Sarah shifted awake, her eyes opening just a fraction as her awareness refocused on reality. The sun was on her face and it felt nice. Like she was lying in the arms of her father as he transformed into a big pile of cushions. Summer would be over soon but it was just the right temperature before this stupid country became too warm for her to bear.
These were the best days. She really, really loved them and even more than ever now since she got that stupid woman to buy her a proper bed instead of those stupid Japanese ones. She snuggled up tightly, grabbing a pillow and brought it to her chest, wrapping the covers around her and meowing slightly. She wondered how long she could stay here.
All comfy movements became fast, jerky ones. How could she fall asleep like that? They were all in danger. The girl was up in a flash and looking around, not quite sure what she would see in the few seconds she had been asleep, Boss raised up upon the bodies of their enemies, maybe still in the middle of fighting, fearful of him fallen.
She had left the games console on.
It was in her room in Heavenly Springs, she realized with disappointment and bewilderment, light peering in from the window as always like it was just another, boring day. The television screen was still left on from another night of playing video games, the demo to her favourite going on without sound, a sign she had muted it as usual, the hours becoming late enough for others to complain.
Quickly shambling off the bed, Sarah’s eyes scanned the room carefully. How was she back here? Wandering over to the television she switch it off, the frequency bugging her ears. This didn’t make any sense. She had no idea of how long she had been asleep, figuring only minutes because of the danger, but if it had been long enough for them to get all the way back to the dorms… Wouldn’t she have woken up on the tram? She always woke up on the tram, she had trained herself acutely for it for whenever she sneaked into the city.
Circling the room again, still a little too dazed to think properly, she kicked her tossed clothes about, the near insignificant act of putting them out to wash not even entering her mind as she tried to figure out what happened.
But there was nothing to figure out though. She was just back. The sun was still shining out of the window, and the temptation to just crawl back into bed for another hour was becoming even harder to resist. She saw a shadow on the opposite roof. Reacting instantly, her hand shot out to grab her binoculars, the focus on them already adjusted to view the girl on the rooftop stepping back and forth.
As Sarah figured the second she saw her, it was the kendo freak. The moron was practicing on the rooftop as she did every morning, swinging that blade back and forth, her endless training refusing to be abated. But hadn’t the sword been broken? Sarah’s mind flashed back to a conversation she thought she heard, but then decided that was impossible. She had been instantly knocked out when the water hit her and her head hit the wall…
Her head! Hand jumping to the back of her skull like she was trying to swat a fly, she felt a little odd at feeling no pain, like going to lean on a wall only to discover it was no longer there. Even as she felt all over her cranium, there seemed to be no pain or anything that would indicate a bruise. Looking back to the kendo freak on the roof through the red binoculars, she saw her training as rigorous as ever, the sword in her hand shining beautifully against the rays of light as she repetitively swung it over her head.
“What the fuck?” Sarah mumbled to herself. The kendo freak definitely wouldn’t have gotten a new sword, at the very least because she wasn’t exactly full of money. Yet there she was, swinging away like usual and now Sarah herself had no injuries where she should have had them.
“It can’t have been a dream,” she muttered to herself. It couldn’t be. She had never ever had a dream that vivid and although she might like to think she had that good an imagination… She ran up to the door, sliding it open and nearly tripping face first over Sagara. She grabbed the door frame and stopped herself from crashing into him, not that the sleeping man noticed. How she had missed his loud snoring there was no way to tell, but her foot kicking his arm as she nearly ran over him did nothing to deter him from continuing his nap.
He was, she quickly checked for any signs of anything, definitely uninjured. That was wrong. She had seen the demon burn his face at least once. It was almost tempting to rip his shirt off and check for any other signs of a fight besides the usual cuts, but she thought it better to ask.
“Oi Boss,” she called to him, not hesitating to slap him a few times in the face, knowing from experience that Sagara never ever remembered nothing when he woke up. He made a very strange comment about sandpits and their use in the field of astrology, before turning over and nearly trapping her foot beneath him.
She swore to herself. If he wasn’t waking up, then that meant at least another hour before he even tried to wake up and another five before he did so. She turned off down the corridor, hating to have to rely on any of the others.
“Look, mother. I told you I’m doing fine,” she heard Fujiko say down the phone, the layabout’s left foot propped against the wall to help her keep balance. Sarah had seen this before, and never quite understood how keeping your balance when suffering a hangover hides the husky groan of your voice to someone on the other end of the line.
“Oi, Fujiko,” Sarah called out, to be responded to by a light wave.
“It’s my account, mother. How do you even know my username and password?” Sarah jumped and called a few times, only to be waved away after bugging the older woman for too long. “Oh, that obvious, huh? No I don’t need anymore money off you guys…”
Leaving the girl in the lobby, to what had to be a fifty-fifty chance of being an imaginary phone call, Sarah looked for someone who could give her a rational answer, and hopefully someone who was rational enough to give her a rational answer. Talking to Natoko while she was training would only put both of them in a bad mood. Sagara and Fujiko were predisposed.
“Ah, good morning, Sarah,” Gen said happily as he walked past her.
“Piss off!” Gen would be useless for an answer. She didn’t want to speak to Sakura. If it wasn’t a dream, she couldn’t speak to Tina, although Sagara bringing back a flaming mass of flesh and bone back home with him wasn’t a total impossibility. She wandered into the television room, where Aki was balancing on her hands while commercials played on the screen. For a second she wondered why she hadn’t considered this to be the dream.
“Ah, Sarah, good morn…”
“Piss off,” Sarah said instinctively, grabbing an apple from the fruit bowl and taking a huge chunk out of it. This tasted real at least. Made of plastic, but still real.
“You know what happened last night?” Aki asked, finally getting off her hands and plodding off to her.
“What? You mean it was real?”
“Of course it was. Well, as real as this world gets.”
“Just so we’re on the same page here. We are talking about a huge illegal tournament, me vomiting in the toilets, getting kidnapped by demons, having Sakura screw us over, an angel with two kick ass swords and a fire demon trying to ask Sagara where his village was.” Aki nodded, with an ‘uh huh’ after each item, with the exception of the last one. As she finished, Sarah let out a huge sigh of relief. “So it did all happen then?”
“Unless we both dreamed it,” Aki said lightly. “I mean, it’s not like I’m injured or anything anymore and I just woke up an hour ago to find myself here.” Sarah looked at the girl. Aki looked 100% healthy save for a small layer of sweat over her crumpled up hair, which was probably nothing more than Aki’s usual waking up routine of doing ‘weird things’ around the dormitory. Wouldn’t she have a few cuts and bruises at the least, especially if she had been bleeding very, very badly from her forehead?
“Let’s go check with someone else,” Sarah suggested, already walking out of the door. She wasn’t too concerned now. Maybe she had overreacted a little too much with believing it was a dream. However, she did want to know what happened. Sagara must have won- must have been faking it or something. They’d all be dead now otherwise, wouldn’t they?
Otsune was in the corridor leading to the Hot Springs, currently trying to swat a cicada or something with a rolled up magazine. She wasn’t having much luck though, swatting randomly as she tried to avoid her carelessly discarded glasses.
“Aki, Sarah. You’re awake,” she said, as she stopped to squint at them. Sarah noticed there was something hovering around next to Otsune’s head, the student flicking her hand against her ear as it came near her. Sarah found herself ready to tell her to go away again when Aki went to say good morning, but stopped herself. Otsune had crossed eyebrows again. They looked smaller without her large glasses on.
“What happened with you, guys?” she asked as she reached them. “We waited by the in desk for three hours, until they just threw us out. Fujiko had to bluff our way in at the hotel to get our stuff and then, when we finally gave up and went home, we find the lot of you here sleeping. I was worried sick.”
“We…didn’t come home with you guys?” Sarah asked, somewhat pointlessly. Turning to Aki with a blank look on her face, she saw that the girl had started eating a banana. However, she also had a similar look on her face, chewing longer than she had to as she waited for something to happen.
“No you didn’t. What happened?”
“It was weird. We were just in the toilets and you were shouting to us, when Sarah went all weird again. Before we knew it, we were surrounded by demons, and that angel.”
“Went weird again?”
“Vomiting more than the total mass of her body,” Aki rearticulated. Otsune turned to the young girl to look as falsely concerned as she always did. Sarah clicked her tongue. Why did that stupid girl have to point out the irrelevant things that would get her into trouble?
“How many times has this happened?”
“I’m…not sure. Never mind.” If Otsune couldn’t help, then there was no reason to talk to her. Maybe she could kick Sagara into being awake. Turning around, she had barely got halfway down the corridor where she heard Otsune scream out and jab the magazine randomly in several directions.
“Get lost already!” Sarah turned back to look around, and for the first time saw what the student had been attacking. She could barely believe it, there was a tiny flame hovering in the air around Otsune, apparently trying to frantically avoid each of the girl’s swipe like they were playing dodge ball. After a few seconds of fruitlessly trying to strike it, she hit it, and they all watched with panic as the magazine instantly caught ablaze. Otsune quickly changed tactics and started to stomp the floor where she dropped the magazine, emitting light yelps of fear as she tried to put it out, only to start swatting the flame above her again before she could finish.
“Morning,” a voice said behind the trio. A sleepy eyed Sagara came walking up to them, rotating his shoulders and scratching the back of his head in one movement. Sarah was about to rush to him but Otsune jumped in front of the boy
“You! Do something. Make it go away.” The ninja blinked at her for a few seconds, eyes only getting up halfway the final time.
“Make what go away?”
“This damn flame,” she grumbled as she took another shot at it. “It won’t leave me alone.” She started to stab at it with her hand furiously, aiming carefully with each jab, only to see the small ball of energy floating around each strike as if it were a dancing feather. Sarah thought that this probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, judging by the fate of the magazine.
“He’s taken a liking to you,” Sagara said, watching the flame now hovering between them.
“He? It has a gender?” She swatted at it again, nearly swiping Aki’s banana out of her hand. “Look, never mind. Do something.”
“I don’t know- something ninjary! Put it out, kill it- whatever.”
“It would kill me if I tried that.”
“I don’t care. It’s been following me everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. I’m not sure if I should treat it like a dog or a pervert.”
“Treat it like a small floating piece of flame,” Aki suggested, although not very helpfully.
“Never mind this,” Sarah said, forcing herself into Sagara’s view, her foot stamping the floor as she did so. “What happened last night, Boss, after I fell asleep?”
“What? Oh, we got a lift back on Yuya’s Spinner.”
“That woman we met up with.”
“And you didn’t even think of getting us?” Otsune interrupted, ignoring the little flame for now while she looked at him with a shaking fist. “We waited there for ages. They kicked us out in the end. Do you know how worried we all were? We had no idea whatsoever what happened to any of you, and Tina’s still not back! If she’s caught in that weird place with monsters like the one we met…”
“Keys isn’t a monster. He’s a spirit,” Sagara said nonchalantly. Otsune tensed up, her face switching to anger before going to calm down.
“Whatever, I’m sure she’s fine. Probably got kicked out when we did. I’ll give her a call when my phone’s charged up, or if Fujiko finally stops talking to her parents.” She stormed off, pacing down the hall as she continued to mutter to herself, screaming wildly as she tried smacking the flame away again.
“What did happen to Tina?” Sarah whispered as she watched Otsune disappear from view. It was kind of hard to guess what the answer would be. She had woke up to find everyone fine and as fresh as they were before the tournament. Was it possible that Tina was okay too? Sagara grew a look on his face that seemed to be trying to smile and look regretful at the same time, his hand going to the back of his head to scratch again.
“She ran off,” he said simply. “But I don’t think Tina’s there anymore.”
“You mean she’s dead?”
“It…” He stopped to think. “It may have been the case that she’s been dead for some time, I don’t know. The way she was speaking, it was like she had been whatever she was for a long time. There might have never been a Tina.”
“You mean we’d been living with a demon all this time?” Sarah asked with concerned alarm mixed in with relief. That meant the amount of times she had tormented that girl and not been incinerated was incalculable.
“Who knows,” the ninja said, his eyes still half open. “I don’t think it even was a demon. I’d ring my mom if the Initiation wasn’t still on.”
“Huh,” Aki muttered, jumping back into the conversation after she had wandered out of it to look through the window on a whimsy. “Didn’t you say that would end after the tournament?”
“I haven’t been told by anyone. Until then, I guess it doesn’t,” he said, not looking as concerned as Sarah figured he should be. “I probably have to do something involving Tina before it’s considered completely finished. This is going to delay going home.”
“But why did you let her…” that sounded very wrong in her ears now, “it… get away then?”
“I wasn’t exactly in the best position to do anything,” he explained with a fixed grin. “After that water spirit drove it off I was too injured to move. Then it was the deal with the Neuts and carrying you lot and getting you to safety.”
“That water woman was there?” Aki said actually surprised enough to mumble through her banana.
“You saw her, did you?” Sagara asked, a puzzled expression appearing, strangely minus a furrowed brow. “She was hiding within Yuya the whole time.”
“So that’s what that was. I thought it was magic or something.” Sarah had never actually seen the water spirit in question, except the times it was in Natoko’s body and chasing after Sagara, though it had been mentioned.
“She works for Yuya now, apparently. I should probably tell Natoko.”
“Tell me what?”
“Ah, Natoko,” Aki called out before the ninja could answer her question. “Good morning.” Letting out a small smile to her friend as she more or less flew to her side, the samurai replied with a small nod.
“Good morning, Aki,” she said before turning back to Sagara, her friend climbing onto her as she did so. “What did you have to tell me?”
“It was the water spirit that saved us in the InBetween realm. She’s with Yuya now.”
“Ms. Sakimoto?” she said, with nothing more than mild curiosity as she thought this out. “Thank you.”
“Do you want to do anything about it?”
“No, I don’t think it will be necessary, unless you wish for me to do anything about it.”
“Oh yeah, forgot about that. No, there’s nothing.”
“Will you be requiring me for anything else today?” She smiled as he grinned.
“Then,” she said, bowing lightly. “If you would excuse me, I intend to spend the rest of the day training.”
“Go right ahead.” He was smiling full on now and she figured he had probably guessed her mood. “You wanna spar later?”
“If you like,” she turned away, pacing off down the hallway, not surprised in the slightest that Aki was following her.
“You’re in a good mood today,” Aki commented, diverting herself to the fruit bowl to grab another banana.
“I am,” she confirmed, doing her best not to boast the reasons why. Iziz was fixed. There was no way of telling how or why, but that didn’t matter. On top of that, she knew now that she was strong, and had reasons to be strong. Those few moments against those demons had taught her just as much as all the strikes swung throughout her life, and she couldn’t wait to learn more. She would train now, again and again, getting stronger and stronger, with Iziz by her side and her friends supporting her. That was all she really needed. She couldn’t help but smile, a Sagara like grin appearing on her face. Aki was looking at her strangely.
“You sure you’re not all repressive and denialy?”
“Some people in my position may be,” Natoko replied, completely helpless to prevent a wave of superiority flow over herself as she explained. “But too many important things happened to me yesterday. I faced and suffered horrors which few people have ever seen. Rather than succumb to it, I choose to become stronger, and remain calm in the face of adversity.”
“So you are being all repressey then?”
“What, No!” she shouted, her eyebrows meeting. “I remember perfectly everything that happened yesterday, including the nearly dying and nearly getting raped parts. I was just saying…” But she stopped, Aki was the one smiling now.
“Just making sure,” the short girl chimed as she began peeling the banana, obviously no longer caring. Natoko grunted, and tried to calm down herself. This girl always knew how to infuriate her. She didn’t know why she put up with it half of the time.
Yes she did.
“You want to go to the Yakiniku tonight?” she asked without giving warning. “My treat.” She watched as Aki nearly choked on crushed fruit, trying to do her best to repress her reaction as she did so.
“Oh, can we?” Natoko nodded, watching her friend let go and burst out with emotion at that same moment. She continued to watch patiently as her friend went through a series of twirls and leaps that seemed natural only to her before calming down and getting back to her banana.
“It’s the least I could do after you protected me.”
The words had fallen out of her mouth before she even realized her brain had processed them. She felt like someone had poured a tub of glue into her bloodstream and now it was pumping through her heart.
“That’s okay,” Aki replied, not even noticing her friend had stopped. “You would have done the same for me.”
“You shouldn’t have had to protect me,” Natoko said unintentionally, causing her friend’s feet to stiffen up.
She looked directly at Aki, the happiness gone, not a single care about Korean meat left. Natoko wanted to look away, look down at the floor, but she didn’t dare move her head. She had been kidding herself. The world doesn’t work that smoothly, that idealistically. She couldn’t make a noble choice and then have it follow through, not even for a few minutes, and it was herself that had proved her wrong. Her knees buckled, they were getting ready to run.
“No one should have to protect anyone.”
“What?” They stopped, not even having time to twist around. Her best friend had a simple, light smile on her face.
“But if someone has to protect me, I’m glad it’s you. And in return, I’ll do the same.”
“Aki…” Looking at the girl for a few seconds, it felt that perhaps it might have been possible. She nodded, before walking back alongside her friend down the corridor. Maybe being proven wrong was a good thing.
“Just not too often okay? It’s annoying seeing you go into angst mode randomly.”
And so the day went by in Heavily Springs as normally as one could expect in a world where people spoke about the size of their breasts in Hot Springs. Samurai girl’s continued to train. Their friends ate bananas. Little kids followed their cousins about, while freelance reporters, to be read as ‘unemployed people’, went on trying not to worry about finances.
Meanwhile, ex-forensic students gave up on trying to determine why the world was all dumb and stuff and went about the equally impossible task of trying to snuff flames out while landlords continued to exist in a most boring manner.
In the town, old people still talked to each other angrily, probably about how they weren’t dead yet, alongside the need to build more propulsion jet engines. As they did so, they ignored the youth of today, especially the youth three times their size as he wandered back out of the village, lost and confused.
And finally, just outside the town’s limits sat on a park bench, a young girl consumed pizza at great expense, watching the day fly by and hiding whenever anyone walked past her. As she would leave, though not return home, the sun would set on them all, bringing about the cycle of light and dark, keeping both an infinite balance that kept the world in check and provided a relatively decent metaphor. All was well with the world.
Well, there was one more thing.
Sagara couldn’t find the religious cook.
Not that he had tried to look for her. In fact, he was pretty sure that nobody save himself could get up to this part of the roof without having to be lowered down by a helicopter. Even so, he hadn’t seen or heard from her all day.
The girl had come back with them, in a semi-unconscious, near-comatose state that he was pretty sure wasn’t considered all that healthy. But after they got home, she had wandered off in no particular direction and hadn’t approached him since, not saying a word the whole time.
Now the girl he first met naked had been wandering around the whole dormitory grounds for the past half hour shouting for the little religious cook, only stopping every so often to scream at the little ball of fire that was following her around, which, since night had fell, had turned blue so that it didn’t get cold. The girl seemed to be having no luck finding her fellow dorm buddy, so it seemed clear that the religious cook had since left the site, but the village was small, and she wouldn’t have many places to go and, with another hour left until the trams stopped running for the night, it seemed more and more likely that she wasn’t coming back if she had taken one.
He was sure she’d be all right.
Sagara waited another hour before continuing to wait for another hour. Waiting restlessly for someone that had yet to show up. Someone was missing.
Twirling the phone in his hands, his thumb had started to press buttons randomly as the stars continued to travel across the sky, quickly hitting the red button whenever he started to hear ringing.
Nothing seemed to be happening at all. Was someone going to tell him he was finished? If he wasn’t going to get the very obvious sign that he was promised, he’d just have to assume that the mission did include hunting down this fire spirit.
The phone started to beep in his hands, vibrating at the same time. Feeling a certain pang of relief that he wasn’t surrounded by enemies, hiding in darkness, at that moment, he looked to it and read the message.
Sagara I need to see you. Come to the city sometime and I’ll find you. – Raiko
That was a surprise. Staring at the message a second longer, he quickly deleted it, assured that he’d remember something that important. Especially since he too felt like he needed to see her.
Maybe they could go to the café again. That place had nice food. Weird mixed stuff that looked kind of odd, but still tasted nice. Maybe he’ll bring her back and introduce her to the Hot Springs. Somehow he knew she’d enjoy them just as much as he did.
He shifted his seating posture and waited another seventy three minutes.
Someone was missing.
Where was she anyway?