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It starts the day after he killed Suoh Mikoto.

Munakata wakes up that morning and he feels a tightness in his throat, irritating, because all he did was his duty – Munakata's decided on his chosen path as a King and all he did was what the Blue King had to, so he's not going to allow himself to look back, or to regret. His throat hurts though, like he can't breathe, and it's strange because he's never suffered from allergies or anything of the sort. It feels like something's stuck there, roots reaching up from his chest and clawing up his throat, and Munakata thinks 'this isn't grief.'

He gets up, changes into his uniform, and coughs up a flower petal.

From that point on it's a regular occurrence, always there in his throat, settling in his chest. He can feel it like a plant growing between his ribs, branches and leaves winding around to make a cage of his heart. He knows it will only grow thicker, vines and thorns, and maybe someday it will squeeze so tightly his heart won't be able to beat. But until then the flowers crawl their way up his throat, a constant cough that won't go away. Munakata's good at hiding it of course, because he's always been the sort of person who maintains perfect poise in every situation. He sits in his office and listens to Awashima give her report of the Ashinaka High incident – which is what they're calling it, not the Colorless Incident, not the Red King's grave – and he nods and gives his orders, and when she's gone he coughs flower petals into his tea. The petals are red like blood, floating in the cup, and perhaps there's something thin and amused in his smile as he stirs the tea with his finger.

A week passes, a day, a month. A new Red King rises out of the ashes of the old, and there are still flower petals in Munakata's throat, dotted like blood on his lips. When he meets Kushina Anna at the foot of the Mihashira building she looks at him for a long moment – 'I will not blame you for it, but I will not thank you either,' and he has not asked for either from her – and he suspects she can see it, the cage of branches and deep red blossoms holding his heart in check. There is red shining deep in her eyes and it's nothing at all like Suoh's, because Munakata knows Suoh's red. The bright burning fire that could tear everything to pieces, heat in those rough hands that had torn at his flesh like a wild beast, fire in the mouth and tongue that entangled with his, burning in the way only a wildfire can, like a thing that knows it must burn its brightest fast because once that fire dies there won't even be ashes behind.

(No blood, no bone, no ash. Mikoto has left none of those in this world now, and another flower falls from his lips.)

In the chamber of the Slate Munakata sees him sometimes, out of the corner of his eye. It's only a flash, here and there, and Munakata can't help but wonder if this is the Slate playing its own games. The Slate is alive, after all – no one who has sat in this room with their hands pressed against the glowing stone trying to tame the god that gave them life in the first place could deny that. Sometimes there are whispers in the back of his mind, promising him beautiful dreams and what this power could do, and Munakata never dwells on those. He's made his choice. He will not regret his choice.

Every time he leaves the chamber there are flower petals scattered on the surface of the Slate, but no one else enters this chamber and so it's simply his secret alone.

Munakata coughs into his hand, red petals fluttering in the wind, and he can feel the clock ticking down in his mind. It's aggravating, perhaps – he had more that he wanted to do, and of course it should be Suoh who still drags him down in the end.

(“You're an idiot, Munakata.” Biting his lips, blood dripping down like flowers, and Munakata pulls back Mikoto's head by his hair and tells him to be quiet.)

He knows the condition his Sword is in and he knows what is – still – growing in his chest. Munakata can calculate how the growth inside has increased with the cracks above his head, and he knows exactly how much time he has left. He will make the most of it.

Suoh Mikoto is smoking a cigarette just around the corner and Munakata can smell the smoke, but he keeps walking. A thorn pricks in his heart and this time there may be the smallest speck of red blood marring the petals that fall from his mouth and scatter away in the wind.

No blood, no bone, no ash.

“This isn't like you, Munakata.”

He planned everything perfectly, because that is who Munakata Reisi is. He knew what his duty would be the moment he stepped onto the ground at Ashinaka High, and he knew what his duty would be when he walked through the streets of Shizume City towards jungle's hideout with Zenjoh Gouki at his back. In the haze of the Gray King's power no one is able to see the petals flying in the wind and it's easy to explain away the blood as being from the wound on his head.

('Unlike me? Perhaps.' Once he would have smiled back at that, refuting the words even as he entertained them. But Suoh was that kind of person, who dragged out all the contradictions that Munakata had spent such time quelling. Perhaps he had always been unwell, that he'd entertained this in the first place. Perhaps that seed had been there from the start, waiting to be watered in the blood that he'd spilled – that he hadn't wanted to spill, and that was the truth of it, but it changed nothing so why did it matter – and he'd been absolutely lost from the start, from the very moment he'd been caught by the eyes of the beast and decided to take on himself the task of taming the untameable.)

The Sword of Damocles shuddered above his head and Munakata covered his mouth again, petals crushed between his fingers. If this was the end, that was it, he supposed. Unlike what it was meant to be, and unlike himself, but his plans had run dry and the thorns were starting to squeeze at his heart, vines cracking his ribs.

And then –

The Red King.

It was just another illusion, he knew that. Kushina Anna stood there alone, and no one was behind her. Perhaps it was only the Slate again, one last machination from a cornered beast, thinking this might cause him to do – something, to stop this.

But Suoh Mikoto looked right up at him, that lazy half smile on his face that Munakata was so used to, mouthing words that weren't an apology – it wouldn't be like that man at all, to apologize now, and it wasn't what Munakata wanted from him anyway – but which resonated in his ears anyway, shuddering their way down his throat, reaching for his heart.

A red flame burned through the plant rooted there, burning each and every vine and seedling, each small red blossom, each thorn sheared away-–

-and for a moment, perhaps, embracing his heart, leaving a burn scar on the surface where no one could see--

The Sword above his head shattered into thousands of glowing blue shards, and one last petal fluttered from Munakata's mouth into his open palm.

There was the faintest whisp on smoke lingering on the tips of his hair, Suoh's brand, and Munakata shook his head with something like a smile on his face.

“Truly an unreasonable man.”

Nothing answered him, but for the first time in a long while his heart seemed to be beating free.