|Drift in Color
Author: Nalanzu PM
Death Note/Bleach. L crosses worlds, completely by accident although it can perhaps be blamed on Ichigo . Not-quite-wackiness ensues.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Drama/Friendship - Words: 14,159 - Reviews: 6 - Favs: 8 - Published: 08-05-08 - Status: Complete - id: 4451291
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Light blinked up at Ryuzaki. His perspective seemed to be off – was he on the floor? He shifted carefully and something tugged at his limbs. Struggling free, he sat upright and finally got his bearings. He was on a cot at the foot of Ryuzaki's chair, wrapped in a multitude of blankets. They were overwhelmingly hot, and he pushed them away.
"Feeling better?" Ryuzaki asked distantly, and memory came flooding back.
It started with Matsuda on the first day. On the second, it spread to Aizawa and Mogi before finally defeating Asst. Director Yagami. The special squad dedicated to locating and containing the threat known as Kira had been brought low by a simple virus. Over half of the group of six – four career detectives, one detective's brilliant son, and an eccentric prodigy – had been effectively incapacitated. It didn't stop them from coming into the observation floor of the tower that served as combined workspace and living quarters and attempting some sort of productivity.
"Out, all of you," Light said, having had enough by midmorning of the third day. "We'll be fine here. You guys should take better care of yourselves."
"You're useless unless you're healthy," Ryuzaki added. He picked up a stray facemask with the tips of his fingers and dropped it in the nearest trashcan. "And you're spreading germs."
Matsuda was sprawled over one of the chairs, having given up even the pretense of trying to work. "Sorry," he mumbled. In theory, he should have been with Misa, during her location shoot, acting as her manager.
"Didn't anyone get a flu shot?" Mogi, the least affected by the virus rampaging through the city, had been rather futilely attempting to make up for the lack of healthy and alert manpower, but he looked as if he'd reached the end of his rope.
A chorus of "No" rang half-heartedly through the room, stemming mostly from Matsuda.
"Father," Light said, "all we're doing is waiting. There hasn't been any new activity from Kira for weeks now. Mr. Mogi will drive you all to the hospital," he added, when his father showed no signs of cooperating. Mogi's eyebrows shot up at this statement, but he looked relieved rather than annoyed.
"All right, all right," Yagami rumbled, moving towards the door. Matsuda had yet to twitch, but Aizawa was standing over him and it was only a matter of seconds.
"Did Misa bring back the medicine?"
"She did." Misa wasn't always entirely reliable, but she had her moments. Bringing back flu medication was apparently well within her scope of dependability, and she'd returned with it the previous day, after she'd finished her filming.
"Could you take care of them, Mr. Mogi?" Ryuzaki had apparently returned his attention entirely to the series of monitors taking up an entire wall of the huge room.
"I'm worried, Ryuzaki." Light dragged a chair over and straddled it backwards. The chain connecting his right hand to Ryuzaki's clicked against the hard plastic. "There's been no activity from Kira, none."
Ryuzaki turned slowly towards him, weighing and measuring. Light all but flinched back from the coldly calculating gaze. Ryuzaki hadn't looked at him like that since he'd attached the handcuffs, since he'd been in the cell proving that he wasn't Kira, since he'd been Ryuzaki's primary suspect. But he wasn't Kira – he couldn't be. To break the law to punish a criminal made one just as guilty.
"Light..." Ryuzaki said slowly.
Light steeled himself. Ryuzaki was going to hit him again. He knew it. But it was ridiculous for Ryuzaki to claim depression over the fact that Light wasn't Kira; Ryuzaki had made a mistake. That was just the way it was. He was only human, after all.
"Huh?" Light realized that his thoughts had been wandering down irrelevant side paths. Hadn't Ryuzaki been acting strangely?
"Have you had a flu shot?"
"Um." Come to think of it, he'd missed them that year. "No?" Before he could finish the word, Ryuzaki had shoved a thermometer under his tongue. "Ow!"
"Ssh." Ryuzaki reached over and closed his mouth. "Sit still."
Ryuzaki had refused to unlock the handcuffs, even faced with a thermometer reading 39 degrees, but he had compromised by dragging Light to collect a cot and a truly impressive stack of blankets to go with it.
"I guess..." Light stood up and then leaned against Ryuzaki's chair for a moment as vertigo swept over him. "Hungry."
"You haven't eaten since day before yesterday," Ryuzaki said in the same distant tone. "Your father was worried."
"Where is he?" Light looked around. He couldn't tell what time it was, but he and Ryuzaki were the only two in the room.
"They're out, doing this and that. He and Aizawa came back while you were asleep."
"How about Matsuda?" Light pulled at his shirt. He felt sticky, as if he'd been outside in the humidity.
"With Misa. She has a photo-shoot this morning."
"So I was sleeping while everyone else was working..." Light stretched. "How do you feel about a shower?"
"Sure." Ryuzaki still didn't sound like he was paying attention, and he didn't move away from the screens.
"Ryuzaki." Light pulled the chair away, and the other end of the chain fell to the floor.
"Oops." Ryuzaki picked it up, but didn't refasten it. "You wanted a shower?"
When Ryuzaki had said 24/7, he'd meant it, Light reflected ruefully. The chain was long enough to allow for some freedom of movement, but neither of them had anything resembling privacy from the other. Down to bathing, everything was done in tandem.
"You took that off?" Light rattled the chain lightly.
"You were asleep." Ryuzaki started towards the bathroom, forcing Light to either follow or tug him back. Light chose the former, jogging slightly to catch up. "I could tell."
"So you still think –"
"It can stay off during the shower, if you like."
Light eyed Ryuzaki speculatively. Either Ryuzaki had stopped suspecting him – but Ryuzaki wouldn't admit that he had made a mistake – or he was testing Light's reaction.
"Okay," he said, with a smile that felt lopsided. "But you can stand between me and the door."
Ryuzaki walked into the bathroom abruptly, shedding his clothes on the way. That was bizarre, Light thought, but Ryuzaki didn't exactly fit the definition of normal. The shower felt good, even with the handcuff tugging at his wrist. He eventually wrapped the chain around his arm to keep it out of his way, but it was a small thing to complain about. He felt good, somehow. The exhaustion that had been pulling at him since the Kira incidents had started was completely gone, that was it.
"Hey, Ryuzaki." Ryuzaki wasn't in the shower. Although there were several showerheads, some with movable curtains to create a semblance of privacy, none of them reached the floor. "Ryuzaki?" Odd, again. Maybe Ryuzaki really had finally accepted that he wasn't Kira.
With clean clothes on, Light felt completely recovered. There was still no sign of Ryuzaki, though. Gathering the chain in one hand, Light went looking. He hadn't gotten far when the elevator door opened. Misa bounced into the room, followed by Matsuda.
"Misa." He smiled at her expression of joy. For some reason, she loved him deeply. He didn't know why, didn't know what had sparked such devotion, but Misa was one of two people he trusted absolutely.
"Where's Ryuzaki?" She peered around. "He's gone? We can go on a date! Quick, before he comes back!" She tugged at his arm.
"Uh," Light started, not sure how to refuse without hurting her feelings. "I don't know where he is."
"Good, then we should go now." Misa's tugging grew more insistent.
"I don't think –" Light started.
Surprised, Light looked down. The handcuff was once again fastened securely around Ryuzaki's bare wrist, but what held his attention was Ryuzaki's lack of a shirt. A quick glance confirmed that yes, Ryuzaki had found pants, but he'd inexplicably left off half of his clothes.
"Are you all right?" Light asked cautiously.
"Work to do," Ryuzaki mumbled, and folded forwards.
"Ryuzaki!" Light caught him before he hit the floor by virtue of throwing himself underneath the other boy. They hit the ground hard, Ryuzaki's weight knocking the wind out of Light. "Ryuzaki," he gasped.
The weight lifted – Matsuda acting quickly for once, and moving Ryuzaki to the couch. Light scrabbled along after them, trying to catch his breath. Misa put his arm around her shoulders and pulled him along. "Is he okay?" Misa asked worriedly.
Light finally managed to relax his chest enough to take a breath. "Let me see him, Matsuda," he said, voice still ragged.
"Nothing to see," Ryuzaki mumbled. Matsuda moved aside, nearly tripping over the chain.
Light put a hand on Ryuzaki's forehead and snatched it back. "Misa, go get all the ice packs you can find and wrap them in towels. Matsuda, bring me a cloth and a basin of cold water."
"Don't be ridiculous," Ryuzaki protested, but the two were already hurrying away. "I have work to do."
This is ridiculous. First he gets all mopey and refuses to do anything, and now that he's too sick to stand, he's suddenly rediscovered his motivation? Anticipating Ryuzaki's next move, Light put a hand on his chest and held him down. "I can do it."
That's the problem was clearly expressed in Ryuzaki's flat stare; he hadn't accepted that Light wasn't Kira after all. The effect was somewhat spoiled by the dripping cloth that Matsuda thrust over the back of the couch, nearly smacking Ryuzaki in the face. "Will this work?"
Light wrung the cloth out over the basin and folded it over Ryuzaki's forehead, smoothing his hair out of the way. Ryuzaki's eyes closed reflexively, so Light kept stroking his hair in the hopes that it would keep him quiet. It seemed to work; by the time Misa arrived with the ice packs, Ryuzaki's breathing was deep and even.
"Should we take him to the hospital?" Matsuda whispered.
"No," Ryuzaki answered. "Not going anywhere." It was somehow not surprising that he wasn't actually asleep.
Light considered, weighing the options and their consequences. "If he gets worse, then he can be admitted to TMU as Ryuga Hideki," he said finally. Using the name Ryuzaki had given the admissions staff at Tokyo University for the university-affiliated hospital wouldn't raise any red flags.
"Absolutely not," Ryuzaki insisted.
"Get me a thermometer, please, Matsuda." Light started wrapping the ice packs and placing them around Ryuzaki's body. "Are you cold, Ryuzaki?"
"Get away from me with that," Ryuzaki said sulkily when Matsuda came back, ignoring Light's question completely.
"Misa could dress up as a nurse to –"
"Thank you, Misa. That won't be necessary." After a minor tussle, Light was left holding a thermometer reading 39.2. Ryuzaki fixed him with a look of betrayal and then turned his attention to the back of the couch.
"Now I'm cold," he muttered.
"Matsuda, please bring me the files stacked over there." Light sat cross-legged on the floor. "Misa, the blankets."
"Too hot for blankets."
"Get some sleep, or I won't wait to see if you get worse before taking you to a hospital," Light said over his shoulder. Ryuzaki sulked more at that, but he didn't say anything further as Light started going through the stack of files.
The files in question contained data pertaining to every death in the city since the start of the Kira incidents. Light had had the odd thought that they were missing something, but he couldn't clarify what it could have been. Ryuzaki hadn't been much help, either, not since he'd all but declared that as far as he was concerned, Light was the first Kira and Misa was the second, and that all he needed was proof. Light was determined to find isomething/i in the files, but so far he wasn't having much luck.
"Do you hear the bells?"
Light looked up. He'd been completely absorbed in the files, and he noted in passing that both Matsuda and Misa had gone again. Ryuzaki was curled on his side under a blanket, the ice packs heaped on the floor. "Bells?"
"They're loud today." Ryuzaki pulled the blanket tighter. "I can't help but hear them."
"There aren't any bells," Light said, worried.
"They're always ringing," Ryuzaki whispered. "The church bells."
Even if there had been church bells in the neighborhood, the sound wouldn't have penetrated the walls of the tower. Light reached for the thermometer again. "Church bells are beautiful," he said absently.
"They're ringing for a funeral," Ryuzaki whispered around the thermometer. He hadn't protested it this time.
"There is no funeral," Light told him firmly. "No funeral." The thermometer read 39.7. "Okay, we're going." He looked around for his cell phone, seeing it on a desk just out of reach. "Dammit." The handcuffs weren't that difficult to get off, really. They were more symbolic than anything else. Light suspected that Ryuzaki knew perfectly well he could get out of them whenever he wanted, and that was part of the reason he didn't actually sleep. A paperclip from the files did the trick, but when he went to take the other side off Ryuzaki's wrist, he saw the key wedged into the lock. "You could have said something before," he said.
Light grabbed his cell phone on the way to finding Ryuzaki a shirt. "Pick up, Father, pick up." It was still ringing as he opened the door. Ryuzaki had living quarters in the tower, just above the observation room, but it didn't look as if he actually used them. They were mostly empty, a closet door slightly ajar and a box of paper files on the floor in front of it. Ryuzaki's student id was poking out of the top, and Light picked that up before opening the closet door.
The closet was full of white shirts, all with long sleeves, no two exactly alike, and dark pants. Light shook his head. Ryuzaki had the oddest quirks. Choosing a shirt at random, he backed out of the closet and left the room. Voice mail picked up as he went back down the open stairs.
"Father," Light said on top of the beep, "Ryuzaki collapsed. I'm taking him to the hospital with Ryuga Hideki's ID. I'll call you later."
Stuffing the phone back in his pocket, Light walked around the stairs towards the couch. "Ryuzaki –"
Ryuzaki was gone. Light cursed and looked around. Both elevator doors were closing; one headed down and one headed up. Ryuzaki could have been on either one, or he could be somewhere else. Light glanced at the stairs and dismissed them. He would have seen Ryuzaki there. Up or down? Ryuzaki was almost pathologically afraid of going outside now that there had been reports of the second Kira being able to target victims upon knowing their faces alone. He wouldn't head down, towards the outside or towards any of the still unused floors. There wasn't enough of a security barrier.
"The roof." Light shoved open the doorway to the emergency stairs and ran upwards.
He hadn't realized it was raining until he pushed the access door open, wedging a piece of scrap wood underneath so it wouldn't swing shut again. The sky was a flat gray, the rain coming down in fits and starts with the wind. The storm that should have been a welcome relief from the early August heat was instead pure misery. Light shivered in the unseasonable cold, still clutching the shirt he'd pulled out of Ryuzaki's closet. "Ryuzaki!" He jogged towards the center of the roof, into the rain.
With the sound of the rain, he wouldn't be able to hear Ryuzaki's footsteps. There were ventilation shafts all over the roof, a satellite dish, a helipad. Light dismissed the helipad; if Ryuzaki thought to hide there, he would be trapped too easily. He called out again, not expecting Ryuzaki to answer.
"Why won't you leave me alone?" Ryuzaki stepped out from behind him, under the overhang in front of the door. "I know... I know the truth, but you're not lying when you deny it. Why?"
"Ryuzaki, come inside." Light took one slow step towards the other boy. "It's cold out here."
"I know you," Ryuzaki hissed. "Tell me how you do it."
"Ryuzaki..." Light bit his lip, suppressing the impulse to argue with Ryuzaki. It clearly wasn't going to do any good. "I brought you a shirt," he said, and held it up. "I thought it was a little cold." He took another slow step forward.
"Lies," Ryuzaki said, gesturing erratically. He was visibly shivering, but clearly unaware of it. "Lies with the ring of truth. There must be a reason!"
"Can you catch?" Light stopped moving.
"Catch?" Ryuzaki blinked.
Light tossed the shirt. Ryuzaki turned to watch its slow flight, reaching out and taking it out of the air. In the brief moment of Ryuzaki's attention lapse, Light darted forward and grabbed his other wrist. Ryuzaki glanced at him and pulled the shirt over his head. "I can't get my arm through the sleeve if you're holding it," he said, as if it were the most reasonable thing in the world.
"Let me have the other one, then," Light replied, suspicious. Ryuzaki held out his hand meekly. He didn't protest as Light helped him pull the shirt straight, or as Light led him towards the access door.
"I'm watching you," he whispered, barely audible over the sound of the door grinding shut. "You're not going to escape."
Light bit his tongue to keep from replying. "Let's go," he said instead.
Ryuzaki sat abruptly on the stairs, leaning on the railing, and Light nearly lost his grip on Ryuzaki's wrist. "Tired," he muttered. "Thirsty."
"There's water downstairs."
"No." Ryuzaki shifted uncomfortably, eyes closed.
It was another plot; this time Ryuzaki was pretending near-incapacitation, and when Light let go of his wrist to help him up, Ryuzaki was going to make a run for it. And yet, Light didn't want to take the chance that Ryuzaki wasn't acting. Cursing mentally, he positioned himself on the steps below and roughly pulled Ryuzaki upright. Ryuzaki wavered for a brief second, and then tipped unexpectedly onto Light. Only a quick grab at the rails saved them both from tumbling downwards.
"Dammit," L breathed. He steadied himself and wrestled Ryuzaki's unresisting body into a workable position.
Somewhere between the top of the stairs and the elevator, Ryuzaki went from completely limp to clutching Light and burying his face in Light's shoulder. By the time Light reached the door to the street, Ryuzaki was shivering.
He was staring at the door, trying to figure out how he was going to get through the security without dropping Ryuzaki, when his father walked in. "Light?"
"Father," Light returned. It took his father's authority to convince the building security system that Light leaving with a not-very-conscious Ryuzaki was permissible. He needed his father's help getting Ryuzaki into a car, too, which prompted his father to ask where Watari was. Light paused. "I... don't know," he said. He hadn't really thought about it, but Watari's absence was rather odd.
"Is he still –" Light's father asked, and Ryuzaki interrupted with what might have been a "yes" and might just have been a moan.
"I'll call when we get there," Light said. The drive to the university took far too long for Light's peace of mind, but any other mode of transportation was out of the question.
"The bells," Ryuzaki suddenly said, perfectly clearly. Light glanced at him, but his eyes were still closed. "The bells," he said again, and shivered visibly. Light turned the heat up, although it was warmer outside now, and he was sweating. "The bringers of death ride the bells, Kira riding in their wake, but the threads, I can see the threads woven together." Ryuzaki had started staring at Light through glittering, half-lidded eyes, legs drawn up as far as the seatbelt would permit, arms wrapped around himself. "They lead to you," he whispered.
Light couldn't answer that. He swerved around a slow-moving truck in the left lane, narrowly missing a sedan blocking the right lane as it waited for a break in oncoming traffic, and slammed on his brakes just in time to not drive straight through a red light.
"Ichigo?" Ryuzaki said, almost curiously, not focused on Light at all, and passed out.
"Strawberry? One-Five?" Light muttered, and proceeded to further break traffic laws.
He could see them. There were threads, threads leading out from all the investigation members (but those were irrelevant), threads leading from Light and Misa (he couldn't bring himself to think about them more formally), threads to the corpses of those who had been assassinated by Kira. The threads formed a complex web, events and times and even things as small as a passing glance, all weaving together. He had been so sure, so absolutely sure, and all he had needed was some kind of proof. At that last, critical moment, the threads had unraveled. No, they hadn't unraveled, there was something else there, and he just hadn't seen it. Light and Misa had changed dramatically, or couldn't anyone else see it? It was as if he had suddenly gone blind, stuck in a sticky morass with no way out.
Colors wheeled past, the threads evolving to visual representations connected by slender glittering ropes, all glowing slightly and just the slightest bit off. He felt jarred suddenly, and the fog lifted.
"...Watari..." It was Detective Yagami's voice, and Ryuzaki (it was easier to think of himself with his false name now) tried to interrupt. He couldn't leave the building, there was too much to do and he couldn't risk being seen.
The fog lifted again at the sound of church bells. He knew the sound more intimately than any other, knew it because it was always with him. Today it was so loud and clear he could almost see the metal vibrating and glistening in the sun and rain. For the first time, he could even almost see the sound, see the waves flowing outwards, see the vague shapes smoothly riding the waves. The bringers of death, death gods, soul reapers, parasites leeching humanity of life, they were reaching out with a spidery grasp towards Kira. The threads of Kira were firmly wrapped around Yagami Light, rising up through the roof of the car and swaying gently as Light drove. He looked unusually anxious, and Ryuzaki realized that he had been speaking, but he couldn't recall his own words.
The threads shone, cold light eclipsing his vision. It faded and he was somehow staring up at the sun, hands in his pockets and feet uncomfortably confined in shoes. The air around him was hot, not the thick muggy heat of August but the cleaner feel of May or June. A flash of orange caught the corner of his eye. He moved to the side just barely in time to dodge a high school student running full tilt down the sidewalk, but the boy had seen him as well. The boy's attempt at not hitting Ryuzaki led to him tripping over his own feet. Ryuzaki held out a hand to help him stand.
A girl came jogging after the boy, wearing a uniform for the same school. "Ichigo!" she said sharply.
"Ichigo?" Ryuzaki repeated. Surely that wasn't the boy's name. The world lurched sideways and he stumbled into the boy. The boy demonstrated considerably greater agility than he had a moment ago, keeping his own footing and steadying Ryuzaki.
"Hey, man, you okay?" he said, staring worriedly.
"Late," the girl said pointedly.
"Yeah, yeah," the boy replied, almost dismissively.
"Fine," Ryuzaki replied automatically, voice low. There was no sense of a time lapse between sitting in the car with Light and standing on this sidewalk, absolutely none. "This is a dream," he concluded, not quite realizing he'd spoken aloud.
"Hey," said the boy. "You're the new student."
Ryuzaki could only stare. Clearly, he was under more stress than even he'd realized, if his subconscious was producing a hallucination of high school. No, not quite stress, he thought with a sense of relief. The flu that had gotten to the rest of the team must have infected him as well, despite the flu shot he'd gotten. He felt a moment of aggravation; this was a waste of time, and there was work to be done. His pretense of depression and lack of motivation had been just that – pretense. He closed his eyes, willing his surroundings to change. When he opened them, both the boy and the girl were giving him worried looks.
"Are you sure you're okay?" the boy asked. His carrot-orange hair was really jarring, clashing with both his brown eyes and his striped uniform tie. He pulled a notebook out of his bag and flapped it in Ryuzaki's direction, but the air didn't move much. "Sun's kinda hot today."
"Yes," Ryuzaki repeated, still not thinking about his answer. iWhy can't I wake up?/i
"Well, new guy, you're going to be late on your first day," the boy said.
"As if you have room to talk," the girl shot back at him. "You've got more tardies than the rest of the student body combined." She was tiny, although with longer legs than might be expected on someone of her height. Her dark hair was impeccably smooth, framing a face dominated by huge dark eyes.
"Shut up, I do not," the boy said, somewhat sulkily. "Besides, you're late, too."
"Excuse me," Ryuzaki said politely, and started walking away. Clearly, he needed somewhere quiet to concentrate in order to wake up, although that thought was all wrong in and of itself. He found himself wanting tea, as well. With sugar.
"The school's that way!" the boy called after him.
"I'm sorry," Ryuzaki said politely. "But what makes you think I'm supposed to be there?"
"You're wearing our uniform," the boy said, surprised. "Why else would you have it?"
It took all of Ryuzaki's willpower not to look down at himself, but now that the boy had pointed it out, he could see out of the corner of his eye that he was indeed wearing the same tie. He smiled disarmingly. "Sorry," he said. "I seem to be a little lost." Then he wondered what had possessed him to try to convince a figment of his imagination that he was not abnormal.
"This way," the boy said, while the girl waited impatiently twenty meters further down the road. "I'm Kurosaki," he added. "Kurosaki Ichigo. This is Kuchiki Rukia."
"Ryuga," Ryuzaki returned. "Ryuga Hideki."
"I know," Kurosaki said offhandedly. "Oh, Keigo snuck into the staffroom and looked at your file," he said before Ryuzaki could react to the invasive statement. "You got your bag? Oh, good."
Weight suddenly registered across his left hip. Ryuzaki touched it lightly, confirming that it was indeed a student's bag, and the strap went over his right shoulder. He took one step forward, and Kurosaki's expression changed. In a split second, he had gone from a perfectly normal high school student to a man standing on a battlefield wearing the mask of the student. It was a subtle change, but Ryuzaki could read it as clearly as if Kurosaki had shouted.
Kuchiki wore the same face, but it looked so completely natural on her that Ryuzaki wondered how he could have missed it at first. She wasn't a high school student any more than he was, no matter how young she looked or what uniform she wore. Neither of them was looking at him, but they both had their eyes trained on the same point, behind him and off to his left. He glanced in that direction, but there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Something solid hit Ryuzaki in the chest, and he caught Kurosaki's limp form out of pure reflex. Kuchiki was standing right behind him, hand on his shoulder. If he hadn't known better, he would have said that she'd pushed Kurosaki. "Not again," she said, almost too lightly. "It's the heat, and he's got low blood pressure, and..." She didn't quite fiddle with her shirt hem as she spoke, but he could hear the lie clearly. She was still looking past him, although her gaze moved slightly now. Whatever she was looking at was moving. "Help me get him out of the sun?"
She led him down the sidewalk, carrying Kurosaki, to a spot that was only marginally less bright and warm than where they'd been, and pretended to try to wake Kurosaki up. The entire time, she watched the street. After a few minutes, she looked relieved and her gaze traced a path up towards Kurosaki's body. Ryuzaki made a private wager with himself, although he was fairly sure which side would win. He didn't smile as Kurosaki's eyes fluttered open, wearing the mask of concern with far more ease than Kuchiki did.
"Sorry," Kurosaki muttered, a discomfited – albeit thoroughly genuine – expression shading his eyes. "That, uh... sorry."
Ryuzaki went through the motions of concern and finally allowed the two to bring him to the school and their classroom. He introduced himself on autopilot, although he wasn't sure why he said some of what he did, or why he smiled a good deal more than he felt was necessary. He felt disassociated, somehow, detached from what his body was doing. It was a disconcerting feeling, even if it was only a dream self.
The morning was spent crouched at a desk, shoes finally off, pretending to take notes while trying to make this odd hallucination disappear. No matter what mental techniques he employed, it stayed stubbornly real. His head felt packed with wool, thoughts slow to connect and mental images refusing to form. It only added to his sense of detachment, and made his efforts to wake even clumsier.
"That was the last of them, I think." Ryuzaki could hear Kurosaki whispering from three desks away. There was no answer that Ryuzaki made out, but Kurosaki whispered again a moment later. "No, whatever Ishida did's faded. Smooth sailing from here on out."
A slow-moving flare arced through Ryuzaki's thoughts, illuminating some threads more brightly than he'd seen them and showing some few glimmering for the first time. He couldn't anticipate it, only watch, fascinated.
iThere was something on that street.
Things exist which cannot be seen.
"Bringer of Death" is not an abstract concept.
The bringers of death are independent beings.
They are the power that Kira possesses, able to move from person to person at will – either their own or the will of the human they shadow./i
Annoyingly, the flare stalled and sputtered out. As soon as it dimmed, he couldn't remember what it had shown. There had been something there, something important, and all he was left with was the sense that Kurosaki and Rukia had definitely been looking at – and in Kurosaki's case, probably interacting with – something that hadn't strictly been real, or at least it hadn't been visible. iSo why can they see it?/i
Then, I wonder if I can.
He put the thought aside as irrelevant – dream monsters in a dream state had no bearing on reality, and they could behave as they liked as long as he could leave it behind. Lunchtime found him annoyed with the recalcitrance of his own subconscious, hungry, and really wanting to wake up for tea. He felt that he might even settle for dream tea, if it had enough sugar in it.
He was aware of another whispered scuffle behind him before Kurosaki sidled up to his desk with a rather awkward lunch invitation. "I didn't see whatever you were fighting," he replied calmly. "I'm not interested in it, either."
Kurosaki spluttered and turned several different colors, but it hadn't been a difficult deduction to make. Kuchiki's worried expression and the pattern her eyes had tracked had made it clear enough, if one accepted as truth the rather ludicrous fact that Kurosaki had somehow projected himself out of his body to fight with invisible things.
"This is fundamentally absurd," Ryuzaki growled, and stalked out of the classroom. There was absolutely no reason for him to be interacting with figments of his subconscious as if they were actual people, treat this dream state as if it were reality. His determined posture got him off the campus without being challenged, but then he found he had no idea where he was going. None of the streets were familiar, but he finally found a train station. The map was ever so slightly distorted, some stations that should have been there missing and a few names that he didn't recognize. He noticed with annoyance that he'd taken his school bag with him, but since it held a Suica card, he decided it didn't really matter.
When Ryuzaki disembarked from the train, the observation tower he'd built was nowhere to be found. He pushed at the niggling doubt tugging at the edge of his mind, the one that said perhaps this was some kind of real after all, and that was why he couldn't wake. Reality would hold familiarity, and there was none here. Even the Tokyo skyline looked subtly distorted. The tower missing accounted for some of the oddness, but there were other differences, so slight as to be almost unnoticeable. The date on a newspaper in a kiosk caught his eye – June. The year was missing. Further evidence of a dream state.
A phone call to Watari yielded an automated response telling him that the number had been misdialed. Further phone calls gave him the same results, regardless of who he tried to reach. Determined now to squash the irrational doubt into nonexistence, Ryuzaki visited an internet café. It wasn't difficult to set up the computer in one of the little boxes to his specifications (it couldn't, of course, compare to any of his personal equipment, but it would do in a pinch). Furthermore, it had tea, and sugar.
As Ryuzaki had expected, none of the databases or systems he'd set up over the course of his career as a detective were evident, nor was there any sign of the home he'd grown up in. There was no mark of him at all, nothing of L, nothing of Eraldo Coil, nothing of Deneuve. He did not exist, and neither did Kira.
Hacking into Tokyo University's database told him that there was indeed a Yagami registered, in the law department. This Yagami's first name was Keichirou, though. There was no Ryuga Hideki registered as a student. The police database did not list anyone named Yagami, nor any other member of the Kira Investigation Team. No celebrity named Misa-Misa turned up in any search engine, nor did one named Ryuga Hideki. Nothing familiar, therefore this could only be a dream state.
The Karakura High School database gave him a photograph, dispelling any doubt that his chosen alias had been some sort of freakish coincidence, and listed an address for him – apparently he lived alone. No family was evident. He had been registered as a transfer student after returning from several years in England. "I didn't do that," he muttered, glaring at the machine telling him that he had indeed.
Try as he might, he couldn't figure out why his subconscious had given him this particular scenario out of all the possibilities. It was both too rational and too absurd. Eventually, he decided to at least use the address the school had given him to focus on pulling the dream apart. As long as he was stuck in the dream, he had to operate by its rules, and this dream persona just didn't have the financial resources he should have had. At least if he didn't exist, the probability of someone chasing him was almost nil.
Erasing his tracks didn't take long, as such things went, but it was nearly dark when he left the building. He'd noted with some displeasure that his address was rather closer to the high school than he felt comfortable with – he didn't want to interact with any of the other students, particularly not while wearing their uniform.
Ryuzaki nearly made it to the address in the school database. Rather than his subconscious granting his conscious wishes, it threw what he had wanted least at him. He was less than fifty meters from what he assumed was his building – a small two-story apartment building with actual trees in front of it – when carrot-orange hair loomed out of the dusk. As it crossed under a streetlight, he could see the body attached to it.
"Kurosaki," he said politely, returning the other boy's greeting. "Ishida," he added. Ishida's pale skin stood out in the shadows, even if he'd added a dark jacket to his uniform. He carried himself the same way Kurosaki did, now that Ryuzaki knew how to look for it – there was a wariness in his stance that spoke of fight or flight. An edge of aggression to both of them made Ryuzaki doubt that the latter option was chosen often, if ever. There was something hurried about both of them, as well; they were trying far too hard to seem as if they were nonchalant.
"I told you it was here," Kurosaki muttered, almost too quietly for Ryuzaki to hear. Ishida's return nod was so slight that Ryuzaki wouldn't have seen it if he hadn't been watching for it.
"Hey, Ryuga, do you have a minute?" Kurosaki pulled him aside without waiting for an answer, turning so that Ryuzaki's view of both Ishida and the street he'd come down were completely blocked. As Kurosaki babbled inanely about notes and homework, Ryuzaki listened to a faint hum. It didn't match the sound of the streetlights, or the traffic. It peaked several times, almost beyond the range of his hearing. After a few moments, Kurosaki pulled him forward abruptly, without warning or explanation. In that instant, the world lurched more than his physical motion could account for, and he felt pressure on his right hand.
"Ryuzaki?" Light's voice filtered down from somewhere above him, warped and faint.
"Ryuga?" Kurosaki was giving him a worried look again, and Ryuzaki realized that he was leaning against his classmate. The pressure against his right hand was gone.
"Sorry," he said, and pulled away. Kurosaki handed him a short stack of papers, apparently trying to gloss over the fact that he'd just yanked Ryuzaki forward for no good reason. Ryuzaki let it go. Whatever the invisible things were, Ishida could see them too. It didn't matter. He accepted the papers, because courtesy was important, even if one was only interacting with one's subconscious, and made his escape as quickly as he could.
A key in the front pocket of his bag matched the door of what he supposed was his room – the east side of the building, on the second floor. There were too many windows and the curtains were too light. He couldn't find any surveillance devices (it was habit to check), but that didn't mean there weren't any. A laptop computer sat carelessly on the tatami mat floor of the second room, the indicator light blinking slowly. He nudged it with a toe and it booted up (he noted in passing that it had no webcam attached).
The kitchen held the first real pleasure of the entire mess – coffee Iand/i tea, perched innocently beside enough sweet food to keep his metabolism running, had it been real. They tasted real enough, though, and the rush of caffeine and sugar was familiar. Instead of trying to wake up, though, he found himself doing homework without thinking about it. It wasn't that it was difficult, it was that he didn't realize what he was doing until he'd finished the last page and packed his bag for the next morning (enough sweets to get him through classes), and by then he was starting to feel physical fatigue in a way that he'd learned to ignore at the age of twelve.
A cold shower did nothing to clear his mind, and neither did heating up the water. He settled down in the middle of the floor afterwards, still-damp hair clinging to the back of his neck, and breathed in the silence. With the curtains over the windows and the lights off, the room was almost pitch-black. He flexed his fingers, settled his hands over his knees, and started settling his disordered thoughts into a pattern.
Seconds later, a shrill and purely audible alarm tore through his consciousness, and he opened his eyes to see sunlight peeking through the shades. The alarm clock cheerfully informed him that it was just past seven, and some internal little schedule told him that he was going to be late for school if he didn't get up and get dressed. It was completely ridiculous – he certainly didn't need to be going to high school. His subconscious was clearly trying to play some sort of ridiculous prank, which meant that the strain of the Kira case was getting to him. That in and of itself was rather disturbing.
While he ambled around the kitchen, making coffee out of habit and searching out something with strawberries in it (the bath soap had been strawberry scented, which had not surprised him the night before, but did now), he sifted through the conclusions he'd reached about Kira, measuring them against the facts. He simply couldn't accept that he'd been wrong about Light; it was such a simple and direct solution, and therefore the most likely to be true. The coffee smelled (and tasted) wonderful, but Ryuzaki paused in the act of swallowing as it occurred to him that he'd thought of something the day before and then forgotten it.
Briefly, he wondered if he could put this uncharacteristic disorderliness down to the influence of the flu, but he hated to think that a simple virus could affect him so much. It was a more comforting explanation than the alternative, though, which was that the Kira case was too much even for him. Ryuzaki dismissed that line of thought as soon as it arose – there was nothing that was too much for him. He finished the coffee and wrinkled his nose. Except, apparently, the prospect of iwaking up/i.
Pounding on the door interrupted his reverie. After a moment of debate, he decided to answer it. There was no one here who wanted him dead, because he did not exist in this dream. (Perhaps it was a nightmare, rather than a dream.) Ryuzaki opened the door to see the girl who had been with Kurosaki the previous day. Searching his memory, he summoned a smile and greeted her. "Good morning, Miss Kuchiki."
"Rukia's fine," she said absently, peering around. Ryuzaki would have been offended at her blatant invasion of his personal space, but he didn't get the impression that she was actually looking iat/i anything, more that she was looking through it. Apparently satisfied, she returned her gaze to him and smiled. The entire process had taken no more than a second. "Do you mind if I walk with you? The streets are hard to keep straight when you first get here."
Lies. Ryuzaki was tempted to simply close the door on her, but he found himself thanking her vaguely. He'd pulled on a school uniform again after bathing, more because it was there and clean than for any other reason, but now he had no good reason to tell Rukia that he wasn't going with her. Again, his own thoughts brought him up short. It didn't imatter/i what she thought of him; even if she'd been real, it wouldn't have mattered. She was of no use to him.
On the other hand, perhaps if he played along with this dreamscape (nightmare realm) for a while, he would be able to wake. Nothing else had quite worked so far, although he had come closest when Kurosaki had distracted him from Ishida and the invisible thing. Ryuzaki paused. As absurd as it was that he couldn't simply wake himself up, perhaps the idea that he had to find an invisible beast was no less laughable. It was a perfectly valid – if somewhat simplistic – mirror for the Kira case; perhaps he just needed to tackle something straightforward in order to give the Kira case a fresh perspective.
Rukia was not quite tapping her foot impatiently as he came out and locked the door. Her huge dark eyes were focused entirely on him for once, and he smiled as disarmingly as he could. "Are we going to be late?"
Something in her gaze shifted, and she smiled back. "No."
Rukia shadowed him until they reached the classroom, and then left him to his own devices. Although she wasn't strictly hovering, she was still looking for something. Seated in the back of the classroom, Ryuzaki could observe the rest of his classmates easily. Kurosaki had the same tense air, although he wasn't wound quite as tightly as Rukia. Glancing around, Ryuzaki could identify two more students with slightly off attitudes. Odds were high that the seemingly bubble-headed girl and the tall, part-foreign boy could also see the invisible beasts. Ishida was nowhere to be seen.
None of the students in the classroom were adept at wearing masks as Light or Ryuzaki himself; none of them, strictly speaking, were trying. It was indeed refreshingly easy to determine who was keeping secrets.
How did one go about finding invisible beasts? As Ryuzaki could not see them himself, one of the other students would have to be his eyes. In all probability, it didn't really matter which student he eventually approached, although they all seemed to be on fairly good terms (there were others in the group, as well, but none with quite that wary stance). For once in his life, however, Ryuzaki found himself at a loss as to how to proceed. How did one go about making friends with teenagers?
The problem of how to stick around Kurosaki and the rest solved itself, for the most part. Rukia all but dragged him to the roof during the lunch break. She'd apparently decided to stop pretending that she had no ulterior motive.
"What did you mean, you can't see what Ichigo was fighting?" she demanded, hands on her hips. She was trying to loom over him, despite the thirty-five centimeter difference in height, and most people would have been somewhat cowed.
"I can't see them," Ryuzaki said calmly, digging around in his bag for something sweet. He turned up canned coffee and chocolate. "They're really none of my business."
Rukia glared. "What makes you think there's something there?"
The coffee ranked among the worst he'd ever had, but there was the caffeine and the sugar. He drank nearly half the can before answering Rukia. "You were watching Kurosaki fighting," he said finally. "The second time, Kurosaki watched Ishida's fight."
"Second-" Rukia bit off the rest of the sentence. "Are you sure you're not here for me?"
Now that was an odd question. She couldn't possibly expect any other answer than 'Yes, I'm sure.' He put on a puzzled expression. "Why would I do that, Rukia?"
"The Soul Society –" she started, and broke off again. "Never mind." She leaned back, not breaking eye contact.
Ryuzaki nodded once. "Is that all, Rukia?" The coffee had gone, somehow. He ate the chocolate instead.
Rukia's face had changed, and now she was staring at his hands. "Aren't you going to eat anything else?"
"Should I?" There were donuts in his bag, too.
The expression on her face was rather amusing. He smiled at her, and bit into a donut.
"So you can't see Hollows," she said, somewhat quietly.
He considered asking her what a Hollow was, just to see how she would answer, but it would be out of keeping with his earlier disinterest. "Mm?" he asked instead, around another donut.
"Nothing." Rukia shook her head. He could tell that she was still suspicious of him, and of his motives, but as long as she could lead him to the invisible beasts – the Hollows – it didn't really matter.
Ryuzaki smiled a second time and crumpled his empty wrappers together. The rest of the day passed without incident, although he was no closer to figuring out why he was trapped in this particular dream. There had to be some sort of reason. He was also no closer to a solution on the Kira case (he could remember most of the details, but the same information kept leading him to the same conclusions, or lack thereof, and he couldn't reach a new angle no matter how hard he tried). Kurosaki shadowed him on his way home, doing a rather good job of not standing out despite his ridiculously orange hair.
The evening was spent in trying, again, to wake, and when that failed, confirming that this place wasn't real. There was, perhaps, humor in the fact that after having spent most of his life trying not to leave any traces of himself, here he was searching desperately (no, not desperately, that was not a word that applied to him) for a shred of proof that he existed, except that he was trying to reassure himself that he did not. His train of thought brought him up short – he wasn't thinking clearly, again, and it was a thoroughly unpleasant sensation. The sooner he escaped the dream (nightmare, definitely), the better, for any multitude of reasons.
At some point, his thoughts slipped over into vague dreams, none of which were clear enough to remember. He was brought out of his half-waking state by a muffled shout from outside. Even through the door, he could recognize Rukia's distinctive voice. He couldn't make out what she had said, but as he got to his feet, the world around him slipped and he was suddenly staring upwards.
"Ryuzaki," Light said, the sound filtered through a fog of pain.
"Ryuga," came Kurosaki's voice again. Ryuzaki was still looking up, this time at Kurosaki's bright hair, and his head throbbed dully.
"What are you doing in my apartment?" Ryuzaki asked, shaken. He thought it was a reasonable question, given the circumstances, and certainly one that most people would ask. For that matter, he wasn't entirely sure he could have answered the question. No one was supposed to come into his private space, no one.
"I think the Hollows are targeting you," Kurosaki said.
Well, that was good news. "What makes you think that?" he asked carefully, and maneuvered himself into a sitting position. There was a bowl of sugar cubes next to his laptop, which had not been overturned during his apparent collapse, and he reached for it.
"It's, um, kind of hard to explain."
"Is there something you want to do about it?" The third try got him a cube of brown sugar instead of white, and Kurosaki was eyeing him oddly.
"Um," Kurosaki said again.
"What he means," said Rukia, materializing out of the shadows near the door, "is that the Hollows are attracted to your spiritual energy. They consume it."
Ryuzaki hadn't noticed she was there. He made a mental note to watch her more closely in the future. "That's... very interesting," he said after a moment, shading his voice with doubt.
"You're not safe," Kurosaki said, his voice tinged with frustration and something else.
"I'm sure I'll be fine," Ryuzaki said politely.
"They eat souls!"
Ryuzaki hid a slight smile at Kurosaki's increasing frustration. Apparently this was the first time the boy had had to convince a skeptic. He wondered briefly if Kurosaki himself had needed convincing, and then dismissed the thought as irrelevant. "I'm not worried about my soul, Kurosaki." His tone implied that Kurosaki had no need to concern himself, either.
"Let him be, Ichigo. Sorry for the intrusion, Ryuga." Rukia had been watching him thoughtfully. She started towards the door (the latch had been broken), and when Kurosaki didn't follow her, she resorted to dragging him by his collar. She was rather stronger than she appeared to be, for she had no trouble pulling Ichigo through the door.
Repairing the latch was not quite within the scope of Ryuzaki's abilities, but he managed to make sure that the door would at least stay shut in the face of a moderately determined effort to open it.
The room was silent after he had finished, and Ryuzaki realized that he hadn't experienced such a lack of noise in longer than he could remember. He was always surrounded by the hum of monitors, the rustle of paper, and since the start of the Kira case, the sounds of those around him. There was always someone to watch, facts to check, deductions to be made. This much silence was almost disconcerting. There was nothing to distract him from the thought that his subconscious (which part of him was Kurosaki supposed to represent?) was actively preventing his efforts to wake.
Before he could shake the thought, another followed. What if this Iwas/i real? What if this absurd city with its hollows and its teenaged monster hunters was the truth, and his memories were the lie? The existence of someone who could kill from a distance, knowing only the face of his (her?) victims, was no more or less absurd than invisible beasts which ate the souls of the living. What if his memories were only fabrication? He had no proof. Desperately (that word again), he threw himself into checking and rechecking that there was nothing of what he remembered recorded anywhere, not sure whether to regard the result as failure or success.
Intellectually, Ryuzaki knew he had no reason to doubt himself, and yet the question kept repeating itself. He couldn't reason his way to a solution, and that was a new and unpleasant sensation, leading inevitably to the suspicion that his premises were false.
The door was open before he knew it, his feet carrying him outside with the need to move, to occupy his mind with purely physical sensations and create a clean slate. Fight or flight, the rush of fear-induced adrenaline demanded, and he could do neither.
The streets were dark and silent, pools of light spaced irregularly along the not-quite-straight lines. Here and there the mechanical hum and bluish glare of a vending machine dotted the chain of streetlights. Tokyo's glare reflected off the cloudy sky, rendering it a purplish-gray. The houses and buildings stood black against it, or the streetlights blotted it out. Ryuzaki paced the streets as though he were searching for something, the methodical pattern bringing a modicum of calm.
Thunder rolled above him, warning of an uncharacteristic summer storm. There had been cold rain falling over the observation tower, as well, he remembered. It had struck his bare skin like icy needles, but he hadn't been able to stay even in the same building as Light (as Kira) for a moment longer.
The clouds had gotten thicker, bands of darker gray interspersing the lighter purplish color. It wouldn't have been visible but for the brightness of Tokyo to the east. The wind picked up, a soft breeze carrying the scent of rain, and only moments later the first drops began to fall. The gritty pavement beneath his bare feet took on the moisture, only damp at first but becoming increasingly cool and wet. The grit stuck to his toes, and his clothes began to cling to his skin.
The ever more rapid patter of raindrops was a welcome relief from the silence of the pre-dawn darkness.
As the brief shower began to slack off, thunder once again growling in the distance, Ryuzaki found himself standing in the spot where he'd first become aware of the dreamstate. The street was narrow, lined with walled gardens and crowded with houses, and devoid of trees. Power lines crossed above his head, glistening in the rain. There was no discernable difference between here and anywhere else, no sense of a passage or some inexplicable connection to his waking self.
The soft sound of the rain died away completely, and as he shook some of the water out of his hair, Ryuzaki noticed the rustle of wet clothing. The probability that he had been followed rather than coincidentally come to the same place as someone else out walking in the rain was high. Both angry and unnerved at his lapse (he had been trained to notice things like this, he always knew when something was out of the ordinary, but what iwas/i ordinary here?), he started walking. He could clearly hear his stalker (it was only one, and probably male), now that he was actively listening.
Suddenly paranoid that Kira had created all of this, had placed him in some sick and twisted game in order to see his face and learn his name, Ryuzaki darted down a side street and slipped into the shadows. There were more than enough uneven spaces in the maze of walls (half-height and perfunctory sometimes, but over two meters in other cases) and streetlights to conceal his face. His white shirt stood out like a beacon, though. He waited for his pursuer to move past the mouth of the street (more of an alley), but there was nothing.
The clouds were starting to break up under a strong wind, and Ryuzaki shivered. His clothes were soaked through, and warm though the night was, the wind cut like a knife. Something rustled from the street, followed by a poorly-suppressed sneeze. Muffled curses, not quite beyond his range of hearing, were enough for him to recognize Kurosaki's voice.
For a moment, he didn't know how to respond, what to feel. Slowly, his sense of equilibrium reasserted itself. Kira had nothing to do with this place, and Kurosaki... Kurosaki was a hair's-breadth shy of earning himself the title of 'stalker.'
"Why are you following me, Kurosaki?" he asked, pitching his voice over the wind.
A sudden scuffle of feet on wet pavement preceding a faint thud let him pinpoint Kurosaki's location precisely. "I'm-" Kurosaki started, and then bit off the phrase. Ryuzaki waited. "It's sort of my job," he said after a moment. "The Hollows." He paused again, but just before Ryuzaki could tell him to leave off, please, he asked, "Can you see them?"
Ryuzaki settled on a simple "No" as an answer, but Kurosaki didn't wait to hear it.
"Most people can't, you know. And most of the Hollows, they just didn't know when enough was enough, and it's better for everyone if we can send them on, but sometimes we – I can't get there before... and it's not pretty." He fell silent for a moment. "They feed off the energy people have, the soul I guess you could say, and the stronger someone's energy is, the better they can see it. Usually, when they get like that, it's my energy they go after, but the one earlier and the two yesterday, they really obviously kept going after you, which is kind of weird, because I can't see that your energy is much different than most people, which isn't a bad thing at all, just that it's sort of a different color and maybe that's why they can see it better." He seemed to run out of breath.
"Color," Ryuzaki repeated dubiously, just to see if Kurosaki would keep talking. The absurdity of hunting invisible soul-sucking monsters that not everyone could see not withstanding, there was something likable about the other boy. Something likable about the part of your subconscious that's trying to keep you locked in a dream while claiming to be saving your life? Ryuzaki ignored the thought; if not everyone could see the invisible beasts, that just meant that he needed to find a new way of looking at the Kira case. On the other hand, he'd already known a fresh perspective was necessary; this was hardly a revelation.
"It's... it's hard to describe," Kurosaki said somewhat lamely, and Ryuzaki decided that the other boy probably wasn't going to try to assault him.
"Go home, Kurosaki," he said, emerging from the alley and brushing past the other boy.
It was the wrong thing to say. Kurosaki's face hardened and he fell in at Ryuzaki's heels like a puppy. "No."
Ryuzaki stopped abruptly. Kurosaki nearly tripped in the attempt to avoid running into him, but managed to keep his feet with the same grace that Ryuzaki had come to expect from him.
"Why are you following me?" he repeated.
"The Hollows –" Kurosaki started.
Ryuzaki cut him off. "By that line of reasoning, you would have to stake out the entire population of this city. Why are you following me?"
"...I don't know." Kurosaki studied the ground, hands now in his pockets and shoulders hunched. "There's something different about you," he said after a moment. "You don't feel normal."
"So you think I'm a threat."
Kurosaki looked up at that, eyes widening. "No, no! You're not a Hollow."
"The Hollows are hunting you! I can't just stand here and watch!"
Ryuzaki looked at him for a moment, face as expressionless as he could make it. Then, in a voice much lighter than called for, he said, "This is hardly an efficient method."
"You – what?"
"Wouldn't it make more sense to find out how to keep them away instead of lurking around and killing them one by one?" Ryuzaki stared deliberately, not changing his expression in the slightest.
"Oh." Kurosaki smiled unexpectedly. "Rukia's working on it."
Ryuzaki hated misreading people, but Rukia was one of the more difficult to predict individuals he'd run into recently, excepting some of those involved with the Kira case. "Shouldn't she worry about protecting herself?"
"Oh, I'm doing her job until her power returns," Kurosaki said blithely. "She'll be fine."
Ryuzaki blinked. Rukia hadn't told Kurosaki that she was possibly being hunted herself. Was that supposed to tell him that his subconscious was conflicted? He was fairly sure there were no disagreements lurking behind his conscious mind, no matter what these odd figments were doing. "I see," he said slowly.
The wind picked up again, sending a spatter of raindrops out of the single tree nearby. Kurosaki sneezed again, looking almost surprised at it.
Ryuzaki sighed. Kurosaki apparently wasn't going to leave him alone. "If you won't go home, you might as well come and put dry clothes on," he said. Kurosaki smiled in answer.
Once back inside, Ryuzaki collected Kurosaki's wet clothing and hung it along with his own above the small bathtub. There was really nowhere to put it that wouldn't get in the way of something or other. The lack of space was vaguely claustrophobic, more so at night, when the darkness closed in.
By the time he finished wrestling with the hangers and returned to the living room, Kurosaki was mostly asleep sitting up. Ryuzaki draped a blanket over him and left him to it. There was no way he was going to be sleeping with Kurosaki in the room, even if Ryuzaki was fairly sure he wasn't an active threat. He steadfastly ignored the faint voice still insisting that treating the dreamstate as if it were something approaching reality was a fine example of illogical behavior.
Nothing with a strawberry attached remained intact when the sun started peeking around the curtains. To be fair, there hadn't been many strawberry-containing sweets in the kitchen, but it had also been fairly close to dawn when Kurosaki had fallen asleep. Ryuzaki also made use of the shower, careful to avoid the hanging clothes (one of the more difficult feats of physicality he'd performed recently, but he couldn't very well hang them outside while it was still raining). The sound apparently woke Kurosaki, for he was hanging outside the shower door when Ryuzaki emerged. He gave the impression of being alert and thoroughly awake despite what had to be insufficient sleep, at least until he walked into the doorframe. Ryuzaki hid a smile and gestured wordlessly towards the shower.
Fresh coffee and warm clothes, while both irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, were small pleasures that could be enjoyed in the moment. Kurosaki, however, refused the coffee. He didn't look particularly enthusiastic about any of the sweets Ryuzaki offered, either. Ryuzaki shrugged and put them back.
"...stay here," Kurosaki said abruptly, and rushed out the door, still shirtless. Ryuzaki followed, barefoot. The possibility that Kurosaki had found a hollow was high, and he wasn't about to let the opportunity slip away.
Kurosaki was already in the middle of the street, facing down something Ryuzaki couldn't see. There was a faint glow coming off him, rolling in uneven waves, and if Ryuzaki concentrated, he could see it lapping over a faint distortion in the air. He would have dismissed it as heat waves, if it hadn't been for Kurosaki's expression – angry and frightened and determined, all rolled into one.
"Stay back," Kurosaki ordered curtly. It wasn't a request. He glared at what had to be a Hollow, and the glow intensified. "Over here, you bastard!" He leapt aside, rolling and coming to his feet a good three meters away. Ryuzaki took advantage of his distraction to move slowly and unobtrusively towards the stairs.
"Dammit," Kurosaki cursed. He scooped up a rock and threw it. It didn't hit anything as far as Ryuzaki could tell, but Kurosaki paused, a second rock in his hand. "Yeah, over here, come and get me!" He took off running, turning once to throw the second rock, and disappeared around a corner.
Ryuzaki hurried down the stairs, towards the corner he'd seen Kurosaki round.
"Not that way!" Kurosaki reappeared out of what seemed to be nowhere, grabbed his hand, and started pulling him in the opposite direction. The glow around him was more visible now, but no less unsteady. Ryuzaki didn't think Kurosaki was aware of its fluctuations. "We have to dodge it until I can get to Rukia," he explained, not sounding in the least out of breath although he was pulling Ryuzaki down the street at a faster pace than Ryuzaki could have run on his own.
The slight distortion appeared ahead of them without warning, and Kurosaki wheeled around more quickly than Ryuzaki would have thought possible, pulling Ryuzaki with him. "Keep back," he said again. The distortion lunged, not for Ryuzaki, but for Kurosaki. Caught off guard at the unexpected motion, Kurosaki started to dodge too late,. Ryuzaki shoved him aside, for once reacting first, and placed himself directly into the path of the monstrosity bearing down on them both.
A bolt of silver-white light flashed in front of his eyes, and when his vision cleared, Light was once again hovering over him. Chills swept through his body and he found himself shivering, even though he could feel the heavy weight of blankets over him. "Ryuzaki?" Light dropped the file he was holding with a crash and leaned forward. "Are you awake?"
"Light," Ryuzaki started, but the vision faded into blue sky.
"Raito?" someone repeated. "Come on, Ryuga, pull yourself together."
Ryuzaki blinked. "Kurosaki?" Light and Kurosaki were starting to sound like a broken record. For that matter, this whole dreamscape thing was wearing thin. He'd been awake, he'd been there, why couldn't he stay that way? Something solid pressed against his back, and he realized he wasn't actually standing any more. "What..." His throat contracted and he broke into a fit of coughing.
"I didn't think it hit you," Kurosaki said, helping him sit up. Once he was able to breathe again, Ryuzaki noticed Ishida standing dramatically in the shadows a few feet away. The jacket hanging from his shoulders fluttered in the slight wind, and he was peering down the street.
"Was that Ishida?" Ryuzaki asked. "That white light." He didn't need to ask, not really, but it gave him a moment to pull his thoughts together. For a few seconds, he could still feel the fever-chill lingering, and then it faded.
"You saw that?" Kurosaki was staring at him intently now.
Ryuzaki blinked at him. "I wasn't supposed to?"
"Does he fall over every time I shoot at a Hollow?" Ishida called. Ryuzaki hadn't thought Ishida had noticed his unsteadiness during that second fight.
It was Kurosaki's turn to blink. "Now that you mention it," he called back. His stare had gotten sharper. "You fainted last night, too." He paused. "The sooner we get them to stop hunting you, the better. It's getting worse."
Ryuzaki nodded, wearing a slightly worried look. Of course, he had no intention of doing as Kurosaki insisted, but it would be easier to find the Hollows – or let them find him – without Kurosaki doing his utmost to keep them away. Unfortunately for his peace of mind, not only did Kurosaki stick to him like glue, but there was also no immediate sign of any odd activity. He was stuck pretending to pay attention to a series of high school lectures and pretending to have patience with the inane babble of the students around him. Whatever his subconscious thought it was playing at, enough was clearly enough. More than enough.
It wasn't until Kurosaki had to touch him to get his attention that Ryuzaki noticed that everything around him had at some point become oddly insubstantial. It felt almost as if the world in front of him was only an image on a translucent sheet, and a strong wind would blow it away. He had trouble concentrating on any part of it, and when Kurosaki grabbed his shoulder, he felt almost surprised that the pretty picture had substance.
"Roof," Kurosaki said, with the air of someone who has repeated himself more than once already. Ryuzaki stopped himself just in time from asking if being on the roof wouldn't make them more visible to Hollows, nodding instead and gathering up his bag.
Company awaited them on the roof in the form of a girl from Kurosaki's class. He'd tagged her earlier as probably knowing Kurosaki's secret, and this seemed to verify his assumption. She smiled and removed her snowflake hairpins. "Hello, Ryuga."
Ryuzaki waved distractedly, scanning the area for the distinctive heat-wave signature of a Hollow. There were more actual heat shimmers than he could count, under the hot June sun, but none of them were moving. Kurosaki tapped his shoulder again, and Ryuzaki realized that the other boy had said something, and also that he had somehow gotten to the far side of the roof and was holding the fence with both hands.
"I said," Kurosaki repeated, "Orihime's going to see if she can figure out what the Hollows are doing to you."
"Okay," Ryuzaki agreed, returning his attention to the streets. He heard but didn't pay attention to something about Kurosaki not sharing properly, and then another high-pitched whine. Something small with wings darted through his field of vision, but he ignored it. It wasn't a Hollow, and what was one more piece of oddness in this entire den of absurdity? If he hadn't been so completely sure of his own sanity, this dream would have made him doubt it.
More high-pitched chatter reached his ears, but when Kurosaki pulled him around, Orihime wasn't speaking. She pinned her hair back again, carefully adjusting the six-pointed clips. "Were you listening?" Kurosaki asked.
"No?" Something hummed just barely within the range of his hearing, and Kurosaki yanked him abruptly to the right. Heat-shimmers danced on the roof, more pronounced than they had been that morning. Kurosaki shoved him backward, placing himself between it and Ryuzaki. Orihime, to Ryuzaki's distant surprise, didn't run. Instead, she took up a defensive position and removed the clips from her hair again.
Despite his detachment, it came as something of a shock when the hair-clips metamorphosed into the tiny winged creatures he'd seen a few moments ago. They dove at the Hollow, with little apparent success. The Hollow all but ignored them, moving slowly and deliberately towards Kurosaki. Just as the world started to shake apart, Ryuzaki shoved Kurosaki aside and stepped forward.
Heat rushed through him in a wave, and something was pressing him down. He fought against it, but it was difficult to move. Just as he managed to get a grip on it, the weight peeled away, and cool air soaked into him.
"Ryuzaki," said Light's voice.
Ryuzaki opened his eyes. "Light." He still felt odd, transparent or insubstantial or somehow drifting.
Relief spread over Light's features; for a moment he was as open and unguarded as... the thought trailed off. "How do you feel?"
It took a few moments to figure out the best way to answer the question, and by the time he opened his mouth to reply, Light was looking worried again. "Better," he said. Light still looked worried. "What are you doing here?"
Light held up a stack of files. "Thought you might be bored," he said lightly. "I might be on to something here, by the way."
"That's good," Ryuzaki tried to say, but Light was fading. Not again! He clung to his train of thought, as if it could keep him anchored. Light has been acting unobserved for an indeterminate length of time. If the pattern of deaths during this period bears any resemblance to Kira's earlier pattern, then it would be conclusive proof as to his guilt. However, Light wouldn't be caught so easily. Furthermore, his recent behavior seems to attest to a total lack of guilt whatsoever, presumably brought about by a lack of memories related to Kira's power. On the other hand, if he's found a pattern in the current line of events, does that attest to his innocence insofar as he is a brilliant detective or to his guilt insofar as he has outside knowledge of these events?
Ryuzaki opened his eyes, and his thoughts fell silent. No, not his thoughts. He'd been speaking aloud. "K-kurosaki." Really, this pattern was becoming tiresome, although instead of lying on the ground, apparently this time he was being held. By Kurosaki, of course. The heat-shimmer of the Hollow was nowhere in his admittedly limited field of vision.
"What the hell was that?" Kurosaki was holding him just a little too tightly. Ryuzaki squirmed, trying to pull away, but Kurosaki wasn't having any of it.
"What was what?" he asked instead.
"You walked right into it!"
"I did?" Ryuzaki said vaguely. "Into what?"
"The... never mind." Kurosaki peered at him, hovering even closer than he had been a moment ago. "How many fingers?" he asked finally.
"I'm not concussed," Ryuzaki said. It came out more sulkily than he'd intended. He finally managed to pull free of Kurosaki and climb to his feet.
"Fine," Kurosaki returned. "And what's a Kira?"
"A what?" Ryuzaki gave him his best bemused look. It wasn't that difficult. His ears were ringing, and the ground seemed to be shifting slightly. The motion faded after he took a few tentative steps, but the ringing refused to go away.
Kurosaki swore. He crossed the distance Ryuzaki had put between them and grabbed Ryuzaki's shoulders. "Look at me. No, look. Listen." He spoke slowly, enunciating each word. "There's something wrong with you, because of the Hollows. It gets worse each time." He paused, searching Ryuzaki's face. Ryuzaki gave him a shallow nod. "I need you to stay with me. Can you remember that?"
"Yes," Ryuzaki breathed. He just didn't have to pay attention to it.
"Good." Kurosaki let go. "We're going inside." For a moment, Ryuzaki thought Kurosaki would physically steer him towards the roof access door, but Kurosaki apparently thought better of it and let his hands drop. Halfway to the door, the air shimmered again. Ryuzaki could almost make out a shape in it this time, but Kurosaki dragged him away.
White fluttered somewhere to the left, and Ryuzaki recognized Ishida again, silently pointing a finger at the shimmer. White light erupted out towards the shimmer, but it dodged, and the light fizzled harmlessly out. The air turned thick, and the ground fell away. It returned beneath his shoulder, knocking the air out of him. Dimly, Ryuzaki felt Kurosaki hoisting him upwards, and the sky vanished.
The roof access door slammed shut, and Kurosaki put him down. The walls were cool to the touch, solid and somehow comforting. "Look at me, Hideki," Kurosaki said urgently. "Look at me." Ryuzaki tried, managing to focus on the shape in front of him with some difficulty. Why he was making the effort was beyond him.
Underneath the sounds of the fight outside, he could hear voices. There were familiar voices, and footsteps, and an underthread of panic. "I have to go," he said.
"No," Kurosaki whispered. "It was my fault that it came for her. I can't let them take anyone else, not because of me."
Odd as it was, Ryuzaki found himself wanting to reassure Kurosaki. "Not your fault," he managed. "Only a dream." The voices were getting louder, but they were also more frantic.
Warmth pressed against his lips, soft and yielding. Ryuzaki looked up at Kurosaki – at Ichigo – in surprise. "I can't let you die," Ichigo said, almost too close to speak.
Ryuzaki tried to smile. "Going home," he said, and the world ripped away.
The files scattered around the chair were, at the moment, failing to hold Light's attention. He kept glancing across the room towards where Ryuzaki slept quietly, finally stable and on the mend. Although he wouldn't have put it in so many words, Light had been unnerved by the sight of the most brilliant mind in Japan reduced to delirious incoherence; Ryuzaki hadn't been lucid for days.
"What?" Ryuzaki had woken and was glaring at him, irritability written clearly across his features.
"Morning," Light said, dropping to a crouch so that he could look at Ryuzaki from the same level. "How do you feel?"
"Bored," Ryuzaki answered promptly. "I'm leaving."
Apparently the virus hadn't left his mind permanently worse for the wear; he still wore his masks perfectly. Light put a hand on his chest, holding him down with very little effort. The physical aftereffects were another matter entirely. "Wait until Watari gets here. He'll have you discharged and drive you back to the tower."
Ryuzaki sank back, studying Light intently. Then he smiled. "Thank you, Yagami."
With renewed concentration, Light returned to his files. Although Ryuzaki hadn't been properly awake to see it, he'd acted as if the chain still connected them to the best of his ability. Even if Ryuzaki had lost his drive, Light knew that there was something to be found, and he was determined enough to continue until he found it. Three days later saw the chain restored, and Ryuzaki listlessly swiveling back and forth on the chairs in the tower. He'd been oddly preoccupied since being discharged, but Light put it down to the aftereffects of the flu.
"Ryuzaki... Sorry to bother you when you're not really interested in this, but could you come here for a minute?"
Ryuzaki edged forward until he could look over Light's shoulder. Light took that to be an affirmative answer.
"Look at this. Doesn't this look a little one-sided to you? And isn't this too rapid of an increase?"
The strange preoccupation that Ryuzaki had been exhibiting (more after he'd been sick than before, almost like a mask that had worn into reality) burned away like fog under the sun, and Ryuzaki smiled in surprised delight. "Ya-yagami!"
"How about it? Motivated to keep working?"
"It wasn't your fault, Ichigo." Orihime smiled at him, but he'd seen her smile that way when she was trying to cheer someone up, and that was the last thing he wanted.
"Go away," he said, not quite sullenly, because it was Orihime, but not graciously either.
She regarded him for a moment, eyes unusually solemn, and Ichigo was reminded that Orihime was not, in fact, as bubble-headed as she liked to act. "You couldn't have known," she said quietly, and backed off.
The first few moments had been sheer panic, and the following hours not much better. The school itself, for all the rather odd occurrences in town, had not handled the issue of a student death on school grounds well at all. There had been a flurry of activity, mostly in the direction of trying to find someplace to settle the responsibility for not having prevented the situation in the first place. Most of it had abated after the translation of said student's medical records had finally arrived (one might have said, in the dramatic nick of time). According to the records...
Ichigo had stopped paying attention at that point, and had only taken in the vaguest details. There had been something physically wrong with Ryuga, and it had apparently been a matter of time. None of that meant that the Hollows hadn't had an adverse effect on Ryuga, nor did it mean that Ichigo hadn't managed to keep them away. A pre-existing condition wasn't a reason for him to let someone die in his place.
"It just occurred to me," Rukia said, crouching on her heels and wrapping her arms around her knees, "that his aura looked a lot like yours."
Oh, great. The Hollows really had been attracted to him all along, and Ryuga had just been in the way. A friend (more?) had paid the price for his strength.
"On the other hand," Rukia continued, "maybe it looked more like Ishida."
What the-? What is she talking about? Ichigo waited for a moment, but that was it. "I have no idea what you're trying to say," he said bluntly. Rukia gave him the same flat look Orihime had and turned back to the view of the city.
"Sometimes there's nothing you can do," she said finally, and then left.
Ichigo knew and didn't care that she was speaking with the voice of experience. No one else is going to die because of me. I swear it.