Hikari stood on the steps that led up to the shrine, one hand holding the medallion, the other gripping the strap of her bag tightly. She almost couldn’t make herself walk forward. Yesterday was one big chaotic jumble in her head, shadows and shards and a talking tree, and even though at the time she had believed it all without question, now… now she was afraid of what she would find if she went back to the clearing. What if none of it was real? What if it was just two high school students playing a prank on her for some reason? Or worse, what if she’d dreamed it or hallucinated it or…
Akemi was coming up the steps behind her. She quickly reached Hikari and paused.
“Is it real?” Hikari blurted out.
Akemi blinked, then laughed. That made Hikari feel better immediately. It wasn’t the laughter of someone trying to make her look stupid; it was the way you laughed when you knew exactly how the other person felt.
“Yes,” said Akemi. “It’s real. Even the weird bits.”
She reached out and looped her arm through Hikari’s. They continued up the steps together.
“Is your friend okay?” Akemi asked.
“I think so. He didn’t really see the… Spectres, I think. We had to go to the police and say he’d been mugged.” Hikari bit her lip. “They asked us all sorts of questions about what the people looked like and I couldn’t really answer. I really hope they don’t tell my parents. They’ll never let me go out after dark again.”
“Do they keep close tabs on you?”
“Not that much,” Hikari said hurriedly. “They just worry about… things like that. People attacking me or hurting me. Especially after, you know, that stuff in Kyoto…”
“That’s understandable.” They’d reached the shrine gate and were heading into the woods behind the main building. “If my mom knew about the times I’ve sneaked out of my room, she’d flip out.”
“You have to do that? For the Guardian stuff?”
Akemi glanced at her and hesitated.
“Yeah,” she said. “Not… not that often. We haven’t had any shard bearers attacked in the middle of the night yet.”
“Well, I don’t like to count on it never happening.”
As they approached the clearing, Hikari could see something through the trees that hadn’t been there before – a white patch like someone had laid a sheet out on the ground. Shoichi was just visible, standing over the white thing and apparently reading a piece of paper intently.
“He didn’t,” Akemi said, laughing. “Did he? He totally did.” She raised her voice. “Shoichi! Is that another tent?”
Shoichi turned in their direction and gave Akemi a sheepish grin.
“The other one wasn’t going to be big enough for three of us,” he replied. “And I had some money my parents gave me that I never got around to spending.” He frowned down at the pile of material at his feet. “But this one is kind of complicated to set up. I might need some help.”
“Right.” Akemi gave Hikari’s arm a squeeze before letting go. “First Celestial Guardian duty for you: help put up this tent.”
“I call upon the stars, my liege,” Astra said with quiet precision, “solitary guides of twilight. Grant me the power to strike at the dark!”
Several blinding bolts of white light shredded the bush she had aimed at. Astra made a muffled squeaking noise, started to put her hands up to her face, then stopped, wide-eyed, looking at her gloved fingers as if they might go off. There was a flash of light as her transformation reversed, leaving her standing in her school uniform and looking very young again.
Shoichi would have jumped up to reassure her, except Akemi was already on her feet and exclaiming, “Wait, she gets lasers? Why does she get lasers? I want lasers!”
At the same time, she had quickly crossed the clearing to the newest member of the Guard and grabbed her hands without fear, which from the look on Hikari’s face was the best thing she could have done.
“You hardly need more firepower,” Sakaki said. “Astra’s abilities are more focused than yours, and with the right training, she will be able to strike with precision from greater distances.”
“So she’s our sniper?” Akemi said.
“You’ll have to explain that one to me.”
Akemi immediately and cheerfully did, with occasional helpful commentary from Hikari, who already seemed to be over her momentary fright at what she’d done. That was good. Shoichi had been worried when he’d realised she was only in junior high. Not, he added hastily to himself, that there was any reason her age should affect her skill as a Guardian, just… it was weird how much younger fourteen looked to him now he was almost four years older.
He sat back on his cushion and let the explanation of the finer points of long-distance ballistics wash over him. The new tent was even better than he’d hoped. It was big and square, with plastic windows on two sides, a door that could roll right up out of the way or be kept in place with zippers, and a proper groundsheet that would keep out the rising damp. Most importantly, it was at least twice as big as Shoichi had imagined, so they weren’t going to run out of space for more Guardians any time soon. It was easily the size of a small room, and the roof was tall enough that he was at no risk of having to stoop.
And it was a way of distracting himself, of course. He knew that really. It was easier, and more comforting, to fuss about getting just the right tent, and enjoy Akemi’s reaction to it, than to focus on what he really needed to do next.
With a sigh, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked it again. Against all odds he’d hoped Satoru might finally respond to his emails, after the close call with Sol yesterday… but there was still nothing.
So he was going to have to take a different approach, and even though he already knew what it would be, he hadn’t quite managed to nerve himself up to cross that line yet.
“Have you had any training in that area?” Sakaki was asking. “I realise in this time it is far less likely…”
“Um… well, I’ve played a lot of video games,” Hikari said hesitantly. “But I don’t think they’re really the same thing.”
“What are– no, Sol, don’t explain it now,” Sakaki said. “Do these games train your hand and eye?”
“Not really. They’re more about pressing buttons.” Hikari seemed to remember something. “Oh – but I used to go to the archery club at my old school. Does that count?”
Sakaki laughed. There was something about that laugh… something that Shoichi was beginning to recognise, though he couldn’t quite put words around what it meant. Sakaki laughed like that sometimes when some minor detail of their lives came up in conversation, as if to say, of course. It was odd. Not bad, just… odd. Like she was laughing at a private joke they didn’t understand.
“It does count,” Sakaki said. “Would you be able to resume instruction?”
“I… guess so.” Hikari bit her lip. “Except there isn’t an archery club at my school now.”
“There’s one at mine,” Shoichi said. “And they take members from other schools – since it’s not such a common hobby.”
He’d been concerned for a moment that they were railroading Hikari into it, but her face lit up as he spoke.
“Really?” she said. “I’d like that. If you think they’d let me in.”
“How’s your Tokyo accent?” Akemi asked with a sneaky smirk in Shoichi’s direction.
“Um– I’m not sure–”
“She’s making fun of me,” Shoichi said, shooting a mock-glare back at Akemi. “You’ll be fine. They’re always looking for new members.”
“I’ll ask my parents,” Hikari said. Then she smiled self-consciously. “But I know they’ll say yes. They think I spend too much time on the computer. They’ll be thrilled.”
“That’s settled, then,” Akemi said. She looked thoughtful. “I wonder… should we do something like that, Shoichi?”
“Like what? Archery?”
“Well, not archery, but… some sort of, I don’t know, martial art or something?”
“I’m… not sure I’m a martial arts sort of person,” Shoichi said cautiously. “I tried judo once, but I didn’t like it.”
“It is a good thought,” Sakaki put in. “If you are able. Learning to defend yourself without your powers will increase your skill at using them.” She hesitated. “Tell me, do they still teach swordsmanship these days, or have your rifles and pistols replaced such things?”
“There’s fencing,” Shoichi said. “My school has a club for that.”
“Mine has kendo,” Akemi said. “I used to go, before I got into exam hell.”
“The last couple of years of high school are all about passing the university entrance exams,” Shoichi said, forestalling an explanation from Akemi that he knew would be five times as long. “People call it ‘exam hell’, because you just don’t do anything else except prepare for them.”
“How dull,” Sakaki said.
Akemi and Shoichi stared at each other for a moment before breaking into laughter.
“Yeah,” said Akemi, getting a handle on herself, “that’s one way of describing it.”
Akemi raised her hand hesitantly. The teacher had made it pretty clear that they weren’t supposed to be asking questions during the test, but… this was kind of urgent.
The teacher glared at her and then looked pointedly away. Akemi winced. She looked down at the floor again, wondering if maybe she should just keep quiet, but in the end common sense won out.
“Shouldn’t we do something about the water?” she said out loud.
“No talking,” the teacher hissed, glaring at her again, this time with such poison it froze Akemi’s voice in her throat. “You’re going to fail.”
Akemi swallowed hard. The water spilling under the classroom door seemed run faster, and the spreading puddle reached her desk. She hitched her feet up under her chair to keep them dry.
“I just think we should stop the water–”
“You will fail.”
The classroom door burst open and water surged through with a roar and crash that was horribly familiar. Akemi screamed. Everyone else in the class was still bent over their tests even as the wave engulfed them. She flung herself out of her chair and grabbed her medallion, transforming in a heartbeat, and flung a wall of fire out from where she was standing as if she could boil the water away before it reached her…
It almost seemed to be working, until the teacher was suddenly behind her, grabbing her by the hair and yanking her down under the waist-high flood.
“You will fail.”
Then salt filled her mouth and she struggled desperately…
… and her alarm woke her, still gasping for air.
When she felt the shiver of recognition between classes, Akemi thought at first that it was a holdover from the dream, and tried to ignore it. But the creeping wrongness only increased, and when she sensed Sakaki trying to contact her through the medallion, she almost ran to the bathroom.
“There is a new haunt–” Sakaki began.
“It’s in my school, isn’t it?”
“It does appear to be in close proximity to you.”
“Fine. I’ll deal with it.”
“Sol?” Sakaki sounded concerned. “There is no need to rush in. It has barely gained a foothold. Luna and Astra can join you later–”
“If it’s tiny, that’s all the more reason to just deal with it now. I am not spending the rest of the day feeling like someone walked over my grave.”
“Remember what Luna said about splitting up. Perhaps I should contact him as well–”
“He’s probably in the middle of a test or something.” Akemi felt jittery and angry, and like somehow the Spectres, wherever they were, were taking advantage of how rattled the dream had left her. “I’ll text him so he knows. It’s easier to check his phone than get out of class and use the medallion. But if it’s only a few of them, I just want to put a stop to this right now.”
“Still, I would advise caution…”
“You know that’s not my thing.”
She thought she heard Sakaki sigh as she closed the medallion. Feeling slightly guilty, she pulled out her phone and shot Shoichi a quick message about the haunt. Somewhat to her surprise, he responded immediately: Do you need me to come there?
In the middle of the day? Akemi typed. No, I’ve got this. Sakaki says it’s small.
Just… be careful. There’s no harm in waiting until later and going in together.
Akemi made a face, flipped her phone closed without replying, and reached for her medallion. The school halls were deserted right now with everyone in class. She had a good idea of the most likely places to find the Spectres – the windowless sports hall or the basement club rooms were most likely. If she hurried, she could get back into class with an excuse about feeling ill, and her day would be almost normal.
Apart from the memory of the surging water, of course. It was funny… she’d always been terrified of the threat of a tsunami, ever since she was old enough to learn about what you did in an earthquake, and what might come afterwards. Even though she’d never lived close enough to the sea to be at risk, even though her school was on a hill, even though Osaka itself was well-sheltered and protected from all but the most catastrophic waves… it had been her greatest fear since childhood. But she’d never dreamed about it before, not even once, and now… now, she was sure there had been rising water in other dreams lately, a silent threat seeping under the doors of even the most private places in her mind.
Sakaki had said that the Spectres could use your fears against you, hadn’t she? All the more reason to deal with them decisively and put the nightmare out of her mind.
Shoichi wasn’t really surprised that he got no response to his admonition to be careful, but he worried about Akemi anyway. He almost reached for his medallion, but hesitated. He wasn’t quite sure how much information Sakaki could glean from the contact, and he didn’t want to have to try and explain why he wasn’t in school right now.
He glanced over at the main entrance to the University lecture hall. He knew some of the classes Satoru was taking. It hadn’t been too difficult from there to find the timetables online and work out which building Satoru would be in for the morning lectures. It felt creepy, though. Like that date-ambush thing, only worse, because Shoichi knew Satoru wouldn’t be pleased to see him.
People started coming out of the doors to the building in ones and twos. Shoichi stood up straighter as he scanned each person who passed him. His heart was racing and he felt vaguely sick. Everything about this felt invasive and wrong, but what other option did he have?
Satoru emerged before Shoichi could talk himself into giving up on the whole thing. He looked tired, was Shoichi’s first thought. His next was that he recognised Satoru’s coat: it was the long, hooded one he wore as Kestrel. Before he could wonder about that, Satoru looked up and saw him.
And tried to turn around and walk the other way.
At which point Shoichi was annoyed all over again despite the guilt. He jumped forward and grabbed Satoru’s arm, managing to get a good grip on his wrist, and said, with far more exasperation than he had intended, “Could you please stop running away and just talk to me for five minutes?”
Satoru blinked, seeming momentarily nonplussed. “What?”
“Talk. With words. About…” Shoichi glanced at the other people around them, “… some of the things we have in common.”
Satoru hesitated. Shoichi was suddenly, intently aware of his hand tight on Satoru’s wrist, almost intimate, but almost a threat at the same time. He let go. If Satoru was going to vanish into a puff of smoke, he probably couldn’t do much about it anyway.
“All right,” Satoru said quietly. “Let’s go to the park over there.”
They found an unoccupied bench away from other people. Shoichi took a gamble on sitting down first, knowing that if Satoru ran off again, he’d never be able to regain the headstart. But after a moment, Satoru sat down too. And then they were sitting there. On the bench. Not looking at each other. While Shoichi tried to figure out where to start.
Awkward didn’t even begin to cover it.
“I’m sorry for coming here like this,” Shoichi blurted out, seizing on the first thing that had been preoccupying him. “I just didn’t know what else to do.”
Satoru nodded, still without looking directly at Shoichi, but maybe the apology had been worth something, because he seemed to relax a bit. Shoichi closed his eyes for a moment and reached for the words he’d been rehearsing for days.
“Sol could have killed you the other day. She doesn’t want to hurt you, or anyone else, but… you’re doing the same thing as the Multitude.”
“No, I’m not–” Satoru began sharply, then stopped himself. He sighed. “I can’t… I really can’t talk about this. With anyone. That’s part of the… the duty.”
“And especially not with you,” Satoru rushed on. All at once a floodgate seemed to have opened as some energy came into his voice. “You know, when this… when this started, when I was— when I had to start looking for the shards… I got given an actual piece of paper that literally said ‘do not trust the Celestial Guard, they are not on your side’, okay? And you’ve tried to stop me getting the shards, your friend Sol is very quick to incinerate anything that gets in her way–”
“Most of what gets in her way is Spectres,” Shoichi protested. “What else are we supposed to do with them? We tried hugging, it didn’t work.”
Satoru looked directly at him for the first time, startled, and almost – almost – with the hint of a smile. “Did you?”
“No, of course not,” Shoichi said. He took the chance and plunged forward. “We didn’t think you were on their side until you took the shard before we could save the shard-bearer–”
“I am not on their side,” Satoru said with such fury and sincerity that Shoichi believed him instantly and with a huge wave of relief. “And I didn’t know. I didn’t know… there was any way to save the shard-bearers. I tried the first few times…”
He hunched in on himself.
“It didn’t matter what I did, the Spectres always came back for them,” he said. “All that happened was that I gave up the element of surprise and one of the Archdukes got the shard. And that person… died… for nothing.”
“They’re not dead–”
“They might as well be. They never wake up–”
“We woke the old woman,” Shoichi said. “She’s fine. If we can get the shards of the others who are in comas, we can bring them back too.”
Satoru looked at him for the second time, expression at once stricken and touched with the beginning of hope. “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” It was all Shoichi could do to stop himself reaching out for Satoru’s hand. He looked so alone right now. “That’s what we were doing at the hospital that time, before Neikos ambushed us. We brought her back. It’s the same power I use on the shards when they’re being extracted, Sakaki calls it a soul anchor–”
Shoichi stopped talking abruptly. As much as he wanted to talk to Satoru, he had an obligation to Sakaki and Sol as well, he couldn’t just give all their secrets away…
But Satoru seemed to have some idea of who he meant anyway, and judging by the way his expression darkened, it wasn’t entirely favourable.
“The guide,” he said. “Of course. That was in the letter too.”
He sighed and raked his hands through his hair in a moment of open frustration.
“I can’t… I really can’t talk about this,” he said finally. “There… was no room for misinterpretation, even taking the translation into account. The letter told me to stay away from you.”
“It wasn’t signed ‘Archduke Neikos’, was it?” Shoichi asked, trying for light-hearted, but feeling his own frustration behind the words. “What do you mean, translation?”
Satoru shook his head. He glanced at Shoichi, and something about the look… the longing and sadness in it… suddenly made it hard for Shoichi to breathe.
“I’m sorry,” Satoru said. “I can’t. And I can’t stop going after the shards. It’s… vital that I’m the one who gets them, not the Multitude, and not the Guard. And–” he half-laughed bitterly, “–I can’t explain why, so I realise that sounds about as convincing as a used-car salesman…”
“I believe you,” Shoichi said. “But I have to do what I’m supposed to do as well. We can’t let the Multitude get the shards. We can keep them safe if we have them…”
Satoru nodded, and got to his feet. Shoichi wanted to reach out and stop him, but he understood that the conversation had reached a dead end. If Satoru couldn’t confide in him, he didn’t dare confide in Satoru, no matter how much he wanted to.
“I can’t stop going after the shards,” Satoru said, shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his coat and staring at the ground between them. “I won’t hold back, either – I have to get them. But I… I don’t have any reason to hurt you. Or Sol. Or anyone else. I won’t if there is any other way. And I won’t… I won’t ever try to take a shard before you’ve anchored the bearer’s soul. Not ever again. Not now I know you can save them.”
“What about the other shards, from before Sol and I awakened?”
“I don’t know. I have… some. Neikos has some. There are at least three other Archdukes active and I haven’t been able to intercept all the shard-bearers.” Satoru glanced up at Shoichi pleadingly. “I can’t… I can’t make a decision yet about that, I need to go and… think, and read up.”
Shoichi took a deep breath, all too aware of the fragility of their tentative understanding, and reached for the part of himself that was always calm in a crisis, always self-sufficient.
“Okay,” he said. “I guess I have to accept that. You know how to contact me. And as long as you don’t do anything to help the Multitude, I won’t tell Sol or Sakaki who you really are. But,” he went on with a sudden fierceness he hadn’t expected, “I won’t hold back either. If I can get the shard before you, I’m not going to step aside and let you take it.”
Satoru met his eyes for a long moment, then nodded. “Okay.”
Shoichi reluctantly stood up. “I’d better go. I’m supposed to be home sick. Just my luck if my father’s case wraps up early for once…”
Satoru looked surprised, and oddly concerned. “Wait, that’s right, you should be in school.”
Shoichi shrugged. “This was more important.”
“Don’t think like that.” Satoru suddenly stepped closer, so that when Shoichi looked up, startled, they were barely an arm length apart, and he could see the lines of tiredness and worry under Satoru’s eyes. “Don’t treat your normal life like it isn’t worth anything. Please.”
“I’ll… I’ll try.” Shoichi tried for a light-hearted end to the conversation. “It would help if Neikos would stop throwing Spectres at our schools…”
“He got one of yours?” Satoru asked sharply. “Did you respond?”
“Er— not yet,” Shoichi said. “It’s only a small one–”
“That’s not the point. Just make sure you don’t give yourselves away. I’m pretty sure it’s a search grid.”
Shoichi went cold. “What?”
“I’ve been looking at the pattern of haunts in the last few weeks,” Satoru said quietly but urgently. “It’s all schools, universities – he knows roughly what age you must be. I think he’s tracking how long it takes you to deal with the haunts and trying to figure out where you are in the city. If he could narrow it down even to one or two schools it would put you at risk–”
“Oh my god.” Shoichi stumbled back a step, then fumbled his phone out of his pocket and dialled Akemi’s number. “I should have realised–”
Akemi didn’t pick up. After a couple of attempts, his phone flashed to let him know he had a new text message from her. It just read: emergency??
Shoichi took a breath. That meant she was in class. If she was fighting, she wouldn’t answer at all.
Whatever you do, don’t go after the Spectres, he typed frantically. I’ll explain later, but it’s really important that you don’t deal with them during school hours.
There was a long, long pause before the message light went off again.
Too late, the glowing characters said simply. I already did.
“I messed up,” Akemi said, staring up at the roof of the tent. The ground felt hard and cold even through the ground sheet. The cushion under her head smelled faintly of leaves and grass. “I’m so stupid.”
“You didn’t know,” Shoichi said. “None of us did.”
“You figured it out.”
“I…” Shoichi seemed to find it hard to respond for a moment. “Not quickly enough.”
“It is too late for recriminations,” Sakaki said, which Akemi had an uncharitable suspicion was code for ‘I told you so’. “If Luna is right about the purpose of the haunts, we must attempt to establish what information Neikos has gained by this.”
“He knows where my school is,” Akemi said miserably.
“That doesn’t tell him who you are,” Shoichi pointed out. “It’s a big school. There are hundreds of other people there.”
“And he will not to be able to establish a haunt there, for you will always sense the Spectres before they can gain traction,” Sakaki added. “You must be very careful that you are not followed when you come here or go to other haunts, and only transform when you are sure to be unobserved.”
“There was a haunt in my school,” Hikari said suddenly. “I… I just realised.”
Akemi sat up to look at her. “What? When?”
“Um… about a week ago.” Hikari nervously fiddled with the hem of her skirt. “I didn’t know what it was then… but the sports hall was full of shadows, and no-one else could see them…”
“Sounds right,” Akemi said.
“Wait,” Hikari said, blinking, “does that mean you guys came to my school? It was gone the next day.”
“That was Tenth District Junior High, right?” said Shoichi. “I think that was the first one we saw in a school. Akemi almost burned down your gym.”
“I did not…” The tiny joke was enough to shake her out of her dismay, at least a little. “He exaggerates.”
“I did wonder why it smelled of smoke,” Hikari said with a sweet little innocent smile. “I’m glad it wasn’t my imagination.”
“That won’t have tipped Neikos off, though,” Shoichi continued. “We dealt with it later in the evening. You weren’t even awakened yet. So you’re okay. Hopefully he won’t think to go back to the ones he’s already tried.”
“We should make a list..” Akemi reached for her bag and pulled out a notebook. “Did it make much difference how far away they were?”
“Not much, but a little,” said Shoichi. “We did the ones closer to us a bit sooner than the others – we had to work out how to get there and what to say to our parents, remember?”
“Right, right…” Akemi started jotting down the names of the schools and universities she could remember. “There hasn’t been one at your school yet, at least. Hikari’s okay.” She bit her lip, filled with shame again. “It’s just me who went charging in like an idiot…”
“Sol,” Sakaki said gently, “do not be so hard on yourself. It was an understandable reaction to such an invasion of your school. And it is a clever tactic, one I had not even considered and that I do not believe has ever been used before. You are not to blame, and knowing that you are one face in a crowd of hundreds is not such a great advantage for Neikos.”
Akemi regretted her previous thoughts about ‘I told you so’. “I just feel so stupid. I did exactly what he wanted me to.”
“None of us saw it,” Sakaki said. “Except Luna, and we must be glad that he realised Neikos’s plan, so we can work against it.”
For some reason Shoichi seemed uncomfortable whenever anyone praised him for working out what was going on with the haunts. Maybe he was worried it would make Akemi feel worse. That would be like him.
“There are still some haunts left to deal with,” he was saying. “Maybe we can… trick him? If we can get to one of the others during the day…”
“I don’t think I can cut school,” Akemi said. “My mom would kill me. And she’s usually home in the day so I can’t pretend to be sick and then go out…”
Shoichi flushed. “No, that… wouldn’t work. Maybe I can do it.”
“But you can’t really deal with the Spectres without me.”
“I might be able to,” Hikari said. “Get out of school, I mean.”
Akemi shot her a worried look. “I don’t want you to get in trouble. If you tell your parents you’re sick and you’re not…”
“That’s not how I’d do it.” Hikari was often rather quiet, but she seemed confident now. “I sometimes have, um, doctor’s appointments. Not for anything serious, just… something they have to check sometimes. My school is used to me going to them for a few hours in the afternoons. I can forge the note easily. They won’t check with my parents.”
“What if you need a real one right after?” Shoichi asked, also looking concerned.
“Actually I’m not due for another for six months now,” Hikari said. “But my school doesn’t know that.”
“Er… you don’t, like, have a weak heart or anything, do you?” Akemi said before she could stop herself. “I mean, just–”
“No, it’s nothing like that!” Hikari went very red, and looked so uncomfortable and worried that Akemi kicked herself for pushing. “It’s nothing big or dangerous or anything. It’s just a tiny little thing where they do a couple of blood tests and send me back to school.”
“I guess that’s our plan then,” Shoichi said, obviously seeing Hikari’s discomfort as clearly as Akemi, and hurrying to drop the subject. “Hikari and I will pick one of these and go during the day. That way at least Neikos has more than one target to think about.”
“These small haunts will be a good opportunity for Astra to hone her skills,” Sakaki agreed.
“You can have a day off,” Hikari said to Akemi with a smile.
“I… I’m not gonna argue with that,” Akemi said. She had to swallow to stop herself from crying. They were all being so nice. It made her feel better and worse at the same time. “But you’ll call me if there are any problems, right?”
“Of course,” Shoichi said. “And afterwards, we can get ice-cream.” He flashed her a smile. “Or even do karaoke if you want.”
Akemi laughed. “Okay,” she said. “I’m in.”
This time, somehow, Akemi knew it was a dream. It didn’t help. It didn’t help as she ran through the endless halls she didn’t recognise and yet knew by heart, as the water rushing along with her rose from a trickle to a stream to a roaring flood.
She was trying to call out to people, but the names slipped away from her tongue like the debris caught in the current. Instead she found herself substituting names from her waking life: Shoichi! Sakaki! Hikari! Hana! Mom!
No-one answered, except for the slithering shadows that had come in with the water.
Shadows fear the blazing sun.
“But I’m tired,” Akemi whispered. “I’m cold, and I’m wet, and I’m tired… there’s nothing left to burn.”
The water tugged at her knees. She stumbled, and all at once, she couldn’t find the strength to save herself. She fell into the water, and it was almost a relief, even as it stung her nose and eyes with salt.
A hand grabbed hers and pulled – seemed to pull her down deeper, but then she broke through the surface of water that was no longer churning, no longer brine. She was drawn up from a still clear pool that reflected the stars, and when she stepped out, the surface fell calm so swiftly that it looked like glass.
The man who had taken her hand still held it, and some part of her recognised him instantly, even though she couldn’t see his face and didn’t know his name.
“I failed,” she said.
“So did I,” he replied.
“It won’t happen again,” she promised.
“No,” he said, letting go of her hand and looking past her at the pool of water, “it won’t.”