Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.
He guessed it was the same for all worlds, monster-infested or not.
Not that anyone bothered to ask him; not with the monsters to fight and the pretty little shards to gather for someone wearing Kazuya's face.
A little bunny had led them through the strange labyrinth of hallways and rooms, just like in Alice in Wonderland , except they wouldn't ever wake up from their strange dream. He wondered what he'd tell his parents if they actually got out. See, we were sort of stuck in a butterfly-filled Comaland. I shot a bunch of monsters, carried them in my earring and built a kaleidoscope and that's how I came back to life.
But staying in this place was surprisingly fun. He loved the way the world warped and twisted beneath his hands as he imagined a pistol, willing it into existence like he'd been doing it all his life.
Sometimes it felt like he could think of a book he wanted to read and it would appear. Not in his hands, but among the piles of dust-covered books, half hidden behind a stack he hadn't seen yet.
You're a wizard, Aki.
He'd tried to test the limits of this ability, of course. One night he'd tried to wish for a map of the manor, and in a fit of megalomania imagined the elder wand appearing in his hand, with little success. After that he'd settled on a katana, though that attempt ended fruitless, as well. So he'd kept the gun.
He had gotten used to their daily routine of shooting butterflies and running for their lives.
Scouring the bookshelves for stories he hadn't read yet. Shooting some more. Tidying up after Monshiro because he'd forgotten to pick up after himself again.
Ai hoping the meathead-turned-monster was fine, avoiding Aki's gaze as she talked about him. Ai blushing as Natsu patted her head.
Telling Monshiro about the endless wonders of the internet after dinner, knowing full well that even Kagiha wasn't quite as invested in his household activities as he let on.
Being scolded by Ai for corrupting the innocents. Natsu mediating with a soothing voice, deeper now, of course, but unmistakably his, sharing smiles and kind words with everyone, and no matter how hard Karasuba - no, Aki - tried, he always ended up grinning back.
Until they'd regained their memories.
Knowing the friend you were living and joking with was slightly deader than you made things a bit awkward. The chessboard they often had occupied sat abandoned on the living room table, the pieces from their last session still where they had left them. Natsu was too nice to address it, but there was no chance he hadn't picked up that Aki avoided being alone with him.
"It feels like it will never stop raining."
Ai had curled up on the couch, hugging her knees to her chest. She rubbed at her eyes and covered her mouth with her hand as she yawned.
"It probably won't."
He flopped down next to her, pretending not to notice how Ai reached for her hairpin and leaned against the armrest, further away from him.
"At least we haven't drowned yet."
Her lack of reaction told him that she still hadn't remembered everything. Ai combed her fingers through her hair, and he couldn't help but follow her movements. For a moment she said nothing, biting her lower lip, and she startled him when she finally spoke. "Kagiha said he'd look for Yamato again tomorrow. Hikage said he'd join him to gather more shards while they search."
Of course he would. They had gotten close to the end, and every new piece could be the last.
"Guess that means I'll play the guard tonight," he said. "You asked Monshiro to go with you this morning."
He suppressed a sigh as Ai looked decidedly guilty. She'd always been the easiest to read, though Aki always fell short of understanding her.
"He wanted to go by himself, but I think I'll follow him. He's…" She lowered her voice to a whisper, "he's been forgetful lately. Even more than usual."
"Think he's not gonna find back?"
Think he's the real Kazuya?
"No, that's not-" she started, but quickly fell silent again before she finished her lie. Too honest for her own good. "I think we should all stay together."
More like I want everyone to stay together, isn’t it?
That had been the reason they all stuck together. Aki had suffered through Takuya’s presence for her and Natsuki.
Even as a child Takuya had tried to be at the center of attention, shouting and pushing and waltzing right over everyone's feelings whenever they hadn't obeyed his whims. Always too loud, always too rough, always too much .
Funny how Takuya didn't even have to be present to get in his way.
Aki put his feet on the table, staring at the light of the kaleidoscope.
It was slightly too far away to push it off the top from where he sat. Maybe he'd visit Not-Kazuya and shatter the kaleidoscope in front of him. It was nice to imagine his face fall as little princess Aki sent all his schemes to hell.
Then he'd see what happened if you pissed off the master of the mansion. Like his childhood heroes who had started the final battles, just without knowing that the good guys would win. Calling any of them good was a stretch of imagination, really.
Aki chuckled, earning himself another questioning glance from Ai.
Of course he wouldn't do it.
"So what would you do if someone can't make it back?" He should have stopped talking. "What would you do if you found Yamato and all that's left of him is a monster?"
Or a skeleton at the bottom of a lake.
He curled his hand into a fist and pressed the backside against his mouth. No one deserved this. Not even Takuya. Not Natsu. Especially not Natsu.
He hadn't eaten for a while, yet his stomach turned and Aki had to force himself to keep breathing evenly.
It was like he was seven years old again.
After the summer camp incident his family had gotten him cards with well-wishes and his favorite superheroes, and a pile of booklets full of sayings like "everything will be alright!" and "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade", and somehow he'd believed them.
So little princess Aki had started collecting inspirational quotes about courage and change and moving on, felt good about himself because surely he'd figured it all out, until a month later when reality hit him in the face.
When he started wailing during swimming practice in front of the whole class because someone took too long while diving.
Knowing that his friend was still at the bottom of a lake because stepping out of his comfort zone had meant stepping into the lake and little scaredy-cat Aki hadn't done that.
Instead he'd played the scene over and over and over again, as if he could somehow turn the pages back to the part where he'd messed up and rewrite the story.
One night, after too many hours of staring at the motivational books he'd jumped out of bed and grabbed as many as he could. He'd thrown every single one across the room, torn the postcards into tiny pieces and made so much noise that his mother had come running to calm him down.
They'd moved away soon after.
"Are you okay?" Ai’s voice brought him back to reality.
“Do I look like I’m not?”
The words came out harsher than he’d meant them, and shame washed over him as Ai looked hurt.
People often presumed that his shyness meant that Aki was gentle, or some sort of kind soul like Kagiha or Ai. Truth be told, he wasn't good at being nice, so he went with being witty. Not well-read or intelligent , because that attracted the attention of bullies like Takuya.
Some of them tried their luck anyhow. Aki learned that their noise became more bearable when he drowned them out with his own voice.
So he somehow managed to stop crying at every turn and replaced his frowns with wide smiles. Pretended to be the fun kid by citing his favorite one-liners from books, filled silences with meaningless banter.
Acting purposefully dense got him a long way towards becoming the popular kid in school. So he only talked about the cool books, attended cool parties and turned into the cool Aki .
Somewhere along the line he'd actually started believing that the stuttering coward from before was gone.
The evening before his first day at high school he'd visited the park his childhood friends and him had played in. He climbed the old climbing scaffold, pulling a face at the kids on the other side of the sandpit watching him with dumb expressions on their faces. He'd held onto the bars, pressed his face against the cold metal and watched the sun disappear behind the trees.
Hell, he'd dared to congratulate himself for his indifference at being back. Ignored the knot in his stomach and blamed the weather for the shiver that ran down his spine.
And then he'd seen Ai, and his memories and feelings had come back like a wave crashing down on him. But he had changed , so he'd walked right up to her and asked her out.
Of course Takuya had ruined everything again.
The moment he'd joined them their conversations had switched to the good old times.
( But you've always known that even without Takuya she'd only cared for the past, haven't you?)
It was always about them, in the end. Takuya. Katsuya. Natsu, Natsu, Natsu. Not Aki, never Aki. Aki was an afterthought, and not a damned thing had changed.
It felt weird to be jealous of ghosts. Worst of all, he still missed Natsu, even though he was right in front of him.
"Are you really okay, Karasuba?"
"Sure," he said, more out of habit than anything, yet his voice was tinged with enough bitterness that Ai frowned.
Aki tugged at his earring and stood, stretching languidly. Then he turned towards her again and smiled like nothing was wrong. He'd gotten good at that.
To his surprise Ai smiled back, and his stupid heart jumped at the sight. He winked at her just so she'd look away, and of course she did, blushing just the slightest bit. Twisting the knife just a little bit deeper.
She yawned again, and he finally tore his eyes away. Just behind her was a pile of pillows and blankets, and he reached over to grab one. Of course it had a butterfly pattern.
Aki unfolded and dropped it over her head.
"Oops," he said as Ai squeaked. "To make up for it I'm gonna read for you."
He knelt down in front of the nearest book pile.
Ai had managed to free herself from the blanket and clutched it to her chest now. "I'm not sure if I can stay awake."
"That's the point," he answered as he flopped onto the couch again. "You like sleeping here, don't you?"
She slowly stretched out her legs, covering them with her blanket. "It's less lonely," she whispered.
But you're surrounded by lunatics. We're all mad here, Ai.
"So I'm gonna read for you. It will be the best story you wish you'd never heard," he said and patted the blanket.
“What if someone comes in?”
“Then they'd better enjoy my sweet voice reading A Wrinkle in Time.”
He cleared his throat, making a show of opening the book. Its spine creaked like a new book. Old books always carried the scent of ink and wood, and this one smelled like smoke and earth. Nothing more than chemicals, really, but his favorite librarian would have started crying with joy.
"Smells dry," he said. "Just what we need right now."
She raised a brow, but her lips twitched as she snuggled into her blanket.
It reminded him of the time they had built a blanket fort at Ai's birthday party. Five kids, three blankets and more pillows than Takuya could count. After a short squabble about the usage of books to decorate their castle - Aki had refused to use them as rooftops - they had claimed it as their new hideout.
It had promptly fallen to its first enemy, Ai's dog. But Ai had laughed, the first time since her mother's death, and even Takuya had shut his mouth and smiled.
"It was a dark and stormy night," he began. His librarian would have started crying again, out of despair. Ai didn't react, however, only looked at him with half-lidded eyes, and so he continued. “In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind.”
Strange how she still trusted him, after all he'd done.
So he kept reading, until Ai was breathing evenly, paying no mind as he started making up new words and names for everything.
He only looked up as the light rain from before turned into a downpour.
Natsu leaned on the railing upstairs, smiling softly at him. He'd appeared from nowhere, no sound of footsteps, no door creaking or closing to announce his presence. Aki blinked. In this light Natsu's form seemed almost translucent, less real than usual.
Or had he always been that way?
Karasuba managed to smile and wave.
Natsu returned the gesture, looking infuriatingly pleased even though he had no reason to, even though he'd been abandoned by his friends and in the company of a madman and his strange bunny servant. But Natsu only tilted his head and mouthed, "good night," though he didn't even look tired, and all of a sudden Aki didn't want him to leave.
He held up his hands still clutching his book, but Natsu froze in place.
Aki slowly pointed at the chessboard, then at himself. "I'll win," he whispered.
There was no way Natsu could have made out the words, but he seemed to understand the intent and his eyes twinkled as he nodded.
They couldn't go back to what had been before, but maybe they could stop time, just for a bit.
Aki let his head fall against the backrest.
He'd stay here.
Just a little while longer.