"Welcome to the First-Kill Soul Celebration for this quarter. May I see your tickets?"

Meister and Weapon both held out their invitations as well as their ID tags. The DWMA attendant checked these against his list and handed them back. "Thank you. Please enjoy the evening, and congratulations."

Both kids grinned and fairly ran past him. No doubt they were eager to converse with their fellow One-Star students and boast about who had the toughest time bagging their quarry. It was the same thing every few months. All of them had finally engaged in that first life-or-death battle and survived to tell the tale. Now it was time to celebrate their triumph, that of good over evil, life over death. Such was their calling.

Another pair approached the entryway to the banquet hall attired in their Sunday best. The attendant smiled. "Congratulations on attending this quarter's First-Kill Soul Celebration. Do you have your tickets?"

Changing his greeting kept him from falling into a rut. When you were engaged in repetitive activities, variety was not only the spice of life, it was the only thing keeping you from climbing the walls sometimes. He made sure the tags and invitations matched before sending them on their way. Idly the young man wondered which of those two was the technician and which the weapon. With some teams you really couldn't tell.

Dusk was upon them, the sun no more than a bare sliver on the Nevada horizon. The hall was now teeming with garrulous youngsters. Somewhere in that crowd of frenetic energy might lurk the next Death Scythe and Three-Star meister. It was hard to credit by only looking at those glad smiling faces. Anyone untutored to the ways of the Death Weapon Meister Academy wouldn't see past their youthful facades to the proven combatants beneath, each responsible for ridding the world of at least one evil soul. Blood stained their hands without a doubt. Unlike other law-enforcement agencies, the DWMA had no members who did not carry the burden of having taken another person's life. It was interesting from a purely academic angle to make the comparison, especially considering how…

Someone else was approaching. Immediately he shook himself free of these ponderings and turned to meet them. "Be welcome this-"

A foot plowed into his back hard enough to send him stumbling to his knees. Before he could react, any outcries were silenced by the touch of a sharp blade to his neck. His head was pulled up, and he caught the barest flicker of an eerily psychotic grin.

"YA-HOOOO! This'll make two souls! DIE, EVILDOER!"

Someone's…

Someone's going to kill me!

"Huh? What's that?"

It didn't seem as though the question was directed at him, and anyways the attendant was still too stunned by the prospect of his impending demise to respond if it was. He remained still and silent in his attacker's grasp.

"Because of his face! Didn't you see that cruel, menacing glare? He's got to be evil!"

There was silence for a time.

"Yeah, First-Kill Soul Celebration! That means we kill the first soul we see, then everybody celebrates us, right? Right?"

Now the silence held an emphatically cross quality to it.

"Oooohhh… I get it now. Well, okay, then."

And with that the knife was withdrawn from his neck.

"Here you go."

Trembling, the gate attendant looked up to see an ID being thrust into his face. He caught a glimpse of what looked to be a picture of a fist heading towards the camera, besides which was a name. Black*S-

"I need to make my grand entrance now, everybody's probably been waiting for me. See ya!"

"I'm very sorry for this, sir, please forgive him!"

Someone might have offered a humble bow at that point. A short shadow passed by where he knelt, followed by a taller one. By the time he thought to look, they were both around the corner.

After that, the monotony of his job was nothing to worry about.


"EVERYONE! HANDS IN THE AIR! BLACK*STAR IS THE NAME OF A MIGHTY WIND THAT BLOWS AWAY OTHER SMALLER NAMES!"

All heads turned at this pronouncement.

At the entrance to the hall, Black*Star stood with his legs planted apart, one arm raised and a single finger pointed skyward. The spiky-haired little preteen wore a look of indefatigable confidence.

"DID YOU FORGET YOUR NAMES YET?" he roared excitedly.

Beside him, Tsubaki Nakatsukasa subtly shaded her eyes with one hand, hoping no one would recognize her.

In the deafening quiet that resulted somebody said, "Oh, it's just him."

Then the music started playing and they all went back to their conversations.

The Shadow Weapon Technician and Demon Shadow Weapon looked about at the rest of their fellow attendees. It wasn't lost on either of them how many people were studiously ignoring the two new arrivals.

Black*Star dropped his hand and adopted a smug grin. "See how everybody stared at me?" the young warrior declared. "Betcha they've never met anybody this big in their whole lives!"

"You're right," his partner murmured in agreement. "They probably haven't." Tsubaki glumly watched her boisterous teammate puff up at the idea of his own magnificence. She wondered at his absolute imperviousness to humiliation. A weapon was supposed to defend their meister from all threats, but in the case of Black*Star, a certain saying from her homeland came to mind: 'The worst enemy lies within the self'. Glumly the ninja girl hoped at the very least she could endure this awkward shame as assuredly as he did.

"Huh. Nobody's coming forward to get an autograph," Black*Star stated curiously. He looked as though he was confused by this normal everyday occurrence. Then his eyes lit up. "I get it! They're not used to seeing my face, because I'm so far ahead they usually only see my back!"

As usual, his train of logic was cursed with no conductor, a shortage of track, and potentially explosive cargo. A wreck was inevitable unless someone was there to throw the brake switch. And that just happened to be Tsubaki's job.

"Black*Star, before we mingle, why not get something to eat first?"

"Good idea. I'm starved!"

After that he spotted the buffet table and headed over to scarf down food, in spite of having already gorged himself at lunch. The taller girl watched him go with a sort of parental fondness. Tsubaki did all the cooking for them, and she was more than happy to make enough to satisfy even his big appetite. It was part of her culture. All the same, the kid never turned down a free meal. Growing up without parents meant Black*Star was severely lacking in social niceties. Still, by his own recent admission, the loss of his clan made no impact on his personality whatsoever. He remained as cheerful as any kid his age.

His oriental Weapon appreciated that more than he might know. Were it not for Black*Star's support, she wouldn't even be attending this get-together.

While everyone else here had most likely never met the evil people they had slain to get in the door, their first kill was Tsubaki's own brother. Locating and destroying him had been her sole reason for abandoning the Nakatsukasa family's traditions to enroll at Shibusen. Masamune's fall from grace and ultimate death still stung, but she took solace that in those last moments he was finally released from the madness that had prompted her elder sibling to become a kishin. Brother and sister had made peace with one another. This was an even greater blessing than the powerful Uncanny Sword she had inherited from him as a result of taking his soul. As such, Tsubaki had felt no shame when her friends celebrated their triumphant return. Now she and Black*Star would join the other faithful students of the DWMA who had begun their journey on the road to making a Death Scythe.

Glancing around, she permitted herself to appreciate the warm and friendly atmosphere. I just need to focus on our goal, Tsubaki affirmed. One soul down, 98 and a witch to go. Of course, given the pace we're going at, by the time we've completed our quota, I'll be sixty-five. An unpleasant image of herself and a sixty-two year old Black*Star attending yet another ceremony surrounded by a bunch of kids made the gentle teen cringe. Even now, she was several years above the average age for this gathering. Most of the girls hadn't even started to develop secondary sex characteristics yet. Her own curvaceous figure stood out among so many flat chests. Were some of the boys staring at her? In a sleeveless pale yellow dress with a camellia affixed to her bodice, she wondered if perhaps this choice of clothing was a little too revealing.

Wolfing down barbecue chicken wings, Black*Star looked as though he had gotten dressed in the dark. The jacket didn't match the pants, his tie hung askew, and unless she was severely mistaken his socks were mismatched. He caught her looking at him, and then as if to defy her silent scrutiny, declared in a voice that carried across the hall, "I'm the most conceited man alive!"

You'd have to be, wearing that outfit, she thought. Not for the first time Tsubaki wished that her meister had never learned the word 'conceited'. Or at least that the person responsible for introducing him to it had bothered to explain the negative connotations.

Outwardly, all she did was give him a thumbs-up.

Black*Star grinned happily at the apparent support. Despite her reservations, Tsubaki couldn't help but smile back. He was a shameless self-promoting goof. But he was her goof. She cast a sharp glance around at the other students. Let nobody else say a mean thing about that boy. And as if hearing her threat, any and all who had been engaged in whispering broke off and moved away.

After satisfying herself on that score, Tsubaki turned back to find that Black*Star was gone.

Her heart skipped a beat. Quickly she looked around, but to no avail.

Oh, no. I have to find him!

Keeping a watch on her volatile partner was one of her major duties at the Academy. There's no telling what kind of trouble Black*Star could get himself into in this kind of setting. If he suddenly took it into his head to start casually attacking people, like he had with that man at the entrance, they might find themselves thrown out on their ears, possibly expelled, and maybe even placed on Shinigami-sama's target list! A sudden image of herself and Black*Star as dirty bedraggled fugitives entered the anxious weapon's mind. Living on the run, no home to speak of and forced to take the dirtiest jobs just to get by… NO! It can't end like this! I HAVE to find him!

I really should invest in a leash.

Attempting to appear relaxed and at ease, Tsubaki forced a smile on her face and strolled casually amidst the partygoers. The animated conversations of dozens of students came from all around, but never once did she catch her meister's unrestrained bellows of self-aggrandizing gusto. Usually Black*Star would be an easy target to pick out in a crowd. By his nature he had to be the center of attention at any given moment. A big gathering of people like this should have had him itching to bust loose in a way that would shine a harsh spotlight of boundless public shame on the both of them.

And yet there was nothing. Not so much as a 'ya-hooo' or trail of food to mark his passing. It was as if the brash young ninja had melted into the floor. After a few minutes of cautious searching, Tsubaki had to admit she was getting pretty worried. Could something bad have happened to him? Maybe Black*Star finally picked a fight with someone he couldn't handle. It was hard to imagine him having any trouble with a bunch of One-Star meisters, but the students of Shibusen Academy were not to be taken lightly in a fight. Now it was less a matter of saving herself a trip to the principal and more making sure the boy she had sworn herself to defend didn't wind up in the nurse's office.

Music was playing. The kids were enjoying each other's company and chatting about their academic accomplishments. Under normal conditions she might have actually had a good time. As things stood, the multi-purpose weapon found herself flitting among the guests. Everyone she asked appeared ignorant as to his location, and even less likely to care after that appalling entrance. Tsubaki got the distinct impression that they were also avoiding her company as a result.

He wasn't here. Had he left, gotten bored and gone home? No, Black*Star wouldn't just abandon her like that. He may behave badly, but he never forgot his friends. That was one of his nicer qualities. It made more sense that he was deliberately hiding his presence, doubtless with the intention of pulling off yet another grandiose display. He was a Shadow Meister, after all, one well-schooled in the principles of concealment and assassination. That last part might prove troublesome considering how dumb he could be.

In that case, what I should be doing is trying to locate an assassin.

The shinobi teen now stood on the fringes of this gathering. Her special senses strove to locate any telltale hint of subterfuge that might be helpful. A ninja was actually easiest to locate by what they didn't do than what they did. If there was light, they were in shadow. If you heard noise, look elsewhere to a place that is silent. The lack of presence was the key. Detect the special zone of emptiness her kind shrouded themselves in to avoid detection or even being noticed. While not as adept at soul perception as her friend Maka Albarn, Tsubaki was capable of detecting their signatures to a certain extent. Considering Black*Star's near-total disinterest in any soul except his own, it was imperative one of them have a mind for that sort of thing.

Now focus. Concentrate on any soul that is in hiding. Try to find the person separate from everything that is occurring here and…

Wait. There's something.

Or rather, nothing. For a moment it was like she had detected a shadow out of the corner of one eye, right on the very edge of her vision. When she looked at it directly, however, no sign of any such thing appeared. Just an empty patch of air near a potted palm. But some instinct told her not to discount this. It was precisely what she was looking for.

Without any outward sign of eagerness, the huntress wended her way over towards that spot. Don't stare, she advised herself. Whatever was there seemed to disappear if you looked too closely. It was only visible on the very edge of your vision, past the point of anything the brain could verify with a degree of certainty. This shadow-zone, as she liked to call it, was apparently on the move. It had passed along the wall away from where it had first been spotted. Now Tsubaki was certain it must be Black*Star. He knew she was on to him. Don't let him get away! For a moment she lost the trail, and thought he had escaped. Then there was the barest hint of movement from a curtain by the balcony windows. Like a gust of wind had stirred it; or more likely, something unseen had passed outside.

Yes! Tsubaki exulted, and moved in for the kill.

She stepped onto the balcony and glanced around, one hand resting on the doorframe. It was completely dark now, the sun having long since gone down. Only the stars remained to shine upon the barren land. A few of her fellow partygoers were out here enjoying the view of their city and its environment, mainly boys trying to chat up girls before heading back to the festivities. Whatever their intentions, they all beat a hasty retreat inside when they saw the look on her face.

Tsubaki barely noticed their departures. She was too intent on locating the source of her troubles. Maybe forty feet of total area to hide in out here, and most of that was bare space illuminated by the light streaming in from outside. Off to the edges was fair game, however. The curved balcony wall actually began a few feet to the right and left of the doors. That left a small slice of shadow for an assassin to potentially hide in. Assuming he wasn't hanging off the railing by his fingers.

Best check on that possibility. So resolved, Tsubaki made her way aimlessly over to the edge of the parapet and glanced over it. She inspected down and to either side, but nothing caught her eye. Even Black*Star would have difficulty avoiding her attention while clutching desperately with his fingers in the rock.

It was while her back was turned that movement came from a spot beside the entrance.

This did not go unnoticed.

Exhaling, the girl ran a hand through her gleaming black hair. A kunai slid between her fingers from its hiding place in her ponytail. Control your breathing, perception, everything about yourself. Wait for the target to let down its guard.

Behind her the unseen presence paused, as though sensing her preparations. When she continued to appear absorbed in studying the landscape, though, it finally moved again.

Got you.

Quick as a flash Tsubaki spun and sped forward. The shadow-zone was already moving to head her off and escape inside. Before it could, though, the young ninja yanked on the line of string she had secretly tied to one door handle, slamming it shut in their face. The shadow seemed to reel back from this unexpected move. And then she was right there, grabbing hold with one hand and bringing up her weapon in readiness.

"Got you!"

A strange smooth feeling registered on her fingers.

Huh? What is this?

Then all she could see before her was black.

"Ermmm… Tsubaki-chan?"

Astonished, she looked up.

Looming over her, Shinigami raised a white-gloved finger to his mask and saluted.

"Yo?"

I'm going to die. From mortification, if nothing else.


"Sorry to freak you out there."

"No, please accept my apologies, I'm so ashamed of myself, I should never have touched you like that, it was a terrible horrible mistake, I humbly beg your forgiveness, Shinigami-sama!"

"Uh-huh," he said casually. "Now let's relax, breathe, take a deep calming breath…" The master of Shibusen reached out and deftly plucked the kunai out of her grip. "And everything's good."

Perhaps he had been worried she might commit seppuku with it. Well, that still remained an option. Tsubaki could feel her face burning with shame. Nothing Black*Star had done could ever equal this self-inflicted torment. I just manhandled the God of Death himself! Standing trembling before her benefactor, it was difficult to imagine a more uncomfortable situation. At least they were alone out here. An audience might be the only thing that could have made things worse. She could see them all now, pointing and laughing at her. The mere thought made Tsubaki think she might break down and start crying right here in front of him.

Shinigami had closed both doors to grant them privacy. The strange zig-zaggy outline of his body shifted slightly, and he bent over until that blank empty-eyed mask was right in her face. "Hey, Tsubaki-chan, there's really no need to be upset. If anything, you should feel proud!"

Okay, that required some explaining. "Sir?"

"Yeah, yeah!" His squiggly hood bobbed up and down. "After all, you had the wherewithal to notice a potential threat hiding in the midst of all these students and acted to subdue it!"

"Oh." Apparently he had misconstrued her intentions. Well, perhaps we should let him go on believing that. It wouldn't be proper to correct a deity, after all.

"And that's not all!" Shinigami insisted while raising a finger for emphasis. "You actually caught me! The Reaper himself! How many people can lay claim to that, I wanna know?"

Well, yes, that was true. And perhaps there was a certain merit in being able to pull off something like this. Death had been sneaking around a whole room of spiritually sensitive people, and she alone had picked up on his presence. Not a bad deal.

"I… suppose you're right."

"Atta girl!" And he drew himself up once more.

At this point it finally dawned upon the flustered ninja that she was standing in the presence of Death himself. Not just his image in a mirror like she was used to, but the real deal not three feet away from her. How many other people could boast such a distinction? It was so unnerving, so exciting!

As Tsubaki stared at the heights of this towering entity, a thought occurred to her. Dare she ask? Oh, what the hell, why not?

"Er, Shinigami-sama?"

"Ah-huuuuh?"

So weird.

"What exactly are you… doing here? Is something bad going on?"

"No, no, nothing bad," Shinigami commented with a languid wave. "I attend each of these First-Kill parties to get a feel for how the kids are doing."

Oh. Never knew that.

Well, curiosity resolved. Now would be an excellent time to humbly excuse herself, beat a hasty retreat and thank her lucky stars that Death had such a kind and understanding personality.

Yes, that's what any smart, sane person would do.

Instead Tsubaki found herself asking, "So then why were you hiding?"

She immediately clapped her hands to her mouth, but too late. The Shadow Weapon couldn't believe what she had just said, not to mention how she said it. It sounded as if she were accusing the Reaper of skulking around like a common criminal! Now more frightened than embarrassed, she tried to apologize but couldn't seem to make her tongue work. All Tsubaki could do was stare wide-eyed at the blank white mask glowing against pitch-black robes like a second moon in the night sky.

Shinigami cocked his cowl to one side.

"I just don't want to take away from the evening."

The idea was so surprising it shocked her mouth back into working order. "Pardon?"

In response Death glided past her, sliding smoothly over the floor on the twisted stalk of his lower half. There was something undeniably graceful in the way he moved. Wrapped in that form-concealing robe, he didn't resemble a human. But when he came to the glass partition and peered inside, Tsubaki could swear there was a sense of wistfulness in the way he gazed at the lively fiesta underway.

"It's just that this night is supposed to be about them, not me. What they've accomplished," the embodiment of the afterlife stated. He then looked back to her. "And you, Tsubaki-chan. It's no small thing you have done, coming to Death City and volunteering to fight for us. Shibusen appreciates everything you young people must endure, whether it be struggling in school or risking your lives against human evil. That's why we try to make your stay here as enjoyable as possible."

One large glove now swept out to encompass the twinkling lights that spread out across the western desert. "This is your home. And I'm glad to find so many of you are proud to be residents. You live here, with each other. It's not perfect, mind, but it's a sight better than what other cities or even schools consider worthwhile."

He then beckoned for Tsubaki to come stand beside him, and she quickly obeyed. The two of them stood side-by-side and watched as the gala indoors played out through song and laughter. She wondered if anyone would notice them peering in, but apparently Shinigami had activated that ability to evade notice again. No one so much as looked their way or made an attempt to join them out here.

The living symbol of the academy now spoke in a gentle vein. "In terms of a school and weapon-meister academy, Shibusen has fulfilled every hope I ever had for it. And more than anything I want you all to realize how that draws mainly from your own courageous actions, not simply from my presence here. It may be Death City, but it's not Death's City." He then scratched his faceplate self-consciously. "Er, if you see what I mean."

Tsubaki gave him a stricken look. Had she just heard right? "Shinigami-sama, I'm afraid I don't see. Do you think your presence would in any way lessen their enjoyment? If you were to walk inside right now, every child in there would welcome you with glee. They would be as honored to stand in your presence as I am now! Surely you can see that?"

He nodded his head. "Yes. And all eyes would be upon me. They would forget to ask each other how they were doing, or wonder how their first battles had gone. Those incredible achievements would pale before the fact that Death had decided to grace them with his presence. That is what they would remember about tonight. No one would want to hear about their stories, how they struggled to make it back here alive. And I'd much rather that bravery be honored than any mystique I might represent."

The implication hit suddenly, so familiar Tsubaki felt surprised she hadn't realized it sooner. It was about being recognized. This was precisely what Black*Star was so intent upon. But while he strove to be the center of attention, Shinigami sought to make his emphasis at the DWMA secondary to the people who worked under him. The idea made her look at that slightly comical form without any trace of fear now. She was actually smiling, touched by Death's consideration for all they had gone through in his name.

"Which is why I always attend these events, but never openly," he finished. "I like seeing for myself how you all stand so strong together even if I'm not around. Gives me hope for the future."

"I understand, Your Lordship. Thank you for explaining it to me."

"Meh, don't mention it."

They stayed that way for a few minutes more. After a while Shinigami turned and drifted over to the balcony. Tsubaki followed and leaned against it, studying him. Something he had said troubled her, and kept the young woman from going back indoors with the rest in search of Black*Star. It had sounded for a moment there like he was talking about Death City and its residents existing without him. Of course that wasn't possible. This place was his. What could ever make the Grim Reaper leave them? Not like people would ever stop dying, after all. There would always be Death.

Wouldn't there?

Curiosity almost compelled her to ask. However, in this instance, manners took precedent. This could be a personal matter that had nothing to do with her. She had no right to pry.

However, as a reward for being such a good person, Tsubaki decided to seek the answer to another question that had been on her mind.

"Shinigami-sama, if it's not too much trouble, may I ask you one more thing?"

"Of course. Fire away."

"It's about the Death Scythes."

He regarded her from behind those empty black pools. "You certainly have a right to know, considering it's your goal to become one. So what's the question?"

Perhaps he was being so considerate to her because he knew what she had gone through with Masamune recently. No sense in turning down his graciousness. "I was just wondering…" And here she took the time to choose her words carefully. "Forgive me if this sounds impertinent, but why exactly do you need a Death Scythe? Why not simply use any regular Weapon? Is there a reason we have to get 100 evil souls, and one of them being a witch? Not that I'm complaining!" she added hastily, "It's just that with all the effort it took for me to take even one life, I can see why only a handful of Death Scythes exist in the world. But there are many Living Weapons for you to choose from. I guess what I'm asking is, why do you need us to get a hundred souls?"

"Well, Tsubaki-chan, the truth is it's more necessary on your end than it is on mine."

He could see she didn't understand, and so he continued, steepling his big blocky fingers in front of his face. "You might think of the hundred as a sort of… minimum requirement. We figured that out a long time ago. Evil souls don't have as much spiritual power as good ones, if you'll recall. But ninety-nine of them, however weak they might be, plus the magic of one witch, meets the necessary limit. And anything beyond is overkill, if you'll pardon the pun. Without at least that much power within a Weapon, there is no way I could ever use it, regardless of our compatibility."

Tsubaki frowned, puzzled. "Milord?"

"I'm not human, you see. Were I to attempt to transfer my soul wavelength into a Weapon who had not achieved the rank of Death Scythe, they wouldn't be able to function properly. We're talking mighty big wavelength here!"

Was he being serious?

"Forgive me, Shinigami-sama, but it seems hard to believe there can be no middle ground. Suppose the Weapon has an extremely powerful soul to begin with. Wouldn't that balance it out somewhat so that they would only need, say, 85 evil souls and a witch?"

Shinigami just made a tsking noise and shook his head. "Nope. Sorry, never gonna work, young lady. Aside from the shortcut you and Black*Star attempted with the samurai Mifune, it can't be done. One hundred is the magic number, no ifs, ands, or buts about it." He cast a glance at her that could be described as mischievous. "You see, it's a very big wavelength."

Now she felt certain he must be teasing her. It made her cheeks redden with warmth. The heiress to the Nakatsukasa clan pondered this. Was Shinigami-sama, who was well-known for being irreverent, simply joking around with her? Come to think of it, having met Mifune, she had to wonder if his soul qualified as evil. Powerful, definitely, but from what she saw, not truly malevolent. Perhaps just so strong as to appear so to any who were weak. The same way Death would frighten those who did not know him well, even if they themselves had no cause to fear his wrath.

Could these thoughts be considered rebelling against authority? Well, it was a common teenage practice. With this idea to comfort her, Tsubaki looked up at him and lightly stated, "I believe I could handle you in my current state, Lord Death."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes." Very emphatic.

He crossed his skinny arms over his chest. "Hate to disappoint, but… no."

There was a certain wicked thrill in baiting the Reaper like this. "Don't discount me, Milord. As you might know, accommodating to my partner's soul is one of my specialties. Unlike most Weapons, I can handle being wielded by any number of different meisters who would be incompatible with others. You should be no different."

"Huh-unnn." Shinigami shook his head in a negative fashion.

And Tsubaki found she couldn't resist.

"Would you care to try me out?"

Death considered her for a time without saying a word. Then at last he uncrossed his arms and said, "It won't be like anything you can imagine."

"I'm prepared to accept the consequences. I trust you, Shinigami-sama. You wouldn't do anything to hurt me, after all." And that was the truth. She knew it down to her soul.

Apparently he did too. Heaving a sigh, the great lord gave a resigned shrug. "Okie-dokie, but don't say I didn't warn you."

And he held out his hand.

Tsubaki felt a queer flush of pleasure. She was about to be wielded by the Lord of the Void! The highest honor any Weapon could aspire to! That alone made this experience worthwhile, whatever else might happen. It made her nervous, but there was no way to refuse now. She had her own pride, after all. With that she steeled herself and reached up to slip her fingers into that outlandish mitt. "What weapon would you prefer?"

"The Uncanny Sword," he responded instantly. "It's the strongest form you have right now, and it should help you hold up."

Oh, that does it. He was about to see what she could and could not take! Without another word, Tsubaki slipped from human to weapon in less time than it took to draw breath.

An eerie black Japanese sword now rested comfortably in Shinigami's hand. Moonlight failed to reflect in the length of the blade, and its shadow along the ground squirmed in restless anticipation.

Within that sword, Tsubaki considered. I don't feel anything yet. Is he chickening out? That hardly seemed something that would…

"Ready, Tsubaki-chan?"

This is it.

"I am, Shinigami-sama."

"Ho-kay." And he sighed. "Been a while since I tried this, but… here we go."

He then did something unexpected. The arm that wasn't holding her emerged from the Death God's side. To Tsubaki's surprise, he gave a snap of his fingers, and that white glove simply slipped off to dangle from his wrist like a kid's mitten.

Emerging from the long black forearm there was revealed a flesh-and-blood hand.

It took her a few seconds of staring to realize this was not a human appendage. There was a resemblance, to be sure. But for starters it was noticeably larger than one might expect, and the skin was white. Beyond this, even, there appeared to be holes in his hand, a sort of long ovoid slit that ran in the spaces between where a mortal's finger tendons would be and allowed one to see right through from front to back. His thumb resembled a hook, smooth and without any indication of hinges. It was also far longer than normal, reaching out to the tips of his fingers, of which there were only three. All seemed to be the same length in addition to being quite thin. They shared the thumb's lack of visible joints, but each ended in a point that rounded on one edge. Like a kitchen knife's tip, she thought. Or maybe bird feathers. When he turned his hand, Tsubaki could see diamond-shaped nails of purest black glowing under the cold moonlight.

So there is someone under there. I always wondered.

"Here we go!"

And with that, Shinigami passed her over into his real grip.

The moment she touched him was one Tsubaki would never forget.

She had been wondering how he intended to hold her. Considering that she was still somewhat toy-sized in proportion to his actual fingers, it might be awkward. But when her handle slipped into that pale palm, all such thoughts vanished.

The skin that she touched was impossibly smooth. It was like a hand made of liquid white chocolate had taken hold of her. While she was still coming to grips with this feeling, his fingers folded in and clasped her hilt securely.

In spite of all her preparations, Tsubaki let out a moan.

I had no idea.

At first it felt like a heartbeat. A pulse, faint but growing stronger. Then it became a snare drum before morphing almost immediately into a booming timpani. Sound analogies failed her as she tried to imagine a giant's footsteps, because by then this feeling was so all-encompassing it had become too solid to be described as any noise. The presence wrapped around her, squeezing insistently but tenderly. Could this actually be a soul wavelength? I can't let that in, it'll tear me apart! Nobody could take all that!

It'll be all right, Tsubaki-chan.

Was that him speaking? Can't tell anymore.

Maybe I should try to resonate with this. Only a little bit. Get a feel for it at first, just like a regular soul, then gently slide and fold into one another until we can…

She had only been thinking about trying. But without even realizing it the mingling had already taken place. Their wavelengths had joined together.

No person's spirit had ever felt this way. Tsubaki's soul was like a deflated balloon being filled with air. Hope I don't pop. No, wait, it was more as if she were waking up, opening her eyes to take in the whole wide world around her. There were the people still in the hall, and in the Academy, not to mention those living in Death City's limits. In addition she now became aware of every other living thing operating around her. Whether it be scurrying rats, soaring eagles, or even bacilli splitting along the length of her steel.

The sigh of the wind, shifting of stone, the cool flow of water, light and shadow playing with one another; everything was making itself known in a way that was too much to grasp at first. I don't think I can do it on my own. Rather than trying, however, she instead settled more securely into that pulsing spirit which was now as much a part of her as anything else. After that it all resolved into focus. Nothing was beneath her notice, down to the tiniest grains of sand. Like a satellite image of this region of the planet complete with x-rays and the clarity of a microscope to boot.

Strangely enough, this experience didn't frighten her. Maybe it should have, but somewhere deep down she recognized that this was still a part of him, the one responsible for all this, and therefore safe for her. Awe was the closest thing the person once known as Tsubaki Nakatsukasa could find.

I never want this feeling to end. I'm finally alive.

Tsubaki-chan.

It was the source of these newfound revelations calling. But she didn't want to leave, couldn't part from this extravagant panoply playing out all around her. It was impossible to go back to the way she had been. I'm almost a part of his presence now. It won't be long until that happens for good. The world was demanding she take notice of it after having ignored everything that it had to offer for so many years, and would continue to do so for years and centuries and ages to come until…

"I think that'll do."

Her magnified sight focused down to a pinpoint, until she became loosely aware of the lone figure holding a sword. It came as no surprise to find that the black blade had grown in size until it fit perfectly in the palm of his hand. Such a thing was as natural as the water seeping through the bedrock beneath this plain, sprouting into rivulets that…

"Oooo-kay, bring it back down. Easy does it, nice and slow."

She watched as Shinigami passed the Uncanny Sword (me) back into his gloved hand.

The next thing Tsubaki knew she was down on her knees in human form again, breathing heavily and perspiring. Her heart wouldn't stop pounding, and neither would the trembling that surged through her frame. She felt flushed, the desert night air vacillating between too hot and chilly against her skin.

Shinigami was bending over her solicitously, one mitten holding onto her arm for support. That could be the only thing keeping me upright, Tsubaki thought vaguely. After an experience like that, the indescribable rapture having almost swept her away into…

"Yo." He snapped his fingers before her eyes. "Stay right here, Tsubaki-chan. You just need to rest for a bit."

She obeyed. While waiting for her body to subside back to normal, the overwhelmed Weapon stared distractedly straight ahead. Her breath came in short pants, and her eyes must look glazed. All the same, at least now she could remember her own name. A minute ago that would have been impossible.

I can't believe what I just did.

It had been dangerous. So very dangerous. And he hadn't even gone all the way with her, she realized suddenly. Somehow Tsubaki knew that what she had experienced was not the full total of Shinigami's soul. More like only a tiny part which he had carefully regulated and pared off so that she could withstand even that much. This was the result. She hadn't been able to distinguish herself from anything else in the end. Had he not stepped in to pull her back, she would have willingly succumbed and gone over to that incredible world of sensations that existed in his merest touch.

"Are you doing alright?"

A shake of the head brought her back to the present. He sounds worried, she thought. Better reassure him before he starts to feel bad.

"Yes, sir," she replied back. "I just need to catch my breath."

She glanced up at him, and shivered at the sight. Tsubaki quickly dropped her eyes.

"Shinigami-sama… I'm sorry I ever doubted you. I see now that there is a long way to go before I could ever aspire to be your Weapon."

"The '100-Soul' rule isn't like all those human laws that don't make any sense. It might seem daunting now, but trust me, your quota will be filled before you know it. For you and Black*Star making a Death Scythe should be a breeze." His voice resumed its jocular timbre. "Still, I gotta hand it to you, Shadow Weapon Nakatsukasa. Not everybody could take an ordeal like that and look as good as you do right after."

The compliment left her once more unable to look at him directly. Sudden warmth settled through her limbs.

"All the same, I thank you, Milord."

"Nema problema," he affirmed. "So do you think you can stand?"

"Yes."

He offered her a hand, and the dazed young woman took it. Rising up Tsubaki couldn't help but miss the actual feel of his grip as compared to this gargantuan novelty glove. No wonder he wears them. Even patting someone on the head might put them in a coma otherwise.

When she was back on her feet, Tsubaki smoothed her dress demurely. "I think now would be a good time for me to go back in to the party."

"Try the crab-puffs," Shinigami insisted. "I always look forward to there being some left over afterwards, but it hardly ever happens. Very disappointing."

He sounded so forlorn at the prospect of missing out on tasty delicacies that she simply had to ask. "If you still don't feel like coming in, perhaps I could bring you out a plate to enjoy?"

"Hey, that sounds great! You really know the way to a man's heart, Tsubaki-chan!"

There was no fighting the blush that crept up her cheeks. She fidgeted and looked away. "I'm… pleased to be of help, sir. What would you like to drink?"

"Well, how about…"

"YAHOO! NOBODY'S HIGHER THAN ME!"

Behind them, there came a loud crash, and her heart sank at the prospect.

Rushing back to the patio doors, Tsubaki and Shinigami looked in to find a scene of utter chaos. People were running back and forth. Voices rose in anger and alarm. After a few seconds, the press cleared enough for them to finally see what had happened.

What had once been a buffet table was now in ruins. On top of this were the remains of a large and doubtless expensive crystal chandelier. And perched proudly atop that pile of food and shattered furniture was Black*Star.

"Did you all see me swinging around up there?" he demanded in a loud voice that carried over the tumult. "Only I could do that, because I'm the man who reaches for the heights. It was so high up I was like a star! A Black*Star!"

Lord Death sighed. "On second thought, maybe I'll just go home."

"Gomen nasai!" Tsubaki cried tearfully, bowing low and often from the waist. "I'm so sorry this happened, Shinigami-sama! We'll clean it up, and pay for everything that was broken, please send the bill to my family! Just don't kill Black*Star, please, I'm begging you!"

"Now, now, Tsubaki-chan, there's really no need for…"


Tsubaki lay abed, snuggled against a great plump goose-down pillow. The pillowcase was white, as were the sheer satin draperies that hung down all around her bed. Their length was so great that they pooled on the floor and then rose up to cover her mattress. She luxuriated amidst the heavenly folds, slowly rubbing her bare legs over the fabric. It was so good there was no need to wonder as to why she wasn't wearing any clothes. The nude girl pressed her face deeper into these sensuous comforts, awash in a splendid sensation. Her milky-white skin made it seem like she was a part of the room. Only her ribbon of long dark hair stood out now.

After she lay there for a time, Tsubaki stirred and moaned.

She didn't have to open her eyes to know that the sheets were changing color. Darkness was oozing down the curtains of her boudoir to leave them gleaming black. This inky tide then crept soundlessly across the floor and slid up onto the bed with her.

As the midnight shade leached in to finally stain the sheets she lay upon, Tsubaki gave a sigh and opened her eyes.

She sat up and looked all around, more curious than fearful. Everything was black except for her. Nonetheless, the room remained as soothing as it had been before. Just in a different color. There was nothing to fear. Reaching down, she ran her hand over the glossy rich fabric whose surface swam almost like a liquid, skin glowing a pale pallor against it.

It was when this thought came to her that her legs began to sink down into the bed.

She was in it up to her knees before any thought of concern came. It's like quicksand. Don't struggle, that only makes you sink faster.

So Tsubaki sat back and kept very still. Only then did she realize that at the same time as her legs sank out of sight, something was rising up from below. Before she knew it this new thing had slowly pushed its way inside, between her legs, soft and gentle. It was the sheets, she thought, they must be coming up since my legs are going down. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That makes sense.

The black intrusion wormed itself in deeper. There was no way to stop it. And she didn't really want to. This was nice. She clasped her hands before her breast and tilted her head up, closing her eyes as if in prayer. The long strands of her ponytail shook from side to side as she swayed in forbidden bliss.

When two long white hands emerged from the bed and gently grasped her hips, Tsubaki didn't have to wonder why. Those fingers sank into the soft flesh of her body to get a better grip. Taking hold, they began to rock her gently up and down. Their motion contributed to the build-up of pleasure. A gasp left her lips in response. Apparently her legs had stopped sinking, so that only her thighs remained above water. It didn't matter anymore. That firm protrusion was comfortably ensconced deep inside her now.

The hands took over from there, keeping up a steady and pleasing rhythm. The girl sank forward with a grateful whimper and rubbed herself against the surface of the black bed. The muscles stood out as her back arched, soft breasts mashing into the splendid weave. Her fingers clenched and bunched handfuls of flowing black satin. While one of the hands kept on its pleasing pace, the other slid up her rounded hip and glistening back until it came to rest against her head. She panted and moaned delightedly, nuzzling her cheek once more against that delicious presence.

It wasn't a bed she lay on now, Tsubaki realized. It was him. He was holding her close to his chest, fingers caressing through her hair with utmost tenderness. The realization of her partner's identity seemed to increase her passion exponentially. It wouldn't be long until she reached her peak. Before that happened, though…

Looking up, she saw the white mask as she had expected. It remained untouched by any trace of emotion. That won't do. I have to see what lies beneath, know the face of the person bringing me to rapture. Kiss him and thank him for what he's doing for me, so wonderfully.

Her hand came up then to touch the smooth faceplate. She bit her lip hesitantly, waiting to see if he would restrain her. But he only continued to stroke her firm young body without fail, and his thrusts did not diminish for an instant. That alone was enough to suffice. It was almost time, any second now, I'm going to…!

It's here! I have to do it! Without another moment of hesitation Tsubaki pulled away the mask and lunged forward. She kissed him passionately, remembering only at the last second to close her eyes as she did. That was the romantic way. Not a second too soon. As their lips touched, her climax arrived like it had been only waiting for that to happen. It was so absolutely perfect she had to cry out in happiness!

Her own scream woke her up.

She lay on her futon staring fuzzily at the ceiling. Her body felt warm and tingly. Off to the left, Black Star continued snoring away on his side of their small bedroom.

The girl took a moment there, which all people do upon awakening, to assure herself that it was only a dream. After this, she attempted to recall what the dream had been about.

Ah. Yes. I remember now.

With that, Tsubaki realized just how much trouble she was in, and she scrambled from the room in pursuit of a cold shower. That took priority. Otherwise that horrifying and amazing dream might tempt her into doing something she'd later regret to a certain loudmouth kid innocently snoozing five feet away.

Something told her she had enough problems without doing that.

Please please please…

Don't let me have a crush on my boss.

To be continued…