OPENING THE WAY

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The air was still thick with the discharge of energies and the smell of blood. Himiko could feel the last traces of power as well, dissipating with the end of the ceremony. For the sacrifices were over and the dancing was finished, and the loa who rode her was folding his cloak of shadows and preparing to depart, his sword of blood vanishing from her hand and his blades fading into darkness.

Ban looked at her as though he was unsure of whom to address. "Are you still there?" he asked.

He was not polite. He never was.

"I am," she answered, "and -- he is, for a little while."

Ban nodded. "Come with me. You and me and Ginji, we need to end this."

She could feel the laughter at the back of her head, and it curved her lips in a smile as she walked gracefully after him, on this latest path that she found herself taking.

Ginji was already facing a gentle-eyed man whose face was streaked with tears. A little girl stood between them, blonde curls unruffled by the fighting, pretty frills unstained.

"Teshimine, I'm sorry," Ginji said. It clearly wasn't the first time. He didn't sound as if he ever expected to be forgiven.

Ban dropped a hand on Ginji's shoulder, squeezing it, and stepped forward to stand beside him. "This stops now," he said to the girl and the man. "I'm prepared to accept that you personally weren't behind this, but this stops now, do you hear me? Shut Brains Trust down. Break up Babylon City. Leave."

"We cannot do that," the girl said, her voice precise and formal.

"Why the hell not?"

"Babylon City is an integral part of Mugenjou. If we put an end to it, then Mugenjou will . . . no longer be what it was. It will be strictly physical. Nothing else will remain."

Himiko saw Ban and Ginji exchange glances, and she knew what they were thinking. Makubex. Ren. All the others, all the people who might have no idea that they were virtual -- for was unreal or real the right word for it, any more? Was everything strictly bounded by a physical body and flesh and bone? -- who could be blown out like candles.

"They won't do it again," Ginji said. "Let it go, Ban. It's finished. They're finished."

"I don't trust them," Ban muttered.

"You should not," the little girl answered. "But nevertheless, you will. Our experiment was flawed. We were in error. I am the only one left now."

Something in Teshimine's face twisted. He turned away, arms folded round himself.

"It's finished," Himiko agreed. She drew the last few fragments of the loa's presence around her, letting it look out of her eyes. "We are done, and if you are wise, you will leave it that way."

The little girl bowed to Himiko -- or rather, Himiko noted wryly in the back of her mind, to what currently rode Himiko -- and nodded to Ban and Ginji, then turned away. She walked towards the wide doors, and thrust them open, a tiny figure as she stepped out of the huge room, into the darkness of the corridor and out of their sight.

"I'll just be a moment," Ginji said to Ban, and hurried over to Teshimine, throwing an arm over the older man's shoulders. Himiko couldn't hear his words, but she could hear his tone of voice, and it surprised her a little that he could sound so utterly angry and yet so very gentle.

"And you?" Ban glared at Himiko. "Are you going to be all right?"

She shrugged. Blood on my hands. "I'll do," she answered. "You were younger."

He threw back his head in scorn, or pain, and looked down at her. "That wasn't supposed to happen to you, brat."

With a gesture as familiar as breathing, she punched him in the stomach and walked on by. "See to Ginji," she called over her shoulder.

---

Toshiki carried Ren across to set her beside Kazuki on the ground. "Can you do anything for her?" he asked Juubei.

Juubei checked her pulse points, motions as clinical and careful as though he wasn't in pain himself, and shrugged. "She's unconscious; that's all. She should come round shortly."

"And Kazuki?" Toshiki asked, his voice softening. He knew that Kazuki wasn't in any serious danger, or Juubei wouldn't be this calm, but --

"Nothing too serious. He'll be awake soon."

Toshiki glanced across the room to where the Miroku man lay unconscious. "Should we do anything about him, do you think?"

There was a pause, then Juubei said neutrally, "Such as?"

"Check that he . . . won't be a trouble."

"I think Midou dealt with him."

"Good."

"Perhaps Makubex can do something with him."

Toshiki raised an eyebrow.

Juubei shrugged again. "He can stay in Mugenjou for the moment. We'll have him under watch that way."

---

Teshimine tried to shrug Ginji off, but Ginji had held on through worse. "Go away," he muttered.

"No," Ginji said. "Not this time."

Teshimine turned to look at him, and there was such pain and loss in his eyes that Ginji flinched for a moment. "You should have stayed gone," he said. "Then we could all still have been happy."

"You think it's that simple?" Ginji jerked at the other man's shoulder. He'd put on weight and muscle since the days of Volts, and even though Teshimine was still the larger of the two, he had to brace himself against Ginji's pull. "Just running away for the rest of my life? For Ban, and Himiko-chan, and --"

Teshimine cut him off with an angry gesture. "I would have done anything to save you from anyone except him."

"You expect me to forgive that?"

"No. I don't even expect you to understand that. And your Midou is never going to ask that of you." The fury went out of Teshimine's eyes, like a flame guttering and fading, leaving emptiness behind it like ashes after fire. "And you'll never know why it matters so much to be asked. And that's probably a good thing."

Ginji just stood there.

"Go away," Teshimine said wearily.

"No."

"You should do."

"Why?"

"I've betrayed you so many times already."

Ginji smiled. "It doesn't matter."

"You can't say that," Teshimine began, but his voice already had that tone Ginji was familiar with from other conversations with previous enemies; disbelieving, confused, half amused, and already half accepting.

Ginji never had quite understood why people reacted that way once he explained that they were still friends, honestly, but he was more relieved than he could say to hear that tone in Teshimine's voice.

---

The last shadows drew themselves together in Himiko's mind, and as she felt them departing, she tried to frame a farewell.

Thank you for . . . For what? For being a professional? For killing people? For indulging in his own amusement? For lying to her for years? For taking her body and using it to slaughter?

Maybe she would know his presence again, but never the way that it had once been. She had passed her own crossroads and -- no, that wasn't true. Everything in life was crossroads. Everything was choice. The only way to be free of that was to give your will entirely to someone else, and that wasn't an option she was willing to entertain.

She was a professional. She chose her missions. She chose her life.

Thank you for giving me choices. Thank you for guarding my back. Thank you for your presence and your absence, for your coming and your going, and for the time in the future when I will see you again at another crossroads.

Darkness washed around and through her in acknowledgement, and left her standing alone, a bloodied woman in rags in a large shadowed room; but standing on her own feet, upright, and owning her own soul.

---

Miroku Yukihiko opened his eyes, and he was alone, there was nobody else there around him. People moved and strangers took his pulse and looked into his eyes to check for concussion (words ran by like streams of water and were gone) but his brothers and sisters, his other selves, weren't there any longer. Natsuhiko. All of them. Gone.

He touched memories and turned them over like stones in a riverbed.

He remembered everything now. He would have got up to say to Midou Ban that it was all right, he was sorry, in this strangely clear state that cooled his thoughts and cleansed him, but he couldn't get his body to work.

The blind man was telling him to lie down, to try to rest.

Perhaps this time he could sleep without the dreams of blood gloving his hands, of the serpent that rose to look him in the eyes and say do you remember?, all of it. Perhaps . . .

. . . no, he still couldn't tell Midou Ban that it was all right. He still couldn't forgive him. But perhaps he didn't need to kill him any more.

---

"I wish there were windows in here," Ginji said.

"I suppose, if it's virtual, then any windows would have to be virtual too." Ban gestured loosely at the high arched roof. "They could be looking out on anywhere."

"Onto the end of the world," Himiko remarked. She'd found a spare shirt somewhere, and had loosely knotted it across her chest to cover what Ban was tactfully not commenting on, mocking, or even sneering disdainfully at more than once every five minutes.

To be honest, he wasn't going to have the heart to make jokes about that for a while. Not with Hevn, and what had happened to her. It would have been nice to claim that he'd somehow known all along; that he'd merely been playing along with her, to fool her, that he'd never trusted her. But he had. He really had.

He could see the same note of pain in the others' eyes. Himiko, Ginji, Kazuki, Juubei, Toshiki -- all of them had been betrayed tonight. All of them had lost someone. Even if the person they'd cared for had never been real, the affection had been true. The apocalypse had come in the night and passed them by, but its wings had brushed them and left them stained with blood.

He still couldn't believe it was over. Maybe it wasn't. Maybe it never truly would be.

"Cheer up," Himiko said, and punched him in the shoulder. "It can't be long now till dawn."

Ginji frowned at the ceiling. "Ban-chan, stand back a bit. You too, Himiko-chan. I've got an idea."

Ban lifted an eyebrow, but stepped away. Himiko did the same, moving with the slow precision of exhaustion.

Ginji raised one hand to point up at the juncture of ceiling and wall. Lightning jumped from his hand in splashing waves of plasma, and where it met the boundaries of the room, they did not burn; they simply melted away, driven out of existence by a more powerful force. The white-blue flames ripped a hole in the virtual reality, to show a pale sky beyond, looking out over Tokyo.

Ban stretched, and flung an arm over Ginji's shoulders, and tousled Himiko's hair with his spare hand. "Look," he said, as Ginji relaxed against him, as Himiko scowled, "the sun is rising."

---