Chapter 3: Wherever you go, There you Remain
The 30th day of the tenth month, the year 3305 of the World Calendar.
“Man, the weather’s great! What a place!” Larry cheered, his eyes on the clear blue sky and his white teeth glinting.
“Yeah. Perfect weather for being out. I can even smell the grass,” Seron chimed in with a nod, looking at Larry’s smile.
“It is a very lovely place! We will do our best work today! Heave-ho!” Strauski Megmica exclaimed, fists clenched in determination.
They were standing in a sea of green.
A thin woodland sprawled out under the clear autumn sky. The trees and grass seemed to stretch on forever, with no wind to blow away the comfortable temperature.
A wide plank walkway snaked across the ground, leading from the square and into the woods.
And next to the walkway was a wooden sign.
‘EAST CLARE NATURE PARK. CAMPING, OPEN FIRES, SMOKING, AND FIREARMS ARE PROHIBITED.’
They were not the only ones there.
Gathered in the square were about a hundred boys and girls in identical sweats issued by the 4th Capital Secondary School.
They were accompanied by about 20 faculty members in faculty-exclusive school-issue sweats.
And finally, about a dozen security staff in black uniforms watched over them all.
The grassy square was about 200 meters wide and long. On one edge was a large log cabin that housed the park staff, and a bathroom also made with logs.
Students sat around, rested on the grass, warmed up, horsed around, lined up in front of the bathroom, or simply waited.
Next to the square was a large, neatly-paved parking lot that almost touched the trail that led into the woods. Haphazardly parked there were three large buses that had carried the students to the park.
* * *
Earlier. The 11th day of the tenth month.
The fall performance had ended five days ago, and the newspaper club’s supervisor issue had been addressed.
The six members of the newspaper club were gathered in the office after school, elegantly partaking in tea.
Because the office was so warm they had taken off their jackets and hung them on the rack at the entrance. A cool autumn rain was drumming against the window.
“By the way, these notices were being handed out at the faculty office today,” Nick said, taking out a piece of paper from his bag and placing it at the center of the coffee table.
Five sets of eyes fell on the notice, but the text was so small all they could read was the title.
Natalia leaned slightly forward, breaking her comfortable position against the back of the sofa.
“Let’s see. ‘4th Capital Secondary School Orienteering Day’,” she read out loud. “Man, this font’s too small! What’ve they got against people with bad eyesight? Larry, read it for us.”
“Sure, sure.” Larry gingerly put down his flower-print teacup and picked up the notice.
“‘4th Capital Secondary School Orienteering Day’.”
“I just read that. Or does it say the same thing in Bezelese below?” Natalia joked.
“Then I will read the notice!” Meg volunteered, though it was hard to tell if she was joking or serious. Larry politely turned her down and continued to read.
“‘Orienteering Day will test students’ endurance, knowledge, curiosity, and teamwork. Students must apply in teams alongside members of their own clubs’.”
The school’s very first Annual Orienteering Day would be held on the 30th day of the tenth month, on the first day of the weekend.
The exact location would remain confidential to guarantee fairness, but it would take place at a park about two to three hours by bus from the Capital District. Naturally, the school would rent out the park for the day and security would be present.
Participants were to gather on campus by 7:30 in the morning. The competition would take place from 10AM to 1PM, and they would depart the park at 2PM. The buses would return to the school between 4 and 5 in the afternoon, subject to traffic.
Lunches would be provided, and there was no participation fee.
The school would set its own custom rules for the competition.
Students had to apply in team of three, with no limitations on gender or age. But all three students had to be from the same club.
There would be five possible set courses with different checkpoints, but the courses had some overlap. All five courses were about the same in terms of difficulty.
The checkpoints would all be located along the trails, and teams had to pass all the checkpoints before heading to the finish line.
At each checkpoint would be a quiz station that would test students’ academic knowledge, and rankings would be based on the time the team took to the finish line and the team’s performance at the quizzes.
The names of the top three teams would be published in posters to be put up around the school, and some prize money would be awarded to their clubs.
The application deadline was the 12th. Interested students were to write down their names, student numbers, and clubs, and hand the forms to the physical education teacher at the faculty office.
There were several warnings as well.
Though the trails would not be difficult to traverse, students would have to be fit enough to walk for an hour or two.
Students were to wear school-issue sweats, with their sweaters if the weather was cold.
Students needed to bring bags—rucksacks preferably, to keep their hands free—to fit the provided lunches.
There were no particular restrictions on items students could or couldn’t bring.
The event would be canceled in case of rain, and a notice would be posted the day before in case of cancelation.
“That’s all,” Larry finished. Natalia ended her series of sagely nodding with a question.
“Are you serious? …Well, it’s a sport where you walk around in the wilderness with a map, but it’s gonna take a while to explain…”
Seron spoke up to lend a hand.
“Think of it like running errands. You use a map and a compass to reach your destination. Generally, whoever arrives fastest is the winner.”
It was a simple and clear explanation. Everyone nodded.
“That’s it. Thanks, buddy,” Larry said, putting down the notice.
“I’m no good with maps, though,” Natalia admitted.
“Nor am I,” Meg said.
“Sucks for us, huh,” Natalia sighed. She then gave Meg a deceptively serious look. “Since Sou Be-Il is in the western hemisphere, are north and south by any chance reversed from Roxche?”
“Hm? I wonder…” Meg fell into thought. Larry explained the joke.
“As if, Lia. The cardinal directions don’t change no matter where you are.”
“Tsk, tsk. Can’t let preconceptions color your judgement like that, Larry,” Natalia said, still feigning seriousness, “for all you know, your compass might start pointing east at some point.”
“Obviously, depending on the place,” Larry replied, to Natalia’s surprise. He brought his teacup to his mouth.
“What?” Natalia raised an eyebrow. “Finally going senile, Larry? Even I know that a compass always points north. That’s primary school stuff.”
Seron replied in place of Larry, who was still drinking his tea.
“Technically, a compass doesn’t point to the geographic North Pole. It points at something called a North Magnetic Pole, which is slightly out of line with 90° north. So if you were to pull out a compass while standing west of the North Magnetic Pole, the compass would point east.”
“Yeah,” Larry nodded, pulling his teacup away, “but that’s not gonna happen unless you’re exploring the North Sea by ship or sled. The difference is practically negligible from the Capital District.”
“World’s a big place,” Natalia groaned, not having expected a lecture in response to a joke.
Jenny grinned, turning to the silent Nick. “I don’t care about the prize money, but this whole club competition angle’s got my attention.”
“I knew you would say that, Jenny,” Nick replied with an elegant smile.
“What do you mean?” Asked Meg.
“Suppose we were to make the top three,” Nick explained, “our names will be known throughout the school, and the newspaper club would gain some much-needed attention as well.”
“I understand!” Meg replied with a clap. Seron watched happily with a blank expression.
“So far, our only issue was the one covering Stella and the gorilla. We could certainly use some more credentials to our name,” Nick suggested. Jenny frowned.
“And who was it that kept ditching club after school last month?”
“Easy there, Jenny,” said Larry, “everyone was busy with rehearsals, and Megmica’s doing double duty with the chorus club. We should be thankful they still managed to drop by once in a while.”
Unable to retort, Jenny held out her empty teacup. Larry picked up the teapot and poured her more tea.
“Hey, I’m doing double duty too,” Natalia complained, but Larry ignored her.
“What do you think, Larry?” Seron asked as Larry poured more tea. The others waited for clarification, but Larry knew what he was talking about.
“It’s not bad at all. It sounds pretty good, actually.”
“There’s no rule saying we can’t go off the trails. It’s looking pretty good.”
“Hey,” Natalia cut in, “speak in Roxchean so the rest of us can understand.”
“All right,” said Seron, getting everyone’s attention, “the notice says we have to visit the checkpoints that are along the trails.”
“Uh-huh.” Natalia nodded.
“I’ve read that real orienteering competitions involve wandering forests and plains with nothing but a map and a compass. It’s an intense activity where every second counts.”
“Exactly,” Larry added, “it was originally developed as a military exercise. And normally, you have to pass the checkpoints in a certain order.”
Seron continued where Larry left off, “trails and walkways were incorporated into the exercise when it was adapted for the general public. According to those rules, you have to stay on the road.”
“I get it,” Jenny nodded, but Seron continued for the others.
“But the rules on the notice have been adapted for our school specifically. We can go to the checkpoints in any order, and there’s no rule saying we can’t go off the trails. In other words—”
Nick spoke up loudly. “I understand. Larry is accustomed to outdoor activities and could easily find the shortest routes that cut through the woods. It would be no problem for him to navigate the wilderness with a compass.”
“I see.” “I understand.” Natalia and Meg nodded in unison. Seron also nodded.
“Yeah, but if we end up losing our bearings we’d have been better off sticking to the trails in the first place. So we need an excellent navigator who knows how to use a compass and read the terrain, unless we want to get lost in the forest.”
“Can you do it, Larry?” Natalia asked, eyes narrowing.
“I can’t guarantee it until I actually look at the map,” Larry said, but determination quickly rose to his face. “But I think I can manage.”
“Oh?” Jenny smiled. “Can you guarantee an overwhelming victory? No one remembers second place, you know. It’s number one or bust.”
All eyes were on Larry. He fell into thought. Then—
“I think so. But no plan is completely foolproof. If another club decides to do the same thing as us, we’ll have to beat them with endurance, knowledge, and luck. Just keep that in mind, yeah?”
“Hm.” Jenny nodded, though she did not seem entirely convinced.
“You’ve gotten so mature, Larry,” Natalia chuckled, “back in primary school you’d have guaranteed victory the second the chief asked. Is Seron rubbing off on you?”
“Maybe. By the way, we have to do this in teams of three.”
“Indeed.” Nick nodded.
“Who wants to team up with me? By the way, I’m calling dibs on Seron.”
“I see.” “Of course.” “Makes sense.” Jenny, Nick, and Natalia nodded.
“Oh my. Why is this so?” Asked Meg. But she quickly realized the answer. “It is because of the quizzes! Now I understand. Then Seron is the perfect mole! I mean, role!”
Larry nodded. Seron, who had flinched at the word ‘mole’, quickly recovered and managed to say, “thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” Meg replied.
Jenny cast a glance at Seron, the happiest student in the room, and asked, “so who’s gonna be member number three?”
“Someone athletic, I suppose?” Nick suggested.
“I’ll pass. I’m too delicate and frail for this,” Natalia said. No one reacted.
“Hm…” Jenny fell into thought, crossing her arms. “All right. President’s orders: Megmica will join Larry’s team.”
“Yes! I may look like this, but it is my specialty to walk! I understand!” Meg replied with a clumsy salute.
For several minutes Seron sat as still as a statue.
But his heart was already galloping through the woods.
* * *
All club activities were suspended for midterm preparation. Then came the midterms themselves. And finally, the 30th day of the tenth month arrived.
“Show ‘em who’s boss,” Natalia said, glasses glinting.
“We have high hopes for you,” Nick joined in.
“Don’t let your guard down for even a second. I don’t need any second place losers in our club,” Jenny warned.
Seron, Larry, and Meg were sitting on the grass. Larry grinned.
“Got it! We’re aiming for gold! I’m more worried about you guys than us, actually.”
“We will take our time,” Nick replied, “really, our team is more here for a light stroll.”
“It’s just a bit of walking,” Natalia added, “even I could do that much. You do remember how to walk, Larry? Just stick out your hands and feet one after the other.”
“Do your best, guys. Don’t worry about us,” Jenny finished.
“Worry, huh.” Larry whispered to her, “don’t overdo it, Jenny.”
Meg tilted her head.
The six members of the newspaper club were all in school-issue sweats, but they were equipped differently.
Larry and Seron were wearing small canvas rucksacks of the same design. Meg was carrying nothing.
Larry wore sturdy military boots with laces, and Seron and Meg ankle-high leather boots.
Larry had advised them earlier, “keeping your feet in good shape is crucial. Buy yourselves some good hiking shoes and thick socks, and break in the shoes before Orienteering Day.”
So they had done as they were told, taking walks in their new shoes to break them in.
Natalia and Nick, meanwhile, were wearing small messenger bags, and Jenny a leather camera bag. The three of them wore plain running shoes.
When the students gathered, the teachers handed out their lunches.
The lunches came in small cardboard boxes, but they were packed enough to be quite heavy.
Each pack also contained a 700-milliliter bottle of juice with snap-top caps that prevented the contents from spilling. The juice came in orange, grape, and other flavors—students were already exchanging bottles amongst themselves.
Lunch included a cheese-ham-and-lettuce sub sandwich, a piece of fried chicken, a small pack of crackers, a small tube of jam, and a chocolate bar. Tissue was also included.
“That’s all? I need more,” Natalia grumbled when she opened the box. But the others knew that she had gorged on snacks on the bus, had filled her bag with more food, and left an extra bag of snacks on the bus labeled with a note saying, ‘If you touch this bag I will beat you to death with a violin bow’, so they showed no reaction.
The students put their lunches into their own bags. But—
“Seron. Megmica. Take out the juice,” Larry said, and received Seron and Meg’s bottles. Then he took them back to the faculty member handing out the lunches.
“Not gonna get thirsty, Larry?” Asked Natalia. Larry put his and Meg’s lunch in his own rucksack.
“We brought our own water bottles. The bottles they gave us are too heavy.”
“I see. But you don’t think that sub sandwich is too heavy for you, Shortie? I can hold on to it for you.”
“I’ll enjoy it once we cross the finish line first,” Larry replied, putting on his rucksack. In his right hand was a compass with a strap wrapped around his right wrist.
The compass was a model used in the military, oiled to perfection so the needle would move smoothly. It had a sturdy brass case and lid. There was a groove through the center of the lid with a wire going through it, used to act as a guide. The compass was also equipped with a miniature magnifying glass for ease of reading.
“Is that your secret weapon, Larry?” Asked Nick. Larry nodded.
“Yeah. It’s from the Confederation Army. I brought it from home. But it’s super expensive—I’d cry if I lost it.”
“As much as if you had lost the watch you wear?”
Larry smiled. “Nah.”
The Whitfield waterproof military whirred smoothly on Larry’s left wrist.
After the break, the students gathered at the edge of the square, at the entrance to the park.
Students of all ages were in attendance, from first-years to sixth-years. There was a visible height difference between the different ages.
For most people, Orienteering Day was simply an opportunity to enjoy nature with their friends. It was more of a picnic than a competition. The physical education teacher yelled into the megaphone, warning students to not shove one another.
They had received most of the instructions about the day’s activities on the bus ride.
Students were permitted to use any tactic that did not involve hindering other teams. Students were free to use compasses and go off the trails if they were confident in their skills. But if they did so, they had to watch out for ponds and streams.
There were no dangerous animals in the park, and because the property was completely fenced in, there was no danger of straying too far.
Teams had to choose one of five courses and go to the checkpoints designated. Park staff would be at the checkpoints to hand out the quizzes, and students had to write down their answers on their answer sheets at the checkpoints. Once they visited all the checkpoints on their route, they would return to the starting point to finish.
Students who decided to give up could return to the starting point as well, or they could report to one of the checkpoints.
The time limit was three hours. At 1PM all students would be forced back to the entrance.
“We’re handing out the maps. Do not open them until I give the signal,” said the teacher.
Each team received one map. The maps had been rolled up and secured with a string.
The faculty finished handing out the maps and answer sheets. The teacher at the front looked at his watch.
“It is currently 10:30AM! The competition begins at 10:40!”
This time, many of the students were wearing watches. Those without wristwatches had pocket watches hanging from their necks, as the school-issue sweats had no pockets.
Larry looked at his watch and rotated the bezel, marked off in minutes, so that the triangle indicator was pointed at the 40-minute mark.
Now he simply had to look at the numbers marked on the bezel to check how much time had passed. There was no need for calculations and no worry about forgetting their starting time.
“Now, we will do our best for the first place!” Meg chirped, her pigtails swishing. “But I need only to do as we planned. I will follow Larry everywhere!”
Seron nodded blankly.
‘Aw, man. He must have wanted to hear that from her,’ Larry inwardly sighed, but he turned to Meg.
“I’ve got this. We’ll stick to the plan.”
“Thirty seconds!” The teacher began counting down. The students stirred. Some reached for their maps, some began doing warm-ups, and some stood in spirited huddles with their teammates.
“Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Begin!”
Nearly a hundred students set off at the signal. With maps open they headed into the trail.
At first, there was a massive bottleneck because everyone was on the same route. The teachers made sure there was no pushing or shoving.
Jenny’s team joined the crowds and set off immediately, as though entering the school gates in the morning.
Larry’s team, meanwhile, did not take a step.
Larry quickly had Seron and Meg hold the map open parallel to the ground. He opened up his compass and had the others turn to match North on the compass with the map.
The other teams hurried past as Larry scrutinized the map.
The map was about 40 centimeters in length and width, and was at a 1/10,000 scale. One centimeter on the map was equivalent to 100 meters.
Marked on the map were trails, woods, ponds, marshes, bogs, streams, clearings, rest stops, and bathrooms. There was a legend on the bottom right corner.
Ponds dotted the landscape, and streams connected them. At the center of the park was a particularly large pond and a marsh. Wide contours marked off gentle slopes.
Trails crisscrossed the map like a maze.
The trails began at the bottom right part of the map, where the starting point was.
At the beginning of the trail was a bridge that went over a stream, followed by a winding path that led to a fork. The trail broke into three at that point and branched out—from dozens to hundreds of meters—and wound and swerved in every direction like the alleys of an old city.
The checkpoints were numbered and marked out on the map with cute, stylized animal drawings. A rabbit, a bear, a fox, a deer, and a squirrel. They were all clearly colored differently as well.
“They are very adorable,” Meg remarked.
“Yeah. The game’s been adapted so even kids straight out of primary school can enjoy it,” Seron pointed out.
Larry counted the checkpoints. There were six per course.
It was difficult to tell with just the map how to break through the shortest possible route.
“Hm…” Larry groaned.
“It’s more complicated than I expected,” Seron commented. Larry nodded.
“Yeah. But this might work to our advantage.”
Meg looked up. The other students were already disappearing, those in the lead already crossing the bridge and making a turn. Their school sweats painted a uniform color along the walkways.
Larry had declared earlier that they would confirm their route ahead of time to avoid the chaos at the starting line. And yet Meg still cast him a nervous glance.
With his short blond hair glinting, Larry stared at the map. At times he ran his finger over the routes.
Three minutes passed. Only the faculty were left on the grass. Some gave them worried looks, and others realized what they were doing and waited with anticipation.
Finally, Larry reached into Seron’s rucksack and took out a crayon wrapped in cloth to keep it from breaking. It was pink—there was nothing marked in pink on the map.
Larry put his left hand under the map as he drew their route.
He had chosen the ‘rabbit’ course.
The route entailed passing through the rabbit checkpoints. Larry’s pink line followed the trail to a certain point, but it cut straight through plains and woods where the trails took the long way around. The lines naturally avoided all ponds and wide streams.
The pink line went through all the checkpoints efficiently, finally returning to the starting line along the trail.
Larry finished mapping their route and checked one more time to see that they had not missed a checkpoint.
“All right! I think this is it!” He looked up, and put away the crayon. “Seron. Megmica.”
Larry looked at his two teammates, who were still holding up the map.
“Will you trust me?”
“Of course.” “Of course.” Seron and Meg replied almost simultaneously.
As the teachers waved, Larry’s team headed for the trail.
“We don’t have to run—a fast walking pace is fine. This is closer to a marathon than a sprint,” Larry instructed. Seron and Meg lined up behind him as they briskly covered ground.
Just outside the square was a plain and a stream about two meters wide. They crossed the wooden bridge over the stream and turned right, following it for a time.
The stream was deep for its width, with water so clear the small fish inside were clearly visible.
“These fish remind me of my hometown. When I was young, we lived in a place in Sou Be-Il with many of these rivers! Around us was a large field. It was a place where much wheats could be harvested,” Meg remarked.
“I’d love to hear more about your hometown one day with the rest of the club, Megmica. Right, Seron?”
“Then I will tell you very much!”
Ahead of them, between the trail and the stream, stood a rod.
The rod was about 10 centimeters in diameter and six meters long, the colors alternating between red and white every 30 centimeters. A small metal ring was attached to the top.
The rod was sticking out of a metal cylinder fixed to the ground. Meg stopped before it.
“What is this stick?” She asked.
“Hm. I’m not sure,” Seron replied, taking a good look.
“I think it’s a marker,” Larry said.
“What does it indicate?” Asked Seron. But Larry did not give him the answer.
“All right. Pop quiz. Look around you.”
Seron and Meg looked around.
The rod was stuck at a point where the trail turned left and diverged from the stream. About 20 meters along the way, the trail disappeared into a deep forest.
“I think I got it,” said Seron.
“It is surrender,” Meg sighed.
“All right, I’ll explain. Think about it from the perspective of someone who’s walking from the forest, towards us. And imagine it’s raining or snowing really hard, hindering visibility. What would happen if the person missed the turn and kept going straight ahead?”
“Ah!” Meg’s eyes widened. “He would sink! The river is very low. In the winter, his life may be in danger!”
“Exactly. The rod is like a sign saying that there’s a stream ahead. The park staff probably hang a flag or a lantern from the rod when the weather calls for it.”
Seron reached out and grabbed the rod.
The rod had not been secured to the cylinder, likely to make it easier to retrieve. Seron pulled out the rod slightly and put it back again.
“I understand. How interesting.”
“Yeah. I don’t think anyone’s gonna need it in today’s weather, though.”
“Of course. But I am certain that with this, I can have very much fun,” Meg chuckled.
Seron and Larry did not understand, but Meg continued.
“Let us go!”
They resumed their walk.
Larry’s team continued down the trail and entered the woods.
Only one turn later, they found themselves deep in the forest with neither the stream nor the square in sight. The chirping of birds punctuated the ambience.
“If now I cover my eyes and spin around and around,” Meg said, “I will probably not know where I have to go to find the square.”
“No worries. That’s what the map and the compass are for,” Larry said. He was holding the map in his left hand.
The edge closest to Larry had been rolled up, and the opposite edge was hanging from his hand. Larry had been keeping his thumb on their current position since departing the starting line, slowly making progress.
He also made certain to correct his bearings in line with the terrain around them.
Whenever they made a turn, he rotated the map accordingly. He also checked the compass in his right hand on occasion to check that he was going the right way. Larry paid special attention to places where their route split.
Larry made it all look easy.
“You’re incredible, Larry,” Seron said.
“Thanks, man. I have been doing this for a while, y’know. —We’re gonna go straight down this way for a bit. There won’t be any forks until we see a stream to our right, so I’m gonna put away the map. Gotta take it easy when you can.”
Larry put the compass in Seron’s rucksack and carefully rolled up the map in his left hand. Then he checked the time.
Instead of wooden planks, the trail here was paved with wood chips. The ground was soft and easy to walk on. Larry, Seron, and Meg walked side-by-side.
Ahead, they spotted other students.
“Where are we?”
“Hm…I remember we made a right turn, and…”
“You sure it wasn’t a left? This is the starting line, so we turned left and ended up here!”
Three junior-classmen, a trio of girls, were debating their position with the map between them. None of them sounded the least bit anxious.
“This is the way away from the entrance! We’ll know once we get to the checkpoint. C’mon!” One of the girls said just as Larry’s team passed by. The girls all rose to their feet and headed in the direction of the entrance.
“…That way seems like the opposite way. Am I remembering wrongly?” Meg asked, glancing back.
“Yeah, but it’s all right. As long as they’re having fun,” Larry said with a chuckle, “it’s just a game. Even getting lost in the woods will be a good memory to them. Not even the school considers this a real competition, I bet.”
“Do you really think so?” Meg wondered. Larry was about to respond, but stopped himself and gestured to Seron instead.
“Yeah. I think today’s more of a chance for city kids to get a taste of nature. Most people probably think getting first place here’s just a nice bonus. People aiming for the top like us are probably the exceptions.”
“Right!” Larry nodded.
“I see. I understand.”
“Let’s just hope we’re the only weirdos who think of this as a competition,” Seron said with a smile.
“Yeah,” Larry agreed.
Meg also put on a smile in response. “Yes! It certainly is a lovely place. It is the perfect weather for walking!”
“I wish we could do this every month,” Seron whispered to himself.
* * *
Seron, Meg, and Larry continued briskly down the the trail, encountering other students on occasion.
They had stopped speaking some time ago, but neither Seron nor Meg tried to break the silence.
So Larry was forced to do it himself.
“By the way, about Jenny.”
“Yeah?” “Yes?” Seron and Meg responded, slightly surprised.
Larry hesitated, but decided to speak. “I guess it couldn’t hurt,” he mumbled. “I think she had another reason for putting you in our team, Megmica. She kind of let it slip during midterm season when we had a chance to talk.”
“Oh?” “What is the reason?”
“She says she wants to dig up Lia and Nick’s secrets.”
“Pardon? Their secrets?”
“What does that mean, Larry?”
“Basically,” Larry said, “she’s never really spent a lot of time alone with those two.”
“Now that you say it, that is true.” “Yeah.” Meg and Seron nodded.
“She says, and I quote: ‘The nose knows! Nat and Nick are hiding some juicy secrets’.”
“Hm…Natalia is very good at playing any instrument. She can play a piano and a flute.”
“Nick is a monster with the staff, though you couldn’t tell from the way he usually acts.”
Meg and Seron each gave suggestions.
“Yeah. Nick really surprised me with how good he was,” Larry said, “I think that’s what got Jenfie started. She’s probably assuming they have more secrets to spill or something,” he sighed, not even trying to hide his disbelief.
“I understand,” said Meg, “so that is why I was placed in here and those three people became the same team.”
Larry nodded. “I would have done the same if I were in Jenny’s shoes. It was either you or Nick on this team. But she probably put you here because she wants to dig up Lia and Nick’s secrets. I bet her team’s not even bothering with the checkpoints. They’re probably sitting around snacking on a bench somewhere, with Jenny grilling the others.”
“I see…” Meg trailed off, but she resumed. “But! But, Natalia is the same inside and outside, and she does not have one thing to hide. She came to visit at my house, and she was the same when we two were alone.”
Larry nodded firmly. “Yeah. Lia’s been that way all her life. She was born with that crazy personality. Which is what I told Jenny, but…”
Seron chimed in. “Nick, too. The only thing you’d call a secret is his skill and experience with the staff—it’s a surprising secret, but not a particularly deep one.”
“Yeah. It was definitely a shock, though,” Larry agreed.
“Yes, it was,” Meg did as well. Seron continued.
“His vocabulary, his feminine looks—that’s just who he is. That’s the impression I got taking classes with him, and my impression hasn’t changed since.”
“Yeah,” Larry added, “I think those two know themselves really well, and know what they want. They’re completely sure of themselves.”
“Oh! That is a very cool Roxchean phrase, Larry. You want to say that where a person is now is important, I see,” Meg exclaimed.
“Huh? Oh. Thanks,” Larry said, casting Seron a glance.
“Yeah. That’s about all with Nat and Nick,” Seron said, not a hint of jealousy in sight.
Larry breathed a sigh of relief and continued. “I’m more curious about why Jenny’s so convinced they’re hiding things. She’s probably wasting her breath right about now, trying to get them to spill their nonexistent secrets.”
“I see…in a Roxchean expression, Jenny is barking up the wrong tree,” Meg noted.
“If only that were all…” “Yeah.”
“Hm?” Meg intoned. “What does this mean?”
Seron replied, “it means she might end up a mummified grave robber.”
“A mummified…? Do you mean the mummies? Jenny will become a mummy, you mean? She will dry and die? That is terrible! We must save her quickly!” Meg panicked, but Seron calmed her down.
“Don’t worry, it’s just a figure of speech. There’s an old story about how a grave robber broke into a tomb to find a medicine the mummy was buried with, but he died in the tomb and became a mummy himself. It’s when you try to make someone else do something, only to end up doing it yourself. So…”
Larry picked up where Seron left off. “Jenny’s gonna try to dig up their nonexistent secrets, but they’ll turn it around and—”
“And Jenny will tell her secrets to them without her thinking?”
“More or less,” Larry replied.
“Yeah. It seems to me like Jenny’s the one trying to hide something. That’s generally how it goes. The more secrets you have, the more of an appetite you have for other people’s secrets,” Seron said.
“Oh! That Roxchean expression is very cool too, Seron.”
Seron lost himself in expressionless bliss, and Larry breathed a sigh of relief at the sight.
“Then,” Meg continued, “to example, Jenny can tell the secret of the princess photograph she showed to us during the summer camp?” Her eyes began to twinkle. “Wh-what will happen?”
Meg seemed to feel a mix of pity and excitement, mostly the latter.
“I wonder…” “I wonder…” The boys replied, trying not to let their curiosity show too much.
“Oh? You do not wish to know, Seron and Larry? Jenny’s secret.” Meg asked, as though having read their mind.
“Look, a pond.” “Look, a pond.”
* * *
As the students wandered in search of the next checkpoint, three in their midst went against the flow.
“Nice weather. Snacks are great whenever, but today’s perfect for snacking.”
“It certainly is lovely. I do not feel sleepy at all, but today is perfect for a long nap in the sun.”
“Yeah. I’m not much of a nature photographer, but it’s perfect for taking snapshots.”
Natalia, Jenny, and Nick sat on a bench by a marsh not too far from the starting line.
The peaceful water reflected the clear blue sky, with leaves poking out of the surface and delicate ripples left in the wake of passing waterfowl.
“I suppose the others must be braving uncharted terrain as we speak,” Nick remarked, looking up at the sky.
“I’mma put Larry on tea duty if he screws up this one,” Natalia snickered, putting a large piece of chocolate in her mouth.
“I believe he is already fulfilling that function,” Nick pointed out, but Natalia pretended to not have known.
“By the way, you two—or, maybe just Nat this time,” Jenny said, turning.
“What’s up? If you wanna know how to get taller, all I can tell you is to not be a picky eater.”
“No, no. I was actually curious about Larry.”
“Oh?” Natalia grinned, pleasantly surprised. “So what kinda dirt you want? I can tell you anything! We’ve got plenty of time.”
“Thanks,” Jenny replied brusquely, then grinned to herself.
Natalia also grinned, but did not let Jenny see.
“All right, so how long’ve you known him?”
“What was it now…I must’ve been five or something, so something like 10 years. My family moved into the empty place next to the Hepburns.”
“My folks sold the house when I was in fourth year at primary school saying we didn’t need such a big house since they were away at concerts all the time. I liked the old place. There was this big gingko tree that turned bright yellow in autumn. It kinda stank this time of year, but I didn’t mind,” Natalia reminisced.
Pleased with the flow of information, Jenny moved on to the next question. “What was he like back then? I get you were childhood friends, but what did you do together? I can’t really picture anything.”
“What did we do? We did kid stuff. Fooling around without caring about being a girl or a boy. I think we were close. Oh, and he used to be a big crybaby.”
“I see, I see. So how’d you make him cry?”
“Was it that obvious? Well, I did a lot of stuff.”
“A lot of stuff. I’m sure you can think of something, right? You must’ve made a lot of boys cry yourself when you were in second year of primary school or so. What were your favorite strategies?” Natalia asked. Nick, meanwhile, was giving a smile and a wave to a passing girl.
And even after the girl disappeared, the smile did not fade. Nick listened discreetly, focusing his senses on the conversation to his left.
“Me? I wouldn’t know. I didn’t talk with boys at that age,” Jenny replied.
“Huh? You missed out, chief. Making boys cry is a girl’s privilege in primary school.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh. So did they make you cry instead? That’s surprising,” Natalia raised an eyebrow. Jenny had no choice but to answer.
“No. There just weren’t any boys in my school.”
“Huh? I thought most primary schools were co-ed. Did you go to a religious school, chief?” Natalia gasped, waving her hands dramatically.
“Then where’d you go? Or don’t tell me…you couldn’t afford to go, could you! I’m so sorry, chief…your family was broke, wasn’t it? You couldn’t pay the tuition…I’m sorry,” Natalia apologized with a straight face to the heiress to Roxche’s largest car company.
“Obviously, no,” Jenny sighed, “I did go to primary school.”
“Halsey Women’s University Primary School.”
Halsey was the most famous private women’s university in Roxche, also infamous for its difficult admissions requirements.
“Whoa! That’s a real fancy lady school!” Natalia exclaimed, her shock for once genuine. She leaned in close to Jenny as though zooming. “You serious, chief?”
Jenny nodded almost imperceptibly. Nick joined the conversation from her right.
“Then why not continue on to Halsey Women’s University Secondary School? As I recall, Halsey’s affiliated institutions range from kindergarten to university.”
Nick had a point. “Yeah, but…” Jenny trailed off.
Natalia and Nick saw a rare shadow of doubt in Jenny’s eyes and decided to refrain from prying for all of zero milliseconds. They leapt like predators locked on to their prey.
“What a waste! You beat the odds and made it into that fancy primary school, and you could have gone all the way to their exclusive secondary school too. Ours isn’t bad, but I’d have stayed if I were you.”
“I must agree,” Nick joined in with support fire, “but I suppose people all have their reasons, as you must have had, Jenny. And thanks to your decision, we met and befriended you, do club activities together, and even share our pasts with one another.”
Specifically, Jenny was the only one sharing her past, but Natalia caught Nick’s pass and continued their team effort.
“Yeah! You could even call this destiny, chief. We were fated to meet! I bet you must be happy to do club stuff with us and publish newspapers—er, a newspaper with us, eh?”
“Personally, I am overjoyed!” Nick exclaimed, “the best thing about secondary school is that academics are far from all it has to offer, do you not agree?”
“Exactly, Nick. Exactly. Don’t you think so too, chief?”
Natalia and Nick were on a roll. Jenny was being dragged along.
“Chief! That’s all the more reason why you should tell us what brought you here! Oh, but I guess it’s not fair if you’re the only one talking. Then we’ll all share. I’ll go first,” Natalia rambled without giving Jenny a chance to speak. She was enjoying herself immensely. “The truth is…I applied to this school because…”
A spark of excitement rose to Jenny’s eye. She prepared for the moment Natalia began to pour out her heart.
“…Because it was closest to my house. Ten minutes on foot.”
Jenny deflated instantly.
Her explanation finished, Natalia cast a glance over Jenny’s head to her right.
“All right. You, Nick?”
“In my case, I live at about the halfway point between our school and the 3rd Capital Secondary School. In fact, the latter may technically be closer to my residence.”
“So what made you pick our school?”
“I wanted to avoid the 3rd Capital Secondary School, as my sisters had been attending at the time.”
“Interesting…so is there something between you and them that made you avoid their school?” Jenny probed, sensing hints of a secret with Nick’s sisters.
“Not at all. They’re both lovely and admirable. I simply thought it would be more interesting to attend a different school.”
Again, Jenny deflated.
“Huh? No reason.”
“Really?” “Truly?” Natalia and Nick asked at the same time.
“It wasn’t anything big.”
“Oh? Then tell us.”
“I said it’s nothing big.”
“I’d love to know why you went from the best girls’ school in Roxche to a normal secondary school even if there’s no big juicy piece of gossip behind it. C’mon, chief.”
“It was just a change of pace,” Jenny spat.
“I see, I see,” Natalia said, nodding repeatedly. She put her right arm on Jenny’s shoulder. “I think I get the picture.”
“Yeah? Good to hear,” Jenny said, looking slightly relieved under Natalia’s arm. But—
“Yeah. It’s definitely more fun with some boys around. You could even get a boyfriend!”
Angry creases formed on Jenny’s brow. “Hey! Where’d that come from?!”
“Oh? Was I wrong?”
“But what else could it be? The only difference between a girls’ school and a co-ed one is the stink of men.”
Nick chuckled bitterly at the comment, but Natalia continued.
“As a fellow girl, I can see how having boys around could make things fun. Mhm.”
“Hmph!” Jenny snorted, shaking Natalia’s arm off her shoulder. “I said that wasn’t the reason! I applied to a co-ed school because there’s boys around, but not because I wanted to get a boyfriend!”
“Then you don’t want one?”
“No! I’m not gonna date anybody!”
“Aww, but you’re wasting away your youth. Are you gonna start dating in university?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“If you want to find a decent man, you gotta start early. Don’t you think?”
“That doesn’t mean I have to get a boyfriend.”
The girl talk continued without giving Nick a chance to intervene.
But he did not seem to mind, looking up at the sky with an elegant smile.
* * *
Larry was in the woods.
Cedars as thick as a grown man stood in orderly rows, their branches overlapping and obscuring his line of sight.
Larry stood in the woods, the compass in his right hand open and held at eye-level. Larry peered through the lens in the lid to pinpoint his next heading.
When he found the angle the compass indicated, he pinpointed a tree that happened to overlap with the wire fitted into the lid.
Larry shut the compass and began to walk, striding across the grass. He took one firm step after another, never once breaking into a run.
Seron and Meg followed about 10 meters behind.
“He’s checking our heading by using nearby features as landmarks, since we can’t see too far in here,” Seron explained, “in this case, Larry’s picked that tree as the landmark. He’ll try to keep walking without losing sight of it. Once we get there he’ll check the compass again and find us the next landmark.”
“If he does do this, we can walk straightly in the forest. I understand. It is very wise,” Meg said with a nod. Then she added, “but it is very bad news if he chooses the wrong direction.”
“Yeah,” Seron replied.
The team had already cleared two checkpoints and left the trail again, taking the fastest route towards the next checkpoint.
This route forced them through the woods all the way to their next destination. There were no hills or streams marked, but the next checkpoint was hundreds of meters away.
If they failed to continue in a straight line, even when they returned to the trail they would not know whether to head left or right. They would be completely lost.
Larry stopped and looked at the compass again. Seron and Meg stopped as well.
“So he’s using a really clever strategy to make sure we’ll be all right,” Seron whispered, so as to not disturb Larry.
“Oh? What is the strategy?”
Larry began to walk again. Seron and Meg followed.
“Right now, we’re not actually walking straight to the next checkpoint,” Seron explained, “because if we were, and we happened to get lost, we wouldn’t know if we’d strayed too far to the left or the right. Does that make sense so far?”
“Yes, it does.”
“So Larry’s leading us to a point on the trail about 200 meters to the left of the checkpoint. Which means—”
Meg clapped her hands triumphantly, as though she had solved a riddle. “I understand! When we come to the trail, we will not wander. We will turn right! Even if our direction is a little wrong, it will not be severely wrong.”
“Yeah. Exactly,” Seron replied, his gaze locked on Meg’s smile.
“Knowing more and more makes it more and more fun!”
“I’m glad to hear that. I once read a book that said women can’t conceptualize maps very well, but I guess it must have been wrong.”
“The good thing about you, Seron, is that you are smart but you never think your knowledge is always right!”
“You’re very welcome. Thank you for explaining this to me.”
They stopped, facing one another—
“Huh?! WHOA!” Larry cried.
Seron and Meg also looked ahead.
“Hm?” “Oh my!”
They spotted another group of students.
* * *
“Your parents’d be happier if you brought home your future husband sooner than later,” Natalia remarked, crossing her legs.
“Sure, I guess.”
Jenny sat next to her, sitting cross-legged.
Next to Jenny sat Nick, quietly sipping orange juice without joining the conversation.
“Right? Better grab one early. Gotta find Mr. Right and put your name on him before anyone else does. Or else you’ll end up an old maid before you know it.”
Just as Natalia insinuated, most women in Roxche married in their early twenties. It was the same for the upper classes, who went from secondary school to university, and for the working classes, who went into the workforce.
Many students would begin dating in secondary school, populated by others of similar backgrounds, and marry while in university or upon graduation. It was not uncommon to marry as soon as one entered university, either.
Because it was very likely that one would go on to marry a boyfriend or girlfriend from secondary school, the school hosted a dance party every year in the fourth month to give students an opportunity to socialize and find their match.
“Your parents would’ve set up someone for you if you’d stayed in the girls’ school. Isn’t that why you came here?” Natalia asked, “that’s all my music-focused brain can come up with.”
“Does it even matter?” Jenny replied, trying to avoid the issue.
“Yeah. You’re the only one who hasn’t talked. C’mon, I keep secrets. Not Larry’s, though. In second year of primary school he tried to show off on the horizontal bars and fell off. His nosebleed was so bad it completely soaked his gym uniform. I’ve got plenty more secrets to share, if you wanna trade for it.”
“Why are you doing this?” Jenny demanded, looking up at Natalia.
“Why else? I wanna get to know you more and be better friends with you,” Natalia replied. Jenny smirked.
“All right. I guess it’s true I wanted a freer life here. Girls’ schools are a lot more restrictive.”
“See? It’s good to be free. So what happened to bring you to a co-ed school? Did something happen to you when you were 12 years old?”
“You gotta tell us what this stuff is, Jenny. I get the feeling it’s something really surprising. C’mon, tell us. I promise I’ll go, ‘oh my goodness!’ every once in a while.”
* * *
“Oh my goodness!” Meg exclaimed. She understood what was happening the moment she spotted the other students. “Other people are doing the same thing other than us!”
About 50 meters in the distance were three people in school-issue sweats.
The tallest of the three was a boy with brown hair. He was accompanied by a bespectacled boy with auburn hair, and a girl with black hair a little longer than Jenny’s. From their builds they were likely all senior-classmen.
The tall boy at the front was holding a compass much like Larry’s.
All three students wore sturdy boots, and wore rucksacks about twice the size of Larry’s. They could probably use the rucksacks to go on an extended camping trip. The rucksacks sagged with weight, clearly stuffed full of heavy objects.
The students in the distance were also holding sturdy oaken walking sticks, one in each hand. Each stick was stuck several centimeters into the ground.
The team in the distance spotted Larry’s team, and stopped in surprise.
“Huh. I’ve never seen that guy in any of my military sciences classes. They don’t give navigation training in any other courses or clubs, though…” Larry whispered.
“They’re serious about this competition too,” Seron remarked.
“Yeah.” Larry nodded. “Three hundred and fifty, Seron.”
Meg tilted her head. Seron answered the unspoken question.
“That’s the distance we’ve covered since the last checkpoint. Larry’s been keeping track with his strides. He told me because it’s better to have more people remember.”
“I understand. Three hundred and fifty meters. I have memorized this too.”
The other team came to a stop when they were close enough to hold a conversation.
“Hey there! How’s it going?” The tall boy asked Larry with an affable smile.
“Good morning. We’re enjoying ourselves,” Larry replied, also coming to a stop.
The name ‘Wilkinson’ was embroidered onto the tall boy’s jacket.
“I’m surprised we weren’t the only team playing to win,” Wilkinson admitted, “I guess you probably thought the same, huh. We’re from the ski club! I’m Wilkinson, the club president.”
“I see. No wonder he could navigate. It completely slipped my mind,” Larry whispered bitterly.
“Why was it so?” Meg asked quietly.
“There’s a variation on orienteering called ski-orienteering. It’s basically the same as the regular game, except with skis. They’re using ski poles to make it easier to walk.”
Meg and Seron nodded.
“That’s right,” Wilkinson said, “I expected no less from a Hepburn. I remember seeing your brother at school a few years back.”
“Thank you, SC Wilkinson,” Larry replied, glad that he did not have to spend the extra time to introduce himself.
“By the way, I didn’t know there was a military sciences club at school,” Wilkinson mused curiously.
“Actually, we’re from the newspaper club,” Larry replied.
Wilkinson let go of his pole and put a thoughtful hand on his chin.
“Ah. I heard the newspaper club found a supervisor and received official status recently.”
“Yes. I’m surprised you knew.”
“But you don’t seem to have a lot of members yet.”
“Yes. I’m surprised you knew.”
“So you’re planning to win this competition and make your name known to the entire school.”
“Yes. I…I’m surprised you know all that, SC Wilkinson.”
“Of course! How could I not?” Wilkinson declared proudly, to Larry, Seron, and Meg’s confusion. “Because that’s what we’re doing!”
“Ah, I see.” “Hm. “I understand.”
“The ski club’s been around since the school was founded, and at one point we were so popular we had to limit applications. But now we’re down to only 16 members!”
“It’s still a lot more than our six,” Larry pointed out, trying to cheer up Wilkinson. But—
“And we’re the only active members.”
“Oh. That’s a bit of a downer. I can see why you’re having a hard time.”
“And us three are all in sixth year. What do you think will happen after we graduate next year?”
“I’m not sure,” Larry lied, the obvious answer being that the club would cease to exist.
“That’s why we’re going to win and make sure the whole school knows about the ski club and its long history!”
“So you understand what I’m trying to say?”
“We’re aiming for the top! You guys have guts, I admit, but you can’t beat us! Give up and enjoy your picnic. That’s all I have to say! Bye!” Wilkinson finished, and the ski club sped off.
They rushed into the distance with Wilkinson in the lead, poles piercing the ground as they went in a straight line slightly out of line with Larry’s heading.
Soon, they disappeared completely.
For some time, Larry and the others stared without a word.
“Hm…this is gonna be tough. We can’t beat ‘em for speed and endurance,” Larry groaned.
“The powerful rivals appeared. We might not be able to win,” Meg sighed.
But Seron alone seemed undaunted.
“You never know unless you try. We’ll keep going at our own pace, Larry.”
* * *
Just as Larry’s team resumed walking—
“C’mon, please? Chief.”
“Stop clinging. You’re acting like a drunk, you know that?”
Natalia was entangling herself with Jenny, who successfully pushed her away in spite of their size difference.
“It’s nothing interesting.”
“But I wanna know! Please, Jenny!”
“Like I said…”
“Me and Nicholas already told you our stories! You have to tell us yours!”
“You can admit you wanted to meet some boys, chief! I just want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth!”
“I told you that’s not it! It’s more complicated.”
“Oh? How so?”
“It’s nothing interesting.”
“In what way?”
“Oh? How so?”
Listening to the conversation to his left, Nick peered through the small binoculars he had brought.
“Ah, a mallard. Looks scrumptious.”
* * *
Larry’s team left the woods and made it onto the trail.
A trio of girls screamed when the team seemingly materialized out of nowhere, but Larry turned right without a moment’s hesitation. Seron and Meg followed.
With the map in his left hand, Larry put his thumb on the spot he supposed was their current location. He checked their coordinates against the bend in the trail and the compass.
“We’re on the right track.”
A short walk past the bend later, they spotted the checkpoint.
It all went according to Larry’s plan.
There was a table at the checkpoint with a staff member sitting behind it.
A flag was set up at the checkpoint, adorned with a stylized rabbit to show that the checkpoint was for those on the rabbit course. It was numbered ‘4’.
Three teams—nine students—were gathered at the checkpoint.
“You’re amazing, Larry,” Seron said.
“Oh! It is the people from before!” Meg cried.
Wilkinson and the ski club members were already at the checkpoint, scrutinizing a piece of paper together. Their large rucksacks and poles were on the ground beside them.
“So they’re on this course too. But they’re taking a different route…” Larry sighed. He feared that the ski club had found a more efficient route than his.
“Don’t worry about them,” Seron reassured him with a pat on the shoulder. “We’ve still got a chance. My guess was right.”
“What do you mean?” “What do you mean?” Larry and Meg asked in unison.
The ski club members were still staring a hole into their paper. The girl crouched down and took out a book from one of the rucksacks—a thick encyclopedia. They began to rapidly rifle through the pages.
The ski club noticed Larry’s team draw near. They ground their teeth and quickly returned to their encyclopedia.
“What in the world has happened?” Asked Meg. Seron answered by flashing their answer sheet—marked with the name of their course—to the checkpoint staff and receiving the question sheet.
The question sheet contained this checkpoint’s quiz. Students had to write down their answers at the checkpoint, and their answers would be graded after they crossed the finish line. Wrong answers resulted in massive penalties, so getting a perfect score on the quiz was absolutely essential to victory.
Seron showed the question sheet to Larry and Meg.
Quiz (Social Sciences)
Which of the below is NOT a reason that the Roxcheanuk Confederation’s Special Capital District was chosen to be built where it is today?
1. Because it was far from the Lutoni River (the border between East and West).
2. Because it was far from the coast and transportation by sea was easier than by canal.
3. Because of its temperate climate and low snowfall.
4. Because the area’s canal and rail infrastructure was well-developed.
5. Because it was on the borders of multiple countries, letting it be a region independent of any Roxchean member state.
Seron received a colored pencil from the staff member. Each checkpoint had a differently-colored pencil to prevent cheating.
Seron wrote ‘4’ on their answer sheet and returned the colored pencil. Then, unusually for him, he slapped Larry on the back and raised his voice.
“All right, we’re off to the next checkpoint! Lead the way, Larry!”
“Agh!” The ski team shot Seron a murderous glare, but they quickly returned to their encyclopedia.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Larry asked.
“Can they not solve their question well?” Meg wondered.
“They wouldn’t have brought the encyclopedia if they could,” Seron concluded.
Larry followed the crayon-marked route he had plotted on the map and began to walk. “You think they really brought a whole encyclopedia set with them? That’s pretty stupid.”
“They’re trying to make up for their weaknesses in any way they can. I don’t think it’s such a stupid idea. Although now we don’t have a massive advantage over them.”
“You’re right. —Sorry, ski club. I’m sure you didn’t need an idiot like me to call you stupid. Do your best,” Larry apologized quietly, as the ski club anxiously watched them depart.
“I understand. That was your plan, Seron! Endurance and speed, the ski team has it, but our team has you, who loves books!” Meg cheered.
Seron nodded. “Yeah. It’s gonna be a close one.”
About five minutes after Larry’s team had left—
“Ah! Railroads didn’t exist when the Capital District was formed!” Wilkins exclaimed, his voice resounding across the checkpoint.
“Four, huh.” “Four.”
The other students learned the answer as well.
* * *
“It’s nothing interesting.”
Jenny and Natalia’s back-and-forth showed no sign of ending.
“I just don’t get how our clever, intelligent chief would make a life-changing decision for no reason whatsoever.”
“Thanks for the compliments, but I’m just gonna ignore the rest of that.”
“Aw, don’t be like that, chief. Hey, are you feeling thirsty at all? Here. It’s on me,” Natalia said, offering a bottle from her own lunchbox. It was bottled grape juice.
Jenny took the bottle, opened the lid, and downed half its contents in one go.
“Not bad. You a heavy drinker?”
“This is juice,” Jenny sighed, but she seemed to recall something and giggled. “But a friend of mine once got drunk on wine.”
“Oh? How did that happen?”
“She found some freshly-made wine but thought it was juice. Downed an entire glass and got knocked out. Heh.”
“Yeah, freshly-made stuff’s easy to drink, though I’ve never tried myself. So the grape juice brought back that memory, eh chief? How do you feel? Tingly? Tipsy at all?”
“I guess it’s not something I need to be drunk to talk about…since it turned out all right, I guess.”
“What are you saying, chief?”
“And it’s not something I need to hide until I’m old enough to actually drink…”
Natalia gazed into Jenny’s profiled face, completely lost.
Jenny looked up. Their eyes met.
Natalia spotted the glint of amusement and abandon in Jenny’s gaze.
“So now you’re ready to talk! C’mon, it’s time to expose your secret!” Natalia declared dramatically.
Jenny grinned. “Like I said, it’s nothing interesting. Prepare for the disappointment of your life.”
And Nick, who had been silent as a stone for some time, finally spoke up with an elegant smile. “I am quite curious as well.”
* * *
“Not bad, newspaper club! I admit we underestimated you, but we are not going to lose! I swear!”
Wilkinson and the ski club rushed past Larry’s team at a brisk pace. Their poled drummed against the wooden plank walkway.
The ski team members were sweating heavily, their bags heaving.
“They’re trying so hard,” Larry remarked, not shedding a drop of sweat. He glanced at the map and his watch. “We’re almost there.”
“To the fifth checkpoint, yes? That is that, and now we are finally overtaken. It is truly a very good challenge,” said Meg, her eyes brimming with spirit.
Since the third checkpoint, they had left the trails several times and crossed the uncultivated woods. The team beat the ski club to the fourth checkpoint.
Seron solved the question with ease, and immediately the team started again, crossing the woods again and following the trail to the fifth checkpoint.
The ski club passed them just before they reached the fifth checkpoint, which was visible just ahead. The rabbit flag was displayed clearly next to it.
Wilkinson and the others were already there, desperately flipping through pages of their encyclopedia to find the answer. At times they wiped the sweat off their brows with their sleeves.
Seron received the question sheet and took four seconds to read through it.
Then he showed it to Meg.
“Hm?” Meg read the question and smiled radiantly. “It is this one! I am certain! It was very easy!” She cried, pointing out the answer immediately. Seron nodded firmly.
“I think so too!” He made a point of declaring loudly, and wrote their answer and showed it to the staff member at the checkpoint.
“Urgh…” “Dammit…” “Hmm…”
The ski club’s anger was palpable.
“All right! On to the final checkpoint!” Larry cried, doing his utmost to rattle the ski club.
“Yes! Heave-ho!” Meg showed no mercy as well.
Larry’s team set off again.
“Urgh…damn that girl…” The lone girl on the ski club ground her teeth, watching the newspaper club depart. Her teeth were about to crack.
“Calm down. We’re not out of the running yet,” Wilkinson said cooly. “They’re probably taking the same route as us. And remember, the last checkpoint is far from the finish line. They can’t beat us in endurance, right?”
“So we have to calm down and make sure we get these answers right. ‘What is the full name of the Sou Be-Il soldier who stumbled upon the historic mural that ended the war between East and West in 3287?’ I think it’s number 2, ‘Carr Benjamin’.”
“Me too!” “Yes!”
Wilkinson nodded firmly. And—
“But let’s look it up, just in case!”
* * *
“I was raised like a real lady. Sheltered and spoiled like a little princess. I didn’t think it was weird, though. I liked being treated that way,” Jenny Jones began, bottle of grape juice in one hand and her legs crossed, her shoes on the ground.
“Nobody at this school’d believe you. But I do, cause I saw that photo,” said Natalia.
The photo was one of Jenny at the age of 12, dressed up like a doll in a fancy winter coat.
“Indeed,” Nick agreed.
“Then you wouldn’t have believed me if you hadn’t seen it?”
“Nuh-uh.” “Likely not.”
Jenny puffed up her cheeks. “So it really was that shocking a photo, huh. Anyway.”
“But I prefer you now, chief,” Natalia commented. Jenny turned.
“Heh. You’re just saying that.”
“Nah, I’m kind of being honest. You look better now.”
“Thanks. I didn’t mind the long hair and the fancy outfits, though. My parents were strict but nice, and the servants and the maids and everyone around me was good to me. They were all such good people,” Jenny said, looking up at the sky, “and they still are.”
Then she looked down.
“I know,” Natalia reassured her. “So why the haircut?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Jenny retorted immediately.
Natalia and Nick looked at her.
Two sets of eyes fell on Jenny. She looked around, meeting their eyes one after another. “What? You look like you’ve just seen an extraterrestrial or something.”
“Chief…” Natalia trailed off in a half-sob. “It must have been so hard on you… It’s all right, you don’t have to force yourself to tell…”
Nick also put on a sad look. “I suppose we’ll be better off leaving this particular story untold.”
“Hey! You guys are the ones who wanted to hear this story!” Jenny laughed.
“Really? I guess we did.” “Indeed. I do recall, yes.”
“Ugh. I barely said anything back there. How’d you guess?”
“It was a lucky guess. So who was it?”
“My cousin,” Jenny replied immediately.
“Oho.” Natalia nodded. “Kinda surprising, but not really. I guess if you were a sheltered heiress who went to an all-girls school, you’d probably never meet a guy who wasn’t a relative.”
“Yeah, more or less.”
“So how old was he?”
“Six years older than me, so he was 18 back then.”
“Hm. Yeah, he must’ve looked really cool and handsome.”
“Speaking from experience, Nat?”
“Nope. I don’t have relatives.”
“Yeah. My dad’s from a rich family, but they kicked him out when he said he wanted to become a musician. ‘Steinbeck’ is my mom’s family name. My mom lost her parents when she was young, so she had a tough time too. But my folks both got themselves state-funded scholarships to go to music school.”
“That sounds incredible,” said Nick.
“That’s my parents for you,” Natalia said with a shrug, “afterwards, when they won a contest together and got really famous all throughout Roxche, my dad’s family sent him a snobby letter. ‘We will accept you back into our family. Be grateful and do everything in your power to bring prestige to the family name’.”
“My dad wrote ‘em back. ‘Bullshit! Go kill yourselves! Don’t ever contact me again! Go to hell!’ in the most elegant Roxchean in the world. So that’s why I don’t have any grandparents or cousins.”
“Wow. I didn’t know any of that,” Jenny gasped.
“Truthfully, I did know all this. I kept silent about it, of course,” said Nick.
“Anyway, I’m not torn up about not having relatives. But we were listening to the chief’s story. Sorry, Jenny. Keep going.”
“…Do I really have to spell it all out for you?” Jenny asked.
“Yeah.” Natalia nodded. “We wanna know what happened. Don’t worry, you have the right to speak.”
“You don’t mean ‘duty’?”
“Nope. The right. Uninteresting stories don’t become ancient history until you tell them.”
* * *
“The answer is 2. That was the year the right to remain silent was officially recognized,” Seron said, filling in the answer sheet. All six boxes were now filled.
There were no other students at the checkpoint.
“All right! Now we just gotta get back to the starting line,” Larry cheered, glancing at his watch. It had been almost an hour since the competition began. “We’ll speedwalk all the way back. And we’re gonna stick to the trails this time so we don’t get lost.”
“I understand.” “Got it.” Meg and Seron replied.
Meg was holding a long, thin thermos. She poured a warm cup of tea for herself and drained it, then turned.
“Seron, please drink this tea. You must hydrate.”
“Huh? Oh, thank you.”
“I will pour the tea for you.”
Meg poured tea into the same cup and handed it to Seron.
Many thoughts went through his mind in that one instant.
“Could I have some too, please?” Larry asked, lending Seron a hand.
“I understand. Please drink first, Seron.”
Seron told himself over and over again that there was no special meaning to the cup, and drank the tea.
“Yes, because Larry is good in brewing tea.”
Seron returned the cup to Meg. Larry downed his tea in one go.
“Let’s get going,” he said, putting on his rucksack again with the thermos inside.
They started for the goal.
* * *
“I was just a delusional little girl. A girl who assumed that the guy who was always really really nice to her was in love with her—and ended up falling for him.”
“It could happen to anyone, chief. It’s not your fault.”
“Yeah. I didn’t do anything wrong. Except for being an idiot.”
“I was an idiot. Stupidly falling for him, stupidly making stupid assumptions, stupidly deluding myself, stupidly imagining those delusions would come true,” Jenny said, her face blank. Her eyes were not on her companions, but on the blue sky beyond the trees.
“When he broke the news, I felt like I was flung off to another planet. It happens in life. When everything still looks the same but you’re knocked away into another world.”
“Welcome, then. It’s not too bad here. They say ‘wherever you go, there you remain’. So what was the news?”
“Mundane stuff. Something for everyone to celebrate. He said he would marry this beautiful girl as soon as they started university.”
“A beautiful girl he’d been seeing in secret for a long time.”
“Yeah,” Jenny said, and took a deep breath. “I may have been a sheltered little girl back then, but how could I not know my own sister?”
* * *
“Seron, Larry. The ski club is there,” Meg said, having spotted the three first.
About 40 meters ahead of Larry’s team, the ski club marched forward with their poles drumming against the trail. They were drenched in sweat.
“Must be on their way to the last checkpoint,” Larry remarked, checking his map and his watch. “It’s okay. Even if they solve it in three minutes, we’ll finish earlier.”
Even as Larry explained, the ski club came closer and closer. Larry moved out of the way so they could pass.
“Hey there, Hepburn! Very courteous of you!” Wilkinson grinned, face glistening. “Thanks for your sportsmanship, but I don’t recommend letting your guard down!”
That was when the ski club stopped running. They looked at Larry’s team, waking slowly down the trail.
“The answer is 2, right?”
“How?!” “Oh my.” “…”
Wilkinson grinned at Larry and Meg’s responses.
“There’s no rule that says we can’t get the answers from another team. That’s what the colored pencils are for. Thanks for the help!” Wilkinson said, smiling.
“Argh…” Larry ground his teeth.
“We’re gonna sprint all the way to the checkpoint, and then the finish line. You’d better secure an advantage while you still have the chance! Looking forward to the big showdown!”
Wilkinson and the ski club began to run again. They drew near, passed by, and disappeared.
Larry pursed his lips and watched them depart.
“Looks like we’ll have to run,” Seron said cooly.
“It is not fun to not run! I will run!” Meg chimed in zealously, crossing her arms with a smile.
“All right, guys. Let’s give it our best to the finish line!”
They took off.
* * *
“You had a sister, chief?” Natalia wondered. Nick cut in.
“Odd, that. I’d heard that you were the only child of the president.”
Jenny turned, meeting Nick’s gaze for the first time in a while.
“Nicholas, are you a detective?”
“Of course not, Jenny. I’ve simply spent some time looking into the histories of prestigious families.”
“Planning to marry rich, eh?” Natalia joked.
But Nick nodded without missing a beat. “I am. The Browning family isn’t particularly prestigious, after all.”
“Whoa, seriously? …FYI, forget the Steinbecks. All we’ve got are mountains of instruments and really good music skills.”
“That’s quite remarkable in and of itself.” Nick shook his head. “All my family has are textbooks my parents have read and textbooks my parents have written.”
“Anyway,” Natalia said, bringing the conversation back to the rails, “what happened, chief? You mind telling us?”
“All right.” Jenny nodded. “She’s my sister, but we’re not related.”
* * *
Seron, Larry, and Meg were running.
They were not sprinting, but they were certainly not relaxed.
They rushed past other students they encountered on the trail, receiving the occasional odd look.
“Right!” Larry ordered, and the others turned as he directed.
Because Meg was a little slower, the boys matched her pace.
“How much are there left?” Meg asked. Her beautiful voice echoed through the woods, breathing still relaxed.
“We’re only about halfway there,” Larry replied.
“…Oh…” Seron began to slow.
* * *
“My parents had a really hard time conceiving. It was tough for them before I was born.”
“I see. President Jones is quite a bit older than those of my parents’ generation, as I recall,” Nick remarked.
“You read business magazines every day or something?” Asked Natalia.
“Yes, after my mother is finished with them.”
“I see. Keep going, chief.”
“So my parents decided to adopt. That was six years before I was born. They went to an orphanage in the Capital District and took in a girl who was abandoned at birth.”
“So that was your sister?”
“Yeah. And then my mother got pregnant with me out of the blue.”
“Then what happened?”
“My parents wanted to raise us as sisters, but my uncle—my dad’s younger brother—really wanted to take her in as his own daughter. He’d really wanted a daughter of his own.”
“They had a bunch of family meetings, and in the end my sister was adopted by my uncle.”
“Wow…shunted from one family to another. I feel kinda sorry for her.”
“FYI, my uncle lives with us in the same manor. We always have dinner together, too. The only thing that changed, really, was her legal guardian.”
“Anyway, my uncle had a son. He was the same age as my sister.”
“No way…it was him?” Natalia gasped, for once looking anxious.
“Wanna take a breather?” Jenny grinned, finally taking the offensive.
* * *
“Want to take a break?”
Seron was the first to run out of breath.
Larry was still full of energy, and though she was sweating Meg did not look particularly tired.
Seron alone was slowing, his head beginning to loll and his breaths growing ragged.
He was starting to slow into a walk.
“No…I’m just a little out of breath…we can’t stop here…”
“All right. We’ll keep going,” Larry said, pulling off Seron’s rucksack. “You can do it, buddy!” He cheered, shouldering the rucksack over his stomach.
“Yes! You can!” Meg also cheered. Seron’s pace picked up a little.
* * *
“You mean to say that the cousin you fancied, in fact, was in love with his own adopted sister?” Nick asked for confirmation.
“Yeah,” Jenny replied as though nothing was wrong.
“Oh my goodness! Dearie me!” Natalia fussed, going out of her way to sound like a lady.
“Stop that!” Jenny roared. “Anyway, back to the story. I grew up with my sister and my cousin. We were like siblings. We had so much fun together.”
“And?” Natalia asked.
Jenny leaned back against the bench and looked into the sky.
“I don’t know when they fell for each other. But I did know that they were going to secondary school together. The 1st Capital Secondary School, for your information. My cousin picked the place because it’s famous for its rowing team. He really wanted to join.”
“And there I was, going to my fancy little princess school, daydreaming all the time about my rose-tinted future. Waiting in my little tower for my knight in shining armor to sweep me off my feet. Wanna hear more?”
“Agh…” Natalia gasped. “CHIEF!”
She pulled Jenny into a suffocating hug.
“Ack! Hey! Ow! I can’t breathe! Are you trying to strangle me?!”
“Dammit!” Natalia swore, ignoring Jenny’s complaints. Tears were welling in her eyes. “This kinda stuff gets me every time! I can’t listen to much more of this!”
“You’re the one who asked for it! Let go of me!”
“But I can’t take it back now! Oh, chief!”
“Enough! And look! This story has a happy ending!”
“Maybe if you’d let go of me, I could tell you!”
Natalia finally released Jenny.
“Almost saw my life flash before my eyes.” Jenny sighed, fixing her hair.
“The story does not seem to be headed in a happy direction,” Nick said.
“Well, surprise. My cousin and my sister were legally siblings, but they could get married if she was taken off the family registry. But my cousin was still torn up about it. And one day, after mulling it over forever, he told the whole dinner table out of the blue. ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life with the woman next to me!’ I was listening to it all from across the table.”
“And? And? What happened then?” Natalia asked, staring into Jenny’s profiled face.
“No one said anything for a while. But we could all tell he was being serious. So guess what my uncle did then.”
“Hm…” Natalia nodded. “Total chaos? Plates flying, blood and screaming?”
“He started bawling his eyes out, and bowed his head. Then he said to my cousin, ‘take good care of her! Make her happy!’”
“Whoa! I don’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed,” Natalia exclaimed.
“Indeed,” Nick nodded.
“Everyone was happy. My uncle and aunt really adore my sister, and it made them sad to even think about her getting married and leaving. My parents too. All the stupid rich families used to look down on her just because she was adopted. Uncle and Auntie really didn’t want her to marry someone who wouldn’t treat her well. Mom and Dad were happy that their nephew wouldn’t end up getting taken advantage of by some shady girl. And it’s not really incest since they’re not blood relatives.”
“I guess you could think of it that way. Sometimes the family you marry into makes a bigger impact than the person you marry.”
“So the dinner turned into an impromptu celebration. They were laughing and cheering. Everyone must’ve been so happy. Except for me. I just sat there with a smile plastered on my face, totally thunderstruck. It was like I’d been transported to a bizarro-world.”
“What else? Before I knew it, the wedding date was set and the bells began to chime. It was the biggest celebration in the Jones family’s history. Obviously I was there too. Wearing an expensive dress, watching them kiss from the best seat in the house. Watching everyone beaming.”
“…Chief…that’s enough now…don’t push yourself…”
“No, I will! I’ve got a few things to say! First off, I don’t resent my cousin one bit. And I don’t resent my sister, either. They might not know how I felt, but they still love me so much. They’re good people, and I love them as much as they love me.”
“And I don’t resent my parents, or my uncle and aunt. I’m glad I was born into the Jones family. If I could go back in time and choose, I’d still pick my own parents. But! If I did get a second chance, I wouldn’t just sit around waiting. I’d do everything I needed to do, and say everything I wanted to say. No matter the consequences.”
“Mhm. Mhm.” Natalia nodded again and again.
“I learned a lesson from my mistakes. If you’re in love, don’t just sit back and hope they’ll notice you. Just hoping for a future together isn’t going to make that future come true. You’re not gonna win unless you give it everything you’ve got! Figure out that future you want and run for it like your life depends on it!”
Then, Jenny stood.
With her head held high, she held up her right hand and pointed straight ahead—
“I’m talking to YOU! SERON MAXWELL!”
At the sweat-drenched Seron, who happened to be passing by.
With that confused question, Seron passed by Jenny’s team.
“Ah, everyone! We are doing our best work!”
Meg passed by a second later, followed by—
“You guys are still here?! Good! Hold on to these, I’ll come back for ‘em after we’ve won! Feel free to snack on everything, Lia!”
—Larry, who took a second to put down the two rucksacks in front of the bench.
Then he took off running again.
Larry’s team soon disappeared behind the trees.
“It almost seems as though they are being chased,” Nick noted with a smile.
“Hmph!” Jenny snorted, taking a seat. “They’d better run as if there’s a pack of wolves at their heels. I expect nothing less than first place out of them.”
“Why’re they running so fast, though? No complaints here, but they even left their food.” Natalia wondered, pulling the two rucksacks into her arms.
Nick pointed an open palm at the direction Larry’s team had come from.
Natalia and Jenny turned.
“We’re gonna win this!” “Aaaaaaargh!” “Ski club! Ski club!”
Wilkinson and his team were running as though their lives depended on it.
The three sixth-years were exhausted from the long, heavy trek. Saliva dribbled from their mouths as they crashed past Jenny’s team.
“I see.” Natalia nodded.
“This might be a close one,” Nick said, “if they keep up this pace, this team is likely to catch up with Larry’s at the square entrance.”
“How do you know that?”
“Oh, a few simple calculations.”
Jenny leaned back on the bench. “I won’t accept second place.”
* * *
“I see the newspaper club! Tally ho!”
Wilkinson’s terrifying cry reached even Larry’s team, running about 50 meters ahead.
The woods were almost at an end. The trail turned right at the stream, running parallel to it until the bridge that led to the goal. There were about 200 meters left.
“What are we, foxes?!” Larry complained, speeding up.
“We are rabbits, not foxes!” Meg pointed out. She was still going strong enough to speak. But Seron, running in front of her, was nearly in tears.
“‘Tally ho’ is what a hunter says to his hounds when he spots a fox.”
“Oh my goodness.”
“Damn it! They’re gonna catch up to us!” Larry howled, looking back. They had just made a turn, so the ski club was out of sight. But Wilkinson’s voice was just as clear as before.
“Just you wait, newspaper club!”
Larry’s team finally emerged from the woods.
The trail turned right. The rod from earlier came into view.
“Larry! Will we be faster to go if we cross the river?” Meg suddenly asked.
“Huh? Yeah, but—”
Larry thought for a moment. If they crossed the stream immediately, they simply had to run across a short stretch of grass to the finish line. It would be faster than following the trail and crossing the bridge.
“I don’t think we’ll make it, Megmica. The stream is too wide.”
With a running start, they could likely make it over the stream itself. But the banks of the stream were steep and wide, meaning that they would actually have to jump three meters to make it safely across.
“It is all right! Truthfully, I have done it before!” Meg said, passing Larry and Seron.
She reached the red-and-white rod and pulled it out with both hands. Then she took several steps back.
“Huh?” Seron stopped.
“What’re you doing?” Larry asked.
“Please watch! The way of life of a Sou Be-Il person!” Meg cried, breaking into a run. She charged toward the stream with the rod in her hands.
Then she stuck the end of the rod into the center of the stream.
With a spirited cry, she clung to the rod and leapt.
Seron’s jaw dropped and Larry’s eyes turned to dinner plates as Meg drew an elegant arc over the stream.
The rod crossed all the way to the other side, slowly falling. Still holding the rod, Meg landed on the grass past the slopes of the riverbank.
Then she let go and rolled on the ground, her sweats and pigtails getting covered in grass. Her hair came undone.
“Please be quick!”
Meg quickly rose to her feet and tipped the rod across the stream. Her long dark hair rippled across her back.
“Yeah!” Larry rushed to the bank and caught the rod. “I’m going first, Seron! Come after me, okay?”
Larry took hold of the rod, took several steps back, and ran.
He leapt even further than Meg and landed easily on the opposite bank.
“Seron! Here!” He cried, pushing the rod over again. But at that very moment—
“Ah! Curse you, newspaper club! Curse you and your underhanded tactics!” Wilkinson roared, popping out of the woods.
Seron fumbled as he tried to catch the rod, dropping it.
“Oh!” Meg cried.
“It’s okay, Seron. Stay calm, buddy,” Larry instructed.
Seron crouched down and grabbed the rod, then emulated Larry as he took several steps backwards.
Before him was the stream, which looked wider than ever before.
Beyond, his best friend and a beautiful girl with long flowing hair. Both waving and cheering.
Seron’s breaths were ragged.
“Can I really do this?” He wondered to himself.
“You gotta jump, Seron! They’re coming!” Larry urged. Seron turned.
“AAARGH!” Wilkinson was charging like a wildebeest, only 10 meters away.
There was no time to lose; Seron broke into a run.
He heard two voices. And stuck the end of the rod into the stream.
“Oh no!” Meg cried.
Seron had stuck the rod too close to the near shore.
He slowly drew an arc over the stream, falling in slow motion.
“Not good!” Larry hissed, rushing to the bank. Meg was hot on his heels.
“Ah!” Seron yelled, suddenly aware of his situation. He would not make it.
In midair, he stretched his legs as far forward as he could. That was enough to put his two feet on the grass just above the sloped bank.
But he slipped.
To make matters worse, his legs had given out in midair, which meant he was tumbling back-first toward the water.
Seron’s back hit the grass. He began sliding rapidly towards the stream, head-first.
Larry and Meg leapt, grabbing Seron’s left and right leg respectively.
There was a small splash.
As Meg and Larry clung to the ground, holding Seron’s legs, and the ski club watched from across the shore, Seron’s head broke the water’s surface.
His hair alone was in the water, as though he were getting his hair washed at a salon. The water lapped at his forehead.
Seron looked at Wilkinson upside-down.
Larry and Meg hauled Seron up the bank. His hair was dragged out of the water.
Seron also did what he could, grabbing the grass under him and pulling himself into a sitting position.
“Here,” Larry said, offering a hand.
Seron grabbed Larry’s hand with both of his own.
Larry pulled him all the way up in one tense motion. Seron leaned forward in one go, droplets of water spraying from his hair. And he fell onto the grass.
“Hah! Hah!” Seron gasped, his face and jacket becoming drenched with the water from his hair.
“You did it, man!” Larry cheered. Meanwhile, Meg was also taking action.
“I will never let you have it!” She declared, grabbing the rod as it floated partway into the stream.
Wilkinson, who had been reaching for the rod with his teammates’ support, watched the rod snatched out of his reach. “Ugh! Damn it! Forget this, guys! Let’s go!”
The ski club immediately returned to the trail.
“Seron! Megmica! We’re going too! Can you run?”
“Yes! Come, Seron! Stand!”
“Yeah… All right.”
Meg gave Seron’s arm a gentle tug, pulling him to his feet. Seron slicked his hair back to keep it out of the way.
Larry began to run. Meg and Seron followed quickly after.
The grassy field was bumpy and difficult to sprint along, so Larry’s team remained mindful of the terrain as they ran.
When Larry glanced to the right, he spotted the ski club furiously running down the trail across the stream. When he looked back, he saw Seron lagging behind.
“Seron! If you lose here, Megmica’s efforts are gonna go to waste!”
Seron sped up slightly.
“Do your best work, Seron!”
Seron sped up even more.
With his hair slicked back, Seron gritted his teeth and grimaced and ran and ran and ran.
With water dripping from his hair and sweat from his face, he kept his eyes trained on the head of long black hair fluttering before his eyes.
Larry, running ahead of the others, spotted the teachers at the finish line. At the same time, he glimpsed the bridge at the edge of his line of sight. Along with—
“WE’RE NOT GONNA LOSE!”
The ski club members, who had just begun to cross the bridge.
Larry turned to check on Seron and Meg.
“It’s gonna be a close one…”
Though he was in the clear, Seron and Meg would be overtaken by the ski club. Larry took a deep breath.
“Megmica! Take Seron’s hand! And help him forward!”
“Y-yes!” Meg replied. “Here!”
She held out her left hand towards Seron.
Seron reached out with his right hand. And he hesitated.
“Now! With me!”
But he did not hesitate a second time. He took her hand and held on tight.
And without another look back, he sprinted right past the finish line.
“Aha hah hah!” He laughed, turning once more.
He watched Meg and Seron cross the finish line hand-in-hand, the furious members of the ski club hot on their heels.
Larry watched the five students pass him by and muttered to himself,
“Man, I’m hungry.”
* * *
“So how’d it feel when you cut your hair short, chief?” Natalia asked Jenny, after finishing off Larry’s sandwich.
“Sure, that’s kinda obvious.”
“Not my head. My heart.”
“And I realized then that people can start over again as many times as they want.”
“Oh, chief,” Natalia said sympathetically, pulling Jenny into a hug again. “We’re buddies for life, okay? One soul in two bodies!”
“Ack! I can’t breathe!”
This time, Nick also joined in. He hugged Jenny from her right.
“Make that three bodies, Jenny. I will help you fight your battles.”
“Oh wow, look at that,” a student remarked, passing by Jenny’s team, “three girls hugging on a bench. Odd.”
* * *
“Both teams have answered all questions correctly! So the winner is the newspaper club with their one-second lead!” The teacher judged.
“Aw, yeah!” “We did it!” “Whew…”
Larry, Meg, and Seron cheered.
“NOOOO!” “Dammit!” “Ugh, we were so close!”
The ski club, meanwhile, fell to their knees as the light of hope was snuffed out before their eyes.
“You were great, all of you!” The teacher said with a smile, “one hour and ten minutes. That’s a park record! They’ve never seen such a close match!”
But the teacher’s praises did not reach the students.
“Seron! Megmica! We did it!” “We did it! Yes, we did it!”
As Larry and Meg jumped for joy, Seron quietly bowed his head.
“Thanks, you two. And I’m sorry for being such a burden.”
But Meg reached for his forehead.
Seron looked up in surprise and came face-to-face with a frowning Meg.
Her long hair was gathered in a bunch over her left shoulder. Meg furrowed her brow angrily, her cheeks puffed up.
“What is this, Seron? You solved all the quizzes smoothly! Without you we will still be in the forest!”
Seron stared, his hair still slicked back and his jaw dropping. The fair girl with dark hair seemed for all the world to be an alien creature.
“Do not say bad things about yourself. Yah!”
Meg’s fist gave Seron’s forehead a gentle tap. But her frown quickly gave way to a smile.
“Now that I look, this hairstyle is cool as well. It is too cool that you only should do it sometimes.”
Meg’s beaming face burned into his eyes, Seron took a deep breath.
A slight distance away, Larry quivered as though having spotted a landmine.
“—I couldn’t have done it without you.”
Larry sighed, his shoulders sagging. But Meg smiled more radiantly than ever before.
“Please believe in me! I am a big sister. Lean on me every time!”
* * *
“We are here!”
After putting the rod back where they had found it, Larry’s team crossed the woods and returned to the bench where Jenny’s team had taken up residence.
Natalia, Jenny, and Nick were having a good time snacking and chatting.
“Ah! Speak of the devil!” Natalia exclaimed. Larry frowned.
“You’d better not have told ‘em any embarrassing stories, Lia.”
“Whoa, even I don’t know where you learned to read minds like that, Larry.”
Jenny looked up at Larry. “You’d better have come in first.”
Larry turned. Meg was smiling proudly, and Seron’s hair was drying off into a messy mop.
“Yep. We beat the ski club.”
“Good work.” Jenny smiled. Larry did as well.
“Megmica, why’d you let your hair down?” Natalia asked, “did Seron do that?”
“Pardon me? No. I at the end fell a little and the hair ribbons flew. But it is okay!”
“I see. It wasn’t too tough running like that?”
“No, it was very fun. I jumped for the first time in a very long time over a river!”
“Yes!” Meg nodded. Natalia tilted her head.
“I must say, that hairstyle suits you quite well, Seron,” Nick remarked, “why not slick your hair back more often?”
“Maybe just once in a while.”
Larry rummaged through the two rucksacks they had left behind. One of the lunchboxes was empty.
“I can’t believe you actually ate it!”
“Hey, you gave me permission.”
“…Never mind. Let’s get back to the square and eat. You guys didn’t even try for the checkpoints, did you?”
“Don’t act like a know-it-all and treat us like lazy bums at the same time just because it’s true,” Natalia complained, getting to her feet and offering Jenny a hand. “Well, chief?”
Jenny took Natalia’s hand and stood.
“If you’re all going, so am I.”
The newspaper club slowly strolled down the trail.
“We’re gonna win this one, guys!” A junior-classman yelled as he passed by with his team.
“Hah hah! Good luck, kids,” Natalia cheered.
“So what did you guys do? Chatted for an entire hour?” Larry asked.
“More or less. Girl talk.”
“I participated as well, for your information,” said Nick.
“Men aren’t supposed to sweat the details.”
“I simply couldn’t help myself.”
Meg, who had been walking at the very front with Seron, turned. There was a curious look in her eye.
“About what did you speak?”
“Stuff,” Natalia replied.
“So much stuff I couldn’t answer in one sentence. Jenny’ll tell you someday, so look forward to it.”
“Wha- wait! …Okay, I’ll tell you someday, Megmica.” Jenny surrendered.
Satisfied at the answer, Meg looked forward again, her long hair cascading down her back.
Seron looked forward as well, keeping pace next to her.
Without a word, with a blank yet happy face, he walked.