School ended with the ringing of the bell. I stood up, grabbed my book bag, and hurried out of the classroom. I moved down the hall and took the stairs to the first floor, where I walked up to my shoe locker. I didn’t even see the graffiti as I changed out of my slippers and put on my tennis shoes.
Just as I closed my shoe locker and prepared to leave, a voice called out to me.
“Jacob, why are you in such a rush?”
I turned. Alicia was standing by her locker, a put out frown on her face.
“Oh, Alicia. I, um…”
“Jeez.” Alicia sighed. “I don’t know what’s got you hurrying to leave, but the least you could do is wait for me.”
“I’m sorry,” I told her. “But I actually have some place I need to be. You can head on home without me.”
“W-wait, Jacob! Where do you need to be?!”
I knew it was wrong of me to leave without giving Alicia an explanation. I so badly wanted to tell her about Gabriel, but I had promised that I wouldn’t, and I didn’t want to endanger the friendship I had formed with the blonde girl who promised to meet me at the library again. Not even Alicia, who I cherished as my first friend, made me feel so… so… comfortable, so at peace with myself.
I ran out of the school before Alicia could say anything. I think it was my guilt that made me do this, run away without even saying goodbye. An awful feeling rolled around in my gut. I ignored it. Just this once… just this once, I wanted to be selfish.
Because I was all but running, I reached the library in less than ten minutes, walked in, and headed for what had become Gabriel’s and my designated spot. She was already there, waiting for me. The book sitting on the table wasn’t Sea of Shadow. It was Sea of Wind, the next arc within the series.
“Jacob.” Gabriel greeted me with a smile, the warmth of which infused me as I sat next to her. “How was school?”
“It was fine,” I said. “Nothing really happened today.”
“Really? You look a little flushed.”
That was because I had run to the library, but I wasn’t going to admit that out loud.
“I’m just feeling a bit breathless.”
Gabriel accepted my explanation with a nod, and, setting her chin against her hands, she said, “it must be nice being a student at school.”
School had come up the other day in our conversation. Gabriel had mentioned that she had never gone to school before and wished she could experience school life at least once. I didn’t ask, but I assume she was home schooled. Well, she would have had to be home schooled. School was mandatory in Japan, though she didn’t look at all Japanese. I would say she looked more European.
“I don’t think school is that great,” I admitted freely.
“I think it sounds wonderful, though.” Clasping her hands in front of her, Gabriel’s eyes sparkled. “Attending classes where you gain knowledge and understanding about the world, spending time with friends, joining clubs that further your passions, it sounds amazing.”
Since the subject had come up again, I decided to satiate my curiosity. “Have you never been to school before?”
Shaking her head, Gabriel’s expression became slightly despondent, as though thinking about her lack of school experience was a grave sin. “I have never been to school before. I’ve spent nearly my entire life traveling from one country to the next.”
A traveler? I had already pegged her for a foreigner—not like it was hard to figure out—but it sounded like she went to all kinds of different places.
“What kinds of countries have you been to?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ve been all over the place,” Gabriel answered. “I mostly travel across Europe, but I’ve also been to the Americas, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East. My duties often keep me busy, so I never get to stay in one place for too long.”
“I help people who are suffering.”
“Like a missionary?”
Gabriel hesitated before responding. “Yes, I suppose you could say what I do is similar. We both help others, though my help is a bit more hands off. I don’t build houses or anything like that. My job is primarily to help foster good relations with others and bring the world closer to peace.”
“That sounds like an amazing job to me,” I said. “I’ve always wanted to help people, but I never could.”
“Why is that?” asked Gabriel.
Looking at my hands, staring at them as though I could see the stains covering them, the filth that tainted them, I pondered how much I should tell her. I couldn’t say that it was because I was a Nephalem. She probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.
“I’m… not very well liked,” I went with. “No matter where I go, no matter what I do, everyone treats me like I’m a disease.”
Images flashed before my eyes. I recalled the scorn-filled looks people gave me, the ridicule that was often heaped on me, the way people would pretend I didn’t exist. Everyone except for Alicia, Matilda, Gabriel, and Yūgure were like that.
Of course, I didn’t blame them. I would never blame humans for feeling uneasy around me. It was only natural. At the same time, even though I understood, there were many occasions where I wished they wouldn’t treat me like something to be reviled and feared.
Before Alicia had come into my life, there were many nights where I had cried myself to sleep. Not even Azazel picking up and giving me that apartment I had lived in had been enough to stop the void in my heart from consuming me. Those were days I didn’t want to relive.
I was startled out of my reverie when Gabriel grabbed my hands. Her hands were soft and warm, delicate but firm. Through them, I felt like I could sense her innate kindness and compassion, and the feeling of belonging grew.
“I do not think what happened to you is your fault,” Gabriel said. “Even though it has only been three days since our fortuitous meeting, I can tell that you’re a very kind young man.”
“T-thank you,” I said. For some reason that I had trouble comprehending, her words made me want to cry.
“Tell me, do you blame the people who scorn you?” asked Gabriel.
I shook my head. “I used to, I think. There was probably a point in my life where I did, but I haven’t for a long time. I understand that the way I am treated is no one’s fault but my own. If I hadn’t been born like this, perhaps people would have treated me differently.”
I was, of course, talking about how I wasn’t human, but I couldn’t just outright say that. Even so, I didn’t want to lie. That was why I made the statement vague. Gabriel would hopefully assume that I was talking about my appearance.
Japan didn’t always treat foreigners with respect, especially children, who, thanks to the belief in their innate intellectual superiority over the western nations, thought most Americans and Europeans were kind of stupid.
A sob made me freeze. My eyes widened as Gabriel started crying. I was so shocked to see tears falling from her eyes, running down her cheeks, that for the first five seconds, I could do nothing more than stare.
“G-Gabriel, what’s wrong?” I finally forced myself to speak.
“It’s… it’s just… you’ve been treated so cruelly, and I… I…”
As Gabriel stifled another sob, I tried my hardest to make her feel better. “P-please don’t cry! It’s not something for you to feel bad about. I’m used to it.”
That was not the right thing to say. Gabriel cried even more. She cried in earnest, drawing the attention of several people who sat at tables around ours. I received more than my share of glares from people who probably thought she was crying because of something I did. There was a hint of irony to that.
“Excuse me,” a crotchety old woman, whom I recognized as the head librarian, came up to us and gave me a look of pure vitriol. “I am sorry, but I’m gonna have to ask you to leave. You’re disrupting people’s ability to quietly read.”
What should I do? I couldn’t tell this woman no, but at the same time, I couldn’t leave Gabriel like this.
I was probably fortunate that Gabriel chose this moment to stand up. She bowed low to the librarian and said, “I apologize for disrupting the peace. We’ll leave.”
Before the librarian could say anything, Gabriel grabbed my hand, pulled me out of my chair, and led me to the entrance. The last thing I saw before the sliding door closed was the librarian’s flabbergasted face. Then we were outside, Gabriel’s stifled sniffling mixing with the noise of people walking along the sidewalks and cars driving down the road.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized to Gabriel. “Because of me, we were forced to leave.”
Gabriel took one look at me, her eyes welling up again, and I thought for a moment that more waterworks might be on the way. Then the young woman wiped her eyes with the long-sleeve of her shirt. She sniffled once more, but she didn’t cry.
“No, it was my fault,” she said. “I’m sorry I got so emotional.”
“It’s okay.” I tried not to fiddle as I looked at the people walking across my vision. “You were crying because of me, right? I don’t like seeing you cry, but it makes me kind of happy that you would cry for me.”
Maybe it was my imagination, but Gabriel appeared honestly stunned, like she couldn’t comprehend a single word I had just said. She shook her head, then, unbidden, a smile came to her face.
“What’s that look for?” I asked, feeling myself smile as well.
“It’s nothing,” she said, placing her hands behind her back and leaning over. “Say, I’m hungry. Would you like to grab something to eat with me?”
“Okay,” I agreed without really thinking about it.
Grabbing my hand, Gabriel dragged me off, her eyes no longer stained with tears.