The bed felt vaguely comforting as if Erska was getting pulled inside, cuddling while grabbing the nearest pillow. Rays of light in consecutive motions irritated her eyes, causing her to blink repeatedly. There was no use to continue sleeping now that she was wide awake. It was due to the curtains swinging back and forth that prevented the sun from shocking her to get out of the bed. Instinctually, her fingers reached for the pillow and pushed it against the head post, resting her back against the softness rather than the wooden form of the bed. Stretching her neck, her eyes fell on the ceiling and a series of last night’s memories came flooding, in no particular sequence whatsoever. Rubbing her forehead, she tried to get out of the bed only to jump back in surprise at her mother’s sudden appearance which equalled the right amount of caffeine to get going with her day.
“Mo-Mom. What are you doing here?” Erska stuttered, pinching herself.
“Don’t you think I should be asking that? How could you sleep through all the ruckus that you’ve made? Were you blindly drunk, Erska?” berated her mother breathlessly, giving Erska no time to think.
“Wh-What? I mean, yea..I..” she mumbled, looking at her surroundings clearly for the first time. “Wait. How am I here?” she said, swiftly turning left and right to re-check where she was. “How did I end up at home?”
“You’ve been the talk of the town for the past eight hours yet you slept through it like a baby. Thank your friends. They dropped you here last night. Do you know how many of us had to carry you to your room?” her mother stated, feeling incredulous.
“Carry me? How did I miss that?” Erska wondered.
“I almost broke an arm,” her mother said, massaging her shoulder on cue.
“So, that happened. What happened to Bastian, Haruhi…?” Erska’s voice slowly trailed off with her mother’s changing expression, her eyebrows hawk-like.
“Are you worried about them now? For the mess you’ve created, don’t you think you should be focused on something else?” Alice reminded, diverting the direction of the topic. “The hottest news among publishers is that you’ve been getting rejected at most of the places. What are you going to do now?”
Erska’s eyes lowered to the floor instantly, away from her mother’s judgemental look. “I haven’t decided yet...I will think of something..”
“You haven’t done anything? Please. If you had a plan like I did for you during your first book, your book would have reached millions by now! If you are this slow, that final step is almost like a dream for you,” taunted Alice, chattering away.
“I don’t understand, mom. I don’t have the resources and no, I don’t have a plan but I am pretty proud of myself for what I’ve done,” she said, scratching her head. “I’ll go at my pace.”
“And fall behind? You have competition worldwide and you want to go at your pace? That’s the kind of thinking I want to prevent you from. When you get to the place faster than others and be a winner, why waste all this time?” rattled Alice, irked by Erska’s attitude.
“But mom,” she persisted, looking at her mother’s face for the first time. “You and dad are workaholics and I’ll always just be a shadow of both of you if I don’t step out. If I’ve come this far, isn’t that at least a tad amazing?”
Alice shook her head in disapproval. While slowly clapping her hands, she said, “So? Okay. I compliment you. Now, what? You want to dream in that moment, that sense of achievement? Isn’t that like a fake fantasy when you are a million steps behind?”
Erska sighed. “Why can’t you be like dad? Even if he is far away, he is always waving a flag of support for me. I’m not asking for help, just a word or two. Is it that hard, mother?”
Hearing this ripped Alice a bit on the inside, her fists were curled tight as she bit her lip. Placing the hand on the side table with a bang, she fumed. “I know that he’s your father but when has he ever been here? Didn’t that fall on me? I had to do everything. Your dad has gotten so used to work that his hands would start trembling if he kept still! That’s why I did everything! To be both parents!”
And that was the truth which Erska, Alice and Richard commonly agreed on without needing to communicate. “Mom. I know that. I know that everything that you did, you were doing it for me. There’s no doubt about that.”
Alice began shaking Erska’s shoulders. “Then, why do you keep doing this to me? Why can’t you come home and just be the good little daughter you are.”
Erska placed her hand firmly on her mother’s. “I am an adult now. I want to take responsibility for the things I do. How long am I going to keep relying on you or dad?”
“Do that with me. Do whatever you want with me, with dad. With the family,” suggested Alice in a rather pleading tone. “Why are you keeping us away?”
Erska blinked, taking deep breaths. “Very recently, I’ve found out that the outside world is scary, like you said there’s no denying it but I think I’ll feel even more loser-like if I didn’t experience anything scary. After all, I want to be treated like a human, not some princess in a castle. Isn’t that what you are doing? By saying that you’d keep protecting me, you keep making me feel like a failure because I can’t do anything on my own.”
Alice was getting frustrated with Erska going around in circles. “That is not what I’m saying. Regarding the publishers not accepting your script. Doesn’t this tell you that maybe you were wrong about a few things? Maybe you give what the audience wants instead of what you are trying to say?”
“Mom. I haven’t even released my novel and you say these things? And so what if I lose my reader base? Isn’t that fake, anyway? Something fake that you created to save me? Everyone thinks I’m this person who writes cheesy romance when I don’t do that. Do I have to live like this, like this fake person that you’ve created for me?”
Alice continued, “Doesn’t it say something? No one is ready to accept what you are trying to put out. Then, why do keep chasing futile things like a little kid? You should start growing up, Erska.”
Erska protested firmly, “No, mother. No one has even read it then how can you be so sure? Just because they have rejected me, is there not even one person who’d enjoy? And mother, I’ll grow up when this fake skin of mine sheds by itself. You have done your best to help me but now, I have to do it on my own which I can’t when you keep helping me out.”
Alice’s demeanour changed, her sorrowful eyes narrowed. “Listen to yourself. That’s overconfidence speaking. When you play a game, you measure all components and enter it with a backup but you are being impulsive, ready to ram into things.”
Though Erska’s pupils trembled, her voice crumbled- she still continued, wanting to flush out what she had been holding back for quite a long time. “Then, I’ll fall. So what? I’ll learn. When everything that is supposedly me, either my first novel or my fans – everything was created due to a lie. Basically, I’m back to square one. I have got nothing to lose. Fame? Should I go smiling and waving about because they are praising me? It felt bloody disgusting. When I am at a place where I feel that I’ve hit it in life, then I’ll return home just to brag that you’ve been wrong.”
“I cannot believe this. How could you not tell me that Bastian’s reporting officer was keeping in check?” Quincy groaned in disbelief, his hands ready to wring Haruhi’s neck. “I never thought this would go to this extent,” he said, spreading his arms wide, indicating how untimely their presence at the HQ was.
“Even if I told you, this time, there was nothing we could have done. It was going to be a private party. The chances were absolutely low for mishap of any sort to occur. And it has damaged both Erska and Bastian,” she said, tapping her feet as she looked at Bastian and Vidya engaged in a serious discussion. Just as Haruhi had anticipated, Bastian was called to report to Orfer when the internet massacre had begun. Unfortunately for them, the Draphas tracked things a lot quicker than any agency – celestial or otherwise. So, while people at the HQ were planning to butcher them, they were hopping around like clueless lambs for three hours. Despite Bastian’s reluctance, both of them had tagged along since they were unsure of the consequences.
“What do you think will happen?” inquired Quincy.
“Well, if they are making a huge commotion about this, I have a feeling that Bastian is Class A. Do you remember being taught about the different classes during the initiation session?”
“Yes but how does class have anything to do with this?”
“Amongst the three classes and A being the highest – it means that they have a lot riding on compared to the others. Thus, the reaction will be drastic which means the measures taken to counter will be equally drastic. Quincy, you said you were Class B, right? Do I have to remind how idiotic how you acted?” she reminded him. “You were a drunk mess!”
“Okay. Focus. Focus,” Quincy said hurriedly as Bastian walked towards them. “So, what did she say, Bastian?”
Bastian scratched his head in confusion. “I don’t know why they are making a big deal about the articles on the internet. I’ve repeatedly told her that it was false but she isn’t ready to believe me. Anyways, I’ll talk to Orfer and be done with it. Is Erska going to be fine, Haruhi?”
Quincy was heavily trying to suppress his rabid attitude towards Bastian. “You take care of yourself first!”
“She is being taken care of by her friends. Don’t worry,” said Haruhi as she swatted Quincy on the mouth.
“Then, that’s fine….so, when are you guys going back?” Bastian enquired, dusting off his hands.
“We aren’t going anywhere, Bastian! Until you finish whatever business you got in here!” Quincy responded, his voice thundering down the hallway to Haruhi’s dismay and Bastian’s confusion.
“Why is he acting all cranky?” asked Bastian when he saw Haruhi grabbing Quincy by the collar.
Before Quincy could continue, she stomped his feet letting him bellow like a donkey for a while. “Leave him. I got some old friends. It’s been quite a long time since I came here so..don’t worry..” she said as if she was reminiscing, touching the faint shiny yellow walls.
“Would you consider me an old friend, dear?” asked Waldo who had stopped to make conversation. He was holding a bunch of files.
Haruhi’s legs went stiff into attention and saluted him devoid of any command to the surprise of her colleagues.
“At ease, Haruhi. You make me feel old,” said the old man, his eyes twinkling.
“You really are a popular one, Waldo,” commented Bastian casually to Haruhi’s astonishment.
“That right there, Bastian, is an amazing student of mine,” said Waldo, pointing towards Haruhi.
“You flatter me, sir. And…may I know if you’ve switched jobs if I’m not overstepping boundaries?” she asked cautiously.
“Ahhhh.. this?” Waldo said, showing the files he had in his hand. “I do a lot of odd jobs, you know me..”
Haruhi looked stunned, her face trying to contain emotions. “But-But how could you-”
He cut her off with a roaring laugh before she could finish. “No job is ever too small, Haruhi. Now, if you’ll excuse me but let’s have a cup of tea before you guys leave, okay?”
Haruhi nodded her head in affirmation but as Waldo was about to bid adieu, Quincy interrupted him. Teasingly he asked, “Now, hold on, old man. I’ve never seen you praise anyone but you don’t even acknowledge me?”
“Quincy!” hissed Haruhi.
“What do you want, Quincy? Wouldn’t you be fine if I got you one of your exquisite milkshakes?” countered Waldo.
Quincy pondered seriously. “That would..be fine but that wasn’t the point!”
“How about you and Haruhi get into a duel? If you are able to defeat her, that’s fine?”
Haruhi fell mum as Quincy narrowed his eyes. “Are you being serious, Waldo? I could defeat her.”
“Know your neighbours well, Quincy,” stated Waldo as he walked away with those files. “Because she threw me down within the third attempt and she was barely a rookie at that time.”
Both Bastian and Quincy turned to Haruhi with shock printed onto their faces. “You got some kind of dark history or something?” asked Bastian.
“I’ll tell you guys when I have the time,” she said, trying not to stumble on her words, looking up as if she was admiring the geometric gold tinted ceilings.
“Bastian!” interjected Vidya in a stern manner. “Orfer will see you now.”
“Okay, guys. Behave well. Quincy, don’t go chasing around girls and give Haruhi a hard time, yeah?” Bastian said as he was about to walk in.
“He’ll be alright?” asked Quincy to no one in particular, anxious about the outcome.
“Whatever happens is fated, Quincy and whatever everyone is fated to undergo, they will have to overpower their way through it,” replied Haruhi, a cold answer in the calmest way possible.
However, inside Orfer’s office, Bastian was rather relaxed because he was unable to understand why he was summoned for baseless rumours. He was ready to accept any sort of punishment if it pointed to the fact that he had been carelessly leaving Drapha traces all over the internet. Apart from this, he wasn’t going to hold back. At least that’s what he thought he would do.
“Nice to see you, Bastian. Why don’t you sit down?” Orfer asked him in a courteous tone.
“Thank you, sir.”
Orfer straightened his back, drumming his fingers against the table. “Let’s get straight down to business, shall we?”
Bastian was quick to jump at this chance in an attempt to redeem himself. “I just want to say one thing, sir. Those rumours about me and Erska, my former assignment are just rumours. I don’t understand why this is an issue..”
Orfer blinked. “What makes you think that is why I ordered you to come?”
“It’s not?” he asked, tilting his head to one side. “Then? I never caused any other trouble recently..”
“Actually,” Orfer said as he pulled out a paper from underneath his desk while unscrewing the cap of his ink pen. “I’m just going to make a monthly evaluation.”
“On Quincy,” he specified. “You do know he’s retired, right?”
“I know that he’s retired,” Bastian replied, nodding his head.
“Is he functioning normally? Any deviations from his behaviour?”
“No. He’s normal,” Bastian said, frowning. “Wait a minute. Why does he require an evaluation anyway? Is this some kind of new rule that I’m not aware of?”
“Bastian, you aren’t aware of this because you are an active Drapha and he has retired. We have separate specifications,” explained Orfer. “Shall we continue?”
“Okay…but this feels weird, like being pried on without Quincy’s knowledge,” stated Bastian.
“This is normal. You know we at the HQ keep working for the welfare of our Draphas, right? Can we please continue?” Orfer insisted, tapping on the blank sheet he was holding.
“Anything weird at all?”
“No, he was his normal self, chasing girls and stuff but recently, maybe guys too? Does that count too?” Bastian enquired in a hesitant tone, not sure if it was relevant to the question.
Orfer rolled his eyes as he noted it down. “Well, someone needs to chain that boy up. Anything else?”
“Not really…pretty much that’s it. Should I call Haruhi, the stationed Drapha at Lessa? She’s right outside and might be of help too,” Bastian suggested, getting up only to be interrupted by Orfer’s hand banging on the table, causing him to flinch.
“Bastian. I wasn’t finished,” Orfer requested. Though he was smiling, his eyes were dead cold sending shivers through Bastian’s spine who involuntarily took his place. “Maybe you aren’t being serious, Bastian. Every single detail counts. I want you to wrack your brain as hard as you can to remember and I’m not joking.”
Bastian closed his eyes to not only ponder but also to avoid Orfer’s judgemental look. “I mean, his life is basically just girls and wooing and…milkshakes, of course…”
Orfer grunted at the incredulousness.
“At Lessa, he was pissing off Haruhi…flirting with Fyre..and..wait.” Bastian opened his eyes. “Unless..okay, initially when he arrived though he was all jolly, he didn’t really feel like himself. Like..he was depressed..or something..”
“Okay. That is something,” Orfer said, jotting down.
“And he seemed to be keeping a lot of secrets.. to the point where Haruhi could have known more than me,” Bastian realized. “Maybe I was preoccupied with my assignments and I never noticed it.”
“I’m glad to know that these behavioural changes are akin to what we expected,” Orfer replied, uninterested in Bastian’s monologue.
“What did you expect?” Bastian asked, falling for Orfer’s bait.
“Well, actually,” he dragged as he produced a tablet from underneath his desk to showcase his evidence. “After you left for Lessa, I believe Quincy joined you after half a month? Until then, he had been the most violent.”
“Violent?” snickered Bastian. “We are talking about Quincy here! He maybe a troublemaker but violent is far from it..”
“Then, this will be life changing,” Orfer stated sarcastically, pressing the play button of the video.
As soon as the video began playing, Bastian’s smile slowly disappeared. Quincy’s figure was up on the long winding dining table at the Waiting Room where everyone gathered. His hair was erratic, eyes bloodshot and like a mad man stomping on the table, flipping the dishes away and scaring the people who were seated until full black-clothed people, four to five in number reached out to him and brought him down forcefully. Quincy tried to kick them off only to get punched by someone in the face so hard that he went unconscious.
“What the hell is this?! Why wasn’t I told about this?” screamed Bastian, holding the tablet. “I need to know what is going on.”
“Unfortunately Bastian, the monthly evaluation is over,” he replied, unbothered by Bastian’s sudden outburst as Orfer got the tablet from him. “You can go.”
“Orfer. I’m being very serious. If Quincy hasn’t told me, then you must,” Bastian insisted firmly.
“If you aren’t clearing this place in a minute, I’m going to throw you out,” Orfer said as leaned back on the chair, egging him.
Bastian got up, driving a fist onto the table that caught Orfer by surprise. “My friend is behaving like a madman with absolutely no control, he doesn’t tell me these things, acting all mature like he has never been and you are asking me to not question how weird this is? What are you, running a cult?” he asked brashly.
“Bastian! Such impudence will not be tolerated! I will have you punished immediately if you do not follow my orders!” roared Orfer as he got up, face to face with Bastian.
“I do not care for your orders and rules and whatnot if it is putting Quincy in danger! From the time I entered, you never really answered my questions directly and you’re rather too calm for what you have disclosed to me. I need answers, Orfer,” he laughed in a grim tone, banging the table. “I will turn this place into hell for all that I care.”
Orfer folded his hands with no change in expression. “Careful, Bastian you are treading on dangerous waters now.”
His nose twitched at the absolute ridiculousness planted right in front of him. “I’m up for that. Now, spill it.”
“Don’t tell me that you regret it,” warned Orfer but he knew there was no return for Bastian now.