Time is like light. It emanates from a single source, in all directions. It is refracted, reflected, magnified, and diminished. No single law of physics, no single applied philosophy can define it.
When Karasu was Yuu, he did not understand time. When Yuu was Karasu, it was all he understood.
Yuu had just returned home when he realized Isami was in his kitchen, making rice. The kitchen light shone brightly, highlighting the sharp whites and blues of the tiles. Two empty bowls with chopsticks laid over them sat on the counter, and Isami stood at the sink, washing his hands. Blinking at all this, Yuu let his schoolbag slip to the floor.
Isami smiled, crinkling the bandage on the left side of his face. "Welcome home. I'm making dinner. We're having rice."
"Um," was all Yuu could think to say. He had not seen Isami in two years, and the last time he had spoken to him over the phone, Isami had told him to go fuck himself and hung up.
"I hope you like rice, because it's about all I know how to make."
"Er." Yuu could not imagine anyone in Japan not liking rice. He could not imagine anyone in the world not liking rice. But most of all, he could not imagine Isami, gang leader and future convict, in his apartment, making rice. Yuu could only be grateful his parents were on vacation for the rest of the week.
"It's not that hard, really. You just pour a cup or two in a bowl, fill it with water, swirl it around some, then let it dry a bit before shoving it into the rice cooker with some more water. Once you hit the button, everything is taken care of. Very convenient."
"I know. I make rice all the time."
"Oh. Well. That would explain why you own a rice cooker."
Yuu studied his childhood best friend. Isami looked older now, though his face seemed gentler than Yuu last remembered it. His expression seemed closer to how he had been during that last summer in Hakodate, closer to the Isami that Yuu knew.
Isami sat down at the table and stared at his hands. Behind him, the rice cooker clicked and finished cooking. Isami glanced up at Yuu. "Been a long time, huh?" he asked, his voice quiet.
Yuu nodded. "Haruka said that you…" He did not finish the sentence. He did not need to.
"Thanks for saving me."
"You saved me." Isami's remaining eye seemed intent and bright. "I was gonna kill the guy that did this to me." He gestured at the bandaged side of his face. "I was gonna fucking cut him open. But you saved me. And because you saved me, I was able to save Ai. So you saved both of us."
"I don't know what you're talking about, Isami."
Isami looked away, then got up and start scooping steaming rice into bowls. "No, I don't suppose you do. You looked like you did five years ago. Back during that last summer we had together. Do you remember it?"
Yuu said nothing. Sometimes, the summer where Haruka's smile seemed brightest and the world seemed warmest, was all he remembered.
"Yeah, me too," Isami said, as if he could read Yuu's mind.
"I don't understand. I've been here, in Tokyo, since last summer."
"Don't worry about it." Isami held out a bowl of rice, and Yuu wondered if he really could. He wondered what Isami meant, then he decided it did not matter. Not so long as Isami was himself again.
"You're welcome," Yuu said, and took the bowl of rice.
Yuu lay on Haruka's bed, staring up at the window. Outside, blue skies reigned over the earth, and the music of birds filled the air. He could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the tree outside and the white curtain fluttered silently above him. It was summer in Hakodate, though the day felt oddly cool.
Haruka leaned over him, her long black hair tickling his nose. "They're both doing better, you know."
Yuu curled his fingers around her hair, brushing it back so he could enjoy the sight of her face. He idly wondered why Haruka's mother never objected him entering her room with her alone. They were seventeen now, but she said nothing about it and offered them instant ramen for lunch, as if she expected them to behave without being told. "Who?"
Haruka rolled her eyes. "Isami and Ai, of course. His bandages came off yesterday. The scar isn't even so bad. Ai's leg was just fitted with a prosthetic. We should go see them."
"Tomorrow." A frown ghosted across Haruka's face, spoiling the effect of her hovering over him. "We should go see Miho, too."
"Will she see us?"
Haruka pulled away, her face flashing with anger. "That was a terrible joke, Yuu. Of course she can't see us. She has retinitis."
Yuu sat up. "No, I didn't mean that. I meant if she would let us in to visit her."
"Oh." Haruka sighed. "I don't know. But we should try."
"All right." Yuu trailed his fingers down Haruka's bared shoulder. Her skin felt smooth and soft, a tantalizing piece of heaven awaiting further exploration. He wondered how much she would let him touch this time. "But tomorrow."
Haruka smiled and leaned back to kiss him. "Tomorrow, then."
Tomorrow never arrived. When the Magic Circle Project opened an Ouroboros over Hakodate the next day, it prevented tomorrow from ever happening. The world no longer spun on its axis, though it continued its revolution around the sun. They existed in one long day, a permanent twilight stuck at sunset, stretched thin across eternity. Only the illusion of time drew them forward.
The air carried only dust on its breeze. The permanent sunset left the world leeched of color and substance. The grass did not grow, and flowers and trees existed only as memories. Shangri-La's strange avatars rent the world as they floated past. Humanity had moved underground, where the air was still moist and cool. Only there, in the dark crevices of the earth, could they still find food.
The Quantum Revolution changed everything and everyone--everyone except Haruka. She had grown tall and her hair gleamed silver, but she was just the same. When she smiled, Yuu knew everything would be all right, even if the earth stood still.
And Haruka did smile as she pushed open the door to Miho's hut. Yuu followed behind her, blinking at the tiny, dark space. Miho did not rise at their entrance. She did not even stir.
"Miho?" Haruka knelt beside her and took her hand. "Miho, won't you talk to us today?"
Yuu paused by Miho and studied her. The light from outside set her edges aglow, highlighting a bulging belly. "Miho!" he said, eyes growing wide. "She's pregnant, Haruka!"
Haruka glanced down and put a hand on Miho's belly. But Miho did not react. She continued to sit in her chair as if a broken doll abandoned by her mistress. All her life and energy, all her quirkiness--it had drained out of her just as it had from the earth above them. "Miho, who is the father?"
Miho finally spoke, her blind eyes staring at nothing. She twisted the cloth of her dress and sat forward, her mouth working for several moments before speaking. "He never told me his name. I wish he told me his name. I couldn't see him, but I could feel his rough hands when he held me down. It hurt so much, but he never told me his name. It was the least he could do." She sounded distant, as if speaking while half-asleep about a half-remembered dream.
Haruka's expression seemed to shatter and collapse. She clutched Miho's hand even tighter. "Oh, Miho, why didn't you tell us? You should have told us someone hurt you."
"We're all hurting." Miho turned her empty face towards Yuu. "And it's not going to stop anytime soon."
Miho grew bigger, and the world grew bleaker. Even Yuu's friends seem fractured, for Isami and Ai barely spoke any more. He could not understand the gulf that lay between Isami and Ai. Even in this dark, bleak world, he found light in Haruka. He could forget the loss of his parents, of the sun, of the grass, of Miho's innocence, so long as she was there. And yet, the world seemed to keep Ai and Isami apart. They did no more than smile at each other across the divide they placed between them--a divide created by Ai's science major.
After her amputation, Ai had turned from sports to science, applying the same tenacity and determination that had made her a soccer star towards her studies. And in a world where the scientists kept them safe, a world being dug further and further underground, Ai was invaluable. She sank deeper into the earth with the Reizu Social Order, leaving Isami behind.
Yuu did not realize his and Isami's fates would be so similar.
Yuu did not know what to expect when Haruka summoned him down the Reizu Social order's deepground complex. She did not smile at him. The fluorescent lights of her room glittered off her hair and the metallic walls of their room, but her face was as dark as the night sky. This was as close to a starry sky as Yuu had seen in a year.
Yuu wondered if Haruka was to tell him something about Miho, but she only said, "Ai found a way to stop them, Yuu."
"What way is that?"
Haruka's hand felt cool and smooth against his cheek. "We have to change everything."
"The Magic Circle Project already did. What's left to change?"
"There's always something left." Haruka stared up at the lights, and her hair shimmered as she moved. "Ai asked me to help. I can't say no. There's too much at stake."
"Help her? Help her how? Why would she ask you?"
Haruka lowered her head again and studied Yuu. "I'm leaving, Yuu. I have to."
Yuu felt as if an icy hand squeezed his heart. "What? Where are you going? Why?"
But Haruka did not answer his questions. She only wrapped her thin arms around him and squeezed. "There's a word in an old language that I learned at the church in Hakodate. It's Latin, I think. Lacryma. It means 'tears.' I heard that's what the scientists want to call our dimension."
She left then, without explanation, without tears, without explanations for anything she said. Yuu tried to follow, but she turned the corner and disappeared. He spent the night roaming the halls of their facility, but to no avail.
When Yuu finally found Haruka, she was inside the Reizu Simulator, lying still and cool inside of a glass tube, the very life drained out of her. A terrible howling filled the room, and Yuu wondered if it came from him as he clutched the glass and gasped for air.
Haruka's hair still gleamed silver beneath the lights.
When Miho gave birth, she named her daughter Lily. It seemed strange for Miho to give her daughter an English name, but then, Miho had always been strange. Yuu never understood why, but as Miho held her daughter, he saw the same sort of love his mother had once given him, the same sort of love Haruka's mother had given her. Miho, at least, never held a grudge.
When Yuu and Isami finally found Lily's father in the crevices of their underground home, Yuu held him down while Isami stabbed him several times. They were not so forgiving as Miho. Not anymore.
Yuu felt empty. He could not say if it was Haruka's loss that had drained him of his soul, or his first murder. It had been surprisingly easy to help kill a man. He did not even feel guilty about it. It did not matter. Nothing really mattered without Haruka.
It had grown chilly in the cavern, but Yuu did not bother with his blanket. He sat in front of his hut, listlessly watching people walk around in the underground cavern, wearing clothing that was increasingly drab and ragged. The cavern's echoes drowned out the voices, leaving the impression of wordless sound.
Isami walked out of the gloom and stopped in front of Yuu. He studied Yuu with his one good eye. Despite how he towered over Yuu, he seemed oddly casual with his hands in his pockets and his long hair hanging in his face. It hid his scar.
"Got a proposition for you," Isami said. His voice was deep. Yuu wondered when it had become so deep, or if he had simply not noticed when it changed.
"What's that?" Yuu asked.
"The Reizu Social Order is recruiting people for some sort of elite team. One that can cross dimensions and fight Shangri-La." Isami dipped his head. "They'd be connected to the Reizu Simulator, Ai says."
Yuu snapped his head up and studied Isami. That quantum computer was all that remained of Haruka. His heart skipped a beat.
"They're to be called the Dragon Knights. They want healthy people. You and me, we're pretty healthy. What else are we gonna do with our lives?"
"We could always take up serial killing," Yuu said dryly.
Isami frowned. He never wanted to talk about what they had done to the man who hurt Miho. "Only if we kill the right people." He held out a hand. "Let's do it, Yuu. What else do a couple of guys like us have to lose right now?
Yuu considered this for a moment, then took Isami's hand. It seemed the logical choice, to become a Dragon Knight. Working for the Reizu Social Order would bring both him and Isami closer to the women they could not have.
They called him Karasu now. His hair had turned white, a paltry imitation of Haruka's silver. He wondered what she would have said about it, had she seen it. She would probably have laughed and run her fingers through it. Then she would have told him he looked like an old man and teased him until he finally smiled.
Karasu leaned back against the Reizu Simulator and pressed his white hair against the misty tube where Haruka had drawn her last breath. When he closed his eyes, he could pretend she lifted a hand to press back against the glass.
Karasu never expected to become any sort of warrior. Any expectations he had as a boy had faded, as though a dream long forgotten under the light of the harsh sun. But still, his first few battles confused him. Suddenly, he could kill with impunity. All he had to think of was Haruka, and it became so easy to use his Spin Weapon to destroy whatever stood in his way.
Sometimes Karasu bled reizu, other times red blood. His body seemed half here with him, and half elsewhere, lost in the quantum illusions he passed through while fighting Shangri-La. That day, blood seeped from his arm. Karasu awkwardly wound the bandages around his arm and tried to ignore the pain.
"Hey. That looks nasty." Karasu looked up at the man once known as Isami. Yet, he no longer thought of him as Isami, for Isami was as much Fukurou as Yuu was Karasu.
Fukurou had started tying his hair back in a ponytail, as if to show everyone his old facial scar. He looked like a completely different person now, yet his smile remained the same. He was the only Dragon Knight who truly smiled. The rest only frowned, except for Atori. He smirked, he leered, he grinned, but even he never smiled.
Fukurou kneeled beside him and took the loose bandage from Karasu's fingers. "You were never any good at lying." He unwound it then rewound it properly around Karasu's arm. His fingers felt warm and firm. Karasu studied him, watching the way his ponytail slid over his broad shoulders.
Fukurou looked up. "Eh?"
"Impossible." Karasu could not keep his eyes off Fukurou's hair and its slide across his skin. "You should have said that it was impossible. You used to say it all the time."
"Ah. I guess I did. Things really have changed."
"Yes." Unable to resist any longer, Karasu ran his fingers through Fukurou's hair, enjoying the thick, coarse texture. He did not wonder how Fukurou would react. He did not even particularly care.
Fukurou looked up at him and grabbed his hand. Karasu thought he might be angry, but then Fukurou yanked him down without a word and crushed his lips against Karasu's. As Fukurou stripped Karasu's clothing off, it occurred to Karasu that Fukurou was all he had left of Hakodate.
If Haruka was a cool summer day, then Fukurou was a warm autumn day. Both came early and left too quickly. Ultimately, neither truly existed for Karasu, for seasons could not occur on a world that did not spin on its own axis.
Karasu recalled that his grandfather once told him that the world came into being when people dreamt of it and mistakenly believed it real. It seemed his grandfather had understood something of quantum physics, despite never having graduated high school, for the Reizu Social Order taught that reality was observation. But what is observation if not perception? Perception creates belief, a product of thought. Thus it was the human mind that invoked existence.
Perhaps that was why when he saw Haruka again, as fresh and beautiful as she had ever been, she became real to him. When he met his younger self, Isami, Ai, and Miho, all revolving around the sun that was Haruka, her dimension became all the more real. La'cryma ceased to be his reality, and this Haruka's dimension became all that mattered.
Time was like a dream, mistakenly believed real, existing solely because Karasu wanted it to.