Red italics = Touda's spoken/projected thoughts Black italics = thoughts/feelings

~*~*~*~

Touda soared into the sky and reveled in the sensation of his body.

Oh, he had forgotten so much. And yet, how could he have forgotten how it feels like to stretch his full body in the limitless sky? It had been so long since they had bound him in the limited human form, most of his power taken away by bindings, then by the shearing of his mane. He had adapted and lived with the limitations, but perhaps he had forgotten this so he would not crave for it so - this feeling of utter freedom, utter power. He felt almost drunk on it.

He twined his body, letting scales rubbed against scales and threw off brilliant sparks of flame. His eyes took in the swirling multi-color of chaotic space between worlds, the far gate coiling open before him. He dove into the opening and into the human world.

Instantly, he saw his Master. Tsuzuki Asato. The power of the summon linked them together, reeling him in like a catch at the end of the line. He turned his body so it would not touch his Master's body, spiraling his length as he fully entered this world. It was freezing cold, but the heat he threw off immediately super-heat the air, vaporizing all moisture. He was inside of a building, he saw, and although it was vast for a human and relatively empty, there was precious little space for him. The ground and the surrounding walls were covered with sheets of metal, and the moment his body came within a meter of it, they began to melt, running down in runnels like silver streams. He coiled his length gracefully on the open ground in front of Tsuzuki, ignoring the bubbling streams that hissed and steamed as they evaporated under his body, and dipped his head to await his Master's command.

It had been several years since Tsuzuki had visited the Gensoukai, and while Shinigami did not age, their look could alter depending on circumstances. Still, Tsuzuki's appearance came almost like a shock to Touda.

There was nothing drastically different with him physically, except for him being a little thinner and paler under the dark red glow Touda cast off. But the look in those amethyst eyes of his changed everything.

Wearing only a thin white yukata, Tsuzuki gazed up at him from where he was kneeling on the floor, his movements slow as if drugged. The pupils of his eyes were pin-points of black in a sea of violet as he smiled at Touda, and everything that seemed wrong with him came to a focus.

There was nothing behind his empty smile, empty eyes. Everything that made him Tsuzuki, his impossible, incomprehensible Master, was gone.

"Touda…" Tsuzuki breathed up at him. "Utsu-kushi…"

Touda rubbed his coils together as a nervous tingle coursed through him. Something was very, very wrong. Where was the enemy? Who was he supposed to fight and destroy? He raised his head higher, his uncovered eyes giving him a glorious wide view of the world in their true colors. But there was little enough to see. There were metal contraptions everywhere, their purposes unknown to him. A glow of white light caught his attention and he turned his great head just to catch the last glimpse of it disappearing into nothingness. But at the last, he thought he saw feathers – white feathers like those of white dove…

He dismissed it as unimportant and focused on his Master instead.

Tsuzuki. Master. I am here. What do you need of me?

The smile slowly died and it was just Tsuzuki's eyes that gaze at him with that far-away look in them. As if he was not quite there, as if it pained him to be here. Even as he watched, Tsuzuki took a shuddering, convulsive breath.

"…Help me."

…Tsuzuki…?

Those eyes closed. And when he opened them again, Tsuzuki was there. The spirit that he recognized was there, but so was agony. Anguish, pain, despair – so much intertwined that he was drowning in them. A tear rolled down one corner of his eye, like crystal it was, a perfect drop of pure misery.

"End this. Please."

And he knew then what Tsuzuki wanted. The link between them resonated with Tsuzuki's desire/need/yearning.

The desperation of it resonated in him, the unbearable pain cried out to him, and he rocked back as if hit with a physical blow, as the past he thought he had left behind reached out for him with grasping claws.

End this. End this non-existence, this mockery of life. Let me cease to be than stay frozen in eternity of hell.

He had screamed them before, to the uncaring black emptiness that was his prison. Deep in the womb of the Palace, where even the memory of sun light, the feel of wind brushing his scales, the fresh taste of cooling water in his tongue had faded and ceased to exist. Where the remaining thing left to feel was the burn of the enchanted manacles chaining his wrists, and the only sound left was the sound of his own cries. And even those had receded in time, and he wondered in passing moments of lucidity whether he had dreamed the sound of his own voice, whether he had cried out in reality or merely remembering a time long ago when he still had a voice.

Touda twisted in agitation, his scales rubbing red-black sparks as he coiled himself tighter. He disliked remembering those times, had resolutely put it behind him along with the memory of the War and the feel and power of his true form. But he could not deny Tsuzuki's call, his need, and the resonance it had awaken within him.

Tsuzuki wished to die. To be released from an existence that was for him worse than death. Touda had been there before, could understood perhaps better than most. And perhaps that was why Tsuzuki had chosen him.

The bond between Shikigami and Master tugged at him, compelling him to follow his Master's command, yet at the same time the implicit directive to protect his Master's life resisted against it. He knew he had a better chance of breaking the latter than most Shikigami, but should he?

For the first time in his long life, Touda had no idea what to do.

He shifted restlessly, uneasy with this confusing hesitation and unable to remember ever being so torn with indecision. He had always been one for direct measures; his likes and dislikes were clear, and his method of action tended to follow the most direct path. It was not that he did not understand complexity, he just did not find any value or need in them. In the past, he had always been strong enough that subtlety did not matter. But this was not a matter of strength, was it?

Ii no-ka…Tsuzuki? He asked instead. My Black Flame will burn even your kind. It is uncontrollable, and it kills indiscriminately. Isn't this why you've always avoided using me?

Among other reasons.

"It's all right, Touda." The reply was faint, almost lost in the hiss of fire. The room had begun to burn, his presence in the confined space enough to ignite most combustible materials and some less so. A human body would have burn by now. A Shinigami's body had a higher resistance to flame, but not that much higher.

"This is something that I can only ask from you."

- sorry, I'm so sorry -

Touda cocked his great head, feeling/hearing that silent whisper that he had become familiar with these long few days, that all of them had become familiar with. But now that he was so close to his Master, more came through than mere vague emotions. Tsuzuki's thoughts seeped through, a confused, chaotic  jumble of fragments. He could feel how it hurt Tsuzuki to be aware, to be sane for just this while, just long enough to impart his last wishes to Touda.

"Suzaku-neesan… the others… they will try to save me because of the bond. But I don't want to be saved. Not anymore."

There was nothing Touda could say to that.

"I'm so tired… so tired of fighting it. It's been so long… so long…"

So long, so long that he forgot what he had been living for, what he had been fighting for. When the struggle seemed so endless and ultimately futile that the end became the only source of salvation left.

Sou-ka

"Please tell Soryuu and the others, this is my wish. Please forgive me."

And overlying that, the refrain that ran over and over in Tsuzuki's mind - forgive me – even when I feel everyone's strength around me – I'm sorry I'm such a useless Master – thank you for everything - forgive me for asking this–

The irony of it was rich, thick enough to choke on. Even for this request, Tsuzuki could not stop apologizing.

So typical of him.


Tsuzuki was whispering now, no longer seemed to be aware of Touda's presence. "Until now, how many people have died because of me? I've always been … unwanted… shouldn't have exist… in this world…" The words were soft, private, a litany of a lifetime of guilt and self-loathing brought to a head that Touda's sensitive hearing could not help but overhear. Too intimate, too raw by far, and for a moment he wished any of the others were here, any of the other Shikigamis who would know what to say or do in times like this. Yet he was the only one there, and all he could do was stand as a silent witness.

"…It's past time to correct it."

Tsuzuki.

Issyoni-iku… Touda.

Once upon a time, a stranger had offered him a release from an existence worse than death, at a time when he had ceased to believe in anything or in himself. He had taken hold of that hand and it had lead him out into the sunlight. It had been a deep, cobalt blue sky - such intense color! - such as it had seared his eyes with its glory. And the wind - the sweet caressing wind that carried the scent of spring rain and teased with the promises of blooming peach and apple blossoms - filled his dry throat and lungs and poured new life into his withered soul. The tears that had fallen as he closed his eyes shut came from more than the sting of forgotten sunlight.

He had carried that memory with him, preciously and jealously hoarded in the deepest part of his soul. He warmed himself with it as he knelt before the highest of the Shikigami as they argued and shouted among themselves, threatening him with death and worse, a return to the eternal prison he came from. He watched and listened as the one who had freed him - a Shinigami, he found out, a Shinigami named Tsuzuki Asato - pleaded and fought on his behalf. On behalf of someone he had never met before and not beholden to.

He thought that he would fight to the death if they chose to return him, never mind that it would most assuredly result in his death, bound and weakened as he was then. Had in fact readied himself for it, gathering himself during the distraction from the most heated of the debate so far, with Souryuu and Suzaku leading the screaming match against one lone flustered and backed-into-a-corner Shinigami. He remembered Souryuu had flung out his last argument like a dagger, aimed at what he later found out to be one of Tsuzuki's major weak points, his compulsion to protect the innocent and the weak.

Touda remembered Souryuu's exact words. "Jya-shin are amoral and have no concept of gratitude. Release him and he will go out there and kill again, indiscriminately and with no remorse. What shall we do then? I refuse to be responsible for his actions!"

And Tsuzuki's shouted reply, one that had stunned him and the rest of the presiding Shikigami. "Then I will! Let me be responsible for him!"

Touda could not remember his reaction, except that he had stared at the violet-eyed Shinigami for a long, long time. The argument had taken up again soon enough, with more heat than before if that was possible, but he had fixed his eyes on the one who had dared to claim him and had no interest in anything else. He had watched as Tsuzuki Asato argued, cajoled, pleaded with all he had for Touda's life and freedom. He listened as Tenkuu finally acquiesced and laid out the harshly restrictive terms to limit his power and movements, adding shackles that made mockery of the term 'freedom'. He saw how the rest of the Shikigami had looked at him then, and knew that they expected him to be too proud to accept them, to refuse the terms and fought them to the death.

He remembered thinking that freedom of self was the one thing that made life worth living, and a freedom under constraints is no freedom at all. But then he looked at Tsuzuki Asato's pleading eyes, seeing the pain and the knowledge in them of what was being asked of him, and he knew then of all people, he would be one who would hold the leash as gently as it was possible to be, and gave him as much freedom as it was achievable under the limitations.

Touda was proud, but centuries of limbo had broken things in him that he never thought would break. He had tasted the world again after centuries of nothingness, and he was not ready to give them up. Tsuzuki Asato was a Shinigami, but he was not immortal. Shinigami moved on after a few decades, at the most, and he would have those years to live free from the prison. And seek other ways to free himself.

He had expected to be used often, to earn his indenture. He was not overly prideful, but he knew his worth in battle. What he had not expected was for Tsuzuki to leave him alone, asking nothing from him let alone asserting his mastery over him. The only times he saw his so-called Master was when Tsuzuki came 'visiting' to Gensoukai, all exuberance and warmth, greeting each and every one of them like fondly missed best friends.

Once he had flat out asked Tsuzuki why he had never used him. The Shinigami had gone uncharacteristically quiet. "Because I'm not your Master… not really. I had to because that's the condition they set out, but…" Tsuzuki had smiled at him, the same smile as the he remembered years ago, as the man had offered him his  hand for the first time. "You're your own man, Touda. Or shikigami, or whatever. I'll try my best to stay out of your way and you can do whatever you want. Or… ," Tsuzuki frowned as he thought that over, "well, within the limits set anyway. I'll see if I can get the others to yield a bit on those restrictions. I'm sure after a while they'll see that you can be trusted." He had brightened up again and the smile lit up those rich violet eyes. "I'd love to see you fly, in your own true form. You belonged in the sky, Touda, and you'll return there one day. I promise."

The fates were the masters of irony. He had returned to his true form and he had flown in the sky for however brief it had been. But the violet eyes that had promised him those were no longer the same. And the same person who had given him back his life now asked him to take his.

It had taken him a long time, but he finally realized that Tsuzuki Asato had offered more than his hand, but also the promise of companionship. But now it was too late.

You released me from my prison. I can do no less than release you from yours.

It was hard, harder than he ever thought it would be. How many times had he dreamed of true freedom, to be bound and beholden to no one? This was his dream handed to him in a silver platter. With the price tag being the life of one Shinigami.

Before the prison, before Tsuzuki, he would have taken the offer in the blink of an eye and count himself fortunate. Now, the thought of an end to all those whirlwind visits, the end of exuberant hugs and inquiring chatters, the end of a future with Tsuzuki Asato in it, dimmed the world in a way he had never experienced before. The companionship that he barely understood, the promise of more that he had just began to grasp, slipped through his fingers before he had time to truly look at it, to nurture and see what else may grow out of it.

The realization came then that he had changed. Without truly being aware of it, he had changed into someone that his old self would not have recognized.

I would have given you whatever you desire.

He owed Tsuzuki his relative freedom, his life. If this was what Tsuzuki wished, it was not in him to deny him his need. He may wish that Tsuzuki had chosen another way, but he had not. And of all the Shikigami, he was the only one that Tsuzuki trusted to understand and carry out his final wish.

Very well. I shall do as you wish.

Even if this new self mourned the loss of a Master.

And Tsuzuki smiled once more. "Thank you," he whispered, and that was wrong, so wrong that his Master was thanking him for agreeing to burn him to death. But what else could he do? A weapon he was, and a fine one too, but a weapon was not created to save people. A weapon, especially one like him, was created to destroy.

So he lifted his head, spread his crest, and breathed out streamers of black flame. The flames scoured the domed ceiling of the room, silvery runnels sizzling down the curve of the walls, rivers of liquid metal that hissed and steamed toxic fumes into the air. He turned his head around and breathed his flame around the room, but avoiding the middle of it, where Tsuzuki's frail form knelt in the increasingly deadly surroundings. It was only a matter of time, Touda knew, but try as he might, he could not speed up the process. He knew how he would take Tsuzuki out in the end, with one blast of his black flame, so quick that it would be over before the pain began. But until the time came…

Tsuzuki had lifted his hands up, his eyes shining with reflection the black flame and darker anticipation.

"Burn higher, hotter, Touda. Burn everything. Burn away this eternal life of mine."

Touda paused, wreathed in the shimmering heat of his breaths.

Eternal life… is it such a burden to you, Tsuzuki?

But Tsuzuki was gone, what was left of his rational mind buried under too deep for him to reach. His eyes were closed, shuttering whatever internal hell he was seeing that made Touda's very real, physical flames preferable to it.

"TSUZUKI!"

Touda reared up in surprise. It was the first other human voice he had heard since arriving in this world. The place had seemed abandoned, and no human could have survived for long in the flame-shrouded world that he had created.

Sure enough, before his eyes could see the owner of the voice, his other senses had warned him that this newcomer was no ordinary human. A slight figure scrambled in the debris-littered floor, picking his way towards the center of the room. Another Shinigami, with fine brown hair and green eyes the color of new spring leaves. Young, in years as well as body, and new in his calling if he had never seen him before. Behind him yawned a five-meters wide opening into the room that he had not seen before. His flames had covered that entrance, blocking entrance and exit. He could sense other not-quite-living beings behind the wall of flames, but their way in was blocked. The young Shinigami was alone.

Even as he watched, the Shinigami's eyes rose up to find his, wide with apprehension, then they slipped down to find Tsuzuki. He called out Tsuzuki's name again, his voice strident and frantic with worry. "Tsuzuki! It's me! Come on!"

At Touda's feet, Tsuzuki stirred, lifting his head and gazing towards the other Shinigami, his movements still sluggish. "Hisoka?" he whispered.

The young Shinigami, Hisoka, ducked to avoid falling pieces of the ceiling raining down almost on top of him, but his eyes never left Tsuzuki. "Can't you move? Stay there, I'll come and get you." A shimmer of movement and Hisoka disappeared, reappearing in moments halfway to their spot. A teleporter.


A groan from above made Touda look up. The tortured sound had come from the curved metal beams that supported the domed ceiling. They had turned virtually incandescent white from the heat, edged with angry red that spat sparks and worse. Some of the beams had begun to warp and run together like cheap plastic over flame, twisting curving down as gravity asserted itself. It would not be long before the beams ceased to provide sufficient support and the entire ceiling, and however many tons of structure above it, would come crashing down on them. It may not be sufficient to kill him, but to remain for much longer would be tempting fate.

But while it may not be fatal to him, the Shinigamis would certainly not survive the experience.

Hisoka had reached Tsuzuki's side and was urging him to his feet, his gaze darting about to assess the room, flinching away from his serpent body but boldly coming back to assess him for threats. Hisoka had no way of knowing if he was enemy or friend, but from his posture, the Shinigami was ready to protect Tsuzuki if needed. That took courage, a lot of it, and a strong sense of loyalty.

So, was this Tsuzuki's new partner?

Tsuzuki was resisting him. Touda could hear him through the roar of the flames, and what he heard only confirmed the validity of his decision.

"It's all right Hisoka. I've lived for a long time… it's enough."

"I'm so… tired… of regrets… guilt… that's all there is for me…"

 "I can't go on anymore, so just, let me…"

Then the unexpected occurred. The young Shinigami, instead of turning away, flung himself into Tsuzuki's lap with a cry of negation. Touda felt himself blinked in surprise, and judging from the shocked look that spread across Tsuzuki's face, he was not the only one taken by surprise. For Tsuzuki at least, the surprise was enough to shake him out of his apathy.

"…Hisoka?"

"Then live for me alone." Tsuzuki's partner was crying openly, narrow shoulders heaving with the force of his sobs. "I don't want to live alone. Wherever you go, I will go with you."

"The only place that I belong to is where you are."

A long, tortured groan from above warned Touda. From the corner of one eye he saw one of the support beams gave way, a section fully ten meters across falling accompanied with great chunks of tiles from the unsupported ceiling. Right on top of Tsuzuki and Hisoka.

Touda did not pause to think. His head shot forward with the lightning quick snap that all serpents possessed. The half-melted beam hit his long neck with an impact that jarred and bowed him down a meter or two. It stung, but his diamond hard scales shrugged off the blow, and the succeeding shower of tiles merely bounced off with sharp cracks to rain down on the floor. Touda hovered over Tsuzuki and Hisoka, pulling his body tighter above them, protecting them from any further debris. Now that he had time to think, he realized the foolishness of his actions. It was his fires that brought this about, fires that were meant to kill Tsuzuki. Did it matter whether he died now or later?

But somehow, despite it all, he could not stop holding on. Hope was an unfamiliar feeling to him, but it was all that stayed his hand now. Hope that somehow things could change.

The two Shinigami had not moved from their spots, except that Hisoka's death grip around Tsuzuki seemed to have tightened, impossible as it may seem. Tsuzuki was staring down at the young man in his lap, so desperately holding on to him, as desperately as Tsuzuki himself had been seeking death only moments earlier. His hands, when he brought them up, were shaking badly. Tsuzuki's voice, when it came, was meant for Hisoka's ears alone.

"I can stay… here?"

"Is it really… all right for me… to stay here?"

- here with you? – can I stay with you? – will you let me – will you -

Hisoka nodded, one quick, firm nod that dispelled all doubts, never letting go of Tsuzuki's body.

And the ragged smile that spread across Tsuzuki's face then was so fragile, still so full of pain, yet past the tears that fell unbidden his eyes had regained a part of their usual luster. Tsuzuki's arms wrapped themselves around Hisoka's smaller body and crushed their bodies together, holding on as tightly as a man clutching the personification of his salvation.

Final agonized cries from above, from all around them, presaged the oncoming destruction of the underground facility. Touda knew that their time was up, and felt a moment of despair that they were too late, that even though Tsuzuki was no longer seeking death, death had come looking for him. If Hisoka was able to teleport both of them out, he would have done so earlier. Which meant that when the room came down around them, the two of them would still be in the middle of it, too far away from any exit.

Touda heard the remaining support beams give way above them, one death shrieks after another as sections of the support beams broke free, and broken chunks of concrete from the building above began to rain down along with the remaining ceramic tiles. The walkways that ran along the perimeter of the building disintegrated with a resounding crash. Despite his best efforts, fiery debris slipped through the protective canopy he made of his own body and dropped on and around Tsuzuki and Hisoka's entwined bodies. Hisoka's jacket caught on fire on several places, the younger man's body positioned on top and more vulnerable to the falling hazard. But Hisoka did not move his position, curling protectively above and in front of Tsuzuki.

Touda had begun entertaining thoughts of punching his way out to open a way for his Master and his partner, risking a collapse, when the thick shadows behind Tsuzuki and Hisako suddenly shivered and twisted like a living thing. In another instant, a man's form stepped out of the living shadow as if stepping through a doorway. This one, Touda recognized. The shadow-master, briefly Tsuzuki's partner, a powerful and experienced Shinigami in his own right. The shadow-master looked up at him briefly, the flames reflecting on his glasses and hiding his eyes, then he knelt down and swept his arms around both Tsuzuki and Hisoka, pulling them back into the shadow doorway, and presumably to a safer place than here. In no time at all, the shadows churned again for one last time, then was still.

Touda was alone in the crumbling facility.

Now that he no longer needed to protect anyone, he nimbly twisted out of the way of the falling debris and the next crash easily buried the ground Tsuzuki and Hisoka had been on under tons of deadly fragments. It was time for him to leave. He took one last look around the facility, suddenly glad that it was going to be destroyed, glad that this place that had been witness to Tsuzuki's deepest despair would soon be gone.

Burn everything. Bring this unholy place down, until only ashes remain.

Touda recklessly whipped his long body along the walls and remaining foundation pillars of the place, melting steel, stone and glass alike. He breathed out waves of heat so intense they scorched the concrete floors into ash and flash-vaporize the remains. He reveled in the destruction and the glorious feeling of being the administrator of such destruction. For the first time in a long, long while, he was able to take out all of his pent-up frustration and was free to indulge his desire for mayhem. He was, after all, a Jya-shin, a warrior born for battles, and he was in his elements.

And when the entire ceiling finally caved in with a thundering boom that surpassed everything before it, he called up the doorway to Gensoukai, the doorway that had been left open with Tsuzuki's summoning, and slipped into the passageway between the worlds, leaving the human world behind him.

~*~*~*~

The journey seemed shorter than it had been going out, and in no time at all Touda had dropped out of the tunnel between worlds, and into the clear azure sky of a perfect summer day. From high above here, the Palace was a speck no bigger than one clawed hand. He expanded his fin-wings and caught the brisk, strong wind in his membranes. The simple pleasure of the glide almost overwhelmed him, and he rolled his body around, basking all of himself under the warmth of the mid-day sun. This was what he had missed, what he had given up along with his powers to preserve his life and a fraction of his freedom. And even though he could feel the magic of his bonds tugging him down towards the Palace below, he could resist a little, just long enough for him to prolong this pleasure of flying.

In too short a time though, it was time to return. As he spiraled down, the Palace had grown steadily bigger until he could barely see the end of the compound. The boundaries of his lavish prison. Touda spied the lily pond where he had transformed earlier and chose the same location to touch down. Signs of destruction from his earlier Change still remained, Tenkuu-ouji had apparently not gotten around to cleaning up yet. Not that he had any reasons to be fond of Tenkuu, but there was really no sense in irking the Shikigami further by destroying two of his settings rather than one.

Several meters above the pond surface, the Change rippled through him. He felt his body shrinking, his essences compressed and forced into the limiting bounds set into his human form. It was not painful in a physical sense, but the immediate sense of loss was almost enough to make him cry out. Touda was dimly aware of the whipping wind that accompanied his transformation, the heat that he threw off as all excess energy was released into the surrounding air. When it was all over, he sank into his knees on the pavilion, panting and ill at ease in a body that seemed several sizes too small, already mourning the duller senses and resenting the feel of metaphysical chains around him. He got on his feet shakily and only then realized that he had torn off the entire roof of the small pavilion sometime during his Change. Soot scored the floorboards and the remaining pillars around him, and the scorching hot air still smelled of brimstone fire. The previously peaceful pond had been ruined too, upended lily bulbs bobbing in patches, and splotches of green vegetation spattering the formerly pristine hallways and walls of the surrounding Palace compound. Tenkuu's displeasure saturated the air, permeating each brick and beams of the Palace.

Touda sighed heavily. There would be hell to pay in the coming days, with his jailor so utterly annoyed with him. Not that Tenkuu would out and out attack him, but the devious Shikigami would intensify his game of traps and misdirection, and perhaps catch Touda in one of those little deadlier-than-it-seemed traps.

Just another day in the Palace.

Speaking of which, while Tenkuu would not attack him outright, there were others who had no such qualm…

The sudden spike of sak-ki was barely enough to allow him to leap aside and avoid having a seven-feet-long sword skewered into his middle. He followed the leap with a roll and came up several meters away from Suzaku. One look at the Phoenix Shikigami's face was enough to convince him that she was out for blood. If looks could kill, he would no doubt be quartered and roasted by now.

"You worthless, sorry excuse of a Shikigami," she hissed through clenched teeth, her red-rimmed eyes showing more white than black. She held her sword in a white-knuckled clench. "Ungrateful bastard of a worm!" The sword swung again, a complicated series of maneuvers that would probably score and tore Touda's flesh apart if she was not so angry her form became sloppy.

"Suzaku…" Touda tried.

"Shut up!" Suzaku screamed at him. "YOU TRIED TO KILL TSUZUKI!"

That was the end of the conversation. Touda launched himself into the branches of the nearest tree and propelled himself further out. He could still hear Suzaku screaming behind him, calling him a coward and worse, and other shikigamis' voices calling out queries. He had no wish to face Suzaku. For one, he was still tired from the summon and Suzaku was stronger than he was in this form; he had no desire to be pulped into the ground. Secondly, he knew he had no true ally among the others, and they would side with Suzaku against him.

And also, a small voice whispered within him, Tsuzuki worshipped Suzaku and would be hurt if anything happened to her.

All in all, it would be a good idea to make himself scarce for the next few weeks, at the very least.


Touda reached one of his favorite isolated perch, high above a pine tree and leant back with a sigh. He hissed as the bruise in his back scraped against the rough bark. A careful probe brought back a palmful of blood, already half-dried. There were other smaller cuts and bruises, left over from when he had made himself a living shield between the falling debris and his Master. They would heal in time.

He just hoped Tsuzuki's emotional wounds would heal in time too. His partner would certainly helped with that. Hisoka had shone with the love he hold for Tsuzuki, and that love had been enough to pull Tsuzuki back from the brink of self-destruction. Hopefully, it would also be enough to help Tsuzuki held his inner demons at bay.

And when Tsuzuki had healed enough to visit Gensoukai, what then?

There were a lot of things Touda had believed of himself that were shattered today, and he was seeing many things he took for granted in a new light. Not an entirely comfortable light, but the truth seldom were.

He had wondered before this, just how much his decision to become Tsuzuki's Shikigami had changed him. Turned out that it was a lot more than he had ever believed. He had started by accepting Tsuzuki as his Master as the lesser of two evils, yet when the time came to rid himself of the bond, he had hesitated. Some time in the decades that they had been together, Tsuzuki had changed from a Master to something else. Touda would never sacrifice his servitude for a Master of his, but for Tsuzuki… He had weighted Tsuzuki's life over his freedom and had unexpectedly found the former the more precious of the two.

Touda settled back against the tree trunk with a sigh, a strange sort of peace settling over him.

So this is how it feels to devote yourself to someone else. To let yourself belong to someone.

It was a new and frightening experience, but once he accepted it, the acceptance cleared away brought with it its own brand of peace. He thought he could understand Hisoka fighting for a place to truly belong to, for someone to belong to.

Let's go together… Touda.

"Yes," he said out loud, sealing his own private oath with spoken words. "I shall live... the way you wished me to. Whatever your heart's desire, I shall give to you, even if it takes all of mine. My Master… Tsuzuki."

Shinigami was not immortal. They moved on after a few decades, at the most. And now, by the grace of Fates, he would have those years to enjoy Tsuzuki's companionship, and perhaps see what else it may grow into. Second chances were precious rare, and Touda did not intend to waste his.

When his Master next came to visit and gave out one of those inevitable invitations for a picnic, he would take it and see what may come of it. As a step, it was a small one. But it was a beginning.

~T~H~E~*~E~N~D~

Note1: Uwaahh!! Finished! Damn it, it shouldn't have taken so long but I got turned around in the middle of this. Then I realized that this is really a Shiki story, and I'm sure a lot of other more gifted writers could have done a lot better on Hisoka/Tsuzuki, so I shouldn't be concentrating that much on His/Tsu and should just focus on Touda/Tsuzuki and their past. Once that was decided, the story flowed out.

I based the dialogue between  Touda/Tsuzuki/Hisoka roughly on the manga/anime, and then tweak them a bit more to fit the word flow. Hopefully, they still sound like canon ^_^;.

Note2: And I can't count! The last chapter has only 11 sentinels, the last one is the … pot thing? How on earth is he going to be useful in a fight? Dump sticky things on top of the enemy? ^_^;

Note3: Jya-shin = snake-god