Every sound was too loud.
The sound of the eaves rattling in the wind outside became buildings crashing into each other in a storm as it entered his ears. Terui’s ragged breaths coming from where he lay in the bed in the alcove may as well have been heavy, ghoulish panting; the sort one might hear in an abandoned stairwell liberally decorated with graffiti. The second hand on the wall clock incessantly, deafeningly counted down to some incomprehensible horror.
Akiko’s footfalls as she moved around the office were like heavy boots stomping. Like something coming to get him. Shotaro pulled his blanket around himself to cover his face.
If he couldn’t see them maybe they couldn’t see him.
“Shotaro? I made cocoa.” Akiko’s voice was loud enough to wake the dead and shrill enough to break glass. A terrible clattering came as she set a cup on the table. Shotaro shouted and scrambled away from her so he was now sitting on the arm of the sofa.
“Shotaro...” Akiko said again. She sat in the seat beside him and he tried to shift further away, but there was a wall behind him. He pressed back against it desperately, curled in on himself. He couldn’t escape. He was trapped. He was doomed.
What felt like minutes passed, though from the ticking of the clock it had to have been only seconds. The howling wind outside picked up and Shotaro shivered. His heart pounded in his chest and he felt like he couldn’t breathe.
He couldn’t breathe.
Shotaro tore the blanket from around his head and sucked in deep gasps of air. His eyes landed on Akiko and, startled to see her, he tried to stand, tried to run, but only wound up crumbling to the floor where he continued to shake like a leaf.
“Shotaro!” Akiko exclaimed, the high pitch of her voice piercing into his very soul. She slid onto the floor and crouched beside him— what was she going to do to him?! He screamed and tried to scramble away but the next thing he knew her arms were around him, holding him close to her.
“Gahh!” Shotaro cried out again, shoving at Akiko. Her fingers dug tight into the blanket surrounding him so when he scrabbled away from her it came loose. He was exposed. He stumbled to his feet and went crashing to the other side of the room, finally slumping against the door that led to the garage.
Philip, who had died twelve years ago. Philip, who was gone now.
The fear that gripped Shotaro’s heart dug in deeper and twisted like a knife. He buried his face in his knees and dug his hands into his hair. “No,” he whimpered; the first coherent word he’d uttered in hours.
He shrunk into himself when he heard Akiko approaching, but she knelt a couple of feet in front of him and didn’t come any closer.
“Shotaro,” she said softly, “I want to help, but what am I supposed to do here? You just keep screaming at me no matter what I do!” She shuffled forward and put her hands on his shoulders slowly enough that he saw it coming, he knew what was going to happen, but still he whimpered and trembled.
Once again, she pulled him close to her. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and stroked his hair. He shoved at her and moaned in terror but she dug her fingers into his shirt and clung until his struggles gave way to pathetic, heaving sobs.
Akiko’s fingers threaded through Shotaro’s hair. She kept her voice low—he would have killed for that when she was being loud, but now it only made her sound ominous and threatening. “It’s okay. It’s just that freaky Dopant jerk. There’s nothing to actually be scared of.”
Nothing to be scared of. When he thought it through logically, he knew it to be true. But that moment came and went in a flash and he knew there was everything to be scared of.
Philip was gone.
Terui had almost died.
And the wind outside had picked up again. The shutters were banging against the windows like somebody trying to break into the office. Shotaro screamed again and shoved at Akiko. Her grip tightened. “Shotaro!” she exclaimed, her voice shaking.
Wait—was she about to cry?
The feeling of something wet dripping onto Shotaro’s head answered that question. His violent trembling died down until he was only slightly shivering. He looked up into Akiko’s tearstained face.
He’d made her cry. He was one side of the handkerchief that wiped away Fuuto’s tears, and he’d made tough-as-nails Akiko Narumi cry. Swallowing the lump in his throat, Shotaro reached up and wiped one of her cheeks with his hand.
Hesitantly, as though she were expecting the worst, Akiko smiled. “So you’re still in there after all, huh?”
He nodded, but that was all he could manage. He wrapped his arms around her and clung for dear life as though she could keep him safe from all that was closing in on him. As if she could keep any of it at bay. As if she, or anybody else in the world, could protect him. When she draped that blanket around his shoulders again, his muscles did relax involuntarily. It was a start.
“So... you want to try that cocoa now?” Akiko offered hesitantly.
Shotaro nodded. She let go of him, tugging that blanket more snugly around his shoulders, and took slow, quiet steps to the table to pick up the cup. She was probably just trying to help, but Shotaro found that he had to keep his wide, panicked eyes on her the entire time because if he couldn’t hear her, who knew what might happen?
When she returned with the cocoa she gave him a quizzical look. “Here you go!” He cringed, and she lowered her voice. “Sorry, sorry! Here.”
Shotaro took the cup and sipped from it. Even in his present state, he couldn’t find anything to be scared of. If she’d included marshmallows he probably would have freaked out and thrown the cup because he wasn’t expecting them, but it was just standard hot cocoa. Nor was it too hot or too cold. He managed a wry smile. Nice job, Akiko.
Akiko let out a relieved laugh. “Look, Shotaro,” she said, “I know things are pretty bad right now, but we’re going to fix it. Okay?” She sat beside him and leaned up against his shoulder. He jerked in surprise, but her arm around his back managed to still him.
He nodded. “Y-yeah.”
“We’re going to get Philip back and Memory Break his creepy old dad, and then you’ll be back to normal.” She squeezed him briefly.
“Yeah,” he said again.
The clock on the wall continued to tick, counting down the seconds remaining in his life. But as long as he stayed here next to Akiko, wrapped in a warm blanket drinking hot cocoa, Shotaro almost, almost felt safe.