AN: No spoilers whatsoever in this one. This happens in the same continuum that "The Architecture" does, and precedes it chronologically, though they can be read in any order.

As always, I'd be grateful for any tips on how to improve my writing.

Have fun reading!

- Cytrus


Elusive Dominion

The immaculate white door of the hospital room did not make the slightest of sounds as it crept open, allowing Tsuruya entrance within.

She squinted lightly when the joyous morning sunlight fell directly upon her eyes. The room was filled to brim with reflective surfaces, all in pristine condition, giving it an unearthly glow. All dark colors had been denied access within and a combination of white and green, the hues favored by the Tsuruya family, reigned supreme.

More than used to seeing this decor on a weekly basis, Tsuruya's eyes slowly drifted over to the hospital bed resting against one of the walls. She noted that the design on the covers had once again been changed, now showing a rich pattern of golden dragons and lizards. It was no mystery the staff tending to the patients in the luxury wards went rather far to placate their more eccentric customers.

When Tsuruya's gaze met that of the older woman occupying the bed, she immediately felt a taste of the deep scrutiny and commanding presence which would usually be enough to make the doctors crumble under pressure and meet the female's demands. Nevertheless, she neither lowered her eyes nor felt much discomfort.

She approached her host with practiced grace and perfunctory caution, taking advantage of punctilios prepared for formal meetings: measured steps, back straight, controlled breathing, slight smile. There was no hesitation in her manners.

She bowed deeply. Her long hair, now clasped together into a single ponytail not to get in the way, moved across her back but did not fall off. She spent a second in this position and then straightened again.

"Elder Tsukasa" she hailed "I've come as you wished."

The open windows let in fresh air, and with it the scents of the nearby flower gardens. Just beneath them, however, was the distinct smell of recently-baked pancakes. Tsuruya's polite smile widened minutely in recognition. Underneath pretentious appearances, humans only had to deal with other humans. People with likes and dislikes of their own who had the exact same need for food and sleep and were equally likely to make a misstep. In a way, it was comforting.

The old woman was observing her closely, but gave no indication that she saw the change in expression. Rather, she seemed preoccupied, silently turning over things in her head while Tsuruya patiently waited for a response.

"You may unclasp it, child" Tsukasa finally spoke "I know you hate having your hair constrained."

Tsuruya nodded in understanding, but made no move to release the containment. The silence between them stretched, and Tsuruya's smile unhurriedly did the same.

Tsukasa let out a deep sigh and beckoned for her to come closer. Contrary to what her demeanor had suggested up to that point, the gesture had to it a weariness and impatience born of old age – it was a sharp, but slow and pained motion.

Tsuruya approached obediently until she was in arm's reach of the elder. Tsukasa's gesturing did not cease, however, and Tsuruya relented to inch her head forward, making the distance between them even more meager.

Tsukasa's fingers ceased their movement and she reached out her hand to grasp the luminous streaks of Tsuruya's hair. Her arm moved up and down in a gentle caress.

"You remember the old times, child? When we spent our summers together you would always berate people with such humble hairstyles. The reason was, you had some peculiar associations with the shape their hair formed."

Tsuruya blinked in surprise. As the recollection came to her mind, her lips twitched laughingly, but she won the internal struggle not to react otherwise. That didn't last long.

"Was it earthworms?"

She exploded into unrestrained laughter. The invigorating sound grew louder, quieter and then louder again. It filled the previously stale room and even slipped out into the connecting corridor.

"No fair!" Tsuruya cried haltingly between consequent bursts of laughter "Cheap shot!"

She reached a shaking hand behind her back and untied her hair in a single decisive motion. The wild mane joined the room's furniture in its reflecting of light as it swayed along with the teen.

Like she always did, Tsuruya quieted down gradually. She was much alike a rainstorm; it came suddenly, fierce and unexpected; first a thousand raindrops to give warning, then a hundred thousand to pierce the sky, before an endless sea of projectiles strikes the world below with insatiable fury. Only with the entirety of existence under its heels would it relent, leaving in its wake a radiant rainbow and a few precocious seeds now ready to flourish as flowers. All this was imbedded in Tsuruya's twinkling eyes, betraying the glee she was holding back.

Tsukasa observed her with a certain dose of satisfaction and a soft smile on her face. She found traces of both her daughter and herself in the young woman before her. She allowed the memories of those past days to linger in her mind, mingling with the present. And all she saw only reaffirmed her previous conclusion.

"I have decided."

Tsuruya turned to listen with a devil-may-care grin gracing her features and Tsukasa noted bemusedly that the girl's sparking eyes were daring her to cut to the chase.

"I no longer have any doubts that you shine greater than anyone else in the Tsuruya family. Those who are above others should be ready to take their place at the lead."

The dimmed sound of a car's horn going off came from somewhere outside and Tsukasa turned her head to the windows, as if mildly interested by the noise.

"Despite the current situation, child" she coughed painfully "No, because of the current situation, the Tsuruya can't afford weakness. Orders have to be given and carried out immediately if we want to survive. That's why we need someone with the authority and ability to make decisions on the spot. A new leader," another cough "My time has yet to pass, but I want you to stand up to the challenge. To share with me the responsibility of the head of the Tsuruya family."

Tsukasa had broken eye contact deliberately before not to see the slight protest she expected to now be present on her protégé's face. Effectively, she had been prepared to cut off the forthcoming negative response and enforce her decision. But as the silence persisted, she felt her resolve weaken.

And even as the thought that she was giving away a minor victory appeared in the back of her head, she moved her sight to meet the gaze of the teenage girl. This day, it seemed, was designed to be full of surprises.

Tsuruya's eyes now shone with a slightly sad light. But no matter how deeply Tsukasa peered into them, she could not find the smallest trace of amazement, of some kind of shock. Tsuruya's mouth was fixed into a small and pained, but visible smile. With all of her being, the girl was displaying an expecting and accepting stance.

Over half a century earlier, Tsukasa had found herself in similar circumstances, taking her position prematurely, along with an unwanted burden she was assumedly the only one fit to bear. Except back then, she had lacked the strength to retain such a stoic posture throughout the trial.

"The elder of the family," Tsuruya spoke lightly "is the one who leads it towards the future. The one who directs its effort and commands its fortune. All for the sake of the greatest possible common good," and her tone became wistful "But there are times when no good may come from a situation, and the choice is not whom to help, but whom to sacrifice. Is that not so, elder?"

Only then did it occur to Tsukasa that her intentions might have been read beforehand. But if so, how long ago? Not mere minutes, no one could forge such preparedness in so short a time. Was it hours, days? Or maybe, just maybe and she shuddered at the thought, her heir had foreseen this the very moment the black tragedy had claimed its first victim's life?

In which case… Tsuruya would also know the terrible truth behind her request.

XXX

Report on: Non-induced occurrence C078 (II)

Written / Undersigned by: S.E. Mori

This report was written in response to requests for further clarification regarding non-induced occurrence C078, with the additional purpose of summarizing recently acquired information on this matter. Although the occurrence remains C-ranked, it is advisable that this report be read with utmost care due to suspicion of EE involvement.

Also, teams responsible wish to assure that all necessary steps have been taken to retain the secrecy of all C078-related issues and prevent the public from spreading information regarding, or possibly regarding, it. A list of associates that have been made aware of this situation has been added at the end of this document.

Events that fall under conditions required to be classified as belonging to C078 have begun in April, at approximately the same time as the implementation of our agent in the target educational institution. Notably, events preceding those catalogued could have been overlooked, allowing for the supposition of C078 being a response to increased activity and appearance of EE01 agents. This, however, cannot be currently confirmed.

C078 could be described as a series of nearly fatal somatic damage incidents with no recognizable medical cause. The typical victim was afflicted with peculiar waves of weakness and unexpected loss of consciousness. Few details are known about the victims' behavior prior to their transportation to medical facilities.

Occurrence rate was high in Europe, the USA and advanced eastern countries with fewer reports coming from Africa, Southern America and mid-Asia. Despite careful research we are as of yet unsure whether this signifies that occurrence rate rises accordingly to the technology advancement level of a location (as proven to be the case with EE01 agent placement) or it is merely the effect of the inability of less developed medical equipment to properly diagnose this condition.

Despite remaining under medical care, the victims all soon became unresponsive and unwilling to move. Most were diagnosed with either shock or psychological illnesses. Their conditions worsened over time, ending in a coma in all noted cases.

The victims themselves seemed to possess no common characteristic. Among them were both males and females, youth and the elderly, white collar workers and those engaged in physical labor. Most of them without prior records of serious medical conditions.

C078 was not suspected as a case of EE involvement until late July, when reports concerning new cases stopped coming from all over the world at the same time. The following emergence of a slightly modified version of this occurrence reaffirms suspicions that C078 was merely an 'experiment'. Furthermore, extensive research led us to notice an unnatural quality of C078 in the period between April and July.

In any one of various locations around the world a single victim would be afflicted, without fail, every three hours and seventeen minutes.

XXX

Kenji watched Tsuruya storm out of the room, noted both the hasty manner in which she did so and the fact her hair was now undone, commented on neither, acknowledged the girl's presence with a simple nod of his head and did not otherwise change his posture.

Tsuruya measured him with a sharp glance, halting for no more than half a second. While he was sure his dark glasses hid his eyes and nothing could be read from the pristine way he held himself, she seemed to decipher the question on his mind without so much as a sliver of effort.

Not that she was willing to answer, not quite, not at all. As the elder's top bodyguard Kenji knew more than her on enough topics already not to deserve another advantage. He was so informed, in fact, that…

"Tsukasa suspects she will soon die"

Oh, she quarried. But Kenji saw it for what it was – a demand presented with no intention of backing down until the order was fulfilled, with so much force and confidence it was neigh impossible not to give under it. And Tsuruya's stare pierced him with ease enough to make him feel inadequate, his experience and years of service, keeping people out and information in, notwithstanding.

From this feeling alone, without having heard a word of the preceding conversation, he understood he was talking to the head of the family.

"Yes"

Tsuruya nodded her head and thus ended the not-quite conversation. Her business completed, she slowly distanced herself from the bodyguard.

His answer was bad. It meant she couldn't stall.

Kenji was left with the childish feeling of pride in having uttered the single word that had left his mouth relatively unwaveringly and strongly, not reflecting his inner imbalance. A weak consolation for acting like a lap-dog to a child it was, but it was also better than nothing.

Just when he expected her to disappear behind a turn, a giggle-like sound reached his sensitive ears. His senses did not lie to him – Tsuruya turned back to give him one last look, and her lips formed a mischievous smile.

"You only work for us, Kenji," she berated him jokingly "And yet it bothers you as much as it does me. Not many like you are left, these days," the smile widened "Honorable knights, I mean," and with her next step, she was out of his vision.

He'd be damned.

XXX

To an outside beholder, her wandering around the hospital must have appeared directionless and chaotic. But Tsuruya cared little for keeping up appearances when there was no one in the corridors to see or question her actions.

The highest level of the facility was reserved for VIPs only. Appreciably, it meant that the order of things was rarely, if ever, disrupted. The calm and quiet required for rehabilitation were, after all, a luxury in and of themselves.

But as to every coin, there was also a flipside to this one. Even those well acquiesced with the reserved life of a dignitary could feel the solitude of their own existence a thousand fold more acutely when stripped of their workload and hectic lifestyle. The halls of impregnable silence would only serve as a grim reminder of this fact.

Tsuruya found that pacing around the place at once helped her organize her raging thoughts and disturbed her deep inside. The solemn atmosphere was yet another chain her disposition had to break through whenever she felt the need to smile, laugh, be herself.

It was, she mused, a grotesque journey of numbers and names, the former forged from glistening gold and the later in the form of smart, black, easily replaceable labels hung on the doors. And Tsuruya's thoughts reflected them both; wealth and connections tinted in gold, orderly and clear in her mind. Beneath that more fragile recollections of meetings, smiles and, like a seal of approval imprinted on each separate drawer, the first times they made her laugh.

When she stopped in front of room 707, the decision was a matter of the name, and not the number.

XXX

Likely, the solemn sigh of the door handle giving under the weight of her hand was the first sound to shake the silence of the room that day. Had the circumstances been any different, she would have taken it upon herself to cheer up the place – she would sing, dance, joke, walk on her hands if that was needed. Only, the shallow breathing of the sole occupant of the room held her bewitched into quiescence.

It was two weeks ago, those flowers – she recalled; and they were still tangible and real, the scents and shy colors of ruffled petals, more so than the music of that day or the people she had met or the words she had exchanged. And he had promised her, after she had laughed at their modesty compared to all others in the garden and laughed at his admission that they were his favorite and laughed while telling him it was great to have individual tastes – she received a smile in return, and he had promised her to bring her a bouquet the next time they were to meet.

The velvet feel of thyme petals caressing her fingers initially puzzled her, before she understood it was her hand flowing gently over the plant and not the other way around. She had not registered approaching the bedside and the flower vase next to it.

This silliness in her own behavior made something within her snap. She spun round, flailing her arms, letting out an elegant and drawn-out laugh and allowing it to become more and more carefree just as her movements grew more and more errant. Her feet led her first in circles, then rectangles and then figures no human could readily name, crazily accelerating with each step taken.

She did not stop until her back slammed into one of the walls with violent force. It did not exactly bother her, if she had even noticed the impact, and the volume showcasing her mirth decreased only minutely. She pushed herself off the wall gleefully and spread her arms out in a theatrical gesture.

"Been a teensy bit erratic lately-sa, but you will not bear a grudge for such a petty thing now, will you Minoru-kun? It wouldn't be pretty not to be forgiven-n, so I'm counting on you."

Tsuruya let all that out in a single breath, ignoring the sleep of her listener and the lack of any kind of response.

"You see-sa," a small smirk halted her words for a second "Well, you don't. But I sought advice, and came to you. Which, come to think of it, was the worst choice possible! Not only are you ignoring me," she cast him a dangerous glance "But wasn't it you who said responsibility wasn't his cup of tea? No, nyoro?

"The thing is, I could use your words of encouragement," another reproving glare "You're faring beautifully, Tsuruya-san; I couldn't do half as well, Tsuruya-san; don't falter, Tsuruya-san," she tapped her feet in mock annoyance "It's not like they are convincing, but I got used to them anyway. And I'd love to hear them again, so get better soon-n."

Somehow, her energetic voice grew softer as she went on, even with no one to appreciate the change. Silence returned once more as breath slowly returned to her breast and blood left her reddened cheeks in the aftermath of her tirade.

"Tsukasa wants me to become the head of the Tsuruya, you know," this time, her voice was nothing above a whisper "I've been waiting for this for so long, wandering what I could do for the family, this town and everyone."

"But what motivates Tsukasa is fear. Right now the Tsuruya, no, everyone is afraid. Tsukasa will pressure me to sever ties with the other families – to minimize 'possible risks'. Instead of helping you and the others, joining forces to find the cause of this and a cure, we will alienate ourselves and leave everyone else to rot. And, with time, the other families will follow this despicable lead."

"Minoru-kun, you never told me what to do, when what remains of a dream is only a warped and wicked image."

He didn't. And his pale, pale lips were not about to open and speak.

She knew, because she allowed herself the spoiled luxury of waiting to confirm it.

"Muahahaha!" Tsuruya's demeanor changed like the path of a ball after a meeting with a baseball bat wielded by a highly seasoned batter "I'll be back! So get moving or get me megas disappointed!"

The door opening caught her mid-spin but not off- guard as she went from her typically wacky maneuver to a disciplined bow without devoting a split-second to catching her balance.

When her eyes met that of Minoru's parents, she was already ready to assure the pair that the Tsuruya were doing everything possible to help their son.

XXX

The change which became apparent in C078 at the end of July was twofold.

Firstly, the targets of the occurrence were no longer random. Number of victims worldwide drastically decreased, to rise significantly in the far east only. Additionally, post-pubescence but generally young and healthy people were selected as victims. Considering that all victims of C078's second stage so far have attended prestigious schools and universities, or were otherwise notable for their academic results, research teams have put forward the arguable notion that "intelligence" or "wisdom" may be the new basis of victim selection.

Secondly, a noticeable change has been noted in the symptoms. Victims no longer lose communication ability immediately after the first attack. Other than appearing distraught, victims have shown no instantaneous adverse reaction, some of them even claiming to be alright when questioned. However, after a varying amount of time, ranging from fifteen seconds to three minutes, the victims experienced shock and massive blood loss – later attributed to extensive internal damage of unknown source.

The death ratio among the afflicted currently stands at 71,3 percent. All other reported victims remain in a coma.

XXX

Tsuruya found herself unexpectedly alone.

The full moon behind her played with her features and illuminated the alley with a sparkling light. Every few meters the radiance would melt into the glow of a street lamp, but everywhere else it reigned supreme, and it glistened off window surfaces with an admirable tenacity – from all directions and all angles.

Had she the option to, Tsuruya would have chosen no other night for her solitary stroll through the neighborhood. The charm of mystery lured her in and her steps inevitably took a bounce to them, reflecting her climbing mood.

It had been childishly easy to secure lodging for the night; and not much harder to do so for three consecutive days. Her innocuous friend Mikuru would not turn her down and the guise of a sleepover could not be seen through.

Tsuruya knew that, for some reason, Mikuru was hard to track down. No parents, no source of income and no known connections. The mascot-like beguiling female was nothing short of an enigma, and Tsuruya did not balk at the prospect of killing two birds with one stone. First and foremost, she was keeping off the radar of her relatives, and delving into the mysteries of her classmate was a subsidiary affair.

Of all the observations she had made, two stood out the most. The first one was, Mikuru kept a lot of weird gadgets of purpose unknown in her room. So many, in fact, that Tsuruya had to wonder how all of those things could exist with her being none the wiser.

And the second one was that the girl would vainly do her best to hide some of the aforementioned gadgets from Tsuruya's sight. "Vainly" was a carefully chosen euphemism.

"Muahahaha! Flee in terror, flee in fright, this Tsuruya prowls at night!"

Her mirthful song reverberated through the streets, amplified to the extreme by an ambiguously looking miniature gizmo, and met with plentiful response. Various residents of the night alleys: dogs, cats and small rodents alike all gave voice in an indistinguishable fury of sounds. When this chorus was adjoined by the cursing of newly awoken local citizens, it was too much for Tsuruya to contain another one of her infamous outbursts. The hearty sound of her laughter left an imprint on the chaos of the ending day.

The cacophony of sounds enraptured her and Tsuruya froze in the middle of the desolate street, her grin growing ever wider with every passing second as the surrounding noise grew softer and more distant until, slowly but surely, they became one with the encompassing silence.

She considered time-travel a whimsical notion, but, it seemed, evidence for it was determined to accrue over time.

Satisfied, she disposed of the device by throwing it into the air, and then swallowing it whole, as per Mikuru's instructions. The benign redhead agreed to Tsuruya playing with her toys, provided she would not be caught with them. That this consensus only came after minutes of skillful coercion goes without saying.

What Tsuruya did not account for, however, was that futuristic-looking devices could taste… all shades of offensive.

"Yuck! Yuck! Yuck-sa!"

The dark-haired teenager hopped about in a dance reminiscent of ancient tribal rituals, flailing out her tongue and chanting "yuck yuck yuck" vividly, rapidly, over and over again. Her valiant struggle against the foul taste bore little result, though.

It was not until a few minutes of her agony had already gone past that Tsuruya gave up her dancing and slumped dejectedly onto the pavement. Mikuru's honest pleas "not to" resounded in her head, and she felt more foolish than she had… in a whole week. A week is seven days long, mind you.

If not for her naturally cheerful disposition, as well as the fact that her misery occupied her too much for coherent thoughts, she would have been more than ready for a vituperation session towards the heavens and all that miscellaneous stuff above and below them..

Fortunately, Lady Luck, who was neither above nor below the heavens – just a bit to the side, thought it to be the right moment to stop playing blind and spin that rusty wheel of hers in the other direction, providing the much-deserving girl with a distraction in the form of a-

"Meow"

-yes. A meow.

"Yuck, yuck, yuck…"

"Meow!"

Tsuruya's surprised eyes met the narrowed pupils of a wispy street feline. The visibly annoyed creature was doing its best to indicate she was blocking its path. Had it been any other day, the cat would have chosen an alternative route and bypassed the teenager. But, as it had been awoken not a minute prior by an explosion of noise one doesn't hear twice in a single one of their nine lifetimes, it was in a rather grumpy mood.

And Tsuruya would have acted differently, had it been- No. Scratch that. She would have been equally ecstatic either way.

"Kitty! Come here kitty-sa!"

Any other day.

"Ouch! Megas pesky bugger!"

The feline struck and retreated into darkness, its glowing eyes growing quickly smaller in the distance. Tsuruya was yelling threats she didn't really mean after it until long after it was gone from her sight.

This entire ordeal earned a mean snicker from Lady Luck somewhere near the heavens and a weary sigh from Tsuruya. A bad night to end a tumultuous week.

This thought didn't remain in her mind for long, however. She mechanically took out a handkerchief to wipe the fresh blood off her hand and tied it around her small wound. She was positive she had been vaccinated against any diseases the stray cat could have been carrying, but she would still have to at least clean the bite properly. Which meant she would be returning to Mikuru for another night.

She picked herself up from her crouched position on the street, took one last glance at her surroundings lest any more night critters appear and come at her, and once more sighed wistfully.

"Even the best of men have fruitless days, no nyoro-"

The sonorous sound of her cell phone ringing cut off her exclamation. She tensed. The artificial chiming penetrated the calm of the night, causing a stir like her earlier yelling had. But she no longer noticed. She didn't care. Not with this specific ringtone filling her ears.

Her healthy hand retrieved the communication device from one of her pockets. She raised the flashing screen to her eye level and scanned the number on the display. Her lips formed into a satisfied smirk.

"Just as planned."

The phone ringed twice more before she flipped the clasp open, initiating the connection between her and the dialer.

"Tsuruya," she confirmed with family name only.

"What do you expect to achieve by doing this, child?"

"Everything."

Tsuruya barely held back her laughter at the lack of an immediate response.

"Everything?"

"Yes, everything," and with fake deliberation "Everything you have the power to give me, at least. I'll take care of the rest myself."

"What exactly do you mean?" the reply was almost calm. Considering the circumstances.

"You will rescind all your recent orders, dismiss your advisors and dispose of all means of affecting the decision-making of the family. You will discard not only your position, but the entirety of your influence."

And then…

"And then, you will leave behind all responsibility. Whatever disaster or greatness my naiveté may bring down upon the Tsuruya, you won't be accountable for. Finally, Tsukasa… you'll be free."

The following silence was so bittersweet Tsuruya could taste and counted every second of it.

"If I didn't know any better, I'd say you've grown arrogant, child."

"And I might just banter it's something in our blood, Tsukasa."

Neither meant what they had said. But neither could be sure of that.

"Don't feel pressured to answer me immediately, elder."

Tsuruya flipped the phone closed, terminating the connection without waiting for a response. She was giggling a second later, not stopping until she had to stifle a yawn.

She could not tell what the future might bring. But at least one decision was already behind her. For the rest of the night, she herself was, also, free.

And maybe the day was more fruitful than she had anticipated it to be. This notion plastered a wide grin on her face.

Then she took a step forward and died.

XXX

It was nearing midnight and the stars of the night sky twinkled happily, reflecting their light on the white-tiled floor wherever gaps in the curtains gave them passage. The air was warm and pleasant. The calm wind streaking in through the slightly open windows did not disturb the female resting in her bed as she turned all she had heard that day over in her head.

The hospital was burrowed deep within its tranquil dreams. With no patients wandering out of their rooms so late past curfew and no footsteps signifying a doctor on patrol, she could give her thoughts undivided attention.

This state could have gone on of not for the sound of soft shoes landing on the floor.

Tsukasa did not expect anyone to interrupt her. She most certainly did not expect the one person now standing before her. But she refused to show surprise, and her chiseled expression remained as it was – calm, disinterested.

"Visiting hours are over, child."

The dim lightning of the room did nothing to impede the intensity of their staring each other down. Tsukasa's glare was reprimanding and severe; Tsuruya responded only with a slight, sad smile – her absolute substitute for words as both of them tried to wordlessly find a weak point in the other's resolve in the stretching, stretching silence.

But a gaze which had witnessed-lost everything could no longer be pierced, and the inevitability bound within it could not be surpassed by what was merely hominal.

Tsukasa was the first to falter.

"Fifty years ago," her eyes traveled to her old, wrinkled hands closed on her lap "I was in the same situation, in your place," now even that was elusive, and she thought herself inane "Back then, I fought a battle to free the family of its past and make it look towards the future."

Tsuruya did not answer.

"The previous head knew it was time for her to hand over the responsibility, but was still reluctant to do so. At the time, I thought that, rather than myself, she was fighting against some personal demons."

The old woman let out a sigh.

"And now I understand – the foolish pride which never lets go – maybe the greatest vice of us Tsuruya. What she faced then, what I am experiencing now and what might await you in the future."

She closed her eyes and allowed herself to relax.

"I will not choose my insecurities over the well-being of the family. I concede to your conditions. Be proud."

And having uttered those words, Tsukasa visibly deflated, as if an actual physical weight had been taken off her chest. Still, Tsuruya did not respond.

She would not until an hour later, when Tsukasa's breathing became deep and regular.

Tsuruya walked up to the bed with small, hesitant steps and took the opportunity to support herself against the wall once it was within her reach.

A single drop of sweat went down her forehead, accentuating the trembling of her frame. She was no longer covering the utter exhaustion that had overcome her.

Her melancholic smile did not change, but her eyes softened as she laid her heated hand on the older female's cool skin.

"Rest, elder. At least for you, it is time to let go."

She glanced around the room and tilted her head as if listening to something. And then her smile widened weakly and a small laugh followed.

"You know-sa" she spoke maybe to Tsukasa, maybe to herself, maybe to something else "when I said I wanted everything, I might have bitten on more than I could chew."

Regardless of the addressee, no answer was forthcoming.

A minute later, Tsuruya stepped away from the bed and allowed her translucent self to unite with the night.

XXX

Panic. Reach out nothing open your eyes nothing scream out nothing shake cry whimper nothing nothing nothing.

But panic was merely release and not the overwhelming, piercing, stupefying awareness;

The human anatomy was a nigh illimitably complex structure reliant on a number of fundamental mechanisms. Cells, exemplarily, were microscopic systems capable of producing energy by means of chemical reactions exploiting the oxygen supply present in the atmosphere. Respiration required proper working of the diaphragm, windpipes and alveoli, on the route towards and within the lungs; a special system incorporating red blood cells would carry the oxygen afterwards. In effect, the gas would travel a human's arteries with the blood pumped by the hearth. Should any element of this system fail, cells would stop generating energy, forcing the organism to cease functioning.

Tsuruya knew was certain all of this and could therefore be aware diagnose her own,

Death.

She certainly had no heartbeat nor was she breathing. Logic said – logic was cruel but fair, wasn't it? blind but infallible, wasn't it? – she was no longer, no longer, it said, among the living. Logic, which had seemed so close but was foreign, distant, unfeeling. Logic! But it wouldn't bother telling Tsuruya how she could be both dead and conscious.

release unbind unfetter set Free

Death was no heaven. And it was no hell, no tunnel, no light, no river, no gate, no sky, no pit, no thing no-thing nothing. Nothing.

And she couldn't scream so then she craved and yearned and

darkness pierced by Light, silence torn by Sound, nothing unto Something.

Dull pain filled her self – never before had Tsuruya felt so pitiful, so complete, content and exhilarated.

Her mouth opened; no air was there to leave it but that didn't matter, her ears heard; only roiling buzzing and crackling but that was palatable, she blinked and saw. That was fine!

They appeared, and her mind was beyond relieved to focus on something distinctly physical in the pervading blackness. She did so hungrily, ignoring the violent protests of her watering eyes – the radiance was scorching, but she couldn't care less. The sparkling mass of insects converged before her, reflecting seemingly nonexistent light. The ooze-like substance they composed appeared to vibrate in the windless void.

With a violent spasm, the ooze lurched outwards. Its form thinned and stretched; small trickles formed elaborate patterns and intertwined to make up appendages. Ripples distorted the surface, depriving it of its glow but leaving behind enlivened and varied colors. The mass was slowly becoming more defined, gaining more human characteristics with every passing second. Tsuruya could already discern fingers extending from the creature's metacarpus.

Then it stopped. The construction bent, groaned, flashed. A tremor shook its incomplete form, shattering it like glass. The broken pieces spun errantly and flew inwards, then smashed into each other before coalescing in a focal point, the display reminiscent of a card tower falling to pieces, except the gravity was skewed and refused to pull everything down.

"If there even is a down here…" Tsuruya thought.

She couldn't even be certain of that, which automatically made things bad. But her disordered composition was coming back to her – her thoughts were coming quicker, becoming clearer. She had to compose herself, then and there. It was dangerous – the abnormality; every instinct told her to run. She already knew this was death. Her actuality still yearned for life!

But any such musings were cut short when, finally, the boundless nothingness was filled with comprehensible sound.

itis isthis nocanbeisnot whynothowyeshow

And then, the small erratic whispers united into a single, deeper voice.

"You are not Asahina Mikuru's time variant."

The blob went with stating the obvious. With quite a grave tone too. But Tsuruya was too focused to grace this declaration with a reply. The "time variant" babble went over her head, her interlocutor being a blob seemed to become a non-issue… But the hair color!

"It's blind" her mind yelled at her. It had to be to mix her and Mikuru up. "Fear not what cannot see!"

The thing paused for no more than a second.

"You are not her and yet you persist."

If Tsuruya wasn't inclined to answer before, she certainly would not volunteer to explain that, technically, she was no longer among the living. If blobs could speak, they could probably also listen. But not necessarily listen to reason. No, she was intent and waiting for it to make its next move.

It didn't disappoint.

The mass shot out in all directions; resuming its shapeshifting with hastiness incomparable to that of its previous attempt. Bodies formed, imploded and reformed in front of Tsuruya's eyes at an astonishing rate. An elderly man. Smashed into pieces! A cheerful schoolgirl. Torn asunder! A face she vaguely recognized flashed before her, held for a second, and then shared the fate of its predecessors. Numerous more came in its place. Ceaselessly.

The idea she knew some of those faces was like a small pinprick in the back of her mind. Not a moment later, the certainty she knew all of them, had to know all of them, was more akin to an explosion.

Soon, the virtually unknown visages gave way to those she was all too familiar with. It was not that she was fearful; it was once more incomprehension – realization which shook her fledging resolve. Because she noticed a pattern in the selection of apparitions.

She wasn't breathing to begin with, but nevertheless felt as if she was being choked when the final revenant appeared. Despite the light, despite the pain, her eyes widened in mute horror. Before her stood none other than Shiraishi Minoru.

"Minoru-kun."

Like each and every of the degraded images that had come to her before, he was another faultless victim of the great disease. But Minoru kun was… She had visited not a week prior! He was moribund, there!, not to live and not to die for years to come. But here!

This copy was almost perfect. It smiled the way Minoru would, it wore his favorite clothes and had his slightly arched posture. It did not lack colors or precision in details.

The only difference was a huge crack going across the boy's face, from the forehead to his chin, splitting his expression into two. Tsuruya could only stare in abhorred distaste at this cruel mockery of her friend.

"Tsuruya-san"

The same tremulous voice, the familiar wavering in the last syllable and the unmistakable worry of a companion seeing a person close to him in distress. And now, now it knew her name.

In the omnipresent darkness, Tsuruya could feel but not register the tear streaking down her face. Her undivided attention was on the specter before her, whose head tilted uncertainly, whose eyes trailed something on her face and whose lips parted slightly as if seeking to utter words of consolation.

Tsuruya craved air. Needed it to scream.

Was this some Buddha-blasted form of divine retribution cooked up for her to atone for sins of her past selves she had no idea of? Hell? Lucifer's way of spicing up what little free time he had? Something so high above her she could not comprehend it even if she tried?

"No." she thought impulsively, instinctively, as if her existence depended on this denial.

"No gods have to hide under the pretense of illness to deal out judgment. No divine being is bound to a snot-like form, desperate to change it-"

"Tsuruya-san, We have come to many of your kind, and yet none before could survive us."

"-this can speak and it can reason. And it can make mistakes-"

"We have finally found a means, an exception…"

"-which means it can be rebuked, can be overcome-"

"Come," the doppelganger extended its hand towards her "into Us!"

"-can be defeated!"

"Get lost!"

The hand burst into a thousand particles and the apparition recoiled in shock.

"I don't know what game you're playing here, fellows-sa," she seethed out, her hand in front of her – visible proof she had moved "but I'm afraid I won't be partaking."

The phantom trembled, shook its arm, and its lost appendage slowly reformed. It fixed Tsuruya with a curious, almost impressed, stare. Several lines of static seemed to pass through it, as if it was reformatting itself.

"Tsuruya-san, Our sincere apologies." The thing bowed deeply.

Tsuruya blinked.

"We now ask you to step not behind, but alongside Us."

An invisible impact made her double over before she had the chance to respond. The blackness filled with vivid hues, first blinding her and then reforming into familiar pictures: flickering, flat and with their colors washed out like the projector displays of ancient cinemas.

Spring five years ago. When her never-to-be brother died.

Two weeks later, when her mother followed his trail.

Two years ago, when her still-grieving father vanished without a trace.

How gloriously orchestrated this show was. How dazzlingly precise the selection – thrice she had shed tears in her life before this day. And how convincing the wretchedness of existence! How very real and full of sadness. And yet…

Yet her heart revolted. Without waiting to see more and with hardly half the contrived grace, it assaulted her with other images. That of her mother's reassuring smile as she was wheeled off to the emergency room. That of a thousand umbrellas opposing the heavens, as it rained so, so hard at the funeral. And, nobody but her knew, her father's words of farewell.

"Seems I stayed three years," with the once-revived Cheshire grin which was his, but would be hers "must have been for your sake. You know, were I to return, it would also be-"

Which was enough to make a voracious smile fight its way back onto her face.

And once it succeeded, the abominable recollections trembled and fell.

Tsuruya did not watch the broken pieces being swallowed back into the darkness. Her defiant eyes traveled to the creature waiting motionlessly. Her challenge hung in the air.

The being itself was nonplussed. The always gentle face of Shiraishi Minoru twisted in a rare frown. His eyes went between showing surprise and outrage, before haltingly turning into begrudging acceptance.

"Humans are needful beings," it spoke absently "Their ambition and desire cannot ever be fulfilled and therefore they become lustful for power beyond them to satisfy their needs, to solve their problems for them," it paused as if to collect its thoughts and grew calmer.

"That, Our research has ascertained" the thing looked at the splintered remains of Tsuruya's past "And yet, so little can be seen. So little ambition, desire, wanting… How much did We bargain for?"

When the final shards died, the surrounding blackness seemed to become even darker in comparison.

"But maybe, this too, was inevitable."

There was no warning for Tsuruya before the agony came.

It hit with the force of a thousand sledgehammers. She twisted, fell to her knees. Her face contorted. Her teeth clenched to suppress a scream. Her eyelids slammed shut. A second-eternity of this anguish passed, and found her but a trembling mess.

And then, not with her eyes but her mind, she saw.

Death. Anger. Destitution. Revulsion. Violence. Tears. Fear. Sadness. Prejudice. Spite. Betrayal. Arrogance. Desolation. Regret. Jealousy. Theft. Shame. Vanity. Lies. Treachery, Hatred. Abandonment. Rage. Disappointment. Discrimination. Revenge. Hunger. Apathy. Isolation. Deceit. Cruelty. Longing. Temptation. Greed. Spite. Grief. Malice. Despair. Rejection. Wrath.

"…"

The aftermath was quiet – of perfect, utmost silence.

She laid broken. Her trembling hands unhurriedly, unbelievingly went to her face to confirm her cheeks were moist, to feel the tears falling from her eyelashes, nose, chin… Wondrous, that such unseeing eyes could produce so much liquid, she thought.

The sound of shuffling feet was incredibly mundane and sinfully comforting.

Tsuruya's limp head was lifted by the cool hand of what had approached, enabling her to see the face of Minoru. An impeccable face with no cracks, nothing at all to signify this was merely a detestable copy of the dying original.

She couldn't cry because her eyes were already lacking water and she couldn't punch the smiling monstrosity because it hurt so much. Everywhere.

"Humans. Ourselves. There is no difference at all," it whispered with the caring voice of the devil "The vice of selfishness is the most apparent, most outstanding. However, beneath it exists another demon, to whom only the greatest are susceptible."

Tsuruya's lifeless eyes never moved.

"The strong desire to help others, to right the wrongs of this world, and from it the fear of being helpless, unable to do a thing."

And her lips parted minutely, as if letting out a gasp that was never meant to be.

At this the abomination let out a good-natured laugh, not of its own but carefully crafted from the memories of Minoru.

"You can end this," without releasing her head, the apparition extended its other hand in a gesture of encouragement "You can undo your fear and have everything you desire. Just take Our hand, join Us, become Us, and the suffering will be over," the mellow eyes of her friend bore deep into Tsuruya's mind.

When her own hand slowly rose in response, Tsuruya mostly thought about the nightmare that was moving in her current state.

Mostly, because there were other things, and she hesitated just before reaching the creature's hand.

"Everything?" her voice was hoarse, and as she said this, she broke eye contact and her gaze fell towards the blackness below.

"Anything you desire," it answered readily. Tsuruya's hand moved slightly forward, her fingertips now resting on the specter's open palm.

"To create… and to destroy?" silently.

"As you wish," it hissingly affirmed.

Tsuruya's hand rested on the devil's.

The inhuman laughter that filled the void could never have come from Minoru's mouth. The monster's gloating would send chills down the bravest man's spine, but Tsuruya did not care. She listened for whole minutes.

Then it stopped laughing as her grip became so damn hard and what was she thinking?

It couldn't read those downcast eyes.

"There was once a gal who fell to the vice of curiosity and opened a certain box," Tsuruya narrated coolly "What came forth from its depths were all the horrors of man: plague, sickness and death. And when she hurriedly closed the box, but a single occupant remained, asking to be released. And so, Pandora opened her box a final time."

Her fierce gaze rose to meet the being's angered eyes.

"Out came hope-sa."

She shifted and pulled the creature closer until their faces were an inch apart and its smell of rotten eggs assaulted her nostrils.

"Give me the power, and I will obliterate all that is foul, all that does harm, all that will stand in my way."

It knew – she was threatening it, mocking it, and her grip never loosened, gaze never wavered.

Possibly, they were the same. First there was lust and, beneath it, fear.

"Everything."