Disclaimer: All recognizable characters belong to Tachibana Higuchi. This story is mine.
Author's Note: I wrote this because it's 11/11/11, the biggest wish day ever and Remembrance Day in Canada & Britain for fallen soldiers and war veterans. I figured this was apt. This is my tribute to the great side characters created by Tachibana Higuchi. Happy reading everyone :)
The flash of light from the window illuminated the photo perched on the sturdy, wooden desk.
In all of the years he had spent at Alice Academy, it had only ever felt strange on this particular day. Last year, it had been a grey, windy day that brought thick branches to the ground and carried solemn whispers through the air. The year before that, night had fallen before four in the afternoon and had cast a dark shadow across the Academy grounds, leaving everything unnaturally still until dawn the next morning.
Today, rain pattered like rocks against the windows of Kazu's large office and streaks of light would illuminate the sky, abruptly followed by rumbling cracks of thunder.
Despite the idle words being said from across the room, Shiki's eyes returned to the photo as lightning flashed through the sky.
He could hardly believe it had been ten years tonight.
In a few weeks, Alice Academy alumni would flock once again to celebrate ten years of peace following Kuonji's reign, but tonight, a handful would come to remember them, these two—Azumi Yuka and Yukihira Izumi.
He picked up the picture frame and let his eyes run quietly over her candid, smiling face before the familiar tightening of his throat reminded him how much she had done for him, how much she had changed him, how much the picture in his mind of her had begun to fade around the edges. Looking at the photo reminded him how, despite his greatest efforts, the image of her in his mind, the image of her in photos and the rare videos of her around the Academy were nothing compared to Azumi Yuka in the flesh.
How had he managed ten years—
The voice was soft and curious and made the breath in his throat ease slowly from his parted lips.
Shiki took a deep breath, placed the photo back on Kazu's desk and braced himself before turning.
She smiled up at him before her eyes landed on the photo. She reached for it with a whimsical chuckle. "Looking at mom again?" He didn't bother answering. It was a rhetorical question after all and the way she was smiling fondly down at the photo made him wonder what it would have been like if Yuka hadn't died… if the three of them had managed their escape from the Academy.
At twenty-one years old, Mikan was an eerily accurate representation of her mother. She was beautiful, of course, but not in the haunting way Yuka was. Her eyes were brighter, her hair was longer and she smiled far more often. Many wondered how he could stand being in such close proximity to a girl that looked so much like her, how he could stand the constant reminder of what he had loved and lost.
Shiki never wondered.
Mikan wasn't Yuka and never would be, but she would always be a part of Yuka and Shiki would hold on to any part of her he could.
"Tell me something I don't know about her," Mikan said suddenly, quietly, eyes never leaving the photo in her hands. "Something you've never told me about her. Something that only you know and nobody else." She paused, then grinned softly. "If she didn't swear you to secrecy, of course."
It took him a minute to recall most of the things he remembered telling her already for the past ten years. Thinking about Yuka like this brought an onslaught of new memories into his mind all of those years they were part of Z together. Despite the lonely nights and the constant threat of danger, being with Yuka like that was probably going to be the highlight of his life.
He paused for another second, trying to fix the image in his mind, before he turned to look at Kaoru's boy and scrutinized him suspiciously from across the room. The story tumbled from his lips easily. "Every year, on the day she gave you to your Ji-chan, Yuka would call the house once or twice hoping to hear your voice." At this, Mikan's head snapped up, eyes wide, with a small, sad smile on her lips. "Sometimes it only took one try and she would hang up right after. Sometimes it took four calls. She never forgot about you." He remembered Yuka's anxious fingers tapping against the glass windows of the phone booth several times a year and the thought made him continue. "The year she never got a response from you was the year she suspected you were taken to the Academy and—" he turned away from his vague scrutiny of the boy before looking back at Mikan. "She was right. Mothers usually are."
At that, Mikan's lips quirked up in a strange smile before placing the photo back on the desk. "I wish I got to know her," she sounded wistful, turning to look as Kaoru's boy spoke quietly to Kazu. When she spoke next, there was a fond laugh in her words. "You think she would've liked him?"
As if hearing her words, dark red eyes looked over in their direction. Shiki could have sworn he saw devotion in those brief seconds before his eyes slid back to Kazu. "She would have," he decided easily. "If Kaoru was still alive, they would be fawning over the both of you." The thought almost made him smile until he thought back to her father. "Izumi-sensei wouldn't be as excited."
She laughed loudly at that and Shiki turned to gaze at the clear amusement in her eyes. "Because he'd be super protective of me?"
"No," he couldn't help the smirk. "It would have more to do with the fact that Kaoru seemed to pass her… perverted nature to her son." Mikan snorted a laugh with a shake of her head. "His reputation precedes him. If your father was alive, he wouldn't let Natsume near you."
She giggled again and even he couldn't help the smirk. "I love hearing you talk about them," she said with a smile, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. "I may have never known them, but I like that nobody will ever forget. You…" she paused, indecision written all over her face, before she blurted out, "—you won't forget, will you? And you won't let me forget?"
The question made him swallow. "Never. We'll never forget."
She exhaled quickly before reaching up and giving him a tight hug. "Thank you, Uncle Shiki." When she pulled back, she had her signature smile on her lips. "Natsume and I are going to head home now. You'll be okay and take care of Uncle Kazu while I'm gone, won't you? I hear he's getting kind of old."
She winked and Shiki couldn't help the smirk. "Of course," he answered automatically, straightening as she began to walk across the room. "I'm glad you dropped by, Mikan."
She smiled from over her shoulder. "I would never forget to come over today." It was a simple reply, but it still sent a dull throb in his chest. "Never forgetting, remember?"
"Never forgetting," he agreed.
Her eyes were bright when she threw her arms around Kazu's shoulders. He heard a muffled 'thank you' from Kazu's shoulder for allowing them to eat dinner in his office before they began bundling up to head back outside. Kaoru's boy was quiet at her side, but his eyes were thoughtful and never left her for more than ten seconds. He saw a little bit of himself in this boy, and there was more than a little Yuka in Mikan.
"Thank you for having us over for dinner," the boy said lowly once it was clear Mikan was done doing up every button on her coat.
"Thank you for bringing dinner," Kazu said with a slight laugh. "Make sure you both get home safe, all right?"
"Of course!" Mikan said brightly.
As Shiki watched Kaoru's boy nod, he couldn't help the approval he had for this boy, the one that had Mikan's heart in his hands. It may have been the boy's almost solemn nod of promise to take care of her. It may have been in the inherent way Shiki believed him. It may have been the wish that he could have done just that for Yuka.
They were gone within moments and Kazu turned to him with raised eyebrows. "Ten years," he said slowly, "Are you all right?"
Shiki rolled his shoulders and headed back toward the couches. The rain continued to pound on the windows and the grey of the sky eased the confliction in his stomach. "I'm fine. They say it gets easier every year."
"Just because they say that, doesn't mean it's true," Kazu riposted thoughtfully. "Is it getting easier?"
Shiki didn't know how to respond to that. He didn't exactly know what was true and what wasn't anymore, not when it came to himself. He merely shrugged and watched Kazu putter to his desk to grab the jacket thrown over the back of his chair. "You're planning on staying a little longer, aren't you?" Kazu asked finally once his jacket was pushed smoothly over his shoulders. "Do you need anything else? More chairs?"
"No," Shiki said quietly. "No, I'll be okay."
"All right—" Kazu headed toward the door. "You know how everything works so take it easy. I'll see you in the morning."
He was alone the next minute. Vaguely he wondered what time it was, if Yuka really died ten years to this day. He wondered about a lot of things, life and death and whatever was beyond it. He wondered if it was normal to think about one person so much. Teaching at the Academy, traveling, watching the sky… everything seemed to remind him of her.
Mikan asked him if he would ever forget.
Shiki honestly didn't think he would, even if he wanted to. Sometimes he wondered if he wanted to. A little part of him wondered how his life would be if he never met Azumi Yuka, if every thought was no longer dominated by what ifs and memories and regrets. The rest of him would never apologize and never turn in the way he felt about her. Everything he did seemed to rest on the reasoning that Yuka would want it. How would it be otherwise? It was funny; he couldn't imagine, could barely remember the days before he met Yuka.
There was a short rap on the door before the door to Kazu's office opened.
Narumi's head peeked in before he strode through the doorway purposefully, fluffing the rain from his wet, black coat. "You didn't start without me this time," Narumi said airily, hanging his coat up on the rack by the door. "Thanks." Shiki didn't know what to say, but it seemed Narumi wasn't finished. "Drinking alone is kind of sad, though, so it's a good thing you waited. Then again, it didn't stop you last year."
He threw a quick grin over his shoulder before tugging a bottle of alcohol from the pocket of his jacket. "How are you, Shiki?"
It took him a long moment to respond in which time Narumi eased himself into the armchair across from the couch and plunked the bottle onto the table. He still looked the same with the long blond hair and violet eyes and an ease that followed him from his arrogant, rebellious years at the elementary school branch. They were polar opposites, Narumi and he, and yet they had one startling commonality.
Shiki got up from his seat and started over to Kazu's desk to fish out four shot glasses before responding. "I'm the same as last year." Shiki ignored the 'that bad huh' comment Narumi threw his way before he settled back into his seat and lined up the shot glasses. "How's life outside the Academy?"
"Beautiful," Narumi responded easily, without preamble, as he twisted the top off the bottle. "White sand beaches and clear blue waters are really a sight to behold in Australia. Too bad I burnt like a lobster on my first day there." He topped off two shots, raising his eyebrow at the empty two, but didn't ask questions. He pushed one over to Shiki before picking up the remaining one and holding it up as a toast. "But it's still nothing without her."
Shiki drank to that.
They caught up a bit more, filling in the blank spaces from the past year, before Narumi couldn't seem to hold back the question for much longer. "Are they coming again?" As if Shiki didn't already understand, Narumi nodded to the two empty shot glasses still sitting awkwardly to the side of the table.
Shiki shrugged. "If they do, then it's there for them. If not, more for us, I suppose."
Narumi grinned slightly. "My, who would've thought? The Golden Boy at Alice Academy… the Student Council President… drinking his weight in alcohol. I have another bottle in the other pocket but I just didn't think… I don't think anybody would have believed it all those years ago."
"I don't think anybody could predict anything that happened all of those years ago," Shiki said calmly, pouring himself another drink. "I always thought we would escape that mess at the Academy… or beat it."
Narumi grabbed his shot thoughtfully. "We did. The bastard's gone, isn't he?"
"But so is Yuka and Kaoru-senpai and Izumi-sensei." Narumi nodded once, his lips pursed and his jaw clenched firmly. Shiki replaced the bottle on the table. "You grow up believing fairy-tale endings are possible, but sometimes… sometimes—" He didn't finish his thought, but merely downed his shot. This wasn't the type of behaviour he ever really condoned, but just this once, on this particular day, he would let himself remember far more than usual and bask in times seemingly long forgotten with friends he would never forget.
There was silence with the exception of the rain still beating against the windows. Vaguely, Shiki wondered whether the day was over yet. It was a sobering thought. Was he anxious to live another decade without her? Why was he so quick to want the day to end? It was ten years since she died. He could hardly believe it some days, other days he felt like it was just yesterday that he traveled around the world with her.
He wished time could stand still.
He wished he could turn it back.
He wished for a lot of things.
"I kind of hated you back then," Narumi said finally, as if he was revealing some kind of horrible secret.
Shiki came back to himself and blinked before he leaned against the back of the couch and sighed. "You've told me, Narumi."
"I still kind of hate you," Narumi continued in a drawl.
"You've told me that too."
Narumi sighed before he too leaned fully into his armchair. His violet eyes were clearly glassy, or perhaps it was Shiki's eyes that were glassy. Perhaps both their eyes were glassy. Yuka's eyes were always glassy. "She often cried in her sleep," Shiki shared quietly, the alcohol appeared to make him a little more talkative. He pushed a hand through his hair and sighed once more. "I still thought she looked beautiful."
"Are you gloating?" Narumi asked casually, tilting his gaze in Shiki's direction. "Because you got to spend ten years with her by your side while I stayed at the Academy?"
Shiki thought he might have rolled his eyes. "I wasn't gloating, Narumi."
Narumi chuckled lightly. "Yeah, I was only joking."
"No, you weren't."
Narumi merely shrugged. "I was kind of joking. We didn't get to spend much time together, her and I, so any mention of you and her outside of the Academy at that time makes me a little jealous." Shiki nodded vaguely in understanding before Narumi leaned his head back to gaze unseeingly at the ceiling. "But if you were gloating, I think I was her first kiss."
Shiki snorted. "It really doesn't matter. She didn't choose either of us, remember?"
"You really don't have any regard to a man's feelings, do you?" Narumi chuckled quietly. He sighed loudly before righting his head and leaning his chin against the palm of his hand. "She didn't exactly give us any closure, huh? I think I might have been able to get over her, had she let me. Don't you think that sometimes?"
It was moments like these, on this day, that Shiki found particularly hard and particularly liberating. It was the sharing, the confessions, the one day he could reveal some of his deepest and darkest regrets, memories and feelings without being judged. By morning, the words would have been forgotten until the next year on the same day.
Shiki barely paused as the honesty left his lips. "No. That was never a possibility for me, I'm afraid."
"I like to think that it could have happened," the edge of airy amusement was gone from his voice. "But she's ruined me for everyone else. She really has. I still don't know what to do with myself. When it's all said and done, there just doesn't seem like there's anything left for me. A part of me wishes I could have died together with Kuonji that day when it was all over. I had a purpose then. It would have been a noble ending."
Narumi paused and fiddled with the empty shot glass in his lap, his voice bittersweet. "But as it is, that chapter has ended and the rest of my book is filled with plotless ramblings and a pathetic main character that doesn't know what he's doing and doesn't exactly have anything going for him."
The silence was brief.
"At least you're pretty."
Shiki blinked, wondering who said it or if it had been him, but as quickly as the thought came, the sooner it disappeared. He distinctly recalled a feminine voice and it wasn't much longer that the woman took one step further into the room with two taps of her shoes. He blinked once more before he turned his gaze to her. He felt Narumi do the same.
"When did you get here?" Narumi asked. It would have been scathing had he not sounded so resigned.
Luna shuffled her feet before tucking her hair behind her ear. The hand that was holding her jacket moved until her palm revealed a dark blue stone: a teleportation stone. "I didn't know whether or not I was welcome this year, but I thought…" She shrugged warily, just as resigned. "I like knowing I'm not the only one she haunts."
Narumi turned away and looked at his nails. "Is that Yuka-senpai's stone?"
Shiki didn't say a word, only picked up one of the empty shot glasses and slid it over the table nearest the other armchair beside Narumi.
He'd always been wary of Luna. He never knew what to feel around her between anger, sympathy and regret. He should have been angry that she played a hand in Yuka's death. He should sympathize that despite her misgivings and her terrible choices, it was obvious she still cared deeply for her former best friend. He should have known the regret she felt. But Shiki never thought about Luna until moments like these and at this moment, he only cared that they were all here to remember Yuka and Izumi-sensei and that was enough to put their differences aside, if only for the day.
Luna's hesitant steps slowly approached before she took the wordlessly proffered seat and took the bottle from Shiki's hand. "Yes, it's Yuka's teleportation stone. I think it may be good for another two trips before it's used up but I…" she paused a moment to focus on pouring herself a shot before placing the bottle back onto the table. "I don't want to use it up because it will disappear and disappearing will make me…" She closed her eyes and exhaled quickly. "I don't want to forget. I don't want to forget the time when Yuka taught me how to make an Alice stone when nobody else would. I don't want to forget that she gave me this."
She took a sip before throwing the alcohol back with a grimace. Her eyes closed.
When she opened them, Shiki spied dark, sad blue eyes.
"I begged her to steal my Alice," Narumi said conversationally, swirling several drops of alcohol at the bottom of his glass. "By the end of the night, there were dozens, maybe more than a hundred of my Alice stones around us. They were violet and glowed." He was quiet a moment as if he was reliving the moment again. Shiki could almost see the faint smile on his lips. "She was the first to tell me they were beautiful. She'd said even inside me, they'd be beautiful."
"We shared Alice stones quite often," Shiki said vaguely, no memory in particular coming to mind. Shiki had a lot to say about Yuka and Alice stones, but that was the first thought that came to mind. His second thought was, "The Alice stone legend is incredibly misleading."
Narumi chuckled and Luna smiled a small, shy smile. They were plunged into a thoughtful silence before Narumi stretched his arms up and plunked his glass on the table. "Well now that you're here, I'm assuming Persona's coming."
"His name is Rei," Luna's voice was annoyed, but reserved. "And I don't know. You know how he is. He's shy. It doesn't help that you accused him all night about killing Izumi-sensei last year."
"Well that didn't stop you from coming, did it?"
The words were a slap in the face and Shiki blinked in alarm. "Narumi, shut up." His eyes slid discreetly over to Luna whose lips had thinned and paled to the point of nonexistence. Shiki didn't know how to console women when he was sober. He definitely didn't know how to go about it when he was intoxicated. He ran a hand down his face and glared at the half-innocent, half-shamed look on Narumi's face.
"Look," Luna's voice shook with something that may have been anger and may have been tears. "I know I didn't have the best judgement back then. I know I was partially responsible. But…" She paused, trying to look for words, but ended up shaking her head. She rubbed her forehead with a sigh. "Never mind. Thanks for the free alcohol, I guess."
She stood up and grabbed her coat from the back of the armchair but stopped when Narumi groaned. He didn't turn to look at her, but his words were directed at Luna nonetheless. "I'm not usually like this. It's that time of year again and I'm not at my best. You can trust me when I say that most of the time, I don't blame you for it. You can stay."
She turned and tried to smile. "I think I've overstayed my welcome. Maybe next year, I'll see you two again."
As she turned to leave, Shiki's loosened tongue struck once more. "She's told me countless times that she doesn't blame Rei and she doesn't blame you either. You heard her last words. She—"
"We heard her last words," Narumi interrupted him softly, the eyes directed at his hands were now looking at the windows. "They're not something easily forgotten. None of this was. I don't think it should be any other way." He drew in a shaky breath and exhaled sharply. In a tight voice, he murmured, "Don't you both forget it."
Luna shifted on her feet. "I just wish—"
"We all wish," Narumi cut in. "That we had a little more time, that they had a little more time. I was jealous out of my mind that she liked him." He sighed and stared hard at the table, or perhaps it was the liquor. His voice was a mix between firm and soft. "But she was happy. Even at the Academy when everything was a mess, I could never forget how happy he made her. I can only wish she's happy now, up there with him." He laughed quietly. "At least that will make one of us."
For a moment, even the rain seemed to quiet down along with their thoughts.
Shiki reached over to line their three glasses down a line before pouring the rest of the alcohol into each little cup. He passed them out solemnly and watched as Luna resumed her sitting position in the armchair before he picked up his drink.
"She loved us," Shiki said softly.
"I loved her," Luna echoed quietly.
"I love her," Narumi was firm.
They all drank.
The rain started beating heavily once more, but no more words needed to be said.
They would never forget.