It was starting to get dark. The two nuns watching from the porch were looking from the dim sky to their watches, but it was a special occasion. Asuka Souma was back to visit, and he was even acting his age instead of like a sullen teenager. From what that nice boy from the Ten-ryuu had said, that was even more rare now than it had been. There were many children who'd been at St. Francis' long enough to remember Souma, and of course there was Subaru, who treated him like an older brother. Most of the new kids had joined in. They all seemed to be having so much fun that the nuns just let them keep playing.
The nice boy - he'd introduced himself as Tachibana Riku, but he had the sort of manner that made the nuns all think of him as "that nice boy" - had watched, mostly. For a while he'd joined in, but now he was off with Sister Chiyoko seeing Souma's old room. He wasn't there, at any rate, when one of the boys looked up toward the gate and said, "Hey, look!"
Everyone looked. It was a boy, ten years old. He had bleach-blond hair in a ponytail, and brand-name clothes and sneakers. He also had a pair of black Chi-ryuu wristbands and a Drive on his hip. The nuns and the two-year kids all recognized him at once. His name was Yamada Hikaru.
He looked over the crowd, starting to smile, and then he caught sight of Souma, holding the ball frozen over his head and staring back. The nuns were used to reading boys' moods. If they'd had the authority to give toujinshi chores, the two of them would have immediately been made busy on opposite sides of the building. They weren't angry, not quite, but they were something confused and dangerous that made each boy's eyes flick to the other's Drive.
"Come on, children!" Sister Sakura said quickly. "Come help with dinner. Right now, no arguments!" Maybe they sensed the mood, because there weren't any. Everyone but Souma and Hikaru followed the nuns inside, leaving the two toujinshi to stare at each other. The ball bounced in the dust.
"Hi, Karu," Souma said after a while.
"I brought a kid here to live a few days ago," Souma explained. "I wanted to check on him."
"I was in town for work, so I thought I'd visit." There was an awkward silence while Souma tried not to guess what the work was, and Hikaru tried not to wonder how Souma had met a kid in need of an orphanage.
"Look," Souma said, "I wasn't. . . "
"Souma?" That was Riku, coming out of the building. Hikaru made a choked little gasp as he recognized him. "Who's your fr. . . " He spotted Hikaru's drive. "Chi-ryuu? What are you doing here?"
"Me? If anyone has no right to set foot here, it's the Ten-ryuu." Hikaru's hand hovered over his Drive. Riku ran up and stood in front of Souma, holding his left arm out as if to keep Souma back, or protect him. He didn't move to draw, but his Drive hand was conspicuously free.
"Stop it!" Souma shouted. "Riku's here because I brought him." Hikaru's face twitched in disgust, and he looked from Souma to the Ten-ryuu Head standing protectively over him. "And Hikaru came because he used to live here," Souma added to Riku.
"Oh." Riku relaxed, looking sheepish. "You two know each other?"
"Yeah," Hikaru said, "we used to be friends." Souma winced. "You Ten-ryuu should leave."
Riku knew something was wrong but had no idea how to smooth it over. He groped for something normal-sounding: "Well, we should catch the train anyway. Come on, Souma."
"Yeah," Souma muttered. But he trailed behind. "Karu," he said softly as he passed, "please. . ."
Hikaru sneered at him. "You can wait here for Mashida-sensei and have a shikigami battle in the orphanage yard, or you can get the hell out." Souma's eyes shimmered, and he turned and ran after Riku.
Once they were gone, Hikaru paced up and down the empty yard. So what if he'd made Souma cry? Souma always cried. Was Hikaru supposed to owe something to a kid standing behind the Ten-ryuu Head? In the front yard of St. Francis'? The traitor deserved what he got. In fact, he was lucky - Mashida-sensei would never have let him leave without a fight.
It's not like he'd expected Souma to happily work for Mikazuchi his whole life. He had a good reason for that grudge. Hikaru had helped him sneak away, hadn't he? He'd thought Souma might not be coming back, whatever the little liar had said about just wanting to talk to his brother. But he'd never dreamed Souma would fight for the bad guys. Or bring one of them here. Hikaru had never really believed in the sisters' God, but if anything was blasphemy, that was.
But he couldn't just stand there and be mad all day. His team was in town investigating rumors of demon sightings. In theory, Hikaru was here to make sure the orphanage was secure. "Chuukichi." The translucent shape of his shikigami appeared beside him - young and mouse-like, wearing a headband and scarf, and sitting with dangling feet atop a giant scroll. "Do you sense anything?"
"Not really, man. I think I smell something, but it's so faint I'm not sure." The toujinshi nodded - Chuukichi had said the same thing at several other spots. He pulled out a toujinfu card and tossed it straight up. It activated as Detect and red lines of energy spread as far as Hikaru could see. But despite his careful focus, he felt nothing. He thought he'd caught a twinge once at an earlier spot, but mostly he'd had even less success than Chuukichi.
"Maybe there aren't any demons."
"Well. . . maybe. I can't be sure, but it's the sixth time today I've caught a whiff."
"But you can't say what it was, where it was, or how long ago it was there." The shikigami rolled his eyes. "Sorry, Chuukichi. I believe you, but Mashida-sensei won't." The shikigami shrugged - the way he saw it, other humans were irrelevant, even Hikaru's mentor and boss. "Anyway. If I get in there in time to help set the tables, they'll probably give me dinner." Chuukichi shrugged again and disappeared.
He wasn't in time to set the tables, but the sisters gave him dinner anyway, saying he could help with the washing up if he insisted. He wound up sitting between Kai, a pudgy, cheerful boy who'd been there since Hikaru was four, and Subaru, a new kid, quiet and purple-haired.
"Boy," Kai said, "you and Souma both visiting on the same day. You guys didn't set it up on purpose, did you?" The question was perfectly innocent. Kai had never known anything about shikigami or the Chi-ryuu.
"No," Hikaru said shortly.
"Did you know he was coming? He said he hadn't seen you in a while, but. . ."
"No, Kai!" The other boy looked hurt. Hikaru sighed. "Sorry. But could we not talk about Souma?"
"What, are you two fighting or something? You used to be best. . . okay, okay, I'll shut up."
A sullen mutter from Hikaru's other side. "What's wrong with Souma?"
"What do you know about it?" Hikaru snapped at the new kid. "You just met him today."
"Nuh-uh. He brought me here, after I got sick. He's great."
Hikaru turned green. "You're the kid Souma brought here?" Growing up in a Chi-ryuu orphanage, he'd used to think amnesia was as ordinary as cancer. He'd felt sorry for the amnesiacs themselves, or their forgotten children. But now that he knew what caused it and how easy it would be for it to happen to him, they made him sick to his stomach. The connection to Souma made it worse.
"Yeah," Subaru said. "He was really nice. He said his mom lost her memory the same way, so he knew how I felt."
"Did he apologize?" Hikaru asked morbidly.
"Yeah, actually." Hikaru made a face. In hindsight, he hadn't really wanted to know. "He said he was sorry he wasn't fast enough," Subaru went on, "whatever that meant. And that he'd get them back for it. I'm not sure if he wanted me to hear that or not."
Get them back? Souma wasn't planning to betray the Ten-ryuu too, was he? Or was it the Chi-ryuu he wanted to get back at? Then Hikaru had a dizzying thought - was Subaru a Ten-ryuu? A Ten-ryuu had no right to be. . . no. Whatever he'd been, he was just an orphan, now. But it was still a very weird idea.
"We had another visitor today," Kai put in, looking at Hikaru's face. "His name was Riku." The poor kid thought this was a safer subject.
Hikaru snorted. "Did he say he was sorry, too?"
"Not that I heard," Kai said. "Mostly he talked to Souma, and then the sisters. He played with us a little bit."
Speaking of weird ideas. . . "He played dodgeball?"
"Freeze tag." Hikaru tried to imagine the Chi-ryuu's greatest enemy playing freeze tag, or talking politely to the sisters. He bit his lip. Maybe this was a good chance to get intelligence on the enemy. Most of the Chi-ryuu who'd spoken to Tachibana didn't remember it. "What did you think of him?"
Kai shrugged. "He seemed. . . gentle," Subaru said. "When Yuuki scraped his knee, Riku took him to the bathroom and washed it for him." Gentle? The Head of the Ten-ryuu was gentle? Well, there were some toujinshi who seemed mild-mannered most of the time and then flipped out when the fighting started. But Tachibana hadn't seemed like that earlier. He'd been protective of Souma, but hardly a berserker. It seemed incredible, but. . .
Hikaru dropped his fork and jumped to his feet. A big, square-faced man with Chi-ryuu wristbands and a Drive was storming into the dining hall. Startled nuns trailed after like ducklings following a bull. "Yes, Mashida-sensei?"
"You're supposed to be working, Hikaru, not loafing around here."
"Yes, sir. I would have had to eat dinner anyway. And eating here keeps the team's expenses down."
Mashida scowled for a moment, and then nodded. "So it does. Come on."
"Yes, sensei," Hikaru said meekly. Mashida jerked his head toward the door. Hikaru flashed a small wave at Kai and Subaru and followed him out.
"How much did you get done, then?" Mashida asked.
"I checked fourteen sites with my shikigami and with toujinfu."
"Fourteen? I only asked for ten."
"Yes, sensei, but several times Chuukichi said he detected something faint he couldn't identify. I checked spots in between the ones you assigned, in case there was something in the holes."
"I think so, but Chuukichi couldn't pin it down. I did sense something very faint once myself with toujinfu."
"Well, you were thorough."
"Thank you, sensei."
"But if your shikigami couldn't confirm it, it probably. . ." Mashida stopped, thinking about something. "Humph. We'll stay a couple more days. Hana's been practicing those advanced toujinfu techniques, we'll see if she can find anything." Hikaru stared. "Is that a problem?"
"Oh! No, sensei. Thank you, sensei!" Hikaru could hardly believe it. Mashida never trusted anyone's intuition but his own. "I think that's wise, sensei. I wouldn't want to be careless about demons so close to St. Francis'."
Mashida frowned and looked at Hikaru sidelong. "We're Chi-ryuu, Hikaru," he said after a moment. "We're not careless about demons anywhere."
"Yes, sensei, of course. Sorry."
"Hmph. You did good work today, Hikaru." Hikaru blushed and squirmed before he could school himself to a more professional "thank you." Praise from Mashida-sensei was rare. "Maybe while Hana does her toujinfu you can go show off the new uniforms." Hikaru grinned. "Did you see anything unusual today?"
The grin disappeared. This was the part where he told Mashida that Souma had been there. "No, sensei," he said quietly.
"Fine. Back to the hotel, then."
Hikaru's heart was beating double time. He'd lied to Mashida sensei, for a traitor - it was Souma, but still, a traitor. What was he thinking? But his teacher didn't look back, didn't notice his nerves.
The sign by the gate said "St. Francis' Home for Orphaned Children." "Yuuma, I don't want to stay here," Souma whined. He hadn't really stopped crying since that scene in Mikazuchi's office. Yuuma wished - well, he wished a lot of things, but at least he wished his six-year-old brother hadn't had to see that nightmare. "I want to go home with you."
"I'm not going home, Souma. I have to move to Tokyo, be a toujinshi."
"How can you work for Mikazuchi?" Souma wailed. "He's a murderer!"
"Shh!" Yuuma knelt down, pulled Souma into a rare hug. "Don't say that, Souma."
"He killed Dad!" Souma said, not much quieter. "And Mom, she didn't even know my name!"
"Shh. I know." Yuuma squeezed his brother tight. "But you can't ever say that," he whispered in Souma's ear. "Not ever, not even when you don't think anyone's listening. They're saying Dad was a traitor."
"He wasn't! He loved the Chi-ryuu!"
"I know. But they said wanting to cooperate with the Ten-ryuu was treason. And if they ever think we're disloyal, too, they'll do to us what they did to Dad. Or to Mom, for me. We have to pretend." Souma started to sob, and choked as he tried to control it. "Hey. It's just for a while. Just until I'm strong enough to fight them. Then he'll pay. Maybe you'll be a toujinshi too, by then, and help me. I promise I'll get stronger than anyone, and he'll pay. We just need to make believe for a little while. Okay?" Yuuma let Souma go and fumbled in his pockets for something to wipe his brother's face with.
Someone reached over his shoulder and rubbed Souma's eyes and nose with a handkerchief. It was a nun, looking younger than the boys had expected. "You must be Souma," she said. "And who are you, young man?" she asked Yuuma. "Will you be staying with us too?"
Yuuma gave her an envelope, fat with paperwork and one short handwritten note. "No, ma'am. I'm his brother, Asuka Yuuma," he said, and because the orphanage ran on Mikazuchi's money, added, "of the Chi-ryuu. I have other duties."
"I see," she said. "That's too bad. We have a lot of fun here." She drew Souma close, and he latched on to her arm.
Yuuma stood. "Take care of him," he said stiffly. "Please."
"St. Francis' is a Chi-ryuu facility," the nun said, "but our calling is to take care of the children. He'll be safe here, and as happy as he can be, under the circumstances."
Yuuma nodded. "Good-bye, Souma," he said, and strode off without looking back.
The nun picked up the meager little bag of Souma's clothes. "Come along, Souma. I'll show you your new room. You'll have a roommate named, um, Hikaru. He never makes any trouble, I'm sure you'll get along." She led him into the building, through narrow but brightly decorated hallways to a small room with two futons. One was freshly made, and the other one had a boy lying on it. He was a year or so older than Souma, with black hair and dark eyes, wearing t-shirt and shorts in solid colors. He looked completely boring.
"Hikaru," the nun said, "this is Souma. He'll be rooming with you." She set Souma's bag down. "I'll let you unpack, Souma, and make friends with Hikaru." She left them alone.
"Hi," Hikaru said.
Souma looked over at him shyly. "Hi." Awkwardly, he knelt down beside his bag, opened it. On top was the shirt Mom had made him for his last birthday. He picked it up, and started to sob again.
"Hey," Hikaru said, looking over from his futon. "What're you crying for?"
"My Dad died," he sniffed. "And my Mom. . ."
"Yeah. This is an orphanage. Everyone's Mom and Dad died." He put his hands behind his head and stared at ceiling. "At least you knew them." Souma didn't find this very comforting. "Hey, kid, come on." Hikaru got up and sat next to Souma. "You shouldn't cry."
"'Cause it doesn't do anything. Nobody comes to make it better. Not for us."
"The nun ladies. . ."
"If you go to them crying, they'll hug you and stuff, and maybe say they love you. But they love everyone. It's not because you'reyou, it's just because you're seven."
"Whatever. They love you, here, but nobody ever notices you. It doesn't make anything better when you cry, so you might as well be tough." Souma tried to stop. "Okay, if you have to cry, at least be quiet?" Hikaru rubbed his back. "Just be quiet, okay?"
"You're just a normal kid, aren't you?" Souma said. He meant, was Hikaru from a toujinshi family, but Souma couldn't just say that in case he wasn't.
"Yeah," Hikaru sighed. "I'm just normal."
"I've never been friends with a normal kid before," Souma said. Hikaru gave him a funny look, and almost smiled.
"Sorry, Souma," Riku said, as they came up to his house. "I didn't mean to put you in a painful situation."
"It's okay, Riku. It was good to see Subaru so cheerful."
"Yes, but. . . I was thinking of that other toujinshi."
"Hikaru?" Souma narrowed his eyes. "He wasn't like that until you came out."
"I'm sorry," Riku said again, stepping out of his shoes as they reached the house. "He was mad because a Ten-ryuu was there."
"It wasn't your fault!" Souma said. "If he wants to be your enemy that bad, I don't care about him."
Riku stopped in the doorway. "Really?" he said quietly.
Souma turned his face away. "I knew he would be mad. That's why I haven't called him or anything, since I came here. But. . . he called me a Ten-ryuu, Riku!"
"Um," said the Head of the Ten-ryuu.
Inside the house, Nazuna had overheard them. "Someone's been flattering you, Souma," she said.
Souma pushed past Riku, stormed toward their bedroom. "I've been insulted enough today," he snapped at Nazuna. "I don't need you."
"Souma." He stopped short as Riku said his name. "I didn't think you hated the Ten-ryuu."
Souma shook his head, and tried to explain. "I don't. But even with my father, the Chi-ryuu were supposed to be the good guys, basically. Even more when Hikaru and I were training in Tokyo."
Nazuna sniffed. "Typical Chi-ryuu lies."
Souma's eyes filled with tears. "It was supposed to be true!"
"Aren't lies always supposed to be true?"
"Shut up!" Souma shouted. "What does a filthy Ten-ryuu know about being good, anyway?" Then he heard what he'd said, and slapped a hand over his mouth. "No," he backtracked, "I didn't mean. . ."
Riku's eyes looked hurt. "You never talked like that before, Souma."
"No. I'm sorry," Souma said. "You're right. We're worse than you are, now."
"'Now!'" Nazuna said. "As if. . ."
Riku stopped her with a look. "I know the Ten-ryuu's done bad things in the past," he said. "But I've been trying to fix that, as much as I can."
Souma shook his head. "No, I know! Really. Riku is good and Mikazuchi is evil, I know that. I've picked my side. I've never been sorry for helping you." He wiped his eyes. "But Mikazuchi won't be there forever. I want - I want to be part of a Chi-ryuu that's your ally, Riku. That's how it should be."
Riku was quiet for a few seconds, and then nodded. "I think I understand."
Souma looked away, embarrassed and a little shamed by the easy forgiveness. "I want to be alone for a bit, okay?"
"I'll call you when dinner's ready," Riku agreed. Souma went into the bedroom and closed the screen. He paced back and forth for a few minutes, and then got out his computer and plugged it in. He opened his email program, hesitated one last time, then started to type.
He sat straight up in bed, chasing his memories down. He knew his own name first thing in the morning, but only barely. Everything else needed a reminder - I'm in a hotel, we were looking for demons yesterday, sensei wants me, and, still with wonder after more than a year, I'm a toujinshi.
He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and stood up. "I'm awake, sensei!" he yelled, before Mashida had to call him again. "Just a minute." He quickly pulled his clothes on and went into the adjoining room.
"Good morning, sensei," Hikaru said politely. Mashida was reading reports on his computer, and just grunted.
"Morning, shorty," Hana said, tossing him something. He caught it - it turned out to be a breakfast bar, the kind they made for people too busy to sit down and eat. "We're in a hurry, apparently," the teenager explained. She then rolled her eyes at their sensei's back, in a way that probably meant, "Don't mind the old blowhard." Hikaru grinned and took a bite. He liked Hana. The way she talked about Mashida-sensei was horrible, but she was friendly and worked hard.
Mashida grunted and closed whatever he'd been reading on the computer. "Okay. Hana, today you'll be trying to see if there's anything to these demon reports with your toujinfu. You said it was complicated and difficult. It'll probably take you all day to get it right."
Hana shrugged. "If I was looking for something obvious with it, I'd probably get it on the first try. But if I'm looking for something Chuukichi couldn't be sure of, it's going to take me a few tries to be sure I've done it well enough to be sure it isn't there. I'd say early afternoon if there are demons, later if there aren't."
"Fine," Mashida said. "Hikaru, you get to go show the flag. Put on the uniform and walk around town, answer questions." Maybe he saw Hikaru's excitement in his eyes. "Not too many questions! And don't forget you're working."
"Right, sensei. I'll remember."
"You've got the whole day. Be back by six."
"Yes, sensei. Can I check my email before I go?"
"If you're quick." Hikaru nodded and sat at Mashida's computer. He accessed his email site, and saw two spam messages and one other, from Souma. Hikaru saw the address and choked. He turned it into a cough, looking over his shoulder - Mashida-sensei was putting on his shoes, facing away from him.
Hikaru's first impulse was to delete it, but he opened it instead, read the short message twice, and pressed "Reply." He typed a short message, the name of the town they were in and the word today, then sent it before he had time to wonder if this was stupid. Then he deleted both emails from his files and closed the computer.
Thathad been stupid. Even if Mashida-sensei hadn't been in the room, it would have been stupid; that just made it suicidal. But despite the itch in the back of his neck, Mashida would have given Hikaru very loud notice if he'd seen that. He'd looked over Hikaru's shoulder before, but not this time. Not trusting his voice, Hikaru waved to Hana and went back into his own room.
Hikaru had just agreed to meet with a traitor. What on Earth was hethinking?
Everyone at St. Francis' knew that Souma had nightmares. They'd expected it, what with him seeing his father killed in that "car crash," and his mother so "brain-damaged" she didn't know her sons anymore. Souma's brother had even warned the nuns about it, in his letter, in stiff, self-conscious words that suggested Yuuma knew firsthand what the nightmares would be like.
So after the first couple times that other kids reported yelling from Souma and Hikaru's room at night, a nun was sleeping close by in case it happened again. And when it did, she came in, saw Souma awake and sitting up, and embraced him. "Are you okay, Souma? Did you have a bad dream?" Souma glanced over her shoulder at Hikaru, wrapped tightly in his blankets, and hesitantly said yes. "Oh, don't be scared," Sister Chiyoko said. "It'll be all right. I'm here. Whenever you're scared, you can come find me, okay?" She held him until she was satisfied he'd calmed down, though in truth he hadn't been crying or shaking at all. She left thinking how brave a boy Souma was.
When the door closed, a ragged sob came from Hikaru's futon. Souma didn't know what to say, he didn't know how to comfort anyone. It was scary when other people cried. Hikaru shook off his covers and stood up, shakily. "I'm all sweaty," he muttered, and stripped off his damp white shirt. Souma wasn't quite used to the orphans' lack of modesty yet, and he turned away politely.
After a moment, he heard Hikaru step close. "My sheets are sweaty, Sou," he said, not looking at him. "Can I sleep here?"
Yuuma had always let Souma sneak into his bed when he was scared. "Okay." He moved over, and Hikaru squirmed in next to him with a grateful smile. "Why don't you tell the sisters, Karu? They'd make you feel better."
"I don't like them. They take care of us, but I never felt like any of them cared who I was, just that I was a kid with no parents." Souma thought that if Hikaru ever talked to the nuns, some of them might like him. Sister Chiyoko liked Souma. But he didn't want to hurt his friend's feelings, so he didn't say that. "What was your mom like, Sou?"
"She's really pretty," Souma said quietly. "She would make the best dinners, and then when she tucked me in she would tell me stories, the most wonderful stories." Souma was crying, now, quietly so Hikaru wouldn't tease.
"And your Dad?"
"When I was little I thought Dad was the smartest person in the world. He knew everything. He was strong, but he didn't like fighting. He said the only reason to fight was to protect special people, and then," Souma sniffled, "he'd tickle me."
"I wish I had a Dad," Hikaru whispered. "Someone strong, to protect me."
Souma remembered that he was going to be a strong toujinshi, so he could help Yuuma fight. "I could do it."
Hikaru giggled. "You're littler than me, even." Souma frowned. "Sou? Why don't you have bad dreams?"
"I think it's because I'm not really scared about my parents. I'm just angry." He waited for Hikaru to ask why. He was ready to tell that it hadn't been an accident but an execution, and maybe he was even ready to give the bizarre explanations Hikaru would ask for after that. But Hikaru didn't ask. "Why do you get bad dreams, Karu?"
For a long time Hikaru didn't say anything, and Souma didn't ask again. Then, just as Souma was falling asleep, he heard a whisper, "I'm so lonely," so quiet and so late that he was never sure it was supposed to be an answer, never even sure he hadn't just dreamed it. Half asleep, Souma snuggled up to him and wrapped an arm around his chest.
"Good night, Karu."
In the middle of a crowd of kids was someone in a red and black uniform, close-fitting except for the pads. A matching helmet hid his face. He looked like a hero from a cheesy kids' show. He was supposed to, actually - the Mikazuchi Group's public relations people had designed the Security Service uniform that way on purpose. Not that its wearer much cared: he was in the target age group himself, and hadn't had this much fun in months.
"What are you called?" someone asked, for the third time.
"We're the Mikazuchi Security Service."
"Your suit's red, are you the leader?"
The kid in the uniform laughed. "Red only means the leader on TV. All our uniforms are red and black. I'm just the junior fighter on B squad."
"Fighter?" an older kid said. "I thought you said you just exterminated wild animals."
He pretended to be flustered. "Huh? Oh, right. Of course, that was just a slip of the tongue." The crowd of kids buzzed excitedly at the smell of secrets.
"Wild animals? I heard they were ghosts."
This was a younger kid, maybe eight. The fighter put a gloved hand on his shoulder. "Don't go scaring people with rumors. They can be killed, don't worry. It's not that hard."
Someone called out from behind him, "How much do you make for this job?"
"The money doesn't matter," he said, turning around. "I do this so I can protect people." Then he saw the kid who'd asked, a boy shorter than him with light red hair and earrings. He couldn't help adding, "It's probably more than you make, though." The crowd laughed - the redhead was too young to have any kind of job. It didn't occur to them that the kid in the uniform was nearly the same age. "I need to get going," he said. "It's been fun, but I'm not protecting anyone by standing around here." He waved and started through the crowd. It took them a few minutes to accept that he really wouldn't talk any more, and nobody noticed that the redhead had gotten ahead of him as he slowly got away.
"'More than I make?'" Souma grumped, falling in beside him as the last of the crowd faded. They were walking out past the edge of town, into the surrounding hills.
Hikaru took his helmet off. "You started it. And anyway, it's true, unless they beat our old salary by more than ten percent. I got a raise when I transferred."
"You're kidding, right? The Ten-ryuu doesn't pay me anything. Riku gives me an allowance. Five hundred yen a week."
Hikaru laughed. "What'd you defect for, then, the food?" The pretense that nothing was wrong suddenly shattered. The two boys fell silent, and didn't look at each other. They were into the hills, now, away from people and surrounded by trees. "Why'd you email me?"
"I don't know." Souma meant that it was too complicated to say, something about Subaru and Nazuna and Riku and what he wanted the Chi-ryuu to be. "Why'd you email me back?" Hikaru shrugged. He really didn't know. Yesterday, he'd thought he understood Souma, and Tachibana, and himself. Today, things were fuzzier.
"When you left Tokyo, you told me you weren't going to join the Ten-ryuu," Hikaru said. "You promised."
"I know," Souma said. "I wasn't going to, honest. I was just going to find Yuuma, but he. . . he wouldn't listen, and I met Riku. He offered to let me stay with him, and I didn't have anywhere else to go."
"That's what you did it for, wasn't it?" Hikaru said. "You did it for Tachibana."
"He's not like you think. He's different from the Ten-ryuu they told us about, he's. . ."
"Gentle?" Hikaru finished.
"Huh? Um. . .yeah."
"That's what Kai said about him. But just because he cleans up a kid's knee or, or lets you use his spare bedroom, doesn't mean he's not the Ten-ryuu Head."
"It's not the spare," Souma muttered.
"Nazuna's got the spare bedroom now. I sleep in Riku's room."
This touched a nerve. "Well, fine," Hikaru snapped, "you've got your nice, new roommate, so I guess you don't need me."
"It isn't about you, Karu!"
"Don't call me that," Hikaru snapped.
Souma paused, hurt, but he blinked the tears out of his eyes and said, "Fine! It isn't about you, Yamada. Mikazuchi killed my father and made my mother forget who I was. Riku took me in and helps me kill demons and he's never hurt me even a little. Who do you think I want to fight for?"
"Was that a crack at Mashida-sensei?"
Souma blinked. "No." Then he added, "But since you mention it, yeah, I thought you might want to work for someone who doesn't give kids black eyes and cracked ribs. If you're gonna be a jerk, though, forget it."
"You're an idiot, Souma. Mashida-sensei never hit me."
"Yeah, right. You fell down when you were training," Souma said. He said it quietly, though. Hikaru's flat-voiced insistence on this put him off-balance, as it always did, no matter what he thought he'd figured out in Tokyo.
"Notonce, Souma. Just because he has a temper. . ." An earlier bit of the conversation caught up with him. "'Work for someone,'" he said quietly. "You were going to ask me to defect?"
"You really thought I'd betray Sensei? Betray the Chi-ryuu?"
"The Chi-ryuu isn't worth it, Hikaru," Souma said, staying away from the bit about Mashida. "It's like Yuuma, angry and power-hungry, and if you try to do the right thing it'll turn on you."
Hikaru gestured to the Security Service uniform. "Look at me, Souma! This means I'm a full time demon hunter. This is the right thing, this is what a Chi-ryuu toujinshi's supposed to be!"
"Except that Mikazuchi's the one messing around with the Fukumaden and releasing the demons in the first place."
"That's a lie. When they open the Big Kimon, there's toujinshi that destroy the demons as they come out."
"I guess they missed a few, then," Souma said. "We've been fighting them all over. Once Nazuna called them to Riku's shrine, and Fusanoshin and I killed a thousand in one day."
Hikaru turned white. "A thousand. . . No. No way. You must have set them loose yourselves, raiding our teams in the Fukumaden."
"I'd never let that happen! And Riku wouldn't, either. He's got a special way to get into the Fukumaden, that doesn't let any demons through."
"I am not!" Souma shouted. "I wouldn't lie about demons."
"Why not? You're not a Chi-ryuu anymore, you betrayed us."
"I'm not a traitor!"
"Yes, you are, Souma! You fight Chi-ryuu toujinshi when Tachibana Riku tells you to. You betrayed us for the Ten-ryuu, just like your father - gah!" He was cut off when Souma tackled him. They rolled down the hill, crashing through underbrush, and hit a tree. Souma tried to shove Hikaru off him and stand up, but Hikaru just shoved him back down and grabbed his shirt.
For a long time, Souma had figured he could probably take Hikaru if it somehow came to a fight. Fusanoshin was faster than Chuukichi, and Souma knew more about using his chi than Hikaru did. He'd forgotten the very basic fact that Hikaru was bigger than him. They weren't using their shikigami or toujinfu, they were grappling in the dirt, and now Hikaru held him against the tree and slugged him in the eye. Souma screamed in pain. The next punch was straight to the nose, and Souma shielded his face with his arms as Hikaru wound up for a third.
"Sou! Sou, you'll never believe this!" Souma quickly shoved his new Drive under his pillow, where Hikaru wouldn't see it. "It's so awesome, this guy named Mr. Mashida came - I'm not supposed to talk about it, but I have to tell someone or I'll explode. I'm leaving, Sou!"
"Karu, that's great, you got adopted?" Since Souma was leaving anyway, he was glad Hikaru was going somewhere he might be happier.
"Better. Mr. Mashida said I'm going to be something called a 'toujinshi,' I've got this shikigami and we're going to be great fighters, he'll teach me and I won't have to live at the orphanage and I'll get paid, Sou. Look at this." He produced his drive, showed Souma the new Chi-ryuu wristbands. "I'll tell you everything, Mr. Mashida said I could come back to visit whenever I wanted."
"You won't see me here," Souma said. Hikaru looked confused. Souma pulled out his own drive and grinned. "I'll be there with you."
"No, I - I'm glad you're coming, really. But I - I thought Mr. Mashida meant I was special."
"Sure, you are," Souma said, after a pause. "I got picked by my brother; my family's been toujinshi forever. If you got noticed above everyone else, you must be good." Hikaru smiled.
"Hey, wait, you mean you knew about this stuff before?" Hikaru asked.
Souma rubbed his neck. "Yeah, I grew up with it."
"Why didn't you tell me? I told you."
"I would've," Souma said defensively. "If you'd ever asked me how I lost my parents, I was going to tell you."
Souma hesitated, trying to figure out how to say it. "Toujinshi are supposed to be good, but some of them are evil."
"Mr. Mashida told me," Hikaru said. "The Ten-ryuu, right?"
Souma shook his head. "My dad said we needed to make peace with the Ten-ryuu, or something awful would happen. And the Head of the Chi-ryuu, Mikazuchi, called that treason and killed him. He defeated my mother's shikigami, too, and now she doesn't remember my brother and me were ever born." Tears were forming silently in Souma's eyes.
Hikaru sat down next to Souma and patted his back. "I'm sorry," he said simply. But soon the excitement of his new life took him over again. "We'll be good ones, though," he promised. "The two of us together, we'll be the best toujinshi the Chi-ryuu ever had. We'll protect everyone, no one will ever beat us."
Souma associated the word "Chi-ryuu" with his father, and with his father's best friends (who he'd all called "uncle,") talking and laughing in the other room after bedtime, so that he forgot to be afraid of the dark. His idea of what the word was really supposed to mean was: a promise to protect. "Yeah," he said. "We'll be heroes. They'll tell stories about us forever." They grinned at each other.
The third punch never came. Souma opened his eyes and saw Hikaru lower his fist, looking horrified. "What happened to us, Souma? What happened?" Souma just shook his head. "Your nose is bleeding, I'm sorry." Hikaru let Souma go and patted at his uniform. "This thing has no pockets."
"It's okay." Souma stood up, squeezing his nose. "Sorry."
They looked at each other. "So. . . is it okay?" Souma asked. "That I'm still a Chi-ryuu even though I fight for Riku?"
"If it's okay that I'm still a Chi-ryuu even though I fight for Mikazuchi," Hikaru said. He sounded bitter. Apparently he believed Souma now. Souma was about to ask him about switching sides again, but Hikaru held up a hand. "Can we talk about something else?"
"Sure." But all that came was an awkward silence.
"It's funny," Hikaru said, "there were a thousand things I wanted to talk to you about while you were gone, but now I can't remember any."
"I remember one," Souma said. "When Riku fought Yuuma at Riku's shrine."
Hikaru winced. "Ouch. Yeah, I can see how that would be bad. Who were you rooting for?"
"Riku. But, I mean. . ."
"No, I get it," Hikaru said fervently. "It's not exactly hard right now to imagine a fight I don't want either side to lose." Souma gave him a crooked smile. "Actually, how did that turn out? When Mizuki and your brother came back, they said Tachibana had been defeated, but obviously that wasn't true."
"We all thought the same thing," Souma said. "Rangetsu attacked in Grand Summon form, and Kogenta vanished, and Riku lost his memory." Souma was getting sniffly just talking about it. He tried to pretend it was just blood in his nose. "It turned out that Riku had dropped his drive just before the attack landed, and Kogenta was in Limbo, not dead. Riku went down and found him again, and got his memory back."
"Just from dropping his drive? I mean, it's not a good idea, but I didn't know it sent the shikigami to Limbo."
"It wasn't just dropping it," Souma explained. "Riku had remembered something horrible, from when he was little. I guess at that moment he didn't want to be a toujinshi anymore."
"Huh. I thought shikigami only went to Limbo if the toujinshi died, or the drive broke," Hikaru mused. "I didn't know there was any way that made it possible to get them back. It might be nice to forget everything for a few months. . ."
"Hikaru?" Souma's voice was wary and a bit frightened.
"Huh? Oh. Don't worry, Souma. I could never decide I didn't want to be a toujinshi; I like it too much. Where'd my helmet get to?" He dug through the bushes for it.
Something must be wrong, Souma figured, to make even temporary oblivion look good. "Hikaru, about, um, about coming to Riku's with me. . ."
don't, Souma. Mashida-sensei would never forgive me if. . ."
He stood up, helmet in hand, looked at Souma and hesitated. This
scene, a friend standing in the woods, about to decide whether to
join Riku's side, brought out bad memories. Suddenly nervous, Souma
looked over both shoulders, peering into the underbrush. "What?"
Hikaru said. "Is someone coming?" He had his hand on his
drive, and Fusanoshin and Chuukichi had both faded into ghostly
presence, wondering what the trouble was.
Souma realized what he was doing, and blushed. "No, sorry. You just reminded me of Subaru. Taizan ambushed us just as Subaru was deciding to come with us. Subaru's Houshun was g-gone before we knew what was happening."
"Is that what happened? I wondered." Hikaru put a hand on Souma's shoulder. "But it's okay. There's no one around. And anyway, I'm not going to. . ."
"Yes, there is." That was Chuukichi. "I hear voices, that way."
The boys looked at each other. "People from the town, maybe?" Hikaru said. He didn't sound very sure.
"The town's the other way," Souma pointed out. "Come on, let's go see." The two of them snuck through the woods, trying to move quietly. They came to the top of another hill, and looked over into a clearing below them.
It wasn't people from the town. It was three men standing around a huge toujinfu ward. Inside the ward were demons - hundreds of demons.
"My God," Hikaru breathed. "So many. . ."
"We could take them," Souma whispered. "Either one of us could take them. They're all weak ones."
"Yeah, but if there weren't any real toujinshi around. . . none of those three have drives. . . if they got free, they'd attack the town. Hundreds of them." Hikaru swallowed.
"They'd be thinned out, if those three fought," Souma pointed out. "They have to have toujinfu, at least, or what are they doing here?" But three people with only toujinfu, against that many demons, would be definitely iffy. At least some of the demons would probably get through.
"Whatare they doing here?"
Souma didn't have an answer, but he was interrupted anyway by a commotion below. "Something tripped the Warning ward," they heard faintly. "Someone must be coming. That way." And one of the men pointed, almost directly at the boys.
They looked at each other, and then Hikaru said, "Make sure Fusanoshin remembers to duck." Before Souma could ask what he meant, Hikaru pushed him down the hill, towards the clearing.
For the second time in half an hour, Souma rolled through scratching underbrush and over sharp rocks. He managed to skid to a stop halfway down. From below him he heard toujinfu activate; from above him he heard Hikaru shouting, "Get back here, you traitor!" He looked up, and saw Hikaru come over the top of the hill (where he'd already been five seconds ago) with his drive drawn. "Shikigami, summon!" His drive flashed, and Hanmo no Chuukichi stepped into the real world. He rode his scroll like a surfboard, and skidded to a stop on thin air.
Souma stared, hurt and completely confused. . . and then he figured it out. "You could have warned me," he muttered quietly. He drew his own drive. "Shikigami, summon!" Ikazuchi no Fusanoshin swooped down, literally out of nowhere, and brandished his sword dramatically.
"We won't lose to Mikazuchi's dogs!"
Souma blinked. "You know this isn't for real, right?" he whispered.
"Yeah, I got it." Fusanoshin was grinning. "Cut the seals!"
It was actually Hikaru that made the first move. Chuukichi charged, aiming the scroll like a battering ram, but he had to know his top speed wasn't enough here. Fusanoshin spread his wings and took off before the attack landed. Chuukichi turned and shot up after him. Fusanoshin could have slashed at Chuukichi's face; instead he parried the scroll. "Ha!" Fusanoshin yelled, loud enough that any onlookers could easily hear. "You think you can hit me with attacks like that?" Souma glanced over his shoulder, looking for the three men, but this quick peek didn't spot them.
"Try this, then!" Hikaru shouted back. His drive flashed red as he cut the seals, kan-kan-ri-kan. Souma recognized the pattern and answered with da-shin-da-shin.
Chuukichi ran in place, unrolling the scroll beneath him. Black characters peeled off and came at Fusanoshin in a line, expanding like they would eat the world: the Hundred Forbidden Words. But Fusanoshin had already started the God-King of All Swords, a wave of spinning disks that carved the attack into splinters. Souma looked at Hikaru, trying to read the next move. Hikaru jerked his head to the side. Get out of here.
"Come on, Fusanoshin!" Souma yelled. His shikigami swooped down and grabbed him one-armed. He heard an explosion behind him as he was carried into the air - an attack from Chuukichi, aimed to miss. Fusanoshin carried him over the crest of the hill and set him down on the far side. Now that he was out of sight, Chuukichi's next attack wasn't even close to him. The noise was very convincing, though. Souma giggled and blew a large bough off a tree well away from Hikaru and Chuukichi. Impressed with the result, he did it again.
"Okay, that's enough," Hikaru said, but he was grinning, too. "Let's keep moving, in case they come after us." He started back towards the town. Souma followed, and the two shikigami flanked their toujinshi.
"So, what was that for?" Souma asked. "Why didn't we just run?"
"I wanted to see what they'd do." Souma gave him a curious look. "They used toujinfu, to Hide themselves and the demons. It was really fast, like they'd practiced it. If I hadn't already seen it I wouldn't be sure what was there."
"That makes sense," Souma said. "They're keeping demons in the real world. I can see why they wouldn't want people finding out about that."
Hikaru nodded. "I'm guessing Tachibana doesn't know what his people are doing?"
"What?" Souma said. "What makes you think those are Ten-ryuu?" Hikaru opened his mouth to answer this, and then stopped. "It can't be Ten-ryuu," Souma went on, "Riku would never let. . ." Then Souma stopped. Hikaru was right. Riku wouldn't let anyone do something like that, but he just didn't know many Ten-ryuu. These could easily be some he'd never met.
The boys looked at each other for a long, sick moment, as they each realized they had no idea which faction was herding demons in the hills.
"Well, we can't just leave them there, whoever they are," Souma said eventually. "We need to go back and stop them, before the demons get loose and attack the town."
"Not the town," Chuukichi said. "They'll attack the closest humans."
Hikaru raised his eyebrows. "Isn't that the town?"
"No," his shikigami said. "It's St. Francis'."
"Oh, no," Hikaru said. "Damn them."
Souma just turned around. "Right now. We're going back there right now." Hikaru caught his arm.
"We can't, Souma. We're not on the same side."
"For this we are! Come on, you can't just let them do this. It's the orphanage!"
"Look, if you're right about Tachibana, maybe he really doesn't know about this. Maybe he wouldn't be mad if you helped me attack Ten-ryuu. But if I helped you attack a Chi-ryuu team, sensei would. . . He wouldn't understand. I can't betray him like that."
"Okay, fine!" Souma snapped. Then he remembered the last two times he'd lost his temper, and bit his lip. "Fine." This time it sounded more like real acceptance. "If you can't help me, I'll do it without you."
"By yourself? There's three guys with toujinfu, and all the demons. What if some of them get by you?"
Souma didn't want to care. He wanted to stamp this monstrosity from the face of the earth, he wanted to do it right now. But his head filled with a picture of Subaru cowering in the shadow of a hungry demon. . . "I'll call Riku."
Hikaru nodded. "And I'll get sensei."
"What! You can't, they'll fight!"
"Maybe. But I can't just, I mean, he's a. . ." Hikaru took a breath. "You say Tachibana's a good guy. I want to trust him for you, but it's the orphanage. I can't risk it, I'd go crazy if I tried." Souma's shoulders sagged, and his eyes teared. "I guess you feel the same way about sensei," Hikaru went on, "so you'll call Tachibana anyway. Right?"
"Yeah." If this was one of Mikazuchi's plans, Mashida was just the type to go along with it.
"I guess we should split up here, then." But Hikaru hesitated, as if he didn't want to.
Souma swallowed. "Hikaru? Are we still friends?"
Were they? This morning, Hikaru had been sure Souma was a traitor, and he'd hated him for it. But all Souma'd had to do was ask, and Hikaru had come running to meet him. Enemy or no, it had been horrible seeing him bleed at Hikaru's hands. "Yeah," Hikaru said. "No matter what." Apparently, he didn't have any choice about it. Suddenly he pulled the younger boy into a hug, and squeezed hard. "Good luck," he whispered.
"You too." It wasn't enough, but there was nothing else to say. Eventually they had to let go, and be on their separate ways.
Hikaru and Souma sat back-to-back on the roof of their apartment building in Tokyo. Souma was staring moodily at Mikazuchi Tower. Hikaru was watching the moon.
"So you had another fight with your brother?" Hikaru asked.
"Yeah. He was talking about how much Mikazuchi has helped us, and. . . it sounded like he meant it. So when we were alone, I asked if he'd been faking."
"And he said no," finished Hikaru. He'd been half-expecting this for a while.
"He said the reason Dad died was because he wasn't strong enough. And, he was going to be strong no matter what." Souma sniffled, and his view of the tower blurred into a smear of broken light. "He was supposed to get strong to beat Mikazuchi!"
Hikaru didn't answer for a bit. Talking about fighting the Chi-ryuu Head made him uncomfortable. Not that he could blame Souma, but. . . he was the Head. "Don't cry, Sou," he said eventually.
"He's my brother! He's the only family I've got, and he's saying Dad was weak!"
"I'm sorry." But only part of Hikaru was really sorry. Part of him had resented Yuuma ever since they'd met, for the automatic devotion Souma gave his brother. Yuuma didn't do anything to earn it - he didn't teach Souma, wasn't even nice to him. He acted like his little brother's love was a sometimes-annoying fact of nature, unshakable by any amount of arrogant neglect. Part of Hikaru was saying the only bad thing about this situation was that Souma was sad about it.
He changed the subject. "Hey, Sou. Mashida-sensei's been thinking about taking another student. Why don't you ask him about it? It would be really cool training together."
"Yeah, it would," Souma admitted. "But Mashida doesn't like me. I think he's part of the group that thinks my family are all traitors." Souma didn't like him, either, but Hikaru did, so he didn't say that aloud. Hikaru probably knew it anyway.
"He did say something about my 'unreliable friends' once," Hikaru admitted. "Sorry."
"It's okay. I can train on my own." They sat peaceably for a few minutes. Then Souma remembered something he'd thought of earlier. "So, Karu, how long is your hair gonna get, anyway? You look like a mop dipped in yellow paint."
"Long enough for a ponytail, anyway," Hikaru said. Souma snickered at this image. "Hey, it still won't be as weird as some people's. Your hair is pink." There was a little friendly jealousy in the teasing. A lot of the young Chi-ryuu liked to look as unusual as possible, and Hikaru (who had spent his whole life in clothes picked out by nuns on a budget) was one of them.
"It's called strawberry blond," Souma said firmly, "and it grows that way all on its own. And if I didn't sleep with my head under my pillow, you'd cut it off and wear it yourself."
Hikaru laughed. "You can't even stay under the blanket, let alone the pillow."
"So, when I get my ears pierced, are you going to copy that, too?" Souma countered.
"Yeah, right. Like you would."
"Come on, you made that up to tease me. You'd never wear earrings."
This was true, but Souma frowned. "What, you think I'm scared of little holes in my ears?"
"No, I just know you wouldn't do it."
"You're gonna feel pretty stupid tomorrow, then."
"You're not serious, are you?"
Hikaru turned around and looked at Souma's ears, trying to imagine it. Souma felt the movement and looked back at him. "What?"
"It might work, actually." Souma blinked, and smiled a bit. Then he went back to staring sadly at the Mikazuchi Tower. "You don't really like it here, do you, Sou?" Hikaru asked. "You don't really like the Chi-ryuu."
"It's not that. I just don't like some of the people in it. Almost all of them, really." He smiled at Hikaru, to say he wasn't included in that.
"I like it," Hikaru said. "I like that I mean something here, and that there's someone like Mashida-sensei that I know cares about me. But half the fun is that you're here, too, and sometimes it feels like I'll turn around and you'll have run away."
"I wouldn't leave without telling you, Karu." Hikaru nodded, but he didn't want Souma to leave at all. "Come on," Souma said, "let's get some sleep." He leaned on Hikaru's shoulder as he stood up.
"Oh, sorry. Did I push that hard?"
"No, it's not your fault," Hikaru said, rubbing his upper arm. "I've got a bruise there. I was getting out of the shower and I slipped on the soap." He stood up. "You're right, let's get to bed. Sensei wants me for early training tomorrow."
Hikaru walked into his hotel room and tossed his helmet on the bed. "I'm home!" he called to no one in particular. He wanted to change - as awesome as his uniform was, it got uncomfortable after a few hours. He had to talk to Sensei, though. He opened the connecting door to Mashida's room.
Hana was standing across the room, at the door to her room. "Hikaru," she said. "I thought I heard you. . ." Later, Hikaru would realize that she'd looked worried, that she never called him Hikaru. But if she meant to warn him, it wasn't in time. Mashida-sensei came into the room.
"Boy!" Hikaru winced at the bellow, and bowed.
"Sensei, there's a. . ." The room flashed, and something hit Hikaru's right cheek. It was the carpet, which confused him at first. Then he felt the pain on the left, where Sensei had hit him.
"Shut up, you little traitor!"
"Wha? Why?" Hikaru climbed to his hands and knees.
"Don't play stupid. Hana's toujinfu saw you with the Asuka brat."
"No, I - he - they have. . ."
Mashida knocked him down again, before he could say "demons." "You were helping him spy on a Chi-ryuu team."
"Chi-ryuu team?" They'd been Chi-ryuu. The people who were threatening St. Francis' with demons were Chi-ryuu. Hikaru realized he was starting to cry.
"How long have you been working with the Ten-ryuu?"
"I didn't - I didn't know. . ."
"Cut the crap! How long?"
"Sensei," Hana interrupted. "If you're going to ask him a question, listen to the answer."
"I. . ." Hikaru sniffled, and gathered his dizzy thoughts. "I saw Sou - Asuka sneaking into the woods. I followed him." Hana's technique made a thing like a map, with marks for toujinshi and demons. It wouldn't show the difference between walking beside someone and sneaking a little ways behind him. "Then he stopped, and peeked over a hill like he was spying on something. I summoned Rojin and attacked him." If the fake fight had fooled the guys watching, it might fool Sensei. "He got away. I didn't see anyone where he was watching."
Sensei went harrumph, like he didn't want to admit this sounded plausible. He knows, Hikaru thought, he knows, he has to know. He rubbed his nose, and tried to stop crying. He wasn't Souma.
"If that's true, they must have seen you," Mashida said. He pulled his cell phone out. "You'd better hope they tell me the right thing." Hikaru nodded willingly. Mashida called the number. It had been saved on his phone. "This is Mashida. Report." He listened, and frowned at Hikaru, and nodded. "Yes," he said. "More than a possibility." He scowled. "Tonight. We'll be there by sundown." He listened, nodded, and closed his phone.
"You were right," Sensei said to Hikaru. "There are demons in the area. They were hidden, presumably by Ten-ryuu. We're going to lead the extermination attempt."
"Yes, sensei." Just like that, Hikaru was forgiven.
"Get out, I need to put my uniform on."
"Yes, sensei." Hana helped him up and out of the room, and sat him down on a bed. He looked around, and realized they were in her room. "Do I get to watch you change?" he teased, trying to grin. His nose was still running and it hurt to smile on the left, so it didn't work as well as he wanted.
Hana closed the door. "You didn't mention the email, in that little story."
Hikaru froze. He swallowed air. "What?" he managed.
"The email from Souma. You read it with both of us in the room. You're lucky he didn't see it."
"Why - I mean, if you think I'm getting emails from Souma, why wouldn't you tell Mashida-sensei?"
She snorted. "If I caught you eating a baby, I still wouldn't tell that asshole. You're never getting the crap beaten out of you because of me." Hikaru stared. He'd had no idea Hana felt that way. "Say you'll back me up, and I'll report him to Mutsuki right now." Mutsuki was the head of the Mikazuchi Security Service, Sensei's boss.
"It's not like that," Hikaru protested. "He just gets angry. He thought I was a traitor. I would have been angry, too." In fact he had been, at Souma, and yelled at him and hit him. And Souma forgave him. . .
"And the next time he's 'just angry' because you came late to training?" She waved Hikaru's answer away before he could think of one. "Never mind. I know, or I'd have gone already." She gave him a stern look. "But if I think you really are a traitor, I'll report you to Mutsuki. In a second."
"It's not like that!" Hikaru said quickly. "It's just, we were friends. For a long time." His voice sounded small in his own ears.
"Yeah," Hana said. "I thought that would be it. You don't care about faction politics, you just wanted to see your buddy again. People forget that a ten-year-old toujinshi is still ten." Hikaru blinked. How could she be so close to right and still be totally wrong? "But you need to watch out. The faction stuff is going to come up, whether you want it to or not. If you keep talking to him, eventually he's going to ask you to defect."
"He did. I turned him down." He almost wished he hadn't. Now he was stuck on the side that was keeping demons. "Hana, that team we ran into - theywere the ones. . ."
Hikaru stared at her. "You knew too?"
"Mashida told me today. It's some stupid publicity stunt, to stage a demon attack in a place they control, and have the Security Service save the day."
"Why would Mutsuki let this happen?" Hikaru asked. He'd thought the Security Service head honestly cared about protecting people.
"He had to. This came down from the top - it's Taizan's plan, and Mikazuchi signed off on it personally. It's stupid, but it shouldn't do any harm unless we screw up." Hana had never lived in the orphanage. "You okay, squirt?"
"I feel sick."
"Go back to your room, and wash your face." She ruffled his hair, and pushed him out the door to the hallway. "It'll be okay," she said, and closed the door behind him.
Souma wasn't usually an impatient person. Even when he was worried, desperately worried, he was always able to just stand around and wait if he had to. (And it was good that he could, because lately he had to do it a lot.) But today he'd been pacing furiously back and forth across the train station, rubbing at his arms. Passersby, even grownups, looked nervous when they saw his face.
At first he'd seen the mind-picture of Subaru cowering in a demon's shadow, watched it over and over until it was detail-perfect. Then he thought about what might happen if Riku came. No, when - when Riku came. He pictured Riku fighting Mashida. He pictured himself fighting Mashida, while Hikaru watched. He pictured watching Hikaru fight Riku.
And then, when Riku finally stepped off the train, the first thing he said was, "Souma! What happened to your face?"
Souma had been expecting something like "Which way to the demons?" He stared at Riku. "Huh?"
"There's bloodstains all around your nose," Riku said, "and your eye's black. Have you been fighting?"
"With your hands?" Nazuna added. Souma hadn't even noticed her there.
No wonder people had stared. "No - yes - I. . ."
"What were you doing out here, anyway?" Nazuna said suspiciously.
"I. . ." How was he supposed to explain even to Riku, let alone Nazuna? Souma's vision blurred, and he sniffled, and this was not the time. . .
"Go wash up," Riku said gently. "It'll only take a minute." Gratefully, Souma went to find the station bathroom.
The courtyard of the Mikazuchi building was beautiful at sunset. Some people even took their dates there, like it was a park. Souma didn't even see it.
"Yuuma! Why did you meet with Mikazuchi?"
Yuuma didn't even look at him. "I'm a Chi-ryuu toujinshi. What's wrong with meeting with the Head?"
"Mikazuchi killed Dad!" Had they been hiding and pretending that long, that Yuuma had forgotten that? Didn't he have dreams at night? "How could you become one of them?" That was no kind of thing to say in the tower courtyard, talking like that could get Souma killed. He didn't care. Yuuma was hisbrother.
"Dad failed at his job," Yuuma said, like that explained everything. "He paid for it with his life." He started walking again, past Souma, still without looking at him. The courtyard blurred.
"He didn't do anything wrong! He was. . . He was. . ."
Yuuma stopped without turning. "Who do we have to thank for being able to eat? Without Mikazuchi, we would have starved to death years ago."
"Even with Mom, it was Mikazuchi's fault!"
"Souma!" Finally Yuuma reacted. He even almost looked Souma in the eye. "We do not have a mother." He walked away.
Souma stared after him. "Yuuma. . ."
As he went out of sight, Souma felt a hand on his shoulder. "Just forget about him, Sou. He. . ."
Souma's vision dissolved into wet, blobby spiderwebs. He pulled away, and started walking, just to move. "He's my brother, Karu."
"Hey. Crying won't do anything, you know that."
He was right. Souma rubbed at his eyes. "I'm going after him."
"Souma, if you leave without permission - sorry, but since it's you, they'll think. . ."
"I don't care! It doesn't matter any more, Karu. There's no point in staying here if Yuuma won't fight Mikazuchi. If he won't come back, I'll have to do it myself, or find. . ."
"Find what? The. . ." Hikaru lowered his voice. They weren't that far from the building. "The Ten-ryuu?"
"No! I. . . I have to find a way to change Yuuma's mind. He's the only. . ." Souma took his first good look at Hikaru. "Holy cow, what happened?" The other toujinshi's eye was black.
"Oh, the bruise? Training. It's stupid, I just tripped over my own feet."
Souma stared at it. Then he looked down. When you fell forward, you put your hands out to break the fall, but there were no scrapes on Hikaru's palms or elbows. "Karu, we're toujinshi. We fight standing still."
"Yeah, I know. I tried something fancy, and messed it up."
You didn't get a college degree at nine years old if you couldn't add two and two. He'd seen how Mashida talked to Hikaru. "Come with me, Karu."
"You don't have to stay here and get beat up by some old man. We'll find Yuuma, and. . ."
"You think Sensei hits me? Oh, come on, Souma, that's stupid."
Souma hesitated. "But I. . ."
"Why would I hide it? He's never even touched me, Souma. Trust me."
The bruise still didn't make sense, but Hikaru sounded like he was telling the truth. Uncertain, Souma shuffled his sandal on the sidewalk. "Please come?"
Hikaru looked at him for a long time, then sighed. "Sensei and Hana were with me, I think they heard you back there. If Sensei reports it, you'll be watched. I'll go tell him you calmed down, and maybe you can get on a train before they catch you."
Souma nodded. He'd been pretty sure Hikaru would want to stay. "I still shouldn't use my ATM card, though. Mikazuchi owns the bank."
"I'll get you some cash. It may take a while. Wait at that spot by the river."
"Good luck, Sou."
The three men looked like salarymen on vacation, with bland but expensive hiking clothes. But they were standing around in a clearing, all staring in the same direction. They seemed to hear something - or sense a toujinfu ward going off - and turned around.
"Chi-ryuu?" Riku said.
"Chi what? Why don't you kids go play somewhere else?"
"They're the ones," Souma said.
The spokesman's lip curled when he recognized Souma. Dropping the act, all three reached into their pockets for toujinfu cards. Souma aimed his drive.
"Ah, don't bother, Souma," came a voice from behind them. They turned around, and saw Fusanoshin hovering behind them. "I can take these guys without you."
"Ha!" Kogenta said, coming up behind him. "I'll do it with my bare hands."
"I'll do it with my hands behind my back!" Fusanoshin countered. The men all looked at the vicious talons on his feet.
"Okay, okay!" the salaryman said. "What do you want?"
"Where are the demons?" Riku asked.
"We released them. They went that way." He pointed toward the orphanage.
"They're demons, what do you think?"
"All right," Riku said. "We'll have to split up and go after them." Then quieter, so the salarymen couldn't hear, "Will you be all right, Souma?"
"As long as we're in time to save everyone."
"If there's any more Chi-ryuu helping demons," Nazuna said, "I'm not going to be so merciful again."
Riku winced and looked at Souma. He hadn't mentioned Hikaru - he'd said he'd been visiting the orphanage again - but obviously Riku had guessed. "Just don't get confused and aim at anyone killing demons," Souma said. "That's a friend."
"Stop right there, Asuka."
Souma looked around, and saw Hikaru's teammate Hana pointing her drive at him. Or at least, he figured it was her - a teenage girl in a red and black Security uniform. Her moth-like shikigami loomed beside her. In the other direction, a swarm of demons drifted mindlessly toward the orphanage. Souma turned his back on her, and cutri-da-ri-da. Fusanoshin's sword crackled with the Electric Lightning Attack, and he cut them apart.
"I didn't have anything against you, Asuka," Hana said. "But now you're attacking a Chi-ryuu mission."
"Iam Chi-ryuu!" Souma shouted. "I'm saving people from demons! What are you doing?"
"I'm glad Hikaru isn't here to see this."
Souma rubbed angrily at his eyes. "No kidding." He heard Hana move, but he was faster. da-kan-kan-da. The light of the Mighty Thunder King made the trees between Souma and Hana into black bars against a brilliant white.
Hikaru's friend slumped vacantly to her knees, blinking away the afterimage of a light she'd already forgotten. As Souma ran on toward St. Francis', he realized he hadn't even known her shikigami's name.
"Hold it, Ten-ryuu."
Nazuna skidded to a stop. The Chi-ryuu was her age, about, a boy with a bleach-blond ponytail. He was in the Mikazuchi Security Service uniform, but his helmet was missing. His shikigami was a mouse riding a scroll - one of the Hanmo. "I won't forgive you for this, Chi-ryuu," she said.
Helaughed at her, with an angry little "Hah." Then his eyes shifted to the side, and his shikigami flew off to Nazuna's left, into the woods. Three demons Nazuna hadn't even seen were blasted to nothing. "Get lost," the Chi-ryuu said. "We don't need the Ten-ryuu anymore."
He was bruised, Nazuna suddenly noticed: the whole side of his face was shiny-dark in the moonlight. "You're the one who fought Souma!" In fact, his left eye was almost swollen shut. If he'd worn a dark-visored helmet over that, he'd have been practically blind. "And you lost! To that crybaby!"
The Chi-ryuu snorted. "Some friends Souma's got these days. You're Nazuna, aren't you?" Surprised, she nodded. "Yamada Hikaru, of the Chi-ryuu." Even with his demons swarming in the woods around them, he said it like his faction was something to be proud of. His shikigami flew back in front of him, and he raised his drive. "If we're gonna fight, let's get it over with."
Nazuna cut ri-da-shin-ri, for the Purifying Baby's First Cry. Hikaru answered withshin-shin-kan-da, the Armor of Truth, and his Hanmo's scroll wrapped around him. The attack bounced off. Nazuna tried Decending Gust of the Wind God,da-ri-da-ri, and Hikaru didn't even bother to cut the seals. His shikigami just dodged aside, letting the attack rip half the bark off a stand of trees.
A speed type with defensive overdrives - Nazuna wasn't sure how she was going to land a hit. While she was hesitating, Hikaru cutshin-da-da-ri. The scroll snapped out like a whip, wrapping around Horin's arms and head. The scroll squeezed, and Nazuna heard a muffled scream. "Break out, Horin!" But the shinigami's struggles only produced a rough crackling.
"She can't," Hikaru said. "Not without an overdrive. If you had one that worked with her mouth and ears pinned - ah, crud!" A swarm of demons flew right across the battlefield. Hikaru started throwing toujinfu cards, but he could only get one or two at a time. "Help me!"
Nazuna's first thought was to let him sweat - Horin was, ironically, safe inside the scroll, and the demons weren't coming for Nazuna herself. But then, they weren't going for Hikaru, either. They'd caught the smell of dozens of helpless orphans. She threw a handful of her own toujinfu cards, and between them the demons had no chance. "Thanks," Hikaru said. "Now surrender."
"What?" Nazuna had never heard of a toujinshi surrendering. Did Hikaru think she was a coward?
"Your shikigami can't get out, but it's taking too long to finish her. If you return her and promise not to fight any more tonight, you can keep your memories." Nazuna hesitated. It was ridiculous, but she couldn't think of another way out. "Hurry up. I need Chuukichi, before any demons get past me."
"Fine," Nazuna said. "I accept. You have my parole." The scroll relaxed enough for Horin to flash into blue chi and arc back into her drive.
"Chuukichi!" The scroll snapped out again, and Nazuna grabbed her stung wrist. The shikigami caught her drive, and tossed it back over his shoulder. Hikaru caught it out of the air. Furious, Nazuna reached for more toujinfu cards. "Uh-uh," Hikaru said. "You promised." More to the point, he had a shikigami. Nazuna stopped. "Don't worry, you'll get it back."
"Why take it? I promised not to fight."
"Why should I trust a Ten-ryuu's promise?" Hikaru shot back.
Was this where Souma had been getting it? "If you despise the Ten-ryuu so much, why not just finish me?"
"Souma told me about you. Maybe someday the Chi-ryuu will need a friend who can bring us demons to fight." A demon wailed in the distance. "Crud! They did get behind me! Come on, Chuukichi!" He put her drive in his own holster, turned around, and ran toward the orphanage.
Souma heard Kogenta shouting, calling out an overdrive. He tried to run faster, and couldn't. There were no more demons behind him. If no one had stopped them yet, they'd be just getting to the orphanage. But Kogenta and Riku were up there. If they were fighting demons, everything was fine. They were probably killing the last ones now. Everything was. . .
The clash of swords echoed through the trees. Souma found a burst of panicked speed, sprinted ten steps, tripped on a root, and fell flat on his face. Fusanoshin landed beside him. "You okay?"
"Forget me, go!" Fusanoshin hesitated half a second, nodded, and flew off. Souma picked himself up and followed as best he could. He burst out of the trees into the clearing around the orphanage. He saw Kogenta, sword locked with the twin blades of Mashida's shikigami, a huge, beetle-horned warrior in green armor - Kurogane no Kokotou. He didn't see Fusanoshin. "Riku!"
At the same time, from the far side of the swordfight: "Sensei!"
Then they heard the sounds of another fight, and looked up. Fusanoshin and Chuukichi were back to back in the air, fighting without anyone to cut the seals, only ten feet from some kid's window. Killing the last of the demons. Souma caught Hikaru's eyes across the battlefield, and they grinned. Then Souma saw the brutal bruise on his friend's face, and his jaw dropped.
"Hikaru!" Mashida shouted. "Control your shikigami!"
"Yes, sensei, sorry, sensei. Chuukichi, to me!" The Hanmo swooped down to hover in front of him. Fusanoshin came to Souma without being called. "I think there are only these two left, sensei. I forced a third to surrender her drive." He pulled it half out of his pocket, to demonstrate.
"That was stupid," Mashida said. "Destroy the Asuka brat, then go finish her off."
". . . Y - yes, sensei."
The Crescent Moon Dancing Fists knocked Kokotou into the orphanage wall hard enough to leave a dent. Mashida's temper smapped. "Don't give me that look, you traitorous little shit." Hikaru cringed. "He didn't hesitate to take out Hana. I heard the fight from here." Hikaru gave Souma a betrayed look. Souma didn't know why he felt betrayed, Hikaru was the one with the huge purple lie on his face.
Riku looked from Hikaru to Souma, then did a double-take to Hikaru's eye. "Souma!" he said, shocked.
"Nice!" Kogenta said. "'Specially for a human. What'd you hit him with, a rock?"
"Kogenta! They're supposed to be friends."
"I didn't do that," Souma whispered. Then he shouted, "I didn't do that! I couldn't have done that. Whoever did that would have to be bigger than you, right, Karu?" Hikaru glared, and opened his mouth. He was probably going to say he'd walked into a tree.
"Oh, no," Mashida sneered. "The whiniest little brat from a family of traitors doesn't like how I teach my students. I think I'm gonna cry." Kokotou barely parried Kogenta's overhand swing. "Just take him out, Hikaru, so we can finish this."
He'd admitted to hitting Hikaru. Said right out loud that Hikaru had been lying for months, that he'd been getting beat up by his teacher and was too chicken to say anything. Hikaru was humiliated, crying, bright red where he wasn't black and blue. Mashida was too busy to notice, or even look at him.
"You lied to me," Souma said. Why had he lied? They were supposed to be best friends, why hadn't Karu trusted him?
"So did you." Hand shaking, Hikaru raised his drive. He had to wipe tears away with his other arm. Hikaru never let anyone see him cry. "You said you were Chi-ryuu."
Angry and confused, Souma raised his own drive. They cut in the same instant, and their overdrives met in midair.
It had been dark for hours when Hikaru finally showed up. The water was dark and quiet. Hikaru was holding a hand to his side, like he was hurt.
"Hi, Sou. Here. Sorry it's not more."
Souma took the handful of coins, and a few bills. It was obviously what Hikaru had scraped together from his pockets and his room. Luckily, he had a habit of keeping money on him just for the pleasure of having it. "Thanks," Souma said. "This is fine. I'll repay you when I come back."
"Nah, it's okay. When you're rich and famous you can buy me something expensive." Hikaru grinned, with sad eyes. He didn't think Souma was coming back.
"Are you hurt, though? Did. . ." Souma trailed off, suspicious.
Hikaru rolled his eyes. "I got pushed by some jerk grownup on the subway, and I'm fine. But if you think now's a good time to argue about it, go ahead."
"Sorry, you're right."
"It's gonna be too quiet without you around," Hikaru said.
"It's just a few days, just until I find my brother."
"You're not going to join the Ten-ryuu? You promise?"
"Yeah, Karu. I promise. I'm coming back."
"Okay. I. . ." Hikaru scuffed a sneaker on the concrete, and looked away. "I was going to, um. At the orphanage I was going to tell you - but then Sensei came, and we went to Tokyo, and I was a little jealous for a while because you were ahead of me, and then we were busy and I never got a chance. . . Um. I. . ." He looked up. Souma had no idea what he was talking about. Apparently that showed on his face, because Hikaru laughed at himself. "Sorry, never mind. I'm just being stupid. Good luck, Sou. I'll see you in a few days."
"Yeah. See ya." Hikaru waved and walked away. Souma stayed for a while, staring at Mikazuchi Tower, and then he caught a late train out of the city.
The two fights were one above the other. Kogenta was wearing Kokotou down on the ground, and Chuukichi and Fusanoshin were dodging each other's attacks in the air. When Souma and Hikaru had cut the seals for six overdrives each, and neither of them had done any damage, Mashida shouted, "Damn it, Hikaru, stop screwing around!"
"They're both speed types, sensei, it's not. . ."
"Stop making excuses!" So Hikaru cut another set of seals, and the Hundred Forbidden Words missed again.
Even two fast shikigami should be dodging each other this well. Actually, Souma thought, they should really be fast enough to hit each other"Fusanoshin?"
"Yeah. I got it." The shikigami grinned down at him. "Cut the seals." Souma stared up, jaw slowly dropping. That was the same thing he'd said before, when they'd put on that show for the demon-keepers.
The shikigami were faking the fight. They'd always been friends, after all - Chuukichi, unlike Kogenta, was laid back enough to get along with Fusanoshin. And maybe, too, they felt something in the links to their toujinshi. Maybe they sensed that neither of them wanted to fight.
"Pay attention to your own battle!" Kogenta shouted. One of Kokotou's swords flew out of his hand and buried itself point-down in the dirt. He raised the other in both hands. "Now, Riku!" Riku cut the seals, ri-shin-ri-da. "Raging Wave Soul Cutting. . ."
"Sensei!" Hikaru's drive came down. It looked like kan, but it wasn't, just an order, a plea, that the only adult who'd ever thought he was important not forget him. Chuukichi blurred downwards.
Riku had cut the seals, Kogenta was in mid-swing. There was no way to stop it. The sword came down, Chuukichi vanished into specks of light, and Hikaru's drive dropped out of his hand.
Or maybe, Hikaru's drive dropped out of his hand, Chuukichi vanished into specks of light, and the sword came down. Souma couldn't tell, wasn't sure. Night after night after nightmare, he was never sure. It happened too fast.
Hikaru collapsed. Everyone else stared at Kogenta's sword, and the place where the wrong target had just been. "Idiot," Mashida said quietly. Kokotou leapt to his other sword and pulled it out of the ground. "I told him those stupid stunts were going to cost him his shikigami one day."
"How can you say that!" Souma shouted. "He sacrificed himself for you!"
Mashida shrugged. "A lot of rookies can't cut it. Maybe my next student will know how to listen." He barked a laugh. "You three can all go live at the orphanage, fat dumb and happy."
Souma couldn't even talk, he was so angry. It was Fusanoshin that answered, sort of. "Back off, kitty. This one's ours."
Kogenta shook a fist at him. "To hell with that, bird-brat! I already did all the work!" But Riku waited, and cut the seals half a second after Souma.
There was no doubt about this one.
Hikaru's eyes opened, and the first thing he saw was Souma kneeling over him. "Hi, Sou."
Souma wiped at his eyes. "Hi, Karu."
"What are you crying about now?" Hikaru said woozily. It was always like this when he woke up; he could barely remember his own name. "Cut it out, it never helps." He rubbed his forehead like it ached, and looked around. "What are we doing out back? Sister Sakura's gonna kill us."
"I don't live here any more, Karu," Souma said. "You've got amnesia. You forgot a whole year."
"I what? I. . . whoa, you've got earrings!"
Souma rubbed his runny nose and laughed. "You've got a ponytail." Hikaru's eyes widened. He felt at the back of his head. "A blond ponytail."
"Wow." Hikaru grabbed Souma's shoulder and pulled himself up. He looked around. Mashida had wandered off, and the shikigami were invisible, but Riku and Nazuna were there. Of course, Hikaru had no idea who they were. "Do I still live here?"
"You haven't been, but you'll have to come back now."
"Ohh-kay," Hikaru said dubiously. "What did I forget, anyway?"
"Um. It's hard to explain." But Souma couldn't leave it at that. "You were good, though, okay? You were brave."
"Brave?" Hikaru stared at Souma, a weird look on his face, and then suddenly staggered. "I feel so dizzy. . ." He almost fell over - Souma had to catch him. Then they both almost fell over: Hikaru was still bigger. But after a few seconds Souma got Hikaru's arm around his shoulders, and held him up that way.
"Sorry, Karu," Souma said. "I shouldn't talk about. . . never mind. Let's go inside, so you can sleep."
"Sure, Sou," Hikaru slurred. He let Souma half-lead, half-carry him toward the orphanage. "Warm. . ."
Nazuna was glaring, like she wanted to set them on fire. "Maybe you should let it go, Nazuna," Riku whispered. "Hikaru's not a Chi-ryuu anymore."
"So? He's still a boy," Nazuna hissed back, not quietly enough. "It's. . ."
"It's what?" Riku asked. There was something in his voice that made Nazuna pause, some sharpness or softness.
Souma looked over his shoulder. "What are you two talking about? Are you coming in?" Hikaru didn't react - he didn't look like he was quite tracking.
Nazuna dropped her eyes. "I'm sorry, Riku."
He shrugged and smiled a bit. "It's all right."
"Souma," Nazuna said. "Your friend has something of mine."
"Oh, right," Souma said. "On your belt, Karu."
"Yeah, sure," Hikaru said absently. He pulled out Nazuna's drive and tossed it to her without looking at it. His own drive was shoved in Souma's pocket. Maybe there was no point in keeping it. Maybe not.
"I'll wait for you at the train station, Souma," Nazuna said.
Riku nodded. "Me too."
Souma looked at them, a bit confused. "Really? You can come in, honest."
"No, that's okay," Riku said. "We never lived here, after all."
"Okay. I'll just be a couple minutes behind you. Karu's in no shape to play or anything. Come on, Karu, walk. You're too heavy."
"Okay, Sou." They went inside, and Hikaru went back to being no one any adult cared about all that much. It was a better life than some.
And maybe, someday. . .
Souma waited outside Riku's shrine, nervous and awkward and out of place. Riku was standing behind him, and Nazuna, and Momo and Yuuma and Riku's grandfather were around somewhere. They were all watching the door, waiting for it to open.
And eventually it did. Hikaru was standing in the doorway, in boring orphanage clothes, his hair short and black again. Souma stared at him, not knowing how to ask.
And then Chuukichi appeared, translucent, sitting on his scroll over Hikaru's shoulder. He held up a paw. "Yo."
Souma grabbed him, squeezed him in a tight hug. "Hi, Karu." Hikaru hugged him back.
"Um, Sou?" he said after a few seconds. "You're not bothering me, but if Nazuna glares at me any harder she's gonna have a stroke or something."
Souma let go. "Aw, don't mind her," he whispered, loud enough that she would definitely hear. "It's not you. She's just still mad about Riku. You're a boy, but at least you're hu-"
"Souma. . ."
Souma ignored her and kept talking. "I still don't know how we're going to explain it to Mo-"
Riku was looking a bit pink around the ears - of course, if Nazuna could hear then so could he. "We can talk about that some other time," he said, which was Riku-understatement for "Please shut up before I die of embarrassment." So Souma shut up. But Hikaru had seen the light in Souma's eyes as he teased Nazuna. He stepped to one side, so the two of them weren't so close.
"I can't believe you dropped your drive," Souma said. "When I told you about Riku, I didn't mean it like a suggestion."
Hikaru wasn't sure he'd had another choice, but he shrugged. "Yeah, it was probably not the smartest thing." He looked down. "That is a really awful suit."
Souma laughed. "It's not that bad."
"It is absolutely that bad," Nazuna said. "Apparently even Chi-ryuu can be right sometimes. Not counting you, Souma."
"Aw, come on, I like it," Souma said. "What do you think, Riku?"
"Ah. . . you can wear whatever you want," Riku said, carefully failing to give an opinion. "Do you want some dinner, Hikaru? Ryuji and Grampa are cooking it now."
"Dinner with the head of the Ten-ryuu? Sure. How often will I get a chance like that?"
"Um," Riku said, "whenever you like, I guess." Hikaru blinked. He was starting to see how Souma had ended up living here.
"So," Hikaru said, "who's the Chi-ryuu Head now? I should probably report in."
"Sure, I'll get him." Souma grinned. He'd been waiting for this. He cupped a hand to his mouth and called "Hey, brother!"
Hikaru's expression was perfect.
Maybe someday, when it's all over. Or maybe not. Souma tries so hard to remember, but he still can't be sure what he saw.