Rika’s voice echoed on the walls of the leftmost tunnel as she made her way carefully through, holding onto the torch with Julius by her side.
Julius sputtered and had to hold onto the cave so he wouldn't stagger.
Rika turned to look at him, blinking.
“What? You thought no one was gonna ask? As soon as Airi said their name, you went pale as a ghost.”
Julius’ eyebrow twitched.
Of course he didn’t expect anyone to ask.
He cleared his throat, coughing into his fist, trying to keep his voice as casual as always.
“...He’s… a friend.”
“Just a friend?”
“Stop that. We’ve been friends since middle school.”
Rika hummed skeptically.
“Oh, yeah? Then why did Airi use him as leverage to keep you from telling on us, then?”
“Come on,” she elbowed him playfully, “you can tell me.”
“How about we focus on what’s ahead, instead? We could try calling Miss Lovecraft’s name.”
“Pass,” Rika lifted her free palm and shook her head. “I don’t wanna get attacked by bats again. Also, if she was close enough to hear us, wouldn’t she see the torch first? Light travels faster than sound - or some shit like that.”
“That won’t matter if there’s a curve somewhere that would prevent her from seeing us.”
“Aren’t you Mr. Positive, princess.”
He hated that nickname, but fighting it never yielded any results.
Ignoring it seemed to be the answer, for now.
“I’m simply being realistic. I doubt she’s in our path, either way.”
“Yeah? What makes you so sure?”
“If she was, we would have seen some evidence already,” Julius said, placing his hand on the wall to demonstrate his point. “You expect me to believe she ran in here in the dark without tripping, or hitting herself in the face?”
“Sure, why not?” Rika shrugged. “I saw a bat make a U-turn to steal her barrette: I can believe anything.”
“...That was quite bizarre, wasn’t it.”
“Yeah. Almost as if some supernatural force was behind it…”
“Rika, surely you’re not implying…”
“Well, why not? That guy’s been responsible for all the weird stuff that’s happened to us since we got here.”
Julius squinted to look at her through their limited source of light.
“What ‘weird stuff’ are you referring to, specifically?”
“Like having to room with girls I would never room with… or casually talking with someone from the student council, in my case.”
Rika and Julius looked at each other in silence for a moment, as if both were expecting the other to say something.
Julius broke the silence first.
“...Because you’re here as a delinquent?”
“I knew it,” Rika said, unamused. “You did read all our files before coming here, didn’t you.”
“It’s my duty as student council secretary,” he smiled.
“It’s kind of unfair, isn’t it? You know all of us, but we know nothing about you.”
“I’m sorry, but I fail to see how it’s unfair. My name and position as secretary has been printed on official documents and announcements throughout the school the entire year. If anything, you had more chances to find out about my background than I did about you.”
Julius’ reply was as condescending as ever, and Rika couldn’t help but scoff before retorting.
“Yeah, well. Anime makes it seem like everyone knows who the student council is, but the truth is no one ever has any idea who you nerds are if we pass you in the hallways. The only ones that care are the other ultra nerds.”
He frowned at her name-calling, but compared to other insults, this one was less hurtful at least.
“Regardless, your assessment is correct. I did know about you - and the other four, before you joined the camp. Is that a problem?”
“I mean…” She scratched the back of her head. “Yusei’s quite well-known as a delinquent that throws hands every other day. All I did was skip class and fall asleep during homeroom sometimes. Isn’t it wrong that I’m here as punishment along with him, as if we had committed the same crimes?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Are you submitting a complaint to me as student council right now?”
“Why not? I’m a concerned student, voicing my opinion,” she said in a sarcastic tone, placing her hand on her chest dramatically… but her act only lasted a second before she stuck out her tongue and lowered her hand again. “...Though I don’t really care either way.”
They kept walking through the endless tunnel while the torch crackled and spat out tiny glowing embers along the way.
Julius glanced down at her, and then back at the dark part in front of them.
“Frankly, you don’t seem to care about very much, Rika.”
“I just don’t see the point. Studying, getting good grades, finding a passion… what’s all of that for?”
Julius snorted from his nose, as if he had just heard the most ridiculous thing.
“Isn’t it obvious? For money and stability, of course. You don’t want stability in your life?”
Despite the cave having no wind blowing through, the embers from the torch seemed to be moving ahead of them before they even saw them - or at least, that’s what they both quietly thought.
Their path was illuminated by tiny glowing embers that looked like fireflies plastered all around the walls, the roof, and the ground they stepped on.
Neither had ever been in a cave, so they assumed this was normal.
It made the path look narrower, but less frightening - like a warm embrace; a place where nothing existed but the both of them.
Rika was silent for a long moment.
The fear that normally made her avoid heavy topics wasn’t gone, but it didn’t feel like it was holding her back, for once.
“...It’s not that I don’t want stability…” she mumbled awkwardly, rubbing the back of her head. “It’s just that… it’s pointless, isn’t it? No matter how happy you are, it’s not gonna be forever. Eventually something will make you sad, or stress you out, or piss you off… no matter how hard you work, no matter how many good things you have, no matter how fulfilled you are… you’re guaranteed to be unhappy again at one point. Happiness is nothing more than an illusion.”
The little embers on the walls glowed like starlight.
Julius was surprised at her heartfelt answer, albeit much more depressing than he was expecting.
“How fatalistic of you,” he frowned. “Though I can’t say I disagree.”
She wryly smiled at the ground.
“I can’t help but wonder if it woulda been better to just… stay dead, y’know? What’s the point of all this, honestly? The truth is… I’m playing along with this whole thing just to see if maybe being loved will bring me happiness.”
His silence made her self-conscious.
“Haha. That’s dumb as hell, right?”
She tried to laugh it off, but Julius truly didn’t know what to say.
Rika avoided looking at him, twirling the torch in her hand awkwardly.
“...I always give up first, so if any of you weirdos seemed to be winning the hearts of those two, I’d probably be the first to walk away, haha.”
Julius was conscious that Rika was avoiding his gaze, so he kept his eyes looking straight ahead.
“Is that what happened to you?” he asked quietly, “with your unrequited love?”
Rika cracked a bittersweet smile.
The embers on the cave glowed even further ahead.
“...Yeah. I had a huge crush on my sister’s boyfriend. He hung out with both of us all the time before dating her, and one day he sort of told me that he liked me, buuuut… I knew my sister liked him, too.”
She moved a few strands of hair away from her face, still looking at the ground as she walked.
“My sister’s prettier and smarter than me, so it kinda felt wrong to be liked by him when someone much better than me was right there, y’know. So I lied, and I told him I didn’t feel the same. He ended up going out with my sister eventually.”
Julius held his breath.
It was surprising that someone as aloof and independent as Rika had such a defeatist side to her.
She was half-expecting Julius to mock her, but instead he responded with a compassionate, kind tone in his voice.
“...I’m sorry to hear that.”
She felt her face heat up slowly - a mixture of embarrassment and the proximity of the torch.
Surely nothing else.