***Kurouku Creek, Hayring Village, Kamisu 66***
Well before the start of school, Saki awoke and walked toward Sage Academy. Near the school, a healthy stream flowed southward. A beaten dirt path followed alongside the stream on one side. The stream was known as Kurouku Creek because, along the path to its side, several black oak trees spread their thick roots and extended their ancient branches toward the sky. There were no mini-shrines built by the old trees, but white fiber shide streamers crisscrossed the wide bases of the tree trunks. These marked the black oaks as proper places for prayer and meditation.
Saki walked beside the stream because she found it so peaceful and quiet. She came here about once a month to walk in solitude and enjoy the gradually increasing light of sunrise. Watching the birds was also a treasured pastime for the young adolescent.
As she walked that morning, Saki felt full of a kind of quiet happiness. Contentment? She couldn't help looking at the world with rose-colored glasses. After all, she and Maria were lovers now. Could there be anything more wonderful in the world? Saki answered her own question in her head: there is nothing more wonderful than being with the one you love, but there are things in the world besides wonder and happiness that needed attention.
For instance, Saki still struggled with memories of last summer camp. They could be distressing. Should she focus and try to remember everything the False Minoshiro said? Or was it better to forget? The Demon Minoshiro had taught Saki about the truth of world, but hadn't it been the story of a very sad, scary world? Dreams and flashbacks began to replace any clearly defined recollections. Vaguely, Saki wondered why she was being made to forget, and who was forcing her to do so.
The girl's thoughts were interrupted when she spotted Shun. He was coming from the opposite direction, following Kurouku upstream. Saki waved, and after pausing to try to recognize her, Shun waved back. Without any particular hurry, they each kept walking, slowly approaching each other. Both felt increasingly awkward the closer together they became. When they finally met, Shun's face was red.
"Saki," he stammered. "What are you doing here?"
"I like this creek," Saki answered honestly. "And the black oaks make a great place for meditation. It's much less scary than going to a shrine. Do you like this place, too?"
Shun nodded. "I love the birds you can see along the water. Have you seen those lilac herons? They're like Minoshiro, in that they are born outside the barrier, but allowed in because they're harmless. Anyway…. Do you mind if we talk for a minute?"
The two young teenagers sat down in the cushy grass that sloped downward to meet with the creek.
"You can always talk to me," Saki stated. "In fact, I wish you would talk more. It's hard to know what you're thinking or feeling. By the way, I never got the chance to really make up with you before. I'm sorry I made you uncomfortable, physically, and yelled at you. In your own house, too. I guess teenage girls like me are pretty emotional after all."
"So are teenage boys," replied Shun with a slight smile. "I mean, look at what I did that day. It's that day at my house that I wanted to talk to you about. I acted stupid… I said ridiculous, selfish things… I'm so sorry."
"It's not really selfish to state how you feel," Saki shrugged. "You wanted to make it clear how you felt."
"But it's not how I really feel. I've just been a coward, Saki. I don't want to rely on anyone. I don't want to feel unguarded. So I came up with the moral arguments to support my insecurity. The truth is…"
Shun turned and looked meaningfully at Saki. He reached for her hand as they sat side by side. Saki did not pull away, but her features suddenly changed. She looked troubled. Uncomfortable. Awkward. But she looked, also, like she needed to say the words on her mind in order to lift the discomfort.
"Saki," began Shun. "You see… I've always…"
"Please stop," said Saki, fighting back tears. "I'm sorry, Shun. I'm really sorry. I have strong feelings for you, but I would like to think of you as a trusted companion, not a lover. Maria and I are a couple now."
"I see." Shun tried to smile to hide the pain. "So it's true. I hesitated too long."
Saki looked away. She couldn't stand to see the pain in Shun's eyes. If she had only known this boy's future, she would have given up everything to make his final year-and-a-half happy. But she had no way of knowing that Shun would fall prey to such a disastrous disease. She didn't know he would become a Karma Demon. The silence was heavy and Saki felt like her own heart was breaking for Shun. But…
"You can always choose someone else," Saki spoke at last. "Normally that would be an insensitive thing to say, but don't you kind of have your mind on someone else anyway?"
"Yes, it's strange," the boy agreed, blushing again. "My parents are monogamous. You would think I might inherit something like that. But I love Satoru as much as I love you. I wonder if he'll still let me date him after I've selfishly turned him down so many times."
"Don't hesitate this time," the girl advised him. "Ask him today."
Shun nodded determinedly. Then he and Saki stood up. The sun had fully risen, and it was about time for school. Soon Satoru would arrive, closely followed by Maria from White Sand. As Saki walked, she saw a kingfisher dive into the stream. It happened so fast that it startled her and she nearly stumbled. A second later, the bird reamerged. It hadn't caught the fish. However, it perched its beautiful blue body on a tree branch overlooking the water. The hunting bird intended to try again. Saki paused and gave Shun's hand a quick squeeze.
"Just let me say this," she requested. "Saying 'not now' is not the same as saying 'never.' I won't be selfish. You can date whoever you want. I'm in love with Maria. We're going to enjoy our childish little romance and treasure it in our hearts. But if something ever happens between you and me, Shun, I want it to be the kind of love adults feel. I don't want to be some little girl you just mess with. I want… someday… to be a real woman you truly love. But we're not there, Shun. We're just kids."
"You're not being ironic, preaching my words back at me?" asked Shun, both touched and annoyed.
"No," answered Saki. "I was being perfectly sincere."
***Outside Sage Academy, Hayring Village, Kamisu 66***
After school that day, Shun decided to walk Satoru home again. One would never have known that the tawny-haired boy's life had been in danger two nights ago. Now, Satoru acted almost ridiculously happy. The lively smile seldom left his face as long as Shun stayed around. He seemed to walk with a spring in his step, he worked with more focus in class, and he barely teased Saki that day. If Shun had been any other type of person, he might have found all this annoying. However, his personality tended to emulate the positive feelings of someone close and trusted.
"So, Satoru." Shun took his partner's hand without missing a beat. "It seems like you're desperate without me. But when we're on good terms again, you're as happy as a monster rat with a fresh turnip. When you're like this… I think it's cute. And yeah, sure, you're demanding. But…"
Satoru came to a dead standstill. "Shun!" he exclaimed. "Are you saying—?"
"Hush, let me finish. Ahem. Satoru, I like you. I want to be the one who takes care of you. I want to be the one you lean on. I don't want us to just screw around, though. The main thing I want is company. To tell the truth, I get so lonely sometimes I can't stand it."
If only it would be safe to tell Satoru, Shun thought. There was a reason he kept only a select few friends, a reason why he rarely opened up even to those four: a reason why he felt so lonely. On several occasions, Shun's Cantus had exceeded normal power output and startled the Education Committee. They left him alone, though, since no harm was caused by the mishaps, and Shun was such a promising student. However, since summer camp a year ago, Shun's Cantus had somehow mutated things around him twice. Because of this, he worried his Cantus was unpredictable and untrustworthy.
The first time it happened, Shun unintentionally made a basket of strawberries turn rotten. In just an instant they turned from fresh and juicy berries to dead, stinking matter surrounded by flies. Another time, Shun lost control of his power for a second and some of the energy touched a small spider. The arachnid grew twice as large and gained the ability to jump. It quickly killed all other household bugs. Shun had eventually found the spider and killed it, hoping his family hadn't seen the obviously altered animal. What did this mean for people close to him?
Shun had yet to discover that Cantus constantly leaks from all users subconsciously. Even so, he theorized on his own that some of the energy leaked sometimes from some people, thus causing the strange evolution of the last thousand years of natural history. Shun also had no idea that subconsciously mutating one's surroundings was a symptom of a disease… a symptom of Karma Demon. Still, he figured that he must have poor control of his Cantus. Thus, he feared being in contact with other people. But now it was time to stop hiding and face his fears.
"Whatever's bothering you," offered Satoru, "I'll listen. And I'll definitely keep you company."
"Well, then. Will you go on a date with me this week?" Shun asked at last. "I'll take you the Library here in Hayring. I think the main librarian, Mrs. Watanabe, would show us some books on Kamisu Architecture. There should be blueprints for the waterwheels and canal systems, too. Does that sound good?"
Unable to hide his joy, Satoru pounced. He embraced Shun with so much force that the dark-haired boy fell down in the grass on the side of the path. Satoru laughed nervously, and, shrugging, Shun let himself laugh, too. Then both boys had the same idea at the same moment. They stopped laughing, looked at each other appreciatively, and shared their first kiss.
***Hayring Town Center, Hayring Village, Kamisu 66***
The next evening, the members of Group One decided to attend a festival together. Mamoru said he needed to help his parents operate one of the festival stalls, so the other four adolescents would have to enjoy things on their own. Now that Saki had accepted Maria and Shun had chosen Satoru, the festival night almost became a double date. However, there were more than a few moments where they felt pleased to be all together as a group.
Saki remembered that night for her whole life. It would become painful later, when she lost so many friends, and so many things changed. At the moment, though, she could enjoy the festival in ignorant bliss. None of them knew that the good times would be so short.
Shun played games and won a couple prizes at the entertainment stalls. He didn't know he would die at fourteen after unintentionally killing his parents and everyone in Pinewind Village. Maria chatted and joked with everyone at the festival, including people on the Ethics and Education Committees. She didn't know she would die after trying to run away from those same people. Saki bought a monster rat mask and wore it laughingly, never knowing she would have to fight against the monster rat rebellion. At an origami stall, Satoru built the cleverest and most durable designs. He didn't know that he would one day use those skills to help rebuild Kamisu after the rat rebellion.
As for Mamoru, he humbly helped out his parents and then returned home to work on his paintings. He started work on a piece of art depicting himself and all his friends in Sage Academy's Group One. By and by, Mamoru's father entered the mini studio. The picture showed some very pretty young women, he said. Half chidingly, he asked if his son had chosen a lover yet.
"No, dad," said the boy, "I don't have anyone like that."
Mamoru sighed softly, thinking of Maria. His chance to be with her had come and gone. Then again, life was long, and there may be another chance a few years down the road. In the meantime, Mamoru would stay friends with Maria. Having her pay any attention to him at all was good enough. He would keep trying to capture the perfect picture of her elegance.
"But you're so anxious all the time," observed Mr. Itou. "A lover would help. Can't you just choose one already?"
"No," Mamoru replied; "I would rather wait for the right one."
Mr. Itou laughed and said that nobody would be left if he did nothing but wait.
"I know," said Mamoru with a smile. "I'm prepared for that. But I won't love anyone except Her."
Neither the boy nor his father could have guessed that, some day, Mamoru's waiting would pay off. He would end up running away from Kamisu 66 with Maria. They would live together in the wilderness. Their lives would be short but happy. Little did Mamoru know he would father Maria's child someday. And little did he know about the monster that poor child would become.