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The Flame in my Heart

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It was snowing that day. A cold frosty wind was billowing, bearing the fruits of a late December storm, and that wind had teeth aimed at their eyes. Of course, in the low visibility, despite their best efforts, everyone got separated, and Shiemi found herself knee deep in snow, shivering in her thick scarf and winter coat, alone in the forest. She was looking for the shelter of the trees, hoping that they’d suffice to cut the wind, but so far it didn’t feel like it did any difference.

 

The exorcism target was a yuki-onna, a creature of ice and frost that had been terrorizing the mountains for a while. Unfortunately, yuki-onnas were tricky to deal with, and this one in particular did not appreciate the presence of all these Exorcists crawling around her territory. The blizzard now freezing all on the mountain came from her fury, it even brought in other ice demons to the party, and as she trudged through it, Shiemi quietly hoped the others were alright. There wasn’t much she could do on her own, and there was certainly not much she could do if she froze to death out there.

 

Those hopes shivered, however, when a roar tore through the air and reached up to her ears. She spun around, the snow crunching under her, and she listened, eyes wide behind her goggles. There, she heard it again, it was closer. The wind howled, and with it came distant voices… or rather, a single voice.

 

“ - … shut up! … - told you to shut up!”

 

“ - … not burning the mountain! … - … I decide…!”

 

“ - … easier…! - … burn those insolent worms!”

 

Shiemi recognized that voice immediately. She wasted no time in making up her mind, and quickly - as quickly as she could, really - pushed her way back where she came, following the sounds and the screams of demons. She could recall, on the train that took them to the mountains, Rin had vaguely said he wasn’t feeling good, but had brushed it aside, claiming he was okay to lend a hand in this group effort. She had felt it then, the struggle inside, but hadn’t said anything, and now, as she found her way to a clearing where bright blue lights shone and flashed like a signaling beacon, she knew she should have.

 

Rin was there, visibly trying to keep himself holding together, but he wasn’t alone. Large golems of snow and ice were encircling him, lumbering like hefty giants as they pummeled the ground with their massive club-like arms. They were trying to get close, but were steering clear of the flames pouring out of the lone Exorcist, and so Shiemi took this chance where those hot flames were acting as a shield to send Nee forth. Her small greenman took on his large and intimidating form, and with a roar of his own, crunched his way through the clearing toward the other golems. Thankfully, most of them took the bait and went after her familiar, who lured them away from Rin, and the others, smaller in size, retreated behind the trees.

 

The moment the way was clear, Shiemi zeroed in on Rin, who thankfully wasn’t completely lost. Her friend was holding his head like he was the victim of a most foul migraine, and it was only when she went around him that she saw his demon heart was out and flaming wildly.

 

“Rin!,” she called over the combined roars of his flames, the blizzard and the golems fighting farther behind. “Rin! Can you hear me?!”

 

It didn’t take long for him to answer. His head raised, one iris round and the other warped behind his own goggles, and his pained expression turned to one of relief.

 

“Shiemi…!,” he exclaimed, visibly swallowing. “Y-yeah… It’s fine, I’m fine…! I swear! It’s just…”

 

He lowered his head into his hands again when another wave of pain took over, to which her instinctual response was to trudge closer to him. His flames were warm, he was still in control. He was still Rin.

 

And yet, once again, everything happened too fast for her.

 

The golems behind gave howling mewls. Nee called back to her. Rin sprinted past her. And the yuki-onna’s ear-splitting shriek filled the forest, sending a wave of freezing wind their way.

 

With a gasp, Shiemi whirled around, only to see Rin standing before her, facing the opposite end of the clearing, with his arms held out like a shield. Walls of flames were pouring out of him, and though she couldn’t see the ice demon, she knew by the spinning winds that were cutting away at her cheeks that she was there, and she was angry .

 

“You stay away from her!,” she heard Rin call out to the demon along with a hot wave of flames to push back the blizzard. “And you , shut the Hell up!”

 

With an arm to shield her face from the raging elements, the Tamer turned to Nee, who she could see recoiling behind the trees, and she needn't say a word to him; her familiar responded to her will and pushed his way out again, aiming for the opposing demon with a determined roar. The moment Nee reached the yuki-onna and sent his roots to trap her, everything went down in the span of a breath. The ghostly frost wraith shrieked one last time, there was one large blast of frost, followed by a grunt from Rin and one wave of flames of his own, and suddenly the blizzard cleared, long enough for Shiemi to see her, the demon, her fleeting shape caught in blue flames, before she whirled around and turned to snow, fleeing in the wind.

 

Shiemi lowered her arm from her face, heaving out a breath. The yuki-onna wasn’t exorcised, but she was weakened. The others would be able to trap her and exorcise her properly with a lot less trouble now. But the trial wasn’t done. She reached out to Rin, seeing that his flames had mostly died out and his horns were not alit anymore, but before she could ask if he was alright, he doubled over, grasping at his chest. She heard him gasp for air, and in the moment, she was immediately crouching at his side, her chest tightening with immense dread.

 

She pawed at his arms until he showed her, his demon heart, and she gasped out at the sight of the large shard of ice lodged in its ethereal flesh. It was rooted in deeply, protruding out like a blade, but Rin still went to grasp at it, grunting and groaning in pain as he did.

 

“Rin, wait! Don’t pull it out like-”

 

And it was too late, because the blade of ice came right out of the heart, and with it, went Rin’s last flickers of consciousness. His eyes rolled out, but as his body was falling forward she managed to catch him in time. He was much heavier than he looked, and in her panic, she whipped her head to her familiar.

 

“Nee! Come quick!”

 

While her greenman was lumbering their way, Shiemi felt her own heart drop to her gut when she spotted the first drops of blood on the snow, glowing like crimson pearls in the white landscape. More fell, making her readjust her hold on her friend. She tried to have a look at the heart, but the wind carried a waft of powdery snow to spiral around them, making it incredibly hard to see anything at all. When Nee leaned down next to them, she looked up his way, grateful for his presence.

 

“Please, carry him! We have to find a shelter of some kind to treat him!”

 

She held Rin close to her for as long as it took for Nee to wrap his roots around him, as carefully as she was directing him, and when he was pulled up into her familiar’s large mossy arms, she stood up from the snow, turning around on herself. A shelter, yes, a shelter. There had to be one nearby!

 

And as they all vanished into the frozen woods, eaten by the snow, the wind was still howling…

 


 

Through the panic settled on her heart, through the throbbing memories of her dear friend burning to cinders, and through the pain of frost taking over her legs and burning her cheeks, Shiemi kept walking forward, focused on the task of saving Rin. Nee was following behind, a cage of roots in his arms concealing her demon friend and, hopefully, shielding him from the storm. It felt like they had been walking for hours, searching for an eternity, and every moment wasted was a lifetime wasted for Rin, and she knew it all too well. She didn’t have a second to waste feeling scared, though the fear was eating away at her guts the longer they wandered...

 

Their saviour came in the form of a shack. A distant shape, in the white canvas of the storm, taking more and more on the appearance of a broken down hut in a valley of snow. She had no idea where in the mountains they could be, but she was willing to take anything now, and it was with renewed energy that she and Nee sped up. Upon reaching its snow-covered porch, the first thing she noticed was the lack of door, soon followed by the wide holes in the walls and roof. She only briefly hesitated at the poor state of the hut. It would have to do. They didn’t have the luxury of time to find comfort.

 

Nee attempted to come in through the open doorway, but her large familiar got stuck and she had to push at his back, but by shrinking just enough, Nee managed to pop through the threshold. The inside of the small hut had the bare minimum, she could rejoice in that simple fact. There was a fireplace with an old cooking station and some old logs, a bed - though it was only the mounting, frame and a plank of wood - and there were two boxes of old supplies piled up in a corner under a rag. She could work with all that.

 

She turned back to Nee and waved her arms over to what remained of the bed.

 

“Lower him down here, please. Carefully now…”

 

The large greenman mewled on his way to the bed in the corner, where Shiemi signaled him where to lower his arms. The roots moved and opened like blooming petals, revealing the demon prince unconscious inside the cage, for whom Shiemi immediately reached out. Rin looked bad, very bad; his skin was as pale as the snow surrounding them, shadows expanded their fingers over his crooked, pained features, his mouth was slightly opened in short, raspy breaths. The heart, shakily hovering over his chest, was still bleeding, with nary a single plume of healing steam floating from the stab wound. Upon grabbing her friend and pulling him out onto the wooden plank of the bed, Shiemi realized with gravity and alarm how cold Rin was to the touch. She knew he would never die from this, he had survived through the searing flames of Satan himself, but if nothing was done, she could not fathom the irreparable damage!

 

As she carefully cradled his head, she frowned at the bed mounting and turned to Nee, who sensed the incoming request and mewled in response.

 

“Nee, please make as much moss and grass as you can grow, all around the bed frame and under Rin. Make it as cushy as you can!”

 

The greenman waved his arms, already growing them into vines and mossy roots, and lowered them to the bed again, this time spreading them like thick, wavy drapes. They wrapped around the bed as though they were living snakes entrapping a large prey, and the mossy growths that expanded from the thick vines grew at an exponential rate, soon covering the entire plank like a mattress. Rin’s limp body settled nicely into the growths, where sprouts and blades of soft grass curled around his limbs.

 

When the makeshift bed was done, Shiemi breathed out, deeply. She was already tired from this long day trudging through these stormy mountains, but she felt she still had enough energy in her to command Nee to do a few more things. There was one thing she knew she had to keep her energy for…

 

“Amazing work, Nee! He’ll be comfortable like this,” she smiled warmly at her familiar, who waved his arms and mewled happily under the praise. “Now there’s one more thing to do.”

 

She turned toward the doorless entryway when a sudden wind blew in, carrying with it a ton more snow to accumulate on the floor, and she squinted her eyes at it. She had to make a fire; there was no way Rin would warm up like this. She stood up from Rin’s bedside and Nee followed her as she pointed to all the spots along the walls and ceiling that needed patching.

 

“Please grow as many roots and branches as you can to cover these holes! White oak and japanese pagoda should do.”

 

The mossy giant was happy to get to work, and Shiemi awed at the living roots protruding from the holes on the floor, spiralling and wrapping around the supporting beams of the hut and entangling themselves in such ways that the wind could no longer come through. Waves of leafy green branches grew over the doorway and took over the ceiling, growing into arching branches that intertwined round the holes to cover them, and soon enough, the whistling wind was drowned to silence. The hut now looked like the interior of a shabby greenhouse.

 

Shiemi released another breath, falling to her knees for a moment, and in response to her exhaustion, Nee started shrinking down and down, until he was but a baby greenman once more. He leaped up to her shoulder, where he poked her cheek inquisitively, and she smiled back at him through her steadying breaths.

 

“I’m okay, I promise. You did a good job, Nee, thank you.”

 

Slowly, as to manage her growing headache, she turned back to Rin, locked her eyes on his damaged heart, and quickly got back to her feet. Not a second more to waste. Pulling off her mittens, scarf and goggles, she pushed her sleeves up her forearms and pulled the loose strands of her hair up in a hasty bun. Careful not to touch the injured heart, the Nephilim undid Rin’s coat and took off his own winter accessories. It was still cold in the hut, but it would be better to work without them in the way. Once his bare chest was exposed and she could keep a closer watch on his wavering vitals and heaving breaths, she sat down on her haunches, and slowly positioned her hands over his bleeding heart. She was still far from being a pro at this - despite what her friends kept telling her - but she knew it was the only way to accelerate the healing process.

 

And so, Shiemi closed her eyes, and listened to her dearest friend’s pained breaths, letting it fill her heart with the harsh and intense desire to safeguard his life. Memories of helplessness before a charred body made lights spring to life upon her palms, and memories of his smile made those rays act on their own...

 


 

Rin’s world had turned to one of blurs and pains. Each distinct sensation was a new one, or one he had thought he had forgotten. The sting of the mending of flesh. The soft grating of moving bones under his skin. Or the burning palpitations of a heart that spread through every inch of his being. The fading of the thorny, flaming roses that made up his own garden. The ashes that stained his skin and turned it whiter than snow, the ashes of those he’d watched die in his name. The curse of that name, the curse of his blood, spilt in hopes for redemption, in hopes of forgiveness. The lack of control, in a world that requested control.

 

The blurs came in various shapes and formless blobs of memories strung together with tight ropes. They would show up, flash in his eyes briefly, and then he’d forget, think he dreamt them. Of all those shapes, one he recognized, one he saw again and again. An angel, with sun rays for her hair, and emeralds for her eyes, she was watching him, holding him against her breast, cradling him in her arms, and her wings, they spread inside him, blurs of their own. Feathers like fingers, softly caressing all that he was, the gentlest touch, a touch he found himself familiar with. It tasted of golden waters, purified like the holy water he’d never be able to taste unless he wished for death. Blurs, all of them, down to his core, yet committed to memory.

 

And yet, just as he began to think that this mishmash of thoughts and memories and pains would be his new anchored reality - because his reality was never stable, of course - a certain tightness he had not been aware of slowly dissipated. Instead, he found something warm, and soft, like a small hand to hold. He hung on tightly to it. The feeling brought him to something a bit more familiar, though it was still nothing but blurs… Sun rays for hair, emeralds for eyes…

 

“Shi… e… mmm...”

 

He drifted off, again, though now his consciousness was more than happy to glide into a world of nothing, where it could ignore everything that tried to bite at it. The pains were gone, the blurs mere memories. Where the passage of time did not exist, he was safe.

 

When he came to once more, it was to the melody of a gentle hum. A melody that came with the crash of his senses, and the knowledge of a body as heavy as the world. He couldn’t move, didn’t have the will to, even opening his eyes proved to be a challenge. He just wanted to stay there, not move for an eternity, and sleep forever…

 

A presence, at his side, and the smell of greens he had grown to love and recognize amongst a thousand other smells, like freshly cut grass, or a warm, midsummer rain. Something warm, on his cheek, like a small hand to hold, something soft, on his lips, like something he adored. The humming was close, reserved just for his ears, and it told him he could take his time, which he was glad to. Rin never liked to be in a hurry. He liked lazy Sundays to sleep in, rainy afternoons to cuddle with his demon cat and his partner, and stormy nights to warm up by the fireplace. This was all of it at once, and he was taking it, gladly.

 

“Rin,” the voice of his angel murmured in his ear, a melody all on its own. “Rin… Are you awake…?”

 

He couldn’t not reply to his angel, but his voice, or whatever it was that came out of the dry desert that was his mouth, could offer no valuable trade for the pricelessness of her own murmurs.

 

“Nng… whhr… mmh…? Shi…”

 

“It’s okay, Rin. It’s okay, shh… Here, you need to drink this… It will help you, I promise.”

 

He trusted her, of course he did. He felt the weight of his head being lifted, his chin dipping down just enough, and when the cold touch of a thermos came in contact with his lips, he gladly opened them to let whatever liquid this was in. It tasted like grass… and in that bitter taste, he found a touch of awakening sweep through him. It was warm, he could feel it travel through his œsophagus all the way down, coating his insides in warmth and comfort and emeralds for eyes. His head was gently lowered back down. In the silence that followed, in the soft noises of objects being moved and cracking fire…

 

...he became conscious of one thing. A sting. A sharp, intense sting. It felt like a hand being shoved up his ribs. Like a sword piercing his shoulder. Like a bullet to the head…

 

He must have whined at the pain, because she came back to his side, and her hand was on his face again, a touch he could focus on.

 

“Shh, it’s okay, Rin, it’s okay… I’m sorry, I must have moved you a bit too quickly…”

 

He wanted to tell this dummy not to apologize for taking care of him, but as he opened his mouth at another attempt to speak, the sting came back, stronger than ever. His whole body shuddered, wracked with shivers he was utterly powerless to hold back, and at that moment, it reminded him of a burning heart and burning limbs, and he thought, for a moment, that he was burning again. Maybe that was why he couldn’t move, maybe he was already burned up, and he was imagining all of this in his dying moments-

 

Something touched his heart. The feeling was such that he could identify it immediately. The gesture was gentle, but he could not help a gasp upon this alien touch. Destruction of the heart, meant destruction of the demon. Touching the heart, meant an attempt at its destruction.

 

But if… if his heart was there, then… where was he ? Where was...

 

He forgot his train of thought. The hold on his heart was no longer alien. He recognized those fingers, he recognized that tiny hand that was used to cradling fragile sprouts, sprouts like the very heart she was holding. He relaxed, a weight of fear lifting off his heavy husk, slowly, somehow, the sting vanished… and he drifted off, once more, taken by a wave of fatigue like none other before it.

 

But he knew he was fine now, because she was here.

 


 

Shiemi gave a sigh, relieved, when she saw that her friend had fallen back asleep. She stayed at his side a moment longer, her hand around his beating heart, waiting for her powers to fully take effect, and when the shudder was reduced to a calm, even breath, she released it, carefully. For another moment she dared to stretch, she sat there, cradling his cold cheek, and listened to his breathing, as though listening to the soft whispers of his feverish mind. Sitting in the moss next to his head, Nee looked up at her with concern, but she was quick to dismiss his worries with a smile.

 

“He’s alright,” she whispered to her familiar, running her thumb on Rin’s cheek tenderly. “He’ll need more time to be stable again, I think...”

 

She stood from the log she had used as a stool and walked over to the fireplace to make sure the fire would keep going. Outside the walls and the roots of the hut, she could still hear the wind, pushing and whistling, and knew that rescue would not come anytime soon. Once more, she pulled out her phone from her pants pocket, only to confirm that there was no service here. The battery was almost dead anyway, so she closed it in order to preserve it.

 

When the wind whistled again and beat loudly against the shaky foundations, she couldn’t help a nasty shiver that had her hug her arms, and walked back to sit beside Rin, where she felt safer. Rin’s clothes were hanging near the fireplace on branches near the ceiling, drying from being covered in snow and soaked, and so to keep Rin warm she had to give him both of their exorcist coats acting like blankets. They weren’t the warmest at all, and she was starting to dreadfully realize it as Rin was still shaking. Beside him, Nee pointed to the mossy bed, repeating his name enthusiastically.

 

“You think so?,” Shiemi was surprised at the proposition, but did see the logic behind it. “I suppose you’re right, it would keep us both warm… Can you keep an eye on the fire then?”

 

The little greenman nodded his head and hopped off the bed to wander off toward the fireplace, while the Nephilim was left to gather her courage. In the dead of winter, under normal circumstances, it was Rin who kept them both warm. Right now, she was cold herself, and so didn’t know whether she even could share her body heat with him, but in the end, Nee was right. It was better to try than to freeze.

 

After pulling off her boots so as to not bother him, the young woman quickly yet carefully climbed up into the bed of moss and sprouts and slid herself against her friend’s side. Her body curled against him, arms wrapping around his shoulders while her leg hooked up across his basin. Cautiously, she moved herself so his head was neatly slotted between her chin and her chest, and then she didn’t dare move further. In this position, she could listen to his breathing, bury her face in his pale hair, and trace her hands to linger wherever his skin felt like ice, and in this position, she felt a little bit more hopeful that things would be okay.

 

Rin would warm up. His heart would heal. The others would come and find them. And they would all go back home together in time for Christmas and the twins’ nineteenth birthday.

 

This wasn’t the gift she had planned for either of them, though…

 


 

Once again, Rin came back to awareness, though this one felt a bit different. He felt just as heavy, but just a touch more… conscious. And that touch of consciousness was enough to let him know there was something warm snuggled against his side, and it smelled of greens and flowers. Gladly, he got his head to move and slowly rolled it until his nose came in contact with skin, the warm and soft skin of her neck. He smiled, and attempted to move his arm so he could hold her closer, but it didn’t reach very far and his hand fell limp on his stomach. He felt so very weak… How was that possible? He was rested, wasn’t he?

 

Her arms then wrapped tighter around him, as though she guessed what he was trying to do, and he felt the flutter of a kiss on the tip of his right horn, then on the left one. He smiled, despite everything that seemed to be horribly wrong, and breathed out against her clavicle.

 

“Did… I wake you?,” he mumbled tiredly, to which she replied with a yawning hum.

 

“No. I wasn’t sleeping… yet.” Her thumb lovingly traced circles on his shoulder, and he relished in the warmth of that hand because he was shivering still. “How do you feel, Rin?”

 

“Hard to say… I feel weak… and tired… and cold...”

 

He felt his stomach under his hand, his own skin, and tried to force his eyes to open when he realized the hand stroking his shoulder was directly on skin as well.

 

“...Why am I naked...?”

 

He opened his eyes just on time to spot the blurry shape that was Shiemi curl up as she stuttered in embarrassment. Her hands retreated back to her, held up to her face in that endearing manner she did when she was flustered.

 

“Oh! U-uh, that uh… Your clothes were soaked, and you were freezing, and, and uhm- oh but you still have your und-derwear…! And your socks… So you’re not, uhm, c-completely… naked...”

 

Rin tried to laugh, because how could he not laugh when Shiemi was being so very Shiemi, but then a sharp pain traversed his entire body and made him curl in, hand shooting up to grasp at his chest. It brushed against his heart under the coat, which in turn made him gasp in a different kind of pain. The sting, it was back, but it was brief, and after a few, long breaths, it was reduced to a distant throbbing, like deep heartbeats echoing through his whole nervous system…

 

Covered in a cold sweat, his head fell back heavily against the shirt he had as a pillow, where, in heavy pants as he rode out this wave of strange pain, he stared at the ceiling… He didn’t recognize it. Covered in vines and leafy branches…? Where was this…? Shiemi’s face, wracked with concern, appeared in his blurry field of vision, and her hands once again found their way to his cheeks. He smiled to reassure her.

 

“I’m fine,” he told her in a rattling murmur before she could ask. “What… Where are we, Shiemi? What happened…?”

 

“A lot happened… What’s the last thing you remember?,” she asked in return, making his head spin in an effort to recall everything.

 

“Uh… we came to the mountain... to exorcise a yuki-onna.”

 

“Right…”

 

“Then she acted up and started this blizzard… and I lost track of everyone…”

 

“Yes, I did too…”

 

“And then… Rinka started messing with me… and I blanked out, I think.”

 

A loud and violent sense of dread suddenly resounded in his ears and cranium, making him widen his eyes toward her.

 

“I… I didn’t hurt anyone, did I?”

 

To his immense relief, she shook her head and smiled, her hands ever so warm on his face, and that feeling kept him grounded as he breathed out, deeply.

 

“You didn’t, don’t worry. You were alone, but you were quick to calm down when you saw me.” She lowered herself a bit more against his side, a hand still on his shoulder, never cutting the contact. “Your heart was out, and when the yuki-onna attacked us, she… hit your heart with an ice shard. It… stabbed right through…”

 

Oh. That… explained the pain.

 

He looked down at himself, and as though reading his mind, she pulled the coat serving as his blanket down enough to reveal his demon heart, hovering above his chest, and he couldn’t help but flinch at the sight of the thing. It had but a flicker of flame erupting from the top, its shine was dulled to a sickly pale glow, and worst of all, he could see the hole inside it. It wasn’t bleeding anymore, but it certainly wasn’t closed, or healing… He felt dizzy just looking at it. He couldn’t make sense of how it even got injured in the first place. Nothing could pierce it… usually.

 

“The blizzard was getting bad, so Nee and I carried you here,” Shiemi continued in a soft voice, pulling him out of his stupor. “It’s an old abandoned hut of some kind, I had Nee patch it up a bit… There’s supplies and rations that I think can last a couple more days, so we’re safe.”

 

Her hand came to rest on his chest, right under his heart, palm up as though she was holding it aloft. And as far as he was concerned, she was.

 

“I used my powers to stop the bleeding, and the pain, as much as I could,” she said, leaning in a bit closer so their cheeks were lined up. “So… tell me if you hurt again, okay? I’ll take care of you.”

 

He turned his head, enough so that their cheeks touched, and closed his eyes, heaving a deep breath.

 

“Yeah… yeah, alright… What about the others…?”

 

“No news. The storm is still going outside, and there’s no service up here.”

 

“Figures… I hope they’re okay…”

 

“Me too…”

 

For a long time afterward, they stayed quiet, each comfortable with the other’s closeness. The fire in the chimney was cracking, the sound they were glad to focus on over the whistles of the winds filtering through the cracks in the walls. When Rin spoke again, it was in a sleepy whisper, in a rattling, gruff voice.

 

“Did anyone… see that I lost control…?”

 

Shiemi didn’t move for a moment, then her hand slid down his arm until she was holding his palm in a comforting grip. Their fingers laced together effortlessly.

 

“No, I don’t think so,” she replied.

 

She shuffled a bit closer, squishing their cheeks together in that affectionate manner she knew he liked.

 

“You weren’t feeling well before we came here, were you?,” she asked, carefully yet bluntly, to which he groaned in the negative. “Why did you insist on coming along, then? You should have stayed home, relaxed. We would have understood…”

 

For a moment longer, he didn’t reply, instead choosing to stare at a particularly pretty leaf growing on the ceiling. Its colour was that of an emerald, like eyes he knew. When he replied, it was with a sigh, and a refusal to meet her gaze.

 

“Well… yeah, I guess. I just…needed a bit of extra money… for something…”

 

“Something?”

 

“Yeah… s-something…”

 

She didn’t miss the way he slurred at the end, which made her smirk in amusement.

 

“You could have asked Yuki-chan for that extra…”

 

“Ugh, I already owe Yukio money… and Suguro… and Koneko…” He blinked. “Shura too…”

 

She couldn’t help a giggle at that, and to her happiness and relief, he laughed too, though it was a careful chuckle. She turned her head and kissed his cheek, glad to feel a heat rise up to his cold face.

 

“You’re incorrigible, Okumura Rin. But that’s one thing I like about you.”

 

She pressed her lips to the same warming spot, and began to pamper his face with featherlight kisses, down his jaw, on his chin, on his nose, on his horns, anywhere she could reach without moving too much. To her joy, warm colours painted his face again, and she was glad to see he looked a bit more at ease with the ambient cold, a bit more tolerable. He was smiling at her with half-lidded eyes, looking quite out of it in many ways, but she could not ignore the warm little sparkle in those eyes, the same sparkle that shone only when he gazed at her. Their noses touched - his was cold and hers was warm.

 

“I’m not used to being the one who’s freezing,” he whispered in a soft chuckle. “So this is what it’s like… I feel a bit better with you here...”

 

“I wish I had some kind of inner flame like yours so I could keep the cold away,” she mourned in a murmur.

 

His smile grew amused, mischievous.

 

“What you’re doing right now is good enough... Speaking of which… I’m still a bit cold…”

 

“Where?”

 

“Oh, well…” He poked his bottom lip with a fang, still grinning. “I can’t feel my lip… Think you could help with that?”

 

She gave a clear giggle, her face growing a pretty pink blush, and went to cup his cheeks, giving a grin of her own.

 

“Let me know if it works, okay?”

 

They both shared a complicit laugh, before Shiemi leaned in and kissed his oh so very cold lips. They were chapped and dry as a snowy desert, but they were his and his alone, in a way only she could recognize. Every kiss they shared always felt like the first one, no matter how many times they did, or how different the circumstances were. Whether it was as a greeting, or in the midst of passion, or a form of reassurance, it always felt new and familiar at the same time. Kissing him felt like embracing a part of the Universe to be one with, and kissing her felt like a breath of life filling his bloodstream. One couldn’t have enough of the other.

 

She left many kisses on his lips, soft, slow and loving ones, until she could feel them being warm again, not quite as they should be, but enough that when she pulled up to peck his nose, she recognized the face of her lover more. He was dozing off, eyes drooping so low they might as well be closed, and there was a constant happy little smile on lips that no longer looked as blue. His heart was beating atop his chest, weaker than it should, but with vigor, and in that, she found immense relief. He mumbled something unintelligible, making her turn back to his face to see it completely slumped against his makeshift pillow. She listened closely, and he repeated.

 

“It worked…”

 


 

It was only a full day later that the storm finally eased its fury upon the mountain. When she noticed the silence outside, the lack of wind, whistles and rattling panels, a sudden moment of glee, Shiemi heaved a sigh of relief. One step closer to home! Now they had to find a way off the mountain…

 

She considered having Nee carry Rin again, but they would need to build a carrier to make the travelling down the mountain easy on his weakened body. He could hardly be moved at all without feeling all sorts of pains, crossing the idea of Nee carrying him himself from the list. A carrier was the only solution, but then there was the problem of not knowing where exactly on the mountain they were. How long would it take for them to find the path down? Would they get even more lost? If they were going out in the cold out of the warmer hut, they would be on a strict timer. But, if they waited here too long, they would run out of their poor amount of supplies soon enough. This wasn’t a shack made for long stays, it was a pit stop for travellers at best. Rin wasn’t eating much at all, he could only drink, and they would run out of water soon as well… No matter which way they turned, they were on a timer.

 

She saw no other choice. They had to leave. And so, she went to work as soon as she made up her mind. Making the carrier was easier than it looked in her head; a bit of magic from Nee, plenty of solid bark as the base, vines for ropes, and more moss for isolation, and she had something rudimentary but better than nothing at all. Despite Rin’s many refusals, she ended up forcing him to take her winter coat on top of his, to which his only response were grumbles and mumbles about freezing to death in only her exorcist coat. She waved him off, and pushed the carrier as close to the bed as possible.

 

“Okay,” she said with a determined huff, “here, let’s get you to the edge, and then we’ll ease you down on the sled…”

 

“I’m sure I can just get down there on my own…”

 

But with the hiss he made when he briskly attempted to raise himself up, Shiemi gently pushed him back down, and instead pulled on his arm to coax him to do as she asked. With a disgruntled groan, a loopy Rin wiggled his way on the squishy moss of his bed toward the edge, where a large Nee extended his arms to grab him. He huffed in a breath, held it in all the way down, and only exhaled when his back hit the mossy sled. Shiemi covered him with her winter coat, helped him put on his scarf and goggles, and giggled when she saw him dig his nose under the hood of her coat. She used the vines to strap him down, careful not to touch the area around his heart, and once it was all done, they were ready. The fire was out, they had what remained of food and water in their bags, and there was no wind outside. In order to keep her energy for the long trip they would have to do, she had Nee shrink down and stay with Rin to alert her if anything was wrong.

 

Strapping the vines around her waist and shoulders, the young woman pulled at the sled all the way outside, where it slid onto the snow with no problem. It was broad daylight, and everything was completely white, from the sky to the mountains in the distance to the forests around the valley. She had to blink multiple times for her vision to adjust to the light, but, giving one last glance behind to make sure they were ready, Shiemi pulled on the vines, and they were off.

 

Needless to say, it was hard to even know which direction to go, but if she could feel the path tilting even a little bit downward, she figured it would eventually lead her toward the mountain base. This area wasn’t that populated, she had heard of a hamlet by the foot of the mountain, and that was it. She would have to either go there, or find the way to the Order camp they had settled on the southern flank… wherever that could be. They couldn’t be that far off from there… Things were very different from the little she had seen during the storm and her endless fumbling around through the forest, there was ice everywhere, and the snow reaching up to engulf her legs to her knees every few steps made things very distracting. She would need to speak to their superiors about the lack of equipment going on this mountain, this was embarrassing… 

 

Later on in the day when she couldn’t move on further, she found a place under a large pine tree where she could take a break without sinking in three feet of snow, and gladly took the time to drink. She kneeled on the side of the sled, where she saw Nee tucked in against Rin’s neck, waving up at her with positive mewls. She pulled up Rin’s goggles, seeing him open groggy electric blue eyes to blink tiredly at her.

 

“How… How are we holdin’ up…?,” he huffed under his scarf.

 

“I think we’re going the right way,” she tried to sound positive, even though she really wasn’t certain. “We’re heading down, at least. I’m just taking a short break for now, the snow is really deep…”

 

“Am I too heavy…?”

 

She smiled, went to cup his frozen cheek and rubbed a semblance of warmth into it with her thumb.

 

“Not at all, Rin. Don’t worry, it’s alright.”

 

He wasn’t light either, but she wasn’t going to mention that. She left her hand against his cheek while she rested, a quiet gesture he responded to by leaning against her palm, eyes closed. It was so very cold, her knees were shaky and her pants were soaked, but the littlest sense of warmth in that cheek was proof that it was all okay.

 

“He’s… not here…”

 

Confused, she blinked down at him. Rin hadn’t moved an inch, but his eyes were slightly parted open, looking intensely thoughtful under the haze.

 

“Who?”

 

“Rinka… I can’t find him…”

 

She found herself frowning. She knew of the immense efforts Rin was making to tame his inner demon half, but to hear concern in his tone when speaking about him was something new, something different.

 

“Do you think the blow weakened him?,” she asked, to which he remained quiet momentarily before giving a soft hum.

 

“Maybe…” He scoffed, a hint of humour in his tone. “Maybe he’ll take that as a hint to wait for his turn next time… The impatient bastard...”

 

She couldn’t help an amused smile either. She leaned down and kissed him on the tip of his frozen nose, making him blink and blush.

 

“Don’t worry,” she told him softly, “he’ll come back, I’m sure. Give your heart some time to heal first.”

 

For a moment, he stared at her, pensive, until his eyes suddenly widened, then closed with a sigh of dismay.

 

“Ugh, does that mean… I’m gonna spend Christmas at the hospital…? That sucks…!”

 

He groaned, tilting his head back a bit more.

 

“I can’t even go shopping for that gift I wanted to get you…”

 

Shiemi quirked her eyebrows at that, lips pursed. A gift? Something told her he hadn’t meant to say that aloud, but she held back a snarky comment and instead smiled playfully as she leaned over him, strands of hair escaping her bun to frame her face.

 

“A gift?”

 

He blinked his eyes open, as though realizing his mistake, then locked his gaze with hers, immediately adopting a sheepish and aloof look.

 

“W-well yeah… What kind of boyfriend would I be if I didn’t get a gift for my girlfriend on Christmas…? I’m not Yukio…!”

 

They both laughed in shared complicity, as light as the snowflakes slowly falling from above, and in response, she leaned down to kiss his nose one more time, holding a little longer. She pushed a strand of hair out of his eyes, gently, before placing his goggles back in place.

 

“Alright, boyfriend,” she said with a mischievous smile as she leaned back and rose to her feet. “Let’s get you down that mountain so we can celebrate Christmas in time with everyone! You’re in luck, because I happen to have something for you… But I’m not saying what!”

 

“Aw, c’mon!,” he started before she pulled on the sled and walked back on the forest road. “Don’t tease me like that, Shiemi!”

 

Her only response was another crystal clear giggle. It echoed on in the quiet, icy world surrounding them, a sign of life in a cage of frost… 

 

~~~

 

As the sun - wherever it was behind the clouds - vanished on the horizon, the forest they were in was drenched in complete darkness. Even her emergency flashlight strapped to Shiemi’s shoulder could barely pierce it, like the air itself had multiple layers of pitch black veils, each more solid than the last. She kept the arsenal she had left at her belt, namely two bottles of holy water and spirit-repelling herbs, but even the relief of being armed in the darkness was not good enough safety. That, and her imagination was always very mean to her, now more than ever. She kept glancing back to watch that nothing was trying to get to Rin from behind, only to see intense darkness, and hear intense silence… well, not completely intense. She could hear Rin’s laboured breathing.

 

Nee mewled up at her from his perch on his shoulder, causing her to stop walking. She immediately turned and walked around the sled to kneel down. She pulled Rin’s goggles away and pushed his scarf under his chin, only to see that he had trouble breathing. Wheezes, soft but grating, open-mouthed and pained. Pulling her glove off, she laid the back of her hand on his forehead, confirming a fever. He was shivering from the lowered temperatures, and so was she. With a panicked breath, she tried to rouse him, but Rin’s head rolled with a pained grunt, his eyes slightly parted but veiled with a tormented sleep. Nee mewled worryingly from his shoulder, to which she bit her lip, looking around them in the darkness. This was bad. They needed another shelter… or they needed to keep going forward. But how would she know where she was even going…?

 

As she was tucking Rin in more securely in his scarf, coats and goggles, a rustle, from her left, made her whip around in one panicked motion. She held her breath as her light shone toward the forest, back and forth against trunks, dead bushes, and more snow… And there it was, more rustling, moving fast across the bushes. More noise, like steps in the snow, came up from all around, making her turn and turn trying to locate the source. And then one of them walked out, and her light shone on its distinct face, in its reflective eyes, and her heart sank to her gut. Wolves. These weren’t demons! She wasn’t armed for this! Rin was, but he wasn’t fit to fight!

 

The animals, who she would have otherwise found beautiful and majestic, came out of hiding from all around them, at least half a dozen of them, grey and white robes blending in perfectly with the darkness of night. She kept turning, flashing her light on all of them to keep them in check, but it was evident in the way they were encircling them that they were hungry. She saw no other choice, she held her arm out toward Nee, was about to call his name-

 

But then, the wolves all turned, their attention taken by something else, and the moment one of them turned tail and ran, the others followed, tails between their legs as they whined into the dark. Shiemi stood confused for a moment, until she realized what it was that had scared them off. At first, she didn’t even see it. But when fire ran along a long, leen shape in the dark of the path, along ribs and a flaming skull, she paled. A hellhound. Twice as big as any normal wolf, thrice as dangerous. Her hand flew to her belt to fetch a bottle of holy water, ready to use it at any given moment, and the flaming demonic canine gave a nasty snarl at the defiance, its long scalding tail whipping the air angrily. With a flick of her thumb, the bottle opened, and the demon leapt. She threw the water in front of her in an arc, some droplets touched the demon, but it dashed off to the side to dodge the attack, forcing her to quickly switch to Nee, who jumped to the ground and grew as big as the beast in a matter of seconds.

 

The two met as the fiery one leapt at the grown greenman, biting and slashing at his club-like arms as Nee attempted to push it back, spreading glowing embers and licks of flames everywhere as it did. When it jumped at his face to breathe fire upon it, Nee struggled to keep straight for a moment, but under Shiemi’s calls he regained some composure and decidedly wrapped roots and vines all around the burning beast’s body, growing them quicker than it was burning them. When he had a good grip, Nee whirled around and threw it against a tree, where its spine brutally collided against the trunk in a sickening crack, and when he swung it again against another tree, it remained on the ground, dazed.

 

Shiemi reached down to her last remaining bottle of holy water, convinced that they had the situation under control, but then a heavy weight crashed against her back, sending her jolting forward face first into the snow. The weight kept her glued to the ground, she couldn’t breathe. Claws were digging into her back, and she realized with a deep dread that there was a second hellhound, and it bit down at her coat, tearing it apart to reach her skin. She screamed, she was panicking, she felt Nee shift his attention to her, but the beast was already reaching her arm, its flames were hot, hot and deadly, unlike-

 

“Shi… emi…!”

 

Suddenly, a loud whine, and the weight upon her back vanished, allowing her to raise herself back up with a gasp, though shakily. She saw, the hellhound, it was rolling in the snow and thrashing wildly, howling in pain at the few flicks of blue flame eating away at its body, and quickly she turned back to see Rin, turned in his sled facing her with his arm up and pointing at the beast. His face expressed a deep pain, then relief, but his eyes then rolled back in their sockets as he soon blacked out and went limp, half falling in the snow. She turned her attention back to the hellhound, only to see that with Rin’s consciousness, his flames had also extinguished. While the beast was getting up, she picked her bottle from her belt and quickly threw its contents at it, drenching it with the holy liquid. It burned, it howled and shrieked, and drew back long enough for Shiemi to crawl back to Rin’s side. Nee stood in front of her, smashing his charred arms together as the two beasts slowly recovered, standing together a short distance from them.

 

She closed her eyes, briefly. She was panicking, she needed to stay calm. What was the death verse of hellhounds again? She had learned it, she had known it at some point! Why was her memory failing now ? She tried to utter the start of a protecting prayer, but the cold and the panic was making her stutter and shiver so badly her words made no sense, not even to her. This was so bad. They had been so close to getting back!

 

“There! I see them!”

 

“Uke! Mike! Go!”

 

There were flashes of light piercing the dark, blinding her eyes, and two fast-paced blurs swept into action, surrounding the two hellhounds like long and deadly strings of white that spun and spun like a tornado.

 

“They’re down! Suguro!”

 

There were gunshots, and when she blinked out of her daze, the hellhounds were gone… and instead were faces, running their way. Behind the blinding shine of their flashlights beaming on them, Shiemi recognized each face - their friends were here! Rescue did come for them! She smiled brightly, but then Nee slumped down on his behind and poofed back to his small form as a wave of dizziness took over her. As she looked down and held her head until her vision stopped spinning, she saw a hand, in the snow… and quickly pushed Rin back in his sled. While she was sliding his arm back under her winter coat, they were surrounded by everyone, like a living protection circle, and for the first time since the night began, she felt safe.

 

“Shiemi!,” Izumo kneeled beside her, immediately looking her over for injuries. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m alright, don’t worry,” she smiled back tiredly at her.

 

“I’m so relieved we finally found you!,” Konekomaru exclaimed.

 

“We’ve been looking for you both for days!,” Suguro spoke from the head of the sled, his angry voice lined with relief, until he gazed down at Rin. “What’s wrong with Rin?!”

 

Yukio was already kneeled down next to his brother and lifting his goggles to flash a light in his eyes, but Rin gave no reaction other than wheezing breaths. Shiemi’s expression turned grim.

 

“His heart was badly hurt during a fight with the yuki-onna!,” she quickly explained. “I’ve been taking care of him, but he needs to go to a hospital, quick! His condition’s getting worse, he’s freezing cold.”

 

Yukio flashed her a gaze full of sudden fear, and he quickly went to confirm her words by lifting both the winter coat and the layers underneath. She couldn’t see the state of the heart, but she saw the face Yukio made, a flinch with a grimace, and after tucking his brother back in, he stood up, looking fierce.

 

“Suguro-kun,” he turned to the taller young man, “take Shiemi-san’s place pulling Rin, you’re stronger. Everyone else, stay in a defensive circle around them until we’re out of the woods. Let’s go, we have to hurry.”

 

Everyone went into position, and the moment Shiemi surrendered the sled’s vine reins to Suguro, who gave her a relieved and sympathetic smile, Shiemi let herself go along with everything. The trek through the woods was tense and quiet, but following their steps backward they made it out into a valley, where the visibility was better and she could see where they were going. The mountain was drenched in darkness on a moonless night, but the lack of trees showed distant lights scattered on faraway paths, showing her that they had been very close to coming up on this valley themselves. She took comfort in that thought.

 

It was halfway through to their destination, at the end of a snowy slope, that Rin came to again. They heard him groan, a long, pained sound that landed between a rumbling growl and a moan, and then he was rolling his head around, causing Nee to call out. Suguro stopped to look back, and Yukio was already kneeling down again to check up on him.

 

“Nii-san, are you alright? How are you feeling?”

 

Rin stared at his twin blankly for a long, long time, eyes dulled and absent… Then he puffed his cheeks as he drew in a sharp breath.

 

“Oh boy,” he slurred groggily, struggling to keep his eyes open, “now there’s three of yous… I think… I’m… not good...”

 

He rolled his head again, looking up and around at the rest of the group gazing down at him like he didn’t recognize them. He spotted Shiemi, and then he was moving, struggling against the vines of the sled, to the point where Yukio and Shima had to pin him down.

 

“The- the dogs…!,” Rin huffed, tugging his arm out from under his coats to wave it as though in search of something to grasp. “I saw th-he dawwwgs… Shi…! She’s hurt…!”

 

Shiemi kneeled down to grab his hand, hoping the contact would coax him to settle down, and laid her hand on his forehead again. Though his hand was freezing, his forehead was scalding hot, like his flames were all burning inside his brain in a ceaseless twister.

 

“It’s okay, Rin,” she told him, moving the coats to take a look at his heart - it was beating fast, bleeding again. “It’s okay, the hellhounds are gone. Hold on, we’re nearly there!”

 

“Hhhhhh…,” came a long, quiet whine, and as his eyes rolled back again and Suguro started pulling on the sled, he kept muttering insanities one after the other, under the concerned ears of his friends. “Hellhounds’re nothin’... Can burn ‘em… noooo no no burning… no burn… M’not here… where’s he… Never… liked this guy… Never liked me, M’this guy… Can’t find… sorry… I’ll b’good…” Another long whine escaped the depths of his throat, a plea for help they could only answer to by going faster. “Hurts…”

 

“This hurts to watch,” Konekomaru mumbled sadly to himself. “I’ve never seen him like this…”

 

“Where do you hurt, Nii-san?,” Yukio questioned in as kind a voice as he could manage, keeping an eye on his brother from beside the sled.

 

Rin rolled his head again when the sled bumped on a protruding rock, causing Nee to go and paw at his cheek with worried mewls.

 

“Head… got a migraine… My heart… it’s like… hhn...”

 

“Keep talking, Nii-san, stay conscious.”

 

“Hurts like… a bullet… a bullet...”

 

Yukio didn’t reply to that. But Rin kept talking like he had asked, the only sound eating away at the tension.

 

“M’doing my best… Stupid yuki-onna… Stupid Rinka… Stupid, idiot, dumbass… Is it Christmas yet…? Haven’t gotten presents… Need to make food… M’out of… fish and butter…”

 

“Dumbass,” Suguro chuckled from behind him, pulling harder on the sled. “You’re not cooking anything like this, that’s for sure.”

 

“This is creepy,” Shima commented with a grimace, holding on tightly to his staff. “He sounds super high, which is honestly something I always wanted to see, but it’s not as funny as it should be.”

 

“Was he like this the whole time?,” a stunned yet creeped out Izumo asked Shiemi, who shook her head.

 

“No! He was lucid most of the time. I think it’s the fever…”

 

“We’re nearly there,” Yukio said in a tight but urgent voice. “Let’s hurry up.”

 

And on the rest of the way down the mountain path, a loopy Rin went on to describe a rather extensive list of the things he wanted to cook for Christmas, including cooking times and perfect amounts of each ingredient, and it would have been fascinating to listen to if all of it wasn’t composed of near incomprehensible mutters and mumbles. By the time they reached the outskirts of the temporary True Cross base camp settled at the foot of the mountain, Rin had completed three whole main course meals and was now talking about what he needed to make a roll cake themed around cats. The medics that took over and rolled him to the infirmary tent were, needless to say, a bit confused when he asked them if they wanted sprinkles or chocolate chips on the cake. Shiemi followed to get checked up as well, but she soon lost sight of him behind a thick white curtain.

 

She could hear him ask where his father was. She wanted to hug him.

 


 

Rin ended up having to spend Christmas eve at True Cross General Hospital, exactly as he had feared. In the few moments that he was actually awake and lucid after first being admitted, the disgruntled satanic demon was very happy to let everyone know he was not, in fact, glad to be there, and would much rather go back home to heal on his own. It wasn’t that he disliked the attention, but rather that he did not care about strangers taking care of him in one of his most vulnerable positions - his demon heart exposed and weakened. That, and the hospital food was atrocious. He kept telling himself that he’d complain to whoever was the chef around this place, but then he’d forget by the next time he’d pass out. Thankfully, his friends did sneak in home-cooked meals during their visits, and the starved demon was ever so grateful for it.

 

Out of them, Yukio and Shiemi were the ones who spent the most time with him, at least from what he could see whenever he woke up. They were the only ones he trusted to handle his heart with the care it needed, so he wasn’t nervous when they were around. More importantly as well, thanks to both his own report and Shiemi’s, some light was able to be shed on what actually took place on the mountain.

 

Unfortunately, however, it was something that Mephisto had indeed warned him about, and so now, as a result, the Demon King was more than happy to poke teasing jabs at his little brother’s expense whenever he snuck in during visitation hours. The yuki-onna apparently had stupid luck, in Mephisto’s own words, because she struck him right as Rinka was retreating, in a brief, brief moment where his heart was opened and without protection. It was stupid like that. And Rin was very much displeased with the resulting situation and inconveniences.

 

All was not lost, however, because while Christmas eve did happen at the hospital, all of his friends had decided to bring the celebration to his hospital room. Yes, it lacked the large and frankly delicious-sounding buffet Rin had originally planned for the holiday, but what it lacked in fancy, it made up for in jovial simplicity. They came in with buckets of fried chicken, salads and plates of sushi, and while Rin was not allowed to drink, Shura did show up with the promise to make it up for New Year’s. Christmas eve wasn’t exactly as he had hoped, but it was better than it could have been if they’d remain stuck in the mountains. He was grateful to even still be there at all.

 

The next morning, Shiemi came by, as she always did, after his morning check up with his nurse, and when she came to sit beside him to give him a greeting kiss that notably lingered longer than usual, she slid a small package on his bed. He felt it in the middle of the kiss, rubbing against his hand, which caused him to open his eyes in curiosity. It was a small box, the size of his palm, covered in red and golden Christmas-themed paper. Shiemi beamed at him brightly, all the twinkling sparkles in her eyes and the way her smile kept growing and growing indicating she had been waiting for this especially.

 

“Merry Christmas, Rin!~,” she said in a soft singing voice, pushing the box into his hand.

 

“Oh no, you did not!,” he said with a knowing smirk, fiddling with the wrapping paper as his partner in crime giggled.

 

“Yes, I did!,” she retorted, sitting back down on the chair next to the bed. “I told you I had something for you, remember?” She looked sheepish as she briefly looked off to the side, her cheeks burning red. “Actually… this is the first half of my gift for you.”

 

“First half?”

 

“Yes! I’ll give you the other one on your birthday,” she giggled again with a growing grin before excitedly tapping him on the arm. “Open! Go on!”

 

Rin quickly did away with the paper, feeling excited at whatever Shiemi had planned. Inside the small box, snuggly hidden under dried rose petals, was… a hair clip. It was the most adorable yet gorgeous thing, silver with leaf patterns subtly carved along its edges, all culminating in small flower-shaped ornaments made of blue and green gems. He stared, dumbfounded, while Shiemi had her hands to her face in anticipation.

 

“I know you lost your favourite hair clip a couple weeks ago,” she said timidly yet sweetly. “So, I thought… Suguro-kun and Izumo-chan helped me make it! Do you like it?”

 

“Like it?,” he repeated, twisting the accessory to look at it from all sides, a smile growing on his face. “Are you kidding? I love it! It looks so pretty! And so… you!”

 

He wasted not a moment; pulling his lengthening bangs up over his forehead to reveal the roots of his horns, he clipped his hair up in a practiced motion, giving a satisfied and goofy smile when it fit just right. Shiemi looked about ready to squeal - a few did erupt out - but she held herself back and clapped her hands excitedly.

 

“It looks perfect!”

 

“Now,” he said in a slower tone, wiggling his eyebrows toward her in a would-be flirty way if he didn’t have a flower hair clip in his hair, “I can look at you better! C’mere, I need a hug…!”

 

He opened his arms toward her, and her instinct reacted first in making her spring up and into his embrace. She was careful about his heart, still floating outside and burning brighter, and all the cords keeping his vitals in check, but he showed no such sensitivity toward himself and hugged her as hard as he could, making her giggle as he tickled her ear with the stubble growing across his jaw. He coaxed her to lay on the bed next to him in the little space they did have, and when she was face to face with him, he found himself unable to look anywhere else. Rin smiled, his cheeks turning the same shade of raspberry painting the canvas of her beautiful face.

 

“I still can’t believe it,” he said, voice gone softer.

 

“Believe what?,” she asked back, in the same hushed tone.

 

“How lucky I am. By all means… the son of Satan shouldn’t deserve all this. This hair clip, the whole rescue, this attention… you. But here I am, with you right here in front of me, and this clip in my hair.” He breathed out, blinking a few times. “I dunno. I guess I’m still a bit delirious. I gotta be dreaming all this.”

 

At first, she appeared shocked by his words, but then she smiled, a thing of beauty straight out of a boy’s lost dreams, a beauty that left him with his mouth slightly agape, his head empty of thoughts, filled with flower-shaped gems.

 

“Rin,” Shiemi whispered, drawing closer, “delirious or not, you still deserve the world, because you gave it to me. I’m giving it back in small bursts, is all. Starting with this hair clip… and this.”

 

And she gave it back, in a small gesture, by depositing a feather light kiss to the tip of his nose.

 


 

“Alright… ready?”

 

Rin gave a sigh for himself, but he pushed his scarf a bit higher against his chin and gave his brother a grin.

 

“Yep! Roll me out, Scotty!”

 

“How do you even know that reference?,” Yukio chuckled as he moved behind Rin’s wheelchair to push him out of the hospital room.

 

“Shima. How else? Never watched Star Wars.”

 

Yukio poorly resisted a snort and the urge to correct his brother, and instead gave a thankful bow to Rin’s nurse when they passed him, which encouraged his twin to do the same. When they rolled out of the hospital and out on the front porch, Rin took a deep, satisfied breath.

 

“Finally!,” he exclaimed, slumping a bit in the wheelchair. “Some fresh air! I’m never getting in a hospital ever again.”

 

“Not even to visit me when I become a doctor?,” Yukio retorted playfully, to which Rin twisted his head to dart his tongue out at him.

 

“That’s a given! You’re probably the only doc I’ll trust.”

 

“That’s good to know.”

 

Yukio pushed the wheelchair out and toward the exit of the hospital parking lot, careful to stick to the sidewalk clear of snow. It was still snowing that afternoon, lightly and slowly, but the air was clear and void of any biting wind. On their way through town, Rin found himself gazing up at the sky, at the falling snowflakes, with an absentminded smile. In his pocket, he had Shiemi’s hair clip.

 

“Are you sure we shouldn’t have used a key?,” Yukio asked behind him. “It’s still cold out…”

 

“Yeah, a bit,” Rin agreed. “But nah, I’m good like this. A little walk won’t hurt us, right? The monastery isn’t that far from here anyway.”

 

“If by not far, you mean on the other side of town, and if by little walk, you mean me pushing you all the way there, then yeah, sure.”

 

Rin laughed, and Yukio did too. The snowflakes were still falling, and the air smelled of the fresh coming of a brand new year.

 

“Oh, I forgot to tell you,” Yukio started, making Rin tilt his head back to gaze his way, “but Yoriko-san asked me to relay that she’s happy to hear you’re making a quick recovery.”

 

“Aw, that’s nice of her! When’s our next session? I guess I kinda missed the last one…”

 

“She understands, no worries. She said to give her a call, and we can reschedule whenever you’re ready.”

 

“Yeah, I might need to wait a bit more… Dunno how it might go with my heart out and about.”

 

“Still… no news of Rinka…?”

 

“No… but I’m not worried. He’s always there even when I think he’s not. For all I know he might be sulking. It wouldn’t surprise me.”

 

There was a moment of silence between them, each up in their own thoughts, and all that echoed around them were familiar street noises of cars, passersby, children playing in the snowy streets. Nothing of their town had changed, like time was slowed down, stuck in a winter dream of so long ago.

 

“Nii-san…”

 

“Mmh?”

 

“Back on that mountain… do you remember what you said when we found you?”

 

“...Not really. Suguro said I was rambling about food?” He laughed. “I was really out of it, huh?”

 

Yukio chuckled.

 

“Yeah, you were. I’ve only seen you like this when we were kids and you used to talk in your sleep.”

 

“Wish you’d recorded me doing that, it sounds so creepy! I wanna know, haha!”

 

“Yeah…”

 

“...I said something else, didn’t I?”

 

“Well…”

 

“Spill it.”

 

It took Yukio a long time to be able to say it, but Rin gave him that time. They weren’t in a hurry.

 

“I was trying to keep you awake, so I asked you where you were hurting. You described your pain like a… like a bullet.” He paused, briefly, and immediately continued. “I know you didn’t mean anything malicious with it, you were completely delirious after all, but it… it stuck, is what I’m trying to say.”

 

“...Oh… I’m sor-”

 

“-I’m sorry.” Another pause… “I suppose the things I did will follow you for the rest of your life, consciously or not.”

 

After a moment of silence, Rin gave a small scoff, before twisting his head back to look his way again, an amused look across his face.

 

“We’re the sons of Satan. One of us was gonna get shot one of these days regardless. I’d rather it being by you than by an enemy, or some rando on the street.”

 

“But I did it multiple times-”

 

“You weren’t okay,” Rin interrupted him, his smile fading by a smidge. “And I knew too little to actually be of help when it counted.” He turned his head back forward, stretching his neck with a small grunt. “Things are different now. Yeah?”

 

“Yeah… Yeah, they are.”

 

“I’m sorry I said that back there,” Rin apologized, hanging his head. “You probably freaked out.”

 

“Hardly.”

 

“Tough guy, heh! ...Hey.”

 

“Mh?”

 

“Happy birthday, bro.”

 

Yukio smiled, and moved a hand to his brother’s shoulder, where Rin went to squeeze his fingers.

 

“Happy birthday, bro.”

 

They turned a corner, and they were face to face with old and familiar sights, ones they had grown surrounded by. The same streets, the same locations, the old park where they would play, the house of the old lady who used to hand them candy, the plaza where the local carnivals took place...

 

“Oh!,” Rin suddenly perked up and squirmed in his wheelchair, once again tilting his head back toward him, as though struck by a sudden thought. “Did you get the thing?!”

 

Yukio merely smirked his way, amused, before diving his hand in his coat’s pocket.

 

“I was waiting for you to bring it up.”

 

The younger twin handed him a small box wrapped in red and green paper, complete with a golden ribbon and bow, and Rin took it with an ecstatic smile.

 

“Oh man! I owe you! ...again.”

 

“You can pay me back when Mephisto gives you your compensation,” Yukio assured him with a chuckle. “I got the exact one you showed me, it was the last one they had. Next time though, please don’t go literally breaking your heart for a piece of jewelry.”

 

“I didn’t break it! It was just a tiny little stab, pff.” Rin observed the box with glowing eyes, already picturing the desired reaction to it. “I hope Shiemi will like it…”

 

“I have to admit, it was a good choice. I know for a fact she’ll like it.”

 

“Really?!”

 

“Really.”

 

And finally, their destination came into view, their old home, the monastery. The monks had been expecting them, and so welcomed them with open arms into their home, where it was agreed Rin would spend the remainder of his convalescence period. Not only would it be easier to maneuver around the place with the lack of stairs, but Yukio wouldn’t have to worry about being constantly there if the monks were looking after him, so it was a win for everybody. For tonight, though? There was a birthday party to finish preparing.

 

It was the twins’ nineteenth birthday, and while they had at first decided for something small, cozy, family-centered so Rin wouldn’t be overwhelmed, word got around because of course some people couldn’t hold it in. And so, when their friends started showing up at the monastery, more than they had hoped showed up as well, until the house was filled with friends, colleagues and family, a mish-mash of all the people they both knew. So much for a cozy party!

 

When the halls and all the rooms were filling up with people drinking and eating and talking, Rin ended up ditching his wheelchair in favor of a walking cane - despite Yukio repeating to seek out chairs if he felt faint - so he could more easily go up to his friends without having them look down on him. He was leaning heavily on the cane, trying to use his tail to keep himself balanced as he maneuvered through the monastery’s hallways. The party noises echoed from down the hall behind him, mainly from the living room, along with laughter and music, and despite his current struggles, the demon was smiling, to himself.

 

“No no no, Nee, don’t touch that! You’ll get- Oh. There you go. Come here, let me clean that up~”

 

Rin found the kitchen door opened, and judging by the squeaky noises he could catch from inside, the object of his desires was right there. He wobbled up to the door frame and peeked inside, eyes wide and curious. There was Shiemi, at the counter, clearly trying to prepare a cake in the most subtle way possible, but also in the most Shiemi way possible, so he could see it right by looking in.

 

He smirked, took a moment to observe her. Her long hair was down, reaching to her mid-back, with her bangs held up by a green flower pin, and she was wearing an ugly Christmas sweater - that everyone in their group hated but they both loved - white and green with Christmas trees and mistletoes patterned all over it. He was wearing a matching one, red and green, with a large reindeer head across its whole front with bells and trees along the sleeves, and they had both agreed on this just to aggravate Yukio, who could not stand these sweaters. He stood there for a moment, looking at her swaying hips as she added the finishing touches to the frosting on the cake, with Nee helping her out as he scampered across the counter, until Rin decided to come in, smiling devilishly.

 

Psst! ,” he called out in a not-so-quiet hush on his way in. “ Shiemi! I finally found you!

 

She whirled around, evidently taken by surprise, and tried to hide the cake with her body as she slammed herself against the side of the counter, face growing red.

 

“Oh! Rin!”

 

Rin walked around the counter into the kitchen area of the dining room, wobbling just slightly on his cane as he resisted the urge to giggle.

 

“I’ve got a confession to make,” he said in a hush still, bringing his hand to the side of his mouth as though to cover his words, and to that she immediately grew curious.

 

“A confession?,” she echoed. “Do you need help getting to the confession booth?”

 

He gaped a little at the proposal, but then snorted and shook his head, walking closer as he gestured her toward him, looking back at the door briefly.

 

“No, no need for that, you’ll do just fine,” he replied, still smiling. “Come closer, and I’ll tell you…”

 

She detached herself from the counter to help him sit down on the stool by the islet, holding on to his arm tightly yet securely. The moment she was close enough, his tail went and wrapped itself around her waist on its own, loosely. When she tilted her head to listen to his hushed confession, he went to whisper, close, lips brushing against the shell of her heating ear, and a shiver ran through her body when he spoke.

 

“I need to confess… that I’m still hopelessly in love with you, Moriyama Shiemi.”

 

His lips pressed against her cheek, a long and telling kiss that had her blush a deep and scalding strawberry red. As she giggled and leaned her head into it, he smiled through the kiss, quickly and blindly fiddling with the box hidden under the flap of his sweater. He ended the kiss by slipping the gift into her unsuspecting hands, to which she blinked in surprise. His smirk turned into a toothy grin as the tip of his tail gave an excited little wag against her hip.

 

“Merry Christmas!”

 

“Ooh! You didn’t have to, this- Wait.” She blinked at the box, then toward him. “Is this what you risked your life for?”

 

“Oh c’mon, why’s everyone gotta view it like that!,” he couldn’t help but laugh. “For the record, I had my eyes on it long before any of this happened, so it’s got nothing to do with it. Open it!”

 

Shiemi side-eyed him suspiciously yet playfully, and then was entirely focused on unwrapping the box. His heart gave heavier beats as she grew closer to opening it, only to stop when the lid came off… Inside was a necklace. A simple, thin golden chain, on which hung a jewelled red camellia, lined with gold. He could see its crimson glow reflect in the emerald pools of her eyes as she gaped, soundless, at the beautiful little thing in her palm. He swallowed.

 

“A red camellia,” he said, softly. “It means… you’re the flame in my heart.”

 

She blinked repeatedly, and he realized when she raised her hand to her eyes that she was crying. He reached out to her, wrapping his arms around her waist, and she didn’t hide a sob, even though she was smiling widely and beautifully as she settled closer against him.

 

“I don’t have words…!,” she weeped, making him smile back. “It’s- It’s beautiful! Y-you studied the language of flowers?”

 

“‘Course I did!,” he replied, holding her closer until she accepted to sit down in his lap. “I’ve been looking into it more… ever since I met you. Never thought it’d be something I’d be into, but, you know… Do you, uh, want me to…?”

 

Rin vaguely gestured to the necklace, and she nodded, allowing him to take it from the box and hold it up. Carefully, he brought the two ends around her neck while she lifted her hair, and when it clicked together, he slightly drew back, smile growing. The red camellia settled nicely under her clavicle, glowing like the red in his own eyes, and he couldn’t help but cup his hand around it. It was like a heart, his own to give to her only. He slowly moved his fingers up to cradle her neck, and their eyes met; she wasn’t crying anymore, but there was a look of pure adoration in her eyes, and he found himself falling in love just a touch more than he already was.

 

“Rin,” she said in a hush, putting the box away on the islet, and he was all ears, “I have a confession to make too.”

 

“Should we… go to the confession booth?”

 

She was quiet for a brief moment, then tilted her head in interest as her face grew redder and redder. She wrapped her arms around his neck, a gesture he knew as a promise.

 

“...Maybe later, when everyone’s gone?”

 

“Ooo~,” he cooed as she placed a quick kiss to his cheek. “Kinky.”

 

They both laughed together, and next thing he knew, it was her turn to have her mouth against his ear. She whispered, and in those hushed tones he felt the coursing lifeblood of everything he loved, into one voice.

 

“I have to confess that I’m also still hopelessly in love with you, Okumura Rin.”

 

Like a seal on a mutual contract, they both leaned in for a long kiss, filled to the brim with pent up passion that had them holding each other tightly. Again, like in the mountains, it was like their very first kiss, a first contact of lips that felt new and different from anything else before or after. Unending warmth, undeniable longing, unwavering bond. Rin felt her hand brush against his heart, the lightest touch, and he felt no flinch, no surprise, no sting, only a deep-rooted trust for the girl in his lap, for the flame in his heart. He encouraged her to hold it, moving his own hand to cover hers, and he felt everything in him unlock under her touch, his heart, his flames, the demon, the human - all of it loved her for it. Snaking an arm around her back, he brought her closer against him, ready to lose himself in another kiss, but then… something came up in his vision. She was holding up a thin square box, wrapped with green and golden paper… He blinked at it, trying to focus back from the rush of emotions.

 

“Wh… What?”

 

“Happy birthday!,” she giggled lightly. “Second half of your gift, remember?”

 

Rin had a blank moment until he did, in fact, remember, and he chuckled, face still red.

 

“Oh yeah! I forgot about that,” he laughed shyly, taking the little gift. “You really didn’t have to get me two things, you know…”

 

“Hush hush, it’s my choice to get you two presents! Open it now, it’s your turn~”

 

With a curious smile, he tore the paper off, but froze the moment he saw the first hint of a music band logo…

 

“No way,” he said incredulously as he quickly tore the paper off. “No way! You got her latest album?! Oh my god, Shiemi, I could kiss you-”

 

“That’s not all!,” she giggled, pointing toward the CD case. “Look inside the jacket…”

 

He quickly opened the first layer of the cardboard jacket, revealing a special artwork for the album, as well as… a signature. He gaped at it, unable to believe his eyes.

 

“You…!” He looked up at her, saw her smiling so much she could barely contain herself. “How’d you get a signed copy?! Those things are rarer than Yukio’s good jokes!”

 

“Aah!,” she made a secretive sound, casually looking off to the side. “My secret~! All I’ll say is that… the Uzai have contacts.”

 

He stared, dumbfounded, and maybe more in love again, and slowly shook his head.

 

“Not only could I kiss you,” he said, slowly and almost dangerously, “but I will . Come over here, you-!”

 

Once again Rin wrapped his arms around a giggling Shiemi, and this time when he leaned in to capture her mouth, there was no surprise box in the way. They held each other tightly, hands were losing their way into each other’s hair, his heart was beating fast and vigorously between them, beating for the both of them, and things were looking promising for the confession booth later when-

 

“Ah there you- Oh my god! Seriously? Again?”

 

Caught in the act, the two lovers quickly separated, red-faced and lips swollen crimson, and they both turned as one toward the still opened door, in which stood an outraged Yukio.

 

“You guys need to stop making out next to the food!,” he called them out as a warning, to which they both found themselves blushing wildly. “I will not have a repeat of last time!”

 

“Y-Yuki-chan! It-It’s not what you think! It’s not at all like last time!”

 

“Wait, ‘last time’? What happened last time?!,” came Shima’s curious cackle as he poked his head in, much to their immediate embarrassment.

 

The kitchen was suddenly filling in with people, and to Rin’s dismay, the attention had Shiemi scramble out of his lap, making him sigh.

 

“Nothing happened last time!,” the demon called out to a snickering Shima. “Right Yukio?”

 

“Are you sure about that?-”

 

Rin pointed a dangerous finger toward his grinning twin, who merely wiggled his eyebrows in amused defiance, but ended up making a zipping motion over his lips. In the end, no one ever told Shima what happened last time, and it was better like this.

 

All through the chaotic dinner of their nineteenth birthday, Rin could see Shiemi holding the red camellia in her small hand, running her fingers over its surface. He put the hair clip in his bangs.

 

Little things, for themselves to know, and for themselves to hold dear. A world given back, a flame burning bright in his heart. Just as it should be.