We make our way through the thin layer of snow, onto the open sidewalk. There, we join a stream of many other people who are also mostly walking in small groups. We follow my father’s lead to find a cake shop, but it turns out that he doesn’t really know where he is going, so my mother steps in to guide us.
“I know what the place looks like, but I can’t remember how to get there from home!”
My father wails in disappointment from not being able to keep his momentum through the Christmas celebrations. He gets into an almost childishly excited mood when it comes to these annual festivities, probably because he doesn’t get the chance to be excited for much else throughout the year.
“You could have made a list of the shops,” I remark, “then we could have looked them up and planned the route beforehand.”
“I thought we could find them on-the-fly. You know, like a mini-adventure before we get the reward?”
“If it’s part of the adventure, then why are you upset about not finding them straight away?”
“My craving for cake overcame my craving for adventure in the moment.”
“That’s not an excuse!”
“I know, I know, I wish I had thought of that sooner. Better yet, I wish we had more time for celebrations together! One day really isn’t enough.”
“Here we are,” my mother announces as we round the street corner.
“Oh well,” my father perks back up immediately, “we’ll just have to make up for it by getting the best cake they have!”
“There… might be a problem with that idea,” my mother sighs, pointing at the cake shop.
The shop has a queue that leads out of the front doors onto the sidewalk.
“What?” my father exclaims in genuine shock. “I’ve never seen this place so busy before!”
“Neither have I, dear, but it is Christmas. Many people must have had the same idea we did.”
“What now?” my father groans. “Do we wait in line or go look for a different shop?”
“I don’t mind waiting in line, dear.”
“Yeah,” I add, “but the problem is that the good cakes will be sold out by the time we get in front.”
My father looks like he is one sentence away from embracing his childlike excitement by throwing a tantrum.
“That won’t do! I said that we’ll get the best cake, so we’ll get the best cake!”
My mother looks around the area.
“I know of a different shop near here. Although it might be just as busy.”
“We must try. For the sake of Christmas!”
I laugh to myself at how my father seems to think Christmas is the be-all and end-all for family outings. I don’t really care much for cake either way, so I just follow my parents as we go to find another shop.
The shop my mother took us to ended up being a café that also happens to sell full cakes at the counter. Since it probably isn’t public knowledge, only previous customers to the café would know about it. Because of that, we didn’t wait very long before we received a well-decorated cake.
With cake in hand, we make our way to our local park - the spot where we plan on eating. Since we walked further than expected to pick up the cake, we are all quite hungry by the time we arrive. The park is full of other families and couples, most of them sitting in the large yard where the Christmas tree has been set up.
We find a bench long enough for the three of us and sit down, facing the huge tree. My mother hands out slices of cake on small plastic plates she brought with, and soon we are sitting in silence, eating cake and staring at the majestic tree accentuated by snowfall.
“I’m glad that we can at least spend this day as a family.”
My father is the first one to break the silence, and does so with what seems to be a build-up for a sappy speech.
“We’re all pretty busy, and it can sometimes feel like we’re passing each other by. But nothing can take this day away from us.”
My father has quite the formidable ability to switch between light-hearted and serious. On this occasion, my mother and I simply smile together in agreement and my father goes back to his normal self after getting the sentiment off his chest.
We sit together and look at the Christmas tree in silence, even after we’ve finished eating. There is a good amount of the cake left for us to take home, so my mother packs it away in a container. The cold air is illuminated by the glow of the ornament atop the Christmas tree. Festive music can be heard somewhere in the distance, but it is almost drowned out by the bustling and cheerful chatter of the people in the park - many of which are also just watching the tree.
I look at the large star-shaped ornament on the top of the Christmas tree, when all of a sudden, it falls, disappearing straight into the tree as if it wasn’t there. As soon as it has vanished from sight, though, it appears on top of the tree again, with a fade of blurry lines vanishing behind it. I stare at the ornament for three seconds to confirm that it is now steadily back in place, then look over to my parents. Their faces are clad with smiles, as they have been since my father made his sentimental declaration. No reaction from them. I look around the park at some of the other groups of people, but none of them show any noticeable reaction, even those who are also watching the tree.
I stay surprisingly calm. When it comes time to leave, I walk up to the tree to touch it. Its fake bristles brush against my hand, cold to the touch. A thin layer of snow falls down, covering my sleeve. I brush it off, take one last look at the ornament on top of the tree, and turn around to follow my parents out of the park.
“So,” my father speaks up as we start walking, “my plan to adventure for cake didn’t quite work, but what if we have a different adventure? We can try to find the house that has the best Christmas decorations!”
“Ooh, I like that idea. What about you, Ayato?”
“Sounds good to me.”
We spend quite a few hours strolling around, stopping every now and then when we find a house that has a lot of Christmas decorations. The fact that it is late at night doesn’t seem to deter us, nor any of the other people that are out and about, probably since every major street is lit up. Eventually, my mother has to convince my father to go back home, since midnight is approaching and he, to his dismay, has to go to work tomorrow morning. We soon make it back after a successful Christmas outing.
Finally, another message. This one feels somewhat like a mix between the first two messages. With the lamppost, I saw something out of place that corrected itself immediately, but no-one else was around, so I couldn’t confirm whether I was the only one who saw it or not. With the fire, there were many other people around, confirming that only I could see it. This time, I saw the tree ornament vanish, immediately correcting itself, and there were many other people around that didn’t see the same thing. It wasn’t just the ornament vanishing either; the blurry lines that traced its outline as it reappeared already makes this message stand out.
After thinking about it, what I saw looked like something that might happen in a badly designed computer game, with an object moving somewhere it shouldn’t be, only to be reset immediately. I think, subconsciously, that is why I touched the tree afterwards, to confirm to myself that it wasn’t actually a large hologram. Ideally, I would have walked all around the tree and touched it from all sides, just to be sure, but that would have been rather hard to explain to my parents.
I made sure to not ask anyone whether they saw something, since it seemed really obvious to me that no-one did. If these messages are specifically for me, there’s no point in involving others in the first place. For a brief while, I think about how my father turned sentimental, talking about how special the day was right before the ornament message happened. Suspecting my own father feels even worse than suspecting Suzaku, but the thought crossed my mind regardless. Although, I drop my suspicions soon after thinking about it. If my father had to send messages to me without saying anything outright, it would be very easy to do so at home, but I haven’t seen anything out of place there. Despite thinking that it seems pointless to try and figure out who is responsible, I end up suspecting people anyway. I’m an awful person.
The holidays go by, and soon, it’s time to meet up with Misu, Saori and Suzaku for our New Year’s shrine visit. Since we plan on staying awake through the night, I tried to get more sleep than usual last night, but to no avail. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Christmas tree message long enough to fall asleep. My mother prepared quite the extravagant dish for dinner, but since my father is working and will be home late, she opted to wait for him so that the two of them can eat together. That will be their way of celebrating the New Year. I regret the fact that I won’t be able to try that dish out, but it can’t be helped, since we’ll probably go eat out somewhere after our shrine visit.
“I’ll be going now,” I call out to my mother as I open the front door.
“Oh, Ayato, your father called. He told me to tell you that he’ll see you next year.”
I stay silent and wait for my mother to finish giggling at her own delivery of the joke.
“Alright,” I finally answer, “enjoy dinner!”
“Thank you. Have fun!”
I leave the house behind for the last time this year, on my way to the meeting point that we all agreed on. The cold air burns my nose as I inhale, but at least it’s not snowing. We haven’t had snow since the day after Christmas, in fact. It’s already dark out, but the streets on my way are well lit. Suzaku is already there by the time I arrive.
“Hey, Ayato. Aren’t you early?”
“Says the guy who was here before me?”
“I finished my daily missions early, so I came here rather than taking on another quest. You should praise me for turning down gaming just to be on time.”
“I guess. You’re far more punctual than Saori is.”
“I mean, she’s just an airhead sometimes,” Suzaku chuckles. “She’d start reading a manga and then just forget about anything else until she’s late. She hardly plans things ahead of time at all.”
“Except when it comes to new volume releases, right?”
“Yeah. I gotta give Misu credit for being able to handle that level of spontaneity every day. I would go crazy.”
“In a way, I think that even though they are both quite spontaneous people, they manage to keep each other in check now that they’re together.”
A voice, unmistakably belonging to Saori, approaches us. She’s riding tandem with Misu on his bicycle. I’m not sure that is technically allowed in this area, but that won’t stop them. Before they arrive, I turn to Suzaku.
“See what I mean?”
Misu stops and Saori leaps off of the bike with an energetic movement.
“Sorry we’re late! I got caught up in the visual novel I was playing!”
Suzaku and I look at each other, exchanging a silent ‘we called it’.
“Yeah,” Misu pants, “I pretty much had to pry her off of her computer!”
“I am so close to the ending of that route, if I had six more minutes, I reckon I’d be done!”
“You would have made us wait even longer, then?” Suzaku asks.
“That ending takes priority over this meeting! Shrine visits happen once a year, but finishing a route in a visual novel for the first time happens only once!”
Misu hangs his arm around Saori’s shoulders.
“The ending will be even better if you have to wait a bit in anticipation, won’t it? Come on, let’s go.”
Misu manages to calm Saori down - who turns cheerful quite quickly.
We walk up the stairs to the shrine, where there are already many other people gathered. Since there is already a long line, we choose to get our New Year’s fortunes first. Saori gets ‘great luck’ and Misu and Suzaku both get ‘good luck’ on their fortunes. I am the last to open mine.
“What’d you get, Ayato?” Suzaku asks, apparently pretty happy with his own fortune.
“Neutral luck.” I flip the small paper, showing it to Suzaku.
“Woah,” Saori jumps in from the side, “that’s pretty rare.”
“Yeah, leave it to Aya to pull something like that! At least Suku and I are in the ‘good luck’ camp together!”
Saori hands me back my fortune.
“You and I are the outsiders here,” Saori puts her hand on my shoulder. “We must go and find our people. We don’t belong with the ‘good luck’ normies.”
“Hahaha,” Suzaku laughs, “what is this, some sort of VR game that only matches players by their New Year’s fortune?”
Saori thinks about it a bit before answering.
“Well, wouldn’t it be unfair if someone with ‘neutral luck’ were matched up with a player that has ‘great luck’ in a game like that?”
“You guys are making a big deal out of it,” I interrupt, “we’ll be visiting the shrine together, regardless of our fortune.”
“That’s fine,” Suzaku replies, “as long as you stand far enough away from me, I don’t want your luck to neutralise my own.”
“Technically, if something neutral interacts with something positive, we’ll both just end up-”
“Bwah, whatever, just keep your luck to yourself!”
We all laugh as we move out into the crowd to get ready for the countdown.
Suzaku said something about virtual reality games before, and that made me think back to the Christmas tree incident for some reason. Probably since the resetting phenomenon looks like how it would in such a game. I push back the thought as the countdown to the new year starts.
“5… 4… 3… 2… 1…”
“Happy New Year!”