Emma caught the attention of everyone, and they all looked in the direction she was pointing.
Past the dense woods and over the fence that marked the limit of the camping area, there was a hill that couldn’t be properly observed from the ground.
On that hill, there was a large hole— a cave, exactly as Emma described it, mystical and inviting.
Unfortunately the rest of them couldn’t see it from where they were.
“Emma… get down from there,” Ren said in a calm voice, even though deep inside he was mortified about how high she had climbed up the tree.
She obediently started climbing down.
Ren looked at Adam, who had been there the whole time, wondering why he didn’t do anything to stop her.
“Why did she get up there in the first place? Do you know?”
“...A beetle,” Adam replied.
Emma planted her feet on the ground with a leap once she was close enough to the bottom of the tree.
“Yes, a beetle! I wanted to rescue it!”
“You don’t rescue beetles from trees, bro,” Rika shook her head. “That’s where they live.”
Emma paid her no mind.
Instead, she briskly approached Ren to proudly show him a giant horned beetle she had peeled away from the bark of a branch near the treetop.
Ren went pale; startled by the sudden critter legs wiggling so close to his face, taking an instinctive step back.
In contrast, Adam reached for the beetle calmly, taking it from Emma’s hands and examining it.
“...This is a good one. People would pay good money for it.”
“Eh!?” Emma quickly took it back from his hands. “Gregor isn’t for sale!”
“You named it…” Rika sighed.
Airi took a few steps past the tree, looking in the direction Emma pointed earlier.
“Do you think that’s the cave we’re supposed to go to tonight?”
“T-Tonight!?” Agatha bit her nails.
“Well, the itinerary said we have a test of courage today, and a dark cave sounds like the ideal place to do it, don’t you think?”
Yusei stepped right behind Airi, placing a hand on his forehead to shield his eyes from the sun, hoping to get a better visual of the hill.
“I dunno. I don’t think we’d have a test of courage somewhere outside the camp limits. Ain’t that too risky?”
“You’d be correct, for once,” Julius chimed in. “There is a test of courage planned for the trip, but it takes place on the path behind the teacher’s cabin - apparently there’s a large shed there they cheaply decorated to scare us.”
“A shed?” Rika scoffed. “How’s walking through a shed a test of courage?”
“Don’t ask me,” Julius shrugged. “It wasn’t my idea. Apparently to cut costs, they were planning to use blindfolds and spin us around, then make us find our way back to the door.”
Yusei laughed at how ridiculous that sounded.
“What? Blindfold and spin us!? Why bother decorating it in the first place!?”
Julius frowned at him.
“Like I said, don’t ask me. It wasn’t my idea.”
“Then,” Rika elbowed Julius playfully. “Let’s go have a real test of courage in the cave, then. You owe it to us.”
“I ‘owe’ you?”
“Yeah. The teachers and the student council promised us a camping trip with a test of courage. You and I both know the shed thing won’t cut it, so, again, you owe us.”
“Yeah!” Yusei pumped a fist. “It’s one thing if you guys treat us delinquents like dirt, but you can’t even give your top students the test of courage they signed up for!?”
“A-Actually,” Agatha nervously raised her hand, “I-I’m okay with just going to the shed… the cave looks scary, a-and… there’s no adult supervision…”
When Emma heard this, she handed the beetle back to Adam, then rushed to Agatha’s side to place both hands on her shoulders.
“Don’t worry! I’ll go with you! I’ll protect you!”
Airi placed her hands behind her back, looking at Julius, lowering her voice as she addressed him.
“I assume if we decide to go to the cave, you’ll tell on us, Verne?”
Julius looked at her, and before he could agree, Airi continued.
“I wonder what Aristide would think of that.”
Julius went pale.
His eyes were open and wide - round like plates, shocked to his core, unable to breathe.
It took him a moment to form some words out of his shaky lips.
“How… How do you know—”
“Oh, he’s a good friend of mine,” Airi said with a smile.
After a second, he clenched his fist and looked away, running a hand through his long hair as he took a deep breath to keep his composure.
“...Fine. If you lot want to go, I’ll accompany you. If there won’t be any teachers around, someone has to be there to supervise, after all.”
Adam tilted his head to the side.
“Do we have to go?”
“Y-Yeah!” Agatha immediately chimed in. “Do we!? It looks dangerous! What if there’s a bear, or a monster!?”
Ren rubbed his chin, looking in the direction of the cave.
Agatha whipped her head to look at him.
“You agree!? You think there could be a monster there, too!?”
“Ah, no, not with that. But I agree it’s an unnecessary risk. There’s no real point to it, and we’d just end up getting in trouble.”
“Like! I! Said!” Emma leaped in front of Ren, sandwiching his face between her palms.
“I’ll be there for everyone! I’ll protect you!”
Ren held his breath.
It’s precisely because you’ll be there that we can’t go.
What if you get hurt? Or lost?
…Is what he wanted to say.
Instead, he mustered all his strength to pry her hands away from his face.
“Emma… think about it…”
“What’s there to think about?” Rika said, planting her foot on the trunk of a tree to tie her bootlaces. “We’re all going, right? ‘Cause if someone stays behind, they’re gonna ruin the entire adventure for all of us.”
“E-Eh?” Agatha covered her mouth with her hand. “Why would you say that?”
“Because it’s true? If someone stays behind and goes back to the camp, then the teacher will ask where the rest of us are. Then the whole thing will get messy AF.”
“Besides,” Airi said, gently holding Agatha’s hand, “we’ll all be together, so it’ll be fine.”
Agatha was too flustered to answer.
Yusei snorted with a grin.
“Yo, Carroll. I kinda thought you’d be the type to hate this kind of thing. Going exploring in a dark cave unsupervised and all.”
“It’s not a particular interest of mine, no. However…”
She lifted Agatha’s hand and brought it to her face, softly rubbing her cheek on Agatha’s cold fingers with her eyes closed.
“The brain doesn’t know the difference between the adrenaline released by fear and the adrenaline of falling in love… so scary situations are quite ideal to make love bloom.”
Agatha was paralyzed to the point she thought she heard her glasses crack with tension.
Yusei scowled at her answer, forcibly pulling Airi’s hand away from Agatha’s.
“Stop using this girl for your twisted plans, Carroll.”
“Fufu. I’m simply joking. And what about you? You certainly seem excited to go explore the cave, Wilde.”
“Of course I am,” he scoffed. “There’s nothing do to here in the middle of nowhere, and I’m tired of picking fucking mushrooms and pretending that’s fun. At least if one of you gets eaten by a bear it’ll make things interesting.”
“Okay, so,” Rika clapped her hands. “All those in favor of going to the cave, show of hands?”
Emma, Airi, and Yusei lifted their hands along with Rika.
Julius, Ren, Agatha and Adam didn’t.
It was a tie.
Rika let out a long sigh.
“Julius, you just said you were coming, bro.”
“I am. I’m just not happy about it, and I shouldn’t need to lift my hand to reassure you of what I already agreed to.”
“Man, you’re a pain. But thanks. That makes us the majority, so, yay.”
This was just asking for trouble.
Emma quickly clung to Agatha’s arm.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be fun! Maybe we’ll see a bear!”
“I hope we don’t!?”
Agatha whimpered, tugged along by Emma towards the hill.
“Oh, my,” Airi clasped her hands in front of her with a sad expression. “Emma took Agatha away from me again…”
Yusei tapped the back of her head lightly with his knuckles, walking past her.
“Shut up. You come on too strong. That’s why she doesn’t respond to you.”
“Oh?” Airi matched his pace, walking next to him. “So you think she likes me?”
“How would I know?”
Rika looked at Julius, offering him her hand in a cheeky gesture.
Julius frowned, ignoring her hand and walking past her.
Rika laughed, patting his back as he walked with him.
“Come on. Don’t be so serious. You’ve been weird for a couple of minutes now. Was it what Airi said?”
“...Let’s just hurry up. The sooner we go, the sooner we’ll be back.”
“Whatever you say, your majesty.”
Ren watched them all walk away in pairs, then turned to look at Adam awkwardly.
“Um… If you wanna go back, I’ll go back with you.”
Adam stared at him with his sharp eyes.
“...Is this… an adventure?”
“Huh? …Uh… I guess you could call it that.”
“Then… I want to go, too.”
Ren wasn’t too surprised.
It seemed like Adam had been using the camp to try out new things he’s never tried before, and it almost felt cruel to stop him from it.
“...Fine. Let’s go.”