All my life they let me know
How far I would not go
But inside, the beast still grows
Waiting, chewing through the ropes
I will hide myself below
I'll be what you wanted
Kept inside I won't let go
'Till I burn beyond control
Who are you to change this world?
No one needs to hear your words.
Let it go.
(Carnivore - Starset)
It's been a long time…
It's been a long time since he had fallen, since he had been banished from the world of light.
Once he had been a king, fighting for humankind's preservation. Their future. But all it got him in return was pain and regret. Nowadays he was nothing more but a shunned warrior of hope who was now abandoned by the very same thing that he had been supposed to once represent.
And so, cast away as he was, he merely lied there on his bed like a discarded toy. A plaything of fate, devoid of all the bravery and strength he had held this long time ago. No one but the shadows which surrounded him seemed to want him, thus they wrapped themselves around him hungrily, shrouding him into this cold and bleak world that had now become his.
Sometimes, as if to mock him, he could feel the sun's warmth on his skin, constantly reminding him that it was still there, yet never granting him but the slightest shimmer of light to illuminate the darkness that embraced him. It was as if it meant to share its light with anyone but him, deeming him unworthy of it. He could almost hear it snicker at him tauntingly. It knew he could do nothing anymore to change his situation at this point.
He had lost. Everything. The war was over and he was the sole loser of it all. He deserved every jeer and every mockery there was. For he had been a fool all along. A savior they had made him be. But in the end, he had never been meant to save that what had really been important to him.
They had played their game and they had played it well. Now there was nothing more to do but rot away in this small personal hell of his. It was what he deserved for his foolishness.
"It doesn't have to end like this, you know?" Came the voice of a familiar man from the direction of the door to his room. The blind king frowned for a second as he tried to recall whose voice it was, but once he did, he merely closed his eyes and sighed in what looked to be disappointment.
"So it's you. I've had a feeling we would meet again someday." He said to his uninvited visitor.
"And yet you don't seem to be alarmed at all. For someone who fought me so vigorously the last time we met, your reaction this time is so very…disappointing." He heard the man's steps as he walked into the room and found his place next to the king's bed. Despite his words, his voice itself sounded somewhat amused, curios even. It was as if he wanted to understand what was going on in the fallen monarch's head.
"I am part of that world no longer. Whether you and that shady organization you are a part of want to end the world or not is none of my business anymore. I am done with it all, so if you have come to finish me off, hurry it up a bit. I am already sick of this world. If you haven't, though, then just leave me alone. At least allow me to rot away in peace."
The blond man in a white coat only chuckled as he shook his head.
"I have not come to end you, Ouma Shu. Rather than that, I have come to save you. I will offer you the hand that shall pull you out of the abyss you have plunged yourself into, and on the wings of Da'ath we shall ride together into the light of a glorious, better future. What do you say? Aren't you tired of this world? Won't you join me to create a better one?"
The broken king turned his head into the direction of the envoy, where he assumed he held out a hand to grab for him, but instead of reaching out, he just frowned once more and turned away, looking into the direction of where he thought his window had to be, imagining to look into the starry sky of the night. One he couldn't see anymore.
"I might not care much for this world anymore, but what good would a new one be? I've already lost what was most precious to me…a new world won't bring her back."
He heard the envoy chuckle once more and could almost see the smirk that was undoubtedly planted on his face at the very moment.
"But what if I told you it would?"
The king turned around immediately, staring into the direction of his visitor in anger.
"Liar! Do not take me for a mindless fool, Yuu! I might be a broken man, but don't think I will fall for this idiotic nonsense even for a second." His empty gaze sunk down to his clenched fist he held in front of him, sadness finding its way into his voice. "Not even Da'ath would be able to bring back what is already gone…"
But the envoy merely shrugged at that. "Why not? We did it once, didn't we? Or have you forgotten Tsutsugami Gai's revival?"
The brunette only shook his head slowly in disapproval.
"He was not the same man…"
"And neither would Yuzuriha Inori be. Unless you happen to hold her soul."
"Her soul…?" The king's hand found its way to his chest, where he knew his void lied. Inside it resided many things. The virus he had assumed during the last apocalypse and also the soul that was given to him by his love. That's right. He held her soul inside his. As realization overcame him, so did a mischievous smirk the envoy's face.
"It seems that you understand."
"Could it…really be possible, after all?" For the first time in these three years the brunette man allowed himself to let hope return into his heart. The cold darkness that still surrounded him remained where it was, but its grip on him didn't seem to be as suffocating anymore. Some of his strength returned into his limbs, letting eagerness to stand up once more for one last fight spread through them. He obliged as he got up. Much to the envoy's content.
"Of course it is…and that's not even all. Not only will you be able to feel the warmth of the woman you loved, you will also be allowed to see her again." The blond man said proudly, followed by shrugging the king's amazement off.
"To be honest, I don't even know why you are still blind. The technology to fix your eyesight has been around for over a decade already."
The envoy could only see the king clench his fists in disappointment.
"Maybe, but who could afford it anyway? The amount of money they were willing to give me after I had stopped you was pitiful. With the economy as bad as it is, that was apparently all they could spare. It barely was enough to get a new arm."
"Is that so? Well, we won't charge anything for it, you know? Neither the eyes, nor the revival of Yuzuriha Inori." Shu could sense the man in front of him holding out his hand again for him to take. "All you need to do is come with me."
The king looked down at where he assumed the hand to be, yet hesitated with a frown.
"Yes, but instead of money, you will desire something else. Something that could be far worse. What will it be, Yuu? What sins will I have to commit for siding with the devil?"
The grin on the envoy's face only grew wider.
"Does it really matter?"
That was all he said in response, drowning the room in a deep silence soon afterwards. No one moved, no one spoke. One might have even wondered if the two men in the room even breathed. It was as if time had stopped for a short while, only to resume once the king uttered a deep sigh.
"No, I suppose it doesn't." He took the envoy's hand and shook it firmly.
"Good choice. Welcome aboard Da'ath, Ouma Shu. The organization that shall bring you back into the light."
"Even if it means letting everything else fall into darkness…" Shu added with a somewhat pained looking smile. "Another sinful crown to adorn. So be it."
It's been a long time…
It's been a long time since he had heard the gears of war turning. The cries of anguish coming together with the occasional sound of explosions to form a grotesque hymn of death that surrounded him entirely, blocking out every other sound.
It has come to a point in which he couldn't even tell the cries apart anymore, unable to say for sure what the original source of them might have been. Battle cries, death cries, cries of regret or of hatred…who uttered them didn't even matter at this point. Whether it was a soldier shouting out his curses as the flame of his life got sniffed out or merely a mother yelling up into the skies to ask the gods why her child had been taken from her…in the end, it didn't make a difference.
They were all the same before him. Sacrificial pawns for his selfishness. Casualties caused by a man who bore the sinful crown of guilt. Their blood would forever be on his hands. The hands who gathered the souls of countless innocents so that he could get a single one back.
He understood the gravity of his actions. How what he had done and will be doing was considered to be something unforgivable. But that was alright. He did not seek forgiveness, nor did he seek sympathy. No, he wanted happiness. Unfortunately, though, happiness was in high demand, making it expensive and hard to gain.
No one had really seen it coming. How he could have done such a thing. Ouma Shu, the hero of Japan. The savior of the world. The one who eradicated the apocalypse virus. All of that was the same guy who would later become a traitor to humankind. The man who would bring back the genocidal virus of mass-destruction with the very same hands that had supposedly rid the world of it in the first place.
They had been shocked. They had thought they must have been mistaken. But it had been no mistake. He had decided that the savior would become the harbinger of utter destruction. It had been his choice, and he had no regrets.
There may have been wishes for another way, even from him. There may also have been hesitation at first. But in the end, this had been the path he was set on. The choice had been a rather straight forward one. Walk this path and try to attain happiness, or remain on your previous one and rot away in darkness forever.
He had been a kind man. A man who had wished the best for his friends. But he had only been a man nonetheless. A flawless being such as god might have been strong enough to resist temptation, to be willing to keep bearing the burden of sin all alone for eternity surrounded in nothing but darkness, but a man would not.
And so his weak heart had given in, willing to bear its claws into the first opportunity it had seen to escape its pitiful fate. Rather than rotting away in the darkness, it would do whatever it could to find its way back into the light. The price for that decision was what he saw and heard now before him as he stood on the roof of the Kuhouin group's headquarters, 8 floors above ground.
Tokyo lied to his feet. It was night, yet the city was completely visible to him, although not for the same reason it normally would have. Instead of the lights of the street lamps and cars passing by, the city shone in the reddish light of the fires that consumed it. Smoke rose up as far as his eyes could see, creating a curtain of blackness that even prevented the stars and moon from bearing witness to the mayhem he had caused.
In the distance, sirens could be heard. People were crying as they tried escaping from death. To no avail. The apocalypse virus was back and would consume them all in time. Just as it was already consuming him.
Half his face was shrouded in the crystalline cancer that came with it and he could feel the virus spread elsewhere on his body as well. Not fast, but gradually. The harbinger would be last to succumb to it, but that was fine. He would have enough time to summon Mana's soul back and give it to Da'ath. Once they had it, they would bring her back, thus fulfilling the contract. They would get their Eve and he would get Inori. Then he would simply bring the apocalypse for them and make sure the world would get wiped clean to enable them all to have a fresh start. He wouldn't care what Mana or Da'ath would be doing after that…let them do whatever the hell they wanted. All he cared about was to be with the woman he loved. That was all that mattered.
As long as he could have that, he would be fine with watching the world burn.
A pained smile appeared on his lips. Yes, in the end he really became a guilty king, sacrificing his kingdom for his queen. Betraying his vassals' trust just to fix a mistake from his past.
Someday, the harsh punishment for his actions would undoubtedly come. And he would accept it.
He only hoped the punishment wouldn't happen too soon.
Looking down on the streets below, he saw Da'ath soldiers fighting the forces of the Japanese Self Defense Force. People were getting slaughtered by the second, torn apart by a hail of bullets out of an Endlave's chaingun or turned to shreds by a rocket from an RPG. He watched the battle calmly as he heard his allies reporting the battle's progress to him vial radio.
"I'm pinned down here, Ouma! Some assistance, maybe?" The voice of a certain blonde woman could be heard coming from his ear-piece. It was the very same person who owned the building he was standing on. The woman who had betrayed him all these years ago by joining Da'ath, only to be an ally again once he had done the same.
"Souta, help out Arisa by taking out the enemy directly in front of her. That should buy her enough time to retreat and regroup." Was all he said in return.
"Got it. Let's move out, guys!" Came his old friend's voice in return, obeying his command without question. Of course he would, having had a small crush on the blonde princess for ages now. The sole prospect of rushing in and saving her like a hero was probably exciting him. A simpleton to the very end. But that was fine. You didn't have to be smart to be a good man.
From his position, he saw Souta's squad rush in from the flank, gunning down the enemy that had harassed Arisa until now. Said blonde immediately used the opportunity to retreat.
"Alright! Arisa's safe, Shu! But now we are in kind of a tight spot! The enemy is surrounding us! What's the plan?"
The king closed his eyes in shame and sadness and looked away.
"I'm sorry, Souta."
"Shu? Your orders? Come on, man! Don't leave me hanging here!" His friend's voice reached him with its desperation clearly audible. He saw Souta and his squad getting surrounded by enemies like he had predicted them to. There was no way to get them out of that situation alive. They were dead meat. The enemy rushed in to claim their prize.
"Damniiiiiit!" Was the last thing the king heard from Souta. He saw them open fire at their enemies, but soon getting overwhelmed nonetheless. An armored Humvee drove them by, having a gunner shoot them down with the machine gun mounted on the vehicle's back. No survivors.
"Oh my god…he's dead!" He could hear Arisa whisper into the com link. "You let him die, Ouma!"
"Yes, I gave his life for yours. Would you have liked it to be the other way around?"
"How can you be so calm? Wasn't he your friend?" She yelled at him angrily.
"Of course he was. As were the people we are fighting today. This is the price we pay for the things we want to gain, Arisa. Or have you forgotten?" He heard the woman growl in disagreement, yet couldn't find the words to tell him he was wrong. Of course she couldn't, for Shu knew he was right.
"Daryl, there is an Endlave heading your way. Finish it." Were his next orders.
"To see the day that I would actually have to follow your orders, void bastard…" He heard the voice of the blonde Endlave pilot grumble at him angrily.
"You are free to disobey, but I don't think you will live on for much longer without the support of Da'ath. That void genome emulator in your chest is bound to give out on you sooner or later if they don't fix it for you."
"Shut up, I get it already. Moving out!" He saw a giant white Endlave unit charge out into the battlefield, crashing recklessly into the incoming enemy Endlave and overwhelming it through sheer force alone. The enemy got knocked over and had its head blown off in a matter of seconds by Daryl's gun.
"Pah, amateur pilots!" Was all Daryl had to say after that.
"Adam, the situation is becoming quite critical out here. How is the status of your sister? Has her soul finally materialized?" Yuu suddenly wanted to know. The king allowed himself to throw a glance over his shoulder where he saw a ghostly image of his late sister manifest in the bud of a crystal rose. She was barely visible, floating in a fetal position with her eyes halfway closed. He was told her soul would be completely summoned if her eyes opened fully, but no second earlier. He could only assume it into his void arm and flee the scene once that happened.
"Not yet. Her eyes are still only halfway opened." He said into the radio with a disappointed shake of the head. He heard Yuu curse under his breath.
"This is bad. If she takes any longer, we might actually not get out of this alive…"
"Great. First I get told I will die because of this damn thing they planted into my body three years ago, and now I will die anyway because some dude's stupid sister thinks taking a nap is a bit more important!" They could hear Daryl retort grumpily.
"Not that a genocidal brat like you would have any rights to complain about dying…" Haruka's bitter voice could be heard, making the king chuckle. She didn't seem to like Daryl any more than he did.
"I swear, one day I am going to kill you all…" The former GHQ officer grumbled in annoyance, only to have Shu sigh in frustration.
"Focus, Daryl. The fight's still going on." An explosion could suddenly be heard coming from inside the building.
"Shu, they have infiltrated the building! They are heading this way!" His mother informed him, sounding slightly nervous.
"Yuu, intercept them." Were the king's orders.
"Oh, so it's fine to use the envoy to save your mother…" Arisa told him off accusingly, obviously referring to the time he had sacrificed Souta.
"Haruka's squad manages the pods our Endlave pilots use. If the enemy seizes the room, we will lose all our Endlaves." That were all the words he needed to justify his decision and make the blond princess shut up.
"Speaking of pilots, here comes the queen of pilots. Shinomiya Ayase, you are mine!" Daryl could suddenly be heard yelling into the com link. "Oh, how long I have waited for this!"
Shu took a closer look and saw what Daryl was referring to. A pitch black Endlave was closing in on him in high speed. He wasn't all that knowledgeable about Endlaves, but even he could tell that it had been one of the better models. There was nothing to indicate it was really Ayase's, but the king assumed Daryl must have had a way of knowing which he hadn't. There was no reason to assume he was lying.
"Don't take her lightly, Daryl. You will die." He decided to warn him as he saw their Endlaves clash.
"Die? Don't screw with me…I am Daryl motherfucking Yan. I will teach that bitch a lesson for stealing my prized Steiner all these years ago!"
The brunette king watched from above as both Endlaves tried to get the upper hand in their struggle. After a short tuck-of-war between them, Daryl's bigger Endlave managed to overpower Ayase's and pushed her back on her back, followed by aiming his gun at her, only to be surprised to see Ayase doing the same after rolling off of the ground. Both shot at the same time, but Daryl activated his void genome emulator to make use of his own void's power to create a kaleidoscope shield around him. Ayase's bullets bounced off, while Daryl's made contact with her Endlave's armor. Exciting laughter could be heard coming from Daryl.
"That's right, filthy terrorist! You don't stand a chance against me!"
Shu couldn't help but feel actually impressed with Daryl's skills. Ayase had been the best pilot he had ever known. To stand his ground against her was actually quite an achievement. That was until he could hear him yell:
"Huh, wait, what's going on? Why are there cutesy animals on my fucking interface? Get that shit outta my face!"
While the king was wondering what that was all about with a raised eyebrow, he saw Ayase closing in on him and aiming her gun directly at his Endlave's head. Then she shot from point blank, ensuring the maximum amount of damage.
"Graaaargh! Fuck, what's going on? My controls aren't working! I need an emergency bailout right now!" His pained voice shouted loudly into his ear, making him slightly flinch. However, the bailout didn't happen and Ayase continued her onslaught against the defenseless Daryl by emptying her clip on him completely, making him scream in agony.
"You useless pieces of shit! Where is that bailout? I swear to god, if I get out of this alive, I will murder every singl-" He suddenly got interrupted by a new voice. Shu immediately recognized it as Tsugumi's, making his eyes widen for a second in surprise.
"You will kill no one anymore, Kill-them-all Daryl." She said angrily.
"That voice…I know it…Runt!" Daryl seemed to have recognized her as well. "So this has been your doing!"
"Yep. I'm afraid this is farewell, sprout."
"No, runt. I will be waiting for you down there in hell. I will wait there for ALL of you." Were the Endlave pilot's last words before his war machine started spewing sparks. Ayase was seen taking a few steps back before the colossal steel machine caught fire and soon after exploded. Once Darly had been out of the way, Shu could see Ayase's Endlave look up at him as if telling him that she would be coming for him next. He met her machine's gaze coldly, without losing his calm.
"I've seized control of their security measures and Endlaves, Aya-nee. Your path should be clear from now on!" Tsugumi yelled into his ear, though obviously not at him but Ayase. Said pilot immediately replied with a confident:
"Good job, Tsugumi! I am going in now."
"Arisa, don't let her trough." The king merely ordered, only to see said woman running away into the opposite direction. "What are you doing, Arisa?" He wanted to know with an angry frown on his face.
"Screw you, Ouma! I am not dying for you! I should have known this wouldn't work with you in charge! I am outta here."
The king watched her throw away her earpiece and vanishing into a manhole in the ground. And with that, she was simply gone.
"Tch, coward. Why am I not surprised…?" Shu mumbled to no one but himself. Without Arisa's support, Ayase's Endlave could reach the building effortlessly, followed by her starting to climb it soon afterwards.
"She made the only right choice there, Shu. You should just surrender as well." Tsugumi told him, voice full of hostility.
"You made a terrible mistake when you came here, Tsugumi." Was all Shu told her in response.
"Nice try, Shu. But you have already lost. I won't hand back your command center and Aya-nee is already...kuh…wha…?" The dark haired woman's voice suddenly died off midsentence, causing Ayase to worry.
"Tsugumi? Tsugumi, what's wrong? What happened?"
It didn't take long for a voice to respond to her question. Though not Tsugumi's one, but the envoy's instead, letting Ayase's blood run cold from shock.
"I've bad news, Adam. I was too late. The command center has already been compromised. Everyone is dead."
"My mother?" Shu wanted to know, only to know the answer from the silence Yuu offered him. He gritted his teeth as he pressed his eyes shut, trying to prevent tears from forming there. "Damnit!" He cursed.
"From the way it looks like, they offered the enemy quite a fight. There are bullet holes everywhere. The Endlave pilots are all dead, too, including Mr. Yan. A hacker was messing around with the mainframe, but I stopped her."
"What….what did you do to her, you bastard!" Ayase's furious voice could be heard right then and there.
Yuu decided to ignore the question without a second thought. "Hm, it seems the hacker was able to establish a link with the enemy. Should I cut it?"
"Yeah." They heard Ayase object for a second, before she was kicked out of the conversation. Once he was sure Ayase couldn't hear them anymore, he continued: "What's the status of the hacker? Did you kill her?" The king asked calmly.
The envoy chuckled at that. Shu could almost see him shrug in indifference, too. "I did. Was I not supposed to?"
"I see…no, it's alright. I thought we could have used her as a hostage, but that doesn't matter anymore. Come up here to the roof. We need to hold our ground until Mana's soul has materialized completely or everyone would have died for nothing."
"I am afraid I won't be making it in time, Adam. There are more and more enemies swarming the building. They are in the way. Is Eve still not summoned, yet?"
Shu took a glance at Mana and saw that, although her eyes were slightly more open now, she was still not fully "awake" yet.
"No, she will likely not wake up in time." He told the envoy regretfully.
"…Damn, then the mission is a failure. Is there any way for you to escape?"
Shu merely offered him a weak chuckle. "Hardly, unless you count jumping off the eighth floor."
"What a shame. Then I suppose this is where we part ways, Adam. For all that its worth, I truly am sorry. I really meant to see the world you would have created, but I guess it wasn't meant to be."
"It would appear that way…" The king admitted with a disappointed sigh. "Take care, Yuu. Though I never managed to overcome my hatred for you, I am still grateful for the hope you gave me in the end."
"It's a shame we never got to see eye to eye with each other. I believe we could have come a long way if that had been the case from the start. I know you suspected me of lying, but I always told you the truth. It would have been possible. May you find peace with that thought at least. Farewell."
And with that, the line was terminated. The brunette man removed the now useless earpiece and threw it away, allowing his gaze to wander over the horizon where he still saw nothing but flames and destruction. His horrible work, and now apparently all for nothing, too. Just why the hell had he even tried so hard?
A gust of wind blew past him, making him bury his face into the scarf he was wearing as he closed his eyes, deep in thought. Well, what a stupid question. He knew exactly what had driven him to go this far. Hope for a better future…and the willingness to bring hell first to live in heaven afterwards. A naïve thought, he realized. One who raised hell would only ever be allowed to live in hell. There was no heaven for him anywhere in this world. There never would be. Which left him with only one solution.
Behind him, he heard Ayase's heavy war machine climb on top of the roof. He didn't turn around, but looked at her from the corner of his eyes.
That's right. For people like him, there was only one way out of this. And that was to receive their just reward.
"So this is as far as I'll come, huh." He said with a deep sigh and closed eyes.
"That's right, Shu! It's over. Give up." He could hear Ayase's voice coming from the robot's speakers. A regretful smile appeared on his lips as he turned towards her.
"You make it sound as if it actually mattered if I surrendered or not."
"You will get a fair trial to determine the punishment for your crimes."
The king only chuckled amusedly and looked back at the fallen city.
"What a waste of time. We both know how that would end." His expression became serious as he looked into the flames, letting them reflect in his eyes. "She's dead you know? Tsugumi. My mother, too. Everyone. I killed them all."
He could see Ayase tensing up upon hearing of Tsugumi's death.
"Why….why did you have to become this way? Everyone was so proud of you. Everyone respected you. Why did you throw it all away? I don't understand at all!" She sounded really upset. He wouldn't be surprised if she was close to crying.
He looked at Ayase for a short while before walking over to Mana's ghostly figure, still far from being fully materialized. A sad smile appeared on his lips.
"Three years ago I stood at your very same spot, asking myself the very same question. Gai had erased Inori and turned against everyone. He threw all of it away, just for the mere chance to be with this woman here. At first I didn't understand, either. How could a man do all that just for one woman? It had been madness. It wasn't until I was forced to live in a world without Inori, that I finally understood how cold the world could actually be, how big the hole in my heart could actually become and how much more the pain from it would grow. Things like respect and pride quickly lose their worth in situations like that, so you will soon come to a point in which you will readily throw it all away again for just a chance to get back the woman you loved. And once you get it, that single ray of hope is all that is needed to keep you going."
"You idiot! Do you think Inori would have wanted any of this?" The Endlave pilot yelled at him, causing him to shrug helplessly as he turned around to her.
"Probably not. But then again, I never asked for her to die in my place, either. Love makes you selfish. Just as I selfishly decided to destroy everything as long as it would bring her back."
"Well, was it worth it? Everyone who cared about you is either dead or out to kill you! Are you happy? Is that what you wished for?" Yep, Shu was sure. She was definitely crying now. He felt sorry for that.
"No, it wasn't what I wished for, but I still have no regrets."
"Then why are you crying?" She wanted to know. Indeed, tears were traveling down the king's cheeks by now as well.
"Because I have no regrets." He pointed towards the burning city with a saddened smile on his lips. "Look what I did. Look how many people I killed. Friends. Family. I loved them, I really did. But if given the chance to go back in time, I would have done it all over again simply out of hope of finding a way to actually succeed the next time around. For living with that small glimmer of hope was way better than the prospect of living the rest of my life utterly hopeless."
"You can't be serious! Tell me you are lying!" Ayase's robot shook its head and looked down in disappointment. "Tell me this is not the Shu I knew and respected!"
But the brunette man only shook his head slowly as well. "No, Ayase. This is me. I've never told anyone about this, but before Inori died, she was afraid of becoming a monster. Made a vessel for my crazy sister, she was meant to be nothing more but a tool for destruction. But she proved herself wrong when she fought Mana and won. She had never been a monster. No, in the end, it turned out that the actual monster had been me all along. I can understand her fears now better than ever. It's scary. To slowly see what you are turning into, unable to make it stop. The darkness in your heart simply grows and consumes you whole, until there is nothing left of your identity anymore. Only a monster without a name."
"…I won't accept this. I won't let you turn into a monster. If I have to, I will kill you now while you are still human. While I still can view you as human. I want to remember you as the man you had once been rather than the monster you are turning into. That's why…"
Her robot stormed forward while yelling the last bit, grabbing Shu with its huge metallic hand.
"With these hands, I will…I will…!" Her voice broke as she cried now without holding back. Shu only offered her an encouraging smile.
"Do it, Ayase. It's better that way. For everyone."
"Why…why must you always be such an idiot! I cared for you. We all did! If the world had been so unbearable for you, why didn't you simply say so? We would have helped you!"
Her grip became stronger, causing Shu to grimace slightly.
"And even now when you are about to die, you don't even ask for mercy. Until the very end, you refuse to take every bit of help someone could have offered you. Why, Shu? Why do you always wish to carry the burden on your own?"
Her mechanic grip began crushing him. Bones started to break and he coughed up blood. He couldn't answer anymore, but his eyes still looked at her, telling her to keep going, further enraging her.
The sound of her cry faded alongside the pain as he felt his life getting squeezed out of him. So this was to be his end, he realized with his vision fading into black. Now there was nothing anymore. Death finally embraced him and he welcomed it. He had deserved it.
Yes, it truly was for the best this way.
"Shu. Hey, Shu. You listening?" Ayase's voice brought him out of his thoughts at last. Amidst the darkness, he asked:
"I said: Queen to B2. Checkmate. I win." He could hear her say with a faint trace of pride audible in her voice. She was probably grinning right now, too.
That was also the moment he was starting to hear the noises of their surroundings again. Gone were the explosions, the smell of burning flesh and the horrifying cries of death. All of it suddenly replaced by the sound of singing birds in the trees, kids playing on the playground not that far away from them and a dog barking happily as its owner was taking it for a walk…a reminder that he and Ayase were still in the park, sitting at a table with a chessboard lying between them. His mind told him that there should only be three pieces left on that board. His king piece and Ayase's king and queen piece. His piece was pushed against a corner, with Ayase's king and queen keeping him trapped there. Indeed, it was checkmate. He offered her a small smile.
"You are right, good job. It's your win." He could almost imagine her grinning happily at him right now while rising up her chin proudly.
"I appreciated your willingness to show mercy on a beginner like me, but I told you from the start that you starting without a queen would be too big of a handicap. I am not THAT bad at this game."
Shu merely chuckled at her antics. "No, you obviously aren't."
"No use saying you were holding back now, you know. You haven't spoken a single word since we started the match, always looking dead serious and deep in thought. I just know you were really trying hard just now." She told him teasingly.
"I certainly did try…" He replied thoughtfully and looked away with a sad smile. "Not even in my own fantasy can I win, huh…" Maybe he just didn't have it in him to be a real villain. Or maybe that was just his excuse to keep believing he was still not that bad a person as he thought he was deep down.
"What do you mean?" Ayase asked him confusedly. Crap, had he said that out aloud? Idiot.
"Huh? Oh, no. It's nothing, nevermind." He tried to brush the matter off. Unfortunately, he could still sense her analyzing look resting on him. God knows how he could actually tell that without seeing it for himself.
"Come to think of it, when we started, you were pretty adamant to have that no-queen-handicap of yours, even if I told you I would have been fine with even just one missing rook, bishop or knight. What was up with that?"
"Nothing, I just wanted to give you a fair advantage, even though I might have given you a slightly too big one in hindsight." He told her with a small grin.
She narrowed her eyes on him. "You know, it really sucks for you, but even though your eyes may be blind, they still tell me exactly whether you are lying or not."
"Tch…would be my luck, alright. Useless eyes." He cursed under his breath.
"So, are you telling me what this was all about or do I have to beat it out of you?" Said the woman in her wheelchair, letting her knuckles click in anticipation for the beating she would undoubtedly give him. The sound alone made him tense up.
"Alright already. I was conducting a thought experiment." He told her with a defeated sigh, immediately getting her interests up like with a young child.
"Ooooh, what's that?"
"Basically a simulation you run in your mind, usually revolving around a certain theory or question." He explained to her patiently. He somehow already knew she would react to that with a frown.
"What's that good for? Isn't that basically letting your fantasy run wild?"
"Hm, sort of. You still try to make it as realistic as possible to get the most likely answer to your question."
"I see. So what was the question?" She wanted to know.
"Yeah, I am not telling you that." He denied her query with a soft smile. He didn't have to tell her everything, nor did he want to for that matter. The brunette woman merely narrowed her eyes on him in displeasure.
"Come on, don't be like that. I always tell you the full story, too."
He sighed at her. Yeah, she really did, but it wasn't as if he had particularly asked her to whenever she did. This woman in front of him really liked to talk, and so she talked a lot. It's not that he didn't like to listen to her stories, no…he actually very much enjoyed them…it was just that they were far too detailed sometimes, making him wish she would have just left the unnecessary pieces of information to herself.
"Maybe, but I don't. It's not as interesting as you might think, anyway. I am a blind guy, I just spend most of my time thinking about stuff."
"Yeah, and I am a fair lady who would like to know what's going on in the head of a certain man that often shares her company. I am always doing most of the talking when we spend time together. Sometimes, it's hard to tell what you are thinking about." She told him while letting her head rest against her hand, clearly unimpressed by his lame excuses.
"Why are my thoughts so important to you?" He wondered while scratching his head. Wouldn't people normally don't give two fucks about what others thought? The brunette woman blushed slightly while fiddling around with her fingers awkwardly.
"No reason. It's just, you know, wondering what your friends are currently thinking?"
"Huh, I don't think I ever cared about what Yahiro or Souta thought most of the time." Why would he have? It would have likely just been stuff that wouldn't have interested him anyway and if it had, he was sure they would have mentioned it to him by themselves.
"Urgh, nevermind. You aren't that hard to read, so maybe I can guess." Ayase decided to change the subject in frustration. Her eyes fell on the chess board.
"It had to do with chess, right? So, a battle, maybe? You didn't want to have a queen, which means not having one was an important part of your experiment…hmmm…" She brought her right hand up to her chin and closed her eyes in thought. That was until an unpleasant thought occurred to her, immediately making her frown at him.
"It couldn't be…Inori?"
A soft chuckle escaped his lips as he shrugged helplessly. "Either I really am that easy to read or you are really sharp. You are right, though." He admitted defeat.
"I am pretty sure it's both…" Ayase told him with a deep sigh. "Shu, it's been three years…"
"It could be fifty for all it mattered. It wouldn't become any easier." He cut into her attempt at talking sense into him with gritted teeth, forcing her to give up on it reluctantly. If he was like this, no amount of words could change it. She still felt like they needed to talk about this, though. A determined look formed itself in her eyes. Fine, if she couldn't have it her way, let them do it his way. She would play along. For now
"So you simulated the last fight against GHQ? To think of ways it would have been possible to save her?" She allowed herself to assume, only to have him shake his head at her slowly with a weak smile.
"No…I'll admit, though, that I did that for the first few months after her death. What for, I don't even know anymore. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, wanting to live in a fantasy in which I hadn't failed. Or trying to find excuses about how it had been impossible from the start. That nothing I could have done would have changed the end result. A pitiful attempt at trying to ease the pain of guilt that gnawed on my heart. Eventually, I stopped, though, realizing that it was but a mere waste of time simulating the past over and over again. It couldn't be changed, no matter what you wished for. So, instead I began conducting thought experiments about other things…"
Ayase lifted a brow and leaned forward, mildly curios. "Such as?"
"At first, the possibility of revival. After reading every bit of literature about the matter, I took into account all possibilities I could think of, not even hesitating to consider absurd methods such as magic and the act of performing wonders told about in religion. The conclusion was that it wouldn't be impossible, seeing as to how Gai came back once, and my sister as well. However, the chances of me ever running into a situation in which I would find out how to perform such miracles would be insignificantly minimal." He explained to her with a raised finger.
"So your next experiment was to find out how to improve your chances of obtaining that ability?"
"No, I already knew that there was only one way to find a clue about it. Which was to get into contact with the people who performed a revival before."
She frowned at him. "But GHQ is gone." Shu nodded in agreement.
"Exactly. So there was no reliable possibility of me ever finding out how they did it. I was forced to abandon that train of thought, deciding to pursue another." He formed a bridge with both his hands right in front of him and allowed his head to lean against it, the look in his eyes completely serious, despite the fact that they were blind.
"Disregarding the chance of me ever obtaining the necessary knowledge regarding the ability of revival, there is another question I had to ask myself. Assuming I would get into a position in which I would actually be able to use it, how far would I be willing to go in order to do so? Where would the point lie in which I would have to tell myself that I was going too far, even if it meant fulfilling my greatest wish. There was bound to be something I wouldn't be ready to do no matter what, right?"
She caught herself gulping at that, realizing how serious the atmosphere around them had gotten all of a sudden. So these were the heavy thoughts that had lingered around in Shu's head? She would have never thought with the carefree smile he had always offered her. Maybe he hadn't been as easy to read as she would have thought.
"So, was this chess game supposed to be a means to determine the answer to that question?" She asked him seriously, causing him to lean back and sigh tiredly.
"Not quite. I already knew the answer from an earlier experiment. What I didn't know was the outcome. What would happen if you put the me who knew exactly where his limits lied into a situation in which he could actually stand a chance to achieve his goal? How far would I come? What consequences would my actions bring with them? I was curious." He closed his eyes as if thinking back on the answer he must have received by now. Ayase was surprised to admit that she couldn't quite tell if he was happy or not with it. All she could say for sure is that he looked troubled…all the more reason for her to want to know the answer as well.
"So, what happened? How far did you go? What was your limit?"
Strangely enough, Shu offered her a quiet chuckle. She had known that these could sound happy, amused, mocking, even sarcastic…but never before had she heard a so hurting one like the one he was giving her right now. The pain visible in his empty eyes made it quite obvious to her, that even he himself had been shocked about the answers to her questions. He had the look of someone who had learned of something he should have never learned the answer to.
"The answers to these questions are all in front of you, Ayase. Look at the board. Remember how it had looked like in the beginning of the game. Then compare it with what you see now. How far I would go? How things would end?" He leaned forward and put his hand where he assumed his king piece still stood. A dark smile formed itself on his lips as he proceeded to knock the piece over with his finger.
"This, is your answer."
Her eyes opened up wide once she realized what he meant. "Wait, you mean…?"
"Not what you would have thought, huh? Me neither." He replied, his smile becoming quite sad as he looked down in shame. "They say to truly tell a man's worth, one was required to give him power and see how he would use it. I wanted to know my worth. To see just how far I would come under the most ideal circumstances. Just what would happen if you gave a man like me who was willing to sacrifice everything the means to do so? Would he succeed? Would he fail? And regardless of that, what would be left of the world after the battle was over? The results were…downright terrifying."
"So all these pieces were…?" The brunette woman couldn't help but ask in shock, only to see him nod slowly, followed by picking up some of the discarded pieces next to the board. He placed down a pawn, rook, knight and bishop.
"Souta, Arisa, Daryl Yan, mother. I played them all like the pieces they represented, discarding them left and right like it was nothing. They weren't the only ones, of course…"
"So….they all died?" She wanted to know, still looking at him in utter disbelief. Shu didn't reply and only faced away from her with closed eyes, visibly tormented by this all. Ayase bit on her lower lip once she saw that. She wanted to say something to lift his spirits, but this whole thing kind of came out of nowhere. She would have never thought their innocent little match had secretly been an experiment to judge his humanity. And thus, due to lack of words, they were embraced by an awkward silence.
It hung around them for a short while until the brunette woman couldn't bear with it anymore. She decided that anything would be fine if only this dreadful quietness would just disappear. And so she asked:
"Which piece was me?"
The fallen king's eyes opened up in surprise. That was not a question he had expected next out of her mouth, yet obviously wasn't one he didn't like since he responded with a kind smile:
"The one you used to checkmate me with."
This time it was Ayase's turn to be surprised. "The black queen? I wasn't on your side?"
"I was interested in the most optimistic outcome, so I used the most optimal scenario for myself to use in the match just now, spending many hours thinking of all the possible starting situations there could have been. There were some constants like my mother or the envoy of Da'ath who would always side with me, and there were variables like Souta and Yahiro who would or wouldn't fight for my side depending on my previous actions. In some scenarios I had Arisa support you guys, while there were others in which I could even have recruited Tsugumi or Argo into my ranks. It didn't matter, though, how many scenarios I came up with. There existed not a single one in which you would join me." He explained to her, almost sounding proud of her.
"But why?" She wanted to know. It didn't really make sense to her. She had absolutely no desire to fight him. He only shrugged at her, still smiling.
"Have you forgotten already? I told you once. It's because you are perfect."
"H-huh?" She couldn't stop the blush from spreading all over her face. This again? Thank god for his blindness. She was absolutely positive that she looked ridiculous right about now. If Tsugumi was here, she would have never heard the end of her teasing.
"You are like a pure diamond. Untainted. There is not a single thing I could do to make you an accomplice in ending the world. You would always try to stop me. Not because of hatred or anger, but because of your desire to protect others from impurity. Don't believe me? Let's say I asked you to take my hand and stand at my side while I end the world. Imagine I would offer you whatever it is you most desire, regardless if I could realistically give it to you or not. Let's just assume I could. Money, power, the ability to make you walk again, to resurrect anyone of your choosing, really. You can have anything you want. What would your answer be?" He asked her with a confident smirk, causing her to be taken aback, blinking at him in confusion.
She decided to humor him, though, starting to imagine herself in her most desirable position. In her mind, she saw herself standing proud and strong on her own legs. Behind her, a beautiful customized Endlave unit was placed, having her name engraved on it. She wore the SDF's uniform and saluted while the prime minister put a huge, shiny medal on her chest, followed by applauding her as he stepped away. In front of her, a huge crowd of people joined in on the applauding. Dozens of flashes from cameras almost blinded her as the military orchestra played the national anthem for her. And that wasn't even all. In the first row, all her friends stood, cheering for her happily. One of them was Shu, who had a little girl of maybe five years sitting on his shoulders, waving excitedly at her, her mother. Ayase smiled back at her and Shu, who wore a ring on his right ring finger. Just like her. Husband and wife. A family.
She gasped and shook her head quickly and with closed eyes to get these pictures out of her mind again. What the hell was she thinking? Stupid brain. So embarrassing.
Still, she realized with now narrowed eyes, that had been quite a nice future. She sure as hell wouldn't mind calling it her own one day. All of it. Even the embarrassing part. She couldn't help but sport a small smile in defeat.
But enough of that for now. Imagining all that was only half of the task Shu had given her. There was still the other one. The hypothetical price for that future would be to join Shu on his quest to destroy the world. Would she be able to do that?
She imagined standing at his side as he would kill dozens of innocent people, setting out in her Endlave to kill the ones willing to stand up and protect them. She would have to watch him destroy everything he cared about step by step, slowly killing himself in the process. The sheer thought of that alone broke her heart. To see Shu self-destruct like that, even if he believed he did it for a higher cause, would kill her as well.
No, even if he disagreed with her, even if he couldn't see what she could, even if she stood at risk of fighting him to make him understand, she would try to stop him. It wasn't that she didn't want to see him happy, but rather the exact opposite of that. She just knew that this chosen path of his wouldn't be the way to happiness, but would only ruin him instead. That's why she couldn't allow him to take it. Her own happiness was not worth more than his.
"I would reject the offer and stop you with all my might, even if it killed me." She thus replied truthfully, though not without a bit of surprise about it hidden somewhere in her voice. It caused him to nod in satisfaction.
"See? Just like I have said. It's impossible to corrupt you. People like you are very rare and way too good for this world."
She looked away in embarrassment, unable to prove him wrong. Still, she would accept him selling himself shorter than he was. He may have thought she was too good for the world, but without him, there wouldn't even be a world to live in anymore. Was that worth nothing?
"You say that, but aren't you the same? You were willing to take the world's impurity upon yourself so that everyone else could live without it. Isn't that the reason you are suffering so much now?"
He could only frown at that. "I was only willing to do that because I had no plans of surviving in the first place."
"Does that make your actions any less noble? Whether you were planning to live on with the impurity or not doesn't change the fact that you had taken it upon you regardless. You didn't need to. You could have simply chosen to die without doing anything of that sort. The fact that you did, proves your worth as a human being. There were no bad intentions hidden in that action, only kindness."
For the first time during their conversation, it seemed like Shu was actually speechless for a short while, making her grin in pride. That meant she had made a point he couldn't refute just now. Excellent.
"Maybe, but that doesn't change the fact that I would be willing to make it all undone if given the chance." He told her bitterly, but she only shrugged his words off with an unimpressed expression on her face.
"Honestly, I would be surprised if you weren't. All that negativity you absorbed that day must have affected you somehow. But that's not that big of a deal, is it? All we need to do is make sure it stays locked away deep inside you, never to come up to the surface again. I know you are strong enough to do that. And if you ever have trouble with it, we, your friends, will be there for you. You are not alone, Shu. Even if you may think so at times."
"Heh, that's just because they can't see what horrible darkness lies inside my heart."
A determined look formed itself on the brunette woman's face. "You just told me. And here I still am."
"That you are." He chuckled again. "Guess I can always count on you to help me out. Whether if it is trying to make me see my remaining humanity by talking sense into me, or if it's trying to protect it by crushing me with an Endlave before the last of it is devoured by my inner demons."
She backed away in horror once she heard his words. "I wouldn't ever…!"
"You would. And it's fine. If it ever happened, I would have deserved it." He cut her off with a gentle smile.
"Shu…" Ayase couldn't quite find words for that, so she merely looked away in sadness. Just what the hell happened in that little experiment of his? What horrible scenarios had he come up with for the sake of bringing back his lost love? Her gaze fell on his unused queen piece that rested next to the chess board. "Inori sure was lucky…" She couldn't help but think out aloud. To have been loved so much that she was still thought about even three years after her death.
"Was she? I wouldn't be so sure about that." She winced once she heard him say that in disagreement. Crap, she hadn't meant to say that out aloud. "Running into this good-for-nothing brat and despite all odds, actually falling in love with him. Then getting dragged down by the sins he committed and forced to pay for them in his stead. She didn't deserve any of that. She deserved to live most of all. I was meant to give her happiness, yet all I brought her was misery."
Somehow, she felt her anger rise up from deep inside her once she had heard him say all that. "What a load of horse shit, Shu." He offered her a raised brow at that, so she continued:
"I may not have known her long, but before she met you, she was like an empty being. I had not known of her past, but I could easily tell that it mustn't have been a normal one. She never spoke unless asked to and she never did anything unless she was told to do so. It took us ages to get through to her…the day she actually started singing was the day everyone in Funeral Parlor dropped whatever it had been they were doing at the time to watch her sing in disbelief. That's how shocked we all were. It got better from there, sure, but it was a long and tiresome process. And then came you. And suddenly this fragile, empty girl gradually came to life. She became curious about the world and its surroundings, started to develop a mind of her own that even went as far as to disobey direct orders, heck, she even began smiling…and a genuine smile at that. Not the fake ones we had taught her, but real ones. She was happy. I think it is safe to assume that in this short while in which she had known you, she had been the happiest she had ever been. And it was all thanks to you."
Shu only blinked at her in slight bewilderment. "I…I actually never knew. I mean, I kind of assumed that's what she must have been like before, but to think she only started to change this much after we met. Huh, who would have known?" He actually laughed a bit in embarrassment as he scratched the back of his head awkwardly, making Ayase sigh in relief. Seeing his dorky side was a welcome change from the heavy aura of seriousness that had clung to him for a while now.
"I guess we brought out the best in each other, then. I changed a lot because of her as well." He said with a nostalgic smile on his face.
"You sure did, mister "I am more into cultural stuff"" She said teasingly and smirked once she noticed his mad blush.
"Give me a break. Not everyone is a born athlete."
"Well, I suppose it's alright, considering how you turned out in the end…" Ayase grinned with a carefree shrug, earning her a playful smirk from Shu who pulled back the sleeve of his right, robotic arm.
"Wanna test your strength against me in arm wrestling?"
"Don't get cocky on me. If we used our left hands, I would wipe the floor with you." She declared confidently, followed by pointing at her head with her right index finger. "You sure you are up for another shameful loss, after I have already beaten you in a battle of wits?"
Shu only rolled up his sleeve again, followed by waving her last remark off. "Pah, you would have never won if I had had my queen." He looked away, sadly. "Ironically enough, there wouldn't even have been a fight in the first place, had that been the case."
"Every king needs his queen, huh?" Ayase said with pity in her voice. Shu only nodded at that and sighed in regret.
"Yeah, chess is a good way to understand that. The reason I like it so much is because it is so easy for me to relate to it. In this game, nothing hurts you as much as losing your queen."
"Seems like we are both stuck in positions we never wanted to be in." The former Endlave pilot narrowed her eyes in disdain as she looked down on the chess board. "The king who lost his queen and the queen who has to fight her friend."
Shu uttered a sound of mild amusement as he asked: "What? Being queen isn't your most desired position? What would you rather be, then?"
Ayase eyed him for a moment as if considering something, then looked away for a second in an attempt to give up and dismiss the thought she just had…only to sport a determined look in the end. Her hand wandered to one of the various discarded chess pieces next to the board, grabbed the one she desired to be and put it into the fallen king's hands silently. Curiously, the man began feeling up the piece's form, only to raise a brow in confusion when he realized which one it represented.
"A pawn? Aren't you selling yourself quite a bit short on this one? There is no way someone would ever deploy you as a mere pawn. A woman of your caliber would be able to be everything she wanted to be. At the very least, you should probably be a knight, wouldn't you agree?" He tried to reason with her, but the woman in front of him would only shake her head on him.
"Being a knight would serve me no purpose. It may be stronger, but it doesn't possess the ability I desire the most." She explained to him seriously and watched him pondering her words with a slightly tilted head.
An ability she most desired? What could a pawn do which a knight could not? Walk on its own feet? A knight would only always sit on his horse's back, so maybe that was what she meant? Or maybe to fight her own battles rather than using others to fight, like all the other pieces likely would? Hmm, he had the feeling that wasn't quite it.
When she saw him struggle with the answer, she took the pawn from him and put another piece in his hand.
"It's the only piece that can become this one upon promotion." She told him, only to confuse him even more once he recognized the new shape.
"Yeah, but…I don't understand. Didn't you say you wanted to be something else? Isn't this the queen?"
"It is. The white one."
Shu's expression right then and there was a rather interesting one to behold. At first, more confusion, then his eyes were seen wandering to the left upper corner, obviously processing her words. He frowned, then opened up his eyes wide in realization, only to narrow them down with a faint shade of red spreading all over his face.
"I see…it's not that easy, though. The path to the other end of the board is a long and tiresome one. It might not be worth the trouble." He told her while shaking his head slowly.
"I am willing to take my chances." She declared, unwavering.
"Are you sure? A pawn may be able to become a queen, but even then will it not truly be able to replace her properly. To always stand in the shadow of your predecessor…it is not a fate I would wish upon anyone. Least of all you. You deserve better than that."
Ayase looked down with a sad smile. "I know I can't replace Inori…and nor do I want to. I understand that she will always have a special spot in your heart and that's fine. All I am hoping for is that I could have a place in there somewhere as well. Is that impossible?"
"I…don't know. I never considered the possibility, to be honest." Shu was seen scratching the back of his head awkwardly, followed by offering her a shrug. "I just assumed it would be like this from now on. Me. Alone. After all, I would have felt bad having someone at my side who loved me with all their heart when I would forever hold on to my feelings for Inori. It wouldn't be fair. Who would be willing to share my affection with a dead woman?"
Ayase frowned at him. "Love isn't a competition, Shu. There is no fixed amount of affection in you which you have to give out to others with the person who gets the most being your destined other. I mean, for some it might be like that, but at least for me it's not. That's not how it works. If you love someone, you love them, and if you don't, you don't. It's simple as that. So what if you are still holding on to your feelings for Inori? Why would I be bothered by that? All that it would mean would be that I wasn't the only one you loved. But why should I care as long as I do get loved? I am not greedy enough to wish I could hog it all for myself." She gave him her reasoning with a kind smile.
Shu could only blink at her, followed by sighing and shaking his head in defeat.
"You really are too pure for this world, Ayase. Do you not even feel jealousy?"
She couldn't help but raise a brow at that. "Why? Do you want me to be jealous?"
"Of course not, but shouldn't you want to be? With a mentality like that, you are bound to get hurt by others willing to exploit your radiating perfection. As someone who has held many hearts, trust me when I tell you that there would be many men who would take advantage of you, corrupting you in the process."
The brunette woman merely grinned at that, radiating confidence. "There is nothing to worry about. My standards are pretty high, so scum like that would have never even been allowed to come close enough to ever take advantage of me. And I don't think I have much to worry about that coming from you, either."
The blind man in front of her leaned back with an amused chuckle. "Hoh? Why is that? I might very well be the most tainted one of them all, as you know."
"That's just what you think. But do I really have to worry about getting used when you are a man that stays loyal to his love even years after her death? I get the feeling you would be the last guy on earth who would be playing with other women's feelings."
"You may have a point…" Shu reluctantly agreed, looking slightly embarrassed. "Still, you are smart and strong…and from the way I remember you, you are also quite the beauty. Someone like you could get anyone she wanted. Why go for someone like me instead?"
"Who's the one selling himself short now, huh?" She asked him teasingly with narrowed eyes and a smirk. "What a miserable woman I would be if even the man who saved the world was not worthy of my love, for I would be doomed to walk this planet in solitude forever." She told him quite over-dramatically, but returned to her serious self soon after.
"Seriously, though. A long time ago, I also asked myself why you were so popular with the ladies. I guessed Inori couldn't be helped since she was a special case from the start, but then there was also Hare, which made me start wondering what it was that made you so desirable in the first place. Well, the joke was on me, since I had already walked into the trap by the time I had decided to find out what was so special about you." She averted her gaze and started playing with her hair to distract herself from her embarrassment.
"I can't tell for sure anymore when exactly I started to like you, but I know I already understood what made you so lovable by the time we moved out to defeat Gai. You are a man so strong that he could save the world, yet you are also so fragile that one would fear you would break apart if not held together in some way or another. A walking contradiction. You are like a fire that shines the way for everyone around you, giving them hope. Your flames will protect everyone you hold dear by burning their enemies to a crisp, but in that also lies your biggest weakness. For like every fire, you burn with no regard for your own well-being, always giving your all and endangering yourself to burn out eventually. If we left you alone, you would simply burn beyond control, destroying everything around you…until there is nothing left of you anymore. That's why you always need someone to keep you in check, giving you a reason to burn while making sure you won't get to burn too much. While you protect everyone, everyone has to protect you as well."
Shu closed his eyes, deep in thought. A fire, huh? He had to admit, it sounded like him. Back in the days, before his life had become chaotic, his flame had been small, almost nonexistent. There hadn't been a reason for him to burn, until he met Inori and the Undertakers. And gradually they became the fuel that made him grow stronger. Then, when Hare died, his will to never let something like that to happen again made him consume everything he could get into his reach. He needed to become bigger and stronger to be able to protect everyone. And when Inori got captured, he had already become a bonfire, huge and hot. Nothing could have sniffed out his flame back then. Absolutely nothing. But…it hadn't been enough and the aftermath had cost him too much. The main source that had kept his fire going was gone and he immediately started shrinking again to nothing more but a pitiful torch, waiting in the shadows for something to ignite his fire back again. As he now knew, if he was given the chance, the world would burn, being used as fuel to make him get back his main reason to burn in the first place. He sighed. How accurate the analogy really was. Ayase understood him quite well, it seemed.
"So you want to be the reason my fire keeps burning?" He eventually asked her with a smile, causing her to nod shyly.
"Yeah. You shine so warm and brightly. I want to see that light again."
"Even though I might burn you?"
"I am confident you won't. I trust you."
He shook his head slowly. "That might be a mistake."
She frowned at that. "Why? Do you want to burn me? Am I nothing more to you than a friend?"
"I…how should I know? I don't even know what I think of myself anymore…"
It was silent between them for a second, which made Shu a bit nervous.
"Listen, Ayase, I am sorry, but…" He started, but got interrupted.
"Imagine, Shu, how Inori was captured and you ventured forward to get her back." She asked of him with a serious expression.
"Just do it." She repeated calmly, so he obliged. "What would you do in order to get her back?"
"Haven't we covered this already?"
"I want to hear it again." Shu frowned at her in confusion. What was this all about? Was she some kinda masochist? Did she like hearing how much he loved another woman? He didn't get it at all.
"I would sacrifice the world and myself if needed to." He replied truthfully and with absolute confidence.
"Good." She nodded. "Now imagine the same scenario, but with your other friends this time. Take Yahiro, or Tsugumi. It doesn't matter. Would you be willing to do the same?"
His facial expression visibly darkened at the thought. "They aren't next to me right now to hear the answer, right?" There was a bit of nervousness added to his voice.
"No, Shu. We are all by ourselves, so be honest. I won't tell them, either. I promise."
He looked away in shame and replied bitterly: "No, I wouldn't. I would try to save them, but I wouldn't be willing to die for them. I am not that noble a man."
"That's fine, Shu. Most people wouldn't even try to save them. I am sure they would understand." She tried to comfort him, but he could only offer her a look of sadness.
"Why are we doing this?" He wanted to know. It wasn't as if he already doubted his humanity enough as it was. To make him realize how little he would do for his friends compared to what he would be doing for Inori, wasn't helping him much in that regard.
"Now, imagine it was me. Would your answer change?" She then asked with seriousness in her eyes. If one looked closely, they would also spot a bit of hope in them as well.
Shu couldn't help but get taken aback by this. In his mind, he put Ayase into the sport she had asked him to put her and he found himself troubled with finding the answer to her question. Answering the previous two had been rather straightforward, but when he thought the answer wouldn't change from the previous one, something inside him made him hesitate. Confused as he was, he tried to give the answer more thought. How important was she to him? How much could he not afford losing her? If his friends would die, he would be devastated, but he would be able to go on…somehow. When Inori died, he thought his world had died with her. Where was Ayase in all this?
Ayase was his friend, but from all his friends, he liked her the most. By far. That was because she was so like him and yet so different. She understood his pain because she helda similar one, but unlike him, she remained to stay positive, to stay pure. He admired her for it. He wanted to safeguard that purity. It was too valuable, too beautiful to be allowed to get lost. The world would become even bleaker if her shining radiance was to be lost. He realized he might actually want to end the world even more if that were to happen. His eyes opened up wide.
"I would…die for you as well." He told her while sounding more surprised than anything. It was as if he didn't understand his answer himself. Ayase for her part allowed herself to sigh in relief, a happy smile being present on her lips.
"Then that's all I need to know. I was right all along. You won't ever burn me."
"When…when did this happen…? I never noticed…" Shu still couldn't believe what he had just said, apparently.
"That's how love works, doesn't it? We don't intentionally fall for someone. It just happens. And you never notice it happening until it eventually did."
"Even though I wanted to stay loyal to Inori forever…" He said bitterly, sounding as if he was disappointed with himself. Ayase merely rolled her wheelchair to his side and took his hand gently, making him face her.
"Shu, remember what I said. No one is asking you to let her go. She is part of you and always will be. And that's good that way. She makes you what you are. And what you are is what I love."
"Are you really fine with this? I could never offer you as much as other men could."
"That's fine. Even if other would offer me more, they could never offer me you. And am I not the same? I can't be Inori…all I can be is me." She held his hand closely, suddenly worried he might pull away. He did, but with a kind smile, as he put away the queen piece he still held to take the pawn she had offered him earlier instead.
"You are right. You can't be my queen, for the position is already taken and will be forever, but if you are fine with this broken and foolish king, then would you give me the honor of joining my side as a pawn?" He asked of her while putting the white pawn from earlier into her hands.
Ayase then gleamed in happiness as she held the piece close to her heart as if it was a treasure.
"The honor is mine. I shall prove myself as the strongest pawn so that one day, you will promote me to a queen. I am confident that I will succeed." She said the last bit with a huge grin. He nodded at that.
"As am I. And so I am looking forward to that day with eagerness."
Following that conversation, they gathered their stuff and went home together. Where Ayase had assumed things to start awkward between them now that they were going out, she was soon to realize that nothing had really changed. It merely felt as if they had taken their friendship to the next level. A natural improvement. She was happy that it was like that. This way, they could both slowly get used to their relationship. She was sure it would turn out just like she had seen in her imagination earlier. No, she would make sure it would turn out that way. They both deserved to be happy, together.
When Shu had had the nerve to bring the good news of them being together by telling their friends that she had become, not his girlfriend, but his pawn, she almost wondered if she could really become happy with this huge dork while trying to hide her blushing face from everyone. But when she saw him laugh together with everyone, so happy and genuine for the first time in three long years…that's when she realized that she was just trying to fool herself. She would only be truly happy if he was too. She had done the right thing, after all.
It's been a long time.
It's been a long time, but now at long last, they had attained happiness.
They would never let go of it again.
Well, that's it. I am not all that happy with the ending but I figured it will have to do. I had some ideas to show some future scenes of them after getting married, but I was unsure if they were really needed. All they would have been good for would be to add some humor and fluff to show how happy they eventually got to be together with Ayase being a bit of a tsundere about it.
I guess if enough people ask for it, I might add it as an extra, but I don't think it really will be necessary. All I can say is that it would have dragged out the pawn joke a bit more.
And in case you have absolutely no clue about chess, note that a pawn, while being the weakest of all pieces in the game, is also the only piece that gains the right to "promote" into any other piece of the player's choosing upon reaching the other end of the board (where the opposing player's pieces started). It's a high risk/high reward kinda thing. A pawn is very unlikely to ever survive the long and dangerous journey, but occasionally, one succeeds and gets rewarded greatly for it. That reward is what Ayase is aiming for.
Other than that, I don't think I have anything more to say. Thanks for reading, as always. I guess we will see each other again (or not) in the next chapter for Reclaiming the Throne. Until then, take care!