"Why did you have to do that to them?"
"Getting a little edgy about commitment, were we?"
"Ayame, you're really starting to frighten me—"
"Am I?" Ayame shoved Chianne back-first into the back wall of the Riverside stadium and leaned in, nose-to-nose, gasping raggedly and barring her fangs. She was shaking. She loosened her grip on Chianne's shoulders as she relaxed slightly; a little tension ebbed out of her. She looked on the verge of tears.
"Ayame?" Chianne's voice sounded frail. She was edging away into the wall, though the more she pulled away, the further Ayame shoved her face after. "Ayame, are you crying? I'm sorry. I—"
"Come with me!" Ayame took both of Chianne's hands, though Chianne recoiled slightly. "We'll run away from all of thisss and be where both of usss can be happy. We can go to LA or New York, Tokyo, wherever you want to go!"
"Now!" Ayame pulled Chianne away from the wall, though Chianne dug her heels in and looked over her shoulder several times. "Now, let's go get married! Then we'll have nobody but each other!"
"But… Ayame, come on." Chianne tried to throw down Ayame's hands and dig her heels into the rocky asphalt harder, but Ayame yanked. Chianne yelped and stumbled. "Ayame, no! This is ridiculous!"
"AYAME!" Chianne stumbled over the sidewalk and scrabbled the brick wall with her free hand. Her bag had been left in the band room hallway, Karen still had her Saiyuki fansubs, she had left her calculator in the math room again, her geometric "design" (which was no more than colored-penciled grids, but it was pretty) was hanging next to her chair in that room… it wasn't so much that she wanted these things back so much as they reminded her how immediate the school was, how close and real the people were. This wasn't a fantasy. She couldn't just up and leave.
"What? Isn't thissss what you've always wanted?" Ayame looked over her shoulder and yanked Chianne into her arms. "I'll be your princssse forever, Cssshianne. I'll never let anybody hurt you. I'll alwayssss be there for you. It'll be jusssst like you've alwayssss wanted and dreamed about."
"But… it doesn't feel… I don't know… Ayame, something's off. I'm sorry, just… something's off…"
Chianne still owed the bookstore money for her lost Spanish textbook. There was a test in that class tomorrow. Verbs. Her mother wanted her to clean out her closet today. She'd find old notebook-paper notes from last year, she was sure, and spread all of them out on her off-white carpet and read through them, some folded in envelope-formations, others just folded foursquare or eightfold, some smudged pencil, others blue pen, a couple highlighter… if she cleaned out her shoulder-bag, she'd maybe find that Chibi Moon pen she loved so much, right at the corners with the pencil shavings and scraps of gum wrapper…
"I can take you away from all of thissss." Ayame's face was flickering with traces of the shadow-side Chianne had glimpsed here and there, like dark formations darting about in a deep pool, or reflections off of the water, or the flicker of a fish's fin. Here one moment, gone the next, and then back, stronger—Ayame was barring her fangs again— "Issssn't that what you dream about all day?"
"But it's… Ayame, I don't know, just… no."
"No!" Chianne pulled away from Ayame. "No! I don't want to… Ayame, I love you, but I can't just throw everything away… it's… well, I've never particularly loved it so much, but… it's… I don't know, here. It's here, Ayame. Someday, I'd like to, but I have to talk to Mom, and do something about school, like get a GED or something, and… I'd like to, but…" Ayame's hurt gape was deteriorating into a smoldering glare; she turned her back on Chianne and crossed her arms, simmering. "…Ayame, come on. It's… I don't know how to explain it, but I can't!"
"But in the storiessss," Ayame said quietly, "the people who aren't willing to do thissss, you call cowardsssss. They have doubtssss, you say. They're ssssscared. Or they're cheating. Everything you ssssay issssn't real. It'ssss all made-up liessss."
"What I'm saying right now?"
"No… Ayame, come on, you've got it all wrong." Chianne took a cautious step toward Ayame, cradling her hand, about to touch Ayame's arm. "We'll run away together, maybe. Someday. But right now, let's go back—"
"It'ssss her, issssn't it? You want time to decsssside about her, don't you?"
"No! Ayame, it's… it's like that in… well, I know it's like that in stories, where you only have one thing holding you back to your home, but it's a lot more… a lot more than that. It's a lot more… things. Come on…" Chianne rested her head in the small of Ayame's back and wrapped her arms around Ayame's tense sides. "You're being so weird."
Ayame snapped her arms out to break Chianne's hold and shoved Chianne to the pavement, hissing. Chianne screamed and sat up in time to see Ayame jump clear over the PE building and run toward the parking lot.
"Don't worry about the guitar now. The important thing is that you are all right."
"I'm fine. Magellan's not. Damn, I loved that guitar. I don't know what the hell she wanted with me, but it wasn't your fight. Are you sure you're all right?"
"As I've said a million times, yes. I haven't hurt myself since then, which is a pretty good stretch for me."
"I just feel so bad. I wasn't able to—"
"Protect me? Jesus, woman. You've said this a thousand times. And, as I said a thousand times in response, I can take care of myself, trained or not. Granted, I just had my ass handed to me, but… whatever." Michael winced. He was helping Mae limp down the Riverside parking lot to his car. They had not visited the nurse or reported the fight, but they were fairly sure that nothing was broken. "You got it worse than I did, anyway."
"What are we going to do about that psycho chick?"
"As I said before, no idea. Come on, let's go to Denny's."
"We can't let her run around! She's dangerous!"
"Probably not, so long as nobody looks at Chianne the wrong way. I have no idea who she is. I think you need a milkshake, anyway. Look." Michael stopped and re-adjusted Mae's weight on his shoulder. "We're not going to be able to find her until she wants to find us again, so we might as well try to enjoy our afternoon. All right?"
"Enjoy away, then," said Ayame. "Thissss isss, after all, Valentine'ssss Day."
Mae and Michael started and turned around. Ayame was smiling coldly down at them.
Leon Orcot growled and struggled beneath Ayame's pin, waiting for D to pacify his pet. His nose was sliding around in its own blood, and the bones were grinding together excruciatingly. He blinked tears away and snarled.
"D! COME ON!"
"I just… she just ran off, and I found her in the park standing over Michael's body… pulling her hand out of his chest…"
Chianne's voice was thin.
"But, Miss Miller, you were warned that if you broke any of the clauses in our contract, the consequences would be disastrous."
"But all I did was—that's not a reasonable clause, to have to follow somebody without even thinking about it! You couldn't have meant…"
"My rules are not lax, Miss Miller, nor can they be neglected. And I do not exaggerate. I always mean exactly what I say. There no room for leeway there."
"D! CALL HER OFF!"
"And you most certainly seemed to think it was reasonable. Possessiveness, dominant partners who would kill anybody who dared to wrong their partners—you seemed to love that. Being possessed to the point of insane jealousy. It was all very romantic, wasn't it? A partner who bent to your every whim. Your own microcosm of existence and self-perpetuated belief that you and your partner alone were the only ones with any awareness of the world or of any worth to exert yourselves within it, and anybody who crossed you was worthy of death. Isn't it just what you've always wanted? A hero, a prince, everything out of your dreams?"
"But… no! That's… my best friends are dead…"
"Yes. Angst and tragedy are not so much fun, are they? Lovers who kill your loved ones? The utmost betrayal? Hate and love, both attraction? Is any of that really so much fun or so romantic, Chianne? Neither is insane possessiveness, or jealousy, or violence, or stalking, or partners with a deathly-dark side. Murderers aren't so romantic anymore, are they? Has all the fun gone out of all of that darkness and depression and violence? This is what you fantasize about, you know. Beautiful characters who are one thing by day and another by night, some bipolar, some complex, but all insanely possessive."
Chianne was silent. Orcot gasped as Ayame released her hold on him and stood, walking away as Orcot groaned and rolled onto his back, cradling his nose. Ayame was kneeling in front of Chianne, who was on her knees and sobbing silently. D was walking over to Orcot and drawing gauze out of his sash, which seemed to Orcot like an impractical place to keep a first aid kit, but appropriately theatrical for the Count. D supported Orcot on his arm and pinched his nose with the gauze.
"There is nothing wrong with fantasy," said D. "Our cerebral life is just as much something to celebrate as that which is physical. It can be beautiful and a medium through which we communicate the complexities and tides of life and relationships, and it can be the starting-place for ideas that will shape reality as we know it. But, when it gets to the level that it prevents you from seeing others clearly, when you start to breach their cerebral integrity, it becomes harmful. Communication comes to a dead halt, and real-life relationships can go nowhere. That is when you start to build illusions and lies. There are degrees of fantasy, Chianne, and lines where it must end. Tell me, are you sure that you loved Mae, or did you love all of the fantasies and characters that you attached to her?"
D, I'll pay you if you shut up.
"…nobody in the real world likes me, all right?"
Jesus Christ, here comes another speech. Orcot stared at Chianne woozily, wondering if he was going to pass out. D shook him slightly and adjusted his hold on his nose.
"…you don't know what it's like to be the one nobody really wants to be friends with." Chianne was forming her words carefully and slowly, stopping to hiccup when she needed to. "I'm at the end of everybody's call list. I… I'm the pity friend, the one people keep around and pass off like an… obligation. I know that I'm… I'm immature and emotional, and I whine and I pick fights and… I sulk and I try to make people feel bad… I guess I can't blame them, but I want to be one of them… you know, one of the people that's always at the top of the call list, the one everybody wants to talk to and be friends with. Michael's like that. He took everything from me, even Mae, when he just moved here and I've been by Mae's side for years. I guess he's got charisma, or something. I know he's smart and funny and kind… unlike me… but he's got everything. He's got all the breaks, just because he's brilliant and mature. Just because he has talent. I'm just being myself, but nobody wants that."
Ayame touched Chianne's hand carefully, bowing her head. Chianne glanced at Ayame and looked back at the ground.
"I wasn't born strong, all right? I'm… in the anime, in the yaoi, it's always the annoying, small, cute ones that get all of the breaks. They're just like me, but, unlike me, they're… kind. Pure. Heartless. I think I could be all of those things if I was the magical girl or the uke boy that always got the guy of their dreams and everybody loved and got all of the breaks. But that's not how it happens in the real world. The little ones, the annoying ones that refuse to give up on the ones they have a crush on—nobody likes them, but in anime, they always win in the end. In anime, if you never give up, you always win! But that's not enough in the real world!" Chianne was starting to get hysterical. "If you have charisma and sarcasm and good looks and intelligence, you don't have to try! It doesn't matter if you love somebody less than somebody else, just as long as you're cool! If you have a car and can give rides to people, you don't even have to try! If you're just trying to write, the smart ones with all of the talent blackball you online and tell you never to write again! I hate reality! It's not fair! I bet if all of those magical girls and uke boys and whatnot were in the real world, with no magical powers, they'd be just like me, all alone and outcast, with people looking down on them, and they'd be just as jealous and nasty as I am! I love Mae! I love her, I've loved her for years, and I'd give anything for her, but I never had a chance with her because I'm not on her level, and now she wants to be rid of me! I'm sure of it! I know it by the way she treats me! I'm an obligation! I didn't want her to die, Ayame! Not even Michael! I hate him because I'm a mean and selfish person, but he didn't deserve to die!"
Ayame gave a low, solemn hiss.
"He didn't! I was… I just wanted to be loved and be loved in return, all right? That's all I wanted from you! And maybe I wanted you to stick up for me even when I was in the wrong, just because I wanted somebody who's always on my side, no matter what! People never are, and I can't argue my way out of anything… I just don't think that fast, so I never have a fighting chance. I didn't want this! I didn't want this! I didn't want this!"
Orcot was feeling much more stable. D had pulled a flask of some odd tea out of his shoulder-bag and was giving Orcot sips. Orcot had no idea what it was, but he wanted to buy crates of it. It worked like a charm.
"They hurt you, Csssshianne." Ayame kneaded Chianne's shoulder. "Nobody is allowed to scar you but me. Nobody else may in any way effect you."
"Ayame, don't say stuff like that. I don't want t be scarred. I want to be happy."
"You broke the contract," said D. "You've unleashed a monster."
"What, unleashed?" Orcot sputtered and took another gulp of tea. "You sold her that damned thing! You knew it'd end up like this, didn't you? The hell is the matter with you, D? Is this some sort of a sick lesson you're trying to teach?"
"I did not create the monster. Chianne did."
"…because she broke the contract, or is that more of your philosophical-metaphorical-nonsense-shit?"
The fire alarms went off. Orcot started, Chianne shrieked and covered her head, and Ayame dove over her, shielding her. D looked up calmly and waved his hand.
"Don't worry. There is no fire."
The ceiling-mounted sprinklers went off. Chianne sniffed beneath Ayame as the water pounded on Ayame's suit-jacketed shoulders and back, dripping down the fabric, and plastered her hair to her head. Orcot shook the water out of his hair and glared at D, whose hair was plastered across his face. The latter was looking down at his dress and clicking his tongue.
"At least I chose something that can take water."
Chianne screamed. Orcot looked up to see Ayame melting. Black paint was flowing off of her jacket to reveal crumpled fabric resembling stiff cellophane, as black ink ran off of her hair to reveal equally transparent strands, seemingly shredded and curled edges of a cel. The snake moaned and curled tighter around Chianne, who, as the black paint mingled with flesh-toned paint and flowed off of the transparent body, was revealed through Ayame's chest. Ayame's brains were crumpled, typed paper. Her heart looked viscous and sugary, like a bad lava-lamp on acid. Beyond those two organs, her body was as transparent as water.
"What the hell?" Orcot pointed at Ayame. "This… they usually turn back into animals, don't they? What the hell is this?"
"Ayame never truly was a snake. She wasn't really one of my pets."
"Ayame was a mirror, a manifestation of somebody's innermost thoughts and dreams. She took on a pseudo-snake persona because of this girl's strong sexual drive and obsession with sensuality. She was everything the girl ever wanted, inside and out. Her logic and mind, her entire worldview and basis for normal and right, was scripted by this girl. Her heart was what the girl wanted it to be, that easy to understand and simple. And that devoted. And, as she was a reflection of Chianne's heart, so was she a reflection of her hatred and jealousy. This creature had the ability to bend reality around her to create a romanticized, convenient, aesthetically-pleasing and free-flowing reality, void of causal nuances and practicalities."
A single animation cel of Ayame drifted to the soaked, wooden floor, landing on a paint-sullied puddle. Chianne stared at the cel, grief-stricken, and pulled it out of the water. She clutched it to her chest and screamed hysterically.
"But, in the end, this girl got what she truly desired. Ayame loved her unconditionally with every fiber of her being, until the very end. She loved Chianne despite her faults and doubts. Few people can boast that they have been loved so purely at any point in their lives."
"That was pretty fucking out of line, D."
"What?" D and Orcot were walking away from the apartment complex. Two fire engines had already showed up at the building and were doing a last-minute security check despite discovering that there had been no fire.
"Giving a girl a pet that'd manifest so much jealousy and pain that it'd knock off her friends, just because she's jealous of them. That's really harsh. You must have taken one look at that girl and seen that she was unstable. Not the friends' faults, and everybody goes through stages where they're insanely jealous. Jesus, when I was her age, I was a complete prick about stuff like that. Doesn't mean they deserve that. …Jeez, I hope I don't see that girl show up as a suicide case. I hope she'll be all right."
Orcot growled. Dodge it, D. Just dodge it. "What?"
"I burn a six-foot black candle in my shop entryway to absorb all of the negative energy that drifts by our part of town." Orcot rolled his eyes. "On Valentine's Day alone, I set out a brand-new candle, and it is burnt down to the ground by the time the sun rises on the fifteenth. One of those candles usually lasts me a month, officer."
"I'd like to hear why that has a damned thing to do with my question."
"For as many people as Valentine's Day is a joyous day to celebrate their relationships, just as many people waste a day of their lives consumed by jealousy, hate, and pain. That is a precious day of life wasted, Officer, on wallowing in emotions that poison the mind and soul. A day wasted looking back at ruined relationships and coveting those around them who have what they desire, and a night wasted lying awake thinking that the ones they want are in the arms of another person, does not bode positive energy. It is foolish to waste a precious day of life despairing about what you do not have when you can look for your happiness elsewhere."
"…D, are you even listening to me?"
"You see, for everybody observing Valentine's Day, on either extreme, the focus of the holiday is on loving and being loved in return."
"Yeah, whatever. I just focus on getting laid, usually. That's all very nice, but that justifies causing more pain and anguish… how? And I mean real anguish, like devastated parents and friends, not just 'woe-is-me-I'm-lonely'?"
"She agreed to the clauses in the contract, and she broke them. I cannot be held responsible. She came looking for happiness, and I sold it to her."
"That is so much like handing an ADD kid a bazooka and saying it was his fault that he blew up the house because he didn't listen when you told him not to fire it."
D sighed. "It's a shame. That mirror was so rare, and the girl could have been so happy if only she had listened to me."
"You are a bastard."
"Do you have somebody special for Valentine's Day?"
Orcot looked up from staring at the sidewalk, hands shoved in his pockets. "I'm single and not interested in men, especially drag-queen fairies."
D started to laugh. Orcot scowled and stared quietly.
"Come on," said D. "The night is young, and I have some lovely cheesecake I would like to share with somebody. Or are you afraid of being converted?"