Beyond the Goal
They were probably going to go down in Shibusen history as the only team which had achieved the hardest part of their mission, and gotten the hardest souls, before achieving the easy ones.
The first soul that Tsubaki had eaten had been that of a demon blade that had been on a sure course towards the path of the Kishin.
It had been the soul of her own flesh and blood—her brother whom she had loved dearly—who had strayed from the rightful path of the warrior.
The tenth soul that they had gathered had been that of a violent, powerful witch that would have slaughtered the entire population of a large American city and forever left a blemish on the life of any survivors.
Right from the very start of their actual soul collecting, even though she had reprimanded him when they had hardly done any actual work in the start, victory had felt bittersweet to Tsubaki. The first time it was because she had had to fight and destroy the soul of her beloved older brother whom she had adored until he had become a demon.
The following times it had been because she realized that the more souls she devoured, the closer they got to their goal.
… And the closer their goal, the closer their parting as partners was.
So it was with a heavy heart that she ate the ninety-eighth soul—the penultimate in their quest for making her a Death Scythe, since they already had the witch's soul they would need as last.
"Heh, that guy was a total pushover!" Black Star exulted, his hands clenched into fists while they rested on his hips. "Then again, he can't really be blamed, because there's no way he could ever be a match for this great me!"
The boy laughed boisterously and Tsubaki couldn't help but smile at his antics. They had come a long way on their journey but some things about Black Star would never change, she reckoned.
His penchant for boasting being one of the key traits that she could never see leaving him in a million years.
When he trained his emerald gaze on her, arduous decisiveness burning brightly in them, she felt a twinge of pain in her chest. His enthusiasm that was usually so contagious would never be able to reach her in this kind of situation.
Not when all she could think of was that soon, very soon, she wouldn't be able to see anything in his eyes anymore.
Because she wouldn't be his partner anymore.
Because she wouldn't be able to stay by his side anymore.
"That's ninety-nine, Tsubaki!" Black Star enthused proudly, a wide grin stretching his lips. "Just one more and you'll be a real Death Scythe like Soul!"
The smile Tsubaki gave her partner was so forced it was more like a grimace but she didn't give him time to notice that because she busied herself with devouring her "meal".
Whether it was because this guy had been exceptionally bad or because of her own mental disposition, after swallowing the thing down, she felt queasy and about ready to throw it up.
The number ninety-nine sounded more like a death sentence than a cause to celebration to the chain-scythe girl, whose gut was twisted with anxiety and a foreboding feeling.
The night of their graduation as Shibusen students was a fine summer evening. The fortress had been decorated with well-wishing banners and items, filled with all the graduating students and their classmates who wanted to celebrate their success as well. The whole school was filled with festive spirit.
After the official graduation ceremony during the day, Shinigami-sama and Kid had decided to throw another party—much like the one on Christmas Eve for the founding commemoration that had ended rather abruptly much thanks to Medusa's evil schemes—since it was only once that the headmaster's son graduated.
And, as an official evening party, dress code was an absolute must. Everyone had donned on their finest tuxes or dresses for the occasion, giving the whole gathering a really mature and elegant feel.
But even seeing Black Star in a proper suit with matching pants and overcoat and even wearing a tie was not enough to alleviate Tsubaki's melancholy. She had been ridden with the heavy feeling the whole day, having it weigh down on her in everything she did. When she was sure that her partner was starting to pick up on her weird behaviour and the festiveness of the atmosphere inside was becoming too much for her to handle, she made an excuse of needing fresh air and went on the large balcony that the ball room of the school had.
She put her hands on the stone ledge, her gaze rising up to look at the night sky with all the twinkling stars and the moon above. The newly turned Death Scythe sighed deeply, letting her eyes slide shut as she enjoyed the sensation of the pleasant summer breeze caressing her warm sides.
She didn't know how much time she'd spent there, her back bathed by the light of the party going in full swing inside—it may have been seconds or minutes, or even a small eternity. What she did know was that if it had not been for her getting some company on the railing, she may have completely forgotten where she was.
"Whoa, it's really nice here! The air inside is getting really stifling, it's hard to breathe. Like I thought, someone whose halo is about to appear over their head any day now like myself needs a place like this to be able to perform really well on the stage!" Black Star's familiar voice claimed enthusiastically from behind her.
The boy gave her a merry laugh while he made his way to rest with his back against the stone railing of the balcony. She noticed that his ever-present grin had slipped from his facial features though, replaced by a somber, undecipherable look.
"You alright, Tsubaki? The celebration's not getting too much for you to handle, is it?"
A pleasant feeling swelled in her chest at the note of worry she caught hidden very well in her partner's tone. After being by his side for so long and going through thick and thin with him, she had learned to expertly discern even the slightest of change in his voice—something no one else could say.
But after the initial spike of glee, the ever-present dread that had lodged into her gut squashed her hopes, reminding her that the end of their road together was quite imminent.
"I just needed to get a little air, that's all," she said with remarkable ease, considering that her throat felt constricted by the weight of her thoughts.
He just hummed in reply but didn't move away from his position next to her on the balcony railing. He was looking up at the sky as well, that unreadable look still on his face.
While she studied his profile, she finally got the chance to see—not just look—how he looked in the tux they had found together for the occasion. A smile played on her lips. As if reading her thoughts, he chose that very next moment to loosen his tie and let it hang undone around his neck after unbuttoning the top two buttons of his shirt as well. He heaved a small sigh afterwards, obviously enjoying not being restricted by the offensive objects anymore.
"I was starting to wonder when you'd do that," Tsubaki said with a giggle. "I was really surprised that you even agreed to wear it properly in the first place."
Black Star gave her a lopsided smirk.
"It's an important event, so it's perfect for someone as big as me to stand out among the commoners! Bearing with this kind of ridiculous clothing etiquette is nothing for someone of my stature!" His grin widened, showing two rows of perfectly lined white teeth. "Tonight is our stage since it's our graduation, right? It's only natural that we should shine the brightest!"
She bit on her lip and shifted her gaze to her high heel-clad feet. Indeed, graduation—the bane of her existence. When she had entered Shibusen, she had been looking forward to the event so much—it was hard to believe how much her view had changed in a couple of short years.
And the reason for that was standing right beside her, peering at her profile with a calculating gaze.
"You're finally a Death Scythe like I promised I'd make you, Tsubaki—you should make a happier face than that!" he tried to cheer her up again.
His attempt was in vain. She could see nothing merry about being separated from her partner.
Black Star frowned as he took in her solemn countenance. Just what had gotten into that Tsubaki? Lately it was getting harder and harder to understand her. Girls were really beings from a whole another planet for all the assassin knew.
He sighed dramatically, lifting his arms up in defeat.
"If I knew it would be like this, I wouldn't have made such a promise with you. What's the point of keeping my word if it only makes you show such a heartbroken expression?" he said almost theatrically but at least that begot some kind of reaction from his partner.
"That's not it!" she hurried to tell him, her words bunching together in her haste. Reining in her emotions, she looked to the side opposite of Black Star's and reiterated in a calmer tone, "That's… not it at all."
"Then what is it?"
His tone was completely even, betraying nothing else than the question he had spoken. Tsubaki swallowed thickly and looked away from his penetrating emerald orbs that seemed to see through her very soul.
'I don't want to graduate yet' sounded really stupid and childish. 'I don't want to be separated from you' had an ambiguous sounding to it and she didn't want him to understand her wrongly. 'I don't want to become anyone else's partner' wasn't much better either. Anything Tsubaki could come up as a response to his question didn't seem good enough to her.
So she bit on her lip and stayed silent, settling for just shaking her head instead. She knew that the simple action did not convey even half of what she wanted to say but it was better than not replying to him at all.
She didn't want him to think that she didn't trust him with her worries. She was just too embarrassed by them to voice them aloud.
Black Star sighed again—this time, in resignation—and tilted his head up to look at the stars shining brightly above the two of them. He smiled at the heavens as he remembered looking at a similar view from a hill by her house in her hometown.
It reminded him of another promise he had given her.
"Hey, Tsubaki?" She looked up when he began, blinking a few times in expectation of what he wanted to tell her. "What do you want to do afterwards?"
Her brow rose skeptically over her eyes.
"Afterwards?" she reiterated in a puzzled tone. "Well, after a party it would be good to take a bath and—"
She was cut off by his insistently waved hand even before he spoke up.
"No, no, no—not after this." He gave her an odd look before elaborating. "What do you want to do after we've achieved our goal? Have you thought about it?"
Understanding began to dawn on him when he saw horror and dread paint her face before they were wiped from there. She was very quick in composing herself but there was hardly anything she could ever hide from him if he wanted to find out. The fact that she always reacted so honestly to everything definitely worked to her disadvantage as well.
"W-well, I don't know—I've never t-though about it before…" she stuttered, getting flustered by her clumsiness with her words afterward.
Black Star smiled up at the sky again, even though all his attention was actually trained on his partner next to him.
"I've thought about it though," he told her and her shoulders stiffened slightly, even though her curiosity was piqued. She swallowed dryly as she waited for him to continue. "I think we should probably go visit your folks again, since we didn't stay much last time. You must want to tell them the good news in person, right? That would be better than writing it in a letter." He jammed his hands in his pockets, a good-natured grin spreading on his features. "You should stand in the spotlight of your own stage, after all!"
Tsubaki could only stand there, flabbergasted for a second and completely speechless while her brain attempted to reboot itself.
"A-ah, y-you're right. We should tell them in person. After all, I finally graduated from Shibusen and you were the one who made me into a Death Scythe, so we should go tell them that together, you're right." For some reason, she couldn't stop mumbling and even though what he'd said had made her happy at first, she couldn't stop the sinking feeling from settling in her gut.
"Oh, and does your dad teach swordsmanship? I could probably use a few lessons on sword wielding from the professional in your family. It must've been him who taught your brother how to fight with a sword, right? I'm sure he'd be flattered to have such a great man as myself be willing to take lessons from him!" He laughed raucously and she tried to force a smile on her face.
"H-huh? Oh, yes, it was father who taught brother the way of the sword. And I'm sure he would teach you if you ask him but why would you want to learn that?"
Her query earned her a very expressive 'what are you talking about' look from the assassin.
"Huh? Didn't I promise you that I'd achieve what the folks in your family and your brother couldn't? Making you a Death Scythe was just an additional bonus on the way there, since we're both Shibusen students and it's what Shinigami-danna expects. I still have a promise I need to fulfill with you, so it's too early to get too laidback. Swordsmanship skills could be a great boost during fights from now on, so getting your pops to show me some is a must."
He spoke so easily and so matter-of-fact that if not for her deep-rooted uncertainties, she might have felt reassuring by his words.
But her anxieties ran deeper than this. It was a more profound disconcertion that made her lose her cool and her senses.
They could not be soothed by pretty words and past promises.
"Then, when you achieve brother's dream, what then?" she asked so quietly that if not for his super-human hearing, he might not have caught her question.
"What?" he spat out almost incredulously, turning to look at her with a disbelieving look.
She had hung her head against her collarbone so her bangs hid her expression from his view. His eyebrows narrowed as he regarded her posture.
"Beyond that goal, what's next? After you've fulfilled the promise with me and the soul of my ancestors, what do we do next?" Her tone had taken on a sharp edge, and her speech was coming out in hitches.
A note of desperation was creeping into her voice.
Black Star sighed in the beginnings of irritation, rubbing the back of his neck with a hand.
"What's with you tonight, Tsubaki? What do we do, what do we do—we do whatever we want to, right? And, besides, what is this, a game? "If we do that, then what; when we do that too, what's after"—it's getting annoying."
Her hands tightened into fists at that, her teeth gritting together in her mounting vexation.
"What game? Of course it's not a game! How can I think of this so light-heartedly, as if it doesn't matter—!" When she'd snapped she'd looked up and her gaze had locked with his. While she'd seen the calculating look in his eyes, he had seen the frantic, panicked one in hers.
As if suddenly shaken awake from a daydream, she stopped mid-sentence, chewing on her lower lip and turning away from him. She knew that she was probably going too far with this—even getting into a fight with Black Star.
But how could she not? This was important! How could he not realize that?!
Did their partnership mean so little to him?
The assassin heaved a great sigh and rolled his eyes away in the direction opposite of the one Tsubaki was facing. He scratched the back of his head while mulling something over.
"I'm too big of a man to be confined by such dead-set plans as you're trying to make—they're really stifling. Why are you so bent on this anyway? I don't get it."
"You don't care that once our partnership is dissolved, there will be nothing connecting us anymore?"
This time her quiet question was spoken completely evenly, not even a hint of emotion betraying her voice. It made Black Star shift his gaze back to her again. While the words she had spoken—and their meaning—sunk into his mind, he saw the searching look in her navy eyes.
"Huh? What are you talking about? Who said our partnership would be dissolved?"
She forced a smile, even though it was embittered by the disappointment that instantly marred her features after what he'd said.
"We're no longer students of Shibusen, we graduate tonight. The whole point of our partnership was for me to become a Death Scythe with your help. There's no reason for us to remain a team now, is there? Isn't it only natural that our partnership would be dissolved?"
He blinked and he still had that perplexed expression twisting his mouth as he pondered over what she'd just said.
"I don't think Shinigami-danna would break up our team just because of that though. And even if it happened, it's not like there won't be anything at all connecting us."
She shot him an accusatory glance at that, the bitterness and anxiety overflowing from her soul as she pinned her gaze to him then. Once again, he could only blink in confusion at her violent reactions to all he did and said. Was today one of those days in the month for her or something?
He knew better than to voice that aloud though. She seemed worked up enough even without him purposefully trying to annoy her.
And why she was in the first place, he couldn't figure out for the life of him.
"What will be connecting us then?" she demanded, and he sighed again, rubbing his neck. She was getting really punctilious about anything and everything—it was becoming more and more difficult to handle her mood swings.
Could it really be that time of the month?
"We'll still be us, a day from now, a week from now, a year from now—what does it matter if we're graduating Shibusen? You're being really weird, Tsubaki."
"We'll be partners who aren't partners—what kind of connection is that?"
He saw her eyes gleaming with tears that were welling up in them. He swallowed dryly. Hey, hey, was she going to cry now? Had he said something wrong?
"You want me to give you a sort of bond that you can put a name to?"
He'd shifted from nonplussed to dead serious in such rapid succession that she barely had the time to register what he had asked before he took his hand out of his pocket to place it on the railing so as to balance his weight as he leant in towards her.
He'd completely closed all distance between their lips in less than a heartbeat in the most nonchalant manner. His light breath was fanning against her cheek and he was looking at her with those intense, penetrating eyes of his from so close that she couldn't help but clench her eyes shut. She'd been caught so off-guard by his action that she would've pulled away right then—to ask what he was doing and was the meaning of this—if not for his other hand that kept her head firmly in its spot, allowing her no chance of fleeing.
It felt like an eternity until she stopped trying to wiggle out of his grasp and actually responded to his kiss. But when she did, he let his own eyes shut and allowed himself a bit more freedom, sliding his tongue into her mouth and savouring the way she trembled when he licked her lips. They were pliant and yielding against his, and the dominance he'd established as the kiss escalated made him become more and more confident, heightening the passion of the moment.
When he pulled away, her hand that had been clutching on his suit's coat held on even tighter. She was shaking slightly but she made for an amazing sight in that very instant. Her chest was rising and falling quickly with her shortness of breath, pinkness dusted her cheeks as she stared up at him with her wide and hopeful innocent eyes and her lips were swollen from the searing kiss he'd given her.
He smirked at her and gently traced the curve of her fuller lower lip with the thumb of the hand that had been holding the back of her head securely. She blushed prettily under his scrutiny and his mouth twisted in a mischievous grin in response.
"There. That's not a kiss you give to just anyone, right? You tell me what kind of connection that is."
Her heart was skipping so many beats she was starting to wonder if it was even beating at all when he took her hand and began to lead her towards the inside where the party was in its height.
"Now let's go enjoy our graduation! There's no way we're going to let Kid and the rest hog the stage all by themselves while the stars of the night are absent!"
For the first time in months, she felt herself smile—widely and genuinely, without anything gnawing at her heart or lurking at the back of her mind. She realized now how silly she had been to have freaked out so much when she should've known that the bond she'd built with Black Star couldn't be severed so easily.
But if she had to be frank—she thought while she squeezed his hand and touched the index finger of her free one to her lips where she could still feel his presence lingering—she'd really enjoyed his method of persuasion for seeing his point more than she would probably ever be able to let on.
"Oh? But I already have Spirit-kun as my weapon. And since you guys work so well together, there's really no reason to disband your team, is there?"
That's what Shinigami-sama had said with a perplexed tone and a slightly comical tilt of his head when Tsubaki and Black Star had approached them with the newly graduated Death Scythe's query.
The Nakatsukasa had been so shocked that she had lost control of her lower jaw.
"B-but… As a team, wasn't becoming a Death Scythe our purpose?" the girl asked shakily, stumbling over her words as she spoke.
To her side, Black Star was cackling uncontrollably, obviously hugely amused by the grim reaper's response to his partner.
"Well, yes, as a student team, I guess. Now that you've moved beyond that goal and you're no longer students, you can be one of the teams that help Shibusen maintain order in the continent." The Shinigami then leaned in with his large hand to his mask's lower side, as if wanting to tell them something conspiratorially. "You didn't think I let one-star technicians and weapons handle the really dangerous missions out there, did you?"
Tsubaki had only managed to blink her eyes dumbly for a few seconds, her mouth still hanging open and her mind still drawing blanks. Shinigami-sama laughed merrily as he turned his back on them.
"All right then! I think that's all for today! You two will stay on stand-by for the time being, until there's a job I need you to handle! Dismissed," the grim reaper said as enthusiastically as ever, prolonging the syllables of the last word.
It was not until they were walking home that Tsubaki finally managed to regain control of her thought train and her lower jaw.
"See? I told you he wouldn't disband our team because of this. The danna isn't that kind of guy. You were getting worried over nothing," Black Star said through a laugh, a good-natured grin secure on his features.
The raven-haired young woman let a smile slowly blossom on her lips as she walked as well, her gaze cast to the ground she treaded.
"Indeed, you were right," she mumbled softly, enjoying the feel of the early summer evening that was coming upon them. "I should've listened to you."
As the sun was setting from a long day of strenuous shining, it cast on the sidewalk the elongated shadow of their walking frames and joined hands.
A/N: I hate with a passion tossing in Japanese words in my English fics (it's a serious pet peeve of mine), but I feel that Black Star's way of referring to Shinigami is unique and very indicative of the respect he holds for the man, so I had to keep it. Forgive me for that.
I think the story might've come out a bit twisted from what I initially meant it to be, and there might be some mistakes I made while typing but I'm too sleepy to proof-read now, so I hope you can oversee any typos and such in favour of getting to read it now instead of tomorrow. I thought that it would be interesting to see Tsubaki panicking about what would happen beyond them achieving their goal so I had to write this. :D I hope it was an enjoyable read~
As always, reviews make for a happy and more productive Dark Hope Assassin~