Rika normally hated talking about herself so much, but something about the warmth of the cave and the faint, inviting lights sprinkled all over the cave made her feel like nothing she said to Julius could hurt her.
It was a nice feeling to have.
She couldn’t help but wonder if Julius felt the same as she snuck up a glance at him.
“...What about you, princess? Does your unrequited crush have something to do with your friend?”
“Hey, c’mon. I opened up to you, I think I earned a little bit back, yeah?”
Julius took in a shaky breath.
The hundreds of embers that twinkled in the dark - yellow and white, sometimes orange, were calling to him like a gentle hand that settled on his head, telling him everything would be alright.
He closed his eyes for a second before opening them again to speak.
“...Yes. Something like that.”
“Aha, I knew it. You’re—”
“—Not in the way you think,” he quickly interrupted.
“Tch,” Rika clicked her tongue. “Boring.”
He rolled his eyes.
“...Truthfully, Cupid didn’t read my file out loud, so I can’t be sure I have the correct answer, however… If I’m right about my theory that ‘all forms of love’ encompasses meaningful friendship as well, then… I’ll have to say yes, this is related to Aristide.”
“Aristide is my best friend. I’ve known him for a long time - we have similar interests, and we’ve always joined the same clubs…”
Reminiscing put a smile on his face, but soon after his expression soured.
“...But I cut ties with him abruptly last year.”
“After our first year at Arrowheart High, we were both deeply dissatisfied with the way the school was run, so we decided we were both submitting our applications to join the student council and make a difference. We met with the stuco secretary at the time - a girl who had only joined to spiff up her college applications.”
“Ah, I vaguely remember her from this one time she gave me an admonishment on behalf of the principal!” Rika pointed out. “She was pretty. Looked like a total party girl, though.”
“Well, she was,” Julius scoffed. “And Aristide was smitten.”
“They started going out, and I barely saw him without her after that. The few times we were together on our own, he would only talk about her. His grades dropped, and his interests shifted. I couldn't recognize my friend anymore.”
Julius had been using his hand to feel the rocky walls of the cave for any dangers, like fissures, or more bats.
As he spoke, he started dragging his nails through it.
The embers seemed to glow a little brighter.
Rika hesitated before opening her mouth.
“...Is that why you stopped hanging out with him?”
His hands were trembling. He dragged his nails so hard onto the rocky surface that he pierced the skin at the tip of his fingers.
Rika stopped in her tracks so Julius would also stop.
Once they did, he took another shaky breath, turning his face away from hers.
“Then… What happened?”
“........I did something unforgivable.”
She swallowed, but waited patiently for him to elaborate.
The torch crackled a few more times.
“Aristide wasn’t just my best friend… he was… my only friend. The more time he spent with this girl, the more I was alone. I hated it. This useless girl who came out of nowhere was suddenly corrupting one of the only students in the whole school that could have made a difference. I couldn’t bear it.”
Julius bit his lip.
Talking about this brought him more pain than Rika realized, but she could at least understand this wasn’t something he’d normally mention.
She knew, because she felt it a moment ago, as well.
Still, she didn’t know what to say.
He opened his mouth, closing the hand on the wall into a fist.
“...One day, I paid a girl from class to find Aristide and kiss him.”
“I… took a picture of that kiss, and showed it to Aristide’s girlfriend. I told her he was cheating on her, and she was furious. They broke up immediately.”
Rika was speechless again— for an entirely different reason this time.
She couldn’t fathom why someone would do something so horrible to a person they called a ‘friend’.
Her voice stammered, trying to find the right words to express how appalled she was, but whatever feelings were flaring up inside her instantly stopped when she saw Julius’ face.
It was hard to see with nothing but the torch offering a dim source of light, but she could tell his hand was bleeding from his fingertips and his knuckles as he buried them into the rocks on the wall.
The flame from the torch that reflected in his eyes was wavering as if it were reflected onto a lake—as if he were holding back tears.
His voice cracked as he struggled to get the rest of the words out.
“I thought… that it would make me happy… but… that day, when Aristide came back to me crying, with his heart broken in pieces, I wasn’t happy at all. I felt like the worst person in the world.”
He lowered his head; his hair cascading freely downwards, obscuring his eyes.
“I couldn’t bring myself to apologize and tell him what I did, but I also couldn’t look him in the eye anymore. I couldn’t be friends with someone I hurt so deeply… so I cut ties with him… like a coward.”
Rika looked away from him.
She didn’t know what to do.
“...I’ve… never told this to anyone before…” his voice quieted down.
There was a struggle in Rika’s mind between the visceral instinct to yell at him for doing something so shitty to a friend, and the part of her that knew why Julius looked so hurt.
What good would getting mad at him do?
Clearly, he already knew.
There was no one out there who had a worse opinion of Julius than Julius himself.
No matter what she said to him, Julius already thought of himself even worse.
He was disgusted by himself, and judging from his face, he clearly was bracing himself to be pushed aside by Rika.
When you show your most horrible side to someone, it’s normal for them to reject you, after all.
Getting mad at him for something he did that cost him his only friendship - something he clearly regrets… it would be nothing short of pointless.
She looked away from him, scratching her cheek with her free hand.
Slowly, she reached for his back instead and placed her palm there, letting out a long, long sigh.
“Yeah, well. I figured you were pretty shady.”
“But honestly,” she continued, her eyes trailing off, “who am I to judge you? Who is anyone, really?”
He looked at her with tearful eyes.
She smirked at him.
“You’re a bad guy, Julius. A childish, jealous bad guy.”
His eyes opened wide, appalled.
She placed a finger over his lips to silence him before he could protest.
“I’m not judging you. I’m telling you what you think of yourself, except out loud. Am I wrong?”
She pulled her hand back, smiling at him.
“Well, I guess I am judging you a little bit. But it’s kinda dumb to judge you just because I did the opposite. I pushed my friend away because he liked me and I didn’t feel worthy, so… if I had been in your situation, I know I would have walked away from my friend so he could be happy with his girlfriend…”
Julius pulled his hand away from the wall, massaging his bruised knuckles and fingers with his other hand.
He was touched that Rika gave his point of view such careful thought.
It made him consider her situation, too.
He wanted to thank her for her kindness somehow, but words wouldn’t be enough, he thought.
He took a deep breath to calm himself.
Carefully, he reached for the torch, taking it off her hands and leading the way in her stead, for once.
Rika was surprised Julius took over.
He headed deeper into the cave.
When he was a few steps ahead, he spoke.
“...And I would have gone out with someone I liked, even if I knew someone close to me also liked them…” a pause, as he considered this. “...though in the end, the guilt would probably make me break up with that person.”
Rika smiled wryly at his honesty as she followed him.
“...That means no matter what we did, we both would have ended up alone at this point in time, huh.”
“...I suppose so.”
She looked down at his bruised hand.
Thoughts of all kinds were rushing through her head.
Before she knew it, her own hand moved forward to reach Julius’— stopping right before they touched.
She snorted, shaking her head at herself.
“Man. We really are failures.”