The Cost of Virtue

At last... the day has come...

The thought of this day's arrival had conquered all other thoughts this day, from the moment I got up and looked at the calendar to this very moment, as I awaited this Sunday's second shuttle bus to the mall arrival. I would have gone on the first one, but my duties as class treasurer forced me to get up early, which I abhorred, so once finished with my early-morning tasks, I took a nap to try and catch up my sleep, which, in turn, caused me to miss the first shuttle to the mall.

Right on time, the bus came into view as it crested the hill, coming towards we students, *most* of us were waiting patiently, I knew one who was just beside herself with joy, and yet itching with impatience at the same time. I knew the few other students present at the bus stop couldn't help but glance at me as I twitched and shifted impatiently, but I didn't care, they were the last thing on my mind.

With a broad, confident smile on my face, I walked- no, I sashayed up to the steps of shuttle bus with a bright smile on my face, I spared no expense in making sure I was the very first to board. Feeling like I had a glowing aura of joy erupting from every pore, I carefully made my way up the bus steps- being extra specially careful not to trip on my robes like I did my first visit to the mall in the beginning of the year, for I would not let anything spoil this day. This, the most auspicious of days that I had known at least since I started school here.

I made my way to an empty seat about midway down the aisle, taking my seat. This late in the morning, there weren't many other passengers behind me: a couple of girls from Butterfly hall- seniors, probably, I didn't recognize either of them, it had been much too long since Initiation for me to recall anyone but the ones I've seen around since then- another girl I've seen in White Magic class a few times... Samantha, I think her name was; Big Steve- probably going to the arcade so he could start his practice before it became crowded, or maybe he was getting to the cafe early to get his daily dose of caffeine, it was hard to tell- and the twins, Luke and Logan Phifer.

Once everyone had taken their seat and the bus started on it's way again, I took out my thick wad of money and counted it for what must have been the twentieth time that day- one hundred american dollars, same as before. God, what an utter NIGHTMARE it would have been if even a single one of my precious five dollar bills were to be lost now.

Only getting one five dollar bill a week meant it took the better part of the whole year for me to amass this much money- sure, there was opportunities for me to make more, like when Donald and the twins set up that bingo game with the $40 jackpot, but I figured the chances of me winning the jackpot were about one in 40 to begin with, and having to wait a single week longer would have DEVASTATED me, knowing full well that entire week, that whole 7 days, that whole 168 hours... that... 10,080 minutes!... a whole 604,800 seconds, each one more unbearable than the last!

No, there's been enough waiting. Now is the time to reward all that patience. I thought with a smile, now calmer and more patient than before, the attention I had drawn to myself earlier has long since been forgotten, at least as far as I cared.

I replaced the money into the folds of my robes and looked out the window to keep myself occupied, I focused on the bright blue sky above, it was a largely clear day, with a few clouds drifting lazily across the sky. I traced my fingers over the outlines of the distant clouds on the window of the bus, the first of them that I traced looked distinctly like a fluffy raindrop... or maybe like a leaf, it was too indistinct and amorphous to tell. Another one just below it was circular, or ovular, rather; with a clearer and more defined outline than the last. It looked like a doughnut, with the hole filled in.

Don't tell that to Virginia though, or else she'll be trying to find a way to eat clouds! I mentally giggled as I continued to trace the few other clouds that dotted the sky. Hey, this was kinda fun. Who knew cloud watching could be so interesting?

Not soon enough, the bus arrived at the bus stop outside the mall, and the students aboard calmly and in single file disembarked from the bus, I was around the middle of the line, since I was in the middle of the bus.

I hastily made my way to the magic shop- discreetly, of course. If I was allowed to run through the mall to the disguised shop, I would have. But as a magician, I had to respect the need for secrecy, even though it felt like I was about to burst with anticipation.

After finally getting inside the magic shop, I glanced around; the store was largely empty, save for me, the middle-aged intimidating-looking but really quite friendly male cashier, a Sophmore from Wolf hall I didn't recognize who seemed to be just browsing, and Manuel Arias, the little cat-boy from Toad Hall, who was looking through the display of wands.

After quickly scanning the store, and locking my sights upon my target, I hastily made my way right to the object of my desire, and the small shrine of a display placed around it.

A golden halo, placed carefully on regal-looking red cushion, sharing said cushion with a hefty price tag for any student- $100 it read. The cushion rested atop a solid rectangular white marble pedestal that stood right near the cashier's counter- ironic, that such an item would have to be watched for thieves trying to take it... which begs the question, does this place really have a thief problem? Probably not, magic would make it quite easy to find any such thief, but I suppose it's better safe than sorry.

"Excuse me sir, may I purchase this halo?" I asked in the sweetest and most courteous tone I could muster- oh yes, the moment had finally arrived.

"Certainly, it's 100 dollars." The cashier stated in a tone that smacked a bit of a challenge- not many students had the self-discipline to save up that much money, especially not a Freshman like myself, which my relatively short height and aura of inexperience could tell any trained eye; but he was in for a surprise.

With eager, deft hands I snatched the wad of cash from my robes and laid it on the table as if we were playing poker and he just called my bluff, t'was no bluff, of course, because I don't bluff, and I've never needed to, because bluffing implies that I can't back it up- I make promises. Promises I intend to keep every time.

The cashier unfolded the thick wad of $5 bills and started to quickly count them. So triumphant I felt, so on top of the world; it was really happening. I was finally going to get the halo that I had been practically smitten with since my very first trip to the mall, my very first time in this shop- the price then seemed to insurmountable at the time, I had only $10 small dollars to my name, $100 seemed an eternity away! And here I am, one eternity of patient waiting later, upon the precipice of my deserved reward.

"Excuse me, Mr. Cashier." A soft voice rang out for attention, snapping me out of my reverie of victory. I couldn't help but glance over to the source, it was Manuel, standing right next to me, a finely crafted straight wooden wand in his hand, it looked distinctly like a conductor's baton, at least to the untrained eye. "How much does this wand cost?"

"$70" The cashier said, looking up for only a slight moment without pausing his counting.

Manuel winced slightly and gave a slight gasp, that evidently being more than he had. "... Ok..." Manuel said with a tone of disappointment, his eyes turned to the floor, his cat ears turned downward in despair and he dragged his feet back to the wand rack. I couldn't help but feel a touch of pity for the boy.

Oh well, I suppose not everyone has the discipline I do when it comes to money, if he'd saved up his money three-quarters as well as I did, he'd have more than enough to get that new wand he wanted. So sorry Manuel, perhaps this would be a good lesson for you to learn! I thought proudly, perhaps his seeing my conquest of a significantly larger price tag would spur him to be wiser with his own money.

In the corner of one of my eyes, I watched Manuel replace the wand on the rack, his innocent eyes half-closed in disappointment as he searched the rack for a cheaper wand. That was secondary to my other fixation, watching the cashier finish counting the money for what was soon to be my halo.

"$100, it's all good, the halo's all yours, little lady." The cashier said warmly, punching the numbers into his old-style cash register so he could deposit the money.

"Thank you sir." I said happily, but not to his face, I was much too fixed on the halo- my halo.

At last... at long last... it's been almost a whole school year, but finally, I have it! I grinned, my greedy fingers reached slowly towards the holy golden circle- not too quickly now, I want this moment to be treasured forever. As much as I tried to hold myself back, my hands suddenly sprang forward, poised to seize the defenseless halo- but they stopped short, as if there were an invisible wall between me and the halo. And there was. An iron wall which no magic could pierce- my own conscience.

N-no! I... I can't do this... it's not fair... I can't, how can I wear a symbol of kindness and purity if I have nothing to show to back it up? Because I earned it, of course... and yet, I still cannot. I don't show off more than I can deliver- I. Don't. Bluff.

"Manuel?" I beckoned his attention in the sweetest, most polite tone I could muster, turning away from my beloved halo, which was but a forgotten relic at this point. Not forgotten enough, if you ask me, the image of the magical golden circle felt like it was going to burn a hole out of the back of my head.

The boy turned to me, looking utterly pitiful; he was still clearly crestfallen, and it looked almost as if tears were welling up in his big, innocent eyes. He did not reply with words, probably because his voice would crack and he really would cry.

"I'll buy that wand for you." I said warmly, my facade of warm invitation was utterly flawless. The reaction was immediate. Manuel's as-yet unshed tears vanished before they happened, his cute cat ears perked straight up and a bright, thankful smile streamed across his face.

"Oh, thank you, thank you Rosary! You're so nice!" Manuel gave me a big hug, his arms wrapping around my abdomen like a snake, trapping my arms to my body.

"Oh it's no trouble..." I laughed awkwardly- of course it was trouble, $70 smashes me right back to less than halfway to my goal... I guess my halo would have to wait until next year... much as it pained me

Manuel soon released me, and his bright, warm, thankful smile dropped as he recalled the purchase I had almost made mere moments ago, and what buying him his wand would mean for that.

"W-well... I appreciate it and everything, but... you wanted that halo, didn't you? If you help me buy this wand, you won't have enough for what you want..." Manuel said, stating the obvious- it was the polite thing to do though, so I let it pass without comment.

"Oh that halo's not so important, it's just a silly yellow circle- any 5 year old can just draw one and it wouldn't me much different!" I said, laughing painfully as every poison-laced word of desperate denial flowed from my mouth. Oh, how painful it was, but it was the right thing to do, and sometimes doing the right thing takes sacrifice.

Manuel didn't seem to buy it, his expression turned from what I assume was his usual blank expression to a quizzical one- he must've seen how I gazed upon the halo with greedy eyes, knowing it was a treasure to me. I had to think of something quick, I didn't want my good gesture cast aside as well, or else the halo would feel quite hollow, much like my stomach felt now as I lied so blatantly to Manuel, even if it was for a good cause.

"B-besides I was also thinking of getting a wand myself!" I heard myself say. I didn't need a wand. At all. White magic was my specialty and every fool knew that a halo increased one's ability to commune with spirits, a wand did as well, but not nearly as much. And for more than half the price but with much less than half the effectiveness (not to mention they were worlds apart in terms of fashion value), a wand'd be a foolish investment relative to a halo. But, this was an unusual circumstance, so it called for unusual action on my part, much as it pained me.

Manuel again didn't seem to take this at face value- curse his perception! Am I really so easy to read? It took a moment of careful searching of my mind by way of my eyes, but soon Manuel's expression returned to a warm smile again.

"Really? W-well, if it's not too much of a bother, would you like to get matching wands?" Manuel suggested happily.

Matching wands? I mentally parroted, though I wasn't entirely sure if I kept it in my thoughts or if it slipped out of my mouth too, but I suppose it didn't matter. Well... if it makes him feel better... I suppose a wand COULD help my White magic... and it'll cheer him up... *mental sigh* it's the right thing to do...

"Yeah, I'd like that." I said after a long moment.

"Yay! Thank you Rosary!" Manuel jumped for joy and gave me another quick hug. As we looked for a matching pair of wands together, I had a quick reflection- I don't think I've ever seen NEARLY this much emotion from Manuel over the course of the entire year, let alone all at once. Manuel had always seemed so... calm and mellow...

Regardless, I shrugged that thought off and together we both picked out a pair of identical wands- they weren't as finely crafted as the one Manuel had picked earlier, but they were quite handsome in their own rights, with a fair amount of magic between them, and a fair price- $60 apiece, which my $100 had already mostly paid for, Manuel forwarded the other $20.

Together Manuel and I exited the magic shop and made our way back to the bus stop- not like either of us had much money left to spend. Our walk was in silence, save for the obscure chattering of other mall-goers, of course. Soon enough we arrived at the bus stop and took our seats at the bench, the bus wouldn't be arriving for quite a while.

"You know Rosary, I think you would make a good angel." Manuel said softly.

"I promise not to disappont." I replied equally softly, I doubt Manuel could discern the real meaning of that statement, but he seemed to understand that meant more to me than it seemed at face value.

But such a promise demands much, and I can't bluff...