❀ Past January 23th ❀
Little by little, step by step, I held the things precious to my heart close to my chest. Clenching and holding my breath as if they would escape at any moment from my grasp. I could not understand why that happened every time I held something important to me between my fingertips.
Despite that it was a feeling that sprung deep in my soul once I took something physical in my hands, now it was constant and neverending. It was a spiral that went on and on, swallowing me on an eternal abyss of scattered misunderstood, despairing emotions.
Once in a while, I get anxiety attacks.
They are not constant, so I do not tell Nobuyuki about them.
Nonetheless, I am pretty sure he knows I have them but he pretends ignorance since I do so as well. As they say, ignorance is bliss, I guess. In this case, I think is the complete opposite. However, neither of us want to dig any deeper into this mess about magical girls and any other crazy stuff that spouts out of his mouth without me losing my mind shutting him up in an instant.
Frankly, I am used to anxiety attacks. Still, having them almost daily isn’t common for me.
That is why I stood calmly while looking at my bedroom with both hands on my hips clearly satisfied after taking a relaxing shower. My windows were shut but the curtains open, revealing a crystal clear view of a starlit sky full of stars that appeared to be diamonds. Fixing the pastel pink towel on my torso, plus the yellow one I used to dry my dark purple hair, I opened up my suitcase and kept looking around making a mental checklist.
Tomorrow is the big day, after all!
Clean school uniforms for three days, check! ✓
Three pairs of clean undergarments, check! ✓
School shoes, check! ✓
Medical kit, check! ✓
Toothpaste and all that bathroom stuff, check! ✓
Quilt, check! ✓
Small purse just in case, check! ✓
A book, check! ✓
"Hm... I think that's everything! Yup! I'm all ready for tomorrow's job experience project trip!"
"Aren't you forgetting something?"
“...Right!” I hit my fist, in a realization of what would have been a huge mistake. “A new pair of clean pyjamas!”
Hurriedly, I went towards one of my drawers to the left and took out a freshly washed and ironed light-blue gown, putting it inside the bag. Yet, what I found inside was incredibly disappointing, furthermore, pathetic. My brain had not even analyzed properly the voice that spoke to me seconds earlier, just answering automatically just like a voice mail. Getting so used to his presence. To his constants, untimely appearances.
Nobuyuki Mochizuki had taken everything out of my suitcase to put himself inside of it, looking at me with his amber eyes full of misery and misfortune, just like an abandoned puppy under the rain looking for some shelter. Waggin his bed hair just like a dog's tail believing it would work like a charm, all it did was to infuriate me more.
"You're forgetting about me!" he screamed. "I wanna go too! Who is gonna protect you, huh? What if someone attacks you? You don't even know how to fight yet! You don't even know how to transform yet! I told you this was going to be our training camp when I said TARGET ACQUIRED a few weeks ago!"
"Firstly, I clearly didn't agree to this," I tried to say calmly, taking deep breaths. "Secondly, I clearly told you this is a field trip from school. Thirdly, who's fault do you think it is I haven't learned a thing about this magical girl thingy yet? And most importantly, even if I left it for the end... YOU BROKE RULE NUMBER ONE: SHOWER TIME!"
“It’s not a magical girl thingy, gosh it’s a Veneficae. Get it right already! Even if I said that it rolls off the tongue much easier it just hurts me to know you treat it so lightly…” he ignored my piercing, angered gaze while he stepped out of the suitcase as if nothing life-threatening was happening. “And yes, well… I do somewhat agree I got miscarried these past weeks into what you call manga.”
“Miscarried? You came home one day with three bags full of different titles and you bought all the available volumes for each one!”
“Ah yes, and I’ve also recently discovered Light Novels. They are amazing as well. You could read some too seeing I saw a book on your bag!”
“Don’t change the topic, Mister! You. Broke. A. Rule.”
"But you are wearing a towel, amirite? That counts as clothing amirite? That means I haven't broken rule number one!" crossing his arms, he drew a victorious smile on his face plus, with a snap of his fingers, the 'testament' as he had started calling my Rule List, magically appeared and he read said rule out loud while shoving his index finger at me just like a defence attorney would do. "When it’s Shower Time, we’ll be doing different things. Example number one: Nobuyuki’s Shower Time is first equalled by Yui is cleaning downstairs. Example number two: Yui takes a bath equals Nobu prepares breakfast/lunch/dinner. In this specific case, Yui's Shower Time ended once she stepped out of the bathroom with her towel on and begun preparing her suitcase on she entered her bedroom, unbeknownst to her that I, Nobu, was already inside doing some clean-up."
"What kind of clean-up!?" I yelled, clearly embarrassed.
"You had left some homework sheets lying around your study desk. As you said, we could both do different things as long as I didn't mess around in the bathroom while you shower!"
"Despite that, I still haven't even changed into proper clothes, I am... you could say that I am nude!" still if I tried to yell once again, it was an utter failure due to my embarrassment. "That is why you are breaking one of the most precious rules that can exist in this world, my own integrity and pride!"
"This is what I was waiting for..." he whispered, a burst of small creepy laughter coming out from his lips. I took a step back, clearly not knowing what was happening.
"Nobuyuki...? I will ask it once again, and this time it will be politely, please get out of my room."
"You just said this world."
"Huh? And?" I crossed both arms now, a bit fearful of catching a cold due to my skin being exposed all this time.
«You won't catch a cold, so bear with me for a little longer my dearest. This will be over in a jiffy.»
"STOP INVADING MY—"
"In my world, towels are considered a piece of clothing! That is why there is nothing to fear. I feel no attraction nor predatory sense towards you right now or will I ever do! We call them Fouta! That is why there is no need to worry. Now, after asserting my point and innocence of not breaking a single rule, I will take my leave. Get some good night sleep, my dear Yui!"
And with that, he closed the door, leaving me with no words whatsoever and my jaw clearly open. However, a gut feeling told me to grab my phone and text the most knowledgeable person on the internet and that I knew would be awake playing games.
With my flip phone on both hands, I typed carefully towards my recipient, trying not to make my text sound any suspicious.
「Good evening, Manabu! Are you still awake? Do you have everything ready for tomorrow?」
I sighed, knowing his reply would come in an instant, which it did.
「Hey-o yui-yui. yes, yes. i'm all awakey-wakey! ＼(＾▽＾)／ i did my backpack just a few days ago. i had to play tnight, after all, couldn't leave my team hanging for 4 straight days!」
「Oh yeah, what's that game you're playing called again?」
「...『Angel Live!』... (´｡• ᵕ •｡`) ♡ like it's this game where these 9 girls live in this fantasy world where they find a magical stone o(≧▽≦)o and the protagonist, Yukika Takaumi and her childhood friend find this amnesiac girl (｡T ω T｡) who turns out to be a royal princess candidate Σ>―(〃°ω°〃)♡→ and oh-oh i'm also forgetting the magical stone yukika finds iused to belong to the legendary saviours abt these other 9 girls and ........ ( ˙꒳ ˙ ) ...」
Manabu's text wall was so long to read my flip phone split it into eight messages, counting all the kaomojis he used... I tried to read them all and understand but in a nutshell, it had Special Events where he could get Special Equipment and cards—they even had a ranking system and different... transformations?—and he had to help the nine girls reach Tokyo in the Main Story. Still, in the Special Events he could learn more about the girls past, he told me it could be said they are some sort of “side stories” which are canon as well. Apparently, he did not want to spend his mobile data and was trying to pull an all-nighter to get the limited card from the event and his favourite girl whom he called precious daughter: Kanami Matsumura.
「That sounds great. If it was a story I'd read it! Try not to stay up to too late, we need to go to school early to catch the bus that will take us to Takayama. Oh right, before I forget, though. Since you know everything could you search something up for me on the internet?」
「Yeah, sure! (>ω^) What do u need? Tho yui-yui u rlly need to buy a pc or laptop how do u even do ur hwk? Σ(￣。￣ﾉ)」
「That is one of the mysteries of life, Manabu. Anyway, have you ever heard about the word ...『Fouta』...?」
「Meanie! ヽ( `д´*)ノ let me search and i'll text u in a few secs! (*・ω・)ﾉ」
I laid down in my bed, still with the towel on top. My heart was beating faster than ever, knowing that Nobuyuki could be more than sketchy sometimes but something inside of me told me that something was up. It was screaming at me. I touched the rose at my chest, feeling something vibrating from it.
“As if it was trying to convey me something, somehow..."
And just like that, my flip phone vibrated indicating Manabu's answer.
That was everything he sent. But, before I could ask, he wrote an answer, astonishingly grammatically correct.
「Say, Yui-Yui. Whaddaya need this bloody answer for?」
「Manabu, you're not Shinji to start cursing out of nowhere, is something wrong? You’re not even using kaomojis anymore.」
「This word is really, I don't know how to put it... stilted? I don't even know how to properly explain myself. I’m concerned.」
「What I mean is... how did you even come across it?」
“Oh… what… do I said now…” I closed my eyes, deep breathing when a sudden wild idea popped into my head.
「I was doing a crossword!」
I mentally did a mantra: Please buy it, PLEASE BUY IT!
「Makes sense! But damn, whoever made it clearly took their sweet-ass time!」
「Just tell me what it means!」
「According to this webpage, it literally means a pareo. Though, in the old days, it was used in the Mediterranean countries. Oh, they were worn, by both men and women, wrapped around the body while at the public baths in 19th-century Syria... and um, similarly, in some parts of southern Saudi Arabia, men would wear the fouta as a loincloth beneath their thawb robes, or just by itself while relaxing at home. That's what Wiki told me.」
「No probs! (･ω☆」
With a smile on my face, I opened up my door, screaming as loudly as I could, not even caring what time it was, or if I would bother the neighbours with my voice. I couldn't hold it anymore. Nobuyuki had lied... no, what was worse... he had bluffed in my face in order to escape.
And worse of it all.
HOW DOES HE KNOW ALL THESE TRIVIA I DON'T EVEN KNOW!?
❀ Past - January 24th - Morning ❀
For once in my lifetime, I was not late. For once in my lifetime, I was prepared for everything. For once in my lifetime, I had everything ready for the four-day job experience project.
Even if Nobuyuki was a hassle to deal with in the morning not wanting to let go of my leg.
In spite of, there are still lots of things to be done. All of the second years were standing around the school gates, gathering around their small friend circles, wondering where will we be staying, what jobs did they apply to, and other trivial stuff that I questioned why they didn't discuss beforehand.
The wind howls as the students arrive through the gates, hustling and bustling down the road towards the stationed buses lined down. Friends are greeting each other with a hug or a playful punch. The seniors stand, tall and proud, the confidence born of experience. Some of them were going with us as chaperones alongside teachers and I could barely make Koharu's silhouette out there looking at some lists with them and other members from his small, limited council.
Yet, in a few seconds, the anxiety within me started to grow with so many students surrounding me.
There is something magical, ironically, about being one of a crowd, an easing to the loneliness within. We act the same, cheer at the same moment, feel the same emotions together. What I read on their faces is written on mine and in that echo of our humanity we are as close to being one as we'll ever be. In that moment of unity, there is a feeling of freedom I cannot feel in other parts of my life. That is one I have millions of masks. Despite that, none were working and I needed to find my friends as soon as possible.
Though deep in my despair, I was capable of finding Shinji and Manabu pretty fast.
My blond friend, even if I told him to take care of his sleeping schedule, had massive eye-bags that showed his dedication towards Kanami Matsumura. Even if I thought that Dream☆Star was his only aspiration, it seems he still has many small secrets and hobbies to undercover.
Still, Shinji was as calm as always and I even I could see he was actually looking forward to this school trip. He smiled and patted my head, probably knowing I was shivering on the inside.
"All right, we will start head counting and each class will enter a designated bus, okay? Please make a line in an orderly manner and pay attention to your names being called." Ms Tanaka placed both of her hands on her mouth as if making a long tunnel so that everyone could hear her.
The sun was at its highest and beaded sweat trickled down my forehead. I stood in the never-ending queue for the bus, which I and many others impatiently waited for. After a couple of more minutes, the half-full bus arrived and stopped with a jerk. Its engine lets out a deep sigh, as though it reminded itself of the heavyweight it was going to carry.
Everyone entered the bus with all their might, almost blocking, or rather ignoring the previous instructions while his or her names were being called. The bus sighed again and started moving, its slow pace faster than mine as I waited for the second one, my knees wobbling and hands unsteady. There was no space to breathe, let alone move around.
So when I see the bus pull in, an old model with worse suspension than a homemade pram, my heart sinks. Once the temperatures spikes that tin cans gonna stink worse than a half-time locker room. These buses have one rule—sit down and keep your mouth shut or get off. Well, that is the rule unless you have more brawn than the driver, then you can say whatever you like. That's not me though, skinny girls like me sit and try to blend into the never washed seats with faces pointed at the window and never caught anyone's eye. If I can manage to look sickly so much the better.
I slowly make my way through the line suddenly wondering where Yuiko was to all of this. I hadn't seen her at all during the student's gatherings and I was pretty sure she would have approached me or me towards her.
"Miss Samidare it seems I will not be in charge of your bus. That is a disappointment. It is amusing how your two friends always manage to make some sort of party happen with all their friendly fights and discussions." Koharu smiled, checking my name off the list while Ms Tanaka took my suitcase and clustered it somehow into the buses trunk. "I wish you the best of luck. It seems Mr Yamada will be on yours alongside Miss Hazawa."
"Oh, Koharun!" I replied happily, trying to comprehend all he had just said. "That's a shame though. That means you'll be going on the third bus with your class. Makes sense. Although it is surprising Ms Tanaka won't be with us given she's our tutor... Ah! Wasn't she part of the student council?"
"Yes indeed, our secretary. She is... a bit eccentric so I suggest to be careful around her. In regards to the professor's situations... I could not do anything about it, honestly. Some of the third years like Miss Hazawa are going as chaperone's as well but in all honesty, I have a huge feeling of uneasiness... Still, I quite cannot pinpoint it yet. Though, I am sure everything will turn out perfectly fine. It must be because nothing went according to my expectations."
"Your expectations?" I tilted my head, confused.
"Koharuno, it is time to check the last bus!" yelled Mr Kamioka from a distance.
"If you'll excuse me, I have to take my leave." he bowed in an apologetic manner, excusing himself and rushing towards his students' responsibilities while I and the rest of the students got inside the bus.
Everyone—including myself—entered it with all their might, almost blocking, or rather ignoring their peripheral vision. It wasn't a question of an orderly matter anymore. Of course, Shinji and Manabu abandoned me and went to sit side by side near the end of the bus. I was wondering why it was a bus instead of a coach. Nevertheless, I didn't dwell too much into it.
Loud, obnoxious adolescents yelled and laughed. I gritted my teeth in annoyance, doing my best to find a seat but almost all were taken by my classmates. Then one of them tumbled into me and I grunted in anger and shoved them away, getting on my nerves.
I never lose my patience. I never lose my nerves, but Nobuyuki just exhausted me in the morning and my two best friends ultimate betrayal just now...
"Watch it!" I snarled. "Shut up! My gosh, why do you have to be so loud and not care about your surroundings seeing how crowded this place is? Don't you have any consideration at all?" I yelled, not caring about the glares or the way the bus driver stared nor how the voices lowered down.
I just wanted and needed these people to shut up. I was going to lose my nerves and, in the end, lose myself.
"Is that how you talk to your upperclassmen, second-year?"
Their sweet, yet deep voice brought chills down my spine once I recognized it. That was the reason why everyone kept quiet the moment I snapped. They knew I was in huge trouble.
The girl that was in front of me was not to be taken lightly after all.
Her blonde hair was poker-straight and pulled back into a low ponytail. She wore little makeup to bring out her natural beauty even more. A tumble of a blonde curl fell as she removed her winter school hat. It wasn't that bland colour that's just a shade nicer than that white that comes when one becomes older, rather, it was streaked with warm reddish hues and butterscotch. It gave her some warmth, complementing her pale face rather than making her look washed-out.
Then as she turned to look my way since she was looking to the floor as if dismissing my whole existence, I found myself surprised all over again, her eyes were not the watery blue I'd expected, they were the colour of a deep green sea and so were the freckles that lay over her nose and upper cheeks.
I had barely seen her, after all: "The essences of summer, a goddess of the sun."
That's how everyone called her since she barely left the student council during winter.
Seraphine Hazawa—or how she liked everyone to call her: upperclassman Seira to sound more "Japanese"—was known as well for caring a whole lot for her outer appearance. Even if she had lived all her life in Japan, her French ascendance had caused her some problems so I had heard some rumours she did her best to conceal those facts. Many mistook her for a foreigner even if she spoke with a local accent and lived all her life out here in the countryside.
Her skirt, in contrast to mine, was panelled and short reaching down to just above her thighs. They're paired with regular socks and Mary Jane shoes coloured in peach and grey respectively. Her socks were knee-high and white, ended up with gorgeous white lace. Still, when I looked up, I was stunned by her body. It wasn't Yuiko's level but it was gorgeous as well and made me self-conscious.
Like the boys, the girls wear long-sleeved shirts in winter, which are usually barely tucked into their skirts and are covered with a classic light blue sweater for the girls and a navy blue blazer for the boys. Despite that, Miss Hazawa had decided to go all out and had half of her blouse outside the skirt with one button off revealing some cleavage, while wearing the boy's navy blazer open. Yet, she was wearing a green long ribbon showing she was indeed a third-year, meaning she was our chaperon even if we didn't want it.
Yet, Koharu told me she was extravagant and that outfit wasn't enough. The accessories she was wearing screamed at me: STEAL MY BELONGINGS NOW I'M A POTENTIAL TARGET TO BE ROBBED AT NIGHT.
The bangles danced on her arm like the hoops of a magician, playfully tingling and sliding from her forearm to her hand, where they rested halfway between her knuckles and her wrist. The multicoloured crystals set in silver metal sparkled in the winter sun, pale and yet brilliant against her white skin. Her gangly skinny legs gave away her mere fourteen years, but with the bangles, she felt seventeen and ready to take on the world given her confidence.
I could never wear bangles, fashionable though they were. They sent a shiver over my skin that made the scars on my chest sharply cold as if the long slivers of pale pink skin were shards of ice.
As if the crystal rose had made me hate them as a whole.
Yet, the slight head tilts she did erase my fears with ease. Her earrings were bright feathers wafting in the delicate breeze, their colours vibrant against her pale freckled skin. Somehow they accentuated her smile and the slight movement in her hair. She flicks that white blonde hair to one side in what I know to be a conscious act. So I look even more. Dangling from her perfect lobes are diamonds set in white gold in those bright feathers. They are exquisite, accentuating the length of her neck. They cost more than I could make in a month if I even worked. I realize I have held my gaze too long. Her face is one of triumph and I don't have the decency to be embarrassed.
But then why should I be?
She was the one who bumped into me after all.
"I apologize, Upperclassman Hazawa."
However, in the end, I couldn't go against her. A mighty opponent indeed.
"Oh, I believe I recognize you from somewhere," she said, approaching me even more while I felt how my flip phone vibrated at an amazing speed inside my skirt's pocket, probably Manabu and Shinji watching the whole drama unfolding from the backseats. Examining every corner of my being, me sweating bullets from nervousness while seeing from the sidelines how the bus filled even more and more, she finally stopped. "You are Koharu's friend, are you not?"
"Yeah, you could say so," I replied nervously, scratching my neck not knowing where to look. "We used to hang out a lot with him during our first year. That's where we met him. It is a shame we aren't in the same class anymore though..."
"Sweetie, I only asked one thing. Not how both of you how you met. I requested a YES or NO answer. That extra information is unnecessary for me." She sighed, shoving my shoulder and going away, her small suitcase making small clack-clack sounds while rolling towards her reserved special seat right next to Mr Yamada.
And she stepped incessantly.
She walked as if her hair fluttered in the air, her clothes clung to her body, arms tightly wrapped around her. I felt cold wind stroking her skin, wanting to tell her she had been incredibly rude. Still, I didn't want to gain any enemies here, especially on this trip and with someone that was graduating soon and I wouldn't see again in a few months ever again. As a few teardrops appeared in the corners of my eyes, the woman continued walking, not stopping for anything.
Hold on just a second. Miss Hazawa is going to seat right next to Mr Yamada... Could she be the upperclassman those two girls from my class were being nitpicky about? Yet something does not quite fit. Miss Hazawa isn't in the slightest what you would call a lapdog. Her personality doesn't quite fit with that description. Perhaps I'm overthinking, as always. Whenever there is a trip on a bus, the third-year chaperone sits alongside the professor in charge of the class. It makes sense for her to be located right next to him. Stop it, Yui.
That's when I saw her.
My other me.
My missing piece.
Yuiko gazed inside the bus; her eyes of liquid clear orange scrutinizing things inside of which I could only dream of seeing in myself. She was a mystery. An intriguing beautiful mystery, and I was ensnared in the trap which she'd set unknowingly inside me.
I was mesmerized by everything about her since day one.
I wish to be like her.
The sunshine poured down on us, showering us with beams of light. They caught in her hair, these rays, making each curl of her pastel lavender seem as though it was alight with passion.
"Yui!" she said, hurrying towards me, finally feeling safe in this uncomfortable space while my flip phone kept vibrating.
"Yuiko! What a surprise seeing you here! I thought you'd be at your class' bus! Also, why are you super pale?"
"You see, it seems my bus was packed? It seems yours was the only one with an available seat left." She carefully smiled, doing her best not to appear exhausted at all. "Hm, it seems I could not conceal it. It was my dog. He can sense whether I am leaving for a long or a short period of time. He thinks of me as his mother. Animals are such wonderful and adorable creatures. That is why I was a tad late."
Longingly, I wished with all my being that I could reach out and brush my hand against her perfectly shaped cheekbones, or under the feathers of her thick, dark lashes to tell her that everything would be okay and that she didn't need to keep up any appearances. But I refrained from doing so and continued to succumb to the endless torture of watching her without being able to say a single thing.
She was like an ornament against my eyes, and it seemed that even the gentlest caress would break her delicate form.
Her breath toppled out of her soft lips like a ball of tumbleweed softly blowing through the sky. She was an angel; a princess; a queen. She was a mystery. A beautiful mystery. And I was entranced by her similarity with me
Both girls with strikingly similar names and surnames.
“Oh, it seems those seats are available! Mind if we seat there together or are you with... your friends?"
Her eyes were filled with a kindness that seemed so innocent and genuine. Endless: as big as the sea.
"I'm okay with that, they betrayed me either way..." I said a bit disappointed, walking towards where she guided me.
Apparently, it was the seat right behind the driver and it had some sort of small plastic wall between him and the seats making it a bit uncomfortable, making sense why they were empty and my brain omitted them once I came inside.
I slid towards the seat where the window was, opening it up a bit since I tend to get car sick sometimes. Still, a couple of minutes had passed and Yuiko hadn't sat beside me.
She was moving on the same spot where I left her as if there was a hurricane inside her, her brain demanding the energetic expenditure of an athlete but it wouldn't tell her limbs what to do. Her eyes were wild and when I make her sit she starts hugging her arms more, and more, and more tightly. She gets faster and faster until she explodes into motion again.
"M-My apologies, I... guess I did not realize how small the space in here was and got claustrophobic."
Suddenly she's taking.
Talking like she doesn't have enough time to say what she needs to. Her words are crowded together and some are missing.
Quickly, the bus starts moving and the driver looks back towards us, Yuiko shrinking towards me for safety.
Yuiko's fingers are white-knuckled holding onto my sweater and she's asking me if it will be okay. I tell her that yes. I need her to calm down.
It takes forever, it seems, for the old engine to roar into life. When it does, a funny feeling comes, not excitement, though. It's some relief, some fear, some grieving for the place we were leaving. A huge sensation of uneasiness was eating me alive.
And so, even though the bus is filled with everyone in their own petite world and the road pitted and bumpy with rocks, soon the tires will touch the smooth tarmac of their destination. Will there be excitement down the road? Will there be something new and an experience to gain from earning some job experience?
Although, now that I think about it, everyone has been to Takayama at least once in his or her life.
"Have you ever been to Takayama, Yuiko?" I tried to strike up a conversation, doing my best to see if that would tranquillize her. "You have a few weeks here already but I was wondering that and well, you know... um... yeah..."
With her eyes closed to the world and its troubles, a brief smile stretches across her face as a gust of wind encircles her from the window I had opened and her sudden turmoil seemed to have faded away, which made me happy in return.
“Truth to be told, I have not. I was looking forward to this trip quite much due to that reason. Only my father had been to Takayama to buy art supplies, my mother for some grocery shopping… Oh, and my older brother when he comes to visit on weekends or whenever he is free,” she replies overjoyed, smiling at that simple thought.
“You have a brother? That’s amazing! I’m an only child. From what you say it seems he’s older!”
“Yes, he is currently studying at a university."
"Woah, that's incredible! What is he studying? At what university did he apply to?"
I was deeply interested in this imagining all sorts of things in my mind given his dad was a renowned artist.
"Well... Big Brother Yukio is in the Faculty of Medicine, inside the Public Health and Environmental Medicine division and is almost going to finish his Forensic Sciences career at Akita's University" Yuiko answers quite calmly, even if she seemed a little troubled by the issue. "I... know it clashes with my artistic family. Despite that, my father let him be."
There was a point where everything stopped, the wind, the scent of the flowers, even the flowing of the river in the mountains—yet I kept on nodding and listening. A second or two later everything got to me.
"HE COMES ALL THE WAY FROM AKITA TO SHIRAKAWA ON HIS DAYS OFF?"
"Well, yes he does. Is something wrong with that?" Yuiko seemed to don't mind it, puzzled.
It's around eight hours on train and seven if you own a car! It's not worthy for two days! Or even for less than a week!
"Well... I mean..." but, when I looked at her innocent and pure eyes I couldn't tell her that her brother was insane for going for such lengths. "He's a good big brother. Shinji sometimes goes to Takayama too when his older sister forgets something at home."
"Oh... I see." Despite the praise, her gaze lowered. "Yui, now that I noticed, ever since the bus started moving, your phone has not stopped vibrating either. Perhaps is it a family emergency?"
Those two deserve this silent treatment for leaving me all alone once we boarded!
"It's nothing at all I assure you! Now pay no mind and enjoy the view! In a while, we'll start seeing flat after flat! Goodbye beautiful mountains and welcome civilization!"
That's the reason why I told her to come near me to see the scenery that was dawning upon us just like a fast-forwarded old-school VHS.
The outskirts of Shirakawa stretched before us like a great quilt of golden, brown and green squares held together by the thick green stitching of the hedgerows. It rose and fell like giant waves on a gentle ocean and was dotted with some animals such as cows or random cats. Occasionally there was a wood that separated the fields, or a farmhouse or a temple.
The valley was a beautiful swathe of rolling green divided by walls of mossy grey stone, picturesque by any standards. But to Yuiko, perhaps, it was just grass and more grass. Maybe she had never noticed the wide variety of trees in the forest, or how their different sized leaves adopted diverse hues in autumn even if now it's winter. I could never imagine what living in the city could feel like.
For her, it must've been a huge, radical change.
The sun was a radiant, its light creeping into every corner, bathing the whole world in a warm glow. The bus cruised down a twisting road, grassy, forest green hills looming over the mountainous drive. An endless expanse of wonder, shimmering, stretched towards the distant horizon.
The paths of mud the bus traversed were a hymn sung straight to my soul; the trees, the grass, were all part of the music while the wind caressed my cheeks. The more the breeze blustered, it tousled my dark lavender hair and cooled my fingers, calming my mind and closing my eyes taking a deep breath.
Yet, a sudden outburst made me come back to my senses.
"Yui, look! Over there!" Yuiko opened the window, even more, half of her body almost out of it and I had to grab her waist out of worry she might fall into the highway. "It is following us!"
"Yuiko, please be careful, what if you fall?" I managed to pull her back inside, just to take a look myself and see what she was referring to.
"I apologize is just that..." positioning herself right behind me, we both now find a safe location.
Their feet pounded the tarmac with all the grace of a sack of wet concrete, the springing graceful steps of twenty miles earlier had long since disappeared. Their rasping throat was as parched as a dead lizard in the desert sun. Their head bobbed loosely from side to side with each paw and their eyes felt heavy in their sockets, while their tongue dropped thick blobs of saliva on the highway.
The dog's head is smaller than their neck. Their tail isn't wagging side to side but going round and round like a helicopter blade. If the bus stops for even a half a minute we were perfectly sure they would stop to rest and they keep on the chase, the perfect mobile trip hazard. In the newly cold air of winter, their fur is floating freely, forming a scattered layer of black strands on the road. Their eyebrows twitch from side to side in that way they do when they're trying to figure something out and it just isn't working for them.
That is why I recognized them.
"Kuro!?" Yuiko and I both yelled in unison. "Wait, huh?!"
"My dog is named Kuro..." she said, confused. "Do you happen to own a pet as well...?"
"You see... remember that dog we saw a few weeks ago at the school gates before you transferred?" I blushed slightly in embarrassment. "I... am really... no, I completely suck at naming so I... named them Kuro too. I can't keep them. They come every single day before and after school just to see me and walk home with me."
"I recall they were strikingly similar." Yuiko takes out her phone and I saw it had lots of rabbit motifs. "I will send a message to my brother and ask if Kuro is home. Luckily he has no class today and decided to spend some days back at home. We gave Kuro a bath yesterday so we did not put on his collar back... I am afraid he might get lost..."
I could hear how she texted as background noise. However, my brain got lost in my inner thoughts.
And what if it is my Kuro, then? What can I do?
I could feel the sweat drench my skin, the throbbing of my own eyes, the ringing screams vibrating in my ears, and the thumping of my heart against my chest. My fingers were curled into a fist, nails digging into my palm. I couldn’t hear my rapid breathing, but I could indeed feel the oxygen flooding in and out of my lungs. Hesitantly, my eyes look at the black german shepherd still running with all their might after us before me. Fear tortures my guts, churning my stomach in intense cramps. Fear engulfs my conscience, knocking all other thoughts aside. Fear overwhelms my body, making it drastically exhausted.
I shouldn’t have minded the dog that first day. I shouldn’t have been happy whenever it showed up. I shouldn’t have let him inside of my life. What if it dies because of me? All alone? In the highway?
«Fear is a shackle, fear is a knife in the gut slowly twisted, fear is a constant hammer on the head. Yet fear also evaporates like water under early summer rain. When fear comes walking with confidence right past because like the ghosts of children's nightmares, fear is an illusion.»
“And... sent!” I heard Yuiko say, with an expression full of worry. “I hope he answers soon.”
“Did you say anything else before that?” I dared to ask, my lips dry.
“I did not… is everything okay? I know you might be worried it could be your Kuro… Nonetheless, we should not give up. Nothing wrong will happen. Animals are intelligent creatures, Yui. Once they sense danger, they give up immediately. That’s what they call instinct, after all!”
“Yeah…” I mumbled, still looking through the window.
Then, if it wasn’t Yuiko… who was that?
I clenched the crystal rose on my chest, having second thoughts. The paralyzing hurt spread through my body like icy, liquid metal. It had suddenly started to hurt like crazy. Despite that, I had to endure it an assurance that the dog would be okay. Nevertheless, my body was not answering. My eyes were closing. My mind was turning off.
All of the noise disappeared in an instant.
It was like being stuck between two realities: one that was imperfect, but doable. The other the vision where I pictured myself in, the one where I longed myself to be a part of. Was it possible to make that world into reality? A world where I could be a better person that brought no pain? No agony? No unhappiness?
«The only thing that separates you from achieving that dream is yourself.»
And thus, everything faded into black.
❀ ? ? ? ❀
In the dream the sky is blue, the birds sing and there is a bee on clover nearby. The streams run clear and there are fish in the river. Next to me is a small boy and he tells me how he sees the world. His answers to my questions are so precious. I ask him if we should care for the world.
He says "Yes" like he's surprised I shouldn’t have even had to ask him that sort of question. I ask him if we should be nice to animals, his response is the same. I ask him if we should fight to protect this world as ※※※ and his eyes fill with tears. I ask him if ※※※ should kill one another and he runs, runs like he just saw a monster. I call after him but he won't return.
He's a child, and like all children he's still able to see through the light of the creator - he was never taught the answers, he feels them within.
That is why I stood up and wondered why ※※※ felt so attached to me if I felt so detached from the world. Why I was chosen instead for this job and not the one I was supposed to do since the day I was born. I was just like that bee on that clover. I fell in love with said clover.
That was my biggest mistake.
A mistake that ruined ※※※’s life.
But, yet, I don’t regret said mistake.
Isn’t that cruel and selfish?
❀ Past - January 24th - Morning ❀
Yuiko's voice woke me up.
I drifted into consciousness. And then back out. The world was a blur, and random images seemed to float aimlessly around in the pool of my thoughts, as though they were being blown about viciously by a hurricane.
A tap on my shoulder momentarily brought me back to the outside world, but after a second I was once again lost. I could feel somebody trying to look at me, staring, but I couldn't keep focus. The whole world simply felt low resolution, a bad quality movie. Confusion blossomed in my heart and I knew that sooner or later I would need to wake up for real. To stare reality in the face.
The dream I just had felt unusual and nostalgic. My heat ached and my throat had a lump begging me to release it with never-ending tears.
The morning sun streamed through the windows, yet my mind was clouded with grey thoughts. Still, I had to pretend everything was okay.
“Huh? Oh, I fell asleep…” rubbing both of my eyes, I let go of a long yawn. “How much longer ‘till we get there?”
“I am wondering that as well…” she answered, crossing her arms on her seat. “Perhaps we are taking the long road to avoid traffic?”
“Could be,” I whispered. “Y’know, Yuiko… it hasn’t been that long since you transferred but I’m glad you’ve managed to make friends fast with everyone in your class!”
“Me too!” she replied happily, fixing a strand of her fluffy light lavender hair behind her right ear. “It has been almost a week and I feel… at home. It is a shame we are in different classes but I am delighted we had this chance to travel together. We only see each other at lunch!”
“Yup!” I giggled. “Oh right, given you had to do this thing in a rush… where did they send you to?”
“I believe it was to a supermarket…” Yuiko was deep in thought. “Although, I’m not so sure anymore because Ms Tanaka seemed impatient about something and just wrote quickly in my sheet."
“I see, you’ll be with Manabu then!” I said, doing my best to be more awake. “Oh right, in the end, what happened with…?”
“The dog? My brother replied and it seemed that Kuro was home all this time so it might have been your Kuro. You fell asleep so suddenly as well… There is no need to worry. Do not fret. The dog gave up as soon as we left Ogimachi. That means he won’t be on the highway all alone.”
“Yes… I had a pretty rough night,” I lied, trying not to worry her. “I'm glad Kuro was smart to play it safe!”
“Just like I said to you, remember? Animals must ensure their survival, after all.” With a charming smile, Yuiko tried to soothe me and it worked wonders. “Let’s try not to think about that anymore, alright? You will see that when we come back, your Kuro will be waiting for you back at school.”
“You’re right, I’m overthinking too much…” I tried to laugh at the end, a bit nervously. “By the way, for how long was I asleep… I don’t see so much green anymore…”
“I believe we will be arriving in fifteen minutes, approximately.”
“Well… that was quite a long nap…” I was amazed at myself. Though, Yuiko was right. I gazed at the windows once again, seeing a big of civilization right ahead. I opened the window, which Yuiko apparently had closed while I slept, and let the wind blow my pigtails. “Ah yes, the city!”
Even from a distance, I could tell that Takayama was a vast, labyrinth of noisy streets and alleys. You could hear the incessant honking of the vehicles even before the sun rose and died.
After every person had reached their respective destination, the traffic congestions cleared significantly as if humongous snakes had eaten their fills and were retracting back into their dark and eerie caves. To me, it was a clear sign of the city slowly waking up while we slowly approached it.
Lights glitter everywhere being reflected from every window just liked stars dropping to the earth, huge and small buildings collided in a mixture of shadow and geometry, tiny vehicles rushing along tangled lines of streets creating twisting threads of light—they all intertwined together in a magnificent mess of dream.
Dreams that I wish they all came true!
“You truly seem to love cities, Yui.”
“I do!” I replied to Yuiko enthusiastically. “Oh, but don’t misunderstand me, I adore Shirakawa as well! I just find something magical in cities even if they aren’t as big as main ones such as capitals like Tokyo or Kyoto or even Gifu itself! Even if they very bright they have this… aura of mystery and a deep thick layer of mystery underneath them…”
Yuiko's eyes flickered with light. A glimmer of light I had never seen in them.
“Yes… They indeed have that in them. They are truly mysterious places where anything could happen underneath them.”
Suddenly, the bus stopped, meaning we had arrived at our destination. Still, the bus doors weren’t opening and Seraphine was about to demand an explanation while Mr Tanaka remained calm in his seat. Since Yuiko and I were with the window open, we could hear some yells coming from the outside, apparently coming from Ms Yamada.
“It’s impossible this is the place the school’s board got for us! Is this true, Koharuno?”
“Well, Ms Tanaka… That is what these papers are confirming and according to the address, this seems to be the right place as well… Despite that, I do agree with you, professor, this might not be the proper choice for all of us to spend these two nights and three days.”
“These stingy muppets from the school board are saving every single yen for the Open Day in February… Bloody blighters…!”
“Please, calm down, Ms Tanaka… We do not want to cause a…”
“Well, what is with all this ruckus?” our bus door had opened and closed in seconds. All I could hear outside now was Seraphine’s voice who had dragged Mr Yamada with her down the bus.
“Bloody fucking hell, not her.”
Did Koharu just swear? Or am I listening to things? I could barely hear him.
“Did you say something, Koharuno?” From what I understood, Ms Tanaka came back to her senses.
“Nothing at all, I was just genuinely surprised to see Miss Hazawa all of a sudden out of the bus with Mr Yamada. Perhaps even Mr Kamioka and Ueno could join this small committee about our current situation.”
“What is going on Ms Tanaka?” That was definitely Mr Yamada.
“How come, what is going on? Can’t you see?”
“I don’t see any problem with this.”
“Oh, of course, you don’t, you thickhead!”
It seems professors can be kinda scary with each other on their own!
“My sweet Koharunrun, you are joking with this, right? This can’t be the place where we are staying. It must’ve been at least a four stars hotel near the city, not near the highway. Are you expecting us to walk every day?”
Yes. Pompous attitude. Upperclassman Hazawa.
“That’s part of a job experience, Miss Hazawa.”
KOHARU IS ON FIRE.
“In fact, I am genuinely intrigued you know nothing about this given you were with me and Ueno when we delivered the papers about this matter to the school board… And I do remember you were appointed to pick up the approved documents. Did you even bother to check them? And I believe you went through our same experience last year, of course, not with the same setting as of now.”
“I… um… You can’t blame me for this, Koharunrun.”
“Everyone, let’s all calm down for a minute while we, the adults, find a solution for this, alright?” I overheard Mr Yamada in his loud voice. “Ms Tanaka and I will tell Mr Kamioka about this and we’ll let the bus drivers know. In the meantime, all of the students will take a small detour around Takayama and meet their future workplaces. Does that sound fine?”
“Everything Mr Yamada says is of course suuuuper clever ♡!” The blonde girl smiled, jumping with glee.
Did she just go cute-mode all of a sudden? That... doesn't fit with what greeted me on the bus at all.
“We do not have another choice, do we now?”
“Sounds like a decent break the window in case of an emergency plan and it kinda is that sort of situation,” Ms Tanaka sighed. “I’ll go tell Mr Kamioka about this. Koharuno, you take care of our bus for me. The same goes for Miss Hazawa and Mr Yamada.”
Once I heard the steps approaching our bus, I hurriedly closed the window and looked at Yuiko, pretending we never overheard a thing. Since we were from the opposite side, facing a gigantic wall of concrete, we couldn’t observe how the hotel looked like and the other students didn’t seem to care enough to open their curtains to make rumours about it afterwards or were just too invested into their own little world inside their headphones.
Our upperclassman moved as someone schooled in dance. Side-stepping and turning in fluid motions as if Mr Yamada were a beloved partner while she made it inside and stood beside him. He would only smile back, wink and I understood from that that he would take care of things. I bet that if she got ahold of the situation, everything would go wrong.
That is the feeling I get anyway.
"Please listen to me," he said in his loud, deep voice.
He had the look of one who had grown too fast in his youth, his bulk never catching up to his bones. I never even cared to know how old he was anyway because, in my eyes, teachers were always around the same age gap: mid-thirties or mid-forties.
However, I lost my focus easily since Yuiko started to tremble once again.
“Is everything okay” I whispered in her left ear.
“Y-Yes… do not worry about me. The window was open for too long and I got a bit cold. That is all,” was her answer.
“If you say so…” I replied, trying not to push her to her limits.
«Some students have sent anonymous letters about Mr Yamada not being… well, I’ll leave that to your imagination!»
Why are Koharu’s words suddenly coming back to my mind? Yuiko wasn’t even attending our school when he told me that.
But I couldn’t help it. Something told me to be cautious. To stay alert. To be alongside Yuiko at all times.
Coming back to our own reality, everyone was still ignoring Mr Yamada. To his dismay, not ours, of course, the blonde maiden had taken action.
“Y’all gonna listen to what Mr Arata has to say, ya hear me!?” with a sudden cough, she fixed her throat to then smile as if nothing had happened. “Mr Yamada has some very important information to share with everyone so you should better pay attention, okay?”
Everyone kept quiet, scared of what just happened.
Wait. Did she just address a professor by their first name? Then does that mean that she really is... Mr Yamada's lapdog?
“Due to unforeseen circumstances, we’ll be leaving everyone at the Hidatakayama Information Centre. That will be our gathering point at 4 pm, where we will meet again with everything resolved. In the meantime, you can explore the city and meet your workplaces so you can plan your route with the buses and so on. That is part of being an independent adult!”
Not knowing what else to say, or anything to protest, everyone nodded and went with the flow. No one questioned. No one said a thing.
Mr Tanaka went off the bus again after talking with the driver. Seraphine went back to her seat, alone this time. Yuiko had stopped shaking.
Time had just stopped for me.
This was indeed a strange beginning for such a classic school trip.
It was, indeed, an experience that was about to begin.