Cutscene: On Distant Shores
“A man who has been through bitter experiences and travelled far enjoys even his sufferings after a time”
-Homer, The Odyssey
The hiss of water came without delay, quickly warming and filling the enclosed shower with rising steam. Rei stood unmoving over the drain, lethargically allowing the shower stream to cascade over him until it was desirable. He was barely conscious of the will to even move himself. The sensation of temperature felt like a remote, distant thing as he observed the haphazard, stubborn way random drops of water slid downwards over his ceaselessly pale skin.
The touch of his own fingers sliding lazily upwards seemed so foreign it felt as if his body might as well belong to someone else. Rei’s eyes drew adroitly to the side and fixated on the shower’s marble finish; as if witnessing nothing but his own self were some kind of ghastly impropriety. Smooth flesh gave way to a slight divot, a speed bump in otherwise uninterrupted uniformity as the heir’s fingers graced along what he knew he would find every time.
A scar, neat and perfectly horizontal, stretched just six inches across his sternum. Barely perceivable, the healed cut was strangely ideal in its own unobtrusive shape, precisely the kind of scar Rei Saionji would deign to receive. Yet it itched with memory of the one who’d placed it there, and Rei felt a familiar irritation prick his mind as the unwanted musings of Mikiya Ryouhara’s voice slipped out between the spaces of his thoughts in the same way the onmitsu himself might emerge from monotone crowds of passersby.
Rei pulled his hand away from the scar like it was white hot, reaching out and turning the heat even higher. Steam thickened until he could barely see himself.
“How long have I continued on like this?”
The promulgations of a thousand false prophets seemed to assail Rei’s ears every step he took across downtown Sumaru, their dull faces and hushed tones arbitrating a reality they were reproachfully unaware of as they spewed their own nonsense amidst one another, occasionally emboldened by a TV or radio report.
“Have you heard about the weird illnesses cropping up?”
“My cousin swore she saw a host of fairies down by the river..”
“Meanwhile, Apathy Syndome continues to rise..”
“Heard it’s even mutating people…”
“That ship that sank? I heard North Koreans might have sabotaged it..."
”Hey, I hear there’s stuff that cures it…”
“Meanwhile, the mayor’s assailant appears to be in stable condition…”
“I hear some club has a doorway to Hell…”
The morass of aimless humanity sifted about Rei like a churning sea, the breaking waves of hearsay and premonitions impossible to deafen. Glasses pushed to the bridge of his nose, he stifled his own ruffled sensibility and pressed forward until he was a free of the noise, polished leather shoes at odds with a steadily wearied asphalt the further he got from the noise. The student stared down a long, narrow alleyway absent of all feature but the sliver of light at the other end. A lonely wind traversed the gap, and for a heartbeat he swore he saw himself staring back across the expanse, tired and bespectacled eyes united in a synapse of shared malaise for their mutual ordeal.
But only a moment and he was again alone.
“How long have I simply gone through routines?”
Japan had no crisis so severe that it could not orderly process through bureaucracy and committee first. Such was Rei’s task at the Foreign Ministry, reviewing and prioritizing any number of allegedly critical case files as they came across his desk. Some seemed more appropriate for the Mayor’s office than his Department, but he looked them over anyways. Another task force to combat Apathy Syndrome that would surely dither aimlessly while making a very good show of appearing to do something, which was all anyone was really asking for.
Apathy syndrome. A strange choice of words in Rei’s estimation, an attempt to label as divergent behavior what seemed more and more like the default state of humanity to him. He could barely tell the difference between those who mindlessly loitered about and those who mindlessly lived one day to the next, blissfully unaware of the world’s true shape.
Apathy. How convenient it must be. But it was not ennui, and Rei could no more fool himself into thinking otherwise than he could walk on thin air. The papers were stamped, sealed and addressed accordingly.
“I feel like I’m asleep, and have yet to wake…”
Visiting Tokyo no longer felt like a respite, but the Saionji household had never exactly been a warm and welcoming abode.
Rei sat cross-legged in the receiving room, his head slightly bowed. From the other end the stern, aged face of Daizen Saionji lifted, the traditional motif set by the family head’s robes and choice of décor in a silent clash with Rei’s formal western dress.
“I take it the train ride from Sumaru was uneventful.” The elder man began, eyes still half-closed as he sipped carefully from the tea that was brought out and arranged from them both. Rei waited a beat before taking a sip for himself.
“Thankfully so.” The tea’s subtle flavor lingered listlessly on his tongue, “Was there a reason you wished to speak with me in person?” Even if there wasn’t, why would he care? He used to be glad for any reason to get out of that city, but now he felt impatient at having been dragged away.
“I heard one of the Ryouhara gave you some trouble a while back.” Rei felt the small of his back tense minutely at the mention of the name-Daizen’s left eye was suddenly trained on him like a hawk, “Hm, did you think I wouldn’t learn of it if you never mentioned it?” The family head seemed more amused than anything else, but it hardly put Rei at ease.
“It did not seem worth mentioning to me.” Ever prepared with an explanation, Rei’s eyes narrowed their focus a tilt downwards, “The matter is…presently under control.”
“There is no control where they are concerned.” Daizen chided, his tone a few octaves shy of a rebuke, “But you have the necessary tools at your disposal, and that was not why I asked you here.” The age household leader exhaled with a breath that seemed like it had held for centuries, “I understand Sumaru’s Mayor has stabilized from the attempt on his life. Unfortunate business, after we’d contributed so much to his campaign…”
“No more than the standard donation.” Rei corrected, pushing his glasses up and thinking he sensed something of Daizen’s game, “I think there might be better-suited methods to investigating that than myself. For one, the police have restricted access to the assailant...”
“No, no…” The family head waved Rei’s entire induction away as he might shoo a fly, “Nothing like that. Rei, do you remember why you were sent to Sumaru in the first place?” The heir sighed inwardly, wondering if he were truly here for the great honor of a lecture. “To assist the New World Order in their goals, and ascertain whether or not their interests can be reconciled with our own.”
The old man’s arms gestured expectantly, “And?”
The briefest image of Tatsuya Sudou flashed through Rei’s head, which was one too many, “…At the very least, I doubt their interests pose a threat to ours.”
“Then you ought to continue to make yourself useful.” Daizen emphasized the point with the tip of his pipe, “It never hurts to have allies in our world, regardless of your personal opinion of them.” Once convinced the lesson took root, he continued, “In addition, you are in need of a history lesson.”
Lovely. “In regards to what, exactly?” Rei wondered if the family head was not finally going senile behind that tight-fisted veil of control. “As you know, our clan has long eschewed bloodlines in favor of taking in children with the proper potential and raising them to influential positions within society. You yourself are no exception to this rule.” Daizen rose as he spoke, walking towards one of the walls and sliding open a compartment, “You have probably guessed the true purpose of this ritual, yes?”
“To locate individuals who can use persona.” Rei repeated the expected answer quite near mechanically. He was beginning to bore.
“Naturally.” The family elder returned to his seat with an old wooden box, “But after many generations with individuals such as you and I few and far between, it comes down to tradition more than anything else. Still, there is more to the Saionji than an obsessive quest for supernatural power.”
Rei lifted his eyes as if to say ‘Really?’ but Daizen’s increasingly somber mood made the wisdom of going through with it suspect. “I don’t think I’ve heard from any of my…siblings...before.” Using that term in reference to the rest of the family would never feel unstrained in Rei’s throat.
“It is not for them to know.” Daizen concluded, painstakingly opening the box, “This is knowledge passed from head to heir alone, unbroken over the centuries. Of our clan’s history with that city, and the secret of our fortunes…”
Gold-limned light contoured the edges of the box, prompting Rei to squint his eyes.
“Am I living in reality? Or is this someone’s idea of a joke?”
Of the NWO’s many R&D facilities, most existed in plain sight. This one in particular seemed nothing more than an ordinary office building both outside and within. The lower levels told a slightly different story, of course.
Rei Saionji stood with arms crossed and brow furrowed, scrutinizing the curious object behind a cube of three-inch thick, reinforced glass. A seemingly ornamental circlet, not particularly gawdy, plucked from the head of Oberon himself.
“Have our tests revealed anything conclusive?” Rei inquired absently of the white-coated researcher aside him, eyes still fixated on the crown. How long had he been standing here, exactly?
“Nothing /conclusive/, exactly…” The researcher was a young woman who fastidiously flipped through her clipboard notes as she spoke, “But given what you described and what we’ve witnessed, there are some interesting possibilities. It’s certainly emitting something on wavelengths we don’t normally see, but we’re not sure what…” Rei’s lips twisted in a half frown. Was this the same outfit he’d worn yesterday? “If we don’t have results, I’ll at least hear a hypothesis. It’s better than nothing.”
“Well…” The woman hesitated, but the encouragement was enough, “There certainly may be some mind-altering effects in play. Whether it renders someone highly susceptible to suggestion or distorts a person’s sense of time we can’t say, but these do seem to be consistent with some of the effects you described while in their…realm.” At this, the researcher bit her lip and took on a note of concern, “Actually uh, Saionji-san, did you ever have anyone look at you when you came back?”
Rei tilted his gaze towards the woman at that perplexing, slightly prying request. “No.” He informed her succinctly, “Why would I need to do that?”
“Well it’s just…” Again, the woman seemed on the precipice of saying ‘never mind’ until choosing a different path, “Look, you were exposed to this thing, right? Not only that, you handled it for quite a while before getting it here. It’s behind a protected environment now, but we’ve just got no idea what kind of effect a foreign artifact like that can have on a person. I’m not trying to sound like I’m talking about radiation or anything like that, but-“
“Are we in Sumaru?” Rei suddenly interrupted her, the earnestness of his question causing the researched to miss a beat.
“Wha? Of…of course we are.” In that moment, she ceased to look at Rei as a symbol of some vague authority and more as a growing curiosity, “Why..?”
“It’s just…” Rei adjusted his glasses, vision seeming blurred, “I could have sworn I was in Tokyo a second ago.”
The woman frowned, scientific curiosity gone, “This isn’t a great time to start making jokes, Saonji-san. I was trying to answer you seriously.”
“I /am/ serious.” Rei insisted with some force, the dawning knowledge gnawing at him with growing fervor, “I was thinking about it already, but as your started talking it seems more and more like I was somewhere else just now. At the Foreign Ministry or the street or….” He felt himself take a step back, clasping at his ears, “Don’t you /hear/ them? All those damn rumor mongers. Is it steamy in here? Am I…was I taking a..?”
“Saionji-san, hold it together!”
Rei felt someone reach for him, but the world was already swimming beneath his feet in a space lost to direction, equilibrium or common sense. Faces and conversations spun seamlessly together in a hopeless chaos. He felt himself falling, but the unforgiving embrace of the firmament eluded him. Every jumbled memory and imaged seemed to accrete beneath like water flowing into a drain, only instead of a drain there was a door.
A lone, blue door amidst the darkness, steadily growing in size. He reached instinctively, only to find it opening unbidden. Light filled his vision.
Calm, blue, velvet light.
“Maybe there isn’t a difference. Perhaps it’s all one and the same.”
Rei Saionji’s eyes suddenly snapped open.
He was seated-kneeling, actually-on a tatami mat in the private sitting room of his penthouse apartment. Taruhime sat securely sheathed before him in her usual place up on the shelf. The sound of his phone vibrating had jolted him out of whatever hallucination he’d just been having.
That…had been a hallucination after all, right?
Unsure of how long his phone had even been ringing, Rei stepped up to answer it, not even reviewing the caller ID as he usually did.
“Hello?” He answered to several seconds of silence, then again, “Hello?”
“First.” The voice answered back in natural English, “You haven’t been hallucinating.”
“What?” The unexpected language shift was jarring enough without the strangely-timed relevance. Rei was uncommonly off-guard, “What are you-“
“Second, you need to know some things.” The voice, male by the sound of it, continued undeterred, “That Cint drug they’ve been talking about? That’s going to be a real problem. Don’t trust the obvious explanations.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Rei insisted, feeling some familiar irritation grow back into his tone.
“Sure you do.” His unknown caller seemed unphased, “You might now know it yet, but you’ve already run into one of them. Oh yeah, and keep your guard up, huh? Mikiya hasn’t forgotten about you.”
Now it was just beginning to get weird, “You can’t just call me…/knowing/ things and expect me to believe it’s not some...”
“Yeah, a joke, I know.” The dismissive tone didn’t help, “Sorry, but giving you proof would be against the rules. There’d be trouble. One more thing: There’s something dangerous beneath Inaba. Something they forgot about. Be careful.”
Whether from exasperation, indignation or sheer acceptance of his fate, Rei yielded some ground, “Fine. Whatever. Who /are/ you, even?”
There was a pause on the other end for a long while, with Rei just about to speak up when the voice suddenly answered, “I’m not sure how I could explain it, and there’s no use telling you anyways. I don’t exist here.”
Before Rei could get another word in the, call ended. When he reviewed the call history there was no number, not even a blank space and a timestamp. It was as if the strange conversation hadn’t even taken place.
Slowly, laboriously, Rei picked himself up and took to the balcony overlooking the evening cityscape. His legs ached as if those scant few feet had been the final steps of an arduous, draining journey undertaken somewhere else, on distant shores.
He gazed across the twinkling city lights, mulling over the strange, borderline psychotic sequence of events as they seemed to be arranged in his head. The overlooking bay seemed placid and listless beneath the night sky. Sumaru always seemed to be the common thread, the source of so many irregularities and disturbances in what might otherwise be undisturbed commonality.
“What nonsense.” Rei sighed, but even in relenting he felt a sort of burden lift from his shoulders, a somber comfort that tugged at the corners of his lips in spite of his most disciplined efforts to the contrary. He’d become so used to smiling falsely that a genuine one felt positively quaint.
As always, everything around him was wrong.
Someone had to correct it.