AUTHOR'S NOTE: First of all, I'm incredibly sorry for not publishing this chapter sooner; I know it has been almost a year. I work full-time, try to learn German, and keep devouring e-books - such is life!
For me, writing for an OC in this fandom is really hard, especially when you want their presence to make an impact. Hopefully, I haven't failed in that respect and you will continue to like the story. Also, if the writing style is different, this may be down to reading The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, whose talent for writing action has helped me a lot with the opening scene.
Thanks for any thoughts you may wish to share.
+ The One Who Loved Ashley +
Raising a tremulous hand, the dying Zweilt grips the hilt of his sword, an effort that makes him violently sick, splashing the front of his armour with a mixture of vomit and blood. Clever how the Opast had used his weapon against him - his very own blade, the blade he trusted most. It had pierced him through the chest, just below his heart, and with each laborious breath he could feel it pushing further, coldly into the space it had dug in his body. Feverish, weak, he stares at the Opast waiting for him in the distance, wreathed in tendrils of mist, emitting a dangerous glow.
This is it, he thinks grimly, licking at blood congealed around his mouth. My last chance before the end of all lifetimes...
'Hikaru!' a voice interrupts, desperate and distraught.
The Zweilt flinches at the sound of his name, hilt straining harder against broken ribs. Who is that yelling so carelessly near me? He spits out new blood and rolls his head left: a figure racing towards the motionless Opast, sword stretched out, flames surging brightly along its brutal edge.
'No!' gasps Hikaru, as his partner leaps up; before the blade can fall, the Opast flickers aside, catches the Zweilt by his ankle, and whips him into the ground. Dust, for an instant, blocks Hikaru's view, then Shun re-appears, dancing on his feet, sword erupting fire as he strikes and counters the Opast.
He can't win alone; I won't let him die.
Gritting teeth, Hikaru's lips move with unspoken words, causing orbs to rise from the landscape nearby, until, with every blow slipping beneath his partner's guard, there are shells of pale blue deflecting the onslaught.
Shun merely grins and rapidly spins on his heels, delivering a whirl of blazing hacks and cuts. The Opast staggers, reeling back, a flash of dark petals flying into the air, but the shells are fading faster than the target will perish - faster than their master can summon the spell.
'Don't you fucking give up!' commands Shun, in that irrefutable tone.
Hikaru shifts the hand not clutching his sword, shaky palm open, upturned to the sky. An incantation is whispered, stilling the gathering orbs, suspending them high above the two fighters. As he flips and lowers his palm, the Opast sinks, slamming into dirt, a ring of dust spreading wide across the battlefield.
'Now,' groans Hikaru, straining to hold their opponent; without hesitation, wings of hot light slash swiftly into the Opast, tearing its dwindling form into hundreds and thousands of petals. Relieved, Hikaru surrenders, crumpling to his knees, heedless of the blade slicing deeper into his lungs.
In the settling haze, Shun emerges unharmed, glowers for a moment at the craters filling with blood, then gruffly kneels beside his injured partner.
'Don't die on me, bastard.'
Hikaru glares, too tired for anger. 'Where's Yuki?' he asks, conscious of the numbness creeping into his limbs. 'And the others... Where are... the others?' A shadow slips over his face, fingers quietly stroking the hair from his eyes.
'Never mind the others,' a gentle voice tells him. 'I'll be missing you, Hika, for the rest of my life...'
Slow as motes drifting through shimmering air, he returns to the present, perceiving once again the features of a classroom, half cast in shadow as the sun travels west. Surrounding him are students distracted from the lesson, staring at the desk where he seems to calmly sit, all transfixed by blood seeping softly from his nose. Gradually, he senses this trickle as well, and shielding his mouth, slowly stands up, careful not to spill any blood on his clothes.
'Sir,' he says to the teacher. 'May I please be excused?'
The teacher nods, pen tapping loudly in the silence of the classroom, too concerned with a sentence being written on the whiteboard.
The boy hurries out, ignoring his peers, and locks himself in a toilet far from significant whispers. Seconds later, he retches, spitting blood and bile, then cleans his face in the sink until its water runs clear.
Like the Zweilt in his vision, he feels sick, intensely afraid, anxious not to die before his resurrection. He urges the illness to pass, the fear to subside, grasping his shirt where the sword had pierced through.
The dying Zweilt, Hikaru, had once been me. And that other Zweilt, Shun, had once been my partner.
'Shuusei, may I come in?'
Immediately, his thoughts and feelings shut down.
'Tsukumo,' he answers the silver-haired boy, straightening his shirt in front of the mirror.
'Takashiro just called. We both have to go.'
'Could you give me a minute?'
'Listen, do you...'
'I don't mean to pry, but... are you okay? You look kind of-'
The Zweilt drops his gaze and rubs the back of his neck. 'Nothing,' he eventually murmurs. 'See you outside.'
Toru studies the courtyard from his seat by the window: below him the students are small, crawling like insects, milling about in their self-centred world. Had they offered, he could have been with them, adding to the echoes of faint, sincere laughter or strolling through the gates with friends going home. Had they asked, he could have been like them, social and oblivious, blind to the loner observing with resentment, clenching his fist as they leave, one by one. But nobody will ask him to join them at this school.
Not since they questioned the colour of his eyes.
Glaring at the classroom now vacant around him, Toru wonders why it should matter, something like the colour or shade of an iris. Generations of Yamadas had always developed this trait, but in this generation, where genes are just random, capricious in the extreme, they had served to undermine what could have been a perfect, peaceful existence, emerging for no reason than to cruelly cast him out.
He bangs his fist on the windowsill.
I'm Japanese by birth. Why can't they accept that? Everywhere I go, my heritage has cursed me!
Except this guy had been different in a way that made Toru hope; made him want to believe that people had changed. In the principal's office, he had been set to dismiss this Usui Shuusei, knowing all too well what would happen to their "friendship". Unless you knew each other from somewhere else before, you would most likely part in a matter of days. However, with Usui's smile and delicate manner, it felt like the world had granted a wish, giving Toru the courage to face a classroom of students.
'My name is Yamada Toru. Please take care of my future.'
'Wow, is this your friend?'
'Look at those eyes...'
'If Usui likes him, I'm sure we'll get along!'
'Hey, does he speak Japanese? My English isn't great!'
Toru had side-glanced Usui beside him, dreading a glimpse of vanity, self-interest, spite or disgust - any sort of emotion about to betray him - but all he witnessed was a smile of the purest bafflement, an emotion which caused their classmates to giggle unrestrained, and at that precise moment, Toru simply knew he could never leave this person; that they had to be friends, no matter what.
As if reinforcing the point, students continued to stare as Toru adopted the desk next to where Usui sat, chin propped up with a nonchalant hand, sun glinting gently in the strands of his hair. At lunch, they flocked towards Toru and fought for his attention, and though he sensed that their interest was mainly fuelled by Usui sitting nearby, he did not care in the least and welcomed conversation regarding his background, cautious not to share the truth behind his transfer. Then Usui had a nosebleed towards the afternoon, graceful, even in illness, as he weakly rose to his feet. Without him, the classroom appeared to grow colder, like it relied on his company to warm and shape their lives.
And so it begins, Toru observes, bitterly disappointed, gradually abandoned by his classmates now Usui had gone. If I fail to stay with this person, then the school will hound and bully me until I transfer again. I've learned this from the past. I have no other choice. This person is a shield. That's all this person is.
He picks up his bag and prepares to go home, discerning in that instant two students still in the courtyard, approaching a car positioned by the gates. Self-consciously he ducks, hiding behind the curtain, and peeks through its fabric to check where they are; the taller one is Usui, the short one a stranger, depressed and too mature for his physical years. When they both reach the car, Usui climbs in, blocking the short one's attempt to help him inside, and leans his head on the seat, wearily surveying the now empty school. The short one lingers, uncertain, upset, then climbs into the car from the opposite side.
Where is Usui off to with a first-year like that? And what is he actually looking at...?
Tracing the line of his classmate's gaze, Toru retreats, thinking it might have been him, then realises Usui is looking somewhere else: at a first-year in the courtyard, hair wild and blond, scowling at the car as it quickly drives away.
They wait for the car to reach the inner city, silent as it homes on a slab of towering concrete, panes of glass golden in the afternoon light: Tokyo District Headquarters for the Metropolitan Police, centre for all crimes no mortal can decipher. As the vehicle pulls up, an officer stirs from an alcove near the entrance, dressed in a suit of sharp linen grey, scarlet tie stressed by the black of his shirt.
'Thank you for coming,' the officer greets them. Through a revolving glass door, he takes the Zweilts into a marble reception, where passes are issued to his unexplained guests, then escorts them to a level unmarked beneath the penthouse, eyes intent on the numbers above their polished surroundings. As the lift slides open, revealing a hallway, he informs his guests, 'The inspector is there,' and indicates a door located on the left. 'Please go straight in. I'll collect you both later.'
They bow as the officer leaves and knock at the door without a title or nameplate.
'So,' they hear someone comment, as soon as they respectfully enter, 'these are your specialists, the ones who can help us?'
Silhouettes twist from a table strewn with photos, dossiers, and plastic evidence bags. The first silhouette is a man in middle years with a thin, peppery buzz cut and a plain steel suit. His forehead, deep with worry, glistens with sweat in spite of the air-con and makes his younger companion seem unusually composed, a man in his twenties, stiffly poised in his seat.
Furthest from the door sits Giou Takashiro, face veiled in shadow by the angle of the sun. 'Yes,' he says kindly, in response to the older man's question. 'Kiriyama, this is Usui, and this is Murasame. Usui, Murasame, his assistant Takahashi.'
The Zweilts exchange bows with the slightly frowning men and slip into chairs beside Takashiro.
'Now,' the inspector resumes, 'what can your specialists do?'
'Murasame,' prompts Takashiro, 'show us your skill.'
From the assistant, the silver-haired Zweilt receives an evidence bag wrapped with black tape and weighs the mysterious package in querying hands, pinching its contents, smoothing the plastic, then solemnly answers, 'This journal belonged to a girl. Last time she wrote was just before dinner. I think she seemed very happy.'
'And him?' nods Kiriyama at Usui, who accepts the same item from his comrade, holds it up like a card too complex to read, then offers it back to a puzzled Takahashi.
'May I see the rest?' the Zweilt inquires, without passing judgment.
Kiriyama consents and the other evidence bags are subjected to a similar process.
After some minutes, Usui concludes, 'Nothing,' sipping water from a glass poured by Murasame and resting his eyes on Kiriyama directly. 'The culprits are the victims. They did this to themselves.'
Takashiro smiles at the men with elegant interest. 'Will that suffice, inspector?'
'Yes,' Kiriyama agrees, somewhat reluctantly, sweating even more in the cooling draught of the air-con, 'but none of this is new. Your insight is truly respected, sir, believe me, it is, but why are these victims dying at seven all the time? It doesn't make much sense to people like us...'
'On every journal exists a spiritual residue, and having studied these journals myself, I can readily confirm that a Duras is involved, though we cannot know for certain exactly who it is.'
'If you need more time, then-'
'More victims, inspector, is really what we need.'
'What?' Kiriyama stares. 'You want more people to die?'
'Seven,' Takashiro continues, ignoring the man's outburst, 'is a number for the physical world, and the Duras we are dealing with cannot enter this world unless they have a medium, such as human beings. Usually these Duras will try to trick their victims or brand them with a blood seal, thus creating pathways between the spiritual world and the physical world.
'In this instance, where suicide is committed at seven, it is clear that a Duras is attempting to enter the physical world, but cannot do so until it gains enough power. So far, we have twelve victims in Tokyo alone. If this city proves to be the location where a Duras wishes to enter, then it is only a matter of time before it claims additional victims.'
'But letting people die for this isn't right...' Takahashi mumbles, not looking at the Zweilts or their leader across the table.
Takashiro hardens at the assistant's cowardly words. 'In mathematics,' he affirms, 'the ultimate expression of a number is the multiplication of that number by itself. Based on the time of death and the number of deaths, it may be safe to assume that forty-nine, seven times seven, would be the perfect outcome required for this Duras to fully emerge.'
Writing the figures on a blank sheet of paper, Kiriyama mutters, 'If we're working on that assumption, then we only have thirty-seven suicides left...'
Takahashi turns to his colleague. 'Inspector, you can't be seriously thinking-'
'Of course not!' snaps Kiriyama. 'Do you think I want that to happen? I'm just considering facts! Sir,' he says to Takashiro, in a much calmer tone, 'is there any way to stop this thing from taking more victims? Can't we stop them now, before the forty-ninth?'
'I cannot say,' replies Takashiro, with genuine honesty. 'We have no means of knowing which Duras is responsible. Until we do, I would suggest reconvening tomorrow. We need to examine the evidence.'
'You're home!' exclaims a girl dashing gracefully from the staircase. As she comes to a halt in the foyer, strands of strawberry-blonde splash against her brother's arms in a tender, beautiful wave, clinging to his frame as if she might drown. At this sign of affection, Tsukumo returns her embrace, and briefly, they resemble two dancers shutting out the world, swaying in time to the secret pulse of their hearts.
'Shuusei,' Touko belatedly calls, raising her head to the staircase where a figure is wearily moving.
He meets her anxious gaze with a faint, emotionless smile, then quietly proceeds to the bathing hall by himself, suffering under the impression that perhaps it would have been nice, if someone had waited.
'Welcome back, Shuusei.'
His eyes flash open, fleetingly hopeful, only to land on Yuki, who had just stepped aside to let him stroll past in the corridor. 'Good evening,' Shuusei responds, in a strained sort of tone. 'It's getting quite late. Shouldn't you be resting?'
'To be honest, I was waiting for you,' God's Light admits shyly, seemingly oblivious to the Zweilt's growing pain. 'Do you mind me coming with you? I need to bathe as well.'
No, Shuusei retorts, no, you cannot, but his face considers the question, forcing down the urge to physically retreat from the yearning and the guiltiness afflicting his conscience.
He is always afraid of this moment: being alone with Yuki.
'Of course,' he eventually nods, confident again. He strides ahead on the corridor, causing restless shadows to leap from candle-lit sconces.
Behind him, Yuki uncomfortably follows, discouraged by Shuusei's behaviour, and reaching the communal showers, considerately stays at the opposite end of the changing room to give his companion some privacy. Instead of clearing the tension which had sprung up during their walk, his gesture unwittingly stabs at Shuusei's inner conflict, shaking his fingers so badly that he cannot unbutton his shirt.
Unknown to his partner Hotsuma, the Eyes of God had begun to let Yuki in, slowly reacting to the boy's polite banter, if only to gain a little release. After surviving that battle with Ashley, after trying to end his own life, the pressure to continue neglecting the boy could scarcely go on - God's Light had bravely saved Shuusei, thus he must demonstrate loyalty, gratitude; yet this ancient quarrel between his partner and Yuki is gradually wearing him down, tearing apart his desire to love and support them.
'Shuusei, are you all right?' Yuki inquires from his side of the bathing hall.
'Yes, I'm all right.'
The boy approaches, concerned with the downcast expression. 'Do you want to talk?'
The Zweilt blinks and takes Yuki's hand, pressing its palm to the collar of his shirt. When he speaks, his voice sounds strangely distant; strangled, somehow.
'Is there really no way... to get rid... of these scars?'
'You told me once that there wasn't,' Yuki gently reminds him.
'But if there was a way...'
Smiling sadly, Yuki unfastens the shirt which Shuusei had struggled with. As he solemnly views the disfigurements, his longing to heal and forever erase their stain on the past is easily felt.
For Shuusei, this is enough; enough to salve his despair and stifle the anguish of choosing between two fidelities. Pressing his forehead to the back of Yuki's hands, he whispers a mantra that he has carried for a while.
I will talk to my partner Hotsuma. I will finally tell him.