Saar decided that lunch with Shuri was in order. The young beglietier was, after all, Saar's guide around until he grew familiar with the place. They had been to the laboratories earlier and the doctors hadn't been able to see if there was anything they could do to restore the memories Saar felt he had lost. He watched Shuri as curry dribbled down his chin, leaving wet, oily stains on the navy fabric of his uniform.
"You eat worse than a child," Takeshi chided playfully, shifting his fingers with the smallest of movements, manipulation zaiphondragging the stain out from Shuri's cloak. Shuri just looked down despondently, staring at the steaming plate of thick spicy sauce and rice. "Hey, don't get so down, I was just joking. Forget I said anything, alright?"
The silence between them grew as the clank and clatter of woks and plates in the background shuttled them between awkward and blissful quietness. There weren't any students around in the cafeteria: they were busy having parade rehearsal from their graduation. Takeshi was supposed to be supervising but Shuri's stomach had been growling. He took it as an excuse to remove himself, promising that he'd be back for the later half of the day.
"Why did you join the military, sir?"
Takeshi looked around in his head, trying to pull out any memories that might remind him of the reasons.
"I can't exactly remember. Why… in fact I don't remember at all," he spooned the last portion of his lunch, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin. "What about you? Why did you join the military?"
"Family tradition: first son the heir, second son the soldier, but only son both," though Shuri sounded rather displeased at this tradition, and Takeshi wasn't sure if he had read anything about a tradition like that.
"Do you enjoy it though?"
Shuri kept quiet. The answer was written as plain as day on his face. Takeshi let a slice of kiwi linger on his tongue, cracking the tiny black seeds between his teeth before swallowing it down.
"What do you really like?"
"I…" Shuri hesitated. "I don't know. I've never quite found out what I really like to do." When Takeshi had first observed Shuri from afar, he looked the part of the rich, aloof and arrogant child, snubbing others and being the guy to follow around. But in front of authority Takeshi didn't know if he was merely acting humble or truly quivering in his boots. "I've always just tried to get my way, tried to do things that people told me to do, and if I couldn't, got other people to do it for me. Papa… papa never did let me try anything else other than the army since I never really did bother, not like Hakuren – my cousin…"
"What about your cousin?"
"He rebelled against the family tradition. As the second son you go through military school like the rest of the boys in the household, only that you stay on in the military. Hakuren… Hakuren ran away to become a bishop." Takeshi could see hesitation in Shuri's words, as if he was withholding something from his superior officer. Yet Takeshi didn't mind.
"Well, then what are you good at?"
Shuri didn't manage to answer as a whole load of students rushed into the cafeteria for lunch, greeting Shuri with pats on the back and racocous laughter and treating Takeshi with only a baseline of respect. He felt off at how almost at peace he was with this – the cafeteria was the only place where people could be blind to rank, and the cadets took that caveat in the hierarchy to enjoy themselves. He left quietly, moving to the outer foyer of the military institution, sitting on one of the steps, breathing in the scent of fresh cut grass and the gentle warmth of the sun on his skin.
Shuri hadn't followed, but Takeshi vaguely noticed a presence approach from behind, his eyes remaining on the skyline that District one proffered before him, a mix of tall skyscrapers, jutting over low buildings and apartments, the richer suburbs affording to keep patches of green and blue within their compounds. A flash of blue hair caught his eye as the figure decided to sit next to him.
They had sparred earlier, Haruse with Kuroyuri against Takeshi. The pink-haired lad had been arrogant enough, but was promptly shown his place when Takeshi had turned his wars against him. The misty souls had gathered into a mist, choking Kuroyuri slowly but surely, until Haruse had begged for him to stop. Of course, Takeshi wouldn't have killed him. Deaths during training were of no benefit to the military, and he wouldn't kill for fun.
"Sir. How did you do it sir?" Haruse turned to Takeshi, the deep bass lilting slightly with the youth in his being. "How did you take control of the wars that we summoned?" Takeshi watched a bird cock its head curiously toward the two oversized giants, screeching abruptly before taking off in a gust of wind.
"You have to learn how to communicate with them." He waited for Haruse to burst from curiosity, letting his answer linger off the edge of a cliff. Haruse kept the silence much longer than what Takeshi expected, but eventually broke.
"But don't we already communicate with them? Don't we have to communicate to call them forth, even if merely with our thoughts?" Takeshi saw it: someone who wasn't born with the abilities of the warsfeil, someone who had been on the other side, someone whose sentiments would probably forever run parallel to those Takeshi had.
"There's more to communication than one way commandeering," Takeshi didn't know if he was going to break a taboo that he didn't know whether was established or not. "Most – if not almost all – warsfeils use the wars as a weapon, an unthinking, cold entity. What do you know about the wars? What do you understand by the term 'wars', Haruse?"
"Souls that have been stolen from the light, sir." Takeshi knew that was a polite way of putting it, nothing about three wishes being fulfilled by the kor, nothing about warsfeil who pulled souls out of innocent men to fight their own dirty battles, nothing about Verloren. Just the nice clean definition that Haruse just explained.
"And you, as a warsfeil, have the ability to crush that soul and never allow it to return to the embrace of the Chief, keeping it in constant cycle on earth, do you not?"
Haruse nodded slowly. The flames of enlightenment here beginning to kindle in his eyes, but were barely burning.
"Souls still have the innate want, the innate desire to be reunited with the chief of heaven. Give them a chance, albeit a false one, and they would take it. The problem is, of course, conveying your intentions to wars, since this goes beyond simple actions of physicality like talking, and since they usually act instinctively."
"It starts with respect, and acknowledging that their servitude to you is not obliged." Takeshi saw Haruse's eyes widen, placing a satisfied grin across his face. "Yes, they are not expected to serve you. Verloren did not create the wars solely for a warsfeil to control. The wars can feel your thoughts. If you see them as mere things for play you can only force them along by a force of will. To them, one master is bad enough – they won't listen to someone else who merely wants to force them out of their opponent's hand as another worthless soul…"
The one o'clock bell struck. He could hear the chatter of cadets as he stood, Haruse standing with him.
"There's much more to it, of course. Let's just say respect and trust is a seed you have to plant and nurture for a while before it bears fruit. I learnt since I was a child, whereas you," he sized Haruse up. "You're a changed one. For what reasons, I don't know, but you're at a disadvantage with experience.
"Also, please don't tell Kuroyuri that I said all of this. I can see him potentially exploding all over Ayanami-sama about this if he knows I told you anything."
Watching as Haruse's broad back disappeared in the bend of the corridor, Takeshi realised that he was, for a first in a long time, feeling comfortable and in his place. He was a warsfeil among warsfeils, he was a capable zaiphon user among zaiphon users. He felt alright here. He wasn't always on his toes as when he was back at home. It felt safe here, like that family he never had. But yet, there was something within him, bothering and gnawing at his chest. He tried to remember, but all he could pull up was that Konatsu had spoken about it a while ago, and it somehow involved his mother...
Shrugging, he dug his hands into his pockets, crisp steps towards the parade square anticipating the students' drills as he hummed himself a tune.
All he had wanted was an audience with the chief of heaven, an impersonal, objective discussion of his failure as a human of indignance at having a mortal wield the destructive power of hell, but more of why he was such a failure. Totally impartial and objective, nothing personal. The chief of heaven was too busy for subjective opinions, for cries of help to self-piteous foolishness of the moment. Frau had managed to instil in him the notion that the chief was one big uncaring bastard, not as benelovent as everyone though him to be, with a sick sense of humour. Castor was more wary than usual when he passed by the gates manned by the angels of heaven.
Castor looked at the blinding radiance that was the chief of heaven. It was a light that diffused warmth, one that shone with the force of a thousand suns. Yet Castor didn't have to squint to see the figure of a man, sitting on a throne that sparkled like diamonds on fire. He stooped down to one knee, bishop's robes spreading on the ground like ripples on the face of a pond.
Why have you come?
He needn't have asked the question, yet he gave Castor the chance to voice it out.
"The guardian of hellfire is running loose on earth."
I was the one who brought him to earth.
"But in a mortal body?"
A form of regulation.
"You see what he did to us."
You should have exercised better judgement.
"Also one of the reasons I'm here. I'm beginning to doubt if my judgement is valid at all."
I've been wondering that for a long time.
Fest looked to the ground, as though he had taken a hit in the gut in the midst of this verbal spar.
What would you have me do?
"If I knew I wouldn't be here," his voice rose slightly.
What if I chose to do nothing?
"Then I would have wasted my time seeking your council," the frustration in his tone surfaced. He knew that he was on the verge of being expelled, being hit down like Verloren, but sometimes standing your ground was what the chief wanted to see, though Castor wasn't sure if his judgement on this could be trusted either. The chief of heaven remained silent. Castor stood there for what felt like eons, watching the light, waiting to be banished from the realm for his insubordination, waiting to be stripped of his immortality.
Remember, Fest, your purpose in the mortal realm. You are meant to destroy Verloren, together with the aid of the two keys and Pandora's box. Moloch is judge, and he will see eternal demise to Pandora's box and to Verloren's soul if you're not fast enough before he fully wakes.
Castor blinked, and suddenly he was back in his study, facing the paperwork he had left hours before, facing Labrador who stood at his desk, shifting beside Castor to catch any news the Assistant Archbishop had to divulge. Castor, however, remained silent, so Labrador did keep quiet, looking at the floor tiles for answers that weren't there.
"Do you trust me, Labrador?"
The purple haired bishop hesitated, breathing out a sigh. Castor continued speaking when the reply didn't come forth from Labrador.
"We need to go after Teito. We need to get Saar back, before they start something that will never end."
"Yes," Labrador murmured, trance-like. "Yes we do."
"Tell Frau and Lance," Castor stood, determination to right the wrongs burning in his eyes. His judgement would be his alone, and he would face the consequences head-on. "Tell them we're bringing them back."
Takeshi found himself back in the blinding darkness. One glance around showed that he wasn't alone. He could see the outline of a cloaked figure that turned to reveal a skull, contorted to sadness, looking back at Takeshi. The figure waved him over, and Takeshi opened his mouth to a voice that resonated deep, yet sang high in his eardrums. A voice that he didn't realise ever belonged to him.
"Let's have a chat, Moloch," Verloren waited for Takeshi to catch up with him. He looked at his hands, baulking at the realisation that his body wasn't his either. Six muscular arms clenched fists at his side. His body was tall, powerfully built, but seemingly as light as a feather, the wind of six wings swirling around them. He could feel a long ponytail of hair swing back and forth as he looked at Verloren.
"Why are you mortal, Moloch?" the path they walked on was barren, desolate. A lone tree stood, bare-branched. "What business do you have on Earth?"
"The chief sent me." He found himself spouting words he did not think of. "He wants me to destroy everything – destroy you, the seven who have run amok, Pandora's box, maybe even the two keys. He's been letting the humans use them too much for their own ends, and the mission has long lost its objective."
Verloren meditated a little on this piece of information.
"You really loved her, didn't you?"
Takeshi – Moloch – could have sworn a tear slid down the cool, calm face that had stretched over Verloren's expressionless skull.
"You know me, Moloch. You know what happened. You know that I loved her too." Verloren's voice became but a whisper. "You know what the bastard accused me of was untrue beyond words. It was traitorous, stupid, stupid for the chief of heaven. Immature." The next tree they came upon had no leaves, but spread out to blossom with fragrant magnolia at the tips of its dark, black branches.
"Will you really burn me, Moloch?"
"Not unless I am forced to, Verloren," Takeshi thought he sounded almost tired, despondent, like as though he had thought of this problem since the beginning of time. Even with the ramrod straightness of his back and the chest that stood out proudly, he felt helpless to the eventual fate that might embrace them. "The seven ghosts, they can never replace you, Verloren. The chief of Heaven might have created them in your image, but his powers can go only so far... we all know you weren't exactly his creation. That is why he bosses Mikhail, Raphael and I around to fit his own agenda."
They had reached a vast, green field, snow falling but never covering the buds and shoots that sprang forth from the ground. The sky was a piercing blue and birds everywhere, chirping at the two new arrivals. A pavilion sat in the midst of white rose bushes, and Moloch could see a large black crystal that shone in the faint shimmer of light that floated as an orb beside it. Verloren had showed him the two incarnations before – of hard, negative emotions versus the boundless light that was love. This was a recreation of Verloren's former workplace, where he sorted the souls at death to heaven or to earth, but no souls passed through here, no warmth of heaven embraced it. Verloren looked over the scene forlornly.
"Promise me, Moloch. Promise me that you will fight for justice, not merely because you were ordered to fight. Promise me."
Moloch opened his mouth to reply.
Takeshi snapped awake as Konatsu opened the door from within Ayanami's office. Had be fallen asleep while standing? The shining epaulettes of the second lieutenant shone from Konatsu's lapels, as did the smile that beamed from his face. He didn't hear what Konatsu was babbling about excitedly, because his mind was busy thinking about the vision he just received, wondering if it were really true or merely a figment of his imagination.
The days flew by.
There was nothing else Takeshi would use to describe the experience. His life became a mere rotation of combat, hour after hour. Ayanami supervised his training. Just last week what he thought he had learnt as a whip lash of zaiphon had suddenly evolved into a whirlwind of energy that tore everything apart, something stronger, but still something he could control. His body became rigid, fatigue seeping in and out of his muscles like water in a sponge absorbing and squeezing in and out. Sometimes when he looked in his mirror, he wondered if his increase in stature was something good, or if he should have just maintained his previous façade so he didn't have to scare every single person into a salute as they walked past him in the corridor.
He saw Shuri day in and day out, but the young man never dared to talk to him any more, always acting like as though Takeshi would suddenly suck the life out of him, like as though the warsfeil would take away his only prized possession.
Takeshi had been there at the recent graduation parade: they had all been so smart, so formal and so precise in their drills. He felt the surge of pride he had when Konatsu had battered through his attacks when they were training as children, the satisfaction at seeing them salute crisply as they walked by. They were full-fledged Beglieters now, with a long way to go before their reached the ranks of a junior officer, but it was a start in their journey.
The Black Hawks were starting to feel more familiar to him as well… Takeshi liked Haruse. He was quiet, always saying the right things at the right time, polite. His presence wasn't unnerving like the others' too. The attachment that Haruse had with Kuroyuri was commendable as well. Those two were inseparable, like brothers tried by the tests of time. To see Haruse without Kuroyuri was an oddity of the universe, like a sea without water, or man without a face. Half the time, Takeshi didn't know how to make conversation with Haruse, and so would usually stare at the sky that was a shade brighter than Haruse's hair.
But Ayanami was the surprise.
Takeshi would have had expected Ayanami to keep to himself, or at least mingle with the higher authorities when it came to things like dinner and casual conversations. As of late, however, there was not a single time he could not remember the field marshal going out of his way – Ayanami's way – to settle down at the cafeteria and have a meal with him, or the others. Usually it would be with him. It was not a problem of suspicion, more a problem of Takeshi wondering if he was doing something wrong that his boss would have to spy on him out in the open with such frequency. He remembered bringing that up to Ayanami – with as much a lack of seriousness as he possibly could, which Konatsu later commented seemed absolutely deadpan serious – and got a smile and no more a verbal answer.
It still disturbed Takeshi that he did not know what he was doing wrong.
At least he provided some stimulating conversation other than the ins and outs of administrative work that had to be settled every day. They talked about life and death; the mysterious thing that was zaiphon and how understudied it was; the myths and legends of the Chief of Heaven and Verloren, which Ayanami still hadn't told him if he believed but merely gave one of those semi-furtive glances towards his paperwork. They talked about things less discussed, whether it was alright for a man to love a man, a woman to a woman, or whether the world would start a riot should they re-draw all the letters of the Barsburg commontongue. They were questions that did not necessarily have an answer, but Takeshi appreciated being more than a sack of meat which was useful for merely combat, exercise and paperwork.
"Was Verloren guilty?"
Takeshi looked up from the documents that he was sorting for Ayanami to sign, eyebrows twitching instinctively.
"Do you think Verloren was really guilty of killing Eve?"
Everything Takeshi knew about Verloren and his expulsion from heaven came crashing through him, his mind sorting them by relevance. Yes, he had loved Eve, but no book described the extent of his powers on divine beings, and Eve would surely have been a divine being, wouldn't she? Did Verloren's powers of death apply to people other than humans? Takeshi only noticed how deep he got into this when his hands stopped shuffling the papers about, and instead grabbed onto a pen, almost writing some things down.
"I don't think I can judge whether Verloren was guilty or not, sir."
"And why not?"
Takeshi saw that smile creasing the corners of Ayanami's eyes with his perfect porcelain skin. Maybe he found his conversations amusing, and maybe Ayanami was privy to some things that Takeshi could never hope to know in his lifetime, but he asked for an opinion and he was going to get a good one, or at least one with some sound, valid pointers.
"For one, I don't think all the documents about Verloren's expulsion from heaven were written from a fair perspective," Takeshi said. "Everything I've read so far has either come from the church or at least someone who is theologically inclined towards the belief of a benevolent Chief of Heaven, and that he reigns supreme over all, but that's just a belief. There's no truth to that, or at least any form of justification that could lead us to believe that it is true.
"There are just too many possibilities: if the Chief of Heaven had created Verloren knowing full well the capabilities that Verloren possessed, why would he allow his daughter to run around freely in the upper realm? Was he deliberately setting up Verloren for the fall in his divine order of things? In that case we can't assume that the Chief of Heaven is benevolent at all. Perhaps the Chief is fallible: he did create the humans in his image after all, someone like him, someone to be his companions, and therefore he didn't realise the implications of letting Eve run loose around Verloren and thus decided to place the blame on someone else for his daughters' death.
"So while Verloren was guilty of killing Eve, if that happened at all, I don't believe in something as simple as pure benevolence and malevolence, sir."
Takeshi dropped the pen and groaned. He had written outlines of his thinking on one of the forms that Ayanami was supposed to sign. "I'm sorry sir, I'll get another copy printed right away…"
"Yes, and let me keep this," Ayanami picked up the sheet of paper like it was made of glass, examining it carefully with all the patience of a scientist in a laboratory. "Interesting, seeing how you think. A cynic in a sense, but an open-minded one. I'm glad I asked you that question." Takeshi felt a chill run down his spine as Ayanami turned his gaze straight towards him, those unique purple irises reading his face like a book. "So do you want to know the answer?"
"The answer… to whether Verloren is truly guilty of his crime, sir?" Takeshi felt the weight of the words as they pressed in on him, like as though a stunning revelation was about to be made, like as though the world was going to be revealed through a veil that he always knew was there but could never lift. Ayanami was going to lift that veil for him, to show him a little insight into the changing points of the world, one which set the course for religion in the nation of Barsburg.
"He killed Eve, not because he wanted to, but she submitted herself to him," Ayanami spoke in a breathy whisper. "But what broke his heart more than Eve's death was the Chief's betrayal against him, and that is why the world is what it is today, it is why warsfeil exist, and it is why we will never be at peace." Something turned dark in Ayanami's eyes when he spoke, not something that made Takeshi scared, but something that made him sit up a little bit straighter and clench his fists on his lap, like he would at a formal meeting when he knew serious things were being discussed. "It has become personal, and that's why humans were the targets, because they mattered so much to the chief. Betrayal paid back with betrayal."
And then, silence. The mist in Ayanami's eyes cleared, and he reached out to sign the rest of the forms. Takeshi sat still, quiet, waiting to take his leave.
Teito pushed his hair out of his face. It had been a long time since he had ridden a hawkzile, and for so many days now. Entering the borders of District One had not been a problem: commoner clothes and constant thin layer of dirt on his skin made him look older than he was. Ayanami had no reason to place an active warrant out for his being anyway. Soft-soled shoes made no noise as Tetio walked up to the inn – the last he would see for a while, considering that the fringes of District one were where poverty stopped and wealth began.
He had been talking to Mikhail and Mikage these few days, the only people who could provide him conversation. Saar was a throbbing sensation in Teito's mind, courtesy of Mikhail, pointing him straight towards the military headquarters. It was during one of those conversations that Teito had come across a huge stumbling block he hadn't planned on facing: his entrance into headquarters. Everything he had thought about was so impossible, left some quarter uncovered, making him realise how difficult it was to even step near the building.
"I'm thinking too much."
His thoughts skimmed over the surface of a rock-hard matteress, unblinking eyes staring at the wooden ceiling. The easiest idea would be to pull himself off as a student or beglietier, corralling himself within the academy and making his way into the headquarters through their shared connection. That was the plan he had all along, feeling the smooth fabric of his military uniform at his fingertips as he went through his flawed plan one last time. What about security clearance? What about pass-issuance? How was he going to get through those electronically-locked doors?
Mikage snuggled up beside his cheek, soft fur a welcome presence in the cold hardness of his bed and the constant thrum of Mikhail's presence in his head. His hand reached out to stroke Mikage's head.
Why are you doing this, Teito?
The young bishop stared into Mikage's eyes. That was the last question he had expected from his friend – the reincarnation of his friend – and the last question he had expected himself to answer at this time. It would be wrong to say he hadn't thought of why he was doing this over the days of travel, but there had never really been a solid reason in his head as to why he was so concerned about Saar.
"Why am I doing this?"
Why put your safety at risk for someone you barely know?
Teito knew the answer was there, somewhere in the depths of his mind, but just evading him at the moment. His hands grabbed at locks of brown hair as he pulled gently, hoping that maybe it would drag that thought out of the recesses of his brain.
No such luck. Teito exhaled, trying not to make it sound like a sigh.
Banish the darkness, Teito.
"Darkness?" Teito asked half-heartedly. Mikhail was staying particularly quiet in this conversation, where he would usually be enthusiastically offering suggestions and opinions, but Teito didn't prompt him. He wished he didn't have to think so much, that he had the luxury of diving head-first into trouble and letting someone else save him at the last minute. That feeling of freedom from consequences, the feeling of being invincible, was gone. And in that moment he realised that he wished Frau was there with him, helping him get Saar out. "But he warned me about getting close to Saar anyway," Teito mumbled under his breath.
Sleep, master. We have a plan to execute tomorrow, and I do not wish for you to be fatigued.
Teito closed his eyes, hearing the soft breaths of the fyulong dragon in one ear and the hum of Mikhail in the other as they blended around in his head, forming a tune that he hadn't heard for a while.
Through the stars, snow and memories
I'm looking for your footprints
I pray you rest peacefully for all eternity
This is the middle of the dream
With wings that still can't fly
I run up the hill
When I stray from the path
I close my eyes
and keep going
A/N: Yes, I know it's been half a year since I updated, but if you're reading this that means you're still here and I'm still here too! So yay! It's just that I've been uninspired as of late, hitting the lows on my self-assurance that my writing is good enough for readership. (Still don't think it is.) But then again, who cares? I forced myself to finish this chapter just for you guys, so thank you!
Just FYI the lyrics above are the english translation for the Raggs Requiem, in case you haven't already recognised the first verse and the chorus haha.
Also, I am aware of many many inconsistencies within the story but I don't want to be too distracted by them... I will update when I can and hopefully remove those embarrassing mistakes asap. This project has taken too long and is so behind schedule, but I still hope to finish it. Here's to you readers, for perpetually making me feel like I owe the community at least one good OC story to fit into the 07-ghost fandom. Cheers.