Chapter 1: Thursday, July 20, 2017 (Yuki)
"Sum~mer break! Summer breaaaak!" I hummed to myself, cheerfully clutching the supplies in my arms to my chest as I walked beside Kuya-san.
We were on the way up to the roof, with Okaken and Joker-san in the lead, then Yagami and Arata-san behind them, and Kuya-san and I brought up the rear. As usual, the two of us were stuck with carrying the bulk of the equipment, even though the student council had already won back all of its normal authority. I didn't really mind the chore-like tasks that still got dumped on us, and I knew that Kuya-san wasn't bothered by it either.
And besides, we were too caught up in the excitement of what was about to happen to mind much of anything. Not only was it the first day of summer break, but it was also the day that Okaken had scheduled the first test of his newly completed alien communication device. Joker-san had decided to put off his usual summer trip to Russia for a few days to observe the testing, and by sheer luck, the rest of my close friends were either staying for the entire break, or wouldn't be leaving until the weekend. But no matter how much we begged, Takato-san flatly refused to watch 'something so inane' and holed up in his room instead.
"What a shame," I sighed, spirits dampened a bit by the memory.
"Hm? What is it, Yuki?" Kuya-san nudged me with his elbow, since his hands were full.
"I was just thinking that Takato-san should have come along. I mean, I don't really expect anything to happen, but what if it does? He'll be sorry he missed it."
Kuya-san turned toward me with a grin. "Then he'll just have to live with the knowledge that he wasted a great opportunity! But don't worry, he's always like that. It's just his personality." His smile faded a little. "I'm a bit disappointed that Ninosuke didn't want to see, though. He's usually pretty excited about things like this."
"I guess he's still not all that comfortable around me," I said with a frown, pausing for a moment to adjust my grip on the heavy box I was carrying.
"That's not your fault. He's just sore about giving up on the dream of being a great student council president. I'm sure it annoys him that you've already reached legendary status."
"That's not true," I protested, cheeks darkening.
"Don't be too modest, Yuki, of course you are! You saved the entire school, that makes you even more incredible than the legendary student council president from the past! Everyone is grateful, after all, we wouldn't all be here now without you!"
Ahead of us, Arata-san nodded, turning to glance back over his shoulder. "That's right, that's right. Arata's really happy that this place didn't close. It's thanks to you, Ace-kun."
"Not just me," I protested, "Tomo was with me the whole time."
"Tch," Yagami spoke without turning around, "I can't believe you chose that lazy ass as your partner. Everyone thought you were nuts."
I couldn't let my friends say things like that about Tomo, even if it was mostly true. "Tomo can be really serious when it's something important. He cares about this school more than you'd expect. There's no way he would have slacked off."
Well, that wasn't exactly true, but no one else knew the full story of Tomo's involvement. Sure, Kuya-san was one of the people who knew that Tomo was the director, but the whole story of the real reason the board was meddling with the school had to remain a secret. I couldn't begin to imagine how much mayhem it would cause if someone like Joker-san caught wind of the complete tale, a mess of corporate intrigue, long-lost relatives, and data theft. And especially now that Tomo was considering Suzubishi-san's offer of adoption, things had to stay quiet. Well, depending on how that situation developed, that information would come out soon enough, but I wasn't going to spill any secrets. I was the only one who knew what was going on, and I'd never betray Tomo's trust.
"Hyahaha, Tomomo has really changed! Arata even saw him heading to practice the other day."
"I'm surprised that slacker isn't comin' with us," Yagami interrupted. "Or is ten in the morning too early for that bum?"
"Hehe, I'm sure Tomo is still asleep. It is the first day of summer vacation, after all."
Our conversation was cut off by our arrival at the stairs leading up to the rooftop. Kuya-san and I were both carrying too much to chat while climbing up. Instead, we focused on the steps, straining to see them around the large, heavy boxes we carried, and by the time we reached the door at the top, everyone else was waiting impatiently.
"Took you guys long enough!" Okaken huffed. "I told you, we have to hurry!"
"It's cuz you were too lazy to help carry your own crap," Yagami muttered.
"Hmm, but Reo-Reo, I didn't see you offering to help carry anything."
"Damnit, Arata, how many times do I have to tell you?!?!"
Arata-san dodged Yagami's kick, giggling. "Oh noooo, Reo-Reo got angry!"
Maro poked his head out of Arata-san's jacket with a kuku that sounded suspiciously like a taunt.
Joker-san, who was standing outside the open door, sighed dramatically. "Are you two going to continue fighting like an old married couple, or are you going to come outside so we can do something fun?" His eye went to Okaken. "Come on, Oka-chan."
"Right!" Okaken marched out through the door Joker-san was holding for him and onto the roof. The rest of us followed, and luckily Arata-san held the door for me and Kuya-san as we struggled through with our too-wide boxes of heavy metal parts.
It was a beautiful day outside, sunny without a hint of clouds, and not too humid. Kuya-san and I set the boxes down where indicated and stretched our sore arms with sighs of relief. Arata-san let Maro out to play, and Yagami went over to the railing to look out over the school while Okaken sat down to assemble his equipment.
I also sat down on the warm concrete. "So, Okaken, what exactly does this machine do?"
"Didn't I already explain? It's an alien communication device. So obviously--"
Kuya-san interrupted in a bright tone, "But you made it, right? So it can't be an alien communication device, that's what aliens would use to communicate! It's a device for communicating with aliens!"
Okaken opened his mouth to protest, then shut it after a moment with a snort. Joker-san laughed. "Now that I think of it, you're right, Sagimori-sempai. I'm surprised that you were able to figure out something that Oka-chan couldn't."
"Hmph! My genius is meant for practical matters, not trivial tasks like naming things!" Okaken plugged several cords into a metal box that was covered in dials and knobs. "Once I produce the first records of alien communication in human history, it won't matter what the piece of equipment was called. All that matters is capturing the data and proving that we are not alone in the universe! That's what will make my name a household word in the decades to come!"
"Right, right," I nodded, more to placate him than out of any genuine agreement. As he clicked more parts into place, I couldn't help wondering just how such a complicated contraption could work. It seemed like it had started as the metal box and a few cords, then had expanded into a mess of wires and delicate-looking instruments that I didn't recognize at all.
I thought about asking more questions, but I knew that encouraging Okaken would just open a floodgate of information peppered with attitude, so I kept my mouth shut. That didn't stop Kuya-san from asking questions or attempting to help assemble the machine, but even he gave up after being scolded a few times. Despite the complexity of the device, Okaken assembled it quickly once we stopped interrupting him, and before long Joker-san summoned everyone back to the center of the roof.
"Everyone! We're about to witness a historic event. Of some sort." Joker-san was smiling and his tone was warm, but his eye was glittering with mischief. "Please focus your full attention on our resident alien expert and his miraculous communication device."
"Ahem," Okaken adjusted his glasses, then pulled his safety goggles down to cover his eyes, and picked up the control box. "Everyone, please stand behind me. This device uses a variety of communication methods, some of which could be harmful to the body. I strongly suggest that you all stay back, for your own safety."
We all stood in a half-circle behind and to either side of Okaken. Kuya-san and I were together on his left, and the others were on his right, all making sure to keep behind the invisible line that was marked by the machine parts on the ground. I couldn't tell what parts of the machine did what, but I had to admit that they were pretty impressive, all sleek and glistening in the summer sunlight, and most pieces were covered in small indicator lights and other glowing bits.
"Kinda looks like a sci-fi movie," Kuya-san whispered.
"I almost hope it doesn't work," I whispered back. "What if we contact something unfriendly?"
"Quiet, you two!" Okaken ordered. "I'm about to begin."
He cleared his throat noisily and placed his finger on the main switch. It was, as expected, a large red button, just like you'd see in the movies. We were all so quiet that the click of the switch was clearly audible as Okaken pressed down on it.
But nothing happened.
"Hmmm, that's pretty boring," Joker-san muttered.
"The hell?" Yagami leaned closer, making a face. "Is it busted?"
"Shut up!" Okaken glared at him. "That was just the main power switch! It takes a moment to draw enough current, I told you, this device is powerful!" His fingers went to the smaller metal switches in the corner, and I swore they were trembling a little as he announced, "Savor your last moments of ignorance, people of earth! Everything changes now!"
He flipped one switch, and something began to hum. "First, the recording device. Watch what you say from now on, you don't want a foolish comment to end up in the historical records, do you?"
"Hyahaha, mom, dad, it's Arata! Arata was here for the alien experiment!"
I couldn't see the face that Okaken made as he turned toward Arata-san, but from the way Maro dove back into his jacket, I was pretty sure it was a death glare. Beside me, Kuya-san snorted, both hands pressed to his mouth as he tried not to burst out laughing.
"Please carry on with the experiment," Joker-san said, smiling indulgently at Okaken. That smile turned dangerous as he looked at the rest of us in turn, eye narrowed and hand on his hip, a silent reminder that he carried his gun everywhere.
"Right," Okaken nodded, fingers moving to the next switch. "Now, transferring power to all parts of the device." He flicked it, and there was a mechanical whir of equipment stirring to life. "And finally, the moment you've all been waiting for. The moment all of mankind has been waiting for!"
The click of that final switch being snapped into place seemed louder than the others, maybe because I was holding my breath. The small lights on the different parts of the device began lighting up in sequence, first red, then green, then blue, indicating that something was happening. Not only that, but the soft hum of the machine was steadily growing louder as the electronics worked hard to do whatever it was they were meant to do.
I heard a strange hiss from the right, and I tore my eyes from the strange machine. Maro was on the ground at Arata-san's feet, standing up on his hind legs with his fur sticking straight out, making him look far bigger than usual. Arata-san knelt to pick him back up, but Maro darted away the moment his hand came close, dashing across the rooftop.
"Hey, what's that weasel doing?!" Okaken cried as Maro ran out directly in front of the machine, into the danger zone he'd warned us about.
"Minase," Joker-san's tone was one of warning, "if your pet somehow ruins my fun again, I'm going to turn it into a tiny throw rug."
Arata-san gave him a look that was nothing like his usual cheery expression. "Maro, come back!" he hissed under his breath, motioning sharply with one hand.
"Kukukuuu~" Maro almost sounded like he was growling as he clawed at a spot directly in front of the machine, tiny claws scratching unpleasantly on the concrete.
"I swear," Joker-san grumbled, but Kuya-san cut him off.
"Wait! Don't animals have much better senses than humans? I've heard that they can sense all sorts of things that are beyond our understanding, including the supernatural! Maybe Maro is detecting something that we haven't noticed yet!"
"That sounds like a buncha bullshit."
"No, I've heard that too!" I piped up. "Animals have super sharp senses. I'm sure Maro knows something we don't. Maybe it's working!"
"Of course it's working, Asahina-kun!" Okaken sounded scandalized. "I can't believe you'd come see a demonstration like this with even a shred of doubt in your mind!"
"Umm," Arata-san was leaning forward a bit. "I don't like the looks of this..."
"It seems like the weasel is getting agitated," Joker-san said. "Hey, you, come back here."
Maro ignored everyone and continued scratching at the rooftop, making a strange sound that was a cross between a squeak and a screech. I'd never heard anything like it, and it was clear that Arata-san didn't like it either. "Maro! Come back right now! It's dangerous out there!"
He stepped forward, but Okaken grabbed the sleeve of his track jacket. "I'm telling you, stay behind the machine! There are powerful forces at work here!"
"But Maro..." Arata-san was at a loss, glancing at the machine with suspicion. "Then turn it off!"
"Impossible! Do you know how long it took to get everything prepared for this moment? If I shut it off now, it will take at least a week to get it back into shape for an initial test!"
"Let go!" Arata-san tried to shake him off, but Okaken was incredibly stubborn when it came to anything involving his precious experiments. "What if there's some sort of sound wave or whatever that's harmful? Maro's a lot smaller than us, it'll hurt him!"
I couldn't just stand back and let Maro stay out there. Okaken's machine was starting to make all sorts of odd clicking and whirring noises, and the many small lights along the different parts were flashing in strange, colorful patterns. And Maro was more excited than before, running in a tight circle around the spot he'd been scratching.
"Enough is enough!" I declared, darting out in front of the machine.
"Yuki, no!" I felt Kuya-san's hand on my arm, but I was moving too fast and it slipped off.
Anyway, it would only take a moment. I would just dash across the space and snag Maro as I ran. As I got close and bent to grab the angry ferret, he suddenly let out a terrible sound that could only be described as a scream, and he dashed off toward Arata-san.
My sigh of relief was cut short by the shrill sound of an alarm, then Okaken's shout: "Asahina-kun, I told you not to-- gaaaah!"
Everything around me started getting bright, so bright that I stopped in my tracks and threw one arm over my eyes to protect them from the harsh light. Despite that, the amount of light that leaked in around my arm was still enough to sting my eyes, and they watered in protest. What was happening? Which way should I go? I tried taking a step in the direction I'd been heading, but my body felt heavy and I couldn't move the way I wanted to.
"Oka-chan, what's with this light?!" I'd never heard Joker-san sound so alarmed.
"I... I don't know! Asahina-kun, don't just stand there, hurry toward my voice!"
"Yuki! Come back!"
"Geez, dumbass, don't just stand there, come toward our voices!"
I can't move! I wanted to say, but I couldn't even speak, my body frozen in place. My friends' shouts grew distant, distorted, like time had slowed down somehow, and I couldn't really understand what they were trying to say. Everything was a jumble of senseless sound, drowned out by the frantic beeping of the machine's alarm, the only noise that seemed clear and normal.
Then it exploded.
At least, I thought it exploded. But that sound was suddenly cut off, even though the floor beneath me shook as if rocked by an explosion. The unusual brightness faded, and I was finally able to take my arm from my eyes.
"Huh? Where is everyone?"
I was alone on the rooftop.
Chapter 2: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 (Keita)
In which we learn that time travel is cheesy as fuck, no matter how it's presented. 8D
"Eh? What was that noise?"
I was alone on the top floor of the school building, delivering a box of equipment to the third year biology classroom. No one was in there, since it was the first day of summer break, but that made it easier to handle the student council chores that had been left to me. Well, except for the problem of trying to open the classroom door while carrying a box full of old beakers and burners, but that was easily solved by setting the box down on the floor for a moment.
But then there was a strange sound from directly above me, and a brief rumbling that shook the building a little. An earthquake? I didn't think we could get those on the manmade island, but maybe I was wrong. Had there been rain in today's forecast? A lightning strike would probably shake the building if it hit something close enough.
I turned to look out the window at the end of the hallway, but the day was still bright and sunny. Huh, that was weird. What could have made that noise, then?
I felt vaguely guilty about abandoning the box of supplies, but no one was there to notice that I hadn't fully completed my job. And if there had been some sort of problem on the roof, I was sure that Kazuki would want to know about it right away. What if it was yet another attempt to mess with the school or get at the research data? My heart was pumping as I dashed up the stairs leading to the rooftop exit. Maybe it would be better to call Kazuki right away instead of rushing into what might have been a dangerous situation. But as I stood outside the door, considering it, I heard a voice from outside.
"Everyone, where did you go? Is this some kind of joke?"
The boyish voice sounded like it belonged to another student. Had someone planned on using the roof for an activity today? I didn't remember anything like that, but with all the time I'd been spending on helping out the King and Nakajima-san recently, I hadn't really had time to pay attention to what the clubs were doing.
That shaking... maybe someone's setting off fireworks on the roof to celebrate summer break?
In that case, they needed to be stopped! I shoved open the door, scowling, and stalked out onto the roof. "Hey, what's going on up here?"
There was a single boy standing in the middle of the roof, looking around as if bewildered. He turned toward me, and my first impression was that his tie was the same green as his eyes. A first-year, then, but not one that I recognized, which was a bit surprising. Between the MVP Battle and my work with the student council, I was sure that I'd at least seen all the other boys in the school at least once.
As the boy caught my eye, his worried look changed to one of relief. "Ahhh, Professor Ito, thank goodness! I was starting to get really worried! Do you know where everyone else went?"
"Eh?" I blinked at him. "Professor? I'm sorry, have we met?"
"Huh?" Suddenly the boy's expression became one of confusion. "Wait... Professor Ito, why are you wearing the school uniform? No, that's not it, why do you look different...?"
"Different?" My shoulders tensed; who was this weird boy, and what on earth was he going on about? "Listen, I have no idea who you are or why you're calling me 'Professor,' but if you're doing weird things up on the roof, I'll have to inform the student council."
"Student council? What are you saying?" His hand went to the unfamiliar black armband that was pinned to his left sleeve. "I'm the student council president...!"
What on earth was this weird kid going on about? I pulled out my cell phone and pushed the speed dial button for Kazuki's work cell. He answered on the first ring.
"Keita, what is it?"
"Kazuki, I need you to come to the roof of the school building right away! There's a weird first-year boy here claiming to be the student council president!"
"But I am the student council president!" the strange boy protested.
"Did you hear that? Maybe he hurt himself or something, there was some kind of explosion? I don't know, but hurry!"
"Calm down, Keita," Kazuki said, not sounding calm at all himself, "I'll be right there. Don't let him leave, no matter what you do."
He hung up before I could reply, and I stuffed my phone back into my pocket and stood firmly in front of the boy, blocking his path to the door behind me. "You stay right there," I said in a resolute tone, though I honestly felt like I could collapse at any moment. Why did weird circumstances always have to follow me around? I'd been hoping for a peaceful summer, not one filled with explosions and intrigue. "You should probably tell me what you're up to, or there could be trouble for you later, you know."
The boy, however, looked like he had no intention of trying to escape. His shoulders slumped. "I, I don't know what happened. I was just helping Okaken with one of his experiments, then Maro ran out in front of the machine, so I tried to get him back, but then there was a bright light and maybe an explosion..."
An explosion, I knew it. "So you made something explode up here."
"No, it wasn't me, it was the machine!" He shook his head. "Anyway, why don't you recognize me, Professor Ito? I'm in your history class! You gave me advice about the Bell One!"
"I don't know what you're talking about! Who are you?"
"I'm Asahina Yuki, the student council president! Please stop pretending you don't know me!"
That again. "I don't know any Asahina Yuki. Are you really a student at this school?" I almost wanted to ask if he was a spy from the outside, but I kept my mouth shut. If he was some sort of agent from a rival company, it would be bad to provoke him. My heart raced. What if he got violent, like the last guy who infiltrated?
The boy stepped closer, his eyes fixed on my face. I took half a step back, then stopped myself; I had to hold my ground until Kazuki arrived. Even if I was just pretending to be brave, that sort of attitude might be enough to keep anything dangerous from happening.
That boy, Asahina, if that was even his real name, looked at my face for a long time. I didn't feel any malice from him, and after a few moments, I felt my shoulders relaxing. Maybe he really was just another student, one I'd somehow overlooked in my short time here at Bell Liberty.
But whatever the boy saw in my face disturbed him, and he sank down onto the concrete with a shaky sigh, staring up at me with wide eyes. "You look a lot younger than I remember... but that's not possible..."
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"Um, this is going to sound really weird, but... what year is it?"
"Eh? It's 2010, of course."
The boy's eyes widened even further. "Was... was that the year of the MVP Battle?"
There was no way this guy was a student here if he was asking something so obvious. It was impossible for anyone to have forgotten already. But then... how did he know about the MVP Battle if he wasn't a student? "The MVP Battle just finished," I said flatly.
"Oh my god," the boy mumbled, staring down at the concrete. "This can't be happening."
"What are you talking about?" I had to keep him talking so he wouldn't think of running off.
"There was an explosion," he repeated, as if that meant anything. He looked up, eyes bright with the beginnings of tears. "But before that, I felt like my body was stuck, I couldn't move at all. It's like I was stuck in time or something..."
He really wasn't making any sense. "What about it?"
"Well... oh!" He suddenly reached into his pocket, and I felt my entire body stiffen. Was he going for a weapon? I silently cursed my stupid reactions; any of my friends would have been smart or strong enough to stop him, or at least brave enough to do something about it.
My blood ran cold as he produced a dark rectangle from his pocket, but as he unfolded it, I realized it was just his wallet, and I couldn't contain a sigh of relief. The boy pulled a small card from the inside and held it out to me. I eyed it warily, wondering if it was some sort of trap, but after a second I recognized the plastic card.
A Bell Liberty student ID! I reached out with one hand and took it, hoping he didn't notice the way my fingers were trembling. The card was a little different from mine, but it was a rather convincing forgery if you weren't intimately familiar with the look of a genuine ID. The border was different, and the plastic was thicker, but the rest of it was identical to my card. The proper school stamp was in the correct corner, and his name was at the top: Asahina Yuki, as he'd claimed. It listed a birthdate and blood type, and under that, it gave the information about his graduating class.
"Wait a minute..."
Did it really say that he was a member of the 28th graduating class? That was a pretty pathetic mistake to make on an otherwise high-quality imitation.
"Did you notice the part about the graduating class?" The boy, Asahina, was watching me intently.
What, he wanted me to notice the mistake on his fake ID card? "Yeah, it's wrong. This is a pretty good fake, but someone messed up on the date."
Asahina shook his head. "That's just it. It's proof... I know it sounds impossible, but it's a genuine Bell Liberty ID card! Look, I have more!" He fished a small handful of coins out of the compartment on the back of his wallet and rifled through them, picking out a few and handing them to me.
"Proof of what? I don't understand..." Honestly, I was more confused than afraid at that point, and I also sat down on the roof to look at the coins he'd handed me.
"I, I can't say it, it's too crazy. But if you can see it too, Professor Ito, then maybe... maybe I won't feel like I'm losing my mind."
"Please stop calling me 'Professor Ito,' I'm just a student," I protested.
"Please, look at the dates," Asahina insisted, eyes narrowed in determination, a blush high on his otherwise pale cheeks. His hands were curled into fists in his lap. Were they shaking?
I tore my eyes from his hands and looked down at the coins in my palm. They were ordinary coins, and I couldn't see anything special about them. I turned over a five yen piece and read the date off the back. "Heisei 26... what, 26?!?" My eyebrows rose, and I turned over one coin after another. "Heisei 25... Heisei 27... 24, 26 again... but that's impossible! These are all fake?!"
"They're not fake! I just got them as change this morning from the school store!" Those deep green eyes were fixed upon my face, pleading. "Please, you understand what this means, right?"
"No way, this can't be real." I poked at the coins. They seemed real enough, but... I was not going to say something as ridiculous as 'you must be from the future,' especially to a weird spy!
"Here, my phone."
A slim white device was pressed into my hand on top of the coins. It was a sleek, flat rectangle dominated by a large black screen, and I recognized it instantly as one of the incredibly fancy cell phones that some of the wealthier students carried. Even Kazuki carried an ordinary flip phone as his personal line, though he did have one of the smartphones for his actual work. But the one I was holding was much less bulky and a lot lighter than the fancy device that Kazuki used to check his email and keep in touch with his secretary during the school day. I turned the phone over in my hand, eyes going wide as I saw the logo on the back.
"There's no such thing as an iPhone 7!"
"Not in 2010," the boy agreed, biting his lip.
"Impossible," I muttered, but I couldn't help turning it on, and I was greeted by a photo of Asahina surrounded by other boys who wore the Bell Liberty uniform, though a few of them were in black instead of the usual red. The photo was incredibly clear, much more detailed than anything I'd seen on the screen of Kazuki's work phone. It was easy to make out the familiar building in the background; the students were gathered in front of the cafeteria for their group pose.
Suddenly my hand got sweaty. A student ID card wasn't hard to forge, and it probably wasn't impossible to get fake coins meant for use in magic tricks or something. But for someone to be walking around with technology that was far more advanced than anything even Kazuki owned... and that photo looked so natural, too. There was no way someone would have a group picture like that at the school if they weren't really a student. Just as I looked down at the phone again, the screen went dark, tired of waiting for my input.
"This technology doesn't exist yet." I could hardly believe I was saying it. If this boy was really some sort of spy, he'd gone to an awful lot of effort to try and seem like he was from the future. And why would a spy do something like that? It didn't make any sense that someone trying to infiltrate would do anything that would draw attention to himself. Was it meant to be some sort of cover story in case he got caught? But wouldn't it be better to have a normal cover story, not one that was so insane?
My head was starting to hurt.
"I know it sounds crazy," Asahina's tone was desperate, "but please..."
The door behind me burst open with a deafening creak, and we both jumped. "Keita!"
"K, Kazuki!" I somehow managed, thought I felt like my heart was going to explode. Thank god I'd managed to keep my grip on the phone; I couldn't even imagine what something that fancy must have cost!
Kazuki was at my side in an instant, kneeling to check on me. "Are you okay? Why are you on the ground? He didn't hurt you, did he? What are you holding?"
"Kazuki, don't ask so many questions at once," I protested, but before I could say anything else, an unfamiliar voice cut in.
"Suzubishi-san? And you're dressed like a student too..."
My heart froze. Kazuki's head snapped up, though his hands were still on my shoulders as he glared at the boy sitting across from me. "How do you know who I am?"
"Because I met you a few weeks ago when Tomo... oh..." The smile of recognition faded from Asahina's face. "That hasn't happened yet..."
"Hasn't happened yet?" Kazuki's expression was hard. I knew that look; thankfully, it had never been directed at me, but I'd seen it enough times when he was dealing with a serious work matter. But somehow, I couldn't let him glare at the frightened boy who sat on the concrete, hands shaking despite his efforts to hide their trembling.
"Kazuki," I began, showing him the items I held, "look at all of this. A student ID with the wrong date, coins that are dated in the future, and the cell phone... I thought it was a bunch of nonsense at first, but I don't know how anyone could fake the phone."
I thought Kazuki would reach for the phone first, but he took the ID from me, eyes wide. "This is..."
"The graduating class is wrong," I pointed out.
"No, that's not it. Just this morning, we finalized the design that will be used for the new student ID cards starting next spring. This is the exact design, right down to the thickness of the plastic and the position of the microchip." His eyes flicked toward Asahina. "This wasn't the one we chose initially. There was another one that was already sent to the printer so we could get a prototype, but those haven't come back yet. No spy is stupid enough to steal the files for a future ID card design, and especially not one that was in a folder with five other rejects."
"I'm not a spy," Asahina protested weakly, "I'm a real student, I just... I'm not from this time... My friends were doing an experiment on this roof, and then something happened. Please believe me!"
"Impossible," Kazuki muttered, handing the card back to me so he could examine the coins and the phone. He was quiet for a long time, testing the coins against the ones he had in his own pocket, and then playing with the functions of the phone. We both watched as his eyebrows rose and sank, brows drawing together and eyes widening as he fiddled with the screen and checked various things. Even though I was watching, I didn't really understand what he was looking for, since my phone was just a simple free model that had come with my parents' cell plan.
"Well," he finally said, offering the phone to Asahina, "if you're an agent, you're a terrible one, letting me look through everything in your phone without a word of protest. It really does look like nothing more than a student's phone, with a bunch of texts to friends and photos of other students. And the technology is incredible. This device may be more powerful than my work computer."
Asahina's face brightened. "So you believe me?"
"I wouldn't say that."
"Tell me what happened to you. Don't leave out any of the details, but don't embellish the story either." Kazuki stared directly into the stranger's eyes. "Is that understood?"
"Y, yes, of course!"
It took nearly an hour for Asahina to recount the story of what had happened on the rooftop seven years in the future. The more he told us, the surer I felt that he was telling the truth. Why would anyone lie about something so outlandish? But I could tell that Kazuki wasn't satisfied, and when the incredible tale was finished, he sat back, arms folded over his chest.
"That's an unbelievable story."
"But it's the truth, I swear it!" His wide, honest eyes were filled with tears. "I don't know what else I can do to make you believe me! I'm not a spy, all I want to do is get back home!"
"That's exactly the sort of thing a spy would say, though. You'll have to prove yourself."
"But how?!" A note of irritation had crept into Asahina's voice.
"Kazuki, don't be so rough with him." I shifted over, closer to Asahina, and placed one hand on his shoulder. "It must be terrible, being trapped in an unfamiliar place and time, especially if no one believes you. But that's not true. I believe you, Asahina."
He blinked, and a teardrop leaked from the corner of his eye. "You do?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Isn't there some saying about the simple explanation being the best one? Even if it's kind of impossible in this case... but isn't it just as impossible to think that someone would sneak in here with forged stuff from the future and then show it off? Plus, you don't seem like the kind of person who would lie about something like this."
"You really believe me?"
"Keita, you can't really--" Kazuki began, but I shook my head.
"Kazuki, sometimes you're too harsh with people. I guess that's part of being an adult."
He nearly choked on that. "Keita, don't say that!"
I couldn't help giggling a little at his reaction. Man, Kazuki really was touchy about his age, and I didn't even know what it was! I patted Asahina's shoulder. "So, Yuki... oh, can I call you Yuki? You can call me Keita."
Yuki's cheeks darkened. "B, but... you're a teacher..."
A teacher. I still couldn't believe that. "No, we're both first years. So we're equals, right?"
He shifted nervously, and it took a while before he responded, "O, okay... Keita-san..."
"No, I absolutely forbid you from calling me that. Just Keita, okay?"
"Okay," he reluctantly agreed.
"Good." I didn't want to push him too hard; after all, it had been kind of annoying when Shunsuke had insisted that I call him by his first name, without any honorific. "So, Yuki, what's your special talent? How did you get into Bell Liberty?"
That seemed to restore a bit of his cheer. "Oh, well, it was a bit of a lucky coincidence... I don't really like to brag about it, but I have better luck than most people. Just like you, right?"
"How do you know that?!"
"You told me... oh, in the future..." Yuki's smile faded a bit.
Before I could say anything, Kazuki cut in. "What, luck?" He leaned forward with an odd expression that was kind of scary. "Prove it. Play rock-paper-scissors."
"Kazuki, come on," I complained, "it's hot outside and I don't want to stay out here any longer."
"We've been outside for over an hour, one more minute won't make a difference. This is the ultimate test of Asahina's truthfulness." He glanced toward Yuki. "Go on, play against Keita."
"Um, okay..." Yuki held up one hand. "Then... one, two, three!"
We both put our hands out at the same time. Both paper. My eyes went round, and when I looked up at Yuki's face, I could see that he was just as shocked as I was. Even Kazuki leaned in, staring from my hand to Yuki's and back again.
"Amazing, a tie with Keita..." He met my eyes. "Do it again."
We continued for at least twenty more times, every single one a tie, until I finally lost my temper. "Kazuki! If I have to sit out here in the heat and humidity for one more second, I'm going to throw a pile of rocks, papers, and scissors at your head!"
That outburst prompted a snort and a giggle from Yuki, a warm sound that made my skin tingle. It was the first time I'd seen a genuine smile on his face since we'd met, and he was blushing slightly as he looked at my pouting face.
"Okay, fine," Kazuki sighed, but he was smiling too as he pushed himself to his feet, offering one hand to each of us. "Let's go to my office, I have a few more things to check with Asahina."
Chapter 3: Thursday, July 20, 2017 (Arata)
Because Arata is more of a badass than anyone gives him credit for...
There was an explosion.
I wasn't sure if it was Okazaki's strange machine or something else that exploded, because the mysterious light radiating from the place where Yuki was standing had gotten too bright. I'd covered my face with my arm, mirroring Yuki's pose, and a few moments later the rooftop had been shaken by the force of the explosion. Maro's tiny claws dug into my chest, and he let out an agitated scream, his small body trembling against mine. I felt several twigs and pebbles strike my body as they flew out from the center of the explosion, but there was nothing large enough to cause any real damage.
"The light's gone," Yagami muttered, and even that quiet observation was loud enough for everyone else to hear in the strange calm. There were several murmurs as the rest of my friends uncovered their eyes and looked around.
I also lowered my arm and cracked one eye open. The strange light was gone. But that wasn't all.
"Yuki's gone!" I gasped. "What happened to Yuki?!"
I didn't bother attempting to hide the note of panic in my voice or my Kansai accent. If anyone noticed the sudden shift in my speech, they didn't say anything, all staring silently at the place where Yuki had been standing just moments before.
Nothing moved. No one even dared to breathe.
Then Sagimori's cry cut through the stillness. "Oh my god, did Yuki get blown up?!"
There was another explosion, this time of voices raised in shrill panic, but one shout rang out clearly over the rest: "Don't go out there until I make sure everything is turned off!"
"Are you fuckin' serious?" Yagami spat, grabbing Okazaki's collar. "This thing's nothing but a pile of twisted metal now! How the hell can it still be dangerous?! You a mad scientist or somethin', building things that can't be turned off?! Well?!?"
"Y, Yagami..." Okazaki struggled, "stop, I can't breathe..."
"Good!" Yagami shook him. "What about Asahina? He ain't breathin', is he?!"
No, this was useless! If everyone started fighting, then we'd never figure out what happened to Yuki, and that was... that would be... I couldn't stand it! "Yagami," I hissed, jerking on his sleeve, "violence isn't going to fix this--"
"Shut up, Arata! You just gonna sit back and do nothing, then?"
"Idiot! We need to look for Yuki!" I grabbed Yagami's hand with both of mine and pried his fingers off of Okazaki's collar. Despite Yagami's looks and bravado, he was actually pretty weak, at least physically, and I didn't have much trouble dragging him away from the other first year boy. Okazaki sank to the concrete the moment he was released, holding his head in his hands.
"How could this happen...?" I heard him mumble as I hauled Yagami away.
Meanwhile, Joker walked out to the spot where Yuki had been standing and knelt down to examine the exact place where Maro had been scratching. His hand went to his face, and it seemed like he lifted up his eyepatch and was peering at the ground with whatever was underneath. Weird. I thought maybe he was missing an eye, but that was clearly not the case. Probably.
"There's nothing here," he declared after a minute, straightening up again.
"Because he blew up!" Sagimori's voice was shrill.
Yagami finally shook me off with a huff. "Dumbass, no one blew up! There'd be a mess!"
For a moment, I thought Sagimori would fire back with a sharp response, but his expression softened just a little, and he nodded. "That... that's true. If Yuki had been blown up, there would be... evidence." He turned in a full circle, looking around. "But there's nothing... thank god..."
"It's too soon to be relieved, Sagimori-sempai." Joker's voice was quiet, empty of its usual mirth. My back stiffened, and I remembered the only other time that I'd seen the leader of Durak so serious. That incident last year, the one that was only spoken about in whispers and hints of rumor, when he'd gotten so angry that one boy had been seriously hurt, and Joker had nearly been permanently expelled from the school.
I knew what he was going to do before it happened, but all I could do was cry out, "Don't!"
Okazaki scrambled backward on the rooftop, but there was no escaping from Joker's wrath. The harsh summer sunlight beat down on us all, glinting malevolently off the silver surface of Joker's sleek handgun. Okazaki's eyes were wide, pleading, as he stared down the barrel.
Joker's expression was calm, almost emotionless, and his voice was flat and detached as he spoke a single demand.
"Bring Yuki-kun back."
"I... I... need some time... to figure out..." Okazaki sounded like he was choking on his words, and even from my position behind him, I could see his chest heaving. He was probably going to start hyperventilating any moment.
There was an unpleasant metallic click that almost made my heart stop. Joker's eye narrowed.
"Do you think this gun is a toy? Bring him back. Do it now."
"J, Joker, this isn't the time for threats..." Sagimori began, but his protest withered away as Joker shot him a sharp look. His gun arm never wavered, though.
"Shit," Yagami breathed, "what's gonna happen?"
My heart raced, not with an unpleasant feeling of nervousness, but with the surge of determination that always came right before diving. It was time to act. Sitting back and watching the spectacle wouldn't solve anything, and if Joker had his way, he might even permanently screw up our chances at ever seeing Yuki again. I stepped forward, one hand on Maro's back, as if I was drawing strength from the warmth I felt through the thin jacket.
"Joker. Put your gun away."
Everyone stared at me. Sagimori's mouth was hanging open in a way that would have been comical if the moment wasn't so tense. I ignored their stares and kept my focus on Joker, who was glaring at me, face tight with barely controlled rage.
"You're in no position to tell me what to do, Minase."
"I am, because I'm the only one who isn't acting stupid right now."
Even Okazaki gasped at that. For a moment, I thought Joker would end up pointing his gun at me, but he was still, his single eye filled with malice. "Talking back to a man with a gun. I'd say that you're the biggest fool present at this moment, Minase."
If he was trying to intimidate me, it wasn't going to work. I wasn't afraid, not for myself. "Really?" I hissed, "You're the one pointing a gun at the only person who is capable of explaining what might have happened to Yuki just now. And I'm pretty sure he's the only one who understands his machine and knows how to rebuild it. Or did you not notice that it's been reduced to scrap metal?"
That single blue eye widened, and Joker's expression lost some of its tension, though he did turn back toward Okazaki. After a moment, his shoulders loosened, and he muttered something that was obviously a curse, though I didn't recognize the words. He tucked the gun back into its hidden holster and turned away from Okazaki, stalking over to a corner of the roof with his arms folded tightly over his chest. Probably forcing himself to cool off.
I echoed Sagimori's sigh of relief and bent down to help Okazaki to his feet.
"T, thank you, really, thank you so much," he gushed, nearly in tears.
"Don't touch me." I shook him off. "You heard what I said, didn't you? You're the only one who can bring Yuki back. If it wasn't for that, I'd probably be strangling you right now. How could you knowingly let any of us get close to something so dangerous? Are you an idiot?!"
"I, I didn't know! It wasn't supposed to do that!"
"No shit," Yagami growled, moving to stand beside me, "but it happened, so you'd better fix it."
"I don't even know what happened! Fixing it might be..." He swallowed back the final word.
Suddenly Sagimori was at his side. "Aratan, Yagami-kun, don't be so rough. I'm worried about Yuki, really, really worried, but threatening Okazaki-kun won't help anything." He looked around at the twisted metal parts scattered over the concrete. "The machine exploded, there's no doubt about that, but Yuki didn't... he can't have, or we'd know it."
Yagami shivered. "That's gross."
"I know," Sagimori nodded, "but it didn't happen. So now we need to figure out what did. Okazaki-kun, how exactly was this machine supposed to work? You said it was for communicating with aliens, but how was it going to do that?"
"And don't be a condescending ass about it, either," I said with a frown.
"Well, it's a bit complicated..." Okazaki stopped and took a deep breath, glancing over toward Joker, who was still standing in a far corner of the rooftop. "Distances in space are incredibly huge. Normal communication methods like radio waves and such are fine for carrying information on earth, but once you start talking about light years, those sorts of things are useless."
"So you found a faster way to send information?" I had to admit, that was pretty impressive.
Okazaki shook his head. "Not exactly. This device," his face twisted in what seemed like physical pain as he looked at the parts scattered around our feet, "was designed to take advantage of Einstein-Rosen bridges in space. They're like shortcuts," he quickly added as Yagami let out a confused grunt. "Some people call them wormholes for the sake of simplicity. It's the same idea as jumping over the bushes and cutting across the track to get to class when you're running late. But instead of saving mere minutes, using an Einstein-Rosen bridge can save an immeasurable amount of time, letting communications leap thousands of light years at once."
"Isn't that... a bit like time travel?" Sagimori ventured.
Okazaki's eyes lit up. "I hadn't considered it that way, but you're right! Saving huge amounts of time like that is very much like time travel, isn't it? How amazing!"
"Chill out, Okazaki! Don't get all excited about your own genius or whatever, you're the dumbass who made Asahina disappear! I'm gonna make you disappear if you don't fix it!"
"Yagami, you chill out." I nudged him with my shoulder. "Is it possible for a person to get transported by a wormhole?"
"I... I have no idea... there shouldn't be any bridges just hanging around on the surface of the planet, or things would fall into them all the time. I think..." Okazaki's shoulders slumped. "I'm not sure what could have happened... none of it makes sense."
The boy was going to have a meltdown if no one fed him anything hopeful. I sighed. "Well, the first step is rebuilding this machine, right? If it did something to Yuki, maybe it can be undone. Plus, it's for communication, maybe we can use it to search for him somehow."
"Yuki had his cell phone in his pocket!" Sagimori cut in. "I saw him tuck it in there right before he picked up the box of parts, maybe we can lock onto that somehow!"
"You kiddin'? This ain't a sci-fi movie," Yagami grumbled, but Okazaki nodded.
"It could be possible. Yes, yes, that's probably the best idea..." But the spark of hope went out of his eyes as he bent to examine the wreckage of his complex device. "This is in terrible shape. And the parts in the main body are broken," he pointed to a mess of what had once been coils. "It took me a whole year to save up enough money to order these from overseas, and that was with the cheapest shipping, too..."
"The cost doesn't matter," Joker's voice said from behind us.
"O, oh, Joker-san..." Okazaki looked like he was about to collapse on top of his broken machine.
"Whatever it takes to fix this bucket of bolts and get Yuki-kun back, it's yours. I don't care how much it costs or how heavy it is, show me what you need and I'll have it imported with express shipping." His eye glittered, his expression hard. "But you'll build it better this time. No unknown variables, no explosions. And you won't rest until it's done."
The tall boy leaned over and grasped Okazaki's arm, pulling him close. Joker smiled, but it didn't reach his eye. "You'll do a good job, won't you, Oka-chan?"
"Ah, y, yes, of course! It'll be perfect this time, I swear!"
"Good. That's what I like to hear." Joker let him go, and Okazaki stumbled back a bit. "Come with me. You're mine for the rest of the summer, or however long it takes. Is that clear?"
"Y, yes, perfectly clear!" Okazaki nodded so deeply he was almost bowing, hair bouncing.
"The rest of you," Joker locked eyes with each of us in turn, "gather up the broken equipment. I'm sure Oka-chan will need it as a reference for his improved machine."
No one was in the mood to argue with the murderous leader of Durak, so we all got busy chasing down the machine parts and loading them into the boxes. As I knelt in front of the smaller box to add another armload of weird tubes and broken circuit boards, I noticed a colorful charm that was half-buried in one corner. It was a flat rubber mascot attached to a short strap, a stack of three donuts with bright icing and cheery sprinkles. His cell phone charm.
"Yuki," I murmured, picking it up and holding it to my chest.
Would I ever see him again?
Chapter 4: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 (Keita)
A tiny transition chapter, and a hint of things to come. Poor Yuki is gonna be SO disappointed...
"Kazuki," I tugged on his sleeve, "don't you think we should stop by the nurse's office first? Yuki said there was some sort of explosion, and I felt it too. It was like a little earthquake up above me on the roof. And it was noisy."
"I feel fine," Yuki protested. "It was just a little explosion, it was mostly light. The roof wasn't damaged or anything, so it's not a big deal."
"I don't think there is such a thing as a little explosion." I frowned. Yuki was eager to get to Kazuki's office and prove himself, but there would be plenty of time for that later. Wasn't it really bad for someone to be caught in a shockwave or something like that? I was sure I'd heard that there could be permanent damage, even if nothing seemed wrong at first. "I'd feel a lot better if you got checked out, Yuki. What if something's wrong and you don't know it yet?"
"Well..." His cheeks colored a little. "Are you worried about me?"
"Of course I am! It reminds me of when I came to the school, and there was that accident... I was taken to the nurse's office right away, and so was the bus driver."
Yuki's green eyes went round. "There was an accident?"
"Yeah, a really bad one... I'm lucky I'm still alive! I thought I was a goner for sure."
Kazuki stopped walking all of a sudden, leaving Yuki and I to continue for a few steps before we turned back in surprise. "Kazuki?"
"You're right, Keita. Asahina should get checked out first. There's no telling what kind of damage might have been caused by the explosion you heard or," his voice dropped low, as if he couldn't even bear to say it, "the time travel."
"You believe me now, don't you, Suzubishi-san?"
"Shh!" Kazuki leaned closer, looking around to make sure no one had overheard, which I thought was a bit overdramatic since we were outside and there was no one else in sight. "I should have mentioned this earlier, but you can't call me by that name while you're here at the school. No one is supposed to know who I am. At this school, I'm just Endo Kazuki, a regular first year student and a member of the crafts club. Got it?"
"Um, but you're not really a first year, right?"
"Nope," I said brightly, "but no matter how cleverly you ask, Kazuki won't tell you his real age. He's probably fifty years old!"
"Keita!" Kazuki looked scandalized, and his face got a little red. I couldn't help giggling, and even Yuki had to cover his mouth to hide a grin.
"Well, don't worry, you look the same in the future! I guess once you become an adult, a few years don't make much of a difference!" Yuki's warm smile made it clear that he was offering a genuine compliment, but Kazuki's face just turned redder, the blush spreading to his ears.
"N, never mind. Let's go to the nurse's office," Kazuki mumbled, turning away to stalk back toward the school building. I felt a little bad, but it was funny. Yuki looked worried, though.
"Um, could it be that I said something rude? I was trying to make him feel better..."
"Don't worry about it, Kazuki's just a bit sensitive about his age," I patted Yuki's arm. "Oh, yeah, this armband, what is it? I noticed it before, but things were a little crazy so I didn't ask..."
"Oh, it's the Ace armband!" he declared, as if that explained everything.
"Huh, what's that?" I asked as we followed Kazuki back toward the school building.
"Eh, you don't know? The Ace is the student council president, right?"
Well, the black armband did say 'student council' on it, but no one ever called the student council president Ace or anything like that. I shook my head. "No, here the student council president is called the King."
Yuki stopped short, pulling his fists to his chest and with stars in his eyes. He looked kind of like a stereotypical fangirl getting excited over something, like the fans who followed Naruse-san to all his tennis matches. "Whoooa, the King?!? Are you serious?!?"
"Y, yeah, our student council president is Niwa-san, but everyone calls him the King."
"Uwaaaa, that's so amazing! The legendary student council president! Can I meet him?"
I reached up to scratch the back of my head, biting my lip. "Er, calling the King 'legendary' might be going a bit too far..." The last time I'd seen him, he'd been sneaking out of the student council room and begging me not to tell Nakajima-san that he was going to 'survey the school' or whatever his excuse had been that time. I sighed. Just remembering it made me feel tired.
"No way, he's a real legend! Woooow, I'm in the time of the legendary student council president..."
"Um, Yuki, I think we should hurry up or Kazuki's gonna leave us behind..."
Chapter 5: Thursday, July 20, 2017 (Chiba)
Chiba gets called away from kendo practice to receive some new orders from Joker.
I'd been in the middle of training when my cell phone let out a shrill beep, the alert that had been set for Joker-sama's most urgent requests. I had permission to ignore his usual messages during club time, which were mostly idle observations or strange jokes that didn't make much sense to me, but my muscles froze reflexively at the sound of that high-pitched beep, pausing mid-swing.
No one else was training, so I didn't have to explain my sudden pause. I immediately went to the bag I'd set down at the edge of the room and pulled out the phone.
Hayato. Meet me in the Durak room. It's an emergency.
"Emergency," I breathed, pulse quickening. Joker-sama rarely used such strong words, even when he was planning to play a trick on me. If he had something planned, his message would be playful in some way. This one was different. It was serious.
I grabbed my bag and hurried out of the dojo, not bothering to change or shower. If it was truly an emergency, that could wait. And if it wasn't... well, no one had ever died from being a little sweaty.
I ran into Sonoda on the way to the Durak room. He came up beside me, silently suggesting that we walk together, but I didn't slow my pace. If he wanted to walk together, fine, but he would have to keep up with me. I wasn't going to keep Joker-sama waiting for the sake of idle chatter.
"Hey, Hayato, what's the rush?" As usual, Sonoda sounded annoyed. "Slow down a bit."
"No. You keep up. It's an emergency."
"Ha, yeah, right. Kiyo's just messing with you again. If you keep falling for it every time, he'll never stop teasing you, you know." Despite his complaints, Sonoda quickened his pace, matching my steps. He was surprisingly strong and disciplined; I'd seen him lift huge stew pots full of weighty ingredients without making any special effort, and I knew that he ran his kitchen as tightly as a military operation. It was just his attitude that was bad.
"If you think this is a trick, why are you in such a hurry?"
I didn't have to glance over at Sonoda to know that his face had reddened. "That's... I'm not! I'm keeping up with you, that's all! Since you'll just leave me behind if I don't."
"So you're worried about being left behind, then?"
"I am not! You have some weird ideas, Hayato."
Hayato. It was a little strange that Sonoda called me by first name, but I always ignored his familiarity and just called him Sonoda. But we weren't close, so it was normal, wasn't it? He only called me Hayato as part of our strange game in Durak, where we all pretended to be friends in order to maintain outward appearances. I didn't dare to claim someone as magnificent as Joker-sama as a personal friend, and Sonoda... well, I didn't know much about him, and he hadn't made any effort to be especially friendly with me either.
Things had changed a little after the Bell One, but not in the way I'd expected. At first, Joker-sama and Sonoda seemed to be at odds with each other even more than before, with a strange tension in the air every time the three of us were together. It wasn't in the way they spoke, which was as snappy and sarcastic as ever, but the way they watched each other was new and unusual.
I hadn't understood until bathtime a couple of weeks ago. It wasn't the first time Joker-sama had ordered me to guard the door and drive away any possible intruders while he played with someone in the bath, but...
My cheeks tingled, and I turned my face away from Sonoda. Luckily, he was too busy being oddly embarrassed by my question to notice my discomfort. And even better, we were finally outside the Durak room. I reached out to bang my knuckles against the wood.
"Joker-sama! I brought Sonoda."
"You did not," Sonoda huffed, "I was on my way here first! I brought you!"
Joker-sama's voice came from the inside, low and dangerous. "Hayato, Eiji, finally. Hurry up, and be sure to lock the door behind you."
"He sounds pretty serious..." Sonoda mused.
I glared at him. "Don't keep Joker-sama waiting." I pulled open the door and herded him through, immediately closing and locking it behind us. Inside, Joker-sama was sitting behind the large desk with his gun in hand, idly twirling it around his finger like it was a toy. If anyone else had been handling a weapon so carelessly, I would have reprimanded them, but Joker-sama was always cautious with his gun, even if it didn't look that way. It was the look on his face that made my shoulders tense, a stiffness in his expression that made it clear that he was trying to hold back an icy rush of anger.
"Hmm, it's just Okazaki-kun?" Sonoda didn't sound impressed. "What's the emergency?"
It was true, the blue-haired boy was sitting across from Joker-sama, his back to us. It looked like he was staring at the gun as its silver surface twinkled in the sunlight. My body tensed even further; I didn't like Okazaki much. He was too full of himself, sometimes even talking down to Joker-sama, and since he was in the occult research group, he was constantly going on about ghost stories and other creepy incidents. Just seeing him made my hair stand on end.
The gun stopped moving, caught in an instant and pointed directly at Okazaki. The boy shrank back with a quiet gasp.
"I'll let Oka-chan explain it," Joker-sama's tone was cold and unpleasant. When Okazaki didn't move, Joker-sama gestured toward him with the gun. "Well? Turn around and explain to Hayato and Eiji."
"R, right," Okazaki stuttered, turning around slowly, reluctant to turn his back on the weapon. His eyes met mine for a moment before darting over to Sonoda's face, and he finally settled on a point between the two of us. "W, well, it's... there was an experiment..."
"Keep talking, Oka-chan."
"Y, yes, Joker-san!" The boy's spine stiffened. "On the roof... I was testing my new invention, an alien communication device."
"If it's your invention, you can't call it an alien communication device," Sonoda pointed out.
Okazaki frowned, but he didn't protest. "W, well, never mind that. Something happened during the test, and the machine kind of exploded..."
"There was no 'kind of' about it." A hint of anger had seeped into Joker-sama's voice. "It was an impressive explosion that reduced the machine to the few boxes of parts you see here."
He gestured toward the boxes on the floor with his gun, and I could see that they were filled with unidentifiable scraps of twisted and scorched metal. My eyes narrowed, hand going reflexively to the hilt of my sword. "Were you harmed by the flying metal, Joker-sama?" If he'd been injured, he wouldn't be sitting in front of us now, right? But Joker-sama wasn't like ordinary people. Something as trivial as a few cuts wouldn't slow him down.
"No. Miraculously, no one was hurt by the debris. However..." He poked the tip of his finger into Okazaki's back, and the smaller boy shrieked.
"Geez, Kiyo, stop messing with him, you're gonna give him a heart attack. Someone spit it out already, I don't have all day to listen to wild stories about stupid occult nonsense."
Joker-sama banged his fist on the desk, making us all jump. "Yuki-kun is gone!"
Asahina... is gone? What does that mean?
Sonoda recovered first, voice shrill. "What? What happened to Yuki-kun? He blew up? Oh my god!"
"Eiji, don't freak out. There's an explanation, or so this mad scientist fool claims." Joker-sama stood up, tucking the gun back into its holster, and stepped around to the front of the desk to grab Okazaki's arm, hauling the first year to his feet. "So explain it!"
My heart pounded, not just with the rush of adrenaline that was sparked by seeing Joker-sama's anger. Asahina. Something had happened to Asahina...
"Y, yes!" Okazaki squeaked. "To put it simply, the device takes advantage of Einstein-Rosen bridges in space, they're like shortcuts. You might call it a wormhole for short. Normal communications can't travel across light years fast enough to be useful, and they'll diffuse over distance. So I built it to find and use wormholes."
Wormholes? I tried not to let my confusion show. Was that anything like a black hole? Better not to interrupt, though; I didn't want to irritate Joker-sama any further.
"In order to do that, the device had to take advantage of the properties of space-time. Er, space and time are the same thing... not space in the sense of outer space, but in the sense of distance. By cutting out a great amount of distance, it's the same as transferring something through time."
This was just a bunch of nonsense. "What does that have to do with Asahina?"
"I'm getting to that!" At a sharp look from Joker-sama, Okazaki's tone softened. "Uh, I mean, if you can reduce the amount of time and distance it takes to get a communication from one place to the other, it's kind of like time travel. Imagine sending a letter by regular mail versus an email. To someone who's never seen a computer before, it's like magic. The words get sent through an invisible field to their new location."
"You don't have to explain it like we're dumb," Sonoda grumbled. "Hurry up."
"Well, this is the confusing part... the device was supposed to take advantage of existing bridges, but it almost seems like it created one. I'll have to do some testing to figure out exactly what happened, but when Asahina-kun ran out into the communication field created by my invention, there was a strange light." Okazaki's gaze went to his feet. "And then an explosion. And he disappeared."
"Disappeared?!" Sonoda gasped. "Are you telling me you really did blow up Yuki-kun?!"
"There was no evidence that Yuki-kun himself exploded," Joker-sama interrupted. "If that had been the case, there would have been a giant mess."
"Then what the hell are you getting at?" Sonoda looked from Okazaki to Joker-sama, then back again. "You can't be trying to say that Yuki-kun got sucked into some sort of wormhole or whatever you called it! Is he floating out in space somewhere, frozen to death?!"
"You bastard," I growled, glaring at Okazaki.
"Hayato! No biting."
"Trust me, Hayato, I understand exactly how you feel. But unfortunately, our friend here," he banged his hand down on Okazaki's shoulder, prompting a quiet whimper, "is the only one who understands the forces at work, or how to rebuild the machine that teleported Yuki-kun."
"Wait, teleported? I wasn't really serious about that..."
"I, it's quite likely," Okazaki mumbled, "that Asahina-kun was transferred through time, not space."
I blinked. "What? Time travel?"
"How can you be so sure?" Sonoda sounded even more suspicious than I felt.
"Because," Okazaki produced a small device, no bigger than a cell phone, from his pocket, "this instrument seems capable of detecting the spiritual essence of any lifeform the size of a cat or larger."
Spiritual essence? What on earth was he talking about? But before I could say anything, Sonoda asked sharply, "Seems? You made it and you don't even know?"
Okazaki looked like he wanted to fire back with a rude comment, but Joker-sama nudged him roughly. "Explain it."
"Y, yes, of course!" Okazaki squeaked. "T, this device was left behind by someone else... someone who had been in the occult research association in the past. I, it's not mine, but I was able to figure out how it works, more or less." He turned it around, showing the screen to me and Sonoda. "You can clearly see the four of us on this screen, and several others around the edges. Those are students in other places that are within range. They could be above or below us, even."
"Hmp," Sonoda sniffed, "it's just detecting our heat signatures. That's nothing special."
To my surprise, Joker-sama was the one to speak up in defense of the odd machine. "That's what I thought too, Eiji. But when we took it up to the rooftop, just the two of us, there were three dots. The third was just as clear as the other two, and distinct from ours. If I took the device and walked away, I could see that on the screen, but the other one was stationary."
"Maybe it's broken." Sonoda wasn't impressed, but I...
"Joker-sama. Are you saying that this machine could sense Asahina's presence, even though he wasn't there with you?"
He sighed, looking tired all of a sudden. "I'm not sure, Hayato. But that's what I want to believe. And I'm going to believe it until I have a reason to think otherwise. Which brings me to the reason why I summoned you and Eiji here. Hayato, Okazaki will be working around the clock to rebuild his machine. We can't truly understand what sent Yuki-kun away until we have a working device again. And then it can be modified to reverse the process."
"I see," I murmured, though I wasn't completely confident that I understood.
"Your job is to stand guard here and make sure Okazaki works efficiently. Escort him back to his dorm room at night, and bring him back here in the morning. You are to offer him any assistance he requires with building his machine, unless it seems dangerous or unreasonable. In that case, run it by me first." His eye glittered. "You'll also protect him from any distractions, or from anyone who might want to harm him as revenge for what happened to Yuki-kun."
Now there was something that made perfect sense to me: orders. "Understood."
"Eiji, I'll need you to supply Okazaki with nutritious meals so he can work at peak performance for an extended period of time." He held up one hand. "Don't be annoying, I'll pay. Just make sure regular meals and snacks are delivered to this room. Nothing overly tasty, though. This isn't some sort of vacation or pleasure trip."
"Hmm, it goes against my nature to purposely make food that isn't especially appetizing, but I suppose this is my chance to perfect some of my less popular recipes." Sonoda folded his arms over his chest. "Or I could challenge myself to invent dozens of new rice and bean recipes..."
The look on Okazaki's face made it clear that Joker-sama had not discussed these measures with him beforehand. I felt no sympathy. Asahina had disappeared, and Okazaki was the cause. It was only right that he undo his error. If that was even possible.
"Any questions?" Joker-sama looked from Sonoda back to me.
I nodded. "Yes, just one. Does the order of protection extend to you as well, Joker-sama?"
A grim smile curled his lips. "Only until it becomes clear that Yuki-kun cannot be saved."
Chapter 6: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 (Matsuoka)
Keita and Kazuki stop off at Dr. Matsuoka's office before further verifying Yuki's story, concerned that he may have been harmed by the explosion.
I was updating student records in the computer when there was a knock on the door. It slid open as I turned around in my chair, revealing Kazuki's concerned face.
"Jin-san, are you alone in there?"
That meant something was up. I felt a cold unease as I stood, reaching up unconsciously to adjust my glasses. "Yes, it's just me. Is something wrong, Kazuki-kun?"
"Well... maybe." Kazuki-kun scratched at his cheek, his usual nervous habit.
I raised one eyebrow. "Maybe?"
Kazuki-kun stepped into the office, followed by Ito-kun and... a rather small, cute boy I'd never seen before. He wore the summer uniform, complete with the brightly colored first year tie, and had messy hair and wide green eyes. Those eyes widened further as he stared at my face.
"Dr. Matsuoka! You look the same too!"
I blinked. "Have we met?" There weren't so many students at the school that I'd forget their faces, and I was sure I'd seen most of them at the beginning of the year for a regular physical. Or maybe I was getting old...? No, that was impossible, my memory was fine. This boy was new. Another late transfer student, then?
You look the same too. What was that supposed to mean? As I stared at the boy, trying to remember his face - which should have been easy, with those massive cowlicks and his tiny nose - I saw Ito-kun nudge Kazuki-kun with his elbow and whisper something.
The boy nodded, then paused, his smile fading to a rather sad expression. "Well... yes and no. You wouldn't remember me, doctor, because we haven't met yet."
"He's from the future!" Ito-kun supplied.
"The future?" I looked to Kazuki-kun, who met my eyes with a shrug.
"That's the story, anyway. It sounds impossible, I know, but for the moment, all the evidence suggests that he's telling the truth."
"I wouldn't make up something so crazy," the boy mumbled, staring down at his feet.
So, a delusional boy who might be mentally unstable? That was an interesting way to start the summer break. I stepped forward to take a closer look; I really didn't recognize him, but he clearly knew who I was. Another outsider? My eyes went to Kazuki-kun's face, but his expression was closed and unreadable. Strange.
"What's your name?" I asked gently.
"It's Asahina Yuki! I know it sounds crazy, but I really am from the future! We were up on the rooftop testing out Okaken's new invention, and then there was this light, and it exploded. I don't know how it happened, but I ended up in the same place... just not the same time." He lowered his eyes and drew his lip into his mouth, shoulders slumping. "It does sound crazy, doesn't it...?"
His tale brought all sorts of questions to mind, but one was more important than all the others. "An explosion?" I looked toward Ito-kun, who nodded.
"I heard it too. I was doing some student council work in the school building, and there was this sudden boom, and the entire building shook a little. When I went up to the roof, Yuki was there."
"But I feel fine... Keita just insisted that we come to the nurse's office..." Asahina protested.
Just Yuki and Keita, no honorifics? Well, it wasn't too odd for peers to refer to each other that way, but to be so friendly with someone who was suspicious, and especially someone that Kazuki-kun seemed to doubt... I wasn't sure how I felt about that. But it didn't matter. Right now, the most important thing was gathering more information and making sure that the boy wasn't injured.
"If you were near something that exploded, there's always a risk of blast injury, even if there aren't any obvious marks. What exploded, and why? How violent was the explosion?"
The boy, Asahina-kun, was beginning to look frightened. "Uh, um..."
I placed one hand on his shoulder, guiding him toward the exam table. "Here, you should sit down. Just relax. There's no guarantee that anything is wrong, and even if there is, this island is home to some of the best medical facilities in the country."
"Yeah, the Bell lab and all that," Asahina-kun agreed, taking a seat as instructed.
It made me nervous to hear an outsider talking about the lab, but if he really was a student from the future, unlikely as that seemed, then it was only natural that he would know. As Asahina folded his hands in his lap, the black and gold armband pinned to his sleeve caught my eye. "That's an unusual armband, Asahina. Does that say student council?"
"It's the Ace armband," he sighed, holding out his arm for the blood pressure cuff, "but I guess that doesn't exist yet. I'm the student council president."
"Hmm, and why was the student council president getting involved in something that might cause an explosion?"
"Uh, um! It wasn't supposed to explode! Okaken... one of my friends, he builds all sorts of interesting machines. He's really into aliens and stuff, so he made an alien communication device."
"But if he made it, it can't really be called an alien communication device, can it?"
Asahina smiled a bit at that. "That's just what Kuya-san said!"
"Kuya-san?" I peered into Asahina's ear with a scope, though he seemed to be hearing without difficulty or any complaints of pain. As expected, his eardrum was intact and looked healthy, which made me relax a little. The eardrums were easily affected by shock waves, so it was encouraging to see that both looked normal.
"Kuya-san is the vice president. And then there's Takato-san, the secretary, and--"
"Wait, Asahina-kun, tell me about the explosion first. I shouldn't have distracted you from that."
"Oh, well... we took the machine up to the roof, and..."
As he explained the situation and showed me his belongings that truly did seem to be from the future, I continued checking his body for any signs of injury, but found nothing. His lungs sounded strong and healthy, and no matter where I pressed, he had no complaints of pain. Though the blast had been enough to rock the school building, according to Ito-kun, the boy had escaped injury from both the shock waves and from any flying debris.
I took the earpieces of my stethoscope out of my ears and settled it around my neck. "Well, you're very lucky, Asahina-kun. I can't detect any signs of injury, but I want you to come see me immediately if you feel strange in any way. Blast injuries are very serious."
"Whew," Asahina-kun sighed. "I promise! But I'm always lucky!"
"Yeah, that's right!" Ito-kun piped up. "He has the same luck as me, every time we try a game of rock-paper-scissors, it's a tie!"
Somehow that was more impressive than the idea of a boy from the future. "I'd like to see that."
Kazuki-kun, who had been waiting patiently throughout the entire exam and story, stood up. "No, we don't have time for that now. Sorry, Jin-san, but I need to verify some things with Asahina before I let him run loose throughout the school."
"Don't talk about him like he's some sort of stray animal!" Ito-kun frowned.
"N, no, it's okay," Asahina-kun said, tone more cheerful than I'd expect from someone who was trapped in such an unusual situation. "If Suzubishi-san needs to test me, then fine. I can prove I'm from the future and who I am!"
Suzubishi... this boy even knew who Kazuki-kun really was?! "Asahina-kun, I don't think you should be using the name Suzubishi so casually. Didn't Kazuki-kun warn you about that?"
"O, oh!" Asahina-kun covered his mouth with a mumbled apology.
"It's okay," I reassured him, "I'm one of the people who knows. But there are very few people at this school, even among the staff, who know Kazuki-kun's true identity. So please be careful."
"Asahina, this is a very serious matter," Kazuki-kun sighed. "I told you, call me Endo. You can't use my real name, no matter what."
"R, right!" Asahina-kun agreed, hopping down from the table. "Then... Endo-san, please, let's go. I can't stand things the way they are now."
With that, the three said their goodbyes and hurried from the office. I sank back into my chair with a sigh. What on earth was going on here?
This was going to be a very interesting summer.
Chapter 7: Thursday, July 20, 2017 (Takato)
Takato's dream of a peaceful, productive summer is shattered by the news of Yuki's disappearance.
This summer break would be the final one when I would be free to use my time however I pleased, and I was determined to take full advantage of the opportunity. Nothing would distract me from the strict work schedule I'd set for myself. First, the final revisions of the next ZombieChan novel, which was due for publication by the end of the fall. Second, the outline and some rough scenes of the next book, which would be edited and revised over the remainder of the year. And third, there was a growing mountain of books that had accumulated on my nightstand, all held aside as rewards for meeting my writing goals.
Nothing would stop me from tackling that mountain this summer. Especially not senseless distractions like Okazaki's bizarre inventions, or Kuya's insistence that I sacrifice any of my precious time to observe their failures. He had Ninosuke as his companion for that sort of thing, or more recently, Asahina, who had cheerfully agreed to join several of the other students on the rooftop for the spectacle. Or the lack of a spectacle, if you considered Okazaki's track record. The most exciting thing Kuya and Asahina would experience might be a bit of smoke as the machine fizzled out.
"Well, then," I murmured to myself, opening up my laptop and loading the familiar document. Perhaps a bit too familiar; I was growing weary of all the back and forth with my editor, and the novel was at the point where every one of his requests led to a disagreement. His latest email was open in another tab, unanswered.
Takato-san, please tone down the descriptions of gore in this fight scene. I know the books are marketed as appropriate for ages 15 and up, but you have a lot of readers in the 11-14 age bracket as well, and the last volume prompted a few letters from concerned parents.
"Ridiculous," I huffed. Age recommendations existed for a reason. If a negligent parent was buying reading materials that weren't appropriate for their child's level of maturity, that wasn't an issue with my writing, but with poor parenting. Worse still if the parent didn't even know what was appropriate for their child and only found out after something prompted worry or nightmares.
The amount of detail in the scene in question has already been edited to bring it in line with recommendations for the target age group. Further changes will reduce the impact of the scene and frankly, it will cease to resemble what I had in mind for this chapter. If we are considering a change in the target audience, I will consider that a material change in the contract and it will need to be handled as such.
Too harsh. I knew that even before reading over it again, but my patience was wearing thin with all these pointless requests. The scene was finished, and I wasn't going to rewrite it to satisfy some hypothetical parents who might have a problem with it. If anything, the reviews questioning the rating of the material had served to boost the popularity of the series, with younger readers begging older classmates or siblings to purchase the new titles for them if their parents disapproved.
It was a bit like the Harry Potter craze from about a decade ago, wasn't it? I couldn't stifle a smile of smug satisfaction at the daring thought; my books weren't that popular, but with negotiations for an anime series in the works, it wasn't a completely baseless comparison.
Just as I was enjoying my quiet feelings of self-satisfaction, the door burst open and Kuya rushed in. His eyes were wide, and he gestured frantically as he shouted at me.
"Masatsugu! It's terrible! Yuki's disappeared!"
"Asahina?" My chest tightened, heart hammering as I got to my feet. "What happened?"
"The rooftop, Maro was going crazy, Yuki ran out to grab him," Kuya's words spilled out in a torrent, so fast and in a tone so agitated that I could barely understand him, "and there was this light, and it exploded, and Yuki was gone!"
He stared at me, chest heaving and eyes wild, as if expecting a solution.
"Kuya, calm down."
I regretted those words the moment they left my lips. Something so trite was dangerous in any situation, and when dealing with someone like Kuya, it was like throwing gasoline on a fire.
"How can I calm down?!" he raged, slamming his hands down on the table. "Yuki is gone!!"
Gone. The word made my heart skip a beat. That wasn't possible.
I held up my hands in a gesture of surrender. "I'm sorry, Kuya, that wasn't what I meant. I'll help you look for Asahina. Just... try to slow down a bit and explain what happened. If I don't understand the situation, I won't be able to help you effectively. Right?"
Kuya swallowed hard and nodded, face red. His breath was shaking just as much as his hands, and even from a distance, I could see the tears welling in the corners of his wide violet eyes. I hadn't seen him so upset since Ninosuke's disappearance, and as much as Kuya would deny it, he had grown even more attached to Asahina. Asahina was exactly what Kuya needed in a friend; someone easygoing and silly, but also diligent and caring, who would never dream of using Kuya's easily-won affection for his own gain.
"You were on the roof," I prompted. "I assume you and Asahina were helping Okazaki with testing his latest invention?"
"We were observing," he began, voice trembling, "but something went wrong."
"You said there was an explosion?" My eyebrows rose. "Was Asahina injured?"
Gone, he'd said. Kuya had a bad habit of dancing around the point when he didn't want to talk about something painful. Did that mean...? I couldn't imagine it. I couldn't even think the words, in case doing so would somehow make it true.
Kuya shook his head. "I, I don't know! I don't think so... everyone said, if something like that had happened..." His shoulders tightened, and he shivered. "There would be... evidence."
"Evidence?" It took a few moments for the meaning to sink in.
She stood in the middle of the bloodsoaked room, the perfect white skin of her face smeared with crimson, and turned about slowly, dark eyes taking in the remains of her enemies. Chunks of flesh, some peppered with fragments of bone or clumps of hair, clung to the stone walls, leaving a glistening trail as they slid down toward the concrete floor.
Suddenly the vivid aftermath of the violent battle seemed much less appealing.
Before Kuya could continue, there was a knock on the still-open door, and a familiar face poked in. Kasahara, with the usual lollipop in his mouth. He took it out, looked from me to Kuya with a frown, and asked, "Er, you two look kinda busy, but have you seen Yuki? He's not answering his cell phone, and I didn't see anyone up on the rooftop, so I guess Okaken's experiment is over? So..."
Kuya gasped, looking as if someone had slapped him. "K- Kasahara-kun..."
Kasahara stepped into the room somewhat reluctantly. "Um... am I interrupting something?"
Since Kuya remained silent, I answered for him. "Not interrupting, no. In fact, you should be aware of this situation. Kuya was in the middle of telling me about some sort of incident on the rooftop. It seems that Asahina has disappeared." My voice wobbled on the last word, betraying the feelings that were bubbling beneath my calm exterior. For someone as bright and warm as Asahina to be harmed by something as senseless as a misguided student's experiment...
It was unforgivable. I wouldn't allow it to pass.
My fingers tensed, half-curling into a fist before I forced myself to relax. Stay calm. You haven't heard the full story yet.
Kasahara's sleepy expression suddenly grew alert and serious. "Yuki... disappeared?" His hand darted out to grasp Kuya's shoulder, shaking him. "Hey, Sagimori-san, you were there, weren't you? What happened up there? Where is Yuki?"
Kuya shook his head again, looking dazed and desperate. "I don't know, I don't know where he is! The machine exploded and Yuki was gone."
"Exploded?!" Kasahara looked like he was about to explode, his wild-eyed look a match for Kuya's overwrought expression. "What happened? Did Yuki get hurt?"
"I told you, I don't know! There was a light, and it exploded, and Yuki was gone! We looked everywhere, but there was no sign of him! It, it didn't seem like he got hurt, we didn't hear him say anything, he just kind of froze in place. It was so bright, no one could see anything! But all I heard was the weird machine noises, lots of beeping and alarms, and then bang!"
"Kuya, that doesn't make any sense," I began.
Kasahara cut me off, straightening up and squaring his shoulders as he looked Kuya directly in the eye. "Sagimori-san, you are going to take us up to the roof and explain along the way. There's no time to waste. Got it?"
Kuya gulped, stunned into silence. Director Kasahara had appeared, though if I looked closely enough, I could still see his hands trembling at his sides. He noticed my gaze and stuffed them into his pockets, scowling at me for a moment before turning back toward Kuya.
"If you freeze up like that, you'll just waste time that we could spend looking for Yuki! Let's go!"
"O, okay," Kuya whispered with a nod, but when he reached out to push the half-open door, he pulled back his hand with a pained gasp.
"Kuya?" I reflexively took a half step forward. What if he'd also been hurt in the explosion?
A tear pooled in the corner of his eye. "Ow... my hand..."
I almost felt guilty for the relief that flooded me, but a damaged hand or wrist would be much easier to repair than a pressure injury caused by a blast. Kasahara raised one eyebrow, not understanding, and I explained, "Kuya was quite agitated earlier and banged on the table in frustration. I believe he may have injured himself."
"Then we'll go to the nurse's office," Kasahara declared, shoving the door open, "and you two are going to tell me what happened to Yuki. We'll get Dr. Matsuoka to help."
"That would be wise," I agreed, moving to rest one hand on Kuya's shoulder. "Come on. It will help to have someone else present while you tell the story."
Chapter 8: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 (Kazuki)
Kazuki reluctantly takes Yuki to his office to test his claims with SCIENCE.
(Just kidding, he uses the internet or something.)
Despite my reservations, I led Asahina and Keita to the server building and took the elevator up to my office. As expected, Asahina commented on the familiarity of the building, noting that in the future, there were additional cameras around the entrance. I was starting to doubt myself, wondering if he really was telling the truth. With that cheery smile and oddly positive attitude, he sure didn't seem like a spy.
Still, my heart raced as I pressed my card key to the electronic pad outside my office. If Asahina was up to something, this was the time that he would choose to act. I squared my shoulders and entered the office, motioning for the two to follow me without any hint of hesitation. No matter what happened, I wouldn't let anyone catch me showing any signs of weakness.
Asahina was silent as we entered, and I couldn't help asking, "You have no comment about the state of this office? I'm a little surprised."
"W, well, I'm kind of nervous all of a sudden," he confessed, looking around, "but it looks the same to me, I guess. I didn't really spend a lot of time in here."
"Right," I said, tone insincere. "Especially considering that students aren't allowed inside this building, much less this office."
"But I really have been in this office! More than once, even, I had to help Tomo with his plan to protect the school."
Protect the school, from what? And Tomo? Was Asahina suggesting that was the name of the future director? I didn't have any relatives named Tomo; my family was small enough that I was sure of it. Unless this Tomo was another student who had been allowed access to this office for some reason, which might have been the case if someone had been careless enough to allow Asahina in. Though if he truly was the student council president, there might have been a good reason for it.
Of course, seven years in the future, there might be different circumstances. Maybe the Bell Labs research was stored somewhere off the island, though I couldn't imagine that it would be any safer on a server housed in another location. The island's isolation was what made it the ideal place to store confidential information, but with the way things had been going recently, it seemed like nothing would stop outsiders from trying to steal what they couldn't develop on their own.
Though the real explanation was probably something simpler and, as much as I hated to admit it, inevitable. In the future, someone else was director of this school. My father was already pressuring me to start looking for a replacement, and though I'd held him off by pointing out that I'd just repelled not one, but two attempts to steal the research data, I couldn't fall back on that excuse forever. I could almost hear his voice: You've pushed the rat out of the nest. You're just there to make sure the systems are secure now. Your talents are needed elsewhere.
Thinking about that really would give me a headache. Better to focus on the immediate problem.
I didn't want to believe Asahina, but the more he said, the more I was inclined to trust him. His story was detailed and sounded genuine, not guarded or stilted like a tale that might be dispensed by someone whose true history was different. If he was spouting lies, they were the kind that could entangle him easily, with too many unnecessary details and name drops. And frankly, Asahina didn't strike me as the type who could keep a complex lie straight in his own mind.
It was strange that I found myself wanting to believe him. I normally didn't trust anyone easily, made wary by my need to hide at the school, and before that, all the simpering hangers-on who tried to take advantage of me simply because of my family name. But despite how likeable the boy seemed, I couldn't let down my guard just yet.
"I sincerely doubt your story, Asahina, but we'll know the truth soon enough."
Keita frowned at me. "Kazuki, don't be so rough. Yuki's been through a lot."
I wanted to tell Keita not to be so familiar with a stranger, but I bit back my words and sat down at my desk, motioning for Asahina and Keita to be seated in the guest chairs in front of me. "Please, sit. I'll be asking you some questions, Asahina, so pay attention."
"Right," he agreed cautiously, slipping into the chair. Keita sat beside him and patted his arm with a gentle smile, leaning over to whisper something that I couldn't quite hear.
The computer was always on, so I began my search right away. With my skills and open access to various records, it wouldn't be difficult to find the information I needed. Only, there were many people named Asahina Yuki in this country, so even after narrowing it down to children of the appropriate age - between seven and nine years old, if Asahina's story was true - there were still hundreds of results.
"What characters are in your family name?"
"Asa like morning, hi like compare, and na as in Nara," he answered without hesitation.
That matched what I remembered from his ID, though it was a common way to write the name, so that didn't prove much. Refining the search reduced the size of the list a little, but not much. "Where were you born?"
So he was a local. That narrowed the results considerably, leaving only about ten names. "I see. And your exact birthdate?"
"August 2, 2001."
That left only one record. I clicked the link to review the details, taking care to keep my expression neutral as I looked over the information. The photo was a few years out of date, which meant it could have been over ten years old, but I could still see a bit of a resemblance in the little boy's face, and especially in the way his hair stuck up on the top of his head. As far as the sparse record showed, the boy had no notable talents, and his family was completely ordinary with the exception of the business owned by his father, a small bakery that had opened only a few weeks before.
"Give me your home address, Asahina."
He dutifully rattled off the address of the bakery, then added, "It's actually a bakery." He paused. "Oh, wait... this is right around the time that my dad started to expand the business a little... maybe we hadn't moved to the place by the station yet? If I got it wrong, I swear that's why!"
Hmm. In that case, time for one last test. I backed out of his record and opened another one, clicking to pull up a photo of an unrelated man and his wife standing in front of a nondescript suburban home. I turned the computer screen around and pointed to it. "And this picture of your parents, do you remember where it was taken?"
Asahina's brows drew together. "But those aren't my parents."
I turned the screen back around with a nod. "That's right, they're not."
"Are you trying to trick me?" Now he was starting to sound irritated.
"Of course I am. A spy would have made up a story on the spot, or tried to bluff. You gave a simple, honest answer without embellishment. I'm nearly convinced."
"Nearly?" Keita sighed. "I'm telling you, this is just wasting time."
"We'll keep going until I'm satisfied." I opened up another picture and showed it to Asahina. His face lit up immediately in recognition.
"Oh, that's the family portrait from right before I started school! I remember I cried a lot because my dad shaved his mustache for the picture, and I got scared because I didn't recognize him!" He let out an embarrassed laugh. "Well, I was just a little kid at the time..."
If Asahina was pretending to be this Asahina Yuki I'd found in the computer, he'd gone to an awful lot of trouble to do it. And since that boy was only eight years old right now...
"I can't believe it," I shook my head with a sigh. "Your ID, the coins, your phone, and now all this... you really are this child named Asahina Yuki," I tapped the screen with one finger, "only you're seven years older than you should be, carrying items that shouldn't even exist yet."
"So you finally believe him?" Keita sounded more irritated than relieved.
"I don't think I have much of a choice," I sighed, resting my elbows on the desk. A boy from the future. It was dangerous, wasn't it? He had knowledge of events that hadn't happened yet, technology that didn't exist, and other information that could be used for good or ill. I had a vague idea of the problems that could be caused if that information was leaked to others, but as far as the long-reaching consequences... that was a little too sci-fi for my mind.
"We'll have to be very selective about who knows this. The things you know about the future are very valuable pieces of information, Asahina. There's no telling what could happen if you revealed something, even accidentally. We'll have to keep this quiet."
"Um," Keita cut in, "but shouldn't we ask someone who knows about time travel?"
"Keita, there's no one who knows about time travel. It doesn't exist."
"You can't really say that with Yuki sitting here in front of you, can you?"
Sometimes it really annoyed me when Keita took that smug tone with me. I tried not to let it show as I replied, "Then who do you suggest as our time travel expert, hm?"
To my surprise, Keita answered right away, "Shichijo-san, of course! He's into all sorts of weird occult things, and I'm sure I've heard him talking about the rules of time travel or something like that before. Even if he doesn't know, I'm sure he knows where to look!"
"Um," Asahina began, but my response cut him off.
"Is he staying here over summer break?"
"I'm not sure, actually..."
"Then we'll go see him right away, just in case he has plans." I pushed back my chair and stood. "I hope it's not too late to catch him."
"One moment, Asahina, timing might be critical in this case."
"Yeah, we don't want to miss Shichijo-san if he's still here!" Keita nodded, hopping to his feet. "I'm sure he'd be in the finance room. Oh, I bet you could call and make sure!"
"R, right..." I murmured, stomach tightening. If I called the finance room, Saionji would be sure to pick up, and we weren't exactly on the best of terms. "I guess I'll do that."
As I reached for the phone, a loud noise that was halfway between a rumble and a growl filled the office. I jumped and dropped the receiver, and Keita let out a squeak of surprise. "Whaaaa?!"
Some sort of attack? I whipped around to look at the window behind me, blood running cold, but all I saw was a clear blue sky. An insincere, self-deprecating laugh drew my attention back to the chairs in front of my desk.
Asahina reached up to rub at the side of his head with one hand as he blushed. "Sorry... I tried to tell you, but I'm getting really hungry all of a sudden..."
"That was you?" I stared at him. How had such an incredible noise come from such a tiny person?
"Ehehe, well... it's getting pretty late."
Late? It was barely one in the afternoon. Oh, but maybe the time of day had shifted when Asahina was transferred back to our time. "I see. Then we'll have to stop at the cafeteria first. But let me call over to the finance room and see if I can find Shichijo-san."
As I reluctantly made the call, I listened in on Keita and Asahina's chatter, which was a pleasant distraction from Saionji's rambling and vague threats about how I needed to exercise better control over the board of directors and push more projects through. They pushed the guest chairs closer together and sat, chatting about the cafeteria and the various dishes that could be ordered. Asahina seemed disappointed that the cafeteria only served ordinary lunch foods, and talked about a talented friend who was a magnificent cook.
"Are you listening to me, Endo?"
"Ah, yes, I am," I lied. "I was just thinking that I'll have to eat lunch before heading over to see Shichijo-san. You'll ask him to wait for us, won't you?" I'd been purposely vague, not wanting to explain the reason I needed Shichijo's particular expertise in such a hurry. Saionji didn't like it, but I wasn't about to let him worm additional information out of me. Now, if only I could think of a way to get him out of the finance room while the three of us talked with Shichijo...
"Fine," Saionji snapped, "but I expect you to move your meeting with me up to tomorrow. I don't feel like waiting until next week."
"It's a deal," I said, trying to remember if it would even be possible to fit it into my schedule. Well, Saionji would just have to forgive me if it wasn't.
I dropped the receiver back into its cradle and motioned toward the door. "Let's go eat."
"You don't have to tell me twice!" Asahina grinned.
Chapter 9: Thursday, July 20, 2017 (Tomo)
Tomo is frustrated with Dr. Matsuoka's calm reaction to Yuki's disappearance, and presses him for answers.
Sagimori-san was reluctant to tell the story of what had happened at first, worried about how Dr. Matsuoka might react to everyone's participation in something so dangerous, but I didn't allow him to wiggle out of it. Since it was just the four of us in the nurse's office, there was nothing stopping me from using my position as director to pressure him into telling the full story. As expected, Sagimori-san grew incredibly agitated as he recounted the events, and I wondered if he was being affected by the pain of his injured hand. He did end up shedding a few involuntary tears as the doctor pressed gently on different places, testing his reactions.
The moisture that gathered in my eyes, the way my heart raced, and my sudden shortness of breath, however, were all for Yuki. I pressed one hand to my chest in a vain attempt to calm the frantic thudding, but all that did was make me think of Brother's weak heart.
I had been too young to understand the loss of my parents, but losing a brother... I couldn't live through that again.
First Nii-san, and now Yuki... how could this happen?
The atmosphere in the office was somber and oppressive, the silence thick after Sagimori-san finished explaining. He refused to meet my eyes, stubbornly staring down at Dr. Matsuoka's hands as he continued his examination. Takato-san was even worse, staring out the window with his back to the rest of us. I didn't know him well enough to be sure, but his shoulders seemed especially tense, his arms folded tightly over his chest as he looked out over the school.
And Dr. Matsuoka was quiet, focusing mostly on the medical exam and only volunteering the occasional comment about Yuki's situation. I'd gotten to know him quite well over the last few months, so I knew that he was always remarkably calm even in tough situations, which had been a great help during the Bell One crisis. Only right now, that unflappable steadiness was annoying as hell. The only thing that stopped me from demanding to know why he was so inappropriately detached was the fact that he was in the middle of explaining to Sagimori-san.
"It seems like a grade two wrist sprain, so I'm recommending rest, ice, and compression. I'll give you an instruction sheet with all the details. Fortunately, you're young and healthy, so it should heal up quickly, though you'll probably see some bruising, and it will be painful."
"Yeah, I've noticed," Sagimori-san sighed. "But at least it's easily treated right here on the school island, so I can help search for Yuki!"
"Actually, I'm also going to write you an order for an x-ray. It's unlikely, but still possible that there might be a hairline fracture, since you hit a hard surface with that much force."
"O, oh..." He deflated a bit. "That was pretty stupid, I guess..."
"It can't be helped, you were very upset, and with good reason," I told him, though my eyes were on Dr. Matsuoka the entire time. Why was he still so calm? Maybe he didn't want to panic in front of students, but it's not like any of us were ordinary students or had no special ties to Yuki!
He's like a brother to me, I wanted to shout, and these two are his closest friends. If anyone needs to see an adult in a panic, it's us!
"Try to believe in Asahina-kun's good luck. You said there was no sign that he'd been injured. The next step is to figure out what happened to him, isn't that right? I can help with that."
Well, that was a little better, but I still couldn't calm down.
"Really, you'll help us too?!" Sagimori-san sounded like he was about to cry.
"Of course I will. But first, you should get to the hospital and have your hand checked." The doctor got up and went to his computer to create the order. "Unfortunately, the research lab here doesn't have an x-ray machine, so you'll have to go off the island to have it done. Normally, I'd offer to take you myself, but I don't think you're in any condition to ride behind me on my bike."
Sagimori-san flexed his hand a little and winced. "Right... I can't really grip anything..." He sighed again. "At least it's not my sword hand."
"I'll call a taxi for you," the doctor said, but I interrupted him.
"No. I'll ask Professor Sakaki to take you. He's technically the adult in charge here, so he should be present. I can't allow a student to go off alone for treatment, and I can't really go with you myself, since I'm underage or whatever."
"Kuya won't be going alone," Takato-san said, turning around. "I'm going with him."
He smiled weakly at Sagimori-san. "This is my fault. If I hadn't done something as foolish as telling you to calm down, when you were perfectly justified in being upset..."
Their eyes met, and Sagimori-san nodded, looking vaguely embarrassed. "Okay... thank you, Masatsugu."
My chest tightened as I watched the exchange, full of kindness and emotional support. When I needed help, I always went to Yuki. Who would support me now? I swallowed back those dark thoughts with an ease that I thought I'd lost. Old habits were easy to renew.
Fall apart later. Maybe the doctor is waiting until we're alone. I know I am.
"Then I'll have Professor Sakaki take you both to the hospital. Like I said, the adult in charge needs to be present, just in case there's any complications with insurance or whatever." I met Sagimori-san's watery eyes. "And I also need you to explain what happened to Yuki. The professor needs to be aware of that as well, and since you were an eyewitness..."
He nodded somewhat reluctantly. "It's hard to keep repeating it, but... for Yuki's sake, I'll do anything. Even if the professor gets angry..."
"I'm sure he'll be livid," Takato-san said, adjusting his glasses. "Fortunately for you, the foolish experiment wasn't your doing or your idea. I suspect Okazaki will be in quite a bit of trouble once we return to the school."
My resolve wavered. Maybe it would be best not to say anything, then. It sounded like Joker-san already had plans for Okaken, who was the only person who could attempt to undo the damage that had been done. If he ended up in trouble or worse, expelled from the school... if that affected Yuki's chances of returning home safely...
"No. Don't tell him anything."
"Don't tell Professor Sakaki anything. He'll get pissed and kick Okaken out of school, and then who will be able to do anything for Yuki?"
There was a long pause, then: "I hadn't considered that. You're correct, the professor would likely see Okazaki's further tinkering with machines to be a potential threat to other students, and remove him from the school. Which is exactly what cannot be allowed to happen, in this case."
"Right. In fact, I don't want this spreading any farther than it already has. It's just the student council, Durak, Arata-san, and Yagami who know, right? And Okaken, of course."
"And me," Dr. Matsuoka quietly reminded us.
I tried not to glare at him. "Anyway, keep quiet about this. If anyone asks where Yuki is, tell them that he went home for the summer. If Yuki's parents end up looking for him, make up something about going on a field trip. Just don't let this information get to anyone else. The rumor mill at this school is out of control."
"Well said," Takato-san agreed. "Very well. Kuya and I will keep this to ourselves. I trust that you will handle informing Durak and the others of the restrictions?"
"Yes, I'll take care of it. And now," I gestured toward the door, "you should take care of that wrist before anything else happens to make it worse."
"Roger! And don't worry, our lips are sealed!" Sagimori-san was trying way too hard to be positive. Sometimes I felt a little sorry for him.
The moment the door slid shut behind the two remaining student council members, I turned to Dr. Matsuoka, eyes narrowed. "You're awfully calm about the disappearance of my best friend, the only family I have left. I find that personally offensive."
He looked as if he'd been expecting me to say something. "Kasahara, I assure you, that is absolutely not my intent."
"Sometimes good intentions don't make up for what's actually happening."
Nothing could make up for Yuki being gone. Missing. Maybe lost somewhere, or even somewhen, which sounded ridiculous when I thought about it, but I would believe anything if it meant that he was still safe somewhere, in a place that he could return from safely.
"I'm sorry," the doctor repeated, bowing his head a little. "You know that I'm naturally calm, and I have years of experience dealing with tense situations. My reactions may make me seem callous, but I'm terribly concerned about Asahina-kun."
Despite his words, something seemed off in the way he looked at me, or rather, the way he cut off eye contact after a couple of seconds. Sure, I knew the doctor to be calm, but that extended to his body language as well. The way he was moving right now was anything but relaxed, his shoulders stiff and fingers unable to keep still as he stared at a spot over my shoulder.
"If you're that concerned, why are you lying to me?"
"Kasahara, I'm not--"
"Don't try it," I snapped, all out of patience. "I know you well enough to recognize that your body language is all wrong right now. What do you know?"
After a moment, the doctor stood, clearly uncomfortable with remaining seated while I stood there with my arms folded over my chest, glaring. He reached up to adjust his glasses, then mirrored my pose, minus the scowl. "Kasahara..." he sighed, "you really are suited to your position. You may not realize it yet, but you have a natural force of presence."
Did he really think he could get away with stalling? "I don't care about anything like that! Tell me what you know about Yuki."
He met my eyes, finally, though he was silent for several seconds before responding. "And what if I told you that doing so would endanger him further?"
So he did know something. But the rush of relief was quickly drowned by confused irritation. "That doesn't make any sense."
The doctor nodded, eyes darting away. "I know that. Believe me... I've been struggling with this for a long time, Kasahara." He shook his head. "I know how much Asahina means to you. You've been completely transformed by his friendship, it's almost like you're another person now. I don't say this out of a desire to flatter him or you, it's true. I've spent a lot of time as the quiet observer of the people around me at this school..."
His voice faded, and I sighed. "Is there a point to your rambling?" But I was less angry than before, curiosity barely outweighing my desire to force an answer from him. It seemed like something would be dispensed if I could keep my mouth shut long enough. That was how the doctor worked.
"Kasahara, you've been spending too much time with Professor Sakaki. You never used to be this harsh or blunt."
"Dr. Matsuoka, I am about five seconds from completely losing my temper. And that's a warning Professor Sakaki never gives." I met his eyes. "So hurry up."
He let out a long sigh, shoulders slumping a little. It really wasn't like him to look so worn out, but I wasn't going to let him get out of spilling what he knew. He adjusted his glasses again, his familiar nervous habit, and his voice was soft as he began, "I can't tell you much, Kasahara. I'm very serious about the possibility of endangering Asahina if too much information is shared." He turned away and went to the window, arms still folded tightly as he looked out at the courtyard below. "Asahina is safe. You won't find him no matter how hard you look, though."
Damnit, I couldn't tell what else he was hiding if I couldn't see his face. "You sound awfully sure of that."
"I am sure."
He shook his head again, ponytail bobbing. "Kasahara, please don't pry. I've already said too much. All I can do is promise to tell you everything at the proper time. And," he drew in a deep breath, letting it out slowly before continuing, "I'll also promise you that it won't be long. Please try not to worry."
My anger flared again, hands clenching into fists at my sides. "I'll worry as much as I want, thank you very much!"
The doctor nodded. "I know." He glanced back over his shoulder. "You're a good brother, Kasahara."
"Don't flatter me," I growled, eyes narrowed. "I'm nothing compared to Yuki. If anything happens to him, I'm holding you responsible, Dr. Matsuoka."
I didn't wait for his response, I just turned and stalked out of the office, letting the door bang shut behind me. I was so caught up in the mess of my own thoughts and emotions that I didn't notice my surroundings, and barely caught myself before running into someone at full speed.
Professor Ito? Doesn't he live off the island? Why is he here on summer vacation?
I wasn't able to stop in time, and I smacked into his side with my shoulder, knocking him into the wall. The professor was caught completely by surprise, also distracted, and he hit the wall with a muffled oof.
I swallowed my dark worries, a bit dismayed at how easy it was to hide behind the pasted-on neutral expression of boredom, and reached out to steady him with one hand. "Professor Ito, I'm very sorry, I wasn't watching where I was going. Are you okay?"
He looked up at me with wide blue eyes, shocked, and I could have sworn there were tears pooling in their corners. Had I really hit him that hard? He tore his gaze away after a moment. "Oh... Kasahara-kun... no, it's fine. I'm fine, really..." The professor forced a smile and pushed away from the wall, righting himself. "I wasn't paying attention either..."
"Are you sure? I hit you pretty hard." The last thing I needed was for someone else to get hurt. "Maybe you should stop in and see Dr. Matsuoka just in case. I really hope you don't end up with a nasty bruise because of me. I'm so sorry."
"Dr. Matsuoka..." His expression clouded. "R, right... that's where I was headed anyway..."
Odd, weren't those two friends from way back? But before I could ask anything, the professor's eyes flicked to my face again, his expression serious and sad in some way. And somehow I got the feeling that he wanted to ask me something, with the way his lips moved just a little bit as if testing words.
But after a moment, he looked away. "I'll be going, then..."
"Professor Ito, are you really okay?"
He didn't answer right away, then mumbled, "Don't worry about me," with another fake smile and headed off down the hallway without saying goodbye.
Was he angry and trying to hide it? Had I hurt him? Today really was a terrible day.
Chapter 10: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 (Keita)
It's time for lunch! Keita, Kazuki, and Yuki head to the cafeteria and run into Naruse and Shunsuke.
Hmm, could it be that Keita's a little jealous...? :3
As expected, Yuki already knew the way to the cafeteria, so he led the way, with me at his side and Kazuki following behind us. I knew Kazuki would be moody for a while; he always got that way when he had to speak with Saionji-san. I didn't know the story behind their antagonistic relationship, and when I'd asked Kazuki, he'd just grumbled and told me to leave it alone. Well, I could understand that Saionji-san was difficult to deal with sometimes, but I thought an adult like Kazuki would be better at getting along with people.
"Oh, the trees here are so little!" Yuki exclaimed as we walked through the courtyard. "They look like they were just planted, but in my time, they're nice and tall, and give a lot of shade!"
I smiled. "You're going to have lots of surprises everywhere you go. It must be really weird with everything looking so similar, but just a little bit off from what you're used to."
"Yeah, it's really jarring, like I'm in some sort of dream where nothing is quite right."
Yuki was easy to talk to, and he smiled a lot despite his strange circumstances. I couldn't help mirroring that smile, or asking him all sorts of questions, which he was happy to answer. "So what's it like, being the student council president in the future?"
"It's really fun! We have four people in the student council now, and everyone finally believes in the student council again, so we've been busy. Oh, but that's not a complaint... I like having a lot to do! We're planning all sorts of events for the new semester, and since Durak is cooperating with us, we can do some big things this year!"
"Durak? What's that?"
He looked confused for a moment, then nodded. "Oh, right, Durak didn't exist until Joker-san got to the school. It's the disciplinary committee combined with the treasury, so they have a lot of power in the school too." Yuki smiled sheepishly. "A bit too much, until recently..."
"Oh, so they're like the finance group is now. Shichijo-san is part of finance, along with Saionji-san. They used to be part of the student council, but Saionji-san couldn't get along with the King, so they split into two. I guess the two groups never came back together... that's a shame."
Except it seemed like Yuki missed everything I said after 'the King,' because he stopped walking and wiggled in place a bit. "Ahhh, the King! I can't wait to meet him!"
"Heh," Kazuki snorted as he caught up with us, "don't get your hopes up."
"Huh, what's that supposed to mean?"
My cheeks pinked a little. Yuki was so excited, it would be wrong to shoot him down. And anyway, the King might clean up his act a bit to impress his future successor. Or something. I wasn't sure that was the right way to think about their relationship. "Don't worry about it! Let's go eat!"
It took less than five minutes to order and pick up lunch, with Kazuki getting his usual hamburg steak, while Yuki and I both chose the day's B set, a combo of fried chicken, mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes, and a biscuit. I had to swipe my card for both of us, since Yuki's wouldn't work with the current payment system, but I didn't mind. I always had plenty of extra meal tickets thanks to playing board games on the weekends with my friends.
Just as we settled down and began to eat, two of those friends suddenly appeared and sat down with us, not waiting to be invited.
"Hi, honey!" Naruse-san beamed at me. "Practice ran a bit long today, so I never imagined that I'd meet you in the cafeteria! This must be my lucky day."
"Pft, whatever," Shunsuke sighed, dropping his overloaded tray on the table. "It must be Keita's unlucky day, having to put up with you."
I forced a laugh, ignoring his comment. "Shunsuke, Naruse-san, it's nice to see you both!"
"It's always nice to see you, honey," Naruse-san leaned closer.
"Naruse-san!" Kazuki slid his tray forward, blocking him from getting any closer to my face. "We're trying to eat peacefully here, please stop teasing Keita."
Naruse-san turned toward Kazuki, a sharp reply on his lips, but I saw him stop and do a literal double take as he noticed Yuki. He blinked a couple of times, a blush forming high on his cheeks as he looked Yuki up and down in a way that was all too familiar to me.
"U, um..." Yuki began, also blushing. "Is there something on my face?"
"No, not at all. In fact, I've never seen your face before." He turned toward Kazuki so fast his ponytail almost whipped me in the face. "Endo, where have you been hiding this cutie?!? Don't tell me this is another latecomer first year!"
"C, cutie?!" Yuki's face turned completely red.
"Mmhm," Naruse-san didn't wait for Kazuki to answer, turning his attention back to Yuki. He reached out to grasp Yuki's free hand, the one that wasn't clutching a fork. "Is this your first day at school? I'm sure I would have noticed a boy like you. What's your name, sweetie?"
Sweetie?! I banged on the table. "N, Naruse-san, you shouldn't flirt with everyone you meet!"
"Heh heh, this guy is hopeless," Shunsuke snorted, shaking his head, and continued shoveling food into his mouth.
Kazuki caught my eye, a sly smile twisting his lips. "Oh, Keita, are you jealous?"
"Kazuki! Don't say stupid things, of course I'm not jealous!" Now my face was just as red as Yuki's. Damnit, sometimes it really sucked to have no control over my reactions! "It's just, Yuki doesn't need to be bothered, on top of everything else that's going on..."
"Yuki, is it?" Naruse-san practically purred, petting the back of Yuki's hand with his fingertips. "As in courage, am I right? You look like a brave and... passionate boy."
"Um," Yuki was staring down at Naruse-san's fingers as if he couldn't believe what was happening, "that's, that's right, my name is Asahina Yuki, I'm a first year student, um..."
"He's an exchange student from another school," Kazuki cut in. "The first year student council president, actually, here to learn about how the students at Bell Liberty manage most of the functions of the school themselves. He's going to be an honorary member of our student council for a while," he pointed to Yuki's armband, "so he can understand exactly how different projects and events are handled. Once he's learned enough, he'll go back and share that knowledge with the students and staff of his school."
Even I was impressed by Kazuki's lie. I guess adults were pretty good at that sort of thing.
However, that only seemed to encourage Naruse-san more. "Oh, so you're an exchange student, and the student council president of the first year class, even? You must be a very special boy, then, if you were chosen for such an important position and sent over to this school." He smiled. "I could tell when I first looked at you, you're an amazing boy, sweetie."
Oh my god, was he going to keep calling Yuki sweetie the same way he insisted on calling me honey? Yuki would definitely get the wrong idea about things! "Naruse-san, please let Yuki go, he's trying to eat!"
That snapped Yuki out of it, and he drew his hand back with a grin. "Yeah, that's right, I'm really hungry! Let's eat!" He dug into his food without a care, embarrassment forgotten in an instant.
"Oh, I'm sorry, how rude of me to not notice!"
Kazuki gave him a sour look. "What's really rude is that you didn't even introduce yourself."
"I didn't?" Naruse-san looked like he didn't quite believe it. We all laughed, except for Naruse-san, who pouted a little before trying again with Yuki. "I'm very sorry, sweetie, I got too excited and I forgot my manners. I'm Naruse Yukihiko, a second year and captain of the tennis club. Are you interested in learning how to play tennis?"
Since Yuki's mouth was full and he seemed like the type to agree to anything, I answered for him. "Yuki has a lot to learn, I'm not sure he'll have time to participate in any clubs. Especially since he'll be helping the student council." That, and I knew very well that Naruse-san's goal had very little to do with tennis. Just remembering it made my face turn red.
"More like he doesn't have time to be bothered by you," Shunsuke nudged Naruse-san, grinning. "Anyway, I'll introduce myself too. I'm Taki Shunsuke, also a second year. My specialty is dirtbike racing and tricks. And not hitting on guys."
Yuki finally swallowed his food and smiled at Naruse-san, eyes a bit wider than usual. "Oh, Naruse-san, I thought your face looked familiar! The famous tennis player from Bell Liberty, I've seen your face on billboards and stuff!"
"Billboards?" Naruse-san blinked. "Really?"
Oh no, was Yuki talking about the future? Before I could react, Kazuki elbowed him and leaned in to hiss something into his ear. I could almost see the gears turning in Yuki's mind as various expressions played out on his face: surprise, then a blush of embarrassment, then a little nervous squirm as he looked down and nodded.
"Uh, um, maybe I mixed you up with someone else? But I'm sure I've seen you in the paper! And you too, Taki-san, I've seen pictures of you with all your trophies and stuff!" Yuki laughed nervously, as if he knew his lie sounded completely transparent. "A, anyway! Nice to meet you, Taki-san and Naruse-san."
"Taki-san, what's with that? Just call me Shunsuke, and I'll call you Yuki, okay?"
Yuki nodded. "Okay! Then, Shunsuke-san, I look forward to being friends with you while I'm here working with the student council."
"You'd better just call him Shunsuke," I said with a grin, "because he's not going to allow anything more polite than that."
"That's right! There's no need to get all formal, we're all friends here." Shunsuke took another huge bite of his oversized lunch. "So what's your special skill?" he mumbled, mouth half full.
"Um," Yuki set down his fork, looking a bit embarrassed. "I don't really have one..."
"He's an exchange student, remember?" Kazuki reminded him.
"Oh, right," Shunsuke mumbled around a mouthful of rice, "but an exchange student during the summer? That sounds kind of fishy." He washed it down with a gulp of soda. "How's he gonna learn anything when half the students are away? Is the President even around during the summer?"
"Well, the timing isn't ideal," Kazuki admitted, "but the summer break was the earliest time Asahina could get away from his own school."
"Oh, so he's really only staying for the summer? That's not gonna help much." Shunsuke leaned forward, eyeing Yuki. "You really shoulda come during the semester. Or stay a little longer so you can see how the school is really managed." He grinned. "Or mismanaged."
Yuki looked up with a smile. "Um, well, the length of my visit isn't set or anything. If I need to stay longer, I can do that."
His smile faded a little, and I could guess what he was thinking. What if we couldn't find a way for him to get back home? What if he was trapped here in the wrong time forever? I leaned toward him, giving a subtle bump with my shoulder. It'll be okay. I'll help you.
Wide green eyes met mine, and I swear my heart skipped a beat.
Chapter 11: Thursday, July 20, 2017 (Keita)
Back to the present (or rather, Yuki's present) for a tense scene with Keita and Dr. Matsuoka.
I scrambled down the hall and away from Kasahara-kun, heart thudding painfully in my chest. Why did I have to run into him of all people? Wasn't my luck supposed to protect me from things like that? I couldn't even look him in the eye for more than a few seconds knowing what had happened that morning. He must have thought he was skilled at hiding his feelings behind that emotionless mask, but he'd become so transparent since the Bell One. It was easy to read the worry in his slight frown and the tension in his brow. His face had become as honest as Yuki's.
Just the thought of his name felt like a physical blow, one that stung far more than the rough collision from a moment before. I reached up reflexively to touch my shoulder, but detected nothing more than the tightness I'd felt since the morning. That, I knew, wouldn't be changing any time soon. Probably never.
The strength of your belief draws luck to you. I'd said that to Yuki when he came to ask me for advice on choosing his Bell One partner, but those words weren't my own. They'd been gifted to me seven years ago by the King, words of encouragement that had buoyed my spirits when I'd been filled with worry and self-doubt. I'd clung to those words since that time, using them to overcome the worries about not being fit for the school, the doubt that I wasn't cut out to be a teacher, the fear that I wouldn't be good enough to be chosen for Bell Liberty.
But much of that had felt like cheating. I was just fulfilling a predetermined destiny, one that had been revealed to me seven years ago when Yuki arrived with tales of the future. Now that he had disappeared from the present, the thread of information had been cut. That was the end of the knowledge he had been able to share with me.
Now I was on my own. There was nothing external to bolster my faith and maintain my luck. It all had to come from within, all support lost at the most critical moment.
That's why I needed to see Dr. Matsuoka.
He was looking discouraged when I entered the nurse's office, but he still managed to offer his usual friendly smile, though it was tempered by the tightness around his eyes. "Professor Ito," he greeted me, gesturing toward one of the guest chairs. "Talk to me."
I shook my head; I was too anxious to sit down. "I can't... I can't stay still right now. I feel like my heart's going to explode, and I can't breathe... it's happened already, hasn't it? It's not just the days that are the same, but the times as well. He's already gone?"
The doctor nodded, ponytail bobbing slightly.
If he said anything, I didn't hear it over the rush of words that poured out of me, all the fears that had built up over the final days before the break suddenly overflowing. "It was wrong to let it happen, wasn't it? Oh god, why did I let it happen?!" I pressed one hand to my forehead, shading my eyes as if to hide my face. "I could have stopped it, I could have warned them, or at least warned Yuki, and if no one listened, we could have done something more drastic..."
Yuki... why had we allowed him to disappear from this time? He didn't belong in the past! We'd agreed to let things happen naturally, for the events to unfold just as he'd said they would, but now that it was too late to do anything, I knew it was wrong. No matter what happened or what changed, it was wrong to allow something so dangerous and unpredictable to happen!
"Why did I let this happen?!" I gasped.
Strong hands gripped my shoulders. "Professor, remember what Shichijo-kun said about meddling with events in time. Attempting to change events could have terrible, long-reaching effects. You're here right now because of Asahina-kun's encouragement, aren't you?"
His words stirred my emotions, but not in the way he expected, drawing hot anger to the surface. I shook him off roughly, glaring up at him. "What makes you think I care even one bit about myself? It doesn't matter to me if I'm a teacher at this school, or any school, or if any of those other things he said became true! It was all cheating, knowing my future ahead of time, of course I would feel that I could make it happen if I knew I'd already done it! But at what cost?! What happens to Yuki?"
My sharp words seemed to shake Dr. Matsuoka's usual quiet confidence, and his expression was tense as he responded, "We know exactly what happens to Asahina-kun right now. He's safe."
"For now, maybe, but what about later on?" My voice was rising in pitch, a sure sign that I was losing control, but I felt like my reason was an outside observer, trapped while my emotions hijacked my body. My hands were shaking, my entire body covered in a bloom of cold sweat as I continued. "No one knows what happened after that! No one could predict it, not Shichijo-san with all his research, and not Okazaki-kun with all his analysis! There's no way to know!"
We'd had this conversation before, many times, but they were always calm speculations about probabilities and our confidence in the abilities of the brilliant students who were involved. Now that Yuki had disappeared and the anticipated situation had become reality, all calmness and reason were gone, replaced by despair. We'd done the wrong thing. We'd done nothing, and an innocent boy would suffer for it.
"There isn't any way to know," Dr. Matsuoka agreed, the strain in his voice so unfamiliar that I couldn't help paying attention despite my panic, "but this is what we agreed to do. We have to have faith in our choices, or we'll both lose our minds by the end of the summer."
"It's too late," I snapped, "I'm already losing my mind!"
The doctor's eyes widened, and I felt momentarily guilty. I couldn't remember ever raising my voice at him before. "Professor Ito, I know it's hard. Believe me, I know exactly what it's like to wait for someone, never knowing if they'll ever return. The endless wait, the self-doubt, the self-hate, wondering if there was something more you could have done..."
Of course I remembered. That's why Dr. Matsuoka was my closest confidant in this situation. I'd helped him seven years ago, and almost immediately afterward he'd become my support, vowing to keep me grounded over the long years. But with Yoshizumi-san, there had been only two possible outcomes: he'd wake up, or he wouldn't. With Yuki, there was no telling what might happen.
Though maybe it was more similar than we were willing to admit, I'd thought to myself many times. Either he'd come back, or he wouldn't. And if he didn't, there was no way we would ever know the details of what had happened to prevent his coming.
I shivered. It was probably better that way.
Warm hands touched my shoulders again, pressing gently, and I allowed myself to sink down into the soft cushion of the chair behind me. Dr. Matsuoka took a seat beside me, resting one hand on my arm. "Keita," he began, my name sounding strange and unfamiliar when he said it, "it's been seven years. We've had all that time to decide if we would intervene today or not. Trust in the decision you made. That month shaped your entire life, and made a difference in the lives of many others. We truly cannot know how the world would have changed if we prevented that from happening."
My shoulders slumped. I was too tired to protest, all out of argument. We'd gone over this hundreds of times before, always coming to the same conclusion: doing anything different could alter multiple lives in ways that were impossible to predict. That was just as much of a danger as the possibility that Yuki might never return.
Dr. Matsuoka had only said it once, but his cold logic had haunted me for years: Losing Asahina-kun would be an unspeakable tragedy. But there are at least a dozen others, you and me included, who could become lost in a different way. How do we decide what is right? Is one person's life more valuable than another's?
I covered my face with my hands. That, from the man who would have done anything for Yoshizumi-san. Saving him didn't hurt anyone else, but there was a risk. I accepted that risk. I was aware of it. Yuki doesn't know, he didn't consent to any of this...
I wasn't going to cry. I'd promised myself.
My eyes didn't care, traitorous tears welling up without my consent.
A warm hand rubbed my back. Instead of quelling my fears, a touch that was meant to be reassuring ended up opening the floodgates instead. Hot drops rained down on my hands as I sobbed, face reddening more with shame than with sadness. I was just feeling sorry for myself and my inability to accept my decisions, wasn't I? The one who should have been crying was Yuki, not me. But he wasn't even aware of his danger yet.
"I'm such a selfish idiot," I hiccuped.
"No, you're not. You're a kind, compassionate person." Dr. Matsuoka patted my back. "It's okay to let out your frustration and worry. You've been waiting so long, and now it's all past the point of no return. All that's left to do is wait. Anyone would be overwhelmed."
"Not," I sniffed, "not you..."
His sigh was a warm, friendly sound, not an exasperated one. "Oh, Professor Ito, if only you had seen me in my darkest moments. Simply crying would have been a noble thing in comparison to the tantrums I had. Countless breakable objects became victims of my wrath."
The shock of that admission was enough to stir me from my self-pity, and I peeked out at him from between my fingers. "I, I really can't imagine that..."
The doctor looked away, cheeks darkening slightly as he folded his hands in his lap. "It was a shameful period in my life. They were just things, but some of the items I destroyed held precious memories..."
I straightened up a little, wiping tears from my cheeks. "Of Yoshizumi-san?"
"Some of them, yes. Others were mementos of the school, or of my time in America. Nothing all that valuable, and I know that the true home of memories is in the mind, but... sometimes I regret not having the objects as external reminders." He turned toward me with a sheepish expression. "Though their absence reminds me to be more careful these days..."
"Absence..." I let out a heavy sigh. "I feel like my whole life has been shaped by absence."
The doctor made a small sound of assent. I glanced at him, just long enough to take in his anxious expression. He was worried as well. It didn't seem like he was going to respond, so I remained silent as well, and a couple of minutes passed before he spoke again.
"Kasahara-kun... is already being affected by Asahina-kun's absence."
"Oh..." I blinked, remembering the collision in the hallway and the hollow expression on the boy's face. "He knows, doesn't he? He wasn't there, but it's been hours since then..."
"Did you speak with him?"
I shook my head. "Not really. He ran into me in the hallway, quite literally. He didn't look good." I sighed again, holding my head in my hands. "He still doesn't trust me enough to open up to me, so he pretended that nothing was wrong, but he's been so easy to read since the Bell One. Yuki's his best friend."
"His brother, almost," the doctor quietly corrected. "He was quite angry with me, accusing me of knowing something."
That got my attention, head snapping up so I could stare at him, searching his face for a reaction. "Why was he suspicious? How did he know? What was he doing here, anyway? You didn't tell him anything, did you?" Just the thought made my blood run cold. We'd kept quiet for the sake of avoiding any trouble with the timeline, but if an outsider was already aware of the situation and might act to change it... it was unthinkable.
"Hold on, I'll explain." And he did, relating the story of how Sagimori-kun had injured his hand and come for treatment, and that the boys had explained the situation while Dr. Matsuoka took care of him. Kasahara-kun had grown quite close to the doctor over the few months he'd been at the school, using his office as a refuge from his own problems and the demands of his dual responsibilities as student and director. I'd run into him more than once since the beginning of the school year, when I was also looking for a place to hide or to unload my worries.
We sat in silence again after he finished. Poor Kasahara-kun... he didn't even have the comfort of knowing that Yuki was in a familiar place with people who would quickly band together to help and support him. Yuki's disappearance was yet another link in the chain of loss and disappointment that defined his young life.
"I gave him as much hope as I could, but it wasn't much," the doctor sighed. "He seemed to understand that my reluctance had a legitimate reason. I only hope he can hold out until the time comes, then we can tell him more."
"We?" That made my heart freeze. The thought of trying to explain to Kasahara-kun, who could be incredibly cool and harsh when necessary, made me feel sick.
"I'll be with you."
"If my heart doesn't give out before then," I muttered, pressing one hand to my chest.
"You just need rest." Dr. Matsuoka peered at my face. "You haven't been sleeping well, have you?"
"Of course not," I mumbled, turning away.
"Then why not take a page from Kasahara-kun's book and sleep here for a while?" He pushed away from his chair and went to the medicine cabinet. "I can give you something that will help you relax and get some restful sleep."
An ironic smile came to my lips. "Do you have something that will let me sleep through this entire hellish summer?"
Chapter 12: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 (Saionji)
In which Saionji is skeptical of, and Omi is intrigued by, the idea of time travel.
"Kaoru, if you keep scowling like that, your face will get stuck that way."
"Don't repeat old wives' tales about stupid things like that, Omi," I grumbled, accepting the offered teacup. A sip confirmed what I'd suspected while it was brewing. "This is the usual cherry green? I wasn't expecting it to come in until the end of the week."
"I called and had the shipping upgraded to next-day, since you were so upset about running out."
I set the cup back onto the saucer. "That was probably expensive."
"Don't sound so disapproving, Kaoru. I didn't want you to be without one of your favorites at the start of the summer break." Omi set down his own cup and settled into his usual seat in front of the primary computer. "I was thinking of ordering a new electric kettle as well. I thought you might want to take a look at the options and choose the one you like best."
"Not really." I waved my hand dismissively. "Get whichever you like, you're the one who always makes the tea. It has to be something that you'll want to use."
He nodded with a slight smile. "That makes sense."
"Anyway," I sighed, irritated, "stop dancing around the problem at hand."
Somehow I resisted the urge to grit my teeth. Did Omi really not understand what I was getting at, or was he toying with me? I knew it was the latter, but sometimes it was easier to pretend that he was less observant than me. Less annoying, anyway. Well, his attitude would probably fade a bit over the summer if he could manage to keep from getting entangled with Nakajima again. If those two decided to battle it out over the break, I'd end up killing them both.
"Yes, problem. Or have you already forgotten Endo's phone call?"
"Ah, that," Omi murmured, taking another sip of his tea. "I don't think it will be a problem."
"Everything that smiling idiot sticks his hand in ends up being a problem for us," I huffed. I had no interest in this new, vaguely explained problem from Endo. He hadn't given me much to go on, and had only asked if Omi was available, and if I would ask him to stay. Of course I'd pushed back, which had finally squeezed a drop of information out of him, though that was also ambiguous, just a mention that it was 'related to Shichijo-san's personal research interests.'
Another computer or hacking issue, then? That was the last thing I wanted to get entangled with over the summer break. Hadn't we just finished dealing with yet another spy, this one from the outside? All the fancy security programs in the world were useless if some random guy from the outside could sneak in as part of a landscaping project and physically hack into the system. Endo really needed to beef up the security of the island itself.
"He's not an idiot," Omi's counter was mild, simply stating a fact instead of attempting to influence my opinion. "He's rather brilliant, and has accomplished some great things. Of course," there was a familiar gleam in his eye, "knowing that those protections are in place makes me want to test them out a little..."
"Omi! Don't mess with this school's security, that's just what Endo wants. You don't owe him any more of your time or effort at this point."
It infuriated me, seeing Omi pulled into Endo's scheme over and over again. Our debt to him had been paid long ago, and after watching over and protecting Keita during the MVP Battle, there was no way he could ask any more of us without understanding that he was now the one in our debt.
"Don't get so angry, Kaoru. I enjoy finding the holes in his systems."
"You're working for free," I grumbled.
Omi shook his head and gave me his usual sleepy smile, eyes almost closed. "It's not work if I enjoy doing it, Kaoru. I consider it an investment in my own knowledge. There aren't any other computer systems out there that are easy for me to access, but require so much work to crack. I'm not going to get any better if I only poke at the simple ones."
"You could always try hacking the stock market." I hid my smile behind my teacup.
Omi choked on his tea. "K, Kaoru... you said you wanted me to stay away from illegal hacking."
"Of course, that was a joke. Mostly. If I truly wanted to cheat the market, I'd just ask Keita to pick a few stocks at random." I turned toward the computer, pulling up the screen that showed my market positions. "The one he chose his first day here is still going strong."
"Ah, Bio-Productory or something like that?" Omi had a wistful smile as he peered at my screen. "I wish I'd thought to buy some as well..."
I tried not to let my exasperation seep into my voice as I responded, "If you'd ever log in to check your own portfolio, you would have realized long ago that I bought some for you back then."
His eyes went comically wide. "You did?"
"Of course I did, I knew you wouldn't do it. Do you even know your login for that account?"
Our conversation was cut off by a sharp knock on the door. I felt my entire body tense in unconscious reaction to the visitor's cheery greeting. "Saionji-san, Shichijo-san, it's Endo. May we come in now?"
"We?" I muttered, raising one eyebrow at Omi. He just shrugged, expression never changing from his usual faint smile. "Come in," I called out, even though the last thing I wanted to do today, or ever, was deal with Endo and his demands.
The door swung open, revealing Endo and, as expected, Keita. But the boy at Keita's side, also a first year judging by his green tie, was unfamiliar to me.
I straightened in my chair, looking him up and down. Was it possible there was a student at this school that I didn't know? Surely I would have remembered such vivid green eyes and sloppy hair. Actually, the unfamiliar boy reminded me of Keita in a way, relatively short and petite, with a ready smile and open expression. I could tell that he was excited and maybe a little nervous, looking around the room with a faint blush high on his pale cheeks. That blush darkened as he looked toward me and realized that he was being watched.
"Good afternoon, Saionji-san, I hope you aren't too busy." Endo nodded toward Omi. "Good to see you again, Shichijo-san."
I ignored his inane greeting and addressed the newcomer. "I haven't seen you before." My eyes were drawn to the odd black armband that was pinned to his left sleeve. Even from a distance, the gold characters stood out. I raised one eyebrow. "Student council?"
"He's an exchange student, working with the student council--"
"Quiet, Endo, I didn't ask you." I stood, moving closer to the boy. "What is your name?"
The boy's smile was warm and inviting, and he didn't flinch when I met his eyes. Rather, he seemed to brighten up even more. "It's Asahina Yuki."
"Yuki. Like courage?"
He nodded. "That's right!"
"Hmm, and do you live up to the expectations set by your name, Yuki?"
Yuki lowered his eyes, blushing. "It's embarrassing to say so, but... I think I can, if I believe in myself. And especially if I have the support of my friends."
Modest, but not overly so. And cute. "But as an exchange student, you don't have a lot of support yet, do you? I assume you just arrived, since I've never seen your face before." My eyes slid over to Endo as I spoke, watching for any reaction. As expected, he looked a bit sheepish. "Which school are you originally from, and when did you get here?"
Yuki's blush darkened. "Oh, um, I just got here today..."
"You missed the first half of my question."
"Saionji-san, don't grill him," Endo sighed. "In case you hadn't already guessed, that's just a cover story. We're here to ask Shichijo-san's advice on matters that might be considered science fiction or related to the occult." He made a face, as if saying such an outlandish thing was embarrassing.
That bit of information perked Omi right up, and he was at my side in record time. "Occult matters, you say?" He looked Yuki up and down. "Well, you look normal enough..."
"U, um, please don't stare at me..."
"Shichijo-san," Keita finally spoke up, "we're sorry to disturb you during summer break, but you were the only person I could think of who might be able to help. You know so much about things like curses and the paranormal and stuff..."
Omi leaned even closer to Yuki. "Curses, you say? Are you cursed, then? You don't look cursed."
"Omi," I pulled on his arm, "there's no such thing as curses."
"Then what was that ring of bad luck just a couple of weeks ago, Kaoru?"
"It wasn't a ring of bad luck, it was a ring of hmm, or did you already forget?" I sighed. Why was it that every time Endo showed up, conversations got ridiculous? "Anyway, that's not important. Endo, you mentioned that the exchange student story was a cover for something else. What's going on here? I don't feel like trying to pull the truth out of you, especially since you have such a bad habit of lying for your own convenience."
"That's going a bit too far, Saionji-san," Endo muttered, frowning.
"Um," Yuki began, looking from me to Endo and back again, "I'll tell you what's going on, er... Saionji-san. But it's really hard to believe."
There was something very likeable about this boy, his quiet politeness and honest face. Maybe it was because of how strongly he reminded me of Keita. As much as I couldn't stand Endo, I almost looked forward to his interruptions if I knew that he'd bring Keita along. My fondness for the first year had nothing to do with the effect his intuitive predictions had on my portfolio, and everything to do with his refreshingly genuine personality. Well, thinking back on how the stocks had performed, I couldn't say that their gains had a negative effect on my opinion of Keita.
"I don't mind if it sounds impossible. Just tell me."
Yuki took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and looked me directly in the eye. "I'm from seven years in the future. I'm a first year at Bell Liberty, and the student council president." His hand went to the black armband. "One of my friends built an alien communication device, but something went wrong when he tested it, and I somehow ended up here."
The room was silent. It sounded like nonsense. But after all the crazy things I'd experienced at the school, especially since Keita appeared, I wasn't ready to dismiss the wild idea right away. That in itself was almost as shocking as the boy's story.
Omi was the first to speak. "Ah, excuse me. Asahina-kun, was it?" At Yuki's nod, he continued, "If your friend built it, it really shouldn't be called an alien communication device, should it?"
"Omi, that's your first comment?!" I groaned. I should have expected something like that.
"Well, it's obviously misnamed, Kaoru."
Behind Yuki, Endo covered his mouth to keep a snort from escaping. Even Keita was grinning a little, and Yuki's determined expression had faded into a sheepish smile. "Oh, that's right... that's the second time I've made that mistake today, haha..."
I pointed toward Endo, who had the good sense to look vaguely guilty as everyone turned to stare at him. "Yuki. If you're truly from the future, you know who he really is, don't you?"
"Um," Yuki's eyes went from Endo to Keita, uncertain.
Keita nodded, smiling a little. "It's okay, they already know."
With that small encouragement, Yuki answered without hesitation. "Suzubishi Kazuki-san, the second director of Bell Liberty School and heir to the Suzubishi Group."
"The second director," I repeated. "And what number are they on now?"
"The fourth, um..." Yuki's voice trailed off as if he realized he shouldn't say more.
"I see." I glanced at Endo, not bothering to hide my smug expression as I took in his uncomfortable frown. "Never mind that. Do you have any other proof of your claims?"
At that, Yuki emptied his pockets, showing the evidence to me and to Omi. We all settled down at the table at the far end of the room to examine them, with Yuki leading the explanation and Endo offering the occasional comment, pointing out that the ID design was legitimate. The more I looked at the items, especially the cell phone, the more anxious I became. I didn't want to believe the ridiculous story, but that piece of technology was far more advanced than anything I'd seen or read about on the usual tech sites.
If I was interested in the phone, Omi was absolutely fascinated with it, checking the specs and testing the functions with a childlike gleam in his eye. "Look, Kaoru, it has HD cameras on the front and the back! You could record yourself just as easily as recording someone else."
"Omi, don't aim that thing at me!"
Yuki leaned forward. "The manual said it could store something like twelve hours of HD video! Or like a billion songs and pictures! It's really useful."
"And the processor is incredibly powerful... this phone could probably perform better than my most state-of-the-art personal computer, if I could make some modifications... hmm." His long fingers poked at the seam along the side of the phone, popping off the back plate.
"Um! Shichijo-san, please don't take my phone apart!"
"I'm just looking," he murmured.
"Omi, give Yuki back his phone. We're not here to play with toys right now."
"Yes, Kaoru." I swore Omi was pouting as he put the back on again and handed the phone to Yuki. Even so, he still managed to smile warmly at the boy. "Do I seem too relaxed to you, Asahina-kun? Don't be alarmed. I believe your story, that's why I can be so calm right now."
"Really?" Yuki tucked the phone back into his pocket. "You believe me?"
"Yes, of course. Your proof is quite convincing. I keep up with technology, and I have special ways of getting information, so I would know if a phone like this was being developed. Just from a quick glance, I can tell that it's far more advanced than anything that exists currently. Therefore, the only logical conclusion is that this is a model from the future. Of course, Endo-kun's information about the student ID, plus the coins, provide convincing support as well."
"It's still ridiculous," I huffed.
"Kaoru, there's no other explanation. And I can't imagine why an honest boy like Asahina-kun would make up such a wild story."
Even Endo seemed skeptical at that. "Honest? You just met."
"Hey, I'm honest!" Yuki protested. "I would never lie about something like this."
"It's time to talk about more important things, isn't it?" Keita cut in. "Shouldn't we be trying to figure out how to get Yuki back to his own time? Shichijo-san, I was sure that you would know things about time travel, since you're like an expert on weird stuff..."
Omi smiled with a nod. "Of course. I've read quite a bit about theories of time travel, and also about more practical aspects of the phenomenon."
"Practical, hmph," I grumbled, drowning my protest with a sip of tea.
"Yes, Kaoru, practical. While Asahina-kun is here, there are rules that must be strictly followed for his protection, as well as that of everyone around us." Omi's usual cheerful demeanor turned quiet and serious. "As far as I know, there are no true records of time travel, but there are many theories about how it can be achieved. There are just as many theories about how to manage the possible risks of an individual being sent into the past or future. The past can be especially dangerous for a person who winds up in a time and place where they might encounter a younger version of themselves. Tell me, Asahina-kun, if you left this school island, would that be a risk?"
Yuki lowered his eyes, thinking. "Um... this is right around the time that my family moved to this area. My father moved his bakery to a shopping center near the station, but I'm not sure if it's open yet..."
"It is," Endo cut in, "remember when we went to my office? That was the address on file for your family."
"I see," Omi said grimly. "That's very bad."
"Eh?" Yuki blinked. "Why?"
"It means you can't leave the school island."
"Huh, why not?" Even Keita looked disappointed.
I shook my head, hardly believing that I was about to explain time travel, something that shouldn't exist, to them. "Because this is Yuki's home area, which means that there's a possibility of running into his friends, family, or even young Yuki himself. Isn't that right, Omi?"
"Exactly, Kaoru. Of course, Asahina-kun doesn't look the same as he would at this point in time, but someone who is familiar with him may still see the resemblance." He turned his attention to Yuki. "And meeting yourself could be a disaster."
"A disaster, Shichijo-san?" Endo looked like he didn't believe it.
"Yes. There's no way to know what the effects might be, but there are various hypotheses, ranging from nothing at all, to the complete unmaking of the entire universe." Omi said it with a smile, unruffled by the message of doom. "Of course, that's something we want to take care to avoid, so I'd strongly recommend staying here on the island, Asahina-kun."
Yuki's eyes were huge. "R, right... unmaking the entire universe... that's..."
"That would be bad," Keita helpfully supplied. Endo gave him a sideways glance, eyebrow raised as he tried to hold back another snort of amusement.
"Very bad," Omi agreed with a placid smile. "Of course, those are two extremes. The middle is filled with other possibilities. Some thinkers have suggested that coming into physical contact with a past or future version of yourself could cause both to die instantly." At Yuki's quiet gasp, Omi opened his eyes fully, smile turning reassuring. "Like I said, you don't have to worry, Asahina-kun. We'll prevent any of those unpleasant consequences from happening."
"Now," Omi got up and went to his usual computer. "I need you to tell me everything you remember about your friend's communication device. I'm going to take everything down as reference for my research." He opened up a blank file and settled his fingers on the keyboard. "Don't worry about speaking too quickly, I can keep up."
Yuki seemed hesitant, but before I could urge him to continue, Keita did it instead, leaning closer to nudge his arm with one elbow. That snapped the boy out of it, and he stuttered, "Uh, um, I don't really know much about machines. I wasn't involved in building it or anything, but I remember Okaken said something about an Einstein something or other... bridge, maybe..."
"An Einstein-Rosen bridge? Hmm, yes, that would make sense in this context."
We spent several hours together, with Omi pulling information out of Yuki, helped along by Keita's encouragement and Endo's explanations that clarified some of Omi's obscure questions. Even I stepped in when the rest of them got tangled up in a trivial point, though I chose to spend most of the time on the budget reviews for the fall semester. I wanted to ignore their inane discussion about something so ridiculous, but I found myself pausing to listen to the conversation multiple times.
Omi believed without hesitation. So did Keita. It seemed that Endo was tentatively accepting, though I could see the skepticism on his face as Yuki went over some of the more outlandish points. And I... knew that time travel was impossible. Or was it? As Omi patiently broke down the explanation of the science that might support such a thing, I couldn't help listening in. Compared to his usual talk of spirits or curses, wormholes didn't sound all that strange.
By the time Omi was satisfied with the information, it was almost time to head back to the dorm for dinner. A loud rumble split the air just as I stood up, intending to carry my teacup over to the brewing station. The saucer slipped from my fingers as I looked up sharply.
"What on earth was that noise?"
Keita giggled. "I think it was Yuki!"
"Ahahaha... sorry about that..." The boy's face was red, a sheepish grin on his lips.
"Kaoru, your cup..."
Fortunately, the empty teacup had landed on top of a pile of clean shredded paper in a nearby wastebasket. I scooped it up, checking for damage, and let out a long sigh of relief. Not even a chip. "You're lucky this didn't break. It just arrived two days ago, and this was my first time using it." My eyes flicked to Endo. "Of course, you wouldn't have any trouble replacing it."
"Saionji-san, how is this my fault?"
"It's not," I smiled faintly, "only because nothing happened. You're lucky this time, Endo."
"You're the one who dropped it. I can't be responsible for your clumsiness."
"Um," Yuki cut in, "please don't fight. Let's all go eat!"
"No matter how cute you are," I looked directly at him, "I refuse to spoil my dinner by sitting anywhere near Endo. If you want to talk with me, come to my room, or visit me here." I didn't wait for his response, I just waved at Omi. "Come on, Omi, before all the good tables are taken."
Chapter 13: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 (Shinomiya)
Shinomiya is suspicious about the unexpected newcomer, but tentatively accepts Yuki after seeing Takuto's reaction to him.
For many of the other students, summer break was a time to get away from their usual responsibilities and enjoy activities that didn't fit into the normal school year. It was time for vacations or visiting family, to go on day trips and dates, to sleep in and forget about homework. The dorm was half empty for the summer, which meant that I also had fewer responsibilities, but that collective relaxing of discipline meant that I was just as busy as usual, dealing with rule violations and the other tasks required of the dorm head.
And there was no escaping my most important duty, one that I had taken on voluntarily since the beginning of my first year at the school.
"Takuto, you know that waiting this long to eat is a bad idea. The cafeteria is closing in half an hour, what would have happened if I hadn't reminded you to eat something?"
As always, Takuto stared at his feet as he mumbled, "Shinomiya... sorry."
"It's fine," I sighed, nudging him down the hallway, feeling vaguely like I was herding a single stubborn goat. "I can't believe you lost track of time while sitting on the floor. Do you know how dirty these hallways are? I don't want you getting sick again."
"They're not that dirty... we do clean them, after all..."
I suppressed another sigh. "That's not the point."
"Right... I know..."
"Since you know, please take better care of yourself. I worry about your health."
It was the same conversation we had over and over, sometimes every single day. He'd gotten better about self-care recently, but was starting to backslide. I suspected that the sudden emptiness of the dorm and all the students talking about going home to family for the summer had renewed his usual melancholy. Even I would be taking a trip home soon to visit my younger brother.
Takuto, as far as I was concerned, didn't have anyone deserving of being called family. It was only natural that he would wish for such a simple thing that everyone else seemed to have, and that he seemed to waste away without that basic support. But I couldn't allow someone who had a normal baseline level of health lose it all through neglect, or rather, my conscience wouldn't allow it. I knew he understood; we'd discussed that many times as well, but that didn't stop him from falling back into old habits and behaviors.
You need support from someone who can truly help you, not just me. But you have to want it first.
But since he didn't, the best I could do was be there for him until he was. And that meant making sure he actually ate something every day, even if that meant nearly dragging him there half an hour before closing time. Despite Takuto's protests, I hadn't let him spare a single moment to stash his sketchbook in his room, so he was carrying it under one arm, a handful of pencils sticking haphazardly out of his breast pocket. I knew he didn't like bringing his work into a place where there was a risk of spills or greasy fingerprints, but that was the price he'd have to pay. If he wanted to avoid that risk, he'd have to plan ahead next time.
I only hoped he would actually absorb those lessons instead of ignoring them.
As we turned the corner and headed for the cafeteria, we ran into Ito and Endo, plus a first year student I'd never seen before. The shock was enough to make me come to a full stop. I knew everyone at the dorm; after all, I saw each student every night at roll call. On rare occasions, visitors were allowed to stay overnight, but only with permission from the director, and I was always informed ahead of time. And this boy was wearing the summer uniform, something a visitor would never dare to do.
"Endo, who is that?" I pointed at the messy-haired boy.
"Oh, Shinomiya-san, good evening." Endo smiled brightly, but I wasn't having any of it.
"That doesn't answer my question. Who is the first year? I've never seen him before."
"Kazuki," Ito murmured, nudging his friend, but he pulled back as I gave him a stern look, biting his lip and blushing as if embarrassed.
The green-eyed newcomer, however, was not deterred. He stepped forward boldly, meeting my eyes. "My name is Asahina Yuki. I'm a temporary exchange student."
"I didn't hear anything about a temporary exchange student." My gaze went back to Endo as if it was somehow his fault. Dorm troubles often were.
"Ah, well," Endo scratched at his cheek, "maybe the email came after the last time you checked it? I'm sure this sort of thing would be approved by the director, after all..."
"I check my emails regularly. The last time was only ten minutes ago."
"Well, don't look at me. I don't control the communications at this school."
Beside him, the newcomer was making an odd face. Endo did have a point; if the information hadn't come from the director's office, for whatever reason, I'd just have to obtain it from the source. "You, Asahina, when did you arrive? It must have been some time today."
"Ah, that's right, er... Shinomiya-san?"
I'd been so caught up in my annoyance that I'd forgotten to introduce myself. "Shinomiya Koji. I'm a third year, and in charge of the dorm. I won't allow for any breaking or even bending of the rules, so be sure not to follow Endo's example." I glanced toward Keita. "Ito is a better example, though I've noticed him starting to slip a little lately."
"Haha," Ito offered a weak and insincere laugh. "It's only because it's summer vacation, Shinomiya-san... it's okay to relax the rules just a little, isn't it?"
"I suppose there's no way to win," I sighed. "But don't outright break any of them."
"Understood!" Ito grinned.
I turned my attention back to Asahina. "So, where are you from, and why are you an exchange student here? It's very unusual for anyone to come from the outside."
"O, oh, I'm from one of the regular public high schools, nothing special. My school wants to learn about how Bell Liberty is managed, especially how the students are involved." He pointed to the strange armband that was pinned to his sleeve. "I'm going to be an honorary member of the student council for a while so I can get some ideas!"
"He's the first year student council president from his home school," Endo explained. "They thought it would be best to send a first year so that student would have almost three years to implement some changes at their school. Neat idea, isn't it?"
"Hmm..." Well, that did sound like the sort of thing that BL School's director might be interested in doing. I'd never met the man, but everyone knew that the core ideals of the school were all related to the students, and how they could improve and be improved by their time at Bell Liberty. It was a little surprising that a program like this hadn't been in place before. "I see. And where are you going to stay, Asahina? Since I didn't receive proper notice of your coming, there are no rooms available in the dorm right now. It's going to take a couple of days to get something ready."
"Yuki's staying with me!" Ito smiled brightly. "I have the extra futon, remember?"
"Ah, that's right... well, I suppose that will have to do for now. I don't have time to prepare anything else." I gestured toward Takuto. "You'll have to excuse me now. I'm taking Takuto to dinner before he misses his chance. Again."
I hadn't noticed, but Asahina had been peering curiously at Takuto for a while now, wide green eyes focusing on the pencils in his pocket, then the sketchbook at his side. "Um, are you an artist? If it's okay, can I see some of your drawings?"
"Oh, um..." Takuto fumbled for words. "There's... nothing in here is finished."
"That's okay, I think it would be awesome to see how you work on an idea!" Asahina leaned forward excitedly. "Oh, I'm Asahina Yuki, nice to meet you."
Takuto visibly shrank back from the bubbly boy. "Iwai Takuto. Nice to meet you."
Part of me wanted to tell Asahina that Takuto was slow to warm up and to give him some space, but another couldn't help thinking that an unpredictable force like a new student was just the thing he needed. One thing couldn't be denied, though; it was getting late, and I wasn't going to allow anything or anyone get in the way of making sure Takuto ate something decent. "Asahina, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but the cafeteria is closing soon and Takuto hasn't eaten yet."
"Oh, wow, how could you wait so long to eat?" Asahina was shocked. "I can hardly wait to get something to eat most days!"
"Um... well... eating just isn't that important to me..."
"Takuto, haven't I told you to try changing that attitude? Whether or not you like taking time out from your work to eat, you need to do it. How are you going to have the energy to do anything if you don't supply your body with the basics?"
Takuto sighed. "Right..."
"So please stop dragging your feet every time. I worry about you."
"Yes, Shinomiya, I know that."
Ito and Endo simply stood there awkwardly, but Asahina stepped closer, voice quieter than before as he spoke. "Iwai-san, maybe you haven't found what you like to eat, or how you like to eat it yet. But for now, the cafeteria is all that's available. Is it really that bad?"
Somehow, that seemed to get through to him, and Takuto was almost smiling as he responded. "It's not bad. I just... forget."
"Haha, I'd never forget." Asahina glanced at the sketchbook. "But when I get caught up in something, I guess I do end up forgetting."
"I don't mean to forget. It's just that interruptions can ruin my work."
"Hmm," Asahina really was staring at the sketchbook, almost as if his bright eyes could see right through the covers if he tried hard enough. "But you've already been interrupted, so you may as well eat, right? Aren't you hungry?"
A pause before he admitted, "Well... a little."
Asahina smiled up at Takuto. "Is it okay if I come with you?"
"Asahina, didn't you just finish eating?" Endo raised one eyebrow.
"Well, I don't have to eat again. Maybe I'll just have a snack..."
"Hmm," I looked to Asahina, then Takuto, then over to Ito. "That sounds like a good arrangement to me. Endo, you help Ito get his room ready for a visitor. If you need any extra pillows or blankets, they're in the storage closet on the first floor, or you can wait and ask me to help if you can't find what you need."
"I'm sure we'll be fine, Shinomiya-san," Endo waved us away. "We'll see you later."
As he and Ito retreated, the question that had been nagging at me finally bubbled to the surface. "Wait, Endo, how did you know there was an exchange student? Who told you?"
He just waved at me without turning around. "Don't worry about it, Shinomiya-san! You should hurry and get to the cafeteria before it closes."
Less than five minutes later, I was seated with Takuto and Asahina at one of the smaller corner tables in the dorm cafeteria. We often came to eat late, and the cafeteria staff was kind enough to tolerate our presence even after closing time, as long as we didn't take too long. One of the ladies seemed a bit surprised to see Asahina again, commenting on his healthy appetite and expressing concern that he might run out of meal tickets too quickly. But I ended up swiping my own card for Asahina's food, since his didn't seem to have any tickets loaded on it yet. And though the slim boy insisted that he was just snacking, a quick glance at the trays in front of us made it clear that he intended to eat more than Takuto had selected for his dinner.
"Is it really okay to eat all that? It's like a second supper."
Asahina didn't look embarrassed at all as he shook his head. "It's fine. I get hungry really fast, so I end up eating a lot of snacks between meals anyway. Eating real food is better, right?"
"That's an awful lot of food, even if it's healthier than snacks. You may be blessed with a fast metabolism now, but that can get you into trouble as you get older. If you get used to eating so much, it will be hard to adjust as you age, and you may end up gaining weight." I eyed his plate, then added, "Perhaps even a significant amount."
"W, well, I can learn to eat less as I get older..." Asahina squirmed in his seat. "But I don't eat for fun or anything like that! I really do only eat when I'm hungry! Mostly..."
There was a quiet snort from beside me.
"Did I say something funny, Takuto?" I turned toward him, frowning.
"Ah, no, it's just... you're always telling me to eat, so it's a little strange to hear you telling someone to eat less..."
"It's because moderation is important," I sighed. "Too little is just as bad as too much."
"But you're eating an awful lot, Shinomiya-san," Asahina pointed out.
That really did make Takuto laugh. My cheeks prickled. "That's... everyone's needs are different, depending on their body type and activity level. I'm an athlete and train hard every day, so of course my requirements are different from yours or Takuto's."
Fortunately, Asahina didn't comment on my sudden embarrassment. "Oh, an athlete! Are you in a club, Shinomiya-san?"
"Yes, I'm the captain of the archery club."
"Archery... oh!" Asahina blushed suddenly. "That's right!"
"That's right? Do you know me from somewhere?"
"Ah, um..." Asahina fumbled for a response. "That's..."
"You're number two in the country," Takuto quietly supplied. "I'm sure someone with an interest in archery would know your name."
Asahina's green eyes went round as he stared at my face. "Number two! In the whole country? That's amazing!" He caught himself after a moment, staring down at his tray. "Er, I didn't realize you were that good... haha..."
There was definitely something off about Asahina's reaction, but I didn't feel like pressing him. What was important right now was getting Takuto to eat. I nudged him with my elbow. "Let's not keep the staff here too late, Takuto. Please eat before your food gets cold."
"Yeah, Iwai-san, the doria is really good! The tomato flavor isn't too strong, and the cheese and panko mix on the top pushes the savory taste to the next level!" Asahina took a bite of his own portion as if to demonstrate. "Wow, you can really taste the homemade tonkatsu sauce in the meat, too! I'm surprised this cafeteria is so good."
I smiled a bit at his enthusiastic description. "You're unexpectedly precise, Asahina. Are you in the cooking club at your school?"
"Oh, no, I'm no good at cooking, I just like to eat! My dad owns a bakery, though, so I've gotten used to being his taste tester for everything."
"A bakery..." Takuto leaned forward a little. "Does he decorate cakes?"
"Mm, not really. It's mostly different types of buns, like yakisoba buns, or pizza buns, or the kind with little hot dogs in it... sandwiches and stuff like that." Asahina took another bite of his food, then added, "Well, he can bake a really good chocolate cake, but the decoration is pretty simple. I think he wants to work on getting better, though..."
"Sketching out his designs will help. I'm sure it's easier to work with paper and pencil than to practice directly on a cake, at least to start." Takuto tapped his sketchbook. "And if he keeps his ideas organized, he can always go back to them later if he's not feeling inspired."
It was almost miraculous, Takuto having a voluntary conversation with a stranger, and more than that, speaking in complete sentences rather than his usual one word answers. I remained silent as I ate, allowing them space to talk without my interruptions. By the time we finished eating, Takuto had hesitantly shown Asahina several of his drawings from that day, though he still protested modestly when the boy responded with genuine praise. Even more amazing, Takuto's plate was nearly empty by the end of the meal, save for a pile of roasted peppers that I'd insisted on adding to his plate though I knew he didn't like them.
I decided to let it slide.
"Ah, I'm stuffed!" Asahina stretched his arms over his head with a contented sigh.
"Let's go return our trays, we're past closing time." I stood, picking up my empty tray.
"Riiiight," Asahina agreed cheerfully, collecting up his dishes. "Oh, Iwai-san, can you carry the tray and your sketchbook? I'll take your dishes if that's easier for you."
"Oh... thanks." Takuto pushed his tray toward Asahina, who picked it up without hesitation.
As we brought our things back to the return area, I couldn't help comparing Asahina to the other newcomer who had managed to penetrate Takuto's shell: Ito. It was too early to come to any conclusions about Asahina, but from what I'd seen, he was very similar to Ito in some ways, kind and concerned about others. Asahina, however, was full of self-confidence and showed no hint of shyness, while Ito was still struggling to find his courage. Well, being told that he didn't belong at the school and the threat of being expelled probably hadn't helped.
I wonder if this boy will draw out Ito's hidden confidence. I glanced at Takuto, who was still chatting quietly with Asahina. I can hardly believe it, I've been pushing for more than two years and he got Takuto to take care of himself without complaint in less than an hour.
Maybe I wouldn't bother preparing a spare room for Asahina. Ito could use a good role model, someone who wasn't as slippery as Endo or as pushy as the members of the student council or the finance committee.
Chapter 14: Tuesday, July 20, 2010 (Keita)
Keita and Yuki chat about luck, school, and family.
I was alone in my room, sprawled out on the bed and reading a comic, when there was a knock on the door. Was Kazuki coming back already? He'd just left five minutes ago, saying he had to hurry and send Shinomiya an email about Yuki. Of course, he'd be doing it from the director's account, but that meant he had to go to the server building, didn't it? Well, maybe not. It would be silly to go all the way across the school just to send an email.
I hopped off the bed and opened the door, surprised to find Yuki standing outside. "Oh! You're done eating? That was fast."
Yuki came inside with a bit of a laugh. "It was actually a while... we were there until after the cafeteria closed. We're lucky the staff didn't seem to mind."
"It's because Iwai-san is always forgetting to eat until it's almost too late, and then Shinomiya-san drags him in there. It happens a few times a week, so they're used to it."
"Wow, that's kind of sad... I could never forget to eat."
I giggled. "Yeah, I noticed... your stomach went off twice today!"
"Ahaha... well... I don't really have much control over that."
I beckoned for him to come in and sit on the bed. "You didn't have any trouble finding my room, did you? I know Kazuki told you where it was, but..."
Yuki plopped down on the bed with a smile. "Yeah, no problem! Actually, this is my room too! In the future, I mean. But it looks really different, the furniture is arranged all weird and the curtains aren't the same. And of course all your stuff is in here..."
My face turned red as Yuki looked around. I'd tried to clean it up as best as I could in such a short amount of time, and Kazuki had helped too, but it was still kind of messy. "Um, don't look too closely, I need to clean up a little..."
"Oh, don't worry about that! It's not messy at all!" Yuki's grin just made me blush more.
I had to change the subject. Talking about my messy room would just lead to trouble. "Uh, never mind the room, how about you? Are you okay? Getting sent to the past with a bunch of people you've never even met, it must be hard..."
Yuki turned toward me, his smile softening a bit. "Well... I don't think it's really hit me yet. And besides, it's not all strangers. I know you, and Suzubishi-san, and Dr. Matsuoka too!"
Now I was really blushing. "Uh, um, please be careful about Kazuki's name," I reminded him, mainly to distract myself from the odd tightness in my chest. How could Yuki smile like that, so carefree, in such a terrible situation?
"Oh, but isn't it okay when we're alone?"
Alone. I tried not to sound flustered as I said, "I think it's better to get in the habit of using his other name. You don't want to make a mistake in front of someone else." Like I did. Remembering that mess made me turn even redder.
"Oh, well, that makes sense. I don't want to cause trouble for anyone." Yuki made a bit of a face. "It's going to be hard to remember... everyone says I just blurt stuff out without thinking. I guess it's true, but I wouldn't do it on purpose."
"Of course not. But a mistake can cause just as much of a problem, so please try to remember." I tilted my head, considering. "Hmm, I wonder how much we need to keep secret about your situation. I guess it would be bad if everyone knew you were from the future. I bet someone would try to take advantage of stuff you know or ask about inventions..."
"Haha," Yuki rubbed at his head self-consciously. "I think Shichijo-san may be considering a way to duplicate my phone. He was really interested in it."
"Shichijo-san would only do it for his own knowledge, though," I pointed out. "You have to watch out for the crafty people like Saionji-san. I bet he'll try to get information about stock prices or something out of you!"
"That's good, then. I don't know anything about stocks!" Yuki bounced a little on the bed. "Umm, did you say you had a futon here? Why did you bring a futon to the dorm?" His eyes widened. "Could it be that they didn't get beds here until recently?"
"That's not it," I protested, blushing. "I just... I've never been to a boarding school before, so I wasn't sure what I needed to bring. My parents thought it would be a good idea to bring a futon just in case, so it came along too. Actually, it was really lucky that I did. There was a bus accident on the way to the school island, and I ended up getting thrown from the bus. If the futon hadn't been there, I probably wouldn't be talking to you right now!"
Yuki blinked, staring at me with a look of horror. But the accident was far enough in the past, and so much had happened since then, that the memory didn't bother me too much.
"No one got hurt!" I quickly added. "I was the only one on the bus, and the driver was safe too. Dr. Matsuoka checked us both after the accident, we had a few bumps and scrapes, but that was it. It's all thanks to the lucky futon. So even though I don't need it, there's no way I could get rid of it. But," I slid off the bed and went to the closet, "now it'll get used again. I guess that makes it happy, being able to fulfill its purpose and all..."
Yuki came over to help extract the futon from the depths of my closet. It was buried behind all the clothes that were hanging up, so it was kind of hard to get to it. "So you're really lucky too... you told me in the future, but I didn't realize it was such strong luck! I've never been rescued from any life or death experiences by my luck. At least, there's nothing I can remember."
"Yeah, my luck is kind of unnaturally good." I tugged on the rolled up futon, but it was stuck on something. "Except when it comes to getting a futon out of the closet, I guess."
"I think it's stuck behind this box..." Yuki pulled on it too, without success. "Oh, but what kinds of things have happened because of your luck? Have you won prizes and things like that?"
"Yeah, big ones, too!" I grinned. "Actually, it started small, with winning special fancy dinners for my family and stuff like that, but eventually it started happening all the time everywhere I went. After a while, I was kind of banned from entering any contests at some of the local stores. My parents thought that was unfair, but honestly, I was getting tired of all the weird attention and with other people getting mad at me for winning all the time."
"Wow, that's just what happened to me! Even crazy odds, like one in a billion, sometimes I get to be that one! That's why I was late coming to school too, I won an overseas vacation right at the end of my third year, so I went with my parents. But there was an eruption and planes couldn't fly for almost a month, so we had to stay there until it was safe to go back!" Yuki's expression grew distant as he remembered. "It was so warm and the entire island was beautiful. And there were so many good things to eat! I hope I can go back again someday..."
"Wow, I'm kind of jealous... my luck with prizes and contests has usually been for things, not anything fun like a vacation. Oh, but when I was a kid, I was almost out of allowance and for some reason, the owner of a shop let me get a single lottery ticket. I gave it to my dad for Father's Day, and it was a big winner! My parents used the money as a down payment on their house! I bet they'd still be saving up even now without it."
"Whoa, that's incredible!" Yuki was beaming. "I bet your dad was so happy! Did they end up buying a fancy house?"
I shook my head. "Not at all, it's a normal house in a regular neighborhood, but I think they were able to pay half of the cost upfront with the lottery winnings. So the mortgage has been a lot cheaper than it would have been normally, they said." One last tug, and the futon finally popped out of the closet. "Whew, I thought this thing would never come out!"
"Haha, it was really stuck!" Yuki helped me drag it to the space I'd cleared on the floor, but before we could unroll it, there was a knock on the door.
"Oh, that must be Kazuki!" I hurried over to let him in.
"Sorry I took so long. I had to send an email to Shinomiya-san before he got even more suspicious." His eyes went to Yuki, who was busy laying out the futon. "Oh, is that the lucky futon?"
"Yeah, it is! Good thing I kept it... not that I could bring myself to get rid of something that saved my life!"
Kazuki's smile faded, his expression growing serious. "I still can't forget that accident, Keita. What if something had happened to you? The security system is supposed to protect the school, not harm its students."
"Kazuki, it's over now. Nothing happened. I know you were really upset about it, but that won't change what happened, right?" I tried smiling at him, hoping he would mirror the expression, but he remained sullen. "Everyone was safe, and that's what matters."
Kazuki sighed. "You really are too forgiving, Keita."
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Yuki had stopped moving and was watching us intently. Somehow that made me nervous, and my voice wavered a bit as I responded, "I'd rather be too forgiving than not forgiving enough. It's not worth being upset about something I can't change."
That brought a faint smile to my friend's lips. "Keita, sometimes I think you're too easygoing, but other times I can't help feeling that you might be wiser than the rest of us."
"Of course I am!" I stuck my tongue out at him. "It's best to keep things simple! Which reminds me, did your email to Shinomiya-san turn out well?"
"Ah, good enough, I guess... he won't like it, but since it came from the director, he can't really argue with it." His eyes went to Yuki. "That means you won't be stuck sharing with Keita for too long, Asahina. Which I'm sure you'll be grateful for, seeing how messy this room is." Kazuki made a show of looking around dramatically, making faces at the piles in the corners.
"K, Kazuki! It's not that bad! There's nothing dirty or smelly in here!"
Yuki just laughed. "Um, my room is kind of the same... actually, it's really the same, this is my dorm room in the future too! Though it's been redone a little..."
Kazuki was still staring at the pile of laundry I'd stuffed into the far corner. "Oh, that reminds me, I'll have to get some clothes for you, Asahina. You can't keep wearing the same thing over and over." His eyes went to Yuki, looking him up and down. "What size do you wear? Probably small?"
His face turned red, and he muttered something that I couldn't hear.
"I'm sorry, Asahina, what was that?"
Yuki heaved a sigh, almost scowling. "It's usually extra-small..."
Kazuki smirked at me. "So you two are the same size, then. That might be a problem, I think all the extra-small uniforms at the school are in Keita's closet right now. Or on the floor."
"Shut up, Kazuki!" I didn't have a pillow at hand to throw at him, so I just waved my fists. "It's not funny! I can't control how I'm growing! Anyway, I'm sure I'll be bigger in the future - oh!" I turned toward Yuki, heart pounding. "Yuki! Tell Kazuki how much taller I am in the future!"
Yuki stared at me for a few seconds, eyes wide and face pale. "Uh... um..."
I made a face at him. "Why are you hesitating?"
Kazuki's grin widened. "That means you didn't grow at all."
"Ugggggh," I groaned, flopping backward onto the bed. "You suck, Kazuki."
"W, well," Yuki piped up, "maybe if you drink more milk... or eat more vegetables..."
"It's hopeless," I sighed. "I'm never going to grow. That's so disappointing, no wonder Shichijo-san said it was bad to know too much about the future. Now I'm depressed."
"But," Kazuki said, tone gentler than it had been just a moment before, "there's good things too. You studied hard enough to become a teacher here at this school. And it sounds like you're pretty popular with the students. That's something to look forward to." He paused. "Even if you stay scrawny for the rest of your life."
That time, I did have a pillow to launch at his head. "The proper word is petite, thank you very much!"
"Sure, if you're talking about girls," Kazuki caught the pillow, laughing.
"Anyway," I huffed, "insulting me about being small is the same as insulting Yuki. You shouldn't do that to a guest. Especially one from another time. Maybe he'll get angry and mess you up now, and your future will change because you were a jerk, Kazuki."
"I, I wouldn't do that!" Yuki protested. I turned my face toward him and winked.
"Well, you two seem to be getting along quite well." I couldn't see Kazuki's face from where I was on the bed, but I knew the expression that went with that tone; one eyebrow raised, a look of dubious amusement on his face. "I guess you'll be fine in here for a couple of days. And I'll have Ishizuka-san go pick up some extra clothes for Asahina... a week's worth of clothing, plus some pajamas should be enough to start."
I sat up. "Kazuki, don't send your poor secretary out this late at night."
Kazuki frowned. "Hmm, you're right, it's too late. Most stores will be closing soon, and I don't want to risk him getting trapped outside the island. But Asahina can't sleep in his uniform."
"What are you saying? We're the same size, aren't we? So he can just borrow an extra set of pajamas for a night." I glanced over at Yuki. "That won't be too weird, right?"
His cheeks were pink, but he nodded. "Yeah, that's fine. I don't mind sharing for a day or two."
"Okay, sounds good. I'll have the clothing situation sorted out by tomorrow, Asahina. And some other things too... you'll need a current student ID card loaded up with meal tickets and some money for the school store, and I need to plan our visit to the student council."
Kazuki looked pained at the mention of the student council, but Yuki's eyes were shining as he responded, "Yeah, I can't wait! The student council president from this time is so famous, everyone still talks about him now! I wonder if I'll ever be that good at my job..."
I glanced at Kazuki, stifling a laugh, and he looked back with a doubtful grin. He opened his mouth to say something, but I shook my head. It would be cruel to shatter Yuki's fantasy. He'd meet the King in person soon enough, and then... well, he'd just have to adjust his expectations. I just hoped it wouldn't be too disappointing.
"I'll be going now. I need to get the ID and some other things ready for tomorrow. You two, don't stay up too late playing games or whatever. I'll be picking you both up at eight for breakfast, whether you're ready or not."
"Riiight," I sighed. "Man, getting up early on summer vacation..."
"Huh, that's not early, is it?" Yuki tilted his head. "I'll be starving by then!"
"Are you sure you won't starve overnight?" Kazuki teased. "I know Keita has some snacks hidden away in here, so feel free to help yourself. See you two later!"
"Hey, Kazuki!" I called out after him, but he was already halfway out the door.
I was alone with Yuki again. He grinned at me, fixing up the futon. "Snacks, huh? Well, I'm not hungry now, but maybe before we go to sleep, just in case. Sometimes I'll wake up in the middle of the night if I get too hungry..."
"Haha, that's amazing..." I scratched at the side of my head, wondering if that was really true or an exaggeration. No one was that hungry all the time, right?
Chapter 15: Thursday, July 20, 2017 (Joker)
OH GOD IT'S FINALLY THE END OF DAY ONE
Also, Joker is PISSED.
The white ceramic plate slammed into the wall of the Durak room and shattered with a satisfying crash, scattering shards everywhere. Eiji snatched the matching mug away before I could grab it, so I wrapped my fingers around his wrist instead, jerking him closer.
"K, Kiyo, breaking things won't help! Try to relax a little!"
"It's unforgivable, Eiji!" I snarled, my face just centimeters from his. "Yuki-kun is gone!"
My anger rarely made it through the wall that kept me apart from reality. It was a beast that lay dormant inside me, locked away in a cage of reason, kept far from the real world by the detachment I normally felt. But there were times that it was pulled to the surface by something that was too real, too visceral to be ignored.
"Damnit, Kiyo, you need to stop and think about this!" Eiji pushed on my chest with his free hand. "If you freak out, you're going to lose any chance we have to get Yuki-kun back!"
Eiji was close enough now that I could grab his collar with my other hand. "We've already lost it, how is that idiot boy going to do the impossible?" I shook him. "It's just a waste of time and effort to leave anything to him!"
"Kiyo," Eiji coughed, "don't kill me by mistake!"
"Why not? Isn't this your fault in some roundabout way? You could have stopped him from going up onto the roof! Why didn't you stop him?"
Eiji pulled at my hand, but I didn't budge. "Don't blame me! You're the one who was there! Why didn't you stop the experiment?"
In that moment, I was truly tempted to strangle him.
But I couldn't argue with his words. The beast within took a step back. Why hadn't I stopped the experiment? Because it was interesting, and the atmosphere of suspense and mystery surrounding it had been fun. Because the summer break was going to bore me to death, with half of my audience gone home for the holiday or away on vacation. Even I had plans to leave, my plane tickets to Russia purchased months before, but I'd been waffling on that as well. I wanted to see my grandfather and looked forward to a summer of hunting, but at times there was something unpleasant about the solitude of the wilderness. If only I could have both the thrill of the hunt and the pleasure of a captive audience, all waiting to be part of my latest performance.
This situation wasn't an act. The reality I'd longed for had arrived, and frankly, it sucked.
I slowly released my hold on Eiji's collar, untangling my fingers from the white fabric, and released his wrist. Eiji pulled away with a huff, rubbing his wrist with his other hand. "Geez, Kiyo, if you get violent like that, we'll never see Yuki-kun again."
The beast was still outside the cage, waiting for an excuse to pounce. I forced myself to turn my back and step away, letting out a quiet breath. I hadn't realized I'd been holding it.
"Is Okazaki ordering the parts he needs? Check in with Hayato, Eiji."
I heard his obnoxious sigh from behind me, but Eiji had the good sense not to argue with me when I was pissed off. "Right, right. You gave Okazaki your credit card, right? I'll make sure he's not ordering any freebies for himself on the side."
"Good idea," I muttered, "because I'd take those out of his hide."
Eiji left, headed back to the dorm. I stayed behind, glaring out the window. Why did I care so much about a single boy? He wasn't even my lover, though I wouldn't say no if he expressed an interest in me. I doubted that would happen; he seemed oblivious to all my come-ons and flirting, too innocent to understand the real meaning behind all the innuendo I worked into our conversations. No, a wholesome boy like that would either end up with one of his naive friends, maybe Kasahara or Sagimori, or no one at all until much later.
So what was important about Yuki-kun? He was real. In a world full of dim images, he stood out vividly against the blurred background, almost glowing. That glow had spread to others at his touch, a faint light that made his friends come into focus. Hayato was still growing more distinct, opening up to me a little at a time, unsure of how to navigate our relationship if it contained the complexities of real friendship.
He'd been forcefully kicked out of himself by the results of the Bell One. Instead of growing even more bitter, he'd finally accepted the truth: his plan was stupid. I'd told him that only once, sparking a violent burst of anger that had been rather amusing to witness, but also made me realize just how serious he was about it. If I'd pushed too much, the entire arrangement would have imploded, ending the game prematurely. That was an unforgivable sin.
Even I'd felt bad for Eiji, knowing that he was being used by his cousin. It was one thing for me to toy with the incompetent Ace, using tricks to steal the student council's authority, and another for an adult to manipulate a child for some unknown purpose. I was just having a bit of fun with someone who was easy to stir up. The professor was using a kid as a pawn in a power struggle with his own family. It was too easy to slip from being devious into being a coward.
Well, I couldn't deny that the shock of disappointment had done Eiji a world of good. Maybe that had been part of the professor's plan all along. He was cunning enough to twist a situation to fit multiple purposes if needed. I guess if I really wanted to know, I could always do a little surveillance. It was important to keep tabs on the school management...
Speaking of keeping tabs, where was Eiji? I pulled out my phone, but there were no messages. Anyway, it was time to head back to the dorm. Staying here wouldn't help anything, and if I wanted to have some fun with Eiji, it would be more comfortable at the dorm.
I typed and walked at the same time. Eiji, how's the Oka-chan situation?
It took about a minute for him to respond. Geez, you're so demanding. I just got back. So he's been upgraded to Oka-chan again? Never thought that would happen.
Don't be so dense, Eiji. I'm being ironic.
Right, right. Anyway, it looks like there's a bunch of parts on order now. They're expensive.
Unfortunately, a vague category like "parts" didn't mean anything to me. Make him explain what they are. Have him show you the broken parts they're replacing. I don't want him ordering anything that's not necessary.
Seriously, Kiyo? That might take all night. There's a ton of little pieces.
I sighed. Did Eiji have to complain about every little thing? But if he didn't, I'd probably worry that he was about to die or something. Just the major ones, then. The expensive stuff. And hurry up, I'm on my way back to the dorm.
There was a long pause. If I was lucky, which I usually wasn't, he was actually checking at least a few of the ordered parts against the broken ones. I took the long way back to the dorm, not wanting him to have the excuse of stopping just because I'd shown up. My phone beeped a few minutes later.
Okay, those expensive bits look legit. You did tell him to get the best of everything, right? Cuz some tube thing was almost 50000...
Hmm. If the orders continued to be pricey, I might have to warn my grandfather about the upcoming bill. Not that it was a problem, but he'd probably question why I needed to order so much at once, and from overseas sites that sold things I'd never been interested in before. Cost doesn't matter. It has to be the best of everything, and the fastest shipping. No wasting time.
Yeah. The sooner we get Yuki-kun back, the better...
"If it's even possible," I muttered, trying not to think too deeply about that possibility.
A distraction would be nice.
Eiji. Wait for me in my room.
If you can't guess, you're not old enough to know.
I could just hear the sarcasm in his response. You can be a real ass sometimes, Kiyo.
Only you would bitch about getting blown, Eiji.
He didn't respond after that. I knew he was embarrassed by my blunt response. Imagining his ridiculous blush brought a smile to my lips.
Yeah, Eiji was just what I needed to distract myself from this mess.
Chapter 16: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 (Yuki)
WE FINALLY MADE IT TO DAY TWO *sob*
I woke at the usual time even though it was summer break. For a moment, everything seemed normal: the warm light of the summer morning, a comfortable blanket wrapped around my body, a soft pillow beneath my head. I stretched my arms out to either side, frowning as my right arm came into contact with fabric, not the wall.
I jerked awake in an instant, heart racing. Why was I sleeping in a futon on the floor? And my arm, what was with the plaid pajamas? I didn't own any plaid pajamas! The blanket tangled around my legs as I forced myself into a sitting position, looking around at the room that was familiar and at the same time unfamiliar. It was the same basic layout as mine, but with the furniture arranged differently, someone else's stuff filling the bookshelf and crowding the desk.
It took a few seconds before I remembered what had happened.
Oh... this isn't my room. Not really. It's Professor Ito's room. I straightened up to peer at the bed, but I couldn't see anything except for an indistinct lump of blankets. Maybe he was already up.
I looked back down at myself, and I felt my face flush. It was a little weird to be wearing someone else's clothes, even if they fit well. The pajama set was identical to the one he was wearing. No, not he... Keita. My face tingled as I thought of his name. But I couldn't call him Professor since he wasn't one yet, and right now, we were equals.
It was too strange. Sure, I'd been the one who had convinced him and Suzu... er, Endo-san that I'd somehow been thrown back in time by the strange explosion. That didn't mean it felt completely real to me, though. But I couldn't deny that it had happened. There were too many people I recognized or had heard of, including the embarrassingly friendly Naruse-san and the strict but kind Shinomiya-san. I was the outsider who had appeared in another world.
"This is too weird," I sighed, deflating a bit.
How was I going to get home? Was it even possible to go home? And what was everyone thinking right now, all my friends who had been there on the roof? Maybe they thought I was dead. My shoulders slumped. We were just going to waste some time doing something fun. We were all sure that nothing would happen, and the worst we'd expected was that the machine would explode. Did everyone think I had exploded? Kuya-san had probably cried, and Joker-san... might have done something really bad to Okaken.
I needed to get home. But how?
My gloomy thoughts were interrupted by a sleepy grunt and a rustle of blankets. I looked up just in time to watch Keita roll over toward me, still fast asleep, his face right at the edge of the bed. His eyes were shut tight, messy hair sticking out at all angles, and his lips were parted slightly as he breathed, every other breath coming out as a half snore. He was close enough that I could have leaned over to bonk his head with mine, if I'd wanted to.
Or kiss him.
My face turned red. What on earth was I thinking?! I would never do something like that!
All this weirdness was getting to my brain. I threw off the blanket and stood up, heading for the bathroom. I'd take a shower and get dressed and things would be normal. As normal as they could be, anyway.
I took my time in the bathroom, enjoying the steamy shower, borrowing a length of floss since I didn't have a toothbrush, and I even found a brand new comb in a drawer. It wasn't quite enough to get my hair back into order, but I didn't want to use Keita's hairbrush without asking. It was bad enough I'd used his shampoo and conditioner, which had a bit of an odd scent. I'd been surprised when I checked the bottle and saw that there was strawberry in it. Kind of weird for a guy. Maybe he just liked strawberries?
By the time I emerged from the bathroom, cleaned up and wearing my uniform - which was fortunately still pretty clean, since I'd just put it on yesterday - I was sure that Keita would be awake and waiting his turn. Except he wasn't. Instead, he'd rolled back to the middle of the bed and snuggled deeper into the blankets, with just the top of his head peeking out. The two weird hairs at the front of his head poked out at an angle, like the antenna on one of Okaken's machines.
I kind of wanted to touch them, just to see how they managed to do that.
I shuffled up to the edge of the bed and stretched out one hand, somehow resisting the temptation of his hair, and touched his shoulder instead. "Um... Keita? Are you awake?"
"Ngggh," was the only response. Well, that, and he curled up tighter, like an annoyed pillbug.
I was kind of surprised. I was used to sleepy responses and mumbling, but that was from Tomo. That someone like Keita was also sleepy was kind of... well, cute.
I poked his shoulder again. "It's time to get up."
After a few seconds of nothing, he freaked out, twisting around inside the blanket. "Agh! Wha... who is it?!" The sheets tangled around him as he flailed, and I leaned back as an arm popped out, almost hitting me in the face. "Why are you in my room!?"
"Uwaaa!" I jumped back as he took another swing at me, this time on purpose. "C, calm down! It's me, Asahina Yuki! I'm sharing your room for a couple of days, remember?!"
"Huh, I don't know any Yuki! Who are... oh." Keita suddenly became very still, staring up at me with wide blue eyes. After a moment, they lit up with recognition. "Oh, Yuki!"
I scratched my side with a sheepish smile. "Yeah, it's me."
"S, sorry!" Keita's face turned bright red. "I... I'm not really a morning person... and I saw an unfamiliar face, so I just kind of panicked. Er..."
"You were probably still having a dream. Sorry... I thought you'd want to get up before it got too late. And I kind of want to go have breakfast."
"What time is it?" Keita looked around for his clock, his sleepy look transforming into a grimace as he read the numbers. "Seven-thirty in the morning! It's summer break!" He flopped back into the bed with a groan, pulling the blankets up over his head. "I'm not getting up."
"You're not? But... it's seven-thirty, isn't it?"
"That's exactly why I'm not." His words were muffled, but I could still understand them. Mostly. "I don't mind if you go eat without me. I'm sure Kazuki's up already, since he's a freak who believes that sleeping too long makes your brain rot or something." A hand poked out from under the blanket, pointing toward the wall. "His room is next door if you wanna check."
"Oh... okay." It was hard not to feel rejected, but since I was used to dealing with Tomo's constant sleepiness, I didn't feel too bad about it. Tomo had started to be more active once the Bell One was over and he got involved with his club, his depression slowly fading away, but he still liked sleep. And he especially enjoyed being lazy about things that weren't important.
I don't have time to clean my room. I'm busy with school and work. No one's going to care if my laundry got put away, but they'll care if there aren't enough teachers or if the money from Suzubishi doesn't get distributed to the clubs, right?
Well, that was true. And without the student council and Durak to help with the important work of managing the school, all of Tomo's efforts would be useless.
Maybe talking to Endo-san now would be a good thing, since he was in the same position as Tomo. If I was going to be stuck here for a while, there were things I could learn from him, information that I could bring back home.
If you ever get back home.
I pushed that thought aside and let myself out into the hallway. The room next door would have been Tomo's. I walked up and tapped on the door self-consciously, looking around to see if anyone else was present, but the hallway was empty. I guess it was kind of early for summer break.
Endo-san responded immediately. "Who is it?"
"It's Yuki. Um, do you want to have breakfast? Keita won't get up..."
I heard footsteps from the other side, and the door opened a few moments later. Endo-san was already up and dressed in the summer uniform, looking surprisingly convincing as a first year, even though I knew he had to be much older. Somehow it made me blush a little, and he laughed.
"Good morning, Asahina. I should have warned you that Keita isn't a morning person. I guess you are." His smile grew a bit smug. "Is it because you get hungry fast?"
"Ahaha... you already know me pretty well, I guess..."
"Well, you don't seem especially complicated." He stepped out into the hallway, shutting the door behind him. "Keita's going to be pretty useless until around noon. He's been looking forward to sleeping in for weeks, it would be wrong to shatter his dream." There was a soft smile on Endo-san's lips as he spoke, thinking of his friend.
"Noon?! That's... a really long time." I don't think I'd ever slept that late in my entire life.
"He'll get up before then, but he'll take his time getting ready. Anyway, I'll only allow it for a day or two before I start making him get up at a reasonable hour." Endo-san took a few steps down the hallway, beckoning for me to follow. "Come on, let's have breakfast. After that, I'll take you to the student council room. I let them know to expect a visit from me around eight."
That cheered me up. "Student council! I can't wait to meet them!"
Chapter 17: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 (Nakajima)
♬ ♪ ♫ ♬ Nakajima is an asshole but he's not gonna get what he waaaants ♬ ♪ ♫ ♬
I hated being summoned to the student council room by anyone, but a request from the idiot director was marginally better than a request from Niwa, which was usually meant he was going to dump a last-minute project on me before skipping out. Again. At least Endo only made requests when he had something of substance to discuss, and he almost always had Keita with him. Just having the chance to tease that naive boy made dealing with Endo worth it.
Of course, I arrived first, a few minutes early as usual. Niwa was nowhere to be found. He would be at least five minutes late, but I knew that Endo expected it, so he wouldn't bother showing up on time either. I let myself in, figuring that I could use the extra ten minutes to at least begin sorting through the papers that were stacked on my desk. If I could find all the ones that required Niwa's signature and get him to take care of them, that would save me the hassle of chasing him down later on in the week.
I lost track of time as I dug through the piles, caught up in the rhythm of work, so I was surprised when the door banged open and Niwa popped in with his usual cheery greeting.
"Hey, Hide! You been waiting a long time?"
I glared at him over the top of my lenses. "Long enough. Would it kill you to be on time?"
He leaned against the desk, glancing down at the stacks I'd made. "Why bother? Endo's never on time, so there's no need to rush."
"The reason why he's always late," I grumbled, "is because you are always late."
"Then it's fine, right? He's not gonna be disappointed if I'm late."
"So I guess my opinion doesn't matter." God, what was I doing? I'd vowed that I wasn't going to argue with Niwa today. It was like trying to argue with a brick wall; it wouldn't give a shit, no matter what you did or said, and nothing would change.
Unless I hit it hard enough. Unfortunately, he has idiotic strength to go with his idiotic reasoning.
Sometimes I couldn't stand how wasteful Niwa was, blessed with physical strength, a quick mind, and ridiculous charisma that he could have put to better use than just being popular within the school if he cared to try. The thing was, he didn't care to try. And for some reason, I felt compelled to pick up the slack, covering for his lack of diligence, even though he was the one who received all the credit for the 'great work' the student council was doing.
If it had been anyone else, I would have beaten them down a long time ago and claimed the credit that was mine. But somehow Niwa's antics amused me just enough that I was able to let it all slide.
I really was a sucker.
"Your opinion matters, Hide! Just not to me. Ahaha!"
Sometimes I wanted to punch his grinning face in. Fortunately, I was spared the trouble of suppressing that urge by a knock on the door. Endo.
"Come in," I called out, but Niwa was already at the door.
"Hey, Endo, you're late!"
I didn't have to see Endo's face to know that he was rolling his eyes as he responded, "If you're here already, then we're right on time."
Niwa wasn't about to let it go so easily. "What's the big deal, having us come here so early in the morning on summer break? This better not be some other huge chore."
"If you'd let me in, maybe I could tell you about it," Endo sighed.
"Oh, right..." Niwa got out of the way, and Endo came in with another student in tow. Instead of Keita as I'd expected, his companion was another first year boy, one I didn't recognize. I stood up and came around to the front of the desk, eyes never leaving the newcomer. He was of average height, very skinny, with pale skin and messy hair. His smile was tentative but warm, a spot of pink high on his cheeks as he looked around with those wide green eyes, taking in the sorry state of the crowded student council room.
There was a sudden tightness in my chest, and I swear I felt some sort of spark as the boy looked up at Niwa, his face lighting up with a brilliant smile.
"Uwaa, are you the King?" The way he said the King with such a reverent tone made me snort.
Did Niwa actually puff out his chest before replying? "That's right! And who are you, first year?" He slapped one large hand down on the boy's shoulder, prompting a surprised oof.
"Um, I'm Asahina Yuki! I'm..." He glanced toward Endo, unsure.
"It's a bit of a long story," Endo sighed. "Let me explain."
We all gathered around the main table - after transferring a few stacks to another table, of course - to listen to Endo's story. It was absolute bullshit, but Niwa totally ate it up, leaning forward with his face alight with excitement, interrupting Endo every few seconds to ask Asahina inane questions about the future.
I pounded my fist on the table after the twentieth such interruption, making everyone jump, and Asahina yelp in surprise. Cute reaction. "Niwa, stop cutting in! I want to hear the rest of this story, ridiculous as it may be, without your constant commentary!"
"It's not constant! I have legit questions! Aren't you curious too, Hide?"
"Since when is asking what kinds of cars are popular in 2017 a legit question? No one but you would be curious about something so mundane." I turned to Asahina. "If you really are from the future, which I highly doubt, the questions that are really worth asking would be about stocks or technology. But you don't look like you'd know much about either." I smirked.
"Oh, technology!" That perked Asahina right up, and he reached into his back pocket, producing a slim white rectangle that I recognized instantly: a smartphone. Niwa reached for it, but I snatched it away a moment before he could.
"Back off, you don't know anything about tech."
"That's mean, Hide," he grumbled, leaning back in his chair.
Endo and Asahina continued their impossible story as I toyed with the phone, half paying attention to the conversation as I checked the specs. If the phone was a fake, it was a very convincing one. There would be no way to know if the reported capabilities were legitimate unless I got to spend some time doing independent testing, but just taking a look at the media stored on the phone made me think that just maybe, Asahina was telling the truth.
"And I've heard so much about you, King!" Asahina was practically gushing. "Everyone in my time knows about you, you're the legendary student council president!"
"Oh ho, legendary, is it?" Niwa's stupid grin was obnoxious. "It's good to know that my legacy has managed to live on in the future! So what do they say about me?"
Oh god, please don't stroke his ego any more than you already have, you stupid boy...
"That you could get anyone to do anything! All the students participated in all the school events while you were student council president!"
I rolled my eyes. That's only because Niwa would beat anyone who refused...
"That's right! One hundred percent participation, that's my motto!"
"You kind of forced people to do things they didn't want to," Endo pointed out, but Niwa just laughed and waved off his concerns.
"They wanted to, they just didn't realize it! I was helping!"
"And," Asahina continued, "when you first came to the school, you kicked out the original student council president who was a pawn of the board! And you stood up to the board of directors whenever they tried to mess with the school. I guess they were always trying to change how things are run around here, huh?"
"That's right, those nasty adults thought us students were just going to lie back and let them walk all over us! No sir!" Niwa made a fist, shaking it at the air. "We have rights! The school belongs to the students! The school ideals are all about developing the students and their talents." He glanced toward Endo. "Isn't that right, Mr. Director?"
Why on earth was Niwa so happy about all that? Had he already forgotten that he'd been roped into it by Endo in the first place?
Endo nodded a bit sheepishly. "I wouldn't say it quite so strongly, but your heart's in the right place, King. My grandfather's dream was to create a school where everyone could realize their full potential. Unfortunately, the board is more concerned with saving money or trying to maximize the returns they can get for investing in talent."
"Well, it won't happen on my watch! Which," Niwa scratched at his chin, "is ending relatively soon. I hope you have someone else lined up for this job, Endo. What's going to happen to the student council once Nakajima and I graduate?"
"I'll appoint myself student council president and have two of the three votes of authority."
Endo was clearly teasing, but Asahina's eyes were wide as he asked, "Huh, really? Can you actually do that?"
"Of course not," he sighed, "but things would be a lot easier if I could..."
"Hey, speaking of all this student council stuff, you said you're the student council president in the future, Yuki?" Niwa glanced at the black armband.
A blush colored the boy's cheeks. "Yeah, that's right!"
"So... that means you have a pretty good understanding of how student council matters are handled, isn't that right?"
"Well, I've only been student council president for a couple of months, and for a while we didn't really have much authority..." Asahina trailed off, momentarily disturbed, but he bounced back a moment later. "But yes, I know how to do most of the routine tasks and stuff like that."
"I see..." A sly smile came to Niwa's face, and I realized instantly what that meant.
"Tetsuya, you'd better not," I growled under my breath.
He completely ignored me, pushing back his chair and leaping to his feet. "Well, in that case, I hope you don't mind if I leave some of my work to you. I have a few other things to take care of today, and it would be a huge help if you could take care of some paperwork. I'm actually kind of slow when it comes to details, so I'd be honored, Yuki."
Asahina ate up his praise like a dog with an ice cream cone. "Of course! I'll help out!"
Niwa was halfway to the door before Endo realized what was happening. By the time he got to his feet, he was merely shouting at Niwa's back. "King, you can't be--"
The door slammed behind him.
"--serious," Endo sighed.
I glared at Asahina. "Good job, student council president."
"Eh?" He blinked, expression so innocent that I couldn't stand it. "What did I do?"
Endo and I sighed in unison.
"Dumped all his work off on us, that's what. Endo, I'll be borrowing the student council president from the future for a while. Since he caused this mess, he'll have to take responsibility for it." I reached up, adjusting my glasses. "You're welcome to help as well."
"Sorry, Nakajima-san, but I have some work to take care of." He paused. "Actual work, not goofing off. I have to make sure Asahina's set up with a dorm room and get him a 'permanent' ID card, since he only has a temporary one for the moment. Plus some clothing and other personal things." He glanced at Asahina. "Sorry, I know I said I'd have everything ready by the morning, but there was a minor situation with the board that couldn't be ignored. I'll be finished with everything by the time you get back to the dorm for lunch."
I caught Endo's wrist as he stepped toward the door, and he turned back with a sharp look. "Yes?"
He knew better than to try shaking me off. Good. "Who else knows about Asahina? I assume it's just Keita, Saionji, and his dog?"
"Don't talk about Shichijo-san like that," his eyes narrowed slightly. "Anyway, yes, that's everyone. I'm thinking of including a few others who might have frequent interactions with Asahina, several of Keita's other friends. In fact, I'll send an email to everyone who is permitted to discuss the situation. Of course, I won't explain it, but I'll advise everyone to speak directly to Asahina if they want to learn more. That way, they're free to decide if they want to get involved."
"Hmm... you sure you want to expand this little circle? Better to keep quiet, isn't it?"
"Perhaps, but I think it's safer to handle any possible difficulties beforehand, instead of worrying about surprises later. Well, the details will be in the email. Watch for it."
"Hmph," was all I had to offer as I released his hand. To his credit, Endo didn't pull his hand away or rub at his wrist like most people would. Instead, he just let it fall naturally back to his side.
"I'll be going now. If I see Niwa, I'll order him to come back here."
"Good luck with that," I snorted.
"Be kind to Asahina. He's my personal guest at this school."
Endo was glaring at me, demanding a response. My eyes flicked toward Asahina. Cute and naive, just the type that could be infinitely amusing as a plaything.
"You really are a tyrant, Mr. Director." I made no effort to keep a note of sarcasm from my voice.
"Um..." Asahina murmured, squirming in his chair. "Let's work hard together, Nakajima-san!"
"Indeed." I looked back to Endo. "Hurry and go, there's a lot of work to be done. If you see Niwa, tell him he'll get a good beating from me later."
"Er, I'll let you deliver that message yourself, Nakajima-san. Well then, excuse me..."
I waited until the echo of the door closing had faded before forcing myself up from the table, looking sternly down at Asahina. "Well, come on, there's work to be done. I'll have you prove that you're truly the student council president." My expression softened a bit. "Yuki."
That made his eyes go wide, a hot blush sweeping over his innocent face. "Um, right!"
God, he was incredibly charming. Just like Keita, only his blasted luck made it impossible for me to do anything more than tease him. This boy had no such protection. "The stack of papers on the corner of the desk need to be sorted. Pull out any that require the student council president's signature and add them to the smaller pile there." I moved to stand beside him, slightly behind and leaning over his shoulder as I pointed. "You do know which ones those are, right?"
"Um, I know most of them. I'm sure I can figure it out," Yuki nodded, though I could tell from his hesitant response that he was dismayed by the size of the pile. I could almost hear the crumbling of the mental pedestal he'd placed Niwa on. Poor fool.
"Good. I'll be over here, checking over the club requests for international travel. If you finish sorting that mess, there's plenty of travel requests for you to process as well."
"Got it!" he responded, back to his usual cheer.
"Well, then," I murmured, edging around behind him to get to the other side of the desk. Along the way, I let my hand trail across his back, slowly dropping lower. Just then, a heavy binder fell off a nearby shelf, smacking into the floor with a sound that made me jump back just before reaching my target. Yuki turned around, eyes wide as he stared at the fat notebook.
"Oh, I recognize that binder! It has information about all sorts of forms and stuff, that's just what I'll need to sort these papers properly!" Yuki slipped away from me, bending to scoop the binder from the dusty floor. I, of course, took the opportunity to check out his ass as he leaned over to grab it, watching the flex of muscle beneath his pants.
Not very impressive, I concluded with a frown, especially compared to Keita's gravity-defying round backside. I could spend all day 'accidentally' dropping pens off my desk for Keita to pick up, but I'd have to be pretty desperate to attempt the same with this boy. Still, it wasn't a sight I'd complain about if it happened naturally. Yuki was also slim and petite, with a bright personality and an easy smile.
I could just imagine how much better he'd look in tears.
Was the binder falling good luck, or bad? I pondered it as I settled into my chair. Probably bad, I concluded, since I'd ended up only getting a glimpse of what I might have touched directly with my own hand. Well, through a couple of layers of fabric, anyway.
Hmph. Just a fluke. I'll make things go my way next time.
But as time wore on, I was thwarted again and again by chance. After the fifth unsuccessful attempt to get my hands on the boy's ass, I folded my arms over my chest with a dramatic sigh. "Yuki. If you're from Bell Liberty in the future, you have a talent. What is that talent?"
"Oh!" That brought a smile to his honest face. "Well, I don't really have a talent... I got into the school by chance, really. But I've always had really good luck!"
My shoulders slumped. "You can't be serious."
"No, it's true! Actually, I was late starting school because I won an overseas vacation, and while we were there, a volcano erupted nearby so we couldn't go home for a while."
"That sounds like terrible luck, actually." I made a note on another sheet and moved it over to the approved pile.
"Well, I guess, but my family made friends with an oil baron, so we stayed at his place for a whole month! It was really amazing, I almost felt like a prince!"
Yuki spent the next hour telling me all the tales of his incredible luck, which sounded just as outlandish as the story that he was a student from the future. If a stranger was presented with both tales, which one would they be more likely to believe? For me, the luck was more real because of my acquaintance with Keita, and especially since I'd already seen Yuki's in action. Over and over as we worked, he found the exact paper he needed, or pulled a missing sheet from the middle of a random stack that shouldn't have held what he wanted. He finished sorting long before I was even halfway through the pile of travel forms, so he took half of what remained and plowed through those as well, stopping only occasionally to ask me questions about unfamiliar terms or unclear instructions.
Frankly, I was impressed, not just with his knowledge of the work and how to handle the details, but also his drive to keep going until the piles were gone. That, more than his strange ID card and weird armband, was solid proof that he was indeed a student of this school, and that he truly was the student council president. Or rather, a responsible student council president.
That made me want him even more. Not just me; the school needed someone like him.
When Yuki got up to place the binder back on the shelf, I followed, trapping him between my body and the bookcase. He gasped, blushing. "U, um, Nakajima-san? Did you need something?"
"Yeah, I do," I breathed, leaning close enough that Yuki had to press back against the shelves to keep our bodies from pressing together. "Let me make you a little proposal."
"Er... proposal?" He pushed on my arm tentatively with one hand. "Um, we could talk more easily if you weren't right on top of me, haha..."
"No, I think this is the perfect distance." I reached for his face, finally making more than fleeting contact as my fingers slid down his warm cheek. "You're a very hard worker, Yuki."
"Uh... Nakajima-san, you're a bit too close..."
"I told you, this is perfect." My other hand went to his hip, finding it just as warm. Was he already embarrassed enough that his whole body had grown hot? Or was it something other than embarrassment? "You want to go back to your own time, don't you?"
His eyes widened. "Do you know a way?" he asked innocently.
I let out a low, quiet laugh. "Of course not. But," I shifted a few millimeters closer, enough that I could imagine his heat against my skin, "I'd like to propose that you give up on that. You're needed here, Yuki. You saw how Niwa is, he's popular because he's overflowing with charisma, not because he's effective. You are effective, and from the few hours of interaction we've had, I can say that you also have a fair bit of charm."
I slid my hips closer, and he gasped.
"Let me be frank. I find you attractive, in various ways. If you stay here and work with me, I promise I can make it worth your while." I leaned in, dropping a peck on his soft lips.
That activated his response. He squirmed against me. It wasn't only futile - a skinny boy like that wasn't going to get away from me - but it also pressed our bodies closer together, and I could tell that though he was small, he wasn't soft. Very nice.
"Uh, um, please let me go, Nakajima-san, I just want to help out with student council work!"
"What if I told you I didn't feel like letting go?"
As I leaned in to claim his pouting lips, someone banged on the door. "Hi, it's Keita!" The doorknob rattled, and I knew he would come in without waiting for an answer, as usual.
Curse the two of you and your damned luck! I stepped back from Yuki, who slid out from under my arm the moment the gap between us was wide enough. He hurried over to Keita, face red. "Oh, Keita, you're finally awake!"
"Yeah, I got up about an hour ago, and I hurried over here when Kazuki told me you were helping with student council stuff!" Keita peered at Yuki's face, scowling. "Was Nakajima-san teasing you? Your face is all red and you look kind of flustered..."
"Hmph, I was just asking him if he wanted to stay in the past and help the student council. What's wrong with that?" I caught Yuki's eye. "That offer stands."
"N, no thank you!" Yuki squeaked, grabbing Keita's hand. "Um, it's time for lunch, so bye!"
The two innocent first years rushed from the room, abandoning me to my work. Only... I looked around at the papers that had been sorted neatly into piles by topic, with all the ones requiring signatures placed sideways at the top of each stack. With the exception of a small pile that Yuki had left behind, unsure of how to handle them because he'd never encountered those particular tasks before, my desk was empty. It looked almost wrong.
My eyebrows rose as the realization hit me.
I have free time. During an official break, no less.
What was I going to do with myself all summer?
Chapter 18: Friday, July 21, 2017 (Sakaki)
In which Professor Sakaki notices that people are acting a bit strange.
"Professor Ito, are you paying attention?"
Clearly not, because he jumped at my sharp words, face coloring as he reached up one hand to scratch sheepishly at the back of his head. "Ah, um... I'm sorry, I was distracted."
"Yes, I noticed." My tone was dry. "If you're not going to listen to anything I say, maybe this isn't the best use of your time. Or mine."
The staff room was empty except for myself and Ito. Most of the other teachers commuted from outside the island, Ito included, so it was normal for the school to be somewhat deserted during the long break times. Since I'd been working as assistant director, there never was much of a break for me, but even now that I'd been dismissed from the position, I stayed around. What else was I supposed to do? I wasn't about to rush out and find an apartment in the nearby town just because I'd lost my position. The dorm was comfortable enough and filled with my personal things, and I'd long since arranged the rooms to my liking.
Plus, with the way Kasahara was talking, I'd probably have my position back sooner rather than later. The boy looked meek and unassuming at first glance, but he was made of steel on the inside, just as clever as his brother and twice as stubborn. All he needed was more experience. The potential was clearly there.
Same with Professor Ito. He was, to put it kindly, less focused than Kasahara, but his heart was in the right place. The students had taken an immediate, strong liking to him, which he incorrectly credited to being close in age to the students, and the fact that he was a graduate of the school. He didn't seem to realize that it was his warm openness and charisma that drew others to him, not exactly a natural leader, but a natural extravert. He was the type with innate people skills and a knack for befriending anyone. I didn't quite believe him when he told me he hadn't always been that way, almost crippled by self-doubt back in high school.
Though I can see how an ordinary guy surrounded by athletes and geniuses might have issues...
Ito's smile disappeared, transformed into a frown of worry. "Ah, no, Professor Sakaki, please give me a chance to refocus. I really do want to learn from you. It's for the students, after all."
"All right," I sighed, "but pay attention. I didn't get up early today to be ignored."
That brought a hint of cheer back to his face. "Professor Sakaki, could it be that you're not much of a morning person?"
"Getting up early is unnatural. But that doesn't mean I can't do it." I tapped his notebook. "And if I can do it, so can you. Take good notes, I don't want to repeat myself."
It was shaping up to be a strange summer already. I thought back to the incident from yesterday, Sagimori's unexplained hand injury. Even when pressed, he hadn't volunteered anything more than to say it had been an accident, not specifying if it had occurred during fencing practice or something else. I was no doctor, but even I could tell that the hand was swollen under the tight wrap that Dr. Matsuoka had placed on it. Whatever had happened was serious, and part of me had wanted to use my authority as assistant director to demand an explanation - at least, until I remembered that I was no longer in that position.
The drive to the hospital had been very awkward, with Sagimori unusually sullen, as if pressed into silence by Takato's presence. We'd barely exchanged more than a dozen words during the trip. At least the wait for an x-ray hadn't been too long, and the boys were somewhat more talkative when I took them to dinner afterward, though they still avoided mentioning Sagimori's hand.
"Professor Sakaki?" Ito was peering at me, head tilted.
Great, now I was the one who wasn't paying attention. "Sorry," I sighed. "I was just thinking about what happened with Sagimori yesterday. I didn't hear anything from the fencing club about an injury, and from what I could tell, it was caused by a general impact, not anything concentrated like a poke from a foil. I bet it was something stupid that he didn't want to admit in my presence."
Ito's expression was odd and unreadable. "Ah, well... high school boys tend to act without thinking things through sometimes. He'll be okay, won't he?"
I shrugged. "Not sure, but the hospital will send scans of the film to Dr. Matsuoka so he can treat it more effectively. From what I understood, it wasn't a major injury, though there might be a stress fracture. Sagimori's lucky that it wasn't his right hand."
"Yes, I'm very glad about that. Well, not happy that he hurt himself at all, but at least it wasn't his dominant hand. That would knock him out of competition for a while."
"I'm sure he'll have to sit out a few to avoid reinjuring himself. I suppose that's the price you pay for doing something impulsive. Anyway," I met Ito's blue eyes, "let's refocus. I know you wanted to talk about Chiba's make up classes, but I'm afraid that situation may be impossible to handle without getting Jokawa's cooperation. Are you on good terms with him?"
"Mm, I don't really interact with him much, he's not in my class. But I could try talking to him. I'm sure he wouldn't want Chiba-kun to fail." Ito smiled weakly. "There's no advantage in that for him."
I couldn't help laughing. "You already understand him pretty well, then. Just find a way to convince Jokawa that getting Chiba to study is advantageous to him, and he'll make it happen."
We continued our mentoring session, covering Ito's questions about managing time, extracting key information from materials to form effective lesson plans, and how to apply learning theory to homework and test problem construction. He paid attention and took notes, but I still felt that there was something else going on in his mind, a vague distraction that he couldn't put aside no matter how hard he tried. We weren't close, despite working together for several months, so asking directly would be awkward.
Or would it? After all, I'd watched Asahina worm his way into the hearts of all the most popular and influential boys at the school. All he'd done was express his genuine concern for them. If a mere kid could do it, what was I worried about?
"Hey," I leaned forward, catching Ito's eye again. "You seem oddly distracted. What's going on?"
He stared at me for a moment, frozen. I could almost hear his brain working on the question, processing potential responses and exploring the possible realities that might be created by each one. Then his eyes narrowed a bit in decision, and he looked away, pushing back his chair and gathering up his books.
"I'm sorry, Professor Sakaki, I forgot that I had another appointment! I have to go now. Thank you very much for your time and your instruction." He actually bowed to me, which was more surprising than his uncharacteristic avoidance.
While I sat there, stunned into silence, he fled the room, books clutched to his chest.
What on earth is going on here? First Sagimori and Takato, now Ito?
I stood as well, pausing to stretch before putting my own books away. I wouldn't pursue Ito, but that wouldn't stop me from attempting to puzzle things out on my own.
It was definitely time to head up to the roof for a smoke.
When I got there, three students were already present: Okazaki, Chiba, and Sagimori. They froze and fell silent as they noticed me, all staring down at the concrete which, I noticed, had a few more scorch marks than usual.
"Up to no good again, Okazaki?" I said disapprovingly as I pulled out my lighter and cigarettes. "I keep telling you, stop using the roof for your crazy experiments. Someone's going to get hurt."
Normally Okazaki would protest or make up some sort of excuse, but he just looked down, face flushing. Sagimori and Chiba stayed quiet, making a show of pretending to stare off into the distance. Very weird. I lit up and went to the railing, leaning against it as I also looked out over the school, the familiar pose bringing memories of Nao to mind. He would have been amused by Okazaki's constant chatter about scientific theory, and probably would have condoned his experimentation.
You never know where the next flash of genius will come from.
Yeah, that's exactly what he would have said.
I glanced back at the boys, letting out a cloud of smoke. "You three are oddly silent. Well, not you, Chiba, but I can't remember the last time you were quiet for more than fifteen seconds, Sagimori." I paused. "Except for yesterday. How's your hand?"
The student council vice president glanced toward me, then looked away with a shrug. "It's fine, I guess."
"Hmp. I guess you won't really know until the x-rays come back."
There was definitely something going on. Most of the students reined in their conversations when I was around, but Sagimori and Okazaki never seemed to care much, chattering at me about anything that came to mind. Instead, everyone present was focused on the small device Okazaki held, a weird metal box that looked like a generic housing for a custom built machine. Probably something to do with aliens or space, knowing him.
I could understand Sagimori's interest in something so ridiculous, but Chiba? He looked more like a bodyguard than a participant, hovering over Okazaki with his practice sword in one hand. Now that I thought about it, Sagimori also had his weapon, though it was sheathed and hanging from his belt.
My eyes went from one to the other. "You two better not be fighting up here. Especially you, Sagimori, with an injured hand. Is that how you got hurt?"
"No! Chiba-sempai would never be so careless!"
Ah, yes, I'd forgotten about his weird way of addressing Chiba. "Then what happened to you?"
"That's..." He turned away, cheeks darkening. "It's not important."
"I see," I sighed. So he would continue being stubborn. That was fine; whatever had happened was honestly none of my business, as long as he was receiving proper treatment. If I needed information for any reason, I'd just discuss it directly with Dr. Matsuoka. For now, though, I would hurry and finish my awkward smoke break so the unlikely trio of students could get back to... whatever it was they'd been doing. Hopefully not something that would cause more trouble.
As I made my way back to the door, I paused as something occurred to me.
"Hey, you three. Have you seen Asahina? I haven't noticed him around today."
Three sets of wide eyes stared at me. After a few seconds, Sagimori laughed weakly. "Ah, well... Yuki actually went home for a while! Turns out his parents needed some help with the bakery. Sorry, I forgot to tell you about that yesterday, I was too worried about my hand."
Hmm. Plausible, but I didn't like the delay before the response. "Interesting. Well, you three have fun up here. Try not to blow each other up."
Okazaki looked like he was going to be sick.
What was going on today? I sighed and headed back to the staff room.
Chapter 19: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 (Tonosama)
TONOSAMA! Because I can. :Db
Ah, the glorious days of summer! The long days were perfect for napping in sunbeams all around the school; I could just follow the cycle as the sun shifted overhead, creating a new sleep paradise every hour. And wild snacks were plentiful, so I wasn't tempted to munch on any of Satoshi's prized experimental mice or frogs in order to supplement my meager diet. Well, maybe it wouldn't be considered a meager diet by other cats, especially those who didn't have a considerate human to provide for their needs, but my requirements weren't going to be satisfied by a single can of wet food per day.
Besides, the abundance of edibles brought other hunters to the school island. Of course, I chased off the other males who dared to challenge my territory, but the ladies were welcome to stay until their presence started drawing more males. Then everyone had to be put in their place. Still, if I could just get the attention of a nice female, one who appreciated the rarity of my three-colored fur and the unique charm of my wide grin...
Well, exercise was a big part of maintaining my physique, so when I wasn't curling up in a warm spot for a nap or chasing away potential rivals, I was busy pushing my limits. How fast could I run a circuit around the school island? How many fish could I bat out of the water in a minute's time? How far could I leap to get from one tree branch to another?
And then there was my favorite. How long could I keep the slacker student council president going at a dead run, or the alternate challenge, how fast could I catch him and make him pass out? Today, I'd settled on the endurance trial, and was pleased to note that the so-called King also seemed more energetic than usual thanks to the summer break. For once, I found myself wondering if he might actually manage to outlast me.
"Get away from me, you, you cat!" Niwa huffed as he ran. Amateur, didn't he realize that talking while running would make him tire more easily? It wasn't going to be much of a challenge if he didn't put some real effort into it.
Also, what kind of insult was that supposed to be, anyway? Of course I was a cat. There was no shame in that, especially since I lived my life to the very fullest. Which was not something that lazy human could ever say.
Speaking of humans... my human was following close behind. For someone who looked so small and powerless, Satoshi was surprisingly fast. Maybe it helped that he was tiny, so he didn't have much mass to move. Or maybe he'd just gotten used to chasing after me. Well, then my exercise served a dual purpose, getting him to exercise as well, instead of just being holed up in a lab or staring at a computer screen all day. Good. Everyone was getting some fresh air.
An unfamiliar boy was coming down the path - strange, I knew all the students at the school. I slowed down a bit, surprised, and the boy stared at me as I went by, his green eyes widening a bit as if he recognized me. But that was impossible. A moment later, I heard Satoshi's shout.
"Oh, you there! Help me catch Tonosama!"
"Whaaa!!" I heard the shuffle of feet as the boy got dragged along.
Yeah, good luck with that. I bounded away, not at full speed since I didn't want to catch up with Niwa quite yet, but fast enough that Satoshi and the boy would be hard pressed to close the gap. Still, I kept one ear tilted backward, listening to their conversation as they ran.
"I haven't seen you before! You're a first year?"
"Oh, um, right... I'm an exchange student from another school," the unfamiliar boy panted.
Hmph, he was lying! I could tell from the note of hesitation in his voice. I'd have to warn Satoshi about that later. Weird, though... if he wasn't an exchange student, then wouldn't that mean he was a legitimate Bell Liberty student? But one I didn't know?
That was too confusing.
"Hmm, that's exciting! This is a good school, I'm sure you'll like it."
"Yeah, I really love it!" A pause. "Umm, so... are you visiting someone here?"
Heh heh, was it that whole mess again? The boy thought he was so clever, fishing for information like that, but it was totally obvious that he thought Satoshi was a kid and didn't want to ask him about that directly. I loved those awkward conversations, especially the big reveal. One of my biggest regrets was that I hadn't been around to hear Ito yell about it in the middle of class on his first day of school.
"Can't... talk..." Satoshi huffed, "while running!"
"Y, yeah, me too..." the boy agreed. I heard their footsteps speed up behind me.
Ahhh, I was so torn! Did I stop and enjoy the stupid conversation that was about to follow, or did I continue pursuing Niwa and my previous record? Though looking ahead, it was clear that Niwa had put some extra distance between us while I lagged behind to eavesdrop, so it was probably time to give up on him. There would always be another day to chase him around, but the strange boy might not be around the school for long. I slowed my pace just enough to allow Satoshi to catch up, still running fast enough that he'd have to make a bit of an effort.
A few moments later, bare arms scooped me up from the ground, and I couldn't suppress a loud nyaa of surprise. It wasn't Satoshi, it was the boy! I hung limp as he slowed to a walk, chest heaving as he held me tight. "Whew," he sighed, out of breath, "you're fast! And," he tried holding me up, but I guess he was too winded from the run, "you're pretty big! Wow."
Satoshi walked up to the student and lifted me easily out of his arms. "Tonosama, how many times have I told you not to chase Niwa-kun? He doesn't like cats."
"Nyaa," I grumbled. Yeah, I know.
"If you know, then you shouldn't do it! Please don't be difficult."
"Nya nyaa." I was helping Niwa exercise.
Satoshi frowned. He was really cute when he made that face, almost pouting. Sometimes he really did look like a schoolkid. "Niwa-kun gets plenty of exercise without your help."
"Bunyaa," I answered - I guess so - focusing my attention on the student who was watching our conversation with wide green eyes. We made eye contact, and he took that as an invitation to speak.
"Um, could it be that you two are actually talking to each other?"
Satoshi nodded. "Of course. Tonosama is very smart."
"Tonosama?" He stepped forward, reaching out to scratch under my chin. I tilted my head, guiding his fingers to the best spot. "That's... I wonder..."
The boy muttered to himself, low enough that Satoshi wouldn't be able to understand, but I could hear him just fine. "A boy who can talk to cats... could this be the same boy Arata-san met? But that's impossible, he'd be all grown up by then, right...?"
"Er, what are you going on about?"
"Oh, um!" The green-eyed boy laughed nervously. "I was just thinking... if your cat is named Tonosama, do you think it would be cute to name one of his kittens Wakasama?"
"Ohhh, that's a good idea! That's so clever! Hey, wait!" Satoshi leaned back a bit, pulling my chin away from the boy's hand, and I let out a huff of irritation. "Speaking of names, we haven't been introduced yet."
"Ah, I'm sorry! My name is Asahina Yuki. I'm working with the student council here." He pointed to his armband. "So if you need anything, you can ask me!"
"Asahina-kun, then?" Satoshi adjusted his grip on me, stretching out one hand to Asahina as I climbed up to drape myself over his shoulders. "I'm Umino Satoshi, I'm the ultimate level biology teacher at this school."
"Nice to meet you!" Asahina said cheerily, grasping his hand. I could almost see the words making their way to his brain, and after a moment, he froze. "Whaaaaa?!? You're a teacher?!?"
"Geez, why does everyone always react that way?" I didn't have to see his face to know that he was pouting. "Don't tell me, I look like a middle school student."
"S, sorry, I just... but isn't it good to look younger than you actually are? My mom's always saying that," Asahina stuttered, drawing back his hand and scratching at the back of his head. "So, it's Professor Umino, right?" His face lit up a little. "I've heard of you! You do a lot of research in the Suzubishi lab, don't you?"
Wow, this kid was smooth. I eyed him up, but he really didn't look like the sly type, with that dopey grin on his face and his hair sticking out at all angles. He didn't seem to be lying, at least not now, even though he was a bit nervous. Well, if I'd just indirectly insulted a teacher, I'd probably be feeling pretty anxious myself.
"Yeah, that's right!" Of course, Satoshi ate it right up. "Are you interested in biology, then? Do you want to know more about my research on yeast? It's fascinating!"
I pressed my claws into his shoulder. "Nyaa." Don't talk about secrets again.
"Aww, Tonosama, they're not secrets, this is obvious stuff."
"Nya nya nyaa," I warned him. I don't really trust this kid.
Satoshi tilted his head, looking Asahina up and down. "He looks alright to me."
You know, there wasn't much of an advantage to communicating secretly with someone if he was going to blurt out replies like that! Then I'd have to try a different tactic. I slid one paw down into his coat pocket, fishing for the little notebook he always kept there. It was easy to hook the spiral edge with my claws, and with that done, all I had to do was grab it in my mouth.
But it was too late, I was already on the ground. I glanced back, making sure they both got a good look at the notebook, then took off.
"Agh, don't steal my notebook! Asahina-kun, sorry, I'll tell you about my research later, then!"
It wasn't long before the newcomer, this Asahina, was left in the dust. I made a mental note to check him out more thoroughly later.
Chapter 20: Thursday, July 22, 2010 (Iwai)
*rises from the ashes* IT LIVES
"Takuto, I understand that the director is in charge of everything that happens at this school, and that he has his reasons for making requests of the students, but this..." Shinomiya was squinting at the pixelated characters on the LCD screen of his flip phone, obviously having a hard time reading the screen in the bright sunlight. "I don't like it."
We were sitting on one of the park benches in the courtyard, in the meager shade of the freshly planted trees. I had my usual portfolio with me and had intended to sketch some rough drawings of the new landscape, but Shinomiya had caught up with me before I could get started. Instead, we'd spent the last half hour debating the meaning and intent of the director's email.
"I think it's interesting," I countered, thinking back on the unusual message. "I had a feeling there was something special about him..."
Shinomiya snorted. "Anyone associated with Endo is trouble."
I felt the hint of a smile tugging at my lips. I had no complaints about Endo; honestly, he was more polite and helpful than most of the other first years, and in the few times we'd interacted, his interest in art seemed well informed. But if I mentioned any of that to Shinomiya, he'd just go off on another rant about the boy's bad habits and rulebreaking, so instead I pointed out, "But the email was from the director. Endo doesn't really have anything to do with Asahina."
"Then why was he showing Asahina around the school? I didn't hear anything about an exchange student."
Shinomiya really was cute when he was being stubborn. "Don't stay hung up on that detail. The director sent an email to personally apologize to you, didn't he?"
"Well, yes, but," he tapped the screen, which was still showing the offending message, "then he sent this to a group of totally unrelated students. There's no rhyme or reason for this selection - I can understand why this came to me and the student council members, but why the finance association? Why people like Ito and Naruse and Taki? And Endo, of all people!"
I faked a cough to stifle a smile. Shinomiya, you're a little too obsessed with the concept of Endo as the world's greatest troublemaker. "Is that what's been bothering you? But everyone copied on this email is related in some way. It's Keita and all of his closest friends, isn't it?"
Shinomiya opened his mouth to protest, then shut it immediately, scrolling back up to review the list of names that had been copied on the email. He was quiet for a minute, frowning, before he sullenly admitted, "That might be it, Takuto. But that still doesn't explain why. Or why someone at the director's level is resorting to threats over a mere exchange student."
"Like I said before, I think there's a lot more to Asahina's story. The email did say 'extraordinary circumstances' or something like that..."
I pulled out my own phone and called up the email. The message had arrived early that morning, several hours before I usually got up. I'd been surprised to see one from him; messages from the director were usually aimed at more important people, like Shinomiya and the members of the student council. The only email I could remember getting from the director was a generic welcome message sent to all of the incoming first years immediately following the entrance ceremony. But the morning's message was far more interesting than a stuffy old form letter, the content rousing my curiosity.
You may already be aware of the new exchange student, Asahina Yuki. He will be staying at the dorms until further notice. Please extend him a warm welcome and treat him as one of our own.
As some of you are already aware, Asahina is here under extraordinary circumstances. If you are not and wish to know more, please speak with Asahina directly. I encourage everyone copied on this email to speak with Asahina and consider assisting with his situation. However, you are not required to get involved.
But be forewarned: the details of Asahina's situation are not to be shared with anyone outside of the small group copied on this email. Failure to comply will result in immediate and incontestable expulsion from this school.
Thank you for your cooperation.
Regards, the Director of Bell Liberty School
I could understand why Shinomiya was riled up by the content of the message, but I was too curious about the mystery to be bothered much. Honestly, I'd been surprised to receive anything from the director, but more interesting was the fact that I'd been selected as part of the small group who had been visibly copied on the message. Someone like me, who was always in the background, hand-picked by the director of the school... it was a little exciting. But on the other hand, it was also somewhat intimidating when I reviewed the list of recipients; since when was I considered as important as a star athlete or a member of the student government? Only after realizing that we were all close to Keita, that's when I'd been able to accept my inclusion on the list.
After all, Keita was named MVP. The director is well aware of his presence, and seems to favor him...
"Takuto? You got extra quiet all of a sudden."
"Sorry, I was just reading it over again..." I closed my phone and tucked it back into my pocket. "To be honest, I'm really curious."
Shinomiya's eyebrows rose. "Don't tell me you're going to ask him."
"I don't see the harm in it. It sounds like some people already know. And we're not required to get involved, just to keep quiet, so it's not really committing to anything."
"I don't like threats," he repeated for probably the tenth time since we met up.
"Yes, I've heard." I smiled a little to soften my words. "But I like mysteries, and since it seems like Asahina is connected to Keita in some way, it's probably not anything bad. Keita wouldn't associate with anyone unpleasant or dangerous."
"You say that, but he's friends with Nakajima, isn't he?"
I made a face. "Aren't you the one who's always saying that it's ridiculous to blindly believe rumors?"
"Yes, but when there's multiple similar rumors from varying sources, even I have to wonder..."
I was rescued from having to think of a response by a sudden shout from a few meters away. "Oh, it's Shinomiya-san and Iwai-san!" Asahina rushed up to the bench, a cheerful smile on his face. Like when we'd first met, he was wearing the summer uniform, complete with tie, and the unusual black armband was pinned to his short sleeve. He motioned toward the grassy clearing on the other side of the path. "Um, Keita and Endo-san and I are having a picnic, and the lunch ladies packed way too much for three people. Would you two like to join us for lunch?"
I glanced at Shinomiya, whose brows were drawn together in suspicion, and quickly turned back to Asahina. "Yes, that sounds like fun. We'll both join you."
"Takuto?" I didn't have to look to know that Shinomiya's expression had changed to one of shock. Even I couldn't remember the last time I'd accepted an invitation without resistance.
Asahina's face lit up. "Really? Woohoo! Thanks so much! It'll be more fun if we have more people!"
"Just give me a minute to put everything away." I leaned over, tucking the pouch of pencils that had been sitting in my lap back into my portfolio. Really, it was unusual for me to feel comfortable with a stranger so easily, but Asahina was easy to talk to and his interest seemed genuine. He reminded me of Keita, to be honest. And the unwritten meaning in the director's email, the hint that Asahina was in some sort of trouble and needed help, not from just anyone, but the people who were friends with Keita... well, I couldn't help feeling interested. Keita had helped me so much. It was only natural to want to help someone who was associated with him.
Asahina glanced at my portfolio, eyes wide as he took in the size of the black case. "Do you need help carrying that, Iwai-san? It looks really heavy..."
"Oh, no, it's not... it's just bulky. But it has handles, see?" I reached into the portfolio and pulled out one of the carrying straps. "This makes it easy to carry around a large sketchbook and supplies."
"Ohh, did I interrupt your drawing time?" Asahina's face fell. "I'm sorry..."
"No, it's fine. I was just chatting with Shinomiya. I'll draw after lunch instead." I stood, picking up the portfolio. Behind me, Shinomiya sighed, staying parked on the bench for a few moments before getting to his feet. Asahina didn't seem to notice or mind his doubtful look, and instead led us between the trees to the grassy space where Keita and Endo were waiting.
"Takuto, what are you doing?" Shinomiya muttered.
"I told you, I'm curious. I want to find out what that email meant."
"And what if I don't want to know?"
I glanced at him; since when was Shinomiya so stubborn? "Then... I guess you could go for a walk when I ask about it. Really, Shinomiya, I don't think it's that big a deal. Asahina reminds me of Keita. Would you be suspicious of Keita if he needed help?"
The only response was a frown and another sigh. It was a bit of an uncomfortable silence, but fortunately it didn't last long; the space just beyond the trees had been set up for a picnic, complete with a checkered cloth spread on the ground and anchored with an oversized basket. Keita and Endo were already seated on one side, sorting out the contents, and Asahina plopped down in the corner closest to them, motioning for us to sit as well.
Keita looked surprised as he watched us settle down on the opposite edge of the blanket. "Wow, Yuki, you got Shinomiya-san and Iwai-san to come have lunch with us!"
"Hehe, it was easy!" The slim boy leaned over to dig into the basket, producing yet another stack of sealed containers. "Oh, there's chicken meatballs, and katsu, and omelet..."
"Yeah, it looks like the lunch ladies had a ton of bento-type foods already prepared," Endo motioned toward the boxes in front of himself and Keita. "I guess the best thing to do is put them all in the middle of the blanket, and we can all help ourselves?"
Everyone agreed, and the basket was pushed aside so the food could be arranged as suggested. Asahina handed out plates and chopsticks, and we all served ourselves from the containers, which were still more than half full despite Asahina and Keita overloading their plates. Shinomiya nudged me with his elbow, but I shook my head, settling down with my small serving. "I'll get more later if I want it," I murmured.
I cut him off with a sharp glance; just once, I wanted to eat a comfortable amount, without feeling pressured to take more. Shinomiya stifled his protest and began eating, and for a few minutes, we all sampled the food, the only conversation focused on the flavors and quality of the lunch. Even I had to admit that everything was extra tasty, or maybe that was just an effect of eating outside, but I found myself leaning in to take some extra pieces of chicken and a bit more egg.
"Don't forget to leave room for dessert, everyone!" Asahina announced, opening the last box of food. Inside was an assortment of bite-sized snacks: mini brownies and cheesecakes, two types of cookies, and colorful mochi.
My eyes flicked from him to Endo to Keita. They all seemed so relaxed. Well, maybe not Endo, who kept glancing over at me and Shinomiya as if expecting us to say something about the morning's email. But Keita was, well... being Keita. And Asahina hadn't been copied on it, had he? I pulled out my phone to double check. No, he wasn't... so he has no idea that we've all been emailed? But I'm sure Keita or Endo already told him, right?
There was no way to know without asking. My heart pounded in my ears as I summoned up my courage; I hated initiating conversation, especially with someone other than Shinomiya, but my desire to know just barely edged out my nervousness. "Um, Asahina."
He paused in the middle of stuffing a brownie into his mouth. "Hm?"
"Actually, there was an email from the director this morning about you..."
"Eh? There was?" Asahina glanced toward Endo, who scowled and turned away. Weird. Maybe he was assuming that Endo had received it too, and had neglected to tell him.
"Takuto, do you really want to get involved in this?"
"We don't have to get involved," I reminded him. "We just can't discuss it with outsiders."
"That's the same as being involved," he grumbled, folding his arms over his chest.
"Huh, what's going on?" Asahina looked from me to Shinomiya and back again.
"Last chance to leave before I ask him," I murmured, but Shinomiya just mumbled fine and stayed put. I nodded my acknowledgement and turned back to face Asahina. "Several students received an email from the director early this morning, me and Shinomiya included. In short, it said you'd be staying here for a while, but hinted that you might be in some sort of trouble..."
Asahina's eyes widened. "O, oh, I had no idea..."
"I'm not sure why, but you weren't copied on the email." I tapped the phone. "Anyway, the message said that some people already knew, and the rest of us could speak to you directly if we wanted to know more. So... that's what I'm doing."
Asahina looked to Endo again. "Er... is that really okay?"
Endo shrugged. "Well, the director said so, right? I'm sure he knows which students can be trusted with your story." His lips curled into a faint smile. "Don't ask me."
Beside him, Keita rolled his eyes with a sigh. "Kazuki, don't be annoying."
"Uh, right... haha..." Asahina's laugh sounded a bit forced. "Well, um... my story is kind of hard to believe, but it's really true, and I have proof! Plus, uh, the director already heard it, and he believes me too, so please! Please believe me!"
And with that, he began his extraordinary tale, taking care to show us all of his proof, which was backed up firmly by Keita and, unexpectedly, Endo as well. Well, it made sense, since those two had been the first to interact with Asahina, so they'd had the longest time to get used to his fantastic story. After touching and playing with his phone a little, my own doubt wavered; of course I knew that fancy phones existed, but even I could tell that it was a powerful little computer, too advanced compared to the shiny smartphones I'd seen in slick advertisements.
Shinomiya, as expected, was more skeptical. "This doesn't prove anything," he stated flatly, handing the phone back to Asahina. "And those coins could be fake, I'm sure magicians use things like that all the time in their performances. I'm disappointed that the director was taken in by a fanciful story and simple tricks."
To my surprise, Endo piped up. "It's said the director is quite well versed in technology, particularly computer security. I'm sure he checked this phone quite thoroughly before deciding to place any confidence in Asahina's story."
My eyebrows rose. "You met the director, Asahina? That's... really rare."
"Exactly," Shinomiya huffed. "No one meets with the director. I haven't even met him. Why would someone so important take the time to talk with a strange boy found by Endo and Keita?"
"Because," Endo's voice was tight, "Keita's the school MVP, and the director knows he wouldn't lie. Plus, Asahina appeared on the roof of the school building without passing through any other monitored areas first. Security footage doesn't show anyone matching his description entering the school island that day, and the cameras in the school building don't show him either. Not until later, as he's coming down from the roof with me and Keita."
"It sounds pretty convincing, Shinomiya..."
But Shinomiya was having none of it. "Why on earth was the director showing you the school's security footage? That's not something that should be shared with students."
"Because," Endo hissed, "Keita and I were the ones who found Asahina! Of course we were going to cooperate with the director and help him get to the bottom of this mystery."
"U, um," Asahina cut in, "I don't mind if you don't believe me, Shinomiya-san. Honestly, it's kind of hard to believe myself... ending up in the past, meeting famous people from the school... if someone told me about stuff like that, I wouldn't believe them either." His smile was tentative but warm. "So, um, please don't fight because of me."
"I'm not fighting, I'm simply pointing out the inconsistencies in this wild story."
I knew that Shinomiya could be stubborn, but this was worse than usual. I got the feeling that he'd be like a dog with a bone, unable to leave it alone no matter what anyone tried, and frankly, I wasn't in the mood for that. My mind was spinning with the possibilities of Asahina's amazing story. Time travel, the stuff of dreams, probably since humans were able to dream. Of course it was hard to believe, but there was evidence, and it didn't seem forged or fake to me. More than anything, I got the impression that Asahina wasn't the type to tell lies, and even if he was, he didn't strike me as the type who could keep a complex story straight for too long.
Plus, I got the feeling that Shinomiya's main issue here had nothing to do with Asahina or his story, and everything to do with his displeasure at Endo meeting the director and seemingly placed in charge of the unlikely exchange student. He was taking it as a personal offense, for some reason.
"But it's not a wild story, Shinomiya-san, it's the truth!" Even Keita was getting crabby.
"Impossible, you can't expect anyone to believe this nonsense."
I reached out to rest one hand on Shinomiya's arm. "Hey... just let it go for now."
His glance was sharp, but it softened immediately. "Takuto, what...?"
"Let's just enjoy the rest of the picnic, okay?" Without waiting for his response, I stretched forward to collect two mini cheesecakes from the spread in front of us, plopping one onto his plate.
"Good idea, Iwai-san," Endo agreed, reaching out to collect a couple of snacks for himself. With the tense mood broken, Asahina and Keita went back to their usual smiling selves, comparing desserts and recommending the different varieties to each other.
I let out a quiet breath, relieved, and tasted my own cheesecake. It was surprisingly good, and I finished it up in two bites, setting my plate aside before I was tempted to take another one. With the minor conflict over, my shoulders relaxed, and I was suddenly very aware of the heat. Maybe I'd been able to ignore it while on edge, or maybe the sun had shifted during the picnic. Now it was almost directly overhead, and the clearing didn't have any shade to protect us from its intensity. I gripped the collar of my long-sleeved t-shirt, shaking it lightly to stir the air. It didn't help.
Shinomiya noticed instantly. "Ito, are there any ice packs in that basket? Takuto could use one."
Asahina glanced at me, expression curious as he took in my outfit. I tried not to tug self-consciously on the sleeves of my t-shirt, not wanting to draw attention to the unseasonally warm top, but it was hard to resist the urge to make sure the sleeves hadn't slipped to expose my wrists. My face colored as I noticed Asahina watching me, and he leaned forward like he was about to say something.
Keita elbowed him, shaking his head, and Asahina glanced at him in surprise, but remained quiet. The tightness in my chest let up just a little. A moment later, Keita pulled two gel packs from the picnic basket and leaned forward, offering them to me.
"Thank you, Keita," I murmured, wondering if he understood that my gratitude was for much more than just the ice packs.
"You're welcome, Iwai-san."
The gentle warmth of his smile, and the barest flick of his gaze toward my covered wrists, confirmed that he knew exactly what I was thanking him for.
My eyes went to Asahina. If Keita is comfortable with you, that's good enough for me.
Chapter 21: Saturday, July 22, 2017 (Okaken)
While waiting for the parts he ordered to start coming in, Okaken works on creating a replica of the strange tracking device that is able to detect Yuki's presence.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Constructing complex custom machine parts was delicate work under the best of circumstances, requiring good light, strong magnification, steady hands, and a distraction-free environment. I had plenty of the first two, but with Joker's guard dog standing at attention in the far corner, his sharp glare burning a hole in the back of my head, the other two were impossible.
I'd spent the whole morning compiling a list of parts that were necessary for reconstruction of the communication device, checking and rechecking against my original notes and schematics. Sonoda had helped with that task - no doubt pressed into service by Joker - and took on the jobs of cross-referencing receipts from online parts manufacturers, locating the same items or pointing me toward ones of better quality, and checking off pieces one by one as they were ordered. Joker showed up just before noon, dismissing Sonoda to go prepare lunch, but he left only minutes later after getting the barest of status updates.
I don't care about the details, Oka-chan. Just get it done.
His flat, humorless tone still chilled me when I thought back on it.
Even worse, after eating Sonoda's remarkably bland lunch, I'd been left alone with Chiba for the rest of the day. He hadn't uttered a single unnecessary word since arriving early that morning. He only offered replies to his master, barked responses that were more suited to a soldier than a student, and, once Joker left, sharp orders to continue if I paused too long in my work. I hadn't even tried to explain my progress or any reasons for stopping; not only would Chiba not understand any of it, but I was certain that he didn't care at all.
Ugh... this is worse than dealing with Joker's anger...
My task for the afternoon was duplicating the tracking device I'd found in one of the dusty boxes left behind by former members of the occult research association. Of course, it would have been easier to modify the existing device, but I didn't dare take the risk of breaking our only connection to Asahina-kun. The machine was remarkably well made, its circuits delicately soldered, wires routed neatly through the compact housing. It had taken a good couple of hours to sketch out a rough schematic and locate the parts that were scattered throughout various storage bins, but I'd finally begun construction on my replica. Or at least, I'd tried.
I bit my lip, stifling a curse, as my trembling fingers betrayed me once again, leaving an oversized blob of solder on the tiny chip held by the small vise on my bench. I didn't dare to pause for long, knowing that Chiba would demand to know why I'd stopped working, so I let a quiet sigh out through my nose and began the tedious process of removing the excess. That was probably the only good thing about having someone like Chiba around; he knew less than nothing about electronics, so any mistakes I made would go unnoticed.
But because of his presence, I'd been making many more mistakes than usual.
I can't afford to be distracted by a fool's presence! Focus! Are you going to let yourself fail just because there's an observer in the room? Of course not!
I'd been silently encouraging myself since the morning, doing my best to get in the zone and ignore Chiba's unwavering glare. After all, I'd had quite a bit of success on the roof. The communication device had worked, perhaps not exactly as intended, but I'd achieved something that no other scientist could claim. Better yet, I'd done it in the presence of multiple witnesses! No one could deny the magnitude of my accomplishment or the importance of my work now!
Except that Asahina-kun is gone, and everyone is enraged...
A bead of sweat dripped down the back of my neck, joining its fellows in my collar.
Wait, no! I wasn't going to focus on things like that! Asahina-kun was fine, he was safe; the tracking device had consistently picked up his presence, at least until he started moving around and it became impossible to predict exactly where he was standing. But that was fine too. All I had to do was get the replica built, then hook it into my multidimensional search tool system. After that, locating Asahina-kun would be a trivial task, and then, if it worked--
"Okazaki!" Chiba's bark made me jump so violently my goggles slipped off my face. "I don't see your hands moving!"
I pushed my eyewear back into place. "O, oh, sorry, I was just planning my next move, uh..."
"If you're plotting something, write it down. Joker-sama needs to approve your plans."
Ugh, it's not plotting, it's planning! But I simply nodded and went back to cleaning the chip, not wanting to risk stirring Chiba's anger any further. To be honest, I wanted to hurry up and finish the duplicate machine as soon as possible. Establishing contact with Asahina-kun was the logical priority, but once the parts I'd ordered started rolling in, that project would be pushed aside in favor of reconstructing the communication device. Hotheads like Joker and Sagimori couldn't understand the importance of handling the process one step at a time; they'd just want everything done as fast as possible without paying attention to the details.
Though when it came to duplicating the detector unit, I wasn't much different. No thinking required, I just copied what I saw, soldering connections, adding transistors and capacitors without any time to understand what I was building. The amount of parts packed into the small space was staggering, and I spent just as much time on my feet, digging through bins of materials, as I did working on the piece.
After about an hour of constant up and down, Chiba spoke again. "Okazaki. Why can't you just get everything you need in one trip? It's inefficient."
I glanced at Chiba, swallowing back the lump in my throat. He doesn't seem threatening at the moment, maybe he's genuinely curious? "Er, yes, it is. This machine is more complex than I thought. Every time I take a piece out, there's another one with even more parts."
"So why not bring a bunch of the most common parts?"
"Mm, it's not that simple. The parts look the same in general," I held up two resistors, "but the colored markings make a difference. I have to make sure everything is an exact match. All of the parts in this machine are like that."
Chiba was silent for a few moments, processing the explanation. "Oh. I see."
I allowed myself a small sigh of relief as I made my way back to the workbench, settling in for another short building session. Despite the multitude of very specific parts and the tricky soldering, the machine was built in an organized way, the layout logical and clean, and more than once I found myself nodding in silent approval of the design choices. The construction methodology made perfect sense to me, each part lining up in exactly the way I would have chosen if I'd been building it from scratch, without a guide.
It's almost like I designed and built this thing. Of course, that's ridiculous.
I said a silent thanks to whoever had built the device, no doubt another genius with a deep love and understanding for electronics. By the time Sonoda showed up in the evening with my dinner, I was putting the finishing touches on the duplicate machine, carefully tucking the component-packed boards into the makeshift housing.
"Hmm, you're done already?" Sonoda leaned over my shoulder, his shadow falling directly over my work area. "Does it work?"
"If you'd step back out of my light," I huffed, "we could try it."
"Geez, you could have just asked me to move," he grumbled, backing up a few steps.
I rolled my eyes. "I just did. Anyway, we'll start with the original machine." I reached out, flicking the switch, and it powered on immediately, showing three dots clustered in the center of the display, with a handful of others around the edge of the screen. "As expected, the original is showing the three of us here, plus other students who are in their dorm rooms."
The floor creaked quietly as Chiba approached, peering over my other shoulder. "What about the copy?"
"Just a moment, please." I picked up my screwdriver and fixed the circuit boards into place, ensuring that they were all stable before stretching one finger toward the power button. I hesitated for a moment, seized by doubt. What if it didn't work as expected? With these two staring me down, I wouldn't have time for an explanation, they'd just run screeching to Joker, and then...
"Well?" Sonoda prompted. "You gonna turn it on or not?"
"Yes, of course," I grumbled, pressing the button with a confidence I didn't actually feel. The machine was silent for several tense moments before it hummed to life, the screen flickering several times before the image settled down into a higher resolution version of what was showing on the original screen. I straightened up in my chair, a smile of satisfaction and relief lighting my face.
"Hey, that's not bad," Sonoda murmured, looking from one device to the other.
"It's more than not bad, it's an exact duplicate!" My voice swelled with pride; finally, success! "Except that this one has an expanded range, a twenty meter radius versus only fifteen for the original, which will make it easier to find Asahina-kun's current location!"
"So we can look for Asahina now? Let's not waste any more time."
Chiba reached for the device, but I snatched it away. "Hands off, this device is delicate! I don't have enough parts on hand to make another one if something happens to this."
"Well, you still have the original," Sonoda pointed out.
"Yes, but that one needs to be preserved, just in case something does happen to the new version. I have notes," I motioned to the papers scattered on the bench, "but nothing is better than having a working model as a backup. Now," I pushed back my chair, smirking a bit as the two members of Durak scurried backward to make room, "if you were Asahina-kun, where would you be right now?"
Sonoda and Chiba glanced at each other with puzzled expressions. A moment later, it hit me.
"Never mind, that was a stupid question. Come on."
Chiba blocked my path. "Where do you think you're going?"
I let out a long, ragged sigh. "The dorm cafeteria, naturally."
"Why, you think we're gonna let you eat something other than your special extra-boring diet?" Sonoda moved to stand beside Chiba, arms folded over his chest. The two looked ridiculous, but also intimidating, a solid wall of disapproving muscle. "Sit back down."
"Don't be stupid! It's time for dinner! That means Asahina-kun will be in the dorm cafeteria! Now get out of the way before I inform Joker-san that you're both preventing me from making progress!"
Chiba lowered his wooden sword, looking sheepish. "Oh... that's true, Asahina would want to eat..."
Sonoda's arms fell back to his sides. "Er, well, that does seem to be the logical place to find Yuki-kun in the evening."
"Exactly! And you know how fast he eats, so let's hurry before we miss our chance!" I stepped around the bemused duo and led the way to the cafeteria on the first floor.
Besides, I'm sure Joker will let me eat some real food as a reward for doing so well today...
protip: Joker is not gonna let Okaken eat anything delicious anytime soon 8D
Chapter 22: Sunday, July 25, 2010 (Shunsuke)
Shunsuke runs into Naruse, Yuki, and Keita on the weekend, and the four guys try to figure out what to do that day. Naruse tries flirting with the two first years, and Shunsuke notices that Keita has become awfully protective of Yuki...
FYI: Shunsuke calls Naruse 'Yuki' for short, but it doesn't sound the same as Yuki's name, so no one would comment on it. Yuki's name can also be romanized as 'Yuuki' and is written ゆうき (long u) in kana, while Yukihiko starts with ゆき (short u). It seems like a small difference, but would be quite apparent to a native speaker.
(PS: Despite how it's pronounced, 'Yuki' is the official romanization of Asahina's name.)
"Oh, Yukihiko!" I skidded to a halt about half a meter in front of my friend, sending up an impressive shower of dust and sand. Yukihiko was so used to my sudden appearances and last-minute stops that he didn't even blink. Instead, he raised one hand in greeting.
"Hey, Shunsuke, what are you doing today? Not more delivery work?" He peered around me to examine the saddlebags on my bike. "Those don't seem as stuffed as usual."
"Yeah, I don't have a lot to do today. Everyone went off-campus to do stuff in town. I just gotta haul a few things over to the craft club before the end of the day, so I'm gonna do that in the afternoon. Which means, I actually have some free time for once! Wanna go out?"
Yukihiko motioned vaguely in the direction of the tennis court. "Well, there was supposed to be an optional practice at ten this morning--"
"Yeah, but it's optional. So ya don't actually have to be there."
He frowned. "But I'm the captain, I need to set a good example..."
I could tell that his resolve was wavering; I'd known him long enough to recognize the subtle slumping of his shoulders and that wistful look. He just needed another little nudge. I opened my mouth to offer a trip to his favorite sportswear store, but caught sight of a much better prospect a second before I made the invitation. "Hey, there's Keita and Yuki! Why don't we invite 'em along too?"
That perked him up instantly, his head whipping around so fast that anyone standing near him would have been smacked in the face with a blond ponytail. "What, honey and sweetie?"
Predictably, Yukihiko completely forgot about me and rushed over to greet the two first years. I leaned over my handlebars with a sigh. "Man, you're such a dork..." Sure, I liked Keita well enough; he was a good guy, friendly and polite and always ready to help out. I just didn't get why so many of the other guys at the school found him attractive. I mean, stuff like that was bound to happen since we were literally trapped on an island full of dudes, but Keita?
And now Yuki had drawn a lot of interest too, though it seemed like Yukihiko was the only one actually charmed by him so far. Everyone else was simply interested in the newcomer who was supposedly from the future. I was pretty sure everyone copied on the email had decided to get involved, but I couldn't believe serious guys like Nakajima and the queen had accepted his crazy tale.
I mean, the proof is there, but man, that's a wild story. I dunno what to believe...
I pedaled over to the small group, coasting to a gentle stop so I wouldn't scare Yuki and Keita. "Yo, mornin'. He's not botherin' ya too much, is he?" I jerked my thumb in Yukihiko's direction.
To my surprise, Yuki made a sound that was almost a giggle. "Oh, no, Naruse-san isn't bothering me at all!" The skinny first year smiled up at Yukihiko, pale cheeks slightly pink. "S, so I guess you've already heard my story from someone else, right?"
"Yeah, sweetie, I got the details from Endo, which is surprising because Endo never goes out of his way to talk to me. I guess he finds you pretty charming too."
"Ehehe," Yuki rubbed at his nose, embarrassed. "Well, Endo-san has been helping take care of me since I got here, so it's only natural that he would be the one telling everyone about my situation. But you really believe it, Naruse-san? I haven't even shown you the proof yet."
Yukihiko waved his concerns away with one hand. "No need, sweetie, of course I believe you! I got all the proof I needed that day we first met in the cafeteria. Remember, you said something about seeing my face on billboards? That was really confusing since my first billboard ad isn't supposed to be up until this fall, but now it makes perfect sense!"
"Hmm, that's true, ya did know about Yuki's ads, and ya said somethin' about me and trophies too!" I leaned on my handlebars, imagining it. "Musta been a big race, if it was in the papers... us BMX guys don't get that much press."
Yuki turned his bright grin toward me. "So you believe me too, Shunsuke-san?"
I straightened up, scratching at the back of my head. "Mm, I dunno if I believe in crazy stuff like time travel, but since a bunch of stuffy guys already believe ya, that's good enough for me."
"Wow, you guys are pretty laid back about this situation." Keita was frowning. "It took Kazuki a long time to accept Yuki's story, and I don't think Saionji-san will ever believe it..."
"Those guys are different from us!" Yukihiko winked at Yuki, who actually blushed. "I can tell that you're a good, honest boy, sweetie. You'd never lie about something like this."
"Haha, you really think so? But we just met..."
"Naruse-san, I'm glad you believe Yuki's story, but please stop that."
"You know what," Keita muttered, scowling at Yukihiko, who just laughed. Honestly, I was getting irritated too. Yuki's reactions reminded me of how Keita had been when he'd first arrived at the school, too polite to tell anyone to buzz off when necessary. Now he had enough of a spine to tell Yukihiko off when he got too handsy, and didn't let the student council take total advantage of his helpful nature. Winning the MVP Battle was probably the thing that had given him the biggest confidence boost, but just getting used to the school and all its wacky characters had helped too.
Anyway, I had to get Yukihiko to chill out a bit, because clearly Yuki wasn't going to do anything about it. "Hey, Yuki, d'ya think ya could tell me a little bit about the future? I mean, not details, but hints about which competitions I qualified for and stuff like that?"
"Shunsuke, you too?" Keita turned his frown on me. "Don't you think it's kind of dangerous to know too much about your own future? I mean, what if something happens between now and then, and it doesn't happen the way Yuki remembers it? Wouldn't that mess with your head a little?"
I shrugged. "I dunno, do ya really think the future will change? I mean, for Yuki it's already happened. Maybe the future is kinda set and all we're doing is following a path that already exists to get there or somethin'." I reached up to scratch at my head. "Man, I guess the weird philosophy stuff we've been coverin' in class is starting to get to me... What do you guys think?"
For some reason, Yuki was glancing from me to Yukihiko and back, eyes wide and mouth slightly open as if he'd remembered something major about our futures. Somehow that made my heart pound a little. BMX had just been added as an official sport during the last Olympics, and I'd been training hard in hopes of qualifying for the 2012 team. And of course, tennis was an Olympic staple. I opened my mouth, but clamped it shut immediately, seized by nervousness. Knowing something that exciting ahead of time would really take the thrill out of it. And Yukihiko was bound to get even more full of himself if he knew he was a future Olympic athlete.
"Um..." Yuki began, sounding like he'd decided to tell us something.
"No, never mind!" I waved my hands at him. "I don't wanna know! I'm gonna find my own future without relying on sneaky knowledge of what ya already know! It's good enough ta know that I'm famous enough to be recognized!"
"Shunsuke..." Keita was surprised, but recovered quickly, nodding with a wide smile. "That's right! We should all do our best to work toward our futures without cheating."
"Honey, it's not cheating to get a little hint, is it?" Yukihiko cranked up the charm again, leaning close to Yuki. "But, sweetie, if it's not a good idea to talk about competitions from the future, then how about something a little more personal? Do you know if I end up with honey in the future?" He glanced at Keita with a warm smile.
Keita made a little choked noise. Honestly, I felt the same way, stomach tying up in knots as usual at Yukihiko's untempered flirting. We were good friends, but that was the one thing I couldn't stand about him, his complete inability to realize when he had crossed the line from innocent fun into awkward unpleasantness.
I've had enough of that sort of thing to last my entire life. Despite the summer heat, I shivered, but forced myself to step between Yukihiko and Keita, breaking their eye contact. "Yukihiko, cut it out already! You don't have to keep teasing Keita every single time!"
Yukihiko ignored me and turned back to Yuki, brushing his fingertips through the boy's messy hair. "Of course, a cutie like you would be just fine with me too, sweetie."
"Naruse-san!" Keita shouted, finally recovering enough of his composure to react. He grabbed Yuki's arm and jerked him backward, earning a yelp of protest from the other first year. "Please stop! You're making Yuki really uncomfortable!"
"Ow!" Yuki shook him off, brows drawing together. His right hand went to the armband on his sleeve, fingers trembling as he tugged on the safety pin. It slid out of the fabric and into his palm, letting the armband slip down to his elbow as he pushed up the edge of his sleeve with a couple of fingers, revealing a tiny spot of blood. "Ugh, the pin popped open and got me."
For a moment, we all just stared. Everyone else was probably surprised that Yuki had gotten pricked, but my mind was racing, wondering why Keita had reacted so strongly all of a sudden. He never got that mad when people teased him, even when I thought he should be fighting back. I mean, he was more likely to get mad on someone else's behalf, so it made sense that the flirting hadn't bothered him until it was turned on Yuki, but...
I dunno, man, I can't remember ever seeing Keita get that angry. I glanced at his face, noting the lingering tightness around his eyes even as they widened in shock.
"Yuki, I'm so sorry! Are you okay?"
Yuki nodded, though I could see a hint of moisture glittering in his eyes. "Yeah, I'm fine, it didn't really hurt, it just surprised me."
"But you're bleeding! Maybe I should take you to the nurse's office. It's only a little poke, but what if the pin was dirty and it ends up getting infected?" Keita leaned in close to peek at the tiny red spot on Yuki's arm.
"That seems kinda extreme, Keita," I pointed out. Man, he was acting weird. It kinda reminded me of how Endo was constantly hovering over Keita, shielding him from everything from unwanted flirting to annoying requests from the student council members. Everyone was always talking about how the dorm head fussed over Iwai, but Endo was just as much of a mother hen when it came to Keita. And now Keita was protecting Yuki in the same way.
Which, if the rumors about the dorm head and Endo held any truth, meant that things might get kinda interesting pretty soon...
Yuki let his sleeve drop, covering the pinprick. "I'm okay, really. I don't want to bother Dr. Matsuoka with something like this. If it gets swollen or anything, I'll go see him later."
Yukihiko patted his shoulder. "You're so considerate, sweetie," he began, but I leaned over to shove his hand away, not roughly, but firmly enough that he knew I meant business.
"Give it a rest already. There's no need to hang all over people who are too nice to tell you off. Anyway, why don't we all go do somethin' fun together instead of standin' around?" I smiled at Yuki, motioning toward the school entrance. "Why don't ya come shopping with us? I was gonna pick up some spare parts for my bike and look at some workout clothes, so why not tag along? I can show ya some places that have cool stuff for short guys like us."
Yukihiko perked up at the idea of a group shopping trip, his scowl evaporating in an instant. "Nice idea, Shunsuke, if we go to the places you like, even honey could pick out a new casual outfit. And we can all have lunch together, I know this great place with a nice view of the ocean--"
Keita waved his hands at Yukihiko, scowling. "Naruse-san, you're forgetting that Yuki can't leave the school island. Shichijo-san said that really bad things could happen if Yuki runs into people he knows, and especially his younger self."
"Yeah, but what are the chances of that happening?" I scratched at my chin.
But Yuki sighed, shaking his head. "No, Keita's right. I don't want to put anyone or anything in danger by going outside the island. I couldn't stand it if I hurt my family somehow..."
A gloomy silence fell over us. I didn't really understand the dangers of time travel or whatever, since I wasn't the type to read weird sci-fi novels or comics, but I sure as hell understood the desire to keep family safe, even at great personal cost.
"Well, then, you'll just have to come to tennis practice with me, sweetie!" Yukihiko leaned in, grinning at the two first years. "You too, honey, I'll give you both a private lesson! Shunsuke, you come too, we can play doubles!"
"Are ya kidding? I'm not playing tennis either with or against ya, ya'll totally hog the ball if we're on the same team, and anyone who goes up against ya is guaranteed to lose!" I rolled my eyes. "Anyway, ya just want an excuse to get your hands on these two. No way."
"Shunsuke, do you really think I'm that shallow?"
"Yup, I do." And from the look on Keita's face, I could tell he was just as opposed to the idea as I was. Even Yuki looked a bit wary, finally realizing that Yukihiko's seemingly kind offers hid more than a little self-interest. I caught his eye. "I have a much better idea. I've heard ya like to eat, so I've got a proposal. In case ya couldn't tell, I'm from Osaka--"
Yukihiko snorted, but I ignored him and continued, "I make takoyaki to sell when guys don't have time to go to the cafeteria for lunch, and I was thinkin' of cookin' up a new batch this weekend. If ya help me out, I'll make sure there's plenty of extras--"
"Okay, I'll help!" Yuki practically shouted, eyes wide and shining, a warm blush high on his cheeks. "I'm not good at cooking, but I'll do whatever I can! I can measure ingredients and mix the batter! Where are we going, the cafeteria?" He turned to Keita, grasping his hands. "Keita, do you want to help too? It'll be really fun!"
For the first time since we met up that day, Keita's face lit up with a genuine smile, and he nodded. "Of course, I'll go wherever you go, Yuki! Let's help Shunsuke make his biggest batch of takoyaki ever!"
"Shunsuke, you rat," Yukihiko muttered, sidling up to me. "That's cheating, luring both honey and sweetie away from me with food."
"Hehe, suck it, Yuki. Everyone knows my takoyaki is the best."
"It has nothing to do with your takoyaki. I've heard that sweetie is a bit of a glutton." His voice dropped lower. "Don't think you've won."
"Won what? I'm not interested in either of those skinny dorks as anything more than pals to hang out with at school. You're the only weirdo who has a crush on everyone in the school." I jabbed his shoulder with one finger. "Anyway, you're welcome to come help out too if you wanna hang out with them. Ya like cookin' so why not learn a new recipe?"
Yukihiko pouted. "But I'll never be able to compete with your takoyaki. There's no point."
"Oh, so ya finally admit that I'm the master of takoyaki!" I grinned. "So you're gonna go to optional practice instead of challenging my throne?"
For a moment, I thought he really was going to stomp off to practice in a huff, but his mood brightened again as his eyes swept over Yuki and Keita practically bouncing down the path that led to the cafeteria. "Well, maybe it wouldn't be bad to get a cooking lesson along with those two... Uh, but where are they going?"
"Hey!" I shouted, zipping after them on my bike. "Come back! We're gonna cook in the dorm cafeteria, not the main one, the lunch ladies almost killed me when I made a huge mess back at the beginning of my first year!"
Chapter 23: Wednesday, July 26, 2017 (Tomo)
Tomo, being Pretty Smart™, starts putting the pieces together...
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
I lifted my head from the pillow, making an indistinct questioning sound. Was someone knocking on the door? No, the sound was too subtle for that, a quiet buzz that came from under the blankets I'd gathered around myself to form a soft nest. The phone?
"Yuki?!" I gasped, scrambling to unearth the vibrating cell phone. My heart sank in disappointment as I read the caller's name. "Joker-san..."
I considered not answering, but a flash of inspiration zipped across my mind. Joker-san had been holding Okaken captive since Yuki's disappearance, forcing him to work on rebuilding the so-called time machine. Maybe, just maybe, he had good news. Maybe it was related to Dr. Matsuoka's cryptic non-explanation, how he'd urged me to wait...
My throat was tight as I pressed the phone to my ear. "This is Kasahara."
"Come to Okazaki's room now." The absence of a greeting wasn't unusual for Joker-san, but the complete lack of any emotion in his voice sent a chill up my back.
"Did he make some progress?" I pushed myself up from the blankets, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. "Is there any news about Yuki?"
"Come to Okazaki's room," Joker-san's flat voice repeated, and the call cut off.
I got dressed in record time despite the hammering of my heart against my ribs making it hard to pull on socks and get my shirt buttoned. Less than a minute later, I was out the door, hair sticking out at weird angles that would have made Yuki proud. I wasn't exactly sure where Okaken's room was, but it was easy enough to find with Chiba-san standing outside, scowling at anyone who dared to pass by.
"Kasahara." He nodded in greeting as I approached, reaching out to push the door open. "Go in. Don't keep Joker-sama waiting."
"I don't intend to," I muttered, stepping into the dorm room. It was like stepping into another world; the room bore no resemblance to my own, which was still set up in the standard layout. There was barely any evidence that Okaken used his space as a bedroom at all, except for the bed shoved against the far wall. Most of the room had been taken over by makeshift shelving units, each completely stuffed with identical plastic bins, all neatly labeled with a printed checklist of the items contained within. In the place where the bed had been originally, there was a huge metal workbench that was covered with unidentifiable electronic parts, tools, shipping boxes, and computer equipment.
Okaken sat on a rolling stool in front of the massive workbench, still holding some sort of tool in his hand as he gaped at me. Joker-san was leaning against the wall beside the bench, his presence as dark and threatening as his jacket. His eye fixed on me, slightly narrowed, though his expression as a whole was unreadable. After a moment, he spoke.
"You're a mess, Kasahara." There was no amusement or note of teasing in his tone. It was simply a statement of fact.
I wasn't in the mood for his observations. "My best friend disappeared and we have no idea where or when he went, or if he's even alive, so yeah, I'm a mess. What do you want?"
Okaken's spine stiffened, as if he feared that Joker-san would lash out at him in response to my bluntness. Honestly, I didn't care; it was his fault that Yuki was gone. I got the impression that Joker-san felt the same. Why else would he be spending so much time personally pressuring the first year, and have Chiba-san standing guard day and night?
"I want cell phone data. That thing," he gestured toward a strange device on Okaken's workbench, "should theoretically be able to search for Yuki-kun's phone, but apparently simple connections aren't enough for getting a lock on his unique signal. It's already failed to do anything with the records of my conversations with Yuki-kun."
Okaken looked like he wanted to protest, but he was frozen, as if he could somehow sense that Joker-san's eye was boring into the back of his head.
"What kind of data do you need?" My fingers went to my pocket, tracing the outline of my phone. "I assume my phone records aren't going to be any more help than yours."
An intensely blue eye caught mine. "Don't play dumb."
I glanced at Okaken. He was watching me with as much intensity as someone who was worried about being stabbed in the back could muster, his expression making it clear that he had no idea why I'd been summoned. It seemed that Joker-san hadn't spilled any of my secrets yet, though he had no intention of letting me leave without revealing something. Maybe I could still weasel my way out of it, depending on how the conversation went...
I sighed. "Fine. Okaken, what kind of data do you need?"
He was silent for a few moments, until Joker-san plopped a hand on his shoulder. "R, right! This device," he picked up the weird machine, turning it toward me so I could take a look at it, "can detect the presence of people in general, and if you input extra information, it can lock onto a specific person or machine. Right now, it shows Asahina-kun's presence--"
"What?!" I glared at Joker-san. "You didn't tell me about this?! How long has this been possible?"
"From early on, with the older version of it," Okaken mumbled. "I, I thought everyone knew... I can't exactly leave my room right now."
"Joker-san, what the hell? Where is Yuki, then?!"
"When is Yuki-kun, you mean." Joker-san snatched the device from Okaken's hands, flipping the switch. "He's not on the screen now, but if you go to the places he'd logically visit - like the cafeteria at mealtimes - there's an extra dot on the screen that can't be explained. The theory is that it's Yuki-kun's presence, but there's no actual proof."
I peered at the screen, noting the cluster of three dots - us - and another one nearby, which had to be Chiba-san. "Wait... are you saying that Yuki's still at the school, but in another time?!"
"Yes, Kasahara-kun, you get it." Okaken had recovered a bit of courage, enough for his usual condescending tone to creep back into his voice. "The wormhole connected to the same place, only the time was different. That makes things easier, dealing with only one axis of space-time. After all, it's perfectly natural for a person to move around in space throughout the day, starting in the dorm, heading to the cafeteria, then to class, and so on. Asahina-kun was simply transported through time, which should make it easier to bring him back across!"
"Okazaki, don't you dare congratulate yourself after doing absolutely nothing." Joker-san's voice was a low growl. "And your analogy is garbage, Yuki-kun is moving around in space just as much as he did in our time." He tossed the device back to Okaken, who scrambled to catch it.
"Joker-san, please be careful! We can't afford to lose any time building a new location device if something happens to this copy!"
"Are you telling me what to do, Oka-chan?" Joker-san's smile was filled with what could only be called murderous intent.
"Cut it out!" I snapped, glaring at Joker-san, daring him to protest. My mind was spinning. Yuki was still at the school, then, just in a different time? How on earth were we going to figure out when he was, and more importantly, how would we get him back?
One question at a time, Tomo.
I turned my attention back to Okaken. "So you're saying that if we had detailed information about Yuki's cell phone, that thing could lock onto its unique frequency or whatever? I'm not saying that's a bad idea, but how is that going to help anything? The only thing we'll get is confirmation that Yuki is still out there somewhere, that doesn't do anything to get him back home."
Okaken shook his head. "No, it's critically important! If I can establish a lock on Asahina-kun's phone signal, I could call him!"
My jaw dropped. "Wha...?"
Joker-san's eye focused on me. "Unfortunately, since Yuki-kun's phone isn't here, the data can't be extracted directly from the hardware." He paused for a moment, then added, "That would be useless anyway, since we can't call him if he doesn't have his phone. After wasting a few days trying, Okazaki finally admitted that the information contained in call and text records aren't enough to establish a strong connection to Yuki-kun's phone."
Okaken made a face, but kept silent. I did too, though my mind had already jumped to the logical conclusion. I knew what Joker-san wanted from me.
"So, you see, Kasahara, this is where your expertise comes in. We need data directly from the cell provider, and I suspect they're not about to release that sort of information to a couple of high school kids, no matter how nicely we ask." His smile was falsely sweet.
So this is how I help bring Yuki home... or at least get in contact with him.
"That data contains all sorts of valuable proprietary information. They'd never give it out to anyone, not even the subscriber." A humorless smile curled my lips. "So I guess I'll have to go get it."
"What, you?" Okaken snorted. "What are you going to do, hack a huge company like NTT?"
I stared directly into his face, eyes narrowing. "Yes. Exactly." I paused. "Except Yuki's provider is Softbank. I've heard they've been having trouble with security leaks lately, so their data centers will probably be under serious lockdown, and I'm sure it's encrypted to hell and back..."
"Okazaki can help, then."
"Wha?! Joker-san, I--"
Joker-san's fingers dug into Okaken's shoulder, spinning him around on his stool to glare at him. "You're a programmer, aren't you? You're at this school because of your search tool, surely you have the capability to help Kasahara deal with security issues?"
"Joker-san, stop." I made a sharp cutting motion with one arm. "Let Okaken focus on rebuilding the time machine or whatever else he's been doing. I don't need help." I shook my head. "Rather, I don't know what I'd do with help, I've always worked alone. Trying to coordinate with someone else now will just make things harder, and we can't afford that. And we can't afford any delays with building the machines that are going to be necessary, either."
"Is that an order?" Joker-san fell silent and mouthed Mr. Director at me.
My eyebrows rose. So he's not going to spill my secret?
"I'm not the boss of anyone but myself, Joker-san. You can have Okaken work as you see fit, but I don't have any experience working with others, so I'm doing this by myself." I scratched the back of my ear. "That way, if anything goes wrong, I'm the only one who gets in trouble."
Joker-san's brows drew together, his expression changing to something unfamiliar that I couldn't readily identify. He brushed past Okaken without a word, motioning for me to follow him out into the hallway. Chiba-san was shooed away with a muttered command, retreating a respectful distance to allow us a bit of privacy.
"Kasahara," he began, looking at my face but not meeting my eyes, "this wasn't supposed to happen. This was only supposed to be some harmless entertainment, something to break up the boredom of summer vacation. I never intended for Yuki-kun to be placed in any danger."
Is... is he apologizing for Yuki's disappearance?! I was so stunned by the shift in Joker-san's manner that it was hard to find my voice. "No one knew there would be any danger. I mean, who the hell would believe that Okaken actually built a working time machine? It's impossible."
"I underestimated him," Joker-san muttered. "I underestimated him, and Yuki-kun is paying the price. If he never comes back..." His voice faded, but it was different from the times I'd seen him lose his temper along with his voice. Instead of tensing with barely-controlled rage, his shoulders slumped, head bowing as he let out a quiet breath, and he shook his head. "I'm responsible for this. Yuki-kun is gone because I invited him."
"Hey, that's not true. No one had any idea this was going to happen. No one could have predicted that Maro would go nuts, and Yuki's the one who ran out there after being told to stay back." I bit my lip. "I mean... it should have been safe no matter what, and if you want to blame someone, it's really Okaken's fault, but I don't think pointing fingers is going to help anything. All we can do now is work together and bring Yuki back. Feeling responsible or worrying or blaming, we can do whatever, but we can't stop making progress."
"I can't do anything," Joker-san growled. "All I can do is make Okazaki work."
"That's enough. Keep him on task, don't let him slack off or get distracted. You're a leader, not a hacker or a mad scientist, so just do what you're good at and leave the rest to the guys who are good at other stuff." I paused for a second, then added, "Oh, but if you could do two things for me..."
His eye finally pointed directly at me. "What?"
"First, make Okaken promise not to tell anyone about my hacking abilities. I don't want that getting spread through the school rumor mill."
Joker-san nodded. "What else?"
"Look, I know you want to punish Okaken for screwing things up, but can you tell Sonoda-san to give him decent food? It doesn't have to be gourmet anything, but food affects morale a ton. I mean, look at how Yuki gets when he goes too long without a nice snack. If Okaken's morale gets messed up, he's not going to work as fast or do a good job, and we can't afford that."
Joker-san looked like he wanted to protest, but I could see that he was considering it carefully, and after a few moments he gave a small, reluctant nod. "Alright, fine, I'll talk to Eiji."
"Consider it a temporary morale booster. If you want to give him the former student council treatment after Yuki's back safely, go ahead. I won't say a word."
A hint of a smile came to Joker-san's lips. "You can be pretty nasty, Mr. Director."
"That's nothing compared to how nasty I'll get if anything happens to Yuki."
I retreated to the director's office for the rest of the day, armed with an overstuffed dinner bento from Sonoda-san and a pile of snacks borrowed from Yuki's desk.
It only took a few hours to hack into the Softbank data servers, thanks to a thread I found on a shady online forum dedicated to finding and exploiting security issues. The recent data leakage from the company had prompted dozens of 'security enthusiasts' to make their own attempts at accessing customer data, spawning discussions of weak points and proposed methods. Of course, the discussion was marked as being strictly hypothetical, but at least one poster spoke with enough authority and experience that I knew that their suggestions were legit.
Whoever this 'queensdog' is, I hope they're good at covering their tracks, or they're going to end up in hot water at some point in the near future...
Once I was satisfied that I'd removed all traces of my access from the system logs, I took an initial look at my prize, a massive compressed database file for all Tokyo area customers with family names beginning with A. Even if it hadn't been encrypted, simply opening a file of that size would put a huge strain on any computer system.
"Crap," I grumbled, staring at the screen. How on earth was I going to attempt breaking the security on something so big? The simplest of operations would take several minutes to execute, and I'd probably have to try hundreds of options before making any progress.
I leaned forward, holding my head in my hands. My elbow landed on the pile of mail I'd pushed to one side of the desk earlier, slipping on the stack of glossy catalogs and magazines. I sat up again, scowling at the mess, and grabbed the entire pile, intending to toss it into the recycling. The magazine on top caught my eye; since when was I subscribed to anything that sounded as oddly specific as Database Security Monthly? I turned it over, finding that it was addressed to Suzubishi Kazuki. Weird. Suzubishi-san had quit being the director years ago, so why was his mail still coming to the school? And more importantly, why hadn't I seen other issues of this magazine before?
Something buzzed around in the back of my mind, a vague sense of unease, but also a feeling that the magazine was something important. That feeling crystallized into certainty as I swept my eyes over the cover. A small headline in the corner declared: The shocking truth behind the Softbank security breach, and how you can take advantage!
"This is bullshit," I muttered, flipping the magazine to the indicated page. It was way too specific to be a coincidence. Was it from Joker-san, or maybe Okaken? But there was no way. The pile of junk mail with the magazine had been sitting on my desk for about a week already, long before anyone cared about cell phone databases and hacking.
A sudden realization made my back stiffen. Suzubishi-san was director of this school for a long time. If Yuki's still at the school, just in another time...
I lifted my head, staring at the computer screen. If Yuki was in the past, then whatever happened to him back then had already happened, from the perspective of someone in the present. Someone like Suzubishi-san. And of course Yuki would have recognized him. All three of us had gone out together a few times, Yuki tagging along to help lighten the awkward mood that still remained between me and my guardian. Suzubishi-san was someone Yuki would feel like he could trust, spilling the details of exactly how he got there, what happened on the rooftop, Okaken's time machine, everything.
And now this well-crafted but fake magazine had appeared in my office, in my time, addressed to Suzubishi-san but clearly from him, a guide to the data he knew I'd have to steal. Because from his perspective in the past, I already hacked Softbank and decrypted the data. Because we were already successful in contacting Yuki in the past. How else could this have happened?
I stared down at the magazine in my hands, heart racing as the pieces clicked together in my mind. My fingers shook as I picked up my cell phone and called Suzubishi-san. What was I going to say to him? Would he deny it? Why hadn't he warned any of us?!
'The number you have dialed is currently out of the service area. The number you have dialed--"
"Shit," I growled, barely resisting the urge to launch my phone across the room. He was traveling for work all summer, jetting about between various Suzubishi Group locations in America, Japan, and the UK. That usually wasn't a problem, but I had the feeling that he'd purposely chosen not to give me the contact details for his international cell phone.
Dr. Matsuoka's been at the school for a long time too. He knows Yuki is safe because he was there...
I snatched the headset from the phone, punching the button for the nurse's office. I knew it was way too late, that he'd gone home hours ago, but I couldn't help myself.
'This is BL School nurse, Matsuoka Jin. The nurse's office is currently closed. If you require medical assistance, please contact emergency services--'
"You're all going to require emergency services after I get done with you!" I snapped, banging the headset back into the cradle. Despite my words, my heart was light, my breathing easier than it had been in days. Yuki was safe, among friends even. I closed my eyes, clasping my hands tightly together as I pressed them to my chest.
Fine. If this is the game we have to play, I'll play it. Whatever keeps Yuki safe. I don't want to create a time paradox or something like that.
My eyes snapped open, focusing on the magazine, then the screen.
"Let's get started, then."
For some reason, I always imagine that Tomo swears a lot, but only when he's by himself and stressed out. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Chapter 24: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 (Saionji)
Keita and Yuki start getting a little too friendly, from Saionji's point of view, and he attempts to warn Kazuki about the dangers of their growing attachment to each other.
Also, are Saionji and Omi a couple? YOU DECIDE 8D
The sense of peace and quiet caused by the simple fact that many of the other students had gone home or on vacation was my favorite thing about summer break. Normally, I'd visit my grandfather for the summer, but the arrival of a boy who claimed to be from the future was too intriguing, even for me. And heaven knew what mischief Omi would get into without me around to keep him in check, reminding him not to ask for details of the future or to reverse engineer Yuki's phone.
"Still," Omi sighed, looking as pathetically wistful as a small child who'd been denied a second cookie, "I'd love to take a closer look at the inner workings of that phone."
I shook my head. "Don't get too deeply involved with any of this. If that really is future technology, that knowledge should stay in the future."
"Right, Kaoru," he murmured, not sounding convinced at all.
Normally, we wouldn't have dared to discuss Yuki's situation in a public space, thanks to Endo's obnoxious threat, but the communal bath was especially unpopular during the warmer months. It was simply too hot and humid for comfort on days that were already unpleasant. As a result, we had the entire place to ourselves, and it was easy enough to hear the echo if someone else entered the changing room.
"Don't pout, Omi, you're not a toddler. If you want to research something, try to figure out how to get that boy back to his own time before his presence causes a paradox of some sort."
"Kaoru, you don't like Asahina-kun?"
"That's not it," I shook my head. "He's nice enough, friendly and polite, like Keita. I don't have a problem with Yuki himself, but if his story is true, he doesn't belong here. He shouldn't be getting too attached to anyone or anything from this time." I met his eyes. "Like Keita."
Omi frowned. "You sound like Nakajima."
I pushed a stray lock of hair back over my shoulder. "Hmph, of course you'd disagree with his opinion, even if it's a decent one this time."
"That's not true," Omi protested. "I'm perfectly capable of considering the situation and coming to a conclusion without being influenced by what others think. In this case, I agree with Niwa; it's important for Asahina-kun to feel like he can rely on someone here. He's not the type who can manage on his own. And honestly, it's good for Ito-kun to help someone out."
"So you approve of their weird codependent relationship? That's--"
The door that divided the changing room from the actual bath creaked open, and we both fell silent, eyes fixed upon the approaching shadow. After a few moments, a towel-clad figure stepped into the light, and my guarded expression became one of distaste. "Endo. What are you doing here?"
He was careful to keep his expression neutral as he glanced toward us. "Good evening, Saionji-san and Shichijo-san. It's open bathtime now, isn't it? I'm taking a bath." And with that, he went to one of the washing stations and set down his bucket of toiletries.
"Fine, do what you want," I muttered, turning back to Omi. "Anyway, like I was saying, Yuki has to get back to his own time quickly, because--"
"Saionji-san!" Endo's glare was sharp. "You can't discuss that here!"
"Why not? Everyone present is well aware of the situation. If you'd stop complaining long enough and join the conversation, there might be a chance to figure something out."
Endo looked like he wanted to argue, but after a few moments, he turned his attention back to washing up. "Just keep an eye on who comes in here, then. I wasn't kidding when I sent that email."
I ignored him. "Before I get interrupted again, Omi, let me say this: I don't think Yuki and Keita should be allowed to get any closer. Yuki should be placed in a separate dorm room, there's at least three open rooms on the first floor alone. There's nothing wrong with Keita getting a self-esteem boost from helping someone in need, but if they get any closer, there's going to be real psychological damage if Yuki manages to go back home." I paused, then added. "For both of them."
I snuck a glance at Endo; though he was still washing his hair without a pause, his head was turned slightly, ear pointing in our direction. Real subtle, Endo.
"Kaoru, I think you're underestimating Ito-kun. He's grown quite a bit since the MVP Battle. His concern for Asahina-kun is genuine, not a crutch for his own self-esteem."
"I'm not saying Keita's not genuine. I don't think it's possible for that boy to be insincere, even on an unconscious level, but that doesn't mean that getting tangled up with someone who must leave is a good idea. If they need to be separated, better for it to happen before they get too attached to each other, that's all."
We were quiet for a few minutes. From Omi's expression, I could tell that he was trying to come up with some sort of rebuttal, an argument that I wouldn't immediately poke full of holes. I sank into the bath up to my ears, sighing. You're so stubborn. Just accept that I'm right. It's not a moral failing to admit that someone else has a better idea or understanding of a situation...
I sat up again at the quiet sound of water being disturbed as Endo climbed into the tub, drawing close enough for conversation while maintaining a respectful distance. "Saionji-san," he began, and I let out a ragged sigh. He ignored it and kept going. "I appreciate your argument, and I even agree with it. But try looking at things from Asahina's perspective, an outgoing boy who is obviously used to being surrounded by lots of friends. He's been torn away from everything and everyone he knows, except Keita. And before you say anything, I fully realize that our Keita isn't the same as future Keita, but that doesn't matter to Asahina. He's chosen Keita as his anchor in this time."
I snorted. "So you're saying it would be too cruel to separate them? You're going to fall back on a ridiculous appeal to emotion instead of looking at this logically?"
"Is it actually ridiculous?" His eyes went to Omi. "Shichijo-san, wouldn't you feel upset if you were suddenly told that you couldn't be close to Saionji-san anymore?"
"Don't drag Omi into your stupid hypothetical," I hissed, slapping the water with my hand to send a shower toward Endo.
Despite my reaction, Omi nodded. "Of course I'd be upset. I enjoy spending time with Kaoru, I wouldn't want to give that up."
"Traitor," I grumbled, turning my angry glare upon him, but Omi was unfazed.
"It's the truth, Kaoru. And I think you'd do the same for me." His annoying calm smile grew wider. "After all, look what you did to protect me when my hacking was discovered."
"Ugh, don't make me remember that." I scowled at Endo. "Let me remind you, we've already paid back our debt to you. Stop pressuring Omi into free work, and quit asking me to get involved with the idiot student council. We're done with you."
"I'm not pressuring Shichijo-san into--"
The three of us froze at the squeal of hinges, which was quickly drowned by cheerful voices and giggling. "I'm going to get the best spot!"
"No you aren't!"
Two skinny boys with towels wrapped around their waists burst into the room, laughing as they leaned against each other, shoving with their shoulders as they made their way to the washing stations. Keita carried his usual bucket of supplies, which put him at a disadvantage, and Yuki broke away, grinning as he dashed across the tile to claim the nearest station. Keita shrugged, smiling as he plopped down at the one to his left.
"Thanks for leaving me the best one, Yuki."
"Huuuh?" Yuki's disappointed shout echoed in the large room. "But..."
"Heh heh," Keita set down his bucket, leaning over to poke Yuki's shoulder. "I guess things are different in your time, but right now, this is the faucet with the best pressure!"
"Hey, that's not fair, you cheated!" Yuki tried to pout, but his grin broke through after a few moments, and the two started giggling like it was the funniest thing ever. They were clearly oblivious to the fact that the tub was already occupied, too caught up in fooling around to pay attention to their surroundings.
I cleared my throat, and they both gasped, spines stiffening. "You two need to be more careful about checking who's around. It's fine with me and Omi and this guy," I barely nodded toward Endo, "but you can't make mistakes around other students who don't know."
"S, sorry, Saionji-san..." Keita's shoulders slumped.
"Me too." Yuki bowed his head.
"Kaoru, you don't have to be so harsh, it was an honest mistake," Omi murmured, then raised his voice to address the two first years. "Don't worry, we're the only ones here. You can take your time washing up and join us in the bath."
"Hmph," was all I had to say, eyes darting over to Endo. As expected, he was watching Keita closely, his expression serious and maybe a little worried as the two newcomers relaxed and went back to washing. They were subdued at first, but that passed quickly, and before long they were laughing again, attacking each other with the sprayers and tossing handfuls of bubbles around. And when Keita offered to wash Yuki's back, Endo suddenly turned away. Unfortunately for him, Omi and I were the only alternative focus for his attention, and Omi was doing his best to avoid his gaze.
Fine. I don't mind being the one who has to speak the harsh truths.
I looked directly into Endo's eyes. "If it bothers you, you need to say something."
He didn't flinch or look away, though his expression tightened. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Don't play dumb, Endo. It's obvious that Keita and Yuki are getting very attached to each other. If they get too close, someone's going to get hurt eventually." I stared at him. Like you.
Endo leaned closer, voice low so there was no chance the younger boys would hear. "You say that as if Yuki returning home is inevitable, but that's not necessarily true. If we can't find a way to get Yuki back to his own time, he'll be trapped here forever without his family, friends, or even his own identity. All of that belongs to the young Yuki who already exists in this timeline. It's cruel to separate 'our' Yuki from the person he's chosen as his support in this time, just because there's a chance that he might be sent home. We can't bank on that."
I opened my mouth, but Omi was quicker. "Actually, I believe it's impossible for Asahina-kun to be trapped here. If he was already sent back to our time, then that means time travel works, and it's inevitable for him to return home. We just need to find a way."
I snorted. "That's ridiculously optimistic, Omi."
"I agree with Saionji-san, there's no guarantee. There's a lot of brilliant minds in our group, but that doesn't mean that we'll ever hit on the right combination of variables to make it work. If Yuki was from the past, then we could go talk to the person responsible for building that machine, but he's an elementary school child right now." Endo folded his arms over his chest. "We're on our own."
We were quiet for a few moments, until Endo winced at Yuki's loud offer to wash Keita's hair, which was accepted without hesitation. It was gross, watching him deflate like that instead of taking action. "Don't just sit there," I hissed. "If you want him, you need to fight for him."
Endo shook his head. "What are you saying, Saionji-san? Keita doesn't belong to me."
"But you want him to."
He ignored me and continued, "Anyway, think about how impossible this situation is, someone arriving from the future. Maybe it's meant to be. I'm not going to interfere with the natural progression of their relationship. That's Keita's business, not mine."
"So you're just going to sit back and watch while a stranger from another time swoops in and steals everything you've ever wanted?"
"You really don't understand, do you, Saionji-san? All I ever wanted was to be Keita's friend. I didn't bring him here hoping for anything more than that, I was fulfilling a childhood promise. Any change in my feelings after being reunited are my responsibility, not Keita's. And besides," he glanced back over his shoulder, watching Yuki scrub at Keita's hair for a moment before turning back toward me, "he's better off with someone his own age."
Did Endo really believe that squashing his own feelings was some sort of noble sacrifice? It was nothing more than giving up. "You're an idiot. If Yuki manages to go home, they won't be the same age. What happens to Keita then? Or are you planning to be the shoulder he cries on?"
"Kaoru," Omi murmured, his tone heavy with warning. I waved him off.
"If you think I'm that shallow, that's fine, you're entitled to your own opinion. I'm not going to turn Keita away if he comes to me for support, but I'm also not going to take advantage of his feelings when he's vulnerable. My job as his friend is to support him in any way I can, and I'd appreciate if you'd do that too, Saionji-san, even if you disapprove of him getting close to Asahina."
"Ah, I see," I leaned back against the wall of the tub. "It's the 'who's a better friend' game. I'm supposed to sit back and watch the people around me make bad decisions without stepping in to warn them that their foolish actions have consequences. Clearly you're the 'better' friend because you'll encourage Keita to make bad decisions that will lead to unpleasant outcomes, sparing him the momentary frustration of having a friend tell him he's being stupid."
Endo's smile was bitter. "In that case, doesn't that mean you consider me a friend?"
For a moment, I couldn't say anything. Even Omi's eyes were wide.
Then I snapped, "Ridiculous! Any decent person would warn an idiot who was about to drive his car off a cliff!" I stood and grabbed my towel. "Omi! Let's get out of here."
"Yes, Kaoru." Omi got up immediately, collecting his own towel and fastening it about his waist. I stomped from the tub, nearly running into Keita and Yuki.
"Oh, Saionji-san, you're leaving already?" Keita pouted, disappointed. "I was hoping all of us could enjoy the bath together..."
"Yeah, I even brought a rubber duck!" Yuki held it up, grinning. "Are you sure you can't stay for just a few minutes? It would be fun!"
Omi answered for me. "Sorry, Ito-kun, Kaoru was getting overheated. Maybe another time?" He reached out to poke the silly yellow duck. "Be sure to bring this next time, okay?"
"Okaaay!" Yuki seemed unfazed by our sudden departure and skipped off to join Endo in the bath, but as we made our way back to the changing room, I could feel Keita's eyes on my back. How much of the conversation had he heard? Probably not much, judging from how the two of them had been laughing and spraying water everywhere, but Keita was surprisingly good at picking up on moods, even if he kept his thoughts to himself. I didn't want to worry Keita, who was probably already feeling anxious about Yuki's situation.
I just want that idiot Endo to put some thought into what he's doing for once in his life.
Once we were safely back in the changing room with the door shut behind us, I reached out to catch Omi's arm. He looked at me, tilting his head in a silent question.
"Omi, don't you ever dare to be so stupidly selfless."
"I won't, Kaoru."
"I'll never forgive you."
"I know, Kaoru."
"Then good." I released his arm and dug in the basket for my clothes. "Because I have no intention of letting you go without a fight, whether you like it or not."
"You don't have to worry, Kaoru, I'm not going anywhere. Who would make you tea?"
I grabbed his arm again, yanking him so close that I was almost breathing into his face. "I hope you realize that you mean far more to me than that, Omi."
His look of surprise quickly softened into a genuine smile. "Yes, Kaoru, I know."
Chapter 25: Friday, July 28, 2017 (Kuya)
Armed with the clues Tomo discovered, Kuya and Takato work together to find more hints of Yuki in the past...
"Kuya, are you sure you're up to making all these calls?" Masatsugu's eyes were on my wrist. Or rather, on the brace I was wearing to stabilize my wrist, preventing too much movement. "I can take half of that list so you don't have to keep entering numbers into your phone."
I scooted the papers away from Masatsugu before he could reach out for them. "No, I'm fine! You're the one with the photographic memory, not me. I can't help with the school newspapers, so I have to do at least this much! My wrist is fine, Dr. Matsuoka said it was healing well!"
"He also said that this level of sprain can take up to ten weeks to fully heal," Masatsugu pointed out, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose.
"Mm, that's true... but it's not like I'm grabbing things or overusing this hand! I'm just turning the pages, see? When I make calls, I'm only using my right hand." To demonstrate, I reached out and typed in the next phone number on the list, fingertips dancing over the number pad to enter it in record time. Well, I did send hundreds of texts and emails every day. The only hard part was remembering not to use my left hand, at least while Masatsugu was around to be a worrywart.
With the way Masatsugu was watching, a familiar expression of vague disapproval on his face, I knew he suspected that I wasn't quite following doctor's orders. Finally, he sighed. "Please don't overwork yourself, Kuya. A wrist injury could mean the end of your fencing career if you don't observe the proper care routine. But for now, please carry on with the calls, and I'll focus on scanning through these PDFs of the old school newspapers."
Yesterday morning, Kasahara-kun had come to us with some startling news: Yuki was still at BL School, but in the past, and likely under the protection and care of the second director, Suzubishi Kazuki. According to the school records, he'd been director for six years, which meant there were tons of graduates from that time who might have seen Yuki on campus. Our task was to try and find any evidence of Yuki in the past, which meant that Masatsugu was combing through old issues of the school newspaper, and I was calling dozens of graduates.
My first reaction was to go and try to shake Dr. Matsuoka down for more information, but Kasahara-kun had shut that down immediately. We must be meant to figure this out on our own. That's why Suzubishi-san left me the fake magazine, and why the doctor won't talk.
I didn't like it. How could helping Yuki be a bad thing? I'm definitely giving Dr. Matsuoka a piece of my mind during my next checkup!
But right now, it was time to get back to work. I pressed the call button and pressed the phone to my ear, scanning over the printout of my script again to fix it in my memory. After a few rings, a male voice answered, "Hello?"
My back straightened. "Yes, hello! This is Bell Liberty School student council vice president, Sagimori Kuya. I'm calling on behalf of the BL School alumni association. Is this Suzuki Kaito-san?"
"Ah, yes, it is... BL School alumni association, you said? Is that new? I don't think I've heard from the school since I graduated..."
"Um, yes, it is new! The student council started it this year." I ignored Masatsugu's dubious look. "We're looking for graduates who are interested in being interviewed for upcoming issues of the school newspaper, or who would like to write a statement for incoming students that will be included in a booklet of encouraging stories and handed out during the opening ceremony! Would you like to participate, Suzuki-san?"
"Erm, it's a bit hard to answer on the spot... and I'm not very good at writing..."
Whoever this Suzuki-san was, he sounded pretty shy. I'd have to go easy on him. "That's fine! I can email you the information, and you can take your time reviewing it. No response is necessary, so please don't feel pressured!"
"Well, I guess that would be fine."
"Great! Oh, and before I take down your email, would you be interested in contributing to the Asahina Yuki memorial fund?"
Silence. My heart pounded; had I finally gotten lucky?
"Wait... Asahina who? I've never heard of him."
My shoulders slumped, and I fought to keep the disappointment from creeping into my voice as I responded, "Ah, sorry, it looks like he didn't attend at the same time as you. Never mind, then! Now, if you'll please give me your email address, I'll send the information right away..."
After hanging up, I let out a ragged sigh and plopped the phone back onto the table. "Another miss," I muttered, crossing out Suzuki's name. "Maybe Yuki isn't in the time of the second director..."
Masatsugu glanced up at me, peering over the top of his lenses. "No, I think we're on the right track. You said there was one person yesterday who immediately changed the subject when you mentioned Asahina's name. Taki from Osaka, wasn't it?"
I shuffled through my papers, confirming it. "Yeah, but he was the only one out of that year's graduates. Well, most of them didn't answer when I called, so it's not the greatest sample size..."
"There was also an artist from another year who hung up on you."
"Right." I tapped the paper. "Iwai Takuto. I don't know about him, though, he was incredibly nervous the entire time, like he was on the verge of hanging up at any moment. It might not have been the mention of Yuki, but his anxiety getting the best of him. And I wasn't able to find any connection between him and that Taki character, they're like total opposites."
"Hmm, may I?" Masatsugu reached out to take the page listing the graduates from that year. "Kuya, call these two, Niwa and Nakajima. They were the student council president and vice president back then. If Asahina is being watched over by the director, he may have asked the student council to be part of that."
"Oh!" I sat up straighter. "I remember that name, Niwa, the legendary student council president! I'm going to try him first!"
I dialed the number and put the phone to my ear, fingers crossed. Niwa picked up on the second ring. "Hello? Who is this?"
"Hi! I'm Sagimori Kuya calling from Bell Liberty School! Is this Niwa Tetsuya-san?"
Niwa's hearty laugh was loud in my ear. "Yeah, that's me! Wow, BL School, that really brings me back! How's that place doing? Is the student council still kicking the ass of the board?"
My heart pounded, responding to Niwa's excitement. "Yes, actually! We just defeated a major board proposal that would have been terrible for the students!"
"We? You're on the student council, then?"
"Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention that! Yes, I'm the student council vice president! I'm calling on behalf of the alumni association. Since you were student council president for three years, Niwa-san, we'd love to interview you for an upcoming issue of the school newspaper, and to include a statement from you in the alumni materials. Would you be interested?"
Niwa laughed again. "Sure! Gotta teach the new kids all about the legendary student council president, right? So, do you need my email address or something?"
"Yes, email would be perfect! And," I paused for a moment, drawing in a quiet breath, "there's just one more thing. Would you be interested in contributing to the Asahina Yuki memorial fund?"
The gasp that came from the phone would have been comical in another situation. "W, what?! Something happened to him, he died? No way!"
I leaned forward, grinning. "So you know Yuki, Niwa-san?"
There was a long pause filled with nothing but the sound of heavy breathing. Then: "Shit."
The connection cut off, and I lowered the phone, aiming a huge smile at Masatsugu. "Looks like we have at least one irrefutable confirmation!"
"Yes, I heard." Masatsugu's words were bland, but his tone was bright with excitement as he reached out to turn my papers toward him. It only took him a few moments to flip through the pages, eyes darting back and forth as they scanned the page. "Niwa for sure, and I feel that this student in the year under him, Taki, had a rather suspicious reaction. Which would put Asahina in the year 2009 or 2010, both of which are years that Suzubishi Kazuki was director. That fits Kasahara's theory."
"Plus, if Yuki's there with Niwa, he must be so excited! That guy's a legend!"
"Kuya," Masatsugu sighed, "do you have to force yourself to see the good in everything? Asahina is trapped in another time with no way of getting back."
"That's not true! Suzubishi-san left a clue for Kasahara-kun, that must mean he knows something about what happened! After all, he's already lived through whatever happened back then, so if Yuki got sent back to us, he would know about it!" I frowned, brows drawing together. "I think that's how it works...? Time travel is kind of hard to think about."
"No, you have it right, Kuya. But there's no way for anyone to know if Asahina made it back here safely, because that hasn't happened yet. And it may never happen. Which is why we need to keep working on this problem." He pushed back his chair and stood, gathering the papers scattered across the desk into a folder. "Come on, Kuya, there's more research to be done."
"Hm? You mean looking at the old school newspapers? Why can't we do it here? I mean, you've been looking at the scans all morning, so..."
"Because," Masatsugu adjusted his glasses, "the library has high-quality omnibus editions for each trimester's papers. They'll be higher quality than the scans, and since I strongly suspect that Asahina won't be mentioned by name in any of the articles, we need to search very carefully. We can't risk missing an important detail because of a badly scanned page."
"Mm, you're right." I leapt to my feet. "Then onward to the library!"
The Bell Liberty School library was an intimidating place, with impressive architecture, beautiful lighting, and of course, countless numbers of books on every subject imaginable. The hushed atmosphere made it feel more like an art museum than a school library, and I always felt out of place when I went with Masatsugu. No one talked, no one laughed, it was calm and still and serious, like the parties my parents used to bring me to, only without the fun of meeting new people and playing with the children of other diplomats.
"Kuya, your shoulders are getting tense," Masatsugu observed.
How was it that he always knew when something was bothering me? "Ah, er... you know the library always makes me feel a little nervous," I whispered, cringing internally at how loud my voice seemed in the empty space. With most of the students gone for the break, and none of the remaining ones caring to start on their summer homework yet, the library was deserted except for us.
"You don't have to whisper, Kuya, the design of the space ensures that your voice won't carry or echo, unless you shout." Masatsugu's lips curled into a fond smile, like they always did when he spoke about the features of the grand library. "We can talk normally."
"Urgh, why can't we take these stupid newspaper collections back to the student council room?" I thumped my hand on the pages of the open book. "I can't concentrate in here. It's too quiet."
"Only you would be disturbed by quiet, Kuya. And besides," he flipped a page, "these books can't be checked out, they're part of the special periodicals collection, and the school history collection."
"Right, right, of course." I rubbed my forehead, sighing. "Well, this shouldn't be too bad, since we're only checking two years of back issues."
I was mostly saying it to convince myself, because even though each of us only had one year's worth of newspapers to check through, the paper was printed weekly, and each issue had at least sixteen pages. And the paper never missed a week, published like clockwork even during breaks. Finding any hint of Yuki's existence in the past would be worse than finding a needle in a haystack, because at least the needle would get stuck in your finger if you grabbed at it, or you could fish it out with a magnet or something. If the students in the past had been careful about keeping Yuki's presence a secret, maybe he wasn't in the paper at all. Maybe they'd gone back through the old issues after the fact, scrubbing any mentions of him from the archives.
No, that wasn't the way to be thinking right now! Having a defeatist attitude would make it impossible to focus on the task in front of me. I had to believe that we would find something in the vast sea of paper, because we'd be stuck at a dead end if we didn't. Sure, Kasahara-kun still had the phone data, and Okaken had his weird tracking device, but if we failed here, the student council would be at a standstill. And that just wasn't acceptable to me.
Or to Masatsugu either. I glanced up, watching his eyes dart back and forth as he scanned each page for hints of Yuki's presence, lingering over each photo and headline. I suppressed a sigh and turned my attention back to my own book, the first of three fat volumes for the year 2009. After a few pages, I fell into a rhythm, carefully reading articles about various clubs and events, barely scanning the ones about famous graduates and their then-current activities, and staring intently at every photo, hoping for a clue.
We looked for hours, so absorbed in our task that we didn't notice it was well after lunchtime until my stomach let out a gurgle of protest. The sound brought a smile to my lips at first, conjuring memories of the times Yuki's stomach had interrupted serious conversations or helped to lighten the mood in a tense moment. A moment later, my heart sank.
What if we never hear that hungry rumble again? Or the way he yells 'let's eat' before digging in?
"This is it! Kuya, look!" Masatsugu's finger stabbed the page in triumph.
"Huh? You found something?" I sat up straight, leaning over the table. "Let me see!"
He spun the book around, tapping a photo at the corner of the page. "This photo goes with the article about the swim club, but take a closer look."
I peered at the photo, scanning over the faces of the unfamiliar swimsuit-clad boys before focusing on a pair of uniformed students in the background. Their backs were to the camera, and they were out of focus, but one of the boys had incredibly messy hair, including a pair of cowlicks that I'd recognize anywhere. And his left arm had something dark covering the end of his short sleeve.
"The armband..." My heart raced, the sudden pounding loud in my ears. Yuki was in the past, he was safe. My finger shook as I touched his image. "Masatsugu, he's there! That has to be Yuki!"
"I agree. Asahina's hair is very distinctive, and that black spot here must be the student council armband." Masatsugu turned the book back around and pulled out his cell phone, snapping several photos of the picture. "This paper is from the second week of August 2010. It seems likely that Asahina is not only in the same place, but in the same time - just seven years ago."
My head swam. "You mean... he's exactly seven years in the past?"
"I can't be sure, but it seems possible. After all, if the machine was precise enough to keep Asahina in the same place, I suppose it's not unreasonable for it to preserve the date as well." He made a face. "That sounds ridiculous now that I've said it..."
"Everything about this is ridiculous," I agreed, pulling the book back to myself. "Hmm, I wonder if this photo was always like this, or if Yuki appeared in it when he got sent back?"
Masatsugu sighed. "That not how reality works, Kuya. He was always in the photo, because at the time, he was physically there. How else would that other student be in the picture, talking to him?"
"Umm... you may have a point. Speaking of which, who is this other student? If we could find that person in this time, he might have a lot of useful information! Mm, now that I'm looking more closely, I feel like he's kind of familiar. Too bad he's facing the other way. And there's some annoying printing error right here." I reached out, trying to brush the two curved lines away from the top of the other boy's head, but of course they weren't affected. They were part of the photo. "Huh, that's weird. It's like he has little antennas attached to his head or something..."
"What did you just say?" Masatsugu asked, tone sharp.
I glanced up. Our eyes met.
"Professor Keita..." I breathed, hardly believing it, but the longer I looked at the newspaper, the more convinced I became. There was no mistake. "Masatsugu!"
He nodded, fingers already busy typing the email. "I'm sending this photo and information to everyone immediately. I believe Professor Ito has been away from the school for a while, but Kasahara has access to his contact information. Hiding from us will be impossible."
I smiled, still high on the sense of sudden relief. "You sound like a mob boss or something."
His gaze met mine, eyes cold and hard. "I won't let anything prevent us from helping Asahina. Or anyone. In fact, I think I'll invite Joker and company to handle this particular development." A somewhat sinister smile came to his lips as he pressed the send button.
I fought back a shiver. Remind me never to piss you off, Masatsugu...
Chapter 26: Wednesday, July 28, 2010 (Keita)
Keita supports Yuki as the reality of the situation begins to wear at his usual optimism.
(I'm aliiiiiiive 8D)
Another long summer day had drawn to a close. I'd never been away from my family during the summer before, and the sense of freedom was exciting. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy summer vacation with my parents and Tomoko, especially if I'd managed to win us a trip to an exotic location, but I'd never been truly on my own before. At Bell Liberty, I didn't need to get permission to go out, or to try and work out a compromise with anyone else who wanted to do something different. Of course I knew that one of the school ideals was protecting the freedom of the students, but I'd never really understood it until I started getting involved in school activities and outings.
The school was special. And some of that magic was rubbing off on me, even if I didn't have any natural talents like my classmates. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could do things for others that weren't directly connected to my luck, like help the student council with paperwork or give Kazuki advice on what the students really wanted for the school. And now Yuki was here, someone who knew my future and had already seen me be successful, but more importantly, he needed my help. He didn't know anyone else, at least not well, and I was kind of proud that he'd already started to depend on me so much. I was reliable. He trusted me.
And so we'd spent the entire day together again, running around in the sunshine and enjoying the excitement of an impossible friendship. By the time we'd finished with dinner, played some video games, and showered, I was totally ready for bed. Once I snuggled into the blankets, though, my brain refused to shut off, mind racing. Everything that had happened in the short time since summer break started kept buzzing around my head, and I couldn't silence any of it for long enough to get any sleep. It was still hard to believe that Yuki was real.
A boy from the future... and out of everyone here, I'm the one he trusts. It's pretty amazing.
I was drawn out of my thoughts by an unfamiliar noise, a weird sniff. Was it coming from outside? I held my breath, waiting for it to happen again. Just as I was about to give up and relax back into my pillow, I heard it again.
Was it coming from the futon?
Yes, there it was again. It took me a few moments to identify the sound, which was something so basic and so familiar that I felt ashamed for not understanding right away.
Yuki was crying.
How had all of us been so stupid? My face burned as it hit me. Yuki had been smiling since he got here, so no one had stopped to think about how horrible he must have been feeling. We were all too busy being amazed or going on about how his presence seemed impossible without bothering to consider how Yuki must have been hurting despite his bright smile.
"Yuki?" I pushed back my blanket and sat up.
A quiet sound, halfway between a hiccup and a gasp, cut through the still air. I'd been lying awake long enough in the dark that I could clearly see Yuki's outline huddled under the blanket, curled up tight. He looked oddly stiff, and I realized that he'd frozen in place, holding still in an attempt to make me think he was asleep. But no one looked that unnaturally tense while sleeping.
I slid from my bed, cursing myself. How could I be silently patting myself on the back for helping him without spending a single second considering how he must have felt?
"Yuki?" I repeated, dropping to my knees at his side. I wasn't sure what else to say. Apologizing for not understanding his feelings would make me sound like I was begging for forgiveness, and I didn't want that. All I wanted was for him to know that I finally realized, that I would be there to support him. Maybe that's all I need to say, then.
I tentatively placed one hand on his shoulder. "Yuki, you don't have to be sad by yourself. I'm here for you. I know you must be missing your family and your friends, and your own time..." I paused, biting my lip, glad that he was facing away and couldn't see the weird faces I was making to hold back my own tears, sympathy and guilt all mixed up in a shameful mess. "We're all really excited to have you here, but we haven't been paying attention to your feelings either..."
Yuki's shoulder trembled under my hand, and he was breathing hard, trying to get a grip on himself. I shook my head and scooted closer, hesitating for a few moments before stretching out beside him on the futon, using my grip on his shoulder pull myself up against his back. He was tense, really tense, and I could feel his body heat through the heavy blanket between us. I patted his arm, hoping the contact was comforting instead of awkward.
There was a long, tense pause, maybe only a few seconds, but it felt like forever. All I could hear was the muted hiss of Yuki's breath and the quiet sniffles that punctuated them. He didn't seem upset by my presence. Rather, he relaxed a little, his tightly curled pose opening up just a bit as I petted his arm through the blanket. His breathing grew steadier, and after another pause, he sighed, blanket shifting as his shoulders slumped.
"I've been really stupid..." he mumbled.
"What?" I couldn't understand why Yuki would blame himself for anything that had happened. "No, you haven't, it's not your fault you ended up here..."
"That's not it," he sniffed. "But I was having so much fun here without thinking about how anyone else would be affected. I know this is a crazy situation and I'm in really big trouble, but all I could think about was how everything was new and exciting. I got to meet all sorts of interesting people, famous people, even the legendary student council president."
Well, that was only natural. I'd felt the same way when I'd first come to Bell Liberty, and maybe Yuki had too, and it was the same situation all over again with a new set of people. Yuki was the friendly, outgoing type, so of course he'd be interested in the people surrounding him. I tried to gather my thoughts, to find a way to organize them into reassuring words, but before I could come up with anything that sounded good, Yuki kept talking.
"I never stopped to think about how worried all my friends must be back home."
My fingers tightened a little on his arm as he continued, "They must think I'm dead. I'm so selfish." And after that, his words flooded out in a torrent. "Okaken must feel so bad, thinking his machine malfunctioned and did something horrible to me, and Joker-san must be so angry with him. I'm sure Joker-san is threatening him, and saying he'd better rebuild it and fix everything, and Okaken's no good under pressure so he's all stressed out. And Arata-san and Yagami were there too - oh no, and Maro! I hope Maro's okay, he didn't end up back here with me, right? What will Arata-san do if anything bad happened to Maro? And Kuya-san! He tried to stop me from running after Maro, he knew it was dangerous and was trying to protect me, but I just ignored him and did whatever I wanted!"
I could hardly keep up with all the names, and Yuki just kept going without pausing to breathe between sentences. "What are my parents going to think? Maybe everyone can hide it for a while, but they'll eventually find out that I'm missing... they're going to be so sad. And they won't believe it was a time machine! Maybe Okaken will get arrested for building a dangerous machine? Or the school will be investigated and Professor Sakaki will get in trouble because he's the one in charge? What if the school gets shut down because of me?!"
Yuki's back stiffened. "And Tomo! I can't forget about Tomo! I'm the only one he trusts, he won't rely on anyone else, what's going to happen to him now? Tomo... oh no, it's going to be like Nao-nii all over again, isn't it? If he goes back to the way he was before I got to the school, maybe no one will ever be able to bring him out of it again!" Yuki's shoulders trembled as he cut himself off with a quiet sob. "If the school's gone, Tomo has no place to go... he'll have to go back to the orphanage, won't he? Oh no... Tomo..."
With that, Yuki dissolved into tears again, leaving me powerless to do anything except hug him close and rock him gently, muttering soothing words that I honestly didn't believe myself. "Shh, Yuki, it's okay. It'll be okay. We'll fix it, really."
How could anyone fix a situation like this, something completely unheard of in all of human history? Sure, Shichijo-san was a genius when it came to computers, and Saionji-san had access to all sorts of reference materials, and my other friends all had something to contribute too. That didn't mean they'd be successful in doing the impossible, though. And I had nothing to offer Yuki, except for meaningless words and empty promises. He'd figure that out soon enough - after all, his real friends were talented people chosen by Bell Liberty, nothing like me, who was only at the school because Kazuki wanted to make good on a promise I didn't even remember.
Maybe Yuki had gotten into the school by chance, but he had the character of someone who belonged at Bell Liberty: positive, friendly, charismatic, a natural leader, and selfless. Only an extraordinary person could worry about friends and family at a time like this. Someone like me would only end up depressed, feeling sorry for myself, just like I had when Assistant Director Kuganuma summoned me to his office and told me that my enrollment was a mistake.
Yuki was special. The tears on his cheeks weren't for himself, but for others. And he'd even held it all in until he thought I was asleep, not wanting to disturb me with his emotions.
Instead of making me feel guilty, that realization sparked something fierce in my heart. I want to protect him. I squeezed Yuki closer, pressing my cheek to the back of his shoulder.
"It's going to be okay," I repeated, only this time the words were backed with strength and conviction. "I'm going to do everything I can to help you. You won't be trapped here." I remembered Shichijo-san's words. You can't leave the school island for any reason. Especially not to see your family. It would be a disaster if you ran into yourself.
My eyes stung. I wouldn't let that happen. Someone like Yuki couldn't survive like that, away from family and friends. "It's okay," I whispered into shoulder. "You're not alone. I'm with you."
Yuki's body stayed tense for what felt like a long time. And then he started to relax, shoulder slowly lowering from its hunched position. I patted his arm in what I hoped was a reassuring way. "Just one second, okay, Yuki?" I pulled away from him just long enough to twist around and grab the edge of my blanket, hauling it off the bed with a sharp tug. I settled it over myself, trying not to wiggle around too awkwardly against Yuki's back, and settled down again after a few moments. "There. Now I can stay here with you, so you don't have to be alone."
"Mm," Yuki murmured, more of a tired sigh than a sound of agreement. He must have been exhausted from holding in all those feelings, not wanting anyone to worry about him. Well, that was too bad, because I was going to worry whether he liked it or not. I didn't have special talents to share, but I did have something to offer: my kindness. And from what I'd learned of Yuki so far, I knew that he was the kind of person who believed in the power of a kind word or action. No, not just believed in it, he responded to it, like a flower turning toward the sun.
Maybe it's not possible for someone like me to be like water or fertilizer, but I can be the sun for you...
It didn't take long for Yuki to start drifting off, tension draining from his body as he slipped into that comfortable space between alertness and sleep. A quiet grunt came from his nose, and I smiled, barely resisting the urge to pat his shoulder. I didn't want to disturb his descent into sleep.
Huh? Was Yuki already asleep and talking in a dream?
"...Staying with me... thanks, Keita..."
My face turned red in an instant. Yuki was talking to me! Still, I didn't want him to stay awake any longer, so I just rubbed my cheek against the back of his shoulder in silent acknowledgement. Maybe it was my imagination, but Yuki's sleepy sigh sounded happy, and it made me smile too.
It's not much, but I'll do everything I can. So don't worry, okay? I'm here.
Chapter 27: Saturday, July 29, 2017 (Sonoda)
Durak lies in wait outside of Keita's apartment, hoping to catch and question him about Yuki's time in the past. And...
Saturday, July 29, 2017 (Sonoda)
"Kiyo, hiding like this is silly. I feel like this is some sort of ridiculous stakeout."
The three of us - me, Kiyo, and Hayato - were stuffed into an uncomfortably small janitor's closet in the hallway of a large apartment building. The door was open just enough for Kiyo to peer out at anyone who happened to pass by, though every once in a while, he'd push it open a bit more to take a closer look at the apartment at the far end of the hallway. It was unbearably stuffy, and we'd been cooped up inside for over an hour, sweating it out in the non-air conditioned space.
Ugh, and my nose is way too close to Hayato's armpit...
"Eiji," Kiyo hissed, not bothering to turn away from his post, "if you call this ridiculous one more time, you'll be next to get it after I'm done with Professor Ito."
Hayato glared at me, his sudden motion jamming his armpit even closer to my face. "Sonoda, be quiet. Your complaining will compromise Joker-sama's operation."
I gritted my teeth and stayed silent. Arguing with Hayato was about as effective as arguing with a brick wall, and Kiyo was surprisingly stubborn about the whole Yuki-kun situation. Well, I could understand wanting to get him back, even if that meant shaking down a teacher for information, but it was unusual for Kiyo to be so serious about something other than one of his own amusements. My face colored as I remembered the way he'd acted a few nights ago, more determined than ever to lose himself in physical pleasure, and so frustrated at how quickly that glow faded and his worries returned in full force.
I'd stupidly thought it was okay to tease him. What, do you like Yuki-kun more than me?
The way he'd glared at me then, eyes narrowed to slits, was more chilling than any spoken threat. And that's why I hadn't offered a single peep of protest when he informed us that the student council had found evidence of Yuki-kun in the past and demanded that Hayato and I accompany him on his little visit to the professor.
I guess you're not used to situations being outside of your control. I shifted my position slightly, putting a tiny bit more distance between myself and Hayato, and reached out to rest my palm against Kiyo's back. His shoulders tightened and he shot me a withering look, but that expression softened after a few seconds and he went back to observing, his body relaxing a little. He was still restless, I could tell, and probably wouldn't calm down until we wrung some answers out of Professor Ito, but at least he wasn't wound quite as tightly as before.
Except then he was, back tensing like a compressed spring. "He's back."
I drew my hand back and straightened up as best I could in the small space, noting that Hayato did the same. "So when do we make a move?" I whispered, trying to peek through the crack, but I couldn't see anything interesting.
"Now, while he's fumbling with his keys," Kiyo muttered, pushing open the door and motioning for us to follow. We crept down the hallway, taking care to avoid heavy footfalls until we were within a few meters of the professor. He was holding a couple of plastic bags, and their rustling as he messed with his keyring masked the sound of our approach.
Kiyo came up from behind, with me on the left and Hayato to his right, and the professor remained comically oblivious to our presence until our shadows fell across his back. He turned around, eyes going wide as a sound halfway between a gasp and a squeak escaped his mouth.
"Hiiii, Professor Ito," Kiyo smiled his falsely sweet psycho killer smile. "Looks like you've been out to pick up some groceries. Here, I'll help you carry those inside."
"Um, oh, I don't need any help, actually," he stammered with a nervous laugh, refusing to meet anyone's eyes. "W, what are you boys doing here anyway? It's summer break... you should be out having fun."
Kiyo set his palm against the wall and leaned closer, trapping the professor between his body and the door. "It's a little hard to have fun when Yuki-kun has gone missing."
Something flickered across the professor's face, some brief and unidentifiable emotion that was quickly hidden behind a forced smile. "M, missing? Asahina-kun? Didn't he go home to visit his parents over the break? Why not check in with them?"
"Don't play dumb, Professor." Kiyo's words were as falsely sweet as his smile. "If Yuki-kun was home with his family, he'd still be answering his phone, wouldn't he? But no one can get in contact with him, not even his best friend Kasahara. Doesn't that seem strange to you? But I've received information saying that you know something about his sudden disappearance. We just want to have a little chat with you, that's all."
The professor's brows drew together as he gathered his courage, back stiff as he stared Kiyo in the face and replied, "You boys don't belong here. Please leave."
"I don't think you understand, Professor," Kiyo hissed, eye narrowing. "I'm not asking you."
The sudden change in Kiyo's manner made my spine stiffen. "Kiyo, dial it back a little."
"Shut up, Eiji," he growled without turning around. "Now, Professor, are you going to unlock the door and invite us in, or do I have to get Hayato to open it for us?"
Professor Ito's newfound resolve crumbled like a sandcastle at high tide. "I... I'll unlock it..." He turned toward the door, keys rattling in his hand as he attempted to find the right one and fit it to the lock. I didn't know him well, but it was obvious enough that Kiyo's usual intimidation tactics were having the expected effect. The moment the lock clicked, Kiyo leaned in again, herding the professor into the darkened apartment beyond. Hayato followed, with me bringing up the rear. I shut the door behind us, snapping the lock back into place, the click loud in the quiet air.
"Nice place," Kiyo murmured, flipping the light switch. "Very nice. Why don't you go take a seat and make yourself comfortable, Professor?" He nodded toward the living room.
Professor Ito looked from Kiyo to Hayato, finally settling his gaze on me. I snorted, folding my arms over my chest. Don't look to me for help. If you really know about Yuki-kun's disappearance, you're not getting any sympathy from me.
"Um, the groceries..." The plastic bags rustled as the professor held them up.
"Eiji, take care of it."
"Because," a single blue eye fixed upon my face, "you're the food expert. See to it that everything gets put away properly."
"Whatever." I snatched the bags from Professor Ito's hands, but before I could stomp off to the kitchen, Kiyo caught my arm.
"Now, now, Eiji, where are your manners? Take off your shoes first. That goes for you too, Hayato."
Of course, Hayato complied immediately. "Yes, Joker-sama."
"You too, Professor. It would be terrible for any of us to track dirt on your nice carpet."
It was bizarre, wasting time on putting away groceries and removing shoes, but arguing with Kiyo would make things take twice as long as they should, so I bit my tongue and did as he asked. It took less than a minute to stash the contents of the bags - three containers of strawberries and a carton of milk - in the fridge and make my way back to the living room. The room wasn't very big, but it was nicely furnished with a matching coffee table and end tables, a small sofa and armchair, and sparse but elegant decor that looked like it had been pulled from a lifestyle magazine. The professor was seated in the armchair, which was probably pretty comfortable. Well, when he wasn't being threatened by an unhinged high school boy who was known for having a short fuse.
"Ah, Eiji, you're finally back." Kiyo's tone was pleasant enough, but I knew that look.
I kept my mouth shut and took my place at his left side as we'd discussed. Of course, Hayato was his literal right-hand man, though his job was to stand there and look intimidating, not assist with the interrogation. I had to admit that he really looked the part in the outfit Kiyo had chosen for him, though I couldn't help pitying him a little. Only a tyrant like Kiyo would force someone to wear black in the middle of summer.
"Good." Kiyo turned his attention to Professor Ito, who was doing his best to blend into the armchair. It wasn't working. "Now, Professor, this doesn't have to be difficult. All you need to do is tell us everything you know about Yuki-kun's disappearance."
"I, I don't know why you're asking me..."
Kiyo folded his arms over his chest. "I warned you before, don't play dumb." His eye flicked in my direction, and I realized he wanted me to back him up.
"Professor, it's useless to try and hide anything from us. We already know what's going on."
"If... if you already know, there's no point asking me, right?" The professor's eyes darted from one face to another as if searching for sympathy. He found none. "So..."
"So?" Kiyo's voice was hardly more than a whisper. It was enough to make me nervous. "You're admitting that you do know something about this situation, then?"
"U, um... what situation was that again?"
Kiyo slammed his open palm down on the nearby end table, rattling the lamp. Professor Ito let out a sound that could only be described as a high-pitched squeak, shrinking back into the chair even more. His eyes were wide, worry and fear clear in his expression. For some reason I found myself wondering which he was more afraid of: Kiyo's tightly controlled rage, or having his secrets pulled out of him.
Unfortunately for him, I didn't care. "Are you sure you want to provoke Kiyo like this, Professor?" I leaned in close, eyes narrowing. "He's not the only one who gets pissed off easily, you know."
Kiyo straightened up and nodded toward Hayato. "Hayato. The picture. Show him."
"Yes, Joker-sama." Hayato reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a folded up sheet of paper, a printout of the photo that had been in the school newspaper archives. He shook it out to its full size and thrust it at the professor's face. "This is you with Asahina."
Professor Ito's eyes scanned frantically over the photo. "Wh, what? This is a picture of a swim team, I'm not--"
"Right here," Kiyo hissed, poking a corner of the paper. "Two boys in the background. This one is obviously Yuki-kun, with messy hair and something dark around his arm, and this one is you. Also betrayed by your distinctive hair. And," he took the paper from Hayato, making a show of reading the caption beneath the photo, "this is the swim team just returned from training camp in August 2010. Care to explain what Yuki-kun is doing in the year 2010, looking the same as he does today?"
I almost felt bad for the professor, watching his face fall as the last remnants of hastily summoned courage were swept away by the undeniable truth. "I... I can't..."
"You'd better quit stalling and start talking, Professor Ito." Kiyo shook the paper at him, then suddenly tore it in half, crumpling the pieces and throwing them to the floor. "Unless you want to end up in a similar state?"
Damnit, Kiyo, we're not getting any information out of him if he craps his pants here! I scowled at him for a moment before turning my attention to the professor. "What Kiyo's trying to say, Professor Ito, is that we will find Yuki-kun and bring him home, and anyone who stands in our way is going to get trampled. Even if it's a teacher like you. So I suggest you make this easy on all of us, and commit to helping Yuki-kun instead of holding back critical information. Well?"
As expected, a softer touch was all it took to break his already fragile resolve. His lip wobbled, eyes quickly darting away, and he let out a shaky sigh. "If... if you're going to help Asahina-kun, then I guess it's okay to talk to you boys..."
"Good, I'm glad you finally understand." Kiyo was back to his usual mock sweetness. "So why don't you start at the beginning and tell us everything you know?"
"Well..." The professor shifted about uncomfortably, and I took a step back, motioning for Kiyo and Hayato to do the same. At first I thought Kiyo would protest, but after a moment he simply rolled his eye at me and complied without saying a word. With more space to breathe, Professor Ito relaxed a tiny bit, brave enough to sneak a glance at my face. I snorted. Great, so I was the one he considered to be least threatening? How embarrassing.
"Asahina-kun... he appeared out of nowhere on the first day of summer vacation in my first year at the school. I was running some errands in the school building and there was a sound like an explosion from the roof. When I went to investigate, there he was, a student I'd never seen before. He recognized me immediately, but called me 'professor,' which was confusing... anyway, he was worrying about his friends, all people I'd never heard of..."
"So he did travel through time, just like Oka-chan thought." Kiyo looked somewhat impressed. "And he arrived safely in a different time, but the same place, which explains the extra dot on the tracking device." He focused his attention on the professor again. "I assume that Yuki-kun's story was eventually accepted by at least a few people, since he was still at the school in August, hanging out with you?
"Yes, I convinced Kazuki - er, the director at the time, Suzubishi Kazuki - to give Asahina-kun a chance. His story sounded impossible, but he had plenty of evidence, especially his super advanced cell phone, so we decided to believe him. And since Asahina-kun was in his own past, he had to stay on the school island to avoid meeting anyone who might recognize him. Since he already knew me as a teacher, he felt more comfortable with me than with anyone else. That's why he was in the background of that picture with me. So--"
"Wait a minute," I held up one hand, stopping him. "If you knew Yuki-kun got sent back in time by that explosion on the roof, why didn't you warn him not to go up on the rooftop? Then this whole mess wouldn't have happened in the first place."
Professor Ito shook his head. "Because we didn't know what would happen if we stopped it from happening. It would change the past that all of us remembered, which might change this future and put Asahina-kun in more danger."
I snorted. "Really, more danger than being trapped in the past with no way back?"
"But he did go back!" The professor's hands twisted together in his lap. "Maybe..."
Not even Hayato could let that one pass quietly. "What do you mean maybe?"
"Maybe isn't good enough," Kiyo growled. "You're going to tell us everything you know about this ominous maybe, Professor. Or else."
If my somewhat kind words had cracked the professor's resolve before, Kiyo's snarl opened the information floodgates. Suddenly Professor Ito was talking so fast I could barely keep up, his words tumbling over each other in a mad rush. "W, well, it's a maybe because there's no way to know if it worked, he was exactly seven years in the past to the day, and it's still July right now, isn't it? He didn't try to go back until the end of summer vacation, so we have to wait and see if he comes back safely! He went somewhere, he disappeared from the past, and the machines were tuned to his original time, his friends got a lock on him--"
"On his cell phone signal?" Kiyo interrupted.
The professor nodded. "Yes, exactly! Kasahara-kun got the information from the cell company, and Okazaki-kun used it to program his device to lock on to Yuki's phone!"
I glanced at Kiyo. Yuki? I mouthed, raising one eyebrow.
But we didn't have time to do much more than look at each other, because the professor was charging on with his explanation. "Okazaki-kun called him from the future! There were so many people on that call, everyone checking to see if Yuki was okay. He was so happy and relieved to hear from everyone! But the important part was for Okazaki-kun to talk to Kazuki and Shichijo-san and everyone else on our side who wanted to help build a device that could return Yuki to the future. After that first call, there were lots of calls between the build teams, making sure the exact same machine was built on both sides so it would be safe for Yuki to travel between them. I didn't really understand what was happening, but I did everything I could to help out so it would be done in time!"
"In time? Was there some sort of deadline?" Kiyo asked.
"Yeah, August 31st, the last day of summer break. That was the date Okazaki-kun told us, he said someone in his time who had also been there in the past... gave that date to one of Yuki's friends." The professor stopped, blinking. "Wait... that was me? Was what I said just now where that information came from? But that doesn't make any sense!" He pressed his hands to the sides of his head, making a face. "Is that possible? I helped Yuki like that?"
Ugh, was that some sort of time paradox or time loop? If I tried thinking about it too much, it was going to make my head hurt. "Who cares? We have a timeline now."
Kiyo nodded. "August 31st, then. That's when Yuki-kun was sent back..."
"Or you think he was," I muttered, not wanting to consider the alternatives.
"We only have a month," Hayato muttered. "Can we do it in time?"
Kiyo's frown suddenly became a wolfish grin. "Of course we can! We already did, isn't that right, Professor?" He straightened up, twirling the end of his ponytail around one finger, his mood lighter than it had been since the accident. "The fact that we managed to reach Yuki-kun in the past, and that the duplicate time machine was finished on time proves that we've already done it. We just have to make sure it happens again, exactly as planned! Which means, Professor Ito, you have a lot of explaining to do. Don't leave out a single detail. Eiji, Hayato, go find some paper and pens and take notes while the professor talks. Oh, and I'll record the conversation too, just in case."
Kiyo pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and plopped down on the couch across from Professor Ito as if he owned the place. He waved his free hand at me and Hayato. "Hurry up! There's no time to waste. Professor, tell them where to find paper."
Oh, crap. Now that a scrap of hope had appeared, Kiyo'd flipped from murderous psycho to manic slavedriver.
Maybe Professor Ito was confused by the sudden change in mood, because he gave in to Kiyo's demands without a second thought. "Um, I'll go get everything for you, it's faster than explaining where to look..."
Once we all had our supplies, the professor began talking. He was hesitant at first, then grew more animated as Kiyo asked detailed questions, always probing for more details that would make our work easier. The professor must have realized that we were serious about bringing Yuki-kun home, mood brightening as he went over each scrap of information, volunteering everything he knew. I could barely keep up with the words spilling out of him, hand cramping as I scrambled to scribble down anything that sounded like it might be remotely useful.
But that didn't mean it escaped my notice when Professor Ito started saying 'Yuki' again. I glanced in Kiyo's direction, eyes meeting for a split second before we both went back to our assigned tasks. Well, if they'd spent time as friendly peers in the past, it made sense, but then why was the professor trying so hard to be proper in the first place? He could have just explained himself once the secret was out.
As the professor continued his tale, I began to notice little problems with his story. Not lies, but more like inconsistencies that gave me the sense that there was something missing, or bits that seemed oddly vague compared to the detailed information surrounding them. They weren't major, and I had the feeling that I wouldn't have noticed at all if I hadn't been listening so carefully, but once I did, it was impossible to ignore those little omissions. Plus they kept happening.
Which meant Professor Ito was trying to hide something. And I had a pretty good idea what it was...
It took several hours to collect all of Professor Ito's information, and Kiyo would have continued rehashing every little point if Hayato's stomach hadn't let out a rumble that rivaled Yuki-kun's usual involuntary declaration of hunger. The fact that Kiyo laughed instead of glaring at him proved that he was in a decent mood, spirits buoyed up by the promise of successful contact with Yuki-kun in the near future. "Ah, Hayato, that was a loud one."
Hayato had enough sense to look embarrassed. "Sorry, Joker-sama."
"Don't be, we've spent quite a bit of time here." Kiyo peered at his cell phone. "It's time for dinner. Since you've been working so hard today, Hayato, I'll treat you to ramen."
The way Hayato perked up like a puppy offered a favorite treat was pathetic. "Th, thank you!"
"Hmph, what about me?" I asked, tucking my scrawled notes into my back pocket.
"You have plenty of money, Eiji. Pay for your own ramen."
"Cheap bastard," I muttered, extracting myself from the cushy sofa.
"Don't be crude in front of Professor Ito, Eiji." Kiyo stood, stretching his arms overhead with an impressive yawn. And then he did something I'd never seen him do before, bowing slightly to the professor. "You can leave it to us, Professor. We'll make sure everything happens according to the timeline you've given us. Yuki-kun will make it home safely. And..."
Professor Ito tilted his head, hair antennae bobbing. "And...?"
Kiyo's usual smirk resurfaced, a singsong note in his voice as he offered an exaggerated wink. "You don't have to worry about a thing, Professor. Your secret is safe with us."
"S, secret?" His eyes went round. "I don't know what you mean..."
"Right, right, it's fine if you want to pretend. I won't push you." He motioned toward us. "Eiji, Hayato, let's go. We have a lot of work to do, and not much time."
"Don't forget about the ramen," I sighed, following Kiyo without any real protest. It wouldn't do any good to complain about being ordered around, so why bother?
Once we were outside the apartment building, Hayato paused. "Joker-sama. You said we would protect Professor Ito's secret. You mean Asahina's time travel? But lots of people know already..."
"Ah, Hayato, you're such a sweet, innocent puppy," Kiyo sighed, patting his cheek in a way that somehow seemed more fond than condescending. "I'll tell you when you're older."
Hayato's protest was weak, meant mostly for his own ears. "But we're the same age..."
"Geez, Kiyo, don't treat Hayato like your personal toy. Let's get moving, I'm hungry."
"Fiiine," he agreed, totally insincere, and pulled his phone out of his pocket. "Just let me answer this text first."
A moment later, my phone buzzed. Kiyo's eye met mine. Read it, he mouthed.
I dug my phone out too, nearly dropping it as I read his message. So, Professor Ito... top or bottom?
"Kiyo! What the hell!" Though I had to admit, it was an intriguing question...
"Heh heh." He slipped his phone back into his jeans. "Come on, let's go eat. And before you complain, Eiji, yes, I'm ordering mine super extra spicy because that's how I like it. Don't worry, I'll be sure to brush my teeth before going near anything sensitive."
I ground my teeth, trying to will my ears to not turn red, without any success. "How about you just shut up for once, Kiyo?"
His only response was a laugh, and though he was back to his usual annoying self, I couldn't help feeling a little relieved to see the bounce in his step. I felt it too. We'd made progress, a real breakthrough. Bringing Yuki-kun home was a reality instead of an impossible dream. And I was sure that Kiyo felt extra excited to have unearthed an interesting and potentially dangerous secret as a little bonus during our investigation.
This is our last calm moment before a storm of activity. Better enjoy it...
Chapter 28: Saturday, July 31, 2010 (Omi)
Yuki comes to Omi and Saionji for advice, but his request is a total surprise to both of them.
"Are you sure you want to stay here for the entire summer break, Kaoru?"
Kaoru was silent for a few moments, watching as I refilled his teacup with fresh Earl Grey. I knew not to press him for an answer; that quiet meant he was still considering his options and that he hadn't come to a decision yet. I settled back into my chair, refreshing my own tea.
After a couple of sips, Kaoru let out a long sigh. "I don't know, Omi. You're obviously going to stay and get wrapped up in this time travel nonsense. I feel like I should be here to keep Endo from taking advantage of you again." His eyes met mine. "And to keep you from getting too deep into something that might be dangerous. Once you get going, you don't pause to take your own safety into consideration."
"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, Kaoru. I can't let this slip by just because there might be some risk involved. Right now, I'd say there's no risk at all, since all we're doing at this point is gathering information."
"That information could be dangerous. We aren't meant to know about the future, Omi."
"Information itself isn't dangerous, it's what we choose to do with it that could cause problems," I pointed out. "And we've all agreed not to ask Asahina-kun for details about our personal futures or other things that could be considered cheating."
"And yet you're dying for another chance to mess with his cell phone."
"Well... I'd be lying if I said I wasn't very interested in learning about that technology." I paused to sip my tea. "But more than that, I think the greater risk lies in not helping Asahina-kun get back to his own time. He doesn't belong here. He's only one person, but there's no way to know how much all of our timelines will be affected by the sudden appearance of a person from another time. The safest course is to put things back the way they're meant to be."
"Hmph. New people enter our lives all the time." Kaoru set down his teacup so he could make air quotes with one hand. "What's with this 'our timelines will be affected' nonsense? Our futures are shaped by every person we meet. Yuki is no different from anyone else. You're only seeing him as special because of the circumstances, but where or even when he came from isn't important. He's just another new person who will pass through our lives."
I frowned. "I think you're oversimplifying too much, Kaoru, this situation--"
My rebuttal was interrupted by a flurry of knocking. Kaoru shot a dirty look at the door. "That better not be Endo. I'm already in a bad mood."
I bit my tongue to keep from pointing out that I'd already noticed, and got to my feet. "That doesn't sound like Endo's knock. Let's see who it is."
I can't say I was all that surprised to find Asahina-kun standing outside, his expression expectant and a bit nervous. What was surprising was that he was alone. "Ah, Asahina-kun. Ito-kun isn't with you today?"
"Oh, good afternoon, Shichijo-san." He shook his head, messy hair bouncing. "No, it's just me today. Um, is it okay if I come in?"
I glanced back over my shoulder, catching Kaoru's eye. He mouthed Yuki? at me, and I confirmed with a nod. Kaoru nodded, motioning for me to let him in. I turned back to Asahina-kun with a smile. "Of course. Kaoru is here too. I assume you don't mind talking to both of us?"
"Oh, no, that's great! I was hoping you'd both be here, actually." He followed me into the room, aiming a tentative smile at Kaoru. "Hello, Saionji-san, sorry to interrupt."
"No, it's fine, we were just talking about you. Here, sit down." He pointed to an empty chair. "Do you want some tea?"
Asahina-kun sat as instructed, folding his hands in his lap. "Um, if it's okay..."
"Hehe, you don't have to be nervous, Asahina-kun. Kaoru is all bark and no bite. Well, as long as you don't annoy him." I fetched a third teacup, filling it carefully and setting it on the table in front of him. "Despite what other people say, it's quite hard to get on Kaoru's bad side. And it seems that he's taken a liking to you."
"Omi, don't make assumptions about my feelings and tell them to other people."
"Oh, am I wrong?" I settled back into my seat, taking care to keep my smile from turning into a smirk. "I'm sorry, Kaoru."
Kaoru gave me a look that could have withered grass, but I just kept smiling. After a few moments, he gave up and turned his attention to Asahina-kun. "Yuki. If you're here by yourself, you must have something you want to discuss with us specifically. Isn't that right?"
The boy nodded. "Yes! Because Shichijo-san knows the most about the dangers of time travel and knowing things about the future, and Saionji-san, you're really smart and practical. I don't know what I should do... I really want to tell Endo-san about some things I'm worrying about, things that could save my best friend from a terrible situation, and maybe even save his brother's life." His shoulders slumped. "But I'm scared about the future getting changed in a bad way, like if it somehow ended up being worse..."
I was a little surprised. "Asahina-kun, you're here to ask about wanting to help someone else, not to get advice about your own situation?"
"Yeah. Once I started thinking about it, I couldn't get the idea out of my head." Asahina-kun was staring down at his hands as they twisted in his lap. "I know it's wrong to want to change someone's past, but is it wrong to let something bad happen when I could have changed it? I don't know..."
Kaoru leaned forward a little. "And you can't discuss this with Endo, why? Is he involved somehow?"
"Yes." Asahina-kun glanced up, his eyes wide and watery. "Please, can I tell you the story? I promise it doesn't involve either of you, so it shouldn't hurt anything if you know."
I thought Kaoru would refuse, but he nodded. "Very well. I have to admit, I'm curious. But I expect you to take our advice seriously, Yuki. If you come to ask for our carefully considered opinions and then do the exact opposite, I'll be very disappointed."
"I understand, Saionji-san. I wanted to ask you because I know you'd think about it carefully and figure out if there's any problems. You too, Shichijo-san." His smile was weak. "I think I already know what you'll say, that it's a bad idea, but... I have to ask. I won't be able to calm down until I really understand why I shouldn't try to fix this."
"Asahina-kun, you can't know until you ask. Tell us your story."
"Okay. It's kind of long and detailed, but I'll try to keep it as short as possible." Asahina-kun straightened up in his chair. "When I was a kid, I used to play at a park near my house. There was another boy who played there a lot, but we didn't really know each other. One day, his older brother got sick from the heat and my dad helped out, and after that we were all really good friends. My family moved a little while after that and we lost contact."
"And that boy ended up being your best friend?" I asked.
Asahina-kun nodded. "Kasahara Tomo, and his brother Nao-nii. I didn't know it then, but they were from the orphanage near the park. Lots of people were interested in adopting Tomo because he was smart, but Nao-nii had heart problems. Tomo refused to be adopted separately because Nao-nii was the only family he had left. But Nao-nii convinced him that he needed a real family, and Tomo finally agreed. But the couple that adopted Tomo trained him as a computer hacker and used him to steal data from big companies. A few years later, they got caught and Tomo went back to the orphanage, but Nao-nii was already gone."
Kaoru's expression was grim. "His brother died while he was away? That's harsh."
"No, that's not it! While Tomo was away, someone from the Suzubishi family adopted Nao-nii. They didn't know it, but they're actually distant relatives of the Suzubishis and someone found out and came to look for them. Tomo was already gone, but Nao-nii was still waiting."
"My, that's an interesting twist." I refilled my tea. "It sounds like a happy ending, at least for the older brother. I assume something went wrong later on?"
"Yes..." Asahina-kun sighed. "Nao-nii eventually became the director of this school--"
"What? Endo actually surrendered his position?" Kaoru raised one eyebrow.
"I doubt it was completely voluntary, Kaoru. I'm sure his father pressured him into giving it up so he could join the main business."
"Yes, that's exactly right. And after he became director, he invited Tomo to the school! Oh, it wasn't just because, Tomo set a national track record so it was legit. And Tomo and Nao-nii were really excited about finally getting to live together again." Asahina-kun bit his lip, falling silent.
"I sense that there's a 'but' coming," I prompted.
"Yeah. But... Nao-nii's heart condition got worse right before the start of the school year. Tomo only got to spend a little time with him, and all of that was at the hospital. And then... well..."
"I see," Kaoru murmured. "The brothers were separated because the younger one was adopted first, when waiting together probably would have resulted in both being adopted by Suzubishi. You want to ask Endo to find them right away so that doesn't happen. Am I right?"
"Yeah. And if that horrible family doesn't adopt Tomo, he won't know anything about hacking, so the board of directors wouldn't be able to pressure him over the Suzubishi research data."
"Wait, Asahina-kun, I don't understand. What research data? You can't be talking about the Bell Laboratory data that's on this school island."
"Yes, that's it. Tomo became director after Nao-nii, so--"
"Hold up," Kaoru interrupted again, "you're telling me that an actual student became the director of this school? A child, not an adult?"
Asahina-kun nodded. "Yes. There's a lot more to the story, honestly, but it would take a long time to explain, and I'm afraid that would be revealing too much." He glanced at me. "Right, Shichijo-san? You said it was dangerous to know too much..."
"Yes, that's right. I think it's best not to discuss the details that aren't directly related to your question, interesting as they might be." I pressed my fingertips together, working through the situation. "You want to prevent your friend's bad adoption, and ensure that the brothers stay together as part of the Suzubishi family. Are you also hoping that by being adopted by Suzubishi as soon as possible, the older brother will have access to better medical treatment for a longer time, thus adding the possibility that he could overcome his disease?"
"Yes, exactly! If I tell Endo-san right now, they could be adopted right away! I know exactly where the orphanage is and who's in charge and everything!"
"It's a noble goal," Kaoru mused. "Tell me, has anything extraordinary happened with those two brothers in the future? Anything that's made a major difference in someone's life?"
Asahina-kun fidgeted. "Well... there's lots of things, actually. Because Tomo's the director, he's had to work hard and do some difficult things to protect the school from the board. I helped too. Oh, and of course Nao-nii being director too, I'm sure he picked lots of students for the school. He invited me, too, as a reward for returning a Platinum Paper that came to my house as a mistake."
"And if I understand correctly, you were reunited with your friend Tomo-kun here at Bell Liberty? So if you hadn't been invited, you wouldn't know about the brothers' situation?"
Asahina-kun glanced at me. "Right, Shichijo-san, I completely lost contact with Tomo after moving, so I had no idea what was going on. I didn't know he was an orphan or anything when I was a kid, he never talked about it."
"Hm. In other words, you wouldn't be here in front of us right now if the older brother, Nao-san, hadn't become director. There's no way to be sure that he would have accepted that position if he had his little brother with him. His life might have been dramatically changed. Which means," I leaned forward, looking Asahina in the eye, "you couldn't be here to ask Endo-kun to find them. By changing the past, you could change the future in a way that prevents you from coming here and changing the past. The whole thing falls apart."
"Um... what would happen if it fell apart like that, Shichijo-san?"
"Mm, it's hard to say. Creating a paradox could do anything from absolutely nothing to completely erasing your own existence."
"Whaa!? Are you serious?"
"Omi, don't screw around, Yuki's obviously very serious about this."
"I'm serious too, Kaoru. There are so many variables and things that could go wrong. Asahina-kun, what if Tomo-kun never became an excellent runner because the Suzubishi family wanted him to concentrate on his studies instead? If he doesn't attend Bell Liberty, you won't meet him there."
"But I'm okay with that! It's fine if I don't get to meet Tomo again if that means he can be happy."
Asahina-kun was so sincere in his care for his friend, willing to erase even his own knowledge of that friend in order to change the future. His kindness made me feel like a villain as I continued poking holes in his hopes. "But you need to meet Tomo-kun again for your idea to work. If you don't know about his bad adoption, you won't know that you need to change his past, right?"
"Oh, that's right. So Tomo has to go to BL School too..."
"Yes, but even if he comes to the school as a Suzubishi, you won't want to change his past because his bad adoption never happened, right? Which means you'd never tell Endo-kun to find the brothers in this time, and the bad adoption would happen anyway. Nothing would change."
Asahina-kun made a face as he tried to work through the logic. "Um, is that really what would happen? I guess that makes sense..."
"I'm sorry, Asahina-kun. I can't think of a way to make it work, because everything depends on you being motivated to try and change the past."
The longer he thought about it, the more his heart sank, his disappointment and frustration written clearly on his honest face. He ducked his head, face reddening, and reached up to brush a tear from the corner of his eye. "I... I guess," he hiccuped, "it would turn out the same if... someone told Nao-nii to stop pushing Tomo to get adopted separately..."
His barely stifled sniffles tore at my heart. Was there truly nothing that could be done for his friend? No matter how I turned over the logic of the situation in my mind, every possible choice led to the same conclusion. "Yes, it would. I'm sorry."
"Think about it some more, Omi. Try to find a solution." Kaoru pushed himself out of his chair and moved to place one hand on Asahina-kun's shoulder. "Yuki, let's take a walk to clear our heads. There's a dessert truck that stops on campus during the summer break that has gourmet ice cream and sorbet flavors. It's my treat."
Not even the offer of a snack was enough to completely stop Asahina-kun's tears. He raised his reddened face and nodded slightly, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. Kaoru pretended not to notice, though he made sure to steer clear of his hand as they made their way to the door.
"Ah, Kaoru, could you bring back some orange sorbet for me?"
He sighed. "You eat too many sweets, Omi. But yes, I'll bring some back for you."
I smiled at him. "Thank you, Kaoru."
Once the door was shut behind the two, I leaned back in my chair with a heavy sigh. "What a terrible story," I murmured, rubbing my eyes. And from what Asahina-kun was saying, it seemed like there were more unhappy details that he'd been unable to share for fear of revealing too much. But what Asahina-kun didn't realize was that he had revealed a bit too much. Enough for me to do something that would make a difference, though not in the way he was hoping.
"Stolen data, hm?" My eyes popped open, a sly grin curling my lips. Kaoru hated that grin, calling it my devil smile. I can almost see the little devil wings and tail, Omi. It's not cute, it's gross.
Gross or not, that smile always meant something interesting was running through my mind, and this time was no different. Surely it wouldn't hurt for that couple's crimes to come to light just a bit sooner than they might have in the original timeline, right?
Chapter 29: Tuesday, August 1, 2017 (Tomo)
Tomo and Okaken get together to see if they can get a lock on Yuki's cell phone, using a cloned dummy phone as a test. Buuuuut...
I waited quietly for as long as I could stand it, watching Okaken alternate between typing at a manic pace and fiddling with all the devices that were connected to the electronic octopus that was his laptop. First was the tracking device he'd built, using the one from the defunct biology club as a template, only he'd added extra slots and ports so it could connect to a computer. One of those slots held the SD card with the decrypted Softbank data on it, which would supposedly allow the device to lock on to Yuki's cell phone in the past. There was already a phone hooked into the laptop, a cheap smartphone that would be taken over by the data and forced to behave as if it was Yuki's phone. That would let us confirm both that the decryption had been successful, and that the weird device was capable of picking up the right signal. There were a couple of other devices hooked into the laptop as well, which Okaken had explained were part of his special search tool.
It was all a bit much to follow, even for me. Then again, my specialty was getting at data and decoding it, not detecting aliens or whatever it was Okaken used his search tools for. Still, I couldn't keep from feeling restless as I watched him flick between half a dozen unfamiliar programs, clicking and typing as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Maybe I was on edge because I was used to being the person behind the computer, but the more likely explanation was that the entire situation felt off. It was wrong to be sitting on Yuki's bed and watching someone who wasn't Yuki working at his desk. His tea table looked unnatural with a pile of Okaken's notebooks on it instead of a pile of snacks. And it was weird to be completely silent while hanging out in my best friend's room, worried that any noise might break Okaken's concentration.
Just as I was about to lose my mind, Okaken leaned back in Yuki's chair with a noisy sigh, then turned to me with a triumphant grin. "It's ready."
My stomach knotted up in an instant. "Really, we can test it now?"
Okaken nodded, reaching up to adjust his glasses. "Yeah. I loaded the identifying data from Softbank into this dummy phone," he patted the cheap model that was hooked up to the laptop's USB, "so it should act like it's Asahina-kun's phone. Assuming that there's no problems with the decryption, Kasahara-kun."
I gritted my teeth, forcing down the snappy response that threatened to escape. After the emotional roller coaster of the past few days - worrying about Yuki, feeling like there was no hope of seeing him again, then confirming that he was safe and we were meant to contact him - I was completely sick of being polite and avoiding conflict. But losing my temper now wouldn't help anything. That thought had kept me from going off on Dr. Matsuoka, from challenging Chiba-san's ridiculous overprotectiveness of Joker-san, and now, from punching Okaken in his smug little mouth.
Ugh, this isn't like me, getting so angry at every little thing that happens.
I silently promised myself that I would take time to visit the track later. For the moment, I forced a faint smile and nodded. "Yeah, it should work fine as long as that phone is compatible with the model Yuki uses. If it doesn't work, we might have to go get one that's an exact match."
"Mm, it should be fine. Let's try it!" Okaken's eyes were shining as he spun back around in the chair and reached for the phone, but before he could pick it up, a familiar tune cut through the air. His hand froze a few centimeters above the phone. "Um... we have a problem..."
"What is it?"
"The phone is working, but... Asahina-kun's father is calling!"
"What?!?" I pushed myself up off the bed and went to the desk, staring down at the phone. Of course! I hadn't heard it in a while but that familiar song was Yuki's ringtone.
"What do we do?" Okaken looked like he was about to panic.
I hesitated for a moment, unsure. Then I snatched the phone from the desk and brought it to my ear. "Hello? This is Tomo."
Okaken gaped at me, his expression clearly saying what are you doing?!? I put my finger to my lips, warning him to be silent, then turned my back so he couldn't distract me any further.
"Tomo-kun?" Yuki's dad sounded confused. "Why are you answering Yuki's phone?"
My brain was barely a half-step ahead, my mouth already executing the plan before I could give it any conscious thought. "Oh, is this Mr. Asahina? Nice to hear from you. Um, I think you might have the wrong number, this is my phone. Sorry, did I enter my information wrong in your phone?"
"Hm? No, I don't think so... I have Yuki on speed dial. Hold on." There was some rustling and beeping as he pulled the phone away from his ear to examine the contact data. "No, I definitely called Yuki's number. That's weird..."
"Yeah, that is weird." The solution came to me in a flash of inspiration. "Oh! I think I know what happened. My guardian got me a new phone kind of recently, and I made sure to get the same one that Yuki has because I wanted to be sure it could use some of the same apps and stuff. I think I must have goofed and our phones got switched. Haha, what a weird mistake."
"Ah, that makes sense. No wonder Yuki hasn't been answering, he doesn't have his phone." A pause. "Then why haven't you been answering until just now, Tomo-kun?"
"Oh, um... well, I'm not used to having a nice phone, so I don't think about checking it often. And I've been really busy with track club practices and stuff like that. My phone ends up going dead and I don't notice it's turned off until the next day, sometimes." I forced a laugh. "Well, you know me. My phone likes to sleep just as much as I do, I guess."
That got a hearty chuckle out of Yuki's dad. "Seriously, sometimes I wonder if you spend more time asleep than awake. Maybe I need to send you some extra-spicy curry buns, they're a real eye-opener! Haha."
"Hm, I'm not a big fan of spicy foods, though..."
"That's too bad, they'll put some hair on your chest!" Yuki's dad laughed again. "Well, sorry to cut you short, Tomo-kun, but I need to talk to Yuki. Could you go find him and swap your phones back?"
"Oh, um..." My eyes darted about as if I could find a way out of the problem on Yuki's walls. "Uh, actually... I'm not at the school right now. I'm staying with my guardian for a few days. I'll definitely trade back right away as soon as I get back to Bell Liberty, though."
"Oh, I see. That's good, Tomo-kun, I was wondering if you might make an extended visit over the summer break. You should get to know Suzubishi-san better." I could almost see Yuki's dad nodding in approval. "Then I'll call Yuki on your phone."
Shit, Yuki's dad was persistent! That explained where Yuki got his single-mindedness from. Well, I guess any good parent would be worried if their kid hadn't answered a single phone call or returned any messages for over a week. "Yeah, good idea. Oh, but I think he might be pretty busy with student council work, so he might not notice you called right away. There were plans for some pretty big events in the fall. Hey, Mr. Asahina, would you be interested in providing bakery goods for the culture festival? The school wants to promote local businesses, and nothing's better than showing off the student council president's family, right?"
Thankfully, Yuki's dad was just as easily distracted by bread as Yuki himself. "Oh, that would be an excellent opportunity! Are you sure it's okay to ask me? I mean, you're the director, but you're also Yuki's best friend. It could be seen as favoritism if I'm the only bakery you invite."
Thank god I wasn't on speaker. I was suddenly very aware that Okaken was still in the room, probably staring at me. The back of my neck prickled with sweat, just above the hairline. "That could happen, but most people are unaware of my position, remember? So it's not a problem at all."
"Oh, that's right. Well, I'd be honored to be included in the BL School festival. I'll ask Yuki for the details once I finally get hold of him." His dad sighed. "Hey, Tomo-kun, can you contact Yuki and let him know that his mom and I are a little worried? He might be too busy for his parents, but I bet he's not too busy to answer a call or message from his best friend."
"Of course," I promised. "As soon as I get in contact with Yuki, I'll let him know."
If we ever get in contact with Yuki again...
"Thanks. We were kind of hoping he'd spend some time at home over the summer break. I guess that might not happen. I didn't realize that being student council president was such a big job." Still, his tone brightened up a bit as he added, "Bell Liberty really is very different from ordinary schools. Yuki's growing up fast. You too, Tomo-kun."
"Okay, I'll get going now. Please ask Yuki to call home before his mom explodes in a cloud of worry. And let me know the details about the culture festival once those are ironed out. Bye!"
"Sure thing. Bye, Mr. Asahina."
I dropped the phone on the desk and flopped back onto Yuki's bed with a dramatic sigh. "Ugggh, this sucks! Why do I always have to deal with the pain in the ass conversations? I'm so tired. What if I just go to sleep for the rest of the summer and never talk to anyone again?"
There was an awkward silence, soon broken by Okaken's voice. "Um... Kasahara-kun--"
"And that crap!" My eyes snapped open so I could glare at him. "Stop with the condescending attitude and sticking kun on the end of your classmates' names! You're not better than the rest of us, and I'll remind you that you have plenty of classmates who are older than you. Including me." I pushed myself up on one elbow. "If you think I'm any less pissed about this situation than Joker-san, you're dead wrong. And trust me, I can be just as scary as him when I want to be."
Ugh, I was out of control. And Okaken was so easily intimidated. I almost felt bad for him as his shoulders slumped, his body unconsciously trying to make itself smaller in response to my threat. "S, sorry, um, Kasahara..." He chewed on his bottom lip for a few seconds, either sorting out his thoughts or gathering his courage. Maybe both.
Damnit. Okaken wasn't a bad guy, I knew that. He was annoying and overconfident, sure, but he'd never meant to hurt anyone. He was probably scared out of his mind, worried that either Joker-san or Chiba-san were going to murder him at any moment.
I sighed, dropping back onto Yuki's pillow. "Whatever. I'm the one who's being a jerk."
"No, not really... I was too confident. That's what caused this whole mess."
I shook my head, making the pillowcase rustle. "You warned everyone to stay back. Yuki's the one who ran out into the danger zone." My eyes slid open. "The thing you need to work on is your people skills. You suck at explaining things, you get carried away way too easily, and you insult people without even realizing it. Slow down and pay attention to the people around you instead of being 100% focused on making yourself sound like a genius. People know you're smart, you don't have to go rubbing everyone's nose in it all the time."
"Yeah, I know..."
"Look, no matter how good your ideas are, you have to get other people on your side or they'll never amount to anything. There's a lot of things you can accomplish by yourself, but at some point you hit the limit of what's possible without help, and then you'll be screwed." I glanced at the laptop. "Like your search tool. You created it all yourself, but I bet it could be developed a lot more, or more uses for it could be discovered, if other people were part of it too. I mean, you're at this school that's full of amazing people, right? You have to take advantage of that opportunity."
"That sounds like something Asahina-ku... I mean, Asahina would say." Okaken didn't sound like he was annoyed by my sudden advice. Instead, it seemed like he was thinking seriously about it.
Those were Yuki's words, weren't they? You should ask for help from the people around you.
Which reminded me of something. "Hey, Okaken... we didn't actually do the test. Is there something else I can do to help with the test?"
"Mm, not really." He winced a little as if expecting me to protest. "Well, it's like what you said about the phone data before. It's one of those things that's easier to do alone."
"Yeah, I figured." I sat up, swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. "So I'm just here to watch and make sure it works with the data, I guess. So, how does the test go?"
"Well," Okaken brightened up a bit at the opportunity to explain his inventions, "the test isn't much more than a formality at this point, since we've already gotten irrefutable proof that this dummy phone is functioning as if it's Asahina's phone. All that's left to do is take the tracking device and test the range. I need to confirm how close we need to be to Asahina's location in the past in order to pick up the signal from his phone."
"So you need to disconnect it from the laptop and walk around."
"Exactly." He unplugged the weird machine from the computer and stood up. "So I'll have to walk up and down the hallway to find where the signal starts to cut out."
"I guess that makes sense. But..."
"Um." I made a face, trying to put my doubts into words. "Yuki's in the same location and time of day, just in the past, right? But doesn't the earth vary slightly in rotation every year? Like how a year's not exactly 365 days. So how can we be sure we're in such a narrow range, when it's possible that the school is actually really far from this exact point in space even if he's in the same day and time?"
"Oh, I see, so you were worried about that." Okaken caught himself before he could dispense a condescending pat on the head for my understanding of basic science. "Einstein-Rosen bridges are special. They're not like static tubes drifting through space-time, they're somewhat flexible. The two ends are anchored, one in our time and location, and one in the past."
"The wormhole tunnel is flexible?" It sounded like nonsense. "How can you be sure of that?"
"Because," he tapped the screen of the device, "we've already been detecting Asahina's presence, remember? That extra dot showing his presence wouldn't appear in the cafeteria during mealtimes if the wormhole alignment was off. We already have proof of the tunnel's flexibility, so we don't have to factor that into the calculations. That makes things a lot easier."
"Oh... right. That's good, then. So, how are we going to handle the test?"
Okaken pulled his own phone out of his pocket. "Simple. All I need to do is hook my phone up here." He took a moment to plug a dangling wire into the phone's USB jack. "Now, I'll call the dummy phone and go take a walk up and down the hall. When the signal gets bad or the call drops, that's our limit. I just need you to stay here and make sure the test phone doesn't do anything weird."
"That's easy enough. Let's get started, then."
He hesitated for a few moments, looking like he wanted to say something else, then nodded. "Yeah. I'll be right back. Answer the phone when I call so we know exactly when the call drops."
I moved from the bed to Yuki's desk chair. "Okay, I'm ready."
Chapter 30: Monday, August 2, 2010 (Yuki)
Overwhelmed by his situation and sad about experiencing his birthday in the past, Yuki does something unexpected...
I sat on the warm concrete of the school roof, the place where I'd first appeared in the past. Even though less than two weeks had passed since then, I couldn't remember the exact spot. There was no physical evidence, no scorch marks or scratches on the hard surface that seemed any different from the ordinary wear and tear. It was like nothing extraordinary had happened.
I pulled my knees up to my chest with a sigh. It was my birthday, and I was alone.
That wasn't really true. I could have spent time with anyone, but I didn't feel like it. Keita and Suzubishi-san had gone off the school island together to pick up supplies for what they were calling a reverse surprise party - one where the guests didn't know it was going to happen until they were in the middle of it. Everyone who knew about my situation had been asked to gather in the dorm cafeteria in the afternoon to discuss the information we'd uncovered so far. Of course, we'd actually do that, but it would start with a birthday party.
A faint but sad smile came to my lips. How old was I, anyway? In this time, I was turning nine. Maybe Mom had taken me shopping or out for a special lunch. Dad would close the bakery early so we could enjoy a rare afternoon together, sharing his fancy chocolate cake and an assortment of my favorite buns and pastries. We'd play video games together, or watch a movie, then go for a walk in the park near the bakery. Not the park where I'd met Tomo and Nao-nii, but a new one, where kids liked to fly kites and play soccer while their parents walked dogs or chatted with friends.
Tomo and Nao-nii. I folded my arms on top of my knees and hid my face in them. There was nothing I could do to help them even from my position here in the past. No matter how much time I'd spent thinking about Shichijo-san's explanation, I couldn't find a way out of the trap. A paradox, Saionji-san had called it, a situation that doesn't make sense because it cancels itself out.
"To help Tomo, I'd need to know that Tomo needs help," I mumbled into my arms. "But if Tomo gets help, I won't know that he needs help, and I won't ask anyone to help him..." My eyes got misty. "This sucks."
Everything sucked. I wanted to go off the island and do something normal, like spend an afternoon doing karaoke or get some fast food or even go shopping. Anything to take my mind off of this impossible situation and sense of hopelessness.
Honestly, I was jealous. I wanted Keita to be with me on my birthday instead of hanging out with Suzubishi-san. They were so close, best friends like me and Tomo. Only I got the feeling that they were more than best friends, with the way they smiled at each other and jumped in to finish the other's thoughts during a conversation. They laughed at the same inside jokes and talked about memories that no one else shared.
I probably shouldn't have asked Keita if they were dating. My face got hot as I remembered his reaction, a look of shock and panic that made it very clear I'd made a stupid assumption. Why had my heart been light with relief when he'd assured me that they were best friends who had met a long time ago? He'd explained everything, from meeting that summer beneath the tree to the fulfilment of the promise to go to school together.
Kazuki's really overprotective. Ugh, does it really look like we're a couple? I mean, we just met so if that's how it looks to you, I bet everyone else sees it that way. Uggggh.
I smiled a little, remembering how red Keita's face had gotten. It was kind of cute. In that moment, I'd felt like I understood Nakajima-san's urge to tease him. And then I'd remembered how weird and creepy Nakajima-san had been when he'd asked me to consider staying in the past. Ugh. Keita would never forgive me if I acted like that.
I had the feeling I'd end up embarrassing Keita by accident anyway. That's what always seemed to happen with me, talking first and thinking later. I got teased for it a lot by all my friends--
All my friends. My stomach tightened as impressions drifted through my mind: Tomo's dry commentary, Joker-san's grin as he lured me into another practical joke, Sonoda-san pointing out that my excitement over his cooking was so over the top it almost seemed fake, Yagami calling me a dumbass for saying weird things...
I'd probably never see any of them again.
I glanced up as the rooftop door creaked open, swallowing back my dark feelings and forcing my features into a weak but passable smile. As I expected, it was Keita who appeared, shading his eyes as he squinted into the bright sunlight. He looked like he'd come directly up to the roof after shopping, still carrying a large brown paper bag.
"Yuki?" He spotted me quickly. "Oh, there you are!"
I raised one arm, hoping my wave didn't look as halfhearted as it felt. "Yeah, I'm still up here, but it's getting kind of hot. Did you want to go inside?"
Keita hurried over before I could push myself to my feet, plopping down next to me. "It's fine, this spot has a lot of shade at this time of day." He pressed his back into the wall with a sigh, and my stomach flopped as his shoulder rubbed against mine. "Yeah, you found the only cool spot out here. Anyway, I got you a present!"
I swallowed the odd lump in my throat. "You didn't have to do that! Even if you wanted to give me something, the party's tonight."
"This was something I had to give you right away." The paper bag crinkled as he opened it up and reached inside, producing a small paperboard box decorated with a familiar logo.
My heart lurched in my chest. "That's..." I couldn't say it.
"Yeah! It's from your dad's bakery!" Keita popped the box open to show off the contents. "I thought you'd be missing your favorites from home, so I got you a yakisoba bun, a pizza bun, a cream horn, and there was this chocolate cake that was on special because it's your birthday! I asked your dad about it and he said it's your favorite, so he made a huge batch to sell at a special price so all his customers could celebrate your birthday too. Here you go."
I automatically accepted the box that was pushed toward me and stared down at what was inside. The cake was definitely Dad's special recipe; I'd recognize the contrast of decorative fudgy swirls with the fluffier chocolate frosting anywhere. But what really hit me was the familiar distinctive smell of Dad's extra savory yakisoba sauce wafting up out of the box, conjuring up memories of happy afternoons in the kitchen. Dad was always tweaking his sauce recipe, using me as his taste tester while Mom practiced her piping technique on day-old slices of cake.
I reached in and picked up the bun, finding it pillowy soft yet sturdy beneath my fingers. The yakisoba had cooled off during the journey, so it wasn't steaming like the super fresh ones that had just been filled, and the sauce had thickened and set. But it was unmistakably Dad's cooking and Dad's bread. I brought the bun to my lips without thinking, eyes dropping shut as I breathed in the aroma of sauce, pickled ginger, and freshly baked bread. I bit down, and like always, even the very end of the bun was filled to the brim with yakisoba. The tangy sauce coated my tongue, momentarily disguising the flavor but not the texture of the other ingredients, springy noodles and lightly cooked vegetables atop a chewy bun. And then the bun's flavor came through, yeasty with a hint of butter.
It tasted like home.
Suddenly I couldn't eat the bun fast enough. Something in me was greedy, wanting to absorb that bit of familiar everyday life into myself, as if merely eating Dad's cooking would bring me closer to him. I was probably making an embarrassing mess of myself, wolfing it down like I hadn't seen food in a week, but I couldn't stop. Sauce oozed out over my fingers, the stickiness reminding me of all the times Mom had scolded me for eating with my hands. I could almost hear Dad's big, booming laugh as he pointed out that I'd gotten mayo on the end of my nose.
Would I ever hear their voices in real life again, or only as memories? My eyes teared up as I gulped down the bread and the noodles. Unless I somehow managed to get back to my own time, moments like these were the closest I'd ever get to my family again. It was dangerous to interact with people you already knew, that's what Shichijo-san had said, right? There was no way I could stand to put my parents in any danger. Anyway, how would I explain myself to them? They wouldn't believe me. They might not even recognize me, seven years older than I should have been.
Tears dripped down my cheeks, wetting my lips, and the last few bites of the yakisoba bun were salty. Still delicious, still perfect. I could have eaten an entire tray's worth, clinging to the warm memories of home that filled my mind.
A warm hand shook my shoulder, and I looked up in shock, spell broken.
"Yuki?" Keita was peering at me with wide blue eyes, brows drawn. "Hey, Yuki!" The urgency in his voice made me suspect that he'd been calling out to me for a while.
My face flushed. I'd just gobbled down the entire bun like a wild animal, not caring that someone was watching. I wiped the sauce from my lips with the back of my hand. "S, sorry, I'm... fine..." I was surprised by the tightness in my throat and the pathetic whiny note in my voice. I had to smile. Getting depressed now wasn't going to help anything. Everyone was supporting me, working hard to help me, doing all sorts of research for me. The least I could do was be strong.
But no matter how I tried to pep talk myself, my tears kept overflowing. I scrubbed at my cheeks with my fists, sweeping them away.
I'm not fine. Maybe I'll never be fine again.
"You're not fine!" Keita took the bakery box from my lap and set it aside, rising up on his knees to lean closer. "Yuki, I'm so sorry, I didn't know it would upset you! I wanted to give you something delicious for your birthday and your dad's bakery seemed like the perfect idea." His hand tightened on my shoulder, a little shaky. "I'm really sorry, I should have listened to Kazuki. He told me it wasn't a good idea to remind you so much of home. I'm such an idiot..."
I shook my head. "No!" My response was way more forceful than I'd intended, and I made myself take a deep, ragged breath before continuing. "No, that's not it. I'm just... I think it never really hit me until now. My family is so close, but I can't go see them. I can't put them in danger. All I have right now are memories." I glanced down into the open box, chest tightening at the sight of the cake.
"Argh, I'm so sorry..."
"But they're not bad memories. It hurts to think that I can't see my parents for real, but everything I remembered was happy, like random times we spent together testing recipes and stuff." A faint smile tugged at my lips. "And I'm happy that you thought about me on my birthday. You didn't have to go out of your way to bring me Dad's baking, but you did."
"Y, yeah..." Keita didn't sound convinced. Was he that worried?
If that was true, then maybe it was okay to let him know more about why I was so frustrated. I bit my lip for a few seconds, wondering if I should say any more. "Please don't be mad, but... honestly, I was annoyed that you went out with Suzubishi-san today, because I'm stuck here and it kind of felt like I wasn't important to anyone, even on my birthday."
I didn't have to look at Keita to know that he deflated a little, and his hand dropped from my shoulder. "Oh... I didn't think of it that way. I thought you were happy that we were going out to get supplies for your party. You were hiding your true feelings so I wouldn't worry, right? You don't have to do that. I want you to be honest with me." He shook my arm. "Promise, okay?"
When I glanced up, Keita's face was closer than I expected.
Be honest with me.
I moved without thinking, eyes dropping shut as if by instinct as I leaned closer. My lips pressed against Keita's, and all my hair stood on end with the electricity of that gentle contact. Keita's lips were warm as I pursed mine against his, and softer than I'd imagined.
I felt more than heard the hiss of air as Keita sucked in a surprised breath, not quite a gasp. His lips stiffened, and I pulled away, face growing hot as I realized what I'd done.
"U, um." Keita's face was redder than mine felt. "What... what was that?"
All the irritation and jealousy I'd felt that morning crystallized into a simple truth. My hands curled into fists at my sides, palms slippery and uncomfortable with a nervous sweat. "I... I think I like you. So I just, um... I kissed you."
"Y, yeah." Keita touched his lips with his fingertips. His eyes were still really wide.
I ducked my head. "Sorry! I wasn't thinking... being kissed by a guy, of course you don't like it..."
"Well," he mumbled, "it's not exactly the first time that's ever happened..."
I wasn't prepared for the hot spike of jealousy that twisted my gut. Did he mean Suzubishi-san? No, he didn't seem like the type to be so forward like that. Then who? A moment later, it came to me; of course it had to have been Naruse-san with his aggressive, overly friendly advances.
Was that how Keita saw me now? My heart sank. "I'm really sorry. I'll talk to Shinomiya-san about moving into one of the empty dorm rooms."
"Huh? Why would you want to do that?"
I squirmed. Was he just trying to make me say it? That's what you deserve for doing something so stupid. "Because I'm sure you don't want me staying in your room with you after I did that..."
"Hm? Wait, you think I'm afraid of you or something?" Keita touched my arm again, but I was too afraid to look up and see the disappointment on his face. "Don't think like that. I want you to stay with me. Honestly, I feel kind of special - the boy from the future wants to hang out with me. Everyone at this school is so amazing and I always feel like there's nothing I can do to make a difference, but you're depending on me. Maybe it's selfish, but I don't want to give that up."
I gathered my courage and peeked at Keita's face. He didn't look angry or upset. He just looked like Keita, watching me with a tentative but sincere smile.
"Even if I did something gross like kiss you?"
Okay, now Keita was upset. "It's not gross. I didn't say that! I just..." He lowered his eyes, biting his lip. "I wasn't expecting it, that's all. That sort of thing doesn't bother me. But..."
Of course there was a but. I tried not to sound disappointed as I prompted, "But...?"
"Um. I don't know how I feel about you liking me. Of course, I'm really happy that you're here." He looked up suddenly, looking apologetic. "I mean, I'm not happy about your situation! But I like having you around. This summer has been a lot of fun so far, and I've never met anyone else with amazing luck before. It's exciting. But kissing and stuff..." He lowered his eyes again. "Well... I don't know if I like you that way. I haven't thought about it, so I can't give any sort of answer."
Keita really was too nice. His kindness made my chest ache in a way that had recently become familiar, though I hadn't understood what it meant until the spontaneous kiss. I squirmed a bit and forced myself to ask the question I'd been dreading. "So... we can still be friends?"
Keita nearly punched my shoulder. "Of course! That's what I've been trying to tell you! So no more talking about moving to another room or whatever. Anyway," he smiled warmly, "we're having a big strategy meeting after your party tonight. I have a good feeling. You're going to get back home, Yuki. So I want to spend as much time as possible with you while you're here. Okay?"
Somehow, just seeing Keita smiling with such confidence boosted my spirits, even if I couldn't bring myself to believe that I'd ever get back home. Yeah, what am I doing getting depressed? It's not like me. Nothing good ever happens if you give up early - isn't that what I told Tomo about the Bell One?
I nodded, and the smile that came to my face wasn't forced anymore. "Yeah, Keita, you're right. I won't be staying here too long, so let's have fun while we can!" I nudged the pastry-filled box toward him. "Starting now! You have to try my dad's chocolate cake, it's the best! And even after I'm gone, be sure to support the bakery lots, okay?
"Yeah, I will! The samples were so good, and it's so convenient, right there by the station." Keita peeked into the box. "It was really hard to pick just a few things to buy. I already want to go back!"
I reached in and picked up the pizza bun, tearing it in half and offering it to Keita. "Dad's pizza bun is one of my favorites. Oh, but you have to try the pretzel hot dog next time! And there's an awesome cream and raisin bun, and my mom makes the best chocolate horns in the world!"
We sat there on the roof, laughing and eating and talking about our favorite bakery snacks until the box held nothing but a few crumbs and some used napkins.
By the time we headed inside to wash up and start preparing for the party, I already felt like I'd received the best birthday present.
Thanks, Keita. For bringing me Dad's baking, and for saying you'll always be my friend.