My eyes fluttered open and I just stared at the ceiling for a few seconds. That was the best sleep I had for a long time.
Bigla ko namang naalala ang mga nangyari at napabalikwas ako ng bangon. I scanned the cabin but he was nowhere to be found. Napahawak ako bigla sa ulo ko. Was everything just a dream?
I sighed in dismay but immediately winced when I felt a sharp pain in my chest. Napanganga ako sa nakita ko. The wounds I received from the war were wrapped in bandages by someone who seemed to be so bad at doing it.
Narinig ko ang boses ni Naomi mula sa labas kaya agad akong tumayo. Moving my limbs were painful but it was bearable. Pinagbuksan ko siya ng pinto at bumungad ang mukha niya sa akin.
“So you really live here,” she remarked as she stepped inside.
“Yeah,” I said. “I feel more comfortable here.”
Inilibot niya ang tingin sa cabin hanggang sa nagtapos ito sa akin. The effect of losing her husband and being away from her son for fifteen years was visible on her face. But her eyes looked more alive than the first time I saw her after a long time.
“You need to have your injuries checked,” she said as she sat on the chair beside my bed.
“Hindi naman malala ang mga nakuha ko,” I replied.
“But you fought with Sarah, right?” She looked at me with a stern expression. “There are a few who got motor problems after exchanging blows with her. The needles she used not only have toxins but also cause problems to the nervous system.”
“Ang dami nang tao sa Medical—”
“Erika,” she called, cutting me off. There was a hint of worry and fear on her face. “Please.”
We had never called each other by our real names since we had been given our alternative names. But these past few days, both Hideo and Naomi seemed to get more comfortable using them. Maybe because we hadn’t seen each other for a very long time. And we were scared to lose everyone again. Pakiramdam ko tuloy ay bumalik kami sa pagkabata.
I sighed in defeat. “Alright. Pupunta ako mamaya kay Yuuki.”
A smile escaped her lips. “Good.” Napatingin naman siya sa katawan ko at agad na kumunot ang noo niya. “Did you dress your own wounds?” she asked. “That’s kinda sloppy.”
I forced a laugh and immediately closed my mind. “Well, I was already exhausted last night so . . .”
Bigla naman siyang tumitig sa akin. It was the kind of stare that you wouldn’t want to see from her. The kind that could make you feel naked, because you knew she could read your mind despite desperately hiding your thoughts from her.
She drew a breath. “I know what’s going on,” she muttered.
“Ever since Hideo gave me that mission, I kept on seeing that guy in your thoughts.”
Wow. Hindi ko na-miss ang pagiging straightforward ni Naomi. I was so flustered that it felt like the wall around my thoughts were slowly crumbling.
She let out a teasing smile. “So the mighty Michiko finally likes someone now, huh?”
“Huh?! Anong sinasabi—”
“Tell me about him.”
Hindi ko alam kung paano nangyari pero nakumbinsi niya akong ikwento sa kanya ang mga nangyari. Damn it, sometimes, I really hate how persuasive she can get.
I left out some details and just told her how I saved him when he showed up in the forest after Akemi died. Ikinuwento ko rin kung paano ako nakaligtas noong binalak nilang patayin ang natitirang members ng Atama family.
Her expression darkened after hearing that. She felt bad for not knowing the death of Akira and Mayu. I’m sure she knew how hard it was because she’s also a mother. Imagining how we could have also lost her if the Shinigamis knew she was alive sent shivers all over my body.
“Then he must be the one who handed them the copy of the keys to Haruka,” she muttered.
“Hmm?” Was she talking about her mission?
“I told you that I only knocked out the guards, right?” Tumango naman ako. “But they already have the keys ready when I was about to steal them from the guards. Though I didn’t see him there.”
Pagkatapos no’n ay nagpaalam na siya para pumunta kay Hideo. They had a lot of things to do and talk about. Habang nagbibihis para pumunta sa Medical department ay sumagi siya sa isip ko.
I wonder where he is right now.
Right then, my gaze shifted to the bed and noticed something beside my dagger. It was a new weapon and a small note.
“The heck is this?” bulong ko sa sarili ko.
Agad ko iyong inilagay sa bulsa ko at tuluyang lumabas mula sa cabin. I just hope I would have some time for myself after this. I wanted to rest for a while.
It turned out we would be very busy for the next few weeks.
There were a lot going on in the campus that we hardly slept for more than three hours. After the burial and memorial for those who died during the war, the damages in the campus had to be repaired immediately. The Technolody Department also enhanced the defense of our borders. Ngayon ay mas malabo nang hindi ma-detect ang sinumang Shinigami na mapadpad sa Latens forest. In addition, we had to prepare for the trials of the Shinigamis that survived during the war.
“Dr. Miwako,” I greeted.
She had aged a lot after retiring as head of the Medical department. Naging adviser na lang siya ng ilang doctors at instructors. She had been working behind the scenes five years after the first war.
“She’s going to escort the prisoners, right?”
Her face lit up. “Yes. She’ll be here in a minute.”
When she learned that her daughter was still alive, I realized how mothers would still see their children as kids despite how they had already grown old. Well, in Kiyoko’s case, she still looked like a teenager despite being in her 30s already.
I heard she’s living in Shima now with Sir Kyo. Nagulat ako nang malaman kong kasama pala sa Jikko clan si Sir Kyo. Now I know why Mitsuo gave off the same vibe as him when I first saw him.
Pagkatapos kong ibigay sa kanya ang details ng Shinigamis ay umalis na rin ako dahil ayaw kong makaistorbo sa kanila. I wanted to talk to Hideo and Naomi but they seemed busy with their respective family so I just went back to my cabin.
Times like this, I suddenly realize that we’re already getting old. My friends and classmates were already building their families and our teachers had already stopped working. I admit, sometimes I envy them, but I had already accepted my fate. Besides, I don’t think I am capable of being a parent.
I am okay with this. As long as the people I want to protect are okay, I am happy.
Hindi ko na namalayan ang panahon sa sobrang daming ginagawa lalo na sa administrative stuff. I just realized it was already Christmas Eve when Naomi visited me and told me that we would be having a campfire in the campus.
Muli siyang naupo sa kama at napatitig sa pader. I gasped when I realized his last note was stuck on the wall.
“Hmm, is that from him?” tanong niya matapos kong tanggalin iyon.
“Uhh . . . uhmm . . . huh . . .”
She chuckled. “So that’s where he is.”
I gave her a confused look. “Huh?”
“You didn’t know?” she raised an eyebrow. “That’s a coordinate.”
Muli akong napatingin sa papel na hawak ko. I thought it was an encoded message.
“Anyway,” sabay tayo niya, “see you later. And please, dress nicely.”
A smile escaped her lips. “Because it’s Christmas.”
*** The campus was already crowded because of the gigantic bonfire in the middle. The holographic snow and modified temperature made everyone enjoy their winter clothes.
Everyone was in a festive mood. Students were singing and dancing. Adults were already drinking. Some were exchanging and giving gifts to each other. Nakakatuwang makita ang mga ngiti sa mukha nila matapos malagpasan ang mga nangyari noong nakaraan.
Natawa naman ako nang nagsimulang magkwento si Naomi kay Rainie tungkol kay Mitsuo nang makita nilang napapalibutan na ng mga babae si Hiro. She asked about her mother, too, and just when we were about to tell her how Hideo would follow her in the forest, the devil showed up.
“What lies are you telling her, Nathalie?” bungad niya.
“Just truths,” Naomi retorted. “I’m sure Rielle would agree.”
It had been a while since we talked about our childhood and teenage years. Ang gaan sa pakiramdam na kaya na namin silang pag-usapan nang hindi nagb-breakdown. We wanted them to be remembered by their happy memories with us.
Nagpaalam ako na babalik na sa cabin bandang hatinggabi dahil medyo inaantok na ako. I hadn’t had a decent sleep for the past three days.
“Merry Christmas,” bati ni Naomi habang nakangiti.
“Merry Christmas din,” I returned to both Naomi and Hideo.
I was about to open the door to my cabin when I felt a faint presence around. Don’t tell me . . . Pagbukas ko ng pinto ay naabutan ko siyang paupo sa kama ko. He turned his head to my direction and had the nerve to raise his eyebrow at me.
“Bakit ka nandito?” tanong ko habang palapit sa kanya. “You do know that it’s more dangerous now that they have raised the defense sys—"
“Let me just sleep here tonight,” he said while removing the hood of his cloak from his head.
Wow. Akala niya ba ay hotel ‘to na pwede niyang puntahan kung kalian niya lang gusto?! And why would he even sleep here?!
I was ready to tell him off but I noticed the scratches on his face as well as his arms. Napatigil ako sa harapan niya. What the heck did he do this time?
“What?” he asked while looking at me and a smirk suddenly appeared. “Don’t tell me you miss me, Senshin?”
I scoffed at him in disbelief. “Asa ka.”
“Then why are you staring at me like that?”
I ignored his question. “What happened?”
I thought he wouldn’t tell me anything but he started narrating his story. Naomi was right. He was the one who helped his comrades. However, he had to move quietly because he might get caught. He couldn’t also use the Black Dimension as guards had been coming in and out of it.
Apparently, Haruka and Daiki didn’t show themselves during the war because they were preparing for something bigger—they wanted to usurp the throne from the current Shinigami leaders. According to him, Subaro and Riko had to take over the leadership again after Rin died. With the death of Rielle and Rin, they do not have any remaining heir, which meant it would either be someone from the branch family or someone from the next ruling class—the Elites.
“They are already old so the struggle for power is already inevitable,” he added.
“And? Why aren’t you with them? You’re an Elite, too, right?”
He was silent for a minute. I tried reading his expression and mind but I didn’t get anything. He rested his head on the headboard and stared vacantly at the ceiling.
“I can’t face them,” he muttered.
“I failed them when I said I would protect her,” he continued and I realized he was talking about Akemi. “Do you know what happens to Shinigamis who failed their missions?” I shook my head. “They get imprisoned and tortured. Sometimes, killed.”
The scars on his body when I was taking care of me flashed in my mind. Did he fail some missions, too? Now, I kind of understand why most Shinigamis would rather die than return unsuccessful with their missions.
“And living without any orders to follow was something I didn’t know I would enjoy,” he added. “Besides . . .”
“So, you’re going to give up your status?”
He let out a bitter smile. “They have already stripped me off my status that day. Now, they wanted me to return.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
Doon ko nalaman kung bakit siya nandito. Someone named Izumi saw him and tried persuading him to lend them his strength. It seemed like among the Elites, he was still being considered as one of the most powerful. His own comrades, Haruka and Daiki, also wanted him to join their faction but just like what he said, he couldn’t face them anymore.
“That brat keep on following my movements and it’s already getting annoying,” bulong niya.
“Their son,” he explained. “I heard he was here when the war happened.”
“Ah. That Darwin?”
“Tsk. Hope he gives up now.”
Hindi ko alam kung bakit ako natawa nang makita ko ang expression niya. Apparently, Darwin had been tracking his movements after learning about him from his parents. However, he couldn’t even get close because this guy was too ahead of him. Imagining him getting followed by a teenager was such a funny thing to think about.
“Pero hindi ba siya—”
Paglingon ko ay nakapikit na siya. Napabuntong-hininga na lang ako habang nakatingin sa kanya. He looked a lot calmer and nicer when he’s asleep. Ang layo sa totoong ugali niya. Still, it was nice to see him again. I thought I would have to look for him to see him.
“Merry Christmas,” I mumbled. “Sleep well.”
And for the first time, I wasn’t alone during Christmas.