*This omake chapter may be read independently of “Syncope.”
CHAPTER 0.2 Omake: “Fifteen”
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Setting: Natsuki’s fifteenth birthday.
Another day makes another year. Natsuki was grateful that her birthday didn’t fall during classes, since a student or teacher who didn’t know better might attempt to celebrate it with her. To this girl, however, now fifteen, this day served only as a reminder that the parties involved in her birth were no longer present.
This was an indoor day, Natsuki had decided. It was too hot out, and she preferred to be planning the next reconnaissance mission with her contact rather than wasting precious time with shaved ice by the beach.
No noise, no distractions.
Rooting through piles of papers and receipts, she attempted to piece together the latest mystery of the First District set before her. Subconsciously, the fact that she would be working on her revenge this day for her mother seemed fitting.
She looked up at her apartment door rather anxiously; last year, Shizuru had thrown her a surprise party while she was out. Although it was just the two of them and held in her own home, Natsuki was still uncomfortable with all the attention Shizuru was giving her. To make matters worse, the older girl had given her some expensive lingerie–and wanted her to try them on in her presence:
“What if I need to return them for a different size?”
“Shizuru! Since when did you not know my bra size? Th-that’s–”
“Ah, but surely you have gotten bigger? You are still a growing girl, after all. You should still try them on and tell me if you like them, at least. Please?”
I’m not taking the chance this year, Natsuki thought proudly. If she sneaks in, I’ll be ready! We could.. She chewed on a pen cap while shuffling paper into separate piles. What could we do? If she’s forcible about it, we could have dinner. Here. Nothing fancy–
A soft knock interrupted her paper-gathering. Hurriedly shoving everything into the corner, Natsuki stood up and straightened out her skirt. Such timing, that girl. Inhaling deeply and putting on her best grouchy face, she flipped her dark blue hair over her shoulder and stalked to the door. As expected, a ridiculously blissful Shizuru stood on the other side of the door, beaming rays of joy straight through Natsuki’s built-in cloud of stubbornness.
“Shizuru.” It was a statement, not really a greeting, but Shizuru always interpreted the habit as the latter.
“My, my, Natsuki is up earlier than I expected.”
“It’s not that early, you know.”
“Perhaps not.” Shizuru stood in a long, casual peach skirt and plain white pullover shirt. Despite that, her carriage made her appear vastly overdressed compared to Natsuki, who wore a white T-shirt and short navy skirt. The brunette continued smiling brightly while holding a small bag to her chest.
“Shopping?” Natsuki tried to sound as detached as possible.
Shizuru merely tilted her head slightly while staring directly into those clear, green eyes, and Natsuki tried very hard not to drop her gaze or screw her face together in response. “May I come in?”
The younger girl sighed and pulled back the door. I suppose I can’t say ‘no.’ “Fine, come in–but on one condition!”
Shizuru stood in the hallway for a moment and seemed to ponder this. “That depends on what Natsuki defines as a ‘party.'”
You’ve got to be kidding–
“Would food suffice? Something nutritious and delicious and different from your…” Shizuru leaned to the side to peer into her friend’s dark abode, “usual fare?”
Natsuki turned and saw all the instant ramen bowls stacked up inside the trash behind her. Ah.
Busybody. The brunette had overcome Natsuki’s general paranoia by brute force and opened all the curtains despite her protests. Fortunately, Natsuki had dropped all her work into a large box before then.
“It is quite stuffy in here, Natsuki.”
“It’s still cooler than outside. Air conditioning, remember?”
“I do not understand why you never want to be outside on your birthday.”
“Too hot, too many people…”
“We could go visit Hokkaido?”
“Uh, I’ll keep that in mind… What are you making?” Natsuki followed her into the kitchen and watched her carefully place items onto the table. “It better not be too fancy. I mean, I don’t want you to work so hard just for thi–” She stopped and squeezed her eyes shut when Shizuru’s hand darted up and poked her on the nose.
“Natsuki should be quiet and just enjoy herself today.”
Hovering around the table as Shizuru prepared the stove, Natsuki tried to interrupt. “Can’t I help with something?”
“No,” came the terse but playful reply. Shizuru placed a hand firmly on Natsuki’s lower back–sending a thrill up her spine–and another on her shoulder, then maneuvered her out of the kitchen. “Now, allow me to work.”
Sighing in defeat, Natsuki stood in the center of the room and surveyed the mild mess. Fortunately, she was out so often that the apartment didn’t have time to accumulate a great disarray. Still, grumbling at the little voice in her head that insisted she should feel guilty or at least a little embarrassed, she went about the area and organized as many bits of paper as possible. After a while, she simply sat on a zabuton and waited, staring at the kitchen.
With Shizuru humming away in the kitchen and interesting aromas wafting through her residence, Natsuki eventually wandered to her desk and straightened some things on it. Her hand paused by a frame holding a damaged photograph, its edges burned away. At its center was only a brightly smiling young girl with dark blue pigtails and a scruffy-looking dog. The remnants of the two people on either side were incomplete forever, fallen to ash. Her hands tightened convulsively around the frame.
Natsuki gasped and jerked slightly at the quiet voice suddenly murmuring by her ear. When she whirled around and met the calm and endless red eyes, Natsuki’s mind was already reaching for a plausible and fast response to the question she knew was coming: What does that picture mean?
She knew Shizuru had seen the burnt photograph before, but probably never asked about it since it was usually tucked away. She must want to know. But Natsuki didn’t want to tell her the full truth–not yet. What could I say about the First District? About everything?
Their noses only a hand length away from each other, Shizuru quietly dropped her eyes to Natsuki’s hands, which still held the picture frame. She saw those fine fingers grip harder on it and slowly looked back up.
Despite all the effort Natsuki placed in developing a bristling skin and lethal glare, her emotive turmoil lay bare for Shizuru to see. Worry, fear, anger, and pain floated on the surface of her gem-clear eyes like leaves on verdant ponds. And Shizuru could see it all.
The silence between them thickened as Natsuki began to tremble, confused by Shizuru’s lack of reaction, by her blank and mysterious expression, by the endless depths of deep red, knowing eyes. Slowly, gently, Shizuru merely lifted her arms around Natsuki’s torso and pulled her into deep embrace. Natsuki automatically folded her arms around the picture frame, and it was buried between their warm bodies for the long minute that Shizuru hugged her. Raising a hand to stroke her friend’s head, Shizuru firmly wrapped her other arm around her back.
Natsuki didn’t know why her eyes were brimming with warm fluid. It’s just a damn hug. She couldn’t help, however, leaning into the other body to drink more of the comforting sensation; it felt good. It was not something she could admit, but she suspected Shizuru knew all the same.
As long as the embrace was, it was too quickly over. Drawing back and tenderly brushing Natsuki’s hair from her face, Shizuru only smiled, now completely ignoring the photograph.
“Whenever you are ready, I am ready.”
Those green eyes widened, then relaxed as the younger girl understood her meaning. She smiled brightly and nodded, actions that widened Shizuru’s own smile. As Shizuru walked back to the kitchen, Natsuki put the frame back onto her desk and followed.
Please wait a little longer, Shizuru. I will tell you soon. After everything is done and I know you won’t have to worry, I will tell you…
Shizuru beamed as they sat around the table, surveying the fancy dishes.
“I mean, I didn’t realize you brought your own dishes too.”
The older girl laughed, and placed several small plates in front of Natsuki. “This is a modified kaiseki meal, since I know you do not like complicated ceremony. Rice, miso soup, and several items of typical Kyoto fare–you can eat in any order you like, of course, since this is not a tea ceremony.”
“Amazing. I didn’t know you could cook like that.” Natsuki stared quite openly at everything on the table. Her eyes were assaulted with colorful porcelain and glistening lacquer everywhere that held aromatic, braised ayu sweetfish; grilled, richly purple kamo eggplant; beautifully browned teriyaki hamo eel sushi; tempura, and quite a few pickled and fresh vegetables.
“My sister gave me some tips,” Shizuru replied airily as she carefully arranged dishes in front of the other girl. “There is dessert afterwards as well.”
Natsuki released a slight grunt. “‘Some tips’, you say. Ah, y-you didn’t need to go to all that trouble.”
Shizuru merely shook her head and waited for Natsuki to break into the meal.
After a frozen moment, Natsuki finally shook herself out of her reverie. “L-let’s eat.”
Both began to sample the food, and Shizuru quietly noted that her friend was so distracted by the array that she forgot to ask for mayonnaise.
“Ah, that was incredible, Shizuru.”
“I am pleased that you enjoyed it. Allow me to clear the table before I serve dessert…” The brunette began placing empty dishes onto a tray. As Natsuki reached over the table, Shizuru lightly rapped her knuckles with a pair of chopsticks.
“Do not fuss,” the melodic Kyoto accent scolded.
“I was just trying to help,” Natsuki muttered, then fell to silently watching Shizuru’s movements. After whisking the dishes away to the kitchen, Natsuki heard the refrigerator open, and the sandy brunette slowly wandered back to the table.
A happy grin slowly enveloped Natsuki’s face as she took in the small, roughly twenty-centimeter, pure white pastry. As Shizuru set it on the table, she saw it had thinly sliced strawberries arranged in a four-leaf clover on top of its immaculate whipped cream. Underneath the strawberry arrangement were the words “Happy Birthday, Natsuki” created with tiny chocolate chips.
Natsuki’s grin finally erupted in full. “Like last year’s?”
“Precisely,” the older girl smiled back. “I remembered how you enjoyed my experiment last year, so here is a more practiced strawberry shortcake.”
Ever so slowly, Shizuru picked up a knife and hovered just above the cake for a moment before methodically slicing the white round into quarters.
“Sh… Shizuru, you’re too slow!” Natsuki practically bounced on the floor.
Giggling, Shizuru finished her perfect cuts through the moist, tender flesh of layered sponge cake and finally lifted a piece onto a plate.
“Ahh,” Natsuki clapped both hands together in barely contained excitement. “It’s so perfect.” She stared at the layers of thinly sliced strawberries buried in light cream and sandwiched between two golden slabs of delicate shortcake.
“I put it in the freezer for a short while, so it is quite cold.”
Natsuki didn’t answer.
“You are drooling.”
Natsuki’s previously clasped hands shot apart and pressed against her mouth in shock. Then she rubbed slightly and threw a glare at the other girl. “Shizuru!”
“My, my, if you get angry now, the shortcake will melt.”
“Ah! Let’s eat.”
After the first, lightly sweetened and cool mouthful melted into her mouth, Natsuki took only a second bite to slowly savor it. The rest of the cake then suffered quickly and brutally under her attention.
“I take it you are satisfied?”
“‘Satisfied’ is an understatement.” Natsuki groaned again but with a smile on her face. Closing her eyes, she leaned back on the heels of her hands and stretched her legs out in a very unladylike manner. Shizuru discreetly sipped her tea and avoided looking at her.
“Is Natsuki then ready for her present?” she cleared her throat.
“Eh?” Green eyes widened. “But this was my–this was enough, Shizuru. Shizuru?”
Ignoring the statement, Shizuru retrieved a small, oblong package wrapped in silver paper and placed it on the table in front of Natsuki, who quickly straightened up. Eyeing the size, Natsuki lifted a wry grin to her older friend. “Probably not lingerie, eh?”
“Or perhaps a very expensive and miniscule thong?”
The grin was quickly wiped from her face and replaced with a red-cheeked glower. “You! Hmph.” Natsuki then carefully unwrapped it and held a plain, black lacquered box in her hands, which she inspected completely.
“It is inside, Natsuki,” Shizuru hinted with a wink.
“I know that!” she scoffed. Finding the seam with her finger, she popped it open.
A white-speckled, greenish cylinder about seventy millimeters long and fourteen millimeters in diameter lay in a fold of wrinkled satin; at its base, also resting in a sea of wrinkled satin, was a small, square case which Natsuki immediately recognized as an ink pad. Her eyes traveled back to the cylindrical object.
“Sh-Shizuru, this is… an inkan seal?”
“Yes. Please inspect it and let me know if it is satisfactory, because I can have it altered–such as the way your name is carved,” she smiled calmly and happily.
Lifting the finger-length piece from the case, Natsuki realized from its heft and feel that it was not plastic. She ran her fingers over its cool, smooth surface. The top quarter was a translucent lime green with tiny, fuzzy, white spheres hovering inside. As her eyes traveled down it, the light green quickly gave way to a deep, rich green; more white spheres appeared frozen inside. The last centimeter of the thin cylinder was a solid white, as the fuzzy white speckles seemed to have fallen and accumulated in a drift. Natsuki held it higher to the light. The deep green center filled with an ethereal glow as more fuzzy white spots appeared inside it, filling its murky, translucent depths with an eternal, peaceful snowfall. Winter in the sea, she thought.
“It is ocean jasper,” Shizuru gently interrupted.
“Jasper? Isn’t that a kind of rock?”
“Yes. It is related to quartz in some way. Ocean jasper in particular often has some diverse organic matter in it.”
“Like a fossil?”
“Something like that.”
Natsuki then flipped up the inkan seal’s bottom and ran her thumb over her name, carved in relief on solid white: Kuga in smaller kanji and Natsuki in hiragana. The script was both thick and flowing, powerful and beautiful.
“You already have a wooden mitomein unregistered seal, do you not?” the older girl interrupted again. She watched each and every of Natsuki’s reactions very closely, and though her expression was very calm and happy, her heart throbbed violently against her ribs. Every blink, every lip movement… every motion to smile was engraved in a mental catalogue as Shizuru hoped the gift was to her liking.
“This seal–you may use it as a ginkouin bank seal or even a registered jitsuin seal, since you are now fifteen. Or you may opt to merely keep it, perhaps as another mitomein common seal. It is entirely your choice.” Shizuru placed her teacup on the table, afraid that her nervous fingers would spill it. “I will not be hurt if you choose not to use it,” she added almost too quickly.
But Natsuki wasn’t entirely listening.
Me. Natsuki continued to palpate the smooth inkan seal. My name. This is me. She held it up to the light again, absorbing the rich, emerald glow. Me. Her thumb again ran lightly over the white base, tracing out her name carved in stone. Kuga.
“Hello, my name is…” She did not quite catch the woman’s name, after all.
“I will be looking after you for a little while as we…”
“Otou…? O-okaa-san! Okaa-san! Where–”
“Please calm down. I’m trying to explain.”
She held the small teddy bear to her chest, which the woman had given her.
“….” The faceless woman leaned down to place a hand on her small, thin shoulder.
“I am sorry.”
“No! Where is papa?”
“He is not here.”
“You will be placed… Temporarily… Child support… A regular guardian…”
Such words meant nothing to her.
“I am sorry.”
“Where is she? I want to see her!”
“I am sorry.”
“Natsuki?” Shizuru had inched closer to the younger girl with worry when she saw her eyes grow distant.
She slowly placed the stone seal on the table. With its white base standing firmly, it looked like a long, thin snow globe. “Kuga,” she whispered, rolling the name around her mouth with slight distaste. “One of the only things he really gave me.”
Shizuru looked on but dared not speak lest she break the deep contempation surrounding the other. It was rare for Natsuki to share her inner world, less so the darker aspects.
Time passed completely unheeded by both. Natsuki continued to stare into the translucent green stone that seemed to reflect her green eyes right back in full force. Shizuru lowered her gaze to her teacup.
“He left me there, you know.”
The quiet but steely voice jerked Shizuru back to attention. Hesitating, she finally answered only to encourage the conversation, “Who?” Her heart had already guessed.
But Natsuki was pushing her own train of thought along and failed to notice the reply. “It was also when I found out mother was dead.”
Shizuru’s mouth fell open, but no sound came. Natsuki then turned a pair of sad, tired eyes onto her best friend. “I told you that she died, didn’t I?”
“Yes, you did.”
“And I told you that I get my money from my father, didn’t I?”
“…Yes, you did.”
When Natsuki gazed at Shizuru’s gentle face, she saw something that stirred a warm feeling in her chest–something nearly forgotten, without a name. Shizuru merely placed her hand over the fist balled up on the table, gently caressing it so that the fingers loosened. Natsuki paused, then slowly stood up, her deep blue locks cascading around her shoulders. “But I didn’t tell you why, did I?”
She didn’t wait for an answer. Walking back to her desk, Natsuki lifted the frame with the burnt photograph and cradled it in her hands. She tried to remember what it felt like to be the joyful, carefree child in the picture, her arms wrapped around the scruffy dog–her Duran. She could only imagine the feeling of his warm fur.
“This was from my mother’s work place.” Her mind wandered back to another day at the hospital many years ago, when a thin man with very curly hair like a short afro appeared one day and handed her an envelope. “It burned because we were in a rush to leave–someone was… after her–us. You know the winding road around the edge of town with the scenic overlook?”
Shizuru nodded attentively. “You often go there.”
Natsuki again folded her arms around the picture frame, burying it between her forearms and ribs. She turned a crooked smirk back to Shizuru. “At the bottom of that cliff, there are probably still pieces of the car.”
The cold look of shock on Shizuru’s face caused Natsuki to pause and lean against her desk. She watched as Shizuru stared, then slowly lowered her gaze.
“Natsuki…” What do I say? I did actually try to research your past a little, at least in the public record. But there was only a very small obituary… “And you… were in the car?”
“I don’t know. I think someone found me floating and pulled me out.” Probably one of them. “And then, three months later,” a bitter, mirthless smile crystallized on her mouth, but her eyes burned with anger, “I woke up in the hospital. I told you that I missed a lot of school because of an accident, didn’t I?”
“And then that was when you were informed…”
“Tch. Mother was dead. And my father? He had left me there. Left me!” She ended in a strained shout. Taking a shaky breath, she tried to calm herself and continued, “He left with a woman he had been seeing since a little after I was born. I thought he loved me. I thought I loved him… And what about mother? He probably didn’t even cry when she…”
“He told me later that they just acted like a happy family in front of me,” Natsuki whispered as her train of thought lost steam. Her thoughts now fell to incoherent, angry churning. Shizuru blinked and turned to the inkan left standing on the table. I see.
“You hate your father.”
“This means also the name he left you.”
Natsuki only clenched her jaw in response.
“I understand that. If you wish, I can ask our family carver to alter it. That would be no trouble. However…”
The dark blue head lifted sharply, and Natsuki’s mouth fell open. “But–” It was expensive, and you put a lot of work into it…
“However, you said that he sends you large funds?”
“So at least it is not like he has forgotten you.”
“Probably just to keep me quiet!”
“Perhaps so. But I would like to present just one thought, and I do not mean to belittle your feelings for your father, because what he did was despicable.” Shizuru picked up the inkan seal and carefully walked to where Natsuki was leaning against her desk. “Do you know why your parents married?”
“Eh?” A blue eyebrow lifted at this unexpected question.
“Was it a marriage of convenience?”
“I was told they met in college and…”
“Then it would not be too far a stretch to assume that, at one time, they did love each other?”
Natsuki grumbled, “I suppose so.”
“And you were born…” Shizuru, holding the seal in one hand, lifted her other hand to poke the girl’s nose, “out of that–a love, though ephemeral. At one time, it was there. And that is you.”
“You were born out of love, Natsuki. In a sense, you physically represent that moment of love between your parents. Your mother named you, and your father gave you part of his name. Did they fall out of love? Yes, they did, but you still remained as a symbolic point between them, did you not?”
This strange idea made Natsuki uncomfortable, and she squirmed against the desk, pinned down by Shizuru’s close gaze.
“It does not matter to me what name you take, but you should not discard your past without great thought, either. To me, you are my Natsuki, the Kuga Natsuki whom I met brooding in a garden and with whom I became friends. I enjoy every bit of your company, of your person–the very person who was born like that, who carries the pieces of her past like that. Every person is created by joy and sadness, by successes and mistakes. Sometimes, being whole requires that we keep each piece we have earned or been given…”
Shizuru took a step closer until she was less than an arm’s length away. She lifted the inkan seal and clasped it between her hands. “And hopefully, those pieces will find harmony, and we remember just why we are the way we are.” She pulled at one of Natsuki’s arms until a hand was freed and placed the seal into the dark-haired girl’s palm.
“It is entirely your choice. Do not worry about inconvenience or expense, as our seal carver resides with our family.” She closed Natsuki’s hand around the inkan and offered a loving and patient smile. “Just do not ignore and discard too easily things that made you as you are–even that brilliant, brief spark of love. That is all.”
Natsuki sighed deeply. “Of course not.” Her other arm loosened around the picture frame still in her grasp. She inspected only the brilliant, deep green stone filled with white.
“At least the ‘Kuga’ part is smaller than ‘Natsuki’,” she smirked.
Shizuru laughed. “Just let me know if you would like it changed to only your given name.”
“No, my name really is a part of me,” Natsuki yielded, “just like you said, even if… Well, everyone knows me as… me, right?” She chuckled at her own, awkward response.
“You are my brooding Kuga Natsuki,” Shizuru declared playfully and darted forward with her arms open. Natsuki was taken by complete surprise as those arms closed around her and drew her into another tight hug. The second one today, Shizuru noted with amusement. Are you softening, Natsuki?
‘Yours’, huh? As strange as that sounded to Natsuki, it was also oddly comforting at that moment. Lifting the seal higher so she could see it over Shizuru’s shoulder, she studied its deep emerald, snowy depths. It really is like me, in a way. Only you could make something like this for me, right, Shizuru? She gripped the stone seal in her fist and bit her lip. “Shizuru?”
“I would–I would like to make this my jitsuin registered seal.”
“Yeah, I’m fifteen…”
“Though you probably will not have serious contracts or the like or buy a car anytime soon…”
“That doesn’t matter. This is… special.” She smiled. “So I want to keep it safe, too.”
“Then we can go to the municipal office tomorrow to register it, if you like.”
“Yes… Yes, I would. And thank you, Shizuru. This was… a good birthday.”
Lifting the picture frame still in her other hand, Natsuki slowly, without looking, placed it back on her desk.