Alicia and I arrived at school, changed into our indoor slippers, and made our way to class. As always, I didn’t let Alicia look inside of my shoe locker, which contained slanderous graffiti telling me to die. I didn’t want her seeing it. Given what had happened to those boys in the bathroom, I couldn’t be sure that she wouldn’t track down the people doing this and hurt them.
“Good morning, Alicia!” several girls in our class greeted as she and I entered the classroom. They ignored me.
Alicia walked past them.
“Excuse me,” one of the girls said suddenly. Her dark hair was in pigtails. She had equally dark eyes, which contrasted with her pale skin. “It’s rude to ignore someone when they greet you.”
Alicia turned to the girl, eyes narrowed and lips a flat line, which caused the girl to take a single step back. “You’re right. It is rude to ignore someone, but if that’s the case, then why do you ignore Jacob when he enters the class with me every day?”
The girl dithered. “Well… that’s…”
“In fact, if I am not mistaken, all of you ignore Jacob,” Alicia continued, glaring at the rest of the class. “Everyday you try to speak with me, while pretending he doesn’t exist. Jacob is my friend. If you cannot speak with him in the same manner that you try to speak with me, then I cannot be your friend.” She turned back to the girl and smiled. “Does that answer your question?”
The girl, Mayumi I thought her name was, didn’t say anything. Alicia spun back around, her red hair whipping around her, walked over to her desk, and sat down. I silently followed her until we were both seated.
“Are you sure that was a good idea?” I whispered in her ear. “They might ostracise you now.”
“So what?” asked Alicia, not bothering to whisper at all. “If these people cannot accept you, then I won’t accept them.”
I wanted to tell her that she shouldn’t forsake the friendship of others for my sake, but I didn’t. Her words made me feel special, wanted, important. I felt guilty. I knew that I shouldn’t let her do this, knew that it would make her life harder. Yet I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t want to say anything.
Class eventually started. The homeroom teacher, a tall woman named Ms. Kizaki Kotohime, began by talking about the upcoming school festival this weekend.
School festivals were a huge deal to schools all across Japan. It was so important that some schools even stopped teaching so the students could work solely on the sports festival.
Saitama Private Academy was not like that, but even though the teachers wouldn’t stop teaching, everyone was expected to participate in helping make the festival a success.
Ms. Kizaki was nearing the end of her lecture. “… also, for those of you who are participating in one or more of the festival’s events, do not forget to make some time to practice. We must bring pride to class 2B! You don’t want to shame yourselves in front of the other classes, do you?! That’s why you should work hard!”
Hearing the teacher talk about the festival reminded me that Alicia and I haven’t practiced for the three-legged race at all. It was Wednesday. The festival began on Saturday and ended on Sunday. The three-legged race was on Sunday, which meant we only had five days to practice.
Should I say something? I should ask her if she wanted to practice after school, shouldn’t I? Of course, I had to meet Gabriel after school, but she and I wouldn’t meet up until five in the afternoon. Classes ended at three. Neither Alicia nor I were in any clubs, so we had a little less than two hours to practice. The question was: how should I bring this up?
As turned out, I didn’t have to. As Ms. Kizaki continued talking, a small slip of folded paper landed on my desk. I unfolded it and read the words written on the inside: Let’s practice for the three-legged race after school today.
A smile appearing on my face, I quickly scribbled a single word in reply: Okay.
Classes went by slowly. They were so slow that I wondered if time had somehow become stuck in frozen molasses. Listening to the teachers as they lectured had never been more painful. It was a good thing that Alicia was with me. During breaks and lunch, she and I would talk—well, Alicia did most of the talking. I just listened.
“There’s an anime I started watching called Strike the Blood,” she was saying. “It’s also a light novel series that I’ve been reading. It’s really formulaic, but I have a lot of fun reading it. I like how they make it so demons and humans are living side by side as opposed to demons having to hide from humans. It makes the story really interesting.”
I had learned a few days after our first meeting that Alicia was a Japanophile, though perhaps otaku was a better descriptor. She loved anime, light novels, and manga. One of her favorite topics to discuss was which series she was reading or watching, and she even used some of those series as references for how she acted, such as when she tried to take a shower with me because she had seen it in a series called Highschool DxD. The last time I went to her room, she had an entire wall turned into shelves that were dedicated to her hobby.
“It sounds like you really enjoy this series,” I said.
Alicia’s smile was perhaps one of the brightest I had ever seen. It always got like this when she talked about her hobbies.
“I do! It’s about this guy called Akatsuki Kojou, who is the Fourth Primoginator, which is the strongest vampire in the world. All of the girls in the series are so strong. Yukina and Kirisaka are from the Lion King Organization, and they’re really strong, and Asagi is a really pretty girl who can hack into any database. Then there’s La Folia, who’s the princess to a kingdom, and Natsuki Minamiya. She’s a witch called the Witch of the Void because she can control time and space.”
“Sounds like there’s a lot of girls in this series.”
“Well, of course. This is a harem series.”
The words made me pause. “You know… I’ve noticed it, but you really seem to like harem series a lot. Highschool DxD, Monster Musume, Negima Magister Magi… almost every series you talk about is a harem. Why is that?”
“It’s…” Alicia hesitated, her cheeks growing red. She coughed into her hand and tried to appear dignified as she spoke. “It’s because of the girls. Not a lot of people seem to realize it, but the girls in a harem series are almost always really strong-willed and powerful. Ever since I first started reading, I’ve wanted to become like that, a strong and powerful devil who’s confident and isn’t afraid of doing what I have to, to get what I want.”
If I were to speak honestly, I didn’t have much of an interest in anime and stuff, but that might have been because I never really had the luxury of trying it. I never had cable because it had been too expensive. I couldn’t buy light novels or manga because I wasn’t allowed in stores. The only reason I was even able to read fantasy novels was because I occasionally snuck into the library and that just happened to be what I picked up first.
“If you really like it, then maybe you and I could watch it together,” I suggested, scratching my cheek and trying to appear nonchalant.
“You’ll watch it with me?” she asked, her eyes sparkling. “Really? That’s great! The entire series is currently on Amazon, so we can watch it when we get home!”
In the face of such radiance, I could do nothing but agree.
School eventually came to an end. Neither Alicia nor I had cleaning duty today, but since we had agreed to practice for the upcoming three-legged race, we didn’t go home.
Saitama Private Academy had a track behind the school building. Grass spread out before me as I stood on the black race track, a perfect uniform green, well-maintained. There wasn’t just a track field. The school also had a soccer field, a tennis court, and a swimming pool. There was also a shed to my left where all the equipment was kept. The door was open. Alicia was currently inside.
Because I wasn’t liked by even the school faculty, she was the one who had to get everything ready. They wouldn’t have given me the key.
“I’m back,” Alicia called, walking up to me. In her left hand was a band. “Are you ready to practice?”’
Like me, Alicia was wearing the school gym uniform, a plain white shirt with red trim and red shorts. Of course, our outfits were slightly different. I was wearing shorts. Alicia wore bloomers, which hugged her hips and were so short they barely covered her butt. In fact, a good deal of her butt was exposed.
My mouth went dry as she stopped beside me.
“Yeah,” I said. “So, um, I’ve never practiced for a three-legged race before.” I had never even seen one since I had never been to a festival. “How do we practice?”
“That’s easy,” Alicia answered. “We just attach this band to our legs and run across the track together. We’ll start off walking to get used to having our legs tied together. Once we get the hang of it, we can begin picking up our pace.”
“Okay. I’ll just follow your lead.”
Alicia bade me to stand next to her, our legs touching. I tried to ignore the way my stomach squirmed as she tied our legs together with the band. As she stood back up, Alicia wound her arm around my waist. My spine stiffened as an electric thrill raced through my body.
“Put your arm around my shoulder,” she instructed.
I did as I was told. I couldn’t do anything else.
“Okay.” Alicia took a deep breath. “Let’s start by walking slowly at first. We’ll move the joined legs first, then our outer legs. Are you ready?”
“Okay. We’ll start on three. Two. One.”
Alicia and I began walking, though it might have been more accurate to say we were lumbering. Our movements were slow, ponderous, clumsy. We had to stop walking several times because our legs were moving out of synch. There were numerous occasions where one of us would walk faster than the other, which caused the person moving slower to pitch forward.
It wasn’t just how we moved out of synch that was the problem. It was our proximity.
Alicia’s scent was invading my nose as we tried to walk across the track field, a distracting smell of lavender wafted from her hair—her shampoo. More distracting than the scent of her hair, however, was the feel of her body as it pressed against him. Her sideboob was rubbing against my chest through their clothes. It was electrifying.
“H-hey! Jacob! What are—iyahn!!!”
I was so distracted that I mistimed my step, badly. It was so bad, in fact, that Alicia jerked forward and fell down, taking me with her. My stomach leapt into my throat for all of one second. I recovered quickly and tried to mitigate the damage, but I couldn’t do much. All I could do was grab Alicia and turn us on our side so that I would be the one who slammed into the track field.
A spine-numbing jolt traveled through me, making my entire body shudder. I gritted my teeth to keep from shouting. The tang of copper on my tongue made me grimace, and the pain of me biting the inside of my cheek didn’t help bring my mind back into focus. Alicia, whom I had all but traded places with, landed on top of me, though she quickly rolled over and we both fell onto our backs.
“Ouch…” Alicia mumbled.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’m fine. How are you?”
“Um, well enough, I guess.”
We laid there on the track, side by side, our arms underneath each other. It wasn’t a comfortable position, but I wouldn’t have said it was uncomfortable either. I think if we had been lying in a bed, or at least on a carpet instead what felt like bumpy rubber, I would have enjoyed it. Not that I could tell her that. Alicia was important to me. I didn’t want to ruin our friendship because I asked for more than she was willing to give.
“Shall we try again?” asked Alicia.
“Okay,” I agreed.
We spent nearly an hour and a half practicing. Despite how much we practiced, we weren’t that good by the end, but we had at least moved past the point of walking. By the end, Alicia and I had begun moving at a light jog.
After practice, she and I walked to the lockers and separated. We were both sweaty and needed to take a shower. There was no one in the locker room when I arrived, and no one bothered me when I took a shower.
An issue did crop up when I realized that all of the content in my gym bag, including my towel and school uniform, were missing. The lock was broken. Someone must have broke into my locker and stolen my clothes. The graffiti politely asking me to commit seppuku, ritual suicide, was telling.
Thinking about the issue for a moment, it took me awhile to come up with a solution. I didn’t want to not take a shower. I would be meeting Gabriel after this, and I had no desire to smell like sweat in front of her.
I took a shower despite not having a towel. I used paper from the dispenser to dry off. Since I didn’t have my clothes, I just put on my gym clothes again. I’d have to buy a new school uniform.
Alicia was waiting for me when I exited, dressed back in the school’s checkered skirt and white collared shirt. She looked at me, eyes traveling down, then up. Her smile left.
“Someone took your uniform, didn’t they?” she asked.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’ll just get a new uniform.”
“No,” Alicia rebutted. “It’s not fine, Jacob. Someone stole your uniform. We need to inform the teachers—no, the principal.”
“Even if we did, it wouldn’t matter.”
“Jacob, I know you’re very tolerant, but these people are going too far! The way they treat you is appalling. You might be able to put up with it, but I can’t stand how terrible they’re being!”
While Alicia looked about ready to explode, I was actually happy. A strange feeling spread through my chest. I would have called it warmth, but that didn’t seem to do it justice. I wanted to capture this feeling, to bottle it up and save it for later.
“Alicia,” I said, staring at the reason this feeling existed. “Thank you. The fact that you care about me enough to want to help me is more than enough. Let’s forget about this right now.”
“I know you want to do something, but there really isn’t anything we can do,” I said. “The principal isn’t going to listen to you, especially not when you come to him because of me. Don’t forget, I’m not liked by the faculty either. Right now, there really isn’t anything that we can do about this.”
“I…” Alicia’s face shifted, scrunching up as though she was struggling with some dark power. Several seconds passed before, with her shoulders slumping, she conceded. “I understand. I’ll shelve this issue for now, but I’m not going to let things stay like this. I refuse to let you keep being bullied.”
“I understand. Thank you.”
Alicia’s cheeks turned pink as she looked away. “Well, in either event, since we’re done practicing, let’s go home.”
“Actually,” I began, “why don’t you head home without me today? I have to travel to the library to, um, return a book.”
“The library?” Alicia blinked. “If that’s the case, why don’t I just go with you?”
“Oh, no,” I began, waving my hands back and forth. “It’s fine, really. You don’t have to come with me. I might be there for awhile, since I want to find another book.” Alicia opened her mouth, but I beat her to the punch. “Besides, I’d like one of us to get home to see how Yūgure is settling in.”
Even though I made Yūgure my excuse, the truth was that I didn’t want Alicia and Gabriel meeting. I don’t think I would have necessarily been bothered if they met. However, I had promised Gabriel that I would keep our meeting a secret. Also, there was some part of me that didn’t think it would be a good idea. I didn’t know how Alicia would react.
She’d probably be suspicious and none of us would be able to relax.
Alicia lowered her eyes. “I… if that’s what you want, then I’ll travel home first. Please make sure you come home quickly, okay?”
“I will,” I promised, already making a note to tell Gabriel that I wouldn’t be able to stay for long.
“I want you to watch Strike the Blood with me,” she added.
A small trail of sweat trickled along my face, but I nodded. “Don’t worry. I won’t stay there for long.”
“Okay.” Alicia sighed. “See you later.”
“Yeah. See ya.”
We walked together part way, since the library was partially on the way home. I waved as Alicia continued down the road while I went down a different street. It wasn’t long before I had reached the library. Walking through the sliding, I took a brief moment to make sure no one was looking at me, and then moved further into the building.
Gabriel was already there. I found her sitting at the same table that we had been using yesterday, the book The Twelve Kingdoms: Sea of Shadow resting in front of her, the book open.
Her blue eyes were scanning the page with rapt attention. She flipped the page, then reached up to tuck a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear. The way her lips pursed as she read, her furrowed brows, her entire demeanor, made my heart feel like it was attempting to beat its way out of my chest.
I took a deep breath, held it, and then slowly released it before, with a caution bordering on frightened, I walked up to her.
“G-Gabriel,” I said, my voice squeaking pitifully. “Hello.”
She turned her head. My breathing stilled as fear overtook me. What if she decided she didn’t want to spend time with me? What if she said that I was disgusting? Thinking about it now, there really was no way someone like Gabriel would give a monster like me the time of day. I was already shocked that Alicia was willing to be friends with me. The chances that someone else, a human at that, wouldn’t mind being with me, was non-existent.
“Jacob, I’m glad you could make it.” She smiled at me, and suddenly, all the tension I had built up dissolved. “Come on, sit with me.”
I was so relieved I could have cried. With a smile and a sense of peace that I had only felt once before, the last time she and I had spoken, I sat down.
“Um, it’s good to see you again,” I said, unsure of what else I could say.
“You, too,” Gabriel said. “For a moment, I was worried that you wouldn’t come.”
Part of me had kind of wanted to run away, but I didn’t tell her that.
“So, uh, should we start reading?” I asked instead.
Gabriel shook her head as she closed the book. “No, I’d much rather talk.”
“Talk?” I wasn’t sure what to make of that statement. “About what?”
“About anything.” Wearing a serene smile that made her look like an angel, Gabriel gazed at me as she said, “I would like to learn more about you.”
“Oh.” Heat creeped along my cheeks as I looked at the table. I could no longer maintain eye contact for some reason. “We could do that, I suppose.”
Embarrassed but elated, Gabriel and I began to talk. The sense of peace I had as we spoke was unlike anything I had ever felt before. Sitting in the library, chatting with Gabriel, it almost felt like I had come home.