Disclaimer: I obviously don't own Full Moon characters or plot, but I'm borrowing them for a bit.
A/N: This chapter is dedicated to Ellen Brand, who writes with more delicacy and psychological insight than I ever could. If you haven't read her stories, you're missing out on something wonderful.
Izumi woke in the white expanse of nothingness again, right back where he started his first day as a shinigami. Lying on the expanse that wasn't a floor yet served as one, he let the tears run down his face. He's been punished, severely, for his failure. The figure in the cloak, the same one who explained things to him that first day so long ago, hadn't touched him. No, he'd just stood back and allowed the black winds to envelope Izumi, winds the color of darkest midnight, which had wrenched at his vestigial wings until he thought they'd be torn off. The winds seemed to pull at his muscles and tendons as they swirled about. He had no idea a shinigami's body could hurt that much. Was that how Takuto felt when they enveloped him? This sense of being near ripped apart?
Izumi snarled and shoved any similarity between the two of them out of his mind. This was all Takuto's fault. The stupid amateur couldn't leave well enough alone. No, he had to go and try to remember. Izumi tried to stop him and failed, and so he was punished.
Why did it feel so familiar? Izumi had never failed in his duties as a shinigami before. He might make a game of it sometimes. He'd enjoyed toying with Mitsuki, but he'd never allowed a soul to go free when ordered to collect it. No, Izumi always did his duty.
He deserved to be punished. Failure was always punished.
He lay in the white emptiness and let his tears fall into it. The physical pain of being punished was nothing to the pain, the oddly familiar pain, of not measuring up.
There was a sound of rushing water.
Izumi blinked. The white blankness could not create sound. Where…? He strained his ears and heard it again, coming closer. Not water, no. Not a rippling, but a flapping. It was wind, wind being pushed aside by feathers. He felt it coming nearer, right above him, with a final push of air or what passed for air in this dimension, then there was a presence beside him. A hand, warm in the way that only a physical presence can be, touched his back gently.
Izumi lifted his face, and turned it, pushing his hands against the snowy whiteness below him, gathering his legs beneath himself with a swallowed groan to sit back on his folded legs.
It was Meroko, changed, but still his Meroko with her ridiculous pink hair and heart shaped face. Now she had a large pair of wings, whiter than the suddenly duller mist around them. And she was beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful. She gazed at him with a tenderness he'd never seen before, not even during one of her many extravagant declarations of love.
She'd become an angel.
A worry he'd been harboring ever since he'd skulked away from the scene of his greatest defeat lifted from his heart.
"What's wrong, Izumi?" the angel asked softly.
"What do you care?" he returned rudely, lifting his arm to wipe his tears angrily from his face. She was an angel now. He'd worried about her for nothing.
She said simply, and the truth of it in her eyes was more than he could bear. He turned his face away.
"Please. Tell me."
Why did her voice have such an effect on him? Against his will he stared out into the empty white void and the words spilled out.
"I was punished. Nothing I ever do is enough for…"
Images invaded his mind, irresistable. A Japanese man turning away, swinging a briefcase as he left. A woman, with a beautiful face contorted in rage dragging a little girl by the hand as she walked out a door. A girl, young and pretty, walking away at the side of a tough looking boy, giving him a last coldly pitying look.
Izumi blinked. "I always fail. I'm always failing."
"Then maybe it's time that you asked for help." Meroko's voice was kind, non judgmental. He couldn't bear it.
"From who? You?" He realized his tone was rough, dismissive, but he'd only meant that he'd hurt her before so she had no reason to help him. However, he'd rather die again and turn into a ghost before apologizing for it, or explaining.
The old Meroko would have cried, her face crumpling into a hurt expression like a little girl's. Izumi glanced at her, dreading what he'd see, but Meroko's face was calm, serene, as she answered him.
"No. I'm not the one who can help you. Only Kami-sama can do that."
Izumi snorted and stared back into the void. "Why would he? He's the one who condemned us to be shinigami. He doesn't care."
"You're wrong, Izumi. He didn't condemn us. We did that ourselves. Kami-sama loves you. I loved you too when we were partners, but you could never accept my love, or anyone else's, for as long as I've known you."
Here was familiar ground. "I don't believe in love." Izumi said flatly. "Doing my duty as a shinigami is all that matters."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw her shaking her head sadly. "You've done your duty, Izumi. You've gathered countless souls in your time as a shinigami, but you've never wondered why you were given that duty."
Izumi shifted to face her, frowning. What did she mean? Everyone knew that only souls who'd committed suicide were made shinigami. The job was a punishment.
"Did you never think to ask why the shinigami are given such a task? Why would suicides be forced to do such work? Of all the jobs Kami-sama could have given, why that one?"
Gazing into her eyes, Izumi was trapped, forced to consider for the first time how he'd ended up with such a job. "I…don't know," he said, but his mind continued to wrap its way around the problem.
"I think you do," Meroko disagreed, and smiled to take the sting out of it. "I think deep down you know why we were forced to watch over and over as families said goodbye to their loved ones, as humans fought to take their last breath, to survive even when they knew it was hopeless."
Now he knew what she wanted him to say. She'd given it away. "To teach us the value of life?" Izumi smirked. "Don't be silly."
"What better way to make us realize our past error? What better way to make us realize the wastefulness of throwing our lives away than to watch people who did value their lives having to let go?"
"If my life was so valuable, then why was I so ready to leave it?" Izumi asked sullenly.
Sadness tinged Meroko's eyes. "I don't know, Izumi. Only you can answer that."
"No! Remembering is forbidden."
"But you're remembering anyways, aren't you?"
Izumi sucked in a breath he didn't need anymore. She knew. She'd sensed somehow the images that had flashed through his mind, images that he knew instinctively were connected to a pain that he'd never let go of. Those images, that pain, could destroy him as assuredly as the black winds that had tormented his body not long ago.
Meroko was waiting for his answer, calmly, quietly, resting in her beauty, at peace in a way he could never be.
"I don't want to remember," he told her.
She blinked slowly in acknowledgement, then opened her eyes and waited once more.
Once again she'd cast a spell on him and he found himself opening his mouth and going on, though he didn't want to.
"I don't want to feel that hurt again. I wasn't good enough for any of them. No matter how hard I tried, they all left me. I'm useless. You shouldn't waste your time."
If he only felt stronger, he'd fly from her now, as he'd flown away so many times before whenever her protestations of love came a little too close to his heart. He hadn't minded her adoration, but whenever she spoke of love, he'd closed down. Better not to open himself up to that kind of hurt. Now he knew that his reactions to her were steeped in a past he'd never completely left behind.
"You're not useless to me, or to Kami-sama."
Izumi allowed disbelief to cross his face, and folded his arms, hunching the shoulder nearest her as a barrier against her words.
Meroko sighed. "Oh Izumi, why can't you ever admit that you need help? That you need love?" He'd put sadness back into her eyes.
"Whose love?" Izumi raised a hand between them, then let it fall to his side. "Your love? You don't love me anymore. You love Takuto now. You told me." Kami-sama knew he'd tried to get her back, so he could bask in that adoration again. He'd missed it.
He'd missed her.
Meroko leaned forward so that she was on her hands and knees, wings folded over her back, the tips touching the ground at her ankles. She was much closer to him now, closing the distance between them with her voice as well as her physical being.
"I do love you, Izumi. I love you more now than I ever did before. Becoming an angel showed me what love really is. It's not what I thought it was when I was always trying to get you and Takuto to say you loved me back."
Izumi stared at her blankly. She hadn't loved him?
Seeing his reaction, she blinked and her shoulders sagged. Sighing, Meroko tried to explain. "Real love doesn't make demands. Love isn't a game of words. I thought hearing the words I wanted would make you into what I wanted you to be. I didn't bother to try to find out who you really were. But I know now. I know you, Izumi, and I love you. I love you," she said again, with such sincerity in her face and voice that Izumi was forced to believe her, and it shook him to his depths.
When had Meroko gained such wisdom, such acuity? Even leaning toward him on her hands and knees like a child she had a grace and maturity that she'd never had before. Did she truly know him? Even the parts he'd forgotten? And if so, how could she truly love him? He began to tremble.
"Please," Meroko lifted her hand and spread her fingers, palm up, in front of his chest. "Accept it. You don't have to do anything to earn love, you just have to reach out and accept it."
Izumi looked at the hand outstretched in front of him.
Memories, images, flooding in without warning, without details, but all the attendant pain and hurt were there sure enough.
He saw himself fishing a ring out of a tank of water, studying hard at a desk by windows dark with night, pouring over flowers at a florist shop to find the perfect corsage. All that effort, all that trying, and for what? He was tired, tired of trying in his past life and in this life as a shinigami, tired of trying and failing over and over. He was sickened by what all that useless effort had made him, cold, cruel, and uncaring. This wasn't what he'd wanted, not when he was a human child watching as one by one the people he cared most about went away. Nothing could hurt worse than this, knowing once again that nothing he did helped. What did he have to lose? He'd already lost everything that mattered to him.
Izumi unfolded his arms, slowly reached out, and took her hand.
Meroko bent her head in relief, then lifted her chin and pulled him into a kneeling hug, wrapping her arms around his back. His arms moved to surround her as well, nestled under the feathers of her wings, and he rested his chin on her shoulder, his cheek against the softness of her hair.
He felt those big, glorious wings of hers lift, extend, and begin to flap, pulling the both of them off the snowy fields and into the space above.
He began to flap his own wings, tiny compared to hers, in order to help her. As they moved, his wings began to change. He could feel them extending, getting bigger and stronger until their wingspan was just as large as hers.
His hat, the one with the dog ears, fell off as they gained speed and altitude. Eyes opened wide in shock, he lifted his chin from her shoulder and leaned back to stare into her eyes.
Meroko's eyes were filled with tears, and she was smiling through them.
"What just happened?" he asked her wonderingly.
"You're an angel now, Izumi." Meroko laughed, "You're an angel like me."
"But how? I didn't do anything!"
Meroko's hands rested lightly on either side of his ribcage, now that she didn't have to hold him up anymore as they ascended. He was holding his own, wings flapping in unison with hers. "That's what Kami-sama was waiting for. You were trying so hard to earn what you only had to accept. It's Kami-sama's gift to you. To us."
Meroko released her grip on him and drew a hand along his shoulder and arm until it reached his hand and clasped it firmly. "Come on. Let's go."
Izumi tightened his hand on hers. He didn't know where they were headed and he didn't care. He felt lighter and freer than he ever had before, and he continued to fly with Meroko up and up until the white nothingness was left far behind.
A/N: Hope you enjoyed this. I wanted an upbeat ending to counterbalance all the angst in the previous chapters, and it is, after all, Christmas time so the happy ending is my gift to you.