Dark Adaptation.

DISCLAIMER: Yami no Matsuei is the property of Matsushita-san and I gain no monetary benefit from the use of its' characters and created world.

Note: Another hidden chapter for your enjoyment, readers! This chapter requires a bit of explaining. It does appear as a new chapter but it is actually chapter 6 part 2. From Watari's point of view, details a trip to the Paranormal bar Sîné's and the very first appearance of the Cleaver man. It follows on directly after chapter 6, where Tsuzuki has his date with Muraki. I wanted readers to be able to see that there was a new chapter up so it appears for now at the end of DA, rather than where it should be. I'll try and place it appropriately after you guys have gotten a look at it.

I do hope that you all enjoy it, though it isn't necessary to read this chapter to get a feel for the story in its' entirety. It's simply an extra; giving a little more of a cheap scare towards the end and digging deeper into Watari's feelings concerning his past. With that being said, tarry forth my dears!

Warnings for this chapter: Violence, disturbing imagery, disturbing dancing, sex scene and um... I don't know what else. Too much OC-ness possibly. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy after a seriously long hiatus on my part!

Drops of Disillusion

You're living in a lie, your tears, repentance fills your eyes
Your life is not what it seems to be
For you breed agony
Your tortured mind will cry out, take my soul

Die for me, die for my sins for I've seen
My cold and bitter end

Trapped illusions of your fate
Your end is only what you've made
Return and taste reality again
Your sudden faith is all in vain
Your withered voice is chanting
I'm impure

Die for me, die for my sins for I've seen
My cold and bitter end

Standing at the altar, hands in prayer
Your crystal image shatters despair

Suffering no one can help you now
Betrayed by your worn and tattered vows

You're living in a lie, your tears, repentance fills your eyes
Your life stands for nothing but your shame
No one else will bear your blame
My mortal life of anguish I've endured

Die for me, die for my sins for I've seen
My cold and bitter end
As you feel the lies hypocrisy chokes the life from you
Die for me, die only for me
Now ... DIE

"Die for my sins" ~ Sanctuary (Written by L. Rutledge & W. Dane)

"I wondered vaguely if this was when it would end, whether I would pull up tonight's darkness like a quilt and be dead and at peace evermore." ~ William Manchester


I have read a great many fictional works concerning supernatural creatures in my time and it has become plain to me that human beings are of the inert opinion that we immortals exist at some mesmeric, untouchable distance from they. Writers have described us as 'powerful', 'romantic', 'sexy', and 'without limit to any activity in that which we engage'. Sleep and consequence have no bearing upon our immeasurable existences.

It's a charming notion, (especially that sexy dimension) but I honestly cannot imagine why any intuitive author could fool themselves into believing such a thing; for I have never met a Paranormal creature that seems to fit any of their conceptions in the least. We are no more romantic than any human (and yes, believe or not that does extend to vampires), no more prone to catching the eye of fancy than any other beautiful person. We are certainly strong and have abilities beyond that of the mortals, but in just about every other way we were subject to much the same discomfort. Why, the characters in these paranormal romances seemed to have no inflection of a weary state of mind or body; whereas in my case, I'm sure that since my death I have never been so exhausted! That 'eternal sleep' thing that had been carved on my headstone was a bunch of crap.

You soon learn however, as you do with any occupation, that the routine eventually becomes as much a part of you as a notch in a whittled carving becomes a sloping curve; taking shape and becoming recognizable. One day it all starts to fall into place and despite feeling as though someone has taped stones to your eyelids, you find a means through which to have a social life and still manage to drag yourself wearily from bed the next morning. This was the minor conundrum with which I was currently faced.

I was due a very early morning in Kyoto the next day and yet in the same instance, I struggled with the disconcerting feeling that if I did not make a tried attempt to cheer myself up that night, I would leave for this assignment in the wrong frame of mind and spend the investigation in a most unbecoming state of moroseness. And this was hardly going to win the affections of my besotted.

I mulled it over, gathering my misplaced items of clothing from the sidewalk as Tsuzuki sighed and stretched his arms above his head, staring out across the street to the bustling folk in a busy restaurant.

"Man, that was stressful…" He muttered, bending over to pick up and refold one of my newly purchased shirts, price tag still boastingly attached. "Should we join Ichi-chan for a drink and unwind? I could sure go an apple cinnamon shot right now… take the edge of this whole night right off."

I plucked the shirt off of him and stuffed both it and the other items of clothing back into the various bags from which they had initially upended. "I'm not sure you need anymore to drink, fella." I said, in the mood to tease him a little. "And I'm quite certain you've done enough kissin' for tonight, too."

Tsuzuki offered an uncouth little growl and jabbed his elbow into my upper arm. "Agh! Would you leave it alone?!" He puffed his cheeks out in a manner I recognized as him feeling both aggravated and embarrassed. "It was just a kiss, don't go making it out to be anything more than what it was!"

"Come on now, let me have my fun. You're obviously havin' yours."

Tsuzuki's eyes widened as if to say he couldn't possibly believe the words that had come out of my mouth. "That. Was not. Fun. That was not fun! I just wanna forget it ever happened. We gonna go cleanse our palette's or what?"

Well, I would have much preferred to collapse in bed and not rise for at least a couple of days. But what with the difficult evening Tsuzuki had just been made to endure, I couldn't very well tell him I was too tired to go; so I swallowed my real feelings and followed him up the street towards the Sakura Zensen so that we could meet up with Ichibana and change.

We entered the apartment to find the djinni itself perched on the couch in its' pajama's and slippers, looking very comfortable whilst sipping from a cup of tea and watching a reality television show. It was so completely absorbed in what was happening on the screen that it didn't even look up as we entered.

"Hey Ichi, seems we'll be joining you after all." I amended, dumping my bags on the floor whilst Tsuzuki slid himself up onto a barstool. The djinni waved a hand at me without turning its' eyes from the television.

"Shh, shhh, honey," It cautioned. "I wanna see which one of these slutty girls that hot fella picks to go on a second date with." (1) Comprehension dawned on its' face and it spun about, television momentarily forgotten, to offer Tsuzuki a questioning eye. "Speaking of dates…"

Tsuzuki groaned, sinking his head down against the counter with what sounded like a painful thump. "Ichibana, I don't even wanna get started explaining everything that went on tonight."

"He kissed him." I said, earning a slap on the arm from a mollified Tsuzuki. "Well you did!" I shot back, ignoring his baleful expression.

"It doesn't mean I want you shouting it out to all and sundry! God Watari!"

"What are you so worried about? Ichibana doesn't care who you snog!"

"Though it is always entertain' ta see ya embarrassed, Doll-face." Ichibana said, dipping a biscuit into its' tea before biting into it. An amber drop slipped free over its' bottom lip and into the hallow of its' chin. "So, is he a good kisser?"

Tsuzuki glared at me as though this particular line of questioning was my fault. "See? Now see what you've set off?"

Ichibana waved its' finger at him, eyes still focused on the TV screen. "Answer the question, little Asato. Humor a loveless djinni, won't you?"

Tsuzuki groaned deeply and about as obnoxiously as possible, obviously stalling for time. He started swiping at his lip, as though doing so would erase what had already touched it. Nothing short of a wire brush and a bottle of bleach would be able to undo that damage.

"He kisses fine." The brunette eventually professed, his tone accusatory. Of course it was obvious to all of us that Muraki perhaps kissed just an inch over the borderline of fine but Tsuzuki was hardly prepared to deprave himself further and admit to that. At least… not at this early stage, anyway. "And so long as that's all he's asking at the moment, I can handle it."

"Blondie, have you yet explained to our little friend that kissing can lead to other personal and considerably more invasive things?" Ichibana asked, the light of the television screen reflecting off of its' bright red eyes.

"Don't call me little!" Tsuzuki snapped, bouncing up off of the stool as though it had suddenly turned into a used pincushion. "I may be inexperienced but I'm well aware what Muraki wants of me and that doesn't mean I have to deliver it!"

"That's right poppet, you hold strong. Make sure and squeeze a few more dinners and some expensive jewelry out of it first." Ichibana amended, not truly paying attention. I perched myself on the edge of the coffee table and shucked my shoes off onto the floor, wanting to change them for a more decent pair when we went out. Ichibana's nose wrinkled in response and it used its' own foot to push mine further away.

"Although, the way your love life has been going Tsuzuki, ya might wanna be squeezing a bit more than dinners out of it. You know," I gave him a knowing look. "Nuts for the winter?"

Tsuzuki's face went so red you could have easily have poached an egg on it and I quite thought he meant to storm across the room and slap my face for that last comment. I apologized and he deflated immediately. Teasing Tsuzuki about his lackluster love life was simply one of those things he did not roll with, sensitive as the topic was. I could hardly see why. His breathtaking beauty was only rivaled by his supreme, superseding insecurities, which of course rendered the first null and void in his own mind.

"Anyway, we're not here to talk about my god awful night with Muraki," Tsuzuki reminded us, once the blush had receded out of his cheeks. "We're here to try and help me forget about it. So, what do you say, Ichibana, eh? Shall we go see daddy?"

The djinni curled its' lip. "If he wanted to see me he would call." It leant across the couch towards me, a suspicious gleam in its' eye. "Ye haven't been deletin' any o' my messages have ya, Stinky feet?"

I snorted, waving my sock covered toe under the djinni's defenseless nose. "I wouldn't do that. Why don't you get your own phone, save me being your stupid secretary?"

"Ye know how technology affects a djinni's essence, Bubble-brain." Ichibana said, ducking under my foot and reaching out to snag another ginger snap from the plate on the table. It had a craving for English biscuits and saw to it that my cupboards were always stocked with them. They had to be specially ordered in from an international food shop but Ichibana always seemed able to pay for whatever luxuries it desired. Though I hadn't a clue where its' money came from and in all honesty, I rather preferred not to know. "It's bad enough just walkin' down a city street with the cars buzzin' by, now ya want me to go strappin' machinery ta ma body as well?" It scoffed around the biscuit, spraying crumbs all over the place. "No thanks. Ye can just go right on bein' my stupid secretary."

Tsuzuki chuckled as he made his way over to sit beside the djinni on the sofa, pulling its short legs over his lap and patting the leopard spotted slippers it favored. "Listen…" He began sensitively. "I'm sure there's absolutely nothing to worry about. Orias is probably just overworked like usual. He is Sîné's Chief Steward after all. He's got a lot on his plate."

"Not least of which is you, my dear." I teased, giving Ichibana's knee a little shake. "I mean, you're not exactly low maintenance."

It slapped my fingers with what remained of the ginger snap. "I'm very easy going, thankyou very much. If I've been a little… cranky lately it's probably just hormones." It gave pause, its' body lurching slightly as though affected by wind and it cupped its fist over its heart shaped lips. "Or else I'm comin' down with somethin'. I've been feelin' pretty damn lousy these past two weeks."

"Awww…" Tsuzuki simpered, cocking his head to one side and bearing a derisive smile. "Maybe it's love sickness? You've been missing your liddle lamb!"

"Dammit, would you stop callin' him that?!" The djinni snapped, bouncing onto its' feet and stuffing the last of the biscuit into its' mouth. "Well all right then, let's go to Sîné's. Just give me a moment to put my face on, loves."

"Hey Watari, mind if I borrow some of your clothes?" Tsuzuki asked, as Ichibana strutted down the hall and veered off into the bathroom. "Y'know I don't have many good 'going out' clothes."

"Sure, mate." I said, emptying the dregs of Ichibana's tea into the sink, before leading Tsuzuki towards the bedroom. My three birds blinked sleepily up at us as I switched on the light and 003 immediately zoomed over from his perch to nip Tsuzuki on the ear. I smiled as I wrenched my half of the sliding wardrobe open (the other half 'belonged' to Ichibana, though most of its' possessions had bled over into my own) and started flicking through the contents. I was an inch taller than Tsuzuki but we both had long legs, so most of my trousers fit him well. I picked out a charcoal gray pair and handed them over to him, along with a casual black Chinese style shirt that tapered in the lines of his torso and accentuated his toned body perfectly. I adopted a ripped pair of gray jeans and a black, turtleneck with bandage sleeves extending all the way down to my knuckles. Tsuzuki opted for casual flats (all the better to escape from gropers with), whilst I selected a pair of black, lace up boots with a three-inch heel. Ichibana came trotting in at one point (face made up in its' usual state of gothic perfection) and left with an armful of clothing from its' side of the wardrobe in order to get changed in the bathroom.

To this very day, I still haven't seen Ichibana's naked form but from what I gather through extensive research (and incessant harping) is that the physical form of a djinni bears much the same resemblance as a child's doll; with no outward genitalia or gender specific features. They exist as a complete and unequalled compromise between sexes. However, since djinni are indeed shape shifters, they can adopt the sexual genitalia of either gender to suit their momentary circumstances. So far as I knew, Ichibana felt no need to resort to such measures and remained in its' androgynous form. How love making was achieved as such, I cannot say with any real certainty but I have my theories; the most plausible of which is that the flesh within the pelvic area acts to envelope that which it receives. Djinni's even had internal feminine reproductive structures, as their original purpose was to act as breeding agents for the Underdwellers, whenever their numbers were in danger of dwindling. Ichibana had admitted to me that it itself had been pregnant a number of times in its' five hundred years of life, though it was quite strange to think of it as a mother. And it was certainly clandestine concerning this area of its' existence but then, who out of any of us has been upfront concerning their private life?

The much-belayed point being was that Ichibana was not explicitly male and as such, didn't want to change in front of us. And I was quite fine with that. (The furthered pursuit of knowledge notwithstanding).

Tsuzuki was naturally exquisite and so didn't require any further assistance with his looks. (Though 003 attempted to help by preening his hair, which only resulted in further aggravating his feisty coif). I on the other hand could use all the help I could get and so set to work, painting my eyelashes and rubbing tinted moisturizer into my skin in order to offset the ruddy texture in my cheeks. I took off my glasses and put my contacts in whilst Tsuzuki used a straightner to sort out some of the more unruly tresses in my hair. I'd just gotten to the stage where I was feeling tentatively content with my appearance when Ichibana came strutting back in and shot all that to hell.

It was wearing ankle length stockings with suspenders, cut just above the shoe line into sharp crosses and five-inch designer heels with gold clasps. The black dress it wore was low cut in both the front and back and sported the same jagged cross pattern as the stockings. It had long sleeves, gaping at the wrists, a long trailing bow at the back and a red hem that peeked strategically out from beneath the skirt. Ichibana had taken the time to adorn its' wrists with silver jewelry and its' plum colored hair was pinned up with a few waved tresses falling artistically free, whilst the spiky bangs at the front crossed over its' eyes and jutted out at inhuman angles. On its' head perched a raised black and white band with intersected crosses hanging from each side and a choker of matching design sat delicately against the djinni's slender throat. Its' lipstick and eye shadow were matching black, its eyes coal lined and eyelashes tinted and brushing luxuriously against perfect pale cheeks. Its' ears were littered with their usual sixteen piercings and its curvy body looked like one big promise.

"You bitch. Go away." I snapped, tugging the straightner cord out of the power point and flinching as a blue spark shot up. Ichibana sniffed and waved its hand at me, dismissing my lack of confidence.

"Don't be so insecure. You know as well as I do that its only wrapping. And trust me; it ain't all its' cracked up to be." It strutted about me and reached into the closet pulling out a purple mink jacket, which it then wrapped about its' upper arms. "Grab ya stuff." It waited until I'd snatched up my wallet and set my pets to rights before switching off the light and leading us back out into the hallway. Tsuzuki rolled his eyes as he nudged the djinni in the side.

"I'm gonna need a violin. It must be so hard on you, being so gorgeous." He teased with a roll of his eyes. Ichibana smiled ironically as it darted across the room on precariously tottery heels in order to grab another biscuit from the tray on the table.

"You're one to talk," It said fairly. "And let me tell ya now; most nice folks are way too intimidated by me to just strike up a conversation. Only sleaze bags or overconfident jerks ever get the moxy and I'd really rather they just didn't make the effort, ye know?" Tsuzuki slung on his trenchcoat and I my red jacket before then switching off all the lights and stepping out into the hallway, locking the door as I went. "Orias said that if he hadn't served our table at the club he would have never summoned up the courage to say two words to me. I reckon that's part of your problem too, Doll-face."

"What's part of my problem?" Tsuzuki asked, sounding offended at the mere suggestion that he even 'had' a problem.

"People think they don't have a shot in hell at ya so they just don't bother tryin'." Ichibana nodded as though that conclusion was most fitting to a long existing conundrum. "Therego, you only attract perverts who aren't the least bit concerned about coming off looking like hapless fools."

"Story of my afterlife," Tsuzuki muttered as we approached the elevator. I was about to depress the button when the doors slid open with a ding, revealing none other than Tatsumi, Hisoka, Wakaba, Terazuma, Saya and Yuma. I could have saved time just then and said the rest of the Summons Section but with Konoe absent from current company, it hardly seems truthful now does it?

I could see something unfolding on Tsuzuki's face. To consort with Muraki less than a half hour ago and to be suddenly faced with our work colleagues, must have felt to him altogether too much like dodging a bullet. His eyes widened until his pupils were rimmed by glaring white, his lip dropping down to expose teeth as starkly bone pale. The blood drained from his face until he appeared as equally washed out as a character in a Tim Burton film.

"G-guys! Hey, hey hello, what a surprise seeing you all here!" He gabbled, trying to hide behind me. Very natural cover there, mate. It was obvious to anyone that he was feeling guilty and trying to hide something, so I did the guy a favor and tried to draw some attention away from him.

"Guys, hey!" I said cheerily, shoving my boot into Ichibana's backside and thrusting it headfirst into the elevator. The djinni shrieked as it stumbled forward and looked back at me with a mouth as wide and round as the top of a teacup. But my little ploy had worked. The others eyes were now all locked on the startling stranger that had just about fallen into their laps. "Where are you all off to?"

"What the hell was that?!" Ichibana screeched, slamming its hand on the side of the elevator door. Wakaba poked her head under its' arm to wave merrily at Tsuzuki and I.

"Oh, hey ya'll!" She said, reaching back to pet Tatsumi on his lapel. The secretary actually stared down at the spot she had just touched and I would bet he was considering dusting it off with his handkerchief. "We decided Tatsumi needed a night off to relax so we're taking him out for a couple of drinks. Konoe's gonna meet us down in the foyer."

"Neat! Why don't you guys join us? We're headin' on over to Sîné's. You know, the supernatural bar in Matsuya Esplanade?" (2)

"What? You mean you can actually get in there?" Yuma asked as the rest of us piled onto the elevator. I pushed the button for the lobby and bit my lip as Ichibana predictably stomped down on my toe.

"We have our methods." I said blinking back tears of pain and smiling at Ichibana, who fluttered its' eyelashes innocently at me. Wakaba seemed to realize then that our newest addition hadn't yet been introduced and ever the lady took the chance to get acquainted.

"Oh, I'm sorry I don't believe we've met." She placed her straightened fingers against her knees and bowed deeply to the djinni, who always seemed a bit nonplussed by the unassuming nature of Japanese women. "I'm Kannuki Wakaba. This is Hajime Terazuma, Yuma Fukiya, Saya Torii and Seiichirou Tatsumi."

"Ja, I kno-" I quickly elbowed Ichibana in the side, as a reminder that, as a Paranormal, it wasn't supposed to know who these people were. This would have revealed that I had been keeping the djinni by illegal contract, even bringing it into the Ministry at times, which would have not only seen me laid off but probably sent into the big fiery naughty corner otherwise known as Hell. "- I mean, uh, nice to meet ye all. I'm Ichibana." The djinni nodded to each of my colleagues in turn, offering me an apologetic look.

"Ichibana?" Terazuma repeated skeptically. Ichibana drew the character signs for the spelling of its' name in the air. "As in, 'number one'?"

The djinni rolled its' eyes unappreciatively. "Nein, as in shut up and blame the one who named me."

Saya moved around Ichibana, examining it from all sides as if she had never seen such a thing. "I haven't seen you around before… are you new to the Ministry?" She asked, seeming at one point to be examining the interior of Ichibana's ear. The djinni turned to try and face her but by that stage she had already moved to the other shoulder.

"Um… not really no." It said, turning its' head and almost bumping their noses together. "I'm a Merger…"

Hearing that Ichibana was a 'Merger', which was the Ministry coined term for Underdwellers that were living peacefully amongst humans, didn't seem the least bit off putting to the Summons Sections two most snuggliest employees. Yuma's eyes lit up like a sticky fingered child on the receiving end of a toffee apple. "Nyaaw! You're so pretty!" She squealed, wrapping her arms around Ichibana's upper torso and squeezing until the djinni's eyeballs just about shot out like champagne corks. "I wish I looked like you! I bet the guys never leave you alone!"

"Girlie, you're choking me-" Ichibana gasped, trying to pry Yuma's fingers back in order to loosen their grip. This proved a moot point when Saya preceded to glomph it from the other side, doubling the boa constrictor grip to fatal proportions.

"And your skin's so smooth and pale…" The fellow blonde gushed, stroking her hands down either side of Ichibana's face and pushing its plump cheeks together so hard that t looked like a bullfrog. "You look just like an actress! I love your outfit!"

Tsuzuki leaned in to whisper to me. "Looks like we're in for another baptismal of snuggling." He said with a smile. Hisoka yawned over the sound of Ichibana's hysterical gasping in the background and leaned his shoulder into the side of the elevator.

"At least they're giving me a break from it." He muttered, smoothing down the casual black zip up shirt he had chosen to wear for the night. The elevator dinged as we reached the ground floor and Ichibana was able to make good its' escape. It propelled itself out into the foyer, almost barreling headfirst into the flummoxed face of Konoe. He stared at the djinni who was bent double, heaving as though it had gone out of fashion, before his eyes reluctantly trailed up to meet mine as I followed the others out of the elevator.

"Watari-san… are you sure you're quite well for joining us this evening?" He asked with a both concerned and slightly disapproving frown on his face.

Tatsumi took this as an opportunity to add his two sen's (3) worth. "Yes, you really should be having an early night if you're wanting to be leaving bright and early in the morning."

I waved my hand irksomely at my two superiors. "Chill you two, it's cool. I'm just comin' out for one or two drinks and then I'm headin' straight home and into bed."

"See to it that you do." Konoe said, allowing for Wakaba to kiss his cheek in greeting. "Our departments in sore need of a success. I hardly need to remind you what'll happen if you should embarrass us and I –" At this point, Ichibana seemed to have regained its' breath and stood to full attention, flinging its' head back with a maidenly huff and straightening its' various adornments, rendering Konoe momentarily speechless. Of course, the djinni was never so oblivious to this kind of attention and smiled sweetly into the chiefs' captivated expression.

"Am I distracting you, Konoe-Shacho?"

Konoe finally seemed to come back to his senses and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, as though blocking Ichibana out of his visual field would render him comprehensible again. "Why uh… no, no of course not, why would you be-" He turned towards me and only then did he dare to open his eyes, purposefully not taking notice of Ichibana's ever so deliberate posing. "Whom is this?"

"Why I'm your key into the most exclusive Paranormal bar in town, Konoe-san. Shall we?" Ichibana didn't wait for an answer but grabbed Konoe by the tie and pulled him headlong towards the exit. We had little choice but to follow this amusing spectacle out onto the street, Yuma and Saya shortly thereafter taking the chance to latch on to their new toys arms. Konoe straightened his tie and shot me a look that was so amusing in its' complexity, I'm sure I couldn't do it justice in describing it. Let me just say, it looked to me as though the man were fixing to scream and was having a devilish time trying to hold back. His eyes held a questioning nuance and he bobbed his head towards Ichibana and I recognized that he was asking verification for the djinni's presence.

"Just a friend of mine, boss." I said, trying to assuage his concern. The chiefs' eyes flickered back briefly towards the djinni's shapely figure.

"You don't say? Just a friend huh…" He spoke in a tone that was completely out of context for our boss. It was like he was under some sort of spell! I'm quite sure that this wasn't the first time that Konoe had set eyes on a beautiful person, having been around as long as he had but he was sure as Hell acting like it!

Tsuzuki seemed to find this as amusing as I did and took much relish in chastising the boss over it. He hopped into Konoe's path and walked backwards in front of him, shaking his finger from side to side as we ventured further up the street. "Uh-uh-uh, you old dog! No hanky-panky, boss. That's the rules!"

"You sure kept that one to yourself, Watari." Terazuma said, not bothering to lower his voice. "She's a looker all right." I couldn't have been surprised that the others had mistaken Ichibana for a female (wearing a dress had no doubt contributed to this) and I was certainly not about to go into the specifics of its' race with them just at that moment, so I simply left them thinking in that way.

Konoe appeared scarily thoughtful, his aged fingers set against his chin as he eyed the djinni's stilted strut. "Really just a friend…?"

I sighed so deeply that I felt my bangs lift away from my face. This sort of attention that Ichibana warranted wasn't unusual when it dressed up but sometimes; I still got a little sick of hearing about it. Especially since I hardly ever got to hear it about me. Actually… 'hardly ever' would have been a treat of sorts. "Yes, really. But don't go gettin' ideas, ya dirty old bugger. She's spoken for."

Ichibana sashayed off down an alleyway ahead of us and we followed along in its' petite shadow, walking past a run down subway station and into an abandoned laneway. There was a single metal door with a dim red bulb glowing above it. Yuma looked up at it questioningly as we approached.

"Isn't the entrance to Sîné's on the main drag?" She asked hesitantly, looking about with some concern. I could just see her mind racing through half a dozen scenarios, each one distinctly more sleazy and suspicious than the last. "Why are we taking the rear entrance?" She offered a humorous little snort. "That's typical I guess. Trying to make the queers happy."

Tsuzuki gasped in fake indignation and smacked her in the side of the arm as the rest of us caught up. Ichibana reached out to tap one of its' long purple fingernails against the steel of the door.

"Sîné's is open to regular patrons via the street entrance. However, the paranormal bar is accessed via this doorway." It explained, sighing as Saya squeezed its' arm perhaps a little too tightly. "We use the basement area, which is far more spacious than the above ground rooms." It turned to those of us gathered behind, displaying distinctly sharp and shark like teeth. "Appropriate, nein? We are Underdwellers after all." With that being said, the djinni leaned forward and pushed open the door, gesturing with its head as it stepped over the threshold and into pulsing red light. "Come on through."

We followed it up into a tiny hall that was blocked by another door eight feet away. I'd always liked this entrance into the Paranormal section of Sîné's, as it was a complete contradiction to the neighborhood in which the bar was situated. The walls were dark red and lined with photographs of paranormal creatures ranging from movies in the early 1920's to modern day. Old-fashioned lanterns were mounted along either side of the passage, emitting a red glow that made everyone's skin smolder with a crimson sheen.

"So the name of this place… Sîné's… what's it mean?" Saya asked, examining a gold-framed photograph of Bela Lugosi from the 1931 original version of Dracula.

"It's Celtic," Ichibana said, its' eyes sparkling even brighter in the light from the lamps. "Means 'Beloved of God'. Not without our sense of humor, are we?"

I thought about laughing but the inner door opened just then.

The doorman was an interesting looking guy. He was tall and gangly, with long arms that reached halfway to the floor. He was dressed in theme, sporting a full body skintight leather suit and a mask made of matching material, which covered his face entirely. It made him look like a creepy sadomasochist video game character come to life and set loose on the streets. I wasn't even sure how useful he would be with that mask covering his eyes but apparently he was able to see us perfectly.

His long arms were crossed over his chest, but he eased himself up to stand in the doorway as we approached.

"Ichibana," came a deep raspy voice from beneath the mask. "Haven't seen you here in a while."

Ichibana smiled up at him. "Oh, you know me, Voldur. Busy, busy, busy. Can ye get us in tonight, darling?"

The doorman inclined his strange head. "Shouldn't be any trouble for you. However, I will need to check their ID." He gestured with his long hands towards Wakaba, Hisoka, Yuma and Saya. "Their Shinigami ID mind you. I can tell just by lookin' at some of you that ya didn't make it past sixteen. If ya can prove to me that you've actually been around longer than the legal age limit, it should be fine."

This was a tired but necessary process when accessing Paranormal bars. The first time we had come here, Tsuzuki had been carded at the doorway because of his boyish features. Sometimes I feel the slightest bit jaded that no one ever bothers to ask me for my ID but it's quite obvious that I do look my age.

Wakaba often wore a Japanese school uniform to work but this and her youthful features were actually quite misleading. She had passed away fifteen years ago at the age of nineteen. She fished out her Shinigami ID and passed it timidly into the hand of the doorman with a shy smile.

"Thankyou miss," Said the doorman, bowing his masked face to inspect the card. He was a rather congenial sadomasochistic video game villain. "Wakaba Kannuki, age thirty-four…" He looked up at her and his voice became rather curious. "Are you the head of Area 4?"

Wakaba looked mildly surprised. "Um… yes, sir. That's right. But how did you know that?"

Voldur chuckled as he handed back her ID. "The Security Department guys from your Ministry are in and out of here all the time. Sounds like you're pretty popular with that lot."

Wakaba blushed and tried to modestly wave this aside, which just made us laugh more. Terazuma's own face had gone red and he huffed irritably.

"Those security department guys need to learn to keep their eyes in their own thick heads," He grumbled, which only made me laugh more.

"Come on, Terazuma, can ya really blame em? I mean, just look at the gal, would ya?" I said, meaning to tease him a little. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. "She's cute! It's just a shame that uh… you can't appreciate it."

Terazuma looked fit to wrap his hands around my neck. He had a peculiar affliction, did our Terazuma. He was possessed by a parasitic Shikigami. Whenever Terazuma came into contact with a girl or even a guy who looked like a girl (see, Hisoka) the Shikigami Kagan Kuroshungei burst free and only Wakaba's constraint mana could restrain it again. Needless to say, this was something of a sore point with him and meant that a love life for this very heterosexual Shinigami was virtually impossible.

I was expecting some kind of reaction for chiding him but not the one that I received. Tatsumi reached down and plucked my arm away from Wakaba's shoulders and steered it as far from her as possible.

"Watari-san, mind you keep your hands to yourself." He gently warned as Wakaba looked at him in mild surprise, her blush deepening considerably. Tatsumi cleared his throat and gave a little nod, looking considerably uncomfortable in having said anything at all. Nothing thrilled me so much as the thought of an office scandal and I was certainly sensing one boiling beneath the surface here. I had to cover my mouth so that no one could see me smiling but Ichibana still noticed and gave me a sharp elbow in the side.

"Don't tease," It reprimanded, which I understood would be considerably difficult for me, given my personality. I didn't say anything because I couldn't very well promise to behave myself.

Voldur checked Yuma and Saya's ID's. They had each passed away at age eighteen, five years ago, so their collective age was twenty-three. Hisoka was the youngest of all of us and had died at age sixteen, three years ago. Having assured Voldur that he was only going to drink soft drinks, the doorman seemed satisfied to nod the rest of us through. We each got a paper wristband emblazoned with the words, "Olde enough to suck at Sîné's". Voldur waved us through and closed the door behind us, returning to his post against the wall as we entered into the general hustle and bustle of the club.

The club was styled to replicate a medieval castle setting; with a very stereotyped theme that I couldn't help but like. The walls were designed to resemble stone and adorned with various old-fashioned paintings and or pictures depicting movie monsters or gothic images. Chains and cages containing what I assumed were fake skeletons, hung from assorted stone pylons. Live bats would occasionally fly overhead whilst you were eating or dancing and were thoughtful enough to never need to relieve themselves on your food or head. (Thank goodness) The curtains were soft red velvet and open caskets with matching interior perched upon the stage and other areas, in which you could have your picture taken.

The tables themselves were candlelit with flames that generated no heat and candles that couldn't be knocked over, so as not to hurt anyone. Signs on the wall, warned against particular unsavory behavior. "No biting on premises" "Sîné's bears no responsibility for loss of personal belongings, money or souls." "Anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated".

Even though it was a quiet night by human standards, Paranormal creatures don't care to run to the same routine as we humans; the club was packed out. The lead male performer was on stage with the band, singing "The devil inside" to a swaying, jiving crowd. I spotted a number of demons, all drinking blood beer and smoking without actual cigarettes. Staying a fair distance away from them were a small group of Celestials (angels in human form) who were turning their water to wine by swiveling their fingers around the tops of their glasses. A waiter was storming towards them, complaining under his breath all the while, "- doing it again, after I already told them there's a WTW policy…"

"WTW?" Hisoka asked, catching the tail end of the complaint but not the thoughts behind it.

"Water to wine." I explained, smiling as the waiter proceeded to berate the Celestials, who stared back with complacent and serene smiles a human could only replicate by perhaps smoking something a little to the side of dodgy. "You cheat the club out of a lot of money when water's for free and you turn it instead of buying your alcohol from the bar. They're pretty strict on it here. Ichibana got us busted for it once. Not that the wine was any good mind… tasted like it just came out of a cask."

I continued looking about, intrigued as I always was when afforded the opportunity to observe a group of Paranormals in action. There were a couple of shape shifters laughing hysterically in the corner as they drunkenly merged their features about to the amusement of those they were sitting with. There were Once-humans, fairies (tall, ethereal and exuding a kind of glow that made Ichibana seem positively dull in comparison) and a couple of vampires sitting with what looked like two very willing blood donors. The same waiter who had just chastised the Celestials came bustling past in their direction now, muttering; "… and now this. Didn't I just say no BYOB?"

"BYOB?" Wakaba enquired with a nervous laugh.

"Bring your own body." Ichibana provided, seeming extraordinarily distracted for someone who hadn't at all been eager to rush over here. It wended its' way towards the bar, the rest of us sliding along behind like the tail of a snake. "Hi boss."

'Boss' was otherwise known as Rook, the Head Chef. He ducked down to see who had called for him and spotted Ichibana through the servery hatch. "Ichibana, you've sure been keeping us in the lurch." He came out the front and leaned over the counter, smiling amiably from beneath a stained cooks hat. Rook had broad, genuine features and very messy black hair that was so springy that it seemed ready to launch his hat free from his head at any moment. He possessed a very large build and arms that looked like dark, leathery hams protruding from beneath hastily rolled up shirtsleeves. "Table 8's free, if ya wanna rest your feet." He glanced over his shoulder and then leaned in conspiratorially. Ichibana offered its' ear sweetly. "He's just out the back doing a stock intake. What say I send him over to your table as soon as he gets out?"

Ichibana smiled, gently pecking the cooks' cheek and leaving a dark lipstick stain against his weathered skin. "Thanks Rook, I'd appreciate that."

We made our way over to the table but were unfortunately intercepted by the owner before we could sit down. 'Marquee Albans' was the owner of the establishment and was a thoroughly exuberant demon of refined tastes. He was small, standing approximately only four feet in height, with elegantly cut and crimped white blond hair and elven features. Tonight he was dressed in an early 1900's era English themed white and emerald green suit, with a series of elegant pins gleaming at his throat and a smile so beautiful it could have made just about any woman with even the highest moral standards step out of her underwear. (Regardless of his height, the Marquee possessed a natural grace and refined elegance that made him seem much larger than life). He had once given Tsuzuki a full body check and I'd gotten the impression that he had liked what he'd seen but so far he hadn't made a move on the shy Shinigami. (For which I think we are all grateful. If there is one thing that Tsuzuki doesn't need, it's another persistent and/or creepy stalker.)

At this point in time however, the Marquee's eyes were only for Ichibana. He came sweeping down the isle from the VIP room with several other demons in accompaniment, each one a blatant contradiction to my previous statement that paranormal creatures rarely stand up to romantic introspection.

"Ah now, this is what we have all been waiting for!" Albans doted, grasping Ichibana's hand and bringing it smartly against his mouth. "This lovely thing is Ichibana of the Jann, who will probably one day be the 'great Ichibana of the Jann'. This proud creature insists on being very silly and refusing to take a patron, though many of us foolish men gather we are so deserving of such beauty!" Ichibana smiled demurely as the men all laughed at the Count's well-delivered flattery. Ichibana didn't like the Marquee one bit but it could certainly put on a nice enough act when it wanted to. "You shall never see eyes quite so beguiling, I can assure you! And to see how it moves… You and your lovely friends are always welcome here of my good grace Ichibana but tonight I simply must insist that you do me this small favor to earn your keep. The mood is stagnating, so what you must do for me is give all the guests here a chance to look at you. You must wander all around – in the VIP area, around the bar, in the back garden, all through the enclosed areas, everywhere! Now go along and get working!"

Now I understood how Ichibana managed to accumulate money from time to time. By obliging these requests, Ichibana bought more business into the bar and as a result, earnings were usually doubled by the end of the night and the djinni was billed a portion for its' contribution. Though I didn't understand until quite some time later, Ichibana's face was well known amongst the demonic mainstreamers because it had once had for its' patron, a very powerful and influential Underdweller. When fellow Underdwellers saw Ichibana about, well, they reacted to it in much the same way we humans would most likely react to meeting the courtesan's of the emperor. And we, plain Shinigami as we were, disassociated from any grandeur whatsoever, took our seats as Ichibana patiently wandered about Síné's as the Marquee had asked, past the bar area, into the romantically candlelit back rows and through the skull wreathed doorway into the garden area, where there gathered handfuls of rarely considerate Paranormals to smoke and engage in other manner of unsocial activity.

Ichibana made little headway because every minute or so, someone would inadvertently mistake the djinni for a performer and wish to have their picture taken with it. Ichibana tried to be a good sport about this but every now and again, I would catch sight of a surreptitious middle finger sneaking up into shot to accompany the ignorantly grinning face of the customer. And then, when it seemed as though it might finally make it back to joining us, a demon who recognized its' face came bustling over and insisted on walking Ichibana outside onto the balcony area to parade in front of his associates – just as he might have done some with some fish he had caught in a net.

Ichibana was often extraordinarily apologetic about this. In all honesty – it knew that it was beautiful and it knew entirely well that its' appearance was subject to curiosity, fascination and the like – but it had known this for four-hundred years and rather seemed intensely weary of this 'bangle treatment'. Finally, after speaking briefly with one of the more influential patrons and her guests, Ichibana came scuttling over as quickly as possible and just about dived over all our laps to get into the corner, where it wouldn't be so easily seen and or pried out of.

"God damn I'm gettin' fed up with this! I came in fucking tracksuit pants and a jumper once and then I still had to walk around and smile at everyone!" The djinni complained, smacking its' face and hands down on the table in exasperation. I couldn't help but roll my eyes, entirely unsympathetic to such an appalling plight as being adored.

"Oh yes, poor Ichibana. I'm beautiful and everyone constantly reminds me of it. They all want to worship me on bended knee and buy me drinks and hit me up for sex at every available opportunity. Wah." I said, expressionlessly. This must have been the right thing to say because instead of being offended, the djinni's mouth hitched up into a smile and it laughed.

"Why not just change your appearance and come looking like someone else?" Tsuzuki suggested fairly, looking about for the waiter who had yet to put in an appearance. Ichibana leaned back on its' elbows and sighed with its' eyes shut.

"I've done that before but who wants to go about their whole life pretendin' to be somethin' they ain't?" It said, which was also a very good point. "I'm not even the most beautiful creature about! Plenty of folks outshine me; I just got this history that makes me interestin' and all… Well anyway, I'm sorry I kept you all waiting. I imagine they're pretty much bored with me now."

"There's certainly enough entertainment on the floor." Hisoka remarked, pointing over towards the bar area. We all sat a moment and watched as Voldur tried to wrestle one of the vampires out of the room. This seemed quite a feat, considering how strong vampires are and how weedy Voldur was in comparison. He eventually flipped over, locked his ankles around the vamps neck and then proceeded to hurl the vampire out the door with his legs. I didn't know whether to laugh or sit there with my hand over my mouth as the doorman scuttled backwards like a crab and then elegantly curled over and back onto his feet, returning to his post to accompanying applause.

"What is he you suppose?" Hisoka asked, applauding just as loudly as anyone.

"You know… I've never asked." Tsuzuki said, eyes wide at the wonder of having not yet made this enquiry. Ichibana recognized this look instantly and shook its' lacquered fingernail in his face.

"Take my word for it; you'll sleep better not knowing."

Tsuzuki swallowed thickly and seemed content to leave it at that. He squirmed in his seat and shot an irritated look at Terazuma, who was sitting beside him. "Do you really have to scrunch up so close to me?" He hissed, curling his lip just to further indicate his displeasure. Terazuma bared his teeth in response.

"Don't think for a second it's because I want to, crybaby. I have to sit like this in case any girls walk past. I can't risk having them rub up against me accidentally."

Tatsumi huffed quietly to himself, eyes going from side to side behind his glasses as he perused the wine list. "That's certainly not something you hear a straight man say very often."

Saya burst out laughing and leant over the table, fluttering her hand urgently at Tsuzuki. "Hey, Tsuzuki! Remember for Terazuma's last birthday when you ordered that stripper for him?"

We all laughed at the memory of this, as it really had been a very funny thing. That laughter only increased when Tsuzuki proceeded to imitate Terazuma. Tsuzuki really is a remarkable mimic, able to stretch his face about to resemble almost anyone with whom he had a long history. And his gestures always matched the individual to a par, which is what made it so convincing and funny I suppose.

"'No! No! Don't touch me!'" Tsuzuki said, in a gruff tone that sounded exactly like Terazuma. The shape-shifting Shinigami clenched his teeth as we all cajoled merrily at his expense. "'Someone get her away for gods sake!'" Tsuzuki slapped the table, unable to continue with his impersonation for laughing. "She thought you were the biggest freak around!" He turned sideways in order to whisper from the side of his mouth, "Not that she was wrong, mind."

"What the hell did you just say?!" Terazuma shrieked, probably having seen the other Shinigami's mouth move. Tsuzuki put on an expression of innocent perplexity that would have sold if it had been directed at just about anyone but Terazuma.

"Oh, what? I didn't say anything…"

Terazuma's brows twitched with barely contained anger. "You dirty son of a-" He stopped there because our waiter chose this delicate moment as a chance to make his appearance.

He was a demon, as were most of the staff working at Síné's and was recognizable as such through a variety of characteristics. Demons usually have very distinct and bright, irregularly colored eyes, with a cat shaped pupil that distended or dilated according to their mood. They had slightly pointed ears and four markedly sharp incisors in their upper row of teeth, as opposed to humans who have but two. Also, because most of their bodies are formed through a mana fusion process, a lot of the time the features can be exaggerated or misinterpreted.

This particular waiter had been assigned to us since our very first visit. He was Caucasian and spoke with a thick and very noticeable Cornish accent; though his Japanese was of course immaculate. He was amenable, polite, well spoken and friendly with us Shinigami. (Well, friendlier than most other demons I had ever met.)

Shinigami and Underdwellers had an unusual kind of relationship; much the same as American's and Canadians, I imagine. Shinigami, like Canadians, got to act moralistically highbrow whilst still enjoying all the benefits of being associated with the powerful supernatural and paranormal world. Underdwellers in turn looked down their noses at Shinigami and resented their demographic association with us. Our waiter had always been good to us and he was certainly the preferred choice when taking the rest of the staff into account. However, his friendly demeanour was due in no small part to our association with Ichibana. There is nothing an Underdweller desires more than a soul; in which the act of devouring enhanced their lifespan and power by a particular degree, depending on the nature and characteristics of the soul. Shinigami souls, I had heard, were prized amongst demons; partly because we were a bane to their antics and they liked being able to get one back at us every now and again but also, because we were more powerful than humans and immortal; which enhanced the flavor so to speak.

Our waiter, I knew, was on a human/Shinigami soul bind; which all demons were obliged to take by the Ministry if they wished to mainstream. He could devour the souls of other demons or lesser animals but he could not and was not permitted to interfere with the souls of human beings. I knew he must have been hungry and I sometimes didn't quite like the way he eyed us off. (That number of Shinigami had to be tempting for sure.) However, he was quite adept at self-restraint and nothing more sinister than a late drink was ever leveled at us. He didn't eat our souls and we left him a generous tip. It was a good arrangement.

He was a little taller than Tsuzuki, slender, with dark black hair, carefully combed back behind his ears. His particular physical abnormality was the exaggerated angles of his jaw and face. (Not taking into account the way he could turn his head and or upper torso around to face the other direction. Sometimes he'd turn his legs around and start walking away with his upper torso still facing us. It was rather startling if you weren't used to it). He had very high cheekbones and a well-defined jaw structure. He was nearly always smiling, his mouth curled into a peculiar bowed arrow shape and he wore glasses with an old fashioned chain that went back behind his neck, to keep them from falling off. By the lines on his face and the slight spreading of his hips, I would assume that his physical age was intended to be mid to late thirties.

Since this was a themed bar in the style of Dracula's castle, all the waiting staff dressed in period black suits that personally reminded me of a mortician. It had old-fashioned tails, a ruffled shirtfront and a carefully folded gray handkerchief in the uppermost pocket. A red rose was threaded through the lapel. The theme of Sîné's was to make every customer feel as though they were honored guests in a Transylvanian mansion and the waiters and waitresses were actually dressed as butlers and maids. Since they were all intended to represent the undead however, all of their faces were painted with a pale foundation to make them appear washed out. Our waiter, with his already naturally pale English skin, didn't need a great deal of assistance with this.

He smiled down at us, sharp yellow eyes glittering from behind his glasses. "Good evening to you again, ladies and gentleman of the Summons Department." His voice was soft and smooth and as inviting as molt. You couldn't help but be charmed by such a creature and you might almost feel yourself relaxing until your eyes drifted to his empty right sleeve, folded up to the shoulder and pinned in place. He always had a special wry smile reserved especially for when someone noticed his missing arm and got a little shock from it.

The waiter bowed, splaying his gloved fingers across his broad chest. "We are most humbled to receive you. My name is Orias Crowley and I will be tending to your every need tonight. Please don't hesitate to ask if there is anything I can get you to make your stay more enjoyable. Would you care to order dri-"

Ichibana reached up and slapped the waiter smartly across the mouth. Everyone gasped in horror, except for Tsuzuki and I, who had been expecting no less. The djinni glared up at the server, who stared back at it in polite surprise.

"Dear guest, have I perchance done something to offend you in so short a time?"

Ichibana's eyes narrowed sharply at the corners and it put its' hands airily against its hips. "Yes, your "dear guest" is very offended, Mr. Crowley. Two weeks without so much as a call? What do you have to say for yerself?"

Orias blinked back expressionlessly, using his handkerchief to dab at the red mark on his face before reaching back to carefully smooth his hair once more. Finally, when he was at least physically reposed, he deigned to answer. "I… wasn't of the impression that I was inclined to philander to you."

"I hardly think that a courtesy call to your lover is asking too much, Orias!"

Orias closed his eyes and proceeded to smile that always strange and indecipherable Noh smile. I describe it as such because the face takes on the same countenance as a Noh mask whose features are frozen. Its' purpose being that customers were able to interpret it however they wished. The staff at Sîné's were trained in much the same manner as hosts or geisha and it was their primary responsibility to ensure the satisfaction and happiness of their clientele, so you can imagine how often they have relied on this practiced expression. "Guest, you are being emotional. If you wish to have a personal discussion with me, then I would of course be glad to accommodate you in a more timely sett –" His head snapped sideways again as Ichibana clouted the other side of his face, bestowing a matching mark. The djinni looked so incensed I could just about see steam coming off of its skin and its' teeth were clenched together like two strings of iridescent pearls.

"Don't you go pulling that character shit with me, I'm not in the mood." It snarled, arms crossed and one long finger jabbing the demon in the chest. Orias gingerly felt his cheek and then turned his face back towards Ichibana. The smile dropped as easily and effortlessly as a piece of paper and I knew then that the façade had been cast aside.

"You slap me again and there'll be trouble, Ichibana." The demon warned, glancing about to see if anyone else had taken notice of their tiff. "I have to work now, I'm simply not entitled to indulge my personal life in the workplace. In fifteen minutes, I have a break. We can discuss it then."

"Discuss…?" The djinni shot back in disgust. "What's to discuss? Just tell me now why you haven't called." Its' arms lowered from their tense hold and tightened around its' slender midsection in an uncharacteristically self-doubting pose. "Are we through?"

Orias was always a sensible; no nonsense sort of individual that didn't care to mince words and now was no exception. "Oh, don't be so damn neurotic." He said, tucking his handkerchief carefully back into his upper pocket and readjusting his glasses. "Not everything concerns you, you realize. One of our prominent staff members was killed a little over two weeks ago, so I'm having to cover all the extra shifts. I went to Watari-san's apartment one or two times and left some letters explaining myself. Surely you received them?"

"Letters?" Ichibana turned on me with a look that could strike twin holes through a boulder. "Don't tell me you threw them out?!"

I held up my hands in innocence. "We didn't get any letters I swear."

Ichibana swung back to fix that menacing stare on poor, ever so patient Orias. "Well, either someone stole them, or you're feeding me bull honky."

"Apartment 306, correct?"

"No… 302."

"Um… 306 is my apartment." Tsuzuki piped up from just behind Ichibana's rear. He winced as though suddenly becoming aware of something. "Wait, those letters weren't in plain envelopes with a little red ribbon on the corner, were they?"

Orias sighed, caressing the bridge of his nose with gloved fingers. "Yes. I must have gotten your apartments mixed up."

Tsuzuki groaned, looking truly contrite in place of Orias. "Oh, I'm sorry Orias-san. I thought they were from the Count, so I threw them out without even looking at them."

The demon dabbed his hand at him. "That's all right. It's my fault." He looked down at Ichibana, features softening considerably. "I do apologize. It wasn't my intention to leave you in the lurch."

It was Ichibana's turn to sigh as it ran its' hands up over the back of its' neck, jerking its head from side to side as though attempting to loosen its hold to the spinal cord. "Well, that's fine I guess… but… couldn't you have sent a message to Watari's phone?"

Orias gave a crooked, embarrassed smile that I couldn't help but respond to, deep down in my belly. "You know I'm not very good when it comes to technology…" He ducked down a little, to force his eyes upon Ichibana's and remained so until the djinni cracked a smile. "That's one of the things you and I have in common."

Ichibana chuckled, seeming finally set to relent in its' bad mood. "So I haven't been pissin' you off then?"

"Darling, you always piss me off. But that's you. If it were something I couldn't live with, then I wouldn't still be standing here." Orias reached over to pull one of Ichibana's hands away from its' neck and drew back its' sleeve in order to kiss the inside of its' wrist. "Come now, you're being very silly and getting yourself all worked up over nothing. You know how I feel about you. I was certain you were secure in that much."

"You're right, of course." Ichibana reached out, setting its other hand on Orias chest, gently clutching the material of his shirt between its' fist. "You're not so cheap as to bugger off without giving an explanation." It sighed, eyes creasing downward as it finally looked up into the demons gently contortioned features. "Honey, I'm sorry I was angry. You really must get so frustrated with me."

Orias smiled and there was nothing indecipherable about it. " It's all right. I'm glad we've worked things out." He hissed slightly through his teeth as he glanced about, drawn back to the reality of where he was. "And speaking of work, I really should be getting back to it or Rook will have my soul. How about a China Shop on me?" A China Shop was Ichibana's favorite cocktail and a sure fire way to put it in a good mood.

"That sounds lovely." The djinni said, running its' fingers over Orias' throat before plonking itself back down into its' seat. "Add a few drops of Aura Demon's blood if you've got it."

"As you wish, madam." Orias said, smirking as he bowed and then swiftly regained character as he turned on the rest of us with maidenly flourish. "Pardon the delay, dear guests. Have you had ample time to survey the wine list?"

Tsuzuki smiled up at him, obviously amused by the previous display. "Yeah, I think we're good to go."

"Excellent." Orias said, pulling a notepad out of his pocket. A pen floated up out of the same pocket and poised on the page, ready to write. Orias had at some stage of his long life, learnt a little telekinesis in order to be able to work with only one arm. One by one we all placed our orders and watched as the pen whipped about on the page, jotting them down. When we were done, the pen recapped itself and slid neatly back into the demons pocket. Orias put the pad away and bowed deeply.

"Thankyou, very much." He said. "I shall return shortly with your drinks. Until then, please just relax and enjoy yourselves."


The demon turned back and stared down at Ichibana, who was tapping its' fingernail against its' bottom lip. Orias seemed to stint on it, glancing about anxiously for any sign of its' superiors.

"It's rather improper in the workplace…"

The djinni snorted. "Oh darling, don't try and hand me that; we're in a Paranormal bar. Besides, I hardly think that Rook is going to mind. Just a quick one."

"It's not Rook so much that concerns me," Orias murmured, loosening his tie a little as though suddenly taking notice of the heat in the room. Nonetheless, a smile graced his features and it was with one last quick glance around, that the demon leant over as though bowing and gently took Ichibana's chin between his thumb and finger. "You do know how bad you are for me, don't you?" He kissed the djinni twice on the mouth gently and then once on the tip of its' nose. "Oh and by the by, have I not told you once before to dress less invitingly when you come in here?" At this, the demon proceeded to hastily shrug out of his jacket and throw it over Ichibana, tucking in all the corners to hide as much of the djinni's body as possible. Ichibana looked amused, rather than offended. "You're going to make everyone's blood boil and that's something none of us need, no matter how esteemed a bouncer Voldur is. I won't be held responsible if a vampire takes a liking to your neck if you insist on sashaying it about like that."

"Oh, don't be so old-fashioned, Orias." Ichibana scolded, rolling down the jacket and letting it lie across its' lap. "I'm not the only one here that's dressed up."

Orias rolled its' eyes as though it thought Ichibana were being purposefully naïve. "No but you are the one who has a history, don't ever forget that. And Vondel is still anxious for another opportunity to make good on his offer and I for one, do not want to give him any encouragement." Vondel was possibly the most well-known and powerful Merger demon in the greater area of Japan and had expressed more than a passing interest in becoming Ichibana's patron for some time. The fact that Orias, a low level, considerably normal in appearance and absent one arm had gained the djinni's much desired attention had resulted in nothing short of a bitter relationship between the pair, which did nothing whatsoever to help Orias' situation. As he had so often said, he was not so powerful an Underdweller that he could afford to have one that was considerably more powerful, angry with him. And his courtship with Ichibana had been taken as a veritable spit in Vondel's eye, at least from his skewed point of view.

Ichibana smiled sympathetically at Orias and must have decided to humor him, because the next moment it was sliding the jacket on over its' shoulders. "Babe, you have nothing to worry about. I have eyes… and slutty outfits, for you only." Once the jacket was on, it reached over to give Orias a playful swat on the backside. "Hurry now slave! The drinks!"

Despite this provocative action, Orias managed to remain composed and bowed deeply, glancing up to offer only the smallest of smiles. "I shall be back in a moment." He straightened up and then headed off in the direction of the bar, Ichibana watching the back of his slacks the entire time. Konoe meanwhile, had engaged me in conversation concerning my impending trip into the Ancient Capital.

"So, are you all packed up and ready for tomorrow, Watari?"

"Yeah, yeah, all set to go." I said, twirling some hair about my finger and noticing that I had missed a rather large kink in the base. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit nervous though."

Terazuma huffed from deep in his throat. "Can't say I blame ya. They were pretty nasty murders." He leaned in, lowering his voice to try and block out the conflicting noise of the club. "You don't think that Muraki might be involved, do you? I mean, he and Mibu are supposed to be friends and all."

"The thought crossed my mind but I don't think that he is." Tsuzuki said from across the table. Tatsumi turned to him with a raised brow, taking a moment to adjust his glasses.

"What makes you so sure?" He asked, seeming genuinely curious.

"I'm not sure. It's just a feeling I have…" Tsuzuki said, talking almost to himself, it seemed. "I don't think Mibu would have called us up to come deal with the murders if Muraki had perpetuated them. He'd just cover them up, wouldn't he?"

"Unless…" Saya drawled, leaning forward conspiratorially. "Unless Muraki and Mibu are working together. And the murders were committed in order to trick some hapless Shinigami; aka: Tsuzuki, into turning up to investigate them and then Muraki kidnaps you and that's all she wrote." She sat back with a satisfied expression on her face and took a sip of water as Tsuzuki spluttered ridiculously in the wake of her so-called 'logic'.

Ever the challenging type, I took this opportunity to poke holes in her argument. "Well… that would be all well and good if Tsuzuki worked the 6th area… but he doesn't." I drew a circle over my own chest and then jabbed my finger through the middle of it to indicate just who in fact was in charge of Area 6. "And Muraki knows that. He already tried that trick once in Tsuzuki's division. All he would get now is the booby prize in yours truly."

Wakaba gasped melodramatically, holding her sleeve up to her mouth. "Or maybe Mibu knows that Muraki committed the murders and he asked the Shinigami to step in to stop him because he can't do it himself."

"There are those possibilities to consider, of course." Konoe said, more seriously then this conversation deserved to be taken.

Saya burst out laughing, waving her hand over the table towards both Tsuzuki and I. "Or maybe Muraki's gotten over Tsuzuki and now he's after you, Watari."

The others all laughed at this but I quite thought it wasn't the least bit funny! Or true, considering how Muraki had been carrying on with Tsuzuki all evening mind. But they weren't to know that, of course.

"That's not funny!" I shrieked, but this only made them laugh harder. "That is so not funny."

Tsuzuki was laughing just as hard as any of them, though his voice had a slightly high hysterical pitch that I recognized as nervousness. "No, no that suits me just fine. You take Muraki, all good here."

"Yes, I'm sure." I said, rolling my eyes and looking over to the dance floor where two of the clubs chief entertainers were performing an animated jive, for as much their own amusement as anyone watching I would imagine. Everyone had just settled down when Terazuma shot all that to hell and got everyone laughing again, though what he said it was borderline cruel, really.

"Tsuzuki, are you sure you really wanna pass over the only person in the entire world that wants to have sex with you? I mean, Watari can find 'em anywhere- " I turned back around to flash him my most offended look but he was still staring at Tsuzuki, "-but you man, you need to take what you can get."

Tsuzuki flushed red but he must have been feeling better because he didn't take that insult lying down like he had that morning. "Like you're one to talk, freak. Besides there's always…" He thought about this for a while and then suddenly burst into uncontrollable giggles. "– the Count!"

That of course set us all off again. Tatsumi sighed, taking his glasses off so that he could rub the corners of his eyes, which looked a little bloodshot and rimmed by those ever-present dark bags, indicative of physical exhaustion. I doubted that a night out was the right medicine for Tatsumi. A decent nights sleep would have gone much further towards improving his mood. And maybe a shag here and there wouldn't go astray either but I wasn't sure how to broach the subject delicately with him.

"Are we sure we really need to bring alcohol into the situation?" He murmured, sliding his glasses back on. Wakaba, who was sitting beside him, nudged his upper arm with her shoulder. Wakaba was always able to strike that perfect level with anyone she spoke to and remained one of the very few people that could talk freely with Tatsumi and not worry about offending him. Not even Tsuzuki got away with this all of the time and he had a definite advantage over most of us.

"Yes, Tatsumi-san! You're going to have a nice time tonight and I think a drink or two will go a long way towards helping you relax." Wakaba said, offering him one of her gentle smiles, obviously hoping to put him in the right frame of mind. Tatsumi sighed even more deeply than he had before but seemed resigned to his fate, because he sank back into his seat with a defeated sort of look on his face.

"I'm counting down until I'm old enough to have a drink." Hisoka said, flashing Tatsumi an expression that suggested he ought not take such luxuries for granted. "God knows it'll help me deal with Tsuzuki after he gets going."

Tsuzuki gaped open mouth from his side of the table. "Hisoka, that's mean!"

"And you have gotten drunk on…" I had to think about this for a minute, "-more than one occasion if I remember right, bon."

Terazuma pointed his finger at me accusingly. "No one trusts your memory, man. Don't worry kid, you're in the clear." He gave Hisoka's shoulder a friendly shake. I leaned across the table, sticking my own finger in his face and it wasn't my index finger either, I might add.

"You. Are asking for it bud-" Whatever Terazuma was asking for was unfortunately left to introspection because it was then that Orias turned up being followed by the chief entertainer of Sîné's; the Jack of Spades. (The group of central entertainers in the club were referred to as the Royal Flush and bore individual card symbols on either their body or uniform). Jack always made me think of a Halloween Pumpkin; not because he particularly looked like one, you understand but because he had deep orange hair and a perpetually wide mouthed grin with sharp teeth, which made him resemble a carving. He was dressed as usual in elaborate pinstriped pants, a blue top hat with a feather and a tight tailored jacket that one couldn't help but associate with the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland. His face was painted up to resemble a jester from Medieval times, with purple tear drops seeming to literally ooze down from the crease of his left eye and gothic dark makeup used in place of usually more festive colors.

Jack was a remarkable entertainer, quite unlike any other. He was slender like the branch of a willow, with elegant, slow-moving fingers, and a very long face he could move about in extraordinary ways. And he was a phenomenal dancer, seeming to bounce effortlessly up off of his feet without seemingly any effort. It was very rare to see him standing still and now was one of those rare instances; he stood beside Orias as he prepared our drinks for us at the table, one long finger pressed to his chin and eyes set resolutely on Wakaba. Nearly anyone would have agreed that Wakaba was a lovely woman, but very few people would have paid her the slightest attention in the presence of someone like Ichibana; so I can't say exactly what had caught Jack's eye. But he certainly seemed to be very taken with her and Wakaba couldn't pretend not to notice the attention and seemed incredibly self conscious, fingers brushing over the light blush that had appeared on her neck.

Fortunately, Orias had noticed her discomfort and took it upon himself to explain.

"Miss, my associates and I were just admiring the beautiful kimono you're wearing." He said, seeming to break Jack out of whatever trance he had lulled himself into. The colorful man came bouncing back into reality and seemed rather surprised to find himself having zoned out for quite some time.

"Indeed." He chirruped, clapping his gloved hands together with genuine pleasure. I myself was surprised and a little disappointed that Wakaba hadn't received this admiration based on her own merits. "I came here from Peru quite expecting to see more women in traditional Japanese attire and yet hardly anyone goes about it in. I must say, it's quite refreshing to see such a beautiful piece."

I hadn't really looked closely at Wakaba until now, but she was wearing an extraordinary pale-pink kimono, which was spotted below the waist with white and purple flowers, set against an image of mountains and a flowing river in the light of the moon. No ones attire, not even Ichibana's revealing outfit could compare with it. Tatsumi seemed to think so as well, (apparently having failed to notice it until someone had drawn attention to it) because he asked her to stand and model it. Wakaba stood very modestly and turned around once.

"I figured that I don't go out very much, so I might as well make use of one of the only expensive outfits I do have," she said, as a means of explanation. "Most of my other clothes aren't very glamorous."

"If you hadn't been so frank with us, Wakaba-san," Ichibana said, "we might have thought this was your usual attire."

Wakaba chuckled sweetly. "Oh, no. I've never worn a kimono this beautiful in my life. I only just paid it off last week. You won't believe what they expected me to pay originally, but a Shinigami will never have the money, so it doesn't make any difference, now does it?"

I could see that Tatsumi was amused – he was old fashioned and understood that a woman in Japan was never usually so upfront as to talk about the cost of a kimono in front of a man. He smiled into his glass of wine as Orias passed it to him – via telekinesis of course – and indicated with his free hand that Wakaba could sit again. He turned to say something to her, but Yuma interrupted.

"Is there going to be a show on tonight, or have we missed it?" She asked Orias, who was mentally stirring Tsuzuki and Ichibana's cocktails in midair. "One of those big shot demonic bands, or something?"

Orias pursed his lip slightly. "I prefer a less provocative title then 'demonic'." He said, with a small smile.

"I'm sure you would." Ichibana said, allowing its' cigarette to be lit by Jack. Saya coughed a little but Ichibana did a very high kick, the toe of its' shoe hitting the wall behind its' head where a 'Smoking Area' sign was posted. "Sorry love. I win out."

I gestured for it to pass one over to me and Orias lit it, giving the end a quick suck before popping it between my lips. I'd gotten used to this provocative behavior some time ago but Hisoka, Saya and Yuma all looked a little surprised by it.

"To answer your question," Orias continued, indicating for Tsuzuki's very colorful drink to float down into his eagerly waiting hands. "The show has finished for the night, so I'm afraid that you shall either have to find entertainment amongst yourselves or you are more than welcome to take to the dance floor."

"Now, now Orias; you mustn't be so ungracious to our guests!" Of course it was the Marquee Alban's in all his glittery glory. He came flouncing over to the table, causing Ichibana to shrink back for fear of being roped into doing something yet again. "It is by no fault of theirs what time they should have arrived! Why, they are just as entitled to enjoy our high entertainment standards as are any of our patrons here this evening."

Orias gave a thin, yet patient smile and politely inclined his head. "I apologize if this sounded rude, monsieur. I would politely remind you however that many of the entertainers have retired for the evening and I hardly feel it would be prudent of me to ask of them to perform again."

Alban's brushed Orias' words aside as if they were no more consequential than smoke. "Oh no, no, no, no, no my dear boy, no! I would hardly suggest such a thing! What I propose is that in their stead, you might do so well as to oblige your guests. You are not without your own gifts, son. Mind you use them if you wish to stay in our patrons good graces!"

Orias' smile had started to look just the slightest bit strained and his eyes had developed some tell tale wrinkles about the corners. "With all due respect, my Lord, I hardly think that these fine patrons of ours would indulge my voice when they no doubt wish only to speak and listen to one another."

"Are you a singer?" Wakaba asked, gently taking her fruity cocktail out of the air as it bobbed beside her head. Orias went to extraordinary pains to appear modest.

"My dear, I wouldn't ever claim to be so grand a thing. I am as you see me and little else more."

Ichibana smiled, reaching out to pet the demon on the side of his arm. "Now, you mustn't be so humble. Orias may not be a performer here but that is only on account of his… little peculiarity." It demonstrated by giving Orias' empty sleeve a light bat with the back of its' hand, causing it to sway momentarily. Rather than look offended, Orias only nodded in a tired, accepting sort of manner. "I'm most fortunate in that, I think. Orias has often lulled me to sleep with a song. He has a lovely voice."

"Indeed he does." The Marquee heartily agreed, giving Orias a jovial slap on the back that almost slammed him face first into our table. "Why not indulge our dear guests tonight with a short piece? Now, there is no need to be embarrassed; talented as you are."

Orias cleared his throat and straightened his ruffle, appearing quite indignant and put out at being offered up this way. Nonetheless, he was obliged to do as his superior requested and so with a dissuasive sniffle and a sigh, the demon glanced about and did his utmost to look as though serenading us would have brought him nothing but unequivocal delight.

"Well then, was there anything in particular that you might wish to hear this evening?" He asked and I was so very tempted to request "Candy Pop in Love", just to see how this might sound coming from the mouth of an ever so composed demon. But I supposed Ichibana would not allow me to live long enough to witness it.

Ichibana looked up from its' drink and smiled supportively at its' obviously embarrassed partner. "Honey, why don't you sing that lovely song from 'The Phantom of the Opera'? You remember… when I was lying on your couch that one night and I was so burnt out and tired I thought nothin' would improve my mood? You sang it so beautiful…"

This brought a true smile to the demon's lips as he gazed fondly down at his exquisite lover. "It is a lovely song, isn't it?" He gazed about at us. "It's in English; I suppose you all should appreciate the sound of the words, even if you don't understand precisely what I am saying."

I could speak and understand English perfectly, so I would be getting the most out of this performance in that sense. However, once Orias started singing, the melancholic, haunting melody in which his sultry voice rose and fell could have evaded no one in its' loveliness; be they fluent in the language or not. Alban's was certainly right in recognizing the demon's talent; and what a pity that it was not on display for the appreciation of the entire club, whom nonetheless had all fallen into near silence at the sound of his voice.

Think of me

Think of me fondly

When we've said goodbye

Remember me

Once in a while

Please promise me you'll try

When you find that once again

You long to take your heart back and be free

If you ever find a moment

Spare a thought for me

We never said our love was evergreen

Or as unchanging as the sea

But if you can still remember

Stop and think of me

Think of all the things we've shared and seen

Don't think about the way things might have been

Think of me,

Think of me waking

Silent and resigned

Imagine me, trying too hard to put you from my mind

Recall those days

Look back on all those times

Think of the things we'll never do

There will never be a day

When I won't think of you

Flowers fade, the fruits of summer fade

They have their seasons, so do we

But please promise me that sometimes

You will think

Of me

There seemed to be something sad and final in the way he sang, not to mention in the way that he looked at Ichibana as the words spilled from his lips. But no sooner had I contemplated this, then Orias' face smoothed back out into its' normally serene and composed expression and he offered a modest nod to the scattered applause he received.

"That was beautiful!" Yuma sighed, one hand pressed to her heart as though it were pounding out of control. "The way you sing… you have a voice that any woman could fall for!"

Ichibana smiled privately and I imagine that it hadn't taken notice of Orias' seeming contriteness during the song, as I had. "I'd like to think so." It reached over to take the demon's hand and distribute a light squeeze into the palm. "Thankyou, darling. That was very kind of ye."

Orias lowered his head and bit his lip with a shy smile. "I'm awful embarrassed." He confessed, using one finger to loosen his collar.

"There's no reason to be embarrassed." Konoe said supportively, which was strange considering that he wasn't, by his own admission, the biggest fan of the Underdwellers. I believe he recognized in Orias an old fashioned gentleman and a mildness that wasn't the stereotypical characteristic of demons. "We're very flattered and honored that you sang for us. And well, with a voice like that! You really should be performing here rather than taking drink orders!"

Orias chanced a look over his shoulder at Alban's, who was now speaking with some of the patrons who had also apparently taken an interest in the impromptu performance. "Being the head steward is far more involved and complex than simply taking drink orders, sir. And there's no one who has better organisational skills than myself, so that's where my attentions are directed. My particular… whimsical talents are reserved for an… elite and exclusive audience alone." He gave a relaxed smile but his eyes were slanted at an angle that left him looking a little sinister, as if he knew some secret that the rest of us were not privy to. "But your words are very thoughtful and I thankyou for them."

"Well then, now that you have indulged the rest of them, how about some private entertainment for one of your more exclusive clients?" Ichibana asked, plucking its' drink out of the air and taking a sip from it, whilst eying Orias over the lip of the glass. Orias stared back, seeming to contemplate this and then glanced around to see if any of his fellow working staff aside from Jack was in immediate earshot.

"During my break. Maybe." He warned, shaking a finger as Ichibana beamed back, fluttering its' eyelashes. "If I don't think it will get me fired…" He muttered out of the corner of his mouth, passing the girls fruity cocktails over and then mine and Konoe and Terazuma's beers.

"Well that's just a risk you'll have to take… if you want to do any firing of your own in the foreseeable future." Ichibana said slyly, stirring its' cocktail with its' finger and then provocatively sucking on it. All the boys in the group (including yours truly) shifted and crossed their legs. Orias' expression didn't change an iota but he went significantly darker and made a very awkward and fussy bow, before passing over Hisoka's tea and then shuffling back towards the bar amidst our laughing guffaws.

"I propose a toast," Saya said, holding up her cocktail glass. We all followed suit. "To us; for getting Tatsumi to come out tonight. And to Watari; best of luck on your investigation tomorrow."

"Kampai." Konoe said and we all raised our glasses and drank. Terazuma lit up his own cigarette, appearing unusually contrite.

"Are you sure you're going to be okay, man?"

I blew out a cloud of smoke and waved my hand to clear it from my line of sight. "Please Terazuma, don't start acting concerned about me. I think we'll all die of a heart attack."

"Give me a good reason not to be concerned! A dupe like you is being sent off with only one of the Gushoshin to chase up what's obviously a certified maniac and in the company of a guy whose arm in arm with that Muraki bastard." Terazuma sighed, pressing the palm of his hand against his forehead. "I just get the feeling we're underestimating the situation you're being sent into."

Wakaba looked touched by his concern. "Oh, Hajime. I wouldn't be worrying too much about Watari." She reached over to give me a little biff in the shoulder. "You know how plucky he is."

"Plucky is the right word for Watari," Tsuzuki said. It was a welcome change to the conversation. "Two years ago, when Hisoka first joined the Ministry of Hades we celebrated by sneaking him into a club. Watari and I got blotto and ending up climbing onstage to dance! He was so brave about it but I was shaking in my shoes!"

Cheers, Tsuzuki.

"You danced?" Asked Yuma, her attention caught by the conversation. "When you were out of your mind drunk?"

"Knowing Tsuzuki, I can't say it comes as a surprise!" Saya said, chuckling merrily to herself. Tsuzuki laughed also.

"Hey, we got quite an enthusiastic response," He told her. "What I didn't realize until later, when Tatsumi bothered to take me aside and explain a few things to me, was that our routine may have been considered by some to be rather… um…"

"Suggestive," I said, deciding to be straightforward about it. "We used to just make up routines sometimes when we had nothing better to do during break and we even threw in some dance moves from a music video we'd seen." I smirked at Tsuzuki. "We thought we were just being rather silly and had no idea at the time why the poor Kid was so embarrassed."

"Or why the Deejay was sweating so hard," Tsuzuki added, looking towards the roof thoughtfully. "Here I am, probably the most inexperienced guy when it comes to figuring those sorts of things out and I was doing all sorts of lewd movements! I even remember the song that was playing… In fact," He smiled in a mischievous manner that somehow still managed to make him seem charming. "Why don't I just go have a little chat with the deejay now?"

I groaned, reaching out to grab his sleeve but missing as he jumped to his feet. "Tsuzuki, no! I haven't had nearly enough to drink for that! Besides, do we really want to be subjecting these kind people to that sort of nonsense?"

"Absolutely!" Yuma cheered supportively, hoisting her cocktail high above her head. "We could use some live entertainment in this joint! Knock us for a loop, fellas!"

I noticed Tatsumi was starting to appear rather flushed and was considerably loosening the knot in his tie. "Now, now… are you sure this is really appropriate behavior for- Oi! Tsuzuki!" For Tsuzuki had already weaved his way between the throngs of bopping, mingling people and was chatting to the dark skinned fellow behind the control panel. I groaned as I saw the deejay nod and smile agreeably, feeling my face flush in preemptive embarrassment.

"Oh dear God," I murmured, skulling down my entire drink in one go and then downing Tsuzuki's as well. "Bon? Run for your life."

"What?" Hisoka asked, looking up from his tea and seeming quite oblivious to everything that was going on about us.

"He's going to make us do it all over again."

All the blood appeared to drain from Hisoka, Terazuma and Tatsumi's faces in unison, which seemed quite funny to me, when you considered that Wakaba, Saya and Yuma were openly applauding the impending debacle. Sure enough, not ten seconds later, Tsuzuki came sashaying back through the crowd and with an impish smile, reached down to clasp my hands between his own.

"Come on Watari! Ichibana told us to let loose! This is the perfect way to forget our troubles!"

"Sure, blame it all on me." Ichibana muttered but I could see it smile into its' cocktail, which I took for a blessing of sorts.

To be honest, I had been contemplating at least two dozen reasons as to why I couldn't possibly get up on stage with the pole and Tsuzuki and bump and grind along to the best (worst) of my ability. It was embarrassing for me, mainly because Tsuzuki was a naturally talented dancer, though his specific area of expertise was ballroom which was somewhat removed from what we would be doing. I, on the other hand, couldn't jive my way out of an epileptic clinic. If I had to dance, I suppose it could only be defined as hip swishing, pelvis thrusting, freeform that required no real talent. When Tsuzuki danced on the other hand, you could imagine the whole world stopping to watch. He possessed a natural grace and control of his body that you couldn't help but appreciate. The only reason why people would stop to watch me would probably be… oh, I don't know, to see whether or not I had been tazered or some such thing.

But then that night was about having fun and trying to put our minds at ease. Tsuzuki wanted to reassert some control, to act bravely now as a means of compensating for having been so frightened by Muraki. And me? Well… there was so much this dance could do for me. I would feel stronger, sexier, more in control and powerful. With that in mind, I accepted Tsuzuki's hands and allowed him to lead me towards the stage, not failing to notice as I did that we had, (for the most part) the entirety of the small clubs attentions. Tsuzuki had his heart set on an exhibition and it had been so long since we had done anything together as friends. Since Hisoka had come along, Tsuzuki and I have spent less and less time together, which of course is natural at the beginning of a fresh partnership. But I guess maybe he too had noticed this empty chasm and was now seeking a means also to remedy it. This dance, comical, ridiculous and sexy was something that we shared alone and as such, something that could hastily reaffirm the bond between us. I think that was very important in a time in which we seemed to be so rapidly drifting away from one another on the tide.

Tsuzuki beamed at me as we climbed onto the stage and that familiar feisty, rhythmic beat began to pound throughout the interior of the club. It was a catchy tune and my body seemed to remember all the movements of its' own accord; every thrust, dip, grind and curve. I admit; I purposefully intended to sexualize the dance as much as possible, simply for the boost of confidence it gave not only to myself but to Tsuzuki as well. It was apparent to me (though not to Tsuzuki, obviously) that a great deal of people in the club were jealous of my being so close to him; handsome and yet innocently sweet as he was.

The dance was perfectly coordinated, set to a synchronization that involved us being in close body contact for the majority of the song, with lots of facial expression that seemed to indicate that the audience might have indeed caught us in the midst of having mind-blowing sex. I could only smile evilly to myself, thinking of the effect this was having on poor Tatsumi; whose feelings for Tsuzuki had been obvious to everyone except the object of affection himself. Sure enough, when I glanced over at a particularly lusty portion of the routine, which involved my shimmying my groin against Tsuzuki's backside, I noticed Tatsumi's face clearly reddening as he took overly deep and hefty intakes of his drink. I wonder; could it have looked any more like a fangirl tease? And I'm not sure how Tsuzuki might have felt about being the central object of such communal lust but I admit to feeling a certain sense of power; understanding the effect we were having on people and liking it. I didn't have a great deal of metaphysical power but by God, that night; I felt for the first time that I may very well have been capable of winning Mibu's attentions. I couldn't imagine that he, even him, would be impervious to such a sight! Ichibana was right; it was a great night to be alive!

I'm saying all the things that I know you'll like
Making good conversation
I gotta handle you just right
You know what I mean
I took you to an intimate restaurant
Then to a suggestive movie
There's nothing left to talk about
Unless it's horizontally

Let's get physical, physical
I wanna get physical
Let's get into physical
Let me hear your body talk, your body talk
Let me hear your body talk

I've been patient, I've been good
Tried to keep my hands on the table
It's gettin' hard this holdin' back
If you know what I mean

I'm sure you'll understand my point of view
We know each other mentally
You gotta know that you're bringin' out
The animal in me

Let's get physical, physical
I wanna get physical
Let's get into physical
Let me hear your body talk, your body talk
Let me hear your body talk

Let's get physical, physical
I wanna get physical
Let's get into physical
Let me hear your body talk, your body talk
Let me hear your body talk

Let's get physical, physical
I wanna get physical
Let's get into physical
Let me hear your body talk, your body talk
Let me hear your body talk

Let's get animal, animal
I wanna get animal
Let's get into animal
Let me hear your body talk
Let me hear your body talk

For the final few bars of the song, Tsuzuki and I stood with our backs to the 'audience' (unwitting hostages, would perhaps be more appropriate) swishing our hips from side to side in unison and flicking our wrists back and forth before then bringing our arms above our heads in a pretense of erotica and sliding our hands down our bodies with our eyes shut, as though discovering ourselves for the very first time. I spun and clasped the sides of Tsuzuki's torso between my hands and splayed my fingers across his chest before spinning him beneath my arms and then crushing our bodies together, his leg arching up as though overcome with unbridled ecstasy as the music strummed to a close. We posed as such in the ensuring silence and then slowly unfurled from one another, panting from the physical exertion of the song. Someone wolf whistled from the crowd and then sure enough that set the rest off, and we left the stage to a fanfare of wildly clapping hands and lust filled bellows of support. Tsuzuki smiled shyly as he was surrounded by the adoring throngs (an equal mix of male and female) and I could only chuckle as I naturally avoided accosting and managed to wend back to my seat. Yuma and Saya were among the loudest of the caterwaulers and Yuma had her fingers in her mouth, whistling enthusiastically as I sat myself down. Wakaba laughed sweetly and clapped her fingertips together to show her appreciation. Terazuma looked positively offended and had nothing more to say than an indignant 'huh' as he submerged himself within what looked like his fourth beer. Hisoka had his face pressed into the table so hard I wondered if his nose was indented into the wood and Tatsumi was trying to look unimpressed but his red features betrayed his true feelings. Konoe was too busy being chatted up by a scantily dressed Chinese waitress to pay any attention to my arrival. I looked back over at Tsuzuki who was being petted and congratulated from all angles and for once, he didn't appear disconcerted by the attention either. Receiving it from people other than Muraki and the Count must have come as a relief to him for once. A number of vampires were staring at him as though he were a steak dinner and not bothering to hide the way that they licked their lips. Tsuzuki looked very shy and vulnerable and edible. Not that I was unaccustomed to seeing people looking at him in this manner.

Saya was delighted. "That was awesome!" She squealed, passing me over a beer she must have bought while we were up on the stage. I thanked her and took a deep gulp, enjoying the feel of the cool liquid on my parched throat. Tsuzuki finally managed to wrangle his way over and he accepted his own beer, partaking with even greater enthusiasm then myself. Tatsumi, I noticed, was glowering at him and didn't seem the least bit impressed. Now, I wasn't at all remiss of Tatsumi's feelings for Tsuzuki but I wouldn't have pegged him for suddenly becoming a possessive asshole.

Hisoka turned his head sideways so that the table wouldn't muffle his voice. "I'm actually surprised the two of your weren't booted out of the club."

Tsuzuki laughed, blushing out of embarrassment. "Oh, I didn't at all have a clue how it might have appeared to everyone else! I was an innocent party to the whole affair!" He added coyly, off to the side. "Well, at least I was that first time."

Under the cover of the others laughter, I put my beer down and leaned over the table towards Tatsumi, who still hadn't said anything and was looking increasingly more sour by the second. "What crawled up your ass and died? Everyone else here is having a good time tonight, why are you so intent on bringing the mood down?"

Tatsumi scowled and glared at me with his blue eyes as cold and sharp as ice. It wasn't difficult to see that he felt jealous but he had no right to be such a pain when he wasn't the least bit prepared to make a move on Tsuzuki himself. I thought he meant to say something, he certainly looked set to hit me with some underhand rebuke but a moment passed and he seemed to deflate and sank back into his seat, swirling the remains of his wine and staring dolefully into his glass.

"I'm sorry… don't mind me." He contemplated his drink for a moment longer and then brought it to his lips and swiftly drained the last of it. He dabbed his mouth on his handkerchief and then climbed to his feet, grabbing his suit jacket and folding it over his arm. "That was a very interesting dance. And thankyou everyone for a lovely evening but I'd best be going."

Wakaba must have recognized that the mood had mellowed because she was on her feet in a flash and was hastily extricating Tatsumi's jacket and replacing her own hand over his forearm. "Oh no you don't! I'm not finished with you just yet mister!" She scolded, waving her finger reprovingly before his face. "We haven't even had a dance yet! What kind of a man just swans out of a function before asking a lady to dance? Honestly! Sometimes I get the impression that you're not half the gentleman you pretend to be! Come on then."

Well, there wasn't anything that anyone could do when Wakaba got her motor running; she was an undeniable force to be reckoned with. Tatsumi could only gabble a few unintelligible monosyllables before he was heartily yanked onto the dance floor, casting furtive, helpless glances over his shoulder in the hopes that one of us were brave enough to go against the dynamic miko. Fortunately, not a one of us were quite that stupid and more so, we were all in utter agreement with her judgment. I gave a supportive thumbs up and caught Tatsumi's jacket as Wakaba tossed it airily over her shoulder, dropping it into the empty space beside me. The space where I could have sworn someone had been sitting before…

I glanced about. "Where's Ichibana gone?"

Terazuma dropped his mug down onto the table with a heavy thud which suggested he was a little over the line of tipsy and looked at me with bleary eyes. "Oh, your hot friend? She got up about…" He waved the mug about affably, threatening to upend the contents all over our heads. "Eh… halfway through your dance and said, 'Fuck this' and then… headed towards the kitchen." He shrugged and bought the beer to his lips again, pausing before taking another vigorous gulp. "Suppose she got sick of waitin' for her boyfriends break time."

I bit my lip and looked towards the kitchen, not catching sight of Ichibana in my immediate eye line. I was a little concerned. Ichibana was under contract and even though I considered us friends, I ordinarily didn't like for it to leave my sight without precedence. Friend or not, it was first and foremost a Paranormal creature under a bond that I had forced upon it and like any one, would have much preferred its' freedom. And not only that; we were in a bar that was chock-a-block full of Underdwellers and creatures of the Other world, each of which posed a veritable threat. Ichibana was a strong fighter; I knew that from personal experience but there were stronger, stranger and considerably more dangerous and sadistic creatures about than a djinni. Ichibana was desired and well known; I wouldn't have put it past a higher-ranking demon to organize to have it snatched away at the first sign of being alone.

One of the male vampires had made his way to Tsuzuki's side and seemed to have talked him into a dance. Tsuzuki looked bashfully towards us for any sign of disapproval and not getting one, allowed himself to be pulled onto the dance floor. It seemed like Ichibana wasn't the only one I was going to have to worry about tonight. Tsuzuki was likely to end up as a juicy midnight snack at this rate. He was dancing very close to the vamp, with his head angled up and his neck just out there and on display. I could see the vampire gazing appreciatively at the artery line angling down towards the Shinigami's throat and his fangs were already sliding down over his lip. If Tatsumi could have seen this he would have been having a coronary but he was busy at that particular moment, trying to keep up with a patient Wakaba who was a much more accomplished dancer than our deceptively awkward secretary.

"You don't seem particularly worried about them, Terazuma." Hisoka observed, looking about for a waiter so that he could get another cup of tea I supposed. The young Chinese waitress continued to chat away to a very receptive Konoe, not at all concerned with her occupational duties.

Terazuma huffed into his beer, causing the foam to bubble up around his chin.

"Why should it bother me?" He grunted, mopping his whiskers with a nearby serviette. "Kannuki's my partner, not my wife. It's not up to me who she dances with."

"It's a shame you can't have a dance with her yourself." Saya said sincerely, taking a sip from her Kamikaze cocktail. I was inclined to agree with her but I'd never say it out loud.

Terazuma grunted as though he'd never heard of anything so ridiculous. "Are you kidding? Dancing's not for me. That's for girls and… sissy boys." He pointed to Tsuzuki, who was making a concerted effort not to notice the vampires' mouth zeroing in on his carotid artery. "Exhibit A."

"Well, I'd hardly call Tatsumi a sissy boy!" Yuma proclaimed, as Tatsumi shuffled gracelessly past in the background, Wakaba smiling through winces of pain as he repeatedly stepped on her toes. "Besides, it's only a real man that doesn't pay attention to those ridiculously old-fashioned stereotypes! So, you just continue on sitting there and being 'butch'. Meanwhile, the rest of us are going to be having fun! Come on Hisoka."

"Wait… wha-?" Hisoka didn't have the time to finish his objection before Yuma and Saya had propelled him off of his backside and steered him towards the dance floor. He looked pleadingly over his shoulder at me but I just waved a hand as if to say 'indulge them'. Besides, it wouldn't kill the kid to let his hair down (metaphorically speaking) and have a bit of fun. Terazuma was certainly having a good time, laughing at his predicament and I would have appreciated it too if I wasn't busy being distracted by Ichibana's absence. I figured I'd go and check on it so that I could enjoy the rest of the night without the thought of what might have otherwise been going on, distracting me.

I looked around the interior of the club and finally located the 'Staff Only' door to the left of the garden entrance. This led to the staff's personal quarters. If Ichibana was hankering to get Orias' into bed as soon as possible, this was most certainly where I would have been likely to find them. Since I had the contract to Ichibana on my body, I could have just called its' name and asked where it was but I understood all too well that being interrupted in the midst of an intimate moment wasn't particularly appreciated. It would have been just as easy, though admittedly perhaps a little more disturbing on my part, to search the djinni out the old fashioned way and satisfy myself that nothing untoward was going on. Well, untoward in the not biblical sense.

It wasn't going to be easy though. Underdwellers were notoriously protective over what personal space they had in the human world and patrons weren't allowed to go wandering about in 'Staff Only' areas anyway. Fortunately, Voldur was busy restraining another very persistent vampire, (4) which provided me with enough distraction to slink out of my seat and over to the private door. I glanced about with my fingers clutching the handle, making sure that no one was watching before pushing the door open and stepping through into the staff quarters.

There was a long wooden floor and rooms on either side, where the staff actually slept on sight. I crept along, invoking my inner ninja in order to prevent myself from making the floor creak. I couldn't hear anything and I was just thinking to myself that Ichibana might have been in the toilet, when I saw that the second door from the end of the hall stood open a bit, just wide enough to reach an arm through. The rooms were usually locked to keep drunks from wandering on in and ruining the staffs' personal belongings. Now as I watched it, I felt certain I heard a rustling sound from within and a hint of softly played music. I hoped it was one of the staff members just innocently going about their business. I wanted to know where Ichibana was but I wanted to find it in flagranta delicto even less. I could just imagine the tongue-lashing I would get on account of that!

But still, just to set my mind at ease, I decided I needed to make sure. Just a peek would set my mind at ease. I hunkered down and crept along the wooden corridor, feeling dizzy from worry, and with my throat as dry as a patch of dusty ground. When I reached the door, I brought my eye to the crack to peer inside. I couldn't see well. It was dark and my eyes were terrible. A charcoal brazier was burning in the far corner but only a faint glow remained; so it must have been lit much earlier that evening. Its' light didn't serve to illuminate a great deal but as I looked about the faint glow illuminated something pale and squirming. I almost shrieked when I saw it, because it looked to my sorry eyesight like a small animal going about its' business, head bobbing about as it chewed on something. I could even hear the moist, smacking sounds of its' mouth. It seemed to be standing up on top of something, I couldn't tell what. Stretching out toward me were two long pale columns glistening in the small amount of light that filtered in from the hallway sconces. I was just about to shut the door; for I was frightened the animal might dart out into the corridor with me, when I heard a soft, feminine moan. Then suddenly from beyond where the 'critter' was chewing, a head raised up and Ichibana was looking right at me as Orias labored his lips over the length of the djinni's long bare neck. I jumped back from the door. The long columns were actually Ichibana's bare legs, shining with sweat. Orias' own body, still mostly clad in his work attire was lying between them, moving rhythmically. The smacking noise was his mouth as he sucked on the djinni's throat and trailed kisses all over its neck and lips. And the critter wasn't a critter at all. It was Orias' left hand protruding from his sleeve. An old fashioned gramophone was piping soft jazz music around the room; I could now see the record slowly spinning on the dial.

Ichibana's teeth showed sharp and white in the darkness and I knew that I was in trouble. I started backing up as quietly as I could but my heel came down on a raised floorboard and it let out a very audible squeak. I physically winced, silently mouthing; "Oh fuck", to myself.

"What is it?" I heard Orias' voice say. "Is someone there?"

"It's nothin'." Ichibana whispered.

"Someone is there."

"No, it's no one at all," The djinni insisted. "I thought I heard someone m'self, but it's no one. Finish what ye started."

There wasn't a doubt in my mind that Ichibana had seen me. But apparently it didn't want its' lover to know. I hurried back to kneel in the hallway; feeling shaken as if I'd just barely thwarted my own death a second time. Mostly, I found myself selfishly awash with envy and desire. It had been much too long since I myself had taken a lover. Seeing Ichibana curled about its' companion in such a passionate manner only served to remind me of this fact. Oh, how I missed that feeling! It didn't help that from where I knelt, I could still clearly hear the gasps and groans of the pair within the small room. Caught up in this cacophony of sound and hunger, I found myself indulging in the fond imaginings of the object of my desires, bound to my own body in such a manner. I remembered that smacking sound I had heard, of Orias' lips squelching wetly against the pale column of Ichibana's neck and instilled this within my own fantasy, visualizing Mibu's mouth upon my flesh, sucking, tasting and licking. Coupled with the groans still emitting from the occupied couple, the scene within my mind was far too erotic in which to freely indulge out in the open and I was forced to abandon it, lest my excitement become embarrassingly clear. I felt empty now, unfulfilled and shallow; I had used Orias and Ichibana's private moment to supplement my own suppressed craving. Their time together was worth far more than that and I had unashamedly taken advantage of it, simply to fulfill myself. I felt dirty, weak and perverted.

The noises had now finally ceased and after they had taken some time to change presumably, Ichibana and Orias finally stepped out into the corridor. Orias looked right at me; face flushed and hair somewhat more ruffled than it had been out within the club. His teeth were stained a little red and I noticed a bite mark on Ichibana's neck, still oozing.

Underdwellers, no matter how kind, all had a slightly sadistic edge when it came to coupling. In fact, a number of what were considered deviant sexual practices among human beings were customary amongst demons and their paramours. Biting was standard for indicating that the 'doe' or submissive partner was the valued property of someone else. There was also an element of masochism; cutting off the oxygen, scratching or otherwise injuring one another was believed to be as much a part of the pleasure as the act of lovemaking itself. As I watched, a drop of blood oozed down over Orias' lip and onto the curve of his chin. He noticed me staring and pulled out a handkerchief in order to dab the blood away and clean off his teeth.

"You were not there when we first came through, Watari-san," He said, granting a slight smile to indicate that he had not missed the obvious. "So it was you peeping at us through the doorway. Did you like what you saw?"

I did not rise to the bait. "Unlike you Underdwellers, Orias-san, that is not the means through which I get my jollies." This seemed like an outright lie, whence of course considering my earlier indulgence but I was hardly about to go into detail with Orias concerning it!

Ichibana gently clasped Orias' remaining arm and pressed is' fingers down into the flesh of his palm. It adored Orias; that much was easy to see. It seemed to not even notice the missing limb. Or, if it did, only cherished Orias all the more for it.

"Don't mind Blondie, 'Ri-chan. Knowin' him, he was just comin' ta check on me. Ya know what these humans are like when they got a contract on ya."

Orias huffed a little. "If it was of such inconsequential concern, then why bother even lying? I don't much like it when you're dishonest with me, Ichibana."

"Ah, there ya go usin' m'full name again." Ichibana said, lowering its chin to appear coquettish. "'Ri-chan… ye've been so grumpy lately. Is there somethin' we should talk about?"

"Not in front of your master. I've got to get back to work."

Orias came striding down the hall and stopped to offer me a polite, if somewhat curt bow, before stepping down into the entranceway. He was now blocking my means of escape and I shot Ichibana an urgent look to suggest that I could leave if it wanted to have it out with its' partner but the djinni simply shook its' head and indicated that I should just move down the hall for the time being. I did so, feeling my face flush a little. I was embarrassed for poor Ichibana, who loved Orias dearly and who wasn't a romantic person but loved this man in spite of that and who was confused as Hell right now. It wasn't fair on it, I thought, turning around so that I could at least afford them some manner of respect. They'd just made love and now to be treated in such a fashion…

Ichibana moved down into the entrance, again showing its' care and admiration of Orias by helping him into his shoes. Ichibana may have been a djinni but it certainly wasn't servitile by nature. To have it kneel simply to perform this task was much like asking the earth's orbit to swing about. And though I was facing away, I could still hear it speaking to Orias, as I have never heard it speak to anyone before, in a pleading, almost whining voice.

"'Ri-chan, please," it said, "I can't for the life of me think what I've done to upset you, so please don't be angry with me." It was so concerned; it had actually reverted to using formal Japanese. "I don't know what's gotten into you! Meet me tomorrow and we'll talk this out…"

"I have no desire to see you tomorrow."

I myself winced at hearing this.

"Well I do desire to see you! You mustn't speak to me so impatiently, Orias! If we are to spend our lives together, you must be prepared for the possibility of seeing me every day."

I almost spun about, open mouthed in shock. I hadn't any idea that Ichibana and Orias' relationship had come so far! Was this crisis coming about now because Orias (who had more than once confessed to not being a committed person in relationships) was freaking out about how intimate he and Ichibana had become? I'd seen this sort of thing happen many times and for Underdwellers, the idea of a full lifetime commitment was twice as terrifying! Though not immortal, demons and djinni can live a Hell of a long time! And that's a long time to be putting up with one person.

Ichibana continued, its' voice lowered to block me out, though I was still privy to more than I cared to hear. "Don't you see? That is the very reason I wish to be your life-partner. I detest having to wait so long until the next moment I see you. Just name the place and I'll be there, even if it's a rat-infested hole in the septic department. I don't care, just so long as I can see you!"

"A rat infested hole? Ichibana… this is all so much. I… need some space. Time to think things through properly before I invest myself in this."

"We can slow down." Ichibana said, its voice regressing back to that whining tone again. "We can put everything on hold and just relax for a while, the way we used to."

"Slowing down isn't what I need, Ichi-chan. What I need is to be on my own for a little while. Can you understand that?"

There was a long cold silence that I didn't much like and I risked turning about to catch the angry, hurt look upon my beautiful djinni's face, as it clenched Orias' shoe so tightly between its hands, I quite thought that it meant to break every bone in the demon's foot.

"I understand." Its' voice was like a hiss of ice. "I understand very well that you, like all other men who have professed to love me, only do so whilst I provide you with physical satisfaction and care nothing for me otherwise!"

"Ichibana, that is quite untrue." Orias insisted, seeming contrarily calm despite the obvious pressure being asserted against his caged foot. "This isn't a dilemma that has to do with my feelings for you. I just don't believe that any of this is at all fair on you. I cannot easily guarantee a long life together." He glanced down, his expression sincerely regretful, his single hand knitting together tightly to form a fist against the ledge on which he sat. "There are things about me that someone like you shouldn't have to live with. It would be a terrible offense…"

"Is that what someone else has made you think? Like that bastard Vondel?" Ichibana asked, trying to make eye contact with Orias. The demon would have none of it however. "Orias, you can't honestly believe any of that garbage matters to me! I don't care that you're not powerful… and as for your arm; you know I've never paid no matter mind to that!"

"No one's said anything to me." Orias murmured, still refusing to look away from the floor. "My darling, you and I have loved. But in real life, we all know that love isn't the answer to all problems that exist between people. Sometimes… regardless of how strong these feelings are, practicality wins out." He finally looked up and met the djinni's eyes. "I can't make you happy. But there are many, many strong and powerful men who can and will."

Ichibana's bottom lip trembled and my own heart panged in my chest as I saw its' face crease into an unfathomable pain, tears causing those brilliant red eyes to shine. "I've never wanted anyone else but you! I chose you! You and no one else! That's how I'll always feel!" It sank its' forehead down against Orias' leg, shoulders shaking in a mixture of hurt and fury. "Why are you doing this to me? You've loved me all this time, regardless of how much of a fool I can be… what has changed since we were in that room together? Is there someone else?"

Orias looked mortified by the very suggestion. "No. No of course not. There won't ever be anyone else. By your wish my life opens, closes and divides." He reached out and placed his hand atop Ichibana's head, tenderly caressing the plum colored tresses. "Please, you must believe that much. Whatever else you think of me, you must know for sure that I am not a fool. Who could I love if not you? Who has ever met you and could not love you? The very idea of it…" Orias slid his fingers down beneath the djinni's chin and lifted its' head, revealing a face drenched in such pain it caused my own heart to ache. "I know you don't understand… I wish you could understand but it's wrong for you to stay with me."

The djinni's tearful features shifted at these words and all at once became an ugly countenance of utter fury. "Why would you assume that I couldn't understand? Do you take me for an ignoramus? Forgive me, my darling but I do not buy that, for a second." Ichibana twisted Orias' foot sharply sideways, causing the demon to flinch in pain. "No, I think you'd rather leave it at that than try and explain yourself. Perhaps you're under too much pressure to bear from other Underdwellers and you haven't the spine to stand up for yourself or for me. No, you'd rather play that pathetic pecking game you demon's have going on and cut the cord so I can be anyone's. This whole thing has just become far too difficult for you, hasn't it? You don't think what we have is worth fighting for. Even worse, you don't love me enough to fight for me. You're just giving me up, like I'm… property! Property!" The djinni's hands squeezed Orias' foot so sharply I expected the ankle to snap clean through at any moment. "I've seen the ending to this story far too many times and I ain't bein' taken for a ride again! So 'Ri-chan, if this is what you want, I'm glad to give it to you. See if anyone else will kiss that stump of your arm the way I do! See if anyone loves you as much as I! See if anyone will fuck you as hard and fast and deeply and passionately while looking into your eyes as I do. The reason I can do all these things and more is because of how much you goddamn mean to me, you horrible man!" Ichibana's eyes were wet with moisture and tears had already started to roll down its' cheeks. "I'm too old for this shit now. I just need a companion. And if I was stupid enough to think that person would be you, well, I guess the jokes on me. Sayonara, Orias."

Ichibana released Orias' foot so that it fell to the floor with a loud thud and in the blink of an eye had bolted out the entrance doorway. I caught sight of Orias' frustrated expression as I charged past him.

"I didn't mean for that to go so badly." He said softly, seeking out my eyes for some reassurance. I looked away.

"I'm not on anyone's side, Orias." I said, truthfully. "It's not my business what goes on between you and Ichibana. But honestly, what did you expect? It loves you. And its' obviously taken a big gamble in letting you know just how much it does. You should respect that. If you're going to break up with it, at least have the courtesy to make it a clean break. Don't just offer it that bullshit excuse."

"That bullshit excuse was the truth. It wasn't an easy decision for me to make believe me but I've done it for her benefit." Orias always referred to Ichibana in a feminine context.

I could only shake my head, unable to fathom his feelings. "If you truly love it… if you mean to spend the rest of your life with it, running away at this juncture is only evidence that you're uncertain about your feelings. Knowing Ichibana, this more than anything is what is upsetting it. Just… think about." I put my hand on his shoulder and gave it a brief squeeze. "Excuse me now, Orias-san."

I followed Ichibana's path back out into the galleria proper but wasn't able to spot it immediately. Considering the amount of makeup it wore and the fact that it had been crying, my first point of call was of course the toilet blocks. Being of no specific sexual gender, I had no way of knowing whether it'd gone into the male or female block, but I took a stab and entered into the male toilets instead. Turns out my insight was right on the mark. Ichibana was standing to one side of the mirrors and Tsuzuki was with it, so I supposed the latter had just concluded his business at the cubicle when Ichibana came storming in. Tsuzuki looked deeply concerned and was peering into Ichibana's face with a handkerchief in his hand.

"Well, it's all smeared. There's nothing more I can do for the time being." He established, dabbing at what was obviously eyeliner and mascara now adorning Ichibana's curved cheeks. "I'm not gonna bother reapplying it for you, until I'm quite sure you have finished crying."

But I wasn't sure when Ichibana would be done crying. It'd been with Orias for years; so long that even Tsuzuki and I were on friendly terms with him. They were like a plum and its' pit; two things always together, made for each other. I couldn't imagine not having Orias around. Neither obviously, could Ichibana.

Ichibana sighed, plucking the handkerchief from Tsuzuki's hand and leaning over the sink in order to dab the corners of its' eyes, where the dark eyeliner had severely blotted. Its' entire body seemed to be trembling.

"What happened?" Tsuzuki mouthed at me but I didn't get a chance to answer because Ichibana got in there first.

"Orias dumped my ass, is what." It said, making another valiant attempt to clean its' face up but the shaking of its' fingers didn't permit for it. Frustrated, it lapsed back into tears again and Tsuzuki and I took over, cleaning it up as best we could. Ichibana looked tearfully to me as I went to work reapplying mascara to its already long and lovely eyelashes. Still, it would have a fit if they weren't done and I wasn't about to add to its' stress. "I'm sorry you had to hear all that crude stuff, Blondie. I was just so mad everythin' in my head came flowin' out m' mouth."

"Don't worry about that! You've done nothing to apologize for!"

Ichibana whimpered softly, pressing its fist to its forehead in an attempt to feign control. Its hand wouldn't stop shaking however. "What am I gonna do without him? I love him so much… what went wrong?" It sniffed with a great shudder that seemed to jolt through its' lungs and resonate throughout its' entire upper torso. "I've always thought of myself as a strong and independent person but the truth is… I'm terrified to be alone."

To be honest, I didn't feel entirely sympathetic. I'd been alone a long time and had been forced to become accustomed to it, or risk becoming bitter. And I wasn't striking like Ichibana, so it wasn't just a simple task for me to find someone. But I forced these feelings down and made myself smile. Ichibana wasn't some cheap person that had a different guy every other day. Orias had been a part of its' life for years. "Ichibana, it's gonna be okay…"

Ichibana's lips twisted unattractively as it spun on me, whipping the handkerchief aside as though it were a much more violent instrument. "Oh, don't say somethin' so trite! I don't want to be alone again… I've always been alone and I've never liked it! Orias is the kindest most gentle soul… I'd never dared hope there could be anyone like him in all creation. You don't just get that kind of thing back!" It moaned desperately.

"I'm sure it's not as bad as you think!" Tsuzuki said, in an attempt to console the irate djinni. "Maybe once Orias has a think about what's happened…"

"Yeah, I mean he said just now that he'll always love you." I amended.

Ichibana turned back to the mirror, dabbing at the tears that were once again rolling down its' cheeks. "If he really loved me, he wouldn't be doin' this. What the hell is he tryin' to prove?" It threw the handkerchief down with a frustrated huff and marched for the door, hand held up under its' eyes as the tears continued to gush out unhindered. "I gotta get outta here. I need some time by myself."

"Ichibana…" I tried to grab it by the arm but it twisted free and pushed out through the door, which swung shut loudly behind it. "Ichibana, you shouldn't just leave it like this- Ichi!"

Tsuzuki sucked his lower lip between his teeth in a classic gesture of concern. "Think it's such a flash idea to let it go off like this?" He asked, having obviously missed my outright attempt to stop Ichibana from doing this very thing. "Mood it's in right now it's likely to go out and suck someone's soul dry."

"Yes, the thought had actually occurred to me, thankyou Tsuzuki." I snapped. Ichibana was no different to the rest of us; when it was feeling bad, it searched for ways to feel better. And a djinni never felt better than when it was slurping up somebody's soul like a Hokkien noodle. Even with our contract, I had no absolute guarantee that it wouldn't find a way to get this done regardless.

I ploughed out through the door and ran head first into Saya who was heading for the ladies.

"Hey Watari," She said, once we had steadied ourselves. "I just saw that friend of yours high tailing it outta here. Is everything okay?"

"Something could be very wrong if I don't catch up." I said, pushing by Saya's confused expression and weaving my way over to the door. Voldur (somehow knowing I was coming) pushed it open for me and I bowed hastily before stepping through, rushing to keep the exterior door from slamming shut. I clearly wasn't far behind.

I emerged out into the back alley, breath huffing heavily, the sound of a nearby train clacking along the tracks. Ichibana was nowhere in sight, though I could hardly find myself surprised by this, for it was a creature that could move as swiftly and silently as a bullet when it felt like it. If I hoped to speak with it, I had no choice but to enforce my authority.

The contract that bound Ichibana and I together was etched into the roof of my mouth, so that whenever I need give it an order, my tongue would come directly into contact with it. This cord, as I often referred to it, would only stretch so far; so that Ichibana couldn't say, run off to Africa. In fact, he wasn't able to leave the city in which I was in at any particular given point in time. It was much like having a leashed dog that I was able to pull back to my side with a strong enough tug.

Concerned that the djinni might have been misbehaving, I chose then to give that cord a mental tug by announcing Ichibana's name out loud, every syllable driving the tip of my tongue up against the edges of the contract, which burned against my flesh. A vehement, "WHAT?!" came thundering into my mind.

"You know the rules, tell me where you're going."

"Goddammit; you're not my nursemaid! Why should I be so inclined to explain why I have stormed off?!"

I tried to be patient but it was most difficult, especially as Ichibana was in fact behaving like an errant teenager. "I know why you stormed off and I can hardly say that I blame you. You have a right to be upset. What you don't have a right to do is go and suck out someone's soul just to appease your mood. And I may not be your nursemaid but I am your Keeper, just in case it was convenient for you to forget."

A huff reverberated about my skull. "So, it's all right for ye human's te get drunk when ye heart gets broken but it ain't a'right for me ta do somethin' ta make myself feel better?!"

"You know perfectly well that those are two different things entirely! Eat a box of chocolates, smoke a carton of fags, snort some snuff if ya like but don't you bother none now with taking any souls, ya hear?"

I could feel Ichibana's sadness and frustration through our connection and I had to fight hard to not let it wash over and consume me also. I needed to stick to my guns about this and I could hardly do that if I were to cross over the threshold into the wrong side of blubbery.

"Please… please just… trust me, okay? I'm not gonna hurt anyone. I just need some time to m'self." Ichibana's voice seemed to tremble between my ears and I actually felt my eyes well up at the corners. We really were too closely connected at times. One of the drawbacks of forging a contract with an Underdweller. I imagined it was something like having a twin. "Please… don't be on m' back at the moment. I need to breathe."

I held up a hand as though the djinni was in fact before me and I was easing it back. A man who was walking by seemed very amused by the conversation I appeared to be having with an imaginary person. "It's okay, I trust you. Just… be careful, okay?"

"I'm not a fool, you know." A silence and then, ever hesitantly; "Danke. I'll… see you before the mornin'."

"Right. Be sure of that." I relinquished the contact and stood for a moment in the warm night air, scratching the back of my head and sighing. I could feel the weariness creeping back up to consume my senses and I just thought it was perhaps time to call it a night.

That's when I saw the boy.


He was standing in the alleyway entrance to my immediate left. I had to shield my eyes as a car drove across the overpass, obscuring my vision momentarily. When the lights had receded into the distance, he was still there, staring around the corner at me, fingers clutched around the cement corner of the building beside him. I couldn't make out his expression very well in the near dark but he appeared anxious to me, one hand pressed to his chin and trembling slightly.

"What the-? It's that kid." Another car passed, blurring my vision. When its' tail lights had receded and the dots stopped flashing before my eyes, all I could see of the boy was his fingers slipping around the corner. "Oh no you don't." I said. "You're not getting away from me again!"

I started pushing my way through the milling Tokyo crowd, following as quickly as I could. I rounded the corner on one foot and saw the boy making his idle way down the alley towards the street beyond. He happened to glance over his shoulder and caught sight of me standing there. His eyes widened, as though he hadn't expected me to follow. He broke into a trot and then, with one last glance over his shoulder, began sprinting for the end of the alley.

"Stop running, you twerp!" I screamed, giving chase without a second thought. I wasn't exactly what you would call a fit man and the boy was long limbered and quick; I doubted I would be able to catch him. But this child was the only lead we had into solving the mystery of the Tachiagari and I was hardly about to let him go. I reached down for that little bit extra and pushed myself on, heels pounding loudly against the cement as I ran. Luck had my side it seemed because the boy was too busy looking over his shoulder to keep track of where his feet were landing. He crashed into the side of a large garbage can and toppled over with a surprised yelp, throwing his hands out to cushion his fall.

"Yes, yes, got you!" I crowed, running up and all but preparing to throw myself on top of the willful tyke to keep him from slipping away again. The boy flipped over onto his back just as I reached his side and jabbed his finger out towards me. His palms were scraped red raw from the fall and the finger itself dripped blood. But this isn't what stopped me dead.

A sharp 'zing' sliced through my brain, almost making me nauseous with the pain that it elicited and my body became completely rigid. My feet skidded to a stop and try as I might, I could not force myself forwards. The boy scrambled backwards, through overturned garbage, his finger still extended and mouth drawn outwards into a miserable drawl.

"I'm sorry," He panted, slapping his cheek to rid it of a tear that has just fallen. "You... you need to see..." He slowly rose to his feet and straightened up, backing slowly away as I struggled to follow. "You must see why you cannot follow."

"What the fuck are you doi-" A dissonance rang through my body and every nerve ending thumped like a pulse beat. I tried to draw breath but my lungs clenched and expelled air that wasn't there. The walls on either side of me trembled in the corners of my vision and the sky above seemed to tremble and change color. The boys' body contorted, changing position in the blink of an eye; at once upright, the next twisted abnormally from the waist. Everything had reversed its' natural order somehow and my thoughts all at once ceased to be, my knees collapsing as a pain beyond physical comprehension splintered through my senses. The boys finger remained still above all else, pointed resolutely at my chest. I had the impression that he was channeling through his finger; injecting something terrible deep into my body.

'Stop it!' I tried to say but the words were sucked back and discharged deep through the base of my lungs, exploding into my lower abdomen with such force I wondered if I had in fact been disemboweled. Through obscure vision, I could see the boys visible blue eyes creased in at the corners with what I took to be sympathy. Then the blue became darkest purple and shone with an unnatural ire.

"I'm so sorry," He whispered and then my body convulsed as though something were invading each and every cell. "I have to. I have to give you a part of it, so you can see. See why you mustn't follow any further!"

The scenery behind him compressed together as if it were being suctioned down a pipeline and for a split second pause, all was silent and still. And then, with a violent rush, something burst and the walls on either side of the boy and even the ground beneath him spewed forth-dark tendrils, which raced forward to meet me. The unseen physical presence slammed into me, past my body and through my spiritual essence, snagging into it with burning hooks that to keep it from traveling further. My stomach clenched and I could hear something… someone screaming in furious anguish. The spiritual hooks stretched and pulled against my soul until I thought it quite intended to rip my essence to pieces. My vision came and dissipated in violent red flashes as I fought to hold this thing back, terrified that if I were to release it, my soul would be damaged past all repair. My stomach cramped and compressed and I became aware at one point of slamming into the alleyway wall and clinging onto the brickwork to bear down upon. The pain stretched up and encompassed my brain, manifesting into a blinding headache. Along with it came unencumbered images of things I did not recognize, desires that were surely not my own and an encompassing rage which, if physical, would have torn at my face with nails and teeth.

I forced it down with everything I had; clenched my teeth and roared out loud, trying to overcome. It struggled, like an errant child on the arm of its mother but eventually seemed to tire and in moments of its' coming, stilled, as if exhausted by the fight.

I panted, physically exhausted by the bizarre struggle and sank slowly sideways along the wall, sinking my forehead into my hands and groaned with a certain relief. I hadn't the vaguest conception under God as to what that boy had done to me but I thought it very similar to the incident at the Tachiagari. It was as though he could somehow enter our minds and spirit and directly injure them. It would explain how he had been able to evoke that horrendous darkness. One thing that didn't hold up however; I had no knowledge of any such spell capable of doing this. I felt strange… as though I were not entirely myself anymore. At a deep, indiscernible level I felt immeasurable coldness; like sharp steel, unable to be warmed by any means. This presence in itself invoked a persistent sickness and I was scared to move of what might happen next.

I summoned up courage from my reserve bank and forced myself to open my eyes and I looked down to the far end of the alley. The boy was gone and his presence wasn't the only thing of which was remiss.

Everything had changed; just like the Tachiagari. The warm air of Tokyo had dissolved into a misty rain. The stars had disappeared from the sky and not three feet above my head, rusted metal grating had appeared. I could hear it creaking, as though something was walking across it, just out of sight. It was so dark that I could barely seen three feet in front of me. I reached out with shaking fingers and felt for the wall. It felt rough and grainy, like stucco and plaster rather than concrete. I reached into my pocket and retrieved my lighter, fumbling it a few times before I was able to get it lit. I panned the light around and my heartbeat accelerated at what I was seeing. It was no longer the alleyway into which I had so recklessly ventured in pursuit of that boy; now it looked like a hospital corridor, though significantly aged and decayed. IV stands were lying across the ground and against the walls. The sounds of the surrounding clubs were gone and the only noise was an industrial grating that seemed to come from somewhere in the distance.

"What the hell-?" I whispered, looking around. "Just like back in the library…" I turned to glance behind me and saw that a tall, rusted chain link fence barred the end of the alley from which I had just come. I wouldn't be able to jump it either because of the grating above my head. "Shit! And me without a weapon or nothin'… this ain't right."

My skin felt cold and I was scared. The boy was nowhere in sight but I could only assume as much, that he was the key out of here. I had to find him.

Using the flame of the lighter to illuminate my path, I made my way down what now appeared to be a hospital corridor. There were doors on either side, all of which slammed shut as I approached. I reached out and grabbed the handle of the nearest one and tried to jerk it open but it was either locked or jammed and refused to yield. It was eerily quiet. No voices, no movement – not even the squeaking shuffle of a medical cart, or the cough of an unseen patient. I angled the lighter towards the ground and saw that it was littered with paper from charts and various notes; all wet and stained dark brown from either old blood or dirtied feet that had passed through. I bent down and picked up one of the soggy articles by the corner, turning it this way and that to examine it. Most of the writing had been obscured but the letterhead was still legible. It read Hitoshima Memorial, which was a hospital in the Osaka region.

When I had been eight, I had stayed in the hospital following a traumatic event. I'd received extensive counseling through their affiliated services and been treated for a number of symptoms, most noticeably PTSD. (5) At age thirteen, I'd also been admitted for a minor accident when a nail went through my hand. But these two incidences paled considerably in light of the three most colossal events that occurred during my later years. They say that all roads lead to the hospital. More often than not, it's where life begins. But it's also where a lot of lives end.

I had seen one life begin in Hitoshima Memorial. And I had seen two end. Mine was one of them.

I picked up another sheet of paper from the ground and found this to be marginally more legible. I held the lighter closer to the page in order to read the typed note.

Victim Information

Insofar – Background – Unknown

Name/age – Unknown

Not admitted patient. Recovered from the Main building of 'Ambrosia Enterprise' following fire. Third-degree burns to approx. 70 per cent of the body. Emergency surgery undertaken at 4:50 am to save victim but chance at recovery remains minimal, given the extent and severity of the injury. Following surgery, patient was temporarily installed in room W23 at Chief's discretion. Despite best efforts of hospital staff, patient died later tonight from severe blood loss and trauma. Sent to 3rd floor treatment room for further investigation. Additional examination uncovered that patient had sustained critical injuries prior to being burned. Victim's skull was cracked along the temporal lobe by suspected blunt force trauma, inside elbows had been subjected to severe mutilation and left leg received a number of fractures. Police officials suspect fire deliberately lit and victims' injuries lend evidence to support speculation of foul play. Have not notified police as of yet. However, for future necessity, leave victim's effects in storage facility.

I picked up another piece of paper but it said exactly the same thing. So did the next one and the one after that. They all bore the same typeface, the exact same message… I screwed them up one at a time and tossed them at the wall beside me, trying not to let this bizarre and crazy coincidence get the better of me. I reminded myself of the Tachiagari, the postulation I'd had at the time that the spell, whatever it was, had the ability to take the victims memories and make them into a confronting and terrifying reality. I had nothing more to fear in this strange place, than I had to fear of my own mind. But the mind is, at the best of times, a curious and uncharted landscape that you would never in all your years be able to travel to the ends of. And in all honesty; I was terrified of my own thoughts. Of my memories. I'd had some bad ones. Things that I'd much rather have been left behind and forgotten for good.

I took a few deep breaths and told myself to pull it together. This was happening, whether I liked it or not. I was going to have to confront these imagined horrors head on, or risk losing my mind entirely or even being trapped here until god knows when. Neither was acceptable to me. I flicked the lighter to renew the flame and with a determined huff, rose to my feet and continued down the 'corridor', ignoring the doors as they slammed shut before me, as though tugged out of reach by mocking hands. My path was straight ahead and I wouldn't let myself be distracted by these feeble disruptions.

One door didn't slam shut and despite what I had just told myself, I couldn't help but glance inside. A gurney came rolling out, as if it were being slowly pushed by someone and came to a halt right in front of me, barring my path. The door then slammed shut, as if to say it had nothing more to offer and left me with the strange gift it had bestowed.

As I moved closer I could see that someone was lying on the gurney, covered by a thin sheet. I could discern the outline of the face, from which blood appeared to be blooming, causing the sheet to stick in a number of places. I was afraid to pull the sheet away, afraid of what I might find underneath. But I couldn't just walk away without first checking to see if this person was still alive. I swallowed heavily and pulled the sheet up just enough to slip my hand under. A fetid smell wafted out, almost causing me to gag but I persisted, fingers coming into contact with the cold clammy skin of the bodies' neck. I found where the pulse point would otherwise be and steadied my own breathing, concentrating on finding some source of life. There was no movement beneath the skin and the chest didn't rise or fall, so whoever this individual was, they were no longer of the world of the living. I sighed to myself, wondering, against all the irrationality of this place, why someone would have just left a body out in the open like this. I started to withdraw my hand, when something happened that caused my heart to almost give out. Something grasped my wrist and looking down, I saw the corpses decayed fingers clasped about my arm as tightly as a vice. I shrieked, smacking at the hand and pulling backwards. The grip loosened and I stumbled over onto my butt, scuttling away as the arm flopped down off of the gurney, swaying gently back and forth. I saw the chest rise beneath the sheet and then, with my mind screaming at the top of its' lungs for it not to be so, the arm, burned black and withered, reached slowly up and peeled the sopping sheet away from the corpses face. I fumbled to keep my grip on the lighter, scooting back and making a strangled whimpering noise against my unconscious consent as the body sat up and turned its' face slowly towards me.

I felt a scream choke and die in my parched throat. The corpses face had been burned beyond all recognition, a few sparse strands of prickly hair the only thing that remained on its' dome shaped skull. But the eyes were truly awful, for buried deep into each socket were two syringes, driven in so hard and deep that the depressed head of the levers were the only visible part. Blood continued to spurt in thin trails from the tear ducts as the corpse reached up and placed its finger, burned down to the bone, against its' starkly white teeth. For there were no lips anymore.

"Don't follow," It whispered, in a voice that sounded familiar, yet I couldn't match to anyone I knew. "Go back." (6)

The flame of my lighter suddenly snuffed out and my heart almost died along with it. I exclaimed in horror, sounding ashamedly girlish even to my own ears as I struggled to relight it. My fingers were shaking so hard it took at least five attempts to achieve the ignition and all the while I was waiting in the dark for the corpses burned fingers to find me. The little orange flame eventually sprung back into the picture and I immediately thrust it forward towards where the gurney had sat, only to find that it was no longer there. I wondered if I'd somehow managed to get turned about in the darkness and checked behind me, just to make sure it wasn't somehow to my back. A quick inspection of my surroundings confirmed that the specter was not in the immediate vicinity.

I took another deep breath and tried to steady my once more heavily rattled nerves. In this warped interpretation of my memories, I was unable to conjure the positive aspects such as the adornment of flowers, cards, 'Congratulations' balloons, the kindness of the nursing staff, the little cups of jell-o, the warmth of family and friends surrounding me. No. None of that was permitted here. This 'darkness', whatever it was, forbade the victim from taking any sort of respite; I could rebuild nothing of my memories unless it was soaked in pain and horror. That seemed to be the way that things worked here.

"You want to try and ward me off through pain and horror?" I found myself saying aloud as I climbed back to my feet and gave my bottom a dissuasive brushing off. "That's a Shinigami's staple diet, don't you know? I'll devour it and spit it right back out in your face."

Having thumbed my nose at the imagined 'Whomever', I continued down to the end of the alley. There was a hospital drip stand with a note attached to it. The note was very obvious to me, so I pulled it away and examined it.

The note read:

"The Patient in room M324 is due to undergo extensive surgery at 2:35 pm. Amputation will be carried out to remove both patients legs."

And then, on the other side, a short piece had been penned by another hand. This held a significantly more personal air.

"It would be better for me to die, then to remain inerto as such. After all, my family has always applauded itself for having recognized that death is not that which is something to be feared…

The child… it is a bearer, such as I was. When I think of the endless pain he will suffer for this cause so long battled… I've decided that, instead of becoming a burden and forcing my cherished ones to endure cruelty in halting their own lives for me that I shall act in bestowing a simple passing upon myself. I'm not a fool that will resist doing what is practical.

I sometimes have this sense even now that, that still waters run deep in this boy. He is born anew of a life lived before. I don't worry much the path he will choose for himself. I only hope that I can be forgiven for my venturing so far away, when he is still so young.

I hope he will find himself loved, no matter who he may be. He is my most beloved treasure. But this name is a mistake. Will it one day ring synonymous with evil doings and false memories built on pain and bloodshed? I have this most terrible feeling it will be so… my dearest child will suffer ever terribly…

When he knows the truth of what he must do by this name, will he resent my passing even more?

This is why I hesitate."

"Room 324…? Legs amputated…?" I raised my head, looking away from the note. "But that's… that was her room number … Both legs." I dropped the note, leaving it to flutter down into a puddle of water just near my foot. "Whatever this darkness is… it digs deeper than I thought possible. I've got to be careful."

I rounded a T-junction and finally emerged from the end of the alleyway, leaving the starch and cold atmosphere of the hospital corridor behind me. The area beyond resembled the Tokyo street that existed there in real life, only much darker of course and seemingly abandoned, apart from the hulking husks of a number of cars. It wasn't quite so dark out here and the grating had tapered out at the end of the corridor, so I was able to turn off the lighter and give my thumb a break for a while. I saw something move from the corner of my eye and looked across the street. The door to an old clothing shop banged shut and I caught a fleeting glimpse of something or someone ducking inside.

"If I were watching this on TV right now, I'd be screaming at myself, 'Go back, you fucking idiot!'" I said to myself, conveying a hapless shrug to the 'would-be' audience. "Doesn't seem quite so linear now that I'm actually living it. I mean; where else am I supposed to go?" I sighed and made my way across the street, towards no doubt 'certain DOOM' and pushed open the still mostly ajar door. The inside of the shop was dark. Not that this should have surprised me, being that it was the running theme and all but I just didn't want you guys to get the wrong impression and think that I had suddenly wandered into a brightly lit fairy castle or something. I glanced around and then flicked the light switch to see if it would turn on. Of course, it did no such thing.

"Naturally, the electricity isn't working. God forbid if this were just a little less creepy for me." I heard a click and turned around to see something incredibly strange happening to the door. My tone conveys an understatement of sorts, because to say that what was happening was 'incredibly strange' simply does not do the occurrence justice, so I'll try and explain it in a little more detail. A number of rusted steel bars were sliding into place horizontally across the door, sinking down within the wood itself and firmly blocking it off. I tried to rip the rods away using my preternatural strength but to no avail. "Shit! This stuff's even stronger than I am." I looked behind me and into the interior of the shop, noticing how the walls appeared as corroded as the 'corridor' had been and there were blood spatters here and there about the place, even on some of the racks of clothes. Three mannequins in equally degenerated clothing stood to attention on the window display rack. Their bodies were angled out towards the street but their blank faces were all swiveled in my direction; featureless and yet I somehow had this sense that they were aware of me. Was it just a coincidence that they were angled like that? I tried to remember if their faces had been like this the whole time but I really hadn't taken much notice when I'd entered the store, being far more concerned with catching up to the boy.

The bleak inevitable suddenly dawned on me. "I am so fucking screwed. Damn me and my ethics!" I looked up towards the roof; hands perched jauntily against my hips. "Still… seeing as how I obviously can't leave; I guess I might as well take a look around and see if I can't rustle up some answers to just what the Hell is going on around here."

I took a moment to get my bearings and then wandered over behind the store counter and started digging around in the cabinets beneath. I found some mildewed invoices, a couple of old lay by dockets (all dated to within the last week, though appearing significantly older) and other various knickknacks. Eventually, I managed to unearth a purple snakeskin purse from what might have been an employee and inside was a small torch, with a note attached to it:

"Until you get the lights in your dash repaired, use this for when you're driving at night. The last thing you need is another speeding ticket! – Love Dad."

I took the torch and switched it on. The beam was surprisingly strong.

"So, the electricity doesn't work but the batteries in this torch seem just fine. How convenient for me." I shone the torch around, taking the in the room in its' entirety. "Might be the only break I get in the immediate future."

With the small torch illuminating my path, I made my cautious way across the room, taking note of the clothing racks. They seemed like a good place for a slender boy to hide himself and so I decided to commence my search there. The clothes were torn, dusty and stiff beneath my fingers when I reached out to touch them. In the faint light I could detect dark stains adorning the material in slapdash patterns, as if someone had liberally doused the garments in a hearty soaking of blood. I understood that this environment was perhaps entirely intended to frighten intruders such as myself but these measures seemed perhaps a little over the top and childishly stereotypical. It certainly had an unsettling effect on me but as a Shinigami, I had just that margin more experience with the macabre than your run of the mill mortal.

I crouched down on my haunches, feeling the muscles in my thighs strain from the unfamiliar pressure as I panned the light beneath the clothing stands to my right and then left. No boy sat crouched beneath the bloodied garments, no eyes blinked out at me from the gloom. I shuffled forward a little further and stepped into the next isle, tilting my head sidelong to examine beneath the stand. The silence was pervasive and so the sound that broke through it appeared unnaturally loud against my ears. It came from behind me; a light, scraping noise as if someone were running a plank of wood across the floor. I spun about, panning the light on the mildewed, grime-riddled window. I could see nothing beyond it and nothing caught my attention besides. And yet, something seemed different, though I couldn't quite put my finger on it. The space appeared empty and yet I was certain there had been something occupying the display stand… Something to attract the attention of passerby's on the street, in order to invite them inside…

And it hit me, so obvious in its' simplicity I could have slapped my own face for having initially missed it. The three mannequins that seemed to stand sentry before the window were no longer there. I remembered the sense I'd had when the shop had dissolved into the nightmare realm around me; that another presence had blinked to life in that moment and eyes had fallen upon me. I ducked down to check beneath the clothing racks once more, just to ensure that nothing had taken residence there in the moment my back was turned. Assured that this was not where the mannequins had gone to, I slowly, timidly made by way towards the display stand, shamed when forced to clutch the small flashlight in both hands to keep the beam steady. My heart sped up, pounding a sporadic rhythm against the wall of my chest until the entire room seemed to reverberate around me. I had almost cleared the line of the clothing racks, when the garments to my right parted like flesh dividing beneath the skilled stroke of a knife and something came hurtling from this raw wound with a deep, rattling shriek. I jumped back, uttering my own cry of fear as the thing fell short of its' intended mark, landing at my feet with a wet, bodily slap like raw meat falling upon the floor. I toppled onto my rear, shakily aiming the beam down to see just what had accosted me. It was one of the three missing mannequins, arms outstretched as though reaching for where I had only moments ago been standing. It didn't move and after a minute had passed, I felt confident that it wasn't likely to move again. I gathered my nerves and climbed back to my feet, leaning down to examine the clothes dummy.

The outside surface was composed of material, rather than the usual plastic or ceramics. The masculine attire it had been outfitted in was torn and bloodied. I noticed a tear on the cheek of the mannequin, beneath which was something dark, seeming fetid and from which arose a sickly sweet stench. I used my fingers to spread the material wider and aimed the torchlight down. What I saw made me stumble backwards once more, clasping a hand over my mouth to keep myself from gagging.

The intricately woven fabric had been sewn directly into a human body; a body that had progressed through several stages of decomposition. I could see that the stitching had been looped down beneath the first few layers of flesh, drawing the cloth tightly against it, leading to discoloration of the material.

"Dear god…" I breathed, curiosity overcoming my fear. I crawled back over to the stilled doll and worked my hand delicately down along the body, assuring myself that it was not just the head that was encased as such. I could feel the firmness of the decayed flesh and muscle beneath the tarnished cloth; it squished wetly beneath my probing fingers. "It's a mannequin all right, but the cloth on the outside is covering up a real body on the inside!" I pulled my hand away, examining the red sheen of the long since clotted blood that now adorned my fingertips in gooey globules. "The progression of the decay is too great… it would be just about impossible to ID the victim. If indeed it is a real victim in this place." I stood up and then ducked around the rack, shining the torch down the isle alongside but no one was there. "Well then, who the hell shoved it through?" I moved back into the isle and almost wrenched my ankles for grinding to a halt so fast. The reason as such was the isle that stretched long and empty before me; with no sign of the mannequin that had only been at my back for less than a matter of seconds. I could see the stain on the floor as evidence to where it had fallen but no other marks to suggest the path it had now taken. "Oh no… oh, you've gotta be fucking shitting me!" I panned the torch around but could see nothing. Nor was there any sound but the far distant industrial grinding. "Fuck me… now I'm gonna be looking over my shoulder every two minutes…"

I scanned the room for a moment, trying to find another route, which might have taken me to an exit. I noticed a door blending in with the shadows behind the shop counter, which I had obviously missed when I had been searching through the drawers. I hastened towards it, keeping one eye out for any possible movement and then wrenched it open, looking behind me all the while until I had stepped through and shut the door tightly.

It was a very strange little room into which I had entered; like a hospital stay room. There was a bed in the very center, partitioned off by white, over-starched curtains. I could hear what sounded like a heart monitor beeping steadily but as I approached, it abruptly flat lined. I held the torch steady and placed my hand on the curtain, moving to one side in case something meant to leap out at me once more. I roughly tugged the halves of the curtain apart and peered around to see who was in the bed.

A female mannequin, clothed in a ragged hospital gown, was perched upright against several plump pillows, with wires threaded down through the material and obviously feeding into the body beneath. I couldn't actually tell from where I was standing whether there was in fact a real body hidden under the cloth.

"Another mannequin…" I murmured, displaying that remarkable knack for observation, which had made me the certified brains of the Summons Department. I quickly checked under the bed and was satisfied that nothing lurked in wait for me down there. I moved to the bedside and lifted the blanket away, revealing that the mannequin was composed of only an upper torso. "It's one of those mannequins they use on the top shelves in stores to display shirts. It doesn't have any legs." (7) I dropped the blanket back down into place, confused. Why had the heart rate machine been beeping before? This thing was never alive. Unless of course the supposed body beneath… but that was impossible if there was only half a body in the first place.

Putting these questions on hold for the time being, I moved around the bed and pushed apart the curtains on the far side, revealing yet another door. As I twisted the knob and pushed against the wooden panel in order to open it, I heard the heart monitor spring into action once more, giving out a steady beep. My eyes trailed back but I decided against checking, reasoning that it was most likely a game intended to stir me up. My purpose was to find that boy and then remove myself from this place as soon as possible; in that order. Dallying about, regardless of the bizarre nature of the circumstances, was hardly going to benefit me in anyway.

The adjacent room turned out to be a kitchenette. The very first thing that I did, before even looking about, was to wrench open the cutlery drawer and shine the light inside, searching for something I could have used as a weapon. I wasn't altogether surprised to find that the drawer itself was empty, as were the two below it but I still felt disappointment slide down into my chest like a cold hard slab. I checked the bench tops, working my way towards the sink. The torchlight picked up what appeared to be steam in the air and I could feel the temperature dramatically shift. From the corner of my eye I could make out a vague shape and I swiveled the torch around to find the body of a child, leaning over the sink, its' face submerged in water. My heart raced and I immediately reached for the victims' neck, pressing my finger against where the pressure point would be. I felt cloth beneath my flesh and the relief that washed through me was almost crippling.

"Thank god… it's only another doll." I took a moment to give it a more thorough once-over. It was one of those fake crying dolls that were once popular a few years back. Life sized children's dolls that look as though they are crying into their arms. Its' face was completely submerged beneath the water. I lowered my hand and gingerly tested the surface, only to feel scalding heat against my palm. "Ouch! It's boiling hot. I can even see the steam coming off of it. But… who would leave something like this here?"

In my mind came that memory from so many years ago; of another child, whose own face had been held above a sink very much like this. Even now, I could still feel the pores of my flesh expiring into sweat. Could still feel my veins flushed with fear… the sudden sharp pain, so foreign to me… that possessive, invasive presence… The dolls presence here and now suddenly made a strange, sick sort of sense. Sure enough when I panned the light down, I found that the child's pants had been tugged down around its' ankles, exposing a featureless backside which had nonetheless been painted a grimacing red.

"Oh yes, now I see." I murmured, looking upon the morbid display with repugnance. "Very clever. Sorry to rain on your parade." I grasped the doll by the back of the head and yanked it out of the steaming water. As I turned it over, I saw to my horror, that it was my own childhood face staring back at me; the eyes curdled to a pulp within the sockets, the flesh smoking. I shrieked and staggered back, dropping the doll and scrambling for the torch, which I had also dropped. By the time I was able to focus it back on the dolls face, it was completely blank, as it should very well have been. "Oh god…" There was a sharp pain in my chest and I set my hand against it, trying to still my heart. Of the scares that had been intended for me that night, this was the one that had struck the deepest and found its' mark in my soul. "Fuck… it's like voodoo… the mind chooses to believe what it thinks is real." I steadied my breath, trying to keep the desperate panting exhalations from tearing out of me like strokes from a blade. It was difficult… so difficult… because now I was truly frightened. "God, I can't let something that cheap do me in." I told myself, using my hands to push myself back up and away from the doll. I stepped around it, not looking down once as I opened the door leading to the next room and entered, closing off the memory of so many years past.

I made my way into the next room, which appropriately enough was a lounge area. The television was on and screaming static. A mannequin attired in punk male garb was lying prone on a couch, legs and arms spread akimbo. I reached over the back of the furniture and ran my finger along the side of the dolls face, feeling a smooth wooden surface; thick with ash and warm to the touch.

"The mannequin is wooden and has been completely burned." There was something protruding from the dolls limbs and I pulled the forearm down to expose the inside elbows. There were a number of syringes stuck into the crease just there, all the plungers depressed to suggest that the mannequin had administered a large amount of some sort of drug. I supposed it was indicative of heroin, if the current theme was running to my own personal nightmares. I chortled, dropping the arm back onto the couch. "Very cute. Drug overdose, huh? These mannequins seem to party hard."

There were no other doors in the room but there was a staircase on the far side that led upwards, into what I supposed was a second story area. There was a stillness to the air that I didn't much like and a spooky ambience seemed to steal across everything. The torch beam faltered, the triple A batteries almost worn down completely. I gave the small column of the torch a hard rap with my hand and the beam steadied, though the light was much dimmer than before. I could always use my lighter if worse came to worse but I was terrified of being left alone in the dark. I gazed up at the walls and they were black and slick, dripping with blood so dark it could only have come from the deepest artery of the human heart. It was pooling onto the floor in a great number of places and despite my better judgment, I found myself kneeling to dip my fingers beneath the surface. A perfect red circle formed on the edge of each fingertip as I turned my hand over in order to inspect it. The blood felt wet and disturbingly warm, as though it had just fallen from a true wound. This on its' own was disturbing but what happened next was truly frightening. Ripples fanned out from the center of the pool, as though something unseen had dropped beneath the surface. There was a wet slap and a bloodied footprint appeared beside the puddle, showing the tread of a left sneaker. The echoing sound of sniffling filled the room and the bloodied footprints fell faster and louder, heading towards the stairs. I stepped around the puddle and followed along behind the footsteps, shining the light up the stairs. The footprints progressed up into the darkness, the soft sobbing accompanying it. The shape and size of the tread looked as though it might have been that of a teenage boy; it certainly sounded as though it might have been.

I ascended each step slowly, guided by the progression of the blood stained footprints. At the very apex of the stairs I found a door set between the upper most eaves, such as in the style of an attic. The footprints seemed to have gone by without having even opened it; one footprint was cut in half by the door itself. I listened carefully for any sound that might have come from the other side but all was silence. Heart pounding at the base of my throat, I nonetheless pushed myself on towards the final absolution and slowly eased the door open, stepping into yet another bizarre room.

The opposite wall was composed of a floor to ceiling mirror. The only furniture to be found was a small sink to my immediate right, the porcelain stained black in a number of places. The footsteps continued on towards the very base of the mirror and when I looked closer, I found to my utter bewilderment, that the reflected footprints all faced away, as if the unseen figure had simply stepped through the mirror and continued on their sordid path. In fact, the footsteps themselves headed back towards the door and through the feet of my own reflection, as if to suggest that whoever had made the prints had left the room in the reflection. I admit; I was completely, undeniably, irretrievably baffled and I found myself stepping closer, common sense brushed aside as though it were of little concern at this invaluable moment.

The second I moved into the room proper, it seemed only right that the current theme of trapping my ass in undesirable locations continue. I was simply making this far too easy for the forces at play. I had just enough time to think that I would do well to prop open the door in some manner, when of course the door itself swung slowly shut behind me and eased back into the frame with a resolving 'click'. I turned around to stare at it, thinking my luck couldn't possibly have been that bad but knowing that it very well could have been.

"Shit, not again." I grabbed the door handle and tried to wrench it open but to no avail. I shoved my shoulder against it, but that still didn't help. I was just preparing to back up and take a shot at kicking the damn thing down when I felt something swat the side of my face, hard enough to leave a solid bruise against my jaw. I backed up, bringing the dim torchlight toward the ceiling and illuminating what had been until that moment, veiled in merciful shadow. A strangled sound came out of my throat but it wasn't a scream; I had nothing left in me to give. The horror of what I was being confronted with was too much.

A pair of women's legs was hanging above the doorway, kicking about as though still attached to a body that wasn't there. So far as I could tell, nothing visible was holding them there. At the point where the legs had been divided from the torso, the serration was clean and neatly rounded off; as though removed by a skilled surgeon. I backed away from this horrifying sight; reversing bodily into the sink as I focused the torchlight on the twitching, spasmodic legs.

"Oh fuck…" I whimpered, my head moving from side to side as though physically denying the existence of the twitching limbs would banish them from before my eyes. "No. No, no, no… no… I'm dreaming. This has gotta be a nightmare." My breaths tore heavily from my chest, scraping against a throat that was suddenly too raw. "It's all in your head… this spell, it's taking images out of your head and using them against you… don't give them power. Don't believe that they're real…" I shut my eyes as I said this, trying to will the legs to disappear but I was distracted by what I can only describe as a slurping sound. I looked behind me to see that the plughole in the porcelain sink was clogged with a viscous black liquid, which curdled and bubbled as it was sucked down the pipe. My eyes trailed reluctantly towards the mirror and in the reflection I saw that the tar like substance was creeping out of the sink and beginning to cover the mirror version of the room. (7) And not just the room. It moved in sharp, vine like trails across the floor until it reached the feet of my own reflection.

I tried to step sideways, to move away from it, but the shadow like fingers snatched for my ankle as fast as snakebite. I could feel their numbing cold press against the wall of my trousers, existing only in the mirror but not when I glanced down at my real legs. I pulled against it and the tar like fingers stretched to near breaking point but would not give. It seared against my flesh, creeping up to cover my body, until my reflected image appeared completely burned. I was unable to move and was not spared the physical pain. The legs thumped bodily against the wall behind me and I could smell the burning of my own skin and hair, as my flesh turned to melted charcoal in the mirror.

"My legs… I can't… I can't move them!" An uncontrolled scream seared my throat as the burning pain crushed my body. This sensation felt all too familiar to me and yet… these were the kinds of memories that we Shinigami were fortunate to be remiss. The moment of our death… I should have known. I'd walked through this shop and seen instances of my life; moments of great pain and the manner of things that stayed with one forever. Now, I had come to the end of that journey and I was being treated to the final eclipsing moment of my life. The fire… the smoke in my lungs, the hair frazzling and curling in upon itself, the flesh peeling back from my fingers exposing whiteness that could only be bone… I felt again that blinding terror. That certainty. That knowing that even were I to survive this terrible thing; my body would be rent beyond all repair. My knees collapsed as I felt the fire burn through the tendons of the hamstring and I crashed down to the floor, wanting to roll about to ease the searing agony and extinguish the flames that were not there and yet were somehow able to consume me entirely.

"My skin's burning up! Fuck! It's killing me! Someone! God!" The burning flame soaked through the flesh of my throat and deeper still, strangling off my voice, so the scream that followed thereafter came as little more than a throaty gurgle. The pitch escalated, the pain rising to the degree that I longed for my life to finish then and there, if only to be free from it. Smoke drifted up from my body as my reflection burst into flame and danced along with me to the beat of writhing agony. The legs continued to dance madly in the background. And in the mirror, the door behind me slowly eased open, though the true version remained firmly closed.

Through the smoke and the pain, both of which seared my eyes, I saw a man enter casually from the darkness of the reflected hall. He was immense in size; broad shouldered, sturdy and imposing. A wide brimmed hat shielded most of his face from my scrutiny but I knew who it was. Maybe I had known that this moment was waiting for me since I had seen those marks on the backs of the girls' ears. Somehow… Konoe had been wrong. He wasn't in Hell. Hell was right here with me.

"No… no!" I felt my lips form the strangled words of disbelief but nothing more eloquent than a rasping cough fell from my scorching lips. "No, it can't be… That's impossible!

A long thin lipped smile curled over the mans square chin as he moved around the burning reflection of myself. I couldn't see his eyes from the gloom beneath the hats brim but I knew on what they rested. I pulled with all my might to escape the shadowed bonds that clenched about my ankle, dragging at the floor with my nails as the tormentor from my dark memories stepped clean out of the mirror, holding something aloft in one hand. To my horror I saw that it was a child's severed head; the face wrenched as though the skin of the neck had been pulled downward. Fresh drops of blood fell from the ragged serration, leaving a bright red trail in his wake.

Blind terror and rage shook my body in the same breath, shattering the hold the shadows of pain had on me. I pulled free, staggering up onto the balls of my feet and slamming against the door, reaching between the legs to pull at the handle. I yanked and tugged desperately, the lock creaking in the doors foundations as I slammed my entire body weight against it. I glanced behind me and saw the monstrous man reach over his shoulder, pulling a huge, bloodstained Chinese bone cleaver into view. It was abnormally large; a meter or so in length; out of proportion for its' intended use. He lowered it to his side, holding it directly horizontal to the ground and brought it back as far as his arm would extend, as though lining up a shot in eight ball. I wondered if I could dodge the attack; allow it to plow open the door for me so that I could escape. But the man moved much faster than my mind. He drove the cleaver forwards, slamming the tip of it directly into my solar plexus and blowing me backwards through the door. I felt the breath blow out of my body in a forced exhalation and renewed pain raced through my entire torso as I was lifted through the air, missing the stairs entirely. I tried to prepare my body for the impact but from that height, there was little I could do to cushion myself.

I came crashing down, the center of my back slamming against the back of the couch on which the mannequin lay and knocking fresh pain through my body. I bounced to one side and collapsed onto the floor, huffing between both rows of teeth, bearing down against the pain. I was in shear agony. My ribs were cracked clean through where the cleaver had struck me and something in my back had sustained serious injury when I had crash-landed against the couch. The blow had done something dreadful to me. I could hear my own stertorous breathing and a curdling bubble that seemed to come from deep within my lungs. I most likely had internal bleeding. There was blood spurting out of my mouth with every effortful breath and my chin and neck felt wet from it. I'd been knocked senseless; my brain was rattled and my neck ached from where it had snapped forward when I'd connected with the back of the furniture. I was afraid to think anymore on my injuries, for fear that worse may have been in store.

There was a thudding noise coming from behind me and I rolled over just far enough to see the severed head of the child come bouncing down the steps behind me and roll forward until my legs ceased its' journey. I groaned in pain and disgust, turning myself just enough to escape the lifeless, unseeing eyes of the unknown victim and registered pain throughout my entire body. My ears rang as I pushed myself up onto my elbows and then my knees, favoring the bruising to my stomach as I stumbled up. Beyond the pounding of blood in my temples, I could plainly hear the scraping, mocking call of the man's cleaver as he dragged it along behind him. It thudded down from step to step as he descended, making his cruel, sinister way toward me.

I stumbled into the center of the room and went down onto my front again, staring over my shoulder in terror to see how close my pursuer was to catching me. The mannequin sat up suddenly on the couch and its head turned atop the motionless body until it was facing towards me. The Cleaver Man paid it little heed and instead leant down to scoop up the child's head, as though it were nothing more than a misplaced orange, fallen free from a shopping bag. He held it beneath the severed neck, the trailing arteries falling between the gaps of his fingers as he lifted it to face height and subjected it to a thorough appraisal. My bloodied jaw almost became unhinged as the monstrous fiend then moved to do the unthinkable and pressed his lips lovingly over the pale mouth of the cadaver, relinquishing his tongue into the confines of the mouth with a moan that was purely hideous. I whimpered in disgust and terror, expelling more blood onto the floor as I tried again to pull myself onto my feet but found that my legs were no longer able to move. The mannequin's fingers curled over the top of the couch, its' expressionless face still entirely focused on me. With a creaking crack of splintering wood, the mannequin rose to its' feet and came around the side of the couch, making its' idle way towards me. The floor was now bloody beneath me, whether from my own injuries or by those pools that continued to form from the leaks in the ceiling. It nonetheless provided me with a half-assed lubricant and I used this to try and drag myself along, using my arms to get as far away from the encroaching horrors as possible.

There was a squelching crunch behind me and I glanced over my shoulder to see that the Cleaver Man had just crushed the child's head beneath his large foot, splattering gore everywhere. He advanced toward me; languidly, taking his time. I renewed my struggle with as much verve as I could handle but all my efforts seemed to be coming from a long way away. My body was devastated and my healing abilities didn't seem to be working in this strange place. I could feel my mouth trickling blood at a steady rate, and I felt the pain of my bruised spine and splintered ribs but what was most horrifying to me was what I couldn't feel.

I couldn't feel my legs.

My abdomen was heavy; as though it were weighed down with concrete and my skin ached. My vision was even worse than usual too. I was just starting to think that I was in very serious trouble when the floor suddenly went out from underneath me.

I was on my back, staring up into the cloaked face of the Cleaver man. He had my ankle in his hand and he was pulling me back towards him, that ever curlicue smile worming across his face. The sensation that had held me hostage in the upstairs room no longer had presence and I screamed with every remaining ounce of strength in my body. The memories were flooding in; the childhood fears, the monstrosities that had been committed against me by this… impossible dark thing I thought I had left behind so long ago. I felt the cruelty and the evil roll off of him like pungent waves. What could he have intended for me? How could I have ever hoped to escape from him again? He had always been there; at the corner of my mind, in those darkest of places one can never truly be free of.

"No! NO! Get off me! GET OFF OF ME! NOOO!" I grabbed the side of the couch and clung onto it with all my might, making a vain attempt to escape from the clutches of the cleaver man. He pulled at me with such strength that my fingers almost snapped at the joints and I was turned over onto my back. One large foot came crashing down against my chest, holding me in place as the nightmare raised the cleaver up high above his head, preparing to bring it down. It all happened so quickly; it seems so simple now to say that this could so easily have been the moment that I lost my life again. In that space of time, however, I could not reason with what was unfolding. I threw my arms up, meaning to block the blow even if it should mean losing both arms in the process, as I was likely to do. An ear piercing scream of horror burst out of me as the huge man dropped the cleaver down with such force it seemed to me that he might have split a car in two. The pressure struck me and I felt the pain of the blade sink beneath my flesh, the warmness of the blood spilling out from the incisions-

and then –

A flash of light, so strong and white it burned my eyes. There was stillness, perhaps a passing unconscious slip in time and then I was jerking up, throwing my arms forward to strike at the man who had pinned me down. My palms slashed the air, my mouth forming the words, "GET AWAY-" only to see that in that split second, everything had returned to how it once was.

The cleaver man was gone. I was lying on the floor of the sitting area of a closed shop and everything seemed perfectly normal. The television was switched off and the couch was empty, save for a number of tacky cushions with kitten cross-stitching on the covers. I murmured to myself, sitting up hurriedly and looking about in shock.

"What…? Where is-?" I looked around but I couldn't see the horrible figure from the mirror anywhere. The shop was dark, closed obviously but completely normal. I held a hand to my chest, breathing in and out slowly. My injuries were no longer there. I wriggled my legs and was relieved to find that they were in good shape. I breathed in and out experimentally and was satisfied with the resulting ache. The only true pain I felt was in the center of my back, so perhaps I had taken that tumble down the stairs after all. Still, it wasn't so bad that it was unbearable. Sitting up took quite a bit of effort but I managed it. My body was weak and I trembled a little; sort of like when I had recovered from Glandular fever as a young boy. My body registered that it had survived something dreadful. I sighed with relief. "What's happening to me…?" My eyes darted back and forth, unable to concentrate on my thoughts or indeed gather them together in any comprehensible manner. "Maybe I have been affected by the mana radiation in the library last night…? Fuck… there's no known cure for mana radiation and the effects of any number of cases are completely randomized. What if I have to deal with hallucinations like this for the rest of my afterlife." I exhaled deeply, eyes starting to tear over. "I don't think I can… it was so real… Fuck, what if it happens to Tsuzuki too?" I staggered to my feet, brushing my backside off. "That's what she would have seen coming for her… and I let that happen. I fucked up somehow. This is a fitting punishment."

Once I was certain that I was well enough to make a move, I made my way back through the shop; its' appearance mercifully different to what I had been previously subjected to. No mannequins jumped out to nab me, no weird tendrils of darkness snagged my ankles, no man from the mirror tried to lop my head off with an oversized kitchen utensil. And yet, the fear was still there, weighing down against my chest. And the guilt… somehow, and I wasn't as of yet sure how precisely, I was the cause of this. The girls who had been murdered at Kokakuro… I could only fathom that my actions those long years ago, had in some way contributed to it.

The shop door was open and the mannequins all stood in their sentry line by the window, gazing out a clean window onto a busy Saturday night Tokyo street. I pushed my way out onto the sidewalk, pulling the door shut behind me and hearing the lock latch into place. It took a moment to get my bearings but I was able to work my way back towards Sîné's without too many missteps. Once there, however, I couldn't bring myself to go in and face everyone. There was no explaining what I had just gone through and yet it was so immense, I felt that I had to deal with it somehow. The pain that threatened to crush my mind down to pulverized fragments pressed deeper into me still, until I felt as though a great torrent was driving me down beneath the currents of the sea. All those terrible memories from my childhood… what I had suffered and what my family had suffered in turn… Because of it, my family had been slowly and painfully poisoned; until it was no longer anything that could even resemble what had once been a happy family. And now, that same venomous creature had slithered its' way back into my life and sunk its' fangs into what little remained of me on earth. If I were any sort of man; I wouldn't have made such a crucial mistake. It should never have come to this. He should never have been able to lay a hand against her.

I wasn't exactly big on self-pity but right then and there, I collapsed into a moment of weakness and wasn't able to surface. I paced outside the club and finally ended up sitting on the curb, smoking a cigarette as guilt and fear continued to wash up against me, like waves persistently beating against the shore.A few passerbies's naturally asked if I was wasted and it no doubt appeared that way. They all wandered off eventually but one man chose to hang around. It took me about a minute to actually take notice of him. And when I did, it was with a start. He was a larger man; a halter like myself and broad shouldered, just like the creature I had seen in my vivid delusions. He smiled down at me and did an awkward shuffling two-step on the spot; evidence that he was drunk. Or well on the way to being drunk. Or maybe he just needed to pee, who the fuck knows?

"Hey, I remember you." He drawled and I had to wonder if it had taken him the whole five minutes to figure this out. I gave him an indolent look, not particularly interested in making conversation. Not that he was in any fit state of mind to notice by that stage. "Yeah, you were dancing in Sîné's tonight with that purple eyed guy. You looked pretty good up there." He indicated my cigarette. "Don't suppose I could bum one, could I?"

I offered the packet emotionlessly. "Be my guest."

My new 'friend' slid one of the white cylinders out of the packet and then borrowed my lighter. He took a few drags on the cigarette and then, as so often happens when smokers gather outside of clubs, he started to blather on, inconsequentially. I barely heard a word he said. All the while my mind kept racing, as I looked him over, thinking to myself about how he physically reminded me of the man I just saw in my vision. It scared the crap out of me. I mused over that thick, heavy veil of guilt, which draped itself across my chest… I wanted to absolve myself of it. This intended act would be a fitting reward then, to understand her fear. And little different to going to the teacher for a cuff across the hands. It was simply a matter of biting your lip and taking it. My mind made up, I stubbed out my cigarette and then gestured to the man, bringing his latest blithering drabble up short.

"Come down here, would ya?" I said, gesturing over my shoulder to Sîné's side alley, cloaked in shadow and gratefully vacant.

The mans look of surprise quickly morphed to one brimming with innuendo. "Um… yeah, all right. You got something in mind?" He grinned as he ground out his cigarette and trotted along in my wake. I was careful to not draw the attention of the bouncers as I entered the alley, moving as far down as I dared, shielded from the eyes of the street by a dumpster, near to overflowing with recyclable goods. I leaned up against the wall with my thighs parted just enough to suggest he might have filled that space if he desired. It was cheap and audacious of me and I was surprised to find I could have actually gone through with such a thing. There was the high probability that the man would refuse me, for a myriad of reasons and yet even that rejection would have been some sort of punishment and degradation. I needed that; like an addict pined for their next needle.

I raised my hand to the curve of my chin, pressing one finger against my lip and tracing it along. "You gonna fuck me, or ya need a written invitation or somethin'?" I watched the mans eyes, witness to his unmistakable drunken hunger as I unbuckled my colorful pants and turned around, pressing my cheek against the wall. I didn't want to have to look at him; I would have the face of the Cleaver Man in my mind as I was taken. I wanted the full fear and horror that she must have felt; this was the only punishment befitting my negligence. It was the very thing that frightened me most. "Just do me one favor and make it rough, would ya?"

The man was silent for some time and I thought for a moment that he had turned around and left. But when I looked over my shoulder, I saw him standing there still, eyes blurred and an expression, which plainly said he wasn't quite sure what was happening. "… You are one seriously interesting guy…" He seemed to come to his decision however, because he started approaching me, unhooking his own belt as he came. I couldn't decide whether it was relief I felt. Mostly, the fear was shuddering and encompassing, overshadowing all other minor thoughts. "Think I can manage that though."

He moved in behind me and set his hands around either side of my hips, pulling my pants down in order to expose my backside. He dragged the jeans down only as far as my knees, constricting my movement considerably but that may very well have been on purpose, to get better friction on his part. I separated my knees as much as possible, biting down on my lip as I felt what was undeniably a slickened finger push against my rectum and penetrate deeply, moving in and out in order to stretch me. The mans breath huffed in not quite rhythmic pants beside my ear, so I had a fairly good idea of what his other hand was doing.

"What the Hell are you playin' at?" I snapped, reaching back to snag the mans dipping wrist, ceasing its' movement inside of me. "I don't need you playing nice; I said to make it rough. Now, hurry up and get in there before I get bored."

He sounded a little put out by this. "Easy chap, I gotta get the old man hard first."

I pulled on his wrist, yanking his finger out of my body and then used the same hand to grasp a hold of his cock instead. "Give it here, I'll do it for ya." I tried not to think of how supremely tacky this all was as I worked my palm and fingers over his cock, until it was good and hard. I didn't give my new friend the option of commencing the next act. I simply positioned myself and pushed back onto his thick erection. I felt the sensitive canals tearing as it went in hard and deep, forcing me up onto the tips of my toes. I winced and groaned in pain. "That's it…" I gasped, recognizing that painful penetration. Feeling that surge of fear and grief sweep up and strike at me. "Now… talk down to me."

The stranger panted into my ear as he thrust his hips forward, pushing my own groin against the wall hard enough to make me bite part way through my lip. "Whaddya mean, 'Talk down to ya?'"

I groaned at his lack of imagination. "Say horrible things. I don't care, just say the worst things you can think of."

He grabbed me by the upper arms and slammed into me again and again, uncontrollably. That familiar coppery smell came to my nose all of a sudden and a warm wetness was trickling down the backs of my thighs. I was obviously bleeding quite a bit on the inside, which meant I was getting exactly what I was asking for. "You fucking tight little bastard! I'll make you sorry…" He slammed into me again and clearly held nothing back in his drunken state. I felt that last thrust in the back of my throat.

"Worse than that." I groaned, fingers clenching against the wall, fingertips scraped raw upon the concrete. "Come on."

I felt blood dribble along the back of my right ankle as the stranger reached over my head to brace against the wall with his hands, slamming into me as though I were a nail he intended to drive into the concrete and he the hammer. "I'm gonna turn you inside out, you cheap whore. You don't deserve any better than this. No one else would ever wanna fuck you. You're dirty. You're cheap. This is all you deserve."

These were the kind of words I needed to hear and I felt it in a kind of dream like haze, my eyes starting to tear over for the memory of it. "Yes… yes that's right. I shouldn't even be… alive…"

My punishment fell short as the man with whom I was liaising, suddenly emitted a high pitched shriek and toppled away from me, leaving a great empty chasm in my body, slickened by blood. I heard him hit the ground heavily behind me.

"Nng! Jesus, what the hell-?" I grabbed for my pants, looking around, expecting to see that the bouncers had caught us. That would have been preferable to who was actually standing there.

Orias distributed a kick into the strangers' side and turned then to look upon me with an expression caught between amusement and distaste.

"Well," He said, tapping the bridge of his glasses before then offering me a rather pointy looking smile, which made me think he found something very funny about all this. "I'd very much like to know just what you were thinking, Watari-san. But my guess is, you weren't thinking much at all."

"You didn't have any right to interfere with that." I snapped, pulling up my pants and zipping them. "It's the only way to absolve myself at the moment."

"Next time, absolve yourself in some other place besides our alleyway, won't you? Public fornication is against the law, you know." He stepped on the man who had seconds earlier been fucking me senseless and stood in front of me. "Absolve yourself by finding the cunt that did this terrible thing to those women, not by turning yourself into a human shit tin." I gathered that Ichibana must have informed him of the specifics of my case. How generous of it. "I'm sure Ichibana has come to expect more of her master. I certainly never thought the day would come when I'd be dragging your skeet stained ass out of a filthy alleyway. Even with the way I'm feeling right now, I'd certainly never sink to this."

"Well, aren't you just the epitome of high class moral standards, Orias."

The demon smiled pleasantly. "I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear the sarcasm in that, Watari-san. Now come on, I'm taking you back to your Shinigami friends and they should hopefully throw you in a very sterile bath. God knows what this filthy bastard was carrying."

I yanked my arm away as he reached for it and before I quite knew what I was doing; I was swinging my other hand up to collect the side of his face. It was like slapping the trunk of a tree and I felt the impact ricochet down through my arm, jarring my wrist. Orias' eyes widened behind his glasses and he seemed truly and utterly surprised by what I had done. He stared at me with innocent perplexity as I nursed my throbbing wrist and cussed quietly to myself.

"It's so easy for you to stand there and cast aspersions on the way that we human beings act, Orias." I snapped, stepping over the unconscious fellow and away from the wheelie bin. "It's so easy to believe that we're all simply selfish and weak and craving for immediate gratification, given our lives are so repugnantly short. But I'm not at all sure what to believe when I look at you. How could you do that to Ichibana? How could you turn it away without an explanation for why?"

"How did this become about Ichibana all of a sudden?" Orias asked, his eyes still focused on the wall against which I had been leaning.

"Because when I looked at the two of you, I saw the very best that love could be. For any of us." I said, holding my wrist tightly and flexing my fingers in order to restore the feeling in them. "You Underdwellers are so languorously patient that there's nothing cheap about your partnering. You didn't rush Ichibana off to bed; so far as I knew it was at least a year before the two of you became in any way physical. It was like an unconditional love and by God, don't we all wish we could be loved like that?" I raked my hair back out of my eyes and stared at him, desperately pleading for this strange creature to understand the mortal angle in all of this. "Don't you see that? Don't you see how difficult it is for any one of us to love and be loved in that way? How can you just throw that away? It's so insulting!"

Orias eyes slowly slanted in at the corners and he turned his face toward me, lips pressed so tightly together that the lines around his mouth met like a spider web. It was only then that I could see just how brightly the lights reflected off of his eyes, as though they were made of glass.

"I apologize if I don't live my life considering how my actions might seem selfish in the eyes of everyone else," He said, a slight edge to his voice that preceded imminent danger. "And I understand that to you it seems as though I myself have done an unreasonable and irrational thing to someone that I care for deeply. But you don't have the luxury of understanding where I am coming from and why I have made this horrendous choice." He placed his hand over his chest, gloved fingers clenched above the cavity in which rested the heart. "No matter how deeply you might love someone, how desperate you are to never hurt them, it still won't ever change the harsh reality of the world. This pain now, in this moment will pass for Ichibana. She's old and very strong and has been through hardships long before you even came into this world, Watari-san. This brief glimpse in time, this momentary loss will serve to protect her from an even more agonizing pain that will surely come in the future. As the person who loves her most, I made the decision based in her best interests. To protect her."

"Protect her?" I exclaimed, unable to reconcile his reasoning. "Orias, I don't know what the hell is going on to make you think you need to give up your time together but this just seems like nonsense to me! If you love her just fight for her, let her know what you're afraid of and face it together."

Orias' hand suddenly darted out and punched through the side of the wheelie bin, clasping a hold of the metal between his fist. With a slight grunt of effort, he twisted his body sideways and tossed the enormous bin into the opposite wall, caving in the double-sided lid and bursting the sides, causing bottles, cardboard and assorted recyclable goods to clatter and break upon the ground. It made the most god-awful noise, as though a plane had just dropped a small bomb in the middle of the Tokyo prefecture. And it sure as Hell gave me a nasty fright. I held my arms up in front of my face to guard against the broken glass of the bottles as they imploded upon the ground. Orias flexed the fingers of his single hand and turned now to look at me, his face expressionless. Curious eyes peered down the alleyway from the street but one curt gesture from the demon sent them scurrying away again.

"Your boorish human psychiatry doesn't interest me in the least, Watari-san," Orias said softly, the remains of the bin creaking painfully in the background. "I know you haven't had an easy life yourself, so you better than any of your ignorant race should understand that love isn't a magical salve that can grace all wounds. No, it's hard and painful and real. It doesn't mean that by staying together you can somehow overcome everything. Sometimes love, real love, is knowing when to let go. Understanding when the other person can't understand that you're not right for them. That you'll never be able to give them everything that they need, no matter how much you might try and convince yourself otherwise. And sometimes love is simply using your brain; because love can make that an awfully difficult thing to do at times." He pointed to the overturned bin and its' contents spilling out like the crushed head of the child in my delusion. "I am very strong. And very fast. For all my kindness and compassion, I am not unlike any other Underdweller. We are all capable of immense cruelty and violence. The same can be said of you humans." He took a step closer. "Or can it? The way that your Ministry tries to stomp us out whenever we raise our heads… In truth, every year human beings kill more than 86 per cent of its' own kind than demons do. In the few thousand years that you have dominated this planet, you have warred more amongst yourselves than the Underdwellers ever did. Domestic violence rates among humans who are supposed to love one another is catastrophic when compared to how we treat our paramours. Your youth run rampant on the streets, drinking and screaming and playing and showing utter disrespect to their elders. You harvest fellow animals who share flesh not dissimilar to your own, you destroy the land to erect these monumental travesties of glass and stone and you… seek immediate and utter gratification and self-destruction because you live for such a short time and you haven't the patience for anything true and beautiful." He gestured to the unconscious man on the floor of the alley, who hadn't so much as stirred throughout our entire conversation. "So please don't stand there and try to lecture me on matters you seem to think that I am remiss of. I have watched your kind evolve for over five hundred years and at the very core of your being, I know that you have changed very little from that which you have always been." He gave a slight smile and it might have seemed cruel, if not for the patient kindness in his eyes. "Why do you call us the demons, Watari-san? It is mankind that has created its' own hell. Demons are nothing more than the very darkest place of our own mind. It lives in the hearts of the weak and the wounded. It is what brought you down this alleyway tonight, my friend. Hell is where we make it. It will be my every waking moment now that I have sent away the one bright and beautiful thing in my life but that is the choice I made. Maybe you'll understand that one day; if you ever truly love someone beyond all thought of human selfishness."

His eyes seemed to glow, as vibrant and yellow as the moon in harvest time. Orias was often so softly spoken and almost shy in his manner that it was altogether too easy to forget just how old he truly was. Beyond those glimmering eyes was the evidence of decades lived amongst my own people, so far removed from my time of existence that I couldn't even possibly begin to understand them the way that he did. In a sense, I could fathom just where he was coming from. The Underdwellers all possessed significant extremes of emotions. Grief was overwhelming, anger was encompassing and love was deep and enveloping. I suppose to them, we human beings did indeed look cheap and superficial. We gave ourselves over too easily and thoughtlessly, we moved on from love as if it were something that could be forgotten and our lives were lived at the expense of just about everything else on the planet, including each other.

Suddenly and completely, I was sickened with myself. No wonder Orias' had lost his temper. I had stood there and lectured him about doing the right thing, when I had been the one to succumb to a weak and trivial need for punishment. What I had done was so… selfish. Why should I have the right to absolve myself in such a repugnant fashion? The courageous thing to do would be to live with my feelings, no matter how painful and use them to fuel my search for the monster that had killed and mutilated those poor girls.

"Oh, Orias…" I said, reaching out to brace my hand against the wall beside me. I lowered my head and pressed my fingers to my forehead, feeling a headache worming its' way into my brain. "I'm such a god damn pillock."

"Indeed," He observed, smiling good-naturedly. "It would do my conscience good however, if you were to promise here and now not to give yourself over again to such degrading instances of self-pity in the future." He pulled out his handkerchief and tossed it to me, indicating to his own lip to suggest that I wipe the blood from my own. "Despite how I feel about humans in general, I'm rather fond of my Shinigami customers as it were. And you are Ichibana's master. I'd like to think that you were worthy of that mantel at all times."

I wiped the blood away, running my tongue over the healing line of my lip before folding the handkerchief into a neat little square and holding it out for Orias to take. He gestured for me to keep it.

"Some of the issues you have with us does worry me a bit, Orias-san." I confessed, pocketing the little square. I noticed my fly was still undone and Orias was kind enough to be distracted by something unremarkable to the left as I zipped it back up. "But you're right about one thing; I do need to push past selfish inconsequential things and do what I know needs to be done. For the greater good."

"There's that plucky 'can't keep a good Shinigami down' spirit we Underdwellers all know and hate," Orias said cheerfully. He held a finger to his chin and looked thoughtfully towards the sky. "There was something else I had to do… Oh, that's right." My jaw was suddenly slammed sideways by a sharp slap to the cheek and I gasped loudly, holding my hand up to nurse the developing bruise and shooting Orias a very nasty glare.

"What the blue blazes was that for?"

The demon shrugged lazily. "Well, I've been slapped more than once tonight myself and it seemed prudent that I might have the chance to return the favor at some point."

"But slapping you did more damage to me then it did you, I'm sure!" I protested, wriggling my limp wrist about as evidence. A groan came from right behind Orias and the unconscious man started slowly lifting his head, looking about bleary eyed in confusion. Orias' eyes closed into perfect little upside down U's and he smiled in a very beautiful fashion, which meant he was about to do something not so nice, I had learnt.

"Well, I rather think you deserved it anyway," He said in response to my outrage over the slap. "Take that as recompense for your bad mood. Now, I'd best be getting you back to the others. They've been looking for you everywhere, you know."

"Hey… what the hell happe-" The guy murmured, reaching out a shaking hand as though asking for assistance. Without so much as turning around, Orias kicked his heel up into the guys' lower jaw with such force that I heard his teeth clack violently together. He keeled over backwards and toppled out of sight into the mess of cardboard and other junk that had fallen out of the bin. He gave a pained groan, so I knew that he was still alive thank goodness.

"My, my, I must get around to having my hearing checked. I thought for sure I heard some nasty, nasally voice grating at me just then but there's no one there at all," Orias said, twirling his finger about in his ear with a complacent smile. "Well, there's no accounting for old age, I suppose. Anyhow, let's get going, Watari-san."

I sighed as Orias looped his arm through mine and started to lead me back towards the entrance of the alley. "Orias…? Let's not ever mention this to Tsuzuki, okay?"

"He won't hear about it from me. I haven't the time to spread malicious gossip, not with what I earn on an hourly rate." He seemed to notice that I was still a little melancholy and transferred his arm to around my waist, switching now to English, with which he seemed considerably more comfortable. "Perk up now… do you suppose that Mibu chappie's going to look at you like this? A good nights rest and a few Tylenol will go a long way, I should think."

I gave him a crooked smile. "Ichibana had time to tell you all of this stuff?"

Orias snorted ungainly. "We do talk, you know. That's the foundation of a meaningful relationship." We emerged out from the end of the alley and moved to the employees' entrance at the front of the bar; I gathered that this led down into the Paranormal section of Sîné's. Orias' expression seemed terribly pensive now that we were clear of the dark restrictions of the alley and it occurred to me then that Ichibana was not the only one whose heart had been broken that night.

"Orias," I began. "You know, I don't really understand why you've made this choice to leave Ichibana. And maybe it's because I've never been in love quite the same way as the two of you. But," He gave me a little warning look but I plowed ahead, determined to say my piece. "I think it would be awful for the two of you to be apart. I really hope you can work through whatever this is and be together again. I'm sorry if I sound like a naïve human but there it is."

Orias stared at me for a moment and then gave a tired smile as though recognizing the validity to my words. "You do sound naïve. But I much prefer it to the cold reality of being enlightened." He petted my waist in a friendly way. "I hope for that very thing too. I'm just afraid it might take some time."

I could only laugh at this. "What do immortals have but time? You know, there is nothing quite so tiresome as the past, except perhaps the future."

He laughed at this. "How very true, indeed, Watari-san. I couldn't have put it better myself."

We made our way back down into the basement area of Sîné's to find the others all getting ready to go. Konoe had his tie wrapped around his head like a bandanna and his arm looped around the waist of the Chinese waitress, who seemed quite prepared to go home with him. Orias immediately left my side to safely extricate her from this fate. Terazuma as far as I could tell was dead and clearly had been for some time. Tatsumi was holding him up and didn't look at all pleased at being lumbered with the responsibility. He kept muttering, 'Drunk on a Wednesday night, how disgusting!' from the corner of his mouth as Wakaba just smiled nervously at the two of them, no doubt wondering how this might have affected their work in the morning.

Tsuzuki came running up to meet me, a smile on his face and a swab plastered firmly to his neck, held in place by a strip of bandages. He looked as though he were wearing a bizarre surgical choker. I guessed one of the vampires might have gotten in with a nip at some point. I wondered if this had been the one Voldur was wrestling out of the club when I'd been sneaking into the Employee area.

"Watari, there you are!" Tsuzuki observed, flinging his arms around my neck and holding on for dear life. He smelt like a brewery and I wondered how drunk he was. He'd acted like I'd been gone for two days rather than an hour and a half at the most. "We've been looking EBRYWARE for you!"

"Everywhere not ebryware." Hisoka tiredly corrected as Saya and Yuma held him up between them. I could see daylight between the boys treads and the floor but the girls weren't showing any effort at all in keeping him elevated.

"Yes, yes, he went for a cigarette and took a little moonlight wanderer with an admirer," Orias graciously lied, tugging away the little waitress who continued to stare at Konoe even as she wound her arms around Orias' side obediently. I supposed Orias was sort of like the paternal figure in this bar. "Seems he just lost track of time. I explained to him that you were all a little concerned and hurried him back here."

"Sorry if I made you guys worry." I said, trying to pry Tsuzuki's arms away from my neck before he cut off all oxygen to my brain. A little snore issued from the vicinity of my throat and I realized that the daft old codger had fallen asleep with his elbows locked in a death grip. I gave up on freeing myself and lowered my arms to my side, causing Tsuzuki's legs to buckle and he hung off of my shoulders, still snoring away, quite undisturbed. "Anyway, I should be getting home now. I need to be fighting fit in the morning, after all!"

"Yes, we should all be turning in." Tatsumi agreed, looking just as put out by his own neck adornment in the form of a drooling Terazuma. "Let's head back together." He turned to nod at Orias who was in the midst of sweeping up empty glasses with a flick of his finger. "Thankyou for your kind hospitality this evening, Crowley-san."

I flashed Orias a private look of thanks and he smiled back, offering us all a deep bow as he thanked us for our patronage. It wasn't far back to the Sakura Zensen but considering that half of us were drunk and or unconscious, we decided to take a couple of taxi's and bundled ourselves and our beer bloated burden's inside. It was almost embarrassing when the nine of us came stumbling in, past the night watchmen who looked most surprised by the fact that our Chief seemed the drunkest of the lot; not to mention that two of the crew were being carried aloft. We bundled on board the elevator and rode up, making a few stops along the way to deposit a few people on the appropriate floors. Wakaba gave both Tsuzuki and I a kiss on the cheek before she disembarked on the same floor as Tatsumi, who was dragging Terazuma to his apartment and setting him to rights. I think Wakaba went along as crisis control or some such thing. Maybe she was afraid that Tatsumi was going to leave the taxicab receipt on Terazuma's chest with payment instructions for when he was sober. Not that it would have surprised me in the least.

Hisoka took it upon himself to help the Chief back to his apartment after Saya and Yuma reluctantly headed back to their temporary stay room. After that, Tsuzuki and I were the last to disembark and it was with some effort that I finally managed to untangle him from around my neck and hair and roll him into his own bed for the night. It was a tiring effort and my night had been challenging enough already, so I was near exhausted by the time I managed to get my own apartment unlocked. I staggered inside, just about caving in on my knees then and there but I managed to compose myself.

Ichibana glanced up from the couch, eyes bloodshot and makeup run to buggery. "Güttentag," It said throatily, tilting its' wine glass from side to side in means of greeting. The floor and table were littered with tin foil; it seemed as though Ichibana had munched its' way through an entire block of Fruit n' Nut chocolate and was now making a certifiable dent in a big box of strawberry flavored Pocky. There was also an empty wine bottle on the floor but I was hardly going to begrudge it a night of righteous indulgence. Breakups were tough.

Ichibana noticed me looking at the mess and seemed strangely proud. "See? Told ya ye can trust me. Why should I need to go and suck up a soul when I can sit here soundly and get fat instead?" It laughed bitterly, the wine glass pressed against its' considerably rosy lips. "Why not? After all, it's not as though anyone will care if my ass gets as big as Cwalalumpa."

"Orias wouldn't have cared anyway," I said reasonably but Ichibana just gave me a look as if to say I wasn't holding up my side of the conversation. Friends were supposed to help you curse and call the horrible boyfriend names when he broke it off with you, not remind you of their good qualities. How many numerous. "I mean… he's an ass. In fact, he's the biggest ass around. Your ass could never even rival just how big of an ass he is." I gestured grandiosely with my hands. "His big-ass-titude is SO enormous, that even the largest ass on all the planet, in all the dimensions, couldn't even begin to compare to just how much of a colossal ass that he-"

Ichibana held up a hand. "Okay, okay, thankyou. I appreciate the effort but let's not run him too far into the ground, that wouldn't be fair." It polished off the last of its' wine and gave the smallest of smiles. "Even if he is the biggest ass in all existence."

I gave a very tired salute. "Glad to see you're rallying. Anyhow, I'm going to go and take a bath and then I'm going to hop into bed." I flexed my shoulders in a kittenish manner. "Gotta look extra cute for the handsome samurai in the morning."

I made my way up the hall towards the supply closet, when I heard Ichibana stagger to its' feet behind me. "Watari," It called softly. "Did something happen to you tonight?"

My heart gave a little thump in my chest as I turned to face the djinni, whose eyes were narrowed in suspicion.

"What do you mean?" I asked, pulling down a couple of towels from the rack and balancing them in the crook of my arm. Ichibana moved into the hall and leaned against the wall, arms crossed over its' narrow chest.

"I don't know… just a feeling, I suppose." It offered, looking just as confused as I felt. It scratched its' head curiously, looking a little put out. "There's a strange smell on you… the same smell you had after the Tachiagari last night."

"What? B.O?" I asked, purposefully ignorant. Inside I was screaming for some of this to make sense and before I quite realized it, I just blurted it out, everything that had happened that night, everything I had seen. Ichibana looked increasingly troubled as I spoke, which did little to reassure me that this was a matter that could be remedied. By the time I had finished up, the bath was run and I was marinating in the water, Ichibana sitting cross legged on the closed toilet, staring contemplatively at its' folded hands. I ran a bar of soap down over my leg and waited for it to say something, to make sense of what had happened.

Finally, the djinni sighed and raked its' fingers back through its' hair, working out the various pins and combs that held its' elaborate hairstyle in place. The shoulder length waves fell free and swung about its' pale, tear stained face.

"Well?" I finally queried, unable to take the uncomfortable silence much longer. "Do you reckon its' some form of mana radiation? Or a spell that can make your inner most delusions take form? I haven't heard of such a thing myself but like the great man that was Shakespeare once wrote; 'There are greater things in Heaven and Hell, Horatio.'"

"Greater and more terrible things," Ichibana murmured, looking solemnly off to the side as though thinking back on sordid memories. I sighed wearily, scooping my hair back into a loose ponytail to keep it out of the water before then leaning both arms on the side of the tub and staring up at my friend and servant.

"Ichibana, please don't be cryptic with me. Tell me what you're thinking."

It looked at me with sad eyes, too deep and wholesome to ever be entirely plundered in the brief second our gazes met. "Oh, honey, there are too many things that I am thinking at the moment. I'm very concerned about what's happening and I hope that given a bit of time I can help you understand this." It stepped down off of the toilet and kneeled by the bath, clasping both hands over my own and stared at me imploringly. "But I haven't a firm answer at this time. And I…" It's eyelashes fluttered timorously and tears began to well, falling upon its' pale cheeks like little diamond droplets. Its' lips trembled with unbidden emotion and I felt terrible then for asking anything of it, when the pain of its' separation was still so raw.

"Ichibana, I'm so sorry." I said, looping my arm around its' slender neck and allowing its face to press to my shoulder, body heaving with small, quiet sobs. "I shouldn't have even brought it up, not when you have so much to deal with at the moment."

"Don't be ridiculous," It said, voice a little muffled against my skin. "For goodness sake, what happened to you was terrifying and it needs to be spoken of. I mean to do everything I can to help you get to the bottom of it but right now, at this moment…" It pulled away, wiping its' eyes and smiling embarrassingly. "I feel like such a poor excuse for a servant. There should be no limitations for what I would do for my master."

"I like to think of you more as a friend," I said, running my palm down Ichibana's soft, round cheek, wondering again what could have possibly been going through Orias' mind for him to surrender a life with such a divine and beautiful creature. "If you want to help me with something now though, maybe you'd be so kind as to… maybe get that packet of aspirin out of the kitchen cupboard?"

Ichibana smiled softly and climbed to its' feet, grabbing a handful of toilet paper and blowing its' nose noisily before flushing the wad away. "Your wish is my command."

As Ichibana hurried out of the room to fulfill my menial command, I pondered to myself over everything that had happened that night. I had said to Orias, in a joking manner that there is nothing so tiresome as the past except perhaps the future. It seemed to me like a lighthearted thing to say at the time but now it rang with a sharp irony.

That strange and powerful presence which had brought to life the very darkest and dangerous components of my memories and given them form… if this were to assail Tsuzuki at some point too, I could only imagine what horrors he would be forced to face. His past was a violent and terrible thing, with devastating memories, plagued by his own pervasive feelings of guilt, anger and trauma. It would make my own nightmares look like a cakewalk in comparison and what I had endured after I had chased down that boy was nothing short of a horrendous. What manner of darkness would he be forced to confront? And would his fragile mind be able to cope with it without fracturing into pieces once again? He had barely survived the subtle reminder of his past in Kyoto; to see it physically brought to life before his very eyes would no doubt destroy him.

In the last two nights, so much had changed for me already. What would happen once I left for Kyoto? Would the darkness follow me there? Would I receive the answers to those questions I had, left unspoken for so long?

Who could say. The future was indeterminable. And that was perhaps why it was the most tiresome thing of all. One meager drop falls away to become instances of time, faded to nothing in the briefest of moments; lost and inscrutable. Disillusioned seconds of thoughts and fears and foundling desires, all coveted and yet so easily remised. Nothing, not even the lives of those of us eternal, could escape this ever sparse and harsh reality.

I have been one, acquainted with the night

I have walked out in rain

And back in rain

I have out walked the furthest city light

I have looked down the saddest city lane

I have passed by the watchman on his beat

And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain

I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet

When far away an interrupted cry

Came over houses from another street

But not to call me back or say goodbye

And further still at an unearthly height

A luminary clock against the sky

Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right

I have been one, acquainted with the night

- Robert Frost

- EC -

i. Yes, Ichibana was watching 'The Bachelor'.

ii. Matsuya Esplanade: Now, I know you'll find this hard to believe but not actually a real street. So don't go looking for it!

iii. Sen: 1/100 of a single yen.

iv: Vampires: I know, it sounds like I'm picking on them. (God forbid). The way it is structured in DA however, is that demons don't like humans because of most of the reasons Orias outlined towards the end. But they really hate Vampires because they are bloodthirsty, immortal humans with advanced strength and other abilities that make them even more of a threat. Demons think that human beings are too ignorant and dangerous to be given greater power and vampires represent the very worst of power corrupted. I'm of the same opinion myself. Twilight or no Twilight.

v. PTSD: Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder.

vi. The voice: It is said that most people don't recognize their own voice when they hear it out of context.

vii. Legless mannequin: Reference of course to Watari's ex-wife, who lost her legs after they were badly damaged in a car accident.

viii. The Mirror Room: Yes, a reference to that particular scene in Silent Hill 3 that scared so many people. Gotta love it!

A/N: Well, thanks so much for reading everyone and as always, I appreciate the support I have received even when I'm completely inconsistent and unreliable! Chapters will continue to be re-written and updated now that this huge heifer is out of the way! Please leave a review if you enjoyed and let me know your thoughts, opinions and idea's! Arigato!