Chapter Eighteen: The Power Within
The next week passed quickly – a blur of training at the hands of Ritsu and sometimes Nagisa, assisted by Zero. Soubi could not help but be amazed at how quickly Ritsuka seemed to learn spells. The nights held little promise of affection – both Ritsuka and Soubi were too exhausted after the rigorous training to do anything but fall asleep in each other's arms. It wasn't much, but all the same, Soubi was thankful just to feel his lover's body next to his.
For his part, Ritsuka asked Soubi briefly about his conversation with Ritsu, but when Soubi dodged the question, Ritsuka let it drop, assuming that Soubi was not ready to tell him about it. The truth was not far from that, although Soubi's motives for remaining tight-lipped were far different from what Ritsuka believed. Soubi had no intention of revealing the terrible truth about Ritsuka's past; he would not risk the likely harm that would result. Someday, Soubi told himself, after the inevitable confrontation with Seimei was well in the past, Soubi might tell Ritsuka the truth. But not now. Not when Ritsuka had already been through so much.
It was on the eighth day of training that Soubi began to sense that something was wrong. It had come on slowly throughout the week, the slight headaches after practice. But this time, after only an hour, Ritsuka complained of a worsening headache and dizziness. "I'm fine, really," he told Soubi as he leaned against the wall of the gymnasium, wiping sweat from his eyes and looking quite pale. "I'm probably just getting a cold." Soubi, noticing the pained expression on Ritsu's face, said only, "I'm going to take you back to your room to rest. I'll have Nagisa look in on you." Ritsuka protested, but finally acquiesced after a dizzy spell that he nearly fainted from. Back in their small room, Soubi tucked Ritsuka under the blankets and wiped his damp face. Ritsuka managed a weak smile, then mumbled something unintelligible as he fell asleep.
Nagisa appeared a few minutes later, saying nothing to Soubi, but sitting by Ritsuka's bed and taking his blood pressure, temperature, and listening to his chest with her stethoscope. During all of this, Soubi stood by the window, back to the glass, looking on. After a half hour had passed, Nagisa motioned Soubi to join her outside the room and, closing the door behind them, said, "He'll be fine, Soubi. You need to relax."
Soubi's expression darkened. "This isn't a coincidence, is it?" he demanded, keeping his voice low so as not to disturb Ritsuka.
"What isn't a coincidence?" she countered, eyeing him with caution.
"The fact that he took ill so suddenly, and that it happened when we were training together," Soubi replied. "And don't tell me you hadn't already considered it."
"I don't know what's wrong with him, Soubi," she said, "if that's what you're getting at."
"But you suspect something, don't you?" Soubi pressed. He ran a hand through his blond hair and clenched his jaw tightly.
"It is a bit unusual," she replied, her expression softening a bit, "that a perfectly healthy man would become so weak and disoriented so quickly. I don't deny that. Still, the fact that he doesn't have a fever doesn't mean…"
"But you know what he went through as a child," Soubi rejoined. "If this is…"
"It could just be a fast-acting virus," she said, interrupting him.
"Or something else," Soubi answered. "Something to do with what those bastards did to him."
"It is possible," she replied, unwilling to fight him on the point. "Either way, what he needs now is rest. He'll probably be fine in the morning. You both have been training very hard." She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "I'll come by first thing tomorrow, but if there's any change tonight, let me know."
Soubi reached into his pocket without thinking, looking for a cigarette. There were none, of course – he had sworn to Ritsuka he would give them up. "All right," he told her.
"You're welcome," she told him.
"Right," he answered. "Thanks." He opened the door to the room as she walked down the hallway.
She was right, of course, he had overreacted. "It'll be fine," he thought, seeing Ritsuka's sleeping figure. "He'll be fine. He has to be fine." He sat down on the chair by the bed and watched Ritsuka sleep, replacing the cool washcloth on his lover's forehead from time to time.
Soubi awoke with a start, having fallen asleep in the chair at Ritsuka's beside. Soubi glanced at the clock: three a.m. Ritsuka was mumbling something in his sleep and shifting restlessly in the bed.
"Shhh," Soubi cooed as he placed his hand on Ritsuka's cheek. The skin was cold and clammy.
"Seimei," Ritsuka moaned. "Please…come back."
Soubi adjusted the covers, covering Ritsuka's shoulders.
"No…Seimei…you have to…I don't want you to get hurt."
Unsure of whether to wake Ritsuka, Soubi moved to the bed, sitting next to the boy and leaning over him. "It's all right, Ritsuka," he said in a low, reassuring voice. I'm here."
Ritsuka's eyes snapped open and he sat up abruptly, tossing off the covers and grabbing Soubi's shoulders in a vice-like grip. "No. You won't hurt him. I won't let you!" he shouted.
"Ritsuka," Soubi said with alarm, "it's me. Soubi. You're dreaming. Everything's going to be…"
"No!" Ritsuka shouted again.
Soubi tried to pull away from Ritsuka, attempting to free himself from Ritsuka's grip. Ritsuka's eyes seemed glazed over, as if he could not see Soubi, even though the other man was only inches in front of him. "Ritsuka," Soubi pleaded, afraid to handle Ritsuka too roughly, "you're dreaming. Please, wake up."
"No!" Ritsuka's face was even paler than before, and his expression was one of sheer terror.
Soubi, attempting once more to calm the boy, continued to speak in a gentle, soothing tone. But as he spoke, the edges of his vision seemed to blur and shift. Even in the semi-darkness, Soubi saw what he could only describe later as vibrations of color that appeared to emanate from Ritsuka's body. An aura, of sorts, that seemed to roil and pulse even as he watched.
It was then that Soubi realized his own body was growing cold. He shivered, trying to maintain his focus on Ritsuka's face. It was difficult – almost as if the room were full of water, and he was underneath, trying to make out the blurry images at the surface. "Ritsuka…" he whispered as his mind seemed to float away, mingling with the colors and sounds. "Ritsuka?" he heard himself say again, from far away.
He found himself in an enormous, empty space that seemed to extend forever all around him.
There was no answer, only the beating of his heart.
"Ritsuka!" He shouted it this time, feeling the stirrings of fear. It was so quiet here, so…empty.
In the distance, he heard footsteps. He turned towards the sound, squinting, trying to see who was approaching, eager to find his bearings in this desolate place. It seemed as though an eternity passed before he saw the faint outline of a figure – a man – moving towards him.
"Ritsuka?" There was no response, but Soubi became aware of low noises that seemed to echo all around him. He strained to hear the sound even as he watched the man grow closer.
The noise grew louder. A flicker of recognition sent shivers through Soubi's body – he could now make out the noise. Moans. Cries. The sobbing of a child. Sounds of pain and suffering. "Oh, God," he thought as he wondered if he were asleep and dreaming. Except that it didn't feel like a dream, it felt like…
"Who are you?" Ritsuka stood before him, his eyes narrowed, suspicion evident in his expression. "Who gave you permission to come to this place?"
"Where is this place?" Soubi wondered aloud.
Ritsuka ignored Soubi's expression and repeated his own. "Who are you?" Soubi hesitated, more out of confusion than anything else. "If you do not tell me, you will die here."
Before he could answer, Soubi felt something tighten around his neck. He raised his hands to try to pull it away, but found nothing there but his own skin. He began to see stars. "Ritsuka," he gasped. "You know me. I'm Soubi."
The pressure against Soubi's neck let up slightly as Ritsuka asked, "What are you to me?"
"I'm your fighter, Ritsuka. Your friend. Your lover."
Ritsuka tilted his head to the side, as if trying to determine whether Soubi was telling the truth. "Give me your hand," Ritsuka ordered. Soubi complied. The tightness around his throat eased a bit more.
Ritsuka took Soubi's hand in his and studied it. "You are Beloved," he said after a moment.
"No," Soubi protested. "Not Beloved. I am Loveless."
"You lie," Ritsuka hissed. "You are for him."
"Seimei?" Soubi responded, confused.
Ritsuka smiled. "I knew it. I knew you were not for me. You lied."
"I am yours, Ritsuka," Soubi said with alarm. "I have given my soul to you."
"He lies, Seimei," Ritsuka said, turning to the side. A figure materialized there, familiar, disturbing.
"He wants to hurt you," Seimei said as he nodded solemnly.
Soubi's stomach clenched at these words. "Ritsuka," Soubi began, "what is this place?"
Ritsuka looked to Seimei, who walked towards Soubi until the stood, face to face, inches apart. "That you do not know," Seimei said haughtily, "is reason enough not to enlighten you, Soubi."
"Ritsuka," Soubi repeated, ignoring Seimei's words. "Please…"
"Take care of him," Ritsuka said, his voice like ice. Seimei smiled, and Ritsuka turned around and began to walk away.
"Ritsuka!" Soubi shouted. He pushed Seimei out of the way and began to run after Ritsuka.
"No," Seimei said, laughing now. "You won't find him there, Soubi. The only way to him is through me."
Soubi's legs stopped moving; he stood immobilized. The room began to spin wildly about him and he struggled not to vomit. He felt Seimei's hands around his neck and he struggled to breathe again.
"Seimei," Soubi said, his voice unable to issue from his lips. "Please. He has to let you go."
"You are naïve, old friend," he said, his tone making it clear that Soubi was anything but. "I own him. Mind, body and soul. I always have."
"No," Soubi protested, gasping for breath.
"You will die, Soubi, if you don't let him go," Seimei said, voice full of pleasure. "His power is mine to control. He will do my bidding, just as you always have."
Soubi fought to stay alert. Every fiber of his being screamed out for air. He would die like this, and there was nothing he could do to save himself.
"Help me," Soubi thought desperately.
"Soubi!" The same voice, closer now. Familiar.
"Please…" though Soubi, as the world around him seemed to swirl once more and then vanish.
"Soubi!" He recognized that voice. Nagisa. He felt the sting of a hand across his face. "Soubi, open your eyes!"
He obliged, coughing and spluttering as her face came into focus. "Where…?" he choked out, trying to focus his eyes.
"You're in your room," Nagisa said as she looked at him with concern.
Soubi's eyes settled on the still figure lying on the bed. "Oh, God! Ritsuka!"
"He's fine, Soubi," she replied, her eyes willing him to calm down. "I gave him a sedative."
"How? Where was I?"
She frowned, turning back to the now-sleeping Ritsuka. "What did you see, Soubi?" she asked, frowning at him.
"I…" he said, still trying to catch his breath. "It was…" – he tried to explain the sensation, closing his eyes briefly to recall it – "It was as if I were…" The realization hit him all of a sudden, and he breathed in sharply. "As if I were inside of a spell battle," he finished at last.
"The backdrop," Soubi explained. "It felt like that – the backdrop for a spell battle. Except that there was no battle. It was just me, Ritsuka, and…him."
"Him?" she asked.
"Seimei," he replied. He leaned a hand on the mattress, suddenly exhausted. It felt as though he had just fought a spell battle.
"You should rest, Soubi," she said.
"I can't," he protested.
"Ritsuka will sleep until morning," she replied. She had sensed his concern. "I'll stay here with him."
"What's going on, Nagisa?" he asked.
She took a deep breath. "This place," she ventured as she frowned. "The place you found yourself in – the backdrop?"
"What about it?"
"Did it remind you of anything, Soubi?"
His lips parted in surprise. He had been too distracted after the experience to think clearly, but now that she suggested it… "The battle," he replied. "On Hokkaido. The Nothingness pair." Her eyes would not meet his. "What does it mean, Nagisa?"
"What happened to Ritsuka," she murmured. "What they did to him…"
"They did this to him?" Soubi demanded. Fear settled in the pit of his stomach. "But why now? He's been fine."
"I don't know," she said. "The training, maybe? You've both been under a great deal of stress."
"Only a fighter could create such a complete universe," Soubi said, thinking out loud. "He almost killed me in there."
"I'm sure he didn't mean to," she offered.
Soubi ignored her sympathy. He didn't need it. He needed answers. "This isn't a coincidence, is it?"
"You tell me," she answered. "You know more than I do about his past. Ritsu has told me only so much."
He thought for a moment, then turned her chin towards him so she could not avoid his eyes. "What will happen to him?"
"I don't know," she said, and he believed her. "This power…his power…it's growing, Soubi. He's obviously not in control of it."
"Then we must teach him to control it," Soubi responded.
"A laudable goal," she said with a raised eyebrow. "And how do you plan to accomplish it?"
Soubi had no idea. "I'll figure something out. We will figure something out."
"You'd better figure it out soon, Soubi," she answered. "Don't doubt that he would have killed you, if I hadn't come in to check on you both. If I hadn't drugged him, you could have been stuck in that place."
"He wouldn't hurt me," Soubi growled, standing up and walking across the room in anger.
"Are you so sure?" she asked. "How do you feel right now, Soubi?" He said nothing, but just scowled at her. "You look like shit. I'm guessing you wouldn't be able to fight now to save your life."
"I'm fine," he lied. "I'm staying with him. You can leave."
"Have it your way," she said as she stood up and walked to the door. "I'll be back at dawn. Ritsu will want to discuss this situation with you both."
"You can't tell him," Soubi said, surprised.
"Ritsuka has a right to know what happened, Soubi," she said. "But I'll leave it to you and Ritsu as to how much you wish to tell him about how he came to be this way."
"I…" Soubi began.
"You owe it to him to tell him what happened," she said in a harsh voice. "You risk his life as well as yours if you ignore this."
She nodded. "This…power," she said, trying to find the words to describe it, "it drains him as much as it threatens you. You saw him nearly collapse today," she continued. "You have no choice but to tell him. It will continue to eat at him from inside until he is able to bring it under control."
"You don't know for sure what will happen if he doesn't, do you?" Soubi pointed out.
"Not for sure, no," she admitted. "But if this power continues to build within him and is not released, he could die." Soubi was silent. "And if it is released and threatens the safety of our students," she explained, "we will have little choice but to stop him before he does any permanent damage." With these words, she turned and walked out of the door, closing it behind her.
Soubi looked down at Ritsuka's sleeping form. No matter what, he would not allow them to harm Ritsuka. He brushed his fingertips across the boy's lips and gazed sadly down at his peaceful face.
"It's time to leave this place, Ritsuka," he whispered. "We're out of time."