“You ready to do this?” Rin asked in a tone of unabashed challenge, grinning at his twin brother as they approached the training room.
The fanged smile Yukio gave Rin was hardly less fierce: a far cry from only a matter of weeks ago, when he had still shuffled to this task with all the enthusiasm of a condemned man marching to the gallows. His long tail waved as he returned a single short nod. “Let’s see what you’ve got today!”
With a whoop Rin drew his sword, instantly veiling himself in tendrils of blue flame. Even as he launched headlong into the fireproof room, he hurled a volley of blue fireballs that struck and ignited several of the straw targets ranged around the otherwise empty space. The surprise attack was enough to wring a startled yelp out of Shura Kirigakure, who had been preoccupied with setting the last of the targets in place—and who Rin had not noticed was there until the moment he was leaping through the doorway.
“Rin!” the boys’ instructor bellowed, one hand clutched over the heart in her ample chest. “What did I tell you about looking to make sure no one is in here before you start incinerating things?”
“Uh… sorry?” Rin mumbled sheepishly, although he did not look overly contrite. “I guess I just got excited. I mean, now that Yukio’s getting good enough to be actual competition, training is starting to be fun again.” He grinned at his sibling, who pinkened and stepped into the room with a somewhat more diffident step.
Despite Yukio’s modesty, the assessment was true enough. Getting a handle on his awakened half-demonic powers had been a mighty struggle for him, but after six months of relentless training—and no small journey of learning to trust himself—his level of confidence and control was almost equal to Rin’s. He could use his flames to light candle wicks without melting a drop of the wax, and burn through ropes while leaving not the faintest singe on the makeshift dummies those bonds were tied around.
Shura put her hands on her denim-clad hips and smirked at Yukio. “Well, Four-Eyes has improved, I’ll give him that. But the both of you still have a long way to go—so at least you’re not wasting any time. Yukio, you’re up.”
“Right,” Yukio acknowledged as he slid his hand beneath his coat, grasping the pocketwatch Rin had named Susumu. Ever since Sir Pheles sealed Yukio’s flames within that unremarkable silver antique, it had served as a regulator for his powers, just as Rin’s Kurikara sword did for him.
He pressed the catch, flicking open the casing of the watch, and felt the now-familiar warm rush of flames curling harmlessly around him. Vestigial wings of fire stretched out from his back: a trait even Rin had not yet figured out how to manifest on his own, but which came naturally to Yukio, after his body was stressed to greater limits during his brief possession by Satan. He flexed his hands and braced himself, facing the row of targets against the wall opposite those Rin had already reduced to ash.
For Yukio, summoning his flames didn’t really feel the way Rin described his own experience. The elder twin spoke of them as feeling like a part of him, but the younger knew that in his case, it was different. True enough that what he reached for was inside himself, yet… it was somehow distant in a way that Rin’s flames weren’t, unfamiliar and numb. Yukio concluded that it was because a large part of him still resisted the fact of his nature, and was psychologically trying to keep his demonic heritage at arm’s length. As he made more progress in coming to terms with what he was, surely his power would grow to feel less alien.
Appraising the targets with an eye trained through years of more ordinary marksmanship, he raised his hand, and gathered into a ball the twisting ribbons of flame that swirled around his fingers.
One target went down blazing. Two. Three.
But the fourth…
The fourth target barely rocked in place, struck by a much smaller fireball than Yukio expected or intended. The straw did ignite and slowly begin to burn, but it was not instantly consumed like the others.
In confusion Yukio looked at his hand, to see that even the flames surrounding his body were flickering and dying.
His first instinct was to reach for Susumu in its hidden pocket. The watch was still open, which meant his power should still have been fully unbridled; yet in another moment, the cloak of fire around him had vanished altogether.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Rin queried in bemusement, his own flames disappearing as he sheathed his sword. “Why’d you stop?”
Yukio looked up at him, eyes wide behind his glasses. “I didn’t.” To drive home the point, he jerked Susumu from his pocket and held it out on his palm, displaying its open state to Rin and Shura. “I should still be flamed up, but it’s as if my power just… ran out all of a sudden!”
Shura frowned, looking both perplexed and dubious. “Don’t tell me that after all this, we’ve hit some kind of mental block with you again.”
“No. I’m telling you, it’s not that.” Yukio reached inward once more, searching for the now-familiar spark at the core of his being, but he might as well have been physically trying to grasp air. He gulped and shook his head. “The fire inside me is just… gone.”
Truth be told, what really bothered him was Rin’s reaction. It was fleeting, engulfed quickly by a more urgent brotherly concern; but for a brief moment, the elder sibling looked as if someone had just punched him in the gut.
“I think there’s only one person we can turn to for answers about this,” Shura declared grimly.
In short order, the twins and their teacher stood in the office of Mephisto Pheles, recounting the occurrence to the demonic headmaster of True Cross Academy.
To their astonishment, Mephisto registered absolutely no shock upon hearing the news. He merely continued to lounge behind his desk, munching on wasabi peas with alacrity, as he had been doing when they walked in.
“Well, well,” he murmured at the conclusion, his voice still muffled around a final mouthful of his snack. Before rising, he swallowed and licked his lips, showing a brief flash of fangs that might almost have been a subtle smile. “So it’s finally happened. I expected it sooner, to be honest.”
“Huh?” Rin barked.
“What do you mean, you expected this?” Yukio demanded simultaneously.
“Oh yes.” Sauntering from behind his desk, Mephisto slowly circled Yukio, to study him with an uncomfortably intent appraising eye. “I really do hate to break this to you—but the fact is, the flames you’ve been throwing around for the last six months weren’t even really your own.”
A sinking sensation clutched Yukio’s heart and dragged it down in the direction of his stomach. Beside him, he heard Rin’s breath catch in a quivering gasp.
“Then whose flames were they?” Shura snapped.
Yukio spoke before Mephisto could, anticipating the answer with a sudden feeling of cold horror.
“They were Satan’s… weren’t they?” he said in a hard voice, his gaze fixed upon the full-blooded demon who stood smirking before him. “What I’ve been drawing on for six months… it was some kind of residue of his power that was left inside me after he possessed my body.”
Mephisto lit up with a delighted smile. “There, you see? You’re such a bright boy that you figured it out by yourself. You didn’t even need to come around and ask me after all.”
It was Shura who posed the real question. “But what does this mean for Yukio? If he’s only been burning off traces of some kind of secondhand power until now… is he still more human than Rin after all?”
Rin was staring at Yukio. The younger twin knew it, but he refused to return the look. Even if the elder was trying to hide it—which he probably didn’t have the presence of mind to do just then—Yukio could feel the sense of pained confusion rolling off of him. For six months Rin had believed his little brother was just like him, sharing the same burden of monstrousness, but now…
“I still have a tail and fangs,” Yukio pointed out, surprising himself with the firm swiftness of his assertion.
“You really think those minor additions would just un-grow?” Mephisto retorted, with an air of private merriment. “No. With your half-demon blood, the physical changes induced when dear old Dad borrowed your body won’t be going away. But as for what remains on the inside of you…” He made a whimsical gesture with one hand. “Who knows? You’ve exhausted the store of lingering power that didn’t belong to you, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still have a power of your own buried in there somewhere. If you do, even I can’t say what might awaken it… or what form it may take.”
At Yukio’s side, Rin drew a long, shuddering breath.
“But as long as it doesn’t awaken, then that means… he can be normal again? Uh—other than the tail and fangs and pointed ears, I mean.”
Mephisto’s lips twisted wryly. “For someone who was raised with the unimaginative standards of humans, you have a rather broad-minded definition of ‘normal’.” He emphasized the word with waggling quotation-mark fingers.
“Come on, you know what I mean. Yukio won’t have to struggle with what’s inside him every day, like…”
The unspoken word hung heavily in the air for a long moment before Mephisto raised his eyebrows and shrugged.
“Well, if simply being powerless is what you call normal, that does seem to be the crux of his condition. At least until something triggers him to pop out with whatever power of his own he might possess.”
“Hey, Yukio is not powerless!” Rin fired back abruptly, clenching his fangs. “He still has his brain and his skills—the same things that made him such a great exorcist in the first place. Those are real powers too, Clownbags.”
This time it was Yukio who stared at Rin, his breath frozen and his chest tight.
The Director frowned jadedly at the name-calling. Then he rolled his eyes and hitched his hip against the edge of his junk-cluttered desk.
“Yes, well. It could be something of a moot point anyway.” His gaze turned to Yukio. “After six months of using borrowed power, your body and psyche may already be primed to tap into your own power at the first provocation. And with the typical job stresses of being an exorcist, well…” Another airy hand-wave. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t start getting used to all that ‘normalcy’ if I were you.”
“…Unless he doesn’t stay an exorcist,” Shura said very quietly.
Both twins turned to gape at her; but any reply either of them might have made was preempted by Mephisto, as he straightened and stepped forward.
“In any case, I have work to do. Appointments to keep, anime to watch… So now that I’ve answered your questions, the three of you can run along now. Best of luck with the situation, and all that.”
Rin goggled at him. “That’s it?”
“That’s it.” Mephisto made a shooing motion with both hands. “Be off with you.”
Thus all but herded out of the office, the Okumura twins and Shura spilled into the hall. The door did not quite slam behind them, but its closure was decidedly… decisive.
“The nerve of that troll,” Shura muttered, staring back at the imposing wooden barrier that had shut them out. “To know for all this time and not tell us! What if those secondhand flames had run out while you were actually fighting a demon?”
A chilled shudder passed down Yukio’s spine, all the way to his tail-tip. However, he breathed in deeply, and forced a wan smile onto his lips.
“It’s okay. I’ll just have to go back to relying on what I’ve always had.” He looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers. Then the smile warmed just a little as he turned it upon Rin. “Thanks for what you said about that—and you’re right. The skills I spent so many years learning as an exorcist are my real strength anyway.”
His brother wavered, looking uncertain and faintly distraught. “But Yukio—”
“If you don’t mind, I’m feeling a little tired. I think I’ll go back to our dorm and lie down for a while.” He pushed his glasses farther up on his nose and shrugged. “Anyway, I may not have the flames to train with anymore, but don’t let me stop you from finishing up your training session today. I’ll see you when you get home.”
As he turned to walk away, he could well imagine the looks Rin and Shura exchanged behind him.
That night found Yukio sitting alone on the roof of the brothers’ dorm building. Under crescent moonlight, he stared unseeingly at the now-innocuous pocketwatch in his hand, slowly flicking its case open and shut. In time with the soft clicks this action produced, the tip of his tail unconsciously swept back and forth across the concrete.
After hours of thinking himself into circles, he still didn’t have any idea how he felt.
Oh, of course he was belatedly more than relieved to be rid of what he now knew was a remnant from… him. The monster that had fathered Rin and himself. It was hard enough to face the flames when he’d believed they were his own; had he realized their true nature earlier, he suspected horror and loathing would have paralyzed him completely. He also understood now why he had felt so oddly detached from that power he wielded. It was never truly a part of him at all, but a leftover scrap of the terrifying force that had once invaded his body. He was eventually able to bend it to his will, but only because he shared blood with the being it originated from.
Yes, knowing that unrecognized taint had been purged from him at long last was a good thing. And yet…
And yet it had taught him much while it lasted. About himself—and about his brother. After half a year of learning to control those borrowed flames, he shared a deeper understanding with Rin than he ever could have gained while he was outwardly human. He was sure that part of it made him a better person, as did his added confidence as he grew more adept at using an ability he had feared in himself.
Even so, he never actually used the flames against a demon. Things had been quieter for the most part since the battle with Satan, and in the minor skirmishes that did happen, he remained instinctively reluctant to unleash that power. It was probably just as well: if the flames had betrayed their source and his heritage to any demons he fought, it would have attracted a vast amount of new trouble, just as Rin had experienced. And the way Yukio was now…
The young exorcist grimaced, fiercely pushing away the nascent thought that losing the flames made him weaker again. Less able to protect those he cared about. Less useful.
“You wanna talk about it?”
Yukio didn’t turn to look over his shoulder. Upon hearing the stealthy creak of the stairwell door a few moments earlier, he had known almost supernaturally that it was Rin.
He wondered fleetingly if that was a demon thing, or just a twins thing.
“Not particularly,” was the weary answer he gave as he put Susumu away, although he knew Rin would ignore the dismissal. Ordinarily he would have minded that; but just this once, maybe not so much.
The elder brother dropped himself in a sitting position at the younger’s left side. Although Yukio still directed his gaze elsewhere, he was acutely aware that Rin sat watching the idle twitches of his tail for a long moment.
“Sorry you’re still stuck with the lame obvious parts of being a half-demon.” Rin squirmed, leaning back on the heels of his hands. “But seriously, Yukio. I… I’m glad the hard part is gone for you.”
An indefinable twinge coursed through Yukio’s heart, making him wince. He slid his hands together, lacing his fingers over his knees, and focused very intently on his knuckles.
“You heard Sir Pheles. The way I am now is probably just temporary anyway. After the changes my body has already been forced to go through, it’s almost surely just a matter of time before…”
Whatever words might have finished that sentence, they jammed up in his brain somewhere, as unsettlingly blank as the possibilities themselves. He swallowed and sighed, raising a hand to rub his temples.
“But you can’t actually want that.” Rin straightened, leaning forward to search Yukio’s face in profile with a palpable intensity. “The way you were about those flames at first… you don’t mean you’re not even a little scared of having to go through that all over again?”
“…I don’t know what I am.”
Yukio hadn’t intended that statement to have as many meanings as it did, but all of them were true nonetheless.
Rin edged closer, his tone becoming a little more urgent and exasperated. “But Yukio, think about it. This could be a second chance for you to live a normal life. If you were to give up being an exorcist, and go home to the monastery, maybe nothing would ever happen to wake up any power you still have inside you.”
Half-smiling, Yukio finally turned to give his brother a wry glance. “Are you actually dumb enough to think I’d ever choose that?”
For only a moment, Rin’s expression was faintly startled and dismayed. Then, slowly, a sad grin crept across his lips. He let out a long breath and shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck.
“…Nah. I know you better than that.”
With a hollow chuckle, Yukio shrugged and lifted his gaze to the stars.
“I guess I was wrong. There is one thing I know I am: an exorcist. No matter what it costs, I’m not going to walk away from that. And I’m not going to hide from myself anymore—even if I don’t know what else I may still be.” He looked at Rin, feeling a calm that surprised even him. “I’ve faced my fears once already… and you helped me defeat them. Maybe they haven’t gone away, but that doesn’t matter. Because now I know I’m stronger than they are.”
It said much that Rin’s only answer was a solemn smile and a nod of understanding, before he turned to look up at the sky too.
For the next several days, life settled back into routine. Rin went about his now-solitary practice sessions with his flames, and Yukio focused on his teaching duties.
The younger twin had to admit that he was physically much more at ease then. He no longer bore the tension that had come with his awareness of the power simmering under his surface. Even after growing reasonably confident in his control of the flames, he had felt a constant need to be conscious of them; to bridle them. It was a deliberate effort Rin seemed not to require, at least when he didn’t feel any threat of danger. Yukio wondered yet again if the flames he had unwittingly borrowed were so much more difficult to tame because he was not their rightful master.
In any case, the question seemed to be academic. He was free of that pressure… for now.
He tried to ignore the nagging, inwardly whispered question of whether he was completely glad to be.
It came most strongly when he thought of being called to action against a demon: those fleeting murmurs that he had become weaker, more vulnerable. He prized his conventional skills as an exorcist, and always had full faith in them when he knew nothing more… but now, with the lifelong tendencies of self-doubt that plagued him, he couldn’t help wondering if those skills were enough. He couldn’t help fearing that he might face something too powerful for mere human strength to overcome, and see other people be hurt because he couldn’t find a greater strength inside himself anymore.
Yukio understood now why Rin didn’t hate what he was. His flames never had made him a monster after all. They only gave him the power to protect what he cared about.
So the young exorcist kept on wrestling with his own heart, deep down underneath the false smiles he showed to Rin and his students, as he simply waited for something to test the real truth of his nature.
Because he knew something eventually would… and as it turned out, the wait was not nearly so long as it felt.
The orders came late at night, eight days after Yukio’s secondhand flames had vanished. According to Sir Pheles, a rather insignificant demon had possessed an antique suit of armor in a museum, and subsequently set about making mischief. For reasons he airily glossed over, the Director specifically wanted the Okumura brothers to go deal with it.
He had blithely assured Yukio they would soon be met by another team of exorcists being sent to the scene. But after ten minutes of minor bruises and major collateral damage, the twins were still on their own—and still trying to make a dent in the defenses of a far stronger demon than the old trickster had led them to expect.
“Where’s that backup?” Yukio roared into his phone, as all of him except for his lashing tail took momentary cover behind an ornately plastered column.
Across the room, Rin was keeping their opponent busy. Like some kind of errant crustacean, the demon inhabiting the suit of armor had been steadily attaching to itself any metal within reach, further building up its protective shell to a massive and ungainly but almost impenetrable bulk. The animate jumble of shields, goblets, and sundry other artifacts deflected both Yukio’s bullets and Rin’s flames.
Having experienced the loss of his sword in the past, Rin was now justifiably wary of letting Kurikara’s steel blade get too close to the walking scrap-magnet. At last he resorted to tactics that relied on his physical strengths alone. He bounded around the largely demolished exhibit room, confusing the slower encumbered demon with his quickness and agility until he saw strategic openings to strike. The kicks he landed had managed to knock off a few pieces of the conglomerated shell, but it was negligible progress.
Mephisto’s voice oozed into Yukio’s ear with a patently exaggerated tone of shock. “My goodness, you mean they haven’t even arrived yet? Oh dear. Perhaps my directions were unclear…”
A heavy thud shook the column behind Yukio’s back, accompanied by a grunt of pain. Rin picked himself up with a growl, shook off a cloud of plaster dust, and unhesitatingly launched back into the fray.
Maybe it was the secondhand jolt of the impact that had done it; but somewhere in Yukio’s mind, an epiphany suddenly blossomed.
“…You maniac,” he seethed into the phone. “You set this up on purpose again, didn’t you?”
The response that drifted back distantly, as if from arm’s length, was laced with an unabashedly laughing tone.
“Pardon me? I’m sorry, I think you’re breaking up…”
Yukio snarled a very concise word and threw the phone aside with more force than necessary—all in the act of dodging a huge grasping hand tipped with Bronze Age spearhead claws that suddenly smashed through the column.
Of course. Of course Mephisto would waste no time taking steps to make things happen, just to see what reactions were produced. Of course he wouldn’t be content to wait on nature and the hazards of the exorcist profession to push Yukio to whatever his new limits were, because that wouldn’t be nearly so entertaining to him.
Of course he would raise the stakes by bringing innocent parties into it; and Rin was as obvious a choice as he had been the last time.
The only difference was that this time, Rin was completely ignorant of the way Mephisto was using him to provoke Yukio.
A startled cry dragged Yukio back from his red haze of rage. He returned to the moment to find that Rin had gotten just a little too close to the armor-demon, or been just a little to slow—and now he was caught in a huge amalgamated hand. Even his strength couldn’t budge the nightmarish metal fingers wrapped around him, and his arms were pinned, preventing him from reaching for Kurikara at his back. He struggled all the same, but that only caused him to be cut by various swords and knives which were components of the squeezing talons. Yukio saw the drops of his brother’s blood that ran down the protruding blade-edges and dripped onto the floor.
“C’mon, metalhead!” the firstborn jeered, although there was the faintest ragged note of desperation and fading stamina in his voice. “Aren’t you supposed to have a blood seal I can scratch off or something?”
A low growl echoed through the vaguely humanoid metal patchwork. With a ponderous deliberation, it raised its other hand: the one with the spear-tipped fingers.
Yukio moved without thinking. Even at that moment, a part of him was conscious of the icy chill of fear for Rin that shot through his heart; but as he lunged forward, that chill rose up and surged throughout his being, like a mountain lake bursting a dam. It was cold and yet not, alien yet familiar, hard and harsh yet somehow pliable in the intangible grasp of his spirit.
And it wasn’t fear anymore.
Blue flames erupted around him. They crackled with a different sound and feel than he had known before… and this time, every trace of them was simply and entirely him.
He stretched out a clawed hand, hurling a blast of that crystal-blue conflagration. It engulfed the stunned armor-demon—and Rin as well—before swirling away into nothing like a passing wind gust in a blizzard.
In its wake, the metal behemoth stood quite literally frozen on the spot: sealed from head to foot within a thick layer of ice.
The only portion of the tableau that remained perfectly unfrozen and unharmed was Rin. He dangled almost comically in the now-loosened grasp of the hand, staring down slack-jawed at his brother.
It took several seconds more for Yukio’s heart to even begin slowing down, for him to realize what had happened.
He blinked at Rin first. Looked down at his hands, wreathed in what was now a paler blue-white fire than Rin’s own. Finally, impulsively, he turned toward the one glass display case he was vaguely aware had not been smashed in the battle… and in its reflection, for the first time, he saw the flames that truly were a part of him.
They flickered much the same as Rin’s, but they were more… crystalline somehow, shimmering almost iridescently. The horns of fire protruding above his head were longer than before, and the shape of his spectral wings was a little more sharp and jagged, like the ice these flames had produced. Where the veil of frosty fire danced harmlessly over his skin, he felt only a bracing cool tingle.
It didn’t hurt. It was nothing more or less than another extension of his being, like his furred tail or his well-trained hands, and he knew it even though he had never felt it before. At least not consciously. Perhaps he never recognized it for what it was because it had always been there: too familiar since his birth, too entwined with the everything of his own self to frighten him, even though his fears of what he might become had kept him from seeking it out.
Until now—when it answered his wish to protect the brother who had taught him there was no need to be afraid after all.
They’re my flames.
He remembered those words, and the way Rin had spoken them without the faintest trace of uncertainty… and at last he understood that calm and fearless assurance.
A scrape of metal drew Yukio’s attention from his own startling image in the glass. Rin twisted himself free of the frozen hand-shaped mass of artifacts, and dropped lightly to the floor.
The elder brother approached the younger then, his lips curving with a rueful smile; his gaze openly appraising, but also full of warmth and thoughtful interest.
“So this is you,” Rin said gently.
With the breathless quiver of a half-laugh, Yukio flexed his hands, studying the new and different glimmer of the wintry flames that curled around them. “Yeah… I guess so.”
“You know, it suits you—Snow-Man.”
The wryly mocking tone was enough to make Yukio look up sharply. His indignant noise caught in his throat when he saw Rin’s fondly teasing grin—and then he noticed the red-stained slashes in Rin’s clothes, betraying the cuts he had received from the blades incorporated into the armor-demon’s hand. At the moment those wounds were still bloody and surely painful, even for someone with the regenerative capacity both Okumuras possessed.
“Rin!” Yukio exclaimed in dismay. He began to reach out, but the flames still surrounding his hands made him hesitate.
As usual, there was no hesitation from Rin. His own hand met Yukio’s and grasped it firmly. The flames fluttered at the contact and licked around his fingers, as harmless to him as they were to Yukio himself.
…Not that it should really have been a surprise, Yukio realized somewhat belatedly. As far as they could tell from their training sessions together, Yukio himself was immune to Rin’s flames, and even his previously borrowed Satan-fire had likewise shown no effect on Rin. It followed naturally that the same would be true of his real flames as well. He could only theorize that it had something to do with their blood relation.
“Wow,” Rin mused after a moment, looking down curiously at their joined hands. “It really does feel cold—but not in a bad way.” His eyes darted up to Yukio’s with a renewed sparkle of amusement, and he jerked the thumb of his free hand toward the icebound colossus in the background. “But I don’t guess he’d agree with me on that.”
Yukio felt himself blush. It really wasn’t something he wanted to do at the moment. He was painfully aware that his demonic features became somewhat more pronounced when he flamed up—and even a bit more so than Rin’s, which was another unfortunate side effect of his past possession by Satan. The last thing he needed was for his longer-than-usual pointed ears to start turning red too.
“Just hush,” he muttered, and briefly distracted himself by becoming Yukio the Professional. With authority he brushed Rin’s hands aside and opened up his shirt, the better to examine the wounds on his chest and arms. The young doctor’s fingers skimmed carefully over them, reassuring himself that they were fading with the usual swiftness of half-demon resilience.
On the other hand, his ministrations also caused his chilled flames to caress the sensitive skin along Rin’s ribs. The contact made the firstborn flinch and catch his breath sharply, eyes bulging.
“Gah! Okay, geeze, that’s the bad kind of cold!”
“Sorry!” Yukio retorted as he withdrew, but the apology came out as more of a protest. “I can’t shut my own flames down by myself any more than you could.”
Instantly Rin sobered at that reminder, frowning with new concern. “Oh yeah… That could be kind of a problem, couldn’t it?”
“Not for long, I think,” Yukio murmured. His eyes shifted away, narrowing behind his glasses as they surveyed the periphery of the wrecked exhibit room. “You planned for that too, didn’t you—Sir Pheles?”
Not at all to his surprise, an obnoxiously musical laugh drifted from the shadows of a doorway, and Mephisto sauntered casually into view.
Rin gawked at the Director, apparently slow to grasp the implications of his presence. However, before he could ask any questions, Yukio strode forward enthusiastically to meet Mephisto… and to greet him with a flaming fist hurled squarely into his face.
The trickster made a very decorative white-and-purple heap on the floor, but he only laughed harder then; at himself perhaps, and at Yukio definitely. At the same time, somewhere behind Yukio, Rin let out a horrified little sound that could only be unflatteringly described as a squeak.
“That’s for dragging Rin into this again,” Yukio snarled down at his incongruously mirthful superior.
“What are you talking about?” his sibling asked aggrievedly.
“Rin, don’t you get it? This was all another setup—because he wasn’t willing to wait for this to happen on its own.” Yukio extended his hand. The flames hovering over his palm flared higher to punctuate his point. “By putting you in danger against a demon you couldn’t fight with Kurikara, he was using you to help push me to the brink again… and this time, even you didn’t know it.”
Rin’s expression of confusion abruptly flattened. He looked from Yukio to Mephisto, who in the interim had risen to his feet with meticulous grace, and was now placidly dusting himself off.
“You bastard,” Rin hissed.
And Yukio’s heart thumped painfully, because he knew what upset Rin was not his own peril and injury. The elder brother was furious that Mephisto would have acted so quickly and deliberately to force the younger’s flames again, depriving him of what Rin still saw as a second chance at normalcy.
Mephisto deflected Rin’s glare with a shamelessly happy smile. “Well, it works so predictably, doesn’t it?” He turned to Yukio, his eyes taking on a reproachful slant. “And I did it for the same reason as before—which you of all people should realize. Contrary to your opinion, I do take certain of my responsibilities quite seriously… including the safety of your students and fellow exorcists.” He flicked a hand toward the frozen armor-demon. “Suppose one of them had just happened to be in the way the first time you did that?”
Chastened by that thought, Yukio lowered his chin and winced; but his tail still lashed angrily behind him. “Even so, you didn’t have to involve Rin.”
“But all’s well that ends well.” Mephisto dismissed the subject with a maddeningly careless shrug. “Now, unless you intend to just stand there blazing like a bonfire all night…?”
Yukio understood. With a heavy gust of a sigh, he reached beneath his coat and produced Susumu. In only a week of being depowered, the ingrained habit of keeping the pocketwatch close to his person at all times had not left him. Now it rested on his outstretched palm, unharmed by his new flames, its watch face exposed within the open silver casing.
With no further preamble, Mephisto gestured vaguely in Yukio’s direction.
“Ein, zwei, drei.”
And there it was again, that curious pull of his inner fire flowing away from him and into the watch; the weight of it not removed from inside him, but only diminished, as much of the strain was transferred to an imperishable object. He snapped Susumu closed, and the lingering tendrils of blue flame that clung to him were instantly snuffed out. Now his own rightful power was bound to the watch, sealed and regulated like Rin’s.
As he tucked Susumu safely away once more, Rin stepped closer, sweeping a thoughtfully concerned glance over his now-flameless figure. “Are you okay, Yukio?”
“…Yeah.” His answering smile was faint, yet somehow more real than the mere shadows of smiles he had hidden behind in recent days. “I’m fine now.”
Under the circumstances, Yukio wasn’t about to say thank you to Mephisto now. But eventually…
“And so my work here is done.” Mephisto luxuriously stretched his gangly limbs, smiling with boundless self-satisfaction—as if that “work” had been any great physical effort for him. “But you have much ahead of you once again. You’ll resume practicing with your proper flames alongside Rin, of course.”
“Naturally,” Yukio agreed stiffly.
“Then I suppose everything is settled—and I can be off to bed.” The Director turned to stroll away toward the exit. “Good night, boys.”
From the other side of the room, there sounded a sudden grating crack. Both Okumura brothers turned with a start, to see that the armor-demon—now surrounded by a growing puddle of meltwater on the tile floor—was beginning to move its head and hands, breaking off large chunks of the ice that had heretofore imprisoned it.
“Uh, hey… Mephisto?” Rin wavered.
Mephisto did not even pause in his steps, but his receding voice drifted back over his shoulder. “As a reward for hitting me and calling me names, I’ve decided to let you two finish off that one by yourselves after all. You’ll figure out its Scripture weakness eventually, I’m sure. …Have fun now!”
Then he was gone, and with a resonant bellow, the armor-demon burst loose from the last thawing restraints of ice.
For a moment the twins exchanged a hapless glance… but Yukio saw the furtive twist of a smile on Rin’s face before they sprang into action together.
2018 Jordanna Morgan