February 1. Fourteen and a half years old. Saishuu Riku.
The alarm rang in my little apartment in Heikisato.
The noise pounded my brain, each ring like a weighty hammer. I buried my face in the pillows and twisted them around my ears, but still, the noise persisted. Alright, alright! I slammed an arm around until it hit the buzzer. Finally, some peace and quiet. Sleep folded over me like a blanket, and I hugged my pillow tighter. Remnants of my dream flickered in and out. Something about a quarrel. Not the best kind, but anything was better than waking up. Just five more minutes.
Then I remembered what day it was.
My eyes snapped open, all the grime around it moving in to attack. I rubbed them and swung from the bed, swaying like a drunken man. After all this while, today was the day. A huge grin ran across my face.
Today I’d join a squad.
As I pranced across my room, grabbed my towel and entered my citrus-scented washroom, I could hardly stop hopping on the spot. I'd dreamt of this ever since I stepped foot in Heikisato. Euphoria lightened me, and I’d have sworn I could fly. For all the embarrassment I’d had with being in the same class with people four years younger, this was worth it.
Most people who joined general training were six, but I was already ten when I’d begun. After graduation, the others had left to do special training with a mentor, something outsiders weren't allowed. So I'd been assigned a squad instead.
I was a bit nervous about meeting my new team, though. Even if I were only a replacement. Unfortunately, only outsiders recommended to or by the Minister were allowed to be permanent members of a squad.
I hurried to the closet, swung it open and pulled out my outfit. The coarse cotton of my red jacket wrapped my fingers. Taking each piece of clothing reverently to the board, I ironed them. They must be perfect. Even the tiniest crease must be wiped out. I smiled and wondered what my mum would think if she saw me do all this housework.
At the thought of my mum, something shook my very core.
My iron dropped. It missed my pants by a thread but seared my fingers on the way. I sort of remember rushing to the bathroom and running cold water over them. But most of all I remember the images, the memories that flooded in like on the morning after a busy day. No matter how much I'd wished, both my selves had been separate, like two different, but the same people connected by a thread of consciousness. Yet today I felt what my other me was feeling. All in one second, I was excited, then anxious, then distraught. So angry and so afraid.
I stumbled back into my room, my knees shaking. A pungent smell of burning fabric met my nostrils while I stared out my window. Fluffy clouds ran across the fiery sunrise sky that enveloped the town, the colours glinting off the crystal glass dome of the HQ.
It didn't matter what would happen to Ahio in the manga. I would save him anyway, even if he wouldn't need it.
My mum couldn’t control me here.
In less time than I would've thought, I took off the iron, my clothes were on, my sword was strapped, and I was out of the apartment. Then I ran, up the street, down another, past shops and street vendors, their cries of trade falling deaf on my ears. Ran so fast I was surprised I didn't barrel into anyone. Soon, in front of me was the great oaken door of the headquarters, with its weaving mosaic patterns made by a more delicate hand than mine. I raised my arm to open it, then stopped.
This was it. If I told them--if I told everyone, I would never belong here. I'd forever be pressed for more details, at least until the manga reached its course and I didn't have any more useful information. I'd be watched, or worse, be shut in a holding cell somewhere.
Was it even right for me to try to change things? Everything happened in stories for a reason. I knew full well about the butterfly effect. What if something much worse happened if I stopped the kidnapping? But then, what if Ahio dies? I must, no had to stop it.
I clenched my jaw and swung open the door.
A cacophony of noise rushed outside. Children ran back and forth, stern officials yelled at them to stop, swordsmen argued over who knows what, and two people were even sparing in the humongous, crowded entrance hall. No sooner did I step inside than two kids bumped into me. I caught myself and speed-walked to the information desk. A queue stood in front of it. It looked like a long wait. I hated doing this sort of thing, but today I bulldozed right to the front, the glares of some twenty people burning my back. A man with a brown ponytail stood behind the desk and gave me a dirty look.
‘You have to wait your turn.’
I placed my arms on the table as the man beside me mumbled about ‘kids these days’. ‘This is important. I need to speak to the Minister. May I have directions to his office?’
The receptionist massaged his forehead, a drop of sweat trickling down his nose. ‘No can do. Meetings with Minister Banji are by appointment only. You have to take it up with his secretary.’
I balled my fists. Just as I opened my mouth to protest, static rang in the air, making me jump.
A woman’s booming voice emanated from the many speakers overhead. ‘Swordsman Tahro Akagi is required to come to the Third Grade Quest Master’s office immediately. I repeat, Swordsman Tahro Akagi is required to come to the Third Grade Quest Master’s office immediately.’
I unfurled my fists and took my elbows off the desk. What’s going on? I was supposed to go to room number twenty, to meet my replacement team.
The receptionist whistled, shifting some papers. ‘Must be an emergency quest. Wonder what happened.’
Several cogs spun in my brain fast. The Quest Master wasn't the first person I'd choose to tell such a secret. Not even the top ten. She was a rude, inconsiderate woman, and I did not like her. But telling her directly was better than wasting my time here. She might even get the Minister involved herself.
The receptionist rolled his eyes ‘Okay, kid, you're holding up the--’
But the rest I didn't hear because I raced through the crowd. My footfalls added to the noise, and everything and everyone around me faded into the background.
Before I knew it, I stood huffing and puffing in the waiting room, near the door over which hung a huge silver plaque saying, Quest Master. My stomach knotted, and my hands and feet prickled. I heard nothing but my heartbeat. After a moment of hesitation, I opened the door.
What I saw hitched my breath.
The Quest Master sat behind her table, her face set into a frown. It was the first I saw her in colour, she'd always been in the black and white pages. She was brown-skinned, had very wavy chocolate hair with blonde highlights and wore a yellow kimono top. Her chubby arms lay upon the desk, which was weighed down by towers of paperwork. In front of her were my teammates.
A bell-shaped girl with short hair gave me a small, encouraging smile. Two hooked swords hung behind her and formed a cross. On her right was a tall and thin boy wearing mostly black and a pair of spectacles. His long bangs almost hid his ponytail and a little blue cat-like creature stood on his shoulder. Closest to the door was a short, pale boy wearing light clothes. The soft colours seemed like they would've made the boy vanish if it weren't for his large, effeminate eyes.
The tall boy smiled shyly, his glasses twinkling. In contrast, the very young-looking kid had on a small frown. The little creature yawned and stretched, blinking its round yellow eyes.
My anxiety sprang out to its strongest form, stopping just short of a panic attack, and my limbs were numb as if they were about to fall from their joints. I think I gaped.
It was none other than Kaede, Tsubasa and Daisuke.
February 1. Fourteen and a half years old. Japan.
I woke from a stupor I didn't realise I was in and shook my head. After all those nights wishing, for the first time since I’d split, both my selves had been in one world.