|Things Were Better Then|
|Written:||April 15 - April 18, 2015|
|Released:||April 18, 2015|
|Genre:||Mono no aware|
|Theme song:||Undone – The Sweater Song|
|Things Were Better Then track listing|
This story's theme is Undone – The Sweater Song.
The white walls and floor of the subway seemed to flicker and come alive in the artificial light. Despite the grime and myriad used newspapers, the whiteness of the place was steadfast. A faint chlorine smell lingered, though its faintness implied it had been a long time since someone had cleaned the train station. Tien felt himself wading through a sea of men and women who were scrambling to get to their trains. They shoved and pushed him – one man with a plum-colored vest even cursed Tien as he elbowed his way past the triclops – in general panic. They had places to go, things to see; and though Tien was there beside them, he was nothing to frantic commuters. They saw him inasmuch as they knew he was an object to move around and push aside, but they did not see him as a person, a human being. He had been a famous martial artist years prior. He had won a World Martial Arts tournament. And yet, no one knew Tien. That was partly because he was wearing strange garb – white and blue training clothes with black boots and a white cape, not to mention a hat. Tien wasn’t trying to stand out. He didn’t want people staring at his third eye, pointing and muttering to their friends. At the same time, not being noticed at all felt equally eerie, though in a different way.
He had gone to see her, to act on his feelings, but in the end, Tien had turned back. He had come so far as East City before acknowledging his folly. He wasn’t a romantic. He couldn’t open himself up again. Not since Tao. Tien’s hand brushed his chest unconsciously, feeling for the scar his former mentor had given him. That had been a dark day. Launch couldn’t understand. Tien felt lonely as he walked through the crowd. In some ways, he envied them. They had jobs, lives. They had families. Their biggest worries were money and getting to work on time. They hadn’t experienced the life threatening pain Tien had. They hadn’t died and been reborn.
Tien bowed his head and trampled over some sodden newspapers towards the platform. He should have just flown back. He wasn’t like other people. He couldn’t be so open, so out there. Just being around a crowd had made him feel dizzy. It had been years since he’d seen so many people. He didn’t miss the mountains, farming with Chiaotzu, training alone. But Tien did miss the connections he knew he’d never have again.
Amongst the swirling crowd, desperation and indignation in the air, he saw a face, flushed from the cold and pale. She had amethyst hair, wore a red-and-green dress, and held a weeping baby in her arms; he stared into her anxious, forlorn eyes for a moment, and then she was swallowed up in the sea of business grey. Trash danced lazily through the air. It reeked of sweat and gin. He watched another wave of men in identical business suits rush past him, briefcases in their arms, broad hats covering their faces. Tien thought of the woman, of her eyes, like two flaming drowned stars. In that moment their eyes had met, they had shared something he could not name but knew all the same. For a moment, Tien had shared the pain and beauty of his life with her, and she with him. A train came screaming into the station, its brakes so loud they hurt his ears. It was time to go.
Brooding blackbirds perched on twisted, broken metal branches. Some cawed when Tien exited the train, others blinked furiously, cocking their heads and opening their beaks, waiting for him to throw some food. He didn’t have anything to give.
The station was deserted, desolate. The wind blew softly; the train roared crudely in response. Only a few people got off, and by the time the train left, Tien was nearly alone. It was a smaller station, composed mostly of old black lacquered wood roofs and a few chairs. Behind the station, the waters stretched out across an endless horizon. The cherry blossoms were in bloom, Tien realized, but they were already starting to wither. All things fade, he knew. But there’s always next year.
Tien told himself that he would take to the sky as soon as he was out of eyeshot of the other people. He didn’t want to frighten them, bring attention to himself. A small girl with an eyepatch over her left eye was eying him from a nearby chair. She was eating a piece of fruit – an apple or a peach, maybe – and its juice was running down her chin as she gazed at him. Her legs dangled off the chair and swayed with the cool ocean wind. He tried to ignore her as he walked out of the station. It felt weird being stared at. Could she see his third eye? It was impossible. His hat covered it completely.
The sky was festering with wounds of orange and purple, and the clouds themselves shone with bleeding color. Tien wondered if Chiaotzu had prepared dinner. Shumai, he hoped. Gyoza wouldn’t be bad either. Feeling his mouth watering, Tien shook his head and cleared his mind. He had to stop himself.
“Hi, I’m Likka,” the girl with the eyepatch said politely, running forward to greet Tien. She was wearing a fuzzy woolen sweater that was far too large for her, and when she ran, she looked almost comical, like a half-drunk ghost. Upon reaching the triclops, the girl threw her half-eaten apple aside and shook his hand. “Want to buy some flowers?” She lifted a little basket and showed Tien her stock.
They were fine flowers, the kind Tien had seen dotting the edges of roads and growing next to trees. Some were blue, some red, some orange. They would have been fresher in the morning. He wondered when she had picked them. A blackbird screeched. Another took flight to race the day’s dying light. As it soared over the sapphire waters a larger bird with white-grey feathers shot towards it from above, its talons extended, its beak open in a soundless scream. The station was so quiet, so peaceful.
“N-no thanks,” he said, awkwardly and went to leave.
“Please, sir, just one!” She held up the basket and cocked her head. Tien thought she looked like the woman from the subway then, her eye helpless, but defiant. “I’m hungry, sir! Just one would pay for something to eat…!”
He thought her hair had been dyed at one point, but that had been a while ago. Time had deteriorated the color, and her brown hair flourished; but in small patches, her hair was darker, colored, though he couldn’t tell which color it was in the light of the fading day. Tien stopped and looked at her before feeling in his pocket for some zeni. In truth, he had brought the zeni only to pay for lunch with Launch. But he hadn’t gone to lunch. He hadn’t gone back to see her. Tien knew how Launch felt about him, and it made him sad knowing that she would never be happy.
“Here,” he said gruffly, thrusting a few zeni into the girl’s open hand.
She caught it ravenously; her eye seemed to feed on the money as she looked it over, making sure it wasn’t counterfeit. It was, indeed, real. It was some of the last of Tien’s prize money from his World Tournament winnings.
“Thanks!” She grinned and ran off. Tien knew he’d never see her again.
The city was far-off, and Tien could almost hear its constant, heartless buzz from the remote train station. Plumes of smoke and exhaust rose into the sky from the factories, and he could imagine all those people working in the buildings and skyscrapers. All those men dressed in grey rushing to their train, rushing towards jobs they knew they hated. But at least they had lives, families, purpose. Sometimes Tien envied them, sometimes he did not. He didn’t know which way was right.
It was cold and quiet on his way back to the mountain. There, fewer people lived, and Tien could fly without feeling like an Other. He wondered if anyone aside from Goku and the gang knew he existed. Perhaps one of the people he had harmed back in the days when Master Shen’s teachings had corrupted him. But they would not remember him fondly or truly. Tien had changed. The Tien those people remembered didn’t exist anymore.
Tien didn’t know if his training was pointless. He knew he would never surpass Goku, despite the lies he told himself as his muscles burned and sweat poured down his face. But he couldn’t go back. He couldn’t return to that city and face the crowds that saw him and forgot him. He wasn’t the same Tien who had once stood on the World Tournament stage and had boasted openly about his power and skill. The mere thought of those days past made Tien shudder.
He touched down on the mountain, landing softly on the dirt of an animal trail. The cherry blossoms up there were not as old as the ones at the train station. Their flowers wouldn’t die so soon. He could sense Chiaotzu in their home, not more than a few hundred feet away. It was for the best, he kept telling himself, as he returned home. The two of them couldn’t compete with the other warriors. They couldn’t protect Earth from anybody. They had learned that the hard way against that monster, Nappa. They had done heroic things in the past, Tien knew, but that wasn’t going to happen ever again. Tien and Chiaotzu would stay in the mountains for the rest of their lives, farming, training, keeping one another company, until they died. Then they would be forgotten.
Tien’s fists clenched and unclenched. “I’m me,” he whispered. “I am who I am. I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”
A keen wind was howling. The sun was fleeing behind the horizon. Tien’s stomach growled. There was a knot in his stomach – when he tried to wrestle it out, it just made him more nauseous. He hated Tao and his old master for betraying him. But they had saved him, too. They had brought him to this place. He felt the scar on his chest again, almost remembering the pain. Tien wondered then, as he walked home, if Tao had truly known the wound he had given Tien that day so long ago.