A Warm Place [Utena]

jamais vu, n.: The illusion or impression of never having experienced something that has actually been experienced many times before (cf. deja vu)

     In the past two hours, the stars had shifted their appropriate distance behind the window pane, appearing from behind one of the curtains and disappearing behind the other. Mikage was quite pleased by this. So far they had all been behaving appropriately. Not one was out of place, and the night up until now had been cold and clear, facilitating stargazing from beneath a heavy down comforter, propped up against a few pillows, staring out into the night sky from the warm shelter of a darkened room.

      The room was dark. For the first time in nearly a decade, this did not bother him. The lack of light did not go unnoticed, though his attention was centred on the constellations. It simply had ceased to disturb him. Ruka had turned off the lights when he had left to go to work; he had most likely thought that the light would disturb his sleeping housemate. Ruka had been wrong on both counts.

      Within the past fifteen minutes, however, clouds had begun to obscure the starlight, the beginnings of a storm slipping in while sane people sleep. While sane people sleep, a librarian lies awake, and a radio man does a radio show, Mikage laughed softly to himself. As he stretched out his legs beneath the covers, the resulting stiffness made him realise that he probably hadn't moved in quite some time. Only the stars had moved, and he couldn't even see them anymore.

      As he had done so many nights before, in the clutches of one of his frequent bouts of insomnia, he reached for the clock radio he knew to be by the bedside and flipped the switch to 'on.' His reward for this action was half a song, the last half. Sounds of distorted guitars and amplified drums filled the room, followed shortly by the lead singer's soft, gritty voice.

      "Deaf, dumb, and thirty, starting to deserve this, leaning on my conscience wall, blood is like wine, unconscious all the time, if I had it all again, I'd change it all..."

      Sighing, Mikage fell back against the pillows and pulled the covers over his bare arms. Even after a decade of playing the most eclectic American music, Ruka still did not speak much English, not nearly enough to know what most of his songs meant. This comforted Mikage somewhat, since if Ruka's musical selection had been voluntary, many times Mikage would have been honour-bound to drive down to the station in the middle of the night and kill him as vengeance for his musical selection's commentary. As it was, however, he simply felt the frequent urge to wipe out Ruka's music collection as a preemptive strike against a growing self-aware intelligence that might compete with the human race for superiority.

      But he knew it wasn't Ruka's fault, any more than bizarre sentience had been the fault of the three overly dramatic girls exercising their overly dramatic avant-garde metaphors while backlit. Some things are, and some things comment upon them. Here, on the outside, Ruka had become the commentator, the radio man, the narrator.

      Literary critics have discussed the idea of first person storytelling almost since the birth of literary criticism, with one of its most interesting iterations the idea of the unreliable narrator. In a first person work, everything the audience hears and sees is filtered through the eyes of the one telling the story. But if the narrator is misinformed, or insane, or intentionally misleading, what becomes of the story? What is left to believe?

      "Got a machinehead, it's better than the rest, green to red, machinehead, got a machinehead, it's better than the rest, green to red, machinehead..."

      Repeat and fade, repeat and fade. Ruka's songs were always so formulaic. Well, not all, perhaps, though enough that the formula became apparent. Sometimes it was changed -- inverted, missing a particular part, substituted for something else -- but rarely did it ever truly change.

      "Don't touch that dial, don't hang up that phone, this is Tsuchiya Ruka at JSPR 88.5, and you're listening to Shadows of the Underground. That was 'Machinehead' by Bush, off one of the tens of thousands of disks that clutter up my studio, my living room, my bedroom ... even my bathroom. And before you ask what CDs are doing in my bathroom, let me tell you that you don't want to know. Eh, I don't even remember where I got this CD; probably sent in to me by one of my loyal listeners. See, folks, when I say that people just like you make this show possible, I mean it."

      An American serviceman, Mikage remembered, rolling onto his back to stare at the ceiling. The stars were completely obscured by clouds now. An American serviceman who had enjoyed Bush and claimed that Ruka was the only DJ on the air who would even consider playing it. Mikage's curse of a memory filled in the blanks.

      As the obligatory commercial break began, he swung his legs out of the bed, wincing as his bare feet set down on a jewel case. Ignoring any potential damage, he kicked the empty CD case against a wall and pulled himself to his feet. The room was too warm; Ruka always kept the entire house too warm. Pushing open the window nearest to the bed let in a cool breeze, almost to the point of being too cold. However, in contrast to the artifical heat in the house, it felt good.

      Ruka still reacted almost violently to the cold; venturing outside in inclement weather always followed a production of layers, coats, scarves, and whining. But Mikage never bothered with much more than an ankle-length peacoat shrugged over his shoulders, even on the worst stormy nights. After all, he had been dead longer than the kid had, had spent more time in the vaccuum that was the wings, backstage. The cold simply seemed too familiar to bother him.

      Splashing cold water on his face, hearing a voice from the next room use the air time that had cost as much as premium spots to chatter on about some new product, he blinked at himself, belatedly, for thinking of Ruka as 'the kid.' He hadn't thought of Ruka as that in a long time, not for years.

      "All right, ladies and gentlemen, now that our little tribute to commercialism is over, you are now once more listening to Tsuchiya Ruka, 88.5 FM JSPR, and you will be listening to me for the next several hours, unless you get the sense to turn off your dial and actually get some sleep. We all know what kind of people are awake at this hour."

      Yes, Ruka, Mikage thought, finishing the sentence for the rest of the radio audience. We all know what kind of people are awake. People like you.

      But he had, at the beginning, thought of Ruka as little more than a kid. Mikage had felt so very old, as if he had lived forever already, and had acted like it. Ruka had made the transition not without trauma, but without bringing with him the obvious, all-pervasive cloud of madness that had hounded the former professor. Even though he suffered from the same burden of rememberance, Ruka seemed more like the amnesiac survivors of the strange universe than one who lived his grief daily. He had seemed young, and Mikage was so very old.

      "You know, on a random note, which I'm allowed to do because I have the microphone and you don't, I got a letter the other day announcing my ten-year high school reunion. Man, you just don't notice these little things like, for instance, the passage of time, until all of a sudden there's a letter in your mailbox telling you that you're ten years older than you remember being last you checked."

      But Ruka was not a kid, Mikage learned very quickly, despite all his appearances and adolescent quirks. He was just better at fighting his age, the ancientness that comes with being sixteen for a very long time. Drawing a comb through his whisper-fine hair, Mikage paused for a moment to check for grey hairs. None there, so far as he could see, though his hair was so light and blonde that he would probably wake up one morning and find it all not grey, but snow-white.

      "I always thought I wouldn't go to my ten year reunion, based on the fact that anyone I really wanted to see I just wouldn't lose track of. But sometimes it's not that easy. So I'm going to go, probably with a couple of friends of mine. At any rate, I suppose it'll be fun enough to return to Ohtori Academy and see all the people I graduated with that I've lost touch of, see how many of them my poor, messed-up brain allows me to remember.

      Mikage had, for the most part, given up on lecturing Ruka about his illicit drug use (except for the time Ruka had tried to get Tsuwabuki, who at the time was seventeen and seeking help from Mikage about his relationship with Nanami, high). Just as he smoked cigarettes in defiance of his own mortality, he smoked pot with Touga and Saionji, always careful to hide his habits from Mikage, but never quite careful enough. Mikage could never help seeing this conscious destruction of brain cells, however, as anything but an attempt to somehow gain the amnesia the others had been granted. It never seemed to work. Some things, he pondered, rubbing the side of his face and gauging how badly he needed a shave, your brain just won't let you forget. No shave, then. First a shower. Never mind that it was three in the morning.

      "So that's coming up at the end of June, and I'm sure you'll all hear all about it, about who married whom, who's shacking up with whom, and which prom queen has gotten fat and ugly. And until then, we have music! Coming up this hour I've got...let's see, what do I have?" The sound of jewel cases being shuffled. "All right, here's a little something from the Stones, a little something from the Cure, maybe some Garbage -- and that's the band, not a comment on my music taste, for all you critics out there. But first, just to spite all the English-speakers listening in right now, Alanis Morisette, with 'Front Row.'"

      "I know he's blood but you can still turn him away you don't owe him anything...."

      The rest of the song was drowned out by the roar of water in the shower as Mikage stepped in and let it wash over him. Ruka was right; even though Mikage spoke English as well as he spoke Japanese, he couldn't understand most of the lyrics to the woman's songs. That was, I suppose, what Ruka heard all his music as, not as a singer with an accompaniment, but with the voice as just another instrument.

      Which did not excuse his taste in music, per se. When they had first begun living together, ten years ago, when Ruka had found Mikage, shivering, huddled in a doorway, and had offered him half his house as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, Mikage had been nearty horrified by Ruka's music tastes. To an ear wired toward Bach, the Jesus and Mary Chain was highly unfamiliar cacophany, and at first the complaints about Ruka's music selection had been genuine criticisms born of distaste for the sound.

      After a while, though, like the nagging about Ruka's cigarettes and other bad habits, the insults of the music had become a strange ritual of friendship. Mikage knew that he would never change Ruka's music selection, and Ruka knew that Mikage would never grow to share his tastes wholeheartedly. Though he'd never tell Ruka, Mikage had actually developed a fondness for some of the strange foreign music, especially Bush. But sharing this with Ruka would be like conceding defeat, and neither friend wanted the battle to end. Not only was it fun and highly entertaining to anyone around, but it was another means of affirming their familiar identities. Look, I still hate your music and you still smoke even though I tell you not to, so we're all right, we're still ourselves. Right?

      Right, Mikage told himself as he let the water run down his back. After all this time, the one thing he should know was that you can change what you do and who you claim to be, you can change what you call yourself and what you look like, but you can never change who you are. You can never escape it.

      Hot water worked for him a lot like caffeine; it was something to feel, something definite to experience. After the hyper-reality of the inside world, the dream world, whatever it had been, the real world grated like sun on a desert landscape. Nothing felt anymore, and what did feel felt dulled. The caffeine helped; it woke him up, and he was more addicted to it than he'd ever admit to anyone, including himself. But not for the jolt that it gave most normal drinkers, but for the fact that it prodded his nerves into consciousness. Hot water, as well, boiling hot showers that steamed up the entire top floor, could be felt beyond the anaesthesia of reality. He washed the soap from his hair.

      With a fairly forceful twist, he stopped the flow of the cold water a few nigh-unbearable seconds before he stopped the hot, then stood, dripping, in the middle of the bathroom. In the new silence, the music slipped in from the other room.

      "Miller's angels in black and white welcome everyone in, children dreaming of wrong and right, wrapped in grace and in sin...."

      Counting Crows hadn't been on the lineup; how long had he been in the shower? Peeking out of the bathroom at the red numbers clocked his ablution at nearly half an hour. It had felt like much longer to him, and yet like no time at all. Hourglasses can run backwards, he supposed, but digital clocks can run any way they choose.

      Drying off, he reached for the nearest shirt, carelessly tossed over an open dresser drawer, and pulled it on over his shoulders, brushing away the still-damp hair that dripped on the collar and down his back. He ruffled it clean with a pale blue and purple towel, which he fastened low on his hips, then reached for the telephone.

      "JSPR, Tsuchiya."

      The ghost of a smile on his lips, Mikage walked over to the open window. "'Miller's Angels'? Really, Ruka, you're slipping when I can recognise something on your playlist."

      "Slipping?" Ruka's voice sounded the way it always did when Mikage called him at the station, slightly drunk on the awesome power of broadcasting, though perhaps a bit on the less universally maligned side tonight. "I figured I'd play something for all the old fogies out there." His million-dollar grin was audible through the phone, the same million-dollar grin that, through the airwaves, landed him the highest ratings for his spot year after year -- and the million-dollar advertising figures that made him the station's most valuable asset. "What are you still doing up?"

      "Couldn't sleep, wanted a shower; the usual." The storm had started. A thin powder of snow covered everything now, and more fell from the sky in the gentlest possible flurry. "It's snowing."

      "They come out of the blue sky, they come out of the blue, they come out of the blue sky, but you never know where they're gonna go; hey, Romeo..."

      Ruka sighed audibly; Mikage bet that he had forgotten his jacket at the house. "This late in March? That's criminal."

      Laughing, Mikage shrugged. "It's actually lovely. Well, from inside."

      "Miller's angels are hovering in between the earth and the sun; in the shadow of God's unwavering love, I am a fortunate son...."

      "I'll bet." From the other end of the phone came the shuffling sound of more jewel cases, more music being hunted for, being selected. "Hey, Souji, you okay?"

      "Don't wake me please, don't wake me, I was dreaming, and I might just stay inside today, I don't go out much these days...."

      Mikage smiled again, brushing some snow from the windowsill and letting it melt on his fingertips. "Yeah," he said thoughtfully, watching the white flakes turn into water and drip down his hand. "I'm all right. Nothing a little coffee couldn't improve, though."

      Ruka's laugh was genuine, but distracted. "Hey, Souji, the song's almost up and I've got to make an appearance or they'll think I've set the station on autopilot and run off to China or somethng. Call me back later?"

      "Sure." Hitting the talk button on the white cordless phone, Mikage ended the conversation, though he didn't move from the window. His wet hair hung cold and damp against the back of his neck, and he wrung it out with the towel again. For being terribly fine, his hair held a lot of water.

      On the radio, the song faded out a little prematurely, due to Ruka's penchant for cutting off a song early rather than fading away, fading in to Ruka's voice. "JSPR 88.5FM, it's now nearly 3:30 in the morning, and you're listening to Shadows of the Underground. I am your host tonight, the one and only Tsuchiya Ruka, accept no substitutes. And now I'm about to say the words that strike terror into your collective hearts: I don't think I've ever played this particular tune before. Well, not on the air, anyway, though I can't remember having heard it before. But I've got it, and that means it's got to be good, so let's give it a go, what say? You all can send me a couple of e-mails telling me how much it sucks. For the first time on Shadows of the Underground, here's Moby's 'God Moving Over the Face of the Waters.'"

      The trill of a synthesised piano started softly, reminding Mikage of rain in the way that only a piano can sound like rain, followed over by synthetic strings, swelling softly into an image one could very well indeed believe was God, primal and mysterious, stirring the waters at the beginning of Creation. A beautiful image for a snowy night. He did not call Ruka back, not yet, nor did he expect Ruka to call him; he made his way downstairs and went for the coffee machine instead.

      Ruka's narcissism about his job meant that the house had no shortage of radios, though as small as it was, one well-placed radio could have sufficed. Still hearing echoes of the faux symphony from upstairs, Mikage switched on the radio in the same motion that turned on the coffee pot. Instantly, the latter little black machine started percolating; in a house with one as addicted to coffee as the insomniac shadow, coffee is always only three minutes from being prepared.

      This house was one of this universe's great mysteries for Ruka and Mikage. When Ruka had snapped awake into the real world, he had attended Ohtori, held an ex officio position on the Seitokai, and was preparing to graduate a year ahead of the others his age, all very plausible components of a high school junior's life. But he had a house, completely paid for and owned by his family for several years, a random acquisition years back by some forgotten uncle that had left it to Ruka when Ruka was very young. So Ruka had a house. Sometimes this universe seemed as bizarrely coincidental as the last one, but these things were not to be questioned.

      God? Perhaps. Mikage had never bothered to think that far; difficult topic, indeed, after coming from a place where God was highly malevolent. Or, at least, half of him was malevolent, the other half being quite dead. It was rather a philosopher's dream.

      The Moby piece went nowhere very quickly, but did so in a manner so lovely that when it was finished, Mikage had his mug of coffee in his hands and had not noticed the passage of time. Black, two sugars this morning. He'd drink coffee any way it was offered to him, but when he was preparing it himself, black and sweet was his preference.

      "All right," Ruka's voice began as the song wound down, "that wasn't half bad, and the rest of you seem to think so too, so we'll just put that right over here in the stack of stuff I'll play again."

      Outside the window, snow had begun falling more heavily; the single orange streetlight in view of the kitchen window was the only thing to give enough light to evidence this. Snow reminded him of other peoples' memories.

      "I just checked my clock, and though it's not quite 4:00 yet, it sure as hell feels like it over here. You know, that time of morning where if you're trying to stay up all night, you've got another half hour or so and you're golden. So I've got my cup of coffee, and I know someone out there who probably has his by now, and know we're not the only caffeinated ones in the prefecture. So take a minute to refill your mugs for the long haul, and here's '4AM,' by Our Lady Peace."

      With a long sigh, Mikage drained the rest of his coffee mug and put it in the sink, running a bit of water over it. More caffeine would be nice right now, but outside was snow, and snow was allowed to have a slightly dulled edge. Snow was soft, he thought as he looked out the window. Snow was soft and beautiful, cold and quiet, everything that he could appreciate the way he was.

      "I walked around my good intentions and found that there were none; I blame my father for the wasted years, we hardly talked, I never thought I would forget this hate, then a phone call made me realise I'm wrong...."

      Mikage picked up the portable phone from the counter and dialed his immediate supervisor's voice mail, telling her that he was sorry, but he felt ill and wouldn't be in the next day for work. Tawa-san was accustomed to these kind of phone calls, happening once every three months or so after a particularly bad night of insomnia, and she understood, so long as the call didn't come in the middle of finals. But this was the middle of the semester, and they could afford to miss him for a Tuesday.

      Wednesday. What day was today? He had forgotten.

      Halfway back up the staircase, he realised that he wanted to go outside. More than that, he wanted to go take a long walk. Yes, he informed the more rational segment of his brain, a walk in a snowstorm. And that would take putting on clothing, which was why he was walking upstairs in the first place instead of staying downstairs and doing something on his computer. He hated it when his body knew what he was going to do before he did.

      "I walked around my room not thinking, just sinking in this box, I blame myself for being too much like somebody else, I never thought I would just bend this way, then a phone call made me realise I'm wrong...."

      Buttoning the shirt he had on already, he untied the towel around his waist, folded it neatly, and placed it on the stack of linens that needed to be washed. Or, in the case of that poor multicoloured towel that had seen many better days, incinerated. To prepare for the cold, he slipped on a pair of boxers, khaki slacks, heavy woolen socks, and a rather heavy white cardigan.

      Once upon a time, his room had been organised. Once upon a time, it had been practically sterile. But that was when merely thinking about something hard enough could make it happen. However clean his room might be, especially when compared to his housemate's living space, the entropy that Ruka generated had seeped into his compulsively tidy room. He was presently searching in the bottom of his closet for the scarf that Saionji had given him for his last birthday. A royal purple scarf. The lack of colour coordination in this universe never ceased to secretly delight Mikage. The scarf ended up tucked into the boots he wanted to wear; how convenient. Occasionally his closet had its benevolent moments. But mostly, it was a mass of chaos.

      "If I don't make it known that I've loved you all along, just like sunny days that we ignore because we're all dumb and jaded, and I hope to God I figure out what's wrong..."

      Without thinking, as one song faded into the other, he picked up the phone resting atop the folded, damp towel and dialed the number of the radio station. Phone cradled beneath his ear, he struggled to get the boots on. They buckled up to his mid-calves and generally caused him problems. "JSPR, Tsuchiya."

      "I'm going for a walk," Mikage said without preamble. The last buckle snapped into place and he stood, testing the way they felt. He hadn't worn them in a while.

      Ruka's surprise was audible. "A walk? It's snowing."

      "When I'm all alone and no one else is there waiting by the phone to remind me I'm still here..."

      The scarf that Saionji had given him wrapped around Mikage's neck warmly, and he started downstairs. "I know. I'll have my cell phone with me." A pair of radios played in the background, but he wasn't particularly listening to the lyrics.

      "Souji?" Ruka's voice was strangely serious. "Are you okay?"

      "I'm fine," Mikage reassured him honestly, retrieving his heavy overcoat from the hallway closet and slinging it around him. "I just need to think a little while, and it's beautiful outside. I didn't want you to be worried if you called the house and I didn't answer."

      "Life can hold you down when you're not looking up; can't you hear the sound, hearts beating out loud; although the names change inside we're all the same; why can't we tear down these walls to show the scars we're covering..."

      Ruka's voice sounded as if it were trying to smile, but doing a strangely bad job of it. "If you hadn't answered, I would have assumed you went to bed like a sane person."

      "This from the man who works nights voluntarily." Mikage cracked open the front door. No wind stirred the landscape, though the snow fell heavily. It was the perfect silence. He could barely see the street in front of the house.

      "It takes all kinds," Ruka replied. "It's cold out there, Souji. Don't stay out too long."

      Mikage laughed. "You sound like me now." Hanging up the phone, he placed it on the bottom step where someone would eventually see it and put it in its proper place. That was the way of things in this household -- eventually, everything found its way to where it belonged. Some things just took a little longer than others.

      Contemplating the landscape before him, Mikage reached into his pocket and pulled out his tiny radio walkman and earphones. These would keep him company. He switched on the radio just as the song was repeating and fading, according to the formula, and conceding air time to Ruka's voice. Taking his last warm breath for some time, he stepped into the night.

      The softness hit him like a heavy blanket, a comforter thrown over his head, and for the few moments between turning on the radio and lifting the earphones to his ears, everything was blissfully quiet, the same silence found in the outer atmosphere, the silence between acts and scenes. And then the silence was no longer silence, but Ruka's voice. "That was 'Inside Us All,' by Creed, coming right on the heels of '4AM' by Our Lady Peace, which I felt obligated to announce, as it is now four in the morning, or a few minutes past."

      Snow along the sidewalk had not had time to compact or crystalise, so instead of crunching beneath Mikage's feet, it whispered like the powder it was. He had been denied a childhood, perhaps, but he could still recall playing in the snow before he got here, only once, on a day almost completely unlike this one, save the heavy precipitation.

      Something about snow this heavy made breathing difficult. Or perhaps that was the weight of memories on his chest. This analogy made Mikage laugh at himself; memories have no tangible mass. They weigh as much as shadows. His breath plumed from between his lips.

      "If you're still listening to me after all this time, you know who I am and where your dial's set, so I don't think I really need to identify myself again. However, for the handful of you out there who just sort of found yourself here tonight and are listening for the first time, I'm Tsuchiya Ruka and this is Shadows of the Underground on 88.5 FM JSPR. Now that we've got that settled, I'd like to hear from you all out there in the real world, so drop me an e-mail at shadows@jspr.co.jp, and I'll see what I can do for you.

      "Yeah, the real world, or what's left of it. It's my opinion that the real world doesn't happen from about midnight until somewhere around seven in the morning. Everything else can be real, but there's something kind of dreamlike about this time of night, isn't there? I bet it's even more so tonight; this basement of a radio station, sadly, has no windows from where I'm sitting, but I hear the snow is coming down hard outside."

      Quite a snowfall it was, Mikage noted, wandering slowly down the street with the walk of a man who has nowhere to go and is in no particular hurry to get there. The occasional streetlight cast a dim orange glow; he stopped beneath one and leaned against a park bench, looking up to see the mechanics of the snowfall.

      It was only then he realised he wasn't wearing his glasses. Out of habit, he patted the top of his head to make sure they hadn't landed there, but all he felt was snow.

      "Since most of you hear me bitch regularly about cold weather, I'll skip it this time. We'll just leave this with a grumble about the fact that I was the dumbass who didn't listen to the weather report and therefore left my jacket back at the house, so I'm going to freeze getting back home. Well, as long as I've got a warm place to come home to, the getting there won't matter much. So if you're out in it tonight, or if you're going out in it, make sure you know what you're getting yourself into.

      "All right, I'll stop being Mama Tsuchiya right now and just play my music. Coming up this hour we've got some Ben Folds Five, some more Bush, some Radiohead, and a whole bunch more random stuff I don't have queued, but you don't need to know that. And since, once more, I have the microphone and you don't, let's kick off this hour with something I like: 'Circles,' by Soul Coughing."

      And the strangely synthesised beat that Ruka loved so much, that Mikage swore sounded the same in every Soul Coughing song, began to pour with a twang out of his earphones. Smiling, he forgot about his glasses back at the house and trudged on through the powder.

      "When you were languishing in rooms I built to foul you in, and when the wind set down in funnel form and pulled you in...."

      Songs like this made Mikage even more certain that, even at twenty-seven, after playing American music for nearly a decade, Ruka spoke no more English in the real world than he had on the inside. Considering factors of duration and exposure, Mikage was lead to believe that this ignorance was voluntary.

      Only once on the inside had he ever seen snow fall. That day, Mamiya had huddled in his rose garden for most of the day, staring longingly out the window, never asking with his voice but pleading with his eyes to be let out into the powder. Instead, he and Nemuro had played chess all day, lengthy games that only lasted so long because Nemuro concentrated on not beating Mamiya in twenty moves. The games were punctuated by the obligatory conversation, though conversation that day seemed to go nowhere and happen less frequently than usual. Mamiya's already-pale skin looked ashen, white like the snow that gathered on the windows of the greenhouse.

      Finally, as the day was growing to a close, perhaps so late as an excuse not to let him stay out too long, Tokiko came out of Mamiya's bedroom with every warm piece of clothing imaginable. Kneeling in front of him, she fitted him with pants, socks, more socks, shirts, flannels, coats, and anything else she could manage on his tiny body. Finally, she deemed him presentable and released him through the door of the greenhouse.

      Nothing Nemuro had ever seen had made Mamiya that happy before. He ran almost like a normal little boy, though perhaps a touch more slowly, through the drifts and banks. The snow fell heavily that late afternoon, as it fell on Mikage now, shining in the ever-greying sky.

      "And when the ghostly dust of violence traces everything, and when the gas is drained, just wreck it, you insured the thing...."

      Tokiko had stood there, a ghost of a smile on her lips, curving her beauty mark closer to her nose. Nemuro knew exactly how her face looked when she smiled, which she never did often enough. Standing outside in only a sweater and jeans, he thought she must have been frozen. And then he realised that he was wearing nothing more than he normally wore and was not cold. This realisation was not allowed to last very long.

      Standing there, watching her watch Mamiya, Nemuro reached up and removed his glasses. Her face became pinker in the natural light, her nose and cheeks illuminated by frost. Tiny snowflakes settled in her hair, curling around her face; bits of powder rested on the high collar of her black sweater, giving her the appearance of a thing that had either been recently dusted or needed dusting. Her profile was unmistakable; once he made it to the real world, whenever Mikage thought of Tokiko, this was his image of her, her eyes widened with contentment, the corners of her red lips turning up just slightly with delight. Mamiya must have made a funny action, for she laughed, and her laughter was white smoke. But Nemuro was not watching Mamiya; Nemuro was watching her.

      Out of the instinct so common to the inside, Tokiko turned to meet his gaze, the movement sending a small pile of snow falling into her bangs in the process. Reaching up with his gloved hand, Nemuro brushed the snow away. You look lovely today, he told her softly.

      "Leaf by leaf, page by page, throw this book away; all the sadness all the rage, throw this book away; rip out the binding, tear the glue, all the grief we never even knew, we had it all along, now it's smoke...."

      Two sets of memories were not uncommon to Mikage; indeed, they were not uncommon to any veteran of the inside world, whether conscious or unconscious. Most simply regarded the second set as a bizarre false memory; the few that actually bothered to keep track of both simply kept in mind which event everyone else knew as having happened and which only they held.

      Perhaps it was the curse of having defied Akio and yet not having the strength to follow through with this defiance, but Mikage remembered everything. In a world where everyone's reality was different but everyone's dreams were the same, truth came in ten thousand flavours. And Mikage was unfortunate enough to know the details of each. Including Tokiko's. Including both of his own.

      "The things we've written in it never really happened, all of the people come and gone never really lived, all of the people have come, have gone, no one to forgive smoke..."

      He rubbed his hands together, then stuck them in his pockets. Gloves would have been nice right then, but he had forgotten them as well, though they probably resided in a place much different from his glasses' spot. His glasses were most likely right next to his computer, or the table next to the couch, or on the dining room table sprawled across a crossword puzzle. Somewhere logical.

      Nemuro's only tactile memory of Tokiko, the only time he could recall touching her at all -- or, rather, her touching him -- involved several long bloody streaks down his bare back. That night, after bundling Mamiya back inside and giving him his injection and holding his hand until he went to sleep, Nemuro had looked at Tokiko and she had looked at him. Aside from the lines on his skin, the only thing he remembered with any certainty of that night was looking up at the only window in a small, dark room and realising that the stars were wrong. He had gotten them wrong.

      It had been, he had been certain, because he had misplaced his glasses. He was always misplacing his glasses with their lavender scotopic lenses. And he knew in that moment, looking at the stars, that he had lost his glasses and read the numbers wrong. From that point on, the night sky was going to be wrong and it was all his fault.

      "Here's an evening dark with shame, throw it on the fire, here's the time I took the blame, throw it on the fire, here's the time we didn't speak it seemed for years and years, here's a secret, no one will ever know the reasons for the tears, they are smoke...."

      What disturbed him the most about that particular memory was Tokiko's corrolary memory. Or, rather, her memory that did not corrolate at all. She remembered snow out that window, a window much larger than he remembered. He remembered stars. Snow and stars cannot happen at the same time.

      Three days later Nemuro stood beside a grave site marked by a simple headstone telling only the the tragedy of all brief lives: name, date of birth, date of death, small epitath. Mamiya's told the parable of the bird who flies once every thousand years to sharpen its beak on a mountain of glass; when the mountain has been worn down to a grain of sand, a second of eternity will have passed. Tokiko wore black and did not cry.

      "Where do all the secrets live? They travel in the air; you can smell them when they burn, they travel...."

      The night before he had stood and the night following he stood outside Nemuro Kinenkan, watching it burn to the ground, thanking Mamiya silently for making the sacrifice he had feared make himself and holding the murder weapon in his own hand. Tokiko did not wear black, but neither did she cry, either time. Tokiko did not remember Mamiya's being there. Professor Nemuro in the hallway with the candleabra, he remembered Akio joking. Nemuro had not found it funny at the time. In retrospect, however, he had to appreciate the humour value.

      After that, the road to the duelling arena had been opened and the man who was Nemuro had ascended, walking because of an old fear of elevators, carrying a sword whose origins he still couldn't remember. One of his memories remembered purchasing it from a small store; one remembered borrowing from another one of the young duellists; one remembered reaching for Tokiko and drawing it from her chest. Tokiko remembered nothing of the sort. The memory that not even Mikage held, the possibility that he never knew because he never had any right to own it, was the memory of being bent backwards over the arm of a small dark-skinned boy, arms thrown down by his sides, head thrust back.

      The duel arena had been open and massive, truly a magnificent sight. Nemuro had fought impressively, he could say now without vanity, but impressive cannot beat selfish, and the one who fights for his own reasons will always lose.

      "Those who say the past is not dead, stop and smell the smoke; you keep on saying the past is not dead, come on and smell the smoke; you keep saying the past is not even past, you keep saying we are smoke...."

      Mamiya had been beautiful. Both the real Mamiya and the one he had unwittingly created. Both siblings had been beautiful, but in both cases the presence of one contributed to the ugliness of the other. Mamiya's innocent intelligence made Tokiko seem all the more contrived and pedestrian. Tokiko's mysterious femininity betrayed Mamiya for the boy-child that he was. Without Mamiya, Nemuro could have loved Tokiko, perhaps, but without Mamiya he never would have stayed in the first place.

      "Wherever you are, you will carry always truth of the scars and the darkness of your faith..."

      If the philosophers are correct and the realms of mind and body truly are separate, then Ohtori Akio ruled all things of the body. Suggestive, abusive, all these things were his. To make a deal with him was to sell one's body, not one's soul, or so everyone understood. Sometimes Mikage wondered if the hundred dead duellists, each with his own face and name, had had souls to begin with.

      But if the man was purely physical, logic stood that a man beneath his command could still keep his own mind. Unfortunately, those who came to this conclusion never estimated the power of the body over the mind. Fewer still, upon realising this power, considered that it might work the other way as well.

      "Reality daytrips and your suit me suit me ways; turn out the light switch, we've been awake for days, and no one's coming around here no more, no one's coming around here...."

      Nemuro never knew what he was working on, never understood the project as a whole. If calculations were laid upon his desk, he would perform them; if blueprints were placed in his lap, he would make them a reality. Always only in bits and pieces, never as a coherent whole. He simply hadn't cared.

      In this way, he surmised, he had built the universe, or at least gave Akio the parameters by which to build it. The project lived in another fuzzy part of his brain with too many memories to make it make sense. The hundred dead duellists, however, had no memories of their own to contribute. Everything had happened at once, all the same actions for different reasons and different goals, but one key phrase: for the power to revolutionise the world.

      But the power to revolutionise the world was nothing more than a wish to be granted to a prince unselfish enough truly to desire something eternal, for what is more eternal than the suffering of the Rose Bride?

      "Cold contagious, all the mighty mighty men, what you save is what you lose out in the end, cold contagious, cold contagious...."

      Mikage realised that he was standing under a streetlamp, listening to his memories and not the song, and had probably been standing there for quite some time. Looking a little embarassed, he continued on his path. The wind was picking up, blowing his hair around his face, and the temperature had dropped. Fade out of the song, fade into Ruka's voice.

      "You're listening to Shadows of the Underground on 88.5 FM JSPR, I'm Tsuchiya Ruka, and that was Bush with 'Cold Contageous.' Before that we had Ben Folds Five with 'Smoke,' and even before that, Soul Coughing, with 'Circles.' And yes, for those of you wondering, I did take that little break to jaunt upstairs and take a look at the storm. I left my post, I admit it, you may crucify me now.

      "On my way back down, I stopped for a cigarette with Touya, the new kid who does the morning show and wanted to get here early to set up. Great kid, really, and anybody who can should hang around after I'm outta here and listen to his show; this kid is really talented, what with being so young, and all of you who are about to remind me that I was younger than he was when I started can just shut the hell up. Anyway, being new and twenty and stupid in that way all twenty-year-olds are stupid, he asked me how long I've been working here on this show. I had to think about it, and when I figured it out, the answer was almost a decade.

      "So I suppose I'm just kicking back here doing all the things I'm not supposed to be doing, like smoking, and babbling when I should be playing music, and I'm thinking about being old. And I know what you smartasses out there are thinking: he's twenty-seven, that's not old, et cetera, et cetera. But age isn't a matter of numbers any more than gender is a matter of equipment. I know some fine princes who started out their lives as princesses.

      "You can get a lot of living into twenty-seven years if you know what you're doing. Sometimes it's a good thing; a little experience never hurt anyone, especially when you're called upon for a repeat performance. But at times like this, it can just leave you feeling old and tired. And there are few things sadder than an old man with a microphone.

      "Maybe it's sad that you can practice something for so long and never get any good at it, any of it, particularly the important parts -- things like dealing with people, figuring out about yourself, things like that. Somewhere along the line, someone gave us the impression that if we could just practice long enough, if we could follow those examples that get set forth for us by our oh-so-esteemed elders and such, we could eventually get this all right. Then maybe we wouldn't have to hurt the people we love because of action or inaction, decision or indecision. We were promised that we'd get the hang of this, and we were lied to.

      "Or maybe it's because time never flows the way you think it should. Remember being a teenager? I do. Those were the years that lasted forever, sometimes a little more literally than others. So you get all the practice being a teenager and doing teenager things, and then you get into the real world and realise that those things aren't going to help you anymore. So you end up being old, but you end up being an old teenager, and who knows what the hell to do with an old teenager?

      "There's a rock on my desk, just a little white rock, with the words 'carpe diem' carved into the flat side of it. For those of you who don't speak Latin, and I sure as hell don't, it means 'sieze the day.' A close friend of mine gave it to me a few years back. I had no idea what it meant at the time. I still don't really know, but I have a bit of an idea. This little rock -- not that little rock, wiseass -- sits here and reminds me that I've got a little power over my life, which is a little more than I used to have, and it's my job to make as much of it as I can. It reminds me that, you know, I could die tomorrow, or the day after that, and old doesn't matter a thing when you're dead.

      "Of course, this rock kind of justifies my pack-a-day habit, which I'm sure he didn't mean when he gave it to me. He doesn't really think much of my smoking, or my just about anything, for that matter. Kids, don't try my lifestyle at home. And if you do, make sure you have someone around to keep an eye on you while you're siezing your days right and left.

      "All right, sermon's over. Man, when I get going, I sound kind of like a Hallmark card, don't I? Well, I've got a little more music and a lot less talking scheduled for the rest of my time here tonight, so let's get this show going. Up next I've got...somewhere around here...okay, here, 'God of Wine,' by Third Eye blind on your only station for crazy deejays at 4:30 in the morning, JSPR."

      As Ruka talked, the snow began to lessen, the wind blowing away the clouds, until the opening melancholy chords of the next song started and it wasn't snowing anymore.

      "Every fault that I repent, there's another chip you haven't spent, and you're cashing them all in, where do we begin to get clean again, can we get clean again...."

      Once, while talking to Ruka late one night, Mikage had identified himself as a man in love with a boy created my a man. And why not, he figured, call it love? He couldn't not have loved Mamiya -- not the real one, but the false incarnation -- not when Mamiya was created to be everything he wanted in a companion, placed into the body of the boy he wanted so desperately to save. Scientifically, all factors converged in a favourable climate to produce the desired result. On a rawer level, a desperate man created the thing he needed to allow himself to survive, and in the process fell in love with it. On a rawer level.

      And so his memories were of standing in darkness, bitter darkness, holding the cold hand of a boy who had been dead for years but who wouldn't let go of him. Of whom he wouldn't let go. Sometimes there really wasn't a difference.

      Mikage remembered his mother only from the sound of her voice in the years he could remember, before he had been taken, remembered the soft tone of her Hungarian lullabies. His father he never knew. Of the few people he had been close to in his life, honestly close to, one was dead in both worlds and one had run away in fear from him in one world and never even met him in the second.

      "I know, I know, I know, I know, I know I can't keep it all together, and the siren's song that is your madness holds a truth I can't erase all alone on your face..."

      Then, he thought, tightening his scarf around his face against the wind, there was the man he had shared a house with now for ten years. Ruka was right; when you're pushing thirty, ten years at anything shouldn't make you feel ancient.

      But when ten years should only be a third of your life, and instead it's three-fourths, ten years is a long time. On the inside, no one bothered with questions of the passage of time, since such things seemed irrelevant. In Akio's garden, nothing would age or decay, and therefore needed not be bothered with. If everything was always as it had been, then nothing changed; if nothing changed, nothing aged. If nothing aged, then time meant nothing.

      "Every glamorous sunrise throws the planets out of line, the star sign out of whack, a fraudulent zodiac, and the god of wine is crouched down in my room, you let me down, I said it, and now I'm going down, and you're not ever around, and I said no..."

      Though the wind now bit through all layers of Mikage's clothing, the clouds had begun to clear again. Through them, if he raised his eyes long enough, he could see patches of the sky. Tiny crystals of snow, picked up by the wind, danced across the asphalt of streets, whipping around his feet. Magic, he thought, the snow on the wind reminded him of magic. The large gate of a nearby house provided him with temporary shelter from the wind. He wasn't so far from home now.

      The question no one thought to ask while on the inside was how long the current time had been. How long have you been sixteen? Seventeen? Can you remember being fourteen or fifteen? Not can you remember events that happened, but can you actually remember the being? Can you recall anything but your preprogrammed memories and what you are right now?

      And if you can't, what does it mean? Who tells your story, and can he trust what he tells you? What does it mean to be real? Are you real? Have you ever considered how your perception of yourself would change if you were wrong about that answer?

      Ostensibly, Mikage should have had the truth, or something closely resembling it, for he could synthesise the memories of everyone who had been there. According to logic, enough accounts should produce a version approaching the real one. But all he really held were ten thousand different lies. He had become the most unreliable narrator of all.

      "And there's a memory of a window, looking through I see you searching from something I could never give you, and there's someone who understands you more than I do, a sadness I can't erase all alone on your face...."

      Before the song had ended, Mikage had pressed the speed dial key for the radio station. "If I guessed who this is, would I be right?" Ruka answered the phone.

      "I don't know," answered Mikage, "would you be?"

      Grinning audibly, Ruka started shuffling around with the fade controls. In the ear that wasn't being occupied by the cell phone, a soft buzzing sound began, the sound of metallic insects. Mikage waited for the words to begin, but there were no words, only a simple melody. He had been silent for nearly a full minute before Ruka started chuckling quietly. "Nice to hear you listening to my show with such interest."

      Mikage tried not to shiver too much. "It was either the ear with the cell phone or the ear with the headphone, and I thought I'd pick the more euphonious choice." As the wind died down, he started walking again.

      "I think I've just been insulted." The late night deejay's voice was strangely musical when paired with the instrumental piece.

      "Perhaps you have been," Mikage conceded. "What is this?"

      "A little Nine Inch Nails. One I know all the words to," Ruka laughed. "Are you still out in the cold?"

      Looking up at the sky, Mikage could almost begin to make out constellations. "Headed home now." Pausing for a second, he checked street signs to regain his bearings, then turned left at the appropriate time. "Say, Ruka?" Without waiting for a response, he continued, "What do you think would happen if I ever found something wrong with the stars here, too?"

      There was a soft silence that followed, ended by the exhale of Ruka's smile. "I think it would just be you forgetting what the stars were supposed to look like here, Souji. Now get home and go to bed. You've got work tomorrow."

      "I called in sick." Trudging up the front path, he fumbled in his pocket for his house key, then realised that he had left the front door unlocked again. He did that frighteningly often.

      "Maybe so," countered Ruka, "but you still need sleep. Is that the sound of the front door?"

      "Yeah. That's the sound of the front door." Mikage shrugged off his coat and left it on a hatrack to drip dry. Sitting down on the steps, he unfastened his boots and threw them ouside. "That's the sound of the front door again, just in case you were wondering."

      Ruka's voice was teasingly soft. "Thanks for the information. Now, the song's almost over, I'll be home in another hour and a half, you're there already, and I know you haven't slept in several hours. Good to know you're home."

      "You sound almost like you were worried." The cordless phone found its home in its appropriate place in the kitchen again; the coffee, still warm, would wait for one of them to wake up again, or would turn itself off out of sheer boredom. Nothing to be done.

      "You're rubbing off on me, I suppose." Ruka smiled. "Song's almost over, Souji. Get some sleep."

      "I will." With a click, Mikage turned off the cell phone, snapped it shut, and put it on the kitchen counter. The next appliance to meet its electrical demise was the downstairs radio, falling into silence as his walkman kept providing music. As he passed the lightswitch, he thought of leaving it on, as was his custom. Instead, he flipped it off casually, leaving the darkness behind him.

      "All right, that was 'A Warm Place' by Nine Inch Nails. Tsuchiya Ruka over here, and we've got a bunch of commercials that I know you're just dying to hear all queued up. And when we come back from the commercial break, you've got another hour with me and the Shadows of the Underground I can exhume.

      "But before we go into that, I've got one more song, another one of those pulled from a CD I found between the seats of my car. Here's Radiohead, with 'Exit Music (from a film).' Should make a good lullaby for all concerned parties."

      The shadow commentator and the honourable shadow. A pair of concerned parties, indeed. Perhaps God had a sense of humour. God, the universe, it was mostly the same.

      Without something to remind you, Mikage mused, the past becomes almost irrelevant. You could almost forget that all the things you remembered had never really happened. And yet, they had, every one of them as real as anything the 'real world' could produce. And every time encountered, they seemed new.

      In the bathroom, Mikage slipped the walkman out of his pocket, turned it off, and left it on the counter. Once more, it would find its appropriate place eventually. The cold had turned his cheeks pink and the snow had dampened his hair; he grabbed a towel and began to dry himself. From the other room, he could hear the strains of the guitar that began the song.

      "Wake from your sleep, the drying of your tears, today we escape, we escape...."

      If Ruka didn't choose his music unconsciously, Mikage might have been inclined to hurt him occasionally. And here he was at the beginning again, where he had started the night, or at least his insomniac segment of it. Stripping, he left his snow-damp clothes to hang over the shower curtain, everything but the shirt, which wasn't wet and he didn't want to take off anyway.

      Standing in front of the mirror, cold and swallowed in a shirt too large for him, he looked nothing at all like himself. He looked like a shadow, like the name that had been chosen for him or that he had chosen for himself, depending on what you asked. Somehow, this was all right.

      "Breathe, keep breathing, don't lose your nerve, breathe, keep breathing, I can't do this alone..."

      The bedroom was still dark, and only upon entering it again did Mikage realise that he had never turned on the light in the first place. The fierce red glow of the digital clock and the orange streetlamp outside the window gave the only light.

      As he curled into bed, reaching to turn off the clock radio, he sighed at Ruka's music choice. Lullaby, indeed. Songs about lovers' suicides aren't supposed to help insomniacs. But the beat was slow and soft, almost like a lullaby, and if he didn't listen to the words, he could imagine that it had been written to lull someone to sleep. With a slight smile, he flipped the switch to turn off both the radio and the alarm, then fell back against the pillows.

      When Ruka arrived home nearly two hours later, having stopped by the grocery store to get the few things he had promised to get earlier that week, he found Mikage like that, curled up against the faded blue-violet pillow, sound asleep.

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