4-10 That night was as bad as any night she'd been through. She was dead on her feet. The cold rain stole away her body heat. Naturally, a bad night for humans was a good night for youma.
Her clothing clung to her, restricting her movement. Her numb, lame limbs would not work the way she wanted. Some sensation had returned to her right hand, but barely enough. Holding the sword was extraordinarily difficult. To make things worse, the hilt became slippery in the rain. She had no idea how many foes there were in the surrounding darkness. And though the youma attacking her were on the small side, there were very many of them.
She was knee-deep in mud, covered with the blood of her victims and the blood flowing from her own wounds. As the rain washed away the blood and mud, it also washed away the last of her strength. The sword was heavy, Jouyuu's presence weak. The tip of the sword dipped lower and lower with every encounter.
Over and over she looked up at the sky in supplication, waiting for the dawn. The night had always passed quickly while she was fighting, but on this night in particular, her enemies coming at her in an endless torrent, it went on fearfully long. Over and over she dropped the sword and was covered in wounds before she could retrieve it. About the time when she finally saw the first signs of daybreak, she also saw the silhouette of one of the white trees.
Youko rolled under the branches of the tree. The hard trunk bruised her back. But that sense of being pursued ceased. Beneath the branches, as she collected her breath, she knew they were still out there, waiting. After a while they slipped away into the rain.
The sky brightened. Her enemies vanished. She began to make out the outlines of a surrounding grove of trees.
"I made it."
She took a deep breath. Raindrops fell into her mouth.
"I actually made it."
She paid no mind to her throbbing, mud-grouted wounds. She lay down, caught her breath, looked up at the sky through the white branches of the tree and waited for the gray day to come. As her breathing steadied she became quite cold. The branches did not stop the rain. She needed to slip away from here and find shelter from the rain, but she didn't move.
She desperately clutched the jewels, as if to store up more of the strange energy that warmed her fingertips. Exerting great effort, she rolled over and crawled out from under the tree and dragged her body towards the lower part of the slope. Crawling over the wet grass and ground was not difficult.
She had tried her best to stay to the road, but in the middle of the night, driven on by her foes, she couldn't begin to imagine how deeply into the mountains she had wandered.
Clinging to the jewels and to the sword, she stood up.
She was well aware of her injuries. She understood the nature of the severe pain she was feeling. Still, she could not say exactly where she hurt. With each step she braced herself to keep her knee from buckling.
Half-crawling, she descended the slope and came upon a narrow trail. It didn't look like the main road. She saw no ruts or wheel marks. It was hardly wide enough for a horse cart to pass. This was the end of the line. Sinking to her knees, she dug her fingers into the bark of a tree to support herself but her hands were of little use to her.
She had been headed towards the wrong road all along. And now she couldn't move another inch.
She held the jewels tightly in her hands. They brought forth no warmth or comfort. Whatever energy they could supply her with, more was washed away by the rain. The jewels had reached the limits of their miraculous powers.
So this is where I die, she thought, and laughed.
Among all her classmates, Youko alone would die the beggar's death. They belonged to a different world. They would always have homes to return to, families who would protect them, futures sure to be free of want or hunger.
She had done the best she could. This was it. She didn't want to give up, but no matter how she tried she couldn't raise a finger. She had endured to the end, and if an easy death was to be her reward she supposed she could find some value in the struggle.
Mingled in with the sound of the rain there sounded a clear, high tone. She raised her eyes. The faint light was shining out of the sword lying next to her cheek. From where her head was resting on the ground, she couldn't see the sword itself, but she could see the faint images rising up in the mist from the pounding rain.
And Youko Nakajima? a man's voice asked.
The vice-principal was sitting there. She couldn't make out where he was.
"Youko was a kind and diligent student. At least as far as her teachers are concerned, she was the most agreeable of all our students."
The vice-principal was speaking to somebody. She could hear the interlocutor's voice. It sounded like the voice of a big man.
"You ever hear anything about her getting messed up with the wrong crowd?"
"I wouldn't know."
"You wouldn't know?"
The vice-principal shrugged. "Youko was the model of a perfect student. There was never any reason to question what kind of life she was living or whether she ever strayed from the straight and narrow."
"A strange boy showed up at your school, isn't that right?"
"Yes, but my impression was that he wasn't an acquaintance of hers. But the truth of the matter is, I just don't know. It always seemed like there were aspects of her character that were a closed book to the rest of us."
"A closed book?"
The vice-principal's answer was accompanied by a sullen expression. "That's not quite what I meant. Let me put it another way. Youko was an honor student. She was on good terms with her classmates as well as with her parents, or so I've heard. But that's simply not possible."
"I may be out of line saying this, but teachers will see things in whatever light favors themselves. Friends do the same. Parents tell you only what's convenient for them to tell you. They all fashion their own image of the student and try to impose it on everybody else. Now, the opinions of these three parties are never going to agree. A student trying to meet all the expectations of his teachers and parents would find it intolerable. A good kid to you or me won't be to somebody else. What it comes down to is, in being all things to all people, Youko never got close to anybody, either. It might have been a convenient way to play things, but I suspect it never amounted to much more than a convenience."
"And how about yourself?"
The vice-principal frowned. "I'm talking about your gut type of reaction, okay? But for most teachers, the few hard-to-handle students--the ones you don't take your eyes off of--they're the ones you find endearing, memorable. I always thought Youko was a good student, but I'd probably forget all about her the day after graduation. And at a ten-year reunion, I wouldn't have the slightest idea who she was."
"Whether Youko acted this way on purpose, or whether it was the result of her simply trying to do the right thing, I don't know. If it was done with deliberation, I can't imagine what she was trying to hide. And if not, once she realized what she was doing, at some point it must have struck her as an awfully empty way to live. Wondering what she was doing with her life, seeing it all as meaningless, I don't think that would have been unusual at all for her to just want to disappear."
Youko stared with amazement at the vice-principal. The image faded. In his place a girl appeared, a student, one of Youko's closer friends.
"I've heard you were one of Ms. Nakajima's best friends."
The girl flashed him a severe look. "Not really. We were never really that close."
"Yeah. Sure, we talked now and then at school, but we never got together outside of school, never talked on the phone. That was true for most of us. That was about as much as we ever got to know about girls like her."
"So, frankly, I really don't know anything about her. I don't have anything bad to say about her, either."
"Did you dislike her?"
"She wasn't particularly unlikeable, but she wasn't all that likeable, either. I got the feeling that, no matter what, she was would always try to say the appropriate thing, you know? She wasn't interesting enough to actually dislike."
"You don't say."
It was another girl who came right out and said she didn't like her. "Youko, she was a little two-faced brown-noser."
"Yeah. Like, you know, sometimes you badmouth somebody? If she was there, she'd nod and say, like, yeah, me too. But when somebody else was badmouthing us, she'd do the same thing. Always kissing up to whoever she was with. That's why I couldn't stand her. There's no way a person like her has real friends. She was fine to complain to, though. She'd go along with whatever you said. That's about it."
"That's why I think she just ran away from home. She was probably messing with some gangbangers behind everybody's back. It wouldn't surprise me if it all started with a lot of big talk about how dumb we all were and deciding to jerk us around. I could never figure out what was going on with her, anyway."
"Perhaps she got caught up in something she couldn't handle."
"Yeah, you know, like she got into a fight with the homies she was hanging with. Not that I would know anything about it."
It was yet another girl who said she flat-out hated her. "To be honest, I don't mind her being gone one bit."
"You said your classmates teased you a lot?"
"And Ms. Nakajima went along with it?"
"Yeah. She always went along when they froze me out. But she was the one who always played innocent afterwards."
"They were always giving me crap, you know? Youko never joined in like she really meant it. She always pretended that she was above it all. Fact was, she was a coward."
"Like she was a better person than anybody else, like she felt sorry for me. But she wouldn't do anything to stop it. That's what pissed me off the most."
"Whether she ran away or got kidnapped or whatever, I couldn't care less. As far as I'm concerned, I was the victim and she was one of the perpetrators. I'm not going to sit here and act all sorry for her. I don't want to be a hypocrite like her. I suppose that gives me a motive, huh? But I'm glad she's gone. That's the truth."
She's not that kind of person, her mother insisted. Her mother sat there with a distressed look on her face. "She was a good girl. She wasn't the kind of girl who would run away from home or get mixed up with such unsavory types."
"Apparently she wasn't completely happy at home."
Her mother looked surprised. "Youko? Nothing of the sort."
"Her classmates had much to say on the subject. 'Her parents are really strict,' things like that."
"We did discipline her at times, but nothing more than what any parent would do. No, that has nothing to do with it. She had nothing to be dissatisfied with at home, not in the least."
"You're saying you knew of no reason for her to run away from home?"
"None at all. She would never do anything like that."
"Are you familiar with this boy who came to see her at school?"
"No. She's not the kind of girl who would associate with such people."
"Well, then, what do you think accounts for her disappearance?"
"Somebody kidnapped her on her way home from school."
"Unfortunately, there is no evidence for that. Youko left the principal's office together with the boy. After that we believe they went somewhere else. It doesn't mean she wasn't taken against her will. But several of the teachers said that they appeared to be on intimate terms."
Her mother hung her head.
"You say that your daughter didn't have a boyfriend. Perhaps she was involved in some other type of relationship. A shared acquaintance, for example. Anything we could use to begin a search with . . . . "
"Did they really say Youko wasn't happy with the way things were at home?"
"So it seems."
Her mother buried her face in her hands. "I never sensed that there was anything she was unhappy about. She's not the kind of girl who would run away from home, or would make bad friends behind our backs. She's not the kind of girl who would get involved in things like that."
"Teenagers don't usually reveal their true selves to their parents."
"Hearing about what goes on in other people's homes, it does make me wonder what kind of a person Youko really is. When I think about it now, perhaps I should have looked harder at anything that struck me as unusual."
"Indeed, children don't always turn out in ways that are convenient for their parents. My own kid is quite the little brat."
"Yes, I guess that must be it. She always showed us her good side. We dealt with her on the basis of outward appearances and ended up being deceived. Children will use their trust against you."
No, Mom, it's not true . . . .
Youko wanted to weep, but no tears would come. It's not true, she wanted to scream but her mouth only formed the shape of the words. As with the silent click of a switch, the vision disappeared.
The ground around her was covered with puddles, her head half buried in the mud. She did not have the strength left to stand up. No one could have possibly imagined that she would have ended up here, in this condition. Knowing nothing, that's how they could come to such convenient conclusions.
Cast into this world, starving, covered with wounds, not even able to rise, and despite everything, her desire to go home had made it all possible to bear. But in truth, what she had seen were the only human relationships of any merit at all that she could claim in her home country.
What did I think I was going home to?
No one was waiting for her. She had nothing there and no one who understood her. Being deceived, being betrayed, being here or being there, it made no difference at all.
Yes, I get it now.
And still, she wanted to go home. She found it strangely funny. She wanted to roar with laughter but the cold rain had left her face too numb. She wanted to cry as well but she had no tears left in her.
Whatever happened, it was all good. Because very soon it would all go away.