How she ended up in his arms was a mystery to her. He was a practically a stranger—well, fine, not technically. But he wasn’t a friend. He wasn’t even a distant acquaintance. He was just…there. Just another fixture at the South Crescent High School library, and honestly, as fixtures went, the antique card catalogue that stood against one wall was more likable and engaging than he was.
Before that day, they hadn’t spoken five words to each other. And in the very first exchange they did have, he was so rude and nasty to her that figuring out how he went from somebody she’d considered a mere curiosity to somebody she’d very nearly kissed taxed her imagination—and she had a pretty vivid imagination.
It was that room. That magical room with the amazing art. She found the room, he found her there, and that was when her story tossed up a bizarre plot twist.
It began with a scene from a medieval woodcut. Books stacked on one side of the desk. A pot of glue, paint brushes, rolls of tape, scissors, and a cloth rag arranged on the other side. And the boy, sitting at the desk, repairing a damaged book with the reverent attention of a monk in a scriptorium.
The rest of the library was a surreal sight. It was illuminated not by stark fluorescent lights but by sunlight streaming in through the open windows, casting shadows where she’d seen none before. It made it easy to believe that the library was a kind of crossroads, a portal to another reality. Or even many other realities, each one populated by unique, magical beings…
Fran exhaled. Fine. No fantastical beings then. Just her and the boy. Who was too focused on his work to notice her standing right there, practically hovering over his shoulder.
She wondered, not for the first time since she’d stepped into the library and found it empty except for a lone occupied desk near a window, why he was even here. Of course, it wasn’t unusual to see him here. To anyone who spent as much time in the library as she did, he was a familiar sight—a quiet, lanky figure lurking behind the counter sorting periodicals, or wheeling the cart around and shelving books, or fiddling with the main network computer. He kept himself to himself, and the few times she saw him manning the circulation desk, he kept his eyes trained on the books he was stamping, raising his head only to dish out a disapproving look whenever a student presented him with an overdue book.
But for all that, she didn’t expect to find him now, still working diligently in the library. In the middle of summer vacation. He had to be, she decided, the single most devoted student-library assistant ever in the history of South Crescent High.
Fran lifted her ponytail off her neck and pushed her glasses up her sweat-slickened nose, only to have it slip immediately back down. The entire block was suffering from a power outage due to a busted transformer, which rendered the library’s lights and air-conditioners useless. The boy, though, seemed as oblivious to the heat as he was to her presence. Every part of him was bent on his task—trimming ragged bits off the torn pages and cover of the book, measuring out a length of binder tape, picking up the paintbrush, dipping it into the pot of glue, and brushing glue along one side of the tape. The movements of his hands were precise, measured, even loving. It was almost mesmerizing to watch.
A drop of sweat glinted at the side of his brow, catching her eye. No, he was definitely feeling the heat. He just wasn’t inclined to do anything about it. The drop of moisture threatened to drip right into his eye, and without thinking, she reached out and brushed it away with a finger.
The effect was instantaneous. “Whuh!?” the boy yelped as he jumped out of his chair, which clattered backward onto the floor. His hand shot out as though to swat her, sending the paintbrush flying and making her squeak and stumble back. As he stood, his thigh bumped against the table, which caused one stack of books to spill onto the floor and the open pot of glue to tip over, its contents oozing out onto the table.
In the silence that followed that amazing sequence of events, she and the boy stared at each other with identical expressions of shock. Then he turned aside to right the pot of glue and pick up the chair, cursing underneath his breath.
“I’m sorry!” Fran exclaimed. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I don’t know even why—I’m so sorry.”
“Forget it. Just get the brush, will you?” he muttered without looking at her.
Grateful for the chance to hide her flaming face, she located the paintbrush and handed it to him, then went to restack the books that had fallen while he dealt with the mess on the table. Sneaking a look at him, she found him scowling down at the rag he was cleaning the table with, his face as red as hers undoubtedly felt. All at once, the hilarity of the situation caught up with her, and she giggled.
He aimed his scowl at her, so she turned her laughter into a spate of coughing. “Look, do you need something? You know the library’s closed, right?” he said impatiently.
“Yes, I know,” she replied, assuming that his rudeness was caused by embarrassment. “I’m looking for Mrs. Santos. I’ve got some books I’d like to donate.” She gestured toward the circulation desk, where she’d left the plastic bag full of books sitting on the floor, then glanced around meaningfully. “Um, where is she?”
“She just stepped out for a while. As you can probably tell, there’s not much that can be done here at the moment,” he answered, shrugging. “She’ll be back soon, so you can wait for her if you want to.”
She smiled. “Thanks, I will.”
Weirdly enough, she didn’t move, and neither did he. As they continued to stare at each other, she began to take in details about him that she hadn’t noticed before. Like the way the sunlight turned his short, brown hair a burnished red. Or the way the brightness of his hair contrasted with his gray T-shirt and faded black shorts. He was only a couple of inches taller than her, which she liked. After living with two older brothers who towered over her, plus a younger brother who was quickly getting there and took pains to remind her constantly about it, she found it refreshing to be around someone who couldn’t use her head to prop an elbow on while eating potato chips.
He was cute, too, surprisingly. Behind his black, wire-framed glasses, his eyebrows were thick and his eyes heavy-lidded, which gave him the look of someone perpetually fighting off sleep. His eyes were a warm hazel edged with green, the color of trees in summer. His face was smooth and roundish, as if he hadn’t gotten rid of all his baby fat yet. It made him look younger, even though she was almost sure he was at least a year ahead of her. His chin had a stubborn cant to it, as well as the cutest little mole just below the left corner of his mouth.
She hadn’t realized she was studying him so intently until he blushed and looked away, pushing his glasses up his nose. “What I meant was, have a seat and wait,” he informed her pointedly. “Go get a book and read or something. This is the library, after all.”
She settled into a nearby chair, while he sat back down and resumed work. His movements weren’t nearly as elegant as before, though. His hands shook, and he couldn’t seem to get the tape to perfectly align with the book’s spine. After he managed to knock the roll of tape off the table, he grunted in disgust and frowned at her. “Could you stop that? I’m trying to concentrate here.”
“Stop staring at me!”
“Shh, pipe down, you’re in the library,” she chided automatically, which earned her an incredulous look. “I deserved that, didn’t I?” she said sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I honestly didn’t mean to disturb you. Did I really scare you that badly?”
He reddened again. “I…thought you were a bug.”
Fran’s eyebrows lifted. Granted, she wasn’t the type to inspire flowery comparisons, but to be mistaken for an insect? “So I guess you don’t like bugs, huh?” she asked carefully.
He said nothing, but the look of loathing that flitted across his face was answer enough. Fran didn’t know whether to feel amused that there existed a boy who was as scared of creepy crawlies as a girl supposedly was, or insulted that his opinion of her was apparently not all that much better. Wanting to improve her standing in his eyes, she pointed at the book and asked, “Do you need help with that? I could hold it steady or something.”
He threw his hands up and glared at her. “Are you hard of hearing or just dumb? No, I don’t need help. What I need is for you to leave me alone so I can finally get something useful done.”
Hurt, followed quickly by outrage, stiffened her spine. “Fine. I won’t bother you again,” she said coldly. Pushing her glasses up, she got to her feet and wandered over to the shelves, intending to lose herself among the books as she usually did. But her less-than-pleasant encounter with the boy had soured her mood, and a short while later, she put back the book with a sigh and risked a glance at him. He wasn’t even looking at her. Once again, all his attention was directed at his task, as if he’d completely forgotten she was even there.
For some reason, that annoyed her even more.
Luckily for him, the stout, ramrod-straight figure of Mrs. Santos strode through the doors just as Fran was considering throwing a book at his head. With her fondness for bold colors and fearsome aura that ensured library-goers’ good behavior with just a look, the Head Librarian was a cross between a bird-of-paradise and Genghis Khan. Right now she was dressed in a vivid blue and white muumuu, probably in deference to the fact that it was summer, and her bobbed hair had been dyed a blazing shade of red. But her eagle-eyed stare swept across the room, and Fran found herself praying she hadn’t disarranged the books too much.
Then her gaze fell upon the bag of books. “What’s this? Who put these here?” she barked, thereby demonstrating the truth that only the Head Librarian could raise her voice within her domain.
“I did. They’re from my aunt. She wants to donate them to the library,” Fran explained, hurrying over and hefting the bag of books onto the counter.
“Your aunt?” Mrs. Santos eyed her suspiciously. “Who is your aunt? Are you a student here?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I’m a freshman. I mean, was a freshman. Oh, and there’s still another boxful of books. My brother set it down in the front hall, but it was too heavy for me to carry all the way here.”
“Where is your ID? You’re not allowed to wander around the school premises without an ID. There are rules to be followed, Miss.” Fran hunted through the outer pocket of her overnight bag for her ID, and fidgeted as Mrs. Santos subjected the card to a more rigorous inspection than the security guard had done. “I see,” she sniffed, handing Fran her ID back. “And your aunt is?”
“Adella Lacson. That was her name when she was studying here, and it’s still her professional name.”
Mrs. Santos looked surprised. “Adella Lacson? Do you mean Del Lacson?” When Fran nodded, the Head Librarian’s stern face opened up into a genuinely warm smile. “Yes, I remember Del. She was a junior when I started working here. Oh, what a troublemaker that girl was! Poking her nose into everything, constantly sniffing around for something to write about for the school paper, being a thorn in the principal’s side. She interviewed me once about—what was it? Oh yes, the labor conditions of our employees. Labor conditions! A high school girl! Angelo!”
Mrs. Santos turned and gestured sharply at the boy. “Come over here, come. Goodness, aren’t you finished with those books yet? If I find out you’ve been napping instead…”
She let the words trail off, the threat clear. “I haven’t been napping. And I’m almost done with the last one,” the boy, Angelo, replied sullenly. He shot Fran an inscrutable look, which she took as either a challenge for her to contradict him or a warning for her to keep her mouth shut.
“Hup, hup, not so fast, young man. There are still the collections in the backroom to sort out.”
“I know, I know, I’ll get right on it.”
Mrs. Santos narrowed her eyes. “None of that now. Go fetch that box of books from the front hall.”
Pushing his glasses up, Angelo sent Fran another look—an accusing one this time, as though she’d deliberately set out to add to his burdens. Fran smiled sweetly back, letting him know she wasn’t the least bit sorry. “Oh no, will you be okay?” she asked, her voice dripping with faux-concern. “That box is awfully heavy for a kid. You should get the janitor to carry it for you.”
This time, his glower positively simmered. “I’m an incoming junior,” he said tightly.
“Oooh, how impressive,” she murmured in a voice only he could hear.
His jaw clenched in response, but before he could fire off a retort, Mrs. Santos shooed him away with a wave of her hand. “Go on, go get that box. Goodness, that boy.” She shook her head at his disappearing back before turning toward Fran again, her face going soft with nostalgia. “It’s good to know that Del hasn’t forgotten us. I remember her sister, Eva, too. She’s your mother, isn’t she? You resemble her somewhat. Goodness, I’ve never seen two sisters so different from each other. How is Del, by the way? Is she still the news editor of Scribe?”
“No, Ma’am, she’s executive editor now.”
Fran gave Mrs. Santos a quick rundown of her aunt’s professional life as an award-winning investigative journalist and news magazine editor. She also explained how Auntie Del, who’d recently separated from her husband, had just moved into a new condo in the South Crescent district. Since her new home was much smaller, she was forced to jettison a lot of her stuff, including her massive collection of books, hence her decision to donate some to her old high school library.
Mrs. Santos was sharing her own memories of Del and Eva when Angelo came back, carrying the heavy cardboard box with no visible sign of strain. That is, if one took no notice of his dark flush and stony expression, both of which screamed “I’d rather die than admit how hard this is for me.” His eyes met Fran’s as he set the box down on one of the desks behind the counter. She gave him a cool look and turned her back on him. She didn’t care how cute he was or how gentle he’d been with the injured books. She was not going to waste any more time on a rude jerk like him.
Then the Head Librarian said: “You should consider it, too.”
Fran blinked, realizing she’d missed something important. “Um, consider what?”
“Working here as a student-library assistant. It’s good work experience, and your time here will be credited as club or volunteer work. Also, there’s no limit to the number of books you can check out, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate.” Mrs. Santos gave her a complicated look, her approval of Fran’s bookish tendencies warring with her natural librarian’s hostility of anyone handling the books under her care. Then her face relaxed again as she rammed her sales pitch home. “Besides, I’m sure your mother will allow you to apply as an SLA. She herself was an SLA here for two years.”
“An SLA?” Fran gazed across the library. She had to admit, the place beckoned to her. She’d only been in this school for a year, but the shelves, the computers, the desks and especially the books already felt like old friends to her. She knew she could do the job. Honestly, she could probably shelve books blindfolded by now.
The thing was, though, she was set on joining the Creative Writers’ Circle this school year. She’d been looking forward to it since her freshman year, after she discovered that joining her first choice of club was impossible. But maybe if things didn’t work out…
She was spared from having to commit to anything by the ringing of her cellphone. Excusing herself with a promise to think about it, she said goodbye to the librarian and made her exit, drawing her phone out of her bag.
It was her best friend, Lisette. “Hey, Fran. Yumi just called to say she’s still at the dentist’s and that she’ll meet us at McDonald’s in about an hour,” she said, referring to their other best friend. The three of them had planned to have a slumber party at Lisette’s place. “Where are you, anyway?” Lisette went on. “I called your house and they told me you guys went out.”
“I’m at school, believe it or not. Gosh, it’s so hot out here.” Fran, who’d slammed into a wall of heat the instant she stepped outside, retreated back into the library’s shade. When Lisette expressed surprise, she explained about her aunt’s request to deliver some books she wanted to donate.
“So you’re at the library now? Hard for you to stay away, huh?” Lisette commented with a laugh.
I’m not the only one here, you know, Fran almost said out loud, thinking about that boy Angelo.
“Listen, are you sure you’ll be okay waiting there for an hour?”
“I’ll be fine. Honestly, I’m at the library in school. What on earth could happen to me here?” she replied lightly. She ended the call and slipped her phone back into her bag, then wiped the bridge of her nose underneath her glasses. Her skin prickled with sweat despite her sleeveless shirt and knee-length skirt, an outfit she’d chosen for its ability to keep her as cool as possible, although not by much, as it turned out. The air was thick and humid, signaling another thunderstorm in the works, and she prayed it wouldn’t rain just yet because she’d just realized she’d forgotten her umbrella.
She considered going back inside the library, then decided against it. She’d be better off staying at a cafe near the school. At least they had cold drinks there. And air-conditioning.
But instead of taking the path that led straight to the main building—the quickest way to get to the front gate—she took the path curving to the right. It branched off in two directions, with one leading to the garden, and the other to the Student Center, the L-shaped, two-story building that housed most of the student clubs. She wasn’t sure what made her choose that route, aside from habit. Since she’d discovered last year that the student organization she really wanted to join had a room at the SC and which room it was—the very last room on the tip of the long side of the L—she’d taken to passing by regularly to check if the door was open, thereby signaling that the club was active again.
But the door had remained shut every single time she checked. Finally, she was forced to accept that the rumors were true. South Crescent High School’s Anime-Manga Otaku Club was dead and gone, with no chance of it ever reviving again.
So when she walked past the SC, glanced up at the second floor, and found that the door to the AMOC room was flung wide open, the shock of it actually caused her to trip over her feet.
Open! It’s actually open! Oh my gosh, can it be? Is anyone up there?
She raced up the stairs of the SC, then had to stop for several minutes to catch her breath. The door to the AMOC room was the only one hanging wide open in the entire corridor. The front of it had been painted the same bland beige as the other doors as part of the school’s renovation, and Fran brushed her hand across the slightly dusty surface with regret. There used to be a stunning, full-color, stylized illustration painted on the door, featuring characters from several Japanese anime and manga series. Fran, who considered herself a devout otaku or Japanese anime and manga fan, could identify only a little over half of the characters. Thank God she’d managed to take a picture of the graffiti with her cellphone and upload it onto her blog before it had been painted over. Just the idea of that exquisite bit of fan-art being lost forever made tears spring to her eyes.
The room itself was a narrow, rectangular space with windows on the wall opposite the door. It was obviously in use, despite it being locked shut every time she passed it. The place was crammed with old desk chairs, tables, rolling blackboards and cabinets—some broken, others merely covered with dust. Plywood and galvanized iron sheets leaned up against one wall, paint cans covered one corner, carpentry tools and cleaning equipment were tossed together in another. The room had long since ceased to be AMOC’s base of operations; it was now just another storage room.
But the memories of its former occupants remained. Fran’s gaze went to what she could see of the walls, which were covered with more paintings of anime characters, this time done in different styles. Whoever the members of the AMOC were, they obviously loved the art form. She wished she could have met them, or at least knew who they were. They were obviously kindred spirits, people who felt the same way she did about the fandom. People who would’ve understood her.
Setting her bag down near the doorway, she clambered atop a table close to one wall where she could still see what must have been the most striking piece of artwork in the room. The colors were faded now, and a wooden cabinet that must have once displayed preserved biology specimens but now contained dirty rags and piles of paper blocked most of the view. Nevertheless, the painting seemed to leap straight off the wall, as compelling as if it were a living thing.
“Lelouch. Erza Scarlet. Faye Valentine. Light. Maka and Soul.”
Reverently, she called out the names of the characters that she could identify, crawling atop two desk chairs stacked together to get a better look at the ones she couldn’t quite make out. She knew she was acting like a starry-eyed fan-girl again—if her brothers saw her now, they’d roast her about it for a week. She could almost hear her classmates from last year giggling behind their hands, could almost see them rolling their eyes at the weird geek-girl. But she didn’t care. Her love for anime and manga had saved her from a heap of misery last year. She didn’t care if these incredible characters were merely fictional. They were her personal heroes, and her loyalty to them was unswerving.
A couple of Japanese kanji characters painted in black ink, with two words written underneath, caught her eye. She leaned sideways to examine it further, hanging on to the cabinet to keep her balance. “Gin neko,” she read out loud. Silver Cat. Could it be the artist?
“What’re you doing in here?”
Startled, she straightened and turned to find Angelo standing in the doorway, looking furious. Uh oh, she thought as he stalked toward her as though he fully intended to drag her bodily out of the room. “You shouldn’t be here. No students allowed inside this room,” he growled.
“I—I just wanted to—the door was open, and I’ve never seen—I mean, look! Look at those gorgeous paintings.” She swept an arm outward to indicate the walls. “The people who did these are really talented artists, and it’s such a waste to just let—I mean, somebody should at least take a picture of these paintings before—ah!”
“Watch out!” he yelled just as the stack of desks she was perched on collapsed. Fortunately, she managed to land safely, if awkwardly, on the table behind her. Unfortunately, she also managed to pull the cabinet down on top of her. Throwing an arm over her face as an assortment of dusty rags and moldy papers rained down upon her, she braced herself for the impact—
—that never came. When several seconds passed without a heavy cabinet squashing her flat, she opened her eyes and peeked through her arm. Squinting at the blurry image in front of her—her glasses were currently hanging off of her chin—she was stunned to find Angelo leaning over her, his left arm braced against the table beside her legs, his right elbow raised at his side.
So close! The disjointed thought shot through her, bringing a blush to her face, until she realized that his expression was not one of overwhelming passion but a grimace of supreme discomfort. Looking past him, she noticed the cabinet pressing down on his back. “Hold still for a minute,” he grunted, then pushed back and straightened, returning the cabinet to its previous position.
He held the cabinet up. That’s why it didn’t fall on me. She sat up and readjusted her glasses, shaking rags and papers off her. “You—”
That was as far as she got before a stream of dust poured into her throat and she broke into a spasm of coughing, which quickly turned into wheezing gasps as her chest tightened.
Angelo turned, took one look at her, and paled. “Oh no,” he muttered. He picked her up and quickly carried her outside, setting her down on the floor a safe distance from the room and crouching in front of her. “Can you talk? Tell me what to do.”
“My bag…pouch…my inhaler’s in there,” Fran managed between coughs.
“Got it.” He went back to retrieve her bag then simply upended it, spilling the contents on the floor. He rooted through her belongings until he found her inhaler in the transparent plastic pouch that served as her first aid kit. Upon her wheezing instructions, he shook the inhaler and handed it to her.
She puffed medicated mist down her throat and closed her eyes. As the coughing and chest pain eased and more oxygen flowed into her lungs, she felt the panic that always came with an attack begin to fade. Shaky with relief and fatigue, she took one last puff and leaned against his chest, breathing in deep, sweet gulps of air, and taking comfort in the fit of her head on his shoulder and his hand rubbing circles on her back, massaging the ache away.
Her eyes flew open as full awareness crashed into her. Sometime between the moment he gave her the inhaler and now, he’d plopped down on the floor with his back against the wall and gathered her close so that she was cradled sideways between his thighs. His chest vibrated underneath her as he murmured “it’s okay, just breathe, you’re going to be okay” over and over in a tone she recognized as something you’d use to calm a frightened child. She wasn’t sure what shocked her more—the fact that he could be so gentle with something that wasn’t an inanimate object, or the realization that he was letting her, a near stranger and an unwelcome interloper besides, witness this side of him.
But what stunned and amazed her most was the fact that she didn’t want to move away. Other than her brothers, she’d never even held a boy’s hand before, let alone been so close to a boy that she could breathe in his scent. But for some reason, it didn’t feel as gross and awkward as she thought it would. In fact, being this close to Angelo felt…nice.
Oh my gosh, what’s happening?
As if to underscore her bewilderment, the skies cracked open and rains crashed down as suddenly as if somebody had twisted a gigantic tap open. He stopped talking when the sound of the rain drowned out his voice, but she found that the movement his chest made as he breathed was just as soothing, which only intensified the sense of unreality creeping over her. This is a dream, she decided. I’ve fallen asleep and I’m dreaming right now. That or loss of oxygen was causing her to hallucinate, because she couldn’t imagine a more bizarre situation to find herself in.
Turning her head, she watched the rain stream down the eaves in almost uniform lines. “Falling gems,” she murmured after a moment. “Diamond necklaces from the sky. The air sylphs are emptying their jewel boxes again.”
She tensed when she realized what she’d just said. Like an idiot, she’d let herself be lulled by the cozy atmosphere created by the rain and unexpected feeling of safety of being in his arms, and had forgotten herself. What was he going to think about her spouting weird things like that?
She blinked. “What?”
“Those sylphs are dropping crystal balls, not diamonds. Millions and millions of crystal balls all chained together, each one containing a different possible future.”
“Oh.” The image made her smile. “What happens when a crystal ball collides with another?”
“A universe explodes.”
Fran stared up at the rain and thought: Exploding universes, a million-billion-trillion of them. Her smile turned into a delighted laugh, and his arm tightened around her. Thinking it was past time she thanked him for having saved her twice, she straightened and turned to face him. As their eyes met, the words she’d planned to say evaporated. He was so close, she thought. And his eyes were beautiful. And his bottom lip looked invitingly plush. And that little mole on his chin was simply adorable.
Again acting without thinking, she reached up and touched his mole with the tip of her finger. His eyes drifted shut in response, and for one topsy-turvy moment, all she wanted to do was lean forward a little more and kiss him on the mouth.
“Are you okay now?” he said without opening his eyes, breaking the strange spell she had fallen in.
She dropped her hand and gave herself a mental shake. “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you for—”
“Then get off me already.”
He shoved her away so suddenly that she bounced on the floor on her behind. Pulling his limbs in, he jumped to his feet, knocking her backward in the process. He was in such a rush to get away from her, she half-expected to see his clothes scorched and smoking everywhere she’d made contact.
“God, you’re heavy,” he grumbled, dusting his shorts with one hand, an irritated scowl creasing his face. “I’m surprised you didn’t split that table right down the middle when you landed on it. Ah, I can’t feel my leg anymore.” He stomped his left leg to get the circulation going again, then glared down his nose at her with unbridled hostility. “This is all your fault. What the hell were you doing inside that room? All the furniture in there’s falling apart, and you go climbing around on top of them. Who’d be stupid enough to do that?”
She gaped up at him as her brain struggled to make sense of his abrupt shift. Was it something she’d said? Was he possessed? Should she be calling for a doctor or summoning a priest just about now?
Taking the way her jaw had dropped as a sign that she was about to say something, he thrust a hand out to forestall her. “Forget it, I’m not interested. I already know why you were poking around in that room. You’re one of those people.”
“I—what?” she stammered, now more confused than ever. “I’m one of what people?”
“Those anime-freakazoids.” He pushed his glasses up his nose with the tip of his finger, and curled his lip contemptuously. “Raving idiots who obsess over all things two-dimensional so much that they lose all capacity for reason. Well, I guess that explains your behavior then.”
“What—you just—how did you even—”
As an answer to her barely coherent question, he pointed at the scattered contents of her overnight bag. Specifically, at her cellphone strap, from which dangled a fat, gray and white totoro. And the T-shirt she’d planned to wear the next day, which was printed with the characters from Vampire Knight. And her journal, which she’d decorated with a variety of romantic scenes from Kimi ni Todoke. And of course, her pride and joy, the Ouran High School Host Club bath towel that Lisette and Yumi had given her for her fourteenth birthday.
With a dismayed yelp, Fran pounced on her belongings and began stuffing them back into her bag. “I can’t believe you! How could you just scatter my stuff all over the floor?”
He shrugged. “Not my fault you buried your medicine kit in the bottom of your bag. By the way, let me see that thing again.”
Before she could stop him, he picked up the pouch he’d taken her inhaler from and studied the white, plump, rabbit-like creature printed on the corner—Mokona from Tsubasa Chronicles—until she snatched the pouch away. “Whatever. I bet you don’t care that you’re wasting your parents’ hard-earned money on crap like that. Exactly the kind of thinking I’d expect from people like you,” he commented derisively. “Seriously, dissolving that club was a good idea. The last thing this school needs is a bunch of freaks gathering together to feed one another’s insanity.”
“That’s enough,” Fran snapped, glaring at him as anger eclipsed her shock. “You don’t know a single thing about them—or me—so you have absolutely no right to judge us.”
His eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “Do I?” he said in a strangely flat tone.
“No. No, you don’t,” she seethed. “And do you know why I know that? It’s because you wouldn’t say such awful things about us if you did. But then, you’re too lazy and mean-spirited to make the effort to get over yourself and get to know us as people, aren’t you?”
“Get to know you?” A bark of disbelieving laughter escaped him. “No thanks,” he said, pushing his glasses up and thrusting his hands into his pockets. “I’m done here. Go explore that room if you want to. I’ll come back later when you’re good and gone.”
“You’re leaving? But it’s still raining,” she protested as she watched him walk away.
“Don’t care. As long as I don’t have to hang around you any longer,” he shouted back.
A glimpse of red caught her eye as she stared at his back, and it took her a moment to realize what it was. Blood had streamed down from a wound on his right arm above his elbow, partly hidden underneath his sleeve. He’s hurt, she realized with shock. It must have been from when he kept that shelf from falling on top of me. And he hid it from me all this time.
Fran considered herself a mellow, even-tempered person. She’d had to be, growing up with three brothers who tended to tease and bully her more the angrier she got. But sometimes things just piled up and she snapped, and if her brothers had been there, they could have warned Angelo that she’d reached her limit. Or, more likely, they would have stood by to watch the show.
She grabbed her first aid kit and quickly caught up with him at the staircase landing, grasping a handful of the back of his shirt and yanking him backward. She felt him turn to face her, heard him say in an annoyed tone, “What? What do you want now?”
She kept her head down until she got her breath back. When she finally did raise something, it was her foot, which she brought down hard on top of his, and when he bent over and tried to hop on one foot, she raised her leg to one side and drove her knee into the outside of his knee.
She stepped back as his legs folded underneath him and he collapsed on the floor. “Ow. What’d you do that for?” he groaned.
But when he looked up at her, his outraged complaints withered in the face of her killing aura. Even her hair felt as if it were crackling with fury. “Be quiet,” she intoned in the voice of certain death, brandishing the first aid kit like a weapon. “Hold still, Angelo, and let me fix your wound.”
“Okay,” he replied, eyes wide.
Kneeling beside him, she inspected the long, somewhat jagged wound on his right arm, and was relieved to find that it had stopped bleeding on its own. Clamping her hand around his left arm to keep him from fleeing, she pulled him straight into the boys’ washroom without batting an eyelash, then made him bend down at a sink so she could clean the wound with running water. After checking it again to make sure no debris remained, she applied a layer of antibiotic ointment on the wound, then covered it up with strips of bandages and all the gauze pads she had in her kit.
“How do you know how to do all this?” he wondered as he held the gauze in place so she could tape it up.
“They taught us in health class. Weren’t you paying attention?”
“Come on, seriously?” he scoffed. “You actually go around with a first aid kit? Regular Girl Scout, aren’t you?”
She gave him a cool look above her glasses. “My dad’s a doctor and my mom’s a nurse. Some things come naturally to me, I guess. There. You can let go now, but you’ll have to change the dressing later.”
He spared her handiwork a disinterested glance, then watched her with a mixture of distrust and perplexity as she packed up her kit. “You’re not thinking we’re going to be friends after this, are you?”
“It’s fine, you can relax. There’s no chance of that ever happening,” she answered with a roll of her eyes as she exited the washroom, with him trailing behind her.
“Good. Because I hate people like you, anime-freak with lousy taste in underwear.”
“What?” She spun around on her heel and stared at him in horror. “What did you say?”
He pushed his glasses up and smirked. “You were rolling around on that table right in front of me. In a skirt. Baby-blue teddy bears, Frances Marie? Seriously?”
Her face ignited, and she lowered her arms over her skirt reflexively. “Oh my gosh, you’re horrible. You’re just…horrible!” she gasped after him as he trotted down the stairs.
“Whatever,” he tossed over his shoulder. “I hope the memory doesn’t give me nightmares. It’s been interesting, anime-freak.”
Infuriated, she started after him, recalled that she’d left her bag behind and went back for it, then hurried down the stairs. Too late, he was already gone, and by then the pounding rain had dwindled into a light drizzle.
Well, good, she thought as she stood alone in the shelter of the SC, waiting for the rain to stop altogether. I’m glad he’s gone. I hate him. And I really wish I’d told him that.
Later, she regretted not heeding her own suggestion and going back to the AMOC room to take pictures of the paintings. Especially the loveliest one, the one by Gin Neko, the Silver Cat. But if she’d gone there back then, she’d have been reminded of that boy Angelo. She’d have thought about the way he’d protected her from that falling shelf, and the way he took care of her while she recovered from her asthma attack, even to the point of ignoring his own injury. She’d have imagined millions of crystal balls falling from the sky. And she’d have wondered, if he was so adamant that all he wanted was for them to stay strangers to each other, how he even knew her name.
No, she didn’t want to—absolutely refused to—think about him. She hated him just as much as he hated her. He was a mean, judgmental, thoroughly disagreeable person who had no idea what it was like to love something passionately, and she wanted nothing more to do with him.
But she did end up thinking about him for a good long while, much longer than she’d care to admit. And that, as far as she was concerned, was the biggest mystery of all.
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Snapshots from a Megane-Girl
Blog Post No. 15
Date: May 13, 20xx
Subject: Tailing a Silver Cat
So I checked the photo of the anime collage painted on the door to the magic room that I uploaded onto this blog, and I was right. There it was in the corner of the painting: the kanji characters for silver and cat. The same totally awesome artist drew the one on the door and the one on the wall that I saw the other day.
Gin Neko. Silver Cat. I wonder who it could be. Is Gin Neko a girl or a boy? From which class and what year? What kind of person is he or she? And is he or she still painting now, even though the AMOC has been disbanded? Oh, I hope so. Even though the painting was fan-art and based on other people’s original work, Gin Neko really made them come alive. It’s like the lines and colors were dancing with energy, and were only keeping still long enough for you to take a good, long look.
Weird, though. After noticing Gin Neko as the artist, I can’t help but think of the members of AMOC as kittens who’ve been thrown out of their own home and forced to wander the cruel world and survive somehow. I wonder who they are and where they are now. And I hope they find a new home again someday.
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