A/N: Written for the Diversity Writing Challenge, e41 - fic that explores metaphysics

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first strokes are drawn on a blank page

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They stood watching: Tenma and Alpha. Or rather, Alpha watched. Tenma's stopped taking it in once the balls collided in mid-air: once his future changed its course.

Gouenji's ball never hit the falling planks, and the young Tenma was buried in them: him and Sasuke, and his mother's screams that rattle through his skull far longer than the time he only just still recalled. They rattled and rattled and swallowed up Alpha's words as well… but what did Alpha have left to say? It was all so simple from this vantage. This Tenma could be dead for all he knew, and if he survived he wouldn't have that Raimon soccer ball that became his beacon of hope and his memento and the reason he'd played soccer.

He couldn't imagine life without soccer… but that Matsukaze Tenma was going to grow up without it –

Assuming he grew up at all.

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'It's because of soccer: soccer's influence… and so I will erase the meaning soccer has for you…'

It's a voice in the gloom: a promise… or a prophecy.

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His head was full of black and white when he woke, and he couldn't blink because that hurt and brought more colour than, at that moment, he could bear. He closed his eyes and sank into the dance hall of his skull until it faded away into an encore of black and soft applause.

He woke again, afterwards, and the colours were muted. It was night, when he was meant to sleep but he'd slept the day away instead. So he lay there, staring at the slivers of light through the blinds and wondered what dream had slipped away from him, or if there'd been a dream at all.

There must have been, he decided. His head felt strangely empty and his chest ached like he'd found something profound and lost it again. But, as he progress slowly, in a dull fog, he couldn't think of what it was. He was alive, though there were a few broken bones and several more cracks and so for the first month and a half he was weighed to the bed by heavy casts. Sasuke was alive as well: alive and healthy and whole and apparently morose he wasn't allowed to sleep in the hospital room. And his mother was alive as well: alive with her scratched up hands from trying to dig through splintered wood before the rescue workers came.

Then the fog lifted enough for fatigue to become frustration, and he could guess what it was he mourned, what it was he'd lost. Time, he thought: the time he whittled away lying in bed and staring out the window. It was time he could have spent running around with Sasuke, maybe training for one of Raimon's many sport leagues (like soccer, maybe soccer, but he'd never be good with two broken legs, would he?). It was time he could have spent at school, making friends (and it was going to be so awkward when he went back, wasn't? Everyone would know each other except for him: the outcast). It was time he could have spent living life in the big wide world instead of shut away in a place people came to die (even though that wasn't strictly true, because most people left the hospital in good health and a good many people wound up dying at home, or on the streets, or on battlefields, and a lot of places he couldn't think of right then…) and broken bones didn't mean dying, but it did mean being stuck in bed for longer than he could bear.

But it wasn't the broken limbs that kept in bed. Not truly. Nor it was the heavy casts, because they brought a wheelchair for him eventually, and the nurses or his mother would take him to the garden once a day for some reprieve. It'd been the bleed in his head, which when coupled with the shock had caused that persistent fog in his mind. And he had to prove it was gone by doing all sorts of tests: memorising shopping lists, saying as many animals in a minute as he could think of, doing a hundred minus seven, and then the result minus seven until he was somewhere in the 50s and the doctors decided that was good enough… And more he couldn't even recall.

Apparently they'd have gotten him to stand as well, but the casts made that impossible. But that was fine. He was wheeled everywhere. Down the corridor and past the nurse's station and the visitor's area to the lifts, then past more corridors and to the little private garden in the centre. And sometimes to the imaging place instead, where they took black and white pictures even though the rest of the world operated in colour, and then said a whole lot of technical stuff that even his mother couldn't fully grasp.

The doctor simplified things, though. Said the white spot was blood, and the black stuff around it was swelling, and both were shrinking. And that he'd get a few more scans until it was completely gone, but that was okay. He could put up with that.

It was the casts he rapidly lost patience for: the immobility. And even when he survived the six weeks for the arm casts, the leg ones stayed on for even longer. At least he was busy then, squeezing different colour putty but it was disheartening, and it wasn't the sort of thing he'd ever make friends doing.

So he'd sit by the window and squeeze putty, or in the gardens on his wheelchair and squeeze putty, or sit up against the bedboard and squeeze putty, and it was all unbearably monotonous. But what could he do? His hands were too weak to get through an entire breakfast by himself. His legs were still in casts. He had piles of schoolwork to get through and it only grew, but what was the point of reading them when he couldn't take notes or fill in blanks or circle all the stuff he didn't know? And however was he going to catch up on it all, and school and making friends and finding some sport or club to participate in so he's getting some social time…

Well, there was always make-up classes, he supposed. There was bound to be someone who'd failed their exams, even if he shouldn't wish that on anyone.

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Modification of the interruption point is complete.

And so all the tears in the patchwork had been mended, and this became the new reality.

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One day, a girl came to drop off schoolwork instead of it being sent to their home. Sorano Aoi, she introduced herself as, and she'd appropriately decked herself in blue for the visit. Said she and a few others in their class were curious about their mystery class member, so she'd come to check them out.

Or maybe that was just her excuse and she was a nice person. Or maybe that was him being optimistic. School had been in progress for a fortnight, after all and this was the first hint of a classmate he'd seen.

She gave an uncomfortable shrug under his gaze. 'We thought you'd be back in a bit,' she mumbled.

Fair enough. He didn't think he'd ever be bound to bed for months, either, until it happened. Aoi's eyes flickered to his casts as well, before looking elsewhere: the straws in all his bottles because that was easier to drink, the different coloured putty sitting by the windowsill…

She poked it. 'Plasticine?' she asked.

'I wish.' He'd thought that too, at first. 'Putty. To strengthen my hands.' Having them immobile for so long had made them weak once they were freed. And his legs were going to be even worse.

'Huh.' She poked it again. 'Can you use it as plasticine though?'

'I don't think the physiotherapist would be too happy.' He hadn't thought of that, but it probably wasn't a good idea anyway. Maybe he could ask for some more, just to play with. Or ask his mother to buy him some.

'Then how about I sneak some out of the art room? We're doing 3D models in art class anyway.'

And she did bring them the next day: some plasticine, and pipe cleaners and butchers paper and coloured markers – and the first thing she did with the colour markers was doodle on his casts. 'Hey!'

She grinned. 'They were so plain before.'

Which was also true. 'And how'd you get so much stuff?'

'I asked,' she said cheerfully. 'I was getting supplies for the calligraphy club anyway.'

'Calligraphy,' Tenma repeated, looking at the orange marker Aoi had pushed into his hands. His writing had recently graduated from illegible to large and wobbly but readable.

'It's useful and fun!' And she launched into a speech… and all Tenma could think about three minutes in was how nice it would be to have something he could talk about that passionately too.

Did Sasuke count?

'You're not listening,' Aoi pouted, tugging at the marker Tenma held. She'd been doodling on one of the butcher papers and now it was covered in kanji. 'And who's Sasuke?'

And then it was Tenma's turn to launch into a speech about dear little Sasuke and all the plans they'd made together: plans that were now on hold.

Aoi continued to doodle words. Insensible words it seemed at first, but maybe that was because Tenma wasn't that great at kanji, let alone reading it upside down. But then she turned the paper over and he could pick out words. There was Sasuke and walks and nature and drawing and art and quite a few others he didn't know. 'Is this how much I've missed?'

'Oh, no. We just learn more from our seniors in the calligraphy club.' She pointed to a word in the centre. 'This here's calligraphy.' She pointed to another, far longer string of words. 'This is the club's motto: the soul of words. It's part of a quote from Akagawa Kaoru. Calligraphy transfers the soul of words onto paper… or something like that. She travels all around the world, you know.'

'Doing calligraphy?' That surprised him. He expected it for the big sports, but for calligraphy? And… 'the soul of words, huh.'

'More interesting than just practising lines or doing homework?' she asked.

'I'll be terrible.' His shoulders sagged. His handwriting was barely legible right now.

'You've got an excuse to be terrible. I'll show you how bad I was when I first started.' She grinned. 'How about it? You sign up for the calligraphy club and I can keep borrowing art materials and bringing you your homework… and how much of that have you even done, by the way?'

'As much as I could,' Tenma mumbled, 'but I'm stuck on every single subject. It's kind of hard when I haven't attended the classes.'

'I'll help with kanji,' Aoi volunteered immediately. 'As for the rest, I can help a bit but one of the seniors would be better. I'll ask them.'

'You don't have to –' he protested. Really, he didn't want a pity party in his hospital room. Though at least Aoi didn't seem to be there for that reason. She might or might not have had the ulterior motive of recruiting him for her club, but at least it wasn't pity.

'They don't have enough underclassmen to spoil,' she grinned. 'We knew you'd be bored to death here, and figured we should nab you before the manga club… or worse, sculpting.'

'You brought the plasticine,' he laughed.

'You can't argue I didn't provide variety,' she shot back.

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If the past changes, then the future changes too to match it.

And so the little holes time left behind were slowly filled. The future became an unrecognisable thing only to those who knew the original time… but some things, some foundations, weathered the changes and stood tall.

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The world was a funny thing, Alpha reflected some time later. For Matsukaze Tenma, it had been decades but for him… well, it didn't really matter.

Time was a funny thing, and not just because they jumped to and fro in it. They'd taken soccer away from Tsurugi Kyousuke and in doing so had returned it to the older brother. They'd taken soccer away from the world and they'd found another way to wake up that sleeping, dangerous power in their souls.

First it was soccer, and now it was written words. And words were far harder to get rid of. There were thousands of languages, and an immeasurable number of words. It would be impossible… even if they eliminated every human being from the world.

He wondered what would have happened if the planks had permanently disabled him – or even killed him, all that time ago. But Matsukaze Tenma wasn't the only pivotal point in history. One could argue that it was Sorano Aoi who set things into motion… or, backtracking a little, Alpha himself when he intercepted Gouenji's ball.

Well, it wasn't for him to make decisions on the matter, or assign the blame. That was for El Dorado, whose future still balanced as precariously as before, to choose.