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Sunday, March 21, 2021

Master Content List

Please find below a master list of all of our content, broken down by length and genre. Novels first, then short stories, along with downloads for e-versions.

Download Directory

Novels
Historical Fiction

A Young Macedonian in the Army of Alexander the Great by Alfred J Church e-download
The Count of the Saxon Shore by Alfred J Church e-download
The Lance of Kanana by Harry W French e-download

Realistic Fiction
Ore No Imouto Ga Konna Ni Kawaii Wake Ga Nai by Tsukasa Fushimi e-download

Speculative Fiction
Digital Devil Story: Reincarnation of the Goddess by Aya Nishitani e-download
Digital Devil Story: Warrior of the Demon City by Aya Nishitani e-download
The Longing of Shiina Ryo by Ryuno e-download

Short Stories
Horror
The Yellow House by Amberlynne O'Shea e-download

Speculative Fiction
Amazon by Cari Brunton e-download
Nothing is Free by Ronald D Mina e-download
Return by Ronald D Mina e-download
Angel Notes by Kinoku Nasu e-download
Put a Stake in It by Andrea L Rau e-download

Realistic Fiction
It's All Normal by Kate Ottavio e-download

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Longing of Shiina Ryo Volume 2: d.m.c - Chapter 2.5 Intermezzo: The Kouma Yon Experiment

Deja vú.

Once again the boy I loved walked into the café, and not for the first time I couldn’t help but notice how similar he was to the girl I loved.

My name is Kouma Yon and I do not, for a fact, believe in fate. It strikes me as unreasonable when people prefer to believe that every little thing was already decided to begin with when such a thing not only denies the concept of free will, but is absurdly boring.

I, more than believe, acknowledge a god that watches all the possibilities and, having the power to pick and change them at will, reserves the right not to.

My concept of love might come across as warped to some, but in all frankness it doesn’t bother me because, even though I am entirely sure I am not the first person to feel that way, it belongs to me. It might be wicked love, but it’s my love and that is all that matters.

To me, love is the same whether it is directed towards a parent, a friend, a puppy or a lover. Not several kinds of love like the Ancient Greek used to believe; Eros, Storge, Philia and Agape are unnecessary names for the exact same thing, and that sort of conceptual mistake happens more often that you’d think. People seem to assume there are feelings in music, paintings, movies, novels, even martial arts. Like everything is mystical in its own way.

I am not ‘people’.

Music is just manipulation of noise, paintings are just lines and blots of pigments, movies are nothing more than pictures with noise, novels are mere printed words while martial arts are body movements and that is all. Nothing mystical, emotional or sacred about them and the feelings one might experience belong to the person alone; the artists may appeal to a certain kind of reaction, but it is absolutely impossible to tell whether the author was feeling something while composing a work or if the actor was performing with passion.

You can’t judge how a man feels from the style and lyrical content of a song he allegedly wrote about his lover, you can only judge the quality of the songwriting.

You can’t tell if a writer’s magnum opus was born out of despairing memories or the author just acts like that to attract those who seek to be surrounded by all things edgy, you can only see if the fiction is well-written.

They couldn’t know my ‘art’ was just a thinly disguised mash-up of hundreds of styles, learnt by pure analysis of every dot and recreated with ease once every aspect of the source was fully comprehended. Instead, they called me a ‘genius’ and the second coming of this and that artist, while referring to my work as ‘deep and soulful.’ I don’t even think I have a soul. I didn’t feel a thing while drawing and painting the works that got me the scholarships I refused and prizes I didn’t bother to pick up.

Everything I do is just collage.

Subcategories based on concept instead of execution are futile. It doesn’t matter what you want or what you feel, just what you do. Your affection, your hate, your trust and care are null. Wanting to save the world doesn’t mean a thing, but killing one person or more does.

Cause is passive, void and worthless; effect is active, everything and absolute.

So whether the love I feel is a result of chemicals, a holy sentiment bestowed to me by heaven or misplaced attention resultant of the broken base for relationships I have, my intentions don’t matter as long as I act good. More important than ends justifying means, my means justify following or avoiding on purpose whatever idea that acts as an initial spark to them. It’s such a relief to my mind as it takes away the heaviest of all burdens.

Being a monster inside is no longer an issue for me, especially not when I’m around him.

“You’re looking great, Kouma. I like the dark red shirt with polka dot combination on you, makes you look almost harmless.”

“You’re being redundant.” He already knew of my fake narcissism was just a way to joke about my self-hatred. Yes, I was capable of making a joke. “Very unmanly too. Glad to see you’re the same as always, Shin-tsu.”

“Did you order already? I’m in the mood for-”

“French fries, because I remind you of Amelie. You told me that two months ago and I came dressed in the same outfit as a social experiment.” I touched the technical book on game theory not just from instinct. “You can subvert it now by picking something different and pretending it was your first option or say you wanted me to think that, but either way you have the bitter feeling inside that I got the best of you this time.”

I wondered if he was aware of the faces he made whenever someone tried to antagonize him.

“The shoes are different and so is the handbag. You were wearing earrings too, and the perfume was muskier than this one, which has a pretty noticeable ‘floral’ attribute, even a little bit of ‘citric.’ The order of red and green in your nails is inverted compared to that day except on the pinkies. Commenting on a haircut is irrelevant considering it was two months ago, so I will abstain from it. Your progress on the book regressed around thirty pages, hard to tell exactly because it’s a paperback volume. Might be thirty-three. One more thing.”

“Yes?”

“You hid your killer grin a little better last time.”

More like I don’t mind showing it to him as much, even if it seemed to scare everyone else.

“A full analysis, which implies you’re inspired. Wonderful.” I stared at the waitress who brought the coffee, Chinese dumplings and French fries I ordered exactly four minutes and a half before he got here until she went away. This session would not be a waste. “Go on, start talking. This therapist charges by the hour.”

“Guess I can’t hide anything from you.”

“Of all people, you should know I’m not stupid enough to fall for that.”

“Sorry, bad habit.”

“I forgive you.”

“Never thought I’d listen to these words coming out of your mouth.”

“I shall surprise you more later on. Mark my words.”

“Color me interested. Miss, may I?”

“Dislike the band. Go on.”

“I wonder if we can get away with that, having avoided so many brand names so far.”

“Shin-tsu?”

“Yes?”

“Focus.”

He frowned. “Okay. So, today I went out with Akane as I had promised her.”

“Are you that indiscriminate about females?”

“Just listen for now, okay?”

“You know I don’t work that way.”

“Yeah, you just like 2D characters and Shiina Ryo. And my arm.”

“Wait, what?”

“Nevermind. It was almost cute, how she was actually worried that I skipped school because I was scared of her in some way. No self-esteem whatsoever, really.”

“Did you?”

“No.”

“Okay, proceed.”

“So it didn’t take me long to realize she was looking for someone to sit with her on the bus.”

That line took me by surprise.

“…I beg your pardon? Is that a euphemism youngsters are using these days?”

“You know how strangers sit by your side in buses when there’s a free spot?”

I felt my eyes open wide.

“To avoid that?” I knew I was far from being a regular society member but even I knew the best way to avoid strangers on the bus was not to take it. “That could be even worse in terms of social awkwardness than Ryo, perhaps verging on savant-level if one considers what you told me about her being a music school dropout slash genius. I appreciate that. Quite a lot. She seems interesting as a test subject even if I never saw one.”

“Wait for it. We got on the bus and no matter how much I tried, she wouldn’t use her voice in public. Pretty strict about getting the window seat too, and when that attitude transferred to outside the bus…”

“Excuse me, but how? Also, where were you going? The more details you give me the better.”

“She kept saying ‘please don’t stand in the same horizontal line as I do’ and similar because she’s so paranoid whenever there’s a mirrored surface she’ll use the reflection to watch the world around her. Not joking. And the city nearby, which was no surprise considering how big it was compared to this. If I were to take someone from outside the country out on a date it would probably be the obvious choice, since it’s the closest to a first-world kind of town you get around here.”

“Stay classy.”

“I didn’t mean to offend you. This one is growing, but it’s far from a metropolis. That one, not so much.”

“None taken. You were all around the world and have seen everything after all, right?”

“…I wonder how long will it take for me to convince you of that.”

“Carry on, will you?”

“I’ve been through some weird stuff but that date was one of a kind, really. We kept walking until she made me stop by a Post Office. What was interesting was not the place, but what we could watch from there. Or rather, ‘who’ we could watch. Or rather, ‘who’ we could listen to.”

“Megumi?”

“Yeah. Apparently the reason why she avoided everything on Saturdays lately was so she secretly could go acoustic on the train station. Not for the pennies, it was more to lose fear of public. I mean, really. She walks around like that all day and was afraid of playing at the festival so she decided to just go outside and learn it the hard way.”

“I take it Akane wanted to watch her from afar and that’s why she didn’t go with Megumi and went with you instead.”

“Which is exactly why I grabbed her by the arm and dragged the girl all the way there making sure to scream ‘GREAT PERFORMANCE MEGUMI, AKANE WAS TEARING UP BACK THERE’ at the top of my lungs so running away would only be harder for her.”

“So not you in a way, so you in others.”

“Ends justify the means.”

“Does the story end there?”

“Not quite. Megumi is a little simpleminded so she never questioned why we were there and just took the two of us out. We tried to call our leader but she didn’t think she’d be able to go outside unnoticed. Thus we visited two arcades and a karaoke, as those were things we can’t enjoy with Rin because she’d complain about everything, from the quality of the games in the current state of the industry to our singing. Then we went to a mall to eat more, because Megumi craves meat like a lumberjack, and things got a little weird.”

“Do lumberjacks crave meat? How exactly?”

“Yes, yes they do. Akane went to the bathroom. Megumi and I were just checking people out from the restaurant’s balcony and talking nonsense while eating burgers, such as crazy manias people have. I mentioned Akane’s paranoia and Megumi got mad. I tried to assure her it was just me being playful and nothing I wouldn’t say in front of Akane herself but she took offense to it and started mocking me. She kept on and on picking stuff about me while I tried to calm her down, but then she got loud and people started looking at us, so I kind of got back at her and talked about how her appearance was freaky and trying-too-hard, especially her eyes.”

“Mhm.” I contorted my face in a frown that physically hurt me, possibly due to not using the muscles, ever. “And then?”

“As she got visibly hurt Akane came out, gave me a hawk look and they left, so I came back and now I’m talking to you. Can you spare some of your personal insight?”

I tried to ignore the sarcasm, as it was obvious he was in trouble.

“In a moment. Let’s talk about Ryo for a while, so you can relate to what I’ll tell you a little better.”

“Is that how you want to do this? Alright then. I assume you know I talked to her recently and it didn’t go well. Despite the obvious issue with me, what’s going on with Ryo recently? She seems so… different.”

How brilliant, Sherlock.

“Mostly I’m afraid she has a huge creative block. As far as I’m concerned, ARK is on hiatus. It started a month or two before you came to town and at first it was a relief because I honestly needed a vacation from drawing concept art for every unlikely-to-make-profit idea she had, but now it bothers me.”

“Wait, haven’t you guys worked in any games, manga or light novels recently? From the way you were talking the first time it sounded like you did stuff like that all the time.”

“We work a lot on the concepts. We just never get anything done. Ryo’s methodology of work is 98% research and procrastinating, 1,50% complaining about writing and the rest is actually writing.” I took a sip. “That said, you are very, very mistaken and delusional when it comes to Ryo, Shin-tsu.”

He seemed confused, which was no surprise.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Unlike me, what you seem to like in her is a perfect idealization of her characteristics instead of accepting her as a whole. You mostly ignore her flaws and expect her to meet the expectancies you project on her. That’s pretty much how society brings up boys to be like, but that is still rather painful to watch, even for me.”

“Are you calling me ‘biased?’ You, the person who assumes everything in human behavior from functioning relationships to archetypes can be explained by Freud’s view of psychology? Attacking people because you think they’re going to be in the way of your childhood friend doesn’t help your case at all.”

Only then I noticed how rude I could come across to some, but couldn’t say a thing directly related to the topic after that without losing my composure.

“…Shin-tsu, you ought to start liking people for their flaws. Accepting them as they are, at the very least.”

“Seriously, what are you even talking about?”

“You take it as a pejorative remark of mine but I think you being biased isn’t that bad, as it’s a defining characteristic of yours. You are unsure, paranoid and biased, but that’s who you are, and without your flaws you wouldn’t be you, at least not the you I tolerate.”

I could tell he appreciated my use of ‘tolerate’ as a pretty word.

“Kouma, I…”

“Don’t.” I put my left palm one inch away from his face in a halt sign that could as well be some sort of slap. “If there’s anyone you need to apologize to, that is Megumi. Your bias went a little too far on her and it’s not exactly why you think it did.”

Using both the index and middle finger from his right hand, he slowly pushed my hand aside. Then he held it with both of his, as if he had the intention of warming me.

“Kouma.” He gazed into my eyes. “Tell me what I said or did wrong.”

I trembled for a fraction of second; the power he had was unbelievable.

“There is no way you could tell without some background information, but the reason why she got upset at you is a little deeper than just your dislike of her body modification. See, Ryo-chan and I went to the same grammar school as her, and although we were never in the same class because of our age difference, I recall she always stood out even as a child without the accessories, colored hair or more ink than blood in her arms. A tad too much, and kids can be cruel.”

“I don’t quite think I’m following your thoughts.”

“The mismatching eyes are actually hers, from birth.”

“Are you telling me I mocked someone with heterochromia?”

“She probably based her look on the concept of making enough of a visual ruse that no one would think her eyes are unfitting. This is just speculation, though.”

“…oh.” The discomfort in his face was so great the only reason I did not take a picture was because I was sure I would see it over and over again if I just stood by his side. “Then I guess I should-”

Not so fast.

“Pay the price for what I just gave you first. I didn’t come here just to eat with you, you know.”

“Yes. Your thesis. Most don’t work on that until they are, well, finishing college.”

“I am not like them at all.” Felt like Dracula, telling a defining truth that way. “Are you ready?”

The boy I loved just shrugged.

“Am I ever?”

“Well, then I have three what-ifs for you. Hopefully you can answer them honestly.”

“I’ll try.”

“Remember how you told me about the mysterious voice that mocked you inside your head and you haven’t heard it for a while? Perhaps coincidentally, one could argue, but not once since you chose to stay away from Ryo?”

“Yes.”

“Remember I was perfectly okay with you getting away from her, but not making her cry?”

“Quite vividly, yes.”

“One. What if I was the voice inside your head?”

“Not flirting, but sometimes you kind of are.”

“Not flattered, you liar.”

“Jokes aside, I don’t think that’s possible. Mind control or telepathy don’t work that way, and if they did and you knew exactly what was inside my head you’d have killed me by now.”

Or fallen for you.

“Alright, two. What if I am just a folie à deux caused by a power of Ryo-chan’s?”

“Shared Psychosis?”

“Not unlikely at all, considering Ayaka had a power that presumably allowed her to induce potent hallucinations by using a simple object like a paper card or, looking from a different angle, affected space in non-permanent ways. The first is much more likely considering she wouldn’t have missed the chance of using the latter against us during the battle, although whether the creature she seemed to be possessed by was rational enough to do so is debatable."

“I guess it would explain your romantic preference for fictional characters. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. No need to get mad at me. I don’t know how I’d react, but I guess it wouldn’t change much how I act towards you or her. If you were a figment of her, I think the only change would be that I’d like her even more.”

Interesting.

“Say, you knew she was sick from the very start, didn’t you?”

“I did spend a lot of time with her online, Kouma… The details are fuzzy and she tried to evade the subject so I don’t know how bad it is but of course I knew she was sick. You might be the childhood friend, but I know her too. Don’t underestimate that.”

I could feel my face muscles contracting lightly and it irritated me further to know he could tell.

“So you were aware of her state and came here anyway?”

“I wanted to be with her.”

“Task in which you clearly are succeeding at.”

“You can’t always get what you want.”

“Three. What if you can’t save her?”

Silence followed because I hit the bull’s eye, and I wondered how Shin-tsu liked a taste of his own medicine, what with him cornering everyone else.

“…I’m fully prepared for that outcome too. I guess I’ll just have to deal with it one way or another.”

“I knew you wouldn’t go full ‘I’ll save her no matter what’ and stuff.”

“And you know I’d die trying just like you, right?”

“Of course, partner. Such is the power of love, etcetera.”

“Oh, I don’t know about love. I do know I’d fight for you too.”

“You cunning bastard.”

“Easy there, crazy fashionista. I wouldn’t do it for just everyone. It’s just that I know you enough to care.”

“Do you know my true nature already?”

“Yes, Kouma.”

“Go on, if you please.”

“You are aderivativebeing.

He scored a few points by using ‘being’ instead of ‘person,’ although that wouldn’t be as bad as ‘people.’ Either way, this was what surprised me the most when I met Shin-tsu: where others, and I am talking about the best of men with a natural tendency to go all the way towards amateur sleuth would see the facts and then tie them together as a method of discovery the truth, this little fiend I felt tempted to call a friend saw motives, just like that.

It could be magic or not, but it sure was interesting so I fueled the conversation to learn more about the extent of his deductive power.

“Care to elaborate?”

“You cannot create anything, ever. You have no hopes or dreams of your own, but you chose to enable those of the ones you care for because in a sense that would be all you can do. You have absolutely no imagination, just memories, yours and of others.”

“And what kind of human would be that?”

“I don’t think you are human, Kouma.”

“Do I look like something else? Bear in mind I might take offense to your response and if that is the case, you will have to pin your hope on me not being fond of the idea of bearing arms.”

“Excuse me if I came across as rude, or don’t. Your choice, but I can tell you I was honest and you should treasure that either way. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the concept of the right to own weapons, especially guns and similar, doesn’t fly too well here in Japan. But yeah, you come across as something like a magical beast to me. Not like the ones I met, though. Your DNA is pure Homo sapiens material alright, yet your mind is not. You are of human descent, and although this might not make sense at first, your nature surely isn’t human.”

“Correct, we can’t legally have guns here except for some very specific cases which require extensive and somewhat expensive procedures, such as in the case of hunters and sportsmen. And whether I confirm you are correct or not on the second one is irrelevant. Do you know why?”

“It’s simple: whether someone hears the noise or not, the tree already fell in the forest and a fact is a fact. It cannot be altered in any way, just the way we perceive it. Entity or mortal, what difference does it make if I know exactly what you are? What am I supposed to do after the thrill is gone and the mystery is solved? Walk away? Pray tell, how exactly would that be different from running?”

“So self-absorbed.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m wrong. To assume my argument is invalid just because I am a good-for-nothing, whiny, narcissistic jerk would go against your proclaimed love of flaws.”

“I wasn’t complaining about you being self-absorbed. Just mentioning it.”

“Alright then. What I mean is that I know all I need to know about you right now, and that would be ‘what kind of relationship we have.’”

“And what would that be?”

“My best friend.”

“Excuse me? Wouldn’t that be Ryo-chan?”

“Yes. And Reikoku-sensei. And you.”

“I’m afraid you are having issues with the Japanese language again.”

“No, this is more of a conceptual thing… I have strangers, acquaintances and colleagues, lovers and recently even band mates but no friends. I don’t trust friends, I don’t like the idea of that at all. People you laugh with, you cry with, you spend a year or two with and then stay away from them as your relationship withers to the point where you wave at them at the supermarket and that’s it… I don’t want that. I want constancy. I want something that remains forever because nothing ever does.”

It became crystal clear within seconds.

To him, ‘best friend’ is a slot rather than a title. The ones he could connect with were his ‘best friend.’

“Yet you walked away on Ryo. You noticed she’s not okay and you know there’s only so much reaching out to her I can do. Is that something you’d do to a partner you want for life and beyond?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

I was rendered speechless before his bold reply. He suffered no shame admitting how warped he was, and I actually envied him for it.

Shin-tsu was just my kind of repulsive.

“I’m willing to wager what I want for the things that others need, and sometimes to bet the very things I need too. Because I hate myself, but not just because.”

“Why would you tell me? Just because I am part of the group you name ‘best friend’? You should know this might be one-sided. People don’t often correspond to your feelings no matter how strong they are, believe me.”

“…you are really pleasant when implying you have feelings, Kouma. Much prettier than when you smile, too.”

“Once again, stay classy.”

“Friendly jabs aside… I really have to go and fix things up with Megumi. Catch you later.”

As he left, I found myself unsettled.

It bothered and interested me, how someone could be so pure and so pragmatic, so good and evil at the same time. He really was similar to Ryo, albeit far more experienced in a sense; this boy has obviously seen a lot of stuff, even though one needs to take his tales with a grain of salt. He manages to remain a sore thumb sticking out even in a world where, after what we saw, denying the existence of supernatural powers is just silly. Not to say that means everything he said about his past was truth.

To me, Koukishin Shinzou was a liar and that was final regardless of how much of one he would turn out to be.

He was not merely unaffected by morals like I was because of my unnamed condition or even exactly like Shiina Ryo, which would mean ‘switching extremes’ with her obvious Borderline Personality Disorder. Koukishin Shinzou was good, neutral and evil all at once, and every single one of those individual elements composed his ‘true’ personality in a mess so immense and intense they were barely recognizable.

Each of these were separately very easy to spot, considering how he was clearly holding back when we fought against each other and suddenly became stronger when I underestimated him, but did nothing more than stopping me despite having every reason to believe I would kill him if I had the chance. Or how he came up with the idea of trapping Ayaka using psychological pressure, but didn’t go for the kill. Instead, he aimed for restraining the monster while it could be seen Ryo tried to put it down for good.

He had boundaries and I wanted to know what they were, but asking him would be pointless one way or another, so I played games.

It was actually amusing how, even in this setting, just believing what he said was hard, while whenever he made a joke or said an inoffensive lie I had to fight not to get caught in it. Like he could say the truth and it would make one doubt, but whatever he said would only be instantly believable if it was tainted with a dosage of lies. Not hard at all to see how people could distrust someone like him; it was a curse whether he was aware of it or not, except the moment he decides to use that in his favor it’s bound to be a curse to everyone else.

So yes, I was thoroughly obsessed with his ambivalence, a precious monstrosity which gives a whole new meaning to polyvalence and given the circumstances, even gave an actual meaning to omnivalence. In other words, it could be said I was obsessed with him.

Not accurate.

I was, for all effects, obsessed. The object, however, was an immaterial one. An untouchable, flawless concept even in my eyes. Not just with him and not just with her, but with the fact the three of us managed to meet and bond somehow. Three beings so broken in different ways brought close and not by fate but by a small, infinitely slim chance…

“Shall we carry on with the little ‘conspiracy’ of ours, then?”

…it was just too beautiful.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Longing of Shiina Ryo Volume 2: d.m.c - Chapter 2: Akane

Inside that seemingly calm and forgotten room, the synchronized movements of four students generated results that simply could not be witnessed by anyone else. That was probably part of the beauty of the whole thing, the way we always forgot the world around us whenever we got together. Sometimes I would even forget there was more of me than just a center panned, low rumbling waveform in the midst of many other sounds produced by the three girls I shared most of my afternoons with.



The now longer, slightly sweaty strand of hair that fell over my eyes for a second as I ran my fingers through the bass’ neck was crude, poor, but undeniable physical evidence of the passage of time. Nothing drastic, though.



Only two months had passed since practice began, but I had already grown used to having this activity as part of my life. We couldn’t do it every single day because of Rin’s position as a student council member, and every once in a while Akane’s mother would need help because running the only flower shop with delivery service in town by yourself is not much of a glamorous lifestyle if you ask me.



In order to avoid Rin’s suspicion, I came up with a system that works similarly to some countries’ day-based driving restriction: whenever the occasion came, the colorful guitarist would follow the plan we agreed on and depending on the previous experiences use a new alibi (such as having to study) or just tag along and help Akane. To ensure it wouldn’t look too fishy and obviously formulaic after a few occurrences, even I had to take part in the scheme, sometimes as a helper in the flower shop and others as the younger student tutoring her. All the irony in that generated little more than two or three jokes from Rin that were repelled with barely passable acting performances of Megumi’s false anger.



It sure helped that Rin did not seem to be particularly interested in spending time with us outside the rehearsal room except for the obligatory food quests we did on a regular basis, and I can’t honestly blame someone with her upbringing for not caring for commoner experiences such as having fun simply by going to a mini-market with friends, which is exactly why I never pushed her to come with us whenever she didn’t felt like it (and I noticed it happened more often in places where she could actually be seen with us). Chances are her father remained unaware of her afterschool activities, or at least assumed they were still pertinent to the council.



Or just did not care. There are families like that.



An unpleasant surprise struck me as an initially-sharp, distorted noise morphed from absurdly high to low and lost definition in less than a second in my right ear. It was one of those sounds you never really get used to no matter how many times it pierces your timpani. The sound of a guitar string breaking passing through a distortion system is just, for the lack of a better (or in this case much worse) word, unique.



“Again, Megumi?” I said as we all took off our headphones to avoid permanent hearing damage from the subsequent rising levels of static that followed. “A fair share of our budget is going straight for replacement of strings because of this, you know. Take it easy.”



“No can do, bro. Someone keeps complaining about my finger tone or whatever, so all I can do is pick harder.”



“Perhaps next time you could try picking better instead of harder. Technique before strength, always.” Rin gave her a bored look before turning the distortion off, but it didn’t last long as she moved her head towards someone else. “Akane-san, would you be so kind as to pass me the string box? Unfortunately one of our members cannot perform such basic maintenance on her own instrument.”



From where I stood I could see Akane taking the box from behind her drum throne and handing it to our school council president in the most discrete manner someone possibly can, an interesting contrast to how ‘loud’ she could be when it came to playing. Even though I only heard her through the synthetic sounds triggered by the electronic drum kit she borrowed from Rin, I could already tell the reason of all that admiration I at first assumed to be uncalled: she was a very precise and tight player, even if almost mechanical.



The way she could read through our intentions as the four of us jammed while not being able to look me in the eyes even though we’ve been sitting in front of each other for two months interested me a lot.



“Hold on, it’s not my fault! I told you I’m still not used to messing with floating bridges and this guitar isn’t even standard!”



And she was correct: it really wasn’t. Although not half as ‘customized’ as her acoustic one, the guitar Megumi got from a pawn shop was a seven string one, the extended range handy even if the reason why she got it in the first place was because it was flashier than her previous electric guitar. Apparently the guitar was ‘abandoned’ by her original owner, as he pawned it and did not show up to get it back for around six months. Money issues, one figures.



It required some work in order to make it functional again, such as electronic repair and minor part replacements, which a luthier supposedly did (though I’m sure Rin did it on her own). I could see no other reason for the secondary pickup remaining useless after the supposed ‘professional repair,’ especially considering wiring transducers is something those people do every day for a living. When I realized that was the case I didn’t know if I should be more surprised at her working hard with her own hands or her being genuinely nice and not bragging about it.



“If you intend to throw excuses at me on a regular basis I suggest you take some time to ponder them. Two months is more than enough time to learn how to string a guitar, especially considering how often you break strings.” It was even harder to believe she was capable of being kind when she spoke like that. She unplugged the guitar and cable from the mixing console. “If the two of you want to take a break, now is the time. I will try and teach Megumi how to do this.”



The colorful girl set her animosity aside for a moment and smiled, an action that simultaneously stirred all of her piercings.



“Whoa, really?”



“Certainly. I have no intention of doing this for you any longer, so pay attention.”



I tried to meet Akane’s gaze to see whether she wanted to keep on jamming, just the two of us, but gave up when I saw her already nibbling on an oversized, definitely homemade fiber cookie.



Her mother had a penchant for natural-ish vegan recipes, something I experienced every time I went there and she greeted me with a new one. Not to say that they were bad or anything, but everything always seemed to taste rather earthy. While the shy drummer seemed not to mind it at all, her friend and secret roommate seemed eager to eat some meat whenever she was outside.



Trespassing through a thin breach in the thick curtains, a thread of light illuminated my bag on the floor, making it cast a new set of shadows. Without a doubt, it was a sign from Heaven that I should drink the strawberry juice that waited for me inside before it got warm.



Bass resting on my lap like a baby, I just arched my back once as a warm up and clumsily moved my body as if I was swimming sideways afterwards in order to be able to reach for the bag. I felt lazy at that point but opened the juice while doing those weird movements just so I could drink from the can while going back to my original sitting position.



“So, what exactly are we going to play here?” I asked after a sip, knowing that was a million-dollar question. “We have done nothing but jam all the time and any omniscient sentient being in the universe knows we’ve done it enough to create themes and clichés of our own. So before someone just answers ‘music’ to sound witty or cool, in this particular moment I am referring to genres, subgenres and such. I will tolerate no jokes on conceptual darkness, brutality, innovation or similar as an answer either. Intensity comes in many forms, so it doesn’t give me the slightest bit of a clue. It could be some subgenre of metal, could be screamo or math rock, technical skate punk wouldn’t be bad and it could be free form jazz for all I know. Therefore, I beg: someone please, please give me a hint.”



Their eyes fell upon me like I uttered the world’s most absurd words.



“I assumed such a thing would be obvious by now, but it might have been a mistake of mine to do so. Forgive me for considering all of you would be able to understand the rather simple thought patterns I used on this subject.” Our school’s Student Council President was, effectively, the only person I knew who could sound like an arrogant spoiled child while saying ‘I’m sorry,’ be entirely aware of it and add a bit more of heat on purpose for both fun and strategic profit, if there is such a thing as her thinking of those two targets separately. “Apparently it is time for me to put the cards on the table.”



“Please do so.”



“While I cannot say I had the highest expectations for this project, I find myself forced to admit we have chemistry as a band, despite the lack of individual ability of some members. A certain portion of that is absolutely required in order to achieve the status where a combined group of musicians conceive and engineer a properly devised array of tunes.”



“Yeah, that’s right!” Megumi looked at Rin intensely and for the first time I saw genuine, unadulterated admiration without a trace of frustration or jealousy. “What kind I don’t know, but no one can say we’re not making music here! This is going to be huge!”



The aura that emanated from Akane made me feel like she too watched Rin, even though her messy, curly bangs covered her eyes, which would hinder a normal person’s visibility. Then again Akane still strikes me as an abnormal fellow. Considering the time it took to get to this level of acceptance, it’s safe to say her strategy wouldn’t be one I’d willingly adopt and it doesn’t seem like I’m being tsundere for her tsundere ways of leadership. I wouldn’t fall for…



…no, it’s best if I avoid thinking about it. Nothing good comes out of pondering on subjects pertaining to things you simply cannot achieve, or rather could but should not for the greater good. Instead, it reminded me of a game I feel like playing whenever I can.



“That would be nice.” I carelessly and slowly unbutton the top of my shirt with my left hand, aware that the flaming gaze that belonged to Rin was almost entirely on me ever since my index finger lay on the now-unfastened red tie; it was pleasant to know she would use peripheral vision in order to check if either of our two band members could see my actions. “It still doesn’t answer my question in any way. What are we going to play, and exactly when? Rehearsals are fun and all, but having goals such as recording a demo or playing gigs… that’s what I personally see as actual band activities. If anyone disagrees, I’ll be happy to listen, but I don’t think there’s a point in having ‘chemistry’ if we’re going to keep the end results to ourselves.”



My opponent crossed legs covered in just-thick-enough stockings visibly made of silk, the gentle rotation of her limbs making me imagine propeller blades spinning in slow motion.



“I was not finished with you, Koukishin-kun; patience is a virtue of utmost value, so I understand.”



The way she completely ignored the fact Megumi interrupted her before I did filled me with a wicked kind of joy. She was sending me a message I was happy to ignore, or rather, contradict… but not with words.



“Then please, proceed.” I said, aware that she had eyes only for me.



Her deep sigh was the confirmation I needed and motivated me to go further.



“Therefore, I took the liberty of saving most of our jam sessions’ recorded files and, after a certain amount of editing, and by that I mean editing as heavy as I could as an amateur audio engineer, I can announce we have the preproduction tracks for our EP ready.”



That’s when I stopped trying to tease her.



“An EP?”



“Surely you know what the acronym stands for.”



“Extended Play, a recording too long to qualify as a single but too short to be a full length album. While it’s hard to tell exactly at which point one category ends and the other begins, the modern usage implies four to seven songs, usually six, of equal importance, in comparison to a single which would usually be one main song, usually accompanied by a B-side track, or a maxi-single, which would be the same as a single but with two or three B-side compositions along with the main one instead. Not to say EPs don’t have remixes or B-sides in them, quite the other way around; as I stated before, it’s hard to pinpoint a measure for the format everyone would abide to, since the term’s meaning changed a lot through the decades since it was introduced back in… 1952, if I recall correctly.” Beat. “Now that it’s certain we all understand what the acronym means, what exactly do you mean by ‘our EP,’ pray tell? Enlighten me.”



A smirk of hers.



“Oh, I will. This conversation of ‘where are we going with this’ is bound to happen at least once in every musical project, so I decided to be prepared, in the same manner people who have been in a relationship for several years should not be surprised by a marriage proposal, and, in my personal opinion, if they are there is most likely something wrong with the relationship to begin with.”



It seemed to me Rin had a hard time transposing values and morals from one situation to another, which was not a surprise considering her train of thought led her to challenge someone in order to join a band as their leader in classic shounen manga style. It amused me, the way she couldn’t see the reason why she pulled that off and the reason why someone without a personal flaw could be surprised in the excessively specific and thereby suspicious situation she described are the same.



Whether the proposal is acceptable or not in theory, circumstantial issues might result in completely adverse outcomes to what is standard. It’s not what is done, but how and to whom: had she used the same strategy to anyone who wasn’t as stubborn and authority-defying as Megumi, she would be ignored at best, and after several years of wait some people assume it’s just not going to happen anymore and settle for the stability that lies in not having titles that imply, say, stability.



“Moving on, the reason why I was sure to turn our multi-tracked rehearsals into drafts of songs is because I think we achieved the maturity required to take this to the next level. We should record and publish our music worldwide.”



“That’s awesome! It’s going to be so, so great!” Megumi started fist-pumping the air but tried to contain herself when she realized she almost made Rin drop her guitar. “Us, becoming real artists and getting signed!”



It was easy to see Rin would scoff at the colorful girl’s behavior.



“Signed? Really, in this day and age? If you have the connections and money, labels are completely useless.”



“W-what if you don’t?” Akane took a deep breath, something she usually did whenever she needed to have some composure and avoid stuttering. The pitch in her voice usually went lower and serious, which had an odd effect since her figure that was almost a comic rendition of a J-horror novel-turned-movie character, but after months of seeing her nibble and sneeze and be shy while not getting any closer to her I could say ‘odd’ was not the same as ‘terrifying,’ unlike early horror and science fiction magazines would proclaim. “I don’t know about Koukishin-kun and you, Ms. President, but my financial situation isn’t stable enough at the moment to afford professional recordings, and I know for a fact Megumi’s isn’t either. There’s no way you can tell me the ‘allowance’ the club is given by the school is going to enough because I know for a fact you won’t settle for anything less than perfect. Where does this leaves us?”



As expected of Akane.



While I didn’t manage to get any closer to her as friends, I had watched her from a safe distance for long enough to realize similarities between us. She always considers the worst outcome possible first, was always evasive and, whenever she’s not stuttering, presented her arguments in ways that guided you to the same answer she got to.



At that moment, she was trying to make Rin either back down or take the responsibility for whatever ego-feeding plans she had, or make me go against the plan because, in one of the possible scenarios, I’d have to pay for something while they didn’t. It was inspiring to see how she admired our self-proclaimed leader as a musician but did not stand behind her on every occasion, thus confirming the excessive curtains of hair in front of her eyes were not blinding her enough to make her view the Student Council President as a good person who was right all the bloody time. Not only that, she realized that when it came to take decisions, the effective way to stand against someone who held herself in such high regard as Rin was to be passive-aggressive, an activity in which Akane excel.



I liked that in her, even though it implied her self-esteem had been as completely crushed at some point as mine. I could only hope she’d gotten that skill in a different way. Perhaps she got that rather uncanny skill or character trait from watching her mother and then perfected it, most likely not even conscious of doing it at first?.



Whether it’s the whole forbidden fruit appeal thing or something else, at that point Akane was the one out of the three girls that interested me the most despite, or perhaps because, I still barely knew her.



I knew she was going to fail, though.



“…I understand. However, my plan was having the tracking phase happening here . It’s usually the hardest, expensive and most time-consuming part of recording so we would be cutting most of our costs by doing so and also getting a larger and more flexible time-span to work in comparison to booking a studio for the same. Mixing and mastering, now that is something I would rather have a professional do for us because my knowledge in the field only goes so far, but with the way the world has moved forward thanks to technological advancement, it is not unthinkable to have an audio engineer from Europe or America work on your tracks and then send them back to you… As far as I can tell, it is common practice and the price is fair, or so the common man says.”



Of course she wouldn’t bring us a half-baked idea. It was easy to tell she’d probably spent days researching people and if I asked, she could give me a list of names, pricing rates and previous works then and there . Dedication was her strong point.



“We probably will not require any more funds than we already receive from school, but if not, I will happily cover whatever extra costs we may ha-”



“No way. That won’t fly.”



Megumi interrupted Rin’s speech. Took her long enough.



This was the point when I stopped caring and put myself on automatic mode, something that has happened a lot ever since I began hanging out with them . It’s not the same as blanking out because of focusing too hard on an issue, but more like being aware of what was happening and really not giving a damn. I cared about them and I cared about the band but I also knew what it was going to be like because I’ve seen that scene a thousand times before: Megumi would say that it was unacceptable, get a part-time job or something to be able to help if it came to spending more, and make Rin always show her the budget so they could be sure Rin wasn’t just spending her own money. It wasn’t a matter of how much you had but working as a team of companions on the same level. It was mediocre storytelling bonding.



It was boring.



The only twist in that whole thing was that Akane made it all happen without knowing it would end this way. Her lack of experience against criminal masterminds brought her to this situation; her plan backfired because you simply can’t con an honest person. Good or bad, smart or dumb, extreme or not, both Megumi and Rin knew what they wanted and it was the exact same thing as what they said they wanted, while ulterior motives are the cornerstones of every single con ever. In their case, making them think they held the advantage over others by appealing to greed or self-protection only made them even more willing to share and sacrifice for a greater purpose. Clashing personalities aside, no main character would take a shady deal like that, especially with friends or allies involved, and those two occupy that spot in their respective minds. In that particular sense they were ‘normal.’



Now if Akane had all that in mind, knew just how deep this would go and did it intentionally so everyone would hug and feel closer, that would have been quite the impressive feat. However, no matter how much I wanted Akane to be a potential rival in mind games, a genius with strange ideals and goals, I knew that expecting her to think of subverting, inverting and playing straight fiction tropes with people was projecting and most likely far from what was really happening.



I saw Megumi laughing, Rin trying not to and Akane looking confused.



In only a little while, the situation had changed. Rin had real friends she didn’t need to put her mask on for, but did it anyway because it was fun for her, Megumi was less rebellious and more willing to learn even when it was way all above her head, Akane managed to talk to us whenever she had time for that little preparation, even though she’d still stutter around other people no matter how long it took her to mentally prepare herself, and I got my rest from bizarre things and all things related to my past life, to the point where I haven’t even called my parents yet. I should be happy, but this is all incomplete.



At the end of the day, we don’t always get what we want.



***************



As I approached the Student Council room, all I could think about was the mess in the corridor that led to it. Being a corner room, it was only expected that a few things would be gathered by its door, but what I was seeing was a whole new level. While I am sure the boxes and sorted equipment lying on the floor did not belong to the Council or to Rin, I couldn’t help but wonder how someone as easily irritable by imperfection as her could stand working near such a puddle of chaos.



Or whether the Student Council room wasn’t a former improvised storage room.



“Ah, Koukishin-kun. I am glad you found time to lend me your hand.” She was sitting behind a desk and did not raise her gaze to meet me. “We have a fair amount of work to get done with, so for optimal performance it would be better if there were no interruptions. Lock the door.”


“Sure.”



I turned around to do so. When the knob finished its turn with a click, I felt a sudden pressure on my back and wrists pushing me against the wooden door. While my first instinct was to react with violence and the muscles on my body were already contracted, the hot breath I felt on my neck that came along with the rough and breathy contralto made me reconsider.



“Why do you do this to me?”


“And what exactly am I doing?”



“You know just how much you tease me.”



She kept pressing me, and I reminded myself dedication was her strong point.



“As you know exactly why.”



“Because we both have issues with codependency.”



That usually results in bad relationships that are borderline parasitic. We see ourselves in a different light than other people, both for good and bad. The need for acceptance, the denial, a compromise of morals, the absurd judgments and addictions, a loyalty so extreme that we can tell when a situation is harmful but not leave it by making secondary interests a priority. We share that.



“It’s the agreement, our little war game.”



We figured that trait could be negated or at the very least canceled out if two people with it used each other as the target. Not to be in a proper relationship was important, as it would eventually just lead to a greater harm. One could say we were just killing time.



“Aren’t you having fun?” she asked.



I licked my lips and wondered if she was biting hers, as she usually did whenever I ‘played’ with her.



“Not as much as I would have if it was not just build-up with no resolution in sight.”



“You didn’t complain when we established the terms.”



Terms in question: no real couple action, just constant teasing. Every kind, whenever we feel like it and as much as we could possibly get away with, for as long as it doesn’t involve other people and similar stuff.



The pressure stopped because she finally let go.



“You say that, but you did not have a problem with running your finger through your collarbones when Akane-san could have easily seen you.”



“I was just performing a mindless, innocent action. It probably doesn’t mean a thing to other people who don’t have a thing for collarbones, you know.”



“Do not pretend you are unaware of how much I enjoy that!”



“Just don’t fret over it and we’ll be fine. Plus, denying you liked the thrill of having an audience for something that you and you alone consider risqué is very unusual. It is good, to know you react that way.”



“You are terrible.”



I finally heard her take a step back. I turned around only to be thrown against the door again, although this time it was my back that hit it. The front part of my body was basically covered by Rin’s as she stepped forth once again.



“Yes, yes I am, and you love it.” A few centimeters and my upward-pointing index finger blocking her lips were the only things between us. If we go down that road once, I can tell there will be no stopping us, so I’d rather not. “Don’t ruin the fun. The two of us kind of need it.”



“I know. I will not.”



No emotionally cathartic hugging happened after that, and it only served to remind me of how she was not Ryo. At the end of the day, that was both good and bad, but either way, that was constantly being splattered on my face.



Like something that is both poison and cure, depending purely on the occasion.



For our own private, petty reasons, ; we both needed escape valves for our tension and cravings, and they were too intense to involve others, whatever we felt towards other people. To ruin someone else’s life so yours won’t be so bad was not something we wanted to do. By sticking together without actually being together, we were hurting no one but ourselves, and to people like us that is a great achievement.



“That’s good. I was slightly worried you’d give up.”



“Am I not allowed to?”



“You are as free to go just as I am, but it would mean no more... fun.”



For a second that lasted two measures of forever, Rin just stared.



“Do not think lightly of me just because of the way you appeal to my tastes. The fun is yet to begin.”



It’s hard not to smirk whenever someone tells you something like that with a straight face.



“Really? I’ll look forward to it then.”



“And I shall look forward to the day you will get ready to move on so I can, as the common man says, make a real move on you.”



“Nah, surely you’ll get tired of me before that happens.”



“If I do, whose fault is it?” She willingly kissed my finger and then retreated, almost looking shy and romantic. “It is all on you, boy. Come on and set me free.”



I did say ‘almost.’



“I never thought you’d be the kind of person who quotes song lyrics to others.”



“Not to anyone. And Koukishin-kun, I am afraid there are many things you do not know about me yet.”



“I’m sure there are at least two or three I’d love to find out. A man of mystery, that’s me alright.”



Understatement of the decade.



“Is that so? Then I suggest my private investigator take the mysterious case of why the school water bill is here. It could be just an honest mistake, but it could easily lead to the unfolding of a complex money-washing scheme or something similar.”



She meant it as a joke, but I’ve seen too many things like that happen to find it funny.



“You seem disappointed, but I have to remind you I asked for your help and running errands is part of it. Not all can be fun and games.”



Affirmation which points out she honestly thinks I’m upset over not ‘playing around’ with her rather than stunned at how possible/accurate her joke’s assumption could. Given that I did not tell her about my past, it’s only remarkable and a bit too touchy that she had to go and say something like that. Not that she was ever ‘not uncommon.’



So yeah, we weren’t on the same page all the time.



I took the bill in my hands, nodded and left. As I closed the door behind me, I felt like I was stepping on something weird and realized my shoe lace had come undone. I squatted down so I could fix it, an action which consequently made me realize there was a faint shadow being cast near me that didn’t belong to an object.



Turning my head around to face the source just confirmed that the person was trying to conceal her presence. However, it was hard to hide properly in such a messy corridor because moving the objects would result in noise.



“…just how much did you hear, Akane?”



“P-plenty.”



There goes playing, here comes drama.



“Look, it’s…”



“G-go out with m-me.”



Was I shocked? Was I stunned? Did anyone see that coming? Considering my personal history, yeah, probably.



“…what?”



“T-tomorrow.” She breathed deeply and looked down, as if the composure she was searching for was physical and just fell out of her like contact lenses, but it didn’t seem to work because the request she made was quite probably way out of her comfort zone. “Keep it a s-secret, I’ll k-keep yours.”



“Oh.” For a moment all I could do was stare at her. “A-alright.”



With an eye and a frown visible amidst the sea of messy bangs, her face went absolutely serious, borderline furious.



“Don’t make fun of my stutter.”



Taken aback by her sudden shift I almost stuttered again, which would have been quite the portrayal of reverse psychology at work.



“Didn’t mean to. Sorry.”



She bowed, which was out of place even in Japan given the circumstances, and left in a hurry, walking even weirder than usual now that she didn’t have someone’s shadow to do it on. I was left standing there wondering how off the mark someone has to be to think a shy girl who, in the light of such events, seems to have a crush on him is the same kind of maniac manipulator as he is. Talk about being delusional… or right on spot, I couldn’t tell at all.



Oh boy, normal life can be tough too.



***************



Insisting on getting the chair by the window was a good move of mine.



Regardless of my interest or will to help Rin with the Student Council issues, she surely managed it all by herself before I even considered moving to this town. I spent time with her mostly because I had a very special reason to hang out in school for a little while that day. You see, from the Student Council room I had a great view of the entirety of the teacher’s parking lot, thus making my self-inflicted mission easier.



A peek outside, nothing yet.



Having observed the parking lot for a while, I could state without doubt it was always half empty (or half-full depending on your perception of the world). It was probably due to this being a small, increasingly developing town that didn’t need the number of teachers necessary to fill the spots. The school itself wasn’t as crowded as it could be, its three buildings filled with vacant rooms.



Numbers written on the paper placed in front of me made me sigh; the window shows no signs of what I’ve been waiting for.



Alternatively, it could have once been a much greater school both in staff, popularity and students in the past, because judging from the money invested in this place, the architect obviously had had bigger plans than an allegedly girl-predominant school in a small town whose other schools allegedly were crowded or lousy, conditions which resulted in flocks of students journeying daily to the larger town nearby.



One more look at the window, nothing yet.



Flocks of commuters were not an unusual sight, and it would explain why the regional division of the government would want to invest in making this town closer to what you’d expect of a big town. Based on the prices of everything I’ve bought so far and the fact the security of the school was demonstrably precarious, my educated guess said the economy here probably wasn’t doing that great. Perfectly understandable as a direct consequence of urban migration: living Here is cheaper but good open schools and work that really pays is There, so you would have to be rather stupid if, being able to afford it, you don’t spend all the day There and then just come back Here to sleep, which leads to you spending money There in activities such as lunch and recreation, money which Here was relying on because your town needs more than taxes to function as a whole, and then…



“I have to go, catch you later.”



Rin looked befuddled, possibly because I said that in the middle of helping her with the financial reports, but she didn’t try to stop me when I got my bag and ran out, although she might have had I actually given her the chance instead of moving so fast out of the room it was practically teleporting.



Yes, I actually helped her. We didn’t just almost fool around all day.



At that moment I couldn’t tell if it would be easy to make it up to her, but I could afford being treated badly for a while for the sake of my goal, so I kept running down the stairs all the way to the building exit. All I had to do was to make sure I wouldn’t lose sight of Reikoku-sensei because I knew she was up to something.


How?



The third time I went to the Student Council room to help Rin, which coincidentally was the day when Rin proposed this little game of sorts to me, I saw Reikoku-sensei go outside the school gates but leave her car behind. and as I stayed there for a couple hours because I, well, accepted Rin’s proposal, I can testify my homeroom teacher did not return while I was there. That night she had not gone to my place, but on the following day she acted like it was because she had a lot of work to do.



Over the many occasions our self-proclaimed band leader and only current member of the Student Council required my aid and/or just wanted to be together I realized there was, indeed, a pattern.



There was something she hid, and that was why I was going to follow her to find out exactly what ‘it’ was. Now, several interpretations could exist for my behavior, such as jealousy due to her revelation that she had someone she could call a ‘significant other,’ paranoia over the fact we never heard from Ayaka or her family again, concern for her well-being as she could be coping with the treatment of a disease, inner desire to get involved in something mysterious again and many other rationalizations to justify what I would describe as curiosity, raw and pure.



I needed to know.



More important than whether I was being betrayed, knowing was all I wanted and craved for. There was, of course, the thrill of the chase, but it was nothing compared to the revelation at the end of every chapter, to the climax achieved in those glorious moments. It was hard to admit I was addicted to it, and even though it usually came along with the rest of the process that was depriving me of sanity and killing me little by little, I had to have that in my life.



Too bad there wasn’t an Adventurers Anonymous organization to help people like me. I hope it’s because there aren’t many of us. If there are, I feel as sorry for them j I do for myself, and there’s no end to how much I feel sorry for myself, especially when I realized I ended up growing fond of the thrill to the extent the Heaven I worked so hard to conquer looks dull and lifeless.



Following her as she went towards the commercial part of town was interesting.



It wasn’t the first time I found myself having to stalk (or to use a less derogatory term, tail) someone. I could pride myself in not being a specialist of sorts, but not stupid enough to make the grossest beginner mistakes: catching up with her wasn’t necessary and for all effects it would be an undesirable outcome, as the only thing I wanted at the moment was to learn of her after-school activities. And if approaching her was out of question, there was absolutely no need to follow her from close distance; if you want to follow someone without being found out in seconds, it helps to keep just close enough not to lose sight of your target when he, she or person of indeterminate/intermediary gender turns a corner. Chances are that your moment of distraction will result in you losing your target or getting hit and knocked out by it.



Now, it was not a question of trust but survival instincts; while she could be just going out to bowl on a regular basis or a similar activity, my teacher most likely was going after something related to supernatural forces (and the probability of that only increased when I considered the constrained timeframe she had, having a day job and spending time with me most of her nights) and if that was the case, were my presence discovered I would not only expect but hope she’d attack me. Reason being that if, upon realization she was being tracked like prey, Reikoku-sensei didn’t at the very least try to confront someone who observed her, it would mean she definitely wasn’t as reliable as she tried to show during the Ayaka incident.



I wouldn’t make it a breeze for her, though. Since I wanted to test her perception, I figured I should conceal myself the best I could, which was harder to do in a small town because it wasn’t crowded like metropolises were. Hardly any people or cars to hide behind, and it made the secrecy part of the task much harder on me than it made the chase easier. I changed sides of the street once in a while to stay always on the one with better shadows to hide in.



Following her got harder because the rain and wind came suddenly, fast and hot upon the town, as if with the intent to blind me. She wouldn’t stop or hurry and there was some grace in that, which I could only assume would vanish if she got herself a really bad flu or pneumonia.



I kept watching her from afar even when she stopped near a factory and just stood there for what seemed to be hours. Checking my phone didn’t seem like a good idea as I could miss all the magic in a blink, her behavior being strange enough for me to assume there was something big going on and I did right by coming all the way here.



A short-haired young guy in a white t-shirt came out and then she followed him into an alley until he actively noticed her.



“Alright, this is getting annoying. Come here and let’s talk.”



“…”



“Who are you and why are you following me? Actually, I don’t care about who you are but why are you following me?”



“…”



But my teacher just wouldn’t answer it.



“Look, you’re pretty and all but a little too old for me. Sorry.”



“…”



“I even like the whole concept of ‘stalker’ girl. It’s a pretty good archetype if you ask me, if you can pull it off. Not that there’s anything wrong with what you’re doing, anyway.”



“…”



She kept closing the distance.



“No offense, I guess I just prefer my girlfriends younger. It’s a matter of taste and you shouldn’t feel rejected.You are attractive for someone your age. Then again, I haven’t been with anyone for a while now so it’s no time to be picky. And maybe it’s not so much ‘taste’ as it could be just ‘history’… never dated anyone older than me, you see. Could be nice, much better than what I’m used to. Had the chance once, but didn’t take it. Not the only bad decision I’ve made, either.”



“…”



“You see, dropping out of school and then working in a factory was never what I wanted for myself. Maybe I wasn’t a genius like everyone else thought, but at least I was bright enough to get good grades. College bored me, though. You should go there to learn, not to get grades doing stuff you already did before. I waited my whole life to actually learn what I wanted, and after a few months of not doing it when I was supposed to, I quit.”



“…”



Closer.



“Not the cleverest move, I know. Sorry I keep talking about it; it’s just that you look too much like a teacher for me not to think about the subject. I don’t talk to people often either, so sorry if you don’t enjoy this monologue. Adults don’t seem to like other people to expose their inner thoughts publicly, but younger people are quite the audience. They can still learn, so it’s always good to hang out with them. No, not always. Still.”



“…”



“I take it you’re not here to talk either... well, thanks for letting me. The other people that fought me sure weren’t this nice, letting me speak my mind and stuff. They died because of that. You probably will too, being within my ability’s reach and all.”



“…”



“Sorry… I was inconsiderate again. Is this what it’s all about? Were you friends with those guys? They did come after me, so no one can blame me for crushing them like maggots or ants or little rodents with a hammer. It’s a pity those kids got involved, but then again, by that time they were supposed to be at school anyway, so maybe we can disregard that as karma? I mean, come on. I drop school, unemployment followed by job I’m overqualified and underpaid for ensues; they skip school and die a gruesome death getting involved in a fight between super powered freaks. Guess we all learned a lesson there, right?”



“…”



“Well, I’m tired now. I’ll just finish you and then go home to eat a sandwich, perhaps complain about shows I don’t watch on the internet. Thank you for listening, though, I missed doing this. I’ll miss you too.” He let out a sigh and pinched his own left cheek as if to bring himself back to the real world. “So, shall we beg-”



A snapping sound of what it would now be generous to refer to as a jaw. He never finished his sentence because Reikoku-sensei clearly wasn’t chivalrous enough to wait.



Instead of taking a small break, she pressed on as he fell, her her well-known telescopic pointer in hand as his head hit the ground. That would be a great move if she was ready for what came next, and unfortunately she wasn’t.



Movement took place, too fast for my eyes to catch. Reikoku-sensei’s body flew away, resulting in impact with her back straight against the wall. Pain showed on her face in such an expressive way I reflexively reached for my own back.



Only when the humongous blur stopped did I realize what had happened. I saw that his arm had become significantly larger. As in monstrous, borderline demonic.



It was hard not to make that association when a guy has a multitude of horns coming out from his body.



Whether it was my teacher’s fault or not I couldn’t tell, but the fact remained that her enemy’s face looked anything but human at that particular point. His lower canines had become horns, even though they reminded me of the massive trademark features of a saber-toothed tiger; nothing compared to the increasing number of horns in his arms and legs, the pointed keratin-based projections literally blooming from his body. Ironically enough, not a single one on his forehead.



Just by looking at it I knew it was the work of a Shugoshin.



Reikoku-sensei got up and charged without a moment of hesitation. “Hah!”



While the guy’s ability seemed impressive in power at first, the moment I saw the bones fade into a cloud of dust I realized how useless that ability would be in an extended battle, the flaw so visible it felt like cheating . If Reikoku-sensei did not realize it, she probably wasn’t cut out for going around getting in fights and I’d be sure to tell her that right after saving her.



Once bitten, twice shy: the moment he saw her using the pointer as a whip to get him in the face again the guy did a back-flip, which was not enough to avoid completely her advance but, in what I can only assume was a streak of luck, the attack landed on the soles of his feet and somehow propelled him far away instead of causing injuries. At which point I found myself wondering where did luck end and circus performer skills began.



The man breathed as deeply as he could, a very prominent vein popping on his forehead.



“Chaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarge!”



His second attack was smarter, as he used the distance and the way he landed to crouch, run and throw himself forward in a tackle and activated his skill just at the end, making his body an enormous spiked cannon ball. It seemed like he figured out his flaw, so things were bound to get harder for my teacher.



It was a power designed for one-hit-kills and useless for everything else. Once he projected the heavy horns it was impossible for him to move. Punching with the horns, even if they were activated just a moment before they connected, was a ridiculous, amateur tactic. Humongous or not, a limb moving in a specific direction with predicable trajectory is definitely not the same as a giant ball of pure speed possibly weighing way more than a big car, the reason being simple: a sideways dodge was only possible with the first.



Her wide open eyes told me she knew death was near, but I found more surprise than despair.



Jumping over it was out of question without using propulsion from kicking a wall which sounded too hard to perform properly, not to say unrealistic… which could be seen as a perfectly reasonable goal considering she was fighting a man covered in magically materialized horns that weigh tons. Still, she just did the more logical thing and retreated.



Not to a usual position for the situation.



“Knight mode.”



Reikoku-sensei’s posture was the typical fencers’ en garde, her telescopic pointer held like a foil. I’d never have imagined the woman I saw as a somewhat-safe-for-work dominatrix teacher knock-off with a penchant for manipulation would be the kind to, against a hellish enemy, choose the high road and duel in the way only gentlemen would (or should, at the very least). Considering he was a walking rock of massive destruction, she was playing against type and could easily die because of that.



My interest was piqued.



She jumped forward and attacked using her pointer with immense strength, which made me wonder if the green glow I saw was nothing but phosphorescence instead of an amazing power. Her strike did not seem any less dangerous than the ones she used against Ayaka’s Shugoshin, although the shine aspect was not present in this battle, which I could only, taking into account how much information I had, assume was because of the difference in luminosity an alley has when compared to a closed warehouse. No matter how interested I would ever be in a fight, it was only natural for me to pay attention to details like that. Why exactly, I couldn’t tell.



Despite harming a fraction of the horn armor, the attack was not all that effective. As before, the young man’s primary weapons just vanished after usage. It confirmed my hypothesis: he ‘projected’ them rather than expelled them from his body or such. The fact his clothes remained intact was a huge clue.



The moment he ‘erased’ the horns, she went after him. One could easily see my teacher meant business.



She switched the position of her rear and front legs and stamped her foot as if kicking the ground. I could only understand why when he did too: she made it look like she was attacking his torso immediately, which gave him enough time to cross his arms in front of it to limit the harm she could do. However, the little kick at the end propelled her enough so she could position her arm like she were working her biceps and aim for the head with the tip of her pointer.



Even from this distance I could see her eyes flickering as she repeatedly stabbed at him, every thrust so fast it reminded me of a pneumatic jackhammer at work. Her foe did the best he could to retreat, but she would only push forward until her attacks connected with the ground.



A mildly thick cloud of dust rose, a result of the damage the concrete had taken from the man’s extremely heavy wall of marrow spikes and the hammering of Reikoku-sensei’s telescopic pointer, but it wasn’t enough to block my view of the battlefield completely for more than a second.



I got to catch a glimpse of his evolution process.



It was obvious the man wasn’t going to bow down before her, but it was also clear he had become aware of the limitations of his ability against a speed-based opponent. Anyone could see it was a situation where he had to either change his methods or accept his defeat. He put his left arm in front of his body like a butler, or more precisely, as if to do a horizontal karate-like hand chop.



It was only expected that he could and would adapt. As far as I was concerned, at first Ayaka’s power caused potent hallucinations or altered reality using objects, but the moment she needed to fight it changed almost completely, even if you disregard the whole ‘possession’ thing. I knew better than to expect other people with Shugoshin to stay the same.



Likewise, this guy learned too and pretty fast.



He focused his power. His horns emerged from his left arm and he slashed the air sideways generating a shrieking wave of pure pressure strong enough to make my mentor flinch before she was sent flying away.



“Fu-GUH!”



But the profanity cut short by visibly excruciating pain was his, and it was his fault for not calculating the outcome.



He had dislocated his shoulder; his arm was hanging there unnaturally enough to make the stomach churn. Keeping in mind the sheer weight of the manifestation of his power, it was no surprise at all: using such heavy horns that way would surely result in damage to him.



It happened specifically because he tried to stay still and go against the natural flow of Gravity, sustaining the suspension of such a tremendous burden to try and reach her at shoulder height while not allowing his body to move as a consequence. Even if one can gather the strength to maintain it for the whole maneuver, it doesn’t mean the body will take it well. There was a toll to pay and the joint was the losing end.



Doing his best to ignore the pain, the man scanned the alley with his eyes, analyzing how much harm the attack managed to deal, probably to see if it was worth it while thinking of more effective ways to use his improved weapon.



Reikoku-sensei was still getting up when he started to furiously run towards her and payback was due when he reached her, only this time it wasn’t a swinging arm he would use.



Right foot in the air.



Stomping the concrete with his bone-encased leg like a sledgehammer, he used the ground itself as a limiter and leveraged Gravity to his advantage. The man missed her feet by little more than an inch. However, before she could strike back and retaliate for this nearly-perfect attempt to cripple, one more horn, the longest of them all, rose out of his knee.



“AHH!”



My throat closed instantly upon hearing her distressed cry.



As he ‘released,’ she fell to the ground. I was thankful when I saw her writhing; it was a better alternative than the one I had in mind. I could feel the blood rushing through my veins again, although the anxiety would take a moment to go away completely. Ready to intervene, I positioned my body to rush over, but not a second before it was strictly necessary.



If I had to save her, it would probably mean she wasn’t capable of saving anyone, which meant this whole situation was hopeless. It wasn’t me putting her life on the line, though: I did not force this outcome in any way. She was an adult and responsible for her deeds. If she went after someone she should be ready for whatever consequences she could face, including harm and eventual death.



I needed to test her, and if it took priority over her assured safety it was no one’s fault but hers.



So far, she was passing. Despite being wounded, she did not let go of her weapon of choice for a single moment, going as far as holding her bleeding stomach with her unused hand to try and stop the bleeding. She even took the small time he stood still (after a possible overload due to changing the structure of attack halfway?) to gain distance by crawling. Good to know she was at the very least familiar enough with pain to understand crying over it meant death and pretending the wound wasn’t there meant death in the long run.



His eyes focused once again. So did mine.



The undamaged arm was now raised and pointing a few meters above my teacher’s head. A huge bastard sword-shaped agglomerate of lines encased the limb far beyond its extent. This time, the bones didn’t just come into existence: the framework appeared like a bad omen and was increasingly ‘filled in,’ becoming more and more of a solid and visibly crushing reality.



There was no way she could escape that without a hidden card up her sleeve.



“Die,” he said, with no emotion in the intonation but a smile wide enough for me to see the blood all over his jaw.



My body screamed for me to move, mostly because I felt like I never would again if she died right there because I expected way too much of her. My mind, on the other hand, knew better. I don’t think I could take him on in a direct fight either, so even if I were to rush in and save her I’d have to do it by distracting him.



The marrow guillotine dropped.



Cursing mixed profanities under my breath, I ran, bending space and time or at the very least trying the hardest I could. From my viewpoint, despite the speed I was running there was barely any noise at all. Once again, against all odds, my lightning gallop got me close enough to act.



At that point I realized I wasn’t needed and sighed deeply.



In the face of danger, my teacher dropped the knight act and just rolled on the ground towards him, getting so close to his body the only things they had between themselves were their clothes. A fraction of moment later, the hand that once held her injury gripped his throat. Whether his concentration was gone, he was trying to regain full control of the one good arm he had left or he just realized there was just no possibility of hitting her with his attack specifically because of how massive his weapon was, the fact remained he ‘released.’



She landed on top of him like a rider mounting a horse and kept choking with one hand as he struggled as the best he could with a dislocated shoulder. She raised the telescopic pointer up high.



Her eyes were filled with scorn when the beating began.



“Five.”



The smashing sounds of pointer against skull and thorax contrasted with the monotone in her voice. What went through her mind was hard to tell, but I could hypothesize: to her, he just was not worth the emotion. He was just another foe to be defeated.



However, if that was the case…



“Ah!”



…she wasn’t that different from him.



The man suffocated and Reikoku-sensei wouldn’t back down. In order to make sure he wouldn’t get a chance to get up again, she did not let go, even when her weapon hit her own arm as a consequence.



“Four.”



The whole scene expanded in my eyes, working like refraction in crystals.



“Ghh!”



His bloodshot eyes were pure anger at that point, the expression reflecting a mix between the very first time one finds an obstacle that cannot be overcome and having faced those one too many times. To be fair, it was stupid of him to try to overpower her when he had those reflexes.



“Three.”



It was brutal, thus fascinating: the kind of wicked you just can’t look away from.



“Mh!”



His strength was finally giving out. No matter how much endurance he had there was hardly anything he could do.



“Two.”



“…”



“One.”



After a moment of silence, I approached her.



“So is this what you do for fun? Cornering super-powered sociopaths and trying to exorcise them by beating them to a pulp?” Real smart of me to say that after seeing her perform that action. “Are you okay?”



Reikoku-sensei’s eyelids twitched for a moment when she looked at me.



“I’ll be fine, but I have to admit this was more than just a scratch. Where did you get so properly scratched?”



Oh, that. It was surprising what she could see from a distance, especially considering I expected her to be in an altered state of consciousness at that point. On the other hand, it could be specifically the reason why she was able to.



“You noticed. Also, don’t you mean ‘badly scratched?’”



“Of course I did, and no, whatever or whomever did that to you did it good. That cannot be said of your other minor bruises and injuries, however, and I can tell you did not get them here. Are you going to tell me the truth now or make up an excuse like the ones you keep throwing around like seeds in a field?”



As there were enough of them already germinating in front of my eyes and on their natural way to becoming trees with bitter fruits it seemed excessively tiresome and superfluous to spread some more.



“The scratches are recreational, for lack of a better word.” They actually were, to someone other than me. “Not a big deal at all, just teenagers and their things. What you really want to know about is the second source of cuts and bruises, and in a way I am sure you already do.”



For one moment I assumed she’d issue a snarky remark regarding the recreational aspect I mentioned. No, more than assumed, I hoped that was the case: it was a red herring devised especially for her, but somehow it failed to live up to my expectations. Reikoku-sensei did not bite and make fun of my generation’s experimentation standards when it comes to sexuality and relationships.



She got up, tried to clean the dust off herself, walked towards me and then just gazed into my eyes like she had lost something in my iris.



“You are hurting yourself.”



In retrospect, that was easily the deepest thing she ever said to me.



“Not directly, but yeah. I’m trying to figure out exactly how I did ‘that.’ It’s not something I recall being able to do before coming here.”



Stopping Ryo’s freefall could and probably should have killed both of us, but while the fact it seemed like a good idea to me at the time would imply I have a mental problem, what bothers me the most is that I managed to pull that off, clearly showing there were other forces at work. Running through a warehouse that fast was already hard to believe but the freefall thing outright defies Physics, and yet it happened. “And I guess you have a clue, but you also seem to have reasons for not wanting to tell me about it so I won’t push you.”



My teacher stared at the ground. “It’s best if you don’t know much about it. I’d be perfectly happy if you had not gotten involved at all with this too, but it probably is too late for that.”



“But doesn’t being ‘already involved’ qualify me as a target? Because if so, you’re only making me an easier target to hit by not supplying information, and things were not looking particularly good for me to begin with.”



And although I did not want to consider the possibility, it was hard not to imagine the reason why she was suppressing data could have been because having me as a sitting duck could benefit her. Whatever was the cause of the strange things would come after me and she could easily track the enemy that way. However, that would imply Reikoku-sensei did not care for me much more than a chess player cared for one of his pawns. I wished I didn’t have to doubt her, considering how much she seemed to genuinely care about me, but then again she was the one that made me realize I have this bonding issue where I get attached too fast.



“Not in this case. As far as I’m concerned, the ‘Ayaka incident’ was an independent, completely self-contained event. A random occurrence. A mistake, if you will.”



“What if you’re wrong?”



“Do not underestimate me, Koukishin-kun. I was here long before you were and I know how this works.”



The messed up hair and the blood on the clothes didn’t reassure me.



“No offense, sensei, but we got to Ayaka before you did and we had absolutely no idea what was going on or what exactly we were looking for. Whatever you’re doing at the moment is not foolproof.”



“Answer me one thing first: what is? Do you honestly believe there is anything in life that is absolute and flawless? Stay around anything long enough and you’ll see the cracks in every mask and mirror. No such thing as fighting a war and leaving unharmed. You finding her before I did was just a coincidence.”



“So our deaths would have been mere battle causalities in your eyes? Is this what you’re trying to tell me? That we’re not safe and there isn’t much you can do about it? Well, I’ve got a question for you, teacher: just how many times have you lost students because of all th-”



My left hand stopped hers a split second before she could hit me good. Even so, my cheek was already warm in anticipation of the shock and friction of a dramatic slap that never came. It was an instantaneous psychological reaction and thus too fast to avoid by having simple control over one’s body, much like Reikoku-sensei’s breaking down in front of me.



At first I wasn’t moved by her tears. When I realized I made so many girls cry in such a short period of time, I found myself wishing I had not been fast or strong enough to stop her. I kind of deserved that slap.



“…I have a back-up plan.”



“And what if that doesn’t work either?”



“Then we’ll all die miserable deaths together after living miserable lives separately. Is this the answer you wanted?”



The sarcasm that dripped off her words was both a bad sign and a good sign and nowhere as awkward as the elephant in the room, which happened to be an unconscious, recently exorcised person that illustrated far too well what we were talking about.



“Yes. I needed to know you didn’t lose it completely, my favorite martyr.”



“Koukishin-kun, I am an adult. This means I know that what I have to do and what I want to are often going to be separate things, and this goes both ways. Children’s television bunny idealism alone will not save anyone and ruthless pragmatism can only take one so far. But I guess I don’t have to explain that to the person that effectively put his best friend out of the way for her sake. Bittersweet as it looked, I can’t deny that I felt very proud to see you using the one method that could work effectively.”



“It seemed only logical. If I had run away, she’d try to find me and get into more trouble because we’re both just that lucky. If I stayed and let her get involved, considering what happened with Akane, chances are sooner or later she’d get herself killed by one of these freaks you don’t think are out to kill me. Even if I tried to break off the friendship directly, she’d see the flag from miles away and know I was doing it for her sake, which would only bring us closer and consequently make her even more of a target.”



Hesitation showed on her face as she tried to fill the blanks using the information I just gave her.



It was understandable. Sure, it didn’t seem to be a popular solution as it didn’t particularly please anyone, except for Kouma Yon (and even that wasn’t a certain thing, as her presentation of this as a possible and to an extent presumably desirable outcome when she threatened me could be just a tsundere moment). But, even if this wasn’t quite happily ever, who was I kidding when I thought just winning against Ayaka would be enough to have a safe, decent life with Ryo? It was an idealistic miracle to gather strength I didn’t know I had to save the day when everything was going to hell, but it was obvious it couldn’t stand as a life philosophy on a daily basis.



All I was doing was getting the adhesive bandage off quickly. There would be pain, but it would be a dull one compared to how excruciating it would be if we stayed together and something happened to her.



Between dull pain and sharp pain, between Scylla and…Charybdis; if you’re going to hurt either way, minimize damage on the ones you love. Alternatively, maximize it on the ones you fight against.



Either way it sucked to know I wouldn’t be complaining all the time about this routine life or the days full of real schemes and such if I had Ryo by my side. No, thinking about it more carefully, I would be complaining about it every single moment but I’d be better off with my best friend. She wouldn’t be better off with me near her, and that’s why I took my distance.



Not so close she’d notice me, but far enough so I could watch her and protect her if it ever came to that.



“So you stayed but drifted away from her because of a new circle of friends you have more characteristics in common with. That happens often and is so realistic no one bothers to question that kind of development. It’s an unwritten law of reality that takes precedence over fiction’s. Teenage bonds can vanish as easily as new ones are formed. By now, she probably thinks you’re a side-character that got a featured in an episode or an aborted arc in her story. An otherwise reasonable plan. Unfortunately for you, it depends on the target having a predictable mindset, or at the very least very similar to yours.”



Which could be said of her in my story too; it works both ways, especially considering my sudden involvement with Rin was a direct consequence from this plan. A workaround rather than a solution.



“As expected of sensei, you got the main idea but missed a detail.”



She seemed annoyed by my remark but intrigued enough to save the retort for later.



“And what would that be?”



“There is absolutely no one in this world that is as similar to me as Shiina Ryo is in every way. This gambit I’m pulling off actually relies on that.”



“How so?”



“She knows that we’re the same and is afraid of me too.” At the end of the day, we don’t always get what we want. “It’s that simple.”



Reikoku-sensei frowned, the disapproval on her face so evident only a governmental bureau could deny it.



“Sure.”



“Now that we got that clear, what are we going to do about this guy?” We did not get anything cleared up, but I’d settle for her doubt while there were more urgent matters on hand, or rather lying on the ground unconscious after getting beat up by a sadist school teacher. “Because you told me to take the girls away last time I have no idea how your post-exorcism system works whatsoever. Should I help you bind him or anything like that? He’s bound to wake up sooner or later, considering how long our conversations go.”



Without waiting for her reply, I approached my teacher’s defeated foe. As my hand reached out to touch him, I felt something odd.



He was cooling.



“That won’t be necessary, Koukishin-kun.” Despite the choice of words, the tone was matter-of-factly. “Unfortunately, this one is already…”



***************



“So, are you ready to talk?”



“…”



Her house was the quintessential mess, making it easy to see that her lackluster, lazy attitude weren’t limited to her clothes outside school. There was just too much irony when compared to the rigid-borderline-OCD-level tidiness present in her work life.



I could only wonder if she brought Ayaka here.



After two days, my mind was already diverging from topic and calming down, in a sense. My body, on the other hand, still got fierce shivers and felt like it was all beyond my control. Quite an achievement from the previous state it was in, just after ‘that’ happened.



When I saw that corpse in front of me I crashed real hard, like an x86 trying to run a modern First Person Shooter.



Dead people don’t bother me; it’s passive and helpless. Nothing you can do about it, it already happened. However, people dying, especially if they are killed in front of me, is both active and disturbing. Ever since a certain point of my life I would rather not mention, if anyone dies in front of me I get catatonic.



It’s the kind of thing one cannot just ‘get over,’ a trauma that will probably haunt me for the whole duration of my life. I considered therapy but I’ve never been stable enough regarding location to take it seriously, therefore me staying seriously mentally unstable instead. Unless you call talking to Kouma ‘therapy,’ which I personally wouldn’t. Even if I did, I’d rather never bring the subject up, especially with someone as Freudian as her.



I don’t need any more mistaken judgments; this whole story started because of that.



“Koukishin-kun, you’re not mad at me, right?”



And there was another one.



Like me, Reikoku-sensei was quick to take things personal. Which was selfish and borderline silly because if I was mad and it was relevant compared to the fact I’ve been catatonic and speechless for two days and counting, I probably wouldn’t answer if I could, or rather would just walk away instead of being interrogated. Hell, angry or not, if I could I would have left when she gave me the sponge bath.



I swear that actually happened. I was catatonic, not delusional.



In the face of that accusation there was only one way to respond, given my state at the moment.



“…”



But getting used to not receiving the answer one wanted was part of the daily life of a public school teacher, so it was obvious that stubborn-by-nature adult would not give a traumatized me a rest until I actually spelled it out for her, which as a matter of fact I couldn’t do at the moment. Not talking for a couple days made me wonder if I still could, while she seemed to want to talk for the two of us.



“It wasn’t my fault and you weren’t supposed to see it anyway, so if there’s anyone to blame it was him for being a troublemaker and resisting and you for following me around.”



Denial and shifting the blame was useless when murder was involved, and this definitely was not about morals. Right or wrong, someone died as a consequence of fighting her and I have every right to be upset or even fear her, considering she brought and kept me, the only witness, here. The line between patient and captive was just too thin under those terms.



“I called the school and said I had a sick relative I needed to take care of, but I can’t keep using that excuse or the Council will not be pleased no matter how nice they are. Either way, to be able to work without being worried all the time I need to know you’re going to be okay on your own. I’ll stay with you for today, though. If you want me to.”



Had I the ability to speak properly I would tell her to go away, although that could be seen as a conceptual mistake, this being her house and if anyone had to leave it should be me. Getting up and walking out the door probably wouldn’t have the same psychological/dramatic effect, however.



“…”



“I know it’s hard to believe someone under these circumstances and you have probably been through a lot before to get a reaction that screams post-traumatic stress disorder like that, but you have to understand I did what I had to do.”



Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware of how stalking people and beating them to death in mildly dark alleys was part of a Japanese teacher’s work.



“…”



“Thing is, there are many of those. People like Ayaka and that guy, I mean. I have been researching them for a while now. They all seem to share a similar mindset, in the sense that they always seem willing to fight or manage to get themselves in trouble because apparently getting powers doesn’t come to those with the common sense to keep it on the down low. Alternatively, if there are indeed people fitting that criteria they must be really, really good at it then.”



Maybe, just maybe, the fact those persons were all aggressive or hot-blooded had to do with the fact they were, I don’t know, possessed by supernatural beings.



“…”



“What I’m trying to do is bait them out: with tempers like those, how could they stand the fact there’s someone out there defeating each and every one of them? They’re bound to come after me, which is exactly what I want.”



Based on the premise ‘they’ work in groups. Judging by Ayaka’s and that guy’s case, I wouldn’t say so; they all seem autonomous. Of course, I could be wrong to assume such, as she has been doing this for a while now and probably has seen more than a couple situations. She did say Ayaka’s was an isolated incident, so there is a chance she didn’t misjudge and there is at least one faction of them.



“…”



“If they come out one by one, I fight them. When they realize they have to come all at once I will try and bring them to my special trap. I don’t feel like talking about it now because it would take too long, but the details are in the safe. The combination is seven-nine-five-three-one-three-three-eight. Repeating, seven-nine-five-three-one-three-three-eight. If anything ever goes wrong, the data you’ll need to blow this town up is there.”



I prayed it wasn’t literal but knowing my teacher it could as well be.



“…”



“They took… killed a student of mine.”



“…”



For all I knew about what happened to Ayaka, so did she.



“Long before Ayaka’s case, there was a girl named Minato Suzuki. She wasn’t particularly bright or pretty. She wasn’t funny or lonely, she didn’t have any special talent... she was as regular as it gets. Regular grades, regular speech, regular number of friends, regular everything. There was virtually no one who would look at her twice, except someone did.”



This is giving me the weirdest vibe because of one really unusual dream I had a long time ago, just before I got involved with the band.



“...”



“I got to the room in the second building where she was standing, apparently untouched. I felt like something wrong happened to her, so I touched her shoulder to comfort her. Then she fell apart. He had slashed her in small, perfect cubes of three centimeters each side. She just disassembled in front of me.”



She skipped a good part of the story but I could not say she didn’t have my full attention at least from that last line on.



“…”



“And you know what really bothered me? Keep in mind I’ve seen my fair share of bad things, but this ticked me off big time. That despite what he did to her, despite being beat up really bad because when I found the bastard ‘deathly furious’ was just a euphemism, he didn’t even seem to remember it. Like she was just one more, nothing special about her. Mediocrity followed her all the way to the grave.”



“…”



“I decided to meet her parents to know how I’d deliver the news, although my plan was to do it indirectly so suspicion wouldn’t fall upon me. Her parents assumed she ran away, and after seeing how her family life worked I wouldn’t have blamed her if she did. Alcoholic, gambling-addicted father along with deny-reality-and-everything-will-be-fine mother is a lot for a kid to deal with. One can guess acting like she was nothing special was her self-defense mechanism to avoid having people interested enough to find out. Maybe not, this is just speculation after all.”



“…”



“I knew how to hide a body and considering the emotionless way the parents reacted to their daughter’s disappearance, it was probably for the best I did. No one at school seemed to care much after the first week either, so I let the rumor spread and added a few bits of my own to it. She deserved better than this, so I made her interesting. It was all I could do for her at that point.”



“…”



“So now if you ask anyone in this or the nearby towns about Minato Suzuki, they’ll tell you she was more than just another girl that vanished one day. They’ll talk for years about how she outsmarted a foreign con artist that passed by, how they fell in love and eloped. How she’s still out there, probably in Vienna or Berlin playing cards against the best of the best. Some might even say she came here to run away from her past, having been a genius all the time. Reports of events she was involved with have her part magnified and elevated her to a status that I don’t know she ever dreamed of, and all fame is good fame.”



“…”



“But I digress. You know how bad it gets when those jerks are around. Innocent people get involved, regardless of how important in society they are. People die for nothing, and I can’t have that.”



“…”



“According to my personal research, for now it seems like this particular region is the only one, say, ‘infected’. So I hunt them whenever I can and expect them to hunt me back, and I told you that because, though I fall, I expect you not to take my place, but finish it for me no matter how drastic this might be. Too much of a burden, I know. Still, you can’t deny this is bound to get in your way sooner or later if you plan to live around here and in the way of those you care for. It will be the worst case scenario if you do, but it still doesn’t mean we can’t win.”



“…”



“Whatever happens, this can’t spread all over the world. Even if it means staining our hands with blood.”



“…”



“You understand, right? Of all people, I thought you would.”



Because we’re the same? Don’t make me laugh. Everyone thinks that, and if anything that’s my one true power: charisma. The way it attracts a lot of monsters and deviant beings makes it my curse too.



“…teach me.”



“What?”



“Teach me.”



“To fight these monsters ruining society?”



“No.” Breath pause. Speaking was somewhat hard still and I wanted to get a few bigger sentences out next, so I took my time to regain the ability to talk. “Fine. I’ll put up with your Dark Knight-ish raising project. You’re making a huge mistake though, for I am absolutely and utterly worthless. If you don’t care about that possibility, use me. Whatever potential you saw in me, I will fake it until it becomes real. For a price.”



One eyebrow raised, her face was the same as usual and not the one of a murderer.



“And what would that be?



“Teach me how to kill without restraints.”



She seemed underwhelmed by that proposition.



“Oh, there’s no such thing. It sucks every time.”



…like, really?



“You don’t seem depressed or traumatized.”



But then apparently I struck a nerve by doing that.



“Oh no. You’re not going to give me that. Think about my speech just now. Hell, think about how I speak all the time. Think about how I act and how my students no longer look up to me but rather fear me because of the rumors that spread like fire. I’m putting the career and life I worked hard to get at risk despite having fought for it for years, coming from a similar scenario to yours and all. Everything could just be gone if I fail and there’s no clean winning no matter what I do, but I can only lose if I close my eyes to that. Do I look okay to you?”



I kind of deserved it.



“…”



“At the end, we’re all broken. Don’t bother denying it or overplaying it; both are futile ways to live because in that sense, everyone is the same. Embrace it and deal with it the best you can.” She then stared at me for entire five seconds. “Either way I’m here for you. So, are you ready to talk?”



“I just did, didn’t I?”



“No, I mean for real. There’s no way I can tell what your passive-aggressiveness is all about, but you need to get that off your chest, whatever it is.”



I wanted to say a witty retort.



“…yeah.”



***************



I went back to school on a Wednesday and it was all okay. For a given value of, at least: I was bombarded with questions from the dead tree where I usually meet my band members but a few well placed lies made to match Reikoku-sensei’s and it was like nothing ever happened.



Ryo just looked at me from her safe distance.



The day in school was uneventful. As in ‘really boring,’ even coming from a person who now had two training routines after school: a self-imposed one and Reikoku-sensei’s. The highlights were a simple short dialogue with the acquisition of an item and a discussion with the Rin. The first of those happened as follows.



“I take it your first day back was smooth.”



“You sure have a lousy sense of humor, saying something like that after applying a Physics test which was no surprise to anyone but me.”



“Let me make up for it, then. This is a gift.” My teacher handed me a wooden box I became familiar with when I was at her place. “No, not precise. You earned this, in a way. Spoils of war, you could say.”



“Ayaka’s knife?” I said meekly even though all the students were gone for lunch. “You know I can’t just use stuff like this.”



“That’s exactly why I’m handing it to you, Koukishin-kun.” She smirked in a way that actually made me sick. “Besides, I don’t think she needs it anymore.”



And the latter went a little like this: the scenario was the club room just after the end of rehearsal, one of the few when every single one of us had reasons to go our separate ways rather than stay and hang around.



“Here, yesterday I, as the common man says, ‘burned’ some copies of my music-related instructional DVDs for everyone. The recordings will start soon and we need every sort of power-up we can get. I am afraid you are the one with the fewest, Akane-chan: playing drums was never among my top ten priorities in life. Gladly, you are the one who needs the least of these.”



I didn’t like the sound of that.



“…Koukina-senpai, did you really buy all of these? You’re rich and all, but you won’t use your card for most stuff so you won’t get found out. Our budget isn’t that big and these are some expensive courses. Did you, say, ‘torrent’ them?”



She gazed at me with mischievous eyes and an ironic, almost enigmatic smile.



“Do you really need to know?”



“Nah, I don’t think I do.”



Our commander’s laughter was almost hysterical, by her standards.



“This is just too amusing: a young boy with the code of honor of a fictional medieval knight that is able to bypass its limitations by using willful ignorance. That contradictory and broken nature of yours is quickly making you my favorite person in the whole world, Koukishin-kun.”



“If the lovebirds don’t mind, we’re just going to take our discs of stolen data and leave the scene. Let’s go, Akane!”



I just looked at the student council president after they were gone.



“Why did you have to say ‘stolen’? You know it bothers me”



“Don’t be such a buzz-kill, you download series yourself.”



“While waiting for my pre-ordered DVDs to arrive, and never keeping the files for more than 24 hours! Entirely different situation!”



Rin sighed. “They are gone, this is just me here. You can stop faking morals now.”



“Slow down on the finger pointing. We’re not the same, Rin.”



“Exactly the reason why I am so interested in you. We are alike at first glance, compatible even, but so different individuals when it comes down to the actual facts. My values, they are unchanging. Good and bad are actually well-defined, although I try my best to stay in the neutral zone most of the time so I can flutter above and below however I want. But I see… well, anyone with a brain can see the evil in you. What I want to know is why you try so hard to be good.”



“What are you talking about? All I do is run, I’m no hero. You are projecting onto me the image of the savior you crave for.”



“A savior? Koukishin-kun, do not make me laugh. This is my juvenile rebellion, my phase of personal and silly mistakes so I can never look back as an adult and regret not having spent my younger days as the child I never felt like I was allowed to be. For you to save me, that would be the last thing I could ever wish for. You are the devil in plain sight, so obvious people instantly overlook you. Why you bother to put up that paper thin disguise, I do not know.”



I was going to reply addressing her daddy issues, but stopped myself at the last moment.



“You don’t know what you’re talking about. If that’s how you think I am inside, you’re involved with the wrong person.”



“Yet my gut feeling tells me I am not. So I will deal with you, show you just how bad you are until you can relate to me, shape whatever corners you have that keep us apart and make you mine.” She kissed her index and middle fingertips and then let them hover over my lips. “Forever.”



“I can just walk away, you know.”



Rin smiled one more time, with extra feeling.



“Oh, I would like to see you try.”



***************



Something really interesting happened when I got outside the school. Since it looked like it was going to rain soon, I decided to go through the dead tree path because even though it was not the shortest, it had better streets to deal with when it comes to strong rain and brand shoes, had a decent convenience store and twice as many bus stops.



A certain someone was waiting for me under the tree.



I gulped, but made my best effort to keep a poker face when I saw Ryo. There it was; the special event I had been waiting for a while but would postpone forever if I had the chance.



Commence the last dance.



“Sucks how ‘I haven’t seen you in a while’ is not only imprecise, but an outright lie.”



“Keeping characters in the same environment for too long ruins dialog.” Her characteristic smile now looked tired and bittersweet. “Although one could argue we do have a lot to talk about, now that we’re leading our respective lives apart even on the internet.”



Ouch, strike one.



“It’s all about differences rather than similarities, isn’t it?”



“Except when it’s not. It’s not a rule, but a guideline. You don’t have to follow it by heart, just consider it if you are stray. There is one kind of situation when two of a kind manages to match perfectly in the same plot.”



“And in which situation one can find that example, Ryo?”



“Mutual antagonism.”



Strike two. To put these equal individuals on opposite corners and make them clash, that’s what Shiina Ryo believed would validate their existence if all else failed. It could work as an enforced acting method too.



“Only works when two have the will to duel, and as far as I’m concerned it’s not usual to find two individuals like that in real life, let alone with matching agendas.”



Concern painted all over her face.



“Yes, it’s unlikely. Unrealistic even. Too good to be true, I presume.” A sigh. “I’ve been really busy myself, too.”



“One figures. You sleep in class every day.”



Her eyes reminded me of a puppy’s.



“So you still watch over me.”



“On occasion. When I’m not sitting like a gargoyle on the top of the tallest building in a bat-themed costume, of course”



“That’s a lie.”



“Actually, a comic book character.”



“I meant the ‘on occasion’ part.”



“Probably.”



“I miss you.”



Strike three.



“I know.”



I was out.



And then, as we stared at each other from around seven meters apart with all signs of cosmic levels of gravitational attraction in the air, rain fell upon us hot and fast as fictional narrative demanded.



She held up her iconic parasol, a paragon of perfection against the hazel skies.



“Quick Shin-tsu, get in he-”



“No need to.”



I had gotten my own retractable umbrella, which was hidden behind my back, and opened it above my head.



Shattering shock was in her eyes.



On one side we had Ryo with her white-laced parasol and optimism hoping it would all be solved with a smile. On the other side, just a few meters worth of street apart, there was I, pessimism incarnate, with a black protection of my own. No longer needing hers. No longer needing her.



Ironic echo.



The water surrounded us like minuscule blades in fast rhythm patterns, a staccato wall of hits that would be quite soul crushing if I hadn’t been thinking about all the possible outcomes and suffering from anticipation over and over again until I was no longer affected by it. It was still fairly easy to pinpoint the exact moment when her heart broke just by looking at the face I found so angelical.



Infinite emotional distance.



I wanted to tell her I missed her too, but to be entirely frank, at that stage I didn’t know if I really did. Even if I blame it on having several short-lived relationships of all sorts, the fact remained I could no longer trace the line between memory and longing. Only time would let me know if burning that bridge was the right thing to do or the biggest mistake of my life. Either way, things wouldn’t work out with her no matter what I did.



If those were the lies I needed to go on, I would craft them so perfectly I would believe in them at some point. I could never lose her if I abdicated, if I transfered all the care I had for her to a different target. It would not be Rin; that would be unfair to her, no matter what she said or I could try and rationalize. There was only so much of that burden I could let her carry.



I’d pour myself on the band, an immaterial concept that would keep my mind away from her. Because that, the moment I was living, was nothing but music; both the most important thing in the world and worthless, too. Not any variation of metal, not pop, not classical, not drum and bass, not reggae, not synthpop, not polka, not electro, not blues, not house, not rock, not hip hop, not folk, not dubstep, neither hardcore punk nor hardcore techno, not jazz and absolutely not ambient.



It was tango, the kind of sadness you could dance to. It started quiet and uneventful, with no more than hints of underlying energy just waiting to be spent. It grew steadily until it exploded into something so vibrant and in your face you couldn’t ignore it. Then it alternated between the dynamics of strong and weak with such moving sorrow that every little object involved enhanced the others. It reached peak after peak as a revolving door of catharsis until it faded out to nothingness and the hollow left in your heart was a bullet hole the size of the world.



You could as well call it ‘goodbye.’



“Oh. So you got one.” She tried to put a straight face and act rational, pretending it didn’t hurt her when I knew for a fact that every little thing always did. She cared about concepts like I did, after all. “I really need to rest a little, but if you want to come over I can postpone that or-”



“I have to go. See you.”



I didn’t run or cry, leaving as calmly as I could. Just walked in the most normal rainy-day way I could, at least considering how aware of it I was at the time. At some point I got home, which showed my feet knew the path well enough by then to keep their action independent from my absent mind.



From my window, I watched the rainbow alone.