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“This isn’t what I wanted…”

The wounded warrior barely managed to mouth those words as she laid broken on the blood-soaked plain of Awazugahara.

On one hand, she knew her death was an honorable one, and that her life was well-spent. She fought together with her brothers and sisters in arms against overwhelming odds without hesitation. Never mind that their enemy outnumbered them several times over, or that those enemies had once been trusted allies – friends, even – not too long before that. They served their lord faithfully, and they stayed true to their duty until the bitter end.

An honorable death.

A life well-spent.

At least, that was what she had been taught to aspire for.

“Not this way…”

But as her body grew cold and she thought of the infant she left behind, the dying woman began to question the path she had chosen, and the choices she had made, that led her to this moment.

How could it all end like this?

It was barely a day ago that she and her husband entrusted their child to her younger sister, before riding off into what they knew, one way or another, would be their last battle together. Sure enough, their grim prediction became reality when an arrow to the throat took him from her not long after battle was joined. She herself somehow held out much, much longer than her compatriots; in fact, she even managed to avenge her husband by running her spear through his killer’s throat. Not long after, however, she ultimately wound up sharing their fate after taking a sword right through her gut, courtesy of one of her former students who had wound up on the opposing side.

So much suffering and death, and to what end?

There was a grim irony to it all, thought the warrior woman as she laid inches from death’s door. It was barely a year ago when her clan had been split between those loyal to her lord, and those who swore fealty to the de facto clan head. She thought she had made her peace with the idea of dying on the battlefield, in service to her lord and her clan. Up until this moment, she fully believed that to die a warrior’s death, for a worthy cause, was the greatest glory one could achieve in this life.

Is this the warrior’s death we were taught to aspire for?

But now that she lay bleeding out on this parched patch of earth, she realized that this tragic twist of fate had not resulted from glorious battle with a worthy adversary in defense of her loved ones, but was instead the result of an internal power struggle within her own clan.

Was there truly no other way?

And it was only now, when confronted with her own imminent death, that the warrior woman realized she would never get to hold her son in her arms again.

Takao…

We both love you so much.

It was a heartrending thought, to say the least.

How I wish I could be there for you…

She would never be able to raise her beloved son, nor could she ever give him the life and the love he deserved.

How I wish I could live on to see you grow to manhood…

Ultimately, her son would be forced to grow up an orphan, as would the children of far too many of her brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

I will love you, forevermore…

Tears of mingled grief and despair trickled down the corners of both her eyes at the thought that all of this suffering and death had ultimately resulted from a family squabble blown too far out of proportion.

May a curse descend on all of you.

Those feelings lingered for a brief period, before giving way to bitterness and disgust as she considered how the same fate would continue to befall countless others. Aspiring parents would continue to be cruelly and senselessly ripped away from their children, for as long as there were those who cared for little else but power and prestige.

May those below consume you.

Just as countless more children would be forced to grow up as orphans through no fault of their own, for as long as there were those who did as they pleased without the barest hint of remorse for the suffering their actions would cause.

Gods damn you.

Or pity for the lives destroyed in the process.

May the gods damn you all!

Or any sense of shame at all for the pain they inflicted-

Pain.

In her last moments of life, the only thing left for the wounded warrior to ponder was whether it was the deathblow that had been dealt to her by her student and one-time comrade that would snuff out her life, or whether it was the pain that filled her heart so close to the end that would claim her first.

Will it never end?

The dying woman choked back a bitter sob, shedding a single tear as the light faded from her eyes.

No. Of course not.

Not even in a thousand years…


That was some dream.

Eighteen-year old Furukawa Shugo woke with a start, seconds before his smartphone’s alarm clock went off for what must have been the 13th time that morning.

And now I’m about to be late. Dammit.

Shugo knew he had no one to blame but himself. Between his extracurricular activities, the series of videos he watched until well past midnight, and that dream that honestly felt too real to be just that, it was his own fault he only managed to wake up at just a quarter before 7 AM. Admittedly it was less disastrous than it could have been given that he lived within walking distance from school, but they had a test for their very first class. And while his teachers were too considerate to bar students from taking tests for coming in late, that still left him with less time to completely answer the test questions.

He dressed and then sped out the gate to their apartment and down the road just 10 minutes later. A pace he was convinced would impress even the likes of Barry Allen and Joe Shimamura.

Still 10 minutes late. Oh well.

He managed to get to school relatively quickly, all things considered; nevertheless the fact remained it was already 7:40 AM when Shugo made it to class. And 20 minutes later, it was all he could do to breathe a sigh of relief; the test was in multiple-choice format, and he shaded everything, up to the very last item on his answer sheet, with seconds to spare.

Now, wasn’t that unnecessarily stressful?

The rest of the day went relatively smoothly from that point on. Math was far from Shugo’s forte, but he rarely ever struggled there either. His habit of reading up in advance for History class paid off, and Karate training during PE was tiring but fun at the same time.

That said, the highlight of Shugo’s day came at around half past noon.

Their lunch break began the way it normally did, with Shugo and his best friend Kaito heading to the cafeteria for something to eat. While Kaito headed to a nearby kiosk for pizza and milk tea, Shugo simply reached into his backpack and extracted his packed lunch, the remnants of the pan-fried chicken fillet he made the night before, along with a large water bottle filled with ice-cold water. The two then fell into their usual routine of bickering and making all kinds of observations regarding their classes, with Kaito in particular complaining about the difficulty of the test that was sprung on them first thing in the morning.

“How’d you even finish everything?” Kaito demanded to know. “You came in late!”

Shugo was about to answer. While his best friend knew all about the various after-school activities that he was involved in, the dream he had still bothered him. He remembered every detail of it, which was itself unusual considering his dreams from the night before were usually forgotten by midday. Not this time, though. He remembered everything, from the gaping wound straight through the dying woman’s midsection, to her final thoughts of bitterness, resentment and rage as she departed the world. He even remembered her son’s name.

Takao.

Now why does that name ring a bell?

And he was about to tell his friend all about it, too, but the words died in his mouth just as he had opened it to speak.

Because it was at that moment that she walked in.

Everyone knew her: Amaki Rena, the 17-year old rising star of St. Stephen Academy’s Music Club. Between her waist-length hair, her heart-shaped face, her slim, petite hourglass of a figure, and her wide, innocent brown eyes, many of their peers saw her as an idol in the making. The word going around the school was that she was in fact being scouted out by at least two or three talent agencies, which was incredible considering she cultivated that reputation while still being a mainstay in the honor roll. And on top of all that, she also had a reputation for being one of the genuinely nicest and sweetest people one could ever hope to meet at school.

“You look happy, Shugo,” teased Kaito with a look of mild bemusement on his face, recalling him to his surroundings in the process. “Looks like just seeing Rena really made your day, huh?”

Shugo rolled his eyes, though the tinge of red in his cheeks gave him away regardless. “Man, whatever. Just look at her! She’s something else!”

“Guess you’re right,” replied Kaito with a shrug as he took a sip from his milk tea. “Between the looks, the talents, and that personality of hers,” he went on, earning Shugo’s reproachful look with the emphasized word, “It’s easy to see why all the guys are into her. Some of the girls, even. I mean, she caught your attention-”

“Whatever,” Shugo snapped as he stood up, picked up his water bottle, and turned to leave. “C’mon, we’d better get going before it gets too crowded in here.”

“Whatever you say, bud,” Kaito said, still with the same mischievous grin. “You’re sure you don’t wanna stick around just a little bit longer?”

Shugo turned to face his friend and fire back with a retort, but-

Rena?

Their eyes met.

And then she beamed at him.

All while gazing intently as if staring into his soul.

Kaito teased him about it for the rest of the day, but by that point, Shugo was too euphoric to care.

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