Chapter 24:

The Final Countdown

Second Chances

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.Bookmark here

Chiaki just woke up from her 2 hours of slumber.Bookmark here

“Water,” she said.Bookmark here

Yui poured her a cup of tea.Bookmark here

She gulped it down in one go.Bookmark here

Yui poured again.Bookmark here

And, again.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Rest for a bit first,” Yui said. “We’ve still got time.”Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said. “The shrine’s only about 15 minutes away on foot.”Bookmark here

“Is this shrine really that special though?” Hideki asked.Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

“I believe in myself,” Hideki said. “Don’t you, Shin?”Bookmark here

I smiled.Bookmark here

He shifted his focus to Yui.Bookmark here

“I don’t particularly dislike these kinds of things, I just accept them if they really did happen to me,” Yui said.Bookmark here

Hideki shot a quick look at Chiaki.Bookmark here

“… What? Oh, they are nice,” she said.Bookmark here

“That wasn’t what I ask—”Bookmark here

Chiaki’s hiccup cut Hideki’s sentence.Bookmark here

“Wa—hiccups—ter.”Bookmark here

Yui filled the cup.Bookmark here

She drank it in one go, but was still hiccupping.Bookmark here

“What—hiccups—do—hiccups—I—hiccups—do? It won’t—hiccups—stop.”Bookmark here

I whispered to Hideki, “I’m not the only one finding this cute, right?”Bookmark here

He nodded, and whispered back. “You rarely see Chiaki like this.”Bookmark here

“Yui—hiccups—help—hiccups—”Bookmark here

Yui chuckled. “You’re so cute like this, Chiaki.”Bookmark here

Her face turned red, “Don’t tease—hiccups—me.”Bookmark here

“A shock may be able to stop it,” Yui said, as she looked at Hideki and I.Bookmark here

“A shock, huh?” Hideki said. “Commander Erwin will die!”Bookmark here

hiccupsBookmark here

“That’s a spoiler, not a shock,” I said.Bookmark here

“Then you do one,” he replied.Bookmark here

“Fine,” I said, as I stood up.Bookmark here

I approached Chiaki in a quick manner, as she slowly backed herself to the wall beside my bed.Bookmark here

“W—What are—hiccups—you—Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Should I? Under this circumstance?Bookmark here

No.Bookmark here

I moved in and kissed her right cheek.Bookmark here

She opened her eyes as we locked our eyes, only an inch away from each other.Bookmark here

hiccupsBookmark here

She immediately covers her mouth with both her hands. I kissed the back of her hands.Bookmark here

She panicked and kicked me down the bed.Bookmark here

“Why did you kiss my hands?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Chiaki!” Yui said. “Your hiccups are gone!”Bookmark here

“Did it?”Bookmark here

“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.Bookmark here

Hideki patted my shoulder, as he nodded his head, like he’s congratulating himself for taking me this far.Bookmark here

Seeing this, Chiaki chuckled and laughed.Bookmark here

The three of us paused at her in surprise.Bookmark here

She quickly regained her composure and cleared her throat, “Ahem, then let’s go, shall we?”Bookmark here

Yui continued hugging her, “Chiaki, you’re so precious!”Bookmark here

Hideki elbowed me as he saw them cuddled together. He whispered to me, “Now this is a precious sight.”Bookmark here

“Shut up,” I said. “Collect the tray, we should walk to the shrine earlier.”Bookmark here

“Yes, boss,” he replied.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“You’re going out with a kimono as well?” she asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” I said. “We are all a bunch of idiots.”Bookmark here

She smiled. “Then make sure you don’t stay out too late.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“Yes, yes, we understand,” my mother said.Bookmark here

She then leaned closer to me. “Did Chiaki give you her reply?”Bookmark here

“Not yet,” I said. “But I will wait.”Bookmark here

“I have a source that told me she’s going to answer you in the shrine, later on,” my father said.Bookmark here

“You called her parents, didn’t you? Dad, we are not ten anymore.”Bookmark here

“No such thing, I just made a call to ask how they are, and happened to overhear it.”Bookmark here

“Right,” I said. “Of course you overhead it.”Bookmark here

I took a deep breath. “I’m heading out.”Bookmark here

“Be safe,” they reply.Bookmark here

“We’ll see you next year,” my mother added.Bookmark here

“See you.”Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

“You really do like Chiaki, don’t you?” Yui asked, likely noticed my smile.Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

Yui somehow got embarrassed. “Hideki and you sure don’t mince your words.”Bookmark here

I chuckled. “So, what do you think of him?”Bookmark here

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.”Bookmark here

“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.”Bookmark here

She chuckled, “Though he’s a bit annoying at times.”Bookmark here

PffttBookmark here

I laughed.Bookmark here

Yui also laughed, seeing my reaction, covering her mouth with one of her hands as she elbowed me.Bookmark here

“What are you two laughing about suddenly?” Hideki turned back and asked.Bookmark here

“Nothing,” I said as I dismissed him with a wave.Bookmark here

Chiaki and Hideki glared at us suspiciously.Bookmark here

Hideki whispered a word, likely ‘laugh’ to Chiaki.Bookmark here

“No,” Chiaki said, loud enough to be heard by us.Bookmark here

“Aw, you’re no fun!” Hideki said.Bookmark here

I exchanged looks with Yui, and we chuckled again.Bookmark here

Both of them continued to glare at us.Bookmark here

“Change,” they said, in unison.Bookmark here

And, that was how I ended up with Hideki beside me.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

I looked at my watch.Bookmark here

11:45PM.Bookmark here

Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

I slowly made my way in front of it.Bookmark here

It was the same shrine gate that I passed through every time I had my vision.Bookmark here

I also saw a large steel bell, with a large attached bar beside it.Bookmark here

So, this is where my last trial would be.Bookmark here

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’).Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

Then, we bowed once.Bookmark here

I looked at my watch.Bookmark here

11:58AM.Bookmark here

We lined up in front of the second, gray, shrine gate.Bookmark here

“Those who are coming in pairs, please line up side by side to save space for others,” one of the employees said.Bookmark here

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.Bookmark here

I took a quick look at my watch.Bookmark here

11:59AM.Bookmark here

This is it.Bookmark here

It all comes down to this moment.Bookmark here

“Ready!” the employee shouted to another local, wearing the same shirt, raising the large attached bar next to the bell.Bookmark here

All of us counted together with him, as he looked at his watch.Bookmark here

“Ten!”Bookmark here

I took a deep breath.Bookmark here

“Nine!”Bookmark here

I looked at Chiaki.Bookmark here

“Eight!”Bookmark here

She peered into my eyes, likely wondering why.Bookmark here

“Seven!”Bookmark here

I smiled at her.Bookmark here

“Six!”Bookmark here

She looked surprised.Bookmark here

“Five!”Bookmark here

She smiled back.Bookmark here

“Four!”Bookmark here

I held her hand.Bookmark here

“Three!”Bookmark here

She slid her fingers into my palm.Bookmark here

“Two!”Bookmark here

I focused on the shrine gate in front of me.Bookmark here

“One!”Bookmark here

DAUMMMBookmark here

DAUMMMBookmark here

DAUMMMBookmark here

We walked through the gate together.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.