A Short Time After
Recently, rumors have been going around that rain is leaking into the hallway on the second floor. A quick visit confirmed that some carpentry work was indeed necessary. Someone could be called in from town on a later day, but for now it could use some rough patching up. Which meant he needed some wooden boards and a–
“– Hey, do you know where the wooden hammer is?” Willem turned around.
The storage room on the first floor. You used it before… have you already forgotten? Kutori answered. Wow, you really are bad at remembering things… She tried to sound a little irritated, but in truth she was just poking fun at Willem.
However, before she could finish her complaint, she noticed something wrong: Willem wasn’t looking at her. What are you looking at? She turned around, but no one else was there, only the empty hallway.
“Kutori, where did you go?” Willem asked and started scanning the area around him.
What are you talking about? I’m right here, she said in a stronger voice than before.
“That’s weird. I thought you were right here.” Willem, still not facing Kutori, seemed to ignore her calls.
Hey, cut it out–
She reached out with her hand, or she tried to. She couldn’t. The hand she meant to use didn’t exist in the first place. Looking down at her body, Kutori realized that it wasn’t there.
“Kutori? Where are you hiding?” Willem started walking.
He wandered all throughout the fairy warehouse, searching for the invisible girl. He didn’t find her. He left the warehouse and searched all throughout the island. He didn’t find her. He grabbed anyone he saw and asked about Kutori Nota Seniolis. He received no answers.
Where are you going?
What are you looking for?
I’m right here.
By your side.
No matter how much Kutori tried to speak, she failed to produce a voice. And of course, words that fail to become sound reach no one.
Eventually, Willem grew tired of walking and stood still, lost and confused. Someone placed a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s time for you to accept it already,” Naigrat said gently with a lonely smile on her face. “They’re already dead.”
— Kutori jolted up, sending her covers flying everywhere.
Her heart showed no signs of slowing its rapid pounding. Holding her hand over her violently pulsing chest, she took deep breaths. When she finally calmed down a bit, her body shivered. The cold bite of the winter morning mercilessly attacked her through her pajamas, draining her of warmth. She got out of bed, picked up her blankets, wrapped them into a ball, and hugged them tightly.
“A dream…” Kutori murmured. “A dream, right?”
She looked up at the window. The world outside was still enveloped in the darkness of night, waiting for the delayed winter dawn.
Her body felt sluggish. She wanted to snuggle in her blankets once more and go back to sleep. But she couldn’t. Her eyes refused to close, knowing that they might see the continuation of that dream.
Two days have passed since the end of the battle on the 15th Island and the fairies’ arrival back at the warehouse.
Willem has yet to return home.
The torrential rain that started pouring with the rise of the sun abruptly stopped a little before noon. Underneath the miraculously clear blue sky, small fairy girls burst out onto the grounds. The clean white ball they carried out with them quickly became caked with mud. Soon enough, the girls excitedly chasing it around became covered in the stuff too.
In a corner of the reading room, Nephren was enjoying a nap. Using her arms folded on a desk as a pillow, she snored peacefully with a gentle expression on her face.
“Well that’s unusual for Ren, throwing away a book like that,” Aiseia said as she picked up the book lying under Nephren’s desk. “For her, the main problem is probably not overuse of Venom, but just regular fatigue. She hasn’t had much experience since becoming fully grown, so her stamina still has a ways to go. But still she made it through that long battle.” Aiseia softly patted Nephren’s head.
“… and are you doing much better, Aiseia?”
“Me? I feel good as new! I have confidence in my longevity,” Aiseia answered proudly.
Kutori wasn’t fully convinced. Her golden haired friend always said important things in a way that made it impossible to tell whether she was being serious or joking. As a result, Kutori never knew what to believe.
“And how are you doing, Kutori?” Aiseia shot the question back at her.
“Me? I’m… uh…” Doing fine of course, she begun to say. She wanted to say it. But in the end, Kutori couldn’t. In contrast with their casual tones, Aiseia was glaring at Kutori with a dead serious look. “I guess I’m not in the best shape. Probably don’t want to fight for a while.” She put on a weak smile and shrugged her shoulders.
“Well if it starts to look really bad, maybe you should request to go back to the 11th Island. You’ll probably be given permission since you’re such an important soldier right now and all, and I’m sure the doctor can at least give you some advice.”
“I told you, I’m fine. It’s just a little more uncomfortable than usual.” Kutori shook her head. “You giving me advice is all I need. I trust you.”
“Well, I’m glad, but…” Aiseia twirled her messy hair around.
“Besides, it would suck if I left then he came back, right? I want to see him as soon as possible, so I need to wait at home like he said.”
“Ah… you’ve gone full maiden in love mode, I see.”
“Mhm, that’s right.”
“Not gonna try and hide it anymore?”
“Well, he knows my feelings but still tries to run away. I definitely won’t be able to get him if I keep pretending. At this point, I think going straight at him without hiding anything is my only option. He may seem like he has things together in his own little world, but if even something small goes wrong, he can get really thrown off.”
“Hmm, that’s true.”
“So as soon as he gets home, I’m going to go all out for him. Of course, you’ll have to help me some, so be ready.”
“Ookay, leave it to me.” Aiseia gave a thumbs up.
Kutori returned the gesture. There were no lies in her words just now. If he came home, she would go at him relentlessly. The key word was ‘if’.
Originally, he hadn’t been here. Which means, the current state of the fairy warehouse without him was how things were meant to be.
“Maybe he won’t come home.” The words lingering in Kutori’s mind sometimes escaped her lips in moments of weakness. “I mean, he’s such a valuable person to Regul Aire it’s almost unbelievable he’s been here all this time. You would think he would be appointed to some super high position and be begged to share all his arcane knowledge. So maybe it’s best if he never comes home.”
She received varied responses when she said that in front of people.
“We won’t let him!” “I don’t want to be lonely.” “I will be the one to defeat the technician!” “What is arcane?” It was questionable whether or not Tiat and the other little ones actually understood what Kutori was talking about.
“You should be a little more honest with yourself,” Naigrat said in a somewhat scolding voice.
Nephren only lowered her eyes and failed to react any further. Well, Kutori didn’t really expect much more.
“Well if he doesn’t, what are you going to do?” Aiseia asked back with a teasing smile.
What would she do if he really didn’t come home? Kutori thought about it, but couldn’t come up with an answer. “I guess I wouldn’t do anything…” Her vague answer caused Aiseia to sigh overdramatically.
Originally, he hadn’t been here. Which means, her current everyday life without him by her side was the life she was meant to live.
Hearing a sharp, but cute, battle cry from behind, Kutori instinctively dodged out of the way. Panival and Colon crashed onto the ground, failing to catch their target.
“… what are you guys doing?” She helped the two up.
“I told you!” Lagging behind her companions, Tiat came running in and poked the two on their red noses. A pair of little yelps rang throughout the hallway. “There’s no way you guys could catch Kutori. You still have ten years to go.” For some reason, Tiat stuck her chest out proudly.
“But without Willem around, we have no one to practice on, and our skills get worse,” a teary eyed Colon said.
“Skills to conquer the world!” Panival made a fist.
Tiat stood off to the side disgusted while Lakish joined the crowd and started apologizing profusely.
“… oh yeah, by the way, Tiat,” Kutori said.
“You’ve been confirmed as a fully grown fairy, right? Have you already had your compatibility with Dug Weapons checked?”
“Not yet. Naigrat said to wait until Willem comes home before we start looking for a sword.”
“… I see.” Kutori ruffled the little girl’s hair a bit.
“I hope you get a good one,” she said gently before drawing her hand back.
“Is something wrong? You don’t look so good.”
“Really? Maybe I’m just tired still.” Kutori laughed it off.
When Kutori returned to her room, she shut the door behind her and leaned back on it, gradually sliding down until she sat on the floor. She curled up into a ball, wrapping her arms tightly around her knees and dropping her head.
“That liar…” she muttered quiet enough so that only she could hear. “I kept my side of the promise. But why… why can’t you…”
After a while, Kutori raised her head and stood up. The closed door and curtains made the room almost as dark as night, but she knew it well enough. She made her way through the dim light to her desk and picked up the mirror lying on it.
In the darkness spreading out on the other side of the mirror stood a red eyed girl.
A flat spider.
“Who are you?” Kutori asked in a trembling voice to the stranger beyond the mirror.
She should be seeing a familiar face, the one that she sees every morning when she washes it. She should be seeing that face whose every expression she had seen so many times they were getting boring.
Yet why? Why was the girl on the other side staring blankly back at her? Why did Kutori take one look at that face and think it was a stranger’s? If it was someone she didn’t know, then who was standing on this side of the mirror?
A half eaten cookie. A worn out candle and a burnt envelope. A steel bird and a rainbow arrowhead.
Shut up. Shut up shut up shut up.
Why? Why did these memories keep flowing out?
The battle had ended many days ago. She hadn’t used magic even once after that. Wasn’t she supposed to get better? If she practiced moderation, wasn’t there supposed to not be any harmful impact on her everyday life? Was Aiseia lying?
It was her own fault.
During the battle, she threw something important away in the name of determination. In exchange for the miraculous destruction of the 15th Island, she sold almost all of her remaining time.
She didn’t regret it. Or no, she couldn’t regret it. Regul Aire was on the verge of annihilation. Saving it by slightly reducing the lifespan of a disposable soldier was a bargain.
The thing she should regret was feigning her well being in front of Willem after the battle. She didn’t want him to worry. She wanted to return home to the normal Willem. So she kept quiet about the encroachment and forbade Aiseia and Nephren from talking about it. But now, she was already in this condition.
She at least wanted to say ‘I’m home’. And also…
“I wanted to eat that butter cake…” she murmured with a quivering voice.
The girl on the other side of the mirror moved her lips as if repeating after Kutori.
A single tear streamed down the side of her cheek.
A broken world. A fish swimming amongst the stars. A yellow stuffed animal. An unfamiliar girl with blue eyes. A soft tree. A continually purring black cat. A pebble wrapped in paper. A bright cloudy sky. The world beyond the mirror. And. And.
The mirror fell out of the girl’s hand and shattered on the floor, sending countless shards flying about.
The girl collapsed on the ground.