How to Spell Love
Erk could not talk to girls.
He couldn't even talk to other people. The only possible way for Erk to have a Good Conversation was if the other person was an excellent talker, the other person had something interesting to say, the other person didn't expect Erk to actually talk back, and if the weather happened to be very sunny.
It was raining. He was doomed.
And this girl was cute. (Accursed glittering eyes and hopeful innocence!) She twiddled with her hair, chewed on his quill, drooled on his parchment, and constantly blinked adorably. Erk had no chance. It was like going up against a Druid who had been specially trained all his life to CRUSH ERK DEAD.
"Are we going to start learning now?" Nino whined, still chewing on his quill. "I wanna learn how to read and write. It seems fun."
CRUSH ERK DEAD.
"Does J-he have to be here?" It's better not to say Jaffar's name, Erk decided.
"Oh, Jaffar? He likes to keep an eye on me," Nino said sweetly. "Is that all right? He'll be quiet, won't you, Jaffar?"
Jaffar eyed Erk. Erk carefully kept his eyes on the parchment and felt the sweat break out on his forehead.
"So let's start learning! Yay!" Nino waved the quill in the air. "Learning! Yay!"
"Yay," Erk said weakly. "L-learning."
CRUSH ERK DEAD A LOT.
"Nino." He tried to keep his tone serious.
She blinked her large green eyes up at him.
"Er." He cleared his throat uncomfortably, recognizing that all his carefully prepared defenses had crumbled at that moment. Jaffar's presence lingered near him. "I . . . I noticed that you didn't do your homework. Which is bad," he added hastily, to make his point known. "You should do homework."
"Oh." Nino stared at him, patiently waiting for more.
"Because it's important."
"Nino, on a scale of one to ten, ten being the highest, how do you feel your work ethic is doing?" Erk said awkwardly.
"Zero!" she chirped, raising her hand in the air and waving it wildly.
Erk winced. "You don't have to say it with such a happy face."
"Better than Erk's droopy face." Nino mashed her face to a downward frown.
He winced again. "I don't really look like that . . . "
"Sorry, Erk." She patted the chair next to her. "You can sit down now. I was going to practice my magic today, but this is obviously more important."
"Er . . . "
"Oh, Erk, I really am sorry." Her eyes began to water. "I wanted to do it, I told myself I had to do it, but it just seemed so boring, and I don't think I can ever be as smart as you . . . !"
"You're twenty times smarter than me!" he blurted out. A tingling of surprise shocked him. Nino? Not smart? "I told you, you remind me of my teacher, and my teacher is the best there is," Erk said fervently.
"But you're always reading those big fat thick books, and I can't stand them! I'm just not smart enough to see them! Even if I read the word, it's not even a word!" Nino really began to cry. "I'm not smart enough! I'm not smart enough!"
"Of course you are! You're smart enough for anything!" He grabbed her small hands, and held them tightly. She was still crying, her cheeks wet. He was uncomfortable with tears. "It's because I'm so stupid that I have to read those books. But you-you're something else. You're something better. And I'm obviously not a very good teacher if I make you cry like this . .. "
"Oh, Erk." Nino hiccupped. And then hugged him.
She was so small. Did he forget who he was teaching? He would find better books, he vowed. He would find much better books suited for her character, because even though he thought his General Study of Anima was a fascinating book—really, it was, compliments to the author, who clearly did his research, more in-depth than many willy-nilly books nowadays—perhaps Nino did not find them interesting. He would even beg Louise for good books. And then Nino wouldn't have to cry again.
He patted her softly, until he realized that Jaffar was staring at him.
"Ah, Nino, I'll—I'm going—to find books—now—I—"
"Don't go!" Nino looked up at him, eyes glittering. "I'll be better! I'll do my homework!"
"No! No, I'm going to find interesting books for you," Erk pleaded. "Just—"
"You don't like my hugs?" Nino drew back, her mouth turning dangerously downwards. He could literally feel Jaffar's blade breathing against his neck.
"I love hugs!" Erk said loudly, and drew back her inside. He was not going to get any sleep tonight, hugging his books, waiting for Jaffar to finally descend and kill him.
"These are smutty romance novels, Lady Louise," Erk said uneasily. He didn't even feel right touching them. He was having two baths tonight just because he was near these books.
"They're literature," Louise said. "Here, have them all. I finished them."
They were dog-earred and torn in places. Erk felt even more icky thinking about his teacher's wife reading the books.
"But they're for Nino," he pleaded.
"You seem to be getting awfully close to her lately, Erk. Here, sit down." She forced him to sit on the bed, and she confidently sat next to him. Erk especially did not feel uncomfortable sitting next to his teacher's wife with a pile of smutty romance novels in his lap.
"She's a cute girl."
"A genius," he agreed.
"That's not what I said, eh?" Louise tapped him on the forehead. He wished his teacher wouldn't touch him at the moment. He felt like his skin needed to be scrubbed, especially with a nearly unclothed man looking sturdily at him with an even more scantily clad women grabbing him from behind.
"Nino's cute," he said.
"So has my little student finally matured enough to notice girls?"
He had always noticed girls. It was just that girls never noticed him. "Um. Sure."
"Oh, you're so adorable!" Louise squeed, and she hugged him tightly, and kissed him on the forehead. He winced, but did not move. It was the bargain—the novels in return for seven kisses and three hugs, to be exact.
"Am I interrupting something?" Lord Pent smiled gently, peeking his head into the room.
"Oh, Pent! Come join us," she cooed. "Isn't Erk so cute?"
"Wh-what? No! No, don't!"
It was too late. Erk was sandwiched uncomfortably between his teacher and his teacher's wife.
"How come some of the pages are blacked out?" Nino asked curiously, flipping through the books. "And how come you taped things over the covers?"
"For. Reasons." He liked life, for example. And he didn't like the way Jaffar was looking at him. "Did you practice your letters?"
"I do them faster when I'm with you. We're on X! X, x, x, x, x!" Nino flourished her quill. "I like that letter. It's like crossing stuff out!"
Like his life. "Yes. I like that letter too."
"What's your favorite letter? Mine is N, because it's twice in my name!" She could only write her name so far, but she did indeed write it everywhere. Erk sometimes opened his books to find "Nino Nino Nino" written all over the sidelines. But he when he tried to talk to her about it, she had looked so hurt. So, of course, he had to instantly forgive her.
Besides. It was better than his teacher, who scribbled his to-do lists within his research books and never saw them again.
"I don't know. N, then," he said. "Because it's twice in your name."
"That's sweet." Nino stared up at him and smiled. He winced and looked away uncomfortably. The cute smile! The accursed cute smile!
"Errrrk," she said, not looking up from her X's (which ran off the parchment and onto the table), "Why do you say I'm smart?"
"Because. You are." Erk fixed his cloak. "Straighten your lines, you're getting sloppy."
"Yessir! But you're smart too, aren't you?"
"Not . . . not as smart . . . "
"Nobody's given me a compliment in a very long time. Nobody ever said I was smart before," Nino said, carefully placing straight X's row after row. She began her lower-case x's. "So I'm really happy that you said it. But that makes me feel scared. What if I'm not as smart as you think I am?"
"You'll always be much smarter than I can comprehend," he said. And awkwardly, he petted her head. Was this the right thing to do? Jaffar was staring. He took his hand away from Nino.
"I mean, you're many other things, too," he said. "Like, you're cute."
"I am?" She brightened up considerably. Her X ran onto the table.
"And . . . adorable. And bouncy. And you always brighten my day," he added as an afterthought.
"Oh, yay!" She smiled. And then frowned. "But I'm not sure if I can ac-cept your statements."
"Because you're not very accurate. You say you're not smart, but I know for a fact that you are!" Nino tapped her forehead, leaving inky smudges. "So if you don't even know you're smart, then how do I know that if you say I'm smart that you're actually right?"
"I . . . " Erk was confused. "Do you want a hug?"
"Yes!" Nino leapt on him. And Erk felt Jaffar's ghostly presence only become more hostile.
Erk slept with one eye open.
"Mm . . . ?"
Erk hesitated. "Nino, are you awake?" he whispered.
"N-nnnnooooo," she yawned. "Where . . . where am I?"
"You fell asleep reading the . . . novel . . . literature . .. " Erk shuddered as he looked at the novel. "So I thought you could sleep here tonight."
"Is this your room?"
"It's neater than mine."
"I know." Erk knew. Erk knew very well, because the last few times he had been in Nino's room, things had fallen on top of him. They may have been socks. They may have been monsters. Erk just hoped that he never saw them again.
"Can I stay here?"
"Sure. Jaffar is right outside."
"Really?" Nino peered into the darkness.
Maybe. Maybe not. But Erk could still feel Jaffar's breath down his back.
"Go back to sleep."
"Why aren't you sleeping?"
"Something very old and boring?" Nino asked doubtfully, rolling over on his bed. She shielded her eyes from the candle.
"Yeah. Something old and boring."
". . . Erk . . . "
She stared at him. "Nothing."
Most mysterious. Erk returned to his book.
". . . Erk! Somebody left something on the table!" Nino waved the parchment in front of his face. He didn't get much sleep last night (waiting for Jaffar), but he managed to hold Nino's warm hand and snatch the letter.
Erk slowly read the letter.
'Dear Erk' (it began, though the e was flipped around and the r none too steady). 'Xxxxxx XXXxxXXX xXxxXOOoooo XoXXOooOOox xxxoDDddddDd rrRRrraaAaa.'
It was a most interesting letter.
"I can read it for you. If you like."
She cleared her throat. "Dear Erk," she said. "I think I like you. From your secret admirer."
That explained why Louise pinched his cheeks today.
"Let's use this as a practice," Erk said. "Take out some parchment, and write what I dictate. Though I know that you're not very good with writing words yet. But very good at writing the alphabet, am I correct?"
"Very good!" Nino said vigorously. "My work ethic is seven point six eight oh!" She had also recently learned decimals.
"Hm. Start out the letter with . . . 'Dear Secret Admirer.' Am I going too fast?"
"Not at all." Nino furiously scribbled down the X's.
"Dear Secret Admirer . . . though I appreciate your emotions, and recommendations, I do not think I can return your feelings . . . "
"Why not?" Nino jumped up, quill in hand. "You didn't even—even give her a try!"
"Sit down and write," he said, pushing her forehead. "Where was I? Right. 'Because although I understand how you feel . . . '"
Nino sluggishly wrote a few 'A's.'
"'I have a very cute student, to whom I am very dedicated. And I do not think I can leave her at this time . . . '" Erk put his hand on Nino's head. "No, sorry. Change that to, 'ever.'"
"Oh, Erk, do you really mean that?"
He saw the incoming hug, and winced as her head knocked against his collarbone. And though it was tiresome to borrow somebody's sword and sleep with it by his side, he was sure that all the nightmares of Jaffar's teeth was worth this hug.
Except for that one dream, where Jaffar ate him whole.
But that was another matter.