There was a flutter of soft strands of hair over his eyes and forehead, but Hakuei couldn’t see the person who appeared to be standing above him. His vision was blurry, and he could only make out a darkened figure of a person. A soft light shined behind them; however their face was obscured. Hakuei could feel his arm seemingly move on its own to shield his eyes as a side of his lips curled up. His body felt warm, and the emotion coursing through him spoke of deep affection for whoever was standing there.
The figure let out a soft laugh and asked, “Are you ready to come back in now?”
Hakuei’s lips parted to respond,
He woke up with a gasp and a light sheen of sweat covered his upper body, making his muscle tee stick to his skin. Hakuei frantically looked around his dark bedroom, but the only light coming in was from a street lamp just outside his window. He reached over to switch on his lamp, while he continued to take in shallow breaths.
That was the fourth dream of a similar vein, that he could count, over the past few weeks. They all started out the same way: An unknown, untouchable figure calling to him and Hakuei responded to them as if they were familiar. It felt surreal, like he was witnessing an out of body experience, but from within the mind of, well, himself. The person’s voice — possibly a man’s, he wasn’t sure and he didn’t recognize it — would speak to him conversationally or ask him as a question, but as soon as Hakuei tried to speak, the dream would end.
He let out a deep breath, as he ran a hand through his dirty blond hair. He glanced over at his alarm clock:
Great, Hakuei thought, I have about two more hours before I have to actually be up. He heaved one last deep sigh before reaching over to flip the switch off and throwing himself against his pillows, leaving him in relative darkness once more. He had class in the morning. Analyzing this dream could wait.
Shrill ringing erupted from the alarm clock at 5:45 am and a hand quickly shot out from underneath the covers to shut it off. Hakuei groaned softly and wished for just ten more minutes of rest before having to force himself out of bed to start his day.
He didn’t hate his classes, on the contrary, they brought him much joy. He looked forward to the lessons every day, but dreams like the one earlier that night often left him mentally exhausted.
His alarm clock went off again: 5:55 am. It was time to finally get up.
Hakuei quietly shuffled into the kitchen twenty minutes later after deciding that having a quick shower would help him start the day in a better mood. He took out a couple of items from the fridge — a cup of yogurt, a can of iced coffee that belonged to his roommate, his bento — and shoved all but the coffee into his backpack. A bright red post-it note on the freezer caught his attention before he turned away. It, politely, told him to mail his and his roommate’s rent checks at the post office after work. He took down the note, crumpled it up, and launched it with a swish into the trash can. Finally, he swiped the envelope off the counter, and headed out into the cool, humid morning.
“Good morning, class.”
‘Good morning, Hakuei-san!” the chorus of young students returned in unison.
“Is everyone ready for their field trip today?”
There were frenzied screams, loud agreements, and a few heads furiously nodding at their teacher. Hakuei clapped his hands once and smiled down at his class. “Okay, we’re going to line-up at 8:30 with Naoko-san’s class, which means that we have just fifteen minutes to straighten up the classroom. Do you think you all can do that?”
“Will you all work together?”
“Alright…” Hakuei dramatically twisted his wrist to turn his watch face-up. He furrowed his eyebrows and bent down slightly, his stance challenging his students to get ready. The children, some bouncing slightly, some giggling, waited for his signal.
There was a mad scramble as kids scattered to put away books, straighten their desks and chairs, and even feed the class beetles.
Naoko-san walked in a few minutes later and observed the classroom and rush of students with a reserved smile. “Hakuei-san, why do you wind them up like this?”
He shrugged with a grin, “Why not? Besides, it’s Zoo Day. They were already raring to go.”
“Okay, okay.” Naoko relented as she laughed softly, then she turned her attention to the clock on the wall. Hakuei followed her line of vision and abruptly called out, “Everyone, line up please! It’s time to go.”
Thirty happily chattering students filed out of the small school a few minutes later with Naoko in front with one parent chaperone and Hakuei and another parent doing sweep at the end of the line.
Hakuei’s sweep partner elbowed him softly and gave him sweet smile in greeting. “It’s good to see you, Hakuei-san. You don’t look so hot today; is everything alright?”
Hakuei dipped his head in greeting and returned his attention to the line of students in front of him as they walked to their destination. “It’s nothing major, Yune-san, I just didn’t sleep that well.”
“Hmm,” Yune frowned slightly, “I remember you saying that the last time I saw you at the parent-teacher conference. Only you looked worse then.”
Hakuei raised an eyebrow slightly, “Oh? I don’t even remember.” He replied, then clicked his tongue softly. Yune nodded, “Yeah, you were saying something like how you were having some weird dreams. Not nightmares, dreams.” He looked at Hakuei from the corner of his eye, “Are they still happening?”
The other man nodded once and sighed, “I don’t know what’s causing them, but they've been happening for a while.”
“Maybe you need a vacation.” Yune replied, teasingly.
Hakuei snorted, “I wish.”
“Or maybe you should take me up on that offer to come with me to my friends' new bar.”
Hakuei and Yune stopped with the students and other chaperones at the traffic light and waited to cross. Yune peered at him, a grin tugging at his lips, as Hakuei appeared to be weighing his options. He generally didn’t get involved with any of the parents, but Yune was a dedicated parent-volunteer, so they had become friendly. It also helped that his daughter was a very inquisitive student. Maybe it couldn’t hurt to have a drink with him, as his own roommate was woefully allergic to alcohol and his friends were often too busy pulling long hours at their respective offices, so anything spontaneous — or even planned — was often out of the question.
The walk signal changed and the group moved to cross the wide arterial lanes. As soon as they got to the other side, Hakuei looked over at Yune.
“Let’s do it.”
Yune’s grin grew outright, “Yeah? How about tomorrow night?”
He gave him a firm nod, "I’m down.”
“Great! You’re going to love this place, and you’re going to love my friends. They’re former musicians who played in bands before calling it quits.”
Hakuei blinked, “Wait, then how did you meet them? You never joined a band."
“The music world is very small, my friend. Everyone knows everyone.”
Hakuei shrugged, accepting the explanation seeing as how Yune shared a music studio with his partner. He slipped back into teacher mode as they approached the gates of the zoo, where two more parents were waiting. Naoko called for everyone’s attention, “Now, today we’re going to be on our best behavior, right?”
The students nodded in unison, save for one or two little jokesters.
“Good. Everyone split into your groups — If you want to start with the chimpanzees and gorillas, you’re with Kazuya-san and I.”
Hakuei stepped up, “And If you want to start with all of the awesome bugs and reptiles,” he stopped to laugh at some of the disgusted groans and a loud, “Cool!!” from one student, “You’re with Sugihara-san and I. If you want to start with the big cats, you’re with Takeyama-san and Ishizuka-san. Any questions?”
Hakuei received a chorus of no’s and he gave them a big smile.
A few hours later the group filed out of the Zoo with two sleepy students being carried by the parent volunteers, and the rest were hopped up on sugar. The teachers weren’t worried about their hyperactive state, for once, as it was late enough that everyone’s parents would be waiting for them when they returned. As they walked back to school, Yune and Hakuei were chatting about the upcoming night.
“So, what should I expect? Chill and divey, loungey, pretentious…?” Hakuei asked, just before he darted out to corral a wayward child.
Yune let out of a bark of laughter, “Nah, it’ll be chill. These were rock dudes. What you should expect is to…” He smiled down at the little boy who fell back in step with his friends and turned back to whisper, “Probably not remember a thing in the morning.”
Hakuei blanched and responded in a stage whisper, “Are you serious?”
Yune stopped right in his tracks and fixed the younger man a Look. “You”, he began, “Are entirely too wound up. Also, we’re going out on a Saturday night, lighten up.”
Hakuei closed his eyes and sighed, “You’re right. Sorry, it’s honestly been a while and I’ve just been so stressed out lately.”
They had arrived at the school and watched as the students dispersed into the arms of their parents. Yune’s daughter wandered over and giggled upon receiving a little wink from him. “All the more reason why you need to be there, tomorrow, at 9 pm sharp.” he responded, looking back up at Hakuei.
Hakuei smiled, “I’m looking forward to it. See you tomorrow night." He bowed to Yune and his daughter and waved as they headed towards the train station, hand in hand.
After logging in his students’ attendance and cleaning up his desk, he made a quick trip to the post office, just before it closed, and decided to take a long walk home rather than jumping on the train. The air was warm and the streets were buzzing with office workers rushing home, teenagers off to the movies, old men walking slowly with their arms clasped behind their backs, and he weaved through them all, standing tall above the crowd.
Hakuei was just about to pull out his phone to jump manipulate his music player’s shuffle settings, when his eyes were automatically drawn to a smaller man with bright orange hair. He was in the trendier part of the city, so seeing people with hair colors of every hue wasn’t out of the ordinary — and he had recently dyed his hair blond, much to his principal’s chagrin — but his eyes couldn’t help following the man who crossed in front of him without a single glance.
He blinked back to reality and the stream of people continuing around him. He looked around to see where the other man went, but he was gone. Hakuei chalked up his interest as a one-off, and continued on his trek. Around twenty minutes later, he turned down a familiar residential street and shortcut, a welcomed respite from the crowd. As he continued on his commute by foot, his mind kept showing flashes of the man, a crop of orange standing starkly against a sea of black and brown. He felt his lips tugging downwards into a frown and he stopped in the middle of the path to rest a hand against his heart.
It was racing.