Chapter 4:

Journey to Kyoto

Third and Final Time

I arrived two hours early to the train station and not by choice.
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The itinerary called for all students to be at the station by 10AM at the latest and ready to leave on the 10:30AM train, but I arrived at 8AM.Bookmark here

I wish I could say it was entirely out of excitement, but it was more out of anxiety than anything.Bookmark here

Late last night, I finished packing my bags with the help of my mother and spent the next four hours restlessly rolling around on my bed, waiting for tomorrow to come.Bookmark here

When it came at 6AM, I was too fidgety to stay at home, so I got ready very early and left for the station at a ridiculously early time.Bookmark here

The next person, our homeroom teacher Mr Yamamoto, came at 9AM and laughed a little when he saw me.Bookmark here

“I didn’t expect you to be so excited for this, Akane.”Bookmark here

I froze up and simply nodded stiffly at his comment.Bookmark here

Sensing my awkwardness, Mr Yamamoto changed his tone and asked me if I had everything, had my permission slips, got food and drinks for the train and just if I’d been looking forward to the trip.Bookmark here

I nervously gave shortform answers, trying my best not to let my voice tremble, but his expression made me think he could tell.Bookmark here

It was a stiff, difficult one, one that said ‘I regret trying to talk to this person’.Bookmark here

I’d seen that sort of face hundreds of times in my previous lives at school, university and work, but it didn’t make it any less painful.Bookmark here

Oh - not a good start to the day.Bookmark here

It hasn’t even gone 9:30 and I already want to crawl into a hole and hide.Bookmark here

I prayed that someone else would show up, preferably Hinata or her friends.Bookmark here

Hinata, the girl who invited me to her group, and two other girls showed up about 9:40, though I noted that altogether there were only four of us in our five-person group.Bookmark here

Mr Yamamoto noticed this too and asked our group leader, Hinata, where our fifth member was.Bookmark here

“Rei’s got a really bad cold, so he won’t be coming.”Bookmark here

Mr Yamamoto said he’d give his parents a call just to confirm and walked away, leaving me a little bit stunned.Bookmark here

I thought for sure our group was going to be all girls, not four girls and one guy.Bookmark here

More than that, I didn’t actually know who this Rei person was.Bookmark here

I silently pulled out my phone to check the group chat, which I had only sent a single message to, and tried to see his profile picture. Alas, it was just the generic one you get when you make an account.Bookmark here

Still, in my mind, it was for the best.Bookmark here

I’d feel more comfortable without a guy around, at least for a while.Bookmark here

Though, of course, I didn’t say anything about that to my group - I didn’t want them to think I was strange.Bookmark here

I smiled a little bitterly at that and touched my chest, exactly where I knew that birthmark was.Bookmark here

It burnt a little bit harsher today.Bookmark here

***Bookmark here

Hinata Watanabe - a cute girl who, from what I’d seen as we shopped, was a bright, energetic girl, the type who everyone could get along with easily. I saw just how many friends she truly had at our school as dozens of people greeted her, and a few spoke with her at length.Bookmark here

Inori Ishikawa - a fashionable girl who wore her uniform at the very limits of the dress code, with her top button undone, long curly dyed red hair, and several discreet piercings. She appeared to be quite an easy-going person and always had something to say about everything.Bookmark here

Kana Eguchi - a quiet, studious girl with thinly rimmed glasses and her black hair in braids. Whilst she spoke softly and looked like a reserved, anti-social person, she had no difficultly maintaining the same energy as the other two girls.Bookmark here

As for me, I tried my best to join in with their conversations where I could, but 90% of the things I said were variations of: ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I see’. Bookmark here

I imagine I must’ve looked so out of place to everyone else.Bookmark here

When I saw the way a few people looked at us, I thought that perhaps it was a mistake to join this group, even if I was invited.Bookmark here

I don’t know what kind of expression I was making, but I was trying my best to smile and go along with the flow - I’d learnt just how important that was in my second life.Bookmark here

Still, it was hard for me to keep up with them, mentally at least.Bookmark here

Physically speaking, I was more fit than all three of them combined, so much so that I ended up carrying their heavy shopping bags for them after they overindulged.Bookmark here

They all thanked me a little awkwardly and Inori even asked if I was alright carrying all that, but I said, perhaps a bit too bluntly, that I was fine.Bookmark here

I say that because Inori’s reply was, “R-right.”Bookmark here

A spike stabbed into my chest.Bookmark here

Every time someone looked or spoke to me like that, another one was plunged inside, like needles into a pin cushion.Bookmark here

It hurt so much, but I couldn’t let it show.Bookmark here

Even if I was struggling to breath and wanted to run away, I had to keep still and pretend I wasn’t being crushed at the bottom of the ocean.Bookmark here

This time, I told myself, I wouldn’t lose my friends.Bookmark here

I wouldn’t let what happened with Ami ever happen again.Bookmark here

When we finally boarded the train, we were sat at a four-person table seating arrangement and the girls eagerly tucked into their sweets.Bookmark here

I had a few bites here and there, but largely left them to their vices.Bookmark here

After they’d had enough, Hinata pulled out a pack of cards and said we should play a few rounds of something.Bookmark here

Ultimately, we agreed on playing President with special rules.Bookmark here

1 - if you won a round as the President, you got to ask someone around the table any question, within reason, and they had to answer it honestly.Bookmark here

2 - if you came in dead last in any round, you had to answer 3 yes or no questions that the other 3 decided.Bookmark here

The rest of my group agreed to those rules much faster than I did - with a thin smile, I nodded and said, “That’s fine,” after they all stared at me.Bookmark here

In the first round, I came 2nd and Hinata came 1st; Inori was dead last by a landslide - she still had 7 cards left in her hand.Bookmark here

“Okay, so, how many times have you and your boyfriend kissed?”Bookmark here

I almost spat out my water.Bookmark here

Inori was blushing wildly, but the other two were looking at her with anticipation, eager to know about her love life I imagine.Bookmark here

Then, it hit me.Bookmark here

Of course, these sorts of things would be the types of questions teenage girls would ask one another, especially if they were close friends.Bookmark here

Though, I will confess, I knew them all so little I didn’t even know Inori had a boyfriend.Bookmark here

Perhaps, however, I could use this game to get to know them all a lot better.Bookmark here

In fact, if I won every single round, I could find out whatever I wanted about them, within reason.Bookmark here

Conversely, they could do the same with me and that meant running the risk of opening certain doors I’d rather leave bolted shut.Bookmark here

After a few more embarrassed seconds, Inori whispered, “I-I didn’t keep track, b-but maybe…thirty times.”Bookmark here

The other two squealed a little and pressed for more details.Bookmark here

I, however, wasn’t wowed by such things.Bookmark here

I had lived two adult lives and had sex multiple times.Bookmark here

Kisses were, to put it bluntly, boring.Bookmark here

The media and society as a whole put so much depth and meaning behind the act of two touching lips, but I rarely felt that spark.Bookmark here

After my divorce, I definitely never felt it again.Bookmark here

In a way, I envied my classmates.Bookmark here

They were still young, naïve, full of hope for their futures - and here, right beside them living their passionate youth, I’m spiralling deeper and deeper into the darkness.Bookmark here

Maybe I should have just called in sick, or asked my mother to phone the school and say that I was.Bookmark here

She’d understand.Bookmark here

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But then I’d have to tell her.Bookmark here

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I can’t.Bookmark here

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I.Bookmark here

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“Excuse me."Bookmark here

After the 2nd round ended and I’d failed to ask both my questions, I left the table and went to the bathroom.Bookmark here

I reached into my chest pocket and pulled out a little cuddly toy my mother gave me when I was five, and started squeezing it in my palm.Bookmark here

Whenever I did this, it calmed my nerves a little.Bookmark here

I don’t know what exactly it was about it, but it just helped me focus my mind elsewhere.Bookmark here

Maybe it was because it was something my mother had given me in all of my lives and I’d always treasured it.Bookmark here

I stood there, eyes shut tight, for a whole two minutes before I stopped.Bookmark here

When I opened my eyes, I came face to face with myself in the mirror and winced.Bookmark here

I looked awful.Bookmark here

I wet my hands, washed my face a few times and then dried myself off.Bookmark here

Maybe I should just feign illness and-Bookmark here

“Akane, are you okay?”Bookmark here

A small, flickering light broke through from behind the closed door.Bookmark here

“Hinata?”Bookmark here

“I-I’m sorry, for following you to the toilet, but I just thought you weren’t feeling well or maybe we’d upset you, or something.” She laughed gently. “B-but I guess I-”Bookmark here

“Wait!”Bookmark here

I surprised myself with how loudly I cried out.Bookmark here

I took a few deep breaths, unlocked the door and stepped out.Bookmark here

She looked up at me with warm concern as I tried to force a smile back across my lips, but.Bookmark here

I couldn’t do it.Bookmark here

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Oh, God, I almost felt like crying.Bookmark here

“A-are you okay?”
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Did it show?!Bookmark here

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I panicked and covered my face, retreating a few paces.Bookmark here

“…I’m fine. Thank you for worrying about me.”Bookmark here

I peeked through the gaps in my fingers and felt another knife pierce my heart.Bookmark here

Her face, that smile, it reminded me of my second life, of-Bookmark here

“I’m not okay.”Bookmark here

“Eh?”Bookmark here

I couldn’t meet her eyes, so I stared off at the corner by the door.Bookmark here

“…Thank you for inviting me to your group, but I’m just a bother, aren’t I? I barely say anything, barely look at you guys and don’t do anything other than mumble a few times. You’d probably have been happier without me in your group, right? I’m just too shy to talk to other people and I probably look like a cold-hearted person, but that’s not it. I’m just-”Bookmark here

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Why, I asked myself, am I saying this?Bookmark here

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Why am I springing this on Hinata?Bookmark here

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Nothing brought this-Bookmark here

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Oh.Bookmark here

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I’m an idiot.Bookmark here

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I’d bottled this all up for too long and I’d finally sprung a leak.Bookmark here

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It just happened to be Hinata who’d sprung it.Bookmark here

“Akane…”Bookmark here

I felt a few tears fall from my eyes. “Did Mr Yamamoto ask you to invite me? Or did you ask me out of pity?”Bookmark here

“That’s not it, Akane.” Hinata put her palms against my cheeks and firmly held my head, making us look into each other’s eyes. Then, with a bright smile, she said, “I just always wanted to talk to you, that’s all.”Bookmark here

“…Why?”Bookmark here

“Do I really need a reason?”Bookmark here

I sniffed. “Y-you do.”Bookmark here

Hinata giggled a little and let go of me, though I didn’t break eye contact this time.Bookmark here

“Well, I’d always wanted to talk to you, but never found the right moment to.”Bookmark here

“What was different when you-?”Bookmark here

She pointed at her ears. “You left your headphones off.”Bookmark here

She’s right - I hadn’t even noticed it at the time because I was so lost within myself.Bookmark here

“…Was that really all it took for you to talk to me?”Bookmark here

Hinata laughed. “Yep. That’s all.”Bookmark here

“What a stupid reason.”Bookmark here

I covered my mouth and went to apologise, but Hinata didn’t look upset or mad; she just kept smiling at me.Bookmark here

Why?Bookmark here

Didn’t I just insult you?Bookmark here

“Have you always been shy?”Bookmark here

“…I don’t know if that’s the right word for it, but sort of. I just…didn’t know how to talk to girls my age.”Bookmark here

“Right.”Bookmark here

“…To be honest, I was going to use our game of president to try and learn more about all of you, and hope we had something in common to talk about.”Bookmark here

“Hinata Watanabe! 15 years old! Blood-type, O! My birthday’s the 5th June and my favourite food is chocolate cake!”Bookmark here

“…I wasn’t going to ask that.”Bookmark here

“Still, at least you know a little bit about me.”Bookmark here

Is this the part where I respond in kind?Bookmark here

Though, I can’t respond with my real age.Bookmark here

I must be nearing a hundred by now, I imagine.Bookmark here

“…Doesn’t it bother you?”Bookmark here

“What?”Bookmark here

“That…I don’t tell you about myself, or join in with the rest of you, or-”Bookmark here

“No. Everyone has their own pace, so you just need to go at the one you’re comfortable with.”Bookmark here

“B-but! Wouldn’t it annoy you or-?”Bookmark here

“Nope, not even a little.”Bookmark here

“…Why?”Bookmark here

Hinata grinned. “You don’t have to match our pace to be our friend, Akane.” Bookmark here

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I wish I could share her view on life, but-Bookmark here

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“I don’t want to mess up this time.”Bookmark here

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By the time I realised what I had said, it was too late - though, Hinata reacted in a way I didn’t expect her to.Bookmark here

She grasped my hands with hers and said, “It’s okay. We want to be your friend too, so don’t worry about silly things like if you’re a bother or if we don’t want you there. We do, so don’t ever forget that, no matter what anyone else says. Okay?”Bookmark here

“…Thank you, Hinata.”Bookmark here

“You’re very welcome.”Bookmark here

Once I’d calmed down properly and Hinata helped me fix my makeup, we went back to the others and kept playing cards.Bookmark here

Whenever I won, I asked very stiff, formal questions, though the girls seemed to find this funny more than anything.Bookmark here

Whenever I answered a question, I was, unfortunately, quite blunt but the others accepted the answers and joked about them.Bookmark here

Honestly, it wasn’t a bad feeling, but it wasn’t a pleasant one either.Bookmark here

But, as time went on and we drew closer to Kyoto, I felt less tense around them and my smiles started to come more naturally to me.Bookmark here

Thank you, Hinata.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.