Rain coats the pavement; it coats windows and paints the intersection full of cars with ugly, eye-searing colors of blue and white and most of all, red.
An ambulance whines away. Crowds of people stop to stare at the gruesome mess of car frames in front of the bank, contorted like crushed aluminum cans.
So much for thinking the rainy night would serve as a good cover. He needs to hurry and leave. Their attention might be drawn for now, but he can’t risk the police recognizing him—not now.
He’d never anticipated that another group would target the armored truck’s exchange point. His only choice had been to take advantage of the chaos and snatch away one case of crystals while they were preoccupied with dispatching the guards.
If he’d been one step faster, he could have left with both cases.
He needs that other case.
Yukio nudges his glasses, pulls his hood up and keeps his focus on the stark white stripes as he steps past the patrol car, breathing in the foul stench of car exhaust. His plastic bags rustle as he crosses, slick with water. As he passes the convenience store, he picks a newspaper from the stack, rolling it into his bag.
Yukio stops short as a gloved hand touches his shoulder. The officer steps close, furrowing his eyebrows. “What happened to your eye?”
“A bit of an infection. Can I help you?” Yukio asks, keeping his smile bland and his hands still.
“Do you mind coming to the station for a quick statement?”
The rain pours, it drains along the curb, it dances gleefully on the plastic tarp of the convenience store with a tap-tap-tap-thud, and it roars in his ears for the fraction of a second like thunder, choked and suffocating.
“Not at all.” Yukio smiles. Whether the request is truly so simple, he doesn’t know. Perhaps hiding an eye isn’t so uncommon, and this officer is particularly inept at recognizing faces.
The officer nods and turns, pulling the car door wide. “Thanks.”
Yukio doesn’t move. “Of course, it’s no problem.” He watches as the man leaves the passenger door open, reaching for the driver’s. “Oh, officer,” he adds, “someone’s left a phone in here.”
“Really?” The man frowns. “Where? I don’t see anything.” He puts a hand down on the seat and leans his head in.
“It’s under the seat,” Yukio replies, taking a step back. “The case is black.” Another step back. “Look closely.” One more.
“What are you talking about? I don’t see anything—”
The rain sings, syncopated against the tap-thud-tap-thud of his errant footsteps as he slips away. He’s on the other side of the street by the time he sees the officer stand, turning in circles.
The crowd helps, but it seems it’s insufficient.
“Hey! Stop him! Someone stop him!”
Interestingly enough, the people in his vicinity give him a wide berth in response. It cages him in but keeps the officer away by a wall of pedestrians with nothing better to waste their spare time on.
Yukio takes a breath and drops to one knee, slamming his hand against the sewer lid. There’s this much water around him after all. Why not make use of it? He likes to think his naiads answer him better because he’s become more skilled, not because they have a penchant for petty chaos.
A wave of putrid, contaminated water heeds his call and spews into the street, rising up to his calves. The crowd falls to disorder, buying him the moment he needs to strip off his jacket and stuff it into one of his bags. From there he plays his role, stomping and scrambling in the sewer water, melding into the rush of people.
It’s sloppier than he would have liked, but he’s not so picky about methods anymore.
It figures that his careless maneuver would only buy him two days before he was spotted again.
This time though, they were after him specifically. At least none of them have dared to try shooting him in fear of damaging the crystals. Like before, there is rain. Less fortunately, he’s in no condition to make use of it, with a sprained ankle and a raging fever gnawing at any coherent thought he manages to dredge up.
It’s all rather pathetic, in his opinion. From what he knows, the Illuminati struck north of Ukraine nearly two years ago, just after the gate was destroyed. Having lost control of its surrounding territories, the Order was forced to abandon the crypt preserving Armumahel’s crystallization. The loss was disastrous, leaving them with significantly diminished means to produce holy water and weapons. Since then, their supply of crystals has only dwindled, so much that these fragments as small as his fingernails are worth more than ever.
On the other hand, the Illuminati only gained more ground, using their new resources to advance their war effort without hesitation.
Harsh barking breaks through the haze in his head. He can tell he’s being worn down, driven into a corner.
The rain slows as he reaches several streets away. Yukio throws himself behind a store’s collection of cardboard boxes, waiting to be broken down and recycled. He counts his breaths slowly, leaning his head back against the rough bricks.
He’s not certain if there’s a moon tonight. He hasn’t checked for a while.
The air is thin and his eye aches, throbbing deep in the back of his head.
A soft creak snaps him to attention, and by the time the store’s back door is fully open, he’s out of the alley, brushing wet hair away from his face.
They have tracking dogs. He needs to get away, as far as possible, yet the city borders are bound to be tightly monitored. At this rate, he’s likely to pass out from exhaustion before anything else.
His footsteps scrape against the rough gravel as he limps past an alleyway. He hears the rush of furious water, heavy and burdened.
He’s found the river, or perhaps it has found him.
Experience has taught him water doesn’t erase scent well. He doesn’t know what kind of dogs the Illuminati has bred, but they’ve always caught up to him once he got out of the water. If only there was some vehicle he could sneak on, or even a bicycle he could steal, because outrunning them is clearly no longer an option.
Yukio clenches his jaw as he plunges a foot into the bloated river, fighting to keep moving as his muscles seize. If he stands around here, he’ll be discovered. At least the river can carry his tracks away.
The frigid water is deeper than he expected. It sets his teeth chattering in minutes as he sloshes along the muddy bank, tripping his way over to hide beneath a tall highway bridge.
He’s not certain if the barking he hears is a product of his delirium, or rampant paranoia. Even the concrete wall feels warm at this point.
Their lab is here. It must be here, or the crystals would be cold, like before. He can't be wrong, can't afford to be, at this point. It took too long just to get into Gotemba. He can’t leave without having accomplished anything. Not when he’s so close.
The soft grind of pebbles sends hair on the back of his neck standing as Yukio lunges to his feet, sighting instinctively at the source of sound. His gun’s weight is too light, far too light to stop the tremors running down his arm as he aligns the barrel. The sudden movement proves to be too much, and he staggers, bracing his other arm against the wall.
“Whoa, chill,” an airy voice mumbles. “I mean, you’re out of bullets anyway, aren’t you?”
Yukio fights the urge to take a step back, gritting his teeth to stop their chattering. “We’ll see.”
“Nope, you’re definitely out,” the voice announces gleefully. “You wouldn’t be keeping so close to the river otherwise. Couple days ago, too. That...sewage issue at the bank.” Yukio tenses as the footsteps approach. “Ah, come on, just two years and you don’t recognize me? Okumura-sensei?”
“Shima,” Yukio seethes, tightening stiff fingers around his pistol. “If you mean to stop me here, I will kill you. Step aside.”
Shima laughs, and the river is deafening beside them. “As much as I’d like to see you try,” he whispers, scarcely an arm’s-length away, “my newest employer is a demanding one, you know.”
He smiles and withdraws a letter, gilded and gleaming, with a beautifully embossed green seal.
Yukio doesn’t recognize it, but he knows the light, curling and delicate handwriting on its expensive envelope. Yuki-chan, it says, painfully familiar and inappropriate. “Shi- the Shemihaza,” he manages, letting disbelief bleed into his tone freely, “hired you?”
Shima gives a noncommittal hum, running a hand through his dry brown hair. “Let’s hurry this up. Here.” He passes a duffel bag over. “In there’s two spares of clothing. Once you've changed, we’ll ditch yours someplace rude to throw them off. From there, I’ll cover you until we make it to the border.”
Yukio watches warily as Shima removes a sleek canister from the duffel. “Shut your eyes,” he orders, shaking the can vigorously. “It’ll keep the dogs off your scent for a day.” The gas is odorless but leaves odd white streaks across his skin that itch faintly. It makes him want to wash it off.
“I can’t get you out of the city,” Shima continues. “You’ll have to figure that one out yourself, because,” he motions to his uniform vaguely, “you know.”
“Fine,” Yukio snaps. “What else?”
Shima grimaces. “Once you’re out, head north to Kawasaki’s red-light district near the old Chinatown. I’ll meet you there, and you’ll be able to recover at a safehouse she organized—”
“Why?” Yukio demands. "Why did she hire you?”
“Read the letter.” Shima smirks. “I sent them off in the wrong direction earlier, but we better hurry.”
“I refuse.” The evening air is cold, but his blood is on fire. It writhes and boils. He knows what her offer is, just as much as he knows he can’t drag Shima into this.
“She owes me nothing, and I have no right to accept.”
Shima raises an umbrella and steps out into the river. “That’s quite a look in your eyes, Sensei. Are you telling me you’re not even going to consider it?”
There is a moon tonight. It’s full and arrogant, and its face is broad, scattering light like a crass spotlight. “Wow.” Shima laughs. “Aren’t you brave? Come on,” he scoffs, “just make my job a little easier? Let’s go already.”
“I can’t leave yet.”
Shima rolls his eyes. “You’re a wreck and you still want to stay in Gotemba? Our base is right there,” he mocks. “Right there.” He points, straight down into the valley.
If he goes along, he could get treatment for his ankle. He could search more effectively, without fatigue wearing him down. He could rest. Sleep.
He could finally apologize to her.
Yukio reaches into the duffel and pockets a pack of magazines. He can't justify needing anything else, least of all, her protection. If he allows himself to falter now, he’ll lose his nerve.
He can’t ask her to risk her position for his sake. His gamble has just begun and he's already running out of time.
“I refuse,” Yukio repeats. “Let her know, I’m not worthy of her forgiveness yet.” He turns away but Shima snatches a fistful of his jacket, wrenching an arm back.
“I warned you before," he hisses, eyes hardening with frustration. “Those fragments attract because the emperor still lives."
An uncertain light reflected by the river casts their shadows closer, irreconcilable by a mere hair's breadth. Yukio watches impassively as Shima's raised fist shakes, poised for a blow that doesn’t come.
“Don’t underestimate what carrying those is doing to you.”
He does make it out of the city eventually, squeezed between sacks of rice on a cargo ship. It takes him a day after crossing the border to make sure he wasn’t followed. Perhaps Shima played some part in ensuring that.
It feels like defeat.
He’s irritated enough to spitefully ignore the letter.
His fever comes and goes but his ankle is only getting worse. The heavy bruise means he’s likely torn a ligament, and the makeshift wrap he has applied isn’t helping much. At best, the recovery will take a month if he manages to get treatment. At worst, he could end up with chronic pain and perhaps even permanently compromised range of motion.
It’s been wearing on his nerves for too long. He needs to be able to run, more than anything right now.
There’s a bus stopped up ahead. He pays with quiet, wet bills and rides until the last stop. The rest of the way is a short walk, deep in the strings of red bulbs and tasteless distortions of music. He pulls his hood up tighter and ignores the waves he gets as he passes several establishments. Each is rank with the thickness of sweat and other nauseating bodily fluids.
The temperature at night is dropping quicker as the solstice approaches. Tiny, prickling chills pull at his muscles as he feels his fever in each foggy breath, pounding in the back of his eye. He desperately needs to sleep.
The road he's following branches up ahead. The smaller path leads to an abandoned subway tunnel, with boarded up gates that appear to have been recently broken into. Small splinters of wooden planks lay scattered all over the muddy entrance.
It’s likely occupied. He needs to find somewhere else. It's too risky, even if the dusty footprints leading out are dry.
Exhaustion makes the decision for him as he drags his feet inside the dark tunnel.
It’s a water-logged place, with stale air and mold filling the cracks. He waves a couple of coal tars away from his eye as he wanders in, keeping a hand on the damp wall. Water trickles from the low ceiling in thin drops, reflecting pale light as they fall. The rhythm is slow, creeping around the corners of his consciousness.
A sudden splash sounds to his left. Yukio swivels, gritting his teeth as his vision wavers. Inside the tunnel, it's cramped and tight. The series of splashes are agile and quick, spinning in a dizzy circle he can’t discern clearly. There’s no room for a fight, and he’ll be disadvantaged in the dark, without a suitable weapon to defend himself.
Before he can finish the thought, he hears a click, followed by a dull whistle. It’s distinct; a switchblade, with a gleaming edge even in the darkness of the tunnel.
His bag lands with a heavy splash. Yukio pivots on his good leg, slamming the stranger’s wrist against the wall as hard as he can. He’s too weak though, wasting precious seconds failing to pry the knife from stubborn fingers.
Yukio’s taller and heavier but he’s also slow. The knife whistles again, and Yukio lands on his injured ankle by mistake, crumpling to his knees. The next second, a messy blow to the jaw has his head spinning, and then it's all too late.
He sees darkness bleed into his vision with strangled fear, fighting to stay awake. The last moment before he blacks out, devastating confusion warms his blood as he meets deep red eyes he thinks he recognizes.
Yukio wakes with an uncomfortably tight stiffness to his clothes. They probably dried as he was passed out. He rolls his neck and blinks twice, staring at the spritely orange fire in front of him. Even with the heat from this fire, it would have taken several hours for his clothing to dry completely. He's been here for a while but it's still dark outside, which means less than six hours.
The inside of his mouth is dry and smoke from the fire stings his uncovered eye. His throat aches sharply and the acrid taste of blood hits him as he runs his tongue over his teeth. When he sits up, he becomes abruptly aware of the dull pain in his jaw, and the events come back to him with rushed clarity.
His wrists have been restrained, tied behind his back with something thin, perhaps a zip tie of some sort. There’s nothing holding his legs still, but the best he can do is hobble with the state his ankle is in.
As he struggles into a sitting position to look around the room, another problem quickly becomes clear. His glasses are gone, although the bandages over his eye haven’t been removed. Perhaps his glasses fell off during the scuffle. He’s not sure he would have noticed, given how feverish he’d been.
A harsh cough draws Yukio’s attention. As he turns, a loud clatter sounds in the tunnel and he’s met with the barrel of a gun—his gun. The firelight glints golden off the worn edge, reflected off countless fine scratches. “Where are the crystals?”
“Please,” Yukio mumbles, swallowing dryly. “I’d be much—”
“Don’t move!” the blurry face in front of him interrupts. She shoves the gun closer. “Where are the crystals you stole?”
“Why do you need them?” Yukio asks, watching her hands tremble minutely. Now that he’s had time to look around, it seems he’s still in the tunnel. This girl is taller than the person he fought before. She’s alone right now, which means if he’s going to escape—
“Tsuji,” a rough voice croaks, “don’t antagonize him.”
Yukio shifts, trying to peer in the direction of the voice. There's a man sitting on the other side of the small fire. Something is bothering Yukio about the way his voice sounds. Perhaps it’s the Kansai dialect.
The girl—Tsuji, Yukio assumes—sets the gun aside, rushing over. “Senpai! How do you feel? Do you need water? What about something to eat?”
The gun is close, just about half a meter away.
“I’m getting better,” the man rasps. “We can’t stay here much longer. Where’s Kamiki?”
“She left to get gas a while ago. What are we going to do with him? We need—”
The man coughs wetly, doubling over. “He won’t tell us so easily.”
Footsteps splash near the tunnel entrance, racing toward them.
Tsuji scrambles to her feet but stops when the intruder’s silhouette becomes discernible. “Kamiki-senpai,” she says in relief, “Suguro-senpai just woke up—”
The newcomer approaches the fire, sweeping long dark hair over her shoulder as she snatches the gun off the ground. “What did I tell you about leaving weapons unattended?”
Red eyes, long hair, Kansai dialect…
Yukio stops listening.
How did it take him this long to recognize them? First Shima, now Kamiki and Suguro. Was three years so long that he nearly forgot their names?
Kamiki sighs. “Can you walk?”
Yukio raises his head, momentarily disoriented. “I beg your pardon?”
“Can you walk?” Kamiki repeats. Her face is impassive as she grasps Yukio’s forearm, whipping out her switchblade to cut the zip tie.
Yukio swallows, getting to his feet. “I suppose so.”
Kamiki nods sharply. “Tsuji, pack up. We're taking him with us.” She shoulders Yukio’s bag, picking up the gun and handing it to Suguro. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Suguro says, staggering as he stands. “You have the box with you?”
Kamiki straps another backpack on, wincing as she smooths the tape around her wrist. “Right here. I’ll drive first, and we can switch in the middle.” She turns, leveling Yukio with a frown. “Tsuji, keep an eye on him.”
“Where are you heading?” Yukio asks as they step out of the tunnel. The moon is bright and full, soaking the evening in a cool glow that seems to make every edge blur.
“Give us your crystals and we’ll let you go,” Kamiki replies, not even bothering to turn around to listen for his answer.
The night is cold, especially since the van they’re in had lost its windows sometime before, along with its passenger seats. Yukio sits, squished between Suguro and Kamiki and huge plastic totes, trying to stop his shivering. Tsuji drives fast, with sharp turns and swaying lane changes that send his stomach roiling. His chest is tight, and his eye throbs dully, with an agitated pulse of its own.
Suguro coughs, intense trembles wracking his frame. Yukio staunchly ignores him and pretends to keep sleeping.
There are medical supplies in his bag but the majority of them are for first aid. He does not know what Suguro has, and he sincerely hopes he doesn’t make it worse with the flu he’s been carrying.
The silence is disquieting though, with only pained coughs to punctuate the low creaks and roaring wind.
“Here.” Kamiki tosses a nutrition bar at each of them, tearing her own open with her teeth as she rummages around one of the plastic totes. “Why is the only food in here protein bars?” She wrinkles her nose, squinting at the label of some brick bar and throwing it back in.
Yukio gives up feigning sleep in favor of nibbling his protein bar. His head hurts. It doesn’t help that the bar is atrociously dry and generally inedible.
Suguro sighs, accepting a water bottle thrown his way. “Leave it, Kamiki. Stop using your arm so much.” His trembling has settled for now, it seems. From how warm he feels next to Yukio, it’s likely he’s running a fever as well. Suguro’s face is sallow, with obvious signs of weight-loss. His breaths rattle softly between each cough, assaulted at relentless intervals.
“Why do you need the crystals?” Yukio asks.
Kamiki shrugs. “They didn’t tell us.”
Yukio shuts his eyes tightly. Lethargy melds into his limbs, draping over his body like a blanket of snow. The longer he stays in their presence, the starker the reminder is, of what—who—is missing.
Just how much longer does he need to search?
He’s frightened, frightened more than anything that he’ll run out of strength like this. He’s frightened he’ll give up someday, tomorrow, or the next, and at the end, he’ll be truly alone by his own hand.
The coughing is unexpectedly frustrating, and sleep evades him.
“Kamiki-san.” Yukio shifts, turning to face her better. “If you don’t mind, I can rewrap your wrist.”
It’s not much of an apology, but it’s the best he can do for slamming it against the wall earlier.
Kamiki frowns and turns the other direction. For a minute, Yukio thinks she’ll ignore him, but she turns back and hands over a roll of gauze.
“Okay,” she says, peeling the mess of her old tape off. The bruise is dark against her pale skin, but at least the swelling is mild.
“Curl your fingers around your thumb for me,” Yukio instructs, turning her wrist gently. “Do you feel any numbness or tingling in your fingers?”
“No,” Kamiki mutters. Her eyes are pinned on his hands the entire time, not missing a single movement.
He gives up examining her wrist as the van heads onto a bumpy road. Some part of him regrets not teaching them more first-aid procedures. The Order liked to assume there would be a doctor available on each team, but in reality, it seems it’s not so true. Although, what he’s doing now is marginally indulgent. There’s hardly so many ways to wrap a wrist wrong, after all.
Yukio finishes making several neat figure eights around the joint, checks that it’s taut, and deems it sufficient. “Do your best to elevate it. If the swelling doesn’t recede within forty-eight hours, you should have it looked at again.”
“Of course. Let me know if you have any questions.” He registers the pull on the corners of his lips too late and is forced to let the practiced smile fade.
He has nothing left to fill the silence anymore.
Kamiki hands Yukio a bottle of water, which he drinks half of. He spends the rest of the night watching the other half in the bottle twist and wind, admiring the small worlds formed and extinguished in the warped sheen of droplets.
Finally, the van stops.
They leave it at the foot of the mountain, hidden perfectly among the rest of the debris and junk piled there by locals. As they trek up, heading onto a rough, muddy mountain trail, the sun begins to rise. Yukio doesn’t offer to help carry any of the bags, and he’s not asked to. The pain in his ankle grows sharp, then begins to dull as he continues to ignore it. Whether it’s out of pride, or something else, he doesn’t know.
Suguro comes to a stop, breathing heavily between his coughs. He stoops before a towering gingko tree and places a hand among its fallen leaves. The forest is quiet as he chants, setting a golden line arcing outward. Air around the tree shimmers and the barrier peels away, revealing a moss-covered oden truck.
Kamiki inserts a key into the door and jerks it open. “I’ll take him,” she declares, pulling Yukio into the truck roughly. There’s a bright, inscrutable green space beyond the second door, with runes etched all around the metal and glowing hairline fractures along the frame. The portal looks highly unstable, but Kamiki keeps going, so Yukio follows.
The air abruptly becomes horrifyingly frigid and dry, with bitingly cold wind that steals the breath from his lungs. There’s more sand than he’s ever seen and countless enormous tents spreading out in a massive encampment.
“You’re...you’re part of the resistance,” Yukio realizes. "That’s how you found me. You have the other case."
Kamiki turns stiffly. “Give up your case and we’ll let you go.”
She resumes walking, weaving between people and tents occasionally. Yukio’s feet sink in the frost covered sand as he follows closely behind. He stumbles occasionally, watching people rush back and forth with supplies, finally close enough to make out the familiar emblem on the tents.
“This is the largest stronghold of the Order left, so don't try escaping." Kamiki’s grip is tight around his wrist as she stops; concern flickers past her features for a fraction of a second. “I’m taking you to the cells,” she offers haltingly. “You’ll be questioned.”
“I understand,” Yukio says as they head inside a dark, musty building at the edge of the tents. His first step down the stairs has his knees buckling from the pain in his ankle, but he has at least twenty more to go.
Breathe. Keep breathing.
“We all know what you did to the Illuminati,” Kamiki adds, “but you’re not on our side either, so don’t overestimate their patience." She greets one of the guards in a language he doesn’t recognize and leads him deeper into the cellar, past several empty cells.
“General Yang despises traitors,” she says, shutting the door and leaving him with a bottle of water. “Be careful.”
Two guards come find him later. They cram him into a filthy shower stall, take all of his clothes, including the bandage he’s wrapped over his eye and leave him with a stack of scratchy cotton rejects, plus an off-blue jumpsuit that’s too short at the ankles. He barely has time to get dressed before they haul him to another room where an old man clips his unkempt hair away.
The guards carry a loud conversation as they take him back to his cell. It doesn’t sound the same as how they spoke to the older man, although both are equally indecipherable to Yukio.
They leave him with a small roll of scratchy gauze which is just short enough that he’s forced to deliberate whether he wants to tape his eye or his ankle. He picks his eye.
Before, when he was arrested for threatening to shoot Mephisto, his every movement had been strictly monitored. This time around, it almost seems like they don’t care at all, as though they’re throwing him in here to rot and disappear.
Whether it will make it easier to escape is an entirely different question.
There’s a small square of a heavy quilt folded in the back. The wooden floor is littered with a light layer of sand and there is a bucket in the corner. Yukio inspects the lock of the cell but finds nothing more than a simple combination lock. He takes the quilt and huddles into the corner, watching his breath fog.
The cold seeps into his bones slowly as he nods off.
He dreams of flames that are warm and soft and blue. It makes him colder when he wakes, and he wishes he didn’t dream in the first place.
The sentries switch. This new one is younger, almost Yukio’s age. He’s short, and when he squats in front of the cell, Yukio notices a long thin scar leading from his chin to the end of his right ear.
“Hello.” The sentry smiles. “I heard you’re from Japan. Do you speak Mandarin?”
Judging by his accent and his question, Yukio supposes this sentry is Chinese, like the earlier one. If he remembers correctly, the General Yang Kamiki mentioned has the same surname as the Arc Knight, belonging to the Chinese Branch. Could that mean...they’re not in Japan anymore? After all, the portal could have led anywhere.
He considers ignoring the guard, but the uncertainty of his situation bothers him too much to give up a chance for information.
“I don’t,” Yukio replies simply.
“I’m Chen Jing. Sorry, I love talking.” The sentry smiles again, like he thinks he has said something particularly amusing. There are two odd dents above his cheeks, like the imprint left behind by goggles or something similar. “What’s your name?”
Yukio tugs the quilt closer, sitting up straight. “You don’t know who I am?”
“Am I...eh, should I?” Chen shakes his head, still amused. “I heard Kamiki-san brought you here. Is that right?”
“Yes, she brought me here. I’m Okumura Yukio,” Yukio says.
“Oh.” Chen laughs. “I see. You’re the robber who ended up stealing from the same truck, at the same time!”
Yukio grimaces. “I suppose so.”
Chen laughs more. “So, how do you write your name? Mine is this way.” He motions, sticking his finger in the sand. He frowns when he’s finished, staring at the characters sheepishly. “Sorry, I’m not...practiced in writing,” he flips his hand over, “this direction.”
It takes Yukio a minute to understand what Chen means. He shifts to move closer and does his best to draw his own name upside down.
Chen puzzles over Yukio’s name, tracing the characters out until he makes a much smoother imitation. He nods, and points. “Your name means…” He shakes his head and draws three circles on top of each other. “Snowman?”
Yukio nods. Of course, kanji are Chinese characters. It makes sense he’d be able to read them. On the other hand, Yukio is unfamiliar with the two characters Chen has written. Of course, not all names have direct meaning. He doesn’t want to be obtuse and ask about something he has no prior exposure to.
“Mine is jing, as in quiet and tranquility,” Chen continues without prompting. “It’s very common, but I suspect my parents prayed I would be born a quiet child because my sister was always crying too much. Anyway, it’s great meeting you, Okumura-kun.”
He frowns. “Which is the right one? Okumura-san?”
“Either is fine.”
“In that case, please call me Chen Jing. I have—” he cuts off abruptly, staring at Yukio. “Are you cold? Where’s your coat? They take it?” he asks, suddenly alarmed.
“No, I came through a portal and—”
Chen shakes his head, springing up to unzip his heavy coat. “Don’t worry. I was raised from our northernmost province. Kamiki-san brought you all the way here. I can’t let you freeze.” He shakes his long overcoat out and starts to push it through the cracks between the bars.
“It’s fine. I’m not cold.”
“Aiya! This is Gebi, of course it will be cold!” Chen exclaims. “Even all the other prisoners have coats. Why didn’t they give you one?”
Yukio makes an effort to push the coat back. “You can’t give me your coat,” he protests. “You’ll get in trouble.” He needs to avoid all suspicion. This is the furthest thing from laying low.
Chen beams widely, pulling at the scar on his face. “I won’t, I won’t. I am Yang-jiangjun’s great-nephew. Besides, this already is my punishment. Guard duty for a week.”
He smiles as Yukio puts the coat on. It's impressively warm, with a huge furry hood and pockets everywhere. The coat is slightly tight around the shoulders but still fits reasonably.
Yukio pulls the hood up and dips his head slightly. “Thank you.”
Chen sneezes, tugging the sleeves of his sweater over his hands. “I spoke too soon.” He laughs sheepishly, brushing sand off his pants. “Okumura-kun, have you eaten breakfast? Ah, what I’m saying? You didn’t even have a coat. I’ll be back. I’ll be back, okay?”
He leaves in a flurry of motion, footsteps fading up the stairs with a hefty thunk in the middle, as though he nearly tripped.
Yukio pulls his legs closer. The coat really is warm. He wants to sleep.
He wants to sleep but his mind refuses to settle. He needs to consider what he’ll be questioned on. He needs to decide which truths to keep, and which lies he can use.
Kamiki’s reaction from earlier regarding the robbery was all he needed to confirm his suspicions. The heist was indeed set up by the Order, and it was executed by Kamiki, Suguro and Tsuji. That’s how they found him.
Shima’s information was correct. The crystals attract, even at great distances.
He needs to get his back, as soon as he finds a way to leave this cell. Fortunately, patience is something he’s too used to pretending he has.
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Yukio demands, staring at the small thermos of steaming soy milk in front of him.
It’s been at least three days, yet no one other than Chen has said more than a word to him, let alone done any sort of interrogating. He’s sick and tired of this cell’s atrocious walls and this stupid bucket and how stingy the morning sentry is with shower times.
They must have found the crystals he hid in his empty magazine and decided to leave him to rot here.
Chen rocks on his heels, chewing a ration bar. “All my friends are busy, busy people. They are exorcists but they are soldiers too.” He smiles. “You are not.”
On one hand, Chen is doubtlessly a civilian. He’s certainly talkative, yet he clearly knows very little of the information Yukio wants. He’s forgetful too and asks the same questions frequently. Their conversations are roundabout, but so far, Yukio has pieced together where they are.
Sometime after witnessing the fall of the Japanese Branch, the Chinese Branch was forced to relocate drastically as the Illuminati reached hands into the political and military arenas of the mainland.
With the rest of the Order’s forces scattered, they devised a plan to hide where the Illuminati’s sphere of influence couldn’t reach. Gebi, Chen had called it, is the colossal desert which sleeps between the border of Mongolia and China. It grows every year, reaches temperatures far below -30 °C in the heart of winter and is impossible to navigate without innate knowledge of the ever-changing terrain.
The Chinese Branch’s numbers are stagnant, and they’ve yet to reestablish relations with other ranks of the Order, so the majority of their exorcists have minimal training. Their leader is General Yang, who single-handedly commands the barrier surrounding the camp to keep temperatures bearable.
“She’s the busiest person,” Chen adds apologetically, coughing a little. “It's likely she’s forgetting you are here.”
That’s probably the least of Yukio’s worries, although he really doesn’t like the idea of staying here any longer. If there wasn’t a language barrier, he would never have wasted so much time chatting in this dirty jail cell.
“It’s fine. I don’t mind that,” Yukio replies finally. “Can you tell me today’s date?”
“Uhh, the 20th. I'm not so sure,” Chen says sheepishly. “Why do you ask?”
Yukio shrugs. “It’ll be my birthday soon, so I was curious.”
Chen leans forward. “How old are you going to be?”
“What did you do, for parties?”
“Nothing much. What about you?”
“Hmm, we always eat noodles, for longevity.” Chen Jing smiles. “Stretch them as long as possible.” He coughs again, sniffling.
Yukio’s noticed Chen smells like ash, usually most strongly when he comes to visit in the evening. It’s a heavy, thick ash, but with an unmistakable charge, like the buzzing scent of ozone. It reminds him of insincere smiles and obnoxious pink hair.
Yukio listens absently, watching the white puffs of his breath scatter. He doesn’t want to think about birthdays, about parties...about secrets.
Chen Jing leaves after a couple of hours and Yukio stews silently. He traces the curves of a miniature summoning circle in the sand but brushes it away soon after. This is a desert. He couldn’t have been more disadvantaged.
Today is the 20th. His chances of escaping should be best tomorrow night, when the Order will be spread thin during the night of the solstice.
A soft cough stirs him out of his thoughts. “Okumura...san.” Yukio lifts his head, surprised as he sees who it is.
“What can I do for you,” Yukio asks, standing slowly, “Suguro-kun?”
The cellar is never static, with quiet conversation or shouting or annoying arguments or deep bouts of silence. Today it’s loud, but Yukio imagines he can hear the discomfort as Suguro swallows.
“Do you...know anything of Shima’s whereabouts?”
Yukio breaks eye contact, sighing softly.
If he admits to running into Shima just a week ago, he may have difficulty maintaining that he’s cut ties with the Illuminati, even if Shima’s not solely affiliated with them. In this case, he should lie—say that Shima was fine when Yukio left the Illuminati two years ago, and that they haven’t been in contact since.
“He’s doing well,” Yukio begins. Suguro’s face brightens with relief, and he knows he’s made a mistake. The rest of the sentence he’d planned is suddenly too cruel that he can’t bring himself to say it.
Yukio’s far too familiar with sleepless nights spent missing someone.
“He...meant to help me leave the city a week ago but I turned him down. You don’t need to worry for him.”
Suguro lowers his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispers, “for telling me.”
“Of course,” Yukio replies lightly.
Suguro shakes his head. “I won’t ask what you need the crystals for, but you’ll have a chance to talk to General Yang tomorrow. If you can convince her, they might let you keep them.” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Sorry about all of this.”
“I understand,” Yukio replies. “You did nothing wrong.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Suguro says abruptly. “If you ask, I’ll tell you.”
Yukio’s not sure what he means, but Suguro seems unwilling to elaborate, so Yukio smiles and carefully diverts the subject. “I’m glad your cough has gotten better.”
“Yeah, it has,” Suguro agrees. “It’s late, so I won’t bother you anymore.”
“Certainly. Have a good night, Suguro-kun.”
Yukio stands there, listening until his footsteps fade gently into the whistle of hollow evening wind. As he begins to turn the words over in his head, he wishes he’d never been so careless as to forget his mistake.
Are you really...going to shoot me?
Suguro is far too kind.
Yukio doesn’t know how to apologize. It doesn’t seem right for him to, not when he knows the fault in his actions but can’t regret them enough.
It doesn’t seem right, not when he still wants to know.
Morning comes timidly, with wind like a hushed rustle of billowing cloth outside.
It’s cold. The thermostat must be broken again. He needs to complain to Sir Pheles before going to class today.
His head pounds dizzily. He cracks one eye open, but it’s dark and he can’t find his glasses anywhere. The soft sound of footsteps crosses the floor as he sits up reluctantly. There’s usually more light coming through the curtains, isn’t there? Perhaps it’s raining today.
“Nii-san,” he murmurs, “do you see my glasses?”
He reaches up to rub his eyes and his hand brushes the prickly surface of gauze—
Yukio lets his hand fall to his lap as he slumps back against the cold cell wall. His eyes sting from the threat of tears as he curls in on himself, holding his breath until his chest aches unbearably enough to drown out the paralyzing loneliness in his veins.
He’s tired. He’s so tired of forgetting where he is.
I miss you, Nii-san.
The interrogation room they bring him to is riddled with sand. The ceiling is low, and a single lantern sits in the center of the table, lit with a flustered light. A small, squirrel-like demon with fire under its paws hisses as the guard handcuffs Yukio to the table.
An old woman—General Yang, he assumes—takes a seat across from him, smoking a long ornamental pipe. She makes a small gesture at the squirrel and it scampers up her arm, clicking its teeth aggressively.
The guard stoops to whisper something in the general’s ear and leaves, shutting the door softly. Yukio resists the urge to clench and unclench his fingers in impatience as General Yang exhales slowly, watching the thick lavender smoke curl before dissipating.
“Let me be frank with you,” she says finally. “An hour ago, we received news regarding the disappearance of one of our exorcists. She’s been captured by the Illuminati.”
Why is she telling him this?
Yukio keeps his face blank, focusing on the minute trembles in her hands as she hesitates. “You want...to exchange me,” he says. The realization seeps into his limbs like ice, numb and slow.
He needs to leave. He needs to leave this place, now.
General Yang sighs, tapping her pipe gently. “That child is a great leader. I had intended to make her my successor for a long time, and now I’m afraid my people are too far devoted to see the desperation in their actions.” She steeples her fingers carefully, finally looking up.
“They will propose the exchange tomorrow morning. After that, you’ll be guarded more closely, I suspect.” There’s an odd inflection in her tone that seems deliberate, but Yukio can’t tell what it means. His mind is muddled and all he can think of is how much time he’s wasted—how could he have been so horribly careless?
The sharp tap of General Yang’s pipe against the tray scatters his thoughts.
“I want you to escape before dawn,” she says, lips set in a hard, firm line. “Tonight.”
Yukio goes still. “I don’t understand,” he whispers, watching as she writes a string of numbers on a notepad. It’s three numbers; a combination.
“The Illuminati has no reason to accept an exchange.” General Yang says, eyes harsh in the lantern light. “They’ve clearly shown they do not negotiate, and they will not compromise because this is war. They would shoot her the second you’re in their hands. Besides,” she laughs bitterly, “there is only one of you, and we have lost thousands. I cannot weigh one soldier’s life over another’s as though I am playing a game of chess.”
“I see,” Yukio murmurs. He doesn’t care for such ideals personally, and he’s certain the Vatican never did either. It seems too soft.
“I’m not doing it for you,” General Yang scoffs. “I’m doing it for the idiots who would end up killed trying to swap you. They won’t listen to reason, so I have no choice. Once you’re out of the way, we can attempt a rescue properly.”
She taps the sheet of paper. “Memorized?”
“Good.” General Yang replies, handing the note to her squirrel. Yukio watches distractedly as it stomps a fiery paw on the paper, leaving dark ash behind.
“You may be a double-crossing traitor, but you’re clearly resourceful enough to have survived this long,” she admits, pulling out a key to uncuff him from the table. “This better be the last I ever see of you.”
“Absolutely,” Yukio mutters.
She reaches into her sleeve and withdraws a ring of keys. They’re long and thin, with a familiar dull metallic tinkle to their sound. General Yang gives him a curt nod. “We owe a heavy debt to your brother. I will not do him the disservice of selling you out, regardless of your questionable allegiance. Best of luck, Okumura Yukio.”
She pulls a flat, rectangular key off the ring and hands it to him. He knows this key well. It was the first he’d ever received.
Why would she want him to go there? Is it just a key she doesn’t need anymore, or is there someone waiting there for him?
“How do I know this isn’t a trap?”
“You don’t,” General Yang replies. “You should already know, that’s the price for betrayal. No one trusts you, and of course,” she says, eyes turning callous, “you can’t trust anyone else.”
A guard comes in to escort him back to his cell as General Yang leaves, flocked to by harried messengers immediately.
“Thank you,” Yukio adds belatedly, curling his fingers tightly around the cold brass teeth of the key.
The sentry today is alert and rigid. Yukio watches him make tracks in the narrow corridor, counting the minutes nearing dusk. There’s another sentry by the entrance, tapping a foot as he reads leisurely.
Two of the prisoners are chatting, with laughter interspersing their conversation. It isn’t quiet, but there is a sullen murmur of white noise, of fading afternoon sunlight that dampens and smooths the edges of all sound.
If he leaves using the key, he doesn’t need to hurt anyone. He can wait until the sentries crowd by the entrance of the cellar to play their nightly game of mahjong, unlock his cell, and use a door deep in the back to leave.
He does not want to betray General Yang's generosity. Even more so, he has no confidence in his ability to break out when there are so many uncertain factors. He knows almost nothing of the camp's layout, or security beyond this cell.
If he uses the key, he won’t hurt anyone. He also won't be able to steal the crystals back.
He needs those, more than anything.
Leaving without them is not an option.
There are two sentries. He doesn’t believe he'll be able to open the lock without drawing their notice. If he fails, they'll replace it, and he will have lost his chance.
The most favorable option is to get the sentry to open the cell for him, and soon. Another sentry will come once night falls, but dusk has already begun.
He can’t afford to bide his time and gather information anymore. There is one person he can use. If he's going to move, he must do it now.
He may not be able to call his naiads here...but that doesn’t mean he can’t bluff.
Yukio stands and paces a lazy circle around his cell, gathering sand. The sentry slows, pausing in place. Yukio meets his eyes and does his best to smirk, as infuriatingly as possible. The guard frowns as Yukio begins to draw in the sand, slowly at first, with increasing urgency.
Two rings. Footsteps rush up to the bars of the cell. Overlapping ovals. The sentry slams a hand on the bars, yelling a warning. Four spires. The harried click-click-click of the combination lock turns and rattles. Eight vertices.
The cell door shrieks open.
He steps back as the sentry dives for the circle, skidding straight through the two outer rings. Yukio seizes his moment of distraction to wrench the sentry’s arm back as he fights to stand, forcing him to drop the gun. A fist catches him in the temple in his rush to retrieve the weapon. Yukio’s ears ring as he falls, and he drags the sentry down with him. His head hits the wall and he sees white.
The sentry grabs at his hair, tearing the gauze, writhing as Yukio finally pins his arm down. His eyes water from the dust and sand as the sentry thrashes, desperately trying to free himself.
The sound of the other sentry’s footsteps clatter down the corridor. The one he has pinned shouts loudly as his flailing grows frantic. Yukio takes the chance to slam the first sentry’s head against the ground as hard as he can, snatching the radio off his belt as the other sentry comes into view.
The other sentry draws a gun, shaking uncontrollably as he registers his partner on the floor. He sees the gun in Yukio’s hand and falters. Good.
If the sentry fires, he’ll be discovered. He can’t let him fire.
Yukio closes their distance, clipping the man in the wrist before he has the chance to aim. He twists hard, but the man’s grip is firm. Yukio steps forward, narrowly avoiding a far-reaching swipe. The sentry is heavy-set, and he clearly knows how to use his weight to his advantage. Yukio’s arms shake as he strains, trying to wrest the gun away.
At this rate, he’ll be overpowered.
He changes tactics, flipping his grip on the man’s wrist. A flare of debilitating pain spikes up his ankle as the man jerks back, throwing Yukio off balance. He’s forced to let go, reflexively smashing his elbow into the man’s nose as he rights himself.
Blood runs down the man’s face as he crashes to his knees, dropping the gun. Yukio sways unsteadily on his feet as his vision blurs. He blinks rapidly, gritting his teeth as he lands a hard blow on the man’s chin, and the man finally passes out.
Chen Jing was right. They lack training. Clearly, this one has never fired a gun before. It’s no wonder they’re losing the war.
Yukio’s chest heaves tightly as he steps back. He braces an arm against the wall, coughing hard. His eyes still sting from the sand. The gauze over his left one is torn and unsalvageable. It’s disorienting that he’d nearly forgotten his prescription is lower in this one. Before he retrieves the crystals, he needs his spare glasses back.
He keeps his distance, watching for signs of returning consciousness in either of the sentries for a minute before he moves to check that both are still breathing regularly.
The taller sentry’s uniform is damp with sweat as Yukio strips it off. He holds his breath as he yanks it over the atrocious jumpsuit he’s wearing. He checks the man’s boots but removing them reveals a frightfully terrible case of athlete's foot.
The later sentry is overweight and dragging him into the cell has Yukio panting by the time he’s finished. He tears the first sentry’s boots off, pleased to find that they fit reasonably. The man’s belt is useful too, with a good number of pouches.
He clicks the combination lock back on the cell door and takes a moment to breathe, letting his hands curl and uncurl as the adrenaline begins to fade. Most of the other prisoners seem to have enough self-preservation to keep their heads down in their cells, but a few jeer and wave. Yukio can’t guess at what they’re saying.
The radio he picked up stays silent. He’s lucky they underestimated him and didn't call for help. He has a little over an hour before their check-in.
The guard had two ration bars in his pocket, and there’s a thermos of tea on the table next to his book. Yukio downs the tea, pockets the ration bars and checks the rest of his supplies. He has two guns, enough bullets, the key and—
The cellar door hurtles open. Yukio takes a step back, putting too much weight on his ankle.
It’s Chen Jing.
“H-how did you—”
Yukio lunges with his good leg, striking the hand holding something metallic—a camping lantern. Chen flings an arm up. Yukio ducks and drags him forward, twisting Chen’s other arm back as he checks for weapons.
“Don’t yell,” Yukio warns, tightening his grip. “Yell and I’ll break your arm.”
He waits until Chen takes a stilted breath, watching him nod jerkily.
"I'm going to release you." Yukio says carefully. "If you try to run or shout, I'll shoot."
He steps back, eyes pinned on Chen's hands, bending to pick up the lantern. "Take me to where they’re keeping my belongings.”
Chen obeys wordlessly, jumping as Yukio kicks the door to the cellar shut.
The camp is unnervingly quiet, with only the frigid night wind blustering the uncertain flames of their lanterns. Tonight is the solstice.
Yukio presses his gun against Chen’s hip, walking as close as he can. “Remember, try asking anyone for help, and I’ll shoot them first, then you.”
Chen doesn’t respond, and some part of Yukio is grateful for that. The fear in his eyes is enough of an admonishment.
“In there.” Chen points.
Yukio can barely see inside the tent. His heart pounds anxiously as he weighs the possibility of a trap against wanting his belongings.
This gun might as well be useless if he can't aim. He's not going to make it without his glasses.
“Go in first,” Yukio orders. It takes his eyes a minute to adjust, even with the flickering lantern to brighten the inside of the tent. All he sees is a seemingly random assortment of blankets, crates and carpet rolls, until Chen pulls his bag out of a box in the front. “Unzip it and tell me what’s inside,” he says, pressing the gun into Chen’s backside harder.
Chen’s hands tremble as he digs around the bag, breaths coming in short and tremulous. “Th-there’s a paper envelope, cloth, a-a case—”
“Give me that.” Yukio flicks the case open with one hand, settling the glasses onto his face. “Carry it.” He motions to the bag absently, pocketing the eyeglass case.
He doesn’t have time to waste here. It’s not important if he can’t get the Armumahel pistols back. “Where are they keeping the crystals?” Yukio demands. “Take me there.”
Chen shakes his head quickly. “I don’t know, I don’t know anything about any crystals—”
“You’re lying,” Yukio interrupts. It’s a suspicion he’s had for a while, like the frayed, unraveling end of a string, scattered between harried thoughts. Chen’s denial has no clear tells but Yukio can't afford to be wrong. He can't be wrong, and he can't turn back. Not now.
“You’ve been testing a weapon with them, haven’t you? You always smell like it,” he pushes, “the smoke. You must know where they are.”
“No, no, no,” Chen mutters, “please, no, I’m not. Please, they are important to us. You can’t take them. People will die—”
“People will die?” Yukio seizes a handful of his coat, shoving him back roughly. “Shouldn’t you be worrying about that right now? What do you think is going to happen if you don’t hand them over?”
Chen’s jaw tenses as he shoulders Yukio’s bag. He turns around with something terrified burning in his eyes and it sets a deep anxiousness across Yukio’s thoughts. “I’ll take you there. Just promise you won’t hurt anyone. Please.”
“I promise,” Yukio says easily, tracing a finger across the smooth metal of the gun in his hand.
His eye itches.
They reach the outskirts of the camp, and Chen pulls the heavy door of a large shed open, raising his lantern above their heads.
Yukio makes him enter first, letting the door click shut behind them. “Where are they?”
“In here.” Chen motions him over to a bulky metal box. His hands shake so terribly, he drops the key twice before getting it open.
The shifting, uncertain light of the lantern scatters shadows as easily as it forms them, lending them life.
“Both cases are here,” Yukio breathes, leaning close.
Chen sets the lantern down.
The soft thump of Yukio’s bag hitting the ground is all the warning he gets as Chen catches the edge of his elbow on one of the cases, knocking it off the stand. Yukio dives, barely catching the corner as he braces his fall with his other arm. His ankle protests violently as he crouches, flipping the lid off to check the contents.
A sharp click sounds in the empty shed; a sound he’s heard too many times to doubt.
“I’m surprised,” Yukio says, standing carefully. “Are you sure you can shoot me?”
Chen’s hands are unsteady as he steps back, clutching the pistol with both hands.
“Th-that doesn’t matter,” Chen replies stiffly. “I can’t let you take the crystals.” Small tremors run down his hands as he steps away. “They’re, they’re important—
“But they aren’t important to you,” Yukio says, stepping forward. He has another gun. He doesn’t need Chen as a hostage to make his escape anymore. All he needs is to get to the door, to use the key. “You wouldn’t have led me here, otherwise.”
What should he do? He can easily disable Chen with a bullet to the leg. At this distance, even considering the poor lighting, he knows he won't miss.
The gunshot will be loud. Can he afford that?
“Or what?” Yukio sneers, taking another step. “You can’t shoot. Not if you want to trade me to the Illuminati.”
“How do you know about that?”
“How? What do you think?” Yukio smirks. “Of course, someone helped me.”
There. Let him think what he wants. The more disruption he can cause, the better a shot he’ll have at keeping any pursuers away.
Chen’s breath hitches as he realigns the gun, stumbling over a cord on the ground. “I won’t listen to you. A-as long as you’re alive, if it means stopping you from leaving, I-I can, I can shoot,” he says, pointing sharply at Yukio’s legs, shaking uncontrollably. “Don’t come any closer.”
The lantern glows softly, still upright on the ground. The small circle of light is stark, painting the rest of the shed darker with every flicker. Yukio averts his eyes, blinking mottled spots away.
He doesn’t think Chen can shoot him, especially not to deliberately cause injury. The longer he hesitates, the less the probability.
Yukio can’t be certain though. He was the opposite, after all. Fear was never his barrier. It was a catalyst.
“And what?” Yukio prompts. “You’ll bring me back to my cell, and I’ll wait there to be shipped off to the Illuminati come morning?” There’s a table to his left. It’s plastic, with enough things on it to make a good clatter if it hits the ground. “Why would I ever agree to that?”
He needs to hurry. It’s only a matter of time before someone will discover he has escaped. He can't be stalled here.
Chen flinches, taking a step back. He’s less than a meter away from the door now. One electrical cord lies between them. Another one is piled to the right side; it's close, but too thin to be useful. “I-I...you don’t have a choice. I won’t let you pass.”
If Chen loses what little composure he has left, he’ll become unpredictable. Yukio can’t afford to be injured at this point.
After all, the trigger of a gun is carelessly easy to pull.
“You’re right,” Yukio announces.
Escalating was the wrong approach.
“I surrender.” He raises both hands, lowering his head as he scans the inside of the shed one last time.
The lantern is between them, sitting on a tall stool. There’s a table to his left. A cord lies in front of him, and another is coiled to the right. Chen stands just beyond it. The door is less than a meter away.
Yukio shuts his eyes.
“I’m sorry for hurting you,” he says, as softly as he can. “I’m just...I’m just scared. I don’t want to go back there. You have no idea what they’ll do to me.” He pauses, listening for movement. “It took everything for me to get away last time. I’m scared I’ll never be free again.”
“I-it’s okay,” Chen stutters, “just stay there. We’ll go back to your cell. It’s okay,” he mumbles. “We’ll go back to your cell and I’ll, I’ll stay with you until morning, okay?” The soft scrape of sand along wood eases across the floor. Footsteps. “It’ll be okay, so please, just—”
Yukio drops to one knee, sweeping his other leg out. The lantern shatters as the stool hits the ground. Half a second later, the shed plunges into darkness. He snaps his eyes open, kicking the table forward. The crash of breaking glass masks his approach as he sidesteps the table, slamming Chen’s wrist against the door.
Chen is short and thin. He’s weak. Yukio avoids an errant swipe and shoves a fist into his gut, sending him sinking to the floor.
Get the gun, crystals, bag—where is the key? Hurry.
“Please, please,” Chen gasps, “the one we’re trading you for, she’s my sister, please. She’s all the family I have left.”
Yukio fumbles around unfamiliar pockets, clenching his jaw as he digs through the bag. Where is it?
Where, where, where, where—
Did he lose it on his way here?
No, no, not now, not when he’s so close. Where is it?
“Please.” Chen coughs. “You can’t leave, please.”
Yukio kicks the stool across the room, dumping the contents of his bag out furiously. What’s going on? How can this be happening?
He has to leave, leave now. How? It’s an endless desert. Where is he supposed to run?
The floor is littered with glass shards that catch the tips of his fingers as he searches blindly, cursing himself for breaking the lantern.
If it’s not in his pockets it must have fallen out here, somewhere on the ground...somewhere here.
There’s no time; he needs to leave. He needs to hurry, hurry and find the key—
There, it’s there.
Yukio closes his fingers around the flat, cool metal teeth, straightening his glasses as blood rushes to his head in a wave of relief.
He steps past Chen, turning the key into the shed door in a practiced motion. The hinges squeal as the door opens, letting a bright rush of cold air pool out. Crisp ribbons of light splay across the floor, flooding the shed with moonlight.
A harsh wheeze stops him in his tracks.
Yukio turns back warily.
Chen is sprawled on the ground, pawing at one of his pockets frantically. Why is he still wheezing? The blow to his diaphragm wasn’t too hard. At most, he should only have been winded for a minute or two.
Chen gasps again, shuddering. His face is red, dangerously red.
He doesn’t have time to deal with this. It doesn’t matter; he doesn’t care—
“Hold on, stop, I’m trying to help you,” Yukio yells, gripping Chen’s arm as he thrashes. “Calm down—”
A hand glances across the side of his face, knocking his glasses askew as Yukio tucks a hand behind Chen’s shoulders, forcing him up to a sitting position. He jerks the flap off the pocket Chen couldn’t get open, removing a bent red tube. It’s an inhaler.
He’s having an asthma attack.
If he leaves Chen here, he'll die. That means—that means whoever the Order sends after him for the crystals won't think twice to shoot him first, then take them from his dead body.
If someone comes, he can run. The door is already open.
He doesn't want any more blood on his hands.
Yukio curses, shaking the inhaler furiously. “Breathe out,” he orders, raising the mouthpiece close to Chen’s lips as he fumbles to unbutton the thick winter coat Chen has on.
What is he doing?
None of this makes a difference. Why is he so haunted, so afraid of guilt? He’s a hypocrite. A miserable hypocrite who is weak and pathetic and stupid.
“Stop it,” he snaps, panicking as Chen’s breaths refuse to slow. His eyes are wide as he clenches a hand around Yukio’s wrist, squeezing painfully hard.
“Breathe in, breathe out,” Yukio tries again. “Chen, you’re going to be okay. Stay calm for me, okay? Breathe out as fully as you can.” He waits, then holds the inhaler out, watching anxiously as Chen finally breathes in before pressing down.
“There, that’s right,” he murmurs, rubbing circles around Chen’s shoulders. “Breathe in through your nose, okay, breathe out slowly.”
There’s another breathing exercise, something with counting but he can’t remember anything. Was it two puffs maximum or just one, every four to six hours? He should check the lips and fingernails for blue, call an ambulance—no, he can’t, he can’t do that.
“Keep breathing in through your nose,” Yukio instructs, taking a slow breath himself as he fumbles with the cotton filling his head. “Don’t lie down, okay? You need to keep sitting up until someone comes to help you.”
Chen’s hand tightens around his wrist as he shakes his head. “No. You can’t leave.” He gasps. “Please. Please, she’s all, all I have left.”
Yukio pries at his fingers, gritting his teeth as Chen hangs on stubbornly. “Let go,” he hisses. “I know you want to save your sister, but you can’t ask me to stay. There will be a rescue mission for her. I have to go.”
“No.” Chen coughs. “Please, don’t leave.”
He twists sharply, tearing his arm away from Chen’s grasp as he stands. “You’re not the only one who has someone waiting.”
The doorway is bright, with beckoning streaks of light cutting across the floor.
“I’m afraid,” Yukio whispers, “he’s all I had left too.”
Beyond the door, there is snow. It’s piled thickly up the stone steps, falling heedlessly from the sky. Everywhere he turns, there is rubble, so much that he barely recognizes this place at all. Only the garden and the shop at the very top remain untouched, almost eerily preserved.
Yukio takes a trembling breath and begins to climb the stairs. His legs ache with every winding step and the cuts on his fingertips sting as he sweats.
Just a little more. A little more, then he can rest.
He reaches the door, only to discover that it’s locked. Of course, what did he expect?
Regardless of what General Yang intended, he can’t stay here. It’s too open, without any places to hide.
Even so, he takes a step, then one more and sinks to his knees, holding his breath as his muscles seize.
It’s no coincidence that he finally doesn't have the strength to keep going, here of all places again.
The wood flooring under the small patio is lightly dusted with snowflakes at the corners. It’s dry enough, for now. Yukio slumps on the doorstep, checks the crystals one more time, and shuts his eyes.
He wants to stay here, just a moment longer.
There’s a soft wind stirring the air, carrying a scent he knows but can’t recall. Its cold fingers brush his cheeks as he listens to the silence of snow falling around him. For once, his thoughts are empty. There is no one here. He’s safe.
He had always liked the view up here, from these steps. Now, the old bridge is half-collapsed. The rest of the academy lies in ruins, but the faraway lights of the city below are faintly visible, guarded by distant mountains.
It’s been so long since he was last here.
You’re usually so strait-laced, but sometimes it’s okay to loosen up!
If...if he succeeds, perhaps he can return here someday.
Perhaps they all can.
Yukio weaves his way into the lower market swiftly as morning begins to show through thin white clouds. The makeshift stands are milling with people as he passes through, trying to remember where the train station was. Along the way, Yukio discards his stolen exorcist uniform and purchases a significantly shabbier rain jacket for himself. It leaves him with a meager handful of coins which he doubts will be sufficient.
If the Order means to come after him, he needs to make sure his trail goes cold here.
The station is crowded, but not nearly as busy as he remembers it to be. Yukio tugs his hood up as he looks around. Shiny high heels, a gleaming ring, tattoos, a smartphone…too many options.
A pair of neatly tailored slacks catch his eye. They belong to a lanky man standing close by, with a sweaty face reddened from exertion. Late to work, perhaps.
There’s an elegant watch resting on his wrist, but his complexion is surprisingly rough, with a dark line along his cheek like a bruise. Yukio can’t even begin to guess his occupation. Still, this man looks well-off. Yukio can see the slight crease of his wallet in the back of his pants. He looks tired.
Yes. This one is good.
Yukio makes his approach swiftly. “Excuse me.” He smiles politely, tapping the man’s shoulder. “I’m trying to go home, to Yokohama, but I’m a little lost,” he laughs sheepishly. “Do you think you could—”
“Yokohama?” The man interrupts, shifting his briefcase to his other hand.
“Uh, yes,” Yukio says, face slackening with concern. “Is something wrong?”
The man’s eyes linger on Yukio’s face for an uncomfortably long moment before he clears his throat and nods. “That’s where I’m going.” He checks his watch, blinking rapidly as he looks away. “There’s still time. Come on,” he says abruptly, pointing up the stairs, “we can get tickets together.”
“Ah, no, it’s okay.” Yukio smiles, trying to hide his alarm. "Please, just tell me which line. I wouldn’t want you to miss your train—”
“Nonsense.” The man waves a hand dismissively. “Come on, it’s just right there. We’re going on the same one.”
“No, it’s really fine,” Yukio blurts, scrambling for an excuse. “I, I’m not buying one today.” He falters, watching as the man’s expression turns confused.
“You said you were trying to go home though,” the man puzzles. He frowns, staring intently at Yukio’s face, then his clothes.
“Yes,” Yukio fumbles, “I am, but I need to wait for someone. I just got here early, to check.”
This is bad. How did he manage to mess this up so horrifically? Not only was he unable to steal this man’s wallet, but he keeps staring and at this rate he’s going to realize who Yukio is—
“Hey, kid.” The man takes a step forward. “Be honest with me.” His eyes look kind, with light crow’s feet lining the corners as he holds Yukio’s gaze.
No. That doesn’t matter. Appearances mean nothing. If he’s been recognized, he needs to leave; find another way.
The man clears his throat. “Is the reason you don’t want to buy a ticket because, because you don’t have the money? Because, you know,” he runs a hand through his hair tiredly, “I can pay for yours, if that’s all that’s stopping you.”
Yukio hesitates. Is this a trap? Why would he offer to cover Yukio’s ticket, when he’s nothing but a complete stranger?
A warm hand shakes his shoulder, disrupting his thoughts. “Are you okay? Seriously, the fare is dirt cheap from here to there since we’re so close. If that’s what you’re worrying about, I’ve got you covered.” The man gives him a pained smile, clapping him on the arm fondly. “You’re trying to go home, right?”
“Come on,” the man nudges, “let’s get you home, okay?”
Why does he sound so terribly genuine? Why does he have to want to help Yukio, when it makes this so much harder?
Yukio has lied, stolen and he has harmed, so much that there is still blood on his hands, long dried under his fingernails. He’s filthy. What is wrong with this world, that can he encounter such kindness, even now? What does that make of him, if he does not hesitate to take advantage of that?
He peers over the man’s shoulder as he pays for the tickets and a simple string of four numbers burns into his mind.
The ride is short.
Nothing happens. The man does not make any calls. He does not ask Yukio for his name and he does not speak to any security personnel.
He does nothing, and he does not notice his wallet's disappearance. The train is full of people. All of them could have been options.
Yukio slips his fingers across the sleek leather edge, repeating four numbers to himself relentlessly.
This...is fine. It’s fine.
“Alright.” The man smiles. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
Yukio bows. “I really can’t thank you enough. I’m sorry, I can’t repay you—”
“Don’t be. You know, uh,” the man laughs, “when I first saw you, I thought you looked a lot like my son. He was a skinny beanpole too,” he whispers, blinking fast. “Promise me you’ll get back home, okay? Get back to your family.”
Yukio bites his lower lip hard, taking a shuddering breath as he nods shakily, not trusting himself to speak.
He has seen grief before. He’s seen it consume people, drive them to insanity, and hollow them out inside like an infection that keeps coming back. He’s been consumed by it himself, lashing out uncontrollably.
Somehow, it never crossed his mind that grief could look so kind, could become so silent.
He knows...it’s because he is inherently not a good person.
His grief is ugly, far uglier in comparison.
“Wait,” Yukio yells, lurching forward to grab the back of the man’s coat. “I’m sorry, you—”
No, he can’t do this.
He can’t, but the words tear their way from his mouth with ease, so much that he almost believes them himself. “...You dropped your wallet.”
The man looks startled as he accepts it. He laughs again, gives Yukio a fond pat on the shoulder with a multitude of well-wishes and disappears away into the crowd all too quickly, without a single sign of wariness or suspicion.
It’s not fair.
It’s not fair that he feels the humiliation like a hot blade in his gut, sliding deeper with each breath. He doesn’t even know what he regrets more, stealing or returning it.
Why is he always, always so weak?
Yokohama is markedly different from True Cross but rather similar to the rest of Tokyo. It is a place that has prospered back to life, with the heavy, yet gleaming presence of futuristic technology spindling roots into its foundation. Demonic science, Shima had called it.
Clearly, rule by the Illuminati isn’t without its benefits.
He has a few wrinkled bills and a pocket full of light, clinking coins that he can stretch for some food, at best. At least, this town should be far enough. If anything, he doesn’t believe the Order will risk chasing him here, not with the obvious Illuminati occupancy.
As he leaves the station, Yukio passes an enormous park. There’s a large fountain and a clean, rippling pool of water. Despite the snow on the ground, it’s distressingly appealing.
He’s fortunate enough to find an old, abandoned construction site near the outskirts of the town. More than a third of the roof has fallen through and the rest of the rotting wood is well on its way to join it. The infestation of coal tars must have deterred people from hiding here quite effectively. Yukio hopes it will continue to do so. The noonday sun is warm. Only thin lines of ice remain over the small pools of standing water, full of mud and green murk.
They hate standing water, but this is all he has.
He bends before the deepest puddle he can find and bows his head. This place is too filthy, and he doesn’t want to waste his medical supplies, so he won’t offer blood this time.
“I need a favor,” Yukio says as she rises out of the muddy pool, weaving herself from fine capillaries of light. She giggles, pressing one of her long sleeves into the puddle. The water trembles from her touch, pooling and growing until it skims the snow coating Yukio’s boots.
He withdraws the box cutter of a knife he purchased earlier and gifts her with a lock of hair. She brightens, delighted.
A tired smile pulls his cheeks. She’s always liked him the best out of all his naiads.
He removes the case of crystals. Her water shrinks away from him, frothing, circling around and around her.
The emperor. Why?
“This time I want to know,” he whispers. “Tell me what you see.”
Her liquid sclera swirl, bleeding black as she holds his gaze. The water stills, dripping at stray intervals.
He knows it’s dangerous. They are always inordinately pleased when he asks. He doesn’t like not knowing what they take as their price, and he can’t tell how much longer he’ll be able to pay.
Part of him can feel it. Sometimes, he shuts his eyes and he thinks he can hear the soft crumbling of critical fragments.
How much longer before he falls to pieces?
Will Satan bother to keep him alive, even then?
The water around him isn’t warm anymore. He’s cold. He hasn’t been warm in a while now. He hates it. He hates the snow. The cold.
Fire, she trills. You’ve grown brash. A smile spreads across her translucent lips in inexplicable approval. Only lies under the new moon will succeed. Be honest otherwise. When lightning arrives, make haste to low ground. Daybreak brings aid at the seventh hour but dusk of the third sun must bid farewell. Remember, do not speak to the man missing an ear.
Yukio nods, cautiously committing the words to memory. “When I reach the base, I’ll need to leave this behind.” He shows her the dark green seal of the letter, hoping she’ll understand its meaning. “Will you keep it for me?”
Water curls at the heels of his feet, bubbling softly. “Just for a bit,” Yukio adds. “Not right now. I’ll call you and be back as soon as I can.”
Why? The nephilim of the other emperor. Her gift could be useful.
“No. She’s too close to Lucifer right now.” Yukio grimaces. “As long as what I need is there. You’re certain you saw—”
She raises a sleeve to her lips, pressing close.
Sleep. He wakes. Dream and he will not see you.
“I’ll cover it,” Yukio protests. “There’s no—”
Sleep, she murmurs, dragging a wet finger down his nose.
The sun is up. How long has he slept for? The construction site is not cold. He doesn’t understand. His neck is stiff as he stands. A glimmer of blue skirts the edges of his vision as he rubs his eyes, drawing his attention to the dark scorch marks to his left.
A soft flicker of blue flame nibbles the mold between wood planks, curling up his ankles.
Yukio reels back, pressing a hand over his eye. He stomps down hard, watching warily as the fire wilts away.
An annoying part of him wishes he hadn’t been so hasty. It’s cold now.
The sky outside is barely pink, with the lingering violet of bleary slumber. Yukio searches for the moon, finding only a quarter behind a cloud. It's early in the morning; the new moon is close.
If he doesn’t make it to the base in time, can he afford to wait for the next one? When else does he need to lie?
Either way, he doesn’t want to stay here.
Yukio checks his reflection in a filthy puddle, swiping irritably at the dust over his pants as he gathers his things.
Since the gate was destroyed two years ago, his eye has become increasingly unpredictable. Egyn had called it a window. That was all Lucifer saw him as and it’s why Satan kept him from dying. Then, why does he continue to do so, even after his vessel was completed a year ago?
What use does he still have, to keep Yukio alive, even now?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
He has more important things. Whatever he becomes after this, he can deal with after.
Outside, the snow is thick. The blue haze in his vision is gone but Yukio does his best to keep his eyes lowered as he limps down the small hill into the town.
He can’t stop to rest anymore. If he stands still for too long, he has a feeling he’ll never move again.
Just a little farther.
A little farther, and he’ll have collected all the pieces he needs.
He’s being followed.
Gotemba is lively at night. There are crowds of people, yet somehow, he can hear the echo of footsteps just barely out of sync from his own. He’s turned into small alleys three times now but they’ve persisted, keeping far enough that he hasn’t been able to catch them in any reflections.
It cannot be his imagination.
He hasn’t slept since the nap he took at the abandoned construction site. That must have been two days...or three? The longest he’s gone is close to four but that was when he’d been considerably healthier, around the time he’d just escaped from the Illuminati.
There’s only a sliver of the moon left. He should strike tomorrow, at dusk. All he needs is to check the structure of the basement. As long as he can flood it, he can take out the surveillance room.
There’s a mild warmth beneath his fingertips as he wraps a hand around the crystals.
When he arrived, he was close to their base, but the crystals showed no reaction. As he suspected before, their lab isn’t there. The past few days, he’s made several wide circles around the city, slowly leaving the valley. It’s definitely warmer here, near the east end where an expansive wind farm overlooks the mountain pass. Just below it hides a pair of buildings linked by a glassy sky bridge.
It’s much too far to walk but he can’t just take any vehicle.
Yukio ducks behind a dumpster, watching a pair of Illuminati uniforms stumble past him. They’re clearly drunk, and appallingly so. This town is crawling with them, which is why he hasn’t dared to use his sparingly gathered money for anything more than a short bus ride.
“I’m telling you, I was there,” the taller one drawls. “It was all blue, bluer than you know, the uh,” he waves a hand lazily, “the sky.”
Yukio hesitates, staring as one of them fumbles, dropping a ring of keys. The bar they came out of is loud, with some kind of heavy metal dance music booming from inside.
“Seriously though, I mean, it all blew up? Man, I even got stuck on that project a couple years back. Can’t believe they’re starting over already. Wait for us to win the war first, idiots."
It’s late. The back of the parking lot is dark, with only two flickering, moth covered streetlamps to keep the night at bay.
“No, no, no, no—it was...it was way, way pathetic. The Order’s running for their lives, ‘cause the commander’s two steps from popping a blood vessel, you know. He just,” the soldier jerks an arm out, nearly whacking his companion across the forehead, “pah, and light, ash, you know, the good stuff. Creeps me out, to be honest.”
The shorter one leans to the side, wheezing. “No way, that easy? Come on, come up with something better,” he sniggers. “Odds are, you had your pants scared off by those flames.
“Hey, hey, I’m not making it up. The commander gets there,” he snorts, “and boom. Classic. Fat lot of good that fancy sword did him. Hey, you know, we were part of the cleanup that day. It was a mess.”
Blue. Project. A sword.
The sword...in the neat red sleeve?
The one that was always by his side?
Chunks of jagged gravel make dull scrapes against the soles of Yukio’s boots as he crosses the lot, curling and uncurling his fists in his jacket pockets. His cold tired blood stirs, warming his fingertips.
He needs to know.
Before his thoughts have the time to catch up, Yukio cocks his gun, letting the sharp series of clicks speak for themselves.
“Don’t turn around,” he warns. "Answer my question and I won't hurt you.”
“Huh? Who do you think you are?” The taller soldier slams a hand on the roof of a sedan, tilting his head back as he stares down the barrel of Yukio’s gun. “You wanna go? Let’s go, huh, kid?”
The hot stench of alcohol brushes his face as the man leers with glazed eyes. This isn’t working. How can he even trust what they say?
...But he needs to know.
Only lies under the new moon will succeed. Does that apply only to his own?
“I want to know what happened to the sword,” Yukio begins. “You said you were there, when the gate was destroyed—”
“What? You what?”
“What happened to the sword? You were talking about it earlier,” Yukio demands, taking a step back as the man leans too close. “Tell me what happened to the sword.”
The man makes a show of contorting his face. His partner has the nerve to laugh, taking a swig of beer. “Ah yeah, yeah, sword...it was...uh, the commander has it stuck up, you know, where the sun don’t shine. Huh? Good one, am I right?”
The soldier wobbles closer. “You look, look sort of, sort of familiar, don’t you?” His partner waves a beer bottle, egging him on.
Stay calm. Sleep deprivation leads to poor concentration, escalates irritability, disturbs coordination and sense of balance, severely impairs judgement—
“Have I seen you, some place, before?”
Yukio steps forward on a shard of glass. “I don’t know.” It grates as a soft screech, like gentle scratches against a crumbling, decaying wall, taking something with it. “Have you?”
He’s done caring.
Yukio holsters his gun, seizes the front of the man’s hideous green uniform and pulls a fist back. He barely registers the pain in his ankle as the man’s nose gives with a loud crunch. There’s shouting. Blood. Warmth. The soldier flails, collapsing.
The other soldier flounders over, waving a dizzy arm as he yells in alarm. Yukio pivots, shoving the arm aside as he rams the heel of his palm into the man’s chin. A quick kick between the man’s legs brings him crashing to the ground, squirming as he vomits.
Why do they have to scream so loudly? His throat is sore as he catches his breath, and it occurs to him in the sudden quiet.
The one who was screaming...was himself?
Yukio hauls the one with the bleeding nose up by his uniform, carefully brandishing a pistol. The man stills, sniffling as sweat mixes with the blood dribbling down his face.
“What happened,” he presses the gun to the man’s forehead, “to the sword?”
His jaw aches. Is he bleeding?
The man mumbles something. Yukio leans closer, digging the gun into his temple. “Speak up. Where is it now?"
“You wanna know that bad?” The man sneers. "How about you try asking nicely?” Something mildly warm lands on his cheek and clings there. Yukio flinches.
Did he just...spit?
Yukio stomps down on his fingers and the man howls profanities, gasping and lashing out weakly.
He’s never wanted to hurt this badly before, but the world might as well be blue because this feeling burns and burns and if he doesn’t have to stop to think, then it’s good.
“Where is it?” He yanks the man off the ground, shaking furiously. “Where is the sword?”
It’s no use. He’s incoherent at this point. Then what is Yukio supposed to do?
What is he doing, right now?
“He doesn’t know,” the other soldier whispers, shivering as he meets Yukio’s eyes. “We, we were joking around. He wasn’t there until later.” He coughs, grimacing as he pushes himself up. “I don’t know what sword you’re talking about, but the captain who arrived yesterday had one, at her hip. There’s another one, uh, on the wall in the main hall, and another one that’s decorative for assemblies.”
Yukio’s fingers slacken, unclenching painfully.
One look at the man’s face tells him he has no idea what he’s saying. Of course. How could they know? No one knows. Two years searching, and still, no one can tell him. Because he was too late. Too late, and he’s already—
What did he just do?
No, it doesn’t matter. Think. They can still be of use to him. What about the car? Their uniforms?
Yukio staggers to his feet. “Hand over your money.”
He was careless. If he leaves them, there’s a chance he’ll be reported. He needs to move now. If he knocks them out, he’ll have at least five hours, perhaps more.
Or he can silence them.
Can he cross that line?
He pockets their wallets carefully, but his hands refuse to stop shaking. It must be fatigue. Yes. No. He’s not thinking straight. Bodies will raise suspicion. They’re drunk. He can incapacitate them, and any passerby won’t know better.
First, he needs a uniform.
Yukio slams his elbow into the taller soldier’s temple without warning, sidestepping his crumpled form as the other one reels, trying to scramble away. The shorter one frantically looks back as Yukio approaches. He kicks the man in the back of the knees, smashing his head against a nearby car.
For a quiet moment, the man slumps listlessly, grappling to stay conscious.
Yukio waits, counting ten unsettled heartbeats before he reaches out, wrenching the man’s uniform off his limp frame.
Vomit clings to the corner of a sleeve, mixed with the pungent stench of wet blood and tobacco in the night air.
He jerks the uniform over his head, bundling his flimsy rain jacket into his bag as he picks the ring of keys off the ground. It’s cold out here.
The lab is over twenty kilometers away. He’s not sure he knows how to drive. Perhaps it’s not a good idea.
His hands shake badly enough that he manages to drop the keys twice before yanking the door open.
He half drags, half carries the two soldiers into the car, propping one in front and heaving the other into the back. The disgusting ashtray, along with some candy wrappers, go into a nearby trash can and he keeps the two badges. The trunk has a flashlight, some blankets, and a plastic container of gasoline.
Yukio considers it carefully, lifting the container out of the trunk with some difficulty.
He rummages through his pockets, discovering a smushed nutrient bar along with half a package of cigarettes. There’s also a short utility knife, a pen, and a wrinkled photograph.
Yukio squints, holding it up to the dim light.
The uniform he’s wearing stinks of smoke. Chances are, one of them must have a lighter.
If he has gasoline, fire could be a better option to delay the east end's evacuation. Flooding is slow but he can control its spread. Fire is dangerous.
He could kill, even if he doesn't intend to.
It’s four in the morning. He’ll take an hour to purchase the last of his supplies. One hour to prepare and find the lab. Thirty minutes to infiltrate and trigger the fire alarm from the west end. Five minutes to make it to the roof and cross the sky bridge.
Five minutes to arrive at the east end of the lab.
Daybreak, aid, seventh hour. If he can meet those conditions, will it be enough?
He tosses the photograph.
There is no wind to carry the worn paper away. It sits at his feet patiently, fraying at the edges.
Yukio sifts through the shorter soldier's pockets, takes his lighter and crams the other one's photograph in there.
The car starts without trouble. He’s lucky the transmission is automatic. Finding how to switch on the windshield wipers proves to be more complicated but the streets are empty enough that he has time to figure out.
Long, dark strands of clouds cast blurred streaks across the sky as frigid hail hits the pavement. Yukio steps out under the awning of a small convenience store, with glaring light flushing its windows. Did he check the moon earlier?
Perhaps the lightning she promised is coming soon. It’s only been a few days but he’s already thoughtlessly forgotten the rest of her warning, along with the action he was meant to take.
He allows a handful of coins to plink into a payphone, curling his cold fingers around the receiver as he waits for the dial tone.
The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again.
The glass of the phone booth is streaked with dust. It fogs slightly as he presses his forehead to its cool surface. He listens to the clatter of hail, the sharp chirps of the number he dials, and the sound of vast silence waiting for him on the other end.
The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again.
Of course. Why did he expect anything different?
“...I’m sorry.” Yukio drags a hand through his hair, leaning back against the glass as he shuts his eyes. “I...I don’t even know what I have to be afraid of, but I’m afraid, regardless.”
The fierce tack-tack-tack of hail mingles with the low dial tone hanging from his fingers. His eye throbs. It is a hot, searing shard of coal digging into his skull, yet his vision is clear of blue, like a mocking hallucination.
Today, he almost didn’t know himself anymore. He doesn’t want to think it’ll happen again. If it does, perhaps he should stop.
Who is he kidding? He passed the point of no return that night, on the snow-covered bridge, with arrogance flowing, corroding through his veins—ages ago.
He can't stop, even if he wanted to.
“Please, lend me some of your strength, just this once.”
After all, what's the worst that could happen? He'll die?
The lab is arduously difficult to find, even with the crystals to guide him. He has to get out several times to search on foot whenever the road splits. Before, he’d caught a few glimpses of the facility hidden here by using coin binoculars at a tourist site. Even then, he can hardly be certain it’s the correct one. There are several buildings a few kilometers out from it. One is an observatory, and another is a tourist information center. There are no other cars he needs to worry about but there are also none to follow.
The entrance is unobtrusive. A sign outside points two directions, one for visitor parking, another for employees only. By the time he pulls up to the gates, the hail has stopped. A guard sitting in the small booth holds out a scanner.
Yukio hands her one of the badges through the window, gesturing vaguely to the soldier he has propped up next to him.
“All this says is he’s got access to the base down south, not here. Besides, where’s yours?"
“Sorry.” Yukio grimaces. “I don’t have it. There was a problem with—”
The guard waves a hand. “Hold up, it froze. Oh, interesting. My bad, I didn’t see the note in here. Go on then.” Yukio nods, surprised as he takes the badge back. “Hey,” the guard yells, “don’t you know, you’re not supposed to use high-beams in rain?”
Yukio heads away from the gate slowly, stopping a good distance away from the eastern entrance. He’s lucky he was let in so easily. He’d been prepared to cause a commotion pretending one of the two drunkards was bleeding out or something equally as dramatic, but this is much more preferable.
He doesn’t know what glitch let him in, but he certainly can’t be bothered with it right now. At best, all he can do is keep going. If it’s a trap, it’s too late for him to turn back now.
Yukio opens his duffel bag, checking the crystals once more. They’re warm, much warmer than he expected. He hefts the gasoline tank carefully out of the trunk, lays it flat in the demure cardboard box he picked up from the convenience store, and checks his watch.
It’s six thirty-five. Good enough.
He keeps his guns and the keys, and gingerly folds the crystals into his pockets. If he succeeds, he should be able to make it back to this car to escape. For now, he’ll have to leave these two drunkards in here. He doesn’t know how long they’ll stay unconscious, but the duct tape should hold. He can deal with them later.
Now that he’s in, he needs to be quick.
Unfortunately, the outer walls of the building are concrete. He’ll have to light it from inside after all.
The adhesive he used to cover the moles under his eye feels uncomfortably stiff, but as he keeps his steps quick and purposeful, no one gives him more than a passing glance.
The corridors of the west end of the base are relatively empty, with only a few agents walking back and forth out of closed doors, locked with card readers. The layout is nothing like he suspected, and he wastes several minutes trying to understand how the two sides are connected. There’s the sky bridge between the two buildings which he noticed before, yet because the base is located on uneven land, it is the basement of the west end that connects to the fourth floor of the east end, not the roof.
Yukio locates the mess hall without difficulty once he realizes most of the staff are heading there. It’s not quite on par with the decadence of the airship but there are still numerous small shops selling not only food, but daily essentials and other convenience items as well.
He purchases two newspapers and folds them into his box. If the majority of people are here, it could give him some measure of anonymity. Standing out in the corridors, he’s alone. Here, he can blend.
The level of chatter suddenly drops, then rises again. Yukio turns, searching for the source. At the bottom of the stairs stands a small group of soldiers that no one can bear to be in the way of.
“Is that Captain Todo?”
“You didn’t know? She’s been here since yesterday.”
“What’s she doing here? Usually the clones last a month, don’t they?”
“Probably because of the skirmish in Herning. I heard we’ve only got a few more days before the commander switches.”
Yukio adjusts his grip on his box and takes a slow breath in. Out. In. Out.
He can’t forget what he came here for.
The smell of smoke is distinct enough that it’ll be easily noticed. He doesn’t know what access the badges he’s stolen have. If he chooses a public area, he’ll need a way to keep people out until he’s finished.
If he remembers correctly, he passed an open supply closet on his way here.
Yukio leaves the mess hall with forcefully even footsteps. It’s six-forty.
A man who’s just finished washing his hands holds the restroom door open for him. Yukio offers a polite smile and props his bright yellow closed-for-cleaning sign in the entrance.
From what he can see, there aren’t any cameras in here. As long as he’s quick enough, he shouldn’t be discovered.
The trash must not have been emptied this morning since the bin is helpfully overflowing, with only a few damp paper towels on the top. He removes about half of the paper towels, rolls his newspaper and dips it into the container of gasoline. It’s messier than he’d like when he finishes, gently covering the soaked newspaper with the remainder of used paper towels. He wipes the few drops of gas off the floor and flushes his gloves down the toilet.
A few weak sparks later, the lighter finally produces a tall flame, sputtering with lively blue edges. It’s not very warm. The soft ring of black spreads with disappointing gradualness as he waits, hiding the tank of gasoline back in his box.
His reflection catches his gaze in the mirror with gaunt, bloodshot eyes. Somehow, it looks less anxious than he feels. He turns the faucet on, watching the entrance closely. Water in the basin drains with loud splashes, gushing and roaring in the silence.
Yukio takes a slow breath and draws a knife across his arm, letting blood well in thin beads along the circles.
Corycia, Melaina, Cleodora, Cleochareia, Bateia, Drosera, Solaia, Periboea.
A veil of turquoise glows under his eyelids as their laughter descends around him with the quiet tinkling of stirred water. It’s the first time he’s called them using a circle drawn on himself. The pain arching up his arm is paralyzing, growing hot as they finish forming their vessels.
Yukio waits as the water in the sink swirls and gradually stops draining. It pools and stills.
“I need five minutes,” he says, watching as they crowd the fledgling fire fluttering about in the trash can, cooing soft breaths of vapor to see it fumble. "Let them put this one out."
They don’t appear to be listening. He’s certain they’ve seen this already but part of him needs to reorganize his plan, at least to himself.
“After that, stop all of the water.” Yukio sways as he moves to lean against the counter. They’re still playing with the fire. "Leave it alone,” he mutters. The circles on his arm turn dim as black dots crowd his vision. Just a little longer. He can’t dismiss them yet, not completely, at least.
They giggle, leaving a wave of pale frosted condensation climbing the mirrors as they ease through cracks in the ceiling.
The flame blooms, glowing a fragile, warm orange.
Six forty-five. He’s finished here. There’s no time for him to be standing around, catching his breath.
Yukio steps around the closed-for-cleaning sign and heads straight for the stairs. He doesn’t know how long he has. The sky bridge is high up. There are more agents over here. Good.
Chances are, once the fire is discovered, they’ll check the camera footage and begin to search for him. The faster he moves, the more suspicious he’ll appear.
It’s still six forty-five. The alarm hasn’t gone off yet. How much longer?
What if the fire went out?
A flash of white light skirts the corner of his vision just as he reaches the end of the bridge. His heart skips a beat as the alarm above his head blares, loud enough that he jumps despite expecting it.
A door he walks by slams open, jolting his shoulder as he rushes to grab the edge.
Two officers storm out. One of them shouts into a communicator, while the other pries open a keypad on the wall of the skybridge.
They’re cutting the two buildings off.
He hadn’t expected this to go so well.
Yukio ducks into the stairwell on the east side, pushing past the flood of people trying to leave the building. The ear-piercing alarm seems even louder as he reaches the next floor, reverberating and pounding in his head furiously.
He jerks the door out of the stairwell open, stopping as he’s met with a tall vat of faintly pink liquid, wheeled along by several researchers.
The clones are here.
Yukio turns, nearly crashing into an older woman rushing by. “You, what are you standing around for? Go help the perfusion team! Hey, transfer those carefully! Get moving!”
Yukio stumbles as another group shoulders past him, gritting his teeth as he feels the circles on his arm rile. He’d expected the summoning to weaken him, which is why he put it off as late as possible. Even so, sustaining them is growing difficult by the minute. At best, he’ll be able to hold out for fifteen minutes. Any more, and he won’t have the strength to make his escape.
He heads back into the stairwell, climbing up several flights. No wonder this lab was so difficult to find. This place must be the ground supply Lucifer spoke of.
The alarm switches to an announcement.
All available Building A personnel must aid in the horizontal relocation of floor three subjects via site 42 protocol. Containment of the fire is in progress. All available Building A personnel, please move to support relocation efforts on floor three immediately.
Floor three. He’s on the sixth floor right now, which at least appears to be finished evacuating. Good.
A large pile of cardboard stands near a set of double doors. They’re locked. From what he can see through the small window, it looks like a sort of electrical room with countless switches on one wall.
Seems flammable enough.
Yukio throws his box aside and gets to work. Conveniently, there’s a fire extinguisher on the wall. Two hard strikes with it shatters the small window. He seizes the edge of a pile of cardboard and topples it across the floor. Pouring the gasoline over it takes more effort than he expected but when it lights, the blaze is alive, with an intoxicating warmth that grows, licking at his skin as it climbs steadily up.
It’ll take a couple minutes, but this should be enough to make it into the electrical room.
The lab is hidden deep up in the mountains. It will be difficult for fire rescue and suppression support to reach them.
This time, he’ll burn it to the ground, until nothing but ash is left.
It’s six forty-nine.
Lightning crashes past the tall window as he sprints by, clattering up the stairs. The crystals in his pocket are getting warmer, so hot that he can scarcely hold them. He makes a loop around the area and comes to a stop in front of an unassuming storage room, with a multitude of signs on it. At this point he can feel the slight variations in temperature of the crystals, almost like a slow, tired pulse.
It must be here.
The door is made of thick steel and the hinges are on the other side. If he’s not mistaken, these types of doors have multiple bolts. In the past, he participated in a couple operations requiring ballistic door breaching, but he has never performed it himself.
All he has is two handguns, which lack power and will likely require several shots. The chance of ricochet is high, and he only has standard rounds, which pose significant risk to the contents on the other side of the door. Although, considering that he doesn’t need to worry about hitting people, perhaps it’s of little consequence.
Ideally, if he targets the space between the lock and the handle, it should cause enough damage to the bolts.
Once, almost seven years ago, when Yukio accompanied Father Fujimoto on a mission, they risked breaching a rusting steel door to rescue...someone or other that he can’t recall anymore. Father had used a shotgun. He’d explained that a steel door can warp and jam using a regular forty-five degree angle approach; that the shot should be aimed at ninety degrees into the door.
Or was it the other way around?
Shooting perpendicularly at a flat, hard surface sounds ridiculous. Wouldn’t it ricochet straight back at him?
The smell of smoke is distracting. It’s hot. He’s running out of time. This is a mess. He’s two steps away from his goal and somehow, he never considered that it’d be kept in a vault of all things.
He has never been this unprepared and now he’s paying for it.
Yukio adjusts his grip, raising his guns as he fights to take a deep breath, nudging his glasses straight with his shoulder.
This is the tenth floor. The fire wreaking havoc on the sixth floor is spreading. No one will come here. He won’t burn but excessive smoke inhalation is perfectly capable of killing him if he can’t make it out. Right now, he needs to focus.
Focus. Breathe. Sight.
He fires three deafening shots, holsters his gun and clenches his jaw as he raises his leg, kicking hard just below the handle. It sends a painful jolt down his hip when the door buckles, stubbornly refusing to move.
Fine. He fires two more shots, flinching as a scrap whistles past his ear.
There’s a deep dent. He pushes but the door still refuses to budge, and the dent is hardly changing. At this point he’ll run out of bullets before he gets this open.
This isn't working.
He empties a magazine at it, kicks and rams his shoulder against it but the door does not move, and it does not weaken.
His neck feels warm. When he raises his hand up to the side, it comes back slick, colored the brilliant red of oxygenated blood.
…And then it hurts. It hurts like the sharp, racing edge of lightning, so much that he doesn't dare breathe for fear of feeling that agony once more.
There’s a piece of shrapnel in his neck.
He blinks but no blue comes.
Does this mean he’s going to die? Or is it not anything serious? It hurts so much that he can’t move, shutting his eyes as he tries to ignore the nauseating heat of his blood pounding and throbbing as it soaks his collar. He stands there, frozen and dazed, counting the beats of his frantic heart. Around three hundred, he loses count, starts over, and snaps back to awareness.
It’s bleeding sluggishly now. He gently grazes the edge of his fingers against the hot jagged edge, holding his breath as he finds the point it meets his skin.
He needs to...needs to do something about this.
Yukio steps back, rolls up his sleeve and draws his knife. He’s sweating terribly, he can’t seem to breathe right, and his hands are shaking so uncontrollably from adrenaline that he makes a deeper cut than he needs.
She appears quickly enough, wearing an amused expression as he slumps against the wall, panting with his head between his knees.
It’s only as she brushes cool vapor over his arm that he realizes his mistake. He’s already bleeding from the neck. What is he doing, making another wound to offer blood?
What is he even doing? How did he let the situation get this bad?
No. Keep it together. What did he come here for? This door is in the way. It’s in the way and he needs to get inside but he doesn’t know how to—
He’s not strong enough.
“I—I don’t have anything,” he mutters, pressing his sleeve over his arm, “that could open this.” There’s an itch in his throat, his eyes sting and his ankle has clearly been overexerted. His head aches like it’s splitting, and he can barely hear himself think over the roaring, crackling fire inching its way from the end of the hallway.
She blinks clear, liquid orbs at him, stretching her lips into an infuriating smile.
Daybreak brings aid at the seventh hour but dusk of the third sun must bid farewell, she bubbles, as though reading his thoughts. Today, there is rain.
There’s rain. Is that what she’s trying to say? That he’s alone? What kind of aid did she even mean? He can’t think of anyone still alive who would be willing to help him now, a thousand miles away, in a burning enemy base that he lit up himself.
“You...can’t open this,” Yukio mumbles, more to himself, than to her, “can you?”
He’s still so weak, isn’t he? Training and training more, and running away to the Illuminati, and he can’t even break down a door when it counts.
“What’s happening outside?” he asks, standing clumsily. The light-headedness he feels makes sense. His blood pressure is probably low. He needs fluids but he hasn’t lost nearly so much blood to go into shock. It’s fine. He’ll be fine. His heart rate is quickening to compensate. He needs to finish this. “Have they realized you’re stopping the water?”
Yes. They cannot catch us, but they have begun a ritual to summon the one who beckons spring. The wingless ruler of weather.
“So the fire won’t last,” Yukio confirms. She only speaks in circles and he has no idea what demon she’s referring to. He pulls his sleeve up and checks the line of circles on his arm. They're still bright, with a faint sheen that seems to move only when he isn't looking. “How much longer—”
Until the one who bears the blessing of frost and another of twin seas clash. She pauses as her form shudders, rippling.
“Wait,” Yukio shouts, digging into his pocket for the letter. “Take this with you.”
Very well. She presses a hand to his arm where her circle lies and fades like evaporating steam. Remember, do not speak to the man missing an ear.
The blistering heat of the fire rears as she disappears, nipping at his skin. Smoke has begun to crowd the room, billowing and obscuring the long hallway from view.
Yukio turns to face the door of the vault, raising his gun. There’s no time. He has one final, desperate idea left.
If this doesn’t work, then he has to give up. Retreat. Start over.
“I don’t know what you need me for anymore,” Yukio begins, wetting his cracking lips, “but you’ve always saved me.” He takes a shaky step forward. “If you don’t help me break down this door, I’ll—”
Footsteps bluster down the hallway. There’s at least two of them, coming closer. The smoke is too thick to see anything at this distance.
He holds his ground, keeping his arm lowered.
“I fall,” a rough voice calls, “alone, on shore, from scudding drifts of the rainmakers, weep from the head of Taurus—”
Yukio fires a warning shot. He knows this chant. From the head of Taurus refers to the Hyades, nymphs of rain. If he lets the summoning be completed, he’ll lose his only advantage. He needs to move fast. There’s at least two of them. The smoke is thick.
A flash of white whips around the corner, closing jaws around his wrist. Yukio grunts, fighting to keep hold of his gun.
The byakko growls, springing back. He’s unstable. Be careful.
What’s going on?
“Why is the Order here?” Yukio demands, raising his other gun. Kamiki, Suguro and Miwa...clever. If they’d sent anyone else, he might have already fired. “How did you find this place?”
The three of them each have a glowing sigil on their foreheads; the grace of a kin of Egyn to fend off the flames, presumably. Kamiki is quick. If he tries to run, her familiars will block his way. If he tries to make a stand here, it’s likely Suguro will complete a chant before Yukio can reach him. Miwa, on the other hand, was once their weak link in terms of raw power, but it's not unlikely for that to have changed over three years.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. Even if he incapacitates them, there are others waiting outside.
“Okumura-sensei, dismiss your familiars,” Miwa pleads. “We’re here to help you. You need medical treatment and—”
“Are you certain you’re here to help me?” Yukio scoffs. “Is that why I was allowed to escape with the crystals so easily? You used me to find this base, didn’t you?” Miwa flinches. The thoughtless, acerbic anger that clawed its way out of his gut dampens. He’s frustrated with them, with the Order—with himself.
Kamiki nods curtly. “The Order’s operation has already succeeded. We mounted an attack this morning, in tandem with your infiltration. This base will fall once their captain is defeated. Dismiss your familiars and surrender.”
He has two handguns, with fourteen rounds left. The ache in his ankle that he was stubbornly ignoring is back. He’s sweating, and his heart rate is fast even though he’s been standing still this entire time. At the very least, he’s exhausted, with symptoms bordering on hypovolemia from fluid loss.
The circles on his arm are agitated, flickering precariously as his focus wavers.
It’s over, isn’t it?
No, not yet.
If he has to sign a Morinas contract or two with the Order to get what he came here for, then so be it.
He’s not finished yet.
“I’ll surrender on one condition,” Yukio says, lowering his guns. Miwa steps forward but Yukio pushes on, “It’s something you can help me with. I know you can’t negotiate but this is different.”
He sets his guns on the floor and rolls his sleeve up, letting the circles pulse softly.
“It’s about my brother.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Suguro says, shifting his phone to his other ear, “okay, okay yeah, got it. Yeah, he said it’s sealed with Armumahel crystals. No, there isn’t. I mean, if there’s a lot, okay. Yes, I understand. Thank you.” He ends the call and nods. “We’re good.”
For a second, Yukio doesn’t believe it.
He releases a tremulous breath and carefully, carefully bows low at the waist.
It’s all he can manage as he releases his naiads one by one, watching the circles run like wet ink, leaving behind only dark smudges. The building’s sprinklers sputter to life, berating and flooding the flames. Great waves of steam rise, mingling in the air.
Miwa fastens a pair of magic-binding cuffs to his wrists, leading him down the hallway they came from. At the end there is an open door, glowing white with the promise of fresh air. They must have used a key. He should have thought of that.
He’s handed off to a triage nurse and by then, everything has become an exhausted blur. For a moment, he thinks he spots the bowed, prideful shoulders of Todo Homare shoved into a truck and there’s a bitter spark in his chest that’s sharply vindictive and disappointed at the same time.
A group of twenty exorcists chant in front of the building. They summon a dragon with thin whiskers, horns, gleaming scales and a body so long that it curls all the way above the clouds as it ascends. The fire dies slowly as the sky is split open by fierce, unforgiving rain, until not even the scent of smoke remains.
Somewhere along the line, he loses focus. For once, when he shuts his eyes, he feels relieved.
They’ve placed him in a makeshift recovery ward, next to a tall unadorned window. His wrist is cuffed to his bed, which is, perhaps generously, a slight distance from the others in the room.
Some of them have burns.
The lights in this room are gentle. It hurts to think, so he doesn’t bother. He drifts off staring outside at the pale grey sky.
When he wakes there’s a strange sound by his ear, like a swift, periodic crackling noise.
Yukio blinks and cautiously turns his head.
He’s met with a blurry face, with surprised violet eyes and bright vibrant hair that he’s certain he should know. It takes him a long moment of squinting to remember.
He opens his mouth but is abruptly assaulted by the urge to cough, and then he does, roughly and loudly enough that his chest aches. It wakes him up completely, and soon, everything else hurts as well.
A gentle hand helps him sit up. “It’s okay. Take it easy, Yukio.”
He sips the water she lifts to his lips reluctantly. It slides down his throat and settles into his body with a familiar, muddled coldness.
“Shura-san,” he murmurs, patting around the bed for his glasses. “Why are you here?”
“Huh?” Her eyes narrow as she grabs his ear, twisting hard. “Three years, I haven’t seen you, and I don’t even get a ‘how have you been’ or something?”
Before he can respond, a coughing fit hits him. An uneasy shadow crosses her face as she lets go. It’s gone in a heartbeat, but the silence speaks for itself.
She slumps back onto a stool and tosses something at his lap. Yukio looks down, finding a small pile of peanut shells accumulating there on a newspaper. “Is this today’s?” he asks, lifting the edge to check the date.
“Nah, that’s yesterday’s.” Shura shells another peanut in a stiff cadence of prickling snaps, chewing daintily. “Today’s has your face in the corner. See? Your hair looks hideous.”
“I see,” Yukio takes another sip of water. “Your hair looks nice,” he says idly, turning to stare at the sky. It’s a fierce, brimming orange hue, interrupted by the dark silhouettes of a climbing row of windmills. He likes this view. It feels more like sunset than sunrise, even though he knows these mountains face east.
Shura snorts, cracks open another shell and raps a knuckle sharply on the edge of the bedside table. “Got what you asked for.”
A small wooden box sits neatly beside him. It’s rectangular and plain. The wood is smooth, with fine edges wrapped closed by a white paper seal and a thin metal cord.
Yukio reaches a hand over, tracing a finger down the seam. When he lifts it off the table, its weight surprises him. Pain lances up his forearm and his wrist buckles, shaking uncontrollably. He panics, shifting forward, trying to set it back, only to fail when his cuffed wrist jerks against the rail with a shrill metallic screech.
Shura catches it. Her bag of peanuts thumps to the floor as she sets it back with a soft sigh. “Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed. How long?” She picks the bag up and snaps a peanut shell, crushing the small crumbs over the newspaper on his legs. “A week? Two?”
“Two months.” Yukio rolls his wrist gradually, watching the tremors settle. “It’s been two months.” He averts his eyes, admiring the unraveling threads on his hospital gown.
The staggered crackle of peanut shells continues. “Well, I’m impressed you even remember your own name.”
He’s immune to their effects on memory, but she doesn’t need to know that.
“It’s fine.” Yukio nods at the box. “This is what I wanted. I won’t do it anymore,” he adds, and the line strikes an odd chord inside him. It’s an inadequate apology but he...doesn’t feel wrong. He doesn’t regret it.
Shura dumps her peanut shells in the trash and perches back onto the stool. “What’s in it?” she asks, tapping a boot against the leg of the table.
Yukio reaches for the water. “They didn’t tell you?”
“Nope.” Shura crosses her arms, peering at the box. “I was hanging out in that bed all day when they were digging your box out of the crystal. That Todo hag had the nerve to bite me.” She shows off the bandage on her forearm. “I got this off her though.” She grins, raising one of the swords strapped to her back.
...the captain who arrived yesterday had one, at her hip.
The immaculate dark blue varnish and mild steel mountings are the same as before, on that snowy evening, when he watched it break into two irreconcilable pieces.
Yukio tries to cover his astonishment with a nod.
“So, spill. Why are they giving it to you?”
“I requested it,” Yukio sets the glass down, curling the cold pads of his fingers into his palm, “as a condition for my surrender.”
He watches the windmills turn and turn and turn.
Don’t think about it.
“So that’s why you stole those crystals.” Shura sighs. “I was worried, but I didn’t try to find you, after. I’m sorry.”
The Koma Sword’s scabbard gleams as she sets it down before the urn. Yukio tears his eyes away when the tassels swing, dangling limply.
Ashes. In this box.
A dam deep down inside him splinters open. The putrid, collected water spills forth in the face of crushing, undeniable finality, surging and frothing out of him like poison. It rages and floods and chafes his thoughts away until nothing is left but this vast darkness that he has always, always feared.
He hunches over, curling an arm around himself as he bites down hard on his lip.
Don’t think about it.
“It’s been two years, hasn’t it? I’m glad.” Shura smiles, pressing his head to her shoulder as she smooths unsteady fingers through his hair. “Go on. Rest easy now, Rin.”
A hot rush of anger scrapes at something in his chest. Rest? That means nothing. Nothing at all. He nearly loses hold of it, tries to muster the strength to snap at her, to yell and scream so that even if just for a moment, he can keep the agony which feeds and consumes him at bay.
How could this happen? What did you ever do to deserve this?
“It’s not your fault,” Shura says. “It’s not your fault, Yukio.”
Of course it wasn’t. He’d found out far too late, weeks after.
He spent weeks after it happened completely oblivious.
“I, I don’t remember,” he gasps, “I don’t remember what I said to him last.” Yukio trembles, snatching her arm, “I told him I didn’t want his help—”
A sob claws its way out of his chest before he can stop it. Hot tears run down his cheeks as he clamps a hand over his mouth, trying to keep quiet. He doesn’t understand why this feeling keeps coming back. It keeps coming back, without dulling, carving into his flesh like an unrelenting admonishment. It hurts. It hurts so much more than before.
You used to always come save me. I hated that.
Even now, all he ever thinks of is himself.
I see. You must have finally grown tired of it.
I’m sorry, Nii-san. I’m so sorry.
The next morning, the sky is shaded deeply blue and even the sheets, the window and the wall are subtly touched by its sheen.
Yukio greets the nurse who comes to check up on him, and she screams.
Everything looks blue.
“I’m sorry,” Yukio exclaims, covering his eye as she backs away. “This isn’t—”
“What’s going on?” Two exorcists burst through the doors. One of them steps in front of the nurse. “Go get help,” she orders, drawing a long knife from her belt. “I’m warning you,” she yells, slicing across her palm. “I just triggered the spell. Make any sudden moves and your head will go flying. Understand?”
Yukio swallows, glancing at the bloody array on her hand. “I understand.”
Hurried footsteps shuffle down the hallway.
“Back off, Suzuki.” Shura strides in along with a messily dressed man...the Arc Knight Suguro was apprenticed to—whose name Yukio suddenly can’t remember. “No one’s head is flying anywhere on my watch.”
She takes a step back when he meets her eyes. “Yukio, what are you doing?”
The messily dressed man leans close. “So, you inherited the flames after all?”
“Watch it, Lightning,” Shura hisses, yanking him back by his scarf. “Why would he bother to burn the building with gasoline if he had those flames? Obviously he can’t control them—”
“They’re not mine,” Yukio cuts in. His agreement requires him to cooperate with interrogations. At most, he can misdirect their questions, but he imagines if he withholds information, they’ll only be more likely to keep him locked up here. This is growing tiresome.
“Satan’s flames then,” Lightning concludes. “You don’t appear to be possessed though. That’s interesting,” he hums, grinning widely, “but dangerous.” His eyes narrow. “What has he used you for? Don’t even think about lying.”
Is it a threat or a bluff?
Lightning is manipulative. He’s already shown he knows perfectly well how to use Yukio’s weaknesses against him, and he’s capable of drawing those emotions out with ease, tugging them loose like the integral, fraying threads of a threadbare cloth.
I heard...you stuck a gun in my apprentice’s face.
Yukio shifts his gaze away, lowering his hand from his eye. “It’s not that simple.” He wipes his glasses with the corner of his blanket, watching the prismatic oil smear shift back and forth. “In the beginning, I suspect he needed me to watch my brother. He intervened several times when my life was threatened. After I left the Illuminati and—” he falters, trying to quell the unsteadiness in his voice.
It takes him several moments, absently staring at his fingernails, before he can continue. “After they completed his vessel and the gate was destroyed, he became more sporadic.” He gestures to his eye. “Like this morning.”
It feels like he’s dug a hole for himself, and with each word, he’s crawling deeper into a trap.
“Okay,” Lightning presses his lips into a tight line, “but what did he have to save you from, this morning? What does he still need you for in the first place?”
“I don’t know.”
The fire helps him often. It appears in the morning sometimes, when he’s had a nightmare. During a few nights when he'd passed out in some dump, it kept him warm. Once, it lit the way for him, on a moonless night.
“You don’t know,” Lightning smiles, “or you don’t want to answer?”
Yukio shrugs. “He helps me, sometimes.” Lightning’s eyes are sharp behind his curtain of unruly hair, shaded darker by the blue veiling the room. “I’d be careful,” Yukio meets his gaze, “if I were you.”
It’s unnecessary, but he despises this person. He despises that he owes Lightning a debt that he can’t repay, and he’s painfully aware Lightning knows he can capitalize on that.
Shura pulls a chair over, sitting down noisily. “Alright, alright. I’ll watch him then. Everyone else quit slacking off and get back to whatever you’re supposed to be doing.”
“You know,” Lightning declares, stopping short at the door, “I think you know.”
His voice is light and idle. It settles quietly into Yukio’s thoughts like a burrowing animal, as though it thinks it belongs there.
He despises this feeling.
It only appears when I’m afraid.
Shura lets out a long, exaggerated sigh. “I hope you haven’t forgotten you signed a Morinas when you surrendered. No one is kidding about your head flying off, you know.” She seems to be intent on waiting until he acknowledges his mistake, but he has never bothered to listen to her, just as much as she never listened to him.
“I’m aware,” Yukio mutters.
The anger oozes like blood from the tiny wounds to his chipped pride.
He smiles. “Please feel free to go about your day, Shura-san. I’m certain you have enough responsibilities requiring your attention.”
She shrugs, leaning back on the creaking metal chair. “What are you going to do once you’re discharged?”
“Nothing,” Yukio answers. “I’m not so optimistic to believe I’ll be released.”
Shura rolls her eyes. “Wow. Sad, even for you.” She stands, rummaging through the drawers on the wall. “Let’s at least cover it for now. That’s what you did before, wasn’t it?” She picks out a roll of gauze, some bandages and a box of face masks, then continues to rummage.
He does not want to fight, and he does not believe his contribution could make a difference.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Yukio admits, shutting his eyes obediently as she positions the loops of a square bandage behind his ears, “but I don’t want to stay here.”
It’s terribly selfish. This base is full of people who have committed their lives to the war effort. Perhaps even his presence is an insult to their compassion.
“Well.” Shura claps him on the back. “Better heal up fast so you can get out then.”
It’s a telling statement. For a moment, he thinks it’s because she doesn’t understand; after all, she has never once feared death. That’s not quite right. That’s not why she does not fault him for wanting to leave, to abandon this peculiar, jaded moral obligation. The Order may be corrupt, but Yukio has never seen its soldiers as anything less for it. Perhaps Shura had realized far before him that he does not belong, has never quite belonged here with these selfless, brave people.
The light of early dawn slants over the turning windmills, drawing long shadows. Small puffs of clouds cover the sky, scattered like cotton stuffing. Beneath them floats a thinner, grey-threaded scrap. The wind carries it barely afloat, trailing its soft tendrils near the ground as it moves, going somewhere on a whim.
Yukio watches it for quite some time, until it escapes the narrow patch of sky his window provides.
“Okumura-san,” Suguro says, crossing the room swiftly, “I’ve been assigned to ask you a few questions. Is now a good time?”
“Of course,” Yukio replies, turning to face him. “Please, have a seat.”
Suguro clears his throat, pulls a chair over, and clicks his pen against his clipboard. “First, we encountered you at the Illuminati research center in Gotemba. Why were you there?”
“For the ashes.”
“I only intended to take the ashes.” It’s not a lie. He was completely unaware of what that lab was producing beforehand.
Suguro nods. “Alright. I’m going to summarize the preliminary statement we collected from you before, so you can fill in the blanks for us.” He rearranges the pages on his clipboard deftly. “According to our reports, you passed through the employee gate early in the morning, using another agent’s badge.”
He pauses, scratching something out on the page. “Uh, actually, one of our technicians was already in the system by then so that’s how you got through, never mind. Next part...you set a fire in the men’s restroom located in the basement, near the cafeteria. Approximately ten minutes later, you lit another fire in Building A on the sixth floor next to the electrical room. From there, you used naiads to block the water supply to buy time so you could reach the vault. Does everything sound right so far?”
“Yes,” Yukio says. “That’s right.”
“Alright, then, we noticed you used the smaller fire in Building B to set off the alarm, so the larger one you started in Building A wouldn’t be noticed immediately.” Suguro flips a page. “Was one of your motives for this to force them to move the clones?”
“I didn’t know the clones would be there,” Yukio answers, keeping his gaze fixed on the back of the clipboard. He’d suspected though, with how well the place had been hidden.
Suguro takes a moment to write. His hair isn’t bleached anymore, Yukio notes absently. No, he changed it before their Christmas party, didn’t he? Was it before, or after?
Suguro clears his throat expectantly. Yukio looks up from the corner of the blanket he was examining. “I’m sorry, could you please repeat the question?”
“Right, okay.” Suguro flips back to the previous page. “How did you locate the research center, and who told you the ashes were sealed using Armumahel crystals?”
Yukio takes a moment to collect his thoughts. He needs to go about this carefully or he could reveal too much. Suguro is not easy to trick, after all. “The propensity of the crystals to attract may not be common knowledge, but it’s been mentioned in plenty of research journals this year because of the shortage. Although the method I used was crude compared to the fragment recovery techniques they described, it worked quite well.”
He holds his chin, giving Suguro a minute to catch up. In this case, it seems he can’t avoid the question subtly. “Shima Renzo was the one who told me how the ashes were sealed.”
Suguro stops writing. “Shima? That meddlesome idiot.” He curses, scratching out something vigorously. “Why did he tell you that?”
Yukio shakes his head. “I didn’t ask. He said he had instructions from someone.”
“And you just took his word for it?” There’s an edge to his words that wasn’t there before. He’s irritated.
If he becomes emotional, it’ll be easier to manipulate the flow of the interrogation.
“I didn’t particularly care. He told me how to get what I wanted.”
“Why did you want the ashes?”
Suguro looks up from his clipboard. “What?”
Yukio turns and takes a measured breath before meeting his eyes. “If you were in my place, wouldn’t you want them?”
“I see,” Suguro sighs, “but you had no regard for anything else, did you? This isn’t the only room we have full of burn patients. Why would you go so far? What are you really trying to do?”
He’s closing in. This conversation needs to end, very soon, preferably on an ugly note.
Yukio removes his glasses, cleaning the lenses leisurely. If this goes how he intends for it to, he doesn’t want them to be broken. He’s out of spares. “If you think I’m like my brother, I’m afraid you’re sorely mistaken. It can’t be helped that my actions resulted in some collateral damage.”
“You—” Suguro’s chair clatters to the ground as he stands. “Cut the crap already! You tricked us all into believing you were a traitor, but you brought that airship down anyway—”
“I didn’t take down the airship because I wanted to help the Order,” Yukio says slowly. “I did it to humiliate Lucifer. I’d never be so witless as to risk my life for an organization as hideously incapable as yours.”
The clipboard hits the table with a sharp clack. Yukio flinches, but all Suguro does is retrieve his fallen chair with a soft huff. “I apologize for my lapse in professionalism. Please, if you wouldn’t mind, let’s resume at a later time.”
He picks his pen off the floor, dusts it off, and leaves without another word.
Yukio sighs as he runs a hand through his hair. Was Suguro always so levelheaded?
Perhaps he’d remembered wrong.
Kamiki comes to visit around noon. She stops by a few of the other patients, repositioning their pillows and handing out small trays of food. For a moment, he thinks she’ll skip him, but she wheels the cart over promptly.
“Just so you know,” she mutters, “if you want to get up and move around later, Miwa can uncuff you. He’s been assigned to this area, so he’ll be close by cleaning and stuff.”
Yukio smiles. “Thank you. I’d like that, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Kamiki sniffs, folding a blanket over his legs before she gives him a tray. “Before, when we locked you up, I thought...I thought you just wanted revenge.” She hands him a hot, wet towel. “If you told us, we would have helped.”
“I know,” Yukio admits, “I’ll keep it in mind.”
She seems reasonably satisfied with that and moves on to the next bed.
He spaces out after eating and has a hard time waking up, torn between wanting to continue his numb, warm dreams and needing to get up before he becomes listless. There’s a small bundle of daffodils placed on the bedside table, sitting cheerfully next to the sword and the urn. They are yellow, with delicate crowns fringed the shades of bonfires. He can’t help but wonder who left them here.
Closer to evening, when the eastern sky is stained dark violet, Miwa helps him wander in a small circle outside the recovery ward to stretch his legs.
It doesn’t take him long to realize they’re still here, at the Illuminati lab. It makes sense, he supposes. Even if most of the other wing was destroyed by fire, the west side they’re currently in remains largely functional aside from the first-floor restroom.
The hallways of this place seem to be lighter than before, with the lazy glow of dusk hovering through the windows.
“Okumura-sensei,” Miwa says, walking beside him slowly, “I’m sorry.”
Yukio leans against the wall, waiting. Miwa doesn’t elaborate.
It takes him a minute to realize what he means, and then another before he can bring himself to respond. “It’s alright,” Yukio offers. “There’s nothing to apologize for.”
Miwa straightens his glasses, nodding as he turns toward the window. Yukio gives him a moment before he begins to head back to the recovery ward.
“Do you have any plans, when you’re discharged?” Miwa asks, sniffling discreetly.
Shura asked him that too, earlier this morning. Strange.
“If the Order will allow me to leave, I’d like to travel.” Yukio smiles. He hates these kinds of conversations. They’re bland, even if he sometimes does mean what he says.
Miwa brightens slightly. “Okumura-sensei,” he says, lifting his chin, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to chant a sutra for Okumura-kun.”
Yukio hesitates a moment too long, and by the time he can muster the words, Miwa’s expression has already fallen. “That would be nice.” He pauses by the window, trying to parse through jagged, disorderly thoughts. “Thank you, for thinking of him.”
He feels washed-out, colorless even, staring at the molten sunset. His eyes sting as he gazes at the low-hanging clouds, set aflame by the horizon.
There’s no time left.
He has the soul and a doorway. All he needs is a vessel.
Rest. What does that even mean?
If he can only be judged by the consequences of his actions, how should he ever know right from wrong? He feels unbalanced, like a coin sent spiraling in relentlessly widening ellipses, trying to reach a faraway speck of a destination.
“Of course,” Miwa says, helping him back into the bed. “This is quite nice,” he comments, gesturing to the daffodils as he pulls out his phone, frowning thoughtfully. “Suisen flowers are connotative of respect. I wonder if the—”
Yukio bends forward as a sudden coughing fit rattles through his lungs. He accepts the glass of water Miwa brings him, mustering a smile. “I’m sorry, I think I’m a little tired today.”
Miwa nods, accepting the dismissal with tactful grace. He waves as he leaves. “I’ll come tomorrow morning, and I’ll bring Bon too.” He beams, standing a little straighter.
He forgets the cuff. Yukio drapes his blanket over the ledge carefully for the rest of the evening, counting the hours approaching nightfall.
The frail ruffles of the daffodils are soft when he strokes a finger up the side of one, straightening them idly.
It seems they were not for him.
There is a man reading in one of the beds near the door. Yukio can hear the dry texture of his fingers tracing the paper, turning a page every few minutes.
Inside the ward, it’s dark. The windows opposite from the door bear a cool sheen. There’s a clock on the opposite wall but its hands are obscured by a glare.
Yukio waits to the sound of crisp pages and the rustle of blankets.
He remembers when he was younger, perhaps around nine or ten, there was an accident down at the docks. Due to the unprecedented number of civilian casualties, the Vatican implemented new restrictions on intermediate and lower class tamers. After a while, only the use of paper summoning circles was taught to cram school students.
They are safer and more convenient. In exchange, they’re fragile, bearing the weakness of their vessel.
Father taught him how to use other circles before. They are older, more ritualistic ones that hold closer to the true meaning of a contract. The ones he uses with his naiads are something in between. The oldest ones are considered to be heretical. Their use is strictly forbidden, and the methodology is not well documented.
It doesn’t stop the hundreds of cases concerning failed demonic summonings from reaching the Order every year, and of course, it has never stopped the handful of successful ones: ones they can’t catch until later, when the contract is already sealed.
The page turning has stopped.
He’ll go tonight. When Miwa visits tomorrow, he’ll bring Suguro, which means the sword will be taken away as well. In all honesty, he doesn’t know why it’s been given to Shura, or how long she’ll leave it here, but he can’t afford to wait and prepare right now.
His Morinas contract forbids him from attempting to escape or harming members of the Order. This has nothing to do with either.
He doesn’t care where this desperate, searing disregard came from but it’s oddly nostalgic. It makes him feel right, and for now, that’s all that he cares for. It feels like fire. Fire, as how he’d thought it was supposed to be, vicious and starving.
Yukio slips a leg off the bed, taking care to keep his footsteps quiet. He picks up the sword and cradles the urn under an arm, keeping his grip firm.
The floor is cold against his bare feet. He ignores the temptation to use the flimsy slippers; earlier this afternoon he’d found that they squeak incorrigibly. Yukio weaves around the beds, carefully stepping over a long cord stretching across the room.
Yukio freezes, watching as the man in the bed near the door turns, staring straight at him.
He’s bald. The side of his head is heavily bandaged.
Remember, do not speak to the man missing an ear.
Yukio stands still, watching the clock’s second hand make a round as his thoughts scramble. Their warnings have never been wrong before. They have only ever failed when he misinterpreted them. She said that line twice. It must be important.
The man lies back down.
No, this will work. He’ll wait until the man falls asleep, then leave the room.
Outside the room, there are two guards. From what he observed this afternoon, they take a ten minute break every two hours and switch every five hours. They patrol outside mostly, visiting this floor and perhaps a few others infrequently. He’s not certain. Besides Yukio, all the patients here are members of the Order, so the guards don’t check inside the room regularly.
Unfortunately, the nurses do check inside the room regularly. During the day, they came sporadically. Over the evening, the frequency decreased, and so far, they’ve only checked twice, at eleven in the night and one. Right now, it’s one thirty.
He stands there for a full thirty minutes, until his heels hurt and the hair on his arms stands from the cold, before he dares to walk across the room.
As he eases the door open, Yukio catches a glimpse of the book lying on the man’s bed.
No wonder. The light in the room is so dim, he couldn’t possibly have been reading without a light unless he didn’t need it in the first place.
Yukio steps out into the hallway, heading straight for the stairwell. They took his watch away before, but there are digital clocks on the walls in the atrium of every floor. Right now, he has ten minutes to get to the third level on the east side.
As he reaches the next floor, a creeping sense of trepidation grips his limbs. Something is wrong. Even if they’re concentrating on guarding the exterior, the building is far too empty. He climbs to another floor, sticking close to the walls as he ducks around a rotating camera into a dimly lit hallway. A fluorescent tube light flickers above his head, sending his shadow shivering behind him at odd heartbeats.
The sky bridge is clear, but it’s blocked by long strips of caution tape that quiver in rhythm with the draft. There’s a stack of wood boards and other equipment near the west end. As Yukio makes his way across, he finds the source of the frigid wind. The wide, tall windows on this side are broken, perhaps from thermal stress caused by the fire.
Third floor, on the east side. Third floor, third floor.
Yukio eases the door out of the stairwell open, stepping forward carefully as he’s met with several towering clear vats of faintly pink liquid, organized in a narrow maze of tubing.
They’re here. The clones are here.
It takes him nearly ten minutes to circle around the end of the atrium. The magnitude and scale here are nothing like what they’d had on Dominus Liminis. There must be two hundred, perhaps even three hundred clones here, crammed into this atrium during the fire.
He stops short, spotting the column he wants. Bubbles rise through pink liquid in the tanks, threading and flowing past the pale white hair and equally pale skin of the clones. The glass surface of each tank is marked with indecipherable strings of numbers and labels, but there is only one marker he cares for among them.
Sa-047017, Sa-047018, Sa-047020...Sa-047038. Here should be close enough. He doesn’t care which one, as long as one of these works.
Yukio kneels, setting the urn on the floor.
“The basis of every contract has three elements,” Father says easily, passing Yukio a small stack of paper squares. “The soul, a doorway, and a willing vessel. Generally, the blood we offer gives proof of ancestry, of a covenant made or of a debt owed. It’s what makes up the bond between the summoner’s soul and the demon’s. That’s why tamers are rare.” He smiles, reaching over to tap the thin wax papers in Yukio’s hands.
“The doorway is created by the circle. It gives the summoner control; to open the gate or to close it is our choice. Once the circle is destroyed, the demon cannot remain in Assiah. That’s why you’ll start with paper.”
“But sometimes,” Yukio mumbles, “you don’t use circles.”
Father laughs, ruffling his hair. “You’ve been watching pretty closely, huh? Some tamers don’t use circles because they trust their familiars deeply, so they don’t need them. Remember, demons summoned without a circle can remain indefinitely unless they are forcefully removed. It’s risky, unless you know them well.”
Know them well enough to be certain you can exorcise them, goes unsaid because, regardless of what everyone says, that is how the Order operates.
Yukio nods grimly as Father continues. “Then, the last part is the vessel. In most cases, the summoner will act as a conduit, providing energy for the demon to manifest its vessel. Let’s see, for example, my oceanids use water vapor in the air, greenmen use soil and carbon dioxide." He pauses, tapping his chin. “Well, and some kin of Iblis sometimes need an open flame, like a lighter and such. It takes a lot of stamina to summon demons because of that.”
Father sighs, steepling his hands.
“Of course, that’s not the only way to summon a demon.”
The Koma Sword gleams keenly in the off-red glow of the tanks, clinking softly as he grips the hilt, raising it to eye level. A low hum ruffles the air as he draws it. The naked blade looks painfully foreign, bereft of the pristine shine he remembers.
Yukio inhales slowly, releasing the breath as he reaches for the urn with unsteady hands, cutting the metal cord. A brief flash of light races along the seam of the seal.
Yukio whispers, “Rin.”
The name leaves an odd, bitter taste in his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he adds, wrapping his fingers around the cold steel blade. “I...I’m sorry.” He clenches his fist and hot blood runs down his wrist as he trembles, watching with bated breath as the paper seal on the urn catches fire—blue, brilliant fire.
The blob of flames waves its edges delicately, fluttering with a pulsing glow.
“I’m sorry I left.” Yukio murmurs. “I’m sorry I took so long. I meant to get here faster, but I was...I wasn’t strong enough after all.”
Only the soft gurgle of bubbles fills the gaping silence.
He really doesn’t know how to do this. When he summoned his naiads, he knew their names. No, they gave them to him. He remembers hearing their voices.
Somehow, even when he’d thought about reaching this point, he could only imagine silence where the words were supposed to be. And now, there are no words that come to mind.
“I miss you,” he blurts, setting the sword down. His blood still clings to the steel in tiny dotted beads as he stares back at the smear of his reflection.
Rest. Perhaps it means something kind, like the stories Father used to teach them while sunshine lit the stained glass in the monastery, about endless fields and unfading warmth.
What if this is incredibly selfish of him? What if he does this, and he condemns not just himself, but both of them?
What if Rin...doesn’t want this?
How could he have never considered that?
Yukio collapses as a bullet grazes his thigh, cursing under his breath. Shima steps closer, leaning over him. “Well, Sensei, you shot at me first. It’s hardly fair to blame me for not missing.”
The way he smiles makes Yukio want to reach up and wring his neck. Instead, all he does is clutch at his thigh, grudgingly applying pressure. Perhaps he can just bleed out here, in this filthy alleyway. If only this wound wasn’t so shallow.
“You wouldn’t quit running, so I had to stop you somehow. Anyway, my boss has a message for you.” He shifts, and a scraping click follows. “There’s a way,” Shima breathes, pocketing his lighter, “to bring him back.”
Yukio stiffens, glaring at the embers of his cigarette.
“All you need is to free his ashes and summon him.” He leans back against the rail, breathing the thin, silver smoke out into winter night air. “Remember? The Ba’al are immortal.”
“The Ba’al are primordial,” Yukio scoffs, pressing harder against his thigh. The blood is hot, pulsing furiously. “What makes you think that would apply here?”
Shima grins down at him, grinding his heel twice over his cigarette as he turns to leave. “What makes you think Okumura-kun would be capable of anything less?”
Yukio bows his head, averting his gaze as the soft blue flame wavers.
He’s come this far...but this is far too selfish. What he’s trying to do is nothing more than dragging his brother back, to suffer, to fight, because when had Rin ever ran away when others needed him? If he goes through with this, Rin will stay here; he’ll fight in the war, even if Yukio asks him not to.
Wouldn’t he? He was always like that, wasn’t he?
It’s been too long.
He hardly remembers Rin’s smile or his voice.
He’s scared. He’s scared he’ll complete this summoning and at the end, he’ll still be kneeling here, all alone. He’s scared he’ll fail.
He doesn’t want to move on. He doesn’t want to live like this anymore.
He just wants to stay here, with this tiny blue speck of warmth, on the tall, treacherous precipice of possibility.
Yukio counts his heartbeats, gazing down, deep into the darkness.
He steps back.
In the end, he hasn’t managed to change at all, has he?
“Rest,” he mutters.
Only good people go to heaven when they die.
“I’m sorry,” Yukio sighs, “Nii-san.”
I wanted to see you one last time, but more than anything, I’m afraid you’ve gone where I can’t follow.
The flame flickers out.
A flash of light spills forward from his left like the shockwave of an explosion, sending mottled spots dancing everywhere he looks.
He shields his face, pulling himself to his feet as his ears ring.
One look out the window confirms his fears. A sea of black uniforms chant in unison, raising an enormous barrier. The barrier grows, wavering with mottled veins as bright flashes slam against its walls. Each wave is blinding, setting the night sky ablaze, like the unyielding light of afternoon sun.
He’s only seen something like this once; when the seraphim launched their suicide bombings at the Academy.
Something is wrong.
Clearly the Order knew they were coming, perhaps using some form of clairvoyance like his naiads. Even under intense bombardment, the barrier holds staunchly, showing no sign of weakening.
Seraphim are no different from other demons. They are stronger in their element, so why would they be deployed at night?
Unless they were meant to be a decoy.
The echo of even footfalls interrupts his thoughts.
Yukio turns—too late.
A silhouette. Black boots. A tail. Gold.
His head cracks against the wall as white floods his vision. A hand lunges—furious, cold, unsteady—dragging him forward, closing, tightening around his throat. He writhes, choking, clawing at the fingers at his neck. Stop, stop, stop, stop—
The pressure eases.
Yukio gasps, crashing to his knees. His eye aches as blood rushes in his ears, and finally, he sees blue.
Flames crackle, tearing fissures through the floor. The window behind Yukio shatters into a thousand fragments. His pulse is deafening as he heaves, desperately panting for air.
“Tell me how,” Lucifer seethes, clenching the charred stumps of his fingers inward. “How does he still protect you?”
Yukio shakes as he pushes himself off the floor. His vision blurs dangerously as Lucifer moves closer. “Twice,” he fumes, “twice now. I will not let you destroy my work a third time.”
Behind him, in the dull pink glow of the atrium, a single figure rises, dripping wet.
This...this cannot be a hallucination.
Ashes on the floor. The edge of the sword gleams. Blue.
Yukio’s breath hitches as he struggles to stand, backing into the wall. Distract him. Buy time.
The cut on his hand throbs as his vision wavers. He’s so exhausted he can barely stay conscious.
Lucifer’s gaze is unhinged. The stench of burning flesh fills the air as he towers over Yukio. “How? He’s dead,” Lucifer whispers. “I killed him.”
“W-what?” Yukio shrinks against the wall, stepping down on a shard of glass. The pain sends his knees buckling as he grits his teeth, forcing his eyes to stay on Lucifer. “What do you mean? Satan is—”
“Not him.” Lucifer leans alarmingly close, brushing a finger under Yukio’s eyelid. “Your brother,” he hisses, features contorting with rage. “How does he still protect you, when I sealed his ashes? Why are you still—”
The wet squelch of a bare foot slaps the floor as warm blood splatters across Yukio’s face.
Lucifer trembles, lifting a hand to the blade piercing his chest in disbelief.
A pair of scorching blue eyes meet Yukio’s own, for the first time in three years.
“I didn’t stay dead.”