Yojuu Ryu made the mistake of unlocking the doors to the lecture hall before the professor had arrived. Were it anybody but Okazaki, then he would have been sitting in the backmost row, observing the students as the assistant professor. Instead, he stood uncomfortably in the front as he waited for his red-headed savior to release him from his misery.
But she never came.
Ryu hastily assembled a lecture using Okazaki’s notes—and as much as he hated her in that moment, he knew that her notes about the grand unified theory were, at the very least, neat and organized. He stumbled to the podium, knocking over loose chalk on the blackboard rack. Thirty-two students all trained their eyes at the poor assistant—that was everyone attending the lecture, minus the two who were sleeping at the back. The situation was one that Ryu had not prepared for. Why would he? He never would have even dreamed that he’d be standing in front of the room, notes in hand, starting an impromptu lecture because the damned professor hadn’t shown up.
And yet, even when he addressed the class, hastily scrounging together papers, his thoughts were still on that blasted red-haired girl.
Okazaki was indeed a girl—not yet a woman in his eyes, but a girl. Her struts were confident, her crimson eyes unwavering, but her gentle-shaped face betrayed her true age. Still, she hadn’t a lick of youthful demeanor.
That’s how a genius operates, Ryu mused. Or maybe she couldn’t afford to be young: A professor at eighteen had little free time to spare, after all.
Halfway through the lecture, Ryu had abandoned all hope that Okazaki was going to rescue him from his personal hell and instead resigned himself to do her job, however reluctantly. Initially, the students weren’t too thrilled, but he had her notes to reference—and much to his surprise, they warmed up to him, or rather, they at least tolerated him. It was eighty-five minutes into the class that Ryu raised a hand and pointed a finger to the clock.
“Dismissed,” he said.
While lectures would normally last until ninety past, he figured that an early dismissal was fine because, at present, he was the leading authority. His students were all bright—if anything, they’d leave wordlessly, read the assigned books on their own, and ridicule his lecture on social media afterward.
As the hall emptied, he sighted a face unfamiliar to him. A blond-haired child—a teen, maybe—was one amongst the crowd. If her attire didn’t stick out so much, he would have missed her. The girl wore a white cap with a matching white sailor uniform, complete with a blue neckerchief. Frankly, it was too much. Ryu’s eyes hurt looking at her, and he briefly noted how young she looked before he mentally discarded such thoughts.
There could be others like Okazaki, he noted.
As the students cleared, the blond turned, silent but nevertheless staring at him. In any case, she was no pupil of Ryu’s nor Okazaki’s, so the man felt unsettled by her vacant yellow eyes piercing through him.
“Excuse me,” he said, “Are you a student here?” The man felt rude for being so direct, but it was an honest question.
In lieu of a response, the child turned and disappeared into the dispersing crowd. Ryu, though slightly bewildered, shook his head, discarded any thought of the blond girl, and stuffed Okazaki’s notes into his briefcase. He then headed to the graduate lab where he prayed to find his red-headed superior.
And so he did. Yumemi Okazaki was indeed in the lab, furiously scribbling away at the whiteboard. To Ryu, it was all meaningless. The numbers, variables, and jargon—he understood none of it.
“Oh,” she said. It was more of an acknowledgment of her assistant’s presence than anything. Her eyes briefly flicked to the man before they returned their gaze to the whiteboard. “Ryu.”
“Call me Yumemi,” she insisted, though her hands remained in motion. “Like before.”
Ryu corrected himself. “Yumemi.”
Though she responded, Ryu remained silent until the girl stopped moving her marker. No words would reach her until she was finished. Once the professor settled, she took off her thick-rimmed glasses and turned to the man, her lips blossoming into a smile. “Ryu?”
He was a single word from reprimanding her for not showing up to the lecture, but the way she had tenderly called his name made him reconsider. “Where were you today?”
“And about the lecture?”
“Ah.” Okazaki wiped off the lenses of her glasses with a hand cloth, setting them aside briefly before putting the glasses on again. She maintained a far-off look, her eyes only refocusing when she turned to stare at the whiteboard again, though she blushed in shame. “There are more important things to be done than lectures,” she said. So, she forgot.
She was never in the present. Something—and there was always something—would take her attention away, and she’d disappear off into her own world. And yet, her strawberry-colored eyes remained sharp, even if she’d always over-entertain her thoughts.
Then, as if she had never fallen into a lull, she resumed her work on the whiteboard. Ryu didn’t mind—he wasn’t waiting for anything in particular, so the man unlatched his briefcase and pulled out her notes to read through.
Okazaki kept writing, and Ryu continued reading until it was only the two of them left in the graduate lab. As soon as the door closed behind the last man, Okazaki’s marker slowed.
“Ryu,” she said his name again, but this time with measured tone.
“Come here—closer, you.” She put her marker down and faced him with stern eyes. But as she leaned forward, a wicked smile teetered up her lips.
That was all Ryu needed to understand. Still, to confirm her thoughts, he grudgingly asked, “Why?”
“Do what you did before.”
“...Do what,” he asked, though it was more of a statement.
“You know exactly what,” Okazaki retorted. But as cross as the professor sounded, she still raised her arms up and beckoned. And he knew that she wouldn’t stand there nicely if he were to refuse.
So Ryu obliged silently, letting the girl wrap her arms around his shoulders and close the distance between their faces. He leaned down to touch lips with her. Okazaki, being a head shorter than her assistant, stood tiptoed to reciprocate.
They kept intimate for longer than necessary. It wasn’t until Okazaki let go of Ryu’s body that an intense wave of regret overcame the man. They were, despite appearances, not partners. It was one decidedly unsober night where Ryu, against all reason, decided that making a move on his superior was a sound idea. Granted, all he did was whisper her first name sweetly and ask if he could kiss her, but, much to the regret of his sober self, she had found it amusing. Worse still, the act piqued Okazaki’s interest in her assistant, who might as well have been air to her prior. From then on, Ryu acted as her source of physical entertainment.
It was fortunate that their mutual exchanges did not go further than kissing. Ryu felt dastardly engaging in such affairs with a woman he did not yet love—and with his supervisor, too. Plus, he had two years on Okazaki. There was an array of reasons that he felt hesitant, so he dared not to cross that invisible line.
But what if she asked for more? Could he refuse then?
“Ryu,” said Okazaki.
“Mmm,” he grunted, still mulling over his thoughts.
“Will you be here tomorrow?”
“No,” he replied. “I have work to finish, and I doubt I’ll be done until dreadfully late. Why? Do you… need me tomorrow?”
“I don’t,” she said nonchalantly.
Ryu considered her words. If she didn’t need him tomorrow, then why would she ask in the first place? If it were anybody else, he might have assumed that it was out of courtesy, but since it was Okazaki, it must have been anything but. “Then?” he finally asked, after careful thought.
But by the time his words echoed through the room, she had already left.
Okazaki Yumemi was missing—or at the very least, that’s how it felt to him.
Yojuu Ryu’s days of preparing lectures were becoming alarmingly more frequent. It was an unfortunate routine: On the days that he’d be heading the classroom, there would be a conspicuous pile of notes scattered across Okazaki’s desk in her office, and Okazaki herself would be nowhere to be found—as if she had disappeared into thin air. Regardless, until she came back, Ryu would wait at the graduate lab every day until the janitors excused him to lock the doors. Some times, it would be days. But other times, it would be weeks. And every time Okazaki came back, her body would be thinner, or her eyes would be wearier—whatever the case, it was normal for her to return with physical afflictions. Each time, however, her rosy eyes would be alight in passion as she spoke wildly about “dimensional barriers” and “the other place.” Frequently, too, would the professor demonstrate with rows and rows of whiteboards—on one particular day, she flooded the entire graduate lab’s boards with equations and abbreviated theorems, only to be later scolded by the head of the department. “Public space! These whiteboards are public space!” he had cried.
Yojuu Ryu worried. Though Okazaki’s increasingly frequent fits of physical intimacy tempered his anxiety, it wasn’t enough—in fact, it was never enough. Perhaps absence did make the heart grow fonder. Whatever his turbulent feelings, it became obvious to Ryu that he was partial to Okazaki and extremely so. She kept dangling sweet temptations over his head until he realized that she had him under her thumb.
They had moved their acts of indecency to Ryu’s one bedroom apartment. He found it hard to evaluate what was worse: the fact that they previously engaged in physical relations at the graduate lab, or that they had evolved to a more intimate environment. Now there was little in the way to distract Ryu from how she was casually taking off her shoes in his home, how her red blouse revealed bare collarbone, and how a loose strap beneath her top fell dangerously off her shoulder.
“Why do you do this,” he said, turning away in modesty.
“Do what? This?” Okazaki said as she sauntered to his side to kiss him on the cheek. “Or this?” She leaned forward, closing her eyes.
Ryu couldn’t stop himself from indulging her, so he humored Okazaki with an embrace. From there, he tilted his head slightly and pulled her closer, bringing their lips together. Okazaki laid her weight onto her assistant, leaning into the man as she wrapped her arms around him.
As they parted lips, Okazaki sighed and rested her head on Ryu’s shoulder. “Carry me,” she said after a breath. “To the bed, please.”
He nodded without thinking, lifting her up into his arms. And as her feet kicked playfully into the air, Ryu found himself at odds with his own principles. He knew what he wanted. And he wasn’t a fool—he knew what Okazaki wanted, too. He placed her gently into his bed. But before Okazaki could do anything to tempt him further, he shook his head and said, “This is probably enough.”
“Is it?” Okazaki prodded him with a stray foot, still playing coy.
“No,” was his immediate reply, though he meant to say otherwise. “You—You don’t string along anybody else like this, do you?”
Ryu knew what he said to her was stupid, and he half-expected Okazaki to be upset at him for even entertaining such a stupid thought, but she didn’t. Instead, she just looked at him like he was crazy—which was arguably even worse. But he was reluctant to continue this affair without some kind of confirmation. Yet his mind did not want to cooperate with his heart. So, his mouth spilled over.
“The moon,” he let out.
Yumemi raised an eyebrow. “Sorry?”
The man felt his jaw slacken. “It exists,” he said, lamely.
Ryu, he thought in shame, thy name is subtlety. Natsume Souseki would have spat in disgust.
“So it does?” The girl stared at him with a blank expression, observing him as she would a specimen, until she had a moment. She gasped, and quickly, her look of surprise deviated to a thin smile, as her eyes twinkled in realization. Yumemi took his hand and led the man out from his bedroom to his tiny balcony.
“The moon,” she said, looking up to darkness. “Isn’t it beautiful tonight?”
Ryu followed her gaze. The sky above was empty—not a single thing was in the air. The stars were enshrouded by city lights, and the moon was nowhere to be found. Still, antics aside, he found the confirmation he sought out for, and he lowered his gaze to the red-haired girl.
Okazaki Yumemi was missing… until she, suddenly and decidedly, wasn’t.
Ryu was effectively moved to full-time professor, complete with more hours and more pay. Of course, it wasn’t by choice. Okazaki Yumemi had extreme bouts of disappearing, so Ryu had no alternative but to fill her shoes. How she had managed tenure, he’d never know.
It was an idle day in his apartment when Yumemi appeared. And it was exactly that: She had appeared. From his peripheral vision, the girl, as if she had always been there, was.
Yumemi, who smelled faintly of ashen fire, shook off the sleeves of her crimson jacket and flung it down to the ground, exposing a black camisole underneath. Beads of sweat dripped down her cheek and to the floor.
Frankly, to the man who was previously considering what to make for lunch, it was all too much. But before Ryu could open his mouth to question her, she spoke first.
“Time, no—another world,” she said, nodding, as if she were continuing a conversation she had with him. As if she had never disappeared for weeks on end. “I’ve found it, Ryu.”
“Do you believe in magic?” she said.
His mind slowed. “Not… really?”
“I didn’t either. But then I traversed. To other worlds. Or maybe another time, or another dimension, who knows? One where science alone does not dictate the elements. Say it is insane. Absurd, even. I could have been hallucinating for all I know. But I believe I may have been to where no mortal of our realm has been before.”
“Insane is… certainly the word for it.” But Ryu took a look into Yumemi’s eyes, and, within those ruby pools, there was clarity—an alarming amount of it. The nervous fiddling of her hands, her clear eyes gazing level into his own, her mouth which spoke words faster than her mind could process: Ryu could not make sense of it.
“Then call me ill,” she said, feverishly laughing all the while. It was a rare set of laughs that threatened to expose her age. “And embrace me. I’m giddy,” she added.
The man hesitated. Though he missed her touch, he felt at odds with himself. Should he encourage her behavior? Could he call this creature ‘Yumemi’ when she was giggling like a schoolgirl (which he supposed she was, technically) and speaking of dimension-traveling magic?
The short answer was: Yes, he would. Ryu pulled her close into a hug and cradled her head. Reciprocating, Yumemi wrapped her arms around the man’s waist and breathed out a comfortable sigh.
“You’ve been gone for a while,” he said. In other words, though his awkward self would not let him say it, he missed her.
“Mmm,” she mumbled. It barely qualified as a response to the man, but he approximated it to, ‘I’m back.’
“Do you,” he whispered into her ear, “want to take this to a more intimate place?”
Yumemi matched the man’s tone. “What’s more intimate than a man’s private home?”
“Within,” he hinted. “Within the man’s home.”
“The dusty closet he never uses.”
“I wouldn’t say—”
“A joke, Ryu. I think anybody’d know what you’re talking about. But first, I think I’ll take a shower. I must smell like Hell itself.”
So the man let her go and, aware of what was to come, shuffled over to his bedroom. In the fifteen minutes it took Yumemi to take a shower, Ryu found himself internalizing. Before his transition to a full-time professor, the man was reluctant to proceed. And now, he could only wait until Yumemi stepped back into his bedroom to share a moment with him. The Ryu from before hesitated to risk letting their academic relationship deteriorate into romance.
To hell with that, thought the current Ryu. His time with the red-haired girl was finite, and he was very aware of it. In the time that they shared together, he was hers, and she was his. It was a rather limited exclusivity, given the girl would leave for weeks at a time, minimum, but he preferred that over nothing at all—even if his intimacy was bound by something akin to a timeshare.
Still, for the now, he had Yumemi. She took gentle steps that padded the floorboards softly and echoed in the quiet hallway to the bedroom. Yumemi came with her black camisole, which stuck to her still-wet skin, her damp, crimson hair, her half-open skirt, and a fuddled smile coupled with a slight blush on the cheeks. She sat down at the edge of the bed, letting her unbraided hair fall to the sheets, and patted the bedding to her side.
“Well?” she said.
Ryu complied, moving to sit beside her. Reaching to her cheek, he pulled her in closer for a brief kiss. “Let’s keep going.”
The next day, when Yojuu Ryu came to, the first thing that the man saw was Okazaki Yumemi. There in his bed, clad in only a white undershirt and the rest of his bed covers, she was scribbling away furiously on a notepad. The sunlight from outside seeped through the blinds and trickled towards the red-headed woman. Ryu laughed to himself. She was no more radiant than she usually was—and Ryu found himself likening her more to a tumultuous storm than the sun—that is to say, he saw her as she was: Yumemi. Her disheveled hair, her voice deep and cracked in the morning as she muttered to herself, the snort she did at her own notes—they were all Yumemi-like.
Her pen slowed the moment Yumemi noticed Ryu awake. “Hello,” she said gruffly.
As good as it was, the morning was quiet.
“I have a lecture to do today,” he said to break the silence. “It’s Monday.”
“Ah,” she said dismissively. “So it’s Monday.”
Perhaps anybody else would have written off the red-headed woman’s words as eccentric. Time moved at different paces for different persons, after all. To Ryu, however, they were words of foreboding.
“Yumemi,” he said.
“Hmm?” Her pen stopped. Yumemi shuffled around the covers to face the man, and as she did, her bare thighs were painfully exposed to the man, temporarily rendering the man silent. The previous night flashed through his mind, though he quickly dismissed it.
I want you to stay, he thought to her.
Ryu, however, was a coward. “It’s nothing. I need to get ready for work.”
And as he showered, and as he made breakfast and prepared coffee, his thoughts swarmed him. Could it be today? No, it couldn’t be, he thought. She’d have the decency to tell me, right?
His distractions gave rise to a missing twenty minutes of his schedule, which had made him decidedly tardy. He’d be five minutes late to the lecture hall, at least. Ryu cursed and left his breakfast unfinished. Finally, the man yelled out to Yumemi, “I’m off. I’ll be back after the lecture.”
“...Yeah,” was the lukewarm response.
And as the man shut the door, walking at frantic pace to the lecture halls, he resolved to tell her to stay with him after he returned home.