"What does it mean to have a heart?"
This is a simple question, yet many people don't know the answer to that.
"The heart is a muscle that pumps blood through the body. Every human should have a heart. They can't survive without it."
That is true, but the question isn't meant to be taken literally. Everyone knows what a "heart" is, but having "a heart" and "having a heart" are two different things.
"Oh. So then, it could mean having courage. Like having the heart to take a leap of faith."
Many people would believe this to be the answer. It's not wrong, but that's having "heart". If you can't answer this simple question, then maybe you don't have a heart.
The fall semester arrives sooner than expected for Surata Aoi. He usually spends most of his day attending middle school. He is your completely average student. He isn't popular, but he has a couple of people he considers his "friends". Despite having good grades, Surata shows no interest in school or a girlfriend. His favorite part of the day is hearing-
Ding. Ding. Ding.
“Yes! Finally, the bell rang! I don’t have time to waste!”
As thrilled as he is, Surata shuffles his hands over his materials and packs them into his backpack. Two students sitting in the back row of his classroom notice his excitement and gossip about it.
“Why is Surata always excited to go to his club?”
“I don’t know. I mean, don’t get me wrong, being excited to go to a club is nice and all, but… it’s the Noye club.”
"You mean that lame club that students go to try to become professional Shikaris?"
Surata couldn’t hear their conversation but could feel like his classmates were laughing at him.
“Yeah, I wonder why it’s still up. It’s taking up all the school’s funding. They could at least use that room for another club that’s more exciting.”
“I mean, this country doesn’t need Noye users anymore.”
The kids' conversation continued as they packed their belongings and prepared to leave. Just as the students were about to head out, they felt a strong force between them, which caught them off guard.
“Oh, sorry,” apologizes Surata, bumping into the students. “Excuse me… Ah!”
Surata is in such a rush that he loses his balance, tripping on a backpack leaning on the legs of one of the desks.
"Are you okay?" another student asks.
"Ow. Yeah, I'm fine.”
Surata sits there, rubbing his hand on his head. However, hurt as he is, he doesn’t want to waste an extra second.
"Crap, I'm going to be late!" Without hesitation, he gets back on his feet and continues to head straight to the club, ignoring everything around him.
Surata only ever shows interest in his Noye club. It’s funny how a kid who is interested in combat can be so clumsy. Without wasting a single second, he arrives at his club. The room was bleak and dimly lit. With only a sword rack in the room, the noises of Surata’s backpack being thrown can be heard throughout the large room.
This club doesn't have many members. Some members joined the club for fun, while others were forced to join because joining a club is a requirement for graduation. Surata is different, however. When he used to spar with the other members, he would take it too seriously. They didn't like the idea of getting hit all the time, so they stopped sparring with him. His reasoning for joining isn't for enjoyment or being forced; he has a different goal in mind.
Surata would usually train alone every single day. He would spend his club time swinging his wooden sword incessantly. During this training session, his friends approach him as he thrusts his wooden sword with his blistered and bandaged hands. His long night-black hair, pulled back into a ponytail to keep his vision clear, often mistook him for a girl from behind.
“Hey Surata, I heard the new movie, Circus Invasion, just came out! Do you want to come watch it with us?”
"Yeah, I heard that it's empty. Must be because people are still scared to go outside. This means we can have the whole theater to ourselves. How cool is that?"
A distinct whooshing sound resonates as the blade tears through the air.
“Sorry guys, I'm a little busy right now. Maybe next time,” Surata gasps, wiping the sweat running down his face.
One of his friends glanced at Surata's injured hands. "Have fun doing what...ever you're doing. We'll let you know how it goes."
“Yeah, have fun!”
His friends are concerned and a little disappointed that Surata isn’t going, but it isn't going to stop them from having a good time.
“I can’t fall behind. I must… get stronger!” Surata's eyebrows are pulled closer together, somewhat trembling in anger.
Most kids his age would just enjoy their childhoods as much as possible because adulthood sucks. The only exciting thing about adulthood is being able to drink. Even though he wants to have fun with his friends, Surata doesn't let his immediate desires sway him away from his determination.
After several hours of rough sword practice, he catches his breath, wiping the sweat off his forehead. He returns his wooden sword onto a rack, packs his belongings, and gets ready to head home, leaving the club room spotless.
While leaving the school, the clear weather darkens. Clouds begin to form, and rain begins to pour.
"Oh great, it's raining! Damn it. I didn't think it would rain today, so I didn't bring an umbrella." Surata exclaims.
His house is about 25 minutes away from his school by car. Surata, on the other hand, doesn’t have a driver's license. Unfortunate as it is, with no vehicle or umbrella, Surata begins to walk.
After walking down the wet sidewalks for some time, he arrives at the center of the city. The huge city is a cemetery; it is ghost-quiet. It's so lifeless that it makes you feel gloomy. A murder of crows soars through the air, bringing some life back to the city. Debris piles up around the demolished buildings. He has the feeling he is walking through an abandoned city.
While walking through the wet sidewalks, splashing puddles, he asks himself,
"What is… strength? What is... power? What is... a heart?"
Surata mutters to himself, coming to a standstill in the middle of the sidewalk. The weight of his thoughts drags him down, and he can't stop asking himself the questions that haunt him.
"Why are these three things created... and why do we need them? Father says these three things are all intertwined, but... ah. I just don't understand." He lets out a frustrated sigh, gazing up at the cloudy sky.
"I know I have a good heart... but I don't have the strength that comes with it. How can I achieve that? Is it by training more? Or is there something I'm missing? I have trained for as long as I can remember, yet nothing has changed."
Surata's anger makes him want to bang his head on a wall. His bruised hands and athletic physique show off his results over the years, but he still doubts himself, beginning to blame himself for his "failures."
"Damn it. I wish I was a Shikari already. That way, I can fight alongside Father."
His father is a well-known warrior who fought in the War of the Fallen. The war lasted for half a year and ended several weeks ago, but the damage was still done. People were left traumatized by the screams and splattered blood that echoed across the battlefield, leaving a permanent mark on their world.
Fortunately for Surata, the war was fought mainly in a bordering country, Akari, but even so, his home city, Heiwa, was also affected. People who live here are still afraid to go outside because of it.
Feeling frustrated and powerless, he clenches his fists at his side, trying to awaken his true power somehow…but fails. He begins to think of the war.
“Wait, I heard that there were kids who fought in the war. I wonder, how do they have the strength to fight? To survive? I feel sorry for them. Do they have power? Do they have a heart? I wonder…”
He continues thinking about this with no real answer until he arrives home.
After a while, he arrives at his front door drenched, just before night fell. He tiredly grabs his key and opens the door.
“I’m home!” he shouts.
There is no response. Thinking that someone would break it, he soaks in the silence. “I thought Father would be here already,” Surata says to himself upsettingly. “It’s been weeks since he left. What is taking him so long?”
He suddenly finds himself holding his stomach, trying to keep the growling under control. All the training seems to have caught up with him. He decides to make some food. He heads towards the kitchen. Before he left, he expected the kitchen to be somewhat clean but completely forgot about it.
The kitchen is a junkyard. The water echoes around the quiet room as it drips from the faucet into the sink filled with dirty dishes. Flies buzz around the overflowing trash, the foul smell burning his nostrils.
“Ugh, you must be kidding me. I completely forgot about this.”
For someone who cleans up after himself outside of the house, he tends to ignore the problems in his home. Trying to walk through the dirty kitchen, Surata opens the refrigerator to find something to eat.
The fridge barely has any meals in it, let alone ingredients. He doesn't have the time to get a part-time job. Everything in this house comes from his father. Surata doesn't have any more family besides him, and he's left him for a while. Searching for anything in the fridge, Surata manages to scavenge some bread and eggs.
“I guess I can make something with this.” He decided to cook those ingredients and make a meal for himself. It wasn't much, but it was edible.
The rain continued to pour heavily on the house, and lightning began to spark. While eating his egg sandwich in the living room, Surata hears creaking noises from the front door. The only person who has the keys to his house is his dad, Ishio. He approaches the door, hearing the mumbling of voices getting clearer.
Surata turns the corner, entering the corridor. “Hello father, how was-”
His body is immediately pushed back against the wall, his head bouncing off. It feels like he has been blindsided by the world's strongest linebacker, rendering him immobile. His body refuses to respond, while a sharp pain in his chest replaces the initial impact. His vision blurs, his mind becoming dazed.
"Wh-What the hell is happening?! Ah! Am I… dying?"
He squints, trying to make sense of the moonlit room. Although his vision remains blurry, his other senses are heightened. The unmistakable scent of iron and rust spread through the air, assaulting his nostrils.
As his vision gradually clears, he realizes his position. His gaze fixates on his chest—the source of the sharp pain. He spots the glint of a metal blade aimed directly at him. Blood drips from its edge, splattering onto the ground.
Now, it all makes sense: he- Surata Aoi- has just been stabbed. The metallic scent is a cocktail of his blood and the sword's aged metal. God seems to be signaling his departure. Despite being the only person at home, he couldn't help but wonder. Is he the victim of a robbery gone wrong?
With each passing moment, it feels as though his life force was drifting away. Just before his consciousness slips away completely, Surata senses a resistance. Something is preventing the blade from penetrating further. Trying to understand the situation, he reaches towards his chest. Suddenly, the voice becomes clear.
"Calm down. My son won't hurt you."
The words resonate in the moonlit room, sending a shock through Surata's battered body. It is a voice he thought he would never hear again. Is it just his imagination or a cruel trick of fate?
Slowly, he turns his head to the side, and there, standing beside him, is his father, Ishio.
Time seems to freeze in place. The room holds its breath as father and son lock eyes. Surata's heart hammers against his ribs. This isn't the reunion he imagined.
Surata searches for answers in his father's gaze, his mind racing with questions that try to overwhelm him. Why does he show up now? What was he doing all this time? The moment's weight presses down on his shoulders, making him motionless.
But seeing his father brings him a strange sense of relief, signaling his readiness to depart from this world. If he did have one regret before taking his last breath, it is not becoming a Shikari like his father.
Since fate seems to have different plans, he realizes he will never get to fulfill that wish.
Ishio's lips move again, breaking the silence like a crack of thunder. "Drop… the sword," he commands, his gentle voice filled with authority.
"Huh? Father… who are you talking to?"
Surata's eyes flicker to the weapon, its cold steel gleaming in the pale moonlight. He casts one final glance at the sword, his gaze following the length of the long blade. And then, he notices it—someone else is in the room, gripping the sword's hilt.
His father's hands grip the blade's spine, barely holding it back. Blood drips from his father's hands. Surata quickly looks at his chest. Somehow, he finds no blood whatsoever. So... he isn't dying.
The realization slowly pulls him back from the edge of unconsciousness. Returning to reality, Surata feels the powerful tension that is in the room that he ignored. The tension is unbarring, almost choking him.
Everyone in the room freezes, waiting for someone to make the first move. The standoff continues for a while. At last, the blade slowly reverts. Ishio exhales a heavy sigh of relief, and the mask of composure slips, releasing the raw tension that has filled the room. Surata fixates his gaze on the mysterious figure before him, who is shrouded in shadows.
The silhouette resembles his figure. Sheathing its long blade, the figure recollects his bloodlust.
Nightfall grows darker, and sparks of lightning light the room. With the flashes of light coming from the opened front door, Surata finally sees glimpses of the unknown figure, a dirty pink-haired boy wearing a red kimono with black boots.
"Huh…Who is this kid?"
His age is about... twelve. The boy looks around the same age as Surata. He must have been a foreigner because his pink hair is extremely odd since most of the citizens in this country have naturally colored hair. Looking closer at the boy, the smell of blood becomes stronger. His clothes are stained with dried blood and are extremely ripped, its sleeves hanging from his left shoulder. However, his naturally wavy short hair seems to look clean.
And his blade. The sword looks longer than usual katanas but skinnier than usual claymores. The sheath is too small for the blade to fit in; however, he somehow manages to sheath the sword. It's like a guy who wears an XL shirt somehow fitting into an XS shirt. The blade is too long to be holstered on his side, so he holds it with one hand, leaning it against his shoulder.
Speaking of his sword, how does he wield that? How firm is his grip? He manages to stop Surata from moving and has the strength to battle Ishio for that moment.
The two kids lock eyes, looking for answers that couldn't be answered. The pink-haired kid stares down Surata with his heartless, cold eyes. Surata could sense emptiness seeping out of the kid's sockets.
During their stare-down, Ishio kneels, removing his shoes that he couldn't before. "Hey, son, sorry for this whole thing. I didn't think he wouldn't try to kill you. I guess I was wrong. Hehe."
Ishio's voice shows a bit of guilt and a light-hearted chuckle to relieve the tension while scratching the back of his neck. "Since you guys have calmed down, let me introduce you to our newest family member."
"Newest family member?!"
So, the kid that had tried to kill him was about to be his brother or something? What is his father thinking? Having a murderer killing to kill his son is something no one in their right mind should think of.
Surata contemplates if this would work out. He gazes at the kid once again. The death stare from him makes Surata feel a little uncomfortable. He has never met this kis. so why is this kid so hostile towards him? He looks over at his father's gentle expression. His father wouldn't do anything that he wouldn't consider wrong. Staring at his genuine response, he finds no doubt in his mind, deciding to trust his father's decision.
Surata slowly extends his arm toward the boy. He hesitantly utters, "So, umm… what's your name?
No response. The terrifying mood gradually turns awkward. It is as if he had brought a stray cat home, separated from his family. He continues to feel the chilled gaze coming from the kid.
"My name is Surata. What's your name."
Maybe this wasn't going to work out after all. The awkwardness makes Surata start to have doubts about his father. The kid has just entered a stranger's house, so he could at least introduce himself correctly. He doesn't see Surata as a threat anymore, so what is the problem-
"…Koroki." His voice is quiet but assertive, leaving an air of mystery and intrigue.
Huh? Koroki? That's a weird name. He must be a foreigner with that name. Someone with this presentation should have a more intimidating name.
"Koroki, huh? Nice to meet you."
The two boys shook hands. At this moment, Surata and Koroki officially become "brothers". Little did they know that this was the start of the end.