Please note that the following commissioned mini-interlude takes place before the events of the current arc, during the week between Thanksgiving and the trip to the hospital.
“Do we have to do this out here?” Sands groaned the question as she and the rest of their team, plus Shiori, walked along the beach far away from the rest of the school. “I already promised not to say anything about the… you-know-what.”
“He has a name,” the Asian girl pointed out a little primly. “It’s Choo. And trust me, Sands, you are gonna love the little guy if you give him a chance. He’s so adorable.”
“Yeah,” Sands grunted. “An adorable little murder–” Stopping herself, she breathed out hard. “Sorry.”
Shiori flinched noticeably, but shook her head. “It’s okay. I know you’re trying. And at least you’ll remember to keep him a secret.”
Ouch. Sands didn’t even have to look toward Sean to know that the boy had flinched. Shiori was pretty pissed off at him for spilling some kind of secret to his uncles without permission. But hey, she’d agreed to have him come out with them, so maybe she was starting to get over it a little bit.
After three more steps, Sands made a face. “You know, guys, I really don’t like this. I think I’m just gonna head back. This is… it’s a bad idea.”
She started to step away, but found one of Avalon’s crutches blocking her path. “That’s the privacy generator talking,” the other girl said simply before nodding toward Shiori.
In response, Shiori practically skipped up a bit past the jungle line, digging around in one of the trees before coming back with a device that looked like a walkie-talkie with an antennae on each of the four corners, and a snowglobe attached to the bottom with three little smoke stacks in it.
Under Avalon’s guidance, Shiori went around pressing the globe part of the device against each of their ears in order to spit some of that produced smoke into them. Once Sands had her turn, the urge to leave the area immediately faded. Mostly, anyway.
Then Shiori pivoted on her heel, calling, “Choo! You awake, little buddy?” Immediately, there was a high-pitched, squirrel-like squealing sound before the bushes rustled. In the next second, the animal in question burst into view, running straight for the girl who had called him.
It was a Jekern, and even knowing it was coming, Sands still had to restrain the initial reaction from her Stranger-sense going off. She took a reflexive step back, eyes following the tiny warthog-thing as it raced straight to Shiori and perched there on her foot. Then the thing’s eyes looked around at all the new people, and the soft squeaks of delight it was making turned into growls, while tiny bursts of electricity flickered around its mouth.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay.” Shiori bent to pick it up, cradling the monst—thing. “These guys are all friends, Choo. Friends. Here, see?” She held it out toward Sands. “You can take him.”
“No,” Sands started to shake her head. “It’s fine, I–”
“It’s all right, Sands.” Flick put a hand on her back and squeezed. On the other side of her, Scout did the same. So, she let out a long, silent sigh before reluctantly accepting the… thing.
Its electricity tickled her hands, almost making her drop the damn thing before she got a better grip on it. “Hey, hey, stop that!” Sands scolded it.
She held the thing up to her face, staring at it. The thing stared right back at her.
Then it sneezed, and electricity shot through the air, making Sands jerk backward with a yelp. She tripped, landing on her backside in the sand.
And something was licking her face. Squinting, Sands realized that as she fell, she had clutched the little… thing to her chest on the way down. Now he was licking her.
“Ugh, stop that, it’s gross.” She scowled at him. “Besides, you made me fall down. I knew you were bad news.”
He just licked her face again, squeaked, and shook his entire back half in a way that looked suspiciously like an attempt to wag his tail.
“You’re supposed to be a vicious monster,” Sands informed him flatly. “A nasty, man-eating beast.”
He proceeded to latch onto the collar of her shirt, tugging at it with a playful growl as he shook his head back and forth like a puppy playing tug-of-war.
Sands’s voice was idle. “See? Now you’re trying to eat me.” She let herself fall fully onto her back, arms spread out above her dramatically. “Woe is me, for the great beast has defeated the mighty huntress. Now he’s going to eat meeeeeeee.”
Choo promptly abandoned her shirt and jumped up to start licking her face enthusiastically, sending tingles of electricity through her in the process that tickled even more than his tongue did.
“Nooo!” Sands squealed, jerking a bit. “I sa–” She laughed, squealing again. “I said eat, damn it, eat! Not l-” Another fit of giggles escaped. “Not lick! Eat, you damn th-aaahhhaaa!”
Finally, she managed to get the little guy off her face, setting him down on the sand before rolling over on her stomach. She held him out at arms reach, panting as she fought to catch her breath. “You… monster…” She panted again in between each word. “You’re… gonna… kill… me…”
The pig looked quite pleased with himself at that, and Sands scoffed. “Oh, you think that’s funny? How about if I get you, huh? What if I get you?”
In response, Choo shook his hindquarters as though getting ready to pounce. Sands deliberately let him slip free, then rolled over as the little pig lunged at her. “Gaaaah, noooo, not the f-aaaahhhh! F-face again!”
It took her another minute or so to extricate herself once more. Straightening with Choo perched on her lap, Sands looked up to find everyone else still standing where they had been, watching with various levels of amusement.
“Aww,” Shiori was smiling. “He likes you.”
Flushing with embarrassment, as well as a few other feelings, Sands cleared her throat. “Right, well… whatever. Like I said, I won’t say anything about him. So are we gonna play cards or what?”
“You guys play,” Shiori gestured. “I’ve gotta feed the little guy, so I’ll just watch.”
She took Choo as well as the bag of food she’d brought and proceeded to do so. Meanwhile, Sean and Columbus produced a card table and folding chairs from the bag they’d brought with them, and Scout brought out three decks of playing cards while everyone was setting themselves up at the table.
“Okay well, you are definitely gonna have to explain how to play this,” Flick remarked while idly shuffling a deck of playing cards. Her gaze was focused on Sands as she raised an eyebrow. “Cuz I’ve never even heard of any game called, uh, what’d you say it was called again? Jahdoozeflug?”
Sands snickered in spite of herself. “Gesundheit. And speaking of German words, so is the name of the game. It’s called Jagdausflug.” She pronounced it slowly and carefully for the others. “It means ‘hunting trip.’ You know, like hunting Strangers. This German Heretic guy made it up about fifty years ago while he and his partners were on some kind of long stake-out, waiting for something called a Nachzehrer to show up.”
Sands and her sister had promised to teach them this new card game, with the added rule that no one was allowed to bring up anything too serious. Everyone had agreed that they needed a break, and since they really couldn’t do anything else until they were able to go to the hospital on Saturday, this was a good time for it.
“Sounds nasty,” Columbus remarked after taking a quick sip from his cola before glancing toward his sister. “You sure you don’t want in on this, Shy?”
“It’s okay,” the other girl assured him as she sat there at the end of the table with Choo perched in front of her, eating enthusiastically from the plate she had produced. “Go ahead, maybe I’ll get in on the next one.”
Shrugging at that, Columbus looked back to Sands. “Okay, so, how do you play?”
Before she replied, Sands found herself half-glancing sidelong toward Avalon. The regally beautiful brunette was seated beside her, eyes ostensibly focused on the table. Except that every once in awhile, the girl would glance up toward the one person in the school that seemed capable of holding her attention: Flick. And whenever Avalon herself looked away, Flick would glance that way. They each seemed to be trying to memorize the other’s features without getting caught looking.
God, they were weird. They were roommates. If they liked each other, why didn’t they just say something already? Avalon obviously didn’t care what anyone at the school thought about her, and Sands was pretty sure that Flick didn’t either. So why were they being so… beat-around-the-bushy about it? She wasn’t into girls, but if she had a chance to be with someone and live in the same room as them, she wouldn’t waste it.
A foot tapped against hers, snapping the girl out of her brief moment of contemplation. Sands’s eyes flicked that way to find Scout watching her pointedly before her eyes moved to indicate the rest of the table. As Sands looked around, she saw that everyone was paying attention to her, waiting expectantly.
Right, maybe that pause hadn’t been quite as brief as she’d thought.
“Sorry.” Clearing her throat, the girl reached out to pluck the cards from Flick before putting her hand on a couple other decks that lay nearby. “So first, you play with one full deck for every two people that are playing, rounded up. There’s six of us, so we need three decks.
After picking up the three decks and indicating them, Sands continued. “Then we take the decks and shuffle them all together. Everyone draws five cards, don’t let anyone else see what they are.”
She waited then while everyone took turns drawing cards until each of them had a hand of five. “All right, red cards are Strangers, black cards are Bystanders, face cards and aces are Heretics. You start by going around the table, beginning in the first round with the person to the dealer’s left. Everyone takes turns drawing as many cards as they need to in order to have six in their hand.”
She nodded to Avalon, waiting for the girl to take a card from the pile. Then each of the others in turn took one, until it came back to Sands and she picked up her sixth card.
“Right, again starting with the person to the dealer’s left, she points out the person she’s attacking. So, Avalon, who do you wanna target?”
The other girl was silent for a few seconds before nodding across the table. “Gerardo.”
Sean grinning back at her in response. “It’s nice to feel wanted.”
Coughing, Sands gestured. “Okay, each of you lay one card on the table, face down. Wait, not yet. You need to know, it’s basically like a game of Paper, Rock, Scissors. Strangers, the red cards, beat Bystanders, the black cards. Heretics, you know, jack, queen, king, and ace, beat Strangers. Bystanders beat Heretics because, well, something had to.
“So each of you pick a Heretic, a Stranger, or a Bystander and put it on the table face down. Once you’ve both chosen, turn the cards over.”
Sean and Avalon each put down a card, looked at one another, and then turned them over. Avalon had a red six, while Sean had put down a jack.
Sands nodded quickly then. “Okay, Sean wins that round, because he put down a Heretic while Avalon put down a Stranger. So he takes the Stranger card and the Heretic card and puts them in a pile on his side of the table.”
Once the boy had done so, she went on. “Then the next person to the left of the first one targets someone. So, uh, Flick?”
The blonde girl targeted Scout, and each of them put down a card. Once the cards were turned over, Flick’s red four beat Scout’s black nine, and she put both into a pile beside her.
“So we go around like that,” Sands explained. “Until everyone’s had a chance to target someone. Then we start with the person to the left of the person who went first the last time. In this case, Flick. Everyone takes turns drawing as many cards as they need to get to six in their hand. Then Flick chooses who to target, and we do the whole thing again.
“We keep doing that until there’s no more cards to draw. Then we keep going without drawing until no one has any cards left in their hand. Once that’s all done, everyone takes their piles, the cards they won in the battles. You add up each number. Jacks are worth eleven, queens are worth twelve, kings are thirteen, and aces are fourteen. Add up everything, and the highest total wins the game.”
So they started to play. As the game got underway, Flick nudged Avalon. “See? You can still have fun, even though Katarin won’t let you work out until you’re all healed up.”
In response, the other girl grunted a simple, “Don’t push it, Chambers.”
And yet still, whenever one of them wasn’t looking, the other one would practically stare at them. Not to mention the way Shiori looked at Flick whenever she thought she wasn’t being watched. It was all Sands could do not to tell all three of them to get a room and get it over with, even if they had to take turns.
Her gaze found Choo as the little guy squeaked to get her attention before wagging his tail once more. Sighing, Sands slowly reached across the table, scratching under his chin. “Fine, you big monster. Maybe you aren’t so bad. At least you don’t make things weird like some people.”
“Like who?” Shiori and Flick promptly asked.
Smirking in spite of herself, Sands continued to scratch Choo until the little guy sneezed. “Nobody,” she replied quietly, hiding her smile. “Nobody at all.
“Now are we playing, or do you all surrender to my inevitable win?”
“You mean your inevitable terrible, humiliating loss,” Columbus corrected her. “Cuz it’s my turn, and I’m coming after you.”
“After me, huh?” Sands raised her chin challengingly. “Sure your cards are up to it, little man?”
“Oh, me and my cards are up to it,” Columbus assured her, putting a card face down on the table as he spoke. “So put one down, little girl.
“Let’s see what you’ve got.”