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Third time's a charm

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      From the start, she can tell it's going to spiral into another disaster. That's how things are—have always been—layers of horror she has no strength to pull off her smile any longer. She was on her own for a while, carrying the weight of the world until she was whole once more, bits of her soul finding shelter into a third person. Now, Hamuko has two younger brothers, one who is asleep with his head buried in the crook of her shoulder, the second staring at the sky outside. It'll turn into a nightmare soon enough, no need to await for this eagerly. Muffling a yawn with the back of her hand, she absentmindedly wonders about that new start they are taking. Another mistake for sure~!

 

She misses how naive she was allowed to be years prior, the sheer amount of genuine smiles she was able to give out. Nowadays, Hamuko feels like a fraud, always pretending to be fine because she isn't allowed to break, or else they would crash with her. That's what happens when you're the oldest, she guesses. And the only one who has emerged from a deadly accident with only psychological trauma. Ah, she says these terrible things, yet she's grateful she got to meet Minato once more. She waited for so many years, sitting on his hospital bed for a miracle. Five years which have turned into a blur during which she was stuck in the middle of an endless storm.

 

A voice from the speakers catches her attention, prompting Hamuko to nudge her little brother with her elbow.

 

“Wake up, sleepyhead, we're almost home.”

 

Their belongings are supposed to follow within the next days. Not that they own a lot. What is there to keep once the most important thing has burned to ashes? She isn't even certain they'll get to remain at the dormitory. It might be 2017, yet it seemed like an old building on pictures, one not suitable for their needs. While they contacted her about a scholarship due to her situation, Hamuko still had to fight (as usual) to get her brothers included in the deal. Oh, with the money the state is giving them and her countless part-time jobs, she is certain to have enough savings to be able to pay for everyone. The problem is obtaining acceptance in the first place.

 

Asshole.

 

That's what she gets for waking him up apparently. She chuckles, long used to Minato's rude sign language. Your poor brother, they tell her, unable be the same due to trauma, having spent so many years in a coma. She loathes adults so much, as they cannot keep their mouths closed for more than one minute. Minato is doing good, for his (their) circumstances. It's fine if he rarely uses his voice. He unfolds his wheelchair, tiredness visible in his body, before standing on shaky legs to crash on it. Oh yes, she has to recall they ought to go to the hospital to schedule a follow up for physical therapy.

 

And find therapists for their other problems in the meantime. Ah, as long as she keeps herself busy enough, she's fine! No need to waste their meager resources on her.

 

“It's soon.”

 

Ah, here goes her youngest brother, the cryptid. That might also cause trouble, to have him around. Ryoji does not exist. Before the accident, Hamuko only had a twin and loving parents. Years later, she found him sitting on Minato's bed, in her spot, a thin boy, famished even, who didn't even know his name or why he was there. Oddly, she didn't freak out, as if he was meant to be there, even as hollow eyes stared right into her soul. That's why she sat by his side, holding his hands. It was after a long day at school, uncle and aunt berating her or wasting her time at the hospital once more. And this boy was so cold, hands almost freezing as she held them in her own. By the time she left, he had not moved. And the next day, he offered her a confused expression as she opened the door. The bizarre part being how nurses and doctors alike started to talk about the Arisato triplets out of all a sudden. Or the way she never saw Ryoji outside of the room, for months. That wasn't right, none of that made sense back then, and it still does not nowadays.

 

Relatives started to mention Ryoji after a while, holes all over the story. They couldn't tell, nor care, about where or with who he was meant to live. Yet, he was everywhere on family pictures, even on newspaper articles about the accident. Hamuko could trace his existence from the start, baby brother who was so small her mother thought he would rejoice death days after being born, she was told. She has no real memories of Ryoji though. Nothing at all before he appeared in the hospital room. He is the brother which has no identity, the one always forgotten that people recall at the last second, catching a glimpse of him in the corner of their eyes. They better give him a room at the dormitory, or she is going to riot on their first day!

 

They exit the train together, Hamuko ensuring her siblings are following. While they are both able to manage, she can't help worrying over them too often. Half of his face hidden by a long yellow scarf (one she bought him for their birthday), Ryoji is more alive than he used to be as he stares at the moon in awe. His cheeks have gotten some colors since she met him, eyes filled with something alive and less terrifying. He doesn't fully pass as human though, often confused by everything and talking about 'mortals', but she's very proud of how far he has come. It would be nice if he could stop watching romance dramas on her laptop, as she'd rather not have him start talking like the boys in these shows. What will she do if he starts hitting on people, hm?

 

“It's soon, yup. And we'll manage.”

 

Whatever.

 

Fingerless gloves allow Minato to push his wheelchair with ease as he articulates the word without making a sound, although he will certainly complain internally the whole way. She has taken the habit to glance at him more often than she used to, not wanting to miss something important. He is still learning sign language, in the same way Ryoji and her do, day by day. Long blue hair fall against Minato' shoulders, strands obscuring a side of his face. Nurses said it gives him a mysterious vibe, which always made her laugh. She fondly believes it makes him look like a complete nerd.

 

They have barely taken a couple of steps when everything goes back to that one hour long nightmare they have to face every night. Hamuko sighs as the sky turns into that deep green which causes a turmoil in the pit of her stomach. She used to get so nauseous when it started, unable to stand for too long before collapsing. It's still—a complicated experience, she decides as she avoids stepping in a crimson puddle whose smell leaves her disgusted. Minato gestures for Ryoji to assist him with the wheelchair, using the opportunity to fidget with his headphones. They won't work until it's over, no use trying to make sure.

 

The three of them have different reactions to the situation, Hamuko's wariness being challenged by Minato's apathy and the way Ryoji couldn't care less, happily pushing their brother's wheelchair in the middle of questionable puddles.

 

“Cut it out! You're going to attract them,” she groans as her shoes get splashed. Great, more cleaning. Of course, Ryoji only offers her a long stare before resuming his activity. He is the one who doesn't fear shadows as they avoid him in the first place. Something about him reeking of death. Well, she'd happily roll in dead fish to avoid having them slithering around her at night. Apparently, it does not work this way though.

 

What's wrong with dying, Minato would certainly signs if she offered him the opportunity to do so. Better not engage on this slippery and endless road. They have their share of arguments, much to her dismay. As if what they had endured up to that point wasn't enough, Minato has expressed little desire to actually get better since he woke up. The shock of having lost their parents, or perhaps the fact he lost five years of his life in the blink of an eye. Mentally, he does feel eleven at times, being a prick or refusing to cooperate because what's the point in being a family? She deals with that by the same way she solves other problems; burying herself into work and school until she collapse from exhaustion as soon as her head hits the pillow. That's running away, somehow.

 

The familiar, and unwelcome, sound of something sticky sliding slowly but surely toward them is too much to deal with at the moment. Sure, they could run, or throw Ryoji in front of them as a repellant. Her younger brother feels— different, during that weird hour. Something shining in his clear pupils as he stands straighter, observing shadows as if he wished to rip them apart for daring to come so close. She'd rather not have to wash three sets of clothes on their first night at the dormitory. It would be impolite.

 

“Ryoji, behave,” she ruffles his hair, wondering when he has gotten so tall. Ah, he isn't that much of a giant, but still. She doesn't enjoy feeling small next to her siblings. Even Minato caught up over the past year, now taller than his big sister.

 

“Okay, if you want.”

 

“We have to make a good first impression, we can't afford to get thrown out.”

 

This time around is unspoken, albeit present. Aunt and uncle were fine with having her around, although taking her disabled brother and the other one was apparently too much to ask. She is still livid at the way they welcomed her after the accident, raising her around their own kids only for— ah that's such a waste. She hisses at the shadow slowly following them, wondering if hitting it with her bag would do anything. Some are chatty beings she can accept. Many, however, have a thirst for blood or money she cannot stand. She should be more patient, perhaps.

 

“Hey Minato, gimme the book.”

 

He raises his head to offer her a blank look as Ryoji barely avoids ramming the wheelchair into a coffin. She can feel the boys judging her already.

 

“I thought you didn't want to cause a mess?” Ryoji blinks.

 

“That's different… What if we bring a shadow to the dorm? Do you think they'd understand?”

 

She isn't sure of where each of them stands team wise. Hamuko can get her way out of anything with an improved weapon and good running shoes, at least. Ryoji goes berserk when necessary, refusing to fight when he does not have to. He often sits on high places, watching her get out of whatever problem she has gotten herself in. Being the baby brother means more privileges and getting spoiled. As for Minato—

 

The leather book appears on his lap, opening itself without being prompted to. A powerful weapon hidden as a register. Hamuko isn't certain of what they are meant to do with it, beyond calling forth friendly demons which do not wish to assassinate them in the middle of the night. Sometimes it was odd encounters, a Pixie in need of assistance, or a lost Jack Frost. Memories they engraved in the book, with their permission. And now, when they are in the midst of a losing battle, they return, eager to pay their debts, or merely to help. Hamuko does not trust shadows, which doesn't stop her from relying on them from time to time.

 

Calling?

 

“Oh yeah, I'm not sure who will help the most. Is Oberon available?”

 

Minato nods, running fingers against the paper and tracing a pattern against it. He is the summoner, having gotten the Compendium when his arms couldn't even hold it. At times, it feels like it's the only treasure he still finds interest in, barely raising his gaze when they watch tv shows together or Ryoji almost setting the kitchen on fire while trying to make pancakes.

 

Before they even get to request assistance, shadow slithering on the side to avoid Ryoji, the world turns into a blur. It lasts one second, and then they are in the middle of the street, Compendium gone. Hamuko takes a deep breath, fetching her water battle before sipping half of it in one go. On the bright side, no fight tonight! Honestly, blowing off some steam wouldn't have been too bad but that was not the right moment. The day was long enough for sure. Ryoji has his eyes closed, struggling to return into the real world more than his siblings.

 

His gaze has turned back into a soft color once he is able to look around once more, suddenly tugging his scarf down with one hand.

 

“Is it the right building?”

 

She has to check on her phone, comparing with the pictures on the website. Seems like it's the place they were aiming for— she glares at the stairs immediately, wishing nothing more than to rip them apart. She has been told they would add a ramp, which hasn't been done yet. Fine, they'll deal in one way or another.

 

“Minato, can you walk or do you want one of us to carry you?”

 

He presses his feet against the ground with a bored frown. If he was allowed to decide of a third possibility, they would remain there the whole night, doing absolutely nothing. Hamuko allows him five minutes to decide, sitting on the steps as she opens a game on her phone. A cute one with magical girls and dancing. Rhythm stuff eases her, although she couldn't care less for the plot. Not focused, she hits the notes out of habit, aware that she will lose by truly paying attention. Urg, she needs to sleep soon. Eventually, Minato extends his arms toward Ryoji, who lifts him without a complain. At least her song was finished. She folds the wheelchair before carrying it up the stairs, wondering on which floor their rooms will be. She can already tell there won't be an elevator— or maybe she should be more hopeful, for once.

 

Rustic. That's the first word on her tongue to describe the place. It feels cozy, yet old. The television especially. She is fairly sure her laptop has a better screen quality. The dim light from the room isn't much, although she doesn't dare to touch anything. Ah, no one probably expected them so late. Well, at worst there is a couch and some armchairs— they can work with that!

 

A blanket would be nice though. As she is deep in thoughts, she doesn't notice footsteps until there is a confused girl unleashing a loud 'who are you' on them. Oh that's not as— Turning around, Hamuko feels exhausted suddenly. Ryoji is sitting on the front desk, twirling a pen between his fingers, whereas Minato has put on his headphones, blasting music loud enough for her to hear the goddam lyrics. Okay, that's no the best first impression they could have given. Smiling, Hamuko spins toward the girl, bowing slightly.

 

“We are the Arisato siblings, we were scheduled to arrive earlier today although there was a delay with the train.”

 

(Minato wasting the money meant for his ticket on a stupid crane game, and without winning anything on top of it!)

 

“Oh!” The girl blinks. “Oh,” she repeats, with a softer tone. “We thought you would be there only tomorrow since we didn't get news. I'm Takeba Yukari, let me fetch the one in charge.”

 

And she's gone in the blink of an eye. Excellent timing as it allows Hamuko to drag one brother off the desk and to tell the lower to lower his music before he gets deaf. Can't it be a great school year for once? She has low expectations, perhaps one or two friends— some karaoke sessions on Friday evenings. Nothing too big.

 

By the time Kirijo Mitsuru is there, she thinks they appear mostly presentable. Good thing blood doesn't show up on black shoes or else they would have a slight problem. How could they explain how special they are? The siblings embraced by death, given magic they barely comprehend.

 

There is an elevator, and she has to repress the sudden urge to hug the older girl. Instead, she finds herself grinning, her mood lifted up (oh, she's proud of that joke!).

 

“Your room is on the second floor and your brothers' on the first one,” Mitsuru has a clear pause as she sees Ryoji, as if he shouldn't be there.

 

“They will share a room for the time being, right?”

 

“Yes, that's indeed what was planned. Bunk beds, if you are okay with this setting?”

 

“Of course we are, thank you very much.”

 

Behind her, Ryoji is asking if he can get the top bed and Hamuko can only imagine Minato pointing at his wheelchair with a deadpan look.

 

“I'll walk you to your room.”

 

She follow Yukari while thinking only about how comfortable the bed is going to be. Hell she could sleep on the floor and already be overjoyed after such a long day. Touring the place can wait for the next morning anyway. Yukari opens the door for her, fumbling with finding the right key before handling it out. A bed! Sleep!

 

Their stuff is indeed not here yet though, which is a shame.

 

“Hey, on your way to the dorm, did you notice—”

 

“Nope, everything was great, good night!” She almost pushes Yukari out of the room, locking the door behind her. She doesn't wish to be rude but she cannot stand any of this right now. No more damn green hours or pesky little brothers. She is going to wash her face, get changed, and then sleep as long as she can.

 

It's only once she is safely tucked in that she realizes she has to put her alarm for five hours ahead.

 

“Well, fuck.”

 

 

      Birds could find another place to chirp so early on. Especially as she is half alive, having to drag her body in the shower until she feels remotely human once more. She should suggest that tip to Ryoji, for days where he seems to come out of hell rather than being an average teenager. The uniform she found folded in front of her door, alongside a note for Yukari, fits fine. It's different from her last one and she is going to need some time to accessorize it probably. At least, the hairpins makes her look cool.

 

She is quick to throw everything in her bag at once, a knock on the door catching her attention.

 

“Arisato, are you ready?”

 

“Yeah. Good morning, Takeba!”

 

She hopes her appearance is acceptable, as there is a limit in the amount of concealer she can put over her eye bags. Coins bouncing in her hand, she quickly grabs something in the vending machine before following her downstairs. School is going to be the same as usual. New faces, rumors and her tragic past being ignored by teachers who forgot to read her file. She is used to it.

 

“Your brothers are not coming?”

 

“Nope, they are going to another school which has special classes.”

 

Their first day is tomorrow, if she remembers correctly. She hopes they'll be together, as they haven't been to school (or ever in Ryoji's case) in so long. Yukari doesn't push the topic beyond asking the name of the school to know where it's located, something Hamuko is glad for. If she has questions, she can ask her brothers directly. They'll appreciate it a lot more than Hamuko throwing their problems at strangers.

 

There is nostalgia has she sees her new school from inside the monorail. That's weird, as she has been on her own at school for a long time now. Her mom used to make them special good luck lunches for their first day, with their favorite foods. And now she only has a squished melon pan at the bottom of her bag. Oh, it'll be fine.

 

Her phone buzzes in her pocket, prompting her to offer an apologetic smile to Yukari before opening the group chat she has with her brothers.

 

Nerd#2 > There is wifi.

 

Relief is hard to hide. At least the dorm is not fully doomed, between the elevator and that.

 

Me > that's good!!!

 

Nerd#2 > The password is IceiceQueenK.

 

Me > ok thx bye!!

 

She has almost put the phone away when it vibrates a last time.

 

Nerd#2 > Good luck, sis.

 

Suddenly, she feels more confident about that first day.

Even as Hamuko cannot find her name on the lists, which is honestly so usual she doesn't even blink an eye to it any longer. Trip to the faculty office then! She had to go there anyway. She braces herself for a comment about her family before plastering a smile on her lips and sliding the door open.

 

At least, she is in the same class as Yukari.

 

 

In the evening, after an assembly long enough for her to clear five songs on her game, and meeting a classmate who apparently decided to be friendly out of the blue, she is finally back at the dorm. Crashing head first on the couch is a perfectly acceptable choice— ah no, Mitsuru is there. Tragic. With a groan she drags herself upstairs. Okay, so which room belongs to her beloved little brothers? After knocking on all of them, the last one opens on Ryoji.

 

Dark strands are falling in front of his eyes as he is obviously fresh out of the shower, and still wearing pajamas. She hopes they haven't woken up too late, as she has to leave before them the following morning. They can go without assistance anyway, aware of which bus they are meant to take. They planned this one week earlier, buying passes online and downloading plans on their phones. That's okay, it'll work out.

 

On the lower bed, Minato is eating chips, offering her a short salute. The television is on, and they are watching a re-run of a show she isn't familiar with. But then, Minato has discovered too many channels she did not know about while in the hospital. Nothing else to do. Ryoji has countless things to say while drying his hair with a towel.

 

“How was your first day? Is school as boring as usual? Did you befriend a mortal? Or ravish one?”

 

“Ryoji, do you have any idea of what ravish means?”

 

“Hm, not really. It sounds pretty though.”

 

She laughs, crashing next to Minato and sticking her hand in the bag.

 

“Cut it off with the offended look, I had a long day.”

 

Ah, it's the first time she isn't alone for the beginning of the school year. Last time, Minato has barely woken up, and everything else was a blur. And now they are living together once more, with Ryoji. Her mind is light as she munches on the salty treat, wondering if it'll last. Oh, her eyelids are already so heavy she can almost feel them fall on their own. That's the last time she goes to bed so late, she promises herself, aware it's a lie.

 

“Let's go out on Saturday, after my classes,” she suggests, “there is a mall and a lot of stuff I want to visit.”

 

Finding a part-time job can wait one week or two. She isn't in the mood to shoulder more responsibilities. Not when she is half-asleep. After wiping her fingers with a tissue, she wishes them good night, leaving them to their show and barely making it to her room. Cleansing her face? Planning stuff for tomorrow? Not tonight. She tugs a loose t-shirt on before sliding under the covers, eyes already closed. As long as her alarm is on, she'll live.

 

Ah, she forgot to correct Ryoji on the whole mortal deal.

Too bad.