Chapter 1: Chance Encounter.
Thirteen-year-old Haruki Fukuda aimlessly strolled through his neighborhood, his face a swirling mix of emotions. The news his parents had dropped on him earlier had left him dumbfounded, and disbelief still clung to every fiber of his being.
His mother hadn’t tried to stop him from leaving the house, a silent exchange passing between her and his father who clutched Haru’s school report card. It was as if they understood the storm brewing inside their child after the revelation.
To an outsider, Haruki’s scornful expression might have suggested a deep-seated resentment or the weight of a devastating blow. But that wasn’t the truth.
Yet, he couldn’t shake off the incredulity. The news his parents delivered didn’t fit into the category of ‘good’ in Haruki’s mind.
Lost in thought, he wandered with no destination in mind, oblivious to his surroundings, until he found himself standing at the entrance of a park—a place he had never set foot in before.
Not exactly the tranquil haven he had in mind, he mused. Maybe he shouldn’t have relied solely on his wandering feet to lead him to random spots. But since he had arrived, he might as well keep going. As long as no one bothered him, he had nothing to worry about.
Most people seemed to be leaving the park as evening approached, which suited him just fine. Haruki wasn’t one to linger in crowded places. All he desired now was a secluded corner to collect his thoughts.
Glancing at his wristwatch, he estimated he had about an hour before the park closed. Hopefully, his parents wouldn’t fret too much if he returned home a little late.
After a short walk, his eyes caught sight of a secluded area beneath a majestic tree. A single swing hung from a sturdy branch, but Haruki paid it little attention. He settled on the soft grass, leaning against the tree trunk, and let his mind drift away.
Earlier that day:
“Ha, middle school was supposed to be tough, but it was all bark and no bite,” Haru declared triumphantly as he swung open the front door, a black sling bag slung over his left shoulder while his right hand clutched his report card. He marched into the kitchen, brandishing the card in front of his mother.
Busy chopping ingredients for the evening meal, his mother raised an eyebrow at his early return. “Back already, and quite excited, I must say. Bragging about good grades?”
Haruki scoffed. “Good? More like excellent.”
And indeed, they were excellent. He ranked among the top ten in his entire grade. It wasn’t just luck—his hard work and talent had earned him nearly perfect scores in most subjects. He even received extra credit, a testament to his brilliance.
Maki Fukuda, his mother, had grown accustomed to her son’s exceptional intelligence. She sighed helplessly. “I wonder where you got those brains from, Haru. Neither your father nor I were geniuses like you.”
Akashi Fukuda, Haru’s father, entered the kitchen with a chuckle. “Okay, we get it,” he interjected, taking his usual seat on a high stool near the counter where Maki worked.
Maki laughed. “I’m just praising him.”
“Afternoon, Dad,” Haru saluted playfully, his hands on his waist and chin held high. “You said middle school would be challenging. I beg to differ.”
“We’ll see about that,” his father replied skeptically, accepting the report card from Maki. As he perused the results, his eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Extra credit? Whose child are you?”
“I ask myself the same question. Haha! You guys don’t even come close to my brilliance...”
“Now, now, let’s not get carried away,” Maki playfully pinched her mischievous son’s cheek. “You dare call us dumb?”
Haruki protested, trying to escape her grip. “Ouch! Mom, are you trying to rip my face off? And my precious gem!” He rubbed his reddening cheek, his eyes wishing they could fixate on the shallow dimple that added to his mischievous charm. His wild, untamed hair and dark bangs only heightened his slightly wild appearance.
Maki shook her head in amusement, returning to her work. “Your dimple isn’t going anywhere. It won’t vanish into thin air. Look, I have the same ones right here.” She poked her own cheeks with her index fingers, teasing her son.
It was true. His mother always sported a pair of adorable dimples on her cheeks, effortlessly revealing them even when she wasn’t smiling. Those small dents on her face were a clear inheritance he had received. People often remarked that Haruki had inherited his mother’s looks, particularly the dark shade of his hair. However, his gentle brown gaze was a trait passed down from his father.
His older sister, on the other hand, had inherited both their father’s deep chestnut hair color and the same brown eyes. Even her full figure was reminiscent of their father’s side of the family. A few similarities between her and Maki Fukuda persisted, especially in the elegance of their facial features.
Maki continued cutting while speaking, “You still have a long way to go. Things won’t always be as breezy as they are now.”
“She’s right,” Akashi agreed, his attention shifting back to his son’s report card. “You may have cruised through your first term of middle school, but you’ll soon realize how challenging school can become.”
“Even so, it’s just a repetition of what I’ve been doing in elementary,” Haruki countered, taking his parents’ words into consideration. “Only this time, there are larger numbers and longer sentences. Learning new things and expanding my knowledge. It doesn’t sound difficult.”
His parents were left momentarily speechless. It wasn’t as if he was wrong.
“Whatever,” Haruki’s excitement continued unabated. “I’ll go show this to Ayame when she comes back. She owes me twenty bucks for underestimating me. Speaking of which, I didn’t see her all day...”
He paused his rambling when he noticed his parents’ strange looks, as if he had said something bizarre. He blinked. “What?”
Was there something amiss in what he had said? Was flaunting his test results to his sister a bad idea?
“Haru, you do realize that Ayame isn’t here, right?” his mother was the first to speak up.
“Yeah, she always comes home after me. She’s a high school senior, after all,” Haruki found nothing peculiar about that.
Akashi raised a confused brow. “Eh? But Ayame’s already—”
“Sweetie, why don’t you change out of your uniform? You must be uncomfortable in it,” Maki quickly interjected with a smile, diverting her husband’s incomplete statement.
Having paid little attention to his father’s earlier reaction, Haruki hurriedly left to change. It was only upon rejoining his parents in the kitchen that he learned the truth.
Ayame wouldn’t be coming home that day.
The reason being that she was already on a flight from Japan to Washington.
Sitting quietly under the tree, Haruki’s thoughts kept returning to the news he had just received. Ayame Fukuda had a flight at eleven in the morning. Maki and Akashi had accompanied her to the airport to bid her farewell. They informed him that Ayame had been offered a scholarship to a university in Washington months ago, and she had spent all this time arranging her travel and preparing to leave.
Haru knew his sister had contemplated going abroad before; she had even mentioned receiving scholarship offers from numerous foreign universities.
But wasn’t all of that supposed to happen next year, after she finished high school?
Sure, she was smart, and many schools wanted her, but dealing with all of that was supposed to be a future concern.
Haruki’s brows furrowed slightly.
That aside, why hadn’t she given him a heads-up before she left? There were no hints from her either. She’d simply up and left.
“Whatever, good riddance!” he muttered angrily to himself, his words belying his true feelings, which only made him even more frustrated.
“We didn’t mention it because she wanted to tell you herself once she made the decision,” Maki had explained earlier.
But Ayame had never mentioned it, not even once.
And that just felt...
Haruki abruptly stood up from his spot and approached the wooden swing, glaring at it as he stood before it. He remained there for a few moments before his foot suddenly struck out, attempting to kick the swing, only to painfully stub his toes in the process.
Filled with both pain and frustration, Haruki hopped up and down on one leg, clutching his sore foot. He hadn’t expected this seemingly innocuous wooden seat to be so thick and sturdy!
He glared darkly at the inanimate object, as if resenting its existence, even though it had just been innocently sitting there...
In the next moment, after the throbbing in his foot had somewhat subsided, Haruki lashed out again. However, this time he completely missed the swing and lost his footing, falling hard on his back onto the solid ground.
“Ow, damn it...” he hissed through clenched teeth, a mixture of pain and frustration evident in his slightly trembling voice.
And in that moment, a realization washed over Haru like a tidal wave, crashing into his soul with the force of a thousand emotions. His sister, the person he had always relied on, had really left with even saying goodbye. With a mixture of defeat and despair, Haru’s arm slowly rose, shielding his teary eyes pathetically from the world, as if to protect himself from the harsh reality that now enveloped him.
“Why the hell am I crying?” Haru’s self-consciousness kicked in, adding a touch of embarrassment to his already fragile state. But try as he might, he couldn’t suppress the overwhelming flood of emotions that surged through him. His shoulders quivered, his sobs echoing through the empty space. Grateful for his solitude, he couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of shame at the thought of anyone witnessing him in this pitiful state.
After a few minutes, Haruki mustered the strength to sit up, his trembling hands reaching for his face to wipe away the evidence of his tears. He sniffled softly, attempting to compose himself. He scolded himself for crying over someone who was now miles away, berating his own childishness. With a vacant expression etched on his face, he crossed his legs and settled into a sitting position.
It was the start of summer vacation, the first one he would have to endure without Ayame. The plans they had made, the excitement he had felt, all now shattered by her sudden departure. Disappointment weighed heavily on his heart, casting a shadow over the sunny days he had anticipated.
With a reluctant sigh, Haruki rose to his feet and approached the swing once more. This time, his intentions were different. There was no malice in his gaze as he slumped onto the wooden plank, swaying gently back and forth. His hands rested calmly on his lap, a symbol of resignation and acceptance.
The news of Ayame’s departure had blindsided him. The confusion etched on his parents’ faces when they revealed the truth proved that they, too, hadn’t known anything. They had no knowledge of Ayame’s intentions to leave her brother in the dark, assuming that he already knew of her departure.
“Mei, you jerk...” Haru muttered bitterly to himself.
But to his surprise, a response echoed in the air, shattering the silence that enveloped him.
“Are you okay?” The sudden voice startled Haruki, causing him to fall off the swing in alarm.
Haruki, after literally falling onto his hands and knees, scanned his surroundings in alarm, desperately searching for the source of the voice. “Who’s there?” he called out, his voice tinged with fear and confusion.
The silence stretched on, and for a moment, Haru questioned his own sanity, wondering if he had imagined the voice altogether. But just as doubt began to creep in, the voice spoke again, breaking the silence like a gentle breeze.
“First you try to break it, now you’re sitting on it? I don’t think that swing did anything wrong.”
“What the hell?” Haruki’s eyes darted around, but he saw no one. The mysterious voice only heightened his unease. “Who’s talking?”
A sigh resonated through the air, urging him to look up. Following the advice, Haruki lifted his gaze, and his eyes landed on a small figure perched on a lower branch of a thick tree. A child, he realized, appearing slightly younger than himself. The boy’s presence was partially obscured by the dancing shadows of the leaves, but Haruki could discern a book in his hands. Dressed in gray cargo pants and a navy turtle-neck sweater, he exuded an air of quiet confidence. Only the child’s vibrant ginger locks peeked out from the shadows, adding a touch of vividness to the scene.
“You fell pretty hard and started crying earlier,” the kid remarked, genuine concern in his voice. “You okay?”
“Like hell I was crying,” Haru dismissed, his pride compelling him to rise and brush off his faded blue jeans.
Haruki mistook the kid’s inquiry for mockery, instantly feeling a surge of annoyance.
“You saw wrong,” he retorted, attempting to maintain composure. “And where did you even come from? You’re disturbing my peace.”
“You’re the one who came later though,” the boy in the tree said, a hint of woundedness in his tone.
But Haruki brushed off the remark, his voice laced with determination. “So, just because you arrived a little earlier, you think you have the right to meddle in other people’s affairs?”
The kid’s initial concern gradually transformed into indifference, leaving a silence in its wake. Eventually, he spoke again. “I was just shocked when a bawling kid stumbled into ‘my’ territory and began vandalizing ‘my’ property.”
Haruki sensed the shift in the other’s mood and scoffed, placing his hands on his hips. “Your property? Don’t make me laugh.”
“If not mine, then whose?”
“Park property doesn’t belong to anyone, dumb kid,” Haruki snorted. The kid fell silent, prompting Haruki to raise an eyebrow. “What, no more complaints?” he taunted.
Haru felt baffled. Suddenly, he retorted with anger, “Listen, kid, I don’t care who you think you are, but—”
“That swing, it has my name on it,” the child spoke calmly.
“What name? What nonsense are you talking about?” Haru had reached his limit with the kid, so he lifted the swing seat and inspected it. Just an ordinary wooden plank. Nothing special about it.
He turned it over to examine the underside.
And there, in the corner of the plank, intricately carved initials caught his eye: K. N.
Realizing that his opponent had ceased arguing, the boy perched in the tree repeated flatly, “It’s mine.”
However, Haruki’s stubbornness flared up.
He whirled around and snapped, “So what if there are initials carved into it? Some delinquent brat probably decided to mess around and do graffiti. Even if those are really your initials, it doesn’t mean the swing belongs to you. You found it here and decided to personalize park property, which is against the rules!”
“It’s still mine.”
“Forget it,” the kid nonchalantly leaned back against the tree trunk, refocusing on his book.
Minutes ticked by, and it took a while for Haru to process what had just happened.
The kid was completely ignoring him now.
“Hey, I’m not done with you yet!”
“Are you listening?!”
“I know you can hear me!!”
The kid finally spoke, but it was only to say, “No point wasting words on someone who doesn’t understand human speech.”
Haruki, at a loss for words, remained silent.
“I dare he say that again!” Haruki pointed a threatening finger at the boy above, demanding, “Come down here and say that to my face!”
“I’d rather not.”
“Ha! You’re just scared,” Haru sneered, a smug expression on his face. “Look at how you’re trembling in your shoes!”
“I’m not wearing shoes.”
“That wasn’t literal!”
“My apologies then.”
Throughout their entire exchange, Haruki was the only one screaming and yelling. Meanwhile, the ginger-haired kid maintained his composure, treating Haruki like a minor annoyance that could be easily ignored. With each sentence, Haruki’s irritation grew. He had already been angry when he arrived, but this brat had managed to sour his mood even more.
Any thoughts of making friends with him vanished. A person as arrogant as this would never qualify to enter Haruki’s inner circle.
“Tsk, screw this. As if I could even continue breathing the same air as you,” Haruki finally spun around to leave, muttering angrily to himself. “Such an annoying brat. How troublesome...”
As he stalked off, the kid in the tree lowered his book and placed it on his lap, turning his head slightly to watch the intruder leave. He heard Haruki’s muttered remarks but chose not to retaliate.
He was simply grateful for the return of peace and quiet.
Focusing back on his book, the ginger-haired kid muttered to himself, “They’re all the same.”
Haruki grumbled insults as he made his way to the park exit, feeling utterly furious. It wasn’t until he reached the gate and glanced back that he realized he and the boy had been the only ones left. He suddenly realized how late it was. How long had he been wallowing miserably before encountering that kid earlier? Under the shade of that sprawling tree, time seemed to slip away.
In the distance, he noticed a security guard leaving his shed for an evening patrol, and for some reason, his thoughts turned to the boy from earlier.
Doesn’t he realize how late it is? At this rate, he might get locked inside; Haruki thought, taking an unconscious step back in the direction he had just come from.
The sudden realization stunned him.
Just moments ago, the mere thought of that brat infuriated him. So why on earth was he considering going back?
Coming to a halt, Haruki turned once more and quietly exited the gate. It wasn’t his problem to deal with. If the kid ended up locked inside, paying a visit to the patrol guard wouldn’t be a difficult task.
As soon as Haruki stepped onto his front porch, he was greeted by a deeply concerned Maki Fukuda at the door, who had already prepared a coat to go out and search for him. Haruki quickly made up an excuse about running into a friend from school, explaining his delayed return. He avoided elaborating further and apologized for worrying his parents before heading to his room.
Though they weren’t entirely convinced, his parents decided not to pry. Haruki had enough on his mind, and interrogation would only worsen his mood. Forcing dinner on him was out of the question, so Maki allowed him to eat during his own time.
Later that night, as he lay in bed, Haruki found himself involuntarily thinking about the peculiar kid he had encountered in the park. Despite his bitterness and reluctance, he secretly wondered if the boy had managed to leave in time or if the park’s security had found him.
Lost in these thoughts, Haru gradually drifted into a dreamless sleep.