He woke up to silence.
It wasn’t an unnatural or unusual occurrence in the Itsuki household.
Every morning, he’d crawl out of the futon and roll it up.
Every morning, he’d slide open the door to the garden, opposite of the door into the rest of the house, and he’d watch the sun rise slowly but surely over the edge of fence on the other side of the estate.
Today was no different.
Though it was silent, it was peaceful.
It was much better to think that then the stifling alternative.
The door behind him slid open.
“Mikoto-sama,” a voice called, same as every morning.
He didn’t move from where he sat, but he nodded. “I’m awake.”
Same as every morning.
From a young age, he was told he was too sickly to go outside.
As a prized child of the Itsuki house, in which there was a long-running rumor that they always had difficulty bearing children, he believed it was a combination of the sickness and his father simply not wanting to lose him.
But as he neared his sixteenth birthday, he was sure that he would be alright.
He longed to see what was past the fence, after all, for the very first time. Perhaps it could be a birthday gift, a coming of age gift.
However, no matter how much begging and crying and thrashing about he did, his father would not allow him outside.
He resigned himself.
He began to read, asking his beloved servant Michinori to retrieve any and all kinds of books he could.
Fiction, non-fiction, ones that blurred the lines — he didn’t care. As long as he could imagine the world beyond the fence, he imagined he could be satisfied, too. He ate every sort of story up.
By his eighteenth birthday, he knew he was blessed enough to be able to read — to be able to experience all the little joys and tiny worlds contained in each book Michinori handed him.
Not many people could read still. That’s what some of the books said. So, to be able to do so, and to do so so lavishly, he was blessed.
Each world came to life in his mind.
He didn’t need to go beyond the fence.
He didn’t need the harsh, real world his father warned him about.
He would get hurt out there, surely. He would get harmed, physically or not.
Michinori and the books couldn’t hurt him.
“Good morning, milord,” said the voice, and the door opened up a little wider, he heard.
He glanced over his shoulder, and in Michinori’s hands was a humble bag. By the shape of it, Mikoto could tell there were at least three new books for him to read.
As if he were a dog called back to its master, he nearly tripped over himself in order to get to the seated servant. A bright smile crossed his face, sitting almost impatiently in front of Michinori. He held his hands out expectantly, wagging his tail.
“As excited as ever,” said Michinori quite plainly, yet from the tone of his voice, it was easy to hear that he was just as excited in his own way.
Michinori pulled a book out, setting it in Mikoto’s hands. The boy eagerly took it and opened it up to the first page, already beginning to read without caring to even look at the title.
Michinori laughed. “Now, now, milord, there’s still more. That’s only the first. Here… This one is named Mogra Dagra,” he explained as he handed him a second book.
Opening it to the first page again, Mikoto commented, “What a weird name.”
“I’ve heard it’s a very weird book. Perfectly suited to your tastes.”
There was a moment of silence as Mikoto processed what Michinori had just said. “Ah, what’s that supposed to mean? Huh, huh?”
Michinori waved a hand, laughing again. “Nothing at all, Mikoto-sama. Here, this is one in English. I think you already have the translated copy, so it will help you learn more.”
“Oh!” A lightbulb went off over Mikoto’s head, taking the book. He flipped through the pages — backwards, he realized quickly. Embarrassed, he turned to the real first page, sounding out the title. “This… Side of… Para… dise? This Side of Paradise? Hmm…”
“It’s by Fitzgerald.”
“Fitzgerald… Oh!” Mikoto flew to the shelves of books against the wall of his room, fingering several books along a shelf until he found what he was looking for, pulling out the book in question.
“It’s this one! His first one! It’s one of my favorites, actually…” He pointed out the creases on the spine, moving to sit in front of Michinori again. He sat prim and proper, even though his expression and tone of voice was anything but. “I’ve read it six times! To read the original… I wonder if I’ll be able to do it, huh?!”
“I certainly believe you can overcome any difficulty you put your mind to, milord.” The corners of Michinori’s eyes crinkled with warmth.
But Mikoto was barely listening already. He had both books sprawled open to the first page, reading them side by side. He sounded out the English on his left, then went to reference on his right.
After watching for awhile, Michinori nodded, then slid out of the room. “I’ll prepare breakfast for you and your father.”
Mikoto did not answer.
The door slid shut.
It wasn’t like he hated his father.
He didn’t resent him at all, in fact.
He just didn’t understand him. He didn’t understand his motives for stationing guards at every nook and cranny, spending all of that money in order to keep him inside. He didn’t understand what was so scary about the world that he was forbidden from engaging with it at all in the first place.
But his father didn’t understand him, either. His father never heard his pleas for going outside, and so he had given up in even asking.
Sometimes he’d ask Michinori, but the man would never oblige or budge even just a little bit.
“Your father will find out, I’m sure of it, and both of our heads will be cut off,” Michinori finally said once when Mikoto was younger.
Mikoto never asked after that.
His father was scarier than the outside, he had thought when he was younger. But the more books he read, the more he realized that he had been wrong.
Inside this estate was far better for him.
He resigned himself.
He was thirty-two pages into the original English version of This Side of Paradise when Michinori came back to alert him breakfast had been prepared. The scent of delicious as always food had wafted through the doorway, and Mikoto had to stop himself from salivating like a dog. His stomach had grumbled, making him aware of just how hungry he was.
Sitting down at the table, prim and proper like a good child — well, actually, that only lasted for a few moments as he slid into a slouch, leaning his elbows on the table and letting his legs drift out from under him into a more comfortable position. Michinori clicked his tongue at him.
“You should sit up before your father enters,” he chastised.
Mikoto stuck his tongue at him but did as he was told, knowing that the longer he didn’t, the longer Michinori would hold his food hostage.
Lately, it always took his father hours to wake.
He had given Michinori permission to feed Mikoto first, but Mikoto was always to wait at the table for his father to at least arrive, even if he was already finished eating for himself. Later and later, recently, did Mikoto wait.
But the door from the garden slid open earlier than normal — quite earlier than normal — today. In stepped Mikoto’s father — a towering man with jet black hair and even blacker eyes, like a deadly abyss, but a kind demeanor (Mikoto had been lucky enough to inherit all there was about him besides his eye color — his own were a light yellow, the same as his mother’s). Akira Itsuki surveyed the room, causing Mikoto to sit up a little straighter and set down the chopsticks that held the first bite of his breakfast. Michinori continued to set the master of the house’s plate.
“Good morning, father.” Mikoto’s voice was respectful yet warm.
Akira nodded, crossing the threshold and entering the room fully, sliding the door shut behind him. He took his seat across from Mikoto at the table, sitting cross-legged.
“Good morning, milord,” echoed Michinori, chipper. He put the finishing touches on Akira’s plate, then withdrew himself from the room.
Silence fell over the two remaining occupants.
Mikoto rarely ever ate with his father nowadays, as explained. He was always finished by the time Akira showed up. So that’s why his hand shook as he picked up the chopsticks again and swirled around his rice, keeping his eyes strictly on the plates in front of him. He pushed up his glasses with his other hand, then returned it to his lap.
“I’ll be going out today,” Akira said, breaking the silence. He picked up his own chopsticks and took a few bites after that, not saying anything further.
Mikoto, unable to stand the persistent quiet, looked up. “Going out? Where? I know you leave often, but it’s not like you announce it to me or anything like this…”
This gave Akira pause. He smiled. “I’ll be going somewhere that’ll help the world,” he said after a moment.
“You don’t need to know right away, but I did prepare this for you.” His father took out a letter, sealed with a wax family seal. He slid it across the table. “Open it tomorrow by dawn, if you think something’s deathly wrong.”
Mikoto cautiously picked up the letter, flapping it slightly. It bent with the heaviness of the seal, so he set it down and smoothed it out. “… How suspicious! This is just like in one of my books, you know.” Mikoto beamed at him. “The lead detective gives the apprentice detective a mysterious letter and tells her not to open it for a week! Then he dies at the very beginning of the book!”
Akira laughed. He didn’t say anything.
Mikoto looked back down at the mess of the food he’d made. He picked up his chopsticks again and took another, quiet bite.
“You’re not going to die, are you?”
Akira waved a hand. “The outside world is full of unpredictable possibilities… But I assure you, I will not die so soon. This is just a mere precaution.”
“What are you going to go do that’s so dangerous?”
“Haha, I suppose… I can tell you this: It has something to do with your mother.”
“I’ll be sure to let you know when I have more information. But basically, I’m going to investigate some leads as to her whereabouts.”
Mikoto pursed his lips. “… Make sure you come back with her! Alright? I won’t accept anything less.”
Minako Itsuki had disappeared ten years ago, when Mikoto was only nine. His memories of her are fuzzy at best, but she was beautiful — he used to lay his head in her lap and she’d sing songs as he looked up at her and played with her hair. Perhaps time should have stopped in one of those moments. At least she’d still be here.
Akira had never given up the idea that she was still alive, though he often didn’t discuss details with Mikoto, just like he was refusing to do now. That didn’t stop Mikoto from being curious, though.
He had dreams about her. Every night, for the most part. Dreams about where she was, dreams about what she was doing now, dreams of a different life for her, without the two of them. Some dreams scared him. Some dreams didn’t.
He had his favorite dreams.
Like the ones where she came back, full of life and love. Or the ones where she had lost her way and her memory and started a new family with someone else (though this one made him arguably pretty sad, he still enjoyed seeing her so happy).
He had his most hated dreams, too, but he wouldn’t want them listed out.
All in all, though, he dearly missed her. Even after all this time, he missed her. This longing for her wouldn’t ever go away, he thought.
When his father had suggested he’d be following leads surrounding her in the current day, he was insatiably curious. He kept his mouth shut, though, because he knew his father would tell him one day. Even if that day was far off, even if that day was the same as when she came back to them.
Akira nodded. “Of course I’ll come back. Hopefully, I’ll come back with her, too.”
The thought of that had Mikoto giddy. “She’ll really come back soon, then, if—if you’re on the case, she’ll come back soon!” He couldn’t get the words out fast enough.
His father laughed. “Yes. I’ll be sure to bring her back home…to both of us.”
Mikoto’s hair fell in his face as he leaned his head forward, shielding his eyes from view. Then, he threw his head back. And he laughed. “Of course! Yes, haha! You will! You’re my father after all! You can do anything!”
Akira’s smile softened, and he chuckled, so softly, too. “Of course.”
With a renowned fervor, Mikoto began to eat again, nearly dropping his chopsticks several times over. He was nervous about his father going away, sure, but he was also trying to focus on the books that Michinori had brought him that morning. If he focused on the books, he would be able to pass the time without many worries — especially since he’d be anticipating some news about his mother when his father returned.
After he was finished, Michinori came and took his dishes away. Just as Mikoto was about to get up and retire to his bedroom again, Akira spoke up.
“Mikoto… I…,” he began, making Mikoto pause. But he, himself, paused, before he shook his head and waved his hand. “… Never mind. Please enjoy your day. I’ll be leaving after this.”
Although Mikoto felt puzzled by his father’s lack of dialogue, he stood up. He bowed. “… I wish you luck on your journey! Make sure to bring Mother back with you!” He stayed bent over for a few more moments before straightening.
There were tears in Akira’s eyes. He looked down quickly, shielding his eyes with his hair. Mikoto wanted to go to him, but something about his posture made it seem like he shouldn’t.
So he didn’t.
Mikoto stuffed the letter into his sleeve, turned on his heels, and bounded out of the room.
Why was Father crying?
Everything will be alright, so there’s no need to cry.
Father will come back home later tonight.
Hopefully with Mother…
But will he be alright, really…?
Thoughts like those buzzed around in his head the entire way to his room until he slid open the door. He felt dizzy. Holding his head, he sat back down where he had been before he had left for breakfast. He picked up This Side of Paradise, dog-eared to page thirty-two. Opening it, he tried, but he really just could not focus on the words long enough to even sound them out.
So he picked up one of his favorite books — a book by the title of The Summer Crystal.
The Summer Crystal was a children’s book. Many might think it funny that it’s one of his favorites, still, now nineteen years old. But it was special for two reasons: One, it had allowed him to explore the outside world at a young age, even if it was fantastical; two, his mother had read it to him, by his request, every night before her disappearance.
If he tried really hard, he swore he could even still smell her fingertips on the pages, where she would often turn them.
Today, he felt no such nostalgia. He still could not focus on words, so instead, he focused on the pictures in it. They lacked color, but his mind filled in the color instead. Bright colors, dark colors, colors saturated and unsaturated… All sorts of fun ones.
The breeze from outside, the door to the engawa still open, startled him. Mikoto looked up. The sun was low in the sky, but not quite setting.
Pitter… Patter… Pitter-patter…
Rain began to fall, slowly at first, before it devolved, quite suddenly, into a torrential downpour. Mikoto scrambled to slide the door shut, but some moisture still got inside.
“Ah, how unfortunate…”
At least his books were safe. The tatami mats would dry, but he couldn’t unfurl his futon just yet.
How much time…?
Realizing that the sun was really just about to set, having seen it before shutting the door, he sighed. He spent the day in a daze, doing absolutely nothing. More and more of such days had been happening as of late, but today was especially the worst.
Michinori should have called for him for lunch, though. It was then that he did remember something that happened earlier on in the day, around… lunchtime, actually.
“Mikoto-sama, I will be accompanying your father out,” Michinori had said, sliding the door open just a crack. “Your lunch has been prepared and is on the table.”
Mikoto remembered nodding and nothing after that.
He sighed again, falling to his back, where he rolled onto his side. Something crinkled in his sleeve. He pulled out the letter his father had given him, running his fingers over the seal cautiously. Nothing felt wrong, yet he felt as if he should open it…
Before he could go any further with that thought, he heard something shuffle outside of his room. “Michinori?” he called.
Looking up towards the front of his room, he found the door to be open.
Something creeped inside — an eerie, sort of feeling — that sort of something. It settled deep in Mikoto’s stomach. For some reason, the seemingly harmless open door was setting off alarm bells inside of his head. They screeched, louder and louder, drowning out any thoughts other than:
“Miko—” someone began.
A thud in front of his door. A flash of movement through the crack.
After a few moments of waiting for the movement again, he stood up. Suddenly, he felt absolutely sick. Mikoto covered his mouth with his hand, biting back bile. However, with a determination only seen in young people, he pushed open the door.
Someone grabbed him from behind. He stumbled. He screamed — or, well, he tried to scream, but a hand covered his mouth.
“Mikoto-sama,” said Michinori. “You’re in grave danger here.” His hand eased up.
“Wh… What?” Mikoto felt breathless, and he was.
“Come with me. Quiet now.”
Michinori sounded extremely serious.
Mikoto simply couldn’t disobey him, especially when he tugged at Mikoto hard in order to get him to come. Mikoto stumbled behind him, but he followed him diligently after a moment to gain his footing again. Michinori tugged at his arm again, squeezing so tightly that Mikoto thought he might lose feeling in his hand a few minutes later.
Michinori slid the door to the garden open. The scent of iron was so strong that it clung to his skin, to his clothes.
There were never any guards in the garden, since it was the centermost part of the estate. It had always been a peaceful place for Mikoto to read in, but now, the rain was coming down too hard for him to even think of peace. The rain sunk deep into his bones, making him cold almost immediately. He wasn’t dressed for the chillier outside at all.
The pair padded quietly on the engawa, not descending down into the actual garden. They turned right.
The Itsuki estate was a rectangle, in most basic terms. Starting from the center, there laid the quite large garden. The rest of the house circled the garden, expanding into four different wings: The North, the East, the South, and the West. Mikoto’s room was located in the North wing, while the front of the house was actually located in the West. As such, that’s where they were headed.
The door to the main room of the house was already open. The scent of iron got stronger, so much so that Mikoto could taste it. It stuck to his tongue as if he had bit into something with the flavor.
Michinori let go of Mikoto when they crossed the engawa and entered the house. He cautiously, so, so cautiously, moved towards the door to the outside, but before he could reach it—
Mikoto braced himself for the attacker. Someone who had to be strong enough to make the scent of blood palpable, even when no blood was present in the room. He took a step back, absentmindedly pushing his glasses back up his nose.
They shined when lightning struck somewhere outside, illuminating from behind a man with a sword in the doorway.
Michinori stood in front of Mikoto, protectively.
The man in the doorway took a step forward. In the darkness — Mikoto realized that by now, the sun had set fully, bathing them in black — Mikoto couldn’t see details. He could tell the sword on his hip was still sheathed, and it had only a slight curve. The man’s hand rested on the hilt, but it made no move to draw it.
More lightning struck, this time from behind Mikoto. A tree fell down outside in the garden. In the brief light, Mikoto caught a glimpse of the man.
The man was tall, with dark brown hair that was pulled back into a high ponytail. His eyes were closed, as if he were in deep thought. More importantly, he wore a gakuran-like outfit, even though he had to be past even university age. A white cloak draped over his shoulders, and he actually had another, smaller sheath on his hip, with no curvature at all.
He spoke next, and when he did, Mikoto was struck with an odd sort of infatuation. Was that even the right word? This man was powerful, and his tone suggested that.
This man lived beyond the fence.
“… Is this where you have been?” he said, in the most polite way he possibly could. He caught Mikoto’s gaze, even in the dark.
Just who was this man…? What did he want with Mikoto?
* * *
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