By the time the fragments numbered in the hundreds, there were things Rika understood.
Instances meeting like constellations. Beautiful pictures, terrible pictures. Turning gears.
By the time the fragments numbered in the thousands, her heart was no longer soft. And by the time they numbered in the tens of thousands, feeling was a miraculous thing, a flower in a drought, and she understood love and fear only through the scenery they existed within.
Evening casts its cloak over another Watanagashi. The stall lights bob in the darkness. The warmth of day dampens, but doesn’t leave the air.
She pays little attention when Keiichi and Mion slip away. She pays little to anything, these days.
Heavy robes, dark rooms. A fire in the mountains. Flesh under fingernails.
Sometimes Hanyuu would still cry at what was coming.
A weighted sleep. She supposed that even if she were granted dreams, the knife would cut through those, too. She felt it, cold in her stomach, often the last thing she knew.
Still, the worlds differed. The ways in which they did, she couldn’t afford not to notice.
It was just that by this point she felt like a student falling asleep in class as a teacher somewhere droned on about equations she was sick of trying to decipher.
She sensed rather than thought, these days. She knew her friends. What would’ve been infinitesimal shifts to some made her feel seasick.
Have you heard of the form of torture where water is left to drip onto your forehead until you lose your mind?
Animals could tell when earthquakes were coming long before humans.
Every world felt different, like variations of a virus: this one gives you strange dreams; this one makes you feel warm all over; this one makes you throw up until the back of your throat burns.
You could say her heart was colourblind.
It had only clicked into place in a moment of clarity as she saw them walking back: her friends, smiling at one another. His arm in hers. A blush like the sun was setting under her cheeks.
It’s Hanyuu—here, now, or perhaps once in the past. Perhaps in another world. She didn’t feel déjà vu, after all; she lived it.
But, no. There were things Rika hadn’t seen before, even now. She could tell. They felt like winter air against her skin.
She pays attention, then, but doesn’t think too hard—sometimes she doesn’t want to anymore. Mostly, Hanyuu will berate her. Sometimes, she’ll understand.
There is no tension in either expression.
When Keiichi wins something from a stall and turns too quickly to give it to Rena, she just smiles and shakes her head, then leans over to whisper something into his ear that leaves him turning red.
“Say, isn’t something weird going on, Rika?”
“What could you mean, Satoko?” Their voices are quiet in the festival air. Her friend’s fingers are in her own, her breath warm on her cheek.
“They’re totally acting weird, don’t play dumb. Especially Mion-san—do you think she's unwell?”
“Next stall, next stall! We don’t have all night!” It’s Rena’s hands at their back.
Of course, perhaps more importantly than what changes, there’s what stays the same.
When you’ve performed a ritual dance thousands of times, you can do it in your sleep. She uses every chance she gets to survey the crowd, even as Hanyuu whispers the answer in her ear.
No good, they’re not here.
Somewhere else in the night, a young nurse and a photographer from Tokyo are spending their final hours sharing ghost stories.
Perhaps it'd be wrong to say Rika didn’t feel anymore.
She felt when a world was coming to a dead end, like oxygen leaving the air.
Once or twice, she thought she might’ve felt a miracle at the tips of her fingers, whatever Hanyuu told her.
Sometimes she wondered if those worlds were mere dreams. Hanyuu hadn’t dreamt since she was human. How do you tell a dream from reality, Rika?
She hadn't known the answer to that.
She didn’t feel the fissures form across the surface of their reality. All she had to do was look into her friends’ eyes to see when it was too late.
It takes seconds to tell Takano and Tomitake don’t number among the crowd watching her performance, so she looks for her friends. Keiichi’s hand is in Mion’s, now.
It’s like colour theory. A sixth sense.
When the day comes, they’ll need all the right pieces—nothing less.
What kind of a world will it be? She likes to think about it, staring up at the ceiling as Satoko snores beside her.
Some things were easy to understand.
Worlds where Houjou Teppei—
She squeezes her eyes shut.
Others were more complicated. It wasn’t like it all made sense—what worked, what didn’t—but that further reassured her that out there, somewhere, was their world; their imperfect, perfect world. She just had to find it.
They chatter about the events of the day, Rena drags a cart overflowing with toys behind her, and Satoko jumps through the pools of light the streetlamps form. They come to the road where they go their separate ways. Keiichi, Mion and Rena, back down to the village, Rika and Satoko, to their little shack behind the shrine.
Sometimes Rika had to wonder if Hanyuu and her didn’t share more than their senses. It’s only after she says it that Rika feels it, in the pit of her stomach.
The prologue draws to an end. Tonight, it begins. Tonight, she’ll toss and turn in her sheets, trying to make sense of this prelude to disaster.
It had been a strange world. Little had stood out.
She understands the question, of course. Why not here? Why not now? So Hanyuu is humouring her tonight. Why not this time?
One day, this will all end. It’s the truth. It has to be.
Satoko skips through the tall grass and Hanyuu hovers between them as Rika watches her friends walk home.
Their voices fade into the night until indistinguishable from those of the cicadas. Their silhouettes melt into the darkness.
Sometimes they’d try to find the answer. Sometimes they’d make a game of it.
What piece do you want, Hanyuu? And you, Rika?
Truth was stranger than fiction. When the end came, they’d probably have little choice.
Of course, that was fine. One day the shimmering heat would break into true summer, and the sun would rise and rise and rise until Watanagashi became a distant memory. One day the season that only knew how to begin would end.
At that time, would she be happy? Would she be able to put the past to rest?
It would be ludicrous to suggest she’d miss this. Her fear came from considering whether she remembered how to wake up from nightmares—whether her eyes still knew how to adjust to day.
Still, there was what she'd come to understand as a kind of reverse-nostalgia. Nestling in amongst the horror were moments like this. Were they glimpses of a life to come?
She turned to look over Hinamizawa one last time. The sun had been cast to the other side of the sky and was exploding like a heartbeat over the horizon, giving the very edges of the village the illusion of being on fire.
It might have been absurd to say there were still times where she was happy, or at peace. But this was her life, too.
More than simply seeking the lighthouses in the dark, Rika tried to understand things as they existed now. If nothing else, there was an aestheticism to it. One day she’d make it to the sea, so why not enjoy her time observing the tributaries?
She couldn’t comment on the machinations of fate. She could only honour the parts of themselves they’d all leave here, when they took the future in their hands.
Sometimes she felt like a god. Hey.
Keiichi and Mion had held hands all the way into the sunset.
She watches until the world has turned its face from the sun. Hanyuu’s voice is soft, weak as a gust of wind in the burning summer.
So… Not this time?
Not this time.
Hanyuu waits for a few heartbeats, the way someone might stand over a grave after laying flowers.
Are you ready now?
Rika breathes in the evening one last time.
Let’s go, Hanyuu.