So much for coming back from the dead. Another year has gone by. Enjoy if you can.
Misao Kusakabe sat on the patio overlooking a frozen garden and pond. From the grey skies came a trickle of snowflakes, slowly turning the thin blanket of white covering the yard into a thick sheet. She stretched her arms outward, holding her hands to catch the snow. Every flake that hit her skin felt like the prick of a cold needle. It was strangely relaxing.
Honestly, she expected to feel more restless than she did. A trip to the Japanese countryside had never been part of her vacation plans. She had originally intended to spend her winter break with Kagami and her friends, having as much fun as possible in the less-than-two weeks they had. She did that for like… a day? Maybe even less? Then she just dropped everything to go visit relatives with her brother and parents. The change was so sudden that she should have been thrown waaay off.
And yet… Here she was, curiously catching snowflakes with her bare hands as if she didn't have a care in the world—though, come to think of it, the sting of her hands was starting to really hurt.
She quickly brought her arms back and cupped her hands over her mouth. She then released a deep breath, condensing a cloud of vapor that escaped between her fingers. The warmth was immediately comforting. She rubbed her hands appreciatively and tucked them into her hoody's pockets.
"The fuck are you doing?"
She heard the door open behind her and the familiar voice of her brother called her. She smiled and turned towards him.
Masaru stood some distance away, looking much the same as he always did—his arms crossed and his face contorted into a scowl. "You know you're gonna catch a cold sitting out here, right?" he said, one eyebrow raised. "Do you have any idea how much of a pain in the ass it'll be if that happens."
Misao waved a dismissive hand. "Ah, don't worry. I'll be fine."
Masaru shrugged. "Whatever." He shifted his weight and averted his eyes, the annoyed scowl on his face somehow becoming more annoyed.
Misao tilted her head inquisitively. "Something up? Your frown wrinkles are showing."
"Shut up," he snapped. He then began pacing the patio behind her.
"Gramps lost his reading glasses again, okay?" he eventually said, after an awkward moment of Misao watching him walk in circles. "He's been making a big fuss. Got the whole house looking for them. Now stop staring at me like that."
Again, Misao tilted her head inquisitively—to the other side this time. "Are you here to get me to help or are you here to slack off?"
Masaru stopped mid-stride to look Misao in the eye. In an amazing feat of grouchiness, his scowl somehow became even more pronounced. "I liked it better when you acted dumb. I get enough lip from literally everyone else I know."
Misao giggled. That meant she was right on both fronts. Probably.
"Maybe you should stop being such an asshole~?" she chimed, letting herself fall to the floor, blocking Masaru's way.
"Maybe you—" Masaru nudged Misao's head with his foot before walking over her, "—should help with this?"
Misao kicked her legs and sat up. "Have you asked him if he checked his pockets?"
"Actually, no, none of us have asked him that. And I doubt any of us will."
Misao pouted."Why not?"
Masaru rolled his eyes. "Would you want to be the one to remind him he's becoming senile? Be my fucking guest." With that, he retreated back through the door.
Misao almost winced at the thought.
Her grandfather probably liked her well enough that he wouldn't scold her if she asked that question. To be fair, he wasn't even that old. Sure, he was pushing the late eighties, which is technically really old, but he still got exercise and ate balanced diet everyday. He still had the constitution of a sixty-year old—a sixty-five year old at most. It really shouldn't be a big deal. She'd ask, he'd get mad about it for a bit, and then they'd all be joking about it by the time dinner starts. It would be great!
Her argument wasn't convincing, even to herself. She was all but certain that gramps was going to lecture her ear off…
She shook her head and stood. Nothin' to lose so I might as well…
With an apprehensive smile, she re-entered the house in search for her grandfather. She had a question for him that he may or may not like hearing.
Kagami sat on a bench, waiting patiently for the train to pull into the station.
There was, surprisingly, not a lot of people around. It was this weird period of time after lunch where everyone was either still in restaurants eating or had just finished and were taking it easy. Given how cold it had suddenly gotten, it made sense. People wanted to stay warm in-doors.
The cold didn't really bother Kagami, though. Well… it did bother her, but not too much… She wasn't really sure how to describe her feelings about the cold—or winter in general, really. Physically, she much preferred the milder temperatures of autumn and spring but there was just something about the coziness of winter clothing that appealed to her. It reminded her of a warm embrace. She felt like she needed it.
"Sis, there wasn't any diet. I got you a regular."
Kagami blinked and turned to the side. Tsukasa was approaching with two cans of green tea bought from the local vending machine. She held it out when she reached the bench.
"Here," Tsukasa said.
Kagami smiled appreciatively as she accepted the drink. She wrapped her hands around it, savoring its warmth.
Tsukasa sat next Kagami and popped open her can. "It's so weird that vending machines can keep drinks super warm during the winter but have such a hard time keeping them cold during the summer."
Kagami nodded thoughtfully as she did the same to her own can. She then took a sip and let the heat fill her mouth. The feeling spread across her face, radiating from the point where her lips met the tin.
"The vending machines are like that, aren't they…? I wonder why…"
Tsukasa leaned back on the bench, kicking her legs idly. "I bet Miyuki would know. She tends to know a lot of stuff like that."
"Yeah, she does. She likes learning about things—like the process of finding the answers to her question is part of the fun."
"Mmm." Tsukasa seemed unconvinced. "I feel that way too but, sometimes, finding the answer is a real pain."
Kagami shifted in her seat. "Erm… well, yeah, I get what you mean. Miyuki's probably just not bothered by it."
Tsukasa seemed to think on this for a moment before shrugging. She took a sip of her drink and the conversation lulled. Kagami took a sip as well.
In the moment of silence that followed, a pleasant thought came to Kagami. She felt rather light. It was the good kind of light, too. The kind of light where no worries weighed her down. The kind of light that made it feel like she could make a running jump and go soaring wherever she wanted. The kind of light where she could rest on the clouds above like they were nothing more than a mass of soft cotton.
It felt nice…
Being with Tsukasa felt nice…
Kagami released a deep breath on top of the can, creating a large puff of vapor in front of her face. Tsukasa saw this and immediately attempted to recreate the breath cloud. The look of delight on her face when she managed to do so made Kagami chuckle.
Tsukasa pouted. "What's wrong? I thought it looked cool."
Kagami shook her head and smirked. "Nothing's wrong. It was just cute is all. Konata would be all over you if she saw your face just now."
Tsukasa's cheeks were already rosy from the cold but became even rosier when Kagami said that. "You think so…?"
"Huh…" Tsukasa averted her eyes and fidgeted slightly. She quietly took a sip of her drink.
Kagami tilted her head curiously at Tsukasa's display of timidness. At the start of the year, Kagami wouldn't have batted an eye at it—timid was just how Tsukasa was back then. Ever since the school festival, though, Tsukasa had become much more confident. She now gave the impression that she could command any conversation if she wanted to—similar to the way Konata and Misao often did with their naturally energetic and excitable demeanor. Tsukasa's presence was just so much stronger now than it used to be. Kagami had thought it strange at first but had quickly gotten used to it. Somehow, now it was stranger to see Tsukasa acting timidly again—like the Tsukasa of the past.
Kagami averted her eyes, instead looking down at her own drink. I'm surprised to see this version of Tsukasa still exists. Never would've guessed. Almost gives me hope that the version of me from before still… still…
Her thoughts trailed off as she once again took a sip. She felt it stream down her throat, steady and soothing…
Kagami suddenly seized up and nearly spit out her drink, forcing her to quickly swallow. Tsukasa had leaned onto her shoulder. She quickly relaxed, poking Tsukasa lightly on the cheek. "Don't surprise me like that," she grumbled. "You know I'm jumpy."
Tsukasa seemed to snuggle even closer. "You looked like you were thinking real deep about something. I thought you wouldn't mind being pulled out of it."
Kagami chuckled again and threw her weight towards Tsukasa's to push the other girl away. All that succeeded in doing was make both of them topple onto the bench. They both recoiled when they hit icy metal.
"Hey, that's cold! Kaaaagamiiii! If you really didn't like it, you don't need to push me."
Kagami tried to suppress a laugh but failed. A huff escaped her mouth before she could shut it. "Well, it's not that I don't mind but if you were worrying about my anxiety, it wasn't anything like that." Kagami pushed herself upright once more and pulling Tsukasa up with her. "I was just… thinking this was nice… You know? Hanging out with you."
There was a twinkle in Tsukasa's eyes as she smiled. "Yeah. I know," she said. "That's why I said we should do this."
They shared a tender look before looking down at the spilt can of tea on the ground next to them. Kagami had been lucky in that she had drank most of hers when they fell and was still holding onto it. Tsukasa's had been half full and now its contents were scattered across their corner of the platform.
"Want the rest of mine?" Kagami asked, offering Tsukasa her can.
Tsukasa smiled and took the offered drink before once again releasing a deep breath over the opening. The cloud of vapor was disappointingly smaller but still seemed to delight Tsukasa. Kagami slowly shook her head in amusement before once again returning her gaze to the tracks.
Maybe I can still be who I used to be… But if I can't, that wouldn't be so bad… As long as I can keep having moments like this with the people I love…
Their wait continued in calm and comfortable silence.
Minami stood at an intersection, quietly waiting for the traffic lights to change.
She was in a city some two hours of commute from home. It was her first time there and she had gotten somewhat lost. Strangely enough, she wasn't too bothered by that fact. She felt a certain sense of comfort in her isolation. Yes, she was surrounded by a handful of pedestrians in heavy coats—and had it been less cold, no doubt there would have been more people out—but alas, the streets were still sparsely populated. And more to the point, they were all strangers. If their eyes looked upon her, there would be no judgement—and even if there was, their judgement would not matter. They were nothing to her just as she was nothing to them. There were no roles to play or expectations to meet. There was only Minami, free to be who she was to no one but herself. Lost in a sea of anonymity, she felt a liberation like nothing she'd felt in a long time.
I suppose it helps that I can just take a taxi home if I really can't find my way, she thought, finding it in her to smile, if only a little. Otherwise, wandering like this might just make me feel trapped instead.
The light turned green and Minami allowed herself to be swept away by the tide of people, however few they may be.
"Trapped," she muttered thoughtfully. "Roles to play and expectation to meet…"
Minami Iwasaki, fifteen years old. Quiet. Stubborn. Responsible. She was many things to many people: from nursemaid to bodyguard to friend to lover…
"The girl who protects me and cares for me…"
The list of traits Yutaka had given her on the night of their fight had not been wrong. It even told Minami things she never realized about herself—habits she'd developed and roles she'd taken on. She had slotted into those roles as if it were the natural order of things.
And something about that had bothered Yutaka enough that they couldn't really reconcile with each other.
"Trapped," she repeated, perhaps feeling an inkling of understanding as to what Yutaka might have felt.
She suddenly found herself walking along a side-street completely devoid of people. Shop owners had their heads slumped lazily on top of their counters or their eyes glued to television screens in the corner of their rooms. No one was outside.
For the first time since leaving her house that afternoon, Minami was well and truly alone.
She continued walking, straightening the collar on her coat and burying her hands deep into her pockets. Who would've thought getting herself lost would actually make her feel better? And who would've thought getting so lost would lead to such existential introspection?
The quiet hum of engines and the subtle vibrations of their seat were the only things that accompanied Kagami and Tsukasa on their train ride home. While it could be said that it was a little lonely, Kagami quite enjoyed the relative silence of the ride so far.
"Hey, Kagami," Tsukasa mumbled, idly drumming her fingers on the train seat. "Do you think I'd actually make it as a chef?"
Kagami tilted her head slightly as she thought. "Hmm… Maybe." She raised an eyebrow, turning to her twin. "Do you actually want to become a chef?"
Tsukasa fidgeted in her seat in hesitation before shaking her head. "I don't really know if I want to be anything. A wife, I guess?"
Kagami managed a chuckle at that. "A wife?" she asked incredulously.
Tsukasa shrugged. "Nothing else really comes to mind, you know?" She then sighed. "I just want to make the people I love happy. I just can't think of anything specific…"
Kagami nudged Tsukasa with her elbow. "Hey, none of that. If you don't want me to mope, I don't want you to mope either. You said chef earlier, right?"
"Yeah?" Kagami smiled. "Well, to be honest, you're probably a good pick for chef. At the very least, you're a good cook. Based on the skills and interests you have right now, chef is probably the ideal career path for you—at least until you figure something out that you want to do more."
The sides of Tsukasa's lips tugged upward. "Yeah. That's sorta what I figured you'd say. You're not wrong, either." She shifted her weight on her seat. "I just can't help but feel like I should have something… I don't know, more meaningful, I guess…"
Kagami pursed her lips as Tsukasa leaned on her shoulder. She then averted her eyes, idly curling the hair of her side-tail around her fingers.
"I'm probably the wrong person to be telling you this," Kagami muttered. "But I think you're being a little bit too hard on yourself. You're eighteen years old. You don't need to have your life together at this point. If that were the case then I'd be much worse off than you."
Tsukasa frowned, grabbing hold of Kagami's arm and hugging it tightly.
"I'll be honest, Tsukasa. I don't actually think I can still become a lawyer. I still want to become one—that's probably never going to change—but I'm at a point where I seriously doubt I'd be able to get into law even if I tried."
Tsukasa whimpered, hugging tighter.
Kagami managed a small smile and a sardonic chuckle. "Hey. A little doubt isn't gonna stop me from trying. I'd be the happiest girl in the world if I can prove my doubt wrong… it's just gonna suck if I end up proving it right…"
Kagami put a hand on Tsukasa's head, patting her gently.
"Sometimes life is gonna kick you down. When that happens, you can either give up and stay down or try and stand back up. I'm sure I don't have to tell you what I've chosen."
Tsukasa looked up hopefully. Kagami brushed a tuft of hair from Tsukasa's forehead.
"If you do decide to stand up," Kagami continued, "just know you won't have to do it alone. As long as I'm able, I'll be there to offer a helping hand. We're twins, after all. Nothing will change that."
Tsukasa leaned closer and hugged even tighter. "And you know I feel the same way with you, right? You don't have to take on everything by yourself."
Kagami averted her eyes. "Yeah… I try to…"
They spent the following silence enjoying each other's warmth, heartbeats serene and perfectly synchronized—to the point that Tsukasa actually had to break that silence to point it out.
Kagami stifled a giggle, to which Tsukasa pouted.
"What? Isn't it cool?" she asked, pulling away from the hug.
Kagami shook her head in amusement. "Yeah. It was pretty cool," she admitted.
She looked out the window to watch the world slowly pass them by.
Misao entered the first room she could find and quickly dived under the nearest bit of furniture to the door—which, in this case, happened to be a bed.
"What the actual fuck?" the voice of Masaru said with utter bewilderment from what Misao could only assume was on top of the very bed she had hidden herself under. As if to confirm her assumptions, Masaru peeked his head down, coming face to face with Misao. "What are you doing here?" he asked flatly.
"I had a little chat with gramps and found his glasses for him."
Masaru immediately scowled. "You fucking dumbass—"
"Look," Misao cut in with a pout. "If no one else is gonna tell him, then it might as well be me. Now stop blowing my cover. He'll check this room any minute now."
As she said this, they heard hobbling footsteps and angry grumbling from outside the room. The door opened and Misao saw the familiar slippers of the old man himself.
"Where's your sister?"
"Do I look like I know?" Masaru said tiredly. Misao had to suppress a giggle at how, from the tone of his voice alone, she could tell he had rolled his eyes.
"Save that lip, boy. I ain't messing around."
"She's not here, gramps. Heard someone running by my door earlier, though."
"Ah, damn that girl!"
As their grandfather hobbled away, Masaru stood and closed the door. When they could no longer hear the old man yelling, they let out a sigh of relief.
"I say again: You fucking dumbass."
Misao crawled out from under the bed and frowned. "If you knew the entire time that his glasses were in his pocket, why didn't you just tell him?"
He shrugged. "Because this place is fucking boring. Why else do you think mom and dad played along with it?"
"But that's really mean!"
Masaru gave her a toothy grin. "Yes, it is. And he'll probably start getting angry at us once he gets over the fact that you were the one who told him. We'll probably do it again tomorrow. Next time, try to keep it going for a little while longer."
Misao stared for a moment before shrugging herself. "Eh, might as well."
Masaru sat back down onto his bed, reaching over to grab something from his bag. He tossed it to Misao who caught it—a bar of chocolate.
"You can hang here until it blows over," Masaru said, lying back down and plopping open the book he'd been reading when Misao had barged in. "Just know we're even now"
Misao thought back to what she'd done for Masaru that he'd need to get even before shrugging again. It didn't really matter, did it?
She sat down on the floor, leaning onto the side of the bed and unwrapped her bar of chocolate.
Patricia Martin tapped her fingers idly as she lay her head on her desk. Directly in front of her was an old analogue alarm clock. She tapped in tempo with its ticking.
It was currently one in the morning for Patricia and she still felt wide awake. Jetlag had kept her up late into the night for most of the week—late into the morning in the case of her first day back in the US. It was, unfortunately, very likely that she'd be returning to Japan by the time she got over said jetlag. It also, even more unfortunately, meant she'd feel jet lagged after returning to Japan. There was a high likelihood that she'd spent nearly an entire month with jetlag.
She had begrudgingly resigned herself to that misfortune.
Everyone in the house was asleep except for Patricia. It was dark and the only lights around her was the near-dead bulb of her old desk lamp and the halogen street lights outside her window. A shroud of silence surrounded her. The feeling of quiet was so complete that even the ticking of the clock sounded almost deafening. She had nothing to do except watch the seconds pass by.
"Tick-tock," she muttered tiredly.
As she stared, she couldn't help but remember that her current timezone was around twelve hours behind her friends on the other side of the world.
She couldn't stop thinking about them. It almost seemed like she wasn't allowed to think of anything else.
The sad smiles they'd been shooting her on the morning of her flight had burned themselves into her memories. She need only close her eyes and she'd see them again—over half a dozen japanese girls with rosy cheeks, somber smiles, and eyes ready to burst into tears. She felt a knot twist in her stomach every time she did so. She felt it every time she so much as blinked.
She pursed her lips and sat up, palms flat on the table. Cold sweat dripped down her brow.
At the time, sadness felt fitting. She was leaving and they weren't going to see her again until after break. The quiet looks she received had felt apt for the situation. The more she remembered it, though, the more she felt like their sadness swept her away, drowning out every other emotion. She would only be gone for two weeks. By the time school started back up, she'd be right with them once more.
The feeling was too much to bear.
It was less like she was going on vacation and more like she died.
Like she was never coming back…
The worst look was Hiyori's. It was clear that there was anguish her eyes. Therein was a maelstrom of regret and pain that pierced straight to the soul. Patricia had felt it stabbing into her for the entirety of her time at the airport. When she had to get up and start boarding the plane, she felt Hiyori's gaze solidly on her back. Long past the point where Patricia disappeared into the crowd of departures. Past the point where the plane took off. Even up until now, days later and thousands of miles away—she felt those eyes upon her still. It was haunting.
Patricia brought her knees up to her chest, holding herself tight.
She was the cause of Hiyori's pain—the cause of every single drop in those stormy eyes…
Every time Patricia thought of that look, she remembered the words Hiyori spat when they broke up. The miserable lunches she spent alone on the cold and empty rooftop. The lonely hours spent commuting home with no one to talk to. All of it distilled into the look on Hiyori's face that day.
She just kept flashing back to that look.
She couldn't stop seeing it.
And she had no one to blame but herself.
The blame was hers.
It was hers and her inability to understand what was supposedly easy—the most basic of concepts when it came to communication and relationships. They just had to talk. They had to talk until they came to an understanding.
Simple, right? Easy and Basic.
Except it wasn't. It was everything but for Patricia.
She did talk to Hiyori and Hiyori did talk back. They talked a lot, actually. They talked and talked and talked. Hours upon hours, days upon days. Not once did Patricia understand. Everything just became more confusing. More complex. More… just… more—just so. Much. More. That it was overwhelming.
After a certain point, she just wanted to stop trying.
She was failing. Everything she tried just failed. There was no progress—never any progress. Hiyori was upset. Patricia herself was upset. Nothing—absolutely nothing—was going well.
When Hiyori finally cut things off, Patricia was actually relieved.
She was relieved to have broken up with someone she loved…
Why was that so? Why did she feel relief for that?
She didn't understand…
The worst thing about that whole ordeal was the fact that Patricia had no idea what she was doing wrong—or what Hiyori was doing wrong—or if there was a right way to go about things in the first place.
Nothing about it made sense.
The only thing that did—the only thing she was sure of—was the fact that she had a problem. She was a problem.
There was something wrong with her—something terribly, terribly wrong.
What was supposed to be simple became complex. Easy became difficult.
It was just… broken with her.
Her happiness? Her relationship with Hiyori? Her relationships with her friends and co-workers?
Everything was broken.
She was br—
"Friends, Patty…! You're still friends," she snapped to herself.
She had only just now that she was starting to spiral out of control.
"You fixed it… You picked up the pieces and put it back together… You're friends. You left on good terms. You'll come back on good terms."
She held herself tighter, hands straining with effort.
"You're not broken. All your pieces are in place. Keep it together, girl…"
She took a deep breath and allowed a shiver run through her body.
She was intact. She could keep it together. She could and she would. She just had to hold on…
Hold on until sleep took hold for her…
A minute passed and a burst of restless energy sent her toppling off her chair. From the floor, she stared at the ceiling, eyes wide and breaths heavy and shaky. Her head buzzed as a torrential stream of thoughts forced their way through her mind.
She was still awake… Wide, wide awake…
"I can't keep doing this."
She scrambled to her feet and grabbed her discarded jacket from the bed. She then snatched some stuff from her suitcase and drawers before hurriedly exiting her room.
She was going stir-crazy, just sitting around at night trying and failing to sleep. She couldn't just keep wasting her time waiting for exhaustion to take her. She needed to do something—anything!
One-in-the-morning didn't give her many options but that didn't mean she couldn't try. It was nearly New Years. There was always something to do out on the town around New Years. She just had to find it. And she had every intention of finding it.
With keys and some cash in one pocket and a stun gun in the other, she made for the streets under the winter moonlight.
This chapter took the better part of a year to write because of a few things. One is getting and subsequently losing a new job and becoming unbelievably sick (which is why I lost that new job.) Another is a general lack of passion for writing this specific set of characters at that particular time of my life. Unfortunate but it's in the past now.