Agatha looked at Ren with her big eyes full of concern.
“I thought you were in this camp because of your grades, Dahl. I remember seeing your name on the top test scorers’ list…”
Ren scratched his cheek.
“Well… I knew my grades would earn me a trip here, so before they officially invited me, I wrote that paper and submitted it.”
“D-Did the student council approve it!?”
“I didn’t go to the student council. I went straight to the headmaster.”
A poorly-managed school like Arrowheart High was only kept afloat by the efforts of the student council and other students who believed that, with a little effort and hardwork, they could be the heroes that rescued the school from its sorry state.
But throughout the years, no one had succeeded.
This year’s student council was no different - their management style was strict, and they had a policy to check every document before it reached the headmaster’s office for approval or disapproval.
Ren knew there was no way his proposal would be accepted by them, so instead of appearing in their radar, he went over their heads directly to the headmaster.
He knew how all of this would sound to Agatha and couldn’t help but be a little embarrassed by it, so he felt the need to clarify something very important.
“I’m not trying to be a hero or save the school. I just think this trip is cruel and unnecessary no matter how you look at it.”
Agatha played with the ends of one of her braids nervously.
“But… this is such a lovely place… and it’s a great opportunity for those of us who’ve never been camping before…”
Ren felt a guilty pang in his heart for having this discussion with someone who was clearly excited over this trip, but he also knew it was important to let her know just why he felt so strongly about it.
“Our school is… lacking funds. Years ago, this used to be a fun trip of activities to reward the top students, but to cut costs, they started the whole ‘designated janitor’ thing, and then it all crumbled down.”
Agatha whipped her head to look at him.
“Eh? So the janitor thing has been going on since before we even joined the school?”
“Way before. Though at first, they brought a single delinquent to wait on all the top students hand and foot to humiliate them with cruel punishments at a location where no one would come to their aid, easily outnumbering them. It would have severe consequences on that person, who would usually refuse to speak about the situation.”
“Eventually, the top students got greedy and requested two delinquents to be brought along to do their bidding, then three, then four… then the teachers caught wind of what was really going on, but instead of ending the camping trip, they decided the top students were onto something… and that’s when the camp became both a prize and a punishment.”
Agatha’s face went pale.
She knew about the trip only from what top students from previous years have told her - which means, she knew it was a fun prize to be enjoyed, but this was the first time she heard the history of it.
Ren awkwardly looked away.
“Sorry. I know you’re having a good time here…”
“N-No!” She shook her head. “I’m glad you’re telling me this… I had no idea…”
“Arrowheart High did a good job burying all of this. But if there’s anyone at school from our generation that knows about it, that’s probably the student council.”
Both Ren and Agatha turned to look at Julius.
He was still leaning on that same tree they saw him at when they got there, still with his arms closed.
He felt their eyes on him and looked at them, at which point they both looked away.
“S-So you want to stop it because… it has a bad history?” Agatha asked sincerely, since she hadn’t seen anyone mistreating the delinquents at all since they got there.
In fact, bringing so many delinquents together had some of the top students quite intimidated.
Ren wavered before giving his answer.
“It’s not just the horrible history. The trip might have top students and delinquents sharing a space together now, but the designated janitor practice didn’t get abolished. In fact, it’s worse now than before.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “Now, not just the top students, but the delinquents also get a single person they can boss around without repercussions for an entire weekend.”
Agatha covered her mouth with her hands.
“Oh no... poor Emma...”
“So,” Julius finally spoke, walking over to them with slow steps. “This is what it all was about, then.”
Ren looked at him quietly with a frown.
Julius shook his head calmly.
“I knew it was you who submitted that ridiculous proposal. And to think this was all for such a pointless reason.”
Ren clenched his fist, but Julius continued with a slightly annoyed pitch in his usually composed tone.
“The Arrowheart High camping trip is a beloved tradition coveted by all. When I heard someone had tried to stop it, I immediately asked the headmaster to give me a name. He wouldn’t, of course, but as student council, it’s my responsibility to find out these things.”
“You were the only student whose written recommendation I couldn’t find, but your grades fit the bill, so I simply assumed it had been misplaced by some idiot or other.”
Ren glared at him.
So Julius knew who he was from the start.
He thought about how he bowed his head to him the night before, begging him to not play the game, and how Julius dismissed him regardless.
“....Is that why you’ve been antagonizing me all this time?”
“You know, Ren Dahl, for someone with allegedly a good head on his shoulders, you can be quite the fool.”
Julius stepped closer, standing right in front of Ren.
“You couldn’t care less about this trip or its history. The real reason this camp suddenly matters to you now is Emma Lovecraft, and nothing else.”
Ren felt his eyebrow twitch.
Agatha gasped, confused and excited.
Julius waited for Ren to reply, but just as Ren opened his mouth…
“Everyooooone! Come here, come here!”
Emma waved at them from atop a tree, holding onto its trunk.
Adam was with her, albeit on the ground.
Ren’s heart dropped with fear at how high she had climbed, but Emma was her usual cheerful self.
She pointed enthusiastically towards a side of the woods past the fence they weren’t supposed to walk through.
“There’s a cave over there! A cave!”