"Decided to switch schools now that Seigaku's doomed for the Nationals?"
"Well? Have you gone dumb…? Or maybe you're just a very special kind of stupid?" Mukahi Gakuto asked resentfully. His partner lingered in the background, the slightest crease easing between his eyebrows as he waited for the inevitable explosion that would occur when the two headstrong competitors faced off.
It was a glorious day out. There had never been a more perfect day, with the sunlight pleasantly warm at the back of his neck and the wind frigid enough to indicate the start of winter. He watched a few Hyotei students walk past silently, as the last day of school came to an end. In the past 10 minutes, he had already counted 15 luxury cars that had wound smoothly out of the school gates.
His eyes were bloodshot.
"Ne…Mukahi-kun…can you tell me why you hate me?"
There were times when he couldn't tell if he was more enraged with the Seigaku acrobat for daring to challenge his superior skill and flexibility, or it was the clueless manner in which Kikumaru approached him despite the obvious antagonism he displayed. However, at present, he was facing a Kikumaru who was somewhat distracted, leaving him with little but a shell to grapple with. He missed the old times somehow.
The words spilt from his lips unwillingly.
"Huh? Er…well…right, you're a loud-mouthed obnoxious idiot who thinks his Golden Pair is the best in the world when it's so obvious that we're better. Your hair is annoying, your bandage is pretentious, your endless cheeriness gets on my nerves and…no, stop it, don't cry!!"
"Look, I know I said all that, but we're opponents on court, and I guess I don't really see you as my deadly enemy you know?"
Eiji began laughing softly, a quiet choking sound that sounded as though he couldn't tell whether he should scream or cry. The two of them watched in stunned silence, as Eiji sank slowly against the wall. His slender shoulders were trembling as he continued crying silently, staring down at his open hands.
He hated him. He hated him. He hated and hated and hated, and now that he was gone, he didn't quite know who to hate. He didn't even really understand why he hated him that much, and now there was only Mukahi who looked at him fearfully, as though he was about to draw out a knife and commit hara-kiri right in front of them.
The tears were slipping through the gaps in his fingers.
Haruka had been strange even when he first got to know her. His suspicions had been piqued by the many questions that she asked and the information on Fuji Syuusuke that she seemed to thirst after, as though dying from a parched obsession to learn everything she could get her hands on. But it had been so easy to fall back into a strange sense of complacency and security, listening to her vows that she had only wanted to see the real face behind the perfect façade that her brother had seemed to date.
The night that he had taken the photo…somehow he had wanted to make believe then, that this was different, this was the life that they could have had. They could have been so happy together, and he would have helped his best friend through anything. No mere obstacle could have hindered them. No burden could have tainted their future. Fuji's eyelashes had been so long, a slender hand brushing against one soft cheek that he yearned to touch. He had looked so fragile and beautiful, almost angelic as he slept. He had merely wanted to save that moment. One minute preserved in the fine lines and muted colours on a single sheet, one emotion encased in a two dimensional matted gloss box.
Through his tears, Eiji remembered telling her that he and Fuji weren't even close friends. He had panicked when she caught sight of it, and had wound up lying, and then lying even more to cover the first ones. She hadn't said anything, only smiled at him, a strange knowing look that crossed her face when they crossed paths again one day. Even then, he had suspected that something was wrong. Yet, after his failed confession, bitter and uncaring, he gave it to her, with dark promises whispering in his heart. Like a child, he waited with bated breath to see how the story would turn out.
There were no happy endings. They weren't children anymore.
Tezuka's clothes were immaculate as always, the pressed lines in his pants clearly visible as he strode briskly past the freshly mowed lawn and towards the sanatorium.
He liked to throw on an ensemble of outfits that were smart but casual, as it made Fuji happy to see him in nice clothes. His eye for good taste and style hadn't diminished despite everything, and Tezuka liked knowing that the sweet smile was just for him, and his efforts had been appreciated.
The whole day, Tezuka had been unable to shake off the feeling of unease that plagued him, until he made up his mind to visit Fuji right after school ended. He had hoped that quitting the tennis team altogether, would leave him with more time to keep Fuji company, but there were still school duties and other administrative matters that remained. He looked forward to surprising Fuji, especially since he had been unable to visit him for the past couple of weeks.
"Ahhh, Tezuka-san! You're here again!"
The head nurse beamed at him as she took the large bouquet of lilies from his arms. It had become Tezuka's habit to bring something beautiful with every visit. He began by bringing a simple wind chime for him on his second visit, when he realised how starkly painful it was, to look at the empty white walls devoid of any personality.
Sometimes, he couldn't believe that everything had actually happened. He looked at the empty shell that housed Fuji's soul once upon a time and he couldn't imagine that the polite but emotionally absent youth had been one and the same person. He remembered the blurs in the photographs, and how they had chased after a stranger after catching a glimpse of the back of her coat that day. It was as though they had been chasing the same story, but somehow, somehow along the way they had been split up and now they couldn't find their way back.
Where did the line between dreams and reality blur?
Fuji's mind had broken down completely, and he didn't seem to recognise anyone or remember any portion of his past. Yet there were periods of lucidity where he seemed to regain control over himself. His mood swings were unpredictable, and the head nurse had informed Tezuka that there had been an isolated incident, where Fuji had thrown the entire vase of flowers against the door. The nurse on duty had rushed to the scene and witnessed the entire floor covered with porcelain shards and long stems of peonies and white roses. Fuji had been admitted into the hospital two months ago and the doctors had certified that he was far too weak physically, to be forced to undergo any strenuous form of exercise. Even so, all sharp objects were removed from his room, and no fragile items were left lying around.
They entered the lift together.
"How has Syuusuke been doing?" he asked quietly.
"Not bad at all! I think the previous sessions of therapy helped, he seems to be coming out of his shell more. He was rather polite and so eloquent, why I could barely tell that he was a patient here at our home!"
"Aa, that's wonderful. Thank you for your hard work and effort… "
"Not at all, Fuji-kun has the largest part to play in his recovery. It may not be my place to say this, but I know that you, probably more so than anyone, wish for Fuji-kun to recover fully and are doing your best to assist him……however, whether he eventually gets back his memories……"
"I understand. The doctors had informed me that in such cases of trauma, very frequently, the patients don't ever recover their memories, and lead new lives instead. Even if he no longer remembers me, I would accept it."
"Fuji-kun's very fortunate to have someone like you by his side…" she smiled uncertainly.
"Oh goodness, I forgot to tell you! He made such remarkable progress, and as a reward, we let him join the other patients at the rooftop garden, enjoying the good weather and scenery! If you hurry, I'm sure you'd be able to find him there."
The head nurse smiled at him reassuringly as she gathered the blossoms in her arms and stepped out of the lift.
It was the silence that he had noticed first.
A silent wave of sound that began ballooning wider, and expanding through the few patients and the nurses that remained on duty. A moment where people stopped breathing and the minutes seemed to tick by and still, nothing moved. Overhead, the warm orange skies were covered by the smooth, quick sliding of solid grey sand across the universe.
There was an emptiness yawning as great and dense as the sky that enveloped them all in its heartbreaking grip.
"Now, everybody…please don't panic, we have nurses on duty, nothing will go wrong...please proceed to the lift landings at the side…"
Something clicked in his mind then.
He turned and caught sight of the strangely familiar wheelchair, empty and deserted at the far edges of the roof.
Overhead, it began to snow quietly.
There were no happy endings. The bells could strike at midnight but the fairytale ended long before then. Only the rats remained to devour; only shards of what the glass shoe used to be; only dust where people used to be, ground against the dark, damp pavements.