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Dream

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Dream

 

Gakushuu Asano doesn’t live to be sixteen years old.

 

Three minutes to the start of the new year there are distant cheers from celebrating partygoers and his phone buzzes with sweet-sixteens sent too early. He shuts his eyes and takes a deep breath, and steps over the edge of the twentieth storey of a nondescript office building in the heart of the city. He doesn’t know if he hits the ground, and he starts awake on his bed just as the clock strikes midnight, bringing in the new year and Gakushuu Asano’s fifteenth birthday.

 

Gakushuu grabs his phone off the table, stares at the time and date and then again. He digs through his folders for the graduation certificate he does not find and googles for events that have yet to happen, and dials a number he knows by heart and who picks up on the second ring.

“Tell me I’m not going crazy,” Gakushuu begs.

“I’m sorry, who is this?” The person on the end of the line says.

Gakushuu hangs up.

 

On the morning of the first of January Gakushuu goes outside and the cold air stings sharp. He walks down to the city and squints against the sunlight at the building he jumped off yesterday, still in the midst of final construction. One year later they should be scrubbing red off the sidewalk but today they are brushing soft hues of blue against the panels of the entrance.

There are flowers by the school entrance and they dip down to shower petals over Gakushuu’s head. One pink flower nestles in his hair and several others in his coat. They shouldn’t have bloomed so early, Gakushuu thinks, but what’s different? Why am i here?

It’s not a dream, he finds out on day three. The principal makes an offhand comment about Gakushuu’s studies, about how he’s slipping. It’s not a dream then, Gakushuu decides, because he’ll never dream of the mundane of such like this; he’d dreamt of many things and none of them has ever held the fantasy of a “good job”.

Even if it precedes a, “for a amateur”, and a sneer. It’s the connotation of it, a thinly veiled compliment, that Gakushuu knows he’d never think of. It’s beneath his mind.

No one else seems to know that the world has turned it’s clock back three hundred and sixty five days. Gakushuu knows he’s not crazy, he has Akabane’s number on his fingertips and the memory of the principal’s knuckles slamming into his jaw and then the resounding smack as he hits his head against the wall several feet away, and he knows the secret of class 3-E.

“Koro-sensei,” Gakushuu calls out, chilly evening on the hill at the back of Kunugigaoka’s main campus. His hair caresses in the wind and he doesn’t flinch when the door swings open dramatically, but his lips do curl in amusement when he remembers how ridiculous the human disguise of said supercreature was.

“What do you need, young Asano?” Koro-sensei asks, and Gakushuu says, “I know who you are. I know where you come from, and I know what 3-E are meant to do.”

Koro-sensei doesn’t reply.

“They don’t save you,” Gakushuu says, “they try really hard but they don’t save you.”

“You’re so young,” Koro-sensei tells him, “Asano, you’re so young.”

There’s nothing else to be said. He was young, and now he is younger, but Gakushuu feels old. He's tired, weary, he’s been through this once before and there’s no way to read a book when you know how it ends; disappointingly.

They notice faster than they did back then. Gakushuu doesn’t hide it, there’s no purpose to hide behind false smiles and aggressive ambition; two months from now he graduates valedictorian of Kunugigaoka Middle School and second in the cohort, and eight months after that he goes over the edge of the rooftop of Ojisaka Corporation. He knows the answers to all the questions on the board and every day forward is closer to the breaking point.

(On the second friday night of August that has yet to happen, Gakushuu holds his head high and smiles pleasantly at the press crowding his route back to his house. He gives several short “no comments”, dismisses a few claims thrown about dysfunctionality of school systems and family dynamics, and then locks himself in his room and drags the wrong end of a penknife across his skin.)

Gakushuu briefly wonders he should start again, or if he looks at it, for the first time. He’s gone past the stages of denial and shame.

No.

 

Two weeks into deja-vu when yet another cat rubs up against him and purrs at him to pet them, Gakushuu realizes they’re asking him to stay. The flower that falls out of his hair lands in his scarf and peeks up at Gakushuu, and his phone buzzes with a text, “where are you?”

There are tally marks drawn on his wall every day, counting down. They’ve always been too plain, he thinks.

“I’m coming,” Gakushuu texts back.

 

For the briefest of moments Gakushuu considers playing pretend, fight for the cause he would have cared about a year prior and maybe get that perfect score he’d used to want to. But he’s tired, there’s no point in taking an examination if he has the answer key.

The virtuosos think he’s sick, they drag him to the nurse’s office despite protests. He’d lain his head down during Mathematics when the numbers started swimming from pure boredom or exhaustion, and Gakushuu thinks rather ironically, how much of a farce had he been that he couldn’t take a short rest without it being uncharacteristic?

“I didn’t give you my number,” Akabane says, approaching with hands in his pockets and a suspicious look on his face. “That was you, right? You called me on New Year’s day.” And when Gakushuu doesn’t reply he tacks on, “I checked your number with Isogai.”

Gakushuu can’t believe that he’d end up being friends with this person; he can’t see it now, but he knows that five months from now they would be sitting in the cafeteria together and laughing over a question they argued over and realized they both got wrong. He wonders how Akabane would react, seeing his name on the front cover of a newspaper article that won’t be printed until tomorrow, a year later, one month ago.

 

He doesn’t notice it at first but the world is gentler with him, the way you’d handle a phone with too many cracks on the screen. He knows he doesn’t hide it but he doesn’t think he’d be this obvious but it’s like someone has sanded the sharp edges of a table to round them. Gakushuu wonders where his drive from this time had gone, he didn’t think he’d jump back to the way he had been one year prior but it was frustrating to stay in the same headspace, to be bothered by issues that hadn’t occurred yet.

But they had, and Gakushuu remembers them. He flinches from a camera before he realizes what he’s doing, and the junior from the school newsletter lowers the lens and apologizes profusely.  

Gakushuu realizes things are different when the words flow off Gakushuu’s tongue robotically; he’d had this fight before and it’d replayed in his head as the timing approaches, and Gakuhou doesn’t respond the way he did. He says something else, something gentler by a fair bit but Gakushuu isn’t quite paying attention, not registering the words in his head and wondering why they deviated from the script.

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to go,” Gakushuu says out loud. It’s drizzling when he steps outside with bare feet and the cherry blossoms are blooming far earlier than they ever did, early march. He finds fireflies and remembers Akabane telling him one warm night about stars in the skies.

The second thing to go up on his bedroom wall in seven odd years is a string of fairy lights in amber. They don’t look like fireflies or stars or candles set on paper boats on a river.

 

Isogai looks at him with a strange softness in his eyes. Everyone does, Ren’s touches on his shoulder linger longer and he sees volunteers for menial tasks he normally doesn’t bother to allocate to anyone. Gakushuu rests his cheek on his hand and listens to a junior class representative pitch about a project he knows gets picked up by a very enthusiastic startup in about four months, and he says, “great job.”

The table stills. “We haven’t done anything yet,” the boy says, but the pink flush on his face says he’s pleased. Gakushuu knows he will.

“It has a lot of potential,” Gakushuu says. He remembers criticizing the idea and he continues to do so because that’s his job, but there’s no cynicism in it now. He knows the project succeeds and he says so as much, and the two students seem touched beyond words. Had he always been that harsh?

“We won’t let you down, Asano-senpai,” the other representative promises.

That’s kind of ironic, Gakushuu thinks.

“That was nice what you said to them,” Isogai says much later. They never got close but Gakushuu wonders whether they might have if Isogai had stayed in Kunugigaoka. He knows why everyone left, he’d been part of the reason. They’ve had their share of being on the wrong side of prejudices and discrimination, and they’ve been looked down upon too many times to feel comfortable holding their head high in the same place. Pride, yes, and spite, but water and sharp stones and not enough time.

 

Maybe if he had kept telling himself “one more year”, he might be on his way to the end of his first high school year. Maybe he’s being given that one more year, but he doesn’t know why anyone would want him to stay.

 

Maybe he’s in a dream. He’s falling too slow and his mind is running too fast and it’s be too late to change his mind even if he desperately wants to try to.

 

Five days before graduation, Gakushuu climbs a tree. He watches a red beam hit Kunugigaoka Middle School. It’s marginally more interesting than frantically refreshing webpage to webpage and yelling at his father, Gakushuu muses, to watch things unfold in live action. He’s practically holding a script to life and he’d already memorized the official statements from hundreds of government bodies and news channels that would come out over the next six months.

Three days later he sneaks past border security and walks silently up the hill to the 3-E classroom. Demand for full transparency would release every single detail about the final assassination attempt and the confinement conditions of the 3-E students; Gakushuu had spat it word-for-word to counter claims of negligence and abuse.

(What a hypocrite he is.)

“Honestly, if you believe it,” Gakushuu says honestly, cross-legged across Koro-sensei once he’d ceased freaking out, “I’m from the future.”

Koro-sensei pauses thoughtfully and says, “weird things have happened,” and waves his yellow tentacles in the air.

“About nine months later I try to kill myself, and I wake up three months ago,” Gakushuu says.

“I never expected them to save me,” Koro-sensei admits, “I hoped they wouldn’t. You, on the other hand.”

 

“I already jumped,” Gakushuu says.

 

“No,” Koro-sensei tells him, gently, “you haven’t.”

 

Koro-sensei is, was, a great teacher. 3-E fights tooth and nail to save him. Gakushuu remembers what he said; they try so hard but they don’t save him. There’s a sort of serene acceptance on Koro-sensei’s face; Gakushuu wonders if he’d look like that when he takes the plunge this time round.

Ways to evade the press, Gakushuu reads to himself, parkour over rooftops. How funny, he tried for a week, but there was no way Koro-sensei would have known that. He gets through three chapters until the sun sets over the horizon, and watches the moonlight melt into stardust in front of his eyes.

 

For a moment he blinks and he’s staring at traffic from twenty floors above, and then he blinks again and the faces of a several hundred people are staring at him. He remembers every word he would have had said, about hopes for the future and ambitions of young minds and growth of a nation and nations to come, about courage and dreams and shit that people just eat right up, and he feels none of it. The weight of the microphone is heavy in his hands and he doesn’t say a single word of the script he bothered to re-type just because.

Instead he says, “I think everyone did a great job this year.”

Gakushuu wonders why he has an eidetic memory if he never uses it. His final speech run should have concluded at fifteen minutes and thirty four seconds, and today he spends that time listing out the name of every single student in his cohort and something he’d watched them achieve, the sillier the better as long as they were proud of it. He brings up Ren first, congratulating him on folding his first paper flower, and there’s a ripple of surprised laughter from the audience.

His father is giving him a panicked look from the audience. The script rested heavily on the podium but he’d already gone so far from it, why bother salvaging it now? He wonders if the universe is trying to tell him something.

He doesn’t believe all that bull about whatever he was meant to say, anyhow. What had hard work ever done for anyone? What had perseverance and humility ever done for him? What had pride done for any of them? Covered up his arms and led him off the edge of an office building?

“Rukiyo Kirata,” he says, “for solving that rubix cube you’d spent two months on.” A wave of giggles spread across the room and the girl in question lets out a loud “whoop!”

3-E looks at him with quiet buzzing anticipation and Gakushuu calls out the name of each of them without pausing a beat, and with each syllable everyone grows a little quieter. He has too much to say for each one of their achievements and he says none at all, and then he pauses and everyone holds bated breaths.

“All of you,” he says, “for being stronger than any of us ever could be.”

 

Than he ever could have been.

 

Gakushuu doesn’t leave his room one week after that. He reads Koro-sensei’s rules to re-live by cover-to-cover in that time, and he doesn’t cry. His phone buzzes incessantly and he doesn’t pick up any of the calls or reply to any of the texts.

One year ago this time he’d spent two days followed by the blatant stares and hushed gossip of passers-by as the interview of his plaintive defense replays on every television screen on display. Three days after a woman throws groceries at him in a supermarket aisle and calls him and his father the devil duo. The shaky phone camera video blows up online and there are soon posts from ex-classmates and associates vouching for his character, and shortly after come the accusations of child abuse and parental neglect.

This year he finally scrolls through social media four days after that and the world is unnecessarily moved by his speech. “If my president doesn’t remember that I built the tallest poker card pyramid ever on August 17th 2009 at 5.00pm then is he even my president?” says a tweet headlining a snippet of the press release.

Gakushuu calls Ren back. Talks to him about nothing in particular until the call runtime exceeds three hours, and then bids him a goodbye when a distant voice on the line beckons Ren for dinner. On the street someone calls his father a demon and an angry pregnant woman smacks him over the head with a bible. He holds out his arm and escorts her to her car across the road, and she tells him that she hopes her child turns up nothing like Gakushuu.

So many things have changed, Gakushuu thinks, and he misses the insults hurled his way that this one is welcome, almost. The familiarity of it fills Gakushuu with an emotion he can’t identify. The woman pats his shoulder and hands him a piece of candy, and tells him to atone for his sins.

He already is, he doesn’t tell her.

 

Sometimes he wonders if he wasn’t living in a dream, but he had been. If he had imagined one entire year of his life in one night and woken up. But there was no way he would have dreamt up Koro-sensei and the scary accuracy of everything else. Then he wonders why he’s here.

 

There are cherry blossoms on the trees and they leave pink kisses on his cheeks and nose as he walks under them. He presses a petal to his lips.

 

Gakushuu knows the name of every student in his new class before he steps in, and he already knows the seating arrangements that Kaide-sensei assigned for them before she announces it. Akabane watches him from the back of the class like he knows something, and Akabane had always been perceptive. But he wouldn’t guess this.

The Ojisaka Corporation opens its office doors on May 2nd. Gakushuu stands on the sidewalk and watches the automatic doors slide open and close as people filter in and wonders how they would look like splattered in red. He looks up and gauges the distance, and takes three paces to the left. X marks the spot, he thinks.

Late may he gets the broken end of a ceramic mug embedded into his palm from where he tried to pick it up when it smashed on the floor. He doesn’t remember this happening, he wonders how much things have changed, and how much they might. Will he still close his eyes and leap or will he string himself up with the ends of his shoelaces?  

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to go,” he says to himself, to whoever who is listening. When his father gets home from school Gakushuu’s been motionless for the better part of two hours, sleeves stained red and a pool building by his feet. He gets six stitches from the hospital and the car ride back to the house is silent, and Gakushuu sees Gakuhou cry for the first time in ten years.

The therapist he gets assigned to asks about the harassment he gets from the media. Gakushuu meets Anayo one month earlier than he’s supposed to and he already knows her favorite colour and the brand of tea she loves to drink, and the name of the hamster she had when she was in high school.

“A lot better,” he says. It’s true.

Anayo looks confused. “As compared to what?” She asks.

Gakushuu doesn’t tell her. In another time he would be avoiding paparazzi by pulling a hood over his head and jumping across short rooftops, this morning someone wolf whistled at him on the street as another man chanted religious quotes at him but he made it to school without incident.

 

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to go,” Gakushuu muses aloud, holding the test script. He’d gotten a perfect score but he’d supposed to have lost two marks on the second last question, scoring below Akabane who’d lost one. However he thinks the answer came to him by muscle memory and he’d gotten it right without thinking about it. Maybe he should have deliberately flunked?

A hand appears in his prephiphary, slamming into his table. “Then pray tell, how is it supposed to go,” Akabane growls.

Across the room, Ren gets to his feet. “Akabane-”

“No, tell me,” Akabane demands, “how is it supposed to go? You say that all the damn time for everything that happens.”

“I was supposed to substitute the same equation you did, for this question,” Gakushuu explains softly. He uses a pencil to re-write his original mistake and Akabane watches him silently. “I was supposed to get this wrong and lose two marks.”

“Okay,” Akabane says then, much quieter, “okay.”

 

“Do you think second shots at life exist?” Gakushuu asks Ren, who swirls a mug of tea and sets it in front of Gakushuu. They’re not supposed to have this conversation but neither is Gakushuu supposed to score that perfect score on the test they had last week, and he’s supposed to have met Anayo one week later, not almost a month ago.

He is detached, he thinks, because he lived this before. He doesn’t feel like he’s existing in his own life, it’s more of like drifting and watching a movie in place of someone else, this alternate-universe Gakushuu who had things turn out slightly different. It’s not his life, he’d already lived that.

“Maybe,” Ren says, “why?”

Gakushuu thinks for a moment. “Can I tell you something?”

“Yeah?” Ren says.

“I think this is it,” Gakushuu tells him, “I’ve done this before. I’m living this again and this is my second shot.”

Ren doesn’t ask why, what Gakushuu had done the first time round, doesn’t call him crazy or kick him out of the house. Ren says, “if this is your second chance, then don’t think about how it had gone the first time round. Think about how you want it to go this time.”

This is, Gakushuu thinks, like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books. He sees how one ending goes and then flips back a few pages, and now he gets to choose to make a whole different set of choices to see where he would end up this time. He huffs out a laugh; yet everything remains almost exactly the same. The only big difference he really makes, of his own accord, was his valedictorian speech.  

But it’s his whole demeanor that has also changed, his whole attitude, and this the attitude of others towards him. The other day Gakuhou had run his fingers through Gakushuu’s hair and kissed him on the forehead before he went to meet Anayo. He doesn’t put up much of a fight this time round, doesn’t pretend he’s okay. During class he rests his head on the tables and during lunch Seo slides him a drink and Araki and Koyama pile bits of their bento on Gakushuu’s. The little paper planes Akabane still throws at him are now patterned with little motivational messages.

 

On the second friday night of August Gakushuu steps over the threshold of his house and looks behind his shoulders. There aren’t reporters milling around the gates or camera flashes following his back, and when he turns the penknife in his hand he doesn’t bring it to his skin. That’s the second major thing he changes, Gakushuu realizes.

 

He feels lighter, somehow.

There aren’t as much things bothering him this time around. Maybe he’s grown more accustomed to it, or maybe the universe is letting him breathe. He’s grateful.

 

He still doesn’t feel like this life is inherently his, he’s loaning it from a Gakushuu who had a better break. Anayo says, “I still don’t quite understand what you mean, but this life is yours, Asano. You made these decisions and no one can take that away from you.”

He had made the decision to kill himself. He wonders what took that away from him.

 

In September, Akabane kisses him. He doesn’t kiss back and when Akabane pulls away, he looks disappointed. “Not how it’s supposed to go?” He says with a sad quirk of his lips.

Gakushuu doesn’t reply. It feels weird. This isn’t his Akabane, just like this isn’t his real life. These aren’t the choices the original Gakushuu Asano would have made.

“Let me know when you figure out how it actually is supposed to go,” Akabane says. They don’t talk about it, and things fall back into a normal. But Gakushuu wonders if that would have happened in his original life, if Akabane would feel the same against him. He thinks about what he had done the first time round, and what he did the second; he doesn’t think he’d changed much.

Gakuhou cuts his hair for him, in the quietness of the master bathroom. He hums a song Gakushuu recognizes but doesn’t have the name for, and when he’s done he runs his fingers through Gakushuu’s short hair and ruffles it. Gakushuu doesn’t remember this happening.

“I didn’t even realize how much longer your hair had gotten until the 8 pm news pointed it out,” Gakuhou jokes. The world really was brimming with metaphors, really. He should write this as a novel and then analyze it like it was his literature homework, maybe shit will make sense.

 

Ojisaka Corporation is as tall and imposing as the first time Gakushuu walked in. He stands at X and wonders what it would feel like hitting the ground, and then wonders some more if he wants to. He’d spent a long while waiting for this farce of a bitter daydream to get over so he can finally die, now he’s not too sure.

Gakushuu kind of wants to dream forever. This isn’t too bad, he thinks. People have stopped looking like they want to string him up and pick at his brain. He doesn’t appear very much on social media anymore, but every once in a while the “does your president remember-?” meme gets reposted, and it circulates for a bit before it eventually dies down again.

In the second week of September on the way to school, a man breaks a glass bottle over his head. His child had suicided after graduating class E from Kunugigaoka years ago, he screamed at Gakushuu, and Gakushuu wonders if he’d ever see his father like this. The last time a child died, after all, Gakuhou single-handedly reformed the education system. He can’t picture that man rambling and raving like a drunkard but it’s a funny thought.

Gakushuu breaks down giggling. The man calls him possessed, he gets dragged away by a police officer and Gakushuu gets a ride to the hospital. He gets stitches on his forehead and he says, “you know, that’s funny, I killed myself too.”

Gakuhou says, “what are you saying?”

“My first time,” Gakushuu says, “I jumped off the twentieth floor of Ojisaka Corporation Building minutes before I was supposed to turn sixteen, and then I woke up on my fifteenth birthday in my room and I’m living this year all over again.”

“What the fuck kind of anesthesia did you give him?” Gakuhou hisses to the nurse, who shakes her head and says, “we didn’t give him anything.”
Gakushuu pulls out rules to re-live by, and the document he’d typed out depicting day-to-day scenarios of the entire year, in case he woke up one day and forgot. “Today’s lottery numbers are six, seven, twenty two, twenty eight, thirty five, and forty one,” Gakushuu tells him. They watch the evening news together in silence and the numbers flash on the screen, and Gakuhou breaks down sobbing.

Gakuhou pulls him out of school for three days. Concussion, the official reason is, but they sit and talk for a long time. Gakushuu tells him all the reasons bothering him that led him to his suicide, Gakuhou apologizes. Gakushuu says he has a lot to apologize for, but this is not one of them.

“That was for your first time,” Gakuhou says, “what about now?”

Gakushuu doesn’t know. The reasons have not changed, except in all the ways they have.

 

“That’s not how any of this is supposed to go,” Gakushuu tells him.

“Maybe,” Gakuhou says, “that’s a good thing.”

 

The virtuosos, and Karma, visit him. They bake cookies and fold origami and paint pictures on large canvases in the Asano’s living room. It turns out hideous, and that’s the third thing that goes up on Gakushuu’s bedroom wall. The fairy lights illuminate it nicely.

His room was more colourful, a stark difference to how his room should have been. Gakushuu’s feeling introspective lately, he think that maybe it says something about his outlook on life. Gakuhou laughs a little wetly over dinner and he pulls Gakushuu onto his lap like he’s not almost as tall as Gakuhou is, and Gakushuu curls up like he’s not fifteen going on sixteen going on seventeen.

Gakushuu thinks he’d learnt how to relax. Slouch in class and take afternoon naps and sip on concoctions too sugary to be consumed by any one person. The milkshake is passed around the circle and Seo makes a face when he drinks from it.

“Never have I ever,” Koyama says, “been to outer space.”

“Who the fuck has been to outer space,” Ren says, the same time Akabane puts down his finger and shrugs.

“No,” Seo says, but it’s unclear if he’s talking to the drink, or Akabane.

“Never have I ever lived past my sixteenth birthday,” Gakushuu says. Akabane raises his hand for a fist-bump and everyone else groans. Technically Gakushuu should be going on seventeen if the world worked fairly.

One tuesday after school, Gakushuu brings Ren to the top of Ojisaka. “This,” Gakushuu points to a specific spot on the ledge, “is where I jumped, in my first life.”

Ren says, “do you want to?”

Gakushuu says, honestly, “not really.”

Ren says, “you better not.”

 

Gakushuu ranks first place in the final examination for his first year of high school. It’s an empty win and it doesn’t make him feel any more victorious than he has getting perfect scores in this entire year. He gets congratulated and a few schoolmates ask if he plans to join the student council again, to which he says “sure” and causes another wave of “does your president remember-?” memes.

When the first snow falls, Gakushuu stands outside. It reminds him of cherry blossoms, fluffy white landing on his hair and shoulders.

Gakushuu buys a christmas advent calendar. And then he makes one counting down to the first of the next year, and hangs it in the living room. Gakuhou laughs when he sees it and on the first of December when Gakushuu pops open day one, he sees a little string of photographs of him taken over the year. He’s smiling in each one of them.

“You’re cheesy,” Gakushuu says. Gakuhou shrugs unrepentantly.

During winter break he gets pulled out to outings and trips and social events, like everyone is trying to convince him to live. It’s still not quite his life, Gakushuu thinks, but it’s his feelings, and his mind.

 

“You know,” Ren says, “sometimes I get scared.”

Gakushuu doesn’t ask what he gets scared about. He says, “me too.”

 

“A few more days and we’re all out of that never have I ever game,” Ren says meaningfully.

 

This whole thing was a game. A gamble, Gakushuu doesn’t know what’s going to happen. If he’ll wake up to the past year all over again or finally see the next year or if he’ll open his eyes to the ground rushing up at him.

 

“You know I’ve almost died once,” Gakushuu tells Akabane. “I tried to kill myself just before my sixteenth birthday, and I woke up on my fifteenth, but I already know how the entire year was supposed to go.”

“Does that mean?” Akabane says.

“I knew everything about 3-E,” Gakushuu says. He pulls out his version of Koro-sensei’s rules to re-live by, and Akabane laughs until he tears up, and hugs Gakushuu tight.

“You don’t know how everything goes,” Akabane tells him. Gakushuu desperately wishes for that to be true.

 

The moon won’t ever be full again but Gakushuu watches it high at its peak, glowing through the clouds. He wonders if he’ll ever see the moon recover, if the moon will ever recover. There was no way to get it back.

But the moon was still there.

 

This… was a terrible, terrible thing, show him what could have been and then take it all away. Gakushuu wanted to wake up to clean arms and quiet days, he wanted to walk home and make it home and not have to fight to breathe.

Gakushuu wanted to survive. No, he wanted to live, in this life, this fucking soft version of whatever plane of existence he was in. He wanted to go to school without looking for cameras at his back and he wanted to wear short sleeves.

 

“I don’t want to die,” Gakushuu whispers, “what if this is a dream? What if I wake up and hit the ground?”

“You won’t,” Gakuhou tells him, voice shaky like he’s trying to convince himself too. “You won’t.”

 

On December thirty-first, the virtuosos and Karma squeeze into a pillow fort in the Asano’s living room. Gakuhou sits on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate. It’s drizzling slightly outside, just like it had been one year ago, one year later, today.

Three minutes to the start of the new year there are distant cheers from celebrating partygoers a block away and his phone buzzes with sweet-sixteens sent too early, and he shuts his eyes.

 

He opens his eyes and the wind is rushing in his face and the ground is coming up to meet him, and he blinks and there are loud flashes and deafening roars and frantic screaming, and he blinks again to see six people staring at him with varying levels of concern, just as the emcee on the television screams a “one!” and crowds of people cheer.

 

Gakushuu grabs his phone off the table, stares at the time and date and then again. He looks up and Gakuhou is beaming at him, and Ren says, “happy sixteenth,” and Akabane pokes his cheek with a finger. Seo and Araki and Koyama echo with “happy birthdays” and “happy new years” and Gakushuu’s phone starts buzzing as more messages flood in, and for the first time in a long while Gakushuu has no idea what’s going to happen next.

 

Gakushuu Asano didn’t live to be sixteen years old, but that had been the other Asano. That had been him and still was him but he hadn’t made it this far. Gakushuu, strangely, feels like he has his life back.

 

“How are you feeling?” Gakuhou asks.

“I,” Gakushuu says. He takes a deep breath. “Okay, I guess.”

“Is this how it’s supposed to go?” Ren asks.

“I,” Gakushuu says. He doesn’t know what’s going on, he doesn’t know what’s different. But the other Gakushuu out there would have had hit the ground by now and Gakushuu wouldn’t go back to being him. It’s like a yoke lifted from his neck.

How morbid, Gakushuu thinks.

Everyone is looking at him in earnest, even Seo and Koyama and Araki who seem confused but wait loyally. Gakushuu doesn’t know why he got a second chance and he doesn’t think he ever will find out.

“Yeah,” he says.