Saturday, August 26, 2017

Bad Dreams Chapter One

[In these dreams, I am standing alone against a backdrop of void; black as night, There is nothing I can see but for a small circle of light at my fight.  This is always how the dreams begin.  Every time… But they always change when I take a step.  I can’t stay still, I have to move, and that’s when things begin to shift.  The light around me grows brighter, larger, and reveals different things; monsters, usually.  People dying, the world… Falling to pieces.  Why do I have this dream every night?  Does it mean my own life is falling to pieces?  Or am I having visions?  I wonder-]

Mandrake Birch
“Mandrake?” A quiet voice, a bit confused, interrupted the young man’s typing.  He froze and lifted his fingers from the keyboard, and turned to the doorway, his chair turning on its wheels.  His brother stood there, leaning into the room.  He looked… passive, but concerned, “Mom came home.”

“...What?” Mandrake questioned, turning back to finish his post and get the lengthy upload started before he did anything else.  A friend of his at school had recommended the site to him; he’d heard of computer forums before, used for business conferences, but some had begun to appear on the web, and he just happened to have his own computer and phone line for that very purpose.  One of these just so happened to be a site to post about and discuss the meanings of dreams; a perfect recommendation for the man who had recently been talking about a string of bizarre nightmares that he’d been having.

“You heard what I said, Mandrake, don’t try to pretend that you didn’t,” Gary glared into the room, agitated, “She’s back, okay?  I don’t know for how long, but she’s here.  Come on.”

Mandrake sighed and got to his feet; He approached Gary, only to brush past him and make his way down the stairs.  He walked with confidence, and his younger brother followed behind in a timid stance, worried more about what Mandrake was going to say than what she was, hiding behind him as he stepped into the kitchen and crossed his arms, refusing to make eye contact with the woman who waited there, “Hello, Mother.”

Gary Birch
“Drake~!” His mother stood up from where she’d sat at the table, a bottle of whipped-cream flavored vodka already open in front of her, “And Gary too.  How have you been, darlings?  I trust that your father hasn’t been too insufferable?”

“He’s always insufferable,” Mandrake responded, his voice flat as he approached her.  He stepped as close as he could without actually touching her, and looked up at her face, “However, I’ve been good.  Seeing as I’m not a mind reader, I can’t speak for my little brother, but I assume he’s been similar.  And you?  What sort of hole did you get lost in this time around?”

“I’ll assume you’re referring to dive bars,” Cassandra turned to look her son in the eyes, then bent down and pulled him close in a hug that almost seemed desperate, “I went to Vegas again, darling.  Well, went, isn’t quite right.  Diovolo brought me there.  You know how your mother is with that place…”

“Yeah, I know,” Mandrake nodded, pulling away from her with aggravation clear in his tone, “You go for a weekend and stay for a year.  Literally.”

“Oh no, not a year… Can’t be.  I wouldn’t stay away that long, dear.  Just four months!  I came back as soon as I managed to get enough money for the ticket,” She straightened her shoulders and tucked her hair back behind her ears, giving a sheepish smile, “You would think your father would know better than to send me on these trips, wouldn’t you?  That man… It’s as if feeding my addiction turns him on or something~!”

“Mother,” Mandrake grimaced, “Gary’s right there.”

“Oh, come on,” She groaned, stepping over towards Gary, “I wish it weren’t so, but there’s nothing he can hear from me that he hasn’t already from his father, you know?  It was the same way when I was his age...  My poor baby, innocence shattered by method of the family he was born into…” She leaned down and met his eye level, her own eyes wide alongside her exaggerated frown.

Cassandra Birch
Gary glanced past her to see a disapproving look from Mandrake, but he was weak.  He knew it was ridiculous for him to behave this way at his age; he was already twelve, and Mandrake had explained to him many times that his mother was just pretending to care, yet he couldn’t help himself.  He stepped forward and hugged his mother, sobbing, “Mommy…!  I missed you…!  Don’t leave again, please, please don’t…”

“Gary…” Mandrake stage-whispered his disapproval, frustrated.  It wasn’t that he didn’t want himself or his brother to have a good relationship with her, but he needed to make it clear to her first that such a thing wouldn’t be possible if she continued being such a flighty mess.  Gary wasn’t helping his cause here.

“Sweetheart…” Cassandra sighed, shaking her head, “I never want to leave!  I’m just… Irresponsible!” She explained, then stood back up and twirled a bit of her hair, “I’m not saying you shouldn’t blame me!  It’s a wonder I make it back at all!  I’m only saying that I… Don’t want to go, or to stay away.  It just… Happens?  Maybe you’ll understand when you’re older.  Don’t ever get drunk, kids.”

“How will I understand when I’m older if I don’t ever get drunk?  You’re contradicting yourself here, Mother,” Mandrake rolled his eyes as he turned away from her, but he still watched her out of the corner of his eye, “I don’t understand how you’ve tried hard enough to still be here, but not hard enough for that fact to be worth anything.”

“Mandrake…” She mumbled, holding a hand to her chest as she looked away, staring at the floor.  Her eyes didn’t water, and she didn’t sound surprised.  By this point, she’d unfortunately gotten quite used to her own son’s cruel words toward her, “Well, anyway, it’s nice to see you again.  I guess I’ll see you later…”

“Don’t you want to hear about what I’ve been up to, how school’s been going?” Mandrake questioned, dropping his arms to his sides again.

“Of course I want to hear, but I don’t think that you want to tell me,” Cassandra shot back, though there was no venom in her words.  It just sounded more like she’d given up on him, which wasn’t what he wanted to prompt from her.  He wanted her to try, but she just wasn’t capable of such a thing.  Well, he guessed that was only to be expected.  He was already seven years old when his parents got married, and Cassandra was only eleven years older than him.  His father had married her as soon as she turned eighteen.  A woman who would marry a man like that rather than run far away had to be lacking a spine.

“Of course I wouldn’t,” Mandrake said, closing his eyes, “Tell you, that is,” He clarified, crossing one ankle over the other as he leaned back against the wall, “Still, it would be one brick in the very long bridge you would need to build to repair our relationship.”

“It’s too bad that I’m not a bricklayer, then,” Cassandra mumbled to herself now as she rested her chin in her hand, staring off at a far wall.  She didn’t know if she could ever make the repairs she wanted to.

Diovolo Birch
“Gary, Drake, I’m home,” Another voice called out into the house, and everyone within immediately recognized it as belonging to the patriarch of the household.  Diovolo Birch.  Mandrake and Gary both stood up straighter on instinct, but Cassandra just lowered herself down further onto the table.  Diovolo walked into the room, then looked down at the table when he noticed her there.  He raised his elbows and addressed her with cynicism, “Oh, so you’re here too.”

“My, is everyone just intent on making me feel unwelcome in my own home?” Cassandra mumbled, then lifted her left hand and waved it in the air, “Does this ring mean nothing to you, Diovolo?”

“It means more to me than it does to you,” He sat down across from her at the table as he spat these words, folding his hands in front of himself, “Cassandra, look at me.”

She shook her head, keeping her face down on the table.

“Look at me,” His voice dropped into a more serious, commanding tone as he stared, watching as she lifted her head to make eye contact with him, “Good girl.  Why don’t you tell me all about how and why you came back this time?”

“I won big enough to afford a few taxis and the plane ticket back,” Cassandra answered, tilting her head to the side as she maintained that eye contact with her husband.  She curled her lip as she explained her reasoning, “I certainly wouldn’t have come back, but it’s bad enough I was away as long as I was.  I can’t just leave you here with my children.”

“They’re my children too,” Diovolo said, narrowing his eyes as he now grimaced back at her, “And you know I would never do anything to harm them.”

“I don’t know anything about you,” Cassandra said, then stood up with her previous look of disgust turning entirely to an angry glare, “Nothing at all.  You say that you wouldn’t hurt them, but I can’t trust that.  Nobody can know a single thing about what you’d do when you get bored,” With this, she turned around and ran out of the room, her hair bouncing behind her.

“Well, boys, it seems your mother’s in one of her strange moods again,” Diovolo brushed what just happened off as nothing, as he always did.  The way he acted, the way he dispelled Cassandra’s statements, it was as if he was under the impression that Mandrake and Gary had no idea what his true nature was.  Mandrake didn’t understand this; he knew how old his mother was, how old he himself was, and he could do math.

Still, that wasn’t something for him to concern himself with; simply put, it wasn’t his problem.  There was no reason for him to bother with caring what sort of person his father was.  Some might say it was something to be concerned over, that it was indicative of the ‘stock he came from’.  Many said that those who weren’t careful would become like their parents, but Mandrake honestly didn’t think he’d turn out anything like Diovolo, if only for the virtue of being a major underachiever.  Diovolo graduated high school early, and was finishing college by the time he was old enough to drink.  Mandrake was just coasting through high school, on track to graduate at the usual time.

He had no idea what he was going to do for college, though.  There weren't any topics which interested him to such a degree that he wanted to study them, and he lacked ambition.  Well, at least the usual form of ambition.  Fame would be nice to have, but since he had no way to acquire it, he wasn't going to slate that as his goal.  Getting ahead in a career just seemed boring; perhaps that was why his father found ways to work being a terrible person in to his career, but Mandrake had no interest in manipulating youths.

Arietty Linus
He often thought that he'd just follow along with whatever his friends decided to do, and none of them had chosen to go to college.  Ariel and Arietty were too smart to bother with college, since they could do better for themselves on their own.  Ju-ri had her own things going on and also hadn't applied anywhere.  Then there was Marou, of course; they never seemed to leave Ariel's side, and Mandrake hadn't seen any signs of that changing anytime soon.

Mandrake left the room before the conversation between his parents got any more serious, returning to check how his forum post had done since he'd put it up.  Pretty well, he noted.  At least it seemed so from the number of comments, but he sat down and waited for the page to load up so he could see if those comments were negative.  They weren't; just the same as always, full of people trying to find more meaning than he conjectured.  A few even gave him praise, thanking him for sharing or saying that he was the best member of the forum.

It was petty of him to take joy in their words, but he couldn't help himself.  Praise was what he lived for, what he sought after in every way that he could as long as it didn't take up too much of his effort.  Surely if he told a therapist about this, she'd spout off about how it must have been connected to his family situation, that he strove to be praised because his mother and father never did.  Maybe that was the reason, and maybe not.  He wasn't an expert to say so, and the only expert he knew was his own father.  Like he'd have a feelings jam with him.


Mandrake had a meeting with his guidance counselor the next day at school, called out during his second class of the morning. English class. They were reading The Inferno that day, Dante Alghieri's most well-known work of his Divine Comedy. That was also the class Mandrake got the best grades in, so he supposed the guidance office actually had the foresight to consider which class they were interrupting.

Mercury Mars
He went to the office and sat down in the couch across from his counselor. A high school in the heart of Boston was bound to have multiple counselors to manage its large student body, and his was for sure the most useless, a young woman who didn't seem to have any experience or know what she was doing. Her name was Mercury Mars, an unfortunate name which Mandrake had never been able to determine the authenticity of.

"Mandrake," Mercury began, shuffling through papers on her desk without turning to look at him, "Isn't this nice? I think this is the first time you've been to my office on a scheduled visit rather than an incident."

"I don't plan to make a habit of it," Mandrake said, shifting in his seat. He didn't like that she wouldn't look at him; he wanted to have the power of eye contact on his side. Just because Mercury was a worthless guidance counselor didn't mean Mandrake liked letting her have any power over him, "What do you want?"

"To talk to you about your future," She turned to face him, finally, and stared right at him, "The truth is, I know you have skills, that there are things you excel at. You're a natural leader, for one thing. Your student council duties have proved that, even if you've used your position to occasionally accomplish things which have landed you in here for a stern talking-to. The thing is... I have no idea what career you'd be suited to, because politics just don't suit you."

"I would never be a politician," Mandrake shook his head, "Too much scandal with my parents, anyhow. I'd never get a campaign off the ground if they heard that I'm the product of child rape, after all," He chuckled, hoping to get a rise out of her by being so open about his situation. Instead, she just kept looking straight at him.

"That is, indeed, a good point. The general populace would feel too alienated by your upbringing to ever vote for you, but that doesn't mean you can't acquire a leadership position," Mercury set her files down, then stood up and narrowed her eyes, "Well... I guess that's all I have to say to you, for now. If you'd ever like to learn more about what you could do... My office is always open. Still, I'm not sure yet if you have what it takes. Try a little harder, right?"

The standard guidance counselor talk, if worded a bit strangely. They always wanted their charges to try a little harder, try harder, try at all. Mandrake didn't know why he would try at something like schoolwork. When he tried in elementary school, the praise ran dry in no time at all. If being excellent is the standard for somebody, why bother telling them every time they did a great job? It was meaningless to him, if that was the outcome.

Marou Hannaford
When lunch rolled around, Mandrake met up with his friends at the table that they always shared together. The seating arrangement was always the same. Clockwise, it went himself, Arietty, Ariel, Marou, Ju-ri. Whenever Ju-ri was dating somebody they took the space between her and Mandrake, but otherwise, there was never any variance in the layout.

Mandrake always subsisted on three bags of chips from the vending machines, since none of the food sold in the cafeteria was quite crispy enough to satisfy him. Soft foods were just strange and somewhat unsettling to him. The twins always ate whatever lunch Marou packed for them. Marou was a very kind soul, feeling it would be unfair to make lunch for their girlfriend and not for their girlfiend's sister. Mandrake also could not tell what gender Marou was, ever, and asking only got the response of 'Well, I'm Marou'. Same response in the third person when he asked Ariel, too. 'Well, that's Marou for you.'

Ju-ri always had the most interesting lunches, Korean food made by her much older brother who served as her legal guardian. Hayoung Han was thirteen years her elder and owned a restaurant in Chinatown which, he boasted, sold the most authentic Korean food in town, be damned if the white people like it. Mandrake did like it, but only the dishes with a texture he enjoyed, which wasn't the majority of the menu. His little brother loved everything there, too, but his father had no love in his heart for anything which was spiced more than pepper. Mandrake decided to thank his darker-skinned mother for his ability to appreciate food with flavor.

Ju-Ri Han
Ariel and Arietty were the palest people Mandrake knew, and they liked it too, though, so maybe Diovolo was just weak in that respect. Or an asshole. Mandrake wouldn't be surprised at either option.

"So," Ju-Ri was the one to start the lunchtable conversation that afternoon, peeling the tab off her bottle of milk and using it to tie her hair back, an odd behavior that most found endearing, but which had also ended at least two first dates, "Senior prom's coming up in a month, right? I know you're going with Marou, right Ariel?" Ariel nodded at this, and Ju-Ri moved on, "So, Arietty, Mandrake. What are your plans?"

"Hm," Arietty leaned on her hand, seeming to think for a while before she responded, her voice listless, "I guess we'll be going together," She paused, then sat up straight again and turned to Mandrake, "Drake, ask me to pro."

"H-Huh?" Mandrake questioned, fidgeting with his hands. He and Arietty had never been dating, not by name, but they'd been together since middle school, a strange sort of connection which couldn't qualify as lovers, but had more emotion to it than just a fling. Best friends with benefits, he'd call it if he was in denial.  Really, he was more of a pet to her.  She ordered him around, but also lavished him with praise, and that worked for him,  "You actually want to go? And with me?"

"That second part was unnecessary, who else would I go with?" She hissed, reaching out to flick his forehead with her thumb and middle finger, "We're graduating soon, and since you never bothered to make it official, I guess now's the time to do it, yeah? We'll go to prom as boyfriend and girlfriend and stay together when I get rich and famous. You'll be my trophy husband when I'm the next Bill Gates.

"Now you want me to marry you?" Mandrake asked, though he wasn't so much confused as he just found it amusing that after all this time, Arietty was showing her affection in this incredibly strange manner.

"I don't want you to marry me, you're going to marry me, someday. That's an order, okaaay~?" She put some emotion into her voice on that last bit, teasing him as she grabbed onto his nose, plugging up his nostrils, "Answer in the next minute or I'll put mashed potatoes in your mouth. A fate worse than death for somebody like you."

Ariel Linus
"Okay, okay!" Mandrake protested, and she let go of his nose, "Geeze, you know that I would have anyway, you didn't have to threaten me."

"I didn't have to, but you liked it, right?" Arietty questioned, then wrapped her arms around him and pulled his face into her relatively flat chest, "Love you, babydoll, you're so spectacular!"

"Stop messing around with your pet in public before a teacher gives you detention," Marou spoke up, throwing a tomato at Arietty's cheek, "Sometimes, I swear I'm ashamed to be associated with you."

"All the time, I swear I'm ashamed to be related to you," Ariel added.

"That's rude," Arietty pouted as she pushed Mandrake back to a seated position, then stood up with her hand high in the air, returning to a monotone now that she wasn't talking to Mandrake, "Miss Mars, Marou Hannaford is kinkshaming me, you should give them detention."

Mercury just gave the table an odd look before walking away, having no clue what the word kinkshame meant because it was 1994 and kinkshame was not a word which existed in any circulation yet. Arietty was ahead of the times.

"Anyone wanna hang out at Pudeu Rooster after school today?" Ju-ri asked, changing the subject as best she could, "Hayoung's got a new crispy chicken sauce he wants us all to try before he starts selling it, so I think he wanted me to invite you over soon, maybe. I don't know, it just sort of sounded that way."

"Sounds good to me," Mandrake nodded, leaning back in his chair, "I'm always up for trying new crispy chicken sauce. I might even go as far to say that it's my favorite thing to do on a Tuesday afternoon!"

"Uhm, I don't know..." Ariel spoke up, her hands folded on the table in front of her. She looked distressed.

"Why? Did you take the fortune on this afternoon or something?" Mandrake's question was only half a joke; though he wasn't keen on believing in the paranormal, Ariel was an exception. She could tell the future on a level which she'd proven many times, a skilled esper. Arietty's programming skills were off the charts too, and by their wonder twin power, they'd even created a computer program which could accurately create a choose-your-own-adventure of any human's life. It still had some bugs to work out, but once it was perfected, it could change the course of mankind, allowing everyone to make the best possible choices to avoid disastrous consequences without needing to think too much, though it only worked for major decisions and not for things like 'not botching a date'.

"No," Ariel shook her head, "Actually, the weird thing is... I can't.  I can't see any further than lunch right now, which is pretty weird, isn't it?  I think that my abilities might not be working quite right."

"Hmm..." Marou mumbled, their groan full of concern, "That's really not good.  I'm worried."

"It'll be fine!" Ariel waved one hand in the air with a nervous laugh, "After all, this happens from time to time!  ESP this strong still has some limits, sometimes there are blocks on how far I can look at any given time.  A machine can do it a lot better than me, like the one that I helped Arietty make.  I'm only a little worried."

"You can't be so nonchalant about something like this..." Marou muttered again, but they didn't press the issue any further.

"Ariel?  Ariel?" Arietty asked, poking her sister with each statement of her name, "Ariel?"

"What's the matter, Arietty?" Ariel asked, turning to look at her with a tilt of the head, "Ah, do you need your medicine?" Arietty nodded at that question, and Ariel went digging in her backpack, coming up with a pill bottle.  Neither of the twins was very responsible, but Ariel was enough more than Arietty that she was the one their doctor tasked with carrying around any medicine.  

Both Ariel and Arietty had cognitive issues, which was part of a disease which they were both born with; At wildly unpredictable times, the two of them would both experience an extreme dissociation and become noncommunicative, but in different ways.  Ariel couldn't speak at all during those times, but could still interact with her surroundings, whereas Arietty could speak, but not in a complex way, and lost all sense of depth perception.

Ariel handed over the medicine, and put a water bottle into Arietty's hand too, which she used to take her pill, then shut her eyes and leaned back in her chair as she waited for it to take effect, reaching her free arm out in Mandrake's direction.  He grabbed onto her arm and patted her shoulder, trying his best to help her deal with it.  She'd had this problem since they were all in elementary school, so he knew that human contact helped.

The only problem was that Ariel wasn't keen on touching or being touched over more than a square inch of skin with anybody but Marou.  Mandrake did have to wonder how he and Ju-Ri had ended up falling in with such strange people as these, but he didn't have any regrets.  Somebody had to befriend the sickly genius twins, and it may as well have been him.  He was glad to have those two in his life, and though he had no idea where Marou came from, was happy they were his friend too.

"So," Ariel raised a finger in the air as she spoke up again, "How about that Dante's Inferno, huh?  I had no idea the book was actually so cool.  I mean I kind of always assume that if something's being called a classic, it's kind of lame."

"I love it," Ju-Ri agree, twirling her hair around her finger, "Hey, Drake!  I bet you five milk ties the teacher tries to get us to admit to criminal activity by asking what level of Hell we'd end up on on the quiz at the end."

"I'm not taking that bet.  I only have fifteen milk ties right now, I can't afford it," Mandrake laughed, "Not to mention, I don't know about Ms. Farrell, but I'm certain that Mr. Yarmuth is going to do that.  He's trying to figure out who in his class are deviants all the time.  Just be glad my dad's working at a different school."

"I... Am the Deviantest," Arietty noted, holding her arms out to her sides, "I want to hang out with Lucifer down in cocytus.  Cock-ytus, am I right?"

"You're not," Marou deadpanned, "You're never right, anyway."

"We won't debate that you're the deviantest.  I'm sure that's true," Ariel added, "You're the evil twin.  I'm good.  I'd never do a drug."

"You drank half of the forty I swiped from my dad's liquor cabinet last week," Mandrake had to call Ariel out.

"Alcohol is not a drug in my book.  I'm still a pure angel who can do no wrong. and you're just trying to drag me down because you don't want to admit that you're dating the evil twin," Ariel shot back with a smirk.

"Is that so?" Arietty chuckled, opening her eyes as she leaned forward again, then made peace signs with both her hands, "You're forgetting the cardinal rule!  Evil has more fun.  Way more fun," She dropped her hands and bit the inside of her cheek, "Well, too bad it's not really possible to be an evil mastermind these days."

"You don't really want to be an evil mastermind though, right?" Ariel asked with a sheepish smile on her face, scratching the back of her neck, "I mean, that would be a really weird ambition to have, especially since the products we're making are to help mankind."

"Huh?  I mean, the world's a mess, I just want to rule it.  If we were in charge, Ariel, we could make everyone so happy with our work!  We might just have to go evil mastermind to get there first!" Arietty joked, "Just kidding, of course.  As long as we've got each other, I think I'm fine with being good and boring.  Hey, maybe our invention will earn a Nobel Peace Prize.  I think that'd be cool too.  I'm just not content being a normal person."

"If you become a symbol of peace or an evil mastermind, make sure to take me along for the ride," Mandrake added in.

"I wouldn't dream of leaving you behind, darling!" Arietty turned to him and leaned in to kiss his cheek, "Every evil mastermind needs loyal minions, after all."

"Hey," Mercury spoke as she approached the table again, having come back around to theirs on her patrol, and teased, "No high school wants to have the reputation of being the one which put out a tyrannous dictator!  Don't go doing that, okay?"

"What will you do to stop me, Mercury Mars?" Arietty asked, and she sounded deathly serious.

"You don't know what I can do.  For all you know, I can brainwash people!" Mercury joked, tapping her own forehead, "Particularly difficult students who come into my office get brainwashed into picking out a respectable career."

"You can't do that," Ariel noted, meeting Mercury's gaze, "It's not possible for you to do.  You're just a normal human.  You aren't an esper or a demon or anything like that."

"Too smart," Mercury stuck her tongue out at Ariel, "Ruining my fun.  You two be good now, all right?  I have to go over there now, I just heard Sam Hamilton talking about dead animals and I have to make sure there isn't something dead in his backpack.  If any of you ever work at a school, avoid lunch duty at all costs..." She groaned as she ran off to one of the other tables where some rich kids were being little shits.

"Mercury Mars is a strange woman," Marou spoke up, tapping the table, "I don't trust her."

"Really?  Cause I'd trust her with my life," Arietty picked at her fingernails with a shrug, "Well, I guess to each their own."

"Arietty..." Ariel spoke, her voice quiet and frightened, "Do you think we'd ever be enemies?"

"No," Arietty answered without hesitation, "Because I know for as long as we both live, we'll always work together, always be on the same side.  We have to."

"...I know," Ariel whispered.

Then there was a noise.  A loud noise, and a huge flash of light, coming from directly underneath their lunch table.

Then silence.

Next Chapter ->

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Checkboxes Chapter Nine

<--------First Chapter

The next morning, the chaperones announce that due to some poor planning on their part, the list of landmarks to visit was actually much too long for every student to reach, so instead, groups would be drawn at random and handed the list, from which we would be required to pick at least three to visit and take some photographs of or notes on the historical significance of the location.  It’s during breakfast that the groups are called, though I wasn’t really listening until I hear my name called.

“Box Hako, Ayano Ueda, Gin Sakuya, Touko Nozomi.  You will be group number five,” Kaiba was the one to announce it, handing Box the list of locations with a wink, “Here you go, kiddo!  I’ll give one to the Student Council President too.”

I take the paper and give the list a long look over, blinking a few times at just how lengthy it is.  I have no idea how anyone on the faculty could have ever expected everyone in the school could make it to all of these locations.  There’s nothing in particular that I want to see, so when I meet up with my assigned group members following breakfast, I just ask, “So, what does everybody want to visit?”

“I definitely want to see the Kinkaku-ji temple,” Gin answers first, then sets her own copy of the list down in front of herself, “My family says that it’s impressive.  Is anyone in this group Buddhist?”

“I’m agnostic,” I offer, setting down my own sheet so the others have two options to look at.

“Shinto,” Akane cuts in, leaning forward, “Speaking of which, I’d love to see the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine.  That’s the one with a ton of Torii gates.  My mom and my Grandma both used to be geisha, and they both went all the way up the mountain for spiritual reasons  I think it’s really cool.”

“I’m Buddhist,” Touko adds, tapping at her cheek, “Not actively, but a temple would still be nice to see, especially one as famous as that.  We should try to go at a time when there will be fewer tourists, though… So maybe that should be our first stop?  It’s such a popular landmark.”

“My religion’s pretty obvious,” Ayano mumbles, thumbing at her cross necklace.  She seems nervous… Now that I think about it, she’s actually pretty quiet in group settings, and as far as I know there isn’t really anyone at this school right now who considers her a friend.  Maybe Sayaka would be interested though, since they do have some things in common, “But actually, I’d like to visit the Shi-Tomura Shrine… Since Ryoko Tomura was actually Doctor Same’s aunt, you know.”

“Great, so that’s three landmarks!” I note with a grin.

“Three… But shouldn’t we try to do a little bit more than the bare minimum required of us?” Gin questions as she stands up, picking up her list again and thinking, “Though I suppose… Three locations does account for food breaks and travel time, with enough padding left on the end to get back to the inn before nightfall.  If that’s all they expect of us, there’s no reason to break our backs while on a trip, then.”

“I don’t think we’re even being graded on this,” Akane shrugs as she strides past Gin, “Anyway, Sakuya-senpai, we should get going, right?  We have a busy day ahead of us, just like you said!”  At the doorway, she pauses to throw a look towards some of the other groups.  I notice that Amai and Rena ended up grouped together, as did a few other people I know to be friends with each other.  Certain students are nowhere to be seen… I suppose I can’t hold skipping against them, though, because the faculty doesn’t seem to care.  I hope Gin doesn’t notice, though, and seeing as she follows Akane straight out of the door upon her exit, it seems I had nothing to worry about.

I follow as well, and wonder about this group.  I know we’ve all met before, but it doesn’t really go beyond that.  I know that Ayano’s some sort of activist against a fringe religious group, and I know Touko’s brother was a victim of that very same group.  I know that something happened between Gin’s side of the family and Sayuri’s when I was in my first year of middle school, her second.  I know that Akane works in the library… So she’s the group member I know the least about.  I can tell she’s got some confidence behind her, leading even the Student Council President… Touko walks at about the same pace as me, and Ayano’s lagging behind, holding her backpack close to herself.

I frown upon noticing this, and slow down to meet her for two reasons.  The first reason is that I don’t want her getting separated from us in the middle of a city, and the other is that I want to know why she’s not keeping up with the group, and she seems on the brink of panicking, “Ueda-chan?  Is something the matter?”

“U-Uh…” She mutters, furrowing her brow as she squeezes the straps on her backpack so tight that her knuckles are turning pure white, though she was already pretty pale to begin with, “Y-yeah… I don’t do well with new places, and I feel like you’re the only person in this group who likes m-me at all, and I really shouldn’t have brought up the Shi-Tomura shrine, and I’m scared, and one of the chaperones almost took my medicine away, and… I’m just not doing great t-today…”

“You brought up the Shi-Tomura shrine because you’re a red woman, right?  Just like Ryoko Tomura was?” I ask, keeping my voice down so the others can’t hear.

“Where did you hear that?” Ayano questions, staring at me.

“I heard it from Sayaka Shinku,” I explain, “I also heard that you collect stuffed animals with red eyes and that you take medicine which keeps you from hurting anybody… But that’s all she could tell me.  Um, I won’t hold it against you at all, so if you want to talk to me about any of it, then I’ll listen, okay?”

“Oh, yeah…” Ayano nods, biting her bottom lip, “She figured it out as soon as she met me… Would you really be saying things like this if you knew what I’d done, though?”

“I know what Sayaka-chan’s done,” I answer, then hold my arms behind myself, “And even though Amai-tan never said anything in detail about it to me, I kinda figured out by now that the Vagrant Killer attended Aoba Public Middle.  And then, there’s that mostly-erased calligraphy in the bathroom that spawned a mystery.  Haruhi-san said I didn’t need to solve that one, but… I think I did anyway.  Because you do calligraphy, right, Ueda-chan?”

“You got me,” She sighs, tucking some hair back behind her ear, “But… That’s in the past now.  You can understand, right?  Middle school was a troubling time.”

“I can,” I nod, reaching out to grab her hand, hoping it will be comforting, “Because you helped my best friend, Ueda-chan.  How could I ever be mad about that?  I could never protect her, and I could never get revenge in her name either.  That’s not something I’m capable of, because I’m weak and I’ve never been in a fight.  I’m glad she found somebody who could do that for her, and I’m glad it was somebody as sweet as you.”

“You know…” Ayano starts, taking a few steps forward to at least stay close enough to see the rest of our group, “It’s not even like you’re the only person who knows.  Your friend does, the adults in my life do, my own childhood friend does.  I guess if you’re joining those ranks, I can tell you a little bit more.”

“Hm?” I wonder what more there is to tell.

“I’m not like Sayaka-chan.  I’m no distant relative, I’m not somebody in the bloodline, somebody who was really and truly meant for this kind of life,” I swear, I can see tears in her eyes, “I would have just b-been a normal girl, you know, I would have.  This me, with the medicine, this is the real me, the me that would have been if my mother and father never agreed to that experiment.  My status as a red woman… It’s a synthetic one.”

“I guess we’re kind of the same, then,” I chuckle, still smiling at her, “You’re not The Vagrant Killer.  The Vagrant Killer is someone who’s a part of you, but you’re Ayano Ueda.  And I… I’m a synthetic person too, in a way.  I don’t know what it is to think entirely for myself.  That’s something I haven’t been allowed to do in years, and I’ve forgotten how to do it at this point.  My actions, every day, they’re fake too.  I would’ve died a long time ago if I didn’t have that fakeness on my side, though.  So, Ayano, I want to know.  What do you really think would have happened if you were never The Vagrant Killer?”

“If I never was…” Ayano’s eyes go wide and she wipes her tears as she works through her words, “I won’t even begin on maybes, but if I never did those things… I couldn’t have gotten revenge on behalf of others.  Not Oishi-senpai, and not Hikari either.  Those people never would have paid for hurting them.  That’s just what’s certain.  There’s things which would be better… but it could be worse too.”

“Just keep that in mind,” I nod to her, then point at the rest of the group, “Anyway, we need to keep up with the others!  Try and forget about everything bad for now and just enjoy the school trip, okay?  There’s no reason to think too much instead of having fun.  Everything’s going to work out okay.  You still have your medicine, and nobody will let anything happen to you, and nobody here hates you, even if they don’t have anything to like about you yet, it’s fine, they don’t dislike you.”

“Are you sure?” Ayano asks, loosening her grip on the straps of her backpack.  I give her one more reassuring nod, then pick up the pace.  She does as well, and it isn’t long before we’ve caught up with the rest of our group.  Nobody seems to notice we’d been lagging behind, or if they do, they don’t mention it.  I think that’s for the better, actually.  The first landmark that we arrive at is the temple, as per Touko’s suggestion.  There aren’t too many tourists this early in the day, like she expected.

I can see why this temple is a big tourist spot, though.  The walls are covered in gold leaf, which would be impressive even to somebody who doesn’t know a thing about the religion this place is connected to.  It’s understandable why anyone would want to see it.

“It’s pretty,” Gin notes, staring up at it, then pulls out her phone to take some photos of it, “Prettier than it probably used to be.  In 1955 it was rebuilt, and the gold leaf used was much thicker than it originally was.  Still, it’s rather impressive to see something like this.  It’s just… So shiny.  I know there’s a reason, but who made that decision?  People make fun of abstract art and modern architecture all the time, but somebody in the past had to sit down and decide… Let’s make this temple gold.”

“Yeah, I gotta wonder,” Akane nods, putting her hands on her hips as she squints up at the building, “But that’s what history is, right?  The past is all the same as today, except without so many easy avenues to find out what’s going on, what reasons people had to do strange things or make odd decisions.  If somebody made a temple covered in gold leaf today, there would probably be something on the internet like ‘lol guys what if I made a temple covered completely in gold leaf’.  But since it’s history, we don’t have dares or shitposts to hunt down.”

“There is research to be done, though,” Touko mumbles, side-eyeing Akane, “The reason for it is because gold is believed to purify and mitigate negative feelings toward death.  Plus, visual excess was important in the Muromachi Era.”

“Oh!” Akane nods, “That’s cool!  So this sort of thing was normal for the time… I wonder if future people will look back and wonder what possible reason we could have had to create things like skyscrapers?” She clasps her fingers together in front of herself, “Hey, you said they had to rebuild it, right?  Why, though?”

“It burned down in 1950,” Gin answers, fiddling with her hair, “I did some research, you know.  It was the act of a novice monk who tried to kill himself after he did it.  He was sentenced to seven years in prison, released early, then died of tuberculosis in 1956.”

“Arson, huh?” Akane asks, frowning, “Well, that doesn’t make sense, why would somebody burn this place?  Gold leaf isn’t flammable, so it must have been way more trouble than it was worth, for one thing.”

“How do you just… know off the top of your head that gold leaf isn’t flammable?” I can’t keep myself from asking.  That seems like an odd thing to have memorized, though if she reads as many books as her library aide status would imply, I guess there’s all sorts of things that she might know.

“I’m smart,” She answers with a shrug, then turns to face me, giving a slow blink before she continues, “What’s so weird about knowing that an extra-thin sheet of a certain precious metal wouldn’t be likely to catch fire?”

“I guess that’s true,” I nod, then take a few steps backward, “Well, we’ve seen it.  Should we head to the next stop?  Or figure out which shrine is closer to here, anyway…”

“Right, good plan,” Gin nods, walking over to me and switching her phone from camera to maps, “We can write down some notes of the knowledge we already had, and coupled with the photographs, that should be plenty for the teachers on this location,” She runs two different requests for directions and compares them, “Looks like Shi-Tomura is closer to here, so we should head there next.  Then we can get lunch to beat the rush, and make it to Fushimi Inari Taisha while most of the tourists will be taking a break for their own lunches.”

“You’re so smart…” Ayano mumbles, barely audible, but Gin seems to hear her, looking over wide-eyed, blinking in surprise.

“Ah, I’m just good at planning.  I have to be, since I’ve been involved in student councils ever since elementary school.  Planning things out is a big part of the job, really it’s almost the entire job.  Usually the faculty collaborates with the Student Council to plan these trips out properly, but for some reason they didn’t this year.”

“That is strange,” I nod, leaning back against a nearby fence, “I wonder why…  Maybe I’ll find out eventually.”

Don’t worry, you most certainly will.  You’ve been going above and beyond so far… So if we continue this path, you’ll learn about it.

If we continue this path?  I’m not sure what that means, but I feel like Fucko’s said it many times before, even though I can’t consciously recall hearing it at all.  It’s a really strange feeling, so I shake it off before I start feeling sick from it.  I don’t know why, but feeling particularly strong emotions, (especially it seems, this overwhelming deja vu) can at times make me physically ill.  Another reason why I try not to make my own decisions too often.  If I make a wrong move and end up having feelings, it can end up making the situation worse.

It really is a pain.  Especially when, just as an example, I’m eating somebody’s food and my feelings toward that person make me feel too ill to eat any more, even though what I’m eating is delicious, and if I was eating it alone my stomach would stay settled.

The rest of the day goes just about the same as it already has; we go to the other landmarks, take photos, and conspire to write down the facts we already knew anyway.  Ayano and Akane know a lot about the Shi-Tomura shrine, then Gin and Akane have facts on our final destination, so we don’t even need to bother with trying to get past anyone else to read the informational plaques, though Shi-Tomura was empty enough that I decided to grab some photos to read later anyway.  Back at the inn, while waiting for the rest of the groups to get back so we can all eat dinner together, the information seems like a crude bastardization, though, knowing what my peers have to say about it.

All the plaques say is that Ryoko Tomura was a respected spirit medium who was mysteriously assassinated in 1994.  A terrorist group calling themselves ‘The Order’ claimed responsibility, but no motive, leaving debate on if they only wanted to get reactions without being the actual culprit.  The Order… Wasn’t that the cult that Ayano and Ssnad are standing up against?

Yes, it was.

Well, that’s the motive right there.  If they’re a fringe religion with extremist tactics, of course they’d kill somebody as famed in Shinto as Ryoko Tomura.

What’s not mentioned at all in the shrine is that the spirits Ryoko was most skilled at channeling were those of her own ancestors, Red Women throughout the ages.  It leaves out the fact that she was a red woman too, though that may be a matter of making sure that anyone who doesn’t already know the story doesn’t think it’s too absurd.  The ‘Shi’ portion of the shrine’s name comes from that fact, though.  It’s rumored that Ryoko would personally kill those who came to her shrine to confess any crime other than petty ones or manslaughter, and offer protection to victims and those who killed others accidentally or under duress.  

Akane even heard that there was one G.I. back when they were still occupying Japan after the second world war who thought to visit Ryoko, only to find that anyone in his platoon who was cruel to him was murdered, or at least grievously injured.  I don’t know how valid this account is, since she admits it’s only hearsay, but knowing what I do about Ayano, and Sayaka, and even Iwako to an extent… I’d believe it.  Red women seem to have their own sense of justice, and while I don’t understand it completely, I can respect it.

Akane seemed to be holding back on her Shi-Tomura facts though, so I go seek her out to see if I can get any more information out of her.  She’s reading at a table by herself, so it’s easy to sit myself down next to her.  I take note of the book she’s reading; The title is in English, so I’m not sure what it means, but the cover has a bird on it, so it seems nice.  I lean a bit towards her, “Fujishiro-chan, I’m no detective, but I noticed earlier that you cut yourself off when talking about the Shi-Tomura shrine.  Is there a reason for that?”

“Huh?” She looks up, blinking slowly, “Oh, right, that.  Well, it’s nothing that’s a big deal, right?  It just wasn’t something that everyone in the group needed to know, especially not Sakuya-senpai or Nozomi-san.  They both kind of annoy me… And got annoyed when I made a joke about the gold leaf being the product of a dare.  Would you disclose your family history to somebody your relationship was so lukewarm with?”

“No, I guess I wouldn’t,” I shake my head, “But… Does saying that it’s family history mean that you’re willing to elaborate on that to me?”

“I guess it does,” Akane closes her eyes and her book, setting the latter down on the table and holding her hands over the back cover, “The truth about that shrine, Shi-Tomura… I wasn’t born yet, but I’ve heard the stories.  My mother and my elder brother spent a lot of time there,” She explains, opening one eye as she continues, staring straight ahead, “My mom used to be a geisha, I mentioned.  Normally they’re hired as sophisticated entertainment for things like office parties, but Tomura-sama paid for her to come live in Kyoto, if she’d work as a shrine maiden for as long as she liked.”

“Really?” I question, “Why would she do something like that?”

“My mom always wondered the very same thing,” Akane opens her other eye now and turns to look at me, “Tomura-sama apparently always answered in the same way.  ‘Because nobody else makes tea the way you do’.  Something so mundane made a famous spirit medium open her heart to a young woman who didn’t know what she was doing, at the time.  The job didn’t last long, since she and Mitsuru-nii moved back in with Grandma after he was in an accident, but I hear that it was nice.  That Tomura-sama… Was nice.  It really is a shame what happened to her.”

“...Fujishiro-chan?” I prod, leaning a bit close to her.  I’m surprised by this melancholy she’s slipping into.

“It’s just… I have to wonder about it.  That group, ‘The Order’, who took responsibility for killing her… It’s not like that’s common knowledge to most people, nobody made a point of spreading the word.  Maybe it was to avoid giving that group the attention they wanted, but isn’t it wrong?  Tomura-sama’s killers… They’re still out there, still recruiting people.  Someone who went to the shrine for help, years ago, could end up in that group none the wiser, not even knowing that they’re betraying her memory… Why aren’t people afraid?” She questions, digging her fingernails into her cheek, “I’m afraid.”

“I’m afraid too,” I nod, reaching out to pull her hand from her face so she doesn’t hurt herself, “And I know lots of people are afraid too, of a lot of things.  I think the only way to live in this world, is to be afraid… And say that it’s fine.  Come on, repeat after me.  If some terrorist group decided they wanted to kill me, it’s not like being scared will stop them.  The best I can do is do the best I can until the day they do.”

“I’m not going to repeat that,” Akane shakes her head, a slight smirk poking at the corners of her lips, as if something I said was funny, “That’s absurd.”

“No, just try it,” I tilt my head to the side, “I promise, it’ll make you feel better, even if only a little bit, okay?”

“...Fine,” She brushes her hair away from her face and steels her shoulders, “If some terrorist group decided they wanted to kill me, it’s not like being scared will stop them,” She takes a deep breath, “The best I can do is do the best I can until the day they do.”

“See, that does make you feel better, right?” I question, “If you pretend like it’s inevitable, that you’re going to get killed, you can just put it out of your mind.  It becomes just like any other way you could die.  Someday it will happen.  Just do your best until then, do your best because living each day like it’s your last is what everyone does anyway.  We keep going.  We make the best of our world, even when it’s cruel and painful.  You don’t have to be afraid.”

“I have a friend who could stand to hear that, too,” Akane taps the table, “But it’s dumb, too.  A dumb way to think.  If it was that easy to stop being afraid of death, wouldn’t everybody have done it by now?  Maybe that works for you, Hako-chan, but you can’t just assume it’s going to help at all.”

“I guess you’re right,” I nod, looking up at the ceiling, “But maybe it will help that friend of yours, if it didn’t help you?  Mind me asking who it is?”

“Ryouma Kobayashi,” Akane doesn’t even hesitate, watching me out of the corners of her eyes, “It just isn’t terrorists that are inevitably going to kill her, but, you know.”

“But there’s always luck,” I note, “It’s always possible that she’ll avoid disease for a very long time, so I think it’s extra important that she just live like she has her entire future waiting.”

“Yeah, that’s what I think too,” Akane nods, smiling at me, “So your advice may be useless to me, but it’ll help somebody.  So… I have to thank you for it, even if it was dumb to say to me.”

“Anytime!” I nod, then flash her a grin.

Dinner is fine that night, and not memorable.  I just spend it seated between Amai and Sayaka, and we just chat about what sort of things we saw during the day; pretty mundane.  I skip out on dinner early so I can get a shower before the bathrooms get busy, then head to my mattress in the sleeping area.  I’m about to sit down, when Fucko speaks up.

Actually, you should go to the bathroom again.

That’s a particularly weird command, but I listen anyway, turning around only to find upon arrival that there’s now a line out the door.  I don’t want to wait, especially since I don’t know what reason I would have to be back here.

There’s another one that’s only toilet stalls and sinks on the other end of the building, head that direction.

I follow the instruction, finding that the other bathroom is so far away from everything else that I don’t even see anybody in the hallway towards it.  I enter the room, only to find that it’s empty… No, mostly empty.  There is one person in here, or at least there was pretty recently, since there’s smoke rising up out of the stall on the far end.  I wander over there and tap on the door, “Hey, hey, why’ve you got a cigarette going indoors?”

“Who’s there?” The person within the stall questions, and I have my answer just from hearing her voice.  I’d assumed it was one of the chaperones who was smoking, but if this was a student who wasn’t allowed to go outside after dinnertime, it would make sense.

“Box Hako,” I answer, then hear the latch undoing, and the door’s kicked open.  I lean in to look and see that Yukari Akashiya’s seated on top of the toilet’s water tank, holding a cigarette in her left hand.

“Hey,” She greets me, looking down with her eyes but not her entire head, “You come on back here to smoke in secret too?  Didn’t think you were the type.”

“I’m not really,” I shake my head, “I just wandered over here.  Don’t worry, though, I won’t tell anybody.  Why are you smoking on a school trip?”

“I didn’t think I would, honestly.  I’m not an idiot, I didn’t want to risk getting caught,” She scoffs, rolling her eyes, “But I guess I at least had to go ahead and bring a pack in case I had a shitty day, and would you look at that, I did.”

“Oh no,” I frown as I look up at her and continue, “What happened?  How did you have a bad day on a school trip?”

“Because not everybody can have a high school life as charmed as yours?” Yukari shoots back, and while it catches me off-guard and feels aggressive, she does continue on, “Look, it’d sound stupid if I said it aloud, so let’s just say I didn’t really get along with my group.”

Yukari Akashiya
“That’s a shame,” I sigh, moving to lean against the wall, “I guess that’s the problem with having groups that are randomly assigned… One person in my group didn’t really get along with two of the others, either.  I’d think that we could all get along okay, since there’s only, what, fifty something students in the whole school?  But I guess people will always have problems.”

“Tch,” Yukari taps her knuckles against the wall, grimacing, “I wouldn’t really call it people having problems, Nagata’s just a magnetic bitch.”

“Magnetic bitch?” I question, unsure of what she means by that.

“Yeah, magnetic bitch,” Yukari confirms, tilting her head, “Someone whose cruelty is magnetizing.  Hanamura and Akabane are so weak-willed they just went along with it when she said she heard that I do compensated dating.  Look, I might break the rules occasionally, but I didn’t make the cut of delinquent enough to be in No Boys or anything, so it should be pretty obvious I don’t do that shit…”

“How mean,” I furrow my brows, looking down at the floor, “If you say you don’t do something, why would they still think you do?  And even if you did, that’s not a reason to be cruel to you.  Girls who turn to compensated dating have pretty desperate situations, they deserve sympathy, not rudeness like that at all!”  With this information, I’m not so sure I’m looking forward to having any conversations with Natsuki Nagata.

Don’t worry.  She has her reasons not to behave that way toward you.

“Well,” Yukari climbs back down to stand on the floor, staring off into the distance, “That’s true, isn’t it?  Anyway, I should be getting to sleep.  So should you, Hako-san.”

“...Right,” I nod, watching her leave, and I somehow feel like that conversation didn’t quite go the way it should have.  Did I mess that up?  Yukari doesn’t seem to be any better off for me encountering her in here and talking to her.

No.  You’re doing perfectly.  Let’s go back to bed.

I hold my arms to myself as I make my way out of the restroom, only to freeze in the hallway at the sound of a large crash.  Yukari’s already gone, out of what would have been earshot for that noise, but I turn around again and return to the doorway of the bathroom, looking inside only to see that the last stall in the line seems… Off.  It’s now shrouded in some level of darkness, and I could have sworn there wasn’t a dent on the top of the wall before.  I cautiously make my way back in, only to see that the light on that end’s fallen, knocking the door off the stall.  It must be a heavy light, too, because there’s a powder of the toilet’s porcelain scattered on the floor, the ceiling light lodged in the bits it’s displaced.

Come on, Box.  Do you really need the proof?  Just go to sleep.  You never need to know what would have happened if you hadn’t done as I asked.