I was being followed. I had no idea who was following me. Whoever they were knew how to stay out of sight. I couldn’t catch even a glimpse of them when I turned around, but I knew that someone was following me. The hairs on the back of my neck were prickling.
As I walked along the sidewalk, I looked into the windows of buildings, using the reflections to see who was following me. Outside of a black cat with yellow eyes that was walking on top of a wall to my left, there was no one. I frowned.
Putting whoever was following out of my mind—I couldn’t sense any hostile intent, so I assumed they were harmless—I tried to decide on what I should do now.
Since Alicia was upset with me, I didn’t want to return home. I would have to at some point, but right then, I felt like it was better to give the girl her space. Once I’d given her some time to calm down, I would apologize.
Because I had decided not to return home, I let my feet take me to wherever they wanted. The city of Saitama, capital of Saitama Prefecture, was a massive population center that blended modern architecture with traditional aesthetics. There were a number of shrines. Several older buildings also retained the design of traditional Japanese structures. However, the vast majority of buildings were modern square constructions and a few high rises.
At some point, my feet ended up taking me to a modern white building of three stories, the library. I didn’t visit the library often. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to. I’d get kicked out if the head librarian found me there. However, I had nowhere else to go right then, so acting with as much stealth as I could, I cautiously entered the building.
The feeling of eyes on me disappeared as the doors behind me closed. The library wasn’t a large place, but it was still big. A carpeted floor spread about before me, aisles filled with books were broken up by sitting areas, tables, and lounge chairs. I walked in, mindful of the person manning the front. So long as I didn’t draw attention to myself, I should be fine.
Walking the aisles, I let my eyes scan the titles crafted along the spines of books. I’d never consider myself a voracious reader, but I did enjoy reading, when I was permitted to read. I had a preference for books of fantasy with a heavy emphasis on mythological references and inspiration. I planned to find a nice book, sit quietly in a corner, and read for an hour or two before journeying home.
I found one such book not long after searching. It was called Der Schatten des Mondes/Das Meer Der Schatten. The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadows. This was the first book of the Twelve Kingdoms series, written by Fuyumi Ono. I heard that it had been adapted into an anime sometime in the early 2000s. I didn’t watch anime, so I’d never seen it. Alicia might have been interested in watching it, though.
I reached out for the book, but as I was about the grab the spine, my knuckles grazed against the hand of another. A jolt traveled through me. I jerked my hand back, the book clattering to the ground. Turning toward the person, I prepared to spout out apologies, as many as was needed.
“I’m sorry! I—”
My breath was stolen from me.
The person who stood before me was a girl around my age, maybe a little older, with radiant hair the color of honey and eyes deeper and more vast than the ocean. She wore a pair of blue jeans and a plain white T-shirt. Yet somehow, on her, they did not look plain or ordinary. I didn’t know how, couldn’t even begin to explain it, but even though her outfit was plain, the girl before me, with her soft porcelain skin and fair features, seemed almost majestic.
“Oh, no,” the woman said, snapping me out of my daze. “Please, do not apologize. It was my fault for trying to grab that book when you were already reaching out.”
“Ah…” I tried to regain my voice. “But… if I had not reached out in the first place—”
“If you had not reached out in the first place, then this meeting would have surely never happened.” The girl smiled, and I, unable to comprehend why, was dazzled by its brilliance. “I do not believe that meetings like this happen by chance. In which case, it must have been God’s will that led us to meeting, something for which I am most grateful for.”
I would have spoken, but I still found myself rooted to the spot. This girl was radiant. Her presence held a regalness that made me wonder if she wasn’t a princess in disguise, or perhaps even a queen. Surely this kind of commanding majesty could only come from royalty.
“My name is Gabriel,” she said. “What’s yours?”
The words made me realize that I needed to say something. I opened my mouth and forced myself to speak. “I’m Jaconsworth Raven—I mean, Jacob Ravensworth.”
Gabriel raised a hand to her mouth, hiding her giggle, which was a lyrical sound that caused my already warm face to feel even hotter. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She bent down and scooped up the book, stood back up, and then held it out to me. “Here, you were going for it first.”
“O-oh, no!” I said, raising my hands. “You can have it. I can find another book to read.”
“You’re very kind, aren’t you?” she asked suddenly, startling me. “How about we read it together?”
“Ah, um, okay,” I said, unable to think of anything else to say.
A jolt traveled from my hand, up my arm, and shot straight through my brain. Gabriel had grabbed my hand. Her hand was soft and warm, delicate yet strong. As she pulled me along, I couldn’t help but stare at our conjoined hands.
Gabriel lead me to a round table. Remembering my manners, I pulled out a chair for her. She smiled at me as she sat down. I tried to ignore the way her smile made my insides squirm. There was something about her, some indefinable something that I couldn’t understand, that calmed my mind and heart.
“So, um, how do we do this?” I asked as I sat down. “Reading together, I mean.”
“We’ll read one page until we’re both done,” Gabriel said. “Once you’re finished, let me know and I’ll flip the page, unless you finish before me. Then you’ll have to wait until I’m done.”
“Sounds good,” I said.
“Scoot closer. You can’t read if you’re so far from me.”
I did what she told me, though being in such close proximity to another person made me jittery. Even with Alicia, I never let myself get too close. Thinking on it, the only time I had been this close to Alicia physically was that time she had gotten into the shower with me. Recalling that incident, where Alicia had been covered with only a towel, made my face combust with heat.
“Are you okay?” Gabriel asked.
I snapped out of my stupor. “Y-yeah, I’m fine. I was just thinking about something.”
Gabriel studied me with a gaze that made me shift self-consciously in my seat. “Are you thinking about a girl?”
I don’t think my voice was able to contain my shock.“H-how did you know?”
“It’s written all over your face.” Gabriel placed her elbow on the table and set her chin on the butt of her hand. “This girl… are you in love with her?”
“I-in love?” I cursed at the squeak in my voice. “N-no… I don’t think so. I mean, Alicia is important to me, but…” I paused. Thoughts of Alicia made me remember what had transpired today at school. My mood dropped. “I… even if I did feel something, I don’t think I deserve to be with her.”
“Why is that?” asked Gabriel.
The book now lay mostly forgotten on the table. I wetted my lips as I tried to put my feelings into words.
“I always seem to make her angry…”
Telling a girl I had just met about my problems seemed weird, but despite that, or perhaps because of it, I told her about what happened today. I left out some things, of course. I couldn’t tell her that I was a Nephalem. However, the incident in the toilet, the way Alicia became upset at me for not defending myself, those things I informed Gabriel about. She listened quietly. She didn’t speak, didn’t interrupt, she didn’t even talk until I was finished.
“It sounds to me like the one who is in the wrong is you,” she admitted. “Why don’t you stand up for yourself? It is true that violence is not the answer, but it’s not okay to let people hurt you without defending yourself.”
I looked down at my hand as it lay on the table, seeing and yet not seeing it. “Because it’s not their fault. I’m the reason they feel uneasy. If I wasn’t here, they wouldn’t feel this way. They’re just lashing out because they’re scared.”
When Gabriel didn’t immediately reply, I looked up to see, much to my shock, Gabriel gaping at me with wide eyes.
“Um, did I say something wrong?”
“No,” Gabriel said, shaking her head back and forth. “You have not said anything wrong. Quite the contrary. I can tell now that you are a very kind, gentle person. I think it’s wonderful that you can show such compassion even to people who have wronged you. However…” She paused, bit her lip, then continued. “However, I still believe that it’s not okay for you to just roll over and accept that kind of abuse. You should learn to stand up for yourself.”
“So even you think I should do that, huh?” I said with a sigh.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t see where Alicia and Gabriel were coming from, but I also wanted them to understand where I was coming from. I didn’t want to be abused. No one did. This was simply something that couldn’t be helped.
“Well, I should at least apologize to Alicia,” I said out loud.
“That you should,” Gabriel said. She then looked at the clock and gave a startled gasp. “Oh, my! It’s already so late. I have to get home.”Her shoulders slumped. “We didn’t even get to read.”
“You can check it out if you have a library card,” I told her.
Gabriel wore a quizzical expression as she looked at me. “What is a library card?”
Was this girl serious? She didn’t know what a library card was.
A quizzical expression had plastered itself on Gabriel’s face as she stared at me, and I realized that, yes, she really didn’t know what a library card was. Well, I guess there was nothing for it.
It took me several minutes to explain the concept of a library card, but after the explanation, Gabriel’s eyes were shining like beacons. She asked me for help in acquiring one. I knew I should turn her down, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. So I helped her get a library card.
We did have some trouble with a passing librarian. The woman tried to kick me out. I don’t know how, but Gabriel was able to smooth things over via talking things out. It was pretty amazing to watch her placate the woman. A few well placed words and the librarian was, well, she wasn’t happy, but she left without telling him to get out.
“Thank you for helping me get this library card,” Gabriel said after she had checked out the book, The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadows.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
Gabriel leaned over and peered up at me from an angle. Her smile, which had never left her face since meeting me, gained a contemplative quality. “I have to part ways with you now, but I would like to meet you again. Could we meet up here tomorrow?”
I hesitated. Meeting up with her sounded appealing. Just like Alicia, this girl had not scorned me. She hadn’t even shown a hint of animosity or fear. Even Alicia had acted wary around me for the first few days, watching me when she thought I wasn’t looking, tensing whenever I moved. In contrast, Gabriel had not shown an ounce of hostility toward me this entire time.
I made a decision.
“I’ll be here,” I said at last, knowing that she was waiting for an answer. “Same time as today?”
“Sounds good,” Gabriel said. “I shall see you then.”
We parted ways, Gabriel heading out of the library. I watched her pause for a second upon exiting, lean down, and then stand back up and walk off. Shaking my head, I also went toward the exit.
The sliding doors parted as I approached. I walked through, the doors closing behind me, and stretched my arms above my head.
The sun was going down, painting the sky in the multicolored hues of evening. I had not realized it was so late. Alicia and Matilda had likely eaten dinner already. My growling stomach reminded me that I had not eaten since lunch.
I was about to take a step forward—
—a noise at my feet made me pause. I looked down. Yellow eyes stared up at me, surrounded by glossy midnight fur. Four paws. Whiskers. A strange-looking tail that appeared twisted into a helix shape. It was a black cat, though considering how young it looked, it might have been more accurate to call it a kitten.
“Nya,” it meowed again.
I knelt down. “Well, hello there. What are you doing in front of the library?”
I reached out, already expecting the critter to clamp its teeth down on my finger. Animals did not like me. They were even warrier than humans because their sense of danger was stronger. Imagine my surprise when, instead of biting me, it purred as I scratched underneath its chin.
“Well, now. You seem to be a rather interesting kitty,” I murmured, bringing my finger from its chin to its left ear. The purring grew louder, though it stopped when I removed my hand and stood up. “I apologize, but I have to be going now. Sorry I can’t stay and pet you some more.”
I tried to walk around the kitten, but it intercepted me and pawed at my pants. Frowning as I looked down at it, I thought about what to do.
The kitten seemed to want to come with me. Well, that was the impression I got. I could take it home. It wasn’t like my new house had a no pet policy, and I was sure Alicia and Matilda would love it. I had read in a magazine once that girls loved animals. Besides that, I felt kind of bad about the idea of leaving it alone.
My decision made, I bent down, scooped the cat into my arms, and stood back up. As I cradled the kitten with one hand, I used the other to scratch under its chin again. The feline purred.
“Well, I guess you’ll be coming home with me,” I said. The kitten meowed as if answering me.
With company by my side, or in my arms, as the case may be, I wandered back toward my home. The evening sky accompanied me.