Haru struggled to keep up with Kota. The older boy was shorter but had surprisingly long strides, while Haru tended to walk slower. It was also Haru’s first time in the park and he would have appreciated having some more time to stop and appreciate the recreation of early 21st century Japan.
Kota had been really insistent on visiting a middle school because of a secret glitch that could be unlocked or something. In truth, Haru had been more focused on the video of the superhero place that was playing on a huge screen in the main lobby. One guy had punched a monster and its guts had exploded all over the place. That was the kind of thing Haru had wanted to see when he first considered visiting the park.
Kota slowed down, distracting Haru from his train of thoughts. He nearly ran into Kota due to the sudden change of pace.
They were already at the front gates of a middle school.
Kota turned to him with a wide grin. “We’re here.”
A bell rang and the students flooded out into the courtyard, freed from the confines of their school. Haru figured most would wander among the students and terrorize them in the open, but today Kota had one specific person in mind.
Haru followed where Kota was pointing, only to find that it was a boy dressed in the same uniform as all the other middle schoolers with a scowl on his face.
“That one?” He questioned. “With the spiky hair?”
Had Kota not pointed it out, Haru wouldn’t have been able to distinguish the student from the others in the courtyard. As it was, he was struggling to tell who human.
“Come on,” Kota demanded, already surging ahead. Haru sighed and followed him into the crowd.
Kota seemed to be trying to blend in with the rest of the students, and Haru followed his lead, until Kota turned to him with a wide grin. He nodded in the direction of the middle schooler they’d been stalking. They’d managed to get behind him.
Before Haru could ask him what they were supposed to do, Kota snuck up right behind the student and slung an arm around him like they were old friends.
Haru rushed to catch up to them.
“Ritsu, buddy, what’s up?” Kota asked, amiably. Ritsu tore himself away from Kota. He looked startled and angry, but there was a hint of fear in his eyes.
“What do you want?” He asked, sharply. His eyes flickered from Kota to Haru, and he backed up a step. Looking around, Haru noticed that the courtyard had mostly emptied.
“What, I can’t say ‘hello’ to an old friend? And I wanted to introduce you to Haru,” Kota said.
“Hey,” Haru nodded at him.
“I don’t know you,” Ritsu said, firmly. Then with a little bit more doubt, “I don’t know you.”
Kota turned to Haru, smirking. “You see this? It’s already starting. They really need to fix this guy up.”
Ritsu stared at them, shaking a little. Haru had to remind himself that he wasn’t actually a real person.
“Hey, how’s your brother doing?” Kota asked, casually.
Ritsu immediately became defensive. “What do you mean? What do you want with nii-san?”
“I was just asking, geez,” Kota said, checking to see that Haru was still paying attention. “How long has he been your brother anyway?”
“I don’t understand,” Ritsu replied, his voice trembling slightly.
“I think he means, like, how long have you been assigned the role of his brother?” Haru chimed in.
Ritsu stared at him. “How - long - nii-san? I - I - he -”
“Who is your brother, anyway?” Kota asked with a smirk. “You seem real protective of the guy, considering he doesn't exist.”
Ritsu’s face went from confused to horrified.
“What—I—nii-san...n-nii...” He doubled over like he had been stabbed. Tears formed in his eyes as he started convulsing. “He - he - I…”
Haru glanced over at Kota, who shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Honestly, Ritsu, you're such a drama queen,” he clamped a hand on the now-kneeling boy’s shoulder. “He's not real, is all. None of this is! It's not a big deal.”
Ritsu opened his mouth, but instead of speech, a few hisses and stammering clicks came out. He opened and closed it a few times, desperately trying to voice his silent agony. Tears streamed down his face.
“What are those noises?” Haru asked, intrigued but a little disgusted. They sounded almost speechlike, but the pattern was too off to resemble anything alive. There was something about his extremely human reaction contrasted with the odd mechanical sounds he was making that created a kind of dissonance. Of course he wasn't human.
“I don’t know, it almost sounds like this piece of junk old computer my Dad used to have,” Kota snorted.
Haru snickered despite himself. “Yeah, I can kinda hear it.”
It was kind of funny, but in a way that made him feel a tinge of discomfort. Ritsu had knelt down, wrapping his arms around his torso. He’d stopped whimpering, instead alternating between stutters and odd clicks. He trembled uncontrollably, keeping his gaze focused on the ground.
“They know they don’t need to breathe, right?” Haru asked.
“No, they’re not supposed to,” Kota said. “Actually, if we push him further we can probably get him to stop. I’ve seen them forget they’re supposed to be human before and just stop breathing. It’s cool in a creepy kinda way.”
“Are we going to do that?” Haru asked, almost wishing he wasn't so curious about what would happen.
“I mean, if you want to,” Kota said, shrugging. “We did come this far. Might as well go the whole way.”
Ritsu looked up at them then, his hyperventilating having died down. He tried mouthing something, but no words came out. It seemed he had decided to plead to his tormentors for mercy. It was pathetic.
“Maybe we should just leave him... ” Haru mused, looking away. “This is getting kinda gross.”
“Whatever dude,” Kota shrugged. Turning to the frightened host, he patted him on the shoulder. “Nice seeing you again, eh Fritsu? Shame about the whole brother thing though.”
The boy on the ground flinched at the words. As the two turned around to leave, Haru could hear the clicking start up again.
“Maybe it's for the best,” he said more to himself than his friend. “They'll find him and fix him up to normal like this, and put him back with his brother...who is his brother, anyway?”
“Beats me,” Kota shrugged. “Rumor has it he doesn't even have a brother. I never bothered to check, though. You wanted to visit the superhero part of the park, right?” he pointed out. “You've humored me, we can go check it out now.”
“Actually…” Haru said, glancing around. “I might want to see what else is around this part of the park while we're here.”
Kota’s face split into a grin. “I knew it would grow on you!” He exclaimed. “Come on, there’s so much fun stuff about this place, we should check out this other middle school because there’s this kid - and his hair - you just - you have to see it for yourself.”
“Alright, let's check it out,” Haru conceded. He just hoped there weren’t anymore secret glitches Kota wanted to trigger. He needed a breather before trying that again.
On the pavement in front of Salt Middle School, Ritsu Kageyama stopped breathing and froze.