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I Walked in a Desert

Chapter Text

There was something off about the atmosphere in the prison that morning…everything was so completely not out of the ordinary that it made Kai’s skin crawl.  Maybe it was the way that the guards were making rounds literally like clockwork, instead of merely an approximation of it.  Maybe it was the way that the rotations seemed just slightly off, apparently to accommodate a maintenance crew’s work but nevertheless leaving a blind spot.  He briefly entertained the thought of escaping as he sat in his favorite corner of the yard, where the cement was crumbling slightly and he could pick away at it for some idle amusement.

By and large if he didn’t start anything, the other prisoners left him alone.  Guards too.  He wasn’t important enough to be untouchable, but enough that no one would seek him out if he kept to himself.  It didn’t feel right, but he supposed it was inevitable he’d get recognized in a crowd like this.  Plus, it distracted at least some of them from the reason he was in there in the first place…

As they were lead back to their cells, they passed a corridor that was suspiciously empty, though Kai could hear a faint sound that was almost like footsteps and…something being dragged?  His eyes narrowed, and he glanced ahead, where Takeshi was walking.  Takeshi’s cell had been down that corridor up until the day before, when he and several of his neighbors had needed to be suddenly relocated due to some electrical problems.

Kai’s eyes flickered between the corridor and the way ahead, and after a brief contemplation, slipped away, easily avoiding the notice of the guards as he made his way down the corridor.  He’d probably get in trouble for this later, but he’d deal with later later.

Soon, all signs of life vanished behind him, and his footsteps echoed quietly in the empty corridor.  He ran his hand along the wall, idly following the cracks in the stone with his fingertips.  As he came to a corner, he suddenly felt that he wasn’t alone, so he cautiously peeked around to find that there was no one he could see in the hall.

Something dripped onto his face and slid down his cheek.  Kai stiffened.  It was warm, and he knew the smell.  Wincing, he glanced up at the ceiling and saw a dead guard suspended in midair.  Now, this by itself wouldn’t have necessarily been too surprising to him, but the fact that there seemed to be nothing holding the guard up at all was unusual.  Unusual in the sense that he should run run run and hide.

“Oh!  It’s you.”

Kai’s head whipped around, and he saw an older man walking toward him.  No, that wasn’t accurate.  He saw an older man stalking toward him, a bloody knife in his hand.  The man was smiling with shut eyes.  He looked very familiar, but Kai was a little too preoccupied to think about how.  He swallowed and willed his knees to stop shaking, crouching into a better fighting stance.

“I don’t believe we’ve formally met,” the man continued, “I am Satou.”

Fuck.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck he was so fucked.  He was distantly aware of the guard’s body falling unceremoniously to the floor near him, but he didn’t take his eyes off of Satou for even a second.  He’d have to get the knife somehow.  That was required if he was going to survive this.

“What’s with all the cloak and dagger?” Kai asked lightly, allowing a smile on his face, “doesn’t really seem like your style.”

Satou laughed.  “It’s just a different kind of game I’m playing right now…it serves my interests if no one knows I’m here, so that no one wonders why I’m here.”

“Don’t suppose that bodes well for me then, huh?” Kai said with a laugh, but he found himself backing into the wall without thinking.

“No, probably not,” Satou agreed, closing the distance between them, his leg sliding between Kai’s but stopping just short of actually touching him.  Kai pressed back against the wall.  Satou opened his eyes and stared at him, his arms hanging lightly at his sides but the rest of his body a coiled spring.  “So you’re Kai,” Satou said quietly, his voice a low rumble that Kai could feel in his ribcage, running down to his toes and up to his face.  A vaguely familiar sound he’d heard somewhere before…

His whole body went rigid and still.  Yes, this was definitely familiar.  The hyperawareness of everything near his skin, the vague crawling sensation and brief flutter of panic at suddenly beginning to get much less air.  “I, thought, you, had, to, yell,” he forced out, his tongue like a mechanical object with rusted joints.  He couldn’t open his mouth at all.

The look Satou flashed him would have had him shrinking away if he could move.  “Do not compare me to an overeager child like Kei,” he said, crucifying Kai with his eyes.

Suddenly, inexplicably, Satou leaned closer, reaching a hand out and gently fingering Kai’s ear.  “What is this?” he asked.

Kai’s heart was pounding so fast he was certain that Satou could feel his pulse.  But the stiffness was starting to drain away from his face, so maybe he wasn’t dead just yet.  He lowered his eyelids and leaned slightly into Satou’s hand, knowing the shadows from his eyelashes would disguise where he was looking.  “My earring?” he asked, “I dunno, I think it suits me.”

Satou laughed, then looked surprised that he had laughed.  The hand holding the knife shook.  The hand on Kai’s ear slid back until it was cupping his cheek.  It was smooth, like Eriko’s hands had gotten once she couldn’t go outside anymore.  Did all such imperfections get smoothed away if you were an ajin?  Was it all at once, or did it happen little by little until nothing was left?

Kai’s only experience with ajins had been Kei, who, with his smooth pale face and red eyes had made Kai think only half-jokingly of vampires.  The man currently invading his personal space, however, didn’t give off that impression at all. Instead, Kai could only think of a snake rearing up before it struck to kill, though the suffocating pressure of Satou’s voice was definitely contributing to that image.  Kai was starting to be able to wiggle his toes again, and his face felt almost fine, but his chest was stuck stiff.

“Are you afraid of me?”

Kai’s face snapped forward to look at Satou with wide eyes.  When had his face gotten that close?  He found his eyes drifting away, like they were trying to hide, but Satou dropped his hand to Kai’s chin and held his face up firmly.  “Are you afraid of me?” he repeated, softer, but with the same rumble beneath it as before.  Kai felt it cover his body, but it seemed less overwhelming the second time around.

He swallowed.  “I’m afraid,” he said slowly, “that if I’m not careful, then Kei will grow up to be just like you.”

Satou blinked, and for a brief, tantalizing instant his eyes looked like Kei’s.  He seemed confused, something about his expression uncharacteristically coltish, though Kai couldn’t place what it was exactly.  Maybe it was in the slight softness around his mouth as he asked, “And that’s a bad thing?”  He was so close that Kai inhaled the words.

Yes,” Kai gasped.

Something flickered in Satou’s eyes, and Kai could feel Satou's heart beating almost as fast as his own.  What was going on?  “You’re not what I expected,” Satou said, running his fingers through Kai’s hair while his other hand remained tightly clenched around the knife, “I knew you were loyal to him, and that he had abandoned you.  I thought you’d be more despondent.”

Satou’s eyes had closed again, but Kai was fairly certain he could still tell that Kai was glaring at him, because a vulpine smile crept across his face.  This was probably a poorly-thought-out move on Kai’s part, but spending more than a few minutes without getting murdered by a guy started to make you feel a bit more confident.  “If Kei doesn’t want me around then that’s all there is to it,” he said shortly.

Satou cocked his head.  “But he does!  And much more than just want you around…”

Kai felt a shudder run through his body, but froze when he realized that it was the feeling of Satou’s voice wearing off.  Wouldn’t do to let him realize that.  “And I’m supposed to believe that you're his new confidant? Whatever.  If you’re going to kill me, could you just do it already?”  The hand holding the knife had loosened its grip.

Satou sighed.  “You young people are all the same.  It’s a shame you’re not an ajin, sending you to one of those labs for a little while might make you more agreeable.  Then again, it didn’t seem to help much with Kei…”

Kai’s blood boiled, and in one fluid motion he lunged forward, grabbing the knife from Satou’s hand and slashing across his back.  They fell to the floor, Satou frozen while Kai landed softly on top of him.  Kai glanced at the knife before looking back down at Satou, smirking a little despite himself.  “Maybe this is overkill,” he admitted, “but you just pissed me off.  You can’t move now, your nerves are too damaged.  Isn’t it cool what you can do with a well-aimed slash and an amazingly-sharp (this is amazingly sharp by the way) knife?  I knew killing you was pointless, and you didn’t seem like pain would do much to you either.  Oh don’t look at me like that…I’m not sure what Kei’s told you about me, but with my background it’s inevitable that I’ve killed some people before.”  Kai hated killing people, as a matter of fact, but circumstances had forced him to more than a few times.

Suddenly huge gashes ran across Satou’s chest, blood spraying everywhere.  Before Kai could even process what had happened, something invisible picked him up and slammed him against the wall, holding him suspended several feet in the air.  Then a familiar, horrifying sound, as the wounds on Satou’s chest healed and he stood up, the smile on his face much more frightening now.  The invisible grip on Kai tightened and he felt something like claws digging into his throat.  He couldn’t breathe.  This was it.  The inevitable that he’d prolonged had at long last arrived.

Satou slowly walked toward him, his expression inscrutable.  “That was misinformed of you,” he said, “not that you’ve really affected the outcome anyway.  Die.”

Kai braced for whatever was coming, stars in his eyes from the lack of air.  Maybe he’d pass out, that would be nice, then he wouldn’t have to endure whatever sadistic death Satou was going to give him.

Something licked his face.  Kai blinked.  The grip around his throat relaxed, and air came wooshing into his lungs.  As his vision cleared, Kai could see that Satou seemed even more confused than he was.  Then again, maybe he was just loopy from the endorphins.  That thing was still licking his face.  How long was its tongue anyway????  The only thing that had ever licked his face before had been a dog, and this was extremely different!  Damn, why couldn’t he see it?!  What the hell was this?!

“You can’t see it?”  Satou asked.  Oops.  Totally said that out loud.  Kai shook his head, feeling the thing’s tongue starting to dart around his mouth.  Nope, nuh uh, not today.  He was drawing a line in the sand.  “But if you can’t see it…” Satou continued, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Kai was fast approaching the event horizon of losing his first kiss to some invisible thing, “then that must mean…”

Abruptly, Kai could feel the thing crumble around him, and he fell to the floor, landing in a pool of blood from the long-dead misfortunate guard.  Rather than try to isolate what hurt, he tried to determine what hurt most, and found himself at a loss.  Satou, meanwhile, was still naval-gazing a few feet away.  “I have been encouraging it to be independent,” he mused, “but this is ridiculous.  And if he couldn’t see it, then that can only mean…” his eyes flickered open and snapped toward Kai.

Kai tried to scramble away, but Satou was too close and moving too fast.  Before he could even blink, he’d been pushed back against the wall, Satou’s mouth on his.  He tasted blood in his mouth, his own blood, Satou was biting him, Satou was licking up all the blood, Satou was kissing him.  His stomach felt like it was floating out of his body and bursting out through his skin at the same time.  He’d changed his mind, the invisible thing with the long tongue would have been better.

Weakly, he pushed the knife into Satou’s throat, hard enough to break the skin but not enough to kill him.  Satou’s hands, which had ended up on Kai’s shoulders, grabbed him so tightly it hurt, and without warning, Satou lunged forward, arterial blood spraying everywhere before he slumped over Kai’s body.  Kai gasped for breath, blood dripping down his face.  His lips were swollen and bleeding, and everything smelled and tasted like iron.

Then that sound, and Satou lifted his head and opened his eyes.  They were dark and clouded with something Kai didn’t want to think about.  “I don’t really want to kill you,” Satou said gravely, as though it was a prophecy for disaster, “I don’t want to kill you.”

At this point Kai didn’t dare say a single word.  He just trembled.  Satou blinked, and his eyes cleared.  “Oh.  What a shame, you’re afraid of me now.”

Kai squinted his eyes shut and gritted his teeth, before mustering whatever bravery he had left to meet Satou’s eyes.  “That’s better,” Satou said.  He ran his hand over Kai’s face, smearing the blood slightly, before suddenly standing up.  “Tanaka,” he said into a radio, “it’s time to go.  Any luck on your end?”

A faint crackling noise that might have been words if Kai had been closer and a little more with it.  “No, no, sorry, I got distracted.  I found something new.

More crackling.  Satou looked back at Kai, a predatory grin on his face.  “You look good like that.  It suits you.”  Kai found himself once again incapable of moving.  Satou bent down and pried the knife out of Kai’s hands, smiling fondly at it before sheathing it.  He then nonchalantly pressed his booted foot into Kai’s throat.  “It’s for the best if you just go to sleep,” he said conversationally, “I’m not taking you with me, but I don’t want you looking like an accomplice.  Capital punishment would be very inconvenient.  Let’s do this again some…”

Kai dreamed of climbing trees and catching stag beetles, and Kei handing the net up to him, and never once finding a snake among the tree branches.

Chapter Text

It was the times when he was injured that Kai couldn’t help but think of Kei the most.  Pain and injuries were part of the human experience, but as one memorable scene by a river had made clear to Kai, there were some people who were beyond all that.  He’d watch the news as they displayed that same awful mugshot of Kei, and gently touch the bruises collaring his throat, still purple, from an invisible hand with too many fingers, and a man’s boot.

At least his lips had healed.

Even though a couple weeks had already passed, Kai was still being kept under higher security than before, making it difficult for him to see Takeshi, though that was honestly for the best since it had made it easier for Kai to keep the nature of his injuries a secret.  He didn’t want Takeshi doing anything rash, or assuming the wrong thing.  It would be better if he could keep this to himself for now.

He supposed he should count himself lucky.  It hadn’t been just anyone he’d run into in that deserted corridor…it had been Satou, arguably the most dangerous person in Japan.  That he’d come out of it alive, with only some bruises and memories to show for it, was nothing short of remarkable.  Even if Kai hadn’t seen Satou’s exploits on the news before, he hadn’t even needed thirty seconds in that man’s presence to recognize the aura of someone who killed people and liked it.

He doesn’t want to kill you though…a traitorous voice whispered in the back of his head, which Kai promptly squashed.  He was already too far gone with Kei, he didn’t need to add someone who actually was a sociopath to the list of people he’d grown emotionally invested in.  That was just basic self-preservation right there, even if Satou could potentially be a useful ally.  Even if Satou did have resources to help Kei that Kai could never dream of having, Kai would never trust that Satou had Kei’s best interests at heart.

He worried his bottom lip between his teeth, a habit he’d picked up while they were still injured and that hadn’t gone away even now that they’d healed.  He pressed his fingers gently into his carotid artery, right where the bruises hurt the most, and sighed.  He wondered if Satou didn’t want to kill him because he was actually an ajin.  He was disappointed with himself at how horrified he was at the possibility.  What kind of friend was he?

Lying back on his thin futon, he shivered slightly and started counting heartbeats.  Sometimes that helped him fall asleep.  The sound of footsteps (Mr. Hanada was the guard this time of night if memory served) walking past his cell door made a rhythm with his dripping faucet.  Why was he still here?  As much as he denied it, was he really just here in the hopes that sooner or later, Kei would come back for him?

The sound of his cell door opening made him freeze.  What could they possibly want from him this time of night?  And…why weren’t they saying anything?  He cracked an eye open, and jolted when he realized that he couldn’t see anyone there at all.  The door swung shut, and Kai could hear slow footsteps coming toward him.  He felt his pulse accelerating under his fingers and he abruptly sat up, before being pressed back down onto the futon by a heavy weight on both of his shoulders.  And then there was something gently butting into his chin, then an unfortunately familiar tongue long enough to lick his face and wrap around his throat at the same time.

“Where’s your master?” he asked, surprised at how calm he felt.  Then again, he didn’t think this thing would really hurt him, though his bruised throat reminded him to be careful.  “Aren’t you like his shadow?”

Satou’s shadow didn’t speak, not that Kai had really expected it to.  He waved his hands experimentally in the air, finding that the shadow seemed to possess a torso, two arms, and two legs.  Aside from the long tongue, it seemed like it was almost human-shaped.  Careful to not move too fast, he grabbed the blanket and draped it over the shadow’s shoulders.  “There,” he said, “now I know where you are.”

Immediately he felt his wrist being grabbed, and the tongue withdrew.  Many many many small sharp teeth bit down on his arm, and Kai gasped as rivulets of blood started trailing down to his elbow.  The tongue started lapping up the blood, and the weight holding him down lessened just slightly.  Not wasting the opportunity, Kai quickly lifted his knee and turned his hips, sending the two of them tumbling off the futon and onto the floor, but with Kai on top this time.

Before the shadow could react, Kai found its arms and pinned them down, distantly noticing that this thing was honestly way bigger than him but not seeing any point in worrying about that now.  “So we can fight against you,” he said feeling excited despite himself, “good to know.”

Rather than struggle against its new position, the shadow didn’t seem to mind, only concerned with continuing to lap up Kai’s blood from his arm.  Seriously, how long was that thing’s tongue???  He was starting to feel feverish, though that had to be because of how warm the shadow was; warm enough that he was starting to sweat a little.

The bleeding on his arm had stopped, and with a sound like a whine the shadow’s tongue started creeping further and further up Kai’s arm until it had reached his throat again.  “…play…play…” it whined, before pressing its teeth to Kai’s throat.  At the sound of its voice, Kai gasped.  “Satou?” he whispered.

Immediately the shadow’s whole body shook underneath him, its teeth slightly grazing his throat.  Then it was deathly still, before Kai heard Satou say, “Kai?

Something was different now.  Even the way the shadow was holding its body was different.  It tsked.  “It must have come here on its own,” Satou said, a mixture of pride and frustration lacing his voice.  The shadow shifted under him, and without thinking Kai pressed deeper into the hold he was using to keep the shadow from moving.

A pause.  “Oh-hoh?” Satou said cheerfully, “what’s this?  Did my black ghost let you get the better of it?

Kai flushed.  “Don’t sound so patronizing!” he sputtered, “I can bring down men twice my size…easy!

Satou chuckled, a low rumble Kai could feel all the way from his hands to his hips.  “That so?” Satou asked softly, and Kai’s whole body went rigid.  Shit.

A weight Kai recognized as being the shadow’s hands pressed languidly on the back of Kai’s neck. “A mere human fighting off a black ghost he can’t even see?" Satou purred, "It really is a shame you aren’t an ajin or I’d take you home with me.”

Kai couldn’t feel his face.  His toes reflexively curled.  “Is that what you did with Kei?” he asked hoarsely, “did you “take him home with you?””

The hands around his neck tightened until tears pricked in Kai’s eyes from the pain.  “Bringing up Kei now?” Satou asked, “You’re hurting my feelings, Kai.

“I just need to know if he’s alright!” Kai said, “Please, you know that much, don’t you?”

Enough about Kei,” Satou growled, “you and I are much more interesting.”  One of the shadow’s hands slid from Kai’s neck to his face, where it held Kai’s mouth open with its…thumb?  Immediately Kai punched the shadow’s face as hard as he could.  Pain bloomed out from his knuckles, and his body curled in on itself.  So fighting it was impossible?

Satou sighed.  “Like I thought, it’s less fun when I’m here like this.”  The shadow’s hand on Kai’s face felt gentler now, but it was hot like a sunburn and Kai was starting to feel dizzy.  “Don’t look so down, you’re doing very well.  It’s not your fault you can’t hurt a black ghost.

The oscillations between being able to move and being paralyzed were getting disorienting.  The shadow’s body felt like a vibrating engine beneath him, and by now Kai’s whole body felt light and tingly.  He panted weakly, finding the iron grip of the shadow’s hand impossible to wriggle away from.  Was he even moving right now?  He couldn’t tell.

Kai heard something he was at a loss to describe, because it sounded like crooning but that was impossible.  For a brief moment, he was back in a forest colored-summer, the sounds of cicadas and the smell of mud and itching bug bites and Kei was there, looking at him with those solemn eyes, and saying…

Never change.

Kai whimpered.  “Kei…

Satou sighed.  “If I give you something nice, will you stop wishing I was Kei?

A tongue too long to be human and yet much more familiar than any human tongue darted into Kai’s mouth and down his throat.  He felt like he wanted to throw up, but the rumbles in Satou’s voice made that impossible.  Having been paralyzed by an ajin’s voice a fair number of times now, Kai had concluded that calling it paralysis wasn’t quite accurate.  For him, at least, it felt more like he was being tightly held, like he could hang loose in his own body and not have to worry about anything.

Teeth gently nipped at Kai’s lips, and blood trickled down into his throat with the shadow’s tongue.  Wait…since when had the shadow been on top of him?  But it seemed so light now…

Don’t worry,” Satou said, “next time you can slice me up and kill me all you want.

Kai woke up on the floor, alone.

Chapter Text

Kai was a good listener.  It paid to be, after all.  His mother had often told him that any person would tell you everything you needed to know about them at least three times before they realized they’d said it, so long as you listened.  So Kai listened.

It was listening that had made him realize that Takeshi was an ajin; listening to that slight familiar crackle in his voice that made Kai’s skin tingle but too mild to do more, listening to the faint whoosh of a large other presence that Kai couldn’t see, footsteps that were unaccounted for.  It was listening that had made him decide not to say anything to Takeshi, less because of how he thought Takeshi might overreact and more because of who he was afraid would overhear.  And it was listening that had made him realize that he would need to kill someone.

A conversation he couldn’t have been meant to overhear, that he might not have paid any heed to were it not for the experiences he’d already had with ajin.  Certainly he wouldn’t have realized what they intended unless he’d already realized what Takeshi was.  They were going to take him away.  Quietly, in the hopes that they could surprise him.  Not here, in case he had allies they didn’t know about.

The plans weren’t in motion yet.  This visit from some government official had been meant as a confirmation before they made their next move.  If Kai worked quickly, he might be able to silence that one voice before Takeshi’s identity was compromised.  This was something he could do.

Takeshi was leaning against him in the yard, not talking but still saying a lot, like usual.  It was drizzling, but somehow Kai wasn’t getting wet.  Takeshi had mumbled something about angles and wind, but Kai was almost one hundred percent certain it was something else.  At least he was warm.

A raindrop trailed down Takeshi’s cheek and to his neck, passing by a thin white scar Kai had only noticed recently.  It was faint, and looked old.  Any number of mundane things could have caused it, but that wasn’t really what mattered to Kai.  Everyone accumulates small lines and dots and blemishes throughout their life, it’s just a question of what and where and when.  Even Kei had had the faint raised ridge on his knuckles from that one time with broken glass, and a slight tendency to favor his left foot after landing wrong when falling out of a tree.  Dots on his shoulder when Eriko had bitten him when they were very young.  Countless others.

Kai remembered with nauseating clarity the first time he’d seen Kei after everything had changed.  It had been so dark that he hadn’t noticed at first, but that morning by the river, Kei slicing a knife across his throat and rising up, reformed and unblemished as a god, Kai almost hadn’t recognized him.  It had been then that he’d known in his heart that Kei was going to abandon him again.

Takeshi glared at his soggy cigarette and groaned, giving up and throwing it vaguely in the direction of the trash can.  It made Kai want to smile.  Perhaps he was wrong, but he had a feeling that Takeshi wouldn’t kill himself just because it was convenient.  Takeshi looked at him curiously.  Ah.  He was staring.  Kei had often complained about that when they were younger.

“Gotta go,” he said nonchalantly, brushing the dust off his pants.  “Bathroom.”

Takeshi raised his eyebrows and leaned against the wall, not saying anything.  A raindrop landed on Kai’s nose, and he suddenly felt a lot colder.  Maybe he should tell Takeshi…

No.  It wasn’t that he couldn’t tell Takeshi.  But he couldn’t risk being overheard.  And he couldn’t let this human being in front of him that could die a thousand times but never wanted to die again be taken by people who would hurt him.  Takeshi wasn’t Kei, but honestly that was only a good thing.

Takeshi wasn’t Satou either.

As soon as he was out of Takeshi’s sight, Kai adopted a different posture and gait, one old and familiar but not comfortable.  He knew exactly which guard to approach, and said quietly, “I’m going out.  I’ll be back by roll call.”

Another nearby guard barked a laugh.  “Yeah, yeah, back to your cell.”

This might have been concerning, but this second guard was clearly low-ranking and new.  The older guard put his hand on his shoulder and said, “You don’t know who you’re talking to, Asato.”

He then bowed quickly to Kai and said, “as you wish, Young Lord.”

Ah, there it was.  Could he maybe never hear anyone call him that ever again for the rest of his life please?  Then again, he was taking advantage of it right now, so he probably shouldn’t complain…

Within half an hour, he was in street clothes and outside the prison, on his way to the nearby hotel where he knew the government official was staying.  It was a bit of a walk, and water from the rain was dripping off his hair and into his eyes, but it was good to have this time to think.  It had been a while since he’d flipped his switch.

He hadn’t bothered stealing a gun from one of the guards.  One look at that official had told him that this was someone who was useless in a fight, and if he had any guards Kai would be very surprised.  It made him grateful and a little sad.  This was going to be very easy.

Walking into the hotel without having anyone notice him was child’s play, and sneaking a knife out of the kitchen was even easier.  He could have probably gotten access to their admission records in some way, and thus found out exactly which room he needed to go to, but honestly, it was a small hotel and he had a fairly good sense of where the man would be.  There were quite a few vacancies on the ground floor after all and only one of the rooms had the curtains on the windows drawn.  It almost made him feel guilty.  It’s not like anyone should have suspected that someone like Kai would be coming after them.

The man was sitting at a desk, typing away on a laptop.  He hadn’t noticed Kai breaking in.  Gently, Kai shut the window and closed the curtains behind him, leaving the room dark once again.  They appeared to be alone.  He crept across the room, and was surprised and relieved to notice that the laptop was disconnected from the internet.  He supposed that made sense.  The government probably wanted as much information off the cloud as possible.  Perhaps he’d acted quickly enough that Takeshi’s identity hadn’t been compromised yet?

The knife slid easily enough into the man’s chest, and he snapped his neck for good measure.  He left the knife in for now; less blood that way.  He quickly took stock of the information on the man’s laptop.  It was surprising how little there was, honestly.  He hadn’t even sent out a vague email saying that he’d found an ajin.  His phone was no different.  He hadn’t made any calls at all in the past several days.  Nothing was in his pockets except for a lighter and some cigarettes.  What was going on?  It couldn’t be this easy.

“So cold, Kai, ignoring me like that.”

In an instant, the knife was back in Kai’s hands, and he was scanning the room.  Someone there?  Someone he’d missed?  Then his heart skipped a beat.  Satou was sitting nonchalantly in a darker corner of the room, his face eerily calm.  Slowly, Kai shifted into a better fighting stance, stepping out from behind the desk.

“Am I to take this as meaning that you’re protecting Takeshi Kotobuki?” Satou asked, his eyes following the bloody knife in Kai’s hand closely.

“He’s my friend.”

Satou’s eyes flickered over to the corpse of the government official, and back to Kai’s knife.  He sighed.  “So ruthless, Kai.  And I’d had such high hopes for this plan.  You’re making a habit of surprising me.”

Satou’s eyes were still following the knife, the same laser focus that Kei always stared at him with.  Without really being aware of what he was doing, he raised the knife to his lips and slowly licked it.  Something feral glittered in Satou’s eyes, and Kai could feel more than hear a faint rumbling.  “You were telling the truth when you said you’d killed people before,” Satou said.

“Yeah,” Kai said nonchalantly, throwing the knife right into Satou’s throat.

As Satou collapsed to the floor, Kai leapt across the room, quickly arranging himself over Satou such that when Satou awoke, he was unable to move.  He grinned up at Kai and licked the blood off his teeth.  “That was fast,” he purred, a familiar weight pressing his words into Kai’s skin.

Kai shuddered and stiffened, but as Satou started struggling against Kai’s hold he realized that he could still move, just clumsier.  Well enough to keep Satou pinned down, though Satou did manage to free one of his arms.  The knife pressed lightly into the small of Kai’s back.  His heart started beating faster.  “I know you won’t kill me,” he said lightly, averting his eyes.

“Are you sure?” Satou asked, pressing just a little more firmly with the knife.

Kai was sure…probably.  He let Satou guide him down with the knife in his back, until they were lying flush against each other and Satou was kissing him.

Honestly, it was more like Satou was biting as much of Kai’s mouth as he could reach, and happened to be using some tongue also, but a bloody kiss was still a kiss.  Kai could feel Satou’s heart racing under him.  Was Satou shaking?  Or was that Kai?  Slowly, Satou pulled back, drops of blood dripping from Kai’s bleeding mouth and onto his face.  The knife was still pressed firmly into Kai’s back, while Satou’s other hand cradled Kai’s face.  When had that gotten free?

In hindsight, this had been a really bad idea.  Kai should have just abandoned the hotel room after killing Satou, and hoped he could make a run for it.  Not that there was a good chance of getting away, but certainly he would have made more progress than he currently seemed to have made.  Satou’s hips moved under him, and one of his legs slid up.  He was going to flip them over.  Panicking, Kai closed the distance between their mouths again, letting in Satou’s tongue.  Satou made a surprised noise, and Kai clenched his fists and bit down hard.

Immediately, Satou fell back, coughing on the blood that rushed out of the stump of his tongue.  Kai spat out the piece of tongue in his mouth and rolled away, grabbing the knife from Satou’s hand as he did so.  He shivered from the sudden lack of warmth, and quickly pushed himself up to a low crouch, springing back toward Satou and slicing his throat.  Blood sprayed onto his face, and Kai mourned the fact that this was becoming something of a routine for him.

With Satou dead for the moment, Kai made for the window.  Not fast enough, he felt Satou’s iron grip on his wrist, and suddenly the knife was gone.  A sting sliced across his back.  It was shallow, but fuck it hurt.  Okay, so killing Satou didn’t buy him enough time to get away.  Maybe tying him up?  Thank God Satou didn’t have a gun.  “Leaving already, Kai?” Satou asked softly, his voice no longer enough to paralyze Kai but plenty enough to slow his reaction time.  While Kai dodged the worst of it, Satou’s next slash also managed to graze him, this time on his thigh.  That would have had him on his knees if Satou had landed it properly.

Satou tsked, but looked as ecstatic as Kai had ever seen him.  “You just aren’t going to make it easy for me, are you?” he said.

Here came the knife again.  This time, Kai managed to get a grasp on Satou’s wrist, and redirect the blow right into Satou’s own thigh.  Satou gritted his teeth and fell to his knees, yanking Kai down with him as Kai wound up a kick.  Kai still solidly landed his kick to the side of Satou’s face, but Satou had made him unbalanced, and they both fell to the floor.  As they fell, Kai looped Satou’s arm around his shoulders and pressed into Satou’s shoulder socket, feeling it pop out as they landed.  Well, at least he’d accomplished something.

Satou seemed undeterred by any of this, lunging at Kai with a feral laugh while his arm dangled loosely and blood came steadily from the stab wound in his thigh.  Scrambling back, Kai misjudged exactly where he was in the room and crashed into one of the bedposts, knocking the wind out of him.  His eyes watered as the back of his head cracked against the hard wood.

Apparently ambidextrous, Satou used his other hand to press the knife to Kai’s throat, just enough to break the skin.  Kai’s head was spinning.  “Do you really want to get away from me so badly, Kai?” Satou asked.  Maybe it was just the head trauma, or he’d lost more blood than he thought he had, but Kai couldn’t move.

Satou chuckled.  “I’m not so bad, you know,” he said blithely, sucking a hickey onto Kai’s neck while pressing just a little harder with the knife.  Kai sighed, and he felt Satou smile against his throat.

“What do you want from me, Satou?” Kai asked.

Satou pulled back, looking at him curiously, before pulling the knife away from Kai’s throat and frowning thoughtfully.  Kai felt tears pricking in his eyes.  It was stupid, but he looked so much like Kei.  It made his heart hurt.  But it was entirely for strategic purposes that Kai leaned forward and placed his hands on the sides of Satou’s neck, and said softly, “I think I know.”

He pressed a whisper of a kiss to Satou’s lips, and held it there gently as he strangled him.  He waited until Satou had stopped moving for a minute before he let go, tugging the knife out of Satou’s limp hand.  He sighed in relief.  He should have at least a few minutes before Satou woke up, but realistically he had lots of time.

Luckily, there was a first aid kit in the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, so after peeling his bloody and torn clothes off himself he proceeded to disinfect.  The scratch on his back was already scabbing over, and there wasn’t much to be done about his lips, but he could at least bandage up the smaller cuts and scrapes he’d gotten.

It was a bad idea to take the clothes off the cooling-corpse of the government official he’d almost forgotten about, but it was probably a better idea than heading out in public with bloody clothes.  The pants were about his size, and were still clean anyway, though he’d need to dispose of the personal effects discretely on his way back.  The shirt was a lost cause, but the jacket slung over a nearby chair looked like it would do.

But as he reached for the jacket, he heard a staticky giggle, and Satou’s voice saying “Game over!” before a slice and blood was welling up from gashes in Satou’s chest.  Shit.  The shadow was here.  Where was it?

A rough force slamming into his side abruptly answered his question, and he went flying into the wall, landing next to the desk and a wastepaper basket.  Weakly, Kai tried to do a leg sweep in the direction the swing had come from, but couldn’t connect.  This was bad.

Satou was sitting on the bed with his legs crossed, a predatory smile on his face as he stared hungrily at Kai.  His mouth didn’t move, but Kai could hear his voice, presumably from the shadow.  “I think I want to see you covered in my blood, Kai,” he said, “from killing me over and over and over again.

 A whisper of breeze made Kai roll away just in time to protect his leg from a blow that would no doubt have broken it.  Fuck.  Satou was playing it much safer with his shadow this time.  If he’d just stay closer, Kai could keep better track of where it was, but without knowing he was more or less helpless.

A weight in his pocket.  The lighter!  He’d wanted to avoid something as attention-getting as setting a fire, but at this point, he was desperate.  He crawled toward the waste paper basket, fighting past the paralysis as Satou said, “I think I want to never let you get away.

The papers caught fire easily, and while he knew it wouldn’t last the room started to fill with smoke.  Sure enough, there was a space that the smoke swirled around, and armed with this knowledge Kai was able to land a leg sweep, sending the shadow tumbling to the floor.  The fire alarm started blaring, and the sprinklers went off.

And then something strange happened.  For a moment, the shadow completely froze, then happily said “Kai!” and nuzzled Kai’s neck.

Kai blinked, and Satou tsked.  Think quickly, think quickly.  “Hey, do you want to play?” he asked the shadow.

Play!  Play!

“Okay!  Let’s play tag!  He’s it!” Kai said, pointing at Satou.

The shadow picked Kai up, and before Kai could fully process what had happened, the shadow had smashed through the window and was running across the parking lot.  As it ran, Kai felt it crumble around him.  As he fell to the ground, he managed to roll underneath a car, clinging to the undercarriage for dear life.  Satou stalked through the parking lot, coming heartracingly close to him.  “You know, Kai,” he said flippantly, “I can’t help but wonder if Kei ever gave you what you wanted like I do.”

Kai felt like he was going to throw up.  He must know where he was.  He was fucked, he was so fucked.  But then, inexplicably, Satou walked away, and left Kai there alone.  Kai waited half an hour before he crawled out from under the car and slipped away.

True to his word, he managed to make it back to the prison in time for roll call, though he wondered why he actually went back.  But there were bruises the shape of Satou’s hand around his wrist, and no matter what position he was in he could feel his clothes rubbing against a scrape or scratch left by Satou.  There was no hiding the hickey.

Lying in bed that night, alone and cold, he worried his abused lips between his teeth and tasted blood. He fell asleep thinking of all the places he wished Kei would kiss him, and wondering if Satou would do it instead.

Chapter Text

The next morning, everyone stared at him.  Mercifully, apart from one fellow inmate’s friendly gibe (“shit man, did you make out with the warden’s dog?”), no one actually said anything.  But the weight of everyone’s eyes on his mouth had him feeling flustered and more aware of his body than he had in a long time.  The hickey on his throat didn’t help.

Takeshi’s eyes were solemn and soothing, and he didn’t say a thing about it, choosing instead to wait for Kai to bring it up.

It was raining again, harder than yesterday.  Almost everyone else had opted out of going into the yard, but Takeshi wordlessly followed Kai out to their usual spot.  They were drenched in seconds.  It was harder for Takeshi to get away with using his shadow to cover them in such a downpour, after all.  The cold water felt good on Kai’s back anyway.

“Satou is looking for you,” he said, seeing no point in beating around the bush.

Takeshi blinked owlishly at him, but said nothing.  “He’s come here twice now looking for you,” Kai continued, “we need to get out of here.”

Kai knew better than to expect Takeshi to show any surprise, but he could have at least looked a little nervous or something.  Then again, Takeshi probably hadn’t met Satou, hadn’t seen firsthand what kind of a person he was.  Kai hoped he never would.

“Is Satou why you look so fucked up?” Takeshi asked.

“Why ask a question you already know the answer to?”

Takeshi glanced at him wearily.  “A guy can hope.”

Kai didn’t say anything to that.  Takeshi sighed.  “So, where are we going?” he asked.

We aren’t going anywhere.  If we split up then we’ll split his attention too…less likely we both get caught.”

That seemed to surprise Takeshi.  “You mean he’s looking for you too?  Aren’t you just a normal human?”

“Yeah, aren’t you?”

Takeshi glared at him, then blinked.  “Wait, seriously?  Then why is he…” his eyes flickered to Kai’s mouth, then away, “Shit, Kai.”

Kai shrugged.  What was there to say?  Takeshi stared incredulously at him.  “Well, fuck.  How long before he comes back, do you figure?”

How the hell was Kai supposed to know?  “He was in the area yesterday…who knows about today.  I want us both gone as soon as possible.  I can get myself out, but you’ll be harder.”

Faint narrowing of eyes.  “I can get us both out once this rain stops,” Takeshi said slowly.

Kai nodded, then thought about that.  “Do your shadows not like water or something?” he asked curiously, remembering what had happened with Satou’s shadow in the sprinkler.

Takeshi surprised him by laughing.  “Man, you’ve just got us all figured out, haven’t you?”

Kai grinned despite himself, then winced when it pulled his lips too much.  “Well, it’s been said I’m a pretty smart guy.”

“Ah.  Someone other than me must have said that.”

They went back inside soon after, not seeing much point in sitting out there in the rain.  Takeshi said he’d find Kai when it was a good time to go.  Kai just hoped that time came before Satou paid them another visit.  All he could do was hope that the rain dissuaded Satou from coming.

The rain didn’t let up all night, only starting to show signs of stopping the next morning.  As the guards crowded them all into the shower room, Kai found Takeshi and they exchanged a glance.  Thank God.  They’d leave soon.

He let himself zone out a little bit, not having the energy to deal with everyone staring and wondering at his battered body.  He noticed the sudden silence in the room without processing it, more aware of the water pooling around his feet near the drain.  The water stung a bit, but it was important to keep clean.  And he wasn’t sure when he’d next have a chance to have a shower anyway…

Takeshi’s featherlight grip on his bruised wrist pulled him out of his reverie just moments before Kai heard three rapid gunshots.  The guards were dead on the floor, blood washing down the drain with soap and dirt.  Most of the other prisoners were running, not even bothering to put their clothes back on as they left the room behind them, soap still on their skin.  Satou watched them go with an indulgent smile.

Kai swallowed.  “Go get dressed,” he murmured to Takeshi, before turning his back on Satou.  If this was happening, he was at least going to finish his shower.

He’d almost finished rinsing the shampoo out of his hair when he felt Satou shove him into the wall, just managing to get his hands up to keep from hitting his face.  His wrists hurt, but didn’t seem broken.  “Hello,” he said to the wall, testing lightly at the strength in Satou’s hands and finding no weak points.

“What have I said about ignoring me, Kai?”

Kai shrugged.  “Technically you haven’t said anything to me about it.”

Kai got a bite to the shoulder for that, but bit his lips to keep from giving Satou the satisfaction of making a sound.  The force across his back was unbalanced now, so Kai quickly turned around, facing Satou and getting a sense of the room.  Takeshi was dressed already, and had gathered up Kai’s clothes in his arms.  He was staring at Kai with wide eyes.  A faint distortion in the steam led Kai to infer the shadow’s presence and location, though he supposed it could have been Takeshi’s too.

Takeshi being here was a problem.  Calculating his moves with Satou was complicated enough without adding another variable.  He needed to get Takeshi out of here, quickly.  For that, he needed to completely monopolize Satou’s attention.  Satou’s eyes were wide open and riveted to Kai, but Kai could tell that Satou was still much too aware of everything else going on in the room.  That would need to change.

“Miss me already?” Kai said, going for playful to start and putting a hand on his hips.  In a flash of impulsive creativity, he inclined his head to bare his throat.  The room immediately felt smaller.  Willing Takeshi to leave him and trust him to find his own way out, he grinned and felt his lips split, blood beading on them.  “You seem distracted,” he added suicidally.

Satou responded by pressing the gun into Kai’s throat.  Really?  “Am I boring you already?” Kai asked, before kicking Satou in the face.

Without seeming to expend any effort at all, Satou caught Kai’s leg with his other hand, stopping it short before it reached its mark.  Satou’s grip was tight but not enough to bruise.  “Maybe a little bit,” Satou admitted, biting Kai’s calf.

Kai let himself cry out from the pain of that (it fucking hurt!), and the sound distracted Satou enough that Kai was able to grab the gun and quickly shoot Satou in the face.  Satou collapsed to the ground, pulling Kai down with him, but for the moment at least Kai had the upper hand.  He landed on top of Satou’s face, barely managing to keep a hold of the gun.  Pushing himself up to sit on Satou’s chest, he groaned at the blood that was now covering his stomach from Satou’s bleeding head wound.  He’d just had a shower!

He cast his eyes about.  Takeshi was standing a few paces away, watching with wide eyes and still clutching Kai’s clothes.  Kai blinked.  “Why are you still here?” he hissed, “Get the hell out of here!!  I’ll catch up with you.”

Takeshi gulped.  “I…”

Kai sighed.  Civilians.  He was about to say something else when the feeling of something wet on his stomach had him shuddering.  He glanced down at Satou, licking his own blood off of Kai’s skin with a strange expression on his face.  “Are you ticklish, Kai?” he asked without seeming to actually care about the answer.

“Wait your turn,” Kai said coldly, shooting him in the face again.

Kai!” he suddenly heard Takeshi shrieking, before a whoosh of warm air and a loud crash.  Kai looked up, but could see little aside from Takeshi standing in the same place.  Oh.  The shadows.  So much for convincing Takeshi to leave.

“Takeshi, are you going to be okay?” Kai called, but Takeshi didn’t reply.  His teeth were gritted and his eyes were glued to the place where Kai could only assume the shadows were fighting.  Hoping that Takeshi would be able to handle the shadow for now, Kai slid down to sit on Satou’s hips, feeling around the belt for anything he could use.  Five shots Kai knew of from the gun, it was very unlikely there was more than one shot left.

“I didn’t bring much with me,” Satou rumbled, his voice making Kai curl his toes but not seeming to have any greater effect than that, “I knew anything I brought you’d use against me.”

“I’m flattered,” Kai said, resolutely ignoring the fact that Satou was hard.

Satou brought up his knees.  Kai leaned back on them, eyeing Satou critically.  So no knife this time.  Dang.

“What are you going to do with your last shot?” Satou asked curiously.

“Hmm…” Kai pretended to consider, twirling the gun in his hand.  Satou’s eyes followed it, narrow like a cat’s.  Takeshi looked exhausted.  Shadow fights must take a lot out of you.  Kai smiled and leaned down until Satou’s mouth was almost close enough to kiss.  “I guess I could kill you again.  Maybe shoot you somewhere more exciting than your face…”

“Will you?” Satou asked, calmer than Kai knew he felt.

Kai smiled.  “Nah.”  He lifted his arm up and shot one of the overhead pipes.

Immediately water began to spray everywhere, and the sounds of fighting shadows stopped.  Kai hit Satou in the temple as hard as he could with the gun.  Without stopping, he leapt up and grabbed Takeshi’s hand.  “Let’s go!” he shouted, practically dragging Takeshi after him as they made their escape.

“Takeshi, work with me, we got a plan?” Kai huffed as he leapt over the bodies of the fallen guards.

“We have to get out to the yard,” Takeshi replied, “once we’re outside we’re home free.”

“Got i-” Kai cut off suddenly as a hand wrapped around his ankle and yanked him down.  He felt his ankle twist.  Letting go of Takeshi’s hand, he kicked back without aiming, pleased to feel something crunch beneath his foot even though making contact hurt.

“Takeshi, go!

“But-”

“I swear to God, Takeshi, just trust me.  I’ll catch up.”

A hesitant look, then Takeshi was gone, leaving Kai and Satou alone in the room.  Blood was dripping down from Satou’s broken nose, the water washing it away and streaking his clothes red.  He knelt on the floor, watching Kai intently.  Kai told himself firmly that it was fear that had his heart beating so fast.  Definitely fear.

“You’re not going to go after him?” Kai asked.

Satou smiled, smoothly rising to his feet.  “He won’t leave without you,” he said, “and you’re not going anywhere.”

Kai tested his weight on his ankle.  The pain from when he’d fallen hadn’t lessened, and it was the same leg that Satou had bitten earlier anyway.  He could walk, but he probably wasn’t going to be able to outrun Satou, even with the small head start killing him would give.  No good way to bar the door shut quickly either.  He glanced at the fallen guards for a moment, walking towards Satou as he did so.  Smiling back, he reached forward and grabbed Satou’s hat, placing it jauntily on his own head.  “Isn’t this moving a little fast for our third date?”

Satou responded by striking Kai across the chest, evidently using some nail if the thin gouges were anything to go by.  Coughing, Kai concluded that the blow hadn’t broken his ribs.  Probably.  Now several feet away from Satou, he’d landed on top of one of the guards, which had saved him from hitting his head on the floor.  Kai gulped a few breaths, but despite his outward appearance felt completely calm.

Deliberately, he rolled off the guard and onto the floor, pushing himself up to sit.  The floor was freezing.  Teeth chattering, he scrambled back, only for his injured ankle to give and slip on the wet floor.  He fell backward, hitting his head on one of the shower pipes, sturdy and unyielding.  He allowed himself a few seconds to close his eyes and absorb the pain, crying out and curling his toes.  His skin smarted and stung everywhere, and blood oozed from the places where Satou had bitten and scratched him.

Another bite, this one fonder and more controlled, at the place where his throat met his jaw.  His cry swallowed by lips and teeth.  Satou’s body warm and firm and pleasing between Kai’s legs.  All of Satou’s other kisses had been so frantic, the slow pace of this one was surprisingly nice.  One of Satou’s hands was on Kai’s cheek, but the other was firmly on the floor.  Kai took hold of it, rubbing his thumb over Satou’s wrist.

Satou rolled his hips and Kai bit his lip and tried not to groan.

When Satou pulled back to let Kai breathe, he relocated his mouth to Kai’s chest, biting his way down.  Kai supposed Satou thought he had won.  “Still bored?” he asked lightly, proud of how unaffected his voice sounded.

Satou laughed and rolled his hips again.  Click.  Kai smiled slightly, then pressed a kiss to the top of Satou’s head.  This was nice, but it was time to stop.  As Kai had expected, Satou immediately recoiled, glaring at him furiously.  “Stop doing that,” he hissed.

“Doing what?” Kai asked, evenly meeting his eyes.

“Looking at me like I’m a person.

The angry bloodlust in Satou’s eyes had a thin veneer that made Kai’s heart hurt.  If he let himself not think about it too much, he could pretend that that thin veneer was what was really there.  He could forget, just for a moment, about the eyes that Kai wished he was looking at now.  He lifted his hand up and cupped Satou’s cheek gently, just for a moment.  “Then stop acting like you want me to.”

Moment over.  Kai abruptly stood up, wincing as he put weight on his ankle but otherwise feeling fine.  He stepped away from the wall quickly, putting distance between him and Satou before Satou could react.  “Well,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “It’s been fun.”

An incredulous look on Satou’s face, quickly overtaken by a smirk.  “Where are you go—”  He froze, finally noticing that he’d been handcuffed to one of the pipes.

“Pretty neat trick, huh?” Kai said, hands confidently on his hips, “thanks for making it easy for me…knocking me into that guard like that.  I was wondering how to convincingly get close enough to snatch a set from one of them, and then you went and did all the legwork.”

“Let me out, Kai,” Satou said dangerously, his voice layered with intent that danced fire through Kai’s muscles but ultimately did nothing more than that.

Kai took Satou’s hat off his head, spinning it on his finger.  “You’ll probably be there a while,” he mused, “since you took such care to not bring anything useful that I might take advantage of with you.  Well, eventually the water will stop running and then you can get your shadow to bust you out I guess.”

Satou’s eyes gleamed with bloodlust and something a little more familiar, giving Kai goosebumps despite himself.  “I’m going to kill you,” he said softly.

Kai raised an eyebrow, and started walking away.  “I like this hat,” he said, putting it back on his head, “I think I’ll keep it.”  He looked over his shoulder to flash a smirk at Satou, seething on the floor.  “Until next time, Satou.”

With that he fled the room, heart beating wildly and the taste of blood still in his mouth.

Chapter Text

“Mama, why do you always waste time with meaningless diplomacy that rarely comes to fruition?  Why forestall the inevitable when it would be far more expedient to simply execute them immediately?”

That crinkle in her eyebrows that indicated she was concerned, the slight smile that showed fondness despite herself.  Warm arms wrapped around him.  “Because, my love, all life is sacred.  If I can avoid ending a life, then I will.  One day you will understand this.”

“Is this because murder is illegal?  It seems an arbitrary law to insist upon upholding, considering what we are.”

“There are things more important than laws, Kaito.”

In retrospect, Kai supposed he could be a little bit grateful to Satou for coming when he did.  The prison was like an overturned nest of bees, and sneaking out into the yard couldn’t have been easier.  Even better, no one else was out there, most people opting to hide in more secluded places or flat out try to get out the front door.  Escape via the yard just wasn’t especially feasible.

Kai breathlessly looked at Takeshi, the lone figure out in the yard, and grinned.  Luckily for them, they had less-than-typical limitations.  Takeshi stared evenly back at him.  “Is your boyfriend not coming with us?” he asked in monotone, holding out Kai’s clothes.

Kai choked back a laugh, opting instead to pull on his pants.  The corners of Takeshi’s eyes relaxed almost imperceptibly.  Awww…Takeshi had been worried.  “So what’s the plan?” Kai asked, changing the subject, “Does your shadow break through the wall?  Can it jump high enough to get over the wall?”

Takeshi’s eyes glittered, and the faintest suggestion of a smirk fluttered around his lips.  “Finally I’ll manage to surprise you,” he said.  “Put your shirt on and I’ll show you.”

Once he was dressed, Kai slung his arm over Takeshi’s shoulder sociably, wincing as it stretched the skin around one of his bites but otherwise managing to hide the pain.  “Alright, I’m yours to command.  Ready for this?”

Takeshi glanced down at Kai’s hand, gingerly removing it and taking a few steps away.    “My ghost doesn’t have arms,” he said, “so we’ll need to ride on his back.  Shoulders are broad, so there should be plenty of room for both of us.  Just make sure you hold on tight,” he added casually.

Suddenly a warm and humming presence was just in front of them, close enough for Kai to touch.  It was firm and powerful under his hand.  Without any prompting from Takeshi, Kai climbed up and wrapped his arms around the shadow’s neck, glancing back expectantly at Takeshi.  “You coming?”

Rolling his eyes, Takeshi climbed up after him, wrapping his arms over Kai’s.  A brief pause.  “Try not to puke,” he said, and then they were up up up flying high over the prison and leaving it behind before Kai had fully processed what was happening.

Flying.  They were flying.  Flying high enough that if Kai fell he would probably die.  Wide-eyed, he turned to look at Takeshi, whose eyes were wide-open and more expressive than Kai had ever seen them.  The hair fluttered around his flushed face, and despite clinging to the shadow for dear life he’d lost a tension Kai hadn’t even noticed until he could see the evidence of its absence.  Perhaps he was more relaxed because unlike Kai, who couldn’t see the shadow and was effectively just looking straight down at the ground, Takeshi had something more real to look at.

“Shadows can fly?!?!” Kai squeaked, resolving to just stare at Takeshi instead of making himself dizzy looking at the ground.

A lazy, confident smile stretched across Takeshi’s face.  “Nope.  Just mine, far as I know.”

At Kai’s boggled stare, his smile widened to show his teeth.  “What?  You’re really surprised?  Not everyone gets Satou’s attention just cuz they’ve got a hot piece of ass, you know.”

Eyes itching from the wind, Kai narrowed his eyes and disguised it as a suspicious glare.  “Takeshi are you flirting with me?” he asked incredulously.

“No comment,” Takeshi said, which had not been what Kai was expecting.  Huh.  That didn’t happen very often.

After about fifteen minutes, they landed by the side of the road, and Takeshi leaned against a tree, breathing heavily.  The grass was soft under their feet.  Kai looked at Takeshi questioningly.  “Give me a minute,” Takeshi said, “I can’t keep my ghost out for too long before it fades.  I’ll be able to call it again in a little bit, but then that’s it for the day.  I’m going to see if I can’t get us to a town with the next one.”

Kai smiled and leaned against Takeshi’s shoulders.  “Don’t push yourself, the important thing is that we’re out of there.  Satou may be good, but he has nothing to track us with right now, thanks to you.”

Takeshi’s red eyes glittered.  “I’ve been running my whole life,” he said cryptically, “no one catches me unless I want them to.”

It must have been the adrenaline from the flight, plus coming down from the experience of interacting with Satou at all, that made Kai like this.  Messing with his head or something.  He leaned in and murmured in Takeshi’s ear, “I’ll bet I could catch you.”

“Of course.  I wouldn’t mind you catching me.”

It was a bit of a relief when not long after, Takeshi announced he was ready to fly again.  They flew for another fifteen minutes or so, before landing in a copse of trees in a small and mercifully deserted park.  A nearby vending machine supplied them with something to eat as well as some cash, which Kai evenly split between them.  Takeshi watched Kai break into the machine intently, feigning nonchalance while Kai could tell how curious he was.

After that, they hotwired a motorcycle and drove.  Midway through the day, they drove by a house with hanging laundry within reach of the road.  The pants didn’t quite fit either of them, nor were the t shirts especially inspired, but it was worth it to get out of their prison clothes.  Now they’d be able to go into stores, and wouldn’t attract as much attention.

Leaving town after town behind, they drove until it was almost dark.  Since Takeshi would need to be able to fly during the day, he insisted that Kai at least dropped him off so he could sleep.  While Kai still held firm that the two of them were going to need to split up, he wasn’t just going to abandon Takeshi to sleep alone by the side of the road.  They’d part ways in the morning once Takeshi could fly again.

It was a warm night, with stars gleaming above them and the earth firm beneath them.  The free air was invigorating, having not lost its novelty even after a day.  They ate the last of the pilfered snacks from the vending machine, and settled down into sleep.

“Kai?  Kai!  What are you doing?”

Kai looked up at red eyes, a constellation of tears on his long eyelashes.  “Kei,” he said, letting his voice sound fond, “Just killing time until you got here.”

Kei knocked the magnifying glass out of Kai’s hand.  “Stop it!” he shrieked, “You can’t just kill them for no reason like that!”

Furrowing brows.  Cocking his head.  “They’re just ants, Kei.”

Fuming, Kei sat down next to him and spent the next hour lecturing him about the complexities of ant social structures, how they were capable of solving complex problems, with all the ants in the world having a biomass roughly equal to the human race.  Some ants even, apparently, had medical importance.  Uncomfortably, Kai said, “Sorry, didn’t realize you liked ants so much.”

“Ew!  No, ants are gross!  But you shouldn’t just kill them because you’re bored.  Doesn’t life matter to you?”

“Kai?  You awake?”

Kai opened his eyes.  Crickets chirped, and branches rustled in the trees above him.  A few stars peeked through.  “Yeah, I’m awake Takeshi.”

A shifting sound, like Takeshi was sitting up.  “So we’re splitting up tomorrow.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“What are you going to do after that?”

Kai didn’t want to answer that question.  It was mostly because he hadn’t wanted to answer that question that he’d stayed in the prison for so long, until Satou had forced the issue.  He had a feeling it was the same for Takeshi.  “I…” he said, “…it would be nice, I think, to go find Kei.”

“But you’re not going to,” Takeshi said, “Not unless something happens.  You’re afraid of him abandoning you again.”  At Kai’s prolonged silence, Takeshi laughed and added, “See?  I can be observant too.”

Kai let that hang in the air, not seeing any good way to respond to it.  After enough time had passed that Takeshi might have simply gone back to sleep, he said, “I wish I knew that he was alright.”

“You love him,” Takeshi said, his voice a lot closer than it had been before.

Kai shivered, and rolled over to his side to see Takeshi lying on the ground right next to him.  It was too dark to see his face, but he could feel the weight of Takeshi’s eyes on him.  Even though nothing was restraining him, he felt like he’d been backed up against a wall.  Tears shimmered in his eyes and slowly dripped down his cheeks.  He paid them no mind.  Takeshi couldn’t see them anyway.  “I don’t think he loves me back,” he whispered.

He bit his lip, and the pain blooming out from it transported him back in time.  Satou’s warm, firm, and uncompromising hands.  Blood and pain with an edge of pleasure.  Pulling things out of him Kai hadn’t realized had been there.  Even though running away from Satou was the whole point of this venture, he found himself shamefully wishing that Satou would be there, just for a moment.  Just so that he could—

Takeshi’s hand, thin and cool, cupped Kai’s cheek and brushed away a tear with his thumb.  Choking back a sob, Kai clung to his hand, curling into a ball.  “I know he loves you,” Takeshi said softly.

“How can you know that?”

Takeshi’s other hand pressed gently into the small of Kai’s back, bringing him closer.  A comforting gesture with no expectations or implications.  “I know,” he said, “because I love you, more than I’ve ever loved anything, and I’ve only known you a few months.  I think that Satou might even love you a little bit.  I can’t even imagine how much Kei Nagai must love you.”

“Why?”

“Because you look at people like their lives matter.  You look at me like my life matters.”

It was Takeshi’s fault, really, for being so close.  Kai closed what little distance remained and kissed him, feeling like he was about to come undone.

Realizing what he’d done, Kai froze, immediately drawing back and sputtering, “I’m sorry!”

Takeshi huffed in fond amusement, the breath ghosting on Kai’s face.  “You don’t need to apologize,” he said calmly, softly kissing a tear away from Kai’s cheek.

Kai tasted blood in his mouth from biting down on his own lips.  He was shaking.  What the hell was wrong with him?  He felt like he was going to throw up.  He pressed another kiss to Takeshi’s lips.  “Is this okay?” he asked in a whisper.

Fingers running through his hair, so gentle it ached.  “I know I’m not Kei,” Takeshi whispered back, “But I’m not Satou either.”  And when Takeshi kissed him, it was slow and safe and there were no teeth or knives or choking fingers and Kai kissed him back until he was out of breath and panting and a little giddy.

Takeshi pressed his face into Kai’s neck and nuzzled it.  Kai shuddered.  “We’re still splitting up in the morning,” he said uneasily.

He felt Takeshi smile.  “Yes, that’s been established.”

“You’re not going to have any way of getting a hold of me.  I’m going to disappear.”

Takeshi kissed one of Satou’s bites.  “Same goes for me.  You’re not abandoning me, Kai, this isn’t anything like that.”

Kai clung to him, feeling like this was somehow the only thing holding him together.  “But I…” he stammered, “I love Kei.  That isn’t going to change.  I’m just taking advantage of you right now and—”

Takeshi silenced him with a kiss.  “I know all that,” he said, “and if you want me to stop, then I’ll go back over to where I was and pretend this never happened.  But you know, I’m a little scared right now too, and maybe…” he tangled their legs together and dropped his hands down to Kai’s waist, “Maybe right now, I want to be taken advantage of a little bit.”

Kai took a deep breath in through his nose, smelling dirt and sweat and nothing worth writing home about, but feeling some coil of tension in his stomach unfurl, just a little bit.  “Please kiss me,” he whispered, “as many times as you can until we fall asleep.”

“Okay,” Takeshi said, and while Kai had a feeling that he hadn’t done it on purpose, in that one word his voice rumbled and wrapped around Kai’s body so tightly he couldn’t move.  He relaxed into the hold, letting Takeshi kiss his paralyzed body until he could reciprocate again.  No matter where Takeshi put his hands, it hurt, reminders all over his body of the damage Satou had done to him, but the pain crystallized into determination.  Satou was not going to find Takeshi.  Satou was not going to hurt him.  Kai would make sure Satou didn’t hurt anyone he cared about no matter how elaborate of a game he needed to play.

“Don’t die,” Kai urgently gasped between kisses.

Takeshi seemed a little amused by that.  “I don’t think you have to worry about that…”

Kai cupped Takeshi’s face with his hands, resting their foreheads together.  “You know what I mean,” he said.

A pause.  “Yeah, I know what you mean.”

A sickening slicing sound, wet and nauseating.  It curled over the sounds of flowing water like scum.  Kai couldn’t move.  His hands hung uselessly as he watched Kei’s body go cold, before being molded back into an unharmed shape like he was just some broken sculpture instead of Kai’s most precious and only friend.

Kei was saying something.  Something about that he was alright.  The knife still had his blood on it.  He was standing up and the light shone behind him and made his eyes gleam a brighter red than usual.  He was holding his body differently.  Like he was powerful.  Like he was above trivial concerns.  Like he wasn’t the crying little boy that had begged Kai to stop killing ants.

Kei, Kai thought, unable to speak, doesn’t your life matter to you?

When Kai woke up, he and Takeshi were still curled around each other, one of Takeshi’s arms draped over him while the other had its fingers interlaced with Kai’s.  The dawn light cast faint and soft shadows over them.  Takeshi’s eyes were closed, but his breathing seemed off.  Ah, feigning sleep.  He leaned in and kissed Takeshi’s nose, smiling when his eyes fluttered open and glared at him.  “Go back to sleep,” Takeshi muttered, pressing a kiss to Kai’s lips and closing his eyes again.

“Is your shadow ready to fly?”

A sigh.

“Yeah.”

After a brief discussion, they decided that Kai would keep on driving on the road they’d been on, while Takeshi would fly as far as he could in the other direction.  He had family that way, he explained, and it would be a good place for him to regroup until he decided what to do next.  When Kai expressed concern, Takeshi added that it wasn’t family by blood, per say, but some in-laws that he happened to be close to.  Not untraceable, but it was unlikely Satou or anyone else would find them right away.

“Don’t worry,” Takeshi said, “I have no intention of becoming a soldier or a lab rat.”

“Just be careful,” Kai said.

“Same to you.  Don’t let Satou find you.  And if I see Kei Nagai, I’ll tell him you’re looking for him.”

Kai shrugged noncommittally, and Takeshi narrowed his eyes.  Suddenly, he held out his hand.  “We’re going to see each other again,” he said firmly, “no matter what.”

Kai blinked, and looked down at Takeshi’s hand.  Smiling, he reached out and shook it.  “Yeah.”

After Takeshi had flown off out of sight, Kai got on the motorcycle and started driving, once more alone.

Chapter Text

As petty as it seemed, once Kai had acquired some basic essentials such as a bag, food, and first aid supplies, before he did anything else he really wanted to get himself some clothes that actually fit him.  Although he’d try to stay out of trouble, there was no knowing when he’d get into a scrape next.  No telling where Satou had gotten to, after all.  He’d want to have his full range of mobility for any encounters.

He stuck to alleys and secluded areas rather than the main roads, which might have been more of a problem for keeping possession of his material belongings, such as they were, but most crooks knew better than to cross him.  Even without knowing who he was, Kai made sure he walked in a way that said that not only was he not a mark, but that he was a fight you’d regret having.

It made him a little antsy, to be completely honest, but it was nice to go a while without receiving any injuries.  The marks Satou had left on his body began to fade, and it stopped hurting to move in certain ways.  Though in its own way that made him anxious too.  What if Satou had gotten bored of him?  It was definitely a possibility.  Kai still wasn’t entirely sure why Satou had gotten interested in him in the first place, so losing his attention was an alarmingly possible prospect.

The man with long slicked-back hair in the clothing store attracted Kai’s attention for several reasons.  First came the way he looked at Kai, sizing him up like he was a potential mark.  An amateur criminal, then, either new or halfhearted or both.  Made Kai’s heart hurt a little, but not enough to involve himself.  Second was the twitchy way his red eyes glanced around at everyone else, and the way his hands uncomfortably flitted around his bright red jacket.  A concealed weapon, probably, and he was either afraid of it or afraid of who might be coming for him.  Probably both.

Adjusting the distance he kept from the man, Kai shook his head as he sifted through a bargain bin for pants.  Few things frightened Kai more than armed people who were afraid of their weapons.  He peered through a rack of shirts and considered what the man was purchasing thoughtfully.  It was an enormous mass of clothing, in various styles and sizes but all for adults.  Little regard seemed to be taken for the contents of the pile minus that they were all on sale.  Quantity over quality.  He was buying clothes for multiple people, possibly including himself, who went through their clothes very quickly.  And he was paying in cash.  Hmmm…

There was a jar on the counter for donations to an animal shelter.  Kai carefully watched as the man with narrow, suspicious eyes placed what looked like his remaining cash into the jar.  Kai had seen this man before somewhere, the final thing that attracted his attention.  But Kai couldn’t remember exactly where.  He felt like it had been a long time ago.  It felt important.

Kai quickly finished his shopping so he could follow the man out of the store.  He didn’t bother to hide himself too carefully, but he stayed out of earshot and barely in sight.  The man pulled out a phone at one point, but quickly hung up.  He led them away from the main streets until he and Kai were the only ones around.  Then he pulled out his gun.

“Stop right the fuck there,” he shouted, his voice almost angry enough to disguise the nervous energy Kai could practically taste radiating from him.  His hand was shaking.  His stance was terrible.  His eyes darted everywhere with the same nervous energy that filled his body.  Ah, a poor shot too.

Kai smiled ruefully, and began walking closer to the ajin, because of course that’s what this man was.  The poor guy looked absolutely terrified.  He really didn’t seem to know what to do with people that acted like they were in control.  A shot fired off, missing Kai by at least a few meters.  Yeah, he was definitely in control of this situation.  “You might want to try squaring up a little bit,” he suggested, starting to weave in small zig zags as he got closer, “if you steady your body better you’ll probably hit where you’re looking instead of jerking so much from the recoil.”

Another shot, missing him again.  Kai sighed.  “What’s someone like you doing with a gun like that anyway?  That’s more heat than the cops usually carry…a nice sensitive guy like you has no business in the world that gun comes from.”

“What would you know?” the ajin asked, his body coiled like he wanted to run but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to run toward or away from Kai.

Shit, where had Kai seen this guy before?  It was really starting to bug him.  “I’m from that world,” he said, reaching out a hand.  Almost close enough to disarm the ajin.

“Oh yeah?” the ajin asked, his face contorting into an impressive intensity of anger, “well I’m from Hell.

Oh.  “Oh,” Kai said, resting his hand on the gun, “Now I remember.  You’re Tanaka.”

Things happened really really fast after that.  Only a split second reaction time redirected Tanaka’s hand and saved Kai from getting shot point blank in the chest.  Tanaka immediately swung his other arm at Kai, who opted to clutch the gun tightly and roll away.  Looking up, he watched Tanaka backing slowly away, covering his eyes with his hands.  And then he saw it.

Before anything else, Kai saw the teeth.  Jagged and wild, like a jack o’lantern’s smile, they cut open the otherwise featureless face and snarled.  The rest of the body slowly filled in from there, tall, broad shoulders, enormous clawed hands.  A form made of what looked like black ribbons, already fluttering away and disintegrating even as he looked at it.  Kai immediately emptied the cartridge of the gun and threw it away.  He needed some water immediately.

Man, I wrestled one of thoseIt seemed pretty impossible from looking at what clearly must be Tanaka’s shadow that Kai had ever managed to pin one down.  Then again, what was that that Satou had said…about why Kai couldn’t see his.  “I’m going to kill you,” the shadow said with Tanaka’s voice.  Ah.  Yes.  This was the first time Kai had come across a shadow that wanted to kill him.

Glancing around, Kai heaved a sigh of relief at Tanaka’s beginner’s ineptness at choosing a battleground; they were right by the river.  Immediately, Kai ran in, wading up to past his knees.  He hoped his shoes would dry okay.  “I don’t want to fight you!” he cried, holding his hands out.

The shadow hopped around on the riverbank, like an animal that didn’t realize it was no longer in a cage.  It clawed at the earth it stood on but didn’t touch the water.  It screamed, the sound making Kai’s body grow stiff.  Too late for that trick.  As long as Kai could keep himself upright, he knew he was in no danger out in the water, even if he was stuck.  The shadow already seemed less substantial than it had before.  What had Takeshi said, fifteen minutes or so?  Kai could wait that long without any problems.

Tanaka and his shadow seemed at a loss.  Probably weren’t used to fighting people that knew anything about ajins.  Kai gazed at the shadow steadily, wishing it would calm down a little.  It was hard to come up with a strategy against something so erratic.  Feeling some mobility return to him, he stooped down and grabbed a rock from the riverbottom.  If the shadow wouldn’t calm down, maybe he could goad it?  He threw the rock, landing a solid hit on the shadow’s non-face.

Something unexpected then happened.  The shadow itself didn’t seem especially effected by the blow, but Tanaka leapt back, tripping and falling on the ground.  As soon as he fell, the shadow lunged forward, no longer paying any heed to the water.  After panicking for half a second, Kai remembered that what was charging at him was at this point a fairly dumb creature that evidently had no plan other than a full frontal assault.

Perhaps it was a bit mean to just trip the shadow, but Kai couldn’t resist.

He ran over to Tanaka, who was sitting on the ground and staring at his hands.  They were bleeding slightly, and while it didn’t look serious it definitely looked kind of painful.  Tanaka didn’t even seem to notice the blood however, clenching his hands into fists and gritting his teeth when his right hand wouldn’t make a proper fist.  A sprain?  An overextension?  It was unlikely that he’d actually broken the bone but if he’d landed badly he might have caused some more temporary damage.

Tanaka didn’t even quite seem to notice that Kai had gotten close.  The shadow had stopped thrashing around in the river and was now just lying there quietly.  There were tears in the corners of Tanaka’s eyes.  “Satou won’t like this,” he whispered to himself, and all of Kai’s hair stood on end.

The bag slung around his shoulders had a first aid kid in it.  Wordlessly, Kai knelt down and took it out, noticing ruefully that it was still sealed.  Well that hadn’t lasted long!  He dug a knife out from deeper in the bag and cut the plastic, opening up the kit.  At the sound, Tanaka’s eyes lit up and he immediately lunged for the knife after Kai had set it down.

He pulled his hand back to slice his throat.  Cold panic clutched at Kai’s heart.  Without thinking, he sprung forward, grabbing Tanaka’s wrist with one hand and placing his other hand between the knife and Tanaka’s throat.  “What are you doing!?!” Tanaka and Kei said at the same time.

“I just need to—”

“Humans shouldn’t go killing themselves so casually!” Kai interrupted thickly.

Tanaka froze, glancing down at Kai’s hands, then over at the opened first aid kit.  His confused eyes met Kai’s.  “What are you doing?” he repeated, slower this time.

Tanaka’s grip had slackened.  It was easy to take the knife from his hand and set it down on the ground.  “I think that every time you die, it matters,” Kai said, “Just because it heals doesn’t mean it’s okay.”

Without another word, Kai grabbed a disinfectant wipe and started cleaning Tanaka’s hands.  Tanaka didn’t flinch from the sting, but tensed under Kai’s touch, as gentle as he tried to be.  Then suddenly, he started laughing, a hoarse, ragged sound that might have frightened Kai if he’d been younger and more foolish.  “What the hell are you doing?” Tanaka asked, covering his face with his other hand, “are you seriously putting a bandaid on me?  Are you gonna kiss it better?”

“If you like,” Kai said calmly, smoothing a bandage over Tanaka’s palm and reaching for a roll of tape for his fingers.

“How many times have you died, Tanaka?” Kai asked.

“More times than you’ve gone to sleep.”

Kai let that sit for a moment, before leaning forward and gently kissing Tanaka’s palm.  “Your other hand, please,” he said.

“I don’t have time to let things heal ‘naturally,’” Tanaka hissed, “not even things this small.  I’m just going to reset later.”  He gave Kai his other hand.

“Did you hit your head?” Kai asked, once he’d finished bandaging the other hand.

“It’s. fine.” Tanaka said.

“I’m going to check for bumps,” Kai said, sliding his fingers into Tanaka’s hair and gently pressing them into his skull.  Gently, carefully, all around, but nowhere felt soft or swollen.  His hands ended up on Tanaka’s cheeks, wiping away the tears that had started flowing silently from his eyes.  Tanaka was staring at him, wild-eyed.

Slowly, as though he didn’t realize he was doing it, Tanaka leaned forward until their foreheads were touching.  Kai met his eyes evenly, a smile coming unbidden to his face.  “Does it hurt anywhere else?” he asked, rubbing away at another tear.

“Who the hell are you?” Tanaka asked, his voice a hoarse and frightened whisper.

Kai briefly wondered if he should kiss him, but quickly decided against it.  Tanaka didn’t seem to be interested in the slightest anyway.  “My name is Kai,” he said.

Kai,” Tanaka gasped, “It’s…it’s never hurt before…it stopped hurting years ago…”

Kai cocked his head.  Tanaka shrieked, shoving Kai away.  “Stop looking at me like that!!” he said, “It’s your fault it hurts again!!

Wordlessly, Kai backed away and sat down on the ground while Tanaka calmed down.  How long had it been since he’d been gently touched?  Kai wrapped his arms around his waist, the feeling of Takeshi’s hands still lingering there even days later.  Kai knew a thing or two about the effect a gentle touch had after a famine, even one as small as his own.  He bit his lip, and looked back up at Tanaka.

He’d seen Tanaka before, not just on the news.  It had been nearly ten years ago now, when he’d gone with his mother to that dark lab far away from any cities.  He couldn’t remember why his mother had gone, but he remembered being horrified, and his mother not letting them linger long.  He remembered wondering what Kei would think of such a place, and feeling grateful that he’d never see it.

As the thought rose, unbidden, Kai realized that Kei probably had seen the inside of that place.

A phone rang.  Tanaka blinked at it, but made no moves to reach for it.  It must have fallen out of his pocket, and was now lying on the ground.  As the simple, default ringtone played, the name “Satou” appeared on the screen.  Kai thought about just letting it ring.  He hadn’t quite planned on starting the game so soon.

He picked up the phone.  Waste not want not.  “Hello, Satou,” he purred, reaching into his pack to pull out the hat he’d stolen.  He watched Tanaka’s eyes go comically wide as he settled the hat on his head.

A shaky breath.  Good, he’d surprised him.  “I don’t suppose Tanaka’s there, is he?

“Not even been a week and you’ve already forgotten about me?” Kai pouted, fiddling with the brim of the hat, “Satou, I’m going to cry.”

Kai, where is Tanaka?

“Oh, I just played with him a bit.  Not as fun as playing with you, but what can I say?”

…what are you doing?

Kai’s head was spinning.  He reminded himself that he could still just hang up the phone if he wanted.  “You know, I’ve still got your marks all over me,” he said, “I feel them and see them.  Every time they hurt I think of you.”

Kai—

“Did you like it when I left you all alone, handcuffed to the pipe like that?” Kai asked, “I think I’ll do one better, next time.  See, I wanna mark you up too.  I want everyone who sees you to know that I hurt you, that I got the better of you.  I’m not going to let you die and reset all that…I’ll lock you up so tight you can’t move.”  Satou wasn’t saying anything, but Kai could hear him breathing heavily through the receiver.  “By the time I’m done with you, you’ll be begging me to kill you, and if you’re very very very lucky, I’ll do it.  Slowly.”

A shudder, and then Satou spoke, his voice so overwhelming that Kai couldn’t move or blink or breathe.  Had his heart stopped beating?  His head was certainly spinning enough that it was possible.  It took him a moment to actually start registering what Satou was saying, his voice rushing hot and heavy through Kai’s ears.  “…think that just because you’ve managed alright when I was playing with you, that you can challenge me like this?  Do you have any idea how many ways there are to bring someone to the edge of death without killing them?  You think you can play with me like you play with someone like Tanaka?  When I’m done with you, you’ll be addicted to me.

Kai’s heart began to beat so fast it felt like it was going to rip a hole in his chest.  He wanted to say something, but his tongue felt so heavy.  Everything was suspended in honey.  He was choking on it.  He couldn’t breathe.

I’m going to open you up so you can look at your heart while it’s still beating, and you’ll beg me to do it again and again,” Satou crooned in Kai’s ear, “I’m going to starve you so that when I offer you my own flesh you lick my fingers, and you’ll beg me to do it again and again.  I’m going to fuck you until you can’t even remember your name, or that there ever was someone called Kei Nagai.  I’m going to—

“So then,” Kai interrupted breathlessly, “why haven’t you come and caught me already, Satou?”

He hung up, and the vice-like grip Satou’s voice had had on his body released.  He collapsed to the ground, quivering.  After what felt like hours, he lifted his head and looked up at Tanaka, who was comparatively calm and collected.  “You’re an idiot,” Tanaka said, taking his phone back.

“I have people to protect,” Kai said.

“So you’re goading Satou.”

“He doesn’t want to kill me,” Kai explained, “I’m the only one who’s got an advantage like that.”

Tanaka looked at him for a long time, then came over and helped Kai to his feet.  “I’m not sure that’s an advantage with him,” he admitted.

“I don’t want to die.  It’s an advantage.”

“If you say so.”

Kai’s legs were wobbly under him, but steady enough that he could walk.  It would have to do for now.  Carefully, he picked up his bag and slung it over his shoulders again.  He didn’t stumble under the weight.  He was going to be okay.  “Guess you’d better get back to your boss,” Kai said, starting to walk away.

Tanaka didn’t try to stop him.  “Where should I tell him you went, when he asks?”

Without pausing or turning back, Kai replied, “Saitama.”

Chapter Text

There needed to be a word for “almost home,” for when the streets and trees and sounds were familiar, but peripherally so.  Kai knew the mountains and forests around his hometown better than he knew the bones in a hand (which, he was proud to say, was pretty well), so even being able to see a familiar river from a distance as he crested a hill brought a couple stray tears to his eyes.

(It was similar to how he’d felt when Takeshi had met his eyes intently.  Less intense than Kei’s, but…)

The town was visible in the distance, but he’d hold off on getting closer for right now.  It had been a long journey of walking and hitchhiking and stolen motorcycles, and Satou had almost certainly guessed his target location by now.  He’d earned a rest before he threw himself into whatever Satou had waiting for him.

The old spot by the river was exactly as he remembered it, the water clear and the current languid.  One side of the bank was rocky and covered with trees; the base of the small mountain crowned by the local shrine.  The other, where he sat, was grassy and soft, with hardly any rocks except for the large flat one that jutted out over the bank.  Scattered in the grass were countless tiny wildflowers.

A river wasn’t exactly the best place to get clean, but Kai would definitely rather smell like mud and mountains than old sweat.  The water was cold and felt nice on all the places that hurt, even though it wasn’t deep enough to really soak in it.  For a moment, he could close his eyes and pretend he was seven again, and Kei and Eriko were sitting nearby dangling their feet in the water.

He washed his clothes next, laying them out to dry in the grass so they’d smell nice.  While he waited, he sprawled out on the flat rock, luxuriating in the feel of the sun on his skin.  Without really thinking about it, he started picking flowers and weaving them together into a crown.  It had been years since he’d made one, since the last time he’d come here with Eriko.

(She’d taken her hair out of the braids that time, loose over her bare shoulders like some kind of nature spirit.  Garlands of flowers over her, floating in the still water she stood in, bees buzzing happily around her. Kei sitting off to the side, wearing a delicate crown of white flowers that gleamed in his hair like stars.  They were both so beautiful, the kind of beauty that had led gods to give up their divinity in myths.  Kai wasn’t sure what had put Kei in the mood to go along with Kai and Eriko’s play for once, but it had made his heart beat uncomfortably fast.  He’d wondered for months if it was the reason that Kei had abandoned him after that.)

He put the flower crown on his head.

It was just then, flowers in his hair, toes dangling over the edge of the rock into the water, sun turning his skin golden, that Kai heard it.  Across the water, among the trees, a heavy rustling, like a cross between a wild animal and a hunter.  Tree branches moved out of the way of something Kai couldn’t see.  Kai crossed his legs, his skin suddenly cold.

Where…where…keep looking…” he heard faintly across the water, the voice garbled and strange but nevertheless familiar.  Ah, this was Satou’s shadow.

Kai’s shoulders relaxed, and he beckoned playfully.  “Hello!” he called, “Come here!”

For a moment, the shadow completely stopped moving, then with an excited cry it bounded across the water, splashes betraying its path until it stopped short just in front of Kai.  It butted its head into Kai’s hand, and Kai petted its strangely-textured skin with a fondness that startled him.  “We’ve been looking…we’ve been looking…” the shadow purred, “we wanted to see you again.  Kai…” it whined, pushing Kai’s hand away and resting its head on Kai’s chest.

Kai ran his hands up the shadow’s shoulders and neck and back to its head.  He was going to lose track of what was where very quickly at this rate.  In a flash of inspiration, he lifted his arms up to his head and took off the flower crown, placing it carefully on the shadow’s head.  It hung oddly on its inhumanly-shaped head, but it stayed in place.  A flower crown hovering crookedly in the air in front of him.  Kai giggled.

The shadow pressed its body closer to Kai’s chest, its enormous hands wrapping around his back.  “Oh…” it trilled, “sounds…nice.”  The hands on Kai’s back were light and careful, and they tickled!  Helplessly, Kai dissolved into a fit of giggles, clutching at the shadow’s back and curling inward to butt heads with it.  “More more more!!!” it said, and this was unreal, this enormous invisible monster with claws and teeth and the potential to be possessed by fucking Satou at any moment was here, wearing a flower crown and tickling him.  It was strange to feel powerful while being tickled, but there it was.

we’ve been looking for you…” it said, running its long tongue up Kai’s stomach.  Oddly, it didn’t really bother Kai anymore, aside from how ticklish it felt.  He relaxed into it, curious to where this was going.  “we want to take you away where only we can touch you.

The shadow’s hands on his back suddenly felt incredibly dangerous, and Kai felt cold again.  He stopped laughing, his throat too tight to let any sound come out.  “we’ve been waiting for you…” the shadow continued, “we told us to wait here and bring you back to us when you came.

No no no no no no no no no no no no no.  “…but…we’re having so much fun here right now…” Kai said nervously.  The shadow’s hands were almost as big as his entire back.  How could he have been this careless?  Naïve?  This was Satou’s pet, not his.

The shadow licked Kai’s throat, his head tilting back to accommodate it.  “…but…but…we’re waiting for you, we told us to bring you back to us right away.  Then we can play with you together.

Kai blinked, then smiled.  Maybe he could still salvage this.  Uncrossing his legs, he hooked his ankles around what he was pretty sure was the shadow’s waist, pulling it in closer.  He slid his hands up to the sides of the shadow’s face and smiled down at it.  “Don’t you want to have me all to yourself?” he asked, leaning forward and kissing it.

The feeling of the shadow’s tongue in his mouth was still strange, but it was less surprising when Kai was the one setting the pace.  Also, it was infinitely, unimaginably preferable to Satou’s tongue, as strange as that seemed.  It was hard to kiss something with no lips, but the shadow definitely made up for that with sheer volume of tongue, filling his mouth and sneaking down his throat until he started coughing.

The shadow immediately drew back, making concerned noises.  “Maybe take you now…?” it said uncertainly, “we’ll know what to do…

No,” Kai said firmly, gently nipping at the shadow’s neck (being very mindful of his teeth!), “I’m okay, I promise.  I just need a minute to breathe again.”

The shadow quivered.  Without giving it time to think, Kai pressed on with, “Don’t you get it?  You’re my favorite.  I don’t want to have to share you with anyone.”

The shadow cried happily, its grip around Kai tightening and its body surging forward, leaping out of the water and pushing Kai onto his back.  Startled, Kai squeezed his arms and legs around the shadow’s body as they fell, landing with the shadow’s body pressed completely flush against his.  Kai fought back the urge to swear, because the friction felt really, really good.

The shadow’s claws dug into his back, and its teeth had buried themselves in Kai’s left side.  Okay, enough was enough.  “Stop making me bleed,” he ordered, pulling the shadow’s head away and glaring, “you’re going to kill me.  Then I won’t be able to play with you anymore.”

The shadow made a strange sound that reminded Kai of snapping bones but was probably laughter.  “Don’t be scared…” it said, “we die all the time and we always wake up.

Kai shook his head.  “I’m different,” he said, “I can only die one time.  I’ll never wake up again after that.”

Kai could feel the shadow pulling away, so he clung a little tighter, stroking its back gently.  “It’s okay, you don’t need to be scared,” he soothed, “you just need to be a little gentle, and be careful with your teeth!”

Cautiously, the shadow licked along the row of toothmarks it had left behind.  Kai’s stomach fluttered.  “That’s it,” he sighed, feeling his body relax, “good boy.”

He closed his eyes and smiled.  Now all he had to do was just wait until the shadow dissipated.  It had definitely been more than fifteen minutes, but that Satou had a stronger shadow than Takeshi was unfortunately unsurprising.  Still, Kai couldn’t imagine that it could last forever.  He’d needed to wait for his clothes to dry anyway.

The shadow, having accepted that using its tongue was safe, seemed determined to lick every inch of Kai’s body, occasionally using a featherlight touch of its teeth, the force not even sufficient to break Kai’s skin.  The tongue ran down Kai’s arms and to his fingers, up to his throat and over his lips and cheeks.  This actually felt really nice, especially with his eyes closed so he couldn’t be bothered by the fact that he couldn’t actually see the thing that was turning him into a puddle of goo.

The sun was warm on his skin, and the smells of mud and flowers and grass filled his nose.  Bees were buzzing, the water was flowing nearby, and the shadow was humming softly, its tongue laving down Kai’s stomach.  Kai felt boneless.  He could fall asleep like this, he thought.

And then the shadow’s tongue went just a little lower, and Kai was gasping and curling his toes.

Unfortunately, the shadow correctly interpreted Kai’s response as a positive one.  He’d already been half-hard anyway, but bearing the brunt of the shadow’s attention was not helping.  He felt dizzy.  His face was burning.  He squinted his eyes shut, which didn’t help, then covered his face with his hands, which also didn’t help.  He should do something, or at least protest.  “Sh-shadow…sha—ah!” he tried, his voice sounding strange and unfamiliar, “I…I don’t think…I don’t think you understand what you’re do-ing!” he gasped under a more forceful lick.

The shadow’s (impossibly) long tongue wrapped around his entire length, and Kai was hyperventilating.  “…nice noises…” the shadow purred happily, its voice vibrating against him, “more more more.”  Kai was going to hell.

He peeked between his fingers, and started giggling again at the hopelessly ridiculous visual of a flower crown bobbing around near his dick.  He felt the shadow keen happily, and then after one last torturously slow lick, the tongue moved on, focusing on Kai’s thighs instead.  Suddenly, awfully, Kai could think again.  Kai gritted his teeth and fought to regain some semblance of sanity, because the only thing he could think about was grabbing the shadow’s head and yanking it back up to finish the job.

He felt the shadow run a finger over his lips, then both of its enormous hands were on his thighs, lifting them up.  “Don’t be scared…” the shadow said, its tongue moving higher and higher on Kai’s thighs but not high enough, “we do this all the time for us…we know…we know what’s nice…”  Then the shadow nuzzled at his ass, and it was like he’d been shot through with nine thousand volts.  He needed to…he needed to…he needed to…

(I’m going to fuck you until you can’t even remember your name, or that there ever was someone called Kei Nagai.)

Oh hell.  Please,” he panted, spreading his legs and biting his lip.  At least this way he knew for sure that Satou wouldn’t be his first fuck.

At first, it wasn’t much different from the rest of what the shadow had been doing with its tongue; long languid strokes that had Kai tentatively relaxing into them.  The shadow’s firm but gentle grip on his thighs definitely helped him feel more secure, and as the sensations grew familiar he found himself surrendering to them.  Everything felt like an electric current was running through it, and he’d never been more aware of his body in his entire life.

He started thrashing reflexively before completely registering the tongue slipping inside him, his hands scrambling at the ground beside him and his eyes opening wide but seeing nothing.  It moved slowly, so slowly that Kai didn’t realize at first how deep it was getting.  There was no pain, or at least none that Kai currently had the capacity to notice.  He was distantly aware that he was babbling, a jumbled mix of “please” and “more” that might have had a more coherent Kai feeling mortified.  This Kai however was only concerned with shifting his hips to get more pressure against that one spot inside him that made the world go white at the edges.

Gulping down air, he couldn’t help but laugh, feeling utterly depraved as he lay there by the river, a monster between his legs and its tongue moving in his ass.  “Good boy, good boy,” he gasped over and over again, his eyes wide and feeling like stars were flashing behind them.  He grabbed fistfuls of grass, desperate for something to cling to.  The air tasted like honey, his whole body coiling tightly around the moment until everything fell away from under him and his whole body collapsed.

The shadow didn’t seem to quite notice what had happened at first, and Kai was content to just bonelessly lie there and let the shadow continue to fuck him with its tongue for as long as the shadow would hold his hips up for him.  A stray breeze kissed his skin, chilling the places that were wet with his cum and making his stomach flutter.  His eyes slid shut, slowly losing track of time and awareness of anything other than the shadow moving inside him.  Idly, he reached down and petted the shadow’s head, running his fingers up along its teeth until he reached the base of its tongue, where their bodies met.  The shadow keened under his touch, and Kai smiled triumphantly.

Finally, it pulled out, snuffling at Kai’s stomach and dick before lapping up the cum greedily.  Kai was going to hell and he didn’t give a shit.  “Oh shadow,” he sighed as the shadow ran its tongue down his legs and to his feet, gently nipping the toes, “you’d do anything for me wouldn’t you?”

The shadow clambered back up Kai’s body to nuzzle his neck, the flower crown starting to come apart but still intact.  It purred.  Kai grinned, a manic energy filling his body.  He pressed a wet, open-mouthed kiss to the shadow’s throat, tasting blood and ozone and something that made his mouth feel numb and tingly.  “Good boy…good boy…” he crooned, closing his eyes and sighing happily, “did you have fun playing with me?”

…love Kai…love Kai…never want to leave…always fun to play with Kai…

Kai’s heart leapt into his throat for a moment, his thoughts wandering and replacing that voice with another.  He shook his head, and pulled himself back into the moment, opening his mouth for a kiss, tasting salt and victory.  “Good,” he said when the shadow gave him air again, “I had fun too.”

He fell asleep with the comforting weight of the shadow’s warm body pressed against him, though he finally (finally) could feel the shadow’s body fraying at the edges.  When he woke up, it was twilight, and the shadow had gone.  He stretched, taking stock of his body and finding that he felt better than he had in weeks.  Though perhaps that was just some lingering post-coital glow.  He luxuriated in the feeling for a few minutes anyway, gazing up at the twilight sky contentedly.

After cleaning himself up a bit in the river, he pulled his now-dry clothes back on and headed for town.  It was time to get started.

Chapter Text

Life in his hometown moved on as normal.  The shadows lengthened as students made their way home from afterschool activities, and some of the smaller shops started closing.  As Kai sat in the train, he took stock of the faces around him.  Some were familiar, some were not, but even the unfamiliar people still let their eyes slip away from him like he was in some kind of negative space.  Heh, he’d gotten spoiled.  All this attention he’d been getting had almost made him forget that he was a social pariah.

As he approached the hospital, he hesitated.  Should he really involve someone else?  Especially now, when he’d advertised that he’d be nearby?  He shook his head and pressed on.  She was already involved…that she’d been left alone in the hospital for so long was a lucky break that Kai wouldn’t depend on anymore.  And it’s not as if it should have been any surprise to Satou that Kai might be looking out for her.  If Kei wasn’t going to do it, then someone had to protect Eriko.

It had been years since he’d seen her, but he still knew exactly where she would be.  She’d been hospitalized off and increasingly on all throughout their childhood, to the point where she more or less had a reserved room.  Perhaps some remnant of appreciation for the disgraced Dr. Nagai.  He and Kei would go there all the time after she’d had an episode, though back then she’d be in the hospital for a week or two at most at a time.

The receptionist was young and friendly, an unfamiliar face from out of town.  Her smile was warm.  She didn’t recognize him.  After asking for the patient’s name and room number, she let him past, cheerfully reminding him that visiting hours would be over soon.  Kai acknowledged her verbally, but otherwise ignored her.  He’d stay as long as he needed to, and he wasn’t above changing into a patient gown in order to go unnoticed.

The hospital was quiet.  His only company once he got past the busier parts of the hospital was a few aides making rounds.  People were leaving…getting ready for the night.  The light was warm and golden, casting striking shadows that gave everything a sense of velvet mystery.  His footsteps echoed.

After passing several empty rooms in a row, he reached Eriko’s.  She was in bed, doing something on her phone, and so didn’t see him right away.  He leaned in the doorway and waited for her to look up, a smile rising unbidden to his face as he watched her.

When she saw him, at first she didn’t say anything.  Her face went white as a sheet, her eyes wide and shimmering.  She forcefully jabbed her finger in the direction of the chair by her bed, her eyes following him as he good-naturedly walked over to sit down.  She stared at him like he was a ghost.  He cleared his throat.  “Um…sorry I haven’t visited in so long,” he said, going for charming.

“I thought you were dead,” she whispered.

Oh.  Shit.  “Fuck, Eriko,” he said helplessly, getting up to sit beside her on the bed, “Why would you think that?”  He wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

“I figured you and Kei had escaped together,” she said, “and I wasn’t going to tell anyone.  But then I did, because I thought they were safe, but then they weren’t safe, and Kei ended up in that lab, and I didn’t hear anything about you, and I thought…I thought…”  For a moment, she looked like she was about to cry.  Then she blinked it back, sighed, and leaned into him.

God.  “I had no idea,” Kai said, “nothing like that happened at all.  Kei just went off on his own…”

She clenched her fists.  “I’ve wanted to ask…they’re like buzzards, all the reporters and agents and curious neighbors and would-be bounty hunters.  I’ve wanted to ask so many times if anyone knew if you were alright.  But I was afraid of drawing more attention to you than I already had.”

Eriko didn’t cry.  Kai knew she wouldn’t.  But her voice sounded broken, and Kai felt like a failure.  He leaned down and kissed the top of her head, whispering, “I’m sorry.”

Eriko blinked rapidly, and took a steadying breath.  “It’s not so bad,” she said, “I just ignore them and go to sleep.  Earplugs help with the yappy ones.”  She lazily pointed at her bedside table, where among the clutter Kai could see a jar full of orange earplugs.

Something warm and impossible to place bubbled in his chest.  It hurt.  “I’m sorry for everything else,” he said softly.

“Fuck you for making me worry,” she said, looking up at him and smiling a rare smile.

He grinned.  “Sorry I’m so lovable,” he said cheekily, and she rolled her eyes.

“One more thing,” she said, “fuck you for being gone for so long.  Fuck you for making me deal with all of this at once instead of incrementally.  My heart, think of my poor dying diseased heart.”

Kai blinked.  “‘This?’”

“Yes, ‘this.’  Do you have any idea how fucking rude this is?  You get handsome, you get buff, you have a piercing, and look at your hair!” she added, reaching up to touch it, “since when did you…”

Her eyes widened, and she stared at him, then her hand, then back at him.  “Fuck.” She immediately and without fanfare pulled out her IV.  “I was right, you are in danger.”

Kai blinked.  He glanced at the dangling IV uneasily.  “Eriko…what?”

“I know this sounds crazy, but you’re going to have to trust me.  Awww shit now I’m going to have to put on pants,” she groaned.  She got up out of bed and walked to a small cabinet on the wall.  “We already might be out of time; they’ve clearly followed you here.”

…what?  Kai stared as Eriko pulled on some pants, too distracted to really register what she was doing.  “Who’s followed me here?”

Eriko grabbed Kai’s bag and started throwing things from around the room into it.  “Ajins, obviously.  Probably Satou.”

If Kai had been holding anything he would have dropped it.  His eyes widened and he felt himself start breathing harder.  Eriko looked over at him, and misunderstood his reaction.  “Don’t worry,” she said firmly, “I’ll protect you.”

Alarm bells were flashing in Kai’s head.  “‘Protect me?’” he asked, “Should you even be out of bed right now?”

“I can walk!” Eriko snapped, coming over to him and grabbing his hand, “now come with me if you want to live.”

This wasn’t happening.  This couldn’t be happening.  “This is happening,” he said in a defeated voice as Eriko broke into a med room.

“Well, yeah,” she said, scooping up bottles and packets and throwing them into the bag, “I need my meds to not die.  The night nurse takes long smoke breaks, we’re fine.”

Kai narrowed his eyes, watching as Eriko quickly went through and gathered what she wanted without needing to look around.  “Eriko…” he said, “how long have you known how to do this?”

She shrugged.  “I’ve been stealing morphine from here for years,” she said, “speaking of which…”

They crept through the hospital, Eriko peering suspiciously around every corner.  They took a much different route than Kai had taken to get in, and soon they were in a part of the hospital Kai didn’t even recognize.  It made him a little uneasy, but Eriko seemed to know where she was going, so Kai trusted her.  He was too occupied wondering how on earth she could have possibly known that there were probably ajins around…that Satou was probably around, and that the target was him.  She insisted that there was no time to explain every time Kai asked.  If he didn’t love her so much he’d wring her neck.

Just then, Eriko swore, ducking behind a corner.  Kai’s heart jumped.  “Is it Satou?” he whispered.

Eriko shook her head.  “No, worse.  It’s Watanabe.  Aww shit, he’s coming this way.  Stay hidden, I’ll deal with this.”

She shoved the bag into his arms and strode out.  Kai watched with wide eyes as she confronted one of the three boys he’d seen hanging around Kei sometimes.  Which one was this?  “Go the fuck away,” she spat, glaring up at him furiously.

Watanabe seemed surprised to see her, but quickly smothered the expression with smugness.  “Well well well,” he said, “what are you doing out of bed?”  Ah, it was the scummy one.

“None of your business, jackass.”

The overhead fluorescent lights flickered.  Neither of their expressions wavered.  “You know…” Watanabe said, “while I’ve got you alone, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

Eriko stared at him.  He cleared his throat.  “Why does no one think you’re not an ajin, too?  Why’s no one taken you away yet?”

Eriko stared at him.  “It just doesn’t add up.  And now you’re skulking around near the freight entrance, alone.  Sneaking out?  Mighty suspicious…”

Eriko stared at him.  His eyes darted from side to side.  Kai wanted to laugh.  How cute, he was upset that he wasn’t unnerving her.  “I’ve got connections, you know,” he said, “If I told them I saw you die and come back, they’d believe me.”

Eriko stared at him.  He took a few steps toward her, putting his hand on the wall beside her head.  She didn’t move.  Watanabe gritted his teeth.  “Fuck, you’re a bitch,” he spat, “Frigid and ugly!”

Eriko stared at him.  Gritting his teeth, Kai forced himself to take deep breaths and not rush blindly into there to help her.  He hadn’t fought a normal human in a while, and he didn’t want to accidentally kill him.  Watanabe took another step towards her.  “You don’t have to pretend to be brave,” he said, hooking his finger under her chin, “I know you’re scared.  I’ll tell you what, satisfy a little curiosity of mine and I’ll drop the whole thing.”

Quickly, so quickly that Watanabe probably didn’t catch it, Eriko’s eyes darted toward Kai.  Oh.  She didn’t want him to see this.

Part of this situation made Kai want to laugh.  He could see what Watanabe was trying to do, and it was painfully obvious it was all bluff and bluster.  Especially when he leaned in with a voice he obviously thought was menacing and said, “you know…I’ve always wanted to know what it was like to fuck an ajin.  Maybe you could oblige?”  Didn’t mean Kai didn’t want to punch his lights out anyway.

Eriko stared at him.  Watanabe laughed.  “Or maybe that would be too much for you…you are sick, after all.  Maybe you can just suck my cock instead.”

Eriko lowered her eyes and knelt down onto the ground.  For a single heartbreaking second Kai wondered if she was going to do it.  Then he mentally punched himself, because of course she wouldn’t.  This guy wasn’t even actually threatening.

Eriko abruptly stood up.  Something was in her hand.  Watanabe looked at it bewilderedly.  “What’s that?” he asked.

“A cockroach,” Eriko said calmly, before popping the whole thing into her mouth and eating it, staring at Watanabe the entire time.

Kai bit back a laugh as Watanabe backed the fuck up, yelling at Eriko about being a freak before fleeing down some other hallway.  Eriko watched him go evenly, her eyes not moving away from him until he was gone.  Then she said, “alright, let’s go,” and kept walking.

Kai followed behind her.  “Do you…do you have to deal with that often?” he asked hesitantly.

“It’s not usually that bad with him,” Eriko said, which was not an answer, “I can deal with it.”

“You shouldn’t have to.”

“Let me deal with what I can deal with,” Eriko said, glaring at him.  She grabbed the bag back from him.  Kai dropped the subject.

“He was wrong, by the way,” Eriko said, “we’re not going to the freight entrance.  That’s too conspicuous.  There’s an emergency exit with a broken alarm back this way.  The surgeons use it when they take breaks, I’ve heard them talking about it.”

They passed an empty operating room, and Kai paused.  Ah, that’s why Eriko knew where she was going.  She probably knew this part of the hospital best.  He lingered in the doorway, glancing curiously at all the surgical instruments, gleaming on the tables.  Everything was so clean, no traces of blood anywhere.

Wham!

Immediately Kai’s eyes snapped back into the hallway, to the source of the noise, and found that what had once been an open hall was now a sealed doorway.  He heard Eriko kicking at it on the other side, and sucked in a deep breath.  “Eriko, what is this?” he asked, testing the door and finding it uncooperative.

“It’s a fire door,” she said, “it shouldn’t be shutting on its own like this…and it shouldn’t be locked.  Aaaaah, fuuuuuuuuuck!” she shouted, kicking the door one more time, “Okay, this is fine.  Just go back to the last corner and go left.  Keep going left and you’ll get to a room with a water cooler.  This is fine.  Sit there and wait for me, okay?  This is fine.”

“Fuck, I don’t want him alone in here,” he heard her muttering, and he resisted the urge to laugh, because he was thinking the same thing about her.  “…be careful,” he said, “Something isn’t right here.”

“Gee, ya think?  Quit stalling, and try not to fucking die.”

Footsteps.  He was alone.  He glanced behind him at the empty hallway.  A vent rattled somewhere in the distance.  He took a deep breath in through his mouth, and the air made his mouth a little tingly and numb.  Without hesitation, he went back into the operating room and grabbed a scalpel.

As he walked, the feeling in his mouth grew stronger and spread to the tips of his toes.  A shadow was somewhere near, he could tell.  His cheeks flushed, and he tightened his grip on the scalpel and kept walking.  This was it.

In the end, he was still taken off guard, simply rounding a corner and seeing Satou just sitting there, facing him from across the room.  No water cooler.  Not where Eriko was waiting.  Kai shifted his stance to conceal the scalpel, and jutted his chin out.  His heart was pounding.

“Oh!  Kai!” Satou said, as though he was surprised.  Bastard.

“Why are you here?”

Satou frowned.  “I’m hurt, Kai.  You invited me, remember?”

Satou opened his eyes, and Kai felt like a butterfly being pinned to corkboard.  “You’ve been up to all kinds of things,” he said, “inspiring Takeshi Kotobuki to action, filling my subordinate’s head with the idea that his life and death has value, and…”  He paused for a moment, a smile oozing across his face. “Don’t think,” he added throatily, “that I’m not aware of what you and my ghost have been up to today.”

Kai blushed, and Satou laughed.  “Look at you!” he said, “mortified as a child!  I rather liked the way you looked then, though I’d have made you bleed more.  You wouldn’t have told me to stop.”

Without realizing it, Kai took a step back, and Satou tsked.  “Come now, Kai, you’re not going to be able to manipulate me like that!”  He closed his eyes, and pulled a knife from his belt.  “I even brought you something, this time, although…” he purred, “I’m curious as to whether or not you’ll get close enough to me to try to take it.”

“Are you going to give me a choice?” Kai asked.

Satou beamed, and sprung forward from the chair without warning.  Kai narrowly dodged a slash to his throat, but he lost balance enough that Satou was easily able to make his knees buckle with a kick to the back of his legs.  He clutched the scalpel tightly but kept it hidden, opting instead to go for a ground kick since he was already halfway down anyway.  It didn’t connect, but it got Satou to back away enough that Kai could get back up, quickly lunging at Satou with a flying kick.

Satou’s strong arms wrapped around his waist and flipped him over, throwing him onto his back and knocking the air out of his lungs.  Somehow he kept his grip on the scalpel, and rolled out of the way just in time to dodge what would probably have been a fatal stab to his stomach.  Satou instead embedded the knife in the floor, and Kai kicked it, sending it flying across the room and clattering against the wall.

“Ah, too bad,” Satou said, right before Kai punched him in the face.  It was a solid punch, so Kai wasn’t surprised when it unbalanced Satou enough to knock him back.  He wasn’t even surprised when Satou grabbed his shirt and tried to pull him down too, breaking Satou’s grip with a twist of his wrist and using the forward momentum to roll over Satou’s shoulders and land on his feet a short distance away.

Satou was grinning at him, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, spitting out blood.  He licked his lips.  “You’re holding out on me,” he said, “what’s that you’ve got in your left hand?”

Kai swallowed.  “Why don’t you make me show you?” he asked, backing up slowly.

“Fighting me with one hand is a disadvantage you can’t afford, Kai,” Satou chided, stalking toward him.

Kai put up his hand to block, but Satou moved like a snake, weaving around Kai’s counters and ending with his hand gripping Kai’s throat, slamming his face against the wall.  Kai felt the inside of his cheek start to bleed, and his cheek was probably scraped and bruised.  He made to spit out the blood filling his mouth, but Satou swiftly leaned in and sealed Kai’s mouth with his own, holding Kai’s mouth open with his thumb.  He licked up all the blood inside Kai’s mouth, smearing plenty on their lips as he did so.  Kai sagged to the floor.

The grip around his throat tightened, and Kai gasped for air, pounding weakly on Satou’s chest as Satou ravished his mouth.  This seemed to please him, if the way he pressed their hips together was any indication.  Kai’s vision was just starting to spot when Satou pulled away and relaxed his grip, letting Kai cough and frantically gulp down air.

“Your shadow is a better kisser,” Kai said when he had enough air to speak.

Satou smirked.  “Guess I’ll have to practice.”

The hand on Kai’s throat dropped down to his chest, where he was sure Satou could feel his racing heartbeat.  “Why do you—”

“Why do I care?” Satou interrupted, his eyes dark, “I don’t.  But you have pieces of yourself you want to give to Kei Nagai, and I want to take them from him.”

“Kei already has them,” Kai said waveringly, and then wanted to kick himself.

Satou smiled fondly at him.  “I don’t think so,” he said, his hand dropping down to trace with frightening precision the circle of toothmarks left behind by his shadow on Kai’s left side.  His touch was heavy enough to hurt even through Kai’s clothes.

The knife that Kai had kicked away toward the wall was suddenly buried in Satou’s chest, piercing the heart neatly.  Once would probably have been enough, but Kai kept stabbing him until his body slumped heavily over Kai’s.  Kai was covered in blood.  Pulling the knife out of Satou’s chest, Kai ran, throwing it away down the hall before he could think.  His heartbeats pounded louder than his footsteps.  Eriko.  He had to find Eriko and get her out of here before Satou—

“You look good like that,” he heard Satou say, and he froze, slowly turning around.  Satou was already up again?

Satou strolled across the room, casually sitting down in one of the chairs.  His eyes drew Kai’s like magnets, and Kai started walking toward him almost without realizing it.  Satou raised an eyebrow.  “Not going to run this time?”

“Not while you have the advantage.”

“Do I?” Satou asked, and he might have been smiling, but Kai couldn’t pull away from his eyes long enough to check.  Kai swallowed thickly.  If Satou hadn’t had the advantage, he certainly did now.

“Not for long,” Kai replied, schooling his features back to calm.

“Mmmm.”  Satou’s eyes traveled lazily down Kai’s body and back up to his eyes, once again giving Kai the feeling of being pinned to corkboard.  Satou drew a shaky breath, and licked his lips, some of Kai’s blood still on them.  His shirt hung in tatters on his chest, the ruined fabric soaked with blood and baring the skin and coiled muscles of his stomach.  Kai was having a hard time getting enough air.  “You look good like that,” Satou said again.  Kai noticed with a start that Satou had opened his pants, stroking himself with languid hands.  His eyes did not leave Kai for even an instant.

Satou chuckled.  “You look like you’re going to bolt,” he said, “I might even let you go for now.”

“What are you—”

“Getting off to?  Your face right now.  What you might do next.  The way you fight.  How you writhed when my ghost was inside you.  That you obviously think that everything you’re doing is an act.”

Something snapped.  Without thinking, Kai found the ability to move again and marched toward Satou, climbing into his lap and grinding against his erection.  He brought their faces almost close enough to kiss.  “I’m going to win,” he murmured, slicing Satou’s torso open smoothly with the scalpel.

Satou’s hips jumped.  Kai smirked, and continued cutting, slicing through thick muscle and fat and other tissues until Satou was opened up beneath him and his organs were exposed, practically falling out and into Kai’s lap.  Kai kept grinding against him, waiting patiently for him to bleed out and for his body to remake itself.  When Satou came to again, Kai started slicing more gently, a pressure barely sufficient to break the skin that Satou leaned into greedily.

“I don’t understand,” Satou admitted, his eyes bright, “I can’t understand you.  You told my subordinate not to die, that his death, his temporary death, was unacceptable.  You’ve killed other humans, who will never come back to life again.  You’ve killed me, enough times that I’m beginning to lose count.”

Kai ran his hand over Satou’s clavicle.  “Killing you has no meaning, not like Tanaka or anyone else in this world.”

That gave Satou pause, and he leaned away from the scalpel to cock his head curiously.  “…meaning?”

“All life is sacred,” Kai said, “ending any life, even temporarily, is not something to be done lightly.  I only kill to protect other lives…some lives are more sacred than others.  But you…” Kai declared, “you desecrated yourself.  You’ve become addicted to your own death.  There is no meaning in killing you.”

Satou’s eyes gleamed darkly, and he grabbed Kai’s ass tightly enough that Kai wondered if there would be bruises later.  “I would say,” he said, his voice a rumble that made Kai’s entire body come alive, “that I’m going to desecrate you, but…I think I already have.”

Kai’s hands froze over Satou’s shoulders.  He opened his mouth to say something.  “No, no, no excuses Kai, and keep a better grip on the scalpel or I’ll take it from you,” Satou said, “I’m going ask you a rhetorical question.  Why are we here?  Why am I here in this hospital, and why are you here in my lap?  Because you actually enjoy this.”

Somewhere in the distance a fan turned on.  The overhead fluorescent lights buzzed like a swarm of bees.  The far wall had blood splatters all over it.  The bloody knife gleamed on the floor of the hallway, almost all the way into the next room.  Kai and Eriko needed to get out of here before someone discovered this place that looked like a crime scene and linked it to them.  Were there security cameras here?  Kai started glancing around near the ceiling.

Satou laughed.  “So this is what you look like when you’ve been cornered.  Why so bashful?  You didn’t have to come here.  You didn’t have to tell me you were coming here.  You’ve probably told yourself you came here to protect Kei Nagai’s sister, maybe even from me, so why lead me here?”

Kai’s mouth went dry.  “I…”

“And now here you are, prolonging our encounter when you could have escaped.  Tell me, Kai,” he purred, “why is that?”

Satou leaned forward, pressing his face into Kai’s chest and inhaling deeply.  “You weren’t properly neutralized,” Kai said, fighting to keep his voice calm, “Eriko would have been in danger, I could—ah!

Even through the fabric of his shirt, Kai could feel Satou’s teeth closing around one of his nipples, his breath warm.  Kai squinted his eyes shut and curled his toes.  “Stop lying,” Satou said gently, alternating biting and sucking, “Stop lying to me.  To yourself.  Because you think you love someone.”

Kai opened his eyes and stared at Satou.  His hands were shaking.  Satou drew back and smiled at him.  “You’re so young,” he said, taking Kai’s hand and steadying his grip before he could drop the scalpel.  He kissed Kai’s wrist. “I tried to fool myself into loving people when I was young too.”  He brought Kai’s hand up to his face, drawing a line down his left cheek with the scalpel.  “We’re more than that, than them.”  He drew another line across his cheek, making an X.  As Kai stared at the blood dripping off Satou’s chin, Satou tilted his head up to kiss him, sucking and biting Kai’s lips.  Kai didn’t react.

(A boy, with long eyelashes and red eyes, sitting alone on a bench.  Reading a book.  The books were in a different language each time.  Red eyes widened the first time Kai sat next to him, like Kai was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.  He bit his lip each time he talked to Kai about the book, about what it meant to be a human.  When he asked for Kai’s phone number.  When he said they were friends.)

(A girl, falling asleep in his lap as they sat in the shade under a tree, flowers in their hair.  The whispered confession that she liked her brother better when Kai was around too.  Falling asleep before Kai could ask her what she meant.)

(Takeshi, lying next to him in the dark, his hands cool and light.  No urgency, no desperation.  No pain.  Just kisses, solid and grounding, the feeling of their tangled legs.  The words “I love you.”)

Kai screamed and recoiled like he’d been burned.  Before Satou could react, he slid the scalpel under Satou’s clavicle, slicing cleanly through the brachial plexus, first on the left, then the right.  Satou’s arms drooped uselessly at his sides.  “Kai—” Satou started to say, but Kai kicked away, knocking Satou and the chair over and landing a few feet away.  He didn’t look at Satou at all, he just ran.  He held the scalpel so tightly his knuckles turned white.  He was coming to the end of the hallway.  The hallway branched to the left and right.  There was an elevator.  He could see a room with a water cooler.  ErikoWhere was Eriko?

“Kai, that’s enough,” Satou said, his voice rumbling in Kai’s body, and Kai couldn’t move.  How had Satou caught up so fast?  His heart beat against his chest like a trapped animal.  Satou’s boots clunked against the floor, his footsteps heavy.  “You don’t get to do that, Kai.”  The vulnerability Kai hadn’t noticed earlier in his voice was completely gone now.  This was like the Satou Kai had heard over the phone.  The footsteps were getting closer.  “I could just have my ghost reset me,” Satou said, “but I think I want you to do it.  I think you want to do it, even if you’re going to keep lying and running from me.”

Move.  Move, dammit, move!  Satou must almost be close enough to touch him by now.  “I’m going to break your legs,” Satou said calmly, his voice vibrating through every cell in Kai’s body, “and then you’re going to reset me.  And then I’m going to fuck you here on the floor until you feel like I’ve broken everything else, and if we’re very lucky then Kei Nagai’s sister will come try to save you, and I will kill her, and you’ll realize you don’t actually care, and you’ll beg me to do it faster so I can get back to fucking you.  And then…” he chuckled, “Well, I’m sure we won’t be bored!”

KAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAI!!!!!!!” a voice screamed, and suddenly his knees buckled and he fell back into a…chair?  Before he realized what was happening, he was moving down the hallway to the right.  The elevator was in front of him.  The door was opening.  He was being pushed inside.  The doors shut behind him.  He was sitting in a wheelchair.

After ten seconds or so, Satou’s voice abruptly released him and his whole body collapsed.  He gulped down air and turned around.  Eriko was leaned against the elevator door, her face flushed and sweaty.  Her eyes were closed, and despite her evident fatigue she was breathing calmly through her nose.  “You good?” she asked, pulling earplugs out of her ears.

Kai nodded, then realized she couldn’t see him.  “Well, I can move,” he said.

“Good,” Eriko said, “then get the fuck out of the chair.  I think I’m about to pass out.”

Chapter Text

(“Isn’t it lovely, Eriko?” her mother had asked with the tone of voice that meant she wanted Eriko to please respond pleasantly in front of all the nice people.  Eriko looked at the pendant in her hand, a small hourglass she could flip over every couple seconds to watch sand inevitably fall.  “It’s cheap and tacky.”  She sneered at her mother.)

(She’d passed out after the agent had been killed by something invisible in front of her, and she came to slowly.  She opened her eyes and saw nothing.  She was being carried on all sides by what sounded like a voice that had been shattered into a thousand pieces thousands of times, the shards grinding into her eyes and skin and everywhere with the same fragmented screams.  She closed her eyes again, and imagined she was being carried in a storm made of black sand.  It was warm.)

(When she’d finally made it back to her room, the implications of what had just happened still making her heart beat unsafely fast, she shook black sand that no one else could see out of her hair and clothes.  That pendant, shoved in the back of some drawer where she wouldn’t have to look at it, was unearthed and emptied.  Curiously, she held it up to her ears like a seashell once she’d refilled it with the handful of black sand, and faintly heard the same shattered voices as before.  She couldn’t make out any of the words.)

(She hung the pendant around her neck, where it fell heavily over her heart and pulsed faintly with her heartbeat.  It was warm.)

When Eriko came to, she quickly took stock of her surroundings, running the usual checklist.  Location?  The elevator, sitting in a wheelchair.  Status?  Wearing the same clothes as before, no IVs or new incisions or telemetry or bandages or anything.  She could move all her extremities.  Other people?  Just Kai, standing behind her.  He was saying something.  Just a second.  She maybe said that out loud.

Time?  Probably not more than a few minutes since she’d passed out.  Not bad considering she’d sprinted fifty feet or so with a wheelchair and a whole fucking person inside it.  She took a deep breath, and patted her chest, where her pendant was safely tucked under her shirt.  She thought about standing up but quickly decided against it.

“Any injuries we need to worry about?” she asked, tipping her head back to look at Kai and assess.

Kai looked like shit.  He was covered in shallow gashes and bruises, and his lips were swollen and bloody enough that a thin stream of blood was running down his chin.  His clothes were soaked with blood, and while the jeans he was wearing were perhaps salvageable, the shirt definitely wasn’t.  But more importantly, and worryingly, he looked like he was one sudden movement away from a full-on panic attack.  His eyes floated around without focusing on anything, his hands were shaking where they held the wheelchair, and though he was obviously trying to hide it, he was probably hyperventilating.

Fuck.  This was not encouraging.  What the hell kind of shit was Kai involved with?  And they weren’t even out of the hospital yet, and fucking Satou (who had definitely recognized her in the split second she took to look at him as she blazed past) was still loose.  Fucking figured that between the two of them, the ambulatory one would be the one losing his shit.  She sighed and tried again.  “Dude, you okay?”

Kai blinked slowly, then smiled a nice convincing smile.  There was the first lie.  “It’s not as bad as it looks,” he said, gesturing at his bloody clothes, “most of this isn’t even mine.  I’ll be okay.”  The second lie.

Eriko looked at him evenly.  She’d thought she hadn’t been out for long, but it must have been for more than a couple minutes if Kai had had enough time to construct this many layers of bullshit to hide behind.  Fuck this was exhausting.  “I’m going to be frank with you,” she said, “we’re kind of fucked right now.  Satou’s running around, and as you can see I’m not going to be doing any of that for a while.  I need you to be okay, because it’s going to be mostly on you to get us out of here.”

Kai’s smile loosened a bit, and Eriko was perhaps willing to believe it.  “I thought you were going to protect me,” he said easily.

“What did I just fucking do?” Eriko snapped, gesturing at the wheelchair, “I thought I was a pretty big damn hero.  It is not my problem that Satou evidently likes to play with his food so much,” she added, daring him to explain himself.

He didn’t bite.  “Well don’t worry, princess,” he said, leaning down to kiss her forehead, “your knight will take it from here.”  Another layer of bullshit.  “Actually, that’s what I came here to do anyway,” he added, “you took me a bit for a loop when you figured out that Satou was after me,” he admitted.

He let the question hang unsaid in the air.  Eriko smirked.  If he wasn’t going to be cooperative, neither was she.  “I’m surprised Satou hasn’t broken into the elevator already,” she said.

Kai narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at the ceiling.  “He’s definitely had more than enough time,” he said, “so either he’s already figured out where we’re going and is waiting for us there, or he’s decided to let us go.”

Eriko rolled her eyes.  “I’m voting the former.”

Kai grimaced.  “Yeah, me too.  Thing is, I don’t know where we’re going, so I just kept us stuck between floors.  I was hoping you’d have a plan when you woke up.”

Eriko shrugged.  “Honestly?  We still have to end up on the ground floor or we’re trapped.  I guess we could try to get to another elevator but if Satou’s waiting for us down there does it really matter?”

“We could try jumping?”

Oh for fuck’s sake.  “If we meet Satou again,” Eriko said, “I want at least one of us to be able to fucking run.  Not happening.”

Kai sighed, and pushed the button for the ground floor.  “Okay, so quick and quiet,” he said, “got it.”

The elevator opened with a ding that made Kai flinch, and then he slowly wheeled her out.  As he stepped out of the elevator, Eriko could practically watch him put on another layer of bullshit, schooling his face into calm and confident poise.  His breath went silent, and she could barely even hear his footsteps.  What a menace.  Eriko pointed in the direction they needed to go, pulling her legs up to sit cross-legged in the chair, trying to keep her heartrate in the safe range that wouldn’t make her pass out again.

Kai poked his head around every corner before pushing Eriko forward, presumably checking for Satou.  Eriko trusted him to do a better job than she could, but that he continued to not see him made her feel more and more anxious.  She had them take a more roundabout way but there was only so much she could do.

It was around one of the final corners that Eriko saw the ghost, fighting not to scream as Kai pushed her forward.  It was at the far end of the hallway, mercifully looking away from them, but instead looking right at where their exit was.  It was too far for her to see many details, but even from this distance she could see the impossibly long tongue hanging loosely out of a mouth filled with too many teeth.  Frantically, Eriko motioned for Kai to back the fuck up right the fuck now, holding her breath and not daring to move until Kai had gotten them away.

“What did you see?” he whispered lowly in her ear, and Eriko realized she was going to have to explain herself.

“What’s this?” she asked, pulling the pendant out of her shirt and holding it up to Kai’s face.

Kai considered it carefully.  “What does an empty hourglass have to do with anything?” he asked.

Eriko sighed.  “It’s not empty,” she said, “it’s full of this…I dunno, black sand, I guess.  No one else can see it.  I didn’t used to be able to see it.”

She couldn’t bear to look at him, so she turned away, squinting her eyes shut and letting the pendant fall.  “Ajins have these monsters made of the stuff that follow them around.  I…” she worried her lip, “I think Kei saw one when we were kids…he said he saw a “ghost” or something.  I saw one of them in that hallway.”

Given their current situation, Kai probably wasn’t going to have any noteworthy kind of outburst, but Eriko was prepared for any number of incredulous whispers.  She hadn’t really expected that he’d believe her anyway, but hopefully he’d think she’d actually seen something that she’d mistaken for a monster, and not that she was completely crazy like that one police officer had thought she was.

“You can see their shadows?” Kai asked with a hushed voice and wide eyes.  “How?

Eriko blinked.  “What?”

“I can tell when they’re around…sort of,” Kai said, “there’s stuff to look for.  Listen for.  Sometimes it’s almost like I can taste it in the air.  But I can’t see them!  You can see them?”

“How the hell do you know about them?” Eriko demanded, grabbing his shoulders with wide eyes.

They stared at each other for a moment, not saying a word.  “This changes everything,” they said at the same time.

Eriko swept Kai into a bone-crushing hug.  It was a wet and kind of gross hug because of the blood, but he’d already stooped down anyway, so he was basically asking for it.  “You fucker,” she said, “I’d started wondering if I was going crazy and you fucking knew about them anyway.”

Kai nuzzled her head.  “What can I say?” he said, his voice sounding delighted.  After a few seconds of this, he suddenly pulled back.  “Wait,” he said, “how did you know Satou was following me?” he asked, “did you see his shadow back then too?”

Eriko shrugged.  “Not exactly.  I just guessed it was Satou, but your hair was full of black sand so I knew an ajin had to be following you.”

Kai reacted oddly to this.  No fear, no surprise, no ah so that explains it looks.  Instead, he blushed.  Quite impressively, in fact, enough to melt a few layers of bullshit off his face.  “Err…well…Satou’s shadow likes me,” he said, averting eye contact, “a lot, so that makes sense.”

Eriko raised an eyebrow.  “Okay, so that’s vague…”

Kai cleared his throat.  “A-anyway,” he said, “if Satou’s shadow is guarding the door, we’re going to need to figure out how to get past it.”

Hiding something.  “Did you just say it likes you?  Maybe we can just go right past it.”

Kai ran his fingers through his hair nervously.  “It uh, well, yes but it…probably won’t let me go…” he mumbled.

Eriko narrowed her eyes at him.  Definitely hiding something.  “So then what would you suggest?”

“Any other doors we could use?”

“Erm…yeah, one.”

Kai groaned.  “Okay, forget that then, Satou’s definitely waiting at the other one, and I think we’d both rather avoid that.”

A tense silence.  Eriko didn’t really have any ideas, but she definitely would rather deal with the ghost than with Satou.  If they could just get a weapon, then maybe…

Thunk.  Eriko was startled out of her thoughts by Kai dropping the bag in her lap.  “We’re just going to go for it,” he said, walking across the hall to where a fire hose was coiled neatly in a cabinet, “yeah, this should be long enough.”

“I thought you literally just fucking said that was a bad idea,” Eriko hissed, crossing her arms as Kai started pushing her and dragging the fire hose along with them.

“Definitely.  Godawful idea.  The best one we’ve got though,” Kai said, approaching the corner, “Just be my eyes for me, okay?  I’m improvising a bit.”

“Wow, really?” Eriko grumbled as they rounded the corner, “look out, it’s dead in front of you.”

Kai immediately turned on the fire hose, blasting the hallway in front of them with water and completely soaking the ghost.  He pushed her forward until he ran out of hose, before turning the water off and continuing ahead.  “Talk to me Eriko, what’s it doing?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“It’s looking at us,” she said, “I assume.  It doesn’t have eyes.”

It was also licking its…well, it didn’t really have lips, but it was doing whatever the moral equivalent of that was.  As they got closer, Eriko started being able to hear it purring.  Purring?  Hell, this thing really liked Kai?  It was shaking like a fucking puppy.

…we told us…stay right here…don’t move…” it said, its voice shattered and broken.

Kai froze.  “That so?” he asked.  Eriko really wanted to turn around and look at his face, but she didn’t dare turn away from the ghost.  She didn’t strictly need her eyes to be open to see them, but she couldn’t tell when they were behind her.

…come here…Kai…” it whined, straining toward them but not moving its feet.

“It’s not moving,” Eriko whispered, “but the hallway’s too fucking narrow to go around it.”

“Right,” Kai said breathily, “I know you don’t have it in you to walk right now, but can you push yourself forward far enough to get to the door?”

Eriko gulped.  “Kai what the fuck are you going to do?”

“Improvise,” Kai said nervously.

Shit.  “Yeah, I can push myself in the wheelchair, long as we’re not in a hurry.”

Kai gently pushed her forward and let go of the wheelchair.  “Please don’t look back,” he said quietly.

Yeah fucking right.  As she pushed herself forward, she heard Kai gently say, “Hello, shadow.”

…Kai!  …missed you…

“…ah…but you saw me just earlier today…”

…miss you…we’re always thinking about you…never want to let you go…

“Shadow, you ca—mmphf!

She’d reached the door, its handle cool on her skin.  She looked back.

Gasp.

Her heart skipped a beat.  What the hell?  Kai at least looked calm and like he wasn’t afraid or in any pain, but…what the fuck?  What the fuck?  His feet were dangling like wind chimes, his hands loosely holding the arms keeping him airborne.  Arms he couldn’t even see.  Eriko had to fight the urge to cover her eyes with her fingers.  The ghost was gently cradling him in its enormous hands, though one of them had found its way under Kai’s shirt.  It’s tongue…

Kai!” she shrieked, and Kai’s eyes flickered toward her.  Oh…that’s why he’d told her not to look back.

The ghost slid its tongue further down Kai’s throat.  “…don’t look at her…” it said, “…don’t look at anyone but us…

Eriko couldn’t look away.  She couldn’t move.  She could barely remember to breathe the right way to keep her heart from going haywire.  Passing out right now was not a fucking option.

The ghost gently pressed Kai against the wall and pulled its tongue out of his mouth, starting to mouth at his throat.  “…remember, no teeth…” Kai said weakly.  The fuck?  How many times had this happened?

Slowly, carefully, Kai brought his hands up to the sides of the ghost’s face, and leaned forward to butt heads.  “Shadow, I need to go now,” he said, squirming slightly as its tongue darted out to lick his fingers.

Kai’s mouth looked even more red and swollen then before.  Had that been what he and Satou…Eriko’s eyes bugged out.  What the hell kind of shit had Kai gotten himself into?

…so…beautiful…like this…

“Hey!  You!” Eriko shouted.

The ghost turned its head sharply toward her, its many many teeth catching the light.  “…go away…” it said sullenly.

“Put Kai down,” she said more confidently than she felt.

No.

So much for that.  Eriko ran her tongue over her teeth, feeling a piece of the cockroach still stuck in there.  Huh.  She wiggled it out with her tongue and swallowed it.  She shifted in the chair uncomfortably…ever since hugging Kai her clothes felt wet and sticky with blood.  Not that it mattered with this fucking ghost here.  Fucking brat…it was worse than the little kids that ran around in her ward when she was trying to…hmmm…

“Let’s play a game!” she said, and though it didn’t have ears she could definitely see the thing perk up.

Game?

She put the bag on the floor.  Gritting her teeth, she pushed herself up.  You can fucking walk, she told herself.  “Yeah!” she said, “let’s play Kagome Kagome.”

Kai looked at her curiously.  “I don’t think the shadow knows how to play that, Eriko,” he said.

“It’s simple.  Ghosty, you’ll be the oni.  Kai and I will walk around you and sing a song, and when it’s done you have to guess who’s behind you.  If you win, Kai stays.  If you lose, then you let him go.”

The ghost’s hands tightened possessively around Kai, and Kai gasped in surprise.  Eriko clenched her fists.  “Whatssa matter, afraid you’ll lose?”

The ghost snarled at her.  “…never…lose…

Eriko grinned.  “There ya go.  Now put Kai down so we can play.  He promises he won’t run away.”

The ghost’s head snapped back to Kai, as if looking for confirmation.  After a moment of silence, Kai smiled weakly.  “When have I ever run from you?”

The ghost made a happy noise, nuzzling at Kai’s mouth, before gently setting him down.  Wobbly on his feet, Kai clutched at the ghost for a second before he regained his balance, taking a few hesitant steps toward Eriko.  “There’s no point in running,” he whispered, “we could never outrun it.

Eriko hugged him, then took one of his hands.  “I plan to win.”

Kai looked at the ghost nervously, and nodded.  “Make sure you don’t peek,” he said to the ghost, “I hate people who win by cheating.”

An anguished sound, and the ghost covered its face with its hands.  It almost looked cute like this.  Eriko and Kai walked up to it and circled their arms around it, linking their hands and closing the circle.  They were very close to it.  How good were this thing’s senses?  Would it be able to tell their heartbeats apart?  Eriko gripped Kai’s hands tightly to try to hide her nerves.  “You still know the song, right?” she asked him.

“More or less.  You going to be okay?”

Her head felt faint.  She’d have to make it.  They were so close.  “Let’s just get this over with.”

Kai nodded, and started walking.

“Kagome kagome. Kago no naka no tori wa. Itsu itsu deyaru. Yoake no ban ni. Tsuru to kame ga subetta.”

The ghost didn’t move.  Eriko tugged at Kai’s hand and slowed their pace a bit.  “Ushiro no shoumen daare."  They’d finished, with Eriko right behind the ghost, and Kai in front.

Keeping its face covered, the ghost turned its head toward Eriko and sniffed the air, sticking its tongue out like a snake.  For an agonizingly long time that was probably only like five seconds or something, there was nothing.  Silence.  Then the ghost made a happy noise, and cried, “Kai!” lunging toward Eriko and uncovering its face.

Silence.  Eriko hesitantly grinned.  “I smelled like him, didn’t I?” she asked, looking down at her bloody shirt, “You lose.”

Suddenly she was airborne, held level with the ghost’s wide-open and screaming mouth.  Spit flew into her face.  “…LET KAI GO…LET KAI GO!” it shrieked, “…LET KAI GO…NOT YOU…you tricked us…we’ll never let you go!

When faced with a mouth full of teeth, so big that your whole head could fit inside it, there was really only one thing to do.  Eriko screamed, holding her hands uselessly in front of her face.  And then she was the only one screaming.  Kai had stood up on tiptoes and was gently kissing the ghost with lowered eyes.  “Shadow, you promised her,” he said when his mouth didn’t have a tongue in it anymore, “you said you’d play a game with her and she won.”

Abruptly, the ghost dropped Eriko to the ground and wrapped its arms around Kai, making a fragmented noise like a sob.  “…don’t leave us, Kai…” it begged, resting its head on Kai’s shoulder.

Kai stepped away and extended a hand to Eriko, leading her back to the wheelchair.  He looked at the ghost solemnly.  “Shadow,” he said, “didn’t you say you’d do anything for me?”

Eriko watched it with wide eyes as it nodded emphatically.  “…of course…love Kai…

Kai put his hands firmly on Eriko’s shoulders.  “Do you see this girl?” he asked, “this is Eriko.”

…Eriko…

Hearing the thing say her name made Eriko jump.  The pendant of black sand felt unusually warm against her skin.

“Promise me that you’ll never hurt her like that again,” Kai said firmly, “that you’ll protect her, and keep her safe.”

The pendant was pulsing hot now.  Eriko pulled it out to look at it and gasped to see all of the grains of sand, usually motionless, flying around inside the hourglass like gnats, like they were trying to escape.  “Promise me, shadow,” Kai insisted.

The ghost sagged, looking down at the floor.  “…promise…

“Good!” Kai said, “Maybe one day you’ll love her like you love me.”

The ghost shook its head emphatically.  “Never!” it cried, “…never like Kai…

Eriko looked up at Kai’s face, which was blank, like for a second he’d forgotten to emote.  “That…well…” he stammered, “I’ll…see you next time, okay?  We’ll have lots of fun then.  Promise.”

The pendant had cooled down, but was still pulsing warmer than usual.  Eriko closed her hand around it protectively, and looked over her shoulder at the ghost as Kai pushed her out the door.  The ghost was crying, loudly enough that she could hear it even after the door slammed shut behind them.

Oddly enough, when she held her pendant up to her ear, it almost sounded like the voices in it were crying too.

Chapter Text

“I love it!” Eriko said with false cheer, holding up the least distasteful of the discount-store t-shirts Kai had apparently accumulated during his travels.  At least the pants seemed normal enough, if too big for her.  The t-shirt was too big too but that hardly mattered with t-shirts.

“Is all to your satisfaction, princess?” Kai asked wearily, shoving a hand into the bag to grab a shirt at random.

“I’d like to get out of these bloody-ass clothes,” Eriko said, “but I’d say you get first dibs on changing.  Though really what you need is a fucking shower…”

Alas, but the public bathroom Kai had wheeled them to was not in possession of a shower.  Upon entering, Kai had promptly gone over to one of the sinks and held his head under the flow of water, which ran red for a couple minutes before finally going mostly clear.  It wasn’t much, but it definitely helped make Kai look a tiny bit less like he was on the run from a crime scene.  When Kai peeled the bloody shirt off his skin, Eriko winced.  She’d seen the bruises on his throat, and his abused mouth, but the bruises and bitemarks on his torso were another matter entirely.  Of particular note was a long curving line of toothmarks running along his left side…not human, but maybe Satou’s ghost?  Also a cluster of bruises and bites around his…nipples.

“Okay you kinky fuck,” she said as Kai was attempting to splash water on his bloody skin, “are you going to tell me what the hell’s going on between you and Satou?”

Kai blinked owlishly at her, water dripping from his hair into his eyes.  Eriko could see him briefly consider lying to her, before he lowered his eyes and shook his head.  “I don’t really want to talk about it,” he said softly, pulling the clean shirt on.  Ah, too bad.

Eriko sighed.  “I appreciate your honesty,” she said solemnly, “But whatever reason you have for not telling me, get the fuck over it.  I’ve seen you literally deepthroat a fucking monster…there can be no secrets between us.”

Kai’s face turned red at that, and he abruptly turned around to face the wall.  “Hurry up and change,” he said quickly, “I want to get out of here before someone finds us.”

Keh.  Whatever.”

Eriko vindictively ripped her shirt open, buttons flying all over the fucking place.  Faster, and she fucking hated the thing anyway.  She threw it on the floor by Kai’s bloody shirt and glanced down at her chest, noting with relief that while all the familiar surgery scars were still there, there was no blood to speak of on her skin, nor anything new she’d need to worry about.  She slipped on her ugly-ass new t-shirt, which won a couple points with her for being really soft.

Wearing jeans was a nice change of pace as well, though she was stuck with the hospital slippers until they could make some kind of stop at a store to acquire another pair of shoes.  Alas.  “So,” she said briskly, wheeling herself closer to Kai, “what’s the plan now?”

“Get you somewhere safe,” Kai said, “I’ll leave a trail so Satou will hopefully follow me out of here and leave you alone.”

Fucking what?  Eriko locked the wheels of her wheelchair and glared at his back.  “Are you saying you’re going to fucking leave me behind?  To sit on my ass while you’re running around in some S&M roadshow?!”

“Eriko, be reasonable, I can’t take you with me, you’re—”

Eriko gripped the armrests of her wheelchair so tightly her knuckles turned white.  “Say that to my face, asshole!” she screamed, lifting her legs up to kick Kai into the wall, noting with satisfaction the loud crack as Kai’s head hit the wall.

Kai whirled around angrily and Eriko fucking dared him with her eyes to try intimidating her with some bullshit show of force.  “Aaaaaaargh, really, Eri?!?!” Kai snapped, pulling at his hair in frustration, “am I not banged up enough already?”

Eriko didn’t cry.  Hearing Kai say that nickname again after so many years made her almost want to.  But Eriko never cried.

Whatever anger was in her defused almost instantaneously, and she leaned forward to tug at the hem of his shirt, her hand feeling much smaller than it actually was. “Are you going to abandon me again?” she asked quietly, not meeting his eyes.

Four breaths.  “Shit,” she heard Kai whisper, and his arms were suddenly around her.  “That’s not playing fair, Eri,” he said into her hair, tears making it wet.  Eriko recognized that this was probably supposed to be comforting, but right now she just felt numb and miserable.

She hugged her knees to her chest.  “Whatever,” she said, “I don’t fucking care.”

The pendant around her neck felt cold.

Eriko refused to speak after that, trying her best to not even emote in response to anything Kai said to her.  As he pushed her along, she glanced around without really taking in anything she was seeing.  Streetlights, streets, cars, people, less people, no cars, no people.  Suddenly Kai stopped, and Eriko looked around apathetically.  No cars, no people.  Poorly lit streets and buildings she’d only seen from a distance.  Her heart started beating faster.  They were in the part of town her mother, her teachers, her neighbors, everyone, had warned her never to come to.

There was no air in her throat.  She couldn’t say anything.  “Before we go any further,” Kai said, “I want you to know that no matter how things seem, you’re perfectly safe.  Safer than you might be anywhere else in Japan.”

Suddenly she had air again.  “Why, because you’re protecting me?” Eriko snarled, grinding her teeth.  A van was driving toward them.

Kai sighed, and kept pushing her forward.  “No.  It’s because I’m not the one protecting you anymore.”

Almost as if on cue, she felt something yank Kai away, but before she could turn to see what had happened she found herself unable to see.  They’d fucking put a sack over her head.  She kicked and screamed but restraining hands were everywhere, and over the noise of the struggle she could hear Kai’s voice, soothing her with assurances that were pretty fucking hard to believe at the moment!!

She was bound, and she heard car doors opening.  Probably that van.  Super.  At least she got to be conscious for this kidnapping.  She relaxed her head back and focused on her breathing, letting her eyes close naturally and feeling her heartrate slow.  And then she saw something, far, and off to the side, but looking straight at her.  Ghosts were less distinct to her when she had her eyes closed, but she’d learned that she didn’t see them with her eyes.

After a moment, the ghost vanished from her sight, and there was nothing but darkness.

And then, a surprisingly short time later, there was light again, luckily dim but still bright enough to give her a headache.  Now to figure out where the fuck she was.  The room was big, filled with art and other indicators of wealth, but no windows.  While there were parts of the room that were insufficiently lit for Eriko to see more than vague shadowy figures, there were twenty or so men that Eriko could see, with a handful of women as well, along the edges of the room and staring at her and Kai intently.  Kai.  Kai was next to her, though they hadn’t taken the sack off of his head.

On the far end of the room, a woman sat sprawled in a large chair, her golden eyes striking even from the distance and behind glasses.  Her sleeves were long and her neckline was high, leaving almost none of her skin visible.  Another woman, taller, stood ramrod straight next to her, her arms folded neatly behind her back.  Eriko swallowed.  Don’t be scared, there’s nothing to be afraid of.  Right.

“Is this really necessary?” Kai grumbled, his voice muffled from the bag.  A gesture from the woman, and a man came to take the bag off his head.  Eriko glanced nervously at him, but more than anything Kai just looked fucking pissed.  Oddly enough, this was soothing.

“Strangers coming unannounced are all met with equal suspicion,” the woman said coolly.

Eriko noticed that the tall woman looked faintly exasperated.  Kai groaned.  “I was afraid something like this would happen, but really?  Really?  I’m not some stranger!”

“You made it perfectly clear that you wanted nothing to do with us when you came of age,” the woman said, her voice like ice, “I am merely attempting to honor your wishes, as is only right.”

“Not wanting to be a member of the yakuza is hardly the same as—”

“Why have you come here, Kai?  Why have you brought Kei Nagai’s younger sister?”

“I have a fucking name, you know!” Eriko snapped, before blanching and clamping her mouth shut.  The tall woman quirked a smile.  The woman in the chair didn’t even look at her.

“Maybe I don’t want to talk about this while I’m tied up!  While Eriko’s tied up!  In a room full of your goons!”

Suddenly Eriko’s eyes widened, and she fought very hard to not make a sound.  One of the shadowy figures had started walking toward them, though when it entered the light it didn’t become any less dark.  It had too many legs.  Its head was wrong, with insect-like mandibles instead of a mouth.  As if it noticed her staring at it, it turned sharply toward her, chittering quietly.  No one else seemed to notice it.

At least it wasn’t Satou’s ghost.

“Miss Nagai is no doubt exhausted,” the tall woman said smoothly, putting a hand on the seated woman’s shoulder, “perhaps I can escort her to somewhere more comfortable while you and Kai continue your discussion?”

“Quit playing good cop, Megumi,” Kai snapped, “I’m never going to like you.”

Megumi sighed, and patted the seated woman’s shoulder sympathetically.  “Have fun, Yuuki,” she said, stepping away from the chair and walking toward Eriko.  The ghost hadn’t gotten any closer, but continued watching her.

Eriko frantically looked at Kai.  “Don’t make me go with her!” she whispered.

Kai looked at her for a moment, then smiled fondly.  “It’s okay.  You’ll be safe with her.  Honestly, you don’t really want to be here for the family drama.”

For a moment Eriko forgot about the ghost in the room.  “Family drama?” she asked.

Kai blinked.  “Oh yeah,” he said, inclining his head toward Yuuki, the woman in the chair.  “That’s my mom.”

Before Eriko could process that information, her bonds were cut, and Megumi was smoothly wheeling her out of the room.  From this angle, Eriko could see that the ghost had long, praying-mantis-like arms, serrated and sharp-looking.  Eriko opened her mouth to say something, but then Megumi leaned in and murmured in her ear, “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” and Eriko couldn’t move.

The door closed behind them, and any chance of warning Kai vanished.  Megumi pushed her along down a hallway until abruptly Eriko could move her body again.  She whirled around and glared at Megumi’s glittering red eyes.  “What are you going to do to me?” she demanded.

Megumi smiled, the skin around her eyes wrinkling.  “I’m going to get you a cup of tea,” she said, “and ask how you can see my ghost.  I was certain that you were an ajin like your brother, but you felt my voice…”

Eriko bared her teeth.  “I’m not telling you anything!” she said, “you probably work for Satou, don’t you?”

The look of disgust Megumi gave her rivaled one of her own.  “I would never follow a madman like Satou,” Megumi said calmly, “I believe in the value of life, and refuse to allow suffering.”

I’m suffering just from listening to you,” Eriko grumbled, looking away.

Megumi chuckled.  “You don’t have much self-preservation, do you?”

They’d entered another room, one that did have windows, which overlooked a small garden.  “Would you prefer to stay in your wheelchair, or would you like me to help you to the floor?” Megumi asked.

Fucker.  Obstinately, Eriko slammed her hands against the armrests and pushed herself out of the wheelchair, walking over to the small table in the middle of the room and kneeling down on the floor.  “Well?” she asked, “where’s the fucking tea?”

Megumi smiled.  “Wait here,” she said, leaving the room.

Eriko glanced around the room and drummed her fingers on the table.  Kai had promised this place was safe.  What the fuck, Kai?  The plan was to dump her off at his estranged(?) mom’s fucking yakuza base?  Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

You saw me,” a distorted voice said, and Eriko screamed and whirled around.  The ghost, its mandibles clicking, was standing in the doorway.  It lowered its head and shifted its weight.  “May I come in?

Eriko narrowed her eyes at it.  “You talk different…like you’re a person.”

Thank you!

It hovered in the doorway, looking oddly…fretful.  Eriko rolled her eyes.  “Whatever.  I don’t fucking care.  Make yourself at fucking home.”

The ghost skittered across the floor, kneeling at the table in front of her.  Even on its knees, it towered over her.  Eriko found herself fidgeting with her pendant.  The ghost cocked its head.  “Ah, that’s the voice I’ve been hearing,” it said, “I was wondering.”  It paused.  “He sounds sad.  Perhaps you should try talking to him?

It started, then turned its head away almost bashfully.  “Pardon me for staring…I just find you incredible.  I’ve never talked to someone who wasn’t an ajin before.

“I’ve never talked to a ghost before.  Well…” That wasn’t quite true, but there was something fundamentally different about talking with this ghost versus Satou’s ghost.

Of course!  I have been blessed to have been treated as a sister ever since I first woke up, and over the years I have become my own self,” it said proudly.

Wind blew in through the open window.  Eriko shivered.  Across the small garden she could see a light in another window, Kai and his mother sitting near each other, drinking and talking.  It was cold.  Without thinking, she got up and moved to the other side of the table, leaning into the ghost.  It was warm, and pulsed like a heartbeat she could feel even through her clothes.

The ghost sighed.  “You want him to take you with him.

Eriko nodded.

But you think he has no reason to.

She gritted her teeth and refused to acknowledge that.  The ghost made a soft chittering sound.  “You do not realize what an extraordinary gift you have.

Surprised, Eriko looked up at the ghost’s face, which despite its lack of eyes was facing directly toward her.  It was dissolving around the edges.  “What are you?” she asked.

Mandibles couldn’t smile, but Eriko still got the feeling the ghost was smiling anyway.  “Imagine a cup,” it said, “broken over and over and over again.  Each time one or two pieces is set aside.  Glue all those pieces together to make a pitcher.

Eriko rolled her eyes and looked away, crossing her arms.  “Fucking figures,” she muttered, blowing hair out of her face.  The air was getting full of black sand.  It made her eyes sting.

You are changing the subject.  I understand.  But you have forgotten something important.

“And I suppose you’re going to fucking tell me what it is.”

Satou is dangerous,” said the ghost, “Your friend is playing a very dangerous game.  He is already starting to lose himself…

Eriko scowled and hugged her knees, counting lines in the floorboards.  “He doesn’t want my help,” she snarled.

You must persuade him.  He will self-annihilate on the path he is on.

Balling her fists, Eriko stood up, her head almost level with the kneeling ghost.  “The fuck you expect me to do, bugaboo?” she spat, “The fuck can any of us do?  Satou’s going to kill everyone he can, until all that’s left is the people smart enough to hide from him.”

The ghost lowered its head.  “You are afraid because you believe you are small.  Because you are small.

Eriko narrowed her eyes.  “Get the fuck out of here.”

You are!  You’re so small…I…” the ghost trailed off, its mandibles clicking, “I feel strange.  Since talking to you.  Almost as though…you’re the reason I exist…

Well fuck this shit.  “Nope, nope, nope nope,” Eriko said, walking out of the room, “I’m not getting involved with any kinky shit.”

As she left, she bumped into Megumi carrying a tray.  She grabbed a sweet from off the tray and crammed it in her mouth, ignoring Megumi as she walked away.  As she went around a corner, she could hear Megumi saying, “Miya, what did you do?!?

As Eriko walked without looking where she was going, her mind kept taking her back to the image of Kai helplessly dangling in Satou’s ghost’s arms…of Kai frozen with fear as Satou slowly stalked toward him.  Kai baring his throat to a monster he couldn’t even see.

We have to find Kei.  Eriko realized this with a jolt and accepted it with a disgusted expression.  She couldn’t inspire a sense of self-preservation in Kai…but Kei maybe could, even as emotionally repressed and twisted up he was.  He had to be better than some kind of messed up collision course with motherfucking Satou.

“Mom, you don’t understand, this is the only way I can protect him!”

Eriko blinked.  Kai?  Without realizing it, her feet must have taken her to the room where Kai and his mother were talking, only a door separating them.  Didn’t seem like the conversation was going well…

“I’m not letting you throw yourself to a wolf like Satou!”  Yep.  Definitely not going well.

“Mom, calm down.  The worst he can to do me is just kill me!”

Okay enough was enough.  “Kai, what the actual fuck?!” Eriko demanded, bursting into the room, “Ugh, it reeks of sake in here.  But what the fuck.  What the fuck?  Since when are you throwing your life around like a five yen coin?”

Kai, to his credit, barely even seemed surprised that Eriko was in the room.  His mother seemed equally unsurprised, though she had also donned the cool and unaffected persona she’d worn earlier, the one that betrayed no sign of her emotional outburst just moments before.  Kai however merely snapped, “If it’s for someone I love, I’d give up my life every time!”

Sensing that this could take a while, Eriko decided to sit down on the floor.  “Sure, cuz Kei’s totally gonna be thrilled when that happens.”

Kai flushed angrily.  “Kei left me behind!  He doesn’t care if I die!

“Then don’t go dying for him, dipshit!”

“Kai,” his mother interjected coolly, “How many times must we repeat this conversation?  That boy has only strung you along and taken advantage when he needed you.  As soon as he deemed you useless to him, he discarded you.”

Kai’s eyes narrowed to deadly slits.  “Oh, like you’re any better?”

A flash of emotion, quickly stifled.  “I never discarded you.”

“I dunno Mom, I’m feeling pretty discarded.  You didn’t even give me a phone number…the only family member I’ve talked to since then is Grandfather.”

Eriko sighed, and put one hand on each of their shoulders.  “I sense great emotional turmoil within you,” she said sagely, “But I don’t particularly give a fuck.  Kai, I don’t want you to die.  I don’t want Satou to keep fucking shit up.  I would like us to find a solution that encompasses both of these desires.”

Yuuki took off her glasses and pinched the bridge of her nose.  “A literal army couldn’t bring down Satou,” she said.

“Which is why my idea is the only one that can work,” Kai said, “If I can keep him distracted by chasing me, then—”

“And what will you do when he finally catches you?”

Babes,” Eriko interjected, “you’re both wrong.  The question isn’t, “what can we do to beat a fucker like Satou if an army won’t do it?”  It’s, “what kind of army can beat a fucker like Satou?””

The pendant pulsed warm around her neck.  It seemed…pleased?  Eriko pressed on.  “Picture this.  An army of motherfucking ghosts.  That’d beat even a fucker like Satou.”

Yuuki looked at her somberly.  “Perhaps, but ajins are too suspicious to ever be united under a human banner.  The price of capture is too great to inspire them to anything.”

(You do not realize what an extraordinary gift you have.)

“I’m Kei Nagai’s sister.  I can see ghosts.  I will inspire them to trust me.”

Immediately, it occurred to her that it was possible that Yuuki didn’t know that Megumi was an ajin.  Then again, maybe she knew about ghosts anyway?  She was some big yakuza boss…weren’t they supposed to know these things??  She had a tongue piercing, noticeable now that Eriko was so close.  Weren’t people with tongue piercings supposed to know things?

“Is that what you want?” Yuuki asked.

Eriko panicked.  “Did I fucking stutter?!” she demanded, blanching when she realized she cussed at a motherfucking yakuza boss two times now tonight.

But Yuuki only laughed.  “Alright,” she said, “I think you’re fucking nuts, but I can give you maybe one starting point.  I know the government keeps tabs on possible ajins, folks with sketchy medical history or unreliable witness testimony, that kind of deal.  Basically, monitoring for if anything else happens that could be confirmation.  That list might be a good place to start.”

“Right.  I’ll just pull up WikiLeaks then.”

Yuuki slung her arm amicably around Eriko’s shoulder.  “No need, I got a buddy in the business.  I mean, he’s a fucker, and I hate his guts, but technically due to family bullshit we’re still buddies.  He’s one of the scientists that works at the lab your brother broke out of…Dr. Yuji Kishi.  Awful human being.  He’s probably got that info though.”

“Now hold up a second!” Kai sputtered, “You can’t just send Eriko to a place that dangerous!”

Yuuki shrugged.  “I’m not going to fucking lock her up,” she said, “And besides, it’s not like he’s some kind of drug lord or mercenary…he’s just a lily-livered scientist.  She could probably scare him just with the power of her eyebrows.  Although…” she mused, “He is on Satou’s kill list…” she trailed off, smirking.

Kai gritted his teeth, and Eriko wanted to laugh.  “Don’t worry, Kai,” she said, “Go do whatever you need to do.  I’ll be fine on my own.”

Kai slumped down until his head was face-down on the table.  “Bringing you here was a mistaaaaaaaake,” he groaned.

They’d kept talking after that, Yuuki sharing embarrassing childhood stories about Kai, and Eriko retorting with her own.  At some point, they started drinking sake again, which was disgusting but Eriko was in the mood for it anyway.  The room started to get warm, and Yuuki loosened her austere clothing just enough that Eriko started to see glimpses of her enormous tattoos, which naturally made her pull up her shirt to show Yuuki her gnarly surgery scars, which Yuuki was properly impressed by.

Megumi joined them eventually, sitting as far away from Kai and as close to Yuuki as possible.  Kai glared at her but didn’t say anything rude.  Eriko wanted to explain to Megumi the story of how she’d been inside a ghost and its voices had gone into her eyes and her brain and when she’d woken up again she could see the black sand.  She started telling the story, but realized that at some point Megumi had ended up in Yuuki’s lap and was kissing her, and Kai was very very quickly leading Eriko out of the room.

“They’ve been in love since they were teenagers or something,” Kai said, “and now that they finally don’t give a fuck they just act like teenagers all the time.”

“You’re a teenager,” Eriko retorted.

“Doesn’t mean I want my mom acting like one.”

Having grown up with no father, and a mother who could have been upgraded by swapping her out with a rumba, Eriko found that she didn’t mind, and would have rather had a mom that acted like a teenager than a mother who didn’t act like much of anything at all.

Kai brought her to a room, telling her she could sleep there, and begging her to please reconsider her crazy idea.  Fuck that.  Kai had no room to negotiate when his plan involved kinky shit with a motherfucking monster and its ghost.  Alone in the room, Eriko told as much to the pendant around her neck.  The voices seemed a little quieter and easier to understand.  She got the sense that they were nervous, but liked this plan.  She could agree.

Chapter Text

(“Hey, wouldn’t it be fun to go to an island where no one knows who you are?”)

(Red eyes, surprised, blinking up at him.  “Why are you talking to me?”)

(“Because you look like you’re past that part by now.”)

(Setting the book down gently on the bench.  A curious expression on his face. “…not if I had to fall into the sea first.”)

 

 

(A gun in his hands, then a knife when he ran out of bullets, then his hands and teeth when the knife edge went dull.  Blood and bodies raining down in an everlasting manic moment.  A flickering candle.  Satou’s eyes on him, hooded and pleased as he stroked himself.  The blood was falling on the candle.  It was going to…)

 

 

Kai opened his eyes blearily, then awoke with a start as he noticed the ceiling.  The glow-in-the-dark stars, the smiley face scribble in crayon, the bullet hole…all weighed down on him with a nostalgia he didn’t quite know what to do with.  He settled for getting up.  The dresser was full of clean clothes, but it had been long enough that everything in it was just a little bit too small for him.  The books were exactly where he’d left them.  Even the one Kei had given him long ago.

His bare feet padded down the hall and carried him unthinkingly to his mother’s room to wake her up.  She slept sprawled over her bed, loose-limbed and snoring.  He sighed in relief.  Megumi wasn’t there.  Grinning, he threw himself over her, giggling when she awoke with a squawk.  A moment later, he was in a familiar chokehold, one of his legs trapped between his and her shoulders.  He winced.  Painful, but not unbearably so.

“Still can’t beat your mama, can ya?”

Kai rolled his eyes.  “This is hardly a fight.”  He rolled forward nonchalantly, sending his mom flying off the bed and landing with a thump on the floor.

He hung upside-down off the bed and grinned at her.  She grinned back.  “If you’re playing dirty then so am I,” she said.

“Like last night wasn’t playing dirty,” he retorted, “you and Eriko ganged up on me.”

“No one’s stopping you from self-destructing,” she said, “just your own sense of compassion.”

Kai groaned.  “Moooooom, I can handle myself.  I’ve been doing fine.  All I wanted was for you to help Eriko, not start butting into my shit.”

His mom didn’t stop grinning, but her eyes suddenly got extremely sad.  She reached forward and gently touched his bruised throat, before drifting to cup his cheek.  She looked like she wanted to say something, but after staring at him for a moment she just sighed and yanked him down into a hug.  “Why’d you have to go and grow up on me?” she said into his hair.

“Yeah…what’s up with that?  Certainly wasn’t your doing.”

“Mmmm…must’ve been your stepmama.”

Kai narrowed his eyes.  “Absence hasn’t made the heart grow fonder, Mom, I still refuse to acknowledge her as family.”

His mom stood up and stretched, joints popping.  “I acknowledge and respect that,” she said breezily, “but she’s still family to me.  Now then!” she added, walking out of the room, “Let’s go see what she and Eriko are up to…”

What they were up to, it turned out, was playing dress-up.  Hospital slippers no more, Eriko was now wearing combat boots, along with jeans and a shirt that actually fit her (hot pink, with flowers).  She’d swapped out the pigtail braids for a high ponytail.  And also…

“A leather jacket, Eri?” he asked weakly.  It had spikes on the collar.

She looked back at him and grinned wickedly.  “Ya think I should start wearing a mask too?”

He supposed it was a good thing that she was getting along with Megumi.  If he needed to bring her back here, she’d have a friend.  Then again, his mom would probably just enable her to go do some other dangerous thing he’d have to tag along on if he tried bringing her here again.

Trying to explain to his mother that Eriko was young, and hadn’t been raised to know how to handle dangerous situations like he had, and also had a heart condition, was like talking to a brick wall.  He knew a fight he couldn’t win when he saw one.

Still, as he drove the motorcycle his mother gave him down to the very facility that had held Kei captive (that had held Tanaka captive), he wondered why he was actually doing this, instead of just passing by and driving until he ran out of gas and Eriko was literally anywhere else.  Eriko’s arms tightened around his waist and he sighed.  He’d never been able to bring himself to lie to her, and what would that be if not lying?

You want to punish him.  He hurt Kei.

Kai shook his head.  They were going to go in and talk to Dr. Kishi, and then they were going to leave, and Eriko wasn’t going to be exposed to anything like that.

The guards at the front laughed at them, but Kai and Eriko were expected.  Chastised, the guards let them in, and at last they were there.  Kai could feel so many eyes on them that the feeling faded into the background, but he could tell that Eriko was starting to get anxious.  He gritted his teeth.  Even with the wardrobe change, Eriko was probably still recognizable to at least some of the people here.  It was also not impossible that someone there knew Kai not just as his mother’s son, but as Kei’s friend.

“We’re both humans,” Eriko mumbled to him, “They can’t touch us or they’re fucked.  We’re okay.”

He looked quizzically at her.  Why was she comforting him?  She rolled her eyes.  “You’re hyperventilating, dude.  Chill.  I’ve got a leather jacket.”

They got in an elevator, and Kai had a staring contest with the security camera in the corner.  After a moment’s thought, he grinned and flashed a wink at it.  It wouldn’t do for anyone watching to think that he might possibly be nervous.  The elevator stopped, and they stepped out, walking down a hallway until they reached the door to Dr. Kishi’s lab.  Kai paused.

Kai had seen a lot in his life.  He’d seen dead bodies, and the insides of dead bodies.  He’d seen bodies that had been dead for a long time.  He’d seen people being tortured.  Whatever was waiting for them in Dr. Kishi’s lab, he was sure he could take it.

He reached into his bag and put on Satou’s hat.  It made him feel intimidating.

The door opened, Kai fought back the urge to puke.  Eriko whistled.

The first thing he noticed was the bones, arranged in skeletons of varying completion.  Many of them had skulls.  They swung ominously from mounted stands, some as high as the ceiling, some low enough he could make eye contact with them.  The only light in the room came from countless monitors and TV screens, casting strange and eerie shadows through the bones.  Around them were jars filled with organs, some fully intact and others…not.  In a daze, he walked up to one, a heart that looked like if he pulled away at one end it would unravel into a ribbon.

The jar was labeled 003, along with a date.  The same day that Kei had abandoned him.  Was this Kei’s heart?  His hand was pressed against the glass before he realized it, as though his touch could make it come alive and start beating again.

An old man was sitting at a desk in the middle of the room, looking into a microscope.  The monitor nearest him was playing a video of three men torturing what could only be an ajin.  An operating table lay just beyond.  At the man’s side was a jar filled with teeth. Kai reached for Eriko’s hand absently.

“Yo doc, greet people that come to see you,” Eriko said as Kai grasped at the empty space Eriko’s hand had only just been occupying.

The old man looked up, and slowly turned around so he was facing them.  He scowled.  “So the brats are here,” he said.

“None of us are happy about that, so just give us the info we want and we’ll go,” Eriko said.

“Ah. Yes. The candidates.  Right this way.” He stood up and started walking toward a computer in the corner of the room, labcoat flaring.

Kai’s eyes drifted over the monitors lining the walls, numbly taking in the footage of humans torturing ajins on every single one.  Tanaka or Kei.  How many deaths were on the hands of the people who worked here?  How many screams had they muffled like they’d muffled their consciences?  How—he blinked.  His hands hurt.  He’d clenched his fists so tightly that he’d left crescent indents on his palms.  Dr. Kishi was saying something.

“…comparative studies on their cellular makeup and their patterns of regeneration, but 002 and 003 aren’t very good matches.”

“Uh huh, okay, fascinating.  Does this thing go any faster?”

Click.

“You young people are so impatient.  We have a very large database of candidates, and new information is being added all the time which modifies how they’re ranked.”

Kai glanced at the closed door uneasily, but the computer screen kept his attention as it finally began to display something.  “This will display all candidates.  The higher up a candidate is, the likelier it is that they are an ajin, and the higher surveillance they are under.  We’ll start with number one.  Ah, here we are.”

Kai felt like his heart had stopped.  There, on the screen, was a picture not of someone he’d never met, but a frighteningly familiar face.

Nagai, Eriko.

He was suddenly aware of how much junk was in the way between himself and Eriko, and how close Dr. Kishi was to her.  Swearing, he fought his way around boxes and skeletons as Dr. Kishi shoved Eriko backwards onto the operating table, strapping her down before she had a chance to put up a fight.  “FUCKER!” she screamed, straining at the bonds before suddenly blanching and going still, her breath becoming slow and deep.  She was trying not to faint.

“Don’t go getting any funny ideas, boy,” Dr. Kishi suddenly said, holding up a gun and pointing it at Kai, “I want you on the floor with your hands in the air.”

“You sick fuck!  We’re humans, you can’t do this!” Eriko said, eyes glued to the gun.

“A criminal and an ajin candidate?  I can do what I please,” Dr. Kishi said, his eyes wide and manic, “Even if you haven’t had a confirmed death yet, the science I can do with you…it would be better if I still had your brother, of course, but even just with the collected samples I can think of some very interesting experiments…”

A grin split his face.  “In fact…it almost might be better if you aren’t an ajin…”

For a moment, Kai lost awareness of everything except for the monitors around him, killing Kei or Tanaka in as many ways as there were screens to display them, all around him and in front of him and lurking in his peripheral vision.  The gun fired, and then was in his hands.  Kei or Tanaka was crushed into liquid.  He was emptying the cartridge into Dr. Kishi’s head.  Eriko was screaming.  They were opening up Kei or Tanaka’s chest and ripping organs out like they were picking fruit off a tree.  The gun was out of bullets, and he was swinging it into the sides of Dr. Kishi’s head like a blunt instrument.

(A boy, pressing his small hands into the glass of a window.  There were no screams, but that was only because Kouji Tanaka was gagged.  There were no screams, but that was only because Kai had learned to lie before he learned to talk.)

(Kei’s hands a gentle pressure on his waist, like a pair of butterflies.  The motorcycle rumbling below him as he took Kei away.  Kei was afraid, but he feared the unknown.  Kai was afraid.  He knew exactly what was waiting for Kei if he was captured.)

“Kai.”

A hand on his wrist, gripping tight enough that Kai dropped the gun.  “Kai.”

A hand on his other wrist.  Feeling his arms being yanked away and pressed into the wall behind his head.  His knuckles were bruised.  A pair of red eyes held his, until he felt like if they looked away he’d fall off some allegorical cliff.  “You’re making me jealous, Kai.”

He could see Eriko in the background, faintly, still strapped down to the table.  She was shouting something.  His head was too fuzzy to process it.  “J-ealous?” he asked thickly, wondering why he was shaking so much.

“I’m not sure I can keep letting you run loose like this,” the voice purred, “Stealing my kills…killing people other than me.”

Blood was dripping down his arms.  It wasn’t his.  Everything was so blurry, he couldn’t focus on anything but the eyes, which stared into him as a pair of lips covered his.  He’d say they were gentle, but they weren’t.  He yanked his hands free and wrapped them around a throat.  The lips got gentler, and then stopped moving.

At some point, Kai’s awareness of his surroundings came back to him in a rush.  The lab.  The monitors.  The bones.  Eriko on the operating table, no longer screaming but looking at him with an expression he was afraid to try to describe.  Satou.  Satou?  Satou in his lap with Kai’s hands around his throat, suffocating and coming back to life and kissing and biting him.

Kai scrambled to get away and put distance between himself and Satou, but couldn’t let nothing stand between Satou and Eriko.  Satou, still on the floor, looked up at him with a sort of lazy fondness.  “I used to think that you were a human,” he said, his expression suddenly growing feral, “but you’re not.  You’re not an ajin either.  You’re a monster.”

Chapter Text

Kai had killed people before.  Usually quickly and cleanly, but occasionally by any means necessary.  But this…was new.

(Doesn’t life matter to you?)

What had it been?  The brutal, visceral reminders of his failure? (Kei’s literal heart in a literal jar) The threat of failing again? (Eriko strapped down to the operating table) Or was it…

(You look at me like my life matters.)

(You’re a monster.)

(you’re a monster)

(you’re a monster)

Kai’s hands were red with blood, his pants stained from where he’d been kneeling in a pool of it.  Dr. Kishi’s head had been shot and bludgeoned so thoroughly that it was barely still recognizable as human.  Not that the man had had much humanity in the first place…

Satou picked the gun up from where it had been lying on the floor, tossing it between his hands.  He stood up.  His motions were slow and his eyes were cautious, like he’d been cornered by a wild animal.  “Would you do that to me?” he asked, starting to circle around Kai with firm steps.

Satou’s lips were bleeding, it made Kai’s mouth dry to notice.  Bleeding like they might scar.  He swallowed hard.  Satou smiled at the gun almost fondly, then held it out to him.  Kai immediately backed away, feeling his knees buckle under him and only just managing to catch himself on the edge of the operating table.

Satou tsked.  “Haven’t you figured out the rules of this game yet, Kai?” he asked, throwing the gun away and starting to stalk toward Kai, “If you won’t be the cat, then I’m more than happy to make you the mouse.”

Frantically, Kai tried to get his shit under control.  Realistically, he knew he had the advantage here.  The room was cluttered and afforded more opportunities for Kai to take advantage of his smaller size and greater agility.  There were all kinds of items that could make a good improvised weapon, and there was enough formaldehyde in the room for him to turn it into a bonfire if he needed to.  But his hands had gone numb, and his arms and legs felt cold and leaden.  The air filling his lungs felt like water that was drowning him, and there was a strange pressure on his chest that couldn’t just be from the weight of Satou’s eyes.

He’d slid down to the floor.  When had that happened?  Satou was looking down at him, with the morbid fascination of someone watching a struggling fly that had had its wings pulled off.  He crouched down and hooked Kai’s chin up to meet his eyes.  “Mice are supposed to run, Kai.”  Then suddenly his eyes widened, and he quickly backed up just in time to avoid Kai throwing up all over him.

Sighing, he stepped around the puddle of vomit once Kai was done, and quickly picked Kai up in his arms.  “This had better not become a habit for you,” he chided, pressing a gentle kiss to the top of Kai’s head.  Kai couldn’t remember which way to shake his head to indicate that he agreed, but he noticed that Eriko didn’t seem to be on the operating table anymore.  When had that happened?  Hadn’t she been tied down?

Because of how Satou was carrying him, Kai’s head was pressed up against Satou’s chest, his heart a slow and steady beat he could feel.  He started giggling, clutching at his stomach as Satou stared incredulously at him.  “You have a heart!” he explained between giggles, his whole body feeling like it was convulsing, “You have a heart and it isn’t in a jar like Kei’s!”

Satou responded by dunking Kai’s head under a stream of cold water.  The water went up Kai’s nose and he started to cough.  He tried to squirm away, but the arms holding him were as yielding as iron bars.  Finally, his head cleared enough that he plugged his nose and used the water to rinse out his mouth.

“That’s not something I expected you to think to deal with…” Kai said uncertainly after Satou had taken him back out of the water.

Satou frowned distastefully, shifting his grip on Kai so that they were face to face and Kai’s legs were now wrapped around his waist.  Kai raised an eyebrow.  “…I’ve seen this before,” Satou admitted reluctantly, “…it seemed…more troublesome, before.”

Something in Kai’s expression must have amused him, because he laughed.  “Don’t look so excited.  By your own weakness you’re at my mercy now.”

“I know you won’t kill me,” Kai said confidently, sticking his chin out.

“That is a less immutable fact than you seem to think it is,” Satou replied, walking forward until Kai felt the wall pressing against his back.  “Now tell me, Kai,” he added with a smirk, “what happens when the cat catches the mouse?”

Where was Eriko?  Had Satou done something?  He couldn’t have, he’d been preoccupied.  Dr. Kishi?  Too dead.  Satou’s shadow?  Fuck…  “The mouse…who is very clever…” Kai said, glancing around the room, “naturally finds a way to escape and returns to his family.”

Satou laughed, a deep rumbling laugh that Kai could feel where their chests were pressed together.  “Oh Kai,” he said fondly, shaking his head and leaning in to mouth at Kai’s throat, “the mouse gets devoured.”

Oh fuck.  The wall behind him kept Kai from doing any counterbalancing moves to get down, and Satou had a steely grip on his thighs that kept him from doing much more than futilely kicking at Satou’s legs.  Wincing as Satou sank his teeth into Kai’s shoulder and sucked on the bite, he decided he’d have to make Satou drop him.

Cuffing Satou’s ears seemed like a good place to start, since bursting his eardrums would either unbalance him enough that Kai could get away, or distract him enough that Kai could land another hit easily.  But when Kai did it, Satou just laughed like he’d been expecting it, and said, “There you are!”  Before Kai could recover from his surprise, Satou had hauled him up so he was now sitting on Satou’s shoulders.  This was a shitty angle to hit Satou’s face from, but he tried anyway, feeling Satou’s rumbling and numbing laugh vibrating between his legs.

He’d just decided he was going to try rolling forward and over Satou’s head, risk of head injury be damned, when he heard the faint sound of something unzipping, and then suddenly his cock was out and Satou’s mouth was on it.  Kai choked, and scrambled to find something to grab onto, Satou’s hair being too damned short.  “Wh-what are you doing?” he gasped, squinting his eyes shut as Satou sucked, and this was nothing like when he and Satou’s shadow had fucked.

Satou hummed thoughtfully around him, and Kai felt like he was having a seizure.  He tried pushing away, but a delicate warning from Satou’s teeth stopped that plan in its tracks.  Powerlessly, Kai leaned his head back into the wall, his hands still uselessly grabbing at Satou’s hair.  Satou pulled back enough to smirk, licking the head and saying menacingly, “I’m doing just what I said I would do, Kai,” and there it was now Kai couldn’t move.  Couldn’t struggle, couldn’t say anything, couldn’t do anything but helplessly buck his hips as he felt his body coil tighter and tighter.

The monitors were still playing videos.  The bones still swung ominously, and the jars still gleamed in the light from the screens.  Damning evidence of the atrocities this lab was responsible for.  How many of these body parts were Kei’s?  “Does it feel good, Kai?” Satou asked, and Kai could only nod.

“Who’s making you feel like this?” Satou demanded, becoming more aggressive with his mouth until Kai had trouble even stringing a simple sentence together.

“It’s you, Satou!” Kai gasped, and then he couldn’t think at all.

.

He was cold.  His shirt was off and there was something cold on his skin.  Water?  No, it wasn’t wet.  He tried to touch it, but he couldn’t move his arms.  He couldn’t move his legs either.  He was looking at the ceiling, and it was hard to lift his head to look in another direction.  Satou stood over him, smiling.  A pen was in his hand.

After a moment’s pause, Satou uncapped the pen and started dragging it across Kai’s bare skin.  It tickled.  “What are you doing?” Kai asked uneasily.

Satou didn’t look up from what he was doing.  “It’s fun to just tear into someone haphazardly, with no plan or restraint,” he said cheerfully.  “It made me really happy when you did that to me.  But!” he added, drawing a swooping line across Kai’s chest, “I have to be more careful with you.  Like you’ve said, I don’t want to kill you.”

The operating table.  He was on the operating table.

Satou capped the pen and tossed it aside.  “It’s very troublesome, needing to be the responsible one,” he bemoaned.

“Satou, what are you doing?” Kai asked, forcing his voice to sound calm.

Satou smiled and pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the fluttering pulse point in Kai’s throat, making Kai’s toes curl despite himself.  “I’m keeping my promise,” he said, “Remember?  I told you that I would open you up so you could look at your heart while it’s still beating?”

Kai yanked at the restraints binding him, but to no avail.  They had not yielded for countless ajin deaths…of course they wouldn’t yield for him.  Satou chuckled.  “Now, now, I know you’re nervous,” he said, “It is your first time, after all.  I hadn’t meant to do this so soon, but…” he gestured to the room around them, “it would really be a shame not to take advantage of this place.”

He ran his finger along Kai’s torso, presumably along the lines he’d drawn, then reached over and grabbed a scalpel.  “Don’t worry,” he soothed, gently pressing the blade into Kai’s skin, “It’ll hurt at first, but then it’ll feel good, and then you’ll be begging me to do it again and again.”

Hadn’t Takeshi kissed him there? Kai found himself wondering as the blade sliced through his skin.

Satou stopped after only making a short incision, licking up the welling blood and pressing kisses into the wound as he went.

As Satou kept cutting, Kai found himself thinking of a small candle, flickering in the dark.  Blood was raining down on it, but it hadn’t gone out yet.  The flame, though small, was still clear and bright, with a white core that Kai focused on to the exclusion of everything else.

White flame.

Белое пламя

Flamma alba.

白い炎

Flamme blanche

He was being held.  He wasn’t being held by hands.  He couldn’t see anything holding him.  He was outside.  There were bandages on his stomach.  No one was around.

You are safe,” a voice chittered, “Eriko was able to call us for help, and we rescued you.

Oh.  Well, that was probably good.

Chapter Text

Kai woke up again in his bed, underneath the glow-in-the-dark stars he’d put on his ceiling when he was nine or so.  The blankets were warm and soft, and the room was quiet.  The pain running up his stomach to about his breastbone was excruciating.

Crunch.

He tried to sit up, but the pain was intense enough that he opted instead to turn his head to the side.  “Eri…” he said weakly, feeling his whole body relax as he took in the sight of her sitting by his bed, safe, safe, eating apple slices she was dipping in a jar of mayonnaise.

She swallowed the bite of apple she’d just taken, and reached over to the bedside table to pick up a bottle of pills.  “Morphine?” she asked dryly, shaking the bottle.

“I want a fucking cigarette,” he said, managing to lift his head a few inches.

“Negative.  You’re barely stitched together as it is…I don’t want you coughing so hard your damned guts fall out.”

He let his head fall back on the pillow and sighed.  Slowly, he moved his hand to rest on his stomach, feeling a sharp pain through the layers of gauze.  Satou had kissed him there, dipping his tongue inside him while insisting it would feel good.  His eyes had been dark, and overcome with…what?  Obsession?  Possessiveness?  Something that seemed like it was making him drunk.

Kai belatedly realized that his heart was beating alarmingly fast, and he felt nauseous.  He clapped his hands to his mouth and frantically breathed in through his nose, the expansion of his chest making pain radiate through his body.  “Try not to puke,” Eriko said, “that might open up your stitches too.”

A hand was suddenly holding his, gently pulling it away from his mouth and squeezing.  “Kai,” Eriko said softly, and Kai felt tears falling down his cheeks, “You’re in your mother’s house.  We went to the laboratory and encountered Satou yesterday.  You have a 7-inch-long laceration on your chest and stomach, closed up by 19 stitches.”

Kai let out a shaky breath and very carefully counted to twenty.  He ran his fingers over his lips, which were tender and sore.  He squeezed Eriko’s hand.  “I’m in over my head, Eri,” he said quietly.

Eriko snorted.  “No shit.”

Leaning back, she grabbed another apple slice, throwing it into the air beside her.  It disappeared with a faint crunching sound and some chittering.  “No more, Eriko,” a voice said, “Save some of those for Kai.

Kai hummed thoughtfully.  “Eriko?” he asked carefully, eyes wide, “what the fuck is that?”

Eriko reached over and petted something he couldn’t see.  “This is Miya,” she said, “Megumi’s ghost.  She carried you back here.”

That voice.  The things that weren’t hands carrying him away.  “Megumi’s an ajin?” he asked weakly.

“I’m surprised you never noticed, given how observant you always were,” Megumi said smoothly, striding into the room, “But I suppose it’s to be expected considering how thoroughly you avoided me.”

Kai immediately rolled onto his side away from her, regretting it when the motion caused a wave of pain that ran all the way down to his toes.  “Get out,” he said into his pillow.

He couldn’t see, but he could visualize the way she was raising an eyebrow right now, and it made him want run out of the room and knock something over and go ride his motorcycle until he’d gotten far enough away from everything that he could just tilt his head back and s c r e a m.  This probably didn’t really warrant that kind of a response, but he couldn’t help how he felt.

“You don’t have any questions for me?” she asked.

“Whatever.  You’re an ajin.  I don’t care.  Get out.”

He could imagine her reaching out to touch him now, like she always had, and awkwardly stopping short just before she did, her hand fluttering uselessly.  He heard Eriko conspicuously chewing her apple slices.  “Guys, Miya’s getting uncomfortable,” she said, quite obviously still chewing, “Kai, Megumi’s the one that stitched you up.  She’s here to change your bandages.  Do you think you can pretend you don’t hate her for just a few minutes?”

Kai gritted his teeth.  “Fine,” he said, rolling back onto his back.

The motion pulled his skin and it was painful.

Red eyes glittered above him.

A hand held something sharp and metallic.

Something heavy was on his arms and legs and he Couldn’t Get Out.

His throat hurt.

He was screaming.

ItwillfeelgooditwillfeelgooditwillfeelgoodyouwillbegmetodoitagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandagainandHands were gently cupping his face.  “Kai, you’re safe here.  You’re safe.”

Golden eyes filled his field of vision and he was so overwhelmed that he closed his own, clenching the blankets in his fists as he tried to take stock of his body again.  “I’m sorry, Mom,” he said hoarsely, feeling his shoulders shake and trying to make them stop.

“My son,” his mother whispered, kissing his cheeks and pressing their foreheads together, “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

“This was all my fault!” he sobbed, lifting his trembling hands up to clutch at his mother’s hair, “I deserved this! I baited him! I teased him! I challenged him! I was stupid stupid stupid so stupid.”  His voice lowered until it was barely audible.  “Stupid to think I could win.”

His mother pulled back to look at him, her eyes blazing like twin suns.  “Yes you were stupid,” she agreed, “but not to think you could win.”

Kai’s words were stuck in his throat, only unintelligible sounds escaped.  “Satou has been allowed to go unchecked for too long,” she said forcefully, “We will raise whatever army we need to to destroy him.  This is our declaration of war.”

She leaned in and kissed his forehead.  “I will never let a monster like that hurt you again.”  Kai flinched.

Why was no one talking about what he’d done?

His mother changed the bandages, and Kai drifted back to sleep.  He was sure that Megumi would want to come back and talk to him, and he refused to interact with her right now.  Even when he woke up, he didn’t open his eyes, keeping them shut until he fell asleep again.

He deserved the nightmares.

When Kai finally opened his eyes again, it was because of a feeling in his tongue and the roof of his mouth, warm and electric.  Moonlight slanted through the room, the stars on his ceiling glowing dimly.  Eriko stood a few yards from the bed, back to him, arms out like she was blocking something.

…Kai…Kai was hurt…we hurt Kai

Immediately, Kai sat bolt upright, ignoring the pain that sliced through him.  Eriko didn’t so much as flinch.  “Not one fucking step closer, Ghosty,” she said.

…we hurt Kai…we hurt Kai…we hurt Kai…” Satou’s shadow wailed, “…we didn’t want to but we couldn’t do anything…we had to protect Eriko like Kai asked…we didn’t…we didn’t…we didn’t…

“Shadow?” Kai asked quietly, and Eriko immediately turned to meet his eyes.  She was fiddling with the pendant she always wore, the pendant that she said had a piece of a shadow in it.

…we’re sorry Kai!  We’re sorry!  We hurt you!”  It sounded like it was crying.

Kai sighed.  “Come here, Shadow.”

Eriko threw her arms up in the air exasperatedly, and Kai heard the shadow bounding towards him, before a sound that could only be the shadow falling to its knees.  The shadow nuzzled his stomach, gentle enough that somehow it didn’t hurt.  “…we did this…” it said sadly, “…we left Kai alone instead of Eriko and then we did this…

Slowly, Kai lifted his hand to pet the shadow’s head.  It leaned into his touch and cried.  “Did you help Eriko?” he asked, looking up at Eriko curiously.

Eriko sighed.  “I’d’ve still been on the operating table if it wasn’t for Ghosty here,” she said, “it just sort of materialized and carried me out of the building.  The fucker wouldn’t put me down until Megumi and Miya showed up.”

Kai smiled.  “Good boy,” he said fondly, giving the shadow a scratch, “you did exactly what you were supposed to do.  Thank you.”

But we hurt you!” the shadow wailed.

Kai shook his head.  “Satou hurt me…not you.”

The shadow went still and silent, so much so that if it weren’t for the solid feel of it under his hand Kai would think it had disappeared.  Then…slowly…like the words were coming up from the bottoms of its feet, it said, “…that’s…we’re…we……HE DID THIS.  It wasn’t us.  It was him.”  Then it started crying again.

After a minute of this, Eriko cleared her throat.  “It followed us here,” she said, “it’s been lying beside the door like a fucking dog, crying for you.”  She sighed.  “I think Miya’s the one that let it in.”

Kai smiled.  “It’s okay,” he said, “it won’t hurt me.  Thanks for looking out for me, but you can go back to bed now if you want.”

She raised her eyebrows up past her bangs and sighed.  “Okay,” she said, shaking her head, “whatever.  I’m too tired for this shit.”

As Eriko stomped out of the room, the shadow rested its head in Kai’s lap.  Kai tried to lean down and kiss it, but the motion hurt too much.  He sighed.  There was no way he was falling asleep right now.

“Shadow,” he said gently, “Can you go get me a book from the shelf over there?”

The weight in his lap lifted, and Kai reached over to turn on the lamp.  A few moments later, a floating copy of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo came into his field of vision.  He smiled and took it in his hands, running his fingers fondly over its dog-eared pages.  “Why did you choose this one?” he asked.

…seemed like Kai…loved it very much…

He found himself smiling shyly, ducking his head down.  “Yes, well…” he said, “Kei gave this to me when we were kids.”

He heard the shadow lying down on the floor, one of its limbs or maybe its head nudging the bedside table slightly.  “You love Kei,” it said, no question in its voice.

Kai drummed his fingers on the book.  “No one loves just one person or thing,” he said, “I love Kei, and my mother, and Eriko, and riding my motorcycle, and more.”

The shadow’s enormous hand closed gently around his forearm.  “…do you…do you love…” it trailed off, its hand slipping away as it grew quiet.

Kai looked down at his book, opening it to read.  He couldn’t focus.  Maybe he was too tired to be reading in French.  He could have sworn he had a Japanese copy somewhere on his shelf…

“Shadow?” he asked, closing the book and putting it down, “Did you see what I did to Dr. Kishi?  The man in the labcoat, I mean.”

A curious noise.  “…Kai…you…hit him…there was blood…he stopped moving.  Did he die?

“I killed him,” Kai said, and it felt like slitting his throat.

Rustling from the floor, and then the shadow spoke again, its voice seeming closer this time.  “…is that bad?

Kai tipped his head back and closed his eyes.  “It’s…not good.  But it’s not so much that I killed him…I’ve killed people before.  But I…I didn’t have any control over this.  This was…yeah, this was bad.”

He shivered.  “I’m scared,” he said quietly, “that I might do something like that again.”  Satou was right.

The shadow licked away the tears Kai hadn’t even realized he’d been crying, whining and nuzzling his face.  “…we’re sorry…we’re sorry…” it said, and Kai threw his arms around its broad shoulders and started sobbing.

“Kiss me, shadow,” Kai gasped.

The shadow started licking at his lips, but just when he’d opened them to let it in it immediately stopped, pulling back with a jerk.  “No,” it said its voice sounding horrified, “…you don’t want…you…you’re trying to punish yourself.

It sank down and pressed its head to Kai’s knees, and Kai gritted his teeth and pounded at its shoulders, ignoring the pain in his stomach.  “Oh now you won’t do it?!” he demanded, “After all we’ve…even you won’t…”

…we don’t want to be your…punishment…” the shadow said in a small voice, and Kai’s heart felt like it stopped.

He opened his mouth weakly, but couldn’t find the words to say.  He’d always been able to look at people’s faces and then say what he needed to to make them feel what he wanted, but he couldn’t see the shadow’s face.  He couldn’t see the shadow at all.

“That’s…that’s not…fuck, just, come here,” he said, pulling back the blankets and patting the mattress next to him.

When the shadow hesitated, he tugged at its hands until it finally clambered into the bed next to him.  He didn’t bother throwing the blanket back over them…the shadow was so warm it was hardly necessary.  The shadow curled up at his side, pressing every inch that it could into him.  He guided its arms until they were wrapped around him, and though they should have made him feel trapped they made him feel safe instead.  “This okay, Shadow?” he asked in a whisper.

There was no response from the shadow for a long time, no sounds except for the mattress creaking under them and a clock ticking somewhere in the room.  Footsteps in the hall.  Ah.  Probably Eriko, skeptical of Kai’s certainty that the shadow wouldn’t hurt him.  Kai couldn’t blame her.  His judgment hadn’t exactly been the best, lately.

Our name isn’t “Shadow,”” the shadow said finally, one of its hands lowering until it rested featherlight over Kai’s stomach.  Kai didn’t dare move.  “Our name is Sam.

Kai waited for the shadow…for Sam, to say something else, but after another moment, Sam just shifted their position so that Kai’s head was now tucked against their chest.  It was warm.  After a moment, Kai opened his mouth to say something, but Sam just mumbled, “…go to sleep,” and Kai found himself unable to keep his eyes open.

He didn’t have any nightmares.

Chapter Text


0537.  Kai was still asleep, his body curled around a shape that was no longer there.  Black sand had covered him, clinging to his hair and eyelashes and the seams of his clothes.  Eriko frowned uncomfortably, trying to blow some of the stuff away from him as best she could.  Kai shifted in his sleep, and Eriko froze.  …maybe later.  She’d hate to disturb him.

“I’m worried about him,” she said to her pendant as she leaned on the door out in the hallway, “I’m afraid he’s going to shut us out.”  The voices whispered reassurances without words to her, and she tucked the pendant under her shirt where its warmth could sooth her.


0600.  Megumi and Miya were meditating in a quiet corner of the garden, and Eriko joined them, her body easily slipping into the routine despite everything that had happened the past few days.  She urged Megumi to go see Kai again.  Megumi hadn’t even gone near Kai’s room since what had happened yesterday, and Eriko tried to emphasize that the longer she put it off the worse it was going to be.  Megumi was as stubborn as Kai was, so the pleas fell on deaf ears.  Angrily, Eriko stormed off.

 

Eriko poked her head in the door as she walked past Kai’s room, noting that he hadn’t moved.  She realized she was late on her meds, and chewed the handful of pills rather than swallowing them whole.  The bitter taste in her mouth was familiar and soothing.

 

Eriko brought the laptop Kai’s mom had lent her into Kai’s room, poring over the list of names she’d gotten from the lab.  She’d only been able to see the names on the first page of results, but since those were apparently the likeliest ones to actually be ajins, that was probably fine.  Then again, her name was on the list, so maybe not.  Still, she had a list of about ten people to start with, most of whom she was able to get information on just using basic channels.  She could ask Megumi or Yuuki for more help later.

Kenji Nakahara. Makoto Inoue. Asuka Ikeda. Yoko Tainaka. Ren Nanase. Kiku Takahashi. Airi Matsuoka. Yoshirou Honda.  Tetsuro Tachibana. Kou Nakano. Tomoyo Satou. Yui Tanaka.  And then of course there was her brother.  Her hand closed around her pendant.  And Kouji Tanaka.

She chewed her thumb thoughtfully.  Most of these people lived in Tokyo.  Some of them were missing.  Finding them was going to be a huge pain in the ass…and probably they weren’t all actually ajins.  She looked over the top of the screen at Kai, still sleeping.  With Kai’s tendency to get into fights it would be best to keep him here for as long as possible while he healed.


0737. Eriko burst through the door, and sagged with relief when she saw that Kai still hadn’t moved.  Then she frowned as she looked at him a little longer.  Hands crossed over her chest, she stomped toward the bed and glared down at him.  “I know you’re fucking awake,” she snapped.

A smile slowly slid across his face.  “You’re late,” he said.

Fuck.  Already? “The fuck you talking about?” she demanded.

He opened his eyes and looked up at her through his eyelashes.  “You’ve been checking on me every so often all morning,” he said, “you want me to think you’re coming in at random times…but you’re not, are you?”

She narrowed her eyes.  “Instead of trying to provoke me to hit you,” she said coldly, “if you’re awake, why don’t you eat something?”

Kai closed his eyes again.  “Not hungry,” he said lightly.

He stopped responding to her after that, and when Eriko couldn’t stand it anymore she stormed out of the room.  Yuuki was drinking coffee downstairs, so she poured herself a cup too, stirring a few spoonfuls of miso paste into it and sipping it angrily while Yuuki pretended not to look green around the gills.

Actually, that made her feel a little better.  The voices from her pendant simmered down to faint white noise.


0807.  After finishing her coffee, Eriko had resumed work on the laptop, but the sound of running water caught her ears.  Megumi had gone out on an errand, so it was just her and Yuuki in the house.  Yuuki noticed her worried expression and smiled reassuringly at her.  “Are you worried about Kai?” she asked.  Fucking duh.  “I’ve been doing safety checks on him every couple hours since he got here,” she said, “he’s fine.”

It was a bit early for Eriko’s next check on him, but maybe it’d be good to shake up the pattern a bit, she told herself as she walked back up the stairs to his room, since the little shit had figured out her schedule al-fucking-ready.

As she approached the room, she immediately noticed that the air was damp in her lungs, and that there were visible clouds of steam wafting down the hall.  Kai wasn’t in bed.  He’d made the bed neatly, tidying up the room so that it looked like no one had been there.

She found him sitting on the floor of the shower, steam billowing around him.  His skin was bright pink and flushed, his eyes lazy and unfocused.  “I’ll be out in a few minutes,” he slurred as he saw her come in.

Eriko reached a hand in, and recoiled instantly when some of the water touched her skin.  It was scalding!  Kai smiled a lopsided smile at her, his pupils blown wide.  “It’s fine,” he said, panting between words, “I just need to get clean.”

Gritting her teeth, Eriko stuck her hand into the hot stream of water to turn it off.  The heat in the room was suffocating.  Kai’s head lolled to the side, his face contorting into something ugly.  “Turn that back on,” he muttered darkly.

At Eriko’s startled expression, he narrowed his eyes, before slowly schooling his face into a disconcertingly normal expression.  “Eriko,” he said sweetly, “Turn the water back on.  The temperature’s fine, it’s supposed to be that hot.  Otherwise I’ll get sick.”

Eriko found her hand drifting toward the shower controls without thinking.  Crying out in frustration, she turned the water back on, set as cold as it could go.  Kai yelped and fell backwards, crawling into the corner away from the stream of water.  Eriko turned the water back off and stepped into the shower, crouching down to Kai’s eye level.  “Can you stand?” she asked.

Kai responded by wrapping his arms around her and pulling her to his chest, his entire body shaking.  Even with the help of the cold water, Kai’s skin was still alarmingly warm, steam rising off it in waves.  His legs went around her, pulling her closer until it felt like she was being grappled by an octopus.  He shook and shook and shook and didn’t make a sound.

Yeah, okay, this wasn’t weird at all.

No matter what she said, he wouldn’t verbally respond, so after a little while she started calling for Miya.  Gentle efforts to separate Kai from Eriko proved fruitless, so after a few minutes of this Eriko sighed and said, “Just pick us up together.”  Kai’s hold didn’t weaken even a little as Miya picked the two of them up and carried them out of the bathroom.

Out of a lack of a better place to put him, Miya laid Kai back on his bed, which meant that she laid Eriko down on Kai’s bed too.  Not particularly pleased with this, Eriko tried to squirm away once Miya had set them down, but Kai didn’t budge.

“Don’t go,” he said in a small, broken voice.

Well fuck.  “You need to eat and drink something,” Eriko said, “you haven’t eaten since before we went to the lab.”

Silence.  Eriko willed herself to be patient.  Miya chittered anxiously.

“I’m afraid it’s all going to taste like blood,” Kai said.

Eriko sighed.  “Okay, I get it.  Does cuddling me or whatever the fuck you call this help you feel better?”

A nod.  Eriko groaned.  “Okay, here’s the deal.  Let go, and drink something.  Let me help you get dry and get your bandages back on.  Then I’ll stay and cuddle with you or what the fuck ever.”

I will go get the required materials,” Miya said, and Eriko was grateful that there was at least someone sane around here.

As Miya walked away, Eriko felt Kai’s grip slowly coming undone, and as soon as she could she rolled away, gasping for breath.  “Shit dude, you’re like a furnace, I’m dying,” she groaned, pressing her sweaty bangs away from her face.

Kai sat up, running his fingers up and down the puckered skin around his wound as if he was in a trance.  Eriko sighed.  “Hey, hey,” she said, and his head turned robotically toward her.  She pulled her shirt up enough to expose some of her surgery scars and grinned. “Welcome to the club.”

Kai drank two glasses of water and one glass of juice.  After a great deal of coaxing Eriko managed to get him to eat a small amount of rice.  With Miya supervising, Eriko carefully dried off the skin around his wound and reapplied the bandages along with some disinfectant.  Miya assured her she’d done it exactly right, and opened the windows to let some cool air in once Kai was completely dry.

The breeze felt nice on Eriko’s skin, and made the second round of Kai clinging to her like an octopus a little more bearable.  She focused on keeping her breaths deep and even, and eventually Kai started mirroring her.  After Kai seemed a bit calmer, Eriko let her eyes close and decided that, fuck it, she’d barely slept at all last night, she might as well take the opportunities that came to her and sleep.


1526.  Eriko woke up to see Kai sitting up in bed beside her, reading a book.  As she stirred, his eyes dropped down toward her, and he smiled, closing the book and setting it aside.  “Sleep well?” he asked.

“As well as can be expected when serving as a living teddy bear,” she retorted.

An embarrassed look flashed across Kai’s face.  “…yeah…sorry,” he said, “I’m sorry you had to see that.  I think I got it all out of my system though, thank you,” he added with an impossibly fond smile.  He leaned down and gently kissed her cheek.

Eriko reached up and caught Kai’s face in her hands, squishing his cheeks.  There was no point in calling him out on the lie.  She sighed.  “Remember that I care about you, dumbass.”

Kai grinned, and shifted to lie down next to her, their noses almost touching.  “Say,” he said quietly, “you end up getting any names from the lab?”

“No,” Eriko lied.

Kai blew air in her face.  “Liar,” he accused, and they both started giggling.

A little while later, they both went downstairs for dinner.  Kai was…completely civil with Megumi.  He curiously asked where she’d been all day, and she tiredly recounted that she’d been in Tokyo.  There’d been a terrorist attack at Forge Security, and everything was utter chaos.  The police force alone had taken enormous casualties, and the head of the company had been assassinated.

Kai took a delicate sip of soup.  “Wasn’t Keichi Kai one of Satou’s eleven targets?”

Eriko took advantage of the awkward silence to pour some of the soda she was drinking onto her rice.  Finally Megumi nodded and said, “Yes.  He’s…working through them quite quickly.”

Kai nodded, then changed the subject to something yakuza business related that Eriko didn’t bother trying to follow.  The soda-rice mixture in her bowl was plenty distracting for her anyway.

Eriko should have known better, but the comforting family-type atmosphere around the dinner table, combined with the boring conversation, had her falling asleep right there.  Miya ended up carrying her to bed, tucking her in and running her serrated arm gently through Eriko’s hair.  Eriko only barely remembered to take her meds, falling asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.


0100. Eriko awoke with a start, the voices in her pendant all whispering frantically.  She felt cold.

Already knowing in her heart what she was going to find, she walked down the hall to Kai’s room to find it completely empty.  His bag was gone, and when she went down to the garage the motorcycle had been taken.

Kai was gone.

Chapter Text

She found herself wondering, as the blood trickled down his arm to her hand, if this is what ajins felt like, the first time they came back to life.

She’d woken up that morning with the certainty that she would die.  It hadn’t been a particularly sad certainty…she’d cut her ties with anyone who might have cared about her long ago, and the corrupt life she’d sold herself to had no fond memories for her.  Really, it was a relief more than anything else.  She’d canceled all her subscriptions with relish and given the keys back to her landlord.

It was a nice thought, to serve as a sacrifice for the sake of everyone Satou would hurt if he wasn’t stopped.

It was a nice thought to think that someone she had hurt so unforgivably much would be the one to kill her.

His hand tightened around hers.  She’d been meant to die.  She’d closed her eyes in that hallway and known she would die.  But she hadn’t.

Mr. Tanaka’s hand was slippery with blood but still warm and firm, tugging her along even as her steps were as wobbly and wavering as a toddler’s.  The bullet wound glared angrily back at her from his shoulder.  “You’re hurt,” she said quietly.

Mr. Tanaka looked back at her and blinked owlishly.  Then, slowly, his eyes dropped down to his shoulder, where they widened in surprise.  “Right,” he said, and dismissed the thought, looking back ahead and showing no signs of slowing down.  Didn’t it hurt???  She’d scraped her knuckles earlier, and even though they’d stopped bleeding just a small wound like that was throbbing reminders of pain every time air brushed over it.

They kept moving.  “Wait!” she said, digging her heels into the ground, “you’re losing too much blood…we need to at least stop the bleeding before we run into someone else.”

“Do you know how?”

She stifled a shiver at the honest curiosity in his voice.  “There’s a bathroom around the corner,” she said, “I’m no EMT, but there’s a first aid kit in there.”

Mr. Tanaka clenched one fist, then the hand holding hers.  His grip was still firm, but it was slick, and definitely looser than it had been.  He nodded.  “Okay, be quick.”

Kneeling on the tile floor and putting on gloves, she knew that she should be elevating the wound and providing as much pressure as she could while keeping the limb from exerting itself.  Too bad that wasn’t possible given their current circumstances.  Still, she could at least wrap a lot of gauze around it and hopefully slow the bleeding some.  They needed a doctor.  Did she know a doctor?  Mr. Tanaka’s face had been all over the news recently and there certainly wasn’t anyone in the greater Tokyo area that wouldn’t immediately recognize it.

“So…you must be very important to Mr. Satou…” she said in an attempt to make conversation, “for him to agree not to kill me just because you said so…”

He tensed, before throwing his head back and barking out laughter that shook his body so much that the roll of gauze fell out of her hand.  Alarmed, she crawled around to get a better look at his face as his laughter took on a more manic tone.  His eyes were wide, and tears were streaming from them.  “Me?  Important to him?” he asked incredulously, staring up at the ceiling, “Miss Li, he didn’t fight me because I’d be a boring fight.  He already knows he’d win, so there’s no point.  He didn’t kill you because he’s already gotten bored of this.”

His hair had gotten mussed up under the hat, sticking out wildly in all directions.  He rocked back onto his ankles and sighed, his eyes glazing over.  Without thinking, Naomi reached out and tried to fix his hair with her fingers, wincing when she only made it worse.  His eyes snapped down toward hers, wide and unsure.  She swallowed.  “I wish there was somewhere I could take you,” she said quietly, “where you didn’t have to fight anymore.”

He blinked, and looked down at his bandaged shoulder, then back at her.  His eyes were two candle flames, and they hurt her eyes to look at for too long.  Her gaze dropped to the floor.  “We should probably keep going,” she said, “before someone finds us.”

“No one’s looking for us,” he said sharply, reaching down and yanking her hand up.

Naomi’s eyes widened as he clumsily spread a bandaid over her scraped knuckles, his face the picture of intense concentration.  Then he took a shaky breath and closed his eyes.  “I’m really doing this,” he muttered, carefully holding Naomi’s hand with both of his.

Naomi swallowed hard.  Her eyes fell to the scissors tucked away in the first aid kit.  “If you killed me now,” she said, picking them up and pointing them at her chest, “could you go back to them?”

Mr. Tanaka yanked them out of her hand with a feral snarl, his grip on them so tight his knuckles went white.  “Does it matter?!” he growled, his voice making her freeze.

They sat there silently for a moment, Mr. Tanaka panting heavily.  A stray strand of hair fell into his eyes.  Naomi watched wide-eyed as he slammed his fist into the floor, and stood up, angrily pacing in circles around her while tearing at his hair with noises of frustration.

Naomi felt tears welling up in her eyes.  “Why did you save me?” she asked quietly enough that she was certain he wouldn’t hear.

He stopped short, staring at her with wild eyes.  He pointed at her with an accusatory finger.  “That’s why I saved you.”  He pointed at her again with the scissors.  “That’s why I saved you.”  He gestured wildly at his bandaged shoulder.  “That’s why I saved you!”  He abruptly dropped to all fours and crawled toward her, his face mere inches from her own, his lips parted in a manic grin.  He lifted up her bandaged hand, running his thumb over the knuckles with a discordant gentleness.  “That’s why I saved you,” he said softly, before a lock of hair fell into his eyes again.  “AAAAAHHHRGH!” he screamed, his voice causing her to recoil sharply.  Without any hesitation, he lifted the scissors up and cut the lock of hair off.

Staring at the scissors with wild eyes, he started laughing, cutting lock after lock of hair off while tears streamed down his face.  Clumps of hair fell to the floor like dead leaves until he abruptly stopped, gasping for breath and standing there with the scissors.  He looked like an animal with mange.

Naomi Li hadn’t laughed more than a handful of times in the past few years, and not at all within the past few months.  That’s why when she started laughing, she almost didn’t recognize the sound.  Her body felt light.  “Do you want some help?” she gasped out between the peals of laughter.

Mr. Tanaka looked at himself in the mirror and yelped, running his fingers through his hair helplessly.  He handed her the scissors.  “Please…”

He sat cross-legged on the floor, while Naomi knelt behind him, smoothing out the haphazard haircut he’d given himself.  She was no hairdresser, and the scissors weren’t exactly meant for this, but at least she was able to get the hair to almost all the same length.  It was short.  Very short.  Looking at his reflection though, she mused that it made him look younger.

She ran her fingers through it, fluffing it up.  He closed his eyes and tipped his head back to rest on her chest.  “That’s why I saved you,” he said, his voice a deep rumble in her chest.  It made her feel warm.

She looked at her own reflected face, small and frightened under the fluorescent lights in the bathroom.  But smiling.  A wild thought occurred to her.  Slowly, deliberately, she undid her hair from the bun she’d put it in that morning, when she’d known she would die.  She handed the scissors to Mr. Tanaka.  “Cut my hair too,” she said, seeing something wild spark in her eyes just like in Mr. Tanaka’s.

He looked up at her with a confused expression.  “But it…why?”

“Fresh start.  I only kept it this long because my boss made me, anyway.”

After a long, pregnant pause, he slowly turned around, and cut a single lock of hair.  When Naomi didn’t tell him to stop, he kept going, steadily getting faster until hair was flying everywhere and both of them were giggling.  When he was done, Naomi surveyed his handiwork.  It looked absolutely horrendous.  She loved it.

They ran out of the bathroom and made their way out of the building, mercifully encountering very few people on their way down.  The ones they did encounter were easy to hide from.  Everyone must be dead, or wherever Satou was.  Outside the building was a different story, with swarms of police and medics and reporters and civilians crowding around and making it both easy and impossible to escape.

Mr. Tanaka’s police uniform helped part the crowd, and soon he’d yanked them into an alley, the noises from the crime scene muffled by the surrounding buildings.  Naomi felt herself breathing easier, but Mr. Tanaka’s shoulders remained tense and his face was agitated.  Some loose litter rustled in the wind.

“We need to get out of the city,” she said quietly.  Mr. Tanaka stiffly nodded.  Suddenly, he went rigid, yanking Naomi behind him and holding up the gun.  “What’s wrong?” Naomi asked in a whisper.

“It’s not over,” he grunted.

“Mr. Tanaka?” a voice asked.

Wide-eyed, Naomi peeked around Mr. Tanaka’s broad back and saw a man with a cane, his face and features soft but his eyes sharp.  Naomi immediately disliked him.  From the way he narrowed his eyes at her, the feeling was mutual.  “Just back away, Okuyama!” Mr. Tanaka barked.

Mr. Okuyama pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.  “What are you doing?” he asked tiredly, gesturing at Naomi, “What is this?  Are you bringing her back with us?”

Mr. Tanaka’s hand was shaking.  He’d switched so that he was holding her with his good hand, leaving the weak hand to hold the gun.  Naomi frowned tightly.  “Mr. Tanaka,” she whispered, reaching forward to take the gun in her own hand, “your shoulder.”

Mr. Okuyama’s eyes narrowed to slits, eyeing the bandages on Mr. Tanaka’s shoulder.  “What is the meaning of this?” he asked, his voice curious and strange, “why didn’t you just reset?”

Naomi blinked.  It hadn’t even occurred to her, but of course, Mr. Tanaka’s wound would have healed if he’d killed himself.  She looked up at his face with wide eyes.  Mr. Tanaka was flushed with anger or embarrassment, or some combination of the two.  He gritted his teeth.  “I’m. fine,” he ground out.  He tugged the gun away from Naomi.  “Miss Li, get behind me.”

Naomi’s mouth flattened, and she kept her hold on the gun.  “I know how to use this,” she said firmly.

“She’s probably a better shot than you, Mr. Tanaka,” Mr. Okuyama said wryly.  Mr. Tanaka scowled and let go of the gun, his arm falling to his side.

Mr. Okuyama sighed.  “That really isn’t necessary,” he said, holding his hands up beseechingly, “I have no intentions of stopping you.”

Mr. Tanaka immediately relaxed, but Naomi kept the gun up.  “Come with us, Mr. Okuyama,” Mr. Tanaka said, his eyes bright, “You’ve got to be able to see that Satou is crazy.”

Mr. Okuyama blinked, and his face relaxed into a smile, his eyes shining with something halfway to fondness.  “I knew you’d leave once you realized,” he said quietly, “but I’ve known since the beginning.”

Mr. Tanaka’s face fell.  Naomi suppressed the vain thought that this was somehow her fault.  She squeezed his hand and rubbed her thumb over his knuckles, not knowing what to say.  He took a deep breath.  “I don’t understand…” he said with a broken voice.

Mr. Okuyama shook his head and chuckled slightly.  “You wouldn’t.”

Naomi lifted her chin and stared at him.  “So you’re letting us go?” she demanded, willing her knees not to shake.

Mr. Okuyama shrugged.  “I guess,” he said, “Just this once.”

Mr. Tanaka lowered his eyes.  “Thanks, Okuyama.”

“Try to fix your shooting stance before I see you again…I want to be able to take you seriously as an enemy.”

They stared at each other for a moment, none of them moving.  Finally, Mr. Okuyama sighed, his face resuming a flat expression.  “Well, I’m heading back,” he said, walking away.  Over his shoulder, he added, “I’d take cover if I were you.”

Suddenly Naomi was aware of Mr. Tanaka barreling into her, knocking them both to the ground as a gunshot went off.  Up above them, standing on the roof of one of the buildings lining the alley, Naomi could see a man.  She wrenched her hand up and shot.  She absolutely wasn’t going to let Mr. Tanaka be shot at like a fish in a barrel.

From above, she heard the man yell out in pain.  “TANAKAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!” he cried, and suddenly a monster with enormous hands was falling down toward them, landing on the ground about ten feet away.  It blocked the way out of the alley.

Mr. Tanaka was pulling her up.  “Run!” he shouted, leading them deeper into the alley, bullets at their heels and the monster in pursuit.

“Shouldn’t you have your own?!” Naomi cried, resisting the temptation to reach back and shoot at it.

Mr. Tanaka shook his head.  “Not until tomorrow,” he said, “all we can do now is run.”

“TRAITOR!!” the man shouted, bullets raining down all around them.

“Fucking Takahashi,” Mr. Tanaka swore under his breath, abruptly yanking Naomi out of the way of a monstrous fist.

“One of your friends?” Naomi asked tightly, reaching up to fire another shot at the shooter.

Mr. Tanaka chuckled darkly.  “Not anymore.”

Naomi had woken up that morning and known she would die.  The borrowed time between Mr. Tanaka deciding to spare her and this moment right now slipped through her fingers like sand.  The alley was a dead end.  There was nowhere for them to go.  She looked up at the charging monster, at the shooter, at Mr. Tanaka’s wild eyes, and smiled bitterly.  “You should leave me behind,” she murmured, squaring up with the gun, “if I distract it you might be able to escape.”

Mr. Tanaka responded by shoving her into the wall and bracketing her in with his arms, shielding her from the monster’s claws with his own body.  Blood sprayed as the claws raked across his back, but he only gritted his teeth.  “Mr. Tanaka!” Naomi shrieked, horrified.

“Get down!” he shouted, pulling her to the ground and curling into a ball around her as Mr. Takahashi shot at them again.

Mr. Tanaka slumped over her for a moment.  Naomi shut her eyes.  She couldn’t bear watching him come back to life again.  “Please, stop,” she whispered, tears streaming down her face, “just go.”

“What’s the point of being able to die if I can’t protect people who can’t?” he asked, his voice frantic, “Why else am I alive?”

This was it, Naomi thought in horror, this was when she died, and Mr. Tanaka was dragged back to people who would hurt him.  She reached around Mr. Tanaka’s back and fired the gun uselessly, crying as the bullets bounced off the monster’s body, until finally the gun was empty.  “I wish you’d killed me earlier,” she sobbed, clutching at his shoulders.  The monster crouched, ready to spring.

“I don’t,” Mr. Tanaka said simply.

The monster leapt forward, and Naomi flinched away, squinting her eyes shut.  She selfishly hoped it would kill her quickly.

Shhhhhh.

Naomi kept breathing.  Her heart kept beating.  Tanaka remained curled around her, his whole body braced for impact.  For a moment, there was absolute silence.  What had happened?

She opened her eyes, and saw wings.

From above, Mr. Takahashi cried out in outrage, firing his gun manically at them.  A wing shifted to cover them, the bullets harmlessly deflecting away.  Mr. Tanaka’s eyes were wide, jaw dropped.  “Kotobuki?” he said incredulously.

Tanaka?” the monster with wings asked, equally incredulously, swiping Mr. Takahashi’s monster away with its other wing.  “I didn’t recognize you.

Mr. Takahashi’s monster had lost one of its arms, something like ash leaking out of the gaping wound.  Like it was dissolving.  “Decided to stop hiding in jail, huh?” Mr. Tanaka said, a feral grin spreading across his face, “What happened?  Decided to join Kei Nagai’s little club?”

Hardly,” the monster said derisively.

With another swipe of its wing, it crushed Mr. Takahashi’s monster’s head, and the entire thing dissolved into ash.  It spread its wings wide, filling the alley with them and blocking out the sun, before bringing them down and soaring up into the air, creating a gust of wind that would have knocked Naomi over if she hadn’t already been on the ground.  The monster flew up to Takahashi, who was fleeing across the roofs overhead.

No sooner had the monster taken off then Mr. Tanaka had stood up, lifting Naomi up with him as they ran once again.  “What are you doing?” Naomi asked, looking up at the monster with wings with no small amount of awe, “shouldn’t we stay with him?”

“I can’t trust that he won’t hurt you once he realizes who you are,” Mr. Tanaka said shortly, “I said I’d get you out of here, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

This time, they ran and didn’t stop running.  Naomi watched the back of Mr. Tanaka’s shirt flutter, the ragged claw marks left by Mr. Takahashi’s monster only showing clean, unbroken skin.  The bandages were still on his shoulder, useless now.  His hair was still short.

She fought back a smile.  So was hers.

They reached a train station, Naomi somehow having enough change in her pocket to buy them both tickets, and they collapsed in one of the seats as they left Tokyo behind.  Being before rush hour, the train was mostly empty, and Naomi could see Mr. Tanaka beginning to relax, though his eyes were still suspicious.

What on earth were they going to do now?

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Tanaka said, and Naomi jumped.

“For what?” she asked.

He looked out the window, his expression softening.  “You didn’t get to say goodbye to anyone.”

Naomi blinked.  What?  He actually thought…a person like her…

She couldn’t help it.  She started giggling.  Mr. Tanaka seemed taken aback.  “What’s so funny?!” he sputtered.

Something inside her had come untwisted, just a little bit.  A tension in her shoulders was lighter, her heart felt like it could pound just a little more freely against her ribs.  “I’m sorry,” she said, gasping for air, fighting and failing to stop giggling, “it’s just that I don’t have anyone to say goodbye to.”

Naomi Li had woken up that morning with the certainty that she would die.  But she was alive.  And for the first time in years she wondered if perhaps that was a good thing.

Chapter Text

All Nori had wanted was a quiet afternoon in the park, practicing baseball with Kenji like they always did after school.  The bat shifted in his bag as he shifted uncomfortably on the bench, glancing over his shoulder for the umpteenth time at the source of his discomfort.

The boy leaned against a motorcycle like an anime character, his face bruised and scarred.  His hair was dyed, and he had a piercing.  He held a large duffel bag tightly to his stomach, no doubt filled with baseball bats and batons and knifes and maybe even a gun.  The dark expression on his face was absolutely murderous.  No one was within about thirty feet of the guy, wisely choosing to give him a wide berth as they walked into the park.  No one except for Kenji, who had walked right into the no-fly zone and sat down nonchalantly at their usual bench like he had no fear of death.  Nori shifted uncomfortably.  Technically, he supposed, Kenji didn’t.

None of this would have been so bad, Nori conceded.  They saw dangerous-looking types on the bus or the subway or even at the convenience store all the time.  Generally, it was just a little nerve-wracking, and then it was over.  He glanced nervously at Kenji, who was playing with his phone without a care in the world.  Unbidden, his eyes uneasily drifted back towards the boy.  This wouldn’t be so bad, except that the boy had been staring at them for the past fifteen minutes.

“Wow, Nori, look at this,” Kenji said with mock enthusiasm, and Nori leaned in despite himself, “that nutjob’s released another video.”

It was probably something to commemorate having worked through over half of the people on his list.  Nori felt sick.  Not that he particularly gave a shit about any of the people Satou had marked for death, but what might come after kept him up at night.  What could anyone do against a terrorist like Satou, who had proven capable of infiltrating even a stronghold like Forge Security?

“Hey,” Kenji said, his voice getting a little softer, making Nori’s eyes snap to his face, “you know I won’t let anything happen to you, right?”

Nori glared at him skeptically.  “Thanks, but if it came down to it, I’d much rather have someone like that guy,” he jabbed his thumb in the direction of the motorcycle, “protecting me, seeing as you…can’t…” he trailed off.  The boy by the motorcycle was gone.

“Hi,” a soft voice said behind them, and they both yelped and whirled around, coming face-to-face with motorcycle boy.  Nori blinked.  He looked like a different person.  The light in his golden eyes had tempered from a sharp focus to a comforting warmth, the entire way he carried himself had become gentle and unintimidating.  He smiled, and it was absolutely disarming.  “Whatcha looking at?” he asked curiously, looking over their shoulders at Kenji’s phone.

Nori’s stomach clenched.  Somehow, this was even worse than when he’d looked scary.  Up this close, Nori could tell that this boy had definitely been in at least a few fights recently.  Kenji, the moron, didn’t seem to pick up on any of this at all.  “Just lookin’ at Satou’s newest video,” he said, “might as well know the exact way he plans to kill us.”

An odd montage of expressions rapidly cycled across the boy’s face, before it settled back into the same charming one he’d been using.  He gripped the back of the bench tightly enough that his knuckles turned white.  “Oh?  Can I see?”

“Hey, why not!” Kenji said like an idiot, holding up his phone so the stranger could also see it.

Nori wanted to move away as the boy leaned in, but he was afraid of how the boy would react, so he kept himself perfectly still.  Maybe he really just wanted to see the video, and then he’d go.

“Hello again,” Satou’s voice crackled through Kenji’s phone speakers, his voice as affable and fond as usual, “This is Satou the ajin.  How are you all?  I’ve missed you.

God, what a creep,” Kenji muttered, and Nori nodded agreement.  The boy was motionless.

I’ve made this video to announce the next target of our purification,” Satou continued, his voice becoming more serious, “this is someone whose crimes against us stand above all the others.  The man directly responsible for the capture and torture of Kei Nagai.

“Do you mean the bigwig that ordered it, or the poor cop that happened to be the one to find him?” Kenji spat, “or do you mean you?” Nori winced.  He’d heard Kenji’s theories that Satou was finding ajins and then deliberately staging their exposures many many times.

“What are you doing…?” the boy murmured, and Nori turned back to look at him.  Fear, anger, and curiosity juxtaposed on the boy’s face in the set of his jaw and the wideness of his eyes.  He covered his mouth with one hand, like he was about to be sick.  His whole body was shaking.

I’ll admit, I’m announcing this largely for selfish reasons,” Satou said, his voice becoming a little bashful, which was extremely unsettling coming from him, “There’s someone I’m hoping might join me.  I could use his help.

The boy scrambled backward, falling to the ground and hyperventilating.  He was sweating, and his eyes were dilated, like he was on some kind of drug.  “Hey, are you okay?!” Nori asked, springing off the bench and running toward him.

In three days, we will purify the world of Yu Tosaki.

Nori gently placed his hand on the boy’s forehead, and the boy recoiled instantly, snarling, “Don’t fucking touch me!

I really hope you’ll join me, Kai.

“Get back, Nori,” Kenji said calmly, stepping between him and the boy.

The boy’s eyes narrowed, and he slowly rose to his feet, his face contorted from pain.  He clutched at his stomach.  “What a pain in the ass,” he muttered.  Was he injured?

“Kenji,” Nori said, “I don’t think he’s dangerous.”

“Of course he’s not.  I’m here.”

The boy immediately smirked, and he shook his head, brushing the dirt off his pants.  “Ah, how naïve,” he said, “it’s sweet.”  He stepped back toward them, smiling cheekily at Kenji.  “You know…” he added quietly, his voice barely audible, “you really shouldn’t be so brazen with that thing.  Just cuz only other ajins can see it doesn’t mean you’re safe.”

Kenji’s face went white.  Nori couldn’t breathe.  His baseball bat was suddenly out of his bag and in his hands, the grip smooth and familiar.  The boy’s eyes widened.  “Whoa, easy there,” he said, his attention completely shifting away from Kenji, “I’m not about to sell him out.  Don’t do something you can’t take back.”

“Sell me out for what?” Kenji asked flatly.

The boy smiled, then walked over to the ground a few feet to Kenji’s left.  He held his hand out into empty air, feeling around for a second before starting to pet something Nori couldn’t see.  Kenji choked.  “No, I can’t see it,” the boy said softly, “but I’ve learned how to tell when they’re around.  Wow, I’ve never met one that has fur before…”

Who the hell was this?

The boy smiled.  “You seem nice,” he said to Kenji, “I’d hate for Satou to hurt you too.”

Kenji raised an eyebrow and glanced meaningfully at Nori.  “Haven’t you got it backwards?”

The boy’s smile turned bitter.  “You haven’t seen what I’ve seen.  Believe me when I say he can hurt you so much more than he can hurt him.”

“What do you mean ‘seen what I’ve seen?’” Nori asked, “you haven’t…you haven’t met Satou, have you?”

The boy laughed, one of his hands absently resting on his stomach.  “Something like that…”

Nori felt his jaw drop.  “No…” he said in shock, “you’ve fought him.”

The boy shrugged.  “Someone’s gotta.  And I’ve got people to protect…”

“You’ve fought Satou, and lived…” Kenji said reverently.

The boy shifted uncomfortably.  “Yeah I guess.  Not bad for a human with just one life…”

“Take me with you,” Kenji said abruptly, and Nori felt his heart stop.  No.  No no no no no no no no no no—

“No.”

“What?!” Kenji cried, “But if you’re one of the people fighting Satou, I want in!  I’m sick of just sitting around waiting for Satou to do something else.  I want to be able to help, like the Angel!  You must be working with him, right?”

The boy blinked, obviously taken aback.  “The Angel?” he asked.

“Yeah!  People say he’s cutting off black market sources of weapons.  Guerilla warfare against Satou, right?”

“Lots of people have also been claiming to be saved by him,” Nori added, “the number of people who have been kidnapped or murdered in Tokyo has been cut in half since people started seeing him a couple weeks ago.”

“To get the public feeling sympathetic towards ajins, obviously!” Kenji cut in, “but how do you guys do it?  It’s obviously an ajin’s ghost, but how is it that everyone can see it?  What’s the trick?”

The boy blinked again, his eyes lazily drifting around them.  “Keep your voices down,” he said softly, “they’re all busy trying to avoid looking at me but there’s only so far that will go.”

Kenji flushed.  “Right!  Sorry…”

The boy shook his head.  “What an idiot,” he muttered, his voice fond, “I told him to keep a low profile…”  He ran his fingers through his hair, his eyes getting misty for a moment.  “My best guess is that the Angel is a vigilante,” he said, “but then again, I suppose that’s sort of what I am too.”

Kenji gaped.  “But you’re just a human!” he whispered, “How can you—”

“The fight between me and Satou is personal,” the boy said firmly, “I won’t have anyone standing between me and him again.  However…” he added, “if you really want to make war on him, then there is someone you should try to find…”

Without so much as a by-your-leave, the boy reached forward and took Kenji’s school bag from him, rifling through it until he got a notebook and a pen.  Kenji sputtered indignantly, but the boy worked quickly, writing something in the notebook and then tearing the page out.  He tore that paper in half, handing one piece to each of them.  Nori looked down at his.  An address he didn’t recognize was written on it.

“Go there,” the boy said, “and tell them you want to speak to Eriko Nagai.”

Nagai?

Eriko Nagai??

The boy smiled.  “Vive la resistance,” he whispered mischievously.  He patted them each on the head affectionately, before turning to head back to his motorcycle.  “Thanks you two,” he said, “I’ve got my motivation back, thanks to you.”

“Wait!” Nori cried, “who are you?”

The boy stopped, looking over his shoulder.  “…Nori, right?” he asked, “Don’t let him leave you behind.”  He sighed, his eyes gazing off into space for a moment.  “My name is Kai,” he added quietly.

Before either of them could say anything else, Kai had hopped back onto his motorcycle and was driving away.  Kenji and Nori watched him go.  Suddenly, Nori had an unbelievable thought.  “Kenji, give me your phone,” he said.

Kenji looked at him strangely, but handed it over.  Nori pressed “replay” on Satou’s video, skipping past most of it until near the end.

I really hope you’ll join me, Kai.

I really hope you’ll join me, Kai.

Kai.

“Holy shit,” Kenji whispered.  Nori nodded agreement.

Kenji glanced back down at the piece of paper in his hands.  “So…” he said, “what are the odds that this isn’t a trap?”

Nori rolled his eyes.  “What are the odds that I could dissuade you from going if I thought it was?

Kenji grinned.  “C’mon, namedropping Eriko Nagai?  I can’t say no to that.”

Nori shook his head.  “Then I guess I can’t either.”

Chapter Text

Eriko had wanted to go out guns blazing after Kai and drag his sorry stupid avoidant ass back kicking and screaming because what the hell she’d been trying so hard he didn’t get to just fucking fly the coop after some serious bonding time like that!  Fucker was going to get tied down and fed nothing but kimchi and ice cream for the next month.  Had Satou’s stupid ghosty come back?  Was that what was going on?  Had the two of them fucking run off together?  Unbe-fucking-lievable.  The voices in her pendant quietly roared their anger as a nice harmony to her own righteous fury.

Unfortunately, in the hours after his disappearance her body had decided to fuck with her just as much as Kai.  She was so mad she almost didn’t notice at first, but as she was seething in the kitchen, sipping some tea, she realized.  She had a sore throat.

“Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck,” she said, holding her mouth open wide in front of a mirror.  It didn’t look like strep, but then again the sore throat had only just started.  “Damn it!” she swore, punching the sink and subsequently wincing from the pain.  It hadn’t even been four months.  It wasn’t fair.  She pressed her hands to her cheeks in an effort to keep her face under control, and the skin felt hot under her hands.  FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK.

She felt like shit announcing that she was Sick to Kai’s parents (parent and associated chaperone?  Who knew…) in the midst of all the other shit going on, but life was shit and she’d learned the hard way to not play around with this.  While Yuuki remained on Kai-search duty, Megumi (well, Miya, really) had taken on the frustrating but also slightly comforting role of caretaker.

Are you certain you don’t need to go to the hospital?” Miya fretted, waving her serrated arms around uselessly as she brought what must be the seventeenth mug of tea now.  Really, tea didn’t actually help that much.

“I’m just Sick, it’s not an Episode yet,” Eriko said tiredly, lying in bed with a wet rag on her head and a smear of Vic’s Vapo Rub on her chest.  “Mom always just threw me in the hospital at the first sign of anything, but there’s nothing I really need them for unless it gets really bad.”

(and they’d wheel her down strapped to a table into the operating room and cut her open again)

She still took her handful of meds faithfully every morning, even as the fever and sore throat persisted.  A colorful cocktail of immunosuppressants and antibiotics and narcotics designed to hopefully prolong the inevitable sweet release of death.  She’d noticed the voices in her pendant started getting louder and more anxious-sounding if she didn’t take her meds, so she kept taking them.  She still had shit to do anyway.

In the absence of Kai and her own ability to fucking leave her bed, Eriko wanted to (temporarily) delegate the task of starting to build her ghost army to Miya, and pushed the list of names at her more times than she could count.  But Miya always shook her head and said that Eriko should take more time to consider what she wanted to do before she started doing it.  Eriko took that to mean that Miya was refusing to go far, which pissed her off but there wasn’t much she could do about it.

Since Miya couldn’t be manifested all the time, Megumi would often be in the room with Eriko instead, bringing her soup and what little news there was.  Kai being his mother’s son knew exactly how to hide himself from her, and since he obviously didn’t want to be found there wasn’t much that they could do.  Yuuki had revised her strategy to attempt to find Yu Tosaki, since he was Satou’s next target and Kai might decide to make an appearance there as well.

Often though, she was alone, lying in bed trying to muster the energy to sit up and ignore the coughs that had started halfway through day two.  Megumi and Yuuki were getting more anxious the longer Kai was missing, and that kept them from fretting too much over her, some relative stranger.  The human mind could only handle so much shit at once, after all.

She kept the lights off and the blinds closed so the room was as dark as possible when no one was around.  If she was to be holed up and miserable, her environment must reflect that.  It was eerie in the lack of light how distinct and clear the grains of ghost sand in her pendant appeared, even when she closed her eyes.

She’d cough, and it would pull painfully at her most recent surgery scar (not really fresh, but still very pink and angry-looking).  The voices in her pendant (in her head?) seemed concerned by her quiet groans of pain, so between the coughs she took to narrating for them the various valve-repair/replacement surgeries she’d had on her heart, wondering if they’d be less worried if they understood.

There had been a time, before her mother had opted to pull her out of school completely, when she’d gleefully tried to explain to her classmates what exactly the surgeons had been up to in her ribcage, but they’d always gotten grossed out and that had made Eriko feel gross and so she’d stopped talking about it.  But the pendant voices only ever sounded curious or sad, so Eriko started babbling about every gross yucky detail regarding her Illness that she could think of, and felt the pendant getting warmer and warmer on her skin the longer she talked.  It pulsed to match her heartbeat.

She started talking about other things too.  The mortification of getting her first period in the hospital, and having some disinterested male doctor poke around her vagina without any particular reason to “just in case there was any inflammation” and reaching the point where she didn’t bother learning the names of the aides and nurses and doctors because they were never the same and they were only useful as a means of counting the passing of time.  The time she’d woken up on the operating table.

She’d flip the hourglass over again and again as she talked, noticing when the grains didn’t fall quite right and when they fell just like sand.

Around day four, she started hearing words in the noise, the garbled voices layered over each other enough that a few sounds would become distinct.  “.̞͖̯̟͓̬̠͡.̱͙̞͉̥̖͉̼.̦̹͇ͅe͕̘̗͇͢.̴̩̻͍̲̮.͈̜̦̪̞͍̯͍͜.̙̳̦͎̫͍̙̩r̵҉̜̻̲̞̯̦i̡̥̘̠͜.̛̥͎͎̗.̴͓͈̫̮͈͔͎̮͠.͉̤̫̳͉̹̯͜͞k͞͏͚̫̲̭o̴̴̢̖̥̪̝̥.͕̤́.̙̫͟.͚” and “.̱͍̻͕̩̞̼̪̕͟͝.̶̨҉͇̖̘̲̬̳̘.̝͓b̘̰̭̗̘̜̱r̷͔̳̳͎̟͕͝.̖̤̳͞.̛̣.̸̠͔̩͍̫͎ͅe̡͏̘̳̩̝͓ͅà̧̬̖̗͈̖̼̖t̶͉̳̻h̸̵̛̼͖͓͕̱̬͉e̥̰͟.̭̼͈̗̻͇̤̀̕ͅ.̪͚̳͢.̡̩̟̰̞̭͖͢” and “.̲̭̳̹͎͖ͅ.̳̗̬̦̯̩͖͙.̤̣̘͔̼̭͖́ś͕̙͙̼͓ͅl͍̥̙̕.̼̭̗̟͓̻͖͔̝͢.̢̼̣̼͉̩̖̙.̴̙̥̻͓͍̩̫͢ͅe̤͔̩̠͕e͚̫̫̤̬̣.̶̷̩͈̙̞̥̲̻.̣͎́͟.̧̻̳͇̱͡͠e̖̖̻͇͕͘͢͝è̮̲̲̘̲̳̲ͅȩ̱͔̭͖̱͓͚͚̺ẹ̗͚͠ḛ͓̯̲͢͝e̶҉͔͔͍͔e̡̯̺̘͖̲̟̥͠ͅp͍̙̙.͓͙̠̫̕.̦̘.̭̗͉͝” and in the morning as she was waking up “.̯͍͈̘̭.̷͙̤̕͡.̥̰͇m̨̪̝͈é͔d̵͍̥͈̟͚.̨̛̺̞̬̥̤.͚.̘͖̗̕͘í̴͕̩̠̘͙͈̯͈̳.͇̟͖͖̰̗͟ͅ.͏̨̻͖̬͇̪́.̡̩̤̪͡c̛̘̬̳̬̟̭͇̀̀i̸̵̢̭̲̹̟͖̹̹n̶̤͢e̛̙͍̳͈̖̮͕͔.̗̞̣̦.̛͉͉͇̖́ͅ.̸̧̯̩̲̺̱͠.

 

The cough and sore throat started lessening, and her fever broke.  Perhaps this wasn’t going to be an Episode after all.  She had the energy to sit up in bed more, and found herself mostly scouring the internet for anything to be found on the ajin Kouji Tanaka.  Basic information like date of discovery, date of capture, date of birth, where he was from, all were easy and told her absolutely nothing about him.  The leaked videos of his torture were a little harder to find, but still easy.  She’d seen them before, but she started to rewatch them anyway, only stopping when she realized that the voices in her pendant were screaming.  She hushed them, and spent a couple hours calming them down by reading stupid youtube video comments out loud and breaking down exactly what was stupid about each one.  Not exactly traditional, but whatever.  Captive audience.

Further digging got her slightly more personal information, like what high school he’d gone to, which had led her to an old geocities page filled with pictures of his school’s cultural festivals.  Some student body government dweeb must have run it.  She scrolled through them, sifting through the dozens of pictures that didn’t include him to find the odd one that did.  It was strange to see him so young.  He must have only had to worry about grades back then…  Some of the pictures made her laugh, and she didn’t cough.  That was a good sign.

Embracing the full-on stalker mode she had entered, she started looking to see what other archives from that time had pieces of Kouji Tanaka in them.  Some of them weren’t that surprising…a police blotter reporting him as involved in a small car collision, or the discovery of his class ranking upon graduation (nothing impressive from either side).  Others were very surprising…newspaper clippings about local festivals had him sitting with other musicians, holding a shamisen.  A shamisen!  She wondered if he was any good.

She wondered if his parents missed him, or if they were like hers.

Later that day, Miya carried her out of bed and, at Eriko’s reluctantly expressed concern of fainting in the steam, sat with her in the shower.  The steam made snot drip out of her nose but made it easier to breathe.  Steam condensed on and dripped off of Miya’s mandibles and it made Eriko giggle.  They washed each other’s backs, even though it was sort of a moot point for Miya.  It was the most normal form of human interaction Eriko had had in days.  Kind of sad, but Eriko took what she could get.

The next day, she had the house to herself.  Satou’s plan to kill Yu Tosaki was due to happen the next day, so Megumi and Yuuki had both gone to try to find Kai before it was too late.  There were various underlings around, but none entered the private area so it was as though Eriko was alone.  She walked quietly through the different rooms, glaring thoughtfully at pieces of family memorabilia that Yuuki had evidently hung onto, enjoying her regained ability to breathe like a normal person.

 

She wanted very badly to know what was happening, but she didn’t dare turn on the news.  She didn’t particularly give a shit if this “Toe-Sucky” guy lived or died, but on the off chance that there was anything about Kai, she didn’t want to hear about it from some news reporter.  She at least wanted to hear it from people, preferably from Kai’s stupid mouth.  Fucker.

To distract herself, she started poring over the list of names, their locations and sometimes a few other tidbits of information penciled in next to them.  It didn’t seem like much.  How many ajins did Satou have working for him?  What kind of army was she going to need to stand a chance against him?  …what would she do with that army, after…?  How would she get them to trust her in the first place?  Could she really expect them to rally to her?

Maybe she could visit Kouji Tanaka’s hometown.  Was he still working with Satou, or had he come to his senses yet?  Did he even have any senses left to come back to?

Her thumb ran over the pendant slowly.  That was an uncharitable thought.

That night, lying in bed and trying to fall asleep with nothing but the voices for company, she told them, solemnly, “I need to find him.  He’s important, I think.  Necessary.”

The voices whispered agreements.  Eriko blew her nose and admired the color and consistency of her snot, a sign that the sick was on its way out for sure.  She turned off the light and let the room get dark, so that all she could see was the black sand.

“Where is he?” she asked quietly, not really sure what she was expecting.

The voices chittered to themselves unintelligibly for what felt like hours, lulling Eriko’s eyes closed until she was almost asleep.  Then suddenly, they went silent.  The sand was pressing itself against one side of the pendant, toward the window.

.̸̰͚͜͠.̨̬͈̯͖̠̖̙͘.̛̰̙̣͝c̖̥͖̫̣̣̘͢ǫ͉͓͔͕̙̙̺̤̲͝m̡̢̞͕̪̭̼̫̫͎.̢̬͉̩̥̘̫̗͞.̵̨͏͉̪͈̺̣͖͚̥̮.̨҉̩͕͚̦̙̳͎̲͟i͏̙̯͇̳̲̹͔ǹ͖̙̩̳̻̩̤g̨͙̼̼̤̞̘̀͟.͏̨̘̬̼.̵̛̲̤̠͈ͅ.̛̼̖̜

Chapter Text

By the time he’d found a key for Shimomura’s handcuffs, it had become apparent that the only course of action left to them would be to retreat.  Shimomura’s eyes had been alight with some self-sacrificial righteous fury, but mercifully she’d come with him anyway.  In the commotion, they were able to slip away.  His phone burned in his pocket.

The car was right where they’d left it, so there was that at least.  Shimomura glanced between him and the Forge Security building with steady eyes.  “We don’t need to wait for anyone else,” she said.

“Mmm,” he replied.

“If the operation has failed,” she continued, “it’s unsafe to remain here.”

Yu popped some mints into his mouth and kept his face thoughtful.

A few minutes later, Nakano appeared, running towards them at a surprising pace considering that he had Nagai slung over his shoulders.  “He was still regenerating,” Nakano explained, breathing heavily, “it was either leave him or carry him.”

Despite the two of them both obviously being unharmed, Nagai had a strange glassy look in his eyes, and Nakano an angry one.  “We’re all that’s left,” Nagai said dully after Nakano had set him down, “Just us four.”

“Where is Satou?”

An apathetic shrug.

There was nothing to say, so they all piled in the car and drove off, Yu half-wondering why they were even bothering.  There was no point to any of it anymore.  He ate through his entire container of mints without noticing until the pads of his fingers were scraping the empty bottom.  His tongue felt strange in his mouth.  Shimomura didn’t say a word as she drove.

The sound of knuckles rapping against the window jolted Yu out of his thoughts.  Ogura looked down at him through the glass, the walls of the safe house rising up behind him.  Yu blinked, his eyes slipping toward the clock and noticing the time with surprise.  Ogura opened his car door, leaning in over him and looking into the back seat.  “I take it things didn’t go well,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Yu asked stiffly.

“The fact that you’re asking stupid questions is only hurting your case,” Ogura said, taking a long drag from his cigarette and blowing into the backseat.  “Man, the kids are really conked out, aren’t they?”

Yu craned his neck to look over his shoulder.  Nagai had fallen asleep with his head on his knees, curled into a ball leaning against the door.  Nakano had collapsed atop the rest of the backseat, having apparently abandoned his seatbelt at some point.  “Must be mental exhaustion,” Ogura said, “since dying would reset the physical need for sleep.”

“You should rest as well, Mr. Tosaki,” Shimomura said quietly, not looking at him as she unbuckled her seatbelt and stepped out of the car, slamming the door shut behind her.

The sound jolted Nakano awake, who jumped enough to fall off the seat and onto the floor of the car.  He cried loudly in pain, and slowly, almost imperceptibly, Nagai stirred, bangs covering his eyes.  Nakano groaned like a child, making a show of picking himself up and getting back onto the car seat.  “Wow,” he said, “Satou sure kicked our asses, huh?”

“You four all that’s left?” Ogura asked, blowing smoke into Yu’s face.

Nakano stiffened, and nodded.  “Yeah…we…we lost them.  Even Hirasawa.”

At least he wouldn’t have to pay them now.  Not that Yu had any use for the money anymore anyway.  Everything had fallen apart.  The fact that his last desperate hurrah had failed so spectacularly was only cruel irony in light of the greater loss of any reason to have attempted resisting Satou in the first—

“So what’s the plan?”

Yu blinked.  Nakano was sitting cross-legged in the backseat, watching him with wide curious eyes.  Yu furrowed his brows.  “Excuse me?”

“Well, Satou pretty clearly won this round,” Nakano said, “so we’re going to need to do something else to stop him before he manages to pull off his Wave Three.  What’s the plan?”

Plan?  Did he…did he actually…could he possibly believe that they were still fighting?  That it wasn’t over?  Yu couldn’t help but throw his head back and laugh, tears streaming down his cheeks.  Nakano had always seemed to be in it for more than self-interest, but this was just sad.

“There is no plan,” Nagai said quietly, raising his head.  His eyes were slits.

Nakano started.  “Then what are we doing just sitting around here for?!” he shouted, “We don’t have much time before Satou makes his next move!  We have to—!”

“Nakano!  It’s over!!” Nagai snarled, “This was our last shot.  Satou won.  All that’s left to do is sit and wait for him to come and find us.  That’s the plan.”

“What, are you just going to let him come and cut your head off like he wants?!” Nakano demanded, and Ogura whistled.

For a minute, Yu wondered if Nagai was going to kill Nakano, here in the car, or if Nakano was going to do it first.  But after a long, tense silence, Nagai opened the car door and walked away, heading inside.  Nakano screamed and pulled at his hair, before bursting through the other door and storming away in the opposite direction.  “Nakano, where are you going?” Ogura asked lightly.

Out,” Nakano said, not volunteering any other information.

“Pick me up some smokes!” Ogura said, unperturbed.

Ogura scratched his chin thoughtfully as the two boys disappeared.  “I suppose I could just leave,” he mused.

Yu glared at him dully.  “I don’t care.  Go.  Advise Satou instead or something.  I don’t care.”

Ogura took a long drag from his cigarette.  “I can’t deny that it would be fun to spend a little quality time with Mr. Owen,” he said, “but you know what?  Call it Stockholm Syndrome, but I don’t really feel like leaving.”

Yu couldn’t take the smell of Ogura’s smoke anymore.  “Do what you want,” he said, getting out of the car and walking into the hideout, Ogura trailing behind.

“What, are you just going to go sit and mope?”

“I don’t mope.”

“Sorry, sorry, brood.”

“I suppose I could cut your fingers off again, for old time’s sake.”

“Ooo, kinky.  But pass, I don’t really feel like sewing them back on again.”

“I thought you didn’t need them to smoke.”

“Want me to convince you I should keep them?”

“…”

“Hey, the world’s probably going to end soon, at this point I’m not above making innuendoes at the guy who cut my fingers off.”

Yu stopped short, whirling around and knocking the cigarette out of Ogura’s hand.  “I’m going to go mourn,” he said through gritted teeth, storming off.  Ogura didn’t say anything.

Yu didn’t sleep that night.

The next morning, wearing the same clothes he’d worn the day before, he stumbled into the kitchen area, wondering if there was any alcohol.  There wasn’t, so he settled for a glass of water.  He’d run out of mints somewhere around midnight.  Maybe there was at least some gum around.

A mug of coffee appeared in his face.  Shimomura.  Clean suit, fresh makeup.  Every bit as professional as always.  “Good morning, Mr. Tosaki,” she said, holding out the coffee.

Yu drank it without tasting it, or even noticing the temperature.  At some point he sat down.  Shimomura remained standing, arms folded behind her back.  Nakano stumbled in some time later, hungover and covered in hickeys.  “Where were you?” Yu asked mechanically, taking a sip from his mug before realizing it was empty.

Nakano made a face.  “Having a shitton of sex…the fuck else?”

“You risk exposure, thus compromising the rest of us,” Shimomura said calmly, “Don’t go off on your own like that again.”

Nakano rolled his eyes.  “Oh sure, like it matters.  Four-eyes over here doesn’t have the motivation to shave, let alone fight Satou again, and Nagai…fuck Nagai,” he spat, dropping his head down to rest on the table, “if we’re just waiting for Satou’s Wave 3, then what does it fucking matter if some cop spots me?”

“Satou will not engage his third wave,” Shimomura said calmly, “to do so would mean completing his second wave.  As long as Mr. Tosaki is alive, wave three cannot commence.”

Crash.

Oh, the coffee mug.  Yu poked at one of the larger shards with his foot.  He must have dropped it.  “I wonder if I can kill myself with this,” he said, “save Satou the trouble.”

Shimomura immediately scooped the shards away with her hands, a few drops of blood landing on the floor.  “It’s not over,” she said, “another fight may well have a different outcome.”

Not over?  Yu felt a smile splitting his face.  He shook his head.  “No,” he said, starting to laugh, “there won’t be another fight.”

“You’re still alive, Mr. Tosaki.”

“An unfortunate oversight!” Yu roared, slamming his hands down on the table and standing to tower over her, “It’s over!  There’s nothing left to fight for!”

Shimomura met his gaze evenly.  “Is that all, Mr. Tosaki?”

Yu didn’t say anything.  Shimomura took a deep breath and punched him in the face, the blow hard enough to make him stumble.  Before he could recover, she’d grabbed his collar and yanked his face down so their eyes were level.  “How dare you…” she hissed, her hand shaking slightly, “I’ve kept you alive to protect my freedom, and now you’d throw that all away just because you’re a poor loser?”

Her breath smelled like cigarettes.  Yu’s eyes drifted slowly down to her wrists, a scab formed on one of them from where the handcuff had rubbed her skin raw.  Shimomura.  He blinked.  It hadn’t sunk in yet that at some point, he’d stopped thinking of her as someone he’d throw on the dissecting table without another thought if she stopped being useful.  He lowered his eyes.  “Soon it won’t matter whether or not the world knows that you’re an ajin.”

“Only if Satou wins,” she said, her voice steely.

“He already won.”

A few days pass.  Yu doesn’t see any signs of Nagai, though he hears Nakano yelling at him enough to safely presume that Nagai is still in the safe house.  Shimomura asks him every morning what they’re going to do, and every morning Yu ignores her.  Ogura seems to be carrying on the same as always; smoking and making irritating comments.  Yu finds himself wondering what he’d have to say to make one of them kill him.

“Did it hurt when I ran you over?” Yu asked Nakano one afternoon.  Ogura choked back a sound that might have been laughter and promptly excused himself.

Nakano was eating an apple, and continued eating.  “Oh sure,” he says with his mouth full, shrugging, “not as much as getting electrocuted though.”

“I’ll bet if I tried I could make it hurt more.”

Nakano furrowed his eyebrows at him, before putting the apple down.  “Alright, dude,” he said amicably, “how about you tell me the real reason you’ve been such an emo asshole.”

Yu blinked.  “I thought you were the stupid one.”

“Nagai and I have different strengths.  Now spill.”

“Or what?”

“Or I’ll keep asking,” Nakano said with a grin.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Fucking excuse me?  Whatever it is has got you losing your will to fight, which is extremely relevant to my quality of life.  Geez, what’s got you all worked up, did someone die or something?”

Yu froze.  Nakano swore.  “Shit, dude, seriously?”

It was entirely because he couldn’t let Nakano believe a falsehood, even a mostly-true falsehood, that Yu spoke up.  Yes.  “She’s not…well, she’ll be dead soon, but not yet.”

Nakano scooted his chair closer to Yu and propped his head in his hands, looking up attentively.  It was childish and stupid and maybe just a little bit calming.  “Who?”

“…Ai,” he said, feeling the word slip out of his mouth like a eulogy, “…my fiancé.”  He immediately narrowed his eyes suspiciously at Nakano, but Nakano remained solemn and attentive.  It was…odd, to see.  “She’s been in a coma for a very long time.  And I just received word that her organs are failing.  They’ve reached the point where there’s nothing left they can do for her.”

Nakano took a deep breath.  “Holy shit,” he said, his voice wet and his eyes shimmering, “you mean you’ve been dealing with this?

Taken aback, Yu cautiously nodded.  Nakano flushed, and scrubbed his face with his arm sullenly, abruptly getting up and leaving the room.  Before Yu could completely process what had happened, Nakano came back, carrying a box of mints.  “Don’t get mad,” he said, “I just hid it cuz I was pissed at you.  You’re still an asshole, but…” he sputtered and sat down, shoving his hands in his pockets, “anyway whatever, just take them.”

(“Yu.  I want you to quit smoking.  You’ll live longer that way, and I don’t want to miss out on a single moment with you.  Please, dear?”)

Yu gripped the box of mints so tightly his knuckles turned white, tears falling from his eyes and landing on the painted metal.  Maybe he should ask Shimomura for a cigarette…it’s not like she’d made her habit a secret…

A hand suddenly gripped his own with startling strength, yanking him out of the chair and dragging him out of the room.  “What are you doing?” Yu asked through gritted teeth as Nakano lead him up the stairs.

“Taking charge,” Nakano said, bursting through a door, “Nagai!”

Nagai was lying on the floor in the middle of a nearly empty room, underneath a small table lamp.  He was indifferently spinning the lampshade with his hand, staring into the illuminated lightbulb and betraying no signs that he’d heard the two of them come in.

Nakano screamed in frustration, tearing at his hair before stomping over and unplugging the lamp.  Nagai immediately rolled over to glare at him.  “What was that for?” he asked petulantly.

“Nagai,” Nakano said, ignoring him, “I’ve decided what we’re going to do next.”

“Oh?”

“Tozaki’s fiancé is dying in the hospital…” he suddenly turned to look at Yu, “she is in the hospital, right?”

“Tosaki, and yes.”

Nakano reached up to pat his head.  “See, you’re still in there.  But anyway, she’s in the hospital,” he said, addressing Nagai again, “We’re going to go take him there to see her before she passes on.”

Wait, since when had anyone decided that?  And why on earth would Nagai even—

“Okay.”

Yu blinked.  “What?”

Nagai rolled away, and resumed spinning the lampshade.  “Two reasons,” he said, “First: I don’t have anything left that I want to do.  All I wanted was to live a peaceful life, which isn’t going to be possible.  So, I don’t have anything left that I want to do.  Ergo, I don’t care what we do.”

Really, Nagai?” Nakano snapped, “you really have no one you’d want to say goodbye to?  Nothing you’d want to say?”  He said this like this was an old argument.

Nagai shrugged his bony shoulders.  “We’re ajins, Nakano,” he said, “we don’t form attachments to humans.   There’s no point.”

Nakano looked like he was about to explode.  But before he could do anything to act on that, Nagai calmly got up off the floor and held up his phone.  “Secondly, is this.”

It was another one of Satou’s videos.  Yu listened to it without hearing it, until he suddenly heard his own name in striking clarity and then couldn’t hear anything else.  He was next?  But that meant he didn’t have much time before—

“I dislike prolonging the inevitable,” Nagai said flatly.

“And you’re sure that’s the only reason this video caught your attention?” Nakano said with a smirk, wrapping his arm conspiratorially around Nagai’s shoulders.

Nakano.

“I’m just saying, seems like it might be a little more personal than that…”

“Kai is a common name, Nakano.”

“Who said anything about “Kai” having anything to do with it?”

Nagai narrowed his eyes at him for a moment, before disregarding him completely and turning toward Yu.  “Satou released that video yesterday,” he said steadily, “It is likely that he will make his move tomorrow.  If you want to see your fiancé, we will need to act quickly.”

Yu lowered his eyes, unnerved by Nagai’s inhuman stare.  “She’ll still be in a coma,” he said softly, “completely unresponsive.  Her organs may be only failing now, but she’s been as good as dead for years.”

“Precisely.  To go to her would be completely pointless.”

Yu blinked and looked up.  Red eyes met his evenly.  Had Nagai’s voice sounded…disappointed?

Yu gritted his teeth.  “Shimomura will raise no suspicions accompanying me, and Nakano isn’t so well-known that he can’t avoid attention.  But you will need a disguise.”

“Seems as though I shouldn’t come.”

Yu glanced down at the container of mints, giving it a slight shake.  “No,” Yu said, “I’ll need all of you there if I’m to have any chance of walking out of there alive.”

Nakano gaped at him.  Yu raised an eyebrow.  “Don’t look so surprised.”  Back to Nagai.  “Think of a way to disguise yourself by tomorrow morning.  I’m going to go find Shimomura.”

Yu walked out of the room, pocketing the mints as he did so.  They rattled comfortably in his pocket.  This was good.  This was right.  If Satou was going to kill him tomorrow, then he wouldn’t die in some nameless place miles away from the only person who’d ever loved him.  He had at least that much pride left in him.

Shimomura was, surprisingly (or perhaps not), with Ogura when Yu found her.  They stood side-by-side, leaning over the balcony railings with an impersonal amount of space separating them.  The smoke from their cigarettes merged into one, rising high above their heads and into the cloudy sky.  Yu couldn’t tell if they were talking.

He walked up into the space separating them.  Shimomura didn’t acknowledge him.  Ogura, however, whistled.  “Well look at you,” he said, taking another drag from his cigarette, “I was beginning to think your replacement will-to-live had gotten lost in the mail.”

Yu fanned the smoke away from his face.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Ogura narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, tapping the ashes from his cigarette.  “Maybe it won’t mean anything.  But you’re less annoying this way.”

Yu grabbed the cigarette from Ogura’s mouth angrily, throwing it off the balcony before Ogura had a chance to react.  He smiled as Ogura mournfully looked down at the ground, before turning around and glaring at him.  “I take it back,” Ogura snapped, “your will-to-live is an asshole.”

He turned away and walked off indignantly, leaving Yu and Shimomura alone.  She watched him steadily, grinding out her cigarette without a word.  Yu looked away, unable to meet her eyes.  “You’d be better off leaving,” he said softly.

“And why is that?”

“Your chances are better if you run than if you stay and try to protect me,” Yu said, “You could make it out of Japan.  I…wouldn’t stop you.”

“Is that so?”

The wind ruffled Yu’s hair softly, making him shiver.  Perhaps it would rain tomorrow.  That would be convenient, but probably too much to hope for.  Yu looked up and eyed the clouds overhead thoughtfully.  Maybe…

A sharp tug at his throat yanked Yu’s head down and right into Shimomura’s face, her hand like a vice around his tie.  She narrowed her eyes, a smile cutting across her face like a knife.  “When have I ever given you the impression that I’m the kind to run and hide instead of fight?” she asked, her voice vibrating in his bones.

Yu tried to pull her hand away from him, but found to his shock that he couldn’t move.  He swallowed.  Shimomura’s eyes glittered like geodes.  “You…can’t…fight him…” he forced out.

She jutted her chin forward.  “And why not?” she asked.

He couldn’t breathe.  Her voice was like a noose around his neck.  “Not enough of us,” he said, “of you,” he amended.

She relinquished her grip on his tie, turning away and leaning on the balcony railing.  “And whose fault is that?”

Yu currently lacked the ability to squirm uncomfortably, but that didn’t matter.  “If the ajins of Japan would not rally under Satou,” Shimomura said, squaring her shoulders, “perhaps they will rally against him.”

The tin of mints was heavy in his pocket.

“I…”

I want to live.

“I’ll help you however I can, but…”

“Yes?” Shimomura asked without turning around.

Yu swallowed hard.  Shimomura was going to be the hard sell.  But she was also the critical one.  “Ai is dying.  I don’t…I don’t have much time left.  It might already be too late.”

“I know.”

Yu blinked, but he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised that Shimomura knew.  She’d changed a lot since she’d started working for him.

“You’re marked to die,” Shimomura continued, “Satou plans to kill you tomorrow.  The only rational course of action would be to go on the run, someplace Satou had absolutely no chance of finding you.  Your survival is our one last chance.  If Satou kills you, it’s over for all of us.”

Yu slumped, feeling tears welling in his eyes.  He knew that.  He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, curling in on himself.  He knew that, but he…  “But I want to see her,” he said, his voice small.  He had no other justification, no rationalization, nothing.

Hands on his shoulders, firm and warm.  He looked up with surprise into Shimomura’s shimmering eyes.  “I want to see her too,” she said.

Tears streamed down his face and his whole body shook with sobs, catharsis wringing his body out like a rag.  Shimomura offered no comforting touches or words, not even when it started raining, not even when Yu sank to the floor.  But she stood there steadily until he had stopped crying, before taking his hand and leading him back inside.

Chapter Text

Yu, despite his best attempts, slept fitfully, and awoke early, before the sun had had a chance to burn away the early-morning mist.  It felt appropriate.  Ai had never let him sleep in, citing justifications ranging from the health benefits of rising early to just enjoying seeing how grumpy he looked when he first woke up.  He’d always felt a little more sincere early in the morning, ever since that first day all those years ago when they’d both fallen asleep at the office the night before a deadline, and they’d both walked home in their bare feet early the next morning.

The cold air made his toes numb and sliced through his clothes until he shivered.  His breath misted in the air in front of him, and the ground was as firm as she’d been when she’d kissed him.  The thought made him smile, though tears rose unbidden to his eyes even as he did so.

If she was still alive when he got there, he’d have them cut off life support.

“I notice you didn’t invite me on your suicide mission,” Ogura said.

Yu jumped.  Ogura sat on the ground nearby, enough snuffed-out cigarette butts around him to give the impression that he’d been out there all night.  The smoke from the cigarette in his mouth rose up until it was indistinguishable from the mist around them.  Sitting there, wearing nothing but a pair of threadbare jeans and a tattoo made of incomprehensible lines stretching across his back, he looked nothing like a scientist.  “It’s not a suicide mission,” Yu said coldly, “and I didn’t think you’d want to come.”

Ogura took a long drag from his cigarette, locking eyes with Yu as he did so.  “You’re taking the only interesting people in the area away with you, maybe I do want to come,” he drawled.

“Do you?” Yu asked stiffly.

“Nah.”

The urge to kick Ogura in the face came with its normal ferocity, and Yu rode it out steadily, keeping his feet firmly on the ground.  A deep breath.  “We’re not coming back,” he said.

Ogura snorted.  “Obviously.  If you manage to survive today, the only way you’ll keep surviving is to keep moving.  Hole up somewhere and it’s only a matter of time before he finds you.”

“He’ll find you if you stay here too.”

A smirk.  “Awww, are you worried about me?  Maybe I want him to find me.  It’d be a nice palate cleanser after dealing with your whiny sub ass for so long.”

“Do you care about anything besides your science and your smokes?” Yu bit out.

Ogura rolled his eyes and rose to his feet in one fluid motion, walking over to Yu and hooking under Yu’s chin with his finger.  “I can’t blame you for misunderstanding us,” he said, the taste of his smoke bitter in Yu’s mouth, “based on your past experiences.  But I’m a scientist, and I have things that I want too.  And whether you believe me or not, they run contrary to Satou’s goals.”

Yu gritted his teeth and forced himself to breathe through his mouth.  “What do you want?” he asked.

Ogura lowered his eyes and smiled.  “What do you think I want?”

After squirming for a moment under Ogura’s gaze, Yu tried to lower his eyes to glance at his watch.  Ogura’s hand firmly held his face in place.  For a brief moment, something in his expression shifted to be slightly more gentle.  He took the cigarette out of his mouth and placed it cheekily in Yu’s, before quickly turning and starting to walk away.

Yu coughed and spat the cigarette out, grinding it out angrily with his foot.  “I’ll be leaving soon too,” Ogura said, cracking his neck as he walked away, “You’re going to have a hard enough time surviving today without also needing to worry about me.”

“And what do you plan to do exactly?”

Ogura shrugged.  “In the short term, I’m not sure.  But I have a feeling we’ll both end up in the same place.  Until then…” he winked over his shoulder and blew a kiss, “take care darling.”

Yu saw red for a moment, a strangled scream dying in his throat.  As Ogura walked away, whistling, Yu whirled around and stormed back into the safe house.  Enough messing around.

There wasn’t really anything to pack, but Yu made sure he took a good shower and shaved for the first time since they’d gotten back.  Maybe it was stupid, but he wanted to look his best for today, however it ended up.  As he made his way through the house, he found Nakano sulking on the floor near the door to Shimomura’s room, head propped on his hand.

Yu furrowed his brow.  “What are you doing?” he asked.

Nakano stretched and leaned back against the wall, not quite making eye contact.  “Waiting,” he said, “Miss Shimomura’s helping Nagai with his disguise.  Theywon’ttellmewhatitis,” he added in a rush, his voice small.

Ah.  Yes that was one more snarl to this already ludicrous idea.  Managing to get Kei Nagai, whose face at this point was probably more well-known than Satou’s, into a large public place without anyone noticing him.  This wasn’t exactly Kyushu after all.  “I’ll be surprised if they manage to come up with something that doesn’t just attract more attention to us.”

“I dunno,” Nakano said, rubbing the back of his head anxiously, “She went out shopping for stuff yesterday, so maybe they have an idea?  But they’ve been in there for over an hour.”

The door opened, Shimomura striding out confidently.  She smiled at Nakano.  “Sorry to keep you waiting, little one,” she said, patting his head, and damn if the look on Nakano’s face wasn’t enough to completely fix Yu’s outlook on the day.

“I hope you are ready to go, Mr. Tosaki, because we should leave immediately,” a soft voice said.

Yu started, and looked down at a face he did not recognize.  Frills.  Frills and pastels and big big eyes that the more he looked at the more he realized they could only belong to… “Nagai?!” Nakano sputtered, pointing at him accusingly.

Shimomura had clearly worked some makeup magic on him, because the contours of his face were all wrong.  Something about the cheekbones and the shape of his nose was completely not like Nagai at all.  But honestly, even if she hadn’t done that, the painted eyes and mouth and the outfit that looked like it could have been lifted out of a Harajuku fashion magazine were enough that Yu couldn’t imagine anyone looking at this person and thinking it might even possibly be Kei Nagai in disguise.

NAGAI WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WEARING?!?!?” Nakano demanded, his voice rising higher and higher in pitch.

Nagai rolled his eyes.  “Something that takes advantage of my appearance,” he said shortly, “This is a simple solution to our problem.  We’re lucky I can get away with it.”

“I think he looks nice, doesn’t he, Nakano?” Shimomura said gently.

Nakano made a strangled sound in his throat, but otherwise said nothing.  Yu shrugged.  “Good job, Nagai,” he said.

They all got into the car, and left without fanfare.  Ogura had either left already or was doing a very good job keeping to himself.  As they left the safe house for the last time, Yu found himself wondering what they were actually going to do, after this.  Sure, abstractly, Shimomura seemed to have some ideas.  But beyond staying alive Yu was completely at a loss as to what they could do.  Then again, perhaps that was enough for now.

The drive went by quickly, to Yu’s surprise.  Perhaps it was dread that sped things along.  Although he knew that a couple hours had to have passed, it barely seemed like any time at all had gone by when Shimomura parked the car.  As they walked up the street toward the hospital, they passed by a convenience store, and Nakano stopped short, looking in the window.

“Hey…” he said, walking up to the storefront where some newspapers were displayed, “Nagai…isn’t this…?”

Moving a little closer, Yu quickly scanned the headlines Nakano was looking at.  Something about the US, something about sports, the prime minister, something about an “angel” in Tokyo, and…

“‘Eriko Nagai Still Missing, Law Enforcement Baffled,’” he read out loud.

“Dude, is this your sister??” Nakano asked.

Nagai had a strange expression on his face, enhanced by the makeup he was wearing.  He stared at the display for a moment, before turning away.  “Well,” he said shakily, “there’s nothing I can do about that.”

Nakano looked like he wanted to say something else but he was silenced by a glare from Nagai.  “We don’t have time for this now, Kou,” he hissed, “We have more important things to worry about.”  He strode over toward Nakano and deliberately took his hand.  “We’ll be going ahead, Mr. Tosaki.  Miss Shimomura.”

Nakano ripped his hand away.  “The fuck are you doing?” he demanded, taking a few steps back.

Nagai pinched the bridge of his nose.  “The four of us going in together is going to look too odd,” he said slowly, “It’s normal for those two to be together, but you and I need to look as anonymous as possible.  Going in separately is the best strategy.”  He stepped forward and took Nakano’s hand again.

“And what is this all about?” Nakano asked icily.

“We already look like a couple anyway.  We might as well do what we can to make the illusion more believable.  Now stop looking so upset.  I’m counting on your ability to get along with people to get us past the front desk.”

Nagai was right.  It was also better this way, if Satou ended up in that hospital.  Splitting his attention between Yu and Nagai was probably the best strategy they had, since they certainly couldn’t beat him head-on.  Nodding, he briefly explained to them where Ai’s room in the hospital was, and finished with, “in the event that we can’t reconvene in the hospital, we’ll meet back here in two hours.  Don’t be late.”

Nagai nodded.  “Right.  Alright, come along, Kou,” he said, tugging at Nakano’s hand and leading them down the street.

“Not so fast, Keiko, darling,” Nakano snarled.

Shimomura watched them go with a sigh.  After a minute, she said, “You know, from a distance, they really do look a bit like a couple.”

Yu refused to dignify that with a response.  For some reason this made Shimomura smile.  “Well, shall we go?”

They recognized him at the front desk, and waved the two of them in without any trouble.  Soon they were sitting in Ai’s room, surrounded by beeping machines.  With a brief word to the aides coming in and out of the room, they were alone in the windowless room.  Yu sat by the bed and held Ai’s thin hand in his own shaking one, unable to bring himself to look at her face.

The clock ticked.  Shimomura stood a respectful distance away, arms folded behind her back.  Ai had told him once that the only time he would be allowed to sit by her hospital bed and hold her hand was while she was giving birth.  Otherwise, he’d have to manage without her for a while and leave her alone to get better.  If she was conscious she’d probably be scolding him right now.  The thought made tears well up in his eyes.

“Was it like this with me?” Shimomura asked suddenly, interrupting his reverie.

Yu blinked and looked up at her.  “What do you mean?”

“When I was dying in the hospital.  Was it like this?”

Yu looked around the room.  “…no…” he said, “It wasn’t.”

“Oh?”

“Ai is in a much nicer facility, with better care.  There was none of that for you.  And…”

“And?”

Yu swallowed.  “I didn’t particularly care whether or not you died.  As far as I could tell, no one did.”  He didn’t feel guilty, exactly, as he admitted this, but he felt like he should.  Maybe Ai would have.

Shimomura shrugged.  “The only one that’s ever cared whether I lived or died is me.  That’s how it’s always been.”

“Ah.”

They’d cut her hair.  It was probably easier to care for this way, but it made the body lying on the hospital bed look even less like the woman Yu had loved.  Still loved.  Present tense.  He ran his fingers through the short hair, shorter than his, wondering if she would have liked it or not.  Wondering if it mattered.  He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her temple, cupping her cheek with his hand.

“Yesterday, you said you wanted to see her too,” Yu murmured, pressing his forehead against Ai’s.  He hadn’t questioned it in the heat of the moment, but he’d been wondering about it since. It’s not as if Ai had been famous or something. “Why?”

He heard a faint rustling sound, and looked up to see Shimomura grasping Ai’s shoulder lightly, an unreadable expression on her face.  “She knew Yoko Tainaka,” she said quietly, “before.  Not as well as she knew you, but…”

He hadn’t expected that.  “She knew you?” he asked, eyes wide, “how?”

“She didn’t know me, she knew Yoko Tainaka,” Shimomura said stiffly, walking toward the door, “and Yoko Tainaka is dead.  You saw her die.”

“Shimomura…”

“We should leave soon.  We’ve been here long enough.  I’ll give you a moment alone with her before we go.”

Yu sighed as the door slammed shut behind her.  He knew she wouldn’t go far, but it was still strange to be separate from her.  He smiled despite himself.  He really must have touched a nerve if she was leaving him unguarded like this.  Despite everything, she was still so young and inexperienced.  No seasoned bodyguard would have made this mistake.

“I’ve not been a very good person, Ai,” he said without any particular emotion, taking her hand in his once again, “I’ve made a lot of choices you wouldn’t be proud of.  And it was all for nothing…”

The music of her faint heartbeat beeped on one of the machines, sputtering and irregular but still there.  He fancied, for a moment, a miracle taking place, and Ai waking up to meet his eyes and scold him just like she always had.  And he would slave away the rest of his life until she forgave him.

But the moment passed, and she remained still and cold.  Yu took a shaky breath.  “I’m…not sure what to do next.  I know you’d know what to do.  Maybe that’s why I’ve been like this…I counted on you telling me what to do for so long that when I lost you, I lost all the purpose I’d had.  I…”  He bit back tears, “I’ve missed you so much.  I—”

Abruptly, it was dark.  He heard the whine of machines powering down, and most of the beeps around him stopped.  A roar underneath him as the building’s generator kicked in, and a few feeble emergency lights flickered on in the hallway.  Yu sighed, leaning forward to kiss Ai one last time.  “Goodbye, Ai.”

He stepped into the hallway, straightening his tie as he did so.  “Satou?” he asked the darkness.

“No,” said a young voice, cold and dangerous, “worse.”

A boy leaned on the wall, just barely illuminated by one of the lights.  He was young, with wild hair, and eyes that glittered ruthlessly in the flickering light.  He also looked familiar, though Yu couldn’t exactly remember how.  “I wasn’t aware that Satou had someone this young working for him,” Yu said carefully.

The boy’s eyes almost seemed to glow in the light.  “I don’t work for Satou.”

He noticed the boy moving, but not until he’d been knocked over and the boy was on top of him, a knife pressed to his throat.  Okay, so much for talking his way out of this.  Where was Shimomura?  “I’m deciding,” the boy said silkily, “whether I should kill you quickly or not.  It certainly wasn’t a privilege you granted to Kei.”

Oh.  Oh.  Now he knew who this was.  Yu hadn’t met him before, but he’d read his file after he’d been arrested.  Yu had judged the boy not dangerous enough to expend more time or energy on.  Evidently, he’d been wrong.  “Kaito…” he said softly, hyperaware of the blade on his throat.  “Kaito, listen.  Let me go, and I can help you find Kei.  You’re looking for him, right?”

Kaito’s hands were shaking.  Actually, his whole body was shaking.  While in the half-light and from a distance he’d seemed poised and in control, up close he looked like a wreck.  Not that that made him any less dangerous right now, but it was important to note.  His hair looked like it hadn’t been washed in days, and his skin looked pale and clammy.  “It would be wise for you not to talk,” he said, his eyes manic.  “Get up.”

Kaito eased off of him and pulled him up by the shoulder, keeping the knife pressed to his throat.  Where the hell was Shimomura?  “Walk.  We’re leaving.”

“You’re not going to kill me here?”

“I’m going to take you somewhere Satou can’t find you.  Somewhere no one can find you.”

“You really want to steal Satou’s kill from him?”

Kaito barked out a laugh, nudging Yu down a flight of stairs.  “Satou doesn’t give a shit about you.  He wants to get killing you over with as quickly as possible.  You bore him.  Make no mistake, that video he made wasn’t about you at all, it was for me.”

Kaito suddenly stopped short, pulling Yu back before he could take another step forward.  The emergency lights gleamed eerily around them.  For a moment, there was silence.  Then a familiar sound, a sound he’d heard back at Forge.  Kaito tsked.  “Sounds like the place is already crawling with cops,” he muttered, “reckless maniac.”

The distant sounds of people shouting and running and firing guns echoed in the stairwell.  It sounded like they were getting closer.  Another possibility occurred to Yu.  “Did someone recognize Nagai after all?” he asked softly, barely realizing he was saying it aloud.

Kaito slammed him into the wall, twisting his arm behind his back until it made his eyes water with pain.  “Mind running that by me again?” Kaito hissed, as the sounds of gunfire and shouting got louder and louder.

Yu grunted, tasting blood on the inside of his cheek.  “Nagai came with me in disguise, but I guess they must have recognized him.”

“Kei is here?

The sound of a door slamming open echoed around them, and suddenly the stairwell was filled with police officers.  Kaito swore, and without hesitation threw the knife aside and kicked at a pipe on the wall until a piece came away and water started spraying everywhere.  “Here?!” Kaito roared, kicking Yu down the flight of stairs and into the path of the police officers, “You brought Kei here?!

With a murderous look in his eyes, Kaito adjusted his grip on the pipe, crouching like a wild animal on the stairs above Yu.  Yu tried to drag himself up against the wall and out of the way, his head spinning.  He must have hit it when he fell.  Pain blossomed out from his chest and spiked when he breathed.  Damn if that kid didn’t kick like a mule.

Kaito leapt into the crowd, cracking one of the officers in the head with his pipe.  “What the fuck!?!” Yu cried, the pain in his chest nearly unbearable as he shouted, “Are you trying to kill them?!”

“If Kei is here, then they are all a threat to him,” Kaito replied, barely audible above the noise.

And then, suddenly, silence.

“Kai, you came,” a low voice purred.

Yu and the police officers turned in shock toward the bottom of the stairs, where Satou stood nonchalantly, a smile on his face.  “I’d wondered what could have caused all this commotion…though of course I hoped it was you.”

Kaito looked feverish, listless and glassy eyes set in a flushed face.  Satou’s smile widened to show his teeth, and he started strutting up the stairs, pulling out a gun.  After a brief hesitation, the officers began to scramble, firing fruitlessly at Satou as he came up the stairs.  Yu heaved himself to his feet, the pain making him want to vomit.  “Look at my industrious Kai,” Satou crooned, punctuating his words with shots from his gun, neatly disposing of several officers as he parted the crowd, “I’ll bet you could take care of every person in this room if you wanted.  It would be fun to watch you.”

Kaito was shaking, and he backed away as Satou drew closer, causing Satou to chuckle.  A stray bullet came close to Kaito and Satou shielded him with his body, pinning Kaito against the wall with his arm.  His body reset quickly, and he opened his eyes, throwing his gun away and cupping Kaito’s cheek with his now-free hand.  None of the officers seemed to know what to do.  Yu started dragging himself up the stairs and away from whatever the fuck insanity was going on, but for some reason he couldn’t…look away.

Satou leaned in to press a tender kiss to Kaito’s lips, and though Yu’s vision was swimming, the shell-shocked look in Kaito’s eyes made Yu want to vomit.  “I’ve missed you, Kai,” Satou said, his hand trailing down Kaito’s body from his cheek to his stomach, “let’s finish things up here, and then we can get back to what we were doing before you were taken away from me.”

Someone take him out!” one of the officers cried, and Satou turned to look at them with a fond smile.

“Tell you what,” he said conspiratorially, leaning down to pick up the knife Kaito had discarded, “whoever kills more can take the lead afterwards.”

That seemed to snap Kaito out of whatever daze he was in, and he shoved Satou away.  “I’m not competing with you,” he said, bringing down another officer with a swing of his pipe.

“No,” Satou said happily, stabbing an officer in the throat and stealing her gun, “but you’re using me.”

“I use whomever I have to,” Kaito said darkly, vanishing into the sea of bodies.

Yu lost his balance and slipped, starting to fall back down the stairs, when a heavy pair of hands caught him and hoisted him up the rest of the way.  “Shimomura,” he breathed, recognizing the feel of her IBM’s hands, safely out of range now of the burst of water coming from the ruined pipe.

“Mr. Tosaki, we need to get out of here,” he heard her whisper, and he tried to focus his vision enough to make her out in the gloom, “while Satou is distracted and before you are hurt even worse.”

“Where are Nagai and Nakano?”

“I don’t know.  I lost sight of them after the initial commotion, and rushed back to find you.”

Yu felt Shimomura’s IBM shift him in its grip until he was cradled against its chest, looking out over its shoulder as Shimomura and her IBM ran down a dark hall.  He must have hit his head harder than he thought, he thought to himself as he saw a white figure that looked like Ai standing in one of the doorways as they breezed by.

As they ran, Shimomura muttered, “I hope Nagai didn’t try abandoning Nakano.  Nakano’s the only one of the two of them that can hold his own in a fight that isn’t one-on-one…”

See!?!  Shimomura gets it!” a voice hissed, and around the corner crept Nagai and Nakano, both of them looking like they’d been in a couple fights.

Shimomura sighed.  “I’m glad you’re both alright.”

“We were careless,” Nagai muttered, “Do you think you would survive jumping if Shimomura’s IBM was carrying you, Mr. Tosaki?”

“I’m worried about the possibility of additional head trauma,” Shimomura said, “it looks like he’s fractured a rib and hit his head really bad.  Look, his eyes aren’t focusing.”

Nagai tsked.  “We’ll have to try to burst out the front together then,” he said, “and shield Mr. Tosaki as best we can.”

“We need to be careful,” Shimomura warned, “Satou’s in the building.  I saw him in a stairwell on the east side.”

The boys went rigid.  They’d all been expecting Satou to appear, but expecting him and seeing him were two very different things.  Yu might have been more afraid if he wasn’t so distracted by the pain.  He thought about telling Nagai that his friend was here, but decided against it.  There was enough distressing Nagai as it was.

They cautiously made their way down a different stairwell, the sounds of police officers fighting for their lives growing louder and louder.  Sickly, Yu realized they were probably trying to escape the building as well, not that they had a chance.  He only hoped there was enough of a buffer between them and Satou (and Kaito?) that they’d make it out alive.  Or that he’d make it out alive, he supposed.  The other three could probably manage otherwise.

No such luck, for as they approached the ground floor, they could see Satou fighting his way through a much smaller group of police officers as civilians continued to flee the building.  His movements were as light and ecstatic as a dance, and it made Yu feel sick to look at it.  He turned and looked at them, and winked, before resuming his attention on the officers he was fighting.

And then several things happened at once.

Out of nowhere, an enormous IBM arm burst through one of the walls, forming a barrier between them and Satou.  An ear-piercing scream made the walls rattle, and Satou looked up and cocked his head curiously.  Yu's heart stopped beating.  Just its arm, and it was bigger than any IBM Yu had ever seen.  Weren't they supposed to be vaguely human-sized?

Out of the corner of his eye, Yu saw Nagai stiffen in shock and muted horror, and directed his attention across the room to where Kaito had suddenly reappeared, a feral snarl on his face as he lunged toward another officer with his pipe and beat the officer’s face in until he lay motionless on the floor.

Kai…” Nagai whispered, and Yu’s legs felt like water.  Kaito kept on fighting, and tears welled up in Nagai’s eyes.  “KAI!!” he screamed, the word echoing in the room around them.

Across the room, Kaito froze, and turned in slow motion toward them.  There was blood on his hands, on his face, on his clothes.  The savage expression on his face morphed into fear and horrified dismay.  “Kei?” he said disbelievingly, frantically looking at the carnage around him and then back at his friend, “I—”

“And that’s enough of that!” Satou said cheerfully, grabbing a tranquilizer gun from a fallen officer and shooting Kai in the neck with it, matter-of-factly.  Kaito immediately slumped to the floor, the pipe falling out of his hands with a clank.  Satou smiled down at Kaito’s motionless form, before eyeing the giant IBM arm suspiciously and picking Kaito up, slinging him over his shoulder.  “As much as it pains me to say this,” he said with great regret, “raincheck?”

Nakano lunged forward, only barely held back by Shimomura.  “Listen you piece of shit,” he spat at Satou, clawing at Shimomura’s arms, “I swear—”

Nagai was motionless, but with a shriek his IBM manifested and charged toward Satou, screaming Kaito’s name.  Satou chuckled, and snapped his fingers, his own IBM manifesting and grappling with Nagai’s without any trouble.  Nagai slumped to his knees, and Satou got away.

Still, Yu was alive, so he was calling this a win.

"Who is that, do you think?" Shimomura asked him quietly as the giant IBM arm disintegrated.  Yu had no answer.

They made it out of the hospital before additional law enforcement arrived, and they walked back to the car in silence, Nagai scrubbing at the makeup on his face but only succeeding at smearing it.  It still hurt for Yu to breathe, but he did his best to grit his teeth and bear it.  Nakano watched Nagai with wide eyes as they walked, and Shimomura kept her eyes resolutely ahead.  The only thing there was to do, really.

“I don’t understand…” Nagai finally said, stopping short in front of a shop filled with TV screens, “that’s…I…how could this have happened to him?”

Nakano gave Nagai a sidelong glance, before cautiously resting his arm on Nagai’s shoulders and tugging him close.  “Don’t convince yourself that this is your fault,” he said, “we just have to keep moving for now.”  Nagai looked like he’d blow away in a strong gust of wind.  Nakano set his jaw.  “Kei, stay with me man, please.”

“Keiko,” Nagai corrected weakly.

Kaito had wanted to kill Yu, so he couldn’t exactly find it in himself to feel bad for him.  Then again, he couldn’t exactly blame Kaito for wanting to kill him.  And wouldn’t wish being Satou’s captive on anyone.

He thought of that blank shell-shocked look in Kaito’s eyes while Satou kissed him, and shuddered.

He was startled out of his reverie by Shimomura patting him urgently on the shoulder.  He looked up and was startled to see Satou on all of the screens in the shop, smiling at them from his chair.  “He doesn’t normally broadcast on TV,” Shimomura whispered, looking anxiously at him.

Hello again,” Satou said in his infuriatingly friendly voice.  How the hell had he already gotten back to his headquarters to broadcast?  “This is Satou the ajin.  How are you all?  I come to you today with sad news…

Nakano gritted his teeth and glared at the screen.  Satou sighed and continued.  “Unfortunately, the latest target of our purification, Yu Tosaki, has proven slipperier than expected, and has escaped me today.  But not without…” and here he stood up, walking to the side as the camera followed him, and Nagai made a faint strangled noise, “…not without harming one of our allies.

“Sick fucking bastard,” Nakano muttered, as Satou walked up to a hospital bed, where Kaito had been laid out, still unconscious and covered in blood.

So for all of those that wish to see a better Japan, indeed, a better world, let this be your call to arms.  Find the man who calls himself Yu Tosaki, and bring him to justice for all of us.  The one who succeeds…” he turned to flash a devilish grin at the camera, running his fingers through Kaito’s hair, “will be greatly rewarded.

So now there was a bounty on his head.  Perfect.  As if it wasn’t going to be hard enough to be on the run already.  He dug in his pockets and popped a few mints into his mouth.  Shimomura narrowed her eyes.  “This is odd,” she said, “Why did he leave?  Was he afraid?”

Satou opened his mouth to say something, but then narrowed his eyes at a soft voice from off screen.  Suddenly the image flickered, another image appearing for an instant.  The audio started cutting out.  As they watched, Satou began to appear frustrated, then intrigued, and then Satou’s feed abruptly cut off, and all they could see was a simple, Japanese-style garden.  Nakano blinked.  “Did someone just hack Satou?”

Two pairs of boots came into frame, and a girl knelt in front of the camera, while another figure visible only from the waist down stood beside her.  Yu’s heart leapt into his throat as he realized that he recognized the girl, though her edges looked sharper and stronger than the last time he’d seen her.  Something burned in her eyes that made him unable to look away.

Ajins of Japan,” she said in a steady, commanding voice, “I am Eriko Nagai.  This is your call to arms.

Chapter Text

Naomi pressed some coins into the vending machine carefully, selecting one drink with no caffeine…and one with lots of it for herself.  She took a sip before it was strictly cool enough to drink, years of drinking office-brewed coffee rendering her immune to scalding her mouth.  She sighed contentedly as the warmth settled in her belly.  While it wasn’t winter, she couldn’t think of a single time of year when it wasn’t chilly at sunrise.

As an afterthought, she bought a bottle of water as well.

Curled up on the bench where she’d left him was her little fugitive, though she supposed in some regards she was technically a fugitive as well.  A stray sunbeam softened the hard planes of his face, which was tight and guarded even in sleep.  It made her heart ache.

He didn’t stir as she approached, but a stray dog resting under the bench lifted its head and looked at her, its eyes wary but not dangerously so.  Naomi smiled.  She’d been gone for maybe ten minutes.  A new record, perhaps.

“Kouji?” she said quietly, careful not to touch him or get too close.

Kouji flinched, curling up tighter on himself, and the dog whined.  “Kouji, you’re safe, open your eyes,” Naomi said, keeping her voice steady.

A pair of eyes more feral than the dog’s opened up and looked at her, taking a moment before focusing into something tamer.  “Miss Li,” Kouji said, “You came back.”

It didn’t bring tears to her eyes anymore when he said things like that, but the growing certainty that he would never stop saying things like that made her shoulders droop.  “I always do,” she said, smiling despite herself.  She still didn’t get any closer.

Stretching, Kouji sat up, startling as he noticed the dog lying beneath him.  The dog wagged its tail.  Kouji was on the ground and on his knees so fast that honestly the dog should have been scared, but as was disgustingly heart-rottingly typical, it didn’t even seem to occur to the dog to be anything other than happy.  If it hadn’t been for Naomi’s experiences with Satou and his gang, she might think it was an ajin thing.

Technically, she supposed as she opened up the bottle of water, it still could be an ajin thing.  For all she knew, Satou was great with animals.  Kouji looked up at her helplessly.  “Miss Li…” he said, “I…”

“Here you go,” Naomi said fondly, holding out the bottle of water.

Kouji’s face lit up like a child’s, and he cupped his hands, holding them toward her.  Carefully, Naomi poured a little bit of water into his hands, and Kouji excitedly held his hands out to the dog, who drank greedily.  Most of the water spilled onto the ground, but Naomi had bought a whole bottle.

After the water was all gone, Kouji sat back on the bench, blowing on his hands.  Now, Naomi sat down beside him, offering a warm drink with a sly smile.  “Want this?”

Kouji looked at it with wide eyes for a moment, as though this hadn’t become something of a ritual, and took it reverently.  “Thank you, Miss Li.”

Koujiii, how many times do I have to tell you to call me Naomi?” Naomi teased, cautiously reaching a hand out toward the dog.  When the dog didn’t react unfavorably, she gently started scratching it behind the ear.

Kouji averted his eyes and blew on his drink.  He held it gently, as though he were afraid it might break.  Naomi was afraid he would drop it.  She sighed, leaning back and feeling the weight of the gun shifting on her hip.  “We should probably get moving soon,” she said softly, glancing around the empty park, “It won’t be long before people start showing up here.”

The dog suddenly whined, flattening its ears and crouching.  Naomi cast her eyes about quickly, but couldn’t see anything it might be responding to.  Kouji sighed.  “It’s my ghost,” he said bitterly, “It’s been coming out on its own lately…”

The dog crawled under the bench, shaking.  Kouji looked at it sadly.  “You’re right, we should go.”

As usual, Naomi found herself at a loss for how to comfort him as they walked wordlessly side-by-side.  Everything she thought of to say just turned into an apology in her mouth, and as guilty as she felt, she wasn’t going to make him deal with her own feelings on top of his own.  Her guilt was one burden she could at least manage to spare him from.

“Miss Li, we’ve made a mistake coming here,” Kouji said suddenly, keeping his voice low.

Naomi immediately tensed.  “Why?” she hissed.

“It was so dark when we got in that I didn’t recognize, but now…” he gestured helplessly at the town around them, “this is my hometown.”

Naomi looked at him, her frightened expression reflected in the windows of the restaurant behind him.  “Do you think anyone will recognize you?” she asked tightly.

“Yes, I…” he trailed off, looking over his shoulder to consider his own reflection.  “…no, I don’t think anyone will.”

After the initial shock died down, Naomi began to think that perhaps this was honestly a good outcome.  Something she’d noticed Kouji doing wherever they went was attempting to orient himself to time and place, which she supposed she couldn’t blame him for.  Even if he’d been out of the lab for months by now, he still had years and years of catching up to do.  Even the littlest things such as the change in font on a newspaper might throw him off.

It was still a surreal experience to have Kouji show her around his hometown.  A copse of trees was the best bug-hunting spot, a patch of grass his family’s preferred spot for summer picnics.  That was where his mother had bought groceries, there was where his father had worked, and that’s where he’d had his first kiss.  “And that’s where they’d set us up during festivals,” he said, pointing to a pavilion in the center of town.

“‘Us?’”

“The musicians.  It was something my grandfather and his friends did, and any of their family members they could coerce,” he added with a smile.

“That must have been fun,” Naomi said, “Do you think they still do that?”

Kouji’s face darkened, and Naomi immediately regretted saying anything.  “They probably still do,” Kouji said, his voice wet, “but my grandfather no longer plays with them.”

Naomi dropped her eyes to the ground and didn’t dare say a word.  The sounds of people out and about rumbled around her.  Cars.  A finger hooked under her chin, raising her eyes to meet Kouji’s gentle ones.  “You aren’t going to ask about it?” he asked, his voice small and curious.

Naomi squinted her eyes shut and shook her head emphatically.  “I’m not going to make you talk about something so painful,” she said.

Kouji frowned, and released her face, looking away.  “Whether I talk about it or not isn’t going to make it stop being painful,” he said.

He kept walking, and Naomi followed.  In a quiet voice, Kouji said, “My family all tried their hardest to protect me, in their own ways.  In the end, I was captured anyway, and they were all executed for treason.”

Naomi numbly registered the tears rolling down her cheeks.  What was there to say?  “I…they must have loved you, very much,” she said, trying to put more conviction than she felt into her words.

“I wish they hadn’t,” Kouji said simply, “Then they’d still be alive.”

How was this man still intact?  Even at all?  Kouji gave her a sidelong glance, and took her hand, tugging her with him down the street.  “It’s funny,” he said, “When Satou first rescued me, I was so angry I couldn’t feel anything else.  Then I wanted to die.  Satou did everything he could to stamp that feeling out, but not even he could get rid of it.”

Naomi looked at him with wide eyes and squeezed his hand.  Kouji laughed.  “So it’s funny,” he continued, “that somewhere along the way I’ve just lost track of that feeling on my own.  I’m not sure what I’m living for yet, but I want to find out, I think.”

And I would die for you to be able to find that out, Naomi thought, the thought coalescing and gaining strength in her mind.  But she didn’t say it out loud.

“Oh man,” Kouji said, interrupting her train of thought, “Now this brings back memories.”

Naomi blinked and looked up at a shopfront.  Colorful decals of animated characters, some old and faded, some new, covered the windows and made it nearly impossible to see in.  She squinted, just barely able to make out some shelves of packaged foods and a TV playing the news.  “It’s just a convenience store…”

“Mr. Yamamoto used to run this place,” Kouji said fondly, “well, him and his wife.  Sometimes when I was younger, I’d drop by and man the counter for a few hours in exchange for a meal.  I…I wonder what kind of person runs it now.”

Suddenly Kouji was walking in, and with a squeak Naomi ran after him.  Kouji didn’t make it very far into the store before being distracted by the rack of magazines, running his fingers over all of them as though he was fascinated by the texture.  Naomi watched uncertainly as he picked one up, idly flipping through it.  “I’d get this every week,” he said, “I only read Detective Conan, so I’d cut it out and give the rest to one of the neighbor kids.”

“Cut it out?”

“Yeah, and paperclip it together.  I had stacks of it in the back of my closet.”  He frowned.  “I wonder how it ended…”

Naomi fiddled with the hem of her jacket, then decided to back away and give him some time.  She’d buy them lunch to eat on the train, while they were here.  As she headed over to the wall where an array of bentos were assembled, an old man came out from the back room, taking a seat behind the counter.  He glanced at her for a moment, then pulled out a newspaper, acknowledging her no further.

Naomi swallowed, looking down at the bentos.  She should just grab something and get them out of here.  Without even looking at the contents, she grabbed two and started walking up to the counter, just as Kouji cried, “Miss Li!!!  It’s still running!”

Naomi blinked, and the old man looked up from his newspaper.  “What?”

“Look!  Detective Conan!  It hasn’t ended yet!  I—”

“Oh my God,” the old man said, his eyes wide, “Kouji?  Is that you?”

The floor felt like it fell out from under Naomi’s feet, but in a moment she’d swallowed the feeling down and taken a stance, pulling out the gun and shielding Kouji with her body.  “Stay behind me, Kouji,” she said, glaring coldly at the old man.

The old man, for his part, looked nonplussed.  “That’s hardly necessary,” he said with a sigh, holding his hands up beseechingly, “not for an old man like me.  Even gentle little Kouji doesn’t have anything to worry about from a man like me.”

“On your knees and put your hands in the air,” Naomi hissed.

A hand on her wrist, lowering the gun.  “Mr. Yamamoto?” Kouji asked softly, tears shimmering in his eyes.

The old man quirked a smile.  “I’m still alive, kid.”

Naomi glanced back and forth between the two men suspiciously, not quite willing to put the gun away.  Kouji was pale and looked ragged around the edges.  His whole body was shaking like a chainsaw.  Naomi had to quell the sudden urge to pet him like a dog.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again, Kouji,” Mr. Yamamoto said, “after what happened to your family, we knew they weren’t taking you anywhere good.”

Immediately something in Kouji’s body language smoothed, and he heaved a broken sigh, curling in on himself and sinking to the floor.  For a moment, the three of them stood there, Kouji quietly crying on the floor.  Mr. Yamamoto directed his attention toward Naomi.  “And you are his bodyguard, I take it?” he asked, his expression becoming much more stern.

“I keep him safe,” she said shortly.

He nodded approvingly.  “You hold that like you’ve used it before.”

“Once or twice.”

“Ever kill anyone?”

The question.  The gun in her hand.  The sound of Kouji sobbing on the floor beside her.  Suddenly she was somewhere else, somewhere darker, wearing a mask and gloves.  Firing the same gun at the same target through different armors at various distances, noting when the wounds stopped being fatal.  It had been standard procedure for them to gag Kouji during experiments, but evidently someone had forgotten that day, and Naomi had heard him the whole time.  He didn’t scream.  He just cried.

“Miss Li,” Kouji said, and she was back. “Put down the gun.”

Naomi’s hands were shaking.  She couldn’t move.  Her face contorted in a wide-eyed grimace, she watched as Kouji slowly stood up and pressed the gun into his chest.  She flinched.  With no fear or hurry in his demeanor, he gently pried her fingers away from the gun until it fell to the floor.  “That’s unsafe,” she said automatically, “what if it had discharged?”

“You’re crying,” Kouji said.

Naomi looked at the floor, and very carefully bit down on the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood in her mouth.  A shaky breath.  “I’m fine,” she said.

“Perhaps you two would like to sit down and have some tea,” Mr. Yamamoto said, holding the employee-only door open and beckoning them in.

Tea was warm and something to do with her hands so she didn’t just sit there like the useless waste of space she was, though some part of her that was perhaps a little bit less emotionally damaged smiled as Kouji made a face at the bitter taste.  He kept drinking for some reason though.

Mr. Yamamoto briefly excused himself from the room, leaving the two of them alone.  The gun, reholstered, jabbed painfully into Naomi’s hip.  She leaned into it, worrying the sore in her mouth between her teeth as she did so.  Kouji was oddly relaxed, sitting in a relaxed, open position as he looked around the room.  “Barely anything’s changed,” he said wonderingly, running his fingers over the grain of the table.  He looked out the window.  “Guess that tree finally came down.”

“A few winters ago,” Mr. Yamamoto said, coming back into the room with a box, “and only because a telephone pole fell onto it.”

Kouji laughed.  “Your wife must not have liked that.”

“She planted a new one in the spring.  She said she’d hated the color of the old one’s flowers anyway.”

“Ah, that sounds just like her.”  He hesitated.  “Where is she, by the way?”

“In Tokyo, visiting our son.  She’ll be very upset to have missed you…unless you think you’ll stay until she gets back.”

“We can’t stay.” Naomi said rigidly, slamming her teacup down.

“Well, I hope you can at least take something with you,” Mr. Yamamoto said, placing the box on the table in front of Kouji.

Kouji ran his hands over the box searchingly.  “What’s this?”

“I’ve had it for ten years,” said Mr. Yamamoto, “Unsure of what to do with it.  Your grandfather gave it to me, for safekeeping, before…well, before.”

A strangled sound.  Naomi watched as Kouji reached into the box with wide eyes, pulling out something wrapped in cloth.  “Is this…?”

Mr. Yamamoto nodded.  Kouji gulped and carefully unwrapped the object to reveal a shamisen.  Naomi looked at it in confusion.  A family heirloom?

“Would you like to have it back?” Mr. Yamamoto asked.

Kouji bit his lip.  “I don’t think I even remember how to play it…” he admitted.

Mr. Yamamoto took a seat and smiled.  “Try,” he said. “One of the old festival songs.”

“It’s probably out of tune.”

“Then tune it.”

Kouji ran his fingers along the neck, his eyes uncertain.  “I’m amazed none of the strings are broken,” he said, starting to pluck and twist the pegs at the top.  After a few minutes, he seemed satisfied.

Sunlight glinted off the bachi as Kouji began to play, biting his lip as he fumbled through the first part of a song Naomi distantly recognized.  But as the moments went by, his motions grew more confident, until when he suddenly stopped, breathing heavily, Naomi realized that she’d been holding her teacup up without taking a sip for the past few minutes.

Kouji’s whole body collapsed in on itself as he gulped air down, sweat beading on his forehead.  A loose smile unlike anything Naomi had ever seen on him rested easily on his face.  “Hah…I guess you never completely forget,” he said, closing his eyes.

Suddenly and without warning, a loud screech filled the room, and a pile of boxes in one corner was knocked over, cookies and cup noodles spilling all over the floor.  The table rattled and creaked as something very heavy landed on it, and Kouji snatched the shamisen away just before it fell onto the floor.  “It’s okay!” Kouji shouted, trying to stand between what must be his ghost and both Naomi and Mr. Yamamoto at the same time, “I just need to…”  He swore under his breath, shoving the shamisen into Naomi’s hands and covering his eyes, gritting his teeth and crouching.

Slowly, the wild energy left the room, and the ghost seemed to be gone.  “Kouji are you alright?” Naomi asked, running up to him with her hand extended.

“Dammit!” Kouji swore, punching the table and squinting his eyes shut.  “Every time I start to feel just a little bit of peace, that thing shows up and starts telling me I have to “find her”  “Find her, find her,” I don’t care just leave me alone!!!!”

Naomi backed away uncertainly, before stepping forward determinedly.  “You’re not going to hurt me, Kouji,” she said firmly, walking up to him and holding out the shamisen.

Kouji’s eyes were feral again, but he took the shamisen from her with measured gentleness, cradling it in his arms even as he looked like he might spontaneously combust.

Suddenly remembering they weren’t alone, Naomi turned to look at Mr. Yamamoto, who seemed to have recovered from his initial shock and was eyeing the mess on the floor appraisingly.  “I take it that there’s a lot about ajins that isn’t public knowledge,” he said, raising an eyebrow.

“You could say that, yeah,” Naomi said shakily.

“Is it over?”

“I think so.”

“Alright.  Well, come on you two, help me clean this up.”

After they’d finished helping Mr. Yamamoto, Kouji hesitantly told him that they should probably get going.  Naomi attempted to buy the two bentos she’d picked out earlier, but Mr. Yamamoto waved away her money.  “Just keep him safe,” he said gravely, “I’m sure you know better than I that that boy has seen enough of suffering.”

They were about to leave, when Kouji suddenly froze, looking at the television (still playing the news), with wild eyes.

“This video was released by Satou the ajin yesterday morning, and has since gone viral on many different video-sharing platforms.  While as with all of his releases, we’re left with more questions than answers, the implications of this video are nonetheless chilling.  Let’s watch.”

“Don’t you work with Satou?” Mr. Yamamoto asked curiously.

“Mr. Satou saved me,” Kouji said shortly, glancing at Naomi, “but I no longer work with him.”

“Hello again, this is Satou the ajin.  How are you all?  I’ve missed you.  I’ve made this video to announce the next target of our purification.”

Naomi felt her whole body go numb.  Had Satou changed his mind?  She jumped, suddenly finding her hand in Kouji’s vice-like grip, which, despite being painful, was extremely soothing.

As Satou continued, his voice became more serious. “This is someone whose crimes against us stand above all the others.  The man directly responsible for the capture and torture of Kei Nagai.”

“What’s he doing?” Kouji demanded, drowning out the television, “I’ve seen him.  He was bored!  He didn’t care!  All that monster wants is a good fight.”

“might join me.  I could use his help.  In three days, we will purify the world of Yu Tosaki.  I really hope you’ll join me, Kai.”

“Kai?” Naomi asked, confused before suddenly realizing. “Oh!  But…no, Satou killed him already.”  An unsettling thought.  “Do you think he’s an ajin?!?”

“Kai…” Kouji mused, tracing his lips with his finger.  “…Kai…ooooh,” he said in realization, shaking his head.  “I told him he was playing with fire.  Different Kai,” he said to Naomi, “no one you know.”  He looked up at the television as the video cut out and went back to the newscaster, setting his jaw.  “We need to go,” he said to Mr. Yamamoto with a bow, “Thank you for everything.”

Just before they reached the train station, Kouji stopped.  “I know you want us to go to Kyushu,” he said quietly, “because it’s safer there, and you’re right.  And I won’t stop you, I want you to go wherever you want.  But I can’t go there.  I need to go back the way we came.”

Naomi glared up at him.  “What are you saying?” she demanded, “why would you go back?!  Do you think you can stop Satou all by yourself?!?!”

Kouji shook his head.  “No, of course not.  But…there’s someone who needs my help to, I think.  That’s what my ghost’s been trying to tell me.  I need to go back, she’s waiting for me.”

Naomi pressed her fingers into her temples, sighing.  “Well I’m not letting you go and do something so crazy all alone,” she said firmly, “I’ll follow you until I’m sure you’re safe, or until I die.  You know that.”

Kouji smiled.  “Thank you, Miss Li.”

Beyond a vague direction Kouji wasn’t sure where exactly they needed to go, so they ended up on a small train bound for Tokyo.  When there weren’t too many people in the car with them, Kouji unwrapped the shamisen again and played absently, looking more centered than Naomi had ever seen him.  After a while, he fell asleep, resting his head in her lap.

They weren’t too many stops away from Tokyo when Kouji suddenly sat bolt upright, dragging Naomi off the train just before the doors closed, leaving them in a small town in Saitama.  Kouji looked around, puzzled.  “I’ve been here before…” he said, eyeing the streets and buildings, “but I don’t remember when.”

Naomi also had the strange thought that she should recognize this town, but didn’t quite.  Still, Kouji led them confidently enough through the streets until they’d reached a part of town where there were no people.  “What are you looking for, exactly?” Naomi asked, eying the dark streets suspiciously.

“I’m not looking for anything,” Kouji said, “I just feel where I’m supposed to go and walk toward it.”

Naomi kept one hand on her gun.

They’d been wandering aimlessly for a while when a cool voice suddenly said, “Kouji Tanaka, I presume?”

Naomi whirled around, pointing her gun in the direction of the voice, only to see that it was merely a young girl in her pajamas.  Her feet were bare.  Kouji walked out in front of Naomi, regarding the girl carefully.  “Eriko Nagai,” he said, “it’s been a while.”

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, “come with me.”

Chapter Text

Ajins of Japan.  I am Eriko Nagai.  This is your call to arms.

There was no one like Satou.  There never had been…ajins hadn’t existed (openly?) long enough for that to be the case.  And there never would be again.  Either Satou would, like any brat who got their way, destroy everything and leave no opportunity for the challenger he nevertheless so desperately wanted to ever come into existence, or, alternatively, humanity would manage to triumph, which would require the assistance of the ajin community, which would mean a formation of the ajin community, which would prevent someone like Satou from ever existing again.

Peerless, and without parallel.  And yet, Ikuya had met many who were just like Satou, if lacking the immortality.  Honestly, they bored him.

The streets of Tokyo spread out before him like the neural network of an LSD addict; bright colors and streams of light and jitters and a tangled web of contradictory emotions that he very carefully probed while keeping himself at arm’s length.  There was someone he was looking for.  If he was lucky and paid attention, he would be able to figure out where they would go next.

All around him, Ikuya caught snippets of conversations about Satou, which, he thought with an eyeroll, was exactly what the narcistic bastard would want.  It made it harder to filter through the noise for the information that he wanted, but at the same time it made his unwitting informants much bolder and more likely to let slip better information.  Tonight, the underworld would be moving.

The mistake that everyone was making, Eriko Nagai included, was assuming that Satou was only working directly through himself and his band of terrorists.  Sure, those were the A-listers.  But Satou was a mess of contradictions, and while he was eager for a fight and was practically dying for something that could challenge him, he was absolutely not interested at all in resistance.  This was made abundantly clear by the sharp rise in the number of missing-person cases since Satou had first gone public.  Eriko Nagai had called for the ajins of Japan to join her and fight against Satou, but Satou was making them disappear.

No one was doing anything about it.  There was no ajin community to notice it happening.  Law enforcement would have no way of knowing to connect the disparate cases, much less a course of action to follow for rescuing ajins if they did know the connection.  No one seemed to have noticed what was happening.

Except for, perhaps, one person.

Before long, Ikuya found who he was looking for, and followed from a distance, careful to avoid attracting the attention of the other people following his target.  His target, for his part, was someone who had absolutely no business being alone in the city this time of night.  If he was much older than eleven or twelve, than Ikuya was a middle-aged Swedish woman.  He still had chubby babyfat cheeks, for God’s sake, where the fuck were his parents?

More people were awakened ajins than they realized.  Children especially were prone to getting into dangerous situations just while they were out playing, and would shrug off a recovery from what an adult would recognize as a fatal head injury from a fall without thinking twice about it.  There were signs though; something in the eyes, something in the way the air tasted around them.  Something that made Ikuya feel safe, but also very sad.

He could intervene now.  He could get a little bit closer and whisk the boy away into a better-lit area where he wouldn’t be worth pursuing.  Spare him the fear.  Ikuya worried his lip.  But they would come again for the boy, and better for him to learn his lesson when there was at least a witness.  This way, even if Ikuya was wrong, the boy still had a chance to escape.

The same street vendor had been at four of the past six corners.  The same cab driver had been at three of them.  The boy was definitely being followed.  How would they get him away from the main road?  Brute force?  Lure him with candy?

“Oh honey, are you lost?” a sweet voice asked.

“No, just late,” the boy replied.

The voice in question came from a girl in a high school uniform, who Ikuya had a feeling was older than she looked.  “Well, all the more reason for me to walk you home.  I’ve seen you around before, we’re neighbors!  Come with me, I know a shortcut.  Your parents are probably worried.”

A loud truck driving by prevented Ikuya from hearing the rest of their conversation, but after a moment he saw the boy take the girl’s hand and let himself be lead off the main road and into an alley.  Frantically weighing costs and benefits, Ikuya counted to twenty before rushing after them, peering around the corner into the alley as he saw the boy cornered by the girl and two men.  “Scream and we’ll kill ya,” one of the men said, spinning a knife dangerously, “get in the van.”

The boy whimpered.  Ikuya’s hands were shaking.  He shoved them in his pockets.

As the men drew closer, the boy sank to the ground and curled up in a ball.  Ikuya felt the gun under his jacket.  The boy was an ajin, but the adults were not.  He glanced skyward.  If they touched the boy, Ikuya would shoot.

“Quit fucking around, Satoshi,” the other man growled, “just kill him and bag him while he resets.”

Just as Ikuya tightened his grip on the gun, the sound of a faint pop made everyone jump, and whirl around hunting for its source.  The girl noticed it first, crying out and pointing to a nearby fire escape.  There, perched about ten feet above them, was a boy.  Had he been there before?

As they gaped at him, the boy chewed what must have been gum, before blowing another bubble.  It popped.  As he watched them with hooded eyes, the air crackled in the alley.  This boy was an ajin too.  Ikuya couldn’t tell if he’d been spotted yet.

“This is official business and doesn’t concern you,” the girl sneered, “you wanna die?”

“I’d rather not,” the boy admitted, plucking the wad of gum out of his mouth and dropping it on the girl’s head.

Immediately all hell broke loose.  Or so Ikuya presumed, from the noises.  He couldn’t actually see anything.  The narrow alley was filled with a roiling mass of IBM and would-be kidnappers.  Crunch.  One of the men screamed.  The little boy was crying.  The other man yelled.  The girl didn’t make a sound.

Suddenly the alley went still, the three criminals panting and dripping sweat.  One of the men was on his knees, clutching his leg.  The girl coughed, wiping blood away from her mouth and pressing the other hand into her ribs.  The older ajin stood nonchalantly in front of them, holding a baseball bat over his shoulder.  His IBM reared up behind him, wings curled protectively around the little boy.  Ikuya’s hands itched for his lab notebook, but alas.

The older ajin narrowed his eyes, glancing meaningfully back toward the main road.  “Show’s over,” he said, popping a piece of gum into his mouth.  His IBM loomed over them.

The three kidnappers ran, one of the men dragging his leg behind him.

The boy was shivering.  Without a pause, the older ajin crouched beside him, murmuring soft words that Ikuya couldn’t hear.  The IBM vanished.  Ikuya itched to get closer but something kept him from closing the distance.  Slowly, the boy stopped crying, and pulled out his phone.  Ah, good idea, having him call his parents.  Ikuya glanced back toward the street.  There were several shops that would be safe places for the boy to wait.

Slim fingers whisper-light on his throat.  “Don’t move.”

Ikuya froze.  He’d never heard an ajin Voice speak so quietly.

He watched, unable to move, as the older ajin led the little boy into a shop.  He’d had some experience with Voices before, so the paralysis wore off sooner than the ajin probably expected it would.  Seeing no point in not being comfortable, he walked into the alley and sat on the ground, lighting a cigarette and waiting.  After a moment’s thought, he took out his gun and laid it on the ground in front of him.

Before long, the ajin came back.  To his credit, he didn’t even seem surprised that Ikuya had moved.  Hell, for all Ikuya knew, the kid wasn’t.  “Want a smoke?” Ikuya asked, offering his box.  There weren’t many left.

“Nah,” the ajin said, pulling a piece of gum out and popping it in his mouth, “I quit.”

Ikuya shrugged.  For a moment they said nothing.  The ajin chewed.  Ikuya blew out a cloud of smoke.  “So,” the ajin said, “Do you work for Satou too?”

Ikuya tapped the ashes.  “I suppose I technically worked for the government at one point, but presently I’m unemployed.  Call me a concerned citizen.”

“You shouldn’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.  You’ll just get yourself killed.”

Ikuya nodded at the gun in front of him.  “Obviously I’m not afraid of you.”

“That’s not my problem,” the ajin said, swinging his baseball bat idly.

Ikuya grinned.  “Don’t try to act too tough with me.  Your reputation precedes you, Angel of Tokyo.”

The ajin blew a bubble and popped it, rolling his eyes.  “Please call me Kotobuki,” he groaned.

Ikuya laughed.  “Then you can call me Ogura,” he said, “I’m not your enemy, Kotobuki.  I’m just a scientist, and not the kind you think, though it’s true that I study ajins, no sense hiding that from you.”

Kotobuki’s eyes were hooded like a snake’s.  “Why are you here?” he demanded, black particles swarming in the air around him.

Now this was odd.  Ikuya knew what an ajin’s bloodlust felt like quite well.  The flavor differed slightly, of course, but it always had that same bite to it.  But if bloodlust was spicy, then this was…sweet.  Ikuya had had his suspicions from what he’d heard about the Angel, but to have it right in front of him like this was something else altogether.

“How do you do it?” Ikuya asked as the ajin’s IBM materialized before him, “I shouldn’t be able to see your IBM unless you want to kill.  But you don’t, and you didn’t earlier, did you?”

Kotobuki narrowed his eyes, and for a split second Ikuya saw Kei Nagai in front of him, watching him with narrow eyes while his IBM loomed before him.  They probably had some superficial similarities, like a levelheaded intelligence and a hesitance to form attachments.  And an unwillingess to risk their lives.  But Kei Nagai had always felt at best like a mercenary in their ranks, even moreso than the real mercenaries.  He had no dedication to whatever they called their cause, and would jump ship the moment it became inconvenient to stay.

Maybe that Nakano kid would be able to get Nagai more invested in the fate of the world, but to Ikuya at least he was a lost cause.  But something fundamental about Kotobuki’s bearing was different, Ikuya observed, tasting IBM on his tongue as Kotobuki’s IBM crooned static.  If Nagai was a mercenary, then Kotobuki was a knight.

“You’re the scientist, you tell me.”

Ikuya took a drag from his cigarette.  Kotobuki blew another bubble.  Pop.  The IBM was blocking the way out of the alley.  Good, Kotobuki probably wasn’t going to bolt.

“I wasn’t born Ogura, you know,” Ikuya began, grinning when he noticed Kotobuki’s eyes widen for a beat.  It was always nice to surprise someone.  “I was born Yukimura.  Ogura is my wife’s family name.”

Kotobuki shrugged.  “Never heard of her.”

“That’s fair,” Ikuya acquiesced, “I don’t think your circles would overlap.  But in my circle, Dr. Dipali Ogura is a renowned radiochemist.  Dipali’s not a Japanese name, by the way,” he added, gesturing with his cigarette, “it’s Indian.”

“And?”

“I had no real family to speak of,” Ikuya said, “Maybe you can relate.  Dipali changed that.  She made me part of her family.  That’s why I took her name.”

He ground out the cigarette and got up, hesitantly walking toward Kotobuki’s IBM.  After cautiously running his hands over its wings, he stretched one wing out, comparing the structure to that of real birds.  “We were visiting her family when it happened,” he said absently, his hands not pausing in their work, “Everything happened so fast.  We were just walking on the sidewalk with a few of her cousins when suddenly a car drove onto the sidewalk.  She’d run ahead to say hello to an old friend.  If she hadn’t, maybe things would have ended differently.”

“What does your dead wife have to do with me?” Kotobuki asked stiffly, fiddling with his baseball bat.

“She’s not dead, and she has everything to do with you,” Ikuya said lightly, running his fingers along the IBM’s feathers and marveling at their softness, “such a pretty thing,” he crooned.  “Ajins are venerated in India, you know.  They were wheeling her corpse away on a stretcher when she suddenly woke up.  Instead of taking her to the morgue they took her to a temple, and wouldn’t let me get anywhere near her.  Your IBM has remained solid for a very long time.  I wonder if the reason it’s always visible also makes it more durable…”

“She got a better end than any ajin in Japan would have.”

“Perhaps, but it doesn’t have to be the end, now does it?” Ikuya asked, looking at Kotobuki critically.  Kotobuki had a hard time meeting his eyes.  “The day I got back to Japan, I started smoking and wrote a grant proposal for ajin study.  It was the only way I knew how to fight.”

Kotobuki backed away, raising his bat defensively.  “Did Eriko Nagai send you?” he asked dangerously, his knuckles white against the grip of the bat.

 “Nah, but we’re singing the same song.  You seen her recruitment video?  You should join up, I’ll bet she could use someone like you.”

“I have promises to keep.  I have no intention of being a soldier.”

“You draw an awful lot of attention to yourself.  You sure you wouldn’t be safer in a pack?”

Kotobuki raised an eyebrow.  “Same could be said for you.”

“I’m no threat to Satou, I’m just another soft and squishy human.  Probably.  I’m not cut out for fighting on his turf.”

“And you think I am?  Is that why you came here?  What made you think you could talk me into fighting?”

Ikuya scratched his head and looked up at the sky.  “Honestly, desperation more than anything else.  I feel like the end is almost here.  Satou’s up to something.  Why else would he broadcast to all the world that he’s kidnapped one boring human?”

Kotobuki flinched.  Ikuya narrowed his eyes.  “I don’t suppose you know him, do you?” he asked lightly.

Kotobuki didn’t say anything, but he did lower the bat.  Ikuya felt something fond fill some dusty corner of his heart.  “I guess another part of it was curiosity.  What kind of person would become a vigilante to save people that are obviously being targeted by Satou?  Maybe they could be convinced to take a more active role.”

Kotobuki turned away.  “Well, you were wrong.”

“I don’t think so.”

Kotobuki hunched his shoulders.  “And I’m sure you’re going to tell me why.”

Unthinkingly, Ikuya reached out and ruffled Kotobuki’s hair.  “Just a hunch, but it’s because you quit smoking.”

Kotobuki swatted Ikuya’s hand away, the tips of his ears red.  “That’s none of your business,” he snarled.

Ikuya held out his hands beseechingly.  “Easy, easy, okay I’ll leave it alone.  But…” and here he was venturing purely into hunch territory, “So far you’ve only been able to help people that Satou doesn’t have yet.  Alone, anyone that Satou takes is beyond your reach.  But you don’t have to fight alone.”

Kotobuki looked at the sky and swore under his breath.  “I told him to be careful,” he muttered, “the fuck am I supposed to do now?”

Bingo.  “Simple.  You go find Eriko Nagai, and then together you all can bust that kid out of there.  Be big damn heroes.”

Kotobuki sighed, and spat out his wad of gum.  He slouched on the side of one of the buildings lining the alley and looked up, though there were no stars to see through the light pollution.  Maybe that was a metaphor.  Ikuya shoved his hands in his pockets and leaned next to him, trying to discern constellations through the haze.  “You’re running from something you can’t outrun,” he said, “Better to stand and fight while you still have the strength to.”

Kotobuki said nothing.  Cars drove past in the street beside them.  People walked by.  After a while, Ikuya dug into his pocket for another cigarette, lighting it and blowing the smoke up to the sky.  Kotobuki started chewing another piece of gum.  Neither of them said anything else.