It was past one in the morning already when Tatsumi finally packed up his work, turned off the light, and closed the door to Konoe's office. He did not expect to see anyone on his way out, so when he caught sight of movement inside the dark room, he stopped in his tracks.
The shadow user did not need lights to recognize the figure sitting at Tsuzuki's desk as Tsuzuki himself. But Tatsumi had thought he and Kurosaki were still out on a case.
He stepped further into the dark room, and tried as amiably as he could at this hour of night: "Good morning, Tsuzuki. What brings you here this late—or early, as the case may be?"
He regretted that tone of voice when Tsuzuki turned to him. He had the very look in his eyes that Tatsumi dreaded: the look that had frightened him so in Kyoto, and the day before they broke their partnership decades before. The look that spelled a coming storm. "Just thinking . . . about things," Tsuzuki answered with a smile that was, if possible, even more forced than Tatsumi's.
That was when Tatsumi noticed he was soaked to the bone. "Goodness, Tsuzuki, it must be pouring buckets in Kumamoto."
"I'm sorry. I'll mop up later."
"No, it isn't that—" Honestly, that had not crossed Tatsumi's mind, and he wondered if Tsuzuki really thought he was so callous as that. He adjusted his glasses. "It's just that I'm not used to seeing you at this time of night, let alone soaking wet. Did something come up in your investigation?" Concern pricked him suddenly and he said in a lower voice, "Is Kurosaki alright?"
"He's fine. At least, he says he is. I dropped him off at his apartment so he could get some rest." Tsuzuki turned back to the top of the desk, where Tatsumi now noticed he was playing with two torn pieces of paper, smoothing out the wrinkles in a distracted manner. He said to those pieces of paper, "The investigation is over, Tatsumi. We got our man—that is, the boy whose soul was stolen from our system. He'll probably be processed in the morning."
A bitter smile, almost a wince. "He got away again."
Tatsumi didn't know what to say to that. Somehow every response he could think of sounded trite and flat. Feeling awkward, he looked away instead.
He wasn't ready for Tsuzuki confession: "I let him get away."
Tatsumi stared at him. He must have heard that wrong, or else Tsuzuki was being vague out of guilt again. Tatsumi asked the most ambiguous question he could think of. "Why?"
"I don't know. That's what I've been trying to figure out." Tsuzuki was quiet for a moment, then said in a small, cracked voice, "He said I was his father. Well, not in such blunt terms, but he said we have the same DNA, and this piece of paper is supposed to prove it." He gestured to the wrinkled sheets in front of himself and forced a laugh. "I don't know what I'm supposed to make of it. Is it another trick, or is it real? How am I supposed to know whether I can trust him?"
That was not something Tatsumi wanted to think about. He was too stunned by what Tsuzuki had said to even acknowledge it. "Why are you telling me this?" Why did Tatsumi have to bear his burdens time and time again?
"You're the only one I can trust, even now."
"What about Kurosaki? Haven't you told him?"
"No. I'm not even sure I can. I mean," Tsuzuki said with a sigh, "if you were Hisoka, and you went through what he experienced, is that something you would want to hear? That the person you're supposed to be able to trust most was responsible for everything that went wrong in your life? I don't know what that would do to him, and I'm too scared to find out. I don't think I could bear it if I lost him, Tatsumi. He's become too important to me. He brought me back to life."
That old feeling like he was trespassing somewhere he didn't belong returned to Tatsumi full-force at his old partner's confession. It was not every day Tsuzuki was so forthcoming, or so eloquent, about such deep-seated feelings, which meant the fact that he was tonight was not a good sign.
"Tsuzuki, have you been drinking?"
Tsuzuki paused at that. "Just a little," he said. Then, "But you won't tell him, will you?"
"What? That you had a drink this late or that Muraki wants you to think you two are related?" By the way Tsuzuki's eyes widened, Tatsumi knew his way of phrasing the question had been effective. At this moment, with things the way they were, it seemed best to shy away from anything that could not be parceled out in absolutes. "It's not my place to tell him something like that. You can decide that for yourself, when you're good and ready. If you're ever ready."
Tatsumi expected to leave it at that, but he had barely turned toward the door when Tsuzuki asked: "Do you think Enma knows?"
"How should I know?"
That was apparently the wrong thing to say. "I don't know, Tatsumi," Tsuzuki muttered. "You tell me."
Tatsumi was taken aback. "Tell you what? Frankly, I don't know what you're talking about."
Tsuzuki looked up at him, eyes narrowed. "Don't you? What with all the secrecy around here lately, the chief's secret meetings with Enma, your private conversations with Hisoka?" He trailed off, and Tatsumi felt a shiver run down his spine. Just how much did Tsuzuki know about Konoe's recent absences? "I know you're all hiding something from me. There's something you don't want me to hear. I know that much. So what is it? Am I as dangerous as Muraki says? Is that why I'm being purposefully kept out of the loop?"
"Now I'm sure I don't know what this is all about." Tasumi couldn't remember being purposeful about anything where Tsuzuki was concerned—at least, no more so than usual. What he had told Kurosaki the week before had just been following Konoe's orders and nothing more; he hadn't felt a need to question the chief's motives. He had only pulled Kurosaki aside to protect Tsuzuki's feelings, not in any attempt to keep him "out of the loop". "You're being paranoid, Tsuzuki."
"Am I? Maybe that's just what you want me to think."
"No," Tatsumi told him pointedly, "that's how Muraki wants you to think. He figures by undermining you he can undermine this establishment."
"And he's probably right."
Tatsumi started at that. Was he hearing what he thought he was hearing? "Watch yourself, Tsuzuki. In the right crowd a statement like that could be taken the wrong way."
"Enma and his cronies can take that however they want," the other muttered under his breath. "They don't trust me as things stand. That would just confirm the opinion they've had of me all along. Ever since I've been here, Enma's had his eye on me, hasn't he? That's why he's kept me around all this time. Why I've never been promoted, never been given a chance to leave. He's been keeping me caged up because I have something he wants for himself, and he's afraid to lose his bargaining chip."
Tatsumi exhaled sharply and turned away. "Tsuzuki, this is getting ridiculous—"
"I'm not paranoid!" His chair scraped the floor as Tsuzuki stood, staring at Tatsumi with pleading eyes the secretary did not want to see. "Look me in the eye, Tatsumi, and tell me what I'm saying isn't even just a little bit true!"
Tatsumi, however, looked stubbornly away.
"Tell me it isn't true that Enma doesn't trust me, that he thinks I'm dangerous!"
"I can't do that."
Tsuzuki nodded. "Exactly. Because you know I'm right."
"No, because what you're saying makes no sense." So Tatsumi said calmly to his old partner's face, even when his gut told him it made loads of sense. "You've been nothing but spoiled since you've come here. Throughout your entire career, King Enma has made allowances to accommodate your mistakes that no one else gets. So frankly, Tsuzuki—though it pains me to say it when you're obviously having such a difficult time—I find your behavior more than a little selfish."
"Selfish? Don't I have every right to be selfish when the issue is who, or what, I actually am? At least you know what you are! At least you've always known where you came from, that you were human. But what do I have? A goddamn black hole is what I have! And let's not pretend you understand what it feels like to know everyone around you has a better idea about who you are, and what you've done, than you do yourself."
Tatsumi clenched his jaw and slowly exhaled. It was not often his patience with the other ran thin, but Tsuzuki had crossed the line. So he thinks he's the only one who ever experiences the pain of guilt? "I am not going to dignify that comment with a response."
At that Tsuzuki grabbed the lapel of his jacket and pulled him close, and Tatsumi was startled by the violence of his action. The empty coffee mug that sat on his desk shattered, though no one had touched it, and a split second later a vase nearby that Wakaba had bought flowers to put in did the same, spilling water over the side of the file cabinet.
"What do you know about me," Tsuzuki growled, "that you won't tell me, Tatsumi? What the hell am I supposed to be?"
Tatsumi had had enough already, but Tsuzuki's behavior was more than he could tolerate. It was no childish tantrum, but rather what he felt forced to consider a threat. Instinctively the dark that surrounded them twitched to attention in response to his quiet indignation. "Restrain yourself, Tsuzuki," he warned, staring the other down hard, "or I will do it for you." As it was, it took quite an effort on Tatsumi's part to calm his nerves and keep those shadows at bay, lest he do something irrational himself, and prove Tsuzuki's point.
That was not lost on Tsuzuki. He continued to glare and clench his jaw before he reluctantly let go of Tatsumi and stepped away.
His anger made him seem fragile. Like a frightened, cornered stray dog, Tatsumi thought. But oftentimes desperate men, like desperate animals, were the most dangerous.
Tsuzuki paced in the dark for a moment, first toward the windows, then away, not quite sure where he was going, before he had finally calmed himself down enough to speak again. When he did, it was back to the carefully controlled, self-depreciative tone of voice that had started their conversation. "I'm sorry, Tatsumi," he said into the dark. "I don't want to make you my enemy too."
"Do you consider King Enma your enemy now?" Tatsumi asked, following him with his eyes.
Tsuzuki thought about that. "I don't know yet. I wish I didn't have to, but that's not a choice that's mine to make, is it?"
"If you set yourself against King Enma, you set yourself against all of Meifu. You understand that, don't you?"
It was a moment before Tsuzuki could answer. But when he did it was a clear, "Yes. And don't think it's at all easy for me. But if what Muraki said about Enma is true. . . ."
He left that thought hanging. And perhaps that was for the best, Tatsumi thought. It pained him enough to see Tsuzuki in this condition—as it did every single time he fell into this fog of self-loathing and guilt and confusion. The last thing Tatsumi needed added to that burden he bore was to hear this person he cared the world about talking of betraying the demon king himself.
But even then—even though it struck his upbringing as wrong on the most fundamental of ethical levels—even though he would never have the courage to say such things himself if their situations had been reversed—could he really blame Tsuzuki for feeling that way?
I just couldn't bear to see him hurt, he told himself, any more than he could Kurosaki.
"Don't get me wrong, Tatsumi," Tsuzuki said. "Where Muraki is concerned, I intend to finish what I started. I don't know how yet, but I will. According to him, that's what I was made to do. It's my destiny. And I can't very well escape destiny, can I? Even if I wanted to."
His back lit faintly from the light in the hallway suddenly struck Tatsumi as one carrying a weight even heavier than his own—a weight like he could not imagine. He could find nothing else to say. There was nothing he had the right to say.
The room where the souls of the recently departed waited to receive judgment had always struck Hisoka as a particularly depressing place. Feelings of regret and fear and hopelessness built up over the decades of the building's existence saturated the walls, never allowed the opportunity to fully dissipate, and he could only imagine how much worse it had been in the old administration building, which had stood in Meifu for centuries until the modern era. It was for that reason more than any other that he had rarely willingly visited this place. Fortunately the memory of waiting here for his own judgment had been erased upon Enma's decision to make him a shinigami, a regular procedure designed to protect the integrity of Meifu's system.
It was no official order that compelled Hisoka to this place that brought his senses so much torment. He was not completely sure of the reasons himself. Perhaps there had been something truthful about what Fujisawa had said to him the night before, about them being more similar than Hisoka cared to believe. He still did not believe that, yet he had come here because of that young man nonetheless, even though he could not explain it.
Fujisawa, or rather, his soul sat bent over in one of the chairs that was pushed against one wall, wearing a pressed suit that had been issued him by the department as per routine. It was only natural for Hisoka to maintain his distance, having been assaulted by that young man just a few hours before.
He did not sit down, instead opting to stand a little more than arm's length away as he spoke the deceased's name.
Fujisawa glanced up at him with nothing in his eyes. No resentment, no malice, nor any of his usual cockiness neither. That was what surprised Hisoka. He looked, simply, normal. "You came to see me, Kurosaki? I suppose this is just a taste of the punishment to come, huh? You gonna testify against me?"
"No," Hisoka said. "We don't do things that way here. Your crimes speak for themselves. For that matter, you don't really have to do anything: Your heart will do all the talking. Sort of. You'll soon find out for yourself."
"I don't know whether to take that as reassurance or a warning."
"I meant it as neither." Hisoka shrugged.
"Then why are you here, if not on official business? To put me at ease?" There was an uncharacteristic irony to the lopsided smile that pulled at Fujisawa's lips. "It's hard to believe even you would be that gracious, after all I did to you."
Hisoka knit his brows. "I don't know myself," he said after a moment's hesitation. "I guess . . . maybe I came for answers."
Fujisawa stared at him in mild surprise, until a hard edge of suspicion entered his gaze. "I don't have to tell you anything, then, do I? If I understand this right, your part in my case is ended. I have no obligation to explain myself in judgment, so I have even less to explain to you."
He held Hisoka's gaze that way defiantly, but only for a few awkward seconds. When he spoke again, it was in a small voice Hisoka hardly recognized as belonging to Fujisawa: "I'm going to Hell for what I did. I know that already. I'll be damned. There is no salvation for people who commit the sins I've committed, no matter how much faith we put in Christ's love, or the Eucharist, or Amida Buddha or any of that nonsense."
He forced a laugh, but Hisoka had nothing to add.
"This may sound strange," Fujisawa continued, "but I'm prepared for that. In a way, I've been prepared for that for much of my life. I always knew, even as I sat through my old school's mass, saying the proscribed words, how far away I was from God."
"But you're still terrified of it," Hisoka told him.
Momentarily taken aback that the other had read him so easily, Fujisawa nodded silently.
"I didn't come here because I take pity on you," Hisoka said. "I don't. I want to make that clear. And it's not within my power nor is it my place to forgive you. I can't excuse what you did to those men, and I hate you for what you did to me, but I know you didn't ask to be brought back to life either. Muraki's part in what you did can't be excused simply because he wasn't holding the knife. But I still can't help wondering: Why him? What could possibly make him worth all this?"
Fujisawa smiled and snorted. "You'll never understand. If you can't see how similar you and I are then you'll never understand, no matter what I say. I couldn't disobey the one who made me. You know him as a monster, but he really was my savior. You think I'm an idiot for saying that, but he gave me life, Kurosaki, and I would have followed him to Hell for it. Now it looks like I will."
His eyes fixated on something over Hisoka's shoulder, something that only he could see in his mind's eye. "To make matters worse, he reminded me very strongly of someone."
"Okazaki Izuru," Hisoka muttered, looking at the floor.
"Has anyone ever told you this mind-reading thing of yours is really irritating?"
"I thought you wanted him dead."
"I did. But love and hate are just two sides of the same coin. I'm sure even you can understand that."
The sign above the door at the end of the hall lit up silently, and a lonely figure between it and the two boys rose to go through it. "Looks like I'm next," Fujisawa said, watching the person go.
"Then I'll take my leave."
He turned back to Hisoka. "I thought you came for answers."
"I think I came to the wrong place," Hisoka said quietly, adding more out of routine than actual feeling, "Excuse me."
As Hisoka turned to leave, he could hear Fujisawa singing behind him, though his voice cracked around the awkward English words: "The taste of love is sweet/ when hearts like ours meet/ I fell for you like a child/ O-oh, but the fire went wild. . . ."
What he had said to Hisoka continued to ring in his mind: He gave me life . . . And Muraki gave me death, Hisoka thought, but were those two gifts really so different? Was that what Fujisawa was trying to tell him?
Was that what Tsubaki had been trying to tell him all those years ago? And would it have made any difference if he had understood back then? Her blood on his hands, Fujisawa's on his shirt, no matter how hard he scrubbed . . . had anything changed at all?
Hisoka left the tumult of old emotions behind him and headed back to the offices of the Summons Department, where he found Tsuzuki waiting for him. "Hisoka. Just the man I wanted to see." He seemed back to his normal, cheerful self, though past experience told Hisoka he could not be too sure how much credulity to put in such a transformation. "How did it go?"
"A waste of time," Hisoka sighed. He didn't want to discuss it. "I'm not sure what I expected. What's with the attitude?"
Tsuzuki seemed taken aback by the question, but only for a heartbeat. "While you were down there I spoke to Watari. He had something to say about those Hebrew characters you wrote down for me."
"What did they say?"
"According to Watari, it was part of an old pun, only not the humorous kind. More like the mystical kind." Tsuzuki explained as he leaned against the edge of the desk, reading from a piece of note paper: "From right to left it reads emet, which means truth. According to legend it was the magic word that brought the golem of Prague to life. He could only be stopped by erasing the first letter of the word, thus spelling the Hebrew word for death: met."
"Truth, huh?" That sounded like the kind of joke Muraki would make, Hisoka thought, the image of those three characters written across Fujisawa's forehead resurfacing in his mind. "Except Fujisawa was no golem. Just like Maria Wong was no vampire, and Tsubaki wasn't possessed. That was just another lie. He was just an ordinary person Muraki brought back to life." Hisoka would not have been surprised if the mark had turned out to be only for show, or if it had had more to do with his own reaction to it and his curse than Fujisawa.
"That's just like Muraki, then," Tsuzuki sighed as he pushed himself back on his feet. "Lying, I mean. Right, Hisoka?"
A strange sense of deja vu grabbed Hisoka for a moment that he had to shake himself out of. "Right."
"Why don't you grab your coat and let's go. Oh, and you might want to take one with a hood. It's still raining last I heard."
Hisoka furrowed his brows. "Where are we going?"
"Kumamoto," Tsuzuki said, as though it were obvious.
"But we just got back from there. And we have our reports to finish—"
"There's a lead there I want to follow up on." Tsuzuki seemed extraordinarily focused today, Hisoka decided, as he went about gathering up his own coat and slipping various items into the pockets.
But his choice of words gave Hisoka pause. "Lead?"
"Yeah. A possible contact of Muraki's. After police put Fujisawa's picture on the air, witnesses fingered some woman who had been putting him up—"
"Wait a minute, Tsuzuki. Back up," Hisoka stopped him. "What do you mean by lead? The case has been closed. We did what we set out to accomplish: We found out who was behind the murders, and we brought the perpetrator to justice. That's it. That was the scope of our role in this investigation."
"But Muraki is still out there!"
"Is this interrogation or whatever an official order?"
"It's off the record," Tsuzuki admitted.
Hisoka sighed his exasperation, but the intensity in Tsuzuki's purple eyes grabbed his attention. "But my point is he's unaccounted for, Hisoka. You can't mean to tell me that when we set out on his case, there wasn't a part of you that really thought, This time. This time, for sure, we were going to get him."
Maybe he had thought that. Then again, maybe he hadn't, and all Hisoka had really felt was a projection of Tsuzuki's own desire. He couldn't tell anymore.
If that's what we supposedly felt, Tsuzuki, then why didn't you do away with Muraki when you had the chance? That question still weighed heavily on Hisoka's mind, though asking it and getting a straight answer was another matter entirely he could not be sure he was prepared for.
"Still, Tsuzuki," he tried halfheartedly, "I'm not so sure the chief would approve—"
"But isn't that a risk we have to take? He might thank us in the long run."
Hisoka closed his mouth and swallowed his protests, and went to grab his coat. He would not win this argument, even if he wanted to.
"When we're done there, let me take you out for something special, all right?" Tsuzuki said after him. "It's the least I can do after leaving you abruptly like that last night. And besides," he added carefully, "that's kind of what I told Tatsumi we were taking a longer lunch break for."
"Great, so now we're lying about what we're doing, too," Hisoka muttered under his breath, but his heart wasn't in the sarcasm.
He happened to feel eyes on himself and Tsuzuki and looked up, meeting Tatsumi's gaze. The secretary was in the middle of a conversation with Terazuma, but for a moment his attention had drifted elsewhere. Hisoka couldn't be sure what it was, but something passed between them in that short couple of heartbeats. Something sorrowful that flashed behind those old-fashioned glasses when there was no reflection from the fluorescent lights to mask his eyes. They seemed to be begging Hisoka to be careful—but even that could have been just a product of Hisoka's imagination.
"This is the number," Tsuzuki said outside the door.
While he knocked, Hisoka took in the opulence of their surroundings. The hotel they had been led to obviously catered to a very selective clientele by its rich and immaculate appearance—quite a contrast to their humble accommodations the week before. It was, however, perfectly in line with what he had come to expect from an associate of Muraki. Hisoka felt equally confident about what kind of person they would find living behind it.
They heard the dead bolt click, and a second later the door opened inward a small ways. Far enough for both parties to examine one another, not enough to be mistaken for a welcome.
The one who greeted them was a stunning woman just entering her middle age. Her clothing and makeup were impeccable, not overstated but subtly enhancing her natural elegant beauty. She was a figure of careful grace and mental composure, disrupted only by the severe line of her mouth and eyes that told the shinigami immediately that, whatever she may be, she would not be intimidated by the likes of them. That, Hisoka had to admit, he had not been expecting.
"Can I help you?" she said in a cultured tone of voice that had the equal effect of being quite cold.
"Ah, sorry to bother you, Mrs Komatsu." Tsuzuki, of course, started turning on the charm immediately. "We haven't yet made your acquaintance, but my partner and I were hoping to have an opportunity to speak to you about something rather sensitive. Let me assure you, first of all, that we are not with the police—"
"I know who you are, servants of Yomi."
That archaic name made Tsuzuki pause for a moment, during which Hisoka filled in for him, "I know you've already been interviewed, ma'am, about your involvement with a boy named Fujisawa, so forgive us for troubling you. But we're not here about that. We wish to speak with you," he said cautiously, watching her reaction, "about a man named Muraki."
But Mrs Komatsu only let out a small sigh at that. "Of course you do. I've been expecting something like this for the last couple of days. Forgive me if I am not quick to invite you in for tea."
"We have no intention of harming you," Tsuzuki said, "but I doubt very much you want your neighbors to hear what we have to say."
"Naturally." Hisoka noted her Kyoto accent with curiosity. "Do you think I'm afraid of a couple of shinigami? I am after all an acquaintance of—as you say—a man named Muraki."
Mrs Komatsu opened the door further and moved aside, thereby inviting the two into her apartment. It was a long room, impeccable as the lobby and hallways, but the closed curtains and rainy day behind them turned everything dark and dull—as dark and impenetrable as the mood of the mistress of the house. As the shinigami stepped into the room, she locked the door behind them, then gestured for them to sit at the small table before the windows where a tea set with one setting had been placed.
"We can't stay long," Tsuzuki said, even as he took a seat. Hisoka and Mrs Komatsu followed suit, the latter with the delicate grace of royalty. It made Hisoka wonder just what she was for Muraki to have known her well enough to be able to pull such a favor as giving shelter to a strange boy. Tsuzuki's eyes never left the woman's. "We only came to ask you what you know about him."
"Where to start?" the woman said as she poured herself a cup of coffee so strong it invigorated Hisoka just to smell it. "I've known Muraki for a long time, Mr Shinigami. Although it is difficult to say just how much anyone really knows that man, isn't it? Where the doctor ends and where the real Muraki begins, if there is even such a person, even I cannot say."
"I'm sorry," Tsuzuki said. "Just how long have you known him?"
She sighed as she returned her cup to its saucer. "You certainly don't waste any time getting to your point. What a personal question."
Tsuzuki did not miss a beat. "Please disregard it then. It's just that we need to find him. It's a matter of the utmost importance to our ministry, Mrs Komatsu—"
"Kaede, if you please."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You should call me Kaede," she annunciated. "That was the name by which Muraki knew me best, in our younger days. It strikes me as more appropriate, given the circumstances. If you are to understand the man you are searching for, that is."
Hisoka glanced over at Tsuzuki, but if his partner's momentum was shaken by the woman's words or her manner, he did not show it. His determination was stronger than any other factor; Hisoka felt that clearly within himself.
"Miss Kaede, then," Tsuzuki humored her, "would you happen to have any knowledge of Muraki's whereabouts? Any safe houses he might have, that sort of thing? Has he been in communication with you since last night?"
A wry smile turned up the corner of her mouth. "I have no wish to be kept abreast of the doctor's affairs, and he has no need to make them known to me."
"And what assurance do we have that you're not simply covering for him?"
"I haven't any reason to lie."
"Yet you abetted that boy he brought here, according to your neighbors' statements to the police."
Mrs Komatsu's expression soured at that. "I am not proud of what I've done," she said in a low voice. "I wish to think of myself as a respectable widow, but I cannot excuse my actions either. While I may have been mistaken about many things, I acted out of good faith in someone who was once like family to me, and that decision I stand by. I have suffered enough from rumor and the loss of my husband, Mr Shinigami, and now this latest development." She shook her head slowly as she stared him down. "Must you add this insult to my already long list of injuries?"
Hisoka could stand it no longer, this measured game back and forth between the two. The careful language that reminded him of his own family disgusted him. He spoke up, not caring how rude he sounded: "And you think you're the only one that man has hurt?"
Mrs Komatsu looked offended herself as she said to him, "I made no claim to be. Why? What grievance has he given you, boy?"
"This is my grievance." Hisoka pushed up the sleeve of his coat and his shirt, and raised his arm so she could see the scars of the curse underneath. "That man tortured me, cursed me, and, when he felt I had finally suffered enough, he murdered me. I became a shinigami to hunt him down and make him pay for his crimes against those who were not as lucky as I have been to have a second chance. I don't know what kind of man you think he is, Miss Kaede," he told her point blank, "but I know personally how disturbed and evil he really is. I've actually looked into that soul and felt it for myself, which I'm sure is more than you've done. So if you are intentionally trying to protect him, then I will have no choice but to take your actions as in direct opposition to King Enma himself. You can take that as a threat if you want to."
Hisoka started when he realized what he had just said. But when he reexamined his words, he could not find a single one he did not mean. He could not say the same for Tsuzuki, however, who sat in somewhat stunned silence beside him, or Mrs Komatsu, who continued to glare unwelcomingly at him.
After a moment, however, she actually cracked a smile.
"You must be the boy my brother Oriya spoke of," she said in a gentler tone of voice.
That threw Hisoka for a loop. It was not just that his crude manner had had an effect completely opposite of what he had expected. That name rang a bell. Wasn't it the name of Muraki's friend in Kyoto—the one who had risked his life to protect a friend he knew was a monster?
He had spoken of Hisoka to this woman? "You're related?" Hisoka said, feeling foolish.
Mrs Komatsu took a deep breath as she picked up her coffee cup again. "Not by blood, and not anymore. However, like my brother, I am confident I can hold my own against a shinigami if the need arose."
"Stop trying to change the subject."
"Fine." She turned back to Tsuzuki, completely disregarding Hisoka. "I am not trying to protect Muraki. The way I see things, he owes me for my troubles. Nor, however, can I turn against someone who is like family to my family. Forgive me if my sense of morality seems a bit archaic."
"I think I understand," Tsuzuki said with a short nod, and Hisoka could not help feeling that was meant for him. "However."
"However," Mrs Komatsu echoed, lowering her cup, "I am not given to lying either, and can honestly say I have no better idea than you two do as to where he might have gone. Doubtless the police will put pressure on him to go into hiding, and he has never let me in on the whereabouts of his various hiding places. Nor has Oriya—if he even knows that much himself."
She furrowed her delicate brows as she looked down at the coffee and continued, "Truth be told, last Thursday was the first time in almost a decade I had had contact of any sort with him. However, I will tell you one place you might want to start, though I might be mistaken in doing so."
"It's better to be safe than sorry," Tsuzuki said, leaning forward.
"Being sorry is exactly what I'm worried about, Mr Shinigami! I doubt you or I want to involve someone else in this mess of ours if that person proved to be innocent."
But that was not the whole of it, Hisoka could feel. She feared saying what she wanted to say because of what Muraki might do to her if he found out, not because of what might happen to that person. The conflict was expressed subtly in her features and poise, but to him that was clear enough.
On the other hand, he could feel her hatred for that man as well—a hatred not at all like his own, but mixed up with a sentimentality Hisoka could not understand. He wondered if she was aware of how loudly she broadcasted her feelings where Muraki was concerned, despite her carefully composed veneer.
She made her decision with a blink, and raised her eyes to Tsuzuki's: "But I think you should know that Muraki has a fiancee in Tokyo by the name of Ukyo. I don't know much about her, other than that their engagement was decided when they were children, and he has been trying to break his ties with her for some time. I can only presume that is for her own sake. Contrary to what your experiences may tell you, he is not completely devoid of human compassion."
Hisoka snorted at that but Mrs Komatsu ignored him.
"She might know only as much as I do, but it's a starting point. That is what you wanted, isn't it, Mr Shinigami?"
"Yes," Tsuzuki said. As though a great weight had been lifted from him. "Thank you."
"Then, if you don't mind?" she said, standing, and the two did the same, allowing themselves to be led to the door.
"Promise me one thing," Mrs Komatsu said to them before she opened it, her voice low in the intimate space of the foyer. She seemed suddenly small and insecure, like a teenage girl, and the effect with what she said next, and the meaning with which she said it, was to Hisoka somewhat disorienting. "Even if you must lie," she said, "if only to soothe my conscience: Promise me that when you catch up to that man, you will kill him."
It was those words that continued to resonate with Hisoka when he and Tsuzuki stopped by a posh cafe for a noontime drink and dessert. Love and hate were just two sides of the same coin, Fujisawa had said to him only that morning; and though it had sounded like a cliched movie tag line at the time, there was something to be said for how well it pertained to the emotions that had been emanating from Mrs Komatsu like crazy.
The silence that followed that observation made Hisoka stop, and he realized he had been pretty much talking to himself. It was almost always the other way around. "Tsuzuki?" he asked his partner, who was presently staring out the window over his shoulder.
That shook Tsuzuki out of it. He blinked. "I'm sorry, Hisoka. What were you saying?"
"Nothing important. I just thought you might want my impressions of that Komatsu woman."
"Oh." Tsuzuki picked up his fork and traced its teeth over the ridges in his dessert plate's lip. He smiled apologetically. "I guess my mind was elsewhere."
That went without saying. Hisoka knitted his brow. Tsuzuki hadn't taken a single bite of his strawberry and kiwi tart. It still sat there looking as pristine as it had in the case when he had ordered it. And he had seemed so eager to bring Hisoka here. . . .
Hisoka calmly let his hand slide from cradling his coffee mug to lie in his lap, and it was all he could do not to wring his hands in anxiety. "Tsuzuki," he said quietly, "what did Muraki say to you last night?"
Tsuzuki's smile wavered for only a second before he caught it, held onto it, and lowered his eyes. "Why are you asking me that all of a sudden?"
"Why do you think? Because it's obviously bothering you."
"No, it isn't. I have been reviewing what happened in my mind, but I do that to some extent after every case."
"Not like this, you don't. And you haven't even touched your dessert."
Tsuzuki's fork stopped. Hisoka did not need to say it in so many words, but they both knew it was a rare occurrence indeed when he was not able to stomach sweets. The senior shinigami put down the fork and went for his coffee cup instead, as though to cover for his transparency. "That doesn't mean anything," he murmured before taking a sip.
"Fine. Whatever you say. But you and I know that isn't true. I knew something like this would happen—"
"Something like what? I don't know what you're talking about, Hisoka. I feel fine."
"You think it isn't obvious?" Hisoka lowered his eyes. "Every time Muraki gets you alone you come back like this, acting all cheerful and refusing to say a word about it, when you're really berating yourself inside, and I just can't stand it."
Tsuzuki stared at him blankly, and Hisoka had the feeling that had not come out the way he had intended it.
Suddenly self-conscious, he said quieter, "I can't stand to see what it does to you. I'm worried about you, Tsuzuki. I'm afraid you're going to hurt yourself again, and as your partner I can't just stand by and allow that to happen. That's why I wish you would open up to me." Beneath the table, he twisted the napkin on his lap in his fist. "I wish you would trust me."
"I do trust you, Hisoka."
His smile was breaking Hisoka's heart. "Just not that much?" he murmured. "Or is it because you don't trust yourself?" Hisoka wished he knew, but Tsuzuki remained a blank to him. It was not like Hisoka to want to open himself up to the pain of others, but knowing anything would be better than this.
"I really am okay," Tsuzuki continued to insist, in that same nonchalant manner.
"Really?" Hisoka bit his lip as he stared at the dark surface of the coffee growing cold in his cup. "Well, I'm not. When I told you I was all right last night, I really wasn't."
Tsuzuki finally lowered his gaze. "I thought so. I just figured you didn't want to talk about it."
"Do you want to know what that guy did to me while you were with Muraki?" Of course he didn't, but that was precisely why Hisoka was going to tell him. "He had me restrained by a summoning circle. Then, when I couldn't move or use any magic, he cut my wrist open and sucked out my blood, somehow called up the curse Muraki put on me all over again, and when that wasn't enough for him, he tried to rape me. He might have, too, if Jun hadn't come to when he did and set me free."
Tsuzuki stubbornly looked away, out at the rain, saying nothing. The smile faded from his lips.
"The whole time I kept waiting for you to show up like you always do," Hisoka went on after a pause, "but you never did. It made me so angry at the time because I trusted you to always have my back, and when I thought you had forgotten about me I couldn't reconcile that. That was, of course, until I understood that I wasn't the only one of us who had it bad."
"I'm sorry, Hisoka," Tsuzuki could only whisper. "I wish things could have turned out differently, but . . . I had no idea."
"I realize that," Hisoka said quickly, "and once I had time to think, I realized it was selfish of me to blame you for any of it." He realized, too, that maybe he had not made the best decision just now in saying all that he did. Wasn't he just adding to the pain Tsuzuki already carried inside him? He was hurting so bad. It was clear on his face, which he tried so hard to make look alright with everything that came his way. "I just thought I should be honest with you. I thought—"
"You thought if you told me, I would have to tell you what happened between Muraki and me."
Hisoka felt the blood rush to his face in shame. He had been foolish, arrogant. Not that it was entirely his intention to casually guilt-trip the person he cared about most when he was so obviously suffering . . . but wasn't that what he had done nonetheless?
"It isn't something that concerns you, Hisoka," Tsuzuki said. "That's all. It isn't that I don't trust you. You've been hurt enough by Muraki, and much of that on account of me."
"But if you really trust me, then you've got to understand that and believe me when I say it's all right." He flashed the same smile again, but it was even more fragile and transparent than before, if possible. "So, please, for both our sakes, just let it go."
And if I can't believe you, that means this partnership is a lie? Hisoka couldn't believe that.
You idiot, he thought, I'm only doing this for you. But he couldn't figure out who that idiot was supposed to be: Tsuzuki or himself.
That night Hisoka dreamed like he hadn't in many years: that he was wandering in a fog trying to catch up to Tsuzuki, but just when he would get close, his partner would move out of reach and deeper into the mist. He always knew Tsuzuki was just a little ways ahead, but whenever he disappeared, Hisoka was hit with that sinking feeling of dread that he would never catch up to him again, and that frightened him. Don't shut me out, Tsuzuki, he tried to say, but nothing came out. The fog swallowed up all sound anyway.
He woke feeling less rested than he had in months. It took a while to quell the feeling of disorientation that came with waking, the dream had felt so real. So real that when he did come back to his apartment, he cursed Tsuzuki's name into his pillow, though he knew he was being irrational. It was, after all, just a dream, and no fault of his partner's.
A splash of cool water on his face brought him properly back into the waking world, and then he headed to the office the same way he did every morning.
When Tsuzuki did not show up at his usual time, Hisoka did not think much of it. Likewise when another hour had passed. Sometime after that, he called Tsuzuki's number, but only got voicemail. Knowing how much stress they had been under the last few days, Hisoka shrugged it off as Tsuzuki most likely oversleeping. That's what he told Terazuma and Wakaba when they asked where that bum partner of his was, but after a while even he wasn't sure he believed it.
It was after noon by the time he thought of asking Tatsumi when he came by if he had heard from Tsuzuki at all that day. The secretary gave him a puzzled look as he said slowly, "No, I can't say that I have. But I was thinking of asking you the same thing."
"Not a word." Hisoka shook his head. "He isn't answering his phone either. Tatsumi, do you think something could have happened to him?"
"Whatever else he is, he's always been good about calling in when he's feeling too under the weather to come to work."
That decided the matter for Hisoka. "I'm going to go check on him, then," he said, reaching for his coat. Tatsumi voiced no objection. His expression told Hisoka he was just as concerned about his old partner as the boy was. It made Hisoka wonder if Tatsumi knew something he didn't.
He arrived at the apartment to find it dark and quiet, an air hovering about it like a place that has been unoccupied for some time. Tsuzuki was not there, nor were there any of the usual signs that he would soon be back. No half-read books lying open on the coffee table, no empty glasses near the couch or dishes in the sink, nor any of the hastily removed and forgotten ties that sometimes draped the back of the armchair. Put simply, it seemed Tsuzuki had just up and left.
It was several minutes before Hisoka could shake himself out of his incredulous stare and call up Tatsumi to tell him what he had found. "It's probably nothing to worry about," the secretary told him, though by the tone of his voice, even he did not seem so sure. "When he was in between partners, he would disappear to Chijou or Gensoukai for days at a time."
Hisoka hadn't the heart to tell him how much he doubted it was anything that simple or innocent. He did not have it in him to say, based on nothing but his gut feeling, that he didn't think Tsuzuki was coming back any time soon.
Since before he could remember, the flickering candles of the souls of the living had been a strange source of comfort to the Count whose duty it was to watch over them. Others might have found it macabre to say so, another sign of his eccentricity, proof he had been cooped up there alone too long, but he saw things a different way. They were the physical manifestations of people's efforts to keep on living the best that they could. In the land of the dead, and particularly in his dark prison of a manor, one often needed reassurances such as that to get through the day.
Now was one of those times. After his meeting with King Enma the night before, he craved the familiarity of those candles' warmth. No matter what the weather or time of day, that most intimate of his lord's chambers always found a way of chilling him to the bone, even after all these centuries.
Tsuzuki had disappeared, Enma told him in private, from the other side of a reed screen. In response, he had felt he had no other choice than to deploy a unit of his peacekeeping forces to find him and bring him back. At all costs.
"At all costs?" the Count had echoed. "Don't you think that's overdoing it, your honor? This is Tsuzuki we're talking about."
"Which is precisely why I must take such thorough measures." Enma's voice hardened, and the Count could feel him narrowing his eyes as he peered at him through the screen, if not through his soul. "There is no audience here before which you need put up this front of ignorance. You know as well as I do what that man is capable of."
The Count saw no need to confirm that aloud.
"Tsuzuki Asato must not be allowed to awaken to his true power," Enma went on when he was silent. "If he does, it may well be disastrous for all our worlds. Not only Meifu, Count, but the world above ground, Gensoukai, even Hell itself. That is why he must be apprehended at all costs. Must I make myself any clearer?"
At that, the Count gritted his teeth to restrain his outrage. The demon king already knew how he felt without his needing to express it. "No, my lord, that is not necessary. It just doesn't seem fair to the child, is all."
"Fairness is irrelevant. You have been coddling that man for far too long, Count: You forget your place. We must be prepared for the possibility that Tsuzuki has grown sympathetic to Muraki Kazutaka's cause, or that he will in the near future. We cannot afford to allow his failure to destroy the doctor to be overlooked as mere incompetence any longer. If said failure is indeed revealed to be an act of treason, it must be dealt with as such for the preservation of this ministry. Do not make me ask you with whom your greatest loyalty lies: your king, or one mere shinigami."
The Count had no desire to answer such a question himself, lest he discover something about himself in the process he could not reconcile. He kept his mouth shut, even though it pained him to go along with such a plan. That was not what he wished for Tsuzuki. He knew King Enma was right to take such precautions, but he could not wish them on Tsuzuki, no matter what he had done.
But one point of Enma's he did take great exception to: One mere shinigami Tsuzuki was not. If that's all he was, their great and wise king would not feel such a need to call out his full force just to find him.
"My Count?" his steward Watson's weak, rattling voice interrupted his meditations. "Sorry to disturb you, sir, but you have a visitor."
The Count clenched his jaw. The last thing he wanted right now was to have to explain the situation to Konoe, or worse, his impertinent secretary. "Tell the chief I will speak to him some other time more appropriate."
"I-it isn't the chief, sir. It's Mr Kurosaki."
The Count's eyes widened. "Kurosaki?" The boy had actually come here? That was certainly unusual, and therefore not to be ignored.
Hisoka did not have long to wait for Watson to reappear, and this time he was accompanied by the Count of the manor, disguised as he usually was by a half-mask that rendered him invisible but for it and his gloves. It made Hisoka regret that he had come, but only for a moment, because it gave him the impression—however unfounded—that the Count would not take anything he had to say seriously.
In which case, he would just have to make sure he got his feelings across. He stood immediately and closed the distance between them himself.
"Why is Tsuzuki being treated like a criminal?" he demanded to know before the Count could get out a word. "They're saying King Enma has issued his special forces a warrant for Tsuzuki's arrest, that he's been labeled a renegade and possible traitor." Hisoka clenched his fists. "Tsuzuki hasn't done anything wrong, so what reason would Enma have to treat him this way? Tell me, Count! What that hell is going on?"
"Please calm yourself, Kurosaki," the Count said, but did not seem at all put off by Hisoka's rudeness. "Where have you heard this?"
Hisoka took a deep breath, but he did not feel it necessary to keep any detail from the Count, of all people.
"Kazuma told us. She knew how concerned we are about him, so she told our department when the order came down. She says it's superseded everything else in the Peacekeeping Division, and that some of her colleagues are already saying how eager they are to put Tsuzuki in his place." Hisoka looked down at the floor as the meaning of what he had just said finally and fully sunk in. "'In his place'? What did he ever do to them? What did he ever do to make Enma think he deserves this?"
"It isn't as simple as that, Kurosaki. Be reasonable. King Enma bases his decision on decades of experience—"
"It's bullshit." Maybe I shouldn't have come, Hisoka began to think. What did I honestly think I would accomplish? "And I can't believe you of all people would buy it—"
"If I seem to have 'bought' anything, Kurosaki, it's because it is what my master believes to be in the best interest of this world! Do you think that means I must feel the same way personally?" the Count said, putting a hand to where his breast would be. "I thought you knew me well enough by now not to accuse me of such an outrageous thing. That I would wish this upon Tsuzuki myself—"
"What do you care about Tsuzuki's well-being, beyond what concerns you?" Hisoka said without thinking. "Are you afraid of losing him or your plaything?"
Before he could say anything more, the Count grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to his chest.
Hisoka panicked. He was sure the other's lecherous and conceited thoughts would overwhelm him in an instant at such close contact, but he was wrong. Nothing came from the Count that disgusted him. Rather, he simply felt as though the pain he carried in his chest since Tsuzuki's disappearance had been magnified tenfold, so that it took a moment before he realized what he was in fact receiving from the Count. The Count was mirroring his emotions—or rather, they were the same.
And they hurt so bad. Like being run through with his own tanto's blade, except the source of this pain could not be pulled out.
The Count squeezed Hisoka tighter, and rather than try to escape, Hisoka held onto the man's body, clad—though invisible—in the warm, rich fabric of a Western suit. The feelings transferring straight into him forced tears from Hisoka's eyes, but he wasn't ashamed of them. He was more confused than anything else. He had thought the Count's feelings toward Tsuzuki were much shallower than this, but now it seemed he had been the shallow one. There had simply been no way for him to know before.
"I'm sorry to do that to you, Kurosaki," the Count said when he finally released him, "knowing how sensitive you are to such things, but it was the only way I could get my true feelings across. Somehow I didn't think you would believe me if I simply told you in words how I felt. But now you know just how concerned about Tsuzuki and how frightened for him I am, just like yourself. Now you know I'm no less angered by this situation than you are. Frankly I resent that you would presume otherwise."
Hisoka wiped the tears from his face with the heel of his hand. Now that the connection between them was broken, they didn't seem like his own. "I don't understand," he swallowed, "how all this could happen so fast."
He shouldn't have expected a proper answer after his rude behavior initially, Hisoka knew, but the Count seemed to have already brushed it off. He leaned close to Hisoka so that he could murmur in his ear. "Then please accompany me to the garden so I can explain things better. I would feel much more comfortable speaking freely there."
Once they were out in the open air, amid the dense spring foliage of one corner of the yard where their voices could not echo, he was content to open up once again.
"Like I said before, I don't necessarily agree with Enma's decision, I think his honor is being too hasty, but my hands are tied. He is my master and I have no choice but to obey him. Even if I wished to oppose his decision, I can barely leave this castle. There is very little I can do. I am constrained by my circumstances."
"You're talking to me," Hisoka tried.
"Yes, and I fear that is probably more than I should be doing. I should have had Watson turn you out, knowing your intentions here."
The Count turned to him. "You came to me seeking answers, did you not?"
That Hisoka could not refute. Rather than answer, he lowered his eyes. "None of this makes sense to me. Tsuzuki's been gone only a few days, and already King Enma is accusing him of treason. His honor wouldn't do that without a very good reason. So, yeah, I guess I came hoping to learn what that reason is, because it's obviously something beyond what I've learned since coming here."
The other forced a curious laugh. "Is it, Kurosaki? Is it really? Do you really need your empathic abilities to discern where the crux of his concern lies?"
"Then it does have something to do with Tsuzuki's power, doesn't it?"
When the Count did not answer, Hisoka decided to take his lack of response as an affirmative.
"I was jealous of his ability to control twelve powerful shikigami when I couldn't even avenge my own death," he admitted. "That's why I pestered Tsuzuki into taking me to Gensoukai. But now I'm not so sure it was so much whom he commanded that I was jealous of as how completely. He pulls people in toward him, like his heart exerts a kind of gravity well of its own." Hisoka shook his head at himself. "I don't really know how to describe it."
"I think that's as good a description as any." The Count was smiling again. "The Greeks called that charisma: a divinely conferred grace."
"That's why we've all come to depend on his presence. Even Terazuma is worried sick. But can a gift like that really be so dangerous?"
"Depending on whom one attracts to himself, and what he compels them to do? Yes. I believe Enma recognizes the leader Tsuzuki has the potential within himself to be, and realizes the rival he has in that child."
Hisoka looked away. "Which explains why he would view Tsuzuki as a traitor. Even if Tsuzuki didn't use the power he has, he would still have the potential to be a threat to King Enma's authority."
The Count nodded slowly. "Or, if Enma got his way, Tsuzuki could make his authority absolute. I have no desire to see either come to pass. And I have little doubt that if Tsuzuki knew he was being used, he could split this world into two opposing factions all too easily. Especially if he were under Dr Muraki's influence."
Hisoka started at that. He turned to the Count in disbelief, saying, "No. You've got him all wrong. Tsuzuki would never work with Muraki, under any circumstances. He hates that man more than anything. That's why he left in the first place! He was talking about finding a 'lead' to Muraki's whereabouts. He wants to put this right, fix what he failed to do before. That isn't treason, Count, it's an act of loyalty! I know the only reason he went alone is to protect me. And even though I don't agree with that, and I know it's against policy, I can't say I wouldn't do the same thing for him. Doesn't that mean I'm just as guilty as he is?"
"I don't doubt his intentions, Kurosaki. But it has long been Muraki's goal to awaken Tsuzuki's true power and use it for his own purpose, and that cannot be ignored."
"His true power," Hisoka echoed under his breath. "What exactly is he?"
"The child of a forbidden union between a human woman and a demon," the Count said without missing a beat—which made Hisoka wonder what motive the Count must have for telling him of such a thing, if it was so forbidden.
Muttering a quiet curse, Hisoka asked, "Does Tsuzuki know that?"
"No one knows that," said the other, "except myself and Enma, and now you, Kurosaki. And I beg you not to tell him. If you love Tsuzuki half as much as I do, then you know what that knowledge would do to him. You know how much it would hurt him."
Yes, Hisoka knew that well enough. Although a part of him could not help wondering, If I were in Tsuzuki's place, would I want to know the truth about myself? That was a question he did not have an answer to.
"Even Enma doesn't know the whole truth," the Count continued. "He knows what Tsuzuki is, but that is where even his omniscience ends. I alone know the identity of Tsuzuki's father, and that I will not tell you. I am taking a risk saying even that much. That secret is my burden to bear for as long as I am confined to this place, even should my sentence be for eternity. What is eternity to an immortal anyway? Or death, for that matter, but an end that cannot come soon enough?"
He turned away so that Hisoka was looking at the back of his mask as he said: "No sentence can be as unendurable as the pain of bearing that secret, but it is what I must do. That child is more dear to me than anything in this world. I know that is difficult for you to understand, Kurosaki, seeing how cruelly I treat him from an outsider's perspective, but you must believe me when I say I only do it for his own good. It is the only way I can touch him, the only way I can stand the sheer agony of being in his presence. He is all I have left. The thought of losing him is—" He fought uncharacteristically for words. "It's more frightening to me than anything."
Listening to the Count say such things about his partner, Hisoka was at a loss. Wouldn't it, by the other's own admission, just make things more difficult for Hisoka to know these things? "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because no one else has been able to reach Tsuzuki through his darkness in all this time but you, Kurosaki," the Count said, turning to face him. "That child . . . so giving to others, but he's impenetrable when anyone tries to help him. You alone could save him from himself, from Muraki. You know that already, don't you?"
"Tatsumi has told me the same thing."
"He sees the same strength in you that I do. The same strength the rest of us, in one way or another, lack."
Hisoka knitted his brows. "But it didn't seem to do any good this time."
In response, the Count took Hisoka's shoulders in his gloved hands, and Hisoka felt as transparent as the Count himself in that grip. "Do not give up on him, Kurosaki! I urge you not to give up, no matter what."
"But I don't want to give up! That isn't the problem. I care about him too much to just sit idly by and let Enma and Muraki play tug of war with his future. He's still my partner, and I love him too much to do that. I just don't know what to do! Nothing quite like this has happened before. Even when Tsuzuki was possessed by that devil, it was alright because Tsuzuki wasn't the real enemy. But now he is, and I don't know how I'm supposed to take that!" Who am I supposed to side with, when I don't even know what to trust, what to believe? "I think, ultimately, that's the real reason I came here."
The Count's hands dropped to his sides. "If that's the case," he said, "then I cannot help you. I cannot remain loyal to my master while I give you guidance that undermines his efforts. You, and the Summons Division, must decide for yourselves what you do next.
"What I will say, however, is this: Find Tsuzuki before Enma's dogs in the Peacekeeping Division do. I cannot encourage you to break Meifu law, but you must understand the importance of doing this. If you cannot do it for my sake, then do it for his."
Jaw set with determination, Hisoka nodded. He did not intend to have it any other way.
The sky over Tokyo was overcast and the air carried with it the chill of autumn, but Ukyo was surrounded by color. The roses in her garden were in the last weeks of their period of summer bloom. They filled the air around them with their scent, each one slightly different and unique, each one carefully chosen for another.
Most of the plants she had now reminded of her childhood fiance, though they had not spoken face-to-face in ages. That was his doing, she knew with her own well-being in mind. He would not tell her what horrible things he had done for that distance to become necessary—what strong but tiny kernel of his old humanity remained within him would not allow him to—but Oriya had been much more forthcoming. The irony of keeping such beautiful living things that tied her to such a beautiful monster was not lost on Ukyo, but there was a more practical reason to their predominance: Muraki's roses tended to outlive all the others.
She went from one bush to the next, first deadheading it and then cutting the stems most suitable for displaying indoors. It was a slow process if not particularly a painstaking one, and an old coffee can with water covering its bottom kept the stalks she had already cut from drying out. Not that there was any fear of them wilting.
After a short while, she stopped to straighten her back and tighten the knotted handkerchief that kept her dark hair from falling into her face. It was upon doing so that she spotted the stranger slowly approaching her gate.
Upon first glance, he looked like a figure who had stepped out of a different time—like a lonely film noir character suddenly transported from the silver screen into this modern Tokyo suburb. It was not particularly cool, but he wore a long black trench coat over his black suit and tie and white shirt. His pale skin and dark, rakish hair were likewise devoid of color.
His eyes, however, were an entirely different matter. Their burgundy irises shone with a vibrancy that the rest of him was doing its best to cover up.
But it was his sad-looking smile that struck Ukyo with a strange sense of deja vu she could not will away. Something in it, taken together with the shape of his face—something she could not put her finger on, reminded her uncannily of him. It sparked a queer feeling within her, like she had known this person all her life, yet she could say with absolute certainty they had never met before.
When he came to a stop outside her gate, he called out: "What beautiful roses."
It was just like something he would have said. "I'm afraid the man who gave them to me deserves the credit for that," she said, removing her gloves and slapping the loose dirt from them against her thigh.
"You don't say," he said curiously, as though to himself. Then: "I'm sorry. I'm looking for a woman named Ukyo."
There was nothing unusual in that, but she found herself saying nonetheless without thinking, "I think I've been expecting you."
He tilted his head at that and flashed her a charming smile. "We haven't met before, have we?"
"No. But I know why you're here."
She also knew somehow that his presence was an ill omen, like a crow on her fence, but she opened the gate for him. There was something intangible about him that told her they shared a common purpose, born of a common acquaintance, and the common hurt that resulted from it. They were also both, in some sense, on the run, and she felt a defiant sense of kinship with the stranger because of it.
I will protect this man, she said to herself—more a prophecy than a vow—though she did not know from what. Only that she recalled swearing the same upon an orphaned, broken boy of seventeen two decades ago. This time, however, she would not make the same mistake.