The edges were blurred, but he recognized the place. Or rather the memory.
A banal memory, really. The park two blocks from his house where the neighbourhood children liked to play, the cool autumn air making the trees dance, dressed in coats with reddish reflections and the afternoon sun peeking through the clouds, dotting its rays here and there. The park was empty, the bitter November cold deterring children from venturing outside. Yet, Takemichi was there.
Or rather Takemichi was watching himself being there. He blinked at the small form crouched in front of a sandbox, obviously concentrating on something in his hands. A quick glance at his surroundings confirmed that he was somehow back in his adult body. Perhaps this was the physical materialization of his twenty-six(seven? eight?)-years-old mind, Takemichi didn't know. But he knew this memory, this particular one among many others. It was nothing special, as banal and ordinary as going to the grocery shop or having breakfast. And it was this very ordinariness that had etched it into his memory so clearly. Because on the darker days when Takemichi's troubled mind was buried under layers of doubt and regret, he could hold onto the normality of that memory.
Desperately, Takemichi had grown accustomed to reaching out to grasp the edges of the memory and taste again the simplicity he had once experienced. No heavy promises of responsibility, no untimely deaths, no endless funerals whose speeches he now knew by heart, no reckless teenagers thinking the world was theirs and beating up each other day and night. None of that, just his child-self and the intricately patterned butterfly that had deigned to land on the back of his hand.
That day, his child mind had made the discovery that butterflies, seen up close, were ugly. The buzzing antennae, feverish legs and large eyes took away all the beauty and grace of the two wings painted in a thousand of colours.
A movement caught his attention. Takemichi watched as the small figure of his young self rose and the butterfly took flight to land in a nearby bush. When he turned around, Takemichi noticed that the child had the same appearance as the body he was trapped in.
Guess I'm around this age...
But to his surprise, instead of walking towards the exit of the park, the child walked towards him with a big smile and eyes that looked at him. Him, not the tree behind his slightly transparent body as he was supposed to do. Because a memory wasn't supposed to see him, or smile at him, let alone speak to him.
It seemed that this child had decided to ignore all these unspoken rules. Takemichi felt his body, or whatever it was that made it up, tense up under the boy's innocent and curious gaze. He squinted suspiciously before leaning forward in what he assumed was a proper position to talk to a child. Said child being himself from over twenty years ago. "H-Hey there, wha—"
"Do you drive a flying car?" Takemichi blinked at the sudden question. Huh?
The child continued on. "Do you live in a house on the moon?" He began to circle around, a childish laugh echoing in the empty park where time seemed to stand still. "Are you married? Or should I say are we married? Since, y'know, I'm you and you're me."
Is that it? He finally went crazy? It was about time.
Hesitantly, Takemichi reached out his hands to try to catch this boy and his incessant questions. Had he really been such an insufferable child? He felt sorry for those around him. No wonder his parents were never home.
"Will I look like this later? You— erh, we're so tall!" The exclamation made the adult wince. He was not tall. In fact, for a twenty-six years old grown man, he was rather small. But for a child, anyone over their own height was incredibly tall.
Fortunately, the boy stopped running around Takemichi and decided to finish his run in front of him. "You must be feeling cramped in my little body," the boy said accompanied by an apologetic smile, his hands wringing behind his back as proof of guilt. The disgruntled frown that had taken over Takemichi's face faded as quickly as it had appeared, replaced by a confused expression.
"What do you mean?" asked Takemichi, knees bent to meet the child's eyes. They were blue, nothing surprising here. The only difference with his own was that they sparkled with a pure radiance: that of childhood. A slight feeling of nostalgia settled in his chest.
"The other told me everything!" The younger man's lips curved into a smile, proud of the informations he held. Takemichi however did not share his joy. "Who is 'the other'?" He felt like he was the one stringing the questions together now.
The boy brought a hand to his chin while Takemichi could almost see the gears of his young mind turning at full speed. "He was just like you!" he finally said, his hands waving in the air to illustrate his explanation. "But he had yellow hair and was more... uhm..."
"Young?" Takemichi tried.
"Yeah!" The child gloated as the adult squatted completely on the ground. From the description, it could only be his fourteen-years-old self. One doubt remained, however. "And what did he say to you?"
His younger self squinted to remember the information. "That sometimes he had to stay here," he swept his little arms around the surroundings, "because the 'us' when we'll be older," then dug his index finger into Takemichi's chest, "have important stuff to do to... uh..." A small frown appeared on his face. Takemichi had never had a good memory, he assumed his child-self did too. "Because we're heroes!"
The statement, clearly made up, took the taller man by surprise. He had no time to comment, or refute, the boy continued in his diatribe. "He also said that perhaps I, too, will have to make room for you in my body and that, when that day comes, I'll have to wait here until you leave." So it was in a memory that his young-self's soul was going when he returned to the past. Takemichi raised his head to scan the surroundings, seeing now in a new light the deserted park that served as a makeshift waiting room. A thought crossed his mind.
"But where is he?" he asked, his gaze returning to the child. A sad look crossed his youthful face.
Confusion distorted Takemichi's features. "Gone?" He looked around once more as if observing the bushes more closely would allow him to notice some disheveled blond hair that had gone unnoticed.
"Yeah, gone." The child's eyes filled with tears as his small hands clutched at Takemichi's shirt(?). "He said there wasn't room for him anymore and-" a strangled sob startled his body, "and that it wasn't him they wanted anyway."
Takemichi's eyes widened in shock, his arms unconsciously wrapping around the sobbing boy against his chest. He could clearly picture it; a fourteen years old boy abandoned by his parents suddenly surrounded by friends, who he didn't remember making, that didn't seem satisfied with the way he behaved or reacted. He is not the one they like, he is not Takemichy, the twenty-six years old crybaby hero but Hanagaki Takemichi, a fourteen years old middle schooler who is desperately trying to please everyone in the hope of being accepted. He tries to find his place but instead finds himself with a script he doesn't remember saying the lines of and a role that means so much to others but nothing to him.
The realization brought tears to Takemichi's eyes, and he too began to sob. It was unfair in so many ways, an unfairness that tore at the already frayed edges of his heart.
A rustling sound caught his attention. He opened the eyes he didn't know he had closed and watched in horror as the body of the child in his arms began to disintegrate. A strangled sound came from his mouth as the small particles emanating from the boy began their ascent to the sky. "W-Wha—"
"I didn't understand why he left," the younger one began while Takemichi panicked, arms flailing uselessly around his body, "but now I understand. There's no more room for me too." He looked up, a sad smile adorning his soft, round-cheeked face. Takemichi's blood ran cold through his veins when his gaze landed on what was left of his shoulders. The clothes were long gone and the flesh was seconding them. He was disappearing. This little boy of barely ten years was disappearing because of Takemichi. The beating of his heart increased in intensity as the boy's torso gradually moved away into the overcast sky until it dispersed into the air.
Takemichi couldn't bear the sight any longer so he did the only thing he could do: he hugged the child's tattered body tightly to his chest, crying his heart out.
"W-We're heroes, right?" The question, no higher than a whisper, stirred a part of him that Takemichi thought he had lost between timelines. The flame that he thought had been extinguished forever burned for a second, a tiny second, but which had all its importance. It brought a new light into Takemichi's eyes. Maybe not so new, the memories of an unwavering determination bubbling up in a teenager's body, taking blow after blow, were resurfacing. Not new, but real.
Takemichi ran his hand through what was left of the boy's hair and pulled him even closer to his chest, his eyes glistening with tears and a newly rekindled fire. "Of course we are!" Despite the tremor in his voice, the statement shook the edges of the memory to the core of his consciousness. Those four words alone could have lifted mountains and dislodged rivers.
He couldn't see it, but Takemichi knew that his child-self was smiling weakly between the folds of his shirt. "Then..." the voice sounded distant, drifting off into unknown lands that Takemichi had and was still trying to keep his friends from, "I'm sure we're the best heroes ever!"
And just like that, the meagre existence of this child that lasted no more than a decade slipped from Takemichi's fingers like sand flowing from a broken hourglass. He didn't know how long he stood there, clasping his arms around the now empty spot where just before stood the little boy who was normally destined to become that ill-at-ease teenager, who had also disappeared without any funeral to commemorate his memory.
Takemichi didn't want to get up, he had lost the will to do so a long time ago in an amusement park where the sky was crying the tears he couldn't let go and the wind was howling the grief he couldn't express. He wanted to stay there, in the stability of this memory, in the quietness of this empty park where the wind did not blow. He thought of the butterfly, at once free but imprisoned, circling indefinitely in Takemichi's memory, and shamefully, he came to envy it.
He also thought of the ridiculous cape neatly folded in a corner of a child's room, waiting for its owner to tie it around his shoulders and proudly parade past monsters and villains, fear swirling in his stomach but a confident smile plastered on his face
On shaky legs, Takemichi stood up. With a heavy heart but a clear mind, he advanced step by step towards the senseless goal that the universe had imposed on him at the same time as a train reduced him to shreds.
Once upon a time there was a child, then a teenager and finally an adult. There was only the adult left now, who continued to move forward despite everything. Takemichi was a hero after all.
A tired hero, yes, but a hero nonetheless.