In a nearby place an immense distance away, on another page of the book, the face of a silver-haired man staining himself in blood under a cherry tree turned inexorably toward a green-eyed boy in a loose yukata who stood watching killer and victim, momentarily too shocked to flee. Soon he would run, though, and the man in white would pursue, and capture, and lay a grasp on the boy's flesh that even death would not erode. For, now, though, the demon was raising his head.
He raised his head. Somewhere behind his eyeballs something began to throb in protest. "Hakajima," he said, voice a little hoarse from the long hours he'd put in, "you take it from here."
As the woman slid in to perform her finishing touches, the man in the long white coat spotted with blood slipped rubber second skins from his hands and into the waste disposal slot.
"Doctor?" The voice was that of an intern who had arrived yesterday, a sallow, squinting youth with a habit of drawing his upper lip into his mouth to gnaw at it. A weak sort of character. He was probably chewing hard now, under the mask. "Will he make it, doctor?" But his heart was in the right place. "Doctor?" he said again, when the doctor went on watching the gurney without acknowledging him. "Will he—"
"He'll live," said the doctor, not because he knew it would be the case but because the patient was not allowed to die, and therefore he would simply say his will as fact and intend to make it so. You could not make such promises to patients' families, of course, but it was alright to an intern. With nineteen hours of medical staff time, thirty yards of bandaging, and a metal plate in his head where a falling beam had shattered the bone beyond all healing, the green-eyed boy would live. Because Muraki said he would.
In the doctors' lounge, which was a glorified break room with a carpet, Muraki, since he was alone, allowed himself a sigh that ruffled his bangs and let them fall again across his forehead like warm snowflakes. He reached for the coffeepot. Caffeine would be, if not a necessity, a great assistance in getting home without encountering a ditch or wall in an intimate fashion.
The query came unexpectedly, not far from his left ear. The coffee sloshed slightly. He put the pot down and turned to the colleague who had addressed him. "Yes," he replied. "I was working overtime as it was."
"Who on?" Toagi had a peculiar hunch to his back and shoulders that Muraki thought should have been corrected by surgery when he was a child. Perhaps that was why the old man had gone into medicine in the first place. Muraki put his unsullied coffee cup back into the cupboard.
"Kurosaki," he said.
"Ah, yes. Dreadful," opined Toagi, his narrow beard waggling as he shook his head. "Part of the skull actually missing, as I understand it. The admitting doctor expected him to be dead last night. Still working your miracles, Muraki-kun?"
Muraki managed a thin smile at the compliment. He wished the old goat would go away. "I'm sure we all do our best," he responded. "But I have every hope that the Kurosaki case will pull through. Isn't it late?"
Toagi glanced at his watch and started slightly. "Heavens, it is! I'm missing my program. Good night, Muraki-kun!"
When he was gone, Muraki forgot about him, except as a lingering slight touch of annoyance at still being called 'kun' at thirty-two. Now, there was that diagnostic from the laboratory to look over and put away for tomorrow, and then he would leave.
He sailed out of his office after that last detail was attended to, down a flight of steps, through a narrow door to his usual shortcut through gynecology, and past the G-3 nursing station, pretending as always not to notice the way the nurses looked admiringly after him. There was no point in encouraging them, although the attention was rather good for his private conceit. But a waste of time. So he ignored the nurses. It was after he had swept past them and down the hall a few yards that he found himself obliged to halt.
Muraki, if pushed to admit it, knew in his heart that no matter how he improved it would be impossible to save every patient who came under his hand, yet he clung to his original ideal that no patient in his care should ever die. He knew the steadily diverging conception and reality were driving him slowly around the bend.
But he had never expected that to cause him to see handsome men in trench coats come walking in third-story windows. He glanced back at the two women in the nursing station. They had clearly noticed nothing, and they were certainly looking this way. Muraki moved down the hallway, toward the tall young man, trying not to betray either to the probable mirage or to the nurses that he felt he was approaching anything but a corner with a window in it, where he would turn and head toward the pediatric wing, and from there to his car.
Not betraying anything to the man in the black coat became quickly easier as the stranger turned around to speak out the window. A moment later another tall man, this one coatless but wearing a neat suit, with his hair carefully parted, stepped through the same window. "Tsuzuki," he said, addressing the first hallucination and tugging his vest straight, "Breaking and entering is only acceptable department practice when there is no more reasonable alternative."
"It's alright," said the one called Tsuzuki, smiling what Muraki found a pleasant smile, although not entirely genuine just now. "Coming in the front would probably get us lost. Hospitals are built like that."
A very slight, long-suffering sigh. The hallway was not nearly long enough to let Muraki approach them forever. Even having paused to look in on Mrs. Moegi and to adjust his glasses while pretending to scan an ancient playbill for The Firebird that someone had tacked up on the wall of the corridor, he had reached them now. He turned past them without letting his eyes acknowledge them at all, then stopped at the next window along. The windows were usually kept closed for sanitary reasons, of course, but he could both feel and smell a slight, smoggy late-spring city breeze coming in the open window to his left. "We'd better get down to business," said the tidy intruder, who wore glasses himself, and reached up to adjust them, much as Muraki had. "Before the boy's death can be arranged, we have to find him."
"Yes," the man in the coat nodded. "What was his name, again?"
"Kurosaki," replied the tidy one. "The room number was more my concern."
Muraki was, by now, as angry as he was astounded. Schizophrenic symptoms or not, these men were here to arrange the death of a patient! And not just any patient, though that were enough, but that beautiful boy he had been working all day to pull back from the edge, who he had sworn to himself he would simply not let death have.
And it went without saying these strange men could not be allowed to hurt him. So as they made their undetected way toward the nurses, coatless trespasser in the rear admonishing his partner-in-crime against filching the nurses' donuts, Muraki turned from his window and strode away with steps that were nonchalant and easy until he was out of sight, then steps that were anything but, into the pediatric wing, the tails of his lab coat flying behind him, to the private room that both the parents Kurosaki had insisted their son be placed in. They had been oddly adamant about him having no company, Muraki remembered with a touch of suspicion. Had they been expecting spirits in long coats to come for him?
But he couldn't imagine that a child's family would be part of a complicated arrangement to have him killed. That was nonsensical. The shed that had collapsed on him had belonged to the neighbor of a relative, and the parents had spared no expense to save their son, even if neither had been seen to shed tears. They were proud people, and they simply wanted their son to have his privacy.
He reached the room and brushed through the curtained door. The pink paisley clung to his sleeve for the moment he spent in the doorway gazing across the room at the patient in the bed nearer the window. Bandaging swathed more than half his head, and the oxygen mask strapped over his face was the upward badge of helplessness. Muraki strode the rest of the way into the room, turned his back on the child, seated himself on the empty bed, and waited.
"-zuki, what kind of shinigami you are." The dry voice of the second intruder filtered through the curtain.
"Here it is," replied the first, not in direct response. A long hand inserted itself between the curtains and the door frame and opened a space in which a face appeared. An intense and purple pair of eyes stared past Muraki to the young patient against the far wall. "This one," affirmed the face.
Muraki raised his head. "Hello, gentlemen." His hands were trembling, very slightly, and he stilled them. He was excited. More, he was thrilled. The one had called the other shinigami. That meant, if they were real at all, that this was Death, the death he had sworn to conquer at every encounter, come in person to claim a patient from him. He would not let them pass.
The death started and stared at him. His face retreated for a moment only to be replaced a moment later by an entire body, followed by the other. Muraki stood, facing down the pair of threats with their folded arms and measuring eyes. They were impressive, but he was determined that he could be more so.
"Who are you?" It was the death in glasses, without a coat, that had spoken, in a voice cold enough that Muraki had to work to be colder.
"Doctor Muraki." He let his name hang for a moment, then spread his arms, blocking their way. "You can't have him."
"So you're the one behind these disruptions," said the death in glasses, reaching up to push them up his nose. "What are you trying to gain?"
"Tatsumi…" said the prettier death hesitantly, "I don't think he's getting anything out of it."
"If nothing else," replied the death in glasses, "He stands to gain a reputation. As a doctor who brings back the dead, however he's been doing it."
His cures? That was what had brought them here? Death had come to investigate those he had snatched from its jaws?
He was simply a very skilled doctor. Even Toagi and fools like him only called his work miraculous figuratively. If it was something else…something he could improve at… "This boy is my patient," Muraki said. "I will not let him die."
"He's already dead. It's his time," the neat death answered. "You can't cheat death forever, doctor."
"I will cheat you." As he spoke, Muraki felt as though he might do anything, might be able to do anything, if he could only realize how. It was like the state of concentration that descended during the most difficult of operations, when he was aware of everything and able to think everything through more quickly than he could hear himself thinking. Something was on the cusp.
The death in glasses adjusted them, so that they flashed white reflections across the room, and then he did something that Muraki could sense without sensation. The shadows around him began to writhe, hungrily, and Muraki pressed his lips together, and reached out in a way he had never realized he could—except the motion felt familiar, and he knew he had reached like this before, in the surgery, at the crucial moment when everything needed to go perfectly and the patient had to be coerced into living through the invasion and damage to their body…
He took the energy the carefully groomed Death was gathering to move the shadows and swallowed it, and the one in the coat reached into his breast for something and opened his mouth on a word that vortexed more energy, and Muraki swallowed that, too. It was uneasy to hold inside him, not because it seemed to be a very great power but because it was in bubbles, bubbles like air in water that are constantly anxious to expand. He felt giddy. So he punctured the bubbles and sent the energy to Kurosaki-kun, ordering him again not to die.
The coated death blinked. "Tatsumi, did you feel that?"
"Of course!" snapped the one in glasses. "Like a vampire."
"No, I mean after that. He sent it to the kid."
The neat Death stared at Muraki as if his eyes could perforate the doctor of their own accord and make him fall out of the way. "They're tethered together," he pronounced at last.
His fellow nodded. "So that's what it's been." Both satisfaction and a sort of startled respect were conveyed in the coated death's voice. "He's just been holding them here. Until they heal."
"And vanish from the kiseki."
Muraki had figured out how to strike back now, and he did it. The blow slashed invisibly across the room toward his enemies. The messier Death threw up his arms with a cry, and the other bent his head and weathered the blow. He looked up. "No practice," he said of Muraki. "No power."
The doctor ground his teeth and lashed out again. The tidy death stepped forward to take the brunt of it this time, and the one behind produced a strip of paper—an ofuda—from his coat and spoke a word, and Muraki drank down the power of it only just in time as it was released and hurtled toward him, and he reflected that the capacity of a strip of paper to hurtle like a missile was proof enough that magic was in the air. Both of Death were looking at him now, the obstacle between themselves and their prey, but he saw the rear Death's purple eyes flick past him to the boy, and at that he struck out again, and again. Some of his force was deflected, some absorbed as punishment upon his opponents, and at least a little of it simply missed its targets. By the time he stopped to catch his breath, there were cuts across the forward Death's cheeks and brow, and both looked just a touch unsteady. But he was running out of strength. He would have to stop them quickly and for all, or they would break past him. He gathered every scrap of energy he had left out of himself, into his hands for a devastating blow, and felt his knees buckle in the absence of so much strength, and as he descended toward the floor he took aim at Death.
And then he was aware of a change, the absence of a sound he had not even been aware of until it stopped: Kurosaki's quiet breathing. He looked over his shoulder toward the soft childish profile rising above the bed, stiller than it had been when he had entered. While he had been distracted, while he had put his energy into repelling death in the flesh, it had become too late. The child had given up, let go of life. Muraki clenched his jaw as he fell, and hurled all the power he had gathered to the boy, and more, power he had not known was there on his first comb through, with the command 'live.' He hit the floor. A soft, rattling breath rose from the bed, then strengthened and grew even within heartbeats, but Muraki did not hear.
"I hate this job," said Tsuzuki, his voice honestly bitter. His hand clenched on the steel foot of the bed Muraki had been sitting on. "I really hate this job." He looked across the room to the bed where the boy lay senseless, then down at the tall doctor lying prone at his feet.
"Properly," said Tatsumi, into the silence, "we ought to do something about this doctor's power-drawing while he's unconscious. Without his support, Kurosaki will die as scheduled."
Tsuzuki's only answer was a grinding of teeth. "Please, Tatsumi," he said quietly. "Can't we just…"
"Management will have a fit if you throw another case."
"The boy's name might already be gone."
"Maybe." Tatsumi crossed the room, bent, and picked up the doctor, who was about his own height. He pulled the senseless body over one shoulder like a fireman.
The other shinigami said nothing.
Hisoka Kurosaki became slowly aware. Last time he had done so he had managed to perceive nothing but the pain, and the feeling from those around him that he was going to die, and had sunk down again into darkness, but now he was mostly conscious of the amazing, splendid fact that he was alive. He opened his eyes. Eye. Only his right responded; the other seemed to be taped shut; but the right eye alone communicated to him a cheaply tiled ceiling touched with morning sunlight. He tried to turn his head and found that that, too, was secured against disturbance.
A voice came from his left side, on which he could not see. The owner of the voice was a woman, and delighted both with her day and his revival. "You're awake?"
"Yes," said Hisoka, not possessed of the sense of humour to answer 'no.'
The owner of the voice circled around and appeared on his right, clipboard in her hand obscuring part of her face – a nurse. That made sense. They put you in the hospital when you had a brush with death, which he knew he had. Her face agreed with the feeling he had gotten from her, for it was creased by a broad smile. "Now, I'll need to take your temperature and blood pressure now that you're awake, and then ask you a few questions to see if you remember everything. Sometimes things can get lost after an acute head trauma like you've had." She suited her actions to her words to the letter, pronouncing his temperature normal and his blood pressure as good as could be expected, reading the questions she had for him from the clipboard, and writing down his answers. He could answer them all, but they were easy. His name, his age, the date, his home address, five times four. He hoped he had not forgotten anything. While the nurse put her instruments away on the wheeled tray they had come on, he decided to find out what his injuries were like.
The nurse nodded happily to herself, reading down the clipboard to check her check-marks. "Doctor Muraki did good work on you."
Hisoka's hand paused, then continued its journey to his face to run his fingertips gently over the gauze swathing half his head. "Doctor Muraki?"
"Stop that." The woman pulled his hand firmly away from his face. "You have to lie still, and don't touch the bandaging, even when it starts to itch. Doctor Muraki was your surgeon. You were lucky to have him. He assembled your skull pretty much from scratch. You'll have his mark on you for the rest of your life, mm?"
"Yes," said Hisoka quietly as she wheeled the cart away. "I guess I will."
In another world, just the other side of the shadows, a boy woke up in his bed with a wet gasp, consumed by the feeling that something terrible had happened to him. But he couldn't think what it was, and put it down at last to a bad dream. He got out of bed and went to get his breakfast, while the curse burned into his skin twined into him and began to…arrange his death.
How's that? 'Doctor Muraki defends Hisoka from Tsuzuki, god of death.' You know it could happen, if Muraki weren't evil and had a habit of tacking souls into their bodies while he forced them to heal. Tsuzuki doesn't like what he does, and he cries about it (well, that was why Tatsumi broke with him in the first place, wasn't it,) but he does do it. And as far as Tatsumi being there, when they surely split long before that, well, maybe Tsuzuki bumped off another young partner by reconciling him with his past, and Tatsumi's been stuck with him on temporary assignment.
Regarding Muraki's little instinct-driven magical performance, he has psychic-vampire abilities, so who's to say that if he were thinking differently he couldn't suck the energy out of a spell? Whether Tatsumi will give in to Tsuzuki's begging and let him go on with this power is another questio…oh, who am I kidding, Tatsumi's going to cave. Isn't he?