“You hear everything but the important stuff,” Kaori cried. “I don’t want you to go! And I don’t want to be a Keyholder! Why can’t we be a normal family?!”
“Kaori, this training will help you,” her mother said calmly.
“With what?!” Kaori cried. “I don’t have a life, Mom! Between school and Keyholder training, my life is all homework and studying Keyholder stuff! I can’t even have friends over, for who-knows-why! My aunt is a weirdo who does nothing but yell, and everyone else around me is one of your Keyholder friends who hog all of your time!”
“Kaori, stop that,” her mother chided her.
“I hate these dumb Keys! I don’t care about the Gates! I just want a life with you!” She flung the pendant from around her neck and slammed it down on the table as she bolted up and ran to her room.
Kaori buried her face in her pillow and cried. They don’t care what I want. They don’t care that Takumi’s going to put me in training for combat. They probably wouldn’t even care if I just up and disappeared! She reeled up and flung her pillow against the wall. Then why don’t I? I’ll just disappear from here! She slid her window open and climbed out. With one glance back at the house, she jumped the fence and took off into the streets.
The sky was darkening. A nip in the air made Kaori shiver. She stopped at a park – the big silver slide and the swing set filled her with calm. This was the park where her parents used to take her when she was younger. Before the Gates and Keys and Keyholder training took over her life. She pictured herself atop the slide, her father at the bottom coaching her, ready to catch her when she slid down. Kaori climbed up to the top of the slide and looked down. “Daddy, catch me...”
A little form down in the sandbox caught her eye. Kaori squinted to see what it was. She slid down the slide and curiously got closer. “Hello?”
The street lights flickered to life, illuminating the park. It was Nikkō who was sitting there looking up into her eyes. “Kaori,” he said. “Are you lost?”
Kaori blinked at him in surprise. “No,” she replied, “I’m not lost.” She sat down in the sandbox with him. “What are you doing here? Are you lost?”
“Nuh-uh.” Nikkō shook his head. “Not lost,” he said.
Kaori watched him draw in the dirt with a twig. “Why are you playing out here all by yourself?” she asked.
“Don’t know anybody yet,” Nikkō replied. He smiled hollowly. “It’s okay; I’m always by myself.” He continued dragging his twig through the sand in circles. “Why are you by yourself?” he asked.
Kaori hugged her legs and looked down at her shoes. “I’m going away,” she said.
“Will you be back?” Nikkō had stopped drawing. “I like having someone in class with me..who doesn’t make fun of my mark.”
Kaori looked back up at him. “Your classmates make fun of your family mark?”
Nikkō nodded. “They make fun of my words too.”
Kaori realized that she had also laughed at him – he really didn’t know what some words and phrases meant, and the kids laughed at him for it. “Did I..hurt your feelings when I laughed at you in Keyholder training?” she asked. “I’m sorry. I really thought it was cute, what you said.”
Nikkō fell silent and started drawing again. “What is ‘shut it’?” he asked.
Kaori smiled a little. “‘Shut up’ is a mean way of telling somebody to be quiet,” she answered.
“Oh. It’s not nice?”
“No, it’s not nice.”
Nikkō tapped his lips with his other hand. “I won’t say that one then. Is 'kindle gardener' mean, too?” he asked.
Kaori tried to keep from laughing. “It’s ‘kindergartner,” she corrected him. “It means someone who’s five years old and in their first year of school. When somebody says that you’re acting like a kindergartner, it’s like they’re telling you, ‘you should know better; you’re too old for that’, or something.”
“I’m in my first year of school,” Nikkō said, “but they don’t call it ‘kindergarten’.”
Kaori giggled. “That’s because you just moved here. They put you in the grade that you’re supposed to be in at nine years old.”
“So it changes every time you earn a year?” Nikkō asked.
“Kind of,” Kaori replied with a laugh. She looked up at the starry sky. “It’s getting late,” she said. “Shouldn’t you be going home, Nikkō?”
“I’m waiting for Eha to come get me,” he said.
Kaori’s eyes widened slowly. Huh? His mom? “She just left you here?”
Nikkō shook his head. “No.” He shifted and put down his twig. “I just want her to come get me.” He looked up at Kaori. “You should be going home too.”
Kaori frowned. “I told you, I’m leaving.”
“Won't you be back later?” Nikkō asked.
“Probably not.” Kaori got up and looked down at Nikkō. I don’t want to just leave him here alone, she thought.
“When will you be back, then?” Nikkō asked.
“I don’t know. Maybe not ever.”
Nikkō’s blue-green eyes widened. He jumped up and grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”
Kaori drew back in surprise. “Nikkō, that hurts,” she said shakily.
“Eba didn’t come back either!” he cried.
“What are you talking about?”
“Eba!” he repeated. “My...my eba!”*
“Nikkō, let go! That hurts!” Kaori yelled.
“Don’t be gone!” Nikkō cried.
Startled by the voice, Kaori wrenched herself from Nikkō’s grip and spun around. Before she could blink, a strong pair of arms wrapped tightly around her, and a heavy weight knocked her down. The trembling arms and the tears and whimpers – they were her father’s. “Don’t you ever just disappear like that again!!” he cried.
“Dad...you’re crying...” Kaori stammered.
Another set of footsteps was approaching. “Reka! Did you find her?!” Her mother, too, had come. “Kaori, what got into you?!” she cried. “Do you have any idea how scared we were?!! We thought we had lost you!”
Kaori felt her father’s arms tighten around her again, as if he was afraid that someone would snatch her away right then and there. She suddenly felt more ashamed than ever before. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. Her eyes watered over. “I’m sorry.”
Kaori suddenly remembered that she and her parents weren’t the only ones in the park. Nikkō! She struggled out of her father’s arms. “Nikkō!” She spun around. He was still there. He smiled hollowly.
“Nikkō, you’re here too?” Toki asked. “Oh, your mother and Kita are probably worried out of their minds!” She held out her hand to him. “Come on.”
Nikkō looked down at his shoes. “Eha didn’t come,” he murmured.
Reka had recovered and finally stood up. “How long have you been here?” he asked.
“I want Eha to come get me.”
“Nikkō...” Toki gave Reka a worried look.
Reka walked over and picked up the stubborn child. “Let’s get you home, Nikkō,” he said. “Kaori,” he called.
Kaori hurried to her father and took his free hand. Her mother took her other hand in hers. The three of them walked to the Mikichi house together. Her mother rang the doorbell.
“Kita, it’s me!” she called.
The door opened – faster than usual. “Toki, have you seen – ?!” Kita hadn’t gotten the words out of her mouth when she spotted Nikkō in the crook of Reka’s arm. She heaved a relieved sigh. “Thank goodness...!” She put on a strict look. “Nikkō, how many times have I told you not to run off like that?” she reprimanded him.
“Where’s Shiri?” Reka asked. Kita frowned and gestured back into the house. Reka frowned back. “I want to talk to her.”
“Shiri,” Kita called into the house, “Toki and Reka and Kaori found Nikkō!”
Kita's younger sister finally came trudging to the door. “Come on,” she told Nikkō.
“Shiri,” Reka spoke up, “he was waiting for you to come looking for him.”
“Thanks for finding him,” Shiri said hollowly.
Kaori was shocked. Nikkō’s mother didn’t seem happy to see him. There were no tears, no welcoming arms. She didn’t even scold him for running off. It didn’t seem like she’d been worried at all. Had she even lifted a finger to search for him? Kaori tightened her hands around her parents’. I didn’t think they cared,..but they came running after me...They dropped everything and came running, in tears... But not this woman – not Nikkō’s mother. Kaori felt her stomach tie up in knots.
Her father’s hand clenched. “He wanted you to be the one who found him,” he said. He wasn’t eliciting a response. “Just because Sora’s gone, do you think everything’s over?!” he cried. “You have Nikkō to take care of, Shiri!”
“You don’t know what it feels like!” Nikkō’s mother lashed out at him.
“Eha!” Nikkō cried.
His mother calmed and took him from Reka. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, then carried Nikkō into the house and shut the door behind her.
*Eba = father, informal; "daddy"/"papa" (He repeats himself because he doesn't know the Japanese equivalent.)
Eha = mother, informal; "mommy"/"mama"