White Wings Café
Notebooks, study guides, and several red and blue pens were spread out on our wooden desk. Papers marked with checkmarks and circles riddled the ground where floorboards used to be. When I pictured how this study session was going to work, I can't say that I imagined actually staying on task.
Before I had the chance to wrap my head around it, Yuu had already begun to teach. Her movements were slow as she dragged her finger across the page and, much like this morning, she seemed sapped of her usual enthusiasm.
The process was simple. Yuu would present me with a few questions, I'd answer to the best of my ability, and once everything was said and done, she would explain where I had gone wrong and encourage me to keep going. By all means, this method of studying and review could potentially help if not for one small problem.
"What you want to do is..." Yuu wiped her eyes and leaned forward, "is, uh, put the answer you got here and put it into your formula."
Despite how eager she was to help, Yuu was completely out of it.
Come to think of it, she had been acting weird all day. The glasses she started wearing only recently, this morning with the tests, and now the situation with Aya— something was off.
"Dear, are you listening? It would be a shame if I was only wasting my breath."
I jumped at her voice before looking away. "Yes. I think I'm slowly starting to understand. Put some emphasis on slowly though."
"Great, allow me to continue then." Yuu fell forward before catching herself and scribbling something in her notebook. "Ugh."
"I think we should take a break—"
"Absolutely not!" she cried out. Noticing she had raised her voice, she shrunk in her seat and eyed the paper she was marking, circling the wrong answer in red. "Apologies. I shouldn't have...done that. It's just, I was assigned this task by Ms. Maeda and I want to be able to help. Forgive me."
She reached for her glasses at the edge of the table but stopped herself halfway through.
"It's alright, you're fine. Don't worry if not a lot really sticks after this, different people learn in different ways. It takes time. I'll survive, you know?" I pretended to puff out my cheeks and poked her back. "Oh, how about this. If I don't do good on this next test, you could always take away my wing touching privileges."
She softly chuckled and circled another question. "That would be far too cruel for you, dear."
"Would be a good reason for me to study harder though."
"I'd prefer to reward you. Positive reinforcement and all that. I can't quite say that I have anything in mind however."
"Hey, that's fair. I wouldn't complain one way or the other." I shook my head and continued writing. "Have you always been this good at school?"
"Had to be. I don't believe I would be sitting here if I wasn't."
"Hmm, your parents strict too?"
She glanced over before closing her eyes and huffing. Pause then huff. Huff and pause. This time she put a checkmark beside my answer, switching pens shortly after. Lucky me.
"Not in the slightest, no. I think Mother would be happy no matter what I did. Just as long as it was something I enjoyed doing."
The scribbling in her notebook slowed down and came to a full stop. Silence deafened the room.
"However, I am a guardian angel," she said. Her breathing became more laboured. "More should be expected of me, don't you...don't. You. Think?"
Before my eyes, faster than I could even think to react, Yuu plunged toward the desk. Two arms exploded downward and gripped the edges before she crashed, her nails scraping off bits of wood. She held herself in place before shooting up from her seat.
"Yuu? What's wrong, are you hurt? We're taking a break. Right now, come on, let's go."
I tried to sound firm but found myself unable.
"Not yet." She gritted her teeth together as I watched on. Swiping the glasses off the desk and putting them on, she stumbled backward before taking hold of my hand. "That's right, I still have to..."
I stood with her and stared closely. Within her eyes, sunken and grey with eyebags underneath, there was an intense determination.
"Actually, if we're taking a break, I have just the place. That place should surely work. There is not a doubt within my mind."
"Yuu, slow down. I don't understand what you're talking about."
"Please." She gripped my hands tight and rested her head on them. "Trust me for a bit longer. Follow me."
"That's not as reassuring as you think it is." Still, whatever she wanted to show me seemed very important to her. "I'll follow only if you rest once we're there."
"Perfect! I can do that. I promise."
As if she wasn't in a zombie-like state in the first place, Yuu rushed down the stairs and out the door with me in tow. Confused. Disoriented. But mostly worried.
We speedwalked through the streets of town, passing many parks and houses on the way to our destination. Determined to show me something, Yuu hadn't looked back once or let go of my hand. In fact, as we continued on I swore that her grip was getting tighter.
"You know, I'm kinda not used to this." I said, mostly to fill dead air.
"Usually I'm the one leading the way to school." I paused. "This is new...but I can't say I hate it."
Footsteps. Only the sound of her shoes (the shoes she took from me, mind you) clicking and clacking against the pavement answered back.
A few glimpses here and there from when her hair would blow to the side showed me that she had a look of childish joy plastered on her face. At the same time, this silence would make any person assume that she was angry with them.
We took a sharp turn, hopping off the sidewalk and into a nearby forest. Before my feet sunk into the mulch, we stepped on an old scratched up board of wood. Torn rope circled around and looped through the holes drilled into it.
Faded but familiar markings were etched onto most of the trees. They were gibberish without any actual meaning. At least they were now. Some even had leaves tacked onto the stumps with pins, as if the markings on those held more importance.
I took in the surroundings. Distant laughter from the past echoed throughout the forest, and the scenery around me became much more nostalgic. To the left, a crybaby sat on a rock with a scraped knee, bawling her eyes out as two others tended to her. To the right, the two older kids snickered as they hid nearby. The younger brat wandered all about, dragging her feet and abruptly stopping every few steps.
I closed my eyes and my chest was filled with butterflies.
In the end, the markings were just scribbles or phrases Aya and I thought were cool that day. Drawings, things we learned at school, even grand ideas about our eventual high school debut— in one way or another, they were all there.
Due to how unkempt and dirty the place was, Aya's friends never came here to hang out or play. Well, all of them except one.
"We're almost there, hang on." Yuu broke her silence.
"I feel like I should be saying that to you."
"You know not what you speak of. I am fine."
"Fineth, you say? Surely you jest."
"Are you mocking me?"
I exhaled through my nose and grinned. "Nope. A small quip if you will."
"My, my, if you've begun your revenge then surely that means you've—"
“Stop stop stop." I groaned. "Not in the slightest. But much like learning things, growth takes time." Yuu gave me a look. "It takes time, alright? You two always go for the throat, God."
Yuu laughed before stepping over a fallen stump with three faded lines of marker on it— one red, one green, and one yellow. As kids, Aya put up boundaries that we absolutely weren't allowed to cross for safety reasons. After being warned so many times, I felt guilty about ignoring it. Despite this, I hopped over and took Yuu's hand again.
We delved deeper into the forest, deeper than I had ever been. I wasn't scared. Yuu was strong after all. She could handle herself, right? Branches swivelled and danced as they covered the sky above, tiny rays of sunlight peeked through them and hit the ground. Unraked leaves crunched beneath our shoes. Unlike the first part, this area was a lot more open and empty.
Yuu gasped and let go.
"Huh? Did you step on something?"
Only two words left her mouth.
Looking ahead with wide eyes, a tree larger than many of the houses back in town laid in the heart of the forest, its roots—twisted and irregular—spreading out every which way. Past us. In front of us. Everywhere. Birds sang and flew around, squirrels climbed up the branches and hid within its many crevices.
It wasn't just laying there. With the way they dug into the ground, connecting to the other trees in the previous area, and how it even managed to eclipse the sun, this was the heart of the forest. I was sure of it.
"What the hell," I said as I took a few steps back. A sharp pain rushed through my head. "How have I never..."
"Beautiful, isn't it? I think so as well. More beautiful than anything this world has to offer."
Yuu rushed up to it and placed a hand in the middle of the stump. Compared to the tree, she was nothing but an ant. A halo appeared above her head as the wind picked up, blowing her hair all over the place and forcing me to brace. She took hold of it as its colour faded from a shining gold to a brilliant and blinding white.
Yuu swung her arm forward and shoved the halo against the tree. Sparks flew. Its shape became more round. Leaves of various colours flew around, making it seem a lot more like fall than the beginning of spring. With gritted teeth and one last push, the halo ruptured, leaving only falling flickers of light to hit the ground and disappear.
And at last—dead calm.
The wind died down. Leaves fell. Yuu leaned against the tree and panted heavily. An insignia of some kind had been branded onto the bark. The smell of smoke and ash was the only evidence left of what happened.
With a quiver in her voice and a dry laugh, she said, "It wasn't taken. Thank goodness."
One foot in front of the other. Yuu was strong. Be like Yuu. Don't be afraid.
Although hesitant, I took my first step forward. Then another. I lingered and lingered until I found myself behind her.
"What is going on?"
"This is our special tree." She gave it a few pats. "Amongst all the forests and all the greenery that reside here, I can assure you that nothing will ever compare to this."
"Our special tree, huh? It's huge, I guess but is that what you wanted to show me?"
"Thought so." Her expression dropped and she closed her eyes. "From the moment I was assigned to you, you were imbued with a sliver of my magic. And just now I did the same here. If you are in danger or in need of help, physically or mentally— come here, touch this tree and speak my name. I will arrive in an instant."
I held a fist to my chest. "M-magic?—no, that's not important now. I guess I just want to know why."
"This is a safe haven that I wish to share with you, Shiro. When things have gotten especially tough in the past, simply being within this tree's presence has calmed me down countless times." She sighed and wiped her eyes. "Goodness, I can barely stand."
"A safe haven for me and you." I looked down at the ground. "That sounds nice."
Yuu turned around and slid down the tree stump, her head raised and body limp. She chuckled as she turned to me with open arms.
"Sit with me, won't you dear?" She gave me a smile. "Think of it as a reward for what we've done so far."
"You spoil me too much."
"Everyone needs to be spoiled every once in a while."
I sat on the ground in front of her. My eyes became heavy. I wasn't tired before. Yuu pulled me closer and placed her head on top of mine. As I stayed within her arms, she began to recite the following:
"At our special tree, where flowers may grow and one day wither, a choice has been made.
Although nothing is set in stone in life, I hope you choose to stay.
For as long as I'm able to take a single breath, no harm will come your way.
Indebted to you I remain— forever and always.
She fell silent. Only the sounds of the forest occupied my mind. The soothing sounds of birds singing and wind blowing drifted me off to sleep. Within her arms...underneath our special tree.
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