If Saionji Kyouichi had been the kind of man to remember his dreams, he would have defined them by the carol of bells – large, cast iron, old fashioned. Loud. Dominant. They sang victory, but even in the dreamscape, Saionji could not delude himself into thinking that they sang for him.
Pieces of himself drifted away and scattered on the wind. He watched them from his kneeling position on the ground, one hand clutching uselessly at the empty breast pocket of his school uniform. He knew he’d lost something vital, even if he couldn’t remember what it was – not even here, in the dream, where reality was at its thinnest. As he watched the pieces float away, he thought to himself that they looked like rose petals.
He was right.
There existed a point between dreams and wakefulness where elements from one side might cross over to the other – sounds, smells, sensations – creating the impression of a world that simultaneously was and was not true.
The logical explanation for this phenomenon was that the half-awake brain was trying to make sense of new sensory input before it had the necessary context to identify their meaning. This was a perfectly sensible line of reasoning. It was also entirely incorrect.
Those predisposed to more fanciful trains of thought might have proposed that this state was the result of an ephemeral psychic awakening; the human mind predicting real world events before they happened. This was also incorrect.
Saionji occupied this state for almost three full seconds, during which the bells followed him into the comfortably familiar world of his office. He had time to take in the hard edge of his desk, pressed uncomfortably against his face; the sharp ache in his back, bent too far forward to benefit from his chair’s advertised lumbar support; and the long late afternoon shadows, settling for the night, before the demanding, insistent sound of the bells ceased. In their place, the equally demanding ringing of the office phone sliced shrilly through the silence.
Saionji groaned as he raised himself to something that resembled standing upright. It struck him as unusual that he had fallen asleep in his office – and fairly so. Saionji was unquestionably a hard worker; it was often one of his better qualities and still, occasionally, one of his worse ones. But he was the type of man to pride himself on maintaining the appearance of not needing to work hard. The only image more alluring than possessing genuine dedication was being perceived to have the talent not to need it; it was the type of fairy tale that the adult world thrived on.
Saionji stumbled half a step in the direction of the sound before catching himself. It was clearly after closing and any clients worth sacrificing his personal time for had the number for his personal line. Everyone else gave him cause to ensure his assistant’s cheques cleared on time.
He swept his overcoat over his shoulders and stepped out into a light afternoon drizzle. He should have called for a pick-up rather than walking home with his collar pulled high over his neck, but the day felt overall too odd to entertain thoughts of ‘should have’. Pointedly, he saw nothing else worthy of notice until he was already walking the reassuringly even tread of his own property. Just outside the gate, a man sat, huddled against the weather. Saionji drew himself up stiffly, eyes skittering over the figure, afraid to look too keenly. Saionji’s brain, as trustworthy as it had been in those three sleepy seconds at the office, supplied that any man who sat about in unfavourable weather was likely to be a vagrant and was best not interacted with. His brain then supplied, implausibly, but correctly, that he knew this man.
“Touga?” Saionji’s voice was a proclamation of disbelief, but even as he said the word, Touga’s features came into sharper relief, as if he had called them into being. He was amazed at himself for not having recognized the man sooner; he had never known anyone else with hair quite that shade of red.
“You remember me this time,” Touga said with what Saionji knew better than to mistake for surprise. The statement didn’t call for an answer and Saionji didn’t dignify it with one. As if he could ever forget. Whatever game Touga might have been playing, it wouldn’t do to acknowledge it.
“Have you lost your mind?” Saionji asked, voice heated with genuine anger. He knew that anger offered a stronger position than confusion. He was also, however, under the impression that that position was less vulnerable. “Stand up, will you. Get inside.”
When Touga smiled, Saionji saw it as the arrogant smile of his memories. He was not precisely wrong.
Saionji stared darkly into the recesses of his tea cup and tried to determine how his life had come to arrive at its present moment. Touga, having capitalized on his host’s grudging hospitality to the tune of a hot shower, was swanning around the place in a towel that covered everything vital, yet somehow not nearly enough. Saionji still knew Touga well enough, even after all these years, to recognize the pageantry of it. Everything with Touga was a show and this display, distasteful as it was, hardly even rated. The only question was who he thought he was performing for.
“Did the girl you were staying with kick you out?” He felt stupid, even as he asked it. Even if Kiryuu Touga had somehow come to face rejection for the first time in his life, he had more than enough money and real estate to never need to come begging to Saionji for aid.
Touga’s answering smile was a masterclass in condescension. “Hm. What was her name?”
“How should I know. I have no interest in your comings and goings.”
“Yet you knew I was staying with someone.”
“You always are.” Saionji meant the statement to sound cutting and it did – in the way that even edges of blank paper can leave a wound. He sighed, giving up on his tea as well as his dwindling hopes for a peaceful evening, walking his cup to the sink. “We probably still take about the same size, if you want to put some clothes on. I’ll have someone bring you yours when they’re dry.”
He felt an unexpected tension on his scalp, the light teasing sensation of someone holding a tress of his hair. He startled away, violently. The cup fell from his grasp, shattering on the floor, fragments scattering wildly away, hiding under cupboards and tables. When he turned, back pressed against the counter as his chest tried to hold against the beat of his own heart, he saw only Touga, watching his face with a strange, searching expression.
“We used to be close,” Touga said and it sounded so much like a question that Saionji couldn’t find it within himself not to answer.
“We did.” He swallowed, trying to relax by inches. “We’re not anymore.”
It took three full seconds before the demanding, insistent sound of the bells ceased. In their place, the equally demanding ringing of the office phone sliced shrilly through the silence. Saionji lurched upright with an uncharacteristic absence of grace, blinking blearily at his surroundings. The blankly pleasant eyes of a nearby portrait stared back at him.
Saionji stalked toward the wall and swiftly tore the face off the portrait before he could think better of it, the canvas tearing with startling, impossible ease. He was left staring bemusedly down at his own clenched fist, wondering why he’d done such a stupid thing. Saionji was no stranger to anger – it had, in fact, been something of a companion throughout his adolescence and he was still prone to the occasional…passion. But wanton destruction against his own interests was an unnerving impulse to find himself acting out.
He dropped the scrap of canvas in his garbage bin and very consciously didn’t feel any regret. It was only a cheap reproduction, like every painting in his office. Anything of worth was acquired at the behest of wealthy clients or displayed amongst the most public part of his private collection. Saionji’s office decor exclusively consisted of mimicries painted by artists nearly twice as talented as the men they painstakingly copied, but with less than half the acclaim. It was a practical idea bolstered by a stifled sentimentality. From anyone else, it might have seemed self-aware.
The weather was less than pleasant throughout his walk home and Saionji had to pull his collar high over his neck to protect it from the drizzling rain. He was forced, to his irritation, to the edge of the walkway, shoes splashing uncomfortably in puddled water, by two girls leaving the planetarium. Neither seemed interested in watching where they were going, pressed up against one another as they walked into the cloud-dimmed daylight. One of them turned slightly, eying him over her shoulder – classically pretty with doll-like features and loose, dark curls falling down her back – but offered no apology and merely continued on her way, clinging to her friend’s arm without regard for anyone else who might have needed the travel space.
When Saionji reached his gate, he paused, unexpectedly thrown for a moment by…not finding anything unexpected. Nothing at all. He furrowed his brow and put the odd feeling down to being cold and more than a little miserable, passing through the gate and trying not to glance back. The inside of his house was equally normal and the uncomfortable feeling didn’t abate, even as he set the kettle to boil for tea. At one point, walking through the kitchen, he hissed at a sharp, unexpected pain in his foot, sure he’d cut it on something. When he checked, there was nothing there.
The news was running a special on the anniversary of a young painter’s death. He had been murdered by his younger sister, who had then buried the body in her rose garden. It was a terrible story; his paintings were worth a fortune by now. Saionji sat with his notepad balanced on his knee and tried to remember the young man’s name. For some reason, it kept fleeing from his grasp.
It was just over three seconds before the demanding, insistent sound of the bells ceased. In their place, the equally demanding ringing of the office phone sliced shrilly through the silence. When Saionji looked up, the blankly pleasant eyes of a nearby portrait stared back at him. Saionji swept his hair back from his forehead, finding himself shaken with no lingering remnants of the dream to blame it on. Snorting derisively, Saionji donned his overcoat and ignored how the ringing followed him on his way out to the street.
Somehow, he was unsurprised to find Touga standing outside his building, watching the rain send ripples through the puddles with a distant fascination. Saionji took a moment to rake his eyes over the familiar face, seemingly untouched by time, before sweeping past without a word.
“We meet again, my friend,” Touga called out, close enough behind that he must have followed.
“Friend? Who would that be?” Saionj received a theatrical laugh as an answer, Touga not even playing at being hurt – it wasn’t his style. Saionji tried to ignore the strange pounding of his heart at the familiarity of the words. He’d said them before. He hadn’t seen Touga in years. Both things felt true.
Without his permission, Saionji’s feet slowed until Touga was falling into step beside him, easily keeping pace. Perhaps it had been too strange to be the one followed for a change. It was a bitter thought. “You can feel it, can’t you?” Touga said, as if continuing a conversation. “The way that this world is cracking apart.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Saionji said and couldn’t convince his feet to allow him the dignity of a swift exit.
“We’re not living – you and I. We won’t until we break through.”
“Smash the world’s shell,” Saionji said, muttering more to himself than to the man beside him. The words felt strange in his mouth.
“I see your soul still hasn’t given up.”
The rain stopped between one breath and the next. Saionji became suddenly conscious of the silence at his side, void where the footsteps should have been. When he turned, Touga was gone. He glanced frantically about, but there was no sign of him. There was no sign of anyone.
A girl ran out of the planetarium, wearing a strange masculine outfit decorated with epaulettes and filigree. Loose, dark curls streamed down her back. Saionji was struck by the notion that she and he were somehow the only real things in a world of shadows, poor imitations. A nameless panic clawed at his throat. Without thinking, he stepped into her path, cutting her off.
“You have to help me.”
The girl smiled with placid indifference. “No,” she said, “I don’t.”
It took almost four seconds before the demanding, insistent sound of the bells ceased. In their place, the equally demanding ringing of the office phone sliced shrilly through the silence. Saionji woke with his heartbeat pounding staccato against his temple, the portraits watching him with neither judgement nor compassion. The phone rang and rang. Slowly, Saionji stumbled towards it.
“Listen: can you hear it?” Touga’s voice asked, its journey through the line lending it a strange, tinny quality.
“Touga?” Saionji’s fingers were at once tight and nerveless against the receiver.
“‘Touga’ this, ‘Touga’ that. You’re no different from when you were a child.” And those words, too, were a familiar cruelty. Touga had said them to him before. When? “But you can’t hear it anymore, can you? The sound resounding across the Ends of the World.”
“Touga, what are you talking about?”
“Why aren’t we close anymore, Saionji? When you remember that, come find me.” The phone went dead in his hand.
Saionji shivered against the drizzling rain, turning the collar of his overcoat up and tucking it over his neck. He glanced back at the office once, uncertain. Someone had called him, hadn’t they? It had been important, hadn’t it? Nothing felt right or real. Even the ground beneath his shoes seemed like it might decide, at any moment, that its continued existence was unnecessary. He was so focused on the pavement in front of him that he almost bumped into a girl as she left the planetarium. She didn’t even glance his way, loose, dark curls flying behind her, stark against a fashionable pink outfit.
Water splashed him from the right side, a pink convertible passing by – too fast – and startling him from his daze. He had half-formed the thought that he recognized the driver when he realized that he had already started to follow the car. The driver continued on, oblivious. Lagging far, far behind, Saionji ran. He was losing his mind, he was certain of it. He kept going.
The elevator at the end of the road was an impossibility, aimless white spires of architectural incoherency launching into the sky around it – leading to nothing, connecting to nowhere. Saionji stepped inside as if in a dream, eying the chair in the corner with an instinctual wariness. As soon as he settled his weight back on his heels, the elevator began to move.
With the doors closed, the harsh white lighting seemed garish, chasing away the shadows with unaccountable enmity. Saionji gritted his teeth, bracing against the vibrations of the elevator’s descent. The motor made a sound like a car engine.
The office was quiet when Saionji awoke. He leaned against his desk, panting harshly through the silence. The walls were lined with paintings he didn’t recognize – illustrations from a children’s book he’d never read. A lonely girl standing against mountains. A small shadow princess in a yellow dress. Coffins.
Saionji left his overcoat draped across the back of his chair as he stepped outside. There was no rain or chill to bother him. He let his feet carry him in an aimless path that lead, inevitably, to the planetarium. There he stopped and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long. A young girl – no more than a child with a bob of loose, dark curls – ran out, heedless of the way the concrete must have stung at her bare feet. Saionji hesitated only a moment, enough for propriety, before following. The girl led him down a familiar road. Some animal thing within Saionji balked at the thought of entering the elevator again. Even so, his feet didn’t pause, keeping an even pace.
The elevator at the end of the road was gone. In its place rose a long spiral staircase, striking into the heavens against all decency and common sense. The animal thing rose in Saionji, rattling against his ribcage, a terrified and wordless protest. The girl didn’t even pause, making for the first step. Saionji grabbed her wrist, not gently enough, and sent her stumbling. He felt badly for it and that made him angry in a way that he didn't understand. “You can’t go. Something bad will happen.”
She smiled mildly back at him, but there was no comfort in it. “Something bad has already happened.”
There was a flash of sharp steel and Saionji tore his hand away, falling backwards with a yell. The girl rubbed at her wrist, tending to it like the victim of a bruising grip – not at all like someone who had been run through. The girl resumed her ascent of the staircase, sparing Saionji no further acknowledgement in either thought or word. Someone much more important was waiting for her.
Saionji sat for a long time, watching a sun that never moved in the sky, before beginning his own climb. From the ground, the task had seemed daunting, but even when Saionji was high enough that the flagstones were a solid wall of colour below him, he wasn’t winded. He walked and the sun held its unnatural vigil and he listened to the steady rhythm of his own footsteps.
At the top, he was hardly surprised to find Touga. His hair and shirt whipped out behind him like extravagant capes, carried by a wind that Saionji couldn’t feel. When Touga turned to acknowledge him, he was smiling, magnanimous and open. A ring glinted on his left hand. “Tell me, Saionji – do you recognize this place?”
Saionji carefully didn’t look around at the sprawl of the grand, circular arena. He carefully ignored the familiarity of the gleaming stones beneath his feet. “Where did you get that ring, Touga?”
“From a – ” Saionji saw Touga’s mouth form the word girl even as he heard the word prince. “A marvelous gift.”
Saionji ran his tongue lightly over dry lips. “We should speak elsewhere, Touga. There’s something wrong with this place.”
“Of course there is.” Touga took a step forward, easy and casual. “There’s something wrong with this world, Saionji. It’s sick. It cries out for revolution.” Touga was in front of him now, close. Saionji held himself firm, even as Touga swept an arm around his waist and guided one hand to rest over his heart. “Do you remember it now?” he asked – quiet, as if confiding a great secret. “What happened between us?”
You changed too much, Saionji thought. It was honest, even if it wasn’t the whole of it. You changed too much and I couldn’t change at all.
Saionji felt something pressing beneath his hand. He tried to jerk back, surprised, but Touga merely moved his free hand to hold him there, the pose a parody of a promise. Slowly, the sword took shape and Touga allowed Saionji to move just enough to pull it forward. Touga watched, rapt – neither alarmed nor in pain. And when the sword was free, Touga took it easily from him, smiling at him with something that was almost fondness. “It always was much more beautiful when it was called by your hand.” And then Touga stepped away and left Saionji to fall on knees that refused to support him.
“Touga, wait – ”
“I’m going to put an end to all this.” Touga looked at his sword consideringly for a moment before sweeping it in a smooth arc. One of the pillars, visible beyond the wall of the arena, cracked as if suffering a blow.
Saionji’s stomach lurched with a sudden vertigo and he stumbled to his feet. “Touga, stop.” Touga lashed out with his sword again. Crack. And again. Crack. Large chunks of the pillar sheered off, tumbling ominously into the sky below. Saionji didn’t even think, seeing Touga draw back his sword again, and threw himself heedlessly into the path of the coming strike. He had just enough time to see Touga’s eyes widen before a strong wind sailed by, knocking him off his feet with the residual force, but veering harmlessly away. From his vantage point on the ground, Saionji could see the turrets of a great castle piercing the clouds above them.
“Get out of the way, Saionji.” Touga’s voice maintained its cool quality, but something strange threaded underneath it.
“Why do you always act like you’re alone in this?” Saionji manoeuvred into a careful crouch, chest heavy.
Touga held his sword at his side, but not relaxed. Waiting. “Because I am alone.”
Saionji laughed, the sound bitter and without humour. He pressed one hand against his chest and was unsurprised to feel the smooth hilt of a sword. He drew it out, slowly, and levered himself to his feet. “Don’t look down on me.”
Saionji flew at Touga like a fury, sword driven by a lifetime of kendo-honed reflexes and several lifetimes of something more. Touga met him readily, matching each blow with power and precision. “What is it that you’re fighting for, Saionji? To wake up tomorrow in a world that will never change, never allow you to move forward? For the empty lives that people walk through without knowing?”
“I think it’s your soul that has given up, Touga.”
Touga smiled, cruel edged. “Do you fight for eternity, then?”
Saionji drove forward with a yell, pushing Touga back, a small victory won by inches. And then the great castle shuddered and a piece of the sky plummeted toward them. Saionji felt Touga’s weight fly into him, bearing him to the ground, arms like twin bands of steel around his back, just as the coffin smashed into the floor of the dueling arena. Around them something shattered.
The bells of Saionji’s dreams rang victory. The polished stones were hard on his knees, but he couldn’t force himself to stand among the rose petals drifting away from him. He was so tired.
From his kneeling position, Saionji could see a girl. She smiled, in an honest way that lit up her eyes – wide, blue, and painfully young – but she didn’t try to leave, even though it was over. It must have been over or the bells wouldn’t ring.
As she stood and she watched and smiled patiently, Saionji became abruptly certain that it wasn’t possible for her to leave this place. Something within him roiled at the unfairness of it, even though this girl was nothing to him. She had won, hadn’t she? The bells only ever rang for her.
Somewhere nearby, footsteps pounded up a staircase.
Saionji woke to a familiar office and the sound of bells. Touga sat across from him, gazing at the paintings with a detached interest, not bothering to acknowledge Saionji as he stood.
“There is an end to it,” Saionji said. “There must be.”
“We’ve tried it all before. I doubt you remember.”
Saionji walked around the desk, stopping behind Touga’s chair. He hesitated only a moment before laying a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t you feel it?” The bells were so loud.
Touga’s lips parted, as if to speak, but he only raised his hand to cover Saionji’s own.
“We drive,” Saionji said, “until we find whatever waits in the world outside. We don’t stop.”
Touga laughed, just a quiet hitch of breath. His thumb stroked slowly over Saionji’s knuckles. “To what end?”
“To be born.”