The glowing hand of the alarm clock pointed to 01:30. Ryo turned on his side with a soft sigh. Twenty minutes, that's how long he managed to stay asleep this time. This brought his total for the night to one hour and twenty-five minutes: it looked like it was going to be one of those nights. He might as well have expected that, seeing as the previous two nights were relatively peaceful, punctured by dreams only once or twice. Ryo set up, and rubbed his eyes tiredly.
He'd rather not try to sleep again. If tonight was to be one of those nights, he'd be better off staying awake than being woken by the nightmares every so often. Question was, how to stay awake when he was so tired that he could not keep his eyes open? Trained as he was to deal with tiredness, the last month had been the worst he'd had in a very long time.
Growing up to be the thing you hated most could do that to a person.
So, no sleep. Ryo straightened and looked at the sleeping forms of Koji and Gawl. They were sleeping peacefully, bless them, and Ryo knew for a fact that neither of them was prone to nightmares: he'd stayed awake and watched them enough nights to know. He could get out a book and read all night, and they would not wake as long as he didn't turn on the light. He'd done it on several full-moon nights - that's why he always kept a book in hand. Only problem was - Ryo looked out the window and checked - that there was no moon tonight. That ruled out just about anything that could be done quietly in the room.
He was not going back to sleep. He was most definitely not doing that. That last nightmare was a new one, and just thinking about it made Ryo want to vomit; and if he did that, Gawl would wake. Another lesson learned from experience: the one time Ryo ran downstairs to the bathroom Gawl woke up and followed him. Ryo excused it as a stomach flu. Lord knew he looked pale enough to support that story.
He could go out for a walk. As long as he'd walk he'd stay awake, and maybe it would even help him get some semi-decent rest afterwards. Sure, it was freezing outside - it was prone to snow every day now - but quite frankly, Ryo figured that even walking in a blizzard would be better than trying to "sleep" or sitting like that for hours. Mind made up, Ryo got up and dressed as quietly as he could. He was outside in under two minutes time.
The streets were completely empty. Ryo wasn't sure if he preferred it or not - probably both, in a way. He buried his hands deeper in his pockets. He started in the direction of the park, before, but that brought back memories. Ryo wondered when he'd ever be able to go there again - when, in fact, any of them will be able to go there again. The very sight of flowers was still enough to make Masami run off in tears.
Suddenly, he stopped. He could feel a presence - there was someone there, yet the street seemed completely empty. "Who's there?" he asked, feeling quite stupid, but - what was that, there, near the wall? He was almost sure he could see something, certain that he heard a noise like small bells tinkling. "Show yourself!"
"You weren't supposed to see me", she complained, stepping forward from where no one stood a moment ago. "Forty-two years, and now you see me?"
She was a head shorter the he, and was apparently unbothered by the cold despite that she wearing only a plain T-shirt and jeans. Ryo would have thought her an albino for that pale skin, but her hair - slightly curled and falling to her shoulders - was dark brown, and her eyes were of a color he couldn't name. Those eyes - the girl seemed younger than he, but those eyes were ancient.
She wasn't pale - she was glowing. No, not even that: she was half transparent, and the light was coming from within her.
"What are you?" Ryo asked. "Are you a ghost?"
"No". She dragged the word as if he somehow insulted her. "I am most certainly not a ghost. Ghosts never go across"
"Ghosts don't go across", she repeated. "The remain in the same fabric where their body died"
"No". This time she was more amused than insulted. "I couldn't be here, talking to you, if I were dead, right?"
"But you're not corporeal" he argued. He was beginning to feel quite stupid - what if there was no girl there, and his tired mind was playing tricks on him?
"Not having a body does not make me dead" she huffed, "And you're not hallucinating, either. And no, I'm not reading your mind", she added, catching his expression, "I just happen to know you really well". She shook her head and smiled sheepishly. The unseen bells tinkled again. "Sorry. You just scared me, that's all"
That last statement was so extraordinary that Ryo found no words to reply. Instead, he said: "Sorry. You scared me too. Now, if you're not an hallucination or a ghost, can you please tell me what are you?"
"I'm a Weaver", she said. She crossed the distance between them and set down on the sidewalk. "Though I didn't actually weave anything yet. I have at least one more question to do, after this one"
"What do you mean?" he asked, sitting down next to her. "And what are Weavers?"
"I suppose we're a kind of spirits, because we're made of thoughts and emotions but have no bodies, but we're Weavers. Weavers make fabrics, like this one" she waved her hand in the air.
Ryo blinked, trying to understand what she meant. "You mean Weavers created the space-time fabric?"
"Fabrics", she corrected. "There are a lot of them; and yes, Weavers make the fabrics for people to live in"
"Okay", he said carefully, accepting that for now: Hallucination or not, talking to this girl beat wondering aimlessly in the streets. "Now what was that you said about questions?"
"Young Weavers don't start weaving right away", she said. "First we learn the basics - how to handle threads without damaging them, how to get in and out of fabrics - and then we're released to study questions of our own choice. The number of question varies, but it's always at least three"
"Oh". That seemed simple enough. "What's your question?"
She lowered her eyes, staring at her hands. "I'm studying Sadness"
"Yes". She sighed a little, and stared off into space. "I study sadness. I go into fabrics and watch, trying to understand. I'm not supposed to be seen, strictly speaking, but this is a dreamweave, so the rules are slightly different here". She smiled a little, and then there were those unseen bells again. "I wish you could see it", she said softly. "It's beautiful"
"This fabric. I've never seen one so beautiful, and I don't think I ever will. This one is so special - especially after the last one"
"I don't understand"
She sighed again. "It's a long story", she warned.
He shrugged. "It's only 3 a.m.", he said. "I have time"
"Alright then" She leaned back. "The fabric where you used to live was a pretty normal one, until in 2014 a woman called Ryoko Saito had gone back in time to 2007, taking a handful of followers and the newly-invented generator core. She killed her 2007 self, reinserted herself, and eventually caused the beginning of World War three". The girl paused. "Most of this you know. What you didn't know what the Ryoko also mutilated the fabric. Mutilated is not the word - there is no word for that - but it was terrible. They took as there in class to show us what a mutilated fabric looked like, because even then it was the worst example available. I came back there some time after I started on this question. I wasn't allowed there alone for a very long time, you see, because mutilated fabrics are dangerous for inexperienced Weavers. I think I was the only watcher there. It wasn't the first time I followed wartime victims - it wasn't even my first third World War to watch - but somehow…" she shook her head. Bell tinkled. "Let's just say that I understood why Weavers don't sleep a little earlier than most" She sighed again. "Maybe I should have done less lives, but I had to know"
"Done less lives?"
"I follow people's lives: from when Sadness first entered them, and until it's resolved - one way or the other"
Ryo hesitated, then asked: "How many lives did you watch?"
"That were affected by that war? One thousand, one hundred and twenty-three lives"
He swallowed. Hard. "How can you?"
She didn't answer. Instead, she went on with her story. "Then Ryoko did it again. You already know she cloned herself repeatedly. At one time she created two clones at the same time. One of them stayed - she killed and inherited the older one sometime after that, as was usual for that line - but the other one traveled yet again in time, to 1998, and she killed both that year's Ryoko and the 2014 Ryoko when she arrived"
"She killed herself twice?"
"Killing humans is very easy for a phase 5" said the girl simply, "And you don't need me to tell you what that woman had for a heart"
"She didn't have any"
"Yes. She was kind to Natsume, though. That Ryoko was the one who created Natsume - changing history again, and doing even more damage to the fabric. It was beginning to destabilize. I almost left, but I followed the trail Natsume left in time, and I found you"
"Yes, you. You were the first. Koji and Gawl came next"
"I don't understand"
The girl looked at him, making eye contact for the first time. Her eyes were a deep shade of gold and red, and showed, quite clearly, all that she had seen. Ryo suppressed a shudder: even Gawl's generator-form eyes, that terrible day on the bluff, were more human than the girl's.
"How many people did you know there who knew how to care?" she asked quietly. "Not including Koji and Gawl"
It wasn't a hard question. "None", he answered, just as quietly.
"Exactly". She closed her eyes and turned away her face.
"You knew grief before ever heard the word. You knew anguish, fear and, ultimately, guilt. And then you found out about the timeline alteration"
Like running headlong into a freight train. "You were there?" asked Ryo, his voice choked.
"I was there every minute of your life" she answered, and continued from where she left before. "I was there the first time on the Oju Tower. I was there between 1987 and 2007, watching the one who called himself Takuma". She folded forward and pressed her palms to her eyes. "There were times I thought I was going to go mad with him. The nightmares never stopped, you see". Pause, as Ryo stared in horror and her hands curled into fists, still pressed against her eyes. "I was there, from 1999 to 2007 again, watching the one who called himself Kanae and crying every night with him. Watching Natsume as she grew. Counting down the seconds to October 2007, when there'll finally be chance". Her voice broke, and changed, gaining some of the quality of the unseen bells. "That was the only hope. Weavers can't alter anything about a fabric once it's made, unless it's torn by someone from the inside. After the first time on Oju Tower, the Weavers responsible for that fabrics realized that Gawl could tear it, with a bit of luck and correct guidance"
She sighed, and her voice became normal again. "That cycle, I didn't watch you three just from age ten - I watched from the starts. I had to know. I got into serious arguments with the elders over that - the fabric was extremely unstable, and if it collapsed with me in it I would've truly died - not moved to another fabric, like corporeal being. But I couldn't leave - I couldn't - even that I couldn't help you, even that all I could do was watch", she spat out the word, "and pray. And you made it". Her voice broke again, and Ryo could see tears streaming down her face. The tears were like ghost pearls, transparent and glowing; they vanished into the air when they fell from her face, and with every tear that fell a bell could be heard, and now the bells were mourning. She had removed her fists, but her eyes were still closed and her head still tilted down. Her voice was a whisper as she continued. "The fabric was torn, and damaged beyond repair, but that didn't matter anymore. Gawl dreamed up a new fabric, and the Weavers wove it for you". She took a deep breath. "It was incredible. I've seen weaving before, but this was different, even for Dreamweaving, because the dream - Gawl's dream - it was like a lacework of compassion and faith, held together with love, and care, and hope… and those who wove it worked hard to put the same care in their work, and they had so little time. This fabric, it's one of the most complicated weaveworks ever done. If only you could see, Ryo…" Her hand moved in the air, as if cupping some light from the streetlamp, and then letting it fall. Ryo caught his breath: the light fell from her hand like a shower of gold and music.
He looked away. "It's not over yet". He throat was tight - so tight he could hardly speak. It's not over yet.
"You'll be alright, Ryo", she whispered. "You have to be"
"How can I ever be?" he asked bitterly. Now he, too, was crying. "You say you were there. You know what I've done"
"But you can be alright. You're stronger than that - I know it". Her voice held the bell-like quality again, but Ryo wasn't comforted.
"How can you?" he demanded. Tears fell from his cheeks and splashed into the sidewalk. "If you were there, you should know I'm not strong. I - all those years, all those experiments on Gawl - and then the older me, Nekasa… He broke. I broke". He tasted blood. Did he bite his lip, without noticing? "I was the one who started it all! I…" and suddenly, he couldn't speak anymore. Ryo buried his face in his hands and cried - sobbed.
There was no street; there was no fey girl sitting next to him. Ryo has never cried like that. There was always reason to hold back - someone might see or hear, and he didn't deserve to be pitied or forgiven. It has always been hard, but lately it'd been hell; the pressure inside his chest had become so bad that, at times, he was unable to breath; that, at times, his vision swam. The nightmares intensified. Spiraling fast and deep where others could not follow, Ryo completely missed that it was too late not to worry the others: they already knew.
Those inhibition were now gone. With no one to see or hear - save for a girl who may have been only an illusion - crying had consumed Ryo to a point where nothing else was left.
"No… Ryo, Ryo, please, look at me…" But her plea fell on deaf ears. She knew that. She knew that he only cried before once in his life, the night he told Gawl and Koji the truth about Kuberai. "Oh, Ryo, please listen…" She'd watched before as another Ryo crumbled under a pressure that was just too great, and she'd be damn if she let it happen again. She did not follow them into this world just to see everything fall apart only because Ryo and Koji were both too lost in doubt to reach out, and Gawl and Masami did not know how to reach to them. She'd be damned if it'll be her fault.
How many times did she pray for a chance to help them? How many times did she yearn for the possibility to reach out, to hold? But she couldn't. She had no power to act - within the fabric, she was just an illusion of light and air, just a game of electricity. She could not hold him, as much as she wanted to; she could not smooth away that frown. She made him cry - brought up his pain when he was at his lowest, when there was nothing for him to hold on to - and now, there was no way for her to help her.
"I'm sorry", she whispered. Her own tears threatened to take over, but it would not do to allow it. "I'm so sorry, Ryo"
She didn't realize that he heard her; yet, long minutes afterwards, the reply came: "Why?" he asked, the word rasped out so fast that it could be barely distinguished from his shallow breathing. "Why?"
Her head snapped up. He was still curled up, almost in a fetal position, and she had no way to know if he was even talking to her. Still, she answered.
"I'm sorry because there's nothing I could even do to help. Everything you went through, and all I could do was watch: I couldn't stop anything, I couldn't make a difference. I just watched as you were hurt, watched as things went wrong time and time again"
"It's not your fault". He still had his eyes closed, but now she knew that he was talking to her. "None of this is"
"Does it matter?" She stared off into space, her hands tightening together. "The end result is the same"
"But you care". He straightened a little, and had opened his eyes.
The sad chuckle escaped her throat before she could stop it. "You do not allow it as an excuse for yourself, but you offer it to me? Oh, I'm sorry…" He looked as if she slapped him.
"Gawl said that", Ryo said distantly, "When I tried to apologize to him. He got angry. I never tried again". He looked at her, even if sideways. "Caring can't make up for guilt, can't it?"
"I suppose it can't", she murmured. "Telling that to the other party doesn't seem to help, though"
"I'm sorry I made you cry, Ryo. I shouldn't have done that"
"Maybe…" He lowered his eyes again. "Maybe I needed that"
Another escaped chuckle. "Was still scary to watch"
"Do you really care so much?" he asked carefully, intently.
"Yes", she said simply. "I was cleared for the third question years before the second time on Oju Tower, but I wanted to follow this through. I couldn't leave you guys alone, even that my presence made no difference"
"But it does make a difference. That the fact that everything we've been through, it meant something to someone - to you -" He shook his head. "I sound like Koji", he murmured, "But he at least understand what he says. Me, I just feel". He closed his eyes. "And it keeps leading me the wrong way"
"Quite the opposite, Ryo. Wasn't it feeling that made you doubt Kuberai?"
"I…" he hesitated. "Yes, it did", he admitted quietly. "But Nekasa…"
"I don't know, Ryo. I won't deny that it was horrible. But - if not for that - Koji, the one you knew as Kanae, he would've died alone; and maybe he couldn't have stalled Ryoko long enough, if he would've had to do it by himself"
"Maybe. But still…"
"Ryo…" now was her turn to hesitate. "You care so much, Ryo. If you didn't care so much, it wouldn't have hurt you so. But would you pay that price?"
"No" the answer was short and immediate. Ryo took a deep breath. "I would have never paid that price, even if it would've spared me all the sorrow in the universe". He smiled, and that shining smile was a startling contrast to his tear-streaked face and sad eyes. "Thank you. For everything"
"What are you thanking me for?" she asked, and he was sure she didn't mean to sound so forlorn.
"For caring", he said simply. "Caring may not be enough… But knowing that someone care, it do mean something"
"Thanks". She drew a deep, shuddering breath, even that she had no lungs to feel with air. She needed the expression. "Thank you, Ryo. It's the sweetest thing someone had ever said to me"
She leaned forward and kissed him on his forehead. "I'll stay around", she whispered. One of her tears fell on his face. "Until you've all healed. Bye, Ryo. Take care"
And she took off, running into the night, bells ringing as her feet touched ground: she faded away by the fifth step.
Ryo remained frozen to the spot. Human beings, confined as they were within their bodies, could still convey so much emotion with a simple touch of lips on skin. She was not human, and the lips that touched his forehead were made from intent and emotion: that split-second of touch was enough to shake him to the core. He knew what she was, now, better than words could ever express. That, though, was not the greatest thing that she left behind: for a lingering moment, he could see the world around him as she saw it, a gift of love so complete that it defied all reason and explanation.
For really, what reason could love ever need?