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The Promised Happy End

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Don't stay quiet with such a sad face.
Blurred poison is seeping in,
Stir it, so that it wouldn’t get muddled.
Though if it’s already pitifully ruined,
We still do have some time left, right?
 
Quasi calm. I won’t just stay in vain anymore.
Quasi love. I have to move forward.
 
We can get through this.
We have each other to keep us warm.
I want to keep protecting you, so
No matter how many times
I will stand back up again and again.

—Translation from the lyrics of “Lamp” by Cö shu Nie 

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[Realization]

Human is a creature of habit.

Or so what those psychology books say.

Unlike Ray, Norman never makes it his goal to read every single book in their library. But that’s not to say he rarely touches a book. Although he mainly loves mystery fictions and books with riddles or math paradoxes more, with his recent fascination of observing and savoring Ray’s every single gestures and expressions, he also develops a particular interest in psychology lately.

That’s how Norman found out about the Pavlov Theory.

“Behavior is learnt by a repetitive association between the response and the stimulus.”

It’s what was said in the book about Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning. And curse it, if Norman isn’t going to utilize this knowledge to his best intentions. Especially his best intentions regarding a certain person who he cares so much.

Ideally, the “conditioning” is a process that takes a considerably long time—it could last from days to years, even. Unfortunately, Norman only has a limited time of exactly one day here to give it a shot. But well, it’s all fine. What’s the use of his big brain there anyway, if it wasn’t for making and adjusting plans such as these so that it could be convenient with the circumstances of the situations.

Of course, ideally it would be best to form a plan without unrushed execution time. But Ray is smart and observant. He sure would’ve been suspicious had Norman initiated a deal with such prolonged time. That’s why, the circumstance to be offered in the deal has to be perfect. And here comes the perfect opportunity: his own birthday!

Asking someone to indulge in one’s wishes on their birthday surely isn’t a stretch, right?

Well...adding to that, Norman actually feels a kind of guilty for about to manipulate Ray like that. But, again, Ray is smart. There’s little chance of Ray hasn’t read any of the behavioral psychology books in their library selections. Still, on the off chance of that, Ray is particularly observant at things. Not really Emma’s keen sense of instinctual observation level, but still notable.

With those things in the calculation, Ray sure would be able to figure out what he’s doing in no time, and Norman would soon have nothing to feel guilty again. Ray would confront him about it, and Norman would defends himself that he’s doing it because he really cares about Ray’s well-being. Then, of course, Ray would get all embarrassed and they both would laugh about it. Everything’s just perfect.

Now to the execution of the said plan.

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“Hap-py birth-day, Normaaan...! Here’s your gift!”

As expected, Emma is the first one who wishes him birthday.

“Thank you, Emma.”

Norman smiles at her, and Emma beams up. He lets Emma settles the seemingly hand-made pale colored flower crown on top of his head before accepting her big hug.

“So cute! It suits you!”

Norman laughs. “Thanks.”

Glancing around the sleeping room, he internally sighs in disappointment as he doesn’t find the one person he really looks forward to see today.

Looks like I’m already on a late start.

Sometimes Ray would wake up early to sneak some time to read before breakfast. It doesn’t happen often, though. Probably just his luck that Ray does it today.

Oh, but don’t get him wrong. He loves Emma, really. But he already has a special plan for Ray today, after all. And the plan won’t be able to execute itself if the subject isn’t there.

“Are you looking for Ray?”

Yup, observant Emma as always.

“Yes, I’m going to look for him.”

“I will go with you!”

“Well...” Norman averts his eyes, hurriedly thinks for an excuse. “I’d love to have your help, but I think you better go back to your room. Jemima and the other little kids must be looking for you now. They always ask for your help with dressing up in the morning, don’t they?”

“Ah, of course! I can’t just leave Gilda alone to help them. Especially since she never gets it right with braiding Anna’s hair.”

Emma giggles and waves at him. “See you at breakfast table, birthday boy!”

Norman laughs at the nickname and waves back.

This leaves me being able to talk with Ray alone, now.

Norman holds back his giddy grin and hurriedly go to the library.

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“Gotcha!”

He pokes Ray’s cheek.

Ray, who’s just about to reach out to one of the heavy books in their library’s second floor bookshelves, jumps in surprise at the sudden intrusion.

Norman takes a brief moment to capture Ray’s startled expression before he lets out a chuckle and moves to stand between Ray and the bookshelf.

“I think you forget something.”

Norman smiles and stares up at Ray in faux innocence.

“Really? I wonder what it is...” Ray plays along.

Pushing Norman aside and putting back the books in his arms into the shelves accordingly, Ray lets Norman almost believe his words before he suddenly turns around and pinches Norman cheek.

“Happy Birthday, idiot.”

Ray smirks.

“You could do without pinching my cheek,” Norman grumbles, rubbing his stinging cheek.

Ray rolls his eyes at Norman’s reaction. “Ah, c’mon you spoiled birthday boy.”

Ray then ruffle his hair before dragging him to the dining hall. Norman blushes all along. If it was a romance novel, he’d get all embarrassed and started stammering unintelligible words at Ray. But it’s no romance novel, and Norman is honestly way more ecstatic rather than embarrassed at the gesture.

At the dining hall, Emma and the others are already waiting for him. He smiles at them. A few of the younger kids give him some drawings as a presents. Mama bakes a special cake for him.

It really is a good day.

.

For all his complex internal monologue about the plan, the execution is actually quite simple. Poking Ray’s cheek every time Ray reaches out for a book, that’s his only plan. Distracting Ray and making the other boy gets used to it.

Though, as simple as it is, the said plan actually requires more effort than Norman expected. Just in the last few hours alone, Ray already almost reaching out for a book in more number of times than Norman can count in one hand. It’s more of an unconscious act at this point, and Norman wonders since when Ray’s reading has becomes more of a habit than a hobby for the boy.

“Ray,” he calls out.

Ray is sitting under his usual tree. Thankfully, without a book on his lap as usual.

“Ray, let’s play hide and seek with everyone!”

Ray stares at him unimpressed. “It’s your birthday. You can afford to be a bit more selfish, you know.”

“Huh?”

“I mean, I thought you’d drag me to a long hours of chess match or something. Instead of indulging others playing outside under this hot sun.”

“Well...it’s not like I really dislike playing outside with them.”

And it’s true. Sure, playing chess with Ray would be a lot of fun. Ray and Mama are the only ones who can really match him in chess nowadays. And yeah, playing outside on a hot whether like this day usually drains his stamina a bit quickly. But it’s not like he particularly hate playing with the other kids. Besides, he kind of wants to drag Ray to play with everyone more while he has the chance. Maybe Ray spends too much of his time reading alone because he’s gotten used to barely spending his time with the others.

Norman wonders what he should say to convince Ray to join their game. Ah, Emma would really be a lot better with these kind of things.

Just as he thought that, Ray abruptly gets up and makes his way towards everyone.

“Everyone! Let’s play hide and seek! Norman will be the ‘it’!”

“Wha- Hey! What gives you right to suddenly deciding it like that? If anything, I should get to be the one who decides since today’s my birthday!” Norman playfully protests.

Nah. You’re the one who wanted to drag me, so I get to decide,” says Ray dismissively.

Norman huffs. Ray is good at hide and seek—despite actually rarely play it.

“Hide and seek is like a chess game, but with you body instead of the chess pieces.”

—is what Ray always says.

Norman never exactly agree nor disagree at Ray’s opinion. But if anything, Ray really does play hide and seek with the same concentration, meticulousness, and complicated tactics as he’s playing a chess game.

Forty-five minutes goes by, and he’s left with Ray as the sole survivor he hasn’t manage to caught yet. He even already caught Emma at the thirty-eight minutes mark. The faked fall act and faux sad expression always do wonders on the girl.

Oh well, he still has about fifteen minutes left.

Walking deeper into the forest, Norman changes his tactics and begins tethering down the fences instead of looking for Ray in the bushes. He blinks his eyes tiredly. The sight in front of him is getting a little blurry now.

The trees surrounding their orphanage are spare enough to get some rays of sunshine seeping through. The heat of the sun is beginning to get his mind clouded. Norman curses silently. It usually takes him at least an hour and a half before he runs out of stamina.

Must be because I just spent a good ten minutes trying to outrun Emma.

Mind busy cursing out his body and mulling over surly, Norman doesn’t notice the particularly huge branch laying down just near the fence. He trips over the branch, making him promptly lose his balance and stumble down. He’s trying frantically to grapple for some leverage when a pair of hands catch him just in time.

“Careful there, idiot.”

Norman blinks up. “Ray...?”

Ray steadies him. “Come on. You win. Let’s get back inside before you pass out on me.”

Norman scowls. “This can’t be counted as a win.”

Ray shrugs. “Whatever. Suit it yourself.”

.

In the end, Norman doesn’t get to spend time with Ray again until it’s almost diner time.

Just like in any other days, Ray seems to suddenly vanish mysteriously during midday. Norman never really pays much mind into it before. Ray isn’t exactly the most extrovert person in the house. So it’s understandable, he thinks, if Ray wants to have some hours to himself alone. But now that he has some kind of resolve to spend his time with Ray as much as possible today, he can’t help but notice just how often Ray seems to be missing.

It all brings him to another question: just what is it that Ray always doing by himself when he’s alone? Does Ray have some sort of secret that he hides from everyone? If so, what is it? Is it something interesting? Something embarrassing? Something......dangerous?

Norman bites his lip.

Does Mama know it?

Knowing Ray, it’s probably either something really embarrassing or......dangerous. Though his mind can’t really come up with anything involving any possible danger here. The only thing that springs up his mind is dangerous chemicals. They learned it on a few of Mama’s lessons. There are also a few books in the library written about it.

But...Ray experimenting with dangerous chemicals? It’s possible, but- If so, where does get the chemicals from? Mama supplying it for him? There’s also the unanswered crucial question: Why?

What is it that Ray is doing, and just why?

Everything are merely just baseless assumptions as of now. And Norman is not one with baseless hypothesis.

The thought of Ray doing something possibly dangerous makes him really uncomfortable.

Does Mama at least know it?

Come to think of it, Ray seems to interact with Mama more often than any other kids. That includes Emma, and Emma is the one who likes spending time with Mama the most out of they all.

Norman rules out the possibility of Ray liking spending time with Mama even more than Emma. As far as he remembers, Ray always avoids being dismissive of any form affection from Mama. Norman always thinks it’s because Ray is easily embarrassed. But think about it again, isn’t that weird, getting embarrassed to the point of disliking even the slightest form of affection?

Again, he only realizes these things now. For all the time he spends silently admiring and observing the other boy, it seems like there are many things that he actually doesn’t know yet about Ray.

Norman sighs in disappointment as his brain couldn’t come up with any believable hypothesis again. What comes out of his mind are instead unrealistic scenarios out of pure worry and anxiousness—and yes, that means monsters, demons, and the such. It seems that Emma’s impressive imaginative mind is rubbing off on him.

“Stop it with that pouty frown. It doesn’t look as cute on you as it does on the younger kids.”

Norman glances at Ray flatly, not amused by the other boy’s humor. Inside, he actually jumps in surprise at Ray’s voice seemingly coming out of nowhere.

“If I recall correctly, I’m sure that two days ago I made a promise with a certain person about that person to be spending time with me on my birthday. Which is, unless the calendar lies or the tart cake that I ate this morning actually wasn’t a birthday cake, supposed to be this day. But well...it seems that that person can’t really keep his end of the promise.”

“Ah, that. Sorry.”

Norman snorts at the lack trace of guilt in Ray’s dismissive tone.

“I mean, I’m sure the promise didn’t include me being a Pavlov guinea pig experiment on my part. Unless my memory deceives me, of course.”

Norman widens his eyes. “You- you realize it?!”

“Do you really expect me not to realize it?”

“Well...just not this soon. But ah, it’s you after all.”

Norman lets out a small chuckle, but his grin slowly fades out of his face when Ray doesn’t appear to be amused as well.

“You’re...not mad, right?”

He fiddles with the hem of his shirt nervously. Surely it’s not really that mean, right? He’s seen Thoma and Lannie mixed Ray’s shampoo with food coloring, making Ray’s pitch black hair turned into bright red for three days straight. Even then, Ray eventually forgave them. Surely this thing is nothing compared to that......right?

Ray raises his hand, and Norman reflexively winces. But he only feels a soft flick on his nose before Ray’s guffawing echoed loudly in the room.

Hahahah...your expression, Norman! Oh my God, you should’ve seen yourself!”

Norman scowls. “Petty,” he bites out, not actually annoyed at Ray tricking him.

Just then, they both hear diner bell ringing. Its sound vibrates down loudly through the house corridors.

“Let’s go,” Ray says, dragging him again down the dining hall just like this morning.

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“My dearest children, we have a good news tonight. Five days from now, Sarah and Diana would get adopted together by a lovely family.”

Everyone cheers out at the joyful news. Sarah and Diana are twins. They always hope to be able to get adopted together, so that they can continue living together as twins.

“Congratulations, both of you!” he smiles sincerely at the two.

“Thank you!”

“Thank you, Norman!”

The two girls both grin cheerfully.

Norman is quite close with Sarah and Diana, since they only have two years of age difference. Sarah and Diana are the oldest ones in the house, with them both being eleven years old as of now. With them being gone, it would leave him, Ray, and Emma as the oldest one of the house.

Norman glances around. He sees Conny crying and Don comforting her—Conny always cries wherever someone gets adopted. But suddenly, Norman notice something strange. Barely noticeable in the midst of their boisterous commotion, Ray stands in the corner of the room with his face ashen.

The alarm goes off in Norman’s mind. It’s not an expression of sadness—Ray has never particularly close with either Sarah or Diana, anyway. Instead, Norman is certain, that it’s an expression of dread and terror that is on Ray's face right now.

He hears his heart beats loudly in his ear.

What prompts it?

All the horror scenarios his imaginative mind came up this afternoon comes back to him again.

An investigation is in order, he decides.

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That night, Norman doesn’t sleep. He relaxes his body in a way that would make anyone belief he’s been asleep for hours, when in reality his brain is very much awake.

Precisely at one in the morning, he hears some shuffling from the bed on his left. Ray’s bed. Waiting about a minute or so until Ray’s already out of the room, he gets up and starts his mission.

It’s not the first time he notices that Ray suddenly disappear in the middle of a night. But as a person who values privacy, he always holds back his curiosity. Ray has the right to keep some secret to himself—everyone is after all.

But tonight, it doesn’t matter. He’s not really a person who likes to depend on gut feelings and such. But tonight, all his instincts are screaming at him to abandon his moral principles. All his the alarm bells in his head are telling him that something dangerous is going on, and he needs to investigate it soon.

Even if it turns out nothing is going on, at least then I’ll be able to satisfy my curiosity and stop all this anxiousness.

It was his last thought before he arrives at the front of Mama’s room.

What is Ray doing talking to Mama at this hour?

There are a lot of possibilities, of course. Ray having a nightmare and wants to seek Mama’s comfort, for example.

What he hears next, however, is not anything he ever imagined even in his wildest imagination.

“What an unexpected visit. What do you want, my loyal watch dog? You haven’t really done any superb work, lately. Surely you won’t happen to be asking for another reward already?”

“Stop it with the jokes! Why are you sending Sarah and Diana together?! Isn’t the plantation supposed to only send out one child at a time? Their scores never dropped even a bit! If anything, their potentials are almost as good as Emma’s. Why are you—”

“Oh, my, my little Ray. What are you talking about? Of course, it’s not me who can control who and when everyone’s getting shipped out. Those two fit all the specifications the superiors request of. What? Are you worried about you and your dear little two friends, hm?”

“It’s not—”

“Ah, worried not, Ray. ‘They won’t get shipped out until the maximum age of potential’ is what our deal was, right? Don’t worry. They’re safe. As of now, at least. Well, as long as you keep doing your job right, I won’t break my part of the deal too.”

“I’m always doing my job right!”

“Ah, that’s good then. Be sure to keep it up, dear. Especially your eyes on Norman. That boy is as much as the biggest asset as he is the biggest threat to this business. Remember, Ray. Any slight mistake on your part would be fatal and absolutely unforgivable.”

“Ck, just how many years I’ve been working for you? Of course, I understand that already by now.”

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When Ray’s back into the sleeping room, Norman is already sleeping peacefully again on his bed.

At least, that would be what appears to any outsider’s eyes.

Laying rigid on his bed, Norman bites his tongue painfully as to not let anyone suspicious of his very much alert state. He fights hard to even out his breath, praying that the room is to dark for the cold sweats on his face to be visible.

It’s not until he hear Ray’s finally sleeping soundly beside him, that Norman finally could truly relax. The same state doesn’t apply to his mind, though.

‘Watch dog’? ‘Plantation’? ‘Shipping’? What’s going on? What were Mama and Ray talking about? 'Asset'? 'Job'? 'Keeping an eye' on him? Why is he a 'big threat'? And what is this ‘deal’ that they keep talking about?

Every single of his questions scream ‘danger’ in bold, capital letters.

He doesn’t know what to do—where he should even start investigating it.

But one thing he knows for sure, he couldn’t do it alone. It’s too risky. He can’t even rely on Ray or Mama anymore—two of few people he initially trust the most in this house. He needs Emma’s help in this, he decides. If there’s anyone he sure is innocent and very capable, it’s definitely Emma.

He will start with the planning tomorrow. For now, he needs to give his own body and mind the much needed rest to be able to think clearly—and prepare for what to come.