Chapter 40: The Sidekick and Chocolate Overload (Part 1)
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Somehow, I didn't think February got the memo that March was the month that was supposed to come in like a lion. February seemed content to live up to the expression itself and had decided not to show any mercy. Even the school building was abysmally cold, though it turned out that was due to one of the furnaces being out of commission. While that hadn't been a huge issue with the warmer weather before, the two furnaces withstanding proved inadequate without their third.

This led me to miserably shuffle around the building in my billowy winter coat. I may have gotten the odd stare or two from some others, but I stared right back at them. Looking a little bit silly was a small price to pay over shivering and having to rub my hands together every few seconds to stimulate some warmth; however, not everyone agreed with my sentiment.

"It's embarrassing being seen with you. That stupid coat is bigger than you are." Nora veered around two girls loudly laughing.

Rika made the same evasive maneuver as Nora. "I feel bad for Amelia. She’s going to be stuck in public with him looking like that.”

I didn't find their taunts befitting of a response. Those two just didn't understand my genius. They were clad in sweatshirts, but it was clear to me as someone who got chilled easily that they were suffering. Those pitiable souls preferred fashion and style over their own well-being. It was sad, but I was not one to argue with those so far turned away from the light.

They would simply have to suffer for their ignorance.

We continued to push through the crowd, having decided to head over to the cooking club the minute school let out. I was tagging along because that was where Amelia and me agreed to meet up. But, apparently, the whole student body had a similar notion. The hallway was packed, to the point where I could hardly move forward and our group was forced to give up walking side by side. As I managed to inch past the office and earn myself a little breathing room, I felt Nora latch onto the sleeve of my coat. I paused for a moment, not sure if I should turn around and wait for Rika, but the thought was quickly squashed when I noticed her grab onto Nora. I reasoned that it was better to press on than to turn back, so I kept pushing forward in our makeshift conga line.

We swung left and managed to make it into a much emptier hallway where the majority of the people were members of the cooking club that I could vaguely place. They were milling around the entrance, shouting in disbelief. Rika and Nora let go off, meshing into the throng of cooking club members in an attempt to see what all the fuss was about.

I walked up behind them. Since I was taller than the girls surrounding the doorway, I managed to see into the clubroom before my friends could. I couldn’t help but whistle lowly. "Yikes."

The room was a complete disaster. The counters were cluttered with various powders, liquids, and other ingredients. Post-its and scraps of paper denoting recipes were scattered all over the place. In the middle of the room, the table was a mess, with all the different measuring cups and bottles having been knocked over and their contents spilling all over the place. I cringed at the sight, and I'm sure some of the other club members did as well. None of them had recovered enough from the sight yet to even consider picking up a broom or a rag and start cleaning up the mess. I turned away, and as I did, I heard Nora swear under her breath.

"Rika, what the hell? You told me you were practicing during lunch." Her hushed tone was measured and clipped.

"I did practice, it just got a little out of hand. I didn't have time to clean it all up before the bell rang."

I didn't like how the 'all' implied that the mess used to be worse. That was hard to believe as vinegar continued to drip down the side of the table onto the tiles below. The drops flowed rhythmically, reminding me of the second hand on a clock ticking by.

Nora groaned into her hand. "They're going to kick us out at this rate."

"I wouldn't exactly blame them," I said, feeling a headache coming on. "It's fine though. We'll just clean it up quick and no one will have to know."

The members of the cooking club started to shuffle into the room, no less astounded by the mess, but more willing to do something about it. This gave us easy access to the room and allowed us to begin a cleaning foray of our own. As tempting as it was to take a broom to the flour and other powders lining the linoleum tiles, I decided the best course of action was to grab a rag from the sink and have at the spilled liquids. Nora and Rika followed my lead, and we each went to a different table. The other girls decided to organize the post-its and papers lying discarded around the room.

Cleaning up the spills wasn’t a difficult task obviously, but it did require a few trips between the sink, wringing out the rag, and refreshing it with warm tap water. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. It gave me ample opportunity to consider how dull, monotonous, and overall normal this was for us. It was like after the fair when we could laugh and joke around with each other without a care in the world.

I hadn’t realized how much I missed that.

The discussion I had with Rika at the diner about a month ago cleared up much of the confusion I had about us. While I still wasn’t happy about her hiding things from me, I now understood how much our friendship meant to her. It may have begun as goodwill on her end, but it had evolved into something important enough for her to treasure. Important enough for both of us to treasure, if I was being honest. By the end of the night, she had been so relieved that she shed ugly tears and cried loud enough to convince our waiter I had dumped her.

And wasn’t that just ironic?

I caught Amelia stepping into the room out of the corner of my eye. She made a big show of looking around, aghast at its current state. While I completely understood, nobody else paid her much mind, focused on the task at hand. She came over to me, cautious to avoid setting foot onto any of the numerous ingredients covering the floor.

“You all must have whipped up quite the feast.”

“I don’t know about that,” I replied, wiping up what appeared to be the last of the vegetable oil. “Rika managed this all on her own.”

Amelia blanched. “I can’t say I’m not impressed. Disgusted, but impressed.”

“Anyway, I’m just about finished up here. Are you ready to go?”

“I’m set whenever you are.”

There wasn’t any point in me sticking around any longer. The club had it under control and only really needed to sweep, and then mop later when they left for the day. I once more wring the rag out over the sink, my hands pruning slightly. After placing it back on the counter, I decided to check what Rika and Nora were doing. They were hunched over the table closest to the exit, fussing over a particularly stubborn stain. Nora, for her part, looked moments away from bashing her head against the tabletop. “This has to be burnt on or something. There’s no other explanation.”

“Seems that way,” Rika said.

Nora glared at her. “You’re absolute shit at cooking.”

“Seems that way.”

Nora noticed me approaching and mouthed ‘hate her.’ I had to hold back a laugh, having no desire to get involved in their little tiff. “I’ll see you both tomorrow.”

Pausing to look over, Rika smiled. “Thanks for your help.”

“No problem. Try not to drive Nora crazy.”

“I’ll do my best. No promises though.” She returned to trying to rub the spot out. “By the way, what kind of chocolate do you and Ethan like? I figured I’d make everybody some, but I wasn’t sure what you guys preferred.”

That’s right. Valentine’s Day was fast approaching, which meant she’d be sharing an answer about why she knew so much about Asheville High. It made me nervous, but this was neither the time nor the place to dwell on it. I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

“Ethan likes anything sweet, but I like mine to be more bitter.”

Nora snorted. “Fits your personalities.”

“Like you’re one to talk,” Amelia said, making herself known.

The short girl brushed her off immediately. “Why don’t you go run along and make your truffles or whatever you rich folk do.”

And that was my cue. “Great. Now that everyone got one in, we’d better get going before it gets any worse out there.”

After a final goodbye, Amelia and me left the culinary arts room behind, prepared to brave the frigid temperature outside.

I will keep this short because I need to keep writing right now, but I truly appreciate all the support on the last chapter! You all are amazing, and I will see you this Saturday!