“Booyah! A thirteen hit combo with a Super-Finisher! Who is whopping whose ass now, big guy?”
Josh continued pumping his fist while I rolled my eyes with an annoyed smirk. I am not going to lie, Josh’s face looked eminently punchable at this moment.
“Would you stop bragging? You are just picking cheap characters.” I grumbled a retort with thinly veiled exasperation.
“Wrong. You just suck at playing zoner characters. You just need to strategize better.”
“Says the button-masher.”
“I am not a button smasher, I just use burst characters.”
I let out a sigh and put down the controller in my hands.
“One of these days you really have to explain to me how these different types of fighting game characters work.”
Instead of answering Josh only eyed the controller on the table, then he faced me with a shit-eating grin.
“Haha! No rematch this time?”
“So you admit defeat?”
Josh raised his hand without the grin wavering even for a moment.
“Awesome! High five?”
“… Why would I give you a high five for beating me in Street Fighter?”
“Because there's no one else in the houseI could ask for one?”
I looked at his outstretched arm and rolled my eyes once again. It didn’t stop me from complying with the gesture, it was just so he knew I wasn’t doing so happily. Not that he cared, as he let out a decidedly childish laugh before he put his controlled down as well and stood up to stretch his back.
“I think I have some leftover pizza in the fridge. Do you want some?”
“I would rather have something to drink.”
My friend gave me an enthusiastic nod and left, leaving me alone in the living room of the Bernstein household. I stared at the open doorway for a few seconds before I let out a pent up breath and sank into the comfy couch in front of the television.
To be honest, I didn’t really have my heart in the game. My last week was uneventful, but tiring nonetheless. Between the optimization of the Celestial Hub, Judy’s constant stream of reports about the contents of the Dracis library and the continued tribulations of my personal life I had my hands full all the time. On the bright side, my non-relationship-problems with the girls finally stopped interfering with my work, but I couldn’t be relieved about that any more than being relieved that the smoldering volcano wasn’t quite ready to blow up into my face until it bottled up even more pressure. The less said about that, the better, so let’s go back to the topic of my research.
Unfortunately, while I have gathered a lot of data in a short time thanks to having access to two vast treasure troves of information, there were some things I couldn’t achieve. First and foremost, even after employing every trick of persuasion in the book, I still couldn’t get Angie to share her background with the others (although in retrospect I was fairly certain the princess and the class rep both had their suspicions due to some unfortunate word-choices on my part in the past). I also tried and failed to draw any information related to magic theory out of the class rep, though this one was more due to the fact that I didn’t want to pester her too much. She was obviously stressed out in the past couple of days. What I could glean from some of our frustratingly short conversations said it had something to do with the school’s security being compromised.
Now, if you ask me, I had no idea whether that was the school in the ‘place where mandatory education is taking place’ or the ‘local Magi headquarters’ sense of the word, but it ultimately didn’t matter, as neither of those should have been the responsibility of a sixteen years old girl. I wanted to lend her a hand, but she categorically refused on the first occasion and I never really had the chance to pester her afterward.
I was still lost in my thoughts when Josh came back from the kitchen with a tray full of snacks and a pair of tall glasses filled with beverages. He put it down in front of me, and after quickly thanking him I grabbed hold of my glass and emptied it in pretty much one gulp. By the time I put it down back onto the tray, Josh already sat down beside me with controller in hand.
“What?” I asked while gesturing towards his hands. “Haven’t you beaten me enough times yet?”
“No,” He answered with a grin, but then added, “You wanted me to tell you about the different character types, didn’t you?”
“So you want to explain them while you beat me a few more times?”
“That’s the plan.” He declared with smiling eyes.
I dropped my shoulders with a smirk and retrieved the second controller.
“Fair enough,” I told him and we entered into the character selection screen.
I suppose this was as good an opportunity as any to explain what I was doing, right? To put it bluntly, after several days of pestering and being exposed to the sulking of the guy, I freed up a weekend afternoon in my busy schedule to accommodate his need for recreational activities.
He came over to pick me up after lunchtime with his moped (and forced me to dust off my own bike, which I didn't even know I could ride until he told me about it), and our program included visiting the local retro arcade, hanging out in the shopping district, visiting ‘guy-stores’ (whatever the hell he meant by that was lost on me, as we did the same kind of window-shopping as always) and finally watching a brand new and absolutely terrible horror movie in a small cinema specializing in independent flicks before we headed to his place.
It wasn’t a particularly bad way to spend a day, but I just couldn’t get it off my mind that if I was doing the same with a girl instead of a guy, it would have been a date. I tried to refer to it as an ‘outing’ then, but then that started to feel weird because I only associated the word with dates before. In conclusion, I decided that I positively hated language drift and left it at that.
“Come on, Leo! Stop stalling!”
I gave my friend a quizzical look, then realized that I was so lost in thought I forgot to actually attack and only had my character dash around the screen.
“Sorry, just give me a second to prepare myself,” I told him with an apologetic smirk.
“How much more time could you need? Just do a low-sweep, combo it into a mid-uppercut and then combo that into a super. It’s easy.”
“I literally have no idea what you just said.”
“Argh, that’s it! Practice is the best way to learn this. I will teach you through actual combat!”
“Don’t you mean simulated virtual combat?”
“Shut up and try to dodge this!”
“Stop dodging my throws!” My friend exclaimed angrily while gripping his controller.
“Would you make up your mind?” I grumbled while barely avoiding another blue fireball thrown at my fighter. I did a double-jump and landed in the exact right position to start a combo, so I did a low-sweep, then a mid-uppercut and then comboed it into a super that helicopter-kicked Josh’s character across the screen.
“K.O.” The announcer declared in a needlessly epic voice.
“That’s cheating! You were not supposed to master that move so fast!” My friend griped while munching on a piece of chips.
“Fast? You have been drilling me on this one character for the last two hours. I am pretty sure at this point I could do half her combos with my eyes closed.”
“Yes, but you are not supposed to use what I taught you against me! That’s ungrateful towards your sensei!”
“Since when are you my sensei?”
“Since I taught you the basics, my young padawan.”
I let out a soft chuckle.
“You are mixing the lingo, but whatever. Next round?”
I was sure he would take me up on the offer, but instead he only glanced at the clock. I followed his gaze. It was a little after five in the afternoon, and since the sky was cloudy it was already starting to get dark outside.
“Hm… Maybe later.”
I turned my gaze back to him and found him with his brows furrowed. I knew that look. I have already seen it on his face a couple of times during the day. I steeled myself accordingly and waited for him to breach whatever heavy topic he was chewing on all day. I didn’t have to wait that long, as he turned to me only a second or two later.
“Yeah?” I answered with fake nonchalance, pretending that I wasn’t expecting the coming tonal shift.
“I know this might sound weird, but… are you keeping any secrets from me?”
We exchanged solemn looks for a second. At last I shrugged my shoulders with a self-deprecating smile. I might as well be honest about not being honest.
“Yeah. I keep lots of secrets. So many I wouldn’t even know where to begin telling you what I cannot tell you about, except I wouldn’t, because I cannot tell you what I cannot tell you about either.” At this point I let out a rueful sigh and shook my head. “Oh come on! Don’t look at me like that! Secrets wouldn’t be secret if people were telling them to their friends all the time.”
“So you say.”
“Actually, that’s kind of the definition of a secret, but yeah, so I say.”
He let out a thoughtful ‘Hm.’ and then said; “Then let me be more precise: is there one about Lili?”
“Snowy? Sure, a few, yes.”
“Will you share them if I ask directly?”
“... Again, that is not how secrets work...” I began, but then shut my mouth once more. There was something about the way he was looking at me that made me consider my words very carefully. “You know what? Tell me why you are asking, and if nothing else I will tell you whether I could, theoretically, answer them. Deal?”
Josh gave me a skeptical look, no doubt aware of the way I steered the conversation into a more vague territory, but at last he spoke up in a quiet voice.
“I’m worried because she is acting strange.”
“Does she? I didn’t notice.”
Frankly speaking, I wasn’t interacting with Snowy all that much during the past week, but after our talk on the track field, she seemed to be back to normal as far as I was concerned.
“Because you are the only one she talks to anymore,” My friend stated bluntly, and I was shocked to detect resentment in his voice. Or maybe it was just frustration? Either way, he sounded particularly bitter. “Whenever I try to talk to her, she makes up some excuse to go away. It’s not just me either; Angie says the same thing happened to her multiple times.”
I closed my eyes for a moment. It made sense. A twisted, socially awkward kind of sense, but it did all the same. She was going away for who knew how long and she wasn’t the most socially adept person I knew. I could easily imagine her hiding away and trying to distance herself from her friends in order to make the separation hurt less. I was the exception, since I already knew about it. It was a childish thing to do, but then again, Snowy was the youngest of us and she always struck me as someone who was extremely inexperienced when it came to dealing with interpersonal relationships. It might have had something to do with her upbringing in the Abyss (which in retrospect also explained her adoption of the vamp persona, though I could only guess about that part).
Unfortunately, my thoughtful silence probably lasted a wee bit too long, as by the time I turned back to Josh in order to answer he was already speaking.
“Leo, we are really worried. Not just me, but Angie and Ammy and even Elly and Judy. Are you sure it’s a secret worth keeping?”
“Well, I am not the one who decides that, really,” I told him with a shrug. “If you really want me to, I could ask her to talk to you about it, but that’s the best I could do.”
“Good enough.” Josh nodded enthusiastically.
“I make no promises though. I already told her once that she should talk to you, so maybe she is just waiting for the right moment. You might as well wait and see a little longer.”
“How much longer?”
“Actually… I don’t know either.”
There was a short pause, then Josh let out a long breath.
“Why does everything in my life have to be so complicated,” He muttered with a frown, and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing at the comment. He frowned at me and uttered a confused; “What?”
“S-Sorry,” I stuttered between two bouts of self-derisive laughter. “Dude, you think your life is complicated? Then what about mine?”
“Maybe you should stop double-dating. That might help.”
“Dude...” My laughter instantly stopped. “I know you think my interpersonal situation, that in no way involves womanizing if I may add, is hilarious, but would you please stop hammering on it? It’s annoying and it is far from the biggest of my problems.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
I gave him a long, hard look, and in the end I dismissed him with a wave of my hand.
“I can’t. It’s secret”
“There you go again. I think I figured out what your biggest problem is.” He paused, waiting for a reaction on my part, so I handed him a quizzically raised eyebrow as a prompt and he immediately continued. “You are keeping too many secrets. Especially for a guy with no memory.”
“Well, to be fair, the former problem kind of grew from the latter.”
“I see...” He nodded like I just said something deep. “Are you one hundred percent sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
“Listen Josh,” I spoke softly but with as much gravity as I could muster under the circumstances. “You should be glad you are not wrapped up in this mess yet.”
“Yet? You expect I will join your harem as well? Dude, I don’t swing that w-- OW!”
I restrained the urge to shout ‘You are one to talk!’ and instead I only flicked his forehead again, this time without even looking. I took a deep breath and told him; “To be honest, I think it’s only a matter of time before you get roped in anyways. Rather sooner than later too, I’m afraid. If it makes you feel any better, once that happens you can come to me and I will explain things as well as I possibly can.”
Josh was rubbing his forehead when he looked away morosely, obviously deep in thought. There was a several seconds long pause during which neither of us spoke. At last, he just turned back to me with an awkward grimace on his lips.
“Could you bear with me for a moment?”
I involuntarily cocked my head to the side.
“You see… Since we were already talking about secrets and everything, I think that I probably won’t find a better moment to ask this question, but before I do that I want you to remember that we are friends and that I am not judging you either way.”
“Okay, you are starting to weird me out right now.”
Josh only smiled awkwardly, then took a deep breath and asked; “Are you involved with organized crime?”
This time I couldn’t help but cock my head in the other direction before answering with a question on my own.
“... Where the hell did that come from?”
He fell silent for several seconds before he spoke again.
“Hear me out, because this might sound like a bit of a stretch. Things began changing when Elly came along, right? Her family is obviously very rich, but when I tried to ask if they owned a corporation or something, the butler warned me not to dig too deep or he would have to hunt me down.”
“He says that to everyone.”
“If you say so.” He shrugged, but his expression said he didn’t appreciate the interruption so I shut it for the time being. “Then there is Lili and her brother. From the moment she showed up everyone was wary of her for some reason, and her brother is giving me the chills even though I only met him once.”
“He looks like a mafioso, doesn’t he? He had a limousine too, and wore a suit and leather gloves. That’s not normal.”
“I suppose…” I mumbled and nodded non-committedly.
“Okay, so here is my theory. Hear me out, and tell me if I am wrong at the end: Both Elly’s and Lili’s families are connected to organized crime. That’s why they have all that money and why no one wants to talk about them. You are connected to both of them, and you have a lot of money too, so I figure you might have worked with them, or for them, before your amnesia, and that’s why you are hanging out with them all the time now. I don’t know how Judy fits into the picture, but I will figure out something. Am I right this far?”
“Nope,” I answered cheerfully. “You are waaaaay off the mark.”
“Awww…” He slumped down with a disappointed groan. “And for a while, I thought I might actually be onto something. I guess I should be relieved. It would have been too weird anyway, right?”
I was tempted to say ‘No, you are not thinking weird enough,’ but I refrained from voicing my opinion. Instead I stood up with an exaggerated yawn and pointed my chin towards the clock on the wall.
“Sure. By the way, I think I should be heading home soon.”
Josh glanced up at the clock as well and gave it a quizzical look.
“Isn’t it still early? I have the entire house to myself until tomorrow, you could stay until dark.”
“Nah, I have stuff to do.”
He gave me a strange look, but in the end he just shrugged his shoulders. He rose to his feet sluggishly and began packing away the remaining snacks and empty glasses. I watched over him for a while and at last decided to throw him a bone.
“You know, your reasoning actually wasn’t bad.”
Seeing how he immediately perked up, I continued; “Yeah. You came up with an answer that made internal sense based on the information you had. It’s not your fault you didn’t have all the details.”
“… Is this the point where you explain those details?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Tch. Fine then. Forget I even asked.”
He rolled his eyes and we left the living room. I helped him by opening the trashcan so he could throw in the empty chips bags and then we headed for the main entrance. The basic layout of the Bernstein’s home was the same as mine, so I didn’t need a tour guide, but I suppose it was only common courtesy to see me out.
“So, what are you going to do after this?” Josh attempted some small-talk while I put on my shoes.
“Internet stuff. I have to finish up designing a site.”
“You do web-design?”
“Not really. I am still learning.”
“That’s neat. I always wanted to try my hand at that, but I don’t have the patience to learn coding.”
“It’s not that hard. You can get started with some templates and then…”
With that discussion in the background, I let him see me off. In retrospect, I might have saved myself some headache if I stayed over. Or I might have died. I couldn’t know, but either way, hindsight is a bitch.