The morning after Culvin, Isaac, Sasha and Ash spent the night in Emi's and Darcy's dormitory room Darcy is the first to wake up as she fell asleep much sooner than everyone else. It is early dawn, and the sun is only just visible outside the window. Rather than waking anyone else up, Darcy takes her makeup supplies to the bathroom and begins the slightly tedious task of reapplying the face of her gothic façade.
Emi and Ash are the next two to wake up, within minutes of one another. They both catch sight of each other and blush in embarrassment. They have just spent the night in the same room as their respective boyfriends and they are both extremely happy but also feeling incredibly guilty. Both Aaron and Miss Spiller would be extremely disappointed in them.
Ash is too embarrassed to wake Isaac and instead leaves the job to his sister. Emi ends up waking up both Sasha and Culvin as well because Ash is not exactly on good enough terms with either of them. As soon as Culvin is up though, Emi busies herself cleaning the room in order to avoid talking to him. The room is a mess of crumbs and wrappers. The six of them ended up going through all of the snacks that Darcy and Emi had stockpiled in their fridge and closet.
Emi knows she will have to do a better job of tidying up later. For now she just does not want to have to converse with Culvin. She is not as dysfunctional as Ash when it comes to relationships. As soon as he says something in his normal depressed tone, or makes a quip that only a foreigner like him would, she will forget her awkwardness and go back to fawning over him. She just wants a little more time to bask in the youth-in-revolt feeling she has right now.
Darcy returns to the room after Emi has already cleaned up most of the large pieces of trash. "Oh, you did a good job." She gives Emi a thumbs up. "Honestly Isaac, how are you going to survive without your live-in maid. I don't know how I got on without one before."
"Aren't you the one who used to do the cleaning in your place?" Emi recalls. "You always find some excuse not to help me."
"What cleaning? Mom was never home to make a mess and I lived in, like, the kitchen. I slept on the couch or in Mom's bedroom and ate nothing but power bars. As long as I remembered to pick up the wrappers once a week I did not get overrun."
"Overrun? You sound like you were at war with something," Emi snickers.
"I was at war with life!" Darcy announces dramatically. This causes Isaac, Culvin and Ash all to laugh while Sasha jolts from her half asleep stupor. She is not a morning person and she has been sleeping a lot more soundly since returning to her safe non-volatile world.
"What's going on?" she groans while looking at Darcy, whom she had not noticed returning to the room. "Oh god, why do you have to show me that face first thing in the morning?"
"Does your mouth have an off button?" Darcy asks.
"I can think of one way to occupy her mouth." Emi snaps her fingers.
"Um, are you trying to set me up with your cousin?" Darcy glares at her.
"Huh? Why would you? Oh no, no-no-no, that's not what I meant at all," Emi sputters while shaking her head and waving her hands wildly. "I was going to suggest that we all get some food. We both have a slight allowance and all so I thought we should treat everyone."
Darcy raises an eyebrow while glancing over everyone present. "I'll pay for Ash and only Ash," she announces snidely. Emi takes a moment to realize that everyone else was invited by her and are not really well acquainted with Darcy. "Also, you owe me like three meals for pulling this stunt without telling me in the first place so… yeah, thanks for the food, Emi." Darcy adopts a smug expression.
"You're… kind of a jerk." Sasha shakes her head disappointedly.
"And you're still here. Both of these are perplexing mysteries we will never have the answers to," Darcy responds sarcastically.
"If we're imposing on the two of you we can always head back now," Culvin suggests.
"What, no, they're just playing." Isaac smacks him on the back. Culvin is inherently passive with things like this. Isaac however has no delicacy when dealing with Emi or Sasha. As far as he is concerned, they can be a little inconvenienced by his and Culvin's presence. It is part of the normalcy of siblings. They will always annoy each other but they will also always put up with each other.
"So where are we eating?" Sasha raises her hand. Her eyes are still half closed as she is not fully awake but she heard someone mention paying for her and she never passes up anything free. It is part of why her reputation for leading boys on was so bad in middle school.
"First we have to sneak back out of the dorm," Emi reminds her.
"Listen to yourself. When did we become the trouble children who did stuff like this?" Isaac asks.
"When you got friends to actually hang out with," Darcy answers him. Everyone else in the room suddenly looks at her. Not counting Culvin, they have all found it rather hard to a make lasting acquaintances in school. "Oh yeah, I forgot that we all hang out because our lives suck."
"Are you included in that assessment?" Isaac asks.
"I don't really think so but hey, if it makes you feel better, I never really let any of my friends know what was going on in my life. We were the type to part ways with fake smiles. It wasn't until Paten and I were competing against each other for club members that I told her why I was trying so hard."
The room falls slightly silent at the mention of Paten. It is Ash that finally starts the conversation again. "For what it's worth, I'm really glad I became your friend," she informs Darcy. "We may have only really known each other through Anara but I thought we six kinda had something nice. I really did not trust people after losing Andre so it was difficult for me to make new friends. I'm sorry about Paten."
"You're sorry?" Darcy is taken aback. "Why would I be sad? Aren't you still upset that she left while you were gone?"
"None of us knew her as well as you did," Ash reminds her.
"Well, she just had everything I wanted. It's not like we even hung out before I met all of you," Darcy explains. "I guess it was just easier to be myself around her. Trust me, being myself is not an easy thing to do. I often don't feel like I have my own identity apart from Tennis."
"Darcy, show Ash that picture Paten sent you." Emi grabs a cell phone from the top of the dresser and tosses it to Darcy. She unlocks it before holding it out to Ash so she can see a picture of Paten standing in front of a massive brick building.
"Is this England?" Ash gasps. "Wait, when did you get a cell phone?"
"Lori Winters bought it for me," Darcy explains. "She said I need to be able to keep in contact with her."
"I still can't believe she is your manager," Sasha interjects.
"Madison talks about her a lot so I know who that is but is she really all that great?" Ash asks.
"I honestly don't know a thing about music or what's popular." Darcy shrugs. "As far as being a person, she's pretty normal. I owe her a lot for even giving me a chance."
"Oh my god, you are so ungrateful!" Sasha almost shouts. "How can you not appreciate how lucky you are?"
Darcy stares down at her feet miserably. In truth she was shocked when she first met Lori Winters but her desire to win her over and earn her place in the band overshadowed any chance she had to be an ogling fan. Now they are far too personal with each other. She has missed her chance to be appreciative of Lori for even bothering with Darcy. Now they are more like friends.
"Sasha, can you knock it off?" Emi hisses at her cousin. She already feels bad enough for imposing on her roommate with all of her guests.
It is once again Ash that tries to salvage things. "What is this building?" She points at the picture on Darcy's phone again.
"Oh that?" Darcy's expression lights up slightly. "Paten says that this is the school she will be attending from now on. It is some posh place for elites."
"Oh yeah, I forgot that she was loaded," Ash chuckles.
"How did poor people like us ever end up talking with her," Darcy laughs with her.
"Come to think of it…" Ash looks at Isaac suspiciously.
"I am nowhere near as well off as Paten," he assures her.
"Well, it still feels like life isn't exactly fair," Ash mutters.
"I know what you mean," Sasha startles Ash by agreeing with her.
"Oh, you're poor too?" Ash is surprised. "I just assumed… because of Emi and Isaac."
"Yeah, that's all the Spillers. Dempseys are deadbeats," Sasha informs her. "Looks like we've got something in common."
"Quit trying to steal my friends," Emi pretends to be mad at Sasha.
"Tell your brother the same thing," Sasha counters. Isaac's face turns red. The one thing he does regret about Ash is that she was Emi's friend first. He never wanted to be the guy who looked at his sister's friends with impure intentions. His only excuse is that he technically knew her first through Mage Craft.
"Face it, sweetheart, you just don't have anything in common with your so-called friends," Sasha teases Emi. "So, what's the word on you?" She turns her attention to Culvin randomly. "Are you a poor boy crawled up from the slums? Don't worry, our girl Emi here will support ya. It's in her blood. Just wait til you hear what happened to her grandfather, Old Man Spiller."
"Well, technically, my mother got a lot of financing from Clooney for her research and she used almost all of it to pay for myself, my sisters and my dad."
"So you're rich too?" Sasha groans.
"Why do I feel angry?" Darcy furrows her brow. Culvin instinctively moves behind his girlfriend for protection. "I'm not going to mug you," Darcy whines. "I'll just maybe ask you to buy me dinner. Say, if you ever get bored of Emi, I can help with your loneliness."
"I guess ho'ing must run in her blood," Emi sighs.
"Hey!" Darcy shakes her fist at her. "I didn't say I was going to charge him!"
"Food counts," Emi argues.
"Oh yeah, food!" Sasha is now fully awake and her excitement over the potential to be fed for free is much more apparent on her face.
"Yeah, I think I'd like to talk about something else anyway." Emi opens her closet and begins to choose and new outfit. Ash is surprised when she picks out clothes for her too.
"You're not going to change in front of us, are you?" Isaac asks.
"No!" Ash shouts defensively. "I'm never doing that again!"
"Again?" Emi glares at him.
"Are you talking about when you stole that dress in Rindhall?" Isaac sputters. "I swear, I didn't peek."
"What? Oh yeah, that time." Ash's face reddens. Isaac cocks his head in confusion until the memory of their most recent shopping spree returns. He has almost forgotten about Ash opening the door to the changing room and asking him if he found her nudity attractive. He can not help but smile at the memory. Ash's eyes bulge as she stares at him. She has no idea if she should take it as an insult or a compliment.
"Come on, we're going to change in the bathroom." Emi grabs her by the hand and drags her out into the hall.
"What about me?" Sasha asks.
"Pick anything that's not Darcy's," Emi calls back to her.
Sasha opens the closet again and frowns when she sees that all of the clothes have been separated on either side of it. Apart from the new outfit Eric bought for her after her concussion, Darcy's side is full of nothing but dark clothing. Sasha has no doubt that they are geared toward enhancing Darcy's image as a Goth. Some of them border on the obsessive though. They are gothic in every sense of the word but Sasha can not imagine Darcy wearing any of them.
At the moment, Darcy is wearing an outfit she already changed into while everyone else was still asleep. It is a green dress with a ruffled skirt. The same way a car sometimes appears a difference color from a different angle, the dress has a black sheen to it under a certain light. It reminds Sasha of the shell of a fig beetle. It also has black lace and netting sewn into the layers of the skirt and hanging down around her legs. She even has on a bow that makes her look like a life sized doll with scary dark eye shadow. The most off-putting part of it though, is her blue eyes. They do not match the rest of the outfit at all.
"You need to get some colored contacts," Sasha accidentally speaks her mind.
"Really?" Darcy is more intrigued than insulted.
"Well yeah… you could coordinate your eyes to match your outfit or at least your hair," Sasha sees her chance to cover up her rudeness.
"I'll ask Ash about it. She used to order them from a costume website," Darcy recalls.
Sasha picks an outfit and flees the room, leaving Darcy alone with essentially two strangers. Neither Culvin nor Isaac looks extremely comfortable. "Don't worry, I'm not an androphobe like Parker and I'm not a mess of nerves like Ash," she assures them. "I'm probably the most normal you'll meet of Emi's friends."
"I think the fact that you are here now proves that you are far from normal," Culvin's response surprises her.
"Is that meant as a compliment?" Darcy is not sure how to take it.
"It is meant as an observation. The last time I returned to the curtain world, Emi had just been through an ordeal and she was slightly fed up with how her life was going. I'd be lying if I said I did not believe she may have agreed to date me simply as a change of pace. However, when I chose to abandon her, she said she was not going to wait. She was going to move on with her life. I feel like she tapped into her potential in order to get here. If you're here with her, you must be a little bit extraordinary yourself."
"Um, thanks, I think." Darcy rubs her arm nervously. She never expected to receive a compliment from Culvin. Of the members of their group, she has had the least contact with him. She knows he is from the same place as Anara and that has always prompted her to keep her distance. After Anara and Ash went missing, she had done her best to keep from blaming him and getting mad every time she saw him.
She has no idea how involved he was in their disappearance but he had to know something; something he was not willing to tell her or the rest of the group. It does not matter now though. Darcy was far too obsessed with her own life to worry about Ash or Anara. She abandoned them and any right to continue suspecting Culvin of anything. She is selfish and she knows it. Even now, she wants to apologize to Ash for not caring more but she would still rather not breach the subject at all. That is just how self serving she is. She also makes the choice that is easiest on herself.
It is easier to sneak past the security guard a second time. Less students are coming and going and there is less reason to be suspicious. It is not even the same woman sitting at the front desk as the shift has changed.
Once off the campus, Emi takes everyone to one of her favorite restaurants to frequent. It is a diner with cushioned booths. As there are not enough places for everyone to sit at one table, Emi drags Culvin to a separate one so they can have a pseudo date.
As they eat, Isaac, Sasha, Ash and Darcy come to the collective agreement that they should leave the two of them alone together to catch up. It is Emi who first notices that their friends have exited the diner when she turns to ask Sasha a question. "What the?" she stares at the empty booth in confusion. At that very moment her phone rings with a message from Darcy saying that she is walking Sasha, Isaac and Ash back to the train and they should enjoy themselves a little longer.
"Ahem," the waitress who had been serving Darcy's booth tries to get Emi's attention. When Emi finally looks up from her phone, she hands Emi a check. "I saw you come in together so I really hope that girl was not lying when she said you were paying for everyone."
"Um, yeah, I guess I said I was paying," Emi sighs as she realizes that, while Isaac and Ash both ordered the cheapest set they could, Darcy and Sasha ran up quite a bill, complete with an appetizer for each of them and extra sides. "I thought you were watching your figure again," Emi grumbles when she sees that Darcy even ordered a milkshake.
"Do you need me to help you?" Culvin asks. The waitress glares at him as if he should not have needed to offer. He should know that the man is supposed to pay for everything on a date.
"What are you going to pay with, crystals?" Emi crosses her arms. Culvin stares at her blankly for a moment before cracking a smile. She smiles too. She was not sure he would be able to tell she was joking but it seems she need not have worried.
"We'll get them back," Culvin assures her.
"How?" Emi frowns.
"We'll tell Isaac that we are both interested in Mage Craft but we are not sure we want to pay the monthly fee before trying it out," Culvin explains. Emi has to cover her mouth to keep from snorting. "Worst case scenario he pays for two subscriptions. Best case scenario he buys us both more clothes than he bought Ash just so he can get another free membership."
"Is that what he did?" Emi's jaw drops. "I am so telling Grandma on him."
"Yeah, he wouldn't stop bragging to me about how much he saved," Culvin laughs.
"He didn't save anything. He just wasted… you know what? Yes, let's do that. If he's that stupid, he deserves it."
Despite not being able to comprehend a lot of things in this world, Culvin does not have the luxury of remaining oblivious to Mage Craft of all things. Isaac has made it his mission to drill every aspect of his beloved game into his best friend's head.
"Shall we try to catch up to them?" Culvin asks while looking down at his plate. He has not even eaten half of his food. He was trying to enjoy it. According to Darcy's message, everyone at the other table took their food to go with plans to eat it on the train ride home.
"Why don't we just spend some time together," Emi admits that she is not opposed to the idea the rest of the group has decided to force upon them. "I actually wanted to talk to you about something. Until recently you had been living with us in our apartment. Is that where you are going back to?"
"Well…" Culvin's face suggests he has already given this a lot of thought. "I should have probably told you sooner but I did not come back alone. I brought both of my sisters with me this time."
"That's wonderful!" Emi squeals excitedly. "I want to meet them. You have to let me!"
"Yeah, I definitely will, it's just…" Culvin sighs as he tries to think of the best way to explain his current situation to his girlfriend. It has been nearly a month since their return and Chessy's arms have finally healed enough for her to move around properly. They will remain scarred forever though. Both sisters and Mistel have been living with Mr. Plasic but that is a situation that has to change soon. In fact, he plans to help his mother search for a new place as soon as he returns to Edgeburn Heights.
"Culvin, you just got really quiet," Emi brings Culvin back from his thoughts.
"Look, let's not talk about this right now. I'm gonna be all alone and bored on the train home tonight so I may as well try to enjoy myself right now."
"Wow, Isaac really didn't think about that, did he?" Emi shakes her head.
"It's fine, I'll probably just sleep. Those seats are surprisingly comfortable."
"I really wish you didn't have to go back at all," Emi admits. "Why can't you just stay here."
"You're the one who decided to move on with your life without me," he reminds her.
"You were gone for over a month," she counters. "I couldn't even remember you to know when you were coming back. I had a chance to do something and I took it."
"Yeah, I'm proud of you." Culvin reaches across the table to grab Emi's hand. "I wish I could accomplish half of my own goals." Emi's mouth twists as she contemplates whether she should ask for details. She probably will not remember if he tells her. Culvin can tell that she is trying to hold herself back and decides to tease her. "No third degree?" he asks while turning his head so he can see her face even though she is looking down at the table.
"No, that's none of my business," she refuses to be goaded. "You have things in your life that I will never understand. I can't say I can go on like this forever but I think we'll have a better chance of staying together if I avoid topics like this of my own accord. Otherwise I'm just going to get mad at you a lot."
"That's oddly mature of you," Culvin is impressed. He squeezes her hand to convey how grateful he is. Though he originally decided to ask her out so as to avoid regretting it later if he never came back, that does not mean he is wishing he had not asked her out now that he is back. He may have brought back other obligations but he plans to treat Emi just as importantly. He just needs to find a balance. Today he is spending time with her. Everything else can wait.
"Say, do you have food like this in your… country?" Emi tries to change the conversation topic.
"Well, this thing you call a cheese burger seams similar to a mutton sandwich," he explains. "I can't imagine the purpose of placing single slices of vegetables on it though. It's like you are trying to make a dry soup. In my world we would just eat a whole tomato alongside the sandwich. Also, cheese is a luxury that most can not afford."
"Yeah, it is here too but this isn't really cheese," Emi tries to explain.
"I know," Culvin interrupts her. "I watched a lot of TV while I was at your place. I know that it is a cultured milk sample with added salt and annatto flavoring which also gives it its yellow color. That may make it cheap enough for the masses to afford but you still need to be able to transport it to a wide enough populous to earn back the money spent making it and we just don't have the technology. Instead, everyone makes their own cheese or buys the day to day stuff that does not keep at all."
"Ew, is that like cottage cheese?" Emi cringes.
"Um, I don't particularly like the cheeses in my world but I far prefer them to the taste of koika." He frowns at her.
Emi does not understand the meaning behind his words at first. "Oh, are you saying that my taste is in question?" She finally snaps her fingers.
"According to Isaac, I am not the first person to think so."
"It's not that weird," Emi mutters while averting his eyes.
"You asked the waitress if they had wasabi for you fries." Culvin crosses his arms.
Emi covers her ears and starts talking to drown him out. "Gah, I don't want to hear this from a weirdo from another country."
"Perhaps you were hoping that as your boyfriend I would be the one person willing to accept your quirks."
"What?" Emi uncovers her ears. "Of course I expect you to put up with my quirts. How can you even ask that? That goes without saying. What I was hoping was that you would also not find my taste weird to begin with."
"Um…" Culvin bites his lip nervously. He has just made a mistake. His way of phrasing has made it sound like simply liking the taste of wasabi is something that should make him consider dumping her. He would love to blame his poor word choice on the fact that he is not actually speaking her language but that is not something she can comprehend.
"A little tongue tied?" Emi is impatient to see how Culvin will salvage this.
"If I said I didn't mean to say that, would you believe me?" he asks while wincing.
"Yeah, I believe you didn't mean to say it, but that doesn't mean you don't actually mean it." Culvin looks absolutely terrified. Has he just screwed up everything with Emi. She lets him wait in agonizing worry for a long moment before smiling again. "Look, let's not have our first fight today."
"I'm not even sure why we're fighting," Culvin admits.
"Because I don't want to waste time on a relationship if I'm gonna have to justify every one of my personality quirks or having you make me feel guilty for them," she snaps.
Culvin waits to see if she will smile again before responding. "Ooh, you're in trouble," the waitress snickers from the next table over.
"Just keep wiping up that melted ice cream." Culvin makes a shooing motion. He does not know why she is privy to their conversation.
"Girl, I don't need your backup." Emi joins in shooing the waitress away.
She places her hands on her hips while glaring at Culvin. She seems to be contemplating saying something else before leaving the two of them alone. "Um, your hand." Culvin gestures to the fact that the wet rag in her hand is now leaking melted ice cream onto her shirt.
"Oh goddamn it!" She tosses the rag onto the floor. "Who orders a milkshake in the middle of winter. What was up with that green costume anyway?" she complains about Darcy's preference in drinks and clothing. Both Emi and Culvin laugh at her expense. "Are you two done yet? I miss your friends already. At least they left quickly. I wish they'd come back and take you with them."
"Okay, I'm definitely not in the mood to fight with you anymore today," Emi lets Culvin off the hook. He sighs with relief. He still does not believe what he said was really so bad but he understands the way Emi phrased her reason for being angry. She is worried his attitude is going to grow into something she will have to put up with or leave him because of and she does not want to put effort into this if she is just going to end up dumping him later.
Considering how she has dealt with problems like her father in the past, he is not surprised. He however has yet to cut any of his less than perfect family members out of his life. He wishes Emi were as flexible as him. However, asking her to be different means that she would not be the person he asked out in the first place. This is just another part of her of which he agreed to put up with when they started dating.
Before Emi or Culvin can finish eating, the waitress comes back with to-go boxes so they can take their food with them. She also hands them a second check. Emi waits for her to walk off again before whispering to Culvin behind her hand. "Wow, can you believe this girl?"
"Um, sure, totally believable," Culvin does not understand the question.
"No, I mean she is unbelievable."
"You can't believe she is a jerk?" Culvin asks.
"Stop being so literal. I can't believe she is willing to act like this toward a customer. It's like she's trying to get fired."
"Why would she get fired for being rude?" Culvin ignores his box and continues to eat off of his plate.
"I might say something," Emi suggests with a shrug.
"To her manager!" Emi is getting annoyed by Culvin's obliviousness.
"And he'll fire her?" Culvin follows along stupidly.
"You know what. Let's just go." Emi looks down at the check. "Hey, we didn't order this much did we?" She adopts a perplexed expression.
Culvin takes the check from her and scans it over. Emi watches his blue eyes darting back and forth while waiting to see if he notices what she did. She hopes she was not just imagining things. She does not enjoy making a scene.
"Ah, here we go. Our food was eleven-ninety-nine and ten-forty-nine. Then they added something called tax for two-zero-three."
"That makes twenty-four-fifty-one, not twenty-nine-forty-two." Emi points at the sum of their order at the bottom.
"Well they added a tip of four-ninety-one," Culvin points just above the sum. "That's the thing for courtesy, right?"
"Hold on, they already added their own tip; and for twenty percent no less?"
"Is that bad?" Culvin does not see a problem.
"I never give over fifteen percent for a tip and I like to decide whether or not I even give a tip," Emi argues. "Excuse me!" she raises her hand and calls out to the waitress, who is currently dealing with another customer.
"I'll be right there." She waves her hand behind her head uninterestedly. Emi crosses her arms and taps her foot impatiently. When the waitress finishes taking the other customer's order she walks right past Emi and swipes the check and the small book it is in from Emi without stopping.
"Hey!" Emi shouts at her.
"I'll bring your card right back," she assures her.
"I haven't even gotten my card out," Emi informs her.
The waitress opens the book to check before responding. "Well why haven't you?" she demands angrily. "Don't you even think of dining and dashing." She points at a sign on the wall that reads we report all criminal acts to the police.
"I want to know why you added your own tip already!" Emi growls.
"Oh that's not a tip. That's a service fee. Feel free to add my tip on top of that."
"Why is it in the tip field then and what is the fee for?" Emi grits her teeth.
"All tables larger than four have a standard service fee added," the waitress explains while gesturing to the center of the diner where two tables have been pushed together to accommodate a group of seven.
"That's because it's a bother to move the tables around," Emi argues. "We sat in booths and we got separate checks."
"But you picked up both checks," the waitress reminds her.
"If we'd gotten different waitresses, you wouldn't have even known to add the fee," Emi whines.
"It's a lucky thing you both had me, isn't it?" She beams happily.
"Greedy tramp," Emi spits.
"Hold up," Culvin finally decides to interject. "Emi, it's okay. I'll just pay you back later. As soon as I get a job in this world I'll…"
"Oh, you really don't have any money," the waitress snorts. "I was wondering why your girl was paying for you."
"Lady, what is your problem?" Emi stands up.
"This is my problem." She waves her hands in front of her shirt to present the ice cream stain from Darcy's spilled milkshake. "Do you think I do this for fun?"
"You sure seem to be having fun tormenting us," Emi mutters.
"Let's see. After a service fee, your friends food came out to be eighty-two-ninety-seven." The waitress picks up the second check which was still sitting on the table.
"Okay, we are definitely making Isaac buy us something." Culvin punches his own palm like he is scheming something.
"No, we're just not paying a service fee or a tip, you get sixty-nine-fourteen for their food and twenty-four-fifty-one for ours." Emi holds out her bank card, given to her by Lori Winters. It only includes a small allowance, not her whole funds from the New Years event.
"I'm just going to charge the correct amount on it anyway," the waitress grumbles while taking the card from Emi and walking back toward the front register.
"No you're not." Emi runs after her and swipes it back. "If you're not going to charge it properly, I'm paying in cash." Emi takes out her pocket book from her purse and begins to count out the appropriate amount in bills.
"Read the sign." The waitress points to the wall again. There are several more signs apart from the police one. The one she is obviously referring to is the third one, cash is only accepted for tips, all purchases must be paid in credit.
"Seriously?" Emi shouts. "I have a hundred dollar bill right here." She hands it to the waitress.
"Thanks for the tip." She stuffs it in her pocket. "Now, for your purchase." She snatches the debit card out of Emi's other hand.
"I swear, I'm about to punch you!" Emi stomps her foot.
By now the rest of the customers have all noticed the scene she is causing. She has forgotten her own apprehension. Some of the other waitresses even start to make their way over. "Pam, what's the matter?" an older woman who looks like she may be the floor manager asks the troublesome waitress.
"Nothing, I was just about to charge these patrons orders. They have two of them that total more than four people so they need to pay a service fee."
"Oh yes, a lot of times groups of five or more will each pay for themselves but if they all sat at the same combined table then the fee needs to be paid by one of them," the older woman informs Emi.
"We didn't sit at a table. We were in two separate booths," Emi informs her.
"Oh…" She is stunned for a moment. "Okay, well, then we didn't have to take special care with you so I suppose we can wave the service fee."
"Hold on, Sandy, why are you siding with her?" the waitress, apparently named Pam, argues with the older woman, apparently named Sandy.
"Well, you should've offered them a table together," Sandy hisses at her.
"They chose to sit in booths and they asked for separate checks."
"Sounds like they weren't together then," Sandy brushes off Pam's complaints.
"You and I both know they are just trying to get out of paying what they owe," Pam, whines.
"What does it matter. You only get the tip. You don't get the service fee anyway."
"That's not the point. It's principle. They shouldn't get away with it."
"Pam, in front of the customers is not the time for this. Just go charge their card without the service fee."
"Fine!" Pam rolls her eyes before turning to leave.
Emi grabs the back of her apron though. "Actually, we've already paid."
This time Sandy looks at her suspiciously. "Nonsense, Pam hasn't even swiped your card yet."
"I paid in cash," Emi informs her.
"Um, we don't take cash for orders, just for tips."
"Well, I still gave her some cash so I'd either like it back or like not to be charged on my card," Emi refuses to back down.
Sandy places her hands on her hips while glaring at Pam. "It's my tip," she hisses.
"It doesn't seem like the lady thinks you deserve a tip," Sandy scolds her.
"Well she already gave it to me so it's mine now."
"If I have to take it out of the tip jar then I'm docking your paycheck twice as much," Sandy warns her.
"Goddamn it, why are you taking her side?" Pam shrieks.
Sandy pulls Pam aside and whispers loudly in her ear. "I realize they are just trying to pull something but we can't have you bullying customers openly like this. I don't like letting her get away with this anymore than you do but…"
"Oh wow, so you don't even believe me," Emi snorts. "You think I just want my tip back. Tell me, what kind of person gives a hundred dollar tip, especially after nitpicking the service fee?"
Sandy's eyes bulge. Pam averts her gaze guiltily. "Pam, if you have a hundred dollars in your pocket then I'm going to have you fired," Sandy warns her.
"Then I should just walk out now and keep it, shouldn't I?" Pam drops the tray she is holding on the floor, breaking several dishes in the process.
"Those are coming out of your final paycheck," Sandy warns her.
"Don't really need it, do I?" Pam takes out her hundred dollar bill and waves it proudly while marching toward the doors of the restaurant.
"I am so sorry," Sandy sputters at Emi. "Obviously, your meal is on the house."
"My meal and my friend's meal totaled less than a hundred dollars," Emi responds curtly.
Sandy's face turns bright purple. She looks like she is about to explode in anger. Without a word, she marches over to the tip jar on the front counter and take out two five dollar bills. "These are coming out of her last paycheck too," she grumbles as she straightens them out before handing them to Emi who takes them cautiously and then pretends to appraise their value by holding them up to the light above her head.
Sandy is vibrating with anger and there is a throbbing vein visible on her forehead. "Is everything in order?" she asks Emi impatiently. Emi exaggerates the look of thought on her face before shaking her head. She takes Culvin's hand and pulls him toward the door. "I do hope to see you again, dear customer," Sandy calls after them in as courteous of a voice as she can muster.
"Yeah, not likely," Emi flings her hand to convey disinterest or disgust.
As soon as they are outside of the restaurant. Emi loses her composure. "Oh my god, Culvin, that must have been so embarrassing for you. I don't know why I made such a big deal out of it. I just didn't want to lose so I yelled so loudly and I disturbed everyone and a got that waitress fired."
"Pam, her name was Pam," Culvin corrects her while patting her shoulder.
"I don't care what her name is!" Emi moans. "I just feel so bad. It's not like I even need to worry about money."
"It's not about money. It's about standing up for yourself." Culvin continues to console her.
"Why aren't you more angry with me?" Emi asks while leaning her head against his shoulder.
"In my town, we had a brawl about my dad's bills at the tavern at least twice a week," he informs her.
"So I'm just like your dad now?" Emi whines.
"God, you could find fault with the perfect compliment, couldn't you?" Culvin sighs.
"Let's see about that. Give me a compliment."
"Fine, your eyes are like stars in a night sky," he gives the quickest and most immediate compliment he can think of.
"Oh wow, you made this too easy." She smirks.
"Just your tone makes me wish I hadn't played along," he groans.
"Do you know how many people compliment my eyes. Can't you find something else you like about me?"
"You do know that we are doing a bit, right? You don't have to actually find fault with my compliment," Culvin tries to calm her down.
"But you still could've come up with something else," she will not let it go.
"Fine, your ever so distant eyes remind me of the endless abyss of which I wish was close at hand so I could leap into it and end my suffering at your ever craving and unsatisfiable whims."
Emi stares at him for a moment before responding by hitting him. "Great, the first time you say something like that in a while and you use it to insult me."
"Unsatisfiable," he grumbles.
"That's not even a real word," she informs him.
"Half of the words Shakespeare used weren't real when he used them," Culvin counters.
"Did you seriously just compare yourself with Shakespeare?" Emi snorts.
"What, I could be that good one day," he grumbles.
"Keep trying." She can not stop laughing. She likes Culvin's attempts at poetry but the truth is he has yet to even surpass his father. He is no where near the level of Shakespeare.
"Can I go back to Edgeburn Heights now?" he asks miserably.
"What? No. You've already missed your chance to go home with Isaac so you may as well keep me company." Emi links her arm with his.
"I really don't understand you," he sighs.
"Really? I've always thought of myself as straightforward. I have turned down over a dozen boys after all."
"And that's why you always need rescuing; because you alienate everyone with your brutish bluntness."
"You shouldn't say something like that to a girl." Emi furrows her brow at him.
"Why weren't you more straightforward with me?" Culvin asks.
"Are you asking why I didn't reject you?"
"No, I'm asking why you didn't just ask me out if you really liked me all that much," Culvin explains.
"I tried. You made it obvious that you had no intentions of dating anyone. Whatever happened to that resolve?"
"Is this really the place to talk about this sort of thing?" Culvin points across the street where Pam is leaning against a street lamp shouting into her cell phone at someone. She is still wearing her waitress uniform as she did not even bother changing before walking out.
"Should we talk to her?" Emi is feeling guilty.
"Sure, let's." Culvin walks up to the street corner and waits to be sure no traffic is coming before he drags Emi across.
Pam is still shouting when they reach her. "I know you're busy but I need you to pick me up! Never mind why, just come get me!" Culvin has to step in front of her before she will even notice him. "What do you want?" she demands angrily.
Emi bows her head the way she often does and takes a deep breath, preparing to apologize. Before she can say anything, Pam slaps her across the face, causing her to stumble backwards. Culvin catchers her with one arm around her shoulders. "Get the hell away from me!" Pam screams at her. "I don't want to see your face ever again."
"You should be nicer considering the large tip we gave you," Culvin scolds her.
"What are you supposed to be?" Pam spits at him. "Are you her boyfriend or her little brother. You sure don't know how to stand up for your woman. Can you even fight? Come on, try to hit me. Throw the first punch before my babe gets here. He'll kick your ass if he thinks you started it."
"So he's had to sit out when you've started a fight before," Culvin confirms.
"Do you dissect everything everyone says?" Pam asks in annoyance. "Okay, yes, he's had to just stand by and watch when I cause trouble on my own but… why am I telling you this?"
"We don't want to fight." Emi bows again. "I'm sorry about your job." She turns around to walk away.
"What the hell?" Pam screams at her. "Why are you acting like this was my fault? Why do you get to act so guiltless?" She chases after Emi and slaps her in the back of the head, much harder than before. Emi is knocked to the ground by the force.
Pam looks slightly surprised by her own actions. When Emi looks up at her there is a burning rage hidden inside her starry hassle eyes that scares Pam. She takes a step back before gritting her teeth and taking a stance as if they are about to fight. Emi leaps to her feat and dashes toward her but Culvin grabs her by the wrist and spins her like she is his dance partner in a tango, redirecting her so she avoids Pam altogether.
Pam turns to look at Culvin in confusion. She has no idea why he did not let his girlfriend attack her. She keeps her fists raised in preparation to defend herself. Culvin steps toward her slowly. She swings at him once but he simply slaps her fist off course with the open palm of his hand. Pam is so shocked she tries to attack him with her other fist just to see if he will do it a second time.
Once again he redirects her fist and then grabs her head with both his hands. She tries to leap back but his grip is tight. He is applying pressure to her temples and the corners of her jaw. She is getting a headache and is becoming dizzy. When she looks into his eyes, she jerks in shock. They are glowing bright red. She tries to wrench herself free of his grip but it is too tight.
Something shiny on his hand catches her attention. It is a bright red ruby set in a silver ring on one of his fingers right next to her eye. She is not sure why but it is both entrancing and terrifying. Slowly her vision blurs until she can barely see anything at all. Her arms dangle at her sides heavily. She does not want to lift them but slowly she does. She reaches into her purse and pulls out the hundred dollar bill she stole from Emi and holds it out to Culvin. He lets go of her head and takes it from her.
"Thank you for your patronage. Please come again," she mumbles incoherently before collapsing to her knees.
Emi's mouth is hanging open in complete shock as Culvin hands her hundred dollar bill back to her and takes her hand to lead her away. They are several blocks away before she says anything. "What just happened?" she asks while grabbing her head.
"Just a little hypnosis," Culvin explains.
"With that?" Emi points at the ring on his finger. "Where did you get that?"
"I found it," he responds vaguely.
"Nowhere important," he refuses to answer her questions directly.
"Ah, I see." She does not feel like asking anymore. The thought is already slipping from her mind. She walks in silence alongside him for another minute before suddenly shaking her head violently, as if casting out the distracting thought.
"What's wrong?" Culvin asks.
"Nothing." She leans against his shoulder. "We have a whole day to hang out. Let's go do something else."
"I want to ask more questions about you," he gives a suggestion.
"We can chat while we do stuff," Emi urges him.
"What exactly do you want to do?" Culvin asks.
"Well… what do teenagers do when out together in your country."
"Koika leaves," Culvin's response is immediate.
Emi looks like she wants to hit him but she restrains herself. "I'm serious. I want to know what girls and boys do when they like each other."
"Well I was kinda serious too," Culvin admits.
"Okay, koika leaves are that drug thing, right? The medicine Isaac's dad gave my mom. Have you ever tried them?"
"Everyone in Habalon has tried them at least once," Culvin mutters in a slightly guilty tone. He does not really want to have to justify his weakest moments to her. Koika leaves are abundant in Habalon. They are farmed by the Dakon and traded for almost anything because at least someone will find them valuable.
Any kid old enough to comprehend their hallucinogenic properties has tried them just to see if they like it. Culvin did not like the lack of control over his own thoughts that came with using them so he stopped. He had far too many plans for attacking Clooney to let his thoughts become muddled.
"Okay, I asked you something so you get to ask me something now," Emi suddenly spouts, catching Culvin off guard. "You said you had questions for me, right?" she reminds him.
"Well yeah but I didn't really think you were going to tell me anything," he admits. "You're kinda reserved with me."
"And that kinda makes you jealous?" she asks hopefully.
"Don't tell me you're doing it on purpose." He frowns at her.
"Not exactly. I just don't care what anyone else thinks about me. With you, I don't want to show you my bad sides."
"A little late for that," he responds condescendingly.
"Okay, so I'm not good at dating. Well, I've never done it before."
"Is it weird that I'm kinda glad about that?" Culvin asks.
"All guys find it so important that they are a girl's first. Do you think Mark will hate Janet because she's already been with someone else?"
"I was actually just glad you didn't have a much more suitable boyfriend to compare me to," Culvin explains.
"Oh. Okay," Emi drops the subject.
"So, you're just going to pretend you didn't just accuse me of something sexist, aren't you?" Culvin is not ready to let it go.
"Jeez, I just told you I'm not good at this. What more do you want from me?"
"Fine, whatever. You said it was my turn to ask something, right?" Culvin tries to change the subject.
"Well, I already told you that I've never dated before so now it's my turn."
"I didn't ask that, you just volunteered that information," Culvin argues.
"I know," Emi laughs. "I'm just messing with you. Ask away, just be prepared for an answer you might not like."
"Okay, when did you start liking me?" Culvin decides to start simple.
"Oh wow, you do like to embarrass me. Alright, I first even noticed you as a boy when you saved me from Travis after school the day we first met. You know, the day you brought your own anatomical model to school."
"I'm aware." Culvin winces. He is tired of being reminded of the incident. At the time, he was far too focused to care about how embarrassing it was but since learning a lot about the etiquette of this world he can not remember the event with any other emotion. Worst of all, his girlfriend is the only person who knows of the event other than him and she loves to bring it up.
"If you want to know when I really fell for you though, it would have to be in the street after you saved me from that boy who was chasing me. I was desperate to see anyone I recognized. I would have fallen in love with Andrew Hamish if he'd shown up at that time."
"Why him?" Culvin raises a confused eyebrow.
"I don't know." Emi shrugs. "I just thought of the boy from my class who I least want to date."
"And you're aware he has a crush on you, right?"
"There you go again, acting all jealous. Of course I know. He's like the president of my fan club or something. He's one of the only boys who never asked me out though. I think he knew he would be rejected and wanted to hold onto the thought that if I didn't say it out loud then it wasn't true."
"What a sad lump."
"You're oddly standoffish." Emi pinches his arm, trying to comfort him, or at least convey support.
"I don't understand what is happening to me," he groans. "I've never had these kinds of thoughts. I was always just mad at Clooney and the world. When did I start caring what a teenage girl thinks of me?"
"I know it can be annoying, but trust me, the feeling of knowing that she has these thoughts about you too is amazing, isn't it?" Emi asks hopefully.
"I'm sorry about earlier, on the school trip, when I said I had no intentions of seeing anyone. I had something in my head at the time. I was still living the life I started six years ago when I originally took on Evelon."
"I don't know what that means," Emi reminds him.
"To simplify it, my sister was attacked by something and I had to fight it off. In order to do that I acted in a way that terrified me. I was not myself. Afterward I was always angry, looking for someone to blame. I put aside all other emotions, including the ones I felt for you."
"Well, I'm glad that you're no longer like that." Emi hugs him.
"Yeah, I know I should be glad too but… a part of me wonders if I would've been able to avoid all of this awkwardness if I never regained these emotions."
"I already said it, the annoyance and embarrassment is worth everything else," Emi assures him.
"Alright, that counted as something I told you, so now it's my turn to ask again," he spouts.
It takes Emi a moment to realize that he has turned her joke around on her. "Okay, let's answer everything we can about each other. I don't want to be strangers by the time we get to our next destination."
"Where are we going anyway?" he asks.
"No idea. Tell me what you'd do with a girl from you country and I'll get an idea."
"You just want to know if I ever consorted with other girls before I came here," Culvin accuses her. Emi's expression suggests he is absolutely right. Her face is bright red and she is puffing out her cheeks. Culvin waits for as long as he can before bursting out laughing. "Fine, I'll give you some pointers about how guys court girls in Habalon. Just be aware, it's probably pretty boring compared to your standards."
"Bowling is boring, karaoke is boring. We do stuff like that to hang out with people, not to actually focus just on the activity. One of the most romantic plot points in stories are when two kids get locked in a shed together and have to spend unexpected time together, acting shy and maybe sharing insecurities. The thing about love is that it's gonna happen whether you are having a romantic date or skipping through puddles in the rain."
"And I thought I was the poet." Culvin is smiling at her. When Emi says things like this, he remembers why he fell for her. She was the girl closest to him in his time of need in a foreign country. She did not need to be pretty or to give him things. She just needed to be there.
The pair of them continue trading information about one another with each other as they walk down the street hand in hand. They have no intended destination in mind but they do not care. They are together because they enjoy each other's company, no matter where they are. This is their ideal date.
"Are we really doing this?" Emi asks as she trots through the gates that separate the grounds of a massive amusement park from the street outside. "Half of the attractions aren't even open in the winter."
"I remember you saying you really wish we had been allowed to go to the park in Rossburg," Culvin explains. "It was out of budget for the school trip though."
"Which is why I don't understand how you plan to pay for this. Lori only allotted me so much money for free spending. I still have to pay my dorm fees."
"Don't you worry about that." Culvin is smirking suspiciously. Emi is sure she can see a red glint in his eye but she chooses to ignore it. This is the way things always are with Culvin. She knows little to nothing about him, yet what she does know slightly scares her. She feels like he must have been someone important back in his own country. At the very least, nothing about him screams normal high school student.
"What is even open in the middle of February?" Emi turns to look at one of the major attractions of the park, a massively tall water slide that can be seen from miles away. It has been closed down for the winter, as has half of the park, including three different sized pools, a log ride, and an entire section for playing with water guns.
"Maybe we should've gone there." Emi points at a poster pinned to a wooden pole. It is an advertisement for a skiing facility just outside of Burrow. Apparently most of the staff that works the water park section of here goes over there for the winter months.
"You find it fun to play in that cold stuff… snow?" Culvin inadvertently reminds Emi that he is not used to snow. One of the few things she has managed to discern from her brother's annoying babbling about Culvin's home country is that it is primarily a desert. Apparently there is something called the tundra in the middle of it but Isaac did not go into detail about it last night. He definitely likened Habalon to Egypt though, and even recounted a story of how he has been telling everyone that that is where Ash got her tan.
"Playing in snow is really fun," Emi assures him.
"It's extremely dangerous and potentially fatal where I'm from," Culvin informs her.
"Well, this is a controlled situation. The same way you wouldn't run outside in a flood, you come and swim in a pool or a lake, right?"
"I wish there was a lake in Habalon," Culvin sighs.
"Wow, you're making me depressed," Emi is getting annoyed with Culvin. "Basically, you're not in a snow storm. You are walking into the calm aftermath. Actually, you are gliding over it with special shoes tethered to slates of wood that disperse your weight so you are practically floating on frozen water fluffed with air."
"Sounds romantic but also cold," Culvin shudders.
Emi takes note of the fact that he is wearing a thicker coat than her, not to mention the fact that she only has on winter leggings under a skirt instead of proper pants like him. "That's what makes it amazing," Emi laughs. Her cheeks are bright red from the biting wind on the street as they walked here. "You play around for as long as possible to keep your mind off the cold, then you come back to the lodge where everything is really warm."
"So you intentionally cause yourself discomfort in order to enjoy the relief of leaving it behind," Culvin confirms.
"Not just that," Emi argues. "It may be uncomfortable but it's also fun. Knowing that you have to put up with slight discomfort to enjoy it is also fun in its own right. It feels like a reward. There is something to be said about the fact that you will never have the same control of your body while skiing as you do in summer. Even if you weren't struggling to control yourself under layers of clothing, you are too numb to feel yourself properly. Its pandemonium and delirium."
"It's intentionally losing control." Culvin's eyes have lit up. "We… we should really go."
"Yeah, we should but… not today. I don't want to spend all day teaching you how to ski. Actually, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to be any good at it either."
"I was under the impression you'd been before," Culvin is confused.
"I went once with my grandmother and Isaac but I was too young to do more than sled, and only on the smaller hills. I still remember the sensation of my cheeks burning when we finally got into the lodge."
"You're a fast learner though," Culvin reminds her.
"That's another reason to wait though. Darcy will have to teach us. We'll all go together some time. Oh, I wish you could stay in Burrow with me," she moans.
Culvin averts his eyes instead of responding. He does not need to remind her of the importance of looking after his sisters. In his head, he partially only took a liking to Emi because he saw a resemblance to the needy twins in her. He does not want it to be the only reason though. He is here now because he is trying to prove to himself that he still likes her even though he has gotten his sisters back. He definitely does not want to bring up the subject and potentially remind her of the fact that she was somewhat of a consolation prize for him.
"So Darcy can ski, eh?" he tries to change the subject. "Wow, is there anything that girl can't do? I mean, Isaac I expect this from but she's doing all this with the handicap of being originally from this world."
"Are you saying that everyone in our country is weaker than in yours?" Emi accuses him.
"Surely you've noticed the difference in athletic capabilities between myself and others my age," he tries to convince her with logic.
"And yet you are still nothing compared to an Olympic competitor," she knocks him down a peg. "It's a matter of the drive and situation, not genetics."
"It's slightly genetics," Culvin sulks. No matter how amazing he is compared to an average teenage boy, she seems intent on reminding him that there is always someone better than him out there.
"You know, you don't need to be the best," she sighs. It seems she can discern what is on his mind.
"Of course I do," he mopes. "You've got a dozen boys hanging off you every day. I don't know why you chose me but I'm guessing it's because I'm different than them. Well, what happens when you find someone else who is even more different."
"Different isn't always a good thing. What if by different they were ten years older with a grey beard or a patch eye and a mole the size of their nose. I don't just want different, I want your specific brand of different."
Culvin does not know how to respond. That is something oddly sweet coming from Emi, who is usually very direct and often rude without really meaning to be. For the first time he is starting to realize why she likes him and it makes him happy. Apart from never having dated anyone before, he has a second barrier to cross, the idea of dating a girl from a world with completely different standards. He is not confident at all. She has just boosted what little confidence he has though.
"What exactly did you want to ride in Rossburg?" he asks while trying not to show how embarrassed he is.
"Well, at the time, I just wanted to try everything, the food, the rides. Now though I really want to do things that couples would do." Emi pushes her fingers together shyly. "The ferris wheel and such."
"That's the thing where you sit in a gondola that goes in a circle and ends up right back where it started, right?" Culvin shades his eyes while looking straight at the massive wheel.
"Don't tell me you don't understand the point of it," Emi prepares for one of his ill-timed logical responses.
"Oh, I understand the point," he assures her. "Sometimes a couple will take a wagon out into the desert to simply sit under the stars and be alone. They may even pitch a tent. They come right back the next morning. It's a pointless endeavor that serves only as a form of spending time together. Basically the gondola wheel compresses the time and effort and streamlines it. It's hard to believe enough people want to pay for time alone with their partners to justify building a machine with the sole purpose of catering to them."
"There it is; your logical breakdown of everything. This is what Pam was complaining about before you hypnotized her or whatever you did."
"Why are you talking about her as if she is some sort of friend of ours. I hardly even bothered committing her name to memory," Culvin admits.
"Well, girls remember people we have vendettas against. Never forget an enemy, that's our motto." Emi puffs out her chest importantly. Culvin can tell she is somewhat joking but he can see the value in her statement. He would not easily forget someone who openly attacked him either. It is funny to him though as what attacks Emi is much less physically dangerous than what attacks him.
"That wheel gondola seems like a romantic way to end our date. What do you say we do something else first," Culvin suggests.
"Alright but stop calling it a gondola," Emi orders him.
"Shall we try that then? It's almost as tall." Culvin points at the top of the main rollercoaster of the park. It is only slightly taller than the water slide.
"I don't think it's open right now. The metal warps shape in the winter and has an easier chance of snapping," Emi explains.
"I'm starting to wonder what the point of staying open in the winter time even was," Culvin is slightly annoyed. He wanted to impress Emi by bringing her somewhere she had wanted to go.
"We've just got to lower our standards a little." Emi starts to look around for a different ride.
"If you suggest the merry-go-round, we're breaking up," Culvin threatens her sarcastically. Emi stares at him blankly for a moment before turning and walking away. Culvin has to trot to catch up with her. She is only pretending to be mad though. When he tries to touch her shoulder, she grabs his hand and starts to run. "Hey, don't move too much. It's too cold to get sweaty," he warns her.
She slows to a stop in front of a stall serving hot food. Culvin notices that she is drooling slightly as she watches a kid eating a baked potato on a stick. He stuffs his hands in his into his pockets as if he is checking for money. All he pulls out is the money Isaac gave him for his return train ticket.
"It's okay." Emi takes out her hundred dollar bill and hands it to the booth operator. He is confused because she has not ordered anything yet. She stands on her tiptoes so she can lean over the counter of the booth and check what supplies he has for cooking. He is about to start scolding her when a different customer flags him down to take their order.
Culvin watches Emi's long legs stretching to keep from leaving the ground as she shifts more of her weight onto the counter of the booth. He is reminded of the times he went into town with one of the members of the rebellion and they would chat up the local venders for information. They were always friendly enough to grab things without paying for them. One woman from the rebellion used to even flirt with all the vendors, male of female. He was too focused to realize it at the time though. Now the memory is making him blush as he imagines Emi haggling for a better price by showing off her dancing skill a little.
After serving several other customers the vendor finally returns. "Hey little lady," he greets her with a smile. He has gotten over his initial annoyance at her lack of courtesy. "Find what you were looking for yet?"
"You've got a friar, right?" She points at a large square vat of bubbling oil.
"That's our motto here. Anything on a stick." He takes a wooden skewer out from underneath the counter and stabs it into an apple from a whole bushel sitting in next to a wooden table with flour on it. He flings the apple into the air and catches it in one hand while whipping out a knife from his front apron pocket. Emi's eyes light up gleefully as she watches him peel it by spinning it as if on a reel. The peel comes off in one perfectly connected strip.
Emi's mouth is already watering by the time he finishes quartering it and dousing it in flour, sugar and cinnamon. He stabs all four quarters with the same wooden skewer and dunks it into the friar. The splattering oil crackles loudly, prompting Emi to cheer.
While the apple dumplings cook, he proceeds to peel a potato and slice it into a continuous spiral like a corkscrew. He then skewers it as well and spreads it out so that the oil will be able to fry each independent layer like an endless potato chip. "Oh my god, Culvin, look!" she squeals excitedly.
"You would be more interested in food than in rides," he laughs at her. She pretends to pout for a moment but quickly forgets when the cook pulls the apple dumplings out of the friar. They look golden an encrusted with sparkling sugar like a strudel. He even dusts it with more cinnamon.
Emi is slightly surprised when he hands it to her. "Really?" she is cautious of accepting it.
"Five dollars," he informs her.
"That's a total rip off," she gasps. "An apple is like fifty cents."
"I just cooked the thing in front of you. Unless you think you could do better, pay up."
"I bet I could," she responds pompously. She still has a massive smile on her face.
"I have a spare apron if you like." He points to a hook on the side of the booth sign.
"Sure, where is your wasabi?" she asks in a completely serious tone. Culvin slaps himself in the face.
"I was kidding. You shouldn't abandon your boyfriend." The cook points at Culvin.
"Oh, I forgot you were there," Emi responds jokingly. Culvin pinches her cheeks as punishment.
"Let go, I need my mouth to eat this magnificent dumpling."
"Careful, don't burn your tongue," the cook warns her.
"I'll just stuff some snow into my mouth later," Emi waves away his concerns.
"Your girlfriend is kinda interesting," the cook whispers to Culvin behind his hand.
"Um, thanks," he chuckles. He is slightly worried that Emi's behavior is unbecoming in this world but it is actually not all that bad if she were in the curtain world. People from his village were always overly friendly with each other and stalls like this were common. Everyone made their living selling things to one another. Foods had to be cheap enough to bring in locals but also expensive enough to earn payouts from travelers who had no choice but to buy from vendors if they did not want to pay for the extra fees of food with their inn visit.
After getting change back for her apple and the potato, which Culvin ends up taking, Emi flitters off to another booth. The cook is nice enough to give them a slight discount because they did buy two things, which seems to satisfy Emi's earlier complaint.
Emi seems to have gotten into the flow of being overly friendly. She leans against or over the counter of every stall. Some of the operators are annoyed but they are all willing to put up with her if she tries some of their food. They end up spending her whole hundred on everything from spicy chicken on a stick to valentine themed sticks of chocolate painted with red food coloring.
Emi has already gotten out another fifty dollars when they reach the end of the food stalls and enter upon the games. The first booth is a cork gun shooting range, which she avoids intentionally. She is not in the mood for a repeat of New Years. "Do you want me to win you something?" Culvin asks after they have passed three booths without stopping.
"Wouldn't it be me who is paying for you to win me something?" Emi teases him.
"Well…" Culvin is obviously ashamed but he still wants to contribute.
"Fine, but you better buy me something big. I want Darcy to complain about how small it makes our room," she laughs excessively.
Culvin smiles at her while shaking his head. A strange thought has just occurred to him. Several boys have come forward proclaiming themselves to be in love with Emi, but not a one of them has seen this side of her. They have all based their feelings for her on her appearance or on made up opinions about what she must be like. Even if she had given any of them a chance, she would have most likely failed to live up to their expectations. On top of turning them down for being persistent and annoying, she must have been feeling extremely self conscious. She knew they were in love with a false image of her and would be let down. Going out with them was never even an option.
"What are you grinning about? Get to winning me stuff. Sasha has taken home every prize Isaac ever won us, so my room is kinda barren. Let's rub her face in something."
Culvin does not stop smiling. He has come to the conclusion that Emi could have never ended up with anyone besides himself. Even Andre had some sort of false image of her that she could not adhere to. He is the only person who asked her out for the sole purpose of her being herself and not a pretty girl to mold into his ideal. He basically won before he even met her. He is feeling quite self important.
Emi picks out a booth for him to try his hand at. It is a small pool of frozen water with a tiny hockey net set up on one side. There is an actual sized hockey puck on the other end and there is a slat of plastic attached to two elastic bands tethered to the pool to make a mounted slingshot. The objective of the game is to pull back and fling the plastic slat, the makeshift hockey stick, at the puck and knock it into the net. One wins if they get the puck fully into the net without pushing the net out of place at all. Not an easy feat considering the net is not tethered down and is exactly as deep as the puck is wide.
Emi cheers excessively as Culvin lines up his first shot. He is utterly embarrassed. Luckily his ears are already red from the cold. He takes his time aiming, even closing one eye like some sort of professional. His first shot is a powerful one that misses the net entirely. He is just practicing though. He has been in situations where he has had to judge depth perfectly in order to summon Evelon's barriers in the right place. This is not difficult at all for him.
After a few more test shots, he gets the puck to do exactly what he wants. He repeats the process three times just to prove it was not a fluke. The booth operator is slightly annoyed but he concedes. He thought up the game himself and is pleased to know that it is appreciated by at least someone. His prizes are rather generic though because he is not part of the regular employees of the park. Emi picks the largest one, a stuffed dog with unrealistic hair that sticks together in tufts. She rubs her face in it and promptly sneezes after accidentally tickling her nose.
Emi and Culvin decide to try several other games. There are a few like the hockey one that are winter themed but the rest are the simple ring toss and balloon darts. There is, however, an indoor hall where several activities that would be uncomfortable to do in the cold are set up.
Emi and Culvin play twister with several other people on a massive mat of colored dots. They also participate in a quiz, of which Culvin fails due to his lack of knowledge of this world. There is an obstacle course at which he excels though. Emi participates as well, proving she has not lost her touch since volleyball. They both lose to a pair of boys that look like they are straight out of military school though. Culvin is quite upset by this.
Eventually the pair gets to the rides instead of just playing games. They drive around an indoor go-kart track and ride a stationary rollercoaster in front of a movie screen that makes it seem as if they are moving. They even buy a ride on a horse-pulled cart that takes them around the entire park so they can see every part of it.
Finally, after it has already started to get dark, they make it to the ferris wheel. "Where did the time go?" Emi asks while breathing on her hands to warm them up. Her fingers have gone numb and her cheeks are raw from the wind of the outdoors. She can not stop smiling though.
"Where did all your money go?" Culvin retorts.
"Hey, you did that wavy hand, red eyed thing to get us these expensive bands, so we actually haven't been that bad off." Emi holds up her wrist to show off the bracelet that acts as a one day pass to ride anything for free. It is part of the park's gimmick. A season pass costs several hundred dollars while a one day pass only costs one-hundred. If anyone plans to go on more than ten rides, it is a waste not to buy it. Of course, Culvin did not pay for theirs. Emi refused to let him hypnotize the hard working people running the booths but was less inclined to complain when it came to the rides.
"So, what exactly do we do on this wheel?" Culvin asks as he shuffles forward in the massive line. They have been waiting to get on for a while now. It appears they will be in the group after the ones that have just embarked.
"We warm up." Emi points at a sign advertising the fact that the gondolas are enclosed and heated. Suddenly, her face is illuminated bright green as several lights on the wheel and each gondola flicker on simultaneously.
"Oh my, I didn't realize they kept it running at night," Emi gasps while spinning around. Several other lights in the whole park have started to flicker on as well. "It's all changing!" Her hassle eyes are sparkling even more than usual. She can not close her mouth. The yellowish tinge of the lights now shining off of all the buildings has indeed changed the whole appearance of the park. Nothing looks quite the same in the dark.
Culvin tries to take in the same sights but he keeps pausing whenever his gaze passes over his girlfriend. Her face has changed in the light as well. Her cheeks appear darker and more swollen. He swears they are bleeding from how much she has been rubbing them with her gloved hands. Her knit hat has flaps to cover her ears unlike his but he still wonders if they are just as cold.
"What are you doing?" Emi whispers when he clasps his hand over the knitted flaps.
"Checking," he responds innocently.
"Yeah, they're cold." She grabs his ears in retaliation. They are too numb to even register the feeling though.
"I can't wait to get on board." Culvin stares at the wheel longingly as it makes its slow round.
"I can," Emi giggles. "The longer it takes to get to our turn, the longer our turn will last."
"It's just like the ski lodge, isn't it?" Culvin asks. "The longer you can put up with being uncomfortable, the more worth it the end reward is."
"I already told you, quit breaking everything down," she scolds him. "Just enjoy the moment, will you?"
"This is how I enjoy things. I analyze them and figure out what makes them fun," he explains.
"Ugh, just listening to you break down why you break things down is a bummer." She makes a face, wrinkling her nose and acting like she has just tasted something unpleasant.
Culvin contemplates his response calmly. When Emi has given up waiting for his rebuttal, he suddenly grabs her shoulders and stuffs her face into the front of his coat. Her immediate complaints are muffled. She settles down when her cheeks start to warm up. The numbness is leaving and she can feel the raw bite of the blood rushing back to them. She has completely forgotten to be mad at him.
Culvin is pleased with himself up until the point at which he realizes that some of the other people in line have taken notice of the couple. Disapproving parents turn their children's heads away while other teenagers laugh at them or express annoyance. A select few couples respond positively, cooing as they watch Culvin's face flush with embarrassment.
He taps Emi's shoulder repeatedly, trying to get her to pull back from him but she just keeps nuzzling her face against him. He is reminded of when she sneezed earlier. She is still holding the large stuffed dog in her hand. She has been dragging it around all day, leaving it sitting on random chairs indoors while she was busy or just setting it down in the cleanest part of the plowed snow piled along the sides of the walkways of park. It is not incredibly dirty but it is far from clean and slightly damp. She will definitely have to wash it later.
Finally Culvin's embarrassment ends when the ferris wheel creaks to a stop so the first of the current passengers can disembark. It is a slightly less tedious process than waiting for it to go around. Each gondola has to come to a rest evenly with the platform so the groups of people, up to four in size, can step off safely.
Emi notices the noise and steps back from Culvin to watch. The people are all chattering amongst themselves about the amazing view and how spectacular watching the lights go up was. "I'm suddenly really glad we got here so late," Emi admits. "I really want to see the lights now."
Culvin watches the sparkling yellow dots reflecting in Emi's eyes. He wants to say something but he thinks better of it. She will not forgive him if he compliments that particular feature of hers again. He finds it quite sad; that she will never enjoy being praised for what is essentially her best asset.
After waiting for everyone in front of them to get onto the wheel one gondola at a time, Emi and Culvin are finally at the front of the line. "Only two?" the control operator asks while glancing behind them. The next group has four people in it already.
"Excuse me!" someone further back calls out. "We've got only two as well. Perhaps we could go together."
"I wanted to be alone," Emi mopes.
"Come on, we won't bother you. It's just getting really cold and we don't want to spend all night in line." A red haired man in a brown coat pushes his way to the front of the line, dragging a woman with short blonde hair in a white coat. She looks embarrassed by her boyfriend's boldness.
"I don't really mind." Culvin shrugs.
"Of course you wouldn't," Emi grumbles.
"Look, I'll buy you two something warm after this," the man offers. He is obviously looking down on them as a teen couple.
"Let's just go." Emi hops into the gondola. She sighs with relief the moment the glass windows come between her face and the cold wind.
The man and his girlfriend take the right side of the gondola while Culvin sits down on the cushioned bench on the left. Emi remains standing with her hands pressed to the cold glass so she can see the ground getting smaller and smaller as they rise. The wheel stops momentarily to pick up the group of four from behind them in line before it finally starts to move at a steadier pace. It will go around twice before they will disembark.
"Don't you want to sit with your boyfriend?" the blonde woman asks. Emi makes a sneering face at her before finally plopping down next to Culvin. "I think she's mad at us," the woman whispers to her boyfriend.
"Were you kids planning on getting it on or something?" the man asks teasingly.
"We were planning on not being questioned by a pair of dinosaurs," Emi quips.
"Ouch, I'm only twenty-four," the man pretends to be hurt.
"Emi, at least try to enjoy yourself," Culvin tries to calm his girlfriend down.
"They're the reason I can't enjoy it," Emi whines.
"But you not helping," Culvin counters.
"Did you say your name was Emi? That's a sweet name. Is it short for Emily?" the woman tries to make small talk.
"Nope," Emi responds with a superior attitude. There is no way the woman could have guessed that her name was actually Amelia but Emi still feel like she has won something.
The woman waits for Emi to tell her what her name actually stands for and is slightly confused when she does not. Eventually she just moves on. "My name is Lisa and this is Thomas."
"Hey." Thomas waves.
"My name is Culvin and this is Emi," Culvin introduces himself and reiterates Emi's name.
"So, how long have you two been together?" Thomas asks.
"A couple months, I think," Culvin has difficulty recalling. "This is kinda the first time we've seen each other since we made it official though."
"Oh, so it's a long distance relationship." Lisa claps as if she has just figured out something coveted.
"He's a foreign exchange student," Emi finally speaks. She is slightly interested in talking about Culvin.
"Really? What country?" Thomas is either extremely interested or he is pretending to be.
"I call it Habalon but I doubt you've heard of it."
"I can just look it up." Thomas pulls out his cell phone.
"How about we leave the technology in our pockets for now," Culvin suggests. "We're here to enjoy the ride and each other's company after all."
"That's a nifty idea," Lisa laughs. "You're quite mature, aren't you?"
"Not when it comes to relationships," Emi mutters.
"Oh, I was wondering which one of you was the aggressor. It seems the young lady is it." Lisa is once again excited to have figured out something pointless.
"He's just never bothered with girls before," Emi tries to defend Culvin's honor as a boyfriend. "His country has… back home, he had more important things to focus on… family and such."
"Well, that's always a good thing. You know you've hooked yourself a proper man when he is willing to blow you off for his family. It also makes it twice as romantic when he does the opposite and blows them off for you."
Emi's eyes start to sparkle as she looks at Culvin. He gives Lisa an annoyed glare before turning to face Emi. He wishes she had not put the idea in his girlfriend's head. "I'm not going to give up on Chessy and Philla. Not just yet."
"I know," Emi mopes. "I was just imaging the possibility."
"Well stop imagining it because that will only lead to you desiring it more and…"
"So what?" Lisa interrupts him. "Let her desire it. Half of what keeps couples together is looking forward to something that never comes. Trust me, I've been with Thomas since college and if we had slept together in the first week I would've dumped him. Not getting everything I wanted from him right away always left me looking forward to what came next. I'd rather build a life with him over time than jump right into it with a guy who gives me everything and then get bored quicker."
"Are you talking about John? You're definitely talking about John, aren't you?" Thomas accuses her.
"Which John?" she pretends to be confused. Thomas grits his teeth and turns to look out the window. He loses his angry expression almost instantly. "What is it, Tom?" Lisa is intrigued by his newfound silence.
Emi gets up and presses her face against the glass again. Culvin simply leans around her so his head is at her waist level as he looks down at the ground. "I didn't realize it was so big," he whispers. They barely saw half of the park because it was winter. However, they have left the lights on the water slide on so it does not look out of place amongst the rest of the glowing attractions.
"We need to come here again in summer," Emi sighs.
"We will." He wraps his arms around her waist, causing her to squeak.
"Will we even be together that long?" she asks solemnly.
"Do you think you'll leave me for someone else?" he is slightly suspicious.
"I know you being nearby would put my mind at ease," she admits.
He lets out a long sigh. "For the last time, I just got my family back. I can't do this if you keep asking me to…"
"Fine," she cuts him off. "I won't ask again. Just promise me you won't make the decision to break up before we have a chance to meet again. Got it? No breaking up unless in person."
"Do you want me to swear on a bible."
"A Mage Craft strategy guide would be fine," she laughs.
Lisa and Thomas watch the two of them with a renewed interest. They are recalling what it was like for them when they were just starting out. Thomas was looking down on them before but now he is slightly jealous. He even goes as far as hugging Lisa as well, though he stands up properly so it is not as awkward as Culvin's waist hug. Emi does not seem to care though. She is busy looking at everything below them.
The rest of the time spent in the ferris wheel goes by slowly yet somehow too fast as well. The four of them talk about relationships and their significant others and even what their plans for the future are. Emi even lets slip that she is an idol and that they should come to one of her shows. They do not seem to believe her though.
After the ride, Thomas once again agrees to buy something warm for Emi and Culvin. As they have already eaten quite a bit, they settle for some hot lemonade and hot cider at a stall near the edge of the park. Immediately afterward they leave. They have spent from dawn until dark together which was far more time than they had intended.
They talk nonstop about everything they did at the park as they walk to the closest train station. It is only when they arrive that they fall silent. Emi bites her lip as she turns to look at Culvin. He can tell that she wants to ask him to stay longer but she already promised to stop.
The clopping sound of them climbing the stairs to the platform of the train echoes loudly in the thin winter air. There are barely any people around them. Culvin takes his time reading the schedules and deciding which train to choose. He eventually decides that he will have to take two of them, one from Burrow to a town an hour away and then another the rest of the way back to Edgeburn Heights.
Emi sits with him on a bench near the rails until another train arrives. This one is the daily circuit that goes all around Burrow. Emi plans to get on so she will not have to walk back to the school campus. Only when the doors to the train open do either of them say anything. "I guess this is goodbye." Emi tries not to cry.
"I'll come visit again. Who knows, if you get a computer, we could all play Mage Craft together," he suggests jokingly.
She hugs him without warning. Burying her face in his shoulder. He takes the initiative and pulls her head back so he can see her properly. Their kiss is awkward and sloppy and wet but neither one of them cares. This is the only second time they have done it after all.
As Emi steps backwards through the closing doors of the train, Culvin feels a heavy pang in his stomach. He admitted to her earlier that sometimes he wishes he could still ignore his emotions. As of right now, being with her has probably brought him more pain than joy. In her own words though, the joy is worth the pain. He has yet to believe it though.
The real test starts now. Can he occupy himself with his family enough to ignore the desire to get onto a train every day just to come see her? Can she throw herself into her idol work and forget about him? These are all things he has never had to answer before. Just meeting Emi has changed his whole world.
As the pessimist he is, he can not claim it is a good thing but deep down he believes it was inevitable. If it was not her it would have been someone else, someone who could convince him to give up all his unhealthy dreams of revenge and conquest just to live a normal life with them. Of course, whether he really has given it all up is not yet apparent to him.
As he shuffles back to the bench in order to wait for his train, he stares at the ruby ring on his finger. It is not glowing but he swears he can see the outline of the scorpion hiding inside of it. There is no sand here or would definitely try to use Grol, just to see if he could. If he ever wants to resume his vendetta against Clooney, this is his only ticket back. If he really wants to leave it in the past, then he should throw away the ring right now.
He slips the silver band off his finger and brings it close to his face. He now knows he was imagining the shape of the scorpion within. All he sees is a red version of the train platform through the transparent gem. The thought to throw it away crops up in his mind repeatedly but the desire to do so never accompanies it. Something deep down is telling him that the curtain world is not done with him; or at least that he is not done with it.
He slips the ring back onto his finger and pushes his hands into the pockets of his coat. There is a smile on his face. "I can't wait to see you again," he whispers out loud. Who or what he is referring to is not quite apparent.