"Happy Hatachi!" Eyes held the cell phone at arms length, examining it with incredulity. He blinked a few times, wondering if he had indeed woken up in the same world he had fallen asleep in. Outside his window, the January rain was falling with reckless abandon, a marked change from yesterday's sunny yet chilly temperament, but other than that, all was as it should be.
"Who is this?" He thought he knew, but… Surprised laughter erupted from the other end.
"Narumi," the laughing voice informed, confirming the guess, and yet, making Eyes more confused. "It's Narumi."
Still confused, Eyes looked around his penthouse. Was there a hidden camera somewhere? "Kiyotaka?"
There was a pause, and then a rueful sigh. "No, not Kiyotaka," the voice told him, slightly patronizing. "Ayumu."
"Oh." Eyes was still confused. The name didn't clear anything up at all. "I'm sorry, it's just that you both sound so…"
"Similar," Ayumu finished, "I know." There was a polite pause, but Eyes finally had to break it, no longer able to go without an explanation.
"If I may ask," he began, using his manners to disguise his bewilderment. "Why exactly are you calling me?" There was some more laughter, and Eyes really had to wonder if this was a bizarre dream. Yes, normal friends called and delivered well wishes, but not Eyes' friends, and it was debatable whether or not he was friends with the Little Narumi; whatever the personal feelings were on either side, outwardly, they treated each other with little more than apathy. (Excepting that one time where he nearly blew him up, of course.) This was a very bizarre occurrence, which certainly must have had a reason behind it.
"Well, I went with Kosuke and the girls to their Coming of Age ceremony yesterday, and happened to notice that you weren't there. Since I didn't get to see you, I thought I'd send my congratulations along." Eyes frowned. There was a trick here, there was always a trick with the Little Narumi. If there wasn't an ulterior motive, the boy was too spiritless to bother doing it at all.
"So why weren't you there? It is your year, right?"
"Yes, I do turn twenty this year." Which you know very well, his inner consciousness snapped, before he shook his head. Why was he even having this conversation? He turned to the windows again, watching the umbrellas far below him traveling the streets in packs, and the umbrella-less quickly sought refuge and escape under store awnings. Would that he could escape, too, from the eroding rains of the season, liquid or otherwise.
On the phone, Ayumu continued his fusillade of nosy questions. "Then, you should have received an invitation, after all, you are a part-time resident…"
"I got the invitation," Eyes said quietly. "I just didn't feel like going."
"Didn't feel like going to the Coming of Age ceremony?" Ayumu burst out laughing. "Honestly, Rutherford, it's a milestone in your life. Rio actually flew all the way back from Malasia for this. Sayoko was there, too, and hey, even I dragged my sorry carcass out to watch the thing." Eyes began to seriously consider hanging up the phone. "Why didn't you come?"
"There didn't seem to be much point," he replied softly. Then, changing his tone, "Well, thank you, I appreciate your well-wishes. I'm sorry, but I have to go now, so please-"
"Your party's on Friday."
This stopped him, only because it was so unexpected. "My what?"
"Your party," Ayumu said again, more slowly. "It's on Friday. So, three days from now. I have to say, we're all very relieved that you came back to Japan in time. We were afraid we'd have to cancel it."
The bewildered feeling was back. "I'm sorry, my…party?" He had trouble comprehending that thought. "What exactly are we celebrating?"
"You're birthday, of course!" As if it should have been obvious. "We're making nabe."
"Uh…" Eyes wasn't usually at a loss for words, but he wasn't quite sure where to begin. "My birthday…" Sweet Mercy, his birthday… "My birthday isn't even close to-!"
"Yes, well, you're always so busy," Ayumu taunted. "None of your friends got to go to your last five birthday parties, or ever do anything with you, really. You're always off in England…"
"I live there," Eyes reminded him.
"You live here, too. Besides, seeing as you didn't come to the ceremony…" If he'd known it would be this much of a deal… "We'll celebrate your birthday early. We're all together now, and who knows when we'll next be able to duplicate that?"
"You sure there's not another reason?" Eyes asked darkly, but Ayumu just laughed and drawled out his instructions.
"Remember, Friday! Bring something for the nabe pot!" And the little Narumi hung up, leaving Eyes to resume staring at his phone.
It was as if Kiyotaka's brother had morphed into that reporter girl. Where was the logic in having a birthday party weeks and weeks before the actual birthday? The only reason for doing so practically negated the reason for having a party at all. And who had decided he even wanted a birthday party? And nabe, of all things! Had he ever given off the impression that he particularly liked nabe? He didn't have anything against it, but… really, a nabe party? What had he ever done to make his friends believe that he was social enough to effectively enjoy nabe?
"I am not going to that," he told himself aloud, but one thought of Rio's pouting face and he knew he'd be attending. He sighed; he'd have to go shopping for melons tomorrow…
There were many perks to living in a hospital. Things were always clean and there was always someone able to attend to your needs. The food wasn't wonderful, but it wasn't bad, and it was always warm and on time. The view from the window was quite nice, the bed was large and soft and the room was spacious. A little too white, but overall, quite nice. And if you had a piano in with you… Well!
Unfortunately, hospitals did have a rather negative downside, in that they discouraged portable gas burners. And it was because of this that the nabe party was abruptly relocated from Ayumu's room to Kiyotaka's apartment. It was times like these that Rutherford being wealthy enough to have a car (and a chauffeur, besides!) was a true blessing. Had he been traveling by train, this sudden change of venue would have resulted in a horrendously late arrival, and an outrageous expenditure of coinage to buy tickets to the new destination, and ultimately, he would have been a grouch all evening. As it was, all he had to do was tell his chauffeur to turn around.
Upon arrival, Rutherford was greeted rather warmly by the group, then nearly bowled over by Rio, who insisted on throwing her arms around his neck and squeezing until he hugged her back. Ayumu watched the group interact with interest, as, being rendered stationary on the couch, he really had few other options. Rutherford was untouchable, as always, but his eyes revealed his true feelings: he was happy to see everybody. New to this encounter was a pointed effort to smile as he greeted each friend. He'd been showing real emotions more and more since Kanone's death, but Ayumu doubted Rutherford would ever completely shed the controlled mask helped him defy fate for nineteen years.
Still his emotions were genuine, and he even had a warm smile for Madoka, which was a little surprising, as Ayumu didn't think they knew each other all that well. But his sister-in-law had found her way into far more than she should have while the Blade Children were under investigation, and Ayumu was startled to realize how happy he felt at the thought of someone like her being around the Blade Children durring such a difficult time.
When had he started to care so much about these people? He had never been able to pin-point when, but it was probably around the time that he realized he mattered and could make a difference in the world. By realizing just how much he mattered to the Blade Children, the Blade Children started to matter to him, and no one had clung to their faith and hope more fervantly than Rutherford had. He felt relived that Madoka, someone who had been so full of support and enlightening comments for himself, might have been able to be another beacon of hope in a time that Ayumu couldn't find the light he was supposed to be shining.
Hopefully, she could continue to be a friend of the Blade Children, long after Ayumu was gone.
Thinking about such things distracted him slightly, and so he was startled when Ryoko popped up in front of him. "Nabe's boiling. Want some help?" Ayumu accepted her offer, and with her assistance, moved closer to the nabe pot, adding in some vegetables. Rio, who had been previously dancing around the room and praising Eyes' melon-shopping skills, paused to look Ayumu's way.
"Are you sure you're okay to leave the hospital? At least on Coming of Age Day you had a nurse with you…"
"You should talk," Kosuke grinned, and Ayumu nodded mirthfully.
"I'm not that fragile," he insisted, stirring slices of beef. "One night out isn't going to kill me."
"You sure?" Rio asked again, as Rutherford shook Kiyotaka's hand, then, after an awkward pause, chose to sit as far away from him as possible.
"Well, if it does, then this better be one heck of a party." It actually ended up being a rather nice evening. Not wild and rollicking, but then, that wasn't Rutherford's style, and even if it were, there were enough reasons to shun levity today. As much fun it was to talk, joke and eat nabe, everyone knew this was a very serious event.
But they were kind enough to try and forget it. To tell the truth, Ayumu had informed them that the first one to behave as if this were anything other than a normal birthday party was getting sent home. With those strict instructions, the awkwardness was held at bay, at least until it came time to give presents.
"You shouldn't have wasted your money," Rutherford said pessimistically.
"Oh, come on, Rutherford, it's your birthday!" Ryoko gently chided. "Well, sort of…"
"Kind of, not really…" Kosuke laughed. Rutherford gave a haughty snort.
"Kind of, not at all! It's nowhere near my birthday, and all of you are older than me, anyway!" He sighed aloud. "You just wanted to embarrass me, that's all."
"Well, there was that," Ryoko admitted happily. "Isn't picking on the baby brother what being a family is all about?" Rutherford glared at her, and Kiyotaka and Ayumu both choked. This conversation was going downhill fast, and Kosuke was quick to speak before Rutherford opened his mouth and killed the mood completely. "You always act so superior, so we like putting you in your place when we can."
That didn't help much, but Rio's words seemed a bit more effective. "You might not think of us a family, but we are friends, right?"
Rutherford could never be harsh or unkind with Rio. But he probably wasn't thrilled to remember that they were related, and still retained his scowl. "Just think of it as a way for us to express our appreciation," Ryoko said, and easy grin still on her face. "The Blade Children have never had an easy time of it, and we owe you a lot." Finally, Rutherford rolled his eyes and leaned back into the sofa, signalling his surrender. "Allright! Time for presents! Who wants to go first?"
Ayumu had to hand it to Ryoko for being able to hold herself together in such a delicate moment. Rio was on the verge of tears, and Kosuke was so nervous he nearly dropped his gift in the nabe. "We just weren't sure what to get you. Seeing as you won't be around in a few months-" Kosuke's mouth hung open as his eyes, and everyone else's, widened in horror. Ryoko looked as if she wanted to hit Kosuke, except that it would call even more attention to what he had said. "… to see the cherry blossoms! 'Cause… you'll be in England! Alive, and doing things, so… uh, so you wouldn't be able to see the blossoms at… Arima Onsen! Which was my first gift idea," he finished.
Rutherford was the only one who didn't look like the roller coaster had just gone careening off the tracks. "Yes, of course," he nodded in his even manner, "That makes perfect sense."
"So, uh," Kosuke continued, relieved that he had been let off the hook, even if it was by the very person whose feelings he was trying to spare. "Well, here, it speaks for itself." He handed a small package over, and when the paper was peeled back, it revealed some elegant wooden picture frames, and smiling faces of various Blade Children.
Everyone crowded around the pianist to see the pictures of themselves and friends from bygone years. "These frames are beautiful," Rutherford said, his hand resting on a sepia picture of himself and Kanone. "Thank you very much."
"Well, you know, memories are free…" Kosuke rambled off, but Rutherford was smiling, so it seemed a good place to leave it. Ryoko next presented him with a small crystal figure of a swan. "It reminded me of you," was all she could say, and Rutherford appeared curiously touched by this.
Rio gave her gift next, bounding all the way around the table to hand it to him. It was a tiny package, and Rutherford unwrapped it carefully as Rio rambled on. "I know you have about ten million of these, but it just seemed like the right thing to get you, you know, and anyway, since you have so many, I knew you'd like it…" She continued on in that vein as the present was revealed to be a dog-tag style necklace, with a crucifix embossed on the front. On the back, the was a short message engraved in English.
John 16:33"In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."
"And after all, one can never have too many necklaces-" Rio was cut off as Rutherford rose suddenly and wrapped his arms around the smaller girl. For several seconds, the room was rendered speechless, and even when Rutherford finally returned to his seat they were afraid to rupture the odd spell that had been created. "Thank you, Rio," Rutherford finally said, redundantly. "I will treasure it." He fastened the pendant around his neck as Rio blushed furiously.
Madoka gave the always-welcome gift of chocolate, Kiyotaka brought fresh irises, and Ayumu gave him sheet music. "Which is almost pointless, since you probably have all these pieces memorized." But it was the thought that counted, especially when it came to "Hiyono's" gift, mailed all the way from Germany just in time for the Coming of Age ceremony. Apparently the others had received like packages on their birthdays, and Rutherford began to look wary as he saw people ducking behind the sofa.
For all his care, confetti erupted and blanketed his end of the table, resulting in laughter and moaning alike. "Hey, there's confetti in the nabe!"
"Man, even when she's not here…" Slightly stunned, Rutherford shook confetti out of his hair, and further inspected the box, which turned out to hold a bright blue tie with a pattern of yellow smiling faces.
He stared at it blankly, as Kosuke nearly fell out of his seat with laughter. "Rutherford, are you ever gonna actually wear that?"
"Over my dead body," came the flat response. More laughter, but slightly tense, and Ayumu decided to rescue Rutherford from his unintentional Freudian slip, and announced that the nabe was once more fit for human consumption. From there on, the conversation drifted to more pleasant topics, such as Rio's work with deactivating mines, and Ryoko's upcoming race. "I'm a bit nervous; Sony's as good as said that if I win this, they'll sponsor me for the next Summer Games…"
From there, they moved on to discuss Rutherford's next concert, which would take place in Okinawa in a week. "I don't see why you have to go all the way to Okinawa," Rio moaned plunking her elbows down on the table. "Why can't you hold it in Kobe, or Osaka?"
The world famous pianist shrugged, serving himself up more nabe. "I have fans outside of the Kansai region, you know," he said, picking up his chopsticks. "Besides if you- Hey, who put squid in here?"
"I like squid," Ayumu said defiantly.
"Here, give it to me," Rio said, holding out her bowl. "You were saying?"
"You have a key to my apartment, Rio, it's not like you can't hear me play whenever you want. For free," he added, when Rio stuck out her tongue.
"Watching you in concert is different," she insisted, petulantly.
"Yeah, it's like- Wait, Rio has a key to your apartment?" Ryoko smirked evilly at Rutherford, though he chose to ignore her.
"Yes, I gave it to her years ago, when we had Hunters chasing us. She and Kosuke used to spend more time there than I did." He sipped some broth. "I've often questioned the wisdom of that, but as they haven't trashed the place…" Kosuke winked.
"Admit it, you're lonely on the penthouse floor." Rutherford just smiled serenely.
"Well, there may be some truth to that." He served up more nabe, this time careful to avoid squid tentacles. "Although that's hardly served if you visit while I'm out of country."
"Okay, we admit it!" Kosuke declared dramatically, "We like your penthouse better than we like you!" Rutherford rolled his eyes. "Sorry to break it to you."
Pouring herself a glass of mugicha, Ryoko allowed herself to smirk. "I don't think I've ever seen your place," she said. "Is it really that nice?"
"His stereo system's out of this world!" Kosuke lauded. "You've seriously never been over?"
"No," she said, casually grinning, "Why is that, Rutherford?"
"You hated me, remember?"
"Oh, yes," she recalled, laughing slightly to herself. "Those were fun days."
"Yes, I often relive them with fondness," Rutherford said with light sarcasm. "Since we've more or less buried the hatchet, I'll give you my other key, soon." Kosuke and Rio were busy fighting over how much cabbage to add to the nabe, and missed the last part of the exchange. Ryoko whispered out a soft "Thank you", to which Rutherford just shrugged. "Somebody should use it."
"It seems inconvenient to be always commuting between England and Japan," Madoka observed.
"And America, and Spain, and Russia…" Rio interjected, ignoring Kosuke and dumping in handfuls of sliced cabbage. Ayumu quickly put the lid on before she turned the nabe into a salad.
"I suppose I'm used to it," Rutherford explained, "I've been traveling back and forth between England and Japan since I was very young." He ate a piece of carrot, chewing thoughtfully. "Plane rides are one of the few times when I can be alone with my thoughts. It seems that once I land, there are hundreds of people to talk to, and hundreds of things to do." His bowl empty, and the nabe pot not yet ready to remedy the problem, he set it aside for the moment. "But it is highly inconvenient. Kanone complained about it all the time."
"Missed us, did he?" Rio asked.
"Just the takoyaki," Kosuke responded playfully. Rio rolled her eyes. "You're right, though, for not actually living here, you two were around an awful lot."
Ayumu laughed, lifting the lid off the nabe and giving it another stir. "Well, without Kanone and Rutherford around, who else would feed all the homeless cats of Japan?" Everyone laughed, diving for more nabe and Rutherford began to look thoughtful.
"I often envied all of you," he confessed, "While I was growing up." Stares of disbelief followed that statement. "Many of the Blade Children grew up together in this area," he clarified quickly, "A lot of you going to the same schools, many of you in the same age bracket… And me and Kanone got shoved off in Britain," he finished dryly. "Like rejected Blade Children." The redundancy of this caused Kosuke to snicker. "I often wished I had more people like me to talk to, people to go to for answers."
"And yet, somehow you managed to know more about the whole situation than any of us," Ryoko laughed, and Rutherford joined her.
"Yes, well, my frequent flyer points are absolutely horrific."
"You didn't miss out on anything, really," Rio assured. "We didn't know anything until you showed up."
"I still don't know anything," Madoka complained, and Kiyotaka patted her shoulder in a kind manner, but with a look that told her she was probably better off in ignorance.
From there, they polished off the rest of the nabe, and moved on to the cake. "And ice-cream!" Kosuke exclaimed. "Man, I hope you guys make this much of an effort when it's my birthday!"
Rio pretended to look disinterested. "I'd be happy with just a melon." Kosuke was about give a witty retort, but it died on his lips.
Ayumu finished it for him, as Ryoko became very interested in helping Kiyotaka cut the cake. "Well, if that's all you want, then that's all we'll get for you." Rio laughed easily, but Kosuke could only chuckle tensely, and Ryoko couldn't smile at all. Even Ayumu's smile was a little bit forced.
"You know," Rio began, cutting into the laughter, "It's strange, our birthdays. Some of us were born close together, and some further apart, but it doesn't seem to make any difference, you know?" No one knew, or at least, they wouldn't admit to it out loud. "I'm the oldest, but I look three years younger, and Eyes might be the youngest, but he's the only one who..." she trailed off when she caught sight of Ayumu's warning eyes, "who shows any signs of getting older." Closer to the time, showing signs of the curse...
"Yeah, baby-faced Ryoko over here never ages a day," Kosuke said in an awkward attempt to turn the conversation around, and Ryoko played along.
"Whatever, I still think you're a five year-old."
But Rio wasn't picking up on the cues, or felt she had to say her piece to the end. "It's too bad that we're… going to be so busy. We might not always be able to meet up on everyone's birthday. It feels like time is running out."
And it was, if Rutherford's chest pains were anything to go by. "Rio…" Ayumu began, trying to think of something consoling to say. He didn't exactly have a concrete time limit, but he couldn't guarantee that Rio wouldn't be alone on her birthday. Even if he could come, he might be the only one.
"You said you wanted a melon for your birthday?" Rutherford interrupted suddenly, and Rio nodded slowly. "Then I'll buy you a melon for your birthday." There was silence. "I promise."
More silence. Then, Rio smiled sweetly. "Thank you, Eyes." Kosuke ran a hand through his hair.
"You're lucky you have rich friends like Rutherford to feed your expensive tastes," he drawled. "I wonder where you get the money for melons when he's not around?"
Eventually, like all good things, the night had to come to a close. Rio and Kosuke, still bursting with energy and reluctant to end the reunion, tried to enlist everyone in continuing on to karaoke, but Ayumu was exhausted and Rutherford had to catch his flight to Okinawa in the morning, so they lost their crusade. "Maybe when I get back," Rutherford suggested, which was somewhat surprising; musician though he was, he'd never willingly participated in anything as potentially humiliating as karaoke before. But then again, he had been coerced into a nabe party, so karaoke was probably the next step in his Japanese social education.
"Good luck with your concert," Ryoko said in parting, giving her nemesis-turned-friend a quick hug goodbye. "I wish we could come."
"It'll probably air on NHK," Kosuke said casually, which Rio petulantly dismissed, saying that it wasn't the same thing at all. He shook hands with Rutherford, strangely serious, though trying to appear unaffected. "Call us when you get back, okay?"
"Of course," Rutherford replied, "Enjoy the rest of the school break." He gave a short wave to Ayumu, who responded in like, and it was only when he turned to face Rio that there were complications. "I'll be back soon."
"It doesn't matter," she said, and Rutherford raised his eyebrow. "I leave for Malaysia on Monday."
Once again, everyone's attention was simultaneously and inexplicably diverted elsewhere. "How long will you be gone?" Rutherford asked, looking slightly concerned.
"At least two months." Only someone who knew Rutherford well, someone who could see through the untouchable mask to find the kind, gentle and sensitive boy inside could possibly understand how deeply this was affecting him. There were only a few such people in the world who could claim to know that part of him. Unfortunately for Rutherford, all of them were in the room right then. "You know, Eyes, I don't have to-"
"No, go," he said quickly, perhaps too quickly. He was gripping his birthday presents unnecessarily tight. "What you're doing there is important." He left the rest of the sentence unsaid. "You should do all you can."
"Won't you be lonely?" Rutherford didn't answer, which for Rio, spoke volumes, but she merely sighed. "I'll miss you. Please be careful," she instructed, as she gave him a final hug.
"I will," he promised. And they parted.
Eyes did not particularly like visiting Okinawa in the wintertime. Nor did he enjoy being in England during the winter, or, at least, not anywhere north of London. Okinawa was hot, humid, sunny and gorgeous, even in the earliest days of the year. England, comparatively, had snow in the winter months, and while snow was cold, it was too picturesque and pure to truly reflect the mood that typically overcame him at this time of year. London was closer, with it's gray hues and muddy slush but it never was quite right. It wasn't wet enough, it was too foggy, too cold, and the wrong kind of cold. London was like a cracker to a starving man; better than nothing, but not enough to fill him up. England was not the place to be in the winter, nor this tropical island. Winter was not a time for fragile purity, or for exotic ocean sunshine.
No, winter was a time for rain. Winter was a time for overcast, gray skies, endless downpours, and maybe, only if you were feeling slightly hopeful that day, a few flakes of snow to float around the populace. Winter was a time for running errands in Sannomiya, clutching an umbrella and listening to amateur musicians singing about broken hearts as you hurried along your way. Winter was a time for waiting at the Kobe JR, watching from the platform as the city got drenched. Winter was a time for wandering aimlessly down the streets of Osaka, past thousands of shops, restaurants and distractions, feeling both exposed and overlooked.
Winter was a time for Kansai. Each year, as time ticked closer to That Day, he longed to be in his Japan, walking down his streets, holding up an umbrella under his rain. And, best of all, when he had sufficiently indulged his gloomy thoughts, to come inside, sit at that piano by the window, face that rain and play! Play like he had never, could never play before, defying fate in his own special way. Outside, the rain faded everything into a wash of gray, but Eyes still continued to play and even nature couldn't stop him.
Eyes sat down on the piano bench, in front of thousands of eager spectators, and took a few seconds to gather his thoughts. He felt unusually alone. Odd, that he should be so uneasy when about to do that which he most loved, that which made him feel most at peace. He'd given concerts under many circumstances, once even under threat of assassination, with less reservation. Ah, but that time he had been Home, with Kosuke and Little Narumi and Rio watching from the hospital, and there had been snowflakes that evening… Now he was in Okinawa, which was so wonderful and beautiful, but in January, it lied to him.
He didn't need for things to be depressing at this time. He didn't want things to be depressing. But life didn't need to lie to him, and the Okinawan sky did. Eyes could see the beauty in a Kansai winter, he could find the hope, even when it was small, but the blatant cheeriness was something he couldn't face.
He began with a short piece he'd written that reminded him of Rio, thinking that she would probably be watching via internet, if she was able. Shelving his unease, he let his fingers roam over the keys, losing himself in a world of laughter, energy, childlike fervor and horrendously overpriced melons.
It was halfway through his recital, during Liebestraume No. 3, that disaster struck. A familiar pain, though alarmingly more sinister than usual, seized his chest, causing Eyes' left hand to fly automatically to clutch at his missing rib. No, not now! He felt himself double over slightly, but his right hand stayed rigidly on the keyboard, spasming as it tried to continue playing the piece.
Seconds passed like hours, and Eyes was dully aware of the confused murmurings that had broken out in the crowd. His right hand, still convulsing, desperately tried to continue, as if by playing just one of the notes in the chord, the spell would break. Splayed over the keys, it unconsciously plunked out notes, searching for the correct sound, while Eyes steeled his will and tried to force his body to sit up straight, his breath coming out in ragged gasps as he clutched at his chest. Keep playing, just keep playing, he told himself, don't stop…
He repeated the words over and over inside his head, feeling fear pounding in his heart. This was not like the other times! Don't stop playing…
But even as he formed the thought, he felt his body pitch forward, head slamming into the keyboard with a horrible cacophony of sound, that he only barely registered as he slid heavily and most disastrously to the floor.
He was fairly sure his consciousness departed for at least a second, but was it was only a momentary lapse, for as his eyes painfully regained focus, the audience was only just demonstrating signs of surprised horror. No, not like this, he felt a voice inside him say, Get up, keep playing.
Isn't this far enough? he thought to himself, nevertheless, he struggled to his knees and managed to pull himself back onto the piano bench before the stage manager, completely at a loss, appeared at his elbow. Eyes' fingers found their place and began stammering out the piece, quite clumsily, arms shaking. "Mr. Rutherford, what happened? Should we call you an ambulance? Are you all right? Mr. Rutherford?" Eyes just shook his head to all these questions, fingers gaining strength with each note.
"No, no, I'm fine," he said shakily, staring straight ahead with a petrified determination. "I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine, I'm fine…"
"Please," Eyes said softly, the melody regaining some sort of stability. "Let me finish."
At this, the stage manager reluctantly drew away, leaving Eyes alone on the stage to face his own personal Armageddon, armed with nothing but a piano.
It was all so wrong. The curse… he had been told, but he had never expected… His mind was in a terrible state of frenzy, and he played the piece with all the fervor he possessed. Was this the time? The time everyone had foreseen? But he didn't feel violent… just confused, distracted, panicked…
Scared. I'm scared, I'm scared, I'm scared, his mind shouted, as if his thoughts could carry across worlds. Keep playing, keep playing, don't cry, don't be scared, you're not a child, keep playing, you're not a child… Memories of a sorrowful time in a graveyard, lost in darkness, of a friend who promised to be there, who promised to guide him through… You're a nice person, Eyes. That's why you should cry. Everybody said that. You're too nice. Such a nice person.Kiyotaka, and Rio… You're in the habit of being cold and blunt, and companion-less. Yet, mysteriously, you're a kind person. Are you aware of that?Even Madoka Narumi… Was he truly that transparent?
"To combat fate, it is better to become a devil without blood or tears." I'm scared!
"Not being able to cry when you are suffering… is really sad." I have to keep playing.
"You'll be my friend, and cry for me." Kanone, where are you? "Even if I am lost in darkness, as long as you are my friend, we can progress." I'm scared!
Please help me! "When did we start to walk down different paths?"
"That's impossible…" Kanone, you promised me… "Because you're too nice of a person." Kanone, I need you! Where are you? I'm scared and I need you!
"Have a nice death."
And the keys screamed, because Eyes himself could not. They cried, because he couldn't, because it was so hard to remember how, because he had taught himself not too, because he just couldn't in front of all these strangers, because he had nobody to care, nobody to understand…
The instrument in front of him never sounded with such passion before, and ringing chords filled the concert hall with a sound that could pierce a man to his core. And when the final chord was struck, Eyes waited, letting it reverberate in his ears. It was music in the air, nothing more than that. His arms shook, his fingers trembled, but the pain was gone. He was himself. He was himself, not a mindless agent of Yaiba, a violent killer. For now, he lived. For now, he was nothing more than a piano player.
One who had just fallen and hit his head in front of thousands of people, on international television. Eyes sighed. Embarrassment was a small price to pay for the gift of life. I always hope… however lost I am… I always hope that this solitude will end with God's restoration…Taking a deep breath, he began his next selection, letting the music wrap around him like a blanket of peace. For now, he lived, and could go on playing.
His answering machine was full of worried questions, most of which went ignored. He took care of business, informing a few that he had simply felt ill that night, and needed some rest. His request to be left alone while he 'recuperated' was absolute, and only his closest friends challenged it.
Rio, he emailed, not knowing any other way to get a hold of her. He assured her that he was fine, regardless of what anyone else might be saying, but said little more. Ryoko and Kosuke were slightly troublesome; Japanese people were always up at strange hours of the night, and only by calling them at 3:00am was he able to leave a message without talking to them directly. Kiyotaka, he ignored completely. His "brother" was indeed the key to saving the Blade Children, in ways that still amazed Eyes, but here was where Kiyotaka's wisdom ended. He felt bad, ignoring the man who had helped him so much in the past, but all the wisdom in the world couldn't save him from this fate.
Ayumu Narumi was a different story entirely. Eyes had tried the same trick with him that he had tried with Ryoko and Kosuke, but Ayumu had anticipated it, and answered before the first ring had ended. Eyes had hung up in a panic, then lectured himself for behaving so childishly. At any rate, Ayumu now knew he was still alive, and any other details could be retrieved from the others. Eyes was alone.
He hadn't left his apartment in days. He was afraid to. He didn't know what was going to happen, no one knew what was going to happen. Even the Watchers couldn't anticipate exactly what was to come, though Kirie had been calling incessantly. But he ignored it, and spent his days playing piano, or busying himself with pointless tasks. At first, he spent a great deal of time staring out the windows, but then he began to experience slight fantasies of jumping, which scared him into finding other means of occupying himself. He had determined not to give up long before, but the fear of what he could do left a tiny room for doubt.
And there was always the realization that Kanone would have jumped out the window, after gently pushing Eyes to his own death. And therefore, he couldn't look out the window any more than necessary. He understood Kanone's poor, deranged logic, though he most definitely disagreed with it. It was hard for them to watch their friends being murdered, so in Kanone's mind, his actions were kindness. A rather hopeless point of view.
And yet, he wanted the dignity of dying as himself.
Benediction of God in Solitude. His favorite piece. A knock on the door asked to interrupt him, but Eyes ignored it. It was better to remain alone for this last movement. He played on, paying no heed to the rapping, and eventually, it ceased.
However, the sound of the doorknob turning was enough to deter him, and he spun in his seat to stare dumbfounded as the Little Narumi hobbled in. "Hey."
Eyes wasn't sure what part of this situation to address first. "How did you get in here?" he finally asked, flabbergasted. Ayumu held up a key with his right hand, leaning heavily against a crutch.
"I borrowed it from Rio before she left," he explained, sliding the key into his pocket. "Thought I'd come pay you a visit."
Eyes didn't recall extending the open-house invitation to him, but chose to ignore that. "You planned ahead for this?"
"I had a feeling we'd have this sort of situation with you," he said, staggering over to the couch, where he collapsed with a contented exhale. "This place is nice!" This only explained half of the mystery, however.
"Please tell me you didn't walk all the way here by yourself," Eyes grumbled, hoping Kiyotaka was waiting downstairs with a car and could whisk his deranged cloned brother back to the hospital.
"Of course, I didn't walk," he reassured. "I took trains." Eyes felt like banging his head on his piano. Ayumu was crazy, that was the only explanation. The boy wasn't acting like himself at all; he must have been put on medication, or suffered a minor head injury. Eyes told Ayumu so, but the boy just chuckled, as if bored with the conversation.
"What is 'acting like myself'?" he posed, picking up a paperwieght with his good hand and turning it over. "Is it how I usually act, or is that just a front? Or does 'myself' act like Kiyotaka?" He put the paperweight back on the table, upside down. "I don't know, I changed after meeting Hizumi, which you totally called, by the way. And you're only yourself with Kanone and Rio, so I don't think you're the best judge."
Eyes didn't bother reminding Ayumu that Kanone now needed to be refered to in the past tense. "You're manipulating me. Trying to, anyway."
"Succeeding," Ayumu corrected. A battle of wits, but for what purpose? Eyes couldn't believe that Ayumu would go to this much effort, even when the situation was as dire as it had been all those years ago, but this week, Ayumu had harrassed him to come to some stupid party, and had now left his hospital to travel across the city unaccompianied. For what purpose?
"If you keep doing things like this, you're going to hurt yourself," he muttered, to which Ayumu just yawned lazily.
"Well, you could have answered my phone calls, and then I wouldn't have had to physically come here…" Eyes was silent for a minute, internally berating himself. Yes, way to go Rutherford! Ayumu laughed abruptly, breaking him out of self-deprecating thoughts. "Sorry, I shouldn't have said that. Sometimes I forget that your personality is just an act, and you're really this giant, guilt-absorbing sponge."
Eyes did not appreciate being likened to a sponge. "I'm calling your brother. You shouldn't be here."
"Tell me why you won't go outside, and I'll leave gladly," Ayumu offered. When Eyes stayed silent, he continued, "If not, I'll kick, and fight, and probably make my condition even worse. I could end up seriously injured…"
He's doing that on purpose, the little- "Ever heard of the Blade Children?" he asked sardonically, "They're supposed to go murderously crazy and die around the time they turn twenty."
Ayumu looked up with mock surprise. "You don't say?" he exclaimed. "How fascinating!" Eyes felt anger boiling inside him, and Ayumu's flippant attitude wasn't making things any better.
"Yes, you want to hear something else fascinating?" he shot back, "I come of age this year, and I'm missing a rib!" He glared furiously down at his unwelcome houseguest. "Why did you come here?"
"I wanted to have a piano-playing party," Ayumu explained with an innocence he did not truly possess. In fact, it was downright sarcastic. "Just you and me, the one-armed wonder."
"Have you lost your mind?" Eyes shouted, his voice echoing in the large room. If Ayumu had, he certainly didn't seem worried about it.
"No, seriously," he said, digging through his backpack with his good hand, producing a heavy leather file. "I've been composing like crazy, and it would be nice to actually hear what these pieces sound like, you know, when you play all the notes at the same time." He wiggled his five workable fingers expressively.
Eyes just snorted. "So get Kiyotaka to play them."
"He's not as good as you."
"That's a lie!" Eyes cried, then blushed as the little Narumi started chuckling.
"Hurts, doesn't it?" he taunted lightly. "Now you know how I feel." Eyes frowned. His emotions were all over the place today. What was this lack of control? Was the time really that close? "I'll rephrase that," Ayumu said, breaking into the pianist's thoughts, "My brother's not you. Regardless of who the better pianist is, I prefer the way you play. I want you to play these pieces."
Eyes had to admit, he was mildly interested. But, not enough to override his crusade for solitude. "You should go home," he repeated dully, reaching towards the phone.
"Why are you hiding up here, Rutherford?" Eyes paused, hand hovering tensely over the phone.
In the end, he decided to give up pretense. "They've said so many different things about this time, like how we're supposed to die, or lose our conscious will" he explained, though he was fully aware that Ayumu already knew this. "I'm supposed to become a murderer."
"Not you," Ayumu said confidently. "You're too nice." At Eyes startled expression, he winked. "Are you aware of that?"
Eyes grumbled. "You sound like your sister-in-law," he muttered.
"Wow, I really am unoriginal, aren't I?" Eyes sighed, and once again reached for the phone. And was, once again, stopped. "Rutherford, do you really want to die alone?"
A quiet pause, then, slow shuffling towards the piano. "Let me see those pieces…"
It wasn't until late that night, moving into the early hours of morning, that Eyes felt the familiar pain in his chest, and collapsed against the piano. "Are you alright?" Ayumu asked pointlessly, as Eyes, struggled wearily back to a sitting position.
"Ayumu Narumi, you need to go." Far from obeying, Ayumu reached into his backpack and pulled out a tape recorder. He pulled a chair over to the side of the piano, facing Eyes, and sat down, inserting a tape. "Are you listening?"
"Yes, but I'm ignoring you."
"But I-" The pain shot through him again, cutting off his words prematurely. Ayumu looked up, while Eyes attempted to exercise some sort of control. He was failing miserably, eyes wide with panic and borderline psychosis. It occurred to Ayumu that he could actually be taking his life into his hands here.
But then he remembered that it was Eyes, and stopped worrying. He pressed the 'record' button and plunked the tape recorder down on the piano. "What's that for?" Eyes grumbled, finally sitting up straight but still tenser than one of his piano strings.
"For the last song you'll ever play."
There was a moment of dawning comprehension, before Eyes shook his head. "You have got to be kidding me." He gestured towards the door with his hand. "Just go, it's late… it's too late."
Ayumu leaned forward, speaking slowly. "Think about all your feelings. Fear, sadness, murderous tendencies…" He clenched his fist, emphasizing his speech. "Take all that…" he pointed to the piano, "… and convert it into sound!"
The other boy grit his teeth, eyes clenched tightly shut. "I can't… just go…"
"Honestly, Rutherford!" Ayumu exploded, "Are you a musician or not?"
He was met with a procession of minor chords, played with such force and intensity that Ayumu could only sit mutely as he was ripped apart by musical notes.
It was as if he was being murdered by the black and white keys that Eyes mercilessly pounded upon, like Eyes had bypassed Ayumu's body and was stabbing his soul, over and over again. Ayumu found himself offering a slight prayer of gratitude, Thank God he wasn't one of the Blade Children; he was just going to die early.
He'd always felt Eyes was too kind and caring, albeit deceptively so. Though he had killed, back when the past was shrouded in darkness, Ayumu felt he was too gentle and sensitive to ever be taken over by reckless violence, no matter what the data from the other Blade Children showed. All accounts by Kiyotaka, Kanone or Rio only confirmed that belief. He supposed he wasn't wrong; Eyes hadn't gone on a wild murdering spree, he was just channeling his new found feelings of hate into the piano. Ayumu remained stunned, watching it all play out.
After a few minutes of furious catharsis, Eyes seemed to calm, entering into a slower, beautiful, but no less heart wrenching movement. "This will never appear on any collections under my name, I hope you understand," he said at length, eyes closed and swaying slightly with the music.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Ayumu breathed, leaning exhausted against the piano. "What would you like me to call it?"
"Call it what you will," Eyes responded nonchalantly, "Just as long as people understand this was your idea, you house-crashing lunatic."
"Sure, sure," Ayumu choked out, laughing slightly. Eyes looked up, and was surprised to see tears flowing freely down the younger Narumi's smiling face. He was surprised, it mirrored his own feelings so effectively, but…
But today he was crying for himself. This odd behavior from Eyes shocked Ayumu into sitting upright, but his smile returned in seconds, and for a time, nothing passed between them but sweet, impromptu melody.
At length, Eyes broke the silence. "There's some cash in the top drawer of my desk," he said quietly, his fingers shaking. "Please use it to buy Rio a birthday melon."
Ayumu nodded, the music around him slowly rising in volume, speed and intensity. "Okay," he managed to whisper. Notes flew through the air, spiraling faster and faster, every now and then a hand breaking the pattern to hit an erratic chord, that seemed to clash at first, but then actually proved to be quite fitting. They were entering new territory now, the notes of love, laughter, fear, sorrow and even anger had been stripped away. Only the melody of pain remained, fingers flying desperately from one end of the instrument to the other, as if searching for new keys, looking for the answer to end all the pain.
But not there, so the anger returned. Anger rooted deeply in pain, in sorrow, in hopelessness. Hands rose up high, using gravity's power to descend with horrible, soul shaking chords, and Ayumu began to seriously fear for the safety of Eyes' piano. Chest heaving, tears falling freely onto those ivory keys, hands frantically searching for something that could not be found, avatars of a creator who had been overtaken, over-trodden, locked away in a world of despair… Ayumu ignored his own tears and forced himself to watch. He would watch what Eyes had to show him, he would learn what Eyes had to tell him.
He would understand as best he could. And, somehow, he would find a way to create life from utter destruction. It was the only answer he could give the remaining Blade Children. From Eyes' death, he would create hope for the others, in their last insurmountable wall.
I can only do what I can do, he thought. Just that. And Eyes, you can play. When faced with your fate, maybe that's all you can do.
But play, play for as long as you can.
With a gasp and a definitive thunk, Eyes' head careened into the wood of his instrument, then settled noisily upon the keys. Ayumu was unable to move for several minutes. When he worked up enough courage, he cautiously reached over, pressing his fingers to the musician's neck.
After three minutes, he solemnly shut off the tape recorder, picked up his crutch, and went to call his sister-in-law.
Kiyotaka finished playing the piece and turned to his brother. Ayumu's eyes were closed, his head resting against the pillow. "Well?"
Ayumu paused before answering. "It'll do," he said finally. "I hate to tell you, but Rutherford played that way better than you did." He shrugged. "But I suppose that's not something you can help. It is his piece, after all."
"What's it called?" Ayumu reached out for the sheet music, swiftly penning the title.
"There, it's done."
'Last Movement in the Spiral of Descent' (The Unwelcome Birthday Party).