You haven't realized yet that I've been with you since the beginning.


Chapter 0.011

Note: Things are a bit fast-paced, aren't they? But that's fine.


They say that with all the advancements in health and medicine these days, words like 'cancer' and 'heart attacks' are all but abolished. Of course, accidents--although made rarer by stricter law enforcement and safety procedures--still happen, such as with Mother. But the health issues that so haunted the people of the old civilizations no longer exist.

Even so, I probably almost had a heart attack when I saw Ami clinging to my windowsill. My room was only on the third floor, but if she fell, she could break her neck. In horror, I immediately grabbed the hand that was stretched towards me. Letting go of the windowsill, she grabbed my arm with her other hand.

"Can you pull me up?" She asked. I was still for a moment. In my mind, I could see the replay, as if I was watching a black and grey movie in fast forward: Ami jumping up to embrace the boy, as the two disappeared...

I shook my head to clear the images, and avoiding her eyes, in a few seconds, I effortlessly pulled her up into my room, and she collapsed on my bed, panting.

"Wow," She said after a moment. "You're a lot stronger than you look."

"You're a lot lighter than you look," I countered. Ami threw me a nasty look, and then sat up on the bed, taking off her shoes. "What are you doing here so late...or rather, early?"

"I got bored of waiting for you to answer," She said casually, rubbing her bare feet with her hands. "Man, my feet and hands hurt."

"Small wonder." I shook my head. It was quiet for a while after that, with the two of us just sitting there. And then, feeling my heavy eyelids droop and my head nod forward, I fell asleep lying next to her.

--

When my eyes opened, it was late in the morning; the sun was high the sky, and the cars in the driveways all gone. Ami was gone, probably to school, and feeling yet again the burden of everything that was happening, I groggily changed into a shirt and a pair of jeans, and went into the kitchen.

Where Ami was sitting on the counter, straining to reach a bottle perched high above her. I looked at the stove; there was pasta boiling in a saucer, and dark red tomato sauce in another.

"What are you doing?" I said, feeling some of the stiffness in my body fading. Ami gave a little jump of surprise, and nearly toppled off of the counter. She turned around.

"Making breakfast, duh," She said exasperatedly. "Now can you get that bottle of olive oil for me? Yeah, that one. Thanks."

"Shouldn't you be in school?" I said bemusedly.

"Didn't feel like just leaving you there," She said, shaking her head. She turned off the fire and dumped the pasta into a strainer. "Sit down. I make awesome spaghetti."

"Spaghetti in the morning?" I made a face.

"I eat spaghetti every day," Ami shrugged. "It's the only thing I know how to make."

"Your parents don't make you food?"

"No," She said shortly, her tone of voice indicating that I was not to question her any further about it.

And the spaghetti was surprisingly delicious. The sauce was a mixture of mushrooms, tomato sauce, onions, and more that I couldn't tell.

"So I was thinking we should go out and do something today," She said, twisting the fork around on her plate. "I don't think you had fun the last time we went out." I chewed carefully, and swallowed.

"What makes you think that?" I said slowly.

"Woman's intuition." She smirked. "So this time, let's do what you want to do." I didn't answer until my plate was clean. Licking my fork clean, I picked up my plate and rinsing it in the sink, put it in the dishwasher. Ami was still eating, so I sat down on the chair next to her. It was quiet, so quiet, that you could hear the ticking of the antique clock hanging over the marble counter.

Finally, I pushed the chair back, and stood up.

"There's a place I want to show you," I said.

--

"Marrin Avenue?" Ami said in surprise, looking up at the crumbling mural. "They're renovating this place next week, aren't they?" Choosing not to reply, I strode towards the center, directly in front of the flaking mural.

"There," I said pointing at fading skidding marks a few yards away from lonely cherry blossom tree. "That's how he died." Ami's eyes widened in surprise, and clasped her hands tightly behind her.

The abandoned apartment building was sullenly quiet for once; the police must have recently chased away the old timers. I placed my hand on the tree's smooth trunk. The few pink flowers that still clung to the branches waved weakly in the breeze. The trunk was thin and white, like a skeleton; there were ancient etchings and messages all over the trunk.

My eyes searched for the one that mattered the most to me. Spotting it near the base, in a location perfect for a pair of idiotic, laughing boys, I knelt down and touched it, closing my eyes. I felt Ami kneel next to me, but she was uncharacteristically quiet for a few minutes.

In my mind's eye, I could see him. Shunsuke. There was a time when I'd allowed myself to call him Shun--my best friend.

We used to do everything together. Shunsuke was the elder by three minutes and ten seconds--but had always been the more timid and submissive one (Mother had unconventionally insisted on giving birth to us the traditional, natural way; because of that, there'd been an article on us in the Daily Sun News). So I'd always protected him, guided him. I was the one who held his hand on the drops on the rollercoaster; I was the one who gave him the remainder of my ice cream when he accidentally smeared it all over his shirt.

Even now, I hold a certain foolish pride in thinking about how important I was to him. It was always I, I, I...

I guess I was blinded by that foolish self-satisfaction into thinking that Shunsuke was also content with such an arrangement. But when we both got into the same school, Shunsuke seized the chance, and soon, our roles had changed. I was no longer his guardian and his best friend. And like a mistreated lab rat, I withdrew into myself.

I felt a light touch on my shoulder, and I freed myself from the reverie. Ami gazed at me with sad eyes.

"Did you know," I said with a cold smile, not looking at her eyes, "Did you know, that the last thing I ever told him was 'I hate you'?" Ami didn't say anything. "He was my only brother. He was my best friend. And the last thing he ever heard from me..." Even though we'd sworn to never lie to each other.

"You didn't hate him?" Ami said, and when I finally looked up at her eyes, I couldn't read them. I hadn't always been the best at interpreting human expression, but Ami had proved easier for me. But at that moment, her eyes were as dark and alien to me as every other.

"I did hate him. I did hate him." I began to chant the empty phrase, softer and softer with every repetition, as if I was possessed. And looking away from her eyes, I searched desperately for something else to look at. And my eyes landed on the awkward and uneven handwriting that wounded the tree, yet made it more beautiful.

Turning away from her, my shoulders shaking, dry heaving, a thunderous beating tormenting my head...Not understanding the wave of homesickness that swept through me, or the intense, burning longing to hear my brother talking again...And at last, something wet sliding down my face. I touched my cheeks, and I was astounded to see my fingertips glistening.

And then something warm pressed against my face. It was like Mother's, warm and soft, but where Mother had smelled of perfumed flowers, this one was the scent of something else, something I couldn't recall, but something I knew. Nostalgia?

Finally, I pulled myself away, and looked at her alien eyes. "What am I going to do? It's too late now to take back my words."

"He was the person who knew you best, wasn't he?" She said.

"He knew me better than myself. And I knew him better than anyone else..."

"Then you should know the answer already." She smiled with her foreign eyes, and I felt an ache that I'd never felt before. "You listen to more than the words of a person you love. You listen to their eyes..."

A million thoughts and doubts immediately sped through my mind, but I pushed them back for another time. All that mattered was me leaning forward, another cherry blossom flitting downwards to our feet, the brush of my lips on her forehead, and the momentary stopping of time as the sun disappeared behind a cloud.

--

A red flash of hair greeted me as I opened the door to room 18-B35, replacing the sense of warm serenity I'd had with an emotion just as red as the hair—anger. But also something more, something better—a renewed sense of purpose.

"What are you doing here?" I said icily to the boy, who sat on a stool next to the bed. "Relatives and close friends only."

"Oh, Shunsuke, you're back," Mother said jubilantly, her face glowing with love. "I was just telling Alex about the time you skinned your knee at the zoo running away from those dogs..." My eyes, far clearer and swifter than they had been only a few months before—or ever before—caught a rapid and covert movement the boy was making.

"What is that you're putting away? Give it to me." I said, stepping forwards. The boy, making an impatient sound with his tongue, leapt to his feet and burst forward, running for the door. However, to me, his movements seemed like he was strolling on the beach, and I easily grabbed him by the front of his shirt. Pushing him against the wall—and marveling at how his struggling barely registered—I searched his pockets with my free hand.

And there it was. Another plastic container of pills. But—heaving a sigh of relief—it was unopened.

"What is it that you've been giving Mother?" I said quietly, tightening my grasp on his shirt, and making him wince in discomfort.

"Oh, Shun, what are you doing!" Mother protested from her bed.

"Nothing bad," The boy muttered, face twisting with resentment. "Just anti-depression pills."

"If it's nothing bad, then how did she end up here?" I snarled, pushing him back.

"I don't know," He mumbled, face flashing red momentarily.

"Yes you do. The doctors told me the pills she'd been taking had the anti-addiction limiter removed." Feeling another surge of the strange anger sweeping through me, I gritted my teeth. The boy's face twisted into a leering grin.

"So? What're you going to do? Throw me out the window?" There was a large window behind him, but it was made of the same material as most of the skyscrapers being built these days—transparent, but as impregnable as reinforced steel. The only way it could be opened was with the permission of the hospital staff. This was to prevent possible suicides. Noticing my eyes narrow, he laughed emptily. "You see? This feeling of inability, of powerlessness? That's what those pills do, blind you from such a truth. And it's not as if I forced her to take them. She asked me for more of them." He grinned widely, showing his incisors. "You wouldn't believe what she did for me to get her more of—" He stopped talking, and his eyes widened as he saw me raise my fist and throw it in his direction.

It was as if it was in slow motion. It wasn't me moving my fist, but something, someone else. I was just an audience member, watching the movie roll by on the big screen. Wishing one thing would happen, and watching in wonder as something completely different happened. The strange force running through me—that wasn't me either. I'd known it all along, from the first day, from deep within me. Someone who'd been realizing my wishes and hopes, all the things that I couldn't do by myself.

Even as the shattered glass rained down upon me, I didn't feel it. Even as I watched with disbelief the dark blood that streamed down from my hand, I didn't register the pain. Still possessed by that strange yet familiar force, my leg rose and kicked away the remaining glass shards in the window frame. As if in a reverie, I ignored Mother's screams and the boy's unbelieving gasps of shock and pain, and started lifting the boy by his neck out the window, to fulfill his wish. The city was wide open below us, glistening in the sun, and there was a screaming, red alarm somewhere in the distance. Bloody red clouding my eyes, something pounding in my ears, all memories of what happiness I could feel in the future, all gone... I was going to—

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." A high and clear voice rang out. I froze, and everything seemed as if it were fading away. Returning from my dream, I started registering the screaming, blinding pain all along the right side of my body, the bloody, glistening glass shards scattered all over the floor, Mother's tears and the renewal of fear in her eyes, and last of all, the purple face whose neck I was squeezing tighter and tighter. Starting to pant from the fear and the pain, I staggered backwards, dropped the boy, and fell down from sheer exhaustion and confusion.

What was going on? What was this force running through me? I'd known the answer, but it had disappeared with the removal of the shroud that'd been clouding my reality.

There was a soft crunch, and I felt a light touch grasp my shoulder. I felt a flicker of déjà vu, as if this had happened before, but it quickly faded, just as everything else was doing. But before the last had disappeared, I turned around, and saw the owner of the voice.

He was wearing a pure white hospital gown, and his tired dark eyes were crowned with deep black hair. It was a young boy, the same one that I'd seen before, surrounded by doctors. The lab rat.

--

The air was cold and dry when I stepped out of the hospital, biting at me like an angry, neglected dog. Stepping forward, I sat down to rest at the edge of a large fountain. The cold sparks of water that leapt out from the centre marble statue of an entwined man and woman brought to reality even sharper the recent events that swam through the soup of memory.

I winced again as I looked down at the bandages covering my right fist. When I'd come to, it'd been a blur of lies and confusion. I was lying in an empty room, with my right fist tightly wrapped with bandages. When I rose, and left the room, the hallway was a beehive of movement and panic.

"B3320492's state is stable!"

"Then what caused the attack?!"

"What of the other patient? How's her mental condition?"

"She's in stable condition, but Dr. Leul says there might be some problems—"

"I don't understand! I thought we could predict B3320492's behavior by this stage—"

Pushing aside impatient and angry white-coated doctors, I moved to Mother's room. The door was locked.

"Who are you? What are you doing?" A doctor exclaimed angrily, grabbing me.

"That's the boy who was injured by B3320492, you fool," Another doctor said, approaching us.

"Ah," The first doctor's face cleared. "My apologies."

"What's going on? What happened to my mother?" I asked, pounding on the door.

"Don't worry son," The second doctor said kindly. "She'll be alright."

"There was an accident, caused by a patient of ours that we've been studying. You don't recall? He broke a window, and then attacked you and your friend...He didn't touch your mother, but she had a severe panic attack..." He shook his head wearily, and then smiled understandingly at me. "You should go back home, rest a little. Your hand's been a little scratched up—probably by the shards of flying glass—but it should be fine. We'll call you if anything comes up."

And now, I was out here. Who had that boy been? He'd clearly covered up for me, but the doctors hadn't seemed surprised that he'd been able to shatter such a glass. A little surprised, but nothing new. But then, why had I been able to do such a thing?

Why had I done such a thing?

I rose to my feet and shook my head, as if it clear it. The day had been long, but I still had days in front of me. It'd do me better to think over this after I'd had some sleep. And so, with that in mind, I started trudging towards the general direction of where my house was located, keeping an eye out for a white taxi.

After several minutes of blindly walking onwards, I suddenly realized, as my stomach grumbled loudly, that the last thing I'd had to eat was the spaghetti from the morning. How long ago and happy that time seemed now. I looked up at the moon that hung high in the night sky. They said that several centuries ago, the sky had been so smoky and clogged with pollution that even the moon couldn't be properly seen anymore. What, I wondered, was Ami doing now?

Suddenly, bumping into something that I hadn't seen while looking up at the sky like an idiot, I staggered backwards. The thing—no, a person, cried out in surprise. Opening my mouth to mumble an apology, I stopped in shock as the light of a passing car lit up his face.

"Levi!" I said, and at the same time, he also said in surprise my name.

"What're you doing here?" We next said together. I was too tired to move, but Levi burst out laughing, and I cracked a weak smile.

"Something came up, for me," Levi said, still chuckling. "You?" He looked the same as before, except instead of the simple shirt and jeans outfit he'd usually sported, he was slightly more dressed up, with a black dress shirt.

"Ah," I said, looking away, and shoving my bandaged hand into the pocket of my jacket. "Just walking around." I sniffed, as a delicious aroma crept out from several packages that Levi was holding. "What's that?" And right on cue, my stomach grumbled loudly once more.

"You hungry?" Levi smiled. "I was buying some things because someone very important to me is coming over..." My stomach lurched, but with a different motive behind it this time.

"Ami?" I said, trying to sound nonchalant. Levi shook his head no, allowing me to ease the tension in my muscles that I hadn't even known I had. "Then who is it?" Levi looked around, as if to make sure that we were the only ones around, and then leaned forward to speak into my ear.

"It's a bit of a secret, but I'll tell you, since I'm inviting you along anyways." He dropped his voice. "My brother's visiting."

"You have a brother?" I said, surprised. "Ami mentioned that you had a sister, but I didn't know you had a brother."

"Younger brother," Levi nodded. "And it's kind of complicated...it's well, a little family trouble. But although we talk sometimes, he's never come over here before, so I was a little surprised. That's why I was out buying food so late at night...he came so suddenly. Just said he was looking for something." Suddenly, he looked down at his wrist—a Rolex watch. "It's getting late; we should hurry." Taking one of his packages, to which he nodded his thanks, we silently power-walked towards the shuttle station at a punishing pace. "I don't want to bore you with the details," He finally said, as we stood in the darkness on the platform, waiting for the shuttle. Lights of the cars flickered by in the distance. "My parents were separated when I was young, and my mother took my sister and I. But my younger brother refused to go with our mother. He stayed with our father. We moved to this city...and we lost contact. But a few years ago, by chance, we met, on Existence."

"On Existence?" I said, looking at him skeptically.

"Funny, isn't it? Millions play on the Japan server...And yet I knew it was him. His avatar looked exactly like the last time I saw him, before we were separated." He stopped talking then, as the shuttle came in, and for the rest of the ride, we stayed quiet, caught up in our own thoughts.

Although it was getting late at night, almost midnight, T Square was still bustling with tourists and cosplayers. Lights were flashing, animated voices chattering, bright neon lights sparkling...

The lights in JJs were still on, but we walked past; looking inside, I saw that one of the other hairdressers was tiredly cutting the hair of a young girl with blue highlights.

"We're always working," Levi said, looking fondly as we walked by. "In shifts. We have to. Tonight was my turn with Johan, but they let me off because of my brother..."

A few minutes of walking later, Levi flashed his hand on a scanner, and a large metal gate quietly opened. Inside were rows of identical, quiet houses; here, the sounds of laughter and cars from the center of T Square could almost be ignored. Passing a bronze sign that said 'Villa Residence', I looked around in surprise. For some reason, I'd expected Levi to live in a neighborhood that was exotic, artistic...But here, it was so ordinary it was almost boring. It was rather like my own neighborhood, if significantly smaller and less high-tech.

At last, we stopped in front of a house in the middle of a street. It was a brick building, one of the older kinds, and soft music was wafting out through the windows. Near the windows, I spotted raven black hair, and my heart started beating faster.

"Ami's here too?"

"Of course," Levi smiled. "My mother's gone, and I wanted this to be a private thing, so besides you, there's only Ami."

"Then why me...?" I said, a little uncomfortable now.

"Well," He shrugged. "You looked a little hungry." He laughed, and pressing his hand against the door scanner, the door swung open. I peered inside. It was a pleasant abode, with cream wallpaper and a simple black statue in the center of the entrance hall. There was a wooden spiraling staircase on the left, what looked like the kitchen in the front, and the classical music was coming from the right.

"Levi?" I heard Ami's voice ringing out from the right.

"I'm back! And look, Ami, I brought Ryuusuke."

"Ryuusuke?" Sounding delighted, Ami burst out, with a big smile on her face. "Ryuusuke!" She leapt forward, and wrapped me in a hug. I folded my arms around her, and pressed my face into her hair. After a few moments, she pushed back, and beamed at me. Her eyes wandered downwards, and then suddenly she froze. "Ryuu, what happened to your hand?"

"Nothing important," I said hastily, folding my hands behind me. A tall boy, maybe a year or two older than me, walked out from the living room behind her. He was taller than Levi, but they had the same face—good looking and eye-catching. His hair, however, was black, and he looked a little rougher than Levi—it was evident that he'd grown up in harsher conditions.

"This is my brother," Levi said a little unnecessarily. The tall boy walked around Ami, and held out a hand towards me.

"Nice to meet you," He said without a smile.

"Nice to meet you," I said, taking his hand, and was startled to see that he was staring at me intently. I could tell—not only in looks, but in mind, this boy (or man?) was fiercer and stronger than his brother. "I'm Ikuda. Ikuda Ryuusuke." He didn't say anything, but continued staring at me. There was an awkward silence, and although I kept my gaze focused on him, I noticed Levi shaking his head. And then suddenly, he smiled, and I realized with a flash that although he exuded a tough and cold mannerism, there was also his older brother's warmth in the way his eyes lit up as he smiled.

"I'm Hirasaka," He said, dropping his hand out of the handshake. I noticed, to my surprise, that they had different surnames. Apparently, Levi—whose surname was Kuragi—had taken up his mother's surname. "Hirasaka Katsuya."


Note: God, I love cliffhangers.