The clear sea that surrounded Octavinelle was only protected by a round glass dome curving above their heads. At foot-level, the beginnings of the ocean lapped below and around the purple paths snaking around the dorm. A continuous drip of black liquid overflowing Mostro Lounge’s narrow walkway bled into the surrounding shallows steadily. It took little time for the surrounding environment to darken into a poisonous, smoky violet that obscured their surroundings from the rest of the world.
Yuu, however, barely noticed the change in atmosphere around her—to take it further, she had stopped noticing the drag of her own sick body. Far more important things needed her attention, like shoving as many confused students back inside the Mostro Lounge as humanly possible while Azul solicited any stragglers he could trap.
His usually controlled voice rang harshly in her ears, unintelligible like snow across a television screen. It was clear that Octavinelle’s illustrious Dorm Head had abandoned any effort to mould himself into the prudence he usually favoured.
Everything was wrong.
Leona and Ruggie were warily observing Azul’s every move, making no action to help the frantically running students scattering in every direction. She could not understand how they looked so calm when the world was falling apart around their ears. When Yuu herself could barely control her wobbling legs and keep the black hole of panic shoved into a corner of her mind.
“—You there, with the lightning magic,” she heard Azul laugh hysterically from behind her as Yuu pushed at the crowd of struggling students with all her might. “Aah, and the guy beside him! You’ve got excellent athletic abilities, don’t you? Give it to me…give it all to me!”
“What the hell is going on?” someone in the crowd shouted.
“Dorm Head’s gone crazy!” Arc-eye sounded almost as agitated as Azul, voice grating shrilly against her ears.
“Hurry up and get outta here,” a student from Scarabia was mumbling to his friend. “I told you dealing with Octa was suicide.”
“But with our dorm’s recent grades, we didn’t really have a choice. Hell, the Magift tournament—!”
“Pick one, your grades or your damn life. Hurry up and move it.”
“—Stop pushing me!”
Several people were hesitating by the doorway as everyone shoved their way inwards. “Shit, Leech is still in there! The scary one!”
“Is there time to be dawdling?! Just run, dammit!”
“Leech? Where’s Floyd-senpai!?” Yuu shouted over at the tall Sunfish, who had recovered relatively quickly from his shock and was helping her direct students to safety through Mostro Lounge’s interior and out the employee entrance behind the building.
“Still inside! I told you there were fights breaking out everywhere…he’s been busy choking the life outta the misbehavers,” Sunfish gritted his teeth. “Probably hasn’t even noticed us yet. …Hell, If I’d known this was gonna happen earlier I wouldn’ta gotten out of bed this morning.”
“Over here!” Bamboo Shark’s voice bellowed from somewhere within the Lounge. “Single-file line, you bastards, follow me!”
A loud hissing, popping sound reached their ears. Immediately after, several students behind her screamed wildly. Raw danger pricked at the back of Yuu’s neck so close that she froze—Sunfish cursed and yanked her out of the way right before a burst of light struck the student beside her in the back, sending him flat on his stomach by the entranceway. He did not get up again.
The breath whistled in Yuu’s throat audibly.
“Don’t scare me like that,” Sunfish breathed from behind her.
“Th…thanks,” she got out mechanically.
“…The hell is Azul sucking up from all these students!?” Ruggie was shouting from somewhere behind her. “Everyone who gets hit is just…falling over unconscious!”
“—I’ve got it,” A silently observing Leona spoke abruptly. The calmness of his voice was almost unnatural in the chaos surrounding them. “It looks like that guy’s Unique Magic usually uses the ‘contract’ as an intermediary. It’s not a contract at all—it’s the act of robbing people that’s his actual power. Look at him indiscriminately sucking up abilities. That’s probably the original form of it. I’m guessing that the only way Azul could control the effects of this crazy Unique Magic is to limit it using something…in this case, a contract…to prevent it from going wild like it is now.”
At his Dorm Head’s cool analysis of the situation, Ruggie appeared to regain some of his own complacence. “…If you’re not kidding, that’s way too freakin’ scary,” he commented with a humourless grin.
Their nonchalance settled the clanging noise ringing in her ears just enough for coherent thought. Leona always knew what to do. Advice. He always gave excellent advice.
Yuu left Sunfish to take care of the last few stragglers and jogged back to the two of them. “We’ve got to stop him.” Her voice was hatefully shaky. “Leona-senpai, what do we do?”
“Right,” Leona’s mouth was pulled flat. One hand curled around the Pen in his pocket. “From the looks of it, Azul’s magic is absolutely strong enough to be classified as forbidden magic. If a single use is that unbelievably strong and he’s unstable like that—you don’t need me to tell you how easily the generated Blot is going to surpass his magic stone’s absorbance limit.”
“Forbidden magic,” Ruggie muttered, but Yuu was far too panicked to be asking questions about that right now.
Everything was horribly, utterly wrong.
“—Azul! What on earth are you doing!?” Jade’s voice had never been so welcome to her ears. When she looked over to the travel mirror, he was making his way over the fallen bodies of the students backlit by its pure white glow, wearing his dorm uniform and an unusually tight frown. Seconds after he approached them, the mirror flashed again more brightly and spat out Ace, Deuce, Jack and Grim one after another.
“Jade-senpai!” Yuu’s voice cracked as she met him halfway. “What took you so long.”
“Your friends were quicker than I expected—they caught up with me,” Jade told her in undertone. “If I knew something like this was happening, I would have left the broken window for another individual to handle. Floyd is?”
“Here,” the taller Leech appeared by her other elbow, mouth drawn wide in a pointy-toothed grimace. He’d changed into a matching dorm uniform, though the ribbon was nowhere to be seen. “What the hell is goin’ on in this place? I go and clean up the small fish making problems inside and suddenly the ocean’s purple.”
“Ashengrotto-senpai is…” Yuu swallowed with difficulty, “it’s all my fault, his contracts got turned to sand and he lost control of his magic and we need to stop him before he overdoses on Blot! You guys know him the best, right? What do we do?”
“Yuu-san,” Jade laid a comforting hand on her shoulder, “calm yourself.”
“Huh? Sand? You mean that sea-lionish senpai over there melted his contracts?” Floyd caught on fast.
“Yuu!” Ace shouted after catching sight of her and regaining his bearings. He wasted no time in kicking his way through the collapsed students without reserve. “What the hell is going on!? Are you okay? Can you stop getting carried off all the time, I’m gonna have to handcuff you to my arm or something!”
“That Azul’s in a rage!” Deuce gaped over their heads, forgetting to refer to him with respect. “—Wait. Yuu, you collapsed earlier! Are you okay? What the hell is going on here?!”
Yuu shook her head, unable to speak.
“Look at all these students lying around,” Jack glanced around him warily, amber eyes narrowed. “Azul’s handiwork?”
“Yuu!” Grim ignored everyone and leapt at her. “Are you better now?! Ow! Why is your skin so hot!”
“Grim, your anemone…” Yuu glanced around at the unconscious students. “They’re all gone!” It seemed that ridding the contracts immediately dispelled any of its effects.
But this was not how she had wanted to succeed.
“Disappeared a while ago,” Ace informed her, “so we got our magic back and managed to catch up with that Jade by the Mirror Chamber. Hey, what the hell is going on here?”
“Ashengrotto-senpai’s contracts got turned to sand,” Yuu rushed out, settling Grim on her shoulder and undoing the button on her uniform sleeve where her wand was pulsing impatiently. “I…we pushed him too far. And he—he—”
Whenever she thought about the consequences of her actions, Yuu’s body and mind stopped listening to her. Like a lifeless chunk of rock, she could only stand still no matter how much she wanted to move.
“We got it,” Jack said roughly, planting a hand into her hair. “Don’t beat yourself up over what’s already happened.”
“J-Jack,” Yuu whispered.
“Leona, why’d you bully that Azul?” Grim narrowed his eyes at Savanaclaw’s Dorm Head a few steps away while Yuu tried to get her chattering teeth under control. “Look what happened to my henchman ‘cause of you.”
“The octo-bastard deserved it,” shrugged Leona, unrepentant. “How is it my fault? This was part of the plan anyway. Serves him right for stealing Ramshackle. …We just need to stop him from freaking out now.”
Deuce spluttered. “Just because he stole Ramshackle!?”
“Are all Dorm Heads freakin’ insane?!” hissed Ace.
Azul’s eyes finally focused on their gathered group as he turned from several unconscious students. His expression lit up in unholy glee. “Ah…Jade, Floyd! You’re finally back. Listen—thanks to those imbeciles, my contracts are all gone!” As if acting for a play, he made an exaggerated shrug and sighed theatrically.
Yuu flinched visibly. Grim pressed closer to her without complaining about her body temperature.
“That’s why…” Azul’s eyes widened; his irises contracted and seemed to flatten briefly. “I need more power. So give your abilities to me. Please. Give them to me!”
“Wait a moment!” Jade’s sharp voice cut across the end of his plea. “Azul! You should be aware that your Unique Magic is too strong to use without a restraint in the form of something like a contract. Shouldn’t you be the clearest on what will happen if you steal away our abilities?”
Azul’s brows drew together in a caricature of sorrow. “But…everything’s gone,” he sing-songed before bursting into uncontrolled laughter again. “Ha ha…Ah ha ha ha! At this rate I’m going to—return back to the way I was before!”
Floyd watched him laugh desperately. He was wearing a screwed-up expression that displayed something close to revulsion. “Uh, you know, the Azul right now is way less cool than the Azul from before.”
Azul blinked mildly at him before smiling. “………Ahh, is that so,” he responded lightly, the energy draining from his face. “I suppose you’re right. No matter what, I’m the dullard, dimwit octopus bastard that can’t do anything by himself.”
“That’s not what he meant!” Yuu burst out uncontrollably, pushing her way forwards.
But Azul was no longer in a state to hear her. “That’s why,” he explained to no one, the volume of his voice starting to waver and grow, “that’s why I need to steal power from everyone else so I can become a better version of myself! So I need it all—it’s all mine. Beautiful voices…strong magic…the Ramshackle dorm…! Everything that doesn’t go my way I’ll just steal! So hand it over. All of it!”
“Hey, Koebi-chan,” Floyd came up beside her. “Azul keeps dripping that black stuff everywhere, but I just noticed it’s too thick to be his ink. What’s going on…?”
“It’s overuse of his Unique Magic,” Jade answered for her when Yuu was unable to respond to him. “You know how powerful Azul’s abilities are. Too outrageously strong for any sort of uncontrolled use—so he always needs to control it using those contracts. From the looks of it, he’s generated far too much Blot for the capacity of his magic stone to hold right now. At this rate—”
“…How could I let this happen?” Yuu mumbled to herself deliriously. “After Riddle-senpai and Leona-senpai. I knew the symptoms and I c-could have stopped it. Why do I always fail at the most critical time? Why do I…”
“Yuu-san?” Jade finally wrenched his attention off of Azul for a moment.
“Koebi-chan,” Floyd nudged her gently. “What’s up with you?”
“I can’t let another Overblot happen,” Yuu choked out, staggering forwards in disregard of her blurry vision. “I have to stop him. I have to stop this. This is all my fault.”
“Henchman…?” Grim peered worriedly into her face. “Hey, I think you need to take a deep breath—”
“Ashengrotto-senpai!” Yuu elbowed her way past Ace, Leona and Ruggie as Azul started to hover off the ground. “You have to listen to me!”
Azul looked disdainfully down at her. “Why, if it isn’t the Saint Directing Student,” he mocked. “Are you here to laugh at me too, now that you’ve made a mess of my life? But you know I won’t let you have the last laugh. Even you I’ll have go by my will in the end, Yuu-san!”
The tears leaking down his cheeks bled black as those stormy eyes bore hatefully into her own.
“You can’t Overblot too,” Yuu shouted at him, nails digging into her palms. “If it makes you calm down I’ll do anything—I’ll atone for everything I did—!”
“HA! Do not insult me. You understand nothing,” Azul seethed. The dark fabric of his uniform pants wavered before a long violet-black tentacle exploded through its side and lashed the space beside her, shattering the walkway clean through.
Yuu cried out in shock as water rushed around her feet. A blow like that would have seriously injured her had she been standing in its path. Dimly, she remembered someone in the Mostro Lounge telling her about the transforming potion being unable to withstand a Merman’s emotionally unstable moods.
“What? Have you never seen an octopus Merman in your life?” Azul narrowed his dark-stained eyes at her in an ecstatic smile as Blot danced in an ink halo around his face. Two more tentacles the length of her entire body burst through the seams of his clothing; thorned spikes growing out of his arms ruined the uniform sleeve of his suit jacket with painful-sounding rips. “I don’t blame you…we are, after all, rare enough to be considered the butt of every joke down in the ocean.”
One of the Merman guards in front of the Atlantica Museum had mentioned the same thing—that octopus Mermen were exceedingly rare. However, Yuu had not been expecting just how big one could be. Although Azul’s torso remained slender, the same size he usually was, the addition of six enormous limbs lined with venomous-looking suction cups more than doubled, tripled his presence. As Blot disintegrated the fabric of his dorm uniform, the pale colour of his fingers, chest and face gleamed a silver-lilac, arms darkening to a venomous purple.
The new limbs were easily each the size of a grown man and lent him height and inertia as he rose far above her eye-level, even larger than the four metres of Jade’s and Floyd’s Mermen forms. Azul’s grey eyes brightened so they glittered a brilliant ice blue, and for a moment, she was transfixed by his gaze.
This was not the time to be admiring another sea creature, no matter how big they were, Yuu kicked herself mentally. “Senpai,” she dug desperately through her mind for some way to distract him, “is this what you’ve wanted? The abilities of others—the possessions of others? Do you really think that can make you happy?”
“Happy?” Azul repeated incredulously. The heavy strike of another tentacle lodged into a pillar of rock and cracked it. “You seem to misunderstand something, Yuu-san. I care little for happiness. Do you see the way their faces looked when I pulled away their precious belongings? When they realized how powerless, how lacking they were standing in front of me? THAT’S what I want!!”
“Why!?” Yuu shouted back. Blot was encrusting a colony of obsidian coral and shell to line Azul’s clavicle, the back of his neck, his muscled waistline. They were running out of time. “Why are you so obsessed with the misery of others?! What did they do to you!”
“Ah ha ha ha ha!” Azul burst out into louder laughter this time. “Now you’re coming closer! Oh, Yuu-san, of all people—you should know this answer the best. Haven’t you felt the boiling in your intestines when those foolish, base students ripped up your notebooks? When that moron from Scarabia lambasted you with outrageous claims like entering the school by cheating despite possessing less than a fifth of your intelligence. When your precious Headmaster made you clean Main Street on the first day of school just for a leaky roof to sleep under!”
The fervour in his voice stunned her; Yuu could not answer him. She had felt nothing when she had been looked down on, punched, lambasted—but it was clear that Azul was different. Unlike her, he did not forget a single deed done in his presence. Still, he spoke about her experiences as if… “How…how did you know all that stuff?”
“It’s only natural to be informed about my employee,” Azul shrugged without remorse. Six tentacles propelled him forward; the momentum of his words and movements forced her a step back. “Of all people in this school, you should know best what it’s like to be trampled underfoot as worthless! What it’s like to be laughed at as a dullard, dimwit octopus bastard…”
“You’re none of those things!” she burst out.
“I don’t need your disgusting pity!!” he howled back, clutching his face with both silver-lilac hands. “Not you, who drove me to this spot in the first place! How dare you try to UNDERSTAND me!”
“I don’t care if I understand you or not,” Yuu snapped back. “Right now your life is in danger! You can hate me and beat me up to your heart’s content but you need to stop letting the negative emotions hurt yourself! Ashengrotto-senpai, open your eyes and listen!”
Azul laughed at her spitefully, his entire Merman form trembling with the movement. When he lowered his hand from one side of his face, a latticework of Blot shadowed his eyelids and traced the contour of his cheeks and forehead like a masquerade mask. The pupil visible to Yuu trembled before flattening out in an inhumanly horizontal bar.
“Life? Who cares about something that boring if I can’t devour to my heart’s content,” he crooned. A ball of purple flame ignited in his left eye. “Now hand it all over, Yuu-san. Give everything to me!”
CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE | An Irreversible Catalyst.
Azul’s Overblot had completely destroyed the narrow path leading to Mostro Lounge—now, as his six new limbs struck out mercilessly, it also pierced the heavy bone of the Lounge’s outer wall as if rending paper.
“I’ve had enough.” Grim leapt from her shoulders and released a great azure wheel of defensive fire as Yuu’s legs gave out from under her. “Henchman! Get yourself together!”
“This is all my fault,” Yuu gasped dizzily, unable to stop shivering. “This is all my fault.”
“Argh!” Grim spun around from where he was standing in front of her before smacking her hard in the cheek with his paw. “You idiot! Look at me!”
“—Grim,” Yuu pleaded, “what do I do…”
“What do you always do?” Grim’s polar blue eyes regarded her without the least uncertainty. “Don’t forget you’re my henchman, Yuu. Stop overthinking things and remember last time. Save panicking for when you’ve got nothing left to do!”
“What happened to all that determination?” Leona reached her side as Jack and Ruggie approached from behind. “Didn’t you try to beat the living hell outta me back when I Overblotted? Don’t tell me you’re already giving up.”
“Don’t sit in the water like that,” Jack pulled her out of the shallows she had collapsed into. “You don’t need to fight when you’re this sick, but at least stay somewhere safe so I can fight him without worrying about you.”
Yuu looked between the four of them before she coughed and croaked, “Think we can still stop him?”
“Shi shi shi. Now that’s rare,” Ruggie laced his hands behind his hair with a grin. “An unsure Yuu-kun? Is the sun gonna rise from the South tomorrow?”
“Ruggie-senpai,” Jack snapped, “Yuu’s got a high fever. Being unsure is natural in this state.”
“It was a joke, you moron. Read the mood.”
“Hurry up and do somethin’,” Grim released a second fireball. “I can’t hold off this guy forever!”
Leona rolled his eyes and poked her in the head. “If you don’t want me to abandon that octo-bastard to his demise and haul you out of the country to a hospital,” he told her pleasantly, “then you better remember you’re a witch in the next ten seconds. What the hell did we do all that practice for?”
“Witch?” Grim squinted distractedly.
The trio of Savanaclaw students formed a triangle around her. Only now was it that she realized that her trembling had diminished.
Yuu looked around at them, up at the darkened sea, at Grim, and slapped her forehead with a loud groan. “I’m such an idiot.”
“You’re finally back,” her partner gave her a flat stare. “I’m tired of waiting.”
“Sorry. I was just panicking a little. I’m fine now.” Yuu pulled out her wand and looked up. Azul’s body was angled diagonally away from her and moving slowly in the direction of the main walkway so that she caught an uninterrupted view of the enormous phial of black liquid sitting atop the body of an octopus Mermaid. Just like the other times, a great creature of Blot shadowed him in a parody of protection.
Like a puppeteer.
A crown on her head and a trident in her hand, Yuu’s dream whispered in her mind.
“Come out, Great Cauldron!” shouted Deuce from somewhere behind the huge Blot creature. “Feels good using that again. Oi Ace! Stop getting in my way!”
“Who the hell’s in who’s way!?” Ace spat back. “You stop standing in front of me! I can’t see where those huge octopus legs are hitting!”
“Just move faster, moron!”
“Speaking of, why the heck does Azul look like that!? He just sprouted a bunch of tentacles all of a sudden!” Grim returned to her shoulder as Jack hefted her up on one arm.
“That’s Azul’s Merman form,” Jade said, voice overly calm, as he approached their group.
“More importantly, what the hell is that huge thing behind him? It’s way too big for me to squeeze!” Floyd hopped over a pile of debris before landing in the shallow water with a splash. “Ugh, my shoes are gonna get ruined now.”
“I’m sure you can fix them later,” Jade said, regaining his smile. “If you’re in the right mood, that is.”
“Jaaade, help me.”
“I suppose it can’t be helped…”
Leona scanned her over once more before sighing. “—Prioritize returning Azul back to normal,” he instructed them all at large. “And don’t get hit by his uncontrolled Unique Magic or else it’ll be way worse than just getting an anemone. Got it?”
“Ace and Deuce are taking the heat right now,” Yuu rubbed her dry eyes, trying to clear her foggy sight. “I think we should split into two groups. One to distract Ashengrotto-senpai himself, and one that targets the Blot behind him.”
“Leave the distracting to me,” Grim said proudly, kicking off of Jack’s shoulder. “By now I think I can put up a good fight. Hey! Ace!”
“Geh! Aren’t you supposed to be with Yuu!? Stop jumping on my head!”
The Mermaid’s enormous trident cut the air with a low hum as Ace and Grim ducked in tandem. Deuce pointed at it with his Pen and released a storm of ice shards with a shout.
Yuu looked around them. Thanks to the destruction Azul had caused in the area, there was plenty of space to run and jump, and even the water wasn’t high enough to pose a challenge. “Jack, can I ride on your shoulders again?”
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” Jack glared down at her. “You can’t even stand.”
“That’s why I need you,” Yuu said cheekily. “Me and you are going to focus on the Blot amalgamation behind senpai—just like last time. I’ve been practicing, you should know.”
Jack grumbled. “If we weren’t pressed for time, there’s no way I’d let you do this.”
“Wait a sec,” Floyd squinted at them as Ruggie and Leona nodded to their group before leaping forwards to attack, “Why’s Koebi-chan acting like she’s used to this or something?”
“She!?” Jack spluttered before remembering that he knew. His glare deepened at Floyd. “…It’s none of your business.”
“This has happened a couple of times before,” Yuu rushed to answer when Floyd’s pupils constricted in anger. This was no time for an altercation.
“So the rumours of the Directing Student being involved in Overblots was true,” Jade narrowed his eyes at her shrewdly. “Just how many secrets do you have left to show us, Yuu-san?”
“One,” Yuu answered him. “Probably. Will you two help me rescue Ashengrotto-senpai?”
“Why are you asking? It’s Azul,” Floyd rolled his eyes.
“I, personally, believe that Azul needs a wake-up call, not a ‘rescue’,” Jade said pleasantly, pulling out his Pen. “It is quite unpleasant seeing him behave this way.”
“Aha! Jade’s pissed,” his brother laughed.
Jack gave them a strange look. “How can they be so calm in a situation like this…?” he muttered. “—Whatever. Don’t have time for this. Yuu, I’m gonna transform. No matter what you do, don’t push yourself too hard. Got it?”
“Thanks, Jack,” Yuu told him gratefully, flinging her arms around his shoulders briefly before jumping off into the shallows with a splash.
“Unleash the Beast!”
“Uni-chan!?” Floyd gaped as light filled Jack’s body before bursting outwards. “—He turned into a real beast guy!”
Jack, towering over her in his wolf form, barked at him furiously.
“That’s probably ‘I’m a wolf!’,” Yuu informed him before Jack tossed her into the air with his snout. “—Oof! Okay, let’s go.”
“Wait a moment!” Jade stayed them with a gloved hand, a line forming between his brows. “You can’t be thinking of directly attacking him. Yuu-san, you have no way to protect yourself!”
“I told you I have another secret,” Yuu told him, steadying her wand. Another Stamina Charm bloomed on her skin and brightened the surroundings briefly. “About how I said I couldn’t use magic, Floyd-senpai…I was only technically not lying.”
Floyd gaped at her. “So that time I wasn’t seeing things,” he mumbled. “Koebi-chan…you can use magic!”
“…Pardon?” Jade looked, for once, utterly confused.
“Where I come from,” Yuu explained, lifting her glowing wand, “they call people like me a ‘witch’. Jade-senpai, you wanted to know my secrets, right? Well, —watch closely!”
Ruggie grunted as he rolled out of the way of a passing tentacle. “Holy shit those things are strong,” he hissed, watching it come down like a hammer into the side of Mostro Lounge’s building with the force of an earthquake. “I’ve got half a mind to just plan an escape and get outta here. Shi shi shi.”
“If I have to stay here, so do you,” Leona fired off a burst of viridian leaves in Azul’s direction. “At least it means I have a meat shield if things go south.” He ducked smoothly right in time for Jack’s wolf form to bound over his head.
“Careful you’re not the one being used as a meat shield later! Water Shot!”
The Magift team, Crowley, and many students insisted that NRC could not cooperate or work together to save their own lives. Yuu thought that was a bunch of baloney. Savanaclaw’s seamless movements could only come as a result of perfectly reading each other’s intentions. They were joined by a deep trust that surpassed words, which meant that Ruggie and Leona were free to joke around with a curious lack of nerves. It was an unthinkable sight back in October when the former had sworn to fight the latter to the end as he stood in Savanaclaw’s Magift pitch.
Azul himself was preoccupied with Jade and Floyd, who had wordlessly taken point to replace a panting Ace and Deuce on his other side. “Jade, Floyd,” his wide eyes were bloodshot and unfocused, both pupils completely flattened in the same way an octopus’s eyes looked. “Let’s make a deal! Why don’t you make a deal with me…?”
“You know, normally I’d be okay with whatever deal you got, Azul,” Floyd clamped his fedora to his hair with one hand and blocked a burst of white magic from hitting Jade with his Pen. “But right now? Nah.”
“Indeed,” Jade sighed, “Azul, your current form cannot be overlooked. What happened to your self-control? How pathetic.”
“So what if I’m pathetic!!” Azul snarled at him. “All that means is that I have to take whatever I lack from those other people! Now give your power to me!”
Azul looked completely distracted, the intensity of his attention focused on his two partners. Yuu, who had been looking for a window to attack, hissed, “Jack, now!”
Jack barked out an affirmative and kicked off the ground straight at one of the octopus-leg shaped pillars that had split in half from an earlier attack. Yuu settled into the familiar balance on his shoulders and felt the wind strike her cheeks as they climbed higher before she aimed straight at the phial of Blot and shouted “Confringo!”
Fiery orange light pierced through the dark purple of the surroundings and blinded the area. The phial of jet-black Blot splintered, barely held on—its Mermaid form reeled, trident stabbing into the water for purchase. Surrounding outcroppings of rock and coral split and disintegrated with the shockwave.
None of them were expecting the force of the spell to be as strong as it was, not even Yuu, who slipped right off of Jack’s back and went airborne with a yelp.
“—take so much work,” ground out Leona, running forwards. A flick of his hand transformed his Pen into a long wood-tone staff and another wave slowed her descent so he could reach her in time. “Oi! What was that!?”
“Sorry!” Yuu exclaimed as she settled into his free arm. “I didn’t expect it to be that strong! It’s almost double what it was before! Protego!”
A sparkle of white light hissed poisonously against the barrier she had erected a moment before it would have struck them.
Leona clicked his tongue and threw her at an approaching Jack. “Protect your rider better,” he called.
Yuu settled back between his shoulders with a thump. “Sorry,” she patted his neck. “I’ll hold on tight this time.”
Jack growled at her. His visible eye narrowed dangerously in warning.
“Holy shit,” commented Floyd as Yuu shouted out a second Shield Charm to guard Grim from a stray tentacle. “Koebi-chan’s…like…freaky strong.”
“We need to have a long conversation about this later,” Jade said excitedly. “Hurry up and come back to your senses, Azul! Did you see Yuu-san just now!?”
“Again,” Azul seethed in her direction, clearly not perceiving the same excitement. Even without any composure and reason, his attacks were still direct and deadly. Now that Yuu had his attention, she was unable to reach the Blot Mermaid behind him any longer. “Again! It’s always you—why is it always YOU!”
“That’s my name. Immobulus!” Yuu cried out as he lashed out at her with two limbs. They ground to a halt right before her face. Sweat burst across her neck and back in reaction. Floyd had not been joking about the monster strength he possessed.
“Hey, stop chasing after Yuu all the time,” Ace shouted from his other side. “Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
“It’s not right to turn your back on an opponent,” Deuce added. “Ace! Let’s make the bastard regret the score he owes us!”
“And there Deuce goes again with his delinquent vocabulary,” Ace sighed. “Don’t hold me back, moron!”
“Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”
Azul struggled against her Freezing Charm before shattering it with an explosion of light. He reared in Ace’s direction with a snarled “Shut up!”
“Was I this bad?” Leona squinted over at the rampaging Azul as Yuu and Jack came up beside him, both of them breathing hard with exertion. She felt light-headed with fever that refused to be ignored, but Yuu smacked herself in the cheeks and scanned the area around them diligently.
“At least you didn’t have eight limbs,” Ruggie dashed sweat from his brow, somersaulting down from the caved-in wall of Mostro Lounge where he’d been fending off two more.
“It’d be so much easier if we could transform back into our regular bodies,” whined Floyd a few metres away as he and Jade dodged the last two. One of them pierced cleanly through the Lounge into the hall, smashing through tables and ripping apart sofas and chandelier clusters. When it lifted again, it was curled around the metal support of a bar stool.
Yuu watched the bar stool bend in half like a paperclip and swallowed hard. She recast the Stamina Charm on herself, swayed unsteadily and muttered, “So this is what you meant when you said he was stronger than you guys. Gotta say…I wasn’t expecting it to be this crazy.”
“Azul’s limbs are made entirely from muscle,” Jade panted, his hat gone as the twins joined them. “Yuu-san, that last attack was marvellous.”
“Oh, um, thanks,” Yuu blinked. “I’m having a really hard time getting to the Blot Mermaid this time though. At least Riddle-senpai and Leona-senpai sort of stayed in one spot.”
“So that’s why you directed us to ‘take the heat’,” Jade recognized. “Unfortunately, it seems that Azul is subconsciously trying to prevent access to that…large creature behind him. He has always been very intelligent.”
“Yeah, but we don’t have time,” she strained out, “if he keeps going like this, Headmaster said he could d-die. I think we need to take drastic measures—Grim! Mobilicorpus!”
“Funaaa!” Grim shouted as she sent him up by one ankle in a wide arc. A second later, the spot he’d been standing was crushed under a heavy tentacle that thudded against the ground and straight into the side of Octavinelle’s protective dome.
The entire structure shook around them briefly.
“Hey!” Ruggie shouted, ears standing straight. “He’s aiming for the dome! If he breaks it we might all drown in here!”
“You might drown,” Floyd shrugged. “We’ll be fine.”
“You know we’re here to help you,” Ruggie growled at him.
“However, it will indeed be a problem if the dome is broken,” Jade furrowed his brow, watching as a stray beam of fire impacted the glass. “Not all of the students in this dorm are Mermen and who knows if we’ve missed someone in the evacuation.”
“Maybe I can try something…DURI!” Yuu bellowed, pointing her wand upwards. A blinding blast of whitish blue light burst from its tip and impacted the circular dome above them so that it sparkled. A wave of light traced the inside of the dome to shield it against further destruction.
Yuu fell over on Jack’s back dizzily, breathing hard. Everyone stared at her for a second.
“Yuu!” shouted Ace. “What was that?”
“An…experiment!” Yuu shouted back, trying to catch her breath. “I only…heard about it from my Charms Professor before…but I think it worked!”
“Now is not the time to be doing your experiments,” Leona groaned. “Are you okay? That was a huge spell.”
“But now the dome isn’t going to shatter,” Yuu managed between pants. She gave Ruggie a thumbs up. “You’re right, senpai. We can’t keep this up forever. I need to get in there so I can reach the thing behind him.”
“What!?” Ruggie spluttered. “You’re about to fall over! You can’t keep fighting!”
“If you guys distract Ashengrotto-senpai for me then I can and I will,” she cleared her throat. “Sonorous. Grim! Ace, Deuce, can you hear me!?”
“Whoa!” Deuce gaped. “How’d your voice get so loud?”
“I need you to take care of the closest two limbs!” Yuu shouted, magically enhanced voice echoing easily over to them. “Can you handle it?”
“Hah!” Grim climbed up on Ace’s head and sent her a smirk. “Who do you think I am?”
“We’ve been doing that until now,” Ace hinted with a roll of his eyes. “I don’t know how much energy we’ve got left, though, so whatever you’re planning, just hurry up and do it before I Overblot this time.”
“Don’t make jokes like that,” Yuu snapped before she cancelled the Charm. “—Ruggie-senpai, Leona-senpai. Can you guys get distract Ashengrotto-senpai from the other side?”
Leona read her plan and bared his teeth. “No,” he said flatly, “I am not letting you take a risk that big, even if Jack’s there—”
“There’s no time!” Yuu burst out, her voice breaking.
“…Koebi-chan,” Floyd murmured.
With difficulty, Yuu swallowed back her panic that threatened to overwhelm Grim’s encouraging words, the warmth of Jack’s silver-white fur on her icy cold hands. “There’s not enough time left,” she said shakily. “The other Overblots were taken care of faster than this. The longer it lasts the more dangerous it is for him…so I need to hurry and destroy that thing behind him before—before he—”
“Tch. Aaah, okay, I get it already. Don’t make that face at me,” Leona scowled in another direction. “This is the last damn time I listen to you. Remember this later, Yuu.”
“Thanks,” Yuu jerked her head down in a wobbly nod. “Floyd-senpai, Jade-senpai. Can you make Jack a path from the front? I’m going to go right in close enough to aim for the Blot Mermaid from below. I don’t think it’s possible to approach from behind at this point.”
“Very well,” Jade said courteously. “However, Yuu-san, do take care of yourself as well. None of us are looking for a pyrrhic victory.”
“Won’t this whole thing be fixed if we just knock Azul out before he can get to her?” Floyd wrinkled his nose.
“Then why don’t you squeeze him out of consciousness right now?” Jade retorted. “That is, if you can.”
“Shut up, Jade.”
“Jack,” Yuu patted his side. “I’m counting on you.”
Jack glared at her, but he bent down close to the ground, ready to run. Leona squinted in concentration for several seconds before directing his staff at her forehead and muttering something in a language she couldn’t understand.
“What was that?” Ruggie blinked as a sparkling trail of light warmed her spine.
“Ancient incantation,” he grunted. “I told you I was good with defensive magic. Now don’t kill yourself off.”
“Thank you Leona-senpai,” Yuu beamed at him. She was never wrong to trust him. Leona always knew what to do…even if he had refused to listen to her about melting the contracts this time.
“Tch.” Leona turned away.
Yuu and Jack prowled around the perimeter surrounding Azul’s strike radius as the two groups of students took their positions on either side of Azul. Jade and Floyd stood tall in front of rider and wolf, all four of them carefully looking for an opening.
“Floyd,” Jade began lightly. “I know you enjoy taking the lead, but would you leave the opening attack to me today?”
“Aha!” Floyd’s concentrated frown disappeared in a wide, unhinged smile. “Oka~y, Jade! What’cha gonna do?”
“Why, it’s quite rare for me to be able to face off against the owner and Dorm Head we all respect,” Jade’s brows drew together as he locked eyes with Azul, revealing an unpleasant sharp-toothed smile. “So I would like to take this once-in-a-lifetime chance to have some fun!”
“You think you can win against me!?” Azul bared his teeth.
“I always thought that Jade-senpai would never lift a hand against Ashengrotto-senpai,” Yuu whispered in awe as an orange inferno engulfed the area in front of them, heating her cheeks and Jack’s fur.
Floyd heard her. “This is helping him,” he told her pleasantly. “We’re being model merciful Octavinelle students. Plus, right now Azul’s not fun at all so Jade’s probably pissed at him.”
“Floyd, your turn,” Jade leapt backwards.
The crazy laugh that left Floyd’s mouth was every bit as insane as Azul’s earlier ones. “Let’s do it, Jade!”
“Oh my,” Jade blinked, “it seems that Floyd is having quite a bit of fun as well. How wonderful.”
“Oh, I see!” Azul shouted. “So now everyone’s coming to pick on me! Because I’m a dullard, dimwit octopus!”
“Uh, it’s ‘cause you’re being boring as hell,” Floyd shot back without a pause. “Wake up already, Azul!”
“I don’t know if I should feel sorry for Ashengrotto-senpai,” Yuu shielded her eyes against the explosive Leaf Shot. “Okay, Jack, I see it! That tentacle lying on the ground—I need you to jump on top of it so I can point over his shoulder!”
Jack woofed several times.
Yuu sort of got the message. “I’ll be careful. Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing. You saw my spell earlier, right? One more shot should do the trick. You need to be careful too so you don’t get hit, okay?”
Her voice wavered, so Yuu swallowed and shut up. Perhaps seeing that she was in no state to argue with him, Jack did not make any more noise, either.
Amidst the chaos, those present had finally caught a glimpse of the soft interior that Azul had taken such great lengths to hide. For the longest time, Yuu had picked her brain over this puzzle he presented her—what on earth was driving Azul this far? The sea was beautiful and full of treasures, but he had pulled himself up to land with all sorts of dubious methods, all sorts of efforts that gave him the position of Dorm Head, the Mostro Lounge, the three hundred students that did his every bidding.
Today the reason was laid bare in front of her eyes.
Of course it wasn’t enough. Nothing would be enough for Azul. His appetite knew no end because his ambition was far away from the students of this school. Because he was hell-bent on destroying his own past, because he was vain and could not stand whispering voices behind his back, in his own mind. Because he demanded nothing short of perfection and knew how to make it happen. And the result was intolerance for anything short of ‘everything’. Like he had screamed at them, Azul was desperately looking for completeness, perfection, and revenge.
Perhaps he had gone through the same bullying that marked Yuu’s last several years of schooling. From what he had shouted at her, maybe it was far worse than Yuu’s own experiences in Hogwarts. But the strongest antagonist, the worst torture was a product of his own mind.
Yuu could see that Azul was much more aware of his social surroundings than she—he knew as much about her ‘bullies’ as she did and could not help connecting it to his own past. He understood what made them work; he knew what ‘kept them up at night’, as he said. She had no clue what he had been through, because his conceit forced him to conceal it so tight that no one would ever guess. But he would not ever forget it just like he would never forget the actions she had taken against him today.
That critical difference between them was the source of fuel behind the mad intensity in his eyes that she could not achieve.
And it made him more powerful, more driven than Yuu could ever be.
But couldn’t he see? Even if he pressed the entire school—the entire world under his shiny leather shoes, Azul would never stop tormenting himself in the recesses of his own mind. If he believed in the insult—if he believed he was a dullard, dimwit bastard, then no number of anemones would satiate that empty hole in his chest.
Even though Azul was already so valuable. Even though Jade and Floyd would never stay beside him for so long otherwise.
Maybe Yuu had been the catalyst that drove him over the edge, and the knowledge of her own crime was enough to show her the yawning abyss of despair—but Grim was right. She had no time to be wallowing when the least she could do was fish him out of his own mind as atonement, wipe away the tears from his eyes and show him just how mistaken he was about himself.
Was it just ego, wanting to ‘save’ him? But maybe her actions against Riddle and Leona had been nothing more than her own selfish ego anyway. Whatever the impetus, right now Yuu only knew feverishly that she could not stand to see Azul suffering any longer.
For him. For herself. Whoever it was for, she had to do something.
“Okay, Jack,” she clutched the soft fur at the back of his neck dizzily. “I’ll leave the timing to you this time. Fumos!”
The Smokescreen Spell obscured the air around them with a hiss of grey mist. Jack didn’t seem affected in the slightest, amber eyes cutting through the area around them and ears perked up vigilantly.
Yuu bent close to the top of his head as he found a path forward. Jack had helped her without a word these past days, protected her the way he had promised, and she could not hide a pang of guilt when remembering all the times she relied on him without being able to give anything back. Right now, though, her energy reserves had been emptied for a long time. No matter how much she tried to focus, her vision blurred in and out of clarity so that Azul’s blackish-purple form melted into the Blot Mermaid behind him until she could no longer tell the difference. Whatever noise was raging around her dulled to a static buzz.
She needed Jack to guide her. Alone, Yuu would have long since lost everything.
Her falling consciousness snapped back to clarity as his wolf form leapt into the air, bursting from their smokescreen. The wind against her face briefly cleared her vision as he landed precisely on top of the prone tentacle and twisted so she could access the towering Blot figure behind him—
“You really thought I wouldn’t see through your plan?”
For some reason, Azul’s voice was much closer than she expected.
Jack roared, but half a Curse was already on Yuu’s tongue as she focused on her target—so she was unable to react as pressure squeezed her around the stomach. Her figure flew almost laughably easily from across his shoulders up, up, up into the air so that the surroundings smudged into a schizophrenic blur.
Crashing waves of dizzy pain pressed against the back of her eyelids as a vice-grip tightened across her abdomen. It was only after Azul drew her right up to his face that Yuu realized he had trapped her in the grasp of one of his powerful limbs.
Azul’s face twisted in discomfort as he grunted—he’d taken an attack without defending for the chance to yank her away from Jack, but even the pain looked like it didn’t matter in the least as she bore the full force of his glare. A violet flame in his left eye crackled persistently, setting his warped countenance aglow. “Do not try to outsmart me, Yuu-san. You’ll find that it does not work very well.”
Yuu ignored him and trained her wand at his hair. If she tried to get around his head maybe her wand could reach the—
His grip tightened in warning. This time she was unable to swallow a cry of pain as her ribs creaked.
“So even you’re treating me like the rest of them,” Azul seethed, ice blue eyes boring into her face. “You think I’m a piece of garbage, too, don’t you! Even though you’re no different from me! Just a weak, magicless human…!”
“Not…magicless,” Yuu coughed. Azul’s skin was so cold against her neck that she thought she could feel it hissing in a burn. Floyd had said Mermen were sensitive to heat. Or was it Jade?
“And a liar,” Azul spat in her face, unmindful of his own wounds. Her throat compressed. “Even after everything you’ve done you’re still calm enough to stare at me with those clear eyes. After you destroyed the ground beneath my feet! Ever since you appeared—it’s all gone haywire, all my plans have gone haywire!!”
“Azul-kun!” Ruggie was shouting from a far distance away. “Let Yuu-kun go! Laugh with Me—shit, it doesn’t work on his tentacles!”
“Let him go?” Azul cackled. “Do speak sense. Why on earth would I ever do that?”
Light glittered across the length of her body as he squeezed tighter. Leona’s magic activated with a bright golden burst; Azul’s tentacle loosened and dropped uselessly to the ground. But before she could fall more than an inch, coughing and retching for oxygen, another one took its place.
“Ashengrotto-senpai,” Yuu’s voice sounded like the rough scrape of sandpaper. She clutched at the cool limb with her free hand, trying to steady her wildly shaking wand hand. “Open your damn eyes. Why are you so content to live in the dark alone? Don’t you know that you have people who don’t care how powerful you are? Can’t you see that you don’t need ground beneath your feet to swim?”
“Don’t give me that stupid speech bullshit,” Azul dragged her up to his nose. His angrily contorted face abruptly smoothed out to a too-wide smile. “—Oh, Yuu-san. If I could steal your world from you! If I could rip away what you cared about just as you have done to me. Then maybe I’d finally see despair in those hateful eyes of yours!”
It was clear that this lunatic Azul could not be rationalized with. Their words were travelling on parallel lines, unable to intersect. Yuu herself was not quite sure she was in her right mind, either. For all his screaming, she thought he looked miserable. Alone in the dark sea, driven forth only by the burning desire for revenge.
“…Why are you looking at me like that,” Azul’s voice shook, his eyes trembled. He lost the smile. “Stop looking at me like that!”
Any words she could have created were crushed under the squeeze around her neck. Yuu choked as spots burst across her vision. Black and red crept in around the edges. Azul made Floyd’s grip feel like a tickle as he squeezed harder.
She knew she would deserve it if she lost her life here.
—But first she had to make sure that Azul lived.
Yuu’s wand wavered wildly as she pointed it up over his hair at the splintered phial of Blot. The loop it made was messy, but even so, when she mouthed Deprimo, the entire area behind him exploded into a million shards of rubble. Azul whirled in shock—a chunk of ruined metal and glass struck him in the temple—suddenly the band around her neck was gone and Yuu was falling again…
Jack soared through the sky with a hum of speed and seized the back of her uniform with his jaw. She coughed desperately for air, each burst sending fireworks shooting through her pounding head. A strange hiccupping noise accompanied her each breath. There was a lot of yelling and noise around her, but none of it created meaning.
Grim and Leona reached them just as Jack’s paws sank into the shallow water with a great splash. Ruggie, Ace and Deuce were not far behind; Jade and Floyd came halfway over before catching sight of and rushing for the falling Azul. The six tentacles were shrinking into nothing before their eyes as his uniform regrew over his limbs, but Yuu had no time to wonder how the regrowth was working because she was frantically struggling for breath.
Bubbles of light popped in her psychedelic vision. It was taking longer than expected for the coughing to stop. For some reason, Grim, although he’d approached her, was hovering close by with wide eyes like he didn’t understand what he was seeing. Ace and Deuce were both frowning at her with pale faces, unable to decide on an action. All three of them looked even worse than they had during the Overblot fight, even though it was already done…
Before she could wonder at their expressions, Leona pulled her up from Jack’s mouth and shoved her head roughly against his shoulder. “It’s over,” he said quietly.
Yuu’s voice came out strange and muddy. “Le—o—na—sen—pai?”
“Don’t talk.” Unusually, the rough edge had disappeared from his voice. “It’s okay. You succeeded, we won.”
“He’s fine,” Leona told her unhurriedly while she shook. “This won’t happen ever again—we’re all safe. Everything’s fine. So…don’t cry.”
It did not take long for Crowley and Crewel to burst through the mirror as the Blot slowly filtered out of Octavinelle’s surrounding ocean and left it a sparkling blue. Their arrival was probably a good distraction, since Yuu could not stop her hiccupping sobs no matter how hard she tried and everyone was crowded around her in nervous silence.
Grim was nearing tears too as he hovered around Leona’s legs. He elbowed a newly human-transformed Jack in the calf. “What the hell do we do!?”
“Don’t ask me!” Jack growled back. “Yuu never cries!—Try…patting his back…or something.”
“Yuu—” Deuce gritted his teeth. “Yuu, it was all my fault. I shouldn’t have—this wasn’t what I—”
Ace shook his head at his friend to stall his words. “…Give him a minute,” he said in a subdued voice, fixing his stare on Yuu’s shaking form as if searing it into his memory forever.
“Stop crowding around us,” Leona snapped, the line his shoulder tense against her forehead. “Let me through. We need to get the herbivore to a hospital before anything else happens. Ruggie.”
“Yessir,” Ruggie answered him coldly. “Oi, get outta the way.”
“Hey,” Ace glared in his direction as Leona forged forwards past where Jade and Floyd were supporting an unconscious Azul. “You think we’re gonna let you take—?”
“What on earth happened here!?” Crowley’s loud outburst pulled their attention to the travel mirror. “The entire walkway is ruined! This is going to cost a fortune in repairs! Ohhhhhh!”
“Headmaster, stop crying and move faster,” Crewel prompted him forward. “I’ve got a bad feeling about—”
“Oi Crowley,” Leona called over. “I need permission to leave campus.”
“Oooooh…Mister Kingscholar? What are you doing in—” Crowley cut his own words off abruptly. As Yuu’s face was still buried in Leona’s clothing, she could not see his expression, but there was an unusual calm in his next words. “…I would like to know what is going on here.”
“Kingscholar,” Crewel was less shy about showing his anger. The air whistled behind her. “Was it you that made the little puppy cry?”
“I’m trying to stop it,” Leona snapped, “so don’t aim that crop at me! The herbivore’s got a high enough fever for lasting damage. He’s been sick for over forty-eight hours, I need to leave the school now.”
“Fever,” repeated Crowley very calmly.
Deuce sucked in a breath.
“Shit,” Ace hissed, “I’ve never seen him look like that before.”
Ruggie took the reins of the conversation to break the tightly strung tension in the air. He quickly explained the events that had transpired while Leona awkwardly patted Yuu’s back. She herself was more confused than anything about the noises she could not swallow, the cotton in her nose, the burning liquid soaking his hair. Everything was cold and hot.
Azul. Where was Azul?
Yuu pushed herself abruptly away from Leona’s shoulder. He had evidently not expected her sudden movement; the loose circle of his arms flinched briefly just enough for her to jump down from his grasp and teeter in the ankle-deep water.
She cast her gaze wildly around. Grim, Crowley, Deuce staring at her like she was a Ghost—Jade and Floyd bent over a figure on the ground. Shoving aside obstacles, Yuu stumbled forwards clumsily in their direction.
“Yuu-sa…Yuu-san?” stammered Jade as he finally looked up. “Are you crying…?”
“Is Ash—engrotto-senpai o—kay?” Yuu got out past her persistent sobs. She fell to her knees next to Floyd beside Azul’s prone form. His face looked far more peaceful than it had minutes prior, like finely crafted porcelain. Like all the mad rage and laughter had been a lie.
“Koebi-chan, your cold’s gonna get worse,” Floyd protested, pulling her upwards, but Yuu shook him off and reached for the temple that had been struck by the remnants of the Blot phial earlier. A purplish bruise was forming beneath her fingers. But she couldn’t detect any warmth.
“Yuu-san, Azul will be fine,” Jade told her solemnly as she bent over Azul, shoulders shaking, “he’s quite resilient—far more resilient than you, so please—”
“I’m—not—leaving,” Yuu told him calmly, tears still dripping from her cheeks. Jade lost his words. “What—if he—dies?”
“Azul won’t die,” Floyd started.
Yuu ignored him. She took hold of Azul’s submerged arm as Floyd tried to drag her out of the water and refused to let go. A loud zap burst the air between them—Floyd jerked his hands backwards with a hiss.
Several voices were conversing loudly around her. Azul’s eyes remained closed behind the reformed glasses that had disappeared long before the Overblot. Yuu held on doggedly to her consciousness, needing to see him alive, breathing. She put a finger below his nose but it was too cold and shaky to detect any movement.
An unidentifiable amount of time passed with only her hiccups for company. The only warning she got was a slight twitch of his arm in her grip before Azul jerked upright in the shallow water with a gasp. His eyes were no longer ice blue, but their usual dawn grey.
“—finally awake,” Floyd was drawling from far away. “Hurry up and reassure Koebi-chan before sh…uh…Before Koebi-chan withers up like a dried anchovy.”
“Huh? Wha?” Azul looked around him, disoriented. “Koe…Yuu-san?! Jade, what is going on?”
“Azul,” Jade’s brows furrowed together, “how many fingers am I holding up?”
Azul blinked several times in his direction. “…Eight…?”
“Right,” Jade sighed. “It seems that he is still suffering the effects of shock, just like our Directing Student here.”
“Shock…that’s…Huh!?” Azul caught sight of her face and went ramrod straight. “Yuu-san!? What’s wrong with you!! Why are you leaking water!?”
“You’re…” Yuu managed.
“I’m?” Azul repeated dumbly.
“You’re alive!” Yuu threw herself at him, sending them both back into the shallows with a great splash that disturbed the rubble. Azul let out a grunt as he took the brunt of the fall. “Ashengroddo-senpaiiiii!”
“Oh my,” Jade murmured, voice trembling.
“Aha! Koebi-chan sure is passionate,” Floyd laughed.
“Huh!? Huh!? Stop laughing, you two!” Azul barked from somewhere above her ear. “Hurry up and explain what the hell is going on!”
“You finally calmed from the Overblot that stole your rationality,” Jade explained succinctly while Yuu sobbed into Azul’s suit jacket.
“I what?” Azul spluttered.
“Your overuse of the Unique Magic caused the Overblot,” Jade went on mercilessly. Azul’s hands hovered uselessly over Yuu’s shaking shoulders. “Don’t you remember it all?”
“Yeah, yeah, I shoulda recorded it,” Floyd came over with a wide grin. “You were seriously lame, Azul. You kept shouting pleeease gimme powerrrrr! And crying and sucking up magic like you’d gone insane. I don’t know how to feel about how uncool that was. Kinda lost all respect for you.”
“At the very end you even nearly choked Yuu-san to death,” Jade picked up where his brother left off, a smile in his voice. “Twice, in fact. All the while screaming that Yuu-san was the cause of your rampage when it was completely your own responsibility. It was indeed the height of…lameness.”
“No…no way,” Azul murmured. “I’d never rampage…I’d…Dammit…I can’t believe of all people…!”
“Oh? So you do remember it.”
“Jade, stop pouring salt into my wound,” growled Azul. “Is…is Yuu-san crying because I nearly killed him?”
“You think Koebi-chan would cry for a reason like that?” snorted Floyd.
“The cold water cannot be good for your fever,” Jade sighed. “Yuu-san, you’ve seen Azul’s live and breathing form. Now get up, you must go to the infirmary at least—”
Yuu mumbled something indistinct.
“What?” Azul pushed them halfway upright. “I couldn’t—”
“I’m not ledding go,” Yuu said thickly, tightening her grip around his side.
“You’re sick!” Azul snapped at her.
“I don’t trust you!” she lifted her head to shout back at him. “What’re you gonna do if I let go again!? What if you get lost again! I refuse to let go!”
“Wh—wh—” Azul spluttered, starting to turn a dull red. “Wha—”
“Yuu-kun,” Ruggie coaxed as he approached them with the rest of the gathered students and teachers. “Azul-kun ain’t goin’ anywhere, so let’s go somewhere warm, okay? Let’s get you outta that ice-cold water.”
“Oi, octo-bastard,” Leona sighed. “Hand over the herbivore. You’ve caused enough trouble already.”
“Says the guy who burned up all his contracts,” Ace muttered. Leona glared him into silence.
“Look, Yuu-kun,” Ruggie ignored them. He bent down to eye level next to Floyd so she could see his large grey eyes. “I know you’re worried about Azul-kun for some incomprehensible reason, and maybe you’re feeling guilty or whatever stupidly good-person reason you’ve come up in your brain for Leona ripping up his contracts.”
“But it was Azul’s fault in the first place for doing all this!” Grim jumped over to her, clutching a shard of black rock with both paws. “So there ain’t no reason for you to be feeling anything for that guy! Let him go already.”
“No!” Yuu said stubbornly.
The beat of silence following her shout was broken by Floyd, who fell over laughing.
“Holy crap, Yuu’s acting like a kid,” Ace gaped.
“That isn’t good,” Jack muttered, “he’s had a high fever for too long. I don’t think he’s in his right mind.”
“—Enough yapping,” Crewel’s sharp voice cut through their conversation. “Ashengrotto. I have words for you…but they can wait until the little puppy’s fever goes down. For now, I am holding you responsible for the reparation of damages on school property. Clear?”
“That’s…of course, Professor,” Azul answered readily, “but—”
“Little puppy,” Crewel aimed in her direction, cutting him off. “You need treatment.”
“No,” Yuu insisted. Lightning crackled around her.
The teacher let out a long sigh. “…Since he refuses to let go of you, and is preventing anyone from nearing—which, by the way, will be investigated later…” Crewel clicked his tongue and gritted out the next words slowly. “I am also holding—Ashengrotto—responsible for nursing him back to health. No arguments.”
“You’re what!?” Leona reacted first. “Like hell I’m letting—”
“Kingscholar, you’re coming with me to make a potion for him,” Crewel overrode his voice. “I want all the symptoms of the puppy’s illness right now, so we’re heading for the Alchemy building. …Is that all right? Headmaster.”
“…Sometimes I wonder why I’m this nice,” sighed Crowley. “Mister Grim; Misters Trappola, Spade and Howl. I will need to hear from you in my office. And Misters Leech and Ashengrotto, see me before school ends on Monday for the same.”
“But my henchman…” Grim swallowed the rest of his sentence in an unnatural motion and squeaked, “yessir.”
“How frightening,” Jade commented casually. “Of course, Headmaster. We will be happy to see you soon.”
“Koebi-chan’s like a baby fish,” Floyd poked at her bemusedly, still giggling. He hissed abruptly and yanked his finger away. “Holy—! Human skin ain’t supposed to be this hot!”
“Is his temperature that high?” Jade peered into her face. “Yuu-san, can you hear me?”
Yuu blinked hazily at his tripled wavering form and tried to nod.
“—oi. Octo-bastard,” Leona was growling over at Azul, “You lay one slimy tentacle on the herbivore and this time I’ll do more than just turn your contracts into sand. You’ll see how easily someone from the Savannah can rip another human limb from limb—”
“Headmaster, we’ll hold you and Octavinelle responsible if Yuu-kun doesn’t get better!” Ruggie overrode him cheerfully.
“Ruggie! Stop pulling me—”
“And we’re gonna check on him every few hours so keep your phones turned on, Jade-kun!”
“As you wish,” Jade responded readily.
“Let me go, dammit!”
“Leona-san, this whole thing’s like half your responsibility! Why the hell did you have to pick on him and then turn his contracts to sand?”
“Shut up! He pissed me off!…”
Azul watched bewilderedly at the chaos unfolding around him as Crewel and Crowley shepherded the group of reluctant students towards the travel mirror following Ruggie and Leona’s departure. Then he surveyed the ruined landscape of his dormitory before looking across at the two Moray eel Mermen grinning at him, down at the small figure trembling in his lap, and coughing out an incredulous laugh.
The portraits lining Hogwarts had been far more involved in students’ lives than the portraits dangling from classrooms within Night Raven College. It was a good thing that unfriendly, shrieking, mischievous paintings did not actively play tricks on hapless students here, but Yuu had also been far too busy with her new friends to really pay attention to them like she spoke to portraits back in Hogwarts.
Curiously, she felt a sudden importance to give attention to the portraits within this school. Hazily Yuu remembered Cater introducing her to the beautiful and witty Rosalia at the end of a hallway, the grumpily polite gentleman in a top hat and monocle sitting in the first years’ history classroom…
In some capacity she was aware that she was burning up and freezing simultaneously, that people were moving around her, that sweat dripped from the crown of her head and set her teeth chattering uncontrollably. But Yuu’s mind refused to register their meaning. Instead, her dreams brought her right back to the deserted dungeon floor below Hogwarts’ Great Hall, where she had discovered a hidden portrait of an unpleasant man by the Potions Classroom. The hiding spot she had found in the corner of the classroom held surprisingly strong, although perhaps it was rare for children to descend past the brightly lit ground floor of Hogwarts during dark autumn afternoons.
A memory of a painting and of her earlier years. Far before she came to this world…Far before she understood anger and regret and longing and tears.
As unpleasant as the portrait was, he was intelligent, so Yuu had cautiously afforded him the respect that she reserved for professors of Hogwarts. After all, she had never cared whether someone was pleasant or not if they were interesting. The current surroundings indicated to be one of her persistent questioning sessions in first year that she found herself reliving, though her surroundings were murky and indistinct.
“—Don’t you find it odd how wizarding children almost never get ill?” the sneering portrait was saying as if to stave off another bout of questioning. “How often is it that you have seen one of those snotty brats become snottier than usual? Think on that and stop bothering me.”
“I’ve never been sick,” Yuu nodded. “But you’re saying that it’s not because of my family history or genetics but because of my magic?”
“Mentioning muggle concepts like that will not help the bullying,” the man told her silkily. “…How long has it been since I’ve heard words like those.”
“Mister, you’re familiar with muggle concepts—?”
“Cease your incessant babble,” he snapped. “It is rare—yes, very rare for the wizard or witch to succumb so easily to a mundane illness…if you will. That’s what you wanted to know, is it not? Do try to squeeze the matter between your ears and try to remember if any history books listed ‘the flu’ as a cause of death.”
“None of them have been natural,” Yuu answered after a moment of silent thinking. “Er, almost none of them. We don’t know about Nicolas Flamel…And Professor Binns said he died in his sleep…”
“Indeed. One can even say it is more preferable to live a life free of the fetters of wizarding danger…” the man paused and continued in a softer voice, “as magic is great and terrible and wreaks more chaos than it halts.”
“That’s not true,” Yuu burst out before covering her mouth with a gasp. Thankfully, no footsteps neared the afternoon Dungeons where she was pressed against the wall. She lowered her voice but insisted. “—Mister, you’re wrong. Magic is much greater than what it takes away.”
“Oh? The words of an immature brat,” spat out the man. “I’ll suppose that you’re the kind of bushy-haired bookworm that knows the answers to every question in class, then.”
“Bushy?” Yuu echoed in confusion. “—Magic did more than just intellectually stimulate me, though. It really saved me from…from everything.”
“I’m not interested in your sob story,” he sneered in her direction. “You would do well to know that no muggle would suffer the curse of lycanthropy, of death due to a miscast jinx, of Dragon pox and poison, of the emptiness of a Dementor’s kiss. Magic can overcome the mundane—it is not all-powerful against the magical.”
“But we get magic in return,” Yuu argued. “And I think avoiding the cold and flu and stuff counts as a pretty big plus in my book.”
“You will do well to keep in mind that a cold makes up the least of your worries,” the dark-haired man looked down his nose at her much smaller form. “Hmph. Speaking with you is a waste of my time. An incorrigible brat like you needs to experience suffering for themselves before really understanding it.”
“At least it won’t be a cold,” she shot back.
“Ha!” he barked. “Once you become ill, you’ll be wishing it was just a cold.”
The dream rippled and melted back into the darkness. Several people were speaking in low voices by her head; then, the cold surface of something pressed insistently against her mouth. Yuu swallowed the disgusting taste of liquid native to Twisted Wonderland’s potions and felt her entire body shake as warmth bloomed in her stomach.
She was back in the dark ocean now, all alone. It was cold even with the growing fire inside of her. Her limbs had all but melted into the surroundings so that Yuu was no longer sure she existed corporeally. The only visible speck of light was a dimly lit mouth of a cave, where an enormous jar lay tipped over on its side.
Something bright was glowing from within. Without meaning to, Yuu drew closer to the jar—or was the jar nearing her?—and discovered the rotund figure of a young octopus Merfolk half buried within its darkness of its interior. Only a glowing lamp illuminated the ground. The figure was mostly indistinguishable from the blanket of obsidian, but she could barely make out several of their tentacles scribbling back and forth furiously across a wide array of paper spread out in a messy circle.
Suddenly, as if detecting her presence, the child’s head snapped upwards and she was met with two stormy ice-blue eyes still wet with the remnants of tears. A trail of black dribbled down the child’s round chin as they fixed her with a burning, freezing, seething glare so intense that Yuu flinched backwards before realizing that the child was staring through her, behind her. She spun just in time to catch sight of two bluish grey Merfolk children nearing the pot with wide, jagged smiles…
The child opened their mouth.
Yuu’s eyes snapped open.
Disoriented, she blinked several times at the dangling frosted-glass oyster shells of the chandelier hanging over her head. Ramshackle’s ceiling was a woody hazelnut colour, but the marbled off-white that met her eyes looked as unfamiliar as the gold lining of whatever alcove she was tucked into. This hollowed-out shaded area was slightly darkened and resembled the lining of a clamshell, shielding her head from the light above.
Hazily, she wondered if she might still be dreaming. A curious warmth nestled around her stole away the exhaustion of reality, and like in sea of ink, she felt as if her limbs were melting into nothing.
It took a considerable amount of time for her to realize that a comforter, securely covering her, was the source of the warmth. The covering was made of a similar cream colour and an expensive gold-filigree pattern was sewn into its belly. Finally, Yuu’s slowly churning mind realized that she was lying in a bed, its headboard hewn directly into the wall.
Perhaps it was due to the dreamy softness surrounding her, but Yuu was inclined to close her eyes and sleep a little longer. The quiet, soothing humming close by her ear didn’t help much. Surely if she slept now, she would dream of the sea…
Yawning, Yuu turned laboriously onto her side—and choked the rest of it down as she came face to face with Jade Leech.
Any sleepiness abandoned her head at the speed of light. It took everything she had to swallow an ungainly shriek. The only saving grace was that he didn’t notice—Jade was fast asleep on his side, seeming curiously young without his put-together neatness, brows relaxed. His breathing moved slowly and evenly, but Yuu saw the beginnings of dark circles forming under closed eyelids.
More confused than ever, she started edging away from that side of the bed. The calming humming had stopped. When she turned around on her side, trying to get to her feet quietly, she nearly bumped into something else.
Looking up revealed Floyd, who was trembling with laughter so that he shook the blankets.
Yuu didn’t know someone could jump lying down until she managed it. “—What are you doing here?! …Senpai,” she hissed quietly, muffling a second scream.
“That leap was exactly like a shrimp,” Floyd gasped, losing control over his laughter. “You give the best reactions ever, Koebi-chan, you shoulda seen your face just now!”
“I’m glad I continue to entertain you,” she rolled her eyes. “Floyd-senpai, where am I? Also, what happened?”
“You cried yourself unconscious on top of Azul, that’s what happened,” Floyd said cheerfully back. “I hadn’t seen him that panicked since the safe got dented.”
“The safe got dented like a day ago,” Yuu pointed out.
“Nuh-uh, it was like two,” Floyd shook his head. “You’ve been asleep for like twenty-three hours.”
“You’re kidding me!?” she spluttered. “Grim! Where’s Grim?”
“Getting smacked around by Ishidai-sensei,” Floyd responded readily. “Plus Kani-chan and Saba-chan. You probably won’t see ‘em for a while.”
Slightly mollified, Yuu recalled his earlier words and felt her mouth drop open in horror as she realized, “Wait, I cried!?”
“What’s with this slow response time?” Floyd squinted at her, pushing back her bangs to press the back of his hand to her forehead. “You still sick? Your fever broke a while ago…still hot.”
“No, I’m fine. I feel a lot better,” Yuu hastened to assure him.
“Uh-huh. I don’t believe you. You’re still dizzy and sleepy,” Floyd corrected, “plus you need another day of bed rest.”
How would he know? “Senpai, you’re aware of how to take care of sick humans? I didn’t know you possessed that inclination.”
“Aah? Wanna get squeezed?”
“That’s more like it,” Yuu grinned toothily at him.
For some reason this made Floyd heave a sigh of relief. “…We can talk about other stuff later, so hurry up and go back to sleep.” He pulled the covers up to her neck and started patting the comforter.
“Wait, I’m awake now,” Yuu protested. “Also I’ve slept for way too long. What time is it? I’ve got homework due tomorr—Ashengrotto-senpai! What happened to Ash—”
Yuu broke into a storm of coughing. Jade’s eyes snapped open from her other side and he displayed a truly frightening glare before regaining focus in his eyes. “—Yuu-san? You’re finally awake.”
“Uwah. Jade’s face when he wakes up could shatter mirrors,” Floyd commented as he reached for a glass of water placed on the sloping grey-blue shelf protruding from the wall. “Koebi-chan, sit up for a sec so you can drink some water.”
After she was propped up against the plush purple headboard behind her, Yuu managed to swallow half the glass of water before she finally calmed down. “I can’t believe I cried,” she croaked, more surprised than mortified. “I haven’t done that since I was like…one.”
When she thought back to the last time she had been awake and desperately waiting for Azul to regain consciousness, the overwhelming churn of emotion felt almost alien—closer to incomprehensible than anything Yuu had felt her entire life, even including magic. She was not eager to experience it again.
“It was indeed a sight to see,” Jade, back to his usual impeccable self, pulled up a shell-backed chair to sit in. He straightened his rumpled school uniform meticulously while Floyd sprawled against most of the king-sized bed, shoving Yuu over a few inches. “If only we were in a state to appreciate it…it seems that the shock of such a sight paralyzed all of us. What a waste.”
“You mean ‘make fun of’?” Yuu squinted at him. “Actually I was unaware I possessed the ability to cry, to be honest with you. Back at Hogwarts I thought I was missing that particular part of my brain. Or tear ducts.”
“Don’t be dumb,” Floyd wrinkled his nose, completely sweeping past the word ‘Hogwarts’. “You might have some weird ideas about dying and stuff but you’re mostly normal otherwise. Plus, who cares anyway.”
“That…might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me,” Yuu said slowly, staring at Floyd as if he’d discovered a new element.
“Floyd found your crying spell hilarious,” Jade told her, selling out his brother with a wide smile. “Especially when Azul started asking if humans could dry up if they didn’t stop leaking.”
“Azul was so funny,” Floyd told her with bright eyes. “You know, he really sucked when he Overblotted and stuff and I was aaaalmost ready to squeeze him, but the whole scene afterwards when he sprinted down the hall with you shouting about having never performed surgery before pretty much made up for it.”
“Wait, Ashengrotto-senpai! Where is he? Actually, where am I?” Yuu remembered, narrowly avoiding another burst of coughing. “You said it’s been a day…it’s Sunday afternoon? Is senpai okay? Overblots are life-threatening, he’s gotta rest—”
“Azul is, as I have told you, extremely resilient,” Jade’s calm voice slowed her outburst while Floyd made her drink the remaining half of her glass of water. “In fact, the Overblot seems to have expelled quite a lot of stress. I assure you that there is nothing to worry about. In fact, there is a strong argument that you were much closer to death than he, Yuu-san.”
“As to where you a~re,” Floyd sing-songed, “Take a look at this.”
He pointed to her left side. The dark cabinet Yuu had thought was a bedside table glowed with the light of an open oyster-shell lamp, but then she noticed the dial lock and keyhole carved into the front of the table and realized it was a safe very similar to the one in the VIP Room. Then she scanned the room and saw a familiar-looking white fishbone pen sticking out of an inkwell on the white desk behind Jade.
“Senpai’s office?” Yuu said slowly, passing her empty glass back to him. “Wait—senpai’s room?!”
“If Azul were thinking a little more clearly, he would have carried you to a guest suite,” Jade pressed his fist to his mouth in a laugh. “Now he’s feeling too awkward to enter his own room. It seems that our illustrious Dorm Head doesn’t quite know how to face you! Don’t you think he’s interesting?”
“But why would he put me in here?” she asked, bewildered. “Are you guys planning to kill me and hide the body where no one can see it?”
“Whatever would give you that idea?” Jade laughed. “Sometimes the things that come out of your mouth can be truly amusing, Yuu-san.”
“I mean…Ashengrotto-senpai hates me,” Yuu shrugged. “I can’t think of another reason why he’d let me sleep on such a fluffy bed, other than to show me hell later.”
“Yeah, I don’t get to sleep on this thing very often either,” Floyd said cheerfully, bouncing a little beside her. “Ain’t it soft?”
“Azul doesn’t quite hate…” Jade paused. “Actually, it may be more interesting to leave it this way. Never mind.”
“More importantly,” Floyd squinted in her direction, “Koebi-chan, you gotta stop pushing yourself over the reasonable limit of a person, okay? When I heard Ishidai-sensei yelling at Todo-senpai and Azul about how you nearly died, even I got kinda scared.”
“Todo-senpai?” Yuu repeated.
“Leona-san,” Jade clarified. “Indeed. It had not struck me how dangerous an ‘other world’ illness could be to a human. Of all people, I completely overlooked such an important detail. How embarrassing.”
“What do you mean, I almost died?” she squinted. “It was just a cold.”
“Koebi-chan,” Floyd looked at her like she was stupid, “Haven’t you learned in middle school that new infectious diseases can wipe out entire schools of fish? Why did you expect a cold here to be the same thing as a cold back wherever you came from?”
“Um, I didn’t go to middle school,” Yuu tried. “I went to—”
“Certainly,” Jade nodded solemnly, ignoring her. “Yuu-san, you were in quite a bit of danger. If not for Professor Crewel, Leona-san and Azul’s combined efforts throughout the night to produce a healing potion tailored to you, I’m afraid that you would not be breathing any longer.”
“That bad?” she blinked. “A Pepper-Up Potion would’ve cured it in like ten minutes though. Wait, all night!? Senpai didn’t sleep all night after his Overblot!?”
“Worry about yourself,” Floyd rolled his eyes. “You were literally this close to dying of a cold. What the hell are you gonna do if other diseases are worse? Potions don’t last forever, you know.”
“I heard Leona-san and Professor Crewel in talks about sending you to see a specialist yesterday,” Jade remembered thoughtfully. “Perhaps you will be the subject of many booster shots in the days ahead, Yuu-san. They do have modern medicine in your universe, correct?”
“Wait a second,” Yuu put up a hand. Her brain was still working at far below its usual capacity. “Wait a second, I nearly died and Ashengrotto-senpai helped make a potion to cure me? Why didn’t he just leave me to die if I deserve it? Also he needs to sleep! Why isn’t he sleeping!? I need to get out of this room so he can sleep!”
“Koebi-chan’s still sick and it’s making her hysterical,” Floyd sighed at his brother. “Maybe we should knock her out.”
“Yuu-san, it is quite out of the ordinary for you to lose your composure this much,” Jade teased her. “Why don’t you ask Azul himself once he musters up the nerve to enter his own room instead of pacing outside while he oversees the repairs that need no overseeing? For now, though, it wouldn’t do to relapse into a cold that could very well steal your life this time.”
“Fine. Koebi-chan, I’ll give you two options,” Floyd sang. “One: lie down like a good girl and keep warm. Two: get tied up like those farm livestock on campus ready to get slaughtered.”
“Farm livestock?” Yuu squinted. “How come I haven’t seen any?”
“The small farmstead on campus is far away from Ramshackle, but it is more than enough to feed the school sustainably,” Jade enlightened her. “Well? There are quite a few things we still need to discuss, Yuu-san. Obedience would be to your benefit.”
“You say that like I have a choice,” Yuu grumbled, pulling the nice-smelling covers back up past her chin.
“But you got your sparkly stick,” Floyd pointed out. “Even if you’re weak like a leaf, what if you can pistol shrimp your way out of a fight with me? You always got a choice.”
“Ah, well done with the segue, Floyd,” Jade’s eyes lit up. “Yuu-san! When we were talking about secrets down in the ocean several days ago, I would have never expected that you possessed such an incredible one! What on earth was that ‘magic’ you used to save Azul’s life? Just thinking about the destructive force has me positively excited!”
Perhaps it was a mark of her lingering illness that had caused Yuu to lose track of the events of the past day until now. Everything was still muddled in her head. “Oh, right,” she reached for her sleeve. “I forgot I sort of let you guys see…”
“Lookin’ for this?” Floyd dangled her pale wand from his fingertips.
“Yeah. That’s my wand, it’s like an analogue for your Magical Pen,” Yuu explained to him. “Why do you have it?”
“We found it on your uniform after you sweated through it,” Jade explained, “along with the photograph that was part of Azul’s deal with you. Don’t worry, Professor Crewel used a magical changing spell for the strange human modesty you all seem to possess.”
“Oh,” Yuu blinked. She hadn’t noticed that her uniform was fresh, but now that she examined her hair and clothing, both looked unnaturally clean. “Um, at this point I’m sure you’ve guessed most of it, but the world I come from actually has a very small secret society of magic-users. I happen to be one of them.”
“Yeah, I don’t get it,” Floyd tossed her wand at her nose and fell over on his back. “Why the hell would you pretend you don’t have magic? If you could beat up those small fish whispering behind your back, why’d you just let ‘em run around unchecked? Azul would’ve never let that happen.”
“I’m not Ashengrotto-senpai,” Yuu reminded him, catching it. “Plus, it’s no big deal whatever they say about me. Just let them talk.”
Jade chuckled. “Yuu-san doesn’t seem to put them in even the furthest reaches of her attention at all. It’s quite admirable, in a way.”
“If it were me, I’d squeeze ‘em as soon as I heard half a sentence,” Floyd told her with a scrunched-up face. “And if it were Azul, he’d make sure they regretted every statement they made from the bottom of their stomachs. Times ten.”
“What would it accomplish?” she shrugged. “There’s no point and it doesn’t matter what they say or do, anyway. Plus, it is the number one law in our world to keep magic a secret. Though with you two—er, three, I’ve broken that law like ten times now, so I guess that point is moot.”
“It’s only the law in your world, right?” Floyd shrugged. “Doesn’t it not matter at all here?”
“Still. You never know what could happen.”
“Oh come on, loosen up a bit, you dumb li’l shrimp. You gotta learn how to live properly.”
“In this case, I have to side with Yuu-san,” Jade put in with a smile. “It is quite an Octavinelle way of thinking to guard one’s secrets closely and proceed with caution. I applaud you for keeping such a large secret from us for so long.”
“It was unexpectedly easy to keep,” Yuu responded to his grin with her own. “People like to believe there’s someone weak and useless around. It makes them feel better about themselves.”
“Hey, hey, Koebi-chan,” Floyd poked at her wand. “So you can use magic randomly, right? What was with that time when you shocked me after the Overblot when I tried to drag you off of Azul? And what was with the time when the pots and plates were floating in your kitchen? And back when you made the deal with Azul, what was with those golden sparkles around you?”
“What? Randomly?” Yuu repeated dazedly, unable to absorb the flood of questions. “When did all that happen?”
“Floyd, did you see something out of the ordinary?” Jade furrowed a brow.
“Maybe?” Floyd squinted. “…So wait, your alien world magic isn’t anything like our magic, right?”
“Um…I mean there are similarities, but I guess you’re right,” Yuu affirmed. She had wanted to argue against ‘alien world’ only to realize that to him, she really was an alien from another universe.
“Once you recover, I would love to take a closer look at the way our magics differ,” Jade said immediately. “Yuu-san, do lend me some of your time. It is what a good symbiote does, no?”
“Aaah! Speaking of!” Floyd sat up so he could peer into her face and pouted. “Koebi-chan, why didn’t you tell us about your magic and stuff earlier? I get keeping it secret from the school and stuff, but we’re your symbiotes, you moron!”
“I’ve told you time and time again that I really don’t understand what that means,” Yuu responded smartly. “Sometimes I think you forget that I’m not a real shrimp, senpai, I’m a human being. According to you, I’m a human alien.”
“Oh right, you’re a baby shrimp,” Floyd seemed to realize.
That struck a nerve. “Excuse me, I’m fifteen years old—”
“I suppose this is as good of a time as any to explain a little more,” Jade mused. “After all, Azul is still outside directing the rebuilding of Mostro Lounge’s exterior. There is still around half an hour before he runs out of excuses to prevent himself from returning.”
“What!? Senpai’s working right after he Overblotted!” Yuu sat up abruptly. “I need to stop him!”
“Koebi,” Floyd’s voice dropped dangerously low. “Lie. Down.”
Yuu quietly lay back down and pulled the covers over her chin. Floyd had never dropped the playful suffix on the end of her moniker before.
“It seems that keeping you alive will be rather tough,” Jade told her with a troubled smile. “Yuu-san, it is high time for you to have some awareness of yourself.”
“Awareness,” Yuu repeated. “You’re talking about the fact that I apparently nearly died pathetically from a cold.”
“It was much closer than you seem to think,” Jade chided her, for once not smiling. “In a way, it was as dangerous as an Overblot, Yuu-san, so keep a closer eye on your vital signs in the future. Or perhaps I should do it for you.”
“Yeah, Jade’s good at that stuff,” Floyd nodded. “Koebi-chan, for a shrimp, you managed to find the best symbiotes on campus, so you should really rely on us a bit more.”
“You’re the best symbiotes on campus?” Yuu turned on her side to better see him, rubbing at her dry eyes. She was still feeling a bit weak.
“Uh-huh. What do the books say about Moray eels?” Floyd prompted her.
“Umm…Two hundred species exist; they have an extra jaw in their throat called a pharyngeal jaw; opportunistic hunters; really tough and survive everywhere since they’re disease resistant; often nicknamed the ‘gang of the sea’,” Yuu remembered off the top of her head. “Wait, Floyd-senpai, do you have a jaw in your throat?”
“Even if I did, I ain’t showing you the inside of my mouth. What do you take me for?” Floyd wrinkled his nose at her. “Unless you’re prepared for the consequences, you idiot shrimp.”
“Why was I suddenly insulted?” Yuu asked Jade flatly.
“Is Floyd just a game to you?” Jade gasped back at her, a hand over his heart. “Yuu-san…I misjudged you! How heartless!!”
“Waaah,” Floyd did an unconvincing impression of a sob, mostly because a smile split his face. “Jade, Koebi-chan was using me all this time. My feelings are hurt.”
“If you guys aren’t going to explain the inside joke or show me a pharyngeal jaw, can we get back to the topic?” Yuu stared flatly at the expensive-looking ceiling as they sniggered.
“Don’t sulk,” Jade cleared his throat with a big smile. “I do apologize, it was merely a Merman joke. In any case, there is much more to the Moray eel Merfolk than the inside of a sea creature encyclopaedia. For example, whether it is Merfolk or fish alike, we survive the best in the sea by forming cooperative relationships.”
“Humans hang out with other humans without really thinking about that stuff,” Floyd explained. “You keep calling those pieces of debris ‘friends’ or whatever—”
“They’re not debris!” Yuu protested.
“—but in a school like this, ‘friends’ are worth less than the stuff dirtying my shoe,” he ignored her. “The first priority in the sea is surviving. ‘Course, for us, up top on the triangle, surviving ain’t enough. We need to dominate for life to be worth living.”
“Which is how Floyd and I chose each other,” Jade put in helpfully. “When faced with dangers undersea, be it Merfolk or sea creature, a sound judgement can make the difference between life and death at a moment’s notice. But it can also mean the difference between living and merely surviving.”
“I sort of got that feeling from you two,” she mumbled thoughtfully. “Is it really that scary down in the Coral Sea?”
“Depends on who you are,” Floyd shrugged. “But you probably only saw the shiny bits and not the pitch-black area up north we came from. That’s why co-op—symbiotic relationships are the most basic one-two-three kinda lesson you learn underwater.”
“Cooperative relationship,” Yuu chewed over the words. “You guys found me worth something like that? When you suddenly declared us symbiotes I hadn’t showed you my magic or anything yet.”
“Yuu-san, you were nothing short of a revolution,” Jade disagreed vehemently. “Not once have I—has Floyd regretted declaring you under our protection. Fu fu…don’t look so confused. You have brought an entire new universe crashing down on our small world, which is worth at the very least a symbiotic relationship for the time being.”
“Plus, you can’t expect to survive like that here,” Floyd gave her an unimpressed stare.
“But we’re on ‘Land’,” Yuu pointed out. “Not only is it way less dangerous here, but I also have a wand. By now you should know I can survive alone.”
“Yeah, no you can’t. There are tons of reasons we gotta take care of you. First of all, look at yourself,” Floyd rolled his eyes, “you nearly just died. Maybe you can do weird magic that I still don’t get but you obviously can’t protect yourself properly. If a cold does this to you then what d’you think tuberculosis or whatever is gonna do?”
“Tuberculosis has a treatment and cure,” Yuu weakly attempted.
“Not to you in this world, if that cold was anything to go by,” Jade put in helpfully.
“Second of all, you still haven’t fixed the part of yourself that doesn’t fight back. During Azul’s Overblot,” Floyd continued mercilessly, “You let him choke you. Twice. You ran ahead without being careful. You wanted to die just like the way you said back in Mostro Lounge two months ago. Koebi-chan, you haven’t found a reason to ‘live’ yet—you only know how to survive, like a little baby fish. So we’re here to prevent you from offing yourself before you figure it out.”
“Reason to ‘live’?” Yuu repeated, finding those words strange on her tongue.
“And third of all,” Floyd bent over her prone form and showed a mouth full of sharp teeth. “If we don’t snatch you up right now, someone else is gonna do it.”
“That last one has nothing to do with helping Yuu-san,” Jade chuckled while Yuu tried to distance herself from Floyd’s leering face.
“Yeah it does. We’re leagues better than Todo-senpai or Koban’zame-chan,” Floyd said petulantly, his mismatched eyes narrowed at hers. “We can make you better, Koebi-chan. We can make you stronger and cover for your weaknesses. We can show you the sea that you’d never be able to touch otherwise. …Aha! Ain’t this sales pitch pretty good?”
“We’re already symbiotes, there’s no need for advertising,” Jade said amusedly. He was leaned back on the chair past Floyd’s shoulder behind her, content to watch his brother half-threaten her.
Yuu had to admit that they made a convincing argument. “Still, why’s it got to be me? There has to be close to a thousand students in this school. Plus Ashengrotto-senpai would be a way better symbiote.”
“Azul? He’d never be a symbiote,” Floyd flopped over back at her side with a disgusted look. “He’s Azul.”
“Which means,” Yuu prompted.
“Azul is nothing more and nothing less than himself,” Jade told her unhelpfully. “He has no need for us, as we have no need for him. But in human terms, I suppose the closest phrase you have is ‘business partnership’…of some sort. We are undoubtedly the strongest in Octavinelle, and standing together we become stronger.”
“Isn’t that exactly what a cooperative relationship is?”
“Not really,” Floyd rolled his eyes. “Koebi-chan you’re so slow. Azul doesn’t need us to do anything for him.”
Yuu still didn’t really get it, but this concept looked like it flew right over her head as a ‘one-hundred percent human being’. If she went and called them ‘friends’ again she could already foresee the unimpressed looks, so in the end she gave up and settled for trying to best Floyd in a staring contest.
Jade took over the reins of the conversation as Floyd’s interest switched over to squinting at her and continued, “As to ‘why is it Yuu-san?’…well, there are many reasons.”
“I know that for some reason Jade-senpai finds me interesting,” Yuu nodded. “It might be the other-world-ness or the magic or the fact that I falsified my gender successfully. Sort of.”
“Those are the symptoms,” Jade brushed it off, “you are the cause. It’s quite all right if you never discover just how special you are, since the only people who need to know is Floyd and me. …And perhaps Azul.”
“It’s ‘cause you’re Koebi-chan,” Floyd said flatly. “That’s it.”
“Senpai,” Yuu whined, slapping at his arm. “I’m not a genius or a Merfolk like you, okay? Fine, I give up, pretend I’m actually two years old or something. What does being ‘Koebi-chan’ have to do with anything?”
“In this case, it is exactly as Floyd says,” Jade told her almost sheepishly. “He named you a ‘shrimp’ as soon as he saw you.”
“Because I react like one? Jumping and stuff?”
“Well, yeah,” Floyd shrugged, “but also ‘cause you are a shrimp. Which means we were meant to be symbiotes from the get-go.”
“Oya. Haven’t you read this in an encyclopaedia?” Jade lifted his brows. “Shrimp and Moray eels have a very special relationship underwater—indeed, they are the perfect example of good symbiotes.”
“But I’m a human.”
“Yet you are also ‘koebi’, according to Floyd,” Jade said smoothly. “And my brother has never judged a person wrong before.”
According to the Leech twins, shrimp were among the easiest pickings of prey under the sea. Therefore, to survive, they had to come up with some creative ways to avoid being eaten—and one of them was to stick as close as possible to a Moray eel.
“Morays aren’t quite apex predators in all habitats, but they are often close,” Jade explained. “While a shrimp is protected by attaching itself to one, it can avoid being hunted by any predators, since few are stupid enough to pick a fight with the ‘gang of the sea’, as you put it.”
“And the Moray eel doesn’t eat the shrimp instead?”
“Well, they caaan,” Floyd wrinkled his nose, “but it’s way not worth it. ‘Cause in return for protection, shrimp go around taking care of the Moray eel like cleaning its gills and mouth and getting rid of bacteria and stuff. It’s half the reason why Morays can live so long.”
“Understand now?” Jade adopted a purposefully condescending voice. “It only makes sense for you to partner with us for both parties.”
“I can’t clean bacteria off of you!” Yuu spluttered.
“Yeah you can,” Floyd said with a mean smile. “You can distract Aka’ika-sensei and stuff since he’s nice to you.”
“Professor Trein isn’t bacteria and he’s not nice to—”
“Plus, more importantly, Azul gets like five times more interesting when you’re around.” Floyd seemed to remember something about his Dorm Head; he was giggling again.
“Yuu-san being around means that for the near future, none of us will ever have to suffer the torture of boredom,” Jade added, “or satisfy ourselves with predictable endings.”
“Is that enough to convince you?” Floyd drawled. “I’m bored. Koebi-chan’s already our symbiote so it’s not like talking about it is going to change anything.”
“Wait, wait, one last thing,” Yuu pulled on the hem of his sleeve. “What am I supposed to do then? As a symbiote.”
“Oya. I was expecting some more futile struggling,” Jade blinked in mild surprise.
“Floyd-senpai’s been pretty unusually patient explaining today,” Yuu shrugged, “and from the sounds of it there’s literally nothing except benefits on my end. In fact I might have been receiving some benefits I didn’t even realize until now, like in the Mostro Lounge or something. Other than being ‘interesting’, shouldn’t I have some kind of function that benefits you? Or else it wouldn’t be fair.”
“Sometimes Koebi-chan isn’t dumb,” Floyd stage-whispered.
“I wonder what I seem like to you,” she said dryly. “Hey! Not the hair!”
Jade watched them tussle as if he were a proud parent and they, his children. “You needn’t worry about ‘doing’ anything,” he told her while she tried to fend off Floyd’s stupidly large hands. “That personality of yours seems to actively find ways to benefit us just by proxy of existing. Such as assisting us in the lounge, bandaging our wounds, offering support for our image in front of the other students…Although, now that Azul’s ‘deal’ with you is moot, how about moving into Octavinelle as a dorm transfer student?”
“Deal?” Yuu gave up on Floyd and started rearranging her hair. “—Oh, right. The deal.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten,” Jade sighed in mock disappointment. “For someone who had the guts to face down Azul head-on and the ability to meet him fin to fin, I was expecting a bit more fixation on the deal.”
“Plus, didn’t you technically win? You brought back the photo on day three,” Floyd said. “And we found it on your clothes before sunset. Even Azul’s considering that a victory on your end.”
“But the worst possible outcome happened,” Yuu said despondently. “Ashengrotto-senpai nearly died. And his contracts are all just sand lining the bottom of your dorm now. In the first place I just made the deal to stop that worst case scenario from happening…”
“Now that I think about it,” Floyd realized with a laugh, “Koebi-chan’s seen more Overblots than probably all the researchers in the world.”
“We looked up the principle of Overblotting in more detail while you were unconscious,” Jade filled her in. “It is extremely difficult to prevent the death—or worse—of the victim, so you are, in a way, the most suitable person to have come from outer space to be able to deal with such phenomena so easily.”
“I’ve been practicing lately,” Yuu said sheepishly, tucking her wand away in her sleeve and soundly ignoring the ‘outer space’ comment. “Plus, you guys did a lot of the work too. Still, three Overblots in a semester is out of the ordinary, right?”
“One Overblot in a lifetime is out of the ordinary,” Jade corrected her smoothly.
“And this one was pretty much my fault.”
“Uh, not really?” Floyd squinted at her. “It was mostly Todo-senpai’s fault, wasn’t it? Plus, who cares whose fault it was. The whole thing’s over and Azul’s done with freaking out and stuff. And you got back the photo so you technically managed to win the deal.”
“Sometimes I admire that attitude of yours from the bottom of my heart,” Yuu shook her head in amazement. “You’re not angry at me at all?”
“Why would I be mad at you?”
Instead of answering, Yuu reached out for his hand. She was sure conveying an apology would only be met with confusion. Floyd blinked before squeezing back.
“Congratulations,” Jade applauded for her briefly. “It is rare, to say the least, for anyone to fulfil the conditions of a contract with Azul, let alone such a large one.”
“Like it matters anyway, now that everyone’s been released forcefully,” Yuu muttered. “Speaking of which, why was Ashengrotto-senpai so eager to get this picture in the end? I was kind of surprised when he gave me a pretty much illegal condition for victory…that doesn’t seem like his usual modus operandi. It’s way too risky if people realize that the picture’s missing, even if it wasn’t him who stole it.”
“I’m delighted that you asked,” Jade’s voice bounced before he coughed politely. “Floyd, do move over for me.”
“Aha! Are you gonna show her?” Floyd brightened up, dragging Yuu half upright and across the bed so that a space opened up for his brother to sit. “Koebi-chan, you’re gonna be so surprised.”
From the breast pocket containing his Magical Pen, Jade withdrew a laminated square which quickly grew in size to become the waterproof photograph that Jack, Deuce and Grim had obtained from the Atlantica Memorial Museum. Just as she had pored over it with Ace, Yuu could not understand why such a picture had been the object of Azul’s ‘obsession’. In front of a sea-blue wall, a large gathering of Merfolk children smiled guilelessly for the camera, framed by pillars hung with expensive-looking museum portraits.
“It’s a nice photo,” she said bemusedly as the three of them bent their heads to see the aged photo in better detail. “Doesn’t move, either. I’ve never seen so many Merfolk children before.”
“Doesn’t move?” squinted Floyd.
“And one of them is the future ruler of the Coral Sea, Prince Rielle,” Jade informed her.
“Oh, right, this world was full of monarchies,” Yuu remembered with a furrowed brow. “Don’t you guys think that’s a bit backwards?”
“Why? Kings are easy to use and stuff,” Floyd blinked. “Koebi-chan, it’s different where you’re from?”
“But this picture is indeed nostalgic,” Jade narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, ignoring them. “Look, this is Floyd, and that’s me.”
“You’re right!” Yuu leaned forwards in interest as she caught sight of the much smaller greenish blue figures slightly blurred on the Polaroid. “Jade-senpai, you were taller than Floyd-senpai when you guys were young?” It was difficult to tell when they were all floating in the water.
“Who knows?” Jade said mysteriously.
“Koebi-chan, Koebi-chan,” Floyd directed her attention to the edge of the picture. “You’re missing the best part. Check out the corner here—it’s Azul! From the past!”
Yuu blinked several times before she saw the outline of six dark tentacles and two arms almost invisible in the shadow of the Museum’s corner. Only then was she able to trace it up to the bright hair and icy blue eyes belonging to Azul’s much younger form.
“Ooh,” Yuu realized. “You guys were together all the way from elementary school. No wonder you’re friends.”
“Partners, and we didn’t really care about him or even recognize him until a while in,” Floyd corrected. He squinted into her face. “…That’s it?”
“It?” Yuu cocked her head back. “Um…I mean you’re all extremely cute. I didn’t know Merfolk children were all this pretty. I’m a fan of the aesthetic.”
Jade started trembling again. “In a way,” he managed, “that reaction was out of the ordinary.”
“Koebi-chan, you gotta have something to say about this Azul,” Floyd prompted, for once ignoring the ‘pretty’ comment. “C’mon!”
“Uh…” Yuu racked her brain. “He’s really cute? Round? Huggable. I would have wanted to see him. …What do you want me to say?”
Jade started laughing. Floyd made a face before sighing and being infected by his smile. “Whatever. He was really interesting too, back then. I like this Azul—he looked way more edible than he is now.”
A scrap of Yuu’s dream flashed through her mind. “You mean scary,” she muttered. “That glare could freeze fire.”
“Oh? Good guess,” Jade cleared his throat, preparing to brag about Azul once again. “You have seen Azul’s…single-mindedness for yourself. Although he was indeed double the horizontal width of other Merfolk ten years ago—”
“Aaaaaaaah!” The door slammed open and bounced off the wall loudly. Yuu jumped a third time that afternoon; Jade and Floyd merely moved their gaze to the doorway, where Azul Ashengrotto stood with his shoulders heaving. “What the hell are you telling him!? Stop it!”
“Senpai!” Yuu gasped, nearly dropping the photo. Even though it had barely been a single day since his Overblot, Azul was up and moving in his Dorm Head uniform done up to the perfectly arranged ribbon tied around his neck in a neat bow. Right now, he was glaring in their direction without a shadow of his usual business-like smile.
Azul stomped into the room, slamming the door so hard it shook in its hinges. “Oi! Stop looking at that! …Please!”
“Oya, oya, Azul,” Jade pressed his fist to his mouth, still trembling with the aftereffect of his laughing spell. “You sure have gotten over your resistance to entering this room quickly. Why don’t you hover outside the door for a little longer?”
Hover outside the door?
“Shut up!” Azul pushed his falling glasses up the bridge of his nose and flung the lavender greatcoat at the wall, where it hung itself neatly on a protruding hook with a trail of sparkling light. “I should have never left that picture in this room. I should have erased it from the face of this earth the moment I returned this morning!!”
“We’ve come this far already,” Floyd rolled his eyes, unfazed, “just give up. Plus, you heard Koebi-chan’s weird reaction. You’ve been there for like two minutes already.”
“I still don’t get why we had to steal this picture,” Yuu squinted. “I mean it’s really cute. Did you want to hang it in the VIP Room?”
“Like hell I did,” ground out Azul over Jade’s choked laughter, “I only wanted to burn it to ashes and then scatter them far across the world so that not a single person would ever know it existed!”
“Azul is quite…eager to remove evidence of his past,” Jade explained to her while she gaped. “He’s erased every photo of himself from the graduation albums and even the film from any older photographs taken professionally.”
Azul was still glaring at her and breathing hard. The intensity of that look reminded Yuu that this person was probably her enemy. Unlike Ace, who had been trying to wake Riddle up from his tyrant rule, she had ruthlessly ripped Azul’s very foundation out from under him. More than seven hundred contracts, collected from even before he had entered Night Raven College…
“…—Jade, Floyd,” Azul straightened, mouth flattening. The burning ice in his eyes did not change, but his voice was curiously calm when he continued, “Do leave the room for a while, please.”
“Aw, c’mon! I wanna watch,” Floyd clutched Yuu like a teddy bear, pouting at him.
“Now, now, Floyd,” Jade assuaged him. “Although…Azul, the ‘you’ right now seems a little dangerous to leave alone with Yuu-san. Are you sure you’ll both be all right?”
“Azul gets a little scary sometimes,” Floyd nodded. “What if you eat Koebi-chan?”
“The two of you have such little faith in me,” Azul sniffed, lifting both arms in a shrug. “Why would I get in any more trouble with the Headmaster at this point?”
“That joke again?” Yuu rolled her eyes. “Unless senpai is a cannibal—er, a human-eater, I really don’t think you need to worry about that.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Jade started. “We have completely forgotten to explain about octopus Merfolk.”
“Aha! Poor Koebi-chan, trapped in the same room with a predator,” Floyd sang, “We’re nice symbiotes, so we won’t charge for giving you a hint this time.”
“If you’re nice, the entire school is nice,” Yuu muttered.
“Back when we were talking about Azul in November,” Jade proceeded smoothly over her, “we were somewhat joking about what you call ‘cannibalism’. But Yuu-san, you would do well to keep in mind that Azul is indeed a great threat to you.”
“Koebi-chan, don’t you know?” Floyd’s mismatched eyes narrowed in an almost affectionate smile. “Shrimp stick to Morays for protection against predators, right? The biggest threats to them in the entire ocean are octopi.”
“Octopi are especially fond of devouring shrimp,” Jade continued in high spirits as Yuu turned slowly back to Azul’s unwavering stare. “So…do try to stay alive past today.”
Ever obedient, Jade and Floyd had abandoned Yuu on the bed with the photograph and left her and Azul alone in his room. For all of their vaguely threatening talk about octopi and shrimp, none of them hesitated in leaving, displaying just how much they deferred to him. In fact, Yuu was starting to wonder if the Overblot fight would be the only time she saw Floyd and Jade behave remotely ‘rebellious’ against Azul by choice.
When she made a hurried move to leave the bed, Azul stayed her impatiently with an outstretched glove. Mouth still pressed flat in a line, he stalked over to sit at her bedside before glaring down into her face for a long, tense moment.
Yuu could only meet his sea-grey eyes for a second before averting her gaze guiltily. “Se…senpai, sorry for taking up your room. I’m fine now—”
“Enough of that,” Azul brushed her off impatiently. “Now give me the photograph and I’ll incinerate it.”
“Why? It’s such a nice photo! If you don’t want it, I’ll keep it,” Yuu clutched it to her chest.
“Like hell I’m giving you even more leverage on me! Hand it over. It was part of our deal, was it not?”
“But you might be held liable for losses or whatever if you really burn it,” Yuu said worriedly. “If they figure out you destroyed museum property, no matter how small, what if it leaves a black mark on your record or something?”
“Dammit,” Azul muttered, mostly to himself. The grinding of his teeth was almost audible from where she sat. “I thought that this would finally be the chance to completely destroy any traces of my dark history…! Since the photo was hung in the museum, there had been no chance for me to legally destroy it the way I eliminated the others. Until now!”
“Dark history? What dark history?” Yuu asked dumbly. “Is it ‘cause Floyd-senpai said that you looked edible?”
“Don’t dig that up,” groaned Azul. “I’ve had enough of people making fun of me for my size. You have no clue what it’s like to be an endomorph to my degree. Even the smallest deviation from my diet is hugely damaging.”
“People teased you for being round?” Yuu realized. “Why? You looked so cute.”
“I don’t need you to make fun of me!”
“I’m not making fun of you. …People sure make fun of others for the weirdest reasons,” Yuu muttered. “I thought it was stupid enough that they made fun of me because of my blood and history.”
“Not everyone is as strange as you are,” Azul rubbed the bridge of his nose under thin lenses. “…In any event, I have been forbidden from burning the photograph by Professor Crewel during our meeting yesterday, so unfortunately it will remain intact until we deliver it back to the Museum tomorrow.”
“Wait, what happened?” Yuu blinked. “What meeting?”
While Yuu had been unconscious and on the verge of death, according to Azul, those involved in this time’s Overblot fiasco had been gathered in the building housing the potions classroom so they could talk while Leona, Crewel and Azul worked on a potion to suppress the worst symptoms of her cold. There, Azul had been held to his promise to refrain from ‘enslaving’ students for the rest of his years as a student at NRC, as well as fined with the funding some of the repairs for the ruined dorm exterior.
“In return, I had Mister Ace Trappola eliminate that picture he took of the photograph, which was apparently your idea,” Azul narrowed his eyes at her. “Just what were you thinking of doing with that? And why on earth did you let him take a picture of it? It took quite a bit of wheedling and Headmaster Crowley’s word to make it happen.”
“I was just being careful,” Yuu mumbled sheepishly. “I thought we could use it to prevent you from going back on the deal. I didn’t know it was just a cute photo of your childhood.”
“Hmph. I suppose it was my mistake for dismissing you as a simple good-hearted fool without a working brain,” Azul let it go with grace. “In any event, the photograph is to be returned to the Atlantica Museum tomorrow, before the Winter Holiday begins .”
“That’s probably better for everyone involved,” Yuu sighed in relief before breaking into a coughing fit.
“You should have listened to the way your group of ‘friends’ and Monster went on about how immoral I was being,” Azul complained exaggeratedly as he summoned a full glass of water into his hand, “Even when it was completely their choice in making a deal with me! Now I must find another way to squeeze every drop of—ahem, better serve others within the Mostro Lounge.”
“Thanks,” Yuu croaked before gulping down half the glass. This time, when he put out his hand, she obediently handed over the laminated photograph without further comment. “Just like Riddle-senpai and Leona-senpai, it seems like you haven’t really learned anything from that Overblot except for pretending to exercise moderation.”
“I’ll ask you not to put me on the same level as the rest of the world,” Azul narrowed his eyes, the pupils threatening to flatten into bars again. “There will be no stopping me until I make everyone recognize me.”
Staring into the blazing ice unextinguished in his glare, Yuu thought she finally understand what made Jade and Floyd catch interest in Azul Ashengrotto so that they stayed by his side all these years. For even an Overblot was not enough to dampen the drive that had alarmed her five days ago in the VIP Room.
In all honesty, Yuu was still wary of Azul’s future, still sure that his unending gluttony would drive him past the point of return one day—but at the same time she had realized during their desperate fight that Azul would never give up even if he had to kill himself, or worse. Unlike Riddle, he had not decided to obey the rules that held him captive—unlike Leona, Azul would never, ever give up against all odds, for his purpose now and forever would always be clear in his mind. Indeed, the goal of ‘proving himself superior’ to the rest of the world was a Sisyphusian and perhaps foolish task, but unlike her and perhaps most of the world, there was no hesitation or despair that could stall him.
That kind of drive was truly special indeed, and she had no doubt that the intelligent Jade and Floyd had felt it prickle on their skin when they first found Azul ‘interesting’. Even his Overblot was caused by a mad grasp for the power slipping out of his hands, not by abandoning it.
But Yuu had been nothing less than a roadblock in his way.
Azul saw her face twist and snarled, “Do not look at me like that. I don’t need your pity—least of all yours!”
“It’s not pity!” Yuu could not help but shout back. “Obviously you don’t want to hear this from me but I have nothing but the highest respect for you—no one on this planet could be the way you are—”
“Shut up. Shut up,” Azul cut her off. “How dare you try to understand me. How dare you irritate me so, how dare you continue to act like nothing’s happened when you chose against me!”
“I’ll apologize for what I did,” Yuu swallowed another cough, “—but not for the reasons I did them. Just like you have things that are important to you, I will always choose Grim first, choose my friends first. And I stand by my belief that trying to stop you was my effort to do the best thing for you at the time, even though it failed this horribly.”
Azul let out a short bark of a laugh, shoulders heaving with the intensity of his emotion. “And so easily you cut off whatever’s in your way,” he said quietly. “Like none of it matters to you.”
“What are you—?”
“Don’t think that you’re the only one who’s been ‘observing’ these past few months,” Azul spat out viciously. “Octopus Merfolk are among the most intelligent in the sea—the world. I know exactly what you’re like, Yuu-san. For all that you wax poetic about your precious friends so quickly made in this school, you don’t trust a single one of them.”
“Wh-what?” Yuu stammered, not expecting the conversation to take a U-turn onto her person. “I don’t—”
“Not Jack-san, who was tasked with negotiating in the first place,” Azul overrode her, planting both hands on the bedside for momentum. “Not Ruggie-san, who went so far as to threaten me for your safety in the Lounge. Not Leona-san who burned my contracts for your revenge. And have you asked a single time for the opinion of your Monster, Grim-san, about this situation? I think not.”
“Of course I trust Grim!”
“No you don’t,” Azul’s mouth twisted in a cruel smile. “Someone who finds no value in themselves cannot trust others fully. I’ve said it before. We’re not so different, you and I, in the way we view others and in the way we understand ourselves. You say you did this all for your friends, but have you considered the way they felt—the way I felt? —Or should I say, you did consider it all, and still made the decision despite knowing its emotional impact.”
Two days ago Yuu had deliriously wondered if she was doing this all for herself and now Azul was cruelly precise in the way he dug deep into her most sensitive wound. She was no match for someone who knew exactly how to manipulate words to deal the maximum damage. “I know I be-betrayed you,” her voice thinned as her throat tightened. “I told you—I deserve everything you throw at me—”
“Ah, yes, that’s right,” Azul’s gaze fell as all emotion bled from his face abruptly. Yuu had witnessed the whiplash speeds at which he transitioned from rage to calm right before his Overblot, but she still flinched as his voice went clinically flat. “Just like when you waited for death so eagerly as I choked you. How irresponsible of you, to give it all up right there. Jade has told me—Floyd has complained to me all about your lack of resistance to death.”
“Will it make you feel better if I suffered another way?” Yuu asked him mechanically. There was no feeling in her arms and legs, and once again she saw the ocean of black ink yawn in her vision.
“Don’t make me laugh,” Azul sneered, fisting a hand into her collar. Yuu’s half-full glass of water spilled from her slack grasp as it rolled across the wide bed, creating an inkspot of wet fabric, but none of them noticed. “Like I’ll let you continue to be so irresponsible. Why do you only wait for another to make an action instead of killing yourself if you want it so badly? You can’t even die properly yourself because of that stupid logic that dictates what a waste it is. Like I’ll deliver your wish into your hands this easily.”
“Does it make you feel better, attacking my character and personality every time you feel threatened?” Yuu was unable to help snapping back. She coughed. “You call me cold and logical; you insult me as if I don’t trust anyone, but I think you’re far too bad at controlling your emotions properly! What, are you not only a second grader on Land, but also a second grader in maturity?”
“At least I have a purpose,” Azul seethed into her face, “Unlike you, who will one day just die on the side of the road due to a lack of it!”
“Then let me die if you hate me so much!”
Once again, Azul’s expression changed sharply—this time the tense pause was broken by uncontrollable laughter that stretched his face and lit his sea-spray eyes bright with wanton vigour. “Let you die?” he repeated incredulously, as if she had told an absurd joke. “Oh, Yuu-san. You foolish, misfortunate person. You think that after turning my life upside down that I would just allow you to die! Ah ha ha ha ha!”
His grip around the collar of her uniform tightened as they both shook with his mirth; Yuu covered her mouth as she coughed again and rasped, “You still want something from me.”
“Want something? Want something!” Azul’s laughter faded as fast as it had come. “Oh, yes. I want many things. I want it all! It is far too easy to give you the satisfaction of an easy death—like hell I will allow you to go anywhere before I am through with you. Whether it’s the king of the underworld or the way back to your universe, I won’t let any of it snatch you away from me, do you hear me!”
Without her noticing, his hands had closed around her neck. The abandoned glass finally tipped over the edge of the bed and shattered against marble. Yuu’s eyes stung as Azul’s wild gaze filled her vision, bloodshot and shadowed by deep bluish circles.
“Do you understand now?” Azul asked her softly, only the over-brightness of his gaze alerting her to his feverish disquiet. “I hold your right to life and death in my hands. I have your secrets in my hold. And like you have made a mess of me I will make a mess of you before I am satisfied.”
“—murder—on campus,” Yuu choked across his powerful grip, trails of liquid dripping onto his fingers. “You’ll—trouble.”
“How pitiful,” Azul spoke over her impassionedly. “How miserable! Before meeting me, you didn’t even understand how to cry properly—and now look at these tears! But this is merely the beginning, Yuu-san. After all, I’m quite a reasonable man. Instead of extracting my revenge on the spot, I wouldn’t mind collecting payments in instalments…with interest, of course.”
Along with the film of tears, Yuu felt red creep into the edges of her vision as it blurred. For all he said about not killing her, she was already close to exhausting any oxygen still running in her blood. Distantly, Yuu was aware that Azul’s ardent declaration of revenge was merely due to his lack of control on his emotional lid. Despite exerting so much effort into moderation, his volcano of emotions had been unstoppable during his Overblot as it was now.
Whether Azul’s words were gross exaggerations could not be measured until the result befell her—Yuu was possibly going to breathe her last right here, even though a murder on campus would cause trouble for Azul’s future. Even though she no longer wanted to be his stumbling block…
In her fading consciousness, Yuu’s blurry vision was inundated by a sea of golden light. The next moment, the vice grip of Azul’s ungloved fingers disappeared violently from around her neck. Inborn instincts native to humankind drove her into a gasping, coughing fit for survival.
Dimly, Yuu wondered how many more times she was going to be choked within NRC’s borders. Would the handprint be too obvious?
A moment later she recovered enough to dash the tears from her eyes and yank her gaze upwards, still breathless. To her great surprise, Azul had tipped off the side of the bed to collapse inelegantly on the purple marbled flooring below; glasses sliding down his nose and hat on the ground, he gaped down at his chest, where the golden light was emitting from between the buttons of his suit jacket. Both of them watched in utter bewilderment as an incandescence of saffron burst two buttons as it escaped into the air before unfolding into a shimmering, curled parchment between them.
“Sen—pai,” Yuu wheezed, voice cracking as she stared, “I thought your contracts were all gone.”
“They were!” Azul attested vehemently. “—Wait. This is the contract we formed four nights ago. I’d forgotten to take it out of my chest pocket.”
He’d kept it in his chest pocket?
“Is…is it supposed to float like that?” Yuu wrenched her mind to more important topics.
“How the hell am I supposed to know?!” Suddenly, he gasped and lunged to his feet. “Yuu-san, don’t tell me you used your—whatever tricks up your sleeve—what you fought me with yesterday! I should’ve known—! You’ve enchanted my contract!?”
“What!? No! I didn’t!” Yuu contended earnestly. “I have no idea what’s going on—” she descended into coughs again.
“Lies!” Azul reached for her again with a clawed hand. The parchment flashed—a sparkle and zap and he pulled his bare hand back with a hiss. “—What have you done? Answer me!”
“I don’t know—I didn’t do anything!” Shading her eyes against the bright light shining between them, Yuu finally realized that strands of gold were twined around her wand hand to join the golden contract. A glance at Azul’s right hand showed a similar threat of gold, almost like…
Floyd’s words echoed in her mind. And back when you made the deal with Azul, what was with those golden sparkles around you?
Yuu’s mind raced as she recalled the time of their contract signing. What had been out of the ordinary that was now preventing Azul from strangling her…?
—As he wrote in dark ink, their surroundings flashed gold briefly, a bright brilliant colour that sent her vision white for a moment.
“Whoa!” she blinked several times, bubbles popping in her vision. Across from her, Floyd looked momentarily disoriented together with her. “Is that a spell or something?”
—Strands of gold gathered around where she held the parchment. She felt warm and tingly, her wand itchy and lively against her skin with the adrenaline pumping through her veins.
“Oh,” The colour drained from her face. Yuu swallowed painfully as she regarded the shimmering gold radiance with abject horror and swore, “Oh shit.”
“You’re suggesting,” Azul’s voice jumped with the unsuccessful effort of keeping it even, “Your nonsense magic has created a second contract on top of my contract!?”
“Senpai, stop pacing,” Yuu shut her eyes weakly to stave off a headache, voice barely louder than a croak as she massaged her temples. “I need to figure out a way to reverse this thing right now so please don’t talk to me.”
“What even is it?”
“This is just conjecture, okay,” Yuu cautioned him before her voice broke. Being choked or dangled up by Octavinelle students seemed to be some sort of rite of passage or something. Floyd, Jade, and now Azul—twice.
Azul clicked his tongue loudly before withdrawing a small shell-shaped bottle from his pocket and flinging it at her. “Hurry and fix your damn voice.”
Without even taking the time to snap back, Yuu uncorked it and swallowed the contents in one gulp, ignoring the disgusting taste as her voice returned in strength. “—I’ve never seen one done in person so I’ve only heard stories, but the golden light around wand arms is a sign of a magically binding contract from my world. But how could it have formed between us without my will? That’s complicated magic no matter how weak the binding spell was. I’m far from able to perform stuff like that yet—!”
Azul gave up on pacing across the floor and sat in a heap beside her. “First of all, explain to me this ‘magical binding contract’ from your world,” he cut her off sharply. “Is it a spell?”
“It’s an agreement, a pact, enforced and bound by the magic of all the participants,” Yuu explained, sucking in a shaky breath. “In the first place, it shouldn’t be possible to create a pact with you, Ashengrotto-senpai, because you don’t have any of my magic at all. But these agreements are really, really complicated stuff, with serious consequences for people that break it. The strongest example of binding magical pacts is the Unbreakable Vow, which I’ve never witnessed. Whoever breaks that dies immediately.”
“What on earth could I have agreed to in the first place?” Azul asked flatly. “And why would it repel me when I squeezed your skinny neck?”
His polite speech was falling apart again, but none of them cared. “Let me think,” Yuu muttered, “It may have to do with what we were talking about right as I signed the contract—I think I remember gold light shining twice, the same gold light that’s glowing right now…”
Azul squinted at the golden contract that had not reduced its glow as it hung suspended in the air above their heads. “If I knew earlier, I would have shoved this with my other contracts and let it be turned to sand,” he growled low in his throat.
“Right! We can try burning it,” Yuu gasped, yanking out her wand. “Incendio!”
Yuu had not been thinking clearly. Her Fire-making Spell rebounded powerfully off the air several inches from the contract. Azul swore and tackled her down while shouting out the command for a waterfall; before the fireball could ignite the bed, it was consumed in a wave that drenched them in a cold burst.
“You idiot!” Azul snapped, his Magical Pen lengthening into the dark staff with its metal-topped octopus. “What are you going to do if you get sick again? Do you understand how close you were to death? Think a little before you act!”
Their clothing hissed dry with a cloud of steam at his murmured spell. Yuu shivered briefly as her clothing warmed. “Wait, senpai! You can’t just use magic after you Overblotted!”
“I’m fine,” Azul overrode her, shucking off his suit jacket and draping it over her shoulders, “I’m far stronger than you! Worry about yourself a little.”
“Ashengrotto-senpai, I noticed that you tend to get nicer when people are in danger,” Yuu remarked hazily, remembering when he had protected her in the Mostro Lounge almost a week ago.
“Stop spouting drivel and tell me what’s causing this…binding magical agreement,” Azul bit out, propping her up against the headboard alcove. “You didn’t do this on purpose?”
“I have no idea how to make a binding magical contract,” Yuu swore solemnly. “I…senpai, don’t tell anyone, but recently my magic’s been a bit hard to control—I practiced with it a bunch in November and it’s been acting up—still, I’ve never heard a binding contract being formed all by itself without my approval…”
“—If this…whatever it was happened when you signed the contract,” Azul waved up at the floating parchment, “It’s got to have something to do with what happened around that time. Correct?”
“Right,” she nodded. “And…I definitely remember the same golden light flashing once—no, twice then. Senpai, you remember?”
“I don’t—wait.” Azul squinted into the past in concentration. “Now that I think about it, the gold light was particularly strong when we were discussing…something to the effect of ‘student labour could no longer be a condition of my contracts’. I was so sure that it was just part of the usual spell.”
“You’ve got a good memory. I remember the same thing, and the second one…” Yuu recalled slowly. “The second one…something about guarding me from liability of the stolen picture?”
It was Azul’s turn to pale. “No…” he said quietly. “It was ‘protection’. You said you wanted my protection.”
“But what does that have to—”
“Even without trying, you always foil my plans,” Azul’s voice rose sharply as he comprehended something she had yet to digest. “Just putting my hands around your neck propels me backwards so violently—how am I supposed to make you suffer like this!? A protection clause—very clever! Oh, very clever indeed, preventing me from ever causing harm to your person!”
“When did I ask for protection? How the hell does that prevent you from strangling me!?” Yuu spluttered. “And I didn’t even do it on purpose!”
“Think for a second, Yuu-san,” Azul regained a measure of calm. “I was immediately blown away from you when I tried to cause you lasting physical harm. And don’t you remember what you said on Wednesday evening? ‘I want your protection of my person if I fulfil the contract.’ Well, you’ve fulfilled the damn contract beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
“Leona-senpai,” Yuu said abruptly. “He turned your contracts into sand, he can melt this one too—”
“Zero Ray,” Azul intoned coolly. A purple-black beam of energy blasted towards the floating contract before ricocheting off into the ceiling, shaking their entire room and leaving behind a long crack in it. “—It’s useless. Your destructive magic did nothing, and mine seems to be just as ineffective. If I reveal another weakness in front of Leona-san of all people, I might as well tighten the noose around my neck myself. We will not be seeking his ‘help’.”
“Well then what are we supposed to do?” Yuu said slightly hysterically. “I’ve never heard of a binding contract being reversed, ever! And I have no idea what it’s going to do to you—do you know how lucky you are not to have been seriously injured?”
“—There’s no time to waste,” Azul reached upwards carefully to grasp the contract. As if sensing his lack of enmity, it settled obediently into his hand this time.
“Senpai, you have a plan?” Yuu looked up at him hopefully.
“Yuu-san, you will have to transfer into Octavinelle as soon as possible. We will obviously have to determine the extent of these agreements…Jade will help, yes, he’s good at measuring.” Azul’s gaze flitted back and forth unseeingly while he carefully folded the contract. He nodded several times to himself. “More importantly, you will have to stay within reaching distance of me at all times. Which was in my plans all along anyway. How on earth am I supposed to protect you if I can’t see you? We’ll have to figure out a way to communicate…”
Struck speechless by his sudden deluge of words, Yuu’s mouth fell open. “…Wait, wait! Why are you accepting it this easily!? Shouldn’t you…?”
“You’re right, of course,” Azul continued briskly, tapping the folded gold square several times with the octopus head of his staff and sending sparks flying across it in some foreign spell. “I can’t just allow you to hold such an advantage over me for long. Do not worry, Yuu-san, I told you not to underestimate my intelligence—I believe I may hold an important piece of information about you that you will be eager to keep secret…”
“How can you recover so quickly!?” Yuu cried. He was already trying to make a contract with her!
“Now,” ignoring her completely, he tucked away the gleaming gold in his dress shirt’s chest pocket before summoning a new, blank piece of parchment from air. The fishbone pen on his desk flew into his hand. Azul had completely regained his smile and manner when he next faced her. “It is time to gain back some of the losses I have suffered at your hands.”
Pounding footsteps neared them before the door slammed open. “—Azul!” Jade exclaimed, “The entire building shook. What happened? Don’t tell me you really used magic on—?”
Azul’s voice rose over his and echoed into the hallway. He locked Yuu in place with maniacal intensity as he beckoned, “Make a deal with me!”
“I told you Azul gets five times more interesting when you’re around,” Floyd told Yuu cheerfully some time later. The setting sun softened the contours of his face as he tossed the recently repaired water glass up and down in a hand.
Jade was busy wheeling in a full triple rack of fragrant-smelling dishes while Azul sat with one leg crossed elegantly over the other at his desk, the chair swivelled around to provide a good view of all three of them and the rest of the room. Without his suit jacket, which was still insulating the space between Yuu’s back and the headboard alcove, he looked less like the leader of a mafia and more like a wealthy seventeen-year-old boy with slightly ruffled hair.
“Hmph,” Octavinelle’s Dorm Head pressed his glasses upwards, any trace of uncomposed fervour completely gone from his expression. “Not all of us can be as logical as Yuu-san all the time.”
“Senpai, has anyone told you you’re petty-minded?” Yuu deadpanned from Floyd’s other side, eliciting a snort.
“I haven’t seen Azul behaving this emotionally unstable since elementary school,” Jade commented as he set up a folding table on Azul’s bed where Yuu was tucked in. “See? You are an endless fountain of amusement, Yuu-san. Quite fitting for a symbiote.”
“Are you still going on about that?” Azul squinted over at the three of them.
“We were just explainin’ about shrimp and eels and octopi,” Floyd shrugged, setting the empty glass down on the new table over her legs with a thunk. “But before we got to the octopi part for real you got all excited and kicked us out.”
“I seem to have remembered forming a binding confidentiality contract with the two of you never to discuss the details of my past with any other creature,” Azul shot back coolly as a steaming cup of tea floated over to his desk. “Yet what did I hear you speaking about the second I returned?”
“Whoops, I forgot.” Floyd admitted without shame. “Why do you care so much about hiding stuff anyway?”
“One day I’m going to make unagi out of all of you…”
“You guys have unagi here?” Yuu perked up.
“Koebi-chan, you can’t eat eels,” Floyd gasped in horror. “That’s like…against the natural order.”
“I’m. A. Human,” Yuu stressed. “We eat all sorts of sea creatures! Except merpeople—er, Merfolk!”
“In any case, before Azul manages to make anything out of us, we would probably turn him into carpaccio,” Jade finished setting up a full bowl of what looked like potage in front of her. “Or, as Floyd prefers, takoyaki.”
“Thank you senpai. Come to think of it, the Japanese-style food you guys eat here is sort of different from the kind we have,” Yuu mused as she stared at the vaguely Asian cuisine-resembling platters Jade was removing from the cart. “Even takoyaki looks different. Heck, Deuce used to call omurice omelette rice and stuff.”
“Japa-what?” Floyd echoed confusedly. “Your world stuff again?”
“Yeah, the place my mother was born,” Yuu explained. “I’ve been seeing a ton of Japanese influence around campus and in this world…though it’s all slightly different, like the food preparation methods.”
She was feeling a world better than yesterday, but Yuu still took a longer time than expected to blow on a spoonful of the steaming potage before tasting it. Floyd accepted a full plate of seafood from Jade and stuffed it on the edge of her folding table. “There’s food with octopus in your world too, huh?” he grinned toothily. “…I kinda wanna try it.”
“I can try making something for you next time,” she volunteered. After all, apparently Yuu was now Floyd’s ‘symbiote’. Or maybe she had been for a while without noticing.
“The two of you,” Azul snapped. “I’m right here.”
“Now, now, Azul. None of us can help how delicious octopus is,” Jade chuckled politely, finishing dinner preparations before taking a seat on the edge of the bed.
Yuu squinted around at them before looking back at Azul. “Um…are you okay with being around these two? They won’t eat you for real?”
“Don’t ask,” Azul said wearily, sipping at his tea. “Before, Floyd really threatened to do it. The backbreaking effort I took to control my calories probably saved my life along with my reputation.”
“That’s cannibalism!” Yuu pointed her spoon at Floyd.
“Not really, we’re not the same species,” he shrugged unrepentantly. “Octopi are a common prey of Morays in the sea anyway. That’s why you stick by us so Azul can’t get close enough to eat you.”
“And yet you left me alone in a room with him without a second’s pause,” she mumbled dryly through another mouthful.
“We had to make sure the small fry outside weren’t slacking,” Floyd told her in a non-explanation.
“Azul is special, so we made an exception for him,” Jade drew his brows together in his signature troubled smile, reaching for his third plate of food. “And was it not interesting when I walked in with him about to bite your nose off?”
“Emotional instability is not ‘interesting’. It’s frightening,” Yuu intoned solemnly.
“I don’t choose my methods if it gives me success,” Azul sniffed unremorsefully. “Call it whatever you like.”
“Wait a second,” she remembered through her food. Yuu swallowed and summarized, “Moray eels protect shrimp. Shrimp get eaten by octopi. Octopi get eaten by Moray eels.”
“As an old movie stated, it is the ‘circle of life’,” Jade said cheerfully. “I hear that this triangle is illustrated liberally in Land aquariums.”
“By symbiosing with me you were trying to protect me from Ashengrotto-senpai?!”
“Sorta? Not really?” Floyd shrugged. “The metaphor kinda falls apart since we’re not about to eat Azul right now. But you nearly jumped into Azul’s mouth twice for no reason and apparently he just nearly chewed you up again, says Jade, who sorta just saved your life.”
“Oh, yes. It was like a poorly made horror movie,” Jade laughed, pouring Azul seconds. “You act an excellent villain role, Dorm Head.”
“That reminds me!” Azul exclaimed, setting aside his teacup to lean forwards eagerly. “Yuu-san, we are not finished yet. No, don’t stop eating, I can’t have you fainting on me. You must make a contract today—I have an offer you absolutely cannot refuse.”
Yuu blinked somewhat myopically at him through the steam of her bowl. “Senpai, you really think I’ll make some other deal with you? After the way that last one ended—er, didn’t end, I think it’s better for the universe if we don’t.”
“Control your magic this time,” Azul said like it was a simple task.
“Magic?” Jade repeated curiously.
“Wait, what happened?” Floyd blinked as his brother set aside his fifth plate. “I knew interesting stuff was gonna happen and I missed it!”
Impatiently, Azul explained the earlier events and their newly formed magically binding contract—or so they suspected—while Yuu did her best to down the rest of the potage. Usually she would have given up long ago without an appetite, but Azul was right about packing on strength. If she had died of a cold…If she continued to be so physically weak, she would cause trouble for him, again.
Jade and Floyd listened carefully at first, almost serious, and then lost the sobriety for visible glee. When Azul gritted out the part about the ‘protection’ clause preventing him from ‘damaging’ her, the latter abandoned his mostly empty plate on her table, fell over on the bed, and burst out laughing.
“Shut up!” Azul blurted out irritably. “Stop laughing at my expense!”
“Yuu-san,” Jade turned to her reverently, pausing in his inhaling of food. “You won against Azul again. Without even knowing it. Just when are you going to stop surprising me?”
“Jade’s about to make a statue of Koebi-chan and worship it,” Floyd choked, laughing harder. “This is too damn good my sides are gonna explode.”
“Azul, does this mean you’ll become Yuu-san’s symbiote after all?” Jade asked eagerly, staring on his ninth plate. The cart was almost empty.
“He’s already forced me to protect him,” Azul growled, “Until we figure out a way to break this otherworldly enchantment, what the hell else am I supposed to do?”
“The three of you sure accepted my magic fast,” Yuu commented, blowing on her full spoon.
“It’s rather hard to deny something that saved your life,” Azul rolled his eyes.
“Indeed, far too interesting to ignore,” Jade nodded.
“It’s Koebi-chan,” Floyd finished like it was natural. “Plus honestly I was getting suspicious already. This makes a lot more sense.”
Sometimes Yuu truly appreciated the matter-of-fact way the three Octavinelle students approached new situations and information. Deuce had said her adaptability skills were high, but surely Azul’s, Jade’s and Floyd’s were higher—whether it was from necessity in the ocean, or just their personalities, even she was not sure of. Either way, it saved her a lot of trouble in explaining.
“Can we get back to the topic?” Azul said impatiently, setting aside his empty third cup of tea.
“Senpai, aren’t you going to eat something?” Yuu peered over at him worriedly.
“Eating after an all-nighter is terrible for fat gain,” Azul told her primly. “Stop distracting me, Yuu-san. I believe that I have my hands on a secret of yours that you would very much like kept secret.”
“…Secret,” she repeated.
“Oh my,” Jade blinked. For someone who had just finished ten plates of food, he didn’t look remotely winded.
“Aha! Azul, you were busy while we were asleep!” Floyd sat back up interestedly. “What, you got something on Koebi-chan? I wanna hear it!”
“You already know my magic,” Yuu slid her wand halfway out of her sleeve to show him. “What are you threatening me with now? Going to reveal it to the school? By the way, the Headmaster knows already.”
“Why on earth would I do something as pointless as that?” Azul said disdainfully. “Now that you are transferring to Octavinelle, we will be having you utilize that extraordinary skill for us. It would be a fool’s move to reveal our secret weapon so quickly.”
“Wait a second?” Yuu lifted her hand. “Wait a second. When did I say I was transferring over? I’m not transferring.”
“You’ll have to stop it from malfunctioning first, of course,” he steamrolled over her. “Ah, by the way, Professor Crewel might have caught on to the existence of your magic as of yesterday. I would expect to be called out of class tomorrow in the event you are well enough to attend. If he’s not too busy glaring at everyone.”
“Ugh,” Yuu shrunk into herself, distracted. “He’s really gonna put a collar around my neck this time.”
“Yuu-san seems to be excellent at inspiring the…dubious protective instincts in others,” Jade observed, glancing at Floyd, who made a face at him. “As well as murderous tendencies. Perhaps it balances out.”
“You might have bested me this time, but I’ll not allow you to forget that I always win in the end,” Azul ignored him. He reached for the blank piece of parchment and fishbone pen laid out on his desk. “If you don’t wish for me to use your secret against you, it would be wise to form a confidentiality contract with me at your earliest opportunity.”
“So? What secret is it?” Yuu’s mind raced. She set her spoon down in the empty bowl and raced through several ideas.
Azul loved to put on an act, so there was the possibility he was just bluffing. But he also never acted without having a reasonable motive. The only secret she had left from him was her gender. Yet Azul had referred to her as ‘he’ the entire day. Floyd said that the societal position of women was not as valued highly in the Coral Sea, at least compared to the Afterglow Savannah’s and Kingdom of Roses’ rules. Still, surely Azul was careful enough to know that women were treated well aboveground…
“That’s no good, Yuu-san,” Azul clicked his tongue theatrically, unpleasant smile spreading. “We’ll have to teach you to make a better poker face in the future. You rely too much on the advantage of having your eyes hidden behind your hair, but I can see them darting back and forth from here.”
“First rule,” drawled Floyd leisurely, “never show weakness in front of a predator.”
Did Jade or Floyd know what Azul had over her? But they had seemed just as surprised when he mentioned a contract. Yuu could not rely on them in this situation. Think, she scolded herself. “All people have one or two things they’d like to keep secret,” she said calmly. “In the first place, you keep hinting but refuse to tell me exactly what information you have. It’s no wonder that I’d be trying to figure out what you have on me.”
“Seven out of ten recovery,” Floyd commented. Yuu elbowed him.
“Next time, try attacking his own secret,” Jade advised from the foot of the bed. “Such as saying, ‘What if I reveal Azul’s adorable ‘round’ childhood stories to the entire school in return?’ or something similar.”
“Stop playing around, the two of you!” Azul snapped at them.
“I still don’t get why he wants to hide it,” Yuu squinted.
“That’s not important. We’re here to talk about you,” he turned back to her, regaining his implacability. “Of course, I am willing to take your secret with me down to my grave, depending on the conditions you can offer up. What do you say, Yuu-san?”
“Am I correct in assuming you’ll refuse to tell me just what ‘secret’ you have on me unless I agree?” Yuu’s experience in watching him make contracts had given her an idea of his next words. Namely, that Azul was kind of unfair.
“It’s always nice to talk to someone with a working brain,” Azul said amiably. No matter what he felt towards her, he was always pleasant during a transaction, audaciously so. “You are, of course, aware of what conditions I would be looking for.”
“Umm,” Yuu furrowed her brow in thought. “Probably something to counteract that whole ‘protection’ thing we’ve got in your one remaining contract, right? Are you sure we shouldn’t study it more before jumping to conclusions? I’ve told you this already, but I’ve only been a wi…zard for four years and four months. There’s far too much I don’t know about binding contracts of the magical variety.”
“Of course we’ll get to that later,” Azul shrugged gracefully. “Right now I need every advantage over you I can get. Let’s see…shall we start off with transferring to Octavinelle within the next semester? Of course, I am a merciful man—your Grim-san can accompany you if you should please.”
“Is Grim still getting scolded by Professor Crewel?” Yuu asked weakly.
“Last I saw him, Riddle-san had dangled him and your two hapless Heartslabyul friends from the Heartslabyul castle wall,” Azul commented.
Yuu choked. “What!? He went through with it!”
“Easy there,” Floyd reached around to smack her between the shoulder blades while she coughed.
“Cater-senpai’s gonna have a field day,” she mumbled, recovering.
“Next should be the condition of researching your otherworldly magic with me, and Jade,” Azul went on, ignoring them.
“Oya? It would be my honour to aid you, Azul,” Jade looked unruffled.
“That doesn’t need to be in a contract. I’d do it anyway,” Yuu assured him. “Plus I’ve been a bit worried about my magic lately…Maybe I should ask Leona-senpai—”
“Ah, and no more of that,” Azul cut her off with a lifted hand. “Octavinelle students do not create debts outside of their dorm. In fact, you should not make a debt outside of anyone except me…and these two.” The last words were grudging.
“It’s not a debt,” Floyd rolled his eyes, “we’re symbiotes.”
“The more weaknesses you make, the more weaknesses I have. Got it?” Azul told her imperiously. “If I have to protect you because of some stupid irrational contract, I’ll have you make it as easy as possible. Jade, we’ll have to get him a phone. Lastly, you’ll only be able to use your magic for us. And in situations where your life is threatened. Ah, but at that time I’ll be around to prevent it from happening…”
“Senpai,” Yuu rolled her eyes, “you’re going a bit overboard.”
“These conditions are to your favour as well,” Azul sniffed. “Honestly, you should be thanking me as your new Dorm Head.”
“Sorry,” she shrugged. “I can’t do that. I’ve already decided I can’t make whatever contract you’re suggesting.”
Azul frowned, losing momentum. “What? But the conditions are in your favour as well as mine! How could you refuse? Aren’t you afraid of the consequences?”
“First of all, I can’t transfer to Octavinelle,” Yuu gave him a flat stare. “I don’t have your magic, remember? How is the whole ‘magicless student being in a magic dorm’ thing going to work? Surely it’s not even possible according to school rules. Also, even if I wanted to transfer, Grim is my partner so he gets a say and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to be here. Second of all, we don’t need a contract for us to cooperate researching my magic together. Third of all, I’ve created huge debts outside Octavinelle already, so that point is unfulfillable from the outset—”
“Huh? Like who? Don’t tell me it’s those parasites again,” Floyd cut in.
“Ace, Jack and Deuce are not parasites,” Yuu looked skywards. “Also, I owe Riddle-senpai, the Headmaster, the Heartslabyul upperclassmen that teach me stuff about the school, Leona-senpai and Ruggie-senpai, Kalim-senpai, Tsuno-tarou, Sebek, Professor Crewel…It’s totally impossible to count by now.”
“Wait, I don’t recognize some of those names,” Floyd squinted.
“I am also missing one,” Jade frowned, “and I am quite sure I know almost everyone on campus.”
“Lastly,” she said loudly before the conversation could derail, “My magic is mine. I don’t think I even have perfect control over it now, which means I definitely can’t promise I won’t use it by accident—or for someone else who gets in trouble, the way I did for Riddle-senpai and Leona-senpai when they almost died. Sorry, senpai, the contract’s a no-go.”
In the event Azul had leverage over her, Yuu could not find that it balanced on the scale as evenly as these four contract terms. She had learned from this past incident exactly how he squeezed every last drop of advantage from the least cost. In the strictest definition of the word, Azul was not a cheater or a scammer—despite the insults he was tossed—but he toed the line as close as he could go. One ‘yes’ and he would drag the word across kilometres of distance she did not mean to travel.
The only important secret she held from him was her gender, anyway. If Yuu transferred into Octavinelle it would be found out sooner or later, especially since she wasn’t very good with (or used to) disguises. And even if he revealed her secret to the rest of the school, it was doubtful that everyone would believe him, and Yuu could find Leona for help, as he always provided excellent advice. Ruggie and Jack seemed respectful enough of women to lend a hand too.
Now that Yuu was no longer all by herself without any way to fight back, she experienced a curious fearlessness that allowed her to turn him down confidently.
Clearly, Azul did not follow her line of thinking. “You could be in big trouble if I revealed this secret!” he snapped, beginning to lose his cool again. “Are you sure you want to take this risk?”
“Since I have no clue what secret you’re talking about, I can’t say anything,” Yuu met his gaze tensely. “I can only react to the situation after you reveal it and then it’ll be too late, anyway.”
“Azul, why don’t you tell the rest of the class what you have discovered,” Jade put in calmly. “That way, Floyd and I can be of some assistance. Do not ignore the resources you have at your disposal.”
“Right, right,” Floyd smiled guilelessly. “I’m for Koebi-chan moving to Octa anyway. We’ll help you out, Azul.”
“Et tu?” she muttered.
“…Excuse me. I seem to have gotten a bit flustered,” Azul calmed and cleared his throat. “You’re correct, of course. —Yuu-san, you are aware that consuming magical potions as a non-magical being on or off campus is strictly forbidden without prior permission, are you not?”
“I suppose…? I’ve heard it mentioned,” Yuu squinted at him. “But you know, we got permission from Headmaster Crowley for the underwater breathing potions. And you transform back and forth between your Merman forms and human forms with a potion legally too.”
“Ah, I think I got it,” Floyd muttered.
“As a non-resident alien in this world, it is not only dangerous for you to consume lasting medical potions—it is also illegal,” Azul continued. “If word gets out that you have imbibed multiple potions secretly, don’t you think that it will be bad for your future?”
“Potions?” Yuu repeated dumbly. “That’s my secret? Senpai, you fed me a potion today for my throat. And I got one last night apparently, though I don’t remember anything.”
“It was closer to this morning,” Jade put in helpfully.
“Those were approved by instructors and the Headmaster! And there would be no reason to get you in trouble for a potion provided by me,” Azul argued. He frowned at her. “…Wait. Yuu-san, do you perhaps not understand what I’m saying?”
“Sure I do. You want me to get arrested for drinking magic potions,” Yuu nodded. “But then you just said they were approved by the Headmaster. So I don’t see the problem here.”
“That can’t be right,” Azul muttered. “I diagnosed the clear remnants of a masking potion on you this morning before you imbibed the cold suppressant. You mean to say even you yourself was not aware of this?”
“Masking—” Yuu’s mouth dropped open. “Diagnosed?!”
“Drinking too many magical potions at the same time is potentially fatal, so to make sure you didn’t worsen I merely took every precaution,” Azul explained impatiently, a line forming between his thin brows. “I was under the impression that you had something to hide, but if you’re not even aware of the existence of the potion…Yuu-san! This is why I’ve told you continuously not to drink potions without determining the contents ahead of time! The ones I’ve created are safe, but this is NRC, you fool! Who knows what someone might have done to you outside my knowledge!?”
“Wait! Wait a second, this is a misunderstanding!” Yuu put both hands up to try and calm him down as Jade bent over trembling.
“The only misunderstanding is your brain!” Azul snapped back.
“What does that even mean?!”
“It’s not easy to determine the current effects of potions on a living creature, but the method I use is foolproof. There is no way you could have tricked me in this! Yuu-san, I’ll make a neutralizer right away so you should—”
“Senpai listen to me!” Yuu pleaded. “That potion was given to me by Professor Crewel! Well, I might not have been aware that it existed until a week ago but it was definitely legal—”
“Oh right, I think you mentioned something like that earlier,” Floyd commented from where he was watching them like a TV show.
“Professor Crewel drugged you!?” Azul spluttered.
“No! Don’t worry! He did it for my own good!” Yuu hurried to appease him. “What I mean is, senpai, I probably won’t get arrested even if you report me.”
“Like hell I’d let you get arrested anyway,” Azul muttered, “then I couldn’t keep you within reach.”
“So…” Jade’s voice was still shaking. “What was your purpose in this entire endeavour, Azul?”
“None of you are surprised,” Azul surmised with dawning understanding, glaring at him. “You’re not surprised! You knew this whole time—even you, Jade, and you didn’t tell me!?”
“It seemed more interesting that way,” Jade recovered. “And just so you don’t worry unnecessarily, rest assured that Yuu-san’s ‘secret’ he’s hiding under that potion will not cause you lasting damage…most likely.”
Azul looked between the three of them before turning to Yuu with a curious lack of emotion. “Care to explain to me why both Jade and Floyd seem to be aware of this before I was?”
“You…um…never asked?” she attempted weakly.
“You’re supposed to prioritize me first!” he snapped. “You chose me over the both of them!”
“I did!?” Yuu was flabbergasted. “When? Also they figured it out by themselves like three days ago!”
“Why the hell did Professor Crewel drug you!?”
“He didn’t drug me he just—”
“Enough of your goody two-shoes excuses. Tell me right now!”
Yuu didn’t know whether she should laugh or cry. “Are you an unreasonable toddler!? I wouldn’t tell someone who was going to use my secrets against me!”
Azul was past reason. “Tell me, dammit!”
Floyd and Jade were watching the two of them argue back and forth with vague entertainment, but now the former yawned and lost interest. “Man, I thought Azul figured her out all by himself.”
“That would be extremely difficult,” Jade placated quietly. “Even we could not penetrate the potion despite it being my best subject…at least until it washed away. Professor Crewel is indeed a fearsome instructor.”
“Then make a contract with me that you won’t use my secret against me!” Yuu challenged Azul.
“Like hell I’d do that when you’re so useful!”
“A~ah,” Floyd sighed. “And here I was lookin’ forward to Azul’s reaction after he figured out Koebi-chan was a girl.”
“—refuse,” Yuu was saying mulishly.
“It would be wisest to give up and—” Azul stuttered to a halt. “—Floyd. What…did you just say?”
A beat later, Yuu registered the meaning of her ‘symbiote’s’ sentence. She whirled on him in abject incredulity. “Floyd-senpai?”
“…Oops,” Floyd realized last. He covered his mouth with both large hands and blinked in childish honesty, “I forgot. You guys hide too many things.”
Yuu reached for a pillow and covered her face in exhaustion. Azul was shouting something like “The masking potion’s dissipating?!” while Jade fell off the bed, appearing to almost hyperventilate in his laughter.
It seemed that the chaos unfolding in the Dorm Head’s bedroom was merely a mark of Floyd Leech’s free spirit that never ceased to turn a situation upside down. Right now, though, she was seriously reconsidering their symbiotic relationship, as well as remaining conscious. Yuu was beginning to think there was not a single day that passed within Night Raven College without an incident overhauling reality as she knew it.