It was already 11:00 PM after we played some cards (karuta), I explained some myths from my books to them, and ate all the biscuits.
Chiaki just woke up from her 2 hours of slumber.
“Water,” she said.
Yui poured her a cup of tea.
She gulped it down in one go.
Yui poured again.
Most of the red in her face has faded away now, she’s slowly becoming sober. She tried to move her body up and walked, but her legs gave in. Yui managed to hold her arms in time, and put her into a sitting position on my bed.
“Rest for a bit first,” Yui said. “We’ve still got time.”
“Yeah,” I said. “The shrine’s only about 15 minutes away on foot.”
“Is this shrine really that special though?” Hideki asked.
“You first have to walk about 50 steps of stairs leading up to the mountain, then pass through the first shrine gate. Afterwards, when the large bell was hit and rang, according to tradition, you needed to pass through a smaller shrine gate at the center of the shrine. Then, if your desire is strong enough as you pass through that gate, it’s said that your wish will be granted.” I said.
“But there’s no guarantee, right? We study these myths thing and this sounds a lot like just a legend too good to come true.”
“You never know,” I smiled. “There are people who believed in it and got their wishes granted. It all comes down to you whether to embrace it or not.”
“I believe in myself,” Hideki said. “Don’t you, Shin?”
He shifted his focus to Yui.
“I don’t particularly dislike these kinds of things, I just accept them if they really did happen to me,” Yui said.
Hideki shot a quick look at Chiaki.
“… What? Oh, they are nice,” she said.
“That wasn’t what I ask—”
Chiaki’s hiccup cut Hideki’s sentence.
Yui filled the cup.
She drank it in one go, but was still hiccupping.
“What—hiccups—do—hiccups—I—hiccups—do? It won’t—hiccups—stop.”
I whispered to Hideki, “I’m not the only one finding this cute, right?”
He nodded, and whispered back. “You rarely see Chiaki like this.”
Yui chuckled. “You’re so cute like this, Chiaki.”
Her face turned red, “Don’t tease—hiccups—me.”
“A shock may be able to stop it,” Yui said, as she looked at Hideki and I.
“A shock, huh?” Hideki said. “Commander Erwin will die!”
“That’s a spoiler, not a shock,” I said.
“Then you do one,” he replied.
“Fine,” I said, as I stood up.
I approached Chiaki in a quick manner, as she slowly backed herself to the wall beside my bed.
I climbed on the bed and closed in on her face, as my heart started to beat faster and faster. I heard a small gasp from Yui, and felt Hideki staring intently at me. Chiaki had closed her eyes, and her lips were a bit trembling. She held both her hands close to her heart. Her face is all red again.
Should I? Under this circumstance?
I moved in and kissed her right cheek.
She opened her eyes as we locked our eyes, only an inch away from each other.
She immediately covers her mouth with both her hands. I kissed the back of her hands.
She panicked and kicked me down the bed.
“Why did you kiss my hands?” she asked.
“Chiaki!” Yui said. “Your hiccups are gone!”
“Yes, we did it!” Yui went and hugged her, jumping up and down like we won a sports competition and are heading to the nationals next.
Hideki patted my shoulder, as he nodded his head, like he’s congratulating himself for taking me this far.
Seeing this, Chiaki chuckled and laughed.
The three of us paused at her in surprise.
She quickly regained her composure and cleared her throat, “Ahem, then let’s go, shall we?”
Yui continued hugging her, “Chiaki, you’re so precious!”
Hideki elbowed me as he saw them cuddled together. He whispered to me, “Now this is a precious sight.”
“Shut up,” I said. “Collect the tray, we should walk to the shrine earlier.”
“Yes, boss,” he replied.
After getting them all out of my room, I put on a few warm packs and wore my kimono. To walk outside in this cold weather with only a kimono, this is ridiculous. I then wore the red scarf Chiaki gave me and went downstairs. Hideki and Yui were chatting with my mother while my mother looked at me with surprise.
“You’re going out with a kimono as well?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “We are all a bunch of idiots.”
She smiled. “Then make sure you don’t stay out too late.”
Hideki, Yui, and Chiaki walked out of my house first. My mother and father stood at the main door. I told them not to pick us up or leave the house, and made sure to lock all the doors and windows.
“Yes, yes, we understand,” my mother said.
She then leaned closer to me. “Did Chiaki give you her reply?”
“Not yet,” I said. “But I will wait.”
“I have a source that told me she’s going to answer you in the shrine, later on,” my father said.
“You called her parents, didn’t you? Dad, we are not ten anymore.”
“No such thing, I just made a call to ask how they are, and happened to overhear it.”
“Right,” I said. “Of course you overhead it.”
I took a deep breath. “I’m heading out.”
“Be safe,” they reply.
“We’ll see you next year,” my mother added.
Then we started to walk to the shrine. Yui walked beside me, while Hideki and Chiaki took the lead, a few feet in front of us.
Chiaki looked like she opened up more to Hideki lately, though she would only make occasional reactions to Hideki’s conversation with her. Hideki would wait to see her reaction every time before he continued. I smiled, somehow, I felt like both of them have changed for the better, without me realizing it.
“You really do like Chiaki, don’t you?” Yui asked, likely noticed my smile.
I looked at her. “…Yeah. Just like she felt the need to comfort me at times, I wanted to stay by her side and do the same for her.”
Yui somehow got embarrassed. “Hideki and you sure don’t mince your words.”
I chuckled. “So, what do you think of him?”
She looked taken aback. “He… he’s nice. After spending some time with him today, I felt like I got to know him a little bit better.”
“I heard his name came up in other girls’ conversation before, and thought he was this unapproachable prince that shone too brightly, but it turns out he’s just normal. He helped a lost child in the zoo, and managed to cheer him up when I couldn’t find the right words at the time. I think it’s because of his usual cheerful manner that he can be what he wants to be.”
She chuckled, “Though he’s a bit annoying at times.”
Yui also laughed, seeing my reaction, covering her mouth with one of her hands as she elbowed me.
“What are you two laughing about suddenly?” Hideki turned back and asked.
“Nothing,” I said as I dismissed him with a wave.
Chiaki and Hideki glared at us suspiciously.
Hideki whispered a word, likely ‘laugh’ to Chiaki.
“No,” Chiaki said, loud enough to be heard by us.
“Aw, you’re no fun!” Hideki said.
I exchanged looks with Yui, and we chuckled again.
Both of them continued to glare at us.
“Change,” they said, in unison.
And, that was how I ended up with Hideki beside me.
He kept asking me what Yui and I talked about—which I only responded by shaking my head—until we reached the bottom of the shrine. There were already many starting to climb it, especially the locals bringing their children. Some cars are also parked along the road, in front of the closed shops.
I looked at my watch.
It took us five minutes through the shrine door, and up the stone stairs. When we reached the top, I noticed there were fewer people as compared to last year, and only some unfamiliar faces. Mostly parents taking their children, or older couples, or some high school students. I checked, and only four of us were wearing kimonos.
But as I scanned my eyes around the shrine, my attention lay in the second shrine gate in the middle of the shrine. Gray, with two long posts at its side. There’s also a wooden plate (“gakazuka”) on top of it, with barely noticeable words that faded away with time.
I slowly made my way in front of it.
It was the same shrine gate that I passed through every time I had my vision.
I also saw a large steel bell, with a large attached bar beside it.
So, this is where my last trial would be.
There are also some amulets and talismans being sold, but the four of us decided to make our first prayer, after we cleansed ourselves with wooden ladle scoping water from the water basin (‘temizuya’).
Each of us then threw a five yen into the offering box, bowed deeply twice, clapped our hands twice, and prayed silently. I finished my prayer earlier so I took a peek at Hideki; he’s rubbing his hands as he closed his eyes. Yui looked like she prayed as hard as she could. Chiaki prayed with a normal expression on her face, but she smiled at the end of her prayers.
Then, we bowed once.
I looked at my watch.
We lined up in front of the second, gray, shrine gate.
“Those who are coming in pairs, please line up side by side to save space for others,” one of the employees said.
So, Chiaki stood beside me while Hideki stood beside Yui, as they lined behind us. There are about 5 people lining up in front of us already.
I took a quick look at my watch.
This is it.
It all comes down to this moment.
“Ready!” the employee shouted to another local, wearing the same shirt, raising the large attached bar next to the bell.
All of us counted together with him, as he looked at his watch.
I took a deep breath.
I looked at Chiaki.
She peered into my eyes, likely wondering why.
I smiled at her.
She looked surprised.
She smiled back.
I held her hand.
She slid her fingers into my palm.
I focused on the shrine gate in front of me.
We walked through the gate together.