It’s already been two months since Jude arrived in Portia.
People still don’t know much about him but they certainly have got used to him. Although he generally does not seem to be friendly but there aren’t any bad rumors about him either. Even those who held dubious attitude toward him have to admit that it’s good to have another skillful builder in town. As for the people who get to see him on a much more frequent basis, they even start to consider him as a buddy though it’s unclear that whether Jude himself thinks the same way or not.
“Good morning, Jude. Well, it’s morning for you and almost noon for the rest of us.” Antoine says when Jude enters the commerce guild. He nods without a word as usual.
“Hi, Jude. Nice inspection work yesterday. You really showed them what a perfect inspection is.” Presley greets from his desk. Jude gives him a nod, too.
“Is this the only commission left today?” Jude asks after checking the bulletin board. It’s commissioned by Sam. Running all over the town to look for a patrolling Civil Corps member to deliver the commission is definitely not one of his favorite hobbies.
“Too bad, it is. You know how fast commissions are taken on Mondays.”
Jude sighs but takes the commission anyway.
“Say, you look dehydrated.” Antoine leans over the counter. “Skin care is a serious issue. You need to take more care of yourself since you’ve got such a cute face.”
Jude nearly trips at his last comment while leaving and then hastily closes the door behind him, leaving Antoine chuckling to himself at his reaction.
“Eghhnn.” Jude groans. He’s not used to being teased.
“Let's see here. Not too shabby, good form, this will do. I'll have this installed soon, thank you.” Says Albert, examining the result of another completed commission by Jude.
“Jude, why won’t you hang out with me?” Albert puts the commissioned items away. His offers for play date to Jude have been turned down every time, it becomes more like a habit for him to keep asking. “Come on, I think we could be good pals.”
“Nope.” Jude refuses curtly.
“Awww, you are no fun. I could tell you a lot of useful information about the ladies in this town.”
Jude has become some kind of regular of A&G Construction since the development of South Block started. Most times he’s just here to deliver commissions but he also comes for trading materials from time to time.
Gust turns his head a little from his desk to nod at Jude as acknowledging his presence and he nods back. It’s like their ritual thing to do when seeing each other.
“Ginger wants me to ask if you are free tomorrow night?” Gust suddenly says.
“Tell her I’ll be there.” Ever since they first encounter by the riverbank the night before, they would hang out like this once or twice a week.
“She seems happier these days. You have my thanks.”
“Hey, how come I never get to hang out with Ginger?” Alberts interrupts. “Gust, you are not being fair!”
Jude leaves A&G as Albert keeps protesting and Gust simply ignores him while getting back to his work.
“Hahhh.” Arlo sighs deeply and sits down by the table in Civil Corps, sulking.
“What? Are you still upset about Jude turning you down last weekend?” Sam asks, sitting against the wall at the other end of the hall, working with the maintenance of her gears.
“I just don’t get him.” Arlo runs his fingers through his hair slightly frustrated. “We got along really well in the last adventure but the next time I saw him, he seemed to be his old self again! Then I tried sparring with him every time we met to get closer, but that didn’t work either.”
“You mean him being wrestled down to the ground by you within 20 seconds every time?” Remington snorts, seated at the opposite side of the table. “For an archer, he really is doing the best he can. You need to go easier on him.”
“I already tried. I’m just not very good at going easy, okay?” Arlo complains.
“Well, if this will make you feel any better, you are the person that Jude likes most from my perspective.” Sam says. “Remy and I haven’t even got him speak more than three words at a time when talking to him. You have undeniably most of his attention among all of us.”
“But he’s still keeping his distance from me. It’s like I’ve hit an invisible wall.” Arlo gestures with his hands. “I can see him right there but he won’t let me reach him. It’s almost like he’s afraid of something. What could possibly be holding him back?”
“I don’t know much about Jude’s past, so I’ll just tell what I learnt of him from my experience.” Remington says. “I think he’s like a cat in a new environment and people is what scares him the most. Although he won’t run away if you approach him alone but he’ll hiss at you if you reach out your hand and this is where most people stop. However, Arlo just went ahead and pet him anyway. Even though he won’t bite, it still takes a lot of guts to hold out your hand casually to a hissing cat, so that’s why only Arlo can be his friend.”
Arlo bursts out with laughter. “Haha, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Remy, I didn’t know you are a cat person.”
“I used to feed stray cats.” Remington smiles. “Too bad I never had a chance to keep one living in Civil Corps.”
“Speak of the devil, or cat.” Sam snickers when the door is pushed open and Jude appears.
Noticing all three of them are staring at him somehow, Jude stops at where he is. He looks at Arlo questioningly as if asking what the hell is wrong with them.
“Oh, hi, Jude.” Arlo tries real hard to repress the urge to laugh. “We were just talking about cats. Do you know that Remy likes cats, too?”
“That’s true.” Sensing his gaze diverts to him, Remington says, with faint amusement in his voice. “I heard from Arlo that you adopted Pinky? That’s very nice of you.”
Still oblivious of why they are all acting so weird, Jude rolls his eyes and doesn’t intend to dig into this. Instead, he walks towards Sam and hands over the commissioned item receiving a “Thank you” with giggles from her.
“Hey, Jude. Wait.” Arlo catches up after him as he’s about to leave. “Let me walk you back.”
The door closes after they both left. Remington and Sam look at each other.
“Arlo is really obsessed about being friends with Jude, huh?” Sam says. “I’ve never seen him so interested in someone like this. He can hardly stop talking about Jude these days.”
“You know he’s always up for challenges and Jude is like the toughest nut to crack in town.” Remington shrugs.
“Do you think he will succeed with this task?”
“I can only hope so.”
It’s almost dark when they walk past the town gate.
“Are you okay?” Says Arlo, watching Jude massaging his back.
“Fine. At least I lasted 30 seconds today, isn’t that an improvement?” Jude says sarcastically and narrows his eyes. “Or were you going easy on me?”
“Nope. Don’t know what you are talking about.” Arlo diverts his eyes quickly and denies. “You are really getting better at this.”
“Whatever. Goodbye.” Jude is ready to part ways when his workshop is in sight but he freezes as he notices something is different.
“What’s wrong?” Sensing his pause, Arlo asks. Then he sees it, too.
Under light from the lamp post beside the workshop gate, the mailbox is smashed into pieces. There’s also a note can be seen left upon the remains. Jude picks it up and gives it a brief read then throws it aside. Arlo catches the note and it reads,
You might notice work is a little harder without your precious mailbox. It'll be even harder to work without your Resource Box. Quit doing stuff around town like you're some sort of gift to Portia and leave.
“Why, this is a threat! How can anyone do something like this!” Arlo raises his voice in anger. “Leave it to me, Jude. I’ll find out who did it!”
“Heh. Don’t bother.” Jude lets out a humorless laugh. “There are jokers like this everywhere. Just ignore them and they’ll get tired. It’s not worth anyone’s time to try to find them.”
“What?” Arlo widens his eyes and looks at him in disbelief. “But this is a crime! At least it’s my job to get to the bottom of this.”
“Well, if that’s the case, I’ll choose not to report this then.” Jude folds his arms. “Really. Just forget about it. I’ll see what I can do about it.”
They look at each other in silence for a while, then Arlo sighs.
“Jude, are we friends?”
“Huh?” Jude is caught off guard by this question. “I don’t know, are we?”
Noticing the slight hurt in Arlo’s eyes, he quickly amends his answer. “Of course! Yes, we are friends!” He rubs his neck nervously. “I’m sorry. I really don’t know much about how friendship works. I mean, I do like having your accompany even though you can be annoying some times. Overall, I think you are good.”
“Let’s talk about how you think me being annoying next time.” Arlo narrows his eyes and Jude looks back at him with a I’m-not-good-at-being-subtle look on his face. “I see you as my friend, too.” There’s sincerity in his voice. “As a friend, I’m really concerned that something like this has happened to you and I want to help.”
“Thanks? I really appreciate it?” Jude says with uncertainty. Gosh, the sentiment. It’s really getting on my nerve. He thinks. “But I don’t need help.”
Hearing him say it without any hesitation in an indifferent tone, Arlo thinks he now knows what has been holding Jude back. Relying on others has never been an option for him, either emotionally or practically, he takes everything on himself without a second thought. Arlo could not imagine how did he live through all the tough times on his own.
“It’s only natural for friends to help each other.” He says gently. “You would help me if I’m in trouble, right?”
“Sure. I’m willing to help.” Jude says. “But I’m not sure if I can kick the ass of someone that even you can’t deal with.”
“It’s the thought that counts.” Arlo chuckles. “Then why won’t you let me help you?”
Jude sighs, organizing his thoughts. After a moment, he speaks. “When I was in grade school, there was one time that I beat the shit out of a kid. His gang and him had been picking on me for a while, like calling me names and messing with my stuff. However, the adults really favored him and decided it was solely my fault and I got detention for the rest of the semester. When my aunt learnt about this, she told me to calculate the consequences before acting and think about is it really worth the price you may pay.” He shrugs. “That’s a very valuable lesson. From then on I stayed away from trouble and paid the jokers no mind. That’s what my aunt did when she received anonymous hate mails, too. I tried to be as tough as her.”
There’s something that doesn’t sound right in what he just said but Arlo can’t put his finger on what it is at first. Then it suddenly comes to him, it’s the way that Jude talked about himself. It was like he’s telling another person’s story that doesn’t matter to him despite the injustice and mistreatment in it.
“There wasn’t anyone for you when the other kids picked on you?” He finally asks.
“Huh? I think this is not the point that I tried to make.” Confused, Jude scratches his head. “No. All the other kids stayed away from me and my aunt never intervened with anything except work.”
Arlo is speechless. He tries to imagine how it feels like to be a child that has no one to turn to when facing all the unfairness and this is what Jude has been dealing with all these years. He can’t help but feel deeply sorry for Jude.
“Hey, why the sad look?" Jude says nervously, looking up at Arlo.
“I’m here for you.”
“You can depend on me, even if it’s just small things, you can talk to me about it. You can’t deal with things like this in a cost-effective way like it’s just work or something.” Arlo looks him in the eyes firmly. “Your feelings matter. They matter to me. I’ll feel upset too if you are upset.”
“I’m not-“ Jude tries to deny it immediately but what Arlo just said makes him feel like something’s stuck in his throat. All of a sudden, the feelings that he’s been repressed for so long that he even forgets they still exist surface into his mind. A strange sensation spreads across his heart that feels like it’s out of control for a moment.
“Fine. I’m upset.” Jude says when he’s finally able to speak again, smiling. He does feel pissed off by the broken mailbox but the overflowing warmness inside him is the only thing he can tell right now.
“You look awfully happy for someone who’s supposed to be upset.” Arlo smiles, too. “Seriously, though. Let me handle this. I have to teach whoever did this to my friend a lesson.”
“Okay, okay. You can have this one.” Jude holds up his hands as if he’s surrendering. “I’m counting on you.”
“You got it, I’ll start the investigation right now! See ya!”
“Shouldn’t you wait till tomorrow?” Too late, Arlo is already gone. “Seriously…” Mumbling to himself, Jude shakes his head ruefully. Then he realizes that he’s still smiling.
So this is how having a friend feels like? He thinks, looking towards the direction where Arlo disappeared. The lights from the town look so bright under the dark purple night.
End of Chapter 7