Chapter 13 - Little Boy, Big Man
Tatsuya settled the phone back into its cradle, his fingers resting on the cool plastic for a moment before he turned away. Early afternoon sunlight was streaming in through white curtains and had heated up the small apartment. He rolled his shoulders stiffly, suddenly aware that the warm air had made him sticky and uncomfortable. He ran one hand over the back of his neck and it came away slick with sweat. Guess I really shouldn't have slept so late, he thought distastefully. Right. Shower, then.
The lukewarm water was a relief to his skin and he sighed, leaning back against the cool porcelain tile. His eyes drifted closed as drops of water dripped down his face and tickled his eyelashes. He hugged himself, his arms crossing absent-mindedly over his chest, tiny pools collecting in the crooks of his elbows. He stood that way for several long minutes, hardly noticing the passage of time as he stood in a moment of rare balance with himself. So comfortable, he thought vaguely. Was I really that tense?
At last he shifted, reluctantly pulling sticky skin away from the tiled wall. The water had grown hotter and steam was beginning to collect along the seams of the ceiling, which he followed with his eyes as he tilted his head back to allow the stream to trickle through his hair. A few strands clung to his face, slicks of water racing down them to cross his lips and drip from his chin. He exhaled with a fine spray of tiny droplets as he ran his hands over his eyes, sweeping his long bangs back out of his face.
He was normally very efficient in the shower, so having already wasted ten minutes he hurriedly went about his routine, washing his hair and body quickly. After a somewhat cursory rinse, he shut the faucet off, dripping water and the last clinging bits of lather as he stepped out and scooped up a towel. He hesitated at the mirror before jamming a toothbrush into his mouth and scrubbing diligently with one hand as he combed through his tangled locks with the fingers of the other. When he was done he looked a little less shaggy and smelled a whole lot better. Satisfied with this, he fixed a towel around his waist and strode out to the living room.
The air felt much cooler now as it struck his flushed skin, and he let himself air dry pleasantly while he folded up the futon and piled his blankets and pillows haphazardly on top of it. He kicked a pile of biker magazines and unfinished homework into one corner before looking about and declaring his housecleaning chores done for the day. Katsuya had given him a drawer in his little upright chest, which drew a small smile from Tatsuya as he dug through it for something appropriate to wear. He finally settled on black jeans and a faded red t-shirt.
"Should probably bring a sweatshirt too," he mused to himself as he plopped down on his brother's bed, tugging on a pair of mismatched socks. He leaned back on his elbows, exhaling slowly through pursed lips. "Now what did I do with it?"
He got up and emptied his drawer into a messy pile, sifting through it with one hand. I bet Katsuya washed it, he thought, a look of annoyance passing over his face. Damn it, I liked it the way it was. Guess it's probably in with his clothes somewhere. He shrugged and pulled open his brother's drawers, looking through stacks of meticulously folded shirts and pants. Geez, even his socks are folded, he smirked to himself, wrenching open another drawer.
He caught his breath at what he found there.
On one side was a stack of pressed wool slacks, nothing out of the ordinary from the rest of Katsuya's wardrobe. But the other side was empty save for a carefully folded red vinyl jacket and matching pants. Tatsuya ran his hands over the smooth surface of the material slowly, hooking his fingers around the collar to unfold it in his lap. A large 'x' was inscribed in black trim across the front of the jacket, which also had a straight silver zipper up the middle. "Whoa," he murmured under his breath. "What's he doing with something like this?"
He unzipped the jacket, fondling it appreciatively a bit more before slinging it around his shoulders and threading his long arms through the sleeves. It fit him perfectly, and he straightened up to look at himself in the mirror that hung over the chest of drawers. A small smile touched his lips as he admired the look of the jacket. He zipped it up slowly, hesitating before folding the collar up around his neck. "Not bad," he said out loud, sticking his hands in the pockets and turning to the side to see how it looked from the back.
To his surprise, his fingers closed around something smooth and cool in the right pocket. Curious, he clasped it in his hand and drew it out, tilting his head down to look at the small object that weighed heavily there.
It was a lighter, one of the old-fashioned metal ones that sparked when you flipped it open. He turned it over in his palm, surprised to see an inscription there. He ran his thumb over the slight indentations, reading it aloud as he went.
"The most important things can't be seen with the eyes..." His voice sounded faint to his own ears, his breath coming and going in shallow waves over his parted lips.
I want you to have this...
It's not even really like I'm giving it away...
Tatsuya blinked and shook his head, chasing away the haze that nagged at the edges of his mind. He considered the lighter for a moment longer before palming it and sticking it back in his pocket. He wasn't sure where it had come from, but he felt a strange attachment to it. It was cool and comforting, and something else he couldn't quite describe.
Suddenly feeling silly for wasting so much time, he bent over to scoop his clothes off the floor and crammed them back into the drawer. He tidied up everything just as it was, but didn't take off the vinyl jacket. It wouldn't fit Katsuya anyway, he thought, smirking at his reflection. He must have gotten it for me. A surprise or something. I'll just wear it for the afternoon, and he'll never know it was gone.
"Right," he said to the empty room. "Time for school."
It was a little after two o'clock when Tatsuya's bike skidded into the parking lot of Seven Sisters High School. It was a beautiful spring day, and despite the chill in the air the sun beat down relentlessly and heated up his back. He was almost glad to have an excuse to go out and enjoy it.
He parked his bike and set off on in a lazy spiral around the perimeter of campus. The tennis club was out practicing on the courts, and the muffled sounds of their activities drifted across the grassy lawn. He jammed his hands in his pockets, fingering the lighter with one hand as he went about his thoughtful stroll. As he approached the track he noticed a small crowd and several students in their team uniforms. Figuring there was a meet, he made his way over to the bleachers and took a seat.
"Well, well," a familiar voice behind him said. "Did I completely lose it or is Tatsuya Suou at school on a Saturday?"
He turned his head, then smiled as his eyes fell on the lean, raven-haired girl lounging a few rows above him. "Yoshizaka," he said. "What's up? You punishing yourself or something?"
Anna grinned and gave him a playful poke with her foot. "Gimme a break. I'm just here to see Noriko. She's running." She pointed towards the side of the track, where the underclassman was performing a series of hamstring stretches in the grass.
Tatsuya nodded and got up to sit down next to Anna. He stretched out his long legs on the bench in front of them and leaned back on his elbows. "So how's she doing? I heard she was out sick for a while."
"Ah, yeah. She's doing fine." Anna lowered her gaze, her cropped hair just brushing her eyelashes. After a moment she glanced back up, forcing a small smile. "Definitely needs to work on her conditioning though. She runs out of steam."
Tatsuya noticed her strained expression and frowned. That's not like her, he thought, but decided not to press the issue. She never did with him, so he figured he owed her that much.
"Hey," he said after a few minutes of silence. "Like my new jacket?"
She looked over at him and furrowed her brow. "New?"
"Well, it's not exactly mine, not yet anyway, but... wait, what did you say?"
"Oh," she said, her features opening up in an expression of understanding. A slight flush touched her cheeks. "Never mind. I just... thought I'd seen you wear it before. It's cool though."
Tatsuya gave her a puzzled look, then shrugged, running one hand through his hair. The wind had been stirring it up, occasionally blowing stray locks over his eyes. He batted at them impatiently. Anna stole a sideways glance at his face, watching him carefully as they sat in silence. She knew he'd lost some of his recent memories, but she didn't know why. She guessed post-traumatic stress disorder after the deaths at the school, or something like that. That could explain why his older brother had specifically asked her not to mention the incident to him.
I wish I could be so lucky, she thought, pursing her lips. To forget everything that happened. As it was, she still had nightmares of Hannya's mutilated body, or that horrible man with the paper bag... that horrible face. She suppressed a shudder.
Below them, the crowd seemed to be getting ready for the next race. They watched as the runners lined up and took their places. Noriko was on the inside, next to two other Sevens runners and several people Anna recognized from other schools. The young girl lunged, settling in on the block and waiting for the whistle.
When it came, she took off like a shot. Anna sat up and cheered, and even Tatsuya quirked an eyebrow in interest. "That was a great start, even for Noriko," Anna remarked, apparently quite pleased. Tatsuya murmured in agreement.
The runners were all doing quite well, perhaps because of the fine weather, and it was a good race to watch. As Anna had predicted, Noriko burned out and fell behind towards the end, but only dropped behind two other people to come in at a healthy third place. "That's really good for this division," Anna said proudly. "She must be working hard."
Tatsuya sat up and turned towards her. "So does it still bother you? That you can't..." he waved one arm towards the track and the crowd.
She shrugged. "Sure it does. But I'm not as messed up about it as I used to be." A sigh escaped her lips and she rubbed her hands together. "I mean, I'm glad the bastard is dead. I wish I wasn't but I am. Just doesn't seem to be much point in being mad about it anymore."
"I think know how you feel," the young man mused, looking down to watch the students cleaning up, some carrying jugs of water and towels away from the field. "Is the meet over already?"
Anna nodded. "You missed most of it. Oversleep?" She gave him a teasing grin.
"Yeah, yeah. It's not like I came here for the meet."
"I figured. Which bring me back to my original question. Why in hell are you at school on a Saturday?"
He sighed. "My brother asked me to come. You know he's an investigator, right? I guess I'm supposed to be watching for some missing girl." The bleachers were clearing and he stood, stretching languidly. "Figured I'd show up for a while to make him happy. Oh! That reminds me, it's a good thing I ran into you."
Anna got up slowly, still favoring her leg a bit. She eyed him warily. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Tatsuya let his head roll to the side, his hair falling over his face. "Well, I know it's stupid, but... he told me to bring a girl along." He gave her an embarrassed look. "Maybe he thinks I need a girlfriend."
She stifled a laugh. "You and me both, brother. You know as well as I that I can't help you there. Besides, I've got homework to do." She shrugged into her coat.
His shoulders slumped in disappointment. "Please? You're one of the only girls I can stand to be around for more than thirty seconds."
Anna frowned. "Hey, Suou. Don't say stuff like that. You know it's not that bad."
"Okay, you're one of the only people I can stand to be around for more than thirty seconds."
She rolled her eyes. "I'll walk you back to the main building but after that I'm outta here. Since when do you do your brother's dirty work, anyway?"
He sighed. "I guess I've changed too."
"Hey," the young woman said, lifting his chin with one gloved hand. She smiled a little when he met her eyes. "Don't worry too much about it. Maybe it's for the best." He nodded and smiled gratefully.
They made their way down the bleachers, then walked in silence across a wide meadow towards the school. Dandelions were beginning to appear in clumps all over the grass, peppering the field of green with tiny yellow blotches. Tatsuya leaned down and snatched one up out of the ground.
"You know what they say," he said absentmindedly, fondling the long stem with fingers sticky from sap.
"Hmm?" Anna seemed to come back from someplace far away.
He stopped walking and turned towards her, holding out the bright yellow head of the flower. "That if you rub a dandelion on your chin and it makes your skin yellow, then you're in love."
The girl looked up at him with an incredulous look. "Are you serious? You don't believe in that crap, do you?"
He grinned and shrugged his shoulders. "I dunno, I didn't used to believe in rumors either, but the world's turning out to be more complicated than I thought it was."
She sighed and stuck out her chin. "Fine, give it a try."
Tatsuya reached out and touched the dandelion lightly to her skin. He brushed it back and forth a few times before pulling it away and inspecting her closely. "Nothing. Must be a dud," he joked, tossing the blossom over his shoulder.
Anna gave him an exasperated look. "Well, it's one for one so far." She bent down and plucked another one, brushing a fat bee from the blossom. "Now it's your turn."
He shrugged and closed his eyes, letting her drag the flower over his chin. Her eyebrows raised. "A positive! Apparently there's at least one girl you can stand after all." She stifled a laugh.
Tatsuya opened his eyes and touched two fingers to his chin, surprised to see them come away covered in fine yellow pollen. Anna handed him a handkerchief and he brushed it off the best that he could. "Guess it's just a rumor," he said distantly, but he couldn't place the sick feeling that nagged at his heart. Am I really in love? he thought. Is it ridiculous that I don't even know who it is?
Anna shrugged, as if she could read his mind. "It's like you said, the world is a pretty complicated place."
He couldn't really argue with that.
It was later than he would have liked by the time he finally got home. He only stuck around for an uneventful hour and a half after Anna left, but his growling stomach got the better of him and he ended up stopping for food on the way home. The sun was already setting by the time he rolled his bike into the lot of his brother's apartment.
He was surprised to find the door unlocked when he got there. "Big Brother?" he called out, pushing the door open slightly. Light from the hallway spilled into the apartment, which was quiet and completely dark. He suppressed a shudder.
"Katsuya?" he called again, more tentatively this time. He took a step over the threshold and kicked off his shoes. I guess I left the door unlocked, he thought, trying to soothe the nervous prickles that were running along his spine. He felt along the wall for the light switch, breathing a sigh a relief when he found it and flooded the room with light.
It was short-lived relief.
Before he could even turn around, he felt a slam against his shoulder and found himself knocked full-force against the wall. Groaning, he lifted his head and grabbed his shoulder with one hand, trying to get his bearings and see his attacker. Something blurred in his peripheral vision and he leapt forward, feeling his muscles tense instinctually as he ducked and rolled behind the couch. He searched frantically for something he could use as a weapon, finally settling on a golf umbrella that occupied a wire basket beside the TV.
"Who's there?" he cried out, waving the pointed tip of the umbrella wildly. His eyes darted around the room before finally settling on a moving shadow behind the curved back of the couch. His knuckles white on his surrogate sword, he paced carefully to one side, bringing the dark shape into better view.
It hurt to look directly at it, as it slid impossibly along the surface of the carpet, changing shape and dimension. The sound of laughter drifted into his awareness; sick, ugly, twisted laughter that made him want to turn and run in fear. It took all of his willpower to keep his feet rooted to the ground, his hands on his weapon, his eyes on that maddening shadow.
The laughter stopped abruptly and the shape began to change, growing and morphing into something much bigger, more solid. It began to move like an animal, first on four legs then straightening awkwardly up to two. It wavered, huffed, and stretched into a roughly humanoid shape before the blackness shrunk back, dripping down the figure like tar. A radiant whiteness emerged, taking the shape of two arms, two legs, a willowy neck, bare feet. The face of a woman. The dripping darkness clung to her body, formed a loose garment, long black hair. She rolled her shoulders with a sickening crack and flashed him a predatory smile.
"Nice jacket," she remarked, her voice both high and low, both male and female.
Tatsuya took a step back, moving instinctively into a guarded stance. His lips curled back. "What do you want with me?" he growled, his voice low and animalistic to his ears.
The woman's expression twisted into a mocking pout. "You don't remember me? But we were so in love..." Her features shifted into a face that flickered on the borders of recognition like dim lantern-light. Tatsuya closed his eyes, repulsed by her radiance.
"I don't want to see," he spat. "Just leave me alone. Whoever... whatever you are, just leave me alone."
She chuckled at that, an oddly metallic sound. "Aren't you just so nice," she purred, as he felt her sickening presence draw nearer. "Asking so politely like that. I like nice boys." Her touch settled lightly on his arm, sending cold flame shooting through his nerves to his still throbbing shoulder. He whimpered softly. "You weren't nice when we first met. I thought you'd be a lovely toy. I was delighted to learn that you're so much more."
His eyes opened slowly, an intense gaze pouring out from behind heavy eyelids. His usually pale eyes flickered and burned with anger. "Get out of my house," he hissed between clenched teeth. "I know what you are. And you know what I can do." His hand twisted in their grip on the umbrella handle and his eyes narrowed to fiery slits. "Don't make the mistake of thinking I won't deliver."
The shadow-woman hissed and drew back a fraction of an inch. "You wouldn't."
Tatsuya stood up straight then, the umbrella dropping to his side. He held his hands together, his arms forming an 'x' over his chest that echoed the design on his jacket. His eyes fluttered closed and he felt his mind being taken over by a hauntingly familiar sensation. Electrical energy flickered at the edges of his perception, and he when he opened his eyes he saw that the room had filled with a pale blue light.
His lips twisted into a smile. "Try me," he said, without a fraction of doubt in his voice.
The creature jumped back as if burned. She drew back against the wall and cowered in the shadows there. "It won't do you any good, you know," she cried out, quaking with fear and rage. Her many faces shifted and blurred together, and she began to melt into the air. "He knows you're here and he's coming for you! Apollo can't protect you from him! Far bigger things are at work here, Tatsuya Suou..." she trailed off, her head and face now distorted beyond recognition. Soon her mouth was the only part of her left, opening up like a horrible maw of empty space. "You may not remember," the disembodied voice crooned. "But you are still the key..."
The last bit of shadow melted from the air just as Tatsuya fell forward on the carpet, his eyes rolling shut as he slipped into blissful unconsciousness.