A/N: Though it might not seem like it in this chapter and the next, the plot is progressing, haha. With this chapter finally up, I will be uploading the soundtrack for Crystal Fortress and Niflheim on my writing Tumblr. It's an amateurish attempt at remixing tracks, but I quite like how it turned out XD

Thank you all for your support! :)


April 27, 2013

Considering how time wasn't to their favour, it made sense that everyone soon found themselves breaking into a run along with Psyche at the front.

Nobody had spoken. Simply remained quiet as they followed their not-so-human guide who looked almost exactly like the current victim they were now going to save.

For Hanamura Yosuke, his thoughts were in a whirl.

It wasn't because of the big information overload from what Psyche had told them - though it might have been partly responsible for his mind's disorientation - but because of what Psyche had whispered into his ear earlier:

"Yo-chan can see it too, right? That blue door Sou-chan just opened."

Yosuke remembered how his breath had hitched in his throat the moment Psyche's silky voice hit the nail right on the head.

How Psyche had found out, Yosuke didn't know, but Yosuke wouldn't deny what he said. It was downright creepy, now that he thought about it, how Psyche seemed to enjoy seeing his shocked expression and skipped away like he hadn't just invaded Yosuke's privacy.

'What the hell was that back there?'

Yosuke gulped, feeling a cold sensation rise in his chest.

Wasn't Psyche supposed to be some kind of innocent kid who wanted to help as much as he could? Who always tried to look cheerful to bring up everyone's spirits?

So then, why? Why did he do that all of a sudden? How was it possible for someone who seemed so innocent to be capable of delivering some of the creepiest lines Yosuke had ever heard in his life?

"Oh! Before I forget, Yo-chan, if Shizuo-kun asks, tell him I've gone off to look for Hibi-kun and the others, ne? It's not a lie, but I don't want Shizuo-kun to get suspicious about me just yet. Of course, the same can be said of you and everyone else.

"Aww, don't look so worried! I promise I'm not up to anything bad, Yo-chan. Trust me on that, okay?"

'...Innocent. Yeah right. I can't believe I actually believed that.'

Yosuke almost snorted aloud, unable to shake away the uneasiness that was now grappling his entire being.

Souji turned back, then, and Yosuke noticed. Seeing his partner's worried look at him instantly drove the anxiety away, which made Yosuke smile back at Souji reassuringly, even though on the inside, he was dying to tell Souji all about what happened.

But Yosuke couldn't do it. Not right now. It wasn't a good time. How could he possibly voice out his suspicions when Psyche was literally the only lead they had left? The last thing anyone needed was to stop trusting in him, and then they'd all come to a standstill again in the end.

And anyway, if he were to tell Souji about it, then he'd also have to explain why he felt that way. Which would mean telling Souji about what he saw back there. Yosuke wasn't ready for that, especially since he was already keeping another secret from his best friend; if he wasn't careful, Yosuke was certain he would spill everything.

'Besides,' Yosuke reasoned, 'maybe I'm just being paranoid. Maybe there really is nothing else to Psyche-san... Yeah, he was just teasing. I mean, that's what kids like to do, right?'

Despite that, Yosuke couldn't convince even himself.

"We're here," Yosuke heard Psyche speak, causing Yosuke to flinch.

It was then he noticed a dense, snow-capped forest right ahead, stretching beyond any ordinary human's vision. A thick trail of ashes and glistening material laid at their feet, as if it were a boundary between the rest of the TV world and the dark congregation of coniferous trees that looked like something that came from those classic ghost stories involving haunted forests.

In the corner of his eyes, Yosuke watched as Naoto walked towards the black, sparkling trail and took a pinch of it with her fingers. Slowly and carefully, she rubbed it, before letting the strange sand-like material scatter back into the pile.

"...So this is what lied beyond the fortress," Naoto commented with a hand on her waist, tilting her head back as though she were staring right at the aforementioned fortress.

"Wait. This is the fortress? Or what's left of it?" Chie asked, incredulous.

"I believe so," Naoto responded in a business-like manner. "Of course, without the proper equipment, there is no feasible way to measure the composition of this trail and compare it against the fortress... But aside from that, the fortress is the only architecture in this space that had been set on fire recently, so we can tentatively conclude these ashes are what remain of it."

"What Nao-chan said," Psyche added. "Ah, but don't get the wrong idea - Icchan didn't build that to keep you guys out. The fortress really did come from Iza-chan. Icchan just used it to his advantage, is all."

Yosuke was inclined to believe him, but after what had happened earlier, he couldn't be too sure anymore. Then again, now that he was paying close attention to what Psyche was saying and how he said it, Yosuke couldn't detect the same creepy tone that Psyche had used moments ago.

'Was I reading too much into it, after all?'

Yosuke had no answer.

"Ahaha," he heard Kishitani-san chuckle from in front of him, "that's just like the Izaya I know."

"What? Being sneaky as shit and making sure he's the only one who benefits from anything?" Heiwajima-san asked.

"Oh I wasn't referring to that. What I meant was..." Shinra paused, appearing thoughtful. "Well, never mind. I have a feeling that if I say it, Izaya will probably hate me for life."

"Hah? Since when did you care about what the rotten flea thought about you?"

"That's true, I once believed that myself." Shinra smiled enigmatically. "But my precious Celty helped put things in perspective for me, so now it's different, in a way."

Heiwajima simply gave Kishitani this look before shrugging it all off.

"So," Rise said, "it wasn't the fortress. It's here. This is where Orihara-san has been, all this time."

Psyche gave a firm nod. "Hibi-kun should be somewhere in there, too. We need to hurry if we wanna know a sure way to stop Icchan." His face fell into a frown. "But... I have to warn you. It's really, really easy to get lost in there. So stay close to me, okay?"

Yosuke was tempted to decline, but then he mentally smacked himself for his tendency to overreact and left it at that. When the rest of the large group nodded, Yosuke didn't go along with them. That was when he noticed that somebody else did the same as him - doing nothing to show their agreement to whatever Psyche had just said.

'Heiwajima-san?'

Yosuke drew in a sharp breath, not sure whether to be relieved or worried that there was someone other than him who similarly found Psyche dubious.

'Did that mean that Heiwajima-san didn't trust Psyche-san either?'

Yosuke couldn't help but think that way, especially after he thought back and remembered the disbelief and suspicion reflected in Shizuo's expression when Yosuke told him what Psyche said. Or more like, half of what Psyche said.

"Yosuke," Souji's calm and quiet voice suddenly reached his ears. Yosuke almost jolted when he found his partner standing right beside him, when he was supposed to have been directly in front instead.

Souji looked concerned, but whether it was because of his reaction or something else, Yosuke couldn't be too sure. "Is something wrong? You seem a little...jumpy."

"Nothing's wrong, partner," Yosuke replied, too quickly for his own liking. "Just a lil' nervous about what's up ahead, is all."

Souji's expression didn't change. Knowing what that usually meant, Yosuke cringed slightly, hoping his partner didn't notice, and kept silent. He was so close to blabbering everything that he had to pinch himself as a reminder to hold back as long as he could.

Finally, Souji sighed. "If you say so," he said with a touch of disappointment in his voice. "Yosuke, just... If there's anything, don't hesitate to tell me. Alright?"

Inwardly, Yosuke winced. He felt like a child being gently reprimanded by an unbelievably patient father, and it made him feel terrible for lying to the one person he trusted and relied on the most.

"Y...yeah. I will. Don't worry."

And that was the last time they had a normal conversation before everything fell into disarray.


"Senseiiiiiii? Are you thereeeee? Senseiiiii? ...Yosuke?"

Teddie called out for his two closest friends with his paws framing his mouth.

After he made the call, he remained still, waiting for a response. When it didn't come, Teddie whimpered, and began his walk through the forest again, calling for his friends.

He had been doing that for the past few minutes, ever since he found himself separated from the rest of the group.

Teddie hadn't been careless. Not in the least. He was sure he had been walking through the forest with everybody else, and remembered Psyche's warning and stayed as close as possible. All he did was just to turn around and check - really, it was only that one time - if everyone was following correctly, only to see that they were all gone.

Then when he turned back in a hurry to tell Psyche, Rise-chan, Chie-chan and Yuki-chan, Teddie found that he couldn't because they were gone too.

"Aaahh... Where is everyone?"

Teddie sniffed as he looked around worriedly.

He had been trying to smell for a familiar scent, but he couldn't find one throughout his search. That usually meant he was too far away to pick up anything, but at the same time, it could also mean his nose wasn't working properly again. Teddie didn't know which of the two it was and hoped it was the latter; at least there was a chance someone could be nearby.

Hanging his large head low with drooped ears, Teddie continued trotting his way around. The fruitless search was terribly demoralising, and it really didn't help that everything looked exactly the same wherever he searched. He could've been walking around in circles without knowing for sure, and he couldn't find his way out no matter how far he walked.

Close to tears, Teddie took one big sniff and repeated his yells: "Senseiiii! Yosukeeee! Is anyone there?! Sense-oh?"

His ears twitched at the sound of running waters.

Perking up at the new discovery, Teddie dashed his way towards the sound, continuing to call out his friends' names with rekindled enthusiasm.

He didn't even notice how the trees seemed to lessen somewhat as he approached the soothing sound, and the sheer thickness of the tall shrubs concealing his view.

Giving the snow-covered bushes a firm push, Teddie leapt onto the bank of a sparkling river with both arms raised. "Sensei! I finally found...you..."

Teddie trailed off when he took a better look at the person sitting on the riverbank across him.

In a way, he was glad his bear instinct wasn't wrong when it told him that the sound of the waters meant that somebody was nearby. But on the other hand, Teddie was sorely disappointed to find that it wasn't his Sensei or Yosuke or Kanji or Chie-chan or Yuki-chan or Rise-chan or Nao-chan he found.

Instead, the person sitting across him - who was now looking up from his long, wooden pipe and gazing at Teddie with beautiful azure eyes - had hair that didn't belong to any of his friends, and an outfit that Teddie did not recognise. This stranger was dressed in a white kimono-like attire, with a haori that was blue with large streaks of white. He had his feet in the running waters of the river, his zouri set aside on a rock right next to him.

Still, there was something...familiar about this stranger, but Teddie couldn't exactly-

"Oh dear, is something the matter? You seem to be in quite a rush," the stranger spoke. The moment Teddie heard his voice, the missing puzzle piece fell in place.

"Ohh! Shizuo? Is that you?" Teddie beamed. It might not be Sensei or one of his friends, but Shizuo was someone he knew, at least, so it wasn't too bad. "What happened to your clothes? Oh and your eyes! I almost couldn't recognise you!"

To his surprise, the blond didn't respond at first, and then he chuckled. "Ahh, I see... You're one of those children who want to save Izaya-san."

The tone that he used was completely different from the way Shizuo usually spoke. It was amazingly gentle, and had a nice calming effect from just listening to it. It was almost like Teddie was hearing Sensei speak instead of this person whom he had initially believed to be Shizuo.

"Huh? So... You're not Shizuo?"

"I'm afraid not," Not-Shizuo replied with a somewhat troubled smile. "Let's see... I believe you've already met Psyche-san right?" Teddie nodded. "I'm similar to him. We're both Shadows, just different from the usual vicious ones around here."

"Ohh I get it now, you're just like me!"

Not-Shizuo blinked, looking a bit surprised. "Is that so?"

"Yeah, that's what Psyche-chan said! I'm a Shadow, too. But because I developed an ego or something, I'm like a human, too. That's what Sensei and my other friends told me," Teddie replied, being filled with the excitement he had felt when he heard about Psyche's story and realised he had finally met someone who was just like him.

But that enthusiasm quickly died away when the blond suddenly looked upset and regarded him with a tinge of pity. "Ah," he sighed. "I see... That's what Psyche-san told you, is that right?"

"...Huh?"

Teddie scratched the back of his ear, wondering where he had gone wrong with the conversation.

Not-Shizuo brought the pipe to his lips. He held it there, and then he brought it away, breathing out smoke as he got to his feet. Keeping the sad smile in place, Not-Shizuo tucked away the pipe and went to his zouri, and knelt down as he wore his socks and put on his sandals.

"What's your name, little one?"

"Um-huh?"

Not-Shizuo turned to face Teddie directly, his smile now bright and welcoming. "Your name... I don't believe we've introduced ourselves just yet, have we? I'm sorry, it slipped my mind. My name is Tsugaru. Tsugaru Kaikyou Fuyugeshiki."

Teddie beamed, the earlier gloom he sensed from Tsugaru now clean forgotten. "I'm Teddie!"

Tsugaru nodded with a chuckle. "It's nice to meet you, Teddie-san. Now, I apologise if this seems sudden... But do you mind listening to me for a moment? I'd like to tell you a story... About Psyche-san and myself..."


"U-uwaaah!"

Flop

The sound of something sinking into snow.

"Here, Tsukishima-san. ...Are you alright?"

"Y-yes, I'll be fine. Th-thank you, Souji-san."

The man who had tripped due to the thickness of the snow was full of gratitude, but his manner of speaking indicated more nervousness than anything else.

It couldn't be helped, Souji supposed. After all, this man - whom he was accompanying and who was also accompanying him - was more likely than not a physical manifestation of some aspect of a particular person's personality.

In other words, he was a Shadow. And as was expected of the nature of his existence, everything about him embodied that very aspect - to the point of exaggeration. Souji had graciously lost count of the number of times Tsukishima had tripped over himself or had accidentally brought him to parts of the forest that were teeming with Shadows.

"It's not a problem," Souji assured, helping Tsukishima up to his feet. "But at any rate, please, be careful. I'm sure your friends will be upset if they see you get hurt."

The red-eyed man adjusted his spectacles, giving Souji a sheepish chuckle. Unlike Heiwajima Shizuo-san, whose physical appearance he shared, Tsukishima's voice was a pitch higher, and much meeker and more soft-spoken.

"Um, well, I don't really know... But I-I hope you're right..."

Souji tried not to let the surprise show. "I'm sorry, I must've said something-"

"A-ah! P-please don't get the wrong idea, Souji-san! They're nice people, they really are!" Tsukishima exclaimed - which, for most other people, was more like speaking normally rather than an outburst. Then, the volume of his voice lowered to his usual manner of speaking as he continued hesitantly, "I-it's just... Um... I never really talked to them much, so I'm... I'm not really sure how they're like, or what they think of me. I-I don't want to trouble them anyway, so it's alright if they don't think much of me at all. Just..."

"...?"

"...J-just... A-as long as they're not...scared of me..."

"Why would they be afraid of you?" Souji was taken aback. From his interactions with Shizuo and Tsukishima so far, he couldn't think of any possible reason to fear them.

Tsukishima blinked, his cherry red eyes widening as if the answer was the most obvious thing in the world. "B-because I'm me, Souji-san."

"Eh..."

"People should be afraid of me. Because I'm me. Because of what I am. Isn't it? Isn't that why? That's always been the case, so it has to be, right? I mean, I always hurt people even though I don't want to, even when I'm trying to help. I thought I could be of strength to other people, but I'm not. I can't. And I won't.

"Souji-san, did you know? I'm strong. So strong that I can hurt other people badly, even when I don't mean to. That's why people are scared of me. And...and I don't think they're wrong at all. It's only natural they'd be scared. This strength of mine isn't normal in the least and I can't control it. I can't control it, Souji-san, do you know how frightening it looks to other people?"

"Tsukishima-sa-"

"In their eyes, I'm just a monster that has no control over myself. And they're right. I am. In the first place, why does someone like me even exist? I grew up in a normal family. I have normal parents. My brother would be normal if not for me-do you know what I did to him, Souji-san? I nearly threw a whole fridge at him for stealing my pudding. That's it. That's all. I almost wanted to kill him for something so stupid. He never had the normal childhood he deserved because of me.

"Why? Why did I turn out like this? Why can't I never do anything right? Why do I keep giving trouble to the people around me? I... I wish I didn't-"

"Tsukishima-san!"

Tsukishima gasped, freezing at the sound of Souji's yell.

He had been rambling without so much as a stutter, and he didn't realise it.

"Wh... What was I talking about, Souji-san? I-I didn't mention anything strange, did I?"

Souji drew in a sharp breath, eyes widening slightly as the determined expression was wiped clean from his face.

'He...doesn't remember?'

"U-um, if I did, I'm really sorry. I tend to ramble a lot, a-and I tend to forget what I've said, so... I-I get lost in what I say at times, so I never really, um, take note of what I've said. Ehehe..."

"...Tsukishima-san..."

"I-I'm such a handful, aren't I? I'm really sorry. I can't help it..."

"Do you often feel this way, Tsukishima-san?" Souji asked, making sure to be as gentle and understanding in his approach as possible. "Feeling like you're lost and have no idea where to go?"

"Eh..."

Tsukishima fidgeted, swiftly turning his head to avoid meeting Souji's eyes. His lower lip quivered as he reached for the pale blue scarf around his neck and grabbed fistfuls of it in a trembling grip.

"...Y-yes," he finally replied. "I-I always feel that way. No matter what I say, what I think, and what I do... I'm always getting myself lost in everything. That's why..."

He paused. His grip tightened even further as he struggled not to lose himself in his current speech, but it only served as a greater source of anxiety when he found that it had ripped in his grasp.

Taking heavy breaths, Tsukishima immediately released his grip. He looked at his hands with a tormented expression on his face. "Th-that's why... I don't want people getting close to me. I-I'll only be nothing but trouble...no, a disaster to everything and everyone."

"That's not true-"

"It is!" Tsukishima snapped, suddenly turning towards Souji with a fierce but haunted look. For a split second, Souji thought he saw the blond's eyes flash gold. "You know what I can do, Souji-san. You know it, it's not normal. I'm putting people in danger just because of my existence. Even now, I'm putting you in danger because I don't know what I'm doing anymore. Don't... Don't you think of me as a monster?"

"I don't," came the firm reply.

Tsukishima's eyes widened.

With a warm smile, Souji continued, "There's more to you than just that, isn't there, Tsukishima-san? I've seen it. Even though it's only for a few days, I've seen how you're like."

Even though he was currently speaking to Tsukishima, Souji's words were clearly directed at Shizuo, as he said everything with the fortissimo of Ikebukuro in mind.

But because of the fact that Tsukishima was part of Shizuo, and especially because he was the physical manifestation of Shizuo's self-deprecation and helplessness, Souji believed it might be better if he spoke to Tsukishima directly. He hoped his words would have some form of effect, considering how most of his friends seemed to have had arrived at some realisation about themselves upon awakening after their Shadows had calmed down.

"You're more than just your physical strength, Tsukishima-san. You can be kind, and gentle, and considerate of others. You're not afraid to stand up when you see wrongdoings, and you're always making sure to keep things in order so that you don't trouble other people.

"Of course, it's not just your strengths that make you who you are... But it doesn't change the fact that there are people who love and care about you, Tsukishima-san."

"...People that...love and care about...m-me?"

Souji nodded. "I'm sure you know who they are."

"...Someone who loves and cares about me..."

Tsukishima mumbled. He stared at Souji blankly, hands subconsciously reaching up to his scarf again-

-and this time, he held it gently, using as little strength as possible without him realising it.


"...Hm?"

Shizuo craned his neck to the side and looked up into the tree-obscured sky.

"...Oh? What's wrong, Shizuo-kun?" Shinra briefly stopped in his tracks to ask.

"Nah, it's nothing. Just..." Shizuo paused, frowning slightly. "Just felt calm all of a sudden, is all."

"Calm, huh? Haha, you really are something else, Shizuo-kun. I can't say I feel the same... Not when I'm so far away from Celty."

The moment of serenity dissipated as a burst of irritation rose in Shizuo's chest. "I get it already, dammit. You don't have to keep saying that. Seriously you do know that you didn't have to come if you didn't say you wanted to, right. That white flea probably wouldn't have remembered to bring you here if you didn't say anything in the first place. Celty only let you because she didn't want to hurt your feelings."

"You think I'm not already aware of that?" Shinra sighed, shifting the borrowed spectacles up the bridge of his nose. "It's precisely because I know that I keep mentioning it, Shizuo-kun. So that I won't forget how much Celty has sacrificed for me," the doctor said with a joyful smile. "So of course, the only way to remind myself of how amazing my darling is, is to keep talking about her!"

"...If Celty had a head, she'd be sneezing and having a cold all the time no thanks to you," Shizuo commented dryly. It wasn't like he particularly believed in that myth, but Shinra did, which was all that mattered.

"Oh, that would certainly be very troubling for my poor Celty," Shinra considered Shizuo's words seriously. "But it's alright! I'll always be there to make sure she's warm and recovers quickly~ Then I can also just keep praising her in her presence so that she won't ever have to fall sick."

Shizuo resisted the urge to sigh and point out that Celty would probably just get embarrassed 24/7, and left the conversation at that, not wanting to drag it on any further lest it would give Shinra even more opportunities to ramble and gush over his private - as in, really private - moments with Celty, which Shizuo had no interest in knowing. He didn't need those details to know that Shinra and Celty were leading a happy, loving life with each other anyway.

"Oh right," said Shinra, "so what was that about being calm, you said?"

"Ah, that. I don't understand it myself. Just had that feeling for no reason." Shizuo shrugged.

"Well, considering the fact that your flea senses aren't tingling, it might mean we're not about to meet Psyche-kun anytime soon. Perhaps you instinctively felt calm because of that?"

"...I guess."

"Right?"

While keeping his usual smile plastered to his face, Shinra started moving off. Shizuo quietly followed.

"Hmm and maybe it's because of the atmosphere around here, too."

"Atmosphere?" Shizuo repeated, raising a brow.

"Remember? Apparently Shadows don't attack people who aren't Persona-users, for whatever reason." Just as Shinra said this, a pile of black gooey substance crept past him, as though completely oblivious to his and Shizuo's presence. The eccentric doctor took this opportunity to wave gleefully at the creature. "And, well, since Shadows simply ignore us, it creates a sense of peace in a way, doesn't it? Since we know that Shadows couldn't care less about us, we don't have to worry about being attacked, after all."

"Hn..."

Shizuo mumbled, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with Shinra's claim.

Truth be told, that didn't exactly come out right, but then again, the other option in his mind then was to snap and tell Shinra to stop waving at every single damn Shadow that crawled past because it was starting to get freakin' annoying. Not to mention completely unnecessary, too.

"Hehe, aren't they adorable? They're like the three blind mice from that movie I watched with Celty the other day," Shinra said as he waved at another one.

Shizuo snorted. "You're only saying that because they aren't attacking you."

"Celty and I got ambushed before, remember? I know how vicious they can be. But it still doesn't change my opinion of them. The supernatural is just too lovely. Ah, but of course, Celty is my one and only true love out of all of them, so don't go getting wrong ideas!"

Shizuo fell silent, feeling slightly embarrassed for forgetting that Shinra and Celty had been attacked by Shadows the previous night.

But thinking about it now...

If those Shadows managed to find them, but normally wouldn't have been able to if it was just Shinra alone there...

Then didn't that mean that the Shadows had been tracking Celty all along in order to get to them?

...Was that why Celty had the feeling that it wouldn't be right for her to be here in the TV world?

Shizuo kept these thoughts to himself. He knew that Shinra had already figured out that Celty was being mindful of Shinra's feelings in letting him venture into the TV world, but he couldn't be certain if Shinra had also figured out that Celty was trying to keep him safe, too. Knowing Shinra, though, that was most likely the case.

But Shizuo didn't feel like asking to confirm the validity of his assumption.

Because he knew that if he did, he would probably have to deal with a Shinra who wouldn't shut up.

And so, deciding to ask Celty instead when he got back, Shizuo silently walked behind his childhood friend who continued cooing over the black blobs, seemingly oblivious to the thoughts in Shizuo's mind.

And then, at some point while they were moving forward-

Shizuo bristled as his nose scrunched up.

Stopping in his tracks, the former bartender turned and looked around. Despite the unusually cold air pricking his nose, there was no doubt that there was also a certain odoriferous sting to it that screamed nothing but "Izaya" to him. Like the way a stinkbug shamelessly spreads its unpleasantness.

The smell wasn't exactly faint, and was growing stronger with every passing second, distinctly coming from somewhere to his left. And so Shizuo focused his attention there, giving the trees and whoever else was in there that was giving off the stench nothing short of a glare.

"...Oi, Shinra," Shizuo said. "Stop acting like an airhead and get your ass here. There's something weird here."

"Hmm? Did you say something, Shi-whoa!"

Thud

"O-oi, Shinra?"

Shizuo looked over his shoulder in Shinra's direction, and saw his elementary school classmate on the ground. Or at least, that was what Shizuo had imagined it to be.

For his view of the doctor was blocked by a large, black mass that had been perfectly still, the back of the Shadow facing him.

"Shin-"

"Ugh... Don't distract me like that, Shizuo-kun," Shinra said, sitting up and brushing the snow off his clothes. "You made me trip over this adorable creature here. Which, I have to add, is actually more solid than I expected. I thought I had tripped over a rock there."

"Wait, Shinra-"

"Mm? Aww look, Shizuo-kun! It looks like it's staring straight at me! I wonder if it felt the impact when I tri-"

"Shinra you idiot get the hell away from there!"

"Wha-whoaa!"

Shinra's yell pierced through the cold air as Shizuo dashed towards him and shoved him aside just as the Shadow exploded.

Wriggling like desperate worms, the remains of the "explosion" shifted into the form of a swarm of butterflies and masks, fluttering about as the other half of the remains gathered and formed the shape of a proud knight, completely clad in armour and riding upon a legless horse.

While Shizuo was too occupied with thinking of a way to deal with such a situation, Shinra, being Shinra, "ooh"-ed as the Shadow blobs shuddered and changed forms.

Even as the knight raised his lance and the swarms darted towards them, Shinra, who seemed to have lost all sense of danger, didn't stop observing the Shadows as a keen scientist would his test subject.

That was probably the greatest irony of their current predicament.

"What the hell is wrong with you?! Snap out of it, Shinra!" Shizuo yelled as he leapt and ran away from the Shadows, yanking Shinra by the collar of his coat to drag him along.

"Ow, Shizuo-kun, at least give me a warning before you do that?" Shinra said, sparing the blond a disapproving glance.

"In case you haven't noticed, idiot, they're attacking us."

"I know! Isn't that precisely why it's amazing?" Shinra replied cheerfully. "They can't even see where we are, yet it doesn't stop them from trying! They're more savage than I thought."

"I think their sight is perfectly fine. It's yours that needs checking."

Shinra didn't bother to respond to that, too far gone in his delusion that the Shadows were still blind to his and Shizuo's presence.

Then, as if to prove Shizuo right, the butterflies fluttered violently in their direction, while the knight took precise aim at the pair and tossed the lance.

The realisation that he was currently the one of the two more capable of rational thought struck Shizuo so hard it overrode that very part of him that thought rationally, anger and frustration at his situation and everything that had happened recently suddenly overflowing like the water from a leaky tap he had forgotten to fix.

And so, as if that tap had been sent flying from the pressure of the water, Shizuo let his temper take control of him-

-and effortlessly uprooted the nearest tree and swung it at the impending threat.

Stunned by the unexpected counter-attack, the butterflies scattered and fell out of formation.

The lance, however, had pierced right through.

As the lance had been hurled at them with inhuman strength and precision, it shattered the bark of the tree and tore their sides - Shizuo's left, and Shinra's right.

"Ugh-!"

"Shit! Shinra!"

Ignoring his own injury, Shizuo rushed to his friend's side, who had fallen to the ground on his knees, holding his bleeding wound.

"I'm fine," Shinra replied breathlessly. "I've had it worse once... Haha, but Celty isn't going to be pleased to see this when we go back, right? Ahhh she'll panic. Then she'll get mad and not want to talk to me anymore for being the reckless idiot I am. I can just imagine the look on her face... I don't think I can bear seeing her make that kind of expression again..."

"If you had been worried about that, you'd be more careful about what you're dealing with in this messed up world. Not doing stupid things like waving and getting close to the damn Shadows," Shizuo couldn't help but push part of the blame to Shinra for their current predicament, even though he hadn't meant to. Shizuo knew he had some share in the responsibility for distracting Shinra in the first place, and for indirectly getting him hurt like this.

"...I'm sorry," Shizuo added, not knowing exactly what he was saying sorry for when he already had too much to apologise about.

"It's fine, Shizuo-kun," Shinra said with a smile on his face. Shizuo wasn't sure if the doctor was saying that out of genuine understanding of what Shizuo was apologising for, or if it was simply the most obvious thing to say as a response to an apology.

But it wasn't the time to think about that.

With its only weapon gone and the tree lying in pitiful splinters on the ground, the knight tugged at the reins of its limbless horse and charged straight at Shinra and Shizuo, while the butterflies gathered into their respective swarms.

Afraid of the possibility of hurting Shinra even more, Shizuo didn't risk uprooting another tree, and didn't risk moving Shinra to another place to escape the inevitable head-on attack. Instead, the fortissimo of Ikebukuro stood in front of his childhood friend, flexing his knuckles in preparation for a direct blow to the Shadows, like the time he fought the Saika children with only his fists at his disposal.

But the similarities ended there.

There were no crazy, possessed humans here. No cursed blade, no declaration of love. Only monsters that sought nothing but violence. The violence Shizuo despised with every fibre of his being, but was ironically the epitome of.

'That means I can use it against them, right? I can use this abnormal strength of mine to fight back, right?'

Shizuo wasn't sure who he was directing those questions to.

All he knew, was that if he didn't call upon that violence he was capable of committing, he would be subjecting his friend to a similar sort of destruction.

So, without giving Shinra time to react, and without giving himself the luxury to hesitate, Shizuo charged forward with the hopes he could take the fight as far away from Shinra as possible.

When Shinra understood what Shizuo was trying to do, he called out Shizuo's name, but Shizuo didn't care. His left side was bleeding like shit, but he didn't care. He didn't have Celty's gloves with him this time, but he didn't care. He knew he would get an earful from Celty herself, if not Shinra, but he didn't care. Everything else just seemed to stop mattering to Shizuo in his current state: filled and driven by the desire to protect as the promise he made with Celty replayed itself in his mind.

As the two terrifying forces drew closer and closer to one another, Shizuo readied his fists. The butterflies fluttered their wings furiously, and the horse let out a shrill cry when the knight tugged its reins with more tenacity than it did before. When he came to a suitable distance, Shizuo brought his fists forward.

At the instant his eyes met the knight's, he noticed the familiar eerie red glow and a small part of him wondered briefly if they would flash back to something normal. Something more human.

But this time, Shizuo didn't will for his body to stop. The gap between them was already far too close, leaving far too little time for him to react fast enough if he wanted to change his mind.

So when the pungent odour from earlier shot right up his nose, and a neigh that lacked any ghostly tone, Shizuo couldn't react quickly enough to pull himself back.

BAM

The sound was not of unusually powerful fists meeting iron and horse hair.

It was of another horse ramming straight into the one the knight was riding.

Unable to stop his body, Shizuo forced his fists to slam right down at the ground, creating a shockwave that sent the snow and some nearby trees flying.

The intruders to the scene, however, remained unaffected by it.

Panting with beads of sweat trickling down his temples, Shizuo straightened himself as he took a closer look.

To his surprise, the Shadows were completely gone, leaving no trace of their presence whatsoever in the entire area which was now barren of snow and filled with fallen trees and unsightly, exposed roots.

And instead of a knight clad in deep, violet armour riding a legless, equally violet horse, there was now a man - who had a golden crown resting on his midnight black hair, and dressed in a plain, white attire with gloves, metal boots, and a yellow robe over his shoulders - sitting upon the most beautiful of horses Shizuo had ever seen. Its coat was pearly white, appearing to have the same quality as top-grade silk, and its mane and tail, a humble yet bold shade of yellow, bordering blonde. The reins were just the right shade of pink, and even seemed to glow, adding to the exquisiteness and majesty of the whole image.

The only thing that really, really ruined Shizuo's overall impression of it, though, had to be the stench coming from the man. Or maybe it was the horse. Shizuo was leaning towards it being the man because the stink was uniquely Izaya and Izaya was most definitely not a horse.

"...Hmph. 'Tis quite the ruckus you have made here, I see. Though perhaps I should not be expecting any less from Heiwajima Shizuo himself."

With eyes that reminded Shizuo too much of Izaya's Shadow, and the voice that was unmistakeably Izaya's own, the man gazed at Shizuo intently and continued to speak, "Salutations, gentlemen. You may address me as Prince Hibiya. I have been expecting your arrival."