Chapter 1: Apogee
Hello! Just letting you know again, this has spoilers for the manga up to chapter 120.
Also, there are additional warnings in the end notes, if you're interested.
Thanks and I hope you'll like this!! :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Rain coats the pavement; it coats windows and paints the intersection full of cars with ugly, eye-searing colors of blue and white and most of all, red.
An ambulance whines away. Crowds of people stop to stare at the gruesome mess of car frames in front of the bank, contorted like crushed aluminum cans.
So much for thinking the rainy night would serve as a good cover. He needs to hurry and leave. Their attention might be drawn for now, but he can’t risk the police recognizing him—not now.
He’d never anticipated that another group would target the armored truck’s exchange point. His only choice had been to take advantage of the chaos and snatch away one case of crystals while they were preoccupied with dispatching the guards.
If he’d been one step faster, he could have left with both cases.
He needs that other case.
Yukio nudges his glasses, pulls his hood up and keeps his focus on the stark white stripes as he steps past the patrol car, breathing in the foul stench of car exhaust. His plastic bags rustle as he crosses, slick with water. As he passes the convenience store, he picks a newspaper from the stack, rolling it into his bag.
Yukio stops short as a gloved hand touches his shoulder. The officer steps close, furrowing his eyebrows. “What happened to your eye?”
“A bit of an infection. Can I help you?” Yukio asks, keeping his smile bland and his hands still.
“Do you mind coming to the station for a quick statement?”
The rain pours, it drains along the curb, it dances gleefully on the plastic tarp of the convenience store with a tap-tap-tap-thud, and it roars in his ears for the fraction of a second like thunder, choked and suffocating.
“Not at all.” Yukio smiles. Whether the request is truly so simple, he doesn’t know. Perhaps hiding an eye isn’t so uncommon, and this officer is particularly inept at recognizing faces.
The officer nods and turns, pulling the car door wide. “Thanks.”
Yukio doesn’t move. “Of course, it’s no problem.” He watches as the man leaves the passenger door open, reaching for the driver’s. “Oh, officer,” he adds, “someone’s left a phone in here.”
“Really?” The man frowns. “Where? I don’t see anything.” He puts a hand down on the seat and leans his head in.
“It’s under the seat,” Yukio replies, taking a step back. “The case is black.” Another step back. “Look closely.” One more.
“What are you talking about? I don’t see anything—”
The rain sings, syncopated against the tap-thud-tap-thud of his errant footsteps as he slips away. He’s on the other side of the street by the time he sees the officer stand, turning in circles.
The crowd helps, but it seems it’s insufficient.
“Hey! Stop him! Someone stop him!”
Interestingly enough, the people in his vicinity give him a wide berth in response. It cages him in but keeps the officer away by a wall of pedestrians with nothing better to waste their spare time on.
Yukio takes a breath and drops to one knee, slamming his hand against the sewer lid. There’s this much water around him after all. Why not make use of it? He likes to think his naiads answer him better because he’s become more skilled, not because they have a penchant for petty chaos.
A wave of putrid, contaminated water heeds his call and spews into the street, rising up to his calves. The crowd falls to disorder, buying him the moment he needs to strip off his jacket and stuff it into one of his bags. From there he plays his role, stomping and scrambling in the sewer water, melding into the rush of people.
It’s sloppier than he would have liked, but he’s not so picky about methods anymore.
It figures that his careless maneuver would only buy him two days before he was spotted again.
This time though, they were after him specifically. At least none of them have dared to try shooting him in fear of damaging the crystals. Like before, there is rain. Less fortunately, he’s in no condition to make use of it, with a sprained ankle and a raging fever gnawing at any coherent thought he manages to dredge up.
It’s all rather pathetic, in his opinion. From what he knows, the Illuminati struck north of Ukraine nearly two years ago, just after the gate was destroyed. Having lost control of its surrounding territories, the Order was forced to abandon the crypt preserving Armumahel’s crystallization. The loss was disastrous, leaving them with significantly diminished means to produce holy water and weapons. Since then, their supply of crystals has only dwindled, so much that these fragments as small as his fingernails are worth more than ever.
On the other hand, the Illuminati only gained more ground, using their new resources to advance their war effort without hesitation.
Harsh barking breaks through the haze in his head. He can tell he’s being worn down, driven into a corner.
The rain slows as he reaches several streets away. Yukio throws himself behind a store’s collection of cardboard boxes, waiting to be broken down and recycled. He counts his breaths slowly, leaning his head back against the rough bricks.
He’s not certain if there’s a moon tonight. He hasn’t checked for a while.
The air is thin and his eye aches, throbbing deep in the back of his head.
A soft creak snaps him to attention, and by the time the store’s back door is fully open, he’s out of the alley, brushing wet hair away from his face.
They have tracking dogs. He needs to get away, as far as possible, yet the city borders are bound to be tightly monitored. At this rate, he’s likely to pass out from exhaustion before anything else.
His footsteps scrape against the rough gravel as he limps past an alleyway. He hears the rush of furious water, heavy and burdened.
He’s found the river, or perhaps it has found him.
Experience has taught him water doesn’t erase scent well. He doesn’t know what kind of dogs the Illuminati has bred, but they’ve always caught up to him once he got out of the water. If only there was some vehicle he could sneak on, or even a bicycle he could steal, because outrunning them is clearly no longer an option.
Yukio clenches his jaw as he plunges a foot into the bloated river, fighting to keep moving as his muscles seize. If he stands around here, he’ll be discovered. At least the river can carry his tracks away.
The frigid water is deeper than he expected. It sets his teeth chattering in minutes as he sloshes along the muddy bank, tripping his way over to hide beneath a tall highway bridge.
He’s not certain if the barking he hears is a product of his delirium, or rampant paranoia. Even the concrete wall feels warm at this point.
Their lab is here. It must be here, or the crystals would be cold, like before. He can't be wrong, can't afford to be, at this point. It took too long just to get into Gotemba. He can’t leave without having accomplished anything. Not when he’s so close.
The soft grind of pebbles sends hair on the back of his neck standing as Yukio lunges to his feet, sighting instinctively at the source of sound. His gun’s weight is too light, far too light to stop the tremors running down his arm as he aligns the barrel. The sudden movement proves to be too much, and he staggers, bracing his other arm against the wall.
“Whoa, chill,” an airy voice mumbles. “I mean, you’re out of bullets anyway, aren’t you?”
Yukio fights the urge to take a step back, gritting his teeth to stop their chattering. “We’ll see.”
“Nope, you’re definitely out,” the voice announces gleefully. “You wouldn’t be keeping so close to the river otherwise. Couple days ago, too. That...sewage issue at the bank.” Yukio tenses as the footsteps approach. “Ah, come on, just two years and you don’t recognize me? Okumura-sensei?”
“Shima,” Yukio seethes, tightening stiff fingers around his pistol. “If you mean to stop me here, I will kill you. Step aside.”
Shima laughs, and the river is deafening beside them. “As much as I’d like to see you try,” he whispers, scarcely an arm’s-length away, “my newest employer is a demanding one, you know.”
He smiles and withdraws a letter, gilded and gleaming, with a beautifully embossed green seal.
Yukio doesn’t recognize it, but he knows the light, curling and delicate handwriting on its expensive envelope. Yuki-chan, it says, painfully familiar and inappropriate. “Shi- the Shemihaza,” he manages, letting disbelief bleed into his tone freely, “hired you?”
Shima gives a noncommittal hum, running a hand through his dry brown hair. “Let’s hurry this up. Here.” He passes a duffel bag over. “In there’s two spares of clothing. Once you've changed, we’ll ditch yours someplace rude to throw them off. From there, I’ll cover you until we make it to the border.”
Yukio watches warily as Shima removes a sleek canister from the duffel. “Shut your eyes,” he orders, shaking the can vigorously. “It’ll keep the dogs off your scent for a day.” The gas is odorless but leaves odd white streaks across his skin that itch faintly. It makes him want to wash it off.
“I can’t get you out of the city,” Shima continues. “You’ll have to figure that one out yourself, because,” he motions to his uniform vaguely, “you know.”
“Fine,” Yukio snaps. “What else?”
Shima grimaces. “Once you’re out, head north to Kawasaki’s red-light district near the old Chinatown. I’ll meet you there, and you’ll be able to recover at a safehouse she organized—”
“Why?” Yukio demands. "Why did she hire you?”
“Read the letter.” Shima smirks. “I sent them off in the wrong direction earlier, but we better hurry.”
“I refuse.” The evening air is cold, but his blood is on fire. It writhes and boils. He knows what her offer is, just as much as he knows he can’t drag Shima into this.
“She owes me nothing, and I have no right to accept.”
Shima raises an umbrella and steps out into the river. “That’s quite a look in your eyes, Sensei. Are you telling me you’re not even going to consider it?”
There is a moon tonight. It’s full and arrogant, and its face is broad, scattering light like a crass spotlight. “Wow.” Shima laughs. “Aren’t you brave? Come on,” he scoffs, “just make my job a little easier? Let’s go already.”
“I can’t leave yet.”
Shima rolls his eyes. “You’re a wreck and you still want to stay in Gotemba? Our base is right there,” he mocks. “Right there.” He points, straight down into the valley.
If he goes along, he could get treatment for his ankle. He could search more effectively, without fatigue wearing him down. He could rest. Sleep.
He could finally apologize to her.
Yukio reaches into the duffel and pockets a pack of magazines. He can't justify needing anything else, least of all, her protection. If he allows himself to falter now, he’ll lose his nerve.
He can’t ask her to risk her position for his sake. His gamble has just begun and he's already running out of time.
“I refuse,” Yukio repeats. “Let her know, I’m not worthy of her forgiveness yet.” He turns away but Shima snatches a fistful of his jacket, wrenching an arm back.
“I warned you before," he hisses, eyes hardening with frustration. “Those fragments attract because the emperor still lives."
An uncertain light reflected by the river casts their shadows closer, irreconcilable by a mere hair's breadth. Yukio watches impassively as Shima's raised fist shakes, poised for a blow that doesn’t come.
“Don’t underestimate what carrying those is doing to you.”
He does make it out of the city eventually, squeezed between sacks of rice on a cargo ship. It takes him a day after crossing the border to make sure he wasn’t followed. Perhaps Shima played some part in ensuring that.
It feels like defeat.
He’s irritated enough to spitefully ignore the letter.
His fever comes and goes but his ankle is only getting worse. The heavy bruise means he’s likely torn a ligament, and the makeshift wrap he has applied isn’t helping much. At best, the recovery will take a month if he manages to get treatment. At worst, he could end up with chronic pain and perhaps even permanently compromised range of motion.
It’s been wearing on his nerves for too long. He needs to be able to run, more than anything right now.
There’s a bus stopped up ahead. He pays with quiet, wet bills and rides until the last stop. The rest of the way is a short walk, deep in the strings of red bulbs and tasteless distortions of music. He pulls his hood up tighter and ignores the waves he gets as he passes several establishments. Each is rank with the thickness of sweat and other nauseating bodily fluids.
The temperature at night is dropping quicker as the solstice approaches. Tiny, prickling chills pull at his muscles as he feels his fever in each foggy breath, pounding in the back of his eye. He desperately needs to sleep.
The road he's following branches up ahead. The smaller path leads to an abandoned subway tunnel, with boarded up gates that appear to have been recently broken into. Small splinters of wooden planks lay scattered all over the muddy entrance.
It’s likely occupied. He needs to find somewhere else. It's too risky, even if the dusty footprints leading out are dry.
Exhaustion makes the decision for him as he drags his feet inside the dark tunnel.
It’s a water-logged place, with stale air and mold filling the cracks. He waves a couple of coal tars away from his eye as he wanders in, keeping a hand on the damp wall. Water trickles from the low ceiling in thin drops, reflecting pale light as they fall. The rhythm is slow, creeping around the corners of his consciousness.
A sudden splash sounds to his left. Yukio swivels, gritting his teeth as his vision wavers. Inside the tunnel, it's cramped and tight. The series of splashes are agile and quick, spinning in a dizzy circle he can’t discern clearly. There’s no room for a fight, and he’ll be disadvantaged in the dark, without a suitable weapon to defend himself.
Before he can finish the thought, he hears a click, followed by a dull whistle. It’s distinct; a switchblade, with a gleaming edge even in the darkness of the tunnel.
His bag lands with a heavy splash. Yukio pivots on his good leg, slamming the stranger’s wrist against the wall as hard as he can. He’s too weak though, wasting precious seconds failing to pry the knife from stubborn fingers.
Yukio’s taller and heavier but he’s also slow. The knife whistles again, and Yukio lands on his injured ankle by mistake, crumpling to his knees. The next second, a messy blow to the jaw has his head spinning, and then it's all too late.
He sees darkness bleed into his vision with strangled fear, fighting to stay awake. The last moment before he blacks out, devastating confusion warms his blood as he meets deep red eyes he thinks he recognizes.
Yukio wakes with an uncomfortably tight stiffness to his clothes. They probably dried as he was passed out. He rolls his neck and blinks twice, staring at the spritely orange fire in front of him. Even with the heat from this fire, it would have taken several hours for his clothing to dry completely. He's been here for a while but it's still dark outside, which means less than six hours.
The inside of his mouth is dry and smoke from the fire stings his uncovered eye. His throat aches sharply and the acrid taste of blood hits him as he runs his tongue over his teeth. When he sits up, he becomes abruptly aware of the dull pain in his jaw, and the events come back to him with rushed clarity.
His wrists have been restrained, tied behind his back with something thin, perhaps a zip tie of some sort. There’s nothing holding his legs still, but the best he can do is hobble with the state his ankle is in.
As he struggles into a sitting position to look around the room, another problem quickly becomes clear. His glasses are gone, although the bandages over his eye haven’t been removed. Perhaps his glasses fell off during the scuffle. He’s not sure he would have noticed, given how feverish he’d been.
A harsh cough draws Yukio’s attention. As he turns, a loud clatter sounds in the tunnel and he’s met with the barrel of a gun—his gun. The firelight glints golden off the worn edge, reflected off countless fine scratches. “Where are the crystals?”
“Please,” Yukio mumbles, swallowing dryly. “I’d be much—”
“Don’t move!” the blurry face in front of him interrupts. She shoves the gun closer. “Where are the crystals you stole?”
“Why do you need them?” Yukio asks, watching her hands tremble minutely. Now that he’s had time to look around, it seems he’s still in the tunnel. This girl is taller than the person he fought before. She’s alone right now, which means if he’s going to escape—
“Tsuji,” a rough voice croaks, “don’t antagonize him.”
Yukio shifts, trying to peer in the direction of the voice. There's a man sitting on the other side of the small fire. Something is bothering Yukio about the way his voice sounds. Perhaps it’s the Kansai dialect.
The girl—Tsuji, Yukio assumes—sets the gun aside, rushing over. “Senpai! How do you feel? Do you need water? What about something to eat?”
The gun is close, just about half a meter away.
“I’m getting better,” the man rasps. “We can’t stay here much longer. Where’s Kamiki?”
“She left to get gas a while ago. What are we going to do with him? We need—”
The man coughs wetly, doubling over. “He won’t tell us so easily.”
Footsteps splash near the tunnel entrance, racing toward them.
Tsuji scrambles to her feet but stops when the intruder’s silhouette becomes discernible. “Kamiki-senpai,” she says in relief, “Suguro-senpai just woke up—”
The newcomer approaches the fire, sweeping long dark hair over her shoulder as she snatches the gun off the ground. “What did I tell you about leaving weapons unattended?”
Red eyes, long hair, Kansai dialect…
Yukio stops listening.
How did it take him this long to recognize them? First Shima, now Kamiki and Suguro. Was three years so long that he nearly forgot their names?
Kamiki sighs. “Can you walk?”
Yukio raises his head, momentarily disoriented. “I beg your pardon?”
“Can you walk?” Kamiki repeats. Her face is impassive as she grasps Yukio’s forearm, whipping out her switchblade to cut the zip tie.
Yukio swallows, getting to his feet. “I suppose so.”
Kamiki nods sharply. “Tsuji, pack up. We're taking him with us.” She shoulders Yukio’s bag, picking up the gun and handing it to Suguro. “How are you feeling?”
“Better,” Suguro says, staggering as he stands. “You have the box with you?”
Kamiki straps another backpack on, wincing as she smooths the tape around her wrist. “Right here. I’ll drive first, and we can switch in the middle.” She turns, leveling Yukio with a frown. “Tsuji, keep an eye on him.”
“Where are you heading?” Yukio asks as they step out of the tunnel. The moon is bright and full, soaking the evening in a cool glow that seems to make every edge blur.
“Give us your crystals and we’ll let you go,” Kamiki replies, not even bothering to turn around to listen for his answer.
The night is cold, especially since the van they’re in had lost its windows sometime before, along with its passenger seats. Yukio sits, squished between Suguro and Kamiki and huge plastic totes, trying to stop his shivering. Tsuji drives fast, with sharp turns and swaying lane changes that send his stomach roiling. His chest is tight, and his eye throbs dully, with an agitated pulse of its own.
Suguro coughs, intense trembles wracking his frame. Yukio staunchly ignores him and pretends to keep sleeping.
There are medical supplies in his bag but the majority of them are for first aid. He does not know what Suguro has, and he sincerely hopes he doesn’t make it worse with the flu he’s been carrying.
The silence is disquieting though, with only pained coughs to punctuate the low creaks and roaring wind.
“Here.” Kamiki tosses a nutrition bar at each of them, tearing her own open with her teeth as she rummages around one of the plastic totes. “Why is the only food in here protein bars?” She wrinkles her nose, squinting at the label of some brick bar and throwing it back in.
Yukio gives up feigning sleep in favor of nibbling his protein bar. His head hurts. It doesn’t help that the bar is atrociously dry and generally inedible.
Suguro sighs, accepting a water bottle thrown his way. “Leave it, Kamiki. Stop using your arm so much.” His trembling has settled for now, it seems. From how warm he feels next to Yukio, it’s likely he’s running a fever as well. Suguro’s face is sallow, with obvious signs of weight-loss. His breaths rattle softly between each cough, assaulted at relentless intervals.
“Why do you need the crystals?” Yukio asks.
Kamiki shrugs. “They didn’t tell us.”
Yukio shuts his eyes tightly. Lethargy melds into his limbs, draping over his body like a blanket of snow. The longer he stays in their presence, the starker the reminder is, of what—who—is missing.
Just how much longer does he need to search?
He’s frightened, frightened more than anything that he’ll run out of strength like this. He’s frightened he’ll give up someday, tomorrow, or the next, and at the end, he’ll be truly alone by his own hand.
The coughing is unexpectedly frustrating, and sleep evades him.
“Kamiki-san.” Yukio shifts, turning to face her better. “If you don’t mind, I can rewrap your wrist.”
It’s not much of an apology, but it’s the best he can do for slamming it against the wall earlier.
Kamiki frowns and turns the other direction. For a minute, Yukio thinks she’ll ignore him, but she turns back and hands over a roll of gauze.
“Okay,” she says, peeling the mess of her old tape off. The bruise is dark against her pale skin, but at least the swelling is mild.
“Curl your fingers around your thumb for me,” Yukio instructs, turning her wrist gently. “Do you feel any numbness or tingling in your fingers?”
“No,” Kamiki mutters. Her eyes are pinned on his hands the entire time, not missing a single movement.
He gives up examining her wrist as the van heads onto a bumpy road. Some part of him regrets not teaching them more first-aid procedures. The Order liked to assume there would be a doctor available on each team, but in reality, it seems it’s not so true. Although, what he’s doing now is marginally indulgent. There’s hardly so many ways to wrap a wrist wrong, after all.
Yukio finishes making several neat figure eights around the joint, checks that it’s taut, and deems it sufficient. “Do your best to elevate it. If the swelling doesn’t recede within forty-eight hours, you should have it looked at again.”
“Of course. Let me know if you have any questions.” He registers the pull on the corners of his lips too late and is forced to let the practiced smile fade.
He has nothing left to fill the silence anymore.
Kamiki hands Yukio a bottle of water, which he drinks half of. He spends the rest of the night watching the other half in the bottle twist and wind, admiring the small worlds formed and extinguished in the warped sheen of droplets.
Finally, the van stops.
They leave it at the foot of the mountain, hidden perfectly among the rest of the debris and junk piled there by locals. As they trek up, heading onto a rough, muddy mountain trail, the sun begins to rise. Yukio doesn’t offer to help carry any of the bags, and he’s not asked to. The pain in his ankle grows sharp, then begins to dull as he continues to ignore it. Whether it’s out of pride, or something else, he doesn’t know.
Suguro comes to a stop, breathing heavily between his coughs. He stoops before a towering gingko tree and places a hand among its fallen leaves. The forest is quiet as he chants, setting a golden line arcing outward. Air around the tree shimmers and the barrier peels away, revealing a moss-covered oden truck.
Kamiki inserts a key into the door and jerks it open. “I’ll take him,” she declares, pulling Yukio into the truck roughly. There’s a bright, inscrutable green space beyond the second door, with runes etched all around the metal and glowing hairline fractures along the frame. The portal looks highly unstable, but Kamiki keeps going, so Yukio follows.
The air abruptly becomes horrifyingly frigid and dry, with bitingly cold wind that steals the breath from his lungs. There’s more sand than he’s ever seen and countless enormous tents spreading out in a massive encampment.
“You’re...you’re part of the resistance,” Yukio realizes. "That’s how you found me. You have the other case."
Kamiki turns stiffly. “Give up your case and we’ll let you go.”
She resumes walking, weaving between people and tents occasionally. Yukio’s feet sink in the frost covered sand as he follows closely behind. He stumbles occasionally, watching people rush back and forth with supplies, finally close enough to make out the familiar emblem on the tents.
“This is the largest stronghold of the Order left, so don't try escaping." Kamiki’s grip is tight around his wrist as she stops; concern flickers past her features for a fraction of a second. “I’m taking you to the cells,” she offers haltingly. “You’ll be questioned.”
“I understand,” Yukio says as they head inside a dark, musty building at the edge of the tents. His first step down the stairs has his knees buckling from the pain in his ankle, but he has at least twenty more to go.
Breathe. Keep breathing.
“We all know what you did to the Illuminati,” Kamiki adds, “but you’re not on our side either, so don’t overestimate their patience." She greets one of the guards in a language he doesn’t recognize and leads him deeper into the cellar, past several empty cells.
“General Yang despises traitors,” she says, shutting the door and leaving him with a bottle of water. “Be careful.”
Two guards come find him later. They cram him into a filthy shower stall, take all of his clothes, including the bandage he’s wrapped over his eye and leave him with a stack of scratchy cotton rejects, plus an off-blue jumpsuit that’s too short at the ankles. He barely has time to get dressed before they haul him to another room where an old man clips his unkempt hair away.
The guards carry a loud conversation as they take him back to his cell. It doesn’t sound the same as how they spoke to the older man, although both are equally indecipherable to Yukio.
They leave him with a small roll of scratchy gauze which is just short enough that he’s forced to deliberate whether he wants to tape his eye or his ankle. He picks his eye.
Before, when he was arrested for threatening to shoot Mephisto, his every movement had been strictly monitored. This time around, it almost seems like they don’t care at all, as though they’re throwing him in here to rot and disappear.
Whether it will make it easier to escape is an entirely different question.
There’s a small square of a heavy quilt folded in the back. The wooden floor is littered with a light layer of sand and there is a bucket in the corner. Yukio inspects the lock of the cell but finds nothing more than a simple combination lock. He takes the quilt and huddles into the corner, watching his breath fog.
The cold seeps into his bones slowly as he nods off.
He dreams of flames that are warm and soft and blue. It makes him colder when he wakes, and he wishes he didn’t dream in the first place.
The sentries switch. This new one is younger, almost Yukio’s age. He’s short, and when he squats in front of the cell, Yukio notices a long thin scar leading from his chin to the end of his right ear.
“Hello.” The sentry smiles. “I heard you’re from Japan. Do you speak Mandarin?”
Judging by his accent and his question, Yukio supposes this sentry is Chinese, like the earlier one. If he remembers correctly, the General Yang Kamiki mentioned has the same surname as the Arc Knight, belonging to the Chinese Branch. Could that mean...they’re not in Japan anymore? After all, the portal could have led anywhere.
He considers ignoring the guard, but the uncertainty of his situation bothers him too much to give up a chance for information.
“I don’t,” Yukio replies simply.
“I’m Chen Jing. Sorry, I love talking.” The sentry smiles again, like he thinks he has said something particularly amusing. There are two odd dents above his cheeks, like the imprint left behind by goggles or something similar. “What’s your name?”
Yukio tugs the quilt closer, sitting up straight. “You don’t know who I am?”
“Am I...eh, should I?” Chen shakes his head, still amused. “I heard Kamiki-san brought you here. Is that right?”
“Yes, she brought me here. I’m Okumura Yukio,” Yukio says.
“Oh.” Chen laughs. “I see. You’re the robber who ended up stealing from the same truck, at the same time!”
Yukio grimaces. “I suppose so.”
Chen laughs more. “So, how do you write your name? Mine is this way.” He motions, sticking his finger in the sand. He frowns when he’s finished, staring at the characters sheepishly. “Sorry, I’m not...practiced in writing,” he flips his hand over, “this direction.”
It takes Yukio a minute to understand what Chen means. He shifts to move closer and does his best to draw his own name upside down.
Chen puzzles over Yukio’s name, tracing the characters out until he makes a much smoother imitation. He nods, and points. “Your name means…” He shakes his head and draws three circles on top of each other. “Snowman?”
Yukio nods. Of course, kanji are Chinese characters. It makes sense he’d be able to read them. On the other hand, Yukio is unfamiliar with the two characters Chen has written. Of course, not all names have direct meaning. He doesn’t want to be obtuse and ask about something he has no prior exposure to.
“Mine is jing, as in quiet and tranquility,” Chen continues without prompting. “It’s very common, but I suspect my parents prayed I would be born a quiet child because my sister was always crying too much. Anyway, it’s great meeting you, Okumura-kun.”
He frowns. “Which is the right one? Okumura-san?”
“Either is fine.”
“In that case, please call me Chen Jing. I have—” he cuts off abruptly, staring at Yukio. “Are you cold? Where’s your coat? They take it?” he asks, suddenly alarmed.
“No, I came through a portal and—”
Chen shakes his head, springing up to unzip his heavy coat. “Don’t worry. I was raised from our northernmost province. Kamiki-san brought you all the way here. I can’t let you freeze.” He shakes his long overcoat out and starts to push it through the cracks between the bars.
“It’s fine. I’m not cold.”
“Aiya! This is Gebi, of course it will be cold!” Chen exclaims. “Even all the other prisoners have coats. Why didn’t they give you one?”
Yukio makes an effort to push the coat back. “You can’t give me your coat,” he protests. “You’ll get in trouble.” He needs to avoid all suspicion. This is the furthest thing from laying low.
Chen beams widely, pulling at the scar on his face. “I won’t, I won’t. I am Yang-jiangjun’s great-nephew. Besides, this already is my punishment. Guard duty for a week.”
He smiles as Yukio puts the coat on. It's impressively warm, with a huge furry hood and pockets everywhere. The coat is slightly tight around the shoulders but still fits reasonably.
Yukio pulls the hood up and dips his head slightly. “Thank you.”
Chen sneezes, tugging the sleeves of his sweater over his hands. “I spoke too soon.” He laughs sheepishly, brushing sand off his pants. “Okumura-kun, have you eaten breakfast? Ah, what I’m saying? You didn’t even have a coat. I’ll be back. I’ll be back, okay?”
He leaves in a flurry of motion, footsteps fading up the stairs with a hefty thunk in the middle, as though he nearly tripped.
Yukio pulls his legs closer. The coat really is warm. He wants to sleep.
He wants to sleep but his mind refuses to settle. He needs to consider what he’ll be questioned on. He needs to decide which truths to keep, and which lies he can use.
Kamiki’s reaction from earlier regarding the robbery was all he needed to confirm his suspicions. The heist was indeed set up by the Order, and it was executed by Kamiki, Suguro and Tsuji. That’s how they found him.
Shima’s information was correct. The crystals attract, even at great distances.
He needs to get his back, as soon as he finds a way to leave this cell. Fortunately, patience is something he’s too used to pretending he has.
“Why are you being so nice to me?” Yukio demands, staring at the small thermos of steaming soy milk in front of him.
It’s been at least three days, yet no one other than Chen has said more than a word to him, let alone done any sort of interrogating. He’s sick and tired of this cell’s atrocious walls and this stupid bucket and how stingy the morning sentry is with shower times.
They must have found the crystals he hid in his empty magazine and decided to leave him to rot here.
Chen rocks on his heels, chewing a ration bar. “All my friends are busy, busy people. They are exorcists but they are soldiers too.” He smiles. “You are not.”
On one hand, Chen is doubtlessly a civilian. He’s certainly talkative, yet he clearly knows very little of the information Yukio wants. He’s forgetful too and asks the same questions frequently. Their conversations are roundabout, but so far, Yukio has pieced together where they are.
Sometime after witnessing the fall of the Japanese Branch, the Chinese Branch was forced to relocate drastically as the Illuminati reached hands into the political and military arenas of the mainland.
With the rest of the Order’s forces scattered, they devised a plan to hide where the Illuminati’s sphere of influence couldn’t reach. Gebi, Chen had called it, is the colossal desert which sleeps between the border of Mongolia and China. It grows every year, reaches temperatures far below -30 °C in the heart of winter and is impossible to navigate without innate knowledge of the ever-changing terrain.
The Chinese Branch’s numbers are stagnant, and they’ve yet to reestablish relations with other ranks of the Order, so the majority of their exorcists have minimal training. Their leader is General Yang, who single-handedly commands the barrier surrounding the camp to keep temperatures bearable.
“She’s the busiest person,” Chen adds apologetically, coughing a little. “It's likely she’s forgetting you are here.”
That’s probably the least of Yukio’s worries, although he really doesn’t like the idea of staying here any longer. If there wasn’t a language barrier, he would never have wasted so much time chatting in this dirty jail cell.
“It’s fine. I don’t mind that,” Yukio replies finally. “Can you tell me today’s date?”
“Uhh, the 20th. I'm not so sure,” Chen says sheepishly. “Why do you ask?”
Yukio shrugs. “It’ll be my birthday soon, so I was curious.”
Chen leans forward. “How old are you going to be?”
“What did you do, for parties?”
“Nothing much. What about you?”
“Hmm, we always eat noodles, for longevity.” Chen Jing smiles. “Stretch them as long as possible.” He coughs again, sniffling.
Yukio’s noticed Chen smells like ash, usually most strongly when he comes to visit in the evening. It’s a heavy, thick ash, but with an unmistakable charge, like the buzzing scent of ozone. It reminds him of insincere smiles and obnoxious pink hair.
Yukio listens absently, watching the white puffs of his breath scatter. He doesn’t want to think about birthdays, about parties...about secrets.
Chen Jing leaves after a couple of hours and Yukio stews silently. He traces the curves of a miniature summoning circle in the sand but brushes it away soon after. This is a desert. He couldn’t have been more disadvantaged.
Today is the 20th. His chances of escaping should be best tomorrow night, when the Order will be spread thin during the night of the solstice.
A soft cough stirs him out of his thoughts. “Okumura...san.” Yukio lifts his head, surprised as he sees who it is.
“What can I do for you,” Yukio asks, standing slowly, “Suguro-kun?”
The cellar is never static, with quiet conversation or shouting or annoying arguments or deep bouts of silence. Today it’s loud, but Yukio imagines he can hear the discomfort as Suguro swallows.
“Do you...know anything of Shima’s whereabouts?”
Yukio breaks eye contact, sighing softly.
If he admits to running into Shima just a week ago, he may have difficulty maintaining that he’s cut ties with the Illuminati, even if Shima’s not solely affiliated with them. In this case, he should lie—say that Shima was fine when Yukio left the Illuminati two years ago, and that they haven’t been in contact since.
“He’s doing well,” Yukio begins. Suguro’s face brightens with relief, and he knows he’s made a mistake. The rest of the sentence he’d planned is suddenly too cruel that he can’t bring himself to say it.
Yukio’s far too familiar with sleepless nights spent missing someone.
“He...meant to help me leave the city a week ago but I turned him down. You don’t need to worry for him.”
Suguro lowers his eyes. “Thank you,” he whispers, “for telling me.”
“Of course,” Yukio replies lightly.
Suguro shakes his head. “I won’t ask what you need the crystals for, but you’ll have a chance to talk to General Yang tomorrow. If you can convince her, they might let you keep them.” He sighs, running a hand through his hair. “Sorry about all of this.”
“I understand,” Yukio replies. “You did nothing wrong.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Suguro says abruptly. “If you ask, I’ll tell you.”
Yukio’s not sure what he means, but Suguro seems unwilling to elaborate, so Yukio smiles and carefully diverts the subject. “I’m glad your cough has gotten better.”
“Yeah, it has,” Suguro agrees. “It’s late, so I won’t bother you anymore.”
“Certainly. Have a good night, Suguro-kun.”
Yukio stands there, listening until his footsteps fade gently into the whistle of hollow evening wind. As he begins to turn the words over in his head, he wishes he’d never been so careless as to forget his mistake.
Are you really...going to shoot me?
Suguro is far too kind.
Yukio doesn’t know how to apologize. It doesn’t seem right for him to, not when he knows the fault in his actions but can’t regret them enough.
It doesn’t seem right, not when he still wants to know.
Morning comes timidly, with wind like a hushed rustle of billowing cloth outside.
It’s cold. The thermostat must be broken again. He needs to complain to Sir Pheles before going to class today.
His head pounds dizzily. He cracks one eye open, but it’s dark and he can’t find his glasses anywhere. The soft sound of footsteps crosses the floor as he sits up reluctantly. There’s usually more light coming through the curtains, isn’t there? Perhaps it’s raining today.
“Nii-san,” he murmurs, “do you see my glasses?”
He reaches up to rub his eyes and his hand brushes the prickly surface of gauze—
Yukio lets his hand fall to his lap as he slumps back against the cold cell wall. His eyes sting from the threat of tears as he curls in on himself, holding his breath until his chest aches unbearably enough to drown out the paralyzing loneliness in his veins.
He’s tired. He’s so tired of forgetting where he is.
I miss you, Nii-san.
The interrogation room they bring him to is riddled with sand. The ceiling is low, and a single lantern sits in the center of the table, lit with a flustered light. A small, squirrel-like demon with fire under its paws hisses as the guard handcuffs Yukio to the table.
An old woman—General Yang, he assumes—takes a seat across from him, smoking a long ornamental pipe. She makes a small gesture at the squirrel and it scampers up her arm, clicking its teeth aggressively.
The guard stoops to whisper something in the general’s ear and leaves, shutting the door softly. Yukio resists the urge to clench and unclench his fingers in impatience as General Yang exhales slowly, watching the thick lavender smoke curl before dissipating.
“Let me be frank with you,” she says finally. “An hour ago, we received news regarding the disappearance of one of our exorcists. She’s been captured by the Illuminati.”
Why is she telling him this?
Yukio keeps his face blank, focusing on the minute trembles in her hands as she hesitates. “You want...to exchange me,” he says. The realization seeps into his limbs like ice, numb and slow.
He needs to leave. He needs to leave this place, now.
General Yang sighs, tapping her pipe gently. “That child is a great leader. I had intended to make her my successor for a long time, and now I’m afraid my people are too far devoted to see the desperation in their actions.” She steeples her fingers carefully, finally looking up.
“They will propose the exchange tomorrow morning. After that, you’ll be guarded more closely, I suspect.” There’s an odd inflection in her tone that seems deliberate, but Yukio can’t tell what it means. His mind is muddled and all he can think of is how much time he’s wasted—how could he have been so horribly careless?
The sharp tap of General Yang’s pipe against the tray scatters his thoughts.
“I want you to escape before dawn,” she says, lips set in a hard, firm line. “Tonight.”
Yukio goes still. “I don’t understand,” he whispers, watching as she writes a string of numbers on a notepad. It’s three numbers; a combination.
“The Illuminati has no reason to accept an exchange.” General Yang says, eyes harsh in the lantern light. “They’ve clearly shown they do not negotiate, and they will not compromise because this is war. They would shoot her the second you’re in their hands. Besides,” she laughs bitterly, “there is only one of you, and we have lost thousands. I cannot weigh one soldier’s life over another’s as though I am playing a game of chess.”
“I see,” Yukio murmurs. He doesn’t care for such ideals personally, and he’s certain the Vatican never did either. It seems too soft.
“I’m not doing it for you,” General Yang scoffs. “I’m doing it for the idiots who would end up killed trying to swap you. They won’t listen to reason, so I have no choice. Once you’re out of the way, we can attempt a rescue properly.”
She taps the sheet of paper. “Memorized?”
“Good.” General Yang replies, handing the note to her squirrel. Yukio watches distractedly as it stomps a fiery paw on the paper, leaving dark ash behind.
“You may be a double-crossing traitor, but you’re clearly resourceful enough to have survived this long,” she admits, pulling out a key to uncuff him from the table. “This better be the last I ever see of you.”
“Absolutely,” Yukio mutters.
She reaches into her sleeve and withdraws a ring of keys. They’re long and thin, with a familiar dull metallic tinkle to their sound. General Yang gives him a curt nod. “We owe a heavy debt to your brother. I will not do him the disservice of selling you out, regardless of your questionable allegiance. Best of luck, Okumura Yukio.”
She pulls a flat, rectangular key off the ring and hands it to him. He knows this key well. It was the first he’d ever received.
Why would she want him to go there? Is it just a key she doesn’t need anymore, or is there someone waiting there for him?
“How do I know this isn’t a trap?”
“You don’t,” General Yang replies. “You should already know, that’s the price for betrayal. No one trusts you, and of course,” she says, eyes turning callous, “you can’t trust anyone else.”
A guard comes in to escort him back to his cell as General Yang leaves, flocked to by harried messengers immediately.
“Thank you,” Yukio adds belatedly, curling his fingers tightly around the cold brass teeth of the key.
The sentry today is alert and rigid. Yukio watches him make tracks in the narrow corridor, counting the minutes nearing dusk. There’s another sentry by the entrance, tapping a foot as he reads leisurely.
Two of the prisoners are chatting, with laughter interspersing their conversation. It isn’t quiet, but there is a sullen murmur of white noise, of fading afternoon sunlight that dampens and smooths the edges of all sound.
If he leaves using the key, he doesn’t need to hurt anyone. He can wait until the sentries crowd by the entrance of the cellar to play their nightly game of mahjong, unlock his cell, and use a door deep in the back to leave.
He does not want to betray General Yang's generosity. Even more so, he has no confidence in his ability to break out when there are so many uncertain factors. He knows almost nothing of the camp's layout, or security beyond this cell.
If he uses the key, he won’t hurt anyone. He also won't be able to steal the crystals back.
He needs those, more than anything.
Leaving without them is not an option.
There are two sentries. He doesn’t believe he'll be able to open the lock without drawing their notice. If he fails, they'll replace it, and he will have lost his chance.
The most favorable option is to get the sentry to open the cell for him, and soon. Another sentry will come once night falls, but dusk has already begun.
He can’t afford to bide his time and gather information anymore. There is one person he can use. If he's going to move, he must do it now.
He may not be able to call his naiads here...but that doesn’t mean he can’t bluff.
Yukio stands and paces a lazy circle around his cell, gathering sand. The sentry slows, pausing in place. Yukio meets his eyes and does his best to smirk, as infuriatingly as possible. The guard frowns as Yukio begins to draw in the sand, slowly at first, with increasing urgency.
Two rings. Footsteps rush up to the bars of the cell. Overlapping ovals. The sentry slams a hand on the bars, yelling a warning. Four spires. The harried click-click-click of the combination lock turns and rattles. Eight vertices.
The cell door shrieks open.
He steps back as the sentry dives for the circle, skidding straight through the two outer rings. Yukio seizes his moment of distraction to wrench the sentry’s arm back as he fights to stand, forcing him to drop the gun. A fist catches him in the temple in his rush to retrieve the weapon. Yukio’s ears ring as he falls, and he drags the sentry down with him. His head hits the wall and he sees white.
The sentry grabs at his hair, tearing the gauze, writhing as Yukio finally pins his arm down. His eyes water from the dust and sand as the sentry thrashes, desperately trying to free himself.
The sound of the other sentry’s footsteps clatter down the corridor. The one he has pinned shouts loudly as his flailing grows frantic. Yukio takes the chance to slam the first sentry’s head against the ground as hard as he can, snatching the radio off his belt as the other sentry comes into view.
The other sentry draws a gun, shaking uncontrollably as he registers his partner on the floor. He sees the gun in Yukio’s hand and falters. Good.
If the sentry fires, he’ll be discovered. He can’t let him fire.
Yukio closes their distance, clipping the man in the wrist before he has the chance to aim. He twists hard, but the man’s grip is firm. Yukio steps forward, narrowly avoiding a far-reaching swipe. The sentry is heavy-set, and he clearly knows how to use his weight to his advantage. Yukio’s arms shake as he strains, trying to wrest the gun away.
At this rate, he’ll be overpowered.
He changes tactics, flipping his grip on the man’s wrist. A flare of debilitating pain spikes up his ankle as the man jerks back, throwing Yukio off balance. He’s forced to let go, reflexively smashing his elbow into the man’s nose as he rights himself.
Blood runs down the man’s face as he crashes to his knees, dropping the gun. Yukio sways unsteadily on his feet as his vision blurs. He blinks rapidly, gritting his teeth as he lands a hard blow on the man’s chin, and the man finally passes out.
Chen Jing was right. They lack training. Clearly, this one has never fired a gun before. It’s no wonder they’re losing the war.
Yukio’s chest heaves tightly as he steps back. He braces an arm against the wall, coughing hard. His eyes still sting from the sand. The gauze over his left one is torn and unsalvageable. It’s disorienting that he’d nearly forgotten his prescription is lower in this one. Before he retrieves the crystals, he needs his spare glasses back.
He keeps his distance, watching for signs of returning consciousness in either of the sentries for a minute before he moves to check that both are still breathing regularly.
The taller sentry’s uniform is damp with sweat as Yukio strips it off. He holds his breath as he yanks it over the atrocious jumpsuit he’s wearing. He checks the man’s boots but removing them reveals a frightfully terrible case of athlete's foot.
The later sentry is overweight and dragging him into the cell has Yukio panting by the time he’s finished. He tears the first sentry’s boots off, pleased to find that they fit reasonably. The man’s belt is useful too, with a good number of pouches.
He clicks the combination lock back on the cell door and takes a moment to breathe, letting his hands curl and uncurl as the adrenaline begins to fade. Most of the other prisoners seem to have enough self-preservation to keep their heads down in their cells, but a few jeer and wave. Yukio can’t guess at what they’re saying.
The radio he picked up stays silent. He’s lucky they underestimated him and didn't call for help. He has a little over an hour before their check-in.
The guard had two ration bars in his pocket, and there’s a thermos of tea on the table next to his book. Yukio downs the tea, pockets the ration bars and checks the rest of his supplies. He has two guns, enough bullets, the key and—
The cellar door hurtles open. Yukio takes a step back, putting too much weight on his ankle.
It’s Chen Jing.
“H-how did you—”
Yukio lunges with his good leg, striking the hand holding something metallic—a camping lantern. Chen flings an arm up. Yukio ducks and drags him forward, twisting Chen’s other arm back as he checks for weapons.
“Don’t yell,” Yukio warns, tightening his grip. “Yell and I’ll break your arm.”
He waits until Chen takes a stilted breath, watching him nod jerkily.
"I'm going to release you." Yukio says carefully. "If you try to run or shout, I'll shoot."
He steps back, eyes pinned on Chen's hands, bending to pick up the lantern. "Take me to where they’re keeping my belongings.”
Chen obeys wordlessly, jumping as Yukio kicks the door to the cellar shut.
The camp is unnervingly quiet, with only the frigid night wind blustering the uncertain flames of their lanterns. Tonight is the solstice.
Yukio presses his gun against Chen’s hip, walking as close as he can. “Remember, try asking anyone for help, and I’ll shoot them first, then you.”
Chen doesn’t respond, and some part of Yukio is grateful for that. The fear in his eyes is enough of an admonishment.
“In there.” Chen points.
Yukio can barely see inside the tent. His heart pounds anxiously as he weighs the possibility of a trap against wanting his belongings.
This gun might as well be useless if he can't aim. He's not going to make it without his glasses.
“Go in first,” Yukio orders. It takes his eyes a minute to adjust, even with the flickering lantern to brighten the inside of the tent. All he sees is a seemingly random assortment of blankets, crates and carpet rolls, until Chen pulls his bag out of a box in the front. “Unzip it and tell me what’s inside,” he says, pressing the gun into Chen’s backside harder.
Chen’s hands tremble as he digs around the bag, breaths coming in short and tremulous. “Th-there’s a paper envelope, cloth, a-a case—”
“Give me that.” Yukio flicks the case open with one hand, settling the glasses onto his face. “Carry it.” He motions to the bag absently, pocketing the eyeglass case.
He doesn’t have time to waste here. It’s not important if he can’t get the Armumahel pistols back. “Where are they keeping the crystals?” Yukio demands. “Take me there.”
Chen shakes his head quickly. “I don’t know, I don’t know anything about any crystals—”
“You’re lying,” Yukio interrupts. It’s a suspicion he’s had for a while, like the frayed, unraveling end of a string, scattered between harried thoughts. Chen’s denial has no clear tells but Yukio can't afford to be wrong. He can't be wrong, and he can't turn back. Not now.
“You’ve been testing a weapon with them, haven’t you? You always smell like it,” he pushes, “the smoke. You must know where they are.”
“No, no, no,” Chen mutters, “please, no, I’m not. Please, they are important to us. You can’t take them. People will die—”
“People will die?” Yukio seizes a handful of his coat, shoving him back roughly. “Shouldn’t you be worrying about that right now? What do you think is going to happen if you don’t hand them over?”
Chen’s jaw tenses as he shoulders Yukio’s bag. He turns around with something terrified burning in his eyes and it sets a deep anxiousness across Yukio’s thoughts. “I’ll take you there. Just promise you won’t hurt anyone. Please.”
“I promise,” Yukio says easily, tracing a finger across the smooth metal of the gun in his hand.
His eye itches.
They reach the outskirts of the camp, and Chen pulls the heavy door of a large shed open, raising his lantern above their heads.
Yukio makes him enter first, letting the door click shut behind them. “Where are they?”
“In here.” Chen motions him over to a bulky metal box. His hands shake so terribly, he drops the key twice before getting it open.
The shifting, uncertain light of the lantern scatters shadows as easily as it forms them, lending them life.
“Both cases are here,” Yukio breathes, leaning close.
Chen sets the lantern down.
The soft thump of Yukio’s bag hitting the ground is all the warning he gets as Chen catches the edge of his elbow on one of the cases, knocking it off the stand. Yukio dives, barely catching the corner as he braces his fall with his other arm. His ankle protests violently as he crouches, flipping the lid off to check the contents.
A sharp click sounds in the empty shed; a sound he’s heard too many times to doubt.
“I’m surprised,” Yukio says, standing carefully. “Are you sure you can shoot me?”
Chen’s hands are unsteady as he steps back, clutching the pistol with both hands.
“Th-that doesn’t matter,” Chen replies stiffly. “I can’t let you take the crystals.” Small tremors run down his hands as he steps away. “They’re, they’re important—
“But they aren’t important to you,” Yukio says, stepping forward. He has another gun. He doesn’t need Chen as a hostage to make his escape anymore. All he needs is to get to the door, to use the key. “You wouldn’t have led me here, otherwise.”
What should he do? He can easily disable Chen with a bullet to the leg. At this distance, even considering the poor lighting, he knows he won't miss.
The gunshot will be loud. Can he afford that?
“Or what?” Yukio sneers, taking another step. “You can’t shoot. Not if you want to trade me to the Illuminati.”
“How do you know about that?”
“How? What do you think?” Yukio smirks. “Of course, someone helped me.”
There. Let him think what he wants. The more disruption he can cause, the better a shot he’ll have at keeping any pursuers away.
Chen’s breath hitches as he realigns the gun, stumbling over a cord on the ground. “I won’t listen to you. A-as long as you’re alive, if it means stopping you from leaving, I-I can, I can shoot,” he says, pointing sharply at Yukio’s legs, shaking uncontrollably. “Don’t come any closer.”
The lantern glows softly, still upright on the ground. The small circle of light is stark, painting the rest of the shed darker with every flicker. Yukio averts his eyes, blinking mottled spots away.
He doesn’t think Chen can shoot him, especially not to deliberately cause injury. The longer he hesitates, the less the probability.
Yukio can’t be certain though. He was the opposite, after all. Fear was never his barrier. It was a catalyst.
“And what?” Yukio prompts. “You’ll bring me back to my cell, and I’ll wait there to be shipped off to the Illuminati come morning?” There’s a table to his left. It’s plastic, with enough things on it to make a good clatter if it hits the ground. “Why would I ever agree to that?”
He needs to hurry. It’s only a matter of time before someone will discover he has escaped. He can't be stalled here.
Chen flinches, taking a step back. He’s less than a meter away from the door now. One electrical cord lies between them. Another one is piled to the right side; it's close, but too thin to be useful. “I-I...you don’t have a choice. I won’t let you pass.”
If Chen loses what little composure he has left, he’ll become unpredictable. Yukio can’t afford to be injured at this point.
After all, the trigger of a gun is carelessly easy to pull.
“You’re right,” Yukio announces.
Escalating was the wrong approach.
“I surrender.” He raises both hands, lowering his head as he scans the inside of the shed one last time.
The lantern is between them, sitting on a tall stool. There’s a table to his left. A cord lies in front of him, and another is coiled to the right. Chen stands just beyond it. The door is less than a meter away.
Yukio shuts his eyes.
“I’m sorry for hurting you,” he says, as softly as he can. “I’m just...I’m just scared. I don’t want to go back there. You have no idea what they’ll do to me.” He pauses, listening for movement. “It took everything for me to get away last time. I’m scared I’ll never be free again.”
“I-it’s okay,” Chen stutters, “just stay there. We’ll go back to your cell. It’s okay,” he mumbles. “We’ll go back to your cell and I’ll, I’ll stay with you until morning, okay?” The soft scrape of sand along wood eases across the floor. Footsteps. “It’ll be okay, so please, just—”
Yukio drops to one knee, sweeping his other leg out. The lantern shatters as the stool hits the ground. Half a second later, the shed plunges into darkness. He snaps his eyes open, kicking the table forward. The crash of breaking glass masks his approach as he sidesteps the table, slamming Chen’s wrist against the door.
Chen is short and thin. He’s weak. Yukio avoids an errant swipe and shoves a fist into his gut, sending him sinking to the floor.
Get the gun, crystals, bag—where is the key? Hurry.
“Please, please,” Chen gasps, “the one we’re trading you for, she’s my sister, please. She’s all the family I have left.”
Yukio fumbles around unfamiliar pockets, clenching his jaw as he digs through the bag. Where is it?
Where, where, where, where—
Did he lose it on his way here?
No, no, not now, not when he’s so close. Where is it?
“Please.” Chen coughs. “You can’t leave, please.”
Yukio kicks the stool across the room, dumping the contents of his bag out furiously. What’s going on? How can this be happening?
He has to leave, leave now. How? It’s an endless desert. Where is he supposed to run?
The floor is littered with glass shards that catch the tips of his fingers as he searches blindly, cursing himself for breaking the lantern.
If it’s not in his pockets it must have fallen out here, somewhere on the ground...somewhere here.
There’s no time; he needs to leave. He needs to hurry, hurry and find the key—
There, it’s there.
Yukio closes his fingers around the flat, cool metal teeth, straightening his glasses as blood rushes to his head in a wave of relief.
He steps past Chen, turning the key into the shed door in a practiced motion. The hinges squeal as the door opens, letting a bright rush of cold air pool out. Crisp ribbons of light splay across the floor, flooding the shed with moonlight.
A harsh wheeze stops him in his tracks.
Yukio turns back warily.
Chen is sprawled on the ground, pawing at one of his pockets frantically. Why is he still wheezing? The blow to his diaphragm wasn’t too hard. At most, he should only have been winded for a minute or two.
Chen gasps again, shuddering. His face is red, dangerously red.
He doesn’t have time to deal with this. It doesn’t matter; he doesn’t care—
“Hold on, stop, I’m trying to help you,” Yukio yells, gripping Chen’s arm as he thrashes. “Calm down—”
A hand glances across the side of his face, knocking his glasses askew as Yukio tucks a hand behind Chen’s shoulders, forcing him up to a sitting position. He jerks the flap off the pocket Chen couldn’t get open, removing a bent red tube. It’s an inhaler.
He’s having an asthma attack.
If he leaves Chen here, he'll die. That means—that means whoever the Order sends after him for the crystals won't think twice to shoot him first, then take them from his dead body.
If someone comes, he can run. The door is already open.
He doesn't want any more blood on his hands.
Yukio curses, shaking the inhaler furiously. “Breathe out,” he orders, raising the mouthpiece close to Chen’s lips as he fumbles to unbutton the thick winter coat Chen has on.
What is he doing?
None of this makes a difference. Why is he so haunted, so afraid of guilt? He’s a hypocrite. A miserable hypocrite who is weak and pathetic and stupid.
“Stop it,” he snaps, panicking as Chen’s breaths refuse to slow. His eyes are wide as he clenches a hand around Yukio’s wrist, squeezing painfully hard.
“Breathe in, breathe out,” Yukio tries again. “Chen, you’re going to be okay. Stay calm for me, okay? Breathe out as fully as you can.” He waits, then holds the inhaler out, watching anxiously as Chen finally breathes in before pressing down.
“There, that’s right,” he murmurs, rubbing circles around Chen’s shoulders. “Breathe in through your nose, okay, breathe out slowly.”
There’s another breathing exercise, something with counting but he can’t remember anything. Was it two puffs maximum or just one, every four to six hours? He should check the lips and fingernails for blue, call an ambulance—no, he can’t, he can’t do that.
“Keep breathing in through your nose,” Yukio instructs, taking a slow breath himself as he fumbles with the cotton filling his head. “Don’t lie down, okay? You need to keep sitting up until someone comes to help you.”
Chen’s hand tightens around his wrist as he shakes his head. “No. You can’t leave.” He gasps. “Please. Please, she’s all, all I have left.”
Yukio pries at his fingers, gritting his teeth as Chen hangs on stubbornly. “Let go,” he hisses. “I know you want to save your sister, but you can’t ask me to stay. There will be a rescue mission for her. I have to go.”
“No.” Chen coughs. “Please, don’t leave.”
He twists sharply, tearing his arm away from Chen’s grasp as he stands. “You’re not the only one who has someone waiting.”
The doorway is bright, with beckoning streaks of light cutting across the floor.
“I’m afraid,” Yukio whispers, “he’s all I had left too.”
Beyond the door, there is snow. It’s piled thickly up the stone steps, falling heedlessly from the sky. Everywhere he turns, there is rubble, so much that he barely recognizes this place at all. Only the garden and the shop at the very top remain untouched, almost eerily preserved.
Yukio takes a trembling breath and begins to climb the stairs. His legs ache with every winding step and the cuts on his fingertips sting as he sweats.
Just a little more. A little more, then he can rest.
He reaches the door, only to discover that it’s locked. Of course, what did he expect?
Regardless of what General Yang intended, he can’t stay here. It’s too open, without any places to hide.
Even so, he takes a step, then one more and sinks to his knees, holding his breath as his muscles seize.
It’s no coincidence that he finally doesn't have the strength to keep going, here of all places again.
The wood flooring under the small patio is lightly dusted with snowflakes at the corners. It’s dry enough, for now. Yukio slumps on the doorstep, checks the crystals one more time, and shuts his eyes.
He wants to stay here, just a moment longer.
There’s a soft wind stirring the air, carrying a scent he knows but can’t recall. Its cold fingers brush his cheeks as he listens to the silence of snow falling around him. For once, his thoughts are empty. There is no one here. He’s safe.
He had always liked the view up here, from these steps. Now, the old bridge is half-collapsed. The rest of the academy lies in ruins, but the faraway lights of the city below are faintly visible, guarded by distant mountains.
It’s been so long since he was last here.
You’re usually so strait-laced, but sometimes it’s okay to loosen up!
If...if he succeeds, perhaps he can return here someday.
Perhaps they all can.
Yukio weaves his way into the lower market swiftly as morning begins to show through thin white clouds. The makeshift stands are milling with people as he passes through, trying to remember where the train station was. Along the way, Yukio discards his stolen exorcist uniform and purchases a significantly shabbier rain jacket for himself. It leaves him with a meager handful of coins which he doubts will be sufficient.
If the Order means to come after him, he needs to make sure his trail goes cold here.
The station is crowded, but not nearly as busy as he remembers it to be. Yukio tugs his hood up as he looks around. Shiny high heels, a gleaming ring, tattoos, a smartphone…too many options.
A pair of neatly tailored slacks catch his eye. They belong to a lanky man standing close by, with a sweaty face reddened from exertion. Late to work, perhaps.
There’s an elegant watch resting on his wrist, but his complexion is surprisingly rough, with a dark line along his cheek like a bruise. Yukio can’t even begin to guess his occupation. Still, this man looks well-off. Yukio can see the slight crease of his wallet in the back of his pants. He looks tired.
Yes. This one is good.
Yukio makes his approach swiftly. “Excuse me.” He smiles politely, tapping the man’s shoulder. “I’m trying to go home, to Yokohama, but I’m a little lost,” he laughs sheepishly. “Do you think you could—”
“Yokohama?” The man interrupts, shifting his briefcase to his other hand.
“Uh, yes,” Yukio says, face slackening with concern. “Is something wrong?”
The man’s eyes linger on Yukio’s face for an uncomfortably long moment before he clears his throat and nods. “That’s where I’m going.” He checks his watch, blinking rapidly as he looks away. “There’s still time. Come on,” he says abruptly, pointing up the stairs, “we can get tickets together.”
“Ah, no, it’s okay.” Yukio smiles, trying to hide his alarm. "Please, just tell me which line. I wouldn’t want you to miss your train—”
“Nonsense.” The man waves a hand dismissively. “Come on, it’s just right there. We’re going on the same one.”
“No, it’s really fine,” Yukio blurts, scrambling for an excuse. “I, I’m not buying one today.” He falters, watching as the man’s expression turns confused.
“You said you were trying to go home though,” the man puzzles. He frowns, staring intently at Yukio’s face, then his clothes.
“Yes,” Yukio fumbles, “I am, but I need to wait for someone. I just got here early, to check.”
This is bad. How did he manage to mess this up so horrifically? Not only was he unable to steal this man’s wallet, but he keeps staring and at this rate he’s going to realize who Yukio is—
“Hey, kid.” The man takes a step forward. “Be honest with me.” His eyes look kind, with light crow’s feet lining the corners as he holds Yukio’s gaze.
No. That doesn’t matter. Appearances mean nothing. If he’s been recognized, he needs to leave; find another way.
The man clears his throat. “Is the reason you don’t want to buy a ticket because, because you don’t have the money? Because, you know,” he runs a hand through his hair tiredly, “I can pay for yours, if that’s all that’s stopping you.”
Yukio hesitates. Is this a trap? Why would he offer to cover Yukio’s ticket, when he’s nothing but a complete stranger?
A warm hand shakes his shoulder, disrupting his thoughts. “Are you okay? Seriously, the fare is dirt cheap from here to there since we’re so close. If that’s what you’re worrying about, I’ve got you covered.” The man gives him a pained smile, clapping him on the arm fondly. “You’re trying to go home, right?”
“Come on,” the man nudges, “let’s get you home, okay?”
Why does he sound so terribly genuine? Why does he have to want to help Yukio, when it makes this so much harder?
Yukio has lied, stolen and he has harmed, so much that there is still blood on his hands, long dried under his fingernails. He’s filthy. What is wrong with this world, that can he encounter such kindness, even now? What does that make of him, if he does not hesitate to take advantage of that?
He peers over the man’s shoulder as he pays for the tickets and a simple string of four numbers burns into his mind.
The ride is short.
Nothing happens. The man does not make any calls. He does not ask Yukio for his name and he does not speak to any security personnel.
He does nothing, and he does not notice his wallet's disappearance. The train is full of people. All of them could have been options.
Yukio slips his fingers across the sleek leather edge, repeating four numbers to himself relentlessly.
This...is fine. It’s fine.
“Alright.” The man smiles. “Take care of yourself, okay?”
Yukio bows. “I really can’t thank you enough. I’m sorry, I can’t repay you—”
“Don’t be. You know, uh,” the man laughs, “when I first saw you, I thought you looked a lot like my son. He was a skinny beanpole too,” he whispers, blinking fast. “Promise me you’ll get back home, okay? Get back to your family.”
Yukio bites his lower lip hard, taking a shuddering breath as he nods shakily, not trusting himself to speak.
He has seen grief before. He’s seen it consume people, drive them to insanity, and hollow them out inside like an infection that keeps coming back. He’s been consumed by it himself, lashing out uncontrollably.
Somehow, it never crossed his mind that grief could look so kind, could become so silent.
He knows...it’s because he is inherently not a good person.
His grief is ugly, far uglier in comparison.
“Wait,” Yukio yells, lurching forward to grab the back of the man’s coat. “I’m sorry, you—”
No, he can’t do this.
He can’t, but the words tear their way from his mouth with ease, so much that he almost believes them himself. “...You dropped your wallet.”
The man looks startled as he accepts it. He laughs again, gives Yukio a fond pat on the shoulder with a multitude of well-wishes and disappears away into the crowd all too quickly, without a single sign of wariness or suspicion.
It’s not fair.
It’s not fair that he feels the humiliation like a hot blade in his gut, sliding deeper with each breath. He doesn’t even know what he regrets more, stealing or returning it.
Why is he always, always so weak?
Yokohama is markedly different from True Cross but rather similar to the rest of Tokyo. It is a place that has prospered back to life, with the heavy, yet gleaming presence of futuristic technology spindling roots into its foundation. Demonic science, Shima had called it.
Clearly, rule by the Illuminati isn’t without its benefits.
He has a few wrinkled bills and a pocket full of light, clinking coins that he can stretch for some food, at best. At least, this town should be far enough. If anything, he doesn’t believe the Order will risk chasing him here, not with the obvious Illuminati occupancy.
As he leaves the station, Yukio passes an enormous park. There’s a large fountain and a clean, rippling pool of water. Despite the snow on the ground, it’s distressingly appealing.
He’s fortunate enough to find an old, abandoned construction site near the outskirts of the town. More than a third of the roof has fallen through and the rest of the rotting wood is well on its way to join it. The infestation of coal tars must have deterred people from hiding here quite effectively. Yukio hopes it will continue to do so. The noonday sun is warm. Only thin lines of ice remain over the small pools of standing water, full of mud and green murk.
They hate standing water, but this is all he has.
He bends before the deepest puddle he can find and bows his head. This place is too filthy, and he doesn’t want to waste his medical supplies, so he won’t offer blood this time.
“I need a favor,” Yukio says as she rises out of the muddy pool, weaving herself from fine capillaries of light. She giggles, pressing one of her long sleeves into the puddle. The water trembles from her touch, pooling and growing until it skims the snow coating Yukio’s boots.
He withdraws the box cutter of a knife he purchased earlier and gifts her with a lock of hair. She brightens, delighted.
A tired smile pulls his cheeks. She’s always liked him the best out of all his naiads.
He removes the case of crystals. Her water shrinks away from him, frothing, circling around and around her.
The emperor. Why?
“This time I want to know,” he whispers. “Tell me what you see.”
Her liquid sclera swirl, bleeding black as she holds his gaze. The water stills, dripping at stray intervals.
He knows it’s dangerous. They are always inordinately pleased when he asks. He doesn’t like not knowing what they take as their price, and he can’t tell how much longer he’ll be able to pay.
Part of him can feel it. Sometimes, he shuts his eyes and he thinks he can hear the soft crumbling of critical fragments.
How much longer before he falls to pieces?
Will Satan bother to keep him alive, even then?
The water around him isn’t warm anymore. He’s cold. He hasn’t been warm in a while now. He hates it. He hates the snow. The cold.
Fire, she trills. You’ve grown brash. A smile spreads across her translucent lips in inexplicable approval. Only lies under the new moon will succeed. Be honest otherwise. When lightning arrives, make haste to low ground. Daybreak brings aid at the seventh hour but dusk of the third sun must bid farewell. Remember, do not speak to the man missing an ear.
Yukio nods, cautiously committing the words to memory. “When I reach the base, I’ll need to leave this behind.” He shows her the dark green seal of the letter, hoping she’ll understand its meaning. “Will you keep it for me?”
Water curls at the heels of his feet, bubbling softly. “Just for a bit,” Yukio adds. “Not right now. I’ll call you and be back as soon as I can.”
Why? The nephilim of the other emperor. Her gift could be useful.
“No. She’s too close to Lucifer right now.” Yukio grimaces. “As long as what I need is there. You’re certain you saw—”
She raises a sleeve to her lips, pressing close.
Sleep. He wakes. Dream and he will not see you.
“I’ll cover it,” Yukio protests. “There’s no—”
Sleep, she murmurs, dragging a wet finger down his nose.
The sun is up. How long has he slept for? The construction site is not cold. He doesn’t understand. His neck is stiff as he stands. A glimmer of blue skirts the edges of his vision as he rubs his eyes, drawing his attention to the dark scorch marks to his left.
A soft flicker of blue flame nibbles the mold between wood planks, curling up his ankles.
Yukio reels back, pressing a hand over his eye. He stomps down hard, watching warily as the fire wilts away.
An annoying part of him wishes he hadn’t been so hasty. It’s cold now.
The sky outside is barely pink, with the lingering violet of bleary slumber. Yukio searches for the moon, finding only a quarter behind a cloud. It's early in the morning; the new moon is close.
If he doesn’t make it to the base in time, can he afford to wait for the next one? When else does he need to lie?
Either way, he doesn’t want to stay here.
Yukio checks his reflection in a filthy puddle, swiping irritably at the dust over his pants as he gathers his things.
Since the gate was destroyed two years ago, his eye has become increasingly unpredictable. Egyn had called it a window. That was all Lucifer saw him as and it’s why Satan kept him from dying. Then, why does he continue to do so, even after his vessel was completed a year ago?
What use does he still have, to keep Yukio alive, even now?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
He has more important things. Whatever he becomes after this, he can deal with after.
Outside, the snow is thick. The blue haze in his vision is gone but Yukio does his best to keep his eyes lowered as he limps down the small hill into the town.
He can’t stop to rest anymore. If he stands still for too long, he has a feeling he’ll never move again.
Just a little farther.
A little farther, and he’ll have collected all the pieces he needs.
He’s being followed.
Gotemba is lively at night. There are crowds of people, yet somehow, he can hear the echo of footsteps just barely out of sync from his own. He’s turned into small alleys three times now but they’ve persisted, keeping far enough that he hasn’t been able to catch them in any reflections.
It cannot be his imagination.
He hasn’t slept since the nap he took at the abandoned construction site. That must have been two days...or three? The longest he’s gone is close to four but that was when he’d been considerably healthier, around the time he’d just escaped from the Illuminati.
There’s only a sliver of the moon left. He should strike tomorrow, at dusk. All he needs is to check the structure of the basement. As long as he can flood it, he can take out the surveillance room.
There’s a mild warmth beneath his fingertips as he wraps a hand around the crystals.
When he arrived, he was close to their base, but the crystals showed no reaction. As he suspected before, their lab isn’t there. The past few days, he’s made several wide circles around the city, slowly leaving the valley. It’s definitely warmer here, near the east end where an expansive wind farm overlooks the mountain pass. Just below it hides a pair of buildings linked by a glassy sky bridge.
It’s much too far to walk but he can’t just take any vehicle.
Yukio ducks behind a dumpster, watching a pair of Illuminati uniforms stumble past him. They’re clearly drunk, and appallingly so. This town is crawling with them, which is why he hasn’t dared to use his sparingly gathered money for anything more than a short bus ride.
“I’m telling you, I was there,” the taller one drawls. “It was all blue, bluer than you know, the uh,” he waves a hand lazily, “the sky.”
Yukio hesitates, staring as one of them fumbles, dropping a ring of keys. The bar they came out of is loud, with some kind of heavy metal dance music booming from inside.
“Seriously though, I mean, it all blew up? Man, I even got stuck on that project a couple years back. Can’t believe they’re starting over already. Wait for us to win the war first, idiots."
It’s late. The back of the parking lot is dark, with only two flickering, moth covered streetlamps to keep the night at bay.
“No, no, no, no—it was...it was way, way pathetic. The Order’s running for their lives, ‘cause the commander’s two steps from popping a blood vessel, you know. He just,” the soldier jerks an arm out, nearly whacking his companion across the forehead, “pah, and light, ash, you know, the good stuff. Creeps me out, to be honest.”
The shorter one leans to the side, wheezing. “No way, that easy? Come on, come up with something better,” he sniggers. “Odds are, you had your pants scared off by those flames.
“Hey, hey, I’m not making it up. The commander gets there,” he snorts, “and boom. Classic. Fat lot of good that fancy sword did him. Hey, you know, we were part of the cleanup that day. It was a mess.”
Blue. Project. A sword.
The sword...in the neat red sleeve?
The one that was always by his side?
Chunks of jagged gravel make dull scrapes against the soles of Yukio’s boots as he crosses the lot, curling and uncurling his fists in his jacket pockets. His cold tired blood stirs, warming his fingertips.
He needs to know.
Before his thoughts have the time to catch up, Yukio cocks his gun, letting the sharp series of clicks speak for themselves.
“Don’t turn around,” he warns. "Answer my question and I won't hurt you.”
“Huh? Who do you think you are?” The taller soldier slams a hand on the roof of a sedan, tilting his head back as he stares down the barrel of Yukio’s gun. “You wanna go? Let’s go, huh, kid?”
The hot stench of alcohol brushes his face as the man leers with glazed eyes. This isn’t working. How can he even trust what they say?
...But he needs to know.
Only lies under the new moon will succeed. Does that apply only to his own?
“I want to know what happened to the sword,” Yukio begins. “You said you were there, when the gate was destroyed—”
“What? You what?”
“What happened to the sword? You were talking about it earlier,” Yukio demands, taking a step back as the man leans too close. “Tell me what happened to the sword.”
The man makes a show of contorting his face. His partner has the nerve to laugh, taking a swig of beer. “Ah yeah, yeah, sword...it was...uh, the commander has it stuck up, you know, where the sun don’t shine. Huh? Good one, am I right?”
The soldier wobbles closer. “You look, look sort of, sort of familiar, don’t you?” His partner waves a beer bottle, egging him on.
Stay calm. Sleep deprivation leads to poor concentration, escalates irritability, disturbs coordination and sense of balance, severely impairs judgement—
“Have I seen you, some place, before?”
Yukio steps forward on a shard of glass. “I don’t know.” It grates as a soft screech, like gentle scratches against a crumbling, decaying wall, taking something with it. “Have you?”
He’s done caring.
Yukio holsters his gun, seizes the front of the man’s hideous green uniform and pulls a fist back. He barely registers the pain in his ankle as the man’s nose gives with a loud crunch. There’s shouting. Blood. Warmth. The soldier flails, collapsing.
The other soldier flounders over, waving a dizzy arm as he yells in alarm. Yukio pivots, shoving the arm aside as he rams the heel of his palm into the man’s chin. A quick kick between the man’s legs brings him crashing to the ground, squirming as he vomits.
Why do they have to scream so loudly? His throat is sore as he catches his breath, and it occurs to him in the sudden quiet.
The one who was screaming...was himself?
Yukio hauls the one with the bleeding nose up by his uniform, carefully brandishing a pistol. The man stills, sniffling as sweat mixes with the blood dribbling down his face.
“What happened,” he presses the gun to the man’s forehead, “to the sword?”
His jaw aches. Is he bleeding?
The man mumbles something. Yukio leans closer, digging the gun into his temple. “Speak up. Where is it now?"
“You wanna know that bad?” The man sneers. "How about you try asking nicely?” Something mildly warm lands on his cheek and clings there. Yukio flinches.
Did he just...spit?
Yukio stomps down on his fingers and the man howls profanities, gasping and lashing out weakly.
He’s never wanted to hurt this badly before, but the world might as well be blue because this feeling burns and burns and if he doesn’t have to stop to think, then it’s good.
“Where is it?” He yanks the man off the ground, shaking furiously. “Where is the sword?”
It’s no use. He’s incoherent at this point. Then what is Yukio supposed to do?
What is he doing, right now?
“He doesn’t know,” the other soldier whispers, shivering as he meets Yukio’s eyes. “We, we were joking around. He wasn’t there until later.” He coughs, grimacing as he pushes himself up. “I don’t know what sword you’re talking about, but the captain who arrived yesterday had one, at her hip. There’s another one, uh, on the wall in the main hall, and another one that’s decorative for assemblies.”
Yukio’s fingers slacken, unclenching painfully.
One look at the man’s face tells him he has no idea what he’s saying. Of course. How could they know? No one knows. Two years searching, and still, no one can tell him. Because he was too late. Too late, and he’s already—
What did he just do?
No, it doesn’t matter. Think. They can still be of use to him. What about the car? Their uniforms?
Yukio staggers to his feet. “Hand over your money.”
He was careless. If he leaves them, there’s a chance he’ll be reported. He needs to move now. If he knocks them out, he’ll have at least five hours, perhaps more.
Or he can silence them.
Can he cross that line?
He pockets their wallets carefully, but his hands refuse to stop shaking. It must be fatigue. Yes. No. He’s not thinking straight. Bodies will raise suspicion. They’re drunk. He can incapacitate them, and any passerby won’t know better.
First, he needs a uniform.
Yukio slams his elbow into the taller soldier’s temple without warning, sidestepping his crumpled form as the other one reels, trying to scramble away. The shorter one frantically looks back as Yukio approaches. He kicks the man in the back of the knees, smashing his head against a nearby car.
For a quiet moment, the man slumps listlessly, grappling to stay conscious.
Yukio waits, counting ten unsettled heartbeats before he reaches out, wrenching the man’s uniform off his limp frame.
Vomit clings to the corner of a sleeve, mixed with the pungent stench of wet blood and tobacco in the night air.
He jerks the uniform over his head, bundling his flimsy rain jacket into his bag as he picks the ring of keys off the ground. It’s cold out here.
The lab is over twenty kilometers away. He’s not sure he knows how to drive. Perhaps it’s not a good idea.
His hands shake badly enough that he manages to drop the keys twice before yanking the door open.
He half drags, half carries the two soldiers into the car, propping one in front and heaving the other into the back. The disgusting ashtray, along with some candy wrappers, go into a nearby trash can and he keeps the two badges. The trunk has a flashlight, some blankets, and a plastic container of gasoline.
Yukio considers it carefully, lifting the container out of the trunk with some difficulty.
He rummages through his pockets, discovering a smushed nutrient bar along with half a package of cigarettes. There’s also a short utility knife, a pen, and a wrinkled photograph.
Yukio squints, holding it up to the dim light.
The uniform he’s wearing stinks of smoke. Chances are, one of them must have a lighter.
If he has gasoline, fire could be a better option to delay the east end's evacuation. Flooding is slow but he can control its spread. Fire is dangerous.
He could kill, even if he doesn't intend to.
It’s four in the morning. He’ll take an hour to purchase the last of his supplies. One hour to prepare and find the lab. Thirty minutes to infiltrate and trigger the fire alarm from the west end. Five minutes to make it to the roof and cross the sky bridge.
Five minutes to arrive at the east end of the lab.
Daybreak, aid, seventh hour. If he can meet those conditions, will it be enough?
He tosses the photograph.
There is no wind to carry the worn paper away. It sits at his feet patiently, fraying at the edges.
Yukio sifts through the shorter soldier's pockets, takes his lighter and crams the other one's photograph in there.
The car starts without trouble. He’s lucky the transmission is automatic. Finding how to switch on the windshield wipers proves to be more complicated but the streets are empty enough that he has time to figure out.
Long, dark strands of clouds cast blurred streaks across the sky as frigid hail hits the pavement. Yukio steps out under the awning of a small convenience store, with glaring light flushing its windows. Did he check the moon earlier?
Perhaps the lightning she promised is coming soon. It’s only been a few days but he’s already thoughtlessly forgotten the rest of her warning, along with the action he was meant to take.
He allows a handful of coins to plink into a payphone, curling his cold fingers around the receiver as he waits for the dial tone.
The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again.
The glass of the phone booth is streaked with dust. It fogs slightly as he presses his forehead to its cool surface. He listens to the clatter of hail, the sharp chirps of the number he dials, and the sound of vast silence waiting for him on the other end.
The number you have dialed has been disconnected or is no longer in service. Please check the number and dial again.
Of course. Why did he expect anything different?
“...I’m sorry.” Yukio drags a hand through his hair, leaning back against the glass as he shuts his eyes. “I...I don’t even know what I have to be afraid of, but I’m afraid, regardless.”
The fierce tack-tack-tack of hail mingles with the low dial tone hanging from his fingers. His eye throbs. It is a hot, searing shard of coal digging into his skull, yet his vision is clear of blue, like a mocking hallucination.
Today, he almost didn’t know himself anymore. He doesn’t want to think it’ll happen again. If it does, perhaps he should stop.
Who is he kidding? He passed the point of no return that night, on the snow-covered bridge, with arrogance flowing, corroding through his veins—ages ago.
He can't stop, even if he wanted to.
“Please, lend me some of your strength, just this once.”
After all, what's the worst that could happen? He'll die?
The lab is arduously difficult to find, even with the crystals to guide him. He has to get out several times to search on foot whenever the road splits. Before, he’d caught a few glimpses of the facility hidden here by using coin binoculars at a tourist site. Even then, he can hardly be certain it’s the correct one. There are several buildings a few kilometers out from it. One is an observatory, and another is a tourist information center. There are no other cars he needs to worry about but there are also none to follow.
The entrance is unobtrusive. A sign outside points two directions, one for visitor parking, another for employees only. By the time he pulls up to the gates, the hail has stopped. A guard sitting in the small booth holds out a scanner.
Yukio hands her one of the badges through the window, gesturing vaguely to the soldier he has propped up next to him.
“All this says is he’s got access to the base down south, not here. Besides, where’s yours?"
“Sorry.” Yukio grimaces. “I don’t have it. There was a problem with—”
The guard waves a hand. “Hold up, it froze. Oh, interesting. My bad, I didn’t see the note in here. Go on then.” Yukio nods, surprised as he takes the badge back. “Hey,” the guard yells, “don’t you know, you’re not supposed to use high-beams in rain?”
Yukio heads away from the gate slowly, stopping a good distance away from the eastern entrance. He’s lucky he was let in so easily. He’d been prepared to cause a commotion pretending one of the two drunkards was bleeding out or something equally as dramatic, but this is much more preferable.
He doesn’t know what glitch let him in, but he certainly can’t be bothered with it right now. At best, all he can do is keep going. If it’s a trap, it’s too late for him to turn back now.
Yukio opens his duffel bag, checking the crystals once more. They’re warm, much warmer than he expected. He hefts the gasoline tank carefully out of the trunk, lays it flat in the demure cardboard box he picked up from the convenience store, and checks his watch.
It’s six thirty-five. Good enough.
He keeps his guns and the keys, and gingerly folds the crystals into his pockets. If he succeeds, he should be able to make it back to this car to escape. For now, he’ll have to leave these two drunkards in here. He doesn’t know how long they’ll stay unconscious, but the duct tape should hold. He can deal with them later.
Now that he’s in, he needs to be quick.
Unfortunately, the outer walls of the building are concrete. He’ll have to light it from inside after all.
The adhesive he used to cover the moles under his eye feels uncomfortably stiff, but as he keeps his steps quick and purposeful, no one gives him more than a passing glance.
The corridors of the west end of the base are relatively empty, with only a few agents walking back and forth out of closed doors, locked with card readers. The layout is nothing like he suspected, and he wastes several minutes trying to understand how the two sides are connected. There’s the sky bridge between the two buildings which he noticed before, yet because the base is located on uneven land, it is the basement of the west end that connects to the fourth floor of the east end, not the roof.
Yukio locates the mess hall without difficulty once he realizes most of the staff are heading there. It’s not quite on par with the decadence of the airship but there are still numerous small shops selling not only food, but daily essentials and other convenience items as well.
He purchases two newspapers and folds them into his box. If the majority of people are here, it could give him some measure of anonymity. Standing out in the corridors, he’s alone. Here, he can blend.
The level of chatter suddenly drops, then rises again. Yukio turns, searching for the source. At the bottom of the stairs stands a small group of soldiers that no one can bear to be in the way of.
“Is that Captain Todo?”
“You didn’t know? She’s been here since yesterday.”
“What’s she doing here? Usually the clones last a month, don’t they?”
“Probably because of the skirmish in Herning. I heard we’ve only got a few more days before the commander switches.”
Yukio adjusts his grip on his box and takes a slow breath in. Out. In. Out.
He can’t forget what he came here for.
The smell of smoke is distinct enough that it’ll be easily noticed. He doesn’t know what access the badges he’s stolen have. If he chooses a public area, he’ll need a way to keep people out until he’s finished.
If he remembers correctly, he passed an open supply closet on his way here.
Yukio leaves the mess hall with forcefully even footsteps. It’s six-forty.
A man who’s just finished washing his hands holds the restroom door open for him. Yukio offers a polite smile and props his bright yellow closed-for-cleaning sign in the entrance.
From what he can see, there aren’t any cameras in here. As long as he’s quick enough, he shouldn’t be discovered.
The trash must not have been emptied this morning since the bin is helpfully overflowing, with only a few damp paper towels on the top. He removes about half of the paper towels, rolls his newspaper and dips it into the container of gasoline. It’s messier than he’d like when he finishes, gently covering the soaked newspaper with the remainder of used paper towels. He wipes the few drops of gas off the floor and flushes his gloves down the toilet.
A few weak sparks later, the lighter finally produces a tall flame, sputtering with lively blue edges. It’s not very warm. The soft ring of black spreads with disappointing gradualness as he waits, hiding the tank of gasoline back in his box.
His reflection catches his gaze in the mirror with gaunt, bloodshot eyes. Somehow, it looks less anxious than he feels. He turns the faucet on, watching the entrance closely. Water in the basin drains with loud splashes, gushing and roaring in the silence.
Yukio takes a slow breath and draws a knife across his arm, letting blood well in thin beads along the circles.
Corycia, Melaina, Cleodora, Cleochareia, Bateia, Drosera, Solaia, Periboea.
A veil of turquoise glows under his eyelids as their laughter descends around him with the quiet tinkling of stirred water. It’s the first time he’s called them using a circle drawn on himself. The pain arching up his arm is paralyzing, growing hot as they finish forming their vessels.
Yukio waits as the water in the sink swirls and gradually stops draining. It pools and stills.
“I need five minutes,” he says, watching as they crowd the fledgling fire fluttering about in the trash can, cooing soft breaths of vapor to see it fumble. "Let them put this one out."
They don’t appear to be listening. He’s certain they’ve seen this already but part of him needs to reorganize his plan, at least to himself.
“After that, stop all of the water.” Yukio sways as he moves to lean against the counter. They’re still playing with the fire. "Leave it alone,” he mutters. The circles on his arm turn dim as black dots crowd his vision. Just a little longer. He can’t dismiss them yet, not completely, at least.
They giggle, leaving a wave of pale frosted condensation climbing the mirrors as they ease through cracks in the ceiling.
The flame blooms, glowing a fragile, warm orange.
Six forty-five. He’s finished here. There’s no time for him to be standing around, catching his breath.
Yukio steps around the closed-for-cleaning sign and heads straight for the stairs. He doesn’t know how long he has. The sky bridge is high up. There are more agents over here. Good.
Chances are, once the fire is discovered, they’ll check the camera footage and begin to search for him. The faster he moves, the more suspicious he’ll appear.
It’s still six forty-five. The alarm hasn’t gone off yet. How much longer?
What if the fire went out?
A flash of white light skirts the corner of his vision just as he reaches the end of the bridge. His heart skips a beat as the alarm above his head blares, loud enough that he jumps despite expecting it.
A door he walks by slams open, jolting his shoulder as he rushes to grab the edge.
Two officers storm out. One of them shouts into a communicator, while the other pries open a keypad on the wall of the skybridge.
They’re cutting the two buildings off.
He hadn’t expected this to go so well.
Yukio ducks into the stairwell on the east side, pushing past the flood of people trying to leave the building. The ear-piercing alarm seems even louder as he reaches the next floor, reverberating and pounding in his head furiously.
He jerks the door out of the stairwell open, stopping as he’s met with a tall vat of faintly pink liquid, wheeled along by several researchers.
The clones are here.
Yukio turns, nearly crashing into an older woman rushing by. “You, what are you standing around for? Go help the perfusion team! Hey, transfer those carefully! Get moving!”
Yukio stumbles as another group shoulders past him, gritting his teeth as he feels the circles on his arm rile. He’d expected the summoning to weaken him, which is why he put it off as late as possible. Even so, sustaining them is growing difficult by the minute. At best, he’ll be able to hold out for fifteen minutes. Any more, and he won’t have the strength to make his escape.
He heads back into the stairwell, climbing up several flights. No wonder this lab was so difficult to find. This place must be the ground supply Lucifer spoke of.
The alarm switches to an announcement.
All available Building A personnel must aid in the horizontal relocation of floor three subjects via site 42 protocol. Containment of the fire is in progress. All available Building A personnel, please move to support relocation efforts on floor three immediately.
Floor three. He’s on the sixth floor right now, which at least appears to be finished evacuating. Good.
A large pile of cardboard stands near a set of double doors. They’re locked. From what he can see through the small window, it looks like a sort of electrical room with countless switches on one wall.
Seems flammable enough.
Yukio throws his box aside and gets to work. Conveniently, there’s a fire extinguisher on the wall. Two hard strikes with it shatters the small window. He seizes the edge of a pile of cardboard and topples it across the floor. Pouring the gasoline over it takes more effort than he expected but when it lights, the blaze is alive, with an intoxicating warmth that grows, licking at his skin as it climbs steadily up.
It’ll take a couple minutes, but this should be enough to make it into the electrical room.
The lab is hidden deep up in the mountains. It will be difficult for fire rescue and suppression support to reach them.
This time, he’ll burn it to the ground, until nothing but ash is left.
It’s six forty-nine.
Lightning crashes past the tall window as he sprints by, clattering up the stairs. The crystals in his pocket are getting warmer, so hot that he can scarcely hold them. He makes a loop around the area and comes to a stop in front of an unassuming storage room, with a multitude of signs on it. At this point he can feel the slight variations in temperature of the crystals, almost like a slow, tired pulse.
It must be here.
The door is made of thick steel and the hinges are on the other side. If he’s not mistaken, these types of doors have multiple bolts. In the past, he participated in a couple operations requiring ballistic door breaching, but he has never performed it himself.
All he has is two handguns, which lack power and will likely require several shots. The chance of ricochet is high, and he only has standard rounds, which pose significant risk to the contents on the other side of the door. Although, considering that he doesn’t need to worry about hitting people, perhaps it’s of little consequence.
Ideally, if he targets the space between the lock and the handle, it should cause enough damage to the bolts.
Once, almost seven years ago, when Yukio accompanied Father Fujimoto on a mission, they risked breaching a rusting steel door to rescue...someone or other that he can’t recall anymore. Father had used a shotgun. He’d explained that a steel door can warp and jam using a regular forty-five degree angle approach; that the shot should be aimed at ninety degrees into the door.
Or was it the other way around?
Shooting perpendicularly at a flat, hard surface sounds ridiculous. Wouldn’t it ricochet straight back at him?
The smell of smoke is distracting. It’s hot. He’s running out of time. This is a mess. He’s two steps away from his goal and somehow, he never considered that it’d be kept in a vault of all things.
He has never been this unprepared and now he’s paying for it.
Yukio adjusts his grip, raising his guns as he fights to take a deep breath, nudging his glasses straight with his shoulder.
This is the tenth floor. The fire wreaking havoc on the sixth floor is spreading. No one will come here. He won’t burn but excessive smoke inhalation is perfectly capable of killing him if he can’t make it out. Right now, he needs to focus.
Focus. Breathe. Sight.
He fires three deafening shots, holsters his gun and clenches his jaw as he raises his leg, kicking hard just below the handle. It sends a painful jolt down his hip when the door buckles, stubbornly refusing to move.
Fine. He fires two more shots, flinching as a scrap whistles past his ear.
There’s a deep dent. He pushes but the door still refuses to budge, and the dent is hardly changing. At this point he’ll run out of bullets before he gets this open.
This isn't working.
He empties a magazine at it, kicks and rams his shoulder against it but the door does not move, and it does not weaken.
His neck feels warm. When he raises his hand up to the side, it comes back slick, colored the brilliant red of oxygenated blood.
…And then it hurts. It hurts like the sharp, racing edge of lightning, so much that he doesn't dare breathe for fear of feeling that agony once more.
There’s a piece of shrapnel in his neck.
He blinks but no blue comes.
Does this mean he’s going to die? Or is it not anything serious? It hurts so much that he can’t move, shutting his eyes as he tries to ignore the nauseating heat of his blood pounding and throbbing as it soaks his collar. He stands there, frozen and dazed, counting the beats of his frantic heart. Around three hundred, he loses count, starts over, and snaps back to awareness.
It’s bleeding sluggishly now. He gently grazes the edge of his fingers against the hot jagged edge, holding his breath as he finds the point it meets his skin.
He needs to...needs to do something about this.
Yukio steps back, rolls up his sleeve and draws his knife. He’s sweating terribly, he can’t seem to breathe right, and his hands are shaking so uncontrollably from adrenaline that he makes a deeper cut than he needs.
She appears quickly enough, wearing an amused expression as he slumps against the wall, panting with his head between his knees.
It’s only as she brushes cool vapor over his arm that he realizes his mistake. He’s already bleeding from the neck. What is he doing, making another wound to offer blood?
What is he even doing? How did he let the situation get this bad?
No. Keep it together. What did he come here for? This door is in the way. It’s in the way and he needs to get inside but he doesn’t know how to—
He’s not strong enough.
“I—I don’t have anything,” he mutters, pressing his sleeve over his arm, “that could open this.” There’s an itch in his throat, his eyes sting and his ankle has clearly been overexerted. His head aches like it’s splitting, and he can barely hear himself think over the roaring, crackling fire inching its way from the end of the hallway.
She blinks clear, liquid orbs at him, stretching her lips into an infuriating smile.
Daybreak brings aid at the seventh hour but dusk of the third sun must bid farewell, she bubbles, as though reading his thoughts. Today, there is rain.
There’s rain. Is that what she’s trying to say? That he’s alone? What kind of aid did she even mean? He can’t think of anyone still alive who would be willing to help him now, a thousand miles away, in a burning enemy base that he lit up himself.
“You...can’t open this,” Yukio mumbles, more to himself, than to her, “can you?”
He’s still so weak, isn’t he? Training and training more, and running away to the Illuminati, and he can’t even break down a door when it counts.
“What’s happening outside?” he asks, standing clumsily. The light-headedness he feels makes sense. His blood pressure is probably low. He needs fluids but he hasn’t lost nearly so much blood to go into shock. It’s fine. He’ll be fine. His heart rate is quickening to compensate. He needs to finish this. “Have they realized you’re stopping the water?”
Yes. They cannot catch us, but they have begun a ritual to summon the one who beckons spring. The wingless ruler of weather.
“So the fire won’t last,” Yukio confirms. She only speaks in circles and he has no idea what demon she’s referring to. He pulls his sleeve up and checks the line of circles on his arm. They're still bright, with a faint sheen that seems to move only when he isn't looking. “How much longer—”
Until the one who bears the blessing of frost and another of twin seas clash. She pauses as her form shudders, rippling.
“Wait,” Yukio shouts, digging into his pocket for the letter. “Take this with you.”
Very well. She presses a hand to his arm where her circle lies and fades like evaporating steam. Remember, do not speak to the man missing an ear.
The blistering heat of the fire rears as she disappears, nipping at his skin. Smoke has begun to crowd the room, billowing and obscuring the long hallway from view.
Yukio turns to face the door of the vault, raising his gun. There’s no time. He has one final, desperate idea left.
If this doesn’t work, then he has to give up. Retreat. Start over.
“I don’t know what you need me for anymore,” Yukio begins, wetting his cracking lips, “but you’ve always saved me.” He takes a shaky step forward. “If you don’t help me break down this door, I’ll—”
Footsteps bluster down the hallway. There’s at least two of them, coming closer. The smoke is too thick to see anything at this distance.
He holds his ground, keeping his arm lowered.
“I fall,” a rough voice calls, “alone, on shore, from scudding drifts of the rainmakers, weep from the head of Taurus—”
Yukio fires a warning shot. He knows this chant. From the head of Taurus refers to the Hyades, nymphs of rain. If he lets the summoning be completed, he’ll lose his only advantage. He needs to move fast. There’s at least two of them. The smoke is thick.
A flash of white whips around the corner, closing jaws around his wrist. Yukio grunts, fighting to keep hold of his gun.
The byakko growls, springing back. He’s unstable. Be careful.
What’s going on?
“Why is the Order here?” Yukio demands, raising his other gun. Kamiki, Suguro and Miwa...clever. If they’d sent anyone else, he might have already fired. “How did you find this place?”
The three of them each have a glowing sigil on their foreheads; the grace of a kin of Egyn to fend off the flames, presumably. Kamiki is quick. If he tries to run, her familiars will block his way. If he tries to make a stand here, it’s likely Suguro will complete a chant before Yukio can reach him. Miwa, on the other hand, was once their weak link in terms of raw power, but it's not unlikely for that to have changed over three years.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. Even if he incapacitates them, there are others waiting outside.
“Okumura-sensei, dismiss your familiars,” Miwa pleads. “We’re here to help you. You need medical treatment and—”
“Are you certain you’re here to help me?” Yukio scoffs. “Is that why I was allowed to escape with the crystals so easily? You used me to find this base, didn’t you?” Miwa flinches. The thoughtless, acerbic anger that clawed its way out of his gut dampens. He’s frustrated with them, with the Order—with himself.
Kamiki nods curtly. “The Order’s operation has already succeeded. We mounted an attack this morning, in tandem with your infiltration. This base will fall once their captain is defeated. Dismiss your familiars and surrender.”
He has two handguns, with fourteen rounds left. The ache in his ankle that he was stubbornly ignoring is back. He’s sweating, and his heart rate is fast even though he’s been standing still this entire time. At the very least, he’s exhausted, with symptoms bordering on hypovolemia from fluid loss.
The circles on his arm are agitated, flickering precariously as his focus wavers.
It’s over, isn’t it?
No, not yet.
If he has to sign a Morinas contract or two with the Order to get what he came here for, then so be it.
He’s not finished yet.
“I’ll surrender on one condition,” Yukio says, lowering his guns. Miwa steps forward but Yukio pushes on, “It’s something you can help me with. I know you can’t negotiate but this is different.”
He sets his guns on the floor and rolls his sleeve up, letting the circles pulse softly.
“It’s about my brother.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Suguro says, shifting his phone to his other ear, “okay, okay yeah, got it. Yeah, he said it’s sealed with Armumahel crystals. No, there isn’t. I mean, if there’s a lot, okay. Yes, I understand. Thank you.” He ends the call and nods. “We’re good.”
For a second, Yukio doesn’t believe it.
He releases a tremulous breath and carefully, carefully bows low at the waist.
It’s all he can manage as he releases his naiads one by one, watching the circles run like wet ink, leaving behind only dark smudges. The building’s sprinklers sputter to life, berating and flooding the flames. Great waves of steam rise, mingling in the air.
Miwa fastens a pair of magic-binding cuffs to his wrists, leading him down the hallway they came from. At the end there is an open door, glowing white with the promise of fresh air. They must have used a key. He should have thought of that.
He’s handed off to a triage nurse and by then, everything has become an exhausted blur. For a moment, he thinks he spots the bowed, prideful shoulders of Todo Homare shoved into a truck and there’s a bitter spark in his chest that’s sharply vindictive and disappointed at the same time.
A group of twenty exorcists chant in front of the building. They summon a dragon with thin whiskers, horns, gleaming scales and a body so long that it curls all the way above the clouds as it ascends. The fire dies slowly as the sky is split open by fierce, unforgiving rain, until not even the scent of smoke remains.
Somewhere along the line, he loses focus. For once, when he shuts his eyes, he feels relieved.
They’ve placed him in a makeshift recovery ward, next to a tall unadorned window. His wrist is cuffed to his bed, which is, perhaps generously, a slight distance from the others in the room.
Some of them have burns.
The lights in this room are gentle. It hurts to think, so he doesn’t bother. He drifts off staring outside at the pale grey sky.
When he wakes there’s a strange sound by his ear, like a swift, periodic crackling noise.
Yukio blinks and cautiously turns his head.
He’s met with a blurry face, with surprised violet eyes and bright vibrant hair that he’s certain he should know. It takes him a long moment of squinting to remember.
He opens his mouth but is abruptly assaulted by the urge to cough, and then he does, roughly and loudly enough that his chest aches. It wakes him up completely, and soon, everything else hurts as well.
A gentle hand helps him sit up. “It’s okay. Take it easy, Yukio.”
He sips the water she lifts to his lips reluctantly. It slides down his throat and settles into his body with a familiar, muddled coldness.
“Shura-san,” he murmurs, patting around the bed for his glasses. “Why are you here?”
“Huh?” Her eyes narrow as she grabs his ear, twisting hard. “Three years, I haven’t seen you, and I don’t even get a ‘how have you been’ or something?”
Before he can respond, a coughing fit hits him. An uneasy shadow crosses her face as she lets go. It’s gone in a heartbeat, but the silence speaks for itself.
She slumps back onto a stool and tosses something at his lap. Yukio looks down, finding a small pile of peanut shells accumulating there on a newspaper. “Is this today’s?” he asks, lifting the edge to check the date.
“Nah, that’s yesterday’s.” Shura shells another peanut in a stiff cadence of prickling snaps, chewing daintily. “Today’s has your face in the corner. See? Your hair looks hideous.”
“I see,” Yukio takes another sip of water. “Your hair looks nice,” he says idly, turning to stare at the sky. It’s a fierce, brimming orange hue, interrupted by the dark silhouettes of a climbing row of windmills. He likes this view. It feels more like sunset than sunrise, even though he knows these mountains face east.
Shura snorts, cracks open another shell and raps a knuckle sharply on the edge of the bedside table. “Got what you asked for.”
A small wooden box sits neatly beside him. It’s rectangular and plain. The wood is smooth, with fine edges wrapped closed by a white paper seal and a thin metal cord.
Yukio reaches a hand over, tracing a finger down the seam. When he lifts it off the table, its weight surprises him. Pain lances up his forearm and his wrist buckles, shaking uncontrollably. He panics, shifting forward, trying to set it back, only to fail when his cuffed wrist jerks against the rail with a shrill metallic screech.
Shura catches it. Her bag of peanuts thumps to the floor as she sets it back with a soft sigh. “Don’t tell me you hadn’t noticed. How long?” She picks the bag up and snaps a peanut shell, crushing the small crumbs over the newspaper on his legs. “A week? Two?”
“Two months.” Yukio rolls his wrist gradually, watching the tremors settle. “It’s been two months.” He averts his eyes, admiring the unraveling threads on his hospital gown.
The staggered crackle of peanut shells continues. “Well, I’m impressed you even remember your own name.”
He’s immune to their effects on memory, but she doesn’t need to know that.
“It’s fine.” Yukio nods at the box. “This is what I wanted. I won’t do it anymore,” he adds, and the line strikes an odd chord inside him. It’s an inadequate apology but he...doesn’t feel wrong. He doesn’t regret it.
Shura dumps her peanut shells in the trash and perches back onto the stool. “What’s in it?” she asks, tapping a boot against the leg of the table.
Yukio reaches for the water. “They didn’t tell you?”
“Nope.” Shura crosses her arms, peering at the box. “I was hanging out in that bed all day when they were digging your box out of the crystal. That Todo hag had the nerve to bite me.” She shows off the bandage on her forearm. “I got this off her though.” She grins, raising one of the swords strapped to her back.
...the captain who arrived yesterday had one, at her hip.
The immaculate dark blue varnish and mild steel mountings are the same as before, on that snowy evening, when he watched it break into two irreconcilable pieces.
Yukio tries to cover his astonishment with a nod.
“So, spill. Why are they giving it to you?”
“I requested it,” Yukio sets the glass down, curling the cold pads of his fingers into his palm, “as a condition for my surrender.”
He watches the windmills turn and turn and turn.
Don’t think about it.
“So that’s why you stole those crystals.” Shura sighs. “I was worried, but I didn’t try to find you, after. I’m sorry.”
The Koma Sword’s scabbard gleams as she sets it down before the urn. Yukio tears his eyes away when the tassels swing, dangling limply.
Ashes. In this box.
A dam deep down inside him splinters open. The putrid, collected water spills forth in the face of crushing, undeniable finality, surging and frothing out of him like poison. It rages and floods and chafes his thoughts away until nothing is left but this vast darkness that he has always, always feared.
He hunches over, curling an arm around himself as he bites down hard on his lip.
Don’t think about it.
“It’s been two years, hasn’t it? I’m glad.” Shura smiles, pressing his head to her shoulder as she smooths unsteady fingers through his hair. “Go on. Rest easy now, Rin.”
A hot rush of anger scrapes at something in his chest. Rest? That means nothing. Nothing at all. He nearly loses hold of it, tries to muster the strength to snap at her, to yell and scream so that even if just for a moment, he can keep the agony which feeds and consumes him at bay.
How could this happen? What did you ever do to deserve this?
“It’s not your fault,” Shura says. “It’s not your fault, Yukio.”
Of course it wasn’t. He’d found out far too late, weeks after.
He spent weeks after it happened completely oblivious.
“I, I don’t remember,” he gasps, “I don’t remember what I said to him last.” Yukio trembles, snatching her arm, “I told him I didn’t want his help—”
A sob claws its way out of his chest before he can stop it. Hot tears run down his cheeks as he clamps a hand over his mouth, trying to keep quiet. He doesn’t understand why this feeling keeps coming back. It keeps coming back, without dulling, carving into his flesh like an unrelenting admonishment. It hurts. It hurts so much more than before.
You used to always come save me. I hated that.
Even now, all he ever thinks of is himself.
I see. You must have finally grown tired of it.
I’m sorry, Nii-san. I’m so sorry.
The next morning, the sky is shaded deeply blue and even the sheets, the window and the wall are subtly touched by its sheen.
Yukio greets the nurse who comes to check up on him, and she screams.
Everything looks blue.
“I’m sorry,” Yukio exclaims, covering his eye as she backs away. “This isn’t—”
“What’s going on?” Two exorcists burst through the doors. One of them steps in front of the nurse. “Go get help,” she orders, drawing a long knife from her belt. “I’m warning you,” she yells, slicing across her palm. “I just triggered the spell. Make any sudden moves and your head will go flying. Understand?”
Yukio swallows, glancing at the bloody array on her hand. “I understand.”
Hurried footsteps shuffle down the hallway.
“Back off, Suzuki.” Shura strides in along with a messily dressed man...the Arc Knight Suguro was apprenticed to—whose name Yukio suddenly can’t remember. “No one’s head is flying anywhere on my watch.”
She takes a step back when he meets her eyes. “Yukio, what are you doing?”
The messily dressed man leans close. “So, you inherited the flames after all?”
“Watch it, Lightning,” Shura hisses, yanking him back by his scarf. “Why would he bother to burn the building with gasoline if he had those flames? Obviously he can’t control them—”
“They’re not mine,” Yukio cuts in. His agreement requires him to cooperate with interrogations. At most, he can misdirect their questions, but he imagines if he withholds information, they’ll only be more likely to keep him locked up here. This is growing tiresome.
“Satan’s flames then,” Lightning concludes. “You don’t appear to be possessed though. That’s interesting,” he hums, grinning widely, “but dangerous.” His eyes narrow. “What has he used you for? Don’t even think about lying.”
Is it a threat or a bluff?
Lightning is manipulative. He’s already shown he knows perfectly well how to use Yukio’s weaknesses against him, and he’s capable of drawing those emotions out with ease, tugging them loose like the integral, fraying threads of a threadbare cloth.
I heard...you stuck a gun in my apprentice’s face.
Yukio shifts his gaze away, lowering his hand from his eye. “It’s not that simple.” He wipes his glasses with the corner of his blanket, watching the prismatic oil smear shift back and forth. “In the beginning, I suspect he needed me to watch my brother. He intervened several times when my life was threatened. After I left the Illuminati and—” he falters, trying to quell the unsteadiness in his voice.
It takes him several moments, absently staring at his fingernails, before he can continue. “After they completed his vessel and the gate was destroyed, he became more sporadic.” He gestures to his eye. “Like this morning.”
It feels like he’s dug a hole for himself, and with each word, he’s crawling deeper into a trap.
“Okay,” Lightning presses his lips into a tight line, “but what did he have to save you from, this morning? What does he still need you for in the first place?”
“I don’t know.”
The fire helps him often. It appears in the morning sometimes, when he’s had a nightmare. During a few nights when he'd passed out in some dump, it kept him warm. Once, it lit the way for him, on a moonless night.
“You don’t know,” Lightning smiles, “or you don’t want to answer?”
Yukio shrugs. “He helps me, sometimes.” Lightning’s eyes are sharp behind his curtain of unruly hair, shaded darker by the blue veiling the room. “I’d be careful,” Yukio meets his gaze, “if I were you.”
It’s unnecessary, but he despises this person. He despises that he owes Lightning a debt that he can’t repay, and he’s painfully aware Lightning knows he can capitalize on that.
Shura pulls a chair over, sitting down noisily. “Alright, alright. I’ll watch him then. Everyone else quit slacking off and get back to whatever you’re supposed to be doing.”
“You know,” Lightning declares, stopping short at the door, “I think you know.”
His voice is light and idle. It settles quietly into Yukio’s thoughts like a burrowing animal, as though it thinks it belongs there.
He despises this feeling.
It only appears when I’m afraid.
Shura lets out a long, exaggerated sigh. “I hope you haven’t forgotten you signed a Morinas when you surrendered. No one is kidding about your head flying off, you know.” She seems to be intent on waiting until he acknowledges his mistake, but he has never bothered to listen to her, just as much as she never listened to him.
“I’m aware,” Yukio mutters.
The anger oozes like blood from the tiny wounds to his chipped pride.
He smiles. “Please feel free to go about your day, Shura-san. I’m certain you have enough responsibilities requiring your attention.”
She shrugs, leaning back on the creaking metal chair. “What are you going to do once you’re discharged?”
“Nothing,” Yukio answers. “I’m not so optimistic to believe I’ll be released.”
Shura rolls her eyes. “Wow. Sad, even for you.” She stands, rummaging through the drawers on the wall. “Let’s at least cover it for now. That’s what you did before, wasn’t it?” She picks out a roll of gauze, some bandages and a box of face masks, then continues to rummage.
He does not want to fight, and he does not believe his contribution could make a difference.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Yukio admits, shutting his eyes obediently as she positions the loops of a square bandage behind his ears, “but I don’t want to stay here.”
It’s terribly selfish. This base is full of people who have committed their lives to the war effort. Perhaps even his presence is an insult to their compassion.
“Well.” Shura claps him on the back. “Better heal up fast so you can get out then.”
It’s a telling statement. For a moment, he thinks it’s because she doesn’t understand; after all, she has never once feared death. That’s not quite right. That’s not why she does not fault him for wanting to leave, to abandon this peculiar, jaded moral obligation. The Order may be corrupt, but Yukio has never seen its soldiers as anything less for it. Perhaps Shura had realized far before him that he does not belong, has never quite belonged here with these selfless, brave people.
The light of early dawn slants over the turning windmills, drawing long shadows. Small puffs of clouds cover the sky, scattered like cotton stuffing. Beneath them floats a thinner, grey-threaded scrap. The wind carries it barely afloat, trailing its soft tendrils near the ground as it moves, going somewhere on a whim.
Yukio watches it for quite some time, until it escapes the narrow patch of sky his window provides.
“Okumura-san,” Suguro says, crossing the room swiftly, “I’ve been assigned to ask you a few questions. Is now a good time?”
“Of course,” Yukio replies, turning to face him. “Please, have a seat.”
Suguro clears his throat, pulls a chair over, and clicks his pen against his clipboard. “First, we encountered you at the Illuminati research center in Gotemba. Why were you there?”
“For the ashes.”
“I only intended to take the ashes.” It’s not a lie. He was completely unaware of what that lab was producing beforehand.
Suguro nods. “Alright. I’m going to summarize the preliminary statement we collected from you before, so you can fill in the blanks for us.” He rearranges the pages on his clipboard deftly. “According to our reports, you passed through the employee gate early in the morning, using another agent’s badge.”
He pauses, scratching something out on the page. “Uh, actually, one of our technicians was already in the system by then so that’s how you got through, never mind. Next part...you set a fire in the men’s restroom located in the basement, near the cafeteria. Approximately ten minutes later, you lit another fire in Building A on the sixth floor next to the electrical room. From there, you used naiads to block the water supply to buy time so you could reach the vault. Does everything sound right so far?”
“Yes,” Yukio says. “That’s right.”
“Alright, then, we noticed you used the smaller fire in Building B to set off the alarm, so the larger one you started in Building A wouldn’t be noticed immediately.” Suguro flips a page. “Was one of your motives for this to force them to move the clones?”
“I didn’t know the clones would be there,” Yukio answers, keeping his gaze fixed on the back of the clipboard. He’d suspected though, with how well the place had been hidden.
Suguro takes a moment to write. His hair isn’t bleached anymore, Yukio notes absently. No, he changed it before their Christmas party, didn’t he? Was it before, or after?
Suguro clears his throat expectantly. Yukio looks up from the corner of the blanket he was examining. “I’m sorry, could you please repeat the question?”
“Right, okay.” Suguro flips back to the previous page. “How did you locate the research center, and who told you the ashes were sealed using Armumahel crystals?”
Yukio takes a moment to collect his thoughts. He needs to go about this carefully or he could reveal too much. Suguro is not easy to trick, after all. “The propensity of the crystals to attract may not be common knowledge, but it’s been mentioned in plenty of research journals this year because of the shortage. Although the method I used was crude compared to the fragment recovery techniques they described, it worked quite well.”
He holds his chin, giving Suguro a minute to catch up. In this case, it seems he can’t avoid the question subtly. “Shima Renzo was the one who told me how the ashes were sealed.”
Suguro stops writing. “Shima? That meddlesome idiot.” He curses, scratching out something vigorously. “Why did he tell you that?”
Yukio shakes his head. “I didn’t ask. He said he had instructions from someone.”
“And you just took his word for it?” There’s an edge to his words that wasn’t there before. He’s irritated.
If he becomes emotional, it’ll be easier to manipulate the flow of the interrogation.
“I didn’t particularly care. He told me how to get what I wanted.”
“Why did you want the ashes?”
Suguro looks up from his clipboard. “What?”
Yukio turns and takes a measured breath before meeting his eyes. “If you were in my place, wouldn’t you want them?”
“I see,” Suguro sighs, “but you had no regard for anything else, did you? This isn’t the only room we have full of burn patients. Why would you go so far? What are you really trying to do?”
He’s closing in. This conversation needs to end, very soon, preferably on an ugly note.
Yukio removes his glasses, cleaning the lenses leisurely. If this goes how he intends for it to, he doesn’t want them to be broken. He’s out of spares. “If you think I’m like my brother, I’m afraid you’re sorely mistaken. It can’t be helped that my actions resulted in some collateral damage.”
“You—” Suguro’s chair clatters to the ground as he stands. “Cut the crap already! You tricked us all into believing you were a traitor, but you brought that airship down anyway—”
“I didn’t take down the airship because I wanted to help the Order,” Yukio says slowly. “I did it to humiliate Lucifer. I’d never be so witless as to risk my life for an organization as hideously incapable as yours.”
The clipboard hits the table with a sharp clack. Yukio flinches, but all Suguro does is retrieve his fallen chair with a soft huff. “I apologize for my lapse in professionalism. Please, if you wouldn’t mind, let’s resume at a later time.”
He picks his pen off the floor, dusts it off, and leaves without another word.
Yukio sighs as he runs a hand through his hair. Was Suguro always so levelheaded?
Perhaps he’d remembered wrong.
Kamiki comes to visit around noon. She stops by a few of the other patients, repositioning their pillows and handing out small trays of food. For a moment, he thinks she’ll skip him, but she wheels the cart over promptly.
“Just so you know,” she mutters, “if you want to get up and move around later, Miwa can uncuff you. He’s been assigned to this area, so he’ll be close by cleaning and stuff.”
Yukio smiles. “Thank you. I’d like that, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Kamiki sniffs, folding a blanket over his legs before she gives him a tray. “Before, when we locked you up, I thought...I thought you just wanted revenge.” She hands him a hot, wet towel. “If you told us, we would have helped.”
“I know,” Yukio admits, “I’ll keep it in mind.”
She seems reasonably satisfied with that and moves on to the next bed.
He spaces out after eating and has a hard time waking up, torn between wanting to continue his numb, warm dreams and needing to get up before he becomes listless. There’s a small bundle of daffodils placed on the bedside table, sitting cheerfully next to the sword and the urn. They are yellow, with delicate crowns fringed the shades of bonfires. He can’t help but wonder who left them here.
Closer to evening, when the eastern sky is stained dark violet, Miwa helps him wander in a small circle outside the recovery ward to stretch his legs.
It doesn’t take him long to realize they’re still here, at the Illuminati lab. It makes sense, he supposes. Even if most of the other wing was destroyed by fire, the west side they’re currently in remains largely functional aside from the first-floor restroom.
The hallways of this place seem to be lighter than before, with the lazy glow of dusk hovering through the windows.
“Okumura-sensei,” Miwa says, walking beside him slowly, “I’m sorry.”
Yukio leans against the wall, waiting. Miwa doesn’t elaborate.
It takes him a minute to realize what he means, and then another before he can bring himself to respond. “It’s alright,” Yukio offers. “There’s nothing to apologize for.”
Miwa straightens his glasses, nodding as he turns toward the window. Yukio gives him a moment before he begins to head back to the recovery ward.
“Do you have any plans, when you’re discharged?” Miwa asks, sniffling discreetly.
Shura asked him that too, earlier this morning. Strange.
“If the Order will allow me to leave, I’d like to travel.” Yukio smiles. He hates these kinds of conversations. They’re bland, even if he sometimes does mean what he says.
Miwa brightens slightly. “Okumura-sensei,” he says, lifting his chin, “if you don’t mind, I’d like to chant a sutra for Okumura-kun.”
Yukio hesitates a moment too long, and by the time he can muster the words, Miwa’s expression has already fallen. “That would be nice.” He pauses by the window, trying to parse through jagged, disorderly thoughts. “Thank you, for thinking of him.”
He feels washed-out, colorless even, staring at the molten sunset. His eyes sting as he gazes at the low-hanging clouds, set aflame by the horizon.
There’s no time left.
He has the soul and a doorway. All he needs is a vessel.
Rest. What does that even mean?
If he can only be judged by the consequences of his actions, how should he ever know right from wrong? He feels unbalanced, like a coin sent spiraling in relentlessly widening ellipses, trying to reach a faraway speck of a destination.
“Of course,” Miwa says, helping him back into the bed. “This is quite nice,” he comments, gesturing to the daffodils as he pulls out his phone, frowning thoughtfully. “Suisen flowers are connotative of respect. I wonder if the—”
Yukio bends forward as a sudden coughing fit rattles through his lungs. He accepts the glass of water Miwa brings him, mustering a smile. “I’m sorry, I think I’m a little tired today.”
Miwa nods, accepting the dismissal with tactful grace. He waves as he leaves. “I’ll come tomorrow morning, and I’ll bring Bon too.” He beams, standing a little straighter.
He forgets the cuff. Yukio drapes his blanket over the ledge carefully for the rest of the evening, counting the hours approaching nightfall.
The frail ruffles of the daffodils are soft when he strokes a finger up the side of one, straightening them idly.
It seems they were not for him.
There is a man reading in one of the beds near the door. Yukio can hear the dry texture of his fingers tracing the paper, turning a page every few minutes.
Inside the ward, it’s dark. The windows opposite from the door bear a cool sheen. There’s a clock on the opposite wall but its hands are obscured by a glare.
Yukio waits to the sound of crisp pages and the rustle of blankets.
He remembers when he was younger, perhaps around nine or ten, there was an accident down at the docks. Due to the unprecedented number of civilian casualties, the Vatican implemented new restrictions on intermediate and lower class tamers. After a while, only the use of paper summoning circles was taught to cram school students.
They are safer and more convenient. In exchange, they’re fragile, bearing the weakness of their vessel.
Father taught him how to use other circles before. They are older, more ritualistic ones that hold closer to the true meaning of a contract. The ones he uses with his naiads are something in between. The oldest ones are considered to be heretical. Their use is strictly forbidden, and the methodology is not well documented.
It doesn’t stop the hundreds of cases concerning failed demonic summonings from reaching the Order every year, and of course, it has never stopped the handful of successful ones: ones they can’t catch until later, when the contract is already sealed.
The page turning has stopped.
He’ll go tonight. When Miwa visits tomorrow, he’ll bring Suguro, which means the sword will be taken away as well. In all honesty, he doesn’t know why it’s been given to Shura, or how long she’ll leave it here, but he can’t afford to wait and prepare right now.
His Morinas contract forbids him from attempting to escape or harming members of the Order. This has nothing to do with either.
He doesn’t care where this desperate, searing disregard came from but it’s oddly nostalgic. It makes him feel right, and for now, that’s all that he cares for. It feels like fire. Fire, as how he’d thought it was supposed to be, vicious and starving.
Yukio slips a leg off the bed, taking care to keep his footsteps quiet. He picks up the sword and cradles the urn under an arm, keeping his grip firm.
The floor is cold against his bare feet. He ignores the temptation to use the flimsy slippers; earlier this afternoon he’d found that they squeak incorrigibly. Yukio weaves around the beds, carefully stepping over a long cord stretching across the room.
Yukio freezes, watching as the man in the bed near the door turns, staring straight at him.
He’s bald. The side of his head is heavily bandaged.
Remember, do not speak to the man missing an ear.
Yukio stands still, watching the clock’s second hand make a round as his thoughts scramble. Their warnings have never been wrong before. They have only ever failed when he misinterpreted them. She said that line twice. It must be important.
The man lies back down.
No, this will work. He’ll wait until the man falls asleep, then leave the room.
Outside the room, there are two guards. From what he observed this afternoon, they take a ten minute break every two hours and switch every five hours. They patrol outside mostly, visiting this floor and perhaps a few others infrequently. He’s not certain. Besides Yukio, all the patients here are members of the Order, so the guards don’t check inside the room regularly.
Unfortunately, the nurses do check inside the room regularly. During the day, they came sporadically. Over the evening, the frequency decreased, and so far, they’ve only checked twice, at eleven in the night and one. Right now, it’s one thirty.
He stands there for a full thirty minutes, until his heels hurt and the hair on his arms stands from the cold, before he dares to walk across the room.
As he eases the door open, Yukio catches a glimpse of the book lying on the man’s bed.
No wonder. The light in the room is so dim, he couldn’t possibly have been reading without a light unless he didn’t need it in the first place.
Yukio steps out into the hallway, heading straight for the stairwell. They took his watch away before, but there are digital clocks on the walls in the atrium of every floor. Right now, he has ten minutes to get to the third level on the east side.
As he reaches the next floor, a creeping sense of trepidation grips his limbs. Something is wrong. Even if they’re concentrating on guarding the exterior, the building is far too empty. He climbs to another floor, sticking close to the walls as he ducks around a rotating camera into a dimly lit hallway. A fluorescent tube light flickers above his head, sending his shadow shivering behind him at odd heartbeats.
The sky bridge is clear, but it’s blocked by long strips of caution tape that quiver in rhythm with the draft. There’s a stack of wood boards and other equipment near the west end. As Yukio makes his way across, he finds the source of the frigid wind. The wide, tall windows on this side are broken, perhaps from thermal stress caused by the fire.
Third floor, on the east side. Third floor, third floor.
Yukio eases the door out of the stairwell open, stepping forward carefully as he’s met with several towering clear vats of faintly pink liquid, organized in a narrow maze of tubing.
They’re here. The clones are here.
It takes him nearly ten minutes to circle around the end of the atrium. The magnitude and scale here are nothing like what they’d had on Dominus Liminis. There must be two hundred, perhaps even three hundred clones here, crammed into this atrium during the fire.
He stops short, spotting the column he wants. Bubbles rise through pink liquid in the tanks, threading and flowing past the pale white hair and equally pale skin of the clones. The glass surface of each tank is marked with indecipherable strings of numbers and labels, but there is only one marker he cares for among them.
Sa-047017, Sa-047018, Sa-047020...Sa-047038. Here should be close enough. He doesn’t care which one, as long as one of these works.
Yukio kneels, setting the urn on the floor.
“The basis of every contract has three elements,” Father says easily, passing Yukio a small stack of paper squares. “The soul, a doorway, and a willing vessel. Generally, the blood we offer gives proof of ancestry, of a covenant made or of a debt owed. It’s what makes up the bond between the summoner’s soul and the demon’s. That’s why tamers are rare.” He smiles, reaching over to tap the thin wax papers in Yukio’s hands.
“The doorway is created by the circle. It gives the summoner control; to open the gate or to close it is our choice. Once the circle is destroyed, the demon cannot remain in Assiah. That’s why you’ll start with paper.”
“But sometimes,” Yukio mumbles, “you don’t use circles.”
Father laughs, ruffling his hair. “You’ve been watching pretty closely, huh? Some tamers don’t use circles because they trust their familiars deeply, so they don’t need them. Remember, demons summoned without a circle can remain indefinitely unless they are forcefully removed. It’s risky, unless you know them well.”
Know them well enough to be certain you can exorcise them, goes unsaid because, regardless of what everyone says, that is how the Order operates.
Yukio nods grimly as Father continues. “Then, the last part is the vessel. In most cases, the summoner will act as a conduit, providing energy for the demon to manifest its vessel. Let’s see, for example, my oceanids use water vapor in the air, greenmen use soil and carbon dioxide." He pauses, tapping his chin. “Well, and some kin of Iblis sometimes need an open flame, like a lighter and such. It takes a lot of stamina to summon demons because of that.”
Father sighs, steepling his hands.
“Of course, that’s not the only way to summon a demon.”
The Koma Sword gleams keenly in the off-red glow of the tanks, clinking softly as he grips the hilt, raising it to eye level. A low hum ruffles the air as he draws it. The naked blade looks painfully foreign, bereft of the pristine shine he remembers.
Yukio inhales slowly, releasing the breath as he reaches for the urn with unsteady hands, cutting the metal cord. A brief flash of light races along the seam of the seal.
Yukio whispers, “Rin.”
The name leaves an odd, bitter taste in his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he adds, wrapping his fingers around the cold steel blade. “I...I’m sorry.” He clenches his fist and hot blood runs down his wrist as he trembles, watching with bated breath as the paper seal on the urn catches fire—blue, brilliant fire.
The blob of flames waves its edges delicately, fluttering with a pulsing glow.
“I’m sorry I left.” Yukio murmurs. “I’m sorry I took so long. I meant to get here faster, but I was...I wasn’t strong enough after all.”
Only the soft gurgle of bubbles fills the gaping silence.
He really doesn’t know how to do this. When he summoned his naiads, he knew their names. No, they gave them to him. He remembers hearing their voices.
Somehow, even when he’d thought about reaching this point, he could only imagine silence where the words were supposed to be. And now, there are no words that come to mind.
“I miss you,” he blurts, setting the sword down. His blood still clings to the steel in tiny dotted beads as he stares back at the smear of his reflection.
Rest. Perhaps it means something kind, like the stories Father used to teach them while sunshine lit the stained glass in the monastery, about endless fields and unfading warmth.
What if this is incredibly selfish of him? What if he does this, and he condemns not just himself, but both of them?
What if Rin...doesn’t want this?
How could he have never considered that?
Yukio collapses as a bullet grazes his thigh, cursing under his breath. Shima steps closer, leaning over him. “Well, Sensei, you shot at me first. It’s hardly fair to blame me for not missing.”
The way he smiles makes Yukio want to reach up and wring his neck. Instead, all he does is clutch at his thigh, grudgingly applying pressure. Perhaps he can just bleed out here, in this filthy alleyway. If only this wound wasn’t so shallow.
“You wouldn’t quit running, so I had to stop you somehow. Anyway, my boss has a message for you.” He shifts, and a scraping click follows. “There’s a way,” Shima breathes, pocketing his lighter, “to bring him back.”
Yukio stiffens, glaring at the embers of his cigarette.
“All you need is to free his ashes and summon him.” He leans back against the rail, breathing the thin, silver smoke out into winter night air. “Remember? The Ba’al are immortal.”
“The Ba’al are primordial,” Yukio scoffs, pressing harder against his thigh. The blood is hot, pulsing furiously. “What makes you think that would apply here?”
Shima grins down at him, grinding his heel twice over his cigarette as he turns to leave. “What makes you think Okumura-kun would be capable of anything less?”
Yukio bows his head, averting his gaze as the soft blue flame wavers.
He’s come this far...but this is far too selfish. What he’s trying to do is nothing more than dragging his brother back, to suffer, to fight, because when had Rin ever ran away when others needed him? If he goes through with this, Rin will stay here; he’ll fight in the war, even if Yukio asks him not to.
Wouldn’t he? He was always like that, wasn’t he?
It’s been too long.
He hardly remembers Rin’s smile or his voice.
He’s scared. He’s scared he’ll complete this summoning and at the end, he’ll still be kneeling here, all alone. He’s scared he’ll fail.
He doesn’t want to move on. He doesn’t want to live like this anymore.
He just wants to stay here, with this tiny blue speck of warmth, on the tall, treacherous precipice of possibility.
Yukio counts his heartbeats, gazing down, deep into the darkness.
He steps back.
In the end, he hasn’t managed to change at all, has he?
“Rest,” he mutters.
Only good people go to heaven when they die.
“I’m sorry,” Yukio sighs, “Nii-san.”
I wanted to see you one last time, but more than anything, I’m afraid you’ve gone where I can’t follow.
The flame flickers out.
A flash of light spills forward from his left like the shockwave of an explosion, sending mottled spots dancing everywhere he looks.
He shields his face, pulling himself to his feet as his ears ring.
One look out the window confirms his fears. A sea of black uniforms chant in unison, raising an enormous barrier. The barrier grows, wavering with mottled veins as bright flashes slam against its walls. Each wave is blinding, setting the night sky ablaze, like the unyielding light of afternoon sun.
He’s only seen something like this once; when the seraphim launched their suicide bombings at the Academy.
Something is wrong.
Clearly the Order knew they were coming, perhaps using some form of clairvoyance like his naiads. Even under intense bombardment, the barrier holds staunchly, showing no sign of weakening.
Seraphim are no different from other demons. They are stronger in their element, so why would they be deployed at night?
Unless they were meant to be a decoy.
The echo of even footfalls interrupts his thoughts.
Yukio turns—too late.
A silhouette. Black boots. A tail. Gold.
His head cracks against the wall as white floods his vision. A hand lunges—furious, cold, unsteady—dragging him forward, closing, tightening around his throat. He writhes, choking, clawing at the fingers at his neck. Stop, stop, stop, stop—
The pressure eases.
Yukio gasps, crashing to his knees. His eye aches as blood rushes in his ears, and finally, he sees blue.
Flames crackle, tearing fissures through the floor. The window behind Yukio shatters into a thousand fragments. His pulse is deafening as he heaves, desperately panting for air.
“Tell me how,” Lucifer seethes, clenching the charred stumps of his fingers inward. “How does he still protect you?”
Yukio shakes as he pushes himself off the floor. His vision blurs dangerously as Lucifer moves closer. “Twice,” he fumes, “twice now. I will not let you destroy my work a third time.”
Behind him, in the dull pink glow of the atrium, a single figure rises, dripping wet.
This...this cannot be a hallucination.
Ashes on the floor. The edge of the sword gleams. Blue.
Yukio’s breath hitches as he struggles to stand, backing into the wall. Distract him. Buy time.
The cut on his hand throbs as his vision wavers. He’s so exhausted he can barely stay conscious.
Lucifer’s gaze is unhinged. The stench of burning flesh fills the air as he towers over Yukio. “How? He’s dead,” Lucifer whispers. “I killed him.”
“W-what?” Yukio shrinks against the wall, stepping down on a shard of glass. The pain sends his knees buckling as he grits his teeth, forcing his eyes to stay on Lucifer. “What do you mean? Satan is—”
“Not him.” Lucifer leans alarmingly close, brushing a finger under Yukio’s eyelid. “Your brother,” he hisses, features contorting with rage. “How does he still protect you, when I sealed his ashes? Why are you still—”
The wet squelch of a bare foot slaps the floor as warm blood splatters across Yukio’s face.
Lucifer trembles, lifting a hand to the blade piercing his chest in disbelief.
A pair of scorching blue eyes meet Yukio’s own, for the first time in three years.
“I didn’t stay dead.”
Additional Warnings: Temporary Character Death, Descriptions of Violence and Blood.
More notes: (Sorry, I was confused on how to add additional warnings, so this looks really awkward)
First, thank you so much for reading!! I'd really appreciate it if you have time to leave a comment on your thoughts! :) Please let me know if you have suggestions for things I could improve on, or if there were things that stood out to you. If you like my work, consider following me on tumblr? (My url's just bluewindfall)
Also, there's one thing I wanted to add about that OC I made named Chen Jing. Yukio refers to him in his narrative as "Chen" which is typical for Japanese etiquette. However, for Chinese people, usually we just refer to people we're not close to with their full name. Then, there's two times that he mentions Gebi, but I mean for him to be referring to the Gobi Desert. It's just called Gebi in Mandarin.
One more thing. I was looking up Yukio's naiads, and there's three of them called the Thriae which are capable of divination. It sounded cool, so I added it in here.
Anyway, writing this took me such a long time, but I learned a lot of cool stuff. If there are any technical issues you noticed, I'd be super grateful if you'd let me know! :D
Again, thank you so much for reading this!!! I hope you liked it, and if you have time, tell me what you thought of it! ^^
Chapter 2: Perigee
Hello! :D There aren't any additional warnings for this chapter. In case you came from the link I posted on tumblr, I just wanted to let you know that this is the chapter 2, so if you haven't read chapter 1, this might be really confusing. XD Although, I suppose it will be confusing either way. Thank you for reading, and I hope you'll like this!!
Also, many thanks to my best friend willowcatkin for always reading my drafts!!! ^^
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“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.”
Again, thank you so much for reading!! :D So, I remember I told a lot of people who commented that there was just going be one more chapter, but this got out of hand, and I think there's going to be one more chapter, and then a little epilogue kind of thing?
Also, there's just one thing I wanted to clarify about how Rin's not a ghost. In chapter 9 of the manga/episode 12, where they go to the amusement park to exorcise that little boy ghost, we get a definition that says ghosts are demons that possess the vapor released from human or animal corpses, and that they're affected by their host's feelings from when they were alive. So, I don't know if I have this right, but it sounded more to me like ghosts aren't the actual person? Either way, most of that section was really handwavy. >. < Please let me know if it was confusing. :)
Ahhh, also, I wanted to apologize about all the typos last time. I went through after I posted it, and there were so many missed words!! (And at dramatic moments too T. T) I proofread much better this time, so hopefully there won't be as many. And, as always, if you notice a mistake, or see things you think I could improve on, I'd really love to hear your feedback!!! :) The other day, I got a comment on another fic that told me I was punctuating my actions beats incorrectly, and I was like...wait, what's an action beat??! XD I'm still working on going through chap 1 and fixing those.
Anyway, I wanted to say thank you for everyone who left kudos, bookmarked, and especially to everyone who commented!! You guys are amazing!!! I'm really really so blessed to have such wonderful readers. It's really been such an encouragement to me, and reading your thoughts on this is the best! I've honestly just been blown away by a ton of the brilliant things you guys wrote. I've been properly writing for a little over a year now, and recently I've truly gotten to appreciate how awesome it is to write something and be able to glimpse what it felt like to read it. This fic has so much more meaning with your interpretations. *O *
Thank you so much for reading!! If you have time, let me know if you could guess what was up with Yukio in this chapter! I'm really curious. XD
Thank you, and I hope you'll like this chapter! ^^