A/N: A freshly cooked 2nd chapter is up! Have fun :)
Chapter 2: 嵐 (storm)
Air. He is gasping for air. With each passing second it's getting more and more difficult to breathe. His heartbeat is rapid, his forehead is covered in sweat, and his muscles are aching. Why? Oh yes, he is running and is reaching the end of his stamina. The woman he is chasing turns out to be faster than he thought at first. However, that won't help her. He is determined to catch up to her. He has to. He will. Despite the fatigue that is already clouding his mind there is one single thought in his head as clear as day. The only sane thought he is capable of at this very moment is that he needs to touch her. And the moment is nearer with every second. The distance between them is becoming shorter and shorter. There is nothing that could prevent him from grabbing her. The tight skirt she is wearing is giving her a hard time running; she is slowly losing the lead and falling into his grasp.
And then finally, a filthy hand wearing a white shirt reaches out and grabs her. His hand. She lets out a loud scream, but it's to no avail. There is nobody around that could hear her cry for help. An overwhelming feeling of satisfaction enshrouds him as he realises his victory. He has won. Now he is upon her, pinning her to the muddy ground with one hand, he is holding her mouth shut with the other. Her fragile body sinks into the soft soil, lowering her chances at escaping even more. She is fiddling under his weight, desperately trying to kick him, scratch him, to do anything in her current situation to shake him off. Her fruitless efforts make him smile and the terror in her eyes gets his blood even more pumping. Her face is attractive; too bad no one will get to see it smiling again after he's done with her. Both of them know the inevitable is coming. She is at his mercy. And he has none.
The weapon slides into her flesh like a hot knife through butter. As sharp as a scalpel it cuts right through her clothes and through her skin, her warm blood flowing free filling the air with the disgusting stench of iron. She doesn't fight for long; the strength leaves her limbs very quickly. Now that he is not occupied with pressing her down he can use both his hands to continue leaving wounds in her stomach and chest as many times as he pleases. When he gets tired he ends her suffering with a clean cut across her throat. He looks at her face for the last time, admiring his work. Then he lifts her lifeless body and throws it into the river. The tide washes it away immediately. He feels alive. He hasn't felt like this for a very long time. His heart is still racing from the excitement of the act. Then he looks at his hands and notices that he's still holding the knife he's just committed cold blooded murder with. He grasps the handle with both of his hands and turns it towards himself. Yes, this is what he needs to do in order to complete the final part of the ritual. He wants to be reborn. The next moment he stabs the weapon into his own stomach, repeating the movement multiple times until his arms are unable to cooperate. Now he's lying on the ground in a rapidly growing pool of blood with a horrid smile painted across his twisted features.
Kouichi felt like he'd been run over by a road roller. Repeatedly. As he opened his eyes the morning sun greeted him with quickly shining away the horrible images from the nightmare he'd had. He slowly sat up in his bed and rubbed his eyes. What was that dream about? Considering his heart was still beating like mad and the shirt of his pyjamas was drenched in sweat it couldn't have been anything pleasant. A smelly shirt dropped onto the floor. After slowly crawling out of the bed he shuffled to the window and looked out onto the street. He still remembered a couple of fragments: he was running. It was outside, in a forest or by a river. A woman was screaming. And there was blood. A lot of blood.
Kouichi shook his head in the hope of getting rid of the unpleasant memory. To distract himself he decided to cook something since it had already been nearing 9 AM. He put on his morning robe and continued his slow shuffle towards the kitchen. Upon entering he switched on the television on the counter that greeted him with a loud and happy "Ohaiyou!". This was part of his daily ritual whenever he woke up; therefore he did it without even thinking about it. Not being a morning person the random voices coming from the speakers helped him shake off the imaginary arms trying to pull him back into the cosy confines of his sheets. One of the many morning shows was currently on the channel. During the week he used to watch the news while sipping his morning coffee, but today was Sunday and he slept in. After deciding that the show was not that bad and it was worth listening to, he tended to conjure himself a quick breakfast.
While he was waiting for the water to boil he chopped up some vegetables to go with the scrambled eggs. In the background the two presenters happily chatted about this and that. For some reason (it could have been a running joke, Kouichi guessed) they felt the need to ask the viewers whether they were feeling good every few minutes. The crowd in the studio screamed a loud "Yes!" whenever the question got repeated.
In the meantime the kitchen got filled with the mouth-watering aroma of a Sunday breakfast. Kouichi was just about to pour the hot water over the ground coffee when he heard a loud "Genki!" from behind him.
"How are you? Genki?" asked the female presenter for the fourth time already.
"Good! Genki!" screamed the audience.
Kouichi froze as if he'd seen a ghost. It only took a fraction of a second for the machinery that was his mind to make a click and for all the parts to fall into place. And it only took him one second to rush to the bathroom which he only reached in time to yank the toilet's seat up. He hadn't touched his breakfast yet, so there wasn't much to throw up. He had no idea a person's stomach was able to cramp up this violently. After a while he was done and flushed the water while breathing heavily.
He knew. He remembered.
I killed Reiko-san.
By sheer chance the morning show made his memories of Yomiyama return. All of them this time. The time he spent in 9th grade wasn't shrouded in mystery anymore. He recalled their school trip in summer where many people died. He recalled that he was the only one who stood by Mei, the only one who protected her from the crazed classmates wanted to kill her since they thought she was causing all the chaos. They thought she had been dead, but ironically she was most alive of them all. The last scene from that evening was when he saw his aunt, Reiko-san, knocked to the ground begging him for help which he didn't do. No, on the contrary even; he killed her instead. Ignoring her pleads he lifted his weapon high above his head and struck her with all his might. Mei was there too. He didn't remember the image of her being there, but he knew she was. She was by his side as he had been. Then he felt a sharp pain in his chest and the world faded to darkness.
Except that dream he had earlier, the dream of chasing and murdering someone in cold blood. Kouichi knew now what that dream was about: Reiko-san's first death. He felt like he killed her both times.
Kouichi's stomach was starting to act up again, so he leaned over the toilet ready for another round of cramping. Despite the urge to throw up one more time he only coughed awkwardly. His legs didn't want to cooperate when he wanted to stand up, that's why he forced them to and refreshed his face at the sink.
The voice in his head. The last piece of the puzzle finally fell into place. When he was back in Yomiyama in May the town wanted to remind him. Indirectly, but clearly, yet it didn't succeed. There was a bird at his grandparents' house that used to repeat those exact words he heard back then. And of course, those were the same words he heard on the television as well.
I was right, Kouichi suddenly realised. In that dusty room at Yomi North I knew. I knew I had committed a crime, I knew that I killed someone. How could I forget?
He inspected his own face in the mirror above the sink. A pair of chestnut brown eyes returned his look.
I was the one who stopped the calamity. It was me who stopped it for so many years. Because I killed Reiko-san.
No matter how hard he tried he could not figure out why all this horror came back to him. Was it because he chose to play with his own fate by going back to that town? Was the curse even more unpredictable than they first thought? Why had the past come back to haunt him? Unfortunately, he couldn't answer any of these rhetorical questions. The only thing he knew was that he needed to talk to someone. Keeping it to himself was out of the question; he was convinced he would turn into a ticking time bomb (and eventually explode, at some point) if he had done that.
The phone only rang once when he heard a silent voice on the other end of the line.
Kouichi tried to hide the nervousness in his voice. "Hello Mei-san, Kouichi here."
"Have I woken you?"
"No." Truth is Mei has had her phone by her side, that's why she immediately answered the call. This was rather unusual for her; however, she'd been on the edge since Friday and kept an eye on her phone in case Kouichi called. She had something important to tell him, after all. When she heard his voice her heart started to beat in an irregular manner causing her to stand up and start walking up and down the room. "How come you're calling me this early? Is everything okay?"
"I've been… Err…" Kouichi didn't think how he should form the question. Every scenario in his mind somehow sounded wrong. "Are you busy right now?" Why am I beating about the bush?, he thought, frustrated by his own foolishness.
"Not really," said Mei puzzled and Kouichi could have bet she tilted her head to the side. She always did that when she was confused. "I mean, it's Sunday."
"Right… Okay, I don't know how to say this without sounding rude. Excuse me, Mei-san, but could you please come to my apartment? There's something important I need to tell you. I don't want to do it over the phone. If… If that's okay with you."
Kouichi had no idea what kind of impact his words would have on Mei. Still holding onto her phone she rushed to her wardrobe and threw some clothes onto her bed. "I'm on my way," she said in a serious tone. This was it. This was the opportunity she was waiting for. "Send me your address in a text. See you soon." With that she cut off the line without granting her friend a proper explanation. Kouichi stared astounded at his phone for a few seconds. Then he typed down the name of the street and his apartment number.
Making that call was the right decision. It did take some of the weight off his shoulders. For now at least.
Kouichi let out a loud sigh of (temporary) relief. It seemed only hours ago that he made breakfast without a single worry and not shortly after that his mind turned into a complete and absolute mess due to a crime he committed more than twenty years ago.
Crime. Interesting choice of words. Was it really what it was? Is it a crime if you end one life at the cost of saving multiple others?
Yomiyama, Yomiyama, Yomiyama. That town. The kanji for 'night', 'to see' and 'mountain' defined the name of that place. A mountain in the night indeed it was. The town would never let him go that much was clear. Being born there had created an indestructible bond, one that could not be broken by distance, memory loss or time itself. Once you were part of the calamity, once it claimed your soul, it would not let it go. That was the fate of every individual connected to class 3-3.
Kouichi decided that the best thing to do until Mei got there was to do some physical work to try to calm his nerves. A good distraction always seemed to do the trick like before when he tried to recover from his nightmare.
If only I didn't switch on the television.
Therefore the first thing he did was to switch it off. He noticed he didn't even touch his breakfast or make himself coffee. Since his appetite was gone he pushed the plate with the food that had gone cold into the fridge. He made his bed and opened the windows hoping that the cool breeze would blow away his worries. While the wind was gently caressing the curtains Kouichi took a quick shower in order to wash the smell of sweat and vomit off his body. As he was slipping into a pair of sweatpants and a comfortable shirt he heard a loud voice.
Since the shrieking sound came from inside his head he couldn't do anything to block it. Leaning against the sink he slid his fingers through his hair in a similar fashion to Naoya back at the school. Suddenly, the doorbell rang and the voice fell silent. Kouichi almost sprinted towards the door almost tripping over his sweaty clothing covering the bathroom tiles. Cursing under his breath he opened the door and as soon as he saw his friend trying to catch her breath he immediately forgot about barely escaping a bashed in head just seconds ago. Mei was wearing a pair of faded jeans and an outworn sweatshirt that looked like she threw on the first pair of clothing she grabbed. In Kouichi's opinion it really suited her and made her look even more attractive (he refused to admit the latter though). She also had on her eyepatch.
"Hello again," she said, fixating her ruby eye on Kouichi as if trying to find a clue that would reveal the reason for his sudden call. Needless to say she considered every possible scenario on her way to Kouichi's apartment. Now that she'd finally arrived she couldn't see anything beside a grim atmosphere surrounding her friend. There was something in the air, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. "Okay, I am at the correct address. I'm glad."
"Thank you for coming so fast. Actually, for coming at all. Come on in."
"Sakakibara-kun, what is it?" Mei couldn't help but come to the topic right away. She only managed to hold the question back until she had taken off her shoes.
"I think you'll need to sit down for this one," he said and showed the way to the kitchen. Mei felt the familiar uneasiness in her intestines that was usually followed by bad news.
The chair she sat down was the most uncomfortable piece of furniture she'd ever had the chance to try out. She folded her hands on her lap trying to seem calm, but she was fiddling with her wedding ring subconsciously, turning it around her finger continuously. Anxiety always made this habit of hers surface.
Now that Mei was there Kouichi couldn't come to the point. He couldn't exactly hit her with an unusual statement like 'I killed my aunt back in 9th grade', especially since Mei probably hadn't regained her memories like he did.
"Would you like some coffee? I haven't had my morning cup yet."
Beating around the bush again, are we?
The water started to boil very quickly and soon the mouth-watering aroma of fresh coffee filled the small kitchen. Yet the tension in the air was almost unbearable. Mei thought about how she was going to snap if Kouichi didn't tell her right away what he called her here for.
Kouichi had let out a loud sigh after placing a cup in front of his friend. "I don't even know where to begin… Well, how should I put this… Just this morning I remembered everything about our days in 9th grade. All those events that I had long forgotten, all the things that my subconscious didn't want to recall. I… I know who the dead one was back then." He paused for a few seconds. "It was Reiko-san, my aunt."
Mei's irises widened in surprise. This was entirely different from what she was expecting. She thought Kouichi called her here because of something involving more recent events.
"Mei-san, you were the one who realised it. And I think you were there when she died again… By my hands."
He described his dream and told her about the night of the trip their class went on more than two decades ago.
Kouichi paused to take of sip of his coffee. "You must probably think that I'm unreasonable for letting these old memories get to me. She'd already been killed long before I moved to Yomiyama. Yet still I feel dreadful for..."
Mei interrupted him. "…she was your aunt and you loved her. It's only natural that you feel miserable. But you must also remember that you saved us all with the deed you did. Look at me, Kouichi-kun." He did as she instructed, surprised that she called him by his first name. "Reiko-san, the real Reiko-san would have understood. I am sure she loved you as much as you did her. That fact remains the same even if she wasn't really there in 9th grade." Her voice sounded even more serious now. "And don't ever think such thing of me. I've never considered you unreasonable or mad even, so I won't start now. True, chances are I won't ever understand what you're feeling right now and I am not going to lie to you; time won't heal these wounds, at least not completely." Kouichi's aura darkened after hearing those words. She was right though and deep down he'd already known from the moment he lifted the weapon and struck down in the dead of night. The wound had not healed; it had only been covered up with the gauze of time. Yes, he needed someone to say it out loud for him. Every wound needs to be cleaned and disinfected in order for scar tissue to form and remodelling to begin.
"However, the one thing I know for sure is that we're in this together," Mei continued. "You told me so yourself. I was there that night as well. And it was me who wanted to end it all at first. I'm convinced I would have done it myself if you had not shown up. No matter how you look at it; we're carrying this burden together." She thought about about saying more, but she changed her mind. "Thank you for trusting me with this, Kouichi-kun."
Kouichi remained silent. He went over to the sink filling his now empty cup with water. Mei didn't break the silence; she let him stare through the window into the distance. Kouichi noticed that the city's rooftops looked much higher than usually and the horizon looked further away than the day before, hidden behind the great mountains.
Eventually, he turned around and bowed slightly as a sign of his gratitude, a sad smile playing on his lips.
He straightened himself, locking his gaze with hers. "Thank you for being there for me. You have no idea how much I appreciate it."
"You really don't need to thank me for this," Mei smiled tilting her head a little to the side. Kouichi couldn't help but notice how attractive she looked when she did that.
Why is my heart pounding?
It had started in Yomiyama when he temporarily lived there, then faded and disappeared almost completely. However, a few months ago it appeared again and had been growing ever since: his affection towards Mei. Despite knowing it was wrong he couldn't control his emotions. It was only when he met her again that he realised what a great time they had after the calamity had ended. He was completely baffled how he could forget all those days. Mei had become part of his life again and each time they saw each other his desire to tell her his feelings grew stronger. Let's face it, she did make him feel better, she did make his days brighter with her smile and he loved hearing her voice. Yes, Mei had been smiling more often indeed. Even though the darkness of her past had returned so abruptly, she didn't let her cheerful personality fade away. In a way she was still the shy little girl that nobody noticed, but at the same time she was a strong woman with high self-esteem. Quiet, but confident. With a job she enjoyed, with a house she felt happy in and a caring husband.
Ah yes, that was what prevented Kouichi from revealing anything about his true feelings. Mei's husband represented an impenetrable barrier, a wall that Kouichi didn't want to breach. The reason for this was simple: he had been cheated on multiple times in the past and knew exactly how it felt to be betrayed; therefore he wouldn't wish it to happen to anyone else. Needless to say his whole world crumbled down when he found out about his now ex-wife's adventures. That was the darkest time of his life which he spent blaming himself for it. Then one day everything changed when he realised it wasn't him who was at fault. So, when the divorce papers were all signed and approved he felt as free as a bird. The choice he made back then had been without any regret. And then he met his childhood friend again who made him feel like a teenager again. And he chose to ignore and supress those feelings as best as he could. However, Mei understood him like no one ever had and the restraints he had exercised until now were starting to lose their effect.
"You know, you still have that frown of constant worry on your forehead," Mei spoke suddenly interrupting Kouichi's thoughts. "Only now it's become a little deeper."
"Are you saying I'm getting old?" he asked with a nervous chuckle.
She couldn't help but smile. Taking her cup to the sink as well she inspected the same view as her friend.
The lack of reply made her look at him. She noticed he was staring at the ground, his mind heavy with something that was clearly still bothering him. Without thinking it through properly she locked her arms around his slim figure and buried her head in his chest. She felt him tense a little, but not resisting or pulling away from her warmth.
What am I doing?
Her mind and heart weren't in sync though. Actually, her heart was anything but and she was hoping Kouichi wouldn't notice the wild pounding against her ribcage. Then, as if feeling her nervousness, he embraced her in a similar fashion. Almost as if to comfort her.
None of them knew how long they stayed like that. Finally, when his grip lessened Kouichi did something he didn't want to. Ah, that was a lie; he wanted to, desperately. Only his good manners didn't let him to do it until now.
The two former classmates were both surprised at the slowly decreasing distance between them. Kouichi leaned down to get closer to Mei who in return raised herself on tiptoes. Two hot foreheads leaned against each other. In the many books she'd read Mei often stumbled upon phrases describing 'time standing still' and only now she fully comprehended the meaning of those words.
"There is…" she said in a lowered voice. "There is something... I need to tell you something." When she finished the sentence she knew Kouichi didn't hear her.
It had become too much; he couldn't resist it anymore. With all that had happened and all those words that had been spoken the last ounce of his aloofness evaporated in a fraction of a second and he kissed the woman in front of him. Not passionately, but gently. He could feel her lips tense in response. That lasted only for a moment though. Mei let out a small gasp and pulled away, her visible pupil widely dilated.
"Ah, that was…" Kouichi tried to say something similar to an apology, but Mei's touch viciously messed with his sanity and he hated himself for wanting to steal another kiss from her. Or maybe two or three.
Heavens, I am hopeless.
"Oh my god… I… Can I excuse myself?" The sudden development of their relationship didn't leave Mei cold blooded either. "I need the bathroom for a minute."
"Err… Yes, of course. It's the door on the left," Kouichi instructed her. When she disappeared he ran his fingers through his hair for the second time today. What was wrong with this day? One unusual thing kept happening after another, he couldn't even get a break.
Now I've done it. I've blown it. Are you satisfied now, Kouichi?
Actually, yes. I am.
Leaning back against the counter he thought about the kiss again. Much to his surprise he didn't feel as bad as he thought he would. On the contrary even; he felt as little as no regret. A faint smile spread across his features and he quickly shook his head to make it go away. He washed the two cups in the sink and placed them on a tray to dry. Just as he was drying his hands he heard the sound of feet shuffling to his right.
"Mei-san. Err... Do you…" he said focusing on avoiding eye contact. Despite not regretting his actions he did feel somewhat awkward. "Do you need some time alone to think about what just happened? I don't mind if you want to do so. I mean even me…"
"No," she said, interrupting him. "I have already thought about it for twenty-four years. I returned the kiss, didn't I?"
Hearing those words Kouichi turned to meet her gaze, surprise reflecting off his brown orbs. The confusion lasted only for a short time though. "How about… Some fresh air then? A walk?" he asked confidently.
Mei smiled thinking back at the promise she made to her reflection in the bathroom mirror earlier. Now that the barrier between them had been breached she felt she could tell him more easily. Kouichi finally needed to know the reason why she had barely been sleeping the past two nights and why she rushed over like a madman after receiving a call from him. Kouichi deserved to know what she found out on Friday at the hospital.
Already welcoming the change of atmosphere she swiftly slipped into her shoes. She needed to refresh her mind before freeing her mind from the burden that were the news about her friend's wellbeing.
"A walk? Yes, that would be nice."
Mei was the only one who knew that Kouichi was dying.
A/N: Were you expecting that twist? Leave a review and let me know :)
Next chapter: a confession! Stay tuned ;)