even faster. I reached the field under the classroom window and came to a stumbling halt. They weren’t there.
I could see signs of some outrageous battle, including what appeared to be several centimeters deep claw marks on a tree and a giant icicle stuck in the ground with moisture condensing around it in a fine mist. I looked left and right, trying to figure out where they had gone, when another low rumble shook the ground under my feet. It was soon accompanied by a loud, pained scream.
I could practically feel the blood escaping my face and my legs immediately took off in the direction of the noise, before I could even consciously note that it was coming from the track field. It made sense in retrospect, I suppose. Where else would they find a large open field for their battling needs?
Once I got closer I finally caught a glimpse of the two. Snowy was flying low while chucking what seemed to be spear-like double-ended icicles at the princess, who in turn was circling around her in a mad dash while periodically dodging any projectiles that came too close. For those she couldn’t dodge, she swatted them out of the air with her forearm, which also caused her to stumble for a few moments before she resumed her sprinting.
After one such occasion she threw her hands back and opened her mouth wide. The low growl coming out of her throat made it obvious that she was the source of the periodical rumbling I experienced. However, it wasn’t just a roar that came out of her mouth, as it was immediately followed by, for lack of better description, a searing bright red laser beam. It wasn’t an actual laser though, as it moved slower than the speed of light (not to mention it was visible), but it was still wicked fast.
Snowy spun in the air and avoided the brunt of the beam, but she lost a lot of altitude in the process. She came to an abrupt stop just a couple of meters over the ground and raised both of her hands over her head. As she did so, a number of those long icicle spears started forming over her hands, floating and rotating around their axis as they grew to the point where the middle one was thicker than her thigh.
Seeing that, the princess dug her feet into the ground of the field and opened her mouth again. This time there was no immediate roar, instead the ground itself began pulsing as a steadily growing pinpoint of crimson light appeared in front of her mouth.
It was right at this point that I jumped over the railing separating the track field from the rest of the grounds and I forced my aching legs into one last, desperate dash. My entire vision shrunk into a tunnel as I pushed my adrenaline-addled body to its limits. I covered the thirty or so meters at olympic speeds and came to a screeching halt between the two of them, planting my feet so hard I wouldn’t have been surprised if I left skid-marks behind me. I spread my arms open, pointing one open hand at Snowy and the other at the princess and yelled so hard it made my own ears ring.
“WHAT THE BLOODY HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?!”
There was a moment of silence, only broken when the ball of light in front of the princess’ face popped out of existence with, fittingly enough, a quiet ‘pop’ reminiscent of a bursting bubble. The face it revealed by its disappearance was priceless, and I might have even found it amusing if I wasn’t in the grip of a fury so cold it could freeze stars. Snowy’s expression wasn’t any better either, and she visibly shuddered as I looked at her.
“Snowy, get down from there in this instant! And put those away, you are going to poke someone’s eyes out!”
“Y-Y-Yes!” She squeaked as she all but fell to the ground. Her hands made some sort of gesture and the icicles floating over her head began sublimating out of existence.
Once I was certain they were gone I turned to the princess.
“And what do you think you were doing?!” I growled at her with a mixture of outrage and disappointment. “You could have killed her!”
“I…” She shrunk back like a frightened kitten even though, if their fight was any indication, she could have probably broken me in half like a twig. After a few seconds of imitating a fish by opening and closing her mouth without a sound she finally averted her eyes and mumbled, “It wasn’t real dragon fire. It wouldn’t have killed her. Probably.”
“Probably?!” She twitched and lowered her head in shame. I groaned aloud and waved both my hands. “Come here, both of you.”
The two looked at me, and then each other before they both lowered their faces again and shuffled over to me. Now that blood finally began to return to my adrenaline-stream I calmed down a little and took the opportunity to look at them a bit closer.
They were both bruised and Snowy had what appeared to be a shallow scratch on her leg that already stopped bleeding, but otherwise they didn’t seem to be seriously hurt. That was good. A closer look also shone light on a few uncertain things from before. What from a distance looked like red gloves on the princess turned out to be her hands. They were now covered up to her elbows in small red scales that had a pearlescent shine to them and her fingers ended in short but vicious-looking claws instead of nails. A quick glance at her legs also revealed that she had scales on them too; reaching up to her mid-thighs just under the hem of her uniform’s skirt. Speaking of skirts, there was also something unusual on her butt, or rather protruding from above her butt: a thick, somewhat prehensile lizard tail covered similarly to her extremities. I could also see a little bit of her belly peeking through her disheveled clothes and it was covered in larger, flesh-toned scales, yet her face seemed completely normal aside of the horns above her forehead (which I had to admit gave her a bit of a regal appearance).
A glance at Snowy also revealed a number of new insights. The ‘fetish gear’ I saw on her from a distance appeared to be a lusterless, leathery-looking black material that was sticking to her skin like it was fused with it. It didn’t change the fact that it barely covered her body though, as it was hardly more than a thong, a pair of long boots, an X shaped set of straps covering her breasts and long-sleeved gloves that reached up almost to her armpit. All she needed was a whip and she could have been mistaken for a dominatrix if not for the large black wings on her back, currently folded in a way that made them look deceptively small, and the thin black tail ending in a spade.
I stayed silent for several seconds on purpose before I channeled my best ‘disapproving parent’ impression and slowly shook my head.
“I am disappointed.” They lowered their heads again, and I used the opportunity to bonk them over the head (careful to avoid the horns) before I continued with; “Also, I’m angry.”
“Sorry…” Snowy apologized reflexively.
“Sorry,” The princess parroted her half-heartedly before adding, “It was your fault anyway…”
“Excuse me? I couldn’t hear that,” I raised my voice, and the princess fell silent with a shudder. I let out a ragged breath and raised her face by putting a finger under her chin. She looked at me sheepishly for a moment before she tried to avert her eyes. I pulled her head in the opposite direction so she had to look at me, and once she finally stopped trying to avoid my gaze I told her, “Listen Elly. I am aware of the reason why you two were fighting. I know this whole mess is, at least partially… mostly my fault. One of these days we both have to sit down and come clean, but this is neither the time, nor the place. Can I ask you to be patient a little longer?”
She nodded, albeit feebly. Once I was done with her, I turned to the white-haired girl fidgeting by her side.
“As for you Snowy, I can understand the princess starting a fight. She has a bit of a temper,” I paused and set a frowning glance at the person in question. She stifled an embarrassed yelp and lowered her head again so hard, for a moment I was afraid she wanted to ram me with her horns. Once it became clear she was just embarrassed, I turned back to Snowy and continued. “However, I thought you knew better than that.”
“Sorry… I… I just wanted to help.”
“How is fighting your friends helping anyone?” She stayed silent for a few seconds, so I extended my hand a rubbed her head where I thumped her before. “I know you were meaning well. I’m not really mad at you for that, but I really don’t want to see my friends hurting each other.” I paused and gave her a stern look. “Also, what is with this getup?”
“Is that really your biggest concern?” My assistant inquired while walking up to us. She tried to appear prim and proper, but from her heavy breathing I could tell that she was running at least part of the way.
“Of course? Who goes into battle in a thong and high heels? It’s completely impractical!” Meanwhile Judy reached me and began to tap on me with her hands. “What are you doing?”
“You have grass on you,” She told me flatly as she continued to dust me and straighten my clothes.
“Judy?” The princess finally spoke up after several seconds of hesitation. “What are you doing here?”
“I followed after the chief,” She replied without taking her eyes off me.
“Speaking of which, what are you doing here?” The princess suddenly exclaimed like she just noticed something extremely unusual.
“What do you mean ‘what are you doing here’? I followed after the sounds to stop you from hurting each other.”
“Yes, but how did you enter the Restricted Space?”
“She means this place,” My assistant whispered as she was standing on her tip-toes to dust my hair. “It seems to be a copy of the real world.”
“Oh, so what you actually wanted to ask was how I entered the creepy purple zone of convenient battlefields?” I paused meaningfully before I smiled and confidently stated, “It’s a secret.”
“What do you mean it’s a…”
“Stop right there!” A new voice suddenly startled all of us as a large crack opened in the middle of the track field about five or so meters to our right. Although, to be precise, that crack wasn’t actually on the ground but in mid-air. A split-second later the shimmering purple fissure snapped open into a circular portal and a short figure burst through it, landing in a pose straight from an action manga. She was dressed in a long, frilly green dress with detached sleeves and more bows and ribbons than I could shake a cane at. At first her head was hidden under a wide-brimmed witch’s hat, but then she raised her silver staff high into the air.
“In the name of the Assembly, I command you to stop this foolishness!”
There was a flash of green light in the large emerald set on the tip of said staff and with a loud rumble the earth erupted behind her as a huge stone hand rose out of the soil, soon followed by the rest of a large statue with huge hands and an almost comically small head.
Once the stone creature was out in the open and towering over her, the girl twirled her staff and tried to strike a menacing pose… only to notice our deadpan looks halfway through and nearly drop her rod in surprise. At this point all I could do was rub my face in exasperation.
“Class rep… what are you doing?”
She blinked at me from under the brim of her hat and leaned on her staff, probably more for the sake of appearances than for actual support.
“I thought you were…” She began while pointing at the two transformed girls, before she pointed at me instead. “And you! What are you doing here?!”
I let out a groan and rubbed my face even harder. By then the last of the adrenaline left my system and I suddenly felt really tired and nauseous. In other words, I was rapidly losing my patience, and thus I answered; “I am a super-duper mega psychic savant demi-god who can pierce the veil of time and space so long as he is fueled with homemade sandwiches.”
She looked at me wide eyed for a second.
“No!” I exclaimed with righteous indignation and hid my face behind my hands for a moment before I shook myself and set my jaw. “I am too tired for this. Could you please get a change of clothes for the girls and let me think for a few minutes? In fact…” I turned to Snowy and the princess, both of whom were still standing in the exact same spot. “You guys should go with her. By the time you get back I expect you to be fully clothed, hornless and completely friendly, got it?”
They tentatively nodded, and after some further shooing the three girls left through the hole the class rep opened in the air. I waited for a while after they were gone before I turned on my heel, marched up to the closest bench by the field and promptly dropped my backside upon it with a pained groan. By that point my legs were shaking and I was covered in cold sweat.
“God… dammit… God fucking dammit…”
“Are you all right?” Judy came to my side with and alarmed expression that looked even more unusual in the strange lighting conditions. I shook my head.
“No, I am not all right.” I rubbed my eyes with one hand and by the time I was about to speak up again I found myself wrapped in a pair of soft arms. I looked up and found myself face-to-face with my assistant.
“You looked like you could use a hug.”
I stared at her for a while and at last I chuckled, patting her on the hand around my shoulder.
“Thanks. I suppose I do.”
We stayed like that for a minute while countless recent memories and terrifying revelations kept swirling in my head and threatened to overwhelm me. Hell, if I was a little slower getting between them, I could have died! Or even worse, one of them could have died! The mere idea made my stomach churn. At last I gestured for her to let go of me.
After a few minutes of molar-grinding and breathing-exercises I finally managed to get my thoughts in order and prune off every irrelevant one in favor of focusing on the one that was most important and useful at the moment.
“Judy?” I spoke softly as I stood up. My assistant perked up and looked at me with what passed for being really excited for her. I took a deliberately slow breath and exhaled the same way before I spoke again. “Get your notes.”
She did so without further ado. I waited for her to finish poking at her phone and only continued once she gave me the go.
“All right. Here we go. This is what we know for sure: This is not just a harem comedy narrative. It also has supernatural and, if what we saw just now was indicative, battle shounen elements.”
“It’s… It’s a pretty varied genre, but if I had to sum it up, I would say it’s a genre of fiction that focuses on personal combat with various flavors of superpowers. Think of people shooting beams from their hands while shouting the names of their attacks, highly visible ninjas and silly spiky hairstyles.”
“I see. I think I got it.”
“So, as I was saying, the more important thing is that we also have supernatural elements. That means magic; which means we can pretty much throw all our previous notes about the world out the window.”
“Feel free to do that, but you cannot expect another phone from me until your next birthday.”
“How about Christmas?”
I awarded my assistant a critical look that roughly translated to ‘Do I look like I’m in the mood for this?’ She didn’t seem to read faces very fluently though, forcing me to voice my exasperation.
“... Do you really want to throw out your phone that much?”
“No, I’m just exploring all possibilities.”
I sighed and continued, “So, the point is this: All the inconsistencies and weirdness we have seen in the world can now be dismissed as ‘it’s magic’.”
“Including your Far Sight?”
“Your alleged ability to watch people from afar.”
I snorted and began pacing in a circle in front of Judy. Right, that ability was ‘alleged’ because I didn’t want to use it. I guess I was in a bit of denial. I didn’t want magic to be a thing in this world because I was afraid of how much of our research it would invalidate. Well, at this point there was no point in crying over spilled milk.
“I don’t know if my Far Sight is magic or something unrelated. We don’t even know exactly what constitutes as ‘magic’ in this world.” I paused and glanced at my assistant with a small smile. “By the way, I like the term.”
“I found it on the web. I’m glad you like it,” She answered without looking up from her phone. Meanwhile I continued pacing up and down, as I found it helped me think.
“Anyways, since everything weird we have seen thus far could be magic, we have to completely change our approach. Instead of cataloguing everything strange we should figure out what can and cannot be done with magic in this world and only focus on the things that are still weird by this place’s logic.”
“Should we go through the list now?”
I thought about, but in the end I shook my head.
“No, we can do that later. For now we should note the new things we learned first. Such as this.” I waved my hand around to indicate the entire field. “What did the princess call it again?”
“Right, thanks. This is probably some kind of phantom zone. It’s not uncommon to have these in battle shounen stories; copies of the real world without any noncombatants where people can fight without worrying about collateral damage.”
“Indeed. It might also have some kind of time-dilation effect.”
Judy raised her hand to stop me for a moment.
“It’s 16:17 now. We entered just after the last lesson was over, so... around 15:50?”
“Let’s go with that. Please check the time once we get out in case I forgot.”
“Now, where were we?” I looked around and made note of one of the broken icicles lying in the middle of the field. “Right, the girls. Apparently the princess, Snowy and the class rep are all involved with this Restricted Space phenomenon. Not only that, they are...” I paused, unable to find the right word.
I shrugged my shoulders at the suggestion.
“A little broad, but I have nothing better either. As for individually, I’m fairly sure the princess is a dragon girl, and the class rep was obviously a witch or wizard or whatever.”
“Chief, you are getting sloppy with your terminology.”
“Well, excuse me. At this point I am only guessing based on what I can see. Can you tell what she was?”
Judy lowered her phone in order to place a thoughtful finger over her lower lip in a show of pondering before she answered; “Magical girl?”
“That is a completely different genre.”
“I am only guessing based on what I can see.”
“Oh, ha ha. Less snarking, more constructive input please.”
“What about Neige?”
“What about her?”
“You didn’t say what she was.”
“That’s because I don’t know. Considering the wings, I would say she might be a dragon girl too, but she didn’t have scales and the way she was dressed was more like a demon girl.”
“That sounds accurate to me.”
“Maybe, but calling her a demon of all things sounds a little silly.”
“Maybe a succubus?”
“That’s... Hm. That’s actually a distinct possibility. Write it down.”
“Way ahead of you.”
“Good.” I nodded and let my eyes wander for a little while, only to be inevitably drawn to the ice spears again. As I did so, a new idea reared its head in my mind and I frowned to myself.
“She was using ice.”
“And her name means snow.”
Judy looked up from her notes and cocked her head to the side.
“I doubt it. We also have a ‘Dracis’ who is a dragon. We might have a case of meaningful names on our hands. I think we should look into the names of everyone we know. There might be some sneaky references hidden there.”
“Roger. Is there anything else?”
I fell silent for a minute or so in order to get my thoughts in order again before I continued speaking.
“All right. Here is a rudimentary action plan for the near future: First and foremost, we need more information. If there really is a masquerade going on I doubt we can find anything in the public domain. That leaves us with investigating what we come across and interrogating the entourage.”
“ Interrogation. Understood. I'll go and get my pillows and comfy chair.”
I blinked at her and after taking a second to process the image I promptly rolled my eyes.
“Was that a random Monty Python reference just now?”
“Yes. Is there a problem with that?”
“No... I just wasn’t expecting it.”
“Of course. No one expects the Spanish Inquisition reference.”
I palmed my face with a cynical chuckle.
“Damn, I walked straight into that one. I’m getting tired.”
“Should we call it a day?”
I looked around and shook my head.
“No, the purple zone doesn’t seem to go anywhere just yet and there are still some things to discuss. Such as, the interrogations,” I paused and pointed at Judy. “I was actually thinking about leaving it up to you.”
I nodded firmly and began pacing again.
“Yes. Thinking back on some choice discussions with the princess and the class rep, I think they are convinced I already know about the masquerade. Asking them to explain the basics would mean I would have to reveal my amnesia, and already too many people know about it for my liking.”
“So you want me to approach them as a newcomer and ask them for the basics?”
“In a nutshell, yes.”
Judy gave me a firm nod.
“I can do that.”
“All right. The second issue is that I unwittingly made some enemies in the past few weeks that might be more dangerous than I expected. I need more info on Sebastian and Crowy. If this really is a battle shounen, it might come to some kind of supernatural slugfest I am woefully unprepared for, so I need any advantage I can get. I will take care of that part once you give me the basics of the supernatural world so that I wouldn’t raise too much suspicion.”
My assistant absent-mindedly nodded and looked up from her notes.
“Understood. Anything else?”
“Too many things to count, but these are the most pressing ones.” I stopped pacing for a moment and frowned at my surroundings. “I wonder how much longer it will take for this purple zone to end.”
“Maybe it doesn’t? It could be that it has to be dismissed by the one who made it?”
“Hm. Could be, though we don’t even know whether the princess and Snowy made this or if it’s a natural phenomenon. Also...”
Just then, as per the unwritten laws of conventional timing, the world around us began waving as a low buzz filled the air. A moment later there was a flash of blinding light, and by the time I stopped rubbing my eyes things were back to normal. I looked at my assistant, still sitting on the bench, and she muttered, “Speak of the devil.”
“A moment… It’s 16:29.”
I looked up at the sky and clicked my tongue.
“The sun is roughly in the right spot, and it seems most of the students have left as well. There was probably no time-dilation, but check your clock anyways. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“Very well. What should we do after that?”
“Go home?” I answered with a shrug. “You need some rest and I have a full night of research ahead of me.”
“You need some rest too.”
“Nah. Research is how I take it easy.”
Judy was obviously unsatisfied with my answer, but didn’t press the issue. She stood up and we wordlessly headed for the main building when I noticed three figures coming from the opposite direction. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who they were.
“There you are!” The class rep exclaimed once she got in earshot. She apparently changed as well, as she was back to her school uniform. I was a little disappointed about that, as I really wanted to take a closer look at her dress under better lighting conditions. Oh well, maybe next time.
“Is everything all right?” Snowy followed up on her heel with a worried question. She was back to normal and she seemed to be wearing a spare uniform that was about two sizes too big. “We were worried when you didn’t come back.”
“Well, we are back now. Let’s go home.”
“Wait,” The princess interrupted. “Weren’t we supposed to…Um…Talk?”
I looked at her and slowly shook my head.
“Sorry, but not today. We are both high-strung and tired. It’s not the best time to discuss heavy topics.”
“… You are right.”
“Aren’t I always? Let’s sit down sometime tomorrow once we are both in better shape. Oh, and Snowy?” I gestured for the other girl to come forward. “This is an order for the both of you: No. more. fighting. By the next time we meet, I expect you two to be the bestest friends again, understood?”
“The next time?” The class rep interrupted. “Where are you going?”
“Home? This has been a long day.”
“No you won’t,” She declared, now definitely in her authority mode as she folded her arms in front of her chest. “We need to talk.”
“Class rep… I just told the princess I’m not in the right shape to talk. What makes you think I would stay and talk to you?” She tried to answer but I silenced her with a raised palm. “Don’t even bother arguing. We are going home and we’ll talk tomorrow. All right?”
She scowled at me for a while, but in the end she relented with a small huff.
“Thank you for your understanding,” I told her with a smile and gave a small wave to the three of them. “See you all tomorrow. Stay safe.”
Judy mirrored my goodbyes at my side and we headed back to the classroom to get our bags. On the way I couldn’t help but sigh in exhaustion. This day was bad. The next was promising to be even worse. All things considered, this was the first time I wished I was able to sleep at night. As things stood, at this moment I would have given an arm and a leg for a couple of hours devoid of thinking.