“During the winter it is easy to catch colds, so please watch your health. If you catch a cold, you should stay home or wear a cold-mask when you go out in public. Okay?”
A bell resounded through Tategami Koutougakkou, and the incessant post-class chatter went up in a storm in class 2-B, echoing the tempest of snow transpiring outside the school building. Whisk brooms swept across the floor in the background of all the commotion.
Manazuru Miu, seventeen years old with long brown hair, closed her bookbag and turned to greet Watanabe Chinami and Ito Naoko, both of whom carried brooms and indignant facial expressions.
“Miu, are you leaving already?” Chinami asked dubiously, crossing her arms. “Just because it’s the last day of term doesn’t mean you can’t wait up for us.”
Miu shrugged and flashed a small smile. “Sorry, but I’m going to be really busy this afternoon, so I have to leave early.” She pulled on her mittens and dusted off her scarf.
“Busy with what?” Naoko leaned on her broom. “You aren’t going off with Isuzu Ayane again, are you?” She peered suspiciously at her best friend, unnerving Miu. “You’ve been seeing an awful lot of her lately, and this isn’t the first time that’s happened!”
Chinami sighed. “Geez, it’s winter holiday, Miu. Can’t you two give it a rest? You’re nearly inseperable during term and on holidays she drags you off to gods know where. I haven’t heard you complain once, so I know you don’t mind it, but your friends wouldn’t mind spending some time with you, you know?”
The dark-haired girl looked up, holding her bookbag. “What was that?” she questioned blankly, making it clear that she hadn’t heard a word the other girls had said.
“I give up! You’re hopeless!” Watanabe stalked off to the other end of the room, followed closely by Naoko.
“Chinami? Nao-chan?” Miu stared and cocked her head. “What did I . . .?”
“Manazuru!” A classmate handed her a rag. “Do you ever do cleaning duty? Come on, we’ve got work to do!”
“Ah, sorry.” Miu glanced at her mittens and scarf, groaned, and threw them into her bookbag.
“Oooh, sweet victory!”
Her blade melted into the snow and Tachikawa Satoka dove for the crystals that clinked to the ground, barely containing her excitement. “We got a real haul this time, huh?” She looked to her teammates for an assessment of the day’s work. “I’m leaving those there to you two, but I did take out this entire section. Should be worth atleast a million yen.”
The dark-haired, bespectacled Isuzu Ayane was more occupied with her laptop computer and a few smoking cellular phones, than the crystals left over from the slaughter of this group of Invaders. With a heavy sigh, she raised her cold eyes to the collection they had procured today. As Satoka had mentioned, they would be warrant a nice sum of money, but Ayane rarely allowed herself to be swayed by greed for such things.
Any thoughts she might have been thinking crashed and burned as the form of a teenage girl descended down from the sky and crashed into her, bringing both of them to the ground. Ayane closed her eyes, counting to control her irritation. Miu moaned. “Itetete!” She rolled over and sneezed, looking quite red in the face.
“You . . .you . . .” Ayane massaged her temples and pulled off her glasses, giving the impression that she could relate to a parent dealing with a rowdy child. “You . . .need to work on your landing. You might hurt someone, namely yourself.”
“Um, sorry, Isuzu-san.” Miu brushed snow out of her hair and sneezed again. Her gate activated beneath her and she shot forward with a panicky holler, colliding with Satoka and scattering iridescent crystals throughout the snowdrift.
Satoka’s eyes went wide and wiped over with a look of irate devastation. “Nooo! My money!” A muscle twitched underneath her eye and she rounded on Miu. “Do you have any idea how long it will take to find all of those!?”
“I’m—hachoo!—so sorry!” the brunette whimpered, wiping her nose. “I dunno what ha—choo!—ppened!”
“Gods,” Satoka moaned, falling face-down in the snow.
Miu gave another furious sneeze and shot straight up into the air.
Ayane’s gaze followed the girl as she trudged through the thick bed of snow. She reached down for the dead cell phone at her feet and carefully tucked it in her bookbag. “Interesting,” she muttered. Seconds later Miu crashed back down to the ground, cushioned by the snow.
Satoka extracted a crystal from its niche and traced Ayane’s stare to their fellow Gatekeeper. “What the hell is up with her? You’d think she’s sitting on a bed of hot coals or something.”
Miu coughed and exhaled heavy vapor into her hands, which were cupped against her mouth. She swayed a little, her eyes still watering from her impact and the cold gales. A squeak escaped her when Ayane caught her arm and hooked her own around it, giving a determined tug to pull Manazuru up. Miu found that she was slightly dizzy and had to lean on Ayane for support.
Ayane’s pale face became gradually red and warm in reaction to the feeling of Miu’s head on her shoulder. Something tickled at the back of her mind, but she ignored it and focused on helping her charge walk.
“Hey, where’re you going?” Satoka asked irritably, digging in the snow and gaining nothing but cold hands.
Isuzu didn’t bother looking back. “She has a cold. I’m taking her home.”
“What!? You’re not gonna help find these damn crystals!?” Satoka groaned and palmed her forehead. “I don’t fancy kneeing around in the snow all afternoon, you know, just because of Manazuru’s idiocy. I’m really getting sick of that aloof kind of thing you seem so keen on perfecting, and—“
She looked up and twitched. Ayane and Miu were nowhere in sight.
“NOT AGAIN!!! ISUZU!!!”
“Don’t you ever take care of yourself?” Ayane asked.
“I—achoo!—I thought I’d be okay like this—“
Isuzu sighed. “When it’s this cold, you’re supposed to bundle up. I’m not going to tolerate this all winter, okay? Our health is an important factor in fighting the Invaders, and you can’t just neglect it.”
“I . . .” Miu sneezed and slumped forward, suddenly going limp against Ayane’s support. The bespectacled teen had to move quickly to stop her ward from dropping. Miu’s eyes had closed.
“Miu? Miu . . .Miu?”
She was dreaming that Ayane was seated on the wheat-colored sofa in her living room. Although it seemed real enough, she just knew it was a dream, in that way in which you just know some things when you’re dreaming.
Ayane was clad in an ensemble similar to that of an Invader—the dark suit, hat, and sunglasses—but with a sort of long skirt that wrapped around and pinned in the front. “Welcome home, Miu,” she said with an unusual cheer in her voice.
“I can’t stay here, Ayane!!” Miu found herself replying, suddenly holding a large Mason jar in her hands. A ribbon with a bird pattern on it was tied around the neck of the jar. “I have to pick up the eggs! Imitation gates won’t run on marmalade forever!”
An immense cuckoo clock on the opposite wall squawked loudly. The little door above the clock face opened and out popped Kageyama and Satoka, holding giant spatulas. “A man with a mole by his nipple will be played by the woman he loves,” Kageyama remarked sagely before backpedaling into the clock door again.
The clock squawked again and Miu abandoned the jar of marmalade to don a hat of a fire brigade man. “I have no time and I have to get the purple eggs!” she moaned.
“Miu, why don’t you use your gate?” Ayane suggested, not looking up from where she was knitting a large banner bearing the phrase ‘Geitokiipaazu 21’ in katakana.
“I’ll crash into the ceiling!” Miu protested.
A pigeon landed on the arm of the sofa and pecked at the fabric.
She looked down and she was peeking out of a bright pink cannon from torso up. Her little sister Himi was behind her winding up the cannon. “The sixth sheik’s sixth sheep is sick!” she proclaimed in broken English before the cannon fired.
Miu screamed as she was propelled into the expanse of blue.
The sky spiraled into a fusion of blue hues mingled with white and melted into a dull gray that was gradually tinted with yellow. A gold hue swathed in dim light swam in front of her and Miu blinked in an attempt to focus on it. A few seconds later she realized that she was no longer dreaming, but instead was staring at the ceiling of her room. Her body lay flat and level on something soft, so she must be in bed.
Her hands drifted out from underneath a heavy comforter and she sat up slowly and tiredly, rubbing her eyes. This was indeed her room, although all the lights were out and she couldn’t understand why. Her hair was down and fuzzy with static and stuck to her face as it often did when she woke from a long sleep. Her hands patted the pajamas she was wearing in confusion.
She turned and pulled her legs up underneath her on the bed, pondering her situation. Although she knew that she had just woken from a dream, the memory completely escaped her. But before that . . .she remembered leaving school with Ayane and Satoka—her mittens and scarf remained with her school slippers—and attending to a group of Invaders. Satoka had been angry because Miu was sneezing herself nearly out of her boots. Ayane with her arms around her—
“Hoooooeeeee!?” Miu slapped herself lightly to clear her head, the memory of Ayane walking with pale arms wrapped around her waist and shoulders very fresh. “What?” She fell over backwards and stared idly at the ceiling while her head spun.
The sound of footsteps in the hall brought her attention to her door. It opened and her mother walked in carrying some sheets. The woman blinked as she noticed that Miu was awake and set the sheets down, going to stand next to her daughter. “How do you feel, Miu?”
Mrs. Manazuru continued. “It’s good to see that you’re awake. You’ve been sleeping since your friend brought you home yesterday afternoon.”
Miu stared blankly at her mother. “Awake? Yesterday? Friend?” She shook her head. “What friend?”
The woman tapped her chin in thought. “Isuzu-san, wasn’t it?” She smiled. “She brought you home yesterday and told me you had caught a cold and passed out. The poor girl must have carried you all the way from school.”
“Isuzu-san!? She—“ Miu’s mind whirled in wonder.
“Oh, and she was so very polite and so concerned about you! She even stayed to make sure you would be okay and offered to watch you and Himi while I ran some errands.” Mrs. Manazuru’s face had lit up from the smile on it. “I came home and she had put Himi to bed and fallen asleep watching you here in your room.”
Isuzu-san was in my room . . .Miu was sure she would pass out again from sheer shock. None of what her mother had said sounded at all like Ayane. I’m dreaming again! Miu decided and pinched herself. “Ow!” she squeaked.
Mrs. Manazuru glanced at her strangely and turned back to the door. “It’s nearly lunchtime, Miu. I’ll bet you’re starving.”
Miu realized suddenly that if it she had been asleep for as long as she had been told, then she had skipped two successive meals! Her stomach backed this up by growling deeply at her like a large dog. “I am kinda hungry,” she admitted sheepishly.
“The tenpura should be nearly ready,” Mrs. Manazuru mentioned, although it seemed she speaking more to herself than her daughter. She disappeared out into the hall.
“Tenpura,” Miu breathed, her mouth watering. Vegetable tenpura, her absolute favorite dish. Maybe I should catch a cold more often, she thought.
The light that streamed into the hall was an unsettling shift from the dim bedroom, and Miu had to blink several times to adjust. A loud cacophony blared from the main room, presumably the sounds of her little sister watching television. How anybody could have slept through such a racket escaped Miu completely.
Yawning, she stepped into the main room, giving little attention to Himi’s cross-legged form on the floor or the bright colors displayed on the television screen. Her mother had retreated to the kitchen, and—
Miu froze in mid-step as everything around her and the sofa seemed to crash down in a heap.
Ayane, Isuzu Ayane, was sitting on her sofa.
“Isuzu-san!?” she choked out, flabbergasted. For some reason, her throat had begun to tighten up. Memories of her bizarre dream from earlier surfaced, making her head spin.
The bespectacled teen’s head rolled over and Ayane gazed at Miu. “Miu, you’re up finally.”
Miu’s mouth hung open. Words escaped her.
“Himi, dear, could you please—“ Mrs. Manazuru appeared in the doorway and immediately noticed the tension that was forming in the room, particularly between the two Gatekeepers. “Oh, I completely forgot to tell you Isuzu-san was here, Miu. How silly of me.”
Ayane drew her gaze away from her partner. “I’m not intruding, am I?” she asked. “I’ll leave if you want.”
“No, no, dear, stay for lunch.” The woman brushed something off her apron. “Miu doesn’t mind. Isuzu-san came to check on you, Miu. I invited her to stay in case you woke up. Isuzu-san, a bit of salmon doesn’t bother you, does it?”
“Salmon is fine. I’m allergic to tuna though.”
Mrs. Manazuru left them to themselves, presenting on awkward situation on the teens’ part. Miu found that she was unable to look Ayane straight on, so instead she studied the carpet with feigned curiosity. Suddenly she was embarrassed to be seen like this, her hair sticking everywhere and dressed in faded pink pajamas, the top with the word “suki” written across the front. Hadn’t her mother been even the least concerned about her daughter’s facing a guest in the proper attire? How had Ayane so quickly earned such a secure status?
“Isuzu-san, uh . . .” What are you doing here? Why? Why were you here last night? “Guh . . .uh . . .sorry about the crystals!” she blurted out. Her hand flew to her mouth. Ack! That was completely off topic!
Ayane frowned for a moment, apparently trying to put that together. Her face softened when she remembered the previous afternoon, and she lowered her head, the glare reflecting on her glasses obscuring her eyes. “That’s okay. Only Tachikawa was really angry about it anyway.”
“Oh. That’s . . .good, I guess.”
An uneasy hush settled.
“Aren’t you going to . . .sit down?” Ayane asked without looking up.
“The purple eggs! Can’t run on marmalade forever!” Miu answered in a mess of words.
Ayane’s head moved. “Sorry?”
“Uh, never mind. Yes, I’ll uh . . .” The sofa suddenly seemed very foreign and unfamiliar. She might have been jumping off a cliff instead of sitting down. Despite her doubts she sank into the cushions next to Ayane. All the Invaders in the world couldn’t have persuaded her to meet Ayane’s gaze at that moment, even though she was dying to hear even a word from the girl.
“Miu, Isuzu-san, look! The commercial for Magical Flight is finally playing!” Himi hooted excitedly. You wouldn’t know that she had designed the characters for the game over a year ago. Since it took a while for the construction of video games to be completed, she turned attention to new characters and new games; however, she always enjoyed seeing her characters displayed on television, no matter how much later.
Ayane glanced questioningly at Miu, who squeaked and dropped her gaze. “Himi, uh, designs characters for a lot of video games.”
Miu swallowed but was unsuccessful in clearing the lump from her throat. Determined stolidly to look anywhere that was not Ayane’s face, she instead rested her gaze on the other girl’s pale hands where they lay on the sofa. The fingers were long and thin, but not bony or spindly.
This turned out to be a mistake; Miu squeaked softly, aware that her face and neck must be turning very red. Confused, she risked a glance at her companion, who was entranced by the anime program Himi was watching on the television. She restrained a heavy sigh of relief. Surely there was something wrong with her, that she was feeling so tense.
So ask her about it! She took a deep breath. “Isuzu-san, I—“
Her heart pounded mercilessly against her chest as though straining to burst out. Her throat had seized up and tightened, deterring Miu’s attempts at coherent speech. A moment passed and she realized that Ayane was staring at her expectantly, and here she was acting like a child, like a girl in front of he—
That . . .can’t . . .
Her face flushed hotly and she felt her stomach give a flop. She clutched at the fabric of her pajama pants, her knuckles turning stark white.
“I, I’m sorry!” she declared loudly enough that Ayane jumped and stared at her.
“For what?” Isuzu asked.
Miu bit her lip. “For causing you trouble.”
Ayane shook her head slowly and peered closely at her friend. “It’s no trouble. I wouldn’t have done it if it was.”
“But, but I don’t want to waste your time. You shouldn’t throw it away just because I was stupid enough to catch a cold.”
Ayane laughed dryly. “You didn’t ask for a cold, did you?”
“No, of course not. But it’s my fault for forgetting . . .” Miu fidgeted, confused. “I never asked for you to stay! You could have just dropped me off and gone on your way! Right!?” She watched Ayane with apprehension.
The Gatekeeper’s eyes narrowed inquisitively. “Do you not want me around? Like I said, if I am a bother . . .”
“No! No, I’m very grateful!” Miu grabbed Ayane’s hands. “I must find a way to repay you for this! You’ve been so kind, and I’ve been nothing but a burden. I can’t even take care of my health!”
Ayane stared at her hands. Miu seemed to notice suddenly what she was doing and quickly released them, placing her own hands on her lap. “I’m so confused,” she continued. “You’re so kind, Ayane, but I don’t deserve it. So I don’t understand why.”
But Ayane reached forward and this time it was she who clutched Miu’s hands. “Because I was worried about you, you moron.”
Miu blinked and gaped at Ayane with her mouth open, looking very much like a goldfish. A good Samaritan act . . .that was the kind of answer she had been expecting. She had learned not to assume anything about what Ayane might be thinking or feeling. “W-worried?” she spluttered.
“Yes, worried. Are you that blind?” Ayane snapped and blushed.
Miu was surprised. She had never seen Ayane blush. Never. “Um, well . . .”
“You are blind.” Ayane stared at her angrily. “Did you not take the hint when I told you how you squander the emotions of the people who care about you?”
“Hint? Well, I . . .”
“Well, I care about you, okay?”
Miu’s mouth hung open. She stared at Ayane in wonder, her heart fluttering like a caged bird. Ayane cares about me! What does that mean? Does it mean she’s in love with me? She gasped. I care about her, too, the same way?
“Me, too,” she admitted. “I care about you.”
As Ayane carefully held her gaze, Miu wondered where would they go from here?
“HaCHOO!” exploded Miu, sneezing on to both her and Ayane’s hands.
The corners of Ayane’s mouth twitched up in a small smile. “Before anything, you need to get some rest and get better.”
Miu wiped her nose with her sleeve and peered at Ayane imploringly.
“Don’t worry.” Ayane grinned. “I promise I’ll be right here when you wake up.”