Unpleasant-looking letters were written near the names of schools he hoped to enter “all “D”s and “E”s, instead of “B”s and “A”s. Of course it was the results chart of the nation-wide mock entrance exams. He had returned to look at it several times during the day, but naturally, the contents didn’t change. Looking at that piece of paper with vague revulsion, Shinji Kazama sighed miserably. He understood very well where those results came from: in the English test, weird sentences he didn’t remember seeing before; in world history, a question about some South American country; and in ancient literature, of all things – the Tale of Genji.
Come on - why Genji? That thousand-year-old fantasy of empty love for love’s sake, written by a woman abandoned by some playboy - and this decides modern people’s lives…?
Shinji was lost in those dark thoughts, but even though he saw that the world was decidedly unfair, results were everything - and his were far from satisfactory.
And it was already January of the last year of high school; the main exam was only a week away. It was a grave situation indeed.
He let out another sigh. Thinking that nothing could be done, he lifted his eyes and gazed forlornly at the classroom. It was lunch break, but the atmosphere in class 3-4 was quite tense. Students were either intently staring at their books, or fast asleep, tired from all the studying. A group of girls who took the test together with him were quietly discussing the results. Some boys were pretending not to be concerned - “eh, what test?” - and were playing a card game. There were people who had already decided
on their future careers, but mostly, his classmates were enveloped by the same uneasiness that stuck to them like a wet silk gown. The feeling of having something always stuck inside your chest that makes it impossible to laugh from the bottom of your heart, even at the best of jokes.
Their future careers, however, were not the only reason for that general feeling of anxiety, especially for those who were in class 2-4 the previous year. The fate of Kaname Chidori and Sousuke Sagara was on their minds. They disappeared from school almost a year ago. For a time, news reporters and journalists were making a fuss by gathering at the front gate of the school, but they disappeared, too; the repairs of the school building were finished before summer vacation. The culture and athletic festivals went by as usual, and the school became very quiet. No explosions at unexpected times, no angry shouts from Kaname, no screams of students caught in the turmoil, and no emergency broadcasts from Kagurazaka-sensei. It returned to being a normal school, like it was before Sousuke first came there. However, Atsunobu Hayashimizu had already graduated, principal Takako Tsuboi moved to a different school. Her change of post was not directly related to the incident, but after something like that happened, staying there was unreasonable, and she went through the motions and quietly moved on, even though she honestly wanted to stay. She announced it at the graduation ceremony in March, and true regret could be heard in her voice.
“I would have very much liked to stay as principal, and wait together with you for your friends’ return, no matter how much time it takes...”
Those words sounded more like a farewell to Kaname Chidori, making Shinji feel that their return was something very improbable. This was not a simple kidnapping. The Japanese
police were conducting their own investigation, but that of course was not something they could freely talk about. Kaname’s school register was taken away “for the purposes of the investigation”, and her absence was treated as an absence from school for an indefinite term. If she ever returned, she would have to start again from second year, and her classmates would already have graduated by then, so nobody knew if she would want to remain in that school. As to Sousuke, it soon became known that his profile in the school register was a fake, so the probability of his return was zero. However, the words that he had said in front of his class - that they will definitely be back - were etched into everyone’s memory.
What were the chances of that happening? Shinji could understand, perhaps better than anyone else, sharing Sousuke’s military mania. He could at least, better than an ordinary student, imagine just how powerful and cunning the terrorist and military intelligence organizations could be. No one could take them on alone, not with their virtually unlimited resources, skilled professional personnel and network of connections. And if something like the “Amalgam” Sousuke talked about existed, its power would be truly frightening. Though Shinji honestly didn’t even hear of such organizations before, it seemed more like an urban legend. But if it was real, Sousuke wouldn’t probably even be able to find her location... he could even be dead by now. Shinji often fell prey to such dark thoughts.
Ever since the incident, Shinji had been hunting for traces of Sousuke’s current activities. He was trying to find any clues in different incidents around the world that might tell him that Sousuke was involved (and this search helped him escape the stress of the exams, which was why he didn’t really study English).
He couldn’t find anything, and after thinking it over, realized that this was an obvious result. An organization like that wouldn’t leak information that an ordinary high school student could find.
So, what if Sousuke was still alive, and looking for Kaname? On the one hand, days full of mortal danger. On the other, days of stress before exams. He felt like laughing at the difference between his and Sousuke’s situation.
At that moment his friend, Koutarou Onodera, returned from somewhere and plunked himself down onto the chair in front of Shinji.
“Sold out, as usual,” It looked like “Ono-D” just returned from the bakery in a foul mood, as he tore open the wrapping of the bread roll and stared at it with annoyance.
“You could’ve bought something in the store on the way.”
“I did, but I got hungry after second period.”
Their dispirited conversation continued for a while until Koutarou noticed the exam result sheet.
“Ah, no luck with the mock exam?”
Before he could think of something to answer, Koutarou snatched the sheet of paper.
“Ha, lemme see... woah, you’ve really done it. It’s full of ‘D’s!”
“The questions sucked. You wouldn’t do better anyway.”
“Hah, I’ll be fine, I’ll study properly.”
“Exam’s next week…”
“Oh shut it.”
“I was kinda worried about Tokiwa-san... I don’t think she even touched her studies.”
“Mm... yeah, but she’ll get a recommendation, for sure. She did say she’d work in a toy company or something.”
“Aha, well, she was fierce about her studies after leaving the hospital...”
The person who visited her most in the hospital, where she stayed for some time after the incident, was Koutarou. Shinji also went to see her once or twice, but Koutarou was there so much he sometimes looked pathetic.
After she left the hospital they ended up in the same class, and with Kaname gone, Koutarou replaced her at Tokiwa’s side and they started spending a lot of time together. They were definitely close friends by now, though when asked, Koutarou didn’t want to acknowledge a relationship. Even though apparently they went to the sea together over summer vacation, he continued saying that nothing happened, though no one knew for sure.
“Is Tokiwa-san coming today?”
“Dunno. She did text me, saying she just finished her check-up.”
Today Kyouko had skipped the first half of the day and went to the local hospital for a thorough medical check. While there were no serious after-effects of the injury, sometimes she had light convulsions in the fingers of her left hand. Apparently the reason for that was not physical, but mental.
“Must be tough.”
“On Tokiwa-san I mean. With all that happened...”
“Sure, she had to go through all that,” grumbled Koutarou, slowly sipping his coffee milk. “You know...”
“She started talking about the time when she got hurt, recently.”
Shinji was honestly surprised. After leaving the hospital, she looked in almost physical pain during any conversation that even remotely reminded her of the incident.
“So, what did she say?”
“Come on, what is it?”
“Eh, it’s about Sagara.”
“That he was desperately trying to save her. That he dismantled the bomb that was tied to her, even though he knew it was a trap.”
Shinji remained silent and let him finish.
“And I said all those things to him... I really regret them now.”
“Well, you can’t really blame yourself; it was pretty scary back then...”
Shinji could guess that whoever abducted Kaname and held Tokiwa prisoner was dangerous enough. The black AS that swiftly laid mines all around the school did not appear in any military-related magazines, no matter how much Shinji looked. It was a wonder that no one died then – and they owed their lives to Sousuke and that white AS. Of course, there were still many students who resented him for bringing peril to the school, and Koutarou was one of them. That day he grabbed Sousuke by the collar and shouted and him: “Weren’t you our friend?!” Since then he hadn’t spoken his name even once.
“You know, Ono-D... I was thinking...”
“Well, I... I was thinking that Sagara-kun probably was trying his best, no..?”
“Where’d you get that idea from...”
Koutarou made a face like he had swallowed something unpleasant - a childishly stubborn, but clear refusal to accept this idea.
“Besides, Tokiwa almost died because of him, that’s a fact. If he’d just disappeared earlier...”
“Do you really think so?”
“Eh, what are you talking about...”
“You don’t think it’s right to apologize, like Tokiwa-san?”
“What? Why would I do that? It’s his fault.”
“Really... then why d’you think she started to talk?”
“Don’t you think it’s because she was thinking the same thing? That she was really sorry?”
“Uh... I... don’t really...” mumbled Koutarou, staring at Shinji with a pained expression on his face. “I dunno, really.”
“You know, I... thought of doing something.”
“Well, we won’t be able to get everyone together in February, so maybe in the middle of January we could do a group picture.”
At that moment Kyouko entered the classroom.
“Oh, here she is.”
She exchanged a few words with a group of girls standing near the door, then came their way. She was now wearing contact lenses instead of glasses. Her childish pigtails were gone, too, and her hair was shoulder-length. She was wearing simple, but very
effective makeup, which only added to the impression that she suddenly grew up. Her usually innocent face also seemed to be darkened by what happened.
“Good morning, Kazama-kun.”
She smiled to Shinji first, then lightly tapped Koutarou’s shoulder.”
Her voice was unexpectedly clear and energetic. Her outward appearance might have changed, but her personality remained more or less the same.
“Hey. How’d it go?”
“Results next week, but nah, I don’t think there’s anything wrong.”
“Hm, were you worried about me?”
“Me? No, just asking,” Koutarou smiled back. Kyouko puffed up her cheeks and poked him, feigning anger. While they were busy being all playful, the bell rang for the start of the fifth period.
“Phew, lucky I made it in time!”
“How can you be so serious about this? I’d skip the rest of the day, for sure.”
They returned to their seats as the students started flooding the classroom, making seemingly as much noise as possible in the short while before the start of the lesson. Some boys were looking at their phones and talking to friends in front of them. Phrases like: “hey, did you hear? There’s war” “eh, what?” “Heard it on the news, war or something” “Where?” “Dunno, in lots of places,
preparations for war or something” “Eh... watch out, Fujisaki’s coming.” “Oh dammit”.
The conversations promptly died out after the ancient literature teacher’s figure appeared in the classroom door. What was that all about? Shinji thought it was something about the Middle East again, or some border dispute in Africa, and didn’t think twice about it. The central exam - that’s what was important.
“Nobody absent? Good, good. Well then, let’s do a quick final test. I know, you’re all tired, but hang in there. You’re almost done.”
Test forms were quickly distributed after the teacher finished talking.
♦ ♦ ♦
Shinji learned of the news only on the train back home. The headlines of a newspaper extra that a tired salaryman was reading caught his eye, and he suddenly felt a cold chill running down his spine.
It was not just some border dispute in Africa. The two superpowers and their allies were locked in a serious crisis that threatened to escalate into the nuclear dimension. It looked like preparations were going on in Europe, the Middle East and even in the Arctic.
And that was not all. Even before that, he had seen in the news that the world was now in the grips of deep energy and food crises, and the worst market crash in a century signaled the beginning of a very profound recession. In the Soviet Union, a politician known for his extremist comments seemed to have the full support of the military circles.
Even so, war…?
Both camps’ armed forces were at full combat readiness, but it did not look like more than just another round of trying to scare the opponent into backing down. But if allowed to escalate, the situation could become very bad, very fast, and there would be no return.
However, the evening train was as peaceful as ever, without a hint of uneasiness or anxiety drifting in the air. Why doesn’t anyone worry about that? There might be a nuclear war... their lives might end suddenly... Here’s a student desperately trying to memorize words out of a dictionary, for the test that should get him into the school he wanted to attend, even though it might be destroyed very soon, along with everything else. This peace irritated him like never before. Shinji suddenly felt the need to talk to Sousuke. What would he say to him in that situation? How would the peaceful scenery look to him, used to crossing the line between peace and war in the blink of an eye…?