“Wait a minute,” the guy says, voice rising, “that’s Kurikara!”
Rin swallows, tensing as the guy steps closer.
“Where did you get this?”
Thoughts bustle in his head, dropping uselessly to the ground like a sack of something spilled, scattering uncontrollably across every surface. None of the half-formed excuses that come to mind will work; what can he say, what, what, hurry—
By a stroke of luck, the restroom door slams open and three colorful blurs race in. “Ju-nii! How long are you going to take? The trains are going to run soon. Mamushi’s pissed you know!”
Rin catches a glance from Yukio across the room, trying to confirm his suspicions because it looks to him awfully like these three twirps are tiny versions of Suguro, Konekomaru and Shima, while the guy who’s still trying to glare Rin to death must be that older brother—the one whose wedding they went to.
He’s still processing when Shima’s brother reluctantly turns and tries to shoo the three boys away. “I’ll be there soon, just a minute,” he insists, herding them outside.
As the door shuts again, he clears his throat and looks to Rin expectantly.
Rin opens his mouth, closes it, and—
“We’re exorcists from the Order,” Yukio says, casually tossing a crumpled paper towel in the trash like it wasn’t a poorly covered excuse to get over to Rin’s side of the restroom. “We’re transporting this for a mission,” he adds, gesturing to the sword. “It’s quite impressive that you recognized the Koma Sword with just a single glance.”
Shima’s brother frowns, looking puzzled like he can’t decide if he should take the compliment. Or, Rin’s reading him wrong and he’s completely on to them.
Crap, they really should have planned this better.
The guy clears his throat, “You’re transporting it?” he says finally, but his voice is unexpectedly hopeful, lilting up at the end. “If you don’t mind me asking,” Shima’s brother says, abruptly polite, “are you returning Kurikara to Myoda?”
Rin’s thrown off by the question, and he can tell Yukio is too, judging by the tightness at the corners of his lips as his smile wilts. He doesn’t say anything, so Rin blurts, “Something like that? I mean, it depends on if the head priest wants it back—”
“Really?” Shima’s bro exclaims, face breaking into an exuberant smile, “Thank you so much! You have no idea, it’s our principle object of worship. It’s, it’s incredibly important to us,” he gushes, grabbing Rin’s hand in an enthusiastic handshake, “thank you, thank you so much.”
“Uh,” Rin fiddles with the empty sword sleeve, “sure. As long he wants it back, it’s all yours, or uh, I mean, like all of your—”
“Since you’re part of the Myoda Sect,” Yukio reiterates, swiftly cutting off Rin’s rambling, “do you think you could set up a meeting for us? We forgot to arrange an appointment beforehand,” he grimaces convincingly, “and I’m sure the head priest is terribly busy.”
“For sure, for sure,” Shima’s bro nods quickly, “ah, I’m Shima Juzo, please allow me to assist in any way I can.”
Yukio’s smile turns amused and he dips his head slightly, “I’m Okumura Yuki. This is my older brother, Rinka. It’s lucky that we ran into each other.”
“Right?” Juzo laughs awkwardly, “This is amazing. Our temple lost too many followers when it got out that the high priest moved our object of worship away, but now that you’re bringing it back, I’m just know things will get better soon.”
“What did he say it was for?” Rin asks, slipping the sword back into its sleeve. “Why did he move it?” Surely Suguro’s dad couldn’t have given the excuse of for the son of Satan...right?
The restroom door swings back open, “Ju-nii, Mamushi says she’s going to skin you,” Shima whines, “and you’re going to miss the train—”
“Get to the point first next time,” Juzo rolls his eyes, turning back to them. “I’m guessing you’re for the same train?”
Yukio nods. “You’re from Kyoto, right? Did you come here on vacation?” he asks as they make their way to the platform.
Juzo laughs, “Yeah, this little guy is,” he says, messing up Shima’s hair. “My friend and I just got out of school. My dad took them here but he’s staying for a business conference, so we’re just chaperoning them home.”
Shima darts off as he sees Konekomaru waving, and Juzo follows. Rin takes the chance once they’re far enough behind to let out a relieved breath. “I thought we were done for. What are the odds that we’d run into them?”
Yukio shakes his head, “Nii-san,” with a tired quietness that Rin can barely hear, “are you really giving it back?”
He’s focused just past Rin’s eyes, a little above, and he stops short. Rin knows what he’s thinking, surprisingly, but it’s fine. His flames aren’t there anymore; they’re curled beneath his skin, inside his heart in a quiet bed of soft blue embers.
It’s more work than before, to keep them quiet. He doesn’t want to think about what that means about himself, about his nature—if he’s okay.
Wouldn’t it be too selfish to keep Kurikara?
We lost a lot of worshippers. Before long, the place was known as the “cursed temple.”
The dampness of the sword sleeve lingers on his fingers and the scabbard feels colder, even as he shifts his grip uncomfortably. No matter how many times he sets it down and picks it up, his sword doesn’t have the same inner warmth it used to. It’s...empty.
“It’s empty,” he repeats aloud, and something in his chest tightens to the point where he’s not sure if it’s because he’s holding his breath, or something else he doesn’t want to think about.
Rin’s seat number was right next to Yukio’s, so he’d expected they would be sitting together. Only, Yukio ends up sitting next to frail old granny who keeps offering him candy, and Rin’s next to a buff salaryman with garlic breath.
The scenery passes as a gentle white blur, and with nothing else to do, he drifts off, leaning his head against the cool glass window. He wishes he might dream of something nice, but he doesn’t remember anything as he wakes. All that is left is a lingering sense of loneliness.
The train stops too quickly, and Rin suddenly regrets sleeping at all. He doesn’t know what to do, or what he wants. Exactly how much is enough, when he doesn’t know what’s right?
He squeezes off the train before he loses his nerve, deciding to wait outside for Yukio to get off when he feels a tug on his elbow.
Rin turns, surprised as he meets Suguro’s bright, curious eyes. “What’s up?” he asks, head still foggy from sleep.
“Juzo’s stomach hurts, so he’s stuck in the bathroom. Mamushi’s buying something to fix him, so we’ve been sent to watch you,” Suguro says seriously, “in case you get lost.” He waits about two seconds and tacks on a quick, “Okumura-san,” like he forgot he was supposed to be polite.
He’s mirrored with two determined nods from Konekomaru and Shima, which Rin can’t help but find cute. It sounds more like they ditched their guardians for whatever reason, but at least they’re sticking together. It’s hardly his place to lecture them, and well, they’ll probably get yelled at later either way.
“Okay,” Rin squats down, reaching to tie Suguro’s scarf on better. “Let’s wait inside for them.”
“M’kay,” Suguro replies, smiling rather smugly.
“Hey, your hair looks rad,” Shima chirps, swinging Konekomaru’s arm back and forth as they walk. “I want to dye my hair too!”
Rin leads them over to the vending machine, squinting at the glass, “Really? Thanks. Maybe you should try pink.” He finishes sending a text to Yukio and looks back down. It feels too weird, seeing them as little kids. “Want anything?” he gestures to the assortment of sugary drinks. There’s a few he’s unfamiliar with, which must be a Kyoto thing, and a couple others he remembers they’ll stop selling later.
“Yeah!” Shima cheers, “Please—”
“That’s no good,” Konekomaru crosses his arms adamantly, “Shima-san, we’re supposed to show hos-hospitality to guests. If anything, we should buy Okumura-san something to drink.”
“Nah, it’s okay. I appreciate the thought,” Rin smiles. He ends up buying three cans of oshiruko and two of corn potage since they’re both warm. He’s pleased to get three delighted smiles and thank yous, watching as they sit on the worn station seats, swinging skinny legs back and forth.
His chest hurts more than he’d expected, seeing them like this. It’s been a long time since he saw his friends—particularly Shima. He misses them a lot, and it makes the thought of their future more frightening than ever.
It feels like too much, and he’s never feared failure so badly.
“Um, Okumura-san,” Konekomaru says, scooting a little closer on the bench, “are we...could we see it, just for a little bit—”
“Yeah, please?” Shima interjects so quickly, he almost spills his drink as he bounds up from the bench to huddle next to Konekomaru.
Rin blinks, glancing at Suguro who is still sitting, but is staring with poorly hidden interest. For a second he’s not sure what they’re talking about, but it clicks quickly enough.
He’s about to reply when little Suguro sighs dramatically for a twerp his size, “We overheard Mamushi and Juzo talking about it. Kurikara is supposed to be kept above the sacred fire out of reach, so they wanted to see it once, before that.”
Konekomaru pushes his tiny glasses up, looking unimpressed, “Just admit you want to see it too, Bon.” Suguro reddens appropriately, and the three of them turn pleading eyes toward Rin, tugging on the sword sleeve excitedly.
Rin frowns, taking a sip of his oshiruko as he looks around. Yukio hasn’t responded for a while.
“Maybe later?” he smiles apologetically. “There’s too many people here anyway.” After all, he only has a letter clearing them for security. If too many people see it, things could get messy.
“Awwww,” Shima pouts, “promise you’ll show us later?”
“Okay, promise,” Rin laughs. “I think—”
“Aw, it’s Mamushi,” Suguro scowls. “I can’t believe she found us so fast.”
Mamushi comes to a stop before them, eyes going from Rin to the drinks and back and forth between the three kids as she catches her breath. “Thank you and I’m sorry for the wait. Please, let’s go to the shuttle stop, Okumura-san,” she says hurriedly.
“What about Ju-nii,” Shima asks, sounding oddly excited, “are we leaving him here?”
“Hm, I wish,” Mamushi sniffs. “That stupid monkey is the source of all my problems,” she grumbles. “Let’s go.” With that, she turns on her heel to storm off, and the four of them—Rin and the three mini musketeers—follow like bumbling chickens, clutching hands, sleeves and coat hoods as they try to keep up through the crowd of people.
Luckily, Yukio is there waiting already, with a slightly pale looking Juzo next to him. Rin offers him a can of oshiruko, but Juzo turns paler and declines quickly.
As they get onto the shuttle, Mamushi and Juzo’s conversation rapidly decomposes to a hissing match, and Rin feels himself losing hope that they’ll be able to arrange a meeting after all.
“Where were you?” Rin asks, nudging Yukio as he waves his phone. “I sent a bunch of messages and you didn’t reply at all.”
“I was helping the old lady sitting next to me with her luggage,” Yukio says, lips curving in amusement. “Want some candy?”
“What?” Rin raises an eyebrow, watching as Yukio digs into his coat pocket. He promptly dumps a bunch of little plastic crinkly packages into Rin lap.
“Bro, how much candy did that granny give you? What does she think this is, Halloween? And why’d you take so much?”
“But she wouldn’t stop talking to me,” Yukio protests. “I have even more in the other pocket.”
“I’m so sorry,” Juzo says once they get off the shuttle. “I’ve just called, and the high priest isn’t able to meet with you until later tonight.”
“Oh, it’s cool, don’t worry about it,” Rin replies.
“Then,” Shima perks up, “you should come with us to Toraya! Come on, you promised to show us!”
Juzo shoves a hand over Shima’s head like he’s trying to press him back into the ground, or at least stop him from bouncing around, “Ah, yes, well, we did reserve a complimentary room for you guys—Renzo, would you calm down, I’m sure they’re very busy.”
Yukio sends him a questioning look but doesn’t say anything, so Rin figures he doesn’t have any other plans. If he remembers right, Toraya is Suguro’s family inn, so that’d be reasonably convenient since it’s snowing over here too. “Sure, why not?”
“Yes!” Shima pumps a fist, accepting two high-fives from his buddies for his good work.
Mamushi shrugs, “Fine, we’ll be going through the field office, then.”
They walk for only a few minutes in mild snow that melts as it reaches the ground. Still, Rin can’t help but feel relieved once they get inside the building. It's way colder here than Tokyo.
Now that he thinks about it, the last time he was in Kyoto was around this time too, for the wedding.
Rin hardly remembers anything inside the field office, other than the prison cell, and then maybe a little of the creepy water-filled basement where he sort of punched Suguro and blew up.
Mamushi leads them through a cramped cubicle maze tragically littered with paperwork, stressed looking white-collar workers and washed-out exorcists. Then, she takes a key from a cabinet in the corner—with a billion other shiny looking keys—and pens something on a clipboard next to it.
“So, you keep all the keys together? That’s neat,” Rin comments absently.
“It’s because our branch is newly incorporated into the Order, so we haven’t had time to distribute individual copies of keys to exorcists yet,” Juzo explains.
“Honestly, it’s a pain because some people forget to return them,” Mamushi taunts.
Juzo’s face contorts until he looks two steps from bursting a blood vessel, but he’s also clutching his midsection like he’s barely keeping himself together, so it’s hard to tell.
Mamushi jams the key in and holds the door open, letting them into the warm inn. It smells incredibly nice inside, with a mystifying cross of clean laundry smell and sharp incense.
As they put their shoes in the impressively clean cubbies, Rin has to wonder how those two ever got married in the future. Then again, they kind of fight like they’re already married. In the end, it seems the two of them are seriously tired of each other, and Juzo even pawns them off to the three squirts with a room number, instructions to serve tea and some snacks, then do whatever.
Suguro immediately scrambles up the stairs, stopping short around the corner on the lookout for his mother, motioning for them to follow. The three kids scamper down the hallway to find the room. Rin follows behind at a more sedate pace, taking the chance to explain to Yukio, “They asked if they could see Kurikara earlier, at the train station.”
“Okumura-san,” Konekomaru waves a hand, “It’s this room!”
Yukio looks weirdly pensive as they sit down at the neat tea table, but when Rin asks, he waves him off.
“Can we see it now? Please?” Shima trills.
Suguro, who was in the process of shutting the door—still vigilantly on the lookout for his mom—slides across the tatami flooring so fast his socks nearly come off.
The three of them sit neatly at attention, eyes eager and intent.
Rin stands, pulls the sleeve off with a flourish, and lets it fall as he holds the sword out. There’s a fuzzy warmth in his chest as their eyes widen, and some sense of pride for nonsensical reasons.
He grins, but a split second before he draws it, his mind blanks. All he can think of is, this is probably the last time, and it aches viscerally, as though he’s being hollowed out inside. For a moment he almost thinks the sheath will stick, like before when he was afraid, but the gleaming metal leaves easily, without resistance.
It’s not his to keep; it never has been. Now that he no longer needs it, it’s not fair for him to hold onto it relentlessly.
Rin holds a sigh in, trying to push the thoughts away. The munchkins are sitting uncharacteristically still, faces three different shades of confusion.
“Hold on,” Suguro whispers, a slight tremor threading his voice, “where are the flames?”
Blood drains from Rin’s face as his breath hitches, “What?” He looks to Shima and Konekomaru but there’s only similar concern in their expressions. “How...how do you know about—”
“Karura,” Yukio declares haltingly, eyes flitting to Rin’s. “You’re asking about the phoenix, Karura?”
Oh. Karura, right, red flames...not blue, not blue.
Rin puts the sword away and sits back down as casually as he can. Wow, today has been bad for his heart. He seriously needs to keep his mouth shut right now, especially when his brain is a scrambled mess.
It’s just, even though they’re so much younger, it feels familiar, and Rin finds it too easy to talk to them.
“That’s a great question,” Yukio smiles, seamlessly melding into teacher-mode. “See, your founder, Fukaku, was the one who invoked Karura to the Koma Sword.” He gets two nods and a sleepy blink before continuing. “However, when the high priest gave the Koma Sword to the Paladin, he couldn’t possibly give Karura as well. Not when its duty is to watch over the Myoda Sect, correct?”
“But where’s Karura been this whole time, if it wasn’t in Kurikara?” Suguro presses, forehead creasing with worry.
Yukio shakes his head, “As outsiders, we wouldn’t know. I’m certain the high priest can’t easily reveal its whereabouts, but it wouldn’t hurt to try asking him.”
Okay, way to throw Suguro’s dad under the bus there, Yukio.
Not that Rin thinks he could have done better...but they both know Suguro can’t get the answers he wants. Not when the Impure King still sleeps beneath their oldest temple, sealed by the weight of mere secrets.
The more he thinks about it, the more it feels like they’ve done something wrong. He should try to do something about this, somehow.
“Um, Okumura-san,” Konekomaru smiles gingerly, “thank you for taking the time to show us. Come on, Bon, let’s not bother them anymore, okay?”
Suguro hesitates. Rin almost recognizes the expression, but it disappears quickly, like condensation against cold glass. “Thank you,” he says simply, and leaving with a polite nod far too mature for a boy his age.
Rin flops to the floor, staring up at the ceiling as he listens to the trio of footsteps patter away. “He’s going to get in a fight with his dad now, isn’t he?” he mutters, shutting his eyes. “Did we just mess up?”
“Perhaps,” Yukio sighs, staring out the window, “I shouldn’t have diverted the conversation like that.”
Rin opens his mouth to deny it but he pauses for a second too long. He’s afraid it’ll sound insincere, if he says anything now. Silence settles into their room sleepily, but as it gathers it becomes obtrusive, like a wall of air erected between them. The snow outside has grown heavy and the sky is a bright grey that promises more to come.
Rin rolls over onto his stomach lazily, tracing a seam in the tatami mat as he scoots his tail out from his shirt. “Are you—is something wrong? You’ve been kind of quiet.”
It’s not just that. He can tell something has been on Yukio’s mind since they got on the train. Some part of Rin is tired though, and he finds himself reluctant to talk about it.
“This place and Karura,” Yukio smiles wanly, “bring back unpleasant memories.” He leaves it like that, but before Rin can respond, a knock on the doorframe ruffles the quiet air.
“Sorry for the wait,” Juzo smiles apologetically, peeking his head through the crack of the door. “The head priest happened to finish early, so he’ll see you now, if that’s alright?”
“Yeah,” Rin gets up, swinging Kurikara onto his back carefully. The weight is comfortable, and he wonders what he’ll do without it now.
He takes a deep breath and some of the tension in his chest lifts. Although it’s slightly beat up and been snapped in half once, at least he’s able to give this one back. This sword has saved his life countless times now, and he’s glad it will finally be returned to its rightful place.
In all the rush and disorder in the branch office, the officials Rin got a glimpse of were exhausted, faces weary and darkened by the stress of their workload, so much that the few Rin recognized hardly seemed any younger than years from now.
Naturally, when Juzo lets them into the tidy book room, Rin expects the same of the high priest. He expects to see creases and fatigue and the bowed, humbled shoulders of the kindly middle-aged father he chanced upon in a sweltering, uncomfortable summer full of insecurities and tension.
Instead, he is met with a hurried man who is incredibly radiant yet serene, like this mild jasmine tea they’ve been served. “It seems you two have made quite the journey to get here.” Suguro Tatsuma smiles, “I never thought I’d meet you. It’s such a privilege.”
No one’s ever said that to him so nicely before, and Rin’s not sure how to respond.
Fortunately, Suguro’s dad continues, “Thank you for bringing me this letter. I’m glad to hear Fujimoto-kun is well.” He pauses, taking a sip of tea. “Now, Juzo told me you’re here...to return the Koma Sword?”
Rin pulls the sleeve off and holds the sword out quickly, trying to ignore the minute tremor in his hands. “I don’t really need it like before,” he admits, “and it’s...important to you guys, right?”
Suguro’s old man accepts the sword, grasping the scabbard reverently. He gazes at it for several moments, and Rin fidgets, wondering if he’ll notice that awkward scratch on the corner or all the tiny scuffs on the beautiful varnish.
“May I?” He motions, placing a hand on the hilt, palms up, and Rin nods stiffly, almost flustered by how delicately he’s treating it.
Kurikara had always felt comfortable, not quite an extension of himself, but more like a memory on a series of actions he’d seen someone else perform, maybe in a movie or something. Because of that, Rin had always been aware of its presence. The moment he’d drawn it, he could feel its power: a steadfast, quiet prison for his hungry flames.
At times, he’d truly feared it. It was a comfort, a source of strength he knew he couldn’t control but also couldn’t afford not to rely on, and that was terrifying; it made him careless, desperately trying to hold his doubts at bay.
It’d been too close to the old man’s death, a furious reminder of his weakness; how he’d failed, despite losing some measure of his humanity, the normality his sheltered life could never quite manage too well. Rin had spent hours staring at it that first night, kneeling on the floor with iridescent blue seared behind his eyelids. He had been too afraid to draw it so soon after seeing that horrid reflection in the mirror, too afraid to see what he’d confined himself to become.
What will happen, years from now, when his younger self finds out who he is?
After all, it was his fault. It’d haunted him for a long time, maybe it still does; if he hadn’t hesitated at that time, would things have gone differently? If he’d drawn the sword earlier—or if he hadn’t drawn it at all?
He’d become used to bringing it everywhere with him almost instantly, even sleeping with it at night.
Now, it doesn’t have that presence anymore—his heart, the actual one, he knows now. Rin forgets the sword sometimes, left it in the training rooms in the Order once, almost couldn’t find it in the rubble during a particularly messed up mission a while ago. It’s just doesn’t feel the same anymore.
The high priest smiles though, pleasant surprise coloring his face, “This is remarkable,” he whispers. “Was it broken once?” He meets Rin’s eyes, “I haven’t seen it in years, so correct me if I’m wrong. It looks to me like it was reforged.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Rin says.
He nearly jumps when Yukio echoes the sentiment, a heartbeat later. “It wasn’t your fault,” Yukio says quietly. Rin watches as he turns his teacup in a slow circle, nudging the edge as he stares down at it.
Right. Rin had almost forgotten what had broken it in the first place.
“It’s not holding my flames anymore, but you helped me get it fixed, in the future.” Rin mumbles. “Sorry,” he repeats, as though it could possibly make up for destroying this priceless artifact.
He’d promptly forgotten about it after all that chaos too. That was pretty crappy of him.
“No, no,” Suguro’s dad shakes his head, “you’ve done a wonderful job. It’s beautiful.”
“Uh,” Rin points, “no, I wasn’t—”
Suguro’s dad shifts the blade closer to Rin and light dances pale blue across its keen edge, “I remember this sword well. It wasn’t like this before.” He smiles warmly, “You’ve taken good care of it. I’d like it, if Kurikara stayed with you.”
Rin frowns, “Are you sure I can keep it though? Uh, Juzo said earlier, he said you’re not supposed to give it away and stuff. Won’t you going to get in trouble for that?”
“We’ll see. Our temple has fallen to ruin in these years, and it will be many more before it can be restored.” Suguro Tatsuma laughs, “Besides, it’s hardly mine to take back anymore. Kurikara is yours now. Even if it doesn’t house your heart anymore, I believe there are still vestiges of your soul lingering.”
He traces two fingers down the length of the blade, drawing a barely audible hum out as the metal gleams along his fingertips. “It must stay by your side, or you may lose your way.”
Rin’s familiar with the sound. In all honesty, he might have used it like a baseball bat in the beginning, smashing and hacking like a barbarian, but he knows its sighs and whispers recently, especially the sharp whistle it makes through air with a particularly well-executed stroke.
It comes to him as something like relief, that he can keep it.
Suguro’s dad sighs, taking a slow sip of tea. “The Kurikara I gave away, shortly before you were born, was wasting away,” he says, eyes softening, “a decoration at most.” He sheathes the sword smoothly, placing it in Rin’s hands, “Okumura-kun, truly, I hope to never allow it to be reduced to that state again. Thank you, for giving it something as precious as your heart.”
Rin wants to protest. He wasn’t the one who put his heart in there anyway; that was all the old man.
Still, he takes it back and the metal feels heavier. It’s not so empty anymore; maybe it wasn’t empty before this. He shouldn’t have thought it was.
It’s all the reassurance he needed, maybe much more than he was hoping for, so Rin nods, “Thanks.”
There’s nothing left for him to say really, but there are words burning in his chest, things he’s certain he shouldn’t speak of—not yet, not now.
“Give Fujimoto-kun my thanks, will you?” Suguro’s dad says as they stand. “I nearly forgot, have these too.” He hands them each a neatly embroidered omamori charm, “Take care,” he smiles, pointing down the hallway for the way out.
Just as Rin moves to leave, Yukio speaks up, “Is it likely that others will recognize the Koma Sword?”
“We guard our secrets well. Only sect members know of it, but they’ll send you here at the very most,” the high priest shrugs, “and, I will be on your side, so, what does it matter?”
The small nest of flames inside his chest quivers gently, snuggling into quiet sleep as a smile breaks across Rin’s face. Somehow, even though nothing much has changed, his thoughts are clear; no longer strung by doubts.
He has no idea where they’re headed right now but he has a good feeling right now, like something is going to go well, pretty soon.
When...when the day comes that his younger self will draw Kurikara, he swears it will be under different circumstances.
As they make their way back to their room, a thought hits him.
There’s one more thing they can do, before they leave, right?
“Hey, Yukio,” Rin mumbles, “is it—”
He breaks off in the middle of his sentence, interrupted by three sharp taps on the door.
“Hello, pardon me if I’m interrupting,” a somewhat familiar looking lady says, sliding the door open. “My name is Torako, I hope you’re enjoying your stay here alright. I’ve brought some tea and refreshments as an apology for not being able to greet you when you arrived.”
“Please don’t worry about it,” Yukio smiles. “We were received quite kindly by...I’m guessing, your son and his friends.”
Torako hands him the tray of tea and raises a sleeve to her lips as she laughs, with a bit of surprise coloring her expression, “Oh, those three troublemakers? This is a first. Well, please let me know if you need anything. I’ll be right downstairs.”
“Of course, thank you.”
“Is it safe to talk, right now?” Rin asks as she leaves, reaching over to pour some tea. He’d been so focused earlier he didn’t even touch the nice jasmine stuff Suguro’s dad offered them. “About...you know, things,” he finishes eloquently.
Yukio sits down and digs through his bag for a pen and notepad. About what?
Yukio frowns, holding his chin as he nods. “Now that I think about it, it’s probably fine. I only used the seal in our room at the monastery because I’m worried Tou-san and the others will get involved and alter the future in ways we can’t anticipate. Whereas here, there isn’t anyone who greatly influences our future. Besides, like the monastery, this inn has its own protections.”
“Okay, how do you know about all these things? I mean,” Rin laughs sheepishly, “I didn’t always pay attention in cram school, but I swear I would have remembered if they taught us cool spy things like this.”
Yukio stays quiet for a moment, tearing a sheet off his notepad to draw a few symbols. “I learned most of this from Tou-san, and the rest, I picked up from other exorcists on missions.”
He taps the corner of the paper, “The one I used in our room is a contract written to special type of demon. They’re called muffles, and were originally thought to be kin of Azazel, but recent studies show they’re more closely related to Iblis. They consume sound, so they are easy to summon and use as long as they don’t overpopulate.”
“Whoa, that’s super neat,” Rin says, picking up the sheet of paper. Yukio brightens a little, so Rin counts that as a success, and ploughs on. “So...I want to try stopping the Impure King somehow.”
Yukio doesn’t look surprised in the least bit and Rin has to wonder if he’s been thinking about it this whole time. So far so good though.
“The one who instigates the event is Todo Saburota,” Yukio says carefully, “with the backing of the Illuminati.”
Rin nods, grabbing a rice cracker to chomp on. “If we know that, we can stop him before, right?”
“What’s to say we stop Todo,” Yukio holds his chin, frowning, “and someone replaces him? Besides, do you remember? Sir Pheles was well aware of what was happening, yet he did nothing. There’s too many uncontrollable factors, this far in the past from the actual event.”
Rin grimaces, chomping down on his cracker, “I don’t get what’s going on with Mephisto. He helps us only when he feels like it.”
Yukio’s glasses fog up as he cups his tea close to his face. “We should be careful. If we garner either side’s attention too early, it will become significantly harder to change things.”
“Wait,” Rin grins, “I have an idea.”
Yukio nibbles the edge of a cracker, “Okay?”
“Let’s just take out the Impure King now!” Rin slaps his leg exuberantly, “Isn’t that a great idea?”
There’s a swift bought of silence, but Yukio nods eventually, with a tiny approving smile edging onto his face. “That’s actually pretty good. The body of the Impure King isn’t guarded since its dormancy is a secret, so any changes we make won’t be noticed immediately. Most importantly, no matter who steals the eyes in the future—”
“They won’t be able to revive it!” Rin beams. “Then let’s hurry and go,” he says, tugging Yukio’s arm.
“Eh, what?” Yukio sputters, grabbing onto the back of Rin’s shirt as he rushes out. “Just like that? Wait, Nii-san, do you even know how to get there?”
“Sort of?” Rin laughs, “It’ll be okay! Kuro took us there, last time.”
Yukio shoots him an incredulous look. “Hold on, before we go, we need...disposable gloves, and a map if there is one. I remember in the Order’s report on the incident, the body was sealed in the basement of their main temple, and it should be in the very center, most safeguarded position. We should go downstairs and ask to use a first aid kit and—”
“Okay, okay, let’s go already!”
There’s a little sliver of tired fondness in Yukio’s smile as he follows. “I’m not sure I like that your impulsiveness has started to rub off on me.”
“Hey,” Rin protests, nudging Yukio’s shoulder as they step outside, “have a little faith.”
“Faith? You know, you’re becoming more like Tou-san every day, white hair and all.”
“Isn’t this a great idea?” Yukio mutters, trying to become one with the damp patch of grass and pinecones he’s crouched in. “That was what you said earlier, wasn’t it?”
“I didn’t think it would turn out like this either,” Rin hisses, squeezing as flat as he can against the rough tree bark. He sneaks a glance upward, ducking back as a huge shadow sweeps by.
Everything had been going great—impressively great, even. They’d found the—not as ruined as Rin had expected—temple grounds simply by following the helpful road signs and a mysterious set of footprints backwards, and the snowy weather had colored the sky a soft grey, conveniently making it so no one in their right mind would be outside, while keeping it bright enough to see as evening approached.
If only there hadn’t been a hungry swarm of harpies nesting at the top of the mountain…. Which leads them to this painful situation where he and Yukio are stuck huddling under a pine tree like frightened squirrels that didn’t get the memo about the vicious predators living upstairs.
It’s too bad Yukio didn’t bring his guns, but Rin doesn’t mention it because the regret might as well be written all across his face in capital letters. “We can’t kill them because it’ll leave evidence,” Yukio mumbles, “but if we could trap them somehow...”
Rin tunes him out because his brain is about frozen at this point. If this was twenty minutes earlier, he might have tried to make a break for it since the temple is practically visible over the hill they’re on. So what, if he has no idea which building is the right one? It would beat shivering under this prickly tree any day. Except, it’s too late now that his legs are numb. He’s almost certain the minute he stands he’ll fall over from the pins and needles feeling.
He sniffs, burrowing into the furry collar of his coat. It’s way too cold right now. It doesn’t help that he’s really hungry right now, and his flames feel all wilted—
“Hey, Yukio,” Rin waddles half a step over to Yukio’s patch of grass, “I have an idea,” he says, putting on his best reassuring smile.
Yukio turns, and for a moment, Rin almost thinks he’ll say no, but he nods expectantly.
It seems like a pain to explain, so Rin just goes for it. He takes a deep breath and focuses hard on a fallen tree branch a couple meters away.
It lights up eye-searing blue for a second, then dies disappointingly.
“Use these,” Yukio presses a spiky pinecone into Rin’s hand. “You’re trying to lead them away, right?”
“Wait,” Yukio nudges a pile of pinecones over, “don’t do anything yet. I have a plan, but I’ll need your help. First, light this for me.” He holds out a pathetically thin twig and Rin balks, looking around for anything better.
He finds a thicker one that’s a bit drier, but also really sticky, so he regrets picking it up. The end of the stick is jagged and splintered too. Rin lights it like a torch and holds it close to hide the flames under the tree as best as he can, relishing the warmth it radiates. “Now what?”
Yukio takes another skinny twig and starts drawing in the snow. It’s a circle with runes that look kind of like the ones he’s seen before in…
“Oh! I’ve used this before,” Rin exclaims in surprise, “on one of my missions. One of us has to hold it there though, right?”
“That’s correct.” Yukio’s face turns marginally impressed and Rin has a second to feel smug about it before Yukio goes back to motioning to the circle. “We’re going to use this to trap them. Once the circle is activated, it’s impenetrable from both sides. First, you throw the pinecones to get their attention and hopefully get them all together. In the meantime, I’ll draw the magic circle, and you’ll hold it there—”
Yukio nods, “You have better stamina and the means to defend yourself if the circle is broken.”
“But I don’t know how to hold it there.”
“You just place your hands on the circle and focus.” Yukio takes the torch from Rin and smiles, “From what I’ve seen you do with your flames today, I think you’re perfectly capable, Nii-san.”
Rin swallows hard, hoping the tips of his ears aren’t as red as they feel, “Wh-what’s up with you today?”
Yukio shrugs, “Well, one of the main factors for keeping the circle in place is confidence. I was trying to build you up a bit. Anyway, I’ll take this, set the Impure King on fire and come back as quickly as I can. If you think can’t hold the circle anymore, run for the temple. It won’t break immediately when you let go, and there should be some wards still in place near the gate that’ll keep them away.”
He raises the torch dangerously close to his face. “Trust me. You can do this, Nii-san.”
Rin doesn’t like the way Yukio’s eyes look, with dancing blue drowning his irises. He doesn’t know where that conviction comes from, not when he hardly trusted Rin before.
I want to be strong, so I don’t need your help anymore.
“Okay,” Rin nods sharply, “you better hurry and come back, got it?”
Yukio brandishes his scrawny twig in one hand, and the torch in the other as though he thinks Rin’s supposed to feel reassured by this and presses something soft into his hands.
“I’ll shout when I’m done with the circle. Make sure to put those gloves on. You’ll get cold.” And then he’s gone, probably crawling under another pine tree Rin guesses.
Okay, he’s got this.
The pinecones are decently dry, and they light better than he’d expected. Rin throws three as hard as he can, letting them catch fire as they leave his hands.
Come on...work, work, please, work.
He picks up another pinecone and tosses it, trying to group them closely together. His aim isn’t half as good as he’d like, but if he throws a lot, it should still get their attention, right?
The air abruptly ripples, slapping snow over his head as the harpies swoop down after the tufts of fire like cats after a laser pointer. Rin lobs a few more over and soon enough, a big swarm of them gathers around about two meters away, squawking angrily.
The flames are blindingly bright, and discolored splotches appear everywhere as he stares into the fire for too long. Yukio’s still nowhere to be seen, and the longer Rin waits under the tree, the more anxious he gets.
There, out of the corner of his eye he spots Yukio weave between two trees.
Rin snatches a damp twig and races over, connecting the last bit of the huge, shaky circle just as one of the harpies screeches and dark feathers flood his vision—
He slaps his hands down into the snow and they sink—what, is that supposed to happen—stomach twisting in dread as his knees hit the ground.
The harpy stops short and Rin resists the urge to scramble back as it presses its gross droopy face a centimeter away from his own, clucking indignantly.
“Wow,” Yukio pants, breaths coming out in short puffs as he leans forward, hands bracing his knees from exertion, “it actually worked.”
“Seriously? Whoa, I—”
“I’ll be back as soon as I can. Remember, run toward the temple if it breaks,” Yukio says hurriedly, grabbing the makeshift torch as he dashes off toward the temple ruins.
The harpies start to grow more agitated, flapping and clawing around the edges of the circle. One of them tries flying upward, but it hits an invisible wall and comes crashing back down. The circle is large, but as the harpies start to beat at the walls with their wings, he’s scared the cage will break.
He risks glancing back once, but he can’t see the little blue flame of the torch anymore.
Okay, all he needs to do is kneel here, hands on the circle until Yukio comes back. Hands on the circle, hands on the circle…
Yukio better hurry up because this is way too boring and the harpies are seriously ugly—
Pain blooms across his back as he’s suddenly knocked flat on his face in the snow, scrambling to roll to the side as huge talons scrape across the ground.
Crap, crap, there was another one, crap.
Rin narrowly avoids another sweeping dive from the pissed harpy and redoubles his efforts, panting hard as he sinks in the snow with each step. He draws his sword, but the harpy is too fast, and it’s so heavy, it takes everything he has just to whack it away for a second.
Right. That didn’t work. Now he’s going to run for his life, who cares where.
He crashes through a bush, shoes hitting hard cobblestones as he finds a wall of the temple and—nope, not going that way.
For a minute, he sincerely hopes the squawking he hears isn’t from the other harpies that have gotten out. One look back confirms it totally is, and now he has a ton of them circling above his head with nowhere to run because of this wall.
He’s beyond exhausted at this point and his head is a mess, so when his vision bleeds blue he doesn’t have the strength to hold it back. The flames flare out for a minute, then draw close, warming his freezing legs as he collapses against the wall. He watches in slight satisfaction as the obnoxious harpies flap away, shrieking loudly as they perch in the tall pine trees, pinning their beady eyes on him.
Curling his tail against his waist, Rin takes a wary step forward, then another. None of them move, so he makes a break for it, keeping close to the wall as he tries to find the gate. Where even is he right now?
Rin swivels around, sagging with relief as he spots Yukio with a black smear across his nose, clutching his coat in a bundle. “Did it work?”
“I don’t know. Your coat is cut in the back. Are you hurt?” Yukio demands, trying to stuff a wad of cotton back into Rin’s coat. He reaches straight through the flames almost before Rin has the chance to pull them back, and it nearly gives him a heart attack.
“Wait, what do you mean, you don’t know?” Rin demands, swatting Yukio’s hands away. “What happened when you got there?”
“It just turned to a pile of ash, almost immediately.” Yukio looks around, “The circle broke? Where are the harpies?”
“I scared them with my flames a little,” Rin admits. “I think...they’ll leave us alone if we hurry and leave,” he says, grabbing Yukio’s hand they scramble their way down the trail, still glowing like a blue bonfire. “So, the Impure King...you just lit it up, and that was it?”
“I kept following the footprints we saw earlier,” Yukio frowns, “and it led up to a ceremonial fire that was still burning. From there, I found a trap door into the cellar. There were talismans everywhere, and I think they helped contain the fire. For a minute, I was worried I’d burn the entire building down.”
Rin raises an eyebrow, “Do you think the footprints were from Suguro’s dad? Maybe he left them when he came down from the temple earlier to meet with us?”
“I hope so. Anyway, I gathered the ashes in a flowerpot as best as I could,” Yukio mentions as they stop to take a break, finally far enough from the harpies, “because I—” he breaks off, coughing a little. “I wasn’t certain if they might be harmful, or if they could still be used—”
“What? That’s what that bundle is?”
Yukio shrugs, “I broke the seal when I went down there, so it didn’t seem right to leave them there.”
“Seriously?” Rin sniggers, “Are you going to hold a funeral for the Impure King when we get back?”
Yukio laughs for half a second before he sneezes. “Absolutely not.”
The sky is a grumpy dark blue by the time they shuffle back into Toraya. Luckily, it’s late and there aren’t any guests at the front when they wander in.
Or, so he thought, but as they reach the stairs, they run into little Suguro sitting there glumly.
“What happened to you two?”
“Uh, we,” Rin scratches his cheek, “we went hiking.”
Suguro gives them a look that clearly shows he thinks they’re morons, or maybe trash at lying—Rin can’t tell—and goes back to sulking.
Yukio gets back to their room and immediately bags the flowerpot, then bags it again before he hides it away in his duffel.
Rin spends a couple of seconds just standing there, and he’s still deliberating whether he wants to take a bath before passing out when Yukio peeks his head out the door of their room.
“What are you doing?”
Yukio frowns, “I was thinking about earlier…” he trails off. “I hope Suguro-kun didn’t get in an argument with his father.”
“Oh,” Rin peeks his head out too, following his line of sight to the stairs, “because of what we said earlier?”
“Perhaps,” is all Yukio says.
It sticks in Rin’s thoughts as he breathes in the nice scent of the soft futon, drifting off to sleep.
He wakes up in the middle of the night and his stomach is so furious it wants to eat itself, so Rin gets up and figures he can at least buy himself some chips from the vending machine. He’s still pretty sleepy and he narrowly misses stepping on Yukio’s glasses as he shambles out.
There’s someone sitting at the stairs though. Rin squints, walking over slowly.
It’s Suguro, but he’s fallen asleep sitting out here.
Part of Rin wants to go over and talk to him.
...But Suguro is a good kid, and he grows up to be a great guy, so he can’t help but feel it’s not his place. Just because he says a few things, doesn’t mean things will change, especially as a complete stranger.
He buys a cheerful yellow bag of potato chips from the vending machine and shuffles back into their room.
The quilt he was burrowed in is still faintly warm as Rin sneaks back over to the stairs and bundles Suguro up as gently as he can.
There. All good now.
He’ll just go back and steal Yukio’s quilt. No big deal.
“Good luck, Suguro. You got this.”