Chapter 1: day 1: trace
Nagi, Tsubasa, and Moji. The three who were always together. And now...
"I want you to transplant my heart into his body."
Nagi's surgery was a complete success. When he opened his eyes, he saw Tsubasa leaning against his bed, fast asleep. He could feel the donated heart pumping strongly inside him. He didn't know if it was the thought of having a healthy heart or the fact that he did have a new heart that made him feel healthier than ever. For the first time in months, Nagi believed in the future ahead of him.
When Tsubasa woke up, Nagi greeted her with a wide, carefree grin. She immediately threw her arms around him, and he placed a reassuring hand on her arm. He was healthy again. The three of them weren't going to be separated anymore. They could go back to how things were before he fell sick.
The two chatted for the next hour, laughing and reminiscing about the past. The corner in the large hall room back at their orphanage had been their special place--Nagi remembered carving their names onto the wooden table and getting scolded by the matrons. He always seemed to be getting the three of them into trouble, but Moji and Tsubasa were always there to back him up.
He fondly watched Tsubasa gesture as she spoke, her soft voice brimming with quiet contentment. They would have continued chatting throughout the day if not for the nurse that dropped by.
As the nurse fussed over him, Nagi glanced towards the door and then back to Tsubasa.
"Moji didn't come today?" he asked. He felt a twinge of guilt that he had been so happy that Tsubasa was by his bedside that he hadn't even thought to ask about the absence of his other friend before now.
He watched as Tsubasa's eyes shifted away from his.
"No...I haven't seen him today."
For some reason, his heart seemed to pump faster at Tsubasa's words. Nagi had prepared himself to confess to Tsubasa if his surgery turned out successful. Here he was, healthier than ever. Moji wasn't here for some reason either, or maybe Moji was even deliberately giving him the chance to confess. That day at the hospital, Moji had been full of encouraging words. Nagi felt guilty for taking advantage of Moji's absence--he was almost entirely sure that Moji liked Tsubasa too.
He placed his hand over his chest, feeling his strong heartbeat. He felt guilty, yes, but he had waited too long for this day to come, a day when he'd finally be healthy enough to confess to Tsubasa without causing her pain for not being able to answer his feelings.
"What's wrong?? Does your heart hurt?" asked Tsubasa hurriedly.
Nagi shook his head. "No, it doesn't hurt. Rather, I'm amazed at how healthy I feel. It's all thanks to the donor of this heart."
He took a deep breath.
"Tsubasa, I like you."
Every time Nagi watched the news, he'd be amazed all over again at how he was still alive. He didn't know how much time he had left to live before, but he knew it hadn't been long. Whoever his donor had been, Nagi was grateful.
Lately, all the news ever reported were the fights of Zearth against other giant robots. The number of people who died in those battles were countless, numbers far greater than Nagi could grasp. All those out there had never expected to die prematurely, and yet they had died in masses. And here he was, still alive and healthy. Then one day, the fights stopped, and everyone rejoiced that Earth had been saved. Nagi had lived through it without being affected at all.
Tsubasa still came by everyday, much like how she had before, but now she always came by alone. When Nagi asked her about Moji, she would just shake her head. Nowadays, she seemed more subdued than usual. She looked at him with sad eyes when she thought he wouldn't notice. Sometimes, he wished he had never confessed.
Like Nagi had expected, Tsubasa had rejected him.
Nagi merely thought that Moji was avoiding him.
At his release from the hospital, Nagi fully expected to see Moji hover around Tsubasa, wowing them with his deductive reasonings and sixth sense about something or the other, but Moji never came. Nagi shrugged it off, expecting to see Moji at school.
Even there, there was no trace of the other boy.
It was then that Tsubasa finally told him.
"M-Moji has disappeared."
It was crazy. How could someone disappear like that? There was no family to ask, for they were orphans. They knew all the same people, and everyone he could think of to ask had not seen Moji for the past month. Nagi put his head down at the table in their corner of the hall room, blinking his eyes to stop the blurriness. He watched their carved names sway in front of him.
He traced the characters with his finger, following the strokes in Moji's name. Just where had Moji disappeared to? Why had he left without a word?
Tsubasa confessed that Moji had been distant the days before Nagi's surgery. Nagi swallowed and placed his hand over his chest. Nowadays, he often found himself touching the spot above his heart in reassurance whenever he doubted himself.
That day at the hospital...Moji had been adamant that he confess to Tsubasa. Had that been his goodbye, his way to look after Tsubasa? Why hadn't he noticed anything out of the ordinary?
"He..." started Tsubasa after the strained silence, her face earnest. She fell silent right after she spoke up. Her eyes strayed to his hands, but when he looked at her questionably, she quickly shifted her gaze away.
"What's wrong? Did you think of something?"
Tsubasa shook her head. "No..." she answered shakily. "It's nothing."
He always suspected that deep down, the one Tsubasa liked was Moji. If it hadn't been for his weak heart, Tsubasa would have ended up with Moji a lot sooner. But because of his illness, both of his friends felt that they needed to support him. The three of them were always together, but he knew they couldn't be together forever. His illness had only suspended their time.
With Moji's disappearance, Tsubasa was less lively and less joyful, prone to staring off faraway. She often fell silent in the midst of their conversations, and Nagi knew who and what she must've been thinking about during those times. Her eyes always wandered to Moji's empty seat. The absence of the other boy was sorely felt.
Then one day, Tsubasa turned to him, her eyes bright.
"I met someone yesterday," she murmured.
His heart skipped a beat.
"N-no...it's someone who knows him from the summer camp. Anyway, I've decided to stop looking."
"Why? Did that person tell you where Moji is?"
"S-sort of, but I think I always knew." Tsubasa smiled sadly, her smile not at all like what it used to be.
"If you know, then-"
"Anyway," she continued, cutting off his question. "I just wanted you to know not to worry about Moji anymore. I-I was wondering if your offer still stands?"
He blinked, the sudden change of topic throwing him off.
Then it hit him.
"Of course!" he blurted. "Y-You're agreeing to be my girlfriend?"
"Y-yes," she answered softly, placing her hand against his chest. "Yes..."
His heart raced at her words and her touch. He wondered if she could feel how fast his heart was beating. He pulled her against him and held onto her tightly. They were only two now, two left out of the three who were always together. He didn't know why Tsubasa finally agreed, but he wanted to be the one to make her happy.
Tsubasa blinked rapidly, glad that Nagi couldn't see her expression. She laid her head against his chest, soothed by the feel of the strong heartbeat that connected all three of them together.
Chapter 2: day 2: visceral love
Hatagai, Chizu, Chizu's sister Ichiko. Set after Chizu tries to kill Hatagai.
"If only you'd been born to my sister instead."
He had been careful with the elder sister. They hadn't even gone past kissing. All women were the same, but she was an exception. He had taken an interest in the younger sister, thinking that perhaps he'd find another gem, but she had turned out like all other uninteresting women.
But when that gigantic black hand came down in judgment, it pierced through all of his previous thoughts. Honda appeared from the black giant. She was bent on killing him. He began thinking that perhaps Honda wasn't as much like other uninteresting women as he had thought. None of them had made his blood run cold like this.
The thought was fleeting, however, for when the elder sister stood in front of him, her arms spread out in protection, no one else mattered anymore.
She was the only important women in his life after all.
"I knew all about you."
In the middle of running for their lives, she spoke those deadly words. People were screaming around them, probably even dying, and rubble was going to fall on them and crush them anytime. Yet here they were in the middle of the frenzy, having a conversation that couldn't have had worst timing than this.
He did not know how much she knew, but he doubted that the extent of his crimes mattered. It was the younger sister's case that had brought this talk on.
"Why are you still with me then?" he asked.
Her answer was quick, her face solemn.
"Because I love you," she replied. "And love is irrational."
He fell for her all over again.
"I know how you treat women, but you're not like that with me. Why is that?"
She looked right into his eyes, almost like she was staring right into his being.
"It's because you love me just as much as I love you."
He loved her? Was that why she was so special?
He reached out for her hand, but she slipped hers out of his grasp.
"Even so, for Chizu's sake, I can't be with you anymore."
Her dimpled smile was sad, her eyes full of regret. He wanted to reach out to cup her face, to run his fingers against her cheeks, her beauty mark. But she was determined to walk away from his life.
He only had one thought on his mind.
Honda Chizuru had to pay for stealing the attention that was rightfully his.
Chapter 3: day 3: gravity kills
Waku, Ushiro, Kanji, Kana. Set after Waku's fall. Mixed anime and manga canon with spoilers up to the Kanji chapters.
"No. I didn't push him that hard."
They didn't think Ushiro was going to show up at Waku's funeral. Even for them, Waku's fall still replayed over and over in their minds. It was a sight they'd never forget--the figure of their friend disappearing into the black murky depths of the ocean, Ushiro's shocked stillness, his sweating forehead, his downcast eyes, and his vehement protests. Waku's death weighed heavily enough on their minds. It was hard to imagine what Ushiro was going through, or that he'd be able to face Waku's crying parents without drowning in guilt.
But Ushiro was Ushiro. They should have known that he'd be as stoic as ever, and that he wouldn't even shed one tear for Waku. By his impassive face, no one who hadn't been at the scene could ever tell that Ushiro had a part in Waku's death.
Kanji placed a reassuring hand on Ushiro's shoulder. He said not one word throughout the entire funeral.
It wasn't sadness that overwhelmed them while standing in front of Waku's smiling photo, but rather shock and unease. This was their shared secret, covered only by Moji's skillful lie, the result of agreeing to a dangerous game. Ushiro may have been the one to push Waku off, but they had all been there. They had never known that life could end so easily. They had thought themselves to be invincible, hidden heroes of the world.
Waku had been so proud, so excited. Moji knew this best.
Yet in the end, one mere nudge had thrown him off the edge.
"You would do anything for your family? Then die, for their sake."
The second to fall had been Kodama. In one sense, Waku and Kodama were the luckiest two. They knew nothing about how piloting Zearth expended their life force, or that failure would mean the end of the world. Waku had died in elation over his victory. Kodama had died less glamorously, but for him, death was even kind. He didn't have to face the fact that he had ended his own father's life.
They no longer had a choice. They were in the contract. Their only choice was to fight.
He didn't know whether to feel relieved or not. He had been right after all. He hadn't pushed Waku that hard. The other boy hadn't died because of him. But reality was even worse than what they had thought. Not a single one of them were going to live through this deranged game.
None except him and Kana.
Back in their dingy basement, Kana handed him a glass of tap water, the water sloshing from her shaky hands. He grimaced at her timid expression and slapped the glass out of her hands. The water seeped into the carpet.
"What are you being so nervous about?" he shouted. "You're not in the contract!" He had saved her. Why wasn't she happy?
"Hey, take it easy, Ushiro!" reprimanded Kanji from behind.
Ushiro glared at the other boy--Kanji was stupid for joining the contract--and stalked to his bed.
Kana bowed her head, picking up the fallen glass.
This game was a sick joke. The world rested on the shoulders of a group of kids, kids who had to fight while knowing that only death awaited them. There was no way out. The world could end any minute if any one of them failed their battles.
He found that he couldn't care less whether or not the world ended today or tomorrow. What was there to fight for? He supposed it was a good thing he wasn't in the contract--he'd have doomed them all. The entire game was savage and pointless.
"Hey Kanji," whispered Ushiro while laying on his mattress of a bed, staring up at the yellowed ceiling. "Are you going to fight?" Was there anything worth fighting for? Was Kanji going to die?
He could hear the sound of running water from the kitchen. Kana never gave up.
For a moment, he thought that Kanji wasn't even in the room. Ushiro turned his head to look at his friend.
"I seriously don't know," replied Kanji slowly, his voice low. "I guess I'll know when my time comes."
Kanji had his hands in his pockets, his back slouched. He looked just like he did any other day. He didn't look like someone who had a death sentence hanging over his head, but Ushiro knew it was naive to think otherwise.
"What about you, Ushiro?"
Kanji was going to die.
Kanji was going to die without a mother to mourn him. Kanji was going to die vainly without anyone's appreciation.
Kanji was going to die.
Ushiro would be there until the end.
Chapter 4: day 4: collateral damage
Before all this, Komoda was merely an ordinary girl. Manga canon for this one. Spoilers up to Komoda chapters.
There were only five of them left. They should have all been exposed as Zearth's pilots, but thanks to Komoda's courage, they were safe from the media for the time being. It was hard to bear the public's slandering of Komoda. Komoda wasn't supposed to be responsible for all those deaths. There had been no unnecessary deaths from Komoda's battle.
Her photos were everywhere. In the photo, she was wearing the outfits Nakama had made them, her face grim.
Komoda had been strong.
"I know it's all a big phony show, but I wanted you to hear it. I wanted Mom to hear it too."
The piano in the parlor room was uncovered, the black piano bench pushed back haphazardly. Her daughter had just been playing this very piano not so long ago before she had been snatched right out of her home, her supposed haven.
What kind of expression had her daughter worn? What had been going through her daughter's mind as she faced death? Why hadn't she been home to see her daughter one last time?
The phone rang and rang. She no longer bothered to answer the calls. She knew they could only be threats and reprimands against her daughter who was dying for the sake of all these ungrateful people.
When he came home alone with that look on his face, she immediately knew what had happened.
She couldn't bear it.
"Why did it have to be Takami?" Why?"
She pounded her hands against his chest. He stood there, immovable, not even bringing his hands up to stop her.
"You killed her," she screamed. "You walked her to her death!"
She continued screaming words of poison, too far caught in her hurt to realize how much he must be hurting too. She couldn't stop the barrage pouring out of her mouth and her heart without any end in sight.
"I wish I never married a military man!" She screamed, her breath coming in gasps. "Takami was just a normal girl! A civilian like everyone else! You made her into a martyr!"
Her voiced trailed off. She buried her face in his shirt. "Why couldn't someone else have died instead?" she mumbled. "It didn't have to be my girl!"
She looked up, her eyes furious.
"And why did you agree to expose her like that?"
She took a step back, spreading her arms out.
"Everyone says she's responsible for killing 10,000 people..." she whispered quietly. "They think she's a murderer, a cold-blooded murderer. How d-dare they. How dare they!"
He moved forward.
"B-back off!" she screamed, slashing her hand in the air. "Don't come near me, you murderer!"
His voice was calm, directly contrasting hers.
"She knew what she was doing."
She shook her head vehemently, covering her ears.
"She died smiling."
He took another step towards her, backing her into the corner.
"She wasn't a soldier, but she was a pilot. She died to protect Earth."
He stepped right in front of her, pulling her arm up.
"Look at me!" he commanded.
She shook her head.
"She wanted to protect you, so please, look at me..."
His voice cracked.
He slumped down next to his wife, exhaustion and despair overtaking him. Shocked, she wrapped her arms around her husband, her husband who had always been infallible.
"I quit the military. I can't do it anymore."
The tears fell freely now.
Chapter 5: day 5: supply and demand
Kodaka Masaru's brother, the person who leasts wants the company, ends up inheriting it.
"I want to be a chosen one, like Papa."
It was ironic how well off the company was now. There were too many collapsed buildings, too many destroyed streets. Just an hour ago, he had to send a group of workers out to inspect one of several fallen bridges. His father would have been overjoyed at the amount of work and profit they were receiving. He'd laughingly snub his cigarette out on the table, hands in the air as he pontificated about how he was going to rebuild the city and how that translated into profit for them. He wouldn't have cared what the destruction meant for other people. He had been so gleeful when that black monster first appeared and blasted off the mountain top, his mind full of how he could reap the situation.
Look where that had landed him.
He rubbed the edge of his nose, his vision blurring as he took off his glasses. When he slid his glasses back on, his vision focused on the family photo in front of him. The photo was of the five of them--his father, his mother, Masaru, his older brother, and himself. His father's smile was large, stretching across his entire face. All of his teeth were showing in his fake smile, even his gold tooth. His father had thought himself to be invincible, but he had been far from it. He had been on his way to sign a contract while the rest of the city had been escaping for their lives. No doubt his last thoughts had been on cinching the deal and calculating how much work they'd get from the fallen buildings, all the way until he ended up being the one crushed.
Next to him stood his younger brother, Masaru. He wasn't wearing his silly, round glasses yet. That had been recent, so recent that he hadn't had a chance to ask where exactly Masaru had gotten those glasses.
News of his father's death had been shocking enough. When his brother's dead body had suddenly appeared at their doorstep, their mother had fainted.
His brother had been a miniature version of their father, lapping up every word their father had said. Masaru idolized their father, and their father let Masaru get away with the cruelest things, like using the neighborhood cat as target practice. Their father had raised Masaru into an uncaring, self-centered brat who only recognized situations beneficial to himself. His little brother had thought himself to be unique and above other people. As Masaru grew up, he knew less and less how to get along with him.
But he still remembered a time when Masaru would hesitantly knock at his door, peeking in with his hands hiding some new game behind his back. He'd grudgingly invite Masaru inside, and Masaru would immediately rush over to the TV where the game systems were. They'd play until early morning, the light from the TV screen flickering underneath the door, and then their elder brother would catch them at it hours after Masaru's bedtime. Eventually, they'd send Masaru back to his room. Masaru especially loved playing Sim City...he should have known even back then that Masaru loved playing with power.
He had never wanted to take up their father's company, and neither did his elder brother, but with his father gone, with Masaru gone...
He wasn't going to let the company rot even though he hated it. His father would roll in his grave if that happened.
He placed the frame down and buried himself in his work.
Chapter 6: day 6: 27 names for tears
This is what Maki fought for. Spoilers for Maki's story.
"What will you be like when you grow up? What kind of life will you have?"
The baby wailed, the loud cries resonating in the room.
"Ah, that's a loud wail!" he commented, lifting his son into the air. "Good for you! You have a healthy set of lungs!"
The crying continued, now even louder than before.
"And that's quite some nonstop crying! I think I have to name this. How about...Special Technique, Continuous Crying? Best used for grabbing attention!"
"Dear, shouldn't you try to figure out why he's crying first?" came his wife's voice from the kitchen.
"That's what I'm doing!" he shouted back over the baby's crying.
He rocked his son in his arms.
"You're just hungering for attention, right? Let me tell you a story, son. When Maki was your age, she..."
As he continued spinning tales about Maki's toddler days, the baby finally quieted down.
He smiled and kissed his son's forehead.
The baby gurgled and reached out to pull on his hair.
Thirteen years later
"Ano-kun, heading home already?"
"Yeah, it's my older sister's birthday today," he replied with a grin as his two friends joined him. "Dad's getting off work early to celebrate."
"Older sister?" asked one of his friends, flabbergasted. "I never heard you mention-" The other friend nudged him, cutting him off mid-sentence.
"She passed away, you dolt! Of course there's not much to talk about!" whispered the other friend urgently.
Ano waved his hand in the air. "No need to whisper around me. It's not a sensitive topic."
The first friend raised his hand hesitantly. "Then, um, is it all right if I ask you why you're uh still celebrating her birthday?"
The second friend pulled the first friend's hand down. "What are you raising your hand for? It's not like we're in class!"
Ano shrugged and put his hands behind his head as he walked. "She died before I was born actually, but Mom and Dad talk about her a lot so it feels like I know her. Mom often says that it was thanks to my sister that they were able to have me, so I'm kind of indebted to her, you know? We celebrate her birthday every year and Mom and Dad tell me stories about her. Dad says that I used to only stop crying when he recounted stories about her to me. It kind of seems like I have a sister complex, doesn't it? Still, she seems like a great person. I wish I could've known her."
"Wow, isn't that kind of hard to live up to?"
Ano rolled his eyes. "You don't even know all of it. I heard that she was one of Zearth's pilots too."
"What? Whoa, wait a minute. You're Ano. That means that your sister was Ano Maki? THAT Maki?"
"Way cool man. Way cool!"
"Yeah, she protected the world with her friends. I really admire her for that! It's cool and all, but I heard that Dad abstained from anime for months after he found out. I can't imagine my otaku father without anime. He especially didn't touch any mecha anime back then. He even hid the Zearth figure he bought too! But he's fine now, and the Zearth figure is out on display again. He says he's proud of his daughter."
"Your dad even has a Zearth figure? It's the limited edition right?"
"Yup, the very one."
"Wow, can I come over to take a look? That thing sells for ridiculous prices! Have you seen how high the prices go?"
The second friend nudged the first friend again.
"Show some tact, geez. It's a family day for them!"
Ano laughed. "Don't worry. She wouldn't have minded."
His friends looked at each other and turned sheepish smiles to him.
"We'll be inviting ourselves over then!"
Chapter 7: day 7: somewhere left of nowhere
With Daiichi gone, Futaba takes on the role of the eldest.
"There's something I have to take care of. So...I'm going to leave for a bit. Please take care of them."
A few days after the black monster appeared, after Daiichi disappeared, it was like nothing had happened. The rides at the amusement park were running like usual, the bright, changing lights of the rides visible even from the entrance where they stood. The amusement park was open to maintain normalcy, keeping the tragedy of the outside world away from this little bubble of peace. It was unbelievable that the amusement park wasn't even damaged at all when the surrounding areas were all crushed. It was almost like the amusement park had been protected.
Futaba tucked their amusement park tickets away in her pocket--admission was free for the day. She was glad. She hadn't wanted to use up her only memento of her brother.
"Are you all right, oneechan?" asked Yoshi after Futaba hugged both of her younger siblings close to her. They had asked for Daiichi. She was the only one who knew that he wasn't coming back. They had been too young when their dad had left them to remember his parting words. Daiichi had left her with the very same words their dad had left them.
Daiichi wasn't coming back.
Futaba quickly wiped her eyes. "I'm fine, Yoshi. Come on, let's head in."
She managed to persuade them to head in without waiting for Daiichi. They quickly forgot their complaints after a few rides. Santa grinned as he spun the steering wheel of the tea cup they sat in--they spun and spun and spun until Yoshi giggled and yelled, "I'm so dizzy!!!" Next, Santa pulled them over to one of the scarier roller coasters. Futaba shook her head, measuring Yoshi against the height chart. The ride was no good. Yoshi wasn't tall enough for it.
They laughed and joked around, buying cotton candy at the stands and tearing into the candy as they walked. The sweet candy melted in their mouths and made their hands sticky. Futaba took her siblings to the bathroom afterwards, helping them wash their hands.
The amusement park really was just a small bubble of peace--right after they started heading home, Yoshi and Santa asked for Daiichi again. Even with Santa's pout and Yoshi's wobbly lips, Futaba had no answers.
Even though she didn't know much herself, she was going to try her best to be a good sister to Yoshi and Santa. She wasn't going to let Daiichi down.
When they sold the house, Futaba felt something die inside. Dad had no place to return to now. Daiichi had no place to return to either. But it had to be done. She couldn't maintain the house and support Yoshi and Santa at the same time, not like what Daiichi had done for them. Daiichi had worked endless part-time jobs to keep their house running. Futaba couldn't do that on top of household chores. She was only ten and still in need of care herself.
Daiichi had asked their aunt and uncle to take care of them. Futaba was grateful, truly grateful, for Uncle was very supportive and always praised her. He treated them like his own children. But whenever Uncle mentioned Daiichi, Futaba couldn't help but feel discontent. Her brother was the best. Her uncle had thought the same before this.
"He turned out like his father after all," her uncle would say nowadays, voice laced with regret. Futaba would fall silent, unsure of what her uncle meant by those words. However, every time she met his sad eyes, she'd think that perhaps her uncle was just as lost as her.
Futaba dared to hope. At night, she'd take the four unused amusement park tickets out from beneath her pillow, holding them up against the moonlight. She dared to hope that as long as she kept the family together, even if they had no place to call their own anymore, Daiichi would still have a place to return to.
And one day, they'd be able to go to the amusement park together just like he had promised
Chapter 8: day 8: the many colors of a bruise
Kirie visits Kako's family. Manga canon for this one.
"D-Dung Beetle, w-will I survive?"
The bruise had turned an ugly purple, or so Moji had told him. Kirie didn't have a mirror. He couldn't tell how his face looked. All he knew was that small bursts of pain traveled through his skin whenever he spoke.
Kako had punched hard, harder than Kirie ever thought Kako could punch. But Kako had been fueled by fright and despair--his despair deepened by the fact that he had hoped and had that hope taken away from him. The army had failed him. Those punches Kako had thrown were his last struggles to stay alive, his outcry at the absurdity of it all.
Kirie touched his cheeks, wincing at the barest touch.
He had failed Kako too.
And now, both of his schoolmates were gone.
When he rang the doorbell, he didn't know what he was expecting. A weeping mother? A depressed sister? He found that he didn't know Kako's family very well, which wasn't surprising. Kako hadn't considered him a friend.
The door opened a slit, an eye peaking out.
"What do you want?" came the accusing voice.
"...I'm sorry about Kako."
The door flew open. A bruised, middle-aged woman grabbed at his shirt. Her face was discolored with a blossoming bruise in the same place as his own.
"What do you know about Kako?" she breathed. "Were you the one who did him in?"
When he didn't reply, she began shaking him. "Tell me! How come my son appeared in the living room, dead, with a large gash across his neck? Who did it? Was it you?"
She was all but screeching at the end.
Kirie couldn't and didn't pull himself away. He didn't know what to say.
Someone else came out of the house.
"Mom, good riddance. Kako had it coming to him." She flipped her hair, looking bored.
Kako's mother let go of Kirie and spun around, instead focusing her hysterics on her daughter.
"How can you say that about your own brother? He's dead!"
Her daughter's eyes narrowed. She grabbed her mother's flailing hands and pulled up the sleeves, revealing a multitude of bruises.
"A good thing too, or else you'd get more of these!" She pointed her finger at Kirie's face.
"And I bet he got his from Kako too! What sort of son and friend is that?"
With that said, she disappeared back into the house, but not before Kirie noticed her red, puffy eyes.
Kirie looked away, unable to meet the mother's eyes. Just what kind of relationship had Kako had with his family? He touched his own bruise...and felt he understood. Kirie didn't blame Kako for acting the way he had. The other boy had been desperate and slowly driven mad by his looming death. Kako hadn't wanted to fight--he cared more about his own life than that of his family's.
Self-perseverance wasn't a crime punishable by death.
Kirie placed his hand over the pockets of his jeans, feeling the weight of Chizu's knife he now carried.
He didn't blame Chizu either.
Chapter 9: day 9: white it out
Anime canon for this one. Short snippet after Machi's battle.
"I wanted to die on the Earth where I was born after all."
After the battle before the last, a layer of white snow blanketed the earth. The city was in shambles, but the snow remained pure in its icy beauty. The battles had started at the end of their summer. Now, winter was almost upon them. Out of the fifteen of them who had attended the summer nature camp, only she and her brother were left.
Kana didn't know where Machi had gone off to in her last moments. The older girl had abruptly sent them away from Zearth to where the old lady was. Did the old lady know that Machi wasn't from their Earth? Was anyone going to remember Machi and mourn her? Was there anyone back in Machi's world who remembered Machi and Dung Beetle, or had they been forgotten after saving the world?
She held her hand out, catching one of the drifting snowflakes. It was a sad thought, dying alone in a foreign world. The snowflake soon melted in her hand, leaving nothing behind except for the chilly water that ran down her hand.
She closed her hand, her breath frosting the air.
"Thank you, Machi-san."
Her brother turned to look back at her from where he was standing next to the old lady, the marks on the sides of his face standing out prominently.
Her feet brought her right up to him, her hands reaching out without thought to pull on the end of his jacket.
He had felt so far away.
"What?" came her brother's usual terseness.
She looked up at him, her eyes pleading, her hands refusing to let go. At his slightest shift, she bit her lips, preparing herself for some rough handling.
Instead, a comfortable weight rested on her head. He patted her hair.
Amazed, she looked up.
He was looking away, his cheeks pink.
It was probably from the cold.
Chapter 10: day 10: funeral season
Manga canon for this one. Spoilers up to chapter 52.
"To be totally honest, I wanted to destroy Chutenro Tower with my own hands."
Ushiro sat hunched over at the bench where Kanji had last called him out to. From where he sat, Chutenro Tower took up nearly half of his vision. The tower had been Kanji's mother's grave. Now, it was also Kanji's grave.
He had known that the tower was special for Kanji, but it hadn't meant anything to Ushiro until now.
"What were you trying to protect?" he asked, his hands clasped together. His eyes focused on the slanted tower, as if the tower could give him answers.
The question went unheard.
Kanji was long gone.
"God, you idiot. Don't make me cry."
Kanji had been his friend, but even then, he had not cried. Instead, he watched detachedly as Kana clung on dearly to Kanji's shirt, tears spilling down her cheeks. He frowned and clenched his fist, looking away from the disgraceful scene.
She expressed what he couldn't.
He wished he could bring himself to tear her away from Kanji.
"Why didn't you tell me you were in the contract?"
"Because if I did it, it would mean you were all alone."
He buried his head in his arms, the rough cotton of his sleeves brushing against his skin.
Kanji had wanted him to keep Kana safe. Ushiro hadn't wanted to. He had protested. But when he finally found out that Kana was in the contract, an irrational anger had coursed through him. His face must have been twisted and frightening. Kanji had understood him better than he understood himself. Even Kana had understood him better. He hadn't even known he wanted to meet his birth mother. It had been the tiniest desire in the deepest corner of his heart, but Kana had thought far ahead. She had always thought of him as her brother.
"Kana, you idiot..." He mumbled into his sleeves. "What was the point?"
Kanji had died. Kana had died. Even Tanaka, who he had not known was his mother until after she crashed, had died.
It was absurd that they joined the contract to protect him. Laughable even.
He wasn't even in it.
Chapter 11: day 11: trench fever
Tanaka thinks of Seki. Manga canon for this one as well. Spoilers up to chapter 52.
"His voice is cracking. He can't sing for beans."
Tanaka had recognized the off-tune melody that came through her headset. She often teased him about joining the military because of his favorite anime's influence. At the crucial moment, he had been quietly singing the theme song from that very anime. She couldn't understand what he was singing then--the words hadn't registered when both Seki and Kanji's lives were on the line. When she got back to her peaceful home after Kanji's battle, her husband and daughter were already asleep. She smoothed back her daughter's hair and pulled her blankets higher. With one last lingering look, she softly closed the door behind her.
Alone in the dark, she sat in front of the glowing monitor and remembered her recently deceased friend. On a whim, she looked up the lyrics to the song.
Her lips quirked up as she scrolled through the lyrics.
Had he been sweating while singing these ludicrous words? Had he smiled at the end?
Be the guide.
Take the bough to be the guide
and drop it at your feet.
She folded her hands and rested her forehead against them.
"I will, Seki. I'll guide them to the end."
Seki had passed the responsibility of guiding the children on to her. Ironically, she had only lasted one more battle than he had. But like Seki, she was going to go down fighting. There was no illness or accident that could take them down.
They were soldiers.
She smiled in the face of doom, her hand still outstretched, her gun still pointing at the enemy. She was stuck, and she knew it. Millions of thoughts rushed through her mind--she wished she could have spent more time with her husband and her daughter, she wished had the chance to tell Jun who she was, she wished she could have died on her own Earth instead of this foreign one...
Jun was entirely alone now. She hadn't wanted to leave him so soon.
Had Kana kept her promise?
Her eyes closed, dreaming of peaceful times for her son.
Jun, please live on.
Chapter 12: day 12: naughty naughty
Nakarai Mako, Miko, Oda (Mako's classmate). Miko runs into her neighborhood gossips. Manga canon for this one. Spoilers up to Mako chapters.
"I was only trying to be a good girl on the outside."
Nakarai Miko ran into the neighborhood gossipers during recycling day, or rather, they ran into her while she was picking up cans.
"What's wrong with you? Can't you do anything right? You disgraceful thing!" She heard Oda yell, probably at her daughter. "How dare you hang out with that boy again! Haven't you embarrassed me enough?"
A slap resounded through the air.
Oda's daughter held her left cheek, her eyes full of hurt.
Miko saw Oda raise her hand again. She calmly stepped in to block her.
"Do you make it a habit to hit people?" she asked, her eyebrows raised. She pushed Oda's hand away.
"Nakarai-san!" exclaimed Oda, her face flushed.
"What, no insults for me today?" commented Miko. She jerked her head at Oda's daughter. "What's the harm of a little naughtiness? Let her live her life the way she wants to."
Oda stuck her nose in the air. "I don't need you to tell me how to raise my daughter!"
"Come, let's go." Oda pulled her daughter's hand, leading her away.
At the corner of the block, Oda's daughter slipped her hand out of her mother's hand and ran back to where Miko stood. Her mother screamed after her to get back, but the daughter paid no mind.
"Um, Nakarai-san," spoke the daughter, pausing to catch her breath. "I wanted to thank your daughter for saving my life. I...wasn't worth it."
She bowed low. "Thanks."
Miko smiled. "I meant what I said to your mother. A little naughtiness doesn't hurt."
The girl smiled in return. "I can see why Nakarai, um Mako, always defended you. You must be a wonderful mother."
"Thank you for your kind words, Oda-san."
The girl fiddled with the hem of the dress, her eyes darting around in nervousness, unwilling to meet Miko's. She looked like she had more she wanted to say.
Miko waited calmly. The girl in front of her was so young. Her daughter had been the same.
"I saw something that day," the girl finally said, her clear eyes focusing on Miko's. "When Mako saved me, I was teleported into this...this cockpit. There's no other way to describe it."
It had only been for the briefest second, but Oda had seen inside Zearth's cockpit. It was the only thing she could share with Miko, the only thing left she could do for Miko. Miko listened without a word.
Sometimes, Miko wished her daughter wasn't so understanding. Sometimes, Miko wished her daughter would whine to her and complain to her and appeal to her for help. But Mako was Mako, and Miko loved her for all her stubbornness.
Miko patted the girl on the shoulder. She wanted to tell the girl to live on, to treasure her life, to be a little naughty, to do all the things that Mako will never have the chance to do...
The words wouldn't come. She tried--she opened her mouth to speak, but the lump in her throat made things hard. In the end, she closed her mouth and just looked at the girl, willing her eyes to speak what her mouth could not.
The girl rested her hand on Miko's, and together they fell silent in remembrance of Mako and her quiet strength.
Chapter 13: day 13: trigger space
Dung Beetle and Machi. Anime canon. Spoilers for episode 23.
"What do you think you're doing??"
Even when her brother's body fell to the ground, that smile ever present on his face, Machi continued shooting until she ran out of bullets, disfiguring her brother beyond recognition. A hole in his eye, a dent in his head, a crater in what was possibly his stomach...
She really couldn't tell anymore with what her brother had turned into. Electricity crackled around his small body. His body even splintered upon the bullets' impact. There was nothing remotely human left about him anymore...nothing except for his extremely human cowardice and sense of self-preservation.
The gun fell out of her slack hands.
It was all over.
She had just killed her own brother.
Their chairs started spinning again. She focused hard on the image of her chair. It was time she ended everything.
When marks appeared on her face, designating her as the next pilot, she could only smile through the emptiness she felt.
Machi watched her obaasan try to puzzle through the directions to Ushiro-sensei's place...if she could even see the note, that was. Machi wasn't close with the old woman, but she was still grateful for the temporary home the old woman had provided for her. When her obaasan gave her some candy--as if she were an elementary school kid--her heart almost burst with fondness. She hadn't thought she'd regret leaving this Earth, but surprisingly, those pangs were there. Still, it was her turn. She'll fight--for Kana, for the old lady who had looked after her, for all those who had fought before her, and for Ushiro. He had surprised her.
"Ushiro," she started. "Are you going to fight?"
Kana was helping the old lady get on the bus, far out of listening range.
Ushiro stayed silent. When she turned to look at him, she saw that he only had eyes for Kana.
His answer was resolute.
"You don't have to, you know?" she said. You should stay behind for Kana's sake, she wanted to add but couldn't vocalize. "We can choose the pilots now. We can even have other volunteers join the contract. It doesn't have to be you." But even as she said this, she knew that he wouldn't be willing. She wasn't willing either.
He shook his head.
"We started with the fifteen of us. We'll end with the fifteen of us."
"You would never have said anything like this when we first started. I kind of wish you're still the arrogant little stuck up from back then. At least you wouldn't be considering leaving Kana behind."
"Ah, but then I might have made the decision to become the next Kokopelli," commented Ushiro, his voice quiet. "And then Kana would have..."
Machi looked away, her heart strangely calm even as the next enemy began materializing in front of them.
"You make me wish my brother had been more like you," Machi said, snorting. "Imagine that! I never thought I'd say something like this either."
Ushiro smiled, the right side of his mouth quirking up.
Machi stuck out her tongue before twirling around to catch up with Kana.
Chapter 14: day 14: raison d'etre
Kirie and his cousin Kazu. Manga canon.
"I've always wondered about the continued worth of my existence. Is it right for me to be alive? Or is it wrong? My life itself is ambivalent. I could be here, I could not. I'm not bothering anyone being here, but I wouldn't bother them if I wasn't either..."
The musky room had not seen sunlight for weeks, nor had the windows been open to let in fresh air. She sat huddled in the corner of the room, her eyes staring vacantly ahead of her, seeing nothing at all. She barely winced when the drapes were pulled open, the glaring sunlight spilling into the room. Yosuke had been here.
She saw her friend falling over and over again. She had been prepared to welcome death with her friend, but she couldn't take that step. Her friend fell backwards, her arm extended towards her, reaching out for help. She cringed from the look of betrayal on her friend's face.
All she could think of was death. Why was she still alive? Why couldn't she die? She could no longer live in the outside world after she had walked her friend to her death. Her continued existence was meaningless. Her life should have ended.
The house shook. An earthquake? No...the tremors were wrong. Had the black monster come for her?
The window was open. Had Yosuke opened it?
She could see the black monster through the window.
She crawled towards the window, her muscles aching from disuse.
"Come kill me," she whispered, her chapped lips bleeding from the movement of her lips.
The black monster stopped moving. A figure appeared on the arm of the monster.
Wasn't that...Yosuke? Little Yosuke who always needed her protection? Bullied Yosuke who couldn't fight for himself?
Kazu blinked, feeling more awake and grounded than she had ever been, despite the almost fantasy-like sight she had just seen.
Chapter 15: day 15: as I break this chair
flash fic with everyone. mixed anime and manga canon.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"These chairs should bring back memories for each of you."
Waku's green chair had no armrests. His chair was the same as the one in his room, the one that he sat in to do his homework. It was familiar and extremely ordinary. When he sat in his chair, it almost felt like he was at home, playing a normal video game, except this one had more at stake. He leaned forward as he focused on piloting Zearth, his hands resting on his knees. He concentrated all his energy on his kick. It felt good to kick like this again.
They were going to win this.
When Kodama opened his eyes, he was already in Zearth's cockpit, his hands gripping the armrests of his fancy office chair. The actual chair in his papa's office was not his, but this one was. He had been thinking about Zearth when he had sat down in the office. He pushed his glasses up. These chairs were connected. He rubbed the leather of his chair, pleased with his chair.
His eyes swept through the cockpit.
Fourteen chairs. Thirteen filled. One empty.
It did not matter.
Daiichi sat cross-legged on his cushion, knowing full well that he was about to leave his siblings behind. It was a despairing thought, but the cushion below him calmed him. Futaba had sewed the cover of this cushion for him. He remembered how battered the pillow had been before Futaba decided to make covers out of their old clothes. The resulting cushions had served well for their seats at their dinner table. His 'chair' was a reminder that the outside world was real. His siblings were out there. He had to fight. For his siblings, for the world, for Waku and Kodama who had given their lives before him without even knowing the cost...
Fourteen chairs. Twelve filled. Two empty.
He could not afford to lose.
Nakama quietly accepted things as they came. There was nothing more she could do in the little time she had left. When she appeared in Zearth's cockpit, dark bags under her eyes, she only had one thought on her mind. It was not about saving the world, rather, it was about how she needed to finish the outfits. The chair below her urged her on. This was her sewing chair, a chair with a curved back and metal legs, the only chair in the house with the perfect height for the sewing table. Sewing was the only thing that still made sense to her.
Fourteen chairs. Eleven filled. Three empty.
All she could do was continue with what she was best at.
Kako smashed the metal chair against the wall, fear coursing through his body. He gasped for air, almost unable to breathe through his overwhelming fear. The wall was entirely ruined, and yet there was not one dent on his chair. He threw his chair away from him, screaming in frustration. Why wouldn't it break? He laughed maniacally when he finally bent one of the legs.
His bloodshot eyes widened when he found himself in the cockpit, the chair beneath him in pristine condition.
Fourteen chairs. Ten filled. Four empty.
He wanted to cry.
Chizu's chair was simple and fancy at the same time. She hated her chair with the straight back and curled metal designs. She had loved it with all her heart before, constantly running her fingers across the cool metal, daydreaming about her beloved teacher while she waited. This was her teacher's kitchen chair, where she had willingly given herself to him. She had been so blind.
Fourteen chairs. Nine filled. Five empty, one by her hand.
She wanted revenge first.
When he first saw the form his chair took, Moji already knew in his heart that this was no game. There was no game in the world that could read their hearts like this. Nagi's illness and his own selfishness was all his life centered around now, but no one in this group had known. It was anguishing enough to visit Nagi everyday, sitting by Tsubasa's side and knowing that if it weren't because of Nagi's illness, the three of them would have been separated a lot earlier. Even here in Zearth's cockpit, he was again reminded of his own faults. He and Tsubasa had never meant to be.
Fourteen chairs. Eight filled. Six empty.
His time had come. He was going to save his friend in the process.
The baby crib was a painful reminder that she missed her little brother's birth by the merest hours. Maki wanted to hear him cry, to hear him gurgle, to play with him, to watch him grow up. All this was impossible now. She wouldn't even be able to watch him sleep in this baby crib she sat on top of.
Fourteen chairs. Seven filled. Seven empty.
She would do anything for the world where her baby brother lived, even if it meant annihilating an entire planet.
Kirie had wondered what the point of fighting was. What right did he have to eliminate other worlds? What made their world so superior? He couldn't fight for a world that led his mother to suicide. But when his mother finally found a job thanks to the guy who hung around Ushiro's place, his mother was now like an entirely different person. She was so vibrant, so happy. Sitting on top of his stool--a very ordinary stool from his room fit for an ordinary person like him--he found that he could bring himself to fight.
Fourteen chairs. Six filled. Eight empty.
Calmly, he fought.
Komo's chair was part of a set that went along with the dining table. She often sat on this chair, quietly eating dinner with her family. Her father was a man of few words while her mother had plenty of stories to share. Komo was somewhere in between. She rarely spoke up, but if prompted, she had plenty to talk about. This chair had accompanied her a long time. She was surprised that her chair had not been her piano bench. That was where she felt the most like herself. But the dining table chair was what connected her to her family.
Fourteen chairs. Five filled. Nine empty.
There were so few of them left.
Anko was frightened of her chair. The large green cushions and the footstool had been the love of her life--she often sunk into the chair, lazily flipping through channels on her television. When she laid eyes on her chair again after all those deaths, she held her head as she shook, her bracelets jingling as she screamed.
Fourteen chairs. Four filled. Ten empty.
She clung to Kanji's arms as long as she could.
Kanji's room was very bare. He had a computer in the corner of his dark room, and in front of that was his computer chair. That was the chair that had shown up for him in the cockpit. As the son of a wealthy scientist, he supposed he was just the bit geeky. When he saw the chair, all he could think of was how his mother never had time for him. All she gave him was money and material things. Even so, he still loved her.
Fourteen chairs. Three filled. Eleven empty.
He was going to protect her project for her.
She was surprised they had not found out earlier. If they had come over to where she was staying on their Earth, they would have discovered that her chair didn't even exist here. Machi's chair was from her own Earth, back in the days when she was still innocent from contracting all those people and leading them to their deaths. She remembered how grown up she had felt back then when she sat in this chair, almost like royalty. It had been her parent's chair, a special chair for entertaining guests.
Fourteen chairs. Two filled. Twelve empty.
She couldn't die on her own Earth, but at least she had this last remnant from her reality.
At first, he had hated the tiny school chair that had appeared for him. It reminded him over and over again how much he hated Kana and how displeased he was with his father, his father who cared more about his school than his children. Why couldn't he get away from his family even when bounded by a contract of death? But as his companions died one by one, as Dung Beetle told him the only way he could save himself was by sacrificing Kana, he could no longer ignore his protective feelings towards Kana, nor could he ignore the quiet pride he felt for having the school chair represent himself. His father was a great man. His father hadn't known how to express himself to his son, and Jun hadn't done any better in return. Even though Jun hadn't felt like part of the family, the school chair had appeared for him. It was a connection, a bond that had existed all along.
Fourteen chairs. One left. Thirteen empty.
He was alone. The others had left before him.
It was time to end this.
This collection of short fics was a daily endeavor last year for the month of August. I only managed to write these themes everyday up to August 15, and then I stopped. I didn't manage to finish the next 16 themes for the month, but I hope to one day delve into the minds of characters I've missed, such as the families of Nakama and Anko, and also to play around with the heartbreaking new canon that wasn't around when I wrote these. Ushiro's dad for one, is someone I want to write. So you might still see more to this collection.
Chapter 16: day 16: evil is a good condition
Maki's parents and her little brother Kazuki after the visit. Manga canon.
"For my brother's future, for my dad and mom, I can be a terrible person."
After the boy and the girl left, he stood silently next to his wife with Kazuki in his arms. His son had finally fallen into a peaceful sleep after his vigorous bout of crying. His wife, however, was still watching the dark streets the two, brave young children had taken.
"I hope they share what they're going through with their parents," she murmured. She didn't have to mention that she wished Maki had done that with them. He already knew because he wished the very same thing. Their daughter had to go through so much, yet he had been living in blissful ignorance the entire time. He didn't want his fake happiness or his meaningless toys. He wanted his family, his complete family of four. He wanted to be able to turn back time so he could be there for their precious daughter, to tell her that she didn't have to shoulder something like this alone. Weren't they family?
He felt the tears coming down again.
"Oh dear, you're making me cry again too," his wife whispered, her voice shaking. She sniffled but continued speaking. "Those children were so very strong, weren't they? I'm glad they came. Otherwise I'd have never known..." she trailed off. Speaking had become too difficult.
The boy and the girl, Ushiro and Machi, he reminded himself, had come to share anecdotes about Maki. Neither of them had known Maki for very long, but he was thankful she had friends like these. He had only ever heard her talk about her kind and graceful friend Komoda. He felt his heart constrict when he realized...that girl was gone just like Maki. Somewhere, another family was grieving.
His wife buried her face in her hands. She could no longer stop the tears. "Maki was so very strong too. She's not...a murderer."
As if he had heard his parents' muffled tears, Kazuki woke up, wailing. Kazuki's tears were loud and unrestrained, giving him an outlet he didn't know he needed. He wailed right alongside his son, the racket loud enough to wake up his neighbors. His wife joined in, the three of them huddled closely outside their home that their little girl would never ever set foot in again.
When their wails turned into sniffles and hiccups, he began rocking his little boy.
He managed a shaky smile. He had finally found his voice.
"Thanks, Kazuki. I needed that."
Chapter 17: day 17: stop whispering, start shouting
Waku's parents and a house that is too silent.
"When all of us first met each other on that nature study, Waku was the loudest...he was also the one who stood out the most."
A house without Takashi was a house that was far too silent. Takashi had been a loud and boisterous boy, entirely unlike his studious father, or so the boy had thought. He never knew that his father had been even more rambunctious when he was a young boy. Takashi's father had dreams of becoming a soccer pro, of conquering the world with his friend who was even more of a soccer maniac than him, but his dreams were dreams that faded with the passage of time, that couldn't win against practicality. Takashi had almost succumbed to the same mentality of monotony, but Zearth had reignited his passion only to extinguish it in the very next moment.
A house without Takashi was a house that was far too lifeless. His room remained the same, untouched, and entirely too organized. After Takashi left for the nature study, his mother cleaned his room for him, thinking he'd be right back to mess it up again. With the futon in the closet, his books in their rightful place, and his favorite soccer ball stashed away, there was nothing that hinted that Takashi had ever lived there. With Takashi's vibrancy gone, everything else paled in comparison.
Although the house was without Takashi, one after another, his friends came to the lifeless house to pay their respects, for Takashi had been a boy who was well loved by his friends. Each and every visit weighed heavily on Takashi's parents, but they yearned for every tidbit that could liven up the house. The girls came in groups, more often than not breaking down into a weeping mob once one of them couldn't hold back. Grief led to more grief. Tears led to more tears. Takashi's parents wondered if the crying were any better than the silence. They sat quietly, waiting for the children who loved their Takashi to work it out of their system. The boys came alone or in pairs. More than one boy had been waiting for Takashi to return to soccer. One boy had even broken down in front of them, claiming that he and Takashi had planned to go watch the next soccer game together. The tickets had been hard to acquire. Before that boy left, he shoved the tickets to Takashi's parents, hoping they could go in his stead.
Even those visits that tricked Takashi's parents into thinking that Takashi still lived on--how could he not when his friends remembered him so dearly and clearly?--gradually trickled into nothing. Suffocating silence enveloped them.
Then came the phone calls after the news came out.
Nonstop, day and night, the phone rang until it made no difference whether or not it rang. It sounded all the same to Takashi's parents. Takashi's father stopped going to work. He couldn't, not when he'd get ambushed. Their days of silence had ended, but the resulting noise was far from welcome. The noise was the kind that made them forget their son's liveliness.
In this house without Takashi, his parents almost lost hope. The withered plant outside the house was but a small indicator of the lackluster house. But then came the visit from the girl and the boy, the last two who were going through the same experience Takashi had gone through. Takashi's father gratefully shared stories about Takashi with them, pouring over photos and videos of Takashi. Takashi's mother eagerly pulled out the futons for them, relieved that the house would finally be lived in. The girl and the boy, so different from the previous visitors, solemnly shared Takashi's last moments with them.
Watching them leave was like watching Takashi leave all over again. Their peaceful expressions were a lie, their easy gait a deception.
Their visit reminded Takashi's parents that a house without Takashi was a house that was far too suffocating. Takashi's parents took the soccer tickets given to them and went to the game to escape the house. But escape from one prison only landed them in another.
Watching the players only made Takashi's father realize that he had rarely gone to games like these with Takashi. He had always been buried in work. Whenever he did have time, he never considered Takashi's desires and instead made Takashi go to baseball games with him. Watching the players only made Takashi's mother realize that she didn't know a thing about the soccer that Takashi loved so much. She hadn't even been able to enjoy it with him, and now she never would.
However, when Takashi's favorite team scored, both of his parents stood up and yelled at the top of their lungs with the other fans. None of those fans knew their grief, but they yelled because Takashi could no longer do so.
Chapter 18: day 18: centuries before I come to where you are
Kokopelli. His battle.
"You kids, want to play a game?
When Garaku opened his eyes, he was greeted by endless blue. The ocean and the sky had melted into one gradual entity, a grand painting that would have been beautiful to anyone's eyes but his. He could hear the sound of waves and the occasional call of birds, common sounds of the beach. They meant nothing to him either.
This was a peaceful world, but it wasn't his.
"Ah, ah," he murmured and turned his back on the breathtaking sight. "Living here is impossible after all, isn't it?"
The white creature that floated next to him snorted.
"Damn right. You're here for a reason."
It was a strange feeling walking along the shoreline of this world that wasn't his when the warm sand beneath his feet seemed to tell a different tale. In all the away battles he had been part of, he had remained in the cockpit with the other pilots. Sightseeing had never ever crossed his mind. He doubted any of the others had been all that curious about the enemy worlds with their lives at stake. They had been too busy fighting each other to notice just how fascinating and terrifying these alternative worlds were in their similarity.
Sightseeing wasn't his intention now either. He had one more job he had to do before he could rest. He touched the scar on his cheek and began to plan.
He pretended he didn't know the girl who was to be the pilot after him. He didn't know whether to think of Machi as fortunate or cursed. They were comrades and partners in crime, heroes of a world that would soon forget these people who weren't even on her soil. He would soon be claimed by eternal sleep that would free him from the guilt of leading these fourteen children into a mad game, powerless as he was to stop it. She, on the other hand, was going to have to endure the battles all over again from the beginning. Would she survive yet again this time around? Or would she end up caring too much about this world that wasn't theirs?
Those she had assembled were all merely children, but the fate of their world now depended on them. Perhaps he ought to be sympathetic, but his heart had long turned cold. Otherwise, he wouldn't have been able to survive until now.
This last battle, his battle, their first, was one with no room for mourning. The others had gone ahead of him. They weren't waiting for him, but it was his time to join them. He wasn't a kind man, but he would instruct these children as best as he could because he was a professor at heart and could not bear not imparting knowledge, not when this knowledge was so crucial to their survival. This would be his only act of kindness for them.
Mercilessly, he tore into the inexperienced enemy that didn't know they were merely being used in a tutorial. He wasn't going to let his solitary light be extinguished in such a place. He would win no matter how many lives he ended this day.
When he finally crushed the enemy cockpit, he felt no joy. The children gasped in awe behind him, but he paid them no heed. Instead, he spared a glance at the empty chairs that floated around him, chairs that had belonged to cowards and opportunists, all dead or insane save for the girl and her detestable brother. But no matter how ugly the owners of the chairs had behaved, he remembered each and every one of them and how those that had stayed had ultimately fought for their world.
With this last battle, their saga had come to an end. With his duty completed, he could now rest. The battles would still continue, the cycles repeating over and over from one world to the next, but they no longer concerned him.
They no longer concerned him, but he was still sorry.
Chapter 19: day 19: bang, bang, blame
Ushiro and Dung Beetle after Machi's demise. Manga canon.
"Ushiro, I really like you."
It happened in a flash. The park hadn't been all that welcoming in the first place, but it had held a quiet tranquility undisturbed by real life matters. Alone in the sandbox, Katari's younger brother Souji had been giving the sand several good whacks to pack it down hard while Machi had been near the bench, teasing Ushiro until his face turned red. Her smile had been carefree.
In the next moment, Machi was already sprawled in the sandbox that Souji had been playing in, a pool of blood seeping into the sand around her head. Ushiro was petrified, unable to move even when he was shot at next. Things happened too quickly. Dung Beetle yelled at him, but that was it.
He was then left behind in the empty park where Machi had been laughing with him only a moment before...but the memory of her confession would forever be dirtied just like the stained grains of sand before him.
At the hospital, Dung Beetle blamed no one but himself. The moment right after had been the only time Dung Beetle yelled at Ushiro over Machi. Dung Beetle didn't hesitate. Even if he felt any anguish or frustration, it would never show on his face. He did what had to be done. His expression remained unchanged, stagnant, wide grin forever frozen on his face. But although his expression didn't show it, his fury was evident in how he had immediately vanished the culprit without a second thought.
Ushiro had been prepared to see Machi go just like those before him, just like how he would soon leave as well, but her light had been snuffed out before her time, leaving behind yet another incomplete thread. He hadn't responded to her last words, didn't know how he would have responded had she lived. They had failed to end this with just the fifteen of them. All he knew now was that he was the only one left. He and Dung Beetle, the heartless bastards. It was a laughable thought.
Out of the fifteen, Ushiro knew he was the most insensitive one, yet so many people had been stupid enough to care about him. If it weren't for him, Kana wouldn't have gotten involved. His long lost mother probably wouldn't have decided to keep such a close eye on them, only to end up dying in a foreign world. Kanji had been too deeply involved even without his influence, but Kanji had been stupid enough to worry about him when Kanji's life had been the one in jeopardy. Machi, stupid Machi for falling in love with him, had come to care too much about this world when it wasn't even hers. He knew he wasn't the entire reason, but had he chosen to turn his back on the fight, would she have made the same decision? He also knew, however, that he would have picked this path even if he knew this would be the result. He was just as deeply involved as everyone else, fettered by bonds that he could have lived without. In reality, had they not existed, he would have survived.
Those stupid people who made even him care too much were all gone now. There was only Dung Beetle left, and he was a horrible conversationalist who only knew how to fling insults and never said anything useful. But Dung Beetle, as cruel as he was, was probably thinking that he had led his own sister to her death.
In that sense, Ushiro and Dung Beetle were truly the same. Machi hadn't been far off the mark.
Afterward, when there was no more to be said between them, Dung Beetle sent Ushiro home. They were short one pilot with Machi's sudden death, but Dung Beetle claimed he would handle it. Ushiro thought that Dung Beetle was probably going to be just as stupid as him, but there was nothing more Ushiro could do.
When Ushiro set foot inside his house, his father was there to greet him. His father had never accused him of leading Kana to her death. Dung Beetle didn't blame Ushiro for Machi's death either. No one blamed him.
"Jun," his father said, as if he had been waiting for his son all this time. Perhaps that was even the truth.
Ushiro, however, said not one word to his father.
He wished someone would blame him.
Chapter 20: day 20: I am to be pitied, not to be sold
Tokosumi Akira searches for photos of his daughter. Manga canon.
"After being contacted by Ushiro, I organized pictures of my daughter. But when I did that, I realized I had very little."
Tokosumi Akira returned home even less after his daughter's death. There was news to be told, truth to be spread. Reason after reason kept him from returning to a home that had never felt like home and now felt even less like home. "Home" had never been more than a place where he closed his eyes and ignored the world for a few short moments, but even then, he had always been ready to rush out of the house. He just wasn't someone who could stop doing his job.
When he ran out of reasons, he found another right away. The world on a whole was confused. At times like these, newscasters like him were needed to mitigate the frenzy. He continued on like he had before Aiko's name had shown up on that list of fifteen kids because that was the only thing he knew how to do. Before that list surfaced, he hadn't even known she had gone somewhere during summer vacation. She never mentioned anything, and he had never been around for her to mention anything to him. If that list hadn't surfaced, if he hadn't been so devoted to reporting, he would not have been able to accompany Aiko in her last moments, and that frightened him more than anything. He was to blame for letting his job estrange him from his family, but it was also his job that had ultimately brought him to her in order to help in the minuscule way that he could.
It wasn't until Ushiro contacted him about contributing to the non-profit organization that Tokosumi Akira finally returned home and stayed.
When he stepped foot inside his home, he almost expected Aiko to look up blearily, rubbing her eyes while asking doubtfully, "Papa?" She'd be hugging a large pillow to herself, having fallen asleep while waiting for him to come back from yet another late shift. The lights and the television would both be on, electricity burning in her forgetfulness.
In reality, no such picture greeted him. Tokosumi flicked the lights on, bathing the room in stark white. He walked past the empty sofa and the blank television. His feet brought him to his daughter's room, the place where they kept all the photos because Aiko had asked for them. He laid one hand on the door, pausing and taking a slow, deep breath before he headed in.
Inside Aiko's room, he searched for her photos. He found them neatly tucked away in a small box in the second drawer of her table. He lifted the box out and sat himself down on her round stool to go through the contents of the box. He randomly drew out a photo, smiling when he saw that it was a photo of Aiko trying on a dress. The photo looked to be a self photo. He could see her arm on the right hand side of the photo. He picked another photo. This one was one of Aiko outdoors. Again, it was a self photo, since he could see part of her arm in it. As he went through more of the photos, his smile slowly disappeared.
Were these all self photos? Hadn't there been anyone to take photos for her?
When his hands came into contact with a photo album, the only photo album inside the box, he stilled. He lifted the album up. The outside of the album merely said, "My family".
His hands shook as he opened the photo album. The first photo was one of Aiko as a baby. Her mother was holding her, showing her off to the camera. He was actually the camera man for once. Several more baby photos followed after this one, with either his wife or him together in the photo with Aiko, but never the three of them together. The next photo was of Aiko starting elementary school. As he went through the album, he discovered that there were fewer and fewer photos the older Aiko grew. He could also count on one hand which of these photos were ones he took. When he got to the end of the photos, he closed his eyes, wishing he could ignore the world just by doing so, but that wasn't how things worked. He placed the album down, accidentally knocking into the microphone that had been on Aiko's table. The microphone clattered onto the floor.
On that next page, Aiko had written, "Reserved for a photo of me and my family!"
The photobook came out less than a week after the battles ended. The front cover featured Aiko in her battle outfit, sitting in the cockpit, facing forward with a determined expression. He included photos of her that detailed her life from birth to her last moments as Zearth's pilot. The photos were few in number, many of them school photos or photos taken by herself.
However, he thought his daughter was beautiful in all of them, and he knew she'd never be forgotten just like how she wanted it.
Chapter 21: day 21: these hands made of splinters
Komoda Tomoe tries his hand at the piano. Manga canon.
"Do you think, I might learn to play the piano with these hands? The hands that killed my daughter."
Once he quit the military, Komoda Tomoe and his wife didn't return to the charred remains of what was once their house. Although fire was never pleasant, the fire that had burned their house down had at least given them the option to start over in a place that wasn't plagued with memories. The only thing he retrieved from their previous residence was the piano that their daughter had ultimately loved.
The piano, surprisingly enough, had survived the fire intact. Scorch marks branded the two front legs, but the lopsidedness of the piano was easily fixed. He knew the wood of the rest of the piano must have been smoked and would not produce the same sound as before, but this was a piano he couldn't abandon. Although he wasn't a musician, he at least knew some carpentry, and he knew how to follow manuals. Fixing the piano would be no small feat, but it was something he wanted and needed to do.
His days became dedicated to fixing the piano. Day and night, he'd return to the piano for one more touch up like a man possessed, until finally, the piano was playable.
With sweaty hands, he positioned his fingers over the keys. He squinted at the music sheet in front of him in an attempt to figure out which note was which. Once he memorized the first line, he looked down at his fingers. Muttering the note under his breath, he pressed one of his fingers down and immediately let go. A loud, jerky sound resounded in the air. He wiped his forehead with one hand before returning to the daunting task of figuring out how to play the first line. His fingers felt like ungraceful stubs. They refused to move as he wanted them to even though he had been proud of his dexterity when he had been part of the military. Immersed as he was, he didn't hear his wife's approach.
"What are you doing?" came his wife's stilted voice from the doorway. Her presence was surprising. She had been avoiding this room with the piano even after her recovery.
He paused. The horrendous tune he had been stringing together seemed to linger in the air indefinitely.
"Learning how to play the piano," he answered.
"You sound horrible." Her voice was terse, disapproving. She hadn't wanted the piano in their new residence. Hearing it was even worse.
He continued his attempt to play. The notes made both of them wince. "I once told Takami that I would try learning if I ever quit the military." He hit another note that made him cringe, but he plowed on. "She asked me why I couldn't learn right away. I couldn't learn, not then, because I thought the piano would make me feel too gentle."
He stopped and looked at his wife, his eyes sad. "Now, I need some of that gentleness and peace in my life."
Inside of him, his equilibrium had been disrupted. No, it had been completely knocked over, unable to be restored. He was hanging off a cliff with a raging river below him, the roaring water deafening in his ears. His one hand that clung to life was the hand that had pulled the trigger on his daughter. He was upset, furious, powerless, disgusted with himself, a bundle of negative emotions. He wanted to be at peace with himself, not because he deserved it, but because his daughter would have wanted it that way. Through the piano, perhaps he'd be able to capture some of that tranquility that had helped his daughter face death with a smile.
The warm body next to him startled him out of his thoughts. His wife had taken a seat next to him. Although her lips were pursed, her eyes were wet.
"You're never going to learn by yourself like that. Let me show you how it should be done."
When his wife began playing, the tune infinitely better under her fingers, he finally let himself relax.
The piano was enjoyable. It was honest. It would help him remember Takami and her smile.
Chapter 22: day 22: behind closed doors
Ushiro's dad grieves. Manga canon.
"I'm sorry, for being such a bad kid even until the end."
How much hysteria can a person endure before his heart stops completely? Seeing Kana vanish before his eyes made his blood run cold. He would never ever forget how she stopped walking to apologize to him, the look on her face far too mature for someone her age. And then, she was gone just like that. His legs were like lead, but he forced them to move. He shouted her name in desperation, unwilling to believe his eyes, but his efforts were meaningless.
He was a bad father who couldn't take in more than one thing at a time. His capacity for thinking had abandoned him somewhere along the way, leaving him nothing but a jumbled mess of thoughts and what ifs. With his mind on Jun, he hadn't been able to comprehend the fact that Kana was in the contract. Now that she was covered in a white sheet in front of him, he couldn't think of anything else but how she had only been ten years old, and in those ten years, she had always been carrying the burden of his cowardice. Any other ten year old would have had a much more carefree life than the one she had led.
While he grieved, Jun joined the contract.
When he found out, his heart threatened to stop. He wanted to shout in denial. He wanted to scream that it wasn't Jun's fault. It was he who had failed as a father, who hadn't paid enough attention to his children. So why was it Jun who had to take the fall? If only he had stayed with Jun, would he have been able to prevent Jun from joining the contract?
His mind asked these what-ifs, but his heart knew that Jun would never have listened to him.
He didn't know how much a person's heart could take, but he knew that something inside of him had snapped. His heart was still beating painfully when it truly should have stopped. The short-lived relief he had felt when Jun returned home--panic had overtaken him when he woke up with Jun gone--had been immediately replaced by horror in the very next moment.
The light beyond the sliding door was bright. Jun had been the one to turn it on.
This just couldn't be happening.
But when he stumbled in his haste to cross the threshold, Jun was no longer there, Jun, who wasn't a bad kid, Jun, who probably hadn't even heard his father's sad attempt at bridging the gap that had come between them. The words had been left hanging in the air, never to be heard by the ears they had been meant for.
Was it better to have your child disappear before your very eyes, or was it better to have your child disappear out of sight, as if he were just beyond the door?
He smashed the telephone against the wall, the dial tone of the broken machine weeping pathetically in the night.
Think about it.
That had been his favorite phrase. He had always given passing thought to what life would be like for his children after his death--he hoped that Jun would have matured into a considerate young man by then and that Kana would have learned to shoulder less burden and that they'd be able to be there for each other, but he had never imagined what life would be like for him if either Kana or Jun left him. Now, there was no need for such a thought experiment anymore because a life without his children had become his reality.
He had to admit he would have let himself grieve until the day he died, forever shut away from the world, if not for his students who had come for him. They reminded him of all the lives that Kana and Jun had given their life to protect, all the possibilities in this world that were still waiting to happen.
He let the door to his heart open once again.
He buried Jun next to Kana who he had buried next to his wife. One day, he would like to be buried together with his family, but not now. Now, he still had a life to live.
When he returned to teaching, he continued to ask his students to think. The ability to think was, in itself, proof of a person's existence.
Think about it.
Think about all the possibilities waiting out there for you.
Chapter 23: day 23: understand my hate for you
Kanji's dad watches the Chutenro Tower come apart. Manga canon.
"That building is very dangerous. Don't you ever go inside it."
The man had been in the coffee shop for hours, nursing one cup of coffee that had turned lukewarm on him. He liked his coffee hot and scathing, not this wishy washy temperature that wasn't either extremity, but it was his fault for ignoring his coffee.
Instead of drinking his coffee, he had been lounging in his chair, casually watching the dismantling of the crooked tower that could be seen through the window next to him. The process of destroying the Chutenro Tower had gone on for several days already. He hadn't missed a single day. Even the waitresses had gotten used to his presence and had stopped pestering him for staying so long. It wasn't like they needed to turn him away. He was practically their only customer given the noise from the construction site that so many people couldn't stand. If things continued like this, the coffee shop would surely go out of business.
He leaned back and rested his arm on top of the chair next to him, smirk wide on his face as he watched the rubble fall. With the Chutenro Tower soon to be gone, this place was losing an important landmark. Business would have gone down regardless of the construction. It was too bad. The coffee here was actually acceptable as long as you drank it right away.
Watching the Chutenro Tower shatter into pieces was fascinating, almost as fascinating as building the tower itself had been. The tower had been a product of his imagination, the ultimate building that was the dream of any architect. He and his wife had been part of a team that had grand plans for the tower that should have revolutionized architecture, but instead, the tower became his wife's worst nightmare. The building, with their crazy, experimental designs, didn't past safety inspections. They somehow fudged past that, but she never stopped worrying.
She never stopped worrying until she finally couldn't stand it anymore.
She jumped. From that height, the fall must not have been quick.
Had she thought that would have made people reconsider the danger of the building?
Not a fat chance.
She had been too kind, too thoughtful, too considerate of others. What did safety matter in the face of revolution? The Chutenro Tower was dangerous. That was why it was beautiful. If not for the danger it presented, he wouldn't have loved the tower as much as his son hated it. It would have only been yet another typical building.
There was only a thin line between love and hatred, these two equally strong feelings. His son hated the building, yet he did everything he could to protect it. Chutenro Tower was supposed to be fragile. That was what had driven his wife mad, but even with the tremors the black monster created, just like an unrelenting artificial earthquake, the Chutenro Tower didn't collapse. Kanji really should have rammed that black monster into the tower a few times for good measure. He bet the tower would have stayed standing.
The Chutenro Tower wasn't that delicate. He had made sure of that. People just didn't think it possible.
Kanji resembled his mother a lot. He had been a sentimental fool who could have chosen anywhere else as his battlefield, but he just had to chose to be near this tower that he hated. Had he thought he'd understand his mother more this way? Had he also thought his death would make people reconsider the danger of the building?
Where his wife had failed, his son succeeded. Neither of them had consulted him or asked him for help.
The man in the coffee shop grabbed his coffee and chugged it down.
It was stale.
He waved one of the waitresses over. She was wearing, of all things, a gas mask in fear of all the possible toxic fumes from the construction. Really, people just didn't know how to appreciate the beauty of danger these days.
He tossed his money at her and left.
He'd be back again tomorrow.
Chapter 24: day 24: the turn of her heel, the nape of her neck
Miku thinks of her mother. Manga canon.
"I just think that if I couldn't make myself sign that contract, I wouldn't be the kind of mother my daughter could be proud of."
Mother was a fighter.
She was entirely unlike other mothers who dressed up fancily and applied thick layers of makeup just to set foot outside of the house. When other mothers wore revealing blouses with low necklines, her mother would wear shirts that demanded no nonsense. When other mothers smelled of strong perfume, her mother would smell of grass and earth and hard work. She could run like no other mother could even in her high heeled shoes. Miku knew her mother could walk as silently as a cat when she wished to, but she always made sure Miku knew of her return. Miku would always wait, listening for the unmistakable clicks of her mother's high heels.
The fact that Mother wasn't your ordinary mother should have caused Miku grief. People used to tease her about her mother's shortly cropped hair and her clothes that seemed much more suited for men. Parents gossiped about how Father was more like a housewife than Mother ever was. In some ways, it was true. Father was home much more than Mother. He was the one who prepared the meals and waited with her for Mother to return home.
The fact that Mother wasn't like any other mother did cause Miku grief, but it wasn't because of the teasing and the gossip. Mother's job was a dangerous one where she could die in duty at any moment. Miku knew that, but she found she didn't really know what that meant until it really happened.
Father wouldn't let her see Mother, but merely seeing Mother's forlorn pilot chair was enough for her to break down.
Through her tears, she noticed a boy who gazed at her with a lost expression.
Mother's funeral was a small one, but even though it was small, Miku didn't even know half of the people who came. There were people who knew Mother from the academy, people who knew her from the military, and people who knew Mother from before she had become Miku's mother. There were all these people who knew Mother outside of Miku's world.
Miku envied them.
Some patted her on the head and tried to console her, telling her about how great her mother had been while she was alive, how sad it was that she had to pass away. Miku didn't want to hear any of that. Their words were meaningless. Miku already knew all they were trying to tell her. Condolences like these wouldn't bring her mother back.
At home, she continued to eat dinner with Father just like before, as if they were merely waiting for Mother to come home. But no matter how long she waited, she never again heard the loud clicks of her mother's high heels coming up to their door, nor did she ever again see the reassuring image of Mother walking toward her in her casual shirts. Gone as well was the comforting scent Mother brought back from a hard day of work.
At school, her classmates had stopped teasing her. In the neighborhood, the parents' gossip had turned into pity.
Miku didn't want any of that. She would rather the teasing and gossiping continue.
Mother's death hadn't been in vain.
It took years for Miku to finally understand what her mother's death had meant and how that boy with the lost expression had fit in all of this. When realization struck, Miku was once again envious. She was envious of that boy who had known a side of her mother she had never been able to get close to, envious of the time he got to spend with her. She was envious, and at the same time, ashamed of herself.
Mother had been a fighter. That boy, her brother who she would never get to know, had been a fighter too.
Miku looked in the mirror.
What was she?
Without thinking, she grabbed the scissors next to her and snipped away at her hair.
As the locks fell, she felt lighter and lighter, like she could take on the world, this world that wanted to pity her when Miku didn't need any of that. She was Mother's daughter, and she could be a fighter too, a daughter that Mother would have been proud of.
Chapter 25: day 25: god lives underwater
"It". Manga canon.
"We were really just kids, protected by our parents and protected by society. There was no true sadness, true joy, true anger in our everyday lives. This we learned when the fifteen of us came together, yes, when we encountered IT."
It rose out of the depths of the sea, as if the sea were merely a shallow pool of water. They could only stare with dropped jaws and disbelieving eyes at what towered in front of them, at what would completely change their lives.
"It's got to be 500 meters tall..." breathed one of the children, yet they would be the ones to control it.
That was their first encounter with IT.
They started underwater, unseen but soon to make a debut that would never be forgotten. It was like a slumbering god, waiting and bidding its time in the darkness of the sea at night with only the eerie lights on its face illuminating the way.
They gave it a name.
With a tremendous splash large enough to drown villages, it surfaced from the sea under one boy's command.
"You want to see the toy?"
Under the sunlight, it sat motionless in the deep blue water, an empty shell without a pilot. They surrounded it with their ships and their helicopters. They took photos. They prodded and tested and examined. Its armor was invincible. Its weaponry was beyond imagination.
But without the children, it was merely a toy. The children were the life force of this power hungry organism. The children were the reason it could even move. In exchange for one moment of playing god, they must give their life.
Since she was going to die anyway, why couldn't she destroy those she wanted dead?
With one swift motion, she used it to blast through an entire row of buildings, exterminating the men that had wronged her, killing them as easily as if they were insects.
The others cringed and shouted at her to stop while one boy realized he was foolish for entertaining thoughts of using it to eliminate his sick friend.
It wasn't meant to be used like this.
They understood little about it, but they learned with each battle. It was adaptable. If needed, they could detach an arm or a leg. They could even remove plates of its armor or shoot the cockpit out. Giving their life force gave them complete control over it in that short period of time.
As the pilot of it, she could see every soul on the planet. Piloting was a little like playing god with all the lives she held in her hand, but only three were important to her, and for them, she could eradicate the rest.
As the pilot of it, he could see every soul on the planet, but he didn't know any of those billions of souls out there. It had to be someone he knew. He had been granted unfathomable power, but in the end, this was all he could do.
It, after all, was only as strong as the pilot.
It was like a cruel god that gave them the power to fight but didn't shield them from the harshness of murder. He could only stare as he killed and killed and killed. The lasers extended out of its body like silk webs, but unlike the sticky webs of a spider, its lasers were sharp and deadly. He saw entire cities full of souls vanish in front of his eyes as he pierced them with its lasers.
He vomited, but it continued to do as he commanded even as he felt his own soul dying.
After all the lights on its face had dimmed, it stood motionless in the water, a hunk of metal without fuel to burn. However, it was an unforgiving entity that would continue on even after it consumed all those that had borrowed its power.
He placed his hand on the metal in front of him. He would be the last pilot of this damn toy that had been theirs for this turbulent year.
With that, it vanished from the sea so that the cycle could continue once again.
Chapter 26: day 26: you are all I know
The other Machi. Manga canon.
"I'll say one more thing now so you don't start having any funny thoughts once you start fighting. Having something like "another self" existing in a parallel world almost never happens."
An alternative self almost never happened, yet she existed as a special case. She just didn't know about it.
Machi's dad was reeking of booze when she got home. She was appalled and quickly got him to sober up, because really, who drank so much in the middle of the day? Her dad was such a hopeless case. Beer bottles and empty wrappers littered their tatami floor when Machi clearly remembered she had left the place spotless right before she left. She didn't know what in the world her dad had been doing to make such a mess in such a short time.
She sighed at his hopelessness but got him to help her clean. Equipped with a garbage bag each, they started picking up the trash that had accumulated.
Moving around helped her warm up. She had been freezing while she made her way home, but she didn't get why it was so cold in the summer. A glance at her dad, however, showed that he was bundled up just as much as that strange boy had been at the beach. She frowned but continued to pick up the empty bottles. When she bent down again, she accidentally bumped into the television behind her, toppling the small calendar they had perched on top of it.
When she picked the calendar up, she tilted her head at all the crossed out dates. Something wasn't adding up.
"I'm so glad you're back, Yoko," sniffed her dad.
"Huh? What do you mean?" she asked as she placed the calendar back in its place. Her dad had been acting funny, but she thought it was just because he was drunk. Now that he was slightly more sober, his words still didn't make sense.
His next words were even more confusing.
He told her that she had been missing for days, but that wasn't what shocked her the most. When he started rambling about how she had been caught up with some kind of alien invasion, she felt like she was going to faint.
"Dad," Machi said, stopping him in the middle of his ramble. "You're...not going senile, are you?"
Alien invasions? Piloting a giant robot? Her dad really must've gone round the bend this time.
Okay, maybe she had been quick to judge, but it wasn't her fault her dad had sounded crazy. When he realized she didn't believe a word he said, he even found recordings of the shocking news that had overtaken the nation for the past few months. The black robot looked fake, but the death toll was very real.
It was all so bizarre.
"I don't remember a single thing," Machi said in confusion. "Yet you're trying to tell me that I'm one of the pilots?"
Her dad stared at her and grabbed her shoulders.
"Machi, have you lost your memory?"
"Eh?" she squeaked.
Machi really didn't know. If she had lost her memory, that would explain the lost months and how what she remembered didn't add up with what others like her dad or her classmates remembered. As she contemplated this, she pulled on a jacket and rubbed her arms. She remembered it being summer, but it clearly wasn't summer anymore.
Even though she didn't understand what was going on, she wasn't all that curious. She was somewhat baffled, but she'd live. She had her family. Her dad was a little spooked but otherwise healthy. She was perfectly fine too, not at all affected by whatever those alien invasions had been. After all, she didn't even remember a single thing about them. Except for those lost months, she'd be able to go on living just like before.
As support for victims of this event that she didn't remember but was supposed to have been part of, her dad donated money to charities whenever he could. He was thankful that she had come out unharmed. He even bought a photobook that showcased one of the pilots, a pretty blonde who looked around the same age as her. In that photobook, Machi saw a picture of...herself next to the blonde.
The girls in the photo were wearing some weird outfit. Cosplay? But what was freakier was how the girl next to the blonde looked just like Machi, only with longer hair.
Had her dad been telling the truth all along? Had she really lost her memory?
The next photo, however, showed the girl with a burn on her cheek. Machi touched her own, unblemished face.
That girl wasn't her.
Who was she?
Machi blinked and closed the photobook. She didn't need to know. Maybe she was naive for thinking this way, but whatever had happened didn't concern her. If anyone thought otherwise, the only way she could reply was that she didn't know a thing about what they were talking about.
That was all she knew...the fact that she didn't know.
Chapter 27: day 27: slightly out of character
The Honda family tries to remember.
"Why is all of my family so retarded?"
At work, Honda Senichi discovered he couldn't concentrate. He couldn't stop thinking about his daughter and the destruction she had caused. He kept wondering when Chizu had stopped voicing her opinions like she used to. Whenever he tried to recall his daughter's image, he could only remember her somber and dismissive attitude that she had recently adopted. That feisty and outgoing girl he had known had disappeared somewhere along the way. She had always thought he was way too optimistic for his own good, but with recent happenings, even he had a hard time retaining his optimism.
Senichi almost fell flat on his face with the sudden voice. He turned around hastily.
"Yes?" he asked his coworker.
"Honda-san, it's not like you to be so absentminded in the middle of work. There's a call for you from China."
He hurriedly apologized, but his coworker brushed his apology off with a small smile. While he took the call, Senichi's eyes wandered around the oddly empty office. Cubicles here and there were all unoccupied, but he hadn't noticed in his absentmindedness. Now however, the emptiness was alarming. After he hung up, he waved one of his other coworkers over.
"Where's your team?" he asked while gesturing at the empty cubicles.
The other man sighed. "At a funeral. A mutual friend of theirs was killed in that attack."
Senichi felt his blood run cold. He slammed his fist on his desk. Papers scattered around him.
He covered his face with one hand and raised his other to pacify his worried coworker. He knew the destruction was bad. He hadn't been ignoring it. But this, this made everything all the more urgent. Thinking about all the precious lives that had been cut short by his daughter made him feel nauseous.
He couldn't stay here. He needed to do something to help.
At home, Honda Ichiko discovered she couldn't concentrate. She couldn't stop thinking about her sister and how she had mentioned that she bore Hatagai's child inside her womb. Her sister was so young, yet she already carried such a burden. Chizu hadn't given any signs of her pregnancy at home, but then, Chizu had long since stopped coming to her for advice. Whenever Ichiko tried to recall her sister's image, she could only remember Chizu's impassive face as she declared her intent to kill Hatagai. That spoiled and playful sister of hers she had known had become a stranger to her somewhere along the way. Chizu had always thought that Ichiko was too kind for her own good, but Chizu's distressed expression right before she disappeared made Ichiko think perhaps her kindness was mere hypocrisy.
Ichiko hastily retracted her hand. The soup she had been cooking now smelled burnt.
She turned the stove off as quickly as she could and gave the soup a few more stirs in hopes that it could be salvaged, but her hand probably needed more attention than the soup. She was spacing out far too much to be cooking in the kitchen. She walked over to the sink and let the cool water run over her burn.
While Ichiko stood in front of the sink, her thoughts wandered to her sister once again. A baby. Hatagai. Murder. None of these should have been associated with Chizu, but the truth dictated otherwise. She had stopped Chizu from killing Hatagai, and while she knew that was the right thing to do, a small part of her had wondered if she had the right to take the high ground and deny her sister the easy way out. In that moment when anguish had overtaken Chizu's face, scream bursting to tear out of her throat, Ichiko wavered in her beliefs.
Now, thinking of Hatagai simply made Ichiko feel sick, both because he had led Chizu down the path of becoming a murderer and because she still loved him despite all that had happened. But no matter how much blame she put on Hatagai--it simply wasn't like her to blame others--or how much blame she put on herself, she couldn't deny the fact that Chizu was a murderer. That made her feel even worse.
There must be something she could do to alleviate the damage her sister had caused.
At the supermarket, the last Honda discovered that she couldn't concentrate either. She couldn't stop thinking about how her daughter had vanished without a word, leaving behind a trail of destruction as her parting gift. She kept wondering if Chizu had shown any signs of violence. Whenever she tried to recall her daughter's image, she could only remember Chizu's small, withdrawn figure. Chizu had once seemed larger than life, bearing enough vivacity for the three of them, but as she grew older, she had lost that somewhere along the way. She didn't understand, however, how someone so small could wreak so much havoc. Chizu had always thought that her mother was too forgiving for her own good, but now that Chizu was the one behind all the deaths in the neighborhood, she didn't know if she could bring herself to forgive her daughter for such an ugly deed without breaking down.
Even so, she dearly wanted to forgive her daughter.
When all three of them gathered together that evening, Senichi announced that he had quit his job. He was going to start a non-profit organization for all the victims of the attacks. While doing such a thing wouldn't erase what Chizu had done, each of them had their own reasons for supporting his decision.
None of them wanted to forget the goodness of humanity despite their wavering belief.
After all, Chizu had thought them to be fools. She was right.
Chapter 28: day 28: this conversation never happened
A conversation between Anko and Komo's dad. Manga canon.
"I'm aware that it was a breach of confidentiality. So was he."
"Thank you for agreeing to meet me. I'm sorry for intruding on your privacy."
"...it's the least I can do for another parent in the same situation."
"Nonetheless, thank you."
"Ah, yes, please."
"I understand from your phone call that your daughter is the current pilot."
"Yes, exactly. That's why I'm here. She has been very upfront with me with the situation, but there's one crucial thing that she hasn't told me about."
"She won't...or maybe she can't tell me."
"So that's why you came to me."
"Yes, although I haven't been a very good father...I need to know what my daughter is facing."
"She most likely wants to protect you."
"What father needs to be protected in such a way? I don't need to be protected. Not when my daughter is out there risking her life."
"...as a father, I understand. If only it could have been me out there instead of Takami...I would have done anything to take her place."
"Do you mind if I ask you what happened after your daughter piloted Zearth? What exactly happens to the kids who pilot Zearth? I have guesses, but they are too morbid to consider..."
"I'm afraid whatever I say won't be any easier to accept."
"Whatever the truth is, I'm ready to face it."
"This is confidential information."
"I'm...here as a father. Not as a reporter. So, please."
"I know. Otherwise we wouldn't be here. You have a right to know."
"My daughter, as you have seen on television, was a pilot of Zearth. She confided in me about what was happening. That was when the military got involved, but we could provide little support during battles. We could only help with evacuations and provide...moral support. That was what they needed the most. The rest was up to the children."
"Aiko described some of what happened to me."
"I see. It's good that she did. I'm glad Takami confided in me. I cannot imagine not knowing."
"Right, she didn't tell you everything. About what happens after."
"What exactly happens?"
"There's no easy way to say this but...piloting Zearth requires the pilot to spend their life."
"After each battle, the pilot...dies."
"I was there as each pilot fell..."
"No...but your daughter..."
"She's gone as well. She was gone the moment the fight ended...when I pulled the trigger on the enemy pilot. Afterward...I held her...cold body in my arms."
"I...see. I see. How horrible...my daughter, Aiko...she too..."
"Please stay by her side."
"What can I do for her?"
"Truthfully, very little...but that girl must want you by her side. She needs your support. Stay strong for her. You are her anchor."
"I don't know anymore. It's hard to think. But...it seems...I must continue reporting. I can't run away, not when I know how brave my daughter has been. That is the only thing I can do for her. For them. Thank you, thank you for telling me. I'm sorry...very sorry for dredging up what you must not want to remember. Are you...all right?"
Chapter 29: day 29: the aftertaste is gonna break your heart
Nakarai Miko in the hospital. Manga canon.
"Excuse me but, could you please leave me alone? If I, If I just didn't let her go out that day..."
Her friends and admirers came to visit her all the time, but she turned them away each time. She could hear their whispers and worries, but no matter what they said, they couldn't stop her from feeling disconnected with the world after her injury kept her immobile. She had never wanted to be tied down by marriage, but that didn't mean she hadn't wanted to be a mother. She loved Mako more than anything in the world.
"Mako..." she'd murmur over and over like a mantra when no one was around to hear. "Mako..."
The hospital forced her to eat, but the food was always bland. Tasteless. It made her gag.
They forced her to take medicine, bitter medicine that made her shiver, but she'd close her eyes and drink it all even though it tasted like poison. The taste would linger on her tongue for what felt like hours. No amount of water could get rid of it. Perhaps it was precisely that horrid aftertaste that allowed her to drink it. She didn't deserve any better.
Trips to the bathroom were painful, more effort than it was worth when her legs wouldn't support her. Seeing herself in the mirror with sunken cheeks and pale lips wasn't a surprise anymore. That was her in a nutshell, a faded version of the pretty and confident woman she used to be. She had given up. This was who she was underneath all her bravado. She had never needed a man. She had only ever needed Mako, but now she was no longer with her.
She would have continued living in this nonliving way, turning away all those that cared for her, had Mako's friends not visited. When they spoke, tears rolled down her face. For once, what she tasted wasn't bland or bitter. It was salty. The tears that rolled down her face as she thought of her daughter and what she must think of her mother for wasting away like this were salty.
She began to eat without being forced to. The food was still bland. Tasteless. But it didn't make her gag anymore.
She began to take her medicine without being forced to. The medicine was just as bitter as always, but she didn't think of it as poison. It was necessary for her recovery, just as necessary as her physical therapy sessions.
She felt, perhaps, what she had been tasting all along was the taste of regret. Blandness for her ignorance. Bitterness for her ineptitude.
Her friends and admirers never stopped visiting her, but now she let them in.
"Miko, won't you marry me?" asked one of her more charismatic suitors who most likely thought she was weak and in need of a man's support.
She shook her head with a smile that was reminiscent of her old smile.
That was how everyone knew Miko would be fine.
Chapter 30: day 30: beLIEve
Futaba, Souji, and lies. Manga canon.
"I wonder if having faith in a lie is a good or bad thing?"
Sometimes, lies were stronger than the truth. Lies, when fueled by belief, could grow and grow until the lie became the truth and the truth could no longer be separated from the lie.
Years after the Zearth incident, Futaba continued to believe that her older brother Daichi would be back. After all, their father had returned miraculously, so there was no reason why Daichi wouldn't return to them in the same fashion. Futaba, now the same age as Daichi had been when he had disappeared, worried about whether or not she'd be able to recognize her brother once he showed up again. She kept the same hairstyle and continued wearing clothes that looked like the clothes she wore in the past so that he would be able to recognize her.
She believed that somewhere in the world, Daichi must be looking at the same sky as she was. The strength of her belief was what allowed her to live with a smile. Everyday, her father would look at her and wonder if she were now old enough to accept the truth, but every time he saw her brilliant smile, he'd tuck away the truth and let the lie continue. He didn't like how she remained tied to the past with her choice to keep the same appearance--she needed to learn to let go--but he didn't want her smile to disappear either.
He knew, however, that he had let the lie continue too long when Futaba received a letter addressed to her. From Daichi. Someone had thought it amusing to write such a letter. He'd given that someone a good yelling, but it was too late. Futaba believed the lie even more, and he was a fool for sitting down and writing a second letter just to watch her smile blossom.
Like Futaba, Souji continued to believe. Souji continued to believe that his older brother Junji had been a pilot of Zearth. He would have bragged if that female pilot hadn't been shot in front of his eyes, traumatizing him and keeping him quiet. Still, when people asked, Souji couldn't not be proud. His brother had been a hero who risked his life to protect the earth.
He continued believing the lie, and thus was able to live a peaceful life with his parents. They were a family tied together by the lie Junji had spun. If not for that lie, the family would have separated long ago.
The lie restored Souji's faith in his brother, which led him to have faith in his parents once again. He was even inspired to become a pilot himself, though not a pilot of giant robots. He still had a long ways to go before that dream could come true. His parents never dared reveal the truth. They knew that doing so would only reveal that they had been liars all these years, and they couldn't bear to destroy their boy's dream that was based on a lie.
Futaba believed. Souji believed. Who could take away their right to believe?
Chapter 31: day 31: forget whatever I said
Ushiro. Machi. Ours. Manga canon.
"What's so wrong about saying 'boku?'"
It was embarrassing getting caught trying to be polite. He never watched his words, but this time was different. This was the last stretch of their shared journey, their last obligation to everyone who had been involved. In front of all those left behind by the pilots that had gone before them, Ushiro felt himself becoming someone new. He was calm and accepting, cordial and forthcoming. This was who he was now, yet at the same time, it wasn't. He could feel Waku speaking through him with his optimism, Kanji with his acceptance, and Kana with her determination. He and Machi were the link for their voices to be heard. In front of the parents, the siblings, and the friends that had been left behind, Ushiro wasn't Ushiro.
He was all of them.
Of course, that didn't mean he wasn't embarrassed for acting in such a way that was completely out of character for him. He bet very few of them would have believed him capable of acting this way. Nakama, as kind as she had been, had thought him a monster for hitting Kana. Daichi, who had valued his family over everything else, had been outwardly disgusted with him. Maki, who had thought he had the safety of being related by blood, had worried that he wouldn't fight seriously. There was a large gap between who he had been and who he was now, because now, now he was just as involved...out of his own volition.
She thought it was cute how he had chosen to use "boku". Machi's time on this earth had been short, but she had never felt more alive than in these few months she had spent with everyone. She had watched in horror as Chizu stabbed Kako without batting an eye, as anxiety and confusion crept upon them, as their chairs emptied one by one all because of her.
She, as promised, was going to take responsibility.
Machi hoped that they had thought of her as part of them because although there had been times when things looked bleak, there had also been times when she had truly enjoyed herself. Walking by Ushiro's side was one such moment. She was glad he was with her, or else she wouldn't have been able to confront all those left behind by her misdeeds.
She hadn't thought she'd come to love this earth, that she'd think of this place as hers. Theirs. This blue sky, this miraculous world, this unexplainable struggle to live was all theirs. Zearth. The battles. The times they shared.
She cherished them all.