Jasper listened to Theo’s eloquent words without much enthusiasm. His expression was even colder and more indifferent than usual. Jasper responded with a somewhat intimidating tone.
“Now, let’s take a look around bit by bit. We haven’t been here for long.”
Rose glanced at Jasper with a puzzled look.
‘I’d like to stay a few more hours, but…’
Jasper’s statement about not having been here for long was a lie. It had been quite some time since they had circled the exhibition hall.
Jasper seemed very determined to separate Theo. He wasn’t usually the confrontational type, but now he was acting particularly cold.
Theo’s eye twitched slightly, but he quickly regained his composure and spoke casually.
“It seems like I’m an unwanted guest here. Rose, I’m going now. We’ll properly greet each other later. We’ll be seeing each other at the academy soon anyway.”
“Oh… Yes, senior.”
After exchanging a warm farewell with Rose, Theo looked at Jasper again.
“We’ll meet as staff and students next time.”
“You’re coming as a staff member?”
“It’s a temporary position, but yes. At the request of Professor Margaret.”
Theo presented himself with a courteous demeanor, but there was an underlying insincerity in his words. Within the academy, regardless of rank, students were expected to respect the staff. It was one of the strict rules that everyone had to adhere to for the academy to function purely as a center of learning.
In other words, within the academy, Jasper couldn’t treat Theo with disdain like he was doing now. Theo was poking at that rule.
Jasper let out a displeased sigh. Theo waved to Rose and withdrew, gesturing with his hand.
“Rose, see you next week then.”
Rose shook hands in farewell as the coldness settled in. As soon as Theo disappeared into the crowd, Jasper spoke roughly.
“What’s with that guy?”
Rose turned her head from the direction Theo had gone and faced Jasper. Jasper’s eyes were filled with irritation.
“Jasper, you don’t seem in a good mood… What’s wrong?”
He already had a cold demeanor, but now there was even a touch of hostility. Jasper squinted his eyes, then slightly eased up at Rose’s gentle words.
“I’m not in a bad mood.”
“Well, that’s good…”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Well, I can’t help but worry. You seem like something’s bothering you.”
“…You’re worried about me?”
As Rose cautiously uttered her words of concern, she fell silent. Jasper seemed so surprised by her words.
“Well, of course.”
“Is that so?”
“Since you’re here, you might as well enjoy yourself.”
“Really? You don’t look happy. …Is it because of Senior Theo?”
She wondered if Theo’s initial attitude, trying to act like a senior, had upset him.
‘There was some provocation in Senior Theo’s demeanor, though.’
There was some truth in Theo’s words. While Theo did dislike getting into fights, he wasn’t one to just take things lying down. Since Jasper was being openly abrasive, Theo seemed to have retaliated in his way.
But from Jasper’s perspective, he might have thought ‘How dare a commoner…’…
‘Jasper’s status is much higher….’
Rose understood it in her head, but for some reason, she hoped that Jasper’s reason for being angry was something other than what she suspected. However, Jasper’s answer quickly shattered her expectations.
“…You do know, don’t you?”
Rose blinked for a moment.
‘It’s because of Senior Theo, isn’t it?’
Her heart subtly fluttered.
‘After all, Jasper has lived his whole life as a noble.’
He was even the son of a duke. Having lived at the top of the social hierarchy all his life, it was natural for his mindset to be shaped accordingly.
Rose thought that she was feeling these emotions because she had become a commoner. If she had lived her whole life as a noble, would she have been any different?
‘From Jasper’s perspective, it makes sense.’
Rose quickly accepted this and lifted her sinking mood. After all, Jasper Conway was a person living in a different world from her. They couldn’t be completely alike, and there was no need for them to be.
Jasper was Jasper, and she was herself. Once she realized this fact, it was enough. It was a trivial matter.
With a composed face, Rose said,
“Shall we explore a bit more?”
Jasper took a step closer to Rose. The distance between them had decreased since earlier. It was close enough for their arms to brush against each other.
Naturally, it was a situation where a man would escort a woman and they could have linked arms, but Rose firmly held both of her hands together.
“It’s important to find the material for the report first. Where should we start?”
Jasper looked at Rose, who was about to speak energetically.
“Aren’t you curious why I was irritated by that guy?”
“Huh? Oh, I just thought it might be possible.”
“Why might it be possible?”
“From your perspective, it’s only natural…”
“What do you think my perspective is?”
Jasper persistently pressed for an answer. Rose was momentarily flustered.
“Weren’t you annoyed by Senior because of how he treated you? Well, Senior is also a commoner like me.”
“What? Why are we suddenly talking about commoners… Oh.”
Jasper seemed puzzled at first but then realized something, and his forehead furrowed deeply. A confused sigh mixed with surprise escaped from Jasper.
“It’s not like that.”
Jasper’s voice was filled with tension.
“Really? I must have misunderstood. I thought you were annoyed by Senior because… well, he’s a commoner like me.”
“You’re right, I’m annoyed.”
“Why do you dislike Senior?”
“…I just dislike everyone, as a general rule.”
Rose couldn’t help but know that. However, she could tell the difference between when Jasper was casually sarcastic and when he was unusually irritable. A moment ago, he was the latter.
Rose gazed at the stern-faced Jasper.
‘You don’t want to tell me why…. maybe you said no because you were thinking of me, and I don’t care.’
She didn’t want to pry into Jasper. Knowing the reason wouldn’t change much.
Rose decided to quickly move on to her original purpose for coming to the exhibition hall.
* * *
Rose silently exclaimed as she left the exhibition hall with Jasper. Since her encounter with Theo, there has been an awkward atmosphere between them.
It seemed like Jasper’s mood had significantly soured since meeting Theo. He couldn’t concentrate on the present, lost in his thoughts. Even when Rose offered various opinions about the report, she only received weak, one-word responses.
Jasper’s words had noticeably decreased. Rose was growing increasingly concerned about him.
‘Why is he acting like this?’
Walking side by side with Jasper toward where the carriages were parked, Rose couldn’t help but feel that something was off. While the exhibition itself had been rich and informative, she was worried about Jasper’s mood.
‘Didn’t he enjoy it?’
It would have been nice if they had both had fun together.
As Rose was about to sulk slightly, she heard the sound of hooves behind her. Simultaneously, Jasper’s large hand urgently grabbed her shoulder and pulled her toward him.
Startled, Rose took a deep breath. Her temple bumped against Jasper’s chest. Breaking the silence that had lasted for quite some time between them, Jasper spoke quietly.
When Rose turned around, she saw a horse that was getting excited and stomping its front hooves. It wasn’t in a situation where it had broken free or was about to charge at people, but it did look menacing.
“Walk towards the inside.”
Jasper stood closer to the road and pushed Rose to the side.
Rose tightly clutched her fingers together. Jasper’s hand was still on her shoulder, and he seemed not to have realized it yet.
Jasper’s palm still fully enveloped Rose’s shoulder. His body temperature was warm enough to be felt through the fabric of her dress. She knew she should ask him to let go of her shoulder, but strangely, the words didn’t come out.
Surprisingly, Jasper was the one who spoke first.
“…Aren’t you cold?”
For some reason, Jasper’s tone was unexpectedly gentle. It wasn’t overly affectionate compared to what a regular person might say, but the fact that Jasper was the one speaking like this was unusual. Normally, Jasper spoke curtly and to the point.
“I’m not cold.”
Silence fell again. Rose rolled her eyes and sneakily glanced at Jasper. He continued to walk, his hand resting on her shoulder, looking straight ahead.
‘…What’s going on? Why is he like this? Why doesn’t he let go of my shoulder?’
Rose felt a strange mix of embarrassment and dryness in her mouth. Jasper, who usually spoke bluntly, was acting tender. She was more concerned that he was doing something out of character.
“Are the shoes comfortable?”
Once again, Jasper’s teasing tone was heard.
“We’ve been walking for a while.”
Jasper’s voice cracked slightly. It felt awkward as if he were pretending to be someone else. It was as if he was forcing the words out.
“My feet don’t hurt much. The shoes fit well.”
Jasper glanced briefly at her shoes.
“Do you need new shoes?”
“Well, I mean… wouldn’t it be nice to have an extra pair of shoes?”
“I’m fine with what I have now. They’re still in good condition.”
“Is your throat not sore? You talked a lot.”
Rose couldn’t help but stop abruptly. Jasper also came to a halt and turned to look at her. His blue eyes, which had been moving slowly, came to a stop at one point—the hand on her shoulder.
Jasper made an involuntary sound and withdrew his hand. Rose, without realizing it, touched the spot where Jasper’s hand had been resting.
“Jasper… Why are you like this? Is something hurting you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your tone is strange right now.”
“You’re being overly kind.”
“You’re speaking too affectionately. And why are you watching me as if I did something wrong? It’s not like you, Jasper.”
“How do you see me? What… am I not allowed to be like this?”
Jasper, still looking at Rose, raised an eyebrow. Rose looked up at him with a somewhat serious expression.
“No, Jasper… You seem really awkward right now.”