The bell rings and I stumble into my seat, my eyes already struggling to stay awake.
Oh, vacation. Where did you go?
Maybe I should just sleep. The start of the school year is always the same. Same onslaught of new freshmen I will proceed to ignore after the initial bout of Brigade promotion; same case of Sudden Sleep Deprivation Syndrome; same long boring speech from Okabe about spirit and schoolwork and other student concerns—or at least, things he thinks are high school student concerns (nothing about aliens, time travelers, or Espers ever makes it in, of course). The only thing that really changes at all is the perspective. As a first year, you're so crammed full of nerves it's a shock when you have space inside to breathe in air. As a second year, you hardly notice the difference. A month's too short for summer vacation, and the second year is really just an in-between stage anyway. It's pointlessness incarnate, which wouldn't be so bad if it didn't last the whole year.
Then there's the third year. I'll admit to only having fifteen minutes worth of experience with it, but if those fifteen minutes are anything to judge by, the third year can only be captured in one word.
The shout is Okabe's, as he's suddenly standing in front of me with one hand flat against my desk. Since I didn't remember him coming up, I can only assume I fell asleep. A one-month summer break might be too short, but it was definitely long enough to mess with my sleeping schedule.
"This is especially for the ones like you, you know," he continues, still glaring. It isn't until he's content that I'm not going to turn my desk into a pillow the minute he leaves that he clears his throat and begins his speech in earnest.
"I've come to know you all very well for the past three years."
Of course he has. He's had the exact same students every single year, in what the staff calls an 'odd coincidence'. I try to turn my head to the cause of this strange stroke of fate but Okabe glares my way again. Guess he does know me after all.
"And I know," he says, still glaring, "that deep down, you're all good kids. But unfortunately, 'good' is not enough. This is your final year of high school. Many of you will be going on to university; others will be going head first into the real world. No matter where you go though, this is still an important year for you. I don't want any of you thinking that just because you're not continuing your education, you can just sleep the year away."
I believe that one is directed at me.
He continues on with more clichés about the final year and grades and 'how what you do in school reflects on you as a person' for a while but I quickly stop caring. Haruhi must feel the same way, since I can hear her snoring her head off behind me. Of course, she doesn't get yelled at. And why should she? She's not 'one like me'; with her grades, the universities must be slipping in their drool trying to get at her.
All in all though, I suppose Okabe's got a point. The third year is different. It's a year of lasts. Last time we'll get this speech (my deepest thanks to any powers that be for that); last time we'll get sorted pointlessly into classes (since they're always the same anyway). Last bout of freshmen to worry about, last case of SSDS to suffer, last everything. Most students will try to ignore it but by the end of the year, it'll be impossible.
Haruhi snorts, and I hear her seat scratch against the floor as she starts awake. I doubt that's the last time I'll see that happen.
But then again, who knows?
"What's wrong with you?"
That was Haruhi of course, leaning forward to whisper. Somehow, Okabe doesn't notice that either. He never notices if it's related to that girl.
She scoffs. "Well, what's Okabe talking about?"
"How should I know?"
"You're the one who's awake!"
"Doesn't mean I'm paying attention."
Another scoff, and she slams back into her chair. "Well, maybe you should."
What the hell is that supposed to mean?
But when I turn back to ask, Okabe smacks me across the head, reminding me not to disturb the other students. The opportunity is lost.
"All the leaves are brown,
And the sky is grey.
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day.
"If I didn't tell her,
I could leave today.
On such a winter's day."
Mamas and the Papas - "California Dreaming"
Crossing the Stars
"What Fates Impose (and Kino Too)"
"What fates impose, that men must needs abide; it boots not to resist both wind and tide."
I'll admit it: I'm a light sleeper.
At least, I am now. In high school, that was not the case. An earthquake could have cracked my bed in two and I would have continued snoozing on in ignorant bliss. In fact, the only thing that could wake me up then was my sister, and it took a Herculean effort (one she heartily enjoyed) on her part. But then, at that time life was a lot noisier. If I couldn't sleep through all that insanity, I wouldn't have been able to sleep at all.
So, yes, I am a light sleeper. I say this merely out of a desire to be honest, because even knowing this, you must believe me when I say Kino's shriek that morning was loud enough to wake a coma victim.
"Ooh! What's that?"
The "what" was unknown to me as well, since I didn't open my eyes. Such a rude awakening only deserved one response: mumbling. She took it all in stride though, saying, "I'll take that as a "Hello, my beautiful goddess Kino; how are you on this damn fine morning?"
So she was a 'beautiful goddess' now? I supposed that explained her inability to understand how normal humans function. What was she thinking, just barging in here and waking me up? Feeling charitable however, I answered (though it probably just sounded like more mumbling thanks to my pillow).
"It's too early, Nakamura."
"Kino. And no, it's so not. It's pretty friggin' late, actually, which you'd have probably realized if you had gone to bed at a reasonable hour for a human being."
I opened one eye to check the clock. Ten AM. Damn. With a grunt she translated for me as "Oh no, you're right! I apologize for my somnolent insolence, O Divine Deity," I sat up slowly and blinked until my eyes cleared, forcing my surroundings to stop looking like an impressionist painting and more like my one room mansion with its usual chaotic mess of papers and books and week old take-out boxes. Unfortunately, this coincided with Kino leaning down in front of me, with that all too familiar face beaming brightly and her long bleach-blonde hair (the roots sticking out like a bottle of black ink had been poured over her head) swaying carelessly between us.
"You never answered my question," she stated, waving an envelope in front of my eyes like catnip before a cat.
"I was busy sleeping."
I kept my voice casual, but my mind couldn't help but focus on her bait. After all, whatever it was had to be good for her to bandy it about like this. Unfortunately (and probably intentionally), her thumb was covering up the sender.
"And now you're not."
Widening her grin to Cheshire proportions, she flicked the envelope with her free hand. "What is this?"
"An envelope; you know. Paper. Glue. Ink."
"Okay, ass, rephrasing: what is this letter from North High School and why was it sitting so forgotten and forlorn over there on your table?"
I got up and snatched it from her grip, quickly sidestepping her. Sure enough, she was right; it was from North High. But hadn't I thrown it out?
"I don't know. I never opened it."
"Gee, no shit. I figured out that much from the sealed flap."
She continued on with some long nonsense hypothesis about what this said about my view on life but I stopped listening as I did my own thinking. How had I forgotten to throw this out? I had been busy—between deadlines and extra hours at the store, this was the first day I had to myself in weeks, but I had meant to throw it out.
Never mind, at least I could fix it. Just a simple throw to the garbage can under the counter …
Assuming, of course, that Kino wasn't right there to catch the crumpled form mid-toss. Damn my tiny apartment; I couldn't hide a single movement in this place.
"Well," she said with a malicious grin, "if you don't want it, I guess I'll just open it then."
"It's my mail."
"And when you threw it away, it became our trash."
Ignoring my rebuttal that she had caught it before it even hit the brim (and even if she hadn't, she was just a guest and thus it was still my trash), Kino slid her finger crudely through a small opening, nearly ripping the letter in half. So nearly, in fact, that for one shining second I thought she had succeeded, but as always, Lady Luck was vacationing far away from me.
Oh, well. Nothing I could do about it now. I grabbed an apple that had somehow materialized overnight on my table (Kino's doing, probably) and chomped down while she read. This wasn't so bad, really. I'd hazard a guess that it would end badly, but right now, I could live. It was just a matter of ignoring any questions that came up; hardly anything new.
And, I didn't want to think but did anyway, I'll find out what it says.
She was disgruntled; normally a sign to take cover, but this time, a good omen. Whatever the letter said, it was safe, and I turned and sat next to her on the thin futon (the only free place to sit).
"Not what you wanted?" I asked.
"I was expecting dirt, not stupid trivialities. Although. . ."
She pushed herself closer, apparently not concerned that she was nearly sitting on top of my lap, but I managed to brush her off. "I suppose I can still use this," she continued. "Have you even looked at this?"
"Didn't need to."
"Because you knew what it was, or because you had no interest?"
I took another bite.
"Fine, be an ass. I'll respond for you. Trick question; it's both! You knew exactly what the letter was, but you had no interest in its contents."
I just continued chewing, but I knew from her excited eyes that a game show bell might as well have started ringing.
"So, new question."
"Kino! Now, the question is …What are you hiding?"
Of course. She had to ask that. I got up, and threw the apple away, suddenly not very hungry anymore.
She glared. "Well?"
"Nothing. I got to go to meet Yoshida."
"Bullshit, you have to meet Yoshida; I know for a fact you met with her yesterday. You're just trying to avoid the question, which only makes it more suspicious. In fact—"
But what this fact was, I didn't hear, having already stepped aside before Kino could finish. She was right. I didn't need to meet my editor today. It wouldn't have done any good to tell her the truth though, so I didn't.
The truth only causes trouble anyway.
I suppose some explanation is called for, but I don't really know what to say. Describing yourself is difficult. We always think we know who we are, but at the same time, I doubt an arrogant prick sees himself as an arrogant prick. He probably thinks of himself as independent and confident. And who knows, maybe he is. Maybe people only perceive him as arrogant.
… I guess that's not an explanation. Sorry for digressing; but what can I say?
The year is 2017. I feel far too old and far too poor, and yet I know I'm not really either. My hair's longer than I like to have it but not long enough for me to waste the cash to get it cut. I write books but I am not an author—author to me implies some sort of success and I've only just started. Not because of college, which I didn't go to—I moved to Osaka after high school, as it was just far enough to be independent and just close enough to come running back if it all came crashing down, and I've only just figured things out.
But above all, I am freezing, because the weather is convinced it's December, not August. So, back to more important things.
My arms covering with goosebumps, I started to walk forward but quickly gravitated towards the railing when I realized that 'forward' was not a real destination. Where exactly did I plan to go? I couldn't wander Osaka like this. I was wearing pajamas, and not even the nice ones my mother gave me last Christmas. They were the tattered blue ones that just the tops of my ankles, an old left-over from high school that I couldn't seem to trash—not exactly the most respectable thing to get caught wearing, to say the least. To say the most, if I stayed out here any longer, I was going to add "crazy" to my "odd hermit writer" reputation, and while I didn't necessarily mind completing the cliché set, who knew what rumors would start about Kino.
Speaking of her, I couldn't go back in either, not when pestering me had become her new favorite hobby. Although, why had I left anyway? It was my apartment; I should have kicked her out! I guess I got caught up in the dramatic display, although it wasn't like Kino would have actually left if I had tried to force her out. We would have just gotten more and more tangled in the argument until I let something slip. In the end, Kino always won, or seemed to anyway.
This was one occasion where I couldn't let her.
"Are you okay?"
I turned my head. I knew that voice and was never happier to hear it. That voice meant clothes and tea and as much time as I needed for Hurricane Kino to blow over.
"Hey, Ms. Inoue."
She smiled, her starting-to-grey hair today forming tight curls around her face, and shook her head, allowing a single silver star dangling from her ear to poke out. "I've told you before—but then, if you don't even call Kino by her first name, you certainly wouldn't call me Hiroko."
I didn't really know what to say to that, that hadn't already been said anyway. People in this building were very free with their first names and even after all this time, I couldn't seem to accept it. This was especially true with someone like Ms. Inoue, who reminded me of my youngest aunt. Unlike Kino however, Ms. Inoue didn't seem too care too deeply, as she continued without further argument. "Did you and Kino have a fight?"
What? Did she think—
She laughed. "Don't worry so much! I was joking, though obviously not very well. It is safe to assume that she's mad though?"
"Why do you think that?"
"She's not chasing after you; therefore, she must be fuming."
I couldn't deny that. Kino's logic didn't tend to resemble most human logic.
She laughed, so something in my face must have carried that thought across. "Well, come on," she said, "let's see what my boyfriend has for you to wear."
As much as I liked Ms. Inoue, I liked her apartment better. Don't get me wrong, it was a disaster zone to rival my own. Where I had week-old food out, hers had evolved into full-fledged mold organisms (though she at least had the room to hold them all; my own place would make sardines jump back into their tin). Despite this though, there was a certain charm that I had never managed to cultivate, one uniquely her own. Paintings by Monet hung alongside '80s punk band cover art; crocheted blankets covered sofas nearly destroyed by cigarette burns and band practices; and an assortment of hand-painted vases and knick-knacks shared shelf space with a beer bottle supposedly discarded by one Axl Rose. It wasn't exactly my style, but there was something about the eccentricity that always brought a smile to my face.
The best part however was definitely the constant soothing scent of green tea, which she was gracious enough to serve me the minute I sat down in her boyfriend's old t-shirt and jeans.
"Anytime. You know me, I can't chat properly without a good cup of tea; assuming you don't mind chatting, of course."
I took a large sip, relishing the heat and light taste, before answering more eagerly than I probably should have, "Sure. What about?"
Suddenly, the stench of cigarette smoke that I had learned to ignore bit at my nose. Of course; I really should have known. Ms. Inoue was a fantastic, understanding woman—but she was also a friend of Kino's. Just because she didn't jump on me when she saw me didn't mean she wouldn't want to talk about it. I don't know why I thought I could fully escape the situation with her.
So do I opt out now? I was tempted—I had clothes now after all—but it seemed wrong to ditch her after her kindness (probably a planned kindness, but still).
I settled for another sip of tea and she continued.
"I'm not saying I don't understand your reasons. I don't even know what they are, but you're a … well, reasonable boy—sorry, man," she corrected with a smile. "But, I do wish you'd take her feelings into account every once in a while."
So she was going in straight for the kicker. You certainly couldn't ever call the woman wishy-washy.
"I know you think of her as being made of ice and steel," Ms. Inoue continued, "and … well, I can't deny that. But she really does like you. That's why she gets so angry all the time. Obviously, I wouldn't want you to lie to her but … "
She trailed off, apparently unsure of how to word it, and I couldn't help but feel a bit bad. Bad enough that I felt compelled to finish for her.
"You want me to at least consider her?"
She smiled nervously. "Well, yes."
I took a large gulp of the tea, shaking it till the very last dregs came out, and stood up. "Thanks for the tea; I'd better get going."
She didn't budge. "Will you?"
I dunked my hands in my pockets, taking the time to think. Kino was in many ways a friend to this woman; in even more ways, a daughter. How could I word this?
"I've considered it before."
She didn't seem to expect that answer. Her eyes widened a bit, then with a sigh she closed them, seemingly trying to relax. After a few moments she opened them again, then with a strained smile, said, "I see. Thank you for being honest. I had wondered, but I didn't—well, never mind."
"Nakamura's probably gone by now, so—"
I started towards the door, but I knew it wasn't over. The question had to come, of course; it was naturally implied in my vague wording. Any moment now, she'd ask. She'd have to ask.
But as slowly as I went, when I reached the door I only got a good bye. So, walking back to my apartment, the words rolled around in my head.
Is there someone else?
My eyes drifted towards the sky. My arms, the little bumps again forming on the bare skin, retreated with some squirming into the shirt as I curled them around my chest. In the clouds, I saw her face. Not literally, of course—the cold was bad but it wasn't making me hallucinate. But if I let thoughts of her creep in, I almost could. I almost could see those large, dark eyes that could cut this building down to rubble with a glare, that at times glittered with excitement as if trying to take in the whole world all at once; I could almost see that smile that was the reflection of the sun itself, and just as powerful and dangerous; I almost could see that hair that never—as much as I wanted it to—seemed to fully grow out into a ponytail until it was too late.
I almost could see it—and then I shut it out and continued walking.
Thinking like that didn't do me any good.
When I got back, Kino was gone. She'd probably left minutes after I did, when she felt satisfied that she wouldn't bump into me. Again, her logic never ceased to confuse to me, even after five years of knowing her. If she was angry, she'd get so into your face she'd be the eyes on the back of your head; but if she was absolutely furious, then she couldn't stand to even look at you.
Although, in a way, there was one person who acted the same way … but damn it, none of that. I just wanted to get back to sleep. Was that really too much to ask for? I didn't think so, but I knew now it couldn't be helped. Bad events had a tendency to be like the thickest, stickiest snow. The bad just rolled on, getting bigger and bigger until I was Sisyphus, rolling a boulder three times my size up a hill. The minute Kino woke me up with that little reminder, I had no choice to take up the burden. Today was just going to be one of those days.
I crashed onto the futon and almost wondered if the metaphor had become real as I felt a jab at my back. It wasn't particularly painful, but it was enough to bother me, and arcing myself up, I swept my arm underneath and caught the cause: a crumpled up wad of paper.
I was simultaneously surprised and unsurprised Kino didn't toss it out. It was probably intentional, leaving it on the mat. No matter; I could trash it myself.
Somehow I couldn't. I didn't want to know what it said … oh, who am I kidding, yes I did. It was safer to say that I didn't know what it could say, but there were things it could say that I wouldn't want to know and things that it could say that I would want to know. That made sense, right? I mean, what if it were something serious? It would be my duty as a former student to read it.
Placed in that light, it didn't seem like so bad an idea, and I flattened the letter and began to read.
It didn't take long for me to wish I hadn't.
'You are formally invited to North High's Five Year Reunion for the class of 2012.'
A five-year reunion.
A five-year reunion? My school did have this little quirk for reunions, but I had never heard of them holding one so soon after graduation. What were they thinking? It was too early in life for most people to have forgotten the bad and definitely too early for anyone to have kindled nostalgia for the good. What was the point?
Not that it really mattered, of course. It wasn't as if I was going. The people I would have to avoid probably wouldn't go, but at the same time they were the only people I would want to see anyway. It was irony at its finest—or was it a Catch-22? I always had difficulty seeing where one ended and the other began.
I wasn't going to go. It was as simple as that.
Except for some reason, I kept the envelope on the table, and for some reason there it stayed until the next day, when Kino came again. Her clothing was black and lacy from head to toe, even the boots featuring a trim, and from her neck dangled a skull necklace she knew I loathed. Basically, it was Kino-speak for, to say it in her language, "Bitch, apology, NOW."
Which was also, admittedly, something someone else would do. The dressing part, anyway. Maybe part of the language.
Sure enough, she spoke coldly when she finally did speak, staring me down from the doorway of my closet of a bathroom as I brushed my teeth. "So you looked at it."
"The letter. The invitation. Whatever the hell you want to call it."
I spit into the sink, taking a second where I could.
"You're not going to go?"
"Why should I?"
"Why shouldn't you?" She perked up slightly, in an angry sort of way. "See, I can play this game too."
It seemed to me that 'game' wasn't the right word here. It implied that I was A) enjoying this and B) putting conscious effort into it, neither of which was true. I voiced this but she scoffed.
"I don't need a semantics lecture. That's not my point here and you know it."
Then what is?
Kino sighed and turned away, collapsing on the door-frame. After a few moments she turned back, scowl seemingly renewed. "Look," she said, "I know how it is. And don't even give me that 'how what is' shit because I'm sick of the passive-aggressive act, all right? You know damn well what I'm talking about so just listen and don't smart off at me."
She paused, seemingly waiting for a retort, but none came. Despite what she thought, I didn't have a problem with hearing her out.
Whether I would respond though; that was the real problem.
"I know how it is," she started again, satisfied that I had no comment to make. "I might not act like it, but I do, okay? But dammit, even if you don't … No matter how it is with you, I would like to think that we're friends. I would like to think that after five years, after—after everything, that we are at least that. So …
"Why the hell do you still shut me out?"
She walked closer, uncomfortably close.
"I know that green tea is your favorite. That when you're mad and trying not to show it your eyebrow lifts up. That you refuse to tighten your tie or tuck in your shirt no matter what, that you hate close contact that you don't start, that when you get bored you kinda look around like you're expecting someone, or something, that—well, and other shit.
"I know all of that, yet, I don't know anything. Not why you pull shit like this, not why I can't know—"
"—Because you can't," I broke in, feeling oddly emboldened.
"You didn't let me finish!"
"You can go ahead, but the answer isn't going to change."
"Because I don't want you to."
She flinched at that, more surprised than scared but a little of the latter as well. To be honest, I was surprised too. I definitely hadn't planned on saying that aloud, but by now I guess I was just too pissed off to care. How did she get this idea that she deserved to know?
Wait. What did I mean 'how'?
I knew how this happened, and Kino had every right to be angry. It was a conclusion that I had thoughtlessly led her to, and here I was annoyed when she tried to cash in.
"I'm sorry," I whispered, and she turned away. It was a pretty weak apology, one I wasn't even sure I fully meant, but hopefully she'd accept it.
For some reason, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of her not accepting it.
It seemed to take forever, but she finally spoke, or rather questioned: "But why?"
So now was the time. It had to happen.
Is there someone else?
"I don't know," I found myself saying, "I just don't. It's nothing about you really, I just …"
Is there someone else?
"I just don't."
She glared, the ancient power of a million Furies collected in her dark eyes, and stepped out.
Great move. She was furious again. I sighed, and turned my attention back to the mirror.
That is, until I heard a whisper. Barely audible, probably not even meant to be, but heard all the same.
"Well, I fucking know why."
My eyes locked on to her disappearing body. "What?"
She said nothing but I closed the distance easily, grabbing her shoulder. "Nakamura?"
In seconds she had wrenched it away. "Fucking hell—"
"What did you mean?"
She stilled, but before I could speak again, she had turned, eyes red but tearless. "I meant that you're a fucking coward. I meant that I fucking know why not and you're a son of a fucking bitch if you're going to stand there and pretend you don't."
And there it was. That glare again, a glare I had only seen one time before in my five years of knowing her. She had been applying for a position at some company—I don't even remember where—and she hadn't gotten it. That in itself hadn't been a big deal; she had wanted the job, but she could survive without it thanks to a hefty sum of inheritance money. But just as the guy was finishing telling her she hadn't been accepted, he asked if she was interested in being a secretary or a greeter. They would have been perfectly happy to use her then. The sudden turnaround had then made it completely clear to her. Because she was a girl, she wasn't worth a job in the field she had gone to university for and had spent years working towards, and for some reason she was supposed to be pleased with another arrangement more suited towards her gender. She was supposed to be honored and humbly accept it.
I hadn't had the misfortune to witness her reaction in person, but even when she had finally told me about it, she still had that glare, as if the effect of that much total, unadulterated rage had sunk into her face to remain for days. It was the rage of being belittled, of being demeaned.
It was this rage I faced now, the only rage that could compel her to stay when she would normally leave. It had probably been building for a long time, water boiling and waiting to seep over the pot's edge when it finally got to be too much.
There was only one thing to say.
"—Oh, don't even," she cut in. "Just don't."
And suddenly, the glare was gone, her eyelids clamped down shut to cut off all fuel to the fire within. When she spoke, it was in that same vein, the smoky weak remains of an ember given voice. "Just go."
"I … now?"
Her lips curled, though whether in disgust or amusement I couldn't tell, with the way her forehead remained furrowed. "To the reunion, dumb ass. Go."
She opened her eyes again—no anger. More like the dark ice of a bottomless lake. "I hope you're very happy with her."
The air of the Sahara stifled my mouth and I swallowed, desperate for moisture. She caught the gesture, and smiled, but still in that same cold fashion that she continued to speak in. "Yeah, you know. God knows I forget the name, but you remember, right?"
She stepped closer, slowly, only stopping when her toes brushed against mine.
"You called me it, once."
And with that, she left, not standing to look at me a second longer. I didn't dare try and stop her. I didn't have the right.
After all, I didn't even remember what incident she was talking about.
But it was more than that. Though it may have been her demand for me to go, I know it was the last thing she wanted. I know if I turned it down now, this whole fight would blow over. I could get on with my life and never have to think about it again.
'Is there someone else?'
'You called me it, once.'
But balled and twisted in my hand was the invitation, and I knew without a doubt that I had to accept.
Well, here we are again. Or, maybe, for the first time. Either way, hi, and welcome to Crossing the Stars, the little story idea that could. Even when I stomped all over it and whined and said it was too hard, it kept on hammering away at my head, showing off all its fun little aspects until I finally gave in and gave it another shot.
Anyway, let's try and keep these notes down to a minimum, shall we? The last time I tried this, they were so monsterous and self-indulgent that I posted them separately from the fic. So, first off, many, many thanks to Rocke N' Roll, who has so graciously stepped in to beta for me. Her advice shaped many of the changes in this chapter, which was made all the better for those changes, so, thank you!
Thanks also to Audley, my old betaing partner in crime, who stepped in as well out of excitement for the project. I'm glad you can once again be the cool aunt to one of these things.
Until we meet again, guys (which shall be sooner than you may thin).