Somehow, Kazuto Sugiyama felt as though he had been running for ages. His legs were getting heavier with each stride, his mouth letting out constant gasps of exhaustion. Reeds flashed past him, hurting his arms as he careened through the endless cornfield. It also seemed his destination would never come to him, a reddish glow in the distance he could barely make out through the thick and hot mist burning his lungs and blurring his vision. His current whereabouts uncertain, there was one thing he knew for sure.
He had to get to them.
Suddenly, what he yearned for the most seemed within his grasp. His chest felt heavy as he dashed to a halt, struggling to catch his breath in the haze. Yet as he raised his eyes, he realized his desire came at a too high a price. Before him, his childhood home was engulfed in fire, flames burning deep red and orange from the roof to the door. But there was no place for hesitation. He rushed inside the house like a doomed soul going into hell.
An even thicker cloud than that outside greeted him as he struggled across the living room. He spotted plumes of fire dancing wildly over the furniture as the smell of burning wood grew heavier. And then, he saw an image that would haunt him forever. His mouth went dry at a pair of eyes that stared at him, wide and lifeless, as cascades of blood obscured the delicate features framing them. Laying partly on her left arm and partly on her back was also a dead man, both the fine suit he wore and all of his hair scorched, his face avoiding that of Kazuto as if wanting to spare him the horror.
Dejected, he collapsed to his knees, the energy that had driven him earlier vanished. He sobbed, unable to suppress the sadness welling up inside him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, the guilt too great to be contained. “Mother, father...”
A shrill sound grew in the distance. It seemed to come from a fire truck, but there was nothing left to save now. And yet for some reason, it kept ringing louder, more exasperating, and, above all, more recognizable.
It became a clock alarm.
Kazuto was jolted from his nightmare, his body restless under the sheets. He snapped his head to the side, avoiding the rays of sun passing through the blinds to check his cellphone. It displayed it was 7:15 in the morning, time for him to go to school. He unlocked it and switched the alarm off reluctantly. He sat on the mattress, rubbed his dotted eyes, and then let out a long yawn. To his left, he gazed at the folding guest bed where his brother used to rest, opened but empty. Behind it was a piece of furniture on which a television screen stood; Kazuto grabbed the remote control and turned it on. As he quickly navigated through various channels, he saw nothing but tragedies unfolding one after another, from reporters covering strikes and refugee camps to specialists analyzing armed conflicts across different countries.
“Suzuki employees have been on strike for over a week after the shutdown of twenty—”
“Despite China’s response, we need US troops in the Sea of Japan in case the KPA—”
“Hundreds of Ryukyuans are being murdered by Kaneshiro’s troops. Our Prime Minister—”
“The Turkish Government blames its Greek counterpart for the incident as tensions rise—”
He switched channels one more time, soon realizing he should have turned it off when he saw the image of the burning structure. “—Amaterasu’s recent attack after the downing of flight 518 and the US embassy bombing six months ago, which together have claimed over 300 lives.”
From one moment to another, his eyes darted toward a portrait next to the television, surrounded by green and white origami flowers and spheres. It had been taken, he recalled, in a park during a cold and beautiful sunny day about a decade ago. Kazuto wore a coat that made him look bigger than he was, his mother posing his amber eyes on him with a pure and innocent smile while his father had his arm over Yoshiro’s shoulders, his face firm but serene. If only those dreadful images Kazuto had seen in his sleep were nothing more than a bad dream.
Yet the truth couldn’t be any far from it. It hadn’t happened in his childhood home, of course, but during that attack on the US embassy. The unbidden image of his mother’s inert face came to his mind, as seemly eternal as a frame frozen in time. Mixed emotions flowed in him, from the joy he experienced alongside his family the day of the photo to the deadly coldness spreading throughout his chest while gazing at the burning embassy from an ambulance stretcher. Later than he would have hoped for, Kazuto’s mind found its way back to the present. He stared at his then bruised arm, the skin now scarless and unblemished. They had given him no explanation for that, which led him to assume something had to be wrong with him. Indeed, he felt a soul-crushing emptiness consuming him from within as tears welled in his eyes, filled with regret and suffering. But there was nothing he could do to alter what had occurred.
What he could do for the moment, however, was to lift the blinds behind him, even if that meant he had to leave his bed. After doing so, he adjusted the curtains’ tilt wand, the glow of the sunlight forcing his gaze back to his apartment, whose only grandeur was the incoming light itself. The living room and the bedroom were part of a single, undistinguishable unit, while the bathroom stood behind a wall over which there was an elongated mirror. On the opposite side, a wooden bar split the tiny kitchen from the rest of the room. Closer to the bed, there was a shōji style screen with the traditional translucent washi paper where Kazuto used to change his clothes… And that was all.
That morning, Kazuto ate a few simple toasts accompanied by raw black coffee, which did little to wake him up. His stomach, it seemed, required little food. Later, he brushed his teeth inside the small bathroom and rinsed his mouth, glancing at his image in the mirror. That was the worst of all. Those dead brown eyes hinting at something deeper within that would never quite come out. That rogue auburn hair, tousled and misaligned, product of an unlikely genetic inheritance from some Taiwanese ancestor. That air of conformism, of bitterness. Shouldn’t a teenager be full of life and expectations, looking forward to the days to come?
His regular trip to his school provided him with no answers. With his uniform donned, Kazuto pedaled on the outskirts of the Aoyama cemetery. By some dire coincidence of fate, the shortest path to his destination required him to pass before his parent’s graves. Yet he had never found the courage to visit them since the funeral. At least the scenery differed from the one back in January, as the rows of once lifeless trees showed the green edges of buds, the sky above shining blue and clear. Back then, it had been covered in white, countless snowflakes falling from it down to the surface. He recalled standing there next to Yoshiro, both dressed in black, as his mind drifted away from the ordeal and focused instead on the envelopes his brother was taking. They had the CERU logo printed on them, the energy company for which his parents worked. Some came from co-workers, but others were from men wearing military uniforms, the patches on their shoulders revealing they were part of the UNSMF.
Kazuto ceased pedaling until his ride came to a halt, vehicles stacking around him due to a red traffic light. Veiled by a vast shadow that ate the pavement in front of him, he turned his gaze to his left, bumping into the ten-story building that cast it. It looked like an office building rather than a military barracks complex, except for the fences with welded wires on top spreading across the thirty-square-meters facility they owned in Minato. Something made him uneasy about that place, yet he couldn’t quite identify the reason.
Right away, he shifted his gaze to a homeless man having a burger in front of a closed shop across the street. Next to him was a sign resting on the store’s metal curtain spelling: “I’M A REFUGEE FROM THE KOREAN WAR PLEADING FOR CHARITY AND AN OPPORTUNITY IN YOUR GREAT NATION.” Two well-dressed women strode past him, one covering her nostrils with her fingers while the other secured her expensive purse. The man paid them no mind, more concerned with the need to fill his belly to begin another rough day in his life. Kazuto gripped his ride’s handlebar tightly in frustration, tempted to get off his bike and assist him. But he stopped himself, remembering he didn‘t have the will to take such a charitable initiative. He just wasn’t born with it. Indeed, when traffic lights turned green, Kazuto pedaled past the homeless man, never looking back at him. And still, he felt his stomach tightening as if his body were telling him it was uncomfortable with his mind’s decision.
Fortunately for him, it wasn’t long before he reached Shibuya High School, the occurrence he had seen fading away from his thoughts. He parked his bike in a designated area before the V-shaped columns holding much of its structure. He jumped out of his ride and headed into the building. A few meters past the entrance doors, he ran into several students exchanging their regular footwear for wabaki in their assigned lockers. After doing it himself, he made his way to the second floor and stepped into class 3-A, going for the sixth desk of the sixth row. He threw his briefcase over his table, resting his head on it as he sat on his chair. This time, however, he lacked the strength to look out the window, an activity that filled most of his school day. Of course, the night before hadn’t been an ordinary one; he’d had to rush to the hospital out of the blue since his brother got wounded in the chaos that erupted at the heart of the city. He could have avoided going that day, Kazuto knew, yet he had a certain sense of responsibility.
Or maybe he just wanted to hear the nonsense his jokester friend Raisuke Kobayashi would have to say about it, whose voice interrupted his thoughts without warning. “Rough night, uh, Kazuto?” he said in a boyish tone.
Sugiyama lifted his head, placing his chin over his briefcase to gaze at Raisuke, his arm resting on the support of his chair as his body turned to him. What an idiot. That haughty smile amid his effeminate face exuding a self-confidence he would never have. That jade-dyed hair, combed over to a side in multiple layers that required maintenance and expensive products, yet another example of how his adoptive parents indulged him. He could barely recall how he had befriended him, some vague exchange of words in his freshman year with the then-new student from outside the city. Yet the relationship that came to be afterward was still a mystery to Kazuto.
“You bet,” he replied, then sighed in frustration. “My brother got into trouble, again, and they had to perform surgery because his lungs weren’t getting air. He’ll be fine, though.”
Raisuke scowled as his mind wandered for a few seconds. “Was he in last night’s big mess?” Kazuto nodded at him in response. Raisuke’s eyes went wide, but only to the point of an intermediate expression between amazement and a sleepy face. “Then what the hell are you doing at school? You don’t have to force yourself to—oh, right. You always keep your emotions at bay to better deal with things.”
Kazuto’s face saddened a bit. “It’s not that, Raisuke. I just want things to be normal for a change.”
That was when a sudden thud rang through the class.
With his chin still over his briefcase, Kazuto raised his head to realize all eyes were on a girl sitting on the second desk of the fifth row. Her name was Saori Yoshimura. Her cold, delicate square face stood out above all the others in his class, mingling Western with Oriental features that were framed by straight, stylized dark hair up to her neck. Unlike his friend, she had dyed it with a subtle bluish tint that was fashionable. Yoshiro used to tell him that if a woman looked good with short hair, she was truly beautiful. And he was right.
“Forget it, Kazuto,” Raisuke’s voice broke in, always so perceptive. “Saori-chan is way out of your league. And just like the guys from Class B told me, she’s the unfriendly type, cold as shiroice.”
Kazuto raised an eyebrow at his slang; for some unknown reason, Raisuke used to make up words by combining existing ones in different ways or from different languages. He was just that weird. As for Saori, Kazuto noticed she looked awkward as she pushed back a few dyed white wicks in her dark over her left ear, letting him see one of her dazzling cat-like light blue eyes. It seemed she’d made another girl drop a few papers on the floor, so she was apologizing while helping her pick them up.
Kazuto eyeballed his friend at his misguided gossip, yet he kept a neutral grin as he went on. “Well, she’s still a beauty queen from a wealthy family who has rejected every guy who has confessed to her! And if that’s not enough for you...” Both students now stared at the third seat of the first row, where they came across Hayato Yoshimura. He took his glasses off, showing his blue eyes and fringed dark hair as he massaged his temples and chin. “Like any older brother,” Raisuke elaborated, “Hayato is sure to be overprotective, and he’s just as smart and aloof as she is.”
“‘Like any older brother’, huh?” Kazuto replied with a wicked smile. Raisuke blushed at this, feeling awkward when talking about his little sister. “By the way, being twins, how do you know he’s the eldest?”
“That—doesn’t matter! Just don’t get your hopes up with her, okay?”
It wasn’t as if Kazuto did. He assumed a girl like her would find regular boys boring and had more refined tastes. Of course, he understood he was just another teenager charmed by a good-looking face, even though the young woman behind it aroused some curiosity in him.
“Stand up,” said a female voice that lacked any kind of elegance, although it had a lot of enthusiasm and, above all, familiarity.
What should have been familiar to Kazuto was what occurred next; as he raised his head, the metal slit of a school briefcase battered him. “Hey! That hurts, Nozomi!” snorted the victim of such an atrocity as he scratched his head rapidly with the palm of his hand to reduce the pain.
Both he and Raisuke turned to meet his childhood friend, Nozomi Tanaka. She was a bold-looking girl with enormous amber eyes that were bright and striking as gold, framed by her medium-length, wavy light-brown hair with blonde highlights. Always so impulsive, so unpredictable. Of course, the circumstances of life had thrust her down that path. Her father had abandoned her family and left her alone with her mother, who shared little time with her because of her work. To make matters worse, her older brother had died shortly afterward in a confusing and rather misfortunate accident. She had to fend for herself ever since, staying strong for both of them.
Right now, she was looking at him with a puzzled look, and Kazuto couldn’t help staring at the lovely spray of freckles across her nose.
“Huh? What’s up with that boring reaction?”
“Leave him be,” said Raisuke, sparing him the need to speak. “He’s in no mood for your teasing games today.”
“Oh, I see...” She showed some disappointment in her face for a moment, then displayed her usual exaggerated wide grin. Kazuto had always assumed it was her way of coupling with her frustration, reminding herself to keep a positive attitude. “Anyway, were you guys talking about tomorrow’s trip to Cytek HQ for the internship program?”
“No, we were establishing the fact Kazuto likes Saori,” Raisuke lied shamelessly.
Kazuto gave his friend a look. “If I’m looking at a girl, it doesn’t necessarily mean I like her,” he replied, without the slightest hint of embarrassment.
“Sure, that’s why you look at Nozomin as if she were hideous—”
Offended, Nozomi employed her deadly briefcase against Raisuke. Yet the boy remained cheerful, enjoying what had happened to him for no apparent reason. A vein almost popping out of her forehead, Nozomi spat at him, “Idiot. Had it been any other girl, we’d be digging your grave by now.”
“But not all girls are like you, Nozomi. You’re manlier than the two of—” Raisuke took yet another lethal blow, though he still looked amused by the situation.
For her part, Nozomi relaxed her features a little, then displayed her regular smile once more. “Lucky me, having to put up with a loser who spends all reading Manga and playing—”
“Comic books,” Raisuke interrupted her, feeling proud. “There’s huge a difference, except for the quality Seinen stuff.”
“Let me see. On one side we have perverted guys and their harems, while on the other there are women with muscles in tight and revealing outfits. Huge difference, right?”
For a brief moment, the false self-esteem in Raisuke’s face vanished, replaced by an unconvincing scowl of disgust. Yet before he had the chance to answer back, the bell dictating the start of their class period echoed throughout the room. Students scrambled to their seats
as their teacher entered the classroom. Kazuto stretched his arms, ready to carry on a new day of school. He leaned his elbow on the desk and set his eyes on the clear blue sky outside the window, lost in a brief but gratifying sensation. After all, those clumsy and innocuous words his friends used to exchange drove him away from the ramblings of his mind, his grief, and his belief that life was nothing more than a cruel and disappointing experience.Feeling the need to boost this newfound joy, he looked at Saori one more time. For a brief instant, Kazuto sensed a hint of sadness in her, one with which he couldn’t help but feel reflected, as though her eyes were a door to a soul that bared the same hollowness as him. But the connection disappeared as quickly as it had come, her face once again as inscrutable as everybody else’s. Even worse, Kazuto had failed to realize Saori was now staring back at him with a flustered look. A trail of cold sweat ran down his back as he darted his eyes toward the blackboard as if whatever his teacher was doing on it had some sort of genuine interest for him.