9/15 UPDATE POSTPONED
I'm sorry to re-release a chapter like this (Also: THIS IS NOT A NEW CHAPTER, but rather chapter 81 reposted) but I needed to tell everyone that I will not be able to update this weekend. Updates will resume next weekend on September 22. Chapters that contain non-story content are against the terms of service (hence this repost) but I needed to send a clear message since I know not all of you follow me on Tumblr, and... here we are.
My uncle has died. Seeing those words in print is surreal and heart-rending. He died after a long struggle with heart disease. His death is not necessarily a surprise, but even in the light of expectation, it remains no less of a shock.
He meant a lot to me. He gave me the gift of story, made sure I developed a love of Shakespeare, and zealously encouraged my writing from the very day he learned I enjoy holding a pen. We were the only atheists in the family and, more often than not, wound up sequestered in a corner at family gatherings, where we talked about "that damn Jesus stuff" (his words), theology, physics, ethics, literature, and the best way to cook a haggis (in a pit of coals buried in the naked earth was his opinion). I get along with no one the way I got along with him. A literal rocket scientist and pipe-smoking, poetry-quoting genius, he was the most brilliant person I have ever met, and am likely to ever meet, in my life. I feel his loss like I've been divested of a vital limb.
Thus, I do not have the power or energy to work on fanfic today. I'm going to work instead on the novel I've been writing, which he was eager to read but will never get to. I feel the horror of that somewhere in my chest, distant yet nearing quickly, and I know I will break down when the realization arrives in full.
My birthday was this week. He had the good sense not to die on my birthday, waiting until a few hours after it ended before passing himself. He'd think that timing was a fine joke and a sure sign of his status as a man of intellect and consideration, not to taint a lady's birthday with something so gauche as a death. Among other things, I inherited his dark sense of humor and keen hunger for irony. (This paragraph was written with tongue firmly lodged in cheek and in honor of his particular brand of jokery; do not think I am being irreverent; I am shattered.)
I don't drink, but I'll be buying a bottle of Irish whiskey in his honor today. If you're inclined, please pour out a thimble of whatever libation suits you in his name: Harris. Something tells me he'd cleave to the idea of a host of anonymous strangers across the world, connected through writing and the labor of humankind's digital inventions, thinking of him as his atoms—that mysterious star-stuff he studied and of which he was so sublimely made—rejoin the cosmic atomic landscape.
Thank you, everyone, for your sensitivity as I make sense of his absence, and as I wonder about the legality and practicality of giving his effigy a Viking funeral (because I know he'd want one of those as certainly as I know my own name).
Love and hugs,
"Pants on Fire"
After the fire that destroyed her home and nearly burned her comatose son alive, Atsuko had gone apartment hunting.
At first they'd simply needed a place to live. They moved into a standard apartment building, the one the insurance agents said she could afford after a modest payout. One bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and small bathroom—less than what they'd had before, but perhaps in a better part of town. However, six weeks later I came to check on Yusuke and found her small apartment beset by movers, possessions squirreled away in boxes that were placed dutifully into the back of a large truck. The truck took them to an even better part of town and deposited them in an even better apartment, one with two whole bedrooms (without a doubt a luxury in Japan) plus a living room, a dining room, and a bathroom with a separated shower and full-size tub.
It was well beyond what Atsuko could afford, of course.
But upon seeing the men with full sleeves of traditional Japanese tattoos driving the suspiciously unmarked moving truck, I knew better than to ask questions. Atsuko's connections were mysterious at best and downright alarming at worst. Thus, I kept my mouth shut, and I accepted a key to Yusuke's new place without comment.
After school on the day Amagi asked me to accompany her somewhere as mysterious as Atsuko's connections, I used that key to let myself into Yusuke's house. Atsuko sprawled across the couch in the living room, air hazy with smoke from the cigarette dangling between her lips, beer bottle hanging precariously between too loose fingers. The TV blared some sitcom or another, one I didn't recognize at first glance. She didn't even bother looking away from it when I walked in and shut the door behind me.
"Hey there, Keiko," was all she said. She waved her bottle at the doorway to the dining room, "Yusuke sent a new packet for ya."
Atsuko mostly used the dining room, and the long wooden table within it, as a depository for her unopened mail—and she had a mountain of it. It covered nearly half of the table; the other half I'd cleared away myself the last time I sorted out her bills. The packet Atsuko mentioned sat in the middle of the clear side. Waiting for me, more or less. Atsuko hadn't bothered to open the thick manila envelope marked with her address in bold black letters, so I tore into it and found the usual assortment of worksheets, photocopies of lecture notes, and syllabuses that filled all these packets. Yusuke had been sent one every week since he'd gone training in the mountains, his school dead set that their worst student not fall behind while he was gone.
Talk about futile, though.
Even before I opened the packet, I knew what I'd find: half-finished worksheets marked with random answers, blank essay sheets, and the most pitifully half-hearted short answer questions imaginable (when they weren't totally snarky, of course). The handwriting matched the penmanship on the envelope, sloppy but bold enough to be legible. The school sent Atsuko a packet, Atsuko mailed it off to Genkai's compound, and then Yusuke sent it back completed—well, sort of completed, I guess. As I spread the work out before me and fetched a pen from my book bag, I couldn't help but wonder if Genkai had to stand over Yusuke brandishing a crowbar to get him to do even this paltry amount of homework. Something told me he wouldn't touch it without proper motivation.
Pressing my fingers to my temples, I heaved a weary sigh. Normally I'd turn up my nose at the idea of looking over Yusuke's work for him, but after the day I'd had, it was kind of a nice distraction.
This glimpse of his blocky handwriting was the only contact I'd had with him since he left. Was nice to know he was still alive and well enough to write bad jokes into the margins of his worksheets…
A few minutes after I'd started working, Atsuko wandered into the room and put a hand on my shoulder. "How'd he do this time?" she asked, craning her neck to look at the worksheet before me.
"Not great. But that's normal." I eyed the mountain of mail on the other side of the table. "Were there any other packets?"
Atsuko's hand left my shoulder; she sat in the chair next to mine and shook her head, brow knit in a questioning frown.
"There's a gap in the makeup work." I slid two worksheets toward her and pointed at the dates at the top. "Just a few days' worth, but I was wondering if maybe they forgot some stuff and sent another packet…"
"Nah." She shook her head. "That's it."
"Hmm." I tapped my pen against the table. "Either he forgot to put something in the envelope, or the school must've forgotten something."
Atsuko laughed. "He's missed so much school, that's not surprising. Pretty sure you're the only reason he'll pass this grade."
"Probably," I agreed.
Yusuke's work was undoubtedly F material, but with my help his grades got within an acceptable range—AKA, I doctored his answers just enough to earn him a D or even a low C grade in lieu of failing outright. I didn't dare give him better answers than that, though. Teachers wouldn't believe it if he got anything higher than a low C, and that was honestly pushing it. Best to stick to the D range, was my thinking, and I stuck as dutifully to it as I could.
"You told them what I said to tell them, right?" I said, gesturing at the packet. "About the handwriting?"
Atsuko took a swig of beer, then clasped her hands atop her chest and fluttered her lashes. "Sweet, loving, responsible former student Keiko is writing for Yusuke as he dictates, taking control of the pen whenever he becomes too weak to hold it." She gave another of her harsh laughs and grinned. "Even if that one teacher hates you, the rest of them bought that story hook, like, and sinker."
"My reputation lingers, it seems."
"I'll say." Her grin widened. "They think him getting sick is the best thing that's ever happened to his grades. Takenaka assumes you're tutoring him while he's bedridden, and that's why his grades aren't at the bottom of the gutter."
It was nice to know Takenaka still thought well of me—but my smile faded as I considered he might be the only one who did. I couldn't help but grimace when I asked, "You hear from Yusuke much lately?"
Atsuko shrugged. "He called a few nights ago. He's alive, but he sounded beat to hell. No telling when he'll actually put in an appearance at home, but that's Yusuke for you."
"Yeah." I stared at my hands. "Atsuko?"
"Has he, ah." I lost my nerve and had to take a moment to compose myself, running my fingers over my bangs to self-soothe. "Has he said anything to you? About me, I mean."
She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms over her chest. "Why do you ask?" Atsuko said.
I swallowed. "He—he left without saying goodbye," I said, unable to look at Atsuko when I made that admission. "Hasn't called me once. Makes me wonder if he's pissed or something, but…"
But Atsuko only laughed, a harsh bark of hard humor that drew my attention at once. "Ha!" she said, slapping a hand on the table. "All the times you've stuck your neck out for him, if he's pissed at something you did, he can go kick rocks!"
Her eyes glimmered with too much mirth for me to think she was taking me seriously. "Atsuko, I'm serious," I said.
"So am I," she countered. She crossed her arms again and nodded, stubborn and certain as a mule. "Right before he left I told him to go tell you goodbye and he said no, you'd just feed him lies again, but I said that you'd done nothing but look out for him since you were kids and if you told a lie, dollars to donuts it was for a good reason."
My stomach shot into my shoes. Carefully I pulled my hands into my lap, so Atsuko couldn't see them shake, and so I wouldn't dot Yusuke's homework with my nervous sweat. "And did he buy that?" I managed to grind out despite the weight lodged firmly inside my chest.
"You bet your ass he didn't," Atsuko said (the weight in me got heavier). "But I smacked him upside the head and said to get over himself." She leaned across the table to check me on the arm, her fist hard against my bicep. "Oh, cheer up; you look like I told you he died again or something. Whatever it is, Keiko, it'll pass. Yusuke doesn't have the attention span to stay mad at you!" Another of her merry cackles. "He's got the attention span of a goldfish, and you know it!"
Atsuko seemed confident about that—but I wasn't so sure. If Yusuke was mad at me (and now I finally had confirmation that he most likely was) I hadn't heard the last of it. Though to be honest, the fact that he was angry and had left without a word on purpose was the least disturbing thing about what I'd just discovered.
Yusuke thought I'd lied to him about something.
Too bad I'd told him so many hundreds of lies over the years, I hadn't the first clue as to which one he'd managed to catch.
The question of which lie he'd picked up on dogged my steps after I finished doctoring his homework, bouncing around the case of my skull like a song stuck in your head. I went home and lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling and trying to play back all of my most recent interactions with Yusuke one by one. He hadn't seemed suspicious or weird in any of them, though. So which one had he—?
Growling under my breath in frustration, I rolled onto my side and grabbed my phone off my desk. Operating on feel alone, I managed to dial a number without looking at the keypad.
"Hey, Kuwabara," I said when the line engaged. "It's me."
"Oh, hi Keiko," he said. "How you doin'?"
"Fine, fine." I took a deep breath. "Just—"
He interrupted me before I could get going. "Wait, hold on a sec." Something rustled, probably a hand covering the receiver, and in the distance I heard Kuwabara call, "OK, Dad. Bye!" Another rustle and his voice came through clear again. "Sorry, what were you saying?"
I had lost my nerve, unfortunately, and changed the subject. "Was that your dad?" I asked. "He's not normally home this time of night."
"Yeah." A hint of annoyance crept into his tone; I could imagine him glaring at his bedroom door, shooting daggers at his tight-lipped father. "He got off a bit early today, but I don't know where the heck he's going at this hour." His tone cleared. "Anyway. Enough about him. What's up?"
"Um. Well—" But again I lost my nerve, and I didn't ask what I most wanted to. Instead I said, "I won't be able to make it to practice this Sunday. I already told Kurama but I wanted to let you know to bring your own lunch, too."
"Oh." A pause. Then, brightly: "Well, if it can't be helped, then it can't be helped! No worries, Keiko, promise!"
He almost chirped when he spoke, chipper and friendly and light—not at all disappointed that I we wouldn't get to see each other like we normally did on Sundays, when I took Hiei, Kurama, and Kuwabara lunch during their training session. I'd kind of thought he'd react glumly, and for a moment his happy reaction bereft of any disappointment rendered me mute. He'd been warm and friendly and nice with me at practice, not to mention when we got together to get some studying in, never once distant or weird or cold or suspicious that maybe I'd lied about something… but maybe I was reading into it. Kuwabara wasn't Yusuke, after all. I was clearly just being oversensitive. That was it.
"Well. Cool, I guess." Taking another deep breath, I said, "Say, Kuwabara?"
"Have you heard from Yusuke much?"
It was much harder to ask that simple question than it should have been, words eking from my mouth with undue effort. After I spoke there followed a moment of silence, some rustling on the other end of the line signaling that perhaps Kuwabara had sat up in bed, or sat down, or something similar.
"Yusuke?" he repeated, as if he hadn't heard that name in a while. "Uh. Well." Another pause. "Why do you ask?"
"He left without saying goodbye. And I haven't heard from him at all since he left, either." I had to swallow in order to keep talking, nerves a lump in my tense neck. "Not even a phone call. And of course no letters. He hates writing." Even though Kuwabara couldn't see me, I shrugged. "I know, I know, he's busy. But—"
Kuwabara snorted. "Well, he doesn't call me on the phone, either, if that helps."
"It… actually kind of does." In fact, the weight in my chest lessened quite a bit, the nervous lump in my throat easing up a little, too. "Thanks, Kuwabara."
He cleared his throat. "Ah. Don't mention it, Keiko, really."
I giggled. "Well, anyway. Want me to bring you some rations for the rest of the week?" Shizuru was the main cook in his family, and in her absence I'd been bringing him food pretty often. "Let's see. I can make—"
But Kuwabara stammered something, cutting me off before I could make an offer. "Nah, nah, that's OK, I'll be fine," he said with odd haste. "Don't want you to come out of your way or anything; Dad and I can survive just fine and besides, I don't want to trouble you. So I'll see you next week for tutoring? Yeah?"
"Uh. Yeah. Will do"
"OK, great!" he said. "See ya then!"
He hung up the phone before I could tell him goodbye.
Per her instructions, I met Amagi outside the train station. On Sunday the place was crowded, but it didn't take long to spot her standing off to the side by a ticket kiosk, out of the way of the rest of the foot traffic on this busy weekend. I stopped short when I saw her and stared, a bit surprised by her appearance. It was rare to see Amagi in something other than a uniform, her cream-colored cashmere turtleneck, brown corduroy pants and tan trench coat looking unexpectedly elegant, or even timeless, as she waited for me. Next to her I felt a bit silly in my jeans, Megallica shirt, and puffy red jacket. Honestly, between Amagi's conservative haircut and my rocker bangs, we didn't look like we should be running in the same circle of friends at all, as different as earth and sea.
However, it wasn't just her outfit that stopped me in my tracks.
The bundle of red carnations tucked against her side is what really did the trick.
She spotted me about the same time I spotted her, smiling her delicate smile before walking in my direction. "Keiko," she said as she came within earshot. "I'm very glad you could make it."
"Me, too." I swallowed, unable to keep my eyes off the flowers. "So. What's the occasion?"
"You'll see." She turned toward the train station. "Come with me."
We scanned our passes at the turnstiles and boarded a train, standing toward the back of a crowded car full of people headed out on a weekend getaway. Amagi made no move to hand me the flowers, not even acknowledging their presence beneath her arm; at that realization, I calmed a little. If she'd handed me the flowers I would've had to put my foot down, ruining whatever this day was about before it could even begin—and frankly, I was glad not to have to do that. Amagi was a good friend at this point. I'd hate to lose that over something as fleeting and innocent as a teenage crush.
… but if the flowers weren't for me, who the heck were they even for?
So focused on that question was I that I didn't quite remember to note which train we boarded, only registering that we were bound for a destination outside of Sarayashiki once we had to change lines—a line marked with a big sign that said "Mushiyori City," in fact, and at that name my stomach did a few flips. Once we entered a new car and found a place to stand, way at the front next to a window, I looked at Amagi sidelong with a frown.
"Mushiyori, huh?" I said, keeping my voice whisper-quiet in the crowded car. "What's out there?"
She smiled. "The reason for our outing today."
I stared at her.
She stared at me, smile unwavering.
"You're not going to tell me what it is until we get there, are you?" I muttered.
"That's right." She concealed a laugh behind the high collar of her sweater. "I admit, it's almost fun watching you squirm."
She laughed again, and I had to look away as my cheeks flushed and my ears heated—but my eyes wandered to the window next to us, where our images stood reflected side by side. Amagi was two years my senior, but we looked practically the same age in that window pane. In fact, we looked like peers. Classmates. Friends, albeit from different social circles, a pretty preppy chick and her grungy rocker friend out for an afternoon of shopping on our day off. Seeing us side by side like that, my face reflected next to hers, set a certain feeling of disquiet in my stomach—especially when I saw a woman and a man in their late 20s standing behind us. That, I reminded myself, was my real age, no matter what my face looked like in the mirror when I woke up each morning. Associating so much with other 15 to 17 year olds, who treated me like a peer and who wore faces the same age as the one I saw every day in the mirror, it was sometimes tough to remember who was and was not really my peer. The damn teenage hormones certainly didn't do me any favors in that department, either. But inside I was an adult, far more experienced than anyone Amagi's age, and the ability to use that experience to manipulate a young person… well. It was pretty gross, now wasn't it?
In the end, I felt more than a little relieved those flowers weren't for me. My unwanted teenage hormones were a mere annoyance I'd have to ignore for the foreseeable future, no matter how loudly they liked to remind me of their existence.
Eventually the train pulled into Mushiyori, and upon disembarking we found ourselves in a swanky shopping district complete with high-ride buildings covered in banks of shiny glass, late winter sun reflecting off their glossy surfaces in shades of platinum and pale gold. Amagi began to lead the way down these city streets, but before we'd managed to walk even a block, she stopped. Frowned up at a tall building above us, eyes narrowing into glimmering crescents of liquid black.
"You OK?" I asked.
"Yes," she murmured in a voice I could barely hear. "But we'll go the long way 'round today, I think."
"I mean. If you say so?"
She gave a curt nod, turning on her heel and heading back toward the station. I wanted to ask what that had been about, but when I tried, she shook her head.
"It was nothing," she said. "Someone just walked over my grave, that's all."
I fell quiet, and I did not press for details.
After doubling back and boarding the train again, we rode it to the other end of town and then took another line in another direction. No idea where we were going, of course, but judging from the map painted onto the ceiling of the car, we'd traced almost a complete circle around the edge of the city by the time Amagi said we could leave the train and start walking. This time we walked for quite a while through a suburb, passing a park, some local businesses, and a blocks full of nice houses and apartment buildings before coming upon a sprawling, mansion-like villa with many wings set far back off the street. A long driveway led to the front of this Western-style facility, and the enormous lawn out front (a bit brown with the season, of course) hosted a score of topiary animals on its manicured surface. I stopped in my tracks when I saw it, taking in the pink brick and sparkling windows with my jaw dropped. It was not normal to see a place like this in Japan, where real estate was so expensive—but the stone arch above the long driveway gave me a clue, at least, as to what it was.
Mushiyori Elder Care & Retirement Facility, the sign read.
"Amagi." When she stopped and turned, I asked (perhaps redundantly), "What is this place?"
At that, she smiled—but there was something brittle in it. Something I could not put my finger on, and sent a chill through me I could not blame on the blustery weather.
"There's someone I want you to meet," Amagi told me. "She has something I think you need to hear."
She didn't tell me anything else. She kept walking, boots clacking lightly against the cement driveway as the trees casting shadows on the pavement swayed on a cold winter wind.
The front doors of the place—tall, painted white with glass insets to let in light—opened onto an airy lobby filled with couches, coffee tables, and easy chairs, with an enormous wooden desk along the back wall. A nurse in scrubs stood behind the desk; as we entered he put down the phone he'd been speaking into and looked up. When he saw Amagi, he smiled.
"Hello there, Amagi-chan." His eyes travelled my way. "Who's your friend?"
"Her name is Keiko," Amagi said. "Does she need to sign in?"
"Yes." He held out a hand. "May I see some ID? Your school ID is fine."
I gave it to him and filled out a form he handed me, clipping a visitor pass to the front of my shirt when he proffered one. Amagi politely rejected his offer of an escort, instead leading the way herself past a set of swinging double doors and down a long hallway that honestly looked like the inside of a swanky apartment building, welcome mats lying in front of tall wooden doors embossed with golden numbers, peepholes, and small knockers. It smelled the littlest bit like a hospital, the scents of cleaning supplies the most notable aroma in the place, but it wasn't a bad smell or anything. Amagi didn't seem to notice it or mind, after all, as she led us to a door labeled with the number 106. She knocked three times, but when no response came, she tested the doorknob, pushed the panel inward, and vanished inside. I didn't follow her, mostly because she came back out again after only a few seconds.
"Out in the garden, then," she said to herself, and then to me she added: "This way, Keiko."
Amagi forged ahead down the hallway, turning left at a fork before taking another right. Soon we found ourselves at another set of double doors, these glassy like the front ones; through their clear panes I saw a large flagstone patio with a fountain in the middle, patio ringed on all sides by tall plants and a high brick wall. The plants were all grey and scraggly from winter, of course, but even from indoors I could tell it would look quite pretty come spring. I had only a moment to think about that, though, before Amagi opened the doors and strode outside.
A cold wind wrapped around us as soon as we stepped over the threshold; I huddled in my puffy coat, zipping it up as Amagi walked forward toward the two people standing in the winter-grey garden. The first was another nurse, tall and wearing blue scrubs under a black coat; the other sat in a wheelchair with a quilt spread across her lap, a long braid of grey hair hanging over her shoulder like a length of thick rope. The nurse spotted Amagi and gave her a quiet nod, stepping away from the wheelchair and heading back inside with a curious look at me; I nodded back with a hesitant smile, as confused by my presence here as he was. Amagi ignored that exchange, however, and knelt at the elderly woman's side.
"Grandmother," she said. "It's me."
The woman—who had been sitting with her head slightly bowed—looked up. She had a craggy face, skin spotted with age marks and lined with deep wrinkles, but her eyes were kind and warm when they lit upon Amagi. "Oh," she said, voice like wind through thin reeds. "Hello." Her dark eyes traveled to the mass of red carnations peeking out from under Amagi's arm and promptly lit up. "Are these for me?"
Amagi's smile widened. "Of course," she said, handing them to her grandmother. "They're your favorites."
"Are they?" she replied, sounding lightly puzzled—but as her eyes lingered on the flowers, something in them solidified, certainty taking place of confusion. Looking at Amagi, she smiled and said, "Chise. Chise, you always bring me flowers, don't you?"
Amagi nodded. "Yes."
"Chise?" I said.
Amagi looked up at me; I clapped my hand over my mouth, embarrassed that I'd just blurted that name out loud instead of using my inside-the-head voice like I'd meant to. To my relief, Amagi just gave me a nod.
"My mother," she said. "And this is my grandmother, Yumie."
Her grandmother was not distracted by our conversation; perhaps she hadn't quite heard it. "Chise," she went on as if we hadn't spoken. "I wish I'd known you were coming. I would have baked you something."
"It's OK," Amagi said. "I'm just glad to see you."
Grandmother Yumie nodded, fingering the flower petals on her lap with her gnarled fingers. The last digits on them were crooked, just a little, nails discolored but neatly trimmed. They reminded me of my grandmother's hands, back in my old life, strong but warped by time and hard work. She reminded me of my grandmother even more when she started to hum some tuneless song under her breath, lost in thought as she stared at her flowers.
I couldn't help but ask, "Does she not recognize…?"
Amagi hesitated, gently tucking the quilt closer to her grandmother's legs. "No. But I don't mind," she eventually admitted. She adjusted her grandmother's hair and the collar of her coat, face softening. "She doesn't know who I am, but when she looks at me, she can feel that she loves me. So she assigns me whatever name she can remember that fits that feeling—in this case, my mother's."
Her grandmother smiled again. "Oh, Chise," she said, putting a hand to Amagi's cheek. Spotted skin stood out against Amagi's even complexion, age contrasted starkly against youth. "Oh, Chise, how I've missed you."
"And I've missed you, too." Amagi leaned down a bit, catching her eye and holding it. "Now, Grandmother. Can you remember what you told me?"
Yumie's face screwed up, eyes nearly disappearing in their nest of wrinkles. "What I…?"
"Yes," said Amagi with tender patience. "What you told me last week." When her grandmother did not react, Amagi hinted, "I wore a yellow sweater and you…"
She hesitated—but then one of her hands lifted, fingertips touching Amagi's shoulder. "Brushed off your shoulder," she murmured, miming the action.
"Yes," Amagi said. "Do you remember what was there?"
For a moment, she only stared at Amagi in wonder—but then her eyes darkened, lip jutting out and trembling before she shook her head. I thought, perhaps, she would not give Amagi and answer, but soon she began to speak.
"It's so dark, Chise," she said in a mournful warble. "It's so, so dark. A yawning pit of ink that wants to swallow us whole." She shuddered, clutching at Amagi's hand. "It's tiny now, but it feels so big."
Amagi smoothed her hair, trying to comfort her with a murmur of, "Grandmother, it's all right." To my surprise, she extended a hand my way. "This is my friend Keiko," Amagi explained as she looped an arm around her grandmother's thin shoulders. "She's a good person. She protects people, and so do her friends." Looking into her eyes, Amagi smiled and said, "They can help. They can help make Mushiyori right again."
"Please. Please, Chise," she said, shaking her head back and forth, back and forth. "Can they do something about those awful bugs?"
"Yes, Grandmother," Amagi said. "They can."
When I shivered, it wasn't because of the cold air. "Bugs?" I said, unable to keep the alarm from my voice. "What do you mean, bugs?"
Yumie shuddered again, leaning her head against Amagi's neck. "The most horrible bugs," she said. "No one can see them but me—and Chise, too."
"At first she just saw one," Amagi explained in a whisper, locking eyes with me over her relative's soft hair. "I thought she was seeing things. But then…"
"More." Yumie closed her eyes, breath catching in her reedy throat. "More and more. More every day."
Amagi cupped her hand around the side of Yumie's head, holding her closer but also muddling her ear. "I know she's an old woman, Keiko," Amagi said, pleading with her eyes for me to understand. "But please, you must—"
"I believe her." With a grunt I knelt on Yumie's other side, touching her arm to draw her attention. "Are the bugs here, now?" I asked.
Yumie shook her head. "They come at night and they leave by morning."
"Scouts," I muttered, word slipping from between my clenched teeth unbidden.
Amagi frowned. "What?"
"Oh. Nothing, Amagi, I was just talking to myself." Which was true, even if this wasn't actually 'nothing' at all. Far from it. Giving her a nod of promise, I said, "I'll tell my friends about this, I swear."
Relief filled her eyes to the brim. "Thank you," she said. "Grandmother, did you hear—?"
But Grandmother Yumie had fallen asleep in her chair, the gentles of snores coming from her open mouth. Amagi stopped, paused, then rearranged her grandmother's blankets and smoothed her hair before pressing a kiss to the old woman's forehead. "I'll go get the nurse," she said as she stood up.
"I'll wait here."
"Thanks," Amagi said, and she went inside.
I stood up, too, turning my back on Yumie as I threaded my hands through my hair. Even though I knew I wouldn't be able to see them, I couldn't help but look around for bugs—for the monstrous and demonic insects that had plagued Sarayashiki thanks to Suzaku's Makai Whistle. For the monstrous and demonic insects that would creep through Sensui's fledgling portal to Demon World just before hell descended onto Mushiyori City. To think the bugs were already here in some capacity, that a portent of what was to come had already—
A cool, dry hand with soft, papery skin slipped into mind. I flinched, but it was only Grandmother Yumie, roused from her nap and peering up at me through her dark eyes. She cast about for Amagi for a moment before looking to me again, confusion evident on her withered face.
"You. Girl," she said. "Where…?"
"It's OK, ma'am," I assured her with a smile. "She'll be back soon."
But Yumie shook her head. "Where did you come from?" she asked. Her hands curled around the bouquet of red carnations, their petals the brightest spot of color in the otherwise dreary garden.
"I came here with Amagi. With Chise," I explained. I knelt at her side and patted her hand, trying to sound reassuring. "She'll—"
"No," Yumie interjected. "No. I mean before that."
If I wanted to move away from her as she reached for my face, to cup it between her wizened palms and hold it softly in place, I found within moments that I could not. A swift wind streaked through, but Yumie did not flinch, did not allow herself to shiver as the silver flyaways ringing her face trembled and shook on the breeze. The air beside her smelled of sweet carnation and baby powder, clean linens and vintage perfume.
"I see death behind your eyes," said Grandmother Yumie. Her voice did not sound reedy or thin like it had before. The strength of conviction stilled its cadence, turned it measured and even even as she spoke in a voice no louder than a whisper. "Death, and new life, and death again—over and over, death and life, a spiral stretching deep into the distance of your being."
Still, I could not move, even though within her eyes there hardened something as sharp and unbending as steel. Still, her mouth curved in the saddest of smiles, and her hands on my face remained as light as spun gossamer.
"You are more than you seem," she said, "but you are also exactly as you appear." She pressed her forehead to mine, gazing into my face from no distance at all. "And someday, you will be something else entirely."
My mouth had gone bone dry, but still I managed to say, "Ma'am, I—"
"Amagi sees things as they are." Yumie kept talking as if she had not heard me. "She inherited her eyes from me, as her mother before her—but I wish she hadn't." Her eyes that saw so much closed, then, mouth thinning with internal pain. "These eyes bring peril and sleepless nights. I wished for her a different life, but it was not meant to be." When her eyes opened again, then held even steelier conviction that before, the immutable quality of stone glowing bright and hard behind them. "Promise me, girl. Promise me you will never let her dreams turn as dark as the world she sees while waking." Her fingers curled, nails digging bluntly into my skin. "Please. Please. Vow to me that."
"I promise," I said, because it was all I could do.
And it was enough, it seemed, for Yumie. "Good," she said, hands slipping from my cheeks. "Good," she repeated, slumping back into her chair once more—and after she shook her head, she looked around with an anxious frown, her look of iron will fading into memory. "Where is Chise?" she asked, voice warbling and tremulous as before. "Where did she…?"
As if summoned, the door to the courtyard opened, admitting a nurse and Amagi at his heels. The nurse gave me a nod before wheeling Yumie inside, stopping long enough for Amagi to bid her grandmother a final goodbye with a kiss upon her cheek. Before they managed to leave, Yumie had fallen asleep again, hands clasped loosely around the flowers on her lap.
"You inherited your powers from her."
Amagi's eyes cut sideways, lingering on me as the train rocked and swayed around us. In the middle of the afternoon, there weren't as many people in the car as there would be once night fell, affording us a touch more privacy (as well as spots to actually sit down) on this leg of our journey. Still, Amagi kept her voice low when she responded, her hands folded neatly atop her thighs.
"Yes," Amagi murmured. "Though she saw more than I ever could, before the dementia…"
She trailed off. "She still sees a lot," I offered, trying to comfort her. "Sharp eyes."
And Yumie's eyes weren't the only ones. Amagi inhaled, held her breath, and said, "What did you mean when you said 'scouts?'"
I had looked away, staring at the train's black floor, before she even finished speaking. "Um," I said, unable to form more words than that.
Amagi waited for me to go on, but I didn't say anything, and soon the train slowed to a stop. We disembarked, Amagi leading me out of the underground station tunnel and to the streets above. I didn't recognize the area, but it was cute, with lots of shops and restaurants filling the streets outside the station.
Amagi didn't take me to any of these, though. We stood in the square outside the station, a clock suspended up high on a pole ticking above our heads, while she spread her hands and indicated the bustling crowds and glittering storefronts. "Have I ever told you that I grew up here?" she said.
"No," I told her.
"My parents moved to Sarayashiki so I could attend a better middle school, and later, a better high school. But Mushiyori is where I'm from. It's where my mother is from, and where my grandmother is from." A small smile lit her face like a candle flame in a paper lantern, eyes tilting up to the wintry sky overhead. "I spend my summers here, most years. We would catch fireflies down by the river and always go to summer festivals together to watch the fireworks." Her look of nostalgia faded into one of understated urgency. "This city is precious, to me, Keiko. You understand that, don't you?"
I did understand, though I could do no more to express that feeling than nod. I had spent summers with my grandmother growing up, too, catching fireflies and attending events side by side. Those were the best times of my life. I knew what it meant to value a city for the memories it housed, though I knew not the words to convey that to Amagi.
But somehow, she understood. "Then you understand why I want to protect this city," she said. "Not just for my sake. Not just for my grandmother's. For the sake of all the other children who might spend their summers here." She wrapped her arms around herself, head shaking. "Those bugs. They are a prelude to darkness. You warned me of them before those teachers nearly tried to kill us—and now they're here, in my hometown." A dark-eyed glare pinned me in place, resolute and demanding. "If you have any idea of what's to come, I must know."
It was my turn to shake my head. "Amagi, I can't—"
She took one quick step toward me. "You showed me that video tape," Amagi said. Voice low and full of darkness, she murmured, "Don't you dare tell me I can't know, or that I'm not already involved."
That—that was a side to her I'd never seen before, that willpower bordering on outright ferocity. It nearly made me take a step backward, away from her, but somehow I refrained from withdrawing from her unblinking stare. I matched it with one of my own, instead, a bead of sweat forming on my temple, hyperconscious of the press of the Sunday crowd swirling around us through the square.
"I can't see the future," I blurted.
Amagi frowned—and although my words confused her, as soon as I spoke them, I knew what I needed to say. Amagi had already deduced something was coming. She knew about Spirit World and demons and evil bugs, and she was right: She was already involved. I had made the choice to offer her that involvement. And now, I felt, it came to me to prepare her—at least in some small manner—for what was to come. To deny her would be to lose her trust.
It would be to lose her eyes. Eyes that could see what mine could not.
Amagi was, in a word, too useful to lose. Far more useful than I was, at any rate. And I could always rely on my good only friend "half truth" when real truths just weren't an option.
"I can't see the future," I said, each word a slow exploration, "but I know certain things about it. And things do not always match what I've been shown." When her eyes widened, I put a hand on my chest. "I'm here to make sure things progress… correctly. And correctly isn't always the same thing as good."
"What does that mean?" Amagi asked.
Again, I chose my words with care. "Your hometown will face an immense darkness, and soon." I held up a hand before she could talk, before she could voice that look of panic brewing in her eyes. "But that darkness won't reach its fever pitch for a while yet."
"When?" Amagi breathed.
"I don't know," I admitted, because that was the truth. "But not till after Spring Break, at least."
She was too smart for her own good. "What happens on Spring Break?" she asked.
I winced, but I knew better than to deny her at least a hint. "Like you said. A prelude," I said. "But its arms aren't long enough to reach you here, and when their reach extends—" I hesitated, shaking my head as I met her eyes and swore, "I won't let anything happen to you or this city that you love. I promise you that."
She waited a beat. Studied my face, her deep and lovely eyes sweeping over my face once, twice, three times. Eventually she said: "You aren't going to tell me what's going on, are you."
It wasn't phrased as a question, and she didn't ask it like one, either. Knowing she already knew the answer made giving it much easier. "I can't," I said. "I'm sorry."
"Well." She sighed, but she did not argue, and for that I was grateful. "I'll be here if that changes."
"Thank you," I told her, and I meant it.
We stood there for another moment, silent as the crowds of Mushiyori swirled and whirled about us in an endless, infinite dance—a whirlpool, of sorts, one we stood at the center of, arms spiraling outward in an depthless typhoon of descending fate. None of the people chattering around us, aside from the odd psychic or two like Amagi and her grandmother Yumie, knew what was coming—but I did. I knew that the fights faced by my friends held stakes that went beyond Yusuke and his crew of friends. They affected every person in Mushiyori City, in Japan, in the world. My outing with Amagi had reminded me of that.
If my friends failed to save this city, how many children would be without homes? Without families? Without grandmothers to spend their summers with? Destiny was bigger than me, my friends, our battles. It was as big as the winter sky above, arching over the city of Mushiyori in an infinite wash of pale blue.
I could only hope my presence here had not rewritten history, or Amagi would not be the only one to suffer the loss of her beloved hometown.
Mom met me at the door almost as soon as I walked through it. "Keiko, dear," she said, head jutting from the kitchen doorway. "Your box is in the fridge—did you forget to take it today?"
I frowned at her. "My box?" I said, and then I slapped a hand to my forehead. "Oh. That. Right."
It was Sunday, and every Sunday for the past almost-two-months, I had taken the boys a gigantic set of bento boxes for their mid-training lunch break. I'd been careful to warn Kurama and Kuwabara about my impending absence, but I'd completely forgotten to tell my mother about it, and she'd gone out of her way to cook food for me because of it. Of all the things to forget—
She frowned, coming out of the kitchen completely. "Is anything wrong?"
"Nothing, Mom," I said. "Just spaced."
As I took off my shoes and hung up my jacket, the question became thus: What the heck should I do with all that food? There was lots of it, and I didn't want it to go to waste…
"Well," Mom said. "Better late than never."
I blinked at her. "Huh?"
"Better late than never," she repeated, adding a chipper smile to the mix this time. "He might've had instant ramen for lunch, but at least he can have a nice dinner, right?"
"Oh. Right," I said, getting it at last. "Yeah, that's true. Great idea, Mom!"
Mom beamed, excusing herself when one of the other cooks called out a question. The cover story for these big bento boxes was that I'd been taking them to Kuwabara each Sunday afternoon, providing him with several days of meals since his sister was travelling ("To beautician school," I'd told Mom); Mom knew that Kuwabara's sister was the main cook in the house and that he'd be eating crappy food without her. And even if I'd lied about what I was doing with all that food each week, about the food today Mom was right: Why not take it to Kuwabara so he could have something good to eat? He'd turned down my offer earlier that week, but there was no way he'd reject food we'd already made. Yeah, Mom was brilliant even when she didn't have all the pieces of the puzzle. Imagine how brilliant she'd be with all of them? Oh, well. Too bad that could never happen. No way was I telling Mom that the food was really going to a two demons and a human in the woods while they were training for a vicious fighting tournament that might wind up killing them all—though speaking of which…
"Hey, Mom?" I said as I walked into the kitchen and headed for the refrigerator.
"Yes?" she said, red-faced as she stirred an enormous pot of broth.
"This spring break I was thinking of going camping with friends. Maybe out in the mountains?"
"Hmmm." She looked at me over her shoulder. "Who with?"
"The usual crew," I said, trying to sound casual as I removed the bento stack from the icebox. "And Shizuru already said she'd chaperone, if that helps."
"It does a little," Mom admitted. "She seems the responsible sort."
"Cool. We haven't picked a spot yet, but it would be fun." I walked backward out of the kitchen with a wave. "Anyway, I can get you more details when I've got 'em."
"That'd be good, sweetie. See you later."
Whistling to myself, I put back on my coat and shoes and headed for the door, proud that my preemptive cover story had gone off without a hitch. Lying to Mom was never fun, but in this case it had to be done. The Dark Tournament was set during Spring Break, but there was no way I could just skip town for a week without telling her where I meant to go. Camping with Yusuke and the others was a perfect excuse; she couldn't call me in the mountains and verify where I'd gone, and I was sure that Shizuru would go along with the charade if I asked her to do so. Yeah, the camping excuse was a great idea, and the sooner I planted the seed for that cover story, the easier it would be to get away with it. A month and a half in advance would do nicely, I reckoned, so it was with a spring in my step that I left home and headed for Kuwabara's house.
Too bad my good mood only lasted until I reached the sidewalk at the end of his short front lawn.
It was night by the time I reached his house, twilight having fallen during my trek over. Still whistling, still walking with a spring, I spotted his house up ahead and quickened my stride, all but skipping the rest of the way in my haste to reach his front porch.
—but then, just as I reached the edge of the lawn, a light flickered on in the front room.
I stopped cold.
It took me a minute to find the will to move again, but I did it. One foot placed itself doggedly in front of the other, step by step until I reached the front door. I thumbed the doorbell and stood there, silent, until the door opened with a creak. Kuwabara's broad face peered through the gap between door and jamb, skin draining of blood in the space between seconds.
"Oh, h-hi, Keiko," he said. His eyes darted to the side and back to me again. "Why are you—?"
I put my hand on the door, shoved it open, and then thrust the stacked bento boxes at his chest. "This is for you," I said. "Now: Where is he?"
Kuwabara swallowed. "Couch," he admitted.
I walked in as wooden as a nutcracker, Kuwabara on my heels, and made me way to the living room. True to Kuwabara's word, I found him on the couch. He had his eyes closed and he lay on his stomach, one arm cast over the side side with hand dragging the floor, hair hanging loose over his forehead instead of shellacked into place by his usual and copious amounts of gel. "You get me that soda yet, Kuwabara?" he said when he heard me coming, but when I did not reply, he cracked open one incredulous eye—only to do a double-take and rocket upright, scrambling across the couch to sit with back pressed against the armrest, hands held up to ward me off.
"What the?!" Yusuke yelped, and then he turned a glare on Kuwabara. "What the hell, Kuwabara! What happened to covering for me?"
Kuwabara, standing at my side, gave a wordless cry of frustration and threw up his hands. "Aw, hell, Urameshi, I already covered for you on the phone a few nights ago and you know damn well I've had a tummy ache ever since! I wasn't about to lie to her face, too!" His shoulders hunched as he turned my way, small eyes wide as he pleaded. "Keiko, I swear, I hated doing it but I really wasn't lying when I said he never called me, either!" It became his turn to glare, this time at Yusuke himself. "He just showed up one day out of the blue expecting a place to crash—"
"I don't care." I turned away as Kuwabara sputtered, voice emotionless and flat as I said, "Yusuke—"
But then the words died. I stood there in silence, Yusuke and I trading a long stare while I faltered and failed to find the language I needed to describe the ten thousand emotions vying for dominance in my chest. Only then did I see the bandage on his cheek and the bruises on his arms, evidence of where he'd been these past months, but even the shock of that couldn't pry words from my cold mouth.
Eventually Yusuke had it with my silence. He huffed and stood, jamming his hands into his jean pockets as he slouched past and headed for the door. "Yeah, yeah, whatever," he grumbled just as he neared me. One hand lifted. "See ya round."
"Wait. But where are you going?" Kuwabara said.
"I'm escaping whatever lecture she's about to give me, that's where." He grabbed his coat from a peg by the door and shoved his feet into the muddy tennis shoes lying scattered beneath. "Don't wait up, Kuwabara. I'll find somewhere else to lie low."
"B-but!" said Kuwabara, but Yusuke was already out the door.
My feet came unstuck from the floor a moment later; I trailed after Yusuke without a word, waving Kuwabara back when he tried to follow, too. Yusuke wasn't walking fast, and I caught up to him by the time he reached the sidewalk down by the street. "Yusuke, wait," I said as I walked a few steps in his shadow. "Can we talk?"
"Nah," he replied.
He rounded on me. Opened his mouth to say something, eyes blazing with the kind of fire I usually expected from Hiei—but then his mouth clacked shut. He looked at the ground, nose screwing us as he grimaced.
"What did I do?" I said. "Why are you acting like this?"
He just huffed, frustration evident in every line of his tense shoulders.
"Can we at least go somewhere and talk?" I implored.
He huffed again, but after a beat he grumbled, "Fine."
We said nothing on our way to my parents' restaurant. The wind and our footfalls created the only accompaniment on our travels, though of course the moment he entered the building, my parents let out twin screeches of operatic delight and pounced on him, dropping kitchen utensils with unsightly splatters in their haste to envelop him in a group hug.
"Yusuke, there you are!" my mom yodeled. "Are you no longer on the verge of death, again?!"
"Back from the grave another time, looks like!" Dad concurred as he clapped Yusuke on the back. "And about damn time. We've missed your face around here!"
Yusuke rolled his eyes, but he had to try very hard not to smile and to look peeved, instead. "Hi, Yukimuras," he grumbled into my mom's neck. "Long time, no see."
Mom pushed him away so she could look him over. "Feeling any better?" she asked.
Dad nudged at Yusuke's ribs with his elbow, eyebrows wagging. "Atsuko told us you were sick with mono, you sly dog."
Yusuke rolled his eyes even harder. "Yeah, yeah, I'm doing OK. Would feel a lot better after a little ramen, though."
"Of course. Coming right up!" Dad said.
"We're backed up at the moment, so it'll be a few minutes if you want to sit down," Mom added.
"Sure," Yusuke said—and when he caught my eye, any trace of the smile he'd given my parents vanished entirely.
This wasn't gonna end well, now was it?
Yusuke didn't wait for me to decide where we'd talk. He parked himself at a table near the back and plopped into a seat by the wall. I sat across from him as he leaned backward in his chair with shoulders braced on said wall, balancing precariously on two chair legs with his toes only barely scraping the ground, hands in the pockets of his neon green windbreaker. It wasn't the ideal place to talk and he wouldn't look at me, not even when I cleared my throat to get his attention, but at least most of the other patrons were sitting closer to the kitchen and weren't completed within earshot. Had to be grateful for small favors, I told myself, because I was pretty sure I wouldn't be afforded many once we really got going.
Carefully folding my hands atop the table between us, I said: "So."
Yusuke's eyes darted my way, then away again. "So."
"You've been avoiding me."
"Really, Keiko?" he snarked. "I hadn't noticed."
"Yeah, well, I have, and it fucking sucks." I leaned forward, trying to look him in the eye, but he turned his face away. "Yusuke, please. Please just throw me a bone, here. I can't fix it if I don't know what's—"
"You're a liar."
He didn't speak in anger, or with any particular emotion in his voice at all. It was simply… a statement. Like he'd done nothing more offensive than describe the weather. Like he hadn't just called his oldest friend something awful—even if, perhaps, the accusation was deserved.
Still, deserved or not, it caught me off guard, and a stammered "What?" was all I could think to say.
Yusuke didn't like that. At last he looked at me, face snapping in my direction with a pointed glare. "You're a liar, Keiko," he said, voice thrumming with accusation. "And the sorry thing is that you're bad at it, but you keep doing it anyway acting like no one notices." He looked away again, crossing his arms with a slap of fist against bicep. "Yeah, well, I notice. I notice, and I'm not letting you get away with it anymore, you hear me?"
"Yusuke." I took a deep breath, trying to compose myself—trying to come up with any tactic at all that could help me navigate this sticky situation, which had just become ever stickier than I had first assumed. "What, precisely, do you think I have lied about?"
A growl of frustration built in his chest. "I don't know."
"Then what, pray tell, are you—?"
Like a striking snake, the legs of his chair slammed onto the floor, sound accompanied by the smack of his hand against the table. "You're literally doing it right now, dammit!"
People chatting at the nearest occupied table fell silent; I didn't need to look over my shoulder to know they'd started staring at us. I shushed Yusuke, but he shook his head, fist balling up so hard it shook.
"You are literally doing it right now!" He spoke through his teeth, hunched and spitting and hissing and glaring like he might launch himself over the table at any moment. "You think you're so smart, doing what you're doing, but you're just—"
I slammed my hand on the table, too, hunching over it to look him dead in the eye. "I haven't said anything, Yusuke!" I hissed. "In the past five minutes I haven't made any assertions I could possibly be lying about! I haven't made any claims that could qualify as lies!"
"See?" He jabbed a finger at my nose. "That, that right there! Dodging around what I'm trying to say and confusing the topic with big words instead of just being straight with me!"
"Yusuke, I don't—"
Yusuke was on his feet in half a second of raw, physical fury. "Stop doing that!" he yelled. "I know what you're doing, so stop it!"
Behind me, the entire restaurant quieted. That time I couldn't help but look over my shoulder, just in time to see Mom pop her head out of the kitchen and look our way with a panicked scowl. Yusuke saw her and sank back into his chair, looking at once apologetic and combative as a bull poked with a stick.
"Let's go upstairs," I whispered.
"Fine," Yusuke whispered back.
I let him lead the way, mostly so I could mutter an apology at the kitchen staff (not to mention my parents) and then shut the door to my room behind us. Hand on the knob, I tried to compose myself with a few deep breaths—but before I could do more than three, Yusuke cleared his throat. I flinched and turned to find him staring at me, one foot tapping against the floor with unrestrained impatience.
"Let's start with something simple." I kept my voice as light, airy, and controlled as I possible could. "What lie did I tell you that you're so pissed off about?"
Yusuke's foot stilled.
He took a deep breath.
He said, in accepted but understandable almost-English: "Yippe-kai-yay, motherfucker."
I did a double-take. "Excuse me?"
He scowled, teeth bared and gleaming. "Yippy-kai-yay mother fu—"
"No, no, I get it," I said, cutting him off before he could curse again. "But why are you quoting Die Hard?"
"Because you quoted Die Hard," he shot back.
"Uh. No, I didn't?" I said, because I most certainly had not. "What the hell are you—?"
Yusuke threw up his hands and paced, moving back and forth between my desk and my bedroom door like a lion caught in much too small a cage. He was glaring at me, though—he was laughing, laughing with teeth on full display and eyes shining with manic glee. "You don't even remember, do you?" he said through that wry, hard laugh. "You don't even remember that. You tell so many lies, they all blur together for you, don't they?" Another laugh, this one louder than the first. "Ever since the day we met under that stupid bridge, this is what you've been like. And you think I'm too stupid to notice!"
"I don't think you're stupid," I said, not letting myself raise my voice. "But I have literally no idea—"
"Cut the fucking crap. I'm not an idiot, Keiko." He stalked up and pointed at me, finger poking into my sternum once, twice, three times. "You may be the one doing my homework, but I'm not stupid!" At my stunned look, deer caught firmly in the glare of oncoming headlights, he stabbed at my chest again. "We were in the first grade and you were correcting the teacher's grammar in English lessons and I know you aren't enough of a genius to have learned English on your own. You're smart, but you're not that smart. Somethin' funny was going on and I know it, Keiko!"
Every word he spoke struck my heart like a dart, sharper even than the finger striking my chest. Still, despite the truth flying from his mouth, I tried to lie to him. I tried to obfuscate, prevaricate, do what I'd been doing since the day we met under that bridge, exactly as he said. "Yusuke, you can't possibly believe—"
"Oh, great. Here it comes," he drawled. "More lies, right?"
"—what you're saying. We were children!" I shook my head, loosing a derisive laugh of my own. "Don't you think maybe you might be misremember—?"
"Don't do that!" he snarled; I stepped back, shoulder blades hitting the door with a smack, but Yusuke held his ground and stared with utter lava in his eyes. "Don't you dare try to tell me I didn't see what I saw! I know I sound like an idiot, Keiko, I know that. I can't put my finger on anything and I can't figure out how to tell you what I've noticed, I just don't have the words because it makes no sense, I get that what I'm saying sounds crazy. But I know what I know: You sure as hell aren't telling me the truth, even when you're not telling outright lies, and—"
The phone rang.
Yusuke looked over his shoulder. I looked over his shoulder, too, as the ringer blared its tinny alarm from its spot on my desk, loud and shrill and totally unwanted in the otherwise quiet room. It was probably Kuwabara, came my distant assumption, checking in on me after I'd followed Yusuke—and maybe I did want the phone to ring, after all. It certainly gave me a minute to regroup and steel myself for what would surely follow the minute it fell quiet.
Yusuke—he'd noticed so much more than I'd ever given him credit for. Of all the things I'd prepared for, this conversation wasn't one of them, because I just… I'd underestimated him? Is that what I'd done? Is that the enormous mistake I'd made that led to this?
And if it was, what the heck was I supposed to do about it now?
The phone stopped ringing before I could figure it out, and Yusuke dived right back into it.
"It's not just how you always seem to know things," he said the second the last ring faded. "It's how you always have the answers even when you shouldn't. It's the way you… react." His face screwed up. "Or don't react, sometimes. Either way, it never makes sense."
"B-but," I stammered, "what does that…?"
"The Tournament," he immediately snapped back. "I came to tell you what had happened and you just said yeah, you already knew."
"Um, yeah?" This was my chance; I could explain this away, no problem, so I looked at him with a 'no, duh' face and crossed my arms. "You know this, Yusuke. Some demons came to invite Hiei when he was with me, so—"
He shook his head, unkempt hair flying. "No. No, I don't mean—" He gave a small, growling scream of utter frustration and stalked away. "See? See?" he said when he rounded on me again. "This is what's so frustrating! It's not that you already knew I'd been invited to the Tournament, it's that when I told you, you didn't freak out about it. And Keiko, even if you knew what was going on through Hiei, you're wound tighter than a noose. You always freak out, even if somebody warns you ahead of time."
"Yeah, well," I said, "maybe I'd freaked out before you got there, with Hiei—"
"No!" he interjected. "This wasn't you after a panic attack. This was you just, just coping with it. Like you'd already wrapped your head around the Tournament and all that crap, but you don't adjust that quickly." He looked at me like I was an alien in human skin, but tentacles had begun to poke out of my ears. "You've never adjusted to anything overnight. You hate change. You didn't have time to be OK with what was happening, but you were still acting like you'd totally accepted—"
Now I was the one throwing up my hands, stalking toward him with a wild shake of my head and a growl in my throat. "OK, Yusuke, so I didn't freak out enough for you? That's it? And that somehow makes me a liar?"
"Yes!" he barked, but then he bit his lip. "No! I don't know!"
"So you've ignored me for a month and a half because you can't make sense of my personality?" I pushed. "Well, gee, Yusuke, how nice of you. Y'know you could've talked to me about this sooner, right? Instead of ignoring me for almost two months, right? Why didn't you just ask me what I—"
Incensed, he cut in, "What, and let you lie to me again?"
"I haven't lied to you!"
"Yes, you have!"
"Oh, well, when?" I said. "You said it yourself, you can't put it into words, so how is it fair to hold me responsible for—?"
"It's not that you always lie!" he protested. "It's that it feels like you leave stuff out and I can never be sure when you—"
The phone rang.
Once again we both turned and stared at it, but this time I walked over, picked up the receiver, and dropped it back into the cradle with a resounding clatter. We were going at this a mile a minute, a frantic rush of frenetic ranting and raving, and no way were we losing momentum because Kuwabara couldn't mind his fucking patience.
"OK, Yusuke, let's get to it." I rounded on him and slapped my hands onto my hips, feet spread for support, glaring with all my might. "What do you want from me? Right now, in this moment, confronting me, what do you want?" I changed tactics and held out my hands, supplicating, begging him with my eyes to cooperate. "Tell me and I'll give it to you, Yusuke. Tell me and I'll—"
"I don't know what I want," he said,
"Then why are we even—?"
"You make no fucking sense, Keiko!"
His words—roared with all the rage of the lion he in that moment was—reverberated through the tiny room, resonating in my stunned ears so hard they began to ring. A deathly hush descended in the wake of his roar, but Yusuke wasn't done, even if his volume dropped when once more he began to speak.
"You don't make any sense at all," he repeated, words no less fierce for their understated tenor. "That night you vanished, I felt like—" He stopped. Swallowed. Forged ahead. "And then you were just there again, acting fine. With that guy? With that gaijin with the blonde hair? And you said he just sort of found you, but he didn't even blink at Hiei's gross eye." Accusation dripped from every syllable, from every gleam of his pointed glare. "And he lied to us, too. He did exactly what you did, and acted normal, but it was too normal. He acted so normal it wasn't normal at all. And that's what you do, all the time. Every word you say is so planned out, so careful, it makes every single thing you do seem fake." Yusuke lifted and dropped his hands like a set of unbalanced scales. "When I think you're going to overreact, you don't react. When I think you'll be fine, you break down. Ever since we were kids, nothing about you has made a lick of sense, and since I became Spirit Detective, it's only gotten worse."
My words came out in a whisper. "It's gotten—?"
"You saved Kurama's mom without knowing how, and said you got lucky," Yusuke said, a deluge of allegations pouring one by one off his tongue. "You prepared your school for a warzone, and said you got lucky when Suzaku's goons attacked. You got eaten by a shadow monster and got away by being lucky. Found an ally who can withstand a look at a Jagan by being lucky." A quick step in my direction sent me stumbling backward, where I sat heavily on my bed. "You really expect me to believe that? You really expect me to believe you're that lucky?" He shook his head, teeth bared. "Even if your name is lucky child, no one is that lucky, Keiko. Nobody."
He fell silent.
I said nothing.
I'm not sure how long we stared at once another, but as the seconds ticked their way toward minutes, Yusuke's expression… it changed. The anger in his eyes didn't vanish, or cool, but it did thin out, revealing a bedrock beneath made of…
He was still glaring, brimming with anger like a rain-glutted stream, but behind his eyes, hidden deep under swagger and bravado, I could see it. I could see the hurt there, the betrayal, that raw nerve open to even more hurt depending on whatever I chose to say next. It wasn't often Yusuke made himself vulnerable, but right now, in this particular moment, he was choosing to—
No. That wasn't right.
Now was not the only moment he'd made himself vulnerable to me, was it?
Because he was right, of course. I was a liar. Oh, sure, I made excuses for myself and liked to pretend half-truths were somehow more morally justifiable than outright fabrication, but that was just wishful thinking. I was a pants-on-fire liar of the highest order, even if I wasn't very good at it, and I'd hurt Yusuke more times than I could ever, ever hope to count—because the day we'd met under that bridge, as night fell and I chased off those older bullies, Yusuke had made himself vulnerable by trusting me.
He'd been vulnerable with me since the day we met, and I had taken advantage of that at every turn.
It's like I'd told myself earlier that day with Amagi: I was not a child. No matter how I looked, I had the mind of an adult, and the capacity to hurt and manipulate any child around me using the experience that I had and they lacked. No matter how well-intentioned I'd been with Yusuke, he was not an idiot. He could sense that I'd been manipulating, gaslighting him and lying to him for years, underestimating at every turn how sharp his eyes could be.
But even realizing that today, what could I say now? What could I do?
Should I tell him?
The thought popped into my bed as if someone had whispered it into my ear, and once the thought was entertained, I couldn't get it out of my head. Should I tell him everything? Spill my guts? Lay it all out there and let him accept or reject me as he saw fit? He certainly had every right to reject me if he wanted. But if he did, how would that affect the events to come? How would that rewrite history, change fate, alter the path of—?
His stare bored into mine like the claws of some great beast, but one with its leg caught in a terrible trap, anger and pain at war with the hurt and pleading in his eyes.
Standing there that night in my bedroom, something in my chest broke in half, and I knew that I couldn't keep doing this to him.
Even if he couldn't put his finger on my exact deceptions, he could still detect their presence in every line of my being. He might not be able to name my manipulations for what they were, but he damn well knew when I wasn't telling him the entire truth.
As quickly as something inside me broke, something else inside me stilled, and I knew what I had to do.
"OK." I ran my hands through my hair. Patted the bed beside me. "Yusuke. OK. Just." I patted it again. "You should sit down."
His brow furrowed, but he did as I asked. He sat next to me with tension in every muscle, ready to leap off the bed at the first sign of deception.
But I wasn't intending to lie, or even to tell a half truth, now was I? We were past that, now.
It was time to tell the truth.
I wasn't sure if he'd let me take his hands in mine, but he did, although he looked at me like I'd gone nuts when I did it. I placed my thumbs over the backs of his hands and offered him a smile, every ounce of my being devoted to hope I dared not let myself acknowledge.
"The truth is—" I paused. "And this is going to sound immensely crazy, for the record. Like. You're not going to believe me. And that's why I haven't told you before now, because it's just—it's just utterly, completely, inconceivably—"
"Get to the damn point, Keiko," Yusuke ground out.
I took a deep breath "The truth of the matter is that I haven't always been this lucky. Literally and figuratively." I met his eyes and tried to smile, but I know I failed, because the intensity in his gaze made smiling impossible. "Yusuke. The truth is, I have not always been—"
The phone rang.
Our heads lashed in the direction of the ringing, and while Yusuke just glared, I could not help but give an outright shriek of impotent frustration at the sound. I scrambled off the bed and snatched the phone off the cradle, slamming it against the side of my face to snarl, "Dammit, Kuwabara, I'm—"
I stopped talking, because someone else had begun to speak.
That someone was not Kuwabara.
It was a very different voice that greeted me when I put the phone to my ear. They spoke simply, and with assurance, and it was all I could do to stay quiet and listen, uncomfortably aware of Yusuke's eyes boring into the back of my skull as I reached for a pen and paper.
"Where?" I breathed into the receiver.
They answered. I wrote the answer down.
"Yes," I said. I put the paper in my pocket. "I'll be there in an hour." Placed the pen back in a drawer. "Bye."
I hung up the phone.
When I turned around again, Yusuke looked positively livid—but also resigned.
He knew what was coming before I even said it.
And yet, I said it anyway: "I have to go."
He was shaking his head before I finished talking. "Don't you dare, Keiko."
"Yusuke, I'm sorry." I backed away, heading slowly for the door, begging with my eyes for him to understand, to forgive me, please. "I'm sorry, I just have to—"
"You aren't getting out of this, Keiko." He rose slowly to his feet, hands balling into tight fists. "You aren't."
"I know that," I said, still pleading, still begging. "If you wait here, I'll tell you everything." I felt behind me for the doorknob and held it tight in my shaking hand, words spilling out in an incoherent babble. "I'll tell you everything just as soon as I get back, I swear, you have to believe me, please believe, please please—"
"No, Keiko," Yusuke said. He pointed straight at me, glaring down the length of his incredibly dangerous finger. "If you walk out that door, so fucking help me—!"
I twisted the knob. "I'm sorry, Yusuke."
It was a turnabout from when I'd chased him down at Kuwabara's house, and much though I wished I could honor him and stay—I couldn't. I just couldn't. And it wasn't because I didn't want to go through with my decision to tell him the truth, or because I'd lost my nerve. Far from it.
The horrible truth was that I just didn't have a choice.
I took the steps two at a time, pelting down the so hard I tripped at the bottom and careened into the wall beside the kitchen. The noise drew my Mother from the room as I scrambled into my coat and shoes, but I didn't dare to look at her as she approached. No time, no time, there just wasn't any fucking time—
"Oh honey, perfect timing," she was saying. "Yusuke's ramen—"
I didn't listen to the rest. I had to go; I didn't have the concentration to pay attention. Her face flashed past, and then it was just her voice ringing after me as I slammed through the door to the side alley and into the cold night beyond.
All I could do while I ran was hope to find Yusuke where I'd left him once I returned home.
If I returned home, that is—because given where I was headed, there was a chance I might not.
There will be a "Children of Misfortune" chapter soon that addresses Yusuke's "Yippy kai yay motherfucker/Die Hard" comment in great detail—because yes. There is something Keiko has forgotten, and Yusuke has been wise to her antics for much, much longer than she assumes. Unreliable narrators FTW!
Really busy weekend, hence this late posting. As always, I made an announcement about it on my Tumblr, so please check in there if I'm ever late. I typically always warn you if I'm late. Username is "luckystarchild" because someone else took "Star Charter" before I could, waaahhh.
Lots of parallels about sharp eyes, lies, and truth between the Amagi and Yusuke scenes. Hope you liked it.
Many thanks to all those who reviewed this past week; you made my day: MissIdeophobia, tatewaki2000, Just 2 Dream of You, balancewarlord, general zargon, tryingtogetridofthisaccount, Kaiya Azure, 431101134, xenocanaan, SterlingBee, LadyEllesmere, rya-fire1, DiCuore Alissa, Marian, Anya Kristen, FangirlNikora, CSStars, EdenMae, ahyeon, SageofAges729, Ikara o Kage, Evanelle, Sweetfoxgirl13, Blaze1662001, AnimePleaseGood, Sky65, HeeHeeHee01, CaelynM, MissedAdventure92, DeusVenenare, Kohlii, Khaleesi Renee, Muirgenn, ShineX, kitsunefire, Tay, Kittenfood, Ash Blade, EasilyAmused93, mousehero13, and eight guests!