The Hero Who Returned Remains Traumatized in the Modern World
Truth be told, I hadn’t thought much about my old family during my time in Alterra. I think that before then, I had considered them my family, but that certainly didn’t hold true anymore. Now, don’t get me wrong. They were good people, more or less. And I had a fairly good upbringing too, though I don’t think I was so aware of that back then. But I wasn’t so close with them, either.
One older brother, one baby sister, and two parents. My mother, Azumi, was the type who wanted successful children, more than anything else. Or, really, it would be more accurate to say that she wanted her children to live fulfilling lives which, to her, was something that required success. My father, Daiki, was a traditionalist, expecting no more of us than a stable, well paying job and a family in our future.
Ichiro, my older brother, fit their perfect mould to a tee. He had stellar test scores, and got into a good high school. He was polite, but not too stiff; and he never complained. He did the things he needed to do, and even ended up joining the student council of his school. And my sister, Ana? Well, she was a newcomer, and the first daughter on top of that. Of course she had been doted on.
Pressed right in between those two was me, Jiro. "The second son." There had been nothing significant about my birth into the family, nor about the things I would accomplish. And growing up with that kind of treatment, I think that I ended up falling into the same role when it came to our dynamic. Somewhere along the line, I just accepted that whenever I was with these people, I would be just that. Jiro.
Seeing Ichiro for the first time again had reminded me of that unremarkable feeling. As he stood tall above me, as if fate itself was trying to tell me that we would never be at the same level, I experienced it once again; that which I had forgotten about ever since I first began my new life in Altera. The fact that his existence was unbelievably intimidating. Threatening, even.
When I had talked to my two parents again, and saw my brother and sister, It didn’t feel natural at all. When I limped through the front doors of my old home and looked around, the walls crept up behind me. The dinner table; the thoughts of sharing a meal there disheartened me. This wasn’t just a place I didn’t belong to anymore. It felt as if I had never belonged there from the start.
My first reaction was to make my way up the stairs. There was something waiting for me up there; that was the sense I got.
“Ah, Jiro. Your shoes.”
I looked down at my two feet, wondering why she had brought them up.
“What about them?”
There was visible confusion at my response.
“You need to remove them in the house. I can help you take them off if you need, but an injury isn’t a good excuse to get the floors all dirty, you know?”
I looked at the hard wood floors of the recreation room that surrounded me. They were glossy, and completely without grime. And on top of that, everybody else had at some point changed into slippers.
“Seriously? Where’s your common sense?”
My father chimed in as well.
“I… I’ll take them off. Sorry.”
I propped my crutches against the wall, and returned to the door to take my shoes off properly. I was silently watched by the two while I did it. It was awkward.
“Should I help you up to your room?”
It was my mom who spoke to me from behind, with a bit of pity in her tone.
“Oh, that’s okay. I should learn how to climb the stairs myself.”
“A- are you sure?”
My mother looked a little solemn, when I turned back to face her. It struck me with a small pang of guilt, as she must have been worried about my health. Or maybe it was how I acted? Surely I wasn’t quite the same, but this whole situation was beginning to be too much for me to handle. My leg began to throb with a dim ache, as if to alert me that I should proceed away from her as I had been.
“Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.”
I turned around immediately, and took a step. I made sure to use a crutch to hoist myself up with each stair, though I actually had a desire to walk with both feet. This kind of pain was nothing to me, compared to past experience. But it had to look convincing, that I was a regular high school boy who was still recovering from an injury.
It did actually hurt, though. Just a little.
“Text me if you need anything, okay?”
I gave a little nod without properly turning around, and continued on. It was a few moments before I heard her footsteps, but eventually she turned and made her way back to the living room. And right then was when I felt it. A sense that caused my stomach to sink deep into my gut. It was an overwhelming, unwelcome nostalgia.
Up the stairs, down the hall, into the second door on the right. That was where I hobbled to, as if it was all I knew how to do. And after I heard a quiet thud behind me, my nerves finally calmed. I looked at my unkempt bed, with a school bag dropped beside it. There wasn’t so much a mess, as much as just loose bits of clutter. I sat myself down onto the bed, and placed my crutches on the ground beside it. It was a bit of an unusual surprise, feeling the surface below my bottom return my weight in the form of a light wobble. I had grown so used to hay-stuffed mattresses and portable bedding that the idea of springs was almost foreign to me.
I took a deep breath out, and let myself relax a bit, under the light of the setting sun which dimly lit my room.
And then I began to cry.
I defeated the demon lord. Did you see? Did you see me do it? I looked really cool. I looked cool just like you wanted, so now you can tell me what you were going to say. Like you said you would. I’ll listen with everything I have, so don’t be afraid to say it, okay? I’m not going anywhere, so take your time.
“As long as we’re together, you have all the time in the world...”
I reached for my sword. But this time, I stopped myself before grasping at the air. I knew it wasn’t there. I knew that, and yet, I had reached for it anyway. I wanted so badly to hold it, and cherish it, as if protecting all of the wonderful memories I had made. But I would never see any of that again, would I?
I’m sorry guys, I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t bring you back.
She wasn’t going to answer.
Of course she wasn’t. I was an infinite distance away from where she could hear.
So why? Why couldn’t I stop calling her? Did I really fail? Was this it? Was there really no way for me to go back?
More and more tears escaped my swollen eyelids, no matter how many I wiped away. I removed my glasses, and the cuffs of my shirt from the hospital were soaked. I hadn’t cried like this in as long as I could remember. I was strong; I had to be strong. And yet, these weak thoughts weighing on my mind, in this weak body that wasn’t mine; it was all far too much for me to bear. But I didn't realize that until now.
I wanted to see her one more time. I wanted to see them all. Not just my party, but everyone. The king, who gave me a home. Master Armin, who taught me the sword. The Fortainian knights, who accepted me as fit to lead them. All of the maids and butlers who cared for me as if I was their own child. And everyone else, too. How many of them were left still breathing? How many of them had laid down their lives, with their hopes and dreams left in my hands? Had I been able to make their deaths worthwhile? Could I look even a single one of them in the eye to tell them that they had not died in vain?
Of course not.
I hadn’t done a thing.
I, who stood on a hundred thousand lives, wasn’t worth a single one.
And now, here I was, with nothing to show for it.
A world apart, as if it was all some sort of bad dream.
As if it never happened.
And then I had a thought. A single thought, for a split second, that I promised myself to never think again.
What if it didn't?
The doorknob rattled. Just slightly. You could barely call it a noise at all, but there was no doubt that somebody was on the other side. I quickly threw my blanket over myself, not leaving an inch of skin. Had they heard me crying, or worse, talking to myself? Were they coming in? I waited for the click of the handle twisting, but there was only silence. It must have been my mother, who seemed worried before I left for my room. It was only natural for her, since I must have seemed somewhat different. I could only hope she hadn’t been listening in too closely.
Morning. It was the second time I had awoken in this world, or at least it might as well have been. It was also the second time in a row that I had been disappointed, finding myself somewhere I didn’t want to be. I had issues sleeping, likely because I had awoken late to begin with, but also due to the negative thoughts and anxiety that welled up inside of me. I had opened the window then, in hopes that the idle sounds of the world outside could calm me. It helped, but the air now was cold and apathetic. I kept it open anyway.
BZZZZZZZTTTTTT! RING RING! BZZZZZZZTTTTTT! RING RING!
There was an abrupt noise to my left, which caused me to jump back to face it more preparedly. But my ankle quickly gave out under me from the pain of leaning on it, and I tripped over my bedding. It took me a moment to readjust, but fortunately I hadn’t been hurt. It was frustrating how little control or strength I had. I would eventually get used to the smaller figure, but the mana from the other world both heightened my senses, and strengthened my body. I could train my body for a lifetime and a half, but it wouldn't reproduce even a fraction of the same abilities. Regaining my posture on the carpeted floor, I assessed my surroundings. The noise came from my smartphone. It whirred and buzzed atop a wooden bedside dresser as it gave out a loud and obnoxious tone. I quickly took hold of it and struggled to stop it, but was able to eventually cease the commotion. To touch a flat surface and have it move and react in such a complex manner reminded me of certain types of magic. According to Mellifluus, this realm was the only one without such a thing. That was just the way things were. To think that technology alone could do this much on its own; could be manipulated to such a precise extent. It was unfathomable.
Looking back to the dresser, it had a simple western aesthetic to it; almost to the point where it had looked a little cheap. It felt at first as if it didn't belong, but after I got a good look at it, I began to recognize it. Along with the particular piece of furniture, the work desk, computer, chair and mirror all became familiar to me as well, once I took a moment to examine them all. This room that I was in, which immediately struck me as far too modern to belong in the world I was so used to; it really was my old room. The one which belonged to me back before I had been sent to Altera. Not belonging to Andrew Salvus Erit, but rather Jiro Todoya.
Earth. Japan. Nippon, if you will.
The door swung open. I couldn’t quite see his face, but I knew it was Ichiro. His figure filled a good chunk of the doorway’s vertical, leaving wide gaps on the sides. He had already gotten changed, and looked well kept in his uniform, which felt like a dark stain against the contrast of my room’s white walls. It must have been a while since he had woken up himself.
"Mom is making breakfast, so get your clothes on and head downstairs. They said to text them if you need help."
He closed the door just as quickly as he opened it, leaving before I could muster a response once again. Was it a habit of his?
Moving was difficult. My leg still ached with pain, and I felt sluggish. I grabbed my crutches and limped toward the full sized mirror which had been lazily propped up against the wall. Looking straight into it, the man that stared back at me was no man at all. He was-- I was a mere child. Thin limbs, with scruffy brown hair, so dark it might as well have been black, and well… What did my face look like? I couldn't quite see anything clearly more than a few centimeters from my face.
I found them next to my smartphone, on the same surface I left them on the night before. It was a dresser. Other objects were sprawled across its surface as well, which I certainly didn't use day to day. My messy habits seemed to be more or less unchanged. I put them on, and took another good glance at the mirror. I was wearing the change of clothes given to me at the hospital. They were wrinkly, and drenched in sweat. I would have to change into my uniform.
That aside, It was definitely me in that mirror. I don't quite remember how I looked back then considering it was so long ago. But somehow, I knew that this was definitely it. There was no doubt this time. I really had come back to the same time that I left.
BZZZZZZZTTTTTT! RING RING! BZZZZZZZTTTTTT! RING RING!
There it was. That same obnoxious tone. I headed for my phone again quickly to turn it off, wondering why it could have been triggered twice in such a short amount of time. As it turns out, I had set it to "snooze". I could claim that it was due to my unfamiliarity with the device, but this was something that had happened before, too. I could tell, somehow.
As I slowly made my way down the stairs with my uniform equipped, my ankle felt hot and sore. It should have healed a bit since I slept, but instead it only burned more, as if it was freshly inflicted. As I turned the corner at the bottom of the staircase, making my way into the living room, I spotted the dinner table. My parents had already begun to eat, and judging by the empty plate beside them, Ichiro had long finished and gone. Both my mother and father had their attention split between their meals, and their infant daughter who sat beside the former. But when I walked in, heads turned to me, and the look on the latter became stern.
My stomach sank. There it was again; that unpleasant deja vu that I had felt the night before. I trudged through it, and made my way over to the table.
“Good morning, Jiro. How is your leg?”
“It’s feeling better…”
Short, simple responses. That was how I should act for the time being. At least until I could become used to this environment a little more. I took my place at the seat where a meal had been left for me, and began to eat quietly, but it was only a moment before the first interruption came.
“Jiro, we need to talk about your grades."
My father. He must have been waiting to say something from the start.
“Daiki, now’s not-”
“We found them in your room while you were at the hospital. Your test scores that you’ve been hiding from us.”
Test grades from school. Of course that was what he meant. This had been a recurring problem they had with me, ever since I could remember. I don’t think I ever specifically hid them, but I did remember feeling embarrassed about them. As if I should have been better than I was, but for some reason, just wasn’t, and that was the way things were. I didn’t think about my reply. It came out of my mouth on its own, as if it was second nature.
“'Sorry' is reserved for when you actually plan to improve yourself. But it doesn’t work here, when you’re just going to keep doing this over and over and over. Don’t you understand what’s so bad about this? Has it even crossed your mind?”
I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t something that even concerned who I was now, and yet it frustrated me somewhere deep inside myself to be talked to this way. There was no respect in the way he talked. No nuance or empathy, or attempt to understand. I had met many people like this over my many years of adventuring, and it ended with me socking them in the face each and every instance. But I couldn’t do that here. I couldn’t lose my temper. Not in front of these people, who were supposed to be my parents.
I said nothing.
“Your mother and I were worried sick about you when we got a call from the hospital. They said that a bystander found you passed out on a subway bench. You can’t even handle yourself outside, let alone at school!"
His words were accompanied by wild, exasperated gestures. As if he was smacking at the air. And then his right hand swung right in front of me, with a singular finger pointed directly between my eyes. Like a drunken man at the tavern, looking for a fight.
"Are you going to be able to get a job? Will we ever be able to trust you to support yourself, with the way you are now?”
“Daiki, that’s enough.”
He began to raise his voice. And as he did, his figure grew. Like an ogre, who loomed over me with killing intent. I could feel myself tense, like he was a monster that I would have to cut down. But he wasn’t a monster. He was a human, like me. I couldn’t do anything. I had to sit there and take it. If I could just get through this, I would be able to leave soon.
“Do you know what your mother and I were thinking? Do you know what we were talking about while you were gone?”
What was it? What were you thinking about me, while I was gone for eighteen years?
“We thought you had gone and tried to hurt yourself! We've done our best day after day to raise you right, yet somehow that’s the only conclusion we could-”
My fist made hard contact with the table. It was a weak hit, which didn’t even put a dent in the wood. Instead, the damage was done only to my hand, which recoiled with pain. There was silence for a moment, followed by the cry of a young child. I grit my teeth and let out a slight grunt, before standing up. With one hand clutched to my tightening chest, I grabbed my crutches before awkwardly walking to the front door on both feet. My ankle screamed at me with every step, but I refused to give in to its pleas. I had to leave, and it would be on two legs.
I wouldn’t be able to stand this atmosphere any longer, so it was the best option. It was all I could do to defend the me from this world. I may not have been the best child back then, but I never once in my life considered such a thing. Not then, and not now.
As I slammed the door behind me, I fell to my knees and heaved in for air. This is how it felt for Jiro Todoya. This is what he dealt with day after day. Family? What a joke. What kind of family was this? The strained, awkward atmosphere; the lack of mutual respect. I could see it in the look on my mother's face as well; despite her protest, she was in agreement with him.
It had been so long since I heard that kind of tone in somebody's voice. It sickened me. In fact, it was one of the things I hated most: somebody who confused looking down on others for helping them. Their intentions didn't matter, so long as they talked with such an arrogant attitude.
Maybe that kind of attitude picked at me so much because of that man to begin with. Or maybe I just couldn't stand the way that he seemed as if he never knew me at all. I should have been the only one who was clueless. How was I supposed to understand who I was before if the people closest to me didn't know from the start?
This wasn't my family anymore. My family was somewhere else right now. They were on Alterra, and still waiting for my return. They had to have been. What was I supposed to do if they weren't?
What was I supposed to do?