LITERALLY. ONCE. PER. YEAR.
“Should be done around about now…”
I lift the lid on my cup noodles to check their condition, releasing a burst of hot steam into the cold autumn’s night.
“Looks good enough to me!” I very quietly exclaim, picking up my generic wooden chopsticks and miraculously splitting them perfectly in half. “Time to eat…”
I gently guide the cheap noodles into my mouth with the chopsticks and quickly figure out that they are extremely hot and severely undercooked. Still, even the taste of mass manufactured food pleases my palate, especially after having not been exposed to much else other than poorly cooked fish for the past three days.
As much as I thought it was necessary for her, it still feels bad to have argued with Imuya.
“Hweh!?” I jump at the unexpected female voice. I had intended to limit knowledge of my presence to as few people as possible, but if this is any of the girls then I guess I’m gonna be here for a little lon- Uh oh, food down the windpipe, food down the windpipe! Commence emergency choking!
The voice rubs my back as I struggle to do something that was once not necessary to my survival. Believe it or not, invisible explosive-neutralising force fields are surprisingly easily foiled by benign food items.
After some time my internal evacuation systems finally manage to clear out the foreign bodies (read: the noodles came back out).
“Hoh geez,” I sigh, putting aside my meal as I am relieved of my inner demons (in a noodly sort of sense).
“Are you okay? I’m sorry, I must’ve surprised you…”
I turn towards the voice, largely aware of who awaits me.
“Geez, you really did scare me. It’s been a long time, Commander Ami.”
Sure enough, crouching down beside me in the pale-blue moonlight is Miss Miyuune Ami, a frail looking middle-aged woman blanketed by several layers of grey-brown clothing. She seems tired, the faint bags beneath her eyes betraying her otherwise unblemished face.
“How many times have I told you not to call me ‘Commander’?” she says, smiling, “You know I’m not qualified for that.”
I watch as her breath condenses into a vapour in the late-autumn’s air, before just as quickly fading away. She must be cold out here…
The cold, of course, isn’t much of an issue for 'people' like me. And I know that might sound incredibly hypocritical… But there must be at least some people out there who can withstand this cold wearing a slightly oversized shirt, right?
“Just for old times sake, y’know?” I laugh, moving to get up.
“Ah, careful you’ll-”
By the time I register Miss Ami’s warning it is already too late. My hand collides with the styrofoam cup containing the fruits of the 10 seconds of extremely mild labour, 2 minutes of waiting and 5 minutes deciding which flavour to get at the vending machine at an unimaginably normal speed, causing the hot, steamy contents to undramatically release themselves all over the concrete pier like philosopher tentacles latching onto an intangible, undefined and completely ignorable concept.
“Aww, I was looking forward to that…”
Truly a tragedy to behold, Miss Ami looks at me with a face of disappointment, pity and mild bemusement.
“You know what, why don’t we go inside? If you’ve got some time, I can make a proper meal for you, something more nutritious than just cup noodles.”
As much as I want to leave as quickly as I can, I can’t really pass up the offer.
I quietly follow Miss Ami towards the naval base’s kitchen. At her request, I retrieve the styrofoam cup to throw away, but leave behind the spilled noodles for the seagulls. I know she only means good, but feeding wild animals with human food...
We enter the kitchen through the back entrance. The rectangular space isn’t quite small enough to call cramped, but certainly nowhere near spacious, everything seemingly having just enough room to exist without noticeably impeding on anything else’s territory. A large bar space opens out towards the cafeteria so that food can be served, whilst on the opposite wall a wide window allows light to trickle in from outside.
Miss Ami directs me to a bin hidden away in one of the many cupboards so that I can throw away my rubbish. There’s some bland food packaging, an empty packet of painkillers…
“Is there anything specific you feel like eating, Yukikaze?” she asks.
Cup noodles… I can’t exactly say that, can I? Something other than cup noodles…
“Today’s Friday, isn’t it?”
“If I am correct, it should already be Saturday morning. You would’ve been right a few hours ago, but midnight already passed.”
Even if Miss Ami calls it ‘morning’, looking out the window reveals that the sky is still a rather deep shade of purple. The approaching winter means the cold nights are getting progressively longer and the daytime is gradually fading into a kind of dark, never ending shower. All the weeks out on the ocean, where there isn’t much difference between a rainy day and night have blunted my perception of time and although we don’t really need to worry about lack of sleep, it’s not exactly something that normal people should ignore.
“Oh right. Yeah, now that you mention it…”
Imuya already said it was past midnight, didn’t she.
“...Actually, never mind that. I was just thinking, y’know, it’s Friday, kind of in the mood for some curry… Except it isn’t Friday.”
“Maybe I should apologise for ruining your romantic Friday night curry dinner.” Miss Ami smiles wryly. “If you still feel like it though, we certainly should have enough ingredients left over to make an early morning meal of curry for two.”
With that decided, we slowly get to work. Miss Ami hands me some potatoes, carrots and what looks like a child-friendly vegetable peeler. She laughs a little when I give her a funny look, explaining that it works just the same as a regular one and that they don’t have any non-child-friendly ones anyway.
She points me to a plain chopping board by the window as she goes about preparing the rice and the roux. As I set about peeling the vegetables, I spot a small vegetable patch through the window, tucked away behind the factory. Bathed in the moonlight, the garden glows a faint silver.
When I ask her about it, she explains that she started it for her three girls, in the hopes that growing something would give them an appreciation for the world around them, as well as something to do other than studying all day. She sheepishly admits that aside from gathering information on gardening to start them off, she hasn’t been able to do much, especially since her lower back pains seen to have been getting worse as of late.
Despite that, it appears as if the project has been a great success. Miss Ami tells me eagerly of the girls’ escapades in the garden, although I get the feeling that much like an overly proud parent, she is exaggerating their achievements. I decide to take it as a sign that the girls still treat her as if she were their mother. For better or for worse, nothing much has changed in that aspect.
True to Imuya’s words though, it does seem that there is at least one more girl around than I remember. More specifically, Miss Ami mentions that about a month ago they found Akatsuki, bringing the group of girls she directly takes care of up to three from two. On top of that, in roughly a week they’re going out to retrieve who they believe is Ikazuchi from a small group of Abyssals festering unusually close to the base.
“It’ll be Commander Shimizu and Commander Akemu’s first proper sortie.”
Imuya didn’t actually seem to know much about this ‘Commander Akemu’ person, or at least she didn’t tell me much about them earlier. More than that though, I’m kind of interested to see what kind of impression she has of Commander Shimizu.
“I actually ran into Commander Shimizu earlier. He’s, uh… an interesting person, isn’t he?”
Miss Ami shuffles through some wall-mounted cupboards as she responds.
“He certainly is. He’s only slightly younger than me, yet I hear he has enough energy to stay awake with dear Imuya and Goya through the night,” she says with a somewhat bemused look on her face. “From what I’ve heard from Sazanami, though, I think it’s safe to say he is a good person at heart, although perhaps somewhat lacking in communication skills.”
“Yeah, that about fits what I know.”
I decide against mentioning the deal I made with him before I met Imuya earlier on in the night.
To be completely honest, I’m a little surprised the man doesn’t go any deeper. I thought he might’ve been a bit uncomfortable around some random girl that he didn’t know, but I guess that wasn’t the case.
“What about the other new person? What kind of person are they?”
Miss Ami’s look of bemusement doesn’t fade.
“Just try to imagine the exact opposite of Mr. Shimizu.”
The exact opposite…
“A talkative, energetic, short girl?”
“Who likes to hang out with Hiryuu.”
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t expect somebody weird, but the fact that the difference between them extends to even who they associate with is really amusing. Even just imagining the two working side-by-side is enough to make me chuckle.
Still, she must be pretty talkative to have gotten through to any of the carriers. They’re not particularly cold like the submarines seem to be (at least on the surface), but the only real impression I have of them is that they’re awfully distant. It makes it difficult to engage them in anything long enough to call a conversation.
“Kind of like an amped up version of you and Commander Kounami, huh.”
“Kounami and I aren’t that different. Sure, we argue about our work a bit, but aside from that…”
Before I know it, the curry is done. We move out to a table by the window in the dining hall, but it feels as if eating is only a secondary task to our chatting as Miss Ami and I pass away the time reminiscing on old times and catching each other up on the state of our lives. I kind of wish I could say I felt nostalgic, but I never got the chance to spend much time with Miss Ami when I was around here. Commander Kounami was always pushing me to do more training, and from what it sounds like, he still would be if I had stuck around.
“If you wait around for an hour or two you will probably be able to meet up with Kounami doing his early morning exercises, you know. Why don’t you go see him?”
“Oh I know all too well,” I say, shovelling a spoonful of curry rice into my mouth. “‘Das why I ‘dun wanna spend too much time ‘ere.”
“Do you think he is angry with you, Yukikaze?”
Do I think he is angry with me?
He’s probably not angry with me right now, but if I were to meet with him face-to-face again, I think it would be hard for him not to be angry. He never supported the idea of me leaving in the first place, and when I left, I just kind of disappeared without saying anything to him, even though he had taken care of me for so long.
If anything, it might even be more painful for me if he wasn’t angry. When I left, the only other girl he was working with was Hatsuharu. I left him of my own accord, fully knowing that I would be putting him in a bad position and I have nothing to show of the things I have gained. If he were to welcome me back with open arms, even despite all that, I’m not sure how I would be able deal with it.
“I don’t know...” is my response.
The sound of my spoon striking the edges of my bowl reverberates loudly through the empty mess hall. Something about the whole set-up feels lonely - the way all the chairs are neatly arranged by their tables, the way the moonlight shines unobstructed through the large, open windows, even the echoing of each word we speak - all of it seems to emphasise the lack of people around.
“I think you should have more faith in Kounami. He never reported your disappearance to the government, after all. Don’t you think that means he supports your decision to leave?”
“He didn’t follow through with his threats, huh…”
“You don’t have to stay around afterwards, so why don’t you give him a chance and meet with him?”
Miss Miyuune looks directly at me. Her gaze is soft, yet it feels as if it has seen right through my wavering feelings.
Maybe meeting with him wouldn’t be so bad after all. Still…
“Maybe next time,” I say, turning down her offer. She doesn’t seem to be surprised by this, instead smiling warmly as if she has accepted my decision.
“When I meet him, I want to be able to properly show him that I’ve leant something. Until then… I think he’ll just have to wait.”
People don’t change that easily.
When offered a choice between the familiar and the unknown, people will almost always choose what they know.
And that’s okay.
If they almost always choose what they know, then that just means that sometimes they won’t. Every now and again they’ll try something new.
And people will change.
Next time I see Imuya, Commander Kounami and even Miss Ami - I think we’ll all have changed. We’ll all be different people.
Hopefully, it’ll be for the better.
And if it isn’t? Well, that’s up to the future me to figure out.
At the very least, I hope I’ll actually be able to finish my noodles next time.