Disclaimer: I don't own Rin-ne. It belongs to Rumiko Takahashi.
Note: Spoilers up to Chapter 51 of the manga. Story veers away from canon at that point. Also keep in mind, that before chapter 51, we hadn't heard of the hourglass arc so my story doesn't take it into account.
"Are you in love with Rinne-kun?"
The sleepover had been her mother's idea and Sakura had been feeling uneasy about the whole affair for the past few hours. When her mother had proposed it earlier, Sakura had been initially pleased with the notion. Then she felt the shivers, a bitter cold crawling up inside her, the way she had felt before the ghost girl at school had written a message on the chalkboard. But she had waved that feeling off as coincidence, at the time, and decided to think nothing of it.
Now it was back, stronger than before and growing colder as the seconds ticked by. Sakura had pondered on informing Rinne of this, but hearing Tsubasa and Rinne conversing when she passed by the staircase on her way to the kitchen changed her mind. It wasn't often that the sort-of shinigami had a chance to relax and just be himself. Who was she to take away such a precious moment?
So she contented herself (or tried to) with the possibility that her intuition was wrong. There was nothing in the house. Spirits had never gotten into her house away. She didn't know the reason, but it had never failed her before. Why would it fail now?
These thoughts plagued Sakura when she returned to the bedroom. She didn't protest when Ageha redecorated the floor in an assortment of glitter and ribbons nor did she comment when Ageha began to put pink nail polish on both their toes. The female shinigami chattered away about her new boyfriend, while Sakura nodded at the appropriate intervals and conveyed her congratulations to the new couple.
The question, blurted from no logical source, startled Sakura back to reality.
Ageha was glaring at her (though Sakura had yet to hear the reason why), with arms crossed. It made an amusing picture because the female shinigami was not intimidating at all dressed in kitty pyjamas that were decorated with ribbons.
"I'm sorry…" Sakura decided to say slowly, "I'm not sure what you mean…"
There was snort. "You heard me. I've been telling you about how my darling, dear, handsome and amazing boyfriend, Tsubasa-kun, confessed his undying, ever faithful and amazing love to me and all you have said in response is 'that's nice' or 'yes, I see' or 'hm' with that dopey expression on your face!"
Sakura merely stared blankly at her.
The female shinigami groaned. "You're hopeless. Must you always be so infuriatingly calm all the time? It's a wonder to know what you're thinking, girl!" She leaned back on her fortress of fluffy, laced pillows. "So… are you being distracted by someone else…? A boy…?" And then, the sinister edge in her voice returned, "…or Rinne Rokudo?"
Sakura stood up abruptly to put down her comb and faced the mirror, much to Ageha's annoyance.
"Don't be silly," she said, "Rokudo-kun and I are—"
"—just friends…?" Ageha echoed. "Are you sure? Or are you only denying it?"
She was about to reply that she was sure and that the female shinigami should trust Sakura's word more instead of doubting it all the time, when a flicker of unease settled into her stomach. There was something holding back her words, cautiously this time, that asked her if she had really inspected her feelings as closely as she thought. Perhaps it was the unnerving way that Ageha was staring at her, with defiance and threat and perhaps it was the whole matter of 'pretending to date' Rinne for the sake of catching the ghost…
…Or maybe it was the way Rinne looked when he was by himself sometimes, so tired and alone, prompting a deep ache within Sakura. When she saw him like that, she only wanted to reach out and—
They heard the scream then, ringing throughout the house.
Both girls froze, before Sakura broke the shocked stare first, and rushed down to the basement.
That was Rinne. Rinne was screaming and she didn't know why.
A Shinigami Ballad
-5- Saving Nightmares
The door burst open and Sakura rushed in, taking into her view, only Tsubasa's disheveled figure, staring at Rinne in shock as well as the sudden intensity of vicious aura in the basement.
Crumpled on the ground, like a writhing worm on a fisherman's hook, Rinne's was emitting horrible screams. The sounds reminded Sakura of a hoard of ghosts she had once happened upon. They had been victims, crushed to death in an earthquake by the sharp rubble falling on top of them. Their wounds had been gaping large, silver blood everywhere, limbs torn apart. All they could do, even in the afterlife, was scream and wail, scream and wail…
That was Rinne at the moment, crying out as if he was being viciously stabbed to death by an invisible phantom. The only evidence of any ghostly presence remained in the cold, deadly aura Sakura could feel lingering around Rinne's futon.
It seemed to hiss at Tsubasa, daring the exorcist to approach. Such movement was in vain for him; the exorcist seemed unable to move past the miasma of malicious hatred. His knees were trembling under the oppressive force and he looked whiter than Sakura had ever seen him.
She dashed towards the center of the aura, which was circling around Rinne, fighting her way through what seemed like a magnetic force, repelling her back. Sakura winced, holding her breath, as it felt constrained away from her, like an unseen person was collecting all of the oxygen in the room into the void floating above the thrashing and unconscious shinigami.
"Mamiya-san, don't come any closer!" She heard Tsubasa yell from the other side of the room. "That's an evil spirit, it could kill you!"
Her arms broke through the repelling force, letting her take another step forward. She bit her lip, making her legs edge forward inch by inch. She felt as if she was walking in the direction of a storm, a storm which refused to let its victims be in control. Her hair was flying around her face, getting in her eyes and her lips. The futons had, by now, circled around the basement ceiling at least twenty times but all Sakura could focus on was the bright head of red hair, and a pained face.
"Mamiya-san!" Tsubasa said.
But she took another step, arms held up as a weak guard in front of her face.
Ageha burst into the basement soon after, looking just as dishevelled as everyone else. When she took in the chaotic state of the storage room (and basement) her red eyes widened. The female shinigami said something under her breath, something to do with disbelief, but other than that, Sakura could not hear her with the oppressive aura hovering overhead.
"Sakura!" Ageha joined in the pleading, "Get away from there now, a human has no business being in a poisonous presence for long! You'll be dead within a few more minutes; the longer you stay, the worse it is!" The female shinigami's voice cut off into a curse, "Damn it, I've never seen a ghost this tainted before… I need to get my scythe…"
"You mean you didn't bring it before?" Tsubasa responded. "Couldn't you sense it—"
"No, god damn it, I could not," was the scathing reply, "and that's what scares me. Could you sense it at all, exorcist?"
The silence that followed answered her question.
"Sakura, get back here," Ageha returned to saying. "Let me handle this, I'm a professional and you—"
"I don't care."
Both Ageha and Tsubasa wore the same scandalized expressions. They had never heard Sakura Mamiya protest in such a way. Any interactions they had had with the human girl were mild and pleasant. Sakura was never one to take offense to anything that was said. Her head was level and her countenance extremely calm.
But the determination in her voice was something they had never heard before.
The girl in question was moving through the miasma-like aura through sheer will power, when that same aura had kept Tsubasa, a trained exorcist, frozen on his knees and had Ageha panicking. Sakura Mamiya was supposed to be a novice at exorcising spirits, an amateur in confronting the truly wicked of ghosts, yet here she was, walking against a dark aura as if she could do so with her guts alone.
What is this? Ageha thought. She's supposed to be a mere human, she's not supposed to be this strong… and me… I just… I just…
The female shinigami's fists tightened and she yanked Tsubasa to his feet, "Where are your weapons? Let's try those. Something has to work!"
Normally he would take offense to any comment that implied his arsenal to be mediocre (especially compared to the shinigami weapons selection) but even Tsubasa could comprehend when they were in a life and death matter.
The exorcist struggled to move, but was still too overwhelmed by the aura to do much but point towards his knapsack.
"There they are…," he said, leaning against her shoulder. Ageha tried not to think of how light he seemed, tried not to wonder if the exorcist would collapse from exhaustion. She herself was trembling. The exorcist noticed and tried to stand on his own two feet.
Ageha yanked him back, scowling. "Don't be stupid. You'll fall and waste our time if you try to be all macho. Just let me get us there."
Tsubasa didn't bother to hide his snort. "When you're just as powerless against this evil spirit as I am? Not a chance. We're crawling there together; it's only a few inches."
Only a few inches.
But as Ageha heard Rinne's screams echoing, she realized that they might not have that much time. Her stomach tightened in pain and she forced herself and Tsubasa stumbling forward.
They needed weapons now!
There was nothing between her and her destination, only something unseen, something spiteful, pushing her back, but if Sakura ignored the pain, only focused on letting each foot advance, she knew that she could reach him.
The closer she got, the more tangible the aura was. She could see it darkening around her, like a black fog filling the room. Her friends hadn't seemed to notice, so Sakura assumed that it was one of the side-effects of being so deeply immersed within the aura.
It was beginning to solidify, into a towering form, not much taller than Sakura herself. The black figure had human limbs, a head and a long flowing dress. As Sakura took another step, she could make out the features of the shape's face that were eerily familiar. One more step took Sakura a foot away from the center of the miasma and then she could see clearly.
The figure was standing over Rinne's body, hands pressed against his chest, forehead against his, with a malicious smile. It was the spirit, the one that vowed to kill anyone who dared to attend.
"Get away from him!"
Sakura bolted at the spirit, tearing at what should have been see-through, what should have been incorporeal limbs. Instead she hit something physical, like hitting a tree branch and nearly stepped back in surprise.
The spirit was corporal, absolutely corporal, and she was glaring at Sakura with what could be described only as pure loathing.
"How dare you interfere between us" came the low chilling syllables, freezing her in place, "how dare you try and steal him from me!"
She lunged at Sakura, her eyes suddenly pure red and her face as grotesque as a soulless zombie. Sakura could see how elongated the spirit's nails had become, pure needles of ice forming from her finger tips, aimed at Sakura's heart. It was clear that the spirit's powers had evolved somehow, but Sakura wasn't sure, only Rinne's safety mattered now—
Sakura ducked, placing her hands forward to jab the spirits in the stomach, making it slash the ground instead. On the floor, Rinne slumped over with a moan, the spirit no longer entering his dreams through touch. At the same time, Sakura slipped around the spirit, hoping to evade its attacks until she could figure out a way to chase it out of her house or at least destroy it.
It turned to Sakura quickly, freezing more water vapour from the air into ice crystals, hovering around her. Then it dived at her, the crystals following on all sides, Sakura raised her fists, having nothing else to help her. She could only think of Rinne. She couldn't let any of the crystals hit Rinne in accidental misfire—
Several crystals cut through Sakura's clothes and embedded into her arms (which had been covering her head, preparing to strike), her stomach, her thighs and her calves. Sakura winced, holding her ground, until the spirit was just inches from Sakura's face—
Her punch landed directly in the spirit's mouth. If the spirit were still alive, several teeth would have been knocked out, at least. Such attacks were not enough to injure the otherworldly, not unless you took on a spirit form as Rinne did when he wore his haori.
Except that this attack did hurt the spirit, very much.
Sakura blinked in surprise as the spirit flew backwards, yowling as if she was burned by Sakura's touch. A great light had emerged when her fist made contact with the spirit's face, blinding Sakura from seeing the results. But now she could see it clearly—a huge burn mark on the spirit's lips and the loss of the spirit's dark aura. It was still present, but not oppressing as it was before.
The loathing that the spirit held for Sakura seemed to increase a hundred fold. It crept towards her, aura becoming more menacing as it came closer.
"You meddling little—"
"Sacred ashes! Be gone evil spirit!"
A cloud of blessed white powder fell upon them. Normally this did little to deter spirits, but it was Ageha who had thrown them and Ageha seemed to concentrating very hard, as if her will was extended into the ashes, to repel the ghost.
Tsubasa looked haggard beside her, but didn't hesitate to throw out his bible. Looking extremely fatigued and burdened, the exorcist leapt up and hit the spirit with his bible corner crushing attack. Oddly enough (the exorcist's methods had never worked so well before, save for the incident with the dumpling damashigami) the spirit shrieked in pain and rushed to the ceiling, trying to escape.
Together, Ageha and Tsubasa shouted, "Oh, no you don't!" Both jumped at once, one with a bible and the other with the ashes, to banish the spirit for good, but it was too quick for them.
The spirit was gone, leaving Ageha and Tsubasa to simultaneously bang their heads together in mid-jump. They fell on the floor, temporarily dizzied from the pain and cursing the other ("Damn it, exorcist, watch where you land next time, moron!" "Well, it was your fault, she-devil!")
But Sakura was already at Rinne's side, holding his head up so that it was in her lap and checking his pulse. Her heart beat quickly, too quickly, in her veins, in her ears. She just wanted to know if Rinne was going to be alright. He was too pale, too haggard looking, it made her insides spin out of control to see him in this state.
"Rinne," the name slipped from her lips as she tried to shake him awake. "Rinne, please…!"
A low moan told her that he was awake, but she did not release her grip on his shoulders until she saw his eye lids flutter open, gracing her with the sight of red irises.
Rinne jolted up immediately, as if lightning had electrocuted him. His arms grabbed at Sakura, pulling her towards him into an awkward hold, while his fists were raised in front of him, as if to defend them from predators. His breathing was uneven, too rough and shaken; while Sakura was sure that his eyes had a twinge of madness at the edges.
"Stay away from me!" He yelled, in a tone that she had never heard from the stoic shinigami before. Off to the side, Tsubasa and Ageha were bewildered by his outburst, unsure of what to say. "Stay away from me, I'm not like you! I don't want them dead, just leave them alone!"
It sounded like he was still dreaming.
Or maybe he still thought he was stuck in the ghost's nightmare.
"Rokudo-kun—no, Rinne-kun—calm down please!" She tugged at his elbow, desperate to chase the desperation from his manner. "It's over, the spirit is gone, she can't hurt you anymore," Sakura tried to say soothingly. But she wasn't sure it was working well. Her experience with actively comforting others had never been good. Her voice tended to come out as monotonous and bland.
He was shaking; she could feel it, being pressed against him. Every heartbeat, every trembling movement, Sakura became hyper aware of everything. The way he tensed, the way his fingers tightened around her shoulders, how he seemed to falter back and slowly... Rinne put down his arms and looked down at Sakura, with disbelieving eyes.
She opened her mouth, to say something, anything, but promptly forgot all speech when she saw the intensity of wild emotions—fear, doubt, more fear—swimming in his eyes. She kept her face blank because she wasn't sure how to react and decided to try to act as normal as possible. Perhaps there would be something soothing in the normalcy.
But she wasn't sure what to say, too struck by his desperate red depths.
She could only choke out one word, a shaky "Rinne—"cut off before she could finish with the honorific when she felt him envelop her completely in his arms.
Sakura stiffened, falling down to her knees with Rinne, only aware of (warmth, security, something... something right—) how tightly he held her, the ragged breaths shaking his entire body as the strongest person she had ever known seemed to break in front of her.
"I'm sorry, Sakura Mamiya," his brusque voice hoarsely said, "but for now... please let me hold you."
It wasn't often that she was struck speechless, but this seemed to be one of those times. Kneeling, motionless and unsure in his arms, Sakura slowly put her hands around Rinne's shoulders and quietly prayed that he would be alright.
Tsubasa and Ageha were staring pointedly at them both. Sakura wondered why. A passing thought suggested that perhaps they were bothered by the awkward embrace that Rinne and Sakura had shared only moments before. But Sakura decided that this couldn't be the reason. The exorcist and female shinigami were dating each other now, they had no reason to be jealous or bothered.
Rinne, on the other hand, had become extremely distant and formal around Sakura to the point where he wouldn't look her directly in the eye without becoming red. Sakura felt odd (and... slightly hurt) whenever he did this. But, she reasoned, maybe the fever had gotten worse because of spirit and Rinne was too polite to share his ailments. Strangely enough, this disturbed her even more and did not placate Sakura's strange feelings for a moment.
They were gathered in the sitting room with Tsubasa and Ageha stewing by the table, arms crossed. Rinne was pacing back and forth, avoiding eye contact, especially with Sakura (again, the irk returned and Sakura fought to push it away). She had brought out some tea, hoping to soothe everyone's nerves.
Unsurprisingly Kaori had slept through the whole adventure, for which Sakura was grateful. She wasn't sure how she would explain to her mother why a ghost had been haunting the basement. Then again, Kaori believed even the wildest excuses, so Sakura had little trouble keeping her mother oblivious to the supernatural accidents that seemed to follow her.
"So," Tsubasa said after taking a sip of green tea, "how did that spirit come to enter Mamiya-san's home?"
"Yeah, I thought that this place was already warded," Ageha interjected.
Sakura sat down at the other side of the table, "Warded?"
The couple stared at her incredulously.
"Warded against spirits," Rinne explained warily. He was sitting next to her, but attention fixed towards his cup. "I was going to ward it the first time I met you... but I found that it was already protected. I merely assumed that another shinigami had done it..."
"But you were the first shinigami I met after I was spirited away. Hypnosis hasn't worked on me since Aunty Tamako first used it on me. No shinigami has ever gone by my house before."
The three other occupants in the room leaned closer in interest and awe.
"But then... maybe this house was always protected...?" Tsubasa wondered.
Ageha frowned, "Have you always lived here? Have you had problems with spirits entering your home before?"
"No... We moved around a lot when I was little because...," Sakura faltered, only for a moment, "my father's work required it. But in every home we lived in, we never once had any problems with ghosts. I was always safe there. Today was the first time a ghost broke in..."
"But that's impossible... ghosts are attracted you, at least a little bit... it's too coincidental that you'd never have ghosts in your home, even once, in all your years...," Ageha drummed her fingers against the table.
"Maybe," Tsubasa intervened slowly, "Mamiya-san has powers much stronger than we all thought."
"What?" That was Ageha and Rinne; Sakura merely blinked at the revelation.
"Are you sure, Tsubasa?" She asked. She had never felt very powerful after all.
"I'm sure," he nodded. "Think about it. Lately, you've been able to sense that ghost when we couldn't, long before we could. Then there was tonight... Ageha and I were paralyzed by the ghost's aura, yet you were able to move against it with sheer will. And remember our other exorcisms? Don't you think it's weird how easily and naturally you can put spirits to rest? Maybe your previous homes were never invaded by spirits because you subconsciously put up a barrier against them, out of some trauma from interacting with ghosts," Sakura tensed but Tsubasa didn't notice, "or something. Only today that ghost came through because she was extremely powerful. What do you think?"
No one said a thing; Sakura was too busy contemplating how plausible this was before Ageha said, "That's impossible! She's still just a human who gained her sight in the shinigami world, most gifted humans are extremely weak when it comes to sensing spirits—"
"—Are you referring to me, sweetie?" the exorcist asked icily.
But Ageha went on, "—I haven't heard of this before."
"Well of course you haven't heard of this. You're a shinigami. As if you bother with the affairs of the living," Tsubasa retorted. "But I do believe I should be an expert on this, and I'd say that my guess the most correct."
"It makes sense."
They looked up at Rinne, who was still staring at this cup.
Sakura frowned, "...Rinne-kun...?"
The sort-of shinigami smiled dimly and (finally, whispered a part of her) looked straight at her, "I always did say that you'd make a first-rate shinigami... given some training."
She was going to reply blandly that she wasn't interested in such an endeavour, as usual, when she found that the words wouldn't quite leave her mouth the way she wanted. Her stomach was twisting and shrill warmth was rushing through her insides, burning up the skin on her cheeks. It occurred to Sakura that she was pleased with Rinne's words and a part of her was more relieved that Rinne had decided to stop avoiding her gaze.
Unsure, Sakura lifted her cup, felt the heat steaming up against her face and took a long sip to distract her woes.
"We should focus on the ghost," Ageha snapped, snapping her fingers. "What did it want? Why was it here?"
"Obviously it wanted to possess Rokudo," her boyfriend replied, "and it seemed to have an extreme hatred for Mamiya-san. I guess your pseudo dating is working... the spirit is coming directly to you."
The four of them fell into an uneasy silence.
"Sakura Mamiya, let's break up."
Suddenly everything felt very cold.
She frowned and stared directly at him, "I'm sorry," she said neutrally, while Ageha and Tsubasa seemed to watch as if this were an interesting television show, "What did you say, Rinne-kun?"
"I think we should stop pretending to date. This is getting too dangerous," Rinne said, setting his cup down. "This spirit isn't one of the silly ghosts that have superficial problems. She's the real deal and she will kill you if you continue against her—"
More incredulous staring from all of the occupants.
Sakura felt her fists clench as the emotions spilled forth, but she focused them into a direct gaze and steady voice, "I'm already involved. The ghost already thinks we're dating. She knows where I live. She won't believe us if we 'break up.' That's the most predictable move. I have a feeling she won't forget and she certainly won't forgive. Besides, didn't you say that I could stand up against her aura? I'm staying, Rinne. I made my decision and I have always understood the consequences."
As she finished, she kept her eyes on his, daring him to argue.
After what seemed like forever, he wrenched his stare away.
"...Fine, you're right."
Her shoulders relaxed. Strange, she hadn't even noticed that she was tense. She stole a glance at Ageha and Tsubasa. They seemed to have expressions mixed in disappointment and something else.
"But I think that we need more information, to do investigations... discover just who this spirit was and what she truly wants. Until then, since Sakura Mamiya and I have become her prime targets, I will stay by her side at all times to protect her."
"Well, alright—wait, what?" Tsubasa shot out of his chair. "But—"
"You can't—" Ageha joined in.
"That's my condition," said Rinne, looking directly at her and at that moment, Sakura felt shivers down her spine that had nothing to do with sensing ghosts. His expression darkened. "She will be safe."
Sakura suddenly wanted, very much, to know what the ghost had said to Rinne in his dream, and wondered what it would take to wash away the darkness in his soul.
"Alright," she nodded, "it's a deal."
But that didn't mean that Sakura couldn't protect him as well.