Ch 11: Hugs Always Help
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Help. I needed help. A self-proclaimed Ferry Maiden stood right in front of me urging me to reveal every aspect of myself. I already knew that no soul in Gresia was going to help me, but I still had hope.

Looking at the girl as she inched closer, I finally realized why she seemed so familiar. I can’t believe it took her stating it for me to realize, but she was indeed a Ferry Maiden. Specifically, she was one of the girls that I had observed in the locker room.

“…Are you perhaps Melinoe?”

“Woah! You remembered me, huh? I must make a great first impression! Kaly told me you were peeping in on all of us.”

“…Uh, who is K-Kaly, exactly? And can you please take a few steps back?”

Of course, Melinoe got closer.

“Haha, Kaly’s the girl whose locker ya stuffed yourself into, you goon! You may know her as Kalypso. What did you do that for anyway?”

“I’m not really willing to share… Als—”

“C’mon c’mon, we’re both Ferry Maidens here, right? Right? We have a spiritual and magical bond by default!”

People like this were always very troublesome. They’re unconsciously used to leading the social situations around them, so they don’t realize that they’re sweeping others into the vortex that is their flow of conversation.

“*sigh* Look, stuff happened, and I was hiding, and that was stupid. and it doesn’t matter and I’m sorry but can you please get out so I can finish this?”

“Ha, you’re all over the place! How about this, let’s have a fashion show for the geezer out there and bond as Maidens. If you’re a Maiden, you’re one of us, you know?” I can’t let this opportunity go! Nuh-uh!”

“I’m not sure I want to do that. At all.”

“Man, are you usually such a party pooper? The night crawly junkies get to you or something? …Oh, that’s it! Hey, let’s start over alright?”

“Huh?”

“Obviously you don’t trust me, so I’ll tell you everything you need to know. Call me Melinoe, since that’s my Maiden Name. You can call me Mel for short, though no one does that for some reason! The geezer here raised me since I was a little dumpling. He found me in the river wailing like a mandrake. So! I work to pay him off! I owe my life to him, so it’s a big debt I need to pay. I know you spooky night people like to stay hidden, so I won’t peep a word about you. But! That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends, right?”

“Wait, you don’t understa—”

“That was a good introduction, wasn’t it? And since I’m a Maiden, I’m real good at keeping secrets. Trust me. The geezer calls me loud, but I won’t betray you like that. Alright, what’s your introduction?”

“…An introduction? Ok then, let me gather my thoughts… Hello. My Maiden Name is Leuce. I am staying in Charronne temporarily. Once I am done with this Ferry Maiden business, I will depart to continue my journey with a certain goal. Nice to meet you, Mel, but I am afraid that we will not know each other very long.”

“You’re… kinda vague there, huh?”

“I can’t spare any more details, sorry.”

“Well, we can at least talk a bit more, right? Do you have anything to do tonight?”

“Miss Mel, I wouldn’t recommend my company. I, uh, am not the best at these types of situations.”

“Don’t sweat it! You saw the other girls, right? They’re all kooky, I bet you’d fit right in! Though it’s a shame that you’re here for such a short amount of time.”

“…So…”

“So?”

“So, can I finish what I’m doing in here? I’ll talk to you once I’m dressed.”

“Hey, don’t be like that! We’re both girls here, aren’t we? How about we try on some cute outfits together? I came in here because I thought this dress would look good on someone your size. You seemed to have this black and gray motif, going on, so I chose a bright color to contrast that.”

Melinoe held up a bright orange dress that looked as if it could stop at my knees. It was simple, with a darker ribbon at the waist.

“I appreciate the thought, but I’ll have to deny you. I don’t really like dresses.”

“Huuuuuuh? But you would look great in it! It even matches one of your eyes!”

“Seriously, no thank you.”

“Fine, fine. I’ll let you get dressed. You’ll talk to me afterwards, right?”

“…The most I can do is a little while, sorry.”

“I’ll cherish it!”

--

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“Haaaaa…”

Melinoe was a girl with good intentions, but her flow of conversation was too high-energy for me. The entire situation was just claustrophobic. Two people in that small room, with an obliviously aggressive socializer was just not an ideal situation. Somehow, I keep interacting with people that I don’t need to. Why?

Truly, it is difficult to remain inconspicuous. I’ve become used to naturally falling into the background. My former class was the perfect environment for me. It was consistent, and I knew all the variables involved in that system.

The world outside my class was going to be different, and I expected this. That didn’t mean I was ready for it. Somehow, in simply the first town I’ve visited, I’ve made myself known. Behind a mask, sure, but still out there. People were already finding out who I was, and I was powerless to stop them. “Perry Momo” and “Leuce” were simple name changes. The Church could track me down either way. And this [K] person still nagged me at the back of my mind. Somehow, I was careless enough for them to know my intentions and my name.

I would say I’ve been keeping my guard up, but now Melinoe knows what I look like without the guise of a Ferry Maiden. I’ve really screwed up, huh?

I’ve involved myself in all this Ferry Maiden business, when I really didn’t need to. If I was never curious about the auction, then I would have never met Amp, and I would have been fine with whatever Maiden powers I might have. I could’ve avoided all these interactions if I had just stayed reserved.

I say that, but it is human nature to become curious about the unknown. I dipped my toes in the water of the river, and it has ended up sweeping me away in its currents. It is mostly me to blame, though. I went through all this for the mask, but the chances of that literally blew up in my face. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but I was sure it had something to do with the goddess. It was probably a petty reason like “the image of the goddess’ vessel must be preserved” or “altering the work of the goddess is a grave sin”. It was an explosion of magic in an attempt to protect the goddess’ vessel.

Essentially, I blamed the goddess for the lack of my mask. Unlike the goddess and her corrupt church, I do not enjoy betraying people.

It’s a weird thing of mine. Something as miniscule as forgetting to return a pencil bothers me. That person placed their trust in me to return that pencil, yet I discarded that trust. It sounds stupid, and it is, but I can’t help but think about that.

I had agreed to become a Ferry Maiden, but was I going to betray Amp and Miss Admete over a mask? I was already dressed and ready for the show. I had prepared myself for the task. If I went that far, then was there honor in backing out?

I didn’t think so. And it’s not particularly about honor. Guilt, maybe? Perhaps it’s just because I can feel the slight changes of attitude. The shift in the tension of the room when one’s expectations are betrayed. They may falsify a polite and understanding response, but we both know the truth.

I let you down, and you’re not happy about it.

That feeling is crushing. It’s like when you try to improve your skill in something. A passion maybe. You reluctantly show your progress to the people close to you, and they praise you with a thread of words so thin that it breaks with just a little movement.

It makes you doubt yourself just a bit more. You ask yourself questions: “Did I have a right to deny them?” or “Should I really try to improve in this area?”.

It is a hidden battleground under that layer of social kindness. I loathe going into battle. I’m a Rogue. I don’t really fight. I steal. I avoid traps. In this case, I steal people’s chance to speak those thin words and avoid the traps of the battleground of social kindness. And I do this by saying what they want to hear.

Many times, I think to myself: “If”.

If I were to fight them on that battleground directly. If I were to say what I wanted to when I needed to. If I were able to bear the attacks of their crafted responses. If I were strong enough to do these things, then I would be well on my way to Hasavanef right now.

Yet, I seem to circle around the simple response of “No”. I acknowledge that I’m not strong enough to get things the way I want to, but I hope someday I am. I hope one day I will be able to say no, even if it’s a pastry that’s sugar-coated with the pleasant words of social kindness.

As with everything, there is two sides. People say that things happen for a reason, right? Would I have received [K]’s letter if I did not attend the auction? Would I have found a way to get some gold? Would I have made it to Hasavanef without a map?

Okay, maybe it’s not entirely two sided. It’s normally a good idea to look at things from a variety of angles. Something that I am clearly incapable of doing.

Well, I suppose I should stop thinking about such things for now. Focusing on what has already happened isn’t going to move me forward at all. I’ll just convince myself that I won’t do things like that again, only for them to happen again anyways. I’ll deal with those occurrences when they happen.

I bet Melinoe’s waiting for me outside. I should hurry up already.

--

“Leuce! Took ya long enough to get out of there. Were you admiring your body or something?”

Far from it, actually. I doubt I could ever admire this body again. I gave her a poor excuse.

“Ah, sorry, I just tend to space out in thought. I didn’t mean to make you wait.”

“No problem! If anything, I’ll take your delays rather than Lethe’s record-breaking snail-speed any day.”

Dang Lethe, you just got called out by your friend.

“Hey Leuce, speaking of your body, do you mind me asking what happened to you? You’re so hauntingly pretty! Your odd-eyes and the silver hair feel like they shine, but your burns tell of a troubled past. Can I help you? Are the night crawlers getting to you? Do you need a hug?”

“Damn girl, ya gonna get yer neck snapped by the night crawler with that talk to her! Whatcha doin’ to the customer, eh?”

The geezer, or rather older man, who I assumed was “Big C” appeared before us.

“Huh? I hope I wasn’t being offensive or anything! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

“Calm down, Miss Mel. I was simply caught up in a situation with a certain opposing party. Though, I would like to ask that you don’t mention my hair to anyone. It’s a… touchy subject.”

“Of course! I’m as tight-lipped as a zipper, I promise!”

“Don’t mind the girl there night crawler, she’s a loose cannon cuz of all the Maiden stuff she threw ‘erself inta. I feel as if dem girls she hangs ‘round with cause ‘er to get wilder ev’ry damn day.”

“Hey geezer, shut your trap! I’m perfectly fine!”

“So, night crawler, I’m curious, how did ya get yerself mixed in with them beasties, eh? Are ya good by yerself? A fair dame like you is sure ta get some eyes your way, heh heh!”

“Sir, I think you may have misunderstood things. I am no “night crawler”. I simply don this attire due to my, uh, field of work, I guess you could say.”

Mel brought herself closer to me. I swear her eyes seemed to sparkle.

“Oooh, Leuce, that’s perfect fuel for the fires of conversation! I basically know everything about the girls, so I’ve been itching to find something new to talk about. Whaddya do, whaddya do, whaddya do?”

“C-Calm down, Miss Mel! I, uh, simply, uh, work for a tailor shop, and, uh, test different outfits and fabrics by wearing them throughout different situations. Yeah. That.”

Flavio, I hope you don’t mind if I borrow your tailoring career for a bit.

“Really? Then what’s with the shadowy getup?”

“My boss is quite… eccentric. He likes to attempt to make me a trendsetter for new styles. None of them have worked, but he tries…”

“Well, I wish your boss some good luck! I’d say you look quite neat in it. Hey! I just thought of something! I gotta see what you look like in the clothes you tried on!”

“Huh? They’re not particularly special. Mostly for function.”

“Well, sometimes simple can be cute, y’know? Here, come with me!”

Mel grabbed my arm and started pulling me back int the changing room.

“Hey, wait!”

--

Why must I be tortured so? Mel had an iron grip, because of course she did, and practically forced me to strip back down into my undergarments.

“Woooow. Your body’s so… delicate. So pale and thinly toned… I like it! Though I have some questions…”

“*sigh* Please, let’s just get this over with. Ask away. Especially since it is obvious that I won’t be escaping this event anytime soon…

“So, it just hit me, but is that a binder around your chest?’

“…Yes.”

“Do you wear it out of choice?”

“Yes. For the situation I am in, my breasts are… inconveniences.”

“You know the things you say and the way you say them make me want to ask waaay more questions. Hah! Then you’ll be the one shouting at me to shut my mouth, huh? Maybe I’ll get a taste of how the other girls feel.”

“Ah, I’m not really the shouting type…”

“Yeah, I guess a night crawler like you wouldn’t really that boisterous, huh?”

“Again, I’m not a night crawler. I’m going to go ahead and change now…”

I changed into one of my sets of clothes that I had picked out earlier. A slightly oversized shirt with cheap fabric, and some brown trousers with too many pockets to count.

“Somehow, that look fits you. It has a weird charm to it. I like it!”

“Again, I’m not aiming for style.”

“So, hey, who’d you end up making a contract with? It’s all our first time doing this, so I gotta hear every angle I can.”

“Ah, well, my situation is a bit complicated, but basically I’ll be working with a boy named Miach.”

“Miach?! You mean the healer boy? No way!”

“Woah, Miss Mel are you alright?”

“Did he ask you to go the Meadow with him?”

“…The way you speak of it concerns me.”

“Gyahhh! I’m gonna go and wallop him! How dare he bribe a fair Maiden such as yourself to do something so dangerous!”

“Miss Mel, can you please tell me what’s going on?”

“That place is super dangerous! There’s a beast that roams there that no one has been able to slay, and the air in that place can make your head go woozy! Some people say they’ve been paralyzed throughout their whole body!”

“Are you sure those aren’t just rumors?”

“Yes! I would know because the reason the geezer is in that chair is because of that place!”

“…Explain.”

“…Alright, look. I wasn’t the brightest kid, alright? I found my way over there as the geezer and I were walking through town. I slipped away from him and managed to follow the Ackeronne to the Meadow. I can’t really remember what happened next, but I woke up next to the geezer all bloodied on the ground, and from then on, he hasn’t been able to walk. Leuce, you gotta listen to me, Miach has been trying to get to that place forever. There’s a reason everyone denies him!”

“…Even so, I’ll go. A contract is a contract. My fate was sealed earlier today. I’m not going to back out now. I just wish he would’ve told me earlier.”

It seems my suspicions about Miach’s task were valid.  This supposed beast may pose a problem, but perhaps I can use some stealthy abilities to avoid detection. Regarding the air, I sincerely hope that Miach brews up a remedy for its effects, or else things will go south very quickly.

“Leuce… Arggh! Just don’t go and die alright? That’ll be a real tragedy…”

“I’ll be fine. But, uh, enough about me, who did you end up contracting with?”

“I contracted with some irrigation company the Mayor hired or something like that, though I don’t really understand it much. Lethe did too actually, though we’re under different branches.”

“Irrigation? For this town? Is that safe, with the cursed waters of the Ackeronne?”

“Haha, Leuce you’re such a goon! We have a purifying magic to deal with that. How did you think this town survived all these years, huh?”

“Oh… I suppose that makes sense. What system have you used before this then?”

“We just hauled up buckets of water to the square to get them purified by a professional. It was getting kinda tedious, so the Mayor called for a new system that would raise productivity. It’s also less dangerous, since people don’t have to risk their lives getting their own water.”

“So, is there a plan to mass-purify the water? Because I don’t see a safe way that this could work.”

“Geez, Leuce, I didn’t think you’d be such a worrywart! I don’t really remember myself, but the Mayor mentioned something about using magic sigils in a special chamber or something. But weren’t we talking about me? Let’s talk about my role!”

“Sorry, sorry, go on.”

“I get to use my Maiden abilities to form the basic shapes of the channels by blasting the ground with water! And as a bonus I get to wallop any baddies or monsters that might come our way. Isn’t that great? It sounds so fun! It’ll take a couple of years for the whole thing to get done, but I look forward to it.”

“Oh, then you’re quite a big part of that plan, aren’t you? Congratulations.”

“Thanks, thanks! It isn’t what I was aiming for, but it’s pretty darn close, so I can’t be mad about it.”

“I remember picking up on the fact that you were aiming to contract with the Mayor, right?”

“Yep! Word is that he’s super generous with his benefits, and if a Maiden works with the Mayor, they usually get a huge boost in popularity.”

“…You make it sound like a competition between Maidens.”

“Well, duh! It basically is! A Maiden who can’t get good contracts isn’t really a Maiden is she?”

“…Does that mean there have been Maiden’s who have fallen out of favor?”

“Probably. Most likely outcome is they become too irrelevant to be talked about. Some take of their mask, vanish, and don’t make themselves known. No one really cares about their lives after their Maidenhood. And yes! I know! It’ll happen to us as well. But I’ll deal with that when the time comes. I’ll probably just take over the shop to be honest.”

“…It sounds like a rough cycle.”

“Yeah, well, Maidens just have to deal with that. Anyway, enough talk! While we still have time let’s try on some cute clothes together!”

“Honestly, I would really prefer if we didn’t…”

“Ah, Leuce, if you keep denying everything your offered you won’t be able to live! There’s no harm in putting on a few clothes, right?”

Miss Mel, if only you knew who I really was, you would stop your eager advances in a heartbeat. I’ll indulge her and get this over with.

“Fine…”

“Haha, yes!”

Mel immediately started to take off her clothes, and I had to turn away in embarrassment. Please, oh please, don’t let this kind of situation become a regularity.

“Haha, Leuce, your face is as red as my eyes! What’s got you so blushy? Am I too attractive for you?”

“N-No, uh, I’m, uh, simply giving you privacy. C-Common courtesy and all that.”

“Oh? Ooooookay then. If you say so, hah!”

Someone help me.

Numerous outfits later, and a storm of blushes now passed, I find myself sitting outside of the shop completely physically and mentally drained even further. Today’s just been rough, hasn’t it? I don’t think I’ll be able to explore the town any further after all of that. I find myself yawning once more, and I wipe the tired tears from my eyes. Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream, because boy am I tired.

“So, Leuce, if you are only passing through town, do you have anywhere to stay tonight?”

“…I’ll manage.”

“You’ll manage?! You better not be sleeping out in the streets! Are you? Are you Leuce?!”

“…I wouldn’t want to intrude.”

“Geez, can it already, would you? You’re fine! Sleep here tonight! My bed is big enough to share.”

“Seriously, I wouldn’t wa—”

“If you don’t stay here then I’ll drag you in, alright?”

“…Alright.”

--

So, I’ve ended up staying at someone’s house. Apparently, the downstairs portion of the shop is a living space for Big C and Mel. I wanted to avoid a situation like this, but I have clearly failed at that. I’ve even bathed using their washroom. I’ve gotten too lax.

I’m currently in Mel’s bed, sleepless as Mel mumbles incoherently in her sleep. This marks the first time I’ve been in bed with anyone else, ever. I’m stiff as a stone and wide awake because sleepy Mel has decided to wrap her arms around me and hug me. I can’t move without waking her up, so I’m stuck on my side just staring into her.

How did I end up on this side of the bed? Of course, I’m on the side next to the wall. My escape route is completely blocked off. I’d rather sleep on the floor than in this mess. Though… I’m reluctant to admit, the soft mattress of the bed was comfortable, and there was a strange… warm feeling I felt by being held like this.

It was nice. It was nice to be hugged after so long. I felt like I could power through whatever the Meadow presented me with because of this hug. Was it intentional? Probably not. But it calmed me down for a bit. Maybe it’s because I’m tired. Yeah, that’s it. I’m tired…

Suddenly, I felt Mel start to move. She looked like she was struggling in her sleep. She started breathing really quickly, and her grip on me started getting tighter. What was going on with her?

“Gyahhh! *huff* *puff*”

“Miss Mel, are you okay?”

“Oh, Leuce, sorry. Did I wake you?”

“D-Don’t worry about me. Are you alright? You have tears in your eyes. Were you having a—"

“A nightmare. Yeah. I have them every night. Ever since exposing myself to the Ackeronne as a child. It’s weird, because I feel as if each one tells a part of a story that I can’t quite connect. It’s hard to sleep with them sometimes.”

I figured it would be inappropriate to ask her more about her situation, so instead I decided to try and comfort her, like she did to me. I was acting purely on emotion and a brain deprived of sleep.

“…Miss Mel, lay back down.”

“Leuce?!”

“…Just do it.”

“Ok, ok.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you were hugging me when you slept earlier.”

“Was I? Hah! Sorry about that. I guess I’m a rowdy sleeper.”

“Allow me to return the favor.”

I wrapped my arms and legs around Miss Mel, mimicking what she had done to me. I could feel the blood rushing to my head. Why was I doing this? Was this okay? I’m not doing anything wrong am I? I’m not thinking straight. I need sleep. I feel myself getting sleepy.

“…Huh?! Leuce? Are you okay?”

“Hugs always help, Miss Mel. More than you think. *yawn*”

“…Leuce?”

“…Good…night…”

“You’re asleep?! Uh, well, good night Leuce… And thank you.”

Hello! My goodness has it been too long since I've last posted a chapter. This series is still very much alive, and I apologize for instilling any doubt into anybody that I would not return. The summer months have been a real kick in the shins to my productivity, but that has cleared up a bit. I should be able to write more often again.

But enough talk about me. This chapter was written in chunks at different times over a period of two months. I tried to make it cohesive, but likelihood is that the flow, conversations, (and possibly plot points) are a bit awkward. Either way, I hope it is enjoyable. Hopefully I'll be able to churn out another one soon. Thanks for reading!

I'll stop rambling now.

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