Chapter Two

I never got tired of watching Tokyo rush by through the window of a tram car. I was never bored when I was traveling; whether on a bus or on a train, I was always perfectly contented to just stare out the window at the scenery of my surroundings throughout the entire trip while the other passengers read their pulp novels and manga magazines (or, if they were wealthier, playing games on handheld consoles). In my eyes, reading and gaming were strictly activities for my bedroom, and traveling was for observation, contemplation, and reflection.

I liked to imagine how a master oil painter might portray this city in differing times, lightings, or weather conditions. I didn’t mind when it rained or snowed; in fact, I saw an exciting opportunity whenever precipitation occured. I imagined committing such scenes to a canvas with cool, deep blues and silvers to create a moody, melancholic atmosphere suited to the composition made upon it. Whenever it was a bit cloudy, but not so cloudy that the daylight was blocked out, I would likely wait until sunset so that I might capture the rich oranges and purples the sun cast against the clouds. At night, I would select vibrant neon hues to recreate the many lights glowing from the casinos, malls, cinemas, bathhouses, and arcades scattered throughout the metropolis. But my absolute favorite times for taking in the vista of Tokyo were bright, sunny autumn and spring mornings, when the trees were pink with cherry blossoms or browning with dying leaves; those were the times I felt that Japan showed its true essence, completed by the sight of the majestic peak of Mt. Fuji in the distance.

In my eyes, Mount Fuji was the most beautiful object in the world. The highest point in Japan, the wide and snowy volcano had awed, enraptured, and inspired countless artists and explorers since it was originally discovered in ancient times, as well as providing untold thousands of generations of philosophers and thinkers the focus for countless hours of pondering and meditation. But what most amazed me about this mountain was that it was largely the same as it had been thousands of years ago; even at the dawn of civilization, mankind must have seen and revered a mountain much like the looming, snowy purple behemoth I beheld now. It had witnessed many great wars and the rise and fall of many great civilizations, and even after mankind’s great leaps and advancements in science and technology it still stood there, like a grim old man eternally telling the world the story of the wonders of nature and the slow passage of time.

It gave me comfort to know that many others before me had seen this same mountain, and that many of them must have been thinking many of the same things that I did. It was a reminder that though things were always changing, in many ways they also remained the same. How many other people have been lonely, I thought, and looked at this mountain, and wondered if there was anyone like them? That have thought that things must have been better in the past, only to realize that those who were also outcasts with the same frustrations were the only ones that wrote anything? That realized no one can ever know the deepest secrets of the universe, as they are forever out of the reach of any man?

But today, at last, at least one of my questions had been answered; there must have been at least one other person who was looking at Mount Fuji and thinking like I did. After all, she had come to Japan for the purpose of admiring and reflecting on beauty, as I did. A part of me had begun to doubt that such a person even existed, but happily I was proven wrong; I had met that person on the steps of the Tokyo Public Library today. Thinking about Cinderella Peterson while continuing to gaze out the window at Mount Fuji, I gently began to close my eyes as I softly smiled.

It was dusk by the time the tram stopped at the station nearest to my home. I stepped off of the car onto the station’s platform, then I made my way onto the street and began walking towards my home as the blue of the night sky deepened until it was completely black. I couldn’t see any stars, as they were obscured by the light of the street-lamps, which cast a comforting and familiar orange glow over me as I gradually approached my apartment building. Within a few minutes, I saw it; a tall, cylindrical, steel beam-framed tower built of locally-excavated stone shaded in many pleasant hues of brown. I pushed the steel handlebar of one of the glass doors at the entrance, opening my way to the building’s light brown wooden staircase.

I scaled up six flights of stairs before I arrived at the small, rectangular hall of the seventh floor, which like all of the others held two doors in the long wall and one door in each of the two smaller side walls. I turned right, walked to the end of the passageway, and knocked on the door to Room Seven Hundred Four.

“I’m home!” I called out as I entered my apartment.

My mother, who was chopping up some vegetables for dinner in the kitchen, turned to me and gasped happily. “Welcome home, Aaron!” she cried delightedly, setting her knife down on her chopping board before stepping up to me. She embraced me, exclaiming, “I’m so happy to see you, dear! You’ve come home so early!”

“Yeah, it’s nice to see you too, mom,” I replied, hugging her back.

My mother was a rather small, plump woman with a warm, good-natured face who always wore a kitchen apron whenever she was at home. Unlike me, she had a very normal appearance; like most other Japanese women, she had a light olive skin tone, dark brown hair, and slightly narrow brown eyes. Her hair was long and artificially curled, and she usually had make-up on, which all contributed to a pleasant and friendly appearance that suited her well in her profession as a receptionist for a hospital not far from our home. It was fairly obvious that Reo Sakura was not my birth mother; she was medically infertile, and so she had been assigned by the World Hegemony to raise me and my younger brother Avion as her adopted children.

When an adult woman was unable to have children of her own, the state would assign her to be the custodian to two or three of someone else’s children, who could come from one of two sources: they could be orphaned through the death or imprisonment of their birth mother, or they could be the children of the female officials of the Board Of World Leaders, the highest governing body of the World Hegemony. The state also tried to keep blood relatives together, as well as keep foster children in their nations of origin, if they could; as a result, my brother and I had both been assigned to Reo Sakura immediately after we were each born to a (predominantly) Japanese BOWL official in Central City, the Capital of the Earth.

I loved my mother with all of my heart, though I often wished that I had been assigned to the care of a doctor or a professor instead of her; as kind, loving, and supportive as my mother was, she was of average intelligence, while I was speculated to be an “immensely gifted intellectual prodigy” by the healthcare providers and educators charged with me. It was difficult to contest that evaluation; I could already speak fluently when I was two years old, I began reading and writing shortly before I was four, and I had an advanced knowledge of linguistics, literature, music, computer science, mathematics, and physics by the time I was seven. Even during my first school years, only a few adults could understand many of the things I spoke about; needless to say, absolutely none of my peers could. As a result, I found that nearly everyone had absolutely no idea whatsoever of how to deal with me, including my mother.

Nonetheless, my mother did everything within her power to give me as much out of my life as she could, even if she couldn’t discuss most of my interests with me. She always concerned herself with my troubles, tried to give me access to any resources I might need, and praised me for every accomplishment I made, whether it was a perfect grade on a class exam, the final draft of a poem, or the solution to a highly-complex abstract mathematical problem that she couldn’t even begin to wrap her head around. For that reason, I always concluded that I preferred to have her as a mother more than I would probably have liked a doctor, as they likely wouldn’t have shown me even half of the attention or affection that my mother had shown me.

“How was your visit to the library?” my mother said once she had released me from her embrace and taken a step back. “Is there any particular reason you’re back so soon?”

“My trip was quite nice,” I replied as I knelt down to untie my black, belted, gothic leather combat boots. I then slid out of them and placed them against the apartment genkan’s wall while I continued with a small but beaming smile, “I befriended a girl there. She’s just moved here from Britain. Her name is Cinderella Peterson.”

My mom placed her hand over her mouth as her eyes widened with shock. “You did, dear?” she gasped.

I nodded. “Yes,” I said. “I’ve also arranged to go on a date tomorrow with her.”

My mother broke into a wide, giddy smile. “Oh, that is just wonderful, Aaron!” she cried. Tears began streaming down her cheeks, which she wiped away as she sniffed and continued softly, “I was so, so very worried that you wouldn’t ever be able to make any friends…”

I comfortingly placed my palms over my mother’s shoulders and gave her a gentle, reassuring smile as I said, “Don’t worry, mom; I’m alright.”

Once she had dried her tears from her cheeks, my mother replied, “I know, dear. It’s just that you’ve never had anybody to talk to or play with growing up. I’m very glad you were able to meet someone who could see how amazing you really are.”

I blushed slightly in embarrassment. “I’m not that great, mother…” I said, looking away and rubbing the back of my head nervously, to which she broke into laughter.

My mother then returned to the kitchen, where she resumed cutting up her vegetables as she said with a sly glint in her eye, “Is she a pretty girl?”

“Oh, she is dead gorgeous,” I replied as my smile widened with the memory of Cinderella. “Her beauty is almost divine. She’s really smart, friendly, and cute, too.”

My mother’s smile broadened. “Quite a brainy looker too, huh? She sounds a lot like you.”

I chuckled nervously, “Honestly, mom…”

“Do you think you’ll ask her to be your date?” my mother asked. “You know, to your Coming-Of-Age day?”

My eyes widened and I was silent for a moment, stunned. “I… I never really thought about it…” I said.

My mother abruptly stopped chopping a carrot and turned with a shocked expression to me. “You haven’t?” she said. “Why not? Didn’t you say she was pretty?”

“Y-yeah, she is,” I stuttered. Indeed, now that I thought about it, not only was Cinderella extraordinarily beautiful, but she was also quite sexy, as well. Her minidress had shown off her stunning legs, which were long, smooth, and slender, but pleasingly toned. Her figure was likewise strong but graceful, and though she only seemed to be about as old as me, she already had rather wide hips and a pair of nice, pleasingly round small breasts. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I would have liked very nearly nothing more than to see her without any clothes on.

So yes, I did find Cinderella quite physically attractive. The odd thing, however, was that sexually fantasizing about her wasn’t the very first thought I had about her when we had first met; in fact, my carnal desire for her hadn’t occurred to me until several hours after I first met her, despite the fact that I’d been thinking of nothing but her the entire time.

Usually, when I encountered someone who was highly attractive, I would immediately imagine myself having a sexual encounter with them, and then when I got home I would browse my porn collection until I found an image of a similar-looking model that I could pleasure myself to. Not so with Cinderella, however. Despite the fact that her beauty surpassed that of anyone I had ever met before, her sex appeal had been less of a priority to me than the possibility that I might become her friend. How curious, I thought; why had my first desire been to get to know her, rather than to lure her into bed?

Perhaps it was because my thirteenth birthday was still a month away, I thought; after all, it would be foolish to make an advance on Cinderella now, before I had come of age. Perhaps I wanted to befriend her so that I could still have access to her by the time of my Coming-Of-Age’s arrival. However, I then remembered the first moment I had laid eyes upon Cinderella, and I realized that befriending her had been my end goal in and of itself at that time; the idea of physical intimacy with her had only occurred to me when my mother suggested it just a few moments before now.

I sat silently for a few moments, surprisedly wondering how something so strange had happened to me, as well as asking myself why it would. I then shook my head and smiled, however, as I decided that I was simply so completely starved for companionship of any kind that my instincts had turned to finding friendship before finding a mate. It was a logical product of my evolutionary heritage; after all, humans are pack animals, we must form bonds in order to survive, and if you do not survive you cannot perpetuate your bloodline.

Chuckling to myself one more time, I lifted my arms into the air and stretched. “I’m going to be in my room,” I said to my mother after a long, luxurious yawn.

My mother nodded. “I’ll call you when dinner’s ready,” she said.

“Thanks!” I replied before making my way to the apartment’s hall.

Before I turned into the door leading to my room, however, I stopped at the one just before it: the door to Avion’s bedroom.

I turned and stared at the closed entrance to Avion’s room. I couldn’t remember the last time I did this, and I was quite surprised at myself for doing it now. What has seized upon me to stop at the entrance to Avion’s bedroom? I wondered. Have I gone mad?

I scoffed. Well, of COURSE I’ve gone mad, I observed sardonically. But so mad as to ENTER it?

I tensed up, and a chill ran down my spine. No. Don’t you DARE, Aaron. Don’t even THINK about it, I chided myself. I took a deep, steadying breath, then slowly exhaled to relieve the panic that had suddenly overcome me.

Even after all the horrors and atrocities I have witnessed and experienced, never have I encountered a being who has filled me with as much inexplicable, horrific dread as my younger brother Avion. His full name was actually Joshua Avion Axe, though he seemed to prefer to be known by his middle name. I couldn’t be sure, though; he never told anyone if this was actually the case. In fact, he never told anyone anything; my brother was utterly and completely silent, and as such nearly everything about him was a complete mystery.

Avion was born on June Thirteenth, when I was eight years old. However, he was not brought to me and my mother until three years later, as he was critically and deathly ill during and long after his birth. We were informed by the letters his doctors had sent us that he was extremely lucky to be alive; he had barely hung onto life by a thread for about eighteen months after his birth, during which time he never had human contact and was raised entirely by medical machines. When his condition improved and his caregivers attempted to introduce him to other children, however, Avion was extremely cold and aloof to them. None of his nurses could ever persuade him to speak, though his doctors said he wasn’t mute. He never played; not even by himself. He never smiled, or laughed, or explored the world like other small children do. Instead, he laid in his bed all the time, leaving only to eat, use the restroom, and attend his mandatory lessons and playtimes. He didn’t have any mental disabilities; on the contrary, Avion had reportedly mastered reading, writing, and mathematics even sooner than I did. Though he had been sickly when he was born, he seemed perfectly healthy now. No one was sure exactly what was wrong with him; all anyone knew was that he was- at all times- utterly silent, brooding, and grim.

When Avion was well enough to travel, he was brought to Tokyo by an airplane; the same jet model as the plane I was brought on. My mother and I were both extremely excited to meet him, and each of us had purchased a gift to welcome him; my mother got him a set of finger-paints, and I ordered him a miniature arcade cabinet kit; I planned to build it, install it in his room, and then help him select games for it. I had helped my mother shop to get new clothes for him, and I also helped her move Avion’s new bed and dresser into his bedroom. Everything we picked out for him was rather plain, but we planned to get him new items as we got to know him and learned what his likes and interests were.

On the day of Avion’s arrival, it was early wintertime. My mother and I had both dressed in jackets and knitted beanies to keep warm, then we took a train to the Tokyo Airport, where we waited at the cheerfully-colorful adoption terminal with a handful of other women and their children for his jet’s arrival. Once the silver, sleek passenger plane landed, an airbridge had been connected to it, and its entrance door was opened, a squad of nurses uniformed in white came out, carrying newborn infants to their adoptive families. The exception, of course, was Avion, who was holding the hand of the nurse who brought him to us, and we were able to identify him the instant we laid eyes upon him.

According to my mother, Avion looked exactly the same as I did when I was a young child. He was small and scrawny, though he was taller than most other boys his age. He had a round, sweet, exquisitely-shaped face, which wouldn’t have looked at all out-of-place on a porcelain doll. His skin was snow-white; his straight, silky hair was shiny and black as pitch; and his enormous eyes were the same intense shade of violet as my own were. Looking at him, I could see why people were often afraid of me; Avion was quite beautiful, but in a cold, eerie, and deathly sort of way, like a recently-deceased corpse or a pale, lifeless china doll. Adding to this uncanny aura of unnaturalness was the bright violet of his irises, a shade that was almost impossible to find in human eyes. According to our physicians, the pure white complexions and unusually-colored eyes that Avion and I shared were attributable to albinism, though they were utterly baffled and unable to explain how our hair was still black despite this.

Nonetheless, despite Avion’s fearsome appearance, I was quite happy to see him. I grinned and called out to him as he was being led to me and my mother, “Hey, buddy! You’re Joshua, right? I’m your brother, Aaron!”

My excitement only builded as Avion approached us. He looked so adorable, I thought, in his little white t-shirt, gray sneakers, and faded black jeans. He looked almost like a miniature alternative punk rocker. My cheer faltered, however, when Avion turned to look at me.

I trembled under Avion’s gaze. His eyes were narrowed in a malicious glare, as though he wanted nothing more than to strangle me. His expression was filled with pure, burning hatred and loathing for me, despite the fact that we had never met before. He never spoke, though I thought I could detect a message in his expression, as though a voice were sounding clearly in my head:

Do not speak to me. Ever.

I involuntarily hid behind my mother, stammering fearfully, “M-mom? Is h-he okay?”

My mother was silent. I looked up at her face, and saw that she was pale with shock and fear, as well.

“You are Reo Sakura, correct, miss?” the nurse accompanying Avion said, looking to my mother.

After a moment, my mother nodded. “Y-yes, I am, sir,” she replied quietly, still gazing at my brother. She then asked tremblingly, “Is… is this Joshua?”

“It is,” the nurse replied. I detected a slight hint of fear in his voice, as well, and saw that he seemed anxious to hand Avion off to us as quickly as he could.

Avion released the nurse’s hand and briskly strode until he was standing just before us. My mother swallowed, made a painful smile, and crouched down as she opened up her arms. “Would you like a hug, Joshua dear?” she said hopefully.

Avion cast a threatening glare at my mother, causing her smile to quickly fade and for her to promptly stand back up as she said, “Al-alright, then…”

“He’s not much for physical contact,” the nurse said.

“What’s… what’s wrong with him?” I whispered fearfully.

My mother placed her hand on my back and frowned sternly at me. “Now, Aaron…” she said chidingly.

“We don’t know what’s wrong with him,” the nurse said, causing me and my mother’s attention to immediately return to him. “He doesn’t speak, he doesn’t play, and he never gets out of bed except to eat.” The nurse then reached into his right trouser pocket and pulled out an envelope, which he held out to my mother. “This is a letter from his physician,” he said. “It’ll tell you everything you need to know about him.”

My mother blinked in stunned silence for a moment, then took the envelope, opened it up, and pulled out the letter it held. After unfolding it and reading the first few lines, she said, “He… he prefers to be known as ‘Avion’?”

“We think so, Miss,” the nurse replied. “We can’t be sure, though. He won’t tell us.”

My mother continued reading the letter for a few moments, then nodded. “Al… alright, then…” she muttered, folding the paper back up and sliding it back into the envelope.

The nurse, with an expression of great relief, nodded at my mother with a polite, “Good luck, Miss,” before turning and quickly reentering the plane.

As the nurses were boarding the state airplane to return to Central City, my mother and I turned around, and saw that the other families were staring fearfully at Avion, as well. When the other mothers met our gazes, they immediately embarrassedly looked away and began taking their children back out of the terminal.

My mother took a deep, weary breath, then turned to Avion. “Shall we go home, dear?” she said, smiling kindly and offering him her hand.

Without responding to or looking back at my mother, Avion slid his hands into his pockets and began walking towards the exit. My mother and I exchanged a fearful glance, then we reluctantly followed Avion as he led us out of the airport.

Even after we brought Avion home, he remained every bit as hostile and icy as when we first met him. He shut himself in his room and refused to leave except to eat and use the restroom, just like the letter his physician had given us said he had done at the hospital he used to live at. He never touched the gifts me or my mother had given him, and the only things he allowed into his room were books from the library, which he kept on his bookshelf. My mother and I had no idea how he got the books; we assumed that he had walked to the library and brought them back himself, though we never saw him leave the house. My mother tried to ask him if he had gone off to the library all by himself without telling her, but of course he stoically refused to answer. As a result, my mother gave up and told him to at least be safe, then never troubled him about it again.

The strangest thing about Avion, however, was not his refusal to break his silence, his hermitage in the solitude of his bedroom, or even the hostility he displayed towards everyone for seemingly no reason; the most peculiar thing about him was what sorts of books he read. It didn’t at all surprise me that Avion was already deeply invested in studying books, or even that the books he read were often quite ponderous and thick; after all, I was reading books of similar difficulty and advancement when I was only a little older than him myself. However, when I had first started reading, my first ventures into literature had been pieces of speculative fiction such as DraculaBlue Lights of Heaven, and The Lord of the Rings. Avion, on the other hand, seemed to have absolutely no interest in fiction whatsoever; the only books I ever saw him studying were highly academic textbooks, journals, and essay collections on topics such as human history, biology, quantum physics, philosophy, high-level mathematics, linguistics, and cultural mythologies. I would have thought of it as nothing more than merely a somewhat unusual academic recreational activity, except that Avion didn’t seem to perceive it as a hobby at all; on the contrary, Avion seemed to take his strange studies so seriously that he obsessed over them to the point of exclusion of all other aspects of his life.

It was as though Avion had been waiting to escape from the hospital he was born in exclusively to engage in this one activity. When he wasn’t in daycare, sleeping, or eating, he was always sitting cross-legged on his bed, reading one of his many staggeringly heavy library books. Everything he did seemed to be in service of this laborious pursuit; he added no decorations to his room, he had no toys on his bed or in his empty toy box, and he didn’t even have a clock on his wall. Aside from his bed and shelves of library books, the only other objects in Avion’s room were a writing-desk with no chair (he stood whenever he was writing), a stack of blank sheets of paper, a clear glass bottle of ballpoint pens, and the many pieces of writing he had made and tacked to the walls. I couldn’t read these writings; they seemed to be composed entirely of characters from an extremely complex, indecipherable constructed language that Avion had invented for his own use. Obviously, Avion didn’t want me to understand them, or for anyone else to, for that matter. But whatever it was he was writing, it seemed to be something quite enormous and of the greatest importance to him; he studied the notes on his wall just as much as he studied his books, and he was always adding more to them and tying strings between the tacks holding them up to better organize them.

Avion had been absolutely livid the few times I had disturbed him, and he made it abundantly clear that me and my mother weren’t allowed anywhere near his bedroom. He always kept it quite spotless and tidy so that my mother never had to enter to clean it, and he did all of his laundry by himself so that neither of us would have an excuse to enter to collect his dirty clothes or bedsheets. His message was obvious: that he was to be left alone at all times, and that there would be deeply horrific consequences if me or my mother so much as put a toe over the threshold of the entrance to his room.

However, at that moment, I had a surprising and powerful urge to check in on him and say hi. Though the idea of speaking to Avion was still quite frightening, I was filled with a newfound courage at that moment, likely from the joyful energy I had gotten from meeting Cinderella. As much as I feared Avion, I still deeply cared about him and was very worried about him; I thought that his cold, mechanical upbringing had caused him deep and disturbing psychological damage, and even if I couldn’t, I still wanted more than nearly anything to find some way- any way- to help him heal those scars.

Taking a deep breath, I rapped my knuckles on Avion’s door before turning the knob and pushing it slightly open. I saw that Avion was hunched over his desk, drafting one of his encrypted notes.

“Hey, buddy,” I said, offering him a warm smile. “How are you doing, Avion?”

Avion responded by flinching, then turning to look at me with an expression of deeply appalled surprise.

“Do you need anything?” I said with a slight tremor.

Avion’s eyes narrowed, and he gave me a glare of such burning fury that it seemed to say, Get out, or I will tear your eyes out and snap your neck.

I shrank away from Avion’s malicious gaze, then I said quietly, “Alright, alright, I was just checking…”

Avion continued glaring at me until I closed the door again, after which I heard him resume scratching out his notes.

I stood before the door for a few moments, gazing at it as I slid my hands into my pockets.  I then sighed wearily, shrugged, and muttered, “Well, it was worth a shot…” before turning and closing the remaining distance to my own bedroom.

Once I had opened the door to my room, I smiled; it was probably the most comforting sight to me in the entire world. It was a little like Avion’s, in that all of the walls were lined with shelves and there was a writing-desk in the corner of the room; however, unlike Avion’s bedroom, mine was filled with color and little decorations to liven it up.

That wasn’t to say everything in my room was completely cheery; for instance, my western-style bed was made with black sheets, a white pillow, and a hand-stitched quilt I had made myself that consisted of black, white, and gray blocks which were embroidered with victorian-inspired floral designs and arranged into a Storm at Sea pattern. I similarly had an elegant, drearily monochromatic fine victorian china tea set, an iron reading-lamp designed to resemble a gothic streetlight, and posters for several death metal bands plastered over my walls. But dark things weren’t the only things that brought me joy; I also had hundreds of toys, game pieces, and figurines stacked on all of my shelves and any other horizontal surface I could fit them on. Some of the items in my collection included rare, century-old vinyl figurines of some of my favorite anime characters, such as Leleouch Lamperouge, Shinji Ikari, Maka Albarn, Simon Jiha, and Ray‘s Alex, as well as my favorite video game protagonists Link, Heather Mason, Caim, and American McGee’s interpretation of Alice Liddell. I also had a replica of the original Winnie the Pooh and plush dolls of Riolu and Lucario, my two favorite Pokémon. However, of my knickknacks, by far my most valuable and treasured one was my Jack Skellington puppet; it was one of the actual dolls used to animate The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I had carefully posed and displayed it in a cylindrical glass case before placing it on top of my tallest shelf in order to preserve it.

The possessions I had in this room that I loved the most, however, were the hundreds and hundreds of books, disks, cartridges, records, and tapes that filled my shelves. These weren’t even all of the items of my library; just my absolute favorite ones. I was contented to read most books, listen to most songs, or emulate most games on the black tower personal computer I kept on my desk; however, when I was absolutely filled with adoration for a particular work, I would get ahold of a genuine original copy of it (or at least a replica of it) so that I could experience it as its creator originally intended. For that reason, I had a real vintage record player, several century-old gaming consoles, and an entire shelf full of plastic sleeves in which I had carefully stored many ancient Western comic books. The rest of my shelves were filled with countless optical disks of films, games, and television series; hundreds of Nintendo cartridges; hardcover editions of my favorite novels, such as The HobbitBeowulf, the Harry Potter series, and Touched; as well as complete collections of about a dozen manga series such as Fullmetal AlchemistDriven BackAi Ore, and every series Takeshi Obata had ever illustrated, including Hikaru No GoDeath NoteBakuman, and All You Need Is Kill. They all added together to create a vibrantly eclectic atmosphere of- to use an old English word- geekiness, which was the most relaxing one I could possibly be in.

I took a deep, satisfied breath, then strode to my bed. I lifted up my mattress, then began browsing over the stacks of pornographic magazines that rested beneath it. My porn collection covered an extremely wide range of subjects for those with specific interests; pregnancy, bondage, food play, incest, bara, yuri, water play, and many different kinds of role-play were some of the many genres it included. In all honesty, I had an insanely huge number of intense kinks, and I couldn’t say which was my most powerful one; all that really mattered to me was that the participants were showing real pleasure during whatever act they were engaged in.

I ran my fingers over the spines of the magazines, attempting to choose one to aid me in my nightly ritual of masturbating before taking a bath and going to bed. However, I found myself realizing something that caused me to hesitate, bring my hand to a stop, and gently lift it away from the magazines: I could still not get Cinderella out of my mind.

I thought of finding a photo of a teenaged European model with golden hair and blue eyes so as to have a visual aid that resembled Cinderella. But- strangely- I found that the idea seemed oddly unsatisfying; the model wouldn’t be her, and so it wouldn’t be the same.

My eyes narrowed with puzzlement. “What is going on…?” I whispered, setting the mattress back down. “I’ve never been so obsessed with someone before…”

I stared down at the floor, scraping the corners of the farthest reaches of my mind to find an explanation for why I could simply not stop thinking about Cinderella. Was it because she had approached me and talked to me of her own volition? Was it that everything about her, from her looks to her personality to her mind, seemed to have been crafted specifically to make her as attractive as possible to me? Was it because she was the first friend I’d ever had? Or was it something else; some unknowable connection between us that could not be detected or measured, and I couldn’t even begin to understand?

I thought about this for several long minutes, though the answer was just as elusive to me at the end as when I’d started. I sighed disappointedly, then turned my thoughts to another, more palatable problem: Cinderella so completely filled my thoughts that I would not be able to sleep tonight. I had no doubt about this; my obsession with Cinderella would be a very long-lasting one, and it would not allow me any rest anytime soon. For that reason, I needed some way to occupy myself for several hours until sheer exhaustion could overrun my insomnia.

Gently smiling, I went to my desk, sat in my plush, purple swiveling gaming chair, and picked up my communications headset. I slid it over my head, adjusted the microphone attached to it, turned on my computer, then clicked an icon of a black, calligraphic on the monitor’s desktop. A few seconds later, the interface for my application, MasterScribe, opened up and displayed the message: “You are now online, Mr. Shiro Yami.

Shiro Yami was a fitting pseudonym, I think; after all, one had only to look at me to understand what the words “White Darkness” meant. This was the name I had chosen as my identity on the Internet; the one place where I could interact with others without causing them fear or drawing bullying to myself. Here, I was anonymous, and so the world could see me for what I really was.

My activities on the internet reminded me a lot of those that Valentine and Peter Wiggin engaged in in the novel Ender’s Game; in the real world I was a nobody, but I was staggeringly famous and respected on the Web. I could comfortably join discussions in nearly any community, as I was fluent in every living language and had a deep knowledge of most things people liked to talk about. Of course, I contained my activities largely to forums dedicated to literature, music composition, and programming circles, since I was only comfortable having conversations on those general topics. People often emailed me whenever they had a very difficult question relating to them, and my answers were almost always unanimously accepted by the entire Web as gospel truth. But my main use for the Internet wasn’t browsing the forums or communities; my primary reason for being there was to distribute my projects.

Aside from reading, gaming, and watching movies, my favorite hobby was to create media. I wasn’t contented to work in just one medium, however; I wrote novels, comics, plays, and musical scores, and I was additionally a game developer. These projects were the source of my fame; they were extremely well-regarded in critical circles as well as with the general public, who were all quite astonished at the tremendous speed and high quality with which I was able to compose them. Fans and admirers of my work tirelessly attempted to guess my true identity, though I adamantly refused to tell them. Watching their guesswork was pretty amusing, though; many were absolutely convinced that I was the persona of an artistic collective or the alias of a highly secretive private corporation, as they couldn’t believe that just one person could do all that I did, though the majority of my most fervent fans agreed that the consistency in style between my works pointed to a single mind being behind all of them. No one was able to come close to guessing who I actually was, however; the most dominant theory about my identity was that I was a reclusive, brilliant Doctor or World Leader, that I was in age somewhere around my late thirties to early fifties, and that I used my pseudonym out of a desire to be left alone, or otherwise to see how my works would fare without the prestige of my real name. How ironic, I often thought, that Shiro Yami was a reputable nobleman of the world’s intellectual gentry whose ideas and opinions were held by the populace at large with a deference bordering on reverence, while Aaron Axe was nothing more than a young, strange, frightening little peasant-boy who had no friends and had often returned home from school covered in blood and bruises from beatings he had received from other children.

The wealth with which I had purchased all of my games, books, toys, and antiques had come from the revenue I generated from my online sales of my projects. My income wasn’t great enough to, say, start up my own corporation, but it was substantial enough that I could fund yearly summer-long vacations to luxury resorts if I so desired. I had little interest in such things, however; if I were to win a lottery and suddenly receive an entire fortune, I would have simply spent my winnings on even rarer and more valuable collectibles I desperately wanted, such as a signed first edition of Alice in Wonderland, arcade cabinets of Galaga and Pac-Man that were manufactured in the Nineteen Eighties, and the first editions of the Gutenberg and King James Bibles. The closest I would have come to throwing a huge, wild party would have been to buy one of the original Nightmare Before Christmas film reels, rent a Twentieth Century-reenactment movie theater, then hire the projector to show the film while I watched it and ate buttered popcorn in complete privacy.

The application I was currently running, MasterScribe, was one of my most popular and successful products; it was a software I had developed for the purpose of hosting sessions of role-playing games on the Internet, and I had designed it to be as powerful, intuitive, and fun to use as possible. Most of the time I had spent writing it had been devoted to its map editor, which I modeled after raster graphics software. I had put a lot of love and care into the assets making up the map editor’s library, so that anything a Game Master might need for any given session- whether it was a complex trap, a tile for a specific ground type, or an obscure monster from an almost-forgotten adventure module- was always right at their fingertips. I had also composed a large selection of musical pieces that a GM could play to add atmosphere during a session. When one was actually playing their game, it became a three-dimensional simulation almost exactly like a conventional video game, except that the GM continued to hold complete control over all aspects and rules in it. MasterScribe, initially made just for my own use, had quickly become a huge hit after I introduced it in online RPG communities, and was now the platform most online role-playing sessions were played on. Even at the tiny price I sold it at, I had still made a tidy profit off of it; I was grateful that I didn’t live in a pre-World Hegemony civilization, as I would have had yet-uneliminated online piracy to worry about that might have made things result differently.

“Send out an open invitation for a self-contained Dungeons & Dragons adventure,” I said. The voice recognition registered my command, then promptly displayed a list of my favorite D&D modules, as well as some I had written myself. I selected a module of my own creation titled The Emperor’s Pistol, which was an extremely difficult self-contained adventure for the third edition rules that had been inspired by the Tomb of Horrors module, as well as the old platformer I Wanna Be the Guy. Once I selected the adventure, MasterScribe informed me that my open invitation was up, and I sat back and waited for other players to take it.

I didn’t have to wait long; within seconds, I had several dozen players send me messages asking to join my session. I selected a few players that I had played enjoyable sessions with before, then I said, “Alright, then, let’s get this going. Select one of your pre-made level five characters, everyone.” MasterScribe automatically converted my words into a text message and sent it to the other players.

I oversaw the other players attempt and fail to complete The Emperor’s Pistol about three times, which always ended with them all dying truly gruesome deaths to one of my many death traps I had hidden throughout the module. Their first trek into the palace I designed ended with them all falling into a bottomless pit, the second ended with them drinking a potion that instantly turned them all to dust, and their third attempt ultimately resulted in them all getting crushed under a falling moon-shaped ceiling decoration. After this last party wipe, I looked down at the clock in the corner of my desktop. It was about two o’clock. At that moment I felt all of my accumulated exhaustion fall upon me, and I made a wide yawn before saying, “I have to go now. Good game.” I then removed my headset, closed MasterScribe, and turned my computer off.

Now that I was sufficiently tired enough, I stretched, stripped down, then went to take a bath. Once I had finished bathing and dried off, I returned to my room, opened up my bedcovers, and slid naked into them. As I closed my eyes and drifted into slumber, my thoughts remained fixed upon Cinderella. The last thing I saw before losing consciousness was the sight of her kind, warm, friendly smile.

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