I started the day with an enormous yawn. I would have liked to say it was only because of habit, but frankly, I was toasted. Spending the entire night frantically scouring the web for information does that to people, I supposed.
It was worth it though. Or so I hoped, at the very least. My deep-dive into symbolism and interpreting names and certain terms the entourage used the day before bore some fruit, though the results were mixed at best. Still, it was a step forward, not to mention getting lost in research let me cool off a bit, which was a good thing. While my shock was quite palpable this time, it was nowhere near as bad as my first brush with existential crisis way back when I first figured out the nature of the world, and the same medicine worked just as well this time.
Anyways, back to the fruits of my research: a good portion of the information I gathered was public domain knowledge about mythology and the supernatural, but there were some juicier nuggets hidden between the lines whenever the island of Timaeus got mentioned. I didn’t feel prepared to jump into the supernatural side of this world just yet, but at least I wasn’t completely in the dark anymore, and that counted for something.
That said, I limbered up my shoulders as another yawn escaped my lungs and I headed for the shower. It was a bit ahead of my usual schedule, but during our unusually short phone conversation last night, my assistant and I agreed to head to school a little earlier so that we would have a chance for a tactical discussion. With that in mind I washed myself in a hurry and proceeded with my morning ritual capped by a simple but filling breakfast.
I left the house a good half an hour earlier than normal and headed for the usual intersection. Judy wasn’t there yet, and while under normal circumstances I would have waited for her, this morning I decided to head straight for her house. When I got close to her place I had to stop and scratch my head though. It’s been quite a while since I’ve last taken her home, and I honestly couldn’t remember which of the identical family houses was hers.
I thought for a moment and closed my eyes with a wry smile.
“Far Sight, was it?”
I took a deep breath and tried to remember the feeling. It has been quite a while since I had last used this ability of mine, but I supposed it was time I stopped turning a blind eye to it and started exploiting it to its fullest. To my surprise, it came to me naturally. It was like riding a bicycle; the first few seconds were a little dicey, but then it all came back to me and in a second I could tell exactly where Judy was in relation to me.
I opened my eyes and glanced at the second house to the left. As if on cue, the front door opened and the familiar form of my assistant stepped through, followed by her awfully youthful mother. I walked up to the gate on their picket fence and waited for Judy to notice me. Instead, it was her mother who suddenly smiled at me and waved in my direction with a familiar-looking ladle.
“Look dormouse, your friend came over to pick you up! Isn’t that nice?”
“Mom, not in front of him,” My assistant protested half-heartedly while her mother kept rubbing her head.
“Ahhh... Looking at you makes me wish I was young again...”
“You are quite young yourself, ma’am,” I told her as they got to the gate. I wasn’t lying. From up close she only looked a couple of years older than Judy, and she had a figure that would have turned heads even in her filly apron and bunny-slippers.
“Oh, you flatterer!” She answered with a demure smile as she absent-mindedly straightened her daughter’s uniform.
“Let’s go,” My assistant huffed while grabbing hold of my sleeve.
“Goodbye, ma’am,” I said with a small wave as I was being dragged away.
“Have fun!” She answered with a bright smile as she watched over the two of us leaving.
Once we were out of earshot Judy glanced up at me and murmured “I would appreciate if you stopped flirting with my mother.”
“I wasn’t flirting. I just told the truth. She is surprisingly young.”
“Whatever,” She answered as we rounded the corner. As we did so we both slowed our pace, which was a good thing since I was too preoccupied by gazing at my assistant to look forwards.
“Are you sulking?”
“Okay, just checking,” I told her with a small smile before I recalled something and it turned into a big smile. “By the way... dormouse?”
My assistant’s cheeks flushed red in an uncharacteristic gesture of awkwardness and she refused to look me in the eye.
“… She likes to give me pet-names.”
“And why dormouse? Does it have some special meaning?”
She thought for a moment, but in the end she shook her head.
“It’s probably because I am unremarkable and my ears are big.”
I stumbled and nearly fell flat on my face beside her. She turned to me with an expression saying ‘What?’
“Was that really your first interpretation?!” I exclaimed as I recovered from my absurdity-induced near-faceplant.
“What else could it be?”
“Well…” It took me a few moments to find the right words. “Dormice are… small and cute, aren’t they?”
My assistant gave me a flat look and pointedly cleared her throat.
“Chief, I have a new hypothesis.”
“Oh? Let’s hear it.”
“I believe you use flirting as a coping mechanism.”
“I am not flirting, I’m just being honest! Speaking of which, I should let you know that you don’t have big ears either. They are perfectly normal.”
She nodded to herself without looking at me and muttered “Two data points.” I decided to ignore her and closed my eyes again, focusing on my Far Sight instead.
“What are you doing?” She interrupted me before I could even get started.
“Just checking where the others are,” I told her without opening my eyes and pictured the gang in my mind’s eye. Maybe it was because I was trying to keep all of them in mind at once, but I only got brief flashes of their locations and what they were doing at the moment, so I slowed down and focused on one at a time.
First Joshua. He was… well, being literally dragged out of bed by Angie. Josh was sporting some crazy bed-hair while Angie was still in her pajamas. As for how she got into his bedroom, I figured it probably had something to do with the open window and the ladder poking over the sills. I involuntarily frowned. This was one of those things that always bothered me. If it was a guy who used a ladder to break into a girl’s bedroom and dragged her out of the bed, he would end up on a list that would force him to introduce himself as a registered sex offender to his neighbors for the rest of his life, but if a girl did it, it’s apparently funny.
I decided not to dwell on the double standards of slapstick comedy and instead I moved on to the princess. To my surprise I found her in a spacious, modern kitchen that looked like it belonged to a high-class restaurant. However, instead of an army of chefs with those funny hats, it was only occupied by the princess and a maid with long blonde braids. She was vaguely familiar, and as I thought about it I bit more I could faintly recall seeing her from a distance a while back. She was talking with the princess as they were packing a lunchbox, and while I couldn’t understand the specifics, it had something to do with cayenne pepper. It was hard to tell and their voices sounded weirdly distorted. It might have had something to do with the distance. I made a mental note to actually try and figure out the range of my Far Sight later and moved on.
A mere thought later I was looking at Snowy. She was in the middle of peeling herself out of her underwear and about to take a shower. She was still wearing her choker though. Weird. I obviously didn’t linger, instead I moved on to the class rep in a calm and very mature manner befitting for a gentleman like myself.
To my surprise, I found her talking to a creepy, white-bearded old man in a creased black robe. Not only that, they were standing in a room that looked superficially like the school library, except its walls were lit by large, glowing blue crystals in cast-iron sockets. I was just about to try and catch the topic of their discussion when I was pulled out of my experiment by a small hand clutched on my forearm.
My eyes snapped open as I nearly stumbled forwards and found myself staring at a crossroad with a red light shining in my face. I blinked and glanced at Judy. She wore an obviously disapproving expression, though in retrospect I supposed ‘obviously’ might have been too strong of a word. I was fairly certain I was the only person on this planet who could tell that apart from her usual neutral face.
“What are you doing, chief?”
“Ah... Sorry, I lose track of the outside world when I really focus on Far Sight.”
She gave me a dubious look, but in the end she didn’t press the issue and we both crossed the road as the traffic light switched.
“What is the plan for today?”
It took me several seconds to switch my brain over to the new track, but once I did I nodded to myself maybe a bit too eagerly.
“Right. Plan.” I paused as I tried to remember exactly what we agreed on the previous night and what changed since then. “All right, here are the basics: You ask the class rep. She should be the most knowledgeable about these things. She is the mage after all; she should have a high Lore skill.”
“You are stereotyping her.”
“Maybe a little, but if I’m right then you would get the most info out of her, and if I’m wrong it’s just a brand new data point for future considerations.”
“I see. I still don’t know how I should ask though.”
“Hmmm...” I actually thought about that a fair bit during the night and I decided to share the idea I came up with. “Make me the bad guy.”
“... You need to elaborate on that.”
“Okay, here’s the idea: Tell the class rep that I’m keeping you in the dark. Tell her you want to know more and I refuse to give you information. If she still refuses, elaborate on how you want to help me, but I don’t want to get you involved for your own protection, but you want to help anyways, et cetera. Be creative and tug at her heartstrings.”
“I’m not really good that that.”
“Would you still try it? Please?” I gave her a puppy look and she in turn rolled her eyes with an annoyed little smirk.
“Yes, I will.”
“Good!” I clapped my hands and proceeded to rub them sinisterly. “The second stage of the plan depends on the success of the first stage.”
“I see. Anything in particular I should ask about?”
“Funny you should ask...” I muttered as I stopped rubbing my hands and took out my phone. A few pokes later hers vibrated in her pocket and she took it out without looking away from me as I told her, “This is a short list of the keywords I gathered that might produce a reaction.”
Judy opened the attached file in my mail and scrolled through it with record speed.
“I see... It’s a lot though. Anything in particular I should focus on.”
“Let’s see...” I thought about the question for a few seconds and managed to narrow things down a little bit. “I think the three most important terms should be Celestials, Abyssals and The Assembly.”
I scoured those from an obscure live-chat log. I got linked to it on a similarly obscure image sharing site, and while it was filled with some hard-core conspiracy nutters (the ‘NASA put mind-control chips in my genitals so that bigfoot can monitor my thoughts for the space-jew overlords’ type), yet some throwaway posts there seemed surprisingly legit. Judy read the list again, probably to commit it to her photographic memory, and she put away her phone.
“What about you?”
“What about me?” I asked back reflexively.
“What are you going to do while I interrogate Amelia?”
“Well... Uh...” I proceeded to scratch the back of my neck, but it didn’t help the awkwardness at all. At last I sighed and told her, “I’m going to talk to the princess and come clean. After what happened yesterday, I really want to resolve our alleged ‘love triangle’ before it would really get out of hand.”
“That’s... good.” She muttered, accompanied with a small nod. “And? How are you going to answer?”
“You know, it’s not like I was confessed to. You don’t have to put it so directly…” She gave me an impatient huff, so I sighed and told her; “I will try to let her down gently.”
“Good,” Judy spoke before I even finished, this time her words accompanied by an even bigger nod. I gave her a wry look and let out a heavy breath before I carried on.
“I mean, it’s not like I don’t like her, but by conventional logic she should be the main heroine. She should focus her full attention on Joshua. I mean...”
Judy cut me off by placing a hand on my arm and shook her head.
“You don’t have to excuse yourself in front of me, chief. I know you don’t want to hurt her, but being too nice can cause just as much pain in the long run.”
“That was... Unusually eloquent.”
My assistant narrowed her eyes a bit, a gesture that would have been the equal of an angry squint on anyone else’s face.
“What do you mean ‘unusually’?”
“No hidden meaning,” I told her with a smile and simultaneously started taking longer strides. “Come on dormouse, we should hurry up.”
She opened her mouth for a quick retort, but then she paused and her eyes narrowed even further, which was probably meant to be an angry scowl, but was made hilarious by the way she was scampering to catch up with me at the same time.
“Did you just call me what I think you just called me?”
“That depends. Did you hear dormouse?”
She gave me an ‘I knew I should have stayed in bed this morning’ look, which I answered by flashing a 200% innocent smile at her.
“Oh, don’t look so down. Weren’t you the one who wanted to have a nickname on the second day we met?”
“But why dormouse?”
“I told you: because they are small and cute. It really fits you.”
She looked at me incredulously, but at last she put up a front of what I hoped was fake displeasure and mumbled, “Fine, whatever.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at her reaction.
“Don’t worry, I promise I will only use it when we are alone or when it would be really amusing.”
She didn’t even bother to answer to this one; instead she punched me in the shoulder. I barely felt it as usual, but I still gave her a small “Ow,” as courtesy dictated. As she did so, we finally came in view of the school gate and I couldn’t help but smile. This morning was definitely miles better than the last. I could only hope the rest of the day would follow suit.
The classroom was unusually lifeless this morning, probably due to the placeholders sticking to their schedules like they were superglued together and thus there were only two of them in the room. On closer look they seemed to be both the academically hyperactive type, so that at least explained their early arrivals. As for how I knew that? They wore glasses. A stereotype, I knew, but this was that kind of place after all…
Judy and I headed for our respective desks, and while I was planning on heading over to hers afterwards, my plans were torpedoed by the appearance of the class rep. She had a suspicious look in her eyes when she noticed the two of us, and after depositing her bag she immediately headed in my direction.
“Good morning, Leo.”
“Morning,” I returned the greeting with a lazy wave.
“We need to talk.”
She glanced around for a moment before she leaned in for a conspiratorial huddle.
“Listen, about what happened yesterday...” She glanced around again and leaned even closer. “How did you break into the Restricted Space?”
I sighed. Wonderful. The day barely even started yet and I was already facing questions I couldn’t answer. After a bit of high-speed thinking I decided to stick to my previous story.
“I didn’t. I just tagged along with the princess and Snowy.”
“Her? She tagged along with me in turn.”
The class rep nodded, though the look in her eyes said she thought I wasn’t telling her the truth. She wasn’t really off the mark to be honest, but then again, how was I supposed to tell her something I didn’t know either?
“Very well,” She finally told me with a small sigh of her own. “I told the student council it was only a minor incident and that your involvement was accidental. They might still want to talk to you soon, so don’t do anything stupid.”
Now that perked my interest. “The student council, eh?” I mused as the implications started to line up in my mind. So we had an organization that was aware of the supernatural elements in this school and, according to the class rep’s words, regulated them. I made a mental note of telling Judy to get some more info about them, but for the moment I had to keep up my side of the conversation. “Before you go, please define ‘something stupid’.”
“Things like jumping into a Restricted Field to stop a fight.”
I frowned and shook my head.
“Sorry, but that’s not happening. You cannot ask me to stand around while my friends are fighting each other.” I paused for a second as I remembered something and I couldn’t stop a smirk creeping onto my face. “Also, I can distinctly remember someone actually jumping in and trying to stop a fight yesterday”
The class rep reeled back like I just hit her on a sore spot.
“That’s different. I was there as an official representative of the student council and the Assembly.”
Ah-ha! There was one of my keywords! I tried not to show my satisfaction as I forcefully wiped the smile from my face and looked the girl in front of me in the eye.
“Listen class rep. I know you just want to keep me safe, but I will not be standing idly by while my friends are in danger. Period.”
“You are going to get hurt.”
“I could. Or maybe things work out well like they did yesterday. Either way, I would rather try and fail than not try at all.”
The class rep silently held my gaze for several seconds longer before she closed her eyes and her shoulders slumped in resignation.
“I never thought you were the hot-blooded type.” Her words took me aback for a moment. Me? Hot blooded? Nah. If anything, I was too calculating for my own good. Since I didn’t respond right away, the class rep straightened herself and took a half-step back from my desk. “Very well. But remember, I have warned you.”
“Yes, and I am grateful for that, even if I am going to completely ignore it.”
At last her lips curved upwards a little, though the smile barely touched her eyes.
“All right. Just so we are clear.” She paused for a second or five before her expression turned stony once again. “Before I go, there is one last thing I wanted to ask you: How did you get into the Restricted Space without triggering any of the mana sensors around campus?”
Ooooh... ‘Mana sensors’? Look at those juicy tidbits, just falling into my lap one after the other! After a moment of hesitation I decided to just lean back on my chair and smile mysteriously.
“Would you believe me if I told you my exposure to you guys supercharged my latent psychic abilities into phenomenal cosmic powers?”
I blinked at her. Hard.
“Well, you shouldn’t.”
I had a feeling she wouldn’t take ‘I don’t have a bloody idea, why don’t YOU tell me?’ too well, so I decided on a more indirect approach. I quickly relapsed into my mysterious smile and quipped; “I cannot tell you just yet. When I can, you will be the first to know.”
“Do you promise?” I nodded, and she returned the gesture, albeit hesitantly. By this time students began to steadily trickle into the classroom and she was about to leave and attend to her duties when she faltered and turned back to me and whispered; “Are you sure you are not psychic?”
I let the smile drop and gave her a critical stare.
“I was joking.”
“I know, but…” She leaned closer again and lowered her voice to the point I could still barely hear her. “I am writing my thesis on it and I thought you might have… insights into the matter?”
All her words needed was a knowing wink and an eyebrow raised intriguingly to complete the classic ‘I know you know, and now you know that I know you know that I know you know’ exchange, but the class rep just wasn’t subtle or self-conscious enough for these kinds of things, so I granted her the benefit of the doubt and gave her a meaningful nod in turn.
Although, to be perfectly fair, she was correct. I was ‘something’ like a psychic, especially if I were to play fast and loose with the traditional definitions, but it was exactly because I had no idea about the proper terminology of this world that I had to be careful about claiming anything. Who knew, maybe I was psychic? Or an alien. Or a genie locked out of his lamp. I had no idea, so in the end I did what I was best at; act like I knew what I was talking about and at the same time be as vague as possible.
“Fine, fine. We’ll see about that. If I come across anything that might interest you, I’ll call you.”
As I said that, the princess arrived in the doorway with perfect timing. The class rep followed the direction of my gaze and promptly left without saying a word. I knew she was only doing so to give us some space, but geez, it was still cold of her.
Anyways, the princess visibly staggered when she noticed that I was already in the classroom and for a moment I thought she would run away (possibly accompanied with a fitting assortment of ‘Kyuuun!’s and ‘Awawawa!’s), but instead she showed admirable self-restraint by shakily walking up to her desk in front of mine and taking a seat.
I waited for her to say something, but after it became obvious she was not going to speak first I gently cleared my throat, which made her nearly jump out of her chair. Talk about being tense…
However, before I could start a conversation she whipped her head around so hard that for a moment I was afraid she would pull a tendon in her neck. She stared at me with an expression that hovered somewhere between bone-chilling rage and utter panic for a while… or at the very least that’s what it looked like, though I had a hunch it had more to do with embarrassment than either of those emotions. A tsundere through and through.
Meanwhile, she tried to speak, but no words came out of her mouth. I waited for her to finish her struggle, but in the end she just turned back around and buried her face in her arms on her desk. What a wonderful conversation that was…
I groaned under my breath and tapped her on her shoulder.
“Do you want to talk?”
At first she didn’t react, but then she nodded without looking up.
“So… are you going to talk?”
This time she shook her head.
“Then what?” There was no answer. “How about you write it down?”
She suddenly sat up straight like she was shocked by electricity and began rummaging through her bag. In a moment she got out a sheet of paper and some writing utensils and began writing at a frantic pace. At last she checked the page, nodded to herself and then presented it to me over her back while still avoiding facing me. I rolled my eyes and took the page.
I found her handwriting very familiar, which honestly shouldn’t have been that surprising since I have already seen it on her two challenge letters before. This one, predictably, also called me to the roof.
“So you want us to eat lunch on the roof so we can talk?” She silently nodded. “Just the two of us?” She nodded again. “All right then.” I told her as my lips slowly curved into a sardonic smile. “It was nice talking to you.”
She didn’t react; instead she just hid her face in her arms again and refused to look up no matter how gently I called out to her. With that I sat back in my chair and tried my best not to think about how painful my lunch break was promising to be.
I checked the time on my phone and had to take a second look to be certain. It was only a couple of minutes before noon. Just where did my morning go?
That was a rhetorical question, of course. I knew full well how it went by; one half reading my assistant’s increasingly elaborate reports after she came back from discussing the supernatural parts of this world with the class rep, while the other half was spent with connecting all of those tidbits as I was trying to keep my jaw from hitting the floor.
As it turned, out the magical background of this world was way, way more extensive than I would have ever dreamed of. There was a mountain of new terminology to learn, politics, factions, et cetera… Even after spending the entire morning studying them, I only scratched the surface of the data Judy provided, which itself was only a fraction of the basics. This of course meant that I paid exactly zero attention to the lessons, but in my defense, I would consider that learning about the amazing and dangerous real nature of this world should take priority over the symbolism in 20th century poetry.
Anyways, I was fairly confident that at this point I knew enough so that I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself if I tried to bring up the subject, but as they say, a little knowledge can sometimes be more dangerous than ignorance. As such I decided to keep at what I was unwittingly doing for a while and speak very vaguely, so that instead of flaunting what I knew, I would get the others to talk about things I didn’t.
However, as overwhelming as all the new information was, I could feel my brain being bogged down and unable to think properly. I couldn’t help but groan in silence. No matter how hard I tried to suppress it, that strange mixture of guilt and anxiety kept bubbling up between the gaps and kept reminding me of my upcoming discussion with the princess. With this I was once again reminded why I didn’t want to get involved in any romantic shenanigans. Even getting myself disentangled from one made me unable to function properly. Stupid hormones. Anyways, I checked the time again and then immediately winced in surprise when Joshua unexpectedly whispered to me; “Are you that hungry?”
“You have been checking your phone for the time a lot. Are you looking forward to the lunch that much?” Just then the long chime finally sounded and he broke into a childish grin. “Speak of the devil. Speaking of which, do you want any recommendations? They just put a new caviar dish on the menu; you should definitely give it a try.”
I awarded my friend a look so flat its edge could divide atoms.
“Three things. One: No. Two: How is caviar a good recommendation if you think someone is hungry? Three: No.”
Josh clicked his tongue and shrugged.
“You are no fun.”
“Nor am I made of money.”
“But you are! Almost! Nearly! At least thirty percent!”
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and stood up. Josh followed my example almost immediately and flashed me another kiddy grin.
“All right, then maybe not caviar. There is still a lot of other stuff there we haven’t tried yet. Are you coming?”
I shook my head as I pointed upwards.
“Sorry, not today. I have plans on the roof.”
I shook my head again and nodded towards the blond girl. She was still lying sprawled out on her desk, but she might have heard that we were talking because she looked up at the exact same moment. She froze when our eyes met, but to her credit, she didn’t engage in any of her usual over-the-top antics.
“Really?” Joshua wondered aloud in a tone that was more than a little skeptical. “It’s rare for you two to hang out like that, isn’t it?”
“Not really,” I answered nonchalantly as I put away my books and got my wallet.
“Would you mind if I tagged along?”
“Actually…” The princess spoke up before I could while she stood up and began rubbing her face. She had an imprint of her sleeve on her forehead, but I decided it was not the time to bring that up. Once she was upright she turned to Josh apologetically and said; “Sorry, but Leo and I… We have something to discuss.”
“Just the two of you?” My friend eyed both of us suspiciously, but I couldn’t really care less, as I was too taken aback by the sudden change in the princess’ behavior. She was, for the lack of better words, regal. I have seen her relapse into a more formal attitude in the past, but I couldn’t recall her being this ceremonial since the day she transferred. It was a little bit uncanny, to be honest.
“Yes,” She nodded.
“Um… Okay?” Josh looked at me, apparently just as weirded out by the princess as I was. I made some covert shooing motions, and after a little more nudging he left the scene with a huff. I watched him go before I returned my attention to the princess.
“Sooooo… Should I go and grab something from the cafeteria?”
“Not necessary.” She stopped me and once she was sure I wasn’t going anywhere she dove into her bag and retrieved a familiar-looking tiered lunch-box. “I brought enough for both of us.”
“I see…” I told her with a reserved smile. “Very thoughtful of you.”
To my utter bafflement, she returned my smile, without any cutesy noises or flailing. For a moment I wanted to yell ‘Who are you, and what have you done to the princess!?’, but I managed to subdue the urge and instead led her out of the classroom.
I don’t know how it worked, maybe it was the regal aura surrounding her, but the placeholder hordes rushing to besiege the cafeteria parted around us like the Red Sea and we managed to reach the roof in a little under a minute. That was pretty much a personal record. Not only that, when I opened the access door, I found the roof practically empty. I already noticed that placeholders tended to conveniently vacate the area whenever I was about to have a special discussion with someone, but right now I could have really preferred at least a few idlers in the background, if only for my peace of mind.
We wordlessly headed over to our usual seats on the benches in the far corner of the roof and sat down without much fanfare. By this point I had already steeled my nerves and came up with the exact words I wanted to tell her, so I got ready to speak up the moment my butt touched the seat... yet somehow the princess was still faster than me.
“Leo,” She slowly turned towards me with a serious expression and I involuntarily gulped. There was a silent pressure in her eyes, and I couldn’t help but recall the battle from the day before. Right, I kind of forgot about it, but she was an actual dragon-hybrid-something-or-the-other that could turn me into a bloodstain on the floor with a single swipe. That was definitely not good for my peace of mind.
“Yes?” I responded with a smile I hoped wasn’t too strained.
“Leo, please tell me something.”
There was a slight tremble in her voice, which made me finally tear my gaze away from her eyes. It was only then that I noticed that she was actually red as a lobster. That actually made me feel a little better for some reason, so I responded without thinking.
“Are you in a relationship with Judy?”
The question was a bit of a curveball, so I involuntarily frowned.
“Why do you ask this now?”
“J-Just answer me!” The princess demanded while her voice rose an octave. Now that I calmed down a bit, it became obvious she was trying her hardest to appear calm and dignified. For the most part it worked, but thankfully she was still clumsy enough to let some of her nervousness slip, and thank god for that, or I might have become a nervous wreck before the end of our talk.
I took a deep breath and was about to tell her the truth, but then I paused. Couldn’t I use this to ‘let her down gently’? If I told her I was dating Judy, she would probably stop being confused about me and could focus all her efforts on Joshua. That sounded nice on paper, and I was almost tempted to use it, but then what? Wouldn’t that mean that I would be forced to pretend to be going out with Judy, at least for the time being? That wasn’t something I could impose on her without her consent (even if I was certain she would agree without a moment of hesitation). These kinds of pretending-plots never resolved any conflict anyway. As such, after a long moment of hesitation, I shook my head.
“No, we are not in a romantic relationship at the moment.”
“Good,” She nodded and I could see her clench her fists. She caught the gesture, and hastily relaxed her hands while clearing her throat. “I mean, it is good that we could ascertain this. It is important that w… w… Awawawawa! What are you doing!”
“Nothing, please continue,” I told her so as I poked her cheek again.
“S-Stop doing that! Why are you poking me?!”
“Because you are acting weird.”
“I am not acting weird!” She screamed at me and slapped my hand away before she hung her head. “You ruined it! I was preparing myself for this moment all morning and you ruined it!”
For a second I didn’t know what to do. I tried to crack a joke to get her attention, but then a soft sob escaped the princess’ throat and it made me freeze. Oh crap. I made her cry...
“Um… I’m sorry. I didn’t think you… I mean, I just wanted you to relax a little. You weren’t acting like yourself.” I put my hand on her shoulder and lightly patted it. She didn’t throw me off, so I continued; “The princess I know would turn red at the mere mention of dating and would have made cute little noises if I poked her.” Since she still didn’t react, I let out a defeated sigh and pleaded; “Please don’t cry. I am sorry for teasing you when you were trying your hardest. What do you want me to do to cheer you up?”
At last, she glanced up at me.
“Are you going to hear me out?”
She looked me in the eye for a couple of seconds before she straightened herself and rubbed her eyes. It wasn’t perfect, but it seemed she managed to regain at least a sliver of the dignity she was projecting before.
“You are not allowed to make fun of me or tease me until we are finished here.”
She gave me a nod and then she fell silent. I waited for her, but she didn’t say a word even after several seconds. I was just about to reach the end of my rope when she suddenly inhaled.
“I assume you know why I had a fight with Neige yesterday.” I wanted to tell her I had a good idea, but before I could say anything she continued with the same breath. “She said that I was being indecisive and that I was roping you along. I… was angry at the time, but last night I reflected on what she said, and I think she is right. So… after thinking about it a lot, I decided to come clear.”
She nodded sharply.
“Yes.” There was a meaningful pause after this point, during which she flushed so hard even the tip of her ears were turning red, then she forcefully exhaled and quickly said, “Leo, I think I like you.”
Shameful as it sounds, I totally froze up for a moment. I never in a million years expected that she would outright confess to me like that and I had no idea how to answer, so I proceeded to do what I always did when I was feeling awkward and changed the subject post-haste.
“Wait a minute! Weren’t you in love with Josh?”
She averted her eyes for a moment, but then forced herself to look at me again before she answered.
“I do like him, but… I don’t think I like him the same way I like you.”
“But why do you even like me? That makes no sense.”
“I don’t know either.”
“We have only known each other for a month, right? How can you just casually pick me over Josh?”
“I am not doing this ‘casually’!” She burst out before reining in her temper again. “I mean… I only really knew Josh for a month too.”
“But you knew each other as kids!”
“For a week.”
“But you promised to marry him!”
“And he still doesn’t remember me, let alone the promise.”
“But… but… He is Josh!”
“I don’t know what that means but… when I look at him, I just don’t feel the same way as when I look at you. I don’t know how else to explain this.”
“That’s messed up,” I whispered in a groan.
“S-Shut up! I can’t help it, okay?!”
I hastily raised my hands in surrender when faced with her rapidly disintegrating regal façade and vigorously shook my head.
“I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that… You had a connection with Josh before. I just don’t see how you would pick me in a competition between the two of us.”
“I told you, it’s not how that works! I just… I asked a friend with a little more experience, and she told me I shouldn’t divide my attention, or I might end up empty-handed. She told me not to force myself and just follow my heart… and I just did.”
There was a short beat, then I muttered; “… That sounded really corny, but kinda sweet.”
“Shut up!” She exploded again and punched me in the shoulder. It hurt a little, but I couldn’t help but laugh. “You promised you wouldn’t tease me until we finished! You are incorrigible!”
“I got it, I got it!” I repeated between chuckles. “I’m sorry, but seeing you saying stuff like that so bashfully just tickles my teasing-instincts.”
After my apology she finally calmed down. She inhaled and exhaled a couple of times before she looked me in the eyes with a stern expression.
“I already told you how I feel, but what… about you?”
“Well, I do like you,” I answered absent-mindedly, “Though I don’t know if…”
“Yes!” She suddenly exclaimed while flexing her fists again.
“As I was saying,” I raised my voice to get her attention, “I am not sure it is the kind of ‘like’ you are looking for.”
“I don’t mind,” She stated, to my utter bafflement.
She suddenly flashed a determined smile at me that somehow managed to be both dazzling and childishly cute at the same time, and then declared; “That means I have a chance! This is a war I am definitely going to win!”
“What? War? What? I’m sorry but I am getting a little confused about your analogies here…”
“Never mind that! We have already built up a familiarity over last month, with a little more time I can totally…”
While the princess slowly descended into excited mumbles I threw my head back and let out a tired groan. I was caught up in the conversation, but didn’t this become the exact opposite of my original plan? I wanted to gently reject her so that she would focus on Josh alone, and instead somehow she decided to focus on me alone. Just why? Did Josh lose his harem protagonist aura or something?
“I still can’t wrap my head around it.”
“What?” She reacted to my mumbled words and I straightened myself with another sigh.
“I just don’t get how you ever developed a crush on me. Weren’t you always on about how much you hate me and how I smell bad. How did that turn into ‘I like you’?”
The previous dopey smile slowly withered on the princess’s face to be replaced by an awkward frown and she began fidgeting with her fingers.
“I-I didn’t really mean that. I never really hated you, you know? I just don’t like being teased! And, um…”
Her voice suddenly trailed into mumbling, so I asked; “What did you say? I couldn’t hear it properly.”
“I… I said you actually don’t smell bad. It’s just a little weird, but I… I don’t dislike it.”
“… Did I just awaken a fetish in you?”
The princess’ eyes opened wide for a moment before she raised a hand a punched me in the shoulder again. This time she didn’t hold back and I could feel my bones creak in response.
“You are such a jerk! Why do you have to keep ruining the moment!?”
“Sorry, sorry.” I apologized for what felt like the hundredth time that day while rubbing my shoulder. “I am just bad with these kinds of topics. I can’t take the pressure, so I tease you to release it.”
“I see.” To my surprise the princess actually accepted my hastily cobbled together excuse with a serious expression. “S-So you are bad with… um… this. I see… But it is still no excuse!”
“Yeah, I got it.”
What followed after this point was a solid minute of silence during which I had no idea what to say. I was once again reminded of the promise I made to my assistant to let the princess down gently, but no matter how I looked at it, that ship has already sailed. Maybe if she was still indecisive I could have done it, but right now things developed in a way I couldn’t outright reject her without acting like an ass. I decided to ask for advice later. For the time being I faced the princess, and by sheer coincidence (or due to the laws of dramatic convenience) she picked the same moment to look at me as well. She shuddered for a moment, then visibly steeled herself.
“So, Leo?” She spoke in a soft voice.
“Yes?” I answered reflexively.
“You might not like me the way I like you right now, but I will do my best to change that in the future. Please take care of me.”
“Um… Okay? That sounded a bit too formal, didn’t it?”
Her face turned sour for a moment and she shook her head.
“You are still horrible at reading the mood.”
“Guilty as charged,” I answered with forced cheerfulness and a toothy grin before I reached for the box between the two of us and took off the lid. I have been saving it for a moment like this. Few things worked as well for cutting awkward conversations short as good food. “Now that we are done with that, we should get started with this. I’m curious about what you made this time.”
“Fine...” She abruptly fell silent and looked at me dubiously. “Wait, how did you know that I made it?”
I couldn’t really tell her I Far Saw her making it in the morning, so I decided to play it coy and only smile at her knowingly.
“Oh please, princess! I have seen your cooking before.”
I removed the top tray containing the utensils and small bottles of condiments that came with the tiered box and took a look at the second layer. It contained fries, fried strips of chicken breast and there were also a few triangular sandwiches in the side. It was a very safe and simple menu, and it also looked eerily familiar.
“Ah! This is just like your first lunchbox I ate!”
“You mean the first one you stole.”
I decided to ignore the barbs in her words and shrugged. “I still ate it, so my statement stands.” As I said so I picked up a piece of fry and popped it into my mouth. It was still warm, a testament for the quality of the insulation. Or it was magic. One or the other.
The princess was giving me an intent look that, to my surprise, I found weirdly familiar. I swallowed and told her, on no uncertain terms; “It’s good.”
“O-Of course it is!” She exclaimed with hints of that fake irritation she sometimes projected whenever she was embarrassed, but not so much that she would resort to the cutesy noises. Was it weird that I was at the point where I could recognize the degrees of her embarrassment? Anyways, she seemed pleased enough. She was like Judy in that regard; apparently girls really liked when someone complimented their cooking. But then again, so did I, though people rarely found my fried bacon or instant noodles praiseworthy.
I took another bite, this time from the surprisingly spicy chicken, and remembered the scene I saw in the morning. I let curiosity take the better of me and asked; “Did you get some help with this one?”
“W-What is that supposed to mean? Are you saying I cannot cook something like this?”
“No, I meant the flavoring is different. It’s cayenne pepper, isn’t it?”
She seemed to be torn for a moment, but at last she confessed. “Yes. It was Melinda’s idea.”
“Melinda…” I mused while chewing on another piece of fried chicken. “The tall maid with the long braids, right?”
“Yes, it’s…” She stopped and her previously apprehensive gaze suddenly went downright damning. “How do you know her name?”
“I’ve met her, remember? She was there when I took you home the first time.”
“I’m quite sure I didn’t tell you her name.”
“I’m quite sure you did.” I replied while picking another french fry from the box. “Otherwise how would I know?” I popped it into my mouth and started chewing, but she still looked at me suspiciously, so once I swallowed I decided to change the subject. “By any chance, was she the friend you talked about? The one you asked for advice?”
“Yes. I trust her. She has been my chamber maid ever since I was nine years old.”
“Chamber maid, huh?” I swallowed another fry before continuing. “Is she draconic too?” The princess twitched and looked around in a hurry, prompting me to roll my eyes. “Oh come on. There is no one else here, we can talk about it.”
She kept checking the perimeter for a little longer before she finally turned back to me with a sour expression. She was apparently not keen on this discussion but she still said; “She is a distant relative from one of the European branch families.”
“A branch family? Really?” Now that she mentioned it, they did look similar. More importantly though it meant that they shared blood, which in turn meant... “So she is a draconian, huh?”
The princess nodded while I picked up another chicken breast and began munching on it, partially to use the chewing as an excuse to think, but mostly because I was hungry and it was delicious. But back to the topic: Draconians. I tried to recall as much as I could about them, which wasn’t much considering the vast majority of my knowledge was extremely recent and came from Judy’s reports.
According to those, they were considered to be one of the ‘Three Old-blooded Clans’, which sounded both ominous and like a really clumsy literal translation of something, but I decided not to dwell on it. They were apparently descendants of actual dragons, or at least of whatever constituted as ‘dragons’ around these parts. They must have still been reptilian fire-breathers though; I could gleam that much from the princess’ appearance the day before. Speaking of which, I finished chewing and decided to probe for extra information.
“So, can she transform too?”
“Err... I don’t think so. Her blood is too thin to awaken it.”
“Which means yours isn’t?”
“Of course it isn’t!” She retorted angrily and puffed out her chest. “I am the proud scion of the Dracis family! Ours is the strongest draconic bloodline still in existence!”
“Of course you are,” I nodded sagely while making mental notes. So, that meant there were multiple bloodlines. Not only that, but it seemed like there was some sort of hierarchy based on how ‘thick’ their blood was, as shown by a branch family member serving as a maid. In the meantime, the princess’s face began to twist in displeasure. She must have taken my previous words the wrong way, as she puffed her cheeks and turned her face to the side in an image that I was tempted to take a snapshot of and upload as an example of ‘tsundere’ on my favorite site.
“I know that my awakened form might not be very impressive yet, and I don’t have wings, and I can’t breathe true dragon fire, and my tail is too short and thick but...” Her voice slowly trailed into a mumble the longer she went on, only to flare up at the end. “But I am still the scion of House Dracis! Give me a few years, and you will see!”
I raised my hand apologetically and shook my head.
“No, no. I wasn’t being sarcastic. Not to mention, I think your draconic transformation looked impressive.”
The princess twitched and began awkwardly fidgeting at my side.
“You... really think so?”
“Yes. Though... your tail did look a little stubby.”
To my sincerest bafflement, the princess let out an ear-piercing squeak that startled me to the point I nearly dropped the fry in my hand.
“H-H-How can you say things like that so casually?!”
“Well... It’s just a tail. And it is kind of short.”
She let out another muffled scream and hid her steadily reddening face behind her forearms.
“Idiot! Jerk! Pervert!”
“There, there...” I patted her on the shoulder to calm her down, but instead she just began flailing at me.
“How can you say that to a girl!? I’m really self-conscious about that!”
“Whoa, calm down! I didn’t mean it in a bad way!” By this point I recognized the innuendo in our exchange, which meant I just walked into a ridiculously awkward conversation by accident. Marvelous. I took a deep breath and tried to salvage the situation the best I could. “It’s still a very nice tail. And I’m sure it will grow.”
At last the princess stopped flailing and began sulking instead.
“But what if it doesn’t?”
“Well, then you are still going to have a very nice tail. Long tails are overrated anyways. Short ones are cute.”
“I-I don’t want to be cute!”
“I’m sorry to say, but that boat has already sailed.” Her eyes opened wide and she hid her face behind her palms with a series of her customary ‘hauhau’ noises, but I ignored them and continued; “Why don’t you focus on your better aspects?”
She peeked through her fingers and tentatively asked; “Such as?”
“Erm…” I wracked my brain for a moment, trying to come up with something that hopefully wouldn’t make the situation any worse. “I… like your horns?”
“Yes. They are very regal.”
“You really think so? Aren’t they a little on the small side?”
“No. If they were any bigger, they would throw your profile off-balance. They look really great as they are right now.”
“I see…” At last she seemed to calm down and she even started smiling. I let out a relieved breath in response. Damn, I had no idea what I was talking about by the end, but apparently it worked. Anyways, it was time to change the topic once again before she would want to discuss the precise curvature of her horns or something.
“Say,” I started, startling her out of her smile. “You mentioned you cannot spit dragon fire.” She nodded cautiously and I continued; “So what was that beam that you fired yesterday?”
She looked away as if recalling an embarrassing memory (for her it might have been, for me it was just scary as hell) and began awkwardly fidgeting at my side.
“It… wasn’t real Dragonfire.” She must have mistaken my curious expression for something else, as she became flustered and began sputtering. “I-I mean, I wouldn’t use Dragonfire on a friend! True Dragonfire eats through wards and enchantments like tissue paper, it could easily kill someone! I’m not that reckless!” She paused and in a mumble added, “Not that I can use it anyway…”
“I got it, I was just curious,” I told her with a reassuring smile and knocked on the side of the lunchbox. “Aren’t you going to eat? At this rate I will finish it all up by myself.”
As if only waiting for my prompting, she reached out for the utensils and picked up a fry with a fork. She dipped it in the sauce held in the small compartment in the corner and took it to her lips, but instead of biting down on it she gave me a puzzled look.
“Is there a problem?”
“Hm? No, why would there be a problem?”
“You were staring.”
I chuckled and pointed at her fork.
“Ah, nothing. It’s just that I suddenly got reminded that you really are a princess.”
She looked at her utensil and her cheeks immediately reddened.
“W-What do you mean! This is how you are supposed to eat properly!”
“Yes, yes,” I replied with a smile while taking another fry with my fingers and popping it into my mouth. She gave me an indignant huff and ate her own piece with extra dignity. I couldn’t help but smile at the display, but then I noticed the pout on her lips. “Is there something else?”
She glanced at me while playing with a piece of fry in the box. At last, she grimaced and uttered; “Why do you keep calling me that?”
“Yes! We just got a little closer, so…” As if she just realized the meaning of her words, her face once again flushed red (at this point I was really tempted to only mention when she wasn’t beet red) and added; “Um… Why don’t you address me less… formally?”
“I don’t think I was ever being formal with you.”
“But you keep calling me that! You never call me by name!”
“Because that’s your pet name,” I told her matter-of-factly while dipping a piece of meat in the spicy sauce.
“A pet name?”
“Yep. You know, the thing people give to people they like.”
“I know what a pet name is!” She huffed indignantly, but at the same time she also gave me a sheepish look. “So you call me that because you… like me?”
I only nodded, since I was afraid that if I spoke I might have accidentally revealed that I only started calling her that because her reactions to the word were hilarious. Because of that, the princess’s lips widened into a dopey smile and she even honest to goodness giggled.
“I-In that case it’s okay. I’ll allow you to call me that.”
It wasn’t like I needed her approval, but I shrugged anyway. There was something else that the whole ‘princess business’ reminded me of, and this was as good a time as any to bring it up.
“Say… I know this might sound a bit abrupt, but… Is your family okay with what you are doing?” She raised a single puzzled eyebrow, so I hastily continued; “I mean the whole ‘coming to school to be with your childhood crush’ thing.”
To my sincerest surprise, her face turned solemn and even a little hesitant. She apparently didn’t appreciate the sudden return to the topic of relationships.
“You don’t want to talk about it?”
“I’m… It’s not that. I’m not sure I should.”
“Oh, so it’s a secret? Or something embarrassing?”
“No, it’s…” She paused, visibly wavering, but at last she gave me a firm nod. “Very well. I think I owe you this much.” I wanted to ask ‘You do?’, but I bit my tongue and waited for her to continue. “Have you heard of the prophecy?”
It took inhuman willpower on my part to keep myself from giving myself a concussion via high-velocity face-palming. I mean, sure. Of course there would be a frickin’ prophecy! Because why wouldn’t there be one!? Bah!
My outrage didn’t show on my face though (or at the very least I hoped it didn’t) and I decided to keep fishing for details.
“That depends on which prophecy you are talking about.”
The princess gave me a priceless look of surprise that nevertheless sent shivers down my spine.
“There is more than one?”
“Errr…” Damn, I overexerted myself. I managed to regain my composure and flashed a knowing smile. “Of course there are. So, which one is yours?”
Albeit a little dubious, the princess began speaking nevertheless. “You know how the old dragons are gone, right?” I nodded even though I naturally had no idea, but revealing that right now would have been awkward. “According to the prophecy, a human in our generation would help us resurrect the old bloodlines.”
“And that is Josh.”
“Probably?” I echoed her. “So you are not sure.”
“He could be,” She said in a dejected tone. “I mean, he should be the one. There aren’t many candidates and…”
“And you convinced your family to let you get close to him to make sure?” I completed her sentence.
“That… is oversimplifying things a lot, but yes.”
I couldn’t help but rub my face in irritation after hearing all that.
“So if Josh might be your prophesized savior or whatever, then wouldn’t it make more sense to go after him instead of bothering with me?”
“I told you, that’s not how it works!” She protested awkwardly. “And just because I like you more than Josh it doesn’t mean that I cannot be with him. As a friend. Not ‘with’ him in that sense, but, like, around him. As a friend.”
“All right, all right. I get it.” I chided her with a wry smile.
I noticed that the princess was looking at me weird for a while and I prompted her with a curious ‘Hm?’ She was hesitant, but at last she gathered up her courage and asked; “Do you… think he is the one?”
I was tempted to answer with a loud ‘How the hell should I know?’, but I restrained myself. She was very forthcoming with me, so it was only fair I shared some of my insights with her.
“Most likely.” She was obviously taken aback by my answer and her eyes urged me to continue. “Listen princess; Josh is in the focus here. We have you and Snowy and the class rep and Angie all buzzing around him like flies. I think that’s telling enough.”
“I’m not buzzing around him,” She protested in a deeply offended voice. “And what does Angie have to do with this. She is just…” Her words trailed off into silence and she gave me a startled look. “You don’t say…?”
“I’m not implying anything,” I interrupted before she would drag me deeper into a discussion I knew nothing about. “I’m just stating the facts.”
“And what about you? You are, um, ‘buzzing’ around him too.”
I stared at her through critically narrowed eyelids for a few seconds before I let out a groan of exasperation.
“First off, I do not swing that way. Second of all, I have my own business unrelated to him. Finally, he is my friend first and foremost and any supernatural whatchamacallit comes second.”
I grunted in approval and popped the last fry into my mouth. The lunch break was almost over, so I stretched and smiled at the princess.
“Well, this discussion went in an entirely different direction than I originally planned, but it wasn’t that bad. We should do this more often.”
“Y-Yes,” She replied while she hastily re-packed the empty lunchbox. Thinking about it, she barely ate. I felt a little guilty about hogging all the food, so I made a mental note for repaying her. Maybe I should invite her for a crêpe or something. Girls like crêpes.
“I would also like to learn a bit more about your family. Could you introduce me one of these days?” I told her off-handedly as I stood up. I could hear a clatter behind me and I saw her grasping the box as it nearly fell out of her hand.
“W-W-Where did that come from?” While it was obvious she was trying to act calm, her voice still came out as a high-pitched squeak. “Why would you want to meet with my family so soon? Did you change your mind? But isn’t that too sudden? I mean, I would be happy to, but wouldn’t it be…” I shook my head with an amused smirk and turned around to help her with the box.
“Calm down, princess. It is simple; if your little fight yesterday had proven anything, it was that I was not taking things seriously enough. I think it’s about time I step up my game and try to get to know the big boys in the playground.”
“Big boys? Playground?”
“It’s… Ugh, it’s euphemism. It means I want to learn about the more important people involved with the masquerade.”
I sighed and dropped my shoulders in resignation as the bell sounded.
“I will explain what I mean to you next time, okay?”
She gave me a curt nod and we both left the roof.
On the way back to the classroom the princess needed a restroom break, and since I didn’t want to loiter around the girls’ toilet all by myself, we decided I should go ahead. Because of that, I returned to the class all alone, with only the empty lunchbox i n my hands.
I put it onto the princess’ desk, and by the time I turned around Judy was already there looking me in the face.
“I presume she didn’t take it well.”
It took me a moment to remember our morning conversation and I promptly shook my head.
“Actually, things... Well, they didn’t go as planned.”
Judy’s already stoic expression froze over with disapproval in an instant.
“In what way?”
“Well, let me put it this way: the love-triangle got resolved, just not in the way I expected.”
“So she confessed.”
“And you didn’t turn her down.”
“I kinda did,” I spoke apologetically. “We established that she likes me and that I like her, but not that way, and in the end she declared she no longer wants to pursue Josh.”
My assistant gave me an unusually intense look.
“Tell me the details.”
“Um… Okay.” I answered guardedly as I took my seat and proceeded to quickly summarize our discussion on the rooftop.
Judy listened attentively, occasionally nodding as the tidbits about draconians came up. When I finished my summary she shook her head and looked me in the eye as she told me; “Chief, you messed up.”
“Hey, cut me some slack. How was I supposed to know she would completely abandon Josh in favor of me? I didn’t even think it was an option!”
“It’s because you are criminally unaware of your own good qualities.”
“What was that?”
“Nothing.” Judy purposefully averted her face. “Please excuse me, now I have to rethink my whole strategy.”
“See you later.”
Saying so she turned heel and walked away from the desk, leaving me slumped over and way too exhausted to even call after her.
I took a deep breath and began massaging my temples. I always considered myself rational. While everyone around me seemed to be swimming in a hormone-rush induced fixation on romance, no doubt due to Joshua’s harem protagonist aura, I always thought myself to be above it all... But thinking back on it, I have been getting into almost as many weird and stereotypical romance developments as him. I even had a love-triangle on my hands, which might have resolved itself... except for some reason I had a feeling it just led into another, even more annoying love triangle.
I was still thinking when Josh returned to the classroom and sat down next to me. At first he wore a provocative smirk, no doubt planning to start some kind of silly shenanigans regarding my lunch with the princess, but in the end he only stared at me for a few seconds before leaning in with a concerned voice.
“Hey, pal? Are you all right?”
“It’s nothing.” I waved a hand at him dismissively and slumped in my chair. “I think I’m just starting to empathize with your situation, that’s all.”