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Ikigai

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Chapter 1

 

L

 

He felt her minutes before they collided. The pull he felt to her, magnetism almost, got stronger with each step he took, accelerating slightly to catch her directly at the corner.

 

He flinched a bit when he realized it.

 

Wasn’t it enough that he made fun of her every day, enacting for all it was worth the entire palette of courtesy a preschooler would shower his crush with – complete with name-calling and those condescending, patronizing smirks he had perfected, no; he let her smack right into him daily when in truth he would be able to avoid the collision so easily. The air vibrated around her to him. He need only step aside, feeling her coming towards him.

 

Yet here he was, taking longer, faster strides to be at the point on the street at exactly the right second so the impact cause by her forward momentum would be most intense.

 

And she didn’t disappoint.

 

Her whole body glided forcefully into his, pushing him backwards to the point of falling had he not stood his ground, and he was almost painfully aware of every part of his body that touched hers.  One bun on her head tickling his chin and being slightly squished beneath, the soft hair almost caressing his skin. Her tiny, gentle hands gripping his arms almost in reflex to steady herself, the vibration of her surprised shriek that was muffled by his button-down shirt, the warmth of her sharply exhaled breath tickling his skin through the button-holes, the leg she had extended to take her next step forward that had kicked his shin so painfully he hadn’t been able to withhold a gasp of pain, the way her whole upper body heaved into is. He could swear he could feel her heart hammering alongside his.

 

It made him feel like a pervert, the intense satisfaction he felt at having her body this close to him for this split second every day, for almost two years now.

 

“I’m sooo sorry I didn’t look where I was going I---“ She looked up apologetically. Then stopped. “Oh. It’s you. Never mind.”

 

“Oi, Odango. So eager to see me as usual” He smirked down at her, even though he did feel a bit guilty. The eager one was him, after all. He couldn’t help it, though; with her the grins plastered themselves so easily to his face. He was bending down to pick up her briefcase that had tumbled to his feet, though this time she had closed it securely enough that the contents hadn’t spilled out of it. He still hadn’t brought his pants to the drycleaner from the incident last month, when her fountain-pen had practically exploded on his leg. “And late to school as always, I see. What’s up this time, was the cheesy man in the radio reading love letters again and you were too busy swooning to go to sleep?”  

 

Her cheeks flamed with color and he could see fire ignite in her eyes. It was so wrong of him to want to see it there every day. Having intense emotions directed at him by her gave him such perverse pleasure, even though it really was a different kind he wanted… 

 

“That happened once, you jerk.” She raged, adorably. “And they haven’t aired that show in forever. It was a small part-series.”

 

“Right.” He twinkled at her. He knew that of course. He remembered every conversation they had ever had.

 

“Also,” Her voice was a bit high-pitched and breathy. “You’re obviously as late as me, Mamoru-baka, if you’re still lingering around here.”

 

“University classes don’t start until 9.” A blatant lie delivered with the straightest of faces. But these collisions were worth being late to class to him. Also, Mondays were the only days he had an early class anyway, so what if he was late to that.

 

“Oh.”  She still fumed, wrenching her briefcase out of his grip. Their hands brushed for a second, and he reveled in the contact, all feeling in his body zooming in on it.  “I don’t get why this still happens anyway. Isn’t Keio university farer away than Azabu was?” She muttered.

 

“Keio is basically around the corner. And this is the direct route from my apartment.” Not a complete lie. It was only a very slight detour.

 

In the distance, he could hear school bells starting to ring, signaling to the whole neighborhood that it was 8’ o clock and Usagi was indeed very late for school. And on cue her eyes widened as if the sound jolted through her. She dashed off and away from him. “Ja ne, Mamoru-baka, SEE YOU LATEERRR!” She yelled behind her, slowly disappearing from his sight.

 

He sighed, put a hand to his chest for a second where her breath had tickled him, and then broke into a jog into the opposite direction. He was definitely going to be late as well - classes started 8:15 and the campus wasn’t as close as he wanted her to believe.

 

L

 

Usagi slumped down into her seat with a deep and growly ‘Hrmpff’ and listlessly took her pencil case and folder out to lay them on the desk before her. Haruna had of course given her detention, for being late, again. At least she wasn’t exiled from the classroom again – that only happened when she arrived closer to half an hour late. At least that didn’t happen so often anymore.

 

She was in a foul mood. She had had those dreams again, which kept her awake half the night, which was why she was late in the first place  –  and they were coming to her more frequently ever since these horrible monster-attacks had started occurring.

 

The thought made her gaze fall sadly on the empty seat beside hers. Naru was still in hospital, recovering from that attack weeks ago. At least she was finally improving way faster.

 

And then there was this morning when she’d made a fool of herself in front of Mamoru. Again.

 

Her heart was still beating loudly in her chest from their encounter. So loud and fast she wouldn’t have been surprised for her classmates to notice it. Alas, they were listening to Ms. Haruna talking about the comparison between using the past simple and the past continuum. Both belonging to a species she hated with a passion: English grammar. She sighed deeply, opening her book.

 

Why couldn’t she just be a bit more graceful around him? Why couldn’t she be a bit wittier, more confident? She let her head fall into her palm, her lips pulled into a pout.

 

He’ll never start noticing me if I don’t stop acting like a banshee around him… but he just pushed her buttons so unerringly, she always blew up in his face sooner or later.

 

Her mind flew back to their collision only a few minutes ago and blushed slightly. The way he looked again this morning, in that dark button down to those darker pants, those expensive looking brogues he wore … the way he’s stood there, one hand in his pocket, looking for all eyes to see like someone who belonged on a billboard. And the way those shirts always seemed to just cling to him…

 

And how can anyone smell this good?

 

Truth be told, she was feeling a bit guilty about this every day. Because she could feel that he was there, moments before she ever saw him. It were only ever a few seconds of warning, or premonition, of whatever she was supposed to call this, but she would be able to act on it and stop before crashing – literally- into him. But she didn’t. She kept walking. And then she usually made a show of pretending to not realize it’s him, as if she walked into all kinds of people like that all the time. Even she wasn’t that klutzy.

 

Her nose scrunched up a bit. But if I didn’t feel him this would be exactly what would happen, wouldn’t it? I’m just pretending not to be a psychic freak, is all….

 

“—USAGI!”

 

Usagi jerked upwards in her seat. Ms Haruna had called on her, obviously repeatedly. Her classmates started to snicker.

 

“Maybe you want to start paying attention. May I remind you that this isn’t your strongest subject exactly?” More snickers throughout the room, and some sympathetic glances.  Usagi shrunk a bit lower into her seat. She felt Naru’s absence heavily. Naru would have smiled at her and made her feel better about it.

 

Usagi. “ The sandy-haired boy in his grey school uniform whispered from the seat behind her. The soft hair on her neck stood on end for a second. He was nice and all, but he was really starting to get a bit creepy. “We can review the chapter together later during lunch if you want…” He trailed off.

 

She flinched a bit, which went unnoticed to him. “That’s okay Seijuro. I’ll manage. But thanks.” She mumbled back in the lowest voice she could muster.

 

“USAGI!”  Haruna boomed across the class again and Usagi hunched even farther into her chair.

 

L

 

Tuxedo Mask fell on his feet with a grunt, breathing heavily, yet lurched himself back into the air immediately. While doing so, he conjured up a dozen roses out of thin air and let them rain like projectiles into the shrieking Cardian’s skin.

 

It yelped painfully, but with a surge of energy, courtesy of its recent victims, one of whom was still attached to it by a tendon like-antenna, it went back to not being injured at all.

 

Tuxedo Mask had been trying – and failing, to free the poor woman out of its grasp. And with her still in the picture, there was little he could do except poke it with pointy things. Namely roses and canes.

 

He looked wistfully at the wrecking ball, so temptingly near.

 

They were located at a construction site near to the loomingly tall Roppongi Hills Tower, and it was raining in buckets. This, Tuxedo Mask flinched, served to be a great disadvantage tonight. It turned sand, and thus consequently, the entire planes of ground this battle was taking place on, into thick slippery mud, but also, and much more pressing, this Cardian’s powers seemed to be aquatic. 

 

What he wouldn’t give for a more potent weapon at the moment. Struggling – he was out of breath, keeling over from exertion, as this fight had been filling quite a portion of his night already, he pulled the last knife he had with him from the inner pocket of his Tuxedo. It wouldn’t do him any service against the Cardian, of course – these beings seemed to be unharmed by any object forged out of metal, including bullets. The latter having been tested by the police in the beginnings of these Cardian attacks. Nowadays the taskforces came late if at all, and mostly waited around at the fringe of it, barricading itself. He guessed it was mostly for appearance though. Never had a police officer ever managed to harm a Cardian, much less defeat it. Yet there were hospitals filled with those who had tried.

 

In the moment he briefly touched the earth beneath him he honed his senses onto his surrounding area. And especially zoomed in on the woman, still attached to the Cardian at this very awkward angle. Alive, he thought relieved.

 

This didn’t surprise him that much, these beings weren’t out to kill exactly, yet merely to extract (or maybe gather?) energy, leaving their victims sometimes comatose for months. Still though, he feared the day they’d take too much, so he kept checking.

 

He grasped the edge of the scaffolding ahead of him and quickly made his way up to the furthermost finished floor of the skeleton of a building. From this height the antennae of the Cardian couldn’t reach him, unless the thing suddenly decided it could fly (and god he hoped he wouldn’t ever come across one that could.).

 

He took a moment to catch his breath and gather his strength, and then, like Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill, jumped right back onto the bulky backside of the Cardian, repeating what he had thus far attempted to do for the ninth time this night: Jump on the Cardian, cut the antennae the woman was trapped in, free her in the split second the antennae needed to regrow, bring her to safety and then utilize that handy close-by wrecking ball. That was the plan at least. So far, it had always stopped at jumping on the Cardian, at which he had been encased by those lightening fast antennae himself, using one of his knives to free himself instead of the girl while being whipped through the air and into the muddy ground, and managing to free himself before the Cardian had succeeded in suffocating him by pouring yet more water into the fluid grounds. His knives were lost in the process – metal crumbled very shortly after it had touched the alien skins of the Cardians – and he was back to square one; drenched, heaving, exhausted square one.

 

This time it had to work though. This was his last knife; there were no second chances left.

 

He almost cried with joy when this time he managed to avoid the grasp himself and instead got to cut away at her prison instead of his own. He wrenched her free forcefully – she cried in pain but he had no time to be gentler – and with a strong push saw her tumble into the sluggishly soft mud beneath, while the antennae once again started to encase his lower half. He wriggled himself free in the last possible moment and landed in the mud a few meters away from her. In the corner of his eye he could see her crawl away from the creature, with what seemingly appeared to be all her adrenaline-ridden last reserves of strength and energy.

 

There was no time to bring her to safety as the Cardian roared angrily and attempted to crush Tuxedo Mask with a heavy tendon, sprouting water. So instead he splashed trough the liquid and with a forceful kick hefted himself up towards the platform of the wrecking ball controller. He touched the machine briefly – feeling the currents of electricity spring to life under his command – and the machine whirred to life. He pushed the controllers to move the ball jerkily to his desired direction, holding fast to the platform as gallons of water were sprayed against it, little bolts of electricity exploding from the machine as it was drenched, and then proceeded to push that big daunting red button.

 

With a jerk of heavy chain the Cardian was squished into the concrete wall of the skeleton building. It dissolved into fog, as did the concrete wall it had hit.

 

He half jumped/half fell away from the machine and into the mud below. It was so fluid by now that it felt and smelled like wading through thigh-high masses of sewer-water. The wall of the building continued to crumble, large pieces of concrete falling in the mud, splashing water everywhere and coating everything in dark brown. Just in time he reached the woman, still crawling with her last bits of strength, picked her up bridal style, and jumped to safety with her in her arms.

 

The police force – four SWAT teams, a couple police cars, accompanied by the ever present flourish of media - yelled and rushed in a seemingly controlled manner. They were evacuating the surrounding area – just in case it seemed. He handed the woman over to a very young looking policeman, who seemed to struggle with her weight. “She needs an ambulance, now.” He ordered in an authorative voice. Cameras were flashing around him.

 

He hefted himself up and jumped onto the roof of the nearest building, getting out of sight as quickly as he could. At a dark and quiet street near his neighborhood he let himself fall to the ground, and with a deep, painful and exhausted sigh he de-transformed.

 

With the magic boost the transformation seemed to give him gone he half-collapsed against a lamppost, his sides exploding with pain. He took a few calming breaths and let his energy wash over the pain – just a bit – just so much that he could walk. Then he let his mind reach out to his surroundings, checking where he was, what was near, if anyone noticed him, all without taking one glance or even opening his eyes.

 

He had had this connection to his surroundings as long as he could remember. Even more so, maybe, as Mamoru than as Tuxedo Mask, as the surge of adrenaline usually tended to hinder the expansion of his mind like that.

 

Juuban. He was almost home. He was in a residential area that was very common for the neighborhood but very uncommon for the rest of Tokyo, as he was standing in between family homes that were indeed almost spacious.

 

He pushed himself off of the lamppost and began limping painfully towards the direction that would very soon bring him towards his apartment complex. The limp in itself was a partly conscious decision – he could heal it here and now with little effort, and once he was home safely he definitely would do it immediately, but the woman he had just saved but who he felt he hadn’t saved fast enough didn’t have the luxury of instant well-being either, and so he kind of viewed it as his temporary penance and to remind him to be faster in future attacks.

 

Frowning, he honed his senses to the living things around him. Trees, pets, some stray late night party goers, a jogger, a man in suit beginning his day excruciatingly early, a potted hyacinth on someone’s balcony that hadn’t been watered in a very long time, a cat hissing at a shadow in an alley a few streets behind him, and then beyond that, masses of sleeping people in their beds, a few teenagers still awake doing god knows what, a mewling baby in the arms of a drowsy man, and then farther beyond that, the creaking earth beneath his feat,  earth winding around the roaring gas- and water pipes, and metals and heat even farer beyond that … he let the soft hum of his connection to the world dull and came back to his thoughts, watching his limping feet walk along the small winding streets.

 

Today had been excruciatingly hard. And the Cardian hadn’t even been that strong.  He frowned. It was getting worse.

 

He was startled out of his thoughts suddenly, the connection he felt to her fluttering, even though he’d dulled his radar out. He looked around him. What would she be doing up and around? He worried, alarmed, for a second. When he looked around, expecting to see her distinct hairstyle pop up, his eyes fell on a balcony, the windows dark and peaceful. This must be where she lives, he realized with a start. He knew he shouldn’t, but her concentrated on her a bit further.

 

He couldn’t really explain this. At the beginning he had thought that this bond he felt to the small blonde was just a weird anomaly of his power, an extension of his connection to the world. Yet, whereas his connection to others was more binary – alive, not alive, - and connected to bodily functions such as blood flow, photosynthesis, energy flow, measurable units like that, with her it was feelings he felt. When he first laid eyes on her it hadn’t been strong, not at all, a whisper of what the bond felt like now, but definitely there. And it had grown with his feelings for her.

 

He couldn’t turn her off, much like he couldn’t turn his other sense off, even when he was able to dull his connection with everything else. And, as he had discovered a while ago, his usual connection to the world still applied to her in addition as well, when he zoomed in on her – everything as usual, alive, blood rush, blood sugar count, toxins, all of it there, nothing out of the ordinary. So his earlier theory, that to her, for some reason, his power worked differently fell away, and had to face to fact that this was, probably, something else entirely. Something to do with the fact that he was someone with strange and inexplicable capacities, and that this was the girl who - if he was honest to himself -  he was fiercely in love with.

 

She was sleeping, but not dreaming at this moment. Her breath came slow and peaceful; the wind rustled into her hair from what he could see from here was an open window.

 

With a start, he realized what it was he was doing. He was standing in front of a girl’s house in the middle of night, all but doing the equivalent of watching her sleep. He felt like a stalker, he felt sick of himself.

 

He felt he needed to leave her alone. No more deliberate run-ins in the morning. No picking her out of crowds to force his way into her path. It needed to stop. She didn’t deserve this.

 

L

 

In a different place across the globe, where it wasn’t night yet and the sun was only just beginning to set, Minako Aino made her way across the streets of Bethnal Green, the part of London that had been her home for several years now, completely overloaded with Tesco bags full of groceries, a new duvet and a new litter box, both wrapped in plastic, and a wad of newspapers stuffed carelessly into her backpack.  

 

She reached her building and made it into the elevator just as the doors were closing on a neighbor of hers. He pushed his hand out to the connecting doors and they sprang back, letting her in. She was greeted with a charming smile and a mop of gorgeous chocolate brown hair. He was one of the incredibly cute yet incredibly gay ones from the floor above hers, she realized immediately, and her face fell as it always did when she thought of how unavailable those three hunks in apartment 4D were. “Thanks, Greg.” She smiled at him, and he smiled in return.

 

“Need some help with that, Mina?” He looked pointedly at the masses of bags hanging from and around her body.

 

“That’s sweet of you, but I’ll be fine” She shrugged, “I made it all the way here, didn’t I?”

 

He nodded. “You do realize pets aren’t allowed in this building, do you?” He looked pointedly, if sheepishly, at the litter box she was carrying.

 

Her eyes widened and she looked down on herself and the incriminating yellow plastic box. “OH!” She said a bit too loudly. “No that’s for a friend. She recently adopted a kitten.”

 

“Oh!” Greg smiled in return. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry, just thought I’d point it out so you wouldn’t get in trouble?” The elevator dinged and the doors opened to Minako’s floor. “Anyway,” Greg said to her as she waved her goodbye awkwardly around her baggage. “Don’t forget to show your face for Ethan’s birthday party on Saturday, yeah?” He called after her.

 

“I won’t!” She smiled at him, and the doors closed on him.

 

She fumbled a bit with her keys and the task of not dropping everything in front of her door in the process, and let herself into her dingy, tiny little one-bedroom apartment. She went into her equally tiny kitchen and dropped the bags on her makeshift fold-away table that was still done up from her breakfast this morning and started to unpack. Cans in the cupboard, butter into her small fridge, toast on the table, and so forth. Once all the groceries were put away she went into her room with the rest of her bags and crouched down on her knees in front of her folded old duvet in front of her small twin bed.

 

On it were two tiny little kittens, curled atop each other, sleeping soundly.

 

“Hello my cute little fur balls” She gushed at them and proceeded in picking one of them up – the white one. A boy-kitten, she was sure of it. He yawned, stretching his little mouth as far as he could, pink little tongue peeking out and eyes pressed shut then fluttering.

 

They were as kitten-tiny as they come. When she had brought them to the vet last week he had estimated their age to be two weeks maximum, yet she had had them for close to three months, which still baffled her greatly. She had the feeling it wouldn’t be too wise to share this information, though, so she had kept her mouth shut about it.

 

 She had found them mewling pitifully in the alley behind her apartment one day,  and she’d brought them in with her, fully intend to not keep them and just to make sure they’d be alright. She hadn’t named them at first, so as to not get too close, and after all, pets weren’t allowed in her apartment building, and she didn’t want them to starve should she one day not return from her nightly activities. So she had called them white kitty and night kitty, cause it rhymed and they were black and white, and it felt detached enough for her to still be able to part from them should she give them away.

 

But they were so incredibly small and cute and made these soft little kitten-sounds and reminded her of that video she saw on YouTube a while ago where this tiny fluff of a kitten was purring and mewling at being combed with a toothbrush and how could anyone hand over such little heart-wrenchingly adorable mini balls of love?

 

And now she’d finally bought this litter box, and two little paw shaped cat food trays so they wouldn’t have to eat and drink out of her favorite Japanese ceramic bowls anymore.  And she had started to call them Luna and Artemis, cause it felt right to her, and there was no way she would ever give them away again.

 

L