Fujimoto sighed softly as he pressed down on the old keys of the forgotten piano. Despite having been abandoned here years ago by the last owners, its notes rang clear and true. He felt a sense of something beautiful imbued in the ivory as he carelessly teased a few chords from them.
It made him smile. He hadn't played since all those years ago, when long strawberry-blonde strands would bounce as she haphazardly attempted to dance, blushing under his scowl and rolled eyes. He couldn't supress a chuckle as he remembered how she would stamp and pout at him, whirling away in a fit of pique as the children watched and grinned at them. Slowly his fingers stilled, one last note ringing in the dusty air, as the smile slipped under the loss that twisted through him.
He sighed again, heavily this time, gusting swathes of dust-motes across the gleaming mahogany. It had been ten long years since he'd played. Ten long years of waiting and hoping, desperately searching for another glimpse of laughing eyes and smiling pink lips as he meandered through everyday life. Her last moments were framed in his mind in every moment, the depths of emotion in her eyes as she realised this was it, she was leaving him.
They had only just found each other as well.
His chuckle tasted slightly bitter this time, as he pulled the stool out from under the piano and carefully sat down, trying not to disturb the dust that was just waiting to choke the air. It wasn't like they hadn't met long before that moment. She had seemed so pathetic to him at first, a simple girl who got herself tagged by young men, laughing as they dragged her down the street, brutal intentions clear in their curling lips. He'd kicked their arses of course, no way was he going to let them do that kind of thing to anyone, but he'd sneered at her as he turned his back, dismissing her from his thoughts as soon as he looked away.
It was the singing that had first stirred him. The voice he'd heard in the park, a lilting melody that stopped everyone in their tracks, heads turned and eyes wide as they drank in the wonderful sound. He hadn't known it was her, hadn't been able to leave his position at the food stand to find out, but it had sat lightly in his mind for days afterwards, a calling note whenever his thoughts turned black.
Then she'd turned up at the after school centre. He'd been aggravated, thinking this weak little girl would just get in the way. She had no idea what was going on here, no idea what she would have to handle in this place. He imagined her crumpling within a day.
Instead, she proved to be something amazing. She hadn't wilted at the pressure, the heavy work load only seemed to galvanise her. Her affinity for the children was vaguely touching to watch, as she brought them out of their shells, helping each one to bring their own beauty to the foreground. In that first day she became a necessary piece of the puzzle, however much it had galled him to admit it at the time.
It was much later, that he began to realise how deeply she'd managed to nestle into his heart. The day when the debt collectors came, large, angry-looking men who sneered and mocked and frightened the children half to death. He hadn't been outside when they arrived; she had been the first to see them. And unlike any girl he'd ever known she didn't run for help, nor freeze in terror.
She'd thrown herself in front of them, arms spread wide and face furrowed in determination. There was no worry, no care for herself; her first thought had been to protect the children and he'd realised as he raced outside to meet them that she would have given up anything if it had meant none of them would get hurt. Even as he fisted his hand in the top of the leader's shirt, she'd yelled at him to stop, that no one had to get hurt.
It had been as he lay in bed that night, listening to her in the next room as she laughed to herself that he realised he respected her. Respected her more than he'd respected anyone. Even Sayaka fell below her in this. He couldn't quite allow himself to believe it, had shook his head and rolled over, hands over his ears to block the soft notes of her voice.
When they barely had any time left, everything had collapsed. The after school centre was gone, given up to the debt collectors. He hadn't been able to reconcile that, even knowing that Sayaka's husband had only demanded it to try and protect her, to try and keep her from the more brutal tactics of his father. He just couldn't accept that she would ever have given it up. So much joy and happiness was lost to those people.
Then his anger at his own futility had led to the accident; the sound of his bike screeching as the car blew through it still screamed in his head sometimes. He'd been lucky to come out with only a broken arm and a few scratches here and there, but the dark mood had already swallowed him by then. It was too much to care anymore and he didn't want to acknowledge that anyone was actually happy in this fucking world.
So when she started following him around, always happy, always looking at him with those soft eyes and that gentle smile he couldn't quite figure out, it had twisted at something horrible and deep inside him. He'd lashed out at her at every turn, almost scared to feel the anger and hatred dissipating under her hopeful touches and lovingly hand-made gifts. Her determination to please him, to make him smile scared him, and he reacted violently, pushing her away and screaming for her to leave him alone.
When she'd suddenly stopped behind him a thrill of something terrible had shocked through his body. He ignored it angrily, striding on with pretend nonchalance; it was her voice that forced him to stop.
"Fujimoto, I'm sorry for bothering you. This will be the last day, I'll leave you alone tomorrow."
There'd been something broken in the words, something that screamed at him to grab her and never let go.
He continued walking.
"Good, finally, some peace and quiet around here."
And then she really was gone.
The next day he'd woken late, expecting her to come knocking at his door with breakfast balanced precariously in her hands, just like every other day for the past month. It always vaguely amused him that she refused to use a tray, a slightly pouting expression on her face as she told him that it was more special when she put all the effort in herself.
It was an hour later that he finally admitted to himself that she wasn't coming, and snorting, he dragged himself out of bed.
This was it he thought, everyone gives up on you in the end. It had taken longer than he'd expected with her, but of course she'd finally left, just like everyone else.
He ignored the deep gnawing ache in his chest as he swung out the door, raising his backpack to his shoulder. The sound of voices in the room next to his reached his ears, and he smiled mockingly.
See, this is what you get for starting to care, he sneered at himself, then turned to leave.
It was when he saw Chiho and Chise, soft tears running down their cheeks as they struggled to pull the futon from the room next to his that the terror crashed into him. Suddenly he realised that something had gone horribly wrong. Something was different here, this wasn't her giving up. This was something else.
And he might have just lost the person who made colours come back.
He'd snarled at the two girls, fear running across their faces as they told him what little they knew. She'd visited their mother yesterday, a gentle smile on her face as she thanked her for loaning her the room for so long, but she wouldn't be needing it anymore. Chitose had tried to get her to tell them where she was going; the twins had launched themselves at her sides and begged her not to go.
She'd just sat there smiling, they said, tears unrestrained and aching as they dripped from her chin. She'd told them no, it was time, and then had slipped away into the night.
Horror raced through him as he flung himself out the door, desperation stretching his strides as he broke into a frantic run.
No. No, he wouldn't allow it. She couldn't actually leave. She couldn't leave him alone here anymore. She couldn't leave him without her tenderness, the strength he'd glimpsed that had amazed him. Not after she'd sang that night on the roof, lilting words that rang in his mind and uncurled something wonderful in his heart.
No. She just couldn't be gone.
He'd checked everywhere, breath panting harshly out of him as he sprinted through the entire city, searching everywhere he thought she might have gone. There was no trace of her anywhere, no colourful dresses swinging in the breeze, no laughter echoing down the streets. He'd expected to find her at the building site where the daycare had stood, perhaps getting one last look at it before she left for where ever she was going.
Not even the scent of her perfume remained. That taste of honey and sunshine that had lingered behind her had disappeared as thoroughly as she had.
He finally stopped running, leaning against a nearby wall as he winced at the agony running up and down his still healing arm. His breath wheezed out of him, choked with pain.
The sound of swings sent him whirling round, a sudden thought in his head. He'd seen her in the park once, standing inside the play area, talking to herself as she twirled round and round. It was the only place he hadn't checked and suddenly he just knew that she would be there.
It was her hair he saw first, soft reddish locks floating in the air, the moonlight pulling brilliant colours from its depths. He hadn't even realised that night had fallen, the chill hadn't been stronger than the one spreading slowly out from his heart as he'd desperately ignored the growing fear that he'd really truly lost her.
But she was here. She was here.
He called out to her, watched as she turned to face him, astonishment and something not quite hopeful flickering across her face. She stood and stared, fists curled at her sides as he dragged air back into his lungs.
"Don't leave me."
She'd gasped at his ragged words, and he finally found the strength to stumble over to her, reaching to rest his hands on her shoulders.
"Please, don't ever leave me," and he pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly against his chest. It felt like he could never let go, like she needed to be there, held in his grasp.
Then things started to get a little bit weird.
"Oi," growled the blue stuffed toy dog from his position at her feet. "She ain't got much choice in that thanks to you."
He'd gaped at the snarling toy, utterly shocked. It was only when she'd slipped out from his loosened grasp that he managed to drag himself out of the astonishment, the loss of her against his chest enough to send the thrill of fear shooting down his spine again.
"I'm sorry Fujimoto," she'd whispered, closing her eyes to the wince of agony that had lashed across his face. "I'm sorry, but I've got to go."
"No," he moaned, reaching out to touch her again. She dodged his reaching fingers, turning her head away as he let the hand drop to his side, clenched so tightly that he could blood welling beneath his fingernails. "No," he said again, hoarse and broken, "You can't leave me alone now. Not after everything. Not after all of this. You mean so much to me, to everyone. You can't leave."
The stuffed toy had snorted again, his eyes rolling as Fujimoto jumped in shock. He'd forgotten Ioryogi in his desperation. So strange that he could forget a stuffed toy suddenly standing up and talking all by itself in the face of losing someone he'd basically ignored when he first met her.
It just didn't seem as important when faced with that thought.
"Show him girl," Ioryogi had grumbled, something cruel in the stretch of his lips over gleaming white teeth. "Show him why you have to go."
She'd looked back and forth between them, uncertainty clear on her features. He hadn't been able to say anything, too confused and unsure himself to be able to centre his thoughts coherently. It'd been the blue toys nod that caused her to sigh, a sheepish expression on her face as she reached up to lift the ever-present hat from her head.
He gasped. The light of the spinning crown floating above her hair felt warm against his face, and he couldn't quite help himself from taking a step back. He wasn't scared; there was something too solemn and magnificent about the hovering form to feel fear, but it wasn't exactly everyday that a girl took off her hat to reveal a crown that looked like it was constructed from pure, brilliant light hanging unsupported in the air above her head.
"She ain't exactly human boy," the voice had cackled through his shock. "She's something else."
She'd raised hesitant eyes to glance at him, her cheeks flushing pink at the look of wonderment on his face. "Technically, I don't quite exist."
That washed away the shock in a sudden flood of deep, dark anger. "What? You don't even… You don't even exist? How? I don't… But…" He'd floundered in the downpour of thoughts and emotions, each one slipping from his grasp just as he started to get a handle on it. Her words crashed about in his mind, the feel of them not quite real as he gaped at her, the quiet screaming horror starting up again in the recesses of his mind.
Ioryogi howled with laughter, jumping up to land lightly on her shoulder, stubby arms crossing over his chest as he smirked at him. "She said not quite, you know. You should try to keep up boy, it's so much more crazy than that." She'd pouted at Ioryogi as he leant against her head, a deep sigh shuddering out of his small body. "You wanna hear the whole story lad? It's gonna blow your mind. For instance, you know all those stories about angels and demons and monsters in the night? Yeah, well, they're true," Fujimoto hadn't been able to do much more than stand and stare, his mind blank as he tried to take in the words.
It just… It just didn't seem real.
"One thing you probably didn't know, is that not everyone agrees with God and all his mighty wisdom," Ioryogi gritted his teeth here, fury in the furrow of his brow. "Not everyone thinks God has the right idea about things and that's where I come in." He opened his eyes, staring straight into Fujimoto. "I didn't always look like this you know. This is my punishment for daring to go up against God and trying to change things. This and, well… her." He swatted his hand against her head, chuckling at the grumble of protest she sent him.
Then something dark dragged his whole body down, sorrow and self-hate tightening his features. "It's all my fault really. I was too caught up, too self-righteous to notice anyone else. God tolerated us plotting against him, even accepted it in a sad way. But it was when others got caught in the middle that he became furious."
Fujimoto gulped once, sudden realisation strengthening him enough to speak. "By others you mean…"
"Yeah," Ioryogi mumbled. "Yeah, her." He sighed deeply, his hand coming up to rub affectionately at her hair. "Someone completely innocent, completely on the side-lines. She got caught in the attack and before we even realised she was there, we wiped her from existence."
Anger flashed through Fujimoto. He snarled, "How? How could you not notice her? How could you do that to someone?" He longed to reach out and hold her again, but something held him back, something in the piercing heat of her eyes as she gazed at him; something in her smile that told him not to.
Ioryogi stood there, shoulders hunched as if he was taking all the criticism into himself. "It was war lad," he murmured, self-deprecation curdling in every word. "It was war and we thought ourselves better than God. What did we care if a few innocents got trampled in the midst of it all?"
It was her hand on his chest that stopped Fujimoto from strangling the little shit. The tremor in her fingers as she looked at him imploringly, strength in her voice as she begged him to listen, begged him to forgive Ioryogi, that he'd only been doing what was right, that he'd changed.
It was at the last that Ioryogi finally lifted his head, pride in the curve of his smile. "Yeah, yeah I have. And so have you lad, and we both know why, don't we?"
They both turned to look at her, gazes soft with the secret they both carried. "Yeah," Fujimoto whispered. "Yeah I know why."
She blinked back at them, a distinct lack of understanding on her face as they both chuckled and gave each other knowing looks. Something heavy lifted in Fujimoto's heart. Something that almost let him realise what everything inside was singing out, the soft memory of her voice lilting away through his thoughts.
"Don't look so happy lad," Ioryogi's voice cut through the wondering path his mind traced. "We've not got to the end of this story yet."
Her hand fell from where it still pressed against his chest and she stepped just a little further away from him. Her look held him there again, the misery in her features holding him still. Ioryogi sighed once, then started again. "God managed to catch the last strands of her before she disappeared and pulled her back. He managed to retrieve her soul, the most essential part of her, but her life was gone. Her hold on reality was lost and that ain't something easily regained. The world's all about balance lad, and s'far as it was bothered, she wasn't a part of it anymore." He briefly paused, ignoring the way his voice had cracked in that last moment. Visibly he pulled himself back together, continuing on through the fine shivers that translated into him from her body. "There's gotta be balance, so God couldn't just put her back in the world. Instead, he gave her a task." With a flick of his wrist the forgotten back on the floor nearby flipped open and a jar floated out, filled with tiny round balls that glowed with brilliant colours.
"He told me to watch over as she collected these. To complete her task and gain her wish she had to fill this jar with pieces of hearts that she had healed. If she succeeded, I'd be returned to my original form and reinstated in heaven and she'd get to go to the place her heart most desired, alive and as if she'd never even been gone from it."
Fujimoto shuddered as he gazed at the jar.
It wasn't full.
"Yeah, you've realised haven't you?" Ioryogi growled. "It ain't full. She failed. And it's all your damn fault lad."
"What?" Fujimoto whispered, disbelief blanketing his thoughts. "My fault?" He stumbled back a step, agony lancing through.
Ioryogi chuckled hoarsely, misery turning his words to ice. "Yeah lad. 'Coz you know what? When she should have been out there, gathering the last few she needed, she was chasing after you," his voice had steadily grown louder as he spoke, until the last few words were screamed at Fujimoto, "She was chasing after you, while you fucking swept her aside at every turn. You fucking scum."
Fujimoto's face had twisted into pure unadulterated pain. Hatred, horror, agony all lashed around inside him. The words ripped at his mind, cruel lashes tearing apart everything they could find. There was nothing, nothing to hold on to, nothing to grasp as he sank below those terrible words: My fault.
Her voice barely made it to his ears. He couldn't quite hear her over the screaming.
"No," she said again, and the soft truth she radiated at him laced through the agony to reach him. "No, it was never his fault. If I could do it all again, I would do it exactly the same."
He blinked at her, incomprehension in every line of his face as she smiled at him. "I would always do it the same, just to get to be with you for that time." She closed her eyes as tears traced their way across her flushed cheeks.
"Because I love you."
His heart shone. Something danced from his chest, a deep wonderful glow surrounding it as it tumbled and waltzed through the air, finally coming to settle within the glass of the suddenly shining jar.
Then chaos was unleashed.
The crown above her head spun, then burst into a beam of shimmering light that surrounded her. She gasped in stunned amazement, Ioryogi howling with joy as winds whipped around the pair, lifting the fronds of strawberry blonde into weaving patterns inside the column of brilliant colour.
With Fujimoto on the outside.
"What, no!" he screamed, launching himself at the light. He crashed against it, the edge of it solid beneath his fists as he hammered as hard as he could. "No, please!" he begged, scratching his nails against the surface. Desperation lent him strength. He kicked and punched and threw himself at the glowing beam.
It didn't give. Not even a little. He was trapped outside. He was so close to her, so close. He flattened himself against the light, fingers spread as he gasped harshly, realisation dawning.
"No…" he whispered, "I love you too."
She gasped, her hand reaching out on the inside to flatten against the invisible wall that separated them. Their fingers were perfectly aligned, hers shorter and thinner, his white with the pressure he exerted upon them. She blinked away tears, joy spreading across her features like wings. "Thank you, Fujimoto, I love you so much."
Then they were gone.
He'd slammed into the ground, the supporting light no longer there. His head had hit something hard enough to send a brief flash of white through his mind, before there was simply, nothing.
Fujimoto breathed harshly as his fingers flew across the piano, the memory of that day still so agonising and beautiful at once. The melody he played was hers, the one he'd worked out some years after it all, when the memory of her singing hadn't sent him into fits of tears and screaming. He'd healed to some degree; the memories of her didn't make him grimace with loss anymore at least. Ten years it had taken him to get to the point where he could play her song on an actual piano, instead of holding the notes in his mind as worked them out and pencilled them onto music scores. He gasped with weakness, tremors causing him to slip a few notes and finally come to a fading stop.
Then he heard it. A melancholy voice breezing through the window to him. The words soothing the gaping wounds in his heart and bringing a blissful smile to his face.
Finally, he thought. Finally.
She'd found where her heart belonged.