“Kento?” Nothing. “Kento.” Nothing. “Kento, it’s Ryo. Pick up the phone.” Nothing. “Kento, wake up. We wanna have a meeting.” The receiver finally picked up. “About time.”
“Kento’s in the bathroom,” Cye wearily informed his caller. “Why? What’s your meeting for?”
“Actually, it was going to be about you.”
“Oh. I guess that’s why I wasn’t invited.”
“You’re invited.” In the background, cries of objection were audible, followed by shushing. “Everyone needs to be here, so why wouldn’t you be?”
“Thanks, but I was going out for a walk today. That doesn’t disturb your plans, does it?” There was a long silence.
“No, not at all. Have a nice walk, okay?”
“Sure.” The receiver dropped down, leaving the blank tone of the telephone to resonate vacantly to the hushed extension.
Mia Koji stood in the kitchen, watching the living room full of men warily. Normally, they would congregate there to discuss such important topics as who was the prettier of two make-up models or whether school stroganoff was a legal form of punishment. Today, however, their ranks were thinner than usual, and it was that thinness that they actively discussed. She shook her head slightly, her warm brown locks moving slightly, and she finished stacking soda cans on the serving tray, letting her sapphire gaze stray from her task towards the living room. Her rubber soled steps went from audible pads to silence as she stepped onto the carpet, largely unnoticed by the guys. Only once she placed the sodas in clear view and took a seat among them did they manage to acknowledge her presence.
“So he didn’t say anything to you at all?” Sage Date asked, his normally calm voice echoing with concern.
“No. I figured he’d stay in bed again,” Kento explained. He cinched his eyes shut and clenched his fists. “This is my fault. I shouldn’t have chewed him out.” He let a fist fall heavily down on the coffee table, shaking the sodas.
“You couldn’t help it. To be honest, we’ve all had our fill of this.”
“That’s no reason to blow it all off,” Rowen Hashiba added in, the tone of the conversation making him nervous. “We can’t let Cye hurt himself just because we don’t feel like helping him anymore. We’d be as blameworthy as him for the results.”
“Thanks. That’s exactly what I needed to hear,” Kento snapped.
“I’d think you’d wanna help him the most.”
“I try, okay? Every single day he’s either crying or about to cry. It’s horrible! He won’t go to school, he can’t stand to go to work, and he only leaves the apartment if he’s planning to leave town! I can’t keep playing nanny to him anymore. It’s been a more than a month. Any longer, and he should get professional help or something ‘cuz there’s only so much I can handle.”
“Wait a minute, are you saying we should have Cye committed?” Sage asked, shocked.
“No, I’m saying he should see a shrink or something. He needs real help. I mean, he’s been talking all the time to this total stranger. Ro knows her--the girl at the airport.”
“She seemed harmless enough,” Rowen said.
“She’s a freak! She’s stalking him, and he’s taking this as a sign of concern. If he keeps that up, he’ll only hurt himself more.”
“Maybe some time in the hospital would do him good,” Rowen mused. “I mean, he’d be away from any reminders, and we could always visit.”
“And he’d take it as a total betrayal,” Sage argued. “We’re all he has now, and sending him away to an impersonal asylum would send him into a major downward spiral. It’d only add to his problems.”
“It wouldn’t be lifelong institutionalization,” Mia interjected. “Only a few months at the most, just till Cye can pull himself together.”
“But if he’s left in some hospital, he’ll never recover. We’ll only add to his sense of abandonment. Ryo, help me out here.”
Ryo Sanada sighed; he had been trying to avoid the debate. “We should really ask Cye before we make any decisions. We should ask, then make the decision based on his reaction. That sound fair?”
“Do you mean we should or shouldn’t send him off to the hospital?” Kento asked.
“I mean, we should let Cye decide. If he puts up a fight, then we shouldn’t send him off. If he agrees, then he wants help and is willing to get it. Forcing him won’t help.” There was a silence as the guys glanced at each other anxiously. “And I think we should try and find him sometime soon.”
The duck pond was only reachable through the thinnest path that ran through the mud and required one to either jump or swing over a marsh before its fecund banks could be visited. It was quite a feat, and few were up to it; today, two brave souls made the trek, receiving only a few mud marks on their jeans as trophies for their accomplishment. Cye at on the banks, his feet dipped in the cool fresh water; behind him, Ayame stretched out on the grass and stared up at the drifting clouds. He watched the minnows swarm around his toes with a slight smile. The ripples from their submerged scurrying seemed to tickle him, and they naturally gravitated to this foreign, enormous intrusion on their little worlds. In the distance, a single duck looked at him with a mix of curiosity and fear. This was exactly where he wanted to be.
“Ayame, why don’t you come over here?” Cye asked, turning around.
Ayame sat up and gave him a sad smile. “Uh...nah. Can I confess something?”
“Sure. It’s nothing....tawdry, is it?”
“No, it’s just.....I know you really love water and all, but....I’m hydrophobic. I’m sorry.” Ayame blushed and sank back onto the grass.
Cye crawled up towards her and sat by her side. “Why? Maybe I can help.”
“Not with this. Trust me.”
“Oh. I just figured that since you’ve been such a help to me that I could try and help you. Sorry.”
“Well, I’d like to tell you, but you’ll never believe me.” Ayame sat up and was greeted with a gentle caress on the back of her hand. “What’s that for?”
Cye quickly withdrew his hand and blushed; he vainly tried to facilitate an answer, producing only silent mouth movements. “I’m sorry....”
Ayame softly rested her hand on his arm, drawing more of a blush. “Stop apologizing. You didn’t do anything wrong. If you’d still like, I’ll tell you about me and water, but you have to promise not to laugh.”
“Fine. You never laughed at anything I said.”
“Yeah, well, you said serious stuff. Stuff everyone knows about.” Cye let his head fall down a little. “I’m sorry.”
“Why? You just let me get it out without any stupid advice or suggestions. It was the first time anyone did that.” He mused silently for a moment, then gave Ayame a slightly sly smile. “I have a deal for you. If you tell me why you’re scared of water, I’ll tell you why I’m never going back to school.”
“Are you sure you won’t break down again?”
“I’ll try. I think I can deal with better now.”
“Cye!” a voice shouted from the marsh. Cye jumped slightly and dove for the shoe pile, startling the duck. “Cye! Where are you?”
“Who’s that?” Ayame asked, catching a tennis shoe tossed to her.
“One of my friends,” Cye asked. He tried to get the shoe on his foot but failed; a quick check at the size revealed the cause of the difficulty. “I have your shoe.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Ayame glanced over at the marsh and saw two figures trying to circumvent the mud. One, a fellow with wildly prominent blonde hair, sank almost up to his waist after a slip from the swinging rope and managed to drag his companion down with him during a failed rescue attempt. As the two struggled with the mud and a string of profanities, Ayame couldn’t help but giggle. “Take your time. They’re stuck.”
Cye listened to the string of curses and resumed tying his shoelaces. “Is Kento there?”
“No, I don’t know these guys.”
The two crept to a hidden patch of bushes that gave a clear view of the marsh and its current inhabitants’ struggle. Cye restrained a laugh as he watched. “The one on the banks is Sage. He’s really serious, so I don’t know if he’ll like you. And the one up to his neck in mud is Ryo. You’ll like him.”
“They’re not gonna get outta there any time soon, are they?”
“No, but I can’t watch them struggle anymore.” Cye stood up crept towards the marsh. “Guys, I’m right here! Don’t move!”
“We can’t!” Ryo called back.
“It’s okay,” Cye responded. “I’m coming home for a while!” He turned to Ayame, who gave him a profoundly surprised and hurt look. “I’m sorry. I need to talk to them. How about we meet tonight?”
“Sure, I guess.” The two awkwardly tried to device an appropriate gesture to fabricate a farewell before settling on a hug. Neither was willing to let go first, their arms locked tight around each other; finally, they pulled apart with a sad gaze. “See you later, then.” Ayame walked back to the duck pond as Cye left for the marsh, the angry cries echoing through the back of the park.
The porch was the last place they wanted the meeting held. The living room seemed more appropriate and infinitely more comfortable. However, the sheer amount of mud on two participants forbade it. Sage sat on the deck, the calves of his khakis drenched and soggy; lingering stains from the coffee brown mud were still visible, even on his apparently covered socks. Down on the ground was Ryo, nearly three-fourths of his body covered in mud; he stood wincing and shivering as Mia kept him under a steady stream of cold hose water. As soon as the hose let up, he ran for the sanctuary of the porch and tried to hide behind his comrades. Mia sighed and sat down on the last vacant chair. Cye eyed the group nervously. Every single eye was on him, adding to his discomfort.
“So....” Cye said, anxiously tapping his fingers on the picnic table. “What did yo--”
“They wanna hospitalize you,” Sage cut in. Cye froze, suddenly pale and vaguely trembling. “It wasn’t my idea. It’s the last thing I wanted to do.”
“Cye, you need help,” Mia said, trying to calm him. “You can’t keep this up.”
“You were just going to lock me away.....” Cye whispered.
“No, we wanted to ask you first,” Ryo added from the back. “We didn’t wanna ju--”
Cye started to cry. “You weren’t going to ask. You think I’m nuts.”
“Anymore, you are,” Kento argued. “You can’t keep hiding away and constantly crying and acting like this!” Cye doubled over in quaking sobs, unable to stand looking at his friend’s angry glare. “Will you stop it?!” Kento lept up and approached him, nearly red; Ryo and Rowen lept to their feet, trying to form a barrier. “Lemme go!”
“Don’t hurt him!” Rowen demanded. “You’ll only make things worse!”
Cye stood up, his face stained from tears. “I can’t believe this....I.... You really hate me.” Before any objections could be rendered, he continued. “You don’t care if.....” He took off down the stairs and into the surrounding thick woods, vanishing into the late afternoon shadows.
“Cye?! Cye!” Kento called out into the shadows, receiving no answer. “What have I done?”
“Look, no one panic,” Mia said, hiding her distress. “Just call the cops and everyone else you can think of, even Sayoko if you have to. He can’t get too far.” She turned bitterly to Sage. “You still think he’s safe on his own?”
Dusk had come early, and the last place Ayame wanted to be was on the relatively unfamiliar streets. There were no other people on the walkways, making her wonder if she had missed out on an emergency evacuation. She put herself on alert, ready to respond to any external stimulus. The sudden echo of sharp footsteps galvanized her, and her pace quickened. The footsteps quickened after her, and Ayame ducked into an alley. Maybe here she could hide, wait until the streets were silent again, then she could head t--
“Who are you kidding?” a familiarly shrill voice called from the entrance of the alley.
Ayame completely froze. The figure of a young woman, slightly older and definitely more built than her, blocked the exit. She was clad in the tightest of black leather, the glossy onyx clinging to every curve of her legs and torso; the thin straps of her fitted blouse barely managed to keep it from sliding off down to the spike heels of her tall bitch boots. A fluid mane of silver hair cascaded against her back down to her knees, picking up the slightest reflections of light. Her lime green eyes stared daggers straight through Ayame’s motionless figure, grinning a fanged smile as she approached. A small round ball was clenched in her hand, which she rolled over again and again in her palm. Ayame caught her breath, adrenaline flooding her body.
“Your father and I have been very worried,” the woman cooed, still palming the silver ball. “Are you finally coming back to us, or I have to drag you back?”
“Eshe, stay back,” Ayame shakily commanded. Eshe continued her approach. “I’m not going back, and I’m not letting you hurt anyone.”
“Oh, yeah, you’re SO effective at protection. Well, let’s get this over with.” Eshe threw the ball at Ayame just as she jutted away. A spray of thin, sharp strings engulfed the area and caught Ayame by the ankle. Her struggles only resulted in a set of deep cuts.
“Eshe, please stay back,” Ayame pleaded. She kept struggling, making her wounds worse. “I’m warning you...”
“What? Are you gonna HIT me?”
Ayame’s eyes narrowed slightly; the irises flashed into a golden yellow. She raised her hand up, the two forefingers held erect and pressed together; she held them between her eyes and serenely shut her eyes. Debris surrounding her started to float in midair, then a strong gust traveled from the girl’s body towards Eshe as her eyes shot open. Before any reaction could register, Eshe went flying out of the alley, the strings from the ball and the floating debris hitting her already stunned body. Ayame stood up and ran out of the alley as best she could on her injured ankle, taking off down the abandoned streets. Breathlessly, she hurried past the buildings; the ache in her leg growing as she traveled. The sound of Eshe swearing and preparing for pursuit was audible, even though she had run a good distance away by now. The ball struck the short of her back, and Ayame fell, the strings now cutting into her entire body and pinning her arms to her sides. A strong jerk back dragged her along the pavement; gravel scratched her face, leaving a red mark over her right cheek the size of her hand; she winced, the danger exclusively behind her. Tears of pain and fear began to roll down into her wounds, adding to the sting. Eshe’s hand seized a large clump of her hair and dangled her, leaving her knees just off the ground.
“Don’t you ever do that again,” Eshe hissed. The blade of a dagger outlined the scratches on Ayame’s face, then vanished. “I don’t care what Domus Nen says, you’re more trouble than you’re worth. Ah, well...” Ayame managed to glance over her shoulder; Eshe drew her hand back, ready to drive the dagger clear through Ayame’s body. Ayame caught her breath. The actual stabbing wouldn’t be the worst of her suffering.
A beer bottle, still holding some beer, struck Eshe in the face. It shattered on impact, spraying glass and alcohol as it broke. Eshe raised her hand to her face, dropping first the dagger, then Ayame. A man stood on the sidewalk, and Eshe instantly shifted her rage towards him. Ayame rushed out of her restraints, shredding skin and clothes as she did; she raised her fingers to her amber gaze and struck Eshe again, the force of the intangible blow knocking her away two blocks and through the display window of a gaudy boutique. Ayame shakily stood up and walked towards the man before collapsing, a bloody, torn-apart heap.
It was the last place Cye would normally want to go; its clientele still unnerved him after more than a year, and he just wasn’t a billiards bar person. Still, it was the only place he wouldn’t receive a lecture or coddling, and it was the last place his so-called friends would look for him. He strolled into the dank, barely lit building, hoping to go unnoticed.
“Torrent?” a familiar voice called out. Cye glanced over at the bar and was greeted with a confused smile from Dais, both startled. “You look like Hell on earth.” Cye studied his appearance in the behind-counter mirror. Granted, he needed to comb his hair, and his jeans had become torn and dirty, but he didn’t look that bad. He walked over the bar and sat on a stool, trying to melt into the crowd. The only problem was that there was no crowd. Dais walked right up to him, as though nothing negative had ever occurred between the two. “Want a drink? On the house.”
“No thanks,” Cye said, hiding his unease. “I’m allergic.” Dais shrugged and walked down to the other end, where a small group had congregated. Cye folded his arms on the table and rested his head down, relaxing his eyes.
The voices down the other end of the bar managed to provoke his curiosity. “Don’t walk on it! What are you doing? Good thing for you that’s a collect call!”
A hand rested heavily on Cye’s shoulder, and he jumped up from his half- slumber. He looked up to find a very injured Ayame, balancing herself on him. He sat up slowly and helped her up onto a barstool. The sight was turning his stomach: Ayame’s clothes were ripped to shreds, her skin was either pale or covered in blood, her face was discolored and scarred from a harsh scratch, and she couldn’t even put weight on her right ankle. She stared at him with both relief and pity, reaching to caress his face. Her fingers traced the drying tear stains, and he slowly pulled her hand away.
“What happened to you?” Cye asked, clenching her hand.
Ayame sighed and gently seized his hand with both of hers. “I’d really rather tell you in private,” she whispered, avoiding his gaze. “I sorta.....called your place, so your friend might be coming here.”
“I wanted to reach you. What did he do this time?”
“He wants me consigned to a mental hospital. Not to see a psychiatrist but to be locked away in a padded room and force-fed pills until I’m BETTER. He even threatened to hit me. No one else really fought it or spoke out against it.” Cye caught her gaze. “I don’t know if I can trust them anymore. If you can just give me a place to hide out for the night, I would really appreciate it. I’m afraid of what might happen.... I don’t wanna go to an asylum....” His tone changed, going from frightened to desperate. “If you let me hide with you, I’ll take care of your injuries. I can protect you from whoever did this.”
“You don’t have to do that. I can take care of myself. I’ll let you stay in my hotel room for the night if you’re that scared.” She turned back to Dais as she slid off the stool and barely stood on the floor. “Thanks so much.”
“Not a problem. Take care of her, Torrent,” Dais responded, addressing Cye.
“Torrent?” Ayame asked.
Cye slid off the bar stool and helped her to the door. “I’ll explain later.”
“You’ve really gotta stop this, man,” Kento lectured his friend. “It took us a week this time. Even your sister was worried.”
“Really?” Cye asked, looking up from the kitchen table.
“Yeah. She called me three times last night just to make sure you were safe.” Kento sat down on the nearest seat and sighed. “Look, I’m sorry if I get angry at you and all. It’s just....It’s been a month. You can’t keep this up forever.”
“I know. I know I’ve gotten better, but it’s just hard. I don’t think you can even understand how I feel about everything. Especially school.”
“You never told anyone. Do you think you could try and tell me now? Maybe you just need to get it off your chest.” Cye’s head fell with a shake and a heavy sigh. “Cye, you’re my best friend. We’re practically brothers. I really can’t stand this anymore. It’s really, really scary now. All any of us wanna do is help. If you’d just tell us what happened--”
“I can’t. I can’t tell you, and I can’t go back. If you’re so desperate to know, ask Rowen. He knows everything.”
“I can’t ask him. He’s....GROUNDED.”
“Oh.” The two shuddered out of pity for their friend, knowing exactly what being “grounded” meant in Rowen’s case.
“At least tell me where you’ve been this past week.”
“I was nursing Ayame. Someone really hurt her, and I couldn’t just leave her to take care of herself. Her right foot was almost severed.”
“Ewww. She’s okay now, though?”
“More or less. She’s been a major help through all this.”
“Why? What did she do different that we didn’t try?”
“She didn’t baby me or yell at me or put me under suicide watch or try to have me hospitalized.”
“Oh. Look, that was just a threat.” Kento gave him a grin that readily gave away his lie. “We just needed to get through to you.”
“You could’ve just sat down with me like this and talked. Frankly, I don’t know whether to believe a single word you say anymore.”
“What? You think I’m lying?!”
“Not just you, Kento. Everyone. I might give Sage some credit, but that’s the most.” Cye stood up and walked out to his room. “If you don’t mind, I’d really like to take a nap now.”
As soon as Cye’s hand touched the doorknob, the phone rang. Two rings and a minute later, Kento gestured for him to come over. “It’s for you.”
“Who is it? Ayame?”
“I don’t know. It’s a woman.”
Cye nervously took the receiver from his friend and placed it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Cye Mouri....” a woman’s slightly shrill voice purred.
“Who is this?”
“I look forward to meeting you on the new moon, Cye. I take it you’ve met your little bodyguard by now.”
“Who is this?! Do you mean Ayame?”
“She’s pathetic, isn’t she? If you contact her before our meeting, your friends will live to regret this. Sort of.”
“What?!” Cye looked at Kento, visibly scared. “What meeting? Who are you?!”
“See you on the new moon, perfect one.” The other line clicked to silence. Cye shakily put the receiver down.
“What was that about?” Kento asked. Cye just shook his head and retreated to his room.
Cye fell on the bed with all of his weight and stared into the blankness before him. He had to be going crazy. People don’t call up out of nowhere like that. That was an hallucination, the product of a deranged and perverted mind; he hadn’t left his bed since this morning. That had to be it. He was on the verge of completely losing it. Where did this start? Not with his Mum or Sayoko; he could handle that if his friends were around. The same with school. The changes in his friends.....They had to be imagined. This insanity, this sheer weirdness, really didn’t start until...
“Eshe, you couldn’t refrain from crank calls this time, could you?” Domus Nen’s disembodied voice chided his servant.
“I’m sorry, Domus Nen. Ayame’s getting too close to this one, and there was the chance. You remember how difficult it is to break through her protection on the ones she likes.”
“I know, but we haven’t failed yet. Besides, as perfect as this soul may be, he’s a weak, gullible child. All her protection in the world couldn’t save him from that.......Eshe, what’s that?”
“There’s someone behind you.”
Eshe grabbed her dagger and spun around. An ethereal image formed behind her, that of a young boy just staring at her. Beneath a swatch of blonde hair, he was clearly baffled. “Hey! Hey, kid!” She tried to touch him, swiping at air instead. “He’s just having a dream. He probably won’t know what to make of it.” She inspected his face further and was hit with a flash of recognition. “Oh, shit.”
“What? Who is he?”
“A friend of the perfect one. Should I?”
“I suppose.” Eshe lept at him, her dagger ready for the kill. Instantly, his expression went from confused to terrified as he covered his face. He dissolved into the darkness, leaving Eshe to her meeting. “Okay, he’s awake. Now, what should we do about it?”
“Remember how I mentioned compensation?”
“Yes, but right now there’s no need for--”
“Well, I propose turning compensation into augmentation. So, besides the perfect one, you’ll have a few near-perfect, too.”
Sage sat up in bed, slightly numbed. He was used to these kinds of dreams, but something about this one left him more curious than anyone before. He hadn’t heard the whole conversation. All he heard was a search for a “perfect one”-- someone he knew. A sea of questions swam through his restless mind: who was this perfect one? Who were the people that so desperately wanted them? Why? Someone he knew was the target.....but the dream, like all dreams, was fading. Slowly, word by word, it was leaving. Yet, the few remaining hints fell into place. Weak. Gullible. Contact with a stranger. The realization hit him harder than any blow in the midst of battle.
Cye was going to die.
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