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Eiichi P.I., Vol. 1

 

 

 

Eiichi P.I.

Volume 1

 

Story by James K. Penn

Art by Kate Taylor

 

Editing – Kate Taylor

Art – Kate Taylor

Cultural Consultants – Kate Taylor and John Mastrangelo

Forensics Consultant – Collin Kessler

Law Enforcement Consultant – Seth Ziegler

 

Copyright © 2016 James K. Penn

 

In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the author constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the author at [email protected]. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

 

Disclaimer

 

This book is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Dedicated to my parents, my brother, my family, friends and mentors, who supported me in one way or another.

 

In memory of Grandmas Francis and Dotty – for long goodbyes

Cousin Kelly – whom I never got to see off

and Bandit

 

Contents

Chapter 1 What’s in a Name?

 

Chapter 2 New Place, New Mind

 

Chapter 3 Letters and Little Brown Feathers

 

Chapter 4 Its Own Voice

 

Chapter 5 Blind Date

 

Chapter 6 A Cat and Her Claws

 

Afterword

 

The Creators

 

Chapter 1

What’s in a Name?

 

There are certain kinds of people in this world who stand out among everyone else. They can blend in and appear just like any other face in the crowd, but after hearing their voice, one can recognize there is more behind them than just a face. Others can pick and choose how to handle this, whether to befriend them or cast them aside, label them as strange and abnormal. They are not in any way superior to others. It is either because they know their true potential, or it is staring them in the face…and they don’t even realize it.

In the Saitama Prefecture, there is a high school with no notable reputation or highly substantial renown. It is not in the lowest or highest rankings of the Japanese education system, and thus is not much of a challenge for any average student to test into. Only its former students had graduated and moved on to bigger and better things. Its name is Aki Guro High.

However, some minor notable features about it were it had a cafeteria, though it was small, and served more as a food court or cafe. Most students brought their lunches as a result. And, it boasted a pretty broad campus space, and a large student body to match.

At the back of this high school, more distinctly, at the back of the building that housed the cafeteria, out on the loading bay, sat a young man that was a most peculiar student. One look, and anybody could tell there was not much that was normal about him.

He sat on a set of short steps that led up to the loading bay, which was a flat, elevated concrete surface with a tin awning, where trucks for food distribution corporations dropped off their frozen goods.

The loading bay itself, and the wide, open grass field that led up to a row of bushes and trees that lined against a brick base fence were empty. They were empty, or else this student wouldn’t be here.

The coattails of his gakuran hung unbuttoned around his thighs, which were propped on the steps, one knee raised higher than the other as a rest for his right hand, which held a lit cigarette in between the middle and index fingers. His tan undershirt hung unbuttoned and untucked as well, exposing a loose t-shirt underneath.

His hair was of a jet black, and hung in short, fanned waves with a broad lock just above his eyebrows. A pair of yellow, objective eyes, with a sharp intelligence and wolfish appeal, gazed out over the driving pad and beyond the row of gates. There was nothing in particular that he was staring at, but it was apparent, from the straight line of his skeptical mouth and slack of his narrow jawline, that there were other places he’d rather be. Not uncommon of some high school students.

A thin line of smoke drifted up and over that face. He raised a steady right hand while not breaking his distant gaze. The cherry on the cigarette hissed as he took a long drag. There was small print on the ring over the faux cork filter that read “Sparrow 100’s”. There was no breeze, and a wide stream of smoke floated out, drifting upward, as it twisted itself against the blue panel.

 

His name was Eiichi Kozuka, and his name had become well known during his prior freshman year at Aki Guro. However, not for good reasons.

The sun in a cloudless afternoon sky shone spears of light down upon his blank surroundings. The winter had been mild that year, and spring settled in little more than a month ago. Though Eiichi was alone, he took comfort in the silence of his surroundings. This was his spot, and had been ever since he was a first year. Not that it was his favorite spot, and if he could find a better one, he would convene there for his afternoon breaks instead. It was just a spot. Someplace away from all the noise. He was not very well liked at this particular school. It was not any fault of his own, and he himself would not suppose it was any fault on the part of his peers either, though their quick judgments and inferior reasonings could be irritating.

He spent a lot of time alone. He preferred it. People tended to cause him to react in ways he had little control over.

His phone vibrated from the inner pocket of his gakuran. Not a text, but a timer he set up as a signal it was about time to head back to class. He was not punctual like this usually, considering he skipped two of his morning classes because the subjects were simple enough for him, but Kamon-sensei’s math class could be brutal.

He took one more drag and stopped before he started sucking filter fumes. Stamping the cigarette out against a concrete step, he stood and with hands in his pockets, stepped around the wall and began following it back to where he could reenter the school premises.

It wasn’t like he was all that concerned about his grades or anything. He honestly couldn’t give a damn, he just wanted to get out of this place so he wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. High school, to Eiichi, was just one big, weary chunk of time taken out of his day that could be used in much more effective ways than sitting in a classroom as one sensei after another passed through, giving boring lectures that seemed to all blend together after the first couple weeks.

A distressed voice met his ears and suddenly pulled his attention away from flitting over the back wall of the cafeteria.

“Let go of it! Give it back!”

It was a girl’s voice. He didn’t have to look far.

Some distance ahead of him were two people locked in a struggle. A female student, roughly his height with two braids of brown hair that hung down past her shoulders, and were currently flapping about in the midst of her panic, was trying to wrestle something away from a male student twice her size.

The male student had a cord or strap in his fist, which he kept yanking toward himself with a belligerent snarl on his face.

The guy’s voice bellowed back, “What’s this, ha!? What pictures were you taking with it!?”

The girl yelped, “That’s none of your business, give it back!”

Eiichi didn’t much care for the students at this school, mainly because he was different in ways they could not possibly understand on a normal level, and if they knew the truth, they’d only have reason to hate him more. Simply put, they were all just a pain in his head. But there were some things, like what was happening right now, that just made his blood boil.

He didn’t have to think about it. One foot stepped forward and he was on the move, heading toward the situation at a steady trot. As he got closer, his pace increased, until he was practically sprinting.

The girl wrestled harder, writhing her upper body, hugging close whatever she was trying to protect. Eiichi kept his eyes on the lummox. His vision tunneled on the guy’s ugly mug. His right hand retracted into a fist, and he lunged.

BAFF!

Ah! You son of a bitch!

The guy never saw it coming.

Less than a minute later, after some panting, and a cry that he would get back at him for this, the attacker became just a shrinking silhouette headed for the farther regions of the school.

He actually didn’t look that different from the crowd of people that others thought Eiichi might be seen around, if he actually spent time around people. Though Eiichi could not remember seeing him around campus before. It was possible, but judging by his size, it was unlikely he was a freshman. Unlike Eiichi, his uniform had actually conformed to dress code. It was that haircut that was awful.

This isn’t 1985, guy…

Eiichi watched, hands in his pockets again with the thumbs hooked out, panting a little himself with a welt on his left jaw where his opponent got a lucky shot. It wasn’t that troublesome a match. The attacker had been bigger than him, but he didn’t really know how to maneuver or use his weight, which told Eiichi, if he had been into anything, he either ran with a gang, or did something less active. Whatever it was, it didn’t involve much fighting.

Eiichi had been in a number of fights since his junior high years. He couldn’t say he hadn’t come to like it. After doing it enough, the adrenaline rush died down, the dopamine levels evened out, and it became just something that happened from time to time. But his emotions, and the emotions of others, were always still there, and sometimes, that made things interesting. People falsely accused him of a lot of things, because he didn’t fit in anywhere, but if there was one thing he was guilty of, it was brawling.

“Wow, thank you!”

The girl had stumbled back and fell in the grass after her attacker let go of the cord, when Eiichi delivered the first punch. She was there now, beaming up at him from a wariza position with her feet splayed out to the sides. The item she had been desperately trying to protect was seated in the lap of her skirt, her hands rested on it. A camera, one of the expensive looking ones with the hand adjustable lens.

 

He peered down at her. She did recognize him, but oddly enough, there wasn’t any spite, disgust or fear. She recognized him, just not in the way he was familiar with.

“No prob. You need any help?” he asked.

“No…” She looked down at the camera when he had been talking about her. “I think it’ll be alright. No scratches or cracks.”

Okay…well, that’s all he needed to hear. A spin of the heel, and he was on his way again. The rush of the situation might have caused her to temporarily forget. If he hung around, she might eventually remember who he was, and then there would be no point. At least he got a little bit of excitement out of his day.

“Hey, wait!”

Now he just had to get through his last chunk of classes and he could head home.

“Wait for me!”

What was this?

He turned around. “What.”

The girl slowed from her trot and approached him, her camera now slung under her arm.

“Well…why did you start walking away all of a sudden?”

A curious question to go with the intensely curious vibes he was getting from her, but he didn’t want to bother with this back and forth. It wasn’t like he was captain of the kendo team or anything, and he definitely didn’t have the ego for popularity, but he always felt it safer to assume everyone knew about his infamy than not.

She had an energetic voice, with high tones that stood out. A simple face, somewhat round with an excited glimmer in the pair of cobalt eyes that beamed from behind large coke bottle lenses sitting on the freckled bridge of her nose. She was likely a loud talker, and given her appearance, most of the students would recognize her without knowing her name.

Eiichi returned monotonously, “Your camera’s not broken, you’re not hurt. Are we done here?”

“Well, you can’t just save a girl and run off without giving your name or something.”

“Bye-bye.”

He already had his back turned, one hand raised in a nonchalant wave.

He heard feet clomping behind him again.

“Wait a minute! Who are you!?” She was starting to sound a little irked now.

If she recognized him, why was she asking?

“Nobody.”

“That can’t possibly be your real name.”

“Wow, ya think?”

Maybe he should make it really funny and say his name was Odysseus.

So she was super curious, and an airhead. Actually, from her patterns and behavior, he was getting a sense of practicality. He could sense her taking this snide remark and neatly tucking it away someplace in the back of her memory, as if she was already mentally recording everything she picked up from him, paying attention to his words for future use.

They had already passed around the main building as other structures of the school began to appear around them. It was a straight walk through one of Aki Guro’s three courtyards to get back into the main building.

“Come on, it’s just your name!” This came out as a sort of demanding whine.

Eiichi stopped again. “Listen, I’ve got stuff to do, so I can’t really stand around and talk right now.”

The blue eyes stared broadly at him from behind her specs. When she spoke, it looked like the only thing that moved were her lips: “Yes you can.”

This was bold.

He was a little dumbfounded, and moved his partially opened mouth to speak, eyebrows scrunched and his slightly irritated voice coming out low. “…I don’t really like people telling me what I ‘can’ do.”

Still with that straight forward stare, like she could no longer control her words, she said, “You also have plenty of time.”

Yeah sure, let’s just start stepping on people’s toes why don’t we…’ he thought.

“…and what makes you say that?”

Suddenly she must have realized what boundaries she just crossed and began backpedaling. How careless.

Her eyes broke their gaze and blinked away. “W-Well…b-because I’ve seen you smoking at that same spot on the side of the building ever since school started…you always leave around twelve-forty on the dot…you skip class a lot as well…”

“What!?” Now it was his turn to ask the questions. “Are you spying on me? Are you some kind of stalker?”

Her hands became a blur as she waved them frantically, “N-no, no, please, let me explain!”

While the spectacled girl panicked before him, Eiichi observed her, not focused on what was going on in front of him, but on an ethereal part of her that only he could see. He had a name for it. He called it output.

Everyone has an output. It changes regularly, and can convey one’s true intentions and thoughts. It’s connected to their dreams, their ambitions, their past, their present, and a manner of subconscious processing the individual isn’t fully aware of. Whether he wanted to or not, when Eiichi was around people, he picked it up, they just had to be close enough. Only an individual could know their own output, unless they were Eiichi, who could see, hear and feel all of them.

His eyes lingered over her face and moving hands.

Hm…she’s nervous, but no showings of doubt, or contempt. There is some minor attraction, but nothing at the level of a stalker. She’s telling the truth…but why didn’t she rat me out?

Eiichi relaxed, but placed a skeptical leer on her. “Alright, explain.”

The girl sighed and placed a hand on her chest. “Oh, thank you. I’m Asako Noda of the School Photography Club, Journalism Club and Yearbook Club.”

“That’s fantastic, now to the part where you tell me why you’ve been watching me.”

All of a sudden, her face lit up with inexplicable glee. “That’s just it! I’m a photographer, so it’s my job to have a keen eye!”

“Huh…”

“Photographers must remain constantly aware of their surroundings,” she began, and suddenly her speech pattern shot off at a hundred miles an hour. “—spotting anything that would be an opportunity for a good shot!! I’ve been all over this school looking for events and people to capture at just the right moment and angle…

Eiichi, unable to control how much of the flood of excitement he was receiving from this girl, found himself feeling oddly paralleled with her mood, and trying to keep a straight face.

His eyes widened over his straight mouth, his nostrils flared as they slowly sucked in a deep breath.

Images, lots of them, flashed through his mind’s eye – images of breathtaking scenery, people milling about the school, stray animals, buildings, sky shots, close-ups of plants and flowers, all in different arrays of edited vibrant colors, sepia tones and gray scales.

Her skyrocketing mood quickly left him feeling exhausted, but mercilessly kept him in its clutches, pumping him full of excess energy and needless enthusiasm. He contemplated making a break for it, before he exploded.

“So you see, I never meant to stalk you, I just simply noticed you.”

She had calmed down now, and Eiichi had a chance to collect himself. He exhaled the pent up air in his chest and looked upon the girl with the camera.

“So, you really like that photo stuff…” he breathed, with a hand to his chest.

“Uh-huh! To get the perfect shot, it’s…it’s…so magical…”

Pink, fuzzy shades blossomed in his mind, with an overlapping of bubbly auras, and he was suddenly feeling quite content and at peace. His surroundings faded into the haze and all was good with the world.

Eiichi shut his eyes and hummed unintentionally in his daze, “Wow~…photography must be fantastic…”

“It is…” her voice joined in.

A long pause followed.

“Are you okay?”

Dammit!

Eiichi snapped back to reality, suddenly realizing he and this random girl had been dreamily staring off into nothing like a couple of la la land idiots.

He jerked an anxious hand behind his head. “Yeah-wow-um, an honest student. I haven’t met one in a while…So you’re really into that, huh?”

“Yeah! There’s nothing like it in the world!”

“I’m starting to see why that guy must have been harassing you. It makes people uneasy knowing there’s someone going around taking pictures of everything they’re doing.”

And now gloom, her head dipped down, he could feel that one hurt her. Depression would be next if he didn’t say something fast.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to put you down like that. It’s what you like to do…”

“It’s okay. I just happened to see you there, and so I sort of paid you a visit now and then…”

“That doesn’t sound creepy.”

“You’re not the reason why I was going there!” she shouted. “I visited here and there for a while because there’s a spot when the sun hits the trees just right that’s…wonderful…And well, you always happened to be there. You looked like you wanted to be left alone, so I didn’t bother you. I sort of thought of you as an indirect acquaintance, like a statue. I guess I should have thought of you more as a guardian…”

She was definitely telling the truth, he didn’t need to hear anymore to know this. Though he picked up that she had even given him a little nickname…‘Ishi-san’?

Is this girl for real?

“So, what was that guy’s problem anyways?”

She turned to peek back the way they came. “I don’t know, he was standing by the back door of a building over there when he saw me, then he ran up and grabbed my camera.”

How bizarre.

“Well, people are strange. He was probably just trying to steal it,” Eiichi said.

For a minute she continued to look down the walkway, and Eiichi contemplated asking if he could leave now, but when Noda began slowly turning, with her curious hands clasping behind her skirt, it told him this was not over.

“Sooo…?” she said with a smirk.

He raised an eyebrow. “So what?”

She spoke in cheery tones, “I gave you my name. Now it’s your turn to give me yours.”

Being around this girl was like being on a roller coaster. If he stuck around her any longer, it might kill too many brain cells.

“You’re wasting your time getting to know me, photo girl.”

And with that, he turned and continued on his way as planned.

Before he broke into a run, he could feel her irritated output clawing at him from behind.

“Hey! That’s not fair! Get back here!”

  • * *

“Well, that was distracting to say the least…”

After managing to lose her, Eiichi was inside the main building, on his way to class like a good little student drone.

Aside from the prior excitements, most days were like this for him. He went to school, sometimes he skipped the classes that meant the least to him, found ways to kill time, and then it was back home. It was about as normal as things could be…well, almost.

Before he could make it to his class door, he was greeted by a familiar mind with a propensity for furious outbursts that he had hoped to not run into at this time, given his tardy circumstances.

“You’re late again, Kozuka!” The thin, irate voice stopped him in his tracks.

He turned, and glaring at him with a set of light brown eyes that might as well have been fiery red, was the infuriated spectacle of a girl he had regular encounters with in very much this same manner.

Her name was Ryoko Takahashi. She was a nice enough girl, it seemed, at least when she wasn’t around him. She, like a majority of the student body, knew of his negative reputation and had chosen to label him accordingly. And given her authoritative role as his class representative and a hall monitor, she made it her daily practice to give Eiichi a ration of shit he could really do without. He had given up on trying to make nice with people like her a long time ago, and simply decided to play along.

Eiichi smoothed a coy hand through the air. “Wow, time really does fly.”

“Where do you go off to when it’s about time for class to start?” Ryoko returned.

A second year like him, Ryoko had a reputation of her own. Being in a position of authority, she had charisma, as well as a sense of duty and value for good people. As a result, she was a hit among many of the girls, who looked up to her in admiration. The guys, however, had come to a general decision to admire her from afar, doing anything to evade her temper. She had stellar grades, and was a star member of the Judo club. She had an athletic figure that was easy on the eyes and a head of brick red hair that was always tied in a ponytail.

Eiichi spoke with an ease in his tone, “Takahashi-san…if you really must know, I’m a deranged serial murderer and there’s a special spot on this campus where I hide the bodies of my victims.”

“Ha! You’re a delinquent, but I don’t have you pegged as a psychopath,” Ryoko sneered.

“Okay then, I’m a drug dealer that hides his stash on campus.”

“That one’s no more creative than the last one!” Ryoko flared.

“Wow, you’re a tough nut to crack.”

“Sarcasm won’t get you anywhere.”

Eiichi was satisfied to be getting his desired results, even if it was causing him some cerebral pain. It seemed to really bother Ryoko whenever he didn’t take what she said seriously. It made him wonder why she kept it up. She was a goal getter after all, and must see him as an obstacle she had not yet overcome. Maybe there was a little bit of a control freak under all that temperance.

The cerebral pain in Eiichi’s head had been quite literal, and he really was dealing with a headache, but suddenly, the dull throbbing in his forehead intensified. He placed his hand on it, beginning to feel a little dizzy. She wasn’t simply irritated with him.

She’s more frustrated today than usual…

He broke away from their usual routine to ask. He might as well.

With a wince, he tried to look up at her. “…Did anything happen recently?”

“Stop trying to pry into my personal life Kozuka! You see, this is why it’s so hard to be around you. Stop that fake headache crap and get to class!”

Why did he even bother…

Sometimes Eiichi had trouble talking with people. Or really it was sometimes they had trouble talking with him. Sometimes it was hard to tell. Things could go rather smoothly, or they could go the opposite. This was why he wasn’t crazy about school. Being around a lot of people in general could be a bother for him. There was too much output.

In a tired walk that felt more like a wade, he pushed into the classroom and found his seat.

Eiichi was marked up again for being tardy. Just a few more and he would have to attend detention. Nothing new, but just a few more detentions, and the penalty would be remedial classes.

The upside was he only had twenty minutes of math class to sit through before the bell rang. Students got up from their seats and milled out into the halls before the next class would start.

Eiichi had the usual mess of emotional output to sit through during class, so he usually decided to take advantage of the classroom having fewer students in it for a period. Stepping outside was even better though, and he thought he’d get something from the vending machines, though doing this was always a gamble.

Cautiously, he made his way through the mess of black and tan Aki Guro uniforms. So far, a pretty dull day.

Suddenly, he heard a girl sobbing off to his right. Thumping pains coursed through his head and he clutched it immediately as he turned.

She was leaning against the wall, face in her hands, and surrounded by three of her friends as they attempted to comfort her. Her short pony tail danced as her shoulders lurched with every sob.

A vision flashed in his mind. He saw her standing before someone, a male student. As the student was speaking to her, her vision began to blur, and Eiichi could feel a sinking weight in his chest.

He broke up with her. They had been dating for nearly a year. She was in love and he decided to end it abruptly.

He had to continue on before something bad happened.

He walked right past a boy leaning against the wall. He was much shorter than Eiichi, and looked young enough to still be in middle school. His uniform looked ruffled around the collar, and his eyes stared dejectedly at his shoes from behind a pair of spectacles.

In the next instant, Eiichi was suddenly looking out from a dark corner in a less populated part of the halls. There were three other students standing right in front of him, blocking his way, and all of them were bigger than him. One of them grabbed him by the collar and he was lifted up, just barely balancing himself on the tips of his toes. He was staring into a pair of rodent-like eyes, he could smell the guy’s rancid breath as he hissed threats into his face. He felt trapped, like he couldn’t do anything.

They keep picking on him. No one will help him if he doesn’t stand up for himself.

Eiichi kept moving. He didn’t care about getting something to drink anymore. He just wanted to get somewhere where he could breathe.

He was just to the end of the hall when a sickly feeling of pompous narcissism washed over him. He looked and saw Hitomi Uoya, one of the other popular girls, known for being a gossip. She was talking with a few of her many hollow friends.

“No, I totally told him everything is fine, we didn’t do anything. He’s being such a prude.”

Another vision flashed in his mind, one of many that he wished he had never seen.

She’s lying. She’s been sleeping around behind his back.

He pushed ahead, but had to be careful not to trip himself moving down the stairs, his head, shoulders and chest felt so heavy.

This was normal for Eiichi. This was why he couldn’t stand to be around people. He could tell when someone was lying before they even opened their mouth. When they were attracted to someone or hated them. When observing someone, he knew within moments what their favorite drink was, their favorite things to do, their secrets, their dreams, their ambitions, and their personality, the images were just a plus. As soon as someone focused hard enough, his mind’s eye would unwittingly pick up a short clip and play it over for him. Depending on their mood, he could suffer crippling migraines, sometimes ending with him needing medical attention. Or, he could be launched into spells of euphoria, as if he’d come under the influence of a barbiturate. This was Eiichi’s curse.

There was in fact a medical term for it, but he always refereed to it as ‘reading’. Or in particular, ‘reading other’s emotions’.

His shoulder smacked up against the wall in the courtyard after he made it downstairs and outside. Eiichi heaved air in and out of his pulsing lungs as he watched the sakura trees in the spring light. His heart was racing. It took a while for his headache to go, but it had left him tired. It was also around this time that he found himself craving another smoke.

He had time. There was no one out here. He could light up and kill one in a few minutes, and if anyone came by, he’d sense them and put it out.

Eiichi drew the pack of Sparrow Natural 100’s out of his coat pocket and began patting it against his hand. He thumbed the top open, and raised it to his mouth, removing one between his lips.

He didn’t understand why it was this way for him. No one else had to deal with something like this. How would any of them handle it if they had to deal with their mood changing every few minutes because of someone else’s? The intense migraines that sapped the blood from everywhere else in his body. Having to experience someone else’s memories as if witnessing them firsthand. It might drive most of them out of their minds. They wouldn’t know how to handle it.

Eiichi had possessed this since birth. He didn’t wish it and he didn’t ask for it. For some reason, some invisible force of nature had decided that he should be born with this perpetually egregious thorn in his side. In the celestial lottery, his number, one of billions upon billions, had come up. He supposed it wasn’t all that bad, he counted himself lucky to still have all his limbs, and all his senses, although it seemed he had been accidentally given a sixth one. It was lonely, however. It wasn’t like there was a group of psychics and espers who convened in the market cafe every Thursday. However, Eiichi didn’t want to make the whole matter a spiritual one. This was just how things were.

  • * *

After school, it was the same routine as always. Over the years, Eiichi had become a creature of habit, and he preferred this. It meant he wouldn’t have to do too much out of the ordinary, ordinary being what he strived for. He could also ignore the troubles of others. Helping them wouldn’t solve anything, there would just be another, and another, and more after that…The problems of others were astronomical. Everybody had problems, and it should be their decision to do something about it. The phrase ‘life sucks, and then you die’ was ever-prevalent, in his opinion.

It was about a ten minute train ride home. Eiichi’s home was a small one. Located in the lower middle class section of the city, it was a two story structure with a garage extension, back porch and two small balconies for the bedrooms on the second floor. It wasn’t run down, but modest, and it was home.

As he unlocked the front door, a large flash of black and white fur nearly barreled into him as Connor, his Siberian Husky, was eagerly there to greet him with a few barks and a violently wagging tail. Eiichi’s mother, who lived in Okinawa with his dad, had been the one who named him.

As Eiichi set his bag down and stood, Connor jumped up, placing his paws on Eiichi’s shoulders and licking his face vigorously.

Eiichi chuckled, leaning back, and scrubbed at the back of Connor’s ear, “Hey boy, miss me?”

On some days, Eiichi was just as excited to see Connor. Being able to pick up brain waves meant Eiichi could pick up the senses and processes of animals as well, which were delightfully basic. They were much like children, only their thoughts were consistent. When he was still in elementary school, his parents had brought Connor home when he was still a pup, knowing that he would be a helpful addition in maintaining Eiichi’s mood. With the regular joy and occasional calm atmosphere of his favorite four legged companion, Eiichi had to agree. They had quickly become close companions and Connor was probably the only reliable friend Eiichi had in his entire life. Sometimes he wondered if Connor knew exactly when he was in a bad mood, because he always seemed to come to his aid when the negative emotions were beginning to be a little cumbersome.

He kicked off his shoes at the genkan and dropped his bag by the staircase.

Eiichi would often grab whatever was in the fridge, sometimes it was just a beer, and he’d pour a little for Connor in his water dish. He’d watch TV while laid out on the couch, and took the occasional smoke break on the back porch.

Sometimes he would get up and take Connor for a walk through the neighborhood, and sometimes he took the train downtown. In doing this, he risked being around more people, but he felt it was good that he still remind himself of the world outside home, and having Connor with him was a plus.

His older brother arrived home from work around six. That was Torio, the taller, more classy and flirtatious ladies’ man of the pair, and he and Eiichi had a typical kind of relationship that could be expected of any pair of siblings.

“Wow, you are exactly where I thought you would be when I got home,” Torio remarked with a smirk at Eiichi, who was laid out on the couch with Connor at his feet.

Eiichi didn’t even look away from the LCD screen. “And I’m surprised you came home at all. Couldn’t get anyone to invite you back to their place, huh…”

“Nonsense, but who would feed you?”

Torio proceeded to place his car keys on the kitchen overlook counter and hung his blazer on the back of one of the overlook chairs.

He greeted Connor with a hearty pet between the ears. “Hey boy, if you keep giving him all the attention, he’ll never have a life.”

Connor responded with attempting a few laps at Torio’s somewhat long hair. Then Torio was off to the kitchen.

Torio was also a skilled cook. Being that it was just him and Eiichi living together, someone had to take care of kitchen duty. Eiichi helped out with cleaning, and on occasion, ran errands for Torio whenever there was a grocery list on the fridge door, but he left all the culinary chemistry to Torio, whom Eiichi could tell would be bothered having more than one chef in the kitchen. It wasn’t a very big kitchen anyways.

Torio getting home meant it was almost time for Eiichi to change into his gym shorts and step into the garage. He usually waited till about seven for this.

The garage was small as well. With Torio’s car parked in one half of the space, there was just enough room for Eiichi to make use of the punching pad he had hanging against the wall and the jump rope hanging on that.

Usually, by the time he was finished, dinner was ready.

“Looks great, you’ll make a good stay at home dad one day,” Eiichi poked.

“Uh-huh, and why don’t you take a shower so I don’t have to smell you while I’m trying to eat.”

Dinner would commence afterwards with more cracks between the two about work and school, there would be more television, and then Eiichi was off to bed.

On some nights he would lie awake before drifting off. The things he had felt and seen during the day would replay themselves in his mind. He wasn’t indifferent about them, or he didn’t intend to be. He was just something else. He couldn’t afford to get too close to anyone. And even when he considered it, some people just simply didn’t want to be helped.

  • * *

By lunchtime the next day, Eiichi decided to find a different place out of sight of the other students, where that stubborn photo girl wouldn’t find him.

He was just on his way out, trudging through the mundane thoughts of the day.

“There you are!”

Ah!

She had managed to sneak up on him from out of the crowd. A couple of students stared, noticing he was being approached by someone who wasn’t a sensei, or hall monitor, or even angry with him.

“I thought I might find you here.”

And just as well, there was Noda with her perky attitude.

“Find me here? Are you clairvoyant or something?” It wouldn’t be so strange to him if she said yes.

“I told you, I’m a photographer, so I know this school in and out like the back of my hand. You can’t escape from me.” She ended this with a devious grin.

He faced her lackadaisically. “Ah yeah, fly on the wall and all that.”

“Ya know…I’m starting to get the feeling you don’t like me too much.”

“I don’t like anyone.”

He was kind of surprised she could be so light hearted, considering her mood. She was emitting an aura of excitement, but there was concern as well.

“Hm…So anyhoo, I went back to the place where you stomped that guy out.”

Now he was a little worried. “And why did you do that?”

“Take a look at these.”

Just like the day before, Noda had her camera on her. She presented the screen on the back and began flipping through a set of images by the clicking of a rotator switch.

She had definitely gone back to the spot, but what was different about it from the day before was that it was now more populated than she had explained.

“Is this the door you were talking about?” Eiichi asked.

“Yes it is, I took it while hiding in the trees just inside the fence. See how they’re all grouped around it like that?”

The image was of the back of the technology building that was adjacent to the main building. The building was a rough gray color and there was a pair of gray metal doors. In the image, there were three male figures, all wearing Aki Guro uniforms, and one of them was the one who attacked Noda. He could see the bruising on the guy’s face from when he worked him over.

“So you took a picture of three guys standing around a door. I don’t think they have an award for that.”

Noda gave him a dull glance before continuing. “They were like that for hours. I waited.”

“Wow, you’re pretty dedicated. Well, now that I look at it, they don’t seem like the type of guys that stand around doors often, maybe they’re training for an event. Standing around doors has been getting pretty popular.”

Noda lowered the camera. “Alright, could you stop the wise ass act for like five minutes and hear me out? This could be serious.”

“Okay, fine! But I don’t know what you’re on about with this. Get to the point.”

“What I’m saying is, I think they’re hiding something. Look, that’s the guy you beat up.”

“You think they’re hiding something in that room?”

“Yeah, the entire time none of them left. And then see here?”

She flipped through the images to several of a fourth student appearing and joining the three. He had a purple beanie and was the only one toting a backpack.

“Yeah?”

“That guy with the backpack showed up with a key. He went inside with one of them. They came back out ten minutes later, and then they all walked off.”

Eiichi peered closer at the photos.

“Now that is suspicious…” he muttered.

Noda continued in her wary excitement, “If one of them hadn’t attacked me, I wouldn’t have thought much of it, but this is just too bizarre.”

Eiichi leaned back, “Alright, well, you did a good job there photo girl, now all you have to do is report it to the school.”

“Actually, I was thinking we should check it out.”

“Ha! Why bother? The school can sort it out, it’s their problem.” With the wave of a hand, he began walking away.

Noda padded up next to him. “Oh come on, I thought you were a tough guy. These images aren’t enough to catch someone’s attention, they look like they’re just running an errand or something. We need to take a closer look.”

“Hey, if it’s something happening on school campus, they should be able to handle it.”

“Come on, where’s you sense of adventure? You’re not seriously going to wimp out on me.”

“You can say whatever you want about me, I couldn’t give a damn.”

“I’m just asking you to come take a look.”

“Call the cops or something. Just leave me out of it.”

Noda stopped following, and let him continue ahead.

“Fine, I’ll just go alone.”

This got him to stop.

She was just looking for trouble! He almost suspected her of egging that guy on to attack her!

Hey fatso! Yeah you! I can’t take any pictures with your lard ass in the way Help! Somebody save me~!

But he knew better.

Eiichi could hold his own in a conflict, but he wasn’t the type to go walking down dark alleys waiting to get mugged, and he definitely wasn’t about to let her do it.

He turned around and walked right up to her. “Oh, oh no you’re not.”

Noda looked right back at him with a straight expression that was just a little too troublesome for his liking. “What, are you gonna’ stop me?”

“You went back there alone and managed to keep out of sight because you knew there was a threat. Now you want to go back there again? What will you do if you get caught, again?”

“That’s why I asked you to come. If there are any guys there, I have you as my muscle.”

His face grew a dull look. “I’m flattered…”

“Come on, we’re just going to take another quick look and see if we can sniff out anything.”

And with that, Noda was off, coaxing him along to the beat of her own drum.

With a roll of his eyes, and feeling rather tired, Eiichi proceeded forward. “Fine…”

They took a peek around first, to make sure the area was clear. Seeing no one, Noda and Eiichi stepped out into the open and up to the back door.

It was a plain, old pair of metal doors, with a concrete foot pad at its base, and other than that, there wasn’t much else to be seen. The remaining area was also concrete sidewalk, with a nearby recycle dumpster. Eiichi figured Noda wanted to scope it out first, just in case there had been something she missed.

“Not really much to see,” she admitted, echoing his very thoughts.

Eiichi stood by, hands in his pockets. “Nope, just the empty backside of a school. Satisfied?”

Noda craned her head and looked near the roof.

“No security cameras.”

The back of the school wasn’t known for having heavy surveillance, another reason why Eiichi chose it for his smoke breaks.

Noda placed her hands on both knobs and gave them a jiggle and then a tug.

“It’s locked. And this is a faculty only exit, it’s used mainly by maintenance.”

“So, they’re stealing cleaning supplies. Not much of a crime if you ask me. Although, they can be used to make a lot of things…” He could remember watching a documentary on what was needed to cook certain illegal substances.

“Let’s head to the front and see if we can get inside.”

Just then, he could feel a particular kind of conniving mentality slowly approaching them from behind.

Eiichi muttered a warning to Noda. “We’ve got company…”

“Hey there, Kozuka,” a booming voice sounded from behind them.

“Ah shit…” Eiichi snarled.

Noda looked around frantically for a moment, “Wait, who’s Kozuka!?”

Noda and Eiichi turned to find three thuggish looking types standing roughly eight feet from them. Two of them had been featured in Noda’s photos, and all three had a baseball bat in hand.

The largest one, the one who had spoken, stood between the other two, his bat slung over his shoulder. “My boy here tells me you roughed him up pretty good defending your girlfriend there.”

The punk from earlier stood next to the leader, sporting the shiner and bruised jawline Eiichi had administered.

Eiichi could feel Noda’s unease giving him a slight throbbing, and she looked to him.

“Who are they?”

Eiichi spoke, not caring if the other three heard what he had to say. “That’s Okanaya Mito. A brainless, back stabbing, jackass son of a deadbeat father if I ever knew one. He was busted as a strong arm for a small time gambling ring somewhere uptown about a year ago. He did half a year in a juvenile pin. I gotta’ say, I didn’t miss ‘em.”

And then he raised his voice to Okanaya. “Yeah, that looks like my handiwork. What of it?”

“Well the whole situation sounds pretty backwards if you ask me. He was only sayin’ hello. Maybe you oughta’ apologize to ‘em. Send the girl over and all is forgiven.”

Eiichi could sense this really sent shivers through Noda’s frame.

“Okanaya, you’re about as dumb as you look. I wouldn’t believe half a word from your butt buddies over there, even if I had to risk everything I hold dear.”

Noda hissed at Eiichi, “Don’t make them angry!

“It’s a little late for that…”

Though they are emitting a lot of cautiousness. They are hiding something. Their conniving is so invasive, suddenly I feel like I need a shower.

“If that’s how you feel, then I guess this isn’t gonna’ end well for you,” Okanaya said.

Eiichi felt both Noda and himself grow tense. This was exactly the kind of trouble he wanted to avoid, but nooo~, she wanted to play sleuth.

Noda fidgeted. “Well then, do your thing.”

Eiichi heaved a sigh and stepped forward. He took his stance and raised his half curled fists before his face.

Then, before the other three could move, he whipped around, grabbed Noda’s wrist, and bolted off in the direction they came, hoping she wouldn’t trip over herself.

Run!

What!?” Noda shrieked.

He heard Okanaya shout from behind, “Get back here!”

They cut back into the spacing of buildings, the three armed thugs tailing just twenty feet behind. Eiichi pushed forward in a sprint, still hoping the force from him tugging on Noda wouldn’t make her trip, or else he’d have to go back for her and then they’d really be in trouble. Still, she picked up her legs and managed to keep up. He had to get them to a densely populated part of the school, there was no way Okanaya and his friends would follow after that.

He could hear Noda nagging from behind him as he continued to tug on her arm. “I thought you were a fighter! What about bravery and all that!?”

“Bravery doesn’t amount to much when you’ve been sent to the hospital by three guys with baseball bats!”

They cut around a building and Eiichi noticed a set of flower beds near an awning that were just high enough to shield them both.

“Here!”

A few moments later, footsteps could be heard in the area. They passed the flower beds, but stopped.

“Lost ‘em. Spread out! They couldn’t have gotten far!”

The footfalls continued forward and faded.

Noda and Eiichi were face to face, both hunched down over their knees, as low as they could get.

Eiichi focused hard on their general area, trying to act as a radar. Noda’s tension was causing him a headache as she was doing her best to keep her breathing silent, but he had to focus beyond that and make sure none of them stayed behind to search.

“Okay…I think they’re gone.”

Their heads popped up from behind the bed and scanned the area. Only two other students had been nearby to witness the chase, but they were far away, directly across the open area.

“What was that!?” Noda suddenly flared at him.

Sh!

She swung her fists above her head. “I thought you were going to pummel them!”

Eiichi pointed a finger. “Hey, I volunteered to be your guard, I didn’t say I was frickin’ Bruce Lee! I coulda’ been killed!”

Suddenly she lowered her arms, and her output, though still curious, became very cautious and afraid, her voice dimming to a mutter.

“Wait a minute…are you Eiichi Kozuka?” she pointed.

“What…”

“Kozuka, are you thee Eiichi Kozuka?”

“I figured people knew about me, but damn.”

“So that’s why you wouldn’t give me your name…”

“What is?”

She clammed up, averting her eyes while pressing her index fingers together, “Well…let’s just say some of the things I’ve heard about you haven’t been something you want to put on a resume…”

“I can only imagine…” Eiichi frowned.

“Like how you fake headaches, you’re a weirdo, you’re always trying to get pity from students, get money from the school…”

“Okay! You don’t have to list them out, I’ve heard it all before.”

She claimed to know a lot about the school, but how could she miss that he was the infamous ‘Hypochondriac of Aki Guro High’? She seemed to latch on to anything that had a story to it, what made her skip that one? Not that he was complaining…

Given the irate outbursts they had exchanged, Eiichi figured if Okanaya and his guys had still been in the area, they would have doubled back by now.

“Let’s find a place where there’s more people.”

They stood and Eiichi proceeded to lead, keeping an eye out in case their pursuers returned.

“What was that all about? They responded pretty extremely,” Noda asked.

“They definitely don’t want anyone going near that area. They’re hiding something alright.”

“Maybe we should alert the school.”

“Nah, these guys have a plan. Like I said, Okanaya isn’t very smart, but he works with people that are. They know we’ve been poking around now, so they’ve probably already started covering things up in case we did say anything. As far as I know, Okanaya doesn’t attend our school, and I don’t remember seeing any of those guys around. I wonder where they got those uniforms.”

That situation had been too close for comfort, and he could see now that whatever was going on was bigger than a simple dispute or a lie. Considering had they narrowly escaped certain agony, it could be possible whatever was going on would prove just as bad for anyone else who came across what Okanaya was trying to pull off.

Eiichi wasn’t one to get mixed up in other people’s business, but it just didn’t feel right for him to see someone’s life in danger and just let it slide. Okanaya knew him, and there was no telling what might happen to him or this girl, if he succeeded. Eiichi just hoped she’d be willing to go along with what he had in mind.

“So what do you think we should do?”

“We go with your original plan. We need to find out what’s so important about that room.”

Noda stepped closer, an uneasy humility in her voice. “Hey-hey, I know I might’ve given you a hard time about not wanting to come with, but you shouldn’t get all heroic on me now. This is really serious.”

“Yup, serious enough they were willing to give me a fractured skull over it, and do who knows what to you.”

“Don’t say it like that! It gives me the creeps!” Noda squealed, clutching her arms against her chest. “Do you really have to be so blunt!?”

“If it’s serious enough for them to chase us off like that, I don’t want them to be caught prematurely and wind up with just a slap on the wrist.”

“Um, okay…When do you suppose we should do this…”

“They’re probably only running the low end of their operations during the day. I suggest we wait until later tonight and come back for another look. That may be when things get the liveliest. I need you and your camera. If you can get pictures of that, that should be enough. What say you?”

“I suppose I can sneak out of my room once everyone’s asleep. Um…how is it that you know all this stuff?”

“Let’s just say I’m around their kind enough.”

They had a few minutes of lunchtime left, so they took advantage to grab what they could and find a nicely populated place to eat outside.

Eiichi was surprised at how Noda was holding up, for a girl that had been dangerously taken out of her normal day to day. This day as well had been rather eventful, but Eiichi was even more thrown off to find himself suddenly eating lunch with another person, and a girl of all things.

“Ya know, you’re not all that much like the rumors say.”

“Hm? How’s aht?” Eiichi spoke with a mouthful of the leftovers from Torio’s masterpiece the night before.

Noda looked at him, the tips of her hashi on her lips after taking a bite of salmon, “People keep saying you fake your headaches, but it doesn’t seem like you’ve faked anything since I’ve met you, except for your name. You’re actually brutally honest. Do you really get migraines sometimes?”

Her curiosity is getting ridiculous. She truly has that photographer mindset.

Right here Eiichi realized, since meeting Noda, he hadn’t come under much mental turmoil around her. It was only that on occasion, her hyperactive brain waves could give him the spins, and that she had already put his life in danger once, which he supposed was some kind of turmoil. But as long as he didn’t insult her passion, he was mostly in the clear. She wasn’t of a depressed or angry spirit, and in fact, her general attitude had been a nice escape from the usual.

“That’s a personal matter. Lots of people get migraines all the time,” he said, poking his rice.

“Yeah, but I’ve heard that you’ve been to the infirmary so many times, everybody there knows you by name.”

“It happens. Could we stop making this about me?”

“Hm…okay. Um, so how do you know that Okanaya guy?”

“Back when I was in junior high, he used to run with a group of guys. They would come through my neighborhood and terrorize students on their way home, tag up some places, slash tires, just stupid kid stuff. I got into it with them a couple times.”

“Wow, so I guess you got to know each other in a way.”

“Yeah. He went to my school for a while, and then was expelled. I don’t think Okanaya ever really stayed in any one school, but I’m pretty sure in middle school he was a second year when I was a first year, which would make him old enough to be a third year now. He disappeared some time before I started high school, which must mean he got into some heavier stuff around that time.”

“Then this is a chance to see just what he’s gotten into. Wanna go over the plan again?”

“Sure.” Eiichi set his bento down. “So Okanaya has to be working with someone who’s set this whole thing up.”

“I looked up the school map on my phone. We may not have to check the room.” Noda removed her smartphone and presented the screen. “That building is the technology building, my clubs sometimes use it for editing the newspaper app and yearbook files. That door does lead to a maintenance room, but see these two rooms here, that’s the computer science room and the other one is a room for storing chemistry supplies. My best guess is that they’re stealing computers and equipment from there. The other day I thought I heard some sensei talking about a few boxes of brand new software going missing.”

“Nice job, if that’s the case, we can get pictures of them leaving with the stolen goods. If they’re selling it, they probably don’t want to split the profit too much. I’d imagine they have roughly less than ten guys working with them on this. You said there was a fourth guy that showed up, right?”

“Right.”

“So that might be all they’re working with during the day to keep a low profile. They’re probably just looking around and taking minor things during the day, and planning to steal the larger stuff at night.”

“We may not have much time then.” Noda pointed her hashi at him.

“What do you mean?”

“You said that they might back off because of the two times we’ve been caught.”

“Yeah?”

“Tonight could be the last night, if they are doing anything.”

“You could be right. If they’re looking to steal a lot of stuff from the school, they might have been working at it for a few days and waiting for the right time to move everything. Once it’s done, they’ll never be heard from again.”

Eiichi placed the lid back on his bento and stood. “Okay, let’s meet outside the burger place a block from here. I’ll send you a text when I’m ready to head out and you let me know when you’re ready to move as well.”

“Gotcha.”

Then he suddenly remembered something.

“And you…” He turned and pointed at Noda, causing her eyes to widen and fixate on his index with confusion.

“Wear something black.”

  • * *

Eiichi stood out by the street in a pair of dark jeans and a black pullover hoodie he just thankfully happened to have stashed away in his closet. The sun had gone down an hour ago, and the lights from inside the fast food place and other nearby shops shone out into the street.

Noda had responded to his text shortly after he left, so he figured she would have been here by now. He was working his way through another cigarette when she appeared from up the walkway. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing as she trotted her way up to him.

She was wearing a hoodie too. It was light and obviously not meant for the cold, but the color was not even close to what he had specified. A bright, baby blue hue stared him in the face along with a pair of bright gray bike shorts.

“Didn’t you hear me!? I said wear something black!”

She jerked her fists down and fumed at him, “This was the darkest thing I could find!”

She looked like she was going out shopping with her friends. Why didn’t she just go all the way and bring a flashing neon sign that said STAKEOUT. As if it couldn’t stand out anymore, there was a large character print of a teddy bear face that nearly covered the whole front.

Eiichi frowned. “I’m starting to get a better idea of just what kind of girl you are…”

Noda’s cheeks blossomed a vibrant pink. “Don’t give me that judgmental look!”

Aside from her clothes, she had a large, black satchel hanging next to her hip.

“You’re gonna stick out like a sore thumb. Let’s just hope the low visibility will help things.”

“If anything, I’ll just look like an innocent girl out for a walk who happened upon a mugger. You’ll get locked up and I can decide when to post your bail.”

“Ha ha…”

It didn’t take long to get to the school.

Save for a few fluorescent blue lights along the walls, the school looked as dark and unpopulated as it should be at this hour. The stone bases for the perimeter gates were low, but the gates themselves were high. Fortunately, there were tower-like posts that were large and also made of brick, which the fencing ran between. Each of these bases had a ledge that was high enough it would require a little climb for one, but for two people trying to get in, it would not require as much work.

“Let’s be careful getting in here. If we get caught, it’s gonna look like we’re the ones breaking in,” Eiichi muttered as he approached the gate.

“We are, wise guy.”

“Just get over here so I can give you a boost.”

Eiichi knelt down with his hands cupped together.

Noda stopped. “Really? Uh, I dunno’…”

“Don’t make it weird. Come on.”

“O-Okay…”

Noda edged up to him and placed one tennis shoe in his hands while balancing herself on his shoulders.

“D-Don’t look, okay,” she stuttered.

“What am I going to look at?”

“Oh, you are just asking to get kicked in the head.”

For a girl like Noda, who wasn’t used to this kind of moving around, she didn’t have much trouble once Eiichi got her up to where she could hoist herself over the post and place a foot in the cramped space between two rods of fencing. She clambered to the other side and hung from the ledge again before letting go, but stumbled and fell on her butt after hitting the ground. Eiichi used the fence to pull his other hand closer to the ledge, and soon jumped down to join Noda.

They found the spot, and from where they were, they could clearly see the dumpster, the concrete pad and the back door to the computer science building, which was closed.

“Dammit…no one there,” Eiichi hissed.

“Maybe we’re early.”

“Or late.”

“Nu-uh, club activities went late today, I was one of the last to leave. There was still too much happening on campus for them to try anything.”

Eiichi looked over at her. ‘She’s being overly cautious about something. Maybe it’s just her nerves.

Noda opened up her satchel and began taking items out. It was pretty dark where they were, but Eiichi thought he saw her take out her camera and some kind of stand, along with a few other indiscriminate items.

“What’s that?” he asked.

Noda had grabbed her camera and began attaching something to it.

“It’s a super high resolution extension for my camera. I also have a backup cam in here, a compact tripod, and a night optics adapter.”

“I was wondering what you had in that bag. You come pretty well equipped for a stakeout, even if your wardrobe needs some work.”

He couldn’t see her face very well, but based on her output, she had been smiling at this.

“So now what?” she asked.

“Phones on silent, right?”

Noda checked hers to be certain. “Yup.”

“I guess we wait…”

  • * *

An hour had passed without a single stirring on the other end of the clearing. Noda spent her time trying to keep busy by making adjustments on her gadgets, keeping her camera mounted on the mini stand and trained on the maintenance door. Eiichi had been sitting against a tree. With nothing to do and unable to light up another smoke while waiting, he had been poking around in the dirt with a stick and stealing long glances at the back of the tech building.

Finally, he tossed the stick and got into a crouch position.

“I’m gonna go take a look.”

Noda strained under her breath, “Kozuka, don’t!

“I’m just gonna’ see if it’s locked or not. If they’ve left already, we’ll be here all night, but they probably wouldn’t bother locking it again. If it’s unlocked, we can go around to the front of the school and see if there’s anyone here. If there isn’t, then we can go home. Ready your phone to send me a text if you see anyone.”

Noda let out a nervous sigh and didn’t say any more.

He pulled his hood up over his head and snuck out of the bushes, moving toward the building at a low trot, his eyes scanning the area for any movement.

When he was close, he straightened out and moved to the door. He almost had his hand to the knob.

Someone’s close.

A lax, male voice spoke from behind him, “Whoa, whoa, that’s far enough Kozuka.”

Eiichi whipped around to see three figures had stepped into the fluorescent light behind him.

Shit! Asako, I told you to let me know if someone was coming!

Two of the figures were still wearing Aki Guro uniforms, and Eiichi recognized them from before when they had chased Noda and him off. But the third was wearing a white blazer and slacks and had long hair. The voice had come from this one, and he carried himself with an air of false confidence that only a career liar could muster.

“I thought you might be showing up, after my guys told me all about how you’ve been sniffing around what we’re doing here, so I had us set up a little waiting party, just for you.”

He had a weasel face. He talked like a weasel too.

The door opened up from behind him, and he had to step forward as two more members, one of them Okanaya, stepped out. Okanaya traded places with one of the guys in front, who stepped behind Eiichi so he was surrounded.

All of them, except for weasel face, were wielding bats, crowbars and tire irons.

Just like he had suspected, Okanaya had been working with someone who must be the brains of the operation. He didn’t know this guy, but he thought he remembered hearing some rumors going around, about a year ago, that had to do with Okanaya’s bust.

There was a name that kept coming up for some time, someone Okanaya had been working with.

He eyed the guy with long hair closely. “Tsuchiyama, am I right?”

“So you know me,” Tsuchiyama nodded.

“I know of you. It figures it would be you.”

“Oh really, what tipped you off?”

“Your name has popped up a few times in the past year. You really like coming up with these half-baked schemes, don’t you? You shouldn’t have put Okanaya on guard duty, or I wouldn’t have had a clue.”

Tsuchiyama couldn’t help letting out a self-gratifying cackle. “This may be the first time we’ve met, but I’m starting to get that you pick up on things pretty quick.”

“Yeah, everyone keeps telling me that…”

“So what is it Kozuka? You lookin’ to get in on what we got going here?”

“I was just a little curious why a bunch of teenage thugs are so interested in breaking into a school campus.”

Tsuchiyama raised a coy hand. “It should be obvious, shouldn’t it?”

“What? Stolen office equipment? Talk about small time.”

This pestered Tsuchiyama a little. “Hey! There’s a lot of money to be had in it, but if you’re not interested, oh well.”

“You idiots are still wearing your uniforms. Stand out much? I know most of you don’t even attend this school, so if you get caught on video, they’ll know about that little tidbit.”

Asako, you had better be taking pictures right now…’

Tsuchiyama chuckled. “We’re not worried about surveillance. Don’t you know it’s wrong to go around sticking your nose in other people’s business?”

“I have a knack for it, what can I say?”

A shriek from out in the trees interrupted their conversation.

“Kyah! Let go of me! Let go!”

It was Noda!

Tsuchiyama continued, “Well, there’s something I have a knack for as well. My boys told me you weren’t working alone, and just as I thought, you brought back up.”

Two struggling figures staggered into the light. The sixth and final member had Noda, with one arm held behind her back, and his wrapped around her waist.

Eiichi felt the blood rush from his face, causing tingling in his cheeks and fingers. “Asako, you alright?”

“Kozuka, do something!” Noda cried.

“Check it out boss,” her captor said, rather amused. “This bitch started screaming before I even found her. Must’ve got caught on somethin’ and spooked her, haha!”

Tsuchiyama let out another cackle, “Haha! Wow, she’s not half bad looking for an otaku. You really know how to reel ‘em in, Kozuka,” ending with sarcasm.

Eiichi snarled, “Looking at adding kidnapping and sex crimes to your rap sheet now?”

“Hey, can’t blame a guy for wanting to have a little fun. We could claim her as a little bonus prize after we’re done here.”

“Ah! Kozuka, help!”

Hang in there Asako…

Suddenly, something stood out to him that wasn’t obvious until now. Noda’s output wasn’t conveying as much fear as she was showing. There was that scheming again. She was holding back something that she was very focused on. She was still terrified, but she was also acting. She clung to this thing with all of her mental strength. What had she done while he was away?

If she had something in mind, he could not allow himself to remain still. Noda had doubt too, and if whatever she was planning didn’t work, he couldn’t afford to not be ready with his own move.

Fighting back would be risking it. Even if he did manage to disarm one of them, he’d have the other four to deal with.

There has to be something here. Something I’m missing. Their devious emotions are so putrid, it’s like wading through hot garbage…

Okanaya had worked with Tsuchiyama before. Eiichi could remember seeing the bust in the news and reading up on it. Tsuchiyama’s name had never been mentioned, but Eiichi had run into a lot of talk about him from the delinquents both in and out of school. And the amount the police found in store hadn’t been anything impressive, even for a small gambling ring. And a bunch of high school kids could not set something up like that without some power backing it.

He looked up just in time to see Okanaya approach Tsuchiyama. Okanaya wasn’t happy, Eiichi could feel it. They stepped back a moment and seemed to be whispering to each other heatedly. Eiichi couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were close enough that he didn’t have to.

Contempt, things aren’t going so well. Okanaya’s been quiet until now.

“Hey Okanaya, so what’s your piece in all this? You playing Tsuchiyama’s little guard dog again?”

Okanaya turned on Eiichi and pointed. “Eh, fuck you Kozuka!”

“Did he tell you how much you’d be making out of this? When was the last time he paid you?”

Tsuchiyama sauntered away from Okanaya. “Why do you gotta bust my balls, Kozuka?”

“Well, all I’m saying is I heard a few things about that gambling ring that got busted about a year ago. The word was that a lot of people got put away for a while, including Okanaya here. I also heard that you were in charge of the whole thing.”

Tsuchiyama’s face grew stern, some of that confident front beginning to crumble.

He knows what I’m talking about, but there’s something else.

“What are you getting at?” Tsuchiyama asked.

“Well, you n’ Okanaya have been working together so long, I would’ve thought you’d be a lot closer by now, since you both were arrested in that.”

Guilt. He was involved, but something else happened. He doesn’t care, but he would rather forget about it right now.

Eiichi focused on Okanaya, ‘He has full recognition of what happened. Pride, and then depression. As soon as I mentioned the bust, he felt pride for having jail time that he could boast about, but depression about the actual time spent.

Tsuchiyama pushed forward, “What the fuck is this? Why are you wasting my time?”

Eiichi smoothed out his words in a grim tone, “It’s a simple question. I just wanted to know if you two got to be cell mates. So Okanaya, has he told you what you’ll be making?”

“Alright, shut him up!” Tsuchiyama sounded panicked.

“Why don’t you tell him?”

Suddenly Okanaya became very uneasy. “You said we’d make bank!”

Tsuchiyama turned. “And we will! After you get rid of him and we get the hell out of here!”

“Is that all he told you?” Eiichi inserted.

Okanaya looked to him warily, “Yeah…”

“And you didn’t ask about when you’d be getting the money? Did he even tell you how he was going about selling them and how long it would take?”

Tsuchiyama stepped in. “He’s fuckin’ with you Okanaya! He doesn’t know shit!”

“He said he’d take care of it,” Okanaya muttered.

“And you didn’t find that a little funny? Okanaya, why’re you still rolling’ with this guy?”

“He said it was cool.”

“And you just took his word for it?”

Okanaya looked down at the grass, and it seemed like he was actually pondering the situation and thinking things through for the first time.

“Did you even see him after you got busted?” Eiichi added.

“No, they cuffed us and sat us on the curb before taking us to the station.”

“And did you see any of the money out of that deal?”

“No, it was all confiscated.”

“Was it? Because on the news, they said the cops only confiscated some ten-thousand yen. It made you guys look like a bunch of amateurs.”

“Shit no, we were running for at least a couple months. We were raking in five mill!”

“Isn’t it a little weird that somehow Tsuchiyama and five-million yen in gambling funds go missing all in the same day? Did you even see him while serving time?”

Everyone else, including Noda, had fallen silent and stood still as this exchange occurred.

Okanaya looked away again. His confusion flailed about, seeking a clear answer to the points Eiichi made. He was even beginning to feel a little scared that he had made a big mistake. And then rage appeared, painting his output in vibrant orange and red shades.

Gotcha’…

Now it was time to work the brain, who was feeling pretty vulnerable now, his false confidence having fled him. Eiichi smoothed his predatory gaze on Tsuchiyama.

“You’re looking pretty scared, Tsuchiyama. Why aren’t you showing your henchman any love?”

Suddenly, Okanaya lifted his head at Tsuchiyama with clenched fists. “I thought you got caught like the rest of us!?”

“I told you, I did! They sent me to a different pin!”

Eiichi’s malignant voice smoothed in as he continued to entice Okanaya, while painting his boss a darker and darker shade of black, “Nah, I don’t think Tsuchiyama served time. He got away with the money and then laid low for a while, made sure no one on the street saw his face. He probably made the call himself and split. He could probably still apply for a job without question because his record is clean.”

“You lying son of a bitch!” Okanaya shouted.

All true. He’s just getting more and more guilty.

“You set us up!”

The thug holding Noda tossed in his lot. “Let’s kick his ass and get outta’ here!”

Eiichi continued, “And he’s probably gonna’ do it again. That’s what happens when you run with the same crew and don’t pay attention to their actions, Okanaya.”

Okanaya advanced toward Tsuchiyama and grabbed him by the collar. “I’m gonna’ kill you, and take all the money for myself!”

This was his chance. Eiichi backed up closer to the thug standing to his left, clenched his arm, and thrust his elbow upward, directly into his face. The thug’s head whipped back as Eiichi grabbed and wrestled for the tire iron in his hands.

Just then, white lights appeared from out of the dark and rushed toward the group, mingling in with the blue fluorescents. Voices could be heard shouting from all directions.

“Hands up! Hands up!”

“Get on the ground!”

At least half a dozen cops moved in, aiming flashlights, revolvers and stun guns at everyone.

One of them quickly moved on one of the members. “Drop the weapon, kid!”

Two closed in on Noda and her captor. “Hands off her! Get on your face!”

Before Tsuchiyama could bolt off with Okanaya in pursuit, they were both tackled and wrestled into zip ties.

Eiichi had dropped the tire iron, after the thug he wrestled it from relinquished it in an attempt to run. Another officer approached him, handgun raised.

“Get down. Hands and feet apart.”

Eiichi did as instructed, fanning his hands out and slowly getting down on one knee. Noda had been the only one not facing arrest, and when she saw this, she rushed forward.

“Don’t! He’s my friend!”

This was the first time in many years that anyone had ever called him that.

  • * *

“You two are lucky to not be in a hospital, these guys look like they meant business. So what were you doing here anyways?”

All the members of Tsuchiyama’s crew had been rounded up and were escorted to the parking lot of the school, with Noda and Eiichi being escorted along by officers as well, but not in zip ties. Police cruisers had been waiting at the front, already with flashing reds and blues reflecting off the building’s exterior. The only other two vehicles in the parking lot, a mini-van and a getaway car, had all of their doors open, with officers looking through them. On the pavement nearby there could be seen at least twenty well priced hard drives, and roughly a dozen LCD monitors.

Noda and Eiichi had been pulled aside for questioning by an officer.

Noda spoke up, “We were walking by when we heard some noises and thought we’d check it out. These guys were moving a bunch of stuff around when they noticed us and chased us down.”

Eiichi eyed Noda as she made her explanation, ‘Asako, you’re more devious than I took you for.

The officer continued sternly, “You’re lucky your curiosity didn’t get you killed, you know trespassing on campus is against school policy…though you did aid in an investigation…” he had to nod admittedly to the pavement while adjusting his cap, “these guys have been going around doing this on multiple campuses.”

“What were they stealing?” Noda asked.

“Office equipment, chemicals, supplies. Probably just lookin’ to make a quick buck. Have to say, I’m impressed, they were pretty good at maintaining a low profile and even knew how to shut down the camera systems. They didn’t even wear masks and managed to obtain different uniforms for each school to pose as students.”

Tsuchiyama may be a coward, but he’s still a pretty good con man.

“I swear, criminals these days are getting younger and younger. Well, if that’s all you two have for me, you can go. But I’m gonna’ let you off with a warning, next time be smart and walk the other way.”

“Thank you very much, it won’t happen again.”

The two bowed earnestly to the officer and turned to leave. On their way out, Eiichi noticed Tsuchiyama being escorted to a cruiser and decided to give him his best wishes.

“Hey Tsuchiyama, don’t drop the soap!”

They walked out of the school’s parking lot and on to a dark street, headed downtown. Both were trying to let the shock of the situation wear off. Eiichi walked at his usual smooth gait, hands in his jean pockets with the thumbs hooked out, while Noda walked calmly, hands in the pockets of her jacket.

“That was pretty smooth, playing the scared girlfriend role. You did most of the talking back there,” Eiichi said.

“Well I wasn’t about to tell them we were there to bust those guys, they might’ve slapped the cuffs on us.”

“Yeah, speaking of which, where was my text alerting me someone was coming?”

“After you left I decided against it and called the police as soon as I saw them sneaking up on you.”

“Uh-huh, and what exactly did you say to them?”

“Exactly what I told the officer, we were being chased.”

Eiichi gave this pause. “…You allowed yourself to get caught!?”

“That Tsuchiyama guy already had someone looking for me. And you needed me there as your vouch, or we wouldn’t be walking right now.”

“That’s what all that screaming was about? You faker!” he blurted.

Noda responded with a wink and sticking her tongue out.

That must have been why she was so nervous. She had a plan in case things didn’t go well.

Eiichi continued, “You’re lucky the cops answered so quickly. They must have been pretty excited about making that bust, even if it was just a bunch of teenagers.”

“No, you just stalled them long enough.” Then Noda was suddenly flooded with excitement again. “Which reminds me, that was amazing how you handled that situation! Getting Okanaya angry with Tsuchiyama, pitting them against each other, it messed up their whole arrangement! It was like something right out of a crime drama! How did you know all that about them?”

To be honest, I was mostly winging it.

“Intuition…you pick up a lot from hanging around certain places, and word travels fast in some crowds.”

“Wow…you really are a delinquent,” Noda mused.

“Shut up, or I just might rob you.”

Noda stopped in the middle of her chuckling. “Ah man, I almost forgot!”

“What’s that?”

She brought her phone out and began pecking on it. “It’s a hidden camera I got a few months back, I thought it would be perfect for this. I went back to the spot during my club meetings and planted it in the dumpster nearby.”

When she said she stayed after because of her clubs, she was only half lying. She’s still nervous that something might happen to it.

Eiichi frowned. “Going back to the same spot without someone wasn’t a very smart decision.”

“I did it in case things went horribly south, but I guess the footage is no good anymore.”

He couldn’t believe how simple she was being about all this. “They did! And what does a camera girl need a hidden camera for!?”

“I thought it might come in handy one day. Looks like I was right.”

Eiichi sighed. “Sheesh, you’re pretty into that surveillance stuff.”

“Come on, let’s check out the video,” Noda said, already stopping and holding the phone out.

“And you’re only proving me right with that.”

The video feed started with a close up of Noda’s palm as she turned on the device and adjusted it. Then it removed itself to reveal her analytical expression in the evening sunlight as she looked from the camera to her phone, probably checking the visibility. Then with a delighted smirk at her useful little gadget, she stood and left the view, and the only thing that could be seen was the back door to the computer science building.

Noda tapped the screen of her phone and pulled the toggle to fast forward.

In the image, dusk quickly turned to night and the outside fluorescent lights came on. Sure enough, a few minutes after, the group of thieves appeared at the back door. One of them proceeded by unlocking it and they all went inside. They probably carried the equipment out the front, because after some fast forwarding, they were not seen again for a while. The time on the screen read twenty minutes after eleven, and then Eiichi’s hooded figure appeared from the left and into the light. It was soon joined with other figures and the dialog picked up from there.

As the voices on the screen played out, Eiichi felt Noda teeming with absolute passion and excitement right next to him, as she stared with gaping mouth and eyes.

“Wow…our first bust…” she muttered.

“I don’t know where you were going with that, but I don’t like the sound of it.” Eiichi continued walking.

Noda rushed to catch up. “Come on, it’s okay to give yourself a pat on the back!”

“Let’s just go home.”

 

Chapter 2

New Place, New Mind

 

Eiichi opened his eyes the next morning to the maniacal tones of Jake Adler’s gritty, skeleton voice snarling at him while the chaos of a band on a collision course with the new world order erupted from his phone – ‘My eyes open to a deep, dark blackness—Nothing makes sense and I cannot breathe—Couldn’t feel a damn thing around me—Where the hell am I!?—Where the fuck did I go!?

The song cut into a fast-paced one-note interlude that sounded like the rapid fire of machine guns.

His hand floated over to his nightstand and hit the cancel button for his alarm.

He didn’t sit up in bed for several minutes. He just stared at the ceiling, taking comfort in his solitude, satisfied that he had time to think while the air around him was clear, as his mind drifted and reviewed exactly what had happened the night before.

While there was so much going on, and so much noise, he had not been thinking about what he was doing at the time, and he couldn’t figure out why. He supposed it was maybe because of the rush of everything. A situation presented them with a challenge, and they responded. He realized now that everything that had happened had caused his day-to-day to go way outside its intended course. Things had not gone in the direction he wanted them to. And what was even more fascinating was how everything seemed to go back to normal afterward. He had figured, if anything did happen, he would likely not be lying in his bed right now, but somewhere much less comforting. He had Noda to thank for that.

After they had left, he’d walked Noda home, noticing how she didn’t feel safe going by herself. From her shaken nerves, but somewhat calm front, he knew she thought it only made sense, since they had both been through such a threatening situation. They were both pretty burned out.

After getting home, he ate the dinner Torio had plastic wrapped and left on the table for him, with a note: ‘Hope you had fun! _

He had told Torio earlier that night that he was meeting with a friend, which was pretty much true. Torio asked if it was a girl in that annoying way that made him wonder who the real emotion reader was, and Eiichi, who was already in a rush to get out, did not answer. As he was on his way out, Torio wished him luck and said he should bring her by sometime.

He didn’t think it was all that important that he tell Torio exactly what was happening. Torio would have most likely warned against it, asked him a bunch of questions to cleverly waste his time and then allowed him to go anyways. What he wasn’t sure about was whether he should tell Torio any time soon about what really did happen.

In the silence and solitude of his house at one-thirty in the morning, his mind felt different. It was somehow…tingly. When he laid down, he must have fallen asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

At present, Eiichi yawned, his arms and legs stiffening in a stretch. He sat up and yawned some more, and then his half open eyes loomed over his room.

His desk, with textbooks, clutters of school assignments, old and new, and stacks of nearly-finished classic titles he had rented from the city library – For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sound and the Fury, Heart of Darkness, 1984, Atlas Shrugged

His walls, mostly blank, save for a Dethkon poster adorning the off-white panel close to his desk, Slaves of Dependence, and a God Have Mercy poster on the wall opposite his bed, Primal. His boxing gloves hung on a hook close to the door, over his shoes, which he used for both casual wear and training. He had been saving up for a real pair of boxing shoes, though his income was minimal to nil, so that wouldn’t be happening anytime soon. His nightstand had his pack of Sparrows on it, along with two fresh, unopened packs and a few spare lighters.

This was definitely his room, but what happened last night had not been a dream. It wavered there in the back of his head, like the memory of something he meant to do, but couldn’t recall what it was. He knew for certain, if he saw Torio before he left for work, he would be asked all sorts of questions. Whether he would answer them honestly or not, he was still unsure of.

I stopped a robbery last night.

You’re messing with me, aren’t you?’

I’m being serious. I went on a stakeout, just to get pictures, they laid a trap for us, and the cops showed up just before it got ugly.’

No you didn’tOh, I see! You seduced that poor girl and ‘staked’ claim to her heart before you ‘robbed’ her of her innocence, in which case, her parents showed up just before things could get more interesting. I’m sure photos were somehow involved.

This was basically how it went in his head. Torio would find a way to make it sound erotic. That was when it made sense to him why he shouldn’t tell Torio…It had taken him a minute, he was still waking up.

Eiichi thought he should probably just go along with Torio’s assumption that he had gone out on a date, but even if he did that, it would still conjure suspicion from his crafty, outrageously intuitive older brother.

Just then, Eiichi heard scratching and whimpering at his door. He got out of bed and shuffled over.

“Hey Connor, sorry I locked you out, buddy.”

Connor’s paws clacked into the room and he greeted Eiichi with a good morning yip. Eiichi gave his ears a good scratching before letting the husky wander back into the hall, him following behind.

The black tea he’d had before he left and the cigarette he’d had during his walk to school had done little to wear off the pleasant grogginess he was feeling. Really, he just enjoyed those things, and wasn’t in any rush to wake up to the reality that faced him.

  • * *

He had joined the throngs of students making their way to Aki Guro. Of course, their numbers were evading his presence. He was through the front gate when he could sense Noda’s cheery perseverance approaching him from behind.

“Hey there, partner!” She gave him a chummy swat on the shoulder.

“What are you on about now?” he said, not bothering to look at her.

Her output was too bright for this early in the morning. Did her parents have to sedate her before putting her to bed every night?

“Nothing, nothing at all. Why would you think that?”

“I just have a feeling…”

How could he forget, this one had another side to her. She liked to only unveil it when she had to, catching fellow socialites off guard when they had already labeled her as a dimwit. It was almost scheming in a manner, but more practical and forthcoming.

Oh boy, here it comes…

“So I was thinking about what happened last night.”

“Wow, you too? Man, and I thought it was just me.”

Noda tipped her nose up with a sideways look and an annoyed expression. “Ya know, you’re really starting to irritate me a little. You wouldn’t want me to go all out on you. Don’t forget, I have a camera.”

“Then I’ll be sure to never leave my house.”

“Come on! We really had something going there. If we hadn’t shown up, those guys would have had their eyes on another school by now.”

“Yes, yes, those poor tech geeks…” Eiichi shook his head. “What would they do without their processors and flat screens, is there nothing sacred?”

“And teamwork.” She clenched a fist. “That never could have happened if you didn’t have my back and I didn’t have yours.”

“Go team…”

Noda’s face became sullen, since her attempts at rousing his enthusiasm to a level that matched her own had failed.

“You…at least felt something about what happened, didn’t you…” she said, her high voice taking a flow down into damper.

“I remember being in fear for our lives. I remember wanting to make sure you didn’t wind up hurt, and that we both came out of it vertical and breathing.”

“Y…yeah…”

He could feel her recalling the fear she had experienced as she smoothed her arm subconsciously. She may have been an optimist, but she still had her doubts. She had been aware there was the chance that her own plans would not work out. She had not been faking the fear in those moments, when both their lives were in danger.

“But we still managed to kick butt!” she bounced back, pumping her fist in the air.

Eiichi shut his eyes. “And just barely scrape by getting into some serious trouble.”

“Don’t think of it as just that. Come on, how many kids our age get to say they stopped a school robbery all on their own?”

We didn’t stop anything. We just happened to make a big mess of things before the police could show and clean everything up.”

“Are you kidding? What about how we figured it out all on our own? What about all that stuff you knew about those guys, and how you read them like books? What about what that officer said about us assisting in an investigation, hmmm?” She leered at him with a smirk.

Her quick responses were getting just a bit annoying, and that ‘reading them like books’ comment was too close for comfort.

“That one just fell into our laps and I just happened to know the guys involved.”

Noda wagged a finger, “If you keep thinking like such a realist, you’re never going to open your mind up to the possibilities.”

“Says the sensationalist!” Eiichi turned on her with an irritation in his eyes that she seemed completely impervious to now. “And just what ‘possibilities’ did you have in mind?”

He already knew she was hiding something, and from her output retracting so immediately at the question, it was now just blatantly obvious.

“Oh, um…you don’t need to worry about that.” She ended this with a polite smile that Eiichi could not take at face value, not even if there was a free meal and a pack of smokes in it for him.

“Uh-huh, and why am I getting this feeling that you don’t really mean that?”

“I’m just saying keep it in mind is all. Well, I gotta’ make it to my room before class starts. See ya later!”

Funny, one little inquiry and suddenly she leaves all on her own…

He knew this wasn’t going to last long.

  • * *

When the bell rang for lunch, Noda decided she would give Eiichi a rest for the time being and lay off bugging him. Truth be told, she needed a break herself.

Never, in all her life, had she imagined that she would ever be a part of something like a police bust. Of course, it would be normal to assume that. Sure, she fantasized from time to time about daring situations, adrenaline pumping scenarios, gripping events that could leave someone appreciating the simpler things in life more thoroughly, but of course, what right minded high school student believed something like that would actually happen? The thought of what they had accomplished was so exhilarating, and her getting footage of it just made things even better!

It had always been her dream to capture something, anything, that was exciting, bizarre, suspicious, or just plain out of the ordinary, and to do it again, and again, and again! She just loved photography in and of itself, as an art and a passion. The idea of having something immortalized, frozen in time, to always be remembered, brought her a thrill and a sentiment she could not fully explain.

Eiichi did get rather annoyed with her coercing, which she found entertaining, but he could probably only take so much. He seemed to be the kind of guy that was just serious, all the time, which made him a lot of fun to pick at, but that seriousness had to get boring after a while.

Something that threw her off though, was that he seemed to pick up on things rather quickly. Like, when she had a thought to express, it was as if he already knew what it was and had already decided whether he agreed or not. She had been afraid of Eiichi before, she was willing to admit, but that was just fear of the unknown. After spending time around him, granted, not knowing who he was, she’d learned he was just a harmless, yet irritable, stick in the mud. She couldn’t help wondering about his behavior though. He wasn’t exactly normal, that was for sure. There was a reason people kept their distance from him, even if he wasn’t as dangerous as they claimed. It could be a fluke, and she was putting too much thought into it. It definitely wasn’t something she felt could be harmful, it just seemed like he needed a friend more than anything.

With her bento in hand, Noda stepped into Hisako and Kimi’s class, the classroom just across the hall and down one space from hers. She didn’t have to look because she was headed for the same place they usually convened for lunch. Hisako and Kimi had already pushed the desks together.

“Not doing pictures today?” Kimi smiled.

“Hey Noda, you haven’t been joining us for lunch lately, what gives?” Hisako leaned back, hands on her hips.

Kimi, a girl with fairly short, shoulder length hair, with the front bangs pulled back and pinned down in a mess of many fanned locks, was a kind and quiet girl who had been Noda’s best friend since they were in grade school together. Hisako, a rather goofy girl whom they had known since junior high, had short hair as well, with her bangs cut into a swoop curving in one direction across her forehead. Hisako had the most athletic figure of all of them, a good fit for a member of the girl’s baseball team, and in the past year, Noda had developed some envy over her bust size. Kimi and Noda both shared a passion for photography, and Kimi had been Noda’s right hand girl since their photo club years in junior high.

“Ah jeez, sorry guys.” Noda sat and clapped her hands together, bowing her head earnestly. “You’re right, it’s been all work and no play.”

“All work and some play is more like it,” Hisako remarked, while waving a bit of fried chicken at Noda. “I know what I saw this morning, and I had to figure out if I was hallucinating or not.”

“You what…” Noda gawked up from her bento.

“Well…” Kimi called her attention with a sideways nod and polite smile. “She already told me about it, so I suppose you might as well explain, Noda-chan.”

“Wait, wait, what are you two talking about?”

Hisako began, “I’m on my way to school, just another ordinary day, when what do I see, but our girl Noda here walking to school with none other than Eiichi Kozuka. Eiichi-friggin’-Kozuka!”

Okay, you don’t have to broadcast it!” Noda kept her voice low, but was nearly out of her seat, eyes shifting from left to right.

“I don’t have to, most of the school saw it. I seriously thought my sister put something in my omelet.”

Noda looked at Hisako with wide eyes. “For starters, I’d be more concerned about your sister putting things in your food.”

“It’s an expression, Noda! Don’t take it so seriously!”

Kimi sat by, still with her polite smile, but looking just a little uncomfortable. “Now, now…I think what Hisako is trying to convey is, it’s a little strange seeing you with him out of the blue like that.”

“More like watching a nightmare unfold,” Hisako shook her head, sounding somber. “Our kind, energetic Noda, with the biggest creep in school. And you looked pretty lively too. I know we’re all single here, but you don’t have to be so desperate. There are better picks out there, Noda.”

“Wait, Hisako…”

“She’s going to change before we know it. She’ll start skipping class, tagging up the girl’s bathroom, mouthing off at the sensei. She’ll quit all her clubs and her grades will drop. Our sweet, adorable Noda will be changed forever.”

“Just a sec…”

Suddenly, Hisako clasped both Noda’s hands in hers, with wide, pleading eyes gazing back.

“Please, you don’t have to go fishing at the bottom of the barrel like that! We may not be popular, but that doesn’t mean we must lower our standards! You can do better, I know you can!”

“You two have got it all wrong!” Noda shook her grievous friend off. “Kozuka and I were just…talking…”

It was here she remembered, she couldn’t say exactly what they had been talking about. She had no idea what Eiichi’s strategy had been, if he was going to tell a story or not. He seemed like he just wanted to shrug it off and forget all about it, while she had something else in mind. She definitely couldn’t tell her family she had snuck out to help the school delinquent thwart a robbery. Of all the ironic stories possible, that had to be the least believable, next to helping the principal communicate with extra-terrestrials. And if her family wouldn’t believe it, her friends would definitely start looking at her like they were going to call the men in white coats.

What did Eiichi want to do with his version of the story anyway? Did he already tell someone? They had never really discussed it, come to think.

“My, such a suspicious way of putting it,” Kimi said, placing a hand over her devious smile.

“I’m serious! I, uh…”

Come on! Think fast, Noda!

“I was just thinking about doing an article on him for the paper, is all…”

Her friends gawked at her with wide disbelief.

Kimi spoke first. “Um, I suppose that’s a good reas—”

“It’s all over!” Hisako blurted in premature despair, placing her face in her hands. “It’s too late Kimi-chan! Game over, girl! Who does an article on the school delinquent? It only took a day and she’s already drifted beyond our grasp…”

Kimi chuckled.

“It’s called constructive journalism!” Noda retorted. “Ya know, a gaze into the life of our lesser known peers. And besides…”

There was something she could tell them.

“…He helped me…”

Hisako looked up. “Please don’t tell me he held a door open for you, or grabbed a book from the top shelf…”

Noda couldn’t help glancing shyly down at her hands clasped in her lap. “H-He saved me…”

More than once.’

“…from a guy that tried to steal my camera.”

There was another pause from the two.

“What a noble thing to do.” Kimi touched her chest.

Hisako smacked her hands on the desk, causing Noda’s shoulders to jump and a few heads to turn.

“And why didn’t you tell us about this!?”

She clammed up, feeling backed into a corner. “I didn’t want to worry you guys, it was only two days ago. I’ve just kind of been getting his story ever since.”

“Yeah, sounds like you’ve hooked up with prince charming there.” Hisako sat back down and placed her chin in her hand, looking unconvinced. “I guess that would explain why you up and disappeared yesterday.”

“I’m telling the truth! First of all, there’s nothing between Kozuka and me. If anything, we’re…friends! That’s right! We haven’t been together that long, and we barely see each other. He actually gets kind of annoyed with me sometimes.”

“Like all good friends do,” Hisako remarked. “And what was your second point?”

“Um…” Noda tapped her lips with the hashi. “He’s more like a business venture.”

“Uh-huh, according to all drama series, isn’t that how they all start out?”

“Oh, be nice,” Kimi inserted, finally. “She said they’re not going out, so we have nothing to worry about.”

Hisako sat up and continued eating. “I’m just saying Noda, watch yourself with him. Nothing good can come from being around Eiichi Kozuka.”

Noda grumbled while poking at her sushi, “Yes, I know the rumors about him, and so does he. Seriously, he’s nicer than you give him credit for.”

“Well, I’ll believe that when I see it. Anyone who’s a hypochondriac has some serious needy issues. Whether he knows about the rumors or not, I don’t see him making much of an effort to change.”

Noda let that one hang in the air.

To clear it up, Kimi clasped her hands together. “Oh! Speaking of drama series, did either of you catch the episode of ‘Hunters of the Stars’ last night?”

“Oh yeah!” Hisako seemed to brighten up. “Can you believe Bairei betrayed Mayuko like that?”

“So terrible! I can’t wait to see what Nahoko does.”

Noda spoke up. “I kinda’ missed it, I had some errands to run…”

  • * *

Eiichi managed to wade through the rabble on the second year floor and make it down to the first floor with the seniors. There was definitely a noticeable change in the ebb and flow of emotions, but he did this so much, he sometimes didn’t notice. It was sort of like stepping from a lukewarm pool into a slightly warmer one.

His first time stepping through the third years’ floor, when he had been a first year, had been bothersome. The overwhelming confidence and pompous attitudes were just enough to induce an annoyed twitch in his right eye that lasted him the day. He must have looked so pissed off that people thought he was going to lose it and stab someone.

While all the second years on his floor had adjusted well into their high school lives, the freshmen on the floor above were typically a mix of self-conscious, anxious, maladjusted, excited, and reasonably calm, given it being this early in the year. Most didn’t know which rules were bendable, were constantly nervous around upperclassmen, and could react pretty over-the-top if something was out of place, like a homework assignment with a few wrong answers or a forgotten lunch.

Of course, he didn’t come down here to spend time with his ‘senior buddies’, but it was the best route he had to make it outside to his spot behind the cafeteria.

Aki Guro had a specific situated floor plan in accordance to a student’s year. First years were on the floor above the second years, and the second years were on the floor above the third years. The faculty offices were all on the ground floor. It was likely set up this way so that the seniors, who had spent the most time in school and earned their proverbial stripes, would not have to climb very far to get to their floor, something they had already done as first years. It wasn’t a bad form of symbolism, when he thought about it. You had to put some kind of effort into your goals if you were going to get anywhere. He would almost have the energy to feel sentimental about it, if a useless education had ever been his goal in the first place.

He was absolutely thankful that Noda had not appeared yet, though she could pop up at any moment. It couldn’t be possible, but the idea of him looking one way, then back, and her just appearing there out of thin air, was somewhat terrifying.

He made it to the seniors’ floor, and as he was turning, he felt a very cautious mind coming down the steps from behind him.

It had recognized him. He could feel the output pushing itself away out of fear as it rushed around and past him. Eiichi froze.

A head of pale gold hair, that met him at eye level, appeared on his left, moving forward at a rigid gait and heading down the stairs to the ground floor.

It was the first year he had seen the other day, the one with the huge, box frame glasses who had stopped to mope on his floor, coping with his agonies for the day before making it back to his class.

Even now, he could feel the kid trying to muster his courage, remembering other times he had been cornered and threatened, thinking of what he could have done, what he felt he should have done. He was getting ready for something.

Eiichi was headed in the same direction, so he continued.

At the ground floor, there was the wide space of the entrance hall where the shoe lockers could be seen from the stairs, with the hall on the left leading to the cafeteria. Across the lobby, opposite the front doors and shoe lockers, were the glass paned doors leading to one of the courtyards where Eiichi was headed.

When he made it down, he stopped again and watched the kid.

He had wanted to remain uninvolved in anyone’s problems, if he could help it.

Yeah, sure, a lot of good that did him, thanks to Photo Girl. He’d already been in enough trouble simply in the past two days. He couldn’t go around helping people at random, it would never end!

He had seen those rodent eyes through a set of spectacles that weren’t his own, grabbing him by a collar that wasn’t his, uttering threats that were not meant for him, two others standing behind, entertained by the show of power over a small, weak kid.

What was he doing, walking back into that, making himself a target? He should be staying in his class, surrounded by people he knew, where he would be safe. However, Eiichi had been undesirably placed in this position, and he knew that if it had been him, he wouldn’t let anyone control his freedoms, such as where he could or could not go. He wouldn’t let anyone make him paranoid without suffering the consequences. He would outsmart them. Even if he had been smaller, he would grab something as a weapon and go looking for them, show them they were not the only ones with power. Even if he failed, no matter how much they beat him, he would keep doing it until they left him alone. Sadly, this was not what the kid was doing. There was no intent of harm, he was just following through and doing as he was told.

The kid headed up the hall and was about to disappear from sight.

“Jeez, I really want a smoke right now…”

Eiichi stepped forward. He just wanted to see what was going to happen, he didn’t really have any intent on stepping in.

He tailed him and kept a measured distance, so he would look like he had just happened to be headed in the same direction, if he were noticed.

The kid was walking steadily with a set of papers rolled up in his hands. He was on edge, and it had something to do with those papers. He was more focused on what he was about to face than whether anyone had bothered to follow him.

It was a long hall with a few students walking here and there to meet with sensei in the offices, go to the library, or convene in the cafeteria. The kid weaved cautiously around them, but whenever he came near a faculty member, Eiichi noticed his hands gripping the papers tighter.

At the end of the hall, there was a turn to the left. When the kid disappeared around the corner, Eiichi picked up the pace until he made it, and peeked around.

The hall stretched out again. At the end was the library and sets of doors on either side for some of the clubs that met on this floor. Two sets of these doors led outside, and sat facing each other on opposite ends of the hall. One led to one of the smaller yards near the entrance path outside, the other led to another courtyard that was located in view of the technology building and gym.

The kid had stopped, facing the door to the courtyard.

Eiichi watched as he seemed to be working on rousing more courage.

He looked down at his shoes and thought he saw the kid clenching his fists before looking up to the light outside and pushing the door open.

Eiichi made his way over and stopped to look out the glass panes.

The kid had stepped out into the courtyard and was headed to the gym.

Eiichi waited until the kid passed beyond a set of trees, before exiting himself.

The cool air from outside brushed his face, a nice contrast to how the school always kept the heaters running inside, even during spring. There was a small bluff of grass beyond the trees, and the kid had already scaled it and was on the other side with the gym only yards away.

Eiichi crept into the trees and leaned against one. There were not many students in this courtyard, and most of them ate behind the building if they chose to go outside. At this time, there were definitely no students near the gym, which was only in use after classes or during phys ed.

The kid didn’t go toward the front doors, but instead, was headed around to a more shaded side at the back. He was almost there when Eiichi continued his pursuit.

The kid disappeared around the corner, and like before, Eiichi picked up his pace.

Slowing his trot to a shuffle, Eiichi closed in on the corner and leaned against the wall. The kid hadn’t gone far, and Eiichi could already hear voices.

“So Ebina, you got it?” one snide and thin-sounding voice rose up.

“Um, yeah…”

“Gimme that!”

There was the sharp sound of papers rustling—it sounded like whatever Ebina had been carrying had just been snatched out of his hands.

“This everything?” another voice threatened.

“Y-Yeah…”

“I swear, Ebina, if you left anything out, I’m gonna’ fuckin’ skin you, ya got it?”

“Yeah…”

Eiichi risked a peek around the corner, hoping they wouldn’t be too close to notice.

There were three, just like in the vision. The tallest one, with the rodent eyes, leered down at the kid with a disgusting sneer while holding the stack of papers he had been carrying. There was a stockier one next to him with a hefty amount of flab and a shaved head, and another who was more average with gray, oily-looking hair that was slicked back.

“You call me senpai, you fuckin’ hear?” the tall one started. “Cause you’re my kouhai, right? I’m just lookin’ out for my little buddy, Ebina.”

“Y-Yes…senpai.”

This received and banter of laughter.

Ebina’s ‘senpai’ started looking through the papers in his hands.

“It’s all here, you do good work, Ebina. You sure no one saw ya?”

“Y-Yeah…”

“Yeah what!?”

“Yes, s-senpai…”

More cackling.

Then the tall one eyed the kid for a moment.

“Yo Ebina, we’re short on cash again. Why don’t you help your senpais out a little?”

“B-But…”

Without looking, the tall one thrust the papers into the hands of the one with oily hair, and then grabbed Ebina by his collar. One hand raised across his face and the guy backhanded Ebina so hard, Eiichi was surprised his glasses stayed on.

Eiichi didn’t notice his hand clenching next to his thigh, ‘Bet you’ve gotten some good practice in with this one, huh… Do ya feel just a bit bigger, pal?

He swung Ebina around and dragged him to a small corner nearby, slamming him into it while the other two grouped around.

“You little shit! When your senpai asks it, the answer is yes! So what were you gonna’ say?”

“If you keep this up Ebina, you’re gonna’ get another beat down.”

Eiichi could see Ebina wincing with a red face and gritted teeth.

“Y…” his voice wavered. “Yes…”

“Good. Gimme’ your wallet.”

Ebina’s hand was reaching back to grab it. Eiichi had just about had enough.

“Oh damn, I think I got lost again.”

His voice startled them as he appeared from his hiding place.

“This is such a big school, it shouldn’t be surprising how easy that can happen. Can any of you tell me where I can find the Kindness and Human Decency Seminar? My parole officer said I have to attend it.”

Let’s fuck with ‘em a little.

“What’d you say?” The big one turned around.

“Ya know, it has to do with treating everyone with respect and brotherly love, or some shit. I can see you guys have got it down pat, are you the organizers?”

The one with the papers faced him in a defensive stance. “What the fuck…”

The tall one, still ringing Ebina’s collar, looked at Eiichi as if he were speaking another language.

“What do you want, Kozuka?”

Eiichi finally got close enough that he could pick up a read on all of them. The three were confused and edgy, but they viewed him as someone below them that they simply wouldn’t bother with. To them, he was no more significant than a moth. Ebina stared back at the tall one with wide eyes. He remembered seeing Eiichi from earlier, and now that he knew he had followed him here, he was even more terrified and uncertain of what was going to become of himself.

“Well, I heard something about money and…” Eiichi feigned a surprised look at the papers. “Oh damn! Are those the answers to the upcoming midterm? Man, I’d be pretty happy to get my hands on those.” He plastered on a fake smile with nods to everyone.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Ebina was just helping us out with something.”

“Yeah man, I can remember beating the life out of the last person that helped me. Good times…”

The tall one released Ebina, who sank down and watched with intense fear.

“Alright, you’re annoying the shit out of me, so get lost, ya fuckin’ nut job!”

He began advancing while the other two stayed back to mind the kid.

All of their amusement had worn off, there was only worry and frustration.

Eiichi was beginning to feel another dull headache coming on. He had to maintain control and not let their outputs overpower him, or else he’d lose it and do something really stupid.

“Oh…” Eiichi voiced sadness. “Such hurtful words. And I was just thinking we could be friends, since we have so much in common already. Don’t you want to be my friend?”

“What!?”

The big one bellowed, “Kick his ass, Mochi! He’s just a freak!”

Mochi? That was his name? Probably short for something else, but still…

‘Mochi’…apparently…was a few inches taller than Eiichi, nothing to boast about. His arms seemed a bit long, which gave him a reach. It was a good thing he was getting closer. Eiichi eyed his two buddies and decided he really wasn’t in the mood for a lot of moving around. If matters took long enough, they would likely jump in to help. They had been ganging up on a kid that they all towered over in size, so they were less likely to get involved in a fair brawl. Mochi was obviously the leader, so whatever Eiichi did, he had to make it count. Chop the head off the viper and watch its body writhe.

“You lookin’ to prove somethin’?” Mochi leaned in with his arms down.

Eiichi grinned with white canines, “That I’m just a really nice guy.”

He had never understood the tough guy act of getting into someone’s face as close as possible. It was a means of testing their opponent’s fear, while at the same time, testing their own boundaries, but it was about the most useless approach to a fight he’d ever seen. He could see where maintaining eye contact was needed to observe an opponent’s movements, the eyes told a lot, but getting within breathing distance, where one could not see the other’s hands and react to an attack, had to be plum stupid.

Oh jeez!’ he tried not to cover his nose.

When he thought within breathing distance, he wasn’t kidding. The kid’s vision had been a vicarious experience, but this was the real thing now. Did this guy ever brush?

Come on, a little closer tough guy…

“You gonna’ just stand there?” Mochi said.

Tighten the elbow just a little…’

“Hah!?”

Get some…

BAM!

 

 

Before Mochi could respond, his head whipped back after Eiichi’s fist made contact with the underside of his jaw. Mochi had left himself wide open, without any protection. How could Eiichi have passed that up? Eiichi had heard his teeth clamp shut and was somewhat relieved he didn’t bite his tongue off.

It was a stone cold knockout. Mochi’s face turned pasty white, his eyes wavered about in a daze as his knees buckled, and his hands swayed distantly around him. He tried to regain his sinking balance, before his legs crumpled underneath him altogether like tin foil.

The other two had frozen up, but in seeing Mochi go down, their confidence fled. Then they looked into Eiichi’s glare and saw he had turned into another person completely.

Eiichi was ready. He got his satisfactory hit in and Mochi wouldn’t be standing up for a while. To be frank, Mochi’s spinning output was giving him the spins a little. There were only two left now, and he considered challenging their resolve, but thought better of it.

Then he looked over to the corner where the kid sat. He had seen the whole thing and was just hoping the situation wouldn’t get more violent.

Eiichi stood there for a few moments, not saying anything.

The other two were getting worried, wondering if he was thinking about what to do with them, but really, he was having trouble remembering what the kid’s name was.

“Uhh…” Eiichi touched his head, digging for it. “Ebina, right? Get over here,” he waved.

Ebina flinched and curled up for a moment, like he’d rather stay where he was, and then he looked around like he was sure that Eiichi had meant someone else.

“Are you gonna’ set up camp there or what? Come on, get up.”

“O-Okay…” Ebina pushed himself up rigidly and dusted off his slacks.

“Oh yeah, you,” Eiichi pointed at slick hair, the one holding the papers. “Give those to ‘em.”

Slick Hair with the papers seemed to respond automatically, handing them to Ebina with all the finesse of a factory machine. Ebina took them timidly from the punk’s hands, then he moved between the two and right up to Eiichi.

Eiichi motioned him over so he was standing right next to him, facing his antagonists. He slapped a hand on Ebina’s shoulder and felt him flinch underneath while staring at the papers clutched under his hands. The sooner he could get this kid to relax, the better it would be for the both of them.

“He is my kouhai now,” Eiichi glared at all three of them. “If you give him trouble or lay a finger on him, you’re gonna’ see me again, got it? And next time, I’ll play for blood.”

“Ohh…” Mochi groaned from his place on the ground, rubbing his jaw.

Eiichi motioned with a nod. “Better get him some ice.”

As they left the two punks to see to their fallen leader, Eiichi made sure Ebina took the lead, so that he was behind to sense if any of the three were going to retaliate.

When they were far enough away, Eiichi walked next to Ebina and took the lead until he could find an unpopulated spot that was out of sight of the main building.

“Thank you…” Ebina managed to say.

“Don’t mention it.”

Eiichi looked around and figured this space was good enough as any. There was a generator underneath a protective grill that was high enough to provide itself as a rest. Eiichi took a seat here for his own sake and reached into his coat pocket.

“So I take it Ebina isn’t your first name.” The cigarette danced between his lips while he drew out his lighter.

Ebina’s nerves spiked at the sight of Eiichi’s campus-illegal habit, and he looked around to make sure that there was no one visible.

“Um, n-no. It’s Yukichi, Ebina Yukichi…”

“Hm…” Eiichi cupped his hand and flicked the lighter. A plume of smoke wafted over his fingers. “I’m Kozuka Eiichi.”

“Yes, I know…”

“I’m sure you do.”

“You’re that second year I’ve heard about. The hypochondriac.”

Despite Yukichi’s output causing him bothersome aching, Eiichi chuckled to himself, “You have no idea how tired I am of hearing that one. So how about this, from now on I call you Yukichi and you call me Eiichi. Does that sound good?”

“I…I suppose.”

Yukichi seemed to calm down some, but Eiichi knew the questions he was about to ask would bring back more of that nervous adrenaline.

“So how long has that been going on? You’re still new here, but I can’t see someone like you making enemies that fast.”

“No…” The test answers rumpled under Yukichi’s clenched hands. “It didn’t take long for them to start on me. Some of the kids I went to junior high with go here. They picked on me too. Those guys are seniors, I think, and they picked me out of the crowd.”

“Was it always like that?”

“They were worse. Everyone in my class just avoided me, wrote on my desk, or stole my shoes…”

“Don’t you have any friends?”

His head perked up. “Yes! Kamioka-san and Hasimoto-san.”

“Sorry, don’t know ‘em.”

“Anyways, they don’t know about those three.”

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

“I gave up in middle school. It didn’t matter who I told, no one stopped it. Back then, there were so many people who didn’t like me, it didn’t matter who got in trouble, there would just be someone else there to continue it…”

Oh education system…when are you going to learn that fights are going to happen no matter what you do.

“I’m surprised they didn’t move you to another school,” Eiichi said.

“I didn’t say anymore because that’s one of the things I didn’t want to have happen.”

“Did you ever think about finding a way to fight back?”

Yukichi lowered his head. “Believe me, it crossed my mind a lot. But…”

Eiichi took another drag and let Yukichi’s output waver before him.

“You were afraid of what might happen.”

Yukichi nodded.

“You were afraid you wouldn’t win, and it would only make things worse.”

Yukichi nodded.

“You were afraid of the consequences with the school.”

And a third time, Yukichi nodded.

His voice quivered, “I just wanted to be left alone…”

“You and me both, brother…” Eiichi exhaled another cloud of white and peered at Yukichi. “You probably think you’re a coward, don’t you?”

Yukichi didn’t move, his hands shook, and then he nodded. Eiichi could tell he hated himself for it.

“Look at me.”

As instructed, Yukichi slowly lifted his head. His eyes had become glassy behind his box frame specs, and he sniffled.

Eiichi stared deep, pushing through the pain, to make sure Yukichi got the message. He didn’t want to boast, but if there was anyone who could tell Yukichi this with absolute certainty, it was him.

“You’re not a coward, Yukichi. You just didn’t know what to do.”

Yukichi’s output burst into vibrant golds and shimmering whites of enlightenment. Eiichi imagined his shoulders must feel like an immense weight had been lifted off them, because his did. He was relaxing and the depression just seemed to vanish from his mind for a few minutes.

“Take it from me, those motherfuckers…” Eiichi pointed his cigarette hand. “Those are the cowards. I deal with them every day. They wouldn’t pick a fair fight if the life of a relative was at stake. And there isn’t an ounce of honesty to be had between any of ‘em.”

Yukichi sniffled again and removed his glasses, holding them with the test answers. He took the pocket square from his gakuran and began wiping his face.

Eiichi continued, “People have their moments. At times, I’ve acted like a coward, but being a coward is a frame of mind. It’s a very selfish one.”

“You?” Yukichi croaked. “I can’t see you acting like that. Not after what you just did for me.”

Smoke raised as Eiichi took a drag. “Shit happens. There are a lot of things that change us. We can allow them to make or break us.”

“I just…phew…forgive me…” Yukichi placed his glasses back on. “I didn’t mean to react like that.”

“It’s okay, I’m not gonna tell anyone you’re a big cry baby.”

Yukichi gave a raspy laugh this time, “And I won’t tell anyone the Loner of Aki Guro has such a soft side.”

Eiichi chuckled. “Then we’re even…Loner?”

“It’s one of the many names I’ve heard.”

Eiichi laughed again, rather amused, “Okay…So how long have they been making you steal for them?”

“Um, this just happened. Before they wanted me to take something from coach Tomioka’s desk.”

Yukichi didn’t blush, but Eiichi felt a hint of embarrassment in his output.

“That doesn’t sound good. It’s cool, you can tell me.”

“It was…”—this time Yukichi did blush and averted his eyes to the ground—“…keys to the girl’s locker room…”

Eiichi shook his head. “Buncha’ fuckin’ pervs, I swear…what the hell were they going to do with those? There’s nothing to steal in there but swimsuits, bloomers and maybe someone’s underwear. They sure as hell couldn’t storm the place, the only result would be the closest penalty next to expulsion.”

Yukichi shrugged, “I guess…when I said no, that was the first time they beat me. They broke my glasses, this is actually a new pair. I had to lie to my mom and tell her I slipped and rolled down some stairs.”

Eiichi knew he liked this kid for a reason. “Well there ya go, unsung hero. You stuck to your guns and took a pounding for the honor of all the girls in this school. If someone asked me, I’d say you should have your pick of the lot.”

Yukichi smiled shyly.

“Being that those are answers to the senior exams,” Eiichi said, motioning to the papers, “they’re of no use to either of us, so we should probably return them.”

He stamped his cigarette out on the grill and stood.

“But, what will the sensei say!?” Yukichi panicked.

Eiichi turned and pointed. “It’s what you will say that’s going to get you out of this. You are going to rat those pricks out with song and dance if you have to, but you are not going to take the fall for something they forced you to do. Come, ‘I will be with thee’.”

“But, what about them?”

“What about them?”

“What if…they come after me?”

“Oh ye of little faith.”

“Stop that.”

“Life is full of risks, but I’ve got you covered. If they come after you…well shit, I just might kill a man. You’re rollin’ with me now, and this is the right thing to do.”

“Says the guy who smokes on campus.”

“Ah, fock yoo!”

  • * *

It was after school, and at the back of the cafeteria sat Eiichi.

The sun was just beginning to go down, casting a pale gold light over gray clouds, against the trees and structures, laying out long, leaning shadows over the grass and chilled concrete. The shadows of trees swayed in the wind, making the lights dance over the grass.

He had been raising his cigarette to take another drag, when suddenly his head perked up.

“I don’t wanna talk about what happened last night,” he muttered at the trees across the driving pad.

“I know,” Noda spoke.

She stepped out from under the shadow of the awning behind him. She must have come around the side to sneak up on him.

She walked up next to where he was seated on the edge of the loading bay, and smoothing the back of her skirt flat against her legs, sat next to him, her shoes dangling just above the concrete and swinging divergently next to his static ones.

“How did you know it was me?” she asked.

“Who else would it be? You’re the only one who knows I’m here now.”

She had been thinking about it. He couldn’t think of anything else for her to be so excited about right now, but her concerns for his request were genuine.

“Don’t you have club activities right now?”

“I decided to take a break.” She raised a knee and crossed her fingers over it. “Last night took a lot out of me.”

“Really? I thought you were all go.”

“Yeah…yeah, I guess I kind of am.”

Boy, was she ever the comfortable one.

“So, how was your day?” she asked.

He didn’t want another explosion like before.

He took a moment to respond. “Eventful…”

“Really? What happened?”

“I just…kind of helped a minor dispute, that’s all…”

Noda leaned back and he could tell she was holding back a barrage of questions.

“That’s something you seem to do a lot. I still can’t see why you have such a bad reputation.”

“That’s because it’s not something I do a lot.”

He really didn’t need her poking at him right now.

“I was surprised to find you still here. I thought you went home every day,” she said.

“Yeah, I guess I’ve been knocked off track a little as well.”

“Wanna’ talk about it?”

He exhaled a cloud of smoke that was more like a sigh, “I don’t know…”

She let this one slide.

Helping Yukichi had been just another crazy step out of his day-to-day routine. Before it had been Noda just pushing, pulling, and prodding on him until he couldn’t take it anymore, but this time he had fully acted of his own accord. He was starting to feel like things were coming undone. Just one read of Yukichi’s output had told him he needed someone to step in, but still, this was not how he did things.

Noda suddenly got something in her head she wanted to do and got down from her perch. She stepped further out onto the pad and into his view. The sunlight lit up the outline of her braids while her hands clasped behind her back, a playful beam of curiosity aimed at him from behind those spectacles. With her braids swaying, the trees hissed and the lights danced from behind her.

“If I promise not to talk to you about last night, will you let me show you something?”

He looked at her. She was scheming something again, but her output wasn’t feeding him any images just yet. She had promised not to talk about the bust. However, she was very amused with this.

“Please tell me you didn’t find something else that could get us into more trouble.”

“You’ll see…” She smiled.

His shoulders sank. “Can I at least finish my cigarette first?”

“Oh come on, you do that all the time, you can stand to skip it once.”

Reluctantly, he stamped it out on the loading bay and held it in hand to throw away later.

As Eiichi pushed himself off the pad, Noda eagerly backed away a few steps.

“Come on.” She coaxed him forward.

Noda led Eiichi back into the main building and up several flights of stairs. They even went straight up past the second year floor, and he became curious himself after they brushed past some first years heading down the way they came.

“What’s this about?”

“It’s not a surprise if I tell you.”

The anticipation was not exactly killing him.

The top two floors of the school contained more club rooms. A majority of the ground floor was storage rooms and faculty offices, with only a few club rooms for students, and of course the library and cafeteria. Most of the available spaces for clubs were on the last two floors. They continued up, past these, and were soon on the dark stairwell leading to the roof.

“Don’t we need a key to get up here?”

“Because I’m involved in so many clubs in this school, I was able to request one. The roof is used for other club activities, like the astronomy club, and sometimes the yoga club meets up here, so they allow special access.”

Like Noda said, she had a key, and went to work with unlocking the access door.

She pushed it open and held it for him, like she was presenting something.

Eiichi stepped out to find a large, empty roof pad, hazed over by more of the pale gold light. There was tall fencing all around the edges, standard issue for every high school to curb the suicide rates. There were a few heating and cooling generators, and some benches along the perimeter. There were even a few square flower beds with grass down their centers and additional benches on either side. The place looked more like students were allowed up here.

Beyond the fencing were large, gray clouds over the city, mountains and horizon, with the sun now peeking through. The wind blew a bit more intensely up here.

Eiichi stepped out and eyed the space. A reading from Noda told him this was it. To be honest, he was a little surprised.

“Well, what do ya think?” Noda sounded cheery.

“And you brought me up here because…”

“Well, you said you didn’t like anyone, and you don’t seem to like being around people all that much, so I thought this would be a nice place to…you know, clear your head. Do your…smoking thing or whatever.”

“It’s a bit of a climb.”

“Yeah, but it’s better than the smelly back of some cafeteria.”

He could sense there was some other ulterior motive to all this, but he didn’t want to bother with it. She had gone out of her way to do something for him. At the least, he should be appreciative.

“Now you’ll be like Shizuo-kun!” she blurted. “Or the delinquent smoking on the roof of the school in anime and manga!”

This was definitely not the ulterior motive, but it still caused Eiichi to frown.

“You’ve just gotta’ create an image for everything…”

“It’s what I do.” She winked.

He turned and let his eyes scan over everything. He could hear the trees hissing from below, as well as the traffic outside campus, which he could have done without…but it wasn’t bad…

“How did you know about this?” he asked.

“Do I really have to—”

“Okay, I get it, ya know the school like the back of your hand.”

Noda smirked at him, feeling rather pleased with this.

He approached the fencing on the right side of the doorway and looked out between the chain link.

She joined him and placed her hands on it, leaning and looking out toward the clouds.

“Kozuka-san, why do you smoke?”

She pried worse than Torio.

“Because I like it.”

“What made you start?”

“No reason. I enjoy it, it creates time for me to think, and keeps people away. After a few tries, I found out I liked it. Why do you like juice so much?”

Noda’s head whipped toward him. “How would you know that I like juice!?”

Good question.

She was getting a little close and he had to lean back.

“I saw you guzzle down two cans yesterday!”

She relaxed and gave this some thought.

“I think I see where you’re coming from…but…my vice isn’t going to kill me.”

“Anything to excess can be unhealthy. If you drink too much juice, you’ll get diarrhea.”

Her output seized up and he had to keep a straight face.

“You just had to make it gross, didn’t you…” She was wondering if she could ever drink juice again after hearing that.

He smirked. “I’m well aware of the consequences, but everyone has to die of something. The thing is, I might quit one day. Depending…”

“On what?”

The wind swept his hair back. “If I can find a good enough reason to.”

Noda turned her head and joined him in watching the light shining through the slow moving, gray structures floating over the mountains.

“Well, I hope you find that reason.”

“Asako-san…”

“Yeah?”

“Just for the record…I don’t dislike all people.”

He could feel her smiling next to him. “I know.”

 

Chapter 3

Letters and Little Brown Feathers

 

Being a tender, kind-hearted girl living in one of the higher income territories of Saitama, Reiko Morita did not expect much, and lived a life that had been a favorably average one. She had two loving and doting parents that she asked little of and always received much from. Their home was a fine, but simple one, and Reiko was satisfied with this.

Her room was simple as well, with space that was not too broad, but enough to suit her needs, and a tall ceiling that had gray walls because she had thought black would be a little too extreme. Although, she did think the black curtains over her window went really well with the gray. For decoration, she only had two paintings. One, of a stoic lighthouse looking over an ocean horizon at sunrise, on the wall above her desk. And the other, of a forest clearing, blanketed in snow, with a full moon shining over everything, on the wall next to her bed. Her bed was nestled in a corner by her window, with a folded blanket of a crescent moon and stars at its foot.

Her black cat, Cypress, always waited patiently for her when she got home from school, curled up in his spot on the blanket.

The space was always clean, not because she absolutely needed it to be, but because she liked it that way.

Reiko maintained a satisfactory grade average in school, but the only courses she excelled in were her sciences. She loved science, and along with her paintings, she had a few framed diagrams of the periodic table, galaxy systems, and the structure of the atom. Her desk usually had school work arranged on it, but she had research documentation and a few folders of studies as well. Her computer held more files of this nature, and the small bookshelf next to her desk held several mainstream titles, written by renowned researchers and experts in specific fields of study, along with a few diagnostic manuals for referencing. She even had a book on alchemy—for light reading, of course.

When Reiko was still in elementary school, her parents had noticed her acute interests, and they had bought her a few kits and experimentation sets over the years. Reiko was ecstatic and grateful for these, and she used them in frequent procession, looking over and studying the biological structures of plants in their vast backyard, observing and manipulating changes in the cell structures in condiments from their kitchen, and analyzing her and Cypress’ hairs along with anything else she could find.

During her junior high years, Reiko had gone through a forensics phase, where she had kept up with several crime solving series on television, and even read a few mystery mangas. Her parents bought her some forensic experimentation sets, along with chemicals, which they had been wary of allowing her to make use of. However, they were trusting of her meticulous and cautious nature.

Reiko had set to work with trying everything out. One of the sets came with a black light and UV glasses, which she thoroughly enjoyed making use of.

Once, while playing around with it in her room, she had coaxed a huntsman spider out of its hiding place—which caused her a considerable amount of panic—and dispatched Cypress to exterminate it. He merely batted it around before getting bored once it submitted and curled up.

She’d even had her childhood friend Sumi over to test on a few times and show her what she could do. Sumi always joked that she would grow up to be the action hero detective, while Reiko would be her intelligent science friend, helping her solve the crimes.

But this was all for fun, and by the time she started high school, Reiko had trouble figuring out which field she wished to pursue. She placed these items, along with her other experimentation materials, under her bed for future consideration.

Reiko had gone through several phases of interests since her late childhood, from astronomy to botany, basic biology, and chemistry. But something that had always piqued her interest was human anatomy. She enjoyed the muscular structure, and its ability to heal, persevere, and grow stronger, even after intense abuse. She could list all of the 206 bones in the human frame by their full Latin titles, and had been working on the same for the other structures. She was enticed by the nervous system, and how it responded to different stimuli with the secretion of fluids and neurotransmitters. Reiko did not know exactly what career she wished to pursue after high school, but one thing was certain, she knew she wanted something in human studies.

From childhood, Reiko had possessed a significant fear of the paranormal and supernatural. This of course, stuck with her well into her adolescence. Once, when she was little, she had watched a ghost film with her parents that made her especially paranoid of sleeping with her closet door open. She even stuffed a bunch of items and clothes under her bed, to be sure that nothing could find space down there to exist. Thankfully, she had Cypress to protect her over the next couple nights, only, he was a kitten at the time. When she was in junior high, she had attempted to face this fear by viewing a movie with Sumi. Sumi had chuckled as Reiko whimpered while clinging to her arm, hiding her face behind her shoulder.

Reiko had never claimed to believe in paranormal happenings. They were simply something beyond her own comprehension. She could not fathom the idea of things that could not be explained by reason and science. Through this, she attempted a short series of research on the matter, but gave up because all she discovered were tales of lore and rumors of deformed monsters roaming Japan, things that could neither be proven nor disproven. The only thing the research proved to be was another fright for her, and she hoped her computer had not become cursed, even if she didn’t believe in such things.

Though she was shy, Reiko had a number of friends in school. Sumi had been her first friend, and through her, she had met several others in junior high and when she started high school. Sumi had always been the energetic, outgoing type, with some odd interests of her own, like action films and first person shooters.

Reiko cherished her friends and they seemed to adore her, even if they could not understand her unusual interests. Most had trouble seeing why she could be so interested in what they thought was a bland and straightforward field of study that required way too much schooling.

When she wasn’t home spending time with family, researching, or studying, she was out with everyone else. They would meet after classes ended and explore new places to eat and have fun. She enjoyed this time with them, even if it could be a little discomforting for her on occasion when they went somewhere unfamiliar.

At the beginning of her first year at Aki Guro, she had been excessively nervous at first, as all kinds of fears troubled her when she started a new year at a new school. However, Sumi and her friends were her support, and eventually, everything seemed just like it was in junior high, except the uniforms had changed. She enjoyed how nicely the tan went with the black on hers. Her friends took turns marveling at how each other looked in their new wardrobe, and said Reiko’s uniform made her look mysterious with her short black hair and glasses. She liked wearing a black velvet choker with almost everything, and her friends said it was cute and alluring, though she wasn’t so sure about this.

She was now among older peers, the school was much bigger and easier to get lost in, and some of the customs had changed. Really, she was just glad that the school work was no different.

High school life was calm and simple, exactly what she hoped for, and her remaining friends from junior high had picked up where they left off, with some additional names added to their numbers.

It wasn’t until late autumn that Reiko began noticing a change. It had occurred to her when she and her friends had stopped at a café after doing karaoke. They had been seated outside and their talk had been lively as usual, when the strangest feeling crept up on her. She dismissed it at first, thinking it was just one of the sensations of discomfort she felt from time to time when in an unfamiliar place, but they had stopped at this café a few times before, which made it more inexplicable.

Reiko felt like she was being watched.

Momentarily, she looked around, while her friends conversed beyond her attention.

Maybe it was some form of intuition telling her another friend was approaching, but she didn’t see anyone she recognized. Maybe she had seen someone that she recognized earlier and her mind had been sending her a subconscious message to expect a surprise visit.

She wasn’t one to believe in psychology, actually, she wasn’t sure what her opinions of it were, based on the fact that some of the articles she had read had claimed it to be a pseudo-science.

Reiko was not typically the talker of her group, but when her friends noticed that she had become quieter than usual, the questions as to what was bothering her started. She waved them off and said it was nothing, which was followed up with replies as to how she was such a deep thinker.

The feeling did not return for the remainder of that day and she later returned home to spend some time with Cypress, casting it off as something strange that most people experienced from time to time.

It wasn’t until a few days later, while at school, that it happened again. She met with a few of her friends that morning before classes started, and was talking about the upcoming tests. The weather was definitely getting colder, but the trees around the school still had a healthy showing of foliage, one of the many prides of the campus.

Reiko suddenly began feeling very self-conscious, like when she was being recorded with a camera, and she turned immediately, peering around the open space of the entrance path.

None of the students stood out. There were a few groups standing around the blankets of foliage, but no one seemed to be doing anything out of the ordinary.

Again, she waved it off and tried to think nothing more of it.

The feeling persisted to return on occasion. Sometimes it was during lunch, sometimes while walking home. It even occurred once when she was in the library, and after frantically checking her area, she left immediately.

It continued, and the intervals of time from one instance to the next became shorter and shorter. Eventually, Reiko became tense all the time. Constantly, she felt as though eyes were on her. She began keeping the curtains to her window closed, which made it difficult sometimes for her to wake up in the morning. She stopped going on her late evening walks, and missed being able to watch the stars appear as the sun was setting, while the street lamps in her neighborhood flitted to lumination. She requested that she and her friends eat inside the school’s cafeteria a few times. When this didn’t work, she either relied on their company to comfort herself, or said she had something to take care of, and ate alone in her classroom. She rarely went out with them after school, and usually stated she had errands to run and then went straight home. This concerned them, and a few times she received many questions at once that she painfully could not answer with full honesty.

Mid-November became late December. She celebrated Christmas and New Years with her relatives, and felt reasonably safe. When it came time for school to start again in January, she could not go. She feigned fatigue or illness and managed to skip a day or two, though the thought of having to deal with this while at school did not make her feel well to begin with. A few times, she forced herself to go, but it eventually boiled down to the realization that she would have to tell her parents everything.

When she did, they had trouble understanding what she was conveying, but were supportive nonetheless, and decided she should speak with a therapist.

Reiko did not want this, but she did not argue against it. She thought maybe it would help. She was not willing to blatantly declare that people did not suffer from mental disorders. The thought that this might be her case sent horrible shivers through her body. Maybe psychology and therapists could help her out in this part of her life, where she didn’t have the answers. Maybe there was some form of solid evidence that this was simply her imagination latching on to a thought and running wild with it.

After Reiko explained what her life had been like and how it had changed, the therapist could not give her a solid answer. After a few more sessions, the therapist came to a diagnosis that she was suffering with some simple anxiety, due to stress and her age, and that the paranoia was a result of her mind wanting to subconsciously create a more active lifestyle that was contrary to her quiet one. Reiko was prescribed a mild dose of an anti-depressant that would calm her and allow her to feel more like herself.

Her parents drove her to pick up the prescription, and after they returned home, Reiko went quietly to her room and closed the door.

She sat on her bed and stared at the pill capsule in her hands. Cypress was curled up in his spot and purring, just happy to have her home.

“Why is this happening to me, Cypress?”

She looked at her furry best friend. His lush, green eyes shut and opened slowly in response.

“How can something like this just happen to someone?”

The pills worked, and in a short time, Reiko found herself joyfully spending time with her friends again. She never told them, not even when they asked what had been bothering her, and made up a lie that she had not been feeling well. Her hope was that in time, she could be weaned off of the anti-depressants, and that things could go completely back to normal.

And then, Reiko received a phone call.

She had been in her room with Cypress, lying in the dark and watching a favorite show on her phone, when the show was interrupted and the screen lit up with an incoming call prompt. It was some random number she didn’t know.

It could have been a wrong number, or one of her friends calling from a new phone.

She flipped the answer button.

“Hello?”

There was no voice on the other end. The line was silent.

“Who is this?”

Still no answer…

Click…

Her phone played the short call ended jingle.

She figured it must have been a wrong number. Wrong number calls happened all the time where the other line hung up without a word. It had happened to her a few times when she got her first phone. It was a good thing she was on the medication, or her mind might start spinning this in all sorts of ways.

Her days continued in their calm lull, until late January, when the letters came.

The first one was found on her doorstep.

She had been leaving to meet up with her friends when she stepped out and her eyes glided over an envelope lying on the doormat. It was just a plain, white envelope. However, it was addressed to her, with only her name written on the front in such detail and elegance that it might as well have been stamped.

She picked it up and looked it over. There was a pleasant smell coming from it, but she didn’t know what the fragrance was.

Her medication had been holding up well in maintaining her delicate mood, but upon gazing at the fine penmanship of the only characters in the center of the page, spelling out her first name, she could feel slight pricks of curious fear moving up her spine.

She didn’t leave and instead brought it inside to find her dad’s letter opener.

She brought them to the dining room table and opened the envelope.

The parchment the letter was written on had been folded with very fine creases, and the handwriting was just as elegant. There were no lines on the parchment, but the characters seemed to remain in file, as if there had been.

‘I have admired you from afar for so long…’

She wasn’t sure what she was reading. It didn’t seem real. For a few moments, the letter in her hands, the sofa she sat on, the coffee table, the room she was in, and the house, did not seem real at all. She had noticed how cold her fingers felt as her eyes darted across the page from behind her glasses. The writing was only long enough to take up the one page. Her name was only mentioned the one time. When she finished, she realized the writer had not left a signature, only the promise that he would ‘see her soon.’

 

 

She suddenly realized she was alone. Her parents had gone out for the day. She was alone, where anything could happen to her, and she had left the front door unlocked.

The letter floated under the coffee table as she rushed to the front door to find it thankfully, still closed. She locked it and checked through the peep hole, before proceeding to run through the house and check all of the doors and windows. While running to the stairs, she took her phone out and speed dialed her mother. Cypress came rushing past to join her in her only safe haven.

She shut the door, locked it, and raised the cell to her ear to hear that it was still dialing. Cypress jumped up on the bed as she thrust the curtains shut. The receiver murmured in her ear as she wrapped herself in her covers.

When her mother answered, she couldn’t stop herself from talking in hysterics with tears escaping, begging them to come home and saying everything she could about the letter.

He’s real! He’s real! He’s coming to get me, I’m so scared mom! Please help me!” she sobbed into the speaker.

Her mother’s voice did everything it could to calm her. It assured her they were on their way home immediately, but she needed to get off the line so they could call the police. Her mother said they should both make the call, and that when Reiko was finished, she should call her back and stay on the line. Reiko forced herself to comply with this, not wanting to be separated from the comfort of her mother’s voice in case something did happen.

Reiko called emergency services and explained everything again, while trying to keep her voice level. They said a unit would be by the house shortly.

After the call ended, Cypress crawled close to her and curled up in front of her chest. Instead of redialing her mother, she set the phone down by her pillow, and hugged him, feeling his purring close to her frame.

After several indefinite, eternal minutes later, the doorbell rang throughout the house. Reiko didn’t get up, but held Cypress tighter.

A minute later, her phone rang. It was her mother telling her they were outside and the police were at the door.

Her parents were the first ones to knock at her room. They held her as she was escorted down the stairs, which felt like a distant object she could not quite connect with.

She was seated with her mother on the couch. One of the officers spoke with her father while two others searched through the house and checked the entrances. They questioned her and her mother. Then the letter and envelope were gathered and examined. They were regular peace officers and could not make much of it, other than that it had been, subjectively, a threat to Reiko.

After securing the home, one officer said they would submit the letter to evidence. Reiko’s father requested that one of them stay behind to keep watch over the house, but was denied, and the officer explained that no one had seen who sent the letter, and there was no present threat of damage to the home, or its owners. They assured them that it was likely a harmless prank or that someone was indeed in love with their daughter, and left.

Reiko decided not to take the meds anymore, they dulled her senses. It was only a day before the effects wore off, and all of the paranoid horror came back with a fury.

Reiko could never be alone, especially when she went out. Unlike before, when solitude had been the best way to clear her head and recuperate, now she absolutely had to be around people. Only now, people were watching her everywhere. Every time she turned, she thought she saw someone looking at her, and every time, it was a different person. Some days, she skipped school, with permission from her parents, and others, she had to be coaxed out of bed.

Her friends only saw her at school, and asked why she insisted on being so close to them while avoiding them afterward. She only expressed that she was going through a tough time, and they did whatever they could to support her. They texted her individually on occasion to ask what had happened. She would talk with them and ask about what everyone else was doing, and tried to avoid the subject.

Keeping her secret finally became too agonizing, and she managed to tell them everything that had happened to her. They reacted with perplexed worry, but said they would do anything they could to help her. A few times, they insisted upon visiting her at home, which she obliged, but felt distant and uncomfortable during their few visits, knowing it would only be temporary, and would not solve her problems.

Her school work became cumbersome, but she still managed to pull through without too much harm to her grades. It was the only way she could escape. She no longer had the urge to do her passion, which sat on her book shelves and under her bed, collecting dust.

The second letter came in early February. It was in her shoe locker at school. The third was on Valentine’s Day, in her desk.

He knew exactly where she was, at every moment of the day.

She received chocolates from all her friends, who wished her well and told her that they were doing their best. She knew they were, but they were never going to find him. She didn’t tell them about the letters. She didn’t know where this was going, or what was going to happen next.

The fourth came in early March.

They were all written in the same fine print, all smelling the same. The only thing that changed was the use of her name.

I want to be with you, Reiko.’ ‘Reiko! My love is only for Reiko!’ ‘I made something for my Reiko, I can’t wait for my Reiko to see it.’ ‘My love, it will never end for my Reiko.

The sentences spiraled and merged together, some talking to her, most talking of her, like she was no longer a person.

For every one, the police were called, and every time, the questions rained down with no answers.

The phone calls continued as well. Reiko was being called two or three times a week, some from random numbers she had never seen, some were repeats. The police told her never to answer an unfamiliar number, but that was pretty much all they did. How did he have her number?

Her parents had to set up a system, so that whenever they needed to leave the house, one stayed with her, while the other left. Sometimes she would go with them, but was extremely cautious and clung close to them, feeling like a child. Her mother began talking about quitting her job so she could stay home most of the time. It tore Reiko apart inside that this was what her family was being reduced to, and she pleaded with her mother not to do it.

Graduation came, and then spring break.

She didn’t leave the house during the break. Her friends kept in contact, and wished she could join them, but she just couldn’t. They promised her they would save their spring trip for next year, and she pleaded futilely for them to not let her situation ruin their time.

The only times she did leave the house were if she was with her mom to go shopping.

One evening, after getting back, Reiko was helping her unload groceries. They were on their way to the kitchen, when both their eyes laid on the broken pane of their back door, sitting wide open.

“Call the police,” Reiko’s mother ordered, but Reiko was immediately worried about something else.

Cypress!

“No, Reiko! We have to get out of the house!”

Reiko didn’t listen, and ran upstairs as fast as she could. When she made it, she found him curled under her bed, next to her chemistry boxes.

He mewed at her and she thought she might pass out from the relief.

She pulled him out and held him close. Cypress kept mewing. It was apparent something had scared him.

Reiko’s mother called the police and then Reiko’s father, who dropped work and came straight home.

The police performed a haphazard search with her father and found nothing missing. A few had been to their house several times before, and had become skeptical. The lead officer spoke with Reiko’s father, and after clearing things up, mentioned offhand that if the family was creating false reports, they could be fined by the city. Reiko’s father was outraged, and began questioning them on what they had done so far to look into this. They left while he was still in a heat.

Minutes later, her father sat on the couch to comfort her while her mother went to make tea for everyone. Reiko’s phone had been lying on the coffee table when it rang. Her father got to it before she could, and answered.

In an instant, he was on his feet and had walked around the coffee table and stopped.

“Oh, you think this is funny? You think it’s funny!? I’m gonna’ kill you!!! You son of a bitch!!! Stop terrorizing my daughter!!! The police will never find your body, because there’ll be nothing left!!! If it’s the last thing I do!!!

This was the angriest she had ever seen her father. There were tears streaming down his cheeks.

After he hung up, he walked over to her and knelt.

He apologized and then said, he was going to keep her phone for her own sake. Reiko understood unequivocally, and did not argue the matter.

Later that evening, her mother put her to bed, like she had done so many times when Reiko was a little girl, speaking kindly to her that everything would be fine, while stroking her hair. Cypress curled up next to her head, and when her mother shut the door, Reiko turned to face him.

“Hey…” her still voice whispered, tears rolling across the bridge of her nose.

She stroked his ears in the dark, and listened to his relaxed purrs. If she looked hard enough, she thought she could still see the green of his eyes.

“I wish you could talk…I wish you could tell me what you saw…”

The next day, she reached for her hair brush and found it was missing.

Sometime, still during spring break, her mother got it in her head that Reiko should not spend her entire break cooped up inside. She sat down with Reiko in her room, and upon her mentioning this, Reiko tried her best to stay calm, but disagreed. Her mother took her in her arms, smoothed her hair and told her that staying inside like this was giving this person all of the control. Reiko didn’t want to go anywhere, and kept silent while clinging to her. Her mother said she would not be alone, that her friends had missed her, and wanted to see her. She needed to face her fears of going out. If this person was indeed following her, then she was only making it easy for him by staying in one place.

With extreme hesitance, using her mom’s cell, Reiko called Sumi, and asked if she was doing anything or already out. She received an ecstatic reply and Sumi said she would love to come get her and go out.

Sumi took the liberty of calling everyone that could make it and they all traveled to Reiko’s house to pick her up.

What they did was like on any normal day, with nothing particularly special taking place, but Reiko still had trouble avoiding her paranoia and escaping the sensation of feeling out of place, as if she did not belong.

Like any girl her age, Reiko wished her first love, one that was genuine, had come by a real love letter, or personal confession. The kind of love that she saw in TV shows and anime.

This, what was happening, was not how she imagined it.

Personally, Reiko had trouble seeing how she could ever be fit for someone else, how she could be attractive enough to a male to conjure their interest. She spent a lot of time indoors with her studies and school work. She didn’t have a very appealing figure, she wore glasses, and she was not as outgoing as her friends. If she didn’t have them, she would have stayed inside most of the time, reading her research articles, and tinkering with her chemicals and lab equipment. Who could ever be attracted to her?

She counted herself lucky that her friends were the type of people to accept someone like her.

They promised her that next spring would be amazing, and all this would just be a bad memory. For the time being, they wanted to take her to as many places as possible, and spend everything they had in their pockets for her. It made her tense up with sobbing, and they did their best to comfort her.

Reiko tried to pull herself together. This was the only day she would get to spend time with them this spring. She had to make it count.

They took her to as many shops and places to eat as they could. They didn’t stop at any one place for longer than half an hour before moving on to the next. Reiko thought her head might spin until she got sick, with all the places she had not seen in so long being visited at such a quick pace.

They were on their way to a shoe shop when Reiko stopped dead in her tracks.

It came to her in a scent. She knew it too well, and while everyone continued ahead of her, she turned and looked frantically, checking her surroundings for anyone that seemed out of place. She didn’t see them, but suddenly realized she had been walking past a flower boutique that was having a sale, and had a broad display of their goods that she would have found beautiful if she had not felt so neurotic. She had been walking past one of the displays that the scent wafted from most potently.

Next to a table of flower beds was a tree in a pot that was tall enough to loom over her. Large clusters of purple petals, like clusters of grapes, hung from the ends of the branches.

It was the same smell as from the letters.

She knew this tree, and had taken a liking to it when she went through her botany phase. In her occasional drive for research, she always came across it in her compilation of favorites. However, she couldn’t remember the name.

She looked at the display card. ‘Wisteria’. She reached out and took hold of the nearest cluster, and brought it to her nose. It was unmistakable.

She stared at it, and before she knew what she was doing, she had worked her thumb on one of the vines and broke off a small cluster of blooms. She placed it under her nose again.

She wanted to leave it, she wanted to never go near another tree like this again. A voice in her head kept telling her that this tree, this smell, had been the cause for all of her anguish, all of her suffering. She wanted to cast the blossoms down and crush them under her shoes, and it hurt…

She placed the blooms in the pocket under her sweater. She didn’t know why. They would eventually wilt, and the smell would thin until it was gone.

“Rei-chan! Come on!”

Her friends had noticed she wasn’t with them and were calling her back.

She left the tree. She didn’t want to see it again…but inside, she knew this wasn’t true.

When her second year started, she felt she didn’t have the energy for it. The whole year seemed like a long, agonizing road that she was being forced to trek, not to mention her third year…if she survived that long.

She received more letters. She didn’t even bother opening them now. She wanted to burn them, but the first of this next group, she had received shortly after she collected the wisteria blooms. She didn’t say anything about the letter to her parents, and took it to her room. She took the wisterias out of the drawer in her desk, and sat on her bed.

She placed the wisterias under her nose, and then the envelope. It was no doubt, they were the same, only the scent on the letter had been fresh and more potent than the actual flowers. It was obvious, just like she figured before, that he had been using a perfume.

She didn’t really see the point in doing this. She didn’t know why, what good was it going to do?

After putting the wisterias back in the drawer, she lifted her mattress. Cypress jumped off and she placed the letter neatly on the mattress support.

When she turned, she saw he had been standing on the floor, watching her keenly.

“It’s just in case…” she said to him.

  • * *

The new phone on Reiko’s nightstand blurted out its default alarm jingle. Cypress was there to greet her as well, brushing his head against her face to make her get up and stop the horrendous noise. She really missed the music she’d set to play on her old phone’s alarm, but had not been able to muster the energy to bother with uploading all her music onto this new one. Maybe she would ask her dad for the memory card from it sometime.

She sat up sluggishly in the dark, blinking dim eyes and peering. She didn’t bother with the curtains. She hadn’t for a long time.

She let Cypress out so he could use the pan, and then shuffled back in after shutting the door. Her mother had bought her a new comb, and she sat at her desk, vacantly brushing her hair before putting on her uniform.

She used to spruce up a little more. Even if she thought it wouldn’t provide much of an appeal, she still enjoyed doing it, but now, she never bothered. Tending to her hair and teeth was all she could manage, now.

She slipped on her uniform and her favorite velvet choker, along with a pair of black stockings that she always thought made a nice addition.

Downstairs, her mother already had breakfast made. Reiko fed Cypress, and then herself, taking slow bites of egg and rice, not sure if she could finish all of it. They used to have tea with breakfast, but her mother had moved on to coffee, to try and help keep Reiko’s energy up. She always finished the coffee and milk, but rarely and regretfully, all of the food.

So that Reiko’s mom wouldn’t have to quit her job, Sumi always came by Reiko’s house to pick her up so they could walk to school together. The first few times, Sumi’s greeting words had been, “Don’t worry Rei-chan. We’re gonna’ catch this guy. And when we do, he’s going to pay, with fire!”

Sumi had always been loud and energetic. Reiko could never get into the action-packed movies and anime she watched, but liked how much she enjoyed them. She wouldn’t change a thing about Sumi if she could. She had always been amused by her determination, but this amusement would be over quickly, and doubt would just be there to meet her again.

After Reiko and Sumi made it to their room, Reiko approached her desk and checked the interior. She had already done the same with her shoe locker.

Seeing nothing there, she sat down and talked with Sumi until class started.

Reiko did her best to pay attention during lectures, but often caught herself staring at the surface of her desk. Between classes, she only left if it was with Sumi, to get drinks from the vending machine or use the facilities.

At lunch, they met with everyone else at what had become their regular spot to sit at in the cafeteria. They were the largest group in the room. Everyone else ate in the classrooms or outside. Reiko knew this was because of her, but her friends had expressed before that they didn’t mind.

The six of them grouped around one table, grabbing extra chairs.

“So, have you heard about that new action flick coming out?” Sumi asked, taking her seat next to Reiko.

Reiko quietly opened her bento and began eating slowly with her set of specialty made hashi from home.

“You mean the one about the father who takes revenge for his daughter’s death?” Yoko asked from Sumi’s right. Reiko and Sumi had been friends with Yoko since junior high.

Moeko, sitting across from Sumi, broke apart her disposable hashi and placed them on her bento. “Honestly Sumi, I don’t know why you like action movies so much.”

Reiko had always admired her for her bold attitude and style. She imagined Moeko was someone who had a lot of experience with relationships and boys, since she talked with a lot of them and seemed to know so much. She was popular, and the kind of person Reiko imagined should have been the least likely to be her friend, and yet she was always so nice to her.

“Stop being such a pragmatist,” Sumi retaliated. “Since when is it wrong for girls to like action movies?”

“Since the dawn of society. You need to be more ladylike.”

“If I used my spoon, I think I could hit you with rice from here.”

“You’re just proving my point. And eating with a spoon, as opposed to hashi, is not exactly ladylike either.”

“It’s easier!” Sumi smiled and shoveled more rice into her mouth. “Sho anywaysh, I heard it’sh really intensh.”

“Ugh, please don’t talk with your mouth full…” Moeko cradled her head.

Sumi continued, “He’s former secret service or some military operative. After his daughter is killed, he probably does the whole lock n’ load thing, and—”

“Boooriiing…” Moeko droned.

“That sounds rather dramatic…” Akane muttered from her seat next to Sumi.

“What’s boring about—”

“Sumi, you might want to tone it down.” Kammie gave her a hard glance and then looked at Reiko.

Reiko had stopped eating after feeling a rush through her frame that left her numb. Her hand was tingling and rested on the edge of her bento, the hashi dangling over the contents.

“I’m sorry Rei-chan…” Sumi whimpered.

I’ll kill you!!! If it’s the last thing I do!!!

She figured coincidence…could be a morbid and cruel thing.

“Everything’s going to be alright, Reiko,” Yoko muttered.

“Yeah, you’ll see,” Akane said. “Everyone goes through something tough, it just takes time.”

“This sicko, he’s nothing but a leech!” Moeko spoke heatedly and looked up from brooding at her lunch. “I’ve looked up this stuff online. He leeches off people. And if he’s not found, he’ll just get bored and move on. And eventually, he will be caught. He’ll leave you alone, Reiko. I’m certain of it.”

These were not too different from other things they had said. They were kind and sympathetic, but temporary. It didn’t fix anything.

“Yeah…” Reiko lifted her head. “Thank you, everyone. It’s okay Sumi, you’re just being a good friend.”

Sumi lowered her head, “Thanks Rei-chan…”

Reiko thought Kammie was very wise. She was always calm and kind, and she only became tense when someone began acting rashly, in which case she would speak out or mediate their group. She was very beautiful, and Reiko thought of her and Moeko as the most attractive members of their group, as well as the most dominant. They always took care of things. Sumi had been the first to meet Kammie and then introduced her to Reiko and Yoko. They later met Moeko and Akane through her.

Two male uniforms approached from behind Kammie’s seat in high spirits.

“Hey everybody! Hey sis!”

The one who greeted them was fair-haired, with a few locks hanging over his eyes.

“Dai-kun, Shun-chan, how are you today?” Kammie popped her gaze up at him.

“Hey guys,” Yoko and Akane greeted.

“Ugh…” Moeko exhaustedly rested her chin in her hand.

“Hey Daisetsu!” Sumi waved.

Kammie continued cheerily, “I didn’t see you before leaving home. You’re always running off without saying good morning.”

“Yeah well, Shunmyo called early this morning and I had to go.”

Reiko kept her eyes to her bento. She didn’t really mean to be rude. She had known about Kammie’s brother and some of his friends for as long as she had known Kammie. Being in the presence of boys had always made her nervous, but before everything had started happening, she could handle it. Now, she was absolutely terrified of any boy she barely knew, which was pretty much all of them.

“Shun-chan…” Kammie smiled with a nod to the side. “You better not be trading dirty pictures with my brother. If he gets the reputation of being a pervert, your future may undergo worse circumstances…”

“N-No! I swear, Seyama!” Shunmyo panicked. “I had an assignment that was due today and didn’t know what to do!”

“Hmm…I’ll allow it.”

The boy scratched the back of his head, “Jeez Kammie, you don’t have to be so intense. Your brother is the most straight-laced guy I know.”

“Intense? I did not realize I was behaving that way,” Kammie pondered.

“So, Moeko…” Shunmyo smoothed his way over to her chair. “Do you like action movies? ‘Cause I got enough for two tickets.”

“Back off Shunmyo. What is this, the fifth time? When are you going to learn, no means ‘no’?”

“I thought it was the fourth.”

“So you’ve been counting…”

He jumped down to his knees, “Just one time, c’mon! You might be surprised, I clean up pretty good.”

“Begging? Talk about pathetic. If you can find a way to douse your soul in bleach, then maybe I’ll consider going on one date with you.”

“Why are the beautiful ones always so cruel!?”

Ooh! Rejected!” Sumi said.

Shunmyo jumped up on his feet, “At least I know I have a chance! You don’t even act like girlfriend material!”

Reiko kept quiet, not sure how to handle all this.

“Hey Rei-chan, how is everything?” Daisetsu looked over to her with concern in his voice.

“I’m fine…h-how are you, Seyama?”

He smiled, looking content and oblivious, a trait Reiko actually found somewhat sweet, as if nothing bad was really happening. It made her feel like everything was normal like it used to be.

“I’m good. Just the usual, ya know?”

She felt she could smile a little at this.

“Sis tells me you’ve been getting out more. It sounds like things are starting to die down.”

“Yes, I think so. Nothing has happened for a while.”

“Hey, when it’s all over, we should all go out and do something as a group. I’m sure it’ll cheer you up.”

“That would be nice.”

“Dai-kun,” Kammie said, to call his attention. “You’re ready for your history exam, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it…” he droned.

“I’m just making sure you’re not slacking. This is your final year, I don’t want you held back.”

“Don’t worry about it, I can handle it.”

After the two left, the group huddled back to their discussion.

“That’s amazing, how you two can be so close,” Moeko said to Kammie. She had taken the straw out of her drink and was chewing on it while she talked. “It’s hard enough for me just to keep my brother and sister in line. You’re older than him and yet you act like his nanny.”

“I guess it’s just the closeness in our ages,” Kammie said pleasantly. “Though he’s a senior, he’s always been the more active one, and I always felt it was my duty to make sure he stays out of trouble.”

“But, what’s with all that ‘Dai-kun’ stuff?” Yoko asked. “Isn’t Onii-chan good enough?”

“Haha, well, that’s just how my family is,” Kammie chuckled.

“Why don’t you want to go out with Shunmyo, Moe-tan~” Sumi teased. “I’m sure you two would be perfect together.”

Moeko glowered. “Shut up, Sumi. Not that you would understand, but it’s because he’s just like any other guy in this school. Low brow and needy. A girl needs someone who stands out.”

“I think all of the guys that stand out are low brow, are you sure that’s not what you’re looking for?”

“Low brow is probably all you could accomplish, so maybe you should go out with him.”

“I’m not the one he’s asking.”

“Let’s change the subject, shall we?” Moeko clapped her hands together. “So, do you think they’re going to catch that cell phone thief yet?”

“I’ve heard it’s become worse. Five people this week,” said Kammie.

“Man, this guy is good. I wonder how much you can get for a used phone,” Yoko said.

“Probably not a lot. Though I guess they can always format it to get rid of the personal stuff,” said Sumi.

Moeko pointed, “Tech-girl over here, another unladylike quality.”

Shut-up, Moe-chan!

“You want some candy to calm that attitude of yours?”

Mmmph!” Sumi puffed out her cheeks.

“Or maybe that’s why they’re stealing them,” Kammie pondered. “You have no idea the kind of private stuff people keep on their phones.”

“Oh, that is just wrong,” Moeko blurted.

“Why, Moe-tan~?” Sumi stroked her chin and smirked at her. “You got something you don’t want to share~?”

“You had better not go peeking into my phone. I will draw all over that goofy face of yours and take pictures.”

Reiko spoke up, “But I wonder who it could be?”

Kammie pondered some more. “I don’t know…this is such a big school, which means there are a lot of suspicious characters.”

“If I can think of one that stands out…” Moeko crossed her arms and seemed to be thinking really hard.

Kammie followed up, “You’re thinking of Kozuka, right?”

“Yeah!” Moeko snapped her fingers. “That’s the one!”

“I dunno’…” Sumi muttered. “He sounds scary and all, but maybe we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.”

“Maybe, but he just seems like someone I wouldn’t want to be caught with,” said Moeko.

“Oh really, and just who have you been caught with~?” Sumi picked.

Moeko’s knuckles turned white around her hashi as steam rose from her head. “You little…I meant in the platonic sense!”

“We don’t know him. We have no idea what he could be capable of…” Kammie’s expression hardened, as her eyes shifted over the group.

Kammie’s serious tone, a rare happening, made Reiko a little uneasy.

She continued, “But seriously, watch out for him. I’ve heard he stares at people for no reason and it’s really creepy.”

“Oh man, that gives me the chills.” Moeko hugged herself and shivered.

“Why does he do that?” Reiko asked.

“Maybe he thinks he’s reading their minds or something,” said Akane.

Moeko laughed, “Haha! I wouldn’t be surprised. He must have a pretty sad life to be that lost to reality.”

“Or…maybe he’s deranged,” Sumi’s eyes became leery, “and wishes death upon total strangers, and it’s only a matter of time before he snaps.”

“Yeah! Just go ahead and make it dark, Sumi! You know I hate horror stuff!” This was the first time anyone got a rise out of Kammie.

Reiko muttered her question, “Everyone talks about this Kozuka guy, but…have any of you ever seen him?”

Moeko brushed it off, “I don’t know, he’s kind of an urban legend. I’m pretty sure he exists.”

“Haha, are you sure he’s not made up?” said Sumi.

“Of course I’m sure! Several people have seen him, it’s not like he’s a Noppera-bō. Come on, I know this is a big campus, but how hard can it be to spot one, lone, weirdo?”

“Reiko, are you okay?”

Kammie noticed she had clammed up again.

“It must have been when you mentioned the Noppera-bō, idiot,” Sumi fired.

“Shut up, Sumi,” Moeko flashed a glare. “Come on Reiko, you’re a woman of science, there’s no way you believe in any of that stuff.”

She was already paranoid enough, the last thing she needed was supernatural talk.

Reiko raised her head, “I…I know. Um…H-How is anyone supposed to avoid him if they don’t know what he looks like?”

Kammie inserted her point, “Well, I heard he doesn’t wear his uniform properly and gets a lot of complaints from the faculty about it, so that might stand out.”

Sumi furrowed her eyebrows, “At this school? I’ve seen a couple of the delinquents do that.” Then she chuckled, “One time, this guy came to school without a shirt. It was funny watching him get kicked off campus.”

Kammie continued, “Well, he’s also always alone. I have a friend who’s in his class that says he just up and disappears during lunch.”

Reiko looked to Kammie, “Well, if she’s seen him, she knows what he looks like.”

“Yeah, umm…” Kammie folded her arms and touched her chin. “…wavy, black hair…yellow eyes…average height, kinda’ skinny, and I think he has a mustache or a goatee.”

Moeko went back to her bento. “No matter how you look at him, there’s something suspicious going on there. He sounds guilty from every angle to me.”

  • * *

When classes ended, Reiko collected her things in her tote bag and was ready to leave, but Sumi said she needed to talk to their math teacher about an assignment she hadn’t done so well on.

“Okay, I’ll be waiting in the entrance hall.”

“Wait, are you sure?” Sumi gave her a worried look.

“I…” Reiko’s quiet voice faltered. “I think I’ll be okay. I should start stretching out more. Nothing has happened for a while, and there are plenty of people there now.”

Sumi sighed, “Um, okay…just gimme’ a call if you need anything.”

“I will.”

The masses of other students moved ahead of her in the halls. She paid close attention to all of them, to make sure no one got too close.

She could see how much trouble this had been causing her friends, as well. They were each going to great lengths to help her without any complaint. Each of them tried their best to make sure she was not letting this get to her, and it had been helping, if only a little. She could not imagine where she would be without them while dealing with this. Probably at home, with the only two people who showed her more love than anyone.

She wanted to do something for them. It could be anything, just to show their efforts had not been in vain. She just had to think of something.

She let this thought lift her spirit and carry her all the way to her shoe locker. There were still droves of Aki Guro uniforms on the move to leave school and enjoy the rest of their day.

The aisle where her locker was located was the one against the wall on the right. There were not normally many students in this aisle, and right now, there were only five. Her locker was on the second row up from the bottom.

She brushed past two students and made it there when she noticed something that was a little out of place for the inside of a school. She wondered if someone had brought an animal in for some kind of presentation, or maybe there was an…animal club here?

The object that had conjured this line of thought was the brown feather lying at her feet. The school probably had a rule against students bringing animals, which made this all the more bizarre. Maybe a bird had somehow flown in through the doorway, or got in through the ventilation.

While contemplating this, she knelt down, undid the combination to her locker and unlatched the door.

Tiny and motionless, a body of more of the same brown feathers lay in the open space provided by her shoes having been pushed further back. A hazy, blue marble of an eye, that had once been black and glossy, was now satined over by death. The white chest didn’t move, and the black beak gaped open slightly, frozen in its final cries, its wings hugging its gentle frame for protection.

Reiko’s tote bag hit the floor, her back slammed up against the lockers behind her. Chest heaving, she tried repeatedly to draw breath. Her vision clouded in fine, sparkling shades around the lifeless body inside her shoe locker. She whimpered and raised her hands in front of her face, but she could not see them.

VNNN!

Ahh!

Her phone had vibrated inside her skirt.

When she reached for it, she noticed the people on both sides of her were staring.

Her trembling hand drew it out and opened the text message she had received, not remembering to check the sender.

‘Do you like it? My little lark? You look so beautiful in your uniform.’

He was here! He was here right now, watching her!

How did he get my number again!? How!?

A sob erupted from her chest, but her throat was so dry, it had turned into a squeak. The words on her phone’s screen blurred into black splotches against its background.

No matter what she did, she could not escape him. Her world was no longer her own. He owned it all.

The next thing she knew, she was running, phone still in hand. She had glided past the other students without even remembering it and was headed for the corner to her left. Around here would be the faculty offices. She couldn’t trust anyone, but she had to tell someone.

She made it to the corner, and was about to turn, when there were two people walking in her direction. As soon as she saw them, she realized she was moving too fast and didn’t have time to dodge away.

“Whoa!”

It had been a guy and a girl, walking side by side, and in her attempt to evade, she collided with one of them, her shoulder impacting his arm and causing her to lose what little balance she still possessed. Her legs fled out from under her, and she was on the floor.

She couldn’t risk being in a vulnerable position like this, and pushed herself up immediately.

“Are you okay…?”

The voice sounded tense. She looked up and trembled.

The guy had offered a hand that seemed to be trembling as well, but the other was clutching a head of black, wavy hair. Yellow eyes winced at her, in a face that looked like it was in pain.

It was him! It had to be him! The one her friends had warned her about!

Suddenly, the eyes opened up wide and stared at her, his mouth gaping.

Why was he staring at her like that!? Was he the stalker!?

She whimpered and pushed herself away from him. She didn’t want him to move any closer. If he did, she might lose all control and scream.

“Wait, wait!” the girl behind him stepped around. “Are you alright? Let us help.”

Reiko grabbed her phone, got up and ran down the hall as fast as she could, gasping for air, everything whipping past her in a blur.

“Hey! Wait!”

It didn’t matter where she went, nowhere was safe, but she had to tell someone.

She just wanted to see her mom again.

Chapter 4

Its Own Voice

 

“Whoa! Okay, big guy…”

Eiichi slumped forward, nearly falling on his face. Suddenly, nothing wanted to stay vertical. It took the quick efforts of Noda to grab him by the arm and lug him over to the wall where he could sit. And sit he did, leaning his back against the wall and sliding all the way down until he was planted on the floor.

Noda adjusted her camera strap. “He faces off against a bunch of blood-thirsty delinquents, and goes down because of one girl.”

Eiichi groaned with his hand in his hair. “I have my reasons…”

“Uh-huh, you don’t look so hot, are you feeling okay?”

“Why, do I look that bad?” he grumbled, trying not to sound as dazed as he really was.

“You look like you’ve been working the graveyard shift…the real one. Did you catch a cold and not tell me?”

“Like I’m supposed to tell you every little change that happens to my body?”

“A heads-up would be nice. You were fine until that girl bumped into you.”

He had seen a good deal. Just from those few moments of laying eyes on her, he knew she was in a state of constant, predominant fear. There was the forlornness of being just another statistic within the police database, with hundreds of questions unanswered. She felt loss, that her old life had been stolen from her. She felt paranoia, the things that had once been peaceful had now become a threat to her.

Her mind had fed him images of disturbing letters, the smells of flowers, and frequent, alarming phone calls. The most prominent of them all had been what was awaiting him and Noda around the corner right now. These messages only came in fragments, and there were important things he had not been able to get a good grasp of. Her name was Reiko. That he was sure of, it had been written enough times on the letters, and he could feel the terrifying disgust at the sight of her own name being used in such a possessive way.

What she did not know, or maybe it just wasn’t as clear to her as it should be, was that her life was in imminent danger.

Eiichi raised his head. “Where did she go?”

“She ran off that way, and she was really scared of you.”

“Figures…”

“Well don’t get all depressed about it, Mister ‘I don’t care what people think’.”

Eiichi ignored this. “Her tote bag must be around that corner. She didn’t have it with her.”

Thankfully, Noda didn’t pick up on just how bizarrely intuitive this sounded. He said this knowing what Noda was going to see next. He figured he’d wait here and let her take a look until he could stand again.

“Yep, here it is,” she called from around the corner. “Uh…Eiichi…”

Might as well play along, “Yeah?”

“When you’re done feeling queasy, you better come take a look at this…”

He didn’t want to keep her waiting, and shoved himself up. His head didn’t hurt now, but that girl Reiko’s output had hit him harder than he thought, and he had to lean against the wall.

Around the corner, Noda had been standing among a few other students, all near the open shoe locker. She had the tote bag in her hand.

The rest of them were staring at him, since Noda had called a name that seemed to ring negatively in everyone’s ears.

Eiichi placed his hand on the shoe lockers and guided himself over. The spite and disdain washed over him then.

“Alright, alright, go home, get outta’ the way, dammit…”

He didn’t even have to push through. The small crowd dispersed at his words, seeing that he was not in a good mood and was just as interested in what they had been looking at.

He sauntered over, next to Noda. The lockers behind her banged when the weight of his shoulder hit them, and he gazed at the girl’s open locker, the dead lark lying inside.

“Well that’s fucked up…”

“You’re telling me…” Noda wrung the handle of the bag. “This explains a lot.”

“Bad way to start her second year.”

“Do you think it’s a prank?”

“If it is, it’s a really disturbing one…”

“People can be pretty cruel.”

His instability was beginning to wear off, and he felt able to approach the locker and kneel. He peered at the bird.

“…No, whoever did this is severely demented. Look at the feathers around the throat.”

He scooted so Noda could lean in as well. After she got a closer look, he felt a pang of horror in her output.

“They broke its neck! Poor little thing…”

“My guess is, this was a gift.”

The thought seemed outrageous to her, and she stood. “A gift?”

Eiichi stood as well, placing his hand on the lockers momentarily.

“Are you familiar with the behavior of stalkers?”

“Well, I know they follow people around and stuff. I would think this was someone trying to send her a message…a bad one…”

“They are. Stalkers make a concentrated effort to be known to the person their affections are aimed at. They may seem like they’re selfless, and their thoughts are only of their target, but really, they’re completely selfish, almost primal. They stalk, like a predator…”

“Then, why would they be bringing her a gift?”

“Do you know how animals bring gifts to their owners?”

Noda lowered her head, eyes still on him, “We don’t really have animals at my house.”

“Dogs and cats will both bring dead rodents and small animals as gifts to show affection. With dogs it varies…” he could remember Connor bringing him beat up shoes and lost tennis balls during their walks. “Typically, it’s cats that bring a dead bird to their owner’s doorstep, or their feet.”

He felt the hair on her neck stand up.

Her eyes fixed on him and widened. “A dead bird in her shoe locker…”

“While animals are wholesomely affectionate, people are much more complicated. A stalker wants to be wholesome, but they don’t know how. Actually, he already believes that his thoughts are genuine. He gives her gifts, but they are things only he thinks she will like. As if he knows what is best for her. He believes that his love is so profound, the gift will inspire meaning. He claims to desire her love, but really he wants control. He expresses affections, but is invasive. His affections are really hiding something that is much more sinister and vicious. I would guess this has been happening for a while, but judging by how scared she was, this could also mean things are escalating. It seems our predator is conflicted. He is obsessed with his prey, but can’t decide if he hates her or loves her. Really, he wants to claim her, like she’s a possession.”

Noda looked back at the shoe locker.

“Well, get to it, photo girl.” Eiichi cracked a smile.

She whipped her gaze onto him. “What?”

“We might need photos of this. If it’s left here, someone could move it. Maybe the police could make use of what we bring them.”

“You want me to take pictures of a dead bird?” Noda said, astonished.

“A dead bird inside a girl’s shoe locker. Take pictures of the locker number as well.”

“We won’t have time! What if someone sees?”

“You’re right…”

Eiichi took the tote bag from Noda and walked toward the lobby, standing at the opening of the aisle.

“I don’t see anyone outside the front, on your side. I’ll stand here and if anyone comes by, I’ll say something that’ll make them leave.”

Noda’s fists clenched next to her skirt. “Drrrgh, you’re making me look like the freak!”

“C’mon, chop-chop. If you get it done fast, we can leave.”

Noda’s whole frame shook for a moment before she raised her camera vigorously and began aiming it at the shoe locker.

He was too far away now to pick up a read on her, but he could hear her viciously muttering under her breath at him while her camera clicked away rapidly.

Mrrgh…tell me to take pictures…I’ll take some pictures…I’ll take a lotta’ pictures…just you wait…I’ll give you pictures…jerk…

He smirked distantly at the semi-populated lobby.

When Noda finished, she began approaching and Eiichi turned.

“I suggest we find her so we can at least give this back,” he said, raising the tote bag.

“Fine. Sounds like the polite thing to do.” Noda brushed past him, eyes shut.

“Oh boy…”

Eiichi could tell that due to Noda’s heated mood, she had no idea where they were headed, or where the girl had run off to, and was blindly following his suggestion.

She had made her point clear in the past that she knew the school very well. Even the smallest crevasses and halls were supposedly known to her, which was no mean feat, considering its size. While Eiichi could not boast to know the school as well, he could, however, claim to know people and their behaviors. Not that it was something he simply declared outright. He would have to provide his evidence for knowing, which of course, he couldn’t. He wondered sometimes if he should create a more contrived story to cover this up.

When Noda and he were being chased by Okanaya and his gang, Eiichi had been able to use his abilities as a radar, to check their area and make sure the coast was clear. His ability acted very much in this way, as well. Typically, people’s outputs came up like random blips in an available three-sixty radius, not in the literal sense, but he found the image satisfactory. Most of them were random, and still appeared in whatever mood their output was exhibiting at the time. Each output displayed a thought pattern that was unique to a particular individual, very much like a face or speech pattern. Again, most of them seemed random to him because he was unfamiliar with them.

Over the past week, he had become much more familiar with Noda’s output, so he could now pick it out of a mess of others, and could sense when she was approaching, even if he could not see her. This came in handy the few times she had tried to sneak up on him.

He began scanning their area, looking for Reiko’s frightened output. She had been so wrought with fear and anguish, it would be no problem spotting her, even if she hid behind a three foot wall of reinforced steel, or more reasonably, inside a crowded classroom.

“She was running fast, but I doubt she left the campus. This is bad enough that she had to have gone to one of the faculty offices. Whether they called the police or not is questionable.”

“Is this bad enough that they would?”

“Maybe. If she’s called the cops before, it should be common practice now. She was in such a panic, she probably needed to be around people of authority first. If the situation really has escalated, she probably ran in there screaming one-one-zero.”

Just then, a few sensei came walking past them with stern expressions.

“Yep, that would be their response. They need to check first before doing anything else. Even after looking, they would be uncertain whether the situation required police investigation. Good thing you took the photos. They’re probably just going to toss the thing.”

“I still don’t understand why we needed to do that.”

“It could be presented as evidence of their behavioral pattern. How many people do you know that kill little feathery creatures and give them to others?”

A few steps more and he began picking up faint whiffs of Reiko’s output. She wasn’t far, but was deep inside one of the faculty offices.

“Here,” he said, and stopped in front of an open door.

“Are you sure?”

“Take a peek.”

He saw Noda’s jaw tighten and her eyes flare, but she stepped over to the doorway and poked her head in.

“Yeah, she’s sitting far back from the doorway.”

He couldn’t go in there, unless he wanted to take a seat and possibly be conspicuously dizzy during the whole conversation, depending on how long it took.

“Here, why don’t you take it in to her, and when you do, take the concerned citizen role. See if you can ask if she’s called the police and if they know anything yet,” he handed Noda the bag.

The irritation boiled up inside her and he picked up something about him ‘talking all smart’ and her ‘doing all the dirty work’.

“You’re right!” She smiled, and jerked the bag out of his hands. She took great satisfaction in her next choice words. “You already scared her once. If she sees you again, she might scream her head off and start throwing things at you.”

This was followed up with a complementary image of him being pelted in the face with a textbook.

Take it easy Noda, I’m not doing this on purpose.’

With her hand rested on her camera, she marched into the office, while Eiichi leaned against the wall outside.

  • * *

Although Eiichi had made the indication that the girl in question had run into the office, screaming like her stalker was right on her tail, wildly swinging a knife, the office itself didn’t seem to be in much turmoil at the moment. Most of the sensei in the room were at their desks, looking over assignment scores, or by the tea maker, discussing what all the noise had been about.

The girl was seated in a chair by an otherwise vacant desk, her arms slumped on top of her thighs, hands clasped between her legs. She had glasses with slightly elliptical frames, only they were a bit smaller compared to Noda’s huge coke bottle lenses, which made her a little self-conscious. However, they did look adorable on her, with her dark, short hair, fair-skinned complexion and that kawaii choker! The girl’s chest wasn’t as big as hers, so that gave back some – Okay! Back to business!

What am I doing comparing myself to her!? She’s scared out of her mind!

Noda approached calmly, making sure the tote bag was visible. She didn’t know if the girl had noticed her earlier. She had seemed more focused on Eiichi before she scampered off. She didn’t even notice her now, and seemed to be deep in thought.

From a distance of roughly five feet, Noda decided to make her presence known.

“Um—”

The girl’s face lurched up with a brief intake of air that made a squeak. It made Noda jump back a little herself.

“Hi…?” Noda voiced.

“H…Hello…” the girl muttered while her wide eyes stared at Noda fearfully. She had a small voice to go with her quiet appearance.

“I uh…well, I think you dropped this…” she said, presenting the bag. “My friend and I found it.”

The girl’s eyes fixed on the bag distantly, as if she had never seen it before in her life. Almost like she didn’t even know what a tote bag or satchel was, and was afraid it might bite her.

“Um…th-thank you…”

Noda placed the bag in her outstretched hands and the girl proceeded to set it on the floor next to her chair.

She obviously didn’t recognize her, and seemed too focused on whatever was bothering her to remember that Eiichi, the person she ran from, had been the friend Noda spoke of.

“I’m Asako Noda.”

“Oh…” She didn’t seem to think this was going to continue. “It’s nice to meet you…”

… … That’s it!?

First Eiichi, and now this random person!

There’s an exchange going on here! Words are being traded! I give you my name, you give me yours! That’s how this works!

Why was it so hard for people to understand this!?

Calm down Noda…breathe…she’s probably too scared to give her name. You’re a total stranger and she doesn’t trust you. And you’re already angry because Eiichi is being a jackass, so don’t take it out on her.

Noda straightened her thoughts out.

“We…saw your locker.”

The girl became startled. “You saw!?”

“Yeah…I know if I found something like that in mine, I’d be pretty terrified too.”

The girl fidgeted. “Thank you for saying so…”

“So um, it looks like whatever you’re going through is pretty serious. Have you tried calling the police?”

“…”

“Um…I don’t know what’s going on, and you don’t have to tell me, but my friend and I, sometimes we hang out after classes are over, and uh…if you need anyone to talk to, we would be happy to have you join us.”

The girl didn’t answer right off, and curved her face down to the side and stared at the floor.

“Here.”

Noda grabbed a sheet of paper from near a printer and tore a section off. Then she grabbed a pen from a vacant desk and began writing. She folded it and handed it to the girl.

“This is my number. I’m sure you have friends you already talk with, and I don’t want to impose, but if you’d like, just shoot me a text.”

She looked at it, and was probably considering her options, but then she raised a gentle hand and took it.

“Okay, well, see ya.”

Seeing nothing more she could really do here, Noda turned to leave.

“W-Wait…”

She stopped mid-stride and turned without moving her feet.

“That guy that was with you…was that…Eiichi Kozuka?”

Go figure, you extend a helping hand, and end up hearing more about Kozuka.

Noda bid a sideways glance to the wall. “Oh yeah, him…you want his number too?”

“N-No…I…just wanted to ask why you are hanging out with him.”

“I guess you’ve heard the rumors.”

The girl nodded.

Taking consideration for the irate mood she was in, Noda crossed her arms and focused, trying to hold back from putting him down too hard.

“He can be a jerk sometimes, but he’s actually kind of a nice guy.”

“I heard that he stares at people, and he has facial hair…”

These were some really bizarre questions. What rumors had this girl been listening to?

“W-Well, he stares sometimes, but I think that’s only when he’s thinking really hard. If you ask me, he doesn’t think enough…and to my knowledge, he’s never had facial hair.”

“Oh, okay…” she lowered her head and that was it.

Noda knelt down so the girl could see her better.

“He’s not as creepy as he looks. I think if you got to talk to him, you’d find he’s just like everyone else.”

For a moment, a little smile appeared on that scared, sad face, before dimming back to its original state.

Noda stood, “Take care.”

“You too…”

  • * *

The entire time Noda had been inside the office, Eiichi could sense the two outputs moving about in the room and the changes in their mood. It had been difficult, with the several sensei in the room, but he could pick out the two from where he could place his focus. From the change in Noda’s output, which had a tinge of red added to it from being irritated with him, and the ashen-white output of the girl, he had a vague idea of how the conversation played out, even if he didn’t hear it.

When Noda’s output separated from the girl’s, this signified the conversation was over. His conclusion was that Noda had not been able to coax much out of her. She didn’t even get her name. In a funny way, he recognized Noda’s reaction to this, and her own memory of it from when they first met.

Noda stepped out of the office.

“Anything?” he asked.

“Not a thing. She was too scared to even give me her name. I even gave her my number.”

“That’s a response to losing control. She feels she doesn’t have control over much else, so for her own safety, she’s withholding her name, because it’s one of the few things she feels she has control over. She’s definitely paranoid.”

He figured it best if he didn’t mention Reiko’s name right off the bat.

“What should we do now?”

He stepped away from the wall and Noda followed.

“I suggest we go to the roof to talk this over some more. No one else should hear this.”

After migrating to their destination, Eiichi lit up a smoke and sat on one of the benches against the perimeter ledge. Noda had planted her knees on the seat of the same bench, and was taking pictures of a lonely sun above the mountains through the chain link, probably to get her mind off the images from earlier.

His elbows were planted on his knees, his cigarette hand supporting his chin. “She doesn’t know who it is, and that’s causing her to be suspicious of everyone…”

“Well since we don’t know much about her, why don’t we focus more on the stalker instead?”

“There’s only so much we can do with that. We can look up all kinds of information about the mind, but that’s only going to tell us his likely frame of mind, not how to find him.”

Noda was silent, her legs moving subtly in the corner of his eye as her camera made a series of mechanical clicks.

“Why are you suddenly so interested in helping her?” she asked.

Eiichi rolled his cigarette between his fingers before taking a drag. “Why were you so interested in that tech thief situation?”

Her voice swayed sardonically. “You could try to answer my question first~”

He smiled.

Noda leaned in excitedly. “So what was it? When she bumped into you, was she synonymously knocking you off your feet?”

Eiichi heaved an exhausted sigh.

“Did she steal your wayward heart and run off with it? Or are you just into girls with glasses?”

You wear glasses!”

He had whipped around to face her. She gawked back at him with wide open eyes and a gaping mouth.

“Ack…That’s not my point!” her eyes shut tight and she waved the camera above her head threateningly.

Eiichi was immediately seized by loud belts of hilarity.

“Oh, he laughs. I thought he’d never laugh. That’s good~…healthy and…immature…”

She went back to looking through her camera. After he calmed down, she looked back at him.

“So, you gonna’ answer my question or not?”

“If you’ll give me a chance.” He wiped his eyes and gave his burning chest a chance to loosen up.

He needed that. He couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed like that.

He couldn’t tell her exactly why, so he had to ease in his ‘suspicions’.

“Well, why shouldn’t we? She needs help. We have no idea how long she’s been dealing with this, it could be too long.”

He knew it had been too long. Her output was unstable. If she went any longer without help, no matter how it turned out, the results could be permanent and disastrous. And the evidence of what was taking place revealed the consequences could be dire, if something was not done about it. Her pursuer was moving in, closer, every day.

“What makes you think it’s been going on for so long?”

“You remember what she was like. And there are so many stalking cases in Saitama alone, I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t gotten around to hers yet, depending on what’s been submitted to evidence.”

Noda stopped taking pictures. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t help her, I was just curious about why you had the sudden change of heart.”

“I went along with you the first time.”

“Yeah, but that wasn’t until after danger was present. Those guys came after us, and you were suddenly all ‘gung-ho’. I thought it was because it hurt your pride or something.”

“My pride?”

“Well, I don’t know…” She was still mad with him. “I’m just saying it’s weird that you suddenly decided to side with me.”

He was definitely detecting a hint of jealousy. Not the big, fiery, passionate kind, just the sort of feeling one gets when they feel their place has been overrun. Before, he hadn’t wanted anything to do with what she had to offer, and suddenly, after bumping into a random girl, he had started giving orders while she just played along.

Even with his abilities, there were things he missed from time to time.

He turned his head. “I’m sorry.”

Noda looked back at him, “For what? What could you possibly have to be sorry for?”

Refraining from giving her a smirk, he stood up.

“I mean it. It was your idea from the get-go, and I suddenly took control without considering how you felt. I truly am sorry.”

She lowered her camera and stepped down from the bench. There was a red imprint across her knees from the planks, how could she stay like that for so long!?

Ignoring this, he extended his hand, “If we’re going to help her, I want both of us to do it.”

She set her camera against her hip and looked at him.

“I forgive you.” She placed her hand in his, but looked down. “But I don’t know about this…I’m worried we might be jumping in too early. What if the police finally get involved and we’re caught in the middle?”

“There are risks. I need you to be able to respond if an opportunity presents itself. If you don’t, we could miss something vital, or get in trouble. But I’ve got your back.”

“But how do you want to tackle this?”

“Well…first step would be observation.”

She repeated his own words, “I don’t think I like where you’re going with this.”

“It’s the best thing I can think of.”

She thrust her hand out of his. “You want us to stalk the girl that’s already being stalked!?”

“You tell me if you’ve got a better idea.”

“Do you know how insane that sounds!?”

“How else are we going to get information from her?”

“Why don’t we just talk to her?”

“You said it yourself, she’s too scared to say anything.”

“I can understand wanting to help her, but that is not cool!”

She began feeling a twinge of guilt about something, but was able to brush it off before he could get a good read on it.

“I’m just…not sure about the way you’re suggesting we go about this.”

“That’s why I wanted you to talk to her, but that didn’t work out so well, so now we have to do this.”

Placing her hand over her chest, Noda stared back at him with intense resolve. He wasn’t used to this from her.

She spoke, stern fear making her voice waver. “Listen, I know you might think just because I’m a photographer that I would be okay with this. Yeah, I’ve watched people from afar and I’ve even taken pictures of them, but I never did it to any one person, and I never followed anyone around for the sake of ‘observation’ or to satisfy some sick urge!” Distraught, she searched in her mind for something as an alternative. “Can’t we…I don’t know. Ask around about her?”

He wondered if he was already asking too much of her. She had been fine stalking criminals, but now he was asking her to do the same with an innocent person in a state of suffering. He felt her convictions, and empathized that they were very much his own. The subtle irony that greeted him was that it seemed their roles had been reversed.

“I know that’s not who you are, Noda…but who would we ask? Not only do we not know who’s associated with her, but we would stand out, asking questions about a girl who’s so bashful that not many people know of her. Whatever friends she has would pick up on that, fast.”

“But if we follow her, one slip-up, and we could end up in a lot of trouble. She, and anyone else who knows, would think we’re the ones stalking her.”

“That’s why we need to be absolutely careful. I told you, we’re taking a big risk going into this.”

“I just don’t know…”

Understandably, there was too much she cherished, so many factors and elements in her life she did not want to risk losing. Before, the risk level had been high, but there was a difference. The people they were pursuing had been avoiding police involvement, and Noda had relied on the police to help. The danger had still caused her to take what she held dear into consideration. But now, if Reiko or someone else made them, there was the possibility of facing harassment charges for a crime they didn’t commit.

“I have to think this over…”

Her output clammed up, and he knew she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

Without another word spoken, they decided to leave. He held the door open for her and they silently made their way down the dark stairwell to the top floor.

At the bottom, he held the door for her again, and could see the early evening sunlight just shining in through the windows of the hall. It was likely there were other clubs operating right now, but some of them were probably beginning to pack up for the day.

They had just stepped into the hall when a very faint sound met their ears.

Eiichi stopped, looking down the two halls that met at the corner, where they had just left the roof access stairwell. It sounded rather out of place, unless a club had begun watching a sci-fi flick, or it was some kind of alien research club experimenting with alpha waves.

Noda had stopped as well. She could hear it too.

It was synthetic, definitely some kind of computer-generated sound. The sound seemed to flux and contour itself, making minimal, repeated notes that overlapped each other. It was accompanied by a melody of single, extended notes that must have been an imitation of violins, playing a slow, woeful melody, only, too synthesized to sound like the real thing. Nonetheless, the sound was intriguing.

Noda’s curiosity had flared up and out of her previous convictions from earlier.

“Do you hear that…?” she asked.

“Yup…”

“It’s down this way,” she said, pointing to the left, where instead of windows facing outside, there were class doors on both sides of the hall.

Following her lead, he observed as the sudden stimulus caused her to take her mind off of the decision that had been so troubling for her.

Walking through the hall, Noda peeked through the door windows of club rooms. Eiichi would follow after, noticing they were dark and empty. A few still had people inside, having discussions or working on projects.

The more rooms they peeked into, the more curious she became, and she slowly forgot Eiichi’s proposition from earlier. This made him smile a little.

The further up the hall they traveled, the louder the sound became, until they passed two more rooms that had no one inside, and came upon one that did.

The door had been cracked open, and Noda knelt down to peek through, while Eiichi leaned over her and looked as well.

The classroom was completely empty, save for one lone individual. A boy with fair, blond hair sat on top of a table that he had pushed up against one of the windows. He was facing out toward one of the courtyards, but they were on the top floor, and the outer perimeter of the school was visible, as well as the buildings of the nearby metropolitan area, that sat against the horizon.

Aside from the boy, the first thing that was visible was the white guitar in his hands. He had such a small frame that it looked bulky and cumbersome in his arms. Next to him on the table were a cell phone and a bluetooth speaker. On the floor, facing him, was what must have been some kind of small amplifier.

His right hand hovered over the back of the instrument, with his left cradling its neck. The synthetic sounds had continued, accompanied by more futuristic additions to its melody line, when momentarily, the melody became silent, and only the brief electronic pulses were left.

All at once, his right hand shot off at a lighting pace, the palm rested against a black, metal device that the strings were attached to. It had a black, metal rod sticking out of one end.

The kid’s hand fluttered in a mechanical repetition of a specific procession of notes. A drum beat resounded from what must have been the speaker, and the guitar being filtered through the amp created a chunky, chaotic sound that Eiichi was more familiar with from his favorite metal bands. The kid’s left hand pinched its fingers down on the neck in places that seemed random to them, but must have been important to its owner. At the end of each rhythmic pattern, the kid played an odd note that made the instrument sound like it was screaming.

The player stopped, and an echo of what he had just finished playing rang out at a distant volume for a couple seconds. Then his hand shot up the neck and began playing a procession of sustained notes.

For a moment, Eiichi thought it was a guitar solo, but then he realized the kid was really playing a melody line.

A frantic, unseen drummer kept a chaotic tempo, with unseen guitarists attacking the rhythm, and backing synthetic sounds, while the kid played. His left fingers moved simply, but methodically, while his right gripped the rod that had been hanging there. Every time he pushed it down or up, the notes he played seemed to fall or rise in conjunction.

Eiichi pushed the door open some, and Noda looked up at him questioningly. Pursing his lips and placing a finger over them, he quietly stepped around her, and she followed after him.

The kid was so focused, they were able to get as close as a few feet from the table without him noticing.

Eiichi knew exactly who it was now.

His glasses sat folded on the table next to his phone. His head was leaning down, eyes closed behind his locks, but simply from his output, Eiichi knew.

All of the backing music was being played through the bluetooth speaker. The guitar in Yukichi’s hands had been the only instrument in his control.

 

 

Of course Eiichi had seen guitars before, and he knew there were large, bulky kinds that were made entirely of wood and used for folk or country music, and he knew about the electric kinds, like the one in Yukichi’s hands, but there was something strange about this one. He knew that guitars were supposed to have six strings, but this one looked like it had seven. What made it even more strange was the rod sticking out of that weird device that held the strings in place at the back. He couldn’t really remember ever seeing anything like that before.

Yukichi finished off the verse by making a harmonic, dissonant sound with three notes, and then his fingers took off, playing a momentary solo where instead of making use of the pick in his right hand, he used one of his free fingers to tap hundreds of electric notes, while the fingers of his left spidered up and down the neck. He finished it off by making a sweeping motion with the pick while his left hand spiraled down and then up.

He punched out the low string and let it ring while the backing guitar on the speaker played the rhythm repeatedly.

Yukichi’s hands made the sweeping motions again, while one of the accompanying guitarists on the speaker harmonized with his melody.

From Yukichi’s output, Eiichi had a feeling something even more intense was about happen. This was Yukichi’s favorite part.

The speaker went silent, Yukichi played a few free notes, a malfunctioning computer noise quickly faded in, and then things took off. The speaker exploded with all instruments playing together in a procession of split-second notes and beats, in symphonic unison with a single melody line from Yukichi.

Yukichi’s output oozed with pure determination, the sensation of going beyond one’s capabilities, surpassing human limits.

The song was all instrumental. Through Yukichi’s fingers, the instrument had its own voice.

Yukichi closed it off by playing one long scale, with his outstretched left hand crawling steadily up the neck while his right tapped more notes, and then went back into the hard-hitting main rhythm.

Eiichi listened to a lot of music, most in the metal genre. However, a lot of his tastes drifted towards 80’s, 90’s and some modern metal. He had never heard a style of music in the genre that incorporated so much without the use of vocals. He had seen his favorite artists on music videos and playing live, and had been fascinated with their abilities, but he had never seen a consistent performance like this, that had been centered around one instrument, and had created such an overwhelming sensation without the use of lyrics.

Noda herself was rather impressed with Yukichi’s skills and the entire display, and despite the music not being her taste, her output bubbled over right next to Eiichi with admiration and adoration.

They waited until the song came to an abrupt close as Yukichi finished playing one of the same sweeping riffs from before and then chugged the main rhythm to a stop.

Eiichi read that Yukichi was tired, but happy.

Noda began clapping her hands frantically, and Yukichi’s output shot up to a level of panic, making Eiichi touch his head.

“Bravo! Encore!” Noda beamed.

Yukichi whipped around to face his unnoticed audience, his eyes darting about. Eiichi could tell he couldn’t recognize them, because his glasses were still on the desk.

II…I-It wasn’t anything special.”

His hand darted to them, and they waited for him to place them on his face.

He looked at Noda, and then saw who was standing next to her.

“Oh, Senpai!”

He got off the table and bowed with the guitar still in hand.

“Kid, I may have said I’m your senpai, but you don’t have to call me that.” But Eiichi still returned the gesture.

“This is your kouhai!?” Noda pointed.

“Like I said, he—”

Oh! He’s so small and adorable!” Noda had lost all control.

She rushed over and wrapped her arms around Yukichi, nuzzling his hair while his face turned red.

“He-He’s not a pet!” Eiichi snapped.

“He has the cutest little face!”

“He’s not a child either! Lay off Noda, his ego can only take so much abuse.”

Maybe Yukichi’s mistake had been putting his glasses back on. They did make him look younger.

Though, after all the questioning and strain he had been experiencing from Noda, it was nice that she had found someone she could unleash her affections on. Funny how she could just switch gears like that.

Noda rubbed closer and Eiichi picked up, while Yukichi’s wavering and dizzy output was embarrassed beyond anything he had ever been put through, he was liking it. He likely felt her breasts pressing firmly up against his back as well, causing him some more amusing ardor.

Noda eyed Eiichi from her facial perch upon the crown of Yukichi’s head, “Well you may not think much of him, but I think he’s the cutest, most talented boy in this school.”

“I never said that!”

From his slouched position under Noda’s weight, Yukichi blinked and looked up at Eiichi.

“I want to thank you again, sen—”

“Uugghh…” Eiichi gave him a doltish look.

“E-Eiichi…ever since last week, people haven’t been bothering me.”

Noda released him. “What’s this about?”

“Eiichi saved me last week from some guys.”

“Oh he did, did he…?” She turned her attention on Eiichi and stared at him.

Eiichi patted the air. “It was just a minor thing, nothing to lose your head over.”

“No, no it wasn’t…” Yukichi mused. “They would always beat me and take my money, and he stopped it. He asked me to hang out after school with him from time to time. People would stare, but after that, they stopped harassing me.” He became excited. “Everyone stopped writing on my desk and trying to trip me in the halls! And I haven’t seen those guys in days!”

“That might be because they got expelled.”

“Even so, you helped me!” Then he lifted the guitar, gazing upon it. “I always wanted to share this music with people, but I knew if I tried bringing my guitar to school, someone would steal it. So I never did, until now. I was still anxious about it, but I knew as long as people knew I was your friend, they would leave me alone…”

This was something that Yukichi put his passion into, even if he had to use it as a way of escaping his troubles. He must have spent days in his room practicing, letting it make him forget about the things he dealt with.

“So thank you. Thank you very much, senpai,” Yukichi beamed.

Eiichi felt himself tensing up and leaning back.

He tried to relax. “Y…You’re welcome, Yukichi…”

“I am in your debt. If there is anything you need of me, you’ve got it.”

Eiichi cast his eyes down. What was he supposed to do with that? How many kids his age got to hear those words directed at them? Especially for someone in his standing. He only did what he knew was right.

He stared back at Yukichi. “Just keep doing what you love, Yukichi. And let no one tell you otherwise.”

Yukichi’s output floated with the same determination he felt while performing. “I will.”

Noda had been watching this as well, and there were fluctuating changes in her mood.

“So, did you compose all that?” she asked.

Yukichi chuckled. “No. No, I wish. I just play a lot of covers right now. My hope is to write some of my own songs. I have some ideas I’m working on, but I have nothing to use to record them on or create the backing tracks. If I just had a band, that would be nice.”

“Let us know when you want to show something you wrote,” said Eiichi.

“I don’t listen to any of this stuff, but I would love to hear another one!” Noda chimed in.

“You would!?”

“Yeah! You’re amazing!”

“O-Okay…” Yukichi blushed and then sat back in his former spot on the table. “I’ll try not to mess up too much, I’m not used to playing in front of people…”

“That’s okay, go on! We got an eye and earful earlier.” Noda grabbed a chair and sat.

“And when we’re done here, we’ll help you carry your things,” Eiichi added. “It must have been tough getting them here.”

Yukichi remembered sweating on the way to school while lugging the guitar and amp in the cool spring weather, his paranoia mixed with his toil.

“Y-You don’t have to—”

“Seriously, I insist.”

Yukichi’s mouth twitched into a light smile, “Okay…thank you…”

“Yeah! Don’t worry about it! Go on! Go on!” Noda urged.

Yukichi stole a look out the window before readying the guitar in his hands and messing with his phone. “I really like playing this one when the sun is setting and the clouds are all orange like this.”

“Oooh, isn’t he the dreamer?” Noda smiled at Eiichi, as if this bore some significance to him.

A bass beat began playing on the bluetooth speaker that sounded muffled, with a pulsing rhythm. A distorted guitar riff began fading in and the music exploded with Yukichi playing the same riff, accompanied by a surreal symphony of heavy guitars, drums, and mystical synthesizer sounds. To Eiichi, it almost sounded like something from a fantasy RPG soundtrack.

Despite his quiet, well-kept nature, the music was a striking contrast, revealing a side to Yukichi less known to others.

  • * *

Eiichi had noticed a consistent change in Noda during their time escorting Yukichi off campus. She had been mentally chewing on something in the back of her thoughts the entire time as she giggled through their conversation.

Eiichi carried the amp, while Yukichi kept his guitar in a carry bag with backpack straps, slung over his shoulders, and his school tote bag in hand. Noda and Yukichi talked exuberantly with Eiichi making an interjection here and there.

They took the train and Eiichi mentioned his stop was coming up, which made Noda mention it was hers as well.

“You don’t need to follow me all the way home. My house isn’t far from where I get off,” said Yukichi.

“Okay.” Eiichi handed him his amp.

“It was great meeting you, Asako-san,” Yukichi said, nodding.

“And you as well, Ebina-san.”

“And…I wanted to know if you both would like to hang out sometime at my house, or anywhere really.”

“That would be fine!” Noda said ecstatically. “I’ve been trying to get this guy to be more outgoing anyways.” She elbowed Eiichi.

“I go out, you’re just never around for it.”

“Which is why I’m worried.”

Yukichi chuckled, “I know it must be strange, hanging out with a first-year.”

“Not at all. If you’re Eiichi’s kouhai, then you’re mine too.”

The train slowed to a stop and the doors slid open.

Yukichi nodded again. “Thank you. Well, see ya!”

They stepped off and bid Yukichi a wave from the platform before the shuttle began humming forward.

It was here that Noda smirked at Eiichi. “With that talent and those looks, that kid will be a real lady-killer if he grows a few more inches.”

“Yeah, I think you’re right.” Eiichi turned around and began walking.

Noda crept up beside him. “So…a tough loner like you suddenly making friends with the little people. I think I’m starting to rub off on you.”

“Give it a rest…”

“Oh no, you’re getting softer every day, Eiichi. Better watch out,” she teased.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah! Or your deepest, darkest fears will become manifest! Eiichi Kozuka might be making—” she gasped for effect. “Friends.

“Then I guess the last days are upon us.”

“I’ll keep track to see if we have any blood moons.”

“Or blue ones…”

They left the station. The sun was just beginning to set behind the distant, unseen mountains, and street lamps were flickering on. Noda was silent the entire time, tired of picking on him, and he noticed she was still chewing on what had been bothering her from before.

“I’ve made my decision…” she muttered.

They stopped under a street lamp.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah…I realize that you need me to help out with this, even though in doing it, we’re both putting our futures at risk. I don’t want that girl to get the wrong idea about us, but there isn’t much else we can do…She’s so terrified…If what you’re saying is right…I know if I were her, I would be so desperate, I would do just about anything to get this guy off my back and out of my life…”

Seeing Yukichi’s expression from earlier, his elation and joy over his newfound freedom, thanks to someone who went out of their way, and risked their own wellbeing for the sake of his own…these were results she could not argue with. It had conjured an epiphany. Yes, they both had a lot to cherish and be thankful for, the outcome of the last situation had brought all of that to light. But what good was all of it, if they knew someone else who did not have it, or once had it taken from them? How could either of them go about their joyful little lives, knowing that someone else was suffering, who should be sharing that same joy?

What made Eiichi sad was knowing that this was how he used to live his life. He had never wanted his abilities to begin with, and wanted to pretend they didn’t exist, and forget about the pain that surrounded him every day.

“Eiichi…I don’t know how it is you’re so knowledgeable about people. Frankly, it’s a little weird you know so much while being such a recluse.”

Eiichi had already been lighting up a smoke, “Ever heard of people-watching?”

She ignored this to avoid him asked more questions that he would simply answer himself.

“Anyhoo, you’re very useful because of that.” She became flush. “I’m only going to say this once, so don’t go getting a big head over it or anything, got it?”

“I’ll shut up.”

“And you better not tell anyone else I said this!”

“Why would I tell anyone?”

“Because, it might…sound weird…”

“Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?”

“Yeah,” she breathed a laugh. “You are pretty weird…”

“Well, don’t rub it in!”

Noda took a moment, and self-consciously adjusted the camera strap on her arm.

“But…it’s like you can see through people. I don’t know how to explain it, but you take one look at someone, and it’s almost as if you know everything there is to know about them.”

This had to be the second thing he had heard today that no one had ever said to him. As much as she seemed a spaz and an airhead, Noda was really quick on the uptake. While he observed everyone, including her, it seemed she had been fixating on him, and had mentally logged every encounter up to this point, just like when he first met her.

He attempted to keep his composure and not let her psyche overcome him.

“I think…someone like you is meant for this sort of thing. And if you are, I want to help. I just don’t know if I will always be of use…”

“How?”

“I don’t know…with photos and everything. Anyone can do that…”

Eiichi raised an eyebrow, “Am I talking to Noda Asako, or some girl that just looks like her?”

“What?” she lifted her gaze in the yellow light.

He kept a straight face and spoke calmly to her. “I’m just saying, those don’t sound like your words. The first few times you followed me, I felt like I had to pay you money just to get you to leave me alone. You were aware too, I’m sure, but yet you kept showing up. And every time we wound up in trouble, you had a lot to offer. Noda Asako is a very determined girl. She sees something she likes and she goes for it. She pushes forward, even in the face of danger. She’s clever, and finds a way to make something work. She does something good for someone, even if she knows they won’t like it. She can be very annoying sometimes, but it’s for good cause.”

He took a moment to drink in her astonished gaze.

“Noda is a photographer. It’s what she loves to do more than anything. I don’t understand it in the least, but she does. It comes easy to her, she sees and understands things about it that no one else does. When people see a sunrise, they think it’s just a sunrise, but Noda sees an opportunity. She can find anything significant enough to be recorded and documented, and history needs to be recorded, where would we be today without it?”

When he finished, she remained frozen and agape.

“So, do I know you as well as you say I do, or did I just prove you wrong?”

Noda closed her mouth. “Yeah, I realize now I was wrong.”

She waited to see if she got a rise out of him because of this.

His answer was a smirk, which twitched its way into a smile. Convulsing shoulders, tight chest, he found himself attempting to hold in a fit of hilarity. She was trying to do the same.

They were soon belting laughter at each other. Eiichi leaned forward, and Noda giggled uncontrollably, arms over her stomach.

“I think we’re both pretty weird…” he wiped his eyes.

“Yeah! Yeah, I think we are!” she blurted between her chuckles.

When they were able to contain themselves, Noda presented her hand with a grin.

“I’m in. Let’s do this together.”

Even if they didn’t get a ‘thank you’ or ‘job well done’, even if they wound up in cuffs, she would rather they at least tried.

He took it. “Good, because I’m going to need you. I know it’s scary, but you can bet, if we both get caught, I’ll be right in it with you. I don’t know if it would be that good of a defense, but we can show the pictures you took and plead that we may have been interfering with police investigation.”

“So what’s the plan?”

They left the light of the street lamp and continued their walk.

“Her stalker could be someone close to her. Or someone who has access to the school database, which would explain how they got her locker combination. We can only do so much surveillance at school for obvious reasons, but after school gives us a broader window. The thing is, she’s going to recognize us if she sees us in our uniforms. And it won’t take long for her to make us, since she has both our names.”

“So we just have to be extra careful.”

“We could do that or…”

“Or what?”

“We hide just like a stalker. In plain sight…”

  • * *

Reiko’s mom came to the school and picked up her and Sumi. In the back of the car, Sumi apologized profusely to her that she had allowed her to be alone, right when something like that happened, with Reiko’s mother providing reassurance that she could not have expected something like that to take place. Reiko’s mom stated that she and Reiko’s father were discussing filing a complaint with the police department based on claims of negligent practice. She said she could no longer stand to see Reiko suffering through this.

When they made it home, Reiko’s mother insisted that Sumi stay and visit a while, and though Sumi had been reluctant, still expressing guilt, she accepted. It had been a while since Reiko had a friend over, and the visitation managed to lighten her spirits. Sumi left after dinner.

Reiko went up to her room, and Cypress awaited in his usual spot. She had left her bag up there earlier and forgotten about it, but now picked it up from the stand of her bed and brought out the paper that strange girl had handed her.

If Reiko remembered correctly, she had a camera, which made her uncomfortable, but she had been kind, which was different from what she had been expecting.

She opened up the paper, with the numbers and her name inside, and remembered how she had asked if Reiko had wanted her friend’s name as well.

“She says he’s actually a nice guy…” she said this out loud, wondering if she had meant it for Cypress or herself. “If he’s not the stalker…then who is?”

She realized she had forgotten to tell her mother about the text message. But what was the point? If they could get a brand new cell number from her, anyone could. There was nothing she could do about it…

She grabbed her phone, opened up a new contact window, and keyed in the numbers and name.

“If she’s one of the numbers, then it will show up…”

She knew how desperate this sounded. Why would her assailant give her their number, or one of them?

It was at least for good measure, just in case.

Suddenly, the phone’s window darkened and backed out of her sight, and the incoming call window opened up.

Another unfamiliar number appeared before her eyes, and the phone vibrated between her chilled fingers.

She couldn’t respond, she was paralyzed.

Go away…go away…just leave me alone…

She fought the urge to press the answer button and scream her thoughts into the receiver until her throat burned. Her thumb fidgeted to the ignore button, and she pressed it repeatedly. The phone toppled off her bed, onto the floor.

Reiko pulled her glasses off, wrapped herself in her blankets and shivered, her eyes stinging. She wanted to curl up in a ball and disappear.

“Somebody please…help me…”

Chapter 5

Blind Date

 

‘Hey, you ready?’

Eiichi sent a text to Noda after stepping out of the men’s room at the market café.

The day had begun with the two of them meeting outside school as usual. They made sure to get there early, because they had no idea what time the girl in question, Reiko, as Eiichi knew her, made it to school. Their highest hopes were that Reiko was not an early bird who made it to school just as the doors were opening, just to tidy up her classroom or something in that matter, though this seemed like an exaggeration. Eiichi assured that even though she seemed well kept, someone as scared as she was probably only got up when she needed to and didn’t really look forward to being in school in the first place.

They stood around in a well-shaded area on the front side of the school, watching the students walk up the path or mill about in their groups. Noda spotted Reiko and a friend entering through the front gates moments later.

Doing her best not to look conspicuous, she aimed her camera from her hip and tried taking shots that way, but they were too far off for her to manage any accuracy, so she had to fake like she was taking pictures of the now flowerless sakura trees and the school’s prided maple and ginkgo trees.

‘I hope this doesn’t backfire hardcore…Eiichi, get over there.’

‘What?’

‘You heard me, get over there and line yourself up. I need you to look like I’m getting your profile.’

‘…’

‘Come on! You said whatever it takes, now move!’

‘Alright, alright…man, this blows. I’m gonna’ look like a friggin’ narcissist.’

‘That’s the price of what we’re trying to do here. At least you don’t have friends that are going to look at you funny for taking pictures of the school delinquent.’

Outside of this, there was not much they could do during school. However, they had both brought an extra change of regular clothes in their tote bags. Before their final classes, they met up and stashed the tote bags someplace they would be well hidden for the temporary period of time. Neither brought much in the bags, which made it easier to keep the clothes in store. This made it less conspicuous for them to carry out the next part of their plan. It was easier to spot one student leaving for the bathroom with their bag in hand than it was to spot the one missing out of many students with bags. If either of their sensei noticed, they would simply claim they must have lost them and start searching.

During their separate, final lectures, they both asked to be excused to use the facilities at exactly twenty minutes before the lecture was over. They met in the main lobby and found a side door to escape from, where they scaled the school gates and ran across the street to the café.

Eiichi stood in the bathroom hall now, in a tee-shirt, a black wool peacoat, and jeans with a black baseball cap.

Noda didn’t respond to Eiichi’s text, but a few minutes later, she stepped out.

Eiichi had to brace himself.

“What?” Noda asked.

Output aside, he nearly asked her pardon and said he had been waiting for someone else.

Eiichi pulled the bill of his cap down. “Um…Noda…do you think that’s…ideal for what…we’re…What’re you wearing!?”

As per Eiichi’s instruction, Noda had let her hair down, her braids being the feature that seemed to stand out most for her, making her easy to spot from a hundred feet away. In addition to this, her choice of casual dress had been a light gray, pullover gown, with brown trim and a skirt that hung just above her knees. Her school shoes had been replaced with a simple pair of sandals, ideal for the crisp weather they were having, but not good if they needed to do some running.

The sheer simplicity of her look, and yet how it…still stood out, had him in wonder as he eyed the flow of her light-brown hair over the shoulders of the gown, and its curvatures. She could have gone with something along the lines of what he had put on.

Was this because of what he said to her last night!? He knew she didn’t exactly think of him in that way, but this was obviously toying with the thought. She even did her nails, her lips pouted with the shimmering of gloss and she smelled different! Was it lilies?

Why didn’t she always dress like this? She would definitely turn a few heads.

Noda jerked her fists down, “Oh! It’s the same thing with you every time, isn’t it!?”

He found it hard to believe that high-pitched voice was coming from the face he was looking at.

“I just thought you could be more inconspicuous! We’ll look like we’re on a—”

Stop acting like a priss and fuckin’ say it!

“…on a date.”

“And what a good cover, don’t ya think?” Those glimmering lips smirked at him.

“What’s the significance of that!?”

“It got us out of the last jam, and it’s better than just a guy and a girl who happen to be spending time together. Where’s the fun in that?”

She thought way too much like a teenage girl sometimes.

“Aren’t you stretching that out a little? What if we need to split up? What if we need to run from something?”

“You think too much sometimes, you know that?”

“Then here!” Eiichi reached out.

Noda’s face jumped back a little, but she didn’t try to stop him as he removed her glasses, a move that he found himself regretting.

He had wanted to make her look less recognizable, but realized it had worked too well. The only identifying quality left now was the set of delightfully, all-too visible freckles across the bridge of her nose. It was like a cherry on top of whipped cream.

 

 

“Hey! What’re you doing!? Don’t just remove a girl’s glasses without saying anything!”

Noda reached, but was careful not to grasp so she didn’t knock them out of his hands. Her confusion and loss of orientation shot up in her output, which told him this was going to be a problem.

“Just how blind are you?”

“Shut up!”

Eiichi handed back the glasses and Noda quickly replaced them on the bridge of her nose.

“I hate not wearing my glasses…” she muttered.

“Because you can’t see?”

“Yeah…and…because I don’t like how I look without them…”

It wasn’t that she didn’t like how she looked without them, it was that she couldn’t see herself unless a mirror was nearly touching her nose.

“Will you be able to take pictures without them?”

“I’m severely near-sighted, so I should be okay if I’m looking through the lens.”

“Well, I suppose it’s fine if you wear them most of the time. I just hope our school bags don’t make us stand out…” he eyed his, which was slung over his shoulder like a messenger bag, not something he really did.

Noda’s was slung across her chest, the strap sitting right between her breasts, much to his distraction. He had to admit, she was a gorgeous girl without the nerd getup. Sure, she might have come off as kind of cute before, but there was so much going on overtop of that it wasn’t hard to miss the image underneath.

Eiichi lowered his face under the bill of his cap. “But there’s going to be a problem if she gets too close…you may have to lose them at some point…”

Noda pondered this a moment. “I think I can live with that. I’ll just have to cling to your arm, which will make it more convincing.”

This from the girl who got edgy over him helping her over a wall. Him and his damned ideas…

“There’s still a problem,” he stared. “It’s going to look like one weird date if I look like this!” he lifted the sides of his peacoat.

Noda eyed him a moment, and then reached up, removing the cap off his head. She stashed it in her tote bag.

“There, show the world that bright face of yours.”

He grumbled, “Exactly not what I had in mind…”

“Our clothes are different, that’s what matters. Actually…” Noda tapped her chin and gave him a once-over. “You look pretty dashing in that. I never took you to be so fashionable.”

“It’s not really for that, this was my grandfather’s on my mother’s side,” he said, placing his hands in the pockets. “He was a sailor and a fisherman.”

Noda gazed, her eyes sparkling. “Eiichi…that’s really sweet…”

Her output began bubbling up again and he was just waiting for someone to catch them standing around.

“Okay, let’s get going. Two people conversing in a bathroom hall is just strange.”

“Right.”

They made their way back over to the school, hoping they wouldn’t be too late after their conversation. Just as the gates came in view, students were stepping out.

Eiichi noticed how strange this scenario seemed for both of them. In his mind, he thought they looked like two ordinary people coming home from work or on their day off, reminiscing on their high school years together. As odd as it felt, he figured this must be what they were aiming for. He supposed it was true – if you look the part, you feel and act the part.

They found a parked car to stand by that was far enough away. Noda leaned against it while Eiichi stood before her, the two of them looking like they were conversing. Noda had her camera on her hip and at the ready, and occasionally lifted it up to scan the entrance path. When she finally spotted Reiko and her friends, she pointed them out. They had stopped in the courtyard to talk for a short time, but with some coaxing from Reiko, she and a friend split off from the group, leaving the others to talk.

They were headed in Noda and Eiichi’s direction, toward the market area, with other groups of the school behind. To avoid coming too close to any of them, they began walking.

They moved quickly and attempted to blend by finding a shop window to look into. Eiichi used his peripheral vision to look to his right. A few students were on the sidewalk, headed in their direction, Reiko and her friend among them.

“Noda, this would be about that time…”

Without a word, Noda removed her glasses and tucked them into her satchel. Right after, Eiichi felt her arm glide underneath his, and her figure pressing up close. She was trying to hide her face, although he was the more likely one for someone to pick out. Her clinging to him was, of course, because she couldn’t see a thing, but he could feel her nervousness skyrocketing, much to her own surprise.

She was starting to regret her idea. It was a sad affair, that this was likely her first time doing this with a guy, and it was fake, not to mention it was with someone like him. That didn’t seem to bother her though. To her, it was all for the girl in trouble.

He, on the other hand, was managing some difficulties of his own, trying to keep his heart rate down. He’d never done this before either, both the arm-holding thing and the disguise. That perfume she was wearing was intoxicating! Was that really necessary!?

“Tell me if you can see them…” muttered the unfamiliar girl on his arm.

“Shh…They’ll come by any moment. They might be moving fast, so try not to trip. Keep your voice low, unless you want to talk about something unrelated.”

“Fat chance, what’ll we talk about?”

“Anything you want. Just make it convincing. Here they come…”

Reiko’s ashen output passed behind them, next to the excitable output of her friend. They were actually talking a lot for how depressed she was. Her loud friend must have been making attempts to keep her mind on other things. Noda and Eiichi didn’t have to do anything.

When they got far enough away, Eiichi turned his head for a peek.

He gave Noda a little tug with his arm. “Alright, let’s go.”

Her voice quivered. “Okay…”

They started off and began tailing. The pace was slow enough. Eiichi made sure to keep a good enough distance that he could tell roughly how well the two people ahead of them were faring.

Noda’s arm trembled in his and her wide eyes stared fearfully ahead. “If you run me into a pole, I will murder you…”

“I’m right here, that’s not gonna’ happen…” Then he slowed down. “There’s a stop light up ahead.”

“Got it…”

Standing near the two girls as the traffic floated past was a little too troubling, him being the only one Reiko would be able to recognize. He planted Noda and himself at their backs and just hoped something didn’t spook their target and cause her to whip around on them. If anything did happen, they would see him, but Noda at least would be spared.

The crossing light turned on and they were moving again, Noda in full trust of her guide.

The train station was a straight shot through the market area, and it appeared that was where the two girls were headed.

It was much easier for them to blend in with the larger groups of people, but most had been students, so Noda was still worried, only recognizing the blurry colors of the school uniforms, probably fearing someone that knew her was there.

Eiichi made sure to get on the same car as their quarry, and found a place far away from them with as few students as possible.

Noda took out her cell phone and tapped on the screen, then presented it to Eiichi.

‘If anyhoo reconciles us, we serendipity will have to flow like we’re on a relationship!!!’

Auto-correct and bad eyesight aside, he got the message.

He took her phone and tapped on the screen while she stared straight ahead, like a literal blind date.

‘Oh well. If it happens, it happens. We can play it off, and then I’ll break up with you a week later.’

She raised the screen to where it was almost touching her nose.

Then he felt her hand grab his finger and pull back on it with ferocity. He had to hold in his whimpers.

“Haha! Oh, you’re so clever,” she faked.

The train stopped in a section of the city with more refined-looking homes, and they followed their quarry out of the station and into another market area.

Shops and cafés soon turned into houses that were double and triple the size of Eiichi’s. The numbers of people around them had gradually decreased and there were no students nearby, so this was when he backed their distance up a good thirty yards and told Noda she could put her glasses back on.

“It’s not going to be hard to lose them, but we need to keep our distance.”

The two Aki Guro students took them down a turn into a well-polished area. The road stretched out a distance and they waited for the girls to get far enough before they continued around the turn. They followed them to another turn down a smaller street, and eventually, to a large, white brick house with a broad driving pad and an electric gate.

The girls entered through a smaller gate next to this, on a pathway that led up to the front door.

Thankfully, there was a vehicle large enough for them to hide behind. A van of all things.

Eiichi muttered, “If we hang around here long enough, someone’s bound to notice how suspicious this looks.”

Noda snatched her camera from her hip.

“Get pictures of the house, the property number, the girl with her, and the family’s name plate, if you can.”

It was only a matter of seconds for her. Eiichi watched from behind while Noda leaned to the right of the van, her camera making a quick procession of electronic clicks and shutter sounds. He kept an eye out, and while Noda’s output had remained focused, he could feel himself getting edgy, just waiting to see someone peeking out a window or stepping outside. The camera noises didn’t help, he felt like they would never end.

“Okay, that’s good…” Noda muttered.

She leaned back behind the van and was about to look over the stills on her screen, but without thinking about what he was doing, Eiichi grabbed her hand and started walking. This caused Noda to nearly drop her camera, but she let it slip into her other hand and placed it on her hip again.

He kept her hand in his, to keep it convincing if anyone saw. Her output started burning up uncontrollably. He imagined her face was probably healthy shade of pink right now, despite her cold fingers.

She spoke to take her mind off it, “I got everything, even a clear image of her friend. She stayed outside to check her phone, which gave me a few good shots.”

“I would put her on a list for questioning. It wouldn’t be a good idea to approach them in their group, so we need to find a way to single each of them out.”

“Yeah, but they’re going to have questions for us.”

“We’ll just have to consider those beforehand and come up with answers, but we can’t hope that they’ll be willing to talk after that. There’s no telling, really.”

If anything, he could flaunt his abilities some and attempt a little manipulation. They both knew things that her friends wouldn’t suspect, and he knew things that not even Noda would suspect.

They were several feet from the street corner. He figured he’d let go of her hand once they were out of sight.

Noda’s output began cooling off, and Eiichi shifted his gaze to some of the finely decorated and designed homes.

“It would be nice if we had a car.”

“Yeah, I don’t suppose you know how to hot-wire one?”

She was smirking at him and he grinned in response. Then she lifted her cam to check the images.

“We still only know so much. All this work, and we only managed to find out where she lives,” Eiichi vented.

Noda spoke while still gazing at the screen. “Her family name is Morita. She lives in an upper-class suburb north of Aki Guro, that’s something.”

Eiichi now had her full name, Reiko Morita. He pondered whether he could create a convincing enough tale to tell Noda that he had heard of her somewhere before. It was so stupid that he couldn’t just tell her some of these things without her getting reasonably suspicious. Things were moving too slowly. They had managed to use up an entire day to get information they hadn’t been able to coax out of her, and other than that, this whole trip had been him watching Noda turn herself into eye candy.

“I would want to start with the girl that was with her.”

“I don’t know. That seems to be a very dedicated friend of hers there. I’d still question her, but she doesn’t seem like the type. She’s just looking out for her.”

In passing, he had picked up that girl’s output and didn’t notice any contradictory malicious or controlling emotions, but this was still not enough for him to come to any reasonable conclusions.

“Don’t believe everything you see, photo girl. If this person is smart, they’ll know to get close to her with her being none the wiser.”

Noda looked up from her camera for a moment. “You’re too paranoid.”

“Do you want to tail her too?”

“No, this has been tiring enough. Let’s go.”

Eiichi sighed. “Alright…”

  • * *

They made it to the market square. Shops had already turned on their lights, as the sun was still going down over the horizon. People buzzed about, attending different cafés and food stands, and milling around with phones in hand.

While walking, Noda and Eiichi had sparked up another conversation between themselves that had become heated in minutes.

“I’m just saying, let me go up to them tomorrow and see if I can work some magic!” Noda stated.

“You’re grasping at straws with that move! How do you know they’re going to suddenly start talking, or even trust you?”

“I could make up a reason! She’ll recognize me anyways! And what makes you an expert? You have no knowledge of how we girls socialize, so what makes you so certain it won’t work out?”

“I’m saying it’s like performing surgery with a mallet. A random girl walks up and starts asking questions. Yeah sure, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all.”

“I’m not just going to start asking personal stuff, I’ll start off with a little light conversation! ‘Hey, remember me from the other day?’ ‘How’re you holding up?’ ‘Did the police find out anything yet?’”

“At that rate, it’ll take forever. We may never get anywhere.”

“Your way sounds like it’ll take a lot longer. Do you have any better ideas?”

“…”

They had calmed down, exhausted and walking in silence around thin groups of people and past the well-lit shops. It was getting dark, and the spring nights could still get chilly.

Eiichi stopped, “Here.”

He removed his peacoat and the wool flourished around Noda’s thighs as he placed it on her shoulders.

Her mouth gaped at the gesture as her eyes laid over the black wool through her lenses. A click receded from her throat.

Ah…” her eyes shut and then opened on him. That beautiful face melted into an expression of sincere endearment. “Thanks, Eiichi…”

“Sure thing.”

They continued walking.

“Wanna’ get something to eat?”

Noda rolled this around in her head a while. If it was going to be like a date, she should get the full experience. However, the only thing he could afford would be beef bowls.

Just when she was about to say yes, Eiichi sensed that someone was behind them. He had forgotten about this output, which was one he’d seen before, but could still recognize it. It had a curiosity that almost matched Noda’s, and a spunky, rowdy attitude to add to it.

He whipped around and his sharp gaze fell on the pair of pigtails placed on the head of what was Reiko’s friend, whom they had last seen dropping her off at home.

Her large, youthful eyes widened and she panicked. After a little dance of her looking frantically about and making chirpy noises, she jumped behind a nearby light pole against a shop building’s outer walls. He could still see her shoulders and pig tails sticking out the sides.

Noda had turned as well and saw the spectacle. “It’s her friend.”

“Looks like we just might have a lead on all this…” Eiichi stepped forward.

His head curved around the light pole and his yellow eyes glared down at the little ball of a girl, who was crouched now and staring up at him with a nervous grin.

“Ya know, it’s better to hide from the people you’re following before they notice you…”

The girl raised her gentle hand in a wave. “Heh…heh-heh…”

  • * *

“Why are you two following Rei-chan and me!?” The girl stood and pointed, mainly at Eiichi.

After gathering the girl, they had made their way across to a fountain within the market square to sort things out. Eiichi conversed with the loud and unwary fellow student, while Noda sat on one of the benches with his peacoat still over her shoulders.

Eiichi fired back, “You’re the one who followed us! Shouldn’t we be asking the questions!?”

“You did it first! I saw both of you at the shoe shop near the school! And when I dropped Rei-chan off at her house, I saw you leaving and knew there was something suspicious about you!”

“Kid, don’t just run up on a couple strangers like that! You have no idea what could happen to you! Just what to expect from a girl who looks like she’s still twelve.”

“Hey! I’m a second-year! I’m fifteen! And the proper height for both!” She stuck her tongue out at him while tugging an eyelid down.

“Oh yeah, you just ooze maturity.”

“At least I don’t look like a drug dealer, or some fashion hack!”

“What’s that, you little twerp!?”

This girl didn’t seem to have any kind of situational awareness whatsoever! As aggressive as she was, she should learn to consider the outcomes of her actions instead of just running blindly into something. However, her concern for Reiko was pretty genuine. Eiichi didn’t pick up anything suspicious upon her mentioning her friend’s name. None of the obsessive infatuations or repetitive loops of thought ever peeked out, and only worry and sympathy were present. This led Eiichi to believe that it was highly unlikely she was the stalker. So Reiko’s chaperone was off the hook.

“We’re private investigators.” Noda rose from her seat. “And we’ve taken an interest in your friend’s case.”

Eiichi and the girl were already up in each other’s faces at this point, but upon Noda’s bringing together of these two distinct words, they both slowly turned their heads and looked at her with mutual surprise for different reasons.

“We’re what…” muttered Eiichi.

He just had to see how she was going to follow this up.

“Oh wow!” the girl blurted out with clenched fists, unable to contain herself. “This is so cool! So you guys do missing person cases, and stuff like that!?”

“Um…” Noda scratched her cheek. “Well, yeah!”

“And you go after serial killers that the police can’t find!? And track down unfaithful lovers!?”

“Y-Yeah…all the time…” Noda’s expression dimmed.

The girl leapt and thrust a fist into the air. “This means we’re finally getting somewhere! We’ll be able to find out who’s been stalking Rei-chan!”

We? What do you mean ‘we’?

“Um, yeah! You bet we are!” Noda was floundering.

Eiichi spoke up, “I think what my friend here is trying to say is that we have no idea what we’re doing, but we’re concerned for your friend. We’re actually students from your school.”

This put a damper on the poor girl’s mood.

“We bumped into her the other day, and she looked pretty terrified. And then we saw her shoe locker and figured this was worth looking into.”

She paused for a moment at this sour truth, and then her output turned a bit gloomy.

“Oh yeah…you saw that, didn’t you…”

Noda spoke. “I’m sorry if this is strange, and if you don’t want our help, we’ll leave it to the police, but…we thought it was the right thing to do.”

Then the girl’s output lit up with brilliant hope again.

“No way! You’re lying, right? To save your cover. You’re not wearing uniforms, and you don’t even look like you belong in high school!”

They actually looked that mature? Eiichi figured their cover had worked well, but not that well.

“No, we’re trying to tell you, we are students at Aki Guro! We don’t have anything that identifies us as private investigators!”

She was definitely not the stalker, she was too desperate for Reiko’s sake. She would grasp at anything that could possibly save her friend.

She looked pretty young. She probably thought they were in the same boat as her, that they were college-aged people who looked young enough to pass for high school students, which would make for a good cover, but was not what he was going for.

“Alriiight~,” she sidled up to Eiichi, flattening a hand against her cheek and nudging him with her elbow. “I hear ya, smooth operator.”

Eiichi smacked a hand over his eyes. There was no convincing her. This was so troublesome that he needed a smoke, and he pulled his pack from the back pocket of his jeans.

“I knew it!” The girl pointed as he lit up. “You are professionals! Though that is totally cliché, a chain-smoking PI—pff!—Come on!”

“I’m doing this because you’re annoying as—! Oh, whatever…”

He caught whiffs of Noda’s output chuckling at him from where she stood. She obviously was willing to go along with their new cover.

“Well, I don’t care if you’re professionals or not. Rei-chan is in trouble and needs help, but her family hasn’t requested any aid from freelance investigators that I know of. I don’t even know that there’s any pay in it for you, so why are you choosing to help her?”

This was a question Eiichi wasn’t sure how to answer himself. Maybe it had been easy when Noda had asked, but that had been personal. He left it up to her, it was basically her show anyways.

“Because that’s what we do…” Noda said. “My friend here, though he may not look it, is very perceptive when it comes to people. He has experience with what your friend is going through and knows that she’s in danger.”

Eiichi backed this up. “The things that your friend has been experiencing are only going to get worse if nothing is done about it.”

“It’s good that you say that…” the girl muttered. “Because we don’t know what the police have been doing, or if they have been doing anything. She hasn’t received a phone call or anything…”

She played with the hem of her school coat and stepped over to the fountain.

“At first I thought you two were the stalkers, but then I saw you put your coat on your partner there, and I figured there’s no way you can be the stalkers!”

They tensed up, “We’re-we’re not going out!

Eiichi touched his head and sighed. “Jeez, don’t lower your entire guard just because of a kind gesture…”

The girl giggled and with a flourish of her skirt, she turned to face them.

“Rei-chan has been scared for a very long time…and I don’t want to see her suffer anymore. She’s my best friend…and I want to see the old Rei-chan from before…she’s always quiet, but you can tell when she’s happy.”

Her eyes glimmered in the lights of the market, the woeful sign of her plight. “You are the only people who have come forward to help her. So I will let you, under one condition.”

Eiichi grimaced. “And what’s that?”

She smiled, pigtails waving as she nodded to the side.“You let me help too?”

“No.”

Suddenly, all the pomp and bravado sank away from her expression. “Oh, come on! I’ll do anything! Even if it’s getting coffee and donuts! I’ve been her friend since we were little! I can tell you anything! I can get her to talk with you too, she trusts me!”

Noda pleaded as well. “Hear her out, Eiichi, this is the farthest we’ve gotten.”

“Eiichi?” The girl’s eyes popped out at him.

Eiichi took a drag and exhaled before glancing sideways at her through the white smoke.

She stared a moment, and then placed a hand upon her chin, “Ya know, you do look kinda’ like a guy I know about. He goes to my school. You’re not as skinny as him, and you don’t have the facial hair, but you match his description.”

“What’s his name?”

“Eiichi Kozuka.”

“That’s because I am Eiichi Kozuka!” he flared.

“Psh! No you’re not!” she giggled. “You should really work on your disguise. I heard Eiichi Kozuka is skinny and really ugly. He has facial hair, and a scar on his face from a knife fight. Oh! And he has a sleeve of freaky tattoos running up and down his right arm!”

Do they just make this stuff up and pass it on to the next to add to it!? Human comprehension is not what it should be.

Eiichi would have nothing to worry about by the time he started his third year! Everyone would have their own wacky idea of what he looked like, they wouldn’t recognize the genuine article! This must have been what he got for avoiding the other students.

“Eiichi Kozuka is a hypo…something-er-whatever, but he’s always faking illnesses. He’s a total nut-job! There’s no way you’re Eiichi Kozuka. You may look a little bit like him, but he wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. So if you’re not Eiichi Kozuka, then what should I call you?”

Eiichi could feel that stress twitch coming back in his right eye. He looked to Noda, who smiled back. It would have been a lot easier to argue with her if she still had the braids. He couldn’t believe he was about to submit to this.

He turned his slumped shoulders and blank stare back to the girl. “Just call me Eiichi…”

“Oookay, whatever dude.”

“Eiichi…” Noda pressed. “You still haven’t answered her other question.”

Reiko’s friend gazed at him with watery, puppy-dog eyes, hands pleadingly clenched together. Somehow he felt like he was being played like a fiddle. He couldn’t argue with any of the points made. He did pin her as a possible lead, and she had not proven them wrong so far. Because she and Noda were optimistic types, they didn’t cause him a pain in his head, but somewhere else.

“Fine, do whatever you want…”

“Yaay!” the girl made another leap and rushed over to spontaneously embrace Noda.

The two cheered and laughed together while Eiichi stood by, pushing away the ‘super-happy-fun time’ thoughts, wishing he was home and in bed.

He sighed and another cloud of white exited between his lips. “What a long day…”

 

Chapter 6

A Cat and Her Claws

 

The girl, who had identified herself as Sumi Tamuro, told them everything she’d learned from Reiko of her encounters. After they exchanged information, she devised a plan to introduce Noda and Eiichi to Reiko after school the next day. She said she would tell Reiko all about their ‘profession’ and this set off red flags for Noda and Eiichi, wondering if Reiko would even believe such a hair-brained cover, after having met them only a few days ago. They stressed with Sumi that she not mention at all that they were private investigators, nor that they had followed them home.

Later, Noda said she didn’t think anything she had said to Reiko would discredit them as not being undercover private investigators, but Eiichi stressed that if Reiko found out and said something, they would be in a heap of trouble for impersonating professionals, even if they had never claimed to be police.

The next day, after school let out, they waited in the main lobby. Thankfully for Eiichi, Noda was back to her usual geeky appearance, braids and all.

“They’re taking a while.” Noda checked her phone.

“It’s only been ten minutes, you’re just being impatient.”

Her output had been teeming with excitement and driving him up the wall. He couldn’t blame her, she couldn’t help herself. This hopefully meant no more sneaking around.

He continued. “She’s probably still talking with her. I don’t think Morita’s first reaction to total strangers offering help would be elation. More like caution.”

“Kozuka!!!”

The random bark from up the hall set both their nerves off and their heads turned in slow increments towards the brick-red ponytailed bombshell that was Ryoko Takahashi, stomping up the hall toward them with rage in her eyes and likely homicide on her mind. Eiichi would check if this was really the case.

“You had better come up with a convincing story as to why this girl is with you, because I am just about inclined to believe you brainwashed her!” Ryoko clenched her fists, her nose just centimeters away from his.

He could tell she had been observing their conversation from afar.

 

 

Eiichi leaned back and raised defensive hands. His eyes became two passive, horizontal slits as Ryoko’s output engulfed him with all the stuffy ambiance of a radiator.

“Personal space is a wonderful thing, ya know.”

“Don’t give me your bullshit! What’s going on!?”

“We’re still in school, Takahashi-san, let’s use our inside voices.”

“Don’t speak to me like I’m a child! And stop changing the subject!”

Noda had been peeking between them. “You know each other?”

Ryoko backed off and placed a hand on her hip. “I think ‘know’ is a little strong.”

“It’s just a word…” Eiichi said, rolling his eyes. “Of course we know each other.”

Ignoring him, Ryoko smoothed out her mood, and bowed to Noda, “Forgive me, I’m Takahashi Ryoko.”

“Asako Noda,” she returned. “Yes, I’ve heard all about you. I even did a photo shoot at one of your judo meets. You were very impressive.”

Ryoko flipped her ponytail out. “Well, thank you, but I don’t like to brag…”

Wow, she actually smiled…

“Judo is my favorite pastime, and one of my crowning achievements. Actually, I saw those photos in the school news app! You did a fantastic job.”

“Oh gosh, you’re making me blush…” Noda rubbed the back of her neck and Eiichi started picking up the warm and fuzzies from her again.

Ryoko pointed to Noda. “See that, Kozuka? That’s how normal people talk.”

“Ah man, and I nearly forgot…”

Continuing in a pseudo-exhausted demeanor, Ryoko turned her attention back to Noda. “Please, maybe you can give me a sane answer. Why are you hanging out with him?”

Noda spoke simply, “Well, we’re just waiting for some friends.”

“Friends?” Ryoko scoffed while jabbing a thumb at Eiichi. “You’re actually friends with this guy?”

“Um, well yeah! Sure!” Noda presented Ryoko with a bright, innocent smile.

Ryoko’s expression became dull, and her head swiveled to Eiichi and back to Noda. “You’re messing with me, right? He put you up to this…”

Noda blinked. “No, not really.”

Eiichi thought he should step in. “Come on Takahashi, is it really so hard to comprehend?”

Ryoko placed an arm across Noda’s shoulders and began leading her away. “Come with me, Asako. I can introduce you to some much better people, with a lot more to offer.”

“Hey, wait a minute!” Eiichi shouted.

They didn’t need Ryoko poking around right now. He had hoped she would say a few crude things and then leave, but now she was just complicating things. If she stuck around long enough, she would start snooping in on what they were trying to do here and just make things worse! With her around, they would probably scare Reiko off!

Noda gently separated herself from Ryoko’s embrace. “Thank you, but some other time would be fine. Eiichi and I really need to get going.”

Ryoko’s delighted expression sank to sheer terror. Her jaw might as well have made a dent in the linoleum. Not only had Noda used his first name, but referenced herself in the same sentence, with an absentminded allusion to something that was beyond Ryoko’s own perception of reality and within things she never thought might be possible.

“Eiichi? …a-a-and you?”

Eiichi smacked his forehead, ‘Oh this is just great…

No!!!

Ryoko’s voice echoed up the halls.

Her legs propelled her toward Noda until their noses were nearly touching this time. “You cannot be serious! Listen, I know you don’t know me, but I know him! And he is not the kind of person you want to enter into that kind of relationship with!”

Noda was confused and actually getting scared. “Wait! What? Eep!

Ryoko grabbed her by the shoulders. Horrified eyes stared into Noda’s with such intensity, Eiichi was afraid the frames of her glasses might crack.

“He is the devil, Asako-san! Run fast, run far!”

“It’s not like that! Holy shit, Takahashi!” Eiichi blurted.

He had to get things back on track.

Ryoko whipped a pointed finger on him. “You stay out of this!”

But you’re talking about me!

Two outputs approached him from behind. One excited and eager, the other timid and cautious.

“Hey, what’s going on!?” a voice sounded from behind him.

He turned and saw Sumi standing there with her hand raised, a bright smile on her face, while Reiko was tucking herself behind her friend, quivering, with eyes to the floor, not sure how to handle what was happening. He had run out of time.

“Hey, wait a minute…” Sumi blinked at him. “You’re here, but where’s your partner?”

Sumi popped her here and there around the area, looking in every available direction for the long haired beauty from the night before.

“I thought you said you would both be meeting us here?”

While still in Ryoko’s clutches, Noda managed to brush a hand through the air. “Um, that would be me. Hello.”

“Oh! It’s you! Wow! For disguises, you really go all out!”

Sumi rushed over to Noda and began ogling her hair and figure.

“Oh yeah, well, this is just what I go with…”

Eiichi was on the verge of a meltdown, ‘Oh, could this just-get-anymore complicated!?

Ryoko had frozen in place. She looked like she was staring at the conversation, but nothing was getting through. Then her head turned toward Eiichi, and he swore he could hear her joints creaking.

Her bangs shaded over her eyes and she took one quick, vexed step after another, until she was almost on top of him. Her output burned bright red from behind the two ominous, glowing, blood-red beads, which beamed a death stare from the dark of her bangs. Now she was all eyes, lips making subtle movements in his lower vision.

“What in the hell are you up to Kozuka? Dragging along a bunch of girls? Doing who knows what? That can’t mean it’s for something good. So how much money did you pay them? I am this close,” she pinched her fingers apart, “to doing something that will put you in a lot of pain and destroy your embarrassing reputation, if you don’t explain to me, right now, just what the hell is going on…

It was really no longer the time to have his fun with her, this whole situation was giving him a pounding headache. “Ryoko, this is all a big misunderstanding…Just listen to reason, there’s nothing going on between any of us—”

“Hello, Morita-san.”

Noda and Sumi had walked past them and greeted the quiet and confused Reiko. Her face turned in a series of slow, little movements, scanning her area, before she fidgeted and played with her tote bag.

“Hello…”

Sumi waved a hand toward Noda, “See? This is the really cool girl I told you about. She didn’t look like this at all yesterday, n-not that I’m insulting your look,” she flustered, “I think it’s cute!”

“Y-You…gave me your number…” Reiko murmured.

Noda nodded, “Mhm, I hoped that we would be able to discuss what’s going on a little further.”

“Oh! So you’ve already made contact! Did you even need my help?” Sumi giggled.

“Very much, Tamuro.” Noda smiled. “Morita, I was concerned last time we met, that you were too frightened to want to speak with me, so I gave you the only available option I could. But Eiichi and I have been talking, and we decided it would be best if we all met and discussed what’s been happening a little further, if you’re comfortable with it.”

Reiko’s eyes blinked hopelessly, and she fidgeted again, considering what she was going to say next.

Her words came out sounding fearful, but with a hint of skepticism. “So you really think you can help me?”

Noda carried herself in a professional manner that threw Eiichi off considerably. He knew she was doing this all for the sake of Reiko’s wellbeing, but her inner motivations were injected with the adrenaline-pumping determination of them possibly catching her stalker.

“That’s what we hope to achieve from this. If we can all work together, we just might be able to come up with something that would be presentable for the police.”

Reiko didn’t say anything else, and looked very uncertain. Her eyes wandered up from the floor until they met with Eiichi’s.

She stared back at him, and he could feel her wavering output becoming gradually more unstable. She was still afraid of him. To save everyone the trouble of trying to chase after her, he broke contact first.

“Wait a minute.” Ryoko left him and stepped over to the other three girls. “Could you repeat some of that again?”

Noda kept silent.

“Rei-chan?” Sumi was reaching for her friend’s approval.

Reiko looked shyly up at Ryoko. “I think I know you…”

“You might, I’m Takahashi Ryoko,” she said as another attempt at a humble introduction, though someone of her class could only do so much to appear as such.

Eiichi picked up that this type of introduction had been common practice, considering her popularity.

“Morita Reiko…”

Reiko must have felt more comfortable with giving her name this time, since almost everyone here seemed to know it.

Sumi inserted herself as an illegitimate spokesperson. “Someone has been following Rei-chan around and causing trouble, so we’re doing what we can to help her out.”

“Haven’t you called the police?” asked Ryoko.

“She has, several times, but no one has really done anything.”

“Well, hasn’t there been an investigation?”

“Not that we know of. Rei-chan hasn’t mentioned one…”

“It’s because cases like hers get backed up in the Saitama police department inbox every day,” Eiichi inserted sharply, still keeping his distance for his own sake. “There are hundreds of people reporting stalker cases, most claiming to have been offended without any proof, and then there are the ones that really are being offended, and the cops are left to sort through the weeds. I wouldn’t be surprised if your case in somewhere in the middle of the stack by now.”

The four stared at him after this sudden outburst of information.

Ryoko’s voice emanated with disgust. “And just how would you know that, vagrant?”

“You could learn a lot if you used your phone for things other than texting your friends about clothes and watching kitten videos.”

Ryoko’s face turned red. “You arrogant, son of a—”

“What do you know about them!?”

It took everyone a moment to realize that this had been Reiko’s voice, crying out in plight. Judging by Sumi’s surprise, this had to have been the loudest Reiko had spoken, with the most words she had put together, in a long time. Eiichi knew she hadn’t even meant to ask that, it had just come out of its own accord, as an urge, a must that she couldn’t hold in any longer.

Reiko’s eyes were dead straight, focused on him, and he could see her figure trembling ever so subtly, desperately waiting for his answer.

Eiichi took a risk and stepped closer. Her output was still heavy with despair, and weighed on his psyche with thumping convulsions, also making him a little jumpy and cautious of his surroundings, but as well, he could sense a dash of hope, which gave him a chance. She was at a point where she would listen to anyone who could possibly give her the answers she sought.

“Hhh…” He sighed.

If he didn’t have his abilities, he wouldn’t be in this mess right now.

He sauntered to a comfortable distance from Reiko and dared those pleading gray eyes behind the small circles of her rims, seeing if she would reconsider because of who she was talking to.

Reiko’s body trembled, her output wavered in fear, but she forced herself to stay. This strange boy still terrified her. He was something in the background of the grand scheme that she was unfamiliar with. Of course, why should she listen to him? He stalked in the shadows of her mind, where, possibly, her own pursuer dwelt. But if he claimed to know him, she was willing to listen.

Unnoticed by the other members of the group, he saw Reiko’s chest expanding as she breathed in and held her ground.

With a softening of his yellow stare, he invited her know him better.

“Let’s get something to drink, and I will tell you everything I know. You pick the place.”

“You can take us anywhere you feel is best,” Noda added.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute…” Ryoko was beginning to feel left out. “So, let me get this straight. Someone is stalking her, and you’re going to try and help? What’re you gonna’ do, catch the guy yourself?”

“No, that’s not the plan we had in mind.” Noda patted her camera. “We were just hoping to dig up enough info to maybe find out who it is. If I can use my baby to get pictures, we might be able to help nab the guy, or at least send him running.”

“Yeah! I met Kozuka and Asako the other day!” Sumi inserted. “They do this all the time, I just know they can help us! They’re private inv-mmph-mmph…MMMPH!!!

Noda had clapped her hand over Sumi’s mouth and nothing but muffled sounds came forth. She chuckled nervously at Ryoko and Reiko while Sumi struggled under her grasp.

“Haha…Just, uh…give us a few minutes here,” she said while scooting back toward the shoe lockers with the student in tow, likely to have a chat about what could and could not be said around the popular girl.

Nice save, Noda. We’re looking more suspicious by the moment…

Eiichi thought this might be his chance to shake off their unwarranted tagalong.

“Takahashi,” he said smoothly. “I can tell this is all kinda’ over your head. Just chalk it off as kids doing goofy things, you don’t have to do your hall monitor thing right now. You probably have a lot of more important things to take care of, and I know you don’t wanna’ see my ugly mug anymore…” he was trying his best not to belittle her, but it was so easy. “So, you can just run along. Don’t worry about it, we’ve got this covered, it’s probably not as serious as you think.”

“Oh, I’m coming with.”

Shoo! Shoo! Go away! Look, girl! I got a tennis ball! Yeah! Go fetch!

He took consideration for poor Reiko standing by, who might as well have been a sporting event flier on a cork board, she was so quiet.

“Isn’t that just going a little too far with meddling in other students’ business?”

“Why not? You do it all the time. Apparently, you’re doing it right now.”

Oh, this just gets better and better…

Flashing his teeth at her in a nervous chuckle, he placed a hand on his forehead. “No, Takahashi, I’m being serious here. Aren’t there students you need to make sure leave on time? Maybe some other delinquents have stolen a girl’s diary or something…somewhere.”

Anywhere! Just not here!

Ryoko replied with an affirmative expression and the flip of her ponytail. “I already finished my rounds, and I haven’t gone out in a while, so I need to get some air. Besides, she looks like she might really be in trouble, and as my duty as class representative, I should help out in any way possible.”

That was it. There was not getting rid of her, she was along for the ride, and if she heard one iota of what he and Noda had claimed to Sumi, she would be all over them.

Then she closed in on him, pointing a finger right between his eyes. “But let’s get one thing straight here, Kozuka. I don’t like you.”

“Damn…that’s news to me.”

“I don’t like you, and I don’t trust you. I don’t know what you’re really planning on doing with these girls, but I know you’re up to something.”

She had a pretty good set of pearly whites, now that he noticed.

Eiichi frowned. “You can give yourself a pat on the back. Seems you got me all figured out.”

“Just the thought of you alone with them makes me sick. So I’m gonna’ come with, so I can keep my eye on you, and you’re just gonna’ have to deal with it. Got that?”

“Okay, but before you do, I’ve got one question.”

“What…” she grimaced.

“Just how many crooked cop movies have you seen?”

  • * *

Reiko decided to take them to a café across the street that Sumi said they went to a lot with their other friends.

The girls grouped together behind Eiichi and talked amongst themselves, while he kept watch of the surrounding people on the entrance path, checking every pair of eyes that might look their way, scanning as many outputs as he could, while trying to avoid the bubbly ones tailing right behind him. It seemed Reiko’s output was the one affecting him most, though the others mixed in helped balance things out. If it had just been him and Reiko, he wouldn’t be able to control the urge to look over his shoulder every few minutes.

Ryoko seemed to have changed into an entirely different person while talking with Noda and Sumi. She even laughed several times, which was a strange sound for Eiichi to hear. Though, the occasional transfer to wary suspicion and disgust told him she was burning holes in the back of his head with her stare.

It was good for him to be keeping his distance from Reiko, to save his head some pain, but he felt terrible for her. Her output switched between paranoia and fear of the people surrounding their group, to paranoia and fear of him, this strange person who claimed to know something about her problems.

What was more, since Ryoko was with them, making things exceedingly more difficult, making him exceedingly more anxious and annoyed, he also couldn’t smoke! Or else Ryoko would sound the alarms! Set off air raid sirens! Announce it on the intercom – ‘Eiichi Kozuka is a chain smoker and should be expelled!!! …That is all.

There’s likely something I’m overlooking here…’ he checked his shoulder to see the row of girls behind him. ‘A spaz, a hothead, a blabbermouth, and a…let’s just call her quiet for now. Still, each one attractive in her own way. I know most guys would kill to be in my situation, especially with Takahashi around, but taking the context into consideration, I just don’t know anymore…’

When they were nearly to the street, Ryoko was talking lively with Sumi, and Noda managed to break off from her pack and join him momentarily.

“So what’re we going to do? Just talk with Morita?” she murmured.

“That’s pretty much it. All we can do. I think even without having Takahashi with us, we would have to take this slow.”

Noda hissed at him, “What was your big idea bringing her with!? Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s great and everything, I don’t know why you don’t like each other so much, but we already have one person who might as well be an outsider, and she’s the only reason we’ve gotten this far.”

“Takahashi has had it out for me ever since last year.”

“What, you mean she’s in lo—”

“No, no! Not that! Why does everything float back to romance with you?”

“I’m a teenage girl, it’s only natural. It’s an everyday occurrence, and I keep an eye out for it just like I do everything else.”

“You are surprisingly comfortable with your position in life, aren’t you?”

With a giggle, Noda smiled at him.

Eiichi continued, while casting glances at the other students. “Ever since my reputation caught on, she decided it was her duty to zero in on me. I don’t know, I guess I just always confused her. There’s a reason why all the guys in school are afraid of her. She’s been known for taking down some of the meanest motherfuckers on campus with those judo skills of hers. She’s a hall monitor because she likes to go out looking for guys who look like me. She’s yet to catch me doing anything outside of skipping class.” He chuckled and Noda frowned at him. Eiichi let it pass and continued. “It bothers her a lot that she’s never caught me doing anything serious, so she made it a point to poke and prod at me until she could catch me doing anything that would prove her suspicions.”

“Hmm…I get it now.”

“Get what?”

“You’re not really a delinquent at all. You’re just a poser,” she hummed in low tones.

“If you wanna’ call me that, that’s your right. I never gave myself that title, you can thank the trustworthy student body of Aki Guro. And while we’re on the subject, you’re the one that wanted to play private investigators. It was your idea!”

“I know! I know! I’m regretting it now!”

“Let’s just try to get through this as cleanly as possible. Takahashi will make things difficult, but I can probably say a few things that will piss her off as a distraction…”

Eiichi’s ace in the hole was that the closer Ryoko got, the more information he absorbed, which made things difficult for her, and more enjoyable for him.

“Meanwhile, you manage Tamuro. Make sure she doesn’t say any more than is needed.”

He had already picked up that Noda and Sumi had made an agreement involving a little system of signals.

“Hey Kozuka!” Ryoko called from behind them. “I’ve got a great idea! How about you pick up the bill!”

She was really starting to push it with him.

“Doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me,” Noda smirked.

Eiichi droned, “You do realize I barely have a yen to spare.”

“Aw, c’mon,” Noda mushed her voice and patted his shoulder. “Even the school delinquent can stand to be a little chivalrous.”

She had obviously not forgotten about the night before.

They made it to the café. It was a small place, with broad window panes in the front. Reiko had picked this place so that there would be as many observers outside as possible. Though it made her intensely uneasy, given the possibility of being observed by people both outside and inside, she had decided to bear it. The risk of being seen by one was also the risk of being seen by many, which lowered the risk of anything bad happening.

After they ordered, Reiko picked a table very close to the front. Eiichi noticed this wasn’t something she normally did, but there were too many strangers in the group, and she didn’t want to take any chances. She was comfortable with sitting across from Eiichi as long as her best friend and the overly protective class rep were seated on her side. Noda found a seat next to him and set her camera on the table.

“Okay,” Eiichi eased in, “let’s start simple. How about you tell me how long this has been going on.”

This confused her, because she had trouble thinking back that far, as to how long ago the person had really begun stalking her, compared to when she had first started getting the letters. It had started out with a series of sensations that had built themselves into a paranoid complex, like Eiichi was witnessing now. She was certain it had been going on longer than she thought, and when it had finally become evident, it had kicked her suspicions into high alert. He picked all of this up not from anything Reiko had said, but merely from her contemplation of his inquiry.

Reiko kept her hands out of sight and in her lap, avoiding eye contact with him again and facing the table. She was wondering if this had been a good idea after all.

“It was halfway through my first year…August, I think…”

“But you didn’t know for sure.”

“No…”

“How long was it before you told anyone?”

“I didn’t tell my parents until January…”

“Because you thought it was all in your head.”

Reiko nodded.

Ryoko suddenly jumped in with her snarky input. “Aren’t you supposed to be explaining to her what this is all about?”

“Takahashi, let them talk,” Noda vouched for him.

“I can tell her some of the basic behaviors about who is stalking her, but I can’t have a full understanding of what’s going on until I hear from her what exactly has been happening. There are a variety of methods and behaviors in which a crime like this is committed, and it helps to know who we’re up against.”

This was truly the case for him. While Eiichi was able to discern the severity of the situation, his reading abilities only allowed him to know so much. Just like any normal person, he needed to make an inquiry to get the full picture, only, his abilities gave him the skills to coax information out in a more effective manner, and to paint a clearer picture. The presentation of any form of stimuli caused a series of cognitive and chemical reactions in the mind and body. If he wanted, Eiichi could randomly speak a single word, preferably a noun, and pick up exactly what one’s own thoughts were toward that stimuli. It could be done by presenting the real stimuli as well, as a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch.

Takahashi’s output threw its skeptical spite at him, but she said no more. Her output flaring up at him, coupled with Reiko’s despairing output, was making it difficult for him to keep things settled within himself. Fighting against the negativity was causing his brain to retaliate with painful tremors, but talking was helping.

However, he had to be very careful with his statements and questions. He couldn’t show that he knew more than was humanly possible for him, and run the risk of being nailed as the perpetrator.

“Is this someone that you know?” This was obvious for him, but he should still ask it.

“…I don’t know. I don’t think so, I don’t know very many boys.”

“Well, we can’t be sure if the stalker is male or female.”

He felt a shiver running up Reiko’s spine.

“Oh come on, that’s ridiculous, of course it’s a male!” Ryoko blurted.

“You seem to have a pretty close-minded idea of the possibilities in a situation like this, Takahashi. A stalker doesn’t have to have sexual motivations, but even that is very possible between female stalkers and female victims. I wonder if you’re aware of some of the clingy types that greet you at school every day, and their own fixations on the physical.”

Her cheeks turned bright pink. Already, she was holding back the urge to grab the napkin dispenser and throw it at him. “Don’t talk to me like that, Kozuka! You’re sick, you know that!?”

It was likely she would start distancing herself from certain fans in the near future.

“I’m only discussing psychological facts.”

This set off a prick of uncertainty in Reiko’s output.

Eiichi continued, “It seems there are a lot of things the ‘in-crowd’ is unaware of. It would be best for you to stop playing backseat driver here, and listen.”

“Please, Takahashi. Eiichi means well, he’s only saying what he believes to be true.” Noda was not crazy about having to play mediator here.

After staring daggers at him for a few more seconds, Ryoko unclenched her fists. “Fine, go on. You’re still an idiot.”

Noda and Sumi exchanged uncomfortable smiles, and Eiichi noticed Reiko had become overwhelmed with more caution and distrust.

“Morita?”

Reiko tried to make eye contact, but faltered back to her old mental state.

“What are your thoughts on what I said?” he asked.

“I…I don’t believe in psychology…I understand it’s a pseudo-science, with very little concrete understanding of true human behavior. Actually…I don’t know very much about it…”

“And what are your thoughts on human behavior?”

“I don’t think it’s something that can be studied in full. The study would be too invasive, and requires complete truth from people.”

She was very perceptive. For a few moments there, her caution shrank. They were getting to something that she enjoyed.

Eiichi smiled. “And what field do you prefer?”

Reiko was reluctant to answer, and Sumi inserted herself into the conversation.

“Rei-chan wants to be a scientist! She’s a total smarty-pants!”

“Oh! What do you want to do with that?” Noda asked.

Reiko scrunched her shoulders and muttered something that no one picked up.

“Speak up Morita, it’s okay,” Ryoko urged, aware she was letting her tender side show in front of her sworn enemy.

Reiko’s lips murmured under the glare of her specs, “…Anatomy…”

“Ah…” Ryoko leaned back with a sigh. “I wish I could talk with you about that, but that stuff is too boring. No offense.”

“Do you mean anatomy, like, cadavers and stuff?” Noda asked.

“No, no!” Reiko shook her head violently. “I don’t know if I could do that…I just like how the body works…”

This was playing out nicely. Having a group of chatty girls around was proving useful. Reiko was beginning to come out of her shell.

Ryoko smoothed her bangs. “I still think that’s really cool. You have something your heart is set on.”

Eiichi glanced at the others and back to Reiko. Now he was going to start sounding like the bad guy, much to Ryoko’s amusement.

“Still, whether you believe in psychology or not, it has a place in your current situation. I agree with you, but I believe it to be more of a study than a soft-science. Between science and psychology, psychology seems to be the only one asking the hard questions right now, and it’s the hard questions that can help lead us to our criminal.”

Reiko tensed up.

“And who are you, Sigmund Freud?” Ryoko snapped.

“Please, I dabble a little, but at least I know that, just like the hard sciences, it’s a part of our everyday life.”

You have no idea, Takahashi…

“I have spoken with a therapist…” Reiko murmured. “Before I knew what was happening. Nothing they told me helped.”

Eiichi peered at her. “You said it was before you knew you were being stalked?”

Reiko hesitated before nodding to the table top.

“First of all, the person you spoke with only dealt with generic cases, like anxiety, depression, anger, and relationship issues. They were not trained to deal with criminal psychology. Whether you believe it or not, psychology has a wide variety of applications. I’m not saying anything they told you would have been of use in your scenario, just that neither of you knew about your real scenario. Your suspicions and experiences were the cause of your anxieties, not the therapist or the study.”

A pause fell over the group. The waitress returned with their drinks, and after a bow and ‘thank you for your patronage’, she left.

They were getting off track again. “Anyway, if you’re comfortable with telling me, I need to know about the other things that have been happening. There’s every possibility that we can put together a framework of who this person is, which could narrow our search down a little more. As you already know, we were there for your incident at the shoe lockers. What you saw and what your reaction was made it clear that this has been happening for a considerable amount of time. If you had simply been none the wiser, your reaction wouldn’t have been as intense, though I’m sure you would have still been equally as disturbed.”

Ryoko interrupted, “What’s this about her shoe locker?”

Oh, for the love of—!

“Noda, Sumi, would you please explain for Takahashi, while I speak with Morita?”

The two pulled her attention aside with hushed words. Now that Takahashi was distracted, he could continue uninterrupted for a while.

Eiichi leaned in a little. “I know that it was something you had not experienced yet, which tells me things are escalating. There are factors that come into play that make it more possible for someone in the right position to have access to your privacy so easily. What else has been happening since the time you became aware of this person’s presence?”

Reiko tried to ignore the neighboring conversation about her, and concentrate on his words, realizing he was asking her to recall information while her mind was attempting to focus on so many other elements within her current surroundings.

“It could be anything at all, phone calls, letters, has a stranger or an acquaintance said anything to you in passing you would consider odd?”

He knew those would hit home.

A few stills floated into his mind’s eye again of the letters. Reiko didn’t touch her drink, and seemed to be playing with her fingers under the table.

“Um…I’ve been receiving a lot of strange phone calls…”

“Does the caller say anything?”

“No…it’s always silent. I haven’t answered them for a long time, so they started sending me text messages instead.”

“With the phone calls and texting, has anything really bizarre happened?”

Reiko fidgeted, and then brought out her smartphone. “This is a brand new phone. My father took my old one, ever since…”

She stopped, and Eiichi picked up a faint image of a shattered glass pane.

“Did something happen, Morita?”

Reiko glanced at him and then the other girls. She lowered her voice, “Yes…over the spring break…our house was broken into…”

“Did they take anything of value?”

She shook her head. “Just my hair brush…”

Eiichi placed his knuckles against his cheek, “Okay…what about your new phone? What happened there?”

“My father took my old one because he didn’t want it to bother me anymore. He also wanted to use it in case…the person called again. But it didn’t work. I had this new phone for a couple weeks before they started sending me texts again.”

“And that terrified you even more.”

“I never gave my number to anyone except my friends.”

“What about the phone calls, were they unavailable numbers?”

“No…they were all legitimate. I didn’t know any of them, and the police told me not to answer if the number was unfamiliar.”

“I think I have an idea of why that is…Are you aware of the cell phone thief?”

It had been some weeks since he and Noda had caught wind of the cell phone thief. It had not been going on for long, from what he could tell, and he wondered if it had started up sometime before the rumors, when Reiko had her old phone, and then came back with a fury, after her father took possession of it. At a school with such a large student body, cell phone thefts were a regular occurrence, but the large quantity and random variety of the thefts had been what had sparked all the rumors.

Reiko’s face lit up for once. “Do you think the cell phone thief could be my stalker!?”

“We don’t want to jump to conclusions, but it’s something worth looking into.”

This was still good, and Reiko talking to him was fanning away some of those negative vapors.

“They could very well be stealing cell phones because they want to make themselves less traceable. It’s the type of extreme behavior that could be expected from someone of this persona, but it still leaves a trail.”

He sensed a cold rush over her.

Reiko picked up her coffee, and Eiichi could see her hand trembling, making ripples in the liquid. She took a very long sip, looking like she might chug the whole thing.

“I know you’re getting anxious, but I need more. Is there anything else that’s been happening?”

“Yes, there’s a lot…” she was on the verge of being able to make eye contact without fleeing. “It all started with a letter I received in January. That was when I knew…I knew he was real.”

“Being terrified of a letter. I’m sure that had to be a very strong and unexpected fear.”

“I couldn’t understand it. Why? Why would someone come after me? I never hurt anyone. I’m not that attractive. I’ve never even been asked out by anyone.”

He wasn’t about to run the risk of reassuring her, this wasn’t really the time, but Reiko was wrong. Maybe it was his own opinion, but there was a charm to her. Her self-image had been the reason she covered herself up so much. She liked dark colors, and probably wore bulky clothing with those stockings of hers. Not that these things weren’t contributive to her character, but she always used them like camouflage, with high hopes that the more she covered up, the farther she would sink into the background. Classic avoidant behavior that he wasn’t so unfamiliar with in himself.

Something else he kept to himself, to save her feelings, was exactly that wish of hers to only be part of the background. Reiko did not have a strong presence like the other three. She was quiet and introverted. These were not bad qualities, but they made her an easy target. It didn’t matter that she had wanted to go unnoticed and live calmly, she had been noticed by someone, someone who took a keen pleasure in watching her suffer, no matter how small and defenseless she was.

“The person we’re looking for has a control complex. You may think they desire you specifically. They may even think that. The truth is, if it wasn’t you, it would be someone else. If you took extreme measures and moved out of Saitama, or even out of Japan, they wouldn’t be able to follow you.”

Reiko seized up at the terrible thought of leaving her home.

“Of course, that’s not what I’m implying here, I’m just making an example. If you left, they would mimic the behavior of a mourning lover, as if you had died, because unless they wanted to go through the extra trouble of following you, they would eventually move on to the next victim. It would be someone not too different from you. Someone who thinks they’re not beautiful, who doesn’t want any trouble, and will try to keep peace in their life, even if it costs them their own wellbeing and freedoms.”

This seemed a bit forward to her, but she settled on his certainty that he had an understanding of the person pursuing her.

“They hunt for their targets, they feed on their fear and confusion. Their goal is to make someone into their own private toy, and to play with them until they break. They obsess over this one thing that they’ve found, and believe it is theirs to be possessed and do with as they please. We’re likely looking for someone who’s weak-minded, but they’re knowledgeable enough to hide in plain sight. They likely don’t have very much confidence, which is why they have chosen to target you and only you.”

However, there was something about this that wasn’t adding up. Stalkers of this variety did typically have a lower level of mental functioning. It’s possible they could be intelligent enough to go to extreme measures to cover their tracks, but coming up with the idea of stealing cell phones so effectively to remain untraced was a bit too desperate and contrived for that level of thinking. It was possible, but unlikely.

Met with the harsh reality of his deduction, Reiko sat frozen with wide eyes staring across the table.

The conversation between the other three had died down minutes ago and they were all watching.

Eiichi drank from his black coffee and the cup made an audible tap as he set it down.

“You said they sent you letters, right?”

“Yes…” Reiko didn’t break her gaze.

“How did they refer to themselves?”

“It was hard to say…I think it was feminine…‘watashi’…”

“It’s still unclear,” Noda remarked.

“How many have you received?”

Reiko didn’t want to answer this, so she forced it out.

“A lot…” she shivered.

Eiichi tapped a finger on the table top, and leaned in on his elbow. “Have you held on to any of them?”

  • * *

Reiko was not fond of the idea of bringing three strangers from school to her house. Noda reassured her that they would understand if she said no. Eiichi followed up that it would be a good idea if they saw the letters, but didn’t push any further. However, Reiko’s knowledge that the stalker already knew where she lived, and had intruded on her living space once already, made her reason that even if any one of these people were the criminal, it wouldn’t matter if they entered her house now. Plus, she seemed to trust Ryoko to a degree. Ryoko’s favorable standing with most of the girls on campus, and her aggressive protectiveness, allowed Reiko to confide in her some. Sumi’s presence aided this a lot as well, along with the fact that their group was predominantly female.

However, Reiko seemed to be at odds with herself the entire way. One side accused her of allowing too much deviation from her own precautions, while the other pleaded that it wanted answers, and this was the only opportunity presenting itself. This inner conflict reminded Eiichi of his own thoughts over the past few weeks, but it wasn’t making things any easier.

Reiko and Sumi took the lead, while Eiichi walked between Noda and Ryoko, feeling like a damned spectacle. He would hate to feel the envious outputs of any males who noticed them, and the curious ones of any of the girls.

“So now we’re headed to her house,” Ryoko groaned. “What’ll he think of next?”

“You can leave any time you like,” Eiichi retorted.

“Oh no, I’m still in. Using a creep to catch a creep, I suppose that makes sense.”

“Would you like to take the lead, Takahashi? I’m sure you absorbed a lot of information on criminals from those fun after-school specials.”

More guilt and shame quashed over by anger. “I-I don’t have time to watch those,” she said smugly, “I’m simply too busy with studies…”

“Well, your grades are in the top ten percentile, so why wouldn’t I be inclined to believe you?”

This just confused her, and she suddenly felt like she had become defensive for nothing. Eiichi loved messing with her. She was revving up to retaliate in some way, but probably couldn’t think of anything to say that she hadn’t already. She huffed and did her mental best to let it go.

The sad thing, to Eiichi, was that Ryoko was a very intelligent and elegant girl to pretty much everyone. Noda certainly thought so. But whenever Ryoko was around him, wires got crossed, mechanisms seized up, and things just didn’t seem to function right. He just got under her skin and she couldn’t help but keep making one failed attempt at ridiculing him after another. He brought that temper out of her and made her feel stupid as a result. The girl with stellar grades and a fantastic record felt like a moron up against the renowned lowlife. Even now, it seemed she had lost sight of her original goal, like she was just taking up space, and no longer wanted to be around him. Maybe if only she knew she was playing cards against someone with an unfair analytical ability, she might toss her hand up and give herself the benefit of the doubt.

He decided he should let up on her. He hadn’t had a smoke in four or five hours, and the cravings, coupled with the outputs of this pseudo-harem that surrounded him, were making things just a little difficult. He figured this cruelty of his was subconsciously directed at Ryoko because she was the very reason why he couldn’t smoke. It was either crush the popular girl’s feelings and make her run away in tears, just so he could breathe sweet, sweet nicotine spirits, or hold out until she left. He looked forward to the delicious first light, once the day was over.

They took the same route as before – market, train station, another market, and then neighborhood.

Soon they were at her house again.

Reiko opened the front door and let them all in. Eiichi again observed his situation as though from the perspective of an onlooker, and had to hold in a laugh. A guy entering an empty house with four beautiful girls. Yep, nothing strange about this picture.

“Oh wow! You have such a beautiful home!” Noda marveled.

“What a nice layout,” Ryoko noted.

The interior was artfully designed, simple and spacious. Her family definitely had money. Most of the doors were on hinges, so the house had more of a western appeal.

The staircase was visible from the doorway, and angled left, up to the second floor. Reiko led them to the dining room beyond it. The kitchen was broad, and almost like part of the same space as the dining room.

“Would you like some tea?” Reiko muttered.

“Thank you very much,” Noda said.

The girls found spots on the large couch and around the dining table to sit, while Eiichi walked past them, and up to the back door.

This was the door he had seen in Reiko’s thoughts. They had replaced the pane long ago, and it stood there looking good as new. If the person had broken in through the back, it was still possible they knew Reiko, but were not close enough visit to have been able to obtain a copy of her house key. But then again, if someone very close to her wanted to steal a hair brush from her, or anything with her scent on it, they would only need to visit sometime and swipe it when she wasn’t looking…

“Eiichi, would you like tea?”

Tea with a bunch of beautiful girls. How could he say no?

After Reiko poured their cups, and the group exchanged a few short words over sipping, she led them upstairs and to her room. The door was already open and the room was dim, though her bed was visible. A black ball of fur with a tail, triangles for ears and two large, green eyes, awaited them at the foot of it. To Eiichi, it awaited her more than any of them, though it had been aware of their presence since before they even set foot in the door.

“Wow, your room is kind of what I thought it would look like,” Ryoko marveled. “But, I imagined more lab stuff.”

Reiko clasped her hands behind her skirt, “Oh, I keep all of that under my bed.”

“Naturally…”

The black curtains of her window were closed, sunlight from outside just peeking through the edges. Reiko was an introvert, but Eiichi knew it had not always been like this for her. She once enjoyed leaving those curtains open. Despite her affinity for dark shades, she enjoyed the sunlight, and she enjoyed going out, her life once having been a perfect harmony of dancing between active days and calming periods of rest and solitude.

Reiko approached the cat and it stood eagerly, brushing up against her hand.

“Ohhh!” Noda swooned. “Who is this?”

“This is Cypress.” Reiko couldn’t help but smile at the adoration of her furry best friend, the first time Eiichi saw her smile since meeting her.

“He looks so majestic, what a strong face.” Noda inched closer. “M-May I pet him?”

“Of course,” Reiko invited. “He usually takes well to strangers.”

Eiichi was now thoroughly entertained with Noda’s somewhat needy reaction to the feline. Remembering that she mentioned they didn’t have animals at her home, she had also fed him a sensation of sadness over this matter.

The black cat mewed as Noda’s hand drifted over his head, and she erupted with a series of hums, ‘aww’s and giggles. Eiichi had to touch the wall behind him to make sure he wouldn’t tip over from her euphoric joy.

“Takahashi, you have to meet him!” Noda cried.

“Uh, no thank you. Cats and I don’t get along…”

Noda’s face turned toward Eiichi and looked like it would be stuck that way for hours, “Eiichi, Eiichi, come look at him! He’s so cute n’ handsome!”

“Cute and handsome? Only you would put those two together…”

He thought he would humor her and stepped forward. Upon extending his hand, something went horribly wrong.

Eiichi was suddenly underneath Reiko’s bed, and most of the color had been stripped from his vision, everything now in a desaturated hue. Reiko’s room was dark, but he could still see perfectly.

There was a figure crouched on the floor in front of him, but it wasn’t Reiko. This figure was unfamiliar to him. Reiko, the one who cared for him, who loved him more than he could know, was not home, and neither were her masters, the two older ones. This other being had invaded his and Reiko’s territory, and he hated it. Its hand stretched out to him and he shrieked at it, batting his paw as fast as he could. It did not belong here and it should leave.

His claws made contact and the creature cried out as it retracted. Eiichi could just barely see its face. It was male and had fair hair with locks floating over its eyes. However, the vision was Cypress’ and not Eiichi’s. As hard as he tried, he could not get a clear look at the face…

“Cypress!”

The cat had been hissing and spitting at him with all the ferocity he could muster before Reiko cried out. Eiichi noticed his hand had been outstretched just like the figure’s was.

Reiko scooped Cypress off the bed, “I’m so sorry, he’s never acted like that around people before.”

“Guess animals really can sense evil,” Ryoko smirked.

“Kozuka, are you alright?” Sumi asked.

Eiichi had been staring at his hand.

“Yeah…” he looked up. “I own a dog, so I guess Cypress could smell him.”

“Odd, our friend Yoko owns a dog and he’s never reacted that way around her…”

“I guess it depends on the dog,” Noda said.

After smoothing his fur and calming him down, Reiko set Cypress back on the bed. He found a spot near the back corner, and curled up there.

“So what was all this talk about letters?” Ryoko leaned next to Reiko’s closet with her arms crossed.

“Yes, right…” Reiko hesitated.

She had originally imagined only showing Eiichi the letters, but with so many people in here now, she was feeling put on the spot. She hadn’t even shown them to Sumi, who was equally curious. Understandably, she felt like she was about to expose a very private part of her life.

Her output kept flitting over toward her bed.

Reiko fought her nervous cautions and approached her mattress. She tucked her hand under, and lifted the corner closest to her door. Underneath was a scattered spread of white envelopes, most facing upward, with the characters of her name inscribed in a very artful fashion. There were at least a dozen of them.

Eiichi felt the astonished emotions unfold from the other three.

“What the…” Noda breathed.

Ryoko murmured, “Sick, son of a…”

Reiko picked up three, and lowered the mattress. She presented them to Eiichi.

He looked over the text on all three envelopes. The writer had very carefully written her name in the most precise and artful font, not too flaunting, but simple enough to create a sense of care. It looked as if the text had been printed on, but all three had been written by hand, with minor flaws that stood out if they were viewed right next to each other. They each smelled the same. It was faint, because she had possessed them for a long time, but it was very captivating.

“Did you find out what this smell was?”

“Yes…” Reiko immediately turned to open the drawer of her desk.

She carefully brought out a small, withered group of flowers, with petals that had once been vibrant purple, now tinted by decay.

“They’re called wisterias…”

The scent of the letters must have also been their method of marking her. They placed a scent with their image of her and continued to attribute it. She herself had attributed the scent to her very fears.

Eiichi looked back at the letters. “May I open one?”

This made Reiko considerably more uneasy, and Eiichi held back a painful groan, the inside of his throat clicking.

“Yes…”

He approached the desk with Reiko, and she drew out a pair of scissors. He tore the top and removed a delicately folded set of fine papers.

He felt Reiko’s tension building up more and more before he even got to unfolding them.

“If you don’t want to see this, it’s okay.”

His concern was received with silent gratitude, and Reiko left to stand by Sumi.

He unfolded the sheets, and his eyes beheld the inscribed ramblings of an obsessed lunatic. Her name was used in just about every sentence. The writer spoke a lot, without saying much at all. To be fairly honest, the class of his literature did not identify with his handwriting. Word choice was very simple, and repetitive. No real contemplative thought had been put into what was said. More thought had been placed in the appearance of the characters. The paper had no lines, and yet the parallel verses were almost flawlessly straight. The characters themselves were all written in the same, simple format, by an artisan hand. This person clearly relied on appearances to cover up their inner ugliness.

“Morita, where did you receive these, normally?”

“Um…” Reiko took a moment. “My shoe locker…my doorstep, inside my desk…a few times inside my bag…”

“Never inside your house? Was there one when they broke in?”

“No…I never saw it at least.”

This brought a chilling theory to Eiichi’s mind, but he kept it to himself for the sake of Reiko’s sanity.

“Obviously we’re dealing with a fellow student,” he said, and left the desk. “Only a student could get close enough to plant these. Morita, this is someone that you know. You probably see them every day. You may not have the same classes as them, but they can get close enough to plant these when you’re not around.”

He was scaring her, he knew it, but she had to hear this.

“This person, they’re very conscientious when they’re around others. They’re good at keeping up appearances and blending in to appear normal. On the outside, their ruse may seem flawless, and you could never guess who it is, unless you had these letters. We’re looking at someone with superior handwriting skills. This handwriting is well above standard, even for someone who’s a perfectionist. They took their time writing these, but the actual writing itself was not much of a challenge. They’re very practiced, they’ve been doing this for a while, long before they began writing the letters.”

“So, someone into calligraphy?” Noda asked.

“Yes.” Eiichi pointed to her. “Morita, do you know of anyone who is a member of the calligraphy club?”

Reiko’s desperation peeked through her fear, and she looked like she was contemplating this as accurately as she could.

“No…” she muttered somberly. “No, I don’t think I do…what about you, Sumi?”

“No one comes to mind, that I know of. I wonder if Akane or Moeko would.”

“That’s okay. We simply need to set our eyes on the calligraphy club.”

All Eiichi needed was to be around the person. He needed just a few moments around Reiko’s other friends, so he could paint their target.

“Morita, I think it would be best if you introduced Noda and myself to your other friends.”

“O-Okay…”

Vnnnn!

Just then, Reiko’s eyes popped wide open as a buzzing erupted from her skirt pocket.

Vnnnn!…Vnnnn!

She withdrew her phone and stared at it for a long time, a tremor of fear washing over her output.

Eiichi stepped forward, before she could press ignore, and snatched the phone from her hand.

“Ah!”

“Kozuka, what the hell are you doing!?” Ryoko flared.

Without a reply, he pressed answer and lifted the phone against his cheek.

The girls fell silent as he stood there. He didn’t say anything, and just stared ahead at the lighthouse painting above Reiko’s desk.

The voice on the other line was silent as well. Not a sound was made on his side or theirs.

Eiichi kept his breathing steady, but with every expulsion of air, he made it more intense, so that it was noticeable to the party on the other line that someone was listening. He was temping them. Every time Reiko had answered the phone before, it was likely in timid greeting. He could play the silent game as well.

Come on, come out to play. I’m right here…

What he would give to be able to read emotions through electronic devices right now. Mood changes and hidden meanings could be detected through text, speech patterns and tones, but it would not be enough for him to identify a particular output. An output was also one’s identification. All he would need was one whiff of their pattern, and he would focus on it, memorize it. Then he would be hot on their trail.

‘I saw you with her…’ the voice shuddered, and sounded like it was nearly in tears. It was masculine, but whispered.

So they knew it was him on the other line. Very peculiar.

‘I’ll be seeing you very soon…’

A few seconds passed, and the other line cut off, Reiko’s phone playing a short jingle in his ear to signal the call had ended.

“What did they say?” Noda asked, once Eiichi had lowered the phone.

“Apparently, he saw us sometime today.”

Reiko’s phone toppled to the floor. He had been handing it back, but his statement caused her to drop it.

“He!?” Sumi panicked.

“What the hell!” Ryoko stormed over to Reiko’s curtains and peeked through them.

“It’s unlikely he’s here. He said he would be ‘seeing me soon’.”

The guy must have made a smart decision to keep his distance while Eiichi had been with the girls. If they had passed him at any time, Eiichi would have sensed it.

“He knew it was me. His obsessions for Morita cause him to be extremely possessive, so seeing her with any other male for a given amount of time would cause a violent reaction.”

“So, what’re we supposed to do now?” Sumi asked.

“There’s nothing we can do right now. We’ll just have to wait for another time to speak with your other friends.” Eiichi bent down and picked up Reiko’s phone.

He presented it, and didn’t break from her frightened gaze while he spoke. “It should be apparent to you now that we are not here to harm you. There is a chance he will come after me as well, so we’re in this together. This isn’t some elaborate prank. I am asking you, please trust us. You’re going to have to reach out sooner or later. You will have to act, if you ever want this to go away.”

It was her lack of trust that had backed her into a corner. He could tell she had the will to do something about this, or else she would never have kept the letters. She would never have bothered investigating the scent.

Reiko took her phone.

“If he calls again, answer and do exactly as I did. Don’t say anything, don’t give him the satisfaction. If he says anything to you, ignore it. Try answering and just letting your phone sit until the call ends. If you receive any texts, just delete them.”

“What will she do until Monday?” Ryoko sounded frustrated.

Eiichi took a minute to think.

They would have to put off looking into this further, unless Reiko felt like calling everyone together somewhere, so he could get a good feel for everyone, but that may or may not prove beneficial. Being in school gave him the more likely chance of spotting her stalker, if he was indeed a fellow student.

Reiko could hold out until next week, and there was a chance things would be fine, but the wait wouldn’t be without its share of scares. It pained him to imagine a girl like her clinging to thoughts of seeing them again, just so they could get back on top of this. She wanted answers, and had received a few, but was well aware that they were far from out of the woods. And then…what if something did happen? She had available means to protect herself, but the thought may have never crossed her mind. She was not a girl of immediate action, and even an analysis of her friend Sumi showed she would be reluctant to cause harm to another person, even if they were an enemy.

“Morita…” Eiichi lifted from his thoughts. “When was the last time you had a sleepover with some new friends?”

Ryoko was thrown off. “Sleepover?”

“That’s out of left field,” Noda remarked.

Then Ryoko grimaced. “Kozuka, if you want the police to find your body, you had better not be suggesting that you be included.”

Eiichi shut his eyes. “Please don’t include me…I mean just you four. Morita, you’ve had a lot to deal with over the past several months, I’m sure. After what’s been happening recently, and what you witnessed today, it can put a lot of weight on the mind. I don’t think any of us could rest easy knowing you spent this entire weekend in dread, at least not without a few friends to keep you company. Asako is very observant, and she was with me when we stumbled on your situation. I can guess that you and Tamuro have been friends for a very long time, she seems to know you better than all of us. And Takahashi, she…well, she’s just a very angry person.”

“What’d you say!?”

“With a mind for justice. If I could place you in anyone’s protective hands, it would be hers. She barely knows you, and I can already tell, she wants to catch this guy just as much as you do.”

Ryoko grinned while clenching her fingers. “And fuckin’ wring his scrawny neck, until his eyes pop out of their sockets…”

“Like I said…a very angry person. She makes for a good sheepdog though.”

“Are you implying that I’m a bi—”

Eiichi raised a hand in front of her face. “It’s probably been a while, hasn’t it?”

Reiko lifted a set of curved fingers to her lips as she pondered, and then nodded. Her forlorn emotions told him that during her time in seclusion, she had regular thoughts that she had been missing out on so much.

“You could probably see your way through the weekend and come out just fine with no incidents, but there would always be that underlying fear of a possible one. It would be better if you took some precautions. There is strength in numbers. However, this is also for your personal benefit, and not just your protection.”

Reiko’s expression dampened. “I…I don’t know…”

“This is just a thought, and I’m only suggesting it. You seem to make an effort to surround yourself with people when out in public, so why not at home?”

Sumi murmured, “But Eiichi, her parents will be home this weekend, that should be enough. I don’t think Rei-chan really wants company over…”

Whether she wanted company or not wasn’t the problem. Eiichi knew that Reiko had been trying to keep this to herself, for the sake of not getting her friends involved. Doing this would be allowing more space for new people in her life.

“That’s not true!” Reiko blurted and didn’t say any more.

“Rei-chan…”

She did want it, but her fear of change was holding her back.

“Morita, you don’t have to say yes.” He looked at the other three. “I’m sorry, I didn’t take any of you into consideration.”

“W-Well, I’m okay with it…” Sumi wanted to, but was more concerned for her friend’s wishes.

“I had some things I was gonna’ do, but this seems more important,” Ryoko said.

“This is gonna’ be sooo great! Alright!” Noda was already on board.

Reiko fidgeted and all at once, she froze up and adjusted her glasses. “Okay…”

“Yeah! This is gonna’ be awesome!” Noda was in full spaz mode now. She hadn’t done this in a while herself, and though Eiichi wouldn’t admit it, it would break his heart to see her come down. “I’m gonna’ take lots of pictures!”

“Don’t show them to him!” Ryoko shouted.

“I need to get my things!” Sumi’s excitement boiled over.

“Um…okay. I’ll contact my mom and ask.” Reiko began tapping on her phone.

Eiichi didn’t know Reiko’s parents, but he imagined this would be a welcome change in their daughter’s behavior.

Suddenly the room was filled with jovial emotions and bubbly hormones, and Eiichi realized he probably shouldn’t have expressed his idea in such close quarters.

While feminine voices tossed themselves back and forth, making plans, he wandered dizzily over to Reiko’s bed and sat down.

Cypress looked at him with calm, green eyes before his whiskers popped forward in a yawn. No longer aiming defensive emotions at him, the cat stood, stretched, and wandered over to his side. Eiichi lifted a hand and let him sniff. Cypress’ ears folded back as Eiichi smoothed his head.

“You and me both, buddy…”

Eiichi has seen that face in Cypress’ memory, and though it had not been clear, there were features he could use to paste on the real culprit. Sadly, he couldn’t tell anyone that he had received a facial profile of the stalker from a cat.

Just in this one day of being around Reiko, he had uncovered a mound of evidence that would help them at least identify her stalker. He could scan through the halls, simply brush by him, and know.

Noda approached him. “Eiichi, we’ve got a lot to pull together, so you should probably get going.”

“Actually, Morita,” he called. “If you’re okay with going out of your way, my house is maybe twenty minutes from here by train. I have something to give you, if you’ll accept.”

Ryoko whipped a worried look on Reiko. “Don’t accept gifts from strangers, Morita!”

“He’s hardly a stranger, now,” Sumi giggled.

Noda placed a questioning look on him. “Eiichi, what is it?”

“Something that could be useful to her, but we should wait until we get there.”

  • * *

On the pilgrimage to his house, Eiichi had no way of knowing if Reiko’s stalker was still following them, and had kept an eye out during the entire trip. If he was to be targeted now, he would probably be followed anyways, so there was no helping it. He didn’t want this sicko to know where he lived, but it would possibly distract him from Reiko for a while, and give Eiichi a chance to come face to face with him, if he tried anything. It was just Connor, Torio and himself, but that was all he needed for reinforcements. Though he figured he should give Torio the low down once he got home from work. Torio would be receptive.

“I’m home.”

“Sorry for the intrusion,” the group resonated.

Eiichi kicked his shoes off and the girls followed behind him, doing the same.

Immediately, with a greeting bark, a blur of white, gray and black fur came rushing at them from out of the living room.

“Whoa!” Ryoko startled.

“Aww, there’s my guy!”

Eiichi knelt down to greet Connor, who was all ears, nose and tongue, moving like someone had put espresso in his water dish, and tail wagging in a lethal procession over his excitement to see their new guests.

“This is Connor.” Eiichi stood and the husky immediately swerved around him, panting to greet the girls.

Noda knelt down and Eiichi was ready for the cloudy, bright affections again.

The girls grouped around Connor in the hall of the front door.

“D’aww, he’s so energetic!” Noda mushed Connor’s face.

“This is an above-average dog you have here, Kozuka,” Ryoko had been scratching behind his ears. Then she turned to Connor. “Koshuka must be sho mean to you, huh~? You wanna’ come home with me?”

“So I take it you’re a dog person, Takahashi?”

“I can have my preferences.”

“N-Nice doggy…” Sumi daringly stretched her hand out, when Connor noticed and rushed her, jumping up and lapping at her face. “Kyah! Hehe, that tickles!”

Eiichi eyed them as they fawned over Connor’s charm. ‘That’s it boy, work your magic.

“Ah! Haha! Not there, boy!”

Connor had thrust his nose in between Noda’s breasts.

“Your dog is a bit of a perv, Kozuka…” Ryoko frowned.

“He’s a dog. I get the feeling that was meant for me and not him.”

Reiko had stood back the entire time, still cautious about being in someone else’s home, something else she had not done in a long time. She kept herself on high alert, though she didn’t know what for.

“Rei-chan, you wanna’ pet Co-nn-or?” Sumi tried to enunciate the name.

Reiko looked at him, but there was no chance to be timid around the excited canine, and he leapt at Reiko as well, causing her to yelp and fall back with giggles as he wandered around and attacked her face.

“My glasses! Hahaha!”

“Why does he have such a strange name, is it American?” Noda asked.

“Nah, my mom named him. I suppose you could call it American.”

“So is she American?”

“Mm…kinda’.”

Noda’s gaping oval of a mouth curved into a frown of confusion. “Uh…huh…”

The group wandered into the living room and began peering around the simple complexions and layout.

“Wow, is this your brother?”

“You two were cute, when you were little…”

Before he knew it, they were grouped around a series of family photos that were hanging on the wall around the television.

Eiichi approached behind the group. There were several photos of him and Torio with their parents. There was one of both of them, when they were much younger, standing on a hiking trail at Mount Fuji, their parents between them. Eiichi remembered trading cameras with tourists to take pictures. Another was of them fishing off a sailboat with their dad, that his mom had taken. They also had a few of the family taking tours to different monuments, back when they lived in Boston.

“Who’s this? He looks almost like you, Eiichi.”

Noda had pointed to an image of a stern young man in a dark blue uniform with red trim and gold pins on the collars. There was a backdrop of an American flag.

“That’s not a Japanese uniform…” Sumi uttered.

“That’s my dad, when he was about my brother’s age.”

“He looks very dashing…” Reiko said.

“He immigrated to America on a student visa when he was fourteen, and then enlisted in the Marine Corps after finishing high school and gaining his citizenship.”

Sumi marveled, “Wow, American military…”

“Hmm,” Ryoko hummed, looking over her shoulder at him, “so the apple does fall far from the tree.”

“Would you like to be pelted with apples?”

They gazed over another of a much older version of Eiichi’s dad in a more lax setting. He was leaning against the wood balcony of a beach house overlooking a coastline, sporting an Eagle, Globe and Anchor tattoo on the forearm at his side, and his other arm around a beautiful woman in a long skirt and light top. She had lush, green eyes on a calming face and black wavy hair.

“Is this your mom!?”

“She’s definitely not Japanese.”

“She’s so gorgeous!”

“Yeah, she and my dad met a long time ago when he was on leave. They had Torio and me a year or two later.”

“Where is she from?” Noda asked.

“Ireland.”

Ireland?” the group exclaimed.

“Yeah, her parents immigrated to America when she was very little. She was in college when she met my dad in Boston.”

“So you lived in Boston once?”

“Yeah, Torio and I were born there, and then dad was stationed on base in Okinawa when I was twelve, so we moved here.”

“So they’re not here in Saitama?”

“No, once Torio was old enough to work, my dad thought it would be good for him and me to try living on our own for a while. It sounds cold, but he wanted us to get an early start.”

Ryoko smirked. “So, Kozuka’s a mutt and not even a native, who would’ve guessed.”

“Ya know what, Takahashi? I’m just about tired of—”

Whoa!

Torio’s voice flourished from behind Eiichi and he whipped around to find him standing in awe at the group that had just stepped into the living room.

His watering eyes glimmered and his mouth stayed agape at the sight of the four high school girls. “Eiichi, who are these beautiful young ladies that just happened to stumble in through our doorway.”

“Ah, jeez.” Eiichi smacked his forehead, he had been doing that a lot lately. “I forgot, it’s a Saturday…”

“They followed you in out of curiosity, right? This is so sudden, I’m having a difficult time believing it myself.”

This was, for the most part, an act. Torio was messing with him.

“Hello, sorry for the intrusion.” Noda bowed and the rest of the group followed suit.

“My little brother!”

Suddenly Eiichi was wrapped in what was the only hug Torio had given him in a long time, and an outrageously intense one at that. Torio continued to blubber against him while Eiichi made strained attempts to pull away.

“You finally did it!” Torio whimpered. “You finally bested me. I relinquish all gloating rights to you.”

Eiichi pulled at the fabric of his stylish button up. “Get off me! Rrrgh!

The four standing behind them stared with either amused expressions or wide, fixated eyes.

Torio grabbed him by the shoulders. “How did you do it? Have you been planning this the whole time to surprise me?”

“No, dammit! I barely know them!”

Torio hugged tighter. “You’ve found the magic touch! I’m so proud of you!”

“You’re getting your cologne stench all over me! Knock it off!”

After more attempts by Eiichi to wrench himself away, Torio released his brother.

“Phew, forgive me, it’s just that we haven’t had visitors for a long time,” he said, smoothing his lengthy hair, which was light brown with an orange tinge. “I’m Kozuka Torio, Eiichi’s older brother.”

Each of the four introduced themselves with kind affection. Eiichi noticed that as soon as Torio had straightened himself out, some of whatever ridiculous charm he had been gifted with was beginning to have its effect on the girls.

“Your brother is very exceptional, Kozuka,” Ryoko smirked.

“So you like everything about me, but me…”

“Exactly!” She raised a thumb.

“It is a pleasure to meet all of you, but I have to ask, why is your wonderful group paying such an uncanny visit to our humble abode. I didn’t even have time to clean,” said Torio.

“Ah, Kozuka had something to give to Morita here,” Ryoko motioned apathetically.

“Ohhh~” Torio placed a hand on his chin. “It wouldn’t happen to be a trinket to express your affections of adoration?”

Eiichi groaned out the corner of his mouth, “Shut the hell up, Torio…”

Especially in front of women, Torio knew all the right buttons to push with his brother.

“Well since you’re all here, why don’t you stay for a while. I can make tea while Eiichi and Morita take care of their business together,” he said with a wink to his brother.

“Yeah…that sounds good…” Eiichi grumbled.

Torio led the girls into the living room, and Reiko stayed behind with Eiichi.

“So, what is it you wanted to give to me?” Reiko muttered.

Eiichi headed for the stairs and waved her over. “C’mon.”

She followed him up and through a tiny lounge area at the top, and through the hall to his bedroom door.

He opened it, and stepped in. Surprisingly enough, Reiko followed him inside.

Her eyes moved over his cluttered desk, the posters on his walls, and his bed. She hadn’t been sure of what to expect, considering she had never been in a boy’s room before, and was careful about her surroundings. It might have looked messy to her, but she noticed how clean the floor remained. Eiichi kept to an order he liked to call ‘organized chaos’.

“Sorry it’s not very tidy, my brother rarely comes in here, and I don’t really have company often.”

Eiichi motioned her over to his dresser, which had a few trinkets and scrap papers with a light coating of dust on them. Among the items were four knives.

“I only bought one of these, a long time ago. The others I took off of jerks that I ran into here and there. Most were using them to scare people, nothing serious.”

Reiko gazed at them with confusion and curiosity, wondering just what he was showing her these for, and getting a gradual understanding of why.

Two were basic folding blades, one was an automatic, and one was a butterfly.

“I’m not going to force you to do anything, and I understand all this is a bit beyond what you’re accustomed to, but I wanted to offer you a chance to take hold of your own protection. I know it’s not a taser or a can of mace, but it’s something.”

With fingers curved to her lips, she looked from him and back to the knives.

“Pick one.”

Reiko looked up at him, astonished.

“Well, maybe not this one.”

He picked up the butterfly and let it unfold, the blade rocking up and down before them. He had wrapped it in electrical tape.

“I’ve practiced with it a little, but I’m not all that good.”

“How do you use it?”

“Like any other knife, but…”

Eiichi flicked his wrist and the black handles of the strange weapon were suddenly off in a blur before their eyes. The blade appeared and disappeared in milliseconds. For a few moments, he actually looked good, until the electrical tape smacked down hard on his knuckle.

“Ah!” he took away the knife and shook out his hand.

“Are you okay?” Reiko fretted.

He smiled up at her, “Yeah. See, that wouldn’t have been pretty.”

With another twirl, the blade was concealed between its handles, and he placed it back on the dresser.

“The best thing for you would be something simple and concealable.” He picked up the automatic folding blade. Its handle was an olive green and contoured into a grip on one side, with a belt clip attached. “There’s a button right here. It acts as a safety and activation. You press down on it and push forward.”

CLICK!

The blade swung out and locked into place. It was black and serrated near the base. The light from his window reflected off its edge as it moved straight up, where it angled into a point, instead of curving. To Eiichi, it had always reminded him of one of those tactical katanas.

“And when you want to retract it, just do the same thing,” he said, shutting the blade and handing it to her.

Reiko wasn’t sure what to do with it, and her hand inched toward it like the blade would jump out at her any moment. She took it from his hand and smoothed over the grip.

“Just watch your other hand when you open it.”

She pressed and the blade flicked out, her hand white-knuckling the handle. He could tell she had used kitchen knives before, and knew how to check a blade’s sharpness without hurting herself. She turned it over and touched the blade, her soft finger scraping its tissue lightly against the edge.

“I don’t know if I can accept this…”

“You don’t have to, but in my opinion, you’re better off with it than without it.”

Reiko was silent for a very long time, still poking over the blade and thinking.

“There is a group of people sitting downstairs that are devoted to seeing you through this, but there may come a time when they’re not around, and that is just the opportunity this guy is looking for. We’re going to catch him, Morita, but it would be best to be ready, in case something goes wrong.”

She understood that accepting this would be like admitting her own vulnerability. It took courage for someone in her position to admit they were not completely in control, and that there were forces outside their control they would have to be ready for. He wasn’t even convinced she would say yes to this, he was just relieved that Noda and he had made it this far with her.

“Thank you very much, Kozuka-san…” Reiko stepped back and bowed, the knife clasped in her hands.

She realized now, the care he had taken for her, with everything he had done thus far.

“Uh!” he flustered and rubbed the back of his head. “Y-You’re welcome…Morita.”

Reiko straightened out, “I will take good care of it.”

“G-Good, and if you’re not sure you wanna’ keep it, you can return it. I won’t be offended.”

“Okay.”

“But for now, keep it on you at all times. I’m not kidding, even at school. I’m going to be carrying one too. Remember, he’s after me as well. Always have it somewhere you can get to easily.”

Reiko’s lips curved up, and she smiled at him. It was light, full of endearment and understanding. She was no longer afraid of him.

“Ahem! Now, uh, you should probably know a few things. I don’t know a lot, but my dad did teach me some basics. Taking your height into consideration, if you find yourself in a situation where your opponent is standing in front of you, you don’t want to attempt striking the chest. It would take a considerable amount of force to break through the breast bone and ribs. Also, that strike would be too high for you and would give them enough time to counter. Here, hold the knife upside down.”

“Like this?”

“Yeah, now raise it up and act like you’re going to stab me in the chest.”

Very awkwardly, she raised the blade high, a little higher than he meant, but a good example of what not to do.

He reached up, using his arm to block, “See? It would take you too much time to draw back and come down. Even if you aimed straight ahead, you would still have to draw back. So your best bet is to keep it low, like this.”

He tightened a fist and let it hang around his thigh.

Reiko imitated him with the blade in hand. “Like this?”

“Yes, if you keep the blade low, he’s less likely to see it, especially from up close. If he’s following you or standing in front of you, he’s gonna’ be looking around your head and shoulder region. He could be standing just three feet in front of you, and he wouldn’t see you taking it from your pocket. If at all possible, you do not want him to see it before you use it. So, from right here, you have your pick of many spots to strike. Even from this position, if he came up and grabbed you, it would likely be at your forearms and chest level, because he’s going to want control of the upper body. But even if he gets that far, you still have an advantage…May I?”

“It’s okay…”

Eiichi placed his hands lightly on her upper arms and he could feel her output lighting up a little. Just a special blend of awkwardness and tension, with a dash of ardor. He hoped to God someone didn’t walk in and get the wrong idea.

“I have you up here, but you can still move your forearms and pivot your elbows. Plus, my arms are up here, so you have free reign over all of my lower organs. You can go for a gut shot.” He brought her knife hand up and touched the tip to his abs.

Linea alba…’ Eiichi heard her output whisper.

Her eyes were focused intently on where the blade was pointed.

“You could get me in the thigh…”

Rectus femoris, Sartorius…

“Or even here…”

Iliac artery, Cremaster muscle, brevis, longus, magnus…

Eiichi smiled, “If you stabbed me there, I would bleed out in seconds. If I got really close…”

He brought her knife hand around to his lower back. Her output lit up with more color than he had seen from her since day one. His face was feeling pretty warm as well.

Several hours ago, today, he had been listening to this girl talk about how she never thought of herself as attractive, and now he was alone with her in his room, teaching her how to stab someone in the kidneys, and he couldn’t get over how soft her lips looked in comparison to the calming gray of her eyes, like fog on a moor.

Her output wasn’t saying anything now.

“Mm…Mhm…” she nodded.

“Yeah…” he let go and stepped away. “Sorry, I got a little carried away there…”

“N-No, you did fine. I learned a lot…”

Eiichi tried to shrug it off and looked up at her, “Even if he grabbed you from behind, if you hold it reversed like before, with the blade down, you can swing your arm back and get him in the thigh. Just make sure it’s still in your hand when you pull away. You don’t even need to strike hard, just make sure it’s hard enough to get through fabric.”

Reiko was feeling a bit more confident. “Got it.”

Eiichi placed a hand on his chin. “I would teach you more of the fatal ways that I learned from my dad, but we’re not really aiming for that. Your objective is to maim him. Aim low, that’s really all you need to remember. If you feel you need to, stab him as many times as possible, but once should be enough to put him down.”

Reiko nodded at him, adrenaline making her frame a little jittery again, and she began allowing herself to cool off. This was a world she was unfamiliar with, but he could tell she was willing to take any necessary measures to make sure she came out alive and as mentally intact as possible. She folded the blade back into place, and put the knife in her skirt pocket.

He wasn’t really in any pain due to her mix of neuroses and attraction, but it was a troublesome mix, nonetheless.

Eiichi touched his sensitive forehead. “I understand it’s all kinda’ scary, but this is just precaution. There’s no guarantee you’ll have to use it.”

“Understood,” Reiko said, and offered him a wary smirk.

He could feel the presence of curious minds approaching from up the hall.

Ryoko’s dull voice met their ears. “Yep, this is exactly what I thought your room would look like.”

Ryoko had been the first to enter, Noda and Sumi following after. Reiko became rather cautious all of a sudden, considering the incidental bonding scenario she had just experience with him.

“No, please, just barge in why dontcha’,” Eiichi droned.

Ryoko eyed the posters of his favorite metal groups. “Interesting tastes you have, Kozuka. You’re really one for doom n’ gloom.”

“Ironically, that’s all I ever get from you…”

He was praying Ryoko wouldn’t notice the spare packs of Sparrows that just happened to be sitting on his nightstand.

“Your brother was very hospitable, and he makes amazing pastries,” Sumi said.

“Yeah, he’s always been the culinary type.”

“He’s a real charmer,” Ryoko admitted.

“I think he’s hot,” Sumi blushed.

“Good, you go tell him that.”

“Oh gosh!” Sumi giggled wildly, realizing she had already said too much. “I couldn’t, he’s what, thirty?”

“Twenty-one.”

Wow!” Noda and Ryoko started.

“And he’s taking care of your sorry ass?” Ryoko continued. “Suddenly he’s a lot more appealing. What kind of job does a twenty-one-year-old have to work to keep a place like this?”

He could tell that, even for as small as the house was, it was amazing to them that he and Torio were even living here if Torio had been the only available income to keep things running. He would admit, it would be easier for them to live in an apartment, but Torio just had to have a front and backyard of some kind.

“Well…” Eiichi feigned aloofness. “It’s not exactly something I can talk about openly.”

“What, what is it?”

Suddenly all four of them were leaning in, wide eyes glimmering at him and all kinds of wild suspicions of amour running through their outputs. Eiichi decided to have some fun with these, but would have to make this quick if he wanted to remain standing.

“He has a lot of clients. I don’t really see them.”

“Mhm!” “Yes?” the group leaned closer.

“And he definitely sees a lot of women.”

The room was thick with steamy tension.

“Oh no…” “Please don’t tell us it’s…”

Eiichi shook his head. “But he always comes home complaining about paperwork…”

Paperwork!?” the group burst.

“Yep!” Eiichi smiled. “He’s a pencil pusher.”

They heaved out a simultaneous sigh of relief, the tension fled, and Eiichi felt like he could breathe again.

“He’s been shooting for a big promotion, and his boss is having a hard enough time finding room for him.”

Noda hunched forward, “Sheesh, I thought you were gonna’ say he’s some kind of male escort…”

“Yeah…” Sumi patted her thumping chest.

“Nah, Torio may be flirty, but he’s got a good conscience. Plus, he’d be terrified of getting an STD.”

“Ugh, thanks for getting our suspicions running, Kozuka…” Ryoko fanned herself.

He had managed to get something else running.

“Glad I could help.” He counted that as getting back at her.

“I’m ready to go, before Kozuka feeds me any more of his pervy thoughts.” Ryoko made for the door.

What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

“Torio and I will see you out.”

  • * *

Noda’s neighborhood had been just two communities over from Eiichi’s. She was kind of surprised they never saw each other going to the grocery store, or on their way to school.

She told Reiko, Sumi, and Ryoko that she could make the walk herself. However, they insisted they stick together, even if it took more time. Not arguing with this logic, they thanked Eiichi and Torio for their hospitality and said their goodbyes.

It was still in the early evening when they left Eiichi’s house, since it had been a half-day at school.

They stopped at her house, and she changed, told her mom where she was going, and was off with everyone. Next up was Ryoko, who actually lived within walking distance of the school. She stepped back out with her backpack, in a hoodie, baseball cap, and a spiffy pair of jeans that hugged her legs.

“Wow, Ryoko! That look is totally you!”

“Ya think so? I just threw a few things together, is all.”

They made the trip back across their part of the city to Sumi’s house, where she changed as well and grabbed her console and games.

“Oh good!” Ryoko exclaimed. “I brought some, but I never thought to bring my console.”

“Yeah, Rei-chan doesn’t own one. It’s been a while since we’ve done this, huh Rei-chan?” Sumi smiled at her friend, who returned with shy glee.

Noda pondered to herself, ‘Hmm…so Takahashi is a gamer…

The final stop was, of course, Reiko’s house. Her mother had already returned from her shopping trip, and had bought some things for Reiko’s new friends.

“Wow! Cheesecake!” Noda’s eyes sparkled.

“Alright!” Ryoko marveled next to her.

The girls thanked Reiko’s mother and set about the evening’s plans. Sumi and Ryoko hooked the system up to the television in the living room and went nuts.

KO!

“Aw! That’s the seventh time in a row, Ryoko!” Sumi cried.

Ryoko grinned. “Heh-heh! You’ve gotta’ be better than that to beat me. I own this game, so I know every character’s special moves.”

“That is totally cheating!” And then Sumi got a mischievous glimmer in her eyes. “I wonder what Kozuka would say if he knew you played these so much?”

“Uh, uh…” Ryoko flustered, and then chuckled nervously. “Kozuka doesn’t need to know that, not that I care. H-How about we play one of yours, Sumi?”

“Hee hee, ‘kay~! I’ve got a shooter we can do co-op on.”

Reiko and Noda sat by on the couch, partaking of the snacks on the coffee table and talking between themselves, or reading some of the manga that Noda had brought along.

After Noda got up and went nuts with her camera, recording the evening’s events, and threatening Ryoko with showing them to everyone at school, she showed them a series of images she had brought from when she went on vacation with her family.

The group had a movie marathon well into the evening, where Noda and Ryoko made occasional cracks about the dialogue that had Reiko and Sumi reeling on the couch in uncontrollable hilarity.

At roughly two in the morning, Reiko invited everyone to sleep upstairs in her room, and futons were laid out.

“Wow Noda!” Sumi eyed her. “You look so beautiful with your hair down like that!”

She definitely had to be recalling the night before.

“U-Uh, well…I never thought much of it. You really think so?”

“Yeah! You should wear it like that all the time!”

“I agree, Noda.” Ryoko placed a hand on the hip of her night shorts. “You look really mature like that, you’ll probably get a lot of requests for digits.”

“Well…I kinda’ like it the way I put it up, it stays out of my face better, but I’ll keep that in mind.”

They sat down in a circle amongst the futons and talked some more.

“So Ryoko, I’ve heard that you and Omura-san have a thing going.”

“Omura? I barely know the guy!”

“Who’s Omura-san?” Reiko asked.

“Oh, he’s the star player of the soccer team,” Sumi answered.

“Oh yeah, I remember him. I did a shoot of one of his games. He’s pretty good,” Noda threw in.

“And totally cute!” Sumi squeaked while clenching her fists. “I’m so surprised you haven’t met him, Ryoko. I think you two would be perfect together!”

“Mm…I dunno’. Not sure he’s my type. You can have ‘em.”

“But someone told me they saw you together!”

“He was just asking directions to the student council room!”

Once each one was tired out, they turned in for the evening.

Everyone settled into their chosen spaces, and Reiko turned out the light.

Noda placed her glasses in their case and pulled her thick blanket up to her chin.

This day had been pretty eventful and exhausting. Although, it was nothing like the night when she and Eiichi had busted those tech thieves. Sometimes, when she looked back on it, it was still a wonder to her that it had really happened. Things had taken a scary turn, and then straightened out again, as if nothing had happened. They had saved the school without anyone knowing about it. It would have been nice to receive a reward or some kind of compensation for this, but she was still satisfied with it. And then they met Reiko, which caused things to veer off again, only now she felt like everything was a bit more familiar to her. And before, she had to exert all her energy and wit just to get Eiichi to budge some, knowing she couldn’t do it alone and that he had been the most likely candidate to help out. Back when she had only thought it was something worth looking into and was not aware of the true danger. It seemed once things got dangerous enough, that was when he responded. And with Reiko, it was almost immediate, as if he knew just from looking at her how much trouble she was in. He was crazy intuitive in that way.

She blinked in the dark and sighed. ‘He can be so exhausting…

She closed her eyes and sleep came quickly…

Her eyes flitted open. How long had she been out? It was still dark outside. She could just barely see the fuzzy, blue glaze shining from the edges of Reiko’s curtains. She turned the screen of her phone on and set it within breathing distance in front of her eyes. It had only been an hour.

Before she could drift off again, she thought she heard movement over by Reiko’s bed.

Rubbing sleep from her eyes, Noda pushed herself up and looked. She really couldn’t see anything, and made the effort to put on her glasses. When she did, she could see Reiko’s barely visible figure had sat up as well and she seemed to be staring at her bedding.

“Reiko, are you alright?” Noda whispered.

Reiko’s head focused on her and she muttered, “I’m afraid to fall asleep…”

She stood. “Even with all of us here?”

“Mhm…”

Noda walked over to her bed, being careful to step over Ryoko, who was lightly snoring against her pillow.

Reiko moved her legs to create space while Noda sat cross-legged in front of her.

“What’s bothering you? Is it what happened earlier today?”

“Kinda’…”

“Was all this too much?”

“No.” She saw Reiko’s head swivel. “It’s been wonderful. I’m grateful you all took the trouble to spend time with me…”

“It wasn’t any trouble at all. We’ve been having fun, if you haven’t noticed. You’re not a burden, Reiko…”

Cypress stood up and joined them, curling up in Reiko’s lap. It was so dark, Noda barely noticed him.

“This is all temporary,” she said. “It’s good that you’re all here now, but after you’re gone, I’m going to be alone again anyways.”

“Don’t think like that.”

“There’s just so much going on, I’m just not sure how to deal with it…”

“Well, how about we talk for a while until you start feeling sleepy?”

“Okay…”

“Ya know, I haven’t done this for a while myself. I think I’ll call my friends sometime and see if we can do this again.” She looked over at Ryoko and Sumi’s sleeping forms. “If you’re okay with that.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. We could go to my house next time. Though you may have to watch out for my little brother. He can be pretty nosy.”

“O-Okay…” Reiko’s voice sounded like she was smiling.

“I think this is a great way to start the year, after everyone has adjusted.”

“Yeah, it’s been great getting to know you and Ryoko. I think Sumi and her really found a lot in common.”

“Yeah, I never thought I’d find myself hanging out with thee Ryoko Takahashi. She’s surprisingly footloose for as strict as she appears at school.”

“Um…what about Kozuka?”

“Hm?”

“You both seem to know what you’re doing.”

She saw Reiko’s hand smoothing Cypress’ back.

“Eiichi and me? Well, maybe…sometimes I feel like I’m just along for the ride. It’s weird. Sometimes I feel like I have to force him to do things, and other times, he just goes off without my efforts at all. I don’t know what Sumi told you, but to be honest, this is only the second time we’ve done this…”

“What do you mean?”

“Well…helping someone. Although, last time I guess we weren’t really helping someone. It’s a bit of a secret, and it might sound crazy if I told you.”

Reiko didn’t say anything for a while.

“You said he’s a nice guy. Why do you think he’s that way?”

Noda began twiddling a strand of her hair. “Um…I don’t know…it’s hard to say…”

“I’m sorry I was afraid of him before…I heard a lot of bad things about him…”

“Don’t blame yourself. People say stupid things. I guess he’s the prime example that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

“What do you like about him?”

“Me!?” Noda nearly blurted this out loud, but remembered they had dozing company. “I-I mean, there’s stuff I like about him. I wish he would quit acting all avoidant and open up a little…”

She pressed the tips of her fingers together. “He’s courageous, and at the same time, pretty wise about stuff. He doesn’t make a decision about something unless he’s considered all the angles. He sounds like he really knows what he’s talking about a lot of the time, and yet, even when he doesn’t look it, he seems to always be listening. I guess that might be how he knows so much.”

“Did you believe some of the things people said about him?”

“Yeah, I guess I did for a time. Really, when I met him, I didn’t know who he was. Not a lot of people really know what he looks like.”

“Do you…do you think…the two of you can really help me?”

Noda peered through the dark at her silhouetted friend. It looked like she was staring right back at her, even though she probably couldn’t see her.

“Of course, Reiko…I know that we can help you. You are not alone in this. We’re going to track down whoever has been bothering you, and Eiichi will give them the thrashing they deserve, believe me, I’ve seen him do it a couple times.”

The silhouette sat motionless for a while, Noda could hear Cypress’ purring, and then its arm began moving, petting him.

“Thank you…” Reiko’s voice flourished. “This feels good. I can’t remember the last time I’ve talked with anyone like this.”

She smiled, “I’m glad Eiichi and I could help you out this far, but I don’t want to stop. Just stick close to us, and we’ll figure this out.”

“I will. Sleep well, Noda…”

“You too, g’night.”

Noda found her way back to her futon, being careful to avoid the snoring Ryoko. She put her glasses away, and curled up under the covers.

If it were just her, she wouldn’t be sure of what to do, but she knew, with Eiichi by her side, just like before, they would find out who was stalking Reiko, and set her life back to the way it was.

 

Afterword

I have always been curious about the sensations that can be delved into more with the right application of circumstantial manipulation…

I mean—Hi there!

A conversation that I have had with a mentor of mine, more than once – and something I have spoken with other random parties about – is the topic “have we written all there is to write?”

I suppose the truth to that question, or as it is perceived subjectively by myself and other like minds, is that the number of stories within fiction, and anything else, is infinite. It’s the subjects that get recycled, but this is not a bad thing. The motto is that you’re telling the same story over again, only in a different way – your way. There are plenty of stories out there about romance, but not all of them involve a guy having to deal with a group of rowdy girls day-in and day-out, or a person that has been locked away in a suspended reality for a millennia. There are plenty of zombie stories out there, but only so many involve specifically the reanimated corpses of our favorite pets, or mutants from a nuclear emulsion spill, or long dead warriors summoned by a cabal.

It’s like writing a song. There is a chord structure known as the 1-4-5 progression. Hundreds upon thousands of blues songs have been written on just these three chords – the going joke is that a rock star plays three chords for a thousand people, while a jazz musician plays a thousand chords for three people (Yukichi is a hybrid of those, so I’m sure he can relate). It matters more with a change in melody and the lyrics sung to that melody, that is what makes a song unique. And even when we get into the lyric matter, we see a change in style, but the subjects tend to be the same old ‘my baby left me’ or ‘can’t make the rent’ or ‘I’m a ramblin’, gamblin’ man’. Modern pop is another example. I can’t make sense of all the tech sounds and computer voice correction, but I can understand the subject matter. They all present something people can relate to, with just a little something different.

So, if I’m going to make any sense with all this, what I’m saying is not everything is entirely original. If it were, we would have a tough time understanding all of it, because it would consist entirely of matters that have no relation to anything we perceive in reality, and only the individual that created it would understand it in full. This goes for everything, not just my two favorite subjects, literature and music.

On a different note, I originally wrote this first volume between November of 2015 and January of 2016. Back then, I had various misunderstandings about the light-novel business, including the word count. I made the mistake of never looking up exactly what the average word count was for a standard light novel, and so in those two months, I overworked drastically without realizing it and wound up writing both the first and second volumes, believing they were both one volume. It was some months later, while I was looking for an artist, when I realized I made a big mistake, and would have to cut the stories in half. The upside was, I had two volumes instead of one, and I knew it would take me less time to write a single volume, but I did have to change my style of story construction drastically for the future.

Working with Kate has been a blast. I never thought I would meet an artist that turned out to also be a qualified editor, she has really been a Godsend. I hope things continue to smooth out for us as we progress into the next volume, and later volumes.

I have to say, I have been in major need of a camping trip. I always hear I need to get out more, and I don’t disagree with this, but I’m not a shut-in by choice (not entirely…), and I do get to visit my favorite pub (yes, it’s a pub), or some old friends here and there. Actually, I run a lot of errands. I really miss living in Flagstaff. It was so great to have a market area that was only a twenty minute walk from the dorm and getting to see the San Francisco Peaks every time I stepped outside, but I don’t miss having to rush to classes. However, if I could afford a place in Flagstaff, I would like to live there to do my writing, for a while.

Anyways, that’s all I have for now. It’s been a sheer joy writing this volume, and I plan to write many more, as well as many more series. Thank you very much for reading this, I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope to see you in Volume 2! Here’s wishing good health to you!

 

The Creators

 

 

James K. Penn is the author of the Eiichi P.I. series and the short story The Fray. He currently lives in Arizona with his family.

 

facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jkpennauthor/

twitter: https://twitter.com/jkpennauthor

WordPress: https://jkpennauthor.wordpress.com/

tumblr: https://www.tumblr.com/blog/wolfmanjimstuff

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCFLKL2gJgJZwuTWsd_WWR1Q

 

 

Kate Taylor is an artist and writer based in Canada. Eiichi P.I. is the first major published project she has worked on.

 

Tumblr: http://k8bit.tumblr.com/

deviantART: http://k8bit.deviantart.com/

 

 


Eiichi P.I., Vol. 1

He carries the secrets of people. Everything that scares you, saddens you, or delights you, chances are, he already knows. Eiichi Kozuka is an avoidant, chain-smoking, second year student attending Aki Guro High School, a school with more problems than it lets on. He has a bad attitude, and a worse reputation. In truth, he just wants to be left alone, because he carries a secret of his own… Eiichi is an empath. He can read and feel the emotions of others, at all times. It may sound convenient – however, this ability comes with its own headaches, quite literally. They get worse when Eiichi meets a curious and energetic photographer named Noda, who pulls him into one harrowing scenario after another, while he must use his abilities to get them out.

  • ISBN: 9781370105397
  • Author: James K. Penn
  • Published: 2017-05-12 09:20:51
  • Words: 66874
Eiichi P.I., Vol. 1 Eiichi P.I., Vol. 1