Chapter 23:

Back to being strangers

who I am is not who I want to be

The year was 2030, almost a decade since she had vanished from my life. A bittersweet nostalgia lingered in the air of our small hometown, the place we both used to call home. Akane had moved on, and so had I. The passage of time had transformed us into strangers, and I couldn't bring myself to mourn the loss. It was her turn to escape, to seize a promising opportunity, and I couldn't help but be genuinely happy for her, even though it felt like a piece of my heart had been taken.

In the end, the person I once knew had been a joyous presence in my life. I used to prioritize my friends above all else, and she had been one of the best things that ever happened to me in that town. But now, as I stood free from the clutches of prison for two years, I felt an unsettling generational gap with my own era.

My certified ethical hacker training had been left incomplete, and I bore no degrees or accolades; my time behind bars was my only certificate. My mother had passed away a year ago, and my friends Haru and Rin had since married and built their happy lives. The world had moved forward, while I remained stuck in the past.

Akane, before her disappearance, had meticulously deleted all traces of our correspondence and eradicated any evidence that might have led to her. She had effectively erased the very existence of "Karma," leaving only haunting memories.

As I ventured overseas to Perth, Australia, hoping to rid myself of the memories and associations that haunted Kyoto, I felt like a man wandering aimlessly through life. I had secured a decent job, but I couldn't find the passion in it. My days felt robotic, devoid of the vibrancy I once cherished.

Perth welcomed me with open arms, but it couldn't exorcise the specter of my past. The city's streets remained unfamiliar, and everything seemed new, except for the one feeling that clung to me—the sensation of waiting. I couldn't define what I was waiting for; it remained an elusive void I couldn't fill.

Even amidst the unfamiliar faces, one colleague named Juliet stood out. Her flirtations and attempts to capture my attention were apparent, but my heart remained untouched. I couldn't muster any feelings for her, even as I toiled away in the Australian city.

One day, I decided to embark on a solo trip, determined to explore the beauty of Australia. Juliet had expressed interest in joining me, but I declined, yearning for solitude. It was during this trip, on a summer day in August 2031, that I found myself circling a picturesque fountain, lost in contemplation.

I heard footsteps approaching me, the rhythm resembling that of someone pursuing a fleeing thought. It felt like a chase, a relentless pursuit that was rapidly closing in on me. A pair of arms enveloped me from behind, their embrace as tight as chains, making us nearly indistinguishable from one another. Her heartbeat resonated against my back, and I couldn't ignore the tremor of emotion that coursed through her.

In that moment, I was convinced that it was Juliet. She had followed me, ignoring my wish for solitude. But as I turned around, preparing to reprimand her, my eyes met hers, and reality shifted beneath my feet. My vision betrayed me. She looked at me, and I looked at her, but there was nothing—no spark, no emotions—just a void that fractured my heart.

My immediate response was to deny her presence, to reject her with disgust. I wanted to believe that it was best for us to remain strangers, that I preferred myself when she was a distant memory. I moved away from her, seeking the company of Juliet, who had been waiting for me.

Yet, even as I distanced myself, I couldn't shake the unsettling mix of emotions that surged within me. It was time to face the truth—Akane had returned to my life, and whether I liked it or not, she was no longer a stranger.