[Author's note: This fic is set between the end of the Rahxephon TV series and the coda, so it definitely contains spoilers. I thought Mamoru was really interesting, and I wanted to give him just a tiny bit more closure. Please see my disclaimer page for copyright information.]
A Rahxephon fanfic
By Natalie Baan
"/Yaho!/" Mamoru carolled as he opened the apartment door and stuck his head inside. "Hope you don't mind, I'm letting myself in."
"Fine, fine--it saves me from having to lumber to my feet." Haruka smiled warmly at him from across the room. She was sitting on a cushion at the low table, legs curled up comfortably next to her. Faint steam rose from the mug by her elbow, pale wisps barely visible in the slanting light of the early spring sun. Dressed in an airy, flowing yellow dress and embroidered white cardigan, she looked incapable of anything so ponderous as lumbering, despite being very emphatically pregnant.
"Oh, so Ayato isn't around, then?" Balancing on one foot and then the other, Mamoru unpicked his sneakers' laces. Haruka shook her head.
"He's still at the gallery."
"What? That bum! I'm telling you, that no-good husband of yours ought to be here right now, ready to rub your feet and cater to your every whim. It's a man's duty at such a time." Haruka grinned at his mock-outrage, an impish gleam in her brown eyes.
"I'll be sure to tell Hiroko-chan you said that." More demurely, she added, "It's a very important show for him, you know."
"Yeah, yeah." Kicking his shoes off at last, he stepped up out of the entryway. A couple of white shopping bags stood by the table, partly unpacked--the brightly colored box of a baby's mobile set and some pink tissue paper lay on the tatami next to them. Wandering over, Mamoru leaned over and peered curiously at their contents.
"You want anything? Tea? Munchies?"
"Nah, I'm fine." There was a stuffed toy cat inside one of the bags; he picked it out and held it up to examine it more closely. It had patchwork fur and huge, staring eyes. "I can't figure out if this is really cute or really scary."
"Mm-mmm." He glanced at the table. It looked as if Haruka had been in the middle of answering mail--a letter written in bold kanji on rose stationery lay before her, along with her own half-finished reply. She was gazing down at the paper, twiddling her pen absently between her fingers. Taking the cat plushie with him, he idled over to the window and plopped down underneath it, sitting with his back to the wall. "Oh!" Haruka started out of her momentary reverie. "I don't know where my brain is today--"
"Don't worry about it. If it's all right, I'll just hang out here with Kitty-chan."
"His name is Buchi."
"Buchi, is it?" Mamoru murmured, a half smile tugging at his mouth. He regarded the cat drooping limply against his sweater, a slight, floppy weight curled into the crook of his arm, insubstantial yet oddly comforting.
"So, then." The change in Haruka's tone was subtle, a quietness just sudden enough to warn him. He looked at her, but she was still apparently engrossed in her correspondence. "Hiroko-chan didn't chase you out again, did she?" He blinked, then started in protest, even as he realized that she was half-teasing.
"Oh, no, no, no--nothing like that! We're fine. She's at work right now anyway." Sighing, he slumped against the wall. "No, I just felt like coming over. Somehow it's always peaceful at your place." His gaze swept the apartment, the muted grays of walls and tatami, the perfectly translucent light, the tall shelves packed with books. "Maybe it comes from having an artist-type around."
"I /am/ sorry Ayato isn't here--"
"No, it's--" He faltered. "It's all right. Really." /It's better this way./ The words not said twisted inside him, the sharpness of an unadmitted truth. Silence fell between them, disturbed only by the low skritch of Haruka's pen, the sound of a car passing by outside, but somehow that hush just intensified the pressure that had been gathering in him, the restlessness that had driven him to his friends' door in the first place. "Say, Haruka?" He fiddled with one of the cat's paws, not sure what he wanted to say, what he /should/ say. At last he asked, "Does it mean anything if you dream about your fiance punching you in the nose?"
"Oh, Mamoru-kun." He looked up--Haruka was watching him, one hand cupped against her cheek, her smile luminous, tender, and amused. "You really are nervous about this wedding, aren't you?"
He tries to pull her closer, suddenly, urgently needing her against him, in his arms, safe, needing the taste of her mouth underneath his, the sharing of their breath. She struggles, senselessly terrified of him, breaks loose and spins away. As she turns, she lashes out, her arm swinging wildly, and the heel of her hand catches him hard across the face. The unexpected crack of pain blinds him. Through that white daze, vaguely he can hear her sobbing breaths, the scuffle of her footfalls hurrying away, the pop of rifle fire as one of the soldiers reacts. "/Stop that!/" he shouts, and the man obeys, just as mindlessly as he'd fired. His head clears and he straightens, his heart a strange, heavy fist inside his chest, closed up with anxiety--/was she hit?/--made leaden by other, more foreign things.
Lowering his hand from the warm trickle running down his face, he looks at the blue stain smearing his palm.
"Yeah." With a faint, wry smile, Mamoru glanced away from Haruka once more. "Yeah. I guess that's it."
If it had been only that one dream, he would have thought nothing of it. It would have been a joke; he'd have enjoyed telling everybody about it and teasing Hiroko about her violent tendencies. But it wasn't just that. There had been other dreams, too, and in parallel with them a growing sense of something being not quite right, as though that dreamworld's strangeness was seeping like mist into his reality, or the world he knew was thinning, becoming less tangible, letting something else show through. The wrongness had been vague at first, a shiver of disturbance at the back of his mind, but lately it had gotten sharper, though no less mysterious. He might look at a building, a car, a cluster of high school students laughing as they walked along the sidewalk, and for an instant that everyday sight would seem completely alien. Sometimes it felt as if his mind had slipped off its usual track, as though for a split-second he was watching someone else think, thoughts that were elliptical, cool, remote. And then, just earlier that week, coming out of a subway station he'd found his gaze snatched up to the wide open expanse of sky overhead--a shadow wavering on the air, a city of giant faces and trees, of cloud and dream, a glimpse that made his breath catch, his heart beat faster in a flash of mingled delight and terror, an unfamiliar name unfolding in his mind: /Hiranipra./
There had been nothing there at all. He'd stood for a long time, letting other people push past him as he stared into that blue, empty sky.
But even with that, maybe everything still would have been all right. Somehow he might have worked up the nerve to talk to his friends, to tell them that he thought there was something wrong with him, to find somebody to help. What frightened him most of all, what kept him curled around his secret as though by hugging it to himself tightly enough he could keep it contained was the slow fire hidden at its heart: a burning like lava pressing up toward the earth's surface, inexorably gaining strength.
He fans the pages of the little notebook, a quick whirr of flipping paper. The book falls open in one place, as though it's been opened to that spot many times. The pages are wrinkled where stains of blue have soaked them and then dried; the words written there are blurred but still legible.
"Ah, that's much better!" Distracted briefly by the gravelly voiced comment, Mamoru looked over at Haruka's uncle, Rikudoh Shougo, and then back at the mirror. Turning profile, he snapped his arms out lightly in front of himself, checking the jacket's sleeves. Not too short, this time. At the edge of the reflection Rikudoh was still visible, having planted himself with magisterial calm in the shop's one chair to observe and occasionally comment on the fitting. Mamoru didn't mind the old man's presence at all--he'd met the professor in passing a number of times and thought he was pretty cool--but he couldn't figure out why the girls had insisted on having their tuxedo arrangements overseen by a man who never seemed to wear a suit. (Haruka claimed that he had when he was younger, and that there were pictures somewhere to back it up. Mamoru remained dubious.) Maybe it was easy enough for Rikudoh to find free time between classes at the university--but was it really necessary? Surely they weren't /that/ hopeless. Shaking his head, Mamoru pivoted once more in front of the mirror, admiring the way the dark suit flattered his tall, lean frame.
"I suppose it'll do." Gritting his teeth, Mamoru managed to restrain himself to an only moderately annoyed glance at the other half of their chaperoning team. Leaning against a clothes rack to one side of the mirror, arms crossed over his chest, Mamoru's father watched the proceedings morosely, a spare, disapproving figure. They'd had a distant but uncombative relationship until just recently, but after the man had been laid off at the end of the last year things had gradually become more strained in the family, and especially between the two of them. Maybe his mom and Hiroko had thought that helping with the wedding preparations would be a good distraction for his dad. Instead, it just seemed to provide a new outlet for that increasingly lousy attitude.
"At least it's better than the powder-blue one," his father went on sardonically. "I can't believe you were considering /that./"
"Hey, I was just looking at it!" Mamoru protested. "I like the color." He'd known better than to even take it off the rack; Hiroko's instructions had been explicit. He turned his back on the man, under the pretext of looking at himself from yet another angle. "Yep, I think this one is great!"
"I still don't see why you couldn't have a nice traditional Japanese ceremony, like your friends did." That whine in his father's voice was starting to grate on his nerves. Okay, so his father was suffering from stress and depression, and he was trying to be patient and take all that into account, but /he/ had plenty of stress of his own right now, considering he was getting married in just a few weeks. Weren't these people supposed to be here to support /him?/
"Hiroko wants a Western wedding," he answered loftily, taking refuge in a higher authority. "My one mission in life is to make her happy."
Rikudoh chuckled. "That's a good start for a marriage. As a husband, with an attitude like that, you'll go far." In the mirror, Mamoru saw the old man study him with intent, appraising eyes, then nod once. "Suit looks good on you."
Mamoru grinned. "Thanks!" There was a strangled sound from his father, who apparently still didn't agree but was reluctant to contradict the esteemed professor outright. Maybe this would be survivable after all, and if so he'd light incense to Haruka like a kami for sending her uncle along--
"Still, couldn't you at least get a decent haircut for once?"
The first stirrings of relief clenched back into renewed tension. Crap, not the hair thing /again./ Even in better days, going all the way back to when he'd been in high school, it had been a sore point between them. He was getting thoroughly sick of hearing about it. Mamoru flicked back some of the long strands framing his face, watching himself in the mirror and pointedly not looking at his father. "This hair is very fashionable," he informed the man, letting an edge of cool disdain slip into his voice. His father snorted.
"Yeah? On what planet?"
Mamoru stopped and stared outright at him. /Unbelievable. Who does he think he is?/ Something cold squirmed weakly in his stomach, a writhe of alarm, small and far away, unimportant now. He looked with narrowed eyes at the man hunched against the clothes rack, whose bitter smirk had less to do with laughter than with a petty, impotent displeasure.
/This insignificant human..../
"Planet Mamoru." The voice as much as the words brought him around. The speaker leaned on one arm against the doorway of a changing room, tuxedo jacket hanging loose, unbuttoned. Pale hair spilled across his forehead, partially obscuring one eye. He was smiling. "Where all the women are pretty and life is easy and carefree."
For a pair of sharp, almost painful heartbeats, he stared at the other man. Then he turned back to face the mirror. "Yeah. That's right." The words dragged out of him, automatic response struggling through a pressure in his chest, a suddenly more urgent fear yammering at him in the distance, thin, garbled cries like a ghost trying to break through the boundary between worlds. Lifting his head, he gazed past the shoulder of his own reflection, his expression fading from the brief, self-mocking smile that had accompanied his reply to flat neutrality--he watched as that other turned to get the old man's opinion, deft artist's hands fastening up the jacket's buttons.
/"I wonder why the sky and the ocean are so blue...."/
Blue and blue, they whirl about him--or rather, about the puppet that he dances, the Dolem that flashes like a knife through the air, so ready to his hand. The human-made mockeries blunder toward him, clumsy, half-dead. With a flick of claws he slashes the leader limb from limb in passing, spins contemptuously away from an answering spatter of weapon-fire. A glancing shot skims the Dolem's head, barely enough to score it--he feels it as the whick of a feather, then a cool, razor-thin sting along his cheek. Somewhere outside the immediacy of battle, a corner of his mind notes that he'll have to check his face in a mirror before anyone here can see him, to make sure his secret isn't revealed too soon by the trace of blood.
Assuming that such discretion remains necessary, of course.
/"Help me! I don't want to die like this! Ayato! Ayato!"/
His lips curl back into a feral smile. Flexing his hand, he dives toward the still-firing machine-Dolem.
/Come on, Ayato!/
Eyes unshutter to staring, startling gold. The lash of a wing, the severing of a limb, too sudden to feel at first--and the Xephon's freed hand crushes and tears off the Obbrigato’s third arm in a terrible fountain of blue. Anguish slams into him, redoubles in a breath as he registers the second wound. The Obbrigato falls back, goes to its knees in the shallow waters of the bay. He can see the Xephon loom, a lambent-eyed shadow. It flings aside the Obbrigato's arm, gathers incandescence into its hands, a fiery bow, an arrow aimed to his heart. He stares at that death, measured and relentless, merciless.
/Just as it was for her./
Something hot and poisonous boils up within him. His mouth twists into a snarl. With a jerk of one arm, he calls the remnant of the Obbrigato's flying wing up from the water, up into a shield before him, lets it take the lethal force of that blow. Under the cover of its destruction, he directs the Obbrigato to retreat to Hiranipra at its top speed, a blurring flight that no craft of human make can track, let alone catch, that not even the Xephon can follow.
Safe. Safe. Only then can he give in. He finds that he's curled in upon himself, clutching feverishly at his arm, hearing his own breaths now, a ragged, strangled panting. Phantom pains. He digs his fingers into the flesh until he no longer can feel the Dolem's damage, until this reality overlays it like the wind of the waking world sweeping flat the wonder and terror of a dream. The pain fades to nothing but a twinge, a memory. His breathing slows. His mind is clear and calm once more, but in the background the taint remains, bright, bitter, and metallic as the taste of blood in the mouth--injured pride, a pale, burning fury and disgust, the grating constriction of this role he's been called upon to play. But play he will.
Witness. Protector. Challenger.
Nemesis also, now.
Let the Xephon’s Ollin tune the world to the note of this hatred, this suffering. Let it be written in the new sky, across the remade sea.
"Ayato," he murmurs. The sound of his voice falls like a stone into the empty room, leaves no ripples. He smiles, turning away from the window. "The reason the vast sky and ocean are both blue is because all of it belongs to the people with the blue blood."
/What belongs to me, you've taken./
/What you treasure most, what you think is yours...I'll see it all undone./
The last of the laughter trailed off among the clinking of plates and bowls being arranged on the table. With a little hiccup and a swipe at her eyes, Haruka turned to Hiroko. "Can you believe it, though? After all that, the day's almost here."
"I said it, didn't I?" Hiroko's grin was triumphant and more than a little smug as she handed chopsticks to Mamoru. "I said I'd be married by our tenth reunion if it killed me!"
/Or me,/ Mamoru thought. His face was still burning slightly from the evening's joking at his expense. So he'd been a little slow to get the clue. He nodded and murmured thanks to Megumi, who'd just passed him a bowl of rice.
"Aah." Haruka gave Mamoru glimmering, sympathetic smile, then sat back with a sigh. "Now all you have to worry about is me going into labor during the ceremony."
Hiroko's mouth fell open. "Uwaa! Haruka-chan, don't even /think/ about such things!" The over-the-top dismay on her face was only mostly in play. Mamoru knew that she'd felt overshadowed by Haruka for years--knew the point on which that inferiority first turned. Having her own special day interrupted like that would just be the crowning blow. Haruka didn't know the depths of it, as far as he could tell; if she had, he doubted she'd have teased Hiroko so blithely. His stomach knotted, uneasy with Hiroko's discomfort, and with his own, so nearly related to it. But that was old history and didn't have to be brought up among friends--especially with the weirdness of his own recent moods, he really didn't feel like getting into that stuff. Plus Hiroko'd been taking the mickey out of him all evening long. Uncomfortably he let the moment slide.
"It probably /would/ be pretty disruptive," Ayato said mildly. Setting the serving tray to one side, he sank down to sit next to Megumi and across from Haruka. There was a ragged mutter of appreciation for the food before people started to dig in. "On the other hand," he mused, "wouldn't it be lucky or something? Like some kind of fertility blessing?" Flipping his hair out of his eyes, he smiled slyly at Mamoru. "So how are you at delivering babies?"
"Lousy," Mamoru answered promptly. "I have many skills," he paused to leer vaguely at Hiroko, who blushed but didn't look too displeased, "but that isn't one of them."
"Well, you shouldn't have to worry," Haruka said. "I'm supposedly good for another couple of weeks--although it certainly doesn't feel like it sometimes!" She laid one hand lightly on her belly. "Actually, though...what I'm really more worried about is the dress."
"Eh?" Hiroko paused in lifting her chopsticks. "What's wrong with the dress?" Dangerous territory, Mamoru thought, implying to the bride-to-be that there was a problem with one of the carefully chosen bridesmaid dresses. He shoveled in an overlarge mouthful of rice so that he wouldn't have to make any comments. Haruka seemed to recognize the pitfall looming before her; she waved one hand in airy, placating dismissal.
"Mmm, no, it's not that there's anything /wrong/ with it," Haruka said. "But I just realized, in that particular shade of pink--I'm going to look like a gigantic puffer fish coming down the aisle."
Megumi snerked, flapped her arm, and tossed her head a couple of times, turning red as she tried to swallow fast so that she could jump into the conversation. A brief grin tried to take over Mamoru's mouth, and he had to put up one hand himself, to make sure he didn't lose any of his rice. "Hey, now," Hiroko was saying somewhat feebly, any possible indignation deflated by that mental image. "I /like/ that pink--"
"Of course! It's a lovely pink!" Haruka hastened to reassure her. "It's just, you know, at almost nine months--"
"Pink is great!" Megumi added. "It's got a really /soothing vibration./" She looked at Ayato for confirmation. Fourteen years old, Megumi had an unadmitted but very cute crush on her brother-in-law, which meant she kept trying to emulate his interests. Ayato put up with it patiently and gallantly forbore to explain that New Age color psychology really wasn't the kind of color theory that he dealt with. Instead of answering Megumi now, he leaned forward on one elbow and smiled meltingly at Haruka.
"I'm sure you'll be the most beautiful puffer fish," he said.
Haruka looked as though she couldn't decide whether to go all dewy-eyed or kick him. The fact that they were sitting on the floor probably saved him--although if Haruka hadn't been so pregnant she very likely could have whipped her leg around past their end of the table and tagged him. She'd always been athletic. Next to her, Hiroko had finally had a chance to sample the broiled fish. "Mmf--hey, this is really good!" Smirking, she leaned over to nudge Haruka. "Haruka-chan, you're soooo lucky!"
The fish /was/ very tasty--Ayato had always been a good cook. Mamoru took another tender sliver, chewed and swallowed past the abrupt constriction in his throat, the dull twist in his stomach. He watched as Ayato straightened, smiling and making a brushing-off gesture, modestly deflecting Hiroko's praise. "It's nothing," Ayato said, picking up his rice bowl. "It's really easy when you've been doing it since you were young." Hiroko made a not-so-politely disbelieving sound and reached for the pickled daikon.
"Puffer fish, puffer fish," Haruka half-sang, half-muttered under her breath. Suddenly catching Ayato's eye, she blew out her cheeks and pursed her lips at him. He choked on his rice, and instantly Megumi was fluttering in a frantic dither at his side before pouncing on a glass of water and trying to thrust it into his hands.
Mamoru watched Ayato struggle to breathe and gently fend off Megumi's help at the same time, while the other two women exclaimed in laughter and semi-serious concern. The babble of their voices washed past him like an alien language, the ebb and flow of birds calling, of little waves lapping against a stony shore. All of it was remote except for one tension, close, familiar, the center of it all, as ever.
The railing of the landing was cold under his hands, deceptive in its thinness, as though it could easily be broken, wrenched free. The thought kept sliding in and out of his mind, erratic as a butterfly. He sucked in another deep breath and stared down at the parking lot behind the apartment building. The yellow-tinged light of streetlamps revealed cars and dull gray pavement, walkways and the backs of other buildings in the complex. Breathe and breathe, as though he could expand the cramped, clenching well of his chest, as though he could inhale and fix inside himself this normalcy.
Something solid to replace that aching hollowness, before he went back upstairs and inside.
He heard the door close above him, the soft clump of steps. All thought seemed to stop in the simple, acute awareness of /presence./ His breath caught; he lowered his head, curved his fingers a little more around the railing. "Hey, you," Hiroko said. Her voice had its accustomed lightness, the sparkle of teasing, the hint of bossiness--the merest trace of something forlorn as well, an unusual tentativeness, verging on anxiety. "Are you feeling okay? You seemed kind of out of it at dinner."
"/Hiroko./" The word came out low, throaty--he found himself trembling with the suppressed urgency of it. "Stay with me tonight."
"Huh? What do you mean? Geez, can't you wait another twenty-four hours?" She was laughing at him, just a little, and he didn't know how to explain the desperate hurt that caused him.
"I mean it." He straightened and half-turned, closed one hand on her upper arm. "I need you."
"But...we're almost married now and--I know it wouldn't be the first time," she colored slightly, the flush a barely visible darkening in the landing's half-light, "but I thought...it would be nice to...I mean, shouldn't we wait until after we're really...."
He was watching her face, her cast-down eyes, the hesitant moving of her lips. Her body's nearness, the gentle roundness of her arm through the thin cloth of blouse were an astonishment to him, consumed his attention. /You're here. I'm touching you. You're with me./ He tightened his grip. /I won't let you slip away. Won't let you disappear from my sight again./ She lifted her head, her eyes bright, widening as they gazed into his, the pupils contractings as they caught more light, her mouth forming little Os as she spoke. His pulse thudded in his neck, behind his ears. Slowly he bent toward her, closer, pulling against the unexpected taut resistance of her arm, trying to draw her up against him, to capture her breath, those lips--
"/--you're hurting me! Stop it! Mamoru!/"
Realization hit like a kick to the stomach. He froze, staring at Hiroko, two impulses dragging him in opposite directions, a paralyzing tug-of-war--that terrible wanting against the pang of having caused her any distress, the shock of seeing that expression of pain and fright, one that was so hauntingly familiar. /The crack of a blow across his face. The hollow echo of gunfire. The first step on a slide toward the bitterest, most unendurable loss./ He released her arm and jerked back; spinning away from her, he closed both hands on the railing again. "I- I'm sorry." His voice shook with remorse, nervous energy, a thread of frantic laughter. "I'm just--" /Crazy,/ he thought. /It beats the alternative--that none of this is real. That I'm...not even human./ He glanced back at her with a feeble smile, a smile that faded as his gaze flickered about her face, searching. Wounded eyes, dark and liquid with doubt, discomfort, a bewildered incomprehension. The merest crack in the foundations of trust, but he could feel a whole world threatening to shift. She held her arm stiffly, straight down at her side, hugging it against her, her other arm locked across her chest. Her lips quivered, as though about to frame a word. Then she turned, her auburn hair sweeping the backs of her shoulders, her skirt an abrupt swirl about her knees. Head down, she began to climb the stairs.
The pain was so intense that it took all his understanding. He drew breath to call her name, but for a split-second terror froze him, the fear that she wouldn't respond, would only keep climbing further and further away from him.
There was movement at the top of the stairs. His gaze snapped up to it. Ayato stood next to the open door. From that height, he seemed to loom against the dark sky. Horror and a wave of loathing so fierce it made him shake swept over Mamoru. His mouth opened in a snarl, a mute cry of desperation.
/Don't go to him!/
Hiroko passed Ayato quickly, without looking at him, turned and went into the apartment. He remained standing there, gazing down at Mamoru, his expression impossible to read. Mamoru glared at him senselessly, then jerked around again. Clenching both hands on the railing, he bowed his head, tension like an iron bar along his shoulders.
He stands as though at ease, gazing down into the steep-sided pool, its walls adorned with sigils on a grand scale. Slender waterfalls stream down to join the still water far below, scarcely seeming to disturb it. A faint breeze stirs the trees behind him, though not the one on the green jewellike island in the pool's deep well; a scattering of birds takes wing. The air is atremble with subtle, sonorous musics, sliding in and out of harmony with each other, a shuddering like a constant low thunder as the Dolem lift toward the sky. There is none of the whine and roar and stench of human technology, only this slow, symphonic going-forth.
He feels the resonance through the ground as some great working in the city's depths comes to life, begins to move. The water below him starts to rise. It swallows the island and the tree with only a few fleeting ripples. Thin clouds chase each other across that serene blue mirror; as the water rises high enough he begins to make out his own reflection, growing closer. The simple white draperies of his garments. The muted gleam of gold at his chest. The eye of the Mu inscription painted around his own left eye, the sign of those who watch, of the Witness.
Turning from the sight, he tilts his head back and raises his hands, palms upward, lifted toward that rushing sky. His heart beats fast, faster than the mere expectation of battle can account for. Slowly he lowers his hands once more--a darkness then as the mask of his Dolem's controller sinks over his head, closing out the world. He feels a momentary rush of vertigo.
Falling into blue--
He flashes through the fighting, untouched, smashing false Dolem as he goes. Half his thought is wariness, attention to his own safety and the objective of destroying the human machines; the other half is searching, always searching. The sky is becoming darker, tumultuous, a corona of storm clouds gathering around a piercing light--he looks at that light more sharply and sees the white, winged figure soaring aloft, transcendent and alien, as perfect as a flawless pearl. Something ugly and discordant spasms inside his chest, his stomach: a venomous rejection, a long-waiting excitement breaking free at last like a serpent out of its shell, no longer secret, hidden behind duty. His role means nothing to him any longer. He stares across the aerial battlefield at that giant god-machine, the true Rahxephon, pale streams of sunlight breaking through the clouds behind it.
/So this is you? Your true form after having attained Yolteotl?/
A paired blast, shockwave rushing outward as twin spheres of reality are thrust out of this world--
Pausing an instant, safely far from those lethal temporal fields, he waves a swarm of Dotem to pursue that troublesome aircraft, then charges directly for the Rahxephon. /Hatred clouds a person's timbre,/ Quon Al Padis had told him. He is not cloud but lightning, crackling with passions, singleminded and aflame. /O God! O Heart of God! Death to thee for killing Hiroko!/ The Obbrigato slams into the unresisting god-machine, grips it and with the third hand drives deep into its body, fingers groping and clenching. He seizes on something hard--the control seat, he realizes--and rips it out, a wrench like the wrenching he feels deep inside himself whenever he thinks of her, of her--
He stares at the treelike shape in the Obbrigato's hand, enigmatic and empty.
/What does this mean? Where are you, Ayato?/
The Rahxephon stirs and lifts is head, its face changed yet disturbingly familiar. His heart almost seems to stop.
A fracturing of anguish, as the Obbrigato's arms are torn off in one effortless movement.
/It's a lie! I'll never acknowledge it!/
The Rahxephon's mouth opens in a seemingly endless aria note, a plangent howl that sends him tumbling in a storm of rainbow light. The Dotem around him shred themselves into nothing.
And as he hurls himself forward once more, the Rahxephon lifts a hand, flicks its fingers at him, slow and terrible--shock, then, as the controller shatters, falls away to reveal an impenetrable darkness, shock so great that he scarcely feels the pain of the Obbrigato's destruction, only the grief--
--only the ache of losing--
--only the implacable final embers of his hate.
/I won't let you win./
He woke, starting up quickly, disoriented by a darkness that wasn't as complete as he expected, that was broken by filtered light and occasional noises from elsewhere--from outside, the street. Panic skittered through him, everything strange and somehow disconnected: the weight of the blanket, the stillness of the room, even something about the feeling of the air. Thrashing further upright, he flailed about until he remembered what he was reaching for. He found the bedside lamp and turned it on, a sudden circle of light that stabbed at his eyes. His breath coming in hoarse pants, he huddled forward, ran fingers up into his hair.
/Dream. It was a dream. Just another dream./
He lowered his shaking hands and stared at them, the taste of terror in his mouth, the ghostly memory of pain throbbing in his head and shoulders, in the back of his neck. His veins snaked hypnotically up the insides of his wrists, tiny blue rivers close to the surface of the skin. /A lie,/ he thought. But there was one way to be sure. Kicking his legs out from under the blanket, he stumbled to his feet and wove his way across the room, still groggy and confused, but determined now. There was a razor somewhere in the bathroom. He would be sure. His lips twitched, struggling between laughter and prayer. Reaching the door at last, he pushed it open, groped along the wall for the light switch. The light came up, showing his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror, his face pale and drawn.
The Mu inscription stared back at him, painted in blue around his eye.
Mamoru yelled and bolted upright in the darkness of his bedroom. His chest hurt with the racing of his heart. He stared at nothing for a minute, then crumpled, bending forward and clutching at his head with trembling hands, his breaths catching in dry, choked sobs.
"/Cufflinks,/ dammit." He'd already looked in and under everything on the dresser top. He went along it again, sweeping things off onto the carpet as he passed. There was still nothing there. Nothing on the night stand, either. Had he knocked the cufflinks off and kicked them under the bed somehow? He dropped to his knees and threw back the trailing edge of the unmade covers. /No./ He was shaking, his palms in a nervous sweat. There was stuff all over the floor, he realized as he sat up and looked around--maybe they'd been on the dresser after all, and he just hadn't seen them? He began crawling, picking things up and shaking them to see if anything fell out before tossing them aside. "Cufflinks, cufflinks, cufflinks." He had to hurry--he couldn't be late--if he was late--oh god, /Hiroko./ He searched faster, driven by growing desperation, an increasingly urgent fright. Hurling unwashed clothes aside, he scrabbled a box open, then flung it into a corner, lunged for the top drawer of the dresser and yanked it out with a loud wooden crash, spilling socks.
"Yo, Mamoru--what the--"
"/Get out!/" As he spun to face the doorway, he saw the person standing there, and only then did he consciously identify that familiar voice. He froze, staring, his whole body tensed into immobility, his teeth still bared from that shout. Ayato was gazing down at him, tuxedo-clad as he was, Ayato's expression blank with astonishment, or perhaps a horrified pity. Mamoru glared back, savage and resentful but also confused, thoughts and emotions pinging through him: memories of battle, fear and the exhaustion of living with that fear, a sense of disjunction, a strange weakness, almost a relief, the dizzying vertigo of waiting for some response.
/Did you come here now to laugh at me? This time, are you brave enough to say anything to me?/ His pulse jumped crazily. /Oh god...Hiroko...where..../
Ayato's eyes shifted to Mamoru's and held them for a long moment, long enough that he had time for a flash of recollection, of self-consciousness, a realization of things not right.
/What am I doing...no, this isn't..../
"Get up." Ayato's voice was quiet but decisive. It dispersed the fuzz of memory, seemed to iris the present moment into sharper focus, almost as if it made the world more solid. "Come with me. There's some place I want to take you before the ceremony."
Sitting back on his heels, Mamoru stared down at the floor. Anger was fading quickly, turning instead into a dull, muddled shame. His face burned as he realized what his room looked like, and that Ayato was seeing it like this. Was seeing /him/ like this. "My cufflinks," he muttered.
"Forget about them. You can use mine. Nobody's going to notice if I'm not wearing them."
Reluctantly Mamoru levered himself to his feet. His eyes searched the chaos around him as though he might find some solution there, some excuse that would let him escape. "The rings--"
"/I've/ got the rings. It's my job, remember?" There was a smile in Ayato's voice, but its firmness permitted no denial. "Come on. Let's go."
All the way downstairs and during the brief car ride Mamoru didn't look at or speak to Ayato. He slumped low in the passenger seat of Ayato's tiny silver-grey Honda, his knees drawn up, and stared out at the passing scenery, his mind blank and numb. Only when they pulled up at the banquet hall where the reception would be later did he stir, feeling a twinge of uneasiness. "What are we doing here? We should just go on to the church--we'll be late--"
"It's fine. We've got plenty of time, and we're only going to stop for a couple of minutes." Ayato smiled fleetingly at Mamoru as he turned off the ignition. "Believe me, I'm not going to stress out Asahina on her big day." He got out of the car, and Mamoru followed more slowly. They climbed the shallow stone steps to the front door, beneath the first pale pink slips of cherry blossoms, the flowers luminous and ethereal in the sun--the reason, Mamoru remembered, that Hiroko had wanted their wedding now, at this time of year. Her favorite flower. His chest ached. "But I wanted you to see this first," Ayato was saying. Pulling open one of the glass doors, he held it for Mamoru to pass.
Restless and uncomfortable, Mamoru scuffled in through the door. "I don't see why--" he began, then stopped. He stared for a moment or two at the sight in front of him before slowly starting forward again, hesitant, uncertain steps, like someone half-awake but still caught up in a dream. The foyer stood empty except for the table against the back wall where the wedding gifts were to be placed and the floral arrangements that flanked it. Sunlight poured in through a skylight, making the flowers seem almost aflame. The gifts would come later, of course, but there was already one thing on the table. Mamoru drifted up to it and paused there, as if entranced.
It was a good-sized painting, propped up carefully against the wall, enclosed in an elegant gold-painted frame. He noticed such details only in passing. It was the picture itself that drew him, that drank him in, helplessly astonished and fascinated. The painting was of himself and Hiroko, leaning back against the white railing of a pier, the sea and the sky behind them--he remembered the pose, it had been a photograph that Ayato had taken when all four of them had gone on a trip to the seaside the previous fall. But that picture had been a snapshot, ordinary, happy but unremarkable.
"It's your wedding present," Ayato was saying, somewhere behind him, the words quiet and gentle. "It was going to be a surprise, but...I thought maybe you should see this now." Mamoru scarcely heard him. He was staring at the painting, its colors brilliant in the sun. His arm was around Hiroko; she was leaning back against his chest, her head tilted upward and eyes half-closed as she laughed, the two of them smiling and free, so plainly in love--and all around them, everywhere, that vivid blue of sky and sea, the brushstrokes of background and figures forming one harmony, swirling and soaring, suffused with a breathtaking joy.
Trembling, Mamoru reached out and touched his fingertips to the canvas. Only paint--and yet suddenly he knew, could feel it to the very core of himself. This was true. This was real. A gift, for his own happiness. Wonder filled him, and with it a dawning certainty, a lifting like flight, as though he was becoming part of a rising song:
/This...is my world..../
"Hey," Ayato murmured at last, and Mamoru stirred, then straightened slowly. He wasn't even sure how long he'd been standing there. Still dazed, a little wide-eyed, he turned to look at Ayato. Ayato stepped forward, rested one hand on Mamoru's shoulder--he was smiling, and in that smile there was a glimmer of concern, the warmth of trust, all the amusement and affection of a long friendship.
"Come on," Ayato said. "Let's get you married."
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