“Meooww!” Pinky claws at the tree trunk and meows again. She does not like being ignored, but right now Jude is too occupied to notice her eagerness for attention.
“Eh, good day isn’t it?” Jude says lamely. This pathetic comment on weather is the only thing that he could think of.
“I wouldn’t call it good since there’s no sun.” Arlo folds his arms, his eyes still fixed on Jude, who’s looking down at him from above the tree branch. “Anyway, do you mind telling me why are you staying on a tree? Were you trying to catch a bird or something but ended up being trapped up there?”
“Oh, right! The bird!” Jude nods desperately at his suggestion, even though it’s just a joke. “I was, umm, bird watching!”
“But I don’t see any bird here.” Arlo narrows his eyes, clearly not buying it.
“That’s because… it flew away! Pinky scared it!” Jude feels that his palm starts to sweat.
“Well, we’ll discuss about the ‘bird’ later.” Arlo does a quote gesture, probably picked up from Jude. “Can you get down from there? Need any help? It’s kind of tiring to look up at you all the time.”
“It’s okay! I can do it!” Jude flusters and begins to move, being too distracted by this impossibly awkward situation, his hand slips when he shifts his foot. “I’m coming down-Aaaaaahhhhhh!!” He screams as he loses his balance and falls off from the branch.
“Jude!” Arlo holds out his arm trying to catch him immediately but too late, with a muffled ‘thump’ Jude has already landed on the ground. Good thing it’s covered by a thick layer of grass.
“Ouch.” Jude mutters slowly. It actually doesn’t hurt much, except his ass, which must have landed first. I deserve this. He thinks sulkily, lying spread-eagle in the grass. For doing something this stupid.
“Oh my god, are you okay? Did you hit your head?” Arlo kneels down next to him and looks at him intently.
“I’m fine.” Jude sits up and shifts his eyes away from him guiltily. Sensing his concern makes him feel more uneasy considering what he’s been doing today.
“Meeoow!” Pinky jumps onto his lap and claws at his chest impatiently.
“Ouch!” Jude yells. That really hurts. Then he remembers Pinky is still here and how she led Arlo to the tree. “What do you want?” He stares down at her reproachingly.
“Purr…” Pinky looks back at him with innocent cat eyes. Damn, she’s too cute to be blamed for anything.
“Maybe she’s hungry.” Arlo snorts, suppressing his laughter. “That must be why she came straight to you.”
Then Jude’s stomach growls loudly as if it reacted on the word ‘hungry’, and Arlo bursts into laughter which he can’t hold back anymore. How can this day go any worse? Another wave of even stronger urge of killing himself has come back to Jude and he blushes uncontrollably.
“Well it looks like you are hungry, too.” Not wanting him to die from overwhelming embarrassment, Arlo manages to stop laughing not after long. He lifts Pinky up from Jude and gives him a hand to help him stand up. “Shall we get some food for the both of you?”
They are now sitting in the opposite couches in the living room of Jude’s house which has been expanded considerably after the last upgrade, but still remains chaotic due to the lack of order of the owner. An improvement is that there’s enough empty space to walk through since that total amount of the random items didn’t increase as much as the total space available did. At least now Arlo is able to walk around without tripping or stepping on anything covering the floor. Jude still remembers that vaguely repulsed look on Gust’s face when he first came in here to examine the house before making the new interior design, then he was told to put away his junk or else he’s not getting any upgrade. Jude had spent a day or so to stuff everything into chests or shelves. That wasn’t a very pleasant memory.
Pinky only ate about half of her lunch, probably because she wasn’t that hungry but just bored. She’s now curled into a ball on the couch snuggling against Jude and fast asleep. The motive of a cat’s strange behaviour is always hard to interpret.
“Are you ready to tell me about what were you doing before in the tree?” Arlo suddenly asks after watching Jude gobbling down a chicken sandwich he just made for himself.
“COUGH!” Jude chokes on this sudden interrogation while taking a bite from a second one. He hastily picks up his mug and gulps down a mouthful of coffee before he’s able to answer. “What- oh, that, eh.” He forces his brain to work faster to come up with a more credible explanation but in vain. “You know, like I said, just bird watching.” He looks away evasively.
“Hmm. You are being very suspicious today. I’ll make my own guess then.” Arlo narrows his eyes and starts to stroke his chin while thinking.
“You are wearing a hoodie today, which looks very shady.” Jude just realizes that he forgot to pull the hood off all the time.
“The tree you were sitting in, I think I saw a window next to it. Judging by its position, it’s very likely connected to The Round Table.” Since when did he become this observant? Jude wonders in frustration, feeling cold sweat sliding down his back.
“Also, I happened to feel like being watched all this morning until just now.” Jude does not like where this deduction is heading to.
“So…” Arlo drawls and Jude feels his blood turns cold. “Were you spying on me?”
There’s silence in the room for a while. “Yes.” Jude looks down and admits weakly, his shoulder sagged. There’s no point denying it after Arlo had found out the truth on his own. “I’m sorry.” He mutters nervously.
“Why though?” Arlo doesn’t sound accusing, just curious. “What’s so funny following me around? Did you find anything interesting?”
“Nothing actually.” Feeling guilty, Jude speaks in a low voice. “I just-“ Even though the secret mission has already been exposed, he still doesn’t feel like to reveal his motive. “I just wanted to do it, eh, for fun I guess. To find out what do you do on Saturday. That’s all.” He pauses for a bit and apologizes again in a whisper. “Sorry.”
“Really?” The faint suspicion that he’s not being perfectly honest still lingers, but Arlo doesn’t feel like to push it when Jude looks like he really feels bad about this. He’s strangely cute acting so submissive like this. Such a rare sight. Arlo thinks. “Alright then. Just don’t do it again, okay? It’s kind of dangerous, climbing trees and stuff. You might really hurt yourself someday.”
“Rest assured. I’ve learnt my lesson.” Jude mumbles. He swears to the devil that he will never do this again or anything that may drive him suicidal with an excruciatingly embarrassing outcome when it has backfired in any unexpected way.
“Don’t take this as an encouragement but you are really good at this.” Arlo says smiling, leaning back against the couch and putting his arm around the edge. “I hardly even noticed that someone else was around all morning.”
“It’s just like hunting. You keep an eye on your prey and don’t let them detect your presence.” Jude shrugs and casts down his half-eaten sandwich back to the plate. He’s done eating after the shock of being found guilty.
“Since when did you start watching me today?” Arlo asks with interest. “You didn’t peek inside my bedroom or the shower, did you? I hope you didn’t hear that weird song I usually sing when I shower in the morning.”
“WHAT THE- NO! It’s not like that- no- I’m not-“ Horrified, Jude raises his voice and stutters. “Why would I want to see you taking a shower??? I’m not a pervert!” Saying it out loud somehow makes him blush furiously.
“Relax! I was just teasing you. I know you wouldn’t.” Arlo laughs at his reaction, then he straightens his face and adds. “Seriously though, I don’t sing weird songs during shower, you are welcome to check that out if you want.” He laughs even louder after this.
Sensing that Jude might throw him out of the house any second if this goes on any longer, Arlo quickly stops laughing and says in a formal tone. “Ahem. Anyway, the reason I came to find you is that I want you to go on an investigation with me.
“I thought today is weekend, Mr. workaholic.” Jude narrows his eyes. Although still feeling moody after being teased, he plays along and lets Arlo divert the topic. It’s for the best to just drop it.
“It’s not about work.” Arlo explains. “I think there’s something unusual going on around town, call it a hunch if you want, but there are several reports of loud crashing noise recently. Since nothing has actually happened, it may not be a good idea to send all the Civil Corps members on investigation at this stage. That’s why I’m doing this on my own, well, if you’d like to join me that will make us two. I could really use the sharp sense of yours for finding hidden details. So what do you say?”
“Okay. I’m not doing anything today anyway.” Because I vacated the day for my spying mission which turned out to be a complete failure later. Jude adds secretly in his head.
“Great. Let’s go then.”
“Even though the fun of treasure hunting is in the process not the outcome, I have to say I’m not too thrilled to find more of these.” Says Jude, standing in front of a pile of mucus mixed with pieces of carcass belongs to some bug monster. Before this he has found a piece of llama fur tainted with blood and a little bit flesh, which clearly has been ripped away from the poor llama by some other monster. Following the direction indicated by the spilled blood on the ground, they have reached the small forest located east of town, where Jude has just found another trace of brutally slayed monster.
“You’ve already found another clue? Wow, that was fast.” Arlo walks towards Jude from the other side of the forest he was searching. “Have you considered joining Civil Corps someday? I would love to have you as a partner.”
“Ask me again when you’ve lost to me in a spar.” Jude rolls his eyes. “Though it might be the time for you to retire if that really happens.”
“Aw, don’t say that. You need to have faith in yourself.” Arlo laughs and begins to examine Jude’s finding closely. “Hmm… looks like there are shards of ladybug shell in the mucus. Can’t really tell if it’s the same monster that did all these though. All we’ve found are pieces and bits of dead preys, we don’t even know the genre of the attacker yet. The only thing that can be sure of is the frequency of monster slaughter is a little bit unusual.”
“You are saying, there might be more predator monsters around? An invasion maybe?” Jude is thinking about the possibilities. He likes mysteries when there aren’t other human beings involved.
“That’s a probability.” Arlo nods at his suggestion. “Let’s see where should we head next…” He looks at the dragging trail left at one side of the mucus and looks up to that direction. “I think that leads us to the waterfall.”
Standing under the waterfall again makes Jude remember that conversation they had the other day and the trouble he went through just an hour earlier. He can’t help but feel awkward again. The question which he failed to find an answer to has once come back to his mind and refuses to leave him in peace. Good thing that Arlo is too focused on the investigation to notice his uneasiness.
Maybe I should just ask him? Jude thinks. It couldn’t be worse than being caught spying on him all morning. I already lost all my dignity to him today so there’s nothing left to lose anyway. Yeah, it’s just a simple question. There’s nothing weird about it. Don’t be a coward. Right, let’s do this once and for all. Jude has made up his mind.
“Hey, eh, Arlo…” He starts in a casual tone. “I’m wondering, what happened after that day, you know, the day when we discussed about that personal topic right here?”
“What? Did you say something?” Arlo yells from some distance away. “You have to speak up, or else I can’t hear you over the noise of the waterfall.”
“I SAID, ARE YOU DATIN-“ Jude somehow has mustered the courage to ask that freaking question out loud on a whim, but really unluckily for him, an ominous shadow has jumped at him from the under the waterfall at the exact same moment and bites him in the arm.
“Aarrgh! What the-“ Without even making out what does the ambusher look like, Jude immediately draws out his dagger and stabs at it but missed since it quickly let go of his arm and falls off to the ground.
“Jude! Are you okay?” Hearing his scream, Arlo runs to where he is and just in time to see him rolling aside to dodge the attack from more of those monsters jumping out of water.
“Forget about me, let’s kill these things first.” Jude hides his bleeding arm away, not wanting his injury to be a distraction when the enemies just showed up. Now he has a clear view of his attackers. They look like a bunch of piranhas with frog legs, the sharp teeth of them glows viciously under the day light.
“Jump Dancers? What are they doing here?” Arlo says incredulously while kicking one that jumped at him unconscious and then finishes it off.
“Is that what they are called? Never seen these before.” Jude stabs one behind its head with his dagger and kills it. They are pretty fast jumping into the air but pretty slow after they’ve landed. Those frog legs aren’t exactly made for moving swiftly on the ground.
“They usually live in the hazardous ruins. It’s quite rare to see them out here.” Arlo grabs two and bumps them against each other which knocks them out. Even though he’s suddenly confronted by a dozen of Jump Dancers gritting their piranha teeth and waiting to bite, he just seems as collected as always without panicking even a bit. Jude thinks he’s more like a man-shaped monster compared with the lot of puny mutant fish.
The battle ends pretty soon when they’ve turned the group of Jump Dancers into dead fish littered around.
“I think we’ve reached the end of our investigation.” Arlo flips over a dead Jump Dancer with his boot and examines it. “If there’s been a group of Jump Dancers living under the waterfall, then it would explain the unusual casualty of the monsters around town.”
“Uh-huh.” Jude replies absentmindedly because the injury on his arm is too distracting. Despite it stings a lot, what he really worries about is how to prevent Arlo from noticing this until he gets home.
“There must be a reason why they- wait, what’s wrong with your arm?” And the next moment, Arlo notices he’s been keeping an arm behind his back. Oh, crap. Jude mentally does a heavy facepalm. Why does everything have to go against my will today?? Is this some kind of sick joke of the fate??
“Eh-“ Before he could come up with an excuse, Arlo has already grabs him by the other shoulder and pulls that arm he’s trying to hide forward. He gasps when seeing the blood dripping down from the wound.
“Oh my god! You are bleeding! Did you get bit by a Jump Dancer?” Holding his injured arm by the wrist, Arlo doesn’t seem that cool any more.
“A little bit, yes?” Jude says uneasily like a kid who’s been caught doing something wrong. Why does every time I got injured somehow I have to be with him as well? He wonders sulkily. What a weird coincidence.
“Hold still. I have to clean the wound first.” Still holding his wrist, Arlo pulls out a small bottle of clean water from his pack and flips open the lid with thumb. “It might hurt a little bit, don’t worry, it won’t be long.”
“Just do it.” Jude looks away and clenches his teeth. He decides to stay perfectly still and not let himself flinch at the pain. Any movement that may raise even more concern from Arlo is unwanted.
When the water runs across the bit wound, the stinging pain doubles and seeps deeply through his flesh. Damn that stupid fish, I’m gonna have fish for dinner and imagine that’s his cousin tonight. Jude tries to distract himself with a mental image of deep-fried fish served on table.
“You are doing great. It’s almost done now.” Arlo says in a soft voice trying to comfort him. “Now I’m gonna bandage it up but you still need to see Dr. Xu as soon as we get back. It’s just for emergency.”
“Okay.” Jude replies flatly, he actually feels more uncomfortable being treated like this. Watching Arlo carefully wrapping bandage around the wound with great concern in his eyes, Jude finds there’s an odd sensation bothering his heart. He can’t tell what it is because he has never felt like this before. It’s like a cat gently puts his paw against his heart without showing any claws, just the soft fur and warm toe beans. It actually feels pretty nice but he wants to suppress it down since this is such a strange and unfamiliar experience for him.
“Done. How do you feel now? Does it still hurt much?” While he’s still spacing out, Arlo has already finished the bandaging and pats him on the shoulder.
“Huh? Oh, it’s fine. I can hardly feel it.” Jude quickly pulls himself together and reassures.
“That’s good to hear.” Arlo smiles, then he suddenly remembers. “Hey, wait a minute. Wasn’t you about to ask me something before those Jump Dancers showed up?”
“Oh, that.” Jude shifts his eyes away to stare at a tree for a moment before turns back to Arlo. “I was just wondering… are you going out with Rapunzel after that day?”
“Rapunzel? What kind of nickname is that?” Arlo tilts his head.
“Just some girl with long magical hair.” Jude is surprised to find out that he hasn’t heard of it. They probably read different sets of fairy tales growing up. “I’m talking about the church girl.”
“You mean Nora? You really need to start remembering people’s names instead of making weird nicknames, it can be confusing sometimes.” Arlo shakes his head ruefully and then continues. “No, I turned her down. I don’t think I’m the right person for her. There must be someone better than me to make her happy.”
Hearing the negative answer, a grin full of delight appears on Jude’s face without knowing. Despite just had the probably most unfortunate day of his life, he feels like it’s all worth it in the end. He’s too glad to even question himself why would he think like this.
“Hey, why do you look so happy about this?” Displeased, Arlo puts his arm around Jude’s neck and ruffles his hair with the other hand using extra force. “Me not getting a girlfriend is such good news to you? You little bastard.” Then the realization comes to him. “Wait. Is this the reason why you’ve been following me around today?”
“Nope.” Jude says curtly without caring whether he buys it or not, he doesn’t even struggle against Arlo to try to free himself. Instead, he simply relaxes and lets Arlo have his way with his head. All he cares right now is the sweet relief that Arlo doesn’t have a girlfriend.
End of Chapter 13
Stupid me, almost forgot to insert the pic lol