With a distinct clink, the metal ring bounced around the collection of bottles before settling on one in particular. It rattled around the neck for a bit, then stopped there on the center bottle.
“Geez lady,” the pimply-faced teenager running the game remarked, “how often have you played this game?” As he spoke, the boy took down the big blue bear that the woman silently gestured to before handing it to her. “I’ve never seen anyone pull off that many ringers in a row.”
Taking the bear, Risa Kohaku stared into its silent face for a second before murmuring, “I guess I’m just lucky today.”
It was early evening, the sun just starting to set as lights came on all along the amusement park grounds. The place was busy, people rushing to and fro between all of the rides and games, their voices raised in the light and wonder. Children laughed, couples held hands, and families explored the attractions.
Talking the bear under one arm, Risa gave the boy a nod before turning to walk away. She passed several small groups before speaking simply. “You do know that I know you’re there, right?”
In response to her words, Virginia Dare stepped almost out of nowhere, appearing beside the other woman with a short bow. “I thought I’d test you, see how much attention you were paying. Or see if you were rusty.”
To that, Risa tossed the bear sideways to the woman, remarking, “Let’s just say I got that one for you.”
Virginia caught the toy, blinking down at it before seeing the name emblazoned on the bright tag. “Dare Bear? Cute. Joke’s on you, I like him. I think I’ll keep the little guy.” She glanced sidelong at her companion, winking. “And you know Gaia said you should stay at the bungalow.” If it was a reprimand of any kind, it wasn’t much of one. Her tone was light, her expression making it clear that neither she nor Gaia were at all surprised by Kohaku’s failure to stay put.
It was a fact that Risa was well aware of, and she simply glanced to the woman beside her while retorting, “Yes, and the only reason that Gaia bothered to give that instruction is because she knew that being able to disobey it and do as I wish would help more than any conversation she could have with me. She knew it was pointless to tell me to stay. But she also knew that being able to disobey an order is kind of important to me right now.”
Dare smiled faintly. “We do know our old teacher, don’t we? Not nearly as well as she knows us, but still.” She was quiet for a few seconds as the two of them passed several more game booths. Finally, she sighed. “I can’t tell you how sorry—”
“Don’t.” Kohaku’s voice was sharp. “Don’t apologize. Please. You had no way to know. I’ve been withdrawn for a long time, longer than Manakel had me. Ever since…”
She trailed off, and Dare quietly finished for her. “Yuuto.” Her expression softened even more, and she put a hand on the other woman’s arm gently. “Your son’s death was a tragedy, Risa.”
“It was,” Kohaku agreed. “And after it happened, I stopped being myself. I threw myself into my work, and I withdrew. I stopped acting like myself for a long time before Manakel even got here. I spent five years accidentally creating the perfect cover for that monster.”
She sighed then. “Five years where I withdrew and acted different from myself for completely understandable reasons. Five years that gave Manakel all the cover that he needed when he took me.”
Their conversation paused then, as they stopped in front of a cotton candy stand. Risa took one for herself, again indulging in being able to make her own choices by eating something that Manakel wouldn’t have allowed in a million years.
The two women continued their meandering path through the amusement park, watching the people around them not so much from suspicion but more for the sheer enjoyment of it. Their silence was not one of discomfort, but that of understanding. They had been friends for quite some time, each having been born not too far apart. Their circumstances were quite different, given Risa’s birth during and within the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637 and Dare’s own roughly fifty years earlier in what eventually became America. Yet fifty years meant little in the scheme of centuries, and the two had been close ever since they had both come under Gaia’s tutelage. They knew one another, and had it not been for the past half-decade that Risa had spent pulling back from everyone after the death of her son, Virginia would have noticed Manakel’s influence.
Both felt guilty for their respective parts. Yet both were also mature and experienced enough to understand their own feelings. They walked in silence, each content to simply be with their friend.
That went on for a minute before Virginia slowly looked over to the other woman. “Have you spoken to Klassin?”
The question made Risa flinch. “I… for a few minutes. I didn’t know what to say to him. The relationship that he had with me, it wasn’t me. Manakel just wanted to use him to find out more about the students. He picked Klassin’s brain. I… I know he’s hurting right now. I can’t even imagine how this feels from his point of view. I just… I just don’t know what to do about it. We were together, but we weren’t. It wasn’t my choice. I didn’t… I didn’t fall in love with him. I almost wish that I did. It would probably make this whole thing easier. But…” Again, she trailed off, sighing as she hung her head.
Silently, Virginia took her friend’s hand, squeezing it firmly while remaining silent. Neither knew what to say. But just being there with each other helped.
Eventually, the two stopped in front of the park’s most famous ride, a spiral-filled roller coaster. Risa finished the last of her cotton candy before dropping the paper cone in the nearby trash can. She nodded to the ride. “You coming?”
Virginia agreed, and the two waited through the line before getting themselves seated in one of the carts.
“Remember the first time we rode one of these?” Virginia asked casually while they waited for the other passengers to board. Each of the pair had long since made certain that they could not be overheard by strangers, no matter how close they were.
Risa nodded. “LaMarcus’s contraption. That was 1884, wasn’t it?”
“Sure was,” Virginia confirmed. “Back at Coney Island. I had to practically dare you to get into that thing with me.”
“Dare me?” Risa retorted, “I see the Porter girl has been rubbing off on you this year.”
Winking sidelong at her friend, Virginia cleared her throat. “She and the other students will want to meet you, now that they’ll be meeting the real you.”
For a moment as the ride began to get underway, Risa said nothing. Their cart had began to rise up the steep incline before she finally murmured, “You’re going to ask me to speak with Columbus.”
“Gaia believes that the two of you can help each other,” Virginia confirmed. “You both understand what it’s like in ways that we can’t. And… honestly Columbus is dealing with it as well as can be expected, but he needs someone to talk to. Someone who isn’t his sister or his friends. Someone who will understand.”
“And I might feel better about opening up about my own feelings if I’m disguising it as empathizing with a student.” Risa’s reply was calm, the merits of the suggestion too obvious for her to be offended. Gaia had obviously known that she would understand just what the point was. That didn’t make it any less worthwhile.
They were almost at the top of the first steep drop then, as Virginia looked to her. “What do you think? Will you meet with him?”
Risa paused, before giving a short nod. “I will. You’re right, it might help. And even if it doesn’t help me, it’ll be worth it if it helps him.”
Virginia gave a bright smile then. “Now you see? That’s how I know you’re really you. You care abou—”
Her words were cut off then, along with her breath, as the roller coaster dropped off the incline and into its first incredibly steep dive. The two women stopped talking for the time being, and simply… enjoyed the ride.
“You know, when they said you were recovering, I kind of expected you to be hanging out in some monastery, or on an island or something.”
The remark came from Columbus as the boy stepped through the door of the coffee shop and onto the busy New York street the next evening.
Kohaku followed him out, taking a sip of her own drink before replying, “I’ve kind of had my fill of isolation. This..” Trailing off, she took in a breath while slowly looking up and down the street at the crowds moving all around them. “This is what I need. People. I need to be around people.” Belatedly, she looked to him. “But you know, if it’s making you uncomfortable…”
Columbus quickly shook his head. “No, no. I’m okay. I just, I guess I just don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. Talking to Shiori’s mom helps. Actually that probably helped more than anything, really. But I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to do, or how I’m supposed to feel. I keep thinking that I’ve got a handle on it, but then I just… it’s weird.”
The two of them began to walk down the busy street, sipping their drinks as they went. Neither said anything for a few minutes, each lost in their thoughts. Finally, Kohaku spoke. “Do you have any idea how much I just want to throw this cup in the air, spin around in a circle, and jump up and down while screaming nonsense words? It’s crazy, and would look utterly ridiculous. But still… I want to, because it would be me. It would be me deciding to do that. I can stop right now, turn around, and go back the other way. Not because some monster puppeted my body to do so, but because I wanted to. I can take a drink right now, just like this, because I feel like it. I can blink because I want to. I can raise my hand like this, just because I feel like it. Everything, everything I do, I can do because I choose to do it.”
Columbus nodded. “I know what you mean. I keep sitting in class, listening to everybody talk, and there’s these moments where I just want to push my desk over, jump up and start singing. I don’t even like singing at all, let alone in public. But I still kind of want to. Because it’s me. It would… it would be completely my choice, something that Charmiene would never, ever do. Sometimes I still stand in front of the mirror and make faces. Just because I can, you know?”
The two made their way through Central Park then, finding a bench to sit on while they watched a playground in the distance where kids were squealing and chasing one another. Kohaku finished her coffee and drop the cup in the nearby can. Her voice was soft and reflective. “I suppose, in a way, having those impulses and choosing not to do it still means a lot. Regardless, it’s our choice. One dictated by embarrassment or the explanation we’d have to give, of course. But still a choice. One that we get to make.”
Looking over to the boy beside her, she added, “I don’t think the possessed me ever really talked about my son in front of you.”
Columbus blinked at that, clearly surprised. “You have a son?”
She looked away at that, watching the children on the playground for a minute before softly murmuring, “Had. The one I’m talking about, anyway. He died five years ago, two years before he would have been a student at Crossroads.”
Columbus‘s eyes widened at that, and he quickly blurted, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I didn’t…” He trailed off before hesitantly asking, “Do you want to tell me what happened to him?”
There was no answer at first. Kohaku simply sat there, smiling faintly and sadly at the ground as her thoughts clearly cast themselves into the past. “Yuuto. he wasn’t my first son. I’ve had eight children in my life, three boys and five girls. One of the girls was killed over a hundred years ago, during the Fomorian invasion. The rest are grown and have moved on to their own lives, though I still see them. But even losing… even losing Kyomi was… she was grown. She was a warrior, and she saved a lot of people from those monsters. I grieved for her. But I was also so proud of her. As proud as a mother can be for a dead child. Outliving your children, that’s just something that Heretics tend to get accustomed to, I guess.
“But Yuuto was still a child. He was innocent. He never had a chance. He didn’t have a chance to fight back, or even a chance to live.”
Columbus opened his mouth to ask what had happened, but stopped himself. He sat silently, letting the woman get through the story at her own pace. It was the least he could do.
Kohaku continued. “Five years ago, during the summer holiday, I took Yuuto to visit Japan. I showed him some of the places from my childhood, and took him on a walk through the wilderness. We hiked all day before finding a place to camp. I showed him a ledge above us, where a Fringed Iris was. He said it was pretty, and I told him it was my favorite flower. We admired it for a minute, then went back to setting up our camp and I didn’t think anything else of it.
“Eventually we slept, and I was woken up the next morning right after done by a scream. Yuuto had tried to climb up to that flower when he woke up, the flower that I told him I liked so much. He was trying to get it for me. By the time I sat up, he had already fallen. His body was there on the ground.”
The woman’s words were clinical, but there were tears in her eyes. Her hands were clenched shut, and she could barely speak. “It wasn’t a monster. There was no enemy to fight, nobody to blame but myself. It was an accident. He died, and I had no monster to destroy. I could do nothing about it. Nothing at all.”
Columbus’s throat was dry, as he hoarsely and weakly managed, “I’m so sorry. That’s… I’m sorry.”
The woman nodded faintly. “That’s why I withdrew from basically everybody. It’s why Manakel was able to take over my life without being noticed.”
Columbus took that in, quietly watching the children in the distance for a minute before he spoke. “And then when there was finally someone you could kill, the monster who took over your life, someone else did it instead. You didn’t get to help.”
“Sariel had her own reasons to kill that creature,” Kohaku murmured before glancing to him. “Do you feel bad that it was Felicity who killed Charmiene?”
“Sometimes,” the boy guiltily admitted. “I mean, I know I helped. I know I put her in the position so that Flick could kill her. But sometimes, sometimes I wish I was the one who actually pulled the trigger. Err, so to speak.” He sighed. “It’s dumb, and I hate it every time I think about it that way, but after everything she said… After everything she did, I wanted to end her.” He looked up, his eyes focusing on the woman beside him. “And I actually helped. I knocked her out the window. Flick killed her because I hit her first. And I still feel bad sometimes. That’s why I figured that maybe you… kind of feel the same way.”
Kohaku considered that for a moment before nodding once. “Yes, I suppose that part of me never stopped dreaming that I would be the one to beat him, but I would somehow overcome his control and win. Every time I failed to do so much as blink to send a message to the others, it felt as though I had… well, failed.”
Columbus’s head was bobbing up and down quickly. “Yeah, exactly. I kept trying and trying to let somebody know, just trying to do something that would look out of the ordinary. Something small. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t control anything. It…” He swallowed hard. “It sucked.”
“That is a very good summary of it,” Kohaku agreed. “It most definitely sucked.”
That much confirmed between the two of them, they sat in silence for a few minutes, simply watching the nearby children play. Eventually, Columbus asked, “Are you going to come back to the school? Eventually, I mean. Right now they’ve got that Rucker guy filling in, and he’s great and everything. But he doesn’t know the things that you know. And… And I guess I just…”
“You want to have someone around who understands.” Kohaku nodded. “Trust me, I get that. And yes, I will come back. I am not going to let that monster control me even after he’s dead. I’ll go back, eventually. I just need… I just need a chance to be myself for a little bit before I worry about all the students.” She winced a little then. “Does that sound selfish? I don’t think I have a very good barometer for that right now.”
Columbus shook his head. “No, it doesn’t sound selfish. It’s… it’s understandable. Do, um, do you mind if I keep visiting you sometimes? Wherever you want to stay, I mean.”
Kohaku smiled faintly at that. “No, Columbus, I would not mind that at all.
“In fact, I believe I would rather enjoy it.”