Chapter 14

“Don't Hide Away”

“Ran-chaaaaan! Good morning!”

Ran stopped her fast walk towards school and turned her weary eyes to the voice, answering with a mumbled “good morning” Sugi didn’t quite manage to decipher.

“Goodness, you look terrible,” Sugi said as soon as she caught up with her friend.

“Gee, thanks Sugi-chan,” Ran answered, resuming her walk and forcing Sugi to keep up.

“Are you okay? You look like you didn’t get any sleep last night.”

“I didn’t,” she sighed.

“Poor you. What happened?”

Ayame-chan declared herself to me, and I’m going to see Nagataka-kun today and pretend I didn’t know his dad was back already and that it has nothing to do with me, my friends may end up being in danger because of me if they get powers, and on top of that we have to take turns and stand guard to fight the freaking aliens because every time we use our powers we exhaust ourselves to unconsciousness.

“Ran-chan?” Sugi insisted.

“Ah! Well, I don’t know, I just couldn’t.” She sighed again.

Sugi patted Ran’s head as they walked. “There, there.”

Despite Ran’s state, they arrived at school earlier than usual. For all she complained about being sleepy and tired, her nervousness made her walk at a brisk pace, going straight to school without a single pause. After finding no changes in the school listings for classroom assignments and building damage, they headed for their own classroom.

As soon as they arrived Ran sat at her desk and, crossing her arms over it, she rested her head down. She wanted to go back home and hide under her blanket.

“Ran-chan, don’t fall asleep.”

“Really now… I know.”

“Shi-mi-zu-sa-ma! Good-Mor-Ning! ♪”

“Ah. Good morning, Ayame-chan.”

Ayame giggled. “It still works!”

Sugi looked at Ran, who hadn’t even raised her head, with obvious surprise in her eyes. “Wow, how did you know Ayame was there, Ran-chan?”

“What? She…” Oh right! “She’s always sneaking up on me, hehehe.”

“Nyaaa,” Ayame mewled in agreement, while giving Ran a quick cat-like head scratch.

Soon the the class started to fill up quick, and with every newcomer, Ran felt her heart pounce in dread of it being Nagataka. He was, however, the last one to arrive, and was followed immediately by the teacher. Ran didn’t quite know what to do, whether to wave at him or try to hide under the desk, but before sitting down, Nagataka gave her an intense and rather strange look.

“What’s wrong with Nagataka-kun?” Sugi asked in a whisper as the teacher started to check attendance.

“I don’t know,” Ran lied in a hesitant voice, “he looked like he has something to say…”

This is going to suck if I have to pretend not to know anything!

“Okay, one absence, let’s keep quiet and get started,” the teacher called, and the class fell to a hushed silence. Ran looked around and noticed one empty desk.

Sumire-chan is still away.

“Shimizu-sama, what’s wrong?”

Ran blinked and turned to Ayame. “Su…” She suddenly stopped talking when she realized she hadn’t spoken out loud.

Really now… Ayame-chan, you’re way too bubbly to be given this kind of power! Actually, we still don’t know if it’s her or me…

Ran looked at Ayame, who was smiling openly, and pointed at the empty desk. Ayame mouthed an “oh” and suggested visiting her after class, to which Ran nodded and smiled. After that, she pointed at the teacher, and hoped she had gotten the hint.

She did, for the most part. While she couldn’t hold a few comical comments about the lessons or the teachers, which made Ran giggle and nearly got her in trouble a couple of times, things went surprisingly well.

Considering it’s Ayame-chan, that is!

“Ayame-chaaaan, you’re going to get me in trouble if you keep this up!” Ran complained during recess.

“Tee-hee, I’m sorry Shimizu-sama, it’s just so cool, it’s better than passing notes in class!”

“I know, I know. Really now…”

A familiar voice interrupted them. “Ran.”

Ran gasped and turned in surprise, feeling her pulse speed up in dread. “Nagataka-kun!”

“Can you come with me for a minute? I need to talk with you.”

“Ah! Erm…” She hesitated, suddenly very conscious of all the pairs of eyes looking at them, and feeling a creeping warmth on her cheeks. “Sure.”

She had hardly finished talking before Nagataka grabbed her by the wrist and nearly dragged her away. His face was serious, but otherwise inscrutable. A hundred different ideas were colliding in Ran’s head, because it had taken a very different turn from every scenario she had come up with during her nearly sleepless night.

“N-Nagataka-kun?”

No answer.

“Shimizu-sama! What’s going on?!” Ayame called telepathically.

That’s what I’d like to know! Is it about his dad? Why would he drag me away like this?

The strange scene grabbed everyone’s attention as they rushed outside, and all eyes watched them as they disappeared behind one of the buildings, and a few curious people followed, albeit stopping at a distance. Nagataka looked intently around until he was sure they were far enough from prying eyes and ears, and fixed his gaze on Ran.

She didn’t know what to do, look at him, look away, or even whether to say anything at all. The silent pause felt like an eternity, as she squirmed under Nagataka’s intense gaze.

“Ran-chan. My dad is back.”

“That’s… That’s great Nagataka-kun!” She replied, finally gazing at Nagataka and forcing a smile. “Really! I’m so glad! Is he okay? Is he hurt?”

“Well, see here,” he put a hand in his pocket and produced a piece of paper, offering it to Ran. She took it, looked at it, and realized it was a picture of her as Nereida Nostrum. She managed to suppress a gasp when she saw it, it was somewhat dark and grainy, but her face was clearly visible.

Looks like this must have been taken when Kokawa-sensei and I got out of the train…What do I do? What do I say?

Nagataka continued talking undeterred. “This picture was taken from one of the security cameras somewhere in the military base. I wasn’t supposed to see it, dad says he yanked it out of the system so that nobody would, but when I did, he explained two girls had rescued them. It was quite amazing, at first I didn’t believe him, but the things he told me…”

Ran stubbornly kept her eyes fixed on the picture, refusing to look at Nagataka.

“I didn’t say anything back. I just listened. And looked at that picture. It was just too much to believe,” he snatched the picture from Ran’s hands and held it next to her face, looking at both. “But that face. Ran-chan…”

She didn’t answer.

“I couldn’t fail to recognize that face. That’s really you, isn’t it?”

More silence.

“Ran-chan. Please answer. That’s you, I know it is.”

“I… I don’t really… Hehehe, Nagataka-kun, what are you talking about? I have no idea…”

“Don’t!!”

His voice had been very loud, and very dry. Ran clamped up in an instant, looking at him with the scared expression of a cornered prey.

“Ran-chan. Don’t lie to me. Please, don’t. I… I thought we were… Please don’t, not now. If you can’t tell me… Just don’t lie.”

His pleas sounded more sincere than Ran would have liked. Why are you begging like that, Nagataka-kun? It’s not like… You’re begging… Her eyes opened wide with sudden understanding. You’re… asking for my trust, aren’t you?

“I’m sorry, Nagataka-kun,” she looked down at her feet, shuffling them uncomfortably. “I didn’t want to lie, I’m really bad at it too.” She quickly and discreetly looked around. There were some classmates looking at them from the corner of the building, a good distance and much too far to hear what was being said. She nodded to herself in reassurance, and continued. “It’s just very important, I didn’t want anyone to know. Y-Yes, it’s really me.”

She gulped with some difficulty, refusing to look up. When her hands started trembling, she clasped them, pressing with all her strength.

Why is this so difficult?

Before she knew what was happening, Nagataka was embracing her. At first she didn’t even realize, then, with the understanding, she felt like warmth had re-entered her body, bathing her in what the true feeling of being alive had to be. Pure, warm, bright, and very intense. Her eyes moistened up, and she barely managed to hold the tears back, not understanding where they were coming from.

Nagataka-kun is holding me. It’s really him. Really, really! He’s so warm. He feels so… So real. Nagataka-kun…

Her hands moved on her own, returning the embrace with an intensity that surprised even her.

“Please Nagataka-kun… Please don’t let go…”

She felt him nod, but it was several seconds before his voice returned. It was strained, trembling with happiness.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, Ran-chan! Thank you for saving my father. Thank you for trusting me. Truly… Truly thank you!”

Nagataka finally gently pushed her back, holding her by the shoulders. Both were at the verge of tears, tears of happiness. Their smiles had the shared sincerity only a lack of embarrassment can bring, the embarrassment neither had the right to feel for sharing their feelings.

In the distance, the bell rang, breaking the spell and bringing them back to reality. Not far from there, their audience was watching with eyes wide open and mouths agape, but they quickly disappeared when Nagataka turned towards them, as a loud murmur of dozens of voices speaking at once broke out. He led the way and Ran followed him, suddenly feeling the embarrassment of being under the scrutiny of her classmates, and hiding behind his back. For a moment, Ran thought he had grown at least two sizes.

“Shimizu-sama…”

She heard Ayame’s voice as soon as she entered the classroom. All eyes were fixed on her, and she could see many things reflected on them. Curiosity, admiration, even a bit of envy in some cases. Ayame was not looking at her at all, and her voice had sounded very sad.

She sneaked up from behind and put her arms around Ayame’s shoulders, resting her head next to hers.

“Ayame-chan.”

“It’s okay Shimizu-sama. I-I understand. I’m such an idi-”

“Shhhh,” Ran hushed her. “Ayame-chan, please don’t say that. It’s not like that.”

“But… Shimizu-sama.”

Her voice died down, but her thoughts continued. “But Shimizu-sama, you love him, don’t you? It’s okay! I can understand! Just tell me…”

Ran lowered her face, hiding her mouth on her sleeve in her embrace. “It’s not so easy. Let’s talk later, okay? Don’t be so down.”

“Really?” Ayame asked with renewed hope in her voice.

Ran let go and mussed Ayame’s hair, which cheered the girl up considerably. “Really, really. It’s great news for Nagataka-kun, that’s what’s happening.”

Ran gestured with her head towards Nagataka, who was talking with Isamu and a few of their classmates, including Sugi. Their voices sounded excited, and Nagataka was laughing and smiling openly.

“News? What happened?” Ayame asked.

“Nagataka’s father came back from his mission after being declared Missing in Action.”

“Really? Wow! I… I had no idea! I can’t imagine what that must be like!” Ayame turned to Nagataka and called loudly, “Nagataka-kun, good for you!”

She waved and Nagataka looked at them, smiling back. “Thanks!”

“Come on everyone, back to your seats.”

The excitement died down when Hoshiko made her entrance. Ran marvelled at how naturally she took the news that Nagataka’s father had returned safely, as if it were real news to her, how she gave him a few words of encouragement, and how she then proceeded to teach class like nothing had happened.

Kokawa-sensei is awesome.

0 Comments ↓

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply