As I had suspected, the courtyard where Mid-Night Meal was held was buzzing with students. I was able to pick out the usual cliques: the athletes, the academics, the artists, the musicians. Some students floated between two or more, and few even kept to little groups with no discernible label. All were discussing their schedules, assignments they had already received, their adventures over the break, and gossip.
All speaking dissolved into whispers as we entered.
I knew how it looked; I knew walking in with Axel by Sage’s side, as opposed to Gal’s, would imply a romantic relationship between them. I knew that having Max beside me would only solidify the rumors that we were related. Most importantly, I knew that placing Gal, a witch who was not an heir or witch head, between two heirs would put the spotlight on her.
It shouldn’t be about me versus anyone, I reminded myself. It should be about an innocent girl being attacked by an upperclassman.
The five of us made our way to the serving tables that lined the furthest side of the courtyard, separating the students from the kitchens. Rectangular picnic tables were scattered all over the courtyard; lanterns of iron and glass containing bright spheres of light hovered over each table, acting as beacons beneath the pitch black sky. Distant sounds of traffic were heard, reminding me that more Haunters lived within the dark dimension than not.
From what I could tell, the first few serving tables on the left contained an assortment of berries, cubed fruits, nuts, and chopped vegetables. The next few had rice, beans, pasta, sauces, fresh-baked bread rolls, and pastries for dessert. The last few tables to the far right were dedicated to meat–steak, fish, shrimp, and chicken breasts. Two beverage stations acted as separators between the three groups, boasting an assortment of tea, coffee, soda, and blood.
When we reached the serving tables, I released Gal’s arm and began serving myself. I grabbed a tray and a small bowl, filled the center of the bowl with whipped cream, and poured a couple scoops of blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries into the mixture. As I moved onto the next group, I noticed that Sage and Axel had gone ahead and helped themselves; Axel opted for a blood fruit smoothie and a chocolate-filled pastry, while Sage was making their own salad. Galiana had an empty tray in hand and was eyeing the fruits when Max took her tray.
“I’ll hold it for you,” he told her. I scowled. Gal, please tell me you’re not gonna take that.
“Oh! Uhm, okay.”
… Goddess damn it, Gal.
I left them to it and grabbed a bread roll and another small bowl of rice, then moved onto the meats. I plucked a small, round cut of steak off its steaming platter and set it on a small round plate before adding the plate to my tray. It remained balanced in my left hand as I fished a diet soda from the ice bucket at the beverage station, grabbed a set of utensils with a cloth napkin wrapped around it, and I turned to see where Axel, Max, and my guides were when I ran into another student. My tray collided with his arm, losing its balance and tipping over.
“Shit–!” I reached for the falling tray–only to blink and find it not in my hands. Not on the floor.
The other student had caught the tray and was holding it out to me. He sported a short afro of deep brown coils, and his eyes were bright like amber as they gazed into mine apologetically.
“Sorry,” he said nervously. “I shouldn’t have been standing here in the way.”
Huh? “No, it was my fault for not watching where I was going,” I assured him, studying the pins on his blazer. His left lapel bore a pin depicting a white and black waxing gibbous moon, and his right a pin with a white lunar spiral.
So he’s a third year and a Hunter. I’d expect a third year to react differently to an underclassmen–then again, I might just scare him after this morning.
“Well, thanks for saving my food,” I said with a half smile. Then I scurried off to join Axel, who was waiting for me with Sage. Gal and Max were still piling food onto their shared tray when the vampire gestured for me to follow him with a nod.
“They’ll come find us when they’re done. Let’s go find a quiet table.”
The last remaining table was back by the path we took from the main building; the nearest table was at least two meters away, filled with freshmen Hunters and Enchanters. Lilly, who was seated among them, waved in my direction, and I returned the gesture with a smile before claiming my seat. Axel took the spot to my right, and Sage sat across from us, their eyes darting between the other tables.
“Any onlookers?” I asked in a soft tone, fork and knife ready to cut my steak.
“A few,” Sage signed, their lips pursed. “Some Haunters. Some Hunters. Mostly Witches.”
I was right, they use British sign language. I set down my utensils and signed, “Anyone specific that gives you bad vibes?”
They nodded and pulled out their phone. I retrieved mine from my bag and found that Axel had invited me to a group made up of him, Sage, and Galiana. I accepted the invite in time to read Sage’s newest message:
(Sent at 3:11 AM) sagebloodworth: Lenora
I nodded. Just as I thought. She’s trying to see if I was rattled–and I wouldn’t put Jude’s attack on Gal past her, either.
“You really didn’t need to carry my stuff.” Galiana’s uneasy words reached me as she and Max rounded the table. She claimed the spot next to Sage and in front of me, with Max sitting beside her.
“It’s no problem at all,” Max shrugged. “Thanks for letting me.”
He says that as if she thanked him. I fought the urge to roll my eyes and was about to ask how third period would be executed when two seniors approached our table.
“New year, new table?” asked the first jokingly. His short, black hair was molded into a faux-hawk, and his teal eyes passed over each of us with interest. He set his tray down beside Max and waved to the rest of us half-heartedly. “Hey, I’m Diego. That’s Oreste.”
Oreste was taller, and his dark hair was shaved short. His already brown eyes seemed to darken as he pouted. “I deserve a far better introduction than that.”
Diego sighed and muttered under his breath. “Save your intro for your followers.”
I was wondering why they both looked and sounded familiar when Gal gasped. “Oh my goddess! You’re GoGoGlam, that popular DarkScene influencer who started blowing up on the Nethru gaming scene!” she gushed, her eyes on Oreste. They widened even more when they landed on Diego. “A-And you’re KidxReject! You’re, like, one of the most popular streamers on Nethru.”
“Oh, darn! Looks like we were recognized again,” Oreste feigned disappointment, a feat made impossible by the goofy grin on his face. “Guess that means you watch Hex’s streams, huh?”
“That’s right!” I recalled. “You guys play co-op with Hexdout.”
“I’m a big fan of all of you,” Galiana told the seniors. “I’ve been watching Hex since he started, though, so he holds a special place in my heart.”
I caught the red tint that had taken over Max’s ears as he busied himself with his meal. Interesting…
“Hey, Cari!” My thoughts were interrupted by a familiar voice; Renette and Sofia had approached our table, each carrying a tray with half-eaten food. Renette gestured to the empty space to my left. “These seats taken?”
“Hi Nini, Sofia!” I beamed at the new arrivals. “They’re yours if you want ‘em.”
“Thanks!” They took their seats and greeted the others. Once they were settled, Renette asked, “How’s your first day been so far, Cari?”
I shrugged. “Oh, you know. I beat up a vampire and made a scene–so, ya know, the usual.”
“Obviously,” Sofia snickered. Her eyes fell on Galiana. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like I could take on a vampire,” she joked. “But seriously, I’m doing alright. I don’t feel any of the typical symptoms, so I’d say I’m over it.”
Sofia nodded and resumed picking at her plate, seemingly distracted by something.
“You guys mind if I squeeze in?” I turned to see that the junior Hunter I had bumped into earlier was aiming his question at Axel, a tray of uneaten food in his hands.
“Sure, man.” Axel nudged me, and we scooted over until there was ample space on our bench for one more. As the junior sat, the vampire introduced him to the rest of us.
“Guys, this is Jett Danvers. He just transferred in, and it’s his first time in a magick school. He’s cool.”
Jett waved to the rest of us kindly before addressing Gal. “Hey, uh, I saw what happened this morning. Glad to see you’re okay.”
Galiana’s cheeks were flushed with color. “Oh! Uh-um, thank you. Welcome to AOA–if you ever need anything, let someone here know. We don’t bite.”
“I resent that,” Axel cautioned with a toothy grin.
“How about, ‘We don’t bite without consent’?” Sage suggested.
Jett nodded, impressed. “I can get with that.”
Max seemed to recover from whatever was causing him to blush. “Gal? I’ve been meaning to ask–are you engaged to Gerardo?”
Axel choked on his smoothie. Sage, who was in the middle of eating, dropped his fork onto his plate. Oreste’s mouth formed an “O” as if his mind had exploded. Jett’s expression was contorted in confusion as his amber eyes studied the two of them. The rest of us at the table quietly exchanged puzzled glances as Gal cleared her throat.
“Uhm, n-no?” was her bewildered response. “Where did you get that idea from?”
Max shrugged. “I don’t know, the way he acted when he came to the healing ward was different than I had expected.”
Sage and Axel squared their shoulders. “Gerardo visited you?” the Haunter asked.
“Wait, you visited her?” Diego muttered to Max before turning to Oreste. “Did you kn–?”
The cryptic look on his friend’s face told him everything. “You knew. The hell, man?”
“Yes! Okay?” Gal whisper-shouted. “Max came to see me after Jude left the healing ward, and Gerardo came to see me after that. Hell, Cari came to see me after that with Nini and Sofia! Any other questions?”
“I have a few, if you don’t mind.”
I glanced over my shoulder to find the senior who had made the remark hovering over me. His dirty blonde braids were held back in a ponytail by a hairband, and his pierced eyebrows, gauged ears, and golden eyes were all the identifiers I needed.
My jaw dropped. “A-Arion Floros?!”