It's cold. Bitingly so. A wind's blowing. Not hard. But it still feels like chilled steel passing through me. I have no option but to keep moving. My fur protects me, but only to an extent. Right now, it's keeping me alive. But I don't know for how much longer. I have to keep moving. If I stop here, the snow will rise, and I'll be buried, frozen forever. I keep walking. Eventually, the soft surface under my paws changes. Now, it is hard. I feel tiny twigs snap under me. Above, a canopy of trees paints an interesting picture against the night sky. But I cannot admire it. I need a place to take shelter for the night. But I cannot just curl up in any hollow. Things lurk here. The small dangers. The large dangers. All manner of beasts, waiting to consume all living flesh.
Just when I'm about to lose hope, my eyes, unerring as always, spot a flickering light in the distance. I know what that is. Fire. Fire is scary. It burns, obliterating flesh in a way no claws can. A slow, agonizing death. But fire is warm. I need warmth. Throwing caution to the winds, I begin to move in the direction of the light. And then, something incredibly happens. For as long as I remember, it has always been night here. It has always been snowing. I have been trudging through this wasteland. I have a vague memory of a time before the night. A time when I was happy. I also remember that happiness being a lie. And since then, I've walked here, alone.
But as I approach the light, it seems to grow. It spreads, and it is as if the darkness is pushed back. It's so bright: enveloping the world. And I can remember clearly now: morning exists. If I can survive the night… I can face the sun again.
So I walk towards the light. The heat forces away the cold. I can feel the blood flow through my body. The numbness in my limbs starts to melt away. And eventually, I am finally close enough, that I can see the fire for what it is.
It burns in a clearing of this forest. A bonfire, rough, fuelled by broken branches. But I could care less for its ragged appearance. It is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.
For the first time since the night began, I am not alone.
I feel a connection to the fire.
Almost as if it was waiting.
It must have been lonely too.
Burning alone, all this time.
Maybe, we were meant to find each other.
Yes, I was meant to come here. I was meant to find this fire. I was meant to live here forever, in its warmth.
I settle down close to it, content to lie on the ground and close my eyes. I feel a deep peace in me, as I cannot ever recall feeling ever before.
And then, that happiness is disturbed.
It's a small disturbance.
Barely a patter. No louder than raindrops. But I hear them all the same.
I look up, and I see… a fox.
A brown fox, also at the edge of the clearing.
Right away, I am cautious. I spring to my feet, back raised, claws extended. This fox is not welcome here. I alone can live in the warmth of this fire.
I can see she is scared. But she looks behind her, also with fear.
Beyond the clearing, I hear growls.
This foolish fox! She has led the wolves here!
But no, wait.
The hungry pack does not approach.
I can see their eyes, glowing in the dark. And they are receding, moving further and further away from us.
They dare not enter the clearing.
They're… afraid of the fire?
I glance thankfully at this flame.
The fox, in the meantime, seems to have decided that the wolves are a greater threat than I am. Keeping her distance from me, but still remaining close to the fire, she lies down, and a feeling of peace comes over her face as she closes her eyes.
I recognize that expression right away.
That looks like the kind of peace I was just experiencing.
And at that moment, anger boils within me like nothing I have ever felt before.
How dare she.
How dare this fox come here, and try to feel a happiness reserved for me. She comes here… intrudes on my privacy? Steps into our world? A world where there is only the fire, and me.
She dares, she dares lie here, in this sacred place?
Like an eyesore.
Like a rotting carcass.
I feel a violent urge come over me. It would be easy to end her life. I am bigger. Faster than any snow leopard. Stronger than any housecat. With claws that can remove her insolent heart from her chest.
Yes, that sounds nice.
I can eat her here.
I haven't hunted in a while. Not since I maimed those three pigs.
But as I am about to approach her, I notice that the fire itself does not react to her.
If I reject every particle of the fox's existence, the fire seems… compassionate. Not in a personal way. I cannot feel the same connection between it and her that the fire has with me. But it still warms her. Maybe that is just who it is.
A fire burns.
And a fire warms.
It does not differentiate between two people, who both need its warmth.
Maybe that's why, I force myself to drown my disquiet. For now, I will tolerate the fox. I will do it only for the fire, because it seems eager to help her as well.
Even as I make that decision, I am comforted by the fact that no one else will have a bond like the one I have.
But if so… why do I feel so uneasy?
I rest, but it is now no longer blissful.
My eyes open, and I sit up in bed. Breathing: even. I'm calmer than I might have expected. I should be able to return to sleep. As I lie back down, I am able to recall the details of the dream. It had been… unusual, to put it mildly.
I was aware that in classical psychology, there were certain meanings that dreams were believed to have. Some schools of thought proclaimed that dreams are a reflection of one's subconscious, or unconscious mind. One's desires. Others spoke of how they might be indicators of one's fears.
I am mentioning all of this from a purely anecdotal viewpoint.
I do not put a lot of faith in psychology.
A dream, to me, is just a dream.
But as I closed my eyes, I couldn't help but wonder, if maybe, this one had had some significance. Normally, a dream were I was some manner of feline would be quite welcome. But this one was not just a happy dream. There was more to the story. And as a student of Literary Analysis, my task, was to understand that story.
Recently, certain… disturbances had found their way into my life.
And by that, I refer to an annoying brat who revolves around Hachiman like a lost puppy. Of course, that is her act. Anyone with sharp eyes and a working brain can see that she's really… a fox.
Huh. That's interesting.
Maybe the dream did mean something.
Still, it had given me no answers.
I knew for a fact that Hachiman wasn't interested in her in the least. No, he has eyes only for me. But I can recognize a problem when I see one. I demanded to know who this girl was.
His explanation matched my own observations.
Isshiki Iroha, as she was named, was one of the high schoolers who had come over on the Exchange Learning Program. There were a few in my own classes as well. Isshiki was a bright enough girl, but not exactly prepared for a college level literature course. This was what Hachiman himself said. Of course, that made sense. This was probably some kind of extra credit opportunity for her, and she came in without having put in the study, banking on her ability to lean on somebody and get through it. Close to zero effort, close to maximum results.
Hachiman, as I had noticed from the beginning, is kind.
Too kind for his own good.
I cannot blame him for any of this. He simply saw someone in need of help, and decided to offer it.
No, the problem was Isshiki Iroha herself. From her mannerisms, from what Hachiman had told me of how she spoke, how she had asked for (demanded) help, and how she had reacted when he gave it, I already knew more than enough about her.
She was a bottom of the barrel, unadulterated, one hundred percent pure sample of first grade excrement.
And I wanted her nowhere near Hachiman.
Just to be clear, I do not believe for a second that he would ever look at anyone else.
But I am the sort of person who prefers to perform pest control in addition to being vaccinated.
Still, I had no immediate solutions available to me.
Isshiki was cunning, this much I was sure of.
I might not be able to get rid of her the same way I had taken of those three pigs from my class.
I'd need a different method. And being hasty was not a good idea. It wouldn't do for Hachiman to see something unsightly.
I went back to sleep. Rest was important. I needed to have my brain operating properly to solve all these problems.
Hours later:Despite the unwanted awakening in the middle, I had managed to get decent sleep. I felt loose and limber, the morning workout went as well as it did on any other day. The focus was on resistance training and time under tension, with some mobility exercises added in. I bathed, got dressed and ate, then left for college.
I had already investigated Hachiman's apartment, and his typical movement patterns on campus, so I had no morning detours to make. I walked at a leisurely pace, arriving around half an hour before classes, as I normally did. I decided to wait outside the cafeteria. Sure enough, a few minutes later, I spotted a familiar figure walking towards me, shoulders hunched up as usual.
Hmm. Perhaps it would be a good idea to introduce him to a proper training routine. It might improve his posture. But then again, at this point, it's an inseparable part of him, and endearing in its own way. Besides, I can attest from personal experience that Hachiman is in better shape than he looks with his clothes on.
I shake my head slightly to empty it of thoughts of what I would like to do with him in private. It wouldn't do to get carried away first thing in the morning.
He is now mere feet away, and as he closes the rest of the distance, he raises a hand and gives me his usual greeting.
I feel a smile threatening to break out on my face, and ultimately allow it to surface.
Without waiting for a response, I move forward and grasp his hand. Right away, I am rewarded with the pleasant sight of his cheeks growing red. It's honestly adorable how easily he gets flustered at things like this.
"You're a bit more forward than usual," he notes, trying to sound analytical in an attempt to hide how he just lost his cool.
I decide to play along with it. He is not wrong. I don't normally initiate physical contact right away as soon as we meet, first thing in the morning. But there is no reason not to, is there? I couldn't really see anything strange about it.
"Would you prefer I not be?" I ask, drawling out the words in an attempt to sound teasing.
"I didn't say that," he answers, a bit quickly. "Not complaining at all."
Giggling slightly, I draw closer to him, and he pushes in to deepen the contact as our shoulders brush.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a few other students stare at us before ultimately looking away. Initially, we had attracted quite a lot of attention when it became known we were in a relationship. As a matter of fact, I still feel there is an unhealthy amount of discussion regarding our private life. But, as with all things, regular exposure eventually leads to adaptation, and so, the constant stares eventually turned into momentary glances.
This is how things had been for a while now.
I was well aware that we were still a topic of discussion, and word of our relationship had only spread further. But I was the happiest I had ever been in my life, so I could care less.
"I get free at the regular time today," he said.
"That seems fine. Your apartment as usual, then?"
With a quiet hum of assent, I let it go at that. We spent a few moments with him showing me some new manga he had started reading recently. Since my initial forays into the medium had been satisfactory, I had dabbled around a bit on my own. Though I was disappointed with the vast majority of titles, I had found a few more gems. Hachiman was likewise selective with what he read, and what he was showing me now proved it.
"The art, while a little exaggerated, conveys weight and power nicely," I said. "It is also quite faithful to real life martial arts."
"That's one of the things that makes Kengan Ashura so good," he said. "Every fight, despite the more fantastical elements, feels real and believable. But even aside from the action, it's impressive that there is such a large cast of characters, each of who feels alive, and has both virtues and vices."
"Sigh. I had not believed I would ever be convinced to read a two hundred chapter long story that is essentially just a tournament arc. But you managed to do it. I shall give it a try."
He smiled slightly in response.
"Well, we could do it in class today."
Ah yes. We had Literary Analysis that afternoon.
Despite the… circumstances… behind that class, it did have its benefits. I would not have met Hachiman at all without it. And it also gave me time to spend with him in college itself. And we were the only two people in that class, so there were no intrusions.
It was with this vision of a pleasant afternoon ahead that I went through my morning classes. Our schedules were slightly different today, so I ended up having lunch alone. With that taken care of, it was with a good deal of eagerness that I made my way towards the secluded building where Literary Analysis was held.
As I walked towards the door of the room, I could hear voices coming from within.
Immediately, I became alert.
As I got nearer, I was able to distinguish the uniquely annoying sound of Isshiki's voice, and at this point, I was seeing red.
Calm. Stay calm.
I took a deep breath, and put on my regular visage, albeit it took some conscious effort this time. I slid open the door, and both the occupants of the room turned to look at me. Now, while I am no Oscar winner, I can be quite convincing in my mannerisms and expression when I want to be.
But then, Hachiman is more observant than the ordinary person.
I could see that he noticed right away, and shot me an apologetic look.
"Ah, Yukino," he said. "I got here a little early, and found Isshiki already in the room. It seems we finally have a third student in this class."
Translation: Be appeased. I did not bring this annoyance here of my own free will.
I nodded slightly, keeping the same smile plastered on my face.
"I see. Well, new company is always welcome."
Translation: Can't we get rid of her?
Hachiman flinched slightly, showing that he understood quite well what I meant.
"Ehehe, indeed. Well, guests don't stay forever, so let's try to make sure our kouhai learns at least something from us, right?"
Translation: She'll be gone when the exchange program is over. Please endure until then.
There was no choice.
Turning to Isshiki, I widened my smile just a fraction of an inch.
"Well then, Isshiki san. Welcome to Literary Analysis. I dare say you'll find this class a little unusual, but perhaps a welcome break from the rest of your schedule."
"Ah, thanks, Yukinoshita sempai. Speaking of which, there's no teacher here yet. Do they generally arrive late?"
I looked briefly at Hachiman before answering.
"The teacher has never been present during a single class so far."
Isshiki's eyes widened.
"Eeeeeh? But that's crazy! How do you guys study then? What do you guys study?"
I closed my eyes, a triumphant expression on my face.
"But of course, this is Literary Analysis. It is a class where we must dissect works of literature, with our own thoughts, and from our own points of view."
"So… you just sit here and discuss books?"
I felt a vein ticking in my temple, but managed to restrain my anger.
"That might be an oversimplification."
"Eh… are you guys really getting graded for this?"
My self control was gradually nearing breaking point.
Hachiman decided to intervene. He was all too aware that I wasn't quite happy with Isshiki.
"If you have doubts, now is a great time to opt for another choice, Isshiki. I'm pretty sure the exchange program won't mind if you switch one class for another."
"A-ah, that's not what I meant! I was just a little surprised is all. Mou, Sempai, stop trying to get rid of me!"
This was it. This was the precise moment Isshiki graduated from being an annoyance to an object of disgust.
Hachiman looked deeply uncomfortable.
I have mentioned before that he is quite perceptive. No doubt, he knew quite well that everything about this girl was an act. Yet, he was also the type to help people. It appeared he just couldn't resist doing so.
Unacceptable. Not only was she deliberately playing on his weakness, but she was getting in the way of the time meant exclusively for us.
Right. Change of plans.
We spent the rest of the class discussing Kengan Ashura. I made no attempt to dissuade what Isshiki was doing. She definitely wasn't a fool, but she lacked the acute observation Hachiman possessed. Which meant, she hadn't quite caught on to how I felt about her presence here.
When the bell rang, I confirmed to Hachiman that I had a few more things to take care of, after which I would see him in the evening.
He replied that he'd be done with his job by then.
Isshiki seemed quite eager to make an exit with him, and this was exactly when I chose to intervene.
"Actually, how would you like to check out the Economics department? You're still in high school. Exploring different options is a good idea."
She didn't seem overly happy at the idea of not getting more time with Hachiman, but seemed interested in the offer nonetheless.
"That… seems worth checking out. All right, Yukinoshita Sempai! Lead the way!"
Hachiman looked puzzled, and even shocked at what had just happened.
I gave him a slight smile, meant to ease his worries, and he nodded in return, before we parted.
Phase 1 had been successful.
Without Hachiman around to protect her, I could get to work.
Violence is not my first choice.
As I have mentioned before, dead bodies are hard to dispose of, and leaving someone alive to spread word would lead to problems. Isshiki had no history of physical altercation with me, meaning I could not punish her the same way I had those three pigs.
No, I'll try a different way.
"So, Isshiki san. What school are you from?"
"Eh? Ah, I'm from Soubu High in Chiba."
Soubu High? Chiba?
Well, well. Haven't heard those names in a while.
My father's business has quite the stronghold in Chiba, actually. And Soubu High… well, that is the school Nee san graduated from.
"That's quite an elite institution," I noted. "You must be a gifted student."
"I'm not bad, I suppose? But I'm not as good as you're giving me credit for, Yukinoshita Sempai. I'm barely in the top fifteen in my class."
Oh? A decent student, but far from the top. An otherwise average member of her class, then. What else can I learn about her?
"Well, academics are not the only measure of a successful high school life. My sister had a prolific time with many different clubs when she was your age."
"Ah, clubs are fun! I was the manager for the Soccer Club in my second year. It was a tough job! But it definitely had its fun moments."
Soccer Club… Soubu High… wait.
This was a stroke of fortune if I had ever had one.
Although it had to do with the single most odious person I knew.
"Hmm… Soubu High's Soccer Club did quite well in regional tournaments, did it not?"
"Yeah, we were champs two years in a row. How did you know that, Yukinoshita Sempai?"
"My sister is a Chiba resident, and an avid follower of quite a few of Soubu's sports teams, being an alumnus of that school."
"Eh, your sister was in Soubu? That's incredible! Do I know her?"
"I do not think so. She would have graduated before you joined. But you might know a family friend of hers, Hayama Hayato."
"Eeeeeh!? You know Hayama Sempai?"
And bullseye."I've met him a few times in the past," I said. This was true. "What was he like?"
"He was the best ever! The ace of the team, the star striker who could play midfield as well. He was great at studies too, and friendly with everyone. I don't think there was a single person at school who didn't like him."
Enthusiastic, but overall neutral praise, meant to conceal the fact that you were quite close to him. But Hayama Hayato was not interested in you. A one-sided crush then. Yes, that is more likely. With him as the star striker, and you as the manager, you could have spent any amount of time with him. I doubt the rest of Soubu's female population would have been happy about that. Which leads me to my conclusion…
But Hayama Hayato was not interested in you.
A one-sided crush then.
Yes, that is more likely.
With him as the star striker, and you as the manager, you could have spent any amount of time with him.
I doubt the rest of Soubu's female population would have been happy about that.
Which leads me to my conclusion…
"You aren't very popular at school, are you, Isshiki san?"
Enlargening of the eyes. Constriction of pupils. Slackening of jaw. Mouth hangs open. A brief stutter before she begins to speak.
Yes, I have discovered her inconvenient truth.
"W-what makes you say that, Yukinoshita Sempai?"
"Oh, just a guess. You seem like a capable enough person. Smart and able to get a job done. You also seem like you prefer to follow your own approach. People like that generally aren't very well-liked by their peers, despite the fact that they can get results."
"Talk about accurate," she muttered. Perhaps my analysis was able to get her to discard her facade to an extent. "But yes, you're right. The other girls in class can be pretty mean sometimes."
Oh, don't sell yourself short, Isshiki. You are quite cruel yourself."Ah, my sympathies. I was wondering why someone like you was alone. I would expect you'd join the exchange program with some friends."
"I did!" she whined. "But…"
She bit her lip, clearly unwilling to say more.
"... they pretty much ran me off…" she muttered under her breath.
Obviously, these "friends" of hers were boys.
And the ones who "ran her off" must be the other girls from Soubu who had signed up for the exchange program.
Everything was clear now.
She had most likely chosen Literature classes because she had been counting on the help of certain students to get a good grade. But, the other girls, having realized her plan, would have unceremoniously told her to get lost.
Without anybody to leech off of, she was lost now, out of her depth.
This is where Hachiman comes in.
A college student with above average grades? Far superior to some high school senior with less experience.
I can just picture how she thought it might be a great form of revenge.
Being able to secure a higher grade than the ones who chased her off and left her to fend for herself.
Hachiman, of course, was only helping her because it was in his nature to help people in need of assistance. He was probably not aware of the whole circumstances behind her approaching him, but definitely knew she was only using him for his notes. Of course, it is most likely he pities her, and so helps her anyway.
Of course, there is also the matter that Hachiman is also an alumnus of Soubu High.
But he was a loner at school.
People have terrible eyesight when it comes to seeing the ones who are truly amazing, so he would have been an unnoticed nobody, for which I am thankful.
It would have been an annoyance to get rid of a horde of filthy insects trying to crawl all over him.
It is extremely unlikely Isshiki even noticed Hachiman at Soubu, especially seeing as she was enamoured by Hayama.
No, this was a purely practical decision, made without any awareness of the fact that she might have seen him before.
Yes, I have learned plenty.
More importantly, she's interacting freely with me.
From here, the rest will be easy.
Interesting fact: I had, a short while ago, acquired a sound recording app. It was useful for listening in on some of Hachiman's conversations, and also for keeping audio files of his voice for my own listening. I had also mapped the launch of this app to holding down the screen lock button for three seconds. Snaking my hand inside my bag and activating the app now was very easily done, and all without being noticed.
Out loud, I asked a question.
"Come now, Isshiki san. You can be honest with me. Isn't it difficult dealing with so many… annoyances?"
As I say that last word, I think of her, and that thought allows my face to morph into the appropriate expression of disgust. Perhaps that expression was universal and genuine enough that it broke the last remaining barriers between us, and allowed Isshiki to reply honestly.
"You don't know the half of it. Dealing with these idiots day in and day out. I don't even know what they have against me."
"What do they have against you?"
"I don't know!" she half whined. "Well, honestly, I think they might be jealous of the fact that I got to spend a lot of time with Hayama sempai? I mean, obviously, nothing happened between us, but can you imagine how frustrating it must have been for people who can't comprehend that? I mean, did it occur to them that the reason they never were able to spend time with him was because they didn't have the guts to talk to him? Or, I don't know. As kind as he was, it might have been the fact that they were all so… basic. I'm sure even the kindest person in the world has a point he's not willing to be bored beyond."
"Hmm. It's understandable that girls might be jealous, but I'd think there would be more than a few boys who'd be eager to be friends with you."
"Hah. Friends. You're quite funny, Sempai. You know as well as I do that they have only one thing on their minds. And honestly, they can't even pretend that they want anything other than that. You can practically feel the thirst radiating from them. Honestly, part of me is glad for the exchange program. I don't have to pretend to be OK with them all the time anymore, and I get to hang out with some other people."
She then launched into a mini speech about how Hachiman and I were leagues better than anyone in her school, but I wasn't recording that. I had already gotten everything I wanted.
I let Isshiki vent for a little while longer, doing my best to play the role of the sympathetic elder student. I showed her around the Economics department, and we ultimately parted in the evening.
I went over to Hachiman's apartment thereafter, and we had a pleasant time, undisturbed by any foxes.
He again apologized for her intruding on us, but I waved it away.
It wouldn't be a problem any longer.
[The following afternoon, a certain audio file with untraceable history was played across the college wide public announcement system. It was heard in the cafeteria, and in all the lecture halls and administrative rooms. It was heard by every student and teacher on campus, including those who had come from Soubu High as part of the exchange program. The aftermath of this incident would be too long to cover in detail, but let it be known that Isshiki Iroha was never quite the same after that. Following an explosive verbal outburst, several students were removed from campus, and the exchange program. Soubu had almost no history of physical violence, and this did not change. But then… who is to say that cold indifference cannot hit as hard as any fists?]