[M: Class is boring.]
[G: Such misfortune, I’m having P.E next.]
[M: On second thoughts…wait what, P.E class on the first day?!]
[G: Yeah. Y’know, it’s my bad luck.]
[M: We’ve just got our first assignment…bleh.]
[G: As expected from the top class.]
[M: Whatever. At least I can see the track from here. Wave to me, won’t you?]
Just a categorisation test, they said. It’ll be relaxed, they said.
My chest was burning; it is still burning, long after I completed the sixth and final round of the school’s 400m running track. My body is clearly in complete and utter disagreement with the idea that eleven- and twelve-year-olds should be made to do a timed 2.4km run on the first day of school. I gulped down some water and pulled off my Neuro Linker from my neck to wipe off the sweat.
“Very good, Kihara1, very good…”
The stern-faced teacher gave me an approving nod and walked away to comment on the performance of my new classmates. One of the girls – what’s-her-last-name-again – jogged over to me and asked in a high, bright voice:
“Kihara! How did you do for the run?”
“How did I do? I feel terrible, of course.”
“I meant your timing! How fast did you run?”
“My timing? Oh, uh, wait a second.”
The Neuro Linker. Portable quantum personal computer and whole-bunch-of-technical-terms, whatever. Every kid my age has one that is used for everything and anything. Such as recording our attendance or taking our timings, as is in this case.
Slipping it back onto my neck, the Augmented Reality interface of the Neuro Linker appears in my vision as semi-transparent holographics. A flashing window shows my timing: 12 minutes and 05 seconds. Besides it, in flashing letters, are the words ‘BEST TIMING!‘
“I have…the Best Timing?”
“As I saw! You’re the fastest in our class, Kihara!”
“That’s rubbish! The other guy was right behind me!”
I seemed to have doused her happy mood or something, because her face fell and she turned right around to go back to a circle of girls. With my thirsty throat and throbbing head, though, it wasn’t as though I was in the mood for casual conversation anyway. I turned back to look at the classroom block, and there she was, smiling cheekily as ever.
Looking up from our shared desk in our bedroom, Misawa stood in the doorway holding a clear bottle half-filled with an inky black liquid and a comb in the other. Without further ado, I closed the homework file I was working on and follow her to the bathroom.
Isn’t it wonderful how some words are unnecessary between two people who are close?
“So, who complained this time round?” I try to make it sound casual.
“My mathematics teacher. God, she’s a dinosaur.”
“Even after telling her your grandmother is American? Her red hair was the talk of the town in those days.”
“Yes, and she still insisted I dyed it.”
Tenderly stroking a lock of hair that was still bright red, Misawa sighed heavily.
“And look at what’s happening now.”
“I know, I know.”
I didn’t like dyeing Misawa’s hair either. The smell of the dye stayed on her hair long after she washed it, and it always made her feel weird afterwards, having her hair in black.
“At least it’s not so…eye-catching now, I guess.”
“Harh harh. You’ve said that the last three times my hair was dyed.” She replies dryly.
“Well, what can I say.”
The nozzles make soft squirting noises as I squeeze the hair dye liberally, blotting out the beautiful red hair sweep by sweep. Every pass or so, a strand of hair would remain undyed and tenaciously red, as though resisting being coloured unnaturally. The comb made quick work of it – too quick, I feel.
“Eh, I’ve got homework too, okay. Don’t take so much time.” Misawa gives me a meaningful glance in the bathroom mirror.
I squeezed the bottle a little too hard and it really squirted out this time; fine jets of dye flew backwards and landed on my shirt and the chair. The chair was fine, my shirt would not be, and I hesitated for a moment; picking up on that, Misawa turned and saw the stains, and used the towel draped over her shoulders to wipe it up.
“I take that back, Gunsou.”
“No, I’m fine. This shirt used to be yours anyway, so it’s old.”
“But who was the one who said our sizes were similar?!”
The next few minutes pass in silence as I move on to the ends of her hair, carefully applying excess dye over the locks to dye it raven. My heart seems to sink with each lock I colour.
“Speaking of eye-catching…how’s your classmates? Are they good?”
I pause to consider and recall. “Mhm..yeah, they’re okay. Some of them were from our old class, remember the anime geek?”
“He’s there? In 1-B? That’s quite the shock.”
“I don’t know how he studies after watching and knowing that much anime.”
“I see. My class has the Track & Field captain too, it’s not much of a surprise though.”
“Ichijo, did I remember right?”
“Yeah. Tatesuke Ichijo2, and boy, he grew taller this year again.”
I dye another handful of hair, and move on to her last lock. The last bit of red hair that is dyed Misawa.
“…there is one girl who talked to me today, though, during PE.”
“Oh? From our old class?”
“No, she’s new. Can’t remember her name though, and it’s pretty weird. It was Gekka…Gakke…something like that.”
“Gekkagawa? Mikiseki Gekkagawa?”
“Yeah, that sounds like it. How is it spelt?”
Misawa tilts her head to one side as she thinks of that weird name. Unprepared for the sudden movement, I almost get dye on her shirt.
“Her last name is…’River Under The Moon’ and her first name has three kanji characters too; it’s ‘Beautiful Miracle3.'”
“Gekkagawa…Mikiseki. Weird name.”
Mulling it over, I finish dyeing the last bit of her hair. “Done,” I sigh. “Now you’re totally black.”
Standing from the chair, Misawa turns and examines the job in the mirror. She seems oddly tense.
I take off the plastic gloves to wash and clean the hair dyeing equipment. Then, something occurs to me:
“How’d you know her name? Gekkagawa is in my class, not yours.”
“I’ve heard about her,” Misawa simply says. “Apparently she transferred to an elementary school here from Hokkaido when she was younger.”
“Hokkaido? To Tokyo? No wonder she’s so…”
“So…augh, I can’t put my finger on it. She just made a lot of friends on the first day, that’s all.”
Keeping the things in the cupboard, I meet Misawa’s gaze – her face has a mixed expression that I can’t identify either.
The black hair makes it worse. It makes her look…angry.
“Is something the matter?” I ask her cautiously. Blinking, Misawa simply stares at some point away from me.
“N…Nothing then.” She finally answers after a moment. “Just can’t understand that girl either.”
“‘Kay then. Leave some hot water, please.”
I leave so that Misawa can bathe first and sink into the sofa to wait. The day has been tiring for me, and standing while doing Misawa’s hair didn’t make it any better.
The lights are on when I lie down, but by the time Misawa washes her hair, the ten-minute timer on them will have elapsed and I myself will have gone to sleep. Should I do that when I still have homework to do…?
Suddenly, the door opens.
“I’m home!” A bored and tired voice comes through the doorway.
I lift my head and see the familiar silhouette of Mother coming in through the doorway.
“Welcome home, Mom…”
That’s all I can get out before I lose all sense of wakefulness.
Darkness envelopes my senses.
It’s cool, maybe a little chilly. Perhaps it has something to do with sleeping uncovered on the sofa.
But suddenly, I feel a new sensation; a soft, heavy weight presses down on my chest. Warmth spreads throughout, as though a spot of sunshine has fallen upon me. It’s calming.
When was the last time I felt so at peace?
From the darkness, a familiar voice is heard, seemingly within my head. It’s soft and tender in tone; I’ve not heard her speak like that in awhile, have I?
And then I fall into the warm arms of sleep.
Just like that, I wake up. It only happens if I was seriously exhausted the night before…
…Or perhaps, Misawa had roused me by accident; She had fallen asleep on me, probably last night after she showered; now, the source of the mysterious ‘weight’ is clear.
A single black cable is connecting our Neuro Linkers; a Direct Connection cable. Besides sharing large files and data between users, there’s a unique feature of directly connected Neuro Linkers: Thought Speech.
I don’t know how it exactly works, but when two people have their Neuro Linkers connected this way, they may communicate by simply thinking it. Perfect for private conversation, but usually, only family members and close friends do this. That’s because when two Neuro Linkers are connected, each person can access all of the data in the other’s Neuro Linker, making hacking a rather real possibility. And I think it just looks weird for people to be Connected via the neck.
I’m touched by the gesture though. Misawa has been sleeping in that kneeling position all night; surely her knees are sore from that. While I ponder how to get off the sofa without rousing her, I run a lock of her newly-dyed hair through my hands, examining my work. So far, so good: not a single strand of red can be found. I’ve relieved, yet disappointed at the quality of my work, and she chooses the moment to wake up; her eyelids flutter sleepily.
[» Had a nice sleep?]
“Not with you on top of me, no. And will you not use Thought Speech when there’s no need to?”
“Eh hehehe…” Misawa finally opens her mouth and giggles. “Why not?”
I avoid the question and roll my eyes. “C’mon, get off me.”
My mother emerges from the kitchen just as Misawa rolls off me; I wonder if she had given any thought to the fact that Misawa has spent the night sleeping on me.
“Morning Mum.” We answer in unison, to which Mum doesn’t even blink.
We’re just like a family after all.
Class is boring as usual. While the teacher drones on about basic algebra, I’m only pretending to take notes; what is far more interesting than learning the basics is seeing how those basics actually apply.
It’s no surprise then, that several helpful applets online had taught me everything that there was to know about simultaneous equations with two unknowns by the time the lesson finished. Unfortunately, my devotion to the applets were a distraction, and before I realised it…
“Wha-uwah! Sorry, ma’am-eh?”
The expression of the normally-stern mathematics teacher was not one of displeasure, but wonder? She seems checking something in her holographic interface, her fingers sliding across unseen surfaces.
“…instead of paying attention to my class…you’re studying by yourself. Hmph.”
So she was looking at the applets I was accessing it seems. Her eyebrows fall as she fixes those black eyes upon mine.
“Are you suggesting that my lesson is boring, Kihara?” Giggles quickly followed from elsewhere in the class.
“So will you close your other windows and pay attention?”
“I’m too poor to pay such a high price for your attention, ma’am.” I muttered as quietly as I could under my breath.
“‘Too poor?’ Are you in financial difficulty, Kihara?”
What? How did she hear that?!
“Er, no ma’am, no! I’m sorry, I meant to say that I’ll pay attention in class, ma’am!”
“No excuses,” she waved his finger at me. “Detention, Kihara. Perhaps you need to be taught how to keep quiet too.”
I should have known better. This teacher teaches Misawa in 1-A as well, making her the same teacher who complained about her red hair on the first day.
“And while you’re reflecting on your mistakes, Kihara,” her voice drills into my head. “Gekkagawa can share with you about why she can’t seem to pay attention in class either.”
My eyes instantly flick to the girl seated at the front row- and our eyes meet.
Her face suddenly seems to redden slightly; she turns back towards the front with abnormal speed before I can completely register the change in colour tone, leaving me clueless.
What’s with this girl, acting cute and all.
Somewhere in the school, I’m sure Misawa is going to still be waiting for me after class. I can only hope that me and Mikiseki can finish cleaning up the spare classroom fast if I’m going to make dinner tonight.
Which, even though we’re supposed to work together, has ended up in me doing almost everything; sweeping the floor, mopping the floor, and cleaning the anachronism of a blackboard, while all she does is clean the desks. By the time I’m done – and in twenty precious minutes that could be better spent – my shirt is soaked in sweat and is sticking to me.
“…you seem used to this, Kihara!”
That girl gives another one of her bright smiles, proudly holding her own rag – which doesn’t even have a fraction of the dust that I cleaned. But for some reason, my frustration is appeased by that smile.
“I clean my home all the time.”
“I see, I see.”
I tug at my shirt to get some fresh air inside and dry it as much as I can, and that’s when Mikiseki speaks again.
“Well…um, thank you.”
The unusual tone of her reply catches my attention and I turn around.
“…uh, why should you thank me?”
“Because…because…well, a lot of guys wish they could Direct Connect with me.”
How on earth does that answer my question? Is she trying to lead me on or something?
“…yeah, but I haven’t. And I don’t see why should we Connect.”
She blushes and smiles again. “That’s why! Well, see you tomorrow then, Kihara!”
And then she just walks out the door like that. I’m literally speechless and it takes me a few seconds to figure out the implied message.
“So…that’s a cute girl’s problems, is it? Well, lucky me…”
I turned to pack up my things when the door opens again. Thinking that she forgot something, I didn’t even turn to face the door.
“Where were you the whole day, Gunsou?”
“Did you forget something, Gekkagawa- what?”
The look on Misawa’s face is not a pleasant one. There practically could be steam coming from her very ears!
“You,” she hissed. “Where were you?”
I hold up my hands to try and stave off her building temper. “I was given detention, Misawa! Mrs Shiratori, your maths teacher caught me not paying attention!”
“So why are you together with her in the same empty classroom?”
“We were told to clean it up!”
My explanation is backed up by the dirty cloths and pails behind me, and Misawa cools down at last.
“…I’m sorry.” “…I’m sorry.”
We both apologise at the same time, even. At least I can get this timing right.
“I should have told you I got detention, Misawa.”
Breathing in deeply, Misawa huffs a sigh and the tension evaporates. “Yeah, you should have. Shall we go?”
The walk home isn’t very long once we get off from the bus. Over the last few weeks, we’ve experimented with a variety of routes, and while this one is longer, the bus doesn’t get packed in the mornings and evenings.
A stretch of road goes up a small hill between two apartment blocks. These are the cheaper, “medium-rise” apartments popularised by some government campaign to increase spending and boost the economy. At any rate, it didn’t go well, and not all the streets are lit. When Misawa and I walk this route after dark, it’s understandably quite intimidating.
But we walk through it anyway, our footsteps echoing in perfect unison. We walk in silence because there’s always time to speak to each other later.
Just as we round the final bend and reach the top of the hill, the sun touches the horizon in the distance and turns the sky red-gold.
The world is bathed in warm light.
Misawa and I pause to watch the sunset. Rays of light sparkle where it reflects off glass rooftops, creating a surreal beauty with an urban aftertaste.
An arm snakes around my waist and pulls; Misawa leans her head against my shoulder as she huddles.
Her voice is relaxed and calming, as though all the troubles and stress of school is gone with the wind. I place a hand over hers in acknowledgement.
“If only our days could last like this forever, Gunsou…”
“…we were always going to have to grow up.”
I don’t like how my reply kind of ruins the mood, but it’s the truth. After all, I helped to raise her in place of a father for years, setting aside my childhood for hers.
“…tch. You’re always so serious.”
She lets go of me but still forms a small, warm smile. Half the sun has dipped below the horizon by now.
“Let’s go then. I still have to prepare dinner.”
And so we depart for our home. I glance at the setting sun one last time before we enter the glass doors of the entrance.
The last few rays of golden light are partially obscured by a passing cloud. For some reason…I can’t help it, and an image of a hand raised in farewell comes to mind.
I turn my back and enter after Misawa. The moment of bliss we shared is now over.
As part of the government’s million-and-one initiatives they’ve been rolling out over the last few years, at least 75% of all school-age youth must be involved in physical activity thrice a week, or take up a role in a sports club. But I’d rather fall into the 25%.
My family – however much as it is a family of two-and-a-half – will always come first, and I know that a sports club will take away time that I need with them. I’ve seen my sporty friends in elementary school have their free time after school burned because of all those extra club activities, meetings, and training; I, on the other hand, have chores to do at home that no one else is going to do if the house is to be up-kept. I’m practically the man of the house.
…Actually, the correct phrase should be that there is no one left to manage the house. Mother works long hours at the office and Misawa and I have school. So in a twisted sense, I could say I’m the houseman. That’s not a light responsibility to place upon a person who just entered middle school a few weeks ago.
In fact, haven’t I already internalised that role ever since my dad left? Things have to be done, or Mother would have overworked herself.
For the above reasons, the first club I had indicated my interest for was the Library club. It was relaxed, uninteresting, and most importantly, the least time-consuming.
From somewhere in front of my desk, Mikiseki’s high voice calls my name.
“The club admission list is out! Have you seen it yet?”
Her joyful face must be in complete contrast with my usual bored expression, I think. I merely shake my head lightly.
“Here!” Mikiseki raises her hands and sends me a nominal roll of our class. The list appears before me as a translucent sheet of paper, and I instantly find my name:
KIHARA, GUNSOU: TRACK & FIELD
I can practically hear my hopes crashing. I now deeply regret having put in effort into that retarded farce of a categorisation test; I should have just done my regular brisk pace.
“Uh, why the long face, Kihara?”
Her tone is still light and high-spirited. Did she get into the club of her choice? Surely that must have been the case.
“I’ve been placed in Track & Field,” Dejection creeps into my voice. “I’ve just worked hard to work harder.”
“I’m sure you’ll meet many good people, I think! I know some of the seniors there who are very friendly!”
To you only, perhaps?
I leave that thought unspoken to not hurt any feelings.
[G: Lord help me, I’m in T&F now.]
[M: HAHAHA. I got into Dance club :3]
[G: Well good for you then.]
[M: Relaaaax. You’re not gonna be alone, Ichijo’s gonna be there too.]
[G: How’s that supposed to be good news?]
[M: Well, it’s not bad news either. And he’s a nice guy too!]
[G: Not like I know him beforehand…wanna meet same place for lunch?]
[M: Not today; I wanna talk to my upperclassmen, I’ve never tried anything remotely related to Dance before.]
As it turns out, I’m eating lunch with Mikiseki, of all people.
It wasn’t as though we invited each other or anything, but it simply was that Mikiseki had joined me at my table completely unannounced. She got some brief stares, but even though she seems completely unperturbed by them, I for some reason feel nervous.
It’s not really about eating with a girl; I have all three meals with Misawa daily. But…this is different. Whenever Mikiseki talks, I avoid her eye by looking this way and that, and more often than not, whenever I do I will find someone staring at us. They always turn away whenever I see them staring.
“So, how’s your upperclassmen, Kihara?” She asks me out of the blue.
“Haven’t met them yet. I’ve just been scanning that list for other unlucky people.”
“Don’t say that,” She furrows her brow. “Trust me, Track & Field is a really good club. All that training will make you stronger!”
“Yeah, and I suppose I’ll go home late and tired.”
At this remark, Mikiseki actually puts down her chopsticks and gives me an unreadable stare.
“Why are you so pessimistic? Don’t you see things in a good light?”
“I don’t know,” I answer truthfully. “Whether a glass is half full or half empty, it still means you have water, and you’d better drink up what you started. Speaking of which, are you really going to throw that away?”
I take this opportunity to glance meaningfully at the half-finished carton of juice she is about to crush and dispose of. Mikiseki hastily withdraws her hand.
“I don’t consider myself pessimistic, I guess,” I continue. “Let’s just say that I believe everyone should treasure the little things they have in their lives, and the food on the table is a good place to start. That’s why I don’t like people who waste food.”
“Ahh…So, you’re a realist, I’ll give that to you. But don’t you, y’know, play games or stuff? Surely you must have something to do in your free time.”
“Sure I have. There’s dinner to prepare, the floor has to be swept and mopped, and today’s Thursday, which means that I have to get the laundry done by tonight, or I’ll be busy on the weekend drying clothes…”
Mikiseki holds up a hand to stop me from rattling further. I note that her palm looks so much softer and smoother than my own coarse ones.
“I get it, I get it. So you basically don’t have time for yourself?”
“And that’s the way it’s always been.”
“My god.” Her eyes widen slightly. “Don’t you have a…a social life?”
“None, and I don’t need one.” My thoughts briefly flick towards Misawa and the Dancers she surely must be chatting with at this very moment. Where could she be now?
“You need to expand your worldview, Kihara. No, seriously.” Mikiseki is making a face halfway between admiration and disgust, and still making it look painfully cute. She reaches into her pocket and withdraws a slim roll of familiar black cable.
“Oh no, you don’t.” I instantly retort. “Why in the world do you want to Direct Connect with me?”
“I want to share something with you. In privacy.” She adds.
“No. Absolutely not. We are not anything more than classmates. This isn’t appropriate.”
“It is, Kihara. Surely someone like you has to have something you’re not telling. Won’t you?” Mikiseki raises an eyebrow and plugs in one end into her Neuro Linker.
“I have nothing for you, Gekkagawa. I have things to do and someone I need to find, right now.” The colour is rising to my face; I stand and try to hide it by swiftly keeping my food containers which I brought from home.
“Lemme guess: that person is Misawa Kitamura?”
I freeze for only a fraction of a second, but it’s enough to give away the game, so I don’t bother lying. “You know more than you let on, Gekkagawa.”
“‘Course I do. I have friends, ya’ know?” She gives that same bright smile she always makes, and continues.
“If you’re wondering where she is, look no further than the other corner of the canteen,” Mikiseki glances to her right. “She’s having lunch with Tatesuke Ichijo, the new Track & Field team Captain.”
I follow her gaze, and- my heart seems to stop beating.
Of course I didn’t notice her, not with her hair dyed black. But the black hairband and little necklace she always wears, the little giggle she makes every now and then is the same. And across the table is a familiar face I saw very often on the running track of our elementary school…
Misawa. Having a fun-filled meal with Tatesuke. And she said he’s from her class, no less.
Tatesuke says something. Misawa seems to freeze, then tilt her head as though to ask a question. Tatesuke merely nods and holds out a hand with another black cable in hand.
As I stand frozen to the spot, Misawa gingerly reaches out; she slowly accepts the cable and plugs it into her own Neuro Linker.
A deep hollow opens up in my chest and an emotion overflows from my heart. It’s not pain. It’s not anger.
What’s this feeling of loss?
I don’t stay to listen to whatever Mikiseki has to say; I leave our table and head forwards toward them. I don’t know if she’s still following me. I reach their table; a small circle of curious students have gathered to see this ‘couple’. I can hear my heartbeat in my ears.
I push past a guy and finally reach their table. Tatesuke seems to be speaking with Misawa with Thought Speech, because their hands aren’t typing on a virtual keyboard. He’s tall; he’s at eye level with me even though he’s seated on the chair.
They both turn and look at me; Misawa instantly turns bright red and freezes, and Tatesuke raises an eyebrow in question.
“…what’s going on?”
Illustrations (or rather, faceclaims) in the next chapter!