The Longing Of Shiina Ryo:Volume1 Chapter 4: Ayaka
You know, I actually believe there is such a thing as Justice in the Universe.
Despite knowing that there are many evil deeds that might go unpunished and good actions that will never directly give any fruits to their performers, I choose to believe that the Universe is formed by equations that will always get to balance themselves. It doesn’t matter how it affect the elements involved in the system, as long as the answer fits the question and vice versa.
There must be equality.
If that was not true I would have no reason to be running to school today, being the textbook example of ‘late’. And yes, that does contrast with me running away from school yesterday, so early in the morning I didn’t even meet my teacher on the hallways while fleeing.
That’s karma for you.
It would seem like everything was too perfectly balanced for reality, but I refuse to give it more thought because I still have the whole ‘my real world is actually fictional’ theory on my mind. To be honest I probably deserved it. I got trapped in a gruesome nightmare; I ran for a long time; I fought like I haven’t fought in years (mind you, my childhood was really tough with all of those mysteries going on). How could I expect anything other than falling asleep on the couch and waking up so late for school I don’t even know why I bothered getting up?
So yeah, I believe in Justice. Especially today, because being mad at something you don’t believe in is a job for people who don’t quite grasp the meaning of the word ‘atheism’ yet still use it on a daily basis.
That was mean.
I liked it.
…and here we go again. I’m glad you did, but I would rather not listen to your unusual kind words or anything coming from you for that matter.
Another rude thought coming from an essentially good boy whose body’s endorphin releases does not seem to be successful at achieving the runner’s high effect.
It’s very interesting to see just how out-of-character can you get when she is not around, or should I say ‘in character at last’?.
What are you babbling about? I am acting as I always do. No, I am not even acting: I am thinking and you cannot cause harm to others with your thought alone, only with your actions.
Nevertheless you just tried to and proved yourself wrong in your own terms, considering your belief that I am not a part of you.
Of course I could demand an apology as a habitant of your mind, but I think I’ll settle down if you admit that no one is as nice as you pretend to be when you’re next to her.
My mind belongs only to myself and I won’t apologize or justify myself to anyone for anything that stays inside its limits; particularly to you, who are but an unwanted guest, a despicable intruder in my inner kingdom. Begone ye evil spirit!
You're getting hotter, getting hotter…
By the way, I mean it as in the hot-cold game; I am not attracted to you.
Oh, please! That thought would never cross my mind and…
Or am I?
It doesn't really matter; either way, I am just the voice inside your head.
Just go away, will you?
Sure, i-it’s not like I enjoy being near you o-or anything.
The absence of italic-underlined talk that followed was unsettling for some reason, but since it brought back my narrative it probably is a good thing. There are indeed a few unsettling and good things in life but most of them cannot even be thought of so early in the morning, especially on a presumably fictional universe under the risk of receiving a different rating and (for the lack of a better word) exciting some impressionable readers while greatly upsetting their beloved mothers.
Back to the work-safe ‘running to school’ we go.
Other than the sound of my feet stomping on the streets and the steady, fast heartbeats pulsing through me, there was absolutely nothing. At daybreak, the lingering silence on the town was as audible as the frail sounds my body produced, and it seemed to swallow them like quicksand. But as swiftly as the mythical god who shared the name with the chemical element once known as quicksilver…
…no, seriously: That’s it? You’re going away because I asked you to, easy as that? Aren’t you going to make any nasty comments about my overly dramatic manners, remind me of how particularly creepy the trees are this morning, or anything like that at all?
I don’t need to. You just did.
And then the uncommon voice left me and my narrative alone in a silent, distressingly weird world that was now too full of green for my personal fear-driven taste. Needless to say, in light of the circumstance, I ran just as Mercury would if he were a paranoid teenager with a disturbing and flirtatious inner voice while surrounded by mysteries and suspicious trees.
Follows attached a small yet interesting report on the results of running too fast and for too long to school.
Good news: I might have broken a world record of speed (we would have the exact number if I had waited for the patrol car to catch up)!
Bad news: I might have broken something else too.
Good news: My fear of trees made me lose weight; I even feel lighter!
Bad news: According to the last doctor I’ve seen I should actually gain some weight in order to reach the ideal weight for someone of my height and age. However, I am also not sure if I should trust him, since Dr. Olaf turned out to be a vampire in disguise: he could be just trying to fatten up his next meal.
Good news: I actually made it to the gates two minutes before they are usually closed, which means I either distorted space and time while running or… no, I think that’s the only explanation I have right now. Space-time distortion, that’s pretty much it. Sounds reasonable enough for my brain, which is currently just as tired as the rest of my body.
Bad news: I don’t think I want to enter those gates; especially because once I do there will be no turning back.
Right, I know I did that whole box burning number yesterday, but that just something I did (pardon my non-French ambiguous expression) in the heat of the moment: just like Kouma said, it was meaningless. It’s easy to act manly when you don’t actually need to and right now I don’t know if it was the exhausting race against the clock or something else, but it sure feels like I spent all of my Special Power on that and now even pressing up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start won’t help me.
That’s it: it’s not even eleven o’ clock and I already had a rough day, or at least what a common high school student as I aspire to be should consider a rough day. I am just going home and…
Absolutely nothing happened.
No one came out of nowhere with an interesting teaser sentence. No one decided to spend time with me to get my head out of my personal problems with random stuff. No one stood up, looked straight into my eyes and made me take a decision when I found myself in a turning-point.
Nothing like that happened at all.
Even though I invoked the trope (suspension point included and everything), no one came for me. Even though I really wanted them to, no one showed up. Even though I felt like I really needed them, no one saved my day.
Lifting my briefcase and putting it behind me by passing it over my shoulder, feeling the leather touch my back through the sweaty shirt, I started walking steadily.
Thank you, everyone. I had to break that awful habit of mine on my own, without relying on walking canes.
“Hah!” Feeling very brave after passing the gates, I spun and almost danced with my arms open as if challenging the whole world. Somehow I managed to stop myself before the applied energy was strong enough to send my briefcase flying away, but not without reluctance: laws of Physics work whether you like them or not, and whether you know them or not. “It’s time for me to live the dre...”
As I finished my gracious yet completely manly spin, I noticed that I wasn’t the only one around. By the time it dawned on me I wasn’t sure if I should be glad or sad that the faces I saw were familiar.
“You’re right: it is very hard to sneak up on him.”
“I know; if it wasn’t for that passionate anime character imitation of him at the café I think I would never be able to.”
“Now I kind of want to see that, especially after you spending roughly thirty minutes of a phone call talking about it. Do you think he’s going to do it again? I guess I’ll finally have a reason for frequenting that dreadful place.”
“Maybe next time we can record his despaired impersonation with a cell phone and put it on the Internet.”
“Probably along with that spin, it was very amusing.”
Facing that kind of situation, I should feel embarrassed and strange…
“Good morning, girls. What are you up to in this beautiful morning?”
…but I just didn’t want to feel that way.
“Hm.” Kouma raised her eyebrow. “This wasn’t quite the outcome I expected. I have mixed feelings about this.” Did she just say that she has some sort of feelings out loud?
“We arrived earlier today to make sure no blank cards or other suspicious objects were placed anywhere in our class.” Ryo didn’t seem tired, but actually sparkling: it was like the cases I was so tired of were exactly what she needed to feel alive, and it showed. “Also, after doing a little research we found out that nothing unusual has happened in the past days except for an unfortunate incident with bananas.”
“Nothing supernatural, though.” I felt relief when Kouma finally stopped staring at me and decided to focus on Ryo. “People often forget how their peels can be dangerous if left on the floor.”
The school chime rang, and then I realized that we have just wasted the two minutes I had to bend time and space to get.
“Let’s go, we’re going to be late! I don’t think Reikoku-sensei will let us…”
“Oh, don’t worry: she will let us in.” Ryo had a good example of her cat-like smiles printed on her face and she was pointing it at me. “Kouma already told her we could get a little bit late because of a project and Reikoku-sensei said it was okay: we exceptionally have five minutes of tolerance today.”
“A little project with Koukishin-kun.” Hissed the fashionista, her eyes gently rolling up towards the skies. Then she added without any sound, but with the sole movement of her lips and to me only. “Teacher’s pet.”
Sighing sounded like the only reasonable thing to do in such a weird situation.
“Anyway, we should discuss this later: we can be observed by our unknown enemy while in school, and since there are great chances he or she is in our classroom we’ll probably be watched closely.”
“So you did notice.” Kouma grinned like there was no tomorrow, and when looking at her I almost believed so. “Our school rules are not that strict, but the only ones who could go inside our classroom without being stopped by the inspectors were our own classmates.”
“Actually, no: I saw the exact opposite happening that day. When I entered the building, it was completely empty and no one even showed up to try and stop me from running away like a crazy person. And I’m a transfer student, so no one here knows me. Honestly, I think the security here is very, very lame.”
“That doesn’t sound right.” After seeing her argument discredited, Kouma Yon almost sounded offended. “We’ll have a lot to discuss on our meeting later at my place. For example, why would the staff…”
“Hey…” Ryo interrupted, and surprisingly I wasn’t pleased with that: Kouma sounded like she had a strong hint on something that didn’t fit. “I don’t want to ruin your party but we have exactly one minute to enter the school building and get into our room.” A small pause was added by Ryo, most likely for comedy effect. We played along with it, despite knowing that we were wasting time we didn’t actually have. “That happens to be located in the third floor.”
The image of Reikoku-sensei making a countdown filled my mind, and by the look on the girls’ faces I wasn’t the only one thinking about what would happen if she said ‘zero’ before we reached the room.
“Don’t worry!” I screamed as we ran towards school. “I can bend time and space!”
Apparently, it doesn’t work every time I want it to.
Which is awful, now that I think about it: how awesome would it be if I could use that all the time, really? If I had the control over that gift, I would be able to prevent disasters, avoid problems and even fight crime. But better than all that, we wouldn’t have been late for Reikoku-sensei’s class for entire thirteen seconds.
What scared us the most was that not only she was waiting for us at the door but also didn’t say a single word until we got past her. In fact, there was not a single sound in the classroom at that moment and it seemed to me that my classmates were just dolls made of flesh because Ryo, Kouma and I were the only ones moving and it surely was not as if we had much of a choice. The rest of the class was standing dead still, but most likely because they knew that we, who against all odds received a five minute tolerance from the most feared teacher in the school and yet broke it as if in defiance, were the ones who were closest to death.
It was a mixture of pure respect with a strong desire not to join the about-to-be-killed party, and it disturbed me that they seemed quite used to it. Had anything like this ever happened before? What was the outcome of the previous group or individual’s actions? Who will bury our bodies?
It doesn’t really matter; I don’t think we’ll live to find an answer to any of those questions. Since it is my time to go, I shall leave with no regrets. It was a good life, anyway.
No, not really.
“Take your seats. Class is about to start.” Our homeroom teacher said in monotone and almost mechanically we obeyed: I think it is common sense that we pushed our luck as far as we could for a year or probably, a whole life. Does that mean we’re not going to die today? Well, I suppose at least not immediately. This is great, right? Right? I suppose so, since I haven’t even got a chance to lead a good life so far. So, in this situation even having an awful past is a good thing, right?
No, not really…
Full stop. I know where this is going and I don’t want to walk that road again. I need to think positive. Yeah, think positive: this kind of thought hasn’t taken you anywhere in the past and you decided to change this on your own today, right? Keep that in mind and you will be fine. That whole incident wasn’t dangerous at all, and there is no teacher that would kill students just for being late; you are only being over-dramatic as always.
“Aah, that was dangerous. You could really have died there.”
Theatrically I turned to face the person that uttered those words and tell her ‘you are not helping at all’, and then I noticed I there was someone else sitting by my side other than Kouma Yon. While my bipolar I-am-not-so-sure-if-I-can-call-her-a-friend quietly stood on my left side, the high pitched voice that warned me came from the opposite direction.
"Aah, hello! My name is Morimoto Ayaka! Nice to meet you!"
"Oh, hello. I'm Koukishin Shinzou, but you can call me Shin-tsu." I stop myself for a while and think. This girl is not familiar to me, and I have a fairly decent memory for faces and voices. We obviously haven’t met at Monday, otherwise she wouldn’t be introducing herself today. Also, while Kouma was sitting I guess. Oh, right; focus. "Sorry to ask, but I don't remember you being here when I was introduced to class; why haven't we met before?"
The girl giggled, clearly an easily amused person.
"Aah, that day. I had a cold and stayed home. I feel much better now, though!" She surely looked pretty much radiant to me. "Aah, I came to school yesterday and heard about you, but you weren't here. Did you catch a cold too?"
Now, what kind of poor, infantile logic was that? Is she serious? Everyone I talk to in this city seems to be slightly weird, but so far they have been closest to the eccentric genius type than the happy-go-lucky with a stupid and clearly unfitting verbal tic. Even if I accept this world as a fictional work that kind of character won’t fit at all here; not that I am pleased with the way this world is, but inserting this kind of wannabe-moe character in such a weird story would be unacceptable. Well, unless…
…unless this is just a farce. That would definitely fit and advance the plot. That would also be something that voice would say, so I’d better stay away from thoughts like this. For now, at least.
Suddenly, a piece of paper appears on my desk.
Considering the events that happened so far in the story, I am not sure if I should touch it or not. You know, ‘once bitten, twice shy’ and stuff. However, it came from Kouma’s direction, it was considerably bigger than a business card and it had words written on it. Better than decently handwritten kanji (which means Ryo wasn’t the one who wrote them) with small characters above that, differently from the kanji, I could actually memorize; the furigana allowed me to understand what the rather complex ideograms meant.
What I didn’t understand was why Kouma Yon was acting so considerate of me today. I mean, she actually was nice enough yesterday for me to start wondering what was going on with her, but since I made her leave when our teacher arrived (which doesn’t sound very friendly, no matter how I look at it) I assumed she would be slightly more… angered, perhaps? She did whispered something to me this morning that suggests that she got the wrong idea of last night’s events, but why be discrete when she could easily make Ryo suspicious of me by saying it out loud? Maybe that’s how she even things in her head. I’m not so sure right now, and I might never be: understanding that girl sounds like an extremely hard task to me.
For now, I’d better stop daydreaming and start reading her message.
I don’t really care about your relationship with Reikoku-sensei.
What kind of an opening line was that? Am I supposed to answer that? How? Not only that, why does that sound so absurdly tsundere to me? Was Reikoku-sensei right about Kouma’s personality, then? And why would someone bring an orange ink pen to school, for heaven’s sake? It’s not even practical!
Focus: confusion is exactly what she is expecting from me, because confusion often leads to errors. Right now this is a battle field and I must defend myself while showing my own fangs in order to avoid another attack. Against an ambiguous non-question as hers, a straight faux-answer seemed to be the only way to go.
Good, because there isn’t any. Not of the kind you are thinking there is, anyway.
Then I realized that Kouma Yon is ambidextrous, but I wish I had found that out in more normal circumstances. She barely looked at my reply and started writing back right away with her left hand, while easily copying text from the blackboard to her notebook with the right one (which is a very impressive skill that must require a lot of training and good coordination from the start). I guess it would be safe to assume that she already had her next line ready before I handed her the paper. Soon came the confirmation to that thought, and I was not pleased to find out that my intuition was proven right.
Oh, and what would that be?
Great: now she’ll just play stupid and expect me to keep speaking until she gets enough evidence to prove her points. Well, I’m not going to fall for that; that game is something that can be played by two individuals.
Don’t do that. Don’t pretend to be pure and naïve on the subject when you called me “teacher’s pet’ earlier today. You know exactly what I am talking about.
While I probably should not respond like that to someone playing the role of a super detective in her head, I assumed it would be the best way to deal with Kouma: to fight cynicism back with more cynicism.
She comes to your house at night and you need to hide the fact that there was other girl with you. Not only that, you knew it was her before you even looked through the looking glass, which implies that you knew she would visit you. Could it be that our teacher has gone to your house at same time since day one? And what kind of “extracurricular affairs” would a male student and a female teacher have that would need to be resolved during nighttime?
So, Kouma does care about my relationship with Reikoku-sensei. To be honest I even detected a hint of jealousy in her words. However, pointing that out right now would probably just make this discussion worse and not help me at all with my argument. Therefore, my only option is to distract her from the core of the subject as much as I can; Reikoku-sensei would get into serious trouble if rumors like those spread, and I don’t want anyone to be hurt just for caring about me. As a reply, let me see… Oh, I know: reductio ad absurdum seems to be a good way out.
Now you’re just being unreasonable. Seriously, do you really think someone like me would be able to successfully seduce our teacher? Not only that, but in a single day?
When I looked at Kouma Yon after delivering the piece of paper, it initially seemed to me that my argument had found a reluctant target. After a few moments of observation, however, her deep sigh gave me an idea of what would come in the next message; apparently I had won, although not without some sort of resistance.
You obviously could have talked to her before, just like you did to Ryo-chan before coming here. However, even if you had the chance to talk to our teacher before, it does sound impossible for someone like you to even attract the attention of someone like Reikoku-sensei.
That one actually offended my pride, but I’d better deal with it; a victory that requires some sacrifice is probably better than losing. It comes along with the job, I suppose.
Trying to look completely innocent (which technically, I am), I turned to face Kouma and saw her twirling her finger in the air. I’m not sure if I was distracted or something, but it certainly took me some time to understand what she meant by that gesture. As I turned the piece of paper around I saw what she meant by that hand sign: there was more.
What’s happening, then?
There were two paths I could follow, and choosing between them would directly affect my future, mostly because of the Butterfly effect. However, this time I think the typhoon will happen here in Japan. And yes, I know that’s not exactly how it works; I just needed an analogy, so go ahead and sue me.
I could either lie and keep lying until everyone found out or tell her a plausible yet toned down version of the truth and hope that she doesn’t investigate any further. Despite my reputation, I don’t consider myself a good liar; therefore, the solution to that problem is obvious.
It’s really hard to explain, but Reikoku-sensei is taking care of me, nothing more than that. Truth is, I don’t handle being alone in that big house very well. I’m really sorry I freaked out last night; I don’t know what I was doing. Now that I think about it, I had no reason to make you leave. Could you forgive me?
I saw the eyes of Kouma Yon moving quickly and reading the paper not once, but four times, like it was a business contract where she assumed the other party had planted some kind of trap clauses in microscopic writing font. I wonder if this is how obscure spiritual entities feel when offering deals to people in this century. Now that I think about it I could have asked how they felt; I’ve had many, many chances to do so. Instead, I would just run to save my life. Now I’ll have to hope to meet another one in order to find out. Wait, what?
She crushed the paper and threw it at her bag, without any apparent intention of proceed with the interrogatory. Then she looked at me, and her face was the same but somehow looked slightly different. It doesn’t make much sense even to me, and it makes me wonder if I’m the only one on Earth that can see the small hints of emotions in her face.
That was pretty much it.
After that, we went back to that particular state where she practically doesn’t talk to me and is not as uncomfortable as the state where she locks arms with me for no apparent reason. I guess that means things are alright between us then, at least enough for Ryo not to suspect anything during lunch.
No memorable events happened from that moment until the end of classes, except maybe for the occasional petty talk with Ayaka, who unlike the other people I know in this town, is not a disguised teenage expert at anything or a grown woman who is probably unreasonably feared by the ones who should feel at ease around her in order to learn as much as they can in an environment they find safe. And yes, since even my dear friend Shiina Ryo showed an exquisite side of her I wasn’t aware of when I needed help, I cannot count her as a ‘normal’ person anymore.
Morimoto Ayaka was just your normal, regular, common, usual, habitual, familiar, ordinary, plain, standard air head girl character that would have no particular characteristic worth describing if it wasn’t for her cartoon-like verbal tic (which she forgets occasionally, and makes me think if she didn’t unconsciously developed that in order to blend in). It was nice to talk to someone that could actually speak like someone of my age is supposed to, even if her topics are a little bit dull when compared to the information dumps I get from everyone.
No wonder I was suspicious of her in the beginning: I never get to meet normal people.
The students quickly left the room after the school bell rang announcing the end of classes for that particular day, leaving behind only Kouma Yon, Shiina Ryo and the transfer student that prefers to be called by a nickname that he doesn’t even remember how, when or why he got it. Said student would have happily followed the hordes to the mystic gates that led the world outside if it weren’t for his unusual friends who apparently couldn’t discuss how the plot of the game they were currently working on should go and walk at the same time. The student was extremely disappointed at their lack of ability at multi-tasking, but also knew that with those two the best thing to do was waiting.
“I will speak to you now.” It was not a question or a request, like people usually do when they want to have a conversation with each other. My teacher, just as my friends, seems to have absolutely no common sense. She briefly looked to Ryo and Kouma, who stood by my side. “In private.”
As the girls hurried out like they saw something awfully life threatening (and they probably did, if you think about how the other students react to our teacher), Reikoku-sensei proceeded.
“Please refrain from getting up late and having the girls concealing the evidence of your laziness in the future. Consider this as a warning, because it’s your first offense: it won’t work, and you’ll just make everyone worry about you.”
Maybe it was because I already expected most of that or because I sort of have a selective attention deficit, but it is a fact that the only element that interested me was the one that was completely new in that kind of speech.
“Were you worried, sensei?”
“I don’t know where you picked that idea from; I never said such thing.”
And yet she didn’t deny it.
“…thank you, sensei.”
“You’re welcome.” She said while sorting papers. “Now I would be pleased if you go and stay out of trouble, although I am fully aware that you will ignore the latter part.”
“How much do you know, sensei?”
“Nearly nothing, but enough to see that having two girls walking around asking questions to practically everyone in the school staff is an easy way of getting attention. I won’t ask you to tell me what are you up to, but your group should be slightly more careful. Considering that the three of you are working on something that requires secrecy, that is.”
“Understood.” I bowed, which seemed slightly unnecessary a second after I did it. “We’ll be more careful from now on.”
“Excellent. You may go now. Just be sure to let your friends know that I do not like it when my students stay outside the room trying to listen to the conversations I specifically classified as ‘private’, will you?”
The incredibly fast sound of footsteps rhythmically stomping the floor that followed came from the hallway and seemed to fill the whole school.
“Seriously, how did you know that?“
“Oh.” Reikoku-sensei bit her pencil softly and grinned. “I didn’t.”
“We need a name.”
Kouma and I were still eating when Ryo said that, completely out of nowhere; this is how our investigation actually began.
Now using the house of the Kouma family as their temporary base, the unnamed, clearly improvised detective team gathered to start working on the unusual case that had directly affected one of their members. Against my personal expectations, Kouma Yon’s bedroom is absurdly normal; probably as normal as it gets, I’m afraid. There is not even a single thing here worth describing with a shower of adjectives or comparisons to nature forces. This is really plain and disappointing in so many levels.
“A name, you say?” Said the unusual girl whose room didn’t reflect her personality in any way.
“Yes, a name.”
Now that’s weird.
“I’m sorry; I am a little bit confused.” My right hand rose to gather their attention. “I aware that you are a novelist and probably know more about plots than I do, but much to my dismay my vast experience in the Mystery field taught me that in this particular kind of cases the name of the offender is usually the last thing you are going to get.” Pondering on that last sentence, I stopped my speech for a while. “Unless, of course, you consider the possibility of having the criminal try running away after the revelation moment, thus making the last scene an action-fueled chase. It is also possible the accused party will try to kill or restrain the detectives in order to keep their dreadful secrets safe, but I suppose this kind of development is not that popular anymore thanks to the boom of crime investigation series. Hopefully we are not dealing with an old-school villain; otherwise one of us will get kidnapped very, very soon.”
As soon as I finished talking I noticed the way Ryo was looking at me, and it didn’t took me a great deal of time to understand that the odds of the face she was making being exactly the same I did when she started talking about music were incredibly high. Oh, dear; I just remembered that. She was so absolutely perfect at that moment…
Silently we kept on glaring at each other’s faces for a while, burning deep down with unresolved tension in such a powerful way I could not even think of a reason holding our foreseeable incandescent eruption back.
“No, not on my watch.”
And there it was.
Literally between us was a person who remained a strange element in our relation and had a thing for making me remember how fierce her pinch could be. Her moderately long yet unreasonably sharp baby blue fingernails served as a call of the real world to me and often reminded me that we weren’t gathered for a party; we had a supernatural case to solve and technically no clues to do so.
Certainly it’s not time for us to relax and I probably will remember this in the future even when Kouma Yon finally go back home, but not for the right reasons. My arms will have become giant, deep purple bruises by then. What a fabulous memento.
It could be worse, right? I mean, it’s not like her fingernails are tainted with my blood or anything. Unfortunately, there is a great chance she is avoiding that only because she just got her nails done. I cannot blame her for that, since baby blue is a fairly decent color and it sure matches the rest of her deceivingly cute look. I just wish she would be more considerate of others (particularly when ‘me’ is an element of the potentially finite group ‘others’), that’s all. It’s not like I am asking a lot, really…
By the time I came back to reality, I noticed Kouma’s concerned look. Maybe it’s because I had stood still for several minutes but most likely because the ‘call of the real world’ attack of her pretty claws of absolute doom not only didn’t help, but produced the perfect opposite of the effect she was expecting.
“Hmm...” I looked to Ryo. “I just had another one of those moments, didn’t I?”
Her face had already given me the answer I anticipated, but she insisted on stating it.
“Yes, you did. It was really awkward, but at least now I know you weren’t ignoring me when it happened Sunday. You probably have the same problem with daydreams as that main character from that particularly famous medical television series.”
“You mean that particular show that decided to change a little bit of its formula after a faux-finale at season eight?” Kouma said, suddenly interested. I wasn’t that surprised, considering it’s only natural for a young girl to like pop culture. Not that there is anything truly ‘natural’ on Kouma Yon.
“Specifically that one. I really like it.”
“Me too. Back to the topic, I believe Shin-tsu does that kind of thing just because he enjoys being rude to people.”
Ryo shook her head and started twirling her long silky hair.
“Hmm, I find that argument very unlikely to be true. Shin-tsu has always been polite to me, and he does call you by your family name as a sign of respect. Obviously, he could use a few lessons on daily usage of Japanese language, since the quality of his speech alternates between extremely basic textbook-like sentences and complex television references that might sound obscure to the average person. Except for his utterly disturbing, almost complete lack of honorifics, it’s not that bad, anyway.” Listening to her talking like that made me think that it’s really such a big deal. “It might be just a trait of his personality or a result of living abroad for so long, but I guess he will get better with practice.” She finally took a break after another lecture and then added in a much lower, nearly whispery voice. “Hopefully.”
“What would be your hypothesis, then?”
Ryo had a serious look on her face, and for a moment I thought she was going to tell me that I suffer from an incurable disease or that she was my father. I’m terribly sorry about that particular reference, but I couldn’t help it because it was a lame joke but full of Force.
“He is a hero character in denial; he has everything he needs to be a strong protagonist that could solve the mystery and defeat the bad guys after an epic battle, but never used his powers for greater good and probably not even for his own good, and that’s why the plot never advances as it should and you can hardly see any character or relationship developments; he is completely stuck at the second act of the story, forever.”
I assume this is the moment where I’m supposed to explain to the reader what they are talking about, considering the following facts: a) my assumptions were right and this is a story; b) there is a reader who is interested and c) he or she is not a writer or a literary critic, therefore probably could not understand that. Obviously this still sound very unreasonable to me, but on the lights of the events of my life one can see that nothing good would come out of getting upset about such things. So, let’s play along for a change.
Many stories use the Three-act Structure, at least enough for your subconscious to have learned it and make you ‘expect’ things from movies you never saw before despite they being brand new. Most Hollywood movies are like that, and you cannot blame them: the only reason why a trope became a trope in the first place is because it worked fine.
The first act is where the main characters and the setting are established, and it is called ‘the Setup’. At some point in it, something bad happens and takes the protagonists out of their comfort zone and make the story actually start (without conflict, there is no plot). One can say that in my case I have lived in this particular stage for a surprisingly long time, and this leads us to the second act, ‘the Confrontation’: here the protagonists try to fix everything and end up making it worse because they are doing it completely wrong. So far, check.
If only I could find out what I need to change in my attitude to reach the next act.
“That’s an interesting point of view.” Kouma took a pause, and seemed to be seriously pondering about that. “So, all the bad things that supposedly happened to him would be just mere unused plot devices?”
“Exactly. But the situation has changed now he has two sidekicks, so there is a great chance the plot is advancing as we speak.”
“Hold on, I am definitely not okay with that.” Raising her left hand, Kouma stated. “The idea of being a sidekick does not please me at all, so I would like to offer an alternate interpretation to this matter.”
I could feel the levels of tension rising between the two of them, which was probably due to Kouma Yon disagreeing with Shiina Ryo. It’s safe to assume that this kind of thing does not happen often, and for a good reason; they both seem to have taken it personally.
“Please proceed.” Said my closest friend after clenching her teeth, her eyebrow clearly wanting to reach the skies. “From my point of view, we are equal main characters representing the three parts of Freud's model of the psyche. It has been done many times before, and it still sells because it makes a balanced team that people can relate to.”
Several moments of silence followed, and just when I was fully prepared to start a discussion over her Freudian approach to nearly every single thing Ryo spoke, leaving me open-mouthed.
“You know what, that actually fits.” The tension vanished as quickly as it came. “So, you think we’re representations of ego, id and superego?”
“Precisely, except one of us is not playing his role properly.” She glared at me with sheer accusation in her eyes. “That’s right Shin-tsu, I’m talking about you.”
“Wait, what?” The fact that someone finally decided to start talking to me took me by surprise, I admit it. Does that mean it’s my turn to become one of actors with lines instead of being just an observer whose life is being analyzed and criticized on stage?
“As one could deduce from my statements, two thirds of this team are playing their roles properly. Being a natural stoic, absolutely rational and highly competent, I should be classified as this group’s superego.” She said it like was something to be completely proud of, intentionally forgetting to notice the ‘socially inept’, ‘apparently emotionless’ and ‘cynical’; the attribute ‘super’ certainly fits her ego. “Then we have Ryo-chan, who is emotionally mature, balanced and compassionate; a clear example of ego.” Since I didn’t see a problem with that second statement, I decided to save my rants to the end of her theory presentation.
“I see where you’re going.” Ryo smiled, but not with the lovely innocence I so quickly got used to. “You’re implying Shin-tsu needs to act a little bit more like an id guy instead of having that ego attitude?”
“Exactly.” Kouma seemed completely satisfied.
“Sounds very reasonable.”
“I am glad we agree on that.”
Do I need to point out that I wasn’t pleased with that?
“Excuse me, but what are you talking about?”
“Look, it’s not that we don’t like you the way you are…”
Kouma Yon abruptly interrupted Ryo’s speech, and the reason behind her actions was so obvious it was almost suspicious.
“On that matter, speak for yourself.”
“Alright; it’s not that I don’t like you the way you are, but I honestly believe that in order to tip the balance you’ll have to be, well… slightly more impulsive.”
“Overtly lecherous.” That was the exact point when both Shiina Ryo and I turned to face a clearly embarrassed fashionista whose face desperately tried not to admit it in front of others. It’s safe to say my team had reached a moment that could be only described as ‘awkward’. Several seconds later, the absence of sound still lingered. “Just for the record, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that; it’s a valid characteristic of the 'id.”
Even after she tried fixing it, the nearly solid silence created by Kouma Yon’s reckless words would not go away. I just had to do something about it.
“…could we just move on?” I suggested. “We still have a mystery to solve, after all.”
Suddenly I felt my shoulder being patted, and a mere turning of head confirmed that Ryo was the source of that friendly gesture. Yeah, like there was a chance Kouma would demonstrate any kind of affection towards me in front of Ryo. Wait a second… she locked arms with me in public yesterday, so I’m not sure of what she is capable of. There is no need to worry, anyway; she was probably just feeling cold. Hopefully.
“Oh, relax. We still have plenty of time, and it might be a good idea to make the mood a little lighter.” My friend gave me one of her signature smiles and it was convincing enough for me to want to feed her milk in a bowl. “I too was a little worried in the beginning, but there’s nothing good that would come out of rushing or despairing over such things. Your mind will probably work better after you spend some time not worrying about your problems, so I want you to treat this stress release moment as a measure to get yourself ready to fully understand the case.”
“I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s clearly not working.” This whole pointless analysis was actually making me more nervous about my current situation. “Your intentions might be good and I am thankful for that but this is not a common state of affairs with normal people, this is a…”
And then I realized.
I have been thrown into this kind of situation so many times, so it’s very hard for me not to search for patterns instead of proper clues. Surely it feels like I have a built-in mechanism for the unusual, and that’s why I wasn’t immediately able to see through this; it’s something completely different from the things I have fought or rather ran from before. The only thing I didn’t have the chance of dealing with.
If you manage to ignore the increasing supernatural elements and the fact every single person that crosses my path always seems to be on the verge of insanity (or much past it, in several cases), and if only you ignore the continuous flow of the plot you will see too.
They are all completely normal, in the end.
After all they are just teenagers, all of them; just essentially common youngsters living in a world made of youth with their sad teen issues, being and acting just as weird as their age allows them to because deep down they know that soon will come a time where they won’t have the chance to do so. There is absolutely nothing complex in it, despite their masks and monologues to an audience visible only to themselves.
Therefore, this case can be solved quite easily. It might leave an awfully bad aftertaste in my mouth, especially because when compared to other detective stories and even my own previous ‘cases’ it will certainly look like cheating to anyone including myself. Like one of those cheap novellas where the bad guy only appears in the last two pages, not being directly related to anyone on the plot and dying soon afterwards. Like a classically trained musician who decides to play on a pop-punk band for a living.
Through this stress induced catharsis I may have found a game breaker.
Instead of wasting several days pursuing small or useless clues that would just act as lies-to-children forcing us to seek for a bigger Truth, I am going to skip the boring parts and go straight to the clever tactical maneuver moment just because I can.
The reason for doing such a trick, you ask? It’s very, very simple: my opponent also is not following the rules. Obviously, in a mystery/crime and punishment story you should expect that at least one person is not following the law; if they were, there is a great chance you wouldn’t have a case from the very beginning. Despite that, my unknown foe broke rules so basic that, in order to be on the same level and achieve victory I must ‘cheat’.
The hidden enemy broke a Father Knox's Commandment, and that action is completely unacceptable to me.
When you see yourself involved in so many cases as I have, you realize that the only way to survive for the next school transfer is to trace patterns and know your tropes. I mean, how are you, a common teenager, supposed to hide from a six meter high one-eyed wild creature if you don’t know what and when it appears/attacks, or what can you to do make an ancient yet incredibly in shape mummy dizzy enough for you to escape safely from a pyramid full of traps that at the very least will hold you back for a moment or two? You ought to have information, especially when your life depends on it.
Books were my first choice of information source. Despite not being a technology hater such as my grandfather (who doesn’t even trusts telephones), there is something about the scent and the feel of paper books that make me calm and relaxed. Believe me, there are not many things that can get me into that state of mind.
Unlike Ryo, who will indiscriminately read any novel of any genre she comes across and then spend a great deal of time writing not unusually sharp reviews and articles about it on the Internet, the only genres of book that interested me (and not for reasons I should be pleased with) were Mystery and Horror. Forensic science articles (which I suppose both Kouma and Reikoku-sensei read in the same fashion as other people would read Sunday newspaper’s comics) were never something I paid too attention to, especially because I have always assumed that the day I actually needed to directly be in a morgue for a causa mortis’ analysis it would me my own, and then I wouldn’t have much work to do other than stay there while other people with pointy things opened my body and found an alien baby in my chest.
Or something like that, I am not so sure right now.
Back to the topic, classic mystery novels were the best. Of course, they were usually filled with cheesy and unrealistic dialogue and the solutions got either predictable or impossible after a while, but their cases murders and other crimes were decent escapes of the everyday life of, say, murders and other crimes. They provided me methods of solving cases and occasionally an accurate insight of the criminal’s modus operandi. While reading them, I realized that the mysteries in this world are ruled by tropes.
Father Knox's Ten Commandments for the Detection Club were a good set of them, and they show exactly what a good case should avoid in order to actually be a good case. Without abiding by those rules, the stories often end up looking like a mess and making the reader feel like the author was too lazy to provide a decent ending and cheated. Readers don’t like unrealistic novels, even when the genre is Fantasy; if the author fails to suspend disbelief, the story suffers.
Why do those Commandments work in several of the mysteries I came across so far? Simple; they are rules especially designed for making a story believable and the closest to real as it can be. Thus it is obvious that if properly created they would also work in real life; otherwise the set of laws would be pointless because they would fail their only purpose in existence.
So far, the setting was good: a developing town attracts a lot of attention to itself, and high school crime stories are selling well these days. The rules were being respected or subverted decently: the detective did not commit the crime (which would be the most awkward situation ever, unless I had another personality I was not aware of), my Watsons are far from stupid but they certainly do not conceal their thoughts, no poison involved, I’m pretty sure the criminal has been mentioned in the story, no secret passages anywhere to be seen (although that’s probably the point), no visible twins either, I have shared all the clues I have so far and if anyone classifies as the foreigner in this story, that guy would be me. The only accident that happened in this story didn’t help me; instead it brought me the whole mystery and this doesn’t sound like ‘helping’ at all.
Only one Commandment left.
The law my opponent broke was the most important to me, the one I always hoped for to be respected in the case: there should be no supernatural or preternatural powers involved. It’s exactly what makes the cases believable and honest. Therefore, I now have the right to stop being a nice guy and break the formula.
“Oh.” Kouma’s face was very close to mine, and she was holding a lit small lantern in front of my eyes. After she realized I was awake she turned it off and kept looking directly at me while talking to Ryo, who was not in my range of view. “It seems like he is back.”
“Gosh, you scared us!” I saw my friend running to me from the kitchen, her cell phone in hand. “You haven’t said a single word in seven minutes and just stood there, completely motionless. I was calling the hospital already!” She was obviously worried and for some reason it made me smile, probably because it’s nice to know that I have people who really care about me. “By the way, your telephone signal here is really awful.” She added slightly more calm, with the clear lack of common sense people have in those kinds of situations showing.
“Suspend the ambulance, I’m alright. Instead of that, please bring me a kanji dictionary.” I stand up, mostly to prove them what I said. “I was just thinking, and I believe I have the answer to the question we were going to spend days working on.”
Kouma merely nodded.
“You take the expression ‘lost in thought’ a little bit too serious, Shin-tsu.”
“Why, have you got an idea?” Ryo said, ignoring Kouma’s unneeded remark.
“An idea, you say? I think I just solved the case.” Savoring the glorious moment of my epiphany I looked mischievously to them. Now I know why detectives speak like this: it feels really great and I suggest everyone to try it once in a while. After waiting the proper time to give the final blow, I deliver the mysterious sentence that would close the current part of the show with a fade-out. “All we have to do is to organize a thematic party.”
We were just two distorted shadow-like figures walking in the sunset until we actually reached our destination.
“Come.” I said without showing a trace of shame while opening the heavy metal doors, desperately trying to keep my facade. “Everyone is waiting for us.”
"Aah, why are the lights off, Shin-tsu?" She whispered. "You didn't say this was supposed to be a surprise party."
Ayaka was not yet aware that there was going to be no party and I was actually leading her to a trap, which was much more dangerous to me than to her; I might be mistaken about her and including an innocent person in this creepy setting, which might involve greater problems with the police and other less forgiving factions in a near future. However, I have already gone too far to simply walk back now. I have to do this or I won’t be able to live like a normal person.
So forgive me, Ayaka.
“What exactly do you have in mind, Shin-tsu?” Ayaka continued with syncopated pauses, and unfortunately I was able to detect more than a mere hint of flirtation in her words. Although I was flattered that she thought I had planned this only to be all alone with her in a dark place, it didn’t please me to know that her attitude in this situation doesn’t match the patterns I traced at all.
Some lights were turned on, illuminating only the center of the warehouse. The spotlights were rather strong and intimidating, just the kind of lights the police should use in interrogatories. Ayaka finally would be able to see the chairs and tables that were hidden in darkness just a few moments ago. If she is smart as I truly believe she is, she probably already realized why the chairs are aligned like that and why we're here. Which finally brings us to the third act, known as ‘the Resolution’.
I guess it is show time.
"It was you, wasn't it Ayaka-chan?"
Ayaka looked genuinely surprised at the unspecific accusation, but it didn’t mean she was not the culprit; just that she wasn’t expecting a confrontation at that very moment. No mistakes on her part so far, and she actually gained a few points with that flirting that was certainly unlike the character I had in mind when I ‘solved’ the mystery…
…however, with the lights on it’s easier to see things that would otherwise be ignored such as the no longer concealed yet still closed pantographic knife she held in her right hand. That whole flirtation thing was most likely a bluff of hers, and despite the damage my self-esteem suffered it did feel good to know that the target I picked wasn’t a saint at all; even if she thought I intended to attack her, walking around with a German post-war knife is not something every Japanese highschooler does.
"W-what are you t-talking about?" I guess she realized that she was looking too scared for someone who didn't know what I was talking about and quickly recomposed herself. Too quickly, exactly as I expected; that fit perfectly in the pattern I had in mind and showed me that I was on the right direction. "First you brought me to this... this abandoned warehouse without an apparent reason. Now you start talking nonsense." Ayaka was starting to show her true colors, and then suddenly started wearing her good girl mask again. "Aah, I don't know what you intend to do, but you can count me out of it. I'm leaving. Bye bye."
Rapidly I snapped my fingers and the doors were closed and locked. Ayaka looked back when she heard the noise, and when she turned to me again her face was expressing much more than the fear of someone who is alone with a possible attacker. I was right, thankfully; without a trace of doubt, Morimoto Ayaka is guilty. And I know I'm not supposed to, but I certainly love this.
"You're not going anywhere until I finish talking." I start to walk through the rows of chairs, apparently aimlessly. "If this was our class you would sit right there, am I right? And that place behind you used to belong to your best friend Minato.” A calculated pause “Please forgive me, I’ve made a dreadful mistake: it’s ‘former best friend’, right? Not many people keep friends with the people dating the ones they love."
Her astonishment was much more than visible, being nearly as tangible as herself.
"H-how could you know that? You haven't even met Minato-chan!"
"My, my. We’re in a class full of girls, and girls talk.” I consider myself a feminist, but even I have to agree with that. “You really should not underestimate the power of gossip. Rumors, stories and ideas are just like sound; they will spread as long as there is air for them to travel. And girl, do they run fast as the winds." I take a small break to breathe. This light is too hot and it's going to make me sweat buckets, but I must keep my act together; if I don't keep it cool now, I might never find out what I truly want. "So, I heard you liked this guy from another school but couldn't bring yourself to confess to him. Now it’s time for some speculation of my own: you even went as far as stalking him for a while, always from a safe distance. Then your best friend started going out with the guy, and you found that out by seeing it yourself on one of your stalking moments. You've got mad and decided to start a vendetta against her. Am I right so far?"
She didn't even need to reply; the answer was stamped on her face and it made me feel awfully great.
"So, you wanted her to feel the angst and sadness you felt but you didn't exactly know how." I continued. "You have been raised as a good girl and had never done something like that before, so instead of trying to beat her up you opted for psychological terror; scaring the hell out of someone seemed much easier."
Morimoto Ayaka was probably unaware of the fact she was trembling with visible anger, as I could guess from her next speech; her body seemed to know she had been caught, but her mind did not.
“You speak like your assumptions are facts but I can see that, along with the fact that you have absolutely no way of proving what you just said, there is another big blind spot in your theory.”
Just the kind of line I was expecting.
“Which is exactly why I brought you here instead of looking for the enormous amount of evidence an amateur such as you must have left, taking for example your fingerprints on the card Minato was supposed to get.” A grin quickly formed on my face when I saw that she shivered when I mentioned the ‘fingerprints on the card’ bluff. Not only that, apparently only at that moment she realized that someone had touched the card instead of Minato and seen the hallucination trap Ayaka had prepared to her. It shows that I am indeed dealing with an amateur here, and I was hoping for that; if my opponent is still a first-timer, I have a bigger chance not only of being the battle’s winner, but also saving her from herself. “I want to know how you made that trick. At first I assumed it was some sort of ‘brown note’, but after giving it a little bit of thought I noticed two things: one, a blank paper card was too vague for delivering an effect of that magnitude and two, there was nothing else different in the environment. I have a nearly photographic memory: believe me, I would know.”
I really shouldn’t be enjoying this, but I simply cannot help it. This is actually making me feel alive, although I know I won’t be proud of what I’m doing when it is over nor want to do it again. I might even feel dirty for acting like this, but the future always seems to be a distant thing to those in the burning heat of the battle. Well, at least I know now that it’s not about some sort of messiah complex; right now all I want is to defeat my enemy. I might regret every action of mine later, but right now I am but a duelist and nothing else matters.
“Checkmate.” I finished. “You already lost the battle, Ayaka. I now have you at my mercy, but I don’t intend to harm you if you only do as much as explain which method you used to cause that strong hallucination. You can trust me. Just tell me what exactly Shugoshin is.”
The kanji dictionary showed me how to read it and the girls confirmed it: that was the meaning of the signals I saw inside the hallucination. Literally it means ‘guardian spirit’ and according to Kouma there is a protein with that name. I don’t honestly think there is any relation to the protein in this particular case and now I need to know what this is about: there might be others of this, whatever this is.
Ayaka’s body was shaking like an earthquake was happening inside of her, but that didn’t distract me from my focus: I heard the click that gently when she finally opened her pantographic knife.
Things were finally starting to get serious.
"So you have pretended to be my friend to get something you want, just like Minato-chan did before you.” She started panting furiously, and I considered the possibility of her anger resulting in a nervous breakdown. “I am indeed surrounded by liars; rats and vultures, all of you. You are all the same, playing your stupid games. Every single one of believe you are the good guys in your heads, and assume the rest of the world is composed only of allies and enemies. And you think that it justifies what you have done just because you really wanted to know what 'Shugoshin' means?" She had a wicked smiled on her face, and the terrifying look in her eyes stated the fact that she was beyond far madness at the moment she raised the ancient German knife whose reflection of the light met my gaze blinding me for a moment. "I! WILL! SHOW! YOU!"
And this was the point where things started not going as planned at all.
What happened next lasted only for about a second, but I managed to grasp all the details since my full vision had return as a torrent, a giant wave of information coming together all at once.
As if by magic, a slightly humanoid form started to materialize around Ayaka's body. It started as a transparent, ethereal creature made of surrealistic light. Eventually it became a grotesque reptile being who enveloped Ayaka's body inside its own gem-like translucid flesh, tainted redder than blood but still apparently insubstantial enough for me to see the shape of the mad girl inside it. And for some reason, I knew a thing or two about that. Maybe it was just simple logic or an instinct my mind developed because of the strange things surrounding me, but I knew deep inside Ayaka completely lost control of that thing and was now being absorbed by it, in the same way as I knew I had to keep breathing in order to survive.
The creature enveloping my classmate started moving in my direction, fast as a bullet.
Honestly, I wasn't expecting it to come down to this. In the end Mystery with a capital M had really found me once again. What should a common person do now? In such a situation, practically anyone would be too astonished to breathe and then let themselves be almost instantly killed by that translucent lizard from outer space or another dimension. Fighting or immediately running might seem like the obvious answer to someone observing them from a safe place, but no one has the right to judge them for that kind of reaction; suspension of disbelief is not something that comes easy to people and they don't enjoy admitting that there is an awkward situation happening right in front of them, something they always believed that could only happen a movie or anything. They are not supposed to be ready to fight back against something they cannot accept as real.
I'm just glad I'm not like them, not at all.
From the very beginning, I have faced many, many situations as weird as this and occasionally some even weirder. What terrifies me is that I'm not even afraid of that kind of thing anymore, which classifies me as a real freak even to my broken standards. It kind of sucks when you realize you are indeed a complete mess in your own eyes but I don’t think I can change that, no matter how hard I try.
What I can do is change myself. I meant it when I decided to fight back against Mystery if it came looking for me again, even if at that time I wasn't intending to do it, well, literally. I will stand my ground, once and for all. If that's what it takes for me to solve this case and to have a chance of leading a common life preferably by Ryo's side, I guess will do it. Not just because of her, but mostly because it's a small price to pay for the peace I have dreamed of for so long.
So, I am actually going to earn my right to live decently by beating up that sinister and menacing creature that came out of nowhere. Sounds like a decent plan to me.
Better than the last one, anyway.
"Kouma, run!" Reality struck me less than a second before the creature delivered the first attack, when I finally realized that despite having gathered all the courage I needed I was still but a common human fighting a supernatural entity. Hopelessly I crossed my arms forming an ‘X’ to defend the amazingly strong blow of the creature's axe kick. "Take Ryo with you and run away, now!"
The kicks and punches seemed to come from everywhere, and I don’t think that was far from the truth. That creature was way too fast for me, and I didn't think I had a single chance to beat it up with my bare hands. I could only wait for an opening and then hope for the best (and surely it’s not usual to me to hope for the best). Until then I would have to serve as a sparring bag for this monster, trying my best to defend its strikes.
Although I don’t want to believe that, it might be the only thing I’ll be able to do.
At the moment it decided to give me an uppercut I saw a small opening and decided to go for it, but at the very same moment I coincidentally showed the monster an opening of my own; I almost tripped over a wrench on the floor and the creature decided to use that moment where my defenses were down to attack me with a direct hit.
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attack it because it was my own lack of caution that created that opening after all. In fact, I realized that I wouldn’t even have any chances to do as much as defend my body from its next blow, and it seemed to be a decisive one. As that deformed fist quickly came towards my face, I had only time to clench my teeth and think a single sentence: this is going to hurt an awful lot.
"Like Hell I'm going to let you save the day on your own!"
The creature was completely distracted by Kouma's sudden approach and turned its attention to her. The opportunity I was looking for was right there and I didn't need to think twice; I grabbed the wrench and used it to hit the monster's chin by moving the tool upwards with full strength, falling afterwards due to my loss of balance. The attack was effective and I must thank the monster for that; after all, I just copied and adapted its uppercut. Quickly after my hit, Kouma sent the creature flying away with her signature butterfly kick.
"Are you okay?" Kouma said as she offered me a hand to help me stand up.
"I'm alright. Thank you for the help, but I really need you to protect Ryo right now."
"I’m pretty sure Ryo can watch over herself, and I'm not your sidekick! If anyone is going to play the 'knight in shining armor' role here, that's me!"
We ran towards our common enemy, who was starting to get up.
"Stop being so childish and leave!” We might all get killed if things keep like this. “This is not a competition, Kouma!"
"It is, but this round we're on the same side.” Her voice was raspy and at that moment I could actually see her as a living person instead of a doll with occasional bursts of emotions. “Right now, we need to sum our forces and finish that thing off. Are you ready to rock, partner?"
I could not stop myself from smiling.
"Partner, huh?" I stared at her for a moment while we ran, whispering the words with a smile on my face. I like how that sounds, I really do. "Let's do it!"
Together we rushed and attacked the creature in perfect synchrony, combined like I had never expected to be with anyone in my whole life. It would have been a beautiful moment if we weren’t teenagers fighting barehanded for our lives and now without the surprise element that literally saved me a few seconds ago.
The battle went on but despite the addition of an ally we soon noticed that we were losing territory and willpower every second.
We had the strength we needed to defend ourselves and attack occasionally depending only on our foe’s moments of distraction, but there was a big chance of us getting tired before that thing did. It was a supernatural entity after all, and that meant it would probably take more than two young martial artists to bring that monster down. What we need right now is someone that can attack from a larger range than me or Kouma, even if it’s not too long; just enough for that person to attack uninterrupted from a safe distance while Kouma and I distract the creature without taking too much damage.
I suppose it would be too ambitious of me to hope for Ryo getting a crossbow right now along with perfect sight and the skills of a trained sniper. I know I am being picky but just the crossbow really wouldn’t be enough because with Ryo’s current sight at long distance we had as much chance of becoming the target as the creature did…
“Hah!” A female voice said, and shortly after a sound that could only come of strong impact was heard.
Recognizing the sound of that voice I turned around to confirm my suspicions, and there she was; no, it wasn’t Shiina Ryo with a crossbow. That would be too weird, even for this particular story. I couldn’t be honestly expecting that, and so shouldn’t you. That would be completely unreasonable, like Reikoku-sensei coming out of nowhere with her telescopic pointer extended to a length that was at the very least ‘surprising’ and attacking the monstrous creature by using it like a whip. Very unlikely, I know. Especially because the mechanism that would allow it to morph both to a long lance-like stick and a folding whip just with a movement would probably take a ridiculously great time to be devised and it doesn’t sound very practical to anyone, except maybe for a teacher who is an oddity hunter in disguise. Not only that, the chances of such a character suddenly popping out to help us exactly when we need her are absurdly low: less than one in a million I’m afraid. That would be too unreasonable.
However, it was exactly what happened. How strangely convenient, indeed.
“What are you even doing here?” I asked when the creature fell.
“An old fat man dressed in red told me you would be here and that you would need help. It wouldn’t be logical to just believe anyone as easy as that, but since he was standing in front of your house and things are often weird around you I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try.” Did she just justify her appearance by quoting the first line of the story? That’s it, I’m calling my agent. “He asked me to tell you that the two of you are even now and...”
Then we three hit the floor.
At that moment we learned a valuable lesson that they certainly don’t teach kids in school these days, especially in fictional villain schools: don’t stop attacking to start a dialogue because your enemy probably won’t be polite enough to wait for you.
Showing that it was not just a stupid creature without the ability to evolve, the monster developed a brand new body part in order to mimic the whip Reikoku-sensei used: a prehensile tail made of its plasma that reminded me of a scorpion’s, except for the surprisingly well-devised claw-like sting. The fact that thing created this deadly weapon after just seeing how the other worked for such a small amount of time makes me genuinely worried, but relieved that Reikoku-sensei hadn’t brought a sub-machinegun or a nuclear bomb to this fight; we already have enough trouble as it is right now.
I raised my face off the cold floor only to meet something that can only be defined as ‘bloody dreadful’. No, that’s not right: there are probably several other fitting adjectives for what I saw, but I didn’t mind much since we were about to be obliterated and we who are about to die do not care much about sounding good. Also, spending last moments at thinking on adjectives never helped anyone to go out with a smile as far as I’m concerned.
Did I just say a scorpion-like tail was bad enough? Oh, never mind; it’s never enough. Said prehensile part was dividing itself into several members right before our eyes and becoming one of my greatest fears, and I am not talking about trees but the exact thing those ancient forms of life have that scares me the most: tentacles. That’s it; we’re officially as good as dead.
A shattering noise filled the warehouse.
Just when I thought we were going to be defeated, the hope came from above; one of the enormous spotlights suddenly fell on the monster's deformed head. Struck by both the surprise attack and the heavy piece while undergoing a transformation, the creature kissed the definitely solid ground in the most audible painful way I could ever imagine. Mrs. Gravity attacked again!
"I told you… not to ignore me."
I looked up and saw Ryo hanging on the warehouse's roof metallic structure. She was controlling the lights from a cabin according to the plan, while Kouma was the one who would manually operate the door in the darkness. I guessed it had been really hard to get up there, especially for her; she was not the most athletic girl I knew, but her effort might have saved our lives by buying us time to counter-attack.
"Ryo!" I screamed, surprised by the relief just saying that name gave me. "You saved us!"
Despite the darkness we were into I could somehow figure she was smiling at me.
"I might not be a fighting freak of the nature such as Kouma and you, but I'm not a damsel in distress too, you know!” All the echoes of her voice died quickly, yet her deep heavy breath lingered and slowly spread through the warehouse. “On the other hand, that girl inside the monster is!"
And Ryo was right.
We all could just run and leave the mutant lizard monster behind, but that would mean leaving Ayaka behind as well. She might have done some bad and potentially awful things, but I don't think she deserves being possessed by this thing as a punishment.
Right now we're the only ones who can save her. We are her only hope.
Relying only on my companions and my instincts to save someone I have met only a few days before, I put everything on the line. I looked around and saw something that could be used as a strong weapon, but might be much more effective if strategically used as a tool. It might be our key to victory.
"Kouma, the chain!"
After throwing it towards her direction, I raised my left arm and wrapped the chain firmly around it. Kouma immediately understood my plan and did the very same. Once she was finished, we ran with all our might; not away from nor towards the monster, but around it. We encircled the creature several times with the metal chain. Once restrained, the Shugoshin went berserk and tried to get free by breaking the chain as expected from a beast, but since its arms and tentacles were tightly surrounded the monster could not use its full strength.
Reikoku-sensei took off her glasses, revealing the face of a true sadist. She extended the telescopic pointer that now glowed green in the dark to its maximum (and dear, was it long) and raised it like she was going to deliver punishment to a kid I certainly wouldn’t like to be.
"Have you been a naughty boy?"
Now, that was completely unnecessary and uncalled for. Why would anyone say such a thing, especially during a battle for survival and salvation of a not-so-innocent girl? I have no doubts right now, that line was just pure fan service and I apologize for that. Well, unless you liked it and decided to buy the book just because of that. In that case, I won’t apologize but I feel forced to warn you that you are a broken person who should really seek for help, preferably not from women dressed as school teachers.
Contrasting to my teacher’s unbelievably loud battle cry which I could not make sense of, the creature moved its mouth as if screaming from the excruciating pain, but there were no words or sounds. That I understood a little bit too well.
Then it finally dawned on me: it was the countdown she showed at class that everyone was completely terrified of. Reikoku-sensei proceeded with the torture that was almost too painful to watch.
The creature fell and evanesced, leaving behind only the shivering body of the culprit that was my classmate. While she seemed to have a fever, it was good for me to see that she was still alive and reasonably safe. It was finally over.
Kouma seemed to be as tired as I was, but she still found the strength to raise her thumb to tell me we did a good job along with a faint creepy smile that was almost sweet in that particular occasion.
We did it. We solved the case, we saved the day and everyone survived. Despite what Ayaka-chan pointed about the modus operandi we adopted, that still makes us the heroes, right? We are still the good guys here, right?
"What a weakling.” Said my teacher while putting her glasses back on, without any trace of mercy or compassion just like one should expect from someone that did that sort of thing all the time but not from an educator who dealt with young minds every day for a living. “You can barely call that an exorcism."
It was the last straw for me. How could she act cold like that after seeing the lives of three of her students in danger? I just was about to start an inflamed argument that would bring a little bit of storm to our calm moment, but then everything decided to change and definitely not for the best.
It was only reasonable that, a sick girl with practically zero physical strength and stamina shouldn’t engage into activities that required much of said attributes she lacked. It was also reasonable that, after doing something that required both attributes in a desperately fast way, the girl would probably faint like she almost did many times before while doing things that clearly required much less of her abilities.
Why couldn’t we foresee that, then?
How could we not expect her to pass out and fall from such height? Why did we only notice that Shiina Ryo was pushing her limits when we saw her unconscious body diving like a missile to the ground, without a single chance to defend herself?
How is it possible?
Shiina Ryo was now falling, special thanks to Mrs. Gravity acting as a major female dog as she always did. There was no stopping that, and unlike Kouma or even myself, there was absolutely no chance of her showing crazy fight movies’ moves and saving herself from the fall. No mysterious magical creature would envelop her body like in Ayaka’s case. She would not discover any psychic or anti-gravitational powers that would stop her from dying.
She was a common person and she was just going to free fall and directly hit the warehouse’s floor full of tools, chains and sorted mechanical parts with her back and head, most likely dying or becoming paraplegic with the trauma.
My own words resonated in my head.
A victory that requires some sacrifice is probably better than losing. I know I am the one that came up with that earlier this week, but I don’t want to believe it: if I do, then Ryo is going to count as the sacrifice for our victory and it makes everything fair.
I don’t want it to be fair, not this way.
The price should be the time and power we spent on this situation, and only that. Despite all the effort that was put into this battle and the trouble we had to create a situation where we could happily spend our days together, my best friend will probably die in front of me. Just like that.
There are many things in life we cannot control. Whether we are born in a good family or not, whether we’re extremely talented or below average, or even if we are of the right species, race or mindset for the survival in a certain environment.
At which point does a parasol becomes an umbrella?
What we can control is our behaviour, thus making our families good by fixing the problems between members and bonding with each other in times of need, and work hard until a commoner surpasses a genius in his own game, and tricking a robot into making you mortal to be accepted as human. It’s not about how good your tools are for that service, but how you use and improvise with them as you go. If life gives you lemons, you’d better find a way to make an electrical battery out of them and to use the energy for something useful. Which is exactly what I am going to do.
When you need it to.
I am going to bend Time and Space, right here and right now.
(this is the part where a powered-up variation of the opening theme should start playing)
Probably, I haven’t actually done it the first time. In fact, there is a big chance that was just an impression caused by me over-reacting again like I usually do. Bizarre oddities and mysteries aside I admit I am too much of a paranoid and prone to delusions, so that kind of thing could happen to me. And that doesn’t mean anything to me. Even if I was mistaken, even if that was a lie I will have to make it become truth in order to reach Ryo in time to save her.
And you know what? There is a great chance I am going to fail miserably, but I am going to do it anyway because this is what heroes do. Against all odds, probabilities and even common sense I will attempt something way beyond my capabilities having only sheer will power on my side and honestly, I still expect to win.
Because I couldn’t care less about Science than I do right now.
Because I have faced so many unrealistic things in my past that it wouldn’t be completely unreasonable if I did develop some sort of power at this exact moment.
Because I have already changed inside and now it’s time to make the whole world change around me.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good catchphrase in time: I was too worried about defying Physics and forgot to look unbelievably cool, which also seems to be an important part of being a hero. I should have said something that the fans would be able to repeat at conventions and post on the Internet, and that would be used (even if slightly altered) on every big battle or dramatic situation. People love that kind of stuff, right? It could be worse, though; I may have failed to look completely awesome, but I did manage to distort reality with the sole purpose of saving Shiina Ryo. Nothing is perfect, anyway.
That’s right. I made it.
Now, what a mystery I am becoming to myself: I never thought I had this ‘alpha male must save the girl’ thing inside me but that’s probably a built-in feature of my model, like the passion for soccer that burns the souls of everyone in Brazil. Wait, I did meet a Brazilian guy who disliked it, but he was a novelist and they just aren’t like you and me and therefore don’t count as ‘people’ when it comes to statistics. Just sayin’.
In case you didn’t notice, I was just trying to get my mind to ignore the impact I was going to suffer when my friend lands on top of me. Now that it already happened, I see that it sure wasn’t great but not as ugly as I thought it would be. Just like a syringe injection at the doctor, or politics.
Her body felt unbelievably light when I held her in my arms, a fact Ms. Gravity desperately wanted to disagree with by still throwing me against the ground. It felt like I was holding a baby, and I didn't know that about Ryo. Once again I am starting to realize that there are a lot of things about her that I don't know.
I heard footsteps coming to my direction.
“Koukishin-kun, are you okay?” My teacher seemed to be honestly concerned, and that made me realize that I might have misjudged her. She is not a bad person, just probably a lawful neutral kind of character. “Answer me!”
“He took the impact to stop her fall, he is obviously not okay. Look at all those tools he fell on.” Kouma started checking on me with that small lantern of hers again. I wonder if she carries it around all the time. Girl purses sure are amazing hammerspace devices, with the capability to carry an infinite number of things. I should get one of those, although it might get me the wrong kind of attention considering I’m not in France anymore. Oh well, you can’t have everything. “Have you even considered Physics before doing that stupid action of yours?” She said, now directly to me.
No, I didn’t consider Physics: I was too busy defying it and trying to come up with a good catchphrase, and thankfully I only failed at the less important action of those two. Wait, maybe that meaningless scream could become a catchphrase. It happens once in a while in fiction, so why not? The girls could be right; maybe deep down I am an ‘id’ hero in denial just waiting to bloom as a hot-blooded macho protagonist like those found in eighties’ manga.
My dearest friend and first person to actually believe in me was the legitimate owner of that sweet voice. She turned to face me, her eyes getting teary. I must be in a worse condition than I thought, and I’m pretty good at imagining awful things. However, I am better at pretending every single thing is alright when they’re not.
“Hello, sleepyhead.” Even I realized my voice was barely audible. “I’m glad you’re awake.”
Surprisingly, it wasn’t raining or snowing as one should expect and all we had as background other than the mixture of steel and concrete above our heads was the dying dusk that slowly faded to a newborn dark, reaching us from the now open metal doors.
“Don’t worry, I’m tougher than most.” I reflexively smiled, not to assure her of what I was saying but actually at my own awfully bad bluff. “I just don’t think I’ll be able to do what I promised we would.” Coughing was slightly painful to me that time, and from the look on her face it’s safe to assume it showed. “I guess we’re not going to run together under the rain any time… soon.”
Then it was my turn to lose consciousness.
Everything was so calm and silent it was hard to believe a battle had occurred here.
Actually, no. Not really. That would be an understatement. I have been in a few battlefields before, and after the heat of the battle is gone they all seem like this. It feels like you were listening to the world's loudest and most chaotic crossover thrash metal band ever and then suddenly you go completely deaf (yes, 1997 was a good year indeed). It's weird and you cannot help but feel empty, and it doesn't matter if you were enjoying or even understanding the song at all; from the moment it stops, you'll find yourself wishing it to come back even if you hated it with all your heart and soul.
Because it made you feel alive. There was action, and it was so fast and incredibly random it would seem constant to untrained eyes. It pierced your ears with its colorful riffs and striking drum hits. It made you dizzy and you felt like your head was about to explode because the song was so loud you couldn't hear yourself screaming. And then, there was nothing. Nothing, after a massive avalanche of vivid sounds.
It's just painfully awful, but so is life; we will learn to deal with it as we go and make it a pleasant experience by our very own effort, always hoping to have others that care enough to support us when we fall. This is what some of us call ‘living’.
Having that meaning in mind, I can honestly say I have never felt so alive.
“You really are tougher than most, aren’t you? To do such a brave yet stupid thing and walk out with nothing but bruises is really amazing, especially after that theatrical death speech. It was too well done for a first-timer, so I assume you’re already used to that.”
“Reikoku-sensei.” I finally opened my eyes and saw that at the moment we were outside the warehouse. “How is Ryo?”
My teacher sighed.
“Now I see why you’re not interested in Kouma-san at all.” I don’t think I understand what she meant by that or how is it relevant to this situation. At least I think I don’t. “She is alright, just terribly worried. I sent both girls to buy us something to drink after Kouma-san finished patching you up. The way Shiina Ryo looked at you was getting on my nerves, really.”
“What do you mean by pat…” As I tried to move, I noticed that under my jacket (that was covering me like a blanket) I was not wearing my shirt. Instead, what covered my torso like a female top were bandages and I could feel the scent of herbs flowing from them. “Kouma did this to me?”
“Yes, right after I finished taking photos of you for my personal gallery.” She looked away, probably because of the lack of reaction on my side. “You’re not in the mood for jokes, I get it. Yes, Kouma took care of Morimoto Ayaka and you. She took several things out of her tiny purse of hers just to find you medicine. You’d be amazed; it was just like a magician’s number. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t believe it, and I know that because I was here and I still don’t quite believe it.” Yeah I would. “Be sure to thank the doctor when she arrives and… never mind, here she comes.”
Feeling much better than I expected to but still very stiff and sore, I stood up and looked to the direction Reikoku-sensei faced and received something that in my condition could be considered a surprise attack. I was not given a chance to fight back, and in such circumstances there is only a single thing one can do: to receive the blow and hope for the best.
At that moment I was completely overwhelmed by Shiina Ryo’s embrace.
There was no need for words. We both had a long day and a not-so-short week and there was plenty of time to strengthen the bonds that were born online, so we actually knew how each other felt. We both have done our best to overcome personal obstacles. We both had won.
That time I actually hugged her back.
We stayed like that for a while, and it didn’t felt like an eternity at all; in fact, I honestly think she let me go prematurely, but I didn’t say anything because sounding clingy in front of Reikoku-sensei and Kouma Yon. Oh, right…
“Thank you very much for taking care of me, Kouma.” I felt somehow embarrassed for that public demonstration of affection, although I knew I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s the cultural shock of being in Japan, I’m not sure. “I wouldn’t have made it without you, partner.”
“You’re welcome.” Her face remained still. “Just keep in mind that this round is over, but not the competition.”
It didn’t take me a long time to see what she meant by those words, but it certainly took me longer than it should because I couldn’t make sense of Reikoku-sensei’s hand resting on her shoulder. Was she… being comforted? What for? I mean, I’m the one who fell upon sorted tools and mechanical parts.
As soon as Reikoku-sensei realized I could see what she was doing, she removed her hand gently enough for an untrained eye to take her gesture as natural. Then, in an obvious effort to avoid further questioning on that subject, she moved towards us and started talking to Ryo.
"You suggested a special task force to investigate and deal with Shugoshin or any other exquisite phenomena appearing in the city, right?” Reikoku-sensei looked like she was seriously considering that idea. "Sounds interesting. I suppose we can talk more about that on Monday.”
I was a little confused.
“Excuse me, what?” Did I say I was a little confused? I believe ‘borderline desperate’ fits much better. “We barely finished that monster and you are honestly considering turning this into a hobby? Not only that, isn’t it a little bit too soon to assume there are others?”
My teacher turned to face me.
“There are, and I refuse to say anything else right now.”
“Do you actually have a reason for doing so?”
“While I personally would love to, there is something slightly more important than that in my priority list right now.” She pointed to the girl who was still asleep, but not looking feverish anymore. Right, there’s the Ayaka situation. “About that, I need to talk to you in private for a second.”
We took a few steps and then she whispered, presumably so neither Ryo nor Kouma would listen to her.
"I need you to take them away from here, because I will have to deal with Ayaka's parents now and that is most likely going to be the hardest part. Believe me, fighting that thing sounds like a piece of cake compared to having to explain to her parents that their daughter was technically possessed and might have problems with the local authorities, especially because of small things such as carrying weapons around. I don't think I will be home for dinner tonight, and I probably won't be able to visit you tomorrow as well. So, don’t worry about my portions, okay?" Slightly numb I nodded, honestly trying to ignore her calling my place ‘home’ once again.
We would only find out at Monday morning, but Ayaka had to transfer.
I didn't pay attention to the reason given by Reikoku-sensei, but I'm pretty sure most of the class will end up buying it. A certain group of girls will probably spread extremely surreal theories about this, and most of them will be about Minato and Ayaka's moving being directly related (which would be pretty much obvious, even for a complete idiot; I don't think anyone could actually believe it was a coincidence).
For a while, I suppose everyone will be talking about a big fight over a boy (partially truth) or how a friend made her family move in order to keep living close to the other and even about a romance between the two of them. I guess the way this story will end depends on their creativity alone, since calling one of the involved girls to ask what really happened would spoil everyone’s fun. In this particular case, it’s probably for the best.
And then, just after the heat of the moment is gone, everything will go back to normal again because small but economically developing cities are pretty much like that. I suppose that is what peace truly means: not the complete lack of problems or any events whatsoever but the unusual ability to make things get back on track and reach the same outcome even when they took different trajectories, completely ignoring the fact butterflies were tiring themselves flapping their magnificent wings on the other side of the world. It's the real world's version of the literary reset button, and surely it is useful.
Thankfully, the rest of that weekend was uneventful. There were no supernatural or mysterious elements from that point on and because of that, even Kouma seemed to be able to enjoy herself when we decided to meet spend the rest of the Saturday evening at Le Ciel Bleu after heading briefly to our respective homes to take the hot showers we deserved and needed so much. The mood lightened up and Kouma even tried to smile at a certain moment, but she wisely stopped herself when she saw the terrified look on the other customers' faces.
Sunday was calm, nearly monotonous. I woke up surprisingly early for someone who had just solved a mysterious case and fought barehanded a grotesque supernatural creature with reality shifting powers. From its very first moment I knew the day would be really empty and instantly grabbed my cell phone with the intention to call Ryo, and then I remembered Ayaka's case.
It’s time for some ‘book end epiphany’, which fits pretty well this story since I have not let go of that hypothesis yet. I have already grown a lot in a week; I learned that I should face my problems instead of running away because that's the only way I can protect the things that matter to me. If only I had learned it before I bet my life would have been easier, but I can't change the past. I can however avoid doing the same mistakes in the future and keep learning every day. And if I learned anything on this situation with Ayaka, it's that I should not base my happiness on other people. I am not sure if I am honestly romantically interested in Ryo yet, but even if I end up finding myself in love with her I'd better not be too dependent on her.
Besides, there is still plenty of time for us to actually decide on how we feel towards each other and develop something that could be properly called an amorous relationship; as I evolve so does my hypothesis, and I’m starting to believe I am actually living the beginning of a novel series.
Leaving the cell phone on the mahogany bedside table, I go to the window and once again gaze at the beautifully simple view of the city. After standing in front of the window for a while, I decide to do something I didn't have time to do since I got here. I turn on the amplifier with the bass guitar in my arms and get ready to practice for a couple hours.
I am certainly going to text her later, I know I will. After all, we're friends and it's not like we have much to do on a Sunday but chat. But right now I don’t feel such an unquenchable thirst for that; all I need to feel alive is my own self and a brand new jazzy tune.
I'm looking forward to the next week.
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