For the anniversary of Petrichor. Thank you to all the readers this past year!
Unlike Saturnine this one is a multi-chap fic.
Playlist: Guerilla, Oh My Girl; Destiny, MAMAMOO; Hold me tight or don't, FOB; July 7th, Dreamcatcher; Carry you, Ruelle
Fujiwara Nagi had parents who were well-off. She attended a prestigious academy – an escalator school where students were renowned for their talent, in diverse fields. She had inherited her mother's looks, that of a woman whose beauty had been enough to earn her fame and marriage to a man who could provide her a secure future should age exert its inevitable effects on her. She was healthy.
Arguably, Fujiwara Nagi had everything necessary to be happy.
Would it have been ironic, then, to say that she wasn't?
Mugen Academy loved talent. Its students, both current and graduated, would be found familiar by most of Japan, as either superstars, top athletes, or brilliant minds in academics.
Of course, that didn't mean every student who attended or graduated from Mugen was famous. The school's tuition was reflective of its name value, making the academy famous not just for their graduates, but also the prestige attached to it.
In a school where talent was expected, where fame was close, it was almost inevitable that the young future superstars, used to being geniuses, talented – the big fish in small ponds – clashed fiercely, eager to rip down competition and rise on the corpses of the fallen.
Nagi didn't want to stand out, and so she hid, staying quiet. It was easy – she had practice at home, to shy away from the disapproving gaze of her mother, the disinterested one of her stepfather. The yearning for affection, of some kind – any kind – had been hurt too many times, and by the time she entered middle school, she knew not to search for it.
(Later, after the death of Fujiwara Nagi, Chrome would think back and realize that even then, even before salvation came to her, she had a talent for illusions, for influencing reality and tricking the sense of those around her with her own desires)
In the first year of middle school, for the first time since entering Mugen, Nagi was placed in the same class as Tomoe Hotaru.
Mugen organized itself in ranks and archetypes. The academically talented ones separated according to subjects of excellence, and leaders, after establishing themselves in a war without blades (but just as cruel and vicious) led their own. The same applied to the sports. To those talented in the arts, they were more – liberal – in the sense that their leader was more a representative of their faction, but not their head.
Nagi didn't truly belong to any of them and so she drifted, unseen, unnoticed, a ghost among the living. And that was fine with her, she said to herself, it was fine.
She wasn't the only 'drifter', per say. They were rare, because to stick out like a nail was just asking to be hammered into place, painfully, and most students sought to capitalize their talents to belong to a group, but Nagi had never been very social, never knew just how to belong, and the academy's students were not kind or inclusive to those who could not fight to make her own space.
And Nagi, whose survival methods were to stay quiet and hidden, unseen even when present, could not carve a place in Mugen.
But sometimes, there was a drifter. Very rarely were those drifters 'lone wolves', those who had talent but didn't want to be social. Most of the time they were like Nagi – unsocial, unable to belong, and lacking a talent to stand out in a school of stars.
The only other 'drifter' in her class this year was Tomoe Hotaru. Her talent wasn't in athletics – she was frail, sickly, and had permission to sit out during physical education. As far as Nagi knew, she didn't have an artistic talent. In the tests that she took, Tomoe Hotaru placed around the top half in the rankings, but not high enough to be of note.
From her observations, Nagi knew this was likely because Tomoe Hotaru was often sick and missed lessons. Taking her illness into account, if there was ever a case where she would have to advocate on her behalf, Nagi would have said that Tomoe Hotaru was actually quite brilliant.
But there was never such a situation forcing Nagi to speak out, and no one asked or noticed the same things she did.
The reason, the other students deduced instead, from what they heard from others who had been in her class before, of what they knew from previous years, the reason that Tomoe Hotaru was so weird yet still in Mugen was because of her father. Her father, the creepy Professor Tomoe who taught in Mugen's university and also owned a significant portion of its shares and was on the board.
And of course, it was connections, they sneered unkindly, of course that was the only reason why such a useless sick girl could be here, among them. The only notable things about her were the negatives, and they were gleeful in their callousness, in using what they justified as her faults to be her only defining feature, her identity.
Tomoe Hotaru did not pay them any attention. In her stoic face Nagi read the emotions that greeted her in the mirror every day – the lack of hope, the resignation to it all, the dull feeling of going through the motions of life as time passed on.
But Nagi didn't dare reach out, and she never would have, were it not for one cat.
Animals were easier than humans. They didn't talk about you behind your back or judge you. It was simple with them, and their affection genuine.
Nagi wished she could have a pet at home, but she knew it wouldn't happen. The only furs her mother approved of were her coats, and she would never agree to let Nagi bring in a stray cat.
When she first saw the cat in the academy's gardens, Nagi had been smitten. It was a scrawny cat, the short hairs of its black coat a little dusty but still beautiful, and wide green eyes like emeralds that glinted at her – but with life, unlike the cold, glittering gems her mother liked.
Without much to spend her allowance on, she used some of what she had saved up to buy cat food, or toys. Every lunch was spent in the gardens, coaxing the cat to eat in an attempt to keep its ribs from being visible through thin flesh and scraggly fur.
It was a fragile thing, Nagi knew, this thing she had with the cat. If security or the gardeners caught the cat, there would be no doubt that it would be removed from the carefully crafted gardens. Mugen had an image to uphold, and stray cats did not fit the image. It was possible she might get in trouble, if she was caught, too, and maybe her mother would be called in. Her stomach clenched in dread at the thought.
One day, Nagi would come to the school gardens and wait, and never be rewarded with a sight of the cat.
That uncertainty was what made it more precious, and Nagi relished every moment of happiness she did receive. She didn't dare touch the cat – not out of fear of diseases, as her mother may have, but because she was terrified that she would scare the cat away.
But in a way, the cat was hers, in a possession that had no visible bonds, no written deeds.
Nagi held onto this fragile uncertain thing desperately, even as she trembled.
Even after three years of the last name, it was still unfamiliar to her. There was another Fujiwara in the class, one she had been in the same class with for four years, so there was also that. But it was hers, in the way that a crumbling cliff she stood on was – because as unsteady as it was, it was the only thing she had and to not have it meant she had nothing.
Nagi needed a second to realize that it was her being called, and she froze, unsure on what to do.
Slowly, she turned, and caught sight of Tomoe Hotaru. It was late spring, nearly summer, and she was still in the long sleeves of the winter uniform and dark tights, every bit of skin under her neck covered.
Her choice in wardrobe, Nagi knew, was what others whispered was 'freaky' about her. The gossip was that she had scars from an accident.
"Tomoe-san," she said stiffly. Behind her, the cat meowed.
Tomoe's eyes drifted to the cat, who stared back at her warily, assessing whether the newcomer was a threat or not.
In one hand she held a lunchbox, and in the other a book of poetry.
"I was looking for a quiet place to eat," she said. As an explanation, Nagi realized belatedly. "I'm sorry to bother you."
Maybe it was the cat. Maybe it was the knowledge that Tomoe Hotaru was a fellow drifter. Maybe it was the look on her face, the stoic mask painted with loneliness and resignation.
"Would you," her voice squeaked, and blood rushed to her cheeks in embarrassment. Nagi pushed through, because she couldn't stop now, even though she would have rather preferred to crawl into a hole and die. "Like to stay?"
Stiffly, hesitantly, just as unsure as Nagi felt and likely looked, Tomoe nodded, and thus began their shared lunchtimes.
One thing she learned during lunch – Tomoe Hotaru wasn't much of an eater.
Neither, to be honest, was Nagi. She had a habit of eating quietly, quickly, carefully – because mealtimes at home, when shared, were tense things where she always waited to have at least one complaint directed towards her. She ate too loudly. Too hurriedly. She spilled things, dropped cutlery, and so on. The anxiety she felt during mealtimes made it difficult for her to eat without feeling like there were hands around her throat, and often times she suffered from indigestion. Nagi could barely eat with them, lest she choke and draw more of their ire.
When Nagi didn't eat with her parents, she ate alone, and that was hardly better. She had once heard that food was savored not by taste buds, but by memories.
She didn't really have any foods that gave her pleasant memories, so maybe that was why she wasn't a fan of eating.
For a week Nagi observed, a pack of mugi chocolate hidden in her bag. She had bought it the day the other girl joined, on her way home, hoping to be able to strike some conversation with her after offering it – only to hesitate and falter the next day, because she didn't know if Tomoe would like mugi chocolate, or even chocolate at all. Tomoe didn't seem to have any particular favorites in food. She didn't really eat, per say. She brought a packed lunch, took a few bites, and then set it aside to flip through her books.
It wasn't food preference, but Nagi did learn that the other girl seemed to like reading poetry. Tennyson. Virgil. Yeats. She had to look their names up and was impressed that she could read the poems in the original language.
She wished she had the knowledge to talk with Tomoe about the books she liked to read. She wished the had the courage to talk with Tomoe about the things she liked to do, because that was what friends did, and, well –
Nagi didn't know if they were friends.
She never had any friends before, for one. The ones in media – in books, in television – they ate together, and spoke together.
Were they friends?
They ate together, but it was more in the sense of shared space, rather than actually eating together.
Did she want to be friends?
The answer, Nagi found, was 'yes'.
And that desire pushed her.
The next week, Nagi took a deep breath.
"Tomoe-san," she said, and this time her voice didn't squeak. Small victories.
The other girl looked up from her book – Emily Dickenson – and she looked a little startled at the change in their usual pattern.
Nagi held the chocolates towards her and hoped she didn't look as awkward as she felt. The heat was rushing to her cheeks, and surely, she was blushing beyond her usual flush right now. "Would you like some?"
Tomoe Hotaru's violet eyes flickered down from the bag, to Nagi's undoubtedly tomato-red face, and then repeated the process one more time like she couldn't believe what Nagi had just said.
An eternity in the guise of a moment slipped by before Nagi received a response, and in that false moment she died several times over in embarrassment.
"Thank you," said Tomoe, who took a few chocolates from the bag tentatively, as if she expected the bag to bite her hand off.
She didn't take more, and that drained all of Nagi's courage for the day – possibly for the whole year. Inside, she deflated at her failure. The sweets tasted bitter in her mouth, despite them being covered in milk chocolate.
The next day, Nagi was surprised when Tomoe Hotaru took out a box from under her book – still Emily Dickenson, which was odd, because it wasn't a very thick book and given the other girl's usual reading speed, she should have finished it by now – and opened it. Inside were eight delicately crafted wagashi, the light pink color of cherry blossoms and almost too pretty to eat.
Tomoe held the box out towards Nagi. "They're good," she said, as if she was worried Nagi might refuse them.
Almost like a mirror of yesterday, Nagi gently – carefully, cautiously – reached out and took one. The sweet made in the shape of a blossom was almost too pretty to eat, and a part of Nagi wanted to take it home with her, treasure it as a sign of something that filled her inside with warmth.
That, though, might have been very creepy and scared Tomoe Hotaru off, so Nagi quietly thanked her and nibbled on the wagashi. It was sweet, in a way different from the chocolate, and delicious.
"You can have more," she murmured when Nagi didn't move to take another one. "If you want to," she said. "I brought them to share and I wasn't sure if you'd like them, so . . ."
Tomoe trailed off, and she was a mirror of who Nagi had been yesterday. Except unlike Nagi, Tomoe Hotaru was lovely.
"They're good," Nagi reassured her, and picked up another one. "It's just . . . they're really cute."
Tomoe Hotaru smiled, and there was a lot of relief in it. "They are," she agreed, and picked one up herself.
And it was odd, how eating traditional confectionary made Nagi feel a little like cotton candy – soft and light and sweet, and colorful.
Odd, but – pleasant. Nice.
Sometimes, Tomoe Hotaru could not make it to the lunchtimes. It was because she was sick, and frail, and it made Nagi glad, in a way, that she usually stayed until after lunch before asking to be excused.
She was also worried, especially when she was pale – paler than usual, in a sickly manner – and perspiration made strands of dark hair stick to her bloodless cheeks, but Tomoe insisted she was fine.
They exchanged contacts and Nagi spent twenty minutes to compose a message, another twenty to stare at it before she finally sent the first message to a friend.
"My father monitors my messages," Tomoe had said, when they exchanged contact information. "If there's anything private, don't write them."
It wasn't exactly an encouragement, for Nagi to contact her, but the fact that she gave Nagi her number meant that there was a way for them to communicate, a choice, beyond just their lunch time meetups.
In one cage, Nagi stared across her bars into the bars of another cage holding someone with bound wings. She couldn't free Tomoe Hotaru, and Tomoe Hotaru couldn't free Fujuwara Nagi, but –
But company made it so they weren't so terribly alone. It made it bearable.
The end of lunchtimes together came with the disappearance of the cat.
Nagi had never been the most athletic of people. She had good balances, and instincts, but she was used to trying to not stand out. She didn't participate in clubs. She didn't have much of an appetite.
Fujiwara Nagi was not the most physically impressive person. She was no hero who could snatch someone out of the path of a car, keeping them and herself safe from danger.
The cat – her cat, she wanted to say, but the cat was still wary of her, still a stray, still not hers – was in the path of the car and wasn't moving, and there wasn't time.
Nagi was not a hero. She didn't have much to her.
She had enough in her to shove the cat out of the way of the car, but not enough to get herself to safety.
The car struck her, the pain greater than any physical force she had ever experienced in her life, and Nagi's vision blurred before going out entirely.
Maybe it was limbo she was stuck in, Nagi thought through a haze. Maybe she was stuck, because while she hadn't done terrible things, she wasn't a good person. She couldn't make it to heaven, but neither was she someone who would fall to hell, and so, like she always had been, she was stuck in an awkward middle, not remarkable, not memorable.
Suspended in that state, Nagi heard her mother and stepfather's voices through the steady beep of machines, obnoxiously grating on her ears. There wasn't a trace of worry in their words, no concern or mourning.
Annoyance, at her being a waste of their time. Just like she had been for them, all her life.
Was it surprising, that neither of her parents were happy?
Well, no, but perhaps 'happy' wasn't the right word for it, what it should have been. 'Worried'. 'Concerned'.
She didn't know what the right word would be. All of them? None of them? The only thing she had for reference was the usual discontent, and that was present in plenty. Like she had been in her life, even as she was dying, Nagi was an inconvenience.
"Test me," pleaded a voice, as Nagi began slipping away from the brief window of consciousness. Or maybe she wasn't and hadn't been conscious – maybe this was all a dream. "Test me – I might be a match, it might work."
"This isn't just a simple blood transfusion," replied an unfamiliar voice, a man's. "It's far more complicated than giving blood, or even a kidney, what's required is-"
"I know and I'm saying it's fine!" snapped the first voice, a voice that was familiar except out of character. Nagi knew it had to be a dream then, because Tomoe Hotaru never raised her voice. "Just test me!"
It was a nice dream, Nagi thought, as she slipped out. Unexpected, but nice.
And then she slipped into an entirely different place.
The day Fujiwara Nagi died, Chrome Dokuro was born, vessel to a trapped soul who remembered the wheel of reincarnation and the six realms of hell.
(And Tomoe Hotaru wept.)