Requiem in Flame

Without Touda's power behind it, hellfire doesn't burn. It smoulders.

Now, as Touda settles silently to the ground, no longer actively encouraging the devastation, it also settles down until it clings to the ruined buildings and the ground like moving, flickering oil. Oil-flames hot enough to burn a shinigami to ashes.

Tsuzuki arrives without fanfare. He enters through the ring of flames, and where he steps, the hellfire dies as if smothered, as if there's no oxygen left in the air between one moment and the next.

The sight annoys Touda, and with a slight nudge the flames leap up higher than ever behind Tsuzuki.

"Hello, Touda," Tsuzuki says, as if they had chanced to meet in a garden in GenSouKai. "How are you going?" He glances around, wrinkles his nose. "I can smell charred flesh. Have you been killing people?" The tone is gently chiding, perhaps a little hurt.

Touda coils down onto the ground, long limbless body sliding over and over himself, until his head is only slightly higher than Tsuzuki's. "Perhaps," he says.

Tsuzuki stops less than an armslength from Touda, tilts his head. "Oh?"

Touda has nothing more to say. After a moment, Tsuzuki smiles and reaches up to run a hand along the cold scales of Touda's head. Touda feels himself blurring, shape changing without his direction, but after an original, instinctive moment of resistance, relaxes and lets Tsuzuki do as he wishes.

When the world reforms itself, Touda is on his knees, human formed once more, and Tsuzuki has one hand in his long, tangled hair. Touda looks up at him, eyes going wide at the casual show of power.

Tsuzuki's smile doesn't change as he says, "Sorry. I guess I'm used to seeing you in this form."

Touda doesn't object, but privately wonders just how much control Tsuzuki has over his own powers right now.

Tsuzuki is looking right through Touda, still smiling, and Touda is beginning to worry. "How goes the rest of the battle?" he asks, and is relieved to see some sense return to Tsuzuki's thoughtful, distant eyes.

"Well enough," he says, and withdraws his hand. Touda stands - without undue haste, he hopes. "It would go better if the others weren't so reluctant to fight."

Touda isn't sure what to say to that. It is a measure of Tsuzuki's strength that even as his mind fractures and splinters in front of anyone with eyes to see, he has still managed to hold all twelve Divine Commanders to his will.

Finally, Touda murmurs, "To turn so suddenly against the Golden Emperor is an enormous shift in loyalty. It must be hard."

It's the wrong thing to say. Touda watches Tsuzuki's pupils contract, then dilate, and Touda feels Tsuzuki's power shudder. For a moment it seems to die down, and Touda suddenly realizes he can breathe. He hadn't realized just how oppressive Tsuzuki's power had been.

Then the overwhelming power returns, and Touda takes a step back at the ferocity. This isn't the oppressive, smothering force of a thousand tons of water. This power is alive, dancing around Touda like a thousand blades. Its snap is the snap of ligaments breaking, and its crack is the crack of breaking bones. It's so real Touda can taste it. It burns his throat when he breathes.

Tsuzuki's power when he arrived had scared Touda, in a way that went deeper than rational thought. This doesn't. Touda's own power sings in response, and the hellfire that encircles them roars to life, dark flames leaping one hundred metres high and blocking out the light.

Tsuzuki's smile widens, as if he doesn't feel the almost unbearable heat. He takes Touda's hands. "The Golden Emperor killed Hisoka," he tells Touda earnestly. "We have to make him pay. Otherwise Hisoka won't be able to rest in peace."

Touda looks down at Tsuzuki, poor, insane, dangerous Tsuzuki, and wonders how much of his mind will be left at the end of this war he's created. Touda suspects not much, if Tsuzuki is still alive at all. He suspects that the more power Tsuzuki uses, the more strain it puts on his mind. He suspects that some time in the next day or two Tsuzuki will hit his limit and his own power will eat him alive.

It can't be helped, Touda supposes. After all, when you get down to it, Tsuzuki is a human, and humans are notoriously bad at surviving. They always care too much, in the end.

Tsuzuki's grip has tightened on Touda's hands until Touda's bones creak. "You won't leave me, will you?" he asks, his intensity trapping Touda so that he can't break away. "Please," and his face twists in distress, "I really need your help. Please say you'll help me."

Touda sighs, extricates himself. "I've already said I will, Tsuzuki," he says. Tsuzuki's face lights up as if Touda hasn't already told him this countless times over the last few days. "The Golden Emperor is strong, though. You'll need to keep control."

"Right, right," Tsuzuki says, and he does control himself a little. Perhaps there is still some hope. "We have to find the Golden Emperor so we can kill him." He says it like a mantra; as if it's something he's said a thousand times.

Touda pauses, struck with the sudden impression that they're not going to win this battle, let alone this war. Then he dismisses it. It doesn't make any difference to him.

Miraculously, Tsuzuki has managed to pull himself together, somewhat. He sounds almost rational when he says, "The other shikigami are coming along behind. They don't want to get caught in your hellfire. When we've breached the defences of the palace, they'll catch up to us." Then he ruins the impression by catching Touda's hand again. "You'll come with me, won't you? You're the only one I can trust."

Touda hesitates, but nods. "I've wanted the Golden Emperor dead for a very long time. I wasn't strong enough to kill him myself, though. Don't underestimate him."

"This time, we'll all work together," says Tsuzuki, resolute, earnest. "But please try not to kill too many people, alright? I don't want innocent people to die."

They've had this conversation before, too. "My fire burns friends and foes alike. If you become distracted, it'll destroy you too."

"I won't," Tsuzuki says, as if there's any chance they're going to survive this. He turns to start moving, then hesitates. "Um, it is this way, right?"

Touda softens, despite himself. "To your right," he says. Tsuzuki laughs sheepishly, and heads off in the right direction.

"I knew that," he calls back over his shoulder.

Touda watches him go for a moment. It's a pity, to be sure. The one person that matters most to Touda is destroying himself before Touda's very eyes. But it truly can't be helped. Even broken, even insane, Tsuzuki is still Tsuzuki, and Touda lives by Tsuzuki's will. That's not something he has a choice about. It's a law more immutable than gravity.

Then Touda smiles, and with a leap ripples into his hell-serpent form, hovering over Tsuzuki protectively. Perhaps Tsuzuki is mad. Perhaps the world is mad. It doesn't really matter, in the end. Touda's waited six hundred years for this war, and hellfire is finally licking through his veins. He's going to enjoy every second of it.

Tsuzuki is almost certainly going to die, but Touda doesn't care anymore. Death is nothing to be afraid of. He'll give Tsuzuki a funeral they'll fear to speak of for a thousand years more, and when he follows Tsuzuki, he won't regret a thing.