“You’re leaving?” Suguro asks as he struggles to sit up in the hospital bed, covered by countless scrapes and bruises. “Okumura, are you sure? If you wait a little longer…”
“No.” Rin shakes his head. “He won’t come back here.”
Suguro lowers his gaze, and his eyes land on the worn sword sleeve slung over Rin’s other bag. “Yeah. You’re right.” He sighs. “Then, this is goodbye.”
“Yeah. For now.” Rin smiles, pressing their fists together gently.
“May the sun warm your wings, and the sacred fires stay lit on your path home.” Suguro whispers, brushing rough fingertips over the inside of Rin’s wrist. He musters a grin, pulling at the cut across his cheek noticeably. “I’ll tell the rest of them when they wake, so you don’t have to deal with all that crying.”
“Thanks, Suguro,” Rin laughs, bowing his head, “for everything, and then some.”
“Stay warm, Okumura.”
He walks across dirt paths and torn roads and fields blown apart by rage and thunder.
It isn’t until the solstice begins to approach that he stops travelling at night, spending the darkest hours in crowded ghettos. They can be found along the edge of every city now, inundated with pestilence and aching hunger.
The people there are frightened by darkness, but by now, the war has taught everyone, even young children, what’s truly frightening is the light. Those five long years strangled the last bit of life out of them, leaving only husks trying to remember kindness. Its touch still lingers in the sallow lines of peoples’ faces, in the tremors of lonely footsteps.
Rin knows to keep his sword hidden and his coat covered tightly by his cloak, even as he accepts a generous can of beans from one of the residents. The Order may have won, but its exorcists are unwelcome, regardless.
“I’m looking for someone,” Rin offers, huddling closer to the meager campfire even as the smoke stings his eyes. He allows them to pass his treasured photograph around, through worn and weary hands.
“He’s family?” the man next to Rin asks gruffly, giving the photo back.
Rin tucks the slip of paper back into his coat, carefully smoothing the edges. “He’s my brother.”
The man nods, and the harshness of winter mingles in his eyes, not even warmed by the brilliant reflection of the fire he gazes upon. “Younger?”
“Where are you headed next?”
Rin weaves his fingers together, glancing up at the stars. “North, towards the capital.”
“If he stops by,” the man jerks his chin toward the fire, “we’ll send him your way.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.”
Rin keeps the can of beans for the night, but when he leaves in the morning, they stay behind.
Travelling on foot is slow. He has little idea where he’s going, following old train tracks overgrown with weeds, and trails of burial grounds.
These days, he tires easily. He has money but food and water are worth something else, often. It’s certainly a difficult time to wander, and he goes a week without seeing any life once, having planned his path carelessly.
Hunger gives him better judgement though, and his nose finds a hidden sanctuary at an oden cart hovering between the city and slums.
He wolfs his meal down, relishing the lingering warmth from the broth. As he sits there watching the cart owner pack supplies away for the night, he notices a sign pasted on the wall. “Are you still hiring?”
“Sure.” The owner takes a minute to consider. “Are you asking for yourself?”
“Yeah,” Rin says. “Please.”
The owner leans over the counter and grins. “Okay. We’ll see,” she says. “Go run down to the market tomorrow morning and fight for some eggs for me. The more you bring back, the better your chances are.”
Rin comes back with the fading bruise of a blackeye and still-warm eggs in every pocket, with his cheeks red from the bitter air. The owner thrusts a hot bowl and chopsticks into his hands, accepting his offer to take him along the coast in exchange for helping out.
It’s the first time he’s held a kitchen knife in years. The owner laughs when Rin cries, but she knits him new socks and feeds him an egg every time she can get her hands on some. In exchange, Rin complains about the blandness of the broth and haggles for a lower price on kombu at their next stop.
He shows her the photo, and she shares a story of her baby daughter with him. They are both searching, yet he’s afraid only hers wants to be found.
There is always a pot of something hot, bubbling, and fragrant as they travel. Cities along the coast are cleaner, settled full with the fleeing remainders of wealth. Their customers too, are fuller, with rounded faces instead of sunken cheeks. Sometimes, the discrepancy is hard to see. Other times, it's cruel.
Rin stays for a month and as much as he’s reluctant to leave, he can’t afford to circle endlessly around the coast. Still, he remains long enough to see the owner master the egg flipping technique he showed her, and bids her the best of luck on a crisp evening, with hot broth warming him inside.
The frozen ground wakes to spring gradually, sprouting soft, fuzzy green growths as he treads past. He’s letting a river guide him this time. It’s ebb and flow seem to slow in the early hours of dawn, and it reminds him of tinkling brass bells that he no longer remembers clearly.
The weather turns more pleasant, and one quiet afternoon when Rin’s dozing on a sun-warmed hill, a rice farmer twists his ankle, crying out in distress.
Rin takes care of him for a couple of days. He carries the farmer around on his back a few times so he can look at his fields, carefully following the instructions to pack soil around the curves of the paddy.
There are fish living there, in the shallow green waters. The first time the farmer instructs him to go in and spread his foul-smelling nutrient mixture, Rin rolls his pants up hesitantly. He dips one foot in the water and the fish scatter in fear.
The disappointment must show on his face because the farmer chuckles, “You can feed them a bit of cabbage later. They’ll love you then.”
As spring settles in comfortably, the rice paddy glows with viridian life. Some days, Rin will shuffle in and check on the roots, wandering around in the cool, shallow water. The fish follow him now, having learned he often bears food. They twist and gather in a great scarlet ribbon, undulating and scattering at whim.
Soon enough, the farmer’s ankle heals. He lives alone, visited by merchants only every two months or so, on these vast green fields. Rin worries, but the old man gives him a hearty slap on the back and sends him on his way in the rickety wagon of a passing merchant.
“Don’t follow the stars. Follow the flow of people. Where they are, life is. He’ll be there too.”
“Thank you.” Rin smiles. “Take care.”
“Godspeed, my boy. Godspeed.”
He makes his way to the next city sitting in the back of the merchant’s wagon, dozing next to fragrant bags of rice. Once they arrive, the bustling market is overwhelmed with rain, and Rin rushes to give the merchant a hand with unloading the rice.
There is thunder and merciless cold, which settles down in sheets of shattering glass. The promise of damaged products sends the merchant into a frantic haste, without time to notice if Rin carries more sacks of rice at once than he should be able to.
As the rain melds to hail, the storehouse becomes filled with a myriad of traders, each guarding their coveted items with anxious glances and veiled smiles.
Rin relishes the moment he steps out into the fierce hail, giving the merchant his thanks. He receives a small tin of loose leaf tea and many well-wishes for safe passage.
The town he has arrived in is considerably better off at its center. Some windows he passes by even have a gilded sheen of light, of electricity reflected in their edges. It only makes the contrast starker when he reaches the underground subway. The station, like many others he has seen, has been abandoned for a while, and people have settled into its hollow, damp corners.
It’s a water-logged place with stale air and mold filling the cracks. Here, there is also trade occurring, of cheap scraps, drugs, information, and discreet favors.
Rin sidesteps a large puddle. As he roams along the large grid of blankets displaying merchandise like territories staked out, he’s careful to keep his eyes from pausing on any trinket for too long. This place has its rules. He’s learned his lesson before.
When a group jostles past him, it takes him a moment to hold his posture loose as his hands stiffen around his bag and sword.
He’s been pickpocketed before, although they didn’t manage to run fast enough.
Rin stops at one of the rugs in the back selling small cubes of soap. He picks out the two that smell most bearable to him and hands over clinking, tarnished coins. “I’m looking for someone,” Rin begins. He reaches into his pocket, but the vendor shakes her head, pointing farther toward the back.
“The guy down there has good connections. Don’t ask me.”
Rin nods, dropping another coin into her outstretched palm.
There are more people in the back. The air is thicker here, sour with the stench of sweat and smoke. Rin squats at the edge of the old man’s blanket and offers him the photo. “Have you seen this person?”
The old man gnaws on a chipped fingernail contemplatively. “We’ll see.” He holds his other hand out and rubs his fingers together, grinning. “How about it?”
Rin gives him a cube of soap and throws a couple of coins in too.
The old man rubs his chin and nods. “I certainly have. I saw him with that little girl, over there,” he points, “just a few days ago.”
“Really? Which one? The braids or red scarf?”
“Why, the one with the braids and cute freckles.”
“Thank you,” Rin says, not daring to take his eyes off the girl.
Of course.” The man smiles. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
He pushes his way around a drunk couple and catches up to the little girl just as she begins to head up the stairs out of the station.
“Wait,” Rin blurts, reaching out to tap her shoulder, “can you wait a second?”
She turns around, and her bright brown eyes widen in alarm. “W-what? Why?”
“Sorry.” Rin grimaces. “I, I didn’t mean to scare you.” He pulls out his photo and gestures back toward the old man. “He told me you might have seen this person.” He smiles as gently as he can, kneeling so he can speak at eye-level with her. “Do you remember seeing anyone who looked like him recently?”
The girl fidgets, rubbing a bruise on her wrist as she looks at the photo, and nods. “He was nice,” she says haltingly. “I can show you where he’s staying...if you want.”
“You can?” Rin beams. “I have to find him. He’s, he’s my brother,” he explains, following her up the stairs.
“Oh,” the little girl mumbles, “he did say he was looking for his brother.”
“He did? Has he been staying here for a while?”
The little girl shrugs and rubs her wrist.
Outside, the rain continues to pour, with lightning crackling across the sky furiously. The little girl’s footsteps are soft and hesitant, weaving around puddles and through narrow alleyways. It makes him impatient.
I’ve finally found news of you. Please, let me find you here.
“It’s over there,” the little girl points, coming to a stop before an unfinished building. “He’s staying there.” She turns to the door and tugs a bell shakily. “You can go in.”
Rin turns the knob and smiles. “Thank you, really.”
The little girl looks strangely uncomfortable as she turns back, leaving without another word.
As he steps inside, he’s forced to wait for his eyes to adjust to the dimness. The harsh, metallic scent of rust hits him as he walks further in. It’s quiet. He hears the soft scuff of his boots on broken glass echo in empty depths, and nothing else.
Some part of him wants to call out and ask if anyone is there.
Another part of him fears the only response will be his own voice.
Before he can finish the thought, he hears a click, followed by a dull whistle. It’s distinct, and it’s all the warning he gets as he ducks reflexively, feeling the brush of air through his hair.
“Ah man,” a voice sniggers, “she brought us a slippery one this time.”
Rin drops his bag to the floor, raising his sword as he takes a measured breath. He keeps the sleeve on, waiting for his fingers to quit trembling.
His next breath is cut short as the steel bat swings down, forcing him back. He hears the crunch on glass behind him too late and there’s a sharp pain in the back of his head. His vision flashes white. The world spins. He crumbles to his knees, reeling from the blow. As he catches himself, his palms scrape on glass shards, and the sting snaps him back to awareness.
Rin sweeps a leg out, blinking rapidly, gritting his teeth as he sends one of them crashing to the ground. There are two others, one with a bat, another with a jagged glass bottle.
He snatches his sword off the ground and lunges for the one with the bat, slamming his knee into the thug’s gut. Blood rushes in his ears as he pivots, nearly overcompensating when the other thug swings wide with the bottle. It grazes him across the cheek just as Rin rams the end of his scabbard into the man’s chest, knocking him off his feet.
The first thug is on him before he has the chance to draw back, tackling him to the ground. Rin rolls, straining away from the knife until he manages to jab an elbow into the guy’s jaw, hard enough that he goes limp.
“Go,” one of the thugs wheezes, rushing to his feet, “go, run,” dragging his partner to his feet as Rin shoves the unconscious one off.
They scramble away, abandoning their accomplice and their weapons.
Rin kicks the unconscious thug in the head once more to be sure he’s out, grabs his sword and bag, and runs the opposite direction.
He runs and runs and runs, feet sinking into the mud, with rain splaying cold fingers across his cheeks. He runs until the sky clears to night, the town is three specks of light, and his clothes are so wet he can’t stop shivering, even when his face burns and his fingertips are red.
“Just where,” he gasps, collapsing to his knees, “where are you?”
The moon is bright and full, soaking the evening in a cool glow that seems to make every edge blur. As he curls his fists into the soft grass, he can’t stop himself from sinking down to rest his head on his arm. He’s tired. He’s so tired.
Are you…not looking for me?
He wakes with a strange stiffness to his skin. The sun is bright and blessedly warm as he squints at the sky.
It takes him a minute to remember why he is here, and his stomach growls miserably. Last night...he almost got mugged and he ran. In the heat of the moment, he hadn’t cared where. He couldn’t stay in that city anymore.
Rin props himself up on an elbow, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. There’s a sweet scent in the air, something that reminds him of summer and sunshine. He looks down, surprised to see that he’s covered in dandelion flowers.
They’ve been neatly pinched at the stem, with their puffy yellow tufts laying all over his pants. Rin pulls a few from his coat pocket and there’s even four woven into his hair that he manages to shake out.
What is going on?
His sword and bag are beside him, and there’s another pile of dandelions there as well. All of his belongings seem to still be here, although he hasn’t kept a good count of how much money he has.
There’s a muffled gasp from behind him, and Rin jerks to his feet too fast, sending black spots dancing across his vision. The next second there’s a basket flying toward him. Rin instinctively swats it away, watching as a little girl with swinging pigtails runs full tilt away from him.
“Onii-chan! Onii-chan!” she yells, pumping her small arms as she runs. “He’s not dead! He got up!”
Rin shakes another dandelion out of his hood incredulously and stoops to pick up the basket.
He’d been lying in some field, close to a small winding river and a bridge made of worn stones.
A boy appears, slightly older than the girl, and only the slightest bit taller. He holds his sister back as they inch closer. Rin offers him the basket and the boy recoils, raising an arm.
“Y-you were just lying there and th-there was blood, so we thought you were dead,” he blurts. “We didn’t touch your stuff or anything, I swear! Himari just felt bad for you, so…” He waves a hand frantically at the flowers. “We’ll just leave right now, okay?”
“But we can’t leave yet,” the girl protests, tugging on her brother’s sleeve. “Tama hasn’t come back yet. We can’t leave without Tama!”
The boy turns, and his features tighten nervously, “It doesn’t matter right now,” he hisses. “We can’t—”
“It’s okay,” Rin says, with amusement softening his smile. “I’m not mad or anything.” He holds the basket out slowly, taking a step forward. “Thank you, for the flowers.”
The little girl smiles, but her brother takes a cautious step up, curling calloused fingers around the basket handle. “Are you...sure you’re okay?” He makes a circle with his hand, pointing to the back of his head.
Rin laughs, touching the dried blood in his hair gingerly. “Yeah, it’ll wash right off.”
The older brother appears to lose some of his anxiousness after Rin dunks his head in the river, getting his hair at least close to the white it’s supposed to be.
Rin’s stomach makes its fury known loudly, and the boy rolls his eyes, handing the basket to his little sister. “Are you serious? You look like you can’t even take care of yourself,” he huffs. “Stay right there.”
The girl brightens, sitting down in the grass as she picks up the weird root things and puts them in her basket. Rin helps a little, until he gets distracted by a ladybug crawling across his knee.
“What’s your name? I’m Himari!” the little girl exclaims, cooing at Rin’s ladybug.
“Rin,” he says simply. “Your ribbons are pretty,” he adds, pulling a scrap of grass from her hair.
The boy rushes back with a shoddy fishing rod and a beat up can that he shoves into Rin’s hands. “If you lay a finger on Himari, I’ll bite your head off,” he grumbles.
Rin looks down at the can and almost drops it as he sees the worms.
The boy’s name is Haruto, Rin learns. The two of them are indeed siblings; three years apart at seven and ten. What they’re doing out here, Haruto doesn’t say.
Haruto snags four tiny fish with unexpected skill, which he presents smugly, but maybe rightfully too.
It seems Rin can’t stop embarrassing himself though, and he admits he has no idea how to start a fire without matches or a lighter. He doesn’t need to, not when he has his own, but he does suppose it looks rather strange.
There is one thing he can do though, and it’s grilling fish. Soon enough, the three of them are sitting beside the riverbank, stuffing their cheeks with soft, crispy white chunks.
“How have you made it this long out here?” Haruto asks skeptically. “You can’t even make a fire or catch fish, but you know how to grill them?”
Himari finishes her fish, poking the fire idly. “Maybe he was a chef! Right?”
“That doesn’t explain not being able to make a fire,” Haruto scoffs. “What are you doing out here anyway?”
“I’m looking for someone,” Rin admits, pushing the extra fish back into Himari’s hands. The fire is smoky, and it makes his eyes water. “No matter where I look, I can’t find him.”
He traces the worn edge of his photo, soft and fading. “Even if I find him, I don’t know if he’ll want to see me.”
“No way,” Himari replies immediately, mouth still full of fish. “He’ll be happy to see you! Really!”
Haruto stays silent though, patting his sister’s head softly.
Himari digs up more of those little root stubs and she tells Rin about this cat they ran into. They named it Tama, and it has white fur. She’d been looking for it yesterday and had mistaken Rin’s hair for Tama’s fur.
Of course, Rin can guess what he looked like yesterday, passed out in the middle of nowhere with blood dried all over the back of his neck and face. No wonder they thought he was dead.
The weather is good today, and Haruto manages to persuade Himari to search for Tama as they keep moving. “The river is going to swell soon, so we have to go,” he mentions. “I heard the merchants talking about it.”
Rin goes along. He lifts Himari onto his back and runs, letting the wind scatter her laughter as she raises her arms in the air. Haruto refuses when Rin offers him a turn, but he gets a ride either way when the sun begins to set, and they cross the river.
They’re both alarmingly light, as though their bones were crafted from mere paper and held together by threads of sunshine.
It gets late enough that the fireflies come out. Haruto teaches Rin how to peel the tiny root stubs, and the two of them squat there, watching Himari race through the tall blades of grass as the moon rises.
“Thanks,” Haruto mumbles, tossing a root peel into the grass. “I haven’t heard Himari laugh like that for a while. She shouldn’t have to grow up so fast.”
Rin wants to say, you shouldn’t either, but it wouldn’t be fair.
“Why are you two out here?” he asks instead.
Haruto frowns, nibbling on one of the roots. “We’re supposed to be looking for our parents. We got separated when the city was evacuated.”
Rin nods, but Haruto keeps going. “Earlier, you said...your person might not want to see you.” He picks at his nails, staring at the ground. “Why are you still searching?”
“Mine’s complicated,” Rin grimaces. “We, uh...we got in a fight.”
“...Oh,” Haruto murmurs. “I hope you find him.”
“Are you going to stay or something?” Haruto sniffs, picking at his fingernails again. “If not, you better hurry and leave before Himari gets attached.”
Rin considers for a minute, watching the soft light of the fireflies blink and bob over the grass. “Sure. I’ll stick around,” he smiles, “until you find your people, or I find mine.”
He doesn’t want to be alone for right now.
They make it to the next town a week later. A row of tall trees sends their fragrant petals spiraling in the wind, across empty streets. The sun is still high, yet no one is outside.
Haruto pulls Himari back, pointing toward the horizon. “They’re using mass graves. We can’t stay here.”
The gravesite is enormous for such a small, civilian town on the outskirts of the countryside. It doesn’t make sense when there’s not any visible damage to the fields or buildings.
Rin wants to ask, but both of their faces stay tense, even as they head into the forest and the town is no longer visible.
As nightfall approaches, he hears an odd noise. It’s quite far, so he’s not surprised when neither of the kids can hear it. The sound is sharp, like barking. Could it be wolves?
He’s tempted to put more distance between them, but they’ve just made a fire. Still, the barking continues for longer than he’d expect.
“Uh, I’m going to check something,” Rin says, grabbing his sword. “Stay here.”
Haruto doesn’t ask for details, poking at the fire idly as he nods. “Don’t get lost.”
The forest is dark, with only dappled moonlight gracing its leaves. Rin starts off at a run, slipping on gnarled tree roots as he makes his way up to where the road is.
As the barking gets louder, he becomes more certain. It’s likely a dog, and it’s alone.
This far out, the path has become bumpy. Freshly fallen twigs snap and bend under his feet as he walks closer. He can barely make out a large shape off to the side of the road, like a boulder with sharp angles. Rin picks up his pace, skidding down into the shallow dip where the main road lies.
It’s not a boulder. Just up ahead under a tree, an overturned truck’s rusted metal grill gleams in the moonlight.
“Hey,” Rin yells, sprinting over, “are you okay?”
He rounds to the front, pushing at the edge of the metal frame. It creaks precariously, so he lets go, looking around frantically.
A hefty brown blur lunges forward, coming to a stop with a low guttural growl. Rin scrambles back, raising his sword.
The source of growling turns out to be a large dog, with a truly impressive amount of fur. Its hackles are raised as it positions itself between Rin and the front of the truck.
This isn’t quite what he expected.
He takes a step forward, warily raising a hand. “It’s okay,” he murmurs, “it’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you.”
The dog growls again, but it at least lets him come a little closer, until he’s near enough to spot a scrap of clothing.
There’s a man lying on the ground.
Rin leans over, hesitating as he approaches the dog. “Um, I’m going to help your friend, okay? Relax a little?” He offers a bright smile, moving as slowly as he can. “It’s okay. You were barking for help, weren’t you?”
The dog doesn’t move for several seconds, staring fixedly with liquid brown eyes. It sniffs at his fingertips, butting his hand with its nose. Rin edges forward as it shifts slightly to the side, tensing as he carefully sets a hand on the man’s arm.
He hopes it won’t try biting him.
The man is still warm. Rin holds a hand by his nose, sagging with relief when he feels the breath. He turns to the dog, then back to the man, trying to organize his thoughts. There’s a scrape caked with dried blood and dirt near the man’s hairline. Rin prods a few other dark looking spots, trying to find injuries. He’s not trapped under the truck as Rin had feared but seems to be passed out.
The truck is pretty much empty besides a sack and a heavy box. Were they attacked by bandits? He hasn’t seen a car in a while. Where is this guy from, to be able to afford the gasoline for this? No wonder he got robbed.
The truck looks intact, but it’s on its side. Rin lifts the whole thing and sets it down hastily as the man groans. “Hey, are you awake?” Rin whispers. “Are you hurt anywhere?”
The man jolts, lashing an arm out before he wakes completely. “What? Who are you? Are you—”
The dog nudges his face, whining softly.
“Oh.” The man smiles. “Kurumi, you’re okay. Thank goodness.” He looks up, squinting at Rin. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“It really was nothing,” Rin says, squatting next to the man. The dog growls again but the man lays a hand on its back, smoothing the fur gently. “I heard barking, so I came to check,” Rin adds, “but you woke up before I had the chance to do much.” He points at the man’s leg. “Are you injured? Can you walk?”
“Yeah,” the man grunts. “I’m fine. A little sore, but fine.” He rolls to his side, taking Rin’s hand as he sits up.
“You, you—,” the man gasps. The moonlight hits his irises with a pale gleam of fear. He withdraws his hand. “You’re the…”
Did he fight in the war?
Rin swallows dryly, moving to stand. It was about time for him to leave anyway.
“Wait.” The man thrusts his hand out, maneuvering his lips into a smile. “S-sorry, I should have introduced myself. I’m Ueno Sota," he says. “What’s your name?”
Rin shakes his hand clumsily, “Okumura,” he replies. “I’m Okumura Rin.”
“Thank you for helping me, Okumura-san.” Ueno smiles better this time. “This is Kurumi.” He pats his dog. “She’s a little startled right now, but she usually warms up to people.” He stands, pressing his fingers gingerly to his forehead. “Actually, there’s one thing I can do, if you’ll let me.”
“Uh, it’s alright.” Rin reaches out, steadying him by the elbow. “Don’t push yourself.”
“No, it’s not a problem,” Ueno insists. “You’re travelling, aren’t you? I can give you a ride, if you’d like.”
Rin turns back to the truck, considering it carefully. It’s spacious in the back, with enough room to fit several people.
“Where are you heading?” Rin asks.
“Towards the port city,” Ueno scratches his chin, “back to my hometown in Niigata, I suppose. I lost all of my merchandise, except this one box.”
The border of Niigata is close. During the war, it was tentatively established as a new capital when most of the southern coast was annihilated. Rin just left it a month ago, when he ran into the old rice farmer. At the time he’d skipped searching along the harbor, wanting to head inland instead.
The Order has a displaced persons center there.
“I’m travelling with two others,” Rin says. “Could you take them along too?”
“Yeah,” Ueno agrees. “As long as they’ll fit.”
“Alright, thanks,” Rin smiles. “They will.”
They set out at dawn after clearing out the last of the broken glass from the truck. The engine coughs and sputters arduously, but the truck moves fast, as though it could outrun anything.
It turns out Ueno’s last box of merchandise was filled with senbei of all things. Rin falls asleep in the back with the grumpy brown dog in his lap and the two kids munching by his ear, and for once, he feels incredibly hopeful.
He has a good feeling about this.
As they enter the city, the truck stops more frequently. Rin shifts in and out of hazy sleep as the bright afternoon sears his eyelids.
Ueno drops them off near the port, with directions to the center. Rin rushes to thank him and somehow, they end up parting ways all too abruptly, with practiced effortlessness.
The displaced persons center is located in a large, spacious building. Inside, the windows are long narrow ones that seem like they would bounce sound back on muffled edges if the building was empty. Instead, they’re sunlit, with golden dust that settles crisply on the outlines of metal objects. The office is a bustling swarm of energy, with dozens of agents and an auditorium filled to the brim with people who have no place to go, and an even longer line meandering outside.
The program is a newly established effort organized by the Order. Their network is small but growing steadily as more of the missing are reported.
Rin helps Haruto through his long form, littered with boxes to check and larger boxes to fill, before copying most of it to Himari’s.
Dusk comes too quickly and the center closes for the night. Outside, the line is still long, still meanders down the wide street.
Employees begin to organize people toward shelters. The children’s one is just across the street. Rin rushes them over, waiting until they’re accepted in before heading down the block to the men’s shelter. The crowd here is angry and the line is longer. It’s cut off about twenty people before Rin, just as the sky begins to fade to soft rust lining steel.
He takes his bag and follows the scent of salt towards the docks. Here, the waters are choppy, lit in luminescent colors of the city skyline. It reminds him of the view from that tall bell tower he was fond of at the academy.
It’s late, but the city is bright. He passes a construction site with tall cranes and rippling sheets of plastic tied down to orange steel. There’s a wall near the back that’s been graffitied over in stark white streaks: remember death is a god with cold hands.
The night is long as he wanders along the coast, asking people the same question, over and over. Restlessness simmers in his body with aches and stings. He finds a wood bench under a thick tree with patches of moss sprouting in its grooves and stares up into the dark, empty sky, wishing he could find stars.
Maybe, somewhere close to here, they could be looking at the same sky.
Maybe, when they meet again, he’ll ask why Rin’s hair is different, or notice that Rin’s grown taller, just by a couple centimeters. Then, Rin can tell him he has even more moles than before, or something else that’ll make him all prickly.
Maybe they’ll run into each other, in the morning, or the next. Wouldn't that be nice?
Near dawn, he has a dream of an old memory.
It’s warm and pleasant but for some reason, he doesn’t mind waking.
He was with Yukio and the old man at the carnival they'd sometimes visit in the summer. It was loud, full of flashing, blinking bulbs, lighting up the saturated evening in plastic colors.
The old man got them each a balloon and tied them to their wrists. Rin’s was yellow and Yukio’s was grey. No matter how he tugged the string, it was unfathomably drawn to the sky. He liked that. Balloons must come from somewhere else. They’re even lighter than birds.
The old man ruffled their hair and told them they could go have fun, as long as they promised to stay together.
Rin grabbed Yukio’s hand, and they squeezed between spaces in the crowd to watch the performance, of beautiful people in feathered masks and acrobats who danced like they weighed nothing at all.
Somewhere between buying food and watching the fireworks, Yukio lost his balloon. Tears hung at the corners of his eyes as he stood there, as though he was the one who’d become lost.
Please, please don’t cry.
Rin wanted to give Yukio his yellow one, but the string was tied snuggly to his wrist. He pulled and pulled at the string, yet it refused to break.
“It’s okay, Nii-san.” Yukio curled his tiny delicate fingers around Rin’s wrist and smiled. “I don’t want yours.”
He grasped the curled end of the ribbon and gently tugged, letting the balloon bob up and down. Its bright yellow hue seemed to change against the depthless night into firelight, shining a frail wavering glare over Yukio’s glasses.
“This is important,” he said, cupping his hands near Rin’s ear. “Promise you won’t give it away, not even to me.”
“Okay,” Rin whispered. “I promise.”
Morning comes with a loud blare from those enormous ships, some of which are departing, and others that are finally home.
Rin finds his way back to the children’s shelter, spotting Himari easily in the crowd. Haruto gives Rin an apple, mumbling that he’d rather have slept outside than listen to babies wailing at night. Himari has many things to chatter about, from the moldy smelling blankets, to the nice music they played on the radio, to one boy’s secret pet hamster in his pocket.
They wait in the center again, and this time, they're all assigned numbers. From there, they wait in another room. This one is smaller, with a sprightly hanging plant near the window, more chairs, and a battered water dispenser which has a hot water button, but no hot water and no cups.
Rin teaches the two of them an old game he remembers from elementary school, with tapping hands and scoring by the number of fingers. He’s certain there were other rules he’s forgotten. It seems so simple now.
“Fifty-five, please bring your paperwork to window three, number fifty-five.”
“Come on,” Rin nudges Haruto awake. “It’s your turn.” Haruto nods, taking Himari with him glumly as he trails over to the window.
The room is filled with cotton-like chatter, quiet enough to be indiscernible but unmistakably there. A man in the corner, near window one, bursts into tears.
“Fifty-seven, a representative at window one will receive you now, fifty-seven.”
Rin walks to the front, watching as the old man at the window clutches a handful of papers to his chest with pained, worn hands, bowing his head.
“Sir, please, if you could head back to the main hall, they will help you with arrangements for funeral services.”
The old man’s face turns ashen as he rises, bowing shakily.
“Number fifty-seven?” The representative gestures to the seat. “Thank you for your patience.”
“Yeah.” Rin pulls the chair out. “Uh, no problem.”
The representative takes his papers, stamping a couple places before she inputs a string of numbers. As she works, Rin looks through a few of the poorly folded pamphlets on the counter. New cheap housing, employment centers, resume workshops, finance management classes, smoking cessation…
The printer clacks softly. “Here’s what I found." She slides a sheet of paper to him. “Okumura Yukio, male, age twenty-one, born December 27, 1996, correct?”
“Yeah.” Rin leans forward as she highlights a section.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any current reports.” She purses her lips, “Let’s see, besides an outstanding arrest warrant, he has a record of being hospitalized at a clinic in Tsugaru, Aomori from two years ago in February. That’s the most recent one.”
“Wait, but,” Rin twists the corner of the page, “Aomori was…”
“Oh, yes, my apologies. I’ll check where the majority of evacuees were relocated.” She types away on the computer with practiced efficiency, printing another page. “Here’s a list. We have connections with these asterisked ones. Of those, we don’t have any registration corresponding to his description.”
“I see,” Rin mumbles. “Thank you.” He stands gradually, stacking the papers.
“Ah, one second, sir.” The representative pulls a form from the printer. “I received a match fitting your description in the deceased military records. Please have a seat and fill this out for me. I’ll update the records once you’re finished.”
“Sir? Are you alright?”
Rin’s knees buckle as he takes a step back. “No. No, there must be a mistake.”
The form lies in front of him, with clear, thin black font. 20, male, DOB: 12/27/1996, Okumura—
He sags back into the chair, reaching for a pen. “Sorry.” He laughs, “I-I misheard. I thought you said it was for him.”
The representative smiles, slipping two brochures for legal services into his papers. “Well, we received no matches for your brother. Once you update your information, if he were to look for you, it should make the process easier. Do you have a permanent address you’d like to add?”
“No, I’m good.” Rin takes his papers. “Thanks again.”
“Sixty-one, a representative at window one will receive you now, sixty-one.”
Haruto and Himari are still at their window as Rin finds an empty seat. He flips through the papers, reading the hospital report once, then once more. There’s nothing on why Yukio was hospitalized, only that the discharge date was the same day.
He was in Aomori in February, just two days before the Order’s attack. Rin wasn’t there, but he heard they’d been deployed in Itayanagi. If Yukio was in Tsugaru before, that means they’d been close.
What could he have been doing there?
“Rin-san! Look!” Himari waves a sheet of paper, bouncing up and down. “They found our parents for us!” She throws her arms around his waist, beaming as he twirls them in a little circle.
“That’s amazing.” Rin smiles, pulling them outside. “Where are they?”
“Maebashi.” Haruto points at one of the buses parked across the street. “They said one of these buses could take us. Is it far from here?”
Rin pats his head fondly. “Not too far.” He’s drawing a blank on which prefecture Maebashi is in, but if they can go by bus, it can’t be much more than a four-hour ride. “When are you leaving?”
Himari tugs his hand back and forth. “It leaves at noon. Do you want to come with us? Did they find your brother?”
“Not yet.” Rin shakes his head. “They had some records of him from a while ago, but not right now.” Her face falls, so he quickly adds, “I’m going to look for him around that area, so I’m sure I’ll find him soon.”
Haruto nods. “He’ll look for you too, I bet.”
Himari asks to see the docks before they go. The sky is magnificently clear, with flocks of seagulls perched elegantly just out of reach. This city has many flowering trees along its streets, but Rin finds the most common ones have small grey puffs on their branches, almost like the tails of a tiny furred creature.
“Just wait,” Haruto mutters, “she’s definitely going to cry all over you in a minute.”
“Okay." Rin laughs. “Thanks for the warning.”
They wait around the bus stop for the last hour. Himari does begin to cry, very quietly at first. When Rin kneels and hugs her carefully, he feels unexpectedly moved. He only knew them for a short time, but even for just a little bit, they were absolutely brighter than sunshine and truly, unbelievably kind to accept him so easily.
“Thank you,” Rin whispers, weaving a hand through Himari’s hair. “I’m sure you realized, but I was really lonely that day you found me. Thank you.” He smiles, pulling Haruto into the hug. “I’m really grateful for you guys, you know?”
Haruto’s face feels wet when he presses his cheek against Rin’s neck, so Rin rambles a little longer, about fishing and fireflies, about strange mushrooms and chasing clouds and making fires, until he composes himself. “Do one thing for me,” Rin says, lowering his voice. “Don’t try to grow up so fast.” He pulls away, setting his hands on Haruto’s shoulders. “Okay?”
Haruto sniffs, swiping at his nose with his sleeve. “Okay.”
Himari insists on tying Rin’s overgrown bangs into a pigtail with one of her ribbons before they leave. “It’s a magic charm so you’ll always be safe,” she beams, “and pretty.”
For the slightest moment, he wishes more than anything that he could go with them.
The two of them lean out of the window to wave as the bus leaves, and when her remaining ribbon flutters in the wind, he thinks he can smell the golden scent of dandelions.
“When you find him,” Himari yells, “come visit us!”
“I will!” Rin waves back.
“I promise,” he whispers, long after the bus has left, “I will.”
When Rin goes back in the center, there seems to be a slow lull in the crowd.
He asks about the buses, hoping to find a way up to the remaining north coast. One of the employees gives him a curt explanation, likely having been asked the same question too many times. Restoring the railway will take at least half a year, but Niigata City has reestablished bus connections throughout the Niigata Prefecture, as well as those surrounding it. Currently, if a proof of permanent residence and appropriate paperwork can be produced, displaced persons may use the system free of charge, providing they have a relative to receive them.
Rin has neither of those.
“Two seventy-five, window four is available at your earliest convenience, two seventy-five.”
The speaker sounds a little familiar.
He wanders over, taking a peek at the representative behind the window.
It’s Konekomaru. Rin waves and receives an excited one back. About half an hour later, the representatives switch, and Konekomaru leads them to a quiet section behind the center.
“I really didn’t expect to see you here.” Konekomaru smiles, offering Rin a foam cup filled with warm water. “That hair suits you well.”
Rin raises a hand to poke at the pigtail sprouting out of the side of his head. “It was a gift, but I don’t know how long I’m supposed to keep it in.”
Konekomaru giggles. “It’s so like you to say something like that. Ah, I missed you a lot, Okumura-kun.”
“Me too,” Rin agrees, taking a sip of water. “Sorry, I left so suddenly. How did you end up transferred here?”
Konekomaru shrugs. “I was helping to design their database and before I knew it, I’d already followed them all the way up here.”
“Whoa, that’s cool.” Rin loops an arm around his shoulders. “Do you like it here?”
Konekomaru laughs, straightening his glasses as his face reddens. “Yeah, I, uh, I got engaged recently, with um, Natsuki. From Division 17? Do you remember her? I think we’re going to stay here for a while.”
“Dang.” Rin grins. “That’s way awesome. I knew you two had something going on. This city is great too. It’s really recovering way better than other places I’ve been.”
“Yeah.” Konekomaru points to the electrical tower near the park. “Of all of Japan, I’d say Niigata Prefecture definitely suffered the least damage. Other places wouldn’t have the infrastructure left to build something like this, for at least another year.”
Rin nods along, losing focus as their conversation begins to derail to things like the lack of economic restoration effort and ways to go about post-war healthcare reconstruction.
“So, have you had any luck recently?”
“Eh.” Rin spins his empty cup, staring at the pavement. “Not really.”
“What do you have so far?”
Rin retrieves the wad of papers from his pocket. “He was hospitalized in Tsugaru two years ago.”
“Tsugaru.” Konekomaru considers. “In Aomori? That’s almost where we were.”
“Yeah.” Rin sighs. “I wonder what he was doing up there. I mean, that was practically all Illuminati territory.”
Konekomaru folds the papers neatly. “I don’t know, what if he was looking for you?” He hands the papers back. “Were you able to update your records? I noticed it when you submitted your application, so I put a note on there for whoever processed it.”
“Yeah.” Rin laughs. “I didn’t realize it was for me at first.”
“Ahh, I can imagine how that went,” Konekomaru says. “We did design the system to check deceased records first, just to be thorough.” He checks his watch, standing quickly. “My break is almost over. Are you going to stay a little longer? I’ve got a place—”
“It’s alright,” Rin interrupts. “Thanks, really. I just have to keep looking, you know? If I stop for too long, I might slip past him again.”
“That is how it tends to be, isn’t it?” Konekomaru says slowly. “Okumura-kun, I’ll be here if you ever need anything. Make sure to take care of yourself, okay?”
“Thanks.” Rin smiles, reaching over for a hug. “I will.”
Konekomaru presses against his shoulder. “I’m sure wherever he is, he wants to be found. Your efforts will definitely be rewarded. I swear.”
Rin pulls away. “I know,” he laughs. “I’m doing okay, really. I just have to keep looking a little longer.”
“Okay.” Konekomaru nods. “Just one last thing.” He turns Rin’s wrist up. “May the sun warm your wings, and the sacred fires stay lit on your path home.”
“What’s that for?” Rin asks. “Suguro did that too, before I left.”
Konekomaru smiles. “It’s just for luck.”
He waves again, turning to leave. “I mean it, Okumura-kun. Best of luck to you.”
As he travels, the days grow longer. Farther north, the paved roads become scarce, until he’s finding his way deep in winding passes and gorges obscured by mist. Out here, the people are weary. Most live in small clumps of villages, separated by gaping fields and abandoned ruins of cities.
They’re afraid of something. No one speaks of it, and they barely speak of anything else either.
One morning, he wakes to the rich, heady scent of smoke, scattered far on rising wind. By night, he’s walked long enough that he meets its fire. The flames are blistering and vivid, blended the short-lived shades of sunrise, lasting long into the night. In the center of the town there is a river whose water still runs eerily clear and untouched.
The village is burning. It’s burning, yet treacherously empty, as though the starved flames finally devoured all sounds of life.
Even by the time it’s far behind him, its collapsing echoes seem to fill the silence. He’s forced to wade through a massive section of uneven fields covered by recently disturbed soil, with only his own voice to keep him company in the darkness.
Morning comes, but the smoke still clings to his skin. The valley becomes slowly submerged in dense fog, stretching its haze far into the distance. As he walks, he passes two villages suffering the same damage as the one before, mercilessly razed to the ground. Their half-erect wooden carcasses are blackened, cut like stark silhouettes despite the missing sun.
Unnerving quiet seeps cold into his body as he searches for a path to follow. The white is endless, and without the sun, he has no way to tell time.
He cannot be lost though, if he never had a destination.
The next day when the sun rises at last, he is relieved to see the outlines of a small town.
It’s peaceful here but far too quiet. Most of the doors he knocks on remain shut, and those that open are reluctant to stay that way.
Despite that, the town isn’t completely deserted. Near the side of the dirt road, a little boy squats in the shade of a maple tree, sprinkling salt on snails. Rin tells him off, because the snails don’t deserve that, but the boy ignores him.
“Hey, come on.” Rin crouches, giving him a soft flick on the forehead. “Quit wasting the salt. That stuff’s not cheap anymore.”
The boy’s head jerks up, eyes widening in shock. He scrambles back, landing on his butt.
“Sorry.” Rin pulls his hand back, “I didn’t mean to scare you—”
“Go away, you creep!” A handful of salt comes flying his way as the boy runs, carelessly knocking over his bucket of snails.
Rin watches him leave for a moment before he tilts his head, trying to shake the salt out of his hair.
He hadn’t expected that.
“Serves them right,” a voice behind him mutters. Rin turns around, staring as the old woman peering from the other side of the road curls her lips into a sneer. “Always leaving holes in my lettuce.”
“Oh.” He tugs his hood up. As Rin walks over, the old woman wards him off with a mop, leaving the door open only a crack.
“Say, are you travelling? That smoke is from Kunohe,” the old woman hisses from behind the door. “You didn’t come from there, did you?”
“Uh, I don’t know.” Rin backs up a step. “Where’s that?”
“You know, the village with the river running through the middle. That whole place was infected,” the old woman snaps. “What are you selling? Hurry it up.”
The village with a river. Was it the one that was burning when he passed by?
Rin reaches into his pocket. “Have you seen anyone who looks like him?”
The old woman snatches the photo out of his hand, holding it as far from her face as possible. She squints hard before declaring, “He looks really plain, with the glasses and all. I don’t think I’d remember even if I saw him.”
Rin takes the photo back. “Can you even see?”
She slams the door in his face.
After asking around several households, he’s given directions to a tavern commonly frequented by travelers.
Outside, the wine-red paint is peeling, and there is a wall of ivy climbing up from two sides. The tavern is cozily lit, but the air is humid and thick. Inside, it’s busier than he would have expected for a town as small as this one. As he heads toward the back, the shattering clatter of plates and utensils stirs an explosion of noise.
A man hits the corner of a table, crashing to the floor. Rin is forced aside as the crowd forms a ring, throwing things without remorse. The man sways, swiping flecks of rice from his hair. “Please—”
The tavern owner shoves her way through, swinging the end of a broom down on the man’s shoulder. “Leave!” she shouts, heaving with rage. “Leave or I swear, I’ll beat you half to death right here, so there’s enough of you left to burn.”
“No, please,” the man sobs, shielding his face with his arms as a bowl of soup cracks over his head. “I just need—”
“Hey, stop it!” Rin thrusts his sword out to catch the end of the broom, shoving his way through the crowd. “Come on, stand up,” he urges, hauling the man to his feet. “We’re leaving now, okay? Whatever you need here isn’t worth a beating, is it?”
The man lifts his gaze and somehow, there are intense specks of light living deep in his eyes. Rin’s never seen anything like it before.
“Yeah, get lost! Get out of here!”
Rin twists to fend off a soaring mug and drags the man out of the tavern with tremendous effort. He doesn’t stop until he’s lost count of how many streets away they are, and the man loses a shoe, retching onto the sidewalk.
“Thank you,” the man wheezes. “You’re not from here, are you?”
“Yeah,” Rin says, retrieving his shoe for him. “I’ve been travelling.” It’s still bright outside, and he can finally make out a few details of the man’s face. He seems younger than Rin had expected, but he looks exhausted with sallow cheeks and unbelievably thin arms. “Are you going to be okay?” Rin asks, crouching next to him.
The man draws a breath to respond but falters, shrinking in on himself.
“Can I...ask you to do something for me?”
“Okay.” Rin scoots closer. “What?”
The man tenses, lowering his eyes. “Can you stay? Just until the sun sets?”
He looks oddly doubtful, as though already braced for Rin to decline.
It’s troubling that it feels familiar, when it shouldn’t. Everyone is so afraid; everywhere he goes, their wounds are hidden under layers and layers of bandages, bound tightly to the point of suffocation.
No one trusts anymore.
“Sure,” Rin offers, smiling easily. “I’ll stay if you want me to.”
“Thanks.” The man bows his head. “You’re a good person.”
“I don't know." Rin shrugs, sitting down next to him. “You’re not asking for much.”
The light of dusk tears into slanted threads of fine-spun bronze, draping across the frames of old rusting metal and chipped concrete.
Even out here where it’s bright, the brilliant shards in his eyes refuse to dim.
The man tilts his head back, glancing at Rin. “Have you been traveling for a long time?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Rin pulls out his photo. “I’m trying to find my brother. Do you remember seeing anyone who looked like him?”
“I don’t think so,” the man says, holding the corner of the photo gingerly. “I hope you won’t mind me saying this,” he clears his throat, “but you don’t look very similar, do you?”
“Uh.” Rin scratches the back of his head. “Maybe because of my hair? The photo’s a little old.” They’ve never looked similar though. It doesn’t really bother him.
The man’s expression turns solemn. “I’m sorry I can’t be of help.” His eyes narrow as he points toward the east, where the sky is lavender, and the moon has begun to rise. “I was searching for someone too.”
He stays silent for a long time, and finally passes the photo back. “You said you were travelling,” he says haltingly.
“Do you know what the glow is?”
Rin shakes his head, leaning forward as he props his cheek against his hand. “Does it have to do with why they chased you out?”
The man nods after a minute. “The glow is a disease. It starts in your skin around the feet, and there’s...there’s light in your skin, and you have this sheen.” He wraps his arms around his knees. “You’ve probably seen the fires.”
“Yeah,” Rin admits, “but the village was empty.”
The man nods again, staring pointedly at the ground. “After a bit, it covers all of your skin and burrows deeper. You get brighter and brighter and brighter.”
For a moment, he becomes completely still.
“And then...and then you, you just disappear.” He turns and those distant eyes of his lock onto Rin’s, gazing long, as though ensnared by their own reflection.
Those are not the eyes of a human.
Rin shifts uneasily. “Hey, are you okay?”
The man snaps out of it a second later, but he loses all of his previous composure, rummaging frantically through his pockets. “H-here, I don’t have much money, but you should take this,” he mumbles, pushing the crumpled bills into Rin’s hands.
“What, wait,” Rin protests, “I can’t—”
“I need, I need you to do something for me,” the man says, curling his thin, wasted fingers around Rin’s. “Please.” He trembles, bowing his head. “l know it’s too much to ask, but just listen to my request. There is something I must do before it’s too late.”
His hands are nothing more than starved skin drawn over bone. Rin has never dared to hold anything so fragile.
“I found,” he swallows, taking a labored breath, “I found the doctor.” He withdraws his hands, shutting his eyes. “I’m, I’m dying.”
“No,” the man gasps, snatching at Rin’s sleeve, keeling forward, “please, don’t go—”
“I’m not, I’m not leaving.” Rin kneels, rushing to help him sit back down. “I’m not going to leave.”
Frost curls in his gut. He shouldn’t be like this.
Why can’t he say anything better?
He can't be like this.
“Wait,” Rin demands, “if you found a doctor, why didn’t the—”
“There’s no time.” The man trembles. “He said at nightfall, at nightfall...I’ll be out of time.”
Out of time?
How is he supposed to believe that? They’re too far out to reach a hospital in time, and if this was a sickness they could cure, those villages wouldn’t all have been burned, would they? None of this seems right.
People aren’t supposed to die like this. Slowly. Unnoticed.
“You said you wanted me to do something for you,” Rin prompts. “Tell me what it is, and I’ll do it.”
The man nods haltingly, curling his hands tighter around Rin’s arms.
As he speaks, his eyes skitter fitfully toward the horizon, watching for the setting sun like a falling, unrelenting blade. “My family lives not far from here. I can’t return anymore, but I wrote a letter. Please, can I ask you to deliver it for me?”
His hand shakes but his grip does not falter around the delicate paper, as though fearing that if he were to let go, Rin would run.
“My village is known as Kunohe. It’s just a ways east from here, past two small villages. My name is Sato Touma. If you ask for my family, they will know. It should not be difficult to find as long as there is no fog. From here it’s not far, not far at all. There is a river and rice fields and a clocktower that locals will know of.”
Rin nods. “A river, and rice fields.”
Kunohe. Why does that name sound familiar?
“Yes, that’s right.” Sato nods frantically. “It’s directly east. Please.” He grips Rin’s hand. “Please forgive me for asking this of you. I was foolish and ashamed, and now it’s too late. Please, please my last hope rests on you.”
“You said directly east,” Rin murmurs, “and there’s a clocktower.”
“Yes,” Sato says, “w-will you, will you be able to find it?”
Rin squeezes his hand as gently as he can, pulling a thin blanket from his bag.
“I will,” Rin promises, wrapping the blanket around Sato’s shoulders. The words burn fiercely in his chest, twisting so much he can scarcely breathe. “I promise, I won’t stop until I find it.”
How can Rin just leave him here?
Is there nothing else he can do?
He can’t bear to meet Sato’s gaze, so he stares at his hands, at blackened and chipped nails and grime lining the wrinkles darker. Hands that look like they’ve been grasping hot coals, chasing an elusive ghost.
The drafty air howls through ragged, gaping holes, tearing out dust settled quietly in buried corners. It rises, moaning with an undertone of brittle ash carried too far astray. He remembers dusks like these too well; the moment when the day’s shadows are most solid, fractured into sharp edges a second before the streetlights come to life.
This doesn’t feel right.
“That’s good, that’s very good,” Sato murmurs, holding his head in his hands. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die here, alone. I don’t want to leave them behind.”
“I’ll stay with you,” Rin protests, kneeling in front of Sato.
“No, no, forget what I said,” Sato says, latching onto Rin’s arms. “It’s not far,” he urges, pushing weakly. “Go, you have to go now.”
Rin stumbles as he stands.
There has to be something he can do.
“No,” he mumbles.
He doesn’t know what Sato was saying about nightfall, but it’s not too late.
It’s not too late yet.
“I’ll take you with me,” Rin declares. “I’ll take you with me and you’ll make it back to them in time. I swear you will.”
“What?” Sato quivers as he lifts his head. “No, no I can’t.” He glances at the letter clutched in Rin’s hand and takes a rattling breath. “I can’t, I’ll give you the glow—”
“You won’t.” Rin claps him on the shoulder, smiling as brightly as he can. “I haven’t caught a cold in forever, and I’m not going to catch the glow from you, so quit worrying about it. I promised you until sundown, right? I’m not just going to leave you here.”
Sato bows his head deeply, still staring at the letter. “Sundown,” he mumbles. “Until sundown.”
He hesitates, pulling the letter from Rin’s hands. “I... think I would like that.” The tension in his body melts away as he smiles with anguished relief, glassy and brittle. “Thank you. Thank you.”
As Rin carries him on his back, Sato gradually gives him directions.
He walks quickly, but their distance feels endlessly far compared to the last sliver the sun has left to travel. There are long, gaping stretches of silence where Rin can feel his chest heaving, and all that he can hear is the quiet snuffles as Sato cries. He doesn’t know what to say.
The sun continues to sink, and Sato becomes more and more distressed.
Rin asks him about his village, and Sato tells his story in a tormented clutter of sentences that break off before they’re finished, rushing and rushing to the end.
The village he comes from is an impoverished one. It is settled flush against the sheer cliffs of the Kitakami mountains. Their location is rural, and news of the glow spreads slowly. It only reached them after the disease had claimed two of their own.
Hospitals had never seen anything like it.
As the fear began to settle in, Sato’s uncle fell ill. A few nights later it took the gentle old lady next door, not even leaving a body behind.
The nearby villages started to burn the homes of the dead, calling it a curse.
Sato’s family hid away, but when his son’s skin could no longer hide the foul creature growing inside, he knew it was too late.
He left, vowing to return with the doctor the travelers speak of; a man who is wandering the breadth of the land, bringing people back from the brink of death.
Sato searched and searched but the doctor would not be found. The information they sold him was woven from lies, yet he could not afford to let a single thread slip through his fingers. He searched until he was penniless, and the agonizing veins of light had crawled their way across his body, but he still found nothing. Soon enough, he was overwhelmed by the pain, collapsing among the ruins of a town razed away long ago.
In the morning, he woke in a feverish haze to the kind face of his son here to take him away. He cried and cried more, and when he woke again, the pain was gone. His skin was as it had been before, without even the faintest glow. Someone saved him. At last he had found the doctor. Sato begged him to visit his village, but the doctor refused. He did not even ask for money, leaving Sato with a haunting statement: I’ve given you time, but you’re not free. At nightfall in three days, I will receive my payment.
Sato recovered his strength in a day, and within the same day he realized his mistake. The glow is gone from his skin, but it now lives deep inside him. He sees its eyes reflected in puddles, feels the breaths it borrows from his lungs and hears its strong, throbbing heart beginning to drown out his own, beat by beat.
He despairs as it grows, thrashing its wings against his ribcage. It will leave soon. Very soon. Finally, he understands.
When it leaves, he will die.
He wants to see his family, just one last time.
The doctor did not save him.
It’s too late now.
Nightfall is coming.
Sato shudders, staying quiet for uncomfortably long. His arms gradually begin to slip around Rin’s neck, until Rin has to let him down, worrying he’ll fall off.
Sato’s face is ashen, and he’s sweating, clutching his chest as he breathes shallow, pained gasps.
The sun has left.
“Just a little farther,” Rin urges, dabbing at Sato’s forehead with his sleeve. “You’re almost there, okay?”
Sato nods, swaying as he struggles onto Rin’s back. “Thank you,” he says, over and over, just barely a whisper in Rin’s ear.
As they reach the outskirts of the town, Rin stops asking for directions.
The sense of dread curling in his gut slowly grows tendrils.
Why does he recognize this scenery?
“Sato?” Rin adjusts his grip as gently as he can. “Am I still going the right way? It’s dark and I don’t know where east is.”
“Yes,” Sato mumbles. “This is right.”
Directly east. The village with a river running through the center, rice fields and a clock tower. Kunohe.
He keeps walking, rushing to get past the remains of the small village he passed hardly more than a day ago, that still smells of smoke and death—
Sato’s breath hitches.
The splintered remains of a storefront sign lie in the debris.
Kunohe-mura’s Best Ramen.
No, this can’t be happening.
He’s not there yet.
This has to be the wrong place.
It was already too late.
Too late, too late, too late, too late.
“Turn down there, next to the house with the tall chimney.”
There are times when we can’t save everyone.
Rin takes a deep breath, trying to quell his rising panic as he walks further in, searching, listening for even the slightest sound. Everywhere he looks, he’s met with silence, of forcefully broken things reduced to ashes to be forgotten.
Don’t make careless promises.
At the center, the river runs swiftly over worn rocks, trickling and gushing. Its water seems murky with debris, but it’s too dark to tell.
Sato heaves a long, trembling sigh as Rin lets him down.
He sits there, not moving at all.
Rin doesn’t know how long Sato sits there, utterly still, keeled over, shaking breathlessly.
It’s his fault.
He shouldn’t have offered so thoughtlessly.
He messed up.
“Maybe, maybe they went somewhere else,” Rin tries. “I—”
Sato shakes his head. He stares unblinkingly into the moonlit river and a pair of unseeing eyes glisten behind his own, shimmering pale gold.
“I was afraid of this,” he admits, holding his face in his hands. “I was afraid, so I didn’t want to come back.”
He wheezes, clutching his chest as he bends forward.
Rin clenches his fists tighter, hovering as he opens and shuts his mouth uselessly.
Sato stands, wobbling unsteadily. “I don’t, I don’t have much time left.”
He wipes the tears from his eyes and curls a hand around Rin’s wrist, racked with tremors as he breathes heavily.
“I never meant for this to happen,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
Rin watches with confusion when he takes a step back to kneel, placing both hands level, and painstakingly touches his head to the ground.
“What, what are you doing?” Rin protests, scrambling to help him up. “I haven’t—”
“I can never repay this debt.” Sato whispers. “Thank you.”
“No,” Rin says, shaking his head furiously. “No, no, I didn’t, I wasn’t able to do anything for you.”
Sato places a weak hand on his shoulder, smiling gently. “I brought this upon you with my selfishness. You have done more than enough. Don’t regret it.”
He wheezes softly, grasping at Rin’s jacket. “I’ve been quite rude, haven’t I? I think I never asked for your name.”
His eyes are tight at the corners, with tear streaks that cut across the dirt and grime on his face. How can he still smile when his eyes are so clearly pained?
“It’s Okumura. Okumura Rin.”
“Okumura-san.” Sato sighs. “Please,” he gasps, “if you can, please forget about me. Forget about this selfish old man.”
His gaze is unfocused as he looks toward the sky, watching the last embers of dusk.
“I think...I have lived a good life,” he admits, bowing his head, “and now, I can live my last moments waiting to see my family on the other side. I’m truly very lucky. Thank you, for staying with me. Please don’t apologize. You have saved me.”
“No, you’re not going to die," Rin protests. "I bet he was talking about something else, maybe someone was going to pay him or there’s, there’s—”
Sato raises a hand, reaching forward slowly. “I’m certain,” he rasps, “you will find your brother soon. May you find him, very, very soon.”
Rin grasps his hand carefully, gritting his teeth as he nods, unable to say anything.
“Okumura-san.” Sato’s face slackens as the light beneath his eyes grows, so radiant that they cast shadows in the dark. “Can you tell me about your brother?”
“Yeah, sure, uh, I can do that.” Rin sniffs, stumbling over his words as he pushes around the fog in his head.
“His name’s Yukio. He, he has a lot of moles, and he’s cool and really smart, and he’s popular too. He works harder than he should and sometimes he has a seriously bad temper, especially when he doesn’t sleep. Uh, but most of the time he’s nice. He nags a lot and it’s way annoying, but he means well most of the time.”
All the things that come to mind seem to be ones he shouldn’t talk about.
“Yukio...worries a lot. He used to be a crybaby. I remember he’d wake me up in the middle of the night because he was scared of the dark.”
As he talks, the sky darkens relentlessly, and the sheen on Sato’s skin spreads and spreads and spreads.
“I got separated from him five years ago,” Rin rambles. “He was, he, we got in a fight, and I—”
The air ripples.
Sato convulses, thrashing, forcing Rin away.
He mouths thank you and the brightness in his body twists. It shifts in a shower of sparks to a brilliant stream, ascending to the sky as a bird with massive wings woven of stolen light.
Rin shields his eyes as the light grows blinding.
What is that?
He’s seen that before. Where has he seen that before?
That bird...looked like one of those seraphim. Did he really see that?
How can this be happening?
The bird rises and rises still, and there is nothing left behind.
Nothing at all.
Rin takes a cautious step forward, sinking to his knees.
He’s met with only deep silence; silence, that is complete, and irrevocable.
It takes him the rest of the day to reach the town he met Sato at.
His limbs are made of sinking, unbending lead as petrifying numbness settles over his shoulders.
It begins to rain.
The momentary relief he feels is suffocated by thick, noxious confusion, like sludge crawling its way into his body.
He sits out under a broken streetlight and stays, unable to move. As the clouds gather, his thoughts are cast afloat by wind like long threads, with the unavoidable tendency to tangle and knot. He slumps there and focuses only on breathing the crisp air in, watching the sky turn colors of turbulent grey.
It bothers him.
The raindrops dot wide uneven ovals on the pavement, staining the gravel darker and darker. Water seeps into the rim of his hood, soaking his hair until it drips steadily in cold drops of refracted light.
He can still smell the smoke.
A pair of boots splatter into the puddle in front of him.
Rin stiffens, clenching his jaw as he tucks his knees closer. He wants to look but his muscles seem to lock in place, paralyzed by a heady, surging wave of nostalgia.
How can this voice sound so much like his?
There are times when we can’t save everyone.
The boots waver, turning away once before stepping forward.
“Did you happen to see a man my age, about this tall, with light hair passing by here? I was told he visited the tavern yesterday.”
His voice sounds so similar.
Don’t make careless promises.
There’s no way.
There’s just no way.
He has never been more terrified of being disappointed.
“I see,” the voice smiles politely. “Sorry for disturbing you.”
As the boots turn to leave, the stranger’s long black coat fans in an arc of rippling, transparent beads of water.
Rin lurches forward.
He lifts his head and the sound of droplets falling around him seems to slow, stretching into an endlessly distant reverberation.
His breath catches in his throat when the person standing before him turns back in disbelief, with rainwater speckled on his glasses and a familiar, painfully familiar face.
Rin stands, nearly crashing into him as he seizes a handful of his coat, tugging hard.
He presses close, quivering as he digs his fingers into the folds of Yukio’s coat, holding on as tightly as he can.
His heart nearly stops when Yukio hugs back. Hot trails of tears rush down his face before he can hold them back, melding with the rain as his thoughts tumble in an agitated mess. The ache in his chest is unbearable and his throat is so tight he can barely breathe between his sobs. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know what to say at all.
I found you. I finally found you after so long. You’re okay. You’re really okay.
I missed you so much.
Yukio is here. He’s really here.
He’s here but he’s so cold. Why is he so cold? Rin pulls back, taking in his flushed cheeks and the redness of his ears. Yukio’s hands are like ice, as though he’d stepped straight out of a snowstorm.
Has he been taking care of himself properly?
“How did you find me?” Rin asks, patting down his shoulders hastily. “I think you lost some weight. Have you been eating properly?”
“Yes,” Yukio replies, sounding dazed, “mostly.” His eyes flit back and forth dizzily, hesitating as he takes a step closer.
“Come on.” Rin grabs his wrist. “Let’s get out of the rain. You’ll catch a cold. I have so much to tell you. Where were you this whole time?”
Yukio stays still.
He says it gently, wearing that painfully worried expression like he always used to.
For a split second, it’s as if they’re thirteen all over again. Thirteen, when Rin would sneak back home with scraped knuckles and a bloody nose late, too late in the night, lugging back bruised pride and anger still simmering hot—shhh, don’t tell the old man, he’s seriously going to lecture my head off—
“Why were you sitting out here?”
His cheeks burn as he pulls Yukio under the awning of an old clothing store to wait out the downpour. He might be soaked already, but Yukio can still stay dry.
Rin runs a hand through his wet hair. “I don’t know,” he says, looking away. “I don’t know why.”
He hates seeing Yukio make that face. It’s one he’s seen too many times, over and over. It’s almost always his fault.
The storm only seems to be growing. Rain slides off the murky olive awning in thin, steady streams like the strings of gliding curtains.
“I'll listen,” Yukio murmurs, "if you want me to."
There’s a dreamlike quality to the way he blends into the rain, to the way he stands so closely beside Rin as though he never left.
They weren't supposed to find each other like this. It's too muddled. Rin was supposed to find him...better.
It’s so selfish.
“I thought I was doing the right thing," he says.
Admitting it hurts, but he can't stop himself. He wants to push it away, to be happy, to wipe it away like an imperfection on glass. The mess inside him is a damp, suffocating burden. He doesn’t want to carry it with him like this, not when he’s finally found Yukio.
He retells Sato’s story in clumsy pieces out of order. The more he tells, the more it feels like he’s going numb, sinking deep into inky black depths.
Rain pelts the awning in soft clic-clic-click-clic patterns. The clouds begin to part slowly, and as they do, the sun shows through, catching on the drizzling rain like thousands of fine needles falling from the sky.
Yukio listens quietly. He shuffles closer partway through the middle, curling and uncurling his icy fingers repeatedly as though trying to reach for something.
Rin fixes his gaze on the water swirling down the drain near the curb when the sun hides back behind its clouds. “He told me,” he swallows dryly, “he told me I saved him.”
If Rin hadn’t taken him there, he wouldn’t have known about his village. He wouldn’t have had to die knowing his family was gone. If Rin had just delivered the letter, it wouldn’t have turned out like this. He’d just sat there, rambling, watching helplessly as Sato’s eyes glowed brighter and brighter.
Yukio doesn’t respond. The longer he waits, the more Rin fears his answer.
It won’t matter. He already knows the words he wants to hear. He’s been saying them to himself over and over, trying to push this fog out.
Wounds have to bleed before they heal, don’t they? He remembers before. He remembers skinning his palms, splitting his knuckles, and scraping his knees. He remembers he was never the type to listen, and he could never quite stop himself from picking at those blackened scabs.
Rin hasn’t had a wound scab over in a long time though.
“I see,” Yukio says eventually. He stretches an arm out from under the awning, letting the small rain droplets fall onto his open palm. “Perhaps his ending seems imperfect because you wanted to prevent his death.” He steps back out into the calm drizzle, waiting a moment for Rin. As he walks, his footsteps are brisk, heedless of puddles spanning the road. “If he said his family was waiting for him, then I’m sure they were.”
“That’s only because he,” Rin falters, coming to a stop, “he was dying. If Sato was still alive, I would have—”
Yukio turns back. A look perilously close to astonishment crosses his features, reminiscent of a sweltering summer years back.
The hair at the base of Rin's neck stands all at once.
Half a second later, it’s gone.
"If he was still alive, he would have found out eventually, regardless of whether you brought him home or not,” Yukio mentions, speaking softly, softer than damp paper fluttering in the wind. "I think you’re already aware of that.” He smiles mildly. “Try to be a little more patient with yourself."
That’s what this feeling was.
He’d nearly forgotten what this was.
Sato told him not to regret it, but what if he’s not sure how to do that?
How long will it take?
Be patient with yourself.
“I’ve never been patient,” Rin grumbles, shoving his hands in his pockets.
He swears he’s read that before on a motivational whatever some time way back when. The fact that it works makes him more annoyed than he’d expect.
“You haven’t changed much, Nii-san.” Yukio touches his back lightly. “I was afraid you would.” The curve of his smile lingers, but it’s lacking in important places.
Rin furrows an eyebrow. “Really?”
There’s a discomforting undercurrent sidled between his words that neither of them wants to touch.
“I know a place we can stay." Yukio lengthens his strides as the wind picks up and the rain returns. “It’s not far from here.” The way he walks is confident, as though he knows the streets well.
Has he been staying here for a while?
They stop sooner than Rin expects, at the entrance of a deteriorated inn with moss-covered bricks and a disturbing amount of graffiti on its door. “Wait here,” Yukio says, barely discernible over the storm. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
Rin watches as he taps on the window of the equally moss-covered convenience store next door, and a woman comes out. They talk for a minute or so before the woman bows neatly at the waist and they both head inside.
He comes back out with a plastic jug and a faded green futon.
“I helped reduce her husband’s dislocated shoulder yesterday." Yukio passes the hefty quilt and futon to Rin. “She offered to let me stay here, but I declined initially since I thought I would leave today.”
It’s unexpectedly clean inside, but there’s definitely a leak from how much water is pooling on the floor. Rin narrowly avoids tripping on the corner of the futon as he follows Yukio up the creaking stairs. “How long have you been here?”
“Not too long,” Yukio replies, setting the jug on the floor. Rin heads down the hallway to check the rooms. It turns out they’re all in similar states of disrepair and there’s really not much to choose from. Still, he flits back and forth indecisively, finally settling on one in the back.
“They’ve been having blackouts all week, so it’s likely we won’t be able to use the lights,” Yukio says, flicking a switch up when Rin wanders in. “Although, I’m certain not many of these are still working either way.”
The room is small but gapingly empty. There’s a faint moldy odor clinging to the air but at least this room doesn’t leak, and it might get better once they air it out. Yukio leaves to search the first floor, so Rin takes the chance to heap his wet clothes in the corner and change.
His socks are becoming threadbare at the heels.
He’s found Yukio now, but he’s never really thought about what to do after. Is he going to find a job? Should he return to the Order?
Where can he go, after this?
The resounding bang of metal falling sends his thoughts scrambling. “Yukio,” he shouts, rushing down the creaky stairs. “What happened?”
As he reaches the bottom, he hears coughing and the grating scrape of a heavy object being dragged across the floor.
Rin stops by one of the doors as another clang rings out and he hears a strained grunt.
What’s going on? Where is he? Is he in trouble—
“Nii-san?” Yukio pokes his head out from one of the rooms at the end of the long hallway. “Can you come help me with this?”
“Oh, uh, yeah,” Rin says, hurrying over. “What do you want me to do?”
Yukio rubs the back of his wrist across his forehead as he stands. “There’s a space heater in here,” he taps the stack of cardboard boxes and plastic totes, “but it’s underneath these other ones.”
Rin scoots a bit closer, admiring the random icons and printed logos of the cardboard. This kind of reminds him of when Yukio was moving out; he packed his stuff up in all kinds of leftover boxes from the supermarket too.
For a moment, he feels placed in a different time, before they separated, before cram school, to those floating, carefree days.
It’s not fair that he wants to stay here forever.
He missed this. He’s really missed this a lot.
“Alright.” He flashes Yukio a bright grin, rolling up his sleeves. “Leave it to me.”
Except, about two totes later, he gets distracted by their contents. It starts with a fancy hand mirror. Rin holds it up to check himself out, and for a moment, he could have sworn he wasn’t reflected. It creeps him out enough that he shoves it right back in.
The majority of the totes hold old appliances. There are tons of electrical cords, some decorations, and odd bits of spilled pencil lead. He also finds three jars of umeboshi that expired a couple years ago, a tragically balding pink feather duster that must have been fluffy before, and two frightfully large patches of black and green mold searching for new territory on the back wall.
There’s a shogi board in one of the closets that Yukio manages to dig out. Neither of them knows how to play decently though, and Yukio maintains that they should put everything back properly.
Rin shuts the totes he opened obediently, but not before he sneaks a swipe with the feather duster up the side of Yukio’s neck. He’s rewarded a soft breathless laugh, more indulgent than amused, and something close to a smile.
“Act your age please, Nii-san.”
Rin shrugs. “I’m still fifteen at the heart. You’re just an old man.” He smirks, giving the pink feathers one last swish before setting it back in the tote.
Yukio doesn’t laugh this time. His features tighten gradually, overtaken by cloudy weariness bit by bit. The silence hangs as he gathers the scattered items with stilted motions, organizing them neatly away. When he finishes, he presses the lid of the tote back on, gazing solemnly at the assortment of scratches in the plastic. “I wasted so much time,” he murmurs, “and now it’s too late.”
Rin’s heart sinks.
“Hey.” He hooks an arm around Yukio’s shoulders. “I get it. We lost those years to the war,” he squeezes firmly, “but we’ve got the rest of our lives, right? Twenty-one is supposed to be awesome.”
Yukio goes very still. He turns with wide, startled eyes but the shadows lurking in the lines of his face are drawn and unreadable.
It’s that look again.
Rin doesn’t know what it is. He’s afraid some part of him has become aware of it, sleeping deep beneath the surface.
He forgot something important.
“Uh, I’m cold,” Rin declares. “Let’s hurry and get the heater going.”
“It is rather cold,” Yukio agrees, straightening his glasses. “I’ll get the kerosene tank.”
They lug the heater outside to add its fuel, and once it’s lit, Rin opens the window so the scent of fresh rain can wander in. The small ring of flame wobbles with an orange flush, shrouding their tiny room in fragile warmth.
Yukio asks him about where he’s been, so Rin spends a while telling him about the fish living in that rice paddy he stayed at and the Order’s displaced persons center that led him to come searching here. Near the end, he feels himself starting to nod off. Rin keeps talking though, until the light filtering through the moth-eaten curtains blurs at the edges and he can barely keep his eyes open.
It’s strange. The mess of his emotions is barely contained inside of him, but Yukio’s presence feels as mild as a lake without a single ripple across its surface.
He’s been searching for so long. It’s disturbing, like he’s still reeling from having stopped too suddenly. There’s a hot, furious restlessness inside him and he’s barely tied down to the ground.
None of this feels like he thought it would.
Yukio, what are you going to do from now?
He wakes in the middle of the night to a muffled keening noise, grasping for wisps of a dream he can’t remember. The window is still open a crack, spilling moonlight in a pale ribbon along the floor.
His head is bleary as he forces himself up.
Rin turns and jumps when he sees Yukio awake. He's just sitting there with the quilt all bundled at his waist, staring at the wall. “What are you doing?” Rin asks incredulously. “Go to sleep.”
Yukio’s gaze is unblinking in the dark.
He always seems to be a little less sharp without his glasses and just a little younger. Rin didn’t notice it during the day, but there’s something absurdly warm about the way he looks. It’s been five years yet he's exactly the same as before.
“I don’t understand,” Yukio mutters. “Why are you here, Nii-san?”
Rin blinks, rubbing an eye as he yawns. “I was looking for you. You know, because...” He yawns again, letting the sentence hang there.
Yukio doesn’t seem to mind. “You still have regrets.” He voices it almost as a question, with a bare sliver of anxiousness at the end.
What’s he going on about?
He sounds tense.
Has he been staying up thinking himself into a hole or something?
Rin runs a hand through his hair. “It’s not like that,” comes out too abruptly. It’s watered-down. Evasive. He doesn’t mean it like that. Why can’t he say it right?
The curtains wave their edges playfully with the wind, sending faint strands of light tumbling across the walls. Rin pads over intending to shut the window, but the breeze is so pleasant he ends up leaving it alone.
He sits back down and stretches his legs out.
Yukio looks troubled.
He needs to do something about this.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Rin asks, keeping his tone level.
“Nothing. It’s fine. I just couldn’t sleep,” is all Yukio says.
It doesn’t sound fine.
“Yeah right.” Rin nudges his foot. “Your eyes are all puffy.”
Yukio’s shoulders twitch slightly. “I was thinking about things, from a while ago.” He shifts, sitting up straighter. “I’m okay now.”
His lips start to lift into that infuriating smile of his, and everything from that night rushes back: the cold glare on Yukio’s glasses, footprints left behind in snow, and the haunting sense of being burned alive.
They’ve been acting like nothing happened.
Rin’s temper tips out of control in a flash, like water hitting hot oil.
He hasn’t forgotten. He knows Yukio hasn’t either.
This is no good.
How many times did he ask to talk before, only to be brushed off?
Yukio didn’t used to smile like that. This one’s plastered on as if Rin can’t tell he’s faking it so hard he can’t even get the look right. They grew up together. Five years is never going to change that.
“Yukio.” Rin snatches his arm, keeping his grip firm to stop him from turning away.
He’ll ask it over and over again, if only to make sure this distance doesn’t stretch any further.
He doesn’t mean to, but those words unfurl from his throat like an accusation, fierce and snared with resentment.
The wavering edges of Yukio’s shadow are long. Sometimes, Rin can’t see his own.
“Listen,” he tries again, taking a deep breath. “I was so busy talking about myself earlier. You haven’t told me anything other than asking weird questions, so I just, I don’t know what’s going on and I can’t help if you keep hiding stuff.”
Yukio looks away.
“Even if I can’t help, I want to know,” Rin presses, tightening his grip. “Can’t you trust me?”
Moonlight paints a stark line across Yukio’s features, and for the first time, Rin sees pain constrained in his eyes.
Yukio’s voice breaks as he clutches stiff fingers into the quilt.
“I want you to leave.”
Rin sits back slowly.
They don’t have to live together.
Yeah. As long as Yukio’s happy. They can call each other and stuff once the phone lines get put back up too. That wouldn’t be bad. That way Rin can call him every time he misses him.
That would be okay.
Just, not right now. He really hopes Yukio doesn’t mean right now.
At least until morning.
Just a little longer.
He smiles as reassuringly as he can. “You’re staying up worrying about that?”
“It’s not—” Yukio exhales harshly, clenching his fists. “Do you understand what you’re saying?”
Rin’s smile fades. Did he say something wrong? He shouldn’t have rushed to answer. Think first, then talk. Think first. “Sorry,” he adds. “After you went missing, I couldn’t stop myself from looking for you, but if you want—”
A chill runs down Rin’s spine.
“I don’t—” Yukio stops, covering one hand over his mouth as though desperately trying to hold the words in. Tears pool at the corners of his eyes as he shakes his head furiously. “It’s not— I don’t want you to leave,” he hunches over, barely gasping breaths out, “but you can’t stay.”
His fingers are still ice as they curl lightly against Rin’s skin. The other hand fisted at his side trembles as he ghosts his thumb across the inside of Rin’s wrist.
“Please,” he sighs harshly, “just leave, Nii-san.”
What is he saying?
Bile rises in Rin’s throat as his thoughts trip over themselves. Before he can stop it, blood rushes to his head in a blinding wave of panic.
“What? Are you half asleep?” Rin demands, shaking him in frustration. “You just said you didn’t want me to leave. Why can’t I stay?”
Yukio reels back.
He draws a sharp breath in, but no words follow. His eyes are unfocused, darting back and forth fretfully.
“Are you honestly telling me you don’t know why?”
Why is he making that face? Why does he look so terrified?
“I don’t,” Rin says resolutely.
He means for it to be comforting.
Yukio clenches his jaw so hard Rin thinks he can hear his teeth grinding. His features are stricken with anguish for the briefest moment, but it’s scraped away all too quickly. What’s left is only exhaustion.
“I see.” He sighs. “You don’t know.” The lines of tension clinging to him fade as he curls in on himself. “Forget what I said.” He grabs the quilt and pushes it at Rin. “You’re right. It was...I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
Outside, the breeze is still soft, still gentle. The night air lulls.
“Just forget about this,” he says, shutting his eyes.
"Wait, Yukio." Rin grits his teeth, reaching forward. "You can’t say stuff like that and expect me to ignore it. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Yukio mutters, pushing his hand away. “Let’s not talk about this.”
How many times has he heard that and let it go?
Some part of him was always afraid of letting things change between them, but he can’t be like that anymore. They’ve been pretending to be the same as before, when everything has already changed.
This time, Rin’s done being afraid.
“You never tell me anything, so how am I supposed to fix what I’m doing? Why can’t you just—”
“Because you’re dead,” Yukio screams, fisting a hand in Rin’s collar. “You don’t even remember, do you?”
What...did he just say?
“Don’t say you’ll fix things,” Yukio chokes out, drawing in on himself as his grip slackens. “You can't fix anything anymore. No matter how much time passes, you’ll never change. You’ll forget more and more, until you forget even the regrets that bound you here.”
Rin barely hears him.
“You can’t stay.”
Why can’t he remember?
He destroyed the gate. When he woke up in the hospital, the war was over.
Then why is there a gap? The gate...was four years before the end of the war.
Where did those four years go?
“But, but I,” Rin stammers, “I’m not dead.”
He grabs Yukio’s hand and squeezes. “I can touch you, and I can bleed, and I, I’m warm. How can I be dead?”
His hand is so cold. How can Rin be the one who’s warm?
Yukio’s eyes shift away, bright with the sheen of tears. He gestures sloppily at Rin’s wrist. “You might be able to see it,” he murmurs, “now that you know.”
Before he even dares to look, his arm feels lighter. There’s something wound around his wrist.
It wasn’t there before.
A thin, flat ribbon has been tied there in messy circles, with enough space to shift back and forth but not enough to slip out of. Rin follows it up, painstakingly tilting his head back, spurred by horrifying curiosity.
It’s a balloon.
He’s seen it from...somewhere.
It’s grey and barely transparent in a way that catches light inside. When he moves his arm, it bobs gently in the air, floating back up leisurely.
This wasn’t here before.
“What, what is this?” Rin asks, unable to keep the tremor out of his voice. “What’s going on?”
Yukio shakes his head, holding a hand to his mouth as he draws in a shuddering breath.
“Talk to me,” Rin demands. “I’m, I’m not dead. I can’t be dead.”
No, no, no. This can’t be happening.
This has to be wrong.
None of this makes any sense.
Yukio twists his hand out of Rin’s grasp. His shoulders hunch in as tears trickle down his face in thin trails, trembling with each breath.
Why isn’t he saying anything?
What does he mean by leave?
How’s Rin supposed to do that? He’s dead? How can he be dead?
He needs to get out of this. How? He doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know anything.
He never knows anything.
Yukio lets out a stifled sob.
Rin sees red.
He claps his hands down on Yukio’s shoulders, yanking him forward. “Tell me what’s going on,” he begs, shaking him roughly as he refuses to meet Rin’s eyes. “Quit crying and explain, will you? What do you mean I’m dead? Why aren’t you saying any—”
He catches sight of the string of the balloon and the memory hits him like a slap in the face.
The gate. He volunteered. His flames worked. The Illuminati came.
He was scared. He was scared of hurting people, scared of being seen as only a demon, and far too scared of losing his humanity.
He wasn’t scared enough of Lucifer.
He got himself killed.
He’s such an idiot.
He made Yukio cry.
What's wrong with him? He was stupid enough to get himself killed, and then he went and forgot about it. He forgot about it, and he had the nerve to make Yukio tell him, as if Rin didn’t already hurt him by dying in the first place. All of this was his fault. He shouldn’t have lost his temper. He shouldn’t have pushed so hard.
All this time, he was so afraid Yukio wouldn’t want to see him.
This is such a mess.
His eyes sting, and before he knows it, they flood with tears, hot and burning with frustration.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. What are you crying for? All of this is your fault. Fix it.
He swipes at his face with his sleeve frantically for a minute, wavering indecisively. This was so much easier when they were younger.
All he gets is a sniffle as a response.
Rin sighs, reaching over to pull him into a hug. “How do you expect me to leave when you’re like this?”
He doesn’t want to leave.
This isn’t fair. He wants more time. He doesn’t ever want to leave.
Yukio sniffles again, shuddering as his breathing turns ragged.
He’s still such an ugly crier.
“Sorry,” Rin whispers, patting his shoulder gingerly. “Next time you really don’t want to talk, just punch me or something. I’m kind of stupid like that, so you have to give me a hard no, okay?”
“Don’t—” Yukio hiccups, shoving his face against Rin’s shirt in embarrassment. Maybe it was supposed to be a snappy comeback. "Don’t say—”
“Okay, okay,” Rin relents, taking pity on him. If he keeps crying, Rin’s not going to be able to hold his own tears in much longer.
The window is still open. If he listens closely, he can hear the light drizzle of rain.
“Hey,” Rin whispers, giving Yukio a soft nudge, “do you remember when we were little, you used to cry all the time? Sometimes in the summer, the old man would juice oranges and you never liked the pulp, but he’d make you drink it anyway. When it was colder, he’d make us both hot chocolate and say, ‘crying is a lot of work too.’ It just made you cry harder though, and I’d end up stealing sips of yours until it was all gone.” Rin forces a laugh. “I was kind of a brat, but you didn’t really want it, did you?”
Yukio shifts, digging an elbow into Rin’s gut before managing to cram his face into the crook of Rin’s neck. He keeps clinging there, letting out soft, hushed gasps as Rin pats his back.
His shirt collar is starting to feel damp. Gross, but Rin pretty much deserves it.
Bringing up the old man probably wasn’t any good, was it?
“You know,” Rin laughs, “when I was wandering around looking for you, I kept thinking about all these things I wanted to tell you, but right now, I can’t come up with anything.”
It’s still dark outside.
He hopes morning will never come.
“Yukio.” Rin pulls him a little closer, breathing in slowly. “Thanks for finding me.” There’s more he wants to say, but he has a feeling they’ll all come out as apologies. He doesn’t want to apologize right now.
The breeze is gentle, and it smells like rain inside.
He shuts his eyes, resting his chin on Yukio’s head.
This is enough.
He can’t be selfish. He can’t be wasting time thinking that it’s not fair. He’s found Yukio. If Yukio’s okay, then Rin’s okay too.
If he can just stay here a little longer, that’s all he’ll ask for.
This is good enough.
The building is on fire.
He can hear the alarms, blinding, flashing white lights and screeching peals, wailing. People push past him, and he edges back. They don’t notice. They don’t stop to ask why he’s going the wrong direction.
The building he’s in is burning. He runs, not outside, but up, searching frantically. The smoke sears his eyes and his ankle hurts so much he nearly can’t breathe, but he keeps running, up and up, trapping himself above the fire.
The ground is gone. He’s high, high up and there’s no way back down.
He’s sweating, and he’s never been so tired. There’s a dull throb starting from his elbow, branching in a pulse out of sync from his own. No matter how he turns his head, he can never see his left arm.
His ears ring as he reaches a door. He pushes and kicks, but the ringing in his ears only grows louder.
The smoke is thick. He can hardly see, but he knows he’s running out of time. He needs to hurry. This door is in the way. He can’t leave without—
“Nii-san.” A hand shakes his shoulder. “Nii-san, wake up.”
He squints, rolling over lazily.
Yukio. He found Yukio, yesterday.
Rin lurches up. “No way.”
It wasn’t a dream.
The balloon’s still there, barely grazing the ceiling.
“Yukio.” He blinks once, combing a hand through his hair sluggishly. “What’s with the balloon?”
Rin waves his arm. “This balloon. It showed up right after you said it would, but I don’t get what’s going on.”
“Actually, what you’re seeing is probably a tether,” Yukio answers without looking up, folding the quilt cleanly. “It typically manifests on the left wrist and is rarely visible to others.” He steps around Rin’s legs and motions insistently at the futon. Rin scoots off and watches blearily as he folds that one too, stacking them on top of each other.
Yukio nods, checking his watch as he slips an arm into his coat. “Sorry for waking you so early. I know you didn’t get much rest last night because of me, but we should get moving soon. Are you feeling alright?”
“Yeah?” Rin stands, stifling the urge to yawn as he pinches a cotton ball off his shirt. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
Yukio turns, handing him his jacket and bag, “You saw the villages nearby, right? I’d rather not be involved in that.”
“Wait,” Rin says, “you mean that’s going to happen here too? They’re sick?” He stumbles over, pulling his coat on hastily. “Can’t we help them somehow?”
Yukio kneels, lacing his boots with stiff, precise motions. He doesn’t answer for a while, and Rin almost doesn’t hear when he responds. “The man you spoke with,” he begins, standing abruptly, “wasn’t entirely correct.” He grabs the quilt and futon swiftly, and steps out into the hallway. “I’ll go ahead and return these. You can take your time to clean up if you need to, Nii-san.”
Rin shrugs the rest of his jacket on, trying to fight the frown edging onto his face. It’s not like there’s anything left to clean. He swings his sword over his shoulder and checks the room one more time before bending to get his boots on.
The balloon follows his movements, but its ribbon is elusive. His fingers only pass through, no matter how he reaches for it. Thinking about it makes his head dizzy with questions he doesn’t want answered.
As he heads down the creaking stairs, he catches bits of the conversation outside.
“I understand, but there’s nothing I can do,” Yukio says. “Even if I were to, I don’t have access to any medication. Please encourage her family to take her to a proper hospital.” He turns slightly as Rin shuts the raspy old door. “My brother is waiting, so if you’ll excuse me—”
“No.” The woman steps forward hastily. “Watanabe-san, please.” She shoots Rin a brief glance before swiveling back to Yukio. “Her family was well-off before the war. I know they will pay you for your time, either way. Think of her grandchildren,” she urges. “They’re still so young. Surely there’s something you can do?”
“I suppose, if you insist.” Yukio takes a step back. “I can’t promise anything though.” He checks his watch and sighs. “Do you mind writing directions to where she lives for me?”
“Absolutely.” The woman smiles with relief, bowing once before rushing back inside the convenience store. She returns just as quickly, with a small slip of paper.
Yukio offers a bland smile back, holding the door open for her.
His face falls flat as it shuts.
“What was she asking for?” Rin asks, falling into step beside him. He heard most of it, but the reluctance on Yukio’s part makes him uneasy.
The slip of paper crinkles crisply as Yukio folds it into his pocket. “Her friend’s mother has been bedridden from a fever since yesterday. She wanted me to help because they can’t afford to take her to the hospital for treatment.”
He slows his strides as they round the corner, glancing back at Rin. “You don’t need to come with me. This won’t take long.”
Rin swallows, shifting his grip on his sword sleeve. “If you’re not going to take long, I don’t mind.”
Yukio hesitates for a moment. “Alright, but don’t do anything unnecessary.” His pace picks up as he leads them up a small hill into a crowded neighborhood with long twisting roads.
Rin still remembers asking around here the day before yesterday. It feels like ages ago.
The house they stop at is a modern-styled one. Yukio knocks on the door and they wait.
The man who opens the door is young, likely in his twenties. “Hiroto-kun.” His features brighten into a fond smile as he pushes the door wide. “It’s so good of you to visit. Come in, come in.”
Yukio dips his head in greeting. “Yamada-san, this is my older brother, Rin. I hope you won’t mind—”
Yamada laughs loudly. “Of course not.” He reaches over and pats Rin on the shoulder. “Welcome, welcome.” He motions to the slippers set out. “I’m Yamada Daisuke, just call me Daisuke, okay?” He beams a squinty smile at Rin. “Do you want anything to drink?”
Rin fumbles his sword through the doorway awkwardly. “Uh, no, it’s alright. I’ll just, just wait here.”
“Don’t be so shy.” Daisuke laughs again. “This one,” he jerks a thumb at Yukio, “still calls me Yamada-san, like I’m an old man. Here, sit down here—”
“Yamada-san,” Yukio interrupts, “I’m afraid we won’t be able to stay for long. If you could show me to your grandmother’s room, I’ll see if there’s anything I can do for her condition.”
“Ah, yeah, sure thing.” Daisuke waves an arm. “Follow me.” He turns and bellows up the stairs, “Hey, Aiko! Get down here and serve some tea!”
Rin sets his bag on the floor and sits on the edge of the living room sofa cautiously as their voices fade down the hallway. This house is nice. It mostly has modest furnishings, but there’s a huge TV gathering dust in the corner and a short bookshelf filled with texts on oddly normal things like Uchiura Bay Marine Life Observation, 101 Art Pieces of Haraya Fumiko, and Techniques for Successful Investments in the Stock Market. A music stand is propped in the corner with a stack of thin books and binders at its foot, bearing foreign names on their spines.
The convenience store lady was right. They were well-off, but these things have no value anymore.
Footsteps pound down the stairs heftily. Rin looks away from the family portrait on the wall just as a woman about his age rushes over.
“Good morning,” she says breezily, busy twisting her hair up into a messy bun. “Sorry about the mess. I didn’t realize we’d have guests over.” She holds up a plastic container. “Is barley tea okay?”
“Yeah.” Rin shoves his hands in his pockets. “Sorry for intruding,” he adds belatedly.
“Oh, hold on.” The woman, Rin forgot her name, sets a tall glass in front of him. “Weren’t you the one who came around yesterday? You’re travelling with Ishikawa-kun now?”
Ishikawa? Wasn’t he using Watanabe earlier? How many fake names does he have?
“Uh, yeah,” Rin replies after a beat, “he’s my brother.”
“Hey, that’s awesome!” The woman smiles. “Good for you! I didn’t even realize your photo was of Ishikawa-kun.” She crosses her legs as she sits across from Rin. “You know, I heard Nii-chan say on the phone that Watanabe-san was going to come but seeing Ishikawa-kun again is surprisingly lucky.”
Rin nods and drinks more tea to avoid responding.
“Anyway,” the woman says, “I really appreciate it. Obaa-chan’s a fighter, but she’s pushing it at eighty-six this year, so her memory’s been going. It’s just me and Nii-chan and her now.”
“Oh,” Rin sets his glass down carefully. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright,” she says lightly. “Everybody’s missing something.”
A door creaks shut.
The woman stands smoothly. “Sounds like they’re done.” She waves a hand at the tea. “Don’t worry about finishing it if you don’t want to. I know it’s kind of boring.”
Yukio is already standing at the entryway with the man from earlier. He smiles politely at a joke the man tells, meeting Rin’s eyes when he comes over.
“Thank you.” The woman beams. “Are you sure you don’t want to stay and sit down for a bit?”
“Yes,” Yukio says, pulling his boots on. “I hate to decline but we’re in a hurry.”
“Hold on.” The man steps forward, keeping the door open. “I really don’t feel right about not paying you.”
“Nii-chan,” the woman hisses disapprovingly, “you idiot, how could you not—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Yukio cuts in. “I hope your grandmother will recover soon.”
“Yes, well, if you’re sure.” The man laughs, rubbing the back of his neck. “We can’t thank you enough.” He bows once more as they step out. “Come visit again sometime. It was good meeting you, Rin-kun.”
“Thanks, you too.” Rin raises a hand to wave, but Yukio is already walking away.
“What’s up with you?” he asks as he catches up, giving Yukio a nudge. “Did you convince them to take her to the hospital or not?”
“No.” Yukio tugs his cuff up smoothly. “There’s no point.”
Rin moves a bit closer. “Why?”
“The glow spreads through water,” Yukio says, motioning down toward the riverbank. “This town lies downstream from a river that runs directly west. When the villages east of it relied too heavily on its water supply, it became contaminated since sanitation measures couldn’t be restored to rural areas after the war.”
The watch on his wrist reflects a beam of harsh, metallic light before slipping back under his sleeve. “At dusk, the eggs will start to hatch. We need to leave before that happens.”
“Eggs?” Rin grabs his elbow. “You know what’s causing the glow?”
“It’s complicated,” Yukio admits, “and either way, it’s not anything we can handle.” He keeps walking, more briskly now, heading out into a wider street. “What people are calling ‘the glow’ is actually characterized as a form of helminth infection similar to schistosomiasis.”
“Wait.” Rin stops walking. “You...you don’t have it, do you?”
Yukio pushes his glasses up. “No, I haven’t been in this area until recently.”
“Don’t worry. I’m fine,” Yukio says, grasping his wrist gently. “Let’s keep moving. I’ll explain as we go.”
Rin shoots him a doubtful look as he follows. “Just give me the short version. That last word you said had way too many syllables. My brain’s going to shut off if I hear it again.”
Yukio’s lips curve into a sliver of a smirk. “What, schistosomiasis?”
“Hey.” Rin smacks his arm. “It’s not funny. You’re trying to leave, but what about the people here? We’re just going to run away?”
Yukio keeps walking, looking pointedly straight ahead. “I’ve already said, it’s too late. I tried to help as soon as I realized, but there were too many that I couldn’t handle it alone.”
He sighs. "Before I explain, do you remember what happened to Aomori Prefecture?”
“Uh, you mean how they sank it?” Rin asks. He wasn’t there but he heard more than enough about what happened. “They screwed up and pissed off the government money bags.”
“That’s right. The Order suffered heavy consequences for its actions,” Yukio agrees, “but it wasn’t a mistake. Destroying Aomori was a calculated step in bringing down the Illuminati.”
Rin furrows his eyebrows. “Really? Aomori was that important?”
Yukio lowers his voice as they enter a crowded road filled with street vendors. “Aomori was the location of the Illuminati’s largest demon farm, partly because it was one of the first areas occupied, and most importantly, because its sustained precipitation was an optimal growth condition for seraphim.”
As Rin moves to take another step, his legs root in place.
Yukio trails on, saying complicated things about freshwater snails that Rin doesn’t manage to catch the end of.
Of all demons.
He grits his teeth as a bead of sweat prickles on his forehead. It’s early in the morning, but the sun is already eye-searingly bright.
His skin feels tight.
He draws in a shallow breath, clenching his fingers around his sword to stop their tremors. “They had a farm to make more of those things?”
What about Sato? What was that about?
“Nii-san?” Yukio reaches a hand over and concern clouds his eyes. “You’re looking a bit pale. Do you want to sit down?”
“You’re,” Rin shoves his arm away, raising his voice, “you’re telling me they—”
“Nii-san,” Yukio says forcefully, wrapping a cold hand around Rin’s wrist. “Be careful.” His voice is pinched with worry as he looks pointedly to the hand Rin has clenched at his side. “Let’s sit down over there. You haven’t eaten anything this morning, have you?”
Blistering heat twists in his gut as he pushes his fingernails into his palm.
It’s too crowded here.
Rin breathes in sharply, averting his gaze as he slowly forces himself to loosen his grip. It’s still too bright. He hates this. He hates losing control. He hates that he nearly forgot.
He hates when the sun is out like this.
Yukio tugs him over to a bench set out near one of the stands and pushes him down firmly.
“Sorry,” Rin mumbles.
It’s over. It’s been over for a long time.
He doesn’t need to feel like this anymore, and he knows that, but he can’t stop himself.
Yukio sits next to him, crossing his legs neatly. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” He says it so effortlessly that Rin doesn’t know whether to believe him or not. “If you can, try to watch your emotions. Sometimes they’ll wear down your tether. Other times, they’ll corrupt.”
He keeps forgetting.
Rin slouches, glaring at the balloon miserably. He’d been ignoring it for a while, but it’s definitely drooping now, hovering at waist level.
This isn’t a dream. This is why he can’t shake the feeling of being lost, no matter where he goes. This is real. He’s running out of time. It scares him deep, deep into his core like ice branching in his lungs.
There’s a brash, raging part of him that wants nothing more than to stay forever. He doesn’t care what happens to him. He can’t be bothered with that anymore. Whatever happens, he’ll fight it, like he always used to.
That’s not enough though.
If he stays, he knows Yukio will never forgive him.
“Hey!” A heavyset woman wearing a garishly flowery apron leans out from her food stand, shaking a fist at them menacingly. “How many times do I have to tell you? These seats are only for customers!”
Yukio stands immediately. “I’m sorry, we’ll—”
“Oh my!” The woman’s wrinkly face splits into a blinding smile. “If it isn’t Haru-chan! Silly me, I’m going blind these days. If you were in town, you should have stopped by earlier. Who’s your friend?” She asks, cooing at Rin. He barely keeps from recoiling as the balloon passes straight through her head. “One second, one second.” She laughs, ducking back behind her stall.
“You know her?” Rin picks up his sword and stands just as she returns, pushing a bulging paper bag into Yukio’s hands.
“Share them with your friend,” she says, patting him adoringly on the arm. “Come now, don’t just stand there. Sit down and take your time, okay?” She swivels around, tossing her apron at the kid sitting in the corner of the stall. “Aki! I’m counting on you!”
Yukio pushes the warm paper bag into Rin’s hands as the woman sits beside him, positively radiating excitement. “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in forever, Haru-chan.”
“Um.” Yukio leans back, nearly squishing Rin off the bench. “Just here and there. How have you been, Iwashita-san?”
“I’ve been perfect.” The old woman laughs, pinching his cheek. “You’re so sweet. How come you don’t visit more often?”
Yukio smiles, motioning to the line in front of the crowded food stand. “You seemed to be busy.”
“No, not at all.” The old woman flaps a hand dismissively at the kid frantically dealing with customers at the stand. “Aki’s just a slacker.”
Rin peeks into the bag curiously. It’s curry bread. He can’t even remember the last time he had one of these. The rich, fragrant scent of spices wafts buoyantly as he folds the bag closed, trying to ignore how his mouth is watering.
“Well.” Yukio’s smile begins to wither as the conversation drags on. “Take care not to overwork yourself.”
The old woman cackles, slapping her knee, “It’s too early for you to be saying that to me. I’m not a day over sixty, and you know, I bet I’ll be running this stand until I’m ninety!”
Rin spaces out as the old woman shifts to badmouthing her neighbors. He hugs the paper bag close, instinctively wanting to keep it warm.
His balloon is still drooping, although it's hovering closer to his head now. Staring at it makes him anxious.
He’ll have to ask Yukio about it again later. The old woman’s still chattering his ear off even though the line in front of her stand is growing longer by the minute.
As he looks around, he catches a little girl staring at him. He waves and she ducks behind her father’s legs.
There are more children running around out here than he would have expected. The market is so colorful and loud, it’s nearly like a festival. It helps that this morning’s weather is sunny, with the breeze carrying the comforting aroma of fried food throughout the street. Across from them, a middle-aged man is selling vegetables. Next to him, two stalls are filled to the brim with clothes and small wood carvings. It’s noisy with all the vendors yelling and babies crying, but he likes that he doesn’t mind.
Maybe it’s because Yukio seems to know a lot of them, and these people are so much more welcoming. It’s unfamiliar to Rin in a good sort of way.
A tap on his shoulder shakes him from his thoughts.
“You should try one,” Yukio says, motioning at the bag Rin has cradled in his lap.
The old woman is already back at her stand, bustling back and forth busily. "I didn't thank her,” Rin realizes as he passes the bag over. It’s quite bulky, and he can’t help but wonder if she’s normally this generous. “You really know a lot of people here,” he adds, watching as Yukio rummages around the bag.
“It probably seems more like that because this town is so small. I only stayed here for a month, about two years ago,” Yukio replies, pulling a napkin out to wrap his bread with. He holds it out to Rin, grimacing as crumbs scatter over his coat.
“It’s good,” he says, when Rin makes no move to take it.
It does smell really good, but he spent too many nights in the slums to let himself take this lightly.
He’s...dead, after all.
“Then,” Rin laughs sheepishly, “you should eat them. It’d just be wasted on me.”
The second the words leave he wants to take them back. Rin opens his mouth to apologize, but he finds that he doesn’t know how to.
Yukio’s face slackens.
He lowers his arm, and the shadows settled at the corners of his eyes deepen, lying stark against his skin. A long moment of silence sinks between them as he sits painfully still, gazing out into the busy street. Rin wavers, scrambling for the right words, when Yukio drops the bread back into the bag with a careless flick of his wrist.
The market is loud with conversation. In the distance, someone is laughing.
Yukio stands. “We’re not far from the next town.” His knuckles whiten around the paper bag. “It’ll be best if we can reach it before it gets hot around noon.” He doesn’t wait for a reply, and he doesn’t look back.
Rin holds in a sigh, cramming his hands in his pockets as he follows a step behind.
He messed up again.
This isn’t right. He can’t be like this.
Maybe, he needs to leave. He’s hurting Yukio. He needs to leave. If he leaves, it’ll be better. Yukio knows a lot of people here and they’re all nice to him. Wherever he goes from here, Rin knows he’ll be okay on his own now.
Before he even finishes the thought, he wants to laugh.
Why did he ever forget? Yukio has always been fine on his own. If he hadn’t been so busy worrying over Rin, he might even have been in college right now, or anything else he wanted. Nothing’s right about this.
At this rate, Rin’s just holding him back.
No matter how much he wants to, he can’t stay here forever.
The area they’re passing through is quiet. As he stops over the bridge, he can feel the crisp wind threading through his hair in a rustling chorus of green leaves. He walks up to the rail, curls his fingers around the cool metal, and peers down into the gushing stream.
He can’t be selfish anymore.
“Hey,” he murmurs, “how much longer do you think I have?”
He feels the metal quiver under his hands as Yukio leans back, facing the other direction with a brooding frown marring his features. It’s fitting, somehow. Rin knew it’d upset him, but he said it anyway.
“Don’t say that,” Yukio mutters. “It’s not even your fault.”
Rin shifts back to watching the stream. The water is clear, frothing in white over the smooth pebbles below like a long twisting cloth. If he listens closely, the trickling, tumbling sound gains motion, racing far away.
“I don’t know what I’m still doing here,” he says, reaching over to pry Yukio’s stiff fingers off the paper bag. “All I remember is, I wanted to find you.”
He doesn’t understand. How is he supposed to let go of his regrets when they still cut deeply after so many years?
I wish I didn’t bother fighting in the war. I should have dropped everything, even if it meant running away. I never meant to hurt you like this.
“I wish I could have found you sooner,” he blurts, squeezing Yukio’s hand, “but it’s too late now, and...and—and, more than anything, I just want us to be brothers again.”
Yukio doesn’t say anything. He won’t even look at Rin.
A pair of puffy birds trill merrily as the rustle of leaves blends with the spray of the stream. Past the bridge, people are walking, sitting, and talking. A row of ants crawls along the chipped concrete, disappearing into the cracks. They’re all perfectly full of life that, for a hateful moment, it fills him with burning, searing resentment.
If he’d never destroyed the gate, he doesn’t know what would have happened. Maybe it could have worked out. Maybe these people could have survived, either way.
Maybe he wouldn’t have turned out like this.
He hangs his head, glancing at the balloon. It’s grey, like the sky. Every time he looks at it, he feels strange. He knows this balloon from somewhere, but he can’t remember. It’s important.
It shouldn’t be here.
“If you’re not going to say anything,” he takes a deep breath, raising his voice, “just tell me how to move on or whatever it is I’m supposed to do already. Then I’ll get out of here, like you wanted.”
Yukio sags against the rail. He levels Rin with a long look before turning away.
That’s not what he wanted to hear.
The paper bag crinkles noisily. Yukio pulls a curry bread out and splits it, holding out half to Rin. “It’s not a waste.”
Rin takes it slowly. The filling’s stingy, and it’s all on this side.
“I know it’s hard for you,” Yukio says, looking down into the stream. “If I was in your position, I don’t know what I would do either.” He pinches off a chunk of his bread and tosses it near a scrawny looking seagull. “I thought about it all last night, and I still don’t have an answer.”
Rin’s chest tightens.
Yukio looks so young. When Rin looks at him for too long, he’s barely sixteen, with flushed cheeks from the cold and windswept hair, standing alone in the snow.
“I know you don’t want to leave,” Yukio tosses another piece of bread, “but I need some time.” His eyes harden, reflecting watery depths. “I’ve done things I don't want you to know. I've done things I can’t forgive myself for.”
Rin opens his mouth, but Yukio beats him to it. “You don’t need to worry for me. I’m taking care of myself. I’ll live a long life. I’ve been trying to help people, and I’ll see what I can do about the glow. Up until now, I’ve been avoiding the police, but if they catch me, I won’t run anymore.”
He nudges his glasses up and straightens his posture. “I want you to leave because I hope that someday, I’ll earn the right to see you again.” He smiles gently. “So, don’t wait here for me.”
It’s not fair. He can’t say stuff like that.
“Stop it,” Rin mumbles, holding back tears as he pulls Yukio into a hug. He can’t cry. He’s not going to cry. He’s definitely not going to cry. That stuff isn’t even real. No one talks about it, even at the Order. It’s way too late for him to believe in that kind of stuff.
Yukio laughs and his hair tickles Rin’s face. “You’ll get to see Tou-san first. I’m jealous.”
“Yeah,” Rin says, cringing as his voice gets all nasal. “Yeah.” He sniffs. “Right, you haven’t even met Kaa-chan. She’s awesome, and you better believe she’ll kick your butt if you don’t live to a hundred.”
Yukio twitches, but he doesn’t ask about it like Rin thought he would. “That’s…” He laughs again, deflating slightly. “I think a hundred is a bit of a stretch.”
“Shut up.” Rin slaps him on the back. “You used to get a hundred on your tests all the time. It’s your own fault for setting the standard so high.”
“Okay,” Yukio says. “I’ll try.” He pulls away reluctantly, grasping Rin’s hand. His lips set into a troubled line. “If you have regrets, let me help. Tell me what you want.”
Of course, he still has regrets, but they're not so simple. They're different from the way he was worried for Yukio. They’re regrets because he can’t do anything for them anymore. He knows those ones will have to scab over, regardless of how long it'll take.
This is okay.
Yukio will definitely be okay, so Rin can’t let him worry anymore. He wants to spend these last few days without these burdens, just a little longer.
"No." Rin shakes his head, trying to ignore the way his vision is blurring. “I don’t. I don’t want anything else.”
A flock of birds with dark wings escape to the sky.
The paper bag falls to the ground.
“I’m surprised.” Yukio laughs, checking his watch. “You really didn’t notice.”
The hair on the back of Rin’s neck stands as he takes a step back.
Something is off with him. Something is very, very off.
“I gave you a lot of hints too.” Yukio sighs, spreading his hands. “Such a pity.” He waves a hand, gesturing for Rin to follow as he walks across the bridge. “Thankfully, there’s not much leftover time to kill.”
“Yukio.” Rin grips his sword. “What’s up you? What's wrong?”
“Oh, I’m not your brother,” Yukio smiles pleasantly, “but please, don’t be alarmed—”
“Satan,” Rin hisses. “Are you Satan?”
He’s not though. Rin knows that. That crazy bastard would never be this calm.
“No, of course not.” Yukio trails a hand along the rail leisurely, taking a seat on the grassy bank of the stream. “Not even close. I’ll admit, I’m rather flattered to be mistaken for him though.” He brightens. “If you listen to me carefully, I’ll give you a reward.”
“I don’t need it!” Rin snarls. “Get out of him!”
“Well, he was never here in the first place.”
“As if!” Rin bristles, fighting the urge to draw his sword. “Who are you?”
“You should know who I am.” Yukio pats the ground next to him. “Have a seat.”
The people around them carry on with their conversations, walking around obliviously. He can’t possibly fight here.
Rin has barely sat down when Yukio reaches over and pulls on his balloon.
The balloon that Rin couldn’t even touch.
“Like I said,” he releases the ribbon carefully, “you should know who I am.”
Rin whacks his hand away and immediately regrets it. That’s Yukio’s hand. “I don’t know,” he says. “If you’re going to tell me, just spit it out already.”
The demon sighs. “There are rules about this though. I’m not allowed to tell you, but I can give you fairly obvious hints. Let’s start like this. You are…what?” He trails off expectantly, wheeling his hand in circles.
Rin frowns. “What?”
“Your current status,” he adds patiently. “Okumura Rin, age 19, and currently…”
“What? I don’t get it.”
“My bad.” The demon waves a hand dismissively. “Let’s start over. This grass is alive. You are…”
“Dead? Is that it?”
“Yes, yes, very good.” The demon smiles. “Now, you’re deceased, and I’m here to take you away. In this case, I am…”
Rin glares in frustration. “Alive?”
“This is terribly inconvenient." The demon pinches his nose bridge. "I really must apologize.”
For some reason, he recalls Sato’s words in eerie clarity. At nightfall in three days, I will receive my payment.
No, that can’t be right.
He said he was here to take Rin away.
Take him away.
“You’re,” Rin stammers, “you’re Death.”
The demon smiles. “Very good.”
No, no, no, this is bad.
“Wait, wait, hold up.” Rin backs away. “I don’t want to leave yet. I’m not going with you.”
“Please,” the demon says, “I know you’re stressed, but I promise I’m very nice and patient. Death is a faithful servant of time, after all. Let’s not talk like I’m abducting—”
“I don’t care if you’re Death or whatever.” Rin snatches his shirt collar, yanking roughly. “You’re still a demon. Why are you in Yukio? Get out,” he demands. “Get out of him, now.”
Death raises a hand daintily. “Relax. I have good news for you. Besides, I’m not possessing your brother. I simply look like him because you want to see him. My appearance adjusts depending on my beholder. It's the only redeeming quality of this job, because honestly, my true form doesn’t even have eyebrows.”
He smiles, the right one, the real one, Yukio’s smile and Rin feels an involuntary rush of warmth.
“Stop it.” Rin shoves him away, wiping his hand on his pants. “I don’t want to move on yet. I don’t care who you are. I’m not going anywhere.”
Death clicks his tongue. “You said you didn’t have regrets anymore.”
Near the end, when Yukio asked him if he wanted anything else…
“I didn’t mean that.” Rin grits his teeth. “Yukio was looking all worried—”
“That’s fine.” Death shrugs. “I’m not picky.” He reaches up to fix his collar. “Anyway, don’t worry about it. You happen to be in quite the unique position to do me a favor. Once you’re finished, you can see him again.”
Rin glares at him warily. “What’s the favor?”
The corner of Death’s lip lifts, as though he’s already won. “Before that, we should clear up your misunderstanding. I lost a bet, and I’m simply fulfilling my end of the deal. If you’re in a hurry, don't interrupt me. Is that reasonable?”
“Splendid.” He gestures to the balloon. “First off, let’s be rigorous with our definitions. You’re not a ghost. You are, for all intents and purposes, Okumura Rin.”
Rin opens his mouth and shuts it, biting the inside of his cheek. He’s not a ghost?
Death makes a smug expression. “Your heritage is actually quite complicated and I’d like to get into all the details but they’d go over your head, so let’s put it bluntly and call you a...half of a spirit. Azazel’s blood does nothing but obfuscate things.”
He crosses his arms. “Because of that, when you died, you became a bit of a problem. Your status as a progeny of Satan should entitle you to immortality, and by procedure, your soul must return to Gehenna. Unfortunately, they sealed your ashes; therefore, you were bound to Assiah and rendered incapable of taking a new vessel.” He smiles. “Do things make sense so far?”
“Sure,” Rin mutters. Everything about this guy rubs him the wrong way. “Just get to the point already.”
“Be patient.” Death carries on anyway. “The issue is, souls are slippery things. They naturally want to go places, especially when they have regrets, like you do. Whether it was Azazel’s influence or something else in your lineage, I have no idea. Regardless, your human side managed to squeeze its way out of the box and now you’re down half a soul, wandering places you really can’t be wandering."
He steeples his hands. "Naturally, when I tracked you down, I meant to have you cross properly. However, someone has a bit of interest invested in you. We made a bet to kill time—oh, excuse me, that was quite inappropriate. The bet was over if you’d realize I was fabricated before I could get you to move on.” He sighs. “Unfortunately, I overestimated your capabilities. Now, if you want to go back to being alive, I’m willing to let you. Do you want to?”
Rin takes a shallow breath. “You expect me to believe that? I was, Yukio was—”
“You saw what you wanted to see.” Death grins. “Don’t ask how. Those are trade secrets. To your credit, you did notice the incongruity, but simply failed to attribute it correctly.”
He pats the side of his cheek. “After all, the Okumura Yukio you’re searching for can’t be found anymore. You thought so yourself, didn’t you?”
Rin slowly follows his gaze.
He’s...wearing the coat. The long, black coat that Rin had recognized immediately, that he couldn’t possibly be wearing anymore. The Order’s coat.
Was he seriously wearing that the whole time?
No. There has to be some mistake. This isn’t right. This can’t be right—
“I must say, he’s in quite a bit of trouble right now.” Death taps his watch. “Okumura Yukio, I mean. Ten minutes, give or take a few.”
“What do you mean?”
“You ought to worry for yourself first,” Death says. “If you’re stuck here, you’re no help to him, are you?”
None of this makes any sense.
First, he finds out he’s dead. Then this demon shows up and tells him Yukio wasn’t Yukio all along, but he’s somehow in trouble, and Rin’s not dead dead, but only sort of half dead, and if he does something he can be not dead if—
Rin furrows his eyebrows. “Who’d you bet with?”
“You’ll have to guess,” Death drawls. “Anyway, I’ll even provide motivation. Aside from your...mishap this time, your current lifetime doesn’t have restrictions placed on it. Depending on when your ashes are released, it could take centuries before you step foot in Assiah again. If you accept my offer, you’ll be bound to a mortal lifespan, but you'll be able to return immediately.”
A chill runs down his spine.
He doesn’t get what’s going on anymore, and he’s so confused he can’t even think straight. He needs to get out of here. If this is a dream, he seriously needs to hurry and wake up.
If it’s not a dream, he can’t afford to mess this up.
“I don’t trust you."
"You don’t have to,” Death offers, “if you want to stay here.”
"No," Rin snaps. "I have to go back now." He doesn’t know what’s going on, but if Yukio’s in danger, he can’t stand around here.
"Not bad," Death says, reaching over to pat Rin on the shoulder. “I must say I appreciate your prompt response, so I’ll go easy on you. If you can answer a question of mine correctly, I’ll let you be on your way.”
Rin shoves his hand off. “Just one? That’s it?”
Death nods. “Like I said, I lost the bet. You’ve earned a second chance, for better or for worse. Besides, I’m not the one you were meant to find.” He sticks out his pinky and thumb, holding his hand up like a phone. “Someone is calling you.”
“Nothing, nothing.” Death smirks. “I just wanted to try saying it once. Now.” He tugs on the ribbon of the balloon, pulling it to eye-level. “Tell me, what color is this?”
Rin balks. “That’s your question?”
Death smiles. “I suggest you consider carefully before answering.”
Rin squints at the balloon, wrinkling his nose. It’s grey. Does grey count as a color? Is this a trick question? What happens if he answers wrong?
“I’m a little worried for you, to be honest.” Death smooths a hand down his front. “You didn’t even notice how obvious this was.” His hands linger at the Order’s fancy brooch before pulling it out and rolling it between his fingers. “If you’re not careful, that inattention will be your downfall someday.”
He raises his arm, points the sharp end of the pin, and swings down—
Rin wrenches his arm back, swatting the brooch out of his hand. “What do you think you’re doing?” He glances back at the balloon frantically, breathing in relief as it hovers into view.
“My bad.” Death lifts his hands placatingly. “That was impolite.”
Rin backs away, raising his sword. “Do that again and I swear I’ll—I’ll...”
“Why is this so important to you?” Death asks, curling his fingers in the ribbon. “I told you it was a tether, but that’s not why. It was important, even before that.”
Rin lowers his sword, clenching his hands into fists.
He can’t remember.
It’s important though.
This balloon...isn’t his.
It’s not supposed to be here.
“Why are you helping me?” Rin demands. “What are you trying to do?”
Death spreads his hands. “Like I said, I’m nice,” he smiles, “and patient.” He nods at the balloon. “Don’t lose focus. You’re almost there.” He taps his watch again.
Rin squeezes his eyes shut, fighting the rising panic in his chest.
Why does he have a balloon? It’s not his.
Think, think, think.
His was yellow.
Why does he know that?
There was one time, when they were younger, they went to a carnival.
The old man got them balloons at the carnival. Yukio’s balloon was grey. It was grey, like the sky, on cloudless summer days.
This is Yukio’s balloon.
No, that can’t be right. No one gives out grey balloons.
There were lots of people. They were supposed to stay together. Rin was...he was excited, and he got lost. There were tons of people, so much taller than he was. When he looked up, he could barely see over their heads, but above the crowd there was just one thing he could see.
There was a balloon, high up against the bright lights. He saw it and he felt so relieved because he knew Yukio was there, and his balloon was grey.
Yukio’s balloon was—
Yukio’s balloon was blue.
He opens his eyes to flames, to familiar, raw blue like the sky in its crudest form. They climb up his arm, race up the ribbon, and nestle inside the balloon, bright, warm, and complete.
He’s finally whole.
“Congratulations.” Death claps his hands twice. “Now, I said I’d give you a reward, so let me see your sword.”
“It’s fine,” Rin protests, backing away. “Just let me go already.”
“I’m not letting you go just to see you again,” Death checks his watch, “two minutes later. Give it here.”
Rin tosses the sleeve onto the grass, handing it over grudgingly.
Death unsheathes the sword. “Hold out your hand.”
He brings the edge of the blade across Rin’s arm without hesitation, drawing a thin line of blood. "Okumura Rin, I hereby strip you of your immortality.”
“What are you doing?” Rin blurts, grabbing his hand as he moves to sheathe the blade. “Wipe it off—”
“In exchange, I burden you with the right to fell another.” Death holds the sword out. “An immortal for an immortal. Choose wisely.”
Rin swallows dryly as he takes the sword, unable to look away from the cut on his arm. It stings. It’s still here.
It’s still here.
“I’ll see you again someday.” Death smiles, pushing him forward.
“Until then,” he gestures to the bridge, “may the sun warm your wings, and the sacred fires stay lit on your path home.”