Chapter 26:

Sakuta's Trial (Part 1)

Hime x Hime

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"Amber!" I was jolted awake by the sound of a knock on my bedroom door. My head throbbed in pain. "It's so strange though... I think I called out someone's name when I woke up just now."

I was certain of it. The only problem was...

Who the heck is Amber?

It must have had something to do with the dream I was having only moments before. It was one of those dreams where you could only remember bits and pieces when you woke up. From what I could recall, it was about princesses, and pirate ships.

I totally kissed a Princess! Me! And she was beautiful, and it was so lifelike, and—

"Ow, ow, ow..." My far-fetched virgin fantasies subsided as I was hit with another sharp headache. Still dazed, I blinked at the familiar ceiling fan circling a short distance above my bed.

Birds chirped outside, the wall clock ticked away, and I was greeted with the morning sunshine from outside my window. What a lovely Saturday... Is what I would have said if not for the persistent knocking on my door.

"It's the weekend, what do you want? That racket is making my headache worse." I whined. Judging by the blatant disregard for my sleeping schedule, it was almost certainly my sister Yuki.

"Bro, get up! Breakfast is ready, and mom is about to leave for work. She got called into the office. Again..." I could hear Yuki's frustrated tone on the other side of the door.

"Again!?" I struggled to conceal my own exasperation. "That's the third Saturday in a row..."

We had made plans to go to a theme park together, but our mother—with the kind of work schedule she endured—could be called in at any moment to cover for her coworkers. Refusing her tyrannical corporate overlords might as well have been career suicide. I understood that even as the middle schooler I was. Adult life kinda sucks, doesn't it?

I scanned the bedside table for my glasses, making certain not to accidentally knock them onto the floor again. I had lost many good pairs that way as of late. I begrudgingly complied with Yuki's demands, throwing my clothes on in a rush.

"Will you hurry up, dummy? The miso soup is getting cold." Yuki called again. I swung my door open.

"Who are you calling a dummy? You're getting awfully mouthy for a 10-year-old." I put my hands on my hips in a show of my ultimate intellectual prowess as the older sibling.

"Oh, I'm very sorry! By the way, O' Wise One... Your pants are on backwards." Yuki cackled before running down the stairs.

"WAH—!" I couldn't even muster a retort. The wise older sibling had been swiftly vanquished by the upstart little sister. I turned my pants back around in shame, and trudged down the stairs. Our mother greeted me by the front door as she prepared to leave.

"Hey, honey! I'm so sorry about this, I know how excited you guys were about Sweet Potato Park. I promise I'll make it up to—" Our mother frantically gathered her things, and began to recite the apology I had heard a thousand times.

"It's fine, mom. Really. And Yuki isn't the type of kid to cry over spilled milk either." She was more the type to spill it on purpose, and blame me for it. "You have obligations, and you and dad keep the food on the table. We'll just go another time."

I shrugged, realizing very well that some things couldn't be changed. She returned my shrug with a small frown. I could tell she felt guilty about having to leave, but I wasn't all that upset.

Our mother was a plain looking woman who wore her standard office uniform, and her hair back in a ponytail. Yuki and I took after her in terms of our looks, with our brown hair and eyes. Mother shared my need to wear glasses.

The awful eyesight is sadly hereditary.

"What a kind and understanding young man I raised." A smile returned to her face as she tussled my hair, much to my embarrassment. "I actually have some news that might cheer you both up!"

"Newsh?" Yuki perked up with a mouth full of food. She had given up on waiting for me to sit down at the table.

"Your grandfather just got back from the cycle-a-thon around Hokkaido with his college buddies. You know that he recently sold his house in Aomori, but he's planning to come live here with us for a while!"

"Gramps is coming to live here!?" I could feel my cowlick stand up on its own from the excitement. "When!?"

Answering my question, the sound of squeaking brakes pulled up in front of our house. I ran over to the window, and saw a city taxi parked next to our driveway. A burly old man stepped out of the vehicle. It's him! Placing my hand on the front doorknob, I planned to run outside and greet him. Suddenly I felt faint and dropped to my knees.

"Sakuta, are you alright!? Honey, look at me. You're paler than a sheet of paper..." My mother knelt down beside me as my vision blurred, her concerned look splitting into three.

"I'm OK, I think. I just woke up with a bit of an—AGHHH!" I held my temples as the pain soon became intolerable. "What's... wrong with me..."

"Rejoice. For you have now entered the trial of the Guardian of Dreams. Your suffering will either bear fruit for your mission, or result in the very dismantling of your own psyche!"

"Sakuta! Here let me call off of work right now, we need to get you into a doctor." My mother pulled out her phone, and began dialing her office.

"No, don't!—*NGH*—That voice... Did you guys hear that too?" I asked Yuki and our mother, who glanced at each other with confused looks. My own voice sounded distorted in my ears.

This moment... I feel like I've lived it before, but something is clearly different. And what's this about a trial?

I heard the sound of something rolling. I glanced over and saw an apple fall off the table and tumble across the floor. Yuki paid it no attention, and kept eating.

"Hey mom... Was the house always this tilted?" The room felt unusually angled. Not enough to cause any major structural problems, but the fact that I had seemingly just noticed it after growing up here all my life... It bothered me quite a bit.

Before she could answer my question there was a light tap against the front door. Without waiting for a response, my grandfather entered the small foyer where my mother and I stood. My gaze remained pointed at the floor.

"Taiyou-kun! I was about to come help you unpack, but Sakuta isn't feeling too well." My mother sounded conflicted.

"Umi-chan, I've got things from here. Don't be late to work, ahaha. And didn't I tell you to call me dad?" His words suddenly jogged a memory.

"Your majesty, he says. When are you going to start calling me mom?"

"Didn't... I dream that?" I muttered.

"Sakuta, my boy. Let's get you to your feet." A hand entered my field of vision as I began to regain most of my senses.

I finally glanced up slowly at my grandfather. The towering gentleman wore a smile that could outshine the sun. His red plaid button-up shirt and old man suspenders did little to hide his muscular physique. His hairstyle perfectly matched mine, all the way down to the cowlick.

It feels like it's been so long since I've seen him. Is it really him?

"You just gonna stay down there on the dirty floor, or give your old man a hug?" He pulled me up by my wrist into a tight embrace. "What are you still standing around here for, Umi-chan? You're gonna be late."

Yep, that's definitely Gramps!

"Right!" My mom was caught smiling at the two of us hugging, and forgot to leave. "I'll text Kenji, and tell him you made it here safely. You two kids be good for your grandfather, you hear?"

"Tell my good-for-nothing son to mow the lawn once in a while too while you're at it! And take care, Umi-chan." My mom waved us all goodbye as we saw her car pull away.

After releasing me and giving Yuki the same lung-crushing hug, our grandfather sighed.

"You don't look so good, grandson. I'll tell you what always makes me feel better. A bike ride!" In classic Gramps fashion, he suggested exercise where many would offer bedrest. "We can go down to the park, and enjoy the fresh air. You too Yuki."

"I have... homework." Yuki lied. She slowly took steps back towards the stairs. "Yeah... I've got math, and classic literature. I wouldn't want to fall behind, and—Kay bye!"

She sprinted like the wind until I could hear her bedroom door close. That little sneak! Always ducking on outdoor adventures. Which means...

"It can't be helped then. Guess it's just you and me, kid." My grandfather threw his arm around my shoulder and led me outside. There was no escape. "I even brought the red bicycle. How about I let you ride it just this once, and I'll take yours?"

He rolled his cherry-red Schwinn bicycle up from the sidewalk where he parked it. I remembered wanting to ride it as a kid. My grandfather always kept it in immaculate condition, but for some reason at that moment... The sight of it filled me with unspeakable dread.

Why... Why do I feel like this?

"I'll just use my own for now, if you don't mind." I chuckled nervously. I shook off the intense deja vu that plagued my mind. I probably hadn't slept well the night before, or something along those lines.

"Oh, no worries then. Shall we go?" My grandfather mounted the bicycle, not even bothering to change into shorts instead of jeans.

"Yeah... Let's go!" I pulled out my own bicycle from the garage, and we set off on an adventure to the park. I only hoped that it would succeed in clearing my head.