Classes went by slowly, so slowly, like the pace of a tortoise dragging itself across a beach. It felt like time had come to a standstill. The arduous task of going through school, of constantly looking at the clock only to discover that barely a second had passed, was maddening.
Alicia knew this was her fault. She couldn’t listen to the teachers lectures, she could barely even pay attention to her own scattered thoughts, and if that wasn’t bad enough, then she kept looking at Jacob.
“Ms. Bael,” the teacher, a stern woman with shoulder length black hair and foreboding eyes that made her think of a devil, said. “Since you seem to be so knowledgeable about this subject that you don’t need to pay attention to my lecture, why don’t you solve this equation for the class.”
Yona Inadora was the math teacher. Everyone was frightened of her because she had once put a boy in the nurse’s office after he called her an old hag—well, that was the rumor anyway. Alicia didn’t know if she believed that rumor, but even if it wasn’t true, it didn’t matter.
Ms. Inadora had the classic appearance of a thug, and this was in spite of, or perhaps because of, the crisp suit she wore. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, allowing everyone to see her hard eyes with their small pupils. She was also blonde. Some said it looked dyed, but Alicia could tell it was natural. Even so, blonde hair on a Japanese person was typically associated with galgirls and yakuza. What’s more, her glare could easily melt steel.
Alicia knew devils who were less frightening.
However, there was a larger problem than Ms. Inadora’s glare.
'This isn’t good! I have no clue what problem she wants me to solve!'
It wouldn’t have mattered even if she did know, since she sucked at math, like, really, really sucked at math. Out of all her classes, this was the one she was doing the worst in. They had only taken one test since she arrived, and she hadn’t even passed it. She actually had to take a makeup exam.
Out of desperation, she glanced at Jacob. He wasn’t looking at her. Perhaps it was the panic talking, but that he wouldn’t even look in her direction was pretty depressing.
'I’ve really screwed up our relationship now. I should have apologized this morning. I should have helped him when those bullies took him behind the equipment shed. Now he hates me and it’s all my—eh?'
Alicia nearly lost herself when, discreetly, Jacob slid a sheet of paper across his table. It was the answer to the equation on the board. Not only was it answered, but all of the work was there.
She totally sucked at math. There was no denying that, but what she lacked in comprehension, she made up for in memory. Even if she couldn’t solve the problem on her own, memorizing how to solve it was something that she was more than capable of.
'Thank you, Jacob!'
Alicia walked up to the front, grabbed some chalk, and quickly began jotting down the answer. She spoke while writing.
“Let the numbers be x and y. If x + y = 9 and x2 + y2 = 41, then according to the first equation y = (9-x). Now we can substitute this into the second equation, so we get x2 + (9-x)2 = 41. If we follow this formula to its conclusion, then the numbers are 5 and 4.”
“That is… correct,” Ms. Inadora said, looking as though she’d swallowed a lemon. “Please go back to your seat.”
Alicia did just that. In fact, she couldn’t get back to her seat fast enough.
Classes soon passed, and the school day eventually ended. As the bell rang, Alicia turned to Jacob, ready to thank him for his help in math class, but she was unable to say it when she saw him picking up his book bag and hurrying out of the room. Grabbing her own supplies, she quickly followed him, catching up as he was getting his tennis shoes out of his locker.
“Jacob,” she said as he pulled out his tennis shoes and placed them on the ground. “I, um, I wanted to thank you for helping me with that math problem.”
“You’re welcome,” Jacob said simply as he slipped into his shoes and put his indoor slippers into the locker.
Alicia bit her lip. Maybe it was just her perception of things, but it felt like Jacob was ignoring her. He wasn’t looking at her, and he was quickly trying to get himself ready so he could leave. Could he be…
“You’re going to visit that girl, aren’t you?” Alicia said in sudden realization.
“That’s right,” Jacob told her.
“Don’t do it!” Alicia took a step forward. She reached out a hand, but hesitated for a moment before grabbing his arm. “Don’t see her!”
Alicia felt something stab her heart when Jacob pulled out of her grip. “Why can’t I see her?”
“Because…” Alicia bit her lip. “Because you can’t trust someone you just met.”
“I just met you a few weeks ago,” Jacob pointed out. “Are you saying I can’t trust you?”
“That’s different,” Alicia said. “Our circumstances were completely different. The way you met this girl is way too coincidental. It’s suspicious!”
“You’re only saying that because you haven’t spoken to her.” Jacob slung his book bag over his shoulder. “Gabriel is a kind and wonderful girl. I won’t have you making fun of her.”
“I’m leaving. I’ll see you at home.”
As she watched Jacob leave, Alicia felt more and more like crying. Her only friend in the human world, the person who had saved her when she was on the verge of death, who had made her life here bearable, who had erased five years of loneliness in less than a weak, was getting further and further away. What made this whole situation worse was that she couldn’t do anything about it.
In the lowest spirits she’d ever been in, Alicia trudged home, dragging her feet along the ground as she realized that no matter what she did, Jacob wasn’t going to listen to her.
Why? Why, why, why? She didn’t understand how he could trust someone he just met over her. Hadn’t they been through so much together already? Hadn’t they fought alongside each other? He should have trusted her over some woman he’d only met three days ago.
It was with these thoughts swirling through her head that she arrived home. After discarding her shoes and placing them on the shoe rack, she slumped into the living room. Then she paused.
Someone she didn’t know was there.
A man of indeterminate age sat on her couch, his dark black jacket covering a thinner than normal frame, red patches sewn at the shoulders making it look sort of like poorly made armor. His dark hair was short, slightly messy, giving him a devil may care appearance, but, as if to contrast with this, streaks of gray ran along the sides above his ears to give him a distinguished demeanor. As he turned to her, Alicia saw that his eyes were the color of steel.
He was sipping a cup of tea.
This stranger wasn’t alone. Standing beside him was Matilda, carrying a tray, which she currently held to her chest. Her expression remained carefully masked in the presence of this newcomer. It was the poker face she wore when someone potentially dangerous was around.
That expression, more than anything else, put Alicia on edge.
Yūgure was also present, though unlike Matilda, who seemed to be standing guard against this man, the nekomata was sitting on the couch and eating mochi. She didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything. However, the fact that she was there, sitting near a man that Alicia didn’t know, made her think that Yūgure was keeping an eye on him.
“Princess Alicia,” Matilda said in greeting, curtsying toward her. The show of deference, along with being called Princess as opposed to Lady, let Alicia know that this man, whoever he was, had some clout within their world. “I am pleased to see that you have arrived. Allow me to introduce you to Azazel."
Alicia wondered if the sudden light-headedness she felt was because she’d forgotten how to breathe. She knew Azazel. He was the leader of the Grigori, The Watchers, a group of angels who, due to either their interaction with humans or their lust for humans, had fallen from God’s grace. He was also the man who had given Jacob the apartment that had previously been located on this property.
“Princess Alicia,” Azazel greeted with an easy-going smile. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet the girl that Jacob kept talking about when I checked on him.”
While Alicia felt like she’d shoved her finger into an electric socket, she wasn’t the kind of person to let others know that. Putting up an inscrutable mask, she greeted Azazel with the courtesy that one might greet a foreign dignitary.
“Lord Azazel, the pleasure is all mine. I apologize for not being around to greet you upon your arrival.”
“Don’t worry about that.” Azazel waved her off. “I know you’ve been going to school with Jacob. Speaking of, where is Jacob? Much as it pains me to admit it, I didn’t come here just to see how he was doing. I’ve got something important to speak with him about.”
“Jacob… isn’t here right now,” Alicia said.
“Not here?” Azazel didn’t appear too worried, but a slight edge had entered his voice. “Where is he?”
“The library probably.”
Going silent for a moment, Azazel placed a hand to his face, seemingly in thought about something or other. After another moment had passed, he sat back down.
“This can’t wait. Since he isn’t here, I’ll just have to tell you two—sorry, you three,” he corrected himself when Yūgure sent him a reproachful glare. “Two days ago, I received reports about a huge surge in divine energy coming from Heaven. According to my information, the surge happened four days ago.”
“Heaven has been awfully quiet since the Great War,” Matilda said. “It was my understanding that they had completely closed their gates.”
“They have,” Azazel confirmed. “Which makes this surge all the more troubling. We’ve managed to confirm that the Gates of Heaven were temporarily opened four days ago, and that someone from Heaven was sent down to Earth. My people have been tracking this person’s divine presence, but it disappeared quickly after arriving. We only just discovered yesterday that this city was the last known location of that presence before it disappeared.”
Something about his words made Alicia’s spine tingle and her pulse increase. With her heart hammering in her chest, she asked, “do you know who it was that was sent down from Heaven?”
“I do.” Azazel nodded. “Even though I haven’t seen her in nearly a dozen centuries, I could never forget this particular presence. The angel who was sent from Heaven is Gabriel, Messenger of Heaven.”
Alicia wanted to vomit. She wanted to scream. She wanted to cry. However, she did none of those things. Instead of panicking, she rushed back toward the entrance and began putting her shoes back on.
“Princess Alicia, where are you going?” asked Matilda as she rushed into the hallway.
“I’m going to find Jacob,” Alicia said as she unlocked the front door. “Gabriel is the name of the person who Jacob has been seeing for the past three days. He’s in danger!”
“I’ll come with you,” Azazel said, also walking into the hallway. “I may not spend much time with him, but I am Jacob’s guardian. It’s my duty to look after him.”
“If you’re coming along, then hurry up,” Alicia snapped. “We have no time to waste!”
Alicia left the house alongside Azazel, Matilda, and Yūgure. As she raced toward the library, her thoughts went out to Jacob.
'Please be okay.'