It was close to midnight by the time Yuu arrived at the newly upgraded fence to Ramshackle Dorm, a dozing Grim buried in her heavy schoolbag slung over her back. Only the pale, round moon and the few glowing lamps around her shed some semblance of vision upon the stone path to direct her steps. Full, warm and exhausted, there was nothing more she wanted than to take a long hot shower and collapse into bed. Since there was no school in the morning to allow for student packing, the prospect of sleeping in a few extra hours raised too great of a temptation to ignore.
As Yuu reached forwards with Trey’s gifted gloves to push open the ice-cold gate, she heard the distant echoes of someone familiar shouting beyond the perimeter of her dormitory. There was barely enough time for her to guess that the powerful shout belonged to Sebek Zigvolt before the first-year in question stomped over a crest to come into view against the backdrop of night, school uniform blazer flapping in the wind.
She hurried to fasten the top of her bag securely over Grim’s head in an effort to prevent him from waking before Sebek’s ridiculously long legs carried him right up to her. “HUMAN!” he yelled, dashing sweat from his strong brow and breathing lightly. “Have you seen the Young Master!”
“Good evening to you too, Sebek,” Yuu grinned dryly up at him, mouth half hidden by Cater’s gifted scarf. “…I feel like we’ve had this conversation twenty times by now.”
“Mu. Is that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’?”
“It’s a ‘I still don’t know what your Young Master looks like’,” she answered. “Aren’t you sleepy, Sebek? It’s really late for you to be running around so energetically.”
“Hmph. Don’t put me on the same level as you,” Sebek sniffed down his nose at her, arrogance lighting his tawny eyes. “As the Young Master’s guard, I would be useless if I allowed a bit of somnolence to overcome my training!”
“So you are sleepy,” Yuu surmised. “Do you want some coffee? With milk and sugar, of course.”
“—Sebek,” Silver called as he approached them from the opposite direction at a jog, dressed in his school uniform with long Magical Stick in hand. “See anything over here?”
“It seems as if only the human is present,” Sebek answered readily.
“Perhaps he’s in the direction of the west school building,” Silver sighed, slowing to a stop by her. “Good evening, Yuu. We’ve disturbed you.”
“Hello, Silver-senpai,” Yuu ducked her head in a bow. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen the two of you together.”
“Indeed. You seem to have been busy,” Silver drew his pale brows an inch closer together in a rare display of visible emotion. “…We’ve heard the noise coming from Ramshackle this past week. I hope that you’re all right.”
Touched at the simple display of goodwill, Yuu nodded several times. “I’m totally fine. Thanks.”
If rumours about her were spreading all over the school by now, she was sure that Silver and Sebek had probably heard all the unsavoury information concerning the events of these past few days, real or not. Yet Sebek had not mentioned a word of it and treated her without an ounce of derision—well, nothing more than the usual haughtiness, anyway. And neither Tsuno-tarou nor Lilia Vanrouge had ever looked down on her for her lack of magic last night.
Diasomnia’s students were nicer to her than all of the other dorms had been at first glance, Yuu realised. In a school where she was faced with suspicion at best and hostility at worst, it had taken a long time for her to melt down the ice in the way of Heartslabyul, Savanaclaw and Octavinelle. Having acquaintances behave like Silver and Sebek felt refreshingly different.
“Aaah…Young Master…” Sebek clutched at his gelled-back pastel green hair woefully, breaking her out of her thoughts. “Just why did you come so far outside without at least bringing a guard with you…!”
“If you actually give me some of his characteristics, I can help look,” Yuu rubbed her eyes to wake herself up and offered hesitantly. She’d asked Sebek this several times before, but all of her efforts had been fruitless.
“I’ve said,” he boomed, just as she expected, “Waka-sama is amazing! His incredible height and strength are a hallmark of the power he carries within him. You’d understand who it was at first glance, I guarantee it! His appearance is indescribably regal…from the moment I saw him I was sure that this person was the one I would serve for…!”
“Here we go again…” Yuu sighed. “Um, never mind. Silver-senpai, do you have any…Silver-senpai! Don’t sleep out here, you’ll get sick!”
“—!” Silver jerked upright from where he was nodding off. “Apologies. How long was I out?”
“Just a few seconds.” Yuu rummaged in her pockets for the mints she kept for Floyd and handed them over. “Here. By the looks of it, you two probably don’t have time for coffee tonight, right? At least chew on these.”
Instead of taking them, Silver reached out and patted her head. The fractional widening of his mouth was almost invisible under the light of the moon. “Thank you, Yuu.”
“I didn’t do anything, but you’re welcome,” Yuu felt her head bemusedly as she passed the tin over.
Sebek had ceased his muttering. “—This is all your fault for not keeping a better eye on him, Silver!”
“It’s not like he’s a child,” Silver sighed after he’d placed a mint in his mouth. “I, on the other hand, believe that you worry far too much about someone who can take care of themselves perfectly well.”
“It’d be too late to worry after something happens!” Sebek snapped. “We can’t let our guards down for a single second!”
“Is your Young Master in danger or sick or something?” Yuu furrowed her brow. “If you want, I can contact the Headmaster if it’s an emergency…”
“It’s all right,” Silver shook his head. “This happens all the time. And it wouldn’t be safe for Yuu to wander around at night without magic to protect you. Even I’ve heard the most recent rumours. Be on guard against unfriendly students.”
“—That’s right,” Sebek started before turning on her. “HUMAN! What on earth have you gotten mixed up in this time? With that absent-minded manner, haven’t you thought for a moment about putting an end to those foul words flying about concerning your person? Words lead to action. And seeing that puny, weak body, it would be far too simple to snap you in half!”
“Snap me in half!?” Yuu ducked halfway behind Silver. “Hearing that from someone as muscly as you is kinda scary, Sebek.”
“I’m giving ADVICE!”
In her bag, Grim stirred and grumbled.
“Sebek and I are aware that the most recent rumours of you causing…ominous events are nothing more than falsities,” Silver assured her with a firm shake of his head. “We’ve seen what you’re like—you don’t match the image others have of you in the very least. My classmate, who is called Kalim, has been quite vocal about Yuu being a ‘good person’ as well.”
“Kalim-senpai,” Yuu repeated, furrowing her brow. “I haven’t seen him in a month. I hope he’s doing well.”
“He is.” Silver seemed to remember something and added wryly, “Maybe a little too well.”
“Those fools that can’t even detect the falsities in their dirty rumours,” Sebek sniffed. “Just as how the Young Master is nothing like the man they make him out to be, they should be able to tell that this tiny human has no ability to damage anything! But it doesn’t change the fact that you need to train harder and become more aware of your surroundings. Understand? Yuu!”
“You guys are so good to me,” Yuu blinked. “I haven’t even done anything for you and we’ve only met a few times. Shouldn’t you be doubting me more?”
“Hmph. Don’t misunderstand,” Sebek smirked down at her. “We have not been serving the Young Master for no reason. There’s no being ‘good’ or ‘bad’…to us, there’s merely the truth! The truth that we can see clearly. And only the most clearsighted ones could be chosen for the honourable role of his guard. —Although Silver obviously lacks the bearing and demeanour of one!”
“Sebek has told me that he also senses something rather unusual coming from you,” Silver told her, completely ignoring him. “It is rather unusual for him to take a positive interest in anyone outside of our immediate acquaintances, so I’m sure he likes you enough to ignore the rumours.”
“Something unusual?” Yuu repeated with a frown.
“Silver, you—!” Sebek cut himself off. “…In any case, we have no time to be wasting blathering about inconsequential topics. We must find the Young Master! Have you forgotten the debt of gratitude you owe to him and Lilia-sama for raising you despite you being a human?!”
“This has nothing to do with that,” Silver sighed. “Sebek, are you yelling because you’re tired? Have a mint.”
“I’m not tired,” Sebek insisted, although he accepted the container without further complaint.
“‘Lilia-sama’,” Yuu echoed. “You guys know Vanrouge-senpai too? Wait, raised you!”
“Sebek,” Silver admonished.
“…Ahem,” the first-year lowered his voice. “…You heard nothing, human.”
“Vanrouge-senpai is really mysterious, huh?” Yuu asked weakly. “I knew there was something ‘different’ about him…okay, sorry, Sebek, don’t glare at me like that. I’ll shut up.”
“Just because you have an otherworldly glow to you does not mean you can perceive the might of Lilia-sama,” Sebek sneered. “That being is truly someone to respect.”
“What otherworldly glow?” Yuu tensed reflexively. Surely he had not…
“He keeps saying that,” Silver crossed his arms, lowering his bright lashes halfway to squint down at her. “…I don’t sense anything.”
“That’s because you’re a human!”
“Aren’t you a human too, Sebek?” Yuu glanced at his rounded ears. “Vanrouge-senpai is a Fairy and he’s got pointy ears, right? So does Tsuno-tarou. Is that the identifying Fairy feature? I really know nothing about anything other than humans around here.”
“Tsuno…?” Silver muttered.
“Of course you don’t,” Sebek snorted. “Do these eyes look human to you?”
Yuu peered up into the slit pupils of his tawny eyes dilated by the dark. “Um…are you half-cat or something?”
“Cat!?” Sebek spluttered.
“I get it,” Silver nodded emphatically, though his expression didn’t change. “I myself had quite a traumatic experience learning about the differences between Fairies and humans.”
“I was just kidding, Sebek,” Yuu hurried to assure the sputtering first-year. “I heard that interspecies relationships stopped being uncommon like twenty years ago. Half-Fairy, right?”
“You have terrible taste in jokes!” Sebek ground his knuckles into the top of her head.
“Oww! Easy on the skull!” Yuu pushed at it fruitlessly. Did Fairies have ridiculous strength like Mermen, too?
After bidding farewell to the two Diasomnia students and watching them recede, (one-sidedly) bickering, into the darkness, Yuu marvelled once again at Grim’s ability to snore through even Sebek’s voice while she shed her shoes and coat at the door. Making her way upstairs from the foyer, she waved goodnight to the Ghosts packing eagerly in their rooms before preparing for bed.
Feet sore and limbs aching from the day’s excursions, Yuu twitched her wand to dry her dripping hair and shut off the lights before slogging towards the pillow, where Grim was stretched out. He was sleep-talking to himself about big fish and not being able to eat anymore. Unable to suppress a smile, she leaned down to scratch the top of his head.
It was only when Yuu sat heavily at her bedside and turned her head towards the door that she caught sight of the mirror above her mantelpiece, which was covered with books and writing utensils and the non-functional Ghost Camera lying carelessly on top as a paperweight. Usually, silvery moonlight filtering through the gaps between her curtains would send a few beams of stray illumination to reflect against the flat mirror plane, so its soft white glow was nothing out of the ordinary. Yet even as she blinked and prepared to turn away, the luminescence brightened further until she had to shade her eyes against the light.
“What the—?” Yuu whispered, pushing herself upright on bare feet in caution. As she approached the fireplace, the wand in her sleeve began to heat up against her skin.
Now that she was closer, the brightly lit mirror’s reflected contents became visible—a chill ran down her spine as she realized it was empty of her dim reflection. A billow of greyish smoke filled her vision. Yuu swallowed hard and remembered the day she had fallen into this world, remembered fingers reaching through—
Don’t let go.
—And yanked her wand out reflexively when a dark silhouette of a hand came into view.
CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE | The Winter Holiday.
A voice filtered into her hearing as Yuu stared blankly at the hand. It was small, with four fingers instead of five, and curled into a fist before knocking hesitantly on the mirror once, twice.
The high voice was speaking in English.
Her brain had gotten completely used to conversing and listening in Japanese these past several months, so Yuu’s reaction time was slower than she liked. Training her vibrating wand shakily on the mirror, she pressed her mouth into a flat line.
When the voice received no response, there was a brief silence before a fuzzy silhouette of a vaguely head-shaped something followed the hand and arm into view. “Is…someone there?”
Yuu gasped as the shadow blurred into comprehension. She tore her gaze from the mirror to stare in shock the canister set on a shelf by her bed. The same design—a round head, topped with two large, circular ears—met her searching gaze. When she had seen this canister in her renovated room back in November, she had been sure they were merely designs resembling one of the most popular fictional creations from her world.
But the figure in the mirror was identical to the ‘character’ illustrated on the metal tin. Mouse ears. A high voice. She’d seen it—heard it before in…
—Movies. The Great Seven were studied extensively during classes, but Yuu remembered with a rush that the portly Queen of Hearts, the sly King of Beasts, the Mermaid Witch of the Sea were all from movies she knew of. Movies from a company whose mascot was—
When her eyes darted back to look at the mirror, its silhouette and glow were gone. The dark mirror reflected two wide blue eyes staring back from between messily raked-back bangs. The tip of her wand was trembling.
As if nothing had ever happened.
Yuu jumped as something rattled on the mantelpiece. When she yanked her gaze down, the trembling Ghost Camera came into view before it glittered all over with the deep purple sheen of a magic stone and began to spit out squares of paper, one after another bursting into existence rapid-fire. They floated around the dark room like bits of confetti until one landed in her outstretched hand and revealed Grim’s beaming face blinking in her direction.
Yuu had been close to dismissing the events of the previous night as a dream. She’d had plenty of crazy dreams since coming to this world, and frankly, she had no desire to chase this troubling development further. However, waking up the next morning with piles and piles of Polaroid squares on her carpet ripped that hope from her mercilessly.
“What the heck are these?” Grim asked over a slightly later breakfast as Yuu glared at the huge stack of photographs she’d gathered on top of her kitchen table.
“The Ghost Camera started working,” she groaned, putting her head into her hands and massaging her temples. “It just…I don’t know…exploded photos all of a sudden. And something showed up in the mirror last night too. Just when I thought I could have some peace and quiet…You know I hate not understanding things. Argh!”
“Ain’t it a good thing it’s finally working?” Grim squinted at her. “You and the Ghosts kept fiddling with it back in September and wishing you know how to use it. Now it works and you look all mopey again.”
“I’d just thought it was broken,” she mumbled. “Not that it was…I don’t know…jammed or something. And I don’t know if it’s supposed to work like this. Look, this picture I took of your sleeping face this morning is even snoring! It’s moving! Only the school portraits here move!”
“Hey, you’re right,” Grim peered over at the square of him breathing slowly half buried under her comforter. “How’s that work?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Yuu grumbled, shoving eggs in her mouth.
Since neither Riddle nor Leona had managed to obtain permission from the Headmaster for her to visit their countries—not that she’d expected it to work—Yuu had been ready to spend Winter Holiday without further incident in Ramshackle Dorm. Yet it seemed that incidents refused to leave her alone. Mysterious figures in the mirror would have been easy to ignore a year ago…But because a mirror was the catalyst for her appearance in this world, she might have developed a sore spot about them.
“Maybe that’s why I’m so scared of Mirror travel,” Yuu muttered to herself.
“You are?” Crowley asked from the chair beside her. “How inconvenient! Oh, do pass me the toast, please.”
“Funa!?” Grim tipped off his chair. “He-Headmaster!? Why do you always show up outta nowhere!”
“Headmaster!” Yuu jumped in her seat, nearly falling over. “You scared me!”
Notwithstanding the brief appearance he’d made in Octavinelle a few days ago—during which Yuu was too delirious to register his presence—it had been almost a full week since she had seen Crowley last. Even a week ago, they had been so preoccupied with solving Azul’s contract problem that there had been no time to talk slowly. The storm of exams and events sweeping across campus meant that even uninvited, the long-unseen Headmaster was quite welcome in her dorm, so Yuu hurried to fetch a cup of coffee and a plate with a smile.
“Um, I don’t know if I should ask,” she hedged several minutes later after they’d more or less cleared their plates. Crowley was always impeccably elegant in table manners in spite of his metal-tipped gloves, but this time, they clashed horribly with the rest of his outfit.
“Yes, Yuu-kun?” the golden orbs of light winked in and out of existence behind his mask as Crowley cocked his head to the side at her, birdlike.
“Just wondering,” Yuu tried weakly. “Your clothes…”
Grim beat her to the rest of her sentence. “What the heck’s with that super lame shirt you’re wearing!?”
“How rude!” The Headmaster spread his arms wide in affront. In lieu of the fancy mantle, top-hat and suit he usually wore with flair, the movement only stretched the fabric of a goldenrod apple-fern-raven patterned Hawaiian T-shirt across his wide shoulders. Against his pale skin, it looked all the brighter.
Yuu was busy squinting at his pointy ears now that they were not hidden by his top hat—though the smaller white trilby he wore was far from stylish. “Headmaster, are you a Fairy?”
“Who cares about that?” Grim scoffed. “I’m more interested in where he got the lame shirt. It’s hurting my eyes. What the heck is this costume for anyway?”
“Why, I never! The two of you have been getting ruder and ruder this semester,” sniffed Crowley theatrically, completely bypassing her question. “I still remember the times back in September when Yuu-kun chased after my every step like a little duckling…”
“That never happened!” Yuu spluttered.
“It was running after you for tuna cans you owed me,” Grim corrected, licking his paws. “So Headmaster, what’cha doin’ here? Just stealing Yuu’s cooking?”
“What? Of course not, how could I do something so vile,” he gasped.
“Want seconds?” Yuu asked.
“If you would be so kind.”
“Yuu,” Grim rolled his eyes at her.
“—Ahem!” Crowley straightened as she piled up a new plate of eggs and toast for him. “I have taken all the trouble to come here this morning to speak to you about the Winter Holiday. Actually, were you not told to visit me before lunch hour today?”
“Yeah, Professor Trein said,” Yuu blinked bemusedly. “I was going to head to the castle after breakfast.”
“Well, I came to you instead,” Crowley lifted his fork. “How unbelievably kind of me, worried about my students’ recovering health! Sometimes I impress myself.”
“When’s he leaving?” Grim hissed over the table.
“I can hear you, Mister Grim,” Crowley coughed. “…First of all, Yuu-kun. I trust that your illness is gone?”
“Whatever potion I was fed on Sunday? Saturday? Really worked out,” Yuu nodded readily. “I feel totally fine now.”
“This is exactly why I did not want you to get involved with Mister Ashengrotto,” the Headmaster bemoaned. “It seems that even assigning Mister Howl as your partner did not do anything to remove you from the line of danger. All’s well that ended well, but you were in great mortal peril for several hours, do you not know? Professor Crewel was highly displeased.”
Yuu remembered Crewel glaring ferociously at her during class yesterday as he gritted out complicated equations. She winced. “Um…Sorry. I’d never gotten sick before. I didn’t know how I was supposed to react.”
“Of course you didn’t,” sighed Crowley. “Well, I’ve come to talk to you about that, among other things. Now once we finish eating breakfast, let’s go on a walk to my office. I happen to have something for you.”
“You did come here just to eat Yuu’s food!” Grim spluttered. “Get outta here! Me and Yuu are gonna spend a comfy Winter Holiday eating lots of turkey and stuff. Without all you guys gettin’ in the way! The Ghosts said that Winter Holiday was spent feasting with family, right? If you steal more food from us we’re gonna starve!”
“Hey, I’ve got a reasonable amount saved up in the bank, according to my statements,” Yuu interjected mildly. “I can feed your bottomless pit for a few weeks.”
“About that,” Crowley paused. “I have a proposal for the two of you.”
“Proposal?” Yuu and Grim echoed him curiously.
Strolling from her dormitory to NRC’s school castle hand-in-hand with the Headmaster was strangely reminiscent of her first night spent in this world. Back then, she’d also been hanging on to Crowley’s metal-tipped glove as they approached Ramshackle for the first time. That night felt like an aeon ago, and now several differences completely changed a similar experience—take Crowley’s ludicrous touristy button-up shirt, Yuu’s huge coat given by Jack, the bright cold sun burning against a clear blue sky, and…
“Funaaaa!” Grim leapt forth from her shoulder and sunk halfway into a snowdrift with glee. “It snowed last night! There’s snow everywhere!”
“I think it’s my first time seeing this much snow in this world,” Yuu blinked as the white glow of it scorched her eyes. Her comfortable leather shoes crunched against remnants of packed snow trapped between cobblestones in the road. “I can’t even see in front of me.”
“Careful not to slip,” Crowley hummed in high spirits, completely unbothered by the cold. “You’re really quite useless without me, aren’t you, Yuu-san?”
“I’m not half bird or whatever like you,” she muttered under her breath, shielding her eyes against the mountain of snow burying NRC’s campus into a heavy cloud of reflective pearly white. Here and there, the dark dots of fabric marked a few students walking out in the cold, but they were all too far away for her to see clearly.
Had winters at Hogwarts been this white? Yuu could not remember. There was some impression of huddling in line at Honeydukes, seeking after melted chocolate clusters against the cold…A googly-eyed house-elf asking her if she wouldn’t go back home during Christmas…speaking at length with portraits who were drunk on Firewhiskey and eager to dispel some of the stress they could not stop carrying. But Yuu had always been focused inwards—busy reading and studying and exploring. She had never noticed what the weather was like the way she did now.
Twisted Wonderland’s first snowfall of the season hushed her surroundings, drowned out the presence of the thousand students moving about, and summoned an ethereal solemnity to their misty exhales. Even as Grim hissed excitedly at the cold and jumped from snowdrift to snowdrift by the roadside, Yuu almost fell under the illusion that she, her partner, and Crowley were the only three people left in the world.
“How has school been for you this semester, Yuu-kun?” Crowley turned back to look at her after a moment of crunching snow under their footsteps. The golden orbs of light behind the eyeholes of his mask narrowed into crescent moons. “I trust you’ve experienced enough events to warrant a break. No?”
“Yes sir,” she nodded sheepishly. “Um…Sorry about the trouble on Saturday. Are you…are you mad at me?”
“Ah yes, the Octavinelle incident,” Crowley heaved a great cloudy sigh. “…You know, I am quite a nice person. At this point, would it do anything to be angry at things that have passed?”
“I guess not,” Yuu said, relieved that he did not seem to be overly concerned. Times like these made her grateful for his rather dismissive personality. Whatever the others had said about Crowley being ‘scary’ couldn’t be true if he was always this forgiving.
On their way to the school castle, Yuu kept an eye on the frolicking Grim while she eagerly chattered about the new friends she had made in Octavinelle, her trips to the Coral Sea, and their dinner at the Mostro Lounge last night. It had been a while since their last afternoon tea and Crowley was a surprisingly good listener.
“It’s a good thing that you’ve made friends here,” he commented sombrely as they entered the open double doors. A wave of warmth engulfed the air; Yuu shed the tuque Riddle had given her and tucked it in a coat pocket.
“Everyone here is amazing,” Yuu bragged, wondering why Crowley’s tone was so serious. “Especially Ashengrotto-senpai! I seriously can’t believe he’s only seventeen most of the time.”
“Yes, yes, you’ve been singing his praises for twenty minutes,” Crowley sighed. “Why not pity me for being the one to deal with him for almost two years?”
“You could just say no to him,” she rolled her eyes.
“But denying the requests of my poor students wouldn’t be very nice of me at all, would it!” Crowley burst out dramatically. His voice echoed down the empty school hallway.
“Funaaa!” Grim burst into the school just then, shaking slush from his paws and getting it all over the entranceway. “It’s so cold! I feel like my paws are gonna fall off!”
“What about my request?” Yuu hinted, crouching down so Grim could leap into her arms. “You know, helping me to find a way home. I’ve fallen behind on research this month, but it’s not like I’m educated enough to understand magical theories of space and time yet. Professor Trein and Professor Crewel both told me to wait until I had the basics down when I asked them, and studying by myself hasn’t gone…well…anywhere.”
“…” Grim peered up into her face with big blue eyes. Unable to read the emotion behind them, Yuu blinked back and petted his grey head.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t been persistently looking. After all, Yuu had been similarly ignorant on magic over four years ago and she’d managed to digest most of the subject matter eventually. Only ever since they’d entered November and the exam period…They’d been busy.
The word felt like an excuse.
Crowley went unnaturally still beside her for one second; reflexively, Yuu screeched to a halt and squinted up at his emotionless face questioningly, surfacing from her thoughts.
“Ah!” Crowley gasped, regaining life. “…Aaaah! Finding a method to return you to your world, yes. Ha ha ha! Why would you ask? Of course I’m searching diligently.”
“At least try to sound less suspicious,” Yuu rolled her eyes.
“But, Yuu-kun,” Crowley smiled down at her. “Even if I did find a way for you to go back to your world, wouldn’t it be a waste to return you right away?”
“A waste?” Yuu echoed.
“Indeed! You were just regaling me with tales of your new… ‘friends’…” Crowley spread his free hand wide, tugging her up a stairwell. “If you leave them so quickly and abandon those wonderful bonds of friendship, wouldn’t you regret it?”
“No?” Yuu responded promptly, glancing down. Strangely, Grim was very quiet in her arms.
“Oya.” Crowley’s golden eyes blinked twice while they ascended the stairs. “Not a single ounce of hesitation.”
“I shouldn’t be here,” Yuu shrugged matter-of-factly. “I’ve already been here too long. Not that I don’t really like everyone, you included, Headmaster. But I really need to get out of this place before something bad happens to the school. …Like…like it already has.”
No matter how much she had gained here, Yuu already knew in her gut that things weren’t completely right. Her volatile magic, the Ghost Camera, the mirror in her room, Mickey Mouse…
Azul’s wild laughter, Leona’s despairing roar, Riddle’s desperate struggle—
“And what if I told you that there was nothing to worry about?”
“I don’t believe you,” Yuu beamed at him. “Just because I really like you doesn’t mean I completely trust you, Headmaster. Which is why I’m also searching for information on the side.”
“How tragic,” Crowley gasped theatrically. “I wonder how your ‘friends’ would react if they could hear your words.”
“Forgive me if I favour the stability of the universe and their lives over temporary anger,” Yuu said dryly. “Plus, we’ve only really known each other for three and a half months, it’s not like—”
You can forget about going back to your world for the near future.
I don’t make sunk investments.
Can’t possibly be more important than Yuu visiting us for the Winter Holiday.
“—Not like,” she forged onwards, “they aren’t smart enough to figure out why I’d leave. They’ll understand. Ow!”
“Hmph,” Grim released his jaw from around her bare wrist.
“Grim!?” Yuu nearly dropped him and stumbled on the top step of the stairs. A deep set of incisions were starting to redden on her skin, several of them threatening to bleed. “What the heck!”
“You’re being stupid,” Grim told her in a surprisingly calm voice.
“Oh well,” her partner sighed, climbing up around the back of her head. “I’m a pretty good leader, y’know. Even if my henchman takes a lot of work to handle, I can do it.”
“How marvellous of you, Mister Grim,” Crowley turned to the Monster perched around her shoulders with a wide smile that narrowed his eyes. “It seems that you have also been maturing quite a bit within our Night Raven College!”
“Hello? Someone tell me why Grim just freaking bit me out of nowhere?” Yuu waved her injured wrist in the air. “Episkey!”
“Hey!” Grim protested as white light stole over her arm. “You’re supposed to leave it!”
“Why would I do that?” Yuu rolled her eyes skywards. If she’d made short work of the marks around her neck and wrists from Azul’s rampaging last weekend, then Grim’s bite was almost a piece of cake. Months ago her healing magic was terrible—but practice made perfect.
Sparks of whitish light danced around her healing wrist as if reluctant to leave.
“It seems that we’ll have to work a little harder, Mister Grim,” Crowley sighed airily while she squinted down at her hand consideringly.
“Work by yourself. I want a break,” Grim snorted back.
The Headmaster’s office was as purple as ever, though Yuu had long since gotten used to the hovering portraits of the Great Seven. A flash of last night’s encounter with her room’s mirror passed through her mind and she frowned up at the image of a smiling man sporting a long, thin, curled moustache and sly eyes before climbing onto the chair that whisked itself up behind her.
Yuu swung her legs back and forth in her chair across Crowley’s desk as he hummed and magically prepared a large plate of tea and biscuits. Grim leaped onto the table and seized the first one eagerly while the Headmaster settled on the desk’s other side, a palm-sized box in his hand.
“Now, before we talk about the proposal I mentioned earlier,” Crowley smiled across at her, “first, I believe congratulations are in order. Yuu-kun! For achieving fiftieth place overall in the first year semester exams—and perfect scores in every class besides physical education—you have my heartiest and sincerest admiration!”
Having completely forgotten about the exams, Yuu turned red in surprise. “Oh…uh…thanks, Headmaster. It really wasn’t—”
“And as promised!” Crowley slid the black rectangular box at her before she could fumble for any more words. “For the sake of the school at large…and my poor office door…I have a present for you. Think of it as an early New Year’s gift! Oh, how nice I am…”
“A present!” Yuu gasped. “For me?”
“What about me?” Grim chewed noisily.
“In a way, it’s also for you, Mister Grim,” Crowley ignored the crumbs he was spraying and leaned his chin on top of folded hands. “You’ll see. Well? Go on, open it!”
“Can’t I wait until New Year’s?” Yuu asked hopefully.
“My henchman’s the kind of person who saves their favourite food until the very end,” Grim confided. “Though he doesn’t really have any favourite foods. But he always saves his favourite subject for last too…”
“You might be needing it soon,” Crowley insisted. “Go on.”
“Okay,” Yuu sighed. She carefully undid the sparkling black ribbon on the box and laid it aside. The oblong structure was a little larger than one of her hands and had a good weight to it. Unlatching the folded-in tab on the side revealed a thin piece of paper with a strange marking she didn’t recognize.
“What’s that logo?” Grim peered over questioningly.
“Olympus Corp.,” Crowley answered carelessly. “Along with Mira, they’re technology companies in the Twisted Wonderland.”
“Technology? Don’t tell me—” she flipped over the piece of paper to reveal a long black screen. “—A smartphone!?”
“It’s a good thing that one of the most promising electronics engineers—or whatever it’s called these days—currently resides in our school,” Crowley began. “I was able to get one of their samples—er, ahem, your present from them without even asking for it! I know that you children are all up to date with technology, and honestly not having a means of instant communication was becoming life-threateningly dangerous both to you and me. You know that man, Professor Crewel! He says he respects me greatly but whenever it comes to you it seems that he’s ready to commit homicide! Anyway, my phone number has already been programmed into the device, and I would suggest that you find a few professors to contact in the case of an emergen—”
“—Were you speaking about me, Headmaster?” Crewel swung the door to the office open abruptly, making all three of them jump.
“Professor Crewel!” Crowley exclaimed as Yuu jumped in her seat. “Were you not facilitating the student queuing by the Mirror Chamber?”
“Both me and Vargas are overkill,” Crewel answered without missing a beat. When he swept into the room, the voluminous fur coat around his shoulders puffed up and supported an impressively intimidating appearance as he approached her chair. “He’s enough to stop anything short of a stampede. I received a report that the Directing Student was in your office…Headmaster. Surely you’re not trying to do what I think you are…?”
“Trying to do what?” Grim tilted his head to the side while Yuu unfolded the thick phone manual curiously.
“You don’t need to know,” Crewel breathed out through his nose dismissively before plucking the smartphone out from her box. “About time you got one of these, little puppy. …And it seems to be magic stone-powered.”
Curiously, she watched him turn the phone on and swipe across the screen with a scarlet glove. Grim followed her gaze, but Crowley had leaned over conspiratorially to tell them, “Did you know Professor Crewel shouted at Mister Trappola, Mister Spade and Mister Grim for a full three hours on Saturday? He’s got a terrible temper.”
“Says the man who put all three of those Octavinelle Mermen on full alert,” Crewel didn’t even look up from the screen. “The little puppy is so convinced you’re a benign old man. Wouldn’t want to strip off that mask, would we?”
Yuu remembered Crewel’s conversation with her last week. Even now the skin around his carefully done eyes were pulled tight with displeasure. “…Professor, I didn’t get a chance to apologize to you.”
Crewel eyed her from his peripheral vision. “So now you remember you have an owner?”
“Not his owner,” Grim muttered. Crewel glared him into submission.
“Ha ha,” Yuu emitted nervously. “I might…sort of get what we were talking about last week now. But anyway…I’m sorry we caused so much trouble. Um, we didn’t get a chance to talk yesterday during class…”
“Get what you were talking about last week?” Repeated Crowley curiously.
“The one you should be watching out for the most is our illustrious Headmaster,” Crewel commented idly, the backlight of Yuu’s new phone creating squares of bright white in his pupils. “If I hadn’t come here quick enough to stop him, he probably would have carted you off to whatever southern countries he was off to vacation in this time.”
“Southern countries!” Yuu sat up straighter.
“Vacation!?” Grim’s tail and ears perked up.
“Professor Crewel!” Crowley whined. “It’s not a vacation, merely a suggestion of a trip! It’s…in order for me to develop my research on the strange circumstances of Yuu-kun’s appearance on campus, I must travel far and wide to lands mysterious and unknown, I’ll have you know. Since I am extremely serious, of course I’ll follow the rule of obeying the customs of the land—which means wearing their garb! It’s practically required to dress lightly and relax…”
“…Drinking coconut cocktails stretched out on a hammock in those absolutely hideous khaki shorts?” Crewel dropped her phone in her lap. “The last semblance of my respect for you as our Headmaster prevents me from tearing it apart, but your fashion leaves something to be desired.”
“This is what he calls respect,” Crowley muttered. “…Although it’s a rather nice segue into my proposal for the both of you. Mister Grim, Yuu-kun. How would you feel about accompanying me on a little trip during Winter Holiday?”
Though Crewel leaned intimidatingly on the desk beside her with his arms crossed, he listened quietly enough as Crowley waxed poetic about the warm countries to the south of the Isle of Sages, where they were currently located. Not only were there supposed clues to space-travel theory located on these warm islands, but given Yuu’s alleged penchant for diving into the most troublesome of situations this semester, Crowley seemed apparently reluctant to leave her here alone during the break.
“Not a trouble magnet,” Yuu protested under her breath. Why he didn’t lecture Ace, Deuce or Grim about these things was beyond her.
“You are quite the popular little student,” Crowley commented airily while Grim’s eyes shone with visions of warm beaches and blue oceans. “Invitations have been flying in left and right addressed to you! As the Headmaster in charge of your welfare, making the right decision has been tough…I did, for a moment, consider leaving you in the care of Mister Rosehearts or Mister Clover. After all, your two closest friends belong to that dorm, do they not?”
“Better not,” snorted Crewel. “Howl wouldn’t stand for it. Nor his pack of upperclassmen.”
“That’s right,” Crowley sighed mournfully. “Sometimes I think that creating so many separate dormitories has only bred factions and more factions. It’s more convoluted here than the palace politics in the Scalding Sands! My poor office door…”
“Is that why you didn’t let me visit Trey-senpai’s house or anyone from Savanaclaw over break?” Yuu asked curiously, wondering what had happened in the past couple of days that she wasn’t privy to. “’Cause they would fight? Everyone between dorms seems so ready to fight against each other all the time.”
Crowley sighed at her. “You are fortunate that ignorance is not a punishable crime, my dear.”
“Although it may be a slightly less foolish choice to leave you with the Headmaster than with a bunch of ill-bred mutts,” Crewel massaged his temple, “The past semester has eroded quite a bit of my patience with him. Little puppy. How do you feel about vintage cars?”
“Professor Crewel!” Crowley protested again. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of a single student and her familiar, no matter how defenceless they are!”
“Not a familiar!” Grim protested.
“Vintage cars?” Yuu muttered, giving up on the ‘defenceless’ part. “But I can’t drive.”
“You didn’t even realize…his…true form until a month into the school year,” Crewel sniffed derisively, casting Grim a careful glance. “I believe I’m much better acquainted with my own students than you are, no matter how many times you’ve had those little tea parties after class.”
“Perhaps that may be true for the others, but Yuu-kun’s favourite instructor is absolutely me,” Crowley puffed his chest, looking rather unimpressively frail compared to Crewel’s voluminous fur coat. “Of course I know him well enough to deal with anything that happens!”
“I can’t allow that to pass,” Crewel arched one fine eyebrow, showing off the gradient of his glittering silver-grey eyeshadow. “Favourite instructor? You don’t even teach anything. The little puppy hasn’t shown you a single eager expression like he does in Alchemy…am I wrong?”
“NRC guys are all the same,” Grim muttered over at her as they bickered. “They just keep arguing and showin’ off. Even the teachers.”
“Says you, the biggest show-off,” Yuu muttered back. She swallowed down the instinctive reply that her favourite instructor was probably Vargas, if only because he was probably the most ‘instructor-like’ teacher in the entire school even with his obsession with musculature. Trein was a little too strict with his rules and stifled the student’s creative spirit, and Crewel enjoyed egging on his students so that explosions rocked the Alchemy building two out of every three days of class. Crowley was just a little too suspicious to be completely trustworthy no matter how at ease she felt around him. Out of the rest, Vargas was probably the most reasonable out of the staff she was acquainted with.
Not that she would ever tell anyone. Instructors included, NRC’s population all had an ego fit to burst the castle.
It didn’t appear as if Crewel was serious about taking her on a road trip in whatever vintage car he enjoyed driving. Although he had by all appearances stormed into the room to prevent Crowley from carrying out his vacation plan, Crewel was a solitary man who seemed to enjoy his solitary time. Yuu had no idea what he would be up to during Winter Holiday, only that it included a lot of travel; while she skimmed carefully through her thick smartphone manual, she learned that he was quite a bit more close-lipped about his personal life than the other instructors.
Despite everything, Yuu could observe and understand that there was a certain measure of trust he possessed for their Headmaster—if not about his character, then at least about his ability. She guessed that he’d only come in here to check on them once before the Holiday began due to his sense of responsibility for one of his ‘puppies’.
A good teacher.
“…and don’t drink too many potions at once.” Somewhere along the line, their conversation had devolved into a lecture. Crewel tapped his springy crop on the desk, summoning a small phial of clear liquid with a trail of sparkling light. “For emergencies, I’m providing a refill potion for your…appearance, but you should absolutely not consume it unless for some reason your current one wears off. I’ve explained to your class about the dangers of consuming too many potions with magical properties, right? It’s much worse for you, especially if you’re magicless…or whatever you are.”
Yuu flinched. Come to think of it, hadn’t Azul mentioned something about Crewel having potentially caught on to her magic? The bustle of the past few days had robbed her of a chance to speak to him…
“Professor?” She asked hesitantly. “Um…I can explain.”
Crewel eyed her critically. “This past scare was a good lesson,” he said softly. “Remember that the most important thing to you should be your life. Careful you do not dispense of it carelessly, lest Rosehearts, Kingscholar and Ashengrotto tear the campus apart in a fit of pique.”
“Yes, sir,” Yuu said weakly. “…About the whole magic thing.”
“Save it. If we start exploring that now I’ll lose my entire break experimenting.”
Yuu, who could identify personally with the scientist Crewel whose curiosity matched hers, realized why he hadn’t cornered her earlier. She nodded meekly.
“I’m temporarily trusting the Headmaster to keep you…more-or-less safe,” Crewel transferred his steely glare onto a quietly watching Crowley and Grim. “And you, Grim. Keep an eye on him for me. We can discuss it all in great detail after the Winter Holiday. Hear me?”
“Leave it to me,” Grim said confidently, as if he were not Crewel’s worst problem student in years.
Yuu nodded harder, this time furiously.
“There is close to no chance of harm coming to Yuu-kun in my hands,” Crowley waved a metal-tipped glove for emphasis.
“Bringing him off-campus is unwise,” Crewel snapped, planting one glove flat on the table. “Why not keep the puppy in her pen to reduce any unnecessary risk? Go on your vacation…your research trip alone.”
“I considered it,” sighed Crowley, “but I keep getting this feeling that leaving Yuu-kun to his own devices during the Winter Holiday will somehow unearth yet another huge troublesome scheme. It’s much better to stick with me! Aren’t I nice?”
“Haven’t you tried thinking about what would happen if he gets into big trouble off campus, where you lack any semblance of control? At least here you have a flowery title,” Crewel retorted immediately. “Do tell the difference between ‘nice’ and ‘irresponsible’, Headmaster.”
“Professor Crewel!” Crowley gasped theatrically. “Should the instructor with the highest repair bill in school history be preaching about ‘responsibility’?”
“I’ve still got some, unlike you, sir.”
“Why am I being treated like a ticking time-bomb?” Yuu asked Grim piteously as they bickered over their heads.
“Who cares where we go for break? ’S long as I’ve got food,” Grim sniffed. “Though…you think the Ghosts can come have a feast with us if we’re on vacation? How does the whole travelling thing work anyway?”
“You’ve got a point,” Yuu pondered. “I mean, going travelling sounds fun too, but the campus is pretty huge. What do you want, Grim? Should we stay at the school for break?”
“Not unsupervised,” Crewel broke off his argument to snap.
“The school store and cafeteria are closed during the Winter Break,” Crowley added mildly. “Well, it’s not difficult for me to provide you with food and drink, but are you sure you want to stay in this cold, empty place? Yuu-kun, you’ve only just recovered from that nasty cold. Taking charge of the Fairies that maintain the temperature spell would be asking for trouble… No, no, no! It’s a better idea to just come with—”
A sharp series of knocks on the door interrupted him.
“Again?” Grim squinted. “Why is everyone barging in here all of a sudden?”
“Why indeed. Ask that beast tamer of yours,” Crowley said mournfully. Before he could lift his voice to approve entry, however, the double doors to his office had already swung inwards easily.
“Good morning, Headmaster,” Azul Ashengrotto stepped in confidently with his usual polite business smile, school uniform pressed neatly so not a single crease was present. The smile barely faltered as he caught sight of Yuu, Grim, and Crewel craning their necks around to catch a glimpse of him. “…Did I come at an inconvenient time?”
“If you really cared, you’d wait outside patiently,” muttered Crowley.
“Although…I did want to talk to you about these two,” Azul appeared not to have heard him. “Headmaster, I presume you have brought Yuu-san to your office to determine his stay for the duration of the Winter Holiday, no?”
“Round three,” Crowley bemoaned. “Why are all the students here so troublesome?”
Octavinelle’s Dorm Head had already summoned a chair to Yuu’s side not occupied by Crewel’s elegantly leaning form, settling in with envious ease. He crossed one leg without losing the suspiciously polite smile, confidence lending a calm that was unaffected by the present instructors’ suspicious stares. “Please rest assured, Headmaster! Of course I’m not here to create more trouble. In fact, I’ve got an offer that I believe you will be very eager to hear about.”
Crewel scanned Azul critically. “…Little puppy,” he addressed Yuu. “You are to call the number I have registered to your contacts in the event of any trouble. Understand?”
“Huh?” Yuu blinked back to him, snapping out of her amused observation of Azul’s overacting. “Oh, uh, yes sir. I promise.”
“And for heaven’s sake, Ashengrotto, do refrain from destroying half of a dormitory this time,” Crewel directed at Azul. “…I’m leaving the Directing Student to you for now.”
“Professor Crewel, you’ve left him in good hands,” Azul responded immediately.
Yuu wondered if the two of them had telepathic powers—they’d obviously communicated something without words—but Crewel nodded sharply and turned to leave, so she hastened to wish him a happy holiday before the door swung shut behind the tails attached to his fur coat.
“He’s like a storm,” Yuu commented bemusedly, tucking the potion Crewel had left away into her oversized coat pocket. “He came in so quickly and left even faster.”
“That’s one scary guy gone,” Grim made a face, scooting as far to the side of the desk away from Azul as possible. Unspoken was his wariness of the second ‘scary guy’ who had made an anemone sprout from his head for close to a week.
“Anyway, Ashengrotto-senpai, what are you doing here?” Yuu put the smartphone manual down in the box and turned in her chair to smile up at him. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to make another contract with the Headmaster.”
“What do you take me for!” Azul gasped exaggeratedly. “I’ve reformed, Yuu-san. I’m no longer the old me!”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she rolled her eyes.
Yuu could not suppress her relief, though. The confidence and audacity Azul usually possessed was leagues better than panic and despair. It felt like he was truly unaffected by the tumultuous events of the past week.
Maybe Jade and Floyd were right. Azul was strong and resilient. No wonder he’d made it so far here despite all of his obstacles. To him, an Overblot was most likely just another roadblock he’d surpassed.
“Ahem,” Crowley cleared his throat from across them. “Please stop making eyes at each other. I am still in the room, you know.”
“Making eyes?” Yuu squinted confusedly.
“Headmaster,” Azul completely ignored them both. “Just like the rest of the students…and your esteemed self, we at Octavinelle are truly excited for the beginning of the Winter Holiday. However! With the departure of the Ghosts and Sam-san, who keep our school cafeteria and school store running, I am guessing that you are suffering from a lack of manpower during the Holiday. Am I wrong?”
“—Huh!?” Grim sat up straight suddenly. “No food!? Wait a sec. No tuna cans!”
“If we go where the Headmaster is going, it’s not like it’ll matter if the school store is open or not,” Yuu shrugged.
“You’re seriously okay with that?” Grim wrinkled his nose, surprisingly unconvinced. “That guy’s so nice he might just abandon you on some beach by accident.”
“How rude!” Crowley spluttered. “That’s not how you use the word ‘nice’. And I wouldn’t abandon such a defenceless little chick alone on an island!”
“I like the Headmaster,” Yuu assured Grim.
“You say that about everyone here and they nearly killed you,” Grim grumbled unhappily. He fixed her with a sudden glare. “—Just so you know, I think it’s probably a better idea for us to stay in school during the Holiday, got it?”
“You do?” Startled by his sudden change of heart but able to read the determination in his blue eyes, Yuu wilted a little. “Umm…okay, if you say so, Grim. But then the whole issue of no food is going to be a problem.”
As if waiting for his cue to speak, Azul turned his suspicious smile upon Grim. “Not only do food and drink need to be provided for the very few students staying behind…but the temperature of the campus, especially the fireplaces, must continue to be controlled. …Am I wrong, Headmaster?”
“As expected of Mister Ashengrotto,” Crowley sighed mournfully, “asking questions he knows the answer to just to bully others. Indeed, you and your dorm-mates are a special case and do not require magical heating, and the Mostro Lounge provides its own food supply…so originally I was not worried about these minutiae. Yuu-kun, it would really be less trouble to just come with—”
“That’s where I come in!” Azul cut across him brightly.
“Special case,” Yuu mumbled. “You guys are staying behind for the Holiday too?”
“I’ve heard that the Ghosts, who usually take care of the dry firewood for the fire Fairies during the Holiday, have all left in a hurry this year,” Azul narrowed his eyes after flashing her a glance that read ‘later’. “If Yuu-san were to stay behind during the break, he and Grim-san may just freeze to death. No?”
“Fire Fairies? Firewood??” Grim squinted, lost.
“Ahh, yes, the Ghost whose daughter has just given birth to their first grandchild. He was so eager to see the grand-baby’s face that he dove to the ‘other world’ as soon as I approved his absence! Therefore, like I said,” Crowley sighed, “this is why Yuu-kun should come along with me to the southern—”
“Wait a second, Headmaster,” Yuu put the box with her new smartphone on the desk and leaned forwards eagerly as if she were in class, hand rising into the air automatically. “I have a question! How do Ghosts have babies? Aren’t they uh…sort of dead? The ghosts in Hogwarts can’t have babies at all.”
“…That’s where you chalk it up to the ‘miracle of love’,” Crowley told her in a comically low voice. “You know what they say, about true love being the strongest power of all. It’s best not to think about it too closely.”
Yuu remembered vaguely that earlier Dixney movies were all about the whole ‘true love’ thing—then she remembered the mascot-like silhouette in her mirror and furrowed her brow. Mickey Mouse. Disney. The Twisted Wonderland…could all her mysteries maybe have something to do with what Crowley had just said?
Though familiar with the concept of love in principle, the ‘miracle’ part was something Yuu had only heard of tangentially. She had heard much of familial love supporting students through hard times and homesickness, seen it show in the form of heavy-laden owls descending upon the Great Hall with expensive artifacts, bemusedly observed when a sixth-year and seventh-year had begun dating and later when they separated amidst a furious row, and listened with the others when Victoire Weasley shyly talked about her boyfriend with apple-red cheeks.
More interestingly, Yuu had heard a bunch of gossiping Gryffindors walking by and discussing Harry Potter’s miraculous survival forty-odd years ago being due to his mother’s ‘sacrifice of love’. At the time, Yuu hadn’t really taken their words into consideration since she’d been busy trying to refine a Sticking Charm into something more versatile, but now that she thought about it, this ‘miracle of love’ thing was everywhere. Of course the mass media, Dixney movies included, were also stuffed full of allusions to it—or whatever hormonal imbalance they attributed to love, anyway. But the ‘miracle of love’ had directly assured Harry Potter’s survival and saved the entire Wizarding World. And now…?
Maybe she should research this concept a little more closely later on… since it could apparently summon babies out of nowhere for the long-dead Ghosts.
“Headmaster,” Yuu blurted out, cutting across whatever Azul and Grim were saying while she had sunk into thought. “What’s the miracle of love?”
Azul choked. Crowley stared unblinkingly at her.
“You don’t even know that?” Grim scoffed, by now long since used to her questions. “Love’s just that mushy stuff! Remember that movie we saw with Ace and Deuce a while back when the blonde lady smooched that other guy on the mouth? That’s love.”
“Actually that was probably due to the suspension bridge effect and her perception of him as attractive and also the fear that they would die any second,” Yuu rolled her eyes. “I find it hard to believe that they knew each other well enough for a serious relationship after two days of running from zombies. I’m talking about miracles. Magic. How does love factor into it?”
“…I have no clue what you said,” Grim sighed, “but who cares what that stuff is. Does it even matter?”
“If it makes magic stronger it matters,” Yuu’s eyes shone with interest. “I think this world is built at least partially on the nebulous concept of ‘true love’ or whatever they think it is, so researching it’d be—”
“Sometimes I forget you’re an alien,” Azul covered her mouth with a gloved hand, seemingly torn between exasperation and laughter. “We can talk about that later, Yuu-san. Merfolk have no end of stories based on love or whatever obsessive emotion drove the Mermaid Princess onto land. Magic, too. Now stop pulling us off topic.”
Yuu nodded obediently behind his hand. Azul probably had the most information crammed into his head that she’d ever seen in another being, human or not. Perhaps asking him would be even more efficient than trawling the library.
Crowley massaged his temples under the black raven mask. “Who on earth educated this child?” he mumbled. “I used to think that Professor Crewel was exaggerating…but even I’m starting to get a little worried now. Mister Ashengrotto, please do not fill his head with nonsense. Yuu-kun is impressionable.”
“Of course not, Headmaster,” Azul controlled his wavering expression again and let her go. “As I was saying…since Yuu-san is staying on campus during the Winter Holiday—”
“I still think it would be better to come with me!” Crowley tried.
“—The powering of the heating system cannot be carelessly neglected. Here is where I have thought up of a wonderful contingency plan!”
“Oh boy.” Grim made a face as Azul’s pale eyes brightened with excitement.
“If you’re talking about the fire, I could just go find firewood,” Yuu took pity on the interrupted Headmaster. “There’s no need for outside help.”
“With those tiny arms?” Azul gave her a derisive look.
“Hey! I told you I’ve got magic,” Yuu protested. “Also, my arms are not tiny! Not everyone can have crazy octopus strength like you!”
“Using your magic should be controlled carefully,” Azul lectured her. “We’ve talked about this with Jade before. Don’t you remember saying your magic has been ‘unstable’ as of late?”
Yuu opened her mouth to argue, caught Crowley’s interested turn of the head in her direction, and closed it again. She smiled sheepishly at the Headmaster, who blinked the yellow orbs of light behind his mask several times.
“In any case,” Azul leaned forwards to catch Crowley’s attention. “Although I have reformed my ways and will not be making contracts involving the servitude of others during my time at Night Raven College, I do believe we could both benefit from an agreement! During the Winter Holiday, the remainder of the Octavinelle dormitory is willing to take over the daily handling of the temperature maintenance, including firewood provisions.”
“Why are you so sure that Yuu-kun will stay on campus?” Crowley said petulantly.
“Yuu-san is very soft on Grim-san, so whatever he says goes,” Azul said like it was obvious. “In the first place, you should expect him to be reluctant about leaving campus. Knowing his careful personality, Yuu-san will not want to introduce extra variables such as ‘travelling’ into his already complicated existence in this world. Unlike many students here, he is, at least, prudent.”
“Yuu-kun, I told you that Mister Ashengrotto was not just a little difficult,” Crowley’s eyes seemed to slant down in melancholy. “What on earth are you doing getting close enough for him to be able to read your every action? Mister Rosehearts and Mister Kingscholar were bad enough!”
“Not my fault Ashengrotto-senpai’s smart,” Yuu puffed out her cheeks. “He’s great at detecting motivations and weaknesses, okay?”
“No excuses!” Crowley said sharply. “Also, no hand-holding!”
Only then did Yuu notice that she’d somehow gotten a grasp of Azul’s glove resting on his chair arm. Staring bewilderedly down at their joined limbs, she mumbled, “I’m usually not this bad about contact…”
“That’s because you like me more than the rest of them,” Azul told her smugly.
Yuu rolled her eyes at him, but it was true that she found herself clinging on to Azul more often than usual. Not even with the tactile Therianthropes did she find herself this eager. It was most likely her unease at driving him away again by the fault of her own actions, but was she really this out of control of her own hand?
After pulling her fingers away reluctantly at Crowley’s unusually stern gaze, Yuu cleared her throat and nudged Azul. “Um, what’s the catch, senpai? I can’t see you just offering to handle all these chores for the Headmaster for no reason.”
“I was waiting for you to ask!” Azul latched on to her attempt to drag them back on topic. “Headmaster, I have been reflecting on my actions diligently these past few days, especially for involving Yuu-san, who has suffered through various grievances…”
Grim made a face at her, as if disbelieving of Azul’s flowery words. Yuu grinned back at him.
“…So to make up for the past, I am willing to take the trouble to transfer Yuu-san over to my dormitory where he will be personally under my protection,” Azul finished clearly.
Yuu covered her face. “I don’t see anything. I don’t hear anything. I don’t know anything.”
“I knew this was gonna happen,” Grim’s tail went pin-straight as his eyes narrowed. “Funaa! Over my dead body!”
Azul cast him an unctuous smile. “Of course, Grim-san can come along as his partner.”
When she finally lowered her fingers, Crowley had mirrored her by dropping his entire head, mask and all, into both cloved hands so that his beige hat had all but fallen off his head. “Mister Ashengrotto,” he groaned wearily, voice muffled. “During the Dorm Head meeting at the end of September, I was sure that even if Mister Rosehearts had somehow gotten it in his head to move Yuu-kun to Heartslabyul that you of all people would not join in. Even after Mister Kingscholar began to destroy the rooms during his fights with Mister Rosehearts in October and November, you were always part of the group that calmed them down. And this week, when they both smashed their ways into my office demanding for Yuu-kun to travel with them during the Holiday, you did not join in the chaos. I had believed it was because you were above such petty fighting!”
“Dorm Head meeting?” Grim repeated drowsily. “You pretentious guys have meetings? Is there food?”
“Leona-senpai and Riddle-senpai destroyed rooms?” Yuu said weakly. “How come I’ve never heard about all this?”
“Of course I’m above such petty fighting!” Azul laced his hands under his well-formed chin. “I’ve offered you several benefits, have I not? I believe that in this school, there is not a single being more equipped to protect Yuu-san than I. It shouldn’t be a bad deal for you, either, Headmaster.”
“Absolutely not!” Crowley yanked his head up from his hands. “In the event I am coerced to hand Yuu-kun over, Misters Rosehearts and Kingscholar would devastate the school castle! Do not underestimate Heartslabyul’s Dorm Head or his unreasonableness, Mister Ashengrotto. It has been over three months of him insisting that Yuu is already under his care. If you are bent on fighting for this, do fight by yourselves and far away from the rest of us.”
“I wonder what my opinion is worth to these guys,” Yuu muttered dully and reached for her smartphone manual as they argued.
She had been seeking a response from Grim—but when she glanced over he was fast asleep on his back, stomach bulging from the cookies he had devoured.
“Only knows how to eat and sleep,” Yuu rolled her eyes fondly before shedding her oversized coat and draping it over him. Although the school’s temperature was well-maintained, after her cold she was a little more cautious about having Grim suffer through something similar.
“…Headmaster, it would be in your best interests to agree to this transfer,” Azul was saying placidly, as if he had full control of the situation. By this point Yuu had understood why he had gotten a fast one over Crowley last year when he’d bargained for Mostro Lounge’s license to exist in the school. The confidence, charisma and presence he wore so easily almost convinced even her.
Crowley detected the unspoken threat in his voice and frowned at him. “Mister Ashengrotto, I am the Headmaster of the school! It would be in your best interests not to blackmail—”
“Not even if I could make that lofty seat a little bit shakier?” Azul’s smile widened.
Yuu dropped her smartphone manual. “Senpai!?”
“Headmaster Crowley, I had not wanted to resort to this, but your stubbornness leaves me no choice,” Azul drew his thin brows together and shook his head as if truly lamenting it. “I wonder what the rest of the world would say if they knew that the man in charge of the illustrious Night Raven College was forcing a girl to attend an all-boy’s school under cover?”
Crowley froze for all of three seconds before he planted both gloved hands on his desk and wailed at her, “Him!?”
Yuu laughed nervously. “Um…it just happened?”
By the time that Yuu had stumbled exhaustedly out of the Headmaster’s office, morning had already dragged close to noon. Azul’s bombshell statement had nearly woken Grim and ignited a loud blaze of furious verbal combat between him and Crowley, which meant that she was the one left with the near-impossible task of pacifying the rumbling volcano. For some reason Crowley had been horrified that Azul knew her gender—“Out of all people, why did it have to be him!?” he continued to weep at her—while Azul himself had revealed a trace of that mad intensity in his eyes as he insisted on her transfer.
Of course, Crowley had never ‘forced’ Yuu to do anything, whether it was enrolling at NRC or leaving on a vacation with him. In fact, it could even be said that Yuu was the one being extremely selfish in insisting on continuing her schooling within NRC despite its gender segregation. Azul probably knew that she was here of her own volition, too—but he was fully aware of the power of words. Changing the way something was phrased was very effective in distorting the ‘truth’. All of this was to place him in a more advantageous position when bringing his demands in front of someone with more official authority than he.
It had taken a lot of persistent assurances that Yuu had absolutely no intentions of transferring from Ramshackle Dorm before Azul had reluctantly backed off slightly. He was still insistent on having Yuu over at Octavinelle for at least the Winter Break, though, and she wasn’t verbally skilled enough to be his match. After making sure the worst of the thunderstorm had subsided, Yuu gathered a snoring Grim, the box containing her new smartphone, and Crewel’s extra phial of masking potion safely in her coat pocket before she tiptoed out into the bright and empty hallway.
Behind her she could still hear Crowley and Azul bickering over the terms of the agreement they were making. Yuu, who eschewed pointless conflict, was eager to leave the tense office for a reprieve. “This whole thing is completely unnecessary. I can take care of myself,” she told the corridor at large.
In the first place, Azul’s insistence on keeping her at arm’s length was rather incomprehensible. Just because their magical contract stipulated her ‘protection’? There was nothing left to protect her from on this campus. Sometimes Azul could overreact quite a bit.
Resolving to ask him later about his own plans for the Winter Holiday, and wondering why it seemed as if Crowley was aware that Octavinelle’s students were staying on campus for the break, Yuu made her way down the hallway towards the Hall of Mirrors and stairwell. Since everyone was leaving today, she had made plans with Ace and Deuce to bid their farewells around noon.
Four long weeks apart. Yuu released a forlorn sigh. Even though she knew staying at NRC was better for her and for everyone in all senses of the word… She really didn’t want to lose contact with the closest friends she had ever made.
There was a small commotion at the end of the hallway. Yuu glanced upwards reflexively. Even though NRC was full of troublemakers, which meant that altercations—only restricted by the ‘no magic’ rule—were ubiquitous, it never hurt to be careful. Riddle had impressed this upon her so often that even Yuu had sort of absorbed the knowledge and instinct by now. However, she only caught sight of a few uniformed backs poking out from around the corner of the stairwell before three Scarabia students scrambled pell-mell into the hallway and sprinted in her direction.
Jack had the sharpest instincts out of anyone she knew, and he’d told her that Scarabia was dangerous, hostile. Yuu immediately hugged Grim, buried in Jack’s coat, to her stomach and reached for her wand in her sleeve. Yet catching a glimpse of the faces of the students running towards her stilled her movements. All of them were ashen with fright, not even bothering to give her a second glance, let alone sneer at her.
Yuu gaped dumbly as they rushed past either side of her, leaving a gust of wind in their wake that sent her long bangs flying briefly away from her forehead. What had they been running from?
Steps faltering, she craned her neck around to watch them run, trying to hear what they were muttering under their breath. Yuu barely caught a snatch of something like “too weird” and “stalker or something?” before they disappeared around the corner of the second-floor hallway as if the hounds of hell were hot on their heels.
Her distracted staring meant that Yuu’s attention (and head) was completely focused on the scene behind her, so she didn’t notice the person walking in her direction until she had bumped straight into his sternum. Yuu’s cheek gave a sharp report of pain and she jerked backwards immediately, half-expecting a wall, only to meet the deep indigo vest of Pomefiore’s school uniform peeking out from its blazer.
Not a wall? Yuu squinted at it as she lost her balance, rubbing her stinging cheek with her wand hand. Felt like it was made of brick.
She had barely teetered for a second before a large, gloved hand reached forward to support her shoulder. “Désolé! My apologies,” she heard someone say from above her head, their low tenor soft and slightly hoarse. “Are you all right?”
“I’m sorry too,” Yuu drew her brows together in a sheepish smile as she looked upwards. “I wasn’t looking where I was going.”
The Pomefiore student smiled down at her from under the wide brim of his chestnut-brown plumed outdoor hat. Shaded from the hallway’s magic stone lights, Yuu could barely make out the beautifully symmetric curve of his thin mouth and straight nose. The shadowed green eyes that met hers were boldly outlined with black and hooded with an unreadable glimmer.
“That’s quite all right,” the student said after a prolonged moment, taking a step back. The movement sent his neatly trimmed golden-yellow hair dancing around his neck. His smile widened. “You’re headed for the Mirror Chamber? …Far be it from me to stop you.”
“Okay. Thanks?” Yuu blinked several times as he brushed past her silently, leaving behind not even a lingering scent. After a few seconds she blinked and muttered, “How did he know I was going to the Mirror Chamber? …And did he just speak French to me?”
For some reason the fleeting encounter with that Pomefiore student made her slightly uneasy. Yuu thought about it for a minute, but couldn’t figure out the reason, so she dismissed it for now. For now, she only made a mental note to ask someone about countries in the Twisted Wonderland that spoke French.
The Mirror Chamber was absolutely packed with students and luggage, seeming far fuller than even the opening ceremony in which it had been filled with the Dorm Heads and first years. Yuu opened the door to a thunderous flood of noise that finally pulled Grim out of his slumber. Several students preceded her in, laughing and chatting about vacation plans. Although all those present were still dressed properly in their school uniform, the lights were powered up bright and the atmosphere was generally joyous.
Yuu put her coat around her shoulders to free up space while Grim complained vocally about the noise and yawned. “So noisy. You done talkin’ with that Azul and the Headmaster? Those two are both kinda suspicious.”
“They’re still going. I left them to it,” Yuu secured him in her arms and wiped away the sleepy tears at the corners of his big eyes. “Just to let you know…we might have to spend a few days with Octavinelle depending on how determined Ashengrotto-senpai is to scam Headmaster Crowley. I know, don’t give me that look, I can’t stop him! In return, I’ll try to get you some fresh tuna from Mostro, okay?”
“Can’t believe that guy hasn’t reformed at all… Wait, you’re gonna be okay with that?” Grim asked doubtfully as she made her way around the perimeter of the room, scanning for Ace’s vivid head and Deuce’s unusual dark hair. “That Azul’s crazy mode has amped up a few notches recently. When he looks at you it’s like he wants to strangle you or…or something. And let’s not even mention those lookalike twins.”
“I don’t mind,” Yuu said absently. “To be honest, I wanted to be around Ashengrotto-senpai anyway.”
“I want to make sure he’s okay,” Yuu sidestepped a rolling suitcase. “…And I still feel kinda guilty about the whole thing that happened.”
“That guy’s sneaky,” Grim warned her. “He’s using your guilt or whatever to drag you over to him. You should stay away from him even more than Leona or Riddle. Least they’re open about it.”
“’Cause he’s bent on getting revenge on me?” she winced. “I sort of deserve it…but if you say so, I’ll be careful.”
“Revenge,” Grim repeated doubtfully. “Why do I get the feeling it ain’t that simple?”
Deuce’s strong voice came from the area beside the floating Mirror. Yuu brightened and dodged her way through the crowd to him and Ace, both of whom were shouldering duffel bags.
“We’re finally free from that stuffy dorm life for a month!” Ace seemed in a singularly good mood, though his orange-brown hair was even messier than usual. He looked like he’d slept in.
“Still, Night Raven College’s name isn’t just for show,” Deuce hefted a second shoulder bag ruefully, grimacing. “Look at all the homework we’ve got. Crewel was just in here shouting about punishing the ‘bad boys’ that forget to do it all… But how long is this gonna take?”
“Oh, right!” Yuu freed a hand from around Grim and reached into the large pockets of her coat to withdraw her new smartphone from its box. “Deuce, if I add you to my contacts, you can call me during the break and we can do the homework together.”
“A smartphone!” Deuce gaped. “Where’d you get that?”
Ace stuck to her side to peer over her shoulder. He whistled. “Hey, I’ve never seen this design before. Magic stone powered?”
“Headmaster Crowley got it for me,” Yuu said proudly. “Um, actually, I’m not done reading the phone manual so I only really know how to use the basic functions, but I can at least contact you guys over the break.”
“You’re gonna rack up a skyscraper of a phone bill trying to get Deuce to understand his homework,” Ace laughed, pulling her phone out of her fingers to mess with it. “Dude, it’s so fast! The Headmaster hates spending money. How’d you get him to give you something this cool?”
“Phone bill? Am I costing him money by using the data?” Yuu asked worriedly.
“I won’t take that long! And most plans are unlimited these days!” Deuce blustered.
Ace snapped a selfie for his contact image and handed the phone back. Yuu rolled her eyes at him when she saw that he’d entered his name as Ace the Great with a heart emoticon trailing the end, but handed her phone off to an eagerly awaiting Deuce.
“So in the end, you’re stuck here for a month, huh?” Ace sighed. “I still think we should just stuff you in a sack and bring you home. Beats being stuck here all alone.”
“After Riddle-senpai and Leona-senpai were soundly denied permission by the Headmaster, I don’t think we had much of a choice,” Yuu said wryly. “But it’s probably better this way anyway. Who knows what’d happen if I left campus? Better safe than sorry.”
“I still don’t get why the Headmaster would say no, though,” Deuce commented after taking his own picture and handing back the phone. “Rosehearts-senpai’s really strong. He could probably deal with whatever problems show up, even if Yuu gets mixed up in something crazy. Again. I can’t imagine anyone around the Kingdom of Roses winning against him.”
“I resent that ‘again’,” Yuu mumbled.
“That Headmaster’s just scared he’ll start an international incident if he gives precedent to one guy over another,” Ace rolled his eyes before stealing her phone again. “I mean, that Leona-senpai’s royalty, isn’t he? And Riddle-senpai’s pretty high up there too. The funniest war ever would be people going to bat ‘cause they didn’t get to have Yuu over for vacation.”
“Hey, don’t use too much data,” Yuu tugged on his arm. “I don’t want to spend more of the Headmaster’s money than I have to.”
“Relax, I’m connecting you to the school Wi-Fi,” Ace waved her off. “You don’t even have MagiCam installed. It’s a travesty that needs to be rectified right now.”
Yuu gave up and turned to Deuce, whose brows were drawn together worriedly as he regarded her. “Grim’s with me,” she held her unusually quiet partner up with both arms. “So I’m not alone or anything. And we’ve made a promise to have some Christmas—er, Winter Holiday feasting with the Ghosts that are still around.”
“There better be some roast turkey and gingerbread houses and spare ribs and mashed potatoes and…” Breaking from his ponderous silence, Grim’s polar blue eyes shone and he started to list foods eagerly.
“Got’cha,” Ace nodded, “at least the two of you aren’t gonna be completely alone in the huge empty school. I can sort of rest easy.”
“But aren’t the cafeteria and school store closed during holidays?” the surprisingly practical Deuce pointed out. “How’re you gonna get food then?”
“We’ve already straightened that out with the Headmaster…or, well, are in the process of straightening it out?” Yuu exchanged glances with Grim before they both shrugged and refrained from mentioning Azul. “Either way, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about it much.”
“You should be a little more conscientious about these things,” Deuce lectured her. “…Well, tell me if you get cheated out of food or anything. We’ll find a way to deal with it.”
“I’ll deal with it before you guys can,” Grim bared his sharp teeth menacingly. “Food’s the most important thing in the world, mark my words.”
A crowd of Heartslabyul students passed them, waving at their group cheerfully. Ace waved back with a wink before leaning out of the way of another group. “Man, it’s full in here. Everyone’s all pumped up for break.”
“Can’t blame ‘em,” Deuce grinned. “Aren’t you among the worst?”
“Come to think of it, why isn’t anyone leaving yet? It’s almost noon, isn’t it?” Yuu asked curiously, glancing at the dark Mirror.
“We’re waiting for the Headmaster to get here,” Ace shrugged. “You need his permission to use the Mirror, right? He should be here soon, but everyone’s just early and waiting to get the heck outta dodge. Okay, I’ve downloaded most of the apps you’ll probably need to use on a regular basis. This one’s a video streaming site, and that dark brown one is MagiCam.”
“‘Magic Camera Telegram?’” Yuu read curiously.
“The full title that no one uses,” Ace clarified. “And this one’s an online encyclopaedia. This one’s that hilarious game I was talking about a few weeks ago…that’s a dictionary…this one’s a bunch of free resources for magic users. It’s editable by anyone. Aaand the rest are already pre-installed. Keep an eye on this one—it’s a video chat app—and this one for texts. We’ll probably be using that pretty much all the time.”
“Why’s my home screen background you?” she asked him flatly.
“’Cause you love me,” Ace grinned without shame.
“You should get the banking app and make sure you know the account details so Ashengrotto-senpai can’t cheat money off of you,” Deuce advised from her other side, ignoring him. Then he frowned. “…Ace, make the lock screen me.”
“You’re so demanding,” Ace sighed, opening up the camera and aiming it at him.
“Banks have apps too,” Yuu realized with a blink. “I need to do some catching up with technology.”
“This stuff is totally useless,” Grim said grumpily, turning around in her arms to go back to sleep. Yuu shed Jack’s coat, wrapped it around him like a cocoon, and braced him in both arms like carrying a child.
Squeezed between Ace and Deuce as more and more people entered the crowded Chamber, Yuu received a crash course on smartphone usage from both of them as they waited for the Headmaster to arrive. Their voices were muted in the loud chatter echoing around the wide room, and even Yuu’s presence seemed to be hidden from any curious or unfriendly eyes that had so focused on her yesterday.
By the time she had slowly texted her friends to send them her number, created a mail address and set up her voicemail box and contact information, the Mirror Chamber was stuffed to its breaking point. Just when the whispers were gaining a touch of impatience, the double doors swung open and Crowley stepped boldly into their midst, still wearing the Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. In the sea of dark uniforms, he looked ridiculously out of place.
“Everyone!” Crowley called, his voice carrying. The attention of the entire room turned to him immediately. “Today is the day! I’m sure you’re all eager to head off, but allow me to review the rules one more time.”
“What’s with that outfit!” Ace spluttered. “In the middle of winter and he’s in a freakin’ Aloha shirt?! This guy’s absolutely set on vacationing in the southern countries!”
“You could at least try to hide the enthusiasm,” Deuce said weakly. “It’s unprofessional.”
“Apparently he’s going to the south to research time and space travel for me to find a way home,” Yuu said, laughing. “I even got an invitation to go with him.”
“And you believe him? That’s not the kind of uniform you go to ‘research’ in,” Ace gave her a flat stare before he realized something. “Wait a second, after all that effort he spent on preventing you from leaving with other guys, he goes in with the invitation?!”
“As expected of Night Raven College’s Headmaster,” Deuce nodded solemnly. “He’s just as slippery as the rest of them.”
“Don’t worry, we aren’t going to the southern countries or whatever,” Yuu assured them. “Though staying on campus might mean I have to do some chores instead.” It depended on whatever conclusions Azul had reached with Crowley.
“After declaring your destination clearly to the Mirror, please keep a firm hold on your possessions,” Crowley was shouting out to the eagerly queuing students. “If, in the middle of your transfer, you let go of your luggage—it will be blown off to a separate destination all by itself! Students with important items or things they don’t want to risk losing should contact Mister Sam to have it shipped directly home.”
“…Well, guess we better line up too,” Deuce sighed reluctantly.
“Call me when you get home,” Yuu shifted a hand off the dozing Grim so she could clutch his hand a little sadly. Deuce nodded heavily back.
“Okay, you two, stop it,” Ace pulled them apart with a weird look on his face. “It’s getting a little much.”
“You won’t?” Yuu looked up at him unsurely.
“Daaah! I will! I will, okay? Stop looking like an abandoned puppy, I don’t wanna understand what Crewel feels like when he sees you!” Ace covered her face with a hand hastily.
“Hey, hey, the weird comedy troupe standing in everyone’s way,” Ruggie’s voice called from close by. “Stop blocking the path and move it, move it! Also Ace-kun, get your hands offa Yuu-kun before I bite it off.”
“Ruggie-senpai!” Yuu perked up, brushing aside Ace’s hand and turning towards him. “Are you heading—whoa!”
“What’s with all that luggage!?” Deuce spluttered almost simultaneously as they caught sight of him. Ruggie Bucchi was hauling three huge duffel bags, a square cooler across his front, and a full backpack towering over his shoulders. He took up the space of four people as he waded carefully through the crowd. Judging by their bursting state, all the bags were stuffed to the brim.
“I didn’t get a chance to ask you to Shrink these for me,” Ruggie told her mournfully while Yuu hurried to support one of the heavy bags.
“I don’t know how long it’ll last, so it’s probably better for me not to cast any magic on your stuff right now,” Yuu said sheepishly. “Actually, senpai…did you have all this stuff in the first place? I remember your room being kind of sparse.”
“Huh? This ain’t my stuff,” Ruggie waved a hand briefly as they made their way towards the Mirror across the room, which was aglow with the mysterious theatre mask glaring out sightlessly at the line of students. “This is all food. Leftover materials and food from the kitchen, plus a bunch of close-to-expiration-date perishable goods from the school store. Shi shi shi.”
Yuu remembered that Ruggie had both the appetite and capacity to match Jade’s. Back during Savanaclaw’s barbeque party at the beginning of November, he had cleaned up half a table all by himself. “You got all that stuff for free?”
“Pretty much. ’S not like they’re gonna use it anyway,” Ruggie looked to be in a high mood.
“How’re you gonna eat all that before it goes bad?” Ace wrinkled his nose, clearly not understanding.
Ruggie gave him a disdainful glance. “What’re you even talking about? This li’l drop in the bucket’s gonna disappear in like two days just passing it all around to the brats living by us.”
“Oh right,” Yuu remembered their conversations. “Your neighbours and the kids you take care of. Plus your grandmother, right?”
“Bingo.” Ruggie breathed out a sigh. “I’ve gotta make sure that she fills her stomach, even if it’s just during the holidays, right? After all, out of that place… it’s only me who’s crawled his way up here.”
“Getting selected by the Mirror and managing to make it all the way until now…” Yuu beamed at him and gave him a thumbs up. “Too cool, senpai. I should’ve gotten you a Christ—er, Winter Holiday present to send back home too.”
“You worry about yourself.” Ruggie knocked her gently in the forehead with his knuckles. “I’m already getting worried about leaving you here all alone for close to a month. —Is that a phone? Gimme that for a second so I can put in my number.”
“Bucchi-senpai’s like a mom,” Deuce muttered, looking almost impressed. “He even takes care of kids around his house?”
“Aah?” Ruggie glared at him over the phone screen. “Again with the mom comments. You pickin’ a fight with me?”
“Everyone’s been saying that lately. It’s because Ruggie-senpai really is good at taking care of people,” Yuu took the phone back to snap a photo of him, luggage and all, for his contact photo. “Um, I’m going to miss you during break. Senpai. Take it easy, okay?”
Ruggie stared at her. “…No one’s looking,” he mumbled, grey eyes going cold. “If I just take you with me—”
“Okay, okay,” Ace yanked her backwards with a strained smile. “See you next year Ruggie-senpai!”
Ruggie gave him the stink-eye before glancing down and wincing. “Ah shit, the frozen food’s gonna melt if I don’t hurry. Yuu-kun, call me in an emergency, ‘kay? I’ll see ya next year.”
“Next year,” Yuu echoed before he pushed himself in the direction of the crowd lining up before the mirror.
“Ruggie-senpai going to all that effort follows the hyena’s policy of sharing his prey with the social order around him. He’s commendable,” Jack commented as he waded easily through the crowd to approach them. “Yuu, what’re you doing here? You’re not going back with anyone, right?”
“Right, I’m just seeing them off,” Yuu nodded. “Jack, are you headed…”
“Dude, why are you carrying a row of…flowerpots?” Ace squinted up at the earthenware pots stacked upon each other in his arms. “You’re gonna open a greenhouse or something?”
Yuu stood on her tiptoes and barely managed to peek over the edge of the lowest one. “Is that a cactus?”
“These are the cacti and succulents I’m raising in-dorm,” Jack explained, lowering them for her to see. “If I leave ‘em for a month without proper sunlight and water in my room, they’ll wither and dry no matter how resilient they are. …There’s nothing interesting about it, stop staring.”
“If you want, I can help out with the watering,” Yuu offered him. “Since I’m going to be around here for a while anyway.”
“Do you even know how to take care of plants?” Jack squinted at her doubtfully, then cast a glance at the sleeping Grim nestled in his coat in her arms. “I’ll be happy if you don’t get into any more trouble yourself.”
“Aww,” Ace drew his voice out, “Jack cares.”
“Shut up,” Jack snapped, avoiding their gazes. “You guys should learn from Ruggie-senpai and pay more attention to other people instead of getting into trouble all the time.”
“Hmph,” Leona passed by with both hands in his pockets, uniform blazer nowhere to be seen and dress shirt unbuttoned and rumpled. “Just thinking about a bunch of brats milling around with him doing emergency food distribution makes me shudder. One brat is already enough for a headache.”
Jack blinked at his Dorm Head’s lack of luggage. “Leona-senpai,” he greeted, “Were you not going back to your home?”
“I wish I weren’t,” Leona kneaded his brow with a glove and sighed. “If I don’t go back now there’ll be a hell of a lot of annoying complaining, so there isn’t much choice for me, now, is there?”
“But you don’t have any bags,” Yuu pointed out.
Leona yawned and stuck out his hand. Yuu squinted at it in question before finally realizing what he meant and putting her smartphone on his palm.
“Told you earlier. We got people for that stuff,” Leona scrolled through her phone with practiced movements. “As long as I have my phone and wallet there isn’t anything else I’d need. I’ve got a full room of clothes lying around back at home.”
“He didn’t even say ‘wardrobe of clothes’,” Deuce looked vaguely disgusted.
“Senpai, you’re really good with technology,” Yuu observed him.
Leona grunted. “This is normal. We’re living in the modern era. Having a good understanding of stuff like cloud computing and digital trading’s not just useful, it’s practically necessary by now.”
“I have no idea what you just said,” Yuu accepted her phone with a wrinkled nose.
“Me neither,” Jack mumbled. “Yuu, I don’t have a free hand. I’ll dictate it to you, so can you register my phone number for me?”
“Okay! Jack, you’ve got to send me pictures of your Pyroxene landscapes or whatever you were talking me about.”
“Though…Shouldn’t you at least bring your homework back with you, senpai?” Deuce hefted his bag of textbooks and worksheets.
“Huh? The purpose of a holiday’s to take break,” Leona smirked. “Homework’s something you leave until it’s over to do.”
“You take breaks all the time,” Yuu muttered as she entered Jack’s contact info on her phone. “Stupid geniuses who can do a month’s worth of homework in an hour.”
Leona glanced between her and Jack. “How about I dictate the answers to you and you write ‘em down?” he proposed, as if having come up with an innovative idea.
Jack gave him a flat stare.
“I can’t copy your gorgeous handwriting, we’ll get figured out right away,” Yuu rolled her eyes, adjusting Jack’s contact photo in its frame. “If you’re that smart why don’t you just write it yourself? Or get magic to write it for you.”
“Too much work.”
“I think I get why this guy’s still here,” Ace muttered under his breath.
“If he even put in like ten percent of his effort, he’d be better than pretty much everyone else,” Jack muttered in an unsatisfied manner as Leona ruffled her hair and passed by with a greeting. “And he doesn’t try at all.”
“Here comes Jack’s ranting about Leona-senpai that’s actually praising him,” Yuu teased with a grin.
“Shut up. You guys make sure you finish your homework properly,” Jack glared around at Ace, Deuce, and the snoring Grim in her arms. “Yuu, don’t do their work for them. Call me if you need anything.”
“‘I don’t hang out with people,’” Ace imitated Jack’s bass rumble poorly. “‘Except Yuu.’”
“Wanna get buried by cacti?” Jack sneered at him.
“Get outta here,” Ace rolled his eyes.
Before he left, Jack nudged her over with a tilt of his chin. “Don’t forget we still have to have that conversation later. About you. No running away and no pretending it doesn’t exist… Got it? Yuu.”
“I’m not running! The timing’s just been bad for hanging out before break,” she protested. “…I’m going to, uh, miss you over break, Jack. See you next year.”
Jack blinked three times. “Huh. Not bad…you can actually say stuff like that now.”
Yuu squirmed in slight embarrassment before waving him off towards the packed area before the Mirror.
When she returned to her friends’ group, Deuce was still staring after Leona with a complicated expression on his face. “Going that far to avoid doing work actually impresses me a little.”
“Don’t follow his example, of all people,” Yuu groaned. The beginnings of students diving through the activated Mirror lit the Mirror Chamber with pure white light. “We’ll do our homework together, okay? But you might have to teach me how to use this video chat app ‘cause I really suck at technology.”
“That’s where you’re supposed to go to the expert Cay-kun,” Cater’s cheerful voice answered her in lieu of Ace. Yuu turned as he and Trey smoothly dodged a crowd of struggling Savanaclaw students. Cater peered down over her shoulder at her phone and made a complicated expression before asking, “…That’s not from Azul-kun, is it?”
“Ashengrotto-senpai?” Yuu repeated blankly. “No? It’s from the Headmaster. Something about rewarding me for getting fiftieth place in the exams.”
“That’s good,” Cater muttered under his breath.
“That’s right,” Trey remembered, “I forgot we had a resident little genius in our dorm. Well done, Transfer, keep up the good work.”
“Not the hair!” Yuu yelped as he ruffled it with a big hand. “…Also, I’m from Ramshackle, not Heartslabyul! And there’s a difference between me and an actual genius.”
Trey laughed at her. In her arms, the dozing Grim turned around and shoved his snout into her shoulder irritably.
After moving further out of the way of the ever-thickening crowd of approaching students, Cater drew Yuu off to the side to educate her on the basics of using MagiCam while Trey thoughtfully scooped her heavy partner from her shoulders to carry. Yuu had more or less gotten used to Grim’s weight, but when he was asleep, it seemed to double, so she was grateful for his intervention.
“Senpai, are you okay?” Yuu asked Cater after they’d chatted for a while about social media and MagiCam. In her world, Tweeter ran by almost exactly the same principles, so it wasn’t hard to catch the basics.
Cater, who was creating her account handle and profile for her, glanced up briefly with a blink and smile. “Hmm? ’Course I am. What’s up?”
“Maybe it was just my imagination,” she mumbled. “I thought that you looked kind of…down.” The curve of his smile was a little unnatural.
“…I really can’t win over you, can I?” Cater sighed, orange brows drawing a few inches together in a surprising show of exasperation. He was still smiling, but the tone of his voice had also fallen when he shrugged and told her, “it’s really nothing much. Just sorta not looking forward to the break. My sisters are gonna make me run around like a gofer again, can you believe it?”
“I thought they weren’t going to be around?” Yuu blinked.
“Change of plans,” Cater said airily.
“…Sorry I couldn’t come with you,” Yuu reached forward for his free hand in concern. “Senpai, you’ve got my contact info now, right? I’m a little technologically illiterate, but I can probably figure out how to use the apps through trial and error. So you can call me or text me any time, okay? To complain or let off steam.”
“Oh come on, don’t look like it’s the end of the world,” Cater rolled his eyes at her. “It’s not that bad, I’m used to it! Really!”
“Even if you’re okay, I’m not,” Yuu muttered. “I’m really out of my depth with family related issues so I can’t relax no matter how inconsequential they might be. Don’t get me started on Riddle-senpai.”
“If you keep that up I’m gonna drown in your worry for me,” Cater squeezed her fingers quickly. “Mind if I follow some of the NRC kids’ accounts for you? Obviously, I call dibs on being the first one.”
“Okay,” Yuu knew when to back off. Cater was an intensely private person no matter how friendly he behaved. “That’s you, senpai? You’ve got a lot of followers.”
“Sure do! Not as much as Pomefiore’s Dorm Head, obviously.”
“This one. It’s even got the Verified check-mark,” Cater tapped on the ‘related people’ tab to follow it for her.
“I didn’t know a beautiful model attended this school,” Yuu gaped at the profile photo showing a darkened silhouette of the face of a tall blond. “Wait…maybe I’ve seen him? Her? A couple of times. Back in September?”
“I’m sure you have…I think we’ve pointed him out back in September. And it’s ‘him’. Though I can totally understand why you’d think otherwise. But, Yuu-chan,” Cater grimaced, “That guy’s sparkly outsides might fool you, but the insides contain a gorilla, so better be careful you don’t get deceived by appearances. …Ahem. And don’t tell him I said that.”
“A gorilla?” Yuu was surprised into a laugh.
“It’s probably a good idea if you guys don’t meet,” Cater grinned back. “…He’d probably freak out about your hair. Physically.”
“—the busiest time of year at the shop,” Trey was chatting leisurely with Ace and Deuce as the two of them returned. A heavily packed rucksack on his back, combined with Jack’s huge coat covering Grim in his arms, made for a comical caricature of a swaddled baby being taken care by a father. Trey didn’t seem to notice, even if Cater snickered under his breath. “It’s too bad I can’t get the Transfer’s help since he’s stuck staying here.”
“Aw man, I was gonna ask if you could shelter me for a few weeks,” Cater whined, handing Yuu’s phone back with a long list of Followed accounts added to her name. “I almost forgot that your house was a patisserie. Guess I’ve got no place to run.”
“…No place to run,” Riddle Rosehearts repeated quietly from where he was passing by.
Yuu caught the similar heavy note in his usually loud and clear voice. When she turned, she saw him holding an expensive-looking leather suitcase and glaring at the flashing Mirror as if it were his worst enemy.
Deuce, who was standing closest to him, noticed the aura of oppressive silence hanging around him and jumped to the side. “Ro-Rosehearts-senpai! Sorry for blocking the road!”
Ace, on his other side, observed Riddle’s mood and nudged him before muttering something under his breath. Deuce blinked and grimaced back.
“……” Riddle blinked a few times, the light returning to his grey eyes. He cast a glance around at them. “Hm? Aah, it’s you. If you’re still planning to speak for a while longer, do gather by the sides of the room to avoid getting in the way of others.”
“Cater-senpai! This is what I meant, he looks miserable …What do I do?” Yuu went up on tiptoe to whisper in Cater’s ear.
“Acha~,” Cater winced before he leaned down and whispered back, “try distracting him. Riddle-kun’s someone who tends to think in circles and work himself up. We wouldn’t want a repeat of September.”
“What are the two of you whispering about?” Riddle frowned as he made his way over. “Yuu, don’t be fooled by Cater’s harmless appearance. He’s not above petty tricks. It would be best for you not to listen to his poor example.”
“Hey!” Cater laughed, “Have some faith in me!”
“Your past speaks for itself,” Riddle sniffed. He set down the suitcase before leaning forward to redo Yuu’s crooked ribbon. “What are you going to do without me if you can’t even tie a ribbon properly?”
“Miss you all the time?” Yuu offered him her phone. “I got this from Headmaster Crowley today. If you don’t mind, senpai, can I have your phone number so I can call you?”
“A phone,” Riddle emitted in surprise. “…Of course. Why didn’t I think of that? I must have been distracted… Perhaps the Headmaster was also aware that Yuu needed someone to keep tabs on him during the Holiday.”
“Hey, I can take care of myself,” Yuu put in, but she handed the device over without further complaint. Seeing Riddle focused over her phone was better than seeing him in distress over his complicated household situation.
“You know,” Cater muttered over her head, “Since Yuu-chan can be a bit of an airhead in these situations he probably didn’t mean anything, but I’ve never seen anyone flirt that obviously with Riddle-kun for his phone number and actually get it.”
“He’s not an airhead,” Trey muttered back with a wry smile, “he’s just got no clue about social behaviour. …If it makes Riddle feel better, there’s no need to correct him for now.”
“And if you have a MagiCam account, Cater-senpai just made one for me, so I can follow you!” Yuu opened the app to show him.
“Oh,” Riddle blinked. “Actually, you’re in luck. I’ve just begun to use it recently, though I’m not very good with this sort of thing. Here.”
“…Riddle,” Trey approached his friend after Yuu took her phone back. He was still smiling, but his dark green brows were drawn together in concern. “…I can’t come to send cakes over to your house, since I’ve been forbidden entry, but you can come over to our place to hang out any time, okay? Che’nya’s probably going to show up whether I invite him over or not, anyway.”
Riddle blinked. “…Right…you’re right.” He looked around at the group of Heartslabyul students, plus Yuu, who were all staring at him in concern, before releasing a breath and straightening his shoulders. “I think I will be having a…conversation with my mother during the break, anyway.”
“Senpai!” Yuu rushed to show her support. “If you want some extra firepower, you can put me on video chat during that talk. I won’t let anyone bully you.”
“…I’m not sure that she’ll listen to us or not,” Riddle gave her a reluctant grin, “but do tone down your sharp tongue as much as possible.”
“I’ve never spoken to a lady in Twisted Wonderland before,” Yuu bounced on the balls of her heels in excitement. “I’ll be as tactful as possible. Though…since I’m on Riddle-senpai’s side, I can’t promise I won’t get mad on your behalf.”
“Riddle-kun,” Cater lifted a fist. “You got this.”
“Do your best,” Trey offered a nod. “We’re all standing on your side, Dorm Head.”
“You’re all blowing this out of proportion,” Riddle sighed, but his smile widened into a genuine one.
Not wanting to see him leave so fast, Yuu stuck to Riddle’s side like glue and begged him to talk for a little while more before he agreed with a helpless smile. As they moved to the edge of the room to avoid blocking the main path, Cater tapped her arm and pointed out the entranceway. “That’s the gor—Pomefiore’s Dorm Head.”
Yuu followed his glance to the glowing doorway and shielded her eyes immediately. “The entire area’s actually sparkling! I can’t see anything.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Cater sighed, “whenever some of the serious beauty nerds in Pomefiore pass by, they can actually change the air around them to glow. I actually don’t know if it’s ‘cause of their beauty routine or ‘cause of magic.”
She squinted at the tall figure whose features she couldn’t make out as they walked confidently towards the mirror. The alleged Dorm Head was surrounded by several students of varying heights, though he was taller than most of them, and carried the handle of a sleek rolling suitcase. Yuu could swear she had once seen a similar image on the front cover of a gossip magazine in a library.
Was it just her imagination that the Pomefiore Dorm Head also resembled a mafia boss surrounded by his subordinates?
“I kind of want to be a beauty nerd,” Yuu commented, trying to catch a glimpse of his face unsuccessfully. Standing on tiptoe didn’t seem to do anything but blind her further.
“Please don’t,” Cater said weakly. “I might not be able to recover if our Yuu-chan turns into a scary gorilla too.”
After the flashy group of Pomefiore students passed by, Yuu glued herself back to Riddle’s side and listened to him and Trey, who were both from the Kingdom of Roses, about the long history of the country. After they regaled her on historical landmarks and Riddle promised to take her sightseeing some time in the future, Yuu and Ace bent their heads together to discuss ideas on how to win an argument with an unreasonable person while the upperclassmen moved onto topics of their homework assignments.
“You’re good at arguing, right?” Yuu poked him. “Help me think up of ways to win an argument with an unreasonable mother. I’ve barely ever spoken to mine.”
“My mom’s not a scary lady like Riddle-senpai’s,” Ace hissed. “Plus, in my experience when girls get mad you should just listen to ‘em.”
“Aren’t you just useless?” Yuu deadpanned.
“I don’t see you coming up with any ideas,” Ace shot back. “Maybe if you insult her enough she’ll transfer the anger to you instead.”
“…That might not be a bad idea,” she blinked in surprise. “It’s not like I’m afraid of someone else disliking me at this point. But…I wanted to make friends with a woman for once. This is why it sucks being in a boy’s school.”
“Pick a target that isn’t Rosehearts-senpai’s mother,” Deuce suggested weakly. “I can’t tell if you’re just desperate to see a girl or not sometimes.”
“I’m desperate,” Yuu told him very seriously. “I always want to be friends with girls.”
Deuce made a face at her. “I’m having second thoughts on introducing you to my mom now.”
“But you’re probably right about Riddle-senpai’s mother,” her shoulders slumped. “I’m already kind of mad at her on his behalf. How am I supposed to protect him from her if I can’t see them? Maybe you were right about hiding in luggage…”
“After a semester you’d think this kid would become a little more NRC,” Ace sighed mournfully at Deuce while she muttered. “But nope. He’s still hell-bent on poking his tiny nose into everyone’s business even when it’s clear he’ll be at a disadvantage.”
“Disgustingly nice,” Deuce commented. “Though Yuu’s personality is something you should’ve gotten used to by now. And…I won’t say I can understand Rosehearts-senpai’s household situation, but…seeing how reluctant he is to go home is unpleasant. Maybe we should all do something.”
“Wha~t’s that supposed to mean?”
Yuu yelped as Floyd’s widely smiling face fell upside-down over her head, casting a shadow over her face. “Senpai!?”
“Kingyo-chan doesn’t wanna go home?” Floyd ignored her surprise.
“Floyd!?” Riddle turned at the sound of his nickname.
“He~y, Kingyo-chan. If you don’t wanna go back, just stay here,” Floyd leaned his chin on top of Yuu’s head and beamed across at him. “We’re not going back either anyway, so why don’t’cha stay together with me and have some fun? Aha!”
“What’s with the sudden invitation, Floyd?” Riddle crossed his arms, meeting the smile with a scowl. “Since you don’t understand anything about my situation, could you not cut into the conversation suddenly? It’s unpleasant.”
“…In this case, he may have a point,” Jade ducked his way smoothly through the crowd. “It’s not wise to stick your neck into the situations of unrelated households thoughtlessly, Floyd.”
“Oh come on, Jade,” Floyd whined, swaying Yuu back and forth with him like a pendulum. “It’s so boring ringing in the New Year with a bunch of the same faces all the time.”
“Senpai, you’re not going back home for Winter Holiday?” Yuu put up with his manhandling patiently.
“Nuh-uh. Since you’re here, Koebi-chan, does that mean that Azul didn’t manage to convince Headmaster to give you over to him? So you’re gonna leave with Headmaster or whatever? And he was sooo confident this morning,” Floyd sighed theatrically.
“Hold on,” Ace narrowed his eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Actually, I wanted to ask you about that,” Yuu craned her head around towards Jade. “Not about how you already seem to know what’s going on…but about Ashengrotto-senpai’s purpose.”
Jade smiled mysteriously at her.
Floyd was still complaining. “I’m gonna be bored to death if you’re not here. Hey, Kingyo-chan, are you sure you don’t wanna stay over? If Azul was okay with us keeping Koebi-chan then I’m sure he wouldn’t mind keeping Kingyo-chan either. Since you’re so tiny.”
“…What,” Riddle said quietly. “Did you just say?”
“Floyd-senpai, are you actually trying to make Riddle-senpai angry?” Yuu groaned.
“Huh?” Floyd blinked.
“…I could almost applaud the gall you have to speak to the leader of the Heartslabyul Dormitory in such a way,” Riddle’s each word was laden with suppressed rage.
“Riddle-senpai! You should ignore him!” Yuu said hastily, “he just says whatever he wants to and never really—”
“I’ll Behead him right now!” Riddle yanked his Magical Pen from his breast pocket and levelled it over her head at Floyd’s face. Its magic stone began to glow dimly.
“Ri-Riddle-kun!” Cater scrambled to hold him back by the arms as his Dorm Head stormed forwards, anger steaming his face and neck scarlet and lifting his hair upwards off of his neck. “Fighting here of all places is a bad idea!”
“Calm down, Riddle!” Trey nearly dropped Grim and Jack’s coat as he stood bodily in Riddle’s way. “You’re gonna get wrapped up in his pace again. Just ignore him!”
Riddle was making an incomprehensible noise that sounded like ‘ughiiiii!’. Cater looked over at her and made frantic motions with his head. He mouthed, Do something!
Yuu nodded furiously. “Umm…uh…right! Jade-senpai, Ashengrotto-senpai was mentioning the same thing earlier in the Headmaster’s office about not going home for Winter Holiday. Why are you staying here if it’s so boring?”
“I’m sure you can guess,” Jade humoured her with a smile. “Haven’t we told you that both Azul and us brothers hail from the north area of the Coral Sea?”
“Right, and when you guys took me to see the north area, the currents were strong enough to knock over any human or Merfolk, to say the least,” Yuu recalled. “Wait a second, is that why you can’t go home? Because of the currents? Isn’t there some way to magically stop them?”
“Stupid Koebi-chan,” Floyd snickered from the crown of her head. “Don’t underestimate the ocean. Even magic can’t completely work against those reverse currents.”
“It was decided that returning to our home during the breaks would be far too risky to our lives,” Jade explained nonchalantly.
“Plus, even after we use all that effort to get back, it’s boring as hell over there,” Floyd told her solemnly. “So, the three of us…and maybe a couple other kids from Octa decided we’d go back once the ice melted during spring break.”
“That so,” Trey blinked in genuine interest after he’d made sure Riddle was calm enough to release. “Having a hometown under the ocean’s more troublesome than I imagined.”
Riddle yanked his arms from Cater’s staying grip with a fierce snort of dismissal. “Hmph! Ringing in the new year with you Octavinelle students? I absolutely decline! Especially after the events of the past week, I’ve had enough of seeing you for a lifetime.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Floyd cajoled, starting to sway Yuu back and forth with him again. “Playing around with Kingyo-chan is mmmph!”
Yuu squirmed around in his grip and covered his mouth hastily. “Floyd-senpai!” she hissed. “You’re going to give him an aneurysm!”
Floyd narrowed his mismatched eyes down at her hand and bit down.
“Ow!” Yuu yanked it backwards mostly in shock. “Are you a little kid!?”
“Whoa there, Floyd,” Trey reached forwards and gently tugged her out from Floyd’s loose grip. “Try not to play around with the Transfer too much. Riddle’s gonna get even angrier with you.”
Floyd blinked at Trey once before narrowing his eyes slowly. “…Umigame-kun, you’re kinda interesting. What, since Koebi-chan can’t protect…himself…like Kingyo-chan can, you’ve taken over as some sorta guardian? Or are you just making sure he doesn’t leave your sight?”
Trey blinked back benignly. “Ha ha. I don’t really get what you’re talking about.”
Yuu swung her head between the two of them in surprise before glancing over at a calmly watching Jade. She hadn’t expected Trey and Floyd to face off, especially since she’d thought Trey one to follow Leona’s example of completely ignoring him or brushing his existence off. Wasn’t he someone who took great pains to ‘appear normal’?
When he caught her staring wide-eyed up at his chin, Trey released Yuu’s shoulder before patting her head without changing his smile.
“…Hmph,” Riddle, who looked as if he was still resisting the temptation to attack Floyd, released a powerful burst of air from his nose and glared around at all the gathered. “Yuu, it pains me to leave you within the same building as Octavinelle soon after the incident, but I believe the Headmaster will take care of your safety in my stead. I will contact you later. Everyone, I wish you a happy Holiday.”
“Actually, that Headmaster guy’s going to fly off on vacation,” Ace muttered under his breath, but Riddle didn’t hear him.
“Happy Holiday~,” Floyd sang, waving cheerfully at him.
“Not you!” Riddle shouted before stomping towards the Mirror.
“Looks like he’s recovered some of his usual bearing,” Trey commented. “Thanks for cheering him up, guys. But don’t let your hair down too much during the break, okay? Here’s your phone, Transfer.”
“Thanks,” Yuu said automatically. “…Wait! When did you—”
“See you next year,” Trey winked and put Grim back in her arms. While Yuu struggled with the sudden weight of her partner, he wove through the crowd to follow his childhood friend and disappeared from view.
“I guess it’s my turn to leave,” Cater’s earlier melancholy was hidden much more effectively under his cheer this time. “Before I leave, though, firsties gather ‘round for a photo!”
“Should I wake Grim?” Yuu poked at her slumbering partner cautiously.
“Nah, let him sleep. Actually, how the heck is he still sleeping in this noise?” Cater wondered.
“I’ve wondered the same thing myself like eighty times,” Yuu muttered before squeezing in between Ace and Deuce so Cater could stretch out his arm to snap a group selfie.
“Hashtag last day of fall semester,” Cater typed while Yuu rubbed her eyes from the flash. “With the firsties, wishing you a happy New Year, whoops it’s too soon for that lol.”
“I feel like I’ll never understand that hashtag thing,” Yuu whispered to Deuce.
“Isn’t one enough?” Deuce squinted. “Why does he make twenty hashtags?”
“Aaand posted!” Cater tucked his colourful phone away and grinned across at them. “Watch out for messages from me, Yuu-chan. Come to think of it, I should invite you to the ’Labyul group chat.”
“Happy Holiday, senpai,” Yuu dove forward for a surprise hug. “I hope that everything goes well.”
“…Are you trying to steal my heart or something?” Cater froze for a moment before reluctantly squeezing her back. “Happy Holiday, you tiny devil. I’ll see you all next year!”
“Why are you sticking to other people so much?” Floyd yanked her several step backwards. It was only then that Yuu realized that he and Jade had been waiting patiently off to the side, observing them. “Ja~de, Koebi-chan’s cheating on us again.”
Cater sighed and muttered something like “biggest player ever” before rolling his eyes at her and leaving with a wave.
“Can you not use such misleading language?” Yuu monotoned while Ace and Deuce made very interesting scrunched up expressions. They comically resembled Grim fighting a sneeze.
“Rest assured, Floyd,” Jade said with a smile, putting his phone away, “I have just received a message from Azul. He and the Headmaster have come to a favourable agreement, which means that Yuu-san will not be travelling to the southern countries. There will be no opportunity to ‘cheat’ in the near future.”
“Seriously? How’d Azul do it?” Floyd lost his pout for a wide grin. “This means I’ve got someone to play with during break! Hey, hey, Koebi-chan, come live in Octa with us.”
“That’s a wonderful idea,” Jade lifted a glove to his chin with a smile and cut off her protest. “I’m sure that with Yuu-san around, the Holiday is bound to be filled with fun.”
“Yuu,” Ace hissed urgently, “it’s not too late! Come back home with me before you get turned into some sort of plaything for these two scary dudes!”
“Ugh…the memories of Mostro Lounge last week…” Deuce shuddered.
“Stop bringing it up!” Ace elbowed him.
“Hey, you anemones sure have a lot of courage to be talkin’ like that where we can hear you,” Floyd’s voice dropped half an octave.
“W-we’re not even anemones anymore!” Deuce spluttered.
“We were never anemones, moron,” Ace hissed.
“Now, now, Floyd,” Jade tugged at his brother’s elbow to stay him. “We must return to prepare a guest room and various necessities before Yuu-san comes to stay. You can play with the others after they return from break.”
“Aha~! I almost forgot,” Floyd’s mood swung up again. “Okay, Koebi-chan. I’ll come pick you up later. Honestly, it’d probably be better to carry you off right now—”
“Oh hell no! You’ve been carrying him off like every day this past week!” Ace yanked her powerfully behind him. “Yuu, seriously, just come home with me. It’ll be a thousand times better than staying on the same campus as these freaks.”
“…Kani-chan,” Floyd said pleasantly. “I think you might be sick of being alive.”
“I’m sick of of you, that’s for sure,” Ace said with grim determination.
“It would be very unfortunate if a fight damaged the Mirror Chamber again,” Jade finally cut in. “Azul complained vocally about the way a…certain Monster destroyed it during the opening ceremony this year. Floyd, it would be wiser to resist the urge to give Ace-kun his just desserts and wait for a better opportunity.”
“Can you guys not fight every time you see each other?” Yuu poked her head out from around Ace’s arm. “I’ve become so used to the insults and glaring that I’m getting scared of myself. And Jade-senpai, please don’t damage my friend.”
“Moray eels are ambush hunters,” he told her unhelpfully. “…Well then, Yuu-san, we will see you very soon.”
Floyd, who was still trading an uncomfortably intense stare with Ace, broke it off and waved to her cheerfully before following his straight-backed brother out of the hall at a much more comfortable slouch. Yuu rolled her eyes and waved back.
“How the hell did you get that guy to like you?” The tense line of her friend’s shoulder relaxed only after they disappeared from view. “If I hadn’t heard the Headmaster waxing poetic about you being some kind of beast tamer a thousand times by now, I would’ve seriously wondered if you were hypnotizing them all.”
“I’m seriously not a beast tamer,” Yuu said exasperatedly. “It’s not me who’s weird! It’s NRC’s whole unwritten law about being hostile to everyone else that’s weird! If you’re pleasant to other people, they’ll be pleasant to you. I think.” She didn’t mention that this lesson was something she’d learned very recently and that it didn’t work around sixty percent of the time.
Deuce frowned, reading her less-than-confident expression. “Didn’t you tell me earlier that Bucchi-senpai and Kingscholar-senpai used to be hostile to you? Not to mention the other Savanaclaw guys. I’ve beat—uh, seen a lot of them trying to pick on you before.”
“And you said that Floyd-senpai used to hate you?” Ace arched a brow.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Yuu lost steam. “Umm…Give me a second.”
“Give it up while you’re ahead,” Deuce advised her with a grin. He glanced around and sighed. “The room’s emptied out most of the way. We better get going.”
“I’m not coming with you,” she preempted Ace’s narrow-eyed stare in her direction.
“Text me,” Ace didn’t let up. “No, I’ll use MagiCam’s chat to text you. Cater-senpai had you follow me, right? That chat system’s got the ‘read’ and ‘unread’ notifications so I can tell if you haven’t seen my messages.”
“Good idea,” Deuce perked up. “And if you get in trouble, start up the live broadcasting function so we can see what’s going on. Leave evidence, okay? Evidence.”
“Too many crime TV shows,” Yuu rolled her eyes at them. “I’ll be fine!”
“Try not to die of loneliness without me around,” Ace ignored her with his signature wicked grin.
“Who needs you? I’m only gonna message Deuce,” Yuu stuck her tongue out at him.
Deuce patted Ace consolingly on the shoulder. “Sorry, man. I win again.”
“I hate both of you.”
Yuu could not resist trailing behind both of them all the way to the foot of the Mirror’s dais, where the comically dressed Crowley was standing and nodding to the dwindling line of students as they dived through. When only a single person remained standing ahead of her two friends, she felt the telltale lump in her throat and impulsively dove at both of them in a full-body hug. The dozing Grim, still in her arms, let out a squashed yelp from between them.
“Whoa!” Deuce stumbled back a step with the momentum before bracing his arm back around her. “Have you gotten stronger recently?”
“Told you,” Ace grunted without surprise, “you’d die of loneliness without us.”
“Punyaaa,” Grim emitted from somewhere around her diaphragm, his sleepy voice muffled, “Yuu, ease up a little!”
“See you next year,” Yuu’s voice wobbled. But crying this much in a few days wasn’t a good idea, so she swallowed the burgeoning tears. “Have a good Holiday.”
“…You too,” Deuce’s big hand patted her between the shoulder blades. “Call us if you need anything.”
“Stay out of trouble,” Ace ruffled her hair. “Can’t imagine you getting into anything worse than we already have, but be careful, okay?”
“Those two morons are always so loud when they’re around,” Grim commented as Yuu played absently with the Ghost Camera. “But now that they’re gone…”
She glanced up from where she was curled on one of Ramshackle Lounge’s striped couches. “Now that they’re gone…?”
“I’ve realized just how freakin’ annoyingly loud they were every day,” Grim snorted, lounging on the armchair by the crackling fireplace and warming his cold paws.
“You’re ignoring how loud you usually are,” she pointed out, unimpressed.
“I’m not loud!”
“…It still beats being quiet right now,” Yuu moped a little before shaking her head to distract herself. “By the way, did you see that our roof got replaced? I didn’t notice until I saw the snow piling up on it without leaking through. I did Repair most of the leaky areas but they weren’t strong enough to withstand all that weight.”
“Huh? Didn’t notice,” Grim glanced outside the full-length window in the lounge and at the drifting snowflakes. “But our yard looks a lot less messed up now. It’s probably the snow hiding everything.”
“I think the snowman we made is a nice touch,” Yuu followed his gaze at the big mounds of snow piled on top of each other and the twigs sticking out of its side. She waved the moving photo she had taken earlier and grinned at him. “Want to try building a bigger one tomorrow?”
“If my paws can take it,” Grim flexed them at her. He showed his sharp teeth in a grin. “Tomorrow we should have a snowball fight. Not that you’ll win against me, but I might even give you a handicap.”
“I have magic,” Yuu argued. “Sure I kind of suck at athletics compared to everyone else, but if you let me use my wand I can probably bury you in half a second.”
“I’ll just roast ‘em into steam if they come within ten inches of me,” her partner said blithely. “Now that I’ve got my fire magic back from that Azul, I can do anything!”
“Hey, I thought we were having a snowball match, not a magic competition.”
It had been too long since Yuu was able to spend time alone with Grim, split off from the looming pressure of schoolwork and the rest of the noisy schoolmates that captured her attention. She couldn’t tell if he really missed Ace and Deuce or not, mostly because she kept finding him staring at her with a focus that was uncharacteristic of him. Grim’s short attention span was almost legendary.
Yuu blinked out of her thoughts. “Yeah?”
Once again, he was looking at her, the fire glowing in his eyes and igniting the grey of his fur into reddish brown. “What’s your world like?”
Surprised, she sat up straight. “…I didn’t expect that question from you.”
“I guess I mean…what’s your magic like?” Grim corrected himself, still pinning his attention on her single-mindedly.
For a long moment, Yuu met his large blue eyes and tried to scry the reason he had asked her. Carefully, she tried, “…Is there something off about it more than what I’ve said?”
“Sorta…not really,” Grim wrinkled his nose in slight frustration. “You smell kinda weird recently. Not that much. Just…a tiny bit.”
“Like,” her partner searched for words before telling her triumphantly, “like a half-cooked hamburger!”
Yuu stared at him, losing her caution. “I hope you know that even I can’t decipher that food report. Am I supposed to smell like a fully-cooked hamburger?”
“Speaking of which, I’m hungry.” In favour of food, Grim had always dismissed other matters (including his initial curiosity and sobriety). “What’d the Headmaster say about food and cafeteria stuff again? I think I fell asleep once that Azul started doing his suspicious businessman thing.”
“Actually, I’m not too clear on the specifics either since I ran once Headmaster and Ashengrotto-senpai started arguing endlessly. This is what happens when you put two suspicious, smart, and talkative guys in the same room,” Yuu told him solemnly. “People like me who can’t verbally keep up decide to run.”
“No wonder I woke up in the Mirror Chamber a while ago,” Grim muttered. “For once, I think you did the right thing. Those guys are too scary.”
“Though I guess I should ask Ashengrotto-senpai about the terms of the agreement,” Yuu considered. “We still have like half a week’s worth of food in the fridge and a bunch of snacks, but it never hurts to be careful—”
A muffled knocking from the direction of the hallway cut her sentence off. Yuu traded curious glances with Grim before she pushed herself out of her small hollow in the couch to answer it.
“Good afternoon, Yuu-san,” Jade smiled down at her, his Octavinelle dorm uniform covered in a thin dusting of snow. “As promised, I’ve come to pick you up.”
“I guess Ashengrotto-senpai has something to say to me about whatever deal he made with the Headmaster?” Yuu ventured, reaching upwards on her tiptoes to dust the flakes off of his shoulders. She wondered if the lower body temperatures of Mermen made it so that snow failed to melt on their skin.
“Indeed,” Jade affirmed, leaning down to give her better access. “You’ll have to forgive Floyd for staying behind. He was caught trying to sneak off of his shift.”
“Geh! It’s a lookalike twin!” Grim, who had approached from behind, caught sight of Jade and clung to her leg in caution. “You can’t be thinkin’ about stealing my henchman again…”
“That’s strange,” Jade’s polite smile didn’t budge as he turned his mismatched gaze to her partner. “I don’t remember Yuu-san belonging to you.”
“Yeah he does. More than he belongs to you,” Grim grumbled. “Ain’t it your fault that he got sick or whatever? Though I don’t really get that stuff.”
“Oya. If you continue to be so mean to me, I won’t bring you along for dinner,” Jade didn’t even flinch. “If I remember correctly, tonight’s menu is almost completely meat.”
“Well why didn’t you say so earlier!” Changing tacks at the speed of light, Grim puffed out his chest and released his protective grip on her. “Just lead the way, lookalike. I can already hear the tables of food calling my name.”
After pulling on her coat, scarf, hat and gloves, and stuffing Grim into the half-zipped opening by her chest, Yuu took Jade’s proffered hand to leave Ramshackle dormitory. Though it was still too early for evening, the dense blanket of cumulonimbus clouds hung low over the sky cast a wan grey pallour to the surroundings.
This time, they were truly alone. Chilly wind settled over her cheeks and swiftly erased all of the fading warmth of the fireplace she had nestled close to just minutes ago. Even if Ramshackle’s internal temperature was several degrees lower than the rest of the school buildings (not to mention Savanaclaw’s unchanging tropical weather), it was still a far cry away from the true winter that now frosted her breaths and made Grim shiver close to her heart.
“Do forgive me for making a pit stop before returning to Octavinelle,” Jade pulled her in the direction of the school. Both of them walked with careful steps to prevent any possibility of slipping. “I have a little errand to finish. Yuu-san, what do you know about Fairies?”
“Fairies?” Grim echoed curiously.
“I’ve met a couple from Diasomnia,” Yuu answered readily. “But I really don’t know much about them, other than a couple of identifying features. Pointy ears and vertical pupils, right? —Oh, though today, Headmaster Crowley said something about fire Fairies helping to maintain the temperature on campus.”
“Indeed. These fire Fairies in particular create their living spaces within the Cafeteria’s largest fireplace,” Jade explained patiently. “Due to the intensely isolated nature of the Valley of Thorns and its inhabitants, it is difficult to obtain knowledge of the diverse Fairy species. We might catch a glimpse of them today.”
“Do they have something to do with your errand?” Yuu asked curiously.
He nodded. “Be prepared; they may not look like any of the fellow students you meet in Diasomnia.”
Diversity of Fairies… Curiosity piqued, Yuu clutched onto his glove more firmly while they proceeded on the snow-dusted road towards the school castle. She tried to remember the fireplace within the Cafeteria and vaguely pictured a large hearth occupying an entire side of the wall next to the kitchen entrance.
“Do you know anything you can tell me? Back in my world, fairies are kind of dumb,” she explained in clouds of misty breath. “I’ve never actually seen one—I’ve seen Doxies, and caught a glimpse of a pixie once—but according to my Charms Professor, fairies are tiny and wander around our school all the time, though they live mostly in hiding.”
“You have quite a…unique view of the different species found on campus,” Jade blinked down at her curiously. “Merfolk, too—or merpeople, as you say, seem to be completely separate between your world and ours. I would have thought that since you were able to transition between worlds, Fairies and Merfolk and Therianthropes would all be a common point between us.”
“Seeing that my magic is completely foreign here, that’s probably not the case,” Yuu sighed regretfully. “It makes my research to get home a lot harder, you know? Plus, the potions we study here have similar ingredients, but we’ve almost never used the principle of ‘injecting magic power’ into them for completion. Casting spells over it is another thing… Anyway, all these differences are why I got paired with Professor Crewel last week—I couldn’t actually finish the assignment myself since I have none of your magical power.”
“All this stuff is way too complicated,” Grim complained. “You’re making my head spin!”
“Fairies here are of many sizes,” Jade deigned to explain after Yuu stopped rambling. “From the size of your palm to the height of that lovely-looking snowman in your front yard and perhaps taller than me.”
“Hey! It ain’t lovely, it’s fierce!” Grim protested. “I made the glare on its face with the sharpest rocks I could find, y’hear?”
“Maybe I should’ve made it bigger?” Yuu pondered. “This time we didn’t use magic, but I could probably make one the size of the dorm if I tried. More importantly, Jade-senpai, it seems like different species don’t know much about each other here.”
“You forget that despite the prestigiousness of Night Raven College, the students on campus are almost all under the age of twenty,” Jade reminded her. “We are hardly your best sample size for the determination of cross-species interaction.”
“I guess you’re right…though I think you’re selling yourself short,” Yuu muttered.
“It is always better to sell oneself short,” he responded smartly.
Grim muttered something about scary hiding eels.
On their walk towards the castle, Yuu managed to understand precisely nothing about Fairies that she didn’t already know—save for their much higher intelligence compared to her world’s counterparts, which she could guess from Sebek and Lilia’s existence, and the almost xenophobic secrecy that shrouded the Valley of Thorns into obscurity. Silver and Sebek had once told her stories of their families, of the rarity of a human living within their country (although Sebek’s father seemed to be one of these rare specimens), and of a centuries-old war that had been waged against the humans. When she exchanged this information with Jade, he had lifted both eyebrows to blink at her.
“I should stop underestimating your ability to make…‘friends’ across dormitories,” he commented wryly. “Grim-kun, your owner—ahem, henchman probably holds the most information concerning Fairies in the school…outside of Diasomnia, that is.”
“Who cares what Fairies are anyway?” was Grim’s careless comment on the subject. “Not like they’re different on the inside.”
“…Hmm,” Jade hummed. “An unusually bright take on the subject.”
“Grim’s got his priorities straight, at least,” Yuu rubbed her partner’s head fondly.
“Speaking of priorities, can we check the kitchen to see if they left any food?”
“It’s almost dinnertime, you bottomless hole.”
“Which means there should be an almost-dinnertime snack,” Grim told her self-righteously.
“What are you, a Hobbit?” Yuu mumbled.
The wide Cafeteria looked even larger when it was empty. Yuu couldn’t remember seeing it this deserted since the events of the first day of school, which involved Ace being launched into a chandelier. Thanks to the branchlike spiderwebs of brightly glowing chandeliers, they discovered the similarly huge fireplace in a glance; it was surrounded on both sides by candelabras that outsized her easily. Jade had abandoned her by the entranceway to finish his errand, so Yuu peeked over the decorative metal fire-screen guarding the darkened interior while she waited for him.
“Fairies live in here?” she asked Grim doubtfully. “I doubt I could fit in here comfortably.”
“Tell me about it,” Grim sniffled. “There’s soot everywhere.”
A glimmer of orange light caught Yuu’s eye. When she stuck her head in further, she could just make out a thin outline of flame outlining the curled-up figures of several tiny doll-like structures. They glowed weakly, as if fading in and out of visibility.
“Grim, look!” Yuu whispered down to her partner, who was still held up to her chin by the zipper of Jack’s coat. “Are these the fire Fairies? They’re so small.”
“Huh? I don’t see anything.”
Before she could point out the faint impressions to him, Jade’s shoes clicked on the tile to announce his arrival. “I’ve kept you waiting,” he said courteously, but followed it with a smiling, “perhaps long enough for you to attempt to climb into the fireplace.”
Yuu pulled her head out and backed away sheepishly. “I thought I saw the Fairies. Are you done with your errand?”
“Almost,” Jade lowered the hefty stack of firewood he carried in both arms. “You see, the remaining Octavinelle students have been tasked with the daily upkeep of firewood during Winter Holiday. Fire Fairies cannot survive without their element, after all—they’ll disappear if left alone long enough.”
“Seriously?” Grim blinked. “They’re kinda frail.”
“But when present, powerful enough to maintain the temperature across campus with the aid of a magic stone.” Jade leaned forwards to remove the metal guard easily before stacking the fireplace full of wood in a complicated arrangement. “This should prevent the fire from going out for around a night’s worth of time.”
“Where’d he learn that weird arranging pattern?” Grim whispered to her as Jade cast a Fire Shot at the hearth.
“Probably wherever he learned all those mushrooms and hiking tips,” Yuu remembered their outing in November with a grimace. “—Look, Grim! That’s got to be a fire Fairy!”
Trailing behind a long tail of sparkling light, a humanoid figure the size of her forearm had burst energetically from the flames. It seemed to be giving off a crackling in tandem with the sounds of the fire eating into wood; wearing a robe of fire that matched its blazing hair, the Fairy’s limbs were a pale orange and formed as delicately as a porcelain doll’s. Yuu gazed at the impossibly thin butterfly wings beating through the air with bated breath. Even the non-humans at Night Raven College were all beautiful. It also looked nothing at all like Sebek, who was built tall and strong.
She squinted at the air around the Fairy. Somehow, it was giving off an energy that reminded her of Lilia Vanrouge.
Currently, the new arrival was smiling wordlessly at Jade. As if understanding its intention, the vice Dorm Head smiled back and pressed a glove to his chest. “It was my pleasure.”
Grim breathed out a sigh as warmth leached into the area around them even as two more almost identical fire Fairies emerged from the cheerfully burning fireplace, shedding embers behind their flight. “So you guys are the fire Fairies that usually live in here? Just being around you makes the insides of my fur warm up. Hey, Yuu, let me down, it’s hot in here.”
Obligingly, she unzipped her coat and set Grim down beside her. Once Yuu stood up straight, however, she was faced with the curious stares of all three Fairies.
“Um…” Yuu lifted a hand in a cautious wave. “Hello?”
She received no response except for the chorus of crackling emitting from the area around the hovering three. Perhaps, like the fairies rumoured to live around Hogwarts, they were unable to speak.
“Oya,” Jade blinked from closer to the fireplace as he watched them approach her.
Immediately, the temperature tangibly rose several degrees. Yuu felt the heat soak into her coat and hurriedly shed it before she began to sweat. All three Fairies were still examining her. Up close, she could see the exquisitely detailed curving patterns sewn into their wings, the delicate point to their ears, the way contained flames continuously burned on the hems of their robes and hair and boots, the magnificent orange of their curious eyes peering into her face.
“Wow,” Yuu breathed, entranced. “You’re so beautiful.”
One of the Fairies dived courageously close to her nose and opened its mouth. A sparkling, bell-like sound filled the air in place of words.
Unable to understand them, Yuu smiled and cocked her head to the side the way Grim tended to when he was confused.
The two other fire Fairies approached her face more slowly, hovering up and down with the rapid beating of wings. Yuu’s cheeks and nose were beginning to feel uncomfortably warm. One of them reached out with a tiny hand…
Before it could make contact with her face, Yuu suddenly found herself several steps backwards. The displacement of air made her blink several times as coolness returned to the surroundings… before she realized that Jade had bodily lifted her and pulled her away from the three Fairies.
“I apologize,” Jade told the room at large, polite smile still in his voice. “It’s time that we headed back to our dormitory. Perhaps you can come back another time.”
“Lookali…Jade,” Grim corrected himself from by her dangling feet. “Nice save.”
“I do try.”
Yuu blinked the afterimage of flames out from her eyes. “Hey! I wasn’t done talking to them yet!”
“And now you are,” Jade said crisply.
The three Fairies were still staring at her as he carried her off. Yuu craned her head around and waved forlornly at them. “Stingy,” she muttered. “Surely you could have spared another few minutes, senpai. It was my first time seeing fire Fairies.”
“And if all goes well it shall be your last,” Jade didn’t skip a beat. Grim, who was trotting by his side, nodded emphatically.
Yuu puffed out her cheeks in dissatisfaction, but her wandering mind quickly returned to the startling appearances of the new magical creatures…creatures?…that she had met for the first time today. They were so separate from Sebek and Lilia that she could scarcely believe both fell in the same classification. Did this mean Fairies were not a single species but an entire order…or phylum or something? Just like how Therianthropes contained everything from lions to hyenas to bears and jackals and lynxes and apparently even rhinoceroses. Mermen, as well, included the large Moray eel as well as the even larger and rarer octopus.
These fairies were visibly smaller than the shortest human she’d met, much tinier than even Grim. Yet they were not included in his ‘Monster’ category but in the ‘Fairy’ category. Just how were these things decided? Was it by some kind of magical DNA she wasn’t privy to?
In the first place, did the Monster also count as a kind of classification? Jade had mentioned and showed her the skeleton of a Sea Dragon a few days ago, and that was as different from Grim as night and day. If Yuu dug her memory all the way back to the early September night that she, Ace, Grim and Deuce had rushed into the Dwarfs’ Mine, there had been an abandoned house with seven tiny chairs. If they were not for dwarves (which may or may not exist) were they for small Fairies?
This world was still teeming with possibilities she had no knowledge of. The more she was exposed to it the less she knew. Normally, Yuu hated being left out of the know—but she loved discovering things, learning, and the possibilities opened up before her eyes were endless. Perhaps it was time to go searching for books on the Fairy species.
So preoccupied was Yuu with this flood of new information that she didn’t notice the biting cold against her skin nor the fact that Jade had transferred her to one arm and her coat to the other. In fact, not even flashing lights nor Grim were able to refocus her gaze until Jade tugged rather painfully at her nose with a glove and stalled her breathing.
“—Ouch!” Yuu’s exclamation came out rather muffled. Vision clearing, she slapped at his much larger hand. “Hey! I was think…um…oh.”
“I believe I’ve discovered a method to thwart your fear of the travel mirrors,” Jade’s mismatched eyes were narrowed in good humour inches away from her own. He released her nose and continued, “you were so far gone you didn’t even notice when we stepped through.”
“Seriously,” Grim grumbled down by his feet, “this is even worse than when Yuu’s buried in a book and I try to get him to go to bed.”
“I’m starting to wonder which one’s the Directing Student. Fu fu.”
“Sorry, I was just thinking,” she grinned sheepishly at both of them, glancing around at the long tube of corridor they were in. As it was made from the same glass of the seaside wall in Mostro Lounge and the outsides were full of coral and undersea rocks, she guessed they had arrived in Octavinelle a while ago.
Instead of veering into the outdoor path back to Mostro Lounge’s fishbone building, however, Jade carried her lightly forward until they reached the foot of an enormous open room.
Long, grey couches stretched across her field of vision. They arranged back-to-back and stuffed liberally with expensive-looking cushions; between them grew long seaweed-like ferns, from which soft magic-powered lamps dangled. The rest of the room was artfully shadowed with lavender curtains, some of which had been drawn and others pulled back to reveal the clear, cold sea stretching out into a haze of cadet blue. The chandeliers dangling from this ceiling were shaped like octopi, sporting countless beads of white hanging from the eight curled limbs. They illuminated low tables, arms of smaller plush chairs, the pale lilac marble, and a shiny shoe sticking out over a couch whose back was to her.
“There are still some matters that I have to attend to,” Jade finally set her down on her feet gently. “This time, Yuu-san, you are a guest, so we will refrain from working you to the bone. Please do entertain yourselves in here until we return.”
“Guest? Wait a second, I still don’t know what agreement—”
“All in due time,” Jade interrupted cheerfully before he turned towards the foot protruding from atop the couch. His voice was much louder when he called, “Please take good care of our Directing Student, Mister…ah…Red-ear Sunfish, was it?”
A long moment later, the tops of Sunfish’s well-trimmed red hair preceded him poking his face around the back of the couch. He yawned grumpily. “…I was taking a nap, Jade.”
“Don’t be like that,” Jade’s smile only widened. “Aren’t there a whole group of you staying behind? Surely it wouldn’t be a difficult task. I’ll leave Yuu-san in your hands for now.”
Sunfish groaned and collapsed back onto the couch.
“I’m enough to take care of my henchman,” Grim blustered, but Jade had already turned gracefully on his heel and departed.
Passing him on their way in were several students in their tasteful Octavinelle dorm wear, a few of which Yuu recognized. Upon catching sight of her, Bluejaw Triggerfish stared silently for a few seconds before releasing a long sigh.
“Hey!” Yuu protested. “What’s with that reaction?”
“Nothin’ personal, kid,” an unfamiliar tall and gangly student waved a hand at her. “We just don’t want no trouble hanging around all the time, you get what I’m sayin’?”
“To be fair, the Directing Student was pretty much a victim of circumstance the whole time,” Brown-banded Bamboo Shark said solemnly. Then he broke into a grin. “Dude, I sounded really pompous saying that.”
“You mean like an idiot,” the fourth and final member of the group snorted. He cast an unreadable glance at her with his visible eye; the other was covered with a long shock of dark hair. “In any case, that Jade left him here for a reason. Directing Student, you’re stuck with us for now.”
“Whoa!” Bamboo Shark elbowed him teasingly. “You’re never this friendly to people even in-dorm. What’s with the change of heart, huh?”
“He’s probably just scared that Jade Leech’ll pull his fingernails off forcibly if the kid complains we bullied him,” the tall student jibed.
“Not scared,” the dark-haired one snapped. “I know how to pick my battles. My roommate was the one who disappeared for three days last year after he offended Jade, remember? I’m just not an idiot.”
Yuu bent down to gather Grim into her arms as they listened. Her partner muttered, “What the hell did that lookalike do?”
“You probably don’t want to know,” Yuu whispered back before she frowned. They were symbiotes… “…Maybe I should ask him so I can help him stay out of trouble.”
“Are you crazy!?” Grim hissed.
The tall and gangly student was concerned about other matters. “Aah? Who’re you callin’ an idjit?”
“You and your accent,” the dark-haired student met his eyes and scoffed. “Idiot.”
The air thickened with tension. Yuu debated on whether or not she should step in, but before she could even open her mouth, Sunfish sat up again and growled, “Shut the hell up before I pull out your fingernails. I was taking a nap, dammit.”
Although none of the students present looked wary—besides Yuu and Grim, who had never seen the cordial Sunfish wearing such a frightening expression—they all subsided before trailing over to the collection of couches and armchairs facing the Octavinelle third-year, who was running a hand through his hair while he fixed the group of them with narrowed eyes. Yuu plopped down on the side of the couch his legs had vacated and volunteered, “Sorry I disturbed you.”
“’S fine,” Sunfish returned to his usual friendliness before he ruffled her hair habitually. “Not your problem. You doing better now? Not sick? That meeting last night in Mostro sure was something.”
“Tell me ‘bout it,” Tall and gangly grumbled, slumping against his side of the couch and putting his legs up on the low table. “I was gonna get dinner at the Lounge last night, but the second I peek in, there’s that insane Heartslabyul Dorm Head dukin’ it out with Savanaclaw’s scary beast dude. I had to settle with instant ramen instead.”
“After you left, Azul himself joined in,” Bluejaw commented from his armchair. “Actually, all of the ones marked for danger joined in. You know, the hyena part-timer who, ah, fought his way into a job last year, the Heartslabyul third year that knows probably every secret on campus, the two first-years that almost got expelled on the first day of school…I could go on.”
“Ramen’s great, never mind,” Tall and Gangly backtracked. “How did other people not run the hell outta there?”
“Mostly because the Directing Student was around, right?” Sunfish directed a grin at her.
“No, it was ‘cause of me,” Grim piped up. “The Great Grim!”
Bluejaw cast him a look before meeting Yuu’s eyes. “The Directing Student just sat there like he wasn’t scared at all. I heard…the one you know as Arc-eye Hawkfish mumbling about you defusing Floyd and that Riddle Rosehearts from launching a duel three times, without a stutter.”
“Floyd-senpai just likes Riddle-senpai, a lot,” Yuu tried to speak up for her friends. “…Even though Riddle-senpai doesn’t appreciate it, he’s not unreasonable. So they wouldn’t really have gotten into a fight.”
The dark-haired student, who had been silent until now, snorted in disbelief.
“Speaking of,” Bamboo Shark, who had crossed his legs beside the tall student, turned his easy grin on her. Yuu read something in that smile and straightened her spine. “…I’ve been hearing some funny things about you in-dorm, kid.”
“Again?” Grim groaned. “We’ve been through this, y’know.”
Yuu coughed and said tentatively, “Just making sure, but is this the rumour about me being involved in your Dorm Head’s, ah…you know?” Both Bamboo Shark and Sunfish had been on-site that day, but if possible, she wanted to preserve this particular secret for Azul’s reputation, even if it were a losing battle.
“Not really,” Bamboo Shark shook his head, to her surprise. “Well, maybe a little, but no one here cares about that capital O business since you technically saved the entire dorm from collapse, not to mention any lives involved.”
“You’re exaggerating, senpai.”
“You’re underexaggerating,” he retorted. “See, it’s this kind of thing that really makes me doubt why you got admitted as a student here, however unofficial. No one’s like this in NRC except for that smiley Dorm Head from Scarabia. And even he’s…”
“But Directing Student,” Sunfish finally spoke up. “There’s something that’s been bugging me.”
When he paused as if searching for his next words, Yuu turned to him. Sunfish was squinting carefully at her—when she looked around, the rest of the group’s attention had all focused on her face. There was a hesitancy in their expressions that she had never seen before, not even when she had been surrounded by hostile Savanaclaw students in October. It was not like the dark eyes of the Scarabia students seeking her blood in the halls, the derision of a Pomefiore upperclassman looking down his nose at her. In fact, it was even alien to the tense whispering that had followed her all day yesterday.
Grim read the change in the air and tensed on her lap. “What. What? You all pickin’ a fight? Lay one hand on my henchman and I’ll turn you all into barbeque.”
“Not even the lowest-IQ idiot on campus is stupid enough to look funny at the kid who Azul Ashengrotto’s set his sights on,” the dark-hair student sneered derisively at his show of hostility.
“In the firs’ place,” the tall student crossed his long legs and squinted at Grim, “we all don’t really know why a Monster and a magicless kid got enrolled in this school.”
“I’m not really enrolled,” Yuu corrected him. “Grim is the actual student.”
“Yeah right. Not really enrolled and you got fiftieth place on the exams?” Bamboo Shark rolled his eyes. “Dorm Head was bragging about it like it was him who personally tutored you.”
“Damn, fiftieth place? A non-magic human?” Tall and Gangly whistled. “You really got too much secrets, kid. If you’re so freakin’ smart then why don’t you stop pretending you don’t got magic and seriously enroll as a first-year?”
Yuu went stiff.
“Pretend he what?” Grim squinted.
“Why are you so tactless,” groaned Bluejaw, rubbing his forehead. “We were trying to be careful here!”
“I ain’t a hunter that waits,” the tall student shrugged. He turned to Yuu. “…We saw it. Saturday afternoon in the lounge, even before you went out and smacked the shit outta Azul. Usin’ magic in a room full of people wasn’t the smartest move.”
Yuu’s memory of the times when she was feverish had become cloudy. “I used magic?” She’d expected most of the students to have vacated the premises before their big fight.
“Stop pretending,” sneered the dark-haired student. “Maybe those dumb Therianthropes can’t make the connection, but this is Octavinelle. We all saw you use magic or…something—and later on, these two guys here told me you were the key to beating Azul Ashengrotto out of his Overblot.”
“Before you say you smacked him out of it,” Bamboo Shark said with a smile that didn’t seem as friendly as usual, “that kid you call Leaflip Grouper’s told us all about your abysmal physical education grades. There ain’t no way.”
“So. What’s the reason you’ve endured this entire semester as the butt of every guy’s joke?” Tall and Gangly narrowed his eyes shrewdly at her. Despite never straightening out of his lazy slouch, Yuu had the distinct impression of being pinned in place by a predator. “You’ve let the rumours run their course so now pretty much nobody knows why you’re here, how you got here, and what keeps you alive. What’re you hiding, kid?”
“You got the wrong idea about my henchman,” Grim bit back before Yuu could respond. “He’s not like you.”
“Then why is he here?”
“’Cause he—! It’s none of your beeswax!”
“Grim! He’s got a right to ask,” Yuu calmed her partner before he could leap at his opponent. She returned the student’s stare calmly. “…You guys are all suspicious of me. I get it. Is the rest of the school thinking along the same lines as you?”
“Not really,” Sunfish shook his head. “Well, at least they probably haven’t thought this far yet. You know people at NRC mind their own business and stay out of others’. Actually, that includes us, but you’re already up to your shoulders in Octa, so forgive these guys if they think it’s necessary to get a good grasp of your background.”
“We were just doing our homework,” Bluejaw said quietly. “It’s not like I particularly care, but these guys don’t know you as well and are worried you’ll backstab us one day. …The only really hostile party is the current Scarabia dorm, but their worries are usually less, ah, sophisticated.”
The wariness made sense now. Octavinelle was always minding its own business and only concerned with their own safety. But even Bamboo Shark was regarding her as one might a potential enemy. Yuu finally realized that they thought she was powerful enough to be a threat. For the first time, she had left the very bottom rung of the ladder.
They looked at her like she was an equal.
“Yuu,” Grim’s voice was unusually serious. “Don’t listen to these guys. Let’s get outta here. If they’re gonna try and bug you, we don’t have to give ‘em the time of day.”
He was right. The smart decision would be evasion and retreat. She had already revealed to Azul, to Jade and Floyd her magic. Her gender. Her origin. Save for a select few in Heartslabyul and Savanaclaw, Yuu had remained stubbornly close-lipped on these topics no matter how she liked everyone in this world. Even Trien and Vargas were unaware, and this was intentional on her part.
Leaving her mark on the Twisted Wonderland was against Yuu’s purpose. As someone who would eventually disappear without a trace—one way or another—it was meaningless, and even worse, dangerous to divulge the existence of something as radical, as dangerous as the existence another world.
But her caution was, in a way, nothing more than a selfish desire. From the perspective of Sunfish beside her and the four intelligent students that had already begun to investigate their suspicions, Yuu was not only reluctant to refuse them—she was also unsure about her ability to evade discovery. Twice before she had tried to lie; Leona, Floyd and Jade had summarily crushed her confidence in that ability. Perhaps the students within NRC were just too suspicious to let anything pass.
Or maybe she was worse at trickery than she thought.
“…I expected a better actor,” Tall and Gangly broke her out of her thoughts. He was making a face in her direction. “Look at this kid sweating bullets. He didn’t even try to laugh it off or evade my stare.”
“I told you, the Directing Student’s not spy material in the least,” Bluejaw said wearily. “Your suspicions are way too paranoid.”
“Shaddup. I’ve survived this long for ‘em.”
Bamboo Shark sighed and lost the edge to his stare. “I feel like I’m bullying him now. Has anyone told you you’re way too serious, Directing Student?”
“Actually, yes,” Yuu offered. “But I don’t want to be unfair to you guys and ignore your valid suspicions.”
“How did Azul Ashengrotto take a liking to this moron?” Dark Hair looked singularly disgusted. “He’s so not NRC that it hurts.”
“Don’t say that,” Bamboo Shark laughed. “The kid grows on you real fast. Careful, or a week later you might accidentally become friends or something.”
“Stop that, I’m gonna hurl.”
“Yuu,” Grim insisted.
She hesitated, hesitated again. “Senpai-gata…How much do you trust my words?”
“Huh? You crazy?” Tall and Gangly spluttered. “Who the hell would anyone trust anyone else here?”
“Is there a reason why you said ‘my words’ and not ‘me’?” Bamboo Shark was quicker on the uptake.
“Asking if you trusted me is a meaningless question,” Yuu shrugged. The only person who had been that visibly vulnerable with her was Deuce Spade. “But surely as Mermen…or mostly Mermen…you’re all better at telling apart visual tics or smells or whatever. How confident are you that you can pick apart lies from truth?”
“No one would tell you,” Dark Hair said flatly.
“Probably a little better than the average human,” Bamboo Shark said at the same time.
“You probably don’t believe me, but I really get your suspicion,” Yuu met their eyes. “I also hate being left out of the know. And I really like all of you—I want to trust you not to use information you get from me for harm.”
“You do?” Sunfish looked pleasantly surprised. “You barely know us.”
“We’re co-workers, of course I know you!” Yuu argued. “And Sunfish-senpai. You saved my butt on Saturday.”
“That was in the heat of the moment…” Sunfish stopped himself and furiously rubbed her hair. “Now you’re knocking me off stride you li’l twerp.”
“Not the hair! Why is it always the hair!”
Grim groaned and buried his snout in his paws. “Whatever happens next ain’t my problem, moron.”
Sometimes he could read her better than she could read herself—perhaps Grim had long since understood the choice she was making now.
Yuu fended Sunfish off with difficulty, looked around at the group of students and nodded decisively. “Okay. So I can’t tell you a lot of things, but I think you guys are all intelligent enough to read information from what I’m not saying.”
“‘Can’t tell’?” Bluejaw frowned. “…Have you been cursed?”
“Cursed?” Yuu repeated bemusedly. The phrase didn’t sound as simple as a hex she was familiar with.
“Non-magical,” Bamboo Shark reminded him. “He has no idea what you’re saying.”
“I’m not cursed. I think.” Yuu assured them. “It’s just, I’m not from around here.”
“Yeah, we know,” Tall and Gangly rolled his eyes. “It’s kinda easy to tell that you’re from the farthest recesses of the world, the way you behave. If you weren’t so well-spoken I’d’a called you a country bumpkin.”
“No, listen,” Yuu insisted. “I’m not from around here.”
The dark-haired student sat up straight. “…What’s the name of the capital city of the Scalding Sands?” he asked abruptly.
Yuu blinked at the non sequitur. “What? I have no clue.”
“Bad question. A lot of people suck at geography,” Bamboo Shark shook his head. He narrowed his eyes and pondered. “Directing Student, just answer me for a second…What do people think about magic users in the Twisted Wonderland?”
This time she could make a hypothesis. Yuu knew that unlike her world, no Statute of Secrecy existed. Deuce had once told her with stars in his eyes that there was an entire police squad composed of magic-users and they were a subject of admiration comparable to an Auror. Added to the way students’ faces contorted with disgust when their eyes met hers—the magicless, talentless individual—she was reasonably confident in guessing, “People think magic is an inborn talent, and instead of regarding magic users with fear and loathing, they laud them for their power. Um, probably.”
A beat of silence befell her statement.
Sunfish broke it by swearing. Yuu jumped in surprise, almost dislodging Grim on her lap. Everyone was still staring at her, but this time they had all paled save for the tall student, who was squinting at her strangely.
“What kinda answer’s that?” he mumbled. “It’s all wrong. You sound like you don’t actually know. Even villages without a single magic user at least know about…”
“You idiot,” Dark Hair snapped. “He said he’s ‘not from around here’. Guess the rest with your puny brain.”
“This is why I hate your complicated conversations,” Grim complained, sticking his head under her arm where it was warmer. He proceeded to ignore them all soundly.
“Wow, you guys are smart,” Yuu applauded the circle of Octavinelle students, impressed. “I thought I’d have to dig a little deeper. I guess NRC isn’t one of the best schools around for no reason.”
“…Wait. Wait a sec,” Bamboo Shark started rubbing his temples. “No. That can’t be right. I swear I watched a TV show last week about this… There’s no way.”
“Magic exists and you can use it,” Sunfish said bleakly, “the word ‘no way’ is already not allowed here.”
“Wait, you’re not from here, here? ‘Twisted Wonderland’ here?” Tall and Gangly spluttered. “…Ha ha, very funny. You’re just trying to put me off from thinking you’re some kind of spy from an enemy country.”
“Why on earth would a country send a spy here and not directly to another country?” Yuu pointed out, wrinkling her nose.
“’Cause the Isle of Sages is neutral ground,” Bluejaw explained patiently. “We’re not part of any kingdom here. It’s a lot easier to travel to this place undiscovered than actually get within ten feet of any of the palaces. Plus, both of the best schools in the world—that’s Night Raven College and Royal Sword Academy—currently have almost all of the most promising talent situated here.”
“Including royalty,” Bamboo Sword hinted. “Y’know, that Kingscholar guy someone told me walked you to class.”
“Right! That Royal Sword Academy’s on this island too!” Yuu blurted out before catching the unimpressed stares aimed in her direction. “…Um, sorry. I forgot Leona-senpai’s a prince. Also, he thought I was suspicious back in September and we went through the whole ‘are you a spy’ thing already.”
Dark Hair collapsed backwards on the plush seating of his area of the couch. “I refuse to believe someone acts this stupid and is still alive,” he declared. “Also, if a spy is this stupid or this good of an actor, we all deserve to die anyway.”
“Unfortunately, this is his real personality,” Bluejaw sighed. “The Directing Student’s basically an Ignihyde, which means he has no social awareness or skills…but he’s got a pleasant attitude so no one notices. He’s not exactly…stupid.”
“You think I should take lessons in social interaction?” Yuu asked Grim tiredly. “So these guys stop insulting me to my face?”
“I think you should lock yourself in a room and never leave,” his voice was muffled in her shirt.
Dark Hair gave him a disgusted look.
“…I did watch a TV show about this last week,” Bamboo Shark was still mumbling. “There was all that crap about time-loops and the causal effect and the destruction of the universe.”
“Are you talkin’ about the cartoon with the hot chicks?” Tall and Gangly squinted. “Or the sciencey crap that this dude likes?”
“It’s not ‘sciencey crap’,” snapped Dark Hair. “You don’t have enough brain cells to comprehend it.”
“Anyway,” Yuu cleared her throat over their unfriendly scowls, “You can draw your conclusions about what you saw or didn’t see last week. I really, really can’t say any more than this, though… I’m concerned about the butterfly effect down the line.”
She refrained from mentioning the Memory or Confundus Charms wizards and witches were supposed to cast on muggles who had seen too much. Yuu hated messing with the mind, even if she knew how to use them in theory. It was something she would hesitate doing even in the most extenuating of circumstances, especially to people she liked.
“Literally all I needed to know,” Bluejaw rolled his eyes, “is that you won’t oppose us.”
“What? That’s impossible,” Yuu answered him immediately. “I really like you guys. My one and only goal is to find a way home, full stop. The other stuff with Ashengrotto-senpai…just happened by accident.”
“Find a way home?” Sunfish repeated with a frown. “…You sure that our Dorm Head is going to let that happen?”
“Ah ha ha…” Yuu winced. “I did really piss him off. Um, I’m working on it.”
“Piss him off?” Bamboo Shark repeated incredulously. “Azul wouldn’t try to transfer over someone who just pissed him off.”
“Would he?” Bluejaw was less sure. “What if it’s some new form of torture?”
“I know Dorm Head’s pretty scary, but he doesn’t take more time to do something than it strictly requires,” Sunfish assured him. “Unlike some Scarabia guys. The Directing Student could be squished like a barnacle in two seconds—”
“The same Directing Student that managed to stop his…attack?” Bluejaw countered.
“Those were extenuating circumstances,” Sunfish rolled his eyes. “You’ve heard Azul bragging about how the kid loves him to death all week. Does that sound like someone who’d stand torturing him? I think he just wants the kid where we can all see him.”
“He’s still on about that,” Yuu groaned. “I’m not transferring anywhere. I don’t have magic.”
“Or so you say,” Dark Hair mumbled under his breath.
Yuu gave him a nervous smile and was rewarded with an unpleasant glare.
“For what it’s worth,” Sunfish said weakly, “No one would make a peep if you did transfer. Freaky abilities or not. After last week, even if Jade and Floyd didn’t treat you like their brother, most of us would be too scared to lift a Pen.”
“And we like you, for some crazy reason,” Bamboo Shark showed her some suspiciously sharp teeth in a smile. “Anyway, the lot of us are stuck at school until the currents calm down a bit. It’s gonna be a fun few weeks together, kid, so take it easy for a while.”
“He means don’t get in trouble again,” Bluejaw elaborated. “Unlike the brutes in Savanaclaw, we prefer an eventless life.”
“It wasn’t me getting in trouble!” Yuu protested. “Why does everyone think it’s me?! All the times I’ve gotten mixed up in this stuff is because of Ace and Deuce and Grim and…”
“But it’s always you who’s in the middle of it at the end,” Tall and Gangly said reasonably. “Ain’t that part your fault?”
“I had to do something!”
“I had to do something!” he copied her in a squeaky voice. “What are you, a character from some movie?”
She took offence. “I don’t sound like that!”
He was starting to grin. “Please, your voice sounds like it hasn’t even broken yet. Come back after you hit puberty.”
Yuu’s wordless spluttering was overshadowed by Bamboo Shark and Sunfish, who had started to guffaw.
“And he’s already integrated himself into the group,” Dark Hair remarked to Bluejaw. “I seriously don’t know if this kid is scary as hell or harmless anymore.”
“Thinking’s only going to give you a headache,” Bluejaw told him wearily. “I gave up a long time ago. If you consider the growing possibility that he’s just naturally like that, I feel bad for the rest of the school.”
“Y’know there’s a betting pool going on about you,” Floyd burst cheerfully into Yuu’s guest room the next morning. The door that had bounced loudly off the wall announced his arrival a second after.
Grim screeched and fell off the bed. Yuu, who had stayed up late staring at her new smartphone, barely twitched.
“Koebi-cha~n,” Floyd’s voice was a lot closer the next time he called her. “O~i. Wake up.”
“Okay,” she mumbled, burying her head deeper underneath the nice-smelling covers. Octavinelle’s guest rooms were probably worth every Madol. “One minute.”
“You almost gave me a freakin’ heart attack!” Grim complained, climbing back up on the bed. “Oi, henchman! How late did you sleep? You usually react a lot faster than me at these things! Hurry up and kick him out.”
“But it’s Floyd-senpai,” Yuu explained before stuffing her head completely under the pillow.
Unfortunately, she was dealing with someone who was spoiled to the high heavens by his brother, and although he would not admit it, Azul himself. Floyd obviously didn’t understand the concept of something not ‘going his way’ if he could make it happen, so a few seconds later Yuu found herself halfway to the washroom along with her heap of blankets almost two metres from the ground.
“Hey!” She managed after narrowly avoiding smacking her head on the doorjamb. “Easy on the human!”
“Oh come on, I was being gentler than a freaking seahorse,” Floyd plunked her upright at the sink and stuffed a toothbrush in her hands.
“Can’t I sleep for a while longer?” Yuu whined.
“We have you to ourselves for a month,” he explained to her as if she were a particularly slow kindergartener. “You don’t know how short a month is. There are tons of ways to play with a new toy without breaking it, but they all take time… Aha!”
“If we’re symbio—wait.” As her vision cleared enough to catch sight of the toothbrush in her hands, Yuu froze. “This is my toothbrush.”
“Uh-huh,” Floyd met her stare with a flat face in the mirror. He pointed. “And this is your toothpaste.”
“And this is Grim’s toothbrush.”
“Wow, Koebi-chan, you sure are fast in the mornings.”
Yuu yanked open the washroom cabinet. “This is all my stuff!”
Grim, who was climbing up over the toilet, snatched his own brush. “Good. You got the toothpaste that doesn’t make me wanna puke, right?”
“That’s not the problem,” Yuu groaned, passing the tube to him before filling a cup with water. “Do you guys not have the concept of ‘privacy’ in Merfolk culture or something?”
“We’re symbiotes,” Floyd declared.
“Symbiotes respect each other’s space,” Yuu hinted, half giving up. She had no energy for this argument in the morning.
“No they don’t.” He knew it, too. “Koebi-chan, your hair looks like Uni-chan’s. Is it always this messy in the mornings?”
While Floyd distracted himself by yanking on her hair experimentally, Yuu muttered something about dumb Moray fishmen and cleaned her teeth and face. Jade poked his head in the door several minutes later, his dorm uniform pressed neatly as usual. “Good morning, Grim-kun, Yuu-san. Floyd, that’s quite the interesting hairstyle.”
“I was bored,” Floyd stuck a bobby pin painfully at the crown of her head.
“Good morning, person who broke into my room and stole all my stuff,” Yuu said dully, rinsing her cup.
“Slander,” he said mildly. “Do you have a habit of accusing others without evidence? I might cry.”
“I know it was you, Jade-senpai.”
“…Think of it as saving you the trouble,” Jade’s smile widened unapologetically. “No need to thank me. Your homework and personal effects should be on the desk in your room. I just came by to let you know that breakfast will be ready in five minutes.”
Breakfast. Yuu jolted upright, tugging her hair painfully. “I can help—”
“Don’t move, I’m not done,” Floyd clamped a hand down on her shoulder.
“…Are you sure the Headmaster said I could stay here for the entire break?” Yuu squirmed in place. “I’m not doing anything at all. Shouldn’t I be, you know, helping out? Earning my keep?”
“Guest,” Jade and Floyd harmonized.
“We’ve had this conversation already,” the politer twin continued while Yuu wiped Grim’s toothpaste moustache and offered him a new cup of water. “Floyd, you’ll scare the others with that.”
“Too fancy?” Floyd poked at whatever was going on with the back of her head.
Grim spat out his gargling water and snickered at her. “Yuu, you look like a girl.”
“I do?” Yuu glanced in the mirror and did a double-take. “Hey! This is way too obvious! Turn me back, senpai!”
“I didn’t even do much,” Floyd protested. “It’s your face that’s the problem, Koebi-chan!”
After squabbling over her mop of hair for another ten minutes, during which Jade watched with an amused smile from the side, Yuu wrestled back control of the brush and pulled it tightly back against her head in its usual knot. In revenge, Floyd yanked her bangs out of her face and secured them against the top of her head with some clip that she could not remove no matter how hard she tried.
“Screw your magic,” Yuu said sullenly as she followed the twins down to Octavinelle’s spacious lounge.
“How rude,” Jade laughed, not seeming offended in the least. “Isn’t it convenient to be able to see the world properly?”
“You make it sound like I’m usually blind. I can see just fine.”
“Why do you have your eyes covered anyway? They’re probably the most interesting part on your face,” Floyd, who was slouching to her right, poked at the side of her head idly.
“I learned that it was better to hide them when I studied abroad in Japan—er, in the far east,” Yuu explained. “Witches and wizards tend to be really xenophobic by themselves, but the culture of that area really eschews people who are different. And I was already an ‘exchange student’… It was impossible to get anything done with my non-Asian—far-eastern eye colour, so eventually I just started hiding it.”
“They’re idiots,” Grim commented from his regular position around her shoulders. “Your eyes match me, so there’s obviously nothing wrong with ‘em.”
Yuu beamed at him.
“Isn’t there little reason to hide them here?” Jade added. “The colour of your hair is considered more unusual than blue eyes. Although indeed, that particular shade is quite eye-catching.”
“Isn’t it better to be careful? Says you,” Yuu raised her eyebrows at him.
“Aren’t we here to take care of the riffraff?” Jade countered without missing a beat.
“…You think they’ll figure Koebi-chan out though?” Floyd squinted at her face. “Sh…he stands out more than I expected.”
“Stand out? Me?”
“Figure out what?” Grim asked suspiciously. “That my henchman’s all magic-y? I think they already figured that out yesterday.”
“Azarashi-chan’s a separate case, I guess, if he hasn’t figured out at all for like four months,” Floyd snorted. “But the guys like Inuzame-chan aren’t as dumb as him.”
“Hey! I’m not dumb!”
“You can get rid of this hairclip,” Yuu hinted at him. “Then we won’t have to worry about whatever you’re talking about.”
“No. I wanna see your eyes.”
“Do forgive my brother,” Jade started making excuses for him again. “He’s got an aesthetic sense, as you can see from these shoes…”
Yuu and Grim exchanged eye-rolls and let the words pass through their ears.
It turned out that the two of them had really been ‘given over’ to Octavinelle for at least the duration of winter break. Apparently, Crowley believed that the very worst thing to do was leave her and Grim by themselves, so Octavinelle was considered the lesser of two evils. Even so it had taken Azul an entire morning to convince him, as he told her over dinner last night.
Crowley, who seemed more concerned about Yuu than she’d expected, seemed to be reflecting on the inadequacy of attaching only Jack Howl as some sort of bodyguard. While Yuu knew that he had repeatedly distanced her from events—first the Magift incident in October and then the Octavinelle incident a week ago—he was also wholly useless against the likes of Azul Ashengrotto, who had threatened him not only during his first year and this year but a third time for her guardianship during the Winter Holiday. It seemed that Crowley respected her wishes to continue as a student (hiding her gender) enough for that piece of information to be a crucial card against his carrying her off to the southern countries for ‘research’. So, reluctantly, Yuu was allowed to stay on campus for the duration of her break.
The two conditions he was adamant about were these: one, the daily chore of replenishing firewood in the Cafeteria to maintain stable temperature control; and two, the stipulation that Yuu be treated as a guest—not a dormitory student—and kept as far away from danger as possible.
The details of Azul’s ‘agreement’ with Crowley had been transmitted to her during a sumptuous seafood spread last night, the preparation of which apparently had help from Octavinelle’s Dorm Head himself. Despite what he had said about his contracted ‘abilities’ making up most of his skill, Yuu thought that his cooking was flawless and said so, upon which Azul snorted and told her that as a restaurant owner, this mastery wasn’t anything to write home about.
“It was about as far as I expected he would give,” Azul had said smugly across dessert. “We can work on the transfer after the New Year, but you can rest assured that no interference will befall you in my hands.”
“I can take care of myself,” Yuu started.
“Even if you can, I won’t allow it,” he cut her short. “If I’m tied to you by this cursed piece of paper, I won’t have it backfiring on me.”
“Azul is a shy individual,” Jade put in, earning a glare.
Grim was surprisingly quiet about the arrangements, although he vocally expressed his appreciation of the food. While he didn’t seem scared of Azul, he did regard him with something more than the instinctive fear (and later, irreverence) he afforded Riddle or Leona.
Ace and Deuce, across the MagiCam messenger function, reacted much less calmly.
“I’m still surprised that my magic hasn’t fried the phone yet,” Yuu commented some time after lunch that day. She was working on Trein’s assigned magical history essay while Grim napped with a bulging belly over her textbook. The early afternoon light from the sea danced serenely over Octavinelle lounge’s stylish tables and the fabric of Azul’s greatcoat as he muttered equations from across her. It was the first time she had seen him doing homework.
“Hmm? Ah, right,” he glanced up at her blankly. “How long will it take you to finish that? I have Jade coming in an hour to discuss your allegedly ‘unstable’ magic with me. Floyd, too, though who knows if he’ll show up. As to why your magic does not interfere with the technology of this world, it probably has to do with the fact that much of our electronic equipment today is made with magical engineering.”
“Magical engineering?” Yuu perked up. “Wait. Hold on, let me finish my last paragraph. I’m almost done and then I want to ask you about that! Magic interacting with modern technology’s a whole new subject matter for me.”
Her new Olympus Corp. smartphone was a source of endless interest to Yuu, who had interacted with computers in the library, the television at home, and almost nothing else. Of course, thanks to the Heartslabyul upperclassmen who could afford the latest gaming systems, this semester had seen her grasp the basics of a controller, but even Grim was better at her at the multiplayer smashing game and he didn’t even have opposable thumbs.
What was more, this phone never seemed to run out of battery due to the magical stone which powered its function. Trey or Cater had said something about magic stone-powered technology being expensive back in September. Maybe. She had never paid much attention to the topic.
Either way, Yuu had spent all evening holed up in a far-too-luxurious guest room fiddling with her phone while Grim prowled the room for some sense of familiarity. Even after figuring out how to swipe words on a keyboard, her typing speed was abysmally slow, so she limited her first chat group to Ace and Deuce for her own time management.
Unlike the patiently waiting Deuce (her messages immediately read Seen by 2), Ace gave up watching her Yuu is typing… after she had sent two lines and half-forced her to record a voice message for them to listen to. A moment after she sent the bubble, Deuce entered a funny string of characters before she was immediately summoned for a video chat—the loud ringtone almost made her fling her phone through the window while Grim sprung instinctively atop the dresser before falling over into an open drawer.
Predictably, her friends were not pleased that Crowley had dumped her in Octavinelle, and even less pleased that she was now staying in the dorm with the three students that had tormented them during the past week.
“You’re in a guest room! You agreed!? Grim!” Ace had shoved his face into the screen angrily, messy hair plastered to his forehead and still wet from a shower. “Why’d you just let that happen!?”
“Funa! Why the hell is it my fault?!” Grim called from the dresser he was half buried in. “No one can out-talk that octopus guy! And he gave me food!”
“I’ll make you into food, you tanuki!”
“Oi! Shut up!” a low voice shouted in the background. “Lemme watch this movie in peace, dammit!”
There was a loud smack and a lady’s voice filtered through. “Language, young man! Don’t speak to your brother like that.”
“Ow! Mom, why’re you always on Ace’s side?! Dad! Mom’s playing favourites again!…”
“This is the first time I’ve used this app’s video call function,” Deuce squinted at the screen bemusedly, coming in and out of focus. “Who’s yelling? Is that your family, Ace?”
“My bad,” Ace went out of view briefly, leaving her an excellent view of the chalk-white ceiling of his room, before a door shut. “Okay, I’m back. Hey, Yuu, this was the basketball I wanted to show you. Ain’t it cool?”
“It looks like…a basketball?” Yuu flopped down on her guest room’s bed while he directed his front-facing camera towards the corner of his spacious room.
“Oh come on. You need to get more into sports.”
“Stop getting off topic, moron,” Deuce rolled his eyes. The window behind him was so dark that it almost melted into his hair. “Yuu, you’re staying in Octavinelle for the night? I seriously think this is a bad idea. Why don’t you sneak back to Ramshackle? It’s not too late now.”
“Octa’s, well…Can’t be worse than those two weeks in Savanaclaw,” Ace grimaced, “but you have those three mafi—uh, fish dudes in close proximity. They’re seriously not normal.”
“I told you, we’re good now.” Yuu tried to advocate for her symbiotes. “And none of you guys are normal.”
“I trust you about as far as I can throw you.” Ace paused. “Never mind, I could probably throw you. Correction: I don’t trust you at all.”
“Anyway, in the case they lock you up, let me give you a few picking tips,” Deuce told her, proceeding to explain how to jiggle a lock with a keyhole. “…So if you find yourself stuck somewhere, all you need is a paperclip. Er, most of the time. Or just blast open the door and run.”
“This is Headmaster-approved,” Yuu deadpanned. “I’m not going to be in trouble.”
“’Specially since you two aren’t around,” Grim fell out of the dresser with a thump, sneezing.
“I don’t wanna hear that from you,” Ace and Deuce synchronized perfectly.
After taking the better part of an hour to convince her friends she was not about to break any bones or fall victim to Azul’s schemes a second time, Yuu had learned the copying and pasting function from Ace and sent an identical good night message to everyone on her contacts list. This included the Heartslabyul upperclassmen—all of whom had followed her back on MagiCam, to her surprise—as well as her friends from Savanaclaw, plus Crewel and Crowley.
Now, after putting the finishing touches to her essay’s conclusion and setting it aside, Yuu waited for Azul to finish his Magical Analysis problems while reaching for her phone to check its notifications.
“This thing really doesn’t react to me at all,” she mumbled, poking the lock screen with her fingertip to unlock it. “Magical engineering…I guess it’s got to deal with the magic stone? But not all phones have magic stones…Deuce’s doesn’t. His was fine around me all semester.”
“Are you guys doing homework?” Tall and Gangly, who was passing by the couch with a bag of chips, peeked over her shoulder with disgust. “Dorm Head’s one thing, but aren’t you not even an actual student? Why’s the cat sleeping if he’s the student?”
“We get graded separately,” Yuu explained.
“Hey, I can see your face,” he blinked at her dumbly. “Directin’ Student, you don’t clean up half bad. Why don’t’cha do this more often? People’d have less ammunition against you.”
“Floyd-senpai was bothering…” she put her fist into a palm in remembrance. “Oh, right. Floyd-senpai said you guys are using me for a betting pool or something? Is that allowed?”
“’S long as the teachers don’t find out, who cares if it’s allowed?” he shrugged. “By the way, I bet that you get in trouble in less than two weeks. And that dude you call Bamboo Shark bet less than one.”
“Since Yuu-san’s ability to stay out of trouble directly depends on my supervision, don’t you think I should get a cut at the end regardless of winner?” Azul put in smoothly.
“Aw, c’mon, Dorm Head,” Tall and Gangly scratched his hair. “None of us bet more than eight thousand Madols, okay? It’s probably all pocket change to you.”
Across the room, Sunfish called, “I bet three days! Don’t let me down, kid!”
“I highly resent all of you,” she pushed herself upright and shouted back, “I’m not going to get into trouble!”
“Yeah, right,” all those present in the room chorused at once. They were punctuated nicely by Grim’s snore.
Yuu stared plaintively at Azul.
“I’m around,” he assured her, as if that was supposed to mean anything. “Once they all lose, I’ll collect the winnings myself.”
Soon after, Jade appeared in the lounge, and the three of them huddled around the low table to discuss Yuu’s recent bouts of uncontrolled magic. A powerful Muffliato gave the three of them a measure of privacy to speak freely, so she wasted no time in divulging the events of the past few months. None of them were pleased to hear that Yuu had been practicing magic in Savanaclaw.
“You could have come to me,” Azul looked as if she had personally wronged him. “Why, of all the living creatures on the planet, did you go to Leona-san?! There’s no knowing what that man is thinking!”
“Indeed…he’s one of the least trustworthy people on campus,” Jade furrowed a brow. “I was not personally able to witness the events occurring before this year’s Magift Tournament, but hadn’t he plotted something…harmful with the magic-amplifying potion obtained from you, Azul?”
Azul sneered. “…I’m sure Yuu-san knows exactly what happened then. And you still went to him first!”
“Leona-senpai’s trustworthy,” Yuu said with certainty.
“You’re being deceived by his indolent nature,” Azul spat, perhaps still stinging from the turning to sand of his precious contracts. “None of us knows what he’s still here for in the first place.”
“—What do you mean?” Yuu frowned. “…You think he’s repeating years on purpose?”
“Let’s not go into conjecture,” Jade sighed. “In any case, it’s irreversible that Yuu-san has revealed his magic to Ruggie-kun and the others. For now, let’s put that aside. You said that your magic has been…‘acting up’ recently? How recently? …This muffling spell of yours is effective, right?”
“I promise it works. I’ve used it before,” she caught Azul’s glare and swallowed the in Savanaclaw. “Only, it isn’t supposed to send a gust of wind flying around like it did just now.”
“I remember during my… embarrassing loss of control,” Azul grimaced at the recollection of his Overblot, “just how powerful one destructive spell was. How many times the regular force do you expect it was?”
“Hard to say,” Yuu racked her brain. “I’ve got to estimate at least three times. It also sent shockwaves into the surrounding objects, which isn’t normal. More worryingly, I feel like it’s been acting up without my putting any thought into it. Like recently, I was about to wash the dishes before they started washing themselves.”
“Until we conduct a measurable experiment to see what has changed,” Jade murmured, “I would strongly suggest you refrain from the further use of your magic. I don’t know about your world, but those born with magic here tend to have a hard time controlling it when they are young or untrained. In those circumstances, the less we use it, the better.”
“We have that too,” Yuu nodded. “When I was young and trying to figure out how to use a knife to cook, the blade would always slide around my fingers instead of slicing them off. That was one of the first signs that I was a witch.”
“No, it’s not the same here,” Azul demurred with a shake of his head. “When we can’t control our magic, usually it bursts out of us in elemental form. For example, early in elementary school, I accidentally froze a student into a block of ice in an emotional outburst. Not my brightest moment.”
“You seem to be doing your magic without a stone,” Jade observed. “Where does the waste matter go?”
“As far as I can tell, there is none,” Yuu explained, remembering that she hadn’t been thorough with them the way she had with Heartslabyul.
“There is none!” Azul gasped. “So the only limiting factor is the amount of magical power you have in your body?”
“Um, not quite. Maybe?” Yuu wrinkled her nose. “We don’t have the concept that NRC teaches about ‘any person having a finite amount of self-replenishing magical power’. I mean…learning and casting powerful spells definitely make the user feel exhaustion afterwards. But I remember stories about the Battle of—er, one of the important battles over twenty years ago, and there were wizards and witches that fought unceasingly for over six hours straight. Our magic is formed by intention and will—as long as you have those two you won’t ever become exhausted.”
Azul was staring thoughtfully at her over his glasses. “How long can you keep casting for?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “I’ve never checked. Um, my solid Transfiguration’s lasted a total of a week and a half before, but that was last year.”
“Azul,” Jade reminded him.
“Another time, then,” the Dorm Head sighed reluctantly. “What about the stick you used in our battle Saturday? I don’t see it.”
Yuu unbuttoned her cuff to show him. “Usually we use this semi-sentient wand to channel our magic and act as a conduit. Here’s mine, it’s made of unique properties just to suit me.”
“Yew wood,” Jade remarked as she handed it to him. “…Is it really wise for you to give your weapon to me this easily?”
“You and Floyd-senpai are my symbiotes,” she said frankly. “I trust you. If it comes back to bite me, that’s my responsibility.”
Jade blinked. “…It’s an honour,” he said bemusedly.
Azul was frowning at the pale stick in Jade’s fingers. “Jade. Feel anything?”
“Unfortunately not. But I am not a Fairy, nor am I especially sensitive to magic,” the vice Dorm Head shook his head regretfully. “More importantly, I am concerned about the reason that Yuu-san is able to cast without using this conduit.”
“We usually start to learn non-verbal and wandless casting around fifth or sixth year,” Yuu explained. “Well, some of us, anyway. But it should be very difficult, so recently…”
“What happens to the magic when you cast it?” Azul asked her abruptly.
“Here, magic dissipates into the air slowly after it is used,” Jade explained helpfully for her benefit. “For example, if I cast a Leaf Shot at the wall, it would of course damage the wall—but powerful magic users and those of the Fairy species can easily detect the ‘presence’ of magic lingering behind long after the wall is fixed. Azul wants to know if your magic is similar.”
“Not…I don’t know,” Yuu hadn’t researched this particular topic. “I haven’t heard of anyone ‘detecting’ the presence of magic before. I guess you can feel something really strong in the air around you if it starts causing phenomena like wind and electricity? But usually it’s unnoticeable…I think.”
“So you say you’re equipped with a game-breaking cheat,” Azul gritted out.
“What?” Yuu blinked.
“Nothing.” He coughed. “The reason I asked you ‘what happens’ is…you know your magic doesn’t exist in this world, and with the continuous casting you’ve been doing since October—”
“September,” Yuu corrected him. “Actually, I cast a spell before the first day of school.”
“—September,” Azul, who never enjoyed being interrupted, gave her the evil eye. “We have no idea how your magic interacts with the environment here. I believe there might be the possibility that it just…doesn’t.”
“Doesn’t interact with the environment? But it breaks and mends things just like it did in my world.”
“And then dissipates?”
“Dissipates?” Yuu repeated, having never thought of it before. “I…I mean, I guess. Almost all magic is stuck to a limited lifespan once it’s casted.” Even enchantments rarely lasted forever.
“So what happens when it’s gone?” Azul seemed to be trying to direct her thoughts.
“…I don’t know,” Yuu admitted for the second time that day, shoulders slumping. “I need more information. Senpai, stop torturing me, I know I’m not as smart as you are…”
“When he choked you half to death, he wasn’t torturing you, but testing the limitations of your knowledge is?” Jade seemed amused.
“I’m a Ravenclaw,” Yuu told him. “That’s my House—my dormitory. We’re supposed to be able to draw conclusions quickly, think outside the box, and discover things.”
“What a name,” Azul blinked. “Raven, is that right? Perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that you’re here.”
“But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” she argued. “You and Leona-senpai say the same things sometimes. Are people here as superstitious as the wizards back in my world?”
“Stop grouping me with him!” Azul snapped.
“Yuu-san seems to have a special ability for getting under Azul’s skin,” Jade commented like a spectator.
“Jade…are you having fun at my expense?”
Yuu was thinking about Azul’s earlier words. “You think,” she said slowly, “if the world doesn’t recognize my magic and considers it ‘alien’ like me…it would try and eliminate this ‘alien’ existence? For example, trying to disperse my magic.”
“What? Obviously not,” Azul dismissed the idea immediately, to her surprise. “You are currently alive. If an expensive magical potion can cure you instead of poisoning you to death, aren’t you proof that such a ludicrous idea isn’t true?”
“Keep in mind that a world is not alive the way us creatures are,” Jade added. “At least…not that we know of, yet. It probably doesn’t have the capacity of an autoimmune response to actively target you.”
“…What were you trying to get at when you asked me what happens to magic after I cast it, then?” Yuu asked Azul in confusion.
“The opposite,” he said tensely. “Namely, ‘nothing’ happens. Obviously the spells you cast will work—and initially they worked ‘normally’, right?”
“Right,” Yuu remembered cleaning Ramshackle Dorm way back in September.
“But after the spell is cast, ‘nothing’ happened,” Azul finished. “Including the usual dissipation of magic. Or fading. Whatever you call it. Because this is not your world, there is no way for your magic to behave like it usually would and slowly turn into heat and light—if you want to go by scientific terms.”
“Normally expended energy ‘becomes unusable’ to the world, but you’re saying that mine doesn’t?” Yuu wrinkled her nose, trying to recall her thermodynamics. “But…how can we be sure it doesn’t fade away?”
“That’s the only conjecture in my theory,” Azul brushed past her impatiently. “We can discuss it later. If I’m right, after your spell is finished its job, any gathered magical power that hasn’t been expended or used as force—”
“Magic,” she corrected. “We don’t have magical power like you guys.”
“—Magic,” Azul ground out, glaring at her, “the gathered magic just sits there.”
“In the air?” Yuu frowned. “…I guess…it’s not impossible. The jury’s still out on whether we can ‘feel’ magic, so I can’t say…”
“If I may be so bold,” Jade put in thoughtfully, “I would hazard a guess that all the extraneous magic floating in the atmosphere attaches itself to Yuu-san, the only similar thing in the area.”
“Exactly!” Azul leaned forwards triumphantly. “I knew I could trust you to understand, Jade.”
“What! Why?” Yuu felt as if she were scrambling to catch up today.
“Otherwise, how would you explain the ease and force with which you cast spells?” Jade asked her. “There must be a ‘conducive environment’ around you that is helping with it all.”
“You can’t assume that,” she protested. “First of all, is magic even attracted to other magic? Also, isn’t magic sentient? Once it’s out of me it’s not mine anymore.”
“Oh, please,” Azul sniffed. “Even you know that’s not true. Haven’t you just told me that your magic is all about intention? If that intention disappeared the moment the spell left your stick, would any of your spells have worked in the first place?”
“…Let me get this straight,” Yuu rubbed her temples. “You think that the reason my magic is acting up and why I’m casting so strongly and easily is because…all the extra magic I’ve cast over the semester is following me around and making it easier to do so!?”
“If not aiding you in the process directly,” Jade nodded. “Azul, your thoughts have always impressed me from when you drew self-made magical arrays in the ground with your own ink. I believe it’s a plausible theory.”
“I feel like you guys are interpreting our ‘magic’ too closely to your ‘magical power’,” Yuu mumbled. “From what I’ve learned in alchemic theory, your principles of magical power are really different from ours.”
“I see your reluctance to believe it,” Azul met her eyes squarely. “If I were you, I would probably feel the same. But I’m not you and I have no intention of empathizing with your perspective. I’m one of the best resources on this campus, during break or not, to talk about magical theory.”
“Azul’s magical power was too strong for him as a child,” Jade explained to her. “He had to try a variety of methods to, ah, lock it down somehow. You’ve seen his Unique Magic. He’s indeed as good as a professor on this topic.”
“Just because you’re a once-in-a-century genius doesn’t mean you’re always right,” Yuu argued weakly. “Magic not disappearing is seriously against the law of conservation. I think. Making assumptions this early with such little information can be dangerous!”
“It’s not against the law of conservation,” Jade shook his head. “You’re using your will, energy, and life to sustain it.”
“I don’t know,” Yuu shifted uneasily on the plush seat of the grey couch. “I have a feeling that this whole thing’s not that simple.”
Further discussion failed to yield substantial results that afternoon. Yuu was both inexperienced in the way Azul and Jade regarded magical theory and unwilling to accept it as fact the way they had so resolutely decided.
Like many of her Ravenclaw compatriots, she spurned the narrowing down of possibilities before they had time to flourish, and some half-formed thought at the corner of her mind continued to nag her in a frustratingly incoherent way. While never one to rely solely on instinct—in fact, her instinct had been close to nonexistent before she had arrived in the Twisted Wonderland—Yuu had seen the success Jack met when he followed it.
She could, however, agree that the ‘remnants of magic following her around’ theory was worth testing. Yuu made plans with Jade and Azul to meet in an empty classroom the next day for targeted experimentation. In the meantime, they tacitly agreed that she refrain from using any magic whatsoever. When Grim awoke, she explained the broader points of their meeting to him.
“…I didn’t get anything you said for the past five minutes,” Grim grumbled from her arms while Yuu made her steps up a stone-made bridge towards Sam’s shop. “Basically you’re getting stronger the more you use your magic?”
“Possibly,” she acknowledged. “I don’t know if it’s a good thing though. I don’t have experience with areas of concentrated magic except Hogwarts’ boundaries. Too much power isn’t good.”
“Yeah it is,” Grim blinked. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
“’Cause it brings out the worst in a lot of people,” Yuu shrugged. “I’m not pure of heart or simple like you. And I don’t know what all this magic following me would do to me and people around me…like you, Grim.”
“Please. I’m the Great Lord Grim. And I think you’ll be fine,” Grim said candidly, to her surprise. “If anything happens to you, a bunch of people would come running.”
“They…would,” Yuu realized. She couldn’t suppress a smile. “…They would. Wow. I haven’t even learned how to brew Felix Felicis, but it turns out I don’t need it.”
“Weirdo,” Grim muttered. “Why’re you getting all worked up by something this obvious?”
“Heh heh,” Yuu laughed at him.
Grim pushed her face away with a paw. “Stop grinning like a moron! Tell me why we’re outside in this freaking cold. The snow’s blinding me!”
“Oh, right. While you were asleep we finished a bunch of homework and then realized that Floyd-senpai wandered off from Mostro where he was supposed to be,” Yuu explained. “So I’ve been drafted to find him. But on the way up to the school castle where he might be, I wanted to go buy a scrapbook from Mister S’s Mystery Shop first.”
“A scrapbook?” Grim echoed. “What for?”
“Remember the Ghost Camera suddenly starting to work again?” Yuu reminded him, pulling it out of Jack’s large coat pocket. Ever since it had begun to ‘function’, however strangely, she had never allowed it to leave her person. “I need someplace to store the whole stack outside of Riddle-senpai’s present box he gave me. By the way, I think Jade-senpai literally moved my entire room to the guest room. I found the box on the desk underneath all the library books I’ve borrowed over break.”
Her partner made a face. “I guess it’s convenient, but ain’t that kind of weird? Even to me, and I don’t care about this stuff.”
“I don’t really need too much privacy,” Yuu shrugged. “Ace and Deuce dig through my stuff all the time. One more person isn’t going to make a big difference. …Plus, what’s mine is yours anyway.”
“Well what’s mine is mine,” Grim squinted at the dark roof of Sam’s shop coming into view on the horizon. “Speaking of which, can I have a tuna can? The expensive kind. I’m getting a little peckish.”
Yuu sighed. “Have I ever said no to you?”
“Nya ha ha. That’s what a henchman should be like!”
Although Mister S’s Mystery Shop was officially closed for the Winter Holiday, Azul had covertly let her know that its owner was actually on the job magically shipping the last of the students’ precious luggage to their destinations. Apparently, Sam and Azul had a working relationship going on, and Mostro Lounge often bought necessary spices and rare ingredients from him, so he was privy to insider information.
“And unlike Floyd, Sam-san actually answers his damn phone,” Azul had growled down at his, where a long line of unanswered calls to Floyd filled the backlit screen. “Yuu-san, that damn eel probably listens to you the best. Please do haul him back to my office so I can re-educate him properly.”
“I still think that octopus guy’s crazy,” was Grim’s comment once she told him the anecdote. “How does he get so scary when he’s mad?”
“At this point I think almost everyone on campus is crazy,” Yuu said dryly, stomping her way up the stairs to Sam’s shop. “Excuse me! Mister S?”
At her light push, the door swung open easily. The eclectic interior was stuffed full of new knickknacks and seemed as mysterious as usual, a huge glass ball reflecting Yuu’s and Grim’s face in its distorted curvature as they passed. Green-and-purple neon lights glowed dimly across the carpet. It took a few seconds before Sam marched out from the back, burdened with a box that looked bigger than him.
“Hey there, Little Imps!” he called without so much as a glance. “You sure are timely coming right before I packed up for the year. Who told you I was open today, hmm?”
“Ashengrotto-senpai did,” Yuu said sheepishly. “I know you’re busy, Mister S. Sorry to bother you.”
“Azul-kun…of course. Any business is no bother at all!” Sam lowered the box into a cordoned area, where it glowed white before falling down into the floor and nothingness. “Phew! That’s the last one. Ignihyde’s Imps sure are particular about the placement of their machine parts.”
With difficulty, she swallowed back her desire to ask him how on earth that transportation magic worked. Now was not the time, no matter how limitless her curiosity could be.
Once Yuu asked if he had photograph scrapbooks for sale, Sam didn’t so much as ask a reason before he obligingly whipped out four or five for her to peruse. Grim climbed out of her arms to stand on the desk and noisily begged for two tuna cans—no, make that three, he corrected himself.
Yuu eventually settled on the thickest scrapbook of them all, designed elegantly like an English eighteenth-century leather tome and soaked in a dark royal indigo colour that caught her eye. Five-petaled flowers and roses decorated the spine in golden filigree, while several peacock feathers scattered artfully across the front and back cover in the same splendour.
Sam, who returned to set the tuna cans down beside her, noticed her stare. “You’ve got a discerning eye, Little Imp!” he exclaimed. “Let me guess: you’re particular about beauty and aesthetics.”
“How did you know?” Yuu looked up in surprise.
“That’s easy. Even though you don’t know anything about the dormitories or their historical significance, you still managed to choose the book inspired by the Dorm Head’s magical artifact from Pomefiore,” Sam tapped on the cover of the book with one slim finger. “By the way, Pomefiore is the very oldest dormitory formed at NRC. Bet’cha didn’t know that!”
“I had no idea,” Yuu remembered the same indigo on the uniform of someone she’d bumped into yesterday. “How much is it, Mister S? And these three tuna cans.”
“Three thousand nine hundred Madols,” Sam rattled off smartly.
While she paid and collected her hundred Madols in change, the door behind Yuu swung open with the ringing of bells. All three of them turned around in reaction as icy cold wind gusted through the open doorway and hit her exposed cheeks over Cater’s gifted scarf.
“Good afternoon, Mister Sam,” a high, androgynous voice preceded the shutting of the door. “Nii-san told me you were open today, so I’m here for the usual snacks, please! And extra dagashi while you’re at it.”
“If it isn’t the Little Gravity Defying Imp!” Sam waved his hands in greeting. Grim ducked with a yelp as items began flying off of shelves and out from under tables. “That brother of yours can’t spare an opportunity to restock huh? I’ll have it all ready for you right away.”
“What the heck!?” Grim spluttered, diving for Yuu’s head as what looked like a bag of popcorn zoomed past the spot he had been standing. “Hey! Watch it!”
Yuu carefully sidestepped the whirlwind of flying snacks and came face to face with a vaguely familiar-looking floating…
“You’re floating!” Yuu gaped.
“He’s flying!?” Grim echoed her.
The metal-encased new arrival would have been almost ten centimetres shorter than Yuu if their feet touched the ground; as it was, they hovered slightly above eye-level, blue flames molting from the top of their head in a startling resemblance to the fire sprouting from Grim’s ears. Large, yellow-chartreuse eyes blinked slowly at the two of them from a pale face crafted with symmetrical perfection.
“Good afternoon, Directing Student Yuu-san,” the floating figure emitted in that same bright voice. Since his mouth was covered with a metal speaker-like structure that glowed with two glowing circular apparatuses on either side, she could not tell where the sound was coming from. “We meet for the second time. Nice to meet you, Mister Grim. My name is Ortho Shroud.”
“How are you flying!?” Grim blurted out as snacks whirled past them in the background. “Also, you already know my henchman?”
“Henchman?” the newly named Ortho Shroud blinked their—his? Yuu guessed—limpid eyes twice. “That word doesn’t bring up any results for me. But if you’re speaking about Directing Student Yuu-san, we have indeed met once on Friday evening.”
“We did?” Yuu stopped trying to figure out his gender. “Sorry, I was sick last week. I might have forgotten.” Though how she could have missed a flying robot-like person with blue hair was beyond her. She wondered what species he was and if it would be rude to ask.
“Yuu-san was indeed afflicted with a high fever,” Ortho nodded his masked face. The eyes narrowed in what looked like a smile. “I’m glad you’re feeling better!”
“Thank you,” Yuu said automatically, a little surprised that someone was behaving so pleasantly to her during their first (second?) meeting. “Right. You probably know this already, but my name is Yuu and I’m in Year One, Class A. This is my partner Grim—he’s in the same class. We’re from the Ramshackle Dorm.”
“I am well aware! But it’s nice to meet you again,” Ortho’s eyes narrowed further. “If you don’t remember our last meeting, I would hazard a guess that you are curious about the fire that makes up my hair. It’s gas-powered and I can change the amount expended as well as the colour!”
“That’s amazing!” Yuu and Grim blurted out simultaneously.
“Are you a superhero!?” Grim leaned forwards in excitement. “Can you fight evil and shoot laser beams from your eyes?”
“Grim,” Yuu nudged him from around her shoulders. “Not all cyborgs are superheroes! Just the movie ones.”
“Carrying out the duties of a ‘superhero’ is not in my list of functions,” Ortho answered without missing a beat. “But at one time I possessed a prototype Gear made in the likeness of a ‘superhero’ before nii-san called it lame and scrapped it.”
“Lame!?” Grim squawked.
“That’s right. ‘Both design and function are elements that can’t be sacrificed in engineering,’” Ortho recited. “But parts that don’t meet the standard are very common. That’s why my Gears take a long time to make! Isn’t nii-san amazing?”
“I don’t really understand technology,” Yuu glanced at the USB cables dangling from his waist, “but whatever is going on it sounds really cool. Um, how should I call you? You’re a student here…? What year or class are you in?”
“That’s a good question! Please refer to me in any way that makes you comfortable,” Ortho answered, voice cheerful. “Actually, my position in the school is a little unique. I’m like you, Yuu-san, in that I’m not a full student…more like half of one! But I support nii-san in his classes, so you can usually find me in third year, class B.”
“Not a full student,” Yuu repeated. Wasn’t Cater in Class B? “So that’s why Headmaster was able to get me enrolled with Grim. Since there’s precedent. Ortho…san…senpai…? I feel a funny kind of kinship with you all of a sudden.”
“Kinship? With me?” Ortho blinked his big eyes in apparent confusion. “That’s the first time anyone’s said something like that. How interesting, Directing Student Yuu-san.”
“Here we go again,” Grim muttered.
Ortho was apparently a regular at the Mystery Shop, mostly visiting to obtain dagashi snacks and other sundry items for his older brother. Yuu asked him why his brother didn’t get his food himself, but the floating student had puffed out his chest (in which a blue fireball was thumping rhythmically) and told her it was his job to serve as support for ‘Nii-san’.
“Is that an arc-reactor or something?” Yuu stared at the flame pulsing over the position of his heart, distracted.
“I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand your meaning,” Ortho blinked back. “What is an ‘arc reactor’?”
“Ignore this guy,” Grim rolled his eyes. “He’s always saying weird stuff no one understands.”
While they waited for Sam to sort out a full basket of snacks, Yuu made casual conversation with Ortho and told him about how terrible she was with technology, which meant she didn’t understand anything about the anti-gravity mechanism allowing him to float several feet from the ground nor the ‘metal Gear’ that he wore like a suit. Grim was just as interested, a sentiment returned by Ortho, who stared back at him with unblinking eyes.
“Mister Grim, your form is extraordinary,” Ortho told him solemnly, regarding her partner’s flaming ears. Yuu thought she saw something in his eye turn a circuit. “May I collect a tissue sample for further analysis?”
“I don’t have any tissues on me,” Grim said blankly. “Ask my henchman.”
“Henchman?” Ortho repeated.
“He calls me that,” Yuu grimaced before she understood the meaning of his words and took a cautious step back. “Um, Ortho…senpai? What do you want a tissue sample for?”
“Yuu-san, I’m technically not your senpai,” Ortho told her. “Feel free to dispense with the polite speech and honorifics if you please. I don’t mind! To answer your question, I find Mister Grim’s biological makeup worthy of further research. May I open him up to take a look inside?”
“What!? No! I mean, sorry, Ortho…kun…? But I can’t let you do that,” Yuu backpedalled. “Grim’s really important to me. I don’t want him to be hurt.”
“That’s right,” Ortho seemed to remember. “It must be super inconvenient to break with a simple dismantling. I suppose it can’t be helped then. Maybe next time!”
Yuu really wondered what species he was. Was ‘dismantling’ no big thing for his kind? Or maybe he was half cyborg for real.
Sam had long since set aside Ortho’s considerable bag of snacks and was regarding the two of them with an interested smile, but both the floating student and Yuu (plus Grim) had been fully absorbed in the curiosity of meeting someone for the first time and found no shortage of topics to exchange opinions on. Upon hearing that she recently obtained access to a smartphone yet had no clue how to use it, Ortho eagerly supplied her with rapid-fire tips that made Grim’s eyes spin.
“Of course, nii-san is just as good with technology as I am, so it might be better to ask him,” Ortho told her solemnly, “but I can assure you that I’m better than ninety-nine percent of libraries worldwide!”
“Can I bring you to an alchemy test with me next time?” Grim blurted out.
“I’m sorry, Mister Grim, that’s been declared against the rules by the Headmaster,” Ortho’s shoulders slumped.
It was close to half an hour later when Ortho shot a foot higher into the air, big eyes widening in shock. “Ah! My curiosity got the better of me! I should be heading back to nii-san’s room now before he gets worried and starts a school-wide search. Last time we hacked into the mainframe he got yelled at for an hour.”
“Yuu sure love your older brother,” was what Yuu understood from all that. As an only child, she didn’t quite understand his constant mentions of this ‘nii-san’. Ace had an older brother too, but he didn’t talk about his nearly as much.
“That’s right! Nii-san is amazing,” Ortho grew visibly excited, floating even higher, before he seemed to control himself. “Ahem. I really would like to talk more, Directing Student Yuu-san, but perhaps another time. Speaking of which, I wonder why you are here when it is the Winter Holiday? Are you remaining on campus?”
“That’s right,” Yuu answered him while Ortho pushed out a small rectangular card from some slot in his metal arm to hand to Sam. “And you, Ortho…kun? Not heading home for the break?”
“Well,” Ortho started, but cut himself off after slinging the heavy bag onto one arm and sliding his card back into the metal slot in his arm. “—I will remember to tell you later if I see you again, Directing Student Yuu-san. Please stay healthy and refrain from catching a cold. Farewell!”
“I feel like I did something bad,” Yuu muttered ruefully, watching Ortho speed outside in a clash of tinkling bells and out of sight. “Maybe I should have reined in my curiosity a bit. Hopefully he isn’t too late for whatever is going on.”
“He’s as curious as you are,” Grim commented. “Looks way cool though. You think I could get a suit like that somewhere?”
“You need to get rid of this fuzzy belly first before you look remotely threatening,” she poked at it before catching sight of Sam hiding a laugh. “Oh. Um, sorry for delaying you, Mister S. I hope you have a great holiday!”
“It’s always fun to watch two Little Imps getting along,” Sam winked at her. “Rarely do I see that Little Imp so gregarious in front of another student. It must be your unique charisma! Maybe I should have you act as a shop attraction for better business.”
“I don’t think that would work very well,” Yuu commented bemusedly.
“I can lend him to you for five tuna cans a day,” Grim offered.
Scrapbook and tuna cans safely in hand, Yuu wished Sam a happy holiday and thanked him for all of his help that year before she and Grim reluctantly forged back out into the bitter cold campus and towards the school castle. On the way there, they debated back and forth on possible locations for the more capricious Leech twin. Her partner was of the vocal opinion that he was off bullying some poor sap, but Yuu considered that possibility low since Floyd didn’t actually make a point to be proactively mean—and the campus was more or less empty, anyway. She suggested that he was somewhere up high. With the genius-level acrobatics that made her doubt he was only a second-grader on Land, it wouldn’t be surprising if the second-year was parkouring over the snow-laden rooftops.
“Isn’t he cold?” Grim pointed out.
“I’m pretty sure he could wander around in a tank-top and not be cold,” Yuu said dryly.
Both Yuu and Grim, however, were more than grateful for the welcoming warmth that enveloped them in the double-doored entrance to NRC’s school castle. Today’s firewood-gatherer seemed to be a student Yuu was not familiar with, but he had done his job well. It was warm enough for her to shed her coat immediately and gather it, along with her bag of merchandise, into her arms.
Unable to resist temptation, Yuu made some excuses to Grim about searching around the kitchen—a plan he was glad to affirm—and wandered close to the blazing fireplace dug into the Cafeteria wall, trying to catch the glimpse of a fire Fairy that had charmed her yesterday.
“Yuu,” Grim called her.
Unable to see hide nor hair of the sprites that wore shimmering wings and robes of flame, Yuu held her breath and considered moving closer. “Hmm?”
“I smell something,” he insisted.
“Great,” she responded absently, standing on her tiptoes. Was that a head of fiery hair or was it just a stray ember? Yuu rubbed her eyes.
“…And I hear something,” her partner continued blithely on. “There’s definitely the nimble rhythmic chop of a knife on the cutting board! And in between chops, I can hear… the incredible hiss of grilling meat!? If that wasn’t enough, an exotic, appetizing scent of spices and herbs is wafting over just barely enough for my nose to catch a hint of it!”
Halfway through his food report, Yuu had finally given up on her search for the fire Fairies and was listening with amusement. “I can’t smell or hear anything and you’ve got me hungry. I’m assuming you want to go see who it is?”
“I thought you’d never ask,” Grim seemed ready to sing. “C’mon, Yuu, walk faster!”
“The life of a henchman,” Yuu sighed dramatically, speeding up.
As they approached the entranceway to the kitchen, both of them slowed before she skidded completely to a halt. Not because she had finally caught the fragrant sting of an unnamed spice at the tip of her nose; not even because the open doorway to the kitchen showed at least fifteen students milling around busily, shouting back and forth to each other.
“—Funya!” Grim stopped short a step ahead of her. “It’s completely full!”
“Shh!” Yuu hissed. “That crest on their uniform—their belts read Scarabia! It’s the only dorm we can’t get close to right now. Remember what Jack said?”
“That’s Scarabia’s dorm uniform?” he muttered back. “…Why the heck are they hanging around?”
“It doesn’t matter. Grim,” Yuu lowered her voice. “How about we turn around and look somewhere else for Floyd-senpai?”
“…But it smells so good,” Grim mumbled forlornly.
“I have a feeling it’d be a terrible idea to be seen by the dorm that hates my guts the most right now,” she whispered. “We should run right now while they’re all too busy to give us a second glance.”
“I want to eat spicy food,” Grim wavered. “…Ahh, whatever! You take way too much work, henchman. I’m a benevolent and generous boss, so this time I’ll listen to you, just ‘cause we’re all sick and tired of you getting into trouble day in and day out.”
“Thanks, Grim,” Yuu let out a grateful breath. “I’ll make you spicy tuna when we get back, promise. Now keep your voice down. We don’t want them to notice us.”
Yuu and Grim plastered themselves to the wall and carefully tiptoed out of view of the kitchen door before releasing simultaneous sighs of relief. “That’s one time we evaded danger,” he patted the white tuft of fur above his breastbone.
“Now all we need to do is find Floyd-senpai,” Yuu straightened. The two of them strolled leisurely past the threshold of the Cafeteria. “For now, let’s head up to the second floor—”
The end of her sentence coincided with the rapid scrape of sandal against the stone tiling of the corridor. Someone was running in their direction. Neither Grim nor Yuu were prepared to respond with anything more than startled stare before a sandy-haired student rushed up to the open doorway.
Yuu recognized his face at a glance. They’d seen each other several times—when he elbowed her in the hallway, when he cornered her against the wall, when he had pointed his Magical Pen at her with a snarl in the dim lighting of Mostro Lounge and shouted that she was a cheater and a suck-up.
Now he skidded to a stop as their gazes interlocked. The bumblebee-yellow of his Scarabia belt flapped against a long bandana worn across the back of dark harem-style pants with the abrupt halt, but she had no time to observe his dress code. The student adjusted a box under his armpit, impatient frown deepening into an ugly glare, and snarled, “It’s you!”
Yuu closed her eyes in a brief moment of frustration. There went the infinitesimal chance of him not recognizing her.
“Hey, henchman,” Grim muttered under his breath as they both began to back up.
“Yeah, Grim?” Yuu responded tensely.
Her partner leapt up onto her shoulder as her back hit the brick wall and groaned, “I’m starting to think you’re jinxed.”
And for all that she wanted to refute him, Yuu found that she could not muster up a single word of argument.