Chapter 34: The Sidekick and These Sparks (Part 1)
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The start of Volume 2! Hope you all enjoy, and I will see you all on Saturday!

A week had passed since I went to the fireworks display with Rika. It felt like it had been longer, but, at the same time, it easily could have happened yesterday. I could still so clearly picture her face and how torn she was about my confession. At that point, there was no way–no matter how much I had tried to hold onto some vague hope–that she would agree to go out with me. Once the fireworks had ceased and the crowds dispersed, the grounds quieted, enabling me to hear the rest of her rejection.

“Sorry… you’re a great guy, but I’m not looking for anything like that right now.”

Short, sweet, and to the point. I accepted it for what it was, knowing there wasn’t anything I could do to change her mind. We parted on awkward terms and hadn’t spoken since. A little piece of me felt bad about refusing to reach out to her recently, but she hadn’t texted me either. That being the case, I figured we both could use the space for now, so I wasn’t about to push it.

I sighed, placing down the manga I was reading. The spine was creasing, but I couldn’t find it in me to care at the moment. I rolled off my bed and dropped into my chair, spinning around to level a glare at Nora.

“Why are you always in my house? You’ve been coming over here since the beginning of winter break. Your family’s going to forget what you look like.”

For once I would have agreed with the assessment that I was moping. I would have been all too happy to admit it if it would get her to leave. I just wanted to be able to work through my heartache and mope in peace. Yet, Nora refused to allow me these past few days. The first day she came over was fine with me. After all, I had made a promise to lend her the rest of the manga series. I wasn’t even upset that she stayed until six o’clock, reading through some of the volumes and deciding what books she wanted to borrow next. The following day, she came over again, and I was decidedly less happy about it. She made herself comfortable and joined us for dinner when my mom extended an invitation to her. And today, she seemed like she would be doing the same.

Nora ignored me completely, not bothering to look up from the volume of the manga she was currently enjoying. “Don’t wreck that book ‘cuz you know I’m going to read it next.”

“My apologies, your majesty. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive a humble servant,” I said, my delivery drier than normal.

Nora frowned, the edges of her mouth crinkling. “Why are you acting so depressed?”

I hadn’t told anyone except Ethan about what happened that night. And even that had only been the absolute minimum. I wasn’t certain whether Rika had told anyone, but I had a feeling she kept it close to her chest. She wasn’t one to go around gossiping. Either way, Nora didn’t know the reason for my foul mood, and I intended to keep it that way. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her.

It was a conversation I wasn’t ready to have with anyone else yet.

“Maybe the cold weather has me down.”

“You don’t have to tell me, but don’t be an idiot about it. It makes me have an even lower opinion of you.” She placed the book down, creasing the spine in much the same manner as I had. “I’m bored. Let’s play a game.”

I pinched the bridge hard enough to see dark spots. Clearly, that was not a good method to relax right now. “I don’t have a console or a gaming PC, Nora.”

And under no circumstances was I going over to Ethan’s house to borrow some of his games. I kept the thought to myself in case Nora decided that it would be a worthwhile course of action.

“You do have a phone.”

I removed my half-charged phone from the charging cable on top of my desk. “Yep. You’re correct. Who would’ve thought?”

Nora gave me a blank stare. “You don’t do sarcasm well. Now, hurry up and download Super Dario Brothers.”

Opening up the app store, I noticed the game was trending in the gaming genre, which saved me a few precious seconds of searching for it. The icon didn’t give much away, nor did it get me very hyped for what was to come. It showed a man sporting a beard swinging a hammer at an almost humanoid squirrel. Having a cartoony style did nothing to aid my unease about the whole thing. Regardless of my hesitation, I entered my password and the game began to download. At the very least, this would stop Nora from impatiently kicking her heels against the carpet.

“What kind of game is it?” I asked, only having the icon to base my judgment off of, which may not have been fair of me. Perhaps it truly was deserving of its status as the number one trending game.

“It’s a side-scrolling platformer, where you have to reach the end of a level to win. But you don’t jump on the enemies’ heads to get past them. You’ll die if you do that. You have to hit them with a hammer instead.”

A hammer mechanic? I supposed it sounded alright. Not anything groundbreaking, but it had the potential to be a good time sink. My phone screen lit up, notifying me the app had finished downloading. Clicking on it, launched me into the game, following the short credit scene and the producer’s logo being displayed–unskippable of course. I pressed start, picked a random person, and was placed into the starting level. My character awaited me, bouncing up and down on his heels as a squirrel half his size scuttled in from the left. The screen was also closing in on me from the right, so I had no choice but to force my character to lunge forward. There were two buttons on the screen, one with a vertical arrow and one with a grayed-out hammer. That meant there was no choice but to jump over the enemy. I was working out the timing in my head when a woman darted ahead of me and crushed the squirrel with a hammer. It fell off the stage with a comical cry and crossed-out eyes.

Was that an NPC or was another player in my game somehow?

“That’s me,” Nora explained, answering my unspoken concern. “Hey, this is perfect too. Our characters really show the difference between us. I’m classy, and you’re beneath me.”

Her assessment was spot on. Compared to my character who looked like he had arrived in this strange world after not showering for a few days, her character wore an immaculate dress and had a crown placed upon her head. A princess of some land in the game, something I may have known more about had I chosen to give two craps about the lore. I hadn’t, however, and was more concerned about my character’s lack of abilities.

“How do you use the hammer? It’s grayed-out on my screen.”

A chuckle sounded from her spot on the floor. “You can’t use one with him. Dario's an expert level-difficulty character, so he can only jump.”

“Can I get a different character then?”

“Not until you get enough points from completing daily challenges or buy one with actual money.”

Typical micro-transactions. Super Dario Brothers had slipped from a potential time sink to a don’t touch with a hundred-foot pole kind of app. I supposed some of the fault rested on my shoulders since I rushed through the menus and didn’t bother reading anything.

Nora, finding the floor uncomfortable, propped herself up against the side of my bed. “Don’t worry about it too much. I’m pretty good at the game, so you can just follow my lead.”

“Ok.”

Following her lead proved to be a bit of a challenge. Her pace was beyond anything a beginner could keep up with, and soon enough she was no longer on my screen. The side-scrolling aspect of the game continued to nudge me forward, as I struggled to avoid plunging into pitfalls and avoiding the few monsters that Nora hadn’t bothered to clear out. By the time I reached the end of the level, her character was tapping her foot and checking an imaginary wristwatch. It was similar to what she was doing in real life.

“You’re going to have to do better than that if you want to beat me.”

While her competitive side was definitely coming out, I wasn’t even certain whether or not we were playing co-op or competitive. It probably didn’t matter to Nora either way, as our characters jumped down a tube that brought them to a water level. Water levels weren’t very popular in the gaming community, but I had no strong feelings about such a thing. That was up until playing Super Dario Brothers, where apparently the character the game was named after couldn’t swim. He desperately waded into the water, a stream of bubbles bursting forth from his mouth. It was all in vain; he sank to the bottom, sinking into the sand.

“Nora…”

“Yeah, forgot to mention that he also can’t swim.” Nora tossed her head back, her hair splaying across my sheets. “I’ll just have to take you with me. Make sure you don’t touch anything.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant until her character hoisted mine above her head like I was light as paper. She swam between the various fish, forced to weave around since she was unable to utilize her hammer. Such a restriction didn’t slow her in the slightest, and when we reached the goal line, she threw me across it. My character clambered to his feet and threw up a peace sign like he had done something worthy of the pose.

I set my phone on my desk. “Once again, her majesty has come through for me. Even going so far as to ensure me an undeserved victory. A humble servant such as I could hardly think of a way to repay you twice fold now for my utter incompetence.”

“You shall owe me yet another favor, pauper.”

“Indeed, if that is all it shall take to satisfy my lady, I will oblige her.”

It started with a snort from Nora, followed by one from me. It devolved into raucous laughter that had Bonnie rushing over from her room to see what all the fuss was about. There was no possible way either of us would be able to explain the joke to her like this. Even if I had been more composed, I would have kept it to myself. It wouldn’t be funny to anyone else, that little inside joke between Nora and me. Yet, it cheered me up a lot, so I was grateful to her for that and for putting up with my foul mood.

Nora was a great friend to have, and I would do whatever I could to repay her kindness.

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