No doubt his wife thought he was going mad. Hajime certainly believed he was. The doctor that came by couldn’t find anything wrong with him and in the end diagnosed Hajime with nothing more than exhaustion and stress with a recommendation to stay at home to rest. Hajime did try once to protest that he couldn’t afford to take time off work, but his wife had overridden that with such finality that he could do nothing more than meekly agree and grit his teeth at being treated like a child.
But there were soon other things for him to worry about. Hajime found find himself waking up in the middle of the night not knowing who he was or why he was there. Or he would wake up, skin damp with sweat, hungry and restless, then prowl the house like a caged animal. There were not-infrequent periods of white-hot, irrational anger where the slightest thing could spark a temper tantrum, and nights when he would lie in bed and stare at the ceiling feeling trapped, locked in a cell that was slowly filling with thick paint. It was far more preferable than sleep. He kept having nightmares, strange, horrifying things beyond his comprehension that he could never remember in their entirety when jerked awake, only flashes, flashes of red, black and white, flashes of unreal streets in dark cities, of bleeding birds and broken mirrors that never reflected his face truly but twisted it into something unrecognizable, and more sinister things that slipped away when he tried to reach for them. There was never enough for him to put together properly, only fragments that taunted and frightened, always leaving him filled with dread and the horrible sensation of slipping away as if he were bleeding to death.
He wanted his wife like never before, but she stayed well away from him. Yet she didn’t dare leave him alone in the house by himself, either. Hajime could tell she didn’t want to stay in his presence, and that made the fits worse. Suspicious every time she went out, sometimes he wanted to throttle her, to put his hands around her throat and squeeze that look in her eyes away into blankness. These were the times when he would lock himself in the bathroom and gaze, terrified, at the face gazing back at him in the mirror.
And still Hajime thought about the paintings. Like a demon on his shoulder it whispered to him, played to his curiosity and desire to know. He couldn’t forget it. He couldn’t put it out of his thoughts; like a like a drug he knew it was bad for him yet he couldn’t help but want to see more. It didn’t take long for him to wilt. There really wasn’t anything else he could do. He crept out of bed in the depths of the night, removing the panel with raw fingertips from when he had clawed at the walls one claustrophobic moment. The chest’s lacquer felt oily. There was one case open.
Standing, Hajime lifted the case out of the chest. His hands were feverish, and he dropped it. The case burst open and spewed its contents out at his feet. The last painting lay face-down, a waiting tarot card to tell his fate. One more, just one more. There were no more cases locked with silk in the chest, only the other ones he had desecrated and there was no way that he was looking at those again.
One more. Just one more …
Hajime turned it over. A face stared up at him. A boy. No more than twelve years old, the boy arched his neck back as he stared blankly up at the unearthly red sky streaked with sunset-purple clouds, soft dark hair fanning about his face in the water he was lying in. His skin was pale – too pale. The blue-white pallor of the drowned almost glowed in the frozen moment where life slips away. He was being dragged down into the water by hands, gloved hands of washed-out green that caressed the boy’s face and hair, exploring beneath the collar of the black shirt he wore as if, siren-like, they would sooth away the tension as they pulled him into a watery grave. What moonlight there was soaked into the aquatic colors accentuating shadows. The picture was so real in that frightening way of dreams, and the washed-out gold of the boy’s eyes was so empty …
Was there something different? Another cigarette smoked, another man dead, another day gone …no, nothing was different. Then why did he feel as if sand was slipping out from between his fingers?
He didn’t know. But maybe that other person would.
It wasn’t terribly late when he went to the other’s apartment. The bridge had been packed with cars of people going home or going out. Therefore, when he had arrived at an empty apartment he hadn’t been particularly affected. So he waited.
Hours passed. No one came home. The box of cigarettes ran low.
At last he gave up. Too irritated to maintain his habitual smile he made his way back to his own apartment, trying to analyze this sensation of weightlessness, as if someone had taken the second of countdown after one and stretched it into one agonizing moment of waiting, waiting …
Something was wrong when he got home. The protective wards were tripped. No, only the first one was tripped. The rest were unraveled. His eyes narrowed. There were very people who could circumvent his spells, and only one of them who would go to so much trouble. It was a decidedly pleasant thought.
He admitted his pulse quickened as he went inside. There was someone waiting for him, curled on the couch in a fitful doze. He watched the young man breathe for a few moments, then grabbed his wrist and threw him onto the floor in a painful wakeup call, forcing him to his knees and twisting his arm behind his back.
"What did I say about coming here?" he asked with deceptive calmness.
He could feel the other trembling beneath the pressure, and imagined the emerald eye wide. "I know what you said."
"Then why are you here?"
"Please." With an effort the young man tried to twist around to look at him. He increased his hold on the arm and the young man bit his lip in pain. "Please. Let me go."
"And why should I do that, Subaru-kun?"
"Because …" The other took a deep breath. "Because I’m asking you to. Please."
It would have been amusing to see what would happen if he refused. For some reason he let go. The young man fell forward catching himself on his hands and stayed there while he went to put his coat away, keeping one eye on his unexpected visitor. "How did you get in?"
He sensed the other get up. "You don’t give me enough credit, Seishirou-san." A true statement; it was easy to forget when the other submitted to him so prettily that the young man had magic enough to rival or equal him. He looked up to find the other watching him like a shy, frightened child. "I made you dinner."
"Eh?" He glanced towards the table. Two burnt out candle stubs stood watch over a simple meal for two. Warily he turned on the dining area light and, picking up a fork, sampled a little fish.
"Hm. Not bad."
"I’m sorry if it’s cold. You came back late."
"Such a thoughtful wife, aren’t you." A faint blush diffused over the young man’s face. Calmly, still smiling, he picked up the plate of food. He moved slowly so that the other couldn’t help but watch every move and lifted the plate up high, balancing the fine china on the flat of his palm. Then he tipped his hand.
The shattering of the plate matched the other’s eye perfectly.
"I’ll ask you again, Subaru-kun," he said softly. "Why are you here?" The other didn’t respond, staring at the mess on the floor. "Answer me."
The other man lifted his face as if carrying a heavy weight. "… I want to stay here tonight. Just tonight. Please."
"You’re using the word ‘please’ a lot tonight, Subaru-kun. What makes you think that I’m going to say yes?"
The green eye looked at him, dark and unflinching. "Please."
Silence. Why did borrowed time always feel so much more acute? He shrugged, trying to shake off the feeling of uneasiness as he went into the bedroom to take off his jacket.
He sensed the other follow him, silent and subdued. The moment he closed the door the young man pressed up against his body. He kissed him, wondering why he welcomed the other’s presence like a condemned’s last glass of wine, if there was a desperate edge to the embrace, and wondered, as he closed his eyes, why that fact disturbed him more than anything else had ever before …
Hajime began to cry.
He jerked awake, poised to fight. Last night he had gone to sleep with an arm twined around his waist. It wasn’t there anymore. The space beside him on the bed was empty.
He stared for a while. Then he got up. He didn’t bother to dress as he exited the bedroom into the main area of the apartment. It too, was empty. Even the floor beside the table was wiped clean. There was nothing.
Something broke. It hurt.
His first thought was that he was being attacked, that the pain came from an outside source. He snarled and lashed out magically, smashing all the glassware in the bedroom from the lamps to the mirrors. Shards of glass slashed his skin but he ignored that, sending out a seeking for his opponent. There was no one, only himself.
The hurt came from within himself.
He didn’t like it. He wanted to be rid of it. Closing his eyes he called upon the magic, spinning it to heal. The cuts on his body closed and disappeared easily enough, but that other hurt, the one inside of desolation and icy water, was never touched.
What he did next he didn’t know. Maybe he blacked out. The significance of what he was doing wasn’t realised until he had the canvas prepared. It was if a switch had turned over in his mind and he was working in a dream. He divided the canvas into quadrants, precise and deliberate, then picked up a pencil. He sketched in a face, deathly blank, then hands, sensuous in silk and calling up memories of being touched.
Arch your head back. He refused to think about it too carefully, and concentrated on the detail. It kept him from seeing the whole picture. It became his entire focus, almost like a meditation where food and rest did not matter. Hours slipped by without him noticing before the outline was done to his complete satisfaction and he would let himself touch the paint. White first, with a touch of ice –
moonlight on skin
– grey, for shadows and shading –
streets of silent faces
– pale blue water –
– silk of faded green –
eyes in the dark
–gold, washed-out by time –
a warm smile
– red sky –
– clouds of deepest violet –
– black, coal black, ebony black –
dark silence of words unspoken, of hurt
– layer by layer he built it up, trapping the pain in paint. His head felt light, feverish, but he refused to pause for rest in fear that once he had stopped, he would never start again. Even when night fell he didn’t stop to turn on a light, working instead by the glow of the city and the moon. He barely noticed dawn creeping, or the sounds as the city woke and went about its day. The outside world ceased to exist until finally, when the sun was sinking once again, he finished.
The brush hung limp in his hand. He felt strangely detached. Disorientated. Stumbling a little he angled the picture to catch the red glow of sunset, and took a step back to see the dreaded completed work. A boy drowning …
It was, he decided, at once both his best and worst effort. He shuddered. Quickly the painting was put away and sealed with silk. Then he went to take a shower. Afterwards he slept, exhausted and alone.
He woke early the next morning, rested and calm. Quietly he dressed himself as usual. He took an hour or two to clean the apartment and the mess of paint. He put the chest in its cavity and placed the false panel carefully in front of it, casting an illusion to hide it from discovery. That done, he left the apartment, locked the door, and headed for the bridge.
He never looked back. Neither did he ever return home.
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