Makubex has one dream, and one dream only. This is not that dream.
This is not a dream. When he walked into this room, where his maps told him there might (or might not) be a functional processor in an EMP-hardened case, it was a hallucination. There is nothing unusual about this room. It is on the fourteenth story, below the Beltline but higher than most denizens of Lower Town will walk. It has a window, and the afternoon sunlight makes the dust-motes dance and sparkle. There is a bed, with an institutional metal frame. There are four walls, painted pale pink. There is a closet and a pile of boxes in the corner.
This is what he sees when he steps inside:
A bed, with an institutional metal frame. Four walls, painted pale pink. A closet and a pile of boxes in the corner.
And his mother's hand is on his shoulder, and she walks him over to the bed. She is short, but not childishly so. He clutches his stuffed rabbit (the one he almost left with Grandpa Gen, but he had allowed himself a few bits of childishness and keeping the rabbit was one of them) and he whimpers, high and far too young for his age (and he is older now than he can ever remember being). She kisses his forehead and presses him down against the bed. It's fine,, she whispers, I love you, it will all be fine.
She does not have a sweet smile. She looks as if she is in a great deal of pain. He would give her the rabbit but he can do nothing but rock back and forth on the bed. He would answer her but he lost his speech long ago.
I'll make you better, she says. Make you over new. You will be someone different, but I think that it will suit you better, my dear one.
He cannot answer. He cannot, so he closes his eyes against the sudden rush of sunlight.
This is what he sees: an empty room, and the stained, cracked celing, and the certain knowledge that as he lies on this bed he is stepping through an inevitable pattern laid out by forces beyond his comprehension. But not, he thinks, his influence.
A flaw, he makes himself think. That should not have happened. They are not invincible. They left a flaw.
Two weeks after Ginji left the world was no longer in pieces. He had not fought with anyone. He had not threatened anyone. He had talked, and persuaded, and convinced, and now he was exhausted beyond reason, sick at heart, and he does not dare sleep for the certain knowledge that he will dream, always the same dream. At long last he allows Sakura's gentle remonstrances to strike home, and falls asleep with his head in her lap.
This is not a dream either: after he awakes, feels her hand warm across his neck, he opens his eyes. There in front of them are the screens of his computers, every one flickering with green numbers. Then they are flickering with green-and-white static.
The ground moves, violently, half a metre to the side. He shivers, and tightens his hand in Sakura's skirt; somehow he is not thrown from her, and she does not move, does not even seem to notice the lurching. The lights go out altogether, then, and he trembles in the darkness.
"This will not do at all, Professor," says someone's voice. He thinks for a moment that it's his mother's, before he remembers that he doesn't have a mother. A scratching noise, and the ground lurches again. "This will not do at all." The third shock is gentler, and goes on for longer, and he whimpers involuntarily against the sudden influx of red and white lights. The computers turn on for half an instant, each showing a different angle of the castle at night, at night when there are electric lights and candles and the flicker of screens but no streetlights, nothing in common. Then it all goes dark again.
The voice says, "This will not do"
Sakura's fingernails are cold and painful on his neck. He loosens his hand in her skirt. "What is it, Makubex?" she whispers.
He does not ask her to count the computers. He is sure that she would remember there having been seven, all along, although there were only five when he went to sleep.
He does bleed. He has seen himself bleed. He is not human, but he is a convincing enough fascimilie. So: Kagami's little taunts mean nothing. They would mean nothing even if they were true. Kagami has his own reasons for remaining with Makubex.
"Are you going to return to Babylon City?" Makubex asks him on one occasion, and Kagami smiles.
Kagami is always smiling. Makubex knows more about him than he will ever tell, and less than he will need, he is sure.
"Can I trust you to do as I command?" Makubex asks him, and Kagami smiles.
Kagami tells Makubex that he is not real. He knows that. He knows. He has known for a long time.
"Why are you here?" Makubex asks him, and Kagami smiles, and for a second Makubex is not dreaming. He sees that selfsame smile, perched over a white lab coat, reflected against the window of a skyscraper, shining in the broad, brilliant light of noon. Outside is a city that he does not recognize. Outside, and below. Inside there is nothing but glass and tile floor and smooth white walls and that damnable smile, and Kagami says, I'll stay until the Keys are all found, maybe.
But they are in Makubex's underground room, an hour before dawn, and there is no light but the green glow of the monitors, and Kagami is smiling.
Emishi's sigh is far too melodramatic, and Makubex allows himself a small wince before he looks over. "Is something the matter?"
"I'm a FAILURE~!" Emishi moans, singsong, and sniffles loudly and wipes fake tears from his cheeks. "Here I am trying to protect you, and I can't even beat a stupid video game. I keep running out of lives. Dammit, Makubex, ya havn't been messing with the code, have you? This isn't, like revenge for the time I beat your ass at Street Fighter II?"
He can't restrain a snort, and he scoots over to Emishi's computer and takes the keyboard away. Makubex hasn't played this game himself, of course - he hardly has time for such frivolities, even now, especially now - but game designers are all the same. A few strokes, and the pretty 3D snowscape with the dramaticlly-armoured character lying bloody on the ground and a blinking red GAME OVER banner is replaced by a broad expanse of green-on-black hexadecimal. ("What're you doing, porting into the Matrix?" Emishi asks, as if he's never seen hexadecimal before. Makubex ignores him.) It's easy enough to find the registers that have changed, and another few strokes lays the source open before him, bracketed and tabbed and impenetrable. He tells himself he is only doing this so Emishi will shut up and stop making noises, and then he looses himself in the easy rhythym of messing with the system of the world. It's nice for it not to mean anything.
Thirty seconds, and he sighs, rubs his eyes, hand the keyboard back. The snowscape is back, and the warrior in improbable armour is standing upright, looking menacing. "You have infinite lives now," Makubex tells Emishi. "Try not to yell so loud, you're distracting me."
He might make some remark about honour, but Emishi, like any inhabitant of Mugenjou, knows when to take any advantage. He grins. "Cool. Man, i wish you could to that in real life," he adds wistfully, and turns back to making his way to the Hall of the Dragon King.
It's a pretty snowscape. Gorgeous scenery. They went all-out. Makubex wishes he could visit somewhere like that.
(This was not a dream: I'll be back, Natsuki Amon says, and it is not to Makubex or Emishi or Fuyuki Shido that he is speaking. This is a temporary setback. It's just a matter of restting some bits, right? And he grins, like he always grinned, and turns away, like he always turned away, and his smile is too pale and his hair is too red and the snow falls on Babylon City and there is nobody there at all.)
(Just a matter of restting some bits. It would be so easy and he loves Emishi, he does, he would bend the laws of physics for him, he would rearrange the universe, and give it time, give it time, Makubex thinks, he'll be back.)
Nobody goes hungry in Mugenjou. There are ways upon ways to die, but starvation is not one of them. There is food aplenty, food whose origin no one can determine, warehouses full of grain that somehow seem able to feed all the humans even as the rats devour them from the bottom, boxes of energy bars that show up in corners like the power-ups of a videogame, cabinets that always have just one more packet of ramen in the back, if you don't mind the nasty artificial chicken flavor that got discontinued. Fresh fruit is a luxury, but it exists. Food is stolen, food is appropriated, people are shut off from the source, but when it is properly distributed, there is always enough.
Nonetheless, Makubex does not eat enough.
He does not really get hungry. Sakura says You're a growing boy once, and then she turns her head and blushes with shame to have spoken to him that way, but he allows it, with an indulgent smile. They both know it is a lie. He is fifteen, and he has not grown a centimeter since he was twelve. Since Ginji left. He does not eat like a growing boy. He barely eats like a bird; the hunger impulse feels pasted-on, artificial.
It's for the best, anyhow. More for everyone else. He thanks Sakura for the soup she has made, with a motherly impulse that he knows will last as long as he looks like a child, and passes most of it uneaten to Toshiki. Toshiki thanks him gruffly; he would rather be eating with Kazuki and Juubei.
There is no discussion of work. No discussion of the terrors that still plauge Mugenjou, the roaming intruders, the everpresent threats from above. Nor is there mention of the poor living conditions most people still endure, or the way this place sucks people in like a gravity well, how leaving is always more difficult than getting in. Instead they talk, quietly, about how Kazuki and Juubei are never seen anymore out of each other's company, or how Emishi's laughs have a desperate edge now, the book he's claimed to be writing, and shown snippets of to anyone who hasn't run away fast enough, or Sakura's sewing projects. She likes to give people things, and Makubex is wearing a jacket she made for him from the remnants of two others; he is not sentimental enough to think it's the warmest piece of clothing he owns, but he wears it constantly nontheless.
"Thank you for the soup," he says quietly, when it's all eaten and they sit around the little electric stove, sipping tea.
Sakura smiles, and his vision twists at the sweetness of it, the warmth, the knowledge that a few hours from now that warm sweetness will be pressed against his lips and her warm, strong hands will be tracing down his body, and then his vision goes double. He is not dreaming; this is a vision. Sakura is smiling at him over a glass of wine. She is dressed in a Western-style formal gown, blue satin and elegant draping, a gown he is sure she never wore in - in Mugenjou, or at her home before she came to Mugenjou, because he is less certain than ever, these days, what can be considered real. (He is not real. He knows that. Thank you, Professor, she says, and the figure behind her, who is Kazuki but smaller, lighter, more feminine - female, he realizes with a jolt, despite the mannish suit - Kazuki smiles, and it's the same smile, amused but without cruelty. Thank you so much. We won't forget this.
Time is out of joint, whispers his mother, but it will heal. I'll see it right, as sure as I can deal. He does not turn to look at her; her hand tigtens on his shoulder. Don't fear for what tomorrow brings, my friends - tomorrow is my time, and will be yours.
There is very little light. They are outside, somewhere, in the middle of a stand of trees, such as Makubex has never seen, such as there are not in Mugenjou. Through the trees he can see city lights. Their feet crunch on dry leaves.
Sakura lifts her wineglass, and pulls her soft white shawl a little tighter over her shoulders. Prosperity, she says to no one in particular, and tips the glass to spill a bright red splash over the earth. Makubex whimpers to see it falling, so much like dripping blood, and he winces. But Sakura and Toshiki do not notice; they are laughing at something, hands clasped, and Makubex realizes that he is back indoors, away from the vision, and that is a teacup clutched in his hand. He takes a long gulp, and does not really taste it, but there is always more tea. That's one good thing about Mugenjou.
Akabane calls on him, five days beforehand. Matters of some importance are discused. They go for a walk through the steamy jungles of Mexico, watched by giant stone faces twisted with encroaching vines, and Akabane keeps his hands in the pockets of his long black coat. Makubex knows what those hands would look like, wielding a bloody sword. He has seen Akabane moving through a crowd of opponents like a many-armed god, hands a blur, coat billowing, leaving a trail of bodies. He knows exactly how dangerous Akabane is. That is: not as dangerous as people think. He kills readily, he kills without remorse, but he is an honorable man who keeps his promises, and he leaves noncombatants unmolested.
The air is oven-hot and they are both in layers of clothing. Neither of them sweats.
In five days, Kudou Himiko will reach her seventeenth birthday. In five days, a lot of delayed payments will come due. In five days, the line will be drawn, the curse will be cast, and the world will change very rapidly. Mugenjou is ready.
Makubex suspects, on some level, that he has five days to live. He has not mentioned this to anyone; he does not mention it now. But when they have finished talking about the tournament, and the Underground, and the truth of Kudou Himiko's blood, Akabane says to him, almost off-handedly: "Makubex-san, do not be so concerned. Mugenjou will be standing, and you will live. Don't you have any faith in Raitei?"
"Very little," Makubex tells him, as cool and even as he can make it. "I have faith in Ginji."
Akabane's smile does not slip. This is not a dream: Akabane's smile does not slip, and his hands do not leave the pockets of his clean white coat. He smiles, and he does not speak. There is no blood here, no destruction, no hidden power; the only red thing is his name. Then I, too, shall stay until the keys are found, he says, and Makubex knows he has seen a flicker of this before: Kagami. He is talking to Kagami. They look at each other, and the city is spread out below them, shining in the sunlight.
Then it isn't anymore. There is only Akabane, smiling at the jungle vines as if they had some great secret to impart. "Of course you do," he says serenely. "And you know as well as I do that Brain Trust are not so impenetrable as they would like to believe. You've seen it, haven't you? You've found the cracks in their armour." This is not a dream either, the sudden icy certainty that Akabane knows. He knows, and he knows what Makubex has seen, and he knows how the pieces fit together.
Makubex does not respond. He just smiles. "You're quite perceptive," he says, and it could be a simple compliment, or a flirtation, or nothing of significance at all. An idle remark, to fill time. It is not an admission or a rent in their fragile comradrie or a blow. He might land a blow. But he is not a fighter; he is a prophet, and all his prophecies are about to be fulfilled.
This is not a dream. This is the real world, the natural world, the world from which his world was projected. This is the world where he can go anywhere, do anything. Except that it isn't, because he knows that somewhere, in a pale pink room, a young man whose family name is Makube and whose personal name he has not asked spent years lying in an intitutional metal-framed bed, clutching a stuffed rabbit, never speaking. That sometime quite recently, the nurse came in to check on him, and found him no longer breathing. No apparent reason. Makubex is not supposed to be here; rules were broken to allow him to be here, to give him a glimpse, while the future is being decided somewhere else. He thinks he knows who broke them. Someday he'll find her, and ask questions. But his very existence broke the rules, and he has know about that for a very long time. He was not meant to exist; he was the last-minute addition, the wrench in the gears, the glorious screw-you of a woman who was a faction unto herself, and had her own destiny in mind. He was not the only one, either. There are webs upon webs here, and the miracle is not that destiny changed, but that it changed so little in the face of so many conflicting forces.
The sand rubs comfortably between his toes for the very first time. Somewhere in the distance, Tokyo looms, huge and all-encompassing. The silhouette of Mugenjou is gone from its skyline. He knows there is no sign of what there was, save for a certain building in Shinjuku whose glossy elevator display reads: BABYLON DEVELOPMENTS. Beside him, Teshimine Takeru walks in companionable silence.
Eventually Makubex goes still, and looks at the incoming tide where it has rushed in, left spindrift foam dusted over his feet. "It doesn't matter what I want," he whispers. "It's Ginji's choice."
Takeru shakes his head. "It's Ginji's choice," he says, "so it matters very much what you want. He loves you."
Makubex knows that much is true.
Still, he wonders how much of this is truly Ginji's choice, and how much was plotted out years before. "Maybe," he whispers.
"Our mother left it to him." There are a lot of emotions in there, but the most prominent, Makubex thinks, is trust. Trust in Ginji. Makubex shares it.
Makubex and Takeru are brothers, after all, and Makubex thinks he will carry that same calm confidence with him to whatever world is left, after this. They have so much in common that he never knew. He did not even see that they were brothers. It's fine. They have all the time in the world now, whichever world it is.
He wades out a little deeper, and the water laps at his rolled-up trouser cuffs. He doesn't look back. "I don't think it will take very long," he says. "Ginji doesn't tend to fret. He cares about everyone." He shrugs, and he can tell Takeru is walking out next to him from the movement of the water. He runs a hand through his hair. It's longer here than he's used to. He's gained a few centimeters, and he can feel the cold like he never could in Mugenjou. He can smell the ocean.
Takeru says, "Not much longer at all," and he takes Makubex's hand.
Makubex wants to protest, wants to think that it can't all be over so quickly; he had so much he wanted to do. But it doesn't matter what he wants. What matters is that Ginji has made his choice, and there was never any doubt about what choice it would be. He squeezes Takeru's fingers; they both love Ginji, they both trust him to make the right choice, and they both know just how fragile the borders of reality are. They are about to be broken. The sea smells of salt and the air smells of lightning. Makubex looks up at the sky, slate-grey and wintery cold, and he takes a very deep breath, and he lets go.