※ TRIGGER WARNING: This Chapter touches a VERY delicate subject by the end! It could be a TRIGGER for some readers (mostly related to lovebites/hickeys) so I suggest taking it into account since it will be expanded upon the Arc's development since we have reached a very important plot point of it! Please be careful if it makes you uncomfortable! ※
❀ Past - January 23rd ❀
Beyond the horizon, the sun illuminated the shimmering haze of what was pollution according to my clean lungs, accustomed to Shirakawa's clean air. In the far distance, the silhouette of the skyline pierced through the warm glow like a jagged mountain ridge. People were needle points and cars were blood cells flowing through the veins of the city. Despite the time, the hustle and bustle never came to a halt. The city's residents were off for a movie or to chill out on a sunny day.
On our left, was a Gift Shop filled with tourists since it was just at the side of the bus station but it didn't really catch our attention, while the rest of the students went their own ways either to buy some souvenirs or just scout around. It was barely midday, after all, and Mr Tamura told us they would be back for us around 4 PM.
However, the small group that I was part of was kind of... unusual, for some sort of reason:
- Shinjirō Hinaga.
- Manabu Hazakura.
- Koharu Koharuno.
- Yuiko Tsukiame.
- Seraphine Hazawa.
- Yui Samidare.
Well, I hope nothing goes wrong... It seems like Koharu doesn't like Miss Hazawa for some reason.
"Any plans, ya guys? I have no clue where to go! We could loiter around like everyone else but that sounds boring! We could also meet our workplaces but that sounds boring too! Is there any place where they sell anime merchandise around here?" Manabu spoke up, trying to lift up the atmosphere since it was too dull due to how highly uncomfortable it was.
Koharu's stare wasn't intentionally cold, his face somehow lacked the mobility others had. His eyes would rest on a point, even a person, and he'd stay like longer than the average person would. Others would alter their paths not to cross his and stand further back than was customary. It was like the elongated eye contact demanded a greater degree of physical separation. It wasn't something he ever noticed himself, but to us (Manabu, Shinji and me), it was obvious and Koharu felt a spark of contamination by association just by being near Miss Hazawa.
And how come he can even work in the same place as her?
Regardless, Miss Hazawa wasn't paying attention to him at all. She seemed interested in Manabu's words, for some reason.
I could see it in her eyes as well.
The girl stared as if he'd just produced a magical object from his pocket. I could just imagine the sparks in her brain, desperately trying to connect the dots and instead just causing a short circuit. Miss Hazawa looked like a pop-eyed toy from one of those claw machines at the funfair. Her eyes were trained on some invisible spectre, her heavy eyelids a fraction too slow to blink, her irises too stationary. It was as if her brain was suffering a massive short circuit and was struggling to compute what he just said until she finally spoke.
"Do you have a problem with that, princess of summer Seira?" he blinked an eye, trying to be charming, which didn't work and infuriated her.
“Are you mocking me right now?”
“Not at all, those are the rumours one hears about you, upperclassman!”
“You… I shall not forget this insolence, Manabu Hazakura!”
“Hey, you remembered my name! That’s some progress! You are all like ‘woof woof’ but no bite-bite!”
I could see that every time Manabu opened his mouth, Miss Hazawa got angrier. At first, she would swallow her pride, retort and just smile. But that only made it worse. She just snapped with that last comment. All that rage came out faster than magma and just as destructive. It consumed all that he was, so delicate under that carefully ordered world. He shrivelled before her.
“Your look is scary. You, lady, are a frightening and terrifying woman. If looks could kill, woah.”
"Guys, I am terribly sorry to interrupt but I do need to catch a bus and meet my sister for lunch??" Shinji interrupted, annoyed. "She has been texting me she's going to escape school at this rate."
"TALKING ABOUT TEXT MESSAGES..."
"MANABU YOU BLOODY IDIOT NOT NOW," Shinji pulled him from his deep blue blazer while Shinji then ran towards the bus station. "If you need me I'll be at Takayama Shiritu Nie High School!"
"I'll go with you!!" Manabu follow him and then grabs Koharu by his wrist "And you too! We don't want to stay with someone who ignores others."
He's still mad.
"W-Wait, Hazakura... I—!" but it seemed that Koharu had no alternative but to follow that unexpected change of plan he seemed to have.
And they were gone in a couple of seconds.
"Are you seriously letting them go just that easy, crushing your pride, darling?" spoke Miss Hazawa, looking at her painted fingernails. "I say, let's go after them."
"But they just said..." Yuiko tried to say something.
"I'm not talking to you, transfer student mary sue, I'm talking to this incompetent bland person over here."
"Hey, that wasn't very nice!" I retorted, defending my friend.
“Well, I am so very sorry for being very blunt about it but it is what it is, darling.” Miss Hazawa concludes. “You are bland and boring. I do wonder what makes people flock around you like pigeons.”
Still, I do wonder why I am able to gather people so easily, it's not like I have any charisma...
"Oh, you meant her..." her deep green sea eyes examined us just like a doctor would and opened her mouth again. "She can defend herself. She's not an innocent naive girl to be protected, underclassman Samidare. However, I will not apologize for what I said. Everyone fails to notice how similar you two are but says nothing! Boys, am I right? They never notice if you wear makeup, or cut your hair... or if you even wore a nice accessory for even once!"
"You are absolutely right, Upperclassman Seraphine. Even if you change completely from the outside, no one will notice how you really are from the inside," Yuiko said sternly, holding my hand, and then, hers. "Now, let us get on our way that we have a bus to catch."
Her first comment was so out of character, so far from what she knew of her, Miss Hazawa just stared at her open-mouthed. Her brain formulated no thoughts other than to register that she was shocked. The girl closed her mouth, then looked at her fingernails before glancing back up to catch her eye.
"It seems I need to be cautious of you as well, underclassman Tsukiame," was all she could say. “Anyway, we must go after them, your friend there just called me a bitch and that won’t be forgiven that easily.”
What is going on here...?
“Manabu did what?” I was speechless.
“On a kiddy level, but I won’t let it slide or my name isn't Seraphine Hazawa!”
Even if the distance was quite short, for Yuiko it didn't matter, I could see it in her orange pastel coloured eyes.
She runs, feet kissing the land. Perhaps a little while ago I would have hindered at the idea of running so near and fast, now I like the prospect. Those feet were made to travel at speed and as light as the paws of a lioness. Breathing steady, heart strong—this girl was born to run.
However, Miss Hazawa was on the contrary.
Yet, she nodded in acknowledgement and followed her gruelling pace without complaint. The cold humidity of the city made her feel sticky and suffocated. Her clothes and hair, slick with perspiration, clung to her skin due to all her coats. She swatted another pesky insect. Sweat rolled down her skin in thick, salty beads. She could feel her heart throbbing inside her chest. Her skin felt like it was roasting. She began bouncing slightly as she jogged, which wore her out quickly. She settled to stumbling along behind Yuiko and me as fast as she could.
By then we had reached the bus station. Miss Hazawa went to straight to a water sprinkler and filled her bottle, trying to catch her breath and get some hydration. Her lungs felt like they would burst and her throat was so dry.
She definitely never gets out of the student council room.
The blonde-white haired girl, with reddish and butterscotch hues, licked her lips, trying to wet her mouth. She saw the recently filled water bottle and observed all the way to the bottom as if it would have magically filled itself while she wasn't paying attention. Her tongue swiped across her lips again. Her mouth was dry, and she panted from the cold heat the emanated from her coats, which wasn't helping. A slight breeze blew past, making her open mouth even drier.
Every swallow was like glass down her throat and my eyes watered with the effort. Water was a wishful dream and food was a concept not even worth the effort of hoping for.
"Phew, this is such a refreshing feeling."
"Three tickets towards... how was it called, Yui?" Yuiko observed the machine in front of her, not knowing where to go. This was definitely high technology and I was afraid to break it. "Yui?"
"Um, look for um... If I remember correctly Shinji's sis school is near Morishitamachi." I mumbled.
Around nine minutes later we arrived at Takayama Shiritu Nie High School after taking the bus.
Under a dove grey sky, the colours of my world dress their winter coats, each hue darker and richer than before. The path sparkles and crunches, like sugar underfoot, and the coolness brings me right into the now, into the moment of life. Though the flowers sleep and the trees show their lofty arms once more, a smile plays upon these cold lips. Even on the coldest days of winter, the sun is bright in the sky, bringing joy to my heart. The snow has a purity that elevates my spirit, the world made as pristine as a book ready for new stories. Already my excitement is surging, dancing around the evergreens with the delight of a child. Even the coldness upon my face is refreshing, my body feeling cosy inside a warm coat on top of my school uniform.
I am about to see Shinji's sister after such a long time! ... Now that I think about it...
"Where are these triple idiots?" said Miss Hazawa loud and clear in front of the school gates.
The school was bigger than ours and gave the feeling that it was private, even the sports field was something to envy. I decided to look that way and saw some people practising in what seemed to be some baseball class.
Even given just a script of their conversation, with no context or voices, you would know they were boys. The task-directed conversation was interrupted only by jokes, often at the expense of one of their friends. Yet from the dialogue that followed it was clear that no offence had been taken, quite the contrary. They enjoyed the banter, the witty and not-so-witty put-downs. They teased and jibbed one moment and discussed team strategy the next, taking one another seriously and giving well-thought responses.
But the sensible talk could never last too long like it was scheduled by an egg timer. Soon the hilarity would start all over again. Were they in class it would be enough to drive any teacher crazy, but this was just practise. There was no teacher, just a bunch of teenagers who brought the best out of each other.
Yuiko gave a setback, clutching onto me. Miss Hazawa seemed to notice something up with her but remained silent and kept raging. Despite that, I placed my hand on top of hers, trying to calm down and noticed some girls sitting down and cheering on nearby.
The girls sitting on the low wall must have been in their same class going by their brash chatter, yet they were dressed up as if they were twenty or more due to their makeup. Miss Hazawa didn't even do that much to her face. I could hear a slurring to their words and too much energy with the way they projected every idea. It was as if they'd taken uppers with booze if they weren't underaged like us.
Suddenly, the head of one of the girl perks up, noticing a group of strangers with different school uniforms at the entrance. With a face filled with excitement, she leaves her circle of friends and runs full speed towards us with no breaks to stop her never-ending energy. Once she reached our place, Yuiko let go of me and Miss Hazawa coughed exuberantly on purpose pretending a big cloud of dust just formed while I just smiled uncomfortably.
"Underclassman Samidare, you attract people like pigeons. This is irrefutable proof."
"I... I'm sorry?" I didn't know what to say.
"Oh. My. God." The new girl said, placing a hand on her lips, genuinely surprised. "No bloody way!!"
That speech pattern...
"Brilliant." Said Miss Hazawa ironically. "Somehow we met with her before them, isn't this amazing?"
"There must be a reason for this..." commented Yuiko.
Shinji's sis and I bowed to each other, excited.
We haven't seen each other in ages! She used to be always busy with live idol concerts and some other stuff. It's been such a long time, I've missed her so much!
The first thing you'd see is a typical honours kid—large amber eyes behind long charcoal coloured hair with a long fringe. The girl's curious eyes asking for more, conflicted with the tight smile silently. However, according to Shinji, she was a rather special case.
She was the loudest voice in the room wherever she was. Her conversations were buoyant and intended to be heard. Everyone knew she was interested in art, music or things that inspired creative thinking within moments of meeting her like it was her most favourite badge by which to identify herself. On every subject she was opinionated and if you didn't agree with her she wasn't angry, she just pitied you for not understanding the “correct” way to think about it.
But if a friend, or even an acquaintance, was in trouble she was right there with both boots on. In any crisis, she took charge, steered the most efficient course through the problem and never stuck around for any "thank you". You could forget to call her for a month or three and still she'd be happy to talk to you. It was like she had been born without the ability to harbour a grudge, though I suspect it's in there, perhaps reserved for people she expects more from.
That is why, the girl had a voice that was like music under a summer breeze, almost lost against the noise of the morning traffic. Yet somehow it took hold of us, making us three want to listen all the more.
No wonder she is called a "star" everywhere she goes. No wonder she is, indeed, an idol!
Her school uniform was gorgeous as well.
First things first, considering the tanned-skinned girl likes to be trendy being an idol but at the same time doesn’t like to stand out too much, socks for school uniforms have changed a lot over the years. They aren’t just socks, they change the whole image of your outfit. There are two main colours, that is why she wore a white pair. The most standard length is long socks that come up to just below the knee and that was the length she chose. Despite that, Shiiko wears loafers that have heels so she would have a better style as well without standing out. However, she was with her school shoes.
How do I know that detail?
Ribbons and ties are another way to show off your personal taste. There are many different types of patterns and designs and it’s always fun to find your favourite one! I would love to have my own personal ribbon, to be honest. In this private school, it seems you can and all it distinguish your year is a small pin badge on your blouse. On her situation, it said first-year. Her ribbon was a shimmering pink which captivated us all.
We also do know, due to my recent bus encounter with Miss Hazawa that it’s generally agreed that the “best” skirt length is 15 cm above the knee; not too long, not too short, but just the right length. But some schools have school rules dictating that a skirt has to be long. In such cases, girls use special belts or just fold their skirts two or three times after leaving the school grounds to make it a cuter length. In this case, she totally ignores that rule just like Miss Hazawa and has it around 10cm all the time. In her case, it was checkered with a purple pattern on top of a black design, the same as she opened buttoned sweater and vest.
"Oh, there is no need to be so formal with me..." I said, just realizing how she called me. "Even if we haven't seen each other for that long, it feels strange you calling me like that given you are three years older than me..."
"Then Yui should be okay? If that's so, call me Big Sis Shii as always, not just big sis!" she leapt towards me to suddenly stop. "Wait a bloody second, Shin-Shin never told me you had a twin sister!"
"Wonderful. I'm delighted I am not the only one who finally notices how similar these two are given she's surrounded by dickheads." Blurted Miss Hazawa.
Actually, they have noticed but not right in front of you.
"And who are you? I like your attitude. Shin-Shin has never told me about you before. Suspicious...."
"For being a sixteen-year-old girl you don't seem to be an airhead, I'll give you that."
"Well, many thanks?" Shii tilted her head and examined Yuiko. "Hm, the differences in your body sizes is just... wait for a second, Yui you traitor!"
"W-What?" I blurted.
"Your sis is AT LEAST a cup C and you..." her hands twitched, holding her urge to touch my breasts. I gulped. "I can see your A cups are growing into a fine B size... While I'm sixteen, turning seventeen this year and LOOK AT ME, still an AAA cup! What am I !?" She pouts, then to recompose herself rather quickly. "So, what's your name, Yui's twin sister?"
"Um, I'm actually not..." However, Yuiko's speech was interrupted when a hand was pressed onto Shii's hair and it was ruffled without mercy.
Her black hair lies long and loose, obscuring her school uniform, yet allowing glimpses of her amber eyes. The lights of the sun are reflected in diffuse bands that change when she alters her posture trying to see who it was. The strands flow down her back, stopping in a line around her hips.
The perpetrator was none other than Shinji, who crossed his arms, clearly mad.
His hair, tangled and dusty, had a sheen like fine hardwood. But that comparison isn't entirely fair, I suppose. Hardwood doesn't swish gently like his hair does, swaying with the words he speaks. His hair furled down the nape of his neck, while his fringe covered the entire right side of his face, going a little past his jaw-line. A shiny varnish catches merely light around it, but the depths of that deep ash brown reflected all the radiance of his smile that he only showed to me most of the time.
However, there are some dark streaks for sure but the pale browns dominate, never pale enough to be blonde and without any golden hues. He wears it like a mop, always hiding his eyes with his beanie hat, but somehow the girls just can't keep their eyes off him. That's why Shii's ears perked up and sent body signals of anger towards her group of friends that went away in mere seconds.
His eyes, as always, were the colour of nutmeg but his skin was all tanned. He had that shy look about him teens often get when they've grown too much too fast like they aren't really sure about being a man just yet. He was skinny, but the way his clothes hung gave away the muscle beneath; and always in his wake were headed turning to watch him go due to his delinquent looks even all the way here in Takayama.
"Stop bothering Tsukiame!" he said out loud, clearly pissed off. "I apologize if my sister was a burden."
"It is alright, I wanted to clear up the misunderstanding. You see Miss, um..."
"Tottori! Just like the Prefecture! Shiiko Tottori!"
"Um, being siblings, why aren't both of you having the same surname?" Miss Hazawa asked the question Shinji and I feared the most.
"Well, um, Miss Shiiko, you see..." despite that, Yuiko was interrupted quite bluntly once again.
Shiiko was hit right into the head, punched by Shinji.
"Hey! Is that how you are supposed to treat your elders!?"
"I sometimes wonder who's the mature one here, I told you that if my friends came to avoid saying that! It might bring some confusing issues!"
"Slip of a tongue; won't happen again. Pinky promise. Anyways, where were we, not Yui's twin sister?"
"Well, first of all, I am not Yui's twin sister. I moved to Shirakawa recently. It is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Yuiko Tsukiame." She takes a deep breath and clutches her fist deep into her heart. "Hinaga, where are the others?"
"Nice to meetcha! ... The others?" Shiiko shifted her head. "Oh, your other friends!?"
"Yeah, I kinda... ditched them..." Shinji sighed. "Manabu saw an anime store right down Takayama's Central Station neat the Citizen Cultural Central and you know what that means... then, Koharuno saw Ueno, and Ueno kinda kidnapped him."
"Oh, Ueno, what are we going to do with you..." Miss Hazawa sighed, although I could quite notice how her feet shuffled when the words anime store were mentioned. "That means it's just you then?"
"Oh, that's near the place where my solo debut will be today! Remember, Shin-Shin? Even if the Closing Ceremony was yesterday I came to school today and mingled with all these losers to see you!"
"That's... not very nice to you to say but whatever." He shrugged. “Also yeah, I do remember. Y’all heard her. I won’t make it to the 4 PM bus. I’ll go to her solo debut.”
“I want to go too!” I exclaimed without thinking.
Shii has always been some sort of hope of shining brightly like a star in a starless sky. She is my hope, of some sort! Hope is a bright star in a hopelessly dark universe. Through light-years of distance, the brightness fills our inner selves. Hope makes us smile on the inside as well as on the outside. Hope is not just an emotion, it is a promise that smiling and laughter are just around the corner. That is what idols are for me!
"No way in hell, you are going. You will be a good student and play by the rules. I'll go because I'm her brother."
I could notice his strict tone. He was serious. Anger is a silent huntress looming in the night, ready to strike when you least expect it. She hovers over you like morning fog, clouding your judgment. She deceives you whenever she wills. You see a threat and she sees the game. One moment it's there and the next it's gone, leaving a trail of regret.
"That was way too blunt you idiot." Miss Hazawa came to my side. "Now listen up you dipshit, I am the only one allowed to make fun of her, you understand me? I am the only one allowed to hurt her feelings because I am not her friend, unlike you. If you are truly her friend, you would think before you speak!"
But, alas, a one-sided fight had begun, me watching from the sidelines.
They stand rooted, soaking in the sunshine and yelling in an invisible rain through their fine roots. I want to protect this place, throw a force-field over it but even my back up power is draining and how could I justify using it on these blooms that move in the wind - a living ocean of light. Will I ever see a sight like this again? Now I can barely look without welling up, each one is a fine work of art, something I couldn't create in a thousand lifetimes. But progress knows no sentiment it seems it is a weakness I cannot afford.
«Fear is part of being human, Yui, it's the precursor to bravery. We need it, it wakes us up to what needs to be done. So feel it, own it, let it ignite your thoughts.»
It's that strange voice again. But I... I...
Panic seeps through, and before long, the struggle starts, with an attempt to break away from it all and to shatter the glass prison I had hidden within, I took a step forward just for everything to be interrupted with a silly conversation.
"Y'all!!! Look at all the goodies I bought!"
Manabu's impromptu appearance was interrupted by a mellifluous voice.
Swells of power rose up in her throat. I couldn't even tell if it was words that came from her. Her voice was music, and grace, and the feeling of knowing that her voice was brought out in a fit of something. Her hand went to her heart and her head rose as she belted out the final notes. Smooth and clear and quiet yet powerful. Soothing, in some sort of way. It was the promise of tomorrow. It was beautiful, and I wished that she would never stop.
" ♪ In the past, I would never do the things I wanted to do. I lived in a world where dreams and love were foreign to me. Can you hear my voice? Someday I want to be able to hug you and be happy while wiping away tears. When we’ve finally found what we aimed for, our hearts will become one. ♪ "
"Woah, Shinji, your sister sounds better live than in those CD's you have back at home!" My blond friend shouted happily while I stood puzzled by her glamorous voice, enchanted. She had stopped the argument with her most powerful weapon. Slowly, a small piece of paper fell from one of his cardboard bags filled with posters and merchandise he was carrying. "Did you know your brother has them on a crystal case? That's what I call a severe case of sister complex!"
"I'd say I'm the one with a brother complex here, hehe!" She winked, hugging his arm, leaving everyone speechless. "Aww, c'mon. Is everyone so naive here?"
"AHH, AIKA MIYANOSHITA! BE MORE CAREFUL YOU BLOCKHEAD! That Sample is such a sacred limited edition item and you treat it as NOTHING!" Miss Hazawa caught the paper in midair, which was an add presenting a new girl from Manabu's favourite's Mobage 『Angel Live!』.
She had bright blonde hair and seemed to be into the gyaru culture as well. In any way, what brought up everyone's attention, especially Manabu's was the question that everyone wanted to ask but no one dared.
"Wait, you know her name so that must mean... ARE YOU AN 『Angel Live!』PLAYER TOO? CAN I ADD YOU? WHAT'S YOUR ID?"
Miss Hazawa took out her phone to prove her point to Manabu.
“I don’t play that piece of crap!”
However, we were all shocked by something else entirely.
“She has a flip phone!” Manabu, Shinji, Yuiko and I said amazed at the same time, unable to believe what we just witnessed.
“W-What’s wrong with flip phones…?” Miss Hazawa retreated, scared by our reactions. “J-J-Just so you know, these little things bring less distraction and are a rejection of the smartphone with its bombardment of messaging and social media that sap your attention!”
“Or maybe it’s just a return to the cell phone’s roots when a phone was just a phone,” said Shinji.
“Or maybe you touch something electronic and destroy it like Yui-Yui!” added Manabu.
“That… was not nice…” Yuiko tried not to laugh.
“Oh, you use straps! I have some too!” I took out my own model, proudly showing off my own star-shaped strap I made on my spare time. "They are lovely, aren't they? You can even share them with your friends, see?"
"Even if they are a hassle to put on a smartphone..." He hadn't meant to do it, I could tell by the look of mild shock on his face and by his cheeks that flushed pink that Shinji has taken out his phone with a really badly tied on a star-shaped plush strap.
"We are all matchies!" Manabu takes out his, all smiles and giggles.
Miss Hazawa's was heart-shaped, obviously made out of plastic but was as red as a bright ruby. When the beams of the sunlight made it right through, it was like magic.
"You are all such wonderful friends," Yuiko commented happily.
"Gotcha!" Manabu took ahold of the distraction just to steal Miss Hazawa phone and check her contact list, checking every corner as far as I could tell from her frozen state, he, in the other hand looked rather disappointed. "I am super sorry Sei-Sei, I didn't mean anything mean by saying you had no friends. I didn't know you really had no friends at all..."
We all gathered in a circle around her phone, including Shiiko, and even felt a bit sorry for her.
No contacts at all.
"Stop mocking me!" She snapped, taking the phone out of Manabu's hand.
"If you want, I can be your friend!" And he stole it again. "What's your—?"
"Ah yes, infrared code thingies are magical! There we go!" He handed her phone towards her and she sighed.
And then, it began.
"Oh. No." Shinji and I met eye to eye.
However, instead of annoyance, Miss Hazawa had a scared and frightened look. As if the phone was her greatest fear and enemy. It was as if her brain had shut down. She was clammy and there was the glisten of cold sweat. Her eyes were as wide as if someone was coming to deliver the fatal blow. Yet what she saw, no-one else could see. Trapped in her own psychosis, a living nightmare for one, tailor-made by her own brain to play on her deepest fears.
The same fear I have every time I come back home, alone.
She opened it.
「hewwo, if u want i can tell u where the anime shop issss ( ´ ▽ ` )b」
Miss Hazawa's mood gave a complete turn, closing it furiously.
She opened it up again.
「dont be so mean (ᗒᗩᗕ) i was trying to help u with ur SE-CR-ET (ꈍ ˬ ꈍ✿)」
"LEARN HOW TO TYPE YOU... YOU!" Miss Hazawa walked indignantly at him, just to stand behind him and murmur him something I couldn't quite hear. However, I saw how Manabu told her some directions. "T-Thanks."
"You are welcome Sei-Sei! Don't get lost on your way!!!" He shouted while she was going without saying goodbye.
"Don't be so obvious you piece of... Dear Lord, how can you stand him?" she asked us. "And don't call me Sei-Sei, upperclassman Hazawa is okay but don't put any stupid nicknames do you understand me underclassman Hazakura!?
"No idea," replied Shinji.
"Power of friendship!" I said.
"I am just getting to know him." Was Yuiko's answer.
❀ Past - January 23rd - Afternoon ❀
The hotel lobby has the same odour as a very humid place, just like a swamp. The floor carpet is a decade too remote and with an old-fashioned pattern of large flowers interrupted by worn and threadbare patches. The large windows should allow a lot of light through, yet the heavy drapes and city dirt on the panes leaves it dull to the point of depression. I stop, the park bench suddenly looking like an attractive option after all.
If there was a park nearby, for starters.
"I cannot believe Ueno took me all over Takayama with his group of friends..." I hear Koharu sigh right next to me. "Still, I deeply apologize for this to happen, Miss Samidare. The professors were doing their best to contact the school. Yet, it seems they did not care enough and we have to stay here. Room's preparations are still being done so you can explore the place for a while longer if you wish to do so."
"Koharun!" I said, mildly surprised. "I was worried when Shinji and Manabu said you were kidnapped by Ueno!"
"He took me against his will to arcades and baseball points. Not fun at all, if I may dare say so myself." He sighed, his grey hair and body shivering by the mere thought. Fixing his glasses, he proceeded. "Oh, it seems Miss Tsukiame wants to talk to you, I will take my leave."
And indeed, Yuiko had just approached me while he went away towards the other three professors discussing with the lobby person, alongside Banri Ueno, a fellow and last member of the council. However, right now, my mind was filled with Yuiko and what she wanted to say to me.
"Would you mind going to the rooftop? It seems quiet there, Yui! There are... quite a few things I would love to discuss with you about today and well, about what happened on the bus this morning..." she said apologetically.
For seemingly no reason the girl's hands swam back into my mind as I see how she clasp them tightly onto her chest. She had been kind, apologetic and had had the sort of face that put her immediately at ease. But why the hand and not the face? They seemed familiar for a reason, but like a tune whose lyrics escape you, the memories were just out of reach.
Her hands bore the innocence of a young girl; soft and delicate. Just like mine. That is why I took one with mine, and let her run with me towards the lift. Her hands were like the missing puzzle piece to mine. Hers a tiny palm with long, thin fingers, she could be a pianist.
The ceiling must be twenty feet high. Designs of fruit and flowers are carved into the moulding and small, fat children with wings look down at us from every angle. Vases of blossoms give off a cloying scent that makes my eyes itch. This was indeed a very weird hotel.
Once we went inside and giggling like the children we are, herd the ding of the highest floor and ran some more stairs, we opened the doors and were received by the evening's dusk's and winter's freshly cooling breeze.
The sunset in the sky. It sat within that sky, that winter-fruit hued throne, as if it looked over the earth, stretching out with sepia tones to everyone below. With the setting sun came a sky of fire, the orange of every wintry hearth. It was the battle cry to the gathering night, that the only achievement of darkness is to show starlight all the more clearly. It merged with the sky, like juice-mix dissolving in a glass of water. The clouds were cotton-candy, as though they blushed at the warm touch of the sun. Silhouettes of birds flew home across a sky that was now magenta, and the sun was half into it, but its reflection in the windows of the block of flats made it look complete. The mauve of the dusky sky intensified, and in just a while, the biggest star had set, giving way to a thousand others.
Yuiko stood watching the line where heaven touched the earth. Her wide eyes witnessed the resounding glowing collision. Sparks lit the sky and blood poured, as the glory of paradise descended further behind the seam of the world. Yuiko felt small as she glanced over her shoulder and saw her shadow slowly shrinking towards her feet. She looked back to the line, only a few bright streaks remained to signal heaven’s passing. The sun had set.
"What a lovely night, would you not say?" she said.
"Yep, lovely! It was a fun day as well!" I replied hanging from one of the iron fences preventing someone from falling from the rooftop.
"Yui, I... am so ever sorry if I did not speak too much today to your friends."
"Yuiko! There is no need to—"
But she paused me with her index finger right into my lips.
"You see, Yui... If you recall my trembling on the bus and the way I doubtfully act around your friends... and the conversation I had with Koharuno the first day we met... He knows this secret because it is written in my transfer papers."
I remained silent while watching her profile basked into the moonlight.
"I... have wanted to tell you this since day one but somehow I always got interrupted. That is why I selfishly thought that anyhow, destiny wanted me to avoid telling you to evade conflict, seeing how you adore your friends! And... in exchange, I felt stingy instead!"
Out of the complete silence, the cry arose. Out of complete reverence, the things of the world stilled to listen.
"Yuiko!" I yelled, worried.
"Please let me finish!" She yelled back, tears in her eyes. "Please, I beg of you!"
I only nodded, powerlessly.
"That I why I am going to tell you this: I am afraid of men. Frightened. Terrified. That is not enough. That is not enough to explain what I feel. You have seen it."
Like a budding flower it started. Slow and gentle but it rose to a wail that tore at my heart; tens of thousands of voices crying out together in total sorrow. To the ends of the world, the cry travelled. Over lands and seas, through forests and valleys. Every ear in the universe stilled to listen, every heart broke. so heavy so was miserable their song. When it hit my ears I fell to my knees. I felt a weight of sorrow press me into the dirt in which she knelt. My mind clouded with pain, my heart grew cold and numb with pent-up emotion. I felt clogged with pain and anger, hurt, and fear.
All I could do was join the cry. So I let it out in one long mournful yell to the heavens. Within my heart of hearts, I longed for my cry to be loud enough to reach the ear of God himself and wished for Yuiko to feel better.
I am the selfish one, not noticing how she felt, and how she endured it for my sake, knowing my two best friends are male.
"Why... are you crying...?" she asked, still grieving.
Or, rather, it was more than crying, it was the kind of desolate sobbing that comes from a person drained of all hope.
I knew I'd done something pretty awful, there was no way to justify it. The more demanding the reparations my subconscious required the worse I knew it was. But no-one was going to say "No worries, Yui, you didn't know about this! You just wanted Yuiko to make friends!", no-one was stepping up to go "It's okay if you didn't notice the signs Yuiko showed whenever a man was near!". Now it squeezed at my brain, obliterating the thinking I needed to wheel-and-deal. I had to either get tougher or start listening to my conscious, this middle ground guilt was no good to anyone.
The guilt sat not on my chest but inside my brain.
What I had done I could not undo. However, I could make amends in subtle ways, yet only in my silent prayers could I speak my heart to God and beg for His mercy. I didn't feel like I deserved the love of anyone at all but I clung to anything and hung the shreds of my sanity on it. I had to believe in redemption, I had to leave my deeds in past and move on.
I have the guilt from living with all that, accepting it for so long, for bumbling along.
I don't think I ever meant to be selfish, I really don't. Yet, I still think I was... Perhaps... I have come to a point to become emotionally blind, I just couldn't see, couldn't empathize with what other people thought or felt... Yes... I am a selfish person. Koharu knew. He knew and that look told me he thought I knew and Yuiko hid it from me on the bus trying to make me know by gestures instead of saying it out loud to avoid making a scene seeing how I react sometimes.
Maybe my emotions are really dead after what happened that fateful day.
"Because, because... I was the selfish one! And Koharu knew because of the transfer papers that you have androphobia and I...! I am your friend and I had no idea! You weren't selfish Yuiko! I didn't mind your feelings at all!"
"Truth to be told... I think upperclassman Seraphine noticed as well..." Yuiko tried to laugh amidst the storm.
"Is that why you call all the girls by their first name?"
"Yes... I... used to be on a mixed school but... things... happened... then I went to an all girl's school... and worst stuff happened... and now I am... here... hehe..."
I wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, gently rubbing her arm. Despite the heaviness in the atmosphere, it fluttered at the feeling of her body pressed against mine. She sunk into the warmth of my side, appreciative of the simple gesture. Yuiko's touch made the rooftop warmer somehow, her future within this place walls seeming a little less bleak.
The hug was a simple enough gesture—affection, perhaps the fragile beginnings of an everlasting friendship. The arms that held I held were soft. The feel of her body so close to mine soothed me more than I had expected.
I hope I am transmitting this to her as well.
The room repartition went smoothly. Once I got my room on the seventh floor I went fast to unpack and minutes later the door knocked. It seemed my roommate had been assigned. I was glad no one had noticed Shinji was missing since it was past 7 PM and there was no sign of him nor messages from him on my phone rather than those sent by him during the morning with Manabu which I ignored and will keep ignoring.
The knocking got worse, hence why I got up and opened up, just to find myself face to face with Seraphine Hazawa.
"Fanbloodytastic." Were the words that received me. "The chaperone got this place."
She pulled her small luggage and then dropped her backpack onto the white bed.
"This looks like a hospital room. Where is the telly at least?" she said, laying down.
"Right here," I point at it.
However, she was right.
The hotel's room is as devoid of beauty as I am of dreams and life right now after what happened with Yuiko. Its walls are simply cream, not peeling or dirty, just cream. There is no decoration at all save the limp curtain that can separate my bed from the windows showing the highway. It was perhaps once the kind of green that reminds people of spring-time and hope, but it's faded so much that the hue is insipid.
The room smelled of bleach and the floor is simply grey. At the far end are windows in brown metal frames, only openable at the top. Not a single person has flowers or decorations on their bedstand. Maybe it is one of those places where businessman come to sleep to pass the time or staring at nothing at all.
"Your friend, underclassman Hinaga, isn't back from his sister's concert isn't he?" I could hear her voice muffled by a pillow.
"Oh, you noticed!" I said rather surprised, lying on the floor playing some cards. "Yeah, must be a long one. It's her solo idol debut!"
"You like him don't you?"
"I? Me? I? What?"
"You are so obvious, darling." I could swear she smirked.
"That isn't your business," I mumbled.
"Indeed," she replied. "That is why I have decided to make you my experiment tonight because I am bored and the night is young and you little young lady are ugly with capital U. With some cute little magic, you'll be divine and adorable."
C-Could she be... NO WAY!!
"U-Upperclassman Hazawa... A-Are you...?"
"Ta-dah!" before me she opened the small carry-on luggage she carried all the journey on the bus.
I was surprised by the quantity of make up she had there it was impossible to count and describe. I was awestruck.
"Make-up is a girl's best magical friend!" she winked at me.
She pulled my hair back and, in a couple of second against a mirror, all my face was visible.
"This is against my will!" I shouting.
"You should feel honoured!"
I positioned myself in front of the bureau mirror and took inventory.
"Makeup needs to be minimal, reserved to a sweep of mascara. Too much tumbleweed hair, but what else was is new? Lips could use some gloss. Lick your bottom lips giving it a wet shine. I will still use some lipstick but I need to have some fresh ideas first...!" She gave me orders and I just followed.
She would first apply some foundation all over to give me a more even look, it helped to hide the pimples too. Then she would apply the glittering eyeshadows and the black eyeliner. After that, she would layer on some mascara and finish with lipstick the colour of pomegranate seeds.
Still, I knew Miss Hazawa wasn't done yet. She did not look satisfied.
She used some fine chalk powder to my face. Extract from rose petals was used as rouge while another took a stick of kohl and gently lined her eyes with the black powder. Beeswax and red dye were mixed together and rubbed on her lips. I observed herself in the mirror. The Kohl made her eyes brighter than usual. Pearl earrings were fastened to her ears and a pearl headband completed her beauty preparation.
She was just a girl of thirteen turning fourteen next year, but by the time she'd applied make-up, she could get into any club she wanted by the looks of it.
"You look divine! My masterpiece. Now, let's go and show it off!" hurriedly, she pushed Yui through the door and lift, right down to floor number one.
"To who!? I don't want to be seen like this!!"
"To whom!? Why to underclassman Hinaga of course!"
And of course, Shinji just had to be there, in a yukata, right back from the hotel's sauna alongside Manabu and Koharu.
"Wait, you are not going to?" I exploded.
"Guys!! It's Yui-Yui!" said Manabu
"H-Hey..." I blurted.
"Y-Yo..." He said.
"You look pretty tonight Miss Samidare, going somewhere?" said Koharu smiling. "It would be a shame to get it all ruined with a sauna right now."
"Y-Yeah..." I scratched the nape of my neck, looking down into the floor.
"Doesn't she look different to you Shinji? Like, I dunno, radiant? Stunning?" Manabu's eyes were shining and so did mine.
"Uh... I... suppose? She looks... okay? Um... She looks.. very... fine? Yui-ish? Nice Yui." He said, confused.
Despite that answer, Koharu and Manabu shook their heads, me not catching a hint.
"Well, we'll be going now!" said Manabu. "We'll visit you later! Hope you brought cards!"
"I did!" I shouted while they left and happily returned to Miss Hazawa.
"So? What did he say?" she asked.
"He said I looked fine!!" I blushed slightly.
"... Okay and?"
"What does that even...?
"... Underclassman Shinjiro Hinaga... you are a tough cookie..." she said while walking away once again.
"Where are you going? How do I take this out!?"
"Going to Mr Yamada. Stuff. Also just look for something in my luggage that says makeup remover somewhere."
They all show their cards at the same time, the suspense eating me from the inside alive.
I should have told Yuiko but, after what happened at the rooftop she told me she would rather stay in her room for now.
"Yes! Shinji and I have the same answers!"
"Okinawa..." It was the only thing that Koharu managed to say.
There was only a moment of uncomfortable silence between him and Manabu who had chosen Okinawa.
"I thought you'd go for something simple like fireworks!" Koharu collapsed.
"Two points for us," Shinji took note of the score.
"I think your two responses are lovely" I tried to encourage them. "The game is just beginning, you can still turn the situation around."
"At the count of three ... one ... two ... three!" Manabu yelled. "Something related to marine life!"
"You are doing this on purpose aren't you!?" Koharu looks at Manabu as if he were the exorcist, losing his usual cool temper.
"But dolphins are cool!" Was his defence counter-argument. "Sushi has nothing to do with marine life, Koharun, I thought you were more intelligent."
"I went for sushi because I tried to put myself on your shoes!"
"Yui and I go four points." Shinji pointed full of happiness.
"Very good, now to the last round!" I prepare to finally say the words that Koharu fears. "Cherry Blossom!"
"I hate this game." Koharu crushed his head on the table.
Around two hours had passed after they started playing and I was worried about Miss Hazawa. A really, uncomfortable feeling was eating me alive. My chest is hollow, and then all at once, it's filled with this buzzing. Buzzing. Buzzing. Buzzing. My face is numb while I watch the clock on the wall. Tick. Tack. Tick. Tack. Not a thing is familiar. Already my heart rate was accelerating, feeling my stomach heaved unhelpfully; already my knuckles were whitened and her face paled. Soon my thoughts tumbled just as fast as before as they did in my home, with no Nobuyuki to tell me to calm down.
I wished I could call Yuiko to play with us but, after our heart-to-heart on the rooftop, she just wished to rest and I don't want to drag her into a place that would make her uncomfortable.
"Nobuyuki..." I whispered.
"Please don't watch my sister's concert on TV. I am traumatized." It was Shinji.
Glad he didn't hear me.
"But why!?" I protested.
"You have... no... frigging... clue..." he replied, his face darkening.
And that's when it happened.
Seraphine Hazawa opened the door and fainted right into the bed, shocking us everyone while holding a smartphone she was tightly hugging.
Everyone went to check up on her and noticed she was with a high fever, running around not knowing what to do, Manabu and I stayed to tuck her up on her bed while Shinji and Koharu went to get some medicine to a nearby drugstore. While I changed her into her pyjamas, I noticed something strange on her neck.
"I'm not looking!!"
"She's already changed but... I see this strange... purple-ish... kinda... red-ish... no... more... purple... yeah, thingy in her neck... has she been beaten up?"
And upon closer examination, Manabu yelled and crashed into a closet for going back without looking.
"What's wrong? Is it really bad?"
"Yui... you are pure and innocent so you shouldn't know this but... that... that... that is.. a hickey..." Manabu gulped. "Which means... Sei-Sei has been doing some things we shouldn't be doing either by her own will or being forced to do them..."
"She doesn't want to let go of her smartphone even if she is unconscious..." I added, unable to process what he told me. "Wait, didn't she have a flip phone though...?"
"Is that true?" Yuiko came into the room, with a small notebook in hand. "Hazakura, is that true?"
"Tsukiko!? Well, yes that is my deduction!"
"Okay..." she wrote it down.
"Yuiko?" I was puzzled.
Why is she here...?
"I am sorry for interrupting... Yui, I promise to explain it all, so for now, please rest that tomorrow we start our jobs. I pray Upperclassman Seraphine feels better soon."
"I hope so too."
10 minutes later, Shinji and Koharu came back with medicine and we left her resting, not knowing what to do. All we had left was to wait, hoping she would wake up feeling better tomorrow.
I wish she at least has a nice dream tonight.
Was all I hoped for while I closed my eyes, waiting for a better tomorrow to come.