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jamais vu, n.: The illusion or impression of never having experienced something that has actually been experienced many times before (cf. deja vu)

"You're listening to 81.4, JSPR. This is Tsuchiya Ruka with Shadows of the Underground. In the last hour, we've heard The Cure, Siouxie and the Banshees, and Radiohead; coming up we've got, unless I change my mind, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Bush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Concrete Blonde. Keep that email coming; you know how much I like to hear from all of you. Now I'd like to play you one of my favorite songs; here's Soul Coughing, with 'Sleepless'."

The drums of the track came up behind his voice, rumbling into the guitar and the vocals, as he took his headphones off and rested them on the control board. The station was deserted; he didn't need an engineer, and no one else really felt like being at the station in the middle of the night. He didn't mind. He liked it that way. So he thought.

He could hear the lead singer chanting the lyrics to the song on the speakers as he checked out the readouts. Four minutes and thirty seconds to go and pick up a cup of coffee; no problem. He'd done it a thousand times before. Miki had translated the lyrics to this song for him at some point; Ruka didn't speak enough English to know what it said, but he remembered Miki's soft words and matched them to the sound of the track.

"I got the will to drive myself sleepless. I got the will to drive myself sleepless. So much time is cashed. So much smoke is wasted. Sudden disappearance in the air is thick and cool. I can't approach myself skidding over this perdition and now I'm out on the veranda when I should have gone to school."

Yeah. Sleepless. Every now and then, he wondered if it had all been a dream, if everything he remembered had been a dream. If dying had been a dream. If it had been a dream, he almost wished he'd stayed asleep, some of the time. The coffee was hot and bitter and someone on the 10PM-2AM show had stolen all the sugar. It didn't matter. The coffee was real: the kind of real that burned your tongue and left it feeling numb and scalded for the next few hours. He didn't mind. He was used to it.

A hand ran through black hair that stood on end behind it, through hair that he remembered being blue. Nights like this ... He wasn't sure about nights like this. Nights like this it made him feel like there had been thousands of nights like this before, and like this was the first time he'd ever sat here, at the control panel with his cup of coffee, watching the phone lines dark and quiet and waiting to cue up the next song.

"Well I call for sleep, but sleep it won't come to me. Shuffling in the hallway, I can hear him on the stairs. I hear his lighter flicking. I hear the soft sigh of his inhale and the whole width of my intentions he exhales into the air. I got the will to drive myself sleepless."

It's been a year, said one half of his brain to the other; it's been a year since you were killed in the shadow world and woke up in the real world, it's been a year since they all followed you and set up shop in the real world without all the magic and the metaphor and the weirdness. It's been a year without that Ohtori, and that world doesn't seem real to you at all, but you died, and so you're going to have to remember it.

I don't know what you're talking about, said the other half of his brain, the half of his brain that had been created in the real world with real issues and real history.

"I got the will to drive myself sleepless."

This song made him twitch.

"I got the will to drive myself sleepless."

He reached for a cigarette and lit it, rested it on the side of an already-overflowing ashtray. "You shouldn't smoke," he could hear his housemate chiding him, "not with your condition." He ignored the voice. Again, two sets of conflicting memories warred within him; one, a life-destroying illness that hospitalized him early and often and kept him out of school, the other a simple nagging and persistent heart condition that slowed him down but could easily be managed with medicine and rest. Two sets of memories. He was used to it.

Besides, he hadn't had the illness in the other world until he'd become inconvenient for the plot. That much, he knew.

"Do I have to lecture you on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors on your heart? Directly on the heart muscle itself?" "No." "Just checking."

The track ended, and he hit the crossfade without bringing up his mike; this one he only vaguely knew the words to. Something about beds and burning. Sometimes he wished he knew a little more English.

"Out where the river broke, the bloodwood and the desert oak, holden wrecks and boiling diesels, steam in forty five degrees. The time has come to say fair's fair, to pay the rent, to pay our share."

He'd thought he was going mad, at first, with his memory playing tricks on him. He'd been close to deciding that he simply was mad, until he'd met one of the others, one of the ones who also remembered the shadow world. He wasn't sure how he'd known, what spark of vague recognition had passed between him and the man lying huddled on the side of the alley. He'd just known, had just picked up the other and brought him home. His housemate remembered; Ruka knew that much. They didn't talk about it, but it colored their entire interaction, just the simple knowledge that someone else remembered. It was easier, somehow, knowing that you weren't the only one keeping an entire universe in your head.

Even though that was where they'd come from. A universe in someone's head.

But no; he wasn't mad. These were the facts: he had not been born but created, in a world inside someone's head, rewritten and re-cast until he'd fit the role that the director needed him to play. He'd been one of the lead roles, until something had happened and he'd been taken off the board. And then he'd been brought back for a time, to serve as a foil -- no pun intended, he thought wryly -- to the ones who were the new main characters. It was that last appearance that he remembered most, that colored his "real" self the most strongly. And he'd managed, in that walk-on part, to hold on to a little bit of his previous self -- something, from what he gathered, that just didn't happen all that frequently. Maybe that had been why he'd seen what he was being used to do; maybe that was why he'd seen that he had to get himself out of there, by any means necessary.

"The time has come, a fact's a fact. It belongs to them, let's give it back. How can we dance when our earth is turning? How do we sleep while our beds are burning?"

Maybe that was why the director had written him out with finality that time, X-ing through his lines in indelible ink and leaving the memories in everyone else's mind.

Ruka understood the rules, he thought. Or at least as much as anyone could. Getting written out of the production was one thing; your character wasn't destroyed, just sent to some kind of cosmic holding area, where your very self could be recycled and re-used later if it became necessary. And in the meantime, the other actors didn't even remember you. If you were killed, if your death was written into the story, it became a measure of dramatic necessity.

Everyone knows that you can't mess with dramatic necessity.

And so, if you were killed -- as he had been, in a later draft -- if you were given a wasting disease with little time to live and worse if it had been made so that it had always been that way and anything that you thought you remembered was just smoke and mirrors and a figment of your imagination --

You woke up.

This song made him twitch too.

"That was Midnight Oil with "Beds Are Burning", here on Shadows of the Underground. I'm Tsuchiya Ruka, your host until Soryuu Akane comes in at 6AM. That means you're stuck with me, folks."

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, talking to the microphone was easier. People heard him; that much he knew. His spot was somehow, amazingly, the top-rated show in his time slot, despite the fact that he played very little that you'd hear on any other Nihongo radio station. Apparently there were enough insomniac fans of American culture to keep his eclectic little enterprise on the air.

"Sometimes I wonder," he said, out loud, to his microphone, to the thousands of people listening to him, to no one in particular. "I wonder who it is who's out there listening to me. It kinda makes you feel as if you're not real, when you're sitting here in the DJ booth and your own voice is on the speakers coming back at you. I know you're out there, all of you. Sometimes you call in. Sometimes you email. Sometimes I meet someone on the street who knows who I am. But right about now, it feels like I'm the only one awake in the world.

"I'm used to the feeling, I guess. I've been doing this show for a year or so now, and every day it's a little bit different and a little bit of the same. I can't decide if every night keeps bleeding into the next, or if it's just that every night overshadows the last night and feels like the only night I've ever been here. It's different, here at three AM. It's almost like I'm creating this world, for myself, for all of us who are listening. I wonder if that's why you're all bothering to listen. Hell, it's got to be something."

Sometimes his listeners tuned in for the bits of philosophy in between the songs. His producers let him get away with a great deal, particularly since just about everything he did seemed to boost the ratings. Almost like people were listening to him for something that only he could give them.

"But right. The music. Which is supposedly the real reason why you're listening. I got this CD from someone I met in Tokyo a few months ago; an American serviceman stationed overseas for a few months who missed America terribly and thanked me for playing the kind of things he would have heard at home. This one goes out to all the ones like me out there who've ever felt like they were a little too far away from where they belonged. You all know who you are."

Touga had translated this one for him, when they'd all been lying around one evening and playing video games. Touga didn't remember anything -- mercifully, Ruka supposed; who would have wanted to remember being what Touga had been in the other world, the consummate puppet without even a will of his own? No, in the real world, Touga was just that -- real. A bit too real, in places -- real like a stereo with the gain turned up to max, real like a computer screen with the contrast turned up until it made your eyes squint and strain to follow along. But in its own strange way, that was comforting.

"There is nowhere left to hide, there is nothing to be done. No people to be saved, no pets we've never named, forty miles from the sun."

Touga didn't remember. Neither did Saionji, or Miki, or She, the one that he'd wished at the time he could take with him. Looking back at it, he was glad that he hadn't, that she'd made the transition herself after the duel named Revolution. It was kinder that way. Gentler. She didn't remember anything, didn't remember being tall and pale and aloof and riding an elevator that never seemed to go anywhere and dueling for a prize that no one ever needed to win, didn't remember anything except in dreams that could be easily dismissed as too much wasabi with dinner.

You remembered when you died. When the world around you died, you just went with it, and the only things you took with you were one or two of your own character traits, one or two of your own opposites, and a lingering resentment for the stars.

And you woke up. And you didn't remember anything, or anyone, except for a vague lingering hint that you should know someone, a vague hint that you knew each other at some point but never knew how, a vague familiarity and a sense that somehow, long ago, you both participated in the murder of something small and beautiful that left you feeling tiny and dirty and ashamed.

He was used to it.

"As darkness craves the mind, we come undone without our pride. No time on the earth to come, all the pleasures just begun, forty miles from the sun."

The phone rang. The call-in lines weren't open, which meant that it was someone he knew, someone who had the direct line to the station. It wasn't odd for the phone to ring, not really; most of his friends had the number, and two or three times a night one of them would check in. Sometimes when you were awake at 3AM you needed another voice to listen to, another voice that was talking directly and only to you. He checked the readout. Another two minutes left on this song. "JSPR. Tsuchiya."

"Feeling dark and melancholy tonight?" The voice was familiar; Ruka could picture the man standing out on his balcony, watching the stars, with the radio on softly in the background and the cordless phone held to his ear.

"Usually. What are you still doing up, Souji?"

"Listening to your show. You know, you play the most godawful selection of music."

"The listeners seem to like it."

"Yes, well." The man who answered now to Mikage Souji chuckled, softly. "I was listening to your philosophizing. Feeling like you're not real tonight?"

"Remembering." That was enough; that had always been enough. Souji remembered too. Ruka hadn't known him in the inner world, had never ridden his elevator or worn his black rose. But they'd known each other, when they met in the real world. It had been enough.

Mikage made a little soft noise, one that perhaps could have been sympathy. "Will you be all right?"

"I always am. I'm used to it."

"In our coats beneath the layers, wash my skin of all the hate. We should sleep late. Everything just kind of grates, forty miles from the sun."

"Play something a little bit less broody. It'll make you feel better. And, since I seem to be stuck awake, and yours is the best music on at this time of evening -- which isn't saying much -- it will make me less distressed."

Ruka had to laugh at that. "All right. Just for you. When this song is over."

"I need to lose to make it right. I'll confront the stars tonight I will babble, I will bite. You will never know how much you shine, 40 miles from the sun."

"Which," he continued, "is right about now. I have to run. Try not to stay up too late, Souji."

"I'll try. Try not to kill yourself with those noxious cigarettes you smoke."

The phone clicked.

"Forty miles from the sun..."

Mikage remembered. That alone made it all right.

"That was "Forty Miles from the Sun" by Bush. I'm Tsuchiya Ruka, this is JSPR, and you're listening to Shadows of the Underground. Seems like I'm gettting a little bit too morbid for some of you out there." He got up and wandered over to the CD racks; his headphones included a wireless microphone, one thing he'd insisted upon. He could do the show from the kitchen, if he needed to, or the bathroom, or the elevator. Except he never took the elevator. He, like so many of his fellow universe refugees, took the stairs.

"It's not really morbid, though. I guess. It's tough for me to explain. Did you ever wonder, any of you? Did you ever get the feeling like you should know something, like you should have some kind of information at your fingertips that you don't, that you don't ever remember. Like you've forgotten something that was terribly, horribly important."

Head turned sideways to scan the CD stacks, tossed together with a system of organization that only he knew. "I was talking to a friend of mine about that the other day. We agreed that there are times when you just do feel like you're not real, and it's something that -- at least for us -- is pretty common. I don't know if it's common for everyone else. Okay, you smartass out there in Kyoto, I can hear you thinking, 'Tsuchiya-san has been smoking just a little bit too much weed lately.' But I'm sober. It's just that sometimes 'sober' is a painful state to be in. Especially at this time of night, when there isn't much out there except what you remember and what you remember remembering."

He found the CD, brought it over to the console. "It's almost like "real" is a subjective state. Think about it; what evidence do we have that we are real? We've got two eyes, two ears, two hands; a nose, a mouth. Your eyes can be closed; your ears can be covered, your hands can be bound. Sometimes I think we all do walk through the world with our eyes shut and our hands behind our backs. We barely touch, and the only thing we have that can convince us that we're really here, that we're really us, is a shared hallucination of consensus as to the state of the universe. I've got a few friends out there who seem to live a little less in the real world than the rest of us do; sometimes I wonder if maybe, just maybe, they have it right after all."

He shook his head. Too much coffee. "But enough of that. Time for something a little more perky, just for the one of you out there who's standing on his balcony and telling me that my music taste sucks. Here's Men Without Hats with 'Pop Goes The World'."

Bright synthesizer music filled the studio. This one, he didn't know the words to at all; Mikage refused to listen to it, Touga claimed that the main singer mumbled, and Miki just listened to it and frowned about the American pop culture references he didn't know.

"Johnny played guitar, Jenny played bass. Name of the band is The Human Race. Everybody tell me have you heard? Pop goes the world."

Time for a stretch; the headphones hit the desk again, and he stood up, rocking his neck back and forth, feeling the vertebrae shifting loudly. He could imagine Mikage shaking his head at the music selection. The man listened to opera voluntarily, though; not much hope there.

Getting out of the shadow world wasn't easy. There were only a few ways to do it. You could die. Ruka knew that; knew it intimately. You could graduate -- or be graduated, really. That was what had happened to Mikage. He knew. He knew that Mikage had once been being groomed for the position of Victor of the Duels, as Ruka himself had once been the secretary of the Seitokai. They'd both been written into different parts.

A hundred pairs of shoes. An elevator that led down into the basement of a building that didn't exist. Black roses and empty desks. Ruka knew about all of them, just as he knew about the last duel, the last phone call.

Universe familiarity. Dramatic necessity.

"Johnny and Jenny had a crazy dream, see their pictures in a magazine. Every little boy needs a girl. Pop goes the world."

Mamiya set the fire. Mikage set the fire. No one set the fire. Nemuro Kinenkan never burned. The hundred duellists never died. Mikage never existed. Mikage always existed. Mikage had always and ever been, world without end, never and forever. It all happened, all at once, and as soon as it happened, it had always been that way.

"One two three and four is five, everybody here is a friend of mine. Whatever happened to the Duke of Earl? Pop goes the world."

Sometimes it made Ruka's head hurt.

Mikage hadn't been a good man in that world. At least, not the last time. He'd been a shade too obsessed, a shade too easily manipulated. He'd been used, in the way that they all had been used, in the way that somehow it was more painful for Mikage to be used. He'd been used to keep the universe running. He opened the way to the arena. He plotted out the course that the stars took in the sky. Maybe that had been why the director had always been watching them, to see if his creature -- his creation -- had done a good job.

Maybe that was why Mikage now stood up at night, motionless on his balcony, watching the stars. He'd gotten them wrong, in the inner world, just a little. A shade too bright, a shade too far, a shade too close together. Ruka knew that Mikage watched the stars to reassure himself that they were real.

"...Say, what planet are we on? The third! Pop goes the world."

Mikage shared that sense of unreality with him, that sense of remembering two entirely different and contradictory realities. They were the only ones who really remembered it all, and it brought them together in ways that had never been imagined. Sometimes Ruka looked back at what he remembered of the shadow world and had to laugh. The two people they'd been back then would never have connected at all; the two people they found themselves being in the real world were mutual moral support.

Necessity, he reflected, was a mother.

"And every time I wonder where the world went wrong, end up lying on my face going ringy dingy ding dong. And every time I wonder if the world is right, end up in some disco dancin' all night & day..."

The way before them, he reflected, a bit sourly, had been prepared. Except the way turned out to be the way to a world that was alien and yet familiar at the same time. It was healthier, he supposed, but equally as uncomfortable.

"Johnny played guitar, Jenny played bass. Name of the band is The Human Race. Everybody tell me have you heard? Pop goes the world. Johnny played guitar, Jenny played bass, ain't nobody couldn't take their place. Everybody tell me, have you heard? Pop goes the world."

If he had it all to do over again, would he have wanted to remember? He didn't know. He supposed that knowing was better than not knowing, but sometimes he looked at the other people, the ones who didn't remember, the ones who had taken the third way out, and he envied them. All they suffered was a little bit of insomnia now and again.

Well, all they seemed to suffer.

Down on channel one as the song finished, and up on channel two.

"Welcome to your life, there's no turning back. Even while we sleep, we will find you acting on your best behavior. Turn your back on mother nature. Everybody wants to rule the world."

Was it all a curse or a blessing? He didn't know.

The phone rang again. "Tsuchiya."

"This is not an improvement, you know."

Ruka laughed. "You again? Don't you have better things to do than to sit around and nag me over the telephone? You wanted perkier. You got it."

"I'd hardly call these perky. Have you listened to the lyrics?"

"You know I don't speak enough English."

"Trust me, this is not perky. I'll look up the lyrics and translate them for you." There was a bit of a smile in Mikage's voice; he could hear it, by now. Long familiarity, the kind built step-by-step, not the backstage camaraderie built during a production and broken down when the sets are struck. "Later. I'm busy."


"It's my own design, it's my own remorse. Help me to decide, help me make the most of freedom and of pleasure. Nothing ever lasts forever. Everybody wants to rule the world."

"Making sure all the stars are in place. I think I've found another one."

They all had their own little obsessions, each of the survivors. Mikage counted stars. Touga always wanted to drive. Saionji never ventured into the kendo room alone at night, and never let Touga quite out of his sight. (That was usually for fear of where he would find Touga, doing what; this Touga, far from being the cool and distant manipulator and manipulated, was a rather charming, puppyish young man full of far too much energy.) Tenjou said things and then didn't know why she'd said them, and called Himemiya her princess, and spoke with male inflection. They all avoided roses, and elevators.

She reached up a hand to her chest, hand clasping for something that was not there, fingers closing around a necklace that did not exist.

It sometimes reminded him of the behavior of survivors of long-term and pathological abuse; the unconscious revulsion for things that reminded one of the abuse, of the abuser. And indeed, Ruka thought -- sitting there in his radio control room with the lights down and the cigarette burning at his fingertips, with the phone up against his ear and the music playing softly in the background -- they were survivors of abuse. And he was one of the only people who even knew about it.

"There's a room where the light won't find you, holding hands while the walls come tumbling down. When they do I'll be right behind you. So glad we've almost made it, so sad they had to fade it. Everybody wants to rule the world."

Right. The phone. "Well, you can take your time. I'm not going anywhere. And apparently, neither are you. I'll play something more upbeat next, I promise. Just for you."

Mikage rolled his eyes; Ruka could hear that too. "I fear." A click as he turned off the phone.

Ruka rolled his own eyes and hung up the phone. Occasionally, his friends didn't call him up just for the friendly voice. Occasionally, they called him up to bitch about the music choice.

He wondered what She was doing right now; asleep, probably. In this world, she had never known how he felt about her; she called him "'niisan" jokingly, teased him about the way he seemed a bit protective of her, and rested her feet in his lap when they were all playing video games. She twined her hand in Shiori's and smiled at her, the kind of smile that Ruka wished that he could be on the receiving end of, just once. But that wasn't how it worked in this world. Not for him.

If you took the third door out, you got the thing you had wanted most in the inner world. If you took door one or door two, you just got memories and insomnia. You got to know what had happened. You got to remember.

"I can't stand this indecision married with a lack of vision. Everybody wants to rule the world. Say that you'll never never never never need it. One headline, why believe it? Everybody wants to rule the world."

He could remember, as a distinct memory -- or perhaps a memory of a memory -- a time when he did not love her. It had been a long time ago, the first time that he'd been written into the script. He remembered admiring her determination and her spirit, and gradually realizing that he was falling in love with her -- or at least, the kind of schoolboy crush that you got when you were sixteen and stupid.

He'd been sixteen for a very, very long time.

And it had been okay that he'd been in love with her. Nothing had ever come of it, but that was because nothing ever came of anything that wasn't expressly pre-scripted. Or at least, nothing that didn't seem to offer some kind of possibility for mischief, some kind of core that could be exploited and used and rearranged to fit the director's plans for the universe. Maybe it was his awareness of that fact that had caused him to be removed, the first time; maybe it was just the idea that the very fact he could develop those feelings was a sign that he was too strong, too willful.

He wondered, every now and then -- usually when it was 3AM, and there was nothing but his own voice in his ears and an occasional phone call and the music that was too dark and yet somehow never dark enough -- if she'd missed him, when he'd been written out the first time. When all of a sudden he'd gotten sick (but he had always been sick) and had to leave school (but had he ever been there?) and wound up shivering in the cold and the empty and the nothingness...

He turned up the heat a little more. It was cold in here. He was always cold, these days.

She had been one of the victims, and nothing he could ever say to her would make her understand what had been done to her. He wouldn't want her to remember, anyway. He didn't want any of them to remember; he wished he could take the little bits of the other world that they all seemed to half-remember, wished that he could erase the pieces that no one but he and Mikage were really fully prepared to handle. It wasn't fair to just leave them all to this, alone, unprepared. It wasn't fair to take away the memories of what had been done to them, and leave them only the aftereffects. There needed to be someone to witness, someone to give voice to everything that had gone on. There needed to be someone to look at the facts and say to the ghost of the man who had done it all: Yes. I remember. I remember you..

"All for freedom and for pleasure, nothing ever lasts forever, everybody wants to rule the world."

Down went the track; up came the microphone. "That was Tears for Fears with "Everybody Wants to Rule The World". This is Shadows from the Underground on 81.4 JSPR, and I'm about to completely disregard the name of this show and play something a little perkier. Why? Because I can. And just to annoy a few people who deserve to be annoyed out there. This is Shinohara Tomoe, with the opening theme from Kodomo no Omocha."

He could almost hear the teeth grinding from Mikage's direction; it made him smile. Say what you will about the song, it certainly was more upbeat. He sang along, making sure his mike was dead first.

"Kyou mo ashita mo himakkusu, gokazoku yonin de goippaku, ejiputo kidori de suphinkusu, amerika kibun de tekisasu! Yoyuu shakushaku de itsumo, funyafunya de iruto, nigamushi hara no mushi mo henahena to tettai shichau yo! Watashi wa urutora rirakkusu, suteki ni muteki na rirakkusu, hitoaji chigau ze derakkusu, tocchirakattemo, yobarerya papapapaaa-n!"

This one, he understood.

He lit another cigarette and took a deep drag off of it, nudging the burned-down, forgotten remnants of the previous one to one side in the ashtray. It was a habit he seemed to have always had, even though he knew that he hadn't possessed that particular vice in the shadow world; universe hiccup, he supposed. Track change. If he really felt like being deep and meaningful, he could have interpreted it as the physical manifestation, the real-world manifestation, of the destructive wish that had displayed itself in his actions in the last days of the inner world.

It wasn't really all that much of a good idea to be deep and meaningful when one was dealing with the universe -- universes -- he was dealing with, though. The universe did enough of that on its own.

He hadn't gotten much time, the second time he'd been put on stage. And he hadn't gotten much of a role, really. He'd been dragged back on to press at a few sore spots, tug at a few loose strings. But he'd remembered. Oh, had he remembered. And he'd used what he'd remembered, the barest little hints and bits that he'd pieced together when he'd been floating in that endless spaceless void, to have a little more influence than he should have been able to take.

He wasn't proud of what he'd done. He wasn't proud of what he'd been. But it had been necessary and it had almost been sufficient and in the end, she'd known. He'd woken her up and he'd made her see and he had once, just once, been able to feel the taste of her lips on his.

He remembered.

Lost in thought, he just hit the crossfade again, not even caring what was queued up next on track 2.

"All our times have come, here but now they're gone. Seasons don't fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun or the rain. We can be like they are, come on baby. Don't fear the reaper. Baby, take my hand. Don't fear the reaper. We'll be able to fly. Baby, I'm your man."

"Juri, don't worry. Don't worry, Juri." A car in the fountain. A rose in the hand. A ride in the car. He'd been to the Ends of the World and been back again, but it hadn't been a life-changing experience, because at that point he hadn't had a life. He'd just had what the Ends of the World had wanted to give him.

He'd been used. But he'd done some using of his own, and that had been some comfort. He hadn't been a nice man either; sometimes, he reflected, it wasn't possible to be a nice person. Nice people, in that world, had been targets. But he'd done what he could in the middle of his scripted appearance: he'd woken her up.

He still remembered, on one of his contradictory tracks of memory, trying to kill himself to keep himself from being used again. To keep himself from being sent back out into the nothingness, the void. He remembered succeeding, blood like rose-petals trailing over his naked body in the bath, watching it all with a detached mastery. Even then, he'd known, or thought he knew, that dying was one of the ways out.

What he hadn't known was that you couldn't die without the director's approval. You couldn't die unless the director took you off the stage; free will only took you so far.

"Valentine is done, here but now they're gone. Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity. Romeo and Juliet. 40,000 men and women every day, like Romeo and Juliet, 40,000 men and women every day. Redefine happiness, another 40,000 coming every day. We can be like they are, come on baby. Don't fear the reaper. Baby, take my hand. Don't fear the reaper. We'll be able to fly. Don't fear the reaper. Baby, I'm your man."

Footsteps. A hand picking up a limp and bloody wrist, a voice tsking. "Don't you know that it's not that easy? But you are becoming troublesome." A light chuckle. "Maybe I should just let you go after all. But my way."

Ruka shivered a little, and nudged the heat up a little more. And then decided, abruptly, that (sugar be damned) he needed another cup of coffee. He fit in a tape of commercials to run after the song ended and dropped his headset on the console again. Coffee. Coffee was real.

Dying, his mind whispered softly, had been real too, and had not been all that unpleasant after all. What had been unpleasant was the thought that after he had died, the world around him would have simply gone on. He still wasn't sure what had happened after he'd died. There wasn't really anyone he could ask. He could ask Himemiya. Himemiya remembered too. But Himemiya wouldn't talk about it.

What had happened to Her, after he had died? What had happened to them all? The only thing he had been left with was a slow and steady conviction that the duel called Revolution would happen soon, and that Tenjou would be the one to win it. He'd tried to maneuver the pieces a little more, tried to arrange it so that She could have been the one to fight that duel. That had been his own goal all along, to give her the ability to for once realize what the director was doing, what had been done to her. The ability to realize that her own abilities, locked away behind her heart, were at least an equal match for Tenjou's. He'd wanted her to realize that she was being played, that she was being used, that the abuse was simple and congenital and reached back to the very foundations of her universe. She deserved to realize that much, at least; better to be a pawn and know it than to be a queen and not realize. But in the end, she'd been too wedded to her cynicism to win. She'd dropped the locket, but she'd dropped her rose, too, forfeiting the duel.

He'd tried. But at least she'd woken up enough to realize a little bit of what had been going on. Never enough to remember; she wasn't one of the ones who was supposed to. But she'd stopped playing the game.

"Love of two is one, here but now they're gone. Came the last night of sadness, and it was clear she couldn't go on. Then the door was open and the wind appeared. The candles blew, then disappeared, the curtains flew, then he appeared, saying 'don't be afraid, come on baby.' And she had no fear, and she ran to him, then they started to fly. They looked backward and said goodbye. She had become like they are, she had taken his hand. She had become like they are. Come on baby. Don't fear the reaper..."

And at least in this world, Shiori was a much better person. Almost worthy of Her after all.

He needed to let go. He needed to let go of the person he'd been, and become the person who had been scripted into this world, the world where if there was a director he was letting the actors figure it all out by themselves. He had a role here; he had a responsibility. He needed to be the one who remembered, even if he never did anything with that information. He needed to be the one who saw, and recorded what he saw away deep within his mind, perhaps never to be used again. He needed to give up and become this Tsuchiya Ruka, the one with the pack-a-day habit he had to hide from his housemate and the friends who didn't know how they knew him and the coffee cup in his hand and the roommate who understood and the black hair that should have been blue and the completely platonic friend who once in another world had been his reason for living and the late-night radio show where he played music he didn't understand just because he liked the sound of it --

Oh, fuck, the radio show.

He made it back to the control booth just in time to bring up the mike as the commercials ended. "Good evening, and welcome once again to Shadows from the Underground. Before the break, we heard Blue Oyster Cult with "Don't Fear the Reaper". Coming up, we've got The Jesus And Mary Chain and Dead Can Dance. Unless I change my mind, which you should all be used to by now. It wouldn't be one of my shows unless I did. In the meantime, I've got my cup of coffee, I've got my pack of cigarettes, and I've got hundreds of CDs to which I don't know the words. I don't know why I like this kind of stuff so much. There's just a certain something in listening to a song and only being able to pick out one word in about ten, if that, and having to figure out what it's about just by how it sounds."

He swiveled in his chair, put his feet up on a bare spot of the console. "Sometimes it's just the fact that what I'm thinking doesn't go well into words. Sometimes there aren't words to fit what I'm thinking. Sometimes I don't even really know what I'm thinking myself. I guess not knowing the words means that I don't have to worry about whether or not I'm trying to send out some deeper message, or some mystical New Age bullshit like that. Maybe one of these days I'll get one of my friends who speak a lot more English than I do to translate my entire music library over here, and then I can match the song to the mood I'm in. I doubt it, though; it'd ruin the mystique. And hey, in the meantime, I can just play the stuff that sounds good. Like this one. Here's a band called Concrete Blonde, with a song called "Dance Along The Edge"."

Down on the mike; up on the music. He rubbed a hand over his face and lit another cigarette. ("You have a congenital heart condition. Do you really want to wind back up in the hospital?" "The nurses are cute and they miss me if I'm gone for too long.") It was getting along to the middle of his show; better yet, the middle of his last show for the week. He didn't know what the plans for the weekend were; probably getting together with the crew that was still going to Ohtori, at the Kiryuu mansion or back at Ruka's own tiny house, for video games and takeout. He liked days like that; when he was there, he felt almost as if he could protect them from the memories they didn't even know they had.

"Sometimes we laugh like children, go running hand in hand. I never felt like this before. I never will again. Sometimes we cry like babies; I hold you to my heart. I just can't stand to see you sad. It tears me all apart."

He'd woken up in the real world, as a student at Ohtori Academy in his last few months of high school. Graduation had passed before he really understood what had happened to him, but for some reason, the refugees from the shadow universe had grouped together, had found some reason to be friends. Had found that they were friends, that it had been written into the script for this real world as one last bit of manipulation done by someone before they were left on their own to figure it all out by themselves.

"Tsuchiya-san wanted to give up his spot as secretary of the student council for his last year at the school, you know, to have more time to concentrate on fencing. I don't think he's been feeling well lately." And so Miki had been the secretary, as Miki had followed him in the shadow-world -- though for a much less sinister reason. Nothing else had changed; everything else had changed. Miki showed him the minutes sometimes, for old time's sake. 4:20, Kaoru-san makes pointed comment about Arisugawa-san's mother. 4:22, Kiryuu-san and Saionji-san get into argument about who can kick whose ass at Super Puzzle Fighter. 4:24, Arisugawa-san makes comment about little boys and ego wars. 4:25, Kiryuu-san and Saionji-san engage in tickle war with Arisugawa-san. 4:30, dignity is restored. 4:35, Arisugawa-san launches sneak tickle attack.

Much better than knives and apples and balloons and trains.

Watching them sometimes was painful. They were so different than how they had been, and yet so alike at times. It was almost as if they had each been granted the restoration of the qualities that should have been theirs, on the Inside. Miki was relaxed. Saionji was good-natured. Touga was -- well, goofy; that was the only word for it. And She believed in miracles. Why shouldn't she?

"And we're so afraid and it's such a shame. There is no reason we should doubt it. And the things we want to say we've never said, and we look away and it's all okay and never really talk about it. It's a shame the way we dance along the edge."

It showed, now and again, though. Around the edges. Saionji and Touga were a bit too close, as though their relationship in this world made up for all the pain and confusion in the other one, or as though something had happened in the universe shuffle and they had gotten pieces of each other and therefore could never be whole apart again. Miki's pocket watch was a normal pocket watch, not a stopwatch, but he sometimes took it out and looked at the time when he'd just checked it a few moments before and then frowned, as if he couldn't tell why he was looking at it. Tenjou -- Miki's friend, in this world, and not connected to the student council in any way other than that and enjoying their company -- watched Touga out of the corner of her eye when she wasn't aware of it, and stayed just a little too close to Himemiya, as though she were scared that Himemiya might disappear again. Touga, the consumate puppet in the inner world, suffered from what the doctors called Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder but what Ruka suspected really be an overdose of reality, all the reality and personality that should have been his in the other world as well as what he would have had in this reality.

Survivors, all of them. Their strength had been the reason they'd survived, in the inner world; that very strength, on the outside, was left without a trauma to be applied against. None of them really knew why they sometimes felt so directionless, so cut adrift; it showed, sometimes, in half a phrase, half a gesture.

"We always seem so careful. We're always so unsure. Our past mistakes, they make us shaky, eyes on the door. When do we stop searching for what we're searching for? Then when it comes, we question love and try for more."

Sometimes Ruka thought that whatever power had brought them here -- the power of miracles, perhaps? -- had made them their own opposites. Sometimes he thought that they were simply who they were supposed to have been, without the manipulation they'd experienced in the inner world.

Sometimes he thought he was simply going mad.

"And we're happy here but we live in fear. We've seen a lot of temples crumble. Some of flesh and blood and love under glass. Will we come undone? Will we turn and run? And will we know it when we find it? It's a game the way we dance along the edge."

Ring. "JSPR. Tsuchiya."

"I can hear you brooding all the way over here. I emailed you the lyrics to those songs. Stop thinking about it; it's not good for you."

"I'm not brooding. I'm just ... thinking. It's been a year, Souji. Ever think about that? A whole year in the real world."

"Using a particular narrow and unchanging definition of the word 'real', yes. But you aren't particularly interested in a discussion of eschatology at four AM. I called you up to let you know that your choice of random music is, as usual, disturbingly sentient and coherent. I'm going to sleep. Play music without words for the next several songs so that I don't have to worry that the universe is trying to tell me something through you."

Ruka laughed. "Just for you. Since you ask so nicely. Are you going to be able to be up for work in time?"

"Yes. Don't forget to stop and pick up coffee and filters on your way home. And sugar, too; we're out."

"You got it. Sleep well, Souji."

"If your music doesn't give me nightmares. Ja."

Maybe it didn't matter, in the end. Maybe the memories would fade. Maybe sooner or later he would be able to forget. Maybe he'd slip into believing that he'd always been here; maybe the shadows would all start to feel like a dream. It had only been a year, after all. A year wasn't all that long, in retrospect. Except when it was.

And maybe he'd never forget; maybe he was the one who was supposed to sit on the outside and watch everything that was going on and comment upon it, in the middle of the night, by the shadows. There always needed to be at least one person who remembered, after all, so that the sacrifice would not be in vain.

"And we'll walk the line and we'll do our time for just as long as we've been given, and pretend like we don't hear the things they've said. Can we promise love? Is it all too much? And do our old souls still believe it? It's insane the way we dance along the edge."

Dead Can Dance went on the other track; he changed songs with a flip of the switch, and sat back. Thinking the old familiar 4AM thoughts. Maybe he'd dye his hair violet this weekend. Violet was a nice color. He didn't think his hair had ever been violet before.

Someone else's had been. But that didn't matter anymore.

Yes. I remember. I remember you.

It would have to be enough.

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