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Cascade
March 20th, 2011, 02:04 AM
Hello everyone. After a long hiatus, I've decided to start writing again. Though my status since graduating college has been unstable and I've often wondered if I still had it left in me, I've decided to force myself to get back into the game. Already the ideas are flowing back. Maybe I'm being too open, but I really hope doing this again will give me something to look forward to in the meaningless void that is post-grad life.

I'm probably not remembered by a whole lot of people, but I made a fic years ago as an alternate universe sequel of sorts to Kieran's Legacies of Fate. TOUEI is a central story with related side chapters split over various times in history. I only managed to nearly complete one side chapter, but it only has maybe one or two segments left. A lot of people were confused about the way the sidestory connects with the main plot, but I think that if you examine it closely, it'll become clear. It'll definitely become more clear as the story progresses.

This fic is pretty action light; it adopts the seinen sort of tempo I've come to like with mostly character interaction and occasional fights. As usual Tsukihime, Fate/Stay Night, and all related characters and concepts are the creation and property of Kinoko Nasu and Type-Moon, blah blah.

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[Old text from typemoon.us]

This fanfic for me is a kind of experiment. I decided that for sure, I'd finish it and write a *long one* this time, partly because it was something fun to do, and partly because I wanted to see for myself whether I could write something novel-sized, or at least light-novel sized. If I am to have any hope as a writer in the future, I've got to be able to stick with my projects, even if there are long breaks in between. With my propensity for distraction and writer's block, keeping a consistent schedule isn't as easy for me as it used to be, but at least the updates are coming. To give you an idea of how huge this thing is, and how freaking terrified I am of it, the side story Ashura is just one of five I've planned. And it's only 2/3s of the way finished.

Although it may not seem like it now, TOUEI, as I've planned it, is going to be a really long story. My previous fanfiction, Traveler, was to be about the length of an actual Tsukihime scenario, and with the new VN engine Miraploy has wonderfully provided, it might be possible for me to write that story again, as it was meant to be written.

Still, this is my main project now. I was disappointed with Traveler for a few reasons, the foremost of which being that it was oppressively dark. Although I *like* dark, don't get me wrong, I have always felt that in a truly interesting story, some elements of all moods ought to be present. Elements of comedy, romance, drama, horror, and action; all of these are integral to creating a large, multi-layered and complex fiction. While the inevitable result of someone's writing style, unless they've got quite a handy bit of control over themselves, is almost always leaning towards one of those genres principally than the others, the variety still exists.

I thought that with Traveler, you had to hold your breath and go under for a long time until you could surface and gasp again, the atmosphere was so stifling. This might seem like a strange thought to those of you who read it, but the plot developments I had planned would have easily made it the most depressing of any path in Tsukihime, were it to be in the visual novel. (Yes, beating even Akiha's...) In any case, you only really got brief moments of half-hearted comedy (Which I'm not all that confident at.) to break the larger themes of insanity and paranoia.

TOUEI isn't going to be like that. The writing is simpler, the characters original (Mostly.). My idea was to create a fic that explores Nasu's setting, rather than focuses on established characters in the games. Certainly, characters like Ciel, Hisui, Arcuied and Aoko might appear, out of the fact that they featured heavily in Kieran's preceding fic, but only briefly. In this fic, less important characters from the TM universe will feature more heavily than ones who got a role in the actually released games and novels. Needless to say, you can expect for there to be more than a few fateful meetings. The primary characters are Kieran's "daughter," who has all but hijacked my fic and become more of the heroine than my own protagonist, whose design I took from an old roleplay, and inverted his personality. Would you believe he was angry ALL THE TIME in his original form? You would have hated him, trust me. (If you don't hate him already. XD) And of course, the central Touko-like character cements the structure of this story as similar to Kara no Kyoukai; episodic, with side story chapters that will eventually tie into the main plot. (Really, they will!) There are quite a few original characters, all of whom I created with the TM universe in mind, but some whose personality and true nature/powers reference other fictional universes as well. However, this isn't a crossover fic.

I'm actually primarily an RPer, and used to think writing fanfiction was for self-indulgent, poorly skilled writers who just liked to make Mary Sues. Now I think it... might be mostly true still. XD I might be one of those. Well, no matter. Whatever the case is, I think that a lot of fic writers I've seen here, especially Kieran, have some actual skill for once, and I appreciate most of all his willingness to let me use his character, since it is a sign of his confidence in my writing ability and understanding of Takara. He also puts up with me bugging him endlessly about whether she would do this a certain way, or that at all, or if this little statement is right, or if her mannerisms are all in order, etc. In any case, thanks go out to Kieran again.

And of course to TM, which created the huge sandbox I'm playing in.

Yeah yeah, mox nox in rem. Please comment and rate. Speculations welcome on any chapter. I need your input; without it, I'll be sad.

You wouldn't want to make me sad, would you?

Cascade
March 20th, 2011, 02:13 AM
It was an acrid smell. Not in its singular qualities, for it was too strong to allow any judgments about it. It overpowered his senses, closed in on all sides. In the darkness, he could feel it crawling along his armor, like a second skin, loose and deadened to feeling; and as the atmosphere reached the true, exposed skin at the base of his neck, it was a rough, unpleasant situation. Not even his tightly bound haramaki, with its rigid metal plates and silk rope, could constrict his chest more than the oppressive stench, filling and corrupting his lungs with every breath. Deep, tropical heat drew forth beads of sweat upon his creased brow, and his hindered breath struggled to emerge from behind his face-mask, a plate of steel frozen in a bestial grimace.

The smell came from below. That’s why it could creep up his body so. He knew the thing he followed was near, and in the darkened room, lit only by a few, sparse candles, he felt its desire. Every shadow let out imaginary lunges of murderous intent.

But that sense was unnecessary. It had left behind a trail of its work.

His sandaled feet soaked themselves in what could have been a pool of shallow water. But the thickness and consistency of it clung fast to him, and even with a strong heart, he dared not look down. Invisible, robust things, some soft, some metal, brushed against every step. At times he felt himself stopping, steeled but somehow frantic eyes searching every corner of the un-navigable blackness. The grip he held on his katana was stone-like, but not out of bravery. Shame and bravery had ceased to exist when he’d entered the keep. That low ceiling, and the heavy oak pillars boxed him in, leaving him nothing but shadows and the things upon the floor he refused to look at. His feet were entirely saturated in it in by now, and they dragged. He could no longer hear his steps on the formerly slick, almost lacquered cherry wood floor.

The sound of ragged breathing ahead had crept up on him even from directly before his face. Something was there in the darkness, and the candle posts had petered off. Its voice was hideous, and each gulp, a wet hiss of drawn air, filled him with revulsion. He had to cut, dispatch the thing right away. It wasn’t any longer because he knew that thing had cut down every one of his allies. They were samurai, and prepared for death. No matter how torturous. It was simply that his mind would not accept the existence of a living, breathing, avatar of abject terror standing before him, back turned. Its fear had to be appeased, and only one sacrifice would do.

A blade, that of a nodachi, but perhaps his own height, held in one dark hand, laying disrespectfully tip against the floor. The curved point was embedded in the red floor, perfectly still.
The armor was a dark, impure crimson-no, dyed in crimson. Heat emanated from every orifice of the shadow-covered shape that his eyes could only barely comprehend. With every gasp of air, its heaving shoulders filled the silent mortuary with pure dread, and sucked from him the strength in his chest and proud arms.

Only fear remained behind.

He felt it move before it even turned to face him. It was because his eyes picked up on the ripple in the “floor” the sword point buried itself in. Long, pure, circular ripples that traveled across murky shapes to brush against his warm feet.

The helm upon the hunched shoulders of the enemy warrior twisted to face its enemy. It faced his frozen, metal yell of anger with an identical one, but that mouth carried within it two thick swords no human jaw could have supported. It was enough for the samurai to imagine that mask was his enemy’s actual face. The red armor’s back was studded with quills like that of a porcupine; until the samurai strained his eyes and saw that they were arrows buried deep within, saturated with blowfish poison. Yet still the beast stood there with its feet invisible, and rusted, bloody sword bare.

But behind that mask were eyes that even in the darkness, he could somehow perceive. Cold, perfectly round, and brimming with a dim light. The face they were set deep in was stiff with the rigor of fury, tensing and pulling with each breath. Within those eyes he recalled the stories of dark times before the daimyo, and before their retainers. Of an age of blood and consumed flesh. A place in their country where human men dared not set foot, for only there in the world would they be eaten. Man, who fed upon the flesh of lesser beings, would be food for devils that should not have ever emerged from Naraku. Those tales were the domain of children not men, but even so, the recollection surfaced unwelcome inside his mind.

It raised a thick, tree-trunk like arm and began its approach. The sounds of its breath strengthened, cutting through his ears and limbs, making him week. The extremities of his body became useless, like they had suddenly fled far from him and the frantic commands of his mind to face his enemy, to raise his katana into a defensive posture. It seemed as though the legs beneath him wilted and crumpled like trampled flowers. He fell to his knees in a sanguine splash. The barely recognizable pieces of meat resting below him violated his vision without mercy. His fingers finally crumbled away from the grip of his blade, the hilt dipped in the fast-sticking dye, to join with those beneath them. Incomplete, and cold. No response but the trace heat of life bleeding away, slowly.

There was nothing more left to him but to be scattered amongst those below, in the blackened hallway of butchers.

Cascade
March 20th, 2011, 02:15 AM
The dark haired girl’s hasty footsteps carried her across the plaza towards the class she should have been at ten minutes ago. Another five minutes lay between her and her target building, on the spread out, urban campus of Jin-Sei University, in Akitaka City. The sky above her head was cloudless, and the sun set itself like a burning white pearl in the air. The girl outran its rays; the breeze surrounding her long stride, tall for a Japanese youth, blanketed her with its coolness, and the sunlight raced along behind her shadow in a frantic race.

She’d overslept that morning, but it wasn’t her fault, really. It couldn’t be helped that a long time before she even enrolled, someone decided that the girls’ dormitory and the medical science classes would be spread out over ten city blocks. Of course it couldn’t be helped that she hadn’t received her bicycle yet, and the dorms weren’t close enough to the local tram to be worth it. After all, she had only recently settled at the university after her high school testing, and she had feared, with her average-to-mediocre grades, that she would have ended up “ronin” for a time until she could get another chance. That she even made it to a great school like Jin-Sei was an uncomfortable miracle. She’d been able to follow a few of her friends… but she also felt like a newborn dunce. There was a time when being a bit less of an academic was acceptable; she’d always been the strongest at kendo and athletics, and had no difficulty with home economics, and in high schools of her sort, it was acceptable to be a bit too “relaxed” with one’s schoolwork. Though, her mother would have taken issue with that belief; it was her misfortune to be born to a teacher. That too, couldn’t be helped.

“Takaraaaaa~!”

The already-late Aozaki Takara turned her head towards the other freshman, was even more tardy than she was. The light breeze traveled through her hair, which in the cloudless daylight revealed subtle hints of brown. That fair-skinned face Takara’s raven hair framed had lost none of its vitality or youthful purity from over a year ago, undefeated by hard experiences her exhausting friend couldn’t imagine. The short-sleeved summer variant of the college wear did away with the typical long-sleeved black blazer, which would have been oppressively hot but retained the white shirt and dark red plaid skirt, which swayed loosely around her fast steps. Takara could cover a great deal of ground quickly compared to her close, high school acquaintance, who scurried after her frantically.

“Takara, I told you, wait for me… We’ll both be bad students today together, right?”

Momoko, hardly changed from her high school days, didn’t look like much, but despite her childish demeanor had actually managed to get higher grades than her friend. It was a little embarrassing for the more serious of the two, but Takara was just glad she wouldn’t be entering an entirely unfamiliar phase of life without a familiar face to guide her. Her other friend Arisa had managed to enroll at the famous Ritsumeikan. It was a surprise for an otherwise unobtrusive observer girl, but she had the grades. It wouldn’t be easy to keep in touch with her, but Takara was set on trying.

Of course, she always had her parents. The cell phone in her pocket carried on it an embarrassing text message that surely reminded the girl to wake up earlier, and study hard. It had no meaning, since Takara had inherited more than her father’s unusual Eyes, and skill with a knife. She had also inherited his hatred of mornings.

“Father seems to be a ‘selective narcoleptic,’ like he used to be a ‘selective anemic.’ I guess I’m not so lucky.”

“Ah, I’m sorry, Momoko. I just got nervous. I guess if I’m already this late, we might miss the lecture period entirely. I’m sorry I slept in…” Takara looked downwards, embarrassed, clasping her book bag in front of her. “You didn’t have to wait for me, you know.”

Momoko shook her head, pigtails bobbing. “Eheh~, your mom is going to be angry with you anyways. I decided I won’t make things any worse for you!” She laughed, walking alongside Takara with a slight jump in her step.

Takara smiled uncomfortably. “That reminder about Mother in itself is making it worse…”

“I appreciate it, but this isn’t any change for you, really, is it? Rushing to class.”

“Hey~! I’m on time most days, or every other day. We have a bit more freedom at this school than HS; I have to enjoy it.”

“Without me around, and on leave to watch the babies, my mom will probably take her anger out on dad,” she sighed, half-joking, “so unlike you, I can’t relax at all.”

In her mind, she could almost see her mother’s blue-eyed stare, arms crossed before her chest in her typical expression of disapproval. That look, which probably had been reserved for the worst of the Church’s enemies in her younger days, was at the very moment being turned upon Takara, or so she imagined. Her pace unconsciously increased.

Still, it had been a long time since she could relax so easily. The anxiety over being late seemed childlike in comparison to the fears she had experienced in her high school days.

She had been involved in the War of the Holy Grail. The fear of death was ever-present; if not of her own, then of her father, or her mother… or that man… Her father and mother lived against all odds. That much itself was a miracle that dwarfed even things that would have seemed monumental in the days before the war, like her acceptance. In the end, she had been delivered, and Takara had “him” to thank for limiting her loss to only one.

Only him alone. From the beginning, maybe, it had just been him alone. Why he felt he needed to shoulder everything himself, and sacrifice himself alone for their sake, Takara didn’t understand. Since, after all, he had kept so much from her. Even his name, he did not entrust her with.

Even though she knew it wasn’t the case, she couldn’t help but feel cheated. Like that man had selfishly wrapped himself in his cloak of enigma in his final moments, and pushed her away. If she had only known his name, Takara might have understood his feelings. A strong sentiment within him beyond “love,” or “friendship” had to have been there within his heroic heart, something that made sacrifice possible. And yet simplistic emotions such as those seemed incomplete descriptions of what brewed within her as well. Avenger remained a mystery in everything at his core, up to his last moments. All Takara knew of him was his willingness to protect her at any cost, and that when he died, she felt sad.

He had been, probably, an irreplaceable person. She only had to be a bit honest with herself to realize that Avenger had changed her forever.

“That idiot… If he only knew-”

“Takara?”

She’d departed again. Momoko was staring at her with concern. Takara could only imagine the distant face she had been wearing up until then, eyes hazy with the intoxicating draught of memory.

“…Sorry. I spaced out for a moment.”

“What’s wrong? You seem sad. And not just about being late…”

Takara waved her hand and smiled to dispel any worries her well-meaning friend had.

“No no, Momoko, I’m fine. I’m lucky to even be able to daydream these days. Studying for the exam was so hard; between my mother’s tutoring and my dad’s frequent sicknesses, I thought I was going to faint on the day of the test.”

She brushed the edge of her chin with her index finger, looking upwards thoughtfully. “And here I am, walking calmly to class like I have a second summer ahead of me...”

The worried face brightened up again.

“Aw, I feel so sorry for you. But don’t worry. We’ll be okay even if we’re late, since you worked hard enough just to keep me company at my school! I’m so honored~!”

“It’s not like I just came here for you-Agh!”

Takara let out a startled cry as Momoko latched on in a bear-like hug. She struggled, but even though she was strong, trying to pull off the remora girl was akin to ridding herself of her own shadow. Momoko’s words were garbled as Takara pushed at her face, far too close to her own cheek for comfort.

“You’re tha gweatest~!”

“I’m-really-glad-too-now-let-me-go!”

“Noo, you’re too cruel. Looking so worried like that, what are you trying to do to me!? I was touched by your troubles! I can’t afford to let you go~!”

“Alright-already-just-!”

Takara managed to squirm out of her friend’s grasp halfway. In the midst of their power struggle, she set eyes upon something unusual. Normally it wouldn’t have even warranted her attention, and she had even been distracted at that moment; perhaps it had been the weird mood, or her state of mind, but she noticed the gardener at the edge of the plaza’s flowerbed.

Akitaka was not a large city, but a new one. In an entirely different area of Misaki's prefecture, it had a temperate climate and a wide coastal basin to work with, as well an almost perfectly circular urban area. Even at the expense of development, the local corporations and urban planning seemed to insist on not expanding the city’s boundaries beyond the circular limit. It was said that a certain local superstition resulted in the city’s perfectly round limits.

In historic times, the region had been largely unpopulated by anything but shrines and farming land, but when the shipping industry grew strong, so did the local population’s wallets, and the small towns merged into one large city surrounding the Ginga River, a winding, s-shaped path that cut through the center of the city and emptied into the bay. Since it was built hastily in comparison to cities like Takara’s hometown of Misaki, and Fuyuki city, it had little heritage behind it. And cities with little heritage to call their own often sought to steal the heritage of others: much of Akitaka City’s architecture subtly emulated other parts of the world, suggesting an almost multinational setting that the city most definitely did not have. Most buildings were of a typically ultramodern glass and metal high-rise template. Local eateries adopted French and Italian names and decorations, even if they were simply serving typical café food. Many houses went for an unappealing off-white, eggshell-colored fake Mediterranean look. Streets would often terminate in a railed ending specifically meant for overlooking the sea, with a crisscrossing zigzag of stairways descending along the steep hill’s face.

Some public spaces attempted to mimic old gardens and rest areas of historic Spain, such as the plaza Takara walked through that morning. Those grounds were the property of Jin-Sei’s campus, only recently sold to them. Named “Jin-Sei” in Roman characters, its name was meant to mean both “life” and “human star” in Japanese, referencing their policy of allowing individual students to live freely while at the same time being singular representatives of the college, “shining” on their own. In order to make Jin-Sei students identifiable while they worked in the city or relaxed in public places, Jin-Sei encouraged, but did not force, a uniform, which was contemporary and visually appealing to the students. Most of them wore the clothes voluntarily, but Takara wore them because she was so new, she wasn’t yet aware that there was no actual rule associated with it. The University had ties to the same number of companies that had proposed the new urban development of Akitaka City, and was a great draw to people wanting to move somewhere modern from the multitude of sparsely populated rural villages in the mountains further inland. Jin-Sei's graduates tended to stay in the city and work to improve it, so there was never any shortage of labor and intelligent minds.

Before the classes had officially opened, she’d walked this way before and noticed an older man with a wide, thatched hat that seemed as tall as he was, carefully tending to the plants and even strategically grown ivy that was allowed to climb over the edges of the central fountain with only a prisoner’s freedom. But today the gardener was someone unfamiliar, and that drew her attention.

He was very tall, to the point that Takara had initially thought he was foreign, and quite well tanned, probably from months of labor without respite from the sun. Though clearly Japanese, he could have easily been Okinawan, though a bit pale in comparison. He wore a loose-fitting tank top and messy black hair that was tied into a ponytail behind his head, seemingly tied with a small chain, like a Buddhist rosary. She could tell because the beads that insinuated themselves within his similarly colored hair were just slightly brown, not unlike her own hair color. His build was strong; his exposed arms defined and fairly muscled in a very familiar way. He wore black pants with a silver wallet chain. Takara also noticed the gold ring set in the lobe of his left ear. Apparently unaware of the two girls across the open space who viewed him from the side, the young man, who couldn’t have been any older than they were, absently watered a thick basin full of azaleas. His face was slightly long, but in profile, seemed crafted like a sculpture in transition. Like a neutral face about to change expressions any moment, emerging from a painstakingly chiseled stone, he carried a small, quiet smile and thin, gentle eyes that contradicted his almost punk-like earring and rough manner of dress. The seemingly black pools of his pupils watched caringly over the long-handled garden sprinkler he held loosely in one wide, strong-looking hand, lost in the reflecting shower of stars that spread itself across the shaking leaves of the azaleas.

Before Takara realized it, she’d been looking at him for a few seconds. Who was he? Even though he looked like a student, he was there, tending to the plants. Perhaps he was a local gardener, or the son of the man who came the day before. He seemed at peace with the world while he watered the plants. The serenity in his sleepy expression provoked a strange twisting in her chest. It knotted its way through her heart and curled up her spine, tensing her back and pulling her arms taut to her sides. It took root in the base of her neck and reached into the far, inactive corners of her brain. The memories flooded back even stronger now.

The young man carried on watering, shifting a bit and scratching with his free hand underneath his ponytail. The black hair spread itself wire-thin over his long fingers.

Takara felt uneasy. She was starting college. She’d barely lived through a series of frightening and dangerous events. She had a sickly father who filled her with worry equal to how much she treasured him. Her days were peaceful enough, when she was occupied; however, her nights and idle moments were fraught with worry. Before, even if she went to bed early, mornings were difficult for her. Now her mornings were difficult not only due to her inherent nature, but from exhaustion. Sleep didn’t seem to satisfy the way it used to.

Even so, there he was, standing in the full light of the sun. The image seemed at once peaceful and silent and yet dynamic. She wanted to have the same kind of peace in her own heart. That was why his quiet happiness irritated her in a way she was silently ashamed of. Within her chest turmoil made itself a home with recurring nightmares and violent fears. That boy probably had nothing to worry about besides what place he felt like eating at, and where to nap in the sun’s diminishing light when it started to fall over the horizon. Of course he didn’t know or care how she felt. He was a stranger, and knew nothing of her troubles. Yet it bothered her.

What a fool then, she was, in his eyes. If he could see through her, he’d understand what she was feeling. Confusing, nebulous emotions somewhere between relief, anger, sadness, fear, and uncertainty; often many at once, and rarely only a single feeling, rose up within her at any time.

Something was unforgivable about the way he relaxed in front of her. But it became worse when the boy turned towards her. Feeling the invisible push of eyes upon him, the gardener, or student, looked directly at Takara with a complete lack of shame or bashfulness, and smiled more widely. The expression narrowed his eyes and filled his face with warmth, but it made her feel terrible. Happy people didn’t realize the damage they inflicted on those who were mourning.

“It’s not fair…”

“…”
Takara didn’t realize it, but her face was slowly shifting into an angry frown

“Don’t smile so carelessly like that at me… I don’t even know you…”

He just kept smiling, with that face that mirrored the sun. Free. Careless. Happy. Takara’s fists clenched. Traces of water welled up in the corner of her shaking eyes as she recalled a person who couldn’t ever smile calmly like that anymore. “He” should have been able to smile like that in the end and be proud of what he’d done, because he was a hero to her. But he’d been robbed even of that, and left her behind. Was he as unsatisfied with the end to their partnership as she was? Did he even truly exist anymore?

“Don’t… You’re not going to let this bother you, right? Something this petty… aren’t you strong? Like your mother and father? You’ve accomplished a lot, haven’t you?! What is there to be upset about?”

But it already had, and she was broken free yet again by her friend’s voice.

“Takara, what’s wrong?”

The young man silently looked away, back to his watering. He took up his long instrument and walked off to another part of the plaza, dragging the green hose like a tamed snake behind him.

“Haeh?.. That guy is kinda…”

Takara, broken free of her reverie, turned to Momoko, who was turning a shade of pink like her namesake. She hadn’t yet looked away from the young man, even as his broad back faced her and the calm smile retreated from Takara’s view. The taller girl's hand still jogged her cheek even as she remained rivited to his image. Suddenly she turned on her taller friend, clasping both fists balled up before her chest with an almost comical sorrowful look.

“Taka, you were watching him weren’t you?”

“I was *not* watching him!”

She felt her face getting hot, and a tinge of embarrassed anger began to enter her voice. Takara spoke loudly, unthinking of whether the gardener could hear her or not.

“He’s a cute one, isn’t he~?” Momoko grinned with a smile wide like a crescent moon. She rarely made a face like that unless she got to eat some sweets.


Averting her eyes, she hadn’t meant to seem embarrassed, but her body language mistranslated her mixed feelings on the outside. She crossed her arms and frowned disapprovingly.

“You know I don’t need to answer that! Come on already. We need to hurry to class. *Some* part of the lecture should be left for us to listen to.”

All of that was too much. To allow something as simple as somebody else’s happiness to disrupt her own mood was terrible, so Takara did her best to put it out of her mind. It wouldn’t do for her to go on that day feeling disconsolate. She had finally achieved a kind of freedom of her own, though she probably would have been content to live amongst her parents longer if she could help it. No matter what had happened in the past, she’d taken hold of the present and her future, so she had no choice but to make it into something happier. Then maybe she too would be able to find peace like that young man. Her long ponytail flowed behind her in the wind like a free-flowing black ribbon as she turned unexpectedly from Momoko and began hurrying in her original direction.

They hurried on, leaving the gardener to give one last sunny grin over his shoulder to their fleeing images. He probably didn’t think anything of it, other than they were “rather cute.” All he needed to worry about was making as much money as possible until the day he could try again. Someday he’d join them.

Kieran
March 20th, 2011, 07:53 AM
Ah, how I've missed this . . . And now it'll be continued! Yay!

MrTags
March 20th, 2011, 08:51 PM
Throws a greatful party with the Dwaggies!

Here Here Cascade! Heeya Heeya Cascade!

Dwaggies have twuble with R's.

Cascade
March 21st, 2011, 12:25 AM
Her day was uneventful. Although rigorous, the school year had just begun, and as freshman, Takara could afford to relax somewhat. She hadn’t yet begun to focus on her intended major in medicine, opting to take more conventional academic classes to acclimate herself to the higher standards of college. Surprisingly, the difficulty of work and comprehensibility of the lectures were hardly an upgrade from HS. Unlike earlier that morning, the coast seemed clear to slack off and dream the rest of her class away. After her sudden unwarranted pulse of negative feeling that earlier, which left lingering traces of regret in its wake, she couldn’t concentrate even if she wanted to.

The professor continued to speak but her words melted into meaningless, distant noise as Takara’s eyes batted. The large monitor before her terraced classroom seating melted into squares and rectangles of washed out colors. Heavy eyelids blinked once, then twice in quick succession, but they were heavier after each time. Students around her seemed to move further and further away, even Momoko; though they stayed seated, the faint impression of their closeness dissipated as she became more distant from the waking world. It was like the long desk she leaned on stretched itself like taffy as the room expanded, leaving Takara with infinite space and no interruptions to disturb her.

Takara’s father had been born to a family of assassins. He evaded his fate as a natural born killer, ironically, by his adoption into the family who slaughtered his kin, but escape was only temporary. A dangerous force took root within him that Takara hadn’t understood when it had been explained a long time ago, but his identity was in danger of being taken from him. When the “killer” persona awakened within her too, during those days of violence in high school, she had realized what Shiki struggled with for years.

But fortunately for him, he found Ciel. It seemed they were two people destined for a life of violence. When the Grail War started and Takara became involved with Avenger, it seemed as though they would never be truly free. However, it seemed even the darkest storm clouds would part eventually.

And now Shiki was free to be a simple painter; so much a living, thriving person that he created his own identity and lived more strongly through his daughter, who possessed a health and vigor that enlivened even his weak shell. Ciel had come to understand the joy of teaching others and was able to do more than simply survive or endure, but finally live. She had even (mostly) reconciled her long feud with the blonde-haired True Ancestor princess. When Takara thought about her mother and father’s state since she had been born, and now, when they had reluctantly granted her the freedom to leave them and go to college far from Fuyuki, she understood.

For one important loss, there were many gains. New life, and a brighter future evoked a certain kind of warmth in her chest. It was faint and Takara couldn’t always feel it, but it was definitely there. Through the night she faced dreams of undead Servants that had ceased to exist, of a mother used as the vessel for an unholy “holy” ritual, of a young man who fashioned himself as an avenger, and became a victim of another’s revenge in turn, and of a fond memory, ragged, sometimes confident, sometimes regretful, moving into the shadows of the past. Those unsightly galleries that confronted her would only last as long as the hours she slept. Takara felt confident she had the strength to endure, if only doubting occasionally how long it would last.

More than anyone, save her own father, she understood the cursory nature of all things. So she knew that the feeling of lack left behind by her high school War would someday dull and fade.

The professor gestured wildly at the projector, clearly trying to energize her class. It was effective, but Takara had long since departed. Remembering those truths brought the faintest smile to her lips.

It was then that she thought of the gardener she’d met earlier that morning.

“If I see him again, I’ll probably get angry just like I did last time. The sight of his face… frustrated me. But it wasn’t something he could help. I’m the one entirely at fault.”

As she ruminated over her impetuous feelings, she came to the convenient conclusion. He couldn’t help that he had appeared at the wrong place and the wrong time, in the same way that she couldn’t help feeling unhappy seeing him. She didn’t want to think she could hate someone for a reason so irrational. If he was someone who just inherently repelled her, she could always avoid him in the future, but if he was a good natured, undeserving person, she couldn’t go without “reconciling” herself with him, like some non-existent feud had occurred. It was the natural order of her emotions and mindset, especially after the war; she was the kind of person who wanted to resolve situations by her own hand. Additionally, she was just sensitive enough to feel bad even if she only thought unwarranted, negative things, not say them aloud.

But it was strange. Normally she wouldn’t be drawn to any person in particular, but the feeling of inherent dislike for the boy seemed almost familiar.

“…It couldn’t be.”

It couldn’t. She’d suppressed the part of her. The family name she’d taken upon herself was Aozaki. There was no need for the instincts of a sublime killer inside her mind anymore. So it wasn’t a Nanaya-driven killing impulse. Takara dashed the thought from her head as if even considering it for a moment would open a gateway to someplace left far behind. She had become a normal college student who got up late and attended lessons, sampled the local eateries and suffered the occasional nightmare. That heritage might have preserved her life but it would be nothing but a barrier to her happiness.

Over the days after the war, the impulse came back in progressively more faint relapses. The voice of her murderous blood grew more and more faint with each passing week, but it kept coming back, as if to remind her it was there. Takara had an innate understanding of self-defense and martial combat, so even without the “other Takara,” she believed she was ready to defend herself without needing to choose the fatal option.

That’s why she’d settled upon medical education. She didn’t have any particular desire to become a doctor, or a nurse. There were no powerful aspirations regarding her future career. It was just that Takara felt preserving life was more important to her than taking it. Somehow, she wanted to reaffirm that sentiment, strengthen it. If she found happiness with a man later in life and chose to marry him, the skills she learned studying medicine wouldn’t go to waste. As a responsible daughter, she would be able to better tend to her father who, if everything went, well would be living a peaceful septuagenarian life. That projection for the future assumed all her dreams were fulfilled, but she had earned, Takara felt, a right to hope for the best possible future. Nanaya was just the family that made Shiki Nanaya’s existence possible, and the connection between him and his daughter and their dead ancestors had long since been severed.

“My father is more of an Aozaki than anything else, just like my mother… Just like me.”

It was a shame, for at least at that moment she had already forgotten the basic rule of unusual people who lived in secrecy amongst normal humans. “Those with supernatural powers tend to attract the supernatural.”



She’d finally managed to close her eyes. Takara was well on her way to becoming an irresponsible student; she’d have to correct that in the remainder of the month. It certainly wasn’t far from how

“Hey~! We’re free now, Takara.”

Takara blinked groggily.

“… Huh? Didn’t the lecture just start?” She intoned, in a voice that was half yawn.

Momoko circled around her seated friend energetically to the side facing the door to the lecture hall.

“Takara, you sleepy-head. If you’re going to rest, why not go back to the dorm?” She winked and smiled. “I’ll go with you. Maybe we should stop at the bakery first though…”

Takara sighed at the near-drooling look of hunger on the girl’s face. “Well, if you want to stuff yourself full of cake again, that’s wonderful, but please don’t eat it every time you walk home from class. Don’t you have to worry about your spending money?”

Momoko waved it off, but a strange thing happened. Her face became deadly serious and her usually absent-minded tone became like that of a finicky perfectionist.

“Naw, not at all~! I carefully rationed out all my money for this month. As long as I eat at the dormitory or cook my own food, I should be within my budget for August through September. If I jog every weekend, I won’t have to worry about gaining weight either~.”

Takara blinked at her sudden change in persona.

“Wow, when it comes to sweets, Momoko is really serious about time and money management… I didn’t know she had it in her…”

Quickly returning to the previous tired look, she rest her chin on her arm, looking lazily upwards through tired, half closed eyelids. “I hope you included brushing your teeth constantly in that schedule of yours. And other things, like, you know… classes.”

Momoko giggled jovially, but it was altogether different than her normal laugh. “Huhu, but you can’t say much about classes now, can you? Sleeping through lectures and all…”

“Be quiet.” Takara muttered a bit sadly as she rose from her chair, taking her time.

“Don’t hate me~. Now come on, let’s go back, okay?”

It seemed every day she was being dragged about by that energetic girl who never experienced a single drowsy moment. At a more comfortable pace than that morning, the two exchanged fun and meaningless talk all the way out of Jin-Sei’s large, cube-shaped northern lecture and assembly building.


They had to switch buildings for the mid-day lectures, but overall Takara and Momoko hadn’t strayed too far from the sparse grouping of campus buildings at the top of the northern hilly area of town. Thus, they would be taking the same route back as they had that morning, through the plaza, towards downtown. Of course, the journey would tax the two of them much less. No need to run full speed up a steep incline, nor accusatory looks from the professor waiting to greet them back at their dormitory.

From the wide street, through a mess of electric power lines, Takara could see the many streetlights awaken to the 5:00 hour, like a trail of circular floating lanterns suspended amongst a sea of square ones. The sky had painted itself in brilliant, pastel tones of fuchsia and orange, clouds stretching across the sky like heavenly banners in the midst of unfurling unfathomable lengths of soft cotton. A contrail traversed those clouds and brought immediately to mind laundry fluttering in the wind on a clothesline. In the light evening wind, Takara felt her heart stop for a moment as she walked beside Momoko, her friend reciting an exhausting list.

“…Walnut Potica, Strawberry Short Cake, Tiramisu…”

Although beautiful, it made Takara experience the first tinge of homesickness she’d felt since leaving Fuyuki. She didn’t want to return per se. It was more of a desire to bring her home to where she was: She wanted to bring father and mother with her. Takara wanted to share the sky’s scenery, something that Shiki would have been very interested in painting himself had he seen it. If they were there, they could watch over her and make certain she got to classes on time, and always had something to eat… It wouldn’t do for them to pamper her any longer, but Takara couldn’t help but imagine. She barely realized it seemed as if all the negative emotions that had been in her heart had blown away, past the Mediterranean imitation buildings and into the invisible, painted air above them.

Maybe it was a beauty that covered normally unseen things with colors the eye could perceive. It had just been that the whole time, even with her “gift,” there were things even Takara couldn’t see, until the sunset came and the finished masterpiece unveiled itself before her. The right conditions converged upon the scenery like an alignment of celestial bodies, a one-in-a-million moment. Something was special about this day.

“Ah…”

Before she knew it, she had arrived at the plaza again with Momoko. And she hadn’t even expected it, but there he was. Perhaps Momoko didn’t see him, but the boy gardener had made a second appearance. This time, he was sitting facing away from them on the edge of the fountain in the square’s center, watching the same thing Takara had been, completely mesmerized. In the evening shadows he seemed to meld into the scenery naturally, and the statuesque looks he’d shown earlier that day were even more pronounced now that he was deathly still.

Momoko gave Takara an apologetic look.

“Sorry Takara… I realized that there are a lot of things I need to try, and so it might be boring for you. I’ll go on ahead and bring some back to the dorm, so don’t fall asleep before I’m back at the room again, got it?”

The fierce eyes seemed to suggest she had felt the transmission of a critical assignment seep through her optimism-wrapped skull. It was a mission she absolutely had to accomplish. Momoko was a callous, highly trained warrior who’d set aside even her friend to achieve her objective!

Takara seemed happier, but why did she choose to leave at that moment? She could have told her she was planning on eating alone earlier on their way down.

“Haha, no, it’s really all right Momoko. I’ll see you later tonight. For now I think I’ll… walk around a bit.”

Momoko blinked. She didn’t know what transpired in her friend’s head, but it made her feel better to see Takara smile so openly, and it felt right to leave her to herself at that moment.

“All right. Stay on the street we walked on, okay? Don’t get lost~.”

“You’re talking about me, not yourself, right Momoko?”

As the two parted, they waved to each other over a few temporary goodbyes, and Takara’s attention once again shifted to the young man on the fountain’s edge.

In the evening light, the carvings on the side of the fountain’s concentric circles were largely obscured by shadow. Pictures of people in a festival carried on throughout the night even with no sun to guide their procession; it was another Italian or Spanish inspired piece.

The expression he wore was exactly the same as earlier that morning. Same simple smile, same relaxed posture, same atmosphere of dynamism. But this time, he knew she was there from the very beginning.



Takara felt herself timidly approaching him, step by step. She’d shot him a look anyone would have known was hostile. What would she say? Did he pick up on her emotions at that moment? Probably all of them were hers alone, but the displacement of that feeling did wonders for her sense of sympathy; or perhaps sympathy and imprinting one’s own feelings on a similar-looking thing were the same.

As she inched across the plaza, more of his face came into view. Suddenly, he turned, and the calm smile broke into one wider and more boisterous. Takara almost jumped in her place when the young man opened his mouth to speak, rising from his spot in a way that almost made him look startled.

“So, you finally came back! What took you so long?”

His voice was abrupt, loud and crude. The manner in which he strung words together dragged in such a way that Takara couldn’t initially tell where he was from. But something about him screamed “country.” If she was landed nobility from a small city, this boy was a peasant from the rice paddies.

“E-Eh?!”

Takara blinked, taken aback; she hardly could resist the instinct to double take. The young man’s nebulous smile and surrounding cloud of calm were almost entirely gone. In its place was… another Momoko!?

No, he was different. His excitement was strange, as if he’d already met her and befriended her long ago. But she knew she’d never met this boy before. So then…

Unlike Takara’s self-conscious inching forward, the boy walked towards her with pure confidence, or arrogance, and swaggered over with terrible posture and long steps that seemed like they could circumnavigate the globe. As he approached, she felt the unsightly emotions return, but far from subtle, they were a strong impulse of irritation directed at the careless man’s sudden startling of her.

“Hahaha! I’ve been waiting. I was starting to think you’d never come back.”

His toothy grin shined even in the dim orange light as the breeze dived through and out of his fluttering, loose-fitting tank top. With a few feet between them, their figures were silhouettes in the blazing sunset.

Takara stepped back defensively. She clutched her hands, balled up, and her book bag to her chest. Who did he think he was, acting so familiar all of a sudden? It wasn’t as if he knew her! His boisterous laughter hurt her ears and made her want to quiet him down quickly. All of her instincts of discomfort with boys and shyness put her into a state of fight or flight.

“…What are you talking about? I’m sorry, but I don’t remember you, or your name.”

The young man’s smile disappeared, and he cast her an expression of exaggerated disappointment. He was close enough now that the difference in their height was brought out in the most spectacular of ways. Takara was always confident in how tall she was, though she wished she had been shorter for a long time, but this boy made her look like a diminutive Japanese doll. He bent at the waist a bit, bowing forward to better match her height, hands on hips.

“Tch, you don’t? That’s terrible. I thought we were just a biiit closer than that! And after all we’ve been through together, you still can’t recall even my name?”

He raised his gaze to the sky above and sighed in a façade of dejection.

“You were right, Gramps! We’re this close…”

Kira folded his hands together in a gesture that could only symbolize physical intimacy.

“…But she doesn’t even remember my name?! Women are so cruel! What am I going to do?” The clasped hands shifted together into feigned prayer. “Please, give me guidance to help me resist these earthly desires!”

“W-w-what?”

A startled Takara fumbled with her hands, dropping her book bag and stepping back even further. She had a flushed, angry face that seemed to heat up the air between them to a boil.

“Who are you? Just what are you trying to insinuate?”

Much of the beautiful panorama of the sky had been blocked by his laughing, smiling face and broad shoulders. His narrow eyes regained just a bit of that mysteriousness when he spoke again with hands resting casually on his hips. He turned a bit and gave her a slanted, sidelong glance.

“I’m Kaede Kira. It’s a pretty terrible name, I think. So just call me Kira. No –kun, no –san, definitely no –chan. Maybe –dono is okay. But we can do away with the formalities, right?”

He rose to his full height again and pressed one open palm to his wide chest.

“Haha, but man, I thought it would be fun to tease you a little! Now I just feel guilty. Sorry. I know you’re a stranger to me, but we met this morning, and how can I say it… had a moment? You know~, when our eyes met and all.”

“’Tease me a little?’ ‘When our eyes met?’”

Takara hesitantly answered back, as if she was unsure of when his pressuring voice would box her rancorously around her ears again. There was definitely a hint of cool fury at the presumptuous man-child’s flippant attitude and insistence on abruptly and baselessly adopting a level of formality normally reserved for the most intimate of friends, and lovers… Takara thanked whatever God existed in the world that Momoko hadn’t been around to hear even his booming voice, but feared such prayers would be premature.

“Yup. You got that right, Takara.”

Just as he said, Kira omitted the honorific, “tomatofying” her even more. Of course, he insisted on a rakish wink right at that moment that made her mind combust. Tremors traveled up and down Takara’s irate form.

“Hii!”

A startled, uncharacteristically high-pitched squeak broke free from her throat, as Takara fumed with scarlet shame and anger. This man was deliberately trying to provoke an unfortunate misunderstanding amongst all those who might have been watching the scene unnoticed.

“I never agreed to that!!! Listen to me-”

Disregarding her words entirely, the boy named Kira made a silly gesture, “saluting” Takara with two fingers. He then brought his hand down, extending it to her in a gesture that she almost didn’t immediately recognize, but quickly drew it back.

“Anyways, it’s nice to meet ya. Oops, wait. This is the city so…”

He dipped his head forcefully down, almost striking Takara squarely upon her own cranium like a falling hammer. She barely avoided having to stumble backwards to prevent a mutual headache.

“PLEASED-TO-MAKE-YOUR-ACCQUAINTANCE.” He robotically croaked out.
(KON BAN WA. O RE WA KA E DE KI RA. DO ZO YO RO SHI KU.)

The way he said it awkwardly didn’t make it obvious as to whether Kira thought people in cities talked that way for real, or he was simply parodying them. His presence was positively exhausting, like a huge dynamo of power that simply drained everything in its vicinity to spark with the force of a thousand superchargers.

Takara was incensed. At first his careless attitude had set her off in an irrational way that made her feel guilty. Now all that guilt had been squashed in a pile of offended vexation. He looked like an urban gangster, or a delinquent, but his attitude was carefree, almost childish, and exceedingly crass. Everything about him was a rough edge that scraped Takara abrasively. She had more than enough legitimate reasons to dislike him in only the first couple of words the two had exchanged together. It was time to take control of the conversation, if one could even call it anything but being talked at, rather than with.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance… I am Aozaki Takara.”

Takara cautiously bowed, visibly lower and less respectfully than she was used to doing, but still with a classical level of grace that provoked an amused, ostensibly impressed, gasp from Kira. Paying attention to decorum in the presence of that man clearly had no effect on him other than putting him in a humorous mood.

“But more importantly, I don’t understand at all why you’d come up to me all of a sudden, teasing me and asking that we be on a… first name basis… First of all, I don’t know you that well. W-we’ve only met this morning, and…”

Kira watched, grinning wildly the whole time; his expression was distracting her and making it hard to speak clearly and without anger. Takara unleashed a few pent up words of her own.

“Y-you’re incredibly rude! And on top of that, presumptuous! There are limits to this kind of ‘friendliness.’ Certain mores have to be followed in order for… y-you and I to talk that… personally. And moreover, it’s discourteous to talk about someone in the third person while they’re present! You ran right over what I said without any regards for my feelings…”

Just then, she felt a chill. Hadn’t that been her mother’s scolding voice?

“After all, we’re total strangers. Stop acting overly familiar with me…”

Apparently she’d turned up the volume more than she’d immediately realized, for Kira backed off a step, like some lion who mistook Takara for a bigger creature just because she had flared up and raised her voice. His posture became visibly more “cautious” and his impossible delight disappeared. Maybe he’d come to regard her as a true threat.

“Hey!” He barked, bearing his lower teeth with the force of his exclamation.

“Don’t act like I ‘don’t know you’; you stared at me weirdly this morning for almost two full minutes! I think I have a right to talk with you if I want, right? Or are you a pervert, or some kind of fujoshi? If you wanted to draw me in your dirty comics, the answer is no!”

He widened his eyes and for a moment his voice rose a bit in pitch as if cracking. It seemed like he was quite afraid of that last possibility.

“What did you say? Of all the ridiculous… Y-you…”

Takara looked furiously about as her mind sifted hurriedly through any suitable insult she could sling at him.

“… You… You jerk! I’ve never met someone so insulting in my life!”

What *Japanese* man would at one moment insinuate an indecent relationship and then at the next moment verbally attack a girl so bluntly without any warning whatsoever?

“You’re the one who gave me that irritating smile, so don’t act like you’re completely free of guilt!”

“You got a problem with me smiling? Huh!?”

“Yeah, and it’s my business! What are you butting in for?”

“’Butting in?’ Shit, you couldn’t ask for a more friendly guy! If you think I won’t hit a girl, then…” He trailed off. Maybe he was about to say “Then you’re right! But I’ll still yell at you!”

Takara almost smiled. It was a rather frightening expression that made Kira hesitate for a minute. “You think I won’t hit you back?” She felt the stored force of a punch building up behind her tightening fist. That she was able to hold back enough to not lay him out was an amazing sign of her mental control.

“No. I’ve got to think calmly. I’ll just walk away. It’s not ladylike to fist fight even if he deserves it.”

Takara whipped around in a tight circle and prepared to stomp off. But before she went, she gave him one last parting shot. She sucked in a deep gulp of air, like a child about to threaten to hold her breath. Takara balled up her hands in anger and pushed them towards the ground, raising her shoulders in agitation.

“Of all the people I’ve met in this city so far, you’re without question the worst, you… Idiot! Delinquent! Jerk!... Gorilla!” Takara exploded in a spectacular geyser of immature rage. Her voice echoed around the plaza and its surrounding buildings.

“G-Gorilla!? Am I all of those things or do I have to pick and choose? Make up your mind!”

Forcing himself to calm down, in a relative sense, Kira raised an eyebrow as he crossed his long arms before his chest in anger.

“I was trying to cheer you up. After all, you’re so… damn… gloomy looking. Since you had to go and walk in my way, what else was there for me to do?”

Takara blinked, her upcoming barrage of verbal barbs stalled by his words. Certainly, she’d seemed far off and unenergetic that morning, but Kira had no reason to get involved. He hadn’t even looked at her until he noticed their stares.

“Did I really seem that upset to even this stranger?”

She drew her half-closed right hand to her chest, and the angry blush in her face subsided, cooling to reveal the same worried look she’d worn before their altercation. Takara glanced down at her hand. She hadn’t realized it, but it had been trembling for a long time. It even felt slightly numb.

“I must have made Momoko feel so afraid for me. Drifting out of the conversation and looking dark… I’m so sorry…”

Kira closed one eye and watched he through the other, continuing more calmly, but still visibly agitated. “What? Do I need a reason too?”

“… I… looked depressed?”

What an obvious question. Takara hadn’t realized it even when Momoko called her name so many times because she had been in her own world. But she became aware that her dreamlike state when reminiscing about the war, or becoming lost in her negative memories, provided her friend with inordinate supplies of worry.

“…How did you know?” She said, more seriously and with far less vulnerability than that brief lapse in her defenses.

Shocked by her sudden mood swing and apparently still itching for a fight, the guarded boy scratched his head uncomfortably and looked away.

“Ah, yeah… you did look pretty upset. Well…” He held his chin, still watching something far off rather than her concerned face. “It wasn’t like I saw anything that made me feel that way. I just sort of… well, where I come from, it’s kind of natural to help others out when you think they’re sad. If you can’t do anything else just act as a footstool for them a little while… to make them feel ‘big’ again.”

“’Make them feel… big.’”

He smiled, nearly winking with both eyes, and leaned in towards her again cheerfully. “How was it? You felt strong for a moment there, huh? Then I think I was successful.”

Was that all it had been all along?

For what seemed like hours, the two of them sat on the edge of the fountain, saying little. The bright inferno of the sky above slowly faded into a faint glow like hot embers lay beyond the sea and the horizon. They both watched the last remnants of the sun retire for that day, before its pale brother relieved it of its duties.

It was no surprise that Kira was the first to break their silence once more.

“Takara…” Remembering her outburst earlier, and catching an angry glare from the girl, he quickly added a “-chan” to the end.

Not horrible, but it still was more than irritating enough. Something about that boy was just annoying to her, and she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Could you shake hands with me for a sec?”

He offered his wide palm again to her, as he had attempted to earlier.

Takara shifted her gaze through skeptical eyes towards him, tucking her folded arms closer together, visibly appearing to refuse. But it was because the air had grown chilly.

Kira sighed. “I’m not trying to get ‘intimate’ with you or anything.”

Apparently that hadn’t been Takara’s thought, as she grew even more distant and scooted a bit away on the stone surface. Her blue eyes regarded the man sitting next to her as an enemy.

“Hey, I just want to check something. Give me your hand already!” Kira grumbled, getting more frustrated.

With some hesitation, Takara did extend one open hand to him, but he took hold of it suddenly and strongly, like a slap, enough to make her cry out with surprise. She stared daggers into Kira, but he was seemingly focused on their joining grip.

The first thing Takara noticed was his incredible warmth. Her father’s hand had been often chilly, or only barely heated, reminding her of how faint his life was. Her mother’s hands were warm, but never remarkably so. But Kira’s hand was so hot it nearly burnt her. Yet it felt natural somehow. The fiery nature of his temper and powerful energy in his gestures and words would have only been suited by a strong force of life. She could feel his pulse just behind the callused skin. His palm was rough, like hers, and his grip was tight, but just barely loose enough that it didn’t hurt. It was a somewhat unattractive quality that she’d wanted to hide for a long time. A boy who held her hand would certainly realize she had tomboy hobbies like kendo. Takara expected someone as blunt as Kira to immediately point this out to her, but his following words were totally unexpected.

There was a moment of silence as their clasped hands bridged the gap between them. Takara shifted her fingers uncomfortably, but still he held on.

"...Please let go."

"Ah, yeah." He muttered, half consciously. The sound was that of a person having only just awoken from a dream. Even though his words affirmed her, Kira still didn't set her free.

“You didn’t eat dinner huh? It’s a pretty big slice of my paycheck, but I’ll treat you.”

Takara drew her hand back from his suddenly, growing pink around the cheeks.

“N-no, I’m really fine! I’m sorry for getting angry at you before… you don’t have to apologize in that way.” Although she seemed to be apologizing herself, the tone of voice still contained traces of defiance, like she didn’t want to be a party to his charity.

“Then, in that case, you can pay.” Kira chuckled and turned back to her, rising from his spot. “Come on, let’s go. You feel like you’re lacking a bit in energy, so I figured you hadn’t had any food in a while.”

He was right after all. Takara had avoided lunch, but it was partially his fault.

She smiled with an edge of sarcasm.
“You’ve got to be kidding. I’m not going with you.”

“No way!”

Rising from her spot, she retrieved her book bag and brushed her hair over her shoulder.

“It was nice meeting you, Kira, but I have to be going home.”

There was a sudden silence. She could feel his eyes upon her, boring through her; that shaded, half calm, half hungry pair of eyes. It seemed their conversation had ended there and then, so the first-year college student turned her back on the rude gardener and began to walk home.

As she began to exit the plaza, she heard the rushing of water and a familiar sound of falling droplets spreading themselves across leaves and soil.

“Take care on your way home, Takara. See you some other time.”

"... You're a strange guy. I'll be fine."

She let out a quiet “Hmph!” when she was far enough away from the sound.

“If all things go well, there won’t be a next time.”



The walk back was far enough that at a leisurely pace, it would take her another hour to arrive. Checking her rather unadorned cell phone, the dim blue light informed her that she had spent an hour fighting with Kira and sitting next to him, watching the sunset. She still had an hour before she reached her home. Somehow, the entire event hadn’t seemed totally repulsive, and the negative emotion that had settled in her chest was largely gone. She still found him irritating beyond belief, but she didn’t loathe him and his smile the same way she had that morning.

Takara hated to admit it, but that cathartic, infantile series of insults and angry posturing had its therapeutic effects. Kira had been entirely successful in his professed objective of making her feel stronger, at least for the moment. It almost felt as if Momoko had arranged for her to meet that strange rival at the plaza as an arena where she could regain her lost fire, just as planned. It didn’t take long for Takara to write that possibility off as unlikely however.

She reached the downtown shop row, remembering that this was the area Momoko had advised her to walk through on her way home. Although most stores remained open even relatively late, some were darkening, and she could see employees wiping down the windows and front doors to an invisible level of clean. The entire area was a wonderful sight for a girl interested in shopping, and although not impressing Takara, with her simple tastes, as much as most, she could still appreciate that it was clean and that the small groups of people, mostly older men and women, appeared to have money and feel comfortable walking around from store to store.

Passing by the front of a glass door, a French-inspired sweet shop’s sign rose up in her view. The place Momoko mentioned was already closed at 7:00. Staring into the glass, she could see the darkened interior of the cozy little place, and for a moment wished she could taste the chocolate items amongst the selection there. She’d missed out. But it was embarrassing for a proper girl to eat so much chocolate, even with Momoko to compare with in public. Takara decided to wait for a time when the store wasn’t crowded, as it was likely not before closing, in the future when she could indulge her tastes freely.

Her eyes moved to the glass display case. Several cakes, short and stubby cylinders, and objects covered in white paper or cloth to protect them in the display. She had no doubt some of them were just plastic mockups, but they still looked incredibly delicious. Takara’s stomach rumbled in agreement.

“…Maybe I should have taken him up on his offer after all… free meals are hard to come by.” She muttered under her breath.

It was then that she saw an unusual shape amongst the cakes and pastries. It was wide, like a hat, and very faint, but dark, almost blue. The base was narrower by a small but noticeable margin, and Takara wondered how it retained its shape. She couldn’t imagine any sort of sweet bread or cake with that kind of food coloring being very tasty, but perhaps it was simply her hunger that made her wish she could eat even one slice. However, she noticed the edge of the shape overlapped both the cake closer to her, and the one further behind it. That was certainly odd. Takara looked further down.

It had not been inside the shop at all, and was definitely not edible. What she had been looking at was the strange, wide hat of a man in the reflection of the glass. The thought that she’d mistaken a hat of all things for a cake, or a hat-like cake, was almost comical, until she considered where he was looking.

The man, wearing strange and unfamiliar robes, was watching her from across the street. She could not see his face, for it was obscured by shadow, but he was definitely watching her, and waiting.

Cascade
March 27th, 2011, 12:47 AM
There was no question as to whom the mysterious man was watching. Or rather, there was no one else near enough to Takara to watch. He stood perfectly still; through the murky reflection she could not make out the details of his face from under the shadows and the wide hat, but his manner of dress was conspicuous. Why hadn’t the other shoppers walking ignorantly by noticed him, or at least given him a suspicious glance?

Her first instinct was to move away quickly and attempt to lose him down the street, amongst the store crowds. Takara drew a deep gulp of air to sedate her active nerves.

“No. Maybe he hasn’t realized I’ve noticed him yet.”

Considering her life up until that point, Takara was disturbed to realize she had almost considered the idea of the man being a stalker or mugger quaint. If he had been nothing but a pervert or just some a thug, she wouldn’t have been out of place calling for help like a normal girl. She wouldn’t have to use the phantom training she’d tried so hard to bury after the shattering of her normal school life.

But, she knew it had been naïve to think that she’d ever fully escape. Takara knew well enough that the watcher was not a normal human, not something that could be reasoned with or frightened off. Something about his stillness cut a deep gorge between humanity and the shape of a human being.

“…I have to find someplace far away from these people.”

Takara began to slowly walk away from the storefront, continuing to watch the reflection as if still entranced by the sight of the delicious sweets. The robed man didn’t respond initially. There was a fleeting, cooling flash of relief within her as he continued to face immobile in the direction of the shop.

That feeling passed as the figure began to take short, shuffling steps in the same direction as Takara. It was a sickening sight. Before he had been still as brackish water, but with every step he seemed to shudder uncomfortably, as if too stiff to move without considerable effort. Yet his steps had no impression of weight, as if he was sliding along the sidewalk with no resistance. Shadowing her from across the street, totally unnoticed and unsuspected by all around him, the figure began his pursuit.

Takara maintained her calm, but the reflective storefronts soon disappeared, replaced by scenery of lit interiors and the faces of smiling customers, ignorant of the interloper stalking so near them. The silhouette of Takara’s pursuer disappeared in the light as she felt her stomach knot up and her shoulders tense. Eyes darted about for some manner of mirror to watch behind her, but she knew she couldn’t turn her head to stare back at him.
No matter what, she had to keep walking. Even if the pressure of his presence crushed her, or she could feel his breath wash the back of her neck in hot air, she had to keep walking.

“I’m… being hunted. So then-”

Turning her head just enough to inconspicuously gaze in the direction of shops on the other side of the street, Takara’s blue eye peered out from behind the curtain of wispy chestnut hair, back towards the spot on the other side of the street where he’d been following earlier.

He wasn’t there. There was nothing but black ties and casual dresses milling about, walking home. Even those were slowly becoming rarities. Soon it would be a long walk with just the two of them to keep each other company.

Takara knew he hadn’t given up yet. By that time, he’d followed her three blocks already. But there was only one other place he could be.

“Don’t turn around.”

Takara continued to move stiffly onward as directly behind her, the robed figure drew closer, patient as the flow of time, unfaltering as her own shadow.

“Don’t show fear.”

As she continued the walk towards her apartment, Takara dove frantically into the disordered files of her mind. If he was only a typical criminal with a flair for dramatic dress, she would have little to worry about, but at the same time, it would be impossible to simply use her power. But in her heart she knew that he was far from ordinary. If that was the case, then he was stalking her for reasons related to the “other world” she had been born into. It was not her identity as a college student by the name of Takara Aozaki that was being stalked, but the mirror image of that girl that walked alongside her in a separate realm of shadows, magi and undying monsters.

“My chance for experiencing a normal life… It didn’t last that long did it?”

It was almost enough to make her cry, or laugh bitterly. Perhaps her hopes had been too strong. Within the realm of day, Takara was unremarkable, even underwhelming, but in realm of night, she had been a “genius” even from birth. What did he track her for? Was it for the magic potential her mother had “gifted” her with? Or was it her Death Perception? It was brutally convenient to write it off as pure misfortune, but life was not so merciful, and disappointment in its verdict was pointless. Only the present mattered, and all of it portents. That sick feeling in the pit of her stomach was all too familiar.

Whatever the reason, she couldn’t return to the dorm. If a threat was roaming the streets, Takara would face it alone. After the Sixth War, she didn’t feel so weak as to be afraid of one enemy. Or perhaps she simply wanted to find a secluded arena where the two of them could kill each other, without interferences. Takara weighed that thought as the enigmatic follower shuffled ever closer.



Eight blocks, nine blocks, ten blocks: Takara continued the silent game of Follow the Leader. The languid chase continued for hours, as she’d correctly deducted that as long as she stayed “unaware” of his presence, he wouldn’t attack. Somehow other pedestrians did not notice the hat-man; it was too much of a threat to leave the main street, or hide someplace else, but impossible to fight completely in public as well. So long as she kept calm and moved away from him, he couldn’t touch her. Perhaps whatever charm or spell kept him unnoticed would be dispelled if he did.

She walked so far her heels began to hurt, and the number of blocks she’d traveled had faded from her mind, but still she continued, and slowly, his presence was fading away. Never turning back, no evidence of it presented itself to her, but at the same time, she was certain he continued the hunt, seizing her within cold eyes, imprisoning her. The number of pedestrians slowly thinned, and young people staying out late at night began to gradually take dominance over the street. Takara slowly, almost unconsciously, had been moving away from the popular shopping district into the club and entertainment district she knew little about. The turn she would have normally taken back to the dorm was far behind her. Momoko was safe for certain, at least from him, for now.

Bright street lamps and well-lit shops were gradually replaced by moody, curtained facades and windowless doors marked with small neon lights. Shapes and patterns played in the night like performing, glowing eels that folded in on each other and themselves in a humming, electric mime act. Yet her sidewalk grew lonelier still, as the duller yellow squares of light lining the buildings higher up began to flicker out.

It was then that she could hear it.

The shuffling of a dragging foot, scratching the pavement.

It was less of a footstep and more of a brushing sound, like a coarse rag drawn across a smooth slat of wood. The sound traveled along the concrete surface and crawled up her legs, up her back, encircling her neck, diving into her ears. That body didn’t walk towards her forcefully like any normal human being; it pulled itself, as if the motion was not provoked by muscle and tendon and nerve impulse but Takara’s hurried steps themselves. She dragged him through the street, as if he was attached to her by invisible strings. The fewer people there were to interfere, the closer the murderous presence drew to her back.

A darkened glass window lined the building’s front up ahead. A muffled heartbeat of music and conversation emitted from within. The desire to verify his presence was suffocating. She needed to look. First her reflection appeared and Takara caught a glimpse of a pale girl with a long, trailing ponytail. The cold expression on her face was nevertheless more fearful than any she had seen that familiar girl make in recent memory. Somehow, the gap between herself and that girl felt further than just two feet.

Takara’s reflection walked quickly across the club’s tinted black window. Immediately after her the twitching robed shape followed.

Her shutting lips stifled a gasp. He couldn’t have been more than ten feet behind her. How long had he followed at that distance? How long had it taken him to draw so close? He’d been subtle; so quiet that Takara wondered if he hadn’t run away. The man was near enough that if he stepped forward violently, his stiff, long-sleeved arms could set upon Takara’s shoulders, easily twisting her neck like a soaked rag in an act of dispassionate murder, or something worse. Her loosely opened hands clasped shut, tensing into stone-like clubs, and she unconsciously dug her fingers in nearly hard enough to draw blood.

“…Enough of this. I have to escape him!”

At that thought, her body fell forward. As if collapsing, she silently descended, trailers of ebony flowing behind her. The shuffling stopped with a sharp scratching sound. Takara broke into a low, frantic run.

The world ahead of her shook as if in seizure with every stride as Takara fled her pursuer. When she ran in a normal state of mind, her posture was graceful; every step smooth and evenly spaced. Now she was almost falling forward, moving every inch of her body as far away from the robes as possible. Cold air brushed along her cheeks and rippled through her ponytail, and she could only pray that he hadn’t gotten close enough as she unexpectedly broke away to grasp it, pull her back. Takara couldn’t hear her foe’s footsteps, so there were small miracles in the world after all. Now she had the freedom to look back.

She hadn’t heard his footsteps, because the figure wasn’t running after her at all. Takara looked upwards to the walls of the buildings on her left and saw a hideous, spider-like image chasing after her. The hat-wearing man had adhered himself to the wall, and was scrambling after her in awkward lunges, much faster than he would have had he continued to slide along the pavement in pursuit. Like a ball of unfolding fabric in the air, his actual shape was difficult to make out, but Takara soon realized that the hat-man’s head was inverted; the crown of his skull was gliding over the surface of the windows and drainage pipes along the building’s face, while his chest jutted outward, arms moving independently of each other in a grotesque crabwalk. And within his rippling sleeves she saw an unmistakable flash of reflected light, one that she herself was more than intimate with. Before she had been unable to make out his face, but the violent tremors of the man’s sickening movement made it all but impossible by then.

She increased her pace. Lights of every color seemed to streak past her in smudged ribbons of fluorescence; the street in comparison darkened and all sounds seemed to disappear. Her book bag swung against her like a club, and she considered dropping it, though it was no significant encumbrance, at least for the moment. As the streetlights faded and Takara began to enter unfamiliar territory, nothing accompanied her but her burning breaths, the throbbing of her heartbeat, and the faint sound of clicking. Something hard and sharp kept pushing itself into concrete surfaces, again and again, and the flapping of heavy fabric threatened to obscure its clattering. No matter how fast she fled, her stamina would eventually run out, and he would be upon her in seconds even if it didn’t.

Make no sudden movements. Trust in the comforting, familiar weight that resided in her pocket. She couldn’t remember when she’d hidden that knife within the folds of her skirt. All attempts to remain calm began to fail her. Takara had believed in the empty hope that she could have simply slipped away without confrontation.

With no other options remaining to her, Takara jabbed her free hand into pocket and withdrew her knife. The yawning maw of a dark alley loomed ahead of her, and she considered how insane she had to be to dash straight into it of her own will before dipping out of the spider-like menace’s sight.



Or at least, it had seemed like an alley, when she’d approached it. But when Takara rounded the corner, she found a dimly lit parking lot, small and tucked between several tall buildings. Moths populated the pools of pale illumination here and there, fluttering like shreds of paper in the hazy islands of light. Among the windows surrounding the area, no windows showed any signs of light, or life. Takara almost felt like smiling but the muscles in her face refused to pull that way; she couldn’t have found a better “arena” to face her pursuer in even if she tried.

But it was dark. He likely had the advantage. And there was only minimal cover to protect Takara, so she had nothing to rely on but speed and precision. The clicking she’d heard on the street echoed down the alley, louder than ever before. Even from that distance, it sounded like pickaxes chipping away in some dark pit. Seeing no other choice, Takara backed away from the parking lot’s entrance towards its edges, taking refuge in the slightly darker shadows near the “arena’s” walls and finally dropping her bag.

And faster than she expected, he resurfaced, bubbling up silently from within the dark sea of the parking lot. The edges of his robes caught the light and Takara viewed her pursuer in detail for the first time since the chase had begun.

His figure was crouched, but it was clear he wasn’t a very tall man. Takara herself probably exceeded him in height. The robes he wore were a mixture of dark navy blue and purple, but in poor lighting, one’s ability to perceive color was always hampered. Takara noticed the patterns of golden embroidery on the fringes of his garments reminded her of photographs of mainland nobility from late Chinese dynasties. His silken sleeves were long enough to obscure his hands completely, and shook like curtains as he moved, a mixture of slow, deliberate turns and sudden darting, quivering shifts in direction. The overall effect was entirely inhuman, despite his appearance: The movement resembled a stalking beast of prey, or insect, as if his mind was seized with some primal, predatory force. It became obvious as to why Takara hadn’t been able to discern a face on him earlier. Somehow it had eluded her notice, but more than half the man’s expression, including both of his eyes, was covered by a wide paper talisman, covered in illegible red scribbles. As if to replace the organs necessary for sight with a more esoteric, spiritual substitute, the charm sported a wide, minimalist red line drawing of an eye. As the beast’s “gaze” darted from left to right, the paper flipped up just enough at times for Takara to see, in its shadow, a completely blank face, expressionless and gaunt, eyes fully shut. The sleep-like expression contradicted the man’s movements in a way that made Takara wrestle down a mounting feeling of nausea. Her small mouth clenched shut tightly, and she covered both her nose and lips with a cupped hand.

As Takara had hid herself in the shadows, he, or rather, it, seemed not to have yet pinpointed her location. It moved its head to and fro to an inaudible kind of music, dancing spastic on an invisible puppeteer’s strings. Nothing but complete silence lay between Takara and the creature, now roughly 20 feet away, and it did not approach her, though it did not leave either. Its posture was alert, however, and presented no visible weaknesses.

Time passed, and Takara allowed herself a long, nearly silent, inhalation, to clear the lungs in her tightening chest.

The air froze in her lungs until she felt safe enough to exhale again. Suddenly, the hat twitched violently in her direction. From behind the paper tag, a flash of red eyes traced upwards as the corpse almost completely disappeared. The clasp knife exposed itself from its boxy handle in a graceful arc of blue silver light rivaling that of the moon, slashing even the night itself, but Takara’s enemy was nowhere to be seen.

She only had a split second to react as the fluttering cloth and red eyes that trailed burning pathways of red light slammed down hard into the pavement where she’d been crouching cautiously a moment before. Asphalt buckled and cracked under the impact. Rolling to the side along the hard pavement, Takara was briefly illuminated in one of the pools of light, tumbling back into the shadows and melting into them. Panting and resting in a low posture, knife raised at nearly eye level in a reverse grip, facing outwards, her eyes sought and found her assailant. The stalker slowly closed in, entering the bright circle with sickly short steps. Its tag rose up to “meet” Takara’s gaze before there was a sharp sliding of metal. Each long sleeve exhumed three bladed claws, spreading outwards towards the tip like diamonds. It seemed to watch silently for a moment, to let the fear of its weapons bloom within her. But Takara felt no such fear.

“So, you’re one of the dead.”

Stepping back cautiously, Takara kept her knife raised, but the hinting of a smile entered the edge of her partly opened mouth.

“Then there’s no need for me to hold back.”

Whatever that thing was, it had come at a bad time. She was not about to let her college life end before it had even truly started, and not about to give up on the peaceful days she had enjoyed since the end of the War.

She was not about to forfeit her life, the one he’d sacrificed himself for.



A mess of disorganized sound erupted from the darkened parking lot. The fluttering of school clothes masked in the flowing of ancient robes. The ringing of thin metal against hardened steel. Padded and stiff, shuddering footfalls. Arcs of light intertwined and clashed in shadow, and a dark figure would erupt into the halo of one light to fall back into nothingness.

He was fast, that was certain; perhaps even faster than she was. Takara could almost hear muscle and sinew rip when the enemy swung katar-like hands at her with bestial ferocity, but the silence and composure of a puppet. It didn’t feel pain, nor understand the limits of its skeletal structure; it only knew how to attack, and attack it did. She was almost always on the defensive, as the unnaturally coordinated, yet stiff, Dead swung its arms like pendulums and spears, its triple blades dashing at her unprotected body from the abyss of its sleeves. As it flashed through one pool of light, Takara saw that the enemy did indeed have hands, and its weapons split painfully through its knuckles and fingers in a messy way. It only made sense; after all, blades attached directly to his skeleton must have been firmer and harder to deflect. Takara could only attest to that as she struggled to parry the flurry of blows, one knife’s single edge against twelve cutting edges. A shower of pale sparks answered the clashing of their weapons as she struggled to push back against her foe, managing to shove him away from her with all her force focused into a strike against the flat of its right knife array.

She could feel his arm twisting and bending unnaturally under her blow. It didn’t roll the way a human’s would. In endless hours of kendo practice, Takara knew that a human’s limbs would move a certain way, give in a particular direction when faced with a forceful strike against an object they held. Even the pressure of that was enough to force an opponent’s weapon down in paired exercises. But this one didn’t know how to preserve itself. Its arm popped and bent backwards, as if trying to draw her off balance, and for a moment it almost succeeded, but Takara managed to evade his countering stab, ducking low, and to the left, under the threatening breeze. The scent of embalming liquids and ancient incense filled her nostrils, and a scattering of black lines traversed her field of vision. It was her hair, but to her fortune, it only represented the small, shallow scratch its three-pronged punch had left along the side of her face, near her temple.

What was most conspicuous, and what was foremost in her mind, was what truly troubled her and broke the concentration she needed to win. Takara couldn’t see this enemy’s lines. Or rather, she could see them, but they were so faint; neither could she reach them. Her movements were slower, less confident, whereas before they had been fearless. Something was lacking within her.

“I can’t read him. I can’t see the lines…”

He was a corpse. Theoretically, she should have been able to see the power that animated the creature written all over its body, and easily dissect it into myriad pieces just by tracing one line. Her Eyes were unable to detect inorganic things, but that seemed impossible; he wore silk, unmistakably; nothing on his person could have blocked or dispelled her perception. So why?

Struggling to maintain calm, Takara weaved through the Dead’s torrent of blows. No mere corpse slave would have that kind of flexibility or coordination, akin to that of a martial arts master, but nevertheless, it did, and Takara only had precious few openings to counterattack. One presented itself, and her blue eyes, shining in the darkness and leaving trails of azure hanging in the chilled air, flickered in and out of existence as she cut a wide swath towards the head of her opponent.

In response, the Dead simply flipped backwards, handily dodging her gale-speed cut and at the same time inverting into a half-handstand posture. Up and down didn’t matter to the enemy, and its foot flashed upwards towards Takara’s jaw. Something was wrong; she knew she wouldn’t only get a foot in the jaw if the strike landed. She evaded by half-falling backwards; risking a back flip would only take her eyes off the enemy and give it time enough to run her through. And as she had anticipated, a third blossoming of blades erupted from the velvet shoe’s toe, narrowly missing her chin. Momentarily off balance, Takara scrambled out of the way of another slash, than another, as the fiend leapt at her bodily, springing off both arms and one leg like a thrown rag doll. She gasped for breath, feet betraying her as she stumbled to the ground. Silver spades dug themselves in directly before her face, and extracted themselves as she rolled away from their second strike.

Something wasn’t right. Her movements were too slow, and her enemy’s too fast. It was as if she didn’t have quite enough adrenaline, or enough will to act. Her technique was perfect, but there was little confidence behind her swings. Takara had to admit; she’d declined in skill substantially in only a year or so. It wasn’t something as simple as mind-scattering desperation and maddening survival instinct. She struck back fiercely against the dead, slashing towards his stomach as if her anger alone would bisect him, but it only swept below his arms and cut a jagged scar across its chest, through the robe. While such an injury would be painful or crippling to a human being, it meant nothing to the animated cadaver.

Takara knew the reason. She had abandoned her “other self,” and in return, that Takara had abandoned her. Nanaya, the family name she had rejected, cursed her insolence and deprived her of the killing instinct and ingrained skills that flowed within her body. The line of killers seemed to watch her desperate battle pitilessly, providing her with no succor from the frantic struggle for survival.

“Why? Why won’t the Lines appear? Why won’t you help me?

Nothing but silence answered her from the dark recesses of her mind. Perhaps she had been alone all along.

“Why won’t you answer me? Don’t abandon-”

Takara raised her crossed arms, wincing as the Dead’s catlike blow glanced off the edge of her knife, razors glancing over her wrist and splitting skin like paper. The instincts wouldn’t come to her, nor would the Lines. She’d been robbed of her two principle defenses, ones she’d become too comfortable using. For a moment fantasy and reality intermingled and she felt she could glimpse within the corpse’s serene mask her own reflection, callously grinning; the eyes of a killer, but also a scorned ally, who watched her plight with only contempt, and a vague sense of satisfaction.

Panic flooded her veins like a deluge of shredding thorns. Her breath became ragged and out of tune with her infrequent attacks. Though it was nothing but a corpse, it was pressuring her, landing brief, glancing blows upon her extremities. The harder she breathed, the stronger and more vicious its offense became, as if it was attuned to the fearful throbbing of her heart. It reacted to her stabs, cuts, everything with natural ease, as if it had already been moving out of the way by coincidence whenever she was there, trying to land a crippling cut. With no means of killing it decisively, Takara was forced to resort to severing its insane, flailing limbs, but that was akin to grasping a snake by its tail. Fatal injury was almost certain.

Her swings grew closer and closer as she struggled to focus. Upward diagonal cut; a shape like the crescent moon flashed before her, and a millisecond later, Takara finally felt her blade bite into stiff flesh. Leaping back far enough to surprise even herself, she saw the Dead’s right arm hang loosely by a ribbon of flesh. That she could only express satisfaction at wounding an enemy seemed evidence of how far she’d fallen, but it was nevertheless enough a foothold for her confidence to take place again. Now she’d begin her offense again.

For the first time that night, Takara yelled. Her cry split the parking lot open, sundered the moon. Teeth gritted, her blade came down upon the creature’s arm like a guillotine; it tried to squirm away, but its limb came off at the elbow cleanly. Takara’s own bones seemed to shake with the forceful cut. Even with her skill, she wasn’t built for severing the limbs of other beings, and the corpse was not such a fragile thing. She could already feel the sores building in her right arm, and switched hands with an agile flip of the weapon. As the foe spun, its robes concealed a thrusting foot before the spikes shattered her vision. Takara slithered forward underneath the extended, weaponized leg’s rotation and slashed upwards, slamming her shoulder into the creature’s gut at the same exact moment.

Thick, black blood spattered her face; she only needed look at the reflective surface of her dagger’s flat side to see the chilling expression she wore, colder than the steel she carried, slept with and cradled next to her body in the most vivid of nightmares. The Dead’s useless remaining shred of a leg thudded ineffectually as it collapsed to the ground. The rest of it spun off into the dark and slid with a wet sound across the pavement, and Takara knew the thudding off in the distance was the severed limb continuing to shudder pathetically on its own.

For the moment, her enemy seemed immobilized, and she allowed herself a sigh of relief, though she didn’t lower her guard. Every single inch of her body seemed to ache with the pure exertion she’d forced herself into to defend against the monster’s assault, but she was relatively unharmed. She’d managed to win, even without the Eyes or Nanaya instincts. Sky blue eyes scanned the twitching remains from over the horizon of her blackened knife’s surface, as if she reclined behind a protective wall. With only one leg and barely a complete arm, it seemed impossible for it to retaliate for its lost limbs.

“Can’t believe it… Did I do it?”

She muttered to herself quietly, between troubled exhalations. She wanted to call home right then and there, to inform her mother and father that she wasn’t safe in Akitaka. So much for her independent, normal college life, but if she was in danger, no one could protect her better than her family, beside perhaps herself. The events of the fight put the later into serious question.

Her free hand searched within the confines of her pockets for the cell phone, before Takara was overtaken by a rush of cloth and a heavy, falling body so sudden the possibility of reacting was virtually erased. In an instant flash of violence, what seemed to be a second, identically dressed Dead, descended upon her from above, bladed hands pinning themselves into the ground. The body trapping her against the pavement, its fanning weapons drilled themselves deep through asphalt, so that it trapped her like a human cage, nailing itself to her, suffocating her with its nauseating stench.

“Another?!”

Her knife stabbed and cut into the monster’s stomach desperately despite the restriction of her arms. She struggled against its grasp, but the Dead felt no pain, and could not be compelled to move without brute force, and in that quality it had her outmatched. Something cold and wet, likely its long-unused internal organs, spilled onto Takara’s stabbing arm and stomach. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear the scurrying of the previously defeated Dead, struggling to drag itself across the pavement in spastic, seizure-like bursts of movement.

She had to escape. She had to release herself. But its arms trapped hers and its legs fastened her to the pavement, like a still living insect pinned in a display case. Again and again her knife struck the Dead in ways that would be all but fatal to a human being, goring its stomach viciously and splitting its spine with a nail-driving stab. She flayed the Dead’s sleeve to mere shreds, and its arm to the bone, and yet it somehow continued to hold fast. She could simply not stretch far enough to sever its head or remove one of its arms entirely, with no momentum or range of movement to build up the necessary strength. Takara’s desperate struggle was interrupted as she caught a glimpse of something moving within the ornately dressed savage’s throat.

“No!”

While the sleeping face still remained obscured by the mono-eye talisman, the lips just under its lower fringe parted to reveal the shining of a final blade’s flanged point.

Slowly, it lowered its desperation weapon towards her face.

Takara’s eyes widened, exposing the entirety of the luminous blue irises that refused to divulge to her its secret of death, even at that critical moment. Only a swift movement of her neck saved her from impalement. Air rushed by her ear and the stabbing of chilled metal against the hard ground assaulted her ear, but she was saved, though still fully immobilized. Struggling with all her might only caused her to inhale gulps of air, and with every breath, the stench contaminated her lungs, making her gag, sapping the strength from her arms and legs.

Cornered and with the end of her life in sight, Takara struggled to do the only thing she could think of that would preserve her.

“Focus!”

She felt the muscles within her face tighten. Her vision became shaded as the creature’s head lolled back for a second try. And it was taking its time.

“Focus.”

Her head throbbed, and the pain sent a mimicry of itself, a spark of elation, through her heart. Just a bit more, and…

“I won’t die here.”

The Dead’s body began to glow faintly red. A familiar, vein-like network of black cracks etched itself across silk and skin without exception as the dull throbbing intensified to a sharp, piercing migraine. The humanoid beast’s image was dyed red by their subtle glow.

“I won’t die here!”

The anguish it sent through her was no longer just in her skull, but ran through her entire body like fatal venom, and for a moment Takara wondered if she hadn’t truly been stabbed, and her life already had ended. Every inch of her tensed and rebelled against the corpse-prison that sealed her against the pavement, and she released an involuntary cry, half of pain and half of fury. Eyes that saw Death shot open to their very limits with a gaze silver like the reflected moon.

“I won't die here!!!”

Her knife plunged deep into the creature’s body, just as its head lowered once more. No resistance of cloth or flesh got in her way; she simply cut.

Instantly she felt her form freed from the vice-like pressure flattening her, pushing upwards and rising through the falling shreds of silk, flesh and bone. The freed mouth blade shattered and scattered like ash against the pavement where her head had once been. On her feet, the killing glare of the daughter of the last Nanaya clan member, who walked through life since birth with Death by her side, returned at last. But the victory left her drained, with a body that screamed for an end to its torture. Her legs shuddered and collapsed from beneath her. They refused to move any longer.

“This… is my limit, is it?”

It would have been nice, she considered, to have been able to contact her mother and father. To assure her that she’d been happy at Jin-Sei, and that Akitaka was just the place she thought it would be. Her fate seemed to be to die there in that arena she’d constructed for herself, gutted and stabbed like a dissected animal. The only relief in her heart was that she’d completely avoided getting innocents involved in her inevitable murder.

Where was the power she’d called upon in the Sixth War? She’d felt so strong, and afraid, but for her weaknesses, there were others to fall back upon.

Perhaps that was simply it. When she had been fighting in the War, she was never truly alone. Always, always ”he” was connected to her, and would come to her side if she was in danger. She’d been guarded, coddled even, by both her family and her Servant. Now she was alone, and cold, fending for herself in a shadowy corner of an unfamiliar city. At that moment, the memory seemed so far away, and she seemed so tired…

The first Dead, still moving towards her like a savaged and crippled spider, hauled itself in desperation towards her, fanatically chasing its only goal. Takara moved away with all the speed her own, jelly-like legs could take her. But she realized then that what had been paralyzing her earlier and making her exhausted was that scent. Something in the robes numbed her senses, and she’d realized it too late. Takara’s legs were all but useless at that point; the poison had done its work. The Dead was almost at her feet by then, head tilted sideways in an inquisitive fashion, dragging itself on claws that clashed against the pavement.

Only to hurtle sideways, as the clicking in the alleyway abruptly stopped, and the Dead’s torso was launched through the air with a deep, sickening crunch.

Towering above her, a familiar, sunny smile framed in messy black hair dominated her vision. The boy lowered his foot, and extended an open palm, with a figure wrapped in pale white light. Before it had made her sick with envy, but at that moment, Takara couldn’t feel anything but relief.

“Hey. I told you to be careful! Girls like you are really more trouble than they’re worth…”



Takara had been prepared for a bloody end when she realized she couldn’t retreat from even the crippled Dead, though when dealing with death, few could ever be truly “prepared.” After her adamant resolution not to let her life slip away, she couldn’t have been satisfied with it amounting to nothing. Thus, she still clasped her knife in her hand as tightly as she could.

Of all people, the last one she expected to come out and calmly kick half a corpse well across the parking lot was Kira. But given only a moment to let his sudden appearance sink in, Takara felt somehow that it was the kind of thing he would have simply loved to do. Yet she was suspicious of him. Where did he come from? When confronted with an unnatural sight of that kind, why didn’t he run away? He seemed composed, even nonchalant, as he came to her aid. His face was half hidden in the shadows of the overhead parking lot lights and full of vigor. His wide crescent moon of a smile seemed to defy the moody, cloud covered one in the night sky above them.

“… Kira?”

The silver tone of eyes subsided. Takara blinked twice in confusion at his appearance, before her face took upon a more grave expression.

“… What are you doing here?”

No response. Kira’s grin only grew wider.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

There was something chilling in his eyes. Like a trace of a prowling beast of prey lurked behind his pupils, Kira stared upon the collapsed Takara. He towered over her from that angle, a monolith equal in height to the street lamps and buildings above.

Bending slightly at the waist as he’d done earlier that day, hands relaxed on his hips, he looked down on her with a jovial grin entirely at odds with his discomforting atmosphere. The happily pronounced words bounced callously out of his mouth as easily as any other.

“I came here to hunt you.”
He formed every syllable with a sadist’s artisanship.

Kieran
March 27th, 2011, 07:40 AM
I am quickly remembering why this is one of my favourite fanfics - not just because it has Takara in it, but because she's written so well . . . *shakes head*

Cascade
March 27th, 2011, 02:45 PM
It's hard for me to think up ways to put the lass in danger when her family is so powerful, lol

Kieran
March 27th, 2011, 11:08 PM
No joke - that's why I ended up isolating her (and for that matter, so did you). Plus, how often can you deal with a rogue magus or a Dead Apostle before it gets boring? On the other hand, your meddling with her Mystic Eyes works well to ratchet up the tension - I can't wait to see what you do with that.

Cascade
March 28th, 2011, 10:43 PM
lol, well y'know, can't have an ability that solves all fights decisively with one strike. It'll become a mess of dodging until the final blow, and my sensibilities are more brutal than that.

Cascade
March 30th, 2011, 10:48 PM
There was a strange throbbing in Takara’s chest as her eyes grew shaded. It was subtle, but she felt pain at his words, distinguishable even from within her aching body that felt entirely made of nerves. It wasn’t physical; that was perhaps the reason why it was distinct. There was a subtle kind of familiarity to it as well.

“Prowling this city has been pretty unrewarding. But now that a fine woman like you has shown up, I owe you my thanks…”

As he closed silently in on her, she pulled away slightly, though that meager effort was the totality of her ability to resist, save one weak swing with her weapon. The last use of her Eyes had done something to her, cracked her. Certainly, it was as if her body had suffered a biological “short-circuit,” everything shutting down due to too much strain, save her most basic needs for survival. It felt like a legion of welts had risen under her skin.

“So… he’s responsible after all.”

It was that smile again. She hated it. If Kira really had been that kind of person, at least he could have talked down to her with a cruel smile, or a sneer of derisive amusement. The smile combined with his words seemed beyond hypocrisy.

“… Do it.”

With downcast eyes, Takara looked away shamefully. If she were at his mercy, she wouldn’t want to see Kira face-to-face in her last moments. He’d look happily down on her, even as he sent her to an early grave, or perhaps because all along, that had been his intention. His slave had fulfilled its purpose, so he only had to dispose of it before taking what he desired from her. It would make things simpler to have her destroy it herself. No remains or traces of existence would be left behind, save perhaps inorganic clothing. The Dead wouldn’t be missed.

But, if he drew closer, that also meant he would be within reach of her knife. Takara could make sure there wouldn’t be anything left of Kira, either.

“Oh? Looks like you’ve given me your blessings! Then, time to eat…”

A step closer. The contact of his footfall sounded like a dull, heavy thump, louder than a footstep should have been.

“Mother… father. It’s cruel of me to go before you like this, but…”

As Kira was pausing momentarily to caress his chin, he shot a glance upward, as if looking directly into his brain to think.

“Okay then… hrm…”

Takara’s lips curled into a tight, defiant frown, betraying no fear. The knife in her fingers prepared itself to streak out and deal Kira a desperate wound, if not kill him outright.

“… I promise I’ll take him with me.”

The joyous voice spoke up again, with even greater enthusiasm.

“Let’s start with… All right, give me your arm.”

Takara’s blood spattered face questioned back coldly.

“… For what reason?”
At this Kira made a strange gesture, as if holding a rib in his hands. His toothy grin in that context became more like a man picking the meat off his food.

“To gnaaaaw it to the booooone. It’s like dark meat: by far the tastiest. Try it sometime.”

“!?”

Something wasn’t right…

Kira’s smile disappeared, fading behind a lopsided, irritated expression as his hands rest on his hips again. His posture became lax with disappointment’s temporary fatigue.

“Hey, you haven’t realized it yet? Give me your hand already!”

Slowly, Takara began to feel as if she had had this conversation earlier.

“What?!”

Her eyes widened to punctuate her confusion. Within them a small fluctuation of color indicated her fatal ability, which had been returning to her up until that moment, had subsided once more.

A horribly crude laugh erupted from Kira’s throat. By the sounds of it, he’d been keeping it in for as long as the conversation had lasted. Takara heard his laugh and instantly realized what had just transpired, a slow redness lighter than the blood invading her face.

“Jeez, you’re slow. I knew girls in the city were airheaded, but you win grand prize. I can’t believe it took you this long to notice I was joking.”

Kira shrugged and shook his head from side to side, sadly lamenting his mark’s gullibility. Apparently he was entirely unaware of the threat his life was under.

Takara didn’t realize at the time that, with every word he said, the bubbling anger in her heart exceeded her most recent top score by leaps and bounds.

“…Joking? Joking!?”

Her voice cracked as she nearly shrieked, stumbling angrily on numb legs, as the poor, beleaguered girl, who had just been made fun of after a violent, stressful fight for her life, tried to strike back at her tormentor in any humiliating way possible. All of her built up tension and stress erupted from her in a way that she would later consider thanking him for: it was incredibly cathartic. She flailed a weak arm at Kira in a futile attempt to slap.

“I could have killed you! I-I wanted to kill you! What were you thinking, you idiot!?”

Takara raised her knife, her bloodstained features shifting into the face of a slighted, furious young lady. She handled the equally bloody weapon in her fingers threateningly, not to scare him, but to teach him a lesson for his imprudence. Responding in the way any sane man would, Kira backed off, clearly intimidated by her sudden eruption.

“W-whoah, easy! I’m not a suspicious character or anything! I’m the same guy you met earlier, Kira! I didn’t have anything to do with this! Just relax-”

“I know who you are. Why are you so calm? You just kicked a body-no, half a body like a soccer ball!”

Takara gestured at what appeared to be the splattered remains of the Dead off in a dark corner somewhere, looking neglected and rather pitiful, as far as gory messes went.

“Don’t tell me cleaning up walking dead is part of your job as a gardener?”

Kira winced at her yelling, kneeling down to her level. He rested over his raised knees like a child watching a bug on the ground.

“Ssh, not so loud. You’ll wake up the whole neighborhood. I’m sorry, really sorry, already, so just quit it!”

“What’s that got to do with anything? I’m furious! W-why would you play with my mind that way? Were you trying to finish me off with a heart attack?”

Kira shook his head, looking vaguely angry. His dark, short ponytail wagged at the base of the back of his neck.

“No, no, no. I’ll explain later, why I’m calm, joking, all of this. Right now, you need to be quiet.” Kira extended his hand again. “Now, give me your arm. You can’t walk right, can you?”

Takara blinked, going silent long enough to slowly close the clasp knife’s spoiled edge safely within its hilt, as if in automatic.

“So, he’s worried about me straining myself… for a jerk, he’s rather nice.”

She nodded silently, taking his hand. Her shaded eyes morphed into a wince as she came in contact with his skin. Not in pain from the startling heat, but in shock, for it still was unexpected. With her shell as strained and limp as it was, feeling the closeness of such strong vitality strengthened her, at least mentally. Kira’s image looked rough, just judging him by eye, but he handled her lightly injured but still sensitive body as gently as possible, like she was a newborn child. The arm that had only recently been soaked to the elbow in black blood rested upon his warm shoulders and hung about his neck. It was awkward, for the difference in height between them was, while not substantial, enough to force Takara to lean heavily into him, but Kira rose from the spot and lifted her along with him. Looking down, Takara could see the spot where she’d eliminated the ambushing Dead; nothing remained but a dark spot unidentifiable as blood and a wide spread of shredded fabric scattered amongst shards of metal. It hadn’t been as clean of a kill as she had previously imagined. That disappointed her somehow.

“…Yeah, if you kept yelling like that, in my ear, it would have been a pain in the ass. Not like you would have injured yourself screaming like that, since you seem fine, but it was just too annoying. Thanks, I really appreciate it, Takara.” Again he left out her honorific.

Kira’s voice drifted back to her, so much closer now. He lazily beat down any feelings of astonishment with his character using those words like crude, blunt instruments, and Takara’s face hardened as it had before, entirely unable to hide her irritation.

“… I think I’d be better off walking myself.” She attempted to relieve him of her burden, sliding off to the side, but as she did, looked down, almost instinctively, as if peering from a high place. Takara hadn’t noticed it before, through the maddening contrast of throbbing pain in her nerves and numbness in her muscles, but the Dead had done more than crawl up to her feet; it had sunk its claws into her ankle without her even feeling it. The wound was not deep, not enough to stop her from walking, even, but Takara feared making it worse. As if sensing her thoughts, Kira gathered the fleeing girl up into his arm again, this time catching the arm over his shoulder by its wrist, and looping his other arm about her waist. Takara could heal her wound, but she hesitated. He’d seen enough strange things for one night, hadn’t he? It didn’t hurt any more than she already did, and she hardly had even the strength to walk. Using a spell might have even worsened her condition. She had no choice but to rely on Kira’s charity for the moment.

Kira chuckled. “Like hell you can. You’re drugged, aren’t you?”

Takara looked away. His strong support gathered in the small of her back, but it wasn’t a happy feeling. She hid from him a pained expression, perhaps of shame.

“I got lightheaded just standing next to that corpse. Something was in the air, like an anesthetic… something like that.” Kira smiled, all but closing his eyes with his grin. “ But wow, I arrived just in time to see you kill that Fu Manchu thing with one stab, like that!” He gestured forward with his free hand, to simulate the stab she’d made, and pursed his lips as he blew, performing the role of the blade’s whistling. “It was beautiful; a masterpiece. Takara, you must be a natural born killer.”

Though Kira was ignorant of it, Takara winced. It wasn’t from her aching body.

“That leg looks pretty bad. Are you sure you don’t want me to carry you? On my back?”

“No. I’ll be okay.” Perhaps he was delivering the coup de grace through embarrassment, but she had a smidgen of pride left after all.



From there onward, Kira walked and Takara leaned on him down the avenue wordlessly, draping her bookbag over his other shoulder. Somehow the hours had slipped away from her. Reaching into her pocket, Takara examined the face of her cell phone. Midnight. There were even a few messages, in both text and voicemail, and she was positive she knew who sent them. Sighing, the freshman girl remembered Momoko’s words about being a bad student earlier that day.

“First coming late to class, and now staying out late at night… I’m becoming a delinquent for real now.” She murmured to herself.

“Hm? Really?” The friendly voice at her right answered back. She’d been doing her best to ignore his existence. Being that close to an unfamiliar boy, even if he’d helped her, still brought about instinctive nervousness in Takara.

“Oh, no… I was just thinking out loud.” Takara spoke even more quietly. Then, after a long pause, “… Thank you.”

Kira glanced sidelong at her tired face, smirking. “Hah, for what?”

“… Well, obviously for saving me. If you hadn’t been there, I’d…” Her voice grew faint.

“What are you talking about? I just happened to be around. It was the natural thing to do.” Kira unknowingly shrugged a little pain into Takara, but she was thankful for it. She’d become atypically exhausted. If she numbed, she feared she’d fall asleep. The girl was certain it was an effect of the poison.

“… Why?” Takara nearly whispered.

“Hn?”

“… You’re not afraid?”

“What?” Kira questioned ignorantly, like hearing a strange, unfamiliar sound.

“You saw me kill that monster. If you were a normal person, you’d be scared of me, wouldn’t you? Because I calmly cut that man into pieces.” Takara said, more insistently then.

“Ah, well, that looked like self-defense to me. I dunno, if he came at you with a bouquet of flowers, they looked an awful lot like carving knives.” The young man answered with a cavalier tone of voice.

“How long were you watching?”

“Only long enough to decide I needed to help you. About when you diced that thing. It was pretty scary, but I pretended I was crazy, and jumped in.”

Unknowingly, Takara leaned in closer to him, as her voice began to raise to normal volume. Why was he so calm? She couldn’t feel anything unnatural about him. The warmth in his shoulders was that of a living, breathing human being. So then why?

“…And you don’t think anything is strange about this? About me? Or those men? Shouldn’t you have run away? After all, it was scary, right? And you don’t know me that well…”

He didn’t answer for a minute. Staring forward, Kira let the words out, without his characteristic smile. Without even looking at Takara, he just continued walking forward into the empty street, focused on the road ahead of them.

“Are you saying I needed a reason to help you?”

“Huh?”

“I did it because I felt like it, and because I happened to be here. If it had been me, I… well, I guess I just trust you. I trust a lot of people. It sort of gets me in trouble, actually…”

Scratching his chin, Kira’s chuckle returned to him.

“I’m probably pretty stupid. After all, you need to be at least a little thick-headed to trust people these days.”

Takara frowned slightly, as if to say “Are you calling me ‘thick-headed’ by association?”

“Your trust might be misplaced. I could have been a killer, all along, like you said.”

“It’s simple though, isn’t it? Hah, I just got this feeling you know? Even though I act like this, actually I did think a bit about the situation ahead of time. You looked like you were getting attacked, and defending yourself, and I figured you’d do the same for me. I just guessed that you were that kind of person. Was I wrong?”

He leaned his head to the side a bit, almost pressing his cheek into hers unintentionally. Takara retreated from him, staggering along his side a bit further away than before.

“…I don’t… think you’re wrong. But I think it’s foolish for you to believe me like that, considering what you saw. You should worry more about your own well-being.” Takara smiled towards him, as if pitying the boy.

“Maybe your sense of danger is gone somewhere, or you’re just a little bit too crazy for your own good, but either way, please don’t put yourself at risk for my sake. I went through a lot of trouble to keep innocent people from getting involved.”


“Just as I thought!” At her words, Kira grinned even wider than before and raised his other hand, snapping his fingers.

“…But some thick-headed people don’t pay attention and show up there anyways.”

“Hey!”

“There’s nothing I can do about that.” She added.

Despite feeling like she’d been stung mercilessly all over, Takara smiled, and even felt a bit like laughing. The young gardener slumped in half-serious annoyance, and his grip on her grew a little more lax.

“Never mind that… I wanted to ask you a few things, actually.” Takara noted. “Earlier today, you knew I hadn’t had dinner. Did that really have anything to do with holding my hand?”

She shot Kira a narrow, suspicious glance, as he smiled sheepishly nodding with some hesitation.

“Of course it did. It’s one of my specialties… but obviously not a lot of people shake hands, so I don’t get to use it often.”

He opened and closed his free hand, as if to demonstrate on some invisible stranger.

“When someone shakes your hand weakly, they’re a bit sad, or at least tired. When they give you a strong handshake, they’re probably in a good mood. If they grip your hand tightly, they’re perhaps upset or dislike you.” Kira finished, half-laughing. “It sounds pretty obvious. But in a country where everyone is at arm’s length or further, it’s easy not to notice.”

Takara wanted to nod silently. After all, she would never have noticed those things about Kira if he hadn’t so crudely taken her hand. She wouldn’t know how unusually warm he was, or how rough his palms were, and from those two things she could determine he worked hard and was healthy, though deductions like the one he mentioned were beyond her. However, it was still an invasion of her personal space she wasn’t quite ready to forgive him over, though Takara’s ire regarding the matter had fled from her mind.

His dark eyes stared up into the starry blackness encircling the world from above. It was only the same expression and yet for a moment Takara thought the boy looked incredibly far off.

“There are so many things in this world that people would find amazing if they just watched carefully… I think that it’s kind of a miracle. If I didn’t notice little things, like the weakness of your handshake, I wouldn’t have come this way, and found you in that parking lot.”

Takara blinked. “You came that way because I hadn’t had dinner?”

“No, stupid. I came because it told me you were sad. That’s why I wanted to invite you out to dinner. But you went off so fast, so I decided to just follow you to your place and catch you there.”

With a lopsided frown, Takara feigned being cross with him. The irritation he provoked in her earlier that day was just a faint burning in the back of her mind by that time.

“… That’s called stalking, Kira.”

He at least knew what that word meant, for Kira jumped and quickly shook his head, like he was shaking water out of his hair.

“N-no! Well, I guess you could call it that. I keep forgetting that in the city, I can’t just go to people’s houses like I used to. Damn it!” He winced, for a second feeling like he was back in school once more, and being scolded by his class rep.

She turned her head to the side a bit quizzically. “Just what kind of place do you come from anyways? Is common sense optional there?”

“S-shut up. My hometown is… well, pretty far away It was this little place in the mountains of Okayama. Small, forested.”

“Oh?”

“I could just walk across the village and meet someone else there. No one locked their doors, and you were welcome in their homes any time if you lived there. Most people were just bamboo growers, gardening artists, other things like that.” As he recalled the memory, it seemed as if Kira drifted to that far off place in his own mind.

Takara studied his expression with some interest, but turned away again. Fuyuki wasn’t a large city in comparison to others, but it was clear the two of them lived very different lives. Suddenly his overly casual attitude and lack of basic urban mores seemed somehow understandable, though he was still almost un-Japanese in the way he carried himself around and wielded his words like a club.

“So, you lived in a small town like that? Were you friends with everyone who lived there?”

Kira considered for a second. “Most of them.”

“Really? It sounds wonderful…”

“I don’t remember much of it. I moved away before I was even finished with elementary school. Honestly, I wouldn’t be able to point it out even if you showed me a map.”

They continued to exchange meaningless, normal words, as if meeting for the first time once more, under less hostile circumstances. Even though saturated in blood and weak with the strain of battle, for the moment, Takara was not the daughter of the last Nanaya clan member, but simply Takara Aozaki, and somehow she felt absolved of the negative emotions she’d felt towards Kira that morning.

His presence too relieved her of the faint sensation of abandonment, though it would have been inaccurate to say she “missed” her inner persona. Never before had she felt so alone, until that night.



Their slow moonlit trek continued, Takara occasionally directing Kira back towards her apartment. Though it was midnight, the two had taken a slightly different route back, through side streets where the occasional pedestrian or club-goer wouldn’t notice them. Her mind was filled with premonitions of Momoko fainting at the sight of her blood-soaked uniform, or at the sight of the gardener she’d admired shamelessly lugging around her friend like she was his belonging. Sensation was slowly returning to her limbs, and she felt pain in her legs again, but it at least opened the possibility she could make it home by herself when the time came, or sit down and seal up the small cuts on her ankles and calves with the healing talent she had inherited from her mother.

“My parents… I’ve got to contact them too.” She almost regretted the possibility of being called back home to Fuyuki if danger reared its head in that new city, but she wasn’t going to put her life in danger if some supernatural psychopath was aiming for her, like a vampire, or ignoble magi.

However, with the lucidity returning to her mind and body, she also felt a realization. Takara had been making Kira take a somewhat roundabout route, without even realizing it. Although it hadn’t been intentional, she’d been dragging their walk out, forcing him to carry her here and there. She chuckled inwardly; this would be his punishment for treating her so rudely that morning.

They finally came to a familiar intersection. At the corner, a series of restaurants and clubs stuffed in one multi-story complex formed a small tower of neon lights, a Babel of multi-colored advertisement. A number of individuals streamed out of the entrance, most likely all in one group. Kira’s joking façade flickered out as he carefully rested Takara against a wall in a dark corner of the storefronts opposite the complex. While she didn’t take kindly to being stowed away like some piece of luggage, she was thankful to have made it that far without anyone noticing the dark stains on every article of clothing. For that at least she could excuse any potential misunderstandings and raised eyebrows people might have sent her way, seeing her so close to such a darkly attractive young man.

“Mnh, this isn’t good.” Kira grumbled under his breath. “Sorry Takara. Let’s rest here for a while.”

The line of sight to Takara was blocked by his figure as Kira attempted to casually wipe his brow with a handkerchief he’d brought along, looking like someone out on the town in cheap clothes after a tiring dance at a low-end nightclub. For his part, it was difficult if not impossible to see the tall, but still much shorter than him, girl in the blood soaked uniform leaning limply in a dark corner behind him.

“Hey… Kira. Can I ask you another thing?”

“…Yeah. I don’t care if you make it look like I’m talking to myself, but be quiet about it.” He naturally kept his back to her.

“Even though you witnessed something that frightening, you were really calm. Have you ever seen something like that before? Something…”

“’Supernatural?’ No.” His shoulders raised in mild interest in her words.

“Really?”

“Hm, I could say it seemed really normal to me. Or it didn’t feel strange. To tell you the truth, I just got fired from my job, so I’m kind of in a state of shock. Maybe that had something to do with it.” It seemed strange that a mundane, if unfortunate, occurrence in life could surprise Kira more than the sight of half-a-man attacking a blood-soaked girl.

“What? Really? But you were watering just this morning.” Takara struggled to keep her voice down.

“Shh. It was force of habit. I don’t need to do that anymore, but I work too slowly. I’m really relaxed when I’m with those flowers.” Kira smiled. “The scent and the feeling of sunshine put me at ease. I’d be happy even if I had nothing else. So I was kind of saying goodbye, and thank you… in a sense.”

On the wall behind him, Takara slumped down a bit more, but from relaxation more than exhaustion.

“That must be disappointing for you. You enjoy gardening that much?”

“What about you? Like ikebana? You seem like an upstanding Japanese lady.”

“Well, I only know a little.” Takara reddened slightly in Kira’s shadow.

“Heh, is that so?”

Kira tensed up, and grew quiet. For a long moment, he said nothing more, and didn’t answer when Takara spoke up again.

“Is there something wrong?”

“…”

Although it put her at risk, she peered cautiously around the “wall” he’d formed.

Amidst the crowd of club-goers, a man in faded maroon robes that were sickeningly familiar stared from far away at the pair in their shadowy hiding spot. And unlike the servants he’d sent out earlier that night, his face was perfectly visible. Jet-black hair combed largely to his right topped a thin, gaunt face that seemed in transition between youth and adulthood. His cheeks were ever so slightly sunken, as if he recovered only recently from malnutrition, and his complexion was ashen even in the tint of the moving, pulsing lights lining the building above him. His hand, draped in silk up to the wrist, hung outstretched before him, fingers clasped loosely in a gesture that seemed to request something; to take something offered to him. Only after a moment of staring did Takara realize it was not a gesture of taking, but of giving.

Set deep in his unhealthy face, the man’s cold eyes shined with a deep emotion Takara could not even begin to comprehend. Only the questioning remained: “How did you kill my pawn?”

“W-wow… I didn’t even see it.”

A sudden, heavy weight collapsed against her. Kira had slumped backwards, all his muscles failing him at the same moment. Staggering backwards into Takara’s arms, she struggled behind him until she too fell to her knees.

His eyes dulled drunkenly, and his legs and arms became infirm. Soon he was nothing but an immense burden weighing Takara to the ground, when only moments before, Kira had been supporting her in much the same way. The world in front of his eyes seemed to film over in a glossy haze. He descended slowly into the thick, black fog closing in from above and below his field of vision.

“Kira!”

His dark face smiled up at her even as a trickle of blood streamed down his chin.

“This is damn perfect, isn’t it? He got me good…”

Something glistened, half buried in Kira’s chest, directly above his heart. It drained the vitality from him, wilting him away. Takara’s eyes widened. “What are you talking about? Hang on!”

“Collapsing in this dark corner, nobody will find me until the morning. He’s smart.”

“No! We’ve come this far.” Takara’s eyes searched furiously for the man on the other side of the street. He was nowhere to be found. That confident, hateful stare suggested he would seek her wherever she hid, and he had plenty of time to track her down. A red blossom unfurled its petals in the center of Kira’s shirt, and though Takara reached for the needle that jutted three inches out of his chest, his hand clasped hers firmly, and the heat held her back.

“Why?”

This act of violence was nothing more than an arbitrary deed meant to punish the man who had dared to interfere with the killer’s hunt.

“Ah ah… don’t touch…” Kira was winking, but that was simply his smile turning a wince into one. In truth, his body was shuddering, and she could tell he was in extreme pain. His voice didn’t even show a single sign of pain. “Wouldn’t want you to get poisoned twice.”

His hand pointed weakly. From his eyes, Takara’s face shook as she refused his directions without hesitating.

“I can’t just leave you here to die. The hospital, I can-”

“… Heh, you’re too nice… for your own good. But you don’t know me.”

The burning heat that threatened to scald her was fading from his fingers. Tremors from within his chest signaled to Takara that which she already knew. His life was already ending.

Her fingers clasped his hand tightly, enough to cause pain; anything to keep him from closing his eyes, going to sleep. She felt his blood gather under her fingers near the needle in his chest; it felt like boiling water that grew hotter with every beat of his heart. But the fire was being slowly extinguished and Kira’s eyes grew heavy, robbed of their luster.

“-ra, please!”

“What is that? Haha, your voice is so faint.” He thought.

They were his last moments, after all. He’d earned the right to be even more audacious. Kira’s hand crept along the distressed girl’s arm, weakling ascending her shoulder. The effort was like climbing a mountain; Kira couldn’t imagine he had much untainted blood left in him, though it probably didn’t mean anything once the needle entered his heart. His wide palm and long fingers cupped gently around Takara’s stunned face, running over the dark smudges of red that painted her. He knew she could tell how cold his hand had gotten. Her skin shivered under his touch.

“-don’t!”

“Shit. This would really be the way a dog dies. ”

“-again!-“

“Lost in this city, one could hardly tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. Something from the mountains, something from a home. Both would die the same way.”

As he faded from consciousness, he worried about Takara, and what she would do; how she would run away. But he also wished that he’d gotten a chance to at least die more heroically, for all it was worth. Kira wanted to curse himself for such a thought. Death was death, no matter what form it came in.

His luck that day was without a doubt the worst possible.

Only at that moment had it finally turned around; though luck had a funny way of being subjective whenever it capriciously fancied.

Kieran
March 30th, 2011, 10:55 PM
I'd forgotten how weird Kira could be . . . And now I'm remembering other things - and oddly looking forward to them. :)

Cascade
April 3rd, 2011, 05:06 AM
It had long been lost. As all lost things did, it sought to be found.

Nestled within the space between two verdant shadows of hanging leaves, it lay silent, but the expectation remained there nonetheless. Like a thousand spades they stretched over its smooth, blackened surface, worn soft by centuries of rain, gentle wind and dust. A hand could traverse the exterior without scraping itself until reaching shallow valleys that carved themselves modestly into the unbreakable gray face.

Traveling, touching, searching. Whether carved by man or by time, the scars remained, lacking sentiment. They only existed, for that was the nature of a testament. Rough palms caressed unblemished stone.

The feeling of dry paper between skin and rock alerted the sleeping mind to the presence of a trapped leaf, fragile in its transition between life and death. And all over, the mottled shadows danced back and forth, as if celebrating an endless festival known only to those lost things in the shade. The winds were its flutes, the soft creaking of oak and maple its drums. If one listened closely enough, perhaps the earth rumbling about beneath them had joined the spectacle as well. Hands soaked in libation left darker, more pure streaks behind them in long, wide roads that crossed those indentations.

Those unnamed, abandoned things that called out to man to find them, to hold them, touch them…

All lost things seek to be found.



“Gh!?”

The boy woke with a start. Gone was the burning sensation flowing through his chest and veins. Gone too, was the sensation of hewn rock, leaves and water from underneath his fingers. He would have been able to take it, had it not been a different kind of burning than the normal hot-blooded feeling inside of him. But when the needle had entered his chest and passed his sternum, Kira knew that his heart was being eaten alive. He could feel it wasting away, like a crumbling, burning effigy made in paper, and with it went major arteries, then veins, all scattering like embers inside his body, melting down. It hurt like hell, and it had been his last wish that he’d be the only one who’d have to experience it. That girl, Takara, had a bad enough night already.

But somehow he was conscious again. Kira didn’t know what happened; he’d most certainly died, but whether he still lived, or had passed on to whatever afterlife existed in the world, he decided it was better to simply consider himself fortunate, rather than ruminate on the mystery any further.

Still, it was an instinctive reaction, but his wide hand ran over his chest. His tanktop had been removed. Unfamiliar lumps immediately greeted him where flat skin should have met skin. Kira traced them. Index and thumb grasped lightly, not pinching, his hand traveled downwards, across, back across, and down again. It was simple to visualize it, but like something had wriggled under his skin, a scar shaped vaguely like a question mark had etched itself into his flesh, beginning under his right shoulder and terminating roughly at the right side of his stomach, near his navel.

Kira could only imagine one reason why after passing out for an indeterminate amount of time, an enormous, hack-job scar would mysteriously appear on his chest. That idea immediately came to his reckless mouth.

“…Son of a bitch stole my organs.”

Kira finally became aware of where he was. An unadorned, sizable apartment that would have seemed luxurious to any money-starved, Japanese city dweller, and he was lying on the floor, half-covered in a thin blanket, wearing just his jeans and no shoes. It was rather cold, and the air carried with it the stale taste of air conditioning, alien enough to Kira to be quite noticeable. There were no furnishings, but an immense window covered an entire wall, and beyond it, a shimmering night panorama of Akitaka City, more picturesque than a master painting.

“Oh really? I wonder what kind of price they’d fetch?”

Whirling about to confront the source of the voice, Kira was ready to throw a few punches and steal back his kidneys from the nefarious black-market organ smuggler. Only he realized that, for a hardened and deranged criminal with connections as far as Sri Lanka and Sicily, the “smuggler” was rather pretty, had familiar brown hair in a ponytail that in the dimly lit room seemed all but black, and looked a rather lot like Takara. There certainly were no surgical tools around, and he wasn’t lying in a tub of ice. If anything, the scene was entirely a departure from his limited encounters with film and fiction.

Kira blinked. It was Takara. The thought that maybe she’d stolen his organs after all came to his mind, but it got lost in the spin cycle as he shook his head furiously, shaking himself back into full consciousness.

“Takara... Don’t even joke about that...” For once omitting honorifics out of carelessness and shock rather than a conscious effort to tease.

Gone was the blood soaked school uniform, and in its place, she wore a pale white yukata that suited her all too well; contrasting with her dark hair and cool eyes, mixing with her own fair skin. Perhaps she was washing those clothes somewhere, but Kira had no idea how she was going to remove such a generous saturation of the red dye.

Although his loose tank top concealed very little, without it Takara could easily see how strong his body was. Beneath the small gold earring and Buddhist-bound ponytail, and under his neck, his body was slim and lanky, but lined all over with hard edges, the antithesis of Takara’s own body, and quite at odds with the typical torso of boys his age. Kira hardly looked like a weight lifter, but days of toil and menial labor seemed to have set permanently into his physique. The young man clearly was in exceptional physical condition, and would have likely excelled at any sport he played, from kendo to basketball. However, he also looked even more like a ruffian up close.

It wasn’t as if he had anything to hide, save his unadventurous tattoos in old Kanji on his right arm, which were all but illegible, and the newly formed scar, but Takara was ladylike enough to find everything in the empty room more interesting than his bared upper body. Conspicuously avoiding eye contact, she blinked, casting a quick glance in his direction.

“Sorry. I don’t know where we are, or how we got here. I wanted to leave and check for myself, but I couldn’t leave you alone, at least until you woke up… I probably should ask how you feel, right?”

Kira raised a hand to grip his shoulder, flexing his neck uncomfortably. The look in his face said he’d felt much better.

“My body feels heavy, and there’s kind of a dull ache in my chest… probably from this thing. But otherwise, I’m fine.”

More perplexing than his own survival, to Kira at least, was Takara’s reaction.

“Are you sure? I felt…” Her eyes shaded and were cast downwards. Takara gripped her two hands together, as if recalling the memory even then. “I felt your pulse stop. You were definitely dead back there.”

She raised her eyes to his finally. “And you’re saying you don’t remember at all how…that… appeared on your chest? It wasn’t there before, right?”

Kira tilted his head to one side and raised an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you know better than me? I’ve been unconscious all this time. Looking outside, maybe it hasn’t been more than an hour or two hours.”

What had transpired was apparent when she shook her head. “I was exhausted, and couldn’t stay conscious. I could barely speak, let alone call an ambulance. I tried to drag you with me to get help, but I barely got 20 feet.” Takara’s downcast gaze focused on the floor, apparently covered with a rather contemporary coating of tatami mats. “I’m sorry… If it wasn’t for me, you’d-“

His mood change and overly direct look sliced through her sentence midway. “But wow, I thought you were hot in the school uniform. This is something else entirely.” Kira winked at her lecherously. His darker skin hid the slight redness in his face that punished him for his bluff. “A traditional Japanese girl through and through eh? Except in a few places…” His eyes darted downwards.

His target, though, seemed convinced enough. Takara flushed back at him, her mood disrupted entirely. She shifted self-consciously away, guarding herself from his stares. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Eh, nothing really, just saying what was on my mind. You could just take my compliment as it was and be fine with it, you know. You’re so touchy, Takara.”

Takara fumed. “For just a moment, I was worried about you, but I see that wasn’t necessary.” She intoned coldly. “Even after death, he’s still totally ignorant of other people’s moods.”

With a flick of her dark hair, which settled over her shoulder gently, she turned her face away from Kira, crossing her arms. As she took her eyes off him, the mischievous expression he wore melted into something softer, but only for a second.

“Yeah, I’m a stranger after all, so let’s just forget about that now. We’re both alive. And you’re feeling better?”

She shifted slightly, looking back towards him over her shoulder. Takara was sitting, facing away from his makeshift bed.

Just the same as him, she’d woken to find her wounds sealed and her body free of wounds; as if that night, trapped in the hypnotizing gaze of the moon, the two of them experienced a waking nightmare when they should have been sleeping.

“I woke up without wounds like you. Don’t worry.”

She said those words, but looking down at the wound on her ankle earlier, she hadn’t remembered sealing it. In fact, it appeared to have been healed during her time unconscious as well, but the sensation of feeling creeping back into her legs was a familiar characteristic of her kind of restorative magic. Yet, she had felt powerful resistance to her power earlier, when Kira all but died. No amount of effort would resuscitate him; the power to heal would not come to her. Had it been another time, she would have been able to mend his flesh, and perhaps even the poison. What allowed them to recover was a miracle, or at least the mercy of someone else with a similar ability. The latter was nigh synonymous with the former in that case.

“… I also have the ability to heal others,” Takara stated, with some hesitation remaining in her quiet voice, though she knew by that time keeping it secret from him was meaningless, “like my mother before me. Perhaps I cured both of us, blacked out. Maybe my memory failed. There’s no way to tell.”

Kira smiled and his eyes widened with enthusiasm.

“Really? So you’re not just an ace killer then? Let me guess; you inherited that power from your dad then!”

“…It’s not that simple.” She murmured. Her dark eyes were fixated on the night skyline behind Kira, before her awareness returned. A faint smile traced her lips.

“I’m amazed you’re handling all this as well as you have. It seems just as natural to you as… seeing an unfamiliar flower for the first time.”

“I like your analogy.” Kira threw a dreadfully embarrassing thumbs-up.

Turning his head to gaze out the wide glass wall, he began to rest his arms on his knees. Beneath them, in the black sea dotted with lights, an aurora of blue and red, pulsating near a familiar area, caught his eye.

“Looks like they caught on to our little scuffle. Where is this place? We’re halfway across the city.” Kira rose to his knees and began rummaging through the sheets for his tank top. He could find nothing.

Takara’s cold hand set on his shoulder. “Wait! Are you sure you’re fully healed? You can’t just-”

It was shrugged off almost immediately, though it was because it chilled Kira. “Don’t worry about it! I’m pretty healthy. My sicknesses have never lasted more than a day, and scrapes only a little longer than that.”

The girl felt a strong urge to simply faint and let the exhausting man take care of himself. “I can’t believe you’d call an injury like that a ‘scrape.’”

“Just act like I got stuck with a big thorn. More importantly, we can’t sit around not knowing where we are.”

“That did occur to me. But I needed to make sure you came to.” Takara stated insistently. “Please rest here, there’s no need for-.”

But Kira was already halfway across the room, walking to the door with his typical long stride, completely un-winded by the experiences earlier this night. Granted, Takara herself had made almost an entire recovery, so if he had underwent the same treatment, never mind who was responsible for it, he’d be in healthy enough shape to at least not suddenly collapse without reason.

“If I stay around this boy any longer,” Takara thought, “I’ll die long before my time, from the stress alone…” She couldn’t deny that he concerned her, but that sentiment was akin to watching a close acquaintance’s pet while they were on vacation. If Kira went and got himself killed on her watch, regardless of his worth as a human being, the future would look very painful indeed.

After all, he didn’t seem quite as bad as her first impression had implied. She owed him, too.




For all his recklessness, the boy hesitated at the entryway, as if on the precipice of a new world.
“Even dogs had a good sense of danger.” Takara reasoned, half-jokingly. Her feet were bare; the shoes and socks had gone to wherever her clothing had went, replaced only with that remarkably thin and airy yukata. In the heavily air-conditioned room, it felt as if every nerve in her body had chilled at its tip, directly under her skin, and her form had become a fragile sculpture of ice. Even though she could discern no abnormalities within her, caution demanded that she move with deliberate care. The man who spontaneously attacked them, most likely a disciple of magic, continued to lurk out there in the city. For all she knew, Kira’s ridiculous theorizing about organ theft could have been correct, and the oriental-robed man, whether he was magi, vampire, or something else, had captured them for his own perverse designs.

“Now, we should be careful. I’m unarmed now, and I don’t have my cell phone, so…”

A crack of orange light flooded her vision. The empty apartment had been so dim that the sigh nearly blinded her.

“Kira, what are you doing!?“

“I didn’t do anything!” Kira exclaimed, raising his hands as if it proved anything. “The door opened on its own…”

There was a subtle shivering in his voice. Takara watched the boy suspiciously, who looked composed, outwardly at least. He walked forward with greater caution than before, and she followed him, the two pairs of bare feet crossing the metal doorframe beneath them, chilling them as they shuffled over. Apparently automatic, despite all appearances otherwise, the door closed behind them.

“And here I was thinking this night couldn’t get any weirder.”

“You’re one to talk, stalker.”

“Ssh!”

They had exited the apartment into what seemed to be a large, circular floor. The room was large and spacious, but its shape was ultimately somewhat crescent-like, and it became apparent why the window was so large: all the rooms on the floor circled an open air, central shaft, most likely an atrium, lined with a intricately carved cherry-red wooden railing. That railing also lined the edges of a spiral staircase that corkscrewed down the atrium, and curiously, it all seemed to be one solid piece of wood. Dragons, flying phoenixes, tortoises entwined in a reproductive embrace with serpents, and tigers traveled in a fantastic parade of marvels along the wood railing. Once in a while, one of the carved beasts would carry a large, white pearl between its jaws; it appeared to be a fluorescent bulb, but the building’s common space was well-lit by many Chinese-themed lamps, decorated in auspicious gold and red, and dangling gracefully from the white walls and ceiling. Many seemed to generously incorporate precious stones, like jade and occasionally even ruby, into their design. It was difficult to imagine the cost of even one fixture, or the recourse for buying so many of them.

Kira scanned the area. Eight doors, identical to the one they left through. There didn’t seem to be an elevator door anywhere. Their bare feet pressed soundlessly into a dark red carpet that too was adorned with red symbology from the mainland.

Takara peered over the edge. The lobby floor was visible a dizzying height below, and the spiral followed the circular walls all the way down. The building appeared to be eight stories tall.

Kira’s voice returned from by her side. He too was looking over the edge. “No elevator? How do they move in here?”

An odd sound bubbled up between them. She could hear him gulp. The lobby floor seemed to retreat from them like a special effect from an old suspense film, making Kira’s stomach lurch. He couldn’t tell her about the familiar sensation of nausea when he tried to see the bottom.

“The designer must not have cared about building codes.” Takara noted. Beside the fact that it was probably illegal, the building’s layout seemed tremendously inconvenient for the process of moving in. It would perhaps explain why they appeared to be entirely alone.

All around them were the signs of exotic lands long erased from modern society, yet the building’s design was contemporary. That contradiction pervaded every aspect of its design. The walls appeared white at first glance, but had a smooth texture with faults of black that evoked the image of natural marble. The Asian aesthetic was not universal: There were also Greek influenced frescoes and Renaissance style busts occasionally set into alcoves in the walls. The whole of it was as transparently multicultural as Akitaka City. As Takara and Kira moved down the stairs, the entire building seemed as if it rotated around them and they were suspended on the edges of an immovable shaft of air.

Though lifeless, the air carried with it a drifting, ethereal scent. At first Takara imagined that it belonged to a flower or perfume, for it was light and natural, not like the scent of a chemical, or heavy air freshener. The ever-present, ghostly scent surrounded them, caressed them, traveling into their subconscious, attempting to awaken memories that did not exist. With each step downwards to the lobby, it became stronger, but nevertheless subtler still.

“Incense?”

Kira muttered, giving voice to Takara’s immediate thought. Without question, it was incense, old and medicinal. It intoxicated the unaware mind, and unpleasant memories of the foul embalming musk that had numbed her body made Takara increasingly alert.

“They took my knife…” She had trained in savate, but the enemies her kind faced were nothing so mundane that they could be dispatched by hands and feet. There was no menacing atmosphere, no feeling of hostility whatsoever around them, but nevertheless, the hairs on the backs of both their necks stood on end. They could do nothing but move down the corkscrew.

Takara noticed Kira had been looking strangely at her once more.

“…What? Is there something wrong?” Self-consciously, she drew her shoulders and arms in, her back straightening.

The gardener boy turned back. “Nothing.” His right hand grasped the base of his ponytail, followed by the other. “I was just thinking it was shame. You look really cold, but I’ve got nothing, not even my tank top, to give you. I should have taken the blanket with me.”

The manner in which she averted her eyes suggested being flattered by his concern, but Takara stated in calm, even monotone: “Thank you, but I don’t think I’m going to be the one catching a cold.” He was shirtless, after all.

As he opened his mouth to reply, Kira’s voice was replaced with a single, long chord. A melancholy tone, hollow and loud, verging on strident, echoed from the pit their staircase wrapped. Another moment of silence passed, before the second chord emerged from the lobby floor, followed by many more. Soon the melancholy gave way to a hauntingly subdued tone that was equally hollow, yet filled with a rich brew of nostalgic sentiment. Like the wafting incense, it too seemed a tool of the past, pressing and feeling in the un-molded clay of their unconscious minds, searching for trace signs of an inconclusive event, or a phantom sensation, that Kira and Takara were not aware of. Yet that too was an illusion, for no such memory had existed to begin with. It was music that provoked an artificial, calming sense of recollection, remembering things that one could not remember.

More precisely, it felt like a feeling of remembrance directed at the future. A sense of remembrance directed at the present: déjà vu. However, they both sensed it. A feeling of being on the verge of an undiscovered pathway seized them from within.

The music continued until they arrived at the lobby. There it greeted them along with the full view of the apartment complex’s open ground floor. Darkened doors that resembled shop entrances and offices circled around the spiral staircase’s landing. Most of them weren’t of the gift shop and convenience store type. A pair of glass doors, tinted dark, marked the street entrance, and directly across from it, on the other side of the wide lobby stood an unoccupied desk. The gold lamp with green plastic shade and notebook were left entirely unattended; not surprising considering the late hour, but it only contributed to the abandoned feel the place gave off. The song and its organic pace was the only sign of life apart from the young pair.

Perhaps the lobby’s most captivating feature was its perfectly polished floor. At the center of the atrium lay a fountain, or more accurately, a reflecting pool, in the shape of an octagon. Its placid surface reflected the spiral above and the skylight further off. Drawing near it, they could see that beyond being a mirror-like reflective surface, the patterns beneath the water were profoundly mystical. A circular diagram, like a zodiac, or guide of elements, decorated the bottom of the pool. Gold etchings fanned out encircling a sun-like red dot in the center. There seemed to be no spout to make the pool into a fountain, nor drain to circulate the still water.

They moved in the direction of the unseen string player, crossing the lobby to a pair of open, dark oak doors. They had entered a bar. It fused elements of the classic style with contemporary, mixing generous wooden fixtures and a long mahogany bar with artistically lit liquor shelves. Typically dimly lit, the bar’s warm glow crossed Kira’s face as he wondered if the sterile establishment had even once seen visitors. However, the music was strongest there.

His attention was quickly seized by Takara’s whisper.

“Kira.”

She didn’t have to point. Seated in a recessed booth at the far end of the room sat a young lady, almost a child. Against the dark red of a velvet seat, her body was white marble; so too was her hair, that trailed down in two graceful ribbons over her exposed shoulders. Atop her head was a black bow with medium length ribbons. Her face gazed downwards, eyes obscured as if closed in sleep, while thin hairs waved back and forth with the subtle movements of her playing. She wore a black dress, but most of it was obscured behind what she carried in her doll-like hands. Her thin, pale arms embraced a tremendous instrument that was, though not as large as a double bass, sported an intimidating number of strings. When she drew the bow across its front, smooth, mellow notes emerged, and when her other hand disappeared behind the instrument’s neck, plucking sounds without the sharpness of a guitar soon followed. Her chin hovered over her instrument as if she slept, bobbing subtly with the fluctuations of the melody. While she focused on her music, the expression in her face was of immense concentration, but entirely serene.

As Kira and Takara approached, the music stopped abruptly. The girl’s hand and bow froze. Slowly, her pale face rose. Her wide, glassy eyes opened like two pools of blood in a sea of milk. However, the beauty in her face, unnatural as it was, could not be denied. It was as if she had been expertly crafted from birth to be a masterpiece. The expression she wore, however, was devoid of emotion, as doll-like as her body and complexion.

The stare was not one of recognition. The enigmatic girl simply looked through them. Takara didn’t know why, but it was strangely familiar. Not in a pleasant way, either.

Kira on the other hand, seemed quite fine. Internally, the girl unnerved him as well, but the feeling was not so strong as to prevent him from waving amiably and speaking.

“…Good evening!”

The young girl said nothing in response. She continued to stare, unmoving. After she was apparently satisfied, her ruby eyes lowered to the instrument wordlessly. The music commenced again. Kira could swear that it was lower than before.

He turned to Takara with an embarrassed, lopsided grin.

“Like I said, it’s kind of chilly in here…” he muttered under his breath.

The girl continued to play. She was one with her strings, and it seemed wrong to interrupt her. But she’d acknowledged them. Takara pressed a gently curled hand to her chin. Perhaps she wanted them to come closer, or sit quietly and listen.

Tugging gently on Kira’s arm, she walked slowly towards the ghostly girl. Their bare feet slid across the wooden floor silently, providing no interruption of the nostalgic song. Takara slid into a booth next to the intently focused musician. Kira, looking confused, but saying nothing, followed her in. Sitting in their booth silently, neither party could see the other; the music was the only thing that passed between them.

For an entire hour they sat. The mysterious girl continued to play tirelessly and competently, and her music continued to fill their ears. But the enigma of her music was not strong enough to keep Takara from growing drowsy. She rest her arms upon the booth table. Its surface chilled her skin, but her eyes grew no less heavy.

“Kira.” She spoke cautiously, so as not to interrupt the musician.

“Yeah?”

“Sorry. I’ve been so unkind. You helped me tonight. You deserve my thanks.”

“… It just happened the way it did. There’s no need to thank me.”

“But, I am sorry. In the end, I…”

“Hm?”

Takara hesitated. The words Kira had intercepted earlier sneaked out unhindered in her faint breath.

“I forced you to ‘awaken.’ This part of the world, which I was born into, wasn’t something you had to see. You could have continued to live life normally,” she murmured, “but now…”

His eyes, no less energetic than their meeting that morning, were lined with sympathy, encouraging her to stop.

“You can never go back, right?”

“That’s never an option.” In his low voice, laden with sentiment, few traces of the joker she first met remained. “Not unless you can turn back time. So, I think it’s better not to worry about it.”

Leaning back in his chair, he smiled and looked upward towards the ceiling, crossing his weary arms behind his head.

“When did you ‘awaken’ to this part of the world?” The enthusiasm with which he formed the words made Takara doubt his grasp of the danger he was in, or the kind of danger that had harried her long ago.

“I was always aware of it. It was my mother and father who did the waking up.” She sighed, though the feeling behind her words was warm.

“Really? So you’ve been dealing with these things since you were young?”

“Well, no. I just knew my mother and father had… interesting lives. My godmother and aunt, maybe most of the people who raised me, knew many secrets about the world. But they were weird enough people without being involved in supernatural things. It wasn’t until high school that…” She stopped herself. “Those secrets came to me.” A faint smile graced her lips.

Kira was leaning on his open hand. Though it was a bored-seeming pose, his interest was clearly piqued.

“Is that so? I’m envious.”

“Why?”

“Because when it came to my family... Nah. It’s not as interesting. I’m pretty normal.”

His words drifted off, as their company ceased her playing. Quiet footsteps circled from the booth she sat in before the girl emerged before them again. She carried the hefty instrument in her arms effortlessly, despite its awkward shape. Her red gaze fixed upon Takara and Kira in anticipation.

Feeling the pressure of the mysterious, unsociable girl’s stare, Takara nevertheless attempted to smile. The sensation was alien to her, and even though she felt its duplicity through her own face, she had to believe it was convincing. She had only then realized: it had been some time since she had genuinely smiled.

“… Did we interrupt your performance? I’m sorry.”

The girl did not speak, but simply shook her head. It was hardly even that; she simply slowly turned it from one side to the other.

Takara felt an uncomfortable lump build in the back of her throat.

“I’m… Aozaki Takara… I loved your music. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

A sharp tug on Kira’s arm coerced him to speak up once more. The young man jumped to action.

“Ah! Kaede Kira. What’s your name?”

No answer. The silent girl, with a half shut, indifferent stare, turned her back to them. The trailing ribbons of hair fluttered in the stillness behind her, as she gazed over her shoulder towards the two, expectantly.

“… Accompany me.”
The tiny, feminine voice startled both of them. It was faint enough that it seemed even a strong gust of air would extinguish it. With those words, the string player began to walk out. Her small, graceful steps and petite figure only reinforced the image of sublime perfection she had impressed upon both of them, at least in physical form. The spectral voice she possessed was unsettling. As if the words were merely sounds, she pronounced each perfectly with only the most indistinct traces of emotion behind them.

Tentatively, the pair rose from the booth. Takara’s nose itched with the beginning of a sneeze, but none ever came.

“… Maybe she was the one who…”
All she could remember was a blur of white appearing before her as she blacked out on that street. The young girl, who was remarkably diminutive and wore a striking sleeveless black dress, did not satisfy the vague image.

They followed her in total silence, save their guide’s footsteps, out to the lobby once more. The girl had taken to holding the entire viola/bass/cello/mystery item under one arm, and as uncomfortable as it looked, seeing as the whole thing nearly equaled her height, she handled it like an afterthought. Standing closer to her, Takara spotted a number of strings on the inside of the neck, facing the player. The player could perform both viola-like strokes with a bow and pluck like a guitar at once. She had never seen such an unusual, yet expertly crafted instrument.

“Come to think about it, I remember something…”

Kira turned to see Takara deep in thought. His hand rested upon the serpentine scar as he looked down towards it.

“What do you mean?”

“This girl… I think she’s familiar.” Takara leveled a gaze at the short girl. “Aren’t you a-“

“You may see Marcel now.”

The deadpan voice cut off Takara’s as if the girl hadn’t heard her speak at all. Turning around, she stood framed against the reflecting fountain, twin tails encircling her rotating form. Stepping aside in a movement that resembled a curtsy, the girl gracefully sat upon its edge.

“Still using that name for me, are you?”

From above them, a voice sounded. It was smooth and amicable, and contained within it a silent kind of joy. The language was polite, civilized, and artificial. Immediately the man who emerged, descending the spiral staircase, seized Takara and Kira’s attentions.

He was of average height, though somewhat tall for a Japanese man. His physical features, however, made his ethnicity difficult to specify. He possessed a long, slender face, perfectly symmetrical and unblemished with any unusual mark, and he appeared to be in the twilight between his twenties and thirties. Like the girl before them, his skin was pale, though not as remarkably so, and his hair was of a dark black shade, almost to the point of tinting blue. It framed his flawless face on both sides in semi-long bangs, and ended behind his head in a vaguely effeminate ponytail.

A pair of silvery, wire-framed spectacles sat upon his nose, obscuring his eyes with reflected light wherever he turned his head, and for a moment Kira wondered if they weren’t mirrored. His clothes appeared as expensive and flamboyant as the building itself: a pure white business suit, with a slightly darker, cream-white overcoat, white slacks, a silver-grey tie, and most strikingly, a long scarf that encircled his neck and hung as low as his thighs. It too was colored white, but its stark color somehow was easily distinguished from all the other articles of clothing he wore. It was visibly thin, and fluttered in the air in an odd way. It almost moved of its own accord, but the whiteness disguised all folds and ripples in the fabric, at least from where Takara and Kira stood. It was as if the man wore living strokes of paint, and he himself was a moving portrait; the enigmatic smile he wore for reasons only he understood himself, and the image of him as he dragged a gloved hand across the ornate hand railing, comprised a piece of artwork. He and the quiet girl both were human pieces of art, perfected to a degree that was altogether surreal. Simply looking at them was enough for another human being to be discomforted by their unnatural flawlessness.

“Forgive my associate’s lack of manners. She is not fond of casual conversation, I’m afraid.”

The two chilly and semi-clothed youngsters watched him step down from the staircase with a little jump in his stride that seemed to convey an inordinate joy. Even walking normally, the man’s long steps gave the impression of dancing. His voice too, danced about the echoing, spacious lobby.

Lowering his gaze, the glare across his lenses disappeared, revealing two irises of a blatantly unnatural color: blue, so light and strong as to be cyan, and brilliant. They weren’t luminous, but it was hard not to believe so, as they burnt deep into the mind. Narrow and almost closed, it was remarkable to Takara that she could even see the cornea.

“I am Kurogiri Jin. And I welcome you…”

He turned. With arms outstretched, as if to embrace the entire world, he gestured to the lobby on all sides, scarf following his movement loyally. Turning in a full circle, his grandiose gesture ended with a tip of his glasses, extending his index finger and pushing them up. A flash of glare glanced off the spectacles.

“To my Great Cormorant.”

Kieran
April 3rd, 2011, 07:28 AM
And now the really fun stuff starts . . . :)

Cascade
April 3rd, 2011, 03:44 PM
Appreciated, although as always, you seem like the only person following the fic, lol.

I just realized I haven't been interspersing my Asura chapters. I guess I'll have to put them in another thread, lol. XD
When I update with my new chapter however, it will be in a second thread and the new sidestory will be interspersed like the old style. I'm split on whether to do the high school gangsters side story or the wuxia side story first.

Kieran
April 3rd, 2011, 07:18 PM
I'm kind of used to ancient history battles by now, with all the authors who do flashbacks - I vote Mafia.

Ace
April 3rd, 2011, 07:48 PM
I'm following it, I just haven't gotten very far yet.

Cascade
April 5th, 2011, 07:54 PM
Any readers at all are appreciated. I like comments. XD
I'll probably put up Ashura in another thread today.

Cascade
April 7th, 2011, 10:40 PM
“Hmm…”

The pale suited, bespectacled man began a slow, pacing circle. As he had on the stairs, he drifted about, loafers gliding over the polished floor, and leaned discretely towards his two guests.
Takara found his presence difficult to reconcile. Something about him tugged at the hairs on the back of her neck. It wasn’t just the air conditioning.

“Excellent work, if I do say so myself. For a rush job anyways.” Cyan eyes flashed behind his lenses, which were akin to polished crystal. “I suppose there is nothing to be done about the use of such expensive materials, but it simply cannot be helped.”

As he spoke, he came to a stop in front of the pair, and, as if natural, the young, pale girl silently stepped to his side, as the man began extract himself from his white overcoat.

The white stranger’s spectral presence begged questioning, as if the building, having had some of its mystery sapped away by him granting the name Great Comorant, transferred its power to him. Takara couldn’t stay silent for long.

“I am Aozaki Takara, and this is Kaede Kira. You were the one who brought us here?” She questioned softly. As if he had already anticipated her words, the man known as Kurogiri raised his eyes to meet hers a moment before she began to speak.

“Ha ha no, technically not.” He began to fold up his coat with a dry laugh. “You’ve met my good friend and colleague of course. My assistant, Innocentia.” With a cordial hand gesture, he motioned to the childlike girl, who had set aside her “guitar.”

“So, you brought us here when we passed out.” Takara focused her attention on Innocentia, unwilling to miss a critical opportunity to be polite, lowering her head in gratitude. “We’re in your debt.”

“It was my pleasure. You needn’t thank me.”
Innocentia displayed a picturesque curtsey for them. Her voice was still wispy but some of the emotionless gloom had disappeared. The man’s presence seemed to energize her somewhat.

She then took Kurogiri’s coat with a flat expression and lack of attention that suggested she was in the midst of a daily, or even hourly, ritual. Examining her, Kira and Takara both coincidentally considered the matter of her age, and whether someone who appeared less than 14 years old could be a servant of such a man. Additionally there did not seem to be any relation between the two.

Kurogiri bowed deeply as well, his smile only growing wider. “True to her appearance, she is a consummate lady. Contrary to her appearance, she is quite stalwart, though her build may be slight.”

The atmosphere shared by the unsettling pair grew more and more suspicious. However, they could not have been more different. Kurogiri conducted himself with the panache of an actor, his manner eloquent and voice politick. Innocentia seemed terse, unenthusiastic, and frigid in demeanor. Kurogiri was tall and appeared very mature, while his assistant had hardly blossomed into a lady as he so suggested. Of course, their choices of white and black as their respective colors only accentuated this difference.

Kira noticed something else as well. The familiar trace scent of incense had set deep into the man’s clothes. While considering this, he was brought back to the present by the man’s soothing voice again.

“I hope that you two weren’t terribly uncomfortable. I’m afraid that as my building has few tenants, and more pressing matters demanded my attention, I was unable to provide proper furnishings for your room.”

The room had been entirely bare, so Takara thought it was unusual Kurogiri would think it was unreasonable that he wasn’t able to, in a few hours, fill an entire room with the proper furnishings.

Kira too thought about the room in which he woke up, and how empty it was. Takara was there when he came back to consciousness, but she had no blanket to rest under, so, after his brief paranoid episode, he had worried she was going to catch cold. But then where had she been sleeping? Kira shot her a glance.

The menacing, flushed glare she shot back at him could only mean one thing; It wasn’t something she wanted to talk about. Kira decided to engage with their benefactors, a bit more nervously than before.

“I-I’d be pretty stupid to criticize you about that. I’m just glad to be alive.”

“So are we.” The small girl remarked, somewhat abruptly. The way she interjected almost suggested that she was unaccustomed to the natural rhythm of conversation.

“Glad you’re alive, that is.” Kurogiri added. “As owner and landlord of this building, it is a failure on my part not to provide sufficiently to the needs of my guests. Modesty demands that I apologize to you for this.”

Kira felt like his body was being turned to the same marble in the floor and walls. The conversation was well on its way to becoming awkward and stiff, for he had little sense of genteel behavior. He fiddled with his short ponytail, chuckling nervously.

“Well, I er, accept your apology. This is a pretty swank place you’ve got here. I can’t be anything but impressed.” Another nervous laugh. “Um, to be honest, a 2ldk is like a palace to me… I’ve never seen an apartment that spacious.”

It was easily three times the size of his current place, which he expected eviction from in short order, and twice the size of the one he lived at before.

“Please, we are more than fortunate enough to have been taken in by such kind people.” Takara nodded in agreement. It was surprising to Kira that he’d actually had a similar impression to the city dweller. Perhaps it was just natural to any Japanese person to feel that way, what with the intimidating crowded cities.

Takara’s voice hid her suspicion of them. There was no question that the girl reminded her of a boy from her memory, but unlike him, this one was devoid of the passions that continued to animate him. As for Kurogiri… Takara instinctively knew that he was no simple landlord. Time would tell if the smile hid a more malicious intent. The unearthly atmosphere of his building made her sick, and Kurogiri was almost certainly at least aware of the supernatural.

Kurogiri nodded his head once. “Well, we certainly try to be. In any case, I suppose there are quite a few things we must discuss.” The white ghost beckoned with his gloved hand as he turned towards the stairs, Innocentia following him as she gathered up her instrument as well with no discernible effort.

“Though the night is no longer young, why don’t you join us for a while? I am certain we may have some stimulating discussion to share. And of course, with that must always come tea.”



He led them to the top floor, near where they had resided before. Somehow the trek upstairs felt shorter than walking down. The staircase continued upward, oddly enough, into the ceiling of the top apartment floor, through a rectangular opening. From the looks of the grey metal door and its dim red exit light, it appeared to lead to the roof.

Kurogiri, who had been surprisingly silent on the way up, closed his hand around the handle. “I entreat you: Stay close to me now.” He murmured. “It would be a shame for you to get lost on your first night here. Take care to step through no less than 5 seconds after I have.” Innocentia followed so closely behind Kurogiri that she was at times already stepping into his footprint the second he raised his foot.

Naturally Kira was perplexed. “It’s just a normal door, right? Must have some auto-open thing like that room’s door… Though I was sure that was a ghost.” The chill that ran down his spine coaxed him into compliance.

Takara, however, was cautious. By that point, he had all but proven his supernatural nature. For the moment, trust was all she could exchange for him, nearly naked under the yukata and entirely without weapons. Still, she too followed his lead.

Kurogiri spoke up again.
“If you please, look right as you come up; focus your eyes upon the bay.”

On cue, Takara and Kira turned their heads, obediently but with substantial confusion, to the ocean. At that time of night, the darkness near the horizon made the scenery they’d seen in red earlier that day impossible to discern. The barely visible glints of light riding the waves, courtesy of the city and the moon, were the only signifiers of the ocean that lay beneath the star field. Takara felt her body shudder with an even greater chill as they were fully exposed to the night wind.

From beside them, two succinct claps sounded. Then, “You may turn back now.”

Slowly, they turned around. Before them, directly in the center of the grey moonlit rooftop, lay an ancient house. Its style mimicked that of an ancient, Opium Wars era teahouse, but the pavilion seemed too luxurious for that. Though the outside was almost universally of worn, dark wood, the entrance, lined with the same symbols that lined the railings and fixtures inside The Cormorant, sported many drifting curtains of white, semi-transparent silk. So too did several open patios on the sides of the building. They rippled in the air and drew a soft glow from the moon’s rays. Paper lanterns hung from many wooden spars at the corners of the house, and glowed with the soft blue-green haze of captured fireflies. The sight was ethereal; if was an illusion, it was more than convincing. Kira feared that if he drew near and pressed his hands against the blackened wood, nothing but air would resist him.

Kurogiri and his companion were already entering the building, his beckoning gestures stringing the youngsters along. Takara consulted Kira wordlessly with a silent look. Predictably, he continued to walk forward, and she followed but the shock in him made his steps shorter. Before, when they walked, even Takara’s long stride seemed small compared to his, but now they were almost even.

They pushed through the fluctuating doors of white silk, entering a misty world. On all sides Takara and Kira could see nothing but snowy, moving fog, a bright line indicating the edge of a fabric sheet here and there, and the darkness of their host’s back before them. The rush of the breeze above the complex surrounded them with innumerable whisperings. Somewhere, Takara could hear the tubular ringing of wind chimes, or so she felt; in the midst of the quiet mix of white noise, it was difficult to be certain of anything. Somehow it felt like the white fabric parted before them and closed behind them, pushing them forward gently into the building’s interior. Soon, the familiar scent of incense hovered in front of their noses, and only got stronger. Eventually it became all pervasive and almost overly intense. Kira covered his nose, but Takara could only barely see him by that point. Silently, she moved closer, wary of getting lost in the strange corridor of silken spirits. But it was not long before the waves parted and a more bewildering sight presented itself.

They had apparently entered what was either Kurogiri’s abode, or an immense antique shop. The square, tall-ceiling room was unevenly lit, and the reason for that was clear; immediately Kira and Takara’s eyes were drawn to the ceiling. Tens, if not hundreds, of paper and glass lanterns of all colors, shapes and sizes hovered beneath the dark, wooden ceiling like stars. Each one seemed unique, with a different style and design. Some Japanese, some Chinese, some European, some boxy, some spherical, some encircled in metal, some designed to resemble fish or birds: the myriad lanterns far exceeded the number of any collection the young people could have imagined, and all looked exquisitely valuable. Spheres of muted light flickered and moved within each one, giving them a profound beauty.

Beneath the sky of lanterns was a relatively undecorated floor, with a decorative red carpet and one low, square table, displaying a few scattered items and something in a glass bottle. The walls were not quite as barren; many shelves overflowed with innumerable strange objects. But many a shelf was cast in shadow by the one above it.

“This is my shop, as well as my residence.”

Kurogiri turned around again to his awed guests, as Innocentia continued to the square table, setting down her master’s coat and her instrument. He carried a faintly proud smile.

“Do you like it? You’re quite welcome to look around.” Suddenly raising a waggling finger, he shook his head. “Ah, but I would caution you against touching something without my permission. These are only display items, but they’re still quite valuable.”

“Holy crap!” Kira exclaimed, at which the gentleman winced. His polite smile didn’t change, but it seemed forced for a fleeting moment.

“Yes, ‘Holy Crap’ indeed.”

Without pause, Kira rushed to the shelves on the side of the room. A stone mask made of chipped but still beautiful turquoise. An expertly crafted brass telescope. Tarnished silver tins full of irregular looking cigarettes. A long, white maple katana sheathed in ceremonial shirasaya style.

“Amazing… all this stuff is for sale?” His wide eyes devoured every unusual sight there was to be found.

“Well, not all of them. I need not worry about finances. So naturally, I’m free to ‘choose’ my customers with discretion. These are all precious to me, every single one. Banish the thought that I might entrust part of my prized collection to an irresponsible owner…”

Takara followed him over more slowly, examining each item. Her eyes lingered upon an intricately signed Japanese tanto knife. She wouldn’t have admitted it openly, but she found it to be as much of a work of art as any painting. It wasn’t very feminine to admire a blade for its craftsmanship and obvious sharpness, however, and she shot a glance to make sure no one had noticed her.

“You’re also a dealer in antiques. But, if it is alright for me to say, you’ve got an impressive range of time periods here… not that I’m an expert.” She eyed the cigarettes, which sat awkwardly next to an old Jomon figurine, as if one or the other were an unwelcome anachronism. It didn’t seem Kurogiri concerned himself at all with organizing the shelves, or at least didn’t do so in any discernibly comprehensible way.

Kurogiri turned to her with a bit of flourish in his suit jacket. “Yes. From my point of view, it is pointless to discriminate; any old trinket that catches my eye is worthy of display in my collection. I value uniqueness, and timelessness. It doesn’t matter to me whether it is centuries or a decade old. I see nothing but true worth.”

“I see…” Takara murmured, curiously. She turned quickly on her heels, but the words in her mouth were quickly snuffed out, oddly enough for a man as concerned with manners as Kurogiri.

“Judging from that expression of yours, I have an idea of what you’re going to ask me.” He folded his hands behind his back and paced towards the table, where he withdrew several sitting pillows. Innocentia was fiddling with something incredibly small next to the glass bottle.

Seating himself, Kurogiri motioned to the other two with a wide sweep of his arm. “Please, join us.”



Once all were seated, and Innocentia had delivered a pot filled with piping hot jasmine tea, conversation began once again.

“So,” Kurogiri lightly handled the white tea glass in his bare hand, apparently ignorant of its heat. “I am interested in one thing, first of all. Does my name strike either you as familiar?”

Kira, who had his chin folded in his grip, unexpectedly straightened his posture and nodded.
“Come to think of it, I’ve heard it somewhere before, when I first was learning about this city.”

Pleased, Kurogiri acknowledged him, drinking deeply from his glass. Takara cringed as she imagined the burning tea running down her throat.

“ You’re quite perceptive. Akitaka city is only ten years old. Are you familiar with the South Korean city of New Songdo?”

Kira only scratched his head, but Takara nodded. She had seen it in news and in geography when she was young. South Korea had begun an economic project: To build a commercially viable city, strong in business and industry and attractive to tourism, in a small span of time. Although the plan to be completed in 2015, scaled-back development resulted in it being completed in 2013. More than the completed city’s economy, the project of building New Songdo, started in 2006, was itself a strong economic stimulus for its country.

“Akitaka City was planned in 2009, when the two of you were quite young.” Kurogiri proudly pressed an open hand on his silvery tie, over his heart. “I was a member of the original project team. The amount of money I accumulated negotiating with keiretsu and construction groups, corporations to foster rapid development, as well as helping to design the city’s layout and zoning, ensured me an early retirement. Thus, I moved here, from the mainland, relocating myself for now as owner of this building, which I also designed myself.” Brushing his chin, he smirked more self-assuredly. “Its structure is somewhat unorthodox, as you have no doubt noticed, but considering my status as a member of the original team, and my continued involvement in Akitaka’s development, these are easily overlooked details.”

Kira nodded in comprehension. “Yes, that’s it. I remember reading your name in some article on city development. You must be a millionaire… no, billionaire.”

“This night just keeps getting more amazing. I almost wish it would never stop.”

Kurogiri’s ubiquitous smile turned into a subtle frown. “News regarding the tunnel-project no doubt. It was entirely too troublesome; I had to come out of semi-retirement to oppose that, but it appears my efforts were hardly worthwhile. No matter.”

Innocentia, in the meanwhile, continued to fiddle with the tiny object in her hand. The diminutive sticks and small squares of cloth were slowly taking form into something that resembled a flag. “Marcel is most certainly the key to this city’s continued prosperity and success, fortune willing.”

“Wow, I had no idea we were in the company of someone so important. To think we troubled you in this way…” Takara murmured. “Still, your generosity makes it easy for me to imagine how much you’ve contributed to Akitaka.”

She didn’t want to mention it, but she felt certain the man’s strange, multicultural decorating sense had somehow infected the entire city itself.

Kurogiri leaned slightly on one elbow, pointing with that hand to Takara. “And you’re Jin-Sei students, aren’t you? I am also that University’s first alumnus. In addition, I negotiated strongly for the linking of Japanese and foreign corporate donors to help make the college one of the most decorated in the nation within half a decade.”

He was boasting, but his light, level headed diction made it seem that pride in his work weighed very little upon his thoughts. Perhaps that man had simply so much money that it meant nothing to him to influence urban planning and private education in the city irrevocably.

“His influence must be positive; there’s no question of that. But he is a magus as well.”

Takara’s expression chilled. “While I’m very honored to meet you, Mr. Kurogiri, it goes without saying, but you’re no simple urban planner, or building owner, are you?”

Cyan eyes slid languidly from one youngster to the other. “Oh to be young again. Your concept of time is fleeting after all. But that is quite acceptable.”

Taking heed of Takara’s cold diction, Kira too seemed to grow cautious and watch Kurogiri carefully.

The smiling, squinting man sat straight, speaking directly to the pair without diverting his gaze.

“Eccentric men tend to become interested in certain flights of fancy. I simply happened to become interested in the investigation of the supernatural. The Great Cormorant is a free-standing modern miracle of Feng Shui and the Taijitu, the Supreme Ultimate Diagram. It is both a welcoming refuge and a fortress against contaminated, impure power.”

“That would explain the strange feeling I received when I came to in this building right?” Kira remarked. Kurogiri nodded gladly.

Takara smiled subtly, narrowing her eyes at Kurogiri and momentarily almost imitating his own perpetual expression. “Then, if you’re an investigator of the supernatural, you are also a practitioner?”

Kurogiri winked imperceptibly at her. “To know the arcane is to practice it.”

Innocentia looked up from her project once more and spoke in factual monotone.
“Marcel is the most accomplished independent magus in the Eastern Hemisphere.”

This provoked stilted, dry laughter once more from the pale-garbed man. The artificiality of his voice came through most strongly when he laughed.

“My dear, you overestimate me. To be flattered in this way would turn nations red, let alone my humble self. I am simply a philosopher of the esoteric arts abandoned after the era of Newton, at least by the larger world. It would be too presumptuous for me to consider myself the best, if one could even exist. ” Despite Kurogiri’s words, his face remained as pale and flawless as before. “Many years ago I studied the discipline of Taoism in my home country of China. It is roughly analogous to this country’s derivative tradition of Onmyou.”

The tanned young day worker watched his benefactor carefully. “You are a Onmyou user?” He had felt those only existed in fiction; in the old medieval period dramas he occasionally watched, those wizards of yin and yang were often heroes, or villains, who could commune with the invisible gods and ayakashi of the world. However, Kira’s mind was flexible, as the events of that night showed. Somehow, he couldn’t feel himself rejecting even the impossible when it reared its head in front of him.

“Ha ha, oh please. I was not satisfied with one discipline of magic, so I did what was natural.”

Kira took a cautious sip from his tea. Most of what they were talking about seemed beyond him. He decided to sort out the specifics of the new “magecraft world” he had entered later.

Takara didn’t so much as touch hers. “You studied more than one?” From what her aunt had described to her, most organizations of magic users suffered from severe xenophobia and arrogance, and few would accept an outsider to their studies into their number. It was inconceivable, perhaps even outright impossible, for a magus from outside of the officially recognized lineages, to achieve recognition and status in the Mages Association. Europe was littered with only loosely affiliated magic groups known as the Sea of Estray.

Kurogiri’s smile bared slightly more of his teeth than before. “I studied all of them.”

His red-eyed assistant suddenly gave him a perplexing look. To Kira it seemed as though she was entranced, but to Takara, it seemed almost as if the girl was scolding the man even in his superior age.

In response to this, Kurogiri cleared his throat and corrected himself. “Most of them, I suppose. But this fusion of traditions I have conceived has allowed me access to the many treasures that line my coffers in this lowly shack.”

The young daughter of two supernaturally aware prodigies focused her suspicious glare on the dissembling man. “This girl is a homunculus too, isn’t she? Einzbern?”

“Home-On-Cross?” She could nearly see a question mark appear out of thin air over Kira’s head.

Innocentia nodded solemnly. “Our honored guest is indeed correct. This body is the 22nd masterpiece of Jubstacheit von Einzbern, given to Marcel as a gift for his provisionary assistance.”

Her suspicions were finally confirmed. Just as “Sempai” had been before, the white doll that sat calmly piecing together a tiny wooden object was one of the magically gifted artificial humans the ancient clan of magi excelled in creating. The soft, pale skin and hair, and sanguine eyes had been enough of a giveaway on their own, but everything had solidified: she now knew why Innocentia’s presence unnerved her. Within her heart it was most likely impossible for her to reconcile herself with any homunculi again, after what Emiya did. She knew it was illogical, but the acrid feeling coursing through her could have been nothing but contempt.

Kurogiri seemed to perceive that negative emotion. “She is a highly loyal and valuable servant of mine. Quite charming in friendship as well.”

Something in his voice made Takara want to retch. She leaned forward over the table.
“Then that man who attacked us; was he one of your servants as well?” Asking directly, the mistrust within her had taken over any vestige of politeness she had attempted to observe before.

Kurogiri stopped smiling, placing an extended index finger to his chin. He glanced upwards to his host of firefly lanterns. “Hm, I wonder…”

His deliberation marked the tightening of Takara’s hands, but she said nothing.

“He was a magi. Or was he? He was certainly an alchemist, considering the toxin he developed would have required a substantial amount of apothecary skill. Delivered on a silver needle…” Kurogiri grinned widely again in recognition. “Aaah... How amusing.”

“What is amusing? That man killed-” His irreverent attitude was infuriating to Takara. Kurogiri clearly weighed the risk to Kira’s life and those of innocents lightly.

“Sorry. I know this is quite personal to you all but I’m afraid I don’t know.”

“What?!” Kira nearly fell over.

“I have a terrifically bad memory. When you’ve lived as long as I have, you tend to forget unimportant details.”

“Unimportant details?”

“In any case, I had exerted my influence over Akitaka’s original city planning, as well as the location of this city on the old sacred ground of ancient times, specifically to ward against these kinds of supernaturally related crimes. To both of you I extend my deepest apologies; needless to say, I feel at least somewhat responsible for your troubles.”

Kira was taken aback. His hand crept to the exposed scar on his chest.
“…but you didn’t do anything wrong. And moreover, you helped us. Even if you say you’re responsible, I wouldn’t be a man if I didn’t thank you.”

Although Takara felt a cool burning of hostility towards the suspicious man, she would not disagree with Kira’s strong feeling of gratitude. For a moment, the caution she had experienced seemed irrational even to her.

Kira glanced downwards. The enormous scar that marked his chest would be his constant companion from that night onward.
“Did you use this supernatural power to heal me?”

Kurogiri’s eyes lit up. Not literally, though his brilliant gaze seemed almost to suggest that they could, but nevertheless, he was galvanized. “Ah! Exactly the topic of conversation I was stabbing at.” Kurogiri pointed at Kira, then dragged his finger through the air to gesture to Takara. Innocentia’s eyes slowly followed his finger with only passing interest.

“When Innocentia found you and determined your injuries could not be healed by conventional hospital care, she transported you here, where I examined your bodies.”

Takara folded her arms slightly more over herself.

“Conventional healing magic does not function in Akitaka. In fact, most magic does not function at all. However, I am quite used to conducting my research here, and it provides no barrier to me.” A hint of arrogance entered his voice. “That however was not enough for Kira. The venom of your assailant carried with it a corrosive that disintegrated his heart and many of the major arteries of his torso, while he was still alive.”

Kurogiri’s tone seemed to say “Ouch, it hurts even to say it.”

“My first inclination was to attempt the Dr. Bian treatment. The rationale was that if I relocated Kira’s heart into your more magically receptive body, repairs might still be possible. However, halfway through I realized that, erh, your hearts might not be compatible, so switching them would have probably caused more complications than could be realistically corrected.”

Takara nearly squeaked in alarm. “’Halfway through!?’”
“That explains his scar…”

Kira looked as if on the verge of shaking to pieces. “S-so I was right! You were going to steal my organs!”

Kurogiri shook his head. “Mr. Kaede, you don’t seem to realize that you had very little left of an organ to steal.”

“Oh.”

Brushing his chin, he sighed. “After some deliberation, I settled upon using an artificial replacement. The ingredients and components that went into its construction cost perhaps somewhere around 10,000,000 yen, so I felt it was roughly equivalent in value. Not a bad exchange, I must say.”

There was a low bump from Kira’s side of the table as he resisted the impulse to leap to his feet, hitting his knee. “Ten-“
He cut himself off and thought the rest.
“Ten million yen!? I have a ten million yen heart!?”

The philosopher of the strange smiled in amusement at Kira’s reaction. The poor boy couldn’t even imagine a million, let alone ten million yen. And something artificial now beat within his chest; he would not have been aware of its existence, or that it was different save for Kurogiri’s explanation. There was no lasting pain, and his body felt as healthy as ever. The man was a miracle worker as well as frighteningly generous. The kind of magnanimous behavior Kurogiri demonstrated, from Kira’s point of view, was reckless bordering on totally insane.

“Don’t act so surprised. Money can be recovered; I have plenty of time to earn that fortune back. An alchemical heart is valuable, but not irreplaceable.” Despite his words, Kurogiri somehow seemed irritated.

“B-but, this goes beyond simply debt here!” Kira stammered. “I’m just a gardener-I was just a gardener. I appreciate that you saved my life.” He held an open hand before him. “But I mean-what am I talking about?” Kira glanced sideways. It seemed he was regressing into his own out-loud monologue… “I should be just happy to be alive, but that guy spent tons of money, but human life can’t be measured in money can it, yet organs can and are, but he’s got no reason to help me, and he doesn’t know me, so now I feel guilty and...”

His words trailed off into indistinct muttering, prompting Takara to continue in the confused young man’s place.
“Thank you for saving his life.” She managed to smile in warm gratitude, before turning to her “ally.”

“Come on, Kira, didn’t you say you don’t need a reason to help someone?”
In truth she did not take that statement at face value, but she wasn’t cynical enough to deny Kira such a charming belief, for its simplistic appeal invited her idealism as well.

“It is as she says… or you said, apparently.” Kurogiri crossed his arms on the table. “Think nothing of it. I did it on a whim.”

“He does many things on a whim.” Innocentia spoke again, slightly quieter than before.

The bespectacled man gave her a rather chiding glance but she looked away, still lacking expression, as if she said nothing at all.
“Ahem, as I was saying, I replaced your heart with one my own specialty alchemical organs. Don’t misunderstand this as hefting a yoke of debt upon your shoulders.”

He did, however, smirk as he said the next few words. Kurogiri pronounced everything as deliberately as possible, with exacting precision.
“However, your wallet was rather slim.”

Kira blinked. “Are you suggesting that I work for you?”

Another laugh. “Young man, your poverty isn't all I noticed. I am very generous. Besides, you two are quite interesting specimens.”

Takara grew guarded once more. “What kind of employment is this? You’re offering this to me too?”

With a muted “Tch, the tea has grown cold,” as if it was a common experience for the man, Kurogiri’s diverted attention returned to her.

“Oh the occasional odd job. My needs are not so extensive as to interfere with your studies; far be it from me to damage your ‘chance for a bright future.’” Trace sarcasm flowed through his comment. “I shall need extra hands, or I should say, Innocentia will, when I make my monthly trip abroad. While I am away, it typically falls to her to maintain the complex in my absence, handle paperwork, answer phones, all those dreadfully boring things.” He waved his hand dismissively as if the matters of a normal landlord had no significance to him, and that the “papers” were merely blank leafs. “You wouldn’t be doing anything special: simple janitorial work, cleaning, vacuuming, those sorts of trivialities.”

Kira pressed an extended thumb against his chest. “Leave it to me. I’m fine with any amount of hours. It’s kind of bad for a young girl that age to be working anyways…” He noted, “The, uh, illegal kind of bad. It might be better if I did all her work.”

Innocentia turned an impassive face to him. “That is not necessary. I alone am enough. Your sentiment is appreciated however.”

“Uh, yeah. Well, anyways, you said ‘odd jobs.’ Keeping your little niece, or sister, or… whatever company one time every month isn’t all we’re doing, right?”

Takara moved to Kira. “She’s-“

“I am his belonging.” Innocentia intoned. Stated calmly and without hesitation, all of her being was sold to the strange white-dressed man in an instant. Kira was noticeably disturbed, but said no more.

Kurogiri’s smile parted. “Regarding those, I believe it would be best to leave that for another time. Mr. Aozaki seems drained.”

Kira looked to the side. Although her eyes were open, Takara’s shaded gaze was a clear sign of her exhaustion. Moreover, she was beginning to shiver. Strange, then, that he hadn’t felt the chill as strongly as her.

“Sorry… it’s been a long night.” Takara answered, though she did show some minor astonishment. “*Mr.* Aozaki?” Perhaps she was not the one ready to nod off.

Kurogiri pushed aside his now cold and empty cup. Innocentia’s hand, almost as white as the porcelain, gathered it back with the others to their tray.

“Come now, there’s no need to push yourselves.” Both raised from their seats, the man gesturing for Takara and Kira to follow. “Akitaka is an exceptionally safe city. The influence of even organized crime typical of our country like the Yakuza is ‘small time.’ However, for your two, the world outside this building for the duration of the night is the same as enemy territory. That man is still at large.”

Innocentia disappeared briefly into a side room, returning empty-handed. “Marcel.”

Kurogiri nodded to her. “Our little apartment building is still without tenants. If it would please you, I strongly encourage you two to become our first. This city is built upon sacred ground, and my building is a “fortress” in itself. No harm will come to you as long as you reside here.”

The host began to lead them to the hall of silk once more. “Innocentia will direct you to our display room. It’s only partially furnished, but perhaps you will find it to your liking.”

“You’re too kind.” Takara murmured. As they were guided out, she looked over her shoulder, and the man in white saw them off, a calm smile lining his face, as always. Kurogiri’s narrowed eyes seemed to phase through her and in turn concealed within them wonder like frozen gems, aquamarine to Innocentia’s ruby.



As before, the door to the display room opened without Innocentia even so much as grasping the lever. The diminutive servant stepped aside silently. Not even once had she opened her mouth to speak after they had left Kurogiri’s home on the roof. The distance between Innocentia and that man seemed to sap the voice from her.

“Perhaps she doesn’t like to talk much to people besides Kurogiri.” Takara wondered as she slid past her, into the room.

Following close behind, Kira jumped as the spectral voice materialized behind him.

“The room is still only partially furnished… I will be in the parlor at the lobby.” Innocentia stated in monotone. “If there is any way in which I can minister to your comfort, do not hesitate to ask… Marcel has instructed me so.”

Kira looked to her, markings of curiosity upon his face.
“Sorry if it’s rude, but I was wondering about something.”

Innocentia raised her chin and locked eyes with him unflinchingly, awaiting his question with no response to make the moment any less awkward.

“Why do you call that guy… I mean, Mr. Kurogiri… ‘Marcel?’”

“I know Master as Marcel. Today he is Kurogiri. Yesterday he was Marcel.” Her voice was faint enough to qualify as a whisper.

The unsatisfying answer nevertheless silenced Kira for the moment. Without further business, Innocentia departed the room, black dress and ribbon-like hair fluttering behind her. The door closed after, audibly harder than before. The two guests were alone once more, and the building’s thickening silence was as if they had never been otherwise since their arrival.

“Wow… they’re certainly ‘unique.’” The silence was broken by Kira’s muttering.

Inside the display room, the bare skeleton of a living space was set up. A pyramid of cardboard boxes, which were assumed to contain unassembled furniture, lay untouched in a corner. If the chamber had been set up as an example of a fully prepared apartment, no one had made any effort to make it presentable. Cormorant “landlord” clearly paid as little heed to the offices of his career as possible. The cityscape painted the room in a dim azure, its walls a tinted pearl. A small square table, made of gray metal, sat in the center of the room. One corner of the apartment featured a partially enclosed kitchenette, and nearby was a door to the bathroom. The later two features had been in their previously empty room, Kira realized, but the dim lighting and lack of actual furniture had made it largely impossible for him to notice upon first arriving there.
Takara opened the closet, and frowned. There was only one futon.

“You seem a lot more energetic now that we’re down here.”
Her companion, blissfully ignorant of the thoughts going through her mind, spoke up again. She pushed the futon back into its storage space hastily.

“It was mostly an act. I’m tired, true, but I mostly just wanted to talk to you in private.” Takara closed the closet, leaning her back against its door. She folded her arms, her posture giving off an impression of boldness, or confidence, that she might not have felt otherwise. “You trust him, don’t you?”

Kira laughed. “Well, it’s not like I have much of a choice. I’m alive, and there’s a scar on my chest. A lot of information has rushed into my head this night, and I guess I’m still recovering.” Blinking at Takara, his expression grew questioning. “Are you saying I should be afraid of ‘Mr. White’?”

“Well, I’m familiar with ‘this world’ you’ve entered. I always have been.” Her voice grew quiet. “My Aunt is a witch as well, but besides her, my experiences meeting them haven’t always been positive.” Kira could see her fingers tighten, enough that he thought that even in the pale light, the blood visibly rushed to the chilled extremities. “They’re selfish people, Magi.”

“I could tell that much. The guy is clearly full of himself.” Kira stated, silently thinking to himself: “Your Aunt is a witch? What’s next?!”

“But he’s not unlikable. Four-Eyes did good things for this city. He’s famous. It’s not as if I had a choice. I couldn’t just come back from the dead in the nick of time and say ‘Sorry sir, but it would be better if you didn’t replace my melting organs with new ones; I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you.’ What point is there in suspecting Kurogiri?”

“He gives me the creeps. Moreover, I already am unable to just trust him, right off the bat. It’s inevitable that I’m going to feel suspicious of that man.”

“Independent magi are people who live outside of society, or live within it and just feel contempt for its rules, because they think they see beyond them. Even my Aunt, though I love her very much, is one of these people. She can’t associate with normal people, and they can’t associate with her. These are people who are forced by their obscure power to be loners, hermits, or sociopaths. Do you understand?”

He shook his head. The shaggy threads of black rustled and obscured his eyes momentarily. “It’s no good for me to worry about it. He saved my life. Besides, I owe him. I’m not someone who is willing to leave debts unresolved. If he did what he says he did, then…” His voice trailed off.

“But, he’s now been given the opportunity to control you. I... I don’t know why he would; someone like you wouldn’t be of any use to him, but…”

Takara’s eyes drew to the dreadful scar on Kira’s chest. By that man’s words, some unnatural, false piece of a human throbbed within him, sustaining him. She knew that Kira had become beholden to Kurogiri. The heart inside of the boy was the enigmatic researcher’s property, though he had made light of it. Understanding this, even someone as presumptuous as Kira nevertheless had a sense of honor that made a supposedly free choice more akin to compulsion.

“Kira will be manipulated.”

Like an ignorant dog being adjusted to the taste of flesh, Kira would become a slave of the magus, or worse. Was it paranoid of her to feel that way? With the alchemical heart, Kira had become more than a human being. He was augmented, or perhaps a ‘container.’ Perhaps he had a potential that Takara could not see, but Kurogiri was well aware of it.

“No, he doesn’t deserve that. Even if he’s a crude boy and a jerk, it shouldn’t have happened this way to him.”

Takara and Kira, who both dipped into the esoteric brew of the night and imbibed its mystifying contents, had briefly attained a level of existence that the normal people who walked the daylight streets never contacted. But she felt fully contaminated. It had stained her clothes and merged with her skin. More accurately, it had always been there.

“It’s too unfair. What if he becomes like Mother?”

The belief that she ever had the chance to unobtrusively slip through college with underwhelming academic success and limited popularity, simply because she understood the supernatural world and was therefore able to evade it, was sophistry. Kira, however, was still salvageable. Kurogiri had mercifully preserved his life, and that was an act worthy of praise. That heart would not last forever, but forever pin his heart to the otherworldly. There would be no refuge for the naïve, positive boy.

“It’s wrong.”

“’Wrong’?”

“It’s wrong, Kira. He was right in saving you, but if Kurogiri isn’t the altruist he says he is, you’re in far greater danger. He’s made you into a ‘container’ for that item, and there’s nothing to stop him from getting it back someday.”

Kira frowned at her. “I understand why you’re worried, but that’s meaningless isn’t it? It’s happened. This scar won’t go away any time soon.”

His mention of it stabbed her. Takara’s head ached when her eyes set upon the scar. The image provoked a painful sense of regret within her.

“The heart you have now isn’t real. Kurogiri is probably the only one who knows how to maintain it. If only you weren’t put into this situation.”

“I told you to stop talking about that!” His voice surrounded her, but she was unmoved.

“It’s not that easy! Kurogiri might not feel anything over the burden we placed upon you, but I…”

The scattered thoughts in her mind began to accumulate into one, iron form. Her doubts before had been but metal sand, pivotal in the sharpening of her final resolve. Kira would never recognize it. He recklessly decided on his own to help her. Naturally, there was no reason for Takara not to reciprocate.

She stared directly into his eyes. There was no softness or sympathy there, but there was an incredible maturity Kira couldn’t even begin to understand.

“I’ll take responsibility for making you this way. As long as I’m here, you’ll never become his belonging.”

Ace
April 7th, 2011, 10:42 PM
Any readers at all are appreciated. I like comments. XD
I'll probably put up Ashura in another thread today.

Ashura? What's that about?

Kieran
April 7th, 2011, 10:45 PM
Ashura? What's that about?

Sidestory/prequel.



And it's always fun reading Takara's dialogue here. She's . . . Like I imagine she would be, as an adult, as opposed to my teen portrayal. Usually, anyway. :)

Cascade
April 7th, 2011, 11:01 PM
I did want to make her more mature, as well as more vulnerable. She's lost the safety net of her powerful family and her own ability. When I started writing it, I was still in school and the memory of being far away from everyone I knew was fresh in my mind.

The sidestories reveal details behind plot elements in the main story and specific characters. I have plans to make a whole bunch, but I'm moving pretty slowly, lol.
There's only one chapter of Ashura left to be done.

Ace
April 9th, 2011, 03:29 PM
And I've finally caught up! I just loved the last line of the last update, she really does care about Kira.

But poor Momoko, she's probably worried sick about Takara right now.

Cascade
April 11th, 2011, 12:31 AM
Kira no longer smiled, watching Takara intently. She admitted to herself that his stony glare was intimidating, though it was not openly angry. Nor did she exude malevolence. Yet Kira felt at that moment the same thing. Takara’s blue eyes had already been cold, but at the moment, they had gone past freezing over. It became a conduit, through which her determination traversed the charged air like a spark.

"Wow. This girl's the real deal."

The spark killed the tension in Kira’s body, and his posture grew slack again as his face relaxed into a grin of surrender.

“I figured I’d finally run into someone who was more stubborn than I was.”
Raising his hands in a fake, dejected shrug, he shook his head.
“Girl, you’re some kind of crazy.”

Feelings of tension flickered out of Takara’s blinking eyes.
“What, are you making fun of me again? Someone doesn’t know when to quit.” Her hands were on her hips, and she leaned forward towards her “underclassman” in a scolding manner.

The boy scratched his head, laughing, as he took a step closer. “I was just wondering what was in it for you. I mean, he extended the job to both of us, sure. But I’m the only one who needs to work for Kurogiri. You can go back to ogling boys with your friend and going to class; you’ve got the money and the freedom for it…”

“What was that?” A narrow sidelong glance pierced him.

“Honestly,” Kira glanced downwards, “If I was in your position, I’d almost consider it myself. You’ve got the lucky hand, but I’m down and out. I can take care of myself."

He raised his eyes to meet hers again. "Why don’t you just split?”

Takara wasn’t certain where the feeling had come from, but Kira’s smile had seemed terrifically transparent at the moment, and lonely.

“I wouldn’t be able to forgive myself.”

“Oh?”

She didn’t look at him. “I don’t think my mother and father would forgive me either. Seeing a chance to do something right and closing my eyes isn’t what they raised me to do.” Her arms encircled her chest, holding it tightly in the cold. As she began to thaw, she smiled. “Besides… if I left an idiot like you to his own devices, something bad would be bound to happen.”

Though it was against her character, she winked. It made Kira grow obstinate, though his anger was mild enough to seem insincere.

“Tch, who’s the idiot? The idiot, or the idiot who follows him?” He slouched past Takara to the closet, nearly bumping into her.

“Ah, there’s only one futon.” Kira noted blankly. He turned the thick, cheap comforter over in his hands like he was kneading dough.

“You noticed, did you?”

When he turned back, Takara was staring at him. Though it was concealed in shadow, he could tell it was the same, menacing look she gave him when he’d thought about where she had slept when they both awoke from unconsciousness in the empty room. Suddenly, everything became incredibly clear, and Kira felt the skin on his face grow hot.

“You know,” Kira diligently ignored her murderous intent. “Sleeping on the floor can sometimes be a nice change. You wake up earlier and more easily… Nobody can sneak up on you, prank you, kill you… hah…” The last bit tripped and fell out of his mouth.

Takara’s voice seemed scarily low. “Is that true? Maybe you should sleep on the floor then…”

The young man wiped his brow. “Heh, you’re right aren’t you? I’m the one in a dangerous situation here. Gotta keep on my toes.” He knew that wasn’t the case, save for Kurogiri’s dubious trustworthiness, but he didn’t dare suggest otherwise.

“You’re right. You are in danger.”

She was much shorter than him, but her presence filled the room. Kira struggled with his inner uncouth to avoid letting the inevitable verbal barbs slide off his tongue. He lost.

“You’re so cold Takara. Making an injured man sleep uncovered.”

“Yes. After all, I’m a cruel girl.”

A bead of sweat appeared on his brow. Kira’s silent look built up pressure as the words he had clammed up inside of him rebelled against his control. Accordingly, Takara stepped closer to Kira, smiling in a way that sent a chill up his spine. It looked friendly enough, but…

“… We were both attacked. And we’re both beat… There’s no sense in lying down uncovered in this chilly room. I’m pretty warm."

Kira gulped in a huge breath before releasing every last pent up word.

"Sooo, why don’t the two of us just take the futon and-”

From outside Room 64, there could be heard a muffled cry of dismay.



The sonorous music streamed from within the bar in the lobby once more. She seated herself in the same booth, second from the rear, where glass bottles, boxes filled with tiny bricks of wood, sharp metal tools and squares of fabric littered the table. In years long before, Innocentia had chosen to master the bizarre string instrument and had always played it solo. Pale hands manipulated two distinct sets of strings encapsulated within her red eyes. Nestled between eyelids that bordered on sleepy, they were akin to rubies, or gems of crystallized blood, floating in the sea of milk.

Her melody traveled far and boldly, and its imperfections conveyed an atmosphere of natural ability unlike her flawless appearance. The fingers and the bow she gently clasped would occasionally “misstep,” pausing rather than plucking the wrong chord, as a true novice would perhaps have done. It gave the music an uneven pace that kept the listener awake, consciously following what would otherwise have been sound so relaxing as to provoke a gentle sleep. It was difficult to imagine a strange being like her even slept, so that was fitting.

Innocentia abruptly cut off her music and turned to the entrance of the bar, moments before the shirtless young man reemerged, rubbing an angry pink cheek and grumbling to himself in irritation. Noticing the locked eyes set upon him, Kira straightened up and attempted a strained yet sunny demeanor.

“Hey there.”

Innocentia stared silently. Her body was entirely still, in transition between one note and the next. Hesitantly, Kira approached once more. It was less difficult than their first encounter earlier that night. The tiny lady watched him, unblinking and unmoving, and he felt somehow like he’d been pinned in a display case, another needle through his chest and out his back.

He tilted his head a bit. “I was wondering if you had our clothes, and a separate futon, or a comforter…”

A prompt reply emitted from Innocentia’s small mouth. “Yes. I will immediately provide those.” Without delay, the girl set down the tremendous string instrument and strolled briskly past Kira, to the point at which he shivered from the cold brush of air trailing behind her. Moments later, she re-emerged with a folded comforter tucked under her arm and two colored squares, wrapped in plastic bags, draped around her wrist. Stepping up to Kira with two distinct taps from her shoes, she presented them.

“…”

“…Uh, thanks.”

The girl continued to stare in silence as she held out the impeccably folded laundry. Upon closer examination, Kira realized that the colored squares were indeed their clothes. And “square” was all too literal: he only had his tank top to his name, but Takara’s uniform had been painstakingly pressed into the most symmetrical square he’d seen. He silently hoped Innocentia hadn’t damaged the uniform, but it was a miracle if she even managed to restore it considering the immense amount of blood that had soaked it through.

He took the comforter into his grasp, and picked the clothing off her arm by the plastic. Innocentia simply continued to watch him, facing him directly and expressionlessly. The emotionless girl seemed to express feeling only vaguely, but Kira had noticed a personality of her own when the master was present. The uncomfortable atmosphere prickled the back of his neck, and he felt like he had initiated an audience with a curious ghost. Groping futilely in his mind for a topic of conversation, he drew one from his mental quiver that was surprisingly apt. It had provoked curiosity in him earlier.

“… You play really well.” Kira tested the waters.

The girl made no answer, simply accepting it wordlessly, which to any person other than Kira would have seemed immodest. Silence permeated the bar once again.

“What kind of instrument is that?” Unskilled at music, he nevertheless tried to pick its name from a number of names with no identifying image to attach them to. “A... violin?” As far as Kira was concerned, she played it with a bow.

Innocentia shook her head. One of her ponytails hung lazily over her shoulder. She raised her finger to point at the unattended instrument.
“That is the baryton.”

“Bah-ri-ton?”

“More appropriately, the Viola di Pardone.” After a long pause, Innocentia erased Kira’s existence with the same look, only passing through him to the baryton on the seat. Striding with a little breeze behind her, she seated herself once more and took it into her arms with almost loving slowness.

Kira admitted to himself that the instrument, though robust, was so intricately carved that he would have been terrified of breaking it had he owned one himself. The theme it carried was strangely nautical, with a number of carvings racing up the neck of the device resembling sailing ships and rolling waves. The very tip of the neck was decorated with a literal “head”; the face of what Kira could only assume was a sea captain stared at him as unflinchingly as the girl grasping the instrument. One could imagine just by looking that the surface of its wooden body felt like a vessel's railing, sanded by the salted wind over many long years.

It seemed as if she was going to play again and forget Kira even was there, so he chose that time to speak up again.
“…Does the name mean anything?”

Innocentia paused in the midst of placing bow to strings.
“The name refers to an anecdote. Whether it was fiction or fact: In the 17th century, a man was condemned to death. In prison, he created the first baryton while awaiting execution. The king was impressed by his playing, and decided to absolve him. Thus the name, Viola di Pardone. For a period of time, it was known as the Instrument of Kings.”

Her quiet voice strung together an unprecedented number of words, which was cause enough to startle Kira. But despite her monotone, the manner in which she related the information to him, in an almost encyclopedic style, struck the boy as almost interested, if not passionate.

“Wow, is that true? I’ve never even heard of it…” European instruments were all exotic to him.

“It is indeed highly obscure.”

“It looks… complicated.”

“Few laymen know of its existence, and fewer still can play it to its full extent.”

Setting aside the futon and clothes, Kira took a seat in the same booth as Innocentia, who seemed to appreciate her own space, but nevertheless did not resist him. He did not bother trying to make sense out of the bottles and scraps of wood and cloth. Apparently the tiny girl was able to drink copious amounts of whatever they stored in the bar and still remain lucid, let alone conscious, or at least that was his impression.

“The baryton has two sets of strings. It is typically played alone, and for the benefit of one person alone. The first set of strings, the upper manual, are played like so.”

She drew the bow across the baryton’s front strings. A melancholy, long sound hummed through the room; Kira felt the sound more than he heard it, resonating within him.

“The second set of strings is located within the neck. This is the lower manual. They are sympathetic strings, which resonate when the upper manual is played. A rare feature which few other instruments possess.”

Out of sight, Innocentia’s other hand manipulated the strings. Each strum was sharper than the bass-like chord, but never so harsh as to evoke the sound of a guitar. Kira realized how the sound had seemed surreal coming from one person. The song that Innocentia played would have normally required one person playing a strumming instrument, with another playing a bowed instrument. But somehow the two different forms melded together into one unique, melancholy series of tones when the baryton was played.

Putting aside her bow, Innocentia looked to Kira once more, saying nothing else. Kira, somewhat disappointed, attempted to reinitiate conversation, focusing on her apparent point of interest.

“So, you enjoy playing this instrument by yourself? Kurogiri never plays with you?”

The way the girl locked eyes with him was paralyzing. Kira felt as if he would disappear the moment she looked away. Perhaps to Innocentia, he would.

“Yes, he does, for I am his instrument.”

Momentarily, Kira rammed down the unsettling feeling her blunt statement provoked in him, to the pit of his stomach, where it remained and did little more than stir subtle nausea.

“…That’s not what I meant. But I guess you already told me that the baryton is supposed to be played alone.”

It struck Kira as vaguely sad, but it was not so simple of a sentiment as loneliness. “That’s really something to be proud of.”

Innocentia seemed quizzical somehow, though she did not answer him. Then again, Kira considered whether it wasn’t himself imagining that impression, as her expression had not visibly changed once since he first saw her.

“You accompany yourself right? Even though you’re playing alone, it’s like you’re a duet. What a great instrument.”

She did not respond, merely looking at him. The rubies set in her face revealed nothing. It appeared that she wouldn’t likely answer him unless he asked a question directly. Even so Kira knew the doll-like girl truly enjoyed playing the instrument. He felt ashamed, somewhat, that he’d felt she was unlike a normal human before, and that he had felt she was “creepy.”

“I’m sorta jealous. It looks difficult to play,” Kira observed. “Is it?”

“It is an expert’s instrument, meant to be played for the sake of royalty in private. That ensured that individual barytons and instrumentalists capable of playing them would be rare. Individuals who could play both sets of strings at once were more rare.”

“So it is. I could never have that kind of talent.”

“Yes, for you, it is most likely impossible.”

Kira felt insulted, but considered for a second the lack of social skill the girl demonstrated. Perhaps she didn’t see it as an insult, but rather a deadpan, accurate appraisal of his skills. It seemed to him that a girl as stoic as Innocentia was incapable of lying. To Kira, those who lied were always individuals who acted casual and friendly when they had no reason to. A girl without sentiments obviously had no sentiments to hide, or so it seemed. The thought that he would never have the skill to play such a complex, obscure instrument didn’t hurt his feelings, as he thought about how difficult it likely was. He was thick-skinned anyway.

Kira shrugged off her words. “Anyways, how long did it take you to learn how to play it?”

“I am still learning.” Innocentia said.

Faced with another ambiguous answer, as if he’d inadvertently asked something rude, Kira decided not to delve any further, even if that wasn’t the impression she had wanted to give.

“I’m impressed anyways. You’re so young to be learning an instrument like this.” Kira chuckled boyishly. “You know, I didn’t even go to a normal elementary school, so I never even got to play recorder. Like all the other kids.”

The strange look in her red eyes almost suggested she was insulted. Again, Kira was forced to consider if he had simply imprinted his thoughts onto her, but it seemed as if Innocentia immaturely rejected her age, insisting she was a woman and not a girl. The conversation was swiftly racing towards its conclusion, he felt; it would not do for him to ruin it, plummeting back down to the previous status quo of corpselike awkwardness between the two of them.

“You don’t like being called young? Haha, I’m just saying how I feel. Anyone who can play is amazing to me. I can’t even play Japanese instruments, even though I know a little about them.” Kira smiled warmly, looking about the bar. “There really are amazing people everywhere. I’m blessed just to meet them.”

On the subject of amazing people, the one who monopolized their futon snatched back his attention in a flashing moment.

“Oh, sorry… I guess I shouldn’t loiter. You go on ahead and play some more. It’s okay to play for me once in a while, though that’s not really my kind of music.”

Her silent stare impaled him, until, without acknowledging his words, she looked back to her instrument and took hold of the bow once more. Grinning sheepishly, as if he had to get back to pressing labor, he rose from his seat across from Innocentia, playing with the Buddhist chain at the base of his neck.

“Do you remember your room number?”

His brow twisted as his mind chugged away at the question. Kira didn’t want to think he was slow, but…
“Sixty…four. Yeah, sixty four, right.”

“Do not enter the wrong room. As Marcel directed, only one has been prepared for you. If you have need of anything else, I will remain here.”

“Don’t lose any sleep for our sake, all right?” For a moment, he wondered if irregular girls like her even slept. Kira lazily slung the futon and clothes over his shoulder. The perfect squares were slightly crumpled by his actions, but the tiny girl had no visible misgivings, sitting with the baryton in anticipation. Appropriately, the boy had the feeling he’d outstayed his welcome.

He waved his free hand in a salute-like point at the baryton. “Good luck with your practice. Uh…” Kira glanced back and forth between the instrument, and Innocentia’s chilling eyes. “…G’night.”

“Good night,” came the carefully enunciated reply.

The tall young man left in a hurry. He felt the eyes part from his back, and even before he was out of sight, the reverberations of her twenty four strings melted away his memory. Their failure of a conversation was a dream, leaving behind only the sound and nebulous emotions it resurrected within him.



Kira found his way back to the room, and his fingers seemed reluctant to part even a second from the rosary binding his hair. When he finally forced them to let go, and took the door handle, he deliberated momentarily on her cautionary statement.

“Take care not to enter the wrong room Kira.” He murmured to himself. It was as if there were things in the other rooms she or her master didn’t want Kira to witness. Of course, this provoked his curiosity. Sliding his feet quietly along the carpet, he stood in front of the identical door to Room 63. He extended his hand forward and encircled his fingers around the door’s grip.

Immediately he felt something in the cool metal retreat from his skin’s touch. Though the handle was solid and the same form as 64’s, it projected into his nerves phantom sensations of life, as if he’d grabbed a lizard’s tail, writhing and snapping off between his fingers. The moment he took hold, it felt like something was lunging at him, dashing itself viciously against the inside of the door. There was no sound or movement, only pure sensation.

Kira nearly dropped his futon, leaping back with widened eyes. Staring at the portal with an adversarial gaze, he froze in a brief, silent standoff with it.

“…Um…”

The funeral home-like placidity of Comorant’s circular hall broke with his stuttering.

“…I, er… I think I-I’ve made a mistake…” Kira gulped. Only the hope that his immature curiosity hadn’t doomed him kept him from running. Had he felt the presence of an extinguished life in the door? Was that what Innocentia had warned him of? Kira was brave in most cases, but there were certain unseen things in the world that were proud exceptions, and he didn’t like them.

“I’m tired you see… and you; well, you all look the same. It’s not prejudice or anything but… really, just look at yourselves… Can’t blame me, right?” The ludicrous personification song and dance and his statement both seemed mostly true; as was natural for modern apartment buildings or hotels, every door was perfectly identical. And on a loop-shaped floor, there was no “end of the hall” to measure doors from, to remember the location of his living space. If the number hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have been difficult for him to happen upon the wrong doorknob.

He felt like an idiot, but all the same, he waved nervously to the inanimate door. Its white front was its blank, unfeeling expression. “I’ll be going now…” Kira grinned, sliding slowly, without taking his eyes off it, back towards Takara’s room.

The further he got from it, the larger the door seemed. Kira had to rub his eyes, for it seemed for a moment that the entryway soundlessly bulged outwards into the hallway, struggling to contain something beyond comprehension. Any minute, it seemed, the walls would give way, show some sign of stress, or crack open.

He blinked; the optical illusion was a mere memory, but nevertheless, he hastily opened the door to their room and slipped inside, juggling hurry and quietness as best he could. Kira barely remembered his prior decision: that upon returning, he would be as quiet as possible, so as not to enrage his unwilling co-habitant any further than he already had. The sore on his cheek burned a bit at the thought.

“Damn she’s strong…”

The number of lights left on in the city had thinned, leaving nothing in their wake to illuminate the futon near the window. Strobes of blue and red had subsided; the police had likely finished whatever business they had at the scene of the disturbance long ago. That gave Kira a sense of the passage of time that had somehow escaped him entirely from the very moment he woke up in the building. Had he been unconscious for an hour? Several hours? He could hear Takara’s soft breathing concealed in shadow’s blanket. Perhaps she knew more than he did.

Although he had been responding instinctively to the events of the night, it was a reaction akin to an adaptable animal being forced into an unfamiliar environment. He wasn’t optimized to handle such stress. As time passed, the scar on his chest felt more and more alien; it was no longer a part of him but a lesion that adhered itself to his body, like a decal. Expose it to water, and it would peel away, or so he would have hoped. Years of living purely in a material life, where the main concerns were solid things like bread and money, left him uncertain of how to proceed. Takara had strung him along and exposed the naïve young man to an esoteric second layer to life he’d been ignorant of.

Flowers didn’t experience desires more complicated than their own needs. They opened in sunlight and thrived within moistness. Some outside force triggered or facilitated every stage of the flower’s life. Stimuli would provoke a response. Kira thought, while watching these plants, that a simple happiness was best. Having never been gifted with wealth or even a truly comfortable standard of living, he would have been blessed if his life too became plantlike and simple. Events would push him, and in return, he would fold upon himself and sway back. He had to consider to himself if even that night was nothing but stimulus and response.

After all, what were Kira’s concerns? Were they simply getting work, feeding himself, and earning money to attend college? He had, for as long as he could remember, been good with his hands more than his mind, though he was by no means stupid. By all accounts he had the equipment to provide for himself, though his mind never strayed far from the present. But his choices were limited, not that it mattered any. The future lay tantalizingly in front of him, but Kira had no profound desires or dreams, and so he never engaged with it. If he had simply been provided with an origin he could remember clearly, like his hometown’s name, maybe it would have been enough to set him on a path; some form of vague comprehension guiding him to a career and family normal enough to make him feel whole and satisfied with his position in society. But Kira knew that the dinners wouldn’t fill him, and the sleep wouldn’t satisfy, and by the end of the day, he’d feel the same hollow “lack” contained behind his smile.

The “death” he experienced and the girl he’d met were just stimuli. All he needed to do was react. That way, his lack of a beginning robbing him of his end, he’d never truly fill himself, but never go hungry. Entertainment. Excitement. Fear. These were things that functioned to protect him from introspection, and provided sustenance for his mind. React, and he could keep on going, until he understood the mysterious feeling of illness in his now-artificial heart.

Still, it never particularly worried him. In fact, it rarely came to his mind most days. Kira was happy with living day by day, and watering his plants calmly in the sun, taking naps, eating good food. He didn’t expect at all to find himself so entangled, but since meeting Takara, things in his life had taken a turn for the interesting, to say the least.

Somehow his expectations were nullified. Kira had assumed that he would turn his back on the impossible if it confronted him, sated with the sphere he lived in. Yet how their meeting had invigorated him!

“You’re back.” Takara’s murmur made him jump. In the darkness, he could barely see her rise from the futon, draped in the blanket. For only a fleeting moment he imagined, despite the fact that it could just as well have been another illusion, that he’d seen the striking blue of her eyes reflect what little light remained.

“Yeah. Got another futon…”
Though it was more imagination than sight, the image of her, dark hair unbound and flowing over her slender shoulders in that thin robe, provoked a reaction in Kira he didn’t feel like sharing. “Heart stopping,” he would have called it, had it not been an ill-natured pun at his own expense.

“I’m just sleeping in the same room.” Though living in the same space with an unrelated girl close to his own age was questionable to anybody but Kira, perhaps it was Takara herself that provoked his embarrassment. It would pass. “No choice after all. She got all riled up earlier, doesn’t want to be here any more than you do.”

“… I’m sorry for hitting you.”

He couldn’t see her expression, but the unexpected apology lowered the tension immensely.

“It’s just that, being forced to live with a boy is…” Takara’s embarrassment was almost tangible. “…Well, these are extreme circumstances. Still…”

Kira dropped the futon. It flattened against the floor with a thick sound. “Psh… I don’t get it anyway. If it bothers you so much, I can sleep in the hall.”

He could hear her stirring.
“No, that wouldn’t be right.”

“You can endure it for now, huh?” Kira muttered sarcastically, smoothing out his blanket. “Got your uniform back for you. It’s clean now.” He tossed it in Takara’s direction, uncaring of where it landed.

“Thank you.”

Kira allowed himself a hidden, embarrassed smile. By that hour, it could have been 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. It had been a long night, and it was only going to get longer.



He’d managed to make himself comfortable under his sheets. Typically Kira just sprawled out, occupying as much territory on his futon as he could, but that night his body seemed so stiff he couldn’t help but lie, corpselike, straight on his back. His futon rest entirely across the room from Takara’s, but in the silence he could hear her soft breaths as if they were inches apart. Minutes passed, and whether one slept and the other was awake, neither could tell. Too much had happened for them to rest free of entangling doubts and fears.

“I was wondering-”
“Kira, are you-“

At the same moment, they ventured to speak again. Their mutual interruption entombed both statements in the same funereal silence as before, until Kira resurrected their fledgling conversation.

“This is pretty awkward, huh?”

“You needn’t state the obvious.”

“Yeesh… sorry.”

“…”

“That aunt of yours you mentioned… the witch one.”

“Yes?”

“Know her well?”

“Somewhat.”

“You close?”

“I do love her, though she is often… abroad.” Her voice betrayed her. When it came to Aoko, she could be only counted upon to be in a strange place somewhere in the world. Takara didn’t entirely envy her free spirit.

Kira’s voice abounded with admiration. “A witch. So, you’ve lived like this your whole life?”

“…No. But, I was aware of the supernatural, for a long time.”

Though she couldn’t likely see him, Kira nodded all the same. He tucked his hands wrist on wrist behind his head. “And tonight I awakened to that world…”

“I’ve always been awake.” Takara’s words were carried on a long breath. “It was my mother and father who woke up for me.”

“Before you were born?”

“Ah, yes. Long before they met.” She didn’t want to say it was Kira’s age, by appearances, regarding her father.

No longer in the sleeping mood despite his exhaustion, he turned over to his side.
“No shit? Like your aunt?”

“Not like my aunt,” Takara hesitated momentarily, “Why all the questions? What’s this all of a sudden?”

“Because,” Kira answered back in a more mellow tone, “You can’t sleep, can you?”

She seemed to freeze. Even with a veritable blindfold over his eyes, Kira could tell. But he didn’t know that it wasn’t simply that night that Takara had trouble sleeping.

“… You’re right. Fine then, shoot away.”

“All right~.” Kira hummed as if he’d won a prize in a UFO catcher game. “So then, what did they do? Kill monsters with little knives?”

Thought it was terribly obvious what Kira was referring to, it still sounded perceptive to the girl. “Well, yes, actually.”

“What, really? Guess it runs in the family…”

“My mother is an exorcist. She is from an order in the Catholic church…”

“Church? So she’s like a nun?”

Takara didn’t like Kira’s sudden enthusiasm. “…Yes, somewhat, only she was trained to fight… vampires.”

Though it was the simplistic truth of her life, it seemed like telling him a tremendous lie, a modern myth. But he too was part of that myth now.

“Okay, so she’s a kind of battle nun. Like a souhei?”

Her mind’s eye fixated upon the image of her mother, dressed in Buddhist robes and feudal armor, an iron club in one hand and a steaming plate of curry in the other. “…Not quite.”

“Catholicism isn’t as foreign as I thought it was.” Kira’s words made Takara wonder about how sheltered a life he must have lived up until that point, but his questions left her little time to ruminate.

“And not only her, but your aunt and father too? Is your whole family ‘out of the ordinary’?”

Takara considered how to answer. “Well my aunt is not my aunt by blood. She’s sort of like my father’s… mentor. My father, on the other hand, is normal.”

The boy sounded like he had been tricked. “Normal? But you said he ‘woke up.’ So did your mom throw water in his face or what?”

“…This ‘awakening’ metaphor is really going too far. And no, he knew about the supernatural for a long time before that.” There was no sense in dissembling anymore, but Takara was reluctant to speak freely. “His lineage is unique. Regardless, my parents are entirely ‘normal.’ My mother is a teacher, my father is a painter, and I love them both.”

“And they got together and had you. You’re part foreigner, aren’t you?”

“What of it?”

“Ouch, struck a nerve. Lucky you. I don’t care.”

Takara breathed a sigh of relief. More of the same from her high school days was the last thing she needed to experience.

If only to Kira, Takara’s nature was novel enough to seem almost exotic: just one of many odd things he ran into that night, and hardly any less fascinating, for she was, as far as he knew, the first person of mixed descent he had truly conversed with.

“Was it your mom?”

“Yes. She came here from France.”

“A French battle nun. That’s awesome. I thought they were chaste though…”

“Could you please stop calling her that?”
He mother was hardly even religious. Although she had of course seen the woman’s old cassock, it was apparently not Burial’s uniform.

“Ayy-men. But Takara, you must have an amazing family.”

“Don’t drop the honorific either…”

“Who else lives with you?”

“A baby brother and two baby sisters, my father’s servant, and sometimes my godmother-”

“Amazing! You even have a godmother? And all these people know this stuff? Magic and whatnot, I mean.” Kira rudely interrupted, but his excitement had made him raise his voice.

“Yes, but it isn’t as if we had a choice. Apart from that, my family isn’t so strange,” she said, somewhat more self-consciously.

“I dunno, your parents know about an entire sphere of life I didn’t know a thing about until tonight. Even now it’s kinda hard for me to get my head around, but I’m figuring it out. To me, they’re remarkable.”

Kira chuckled: “You really come from a loving family of normal killers huh?” though his sarcasm shone through.

His wording slowly drained her patience. “No, they’re normal. My father sleeps late, and my mother watches my grades like a hawk. My aunt wins eating competitions; my godmother gets in arguments with my mom.”

“Oh yeah?”

“My parents take care of each other, and me, and love each other so much it’s embarrassing. And I too love them that much, so much it hurts. They don’t deserve the fear of me being in danger, and yet even so, it happened. Even though just sending me away to this city was enough to worry them.”

Kira’s silence suggested intense concentration, or confusion. She let slip about the Grail War, which at least she could count on the country boy to know nothing about.

“…To me, my mother and father are normal. I haven’t lived any other way. And I don’t want to, despite how I feel sometimes. And to hear you find them so fascinating… A part of me is flattered. But a part of me also feels upset to think that maybe you find them too ‘fascinating.’ It’s probably not something you can easily understand. I’m not used to talking about this so openly.”

“Fascinating” like he’d found Takara earlier that night, drenched in blood and swinging a knife in a beautiful scene of desperation and massacre.

“Ahh, sorry. Me and my big mouth.”

She could imagine him, scratching the back of his head when he spoke once more.

“I don’t know what it feels like to be loved by a family.”

Just like that. He’d struck her straight through the heart. There Takara was, feeling defensive, worrying that her family would seem quaint. If not for its multiple ethnicities, and the tension she felt because of Father’s servant, and her unrelated godmother and aunt, then for the simple fact that all of them, in one way or another, felt the mystical. Most of them were, as he said, natural killers, or beings whose very nature exuded power. It had been Takara’s own illusion that her family was something to be feared. If her uncouth ally had been anyone else, perhaps that anxiety would have been fully realized.

And there was Kira, amazed at little else than a father’s smile, or a mother’s embrace. He spoke with a neutral diction devoid of sadness, just as upbeat as he typically showed himself to be, and yet Takara felt that he was a child who did not remember the sensation of being amongst his own blood. Suddenly, Takara own worries seemed trivial, even petty in comparison, at least to her.

“Kira, you have a way of making me feel guilty.”

She wondered how she hadn’t seen it sooner. It seemed so obvious in that interval of time that the quiet smile Kira wore when amongst his plants was one he had likely worn for years alone. Because he was ignorant of the joys that were an integral part of her life, he had no knowledge of sadness or a feeling of lack. His desire was far more simple.

“I couldn’t help bothering you. But see, I just find family pretty amazing anyways. Not like I’ve always been alone but…”

He voiced his thoughts. They were a lucid reflection of her own only hours before, when he still infuriated her.

“It must have been difficult, Kira,” She said, remorseful in tone. That tone only provoked more unrestrained laughing from the boy.

“Heh, don’t pity me so much! I’m not unhappy at all. The people I feel sorry for are my mother and father, and my adoptive mom and dad.” His voice seemed closer to her, oddly enough.

“… You feel sorry for them?”

“Yeah, because I was a bother to them for almost ten years. They treated me well enough and ditched me after that. So I always thought that it would have been easier if they’d been honest from the start and given me to someone else from the beginning. They had to keep up that sham for so long.”

As he’d so professed, Kira’s voice seemed entirely devoid of resentment. “I think that a lot of things in life would be simplified if people didn’t lie so much. This country is full of liars. You can’t accept things directly, can’t refuse things directly. Isn’t that dishonesty?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s lying,” Takara responded quietly. “It’s a simple truth of life that people have to conceal their true feelings, to avoid causing unnecessary conflict. Saying exactly what we thought would often hurt others needlessly. That is part of how we coexist.” She didn’t feel it was necessary to state that Kira seemed like a personality who riled up a substantial amount of that unnecessary conflict in his time.

“Well, sometimes you’ve gotta lie. It’s just that people forget what it is they really feel when they pretend long enough.”

“’Why deceive ourselves?’ That’s what you’re trying to say, right?”

“Something like that.”

“Because there are times when we must lie to ourselves to get through life.” Takara intoned. “Even now, you could be deceiving yourself, and not even realize it.”

“A lie so effective we believe it ourselves? I certainly won’t disagree. Maybe my folks too suffered from that.” Kira had spoken with an atmosphere of recollection.

The sensitivity in her heart found it difficult to accept the possibility that Kira’s own blood rejected him. It had been Takara who suggested that Kira would have difficulty understanding her family, through no fault of his own, yet she wanted to believe they had some justification for abandoning him.

“But, I’m certain they must have loved you somehow.”

“Haha, you really think so? Mind telling me why?” It was an honest question.

Her answer lodged in her throat. “… If they were capable of loving each other, then they must have felt enough desire to care for you, if only because you were created by that emotion.”

“You’re a nice girl. But my family was different than yours. My mother and father treated me with kindness, but without explanation, they sent me away, never even telling me the name of the village I was born in.” Kira smiled in the darkness. If she could have seen him, it would have mimicked the moon in crescent. “They said, ‘you weren’t born to be happy.’”

“That’s… horrible. But there had to be a reason.”

“Oh that’s pretty easy to figure out. They couldn’t lie anymore. I don’t regret it; living alone is better than living with someone who doesn’t want you around. Right Takara?”

“I’m not co-habiting with you Kira. And I’ve had one hellish day.”

“Aw jeez, you’re no fun. Whatever. My folks are old news. I hardly think about them.”

Takara struggled with her imagined vision of his circumstances. “Still, to be raised in a house with only false warmth-”

“Warmth? My adoptive parents had plenty of warmth. What they didn’t have was cash. The old man was a victim of the recession years ago; got his ‘head cut off’ at his company. So I left ‘em. They were planning on ditching me too, but I found out first. No hard feelings.”

Despite his casual manner of talking, Takara could not imagine how bitter she believed he must have felt. He had lived in uncharted territory that she only barely dare tread in.

“It’s hard for me to believe you’re that even tempered about it Kira. I might not know your circumstances, but even if it was unfair, I’m not confident in my maturity. I think regardless of their reason, or lack of reason, I’d hold some grudge against my parents if they left me alone.”

“Ahh, you’ve gotten pretty attached to them though, so that’s an easy feeling to have. But me, I’m not such a loyal boy.” Kira rest on his back, staring at the apartment’s ceiling. “I like whoever helps me feed myself, and I like whoever gives me a place to live.”

But she heard a sigh of resignation. He seemed so much closer. Takara realized that she had slid over to the nearer side of her futon to hear him better.

“You got me there though. I’m not an unhappy boy at all. But, I probably hate my true parents.”

“That’s what I felt. Who could blame you for that?”

“Who indeed. It’s a vague emotion, only pops up once in a while. I don’t get angry easily. But, I don’t see it as a burden. When I think about how mad I was years ago when I was out on my own for the first time… how scared, I get kind of riled up again. Those times are the only times I feel like I’ve got something to prove.”

“Something to prove?”

“That I was worth it after all.”

“…”

“That’s why I’m strong. I kinda let it fuel me. It’s consumable. It burns away when I work. After that, I can’t stop working. I don’t have any strong goals or desires. I just want to eat good food and live in a nice place.”

“I see…” Takara didn’t believe anything good could come of fueling oneself with hate but she was realistic enough to believe Kira needed all the motivation he could get. He was destitute, and alone.

“That’s what keeps me going. Sorry though, it’s a little cliché. You can tell I haven’t given it a lot of thought.” Another laugh. “We’re getting pretty intimate here, aren’t we? Why I am I telling you all this, Takara?” Accordingly, he dispensed with formalities.

“Ugh.” She recoiled from his direction. “Figure it out yourself. I’m not feeling generous.”

There was no snide reply from Kira, or laughter. The grumpy girl found herself waiting to see what he would say next, if only in curiosity.

She’d hear it, right next to her ear. Close enough that his breath raked her skin.

“Why don’t the two of us explore that together?”

The only thing Kira was going to explore, however, was Takara’s pillow… with her fist behind it. It wasn’t to soften the blow, only to stifle his frantic yells for mercy.

Kieran
April 11th, 2011, 06:57 AM
Ah yes - I'd forgotten that Kira was a bit of a flirt . . . *checks guns*

And I just had a strange idea for an omake involving Gilgamesh's attempt to acquire the Instrument of Kings. :D

MrTags
April 11th, 2011, 11:12 PM
I'm not sure that's called a flirt where Takara's involved.

Somehow more of a glutton for punishment.

Talk about a girl you need full body protection to hit on...

Kieran
April 11th, 2011, 11:14 PM
Consider the last two guys who showed interest in her, and tell me she doesn't have a reason to be overcautious. :)

MrTags
April 11th, 2011, 11:18 PM
Caution is not a response that usually involves knuckles to face.

Distancing oneself, while a valid reaction in caution and not wanting to get hurt, is not usually accomplished by seeing how far you can PUNCH the other person away from you.

Though given who's kid this is... just punching is the least of his worries.

Cascade
April 12th, 2011, 03:01 AM
Maybe Kira's a bit of a maso? XD
He's used to getting beat on.

MrTags
April 12th, 2011, 10:56 PM
And Suddenly OMAKE

There was a scuffle downstairs, and a cry of pain. Jin Kurogiri's eyebrow raised as an out of breath Takara ran into his office.

"Mr Kurogiri, Mr Kurogiri!"

Putting down his pen the mage looked up to his part time worker, "What is it Takara?"

Looking down quickly Takara blushed and stammered out, "Kira got a little too fresh and now he needs another organ replaced!"

A grin spread across Kurogiri's features as he stood and snatched a box off the highest shelf, "Ah the wonders of alchemy, I have just the thing."

Takara looked relieved, "Lucky him, all he's doing is bleeding right now."

With a flourish Kurogiri produced a very large golden glowing and jeweled... item... from the box. He smiled as he looked it over lovingly.

"From the famed alchemist Sir Isaac!" he explained, "The Phallic Holistic Implantable Gland!"

Takara stifled her look of relief, trying not to look at the... item... "Oh that's good..." she started, then thought a second, "wait... it's the what?"

Holding the mighty gland above his head, the light shining off it's extended form Kurogiri prounounced loudly, "BEHOLD THE PHIG NEWTON!"

Downstairs Kira rolled over and croaked...

Cascade
April 12th, 2011, 10:59 PM
My first omake is this?!
I feel important and disturbed at the same time.

Kieran
April 13th, 2011, 07:58 PM
*bangs head on desk* Very bad pun . . .

Cascade
April 13th, 2011, 08:30 PM
What is the pun?
:o

Cascade
April 19th, 2011, 12:00 AM
Takara would have slept for hours had it not been for his rustling around. During mornings, her energy level was at its lowest; she would have “killed” the light if it meant she could linger in bed a little longer. But naturally, an aggravating kind of boy like Kira didn’t know or care about her sleep schedule. He was already up, and up to something.

She opened her eyes into slits, and frantically shut them tight. Takara felt like retreating further under the covers. Beyond his broad back, she could see the old writing on his arm as he reached for something on the floor. Kira was in the midst of pulling on his jeans, but he hadn’t noticed her, a small favor. Perhaps he had just finished taking a shower, but he was hardly clothed.

Slipping on his tank top, Kira pulled at his shoulders. They were tense, but felt normal. He flexed his arm. Still functioning as it always had. Tracing the scar on his chest, it seemed as if the replaced heart functioned exactly as his real one had, to the point at which he could only feel skeptical. Though there was no reason not to believe Kurogiri, the man could have simply knifed his chest and feigned the transplant; though Kira believed it considering that the pain he experienced that night was more than enough evidence. It had started like a burning coal set in a chamber of the heart, expanding and heating up through the ventricles and valves of the organ, spreading to his arteries and even going as far as his veins. Truly, if the venom had done anything, Kira believed it ate his heart alive, as fantastical as it was.

With a snap of his fingers, he slipped the rosary band around the hair at the back of his head and let go, tying it into his messy ponytail. In an almost stereotypical manner, he stoked himself up for the day, slapping himself on both cheeks quickly to fully wake himself up. He winced. Kira regretfully forgot the bruises Takara gave him before they finally calmed down and went to sleep. But the pain did make him more lucid.
Blinking and fully charged, he looked over his shoulder. The sleeping girl was nothing but a lump under the sheets, a part of the futon. A few strands of black hair peeked out from under the edge, like she was hiding.

“Hm? Coulda sworn her face was uncovered. Oh well.”

Today he would go to Kurogiri and confirm the job. Not without asking a few questions of course, but if nothing else, Kira needed money. That alone was enough to prevent him from refusing.
Still, it wasn’t as if Takara’s misgivings had fallen on deaf ears. Staring through the tiny keyhole of his own perception, Kira felt as if it couldn’t be helped, but she knew more than him, and she was worried. He didn’t want to get in over his head, but nevertheless, there wasn’t enough doubt in him to rot his foundations. At least he’d take care of it alone and spare her concern.

Someone was worried about him. It was irresponsible, but he could afford to be selfish for a little while and enjoy it.

“It feels new.”

Kira smiled at the thought as he walked out the door, looking over his shoulder at the Takara-lump huddled under her blankets.

“It feels nice.”



Immediately upon stepping out, he heard the familiar Baryton humming from the bottom of the atrium. Pale light flooded in through the ceiling like the chilled face of a kinder, dimmer sun, a sensation of safety and relief flooding through his sore body. The long spiral of the Great Cormorant swirled down beneath Kira in beautiful wooden carvings and velvet-like fabric.

The process of “regeneration” was complete at least for him. Takara would take a bit longer. Now that they’d returned to daylight, the land of the living, how many enemies remained? None? A few? In this bifurcated world he’d entered, the land of the night concealed Earth’s mysteries, and the land of the day was his sanctuary. Kira doubted that he’d be at risk in broad daylight, as long as he didn’t do anything risky, like play dice with those strange tattooed men who were missing fingers. He lost quite a bit of money to them over the last year. Luckily, they weren’t terribly common in Akitaka.

When he entered the bar, Innocentia sat in her booth, exactly as he left her before.
Though somehow he’d expected to find her there, Kira still raised an eyebrow. She set aside her instrument and immediately resumed boring into him with her eyes.

He remembered that Kurogiri had been very specific about how to visit his home on the roof. Kira surmised that it was not acceptable for him to simply go there himself. Uncouth in all other situations, he wouldn’t risk his future job so carelessly while he still had sense in him. Communicating with the white-dressed man through his white doll still seemed most prudent. After all, criminally under-aged secretary though she was, it seemed as though words spoken to her would get through to the odd man without fail.

“… Good morning.” Kira waved to her, beaming radiantly.

“Good morning.”

Innocentia answered back in a smooth, whispery voice that was at once frigid and fascinating. He shivered accordingly.


“… Did you sleep well, Innocentia?”

The girl still frayed his nerves, breaking his composure. Kira felt once more like squirming on his pin. Casual talk was still worth an attempt.

“I did not sleep.”

“… Oh.”

She shot down his attempt to connect mercilessly. The doll was something apart from human beings, and did not hesitate to remind him. Still, Kira found it difficult to reconcile her snowy face with the underlying inhumanity somehow.

The nervous boy opened his mouth to speak. “Can I see your boss now?”

Innocentia nodded.

“It’s not too early right? I don’t want to piss him off if he hates mornings.”

Innocentia shook her head. She rose from her chair, carrying the Baryton with her after shutting it into a black case. One more glacial stare from her beckoned him to follow. He naturally obliged, although he paused for a moment as he thought to himself.

"Talking with this kid is gonna get tiresome..."

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Ah, Mr. Kaede. Excellent timing.”

Their benefactor sat at his table. Kurogiri’s glasses were replaced with yet another pair, only they were both spectacles and something else: a strange combination of magnifying lenses set on golden frames and metal wire. The object of his attention was an ornate bowl. Kurogiri turned it in his gloved hands over an white sheet, which Kira thought momentarily resembled the scarf the man wore that night. The antique he held had been clearly etched with innumerable tiny runes all about its bronze exterior, but the edge was cracked, a little black thunderbolt, and it seemed Kurogiri was deliberately examining the flaw before attempting to restore it. But upon Kira’s arrival, he immediately put the bowl down, quickly but carefully. It sat proudly in the middle of the white sheet.

“You’re an early riser, Mr. Kaede. I must say I’m rather impressed. Did you sleep well?”

Kira laughed, fiddling with the rosary. “We already spend a third of our life asleep. It’s always struck me as an awful waste.”

“Rarely have wiser words been said.”

Kurogiri set aside his examination glasses calmly, before withdrawing his more familiar silver-framed pair, flipping them open with a flick of his wrist. He pressed them upon the bridge of his nose.

“Yet, does it always ring true? When you’ve grown as old as I have, you tend to understand the value of spending each moment of your time advancing along the path to your desire. But oftentimes a little detour along the way is more than welcome.”

He motioned for Kira to sit across from him. Innocentia, however, sat by Kurogiri without his prompting, quite close to his shoulder. She folded her hands picturesquely in her lap. The man regarded Kira, who could not have been more out of place in his ragged clothes and laborer looks, like he was a gentleman of equal status.

“But that is a discussion for another time, if you will. Don’t misunderstand me as rushing you, Mr. Kaede, but I had the inclination to bring this up first, as my schedule today will become busy in a couple hours. I hope you don’t mind.” The lackadaisical pace with which the cordial man spoke didn’t lend any believability to his claim however.

Kira blinked. “Err, yeah. Sorry… I’m not used to all this formality.”

“Now now, there’s no need to feel uncomfortable.” Kurogiri folded his hands before him, nesting them together and watching from over the triangle his arms had formed, leaning on the table.

“Straight to the point, then: Do you feel you’ve had sufficient time to fully consider my offer?”

He could feel Takara's words of caution drumming his heart, filling him with anxiety.
“I’m…”

Kurogiri continued to smile, expectantly awaiting his answer. The silence did nothing to extract the youth from his difficulties.

With a shake of his head, Kira centered himself once more. He couldn’t lose his business sense over what she’d mentioned to him. The boy had survived at least that long on his own; he trusted his own judgment, his own reasoning. Regardless of what kind of man Kurogiri was, or how untrustworthy he might have been, Kira had simplistic needs that required filling. Perhaps those needs were ones Takara had never worried about. She had the freedom to see others, while Kira’s worries were largely pecuniary. With his lack of experience and young age, other opportunities for him, enough to support a life alone in the city, would not likely emerge. Akitaka was sanitary and safe, or at least Kira had thought so until the fatal encounter, but it was also a difficult place for a non-professional to find employment.

“I’m interested, but I need to know a few things first.” Kira intoned calmly. It was a shame Takara couldn’t have been there. A ripple of maturity spread out from his resolute center to every extremity, affecting his demeanor. It would have shocked her speechless. Simply by not smiling, by focusing more and changing his posture, the gangster-like teenager became a man.

“What kind of pay can I expect?”

“Hmmm… what do you think is fair?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, as you can see, monetary concerns are minor in regards to myself. I support no family and make little expenditure. The only ‘dependent’ attached to me is this girl.”

Innocentia didn't react. She simply sat, statue-like, with her hands folded upon her lap at the man's side, eyes like glass.

“Yeah, I see.”

“So when I say I can pay you as much as you like, rest assured, I am being entirely honest. Of course, this all depends on whether or not Mr. Aozaki also accepts the position.”

Kira spoke again with a tinge of caution. “Is it okay for me to ask if she’s my competitor?”

The resultant laugh Kurogiri emitted was predictably artificial. “No no, Mr. Kaede. Mr. Aozaki will be your coworker. The two of you would carry out your duties entirely as a team should I hire both of you.” He grinned rakishly, baring his polished teeth just slightly. “Why, you’ll never have to be apart!”

Kira felt uneasy attempting to probe the meaning floating about in Kurogiri’s words, but the image of himself being stuck with an angry Takara, even to the point of suffering bathroom trips with her, frightened him out of those attempts.

“But, do be aware that should Mr. Aozaki refuse the partnership, but accept the job, I will hire you. ‘Accept no substitutes,’ or so they say.”

That was good. He felt like he could relax. The knots in his shoulders untangled themselves. It bothered him that Kurogiri found a boy who had barely even completed high school more suitable for the position than a first year college student, however.

“Honestly… I can’t drive a have a car. My education isn’t complete. It might be hard for me to pay the rent. Also,” Kira gulped hesitantly, “Some of my legal documents are missing. After I moved out of my previous house, I talked with my guardians. They weren’t able to recover a lot of paperwork regarding my place of birth and legal relatives. Unfortunately, I’m as clueless about those things as they are. What makes me more qualified than her?” He was certain choosing to be honest was the only option he had. If he lied about his documentation and Kurogiri found out, he'd be fired anyway; but if he told him the truth, he'd potentially be commended for being forthcoming.

But Kurogiri simply winked at Kira. “I care nothing for those issues. Only truevalue carries any meaning to me.”

He wouldn’t answer. Employers did have their privileges after all, and he was already tolerating so much.

“Besides, how exacting do you imagine the qualifications for a janitorial position are?” He spoke through a slanted smirk.

The young man stirred where he sat, unable to object.

“Cleaning this place won’t be a thing, but what about those random jobs you talked about?”

“You’re a very interesting young man Mr. Kaede. You and Mr. Aozaki both are fascinating individuals. That’s why I felt it would be a waste not to make use of your talents.”

“Talents?” Kira funneled his gaze towards the floor bashfully. It was a dark red teakwood but polished to a subtle sheen, enough that he could see the vague outlines of his own face. “I don’t really have so many…”

It tickled his ego to be flattered. Respect was a luxury he could not afford since his murky days in the green childhood. In a village with no name, surrounded by people whose faces no longer appeared to him, Kira could only remember the warmth of their admiration and the feeling of ease he experienced. The memories floated about his head, he imagined, like an ethereal red haze. Somehow the music played on Innocentia’s Baryton came to mind, trailing with its pacifying sound the vague sentiments attached to the patches of memory. The environment around him then stuck more firmly in the sediment of his memory than any event or person, of which he could recall almost nothing. How far had he gone without experiencing that softness of his youth; the autumn fall of maple leaves, submerging his body within a torrent of whispering paper in crimson…

Kurogiri wrested his attention back with his measured, mildly theatrical cadence.

“In my time as a researcher, I’ve found that the most capable often sell themselves short. You’re a confident young man. Playing the flagellant doesn’t suit you.”

From his coat pocket, he withdrew a small white stick, a cigarette. But he didn’t smoke on it, for he simply rolled it in his hands. As he spoke, the cigarette danced over and behind his fingers.

“You say ‘I don’t have many talents.’ But I believe that to be truly aware of one’s talents, one must have spent years researching and perfecting many fields. What seems to be an extraordinary handiness for solving a contingency in the present may have been a simple fluke, a convenient decision brought on by external stimulus.”

Kira believed he fully understood what the man said. “So, you mean that maybe people who are talented just get lucky? I’m not really used to compliments.”

“I wouldn’t exactly chalk it up to random chance, but it is true that some people, given certain specific situations, are particularly well adapted for a rise to success. A talent is a particular seed with picky characteristics. It grows only when exposed to the correct conditions for it to sprout, and even that is no guarantee it will properly blossom.”

He raised his face and peered down at Kira over his glasses.

“Modesty is a truly rare virtue. If you are such a modest individual, then, what do you say to repaying me in money for the ‘operation’ I gave you, rather than simply working and additionally earning money and free accommodations?”

Kurogiri’s ever-present smile took on fiendish proportions. “I trust that a young gentleman such as yourself would blanch at the idea of robbing a addle-minded landlord of his valuable earnings?”

“Ah! Well…”

Kira retreated from Kurogiri as much as he could without fleeing the table outright.

“I *am* kinda… rascally…”

He tried to fit himself into the gangster shoes he found himself shoved into so often. Kira imagined himself even more tattooed, wearing a brightly colored Aloha, and missing a pinky finger, sneering stereotypically. It didn’t work.

The knowing man pushed his spectacles up with a quick poke of his finger, grinning lopsidedly. “Very well. I’ll have no choice but to keep my eye on you.”

With that, he turned to his servant, loyally sitting at his side.

“Innocentia, won’t you check on Mr. Aozaki?”

“Aozaki has awoken.” She responded, quite naturally, in monotone, but the air was more familiar. Innocentia rose to her feet. “I shall prepare the entrance.”

“Oh? You don’t often utilize the Qi Men Dun Jia’s divination.” Kurogiri said amusedly. “As expected, you defy expectations even after all this time.”

The girl averted her eyes. “Though praise is welcome, that statement is flawed…” She disappeared into the snowstorm-like hallway of silken shades, fading in amongst the mirage of cloth.

Kira stared blankly. “Keementungya?”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Pulling off the covers, Takara saw the pale haze of the mid-day light. She hadn’t looked behind her, having been so focused on pretending to be asleep that she indeed dozed off again, but the panoramic window took some getting used to. She swore that her body was suspended over the open air of Akitaka’s ultra-modern commercial urban sprawl, eight stories in the sky, and suddenly felt a spike of disorientation. Her hair drifted across her face as she shook the feeling out of her head and turned away.

“I hadn’t intended to sleep this long.”
Grabbing blindly, she examined her cell phone, which sat within her reach atop the square of folded clothes. 12:43. Her groggy eyes struggled to focus as she began the ponderous task of extracting herself from beneath her comforter. Since her arms were rather limp, Takara slid out from atop the mattress and onto the floor like a worm, rolling over and dragging the blankets with her.

“Ugh.” The girl slowly arose, but her untidy hair darted out in odd directions from the side of the head she’d slept on. Rebellious strands were quickly flattened under her hand as she patted her head, as if confirming it was still there. Takara’s second sleep had been deep enough but withdrawing from that blissfully unconscious state was a long process.

Her mind leapt forward, advancing her rising schedule in a way it rarely did.

“I should call Mother… and Momoko. She’s probably worried sick about me too.” She muttered to herself. The timing was convenient; it was lunch break at her old high school. The former exorcist was almost certainly enjoying one of her more definitive culinary pleasures at that very moment. That made Takara cautious of interrupting her mother’s meal, but it was serious enough that not calling seemed beyond stupidity.

Naturally, Ciel was not to hear any detail whatsoever of Takara's indecent living situation.

She punched in the numbers and raised the small phone, which looked old by modern standards, to her ear. After an unsurprising number of electronic croaks, her mother’s familiar voice emerged on the other end of the line.

“Hello? Takara?”

From her hasty voice, Takara wondered if she’d quickly swallowed her spoonful of the curry to answer.

“Hello mother.” She hadn’t expected her voice to come out so hesitantly. It was likely because Takara anticipated being drawn away from her new school and Momoko when Ciel heard of her beloved daughter’s incident.

There was a measured degree of exuberance in her mother’s voice, just as she’d always been, but of course Ciel began by scolding.

“Really, calling me in the middle of lunch. I thought I’ve taught you better, dear. This is an important time for me after a stressful class. You know how hard a day of work can be!”

A warm smile crossed Takara’s face as she heard her mother’s calming, normalizing voice. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s curry after all.”

“… I wasn’t going to ask.”

Takara’s mother perked up a bit more. A slew of questions battered Takara until she nearly backed away from the speaker.

“How are you enjoying your accommodations? I hope your friend is a good roommate.”

“Erm, Momoko is the same as always.”

“ Are your classes treating you well? Don’t forget to set your alarm far in advance. You know you’re not a morning person.”

“Umm…”

“Have you been getting enough to eat? I know you have a good appetite…”

Takara reddened. She'd hit her daughter's sore spot.
“…I-I’m okay, really. And it’s only the second day.”

“What about men? Any handsome young suitors fussing over my daughter?”

Another sore spot.
“Mother, that’s…”

“Of course, too early for that as well." Despite her words, she sounded almost disappointed, harrowingly enough for Takara. Fortunately, that disappointment gave way to calm understanding.

"You’re so shy, but you wouldn’t be yourself if you took to someone so quickly. And there are so many young ruffians out there these days. It’s relieving that you’re so cautious.”

“…”

Takara looked away from the phone, as if in shame. Her mother knew her so well. Too bad she didn't know Kira. And if she met him...

“Even if he’s just a bother, I’d hate for her to misunderstand if she met that ‘ruffian.’”

“Well, never mind all that. How are you dear? It’s unusual for you to call at a time like this.”

“Well, I’m, er… those things are going well, I guess?”

“That’s good to hear. It’s a rather expensive school after all.”

Takara laughed nervously at her mom’s offhand utterance. That cheerful tone of hers always provoked an unreasonable level of discomfort.

“But it means that you must do your best to study hard, and enjoy yourself.”

Her daughter smiled unconsciously from her end of the line.
“Don’t worry mother. I’m always working my hardest. I know you’re working hard too.”

“Yes.” Ciel’s voice sounded tense. “Especially right now.”

“What’s happening?”

“There’s an inquiry. Apparently Misaki is having problems with students taking part time jobs. Of course we can’t have this, but the administration came to talk to me of all people, and well…”

The rough boy probably worked even when he was in high school. Not that Takara hadn’t considered it once or twice herself, never for lack of money or even a desire to buy something, but simply because the idea of working interested her.

“I see. It must be difficult, mother. Why would they suspect you?”

“Young people will always find a way to misbehave, wherever they are, or whoever they’re around. I wouldn’t excuse them if I found any students taking a job from my class, but I understand their need.”

She couldn’t help but smile at her mother’s moderation of strictness and sensitivity.

“But this isn’t something you need worry about Takara. I’ve been busy, but I still try my hardest to make time for the children, even if my leave is over. I can’t let Hisui monopolize them all.”

“Actually, it’s not the kids I’m worried about.”

Takara gulped. There was a suitable lull in the conversation. Now was the best time to speak straight.

“It’s… me.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. It wasn’t simply that Ciel had stopped making noise of any kind, but all noise from her end had seemingly cut off. For a moment, Takara felt a terrible urge to check her phone’s screen, to see if she had lost the signal. But someone answered back, in a cold voice she hadn’t heard for so long.

“What happened?”

It was not “Ciel the teacher,” or “Ciel the loving parent,” but “Ciel the Executioner” who answered, the call of a voice like cold steel that conveyed mercilessness and an understanding of events far beyond her daughter’s ken. Even though she questioned, Takara felt that the events transpiring had already entered the realm of her mother’s deductions, and shivered slightly. The blue eyes of an assassin, the Vatican’s mageslayer and vampire hunter were as visible to the girl as if Ciel was there at that moment.

“A Dead. No, two of them. And they were strange. I killed them both, but it was… difficult.”

“Difficult.” Ciel echoed, no inflection in her voice to inquire or otherwise.

“I’m… not myself. But I had help, a boy close to my age. And I’m being protected, by a suspicious man. He’s definitely a magus, as well as the man who sent those Dead. I’m not sure I can trust any of them.”

“So that’s why you called.”

“Yes.”

What was this anxiety she felt? Danger to her very life should have been a tantamount concern, but Takara felt that her continued education at Jin-Sei itself was in danger. Her new life was already shattered, so why did she feel it was being threatened when it couldn’t have been damaged any further?

It was Kira. That boy was the reason why she wouldn’t be able to forgive her mother if she was called away from that city. She had no personal feeling of closeness to the boy, but she did have an accursed sense of responsibility that pained her every time she thought of what he’d been through, and the dangerous days that undoubtedly awaited him. She thought of herself, in the early days of the War, and what she knew of her father’s experiences; how confusing and lonely it must have felt. The boy was quickly becoming an iron manacle shackling her to the city, in spite of their adversarial personalities.

“I can tell.” Ciel murmured through the receiver. “I know you like I know your father. Telling you it’s too dangerous to stay is meaningless. You’re an obedient girl, but you inherited his stubbornness.”

Takara was her father’s daughter, and just like the Nanaya God of Death, she couldn’t leave someone who needed her help, or her power, alone.

“Many years ago, I would have called that ‘stupidity,’ something I couldn’t understand. Why he insisted on stupidly involving himself in dangerous things that had nothing to do with him. There was only one reason that bound me to him.”
The nostalgia shined through cracks in the Executioner's voice.

“…” She couldn’t say it outright, but Takara knew. It was the promise of revenge against a hated enemy, the Serpent of Akasha.

“But, as I was a person who lived a life of falsehood, his sincerity was a cruel weapon I couldn’t defeat.”

Warmth returned to Ciel’s voice.

“That idiot. He’d probably still smile and say you could take care of yourself. But I worry more easily with every year that passes. I can’t be so relaxed. Allowing you to face danger by yourself with such immature skills is out of the question.”

Takara felt herself invigorated by the tenderness though her recently conceived pride squirmed at Ciel’s appraisal of her skills as “immature.”

“But I’m not alone. I have…”

Her mother’s tone of voice was low. It was clear that she was taking pains not to let her conversation go overheard. But Takara knew that it was within her mother’s ability to make those who had pried unwelcome into their family concerns forget.

“The magus is who I’m worried about, not the Dead.”

“I don’t mean him. It’s…”

“The boy? It’s probably too late to keep him from getting involved, am I right?”

“Yes. Because I have a responsibility to Kira now.” Takara spoke resolutely.

A twinge of interest colored the woman’s concern. “’Kira…’ So that’s his name.”

“Eh?”

“Never mind. This boy named ‘Killer,’ is he strong?”

“He’s strong but…”

“Naïve I bet. This isn’t a lifestyle anyone should seek out. And the magus?”

“Kurogiri Jin. A ‘supernatural researcher.’”

“Kurogiri… there is a lineage by that name, if I remember correctly. I’ll look into it. For the moment, watch him carefully.”

“Yes mother, I will.”

“I’ll be there soon. Don’t let your guard down for even a moment.”

Takara realized it was illogical to mention, but she had one concern.
“You’re coming here? What about the inquiry? Are you just going to leave?”

A soft laugh. “Do you think any of these academics can keep me from my daughter?”

Takara couldn’t help but breath a sigh of relief, even though she was far from relaxed.
“Thanks mother. I’ll see you soon.”

“Soon. And I love you, Takara. You’re a young lady who can defend herself, but allow me my maternal fretfulness this one time.”

“I know. It means so much to me.”

“You’ll never be alone, dear.”

The call ended. Kira’s face surfaced in her mind as Ciel’s last statement floated through.

“I’ve never been alone.” Whispering to herself those words, she arose, and headed towards the exit.

Opening the door, she almost jumped back a step. The white girl stared back at Takara, with an indifferent gaze that recognized neither her worries nor her fears.

“Mr. Kaede and the Master are awaiting you.”

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Her confidence wavered as she reached the threshold of Kurogiri’s dwelling. Had the girl overheard the phone conversation? The entire time she spent changing into her fresh-smelling school uniform, Innocentia had simply stared blankly at her.

“Relax… it was probably a coincidence she arrived when she did.”
If she were prone to biting her nails, Takara would have chewed them to the thick by then. It seemed like every time Innocentia even so much as glanced at her, a chill ran down her spine. Though her killing instinct seemed to have been suppressed somehow, the personality of Nanaya fading as a distant dream, she still felt a kind of disturbing force emanating from the homunculus. It must have been her own internalized mistrust of Innocentia’s artificial kind.

After nearly losing the tiny girl in the hall of white sheets again, Takara stumbled into Kurogiri’s residence.

“So much for entering with poise.”

The owner smiled in obvious delight, and Kira, who was seated across from him, turned to Takara with a far more natural and typical grin.

“Hey. Had trouble getting up, I see.”

Recalling the image of Kira undressing earlier that morning sparked latent hostility in Takara, though she was logical enough to know it was childish.

“Be quiet.”

“Mr. Aozaki.”

Kurogiri’s trademark manner of addressing her arrested Takara’s attention. Her eyes set upon him as he tilted his head to the side one notch.

“It goes without saying that you slept well. But I am curious, not to be too hasty of course: have you given thought to my work offer since last night?”

Takara’s answer: a flat “No.”

At her word, Kira’s jaw dropped slightly, and she could tell a stammering, instinctive response was on the verge of bursting from him. Was he disappointed, or simply confused? A good look from Takara reassured him into silence. In contrast, the bespectacled man didn’t seem to react. His placid face held its expression throughout his questioning.

“Quite the decisive person I see. To be honest, it disappoints me a little, but it impresses more still. So,” Kurogiri narrowed his eyes to slits like razor wire. “If I may be so bold, I would like to inquire as to the reasoning behind your choice. I’m a curious man.”

Maintaining a cooler head than she’d expected herself capable of, Takara looked down on the seated man before seating herself beside Kira, folding her legs beneath her.

“I did reject your proposal of a job offer. However, I will assist Kira. I’ve taken it upon myself to aid him in any way I can. I can’t allow myself to be your employee, but last night, he and I decided he would benefit from my help.”

“Interesting. So the prospect of monetary gain does not interest you. You are a walking complex of surprises, Mr. Aozaki.” For a moment, the man’s cyan eyes flickered to his own wrist, as if examining a watch, though no such thing was there.

Kira squirmed once or twice, words drumming about behind his closed lips, but he remained quiet.

“I thank you for your hospitality, and for rescuing Kira and I, but I didn’t feel it was in my best interest to enter a business relationship with you without some firsthand experience of what your job entails.”

Kurogiri laughed dryly, leaning back in amusement. “Well then, the mop and vacuum are stored in the lobby service closet. If you want, you can get started immediately, with some instruction from Innocentia.”

Takara shook her head. “I wasn’t referring to that. Rather, I wanted to understand what your various ‘odd jobs’ referred to, and accompany Kira on his first assignment.”

At this, the “professor’s” eyes lit up.

“And so the plot thickens. I simply couldn’t refuse your unorthodox terms. But if at any time you wish to receive payment for your efforts, I won’t hold you to your decision here, you know.”

“You’re too kind, Mr. Kurogiri.”

“Oho, don’t flatter me. More importantly, Kira…”

Kurogiri turned his head smoothly to speak with his new servant.

“Yes?”

“Innocentia will escort you downstairs. Mr. Aozaki will be down shortly with your first assignment.” He cupped his chin with long fingers that rapped the edge of his jaw. “I was intending to set you immediately to janitor duties but the building is rather clean. That was when I had a wonderful idea. But first, I have something private to discuss with Mr. Aozaki.”

The tanned boy could only blink in confusion. Wasn’t he the one Kurogiri hired? What sort of business did he have with Takara?
It was too early to risk bothering the man, so he decided not to ask questions just yet.

“Uh, right. See you in a bit, Takara.”

Kira murmured warily before turning to follow the white ghost out again. Takara and Kurogiri remained alone at the table.

For the first time, the two supernatural beings were able to speak freely, without the disruptive presence of an outsider among them.

“Well then,” Kurogiri spoke with slowly drawn breath. “You may be a complex of surprises, but most of all surprising to me was your name, Mr. Aozaki.”

Takara narrowed her eyes defensively. She’d realized it earlier, but Innocentia had removed her knife. There was no way to know if she would have need of it soon, but Kurogiri’s subtle atmosphere gave little in the way of inroads; the pathway to his intentions was blocked by mists as impermeable as the silken veils lining his entryway.

“My name interests you, does it?”

“Yes. For you are not of the same blood as The Magic Gunner. So then…” Kurogiri’s everlasting smile took on an entirely new form of fiendish curiosity.

“Who are you?”

Kieran
April 19th, 2011, 06:36 AM
The "Mr." bit confused me for a second - but then I remembered having this conversation already. :)

Cascade
April 21st, 2011, 02:31 AM
Well, if I were to render it in Japanese, it'd be "Aozaki-kun," which doesn't necessarily mean male in a business setting but is typically associated with males. The idea is that Kurogiri talks like a manager speaking to one of his underlings, and uses pronouns and honorifics typically used by the very elderly. You could use -kun to refer to a younger boy or personally familiar boy, but I've heard of it being used in business settings, ostensibly to promote a sense of closeness and friendliness while still maintaining a professional distance. Girls are also called -kun like men in business and politics by people of higher rank, but as Takara is not employed by Kurogiri, that can't be the reason why he uses it.

Although I initially shied away from it, I might do those in my actual update, which I'm working on right now. It is more natural than having to explain it, though I am sort of loathe to selectively "translate" the dialogue.

Cascade
April 28th, 2011, 02:17 AM
When Kira exited the room, looking quite content, Takara could have sworn the temperature around her dropped by several degrees. She realized that the bespectacled magus had set his eyes upon her once more, listing contentedly to his right as he set his cheek upon his palm. The look in his gaze celebrated the fact that he’d finally gotten her alone, as if Kira presence alone would thwart his efforts to communicate properly with her. Kurogiri seemed quite relieved.

“Aozaki. I haven’t heard that name spoken to me since…”
Kurogiri’s voice trailed off. He fiddled carelessly with the glass of tea in his other hand. Its circular base rotated about on the table’s wooden surface as he spoke.

“Hah. My memory fails me yet again. And it was on the cusp of my tongue too.” He prodded his skull with an extended finger, jokingly. It was unnaturally childish despite his gentlemanly deportment.

“’When you’ve lived as long as I have, you tend to forget a lot of things?’” Takara imagined him inevitably chortling out, but she kept it to herself.

“But, you’re quite the enigma, Mr. Aozaki. That’s an uncommon name. A famous one amongst ‘our’ kind, even. I’m sure you’re aware.”

His voice curled about Takara’s ear like a wisp of smoke. The chill returned to notice. Moving on her knees without thinking, she put more space besides just the table between Kurogiri and herself.

“You flatter me, but I… I don’t feel particularly special or anything myself…” False modesty would, perhaps, defuse his curiosity.

It was strange. More than anything the environment she was in diluted her mind. Within the aged wooden walls it felt as though Takara’s self was being compromised. It wasn’t a malicious feeling, like feeling the murderous intent of others, or the newly familiar sensation of being drugged. Was it simply the building Kurogiri lived in? He himself had mentioned that the Great Cormorant was drafted with one hand on the pen and one on a Daoist geomancy manual. As such, it was an unnatural place that trapped energy and directed its flow as irrigation commanded water. The mana of the surrounding environment was never stationary. Though her innate sense of its flow was natural, she only needed be conscious enough to avoid being swept along in its waves.

Kurogiri chuckled at her dense act. The laugh had more spirit in it than his typical dry one.

“Of course, it is also a name that has drawn a significant amount of infamy. Envy is wedded to status and power.”

“I’m aware of the reputation behind the name, yes.”

“Then, I assume you know the Magic Gunner, Aoko Aozaki. I’d be surprised if you didn’t, even if you weren’t of her blood.”

Kurogiri drummed his fingers once more in that androgynous way, and yet his relaxed posture seemed somehow more rigid, steeled. Takara was unsure what to make of it. She thought more quickly than she had in months. It even afforded her enough time to consider why she didn’t think with that kind of speed during her college entrance exams.

What to say of Aoko? Her aunt was a walking catastrophe waiting to unleash its fury. Though at times she seemed mysterious and distant, to Takara, Aoko was only her Aunt, and it was difficult to reconcile the image of her as a flighty, free-spirited relative with the dreadful image of the human wrecking machine and possessor of the ultimate destructive magic. Such a name and such a title were magnets for unwanted attention of the worst kind. Those less talented, those with a grudge, and those who simply wanted to etch their name into the secret history of magic would have resorted to more worldly tactics if confronted with the unenviable task of taking on Miss Blue. In particular, kidnapping hostages came to mind. Takara didn’t feel any ill will from the smiling, polite man, but his questioning was already moving on a dangerous path.

Still, that twitch in his body might have been the window into Kurogiri’s opaque mind. Takara knew that emotion well, or at least guessed that his moment of inconsistent behavior hinted at it. Of all the emotions for a magus of some repute to feel towards Aoko Aozaki, fear was the most likely emotion.

“Yes.” Takara stated with finality. “She is my sister.”

Were Aoko truly Takara’s sister, she was sure the “magic researcher” wasn’t quite confident enough to cavalierly risk certain atomization, no matter how accomplished Innocentia claimed he was.

Kurogiri, however, did not react as expected. He rose from his leaning elbow and held his chin thoughtfully. A calm smile plastered his face, empty as ever.

“And that there is where the enigma begins,” he mused, “behind that face of yours, I grasp something comfortingly familiar. An echo of like individuals met in the past. It is true that I have crossed paths with those of the name Aozaki before, though never with that sister of yours. A remarkable woman, though sadly the majority of things I’ve heard about her, I wouldn’t dare relate to you. Still, definitely familiar…”

A pause. He leveled a finger at Takara casually, pushing its tip in a circle. “But familiar as you are, it’s a different nostalgia entirely.”

She resisted gulping. Did Kurogiri call her bluff?

The man flippantly continued, wearing that grin and casting a knowing sidelong glance at Takara, but if he was skeptical of his guest, he did not breech his silence. He rose from his seat in a way that reminded Takara of an old man, mindful of his weak back.

“In any case, your ‘potential’ is certainly up to par with the Aozaki reputation. My friend, don’t treat it so lightly. Being exceptional and known is a rare ‘treasure.’ in this impersonal modern age.”

Kurogiri smirked, amused at his own pun on her name. She hated being drawn into the man’s pace, but Takara wanted to breathe out, releasing the anxiety that had built up in her chest over that charade.

“Most human beings are “eyeless” today. The sublime haze of immediacy conceals everything before us. You were fortunate enough to need not earn your eyes, and found your way, as so many others have struggled to amongst our number.”

He extended his hand, ostensibly to raise Takara up. “I am satisfied, Aozaki-kun. So sorry to detain you. If you will, we should enjoy a glass of tea together some time in the future.”

Takara declined his gentile offer, standing up on her own and keeping her distance. “I’ve said almost nothing. Your hospitality is undeserved, but thank you, Mr. Kurogiri.”

He folded his empty hand upon his chest.

“Kurogiri is fine. So is Professor, though it’s been ages, and if you requested to see my doctorate, I’m afraid it too has been lost to the years.”

An almost feminine wink punctuated his words. “Grandpa isn’t bad either. Though, you’re already professional at your age. Courteous and succinct. I like that. ‘Mr Kurogiri’ would suit someone like you just fine.”

His voice seemed just slightly more hollow, and lonely, but he invited her towards the exit with typical poise. As they left, Takara realized what to say, to break the discomforting silence her defensiveness had created, in her efforts to keep her identity secret.

“What about ‘Marcel?’”

Kurogiri halted mid-stride. An impish gleam was hidden in the brilliance of his unnatural cyan gaze.

“Oh that… I’d advise you against using it around Innocentia.” He chuckled. “She wouldn’t like it very much.”

Takara settled on simply “Mr. Kurogiri.”


They went immediately downstairs upon exiting Kurogiri’s house of shades. To Takara, it seemed as if the miniature pavilion ceased to exist once back inside the building interior, and for all she knew, it did. He led her to the lounge and bar where they had met Innocentia that night, where the homunculus and Kira were waiting.

Both sat at the bar. Innocentia’s ivory legs were too short to reach the floor, but Kira was virtually standing. At the sight of Takara and Kurogiri, the boy, who was leaning over the counter perked up instantly.

“Oh, you’re here! Are you two already finished?”

“I wasn’t quite sure of just who the young master Aozaki truly was.” Kurogiri nodded.

“Now I feel quite a bit confident in my understanding of the both of you.”
He turned to his left, a sinuous motion: Kurogiri’s one eye peeked out from over his spectacles’ lens towards Takara in what couldn’t have been anything but a visual elbow-nudge.

The blinking was a sure sign of Kira’s confusion. No matter. He’d write it off as personal business he’d wrangle out of her anyway, Takara figured.

“I’ve decided to ride upon this new wave of confidence and send you on your new assignment early.”

This pleased Kira more greatly, who had thought of little but his new career since the night before, even in light of the bizarre events surrounding them.

“All right, what’cha got planned? You want me to get started cleaning the building? What first? Toilets? Carpet? Polish the lobby floor?”

Kurogiri smiled flatly. “… No.”

“Oh… Right.”

“It’s an ‘odd job,’ one of the ones I mentioned when describing the position. Oh, but don’t take it as representative of the job in general; just these little errands I don’t have time to run.”

“Little errands.” Takara murmured under her breath, taking her seat next to Kira at the bar counter.

The man peered through his glasses at his wrist and palm like he was reading the face of a watch.

“Normally I’d handle entertaining little trivialities such as this myself, but am acquisition opportunity for my collection presented itself, and having just been informed last night, I’m afraid I don’t have the luxury of time. There is an urgent flight to the mainland I must catch.

He sighed and grasped his brow with a solemn shake of his head.

“On the positive side, this is the usual for me. Auctions, private sales; not everything in the world happens on this tiny island. I have trips like this ranging anywhere from twenty to a hundred times in a single year.”

Takara’s eyes fluttered. “Huh? In how long? If you don’t mind me asking.”

The professor waved it off. “Oh, in a bit less than an hour.”

The nearest airport was in Tokyo itself. Driving from Akitaka through the mountain highways and into the metropolitan area at that time of day was out of the question. Even taking the train was a dicey proposition. Even then, Takara couldn’t imagine someone as ostentatious as this white suited gentleman cramming himself into the sardine cans thousands of people took on their daily commute as if he was just another salary-man. She balked. And to think Kurogiri had to be ready to drop everything and travel overseas simply in order to attend some auction

“Wow. This man is a lot busier than I gave him credit for…”

Kira glanced at Innocentia. Naturally, she was entirely motionless and blank, ignorant or uncaring towards the pressure in his gaze.

“She must be left alone here all the time. I feel kinda bad for the kid.”

Kurogiri chuckled. “Not to worry. This is all part of my typical schedule. I’m quite the seasoned traveler, and a meticulous planner, ready for any contingency-“

At this, Innocentia seemed to glare ever so slightly.

“With some help of course. Still, it’s difficult to anticipate these sorts of things, even for a man of my experience. Miraculous items and antiques of considerable value pop up wherever they please, regardless of your convenience. Though I had little time to prepare last night to this morning, Innocentia and I did our best to set things in order for you, Mr. Kaede.” He nodded to Takara. “As well as for you, Mr. Aozaki, should you choose to accompany him.“

Kira nodded. “There’s no need to come along if you don’t feel like it. It’s my assignment, after all.”

Though there was definitely some uncertainty in his voice, he seemed confident enough.

“Well… Actually, I was planning on giving something to Mr. Aozaki regardless, but…”

Kira’s jaw nearly came unhinged, before he stuffed his confusion back down his throat and silenced himself. An abortive “Wha-“ managed to flee from his mouth.

“But she’s not even your employee. Hey, what the hell’s going on here? Where’s your luggage? And why do you keep calling her Mr.?”

Kurogiri prudently ignored Kira’s visible mental tangling and grinned to both of them with anticipation in his smile.

“Anyways, I must be going, so here are your instructions. In truth, there are two things you must do for me.”

His white-gloved hand shot out. In it, two white paper envelopes, and a large yellow mail package.

“Take this yellow envelope to the Civic Development and Business centre, third floor. It’s on Sakunami Street; you can get there by using the Ocean Line subway. It’s brand new. Best of all, it’s free for students. Doesn’t that make you feel cared for?”

Kurogiri commented in a voice somewhere in the no-man’s-land between good humor and sarcasm.

“They shall be open until four. Don’t feel too pressured to rush over. But when you do, ask for Mr. Murakami, or his secretary, most likely the later. She’s a bit hard to notice.” He stifled a laugh. “Her shadow is so thin only a snake could hide in it. I’m afraid I don’t know her by name, but I’d prefer you handed it personally to either of them.”

Kira nodded as he accepted the items. The yellow envelope was heavy enough and flat. He was certain a book was inside. But as for the white envelopes, they were tiny, barely large enough to contain a business card. There didn’t seem to be anything in them at all.

“Tell them I sent you. And be sure not to forget the ‘Dr,’ please.”

“Dr. Kurogiri, huh? Got it. And what about these?”

“Oh, those? They’re just some throwaway trinkets I’d like the two of you to have. Hold onto them for me.”

The boy wanted to scratch his head. Empty, tiny envelopes especially effective at getting lost in the mail: How incredibly exciting.

Perhaps there was more to it, he thought. Stranger things had happened lately. The envelopes were, after all, sealed. Whatever was inside was so slight as to have no noticeable weight. Kira resisted the urge to open them, which was fortunate, as the man almost immediately took back the two white rectangles.

“Excuse me. I should have mentioned; this one is for Mr. Aozaki, and this one is yours.” The man stated apologetically, divvying out the two perfectly identical white envelopes.

Takara took hers with a curious stare, not directed at the gift but at its giver.

“Thank you, but I’m a bit startled by all this. I’m not your employee, so I don’t see why I should receive a gift from you so suddenly.” She suppressed her feelings of incredulity, the selfsame as Kira’s, and treated it as she would any other present. “Sorry, but I cannot accept this.”

Kurogiri, however, was already waving her off with his hand and turning towards the door. “Please, please, dispense with the unnecessary politeness, really. I’m sure you both were all too eager to get your grubby fingers on those two treasures. Lucky you; I’ve already forgotten handing them out.”

He paused near the glass doors to the street. The light and movement behind him seemed like a flow out of sync from the static, quiet interior of the Cormorant.

“Innocentia.”

“Yes Marcel.” A trickling of life flowed into the inert, white doll.

“I’ll be back shortly. Take care of things in my absence as usual. See to it that our new associate and his friend are well-cared for.”

“As you wish.”

With that, the unknowable man stepped out, taking his time, as expected. Innocentia stood perfectly still, watching the exit in silence for a moment.

“Getting lonely already?” Kira questioned, hands folded in his pockets.

The girl didn’t answer, only turning away from them and walking off, the quiet taps of her shoes and that pale hair her erstwhile followers.

Kira scratched his head, grinning lopsidedly. He was a mess of discomfort and awkwardness.
“…Did I offend her somehow?”

“Don’t worry about it too much.”
Takara deadpanned, narrowing her eyes and walking past him towards the exit. They had all they needed, their clothes having been delivered last night, along with her school materials, though Takara’s knife was still missing. She didn’t have a mind to find it, however. The weapon was in terrible shape after the previous night’s battle. A cheap clasp knife like that would wear to dullness cutting through stiff, necrotic flesh and clashing against harder metals. Locating another was high on her list of immediate priorities. Without the knife, she wouldn’t be able to sleep again, except when exhausted to the point of collapse.


They were greeted with a reviving breeze and a sun as blithely optimistic as the night before was sullen. Although weary and disoriented after their whirlwind of experiences, the two felt the atmosphere normalize, in a loose sense. For certain, Kira felt ready to take to the assignment as a new employee, ignoring his dual instincts of fascination and trepidation in light of Kurogiri’s supernatural nature. Money was money, no matter who wrote the check, and while Kira would be choosy, passing up the opportunity was an impossibility for him. A rich man with a generous streak, with a mild degree of fame hampered solely by his reclusive nature; Kira saw in his future the possibly of insinuating himself into civic jobs, with security and benefits he’d previously only even dreamt of.

Takara on the other hand mulled over what she had seen and felt since coming to Akitaka. Strange Dead with an enervating perfume. An inability to use her Eyes properly. Nanaya’s inconvenient silence, or rather, total disappearance. A magus who behaved magnanimously, when his kind were at heart a self-centered lot. The objective of magic was to reach the Root, the cosmic program, for one’s self. Surely unlimited knowledge and power would follow. But magic had strength inversely proportional to its obscurity in the world. The more known it was, the weaker it became, and the secrecy of the magi was near-insanity. One who freely aided others who might not be magi themselves, on the other hand, seemed beyond mundane insanity.

“Are you really okay with this?”

Takara winced a bit as the wind caught her hair, dark strands traversing her face. She cupped her hand and brushed it aside, watching Kira as he casually stuffed his hands in his pockets, a satisfied grin on his face.

“I’ve secured my food again. True, I’ve got my reservations. He’s a sketchy guy.” He glanced at her from the side. “But I figured I’d meet someone like him eventually. He’s got a full plate for me to scrounge off of, and I’m desperate.”

She stepped to his side.
“Mmm, I suppose that’s true. I wanted to warn you to be careful. But I keep forgetting that for you, maybe there isn’t any other choice.”

Rather suddenly, Takara turned her cheek and frowned, raising her chin.
“…Just take responsibility for your actions! I won’t save you if you get into trouble of your own accord.”

A sigh secreted itself out from its hiding place in her chest.

“You’ve entered a dangerous new lifestyle. This isn’t the same as construction work where you might get injured or crippled, or even turning to crime, where you might die. Yet you’re acting like it’s just another job.”

He played with his hair band again, the accompanying smile not entirely carefree.

“Would you prefer I reacted some other way? I guess I just don’t know how.”

Kira could only laugh, a slightly nervous tremor surfacing but being submerged in the light of his smile.

“Haha, you know I’m thick headed, Takara.”

“You can retain the honorific, you know.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry. Anyway, isn’t that Peach Girl worrying about you?”

His arm jabbed down the street rather loosely. It seemed Kira knew the way back to the plaza where they first met. As there were still a few hours until the centre closed, stopping by the dorm to let Momoko know she was okay was reasonable. Takara cringed at the thought of Momoko crying away in their room, wondering why she hadn’t arrived yet to help her thin out the ever-growing surplus of sweets.

That wasn’t all of course. She must have been worried half-mad.
“Yeah. Well… I thought it wouldn’t be correct for me to just leave.”

“Huh, what kind of heartless guy do you take me for?” He waved his hand, shooing her away. “Go on, get out of here. Check on her already.”

“But, that’s…”

Kira unexpectedly leaned forward, eyeing Takara. His grin took on more sly qualities.
“Could it be that you don’t know the way back?”

“That’s… natural! We woke up in an unfamiliar place, and I’m still new to this city.”

“Oh? Aren’t you taking a risk, relying on a country bumpkin like me to lead you by the nose?”

He almost lost his balance as Takara roughly grabbed him by the front of his tank top and pulled him with her, treading heavily on the ground with a stiff, angry posture.

“Be quiet and navigate!”



After a long and uncomfortably paced walk through the city’s many-themed streets, the two of them passed the shopping district with the neon signs, dull and lifeless as the sunlight supplanted their glow. Kira and Takara proceeded more slowly, with greater awareness, beyond that point, and found themselves at the diverging streets near the plaza. There were not many cars, but the number of pedestrians was strangely modest for a metropolitan center in such a densely populated country. Although large in size for a newly developed city, Akitaka’s population was still small. Many citizens opted for the developing public transportation system, due to its convenient routes and affordable pricing. Thus the streets were a calm and relatively un-crowded place even during the day, though the business districts at lunchtime seemed more like they belonged in Tokyo.

In what seemed like minutes, the two arrived at Takara’s dormitory. As modern as any of the other Jin-Sei associated buildings, it was a first-year women’s residence hall with a long rectangular shape. The design made much of it appear to be suspended over the parking lot on pillars, but as not many students had cars of their own, the majority of the asphalt space went unused. Despite being an urban neighborhood, the dormitory was located in a relatively quiet spot, removed from the street and connected by a wide alleyway. The location was overall fairly open, well lit and safe-at least during the day. Takara wondered if she could feel comfortable sleeping there that coming night.

As they entered the building lobby, Takara noticed Kira’s usually relaxed posture go tense. He must have noticed that there seemed to be only women around. A boy who already stood out had a natural sense of when and where he didn’t belong, but the stares Kira was getting, and Takara by association, carried a different meaning than suspicion or distaste.

“Huh? Who is he?”

“He looks Okinawan.”

“Hm? That new first year?”

“Maybe he’s her boyfriend.”

Listening to the whispers surrounding them as they ventured through the common area and stood awkwardly in front of the elevator, Takara felt her face growing hot. It hadn’t occurred to her the insinuations she’d naturally attract if she returned to her dorm with Kira. Perhaps taking him along was not a very wise decision.

It wasn't too difficult to understand. Kira was going to turn heads like a police siren, and they were was right in the middle of an estrogen farm. To his credit, Kira, for all his confidence, seemed distinctly uncomfortable at being eyed like dinner from all sides.

They stepped into the elevator, passing a suspicious older student who eyed Kira with an expression that questioned his presence there. After the doors had canned them in their silent little container, an uncomfortable moment passed in total stillness.

“Takara.”

Kira’s voice made her jump.

“Don’t forget the honorific here!” The red-faced girl half-whispered, in absence of any need to be silent.

“Er, s-sorry. Guys aren’t supposed to be here, are they?”

Despite his confident posture and swaggering walk, for a moment, Kira looked as embarrassed as she was. There was a slight redness in the darker skin on his face. This emboldened Takara. At least one of them needed to act normally.

“What’s the matter?” Kira snatched back a bit of his normal self with an awkward gulp. “Normally, wouldn’t being tied up with a guy like me be a misunderstanding you’d wanna invite?”

Takara sighed. “At least sound a little more confident if you’re going to just start teasing me as usual.”

“Hey. I’m used to being stared at… Just not that used to being around so many girls. Can you blame me?”

“Tch. I’ll bet.”

She depressed the button for her floor.

“Yes. I don’t think I really need to state the rules about having boys around. Please try not to draw unnecessary attention to yourself.” Takara mused, curling her index finger beneath her chin as their mutual blush subsided. “I should have come back on my own and left him somewhere *far away.*”

“Yeah… I’ll try to.”

It was fairly typical for a college to have strict rules in their residence halls about visits from the opposite sex. Walking around with an undeniably handsome boy like Kira was already a cause for suspicion, but his imprudent over-familiarity with Takara would be a trigger for innumerable irritating conversations in the future. The misfit mixed first year and her tanned, uncouth country “boyfriend”: The true nature of their complex acquaintance would boil the minds of any normal college student, so even an embarrassing, stereotypical misunderstanding would be preferable to that. Still, she couldn’t help but want to be seen as distant from Kira as possible.

The hallway where she’d found her room was clean, as if the building’s modern exterior hermetically sealed all its inhabitants in the purest environment possible. Takara walked up to her door hastily, Kira keeping pace with his long stride.

“I hope Momoko is in here. It’s Sunday, so there’s no class.”

She slid her student card through the lock, simultaneously putting a hand to Kira’s chest and pushing him back with a cold look. “Stay.”

Kira frowned, but apart from that, didn’t object. The boy turned away, seeming miffed in the way he crossed his arms. She cracked open the door.

A light, cool breeze, as if the room was exposed to the elements, rushed from the door as it came ajar. Through that small window into their chamber, she could see a vision of chaos. Dressers opened, clothing and underwear strewn in every direction, storage bins overturned, their content streaming about the floor.

“… Momoko?”

She had barely a moment to react before a strong hand swerved round the door’s edge and seized her roughly by the arm, dragging her inside.

Kieran
April 28th, 2011, 07:15 AM
"Eyeless" - now there's a hint that he knows who she is if I ever heard one.

And the irony just struck me now, of your protagonist being named "Kira," given that Takara's personality was originally based on Cagalli . . . I'm sure it's a coincidence, but it's funny. :D

Cascade
April 28th, 2011, 09:23 AM
Rofl, well his personality is a lot different from the infamous Jesus Yamato though. XD

I was kind of thinking of Yakumo from 3x3 eyes when I made him and Juusawa Juu from Denpateki na Kanojo. Kurogiri was originally inspired by Friagne from Shakugan no Shana. Innocentia is Jase's character.

Kieran
April 28th, 2011, 10:38 AM
Yakumo and Friagne - yeah, I can see that.

Cascade
April 28th, 2011, 07:23 PM
"Watashi no kawaii Marianne Innocentia..."

Cascade
May 2nd, 2011, 01:20 AM
Immediately upon entering her hurricane-tossed room, her waist was encircled by a pair of surprisingly strong arms. Judging by the way the arms squeezed so plaintively, and the soft crying behind her, Takara knew it could only be Momoko. Normally she would have been used to her friend’s sudden hugs, but so frayed were Takara’s nerves that she had to consciously keep herself from slipping free and throwing her captor off like a wailing doll into one of her dressers, or out the window.

“Dakaraaaa…” Her friend sniffled. “I wudz worried ‘bout chu!”

Momoko sat on her knees, crying in that typically childish way, refusing to let go. Her fingers tugged tightly at the edges of Takara’s shirt, prompting the tall girl to kneel down as well and squirm lose. This did nothing but prompt Momoko to hug her from the front, eliciting a startled squeak from Takara as her friend heedlessly buried her face into her chest.

She had the first good look at her friend since she entered the room. Momoko’s face and tightly shut eyes were tinged with red. Her perpetual pigtails were undone and her hair was uncombed. She hadn’t bothered to change out of her school uniform, Takara suspected, since the day before. The flow of emotions, and tears, seemed so exaggerated that she couldn’t help but think Momoko was acting, but nevertheless, she knew her friend had been beside herself with worry. After all, in Akitaka, neither of them had anyone but each other to count on yet.

“Except for maybe Kira, but he’s…”

She looked towards the door, holding the shaking Momoko in her arms. Kira must have been still outside, standing around or pacing impatiently, wondering what was happening in Takara’s room. It would be just like him to walk inside uninvited right then, without any regard for privacy.

“No, I shouldn’t count on him too much.”

She expected him to carelessly and rudely look inside, checking on her. But the door didn’t open.

“Sorry. I made you worry… right?” Takara mused softly, still staring at the door.

“Where did you go… Where were you Takara?” Momoko pleaded sincerely, looking up at her. The redness in her eyes wasn’t solely from crying, but also lack of sleep. It was enough to stop Takara in her tracks.

“When you didn’t show up for thirty minutes, I called your phone. Nobody answered. Then an hour passed… I wasn’t nervous yet…”

She didn’t say it, but Takara knew what Momoko had felt that night. Takara was the mysterious, aloof but candid friend, who always seemed somewhere else. That look in her eyes invested her in some enthralling sight leagues beyond the horizon. It must have been frustrating. To her credit, she did more than her part. Momoko was simply a resident of another world, much like Kira was only yesterday.

“After two hours… I asked for two girls from the dorm to help me look for you. We walked down the street, to the fountain, to the campus, and then back again.”

Takara was a mysterious girl, and mysterious persons tended to freely appear and disappear, their reasons concealed. Yet if Takara always seemed distant, the space between her and Momoko must have seemed unbearable after their promise to eat sweets together was broken. Maybe Momoko thought that she’d submerge into the night and never return. That was a profound darkness into which the pigtailed girl couldn’t follow.

That didn’t stop her from trying however. Perhaps it was an overreaction, but Momoko still had her phone clasped in one tightly balled up hand.

“After three hours, I called the police. They were already moving out to that area because of something else, something about a suspicious individual. I talked to one of them. He was a nice ma, and got them to agree to look for you.”

Takara blinked. “Those lights last night in the city… was that ‘Momoko’s police?’”

“But it was no good. They couldn’t find you, and I was afraid you’d been lost… Takara, you dummy… haven’t you seen the news?” Momoko began sobbing again.

“The… news?”

It hadn’t occurred to her before, but she had been paying little attention to current events, outside those of the night before. In fact, Takara had been relatively ignorant of the news, save for the most commonly known global stories, like the minor meteorite impact in Antarctica, the recent developments in bionic technology, and the restructuring of the European Union. She simply did not have the desire to watch television, or visit online news sites. It felt needless, and exhausting.

Now, she was seated in front of a news article displayed on Momoko’s computer, a soft, rosy glow coming from its semi-transparent monitor.

“Cult? You mean like Aleph, years ago? But that organization died out in 2011, during the recession.”

There had been a number of abductions, and unfamiliar, undocumented individuals kept appearing in the city, according to the article. Many of them appeared to have mental illness, and had to be interred in a local mental hospital. Akitaka, which otherwise had an almost nonexistent crime rate, drummed its dormant police force into action, and the city was rife with inexperienced officers.

There had been four murders as well. Women between their late twenties and late 30s, single and office workers; the details on why the police suspected a cult were not shared in any article, but delving deeper into news blogs and popular forums revealed the rumor that those women were killed in a macabre, ritualistic manner that evoked images of Satanic rites. The killer was being referred to by some on the BBS by the distasteful moniker of “The Christmas Slasher,” in reference to the age and unmarried status of his victims. The abducted seemed to be mostly women as well.

Such events, Takara imagined, could only be intensely worrying to Kurogiri. There was a man who looked at the entire city from his panoramic eye; someone who had a stake in the founding and construction of Akitaka as it was. What did he think of the violence despoiling his and others attempt at the Korean “10 Year Miracle?”

“Yep. It seems really dangerous out there right now… It’s enough to make me want to take up only indoor hobbies. If I don’t go outside, ever, the risk is reduced by 100%!” Momoko nodded.

“… I don’t know where you got that. Don’t go hikikomori over this.”

“You’d feed me wouldn’t you? Go to school, work part time, and come back from the convenience store with lots of sweets?”

“…Out of the question.”

“Couldn’t you fork little bits of éclair into my mouth~?”

“…Rejected”

“Aww, you’re no fun.”

Momo pouted, slouching over her crossed legs.

“You still have class to go to. But anyway, cults are scary things…” She did her best to sound astonished.

News of the cult could mean the Mages Association was uncovered, or its Japanese compatriots. She couldn’t help but wonder how many unfortunate souls would get a Sealing order for their troubles as a result of such a titanic information leak. The various associations probably wished they could conceal their occult studies in some reality-defying academy, entered from some innocuous corner of a subway station, conveniently unnoticed by the uninitiated.

Still, the news article spoke of “kidnappings” and messily discarded bodies left behind in back alleys, compost heaps and one even in a sewer. It didn’t sound like the Association’s methods. Perhaps a rogue magus, but then again, that didn’t tell Takara anything new; she’d already experienced at least one rogue magus’s perverse tendencies firsthand.

Takara looked far more intrigued than she dared admit, until she felt Momoko’s eyes on her.

“Last night, you didn’t go off and join some weird cult for protection from that killer, did you?” Her curious stare prodded Takara into consternation.

“W-what? Why would you think that? Where’s the logic in doing something so ridiculous?”

Momo brushed her chin like an ancient sage from a Chinese novella.

“Hmm~, but if you were attacked by the killer and a strange fellow came out of nowhere to help you, any girl would feel appreciative. And of course you’d feel trustworthy, but then the killer has an eye on you and you’ve got to find some refuge. Then a handsome dandy with nice clothes who’s rich and reclusive offers you asylum, and your new friend is really close to him for some reason, and suddenly they’re having you live with them in an unfurnished apartment, doing weird rituals an speaking in made-up languages. That would be rather strange, but at least you’d be safe… Hm? Um, Takara? W-what’s with that… scary look?”

She seemed to shrink a little into herself as she cowered under her friend’s icy cold, narrowed eyes. Momoko was not, however, the scared one between the two.

“Mistaken details aside, this girl might be the next genius detective…” Takara frowned.

As she considered that possibility, with healthy skepticism, a cheery male voice echoed her thoughts.

“Hey. I think you might be on to something there!”

Takara whirled around. There, crouched with his arms resting on his knees, was Kira. She didn’t know how long he’d been there, but she was staggered she hadn’t noticed him. It was not long after the shock wore off that she realized why she had told the boy to stand outside.

Kira simply beamed and waved. He’d grown impatient standing outside her door, and didn’t like the looks he was getting from passerby. The natural solution was to walk right in. Never mind the fact that it was inappropriate for him to enter a girl’s room, but he was never one for manners. But that wasn’t the problem.

“You’re…” Takara could hear Momoko whisper in amazement.

Kira winked. “We met the other day at the fountain, huh? Call me Kira.”

Takara flushed and she swore she felt her blood pressure rise.
“I thought I told you to wait outside!”

“My legs hurt! I’m still numb from last night. Take it easy on a sensitive guy.”

“It’s your fault for exerting yourself too much! And I didn’t say you could come inside!”

“Mind explaining why you’ve always gotta ride me so hard over everything? Should I be standing at attention every time you’re around?”

“That’s-!” Takara was interrupted by Momoko’s sniffle. She turned around. A depressing aura seemed to dye the air purple around her friend, and a dark gloom set in on her face. A personal raincloud was all she needed to complete the image.

“I see… I get it now.”

Takara staged a desperate effort to cheer her up, before they passed the point of no return.
“Ah, Momoko… what’s the matter? You remember this inconsiderate boy, right?”

“Eloped…”

“Huh? What did you say?”

“Eloped. Takara, you were gone last night because you… e-eloped with this boy? Even though I saw him first… even though I saw him… and I was so worried about you.”

“WHAT! No, it’s a misunderstanding!” Takara and Kira said virtually simultaneously, but it did nothing to dam up the flood of tears welling in her eyes.

“S-sorry. I s-s-should be happy for my friend. Please t-t-take care of yourselves tonight…I’m just glad you’re safe, Takara…”

She quietly moved towards the door…

“Wait, nonono! Please listen, he and I are like rivals-no, not that-“ Takara juggled excuses clumsily on her tongue. “He’s provides a service-err, he helps me, or rather, he’s a servant-Kira, don’t give me that look-We’re allies, heroes of justice-please wait Momo!”

It was too late. Her friend fled down the hall, nearly tripping over their piles of clothes as she hurtled out the door. Despite her earlier, apologetic words, “Takara, you MEANIE!” could clearly be heard even after she was out of sight.


A moment passed in silence, as the two guilty parties stood, stunned at the girl’s tearful departure. Both could only stare at the partially opened door. A pencil case slid down off one of the many piles of clothes and clacked open as it hit the floor, scattering a few pens here and there.

Typically, Kira opened up first. “I, er, don't know what to say. Sorry?"

Thinking quickly, Takara rose to her feet and hurried to the door, shutting it tightly, least the other residents became curious and rubbernecked around their disaster scene. It didn’t help that Kira’s voice carried like it was determined to be heard whether he whispered or yelled.

“Shh… No, Kira, I should have called Momoko last night or earlier this morning. I won’t make excuses.” Takara brushed her hair aside demurely with her back against the door. Though admitting it made her feel sorry for Momoko, it felt like she could finally relax. “I was selfish. Of course she’d get scared that I didn’t come back. I even called my mother, but not Momoko. What was I thinking?”

“I wouldn’t worry too much about it. We went through a lot. And it’s easy to get lost here, even for me.” Kira said knowingly. It was obvious he had been lost in Akitaka's backstreets once or twice himself, from the uneasy tone of his voice.

“We’ve only just started getting used to this city, after all, and Akitaka’s a big place. The first day we were here, Momoko got lost for three hours downtown before finally making her way back to the dorms. I would have gotten lost with her, had I not only just begun unpacking that day, so I didn’t go out.” She sighed nostalgically. “Momoko came here with me from the same high school. She’s a nice girl. I wish she didn’t rely on me as much. However, I also wish I was someone she could rely on.”

Kira shook his head. “Don’t sweat it. I’m sure she would understand if you told her… Maybe. But I am sure she’d have trouble believing your real story. Not everyone is as crazy as me.”

Takara cupped her chin, smiling faintly. “Yes. You’re right about the crazy part, although maybe in this case only a little bit. Though it’s humiliating, I can put up with a misunderstanding if it keeps Momoko safe.”

The boy winced. “’Humiliating?’ That hurts.”

Takara only smirked back.

He looked around, rising to his feet and stepping carefully over the random debris littering the room’s floor. It was a treacherous maze of clothing trenches, empty boxes and women’s unmentionables. “Anyway, I think we’ve got bigger stuff to worry about.”

Takara blinked, leaning forward out of the swivel chair inquisitively.
“Whatever do you mean?”

“Can’t you tell just by looking?” said Kira as he scratched his head. “Your place is trashed. Someone came here, burst in like a storm, turned the place upside-down and went through all your stuff. And I mean it when I say he looked for all the right ‘stuff.’ Look.”

The boy took his other hand out from behind his back, revealing a feminine, lacy bra… Only to have it slapped nastily from his grasp.

“Don’t touch that!” Takara bloomed red. “And there’s nothing to worry about. This is just… how our room looks these days…” The embarrassment in her voice diminished the last part to a near-whisper.

He looked flabbergasted. “So, it was looted a while ago!?”

Takara balled up her hands into tight fists and thrust them down at her sides. “No stupid! I just… haven’t cleaned up…” Her voice grew quiet. “I’m kind of messy.”

It was as Kira had said; her small room was something akin to the scene of a forced entry. Two girls, Kira assumed, would be twice as neat as one. It made perfect sense to the fuzzy part of his brain. This did not take into account the types of people Momoko and Takara were. The girl who previously fled the room had already started a trend of leaving delicious sweets out, and would inevitably attract pests if she didn’t refrain from it. A box filled with spent chocolate wrappers sat on the corner of the table next to the computer. Kira looked closer. There were none left for him to pinch, much to his disappointment.

The girl still in the room was so distracted, her mind taken with constant anxiety, that every chore had become ‘tomorrow’s chore,’ not that she had been much of a housekeeper to begin with. Putting the two together, the results lay out on the floor in front of Kira, as if some malicious house spirit emptied the entire contents of a rummage sale, a designer store and a candy shop into their dorm room.

“Wait, really? You've got to be kidding me.” Kira looked about, observing the mess. “It’s painful for me just to look at. I kinda want to clean it up…”

Takara looked mildly surprised. “You, a neat freak?”

As presumptuously as ever, he began to dig through the piles of clothes. “Yeah well you can laugh if you want. I lose things a lot when they’re not always in the same place. I wouldn’t call myself a neat freak, but it’s just something I do when there’s nothing else to keep me busy… Hey, does your mom know you bought these? Not bad, pretty sexy.”

“Those are Momoko’s.”

“Hah, no, they’re not.”

“Don’t touch my underwear.”

“Yeah, I got it. You don’t mind if I just put your laundry on your bed, fold your packing boxes and throw away the trash, right?”

“Yes, I’m fine with that. Just put everything that will fit in the closet.” It would have been nice of him to ask first.

“Ha ha, but this is so unexpected. Judging by first look seems pointless now. I mean, you came off as such a traditional Japanese lady when I first saw you. I’ve never heard of a Yamato Nadeshiko who didn’t fold her own laundry.”

Kira’s eyes perked at the sight of something peeking out of a pile of shirts and socks. The corner of a cholesterol-laden instant noodle package protruded from the mess.
“Let me guess. You can’t cook, either?”

Her folded arms did much to hide Takara’s tomato red face. “It’s not like I can’t… I just don’t…”

Kira snorted. “Heh, sure. At least it’s not instant curry, right?” The package was tossed into Takara’s closet.

"Mrr, I'm telling the truth, you know..."

Even though he’d said that he’d “throw” the laundry on her bed, when Takara looked back over, he was meticulously folding every shirt and rolling up socks. Strong hands tanned and hardened by labor looked just natural folding her delicate garments as they did holding a garden hose and pruning shears, or gripped into fists. The tiny gold earring at the base of his lobe shook slightly as the delinquent-looking young man went merrily about his work, dipping down to scoop up handfuls of her clothes without any regard for her obvious embarrassment. The inconsiderate but happy Kira seemed at ease; much like he did when she saw first saw him, watering the plants. Perhaps he simply enjoyed being useful. The girl in the swivel chair sighed, leaning onto the desk and burying her face halfway in her folded arms.

“Hey, don’t look so glum. I’ll cook you something sometime. Although, I’m not so good at cooking fancy things…”

“Mother, please forgive me. I lost to 'Killer' at being a housewife... Should I be ashamed?” Takara hid her face entirely.

Kira continued to intently clean Takara’s half of the room. He folded the boxes she’d brought all her belongings in until they fit cleanly between her desk and bed. He folded her clothes quickly and efficiently, until all of them fit atop her sheets. It stung Takara’s pride to see how much neater her side of the room was after Kira had been cleaning it for only a few minutes.

Time passed, and Takara felt her eyes grow heavy. Unfamiliar waves of warmth and comforting stillness surrounded her heart. When she realized that her eyes had grown heavy and she was leaning into her desk, she understood that she was feeling drowsy. For many nights in her bed at home, and in the bed Kira now folded clothes onto, she had tossed in her sheets like a woman in straightjacket. Her mind rebelled against the skull that contained it, racing deep within her memories, outstripping the pleasant thoughts of the present.

At times, she would open the knife that had protected her. The blade scraped away the light from the moon and stored it within itself, the pale glow transmuting into coldness that bit her skin. It was protection, peace of mind. Sleeping without it was inconceivable, like a child without her favorite doll. As long as Takara had her charm clutched to her heart, she could find the mercy of sleep. Without drawing her own blood, she unlocked the “small death,” descending into it every night.

But her knife wasn’t here. It wasn’t with her the night before. That comforting feel of being able to kill any threat waiting for her as she lay unconscious was gone; yet she felt herself falling asleep without its aid. She hadn’t realized it the night before, but it was the first time she had been able to achieve normal sleep in almost a year.

The warm onset of sleep improved her mood, which was all Takara actually needed. Recognizing sleep to be improper at the moment, she resolved to help Kira clean. But as she glanced at the alarm clock on her desk, she realized that Kira had foolishly allowed himself to be completely distracted by the chores. Kurogiri had already given him an errand that he, at least, would be paid for. They didn’t know how long it would take on public transport and foot to get to the building he’d directed Kira to. Better to leave early, and be safe, then dally about doing things that might be done later, or not at all.

Though she was comfortable in her room, she realized that Momoko’s misunderstanding provided her with exactly what she needed. As long as the roguish boy was around, Takara had a convenient excuse as to why she wasn’t in her dorm. If the man who melted Kira’s heart still intended to target them, she could opt to brave embarrassment and stay with Kira in his room at the Cormorant, or more preferably, ask Kurogiri for one of her own. What mattered most was keeping her friend out of trouble, though her mother would frown upon increased exposure to the mysterious magus. She could afford the risk; putting others in danger was not to her liking.

It was time to leave.

“Kira, you’re going to be late,” she chided, not looking at him but gazing out the window onto the street. Car traffic was sparse, and the sun was directly overhead. The cement pavement looked like white marble.

“Huh?” Kira looked up from behind Takara’s bed frame.

Takara held up her white envelope, still looking outside.

“Oh... Crap!”
He began folding faster.

“Kira, forget that!” Takara rose from her seat, moving over to him. Prying Kira away was virtually the only thing she could to separate him from his single-minded task.

“I’ll just be a minute-.”

“This is fine! I… might not be staying here tonight. But thank you anyways.”
The words were surprisingly easy to say, Takara noted.

Kira blinked once before smiling grandly. His expression was bashful, but he gave her a snappy thumbs-up. “No problem. But I might need to charge you next time.”

“Now come on. Today you’ve his delivery boy, remember?”

Takara prodded and pushed him towards the door. Outside the room, there were no witnesses loitering in the hallway, and a part of her rejoiced. "If all goes well, maybe I can keep Momoko, Kira, and myself safe, and while I'm at it, explain away this false 'eloping' thing Momoko is convinced we did."

“Is your friend going to be okay?”

“I know her well." Takara smiled confidently. "Given time, some explanation, and a box of chocolates, there isn't anything Momoko wouldn't forgive me for."

Kieran
May 2nd, 2011, 06:57 AM
To be fair, Takara can cook - it's just that most of the dishes involved include chocolate. And Momo-chan is so cute . . . :)

Cascade
May 3rd, 2011, 08:54 PM
To be fair, Takara can cook - it's just that most of the dishes involved include chocolate. And Momo-chan is so cute . . . :)

Yeah, Kira's just razzing on her. It'd be a pretty outrageous battle if they tried to cook against each other.

...
Hmm...

Cascade
May 10th, 2011, 02:35 AM
Bah, I was going to post my 11th chapter tonight, but I can't find the damn thing.
I wonder who archived the old ff threads. I'd hate to think my little fic was so unimportant nobody archived it. ;_;

Kieran
May 10th, 2011, 06:06 AM
Try asking RoadBuster - I know he tried to get most of them.

Cascade
May 17th, 2011, 01:33 AM
Since I'm going to have to probably redo most of the last chapter I posted, I might try a different approach.
I remembered there was a VN creating engine on typemoon.us. Supposedly that will have version 3 soon.
I might try making Touei in this format from now on, as it might make the story a bit more engaging considering how dialogue heavy it is. I can give it conversational tempo and music.

Kieran
May 17th, 2011, 06:42 AM
Oooh - I admit, that would be neat.

Ace
May 17th, 2011, 06:18 PM
Since I'm going to have to probably redo most of the last chapter I posted, I might try a different approach.
I remembered there was a VN creating engine on typemoon.us. Supposedly that will have version 3 soon.
I might try making Touei in this format from now on, as it might make the story a bit more engaging considering how dialogue heavy it is. I can give it conversational tempo and music.

Eh...? Touei the Visual Novel.....

Mind = Blown

TAKE ALL MY MONEY NOW!

Cascade
June 26th, 2011, 03:42 PM
I finally found my fic update. I may be switching over some stylistic elements in my next chapter. The VN idea will have to wait as I'm pretty busy these days but I at least managed to get his update done, which takes a fair chunk out of my work.


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The walk to the subway station was interesting, to say the least. For a modern city, Akitaka’s streets were no more or less congested than one would expect from a populous urban center; yet the traffic seemed to flow properly from block to block. Never before had Takara felt that the image of a city as a living creature, streets functioning as its circulatory system, been so appropriate.



Most cities’ “veins” clogged regularly in ways that would wreak havoc upon the hardiest of bodies. It was a bit unsettling, as people had individual objectives and itineraries for their day, yet in Akitaka the drivers almost seemed sedated. When she and Kira crossed the street to the sound of digitized Enka music, no one seemed in a hurry. On the street, hearing a stretch of time without a far-off honk was rare, but at some points as they strolled along, Takara actually found the atmosphere becoming awkward simply due to the lack of automobile noise. Nothing could be done about rolling tires and humming engines, but Akitaka streets were oddly quiet. The idea should have soothed her suburban mind, but she instead found herself wondering if the locals simply got along splendidly, or not a single one of them was in a hurry to get anywhere.


It was then that she remembered who had his hands in the layout of the city. That mage had undoubtedly exploited some natural flow of energy to arrange the streets he had influence over, which was to say potentially all of them, in a harmonious fashion. Thus traffic rushed like unfettered blood in healthy arteries and rarely piled up, the streets were clean and quiet, and through some subtle sorcery, maybe even the minds of drivers were subtly nudged that much closer to an agreeable mood. This was to the benefit of Kurogiri; if he was weaving a city-wide spell that suppressed diversions of Gaia’s own blood, Mana, then total control of Akitaka’s environment was necessary. Takara didn’t understand the specifics, but from what she had learned from her mother and aunt, she could intuit that much and feel confident about its accuracy.


Seeing the streets made her curious about Akitaka’s subway, almost to the point of forgetting her other underlying worry.


“If any place is suitable for that man to make a second attempt on us, it’s the subway, where the sun can’t reach.”


But surely, if the streets were quiet, public transportation would be crowded? Even if they weren’t, and Akitaka’s population couldn’t compare to a megalopolis like the Tokyo Metropolitan Area, it was still the subway.


Her eyes went wide as she stepped off the escalator into the white concrete interior of the subway station. She turned to Kira, but he’d already begun to speak, oddly enough.


“This might seem weird to you, since I’ve lived here for a while and all, but… for a city, Akitaka sure never feels crowded, huh?”


Takara raised a finger at his point. “My thoughts exactly. Just look at this place.” She walked further into the interior.


As contemporary as anything else in the city, the subway abandoned the multicultural kitsch of the surface street architecture for clinical, sterile modernity. There certainly were people milling about, but nowhere near the seas of people other cities often literally had to shove into trains. A tired-looking subway attendant sat inside of his glass box a short distance further into the station, while the platform was quiet with silent folk anticipating their ride. Takara looked about with energetic curiosity, her earlier drowsiness entirely purged. A couple laughed as discretely as they could in a corner of the platform; a businessman checked his watch and let loose a relaxed smile so few of his ilk could afford. Cooled air made the lightly-dressed girl shiver slightly, and the hollow sound of the tunnel began to fill with distant rushing wheels, like an underground wind.


“Misaki is a quiet town, but it’s more of a suburb, where I live. This place reminds me of Tokyo, but even though it’s the weekend, people don’t seem to be walking around. It’s weird.”


“Yeah, it’s pretty dead today.” Kira stated. His voice echoed off the station’s ceiling, oddly far-off.


Takara looked over her shoulder. The boy was standing rigidly still, a healthy distance away from her. She only got a brief glimpse of his overtly uncomfortable expression before it morphed into a forced smile, crooked like a rag-doll’s stitches.


She blinked and crossed her arms, stopping for him. “What are you doing over there?”


Kira shook his head vigorously. Was he sweating? “Nothing, just waiting for the train. Ha ha.”


“’Ha, ha?’” The older girl eyed him skeptically, imitating his odd laugh in monotone, nodding her head to the side, before narrowing her eyes. The stare she gave him was a fine substitute for an interrogation. “You’re not normal.”


“I thought we covered this already. Besides, it’s better than being boring.”


She gave Kira an indignant look, paired with an absent brush of dark hair.“No, I mean you’re behaving strangely.”


A spark of realization galvanized Takara’s features. “Wait. You said you live here, yet you sounded as surprised at this place being quiet as I was.”


The tall boy jumped. “I-I just don’t take the subway often. I like walking. Walking’s good for you.”


More crooked grinning.


“You haven’t been down here even once, have you? Don’t tell me you’ve never rode the train?” Takara narrowed her eyes.


Kira glared at her defensively. “I-I-I have! Once or twice... But I didn’t *drive* to Akitaka. And I sure as hell didn’t walk.”


“Did you ride the train?” Takara jabbed back.


“… My... scooter...”


“A scooter? All the way out from the country? That sounds like something you stole from a road trip movie.”


The image of a beleaguered Kira, riding a junky old scooter, with countless bags and personal belongings strapped to his back like some land-borne hermit crab, made Takara hold in her soft laugh. She shook with the captive giggles, turning Kira red with anger. The sound of the approaching train almost drowned out his voice.


“Shut up. Motion sickness is mankind's enemy!”


An uneventful ten-minute train ride later, Takara and her slightly greener-looking Kira emerged from the Sakunami Street station amidst a colony of futurist glass towers.


Time spent living in Akitaka had done little to alleviate Kira's tendency to gawk at tall buildings. Neither did the noticeable sway in his step and churning in his stomach. He had an ingrained perception of what was "high" and what was "low." Tall trees stretching above his head were impressive. Cliffs at the sides of rivers doused him in shadow. Mountains were massive, but not in the way that made him feel it, except when climbing. When Kira looked at the office buildings in the city, every time he raised his eyes to their full height, he saw himself, layered upon himself again and again in an unnatural, sardine-like storage arrangement. People stacked wood and bricks. Cities stacked people.


Takara was entirely comfortable. The city itself did not bother her nearly as much as the space between herself and her own bed at home, for it was a natural transition from a "small" city like Misaki to a large one like Akitaka. It was unexpectedly easy, even. As Kira raised his eyes to the sharply-defined polygons that framed the blue sky, Takara couldn't help but watch him, sighing softly. The amazement that gripped him; was it unease or awe? Was there a distinction between the two anyway?


"What kind of world did you come from, Kira?"


Kurogiri's lack of directions made locating his delivery point somewhat challenging. Being a party of two, one outsider and one clueless bumpkin, Sakunami street proved to be a bit of a maze. Each building concealed within them another maze of teeming cubicles from the one outside as well. They had managed to eventually gain a fix on the Civic Development and Business building's location by questioning a passing white collar on his way to lunch. It was, unsurprisingly, difficult to tell from the neighboring towers: another steel and glass behemoth shining magnificently in the noon sun. Inquiring with the receptionist in the lobby, who obligingly phoned a notification up to Murakami's office only after Kira mentioned Kurogiri's name, the two ascended to the 10th floor, their select slice of the building.


The hall muffled the sounds of occasional telephones from beyond its off-white walls.
The employees were impeccably dressed and polite when asked for directions, which only served to heighten the sense of being misplaced within Takara. Kira at least seemed blissfully ignorant. That had more to do with knowing he had no "nice clothes" than being unaware of of how he looked. The girl pulled at her blouse's collar lightly, a dissatisfied look on her face. The clean uniform, while quite sharp-looking by her admittedly lax standards, hardly helped her fit in. Plus, she felt the blood on her, even after it had been meticulously purged from the fabric by Innocentia's efforts.


Murakami's office was clearly visible through a smoked-glass partition, a placard on the door distinguishing it from the others. There was a mail slot, but Takara noticed activity behind his desk. Perhaps Kurogiri's associate was in after all.


Takara gave the glass door a light rap. A moment of silence followed. She could hear Kira shifting change in his pocket uncomfortably.
"Pardon me. Is Mr. Murakami in?"


Takara's expression grew deadpan. "Wait." she muttered in monotone. "Why am I doing this? You're the one Kurogiri hired."


Kira blinked at her, a nervous edge entering his voice. "I was wondering that myself, y'know." He withdrew the promised envelope. "Just leave it to me."


The glass door to Murakami's office opened.


“Um, hello.”


A pair of thick lenses peeked through. Since Kurogiri mentioned Murakami as a “he,” it was obvious that this was his secretary. Kira doubted the man himself was around.


“Hmmmmmm…”


The secretary scrutinized Kira warily somewhere from behind the light-reflecting glasses. Although it wasn’t a frown, she seemed discomforted with the boy’s presence. Perhaps it was uncomfortable for her to crane her neck to see his face.


“This is the office of Murakami Yosuke…” The woman fiddled with her glasses. “You are here to meet him, aren’t you?”


Kira froze up. Something between a wince and a sickened smile seeped from his features.


“Umm, sir?”


He realized at that inconvenient moment that he still hadn’t recovered fully from his subway ride. Naturally the only option available to him at that moment was to endure.


“… Thaaat’s right. I am here to meet Mr. Murakami.” Kira noted as if only just realizing it himself.


The secretary receded into the room slightly, as if retreating from his voice.
“… Do you have prior arrangements with him? An appointment?”


Kira scratched the back of his head and laughed in a most unprofessional manner. Takara narrowed her eyes at him. He played with the envelope in his fingers like he was fanning himself, even though the building’s air conditioning was already giving him goose bumps.


“Ahaha, nothing so official. I was sent here to deliver a package by an associate of his.” He could do nothing but grin nervously again.


The secretary, however, retreated from the sunny facade and seemed reluctant to let him in. “I'm sorry, but I can't accept packages directly without proof of sender and identification.”
She fiddled with her glasses nervously, closing the door slightly with her other hand.
“These envelopes are unmarked as well.”


“Oh?” Kira looked at the envelope in his hand.


Completely bare. He was a random boy off the street in a tank top and jeans bearing envelopes from anywhere and anyone.


“... So they are! Wow, this is embarrassing...”


Takara stared in deadpan, her unsurprised mouth forming almost a straight line.
“You didn't notice until now?”


She nudged Kira in the side lightly.


“-Kurogiri! Mr. Kurogiri,” he blurted, “sent me here as his paperboy.”


The name conjured a strange reaction in the secretary's demeanor. She had rebelled against her looks and behavior to seem semi-professional. Something in her rigid posture disintegrated, however. A few rapid blinks behind her glasses and a faint redness in her cheeks betrayed her to Kira.


This was without a doubt the woman with the “thin shadow” Kurogiri spoke of. The reaction was strikingly girlish, even cute. It was entirely unlike the frigid way Takara behaved around him; typically devoid of feminine bashfulness until he bluntly stepped within her comfort zone with words. Still, the thought of what interactions his new employer had with the office lady made his mind spin.


“Mr. Kurogiri you say?”


“He just hired me. So could ya let me leave it here?”


At that, he placed his fingers on the edge of the parted door and pushed with a friendly smile. The secretary lurched backwards awkwardly, stumbling with a barely audible cry, arms flitting about. Takara balked as Kira brashly invaded the office emitting a stream of hasty apologies. His efforts only succeeded in sprawling her out on the floor, letting out a short cry as she hit her bottom.


“Kira!” Takara chided, as if to say “you startled the poor thing.” Somehow the woman seemed to pick up on the pitiful tone and emitted a faint smoldering resentment as she lay in a pile of released paperwork.


“The fault was mine.” The secretary pulled down on her uneven skirt and brushed herself off, leaves of paper falling into the mess at her feet. Salvaging some of her composure, the woman bowed deeply.


“Inoue Shizuko.” Though her head dipped down, she opened one eye. The impression she gave was that of a wary, diminutive animal, afraid to approach any furhter. Over the rim of her spectacles she was greeted with the sight of Kira's wide hand. He didn't bow; he wasn't offering a business card either.


“Kaede Kira. Nice to meet ya.” Kira nodded glowingly.


He had referred to her as “Inoue-san.” The honorific missing from Aozaki had somehow made its way onto Inoue.


Naturally, Takara glowered, but she bowed deeply as she was wont to do.
“Aozaki Takara. It is a pleasure.”


The boy smiled firmly and pressed the offer. It was an unorthodox greeting, but Shizuko knew his employer was an unorthodox man. She placed her small hand in Kira's grasp.


Takara could see the familiar twitch run up Shizuko's arm as their palms connected and recalled the sensation of their handshake, how it startled her.


“Pretty hot, isn't it?” She had kept her distance from Kira ever since the first night. The feeling of intense warmth trapped under his skin invited unwelcome recollections.


The woman stared down at their interconnected hands momentarily, then gulped and shook back with lessened trepidation.


“If you've just been hired, then perhaps you are not aware, but...” Her fingers slid out from between his. “... Mr. Kurogiri is a close associate of Mr. Murasaki. He assisted Mr. Murasaki and the five other members of the Akitaka City Planning Council.”


“The 'miracle' of New Songdo City, replicated in Japan, right?” Kira smirked proudly and placed his hands on his hips. So he had been paying attention to Kurogiri's rambling after all.


Shizuko seemed excited, nodding as if being yanked up and down by a string. “Exactly. Mr. Kurogiri is a professor of economics, corporate consultant, an architect, and a... geomancer... of sorts.”


Takara perked up at the term. “Geomancer?”


“Yes, well, though the beliefs of the civic council are purely secular, I can assure you, Mr. Kurogiri believed that arranging the city according to the laws of Chinese geomancy, or Feng Shui, would aid in establishing prosperity in the city.”


Takara nodded, cupping her chin thoughtfully. “I've met him as well. Mr. Kurogiri has an eclectic collection of interests.”


“Indeed. He is our prized specialist from China. Although Akitaka was not as international of a project as New Songdo, my superior was adamant about finding foreign talent.”


Inwardly, she logged the comment into her brain as congruent with what Kurogiri spoke of. If he was indeed a magus, though not one her mother was familiar with, the superstition behind the city's layout sewed itself deep into the fabric of reality.


The bespectacled secretary tipped her glasses and tented her fingers in front of her, holding the envelope to her chest.


“Hiring a feng shui expert is more common in business and architecture than you might think, but his talents stretched far further than that. I was a bit skeptical of him myself at first, but Mr. Murakami seemed to lean upon Mr. Kurogiri, and there was such a fantastic synergy between all of us, and Mr. Kurogiri was so very talented and well-read, and he had this way with words...”


The glare of her glasses obscured her eyes, and Shizuko seemed to “deactivate.” She began to stir once more when the pair's confused staring jabbed her back into reality.


“E-excuse me. Anyway, I'll take these and make sure my superior receives them. I'm sure he'll be pleased.” The woman swiveled on her heels to hide her red cheeks and dazed grin.


Takara's eyes darted about the cabinets and bookshelves in the room with curiosity. “Does he work that closely with you? The committee, I mean.”


“Oh no. Sure urban planning is an ongoing process, but he was only heavily involved in the initial phases. We're currently on phase 5.”


Shizuko slid the files across the desk and pressed an open palm on its cool glass surface. She made a pinching gesture as she turned back, smiling as she clipped her thumb and middle finger together.


“Akitaka Municipal Ubiquitous Network. AMUN.”


She tapped her fingers with each syllable, but the tapping slowed as she scanned their faces.


“You... don't have any idea what I mean, do you?”


Kira beamed.


“No.”


“I'm not that informed,” Takara chimed in, “but it's wireless connectivity, right?”


Surprisingly, the meek secretary seemed to laugh at Takara's suggestion. “Oh you're too much! It's nothing so mundane. Virtually everything has already become wireless nowadays. Akitaka is following in the footsteps of New Songdo, creating an electronic architecture that spans the entire city.”


She gestured to the tiny envelopes Kira and Takara had been gifted with by Kurogiri. “If you would allow me.”


They obliged. Shizuko pried at the tiny envelope seals. From each she withdrew a tiny, transparent grey card, ideally sized to fit in their wallets. She flitted them from side to side playfully.


“You took the subway to get here, I bet. Wonder why you didn't have to pay fare? You didn't have to purchase a ticket or pay with change?”


Kira chuckled. “Kurogiri said it was because students ride free.”


She was enjoying herself. Still reserved but clearly enjoying herself. Her formality made it trickle through like water through cloth.


“Mm, he said that, did he? But that was just a proposal. We still haven't implemented it. Our local school system and Jin-Sei University would have to distribute these cards to their student body first.”


Shizuko held the cards in front of her face, as if growing shy. “Well, he was right about you two at least. Kurogiri's paying your fare. He obtained special access to early models of these cards to test with his associates.”


Takara raised an eyebrow. “Eclectic interests nothing; he already has plenty of nice toys to play with, I see.”


Kira squinted at the cards. The lack of weight and thickness made sense to him, but their flexibility was what shocked him. He had assumed they could not be cards, as they bent further than the typical hardened plastic, in order to prevent de-magnetism. (That one he knew from experience.) If they did not function through magnetic strips, Kira could not comprehend the craven ways the innocuous transparent rectangles communicated with the automatic ticket-takers.


“So these ID tag things were what let us through the subway? But, I thought I needed to slide them through a slot.”


More than anything though, he was feeling uneasy. He wrote off the expense as nothing serious to a man as wealthy as his employer.


Shizuko nodded. “They're not just like any old magnetic strip card. Simply carrying one codes to your distinct biological patterns. Your body's latent electric field activates public network code readers, transmitting your personal ID code to receiving stations. With it you can make credit purchase transactions, log into public computer terminals, open locks you are registered to and make use of public transportation without having to exchange written information, hard currency, or even slide a card...”


“That sounds like something out of a... science fiction movie.” Takara murmured.


The secretary winked fetchingly. “'The future is now!' or something like that. But don't be too impressed. After all, it's nowhere near as advanced as the original proposition.”


Takara took a step back. “Don't tell me...”


“Nano-machines. Tiny robots in your bloodstream that would transmit your vital data to medical centers and your location to acquaintances, or, if your life was judged to be in danger, to law enforcement.”


She nodded her head to punctuate her point.


“Thought you'd know that, speaking of science fiction movies.”


Takara shook her head disapprovingly.


“The card is already enough of an invasion of privacy...”


Kira felt disapprovingly itchy.


“Privacy nothing; I'm fine without midget robots invading me.”


As if rendered sore by the unenthusiastic response, Shizuko rubbed the back of her head. Perhaps it was from the fall earlier.


“Well, aside from that complaint, we were at a loss as how to outfit all the residents, or to screen out those who didn't qualify due to health problems. Other issues were due to contact issues with the sponsoring foundation and how to classify residents, since this is a commuter city and a large amount of those who work here live in surrounding cities or smaller towns, due to the high rent...”


Her fading last few words hinted at a more personal frustration.


“What about crime? A system such as that would allow you to monitor criminals more easily, wouldn't it?”


A soft chuckle. “Young miss Aozaki, you're pretty clever. Something as mundane as a 'crime rate' is totally out of the question for Akitaka.”


Shizuko covered her mouth with her hand and their cards and waggled her finger, scolding jestingly.


Kira read the bewilderment in Takara's face as she opened her mouth to protest.


“But...”


The words were still within her throat. She could not explain the encounter last night. The feeling of thickening blood in her clothes still weighed heavy upon her skin. The knife-gripping fingers surreptitiously curled into a tight ball.


Breaching the awkward silence, Shizuko extended her hand forward with a kind expression, gripping the cards.


“... Here. I shouldn't detain you any longer.” She nodded to Kira again. “Give Mr. Kurogiri our regards. Should he wish to assist as once more, I'm sure Mr. Murakami would be delighted to hear from him. The sponsors also send their best wishes.”


Shizuko's feminine wink marked a change, a lightening in her voice.


“Be sure to tell him that, okay?”


A swelling of pride bloomed within his chest, as if exposed to light for the first time. He unfurled his hand and took the cards, the first sign of respectability he'd cultivated for himself that he could remember. This man he was working for was highly regarded. Kira felt like he was “worth it” again.


“You bet.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Without thought as to what the envelope the Wiseman of the Cormorant sent to the lady of the thin shadow, Kira and Takara returned to the complex to find no company but the silent vigil of Innocentia, strumming the strings of her colossal baryton.

"When will the boss get back?"

Kira chirped at her in his typically flippant, casual way. The doll affixed him with her typically stoic gaze and shook her head wordlessly. She didn't know.

"He certainly has the flightiness and eccentricity you'd expect from someone holed up in a house atop a modern high rise."

Truly a regular modern day sage on the mountain.

Innocentia looked at Takara when she said this, but her gaze somehow felt colder than even the one she'd thrown towards Kira. Takara didn't mind. That appearance brought up unpleasant memories. If she could make that feeling of unease even remotely mutual, she'd feel slightly vindicated. Takara knew she was being petty though. It sapped at her schadenfreud.

The cold interior of the lobby made Kira shiver. It felt as if he was entering some kind of freezer every time he came inside, but the chill hadn't yet crossed over from "odd" to "uncomfortable." He mentally noted the need for warmer clothes, even if it was summer. Kira felt the cold more than most, but he was good at ignoring it, and couldn't remember the last time he came down with something.

"If you don't know when he'll be back, I'll start my usual work. Later today though; I need to get my things from my apartment."

Innocentia nodded just so. He smiled warmly at her, reddening a tinge in the face. The empty, nauseating stare of dolls always set Kira on edge, but when Innocentia moved, he remembered she was a living girl, Homocumulus or no. And she was quite cute too, in an odd, vaguely menacing sort of way.

"So you have a car? That's rare."

Takara was scrutinizing his face the moment he turned back to her, putting him on the defensive immediately.

"Why would I? I'm not old enough to drive."

The dark haired girl narrowed her eyes, and quickly her hands balled up, perching on the edges of her hips.

"... Really Kira, if you say something like 'I was going to just carry it all here on my scooter,' I'm going to smack you."

The idiotic grin he beamed and the chuckle that accompanied it only lasted until her flattened hand chopped him right between the eyes.

"Owow!"

"There's a limit to how air headed you can be Kira! Are you saying you're just going to drag your furniture, personal belongings, all your clothes and appliances here? Did you think about things like how close your apartment is, or how many trips it'll take? And your room is near the top floor. Not to mention that it's going to become dark soon enough. And the man who liquefied your heart is likely to be prowling about on Akitaka's night streets. You ought to think things through more carefully!"

At every point she made Takara took a step closer to him, ignorant of his personal space in the midst of her scolding. Takara didn't notice the boy leaning away from her more and more, nor did she notice her tone of voice steadily approaching the one her mother used when she gave Taka one of those dreaded 'true lady' lectures. Kira could only rub his sore forehead helplessly.

"It's not like I have that much stuff. A futon, some books, a rice cooker, some utensils, my clothes bag... I could probably make it in one trip."

That blank, unassuming face told Takara he wasn't kidding.

"And how far is this place of yours from here?"

Throughout the exchange, Innocentia continued to play uninterrupted, watching them with ruby eyes. Her expressionless face betrayed nothing; no trace of any vagaries of emotion that might drift about behind that mask. She turned from the aggressive girl to the defensive boy and back again, back and forth as if her body formed a natural metronome.

Kieran
June 27th, 2011, 08:32 AM
*chuckle* I keep worrying that Takara's going to kill him . . . And I agree about the nanomachines - not my cup of tea, either.

Cascade
June 28th, 2011, 12:34 AM
It occurred to me that with the timing of Tsukihime, it'd have to be at least like 2018 or something. I figured that modest advancement was within reasonable limits, not that it's MGS-level or anything, lol. XD

Alulim
June 28th, 2011, 12:43 AM
Ah, nanomachines. A major plot-point in my fic, and now the bane of my existence...though mine grant immortality and come from the year 2052...

Yours are better.

Cascade
June 28th, 2011, 12:55 AM
T_T Another reader. I'm so happy...
Rofl, well there are no nanomachines in the city yet. The ID card is similar to the idea of the PAL Key in MGS though; I admit my inspiration was from there.

I *do* have a purpose in mentioning these random details, I promise!

Alulim
June 28th, 2011, 01:00 AM
Ah, good good. Purpose is a good thing to have.

Kieran
June 28th, 2011, 06:54 AM
It occurred to me that with the timing of Tsukihime, it'd have to be at least like 2018 or something.

"Legacies of Fate" took place roughly the week surrounding July 7, 2018 (since Takara went to the Tanabata festival with Shirou during it), so I'd assume your story is no earlier than September of that year, and probably a year or two following, since she had at least one more year of high school.



I *do* have a purpose in mentioning these random details, I promise!

Well, yeah - I figured. :)

Cascade
August 10th, 2011, 01:25 AM
I switched over to including the honorifics. This is a new chapter and not a repost now, btw. XD

I considered starting a new thread, but decided against it. Now I just need to finish the last chapter of Ashura, after which I can begin the next sidestory, Manusya.
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The distance between her and the presence was shrinking. The empty space between them drained away with every step. Shadowing someone had always been second nature to her, but she'd never fully understood why. Moments like these simply galvanized the primitive, lizard-like part of the brain. An ancient shudder from under the skull transformed every part of her, leaving her breathless in its wake. Her hands flexed with ghostly tremors of fear, or excitement. Beads of sweat dripped along her skin to meld with the metal of the hilt she gripped so tightly. It felt like it had anchored itself to her bones and it was freezing cold; impossibly cold. Perhaps it was because the hunter's body itself was boiling hot, but no heat seemed to permeate the frigid surface of the handle.

Closer now. Follow the soft sliding of quiet feet. The hart knew the hunter was there, futile as it was. Even if the prey was a person who knew how to walk quietly, peeling their soles off the floor so delicately, the hunter need only walk in the direction the yearning pulled her. Every cell in her body knew its purpose and drew her with primal magnetism in the direction of the kill. The anticipation was excruciating to the stalker. She could feel the soreness in her joints, magma flowing through her veins, the rising and falling of the chest struggling to contain her shaking heart. Any moment she would explode. Her quarry understood the sacred rules of the hunt and was unafraid, but did not run. To flee was to die. Accelerating to the climax too early would dilute the ecstasy. So the waiting continued.

They had entered the killing chamber. The hallways of the cylindrical building with the lofty atrium and irregular spiral staircase hardly presented any confined areas. The basement was far more suitable for hide and seek. There were shadows through which the hunter could get closer, the finest kind of play. Hundreds of boxes sat in perfectly aligned stacks that stretched upward endlessly into the yawning darkness.

Closer. The tension was too much for her to withstand. Stretched so thin; any moment she'd snap and it'd end. The prey walked through a steel forest of shelves with cardboard bark and a thousand manilla leaves. Stalking her target within the paradoxically spacious sub-level, the maze of stacks seemed like skyscrapers. A city within a building, how quaint. Her quarry's deliberate pace shifted her out of view behind a windowless high-rise of cardboard.

She froze. The hunter could no longer hear footsteps.

"Acting first is so unlike you."

A voice like cool smoke from a dying fire. Talking was merely a last ditch attempt to regain some semblance of composure. Words were meaningless sound; they understood one another in a way that transcended cognition and communication.

"Good spot. I knew you had excellent sense. I won't grow bored here."

A bitter, sarcastic laugh. The hunter could feel her prey concealing herself, hiding the buried layers of anxiety and fear within her confident voice. Levity would provide her no refuge. The voice continued, a sharp chord of sublime hatred entering the melody.

"You think you can end me. But I won't go quietly... No, I'm not just a memory, and neither are you..."

The hunter did not, or could not, respond. Her flesh and spirit had transmuted into a device made solely for killing. She was numb to all but the acrid fragrance of blood. Soon the time she had waited for would blossom in glorious red.

"Come out. I'd know that smile anywhere... No need to hide it. After all, we're so close."

The voice quivered, concealing a chuckle half-buried in her words.

She had to get closer. Her crouched form tensed for one more second, then sprung, darting headlong from the darkness behind the stack. Seamlessly the hunter transitioned into a full run, the speed blurring her waving arms as if she had become an incomplete, smudged painting. Every element of her being activated and focused on the target before her. The target finally swerved into visual range.

Raven hair, with eyes like slate, clad in a dark school uniform. A slight build, and delicate too. The gaze she affixed her assailant with was the crucible that melted down a lesser killer's will. Theirs would be a race to see who landed the first blow. Her rigid fingers clutched a knife in her hand, and the expression she wore mirrored the hunter's feelings too well. She had a blissful smile white enough to shame the moon. That luminous shard of light reminded her of a face locked deep within her own memory, but out of dozens of hazy, foggy visages, it affixed to none for long. Visualizing anything but the target was impossible. The blood rushing in the killer's ears was deafening, but she could hear the sound of the prey's voice one last time as she bore down on her.

"Well then..."

The voice, so familiar, punctured through the crystalline screech of blade on sheath and the bloody roar that drowned the world. Her slate eyes widened and flooded with rippling azure as she felt her fingers tighten once more on the freezing grip of her dagger, and pull.

"Let's kill each other!"

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"Gh-!"

She awoke with a gasp. Her head was solidly anchored to the pillow as her eyelids parted. A dull, grayish light filtered in through the half-shut blinds. Takara thought it strange that her eyes needed no time to adjust to the darkness, for she could pick out the individual motes of dust that danced microscopic waltzes in the moonbeams. She could hear Kira's breathing, soft but rough, somewhere between a snore and purring. Takara had gotten accustomed to that sound. The dreams were coming more regularly now, and sleep was becoming a rare commodity.

At the start it was an unexpected occurrence. It'd been nearly a year since the War ended. That event was the foundation of what she would bitterly look back upon as what passed for the end of childhood in Aozaki Takara's life. So it had come as a surprise that the nightmares only began long after the events had resolved. A potent cocktail of unwanted memories and phantom sensations began to brew in a hidden corner of her brain. For a while they would come every night and her mother or father would have to run in and restrain her as she flailed uncontrollably in the bed, her mind struggling madly to flee from her sleeping body. The dreams would subside, and weeks later she would wake up in soundless terror, soaked in her own sweat. They always ended with a vivid sensation, like the soreness in her legs from running for hours, or the feeling of metal cutting flesh. Sometimes the metal was Takara's, and sometimes the flesh.

Now sometimes when she woke up she wasn't in her futon anymore. Sometimes she found herself sprawled naked in the bathroom, or standing in a trance outside the apartment door. She was thankful that Kira wasn't awake to see her, out of both fear and bashfulness. Takara felt like a lunatic and also knew she didn't want Kira seeing her nude in the bathroom or in any sort of scenario she could imagine. But one thing was always the same: roused from her sleep, she felt the phantom sensation of the knife gripped tightly in her hand. Takara would pull at her fingers to make them move but they continued to clasp in that shape; an empty sheath waiting patiently for its contents. The coldness of the hilt from her dream permeated her flesh, turning muscle, veins and blood to ice, and scoured her bones.

It was an inanimate object; Takara knew it had no spirit. The Japanese had legends about items, like lanterns or umbrellas, that were passed down from generation to generation. They drank in the emotions and sentiments of their surrounding environment, the close immediacy of an owner that valued them, and became monsters with a life force of their own. She doubted somehow that her folding, corroded knife had drank anything from her; she neither wanted it nor valued it, so if there was anything to sustain itself upon, it was a thin and flavorless broth of distaste.

Ever since her knife had spoiled and dulled, she hadn't seen it even once. Innocentia had taken and put it somewhere when she'd cleaned their clothes, and neglected to give it back. She couldn't afford to sleep without it under her pillow. Without sharing her bed with it she felt incomplete. The way her hand ached longingly for her knife filled her with revulsion and pain. It was the only way she could keep the dreams from coming every night, save collapsing from fatigue into a veritable coma as she did the first night they spent in the room. They would plague her until she could take no more and then her body would shut down.

"... This desire is wrong. It's abnormal."

So Takara told herself, but neither could she deny it. The knife was necessary. Rather than the knife partaking in her sentiments, it had infused her with its own perversity. An abnormal desire to restore normalcy to her life was what kept her awake at night, listening to the sound of her roommate's peaceful slumber. No nightmares plagued Kira's dreams, if he had any, Takara thought. Or if they did, he was an even deeper sleeper than her. He'd never mutter unintelligibly or shift in his sheets.

She stared across the pale room at his futon. What few belongings she had scrounged from her room that were necessary for her to live in the vast, unfurnished expanse of the Cormorant apartment were arrayed pallisaides-like in a vast circle separating Kira's half of the room from hers. Kira had nothing but the futon, and that didn't even belong to him. He lay under a threadbare, faded blanket that seemed more lint than cloth, but nevertheless he slept soundly.

What sort of life had he lived before he came there? Was his home, the room he was in the process of being evicted from, as empty as this? Takara knew a boy as fixated with cleaning as he was wouldn't be able to survive without some clutter to sort. She could see him buying frivolously and seeking out amusing bits of flair in junkyards just to give himself something to do, but perhaps he did not have even that kind of money. If his adoptive family had a salaryman father, his existence would have been comfortable but lean up until now. WIthout even that support, Takara imagined Kira must have been reduced to involuntary vegetarianism on his gardener's diet, but the strong shoulders and chiseled muscle on his body didn't show many signs of low calorie intake.

But he'd found another way to sustain himself, one that Takara could not begin to understand. Feeding himself, like those near-comical umbrella and lantern youkai children's stories, on a sentiment: The search for value, to know he was "worth it." Takara's very name exemplified how much she was worth to her father and mother. A natural born killer and a woman who wanted to die when she could not somehow slighted whatever God existed in the universe and attained a satisfactory (for them) sense of matrimonial and parental peace. Her mother, in particular, Takara knew had found the idea of having a child or even living a full, normal life to be laughable absurdity. At least until she met Shiki.

And here was the gardener boy, born in a place that left him without even a name to call it, discarded from before he knew his first word, still on his own at seventeen, struggling to feed himself the draught of self-worth. Were there really so many out there like him? Somehow Kira had managed to avoid the "safety" net of crime and drugs that extended a helping hand to those who wanted to belong and didn't mind becoming property, but when she looked at his tattoos and earring she wasn't so sure. Takara seized up inside, feeling that desperation and desire for an ego were strangely antithetical to a person she once knew, but the haze of the nightmare kept 'that man's' image blurry, as inscrutable as a photonegative through smoked glass.

That thought process began to break up into scrambled, broken waves as her mind ceased to processes in words, exhaustion setting in. Kira wasn't a person with complexity enough to be worth scrutiny. A sleep like passing out began to overtake her, the dreamless, second sleep that came when one's energy reserves were all but drained. Takara prayed that it would last her until morning.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

"Hmmm...."

Kira was crouched in the corner of the room, back hunched. He was scrutinizing the gap between the wall and the floor. The carpet had a stiff, coarse texture that reminded one of grayish tatami; it made Takara's feet itch whenever she dragged her toes or heels too long, and the walls were an odd eggshell color. Kira was apparently focused to paralysis in the corner, but every once in a while he nodded his head or leaned to the side. At one point he went down on both hands, dog-like, and followed the termination of the wall along its seams, head crooked sideways as he crawled along.

Takara was still cleaning her sleepless, sore eyes out with a balled-up hand.

"Nrgh, what is it? Lost your bone?"

Kira grunted an unintelligible reply. It seemed he was too preoccupied to register her insult.

Takara rose from her futon, blanket covering her shoulders like one of those ancient Japanese spirits, the house-haunting zashiki-warashi, dragging her melatonin-ridden body to crouch slightly beside and behind him. She was afflicted with curiosity at his strange behavior, too much so to care about the slovenly image she presented.

"BAD!"

He suddenly boomed, rising to his full height in an instant, like an overeager sprouting tree. Takara gave a yelp and toppled backwards in a spiral of flapping cloth and down comforter, all traces of sleepiness frightened out of her body. She clutched the edges of her loose yukata and glared at him, reddening.

"What is it, yelling all of a-"

"It's just as I thought. This place is bad! The Feng Shui is bad."

Takara blinked, still furious. "Why did you need to break my eardrums to tell me this?"

Kira dipped into an apologetic sulk, kneeling down to her level. Takara backed away from him. His knees nearly touched her feet; the boy had almost no concept of personal bubbles. And with his extraordinary frame, he took up quite a bit of space.

"Ah, my bad. I didn't see ya there, and I get kinda loud unconsciously sometimes..."

His expression was pure 'Sorry for tracking mud on your carpet.'

She clutched at her chest, fearing for her already strained heart and pinning the sides of the blanket close to one another, as if to retreat inside.

"W-whatever. So you study Feng Shui? You sure have a lot of odd talents. What is it about this place that's so bad?"

"Well, I don't like to brag, but I know a lot about stuff like Luan Dou Pai, 'cause I've got no Luo Pan directional compass. And just looking around here, I can see places where the flow of chi would naturally be trapped..."

And thus began an information dump that would make the most verbose of Magi jealous, and though Takara found it vaguely interesting in a sense, she was far too tired to pay it mind. Regaining her composure, she pulled at the loose parts of her sleepwear, which normally someone like Kira had no right to see in the first place, but she'd become worryingly used to it. Because there was no place in the city she felt confident was safe enough for the both of them save for together, Takara felt his presence becoming routine and it wasn't exactly unpleasant, yet not the sort of development fit for Mother's ears. Something had to be done about her steadily degrading ladylike poise, sooner or later.

She wore a dress shirt to sleep or pajamas, clothes modest yet still out of bounds for strange, perverted Okinawans, yet as time passed and the awkward hideaway of theirs became something of an unnecessarily spacious, eerily quiet home, Takara's more civilized faculties were numbed. It'd been a week since Kira's delivery to Mr. Murasaki's office and their meeting with the timid secretary Shizuko, and while there were still no signs of the poison needle-bearing man who threatened them into hiding in the first place, mysterious disappearances and appearances of strange, unidentified individuals continued throughout Akitaka. Moreover, another "twenty-something" woman had been murdered. The greenhorn police force was in chaos, as well it should be. A city that sprouted up in 10 years and rarely experienced robberies or traffic accidents, let alone murders, for the better part of that decade, did not present suitable opportunities for law enforcement to cut their teeth on.

"It's just like Misaki. Why is it when the police are most needed, they can do absolutely nothing?"

The atmosphere of danger permeating the city had even Innocentia guarding the door to the Cormorant. She departed the lounge and bar for the lobby, sitting upon the cold marble floor near the door, barefoot, playing the baryton in a slightly more solemn, quiet tune. The baryton was a grave instrument, and often it took upon a mellow, dark timbre that might not have reflected anything about the player's emotions however. When the castellan of the Cormorant was out, however, Innocentia strummed and bowed the tune more and more with each passing day.

She was often found fiddling with her strange bottled ships or playing her cumbersome instrument, always with the same melancholy tune. Other times she simply stared out the glass doors and watched the street in petrified contemplation. With Kira vacuuming the floors and dusting the banister, polishing and waxing the bar floor and everything else that needed to be done around there during the day, (for he had no school and nothing else to occupy his time while Takara was gone.) her chores were few, and so the two inhabitants found her most often in the midst of her leisure time.

Perhaps she did not guard the Cormorant, but simply waited listlessly for her master. For the two other inhabitants of the complex she might as well have been a statue. Kira continuously threw himself against the brick wall of her stoicism and received nothing for his efforts but a pause in the endless, lonely song and a silent, chilling stare. When Kurogiri was not there, she had no reason to recognize them as living beings. Later, she gave their existence no recognition whatsoever. Takara had to restrain her impetuous ally from actually touching Innocentia; nothing good would come of disrupting her music, or laying hands upon Kurogiri's self-proclaimed "property." As far as Takara could tell, she never retired to their quarters atop the Cormorant. Knowing neither exhaustion nor hunger, Innocentia simply played, and waited.

Takara wondered how many days the artificial child spent alone in the gnawing expanse of the apartment complex's stale air and chilled hallways, with nothing but her music to mitigate the never-ending silence. How many years had this stasis persisted?

Her blank eyes darted back and fourth before clearing, Kira looking directly at her with that even stare of his. She'd been lost in thought while he rambled on about empty corners creating a trap for chi and positive forces flowing freely through the door and out the window facing it. Not to mention the fascinating bit on the importance of mirrors. Takara's eyes had glazed over and began to flutter in front of him, to which Kira retorted with a surprisingly painful flick in the forehead.

"Ah-!"

Kira retracted his extended finger, frowning as she cradled her forehead. That sensitive skin of hers didn't stand up well to his clumsy prodding.

"Oy. It's too late in the day for sleepwalking."

Takara shook her head, covering her face and rubbing her eyes in compounded consternation and exhaustion.

"Sorry. Haven't been sleeping well. I feel like one of those zombies."

Though she shuddered to remember the unusually spry and bone-breaking motions the Dead used that night before, in complete ignorance of human limits. Compared to them, she was a medicated tree sloth.

The way he stared so directly at her was discomforting, not to mention rude, but Takara didn't have the energy reserves to stage a counterattack. Kira always watched her head on, with no regard to the redness in her face or her averted gaze. He just looked directly at whatever he focused earnestly upon with those intense, vibrant eyes. She hadn't noticed before, but they were an unusually bright shade of hazel for someone with dark brown hair and bronzed complexion.

"Anyway," Kira began pacing back towards that fascinating corner, "best way to fix up a stark, boring place like this and make it a healthy room is to put stuff in it. So I'm gonna move my stuff out of my apartment and bring it up here."

He turned and kneaded the knuckles of his spine deeply with one hand, and Takara heard a muffled crack that made her wince. It sounded like someone crushing a stiff piece of cardboard under a fire blanket.

"Besides, this futon is kinda stiff. Maybe that's why you can't get any shuteye."

Takara sighed, shaking her head like a pendulum as she slumped her tired shoulders.

"No, I wish it were that simple... It's more complicated than that. Unfinished business."

"Unfinished business?" Kira blinked curiously.

She felt like slapping a palm to her forehead. Now the boy was without question ready to begin prying. Asking invasive questions and getting involved, trying to tease out the meaning of her ambiguous words, like he was rooting out a mess of unwanted shrubbery. Unfinished business...

Business. Unfinished. Like her lecture notes.

Her eyes widened.

"Kaede-kun! What time is it!?"


----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Her uniform felt strangely stiff and papery. Innocentia's washing had been so thorough as to banish every trace of filth from the cloth, before folding everything into starched cloth origami squares. From that perspective, it made sense that the clothing felt like something a paper doll would wear. The uniform at her high school had been softer and more comfortable, although she felt it emphasized the chest a bit too much. She'd heard of girls from local private schools wearing their middle school uniforms because they found the new one unflattering, or they hadn't grown enough yet. (Some would never grow enough.)

She had scrutinized the sleeves and collar of the blouse as carefully as she could, and the black blazer. A trick of the light had made the white parts look pink and for a moment her heart leapt into her throat but she realized what a foolish mistake that was. Blood didn't dye like food coloring or paint.

"Takara-chan!"

The puffed, pouting cheeks of the blowfish girl in front of her told Takara she was late. In high school she was never a paragon of academic success, but competent enough that the scenario of being scolded by the likes of Momoko was completely impossible to visualize. Her uniform was blazerless, and she wore her traditional pigtails tied up in buns, which only served to accentuate her childlike impression.

"I know they say that college is a time for relaxation; to let yourself unwind and get a little wild. 'The passions of youth and all that. Sooner or later, they'll calm down, girlie.'"

"Momoko-ba chan?"

Takara looked faintly disturbed. The dissonance between her looks and words was too great.

"But jeez, late to class again. If you miss a few lectures your grades won't suffer that much, but it's an awful shame. Your family is paying for this after all!"

Both of them knew the score. For two years or so the undergrads enjoyed the sudden freedom from their Martinet familial supervision, partying, visiting mixers, going on trips. Takara respected her parents to a fault, and thus resolved to do right by them even when she was away. Not that it was particularly difficult, being awkward and shy enough to flee parties. Hangovers didn't suit her either. After those two years, however, students awoke to the realization that a life after college did in fact exist, and suddenly the wild, roving bands of college students grew new outer hides of formalwear and crisp, tidy haircuts. Judging from the extended high school atmosphere of Jin-Sei, with the official uniform and relatively small classes, the students in Akitaka were of a more studious sort than the rest, but some things never changed.

Momoko for all her idiosyncrasies, held the same disinterest in her newfound freedom as Takara, but her reasons were different. This girl shunned the party and ignored the drink not because she was too childish to indulge in mature hobbies, but because she came from a family entrenched in law enforcement. More precisely, the air headed, playful Momoko was the pampered daughter of a prominent police investigator, as impossible as it seemed. Takara herself hadn't bothered to ask what her family did for a long time. Doing anything unseemly, even within the law, did not register in Momoko's sugar-coated brain.

"I-I know, sorry Momoko-chan," Takara shrunk away from her friend's diabetes-inducing ire, attempting to scribble away on her notepad as the professor droned on. Apparently distracting her from what little of the Modern Economics lecture remained wasn't on Momoko's list of "no-no" behaviors. Or perhaps it was because she somehow managed to remember the important parts on the tests without taking notes or doing much other than relaxing and sleeping every night.

Takara wasn't so lucky. Her concentration was split into three parts. The first listened to Momoko discretely through one ear, though it was serving double duty with the second, which processed the data spewed out onto the blackboard and into the lecture hall air by the instructor. The third was back in the Cormorant, buried under the comforter atop the futon.

"Honestly, you're such a rascal Takara-chan. I bet daddy would say you were a bad influence on me~."

That was patently untrue. Her dad treated her like a princess, so any friend barring gangsters and criminals was probably okay.

"I can't disapprove enough. I bet you feel ashamed. Can you feel my shame-rays burning into you?"

Momoko's fingers stabbed at the nearly unconscious Takara and wiggled in an undulating motion the victim would later reflect upon as being pretty remarkable for someone having finger bones.

"ShaaAaaAaame..."

Takara's eyes fluttered in response. She had intended for the dreaded shame-rays to pierce Takara's thick skull, but it seemed as if Momoko hadn't made it past even her leaden eyelids.

"Howwazzat? Feel like repenting now?" She affected a near silent, triumphant laugh and placed her hands on her hips, but the professor's mind-bullet glare sniped her and knocked her sullenly back in her seat, for fear of making too much of a scene. There was no choice but to be dutiful students once more, but every once in a while, Momoko would turn to Takara's slouching form with a worried eye.

Takara gazed down to her hand as she took notes, gripping her pen with all the force of a baby, then back to the professor. She could no longer recognize her friend's presence, and the professor's monotonous droning grew hollow and fluid-like, like the rushing of liquid. The rushing sound magnified to a roar that drowned the world. Her hand darted back and fourth and she could feel something tearing beneath her grip, which was beginning to make her shiver.

Red bubbles surged fourth from the pale blue pinstriped flesh beneath her hand. Takara gasped hoarsely. The bloody knife leapt from her convulsing hand of its own accord.

"Takara-cha...?"

Momoko had taken ahold of her trembling shoulders. Her notebook was in tatters, and her pen was snapped in two. A black pool of ink spread through the lecture hall floor beneath it. Takara noticed in that moment that her heart was racing, beating hard enough that she could feel it in her head. Her mouth moved dumbly with wordless explanations, but she could not even whisper.

She somehow managed to keep herself calm for the rest of the lecture. After it had ended, she threw her ruined notebook into the trash and slouched away wordlessly.

Momoko skittered along behind her, ever insistent. She chirped away heedless of the shadowy atmosphere that seemed to cling to her friend, thicker and thicker by the second.

"What's happened to you Takara-chan? You're acting weird..."

Takara could receive but not send. Any attempt to respond would have been lost in the static. Her mind was searching for the knife. If only she could hold it once more, this would not have happened. If only she hadn't left it in the care of that white doll. If only her Eyes worked properly. If only there were more Dead to test them on when they worked again. If only...

"Takara-chan? What's wrong? You're scaring me..."

"Leave"

She could hear Momoko's voice quivering. The voices of the other students from the lecture filed out of the classroom and faded away, but she persisted. Takara's teeth clenched to hold back the white spike of aggravation that shot through her mind, waiting to escape and explode on the frightened girl.

"Leave. Or else I'll..."

Takara's mind began to regard the diminutive, noisy presence trailing behind as unnecessary. She could feel the soreness in her joints, magma flowing through her veins, the rising and falling of the chest struggling to contain her shaking heart. Any moment she would explode.

"N-no..." She heard her own voice, small and weak. "Not her... I can't..."

As if responding to the sound of her own voice, Takara's fingers jerked to life and groped desperately inside the pocket of her uniform for the hilt her body longed for... only to be stopped by a tight embrace.

"Takara!"

She heard the unembellished name and the warm smile of her roommate flashed in her mind.

Momoko was holding her close from behind, struggling to contain her tears. Her face was half-buried in Takara's dark hair, but even looking over her shoulder she could see Momoko's smile. Their hands were entangled, and the warmth of her soft fingers replaced the knife's chill.

"You're back..." She murmured as her tension escaped with a sigh. Momoko's eyes were strained and moist.

"... Sorry. I'm... not myself." Takara couldn't bring herself to meet Momoko's big, pleading eyes.

"Jeez, Takara-chan... You're hurting aren't you? Is it that boy? Unforgivable..." Momoko let her go, wiping what little tears were there with a pawed hand. "Even if he's hot, and sexy, and manly, and tall, and sexy, and-"

Momoko's eyes glazed over momentarily and a vaguely medicated grin crept to her face, before she shook sense back into herself. Her fist clenched and shook with all the menace her tiny frame could emanate.

"...Nonono, I won't let him off easy if he makes you cry!.. I'll make him taste 1000 years of Chinese history-aru! Wata! Wacha! Achao!"

Momoko struck a pose straight out of a Hong Kong martial arts flick, complete with twin hair buns. Was this why she changed her hairstyle? Takara could only wonder; there were parts of Momoko that were a mystery to her too.

"Hehe... Alright, if he makes me cry, you can protect me. I feel safer already."

She curled her hand beneath her weak smile. It felt strange and pleasant to giggle, as if Takara had forgotten how in the span of just a few hours. A fairylike array of dust drifting through a ray of sunlight came to mind when she laughed back.

"But Momoko-chan, I wouldn't call him any of those things. We're not like that, remember?"

Kira again. She'd hoped the first time she'd dispelled the notion that the two of them were intimately attached was still fresh in Momoko's memory. Takara didn't want to believe those expensive Pralines were wasted.

Momoko nodded, but her expression reeked of confusion. "If you don't like him... I mean, likeylike... then why do you live with him?"

She couldn't answer that. She couldn't tell her that she was afraid of what would happen to Momoko if the Dead found her. Because at that moment Takara could no longer determine the greatest threat to Momoko's well being: what, or who.

"..."

Takara didn't have time to find an answer. Momoko was narrowing her eyes in that admonishing, old lady style, just as before when she was scolding her. That needle-threading squint burst wide open into wide-eyed revelation.

"SEX FRIEND-!"

The raven-haired girl went critical. The heat in her face overloaded and dyed her crimson. Even if it couldn't overflow from her head to every inch of her body, to the very tips of every strand of hair, Takara surely felt it. Her eyes bolted from their side of the street to the other, searching for the chastising gaze and open ears of a stranger, and her hand reflexively clamped shut on Momoko's mouth. Magically, the volume of the conversation dropped to safe levels again. Takara silently grimaced, as if she'd just been forcibly bathed in sewage, and shook her head furiously at the gagged Momoko before she finally felt it was safe to let her go. Her unintentionally vice-like grip left her victim gasping for air.

"Good lord Momoko, do you really think so little of me?! Are you trying to make me reconsider our friendship?!" She hissed, dumbstruck with the ridiculousness of her accusation.

Takara growled angrily through her teeth as Kira materialized in her mind's eye, scanning the walls for signs of bad chi. Even now he was probably sneezing away as they talked about him, but then again, idiots never caught colds.

"B-besides... I'd never, EVER... d... do... that... definitely not with... HIM!"

She was malfunctioning, quivering and steaming with the unwholesome thoughts. Mercifully, Takara managed to banish his infuriating grin back to the dark corners of her mind where it belonged.

"But Takara-chan, a girl and a guy living together is..."

"I-I know. We've got our reasons, but rest assured, there's NOTHING between us."

Takara hung her head in surrender.

"Feel free to fantasize about him as much as you want; I won't be jealous, that's for certain."

Part of the hotness in her cheeks came from her unfortunately visual thought process. She couldn't disagree with Momoko when it came to Kira's looks. And something about his build, the heat of his hands, and the way he carried himself was uncomfortably familiar. But all that went up in smoke the moment the greenhorn had the brilliant initiative to open his mouth.

The two of them continued to walk down the street towards the dormitory, where Takara planned to part with Momoko for the night. Their steps were unconsciously hurried by the slowly setting sun, even though it was still well above the horizon. The city was swiftly beginning to feel no different than her hometown. At least, no different from her hometown back then. They'd taken a longer route, unintentionally, one near the port side of the town. The waning sun dyed the asphalt and waters of the bay in equal parts gold and orange. Unlike Misaki and Fuyuki, there weren't any messes of electric spider web hanging over the street to send crisscrossing black shadows along the road, the kind Momoko used to always hopscotch over. There were always childish tales regarding what would happen if an errant foot trod on a shadow or crack in the pavement.

"Still... I'm relieved we can still talk like this, you know?"

The timbre of Momoko's voice changed enough to draw a curious glance from Takara.
Her friend was staring into her hands, lips pressed into a tense, wistful smile. Something about that expression was so perfectly her, and yet seriousness didn't seem to come easy to Takara's friend. Why was it then that she felt she had seen this expression before?

In the midst of pondering, Takara became conscious of the time. The sun was already beginning to set, and the night prowled hungrily behind the horizon across the bay.

"If I don't start back soon..."

Takara cursed silently. Embarrassing as it was, their conversation was delivering some much needed peace of mind. She had hoped to enjoy Momoko's company as long as possible before heading back to her empty room.

But how empty would it be? Her roommate, whose strength was remarkable if nothing else, was probably lugging improbable loads of furniture and appliances up the stairs right now. Her mind trailed back to her curiosity earlier that day, wondering what sorts of things decorated Kira's home. The wonder gave way to a sensation of dread as her eyes settled upon the setting sun again.

"Could it be? No... he wouldn't be that reckless. He knows what's out there..."

But her mind couldn't leave Kira alone despite her better inclinations. Could she call him? No, Takara would never have deigned to ask his number, and would have wanted to give hers even less. Calling the Cormorant was the second choice. Would Innocentia even be there? Did her Master leave her with instructions not to talk to strangers or play in the street? What if Kira was not in the apartment unpacking, but rather still trawling his hermit-crab load on his back on an overburdened scooter? The image amused before, but only filled her with doubt with its return. Encircled on all sides, the oblivious young man would fall prey to the poisoning murderer, or the serial killer that evaded police. But that one had only struck women so far, so that left the robed foreigner with his wordless vendetta and silver needles...

"Lately everything has been so crazy... That guy... you know..."

"Momoko, I think I'd better be going."

Takara had stopped abruptly. Their trail had taken them only a couple blocks ahead of the Jin-Sei girls dormitory. She had spent so little time in the place by now that it took her a minute to recognize the landmarks and street numbers to find it, though Momoko essentially led the way.

Her friend's reaction to her sudden, chilly proclamation was more severe than Takara expected. She was taken off guard yet again, though only momentarily. She had to maintain composure.

"I'm ashamed of myself. I know you wanted to walk back the entire way with me, but here I am..."

All the pleasant emotions that had returned to Momoko and herself gradually over the walk had frozen over. Replacing them instead was a look that could only be described as abject terror.

It hurt somehow.

"... If I don't go back soon, I think that he might get into-"

"You can't!"

Momoko shrieked. It was a dreadful sound that could shatter crystal, nothing she could have produced with that slender throat under any sane circumstances.

"Sorry... I have to..."

But as Takara turned to take her leave, a firm but small hand yanked at her wrist violently.

"You don't know what I do! About the news... About 'him.'"

The tugging on her wrist became almost painful.

"You can't go! You can't go back alone!"

As Momoko stared at Takara, eyes wide, she had to notice the girl's features were beyond something as simple as sadness or fear. No, these kinds of eyes were incapable of crying, pried open and left torn apart by an unseen premonition. A phantasm born of the mind could wrest coherent thought from the most steady of egos and replace it with visions of an unwanted possible future. Doubt, fear for oneself, or another? Takara could not pin it exactly on one cause, but her friend was absolutely terrified.

The eyes scoured her, piercing through until they found the Grim Reaper, imprisoned in a girl's shell. She spoke again, Momoko's voice a desperate whisper and hissing spliced.

"If you go, you will definitely be killed."

Kieran
August 10th, 2011, 05:16 PM
Still an awesome dream sequence. :D

Cascade
August 10th, 2011, 11:22 PM
That's good to hear. It took me ages to write something I felt good about, particularly that segment. I think I rewrote it at least three times.

Kieran
August 11th, 2011, 07:34 AM
I hear you. I've had to rewrite scenes in "Trinity," as well - usually to scale down the angst or the violence (and yes, I'm serious!). Usually, though, I find if you keep plugging, you can make it - or if you're lucky, one of the Muses will come through with the inspiration you need.

Cascade
August 14th, 2011, 06:06 PM
Well, with me it helped that I had some periods of time where I was free of my usual distractions. On the plane and on the bus it was easy to focus solely on writing during a few trips to anime conventions I went on. When I'm sitting at home I either have a chore to do or I'm just too tired and playing a video game is easier leisure. I'd be more excited to write updates if there was more reader response, but I can't really gauge my success from your comments alone, no offense. XD

Kieran
August 14th, 2011, 07:57 PM
*shrug* You've a point - and about the empty time, as well. I do a lot of plotting at work, because it's so routine and menial that I can run on autopilot. Anyway, here's hoping a few more readers will speak up, to help. *hint, hint*

Cascade
August 24th, 2011, 01:05 AM
Well thinking up what I *want* to do is fine; I've at least a dozen or more crucial scenes and plot developments all but scripted in my head from the beginning to the end of the story. They just don't necessarily appear in order and I have to think carefully on how to word it. Then there's always the issue of balancing imagery with content.

Anyway, I'm starting work on the very last chapter of Ashura. Hopefully it will bring to light the significance of the side stories. After that, my new side story will probably be in the VN format, and I might switch over to that with the main fic if that works well. I'll have to look into whether or not that typemoon.us page has the updated engine.

ItsaRandomUsername
August 24th, 2011, 01:39 AM
I am now caught up!

Cascade
September 13th, 2011, 03:39 AM
Ugh, it's a week after my last con and still the writer's block hasn't lifted. I've been inactive on here, pardon me for that. I'll have the next Ashura chapter up soon, possibly later this week or this weekend.

I am now caught up!
I have another reader? T_T I'm so happy...
I knew I had people following it because of pageviews, but I wasn't sure how many were me... XD
My dream is to have plot speculation or discussion in my thread in addition to having lurker readers. But since the story is pretty slow paced, there hasn't been that much to speculate on; at least, nothing readily obvious.

Cascade
January 10th, 2012, 02:00 AM
“Remember, this story’s a secret. My dad will execute me if he hears I’ve let it out.”

As she spoke in characteristic sing-song, Momoko’s finger traced a crooked line through the air, as if to “zip” Takara’s lips. For her part, Takara was wordless. She’d hardly known Momoko’s father, or his profession, having only met him once or twice in high school. All she knew was that he was in law enforcement, and that Momoko was his spoilt daughter. Though the attempt at seriousness on the part of her friend skirted the boundaries of deadpan comedy, Takara's exhaustion and frayed nerves from her unearthly experience in the lecture hall left her too drained to even smile. It couldn’t have just been sleep deprivation… It had to be…

“Hey, are you even paying attention? I’m risking Daddy’s love here. But anyway,” Momoko yawned in a needlessly a deep breath. “Going out tonight is… is a no-no…The killer…”

She was feeling strong enough to force one now. Draw the lips taught, pull the edges upward. Takara had no idea such a plain expression could be so hard to remember these days.

Still, she had to be firm. It was precisely because of the man who very likely was this murderer she spoke of that Takara did not feel comfortable sleeping in the dormitory. On a well-lit street front amidst a crowd of pedestrians, he still dared to make his move. A dorm full of sleeping college girls would be child’s play in comparison. But if Momoko was the only witness, he’d no doubt silence her as well.

Something about the night’s events bothered Takara. No matter how subtle the killer was, how had he managed to accurately target Kira with the poison needle through the crowd? Even if they hadn’t seen him visibly hurl a dart from his fingertips, he still cut an extremely conspicuous figure, wearing such archaic clothing. And those Dead followed his outdated fashion sense to the letter, yet were able to wander about without so much as a quizzical look from bystanders.
These questions could not be answered so long as she needed to tend to her friend however. Takara didn’t want to leave the girl in such a fragile state, but…

“Momoko, I think I’ll be fine. The place I’m staying at isn’t far from here-“

Momoko slammed her balled fists into her lap hard enough to make Takara wince.

“It doesn’t matter! My theory’s right… I know it is right! One way or another, if you go out tonight, he will definitely-”

Sensing another pained outburst, Takara drew in closer to Momoko, lowering her voice. “Sorry. I’m sorry. It’s okay… I’m still here. I’m always here, aren’t I?”

“Y-yeah…” Momoko sniffled. Her tightly clenched fists rubbed at her eyes. “I’m sorry. I can keep going.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

When he thought about it, it was remarkable how little Kira felt the cold. Seasons changed and people donned their heavy overcoats and jackets, but still he persisted in the usual tanktops, loose t-shirts and jeans. He had loved to joke that as an idiot, he’d never catch a cold, and the heat from his burning heart radiated through him, keeping him warm in all seasons.

“That’d make the summer unbearable though.”

But it certainly was remarkable. When others felt a chill Kira just walked straight through it. For his part he hadn’t the slightest inkling as to whether it was willful ignorance or good circulation. Sometimes when he stood perfectly still he could hear the blood rushing through his ears in the cold autumn breeze or the heavy thumping of his heart. Sometimes Kira felt a fever come over him, like liquid magma under his skin. Once in a while, it’d get hot enough that he nearly cried out, but only rarely. It usually happened when his heart was already beating too fast for comfort.

Then again, it wasn’t his heart anymore. It belonged to someone else.

He used to prowl the streets in the Cormorant’s neighborhood in the early days of HS. He and a few other mangy dogs played dice in the alleys, a veritable stain on the otherwise sparkling clean city. Certain groups of that close-knit brotherhood with a name that started with “Ya” came about and tried to establish a foothold, but rarely did it stick. Often they turned legit or were arrested for some (relatively) minor indiscretion, the kind cops wouldn’t even stoop to noticing in Tokyo. Then again, Kira had always been reminded of how much nicer of a place Tokyo had been in his adoptive father’s generation. Even at its heyday it never reached the immaculate, almost unnerving level the paragon of crimelessness and peace Akitaka had. Punks like him, never too academically inclined and with a surfeit of leisure time to spend on weekends and sometimes weekdays, did their best to scum it up.

Kira scratched the back of his head as he strolled along. That had to have been maybe a month or two after he’d quit the rugby team. Akitaka’s central HS was unique in having one; it wasn’t the type of sport that was popular in HS save for in boarding schools or private ones. Most kids his age didn’t even have the build for taking that kind of punishment, and even in the case of those who did, they were at best playing a watered-down, low contact version of the sport. It’d been the only kind of sport that could satisfy his ache. Like so many others “quitting” HS long before the act of dropping out became realized, that ache refused to be satiated by the placid everyday teenage life. However, much to his own unease, “normal” delinquency didn’t satisfy Kira like it did the others.

Hanging around with the other ne’er-do-wells sporting tattoos and earrings seemed like the natural thing to do for Kira, but he’d been going through the motions. Stride around with a bit of swagger and give anyone who so much as glanced at you the killer sneer everyone sees in manga and TV dramas. But inwardly, he didn’t feel the sort of pride that came from belonging he’d longed for. He was always stronger, hit harder, ran faster, than anyone else on the team. When he quit that, hardly at his own choice, he was doubly alone.

Not to mention, delinquency and violence sometimes went hand in hand. With the others it was easy to roughhouse, but in his hands people were like soft infants. Kira had to avoid any unnecessary confrontations. However, his peers’ heightened emotions from puberty, familial strife and frustration at the future they cast aside didn’t always make it so easy. Eventually he had to distance himself even from that life. He only appeared in public to water the plants. Gardening put him at peace; he could encase himself in his own private nirvana and hide the scent of blood from the noses of his old pack.

Why he needed to do this was also related to the rugby team. That two years ago, he had to step down because his old man couldn’t bear the shame of rearing a bloodthirsty animal.
The fingers of Kira’s right hand, the tattooed, darkened arm, tightened slightly. He could feel the firmness of the calluses from his pruning shears give as he creased his skin. A much better feeling than fragile bone and tissue giving way underneath his knuckles.

He could admire someone like Takara, who exhibited violence with supreme control, as she did that first night. Though she herself seemed distressed, to a boy whose fists were rabid beasts that knew no restraint, her entire form was a purifying ritual. The emptiness within a person who could kill with no hesitation, remorse or ill-feeling was evidence enough. Her form was contaminated with uncertainty and emotional turmoil. Kira wanted to restore that sanity to her.

He already knew that her nightmares deprived her of sleep and left her drained and sore before class each morning. With a couple of things from his apartment, he could redirect the energy in their room and restore a semblance of balance in the flow of positive and negative forces. So long as he kept in mind the odd disregard for the cardinal directions and the relative lack of flat walls in the Cormorant, Kira could use a bit of his childish dabbling in feng shui to help Takara. A bit of ancient secrets from the mainland always did good, Kira reasoned, whether it was some medicine of unmentionable origin or simply a state of mind. That sort of medicine was often left behind at home when his adoptive mother was still around, long before she disappeared into the great wild beyond in search of adventure. While they were still in stock, they did a great deal to help calm his raging nerves in early adolescence. She left quite a few things behind at home.

The tan-brick face of his apartment building stood before him, a squat, ugly feature that wasn’t entirely out of place in the strange hodgepodge of architectural styles that dotted Kurogiri’s city. An old landlady with a back as curved as a Roman arch swept the doorstep of the apartments across the street. Contrary to the immaculate look of the greater city, a dusty beer can rolled to a stop at the tip of his shoe. Kira glanced over his shoulder at the setting sun, its light glinting off the edge of the small golden hoop on his ear.

Still a few hours until dark.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

She didn’t quite know what to make of what lay before her. An atlas-size map sprawled over their hurricane-struck room’s floor, piles of debris creating natural mountains in the streets and city blocks. Akitaka was hardly that hilly. The scribbles and hastily drawn lines in red and black were unfamiliar too. A surplus of notes followed them everywhere they went, scrawled in Momoko’s characteristic chicken-scratch. A few smiley and frowny faces dotted the urban landscape. So this was Momoko’s second hobby. Takara was astonished to find she clearly was putting more time into this than sweets.

“Here.”

A soft finger touched a frowning face on the map. The uneven circle of its cheeks peeked out from under Momoko’s fingertip. Takara was bothered by the particular shade of red she’d used to draw that line.

“This is where Murasaki Kagami was found.”

Momoko’s eyelids batted across dark, unreflective pools. Their stare bored holes through the paper and deep into her memory. Takara could see an unwanted recollection claw its way up from its grave inside of her. Most likely she had seen photos or read reports belonging to her father she hadn’t been meant to see.

“The entire face had been cut off, nothing of it was found. She was 38, born in the last week of the month of July.”

A chill ran down Takara’s spine. She’d seen terrible things in the Grail War, seen undead horrors, a man reduced to nothing more than charred flesh and savaged muscle by a searing beam of infinite light… somehow hearing Momoko recount the details of the scene in monotone twisted Takara’s spirit.

“No signs of a struggle. Body was found in an alleyway between two apartment buildings. Fresh, estimated time of death between the hours of 1:00AM to 4:00AM. It’s a busy neighborhood, even late at night.”

She traced her finger to another frown. The dark red ink seemed to seep through the map’s texture like tiny threads. Looked at from above, Akitaka’s perfectly circular city limits, with the dividing river passing through, resembled a Taijitu, the Yin and Yang. This frowny face was on the opposite side of the river, in a large open square Takara recognized as a park. The east side of Akitaka, near the port and the river mouth, was where they lived. This location was almost clear across the city.

“This was where Kashima Reiko was found.”

Momoko’s throat silenced a gulp.

“Perfectly untouched, but her left leg was severed and placed four feet away from the body. No signs of a struggle. They initially thought it was a suicide. But she couldn’t have cut her own leg off at the thigh, straight through the bone. She was 30, born in the last week of the month of June. Estimated time of death, 5:00AM. Possibly half an hour to a full hour later.”

Her hand was shaking. The next frown danced madly beneath her touch.

“Hanamura Beniko. Found in a public toilet. 20.” The location was a boulevard near the port of Akitaka. A public toilet where dozens of pedestrians should have walked by or used daily.

“Her face was serene, as if she had been in a deep sleep. Seated upon the toilet, she had her back slit from shoulder to shoulder. Her back was soaked in her own blood and resembled a cape. Born in the last week of April, died sometime within the early morning commute, 7:00-9:00 AM.”

“Momoko, it’s okay. We should sto-“

“Pay close attention. What about these murders is strange to you?”

Takara stared as attentively as she could, but nothing about the macabre scribbles seemed to make sense. The locations weren’t anywhere near each other, nor did any details Momoko had shared sticked out to her as connected. She could merely cringe at the details her friend related as if it’d been mearly a kaidan horror session.

“I’m not sure. This isn’t really something I have any experience with… neither of us are professionals. Perhaps…”

She dug deeper. The violence Takara herself had experienced that Momoko likely knew nothing about had been a fight for survival. Flesh was cut, bones were severed, the body perspired, muscles ached with acidic buildup from fatigue. These were not engagements or even surprise attacks. The alien, unsettling feature of each killing was the lack of resistance from the victim.

“Do you know if the victims were perhaps drugged?”

“Yes, the lack of a struggle. No victim had any external wounds, bruising or abrasion.” The analytical tone corrupted her child-like, feathery voice. “But as for a chemical agent or sedative, no evidence of any such drug was found. It is as if they died in their sleep, and didn’t raise a hand against the murderer. Like they…”

Takara’s eyes were colder than steel.
“Lie down and die.”

“Exactly. And what else is strange, Taka-chan?”

“The public location.”

“The bodies were only discovered by the police. It wasn’t long after the projected time of death, but these were place lots of people travel through. It would have been impossible for people passing by to miss it the first time they saw the crime scene.”

Momoko lifted her finger from the map finally. The dim lighting of their dorm room gave her pale flesh a sickly, greenish color, far from the healthy flush she commonly exhibited.
“There is another detail I didn’t share. At each murder scene, a strange pattern was drawn with the victim’s blood. In each killing, plenty of it was drawn, so there was plenty of paint for the markings.”

Momoko flipped the map.

Across the reverse side of Akitaka, a hideous scrawl violated the entire surface of the city. A mandala was formed, like those Takara had seen in documentaries as a child, only this art was wrought with a far more sinister medium. Lines like a labyrinth of corridors and wretched shapes intersected in ways that made Takara feel unnaturally dizzy, and the entire pattern seemed to yawn and stretch as she recoiled from the image on the paper. In the very center of it was an unholy matrimony of Eastern mysticism and Western occult; a pentacle with a seal of encircling hermetic runes, the kind she’d often seen in books her family had used to educate her on the magi, entrenched itself in the center of the bloody maze.

No matter how she looked at it, this was the work of a magus… Or a demon. No chemical agents to provoke sleep, no narcotics to prevent resistance or awareness of their demise. A magic seal at every murder scene. Yet it seemed too obvious. And something was wrong with this image. None of it made any sense. Rather than a legitimate spell engraving intended to activate mana in the surrounding environment, this seal bore markings that resembled the European hermetic traditions, yet the scribblings were composed with no order or apparent meaning. The entire composition resembled a mandala inked in blood. Were it a true Freelancer’s work, the seals would not have been easily discerned, for fear of drawing the eye of the Association upon their indiscretions. Independent Magi tended to be discrete out of necessity, especially if their experimentation began to involve outsiders with no connection to their shadowy part of the world.

This realization paled in comparison to another, which trumped it in importance even as she was turning the information she had absorbed over and about itself in her head.

“What’s more…” Momoko fingered through a stack of photographs she shouldn’t be holding. “Each one is slightly different. Like they were penned by different hands. The size of each symbol is just not the same.”

“Are you saying there are multiple killers working together?”

“We don’t know that yet.”

Her knowledge of magic paled in comparison to her mother, her godmother, and certainly her aunt. But she knew enough to realize that the demonic seal simply had no purpose, and this revelation trumped all others. Yet at the same time, it was the realization she forbade herself from sharing with Momoko. More than ever before Takara was convinced her life was not something any normal girl should need to share in. Kira had been the first victim of her unnatural upbringing, and she was determined to make sure there weren’t any more. No, she would have to play the fool.

Momoko, however, was no fool.

“And I realized something else when looking at the city’s geography.”

She uncapped her red pen, drawing it deliberately across the gridwork in long, diagonal strokes.
The locations were equidistant from each other… assuming they were forming the points of a five pointed star. And when she had finished crossing the last point of the pentacle, the location the two lines terminated at was a highly familiar square block on the outskirts of the main body of JIN-SEI campus grounds.

“It’s like some kind of weird… ritual. None of it makes sense.”

The pen toppled from her hands as Momoko’s barrier was breached. The edges of her frozen eyes boiled over in tears.

“My daddy is in over his head. He spends night after night reviewing all the evidence. I logged in to his computer remotely once and this is what I found…”

Her curled up hands rubbed at the edges of her reddening cheeks.

“H-he tells me that it’s okay, that he has everything sorted out. But it’s not okay… he’ll never find this killer, because he’s not like the others. Serial killers do things because of trauma from when they’re young, or a s…sexual desire. But this one has nothing like that. Every murder is slightly different. There’s a pattern but it’s arbitrary. He doesn’t defile the women and they don’t resist him. They simply… die. Not even from blood loss; the investigation proved that. They died long before they bled out, and no one knows exactly how.”

It suddenly all made sense. Takara remembered her mother’s words mentioning a satanic cult resurfacing, one that the Burial agency had begun tracking. Additionally, the news a while back had stated a large number of unidentified individuals with limited or nonexistent legal records or even a birth certificate had begun appearing unexpectedly in Akitaka. But was this truly the work of a cult, or a single deranged slasher?

Momoko’s eyes widened, and a sickly smile spread between thick, flowing tears.

“It’s impossible… No one daddy has tracked has been anything like this. If people like this exist in the world, the rules of the game of investigation are just wrong. So wrong. But they can’t be wrong… because if they’re wrong, Daddy won’t be able to find him. And Daddy was praised as a genius. A prodigy they said, or something. They called him to Akitaka because of his reputation. And he can’t find this one even though he’s so close… so close to killing again. The rules have changed.”

Suddenly her shuddering stopped. Takara had gripped her in a fierce embrace. Her walls collapsed and the ever-bright, ever smiling Momoko muffled her sobs in her friend’s shoulder.
But behind their comforting embrace, where Momoko couldn’t see, Takara’s eyes were cold slate.

“My only rule is to kill those who would hurt my friends."

The only one who could find the killer and execute him was another killer. Only Takara could do it.

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Yay, I'm alive. Happy New Year folks.
I've been busy trying to survive the last half of 2011. It's not been the easiest year for me personally, and I've had some doubts. I decided ultimately the best thing for me to do would be to start writing again, even if it's my silly old fic. I can't believe how long I've been working on this, but I hope to do more this year and maybe even finish it.

It's been a while, so please excuse me if I contradicted myself anywhere. Point out any errors if you notice them please; I'll gladly correct anything you find.

ItsaRandomUsername
January 10th, 2012, 02:04 AM
Another update! Hooray!

Cascade
January 10th, 2012, 02:05 AM
That was fast. I'm pretty impressed. I'm also working on the final chapter of my sidestory Ashura.
This is the thirteenth chapter, released near the date of Friday the 13th!

Kieran
January 10th, 2012, 08:03 AM
Ah, I've missed this. I was just thinking yesterday that I should bother you to complete another chapter - thanks for sparing me the work! :D

One minor nitpick - it should be "Takara's exhaustion."

Cascade
January 11th, 2012, 01:48 AM
Ooh, thank you for catching that.
This chapter was a real torture to write at times.

Cascade
February 10th, 2012, 01:32 AM
I've updated my sidestory. I should finish it off sometime this weekend. This time I will post two in succession since I felt it would be too big in one update.

Cascade
June 1st, 2012, 12:53 AM
Old Toadface’s eyes vaulted over his newspaper, then leapt over the upper rim of his reading glasses. Kira called him that for fairly obvious reasons. There was a distance between his eyes that at times seemed equal to the breadth of his wrinkled old lips. His complexion was leathery and worn, tanned like Kira from years of labor under the sun. These days the old landlord was too old to do his own gardening work; hiring out Kira to trim azaleas and dwarf maple trees was a side job of his that the young tenant was all too happy to carry out.
“Oh…” The elderly man fumbled with his reading glasses. Kira could tell he hadn’t shaved in a while; long grey stubble dotted his chin and wrinkled neck like tree stumps.

“You’re back. Where’ve you been, Mutt?”

It would have been insulting coming from anyone else, but their conversations had always sounded adversarial from a distance. One didn’t come across that kind of relationship so frequently, and Kira considered it a shame that a cold vein of distrust had entered Toadface’s words as of late.

“Work,” Kira beamed in a way that seemed ill-fitting for any post-hiring euphoria.

Toadface nodded. “… And?”

Thumbs up! “I met a girl. Amazingly hot. You should have seen her hair.”

The old man looked vaguely impressed, then went back to reading his newspaper.

“So, does that mean you can make rent now? I won’t have to kick your ass out? Makin’ me feel guilty already, but you’re pretty independent, and your old man-”

Kira strolled by, kneading his tense shoulder with a wide palm. “No problem, geezer. I found a new place.”

“So you’re living in sin now? I always wondered how the girlies weren’t dangling off you, Mutt.”

That last one seemed flat, but Kira feigned embarrassment.

“C’mon, you aren’t gonna start with that ‘when I was your age, I was quite the looker’ bullshit, right?”

“Wouldn’t dare,” Toadface said in the midst of a yawn.

“I’ve got to relocate my junk. Got any spare boxes?”

The old man yawned again. Kira felt it infect him with its drowsiness, but he had no time to crash. It would be dark soon. “Office closet. Leave your old man’s stuff here if you can’t figure out what to do with it. I’ll take care of it, or sell it… or something.”

That shaded, wary gaze Toadface gave him was reminder enough that things between the old man and him had grown sour. It was no longer enough for him to pass up on a few weeks’ pay to remain blissfully ignorant of the rent. Not since Kira’s “dad” had run off. Toadface was walking a tightrope with a man of ambiguous origin, or even citizenship, living in his abode. Before he could always count on the elder Kaede to pay his rent; the teenager was handwaved away as his dependant. Toadface took it easy on him ever since his wife ran off; they were comrades in abandonment. But with his adoptive father gone, there was little to like about Kira living there. Toadface was reaching that age where it would be easier to just draw the curtains rather than confront the growing conspiracy of weeds outside. The old man didn’t want to go into retirement with a new set of ulcers; Kira knew all too well his health was failing. So it wasn’t altogether a hostile confrontation when Kira opened the door to his apartment one day to find Toadface with his eviction notice. He and the landlord weren’t that close.

However, it was impossible to simply go on moving out without a tiresome sense of unease. He found himself seeking out conversation with his old boss and landlord less and less, and spent more and more of his time at the Cormorant. Kira considered if he hadn’t been simply neglecting the matter of moving his belongings out of fear, but neither did they truly belong to him. He opened the door to his stuffy, dust-covered abode.

It was a home in transition, neatly coated in a thin frosting of soot, considering how he had touched it so little in the month prior, coming home only to curl up on his futon and pass out. Odd, coffee colored tiki-heads peeked out of half-open cardboard boxes. A massive Taoist Luo Pan geomancy compass hung from the wall, an item which Kira hadn’t the foggiest idea how to transport comfortably. Jars from Egypt like Matroshykas were arranged by height on a shelf, only Kira merely hoped they carried more identical human and animal-faced jars inside, rather than the shriveled old kidneys of some long forgotten Pharoah. A Zulu shield adorned the far wall near the window, covered in shriveled, dusky hide and earth-toned geometric patterns. There was a comfortable native embroidered cloth from North America that would have made an excellent curtain or blanket for Takara’s apartment, but it was far too valuable for such mundane purposes. Dozens of other items snatched from places Kira had only read of in books on the rare occasion he didn’t feel like being handy lay scattered across the floor and shelves. They had mostly belonged to his mother. Kira wondered in the past if his real mom had the frivolous nature his adoptive mother did, but not every woman had a chance to explore the world half around. For his part, Kira’s father could have done with less traveling; her absence left him only worry and a problematic child to keep him company.

He’d caught the old man stuffing his tie and black suit into a suitcase after a long, hard day of failure at the office and another angry letter from Kira’s school. The look of shame and fear was one he would never forget. He’d told Takara that he’d left them to ease up on their meager paychecks during the height of the recession. What a shoddy lie. Anyone could see looking at Kira’s apartment that the owner had left almost everything he owned in the hurry to get out, and he was stuck living as a squatter. The deception was to keep his adoptive father’s face, and to honor the promise he’d made that night.

“Nobody will think you’re a coward or anything for backing out. I’ll make sure of it. You never wanted this.”

Kira had begun packing the day Toadface went to see him, getting ready to send them to anywhere, but he hesitated when he began rummaging through the more personal effects. Some were his mother’s, others belonged to his father, and all were in limbo from the moment the foster parents left both apartment and Kira alone. In any case, the clutter was terribly familiar to Kira. Perhaps that was why he felt a strange warmth upon seeing the rummage store-nature of Kurogiri’s tiny home atop the high rise.


While it filled Kira with a warm sense of nostalgia, simply reminiscing wouldn’t spirit away all his personal effects and valuable belongings to Kurogiri’s building. He’d have to hire a moving company.

“Can I really trust them to take care of this stuff anyway?” Kira wouldn’t pretend he knew how valuable the apartment’s contents really wore, but as he rifled through the smaller items and wrapped them for storage in the innumerable cardboard boxes, he realized he was taking far more than their room could contain. Not for lack of space; the Cormorant mansion was almost grotesquely oversized. An average Japanese highschool dropout of his age with dubious legal status and a checkered history in both employment and education… as average as that could be… wouldn’t have even dreamt of living like a king in a high rise of that sort. But if he was going to be sharing the space for the first time in a long while, with a girl at that, they would have to consider how to best divide the apartment. Takara was a girl after all, and Kira wasn’t totally ignorant of how bad it looked for her to be shacking up with him, but even ignoring that aspect, this mound of junk and treasure intermingled was easily a third person’s worth of storage space accounted for already. He’d have to do something about that Luo Pan too…

Around this time he realized he was running short on boxes. Kira slid one containing a silver tea set into a corner carefully and bounded out into the hallway. The building was always quiet, but today the dusty air contained only the sounds of his packing. That, and the sound of Toadface’s beat up old tv set from all the way down the hall, but it was background noise that easily went unnoticed.

“Hey geezer, I need some more boxes.” Kira yelled, though his voice diminished when the belated thought that the other inhabitants might be trying to rest came to mind.

There was no response, which meant the old fart was asleep. Even through the closed hallway door, the narrow corridor of the first floor was filled with the muffled sounds of his news broadcast.

-found dead today at 3:00 am in a public restroom. Details of the crime scene and the victim’s identity are being kept secret for purposes of public safety, according to special Inspector Inoue. The Inspector was requested personally by members of Akitaka Central Police Department for temporary exchange from his department in Fuyuki City, and has stated that…

The news broadcast blared the moment Kira twisted the knob to the door and shoved it open. Toadface was hard of hearing, so his nightly watching was deafening as ever. Perhaps that was part of why his establishment was lacking in tenants, Kira noted sardonically to himself. It wasn’t exactly atmospheric.

The elderly man nursed what looked like a tall glass of barley tea heavily diluted with half-melted ice cubes. His head listed to the side and the whiskers on his chin vibrated with every snore. Kira sighed and pried Toadface’s newspaper from his arm. Those were for the guests, ostensibly. The headlines were the same whether on tv, internet or pulp. It made Kira’s stomach churn.

”-have been circulating, but we currently cannot disclose any information on the victims’ identities or the nature of the murder. In order to maintain public safety, this is one of the police’s duties, frustrating though it may be. I can assure you, however, all relevant data on the case will be disclosed whenever a safe time to-”

The screen flickered to black as he thumbed the power. Kira’s nose wrinkled. His sense of smell was always particularly strong, so the scent of Toadface’s mothballed shoes and clothes positively reeked. He’d never had it so strong before. It was different too, pungent and foul in a strange, fresh way. It was all he could do to keep from coughing, but Kira covered his mouth and nose with a beleaguered groan.

“Damnit you old toad. You’re not dead yet; why are you dipping yourself in formaldehyde already?”

As Kira moved to toss the papers into the stand near the office’s front couch, the stench was becoming unbearable. It seemed to grow stronger the closer he moved towards the door. He heard a faint sound, like a metal fork scraping the bottom of an empty bowl.

Before Kira even realized what he was doing, he had lunged for the hallway door, darting behind it and out of sight in a motion more quick than silent, but intended to be both. He clamped his palm down over his lips once more, but this time it was to muzzle the gasps of his frantic breathing, as the blurry vision out of the corner of his eye rippled with murky dark colors. The thing behind the long front office guests’ seat slid out along the floor in near total silence. Its body extended itself like a cat stretching its back, pulling itself along at a low angle as it prowled the room on broken fingernails and razor sharp dirks.

“Gh-“

Kira stifled a yell. There it was, in the same anachronistic robes and round cap as the night before. Still twitching, still crabwalking along the ground, stalking him with a patience only the dead knew. A black ponytail flipped back and forth with every motion of its awkward four-limbed gait. Its frigid hands scrambled at the floor tiles with occasional flickers of steel folded in messy perforations along its knuckles. As it drew closer to him, Kira wondered just how hidden he was, wedged between a sheet of wood and the wall as it were, his chest compressed and hardly able to contain the volume of air his racing heart demanded.

It was only a few feet away now; if it had sensed him, escape would be nearly impossible. He’d surmised from the night before that the dead were blind and could only sense him through motion or some other esoteric process. But at this point, even if he cursed himself from choosing such an idiotic hiding place, he’d never be able to make it out alive if it already knew his location. Even if Kira managed to break away, it would hunt him down and drill the blades it hid in the dark places between muscle and bone through his sternum, to complete the job its master’s venom failed to do. Would it drink his blood, feast on his entrails? What did it want? Blood rushed to his head.

“Why the hell are you here?! What do you want from me! I’m just a normal human! I lost my guardians, lost my job, lost my apartment; you want to make me lose my sanity too!?”

But so was Takara, as far as he had known at the time, and those things had hunted her as well. In milliseconds it would be upon him and fillet his throat, trace bloody artwork through his stomach and bowels. Kira managed to kill one before, but that was when it wasn’t looking and was already cut in half. How did it even manage to crawl towards Takara and nearly stab her? Humans were easy. Hit them in the face hard enough and they’d stop moving. But this thing did not even comprehend the concept of pain. It could lose flesh like people shed layers of clothing, or take bruises like face painting after losing a game of badminton. Kira had none of the training or experience Takara did; even one of these things could slay him in an instant, and Kurogiri was out of town, so he couldn’t expect the Professor to operate on him again if the monster’s weapons were envenomed, an unpleasant likelihood. He could hear its joints popping unnaturally as it flexed its spiderlike posture across the ground. Kira felt himself holding back not only his breath but the foul taste of bile as it graced the back of his throat, such was the intense stench of the thing. Most likely some kind of chemical had been soaked thoroughly into its robes. It was making him feel light-headed too. Was it a sedative?

The sleeping face at the end of the monster cracked and twisted nauseatingly as it looked towards Kira’s position. A serene, gray face with sunken cheeks regarded him from behind the paper slip on its forehead, nested neatly beneath its cap. Kira felt a strange familiarity with the creature at that moment, as if he had seen it somewhere in a film or movie, but found himself focusing more on who that man was and what unspeakable ritual he’d underwent to become such a macabre puppet.

The sound of his heart deafened him. He was no strange to fear, but nothing like this. The puppet’s lips parted in a lazy yawn, and a silver spear point disgorged itself from within the depths of its black throat, flickering in and out in place of his tongue. He could hear a wet sigh escape its dead lungs and a puff of the foul scent infested his tiny sanctuary behind the door.

“Shitshitshitshitshit!”

It knew he was there, Kira’s panicking mind screamed. He had to run, or die. It didn’t see him, didn’t see at all but it knew. It just had to find him. He had to run, run now. But he saw one leap at Takara, saw it cut into a million shreds of fabric and dead, dead flesh at the point of her knife. It was fast, too fast, too fast for him to beat. Could he really beat that speed? Sweat poured from him like his face was being held to a furnace and his hands twitched. Kira inched backwards as slow as humanly possible, further into his alcove, like a child who thought any monsters in the dark couldn’t see him as long as he hid under his blanket. The stupidity of the situation was obvious to him, yet he couldn’t move. The scent and fear of death were already upon him, strangling him until all energy left his limbs.

“I’m gonna die right here. Caught like a rat in a hard place. Why the hell did I hide back here anyway? If I’m gonna go down, it should at least be in a cool place like atop a skyscraper or in a mansion I own myself. Are they going for Takara too right now? Is she in more danger than I am?”

Kira winced, shutting his eyes until they throbbed with pain. He felt a dull weight against the door and saw its stiff, broken fingers play across the wall, climbing with the blades that ground against its carpals. Its quiet, dead gasping released more fumes into the air. The scent was making his vision blur; he swore the vapors pouring off the corpse were almost visible. Kira felt himself swooning against the wall, his eyes almost rolling back in his head. He had to order his muscle and tendons to stop from going slack, to keep him propped up against the wall and fight the oncoming darkness as his eyelids flickered.

“Takara… Takara… What’s happening to you!? I want to help... I can’t die before I’ve repaid you! Damn this thing! Damnitdamnitdamnit!”

Kieran
June 1st, 2012, 07:16 AM
. . . Oh, crap - how's he going to get out of this one?

And on reading the description of Kira's home and life, I just had a terrifying thought. Kira's mom isn't Aoko, is she?

Cascade
June 1st, 2012, 07:48 AM
. . . Oh, crap - how's he going to get out of this one?

And on reading the description of Kira's home and life, I just had a terrifying thought. Kira's mom isn't Aoko, is she?

Oh, that's a good one. Too bad I didn't think of it, lololol. XD

Kieran
June 1st, 2012, 08:19 AM
. . . I note that you didn't say you wouldn't use it. *trembles*

Cascade
June 2nd, 2012, 06:32 AM
Who knows? XD

Cascade
February 19th, 2013, 04:51 AM
It's been a while. Let's try to make this more regular again.
----

Pickled.


He’d laugh if his lungs weren’t full of toxins. If Kira could describe what he felt was happening to him, pickled, like bitter plums, was the only appropriate word. He felt the corpse-assassin’s venomous payload soak him through, until his every breath, what little he had managed before it pinned him behind the door, was a torturous exercise. The paralyzing perfume was not merely to hide its putrid odor from those around them, but a sedative that numbed every muscle in the body. Moreover his senses were so overloaded that he could almost feel his consciousness fading. Kira’s eyes ached as they threatened to roll back in his head, so he tightened his lips and the grip his hand held over his mouth. He couldn’t feel anything through those fingers or palm; it was as if his face was no longer there, like the fog had melted him into a part of the scent itself. It became him.
Sandwiched between the wall and the door, draped with a crawling wight, what remained of Kira’s lucid brain quickly concluded two things, for he had no options left but to think and pray. For one he understood now why Takara had been pushed into a corner by them. Her body had no immunity to this poison, and she could barely stand, let alone fight, whenever one drew near her. Trained as she was, her lithe frame and slight constitution was too delicate to withstand prolonged exposure. Kira was tough, heavy and tall for his age, and simply could absorb much more of the toxin without succumbing too quickly. At that point it was merely a matter of body mass, the same as a person’s alcohol tolerance.

The other thing was a question that had already answered itself. Why did the beast seem so familiar, and why did he instinctively hold his breath and hide when he saw it begin to creep from behind the office seat? The summer after he’d been taken from Okayama to Akitaka by his adoptive parents he’d gone through a horror film phase. Interactions with peers never seemed to turn out favorably, and so Kira often holed himself up in his room to elude the sweltering heat, the occasional moth circling his glowing television. The sensation of being frightened galvanized Kira. It wasn’t like other boys, who enjoyed the excitement; for him, it was a phantom itch that he simply needed to scratch. Though a simulated experience never gave him the satisfaction he desired, it served its purpose well enough on most nights. Even at that moment, encased into a swiftly closing death trap, Kira’s false heart pulsed and laced every inch of his numb body with white-hot adrenaline. Terrified as he was, he was excited to an equal degree. The inside of his muzzling palm grew warmer, his breath seeping from behind tightly shut lips. The thought disgusted and fascinated him.

He remembered a monster from those days that he’d seen in a few trashy, low-budget mainland flicks. A returned beast that sprung from its coffin in the robes of the Manchurian usurpers, with a skin tone akin to pea soup, fingers like scalpels and a tongue that could penetrate skin and drain a body of its blood in minutes. It was stiff from rigor mortis, and could only move in awkward, comical hops, yet was spry enough to use rudimentary martial arts and leap from floor to ceiling in one bound. It was nearly impossible to kill directly; only through certain countermeasures could one hope to evade the Jiang Shi, or through slaying its magically endowed creator.

One such countermeasure was holding one’s breath. The Jiang Shi traced its victims through their exhalations and could follow anywhere so long as it could smell them. Otherwise, it was as blind, deaf and dumb as the corpse it was made from. But the second Kira could no longer hold his breath, it would julienne him with a dozen and one razor-sharp blades erupting from its knuckles, toes and mouth. He didn’t have confidence even the Professor could bring him back after that.

His lungs already ached, screaming at him to take a breath. Like almost anything physical, Kira excelled at swimming and could hold his breath for an inordinate amount of time, but the monster didn’t seem interested in wandering, and the pressure to act was reaching a breaking point. Either he created some distance between himself and his would-be-killer or he’d inhale at a vulnerable moment and find himself painted across the walls. Kira’s first thought was to shove the door off its frame and slam it on top of the hopping corpse, but his body wouldn’t obey his commands anymore. His nerves sent electrical impulses into jelly where muscle once existed. A mystery brew of fear, adrenaline and its paralyzing odor had seen to that. Kira had wanted to sneak away, but in his current state, he wasn’t sure how far he could make it before his lungs sprung from his chest. Its claws barred his path as the Jiang Shi held his wooden shield in a loving embrace. Kira glared at its pale digits over his own index finger. Congealing blood seeped along the ragged fissures in its skin from where the blades erupted and dug deep into the wall’s plaster.


“What happened to Toadface?” Kira couldn’t see him from his narrow sanctuary. The old man probably passed out after one whiff of the chemicals, and he could only hope that it hadn’t proven too much for the sleeping landlord. The Jiang Shi didn’t seem interested in him, which was a small miracle. Even if it was distracted into assaulting Toadface, Kira didn’t relish the thought of using someone's death to cover his escape. It was actively targeting him, and through some arcane method beyond Kira’s comprehension and knowledge was able to act freely in public and private during any time of the day without being noticed by normal humans. It was unlikely, if not impossible, that it had managed to secret itself behind Toadface’s couch without him noticing. That meant it was “evading” his conscious attention somehow. It was a miracle that Kira was, for reasons that eluded him, just as able to notice the Jiang Shi as Takara had been; otherwise the assassination would have been child’s play.


He was at a loss. Fighting was impossible, running was impossible. The creature was not even sentient; no trickery or negotiation could take place. It had the luxury of waiting as long as it liked while Kira did not. And it wanted nothing more than his entrails.

Kira needed something, anything, anyone, capable of extracting him from his prison. But he no longer had the strength to free himself. From the feeling in his skull, it was almost as if the poison was liquefying his brain into gray-pink slurry; soon he would no longer even be able to think coherently. Nearing insanity through desperation, he began to fumble fruitlessly through his pockets. At that moment, a singsong, cheerful voice chirped deep from within his rapidly clouding thought process.
“Oh, those? They’re just some throwaway trinkets I’d like the two of you to have. Hold onto them for me.”

The boy wanted to scratch his head. Empty, tiny envelopes especially effective at getting lost in the mail: How incredibly exciting.

“The hell?”

It was an impossibility. Kurogiri had given them novelty envelopes filled with absolutely nothing. What sort of treasure did they contain aside from ostensibly rare and valuable oxygen, if even that? Kira laughed bitterly inside. His lungs were too full of envenomed air to accomplish the task. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he swore he could feel his pupils dilate to the limit as the world started to go pale.


“I’m trusting my life to a slip of folded paper. He saved me once and might save me again. He knew I was being targeted, and so was Takara. Maybe they’re more than a bad practical joke. Maybe not. I’m screwed either way… no harm in opening his present early.”

Still stricken with disbelief over what his pathetic final gambit to preserve his life entailed, Kira groped for the miniscule envelope. His numb fingers barely managed to stumble upon its paper edge and extract it from his pocket. That was the easy part. He had quite a bit of manual dexterity, but the drug-induced disappearance of the lumps of flesh and bone connected to his nerve endings made it an ordeal that lasted what seemed like hours. With Kira’s body in manual override, his struggle finally came to a close, just as a bead of saliva made a break for it from the corner of his drooping lips, and stars exploded behind his eyes with every contraction of his empty lungs. Swooning deeper into the alcove, Kira slumped against the wall. His drawn breath finally burst free from him; he felt the monster stir just as his clumsy plucking broke the envelope’s seal.

He couldn’t clearly recall what happened next, partially due to the Jiang Shi’s paralytic compound, and partially because it caught him in a state of heightened unawareness. Something *exploded* in the microscopic envelope and forced its way into the cramped gap of his alcove. Exploded was the right word, for it rammed Kira back like he was hit with a car and the door with him. The wall was trashed, pulverized but still sturdy enough to withstand the impact of the envelope’s payload; the door was far too flimsy in comparison, and blew clean off its hinges. The dead creature was flung to the floor by the blast, limbs flailing outwards with a spider’s spasms before being pinned beneath the dislocated door and Kira atop it, cradling that something. A sparkling glint brushed Kira’s cheek and he felt something wet trickle onto his skin. The Jiang Shi’s bladed “tongue” penetrated the door and stabbed blindly, leaving him with a love bite on his cheek tough guys would envy, were his odds of survival any better after his stunt.

More importantly, he could breathe again. Or would be able to, were there not an immense weight like cinder blocks lining his chest. Kira strained to look towards his feet, he and his attacker still equally disoriented from the fall.


Something like a pale gray cylinder, a column, rest its whole length upon his body, pushing into his heaving chest. The weight was immense, but it was nothing Kira couldn’t heft easily with his full strength returning. Its end was jagged, a naturally cut shatter point of uneven but continuous rock surfaces. The sides of the column were flawless save for the grey veins and discolorations of marble-like stone. Most distinctive was a pale white binding three quarters of the way up the column. Kira instantly recognized it as a shimenawa binding, the sanctified rice rope used to designate a spiritually pure location, a distinctly Shinto device.


Kira assumed it was some sort of exorcism tool, or a marker put in place to designate a burial site, like a crude tombstone. His fingers spread along its circumference; the stone was cool to the touch and impossibly smooth. Knowing the Professor, it was undoubtedly a highly valuable artifact, but it was no weapon. At best it could be used to perform a ritual to sever the unclean magical puppetry that pulled the Jiang Shi’s strings. It was within the realm of pure speculation, but he'd seen enough supernatural things in one month to be ready with appropriate dull surprise in the case that the device succeeded in purifying anything at all.


Such a ritual was beyond his knowledge. Thus the boy used it in the most efficient and enlightened manner befitting his situation.


“FUCK-“


Mustering up every ounce of strength left in his aching body, Kira rolled clumsily to the side and seized the stone column, raised it above his head, and brought it crashing down on the corpse beneath him.


“-OFF!”


The air around him shuddered and ripped apart with an anguished roar. The impact's deafening report was akin to a grenade blast. The force from his blow shattered the floorboards and forced the Jiang Shi into a newly formed crater of dislodged wood and nails. Soot, flecks of debris and a puff of noxious fumes raced out from under the corpse as its limbs splayed even further outward with a grotesque crunch as Kira pulverized bone and tissue alike with his bludgeon, collapsing its ribcage instantly with one colossal blow. A dull thunk sounded as one of its dirks was jettisoned roughly from its hand and burrowed deep into the lobby wall behind him. He couldn’t see the beast from under the door, which had almost split in two from the impact, but he imagined its guts escaping from every orifice it had left, and held back the foul taste of bile racing up through his throat. The bludgeon, for its part, was completely immaculate.

The Jiang Shi refused to stir. He backed away warily from the corpse and lost his footing, falling to a seated position on the floor as his lungs made up for lost time with ragged, frantic gasps. He felt the healthy air rush back into him, returning feeling to his numbed extremities. The pillar fell to his side and from the sound of it as it hit the floor, Kira knew it was completely solid, if not filled with something even heavier than the gray stone on the surface. It wasn’t something a man should have been able to lift, but compared to the men that punched through walls or lifted cars in times of panic and fury, it was a modest achievement. His body wanted to rest, but Kira watched the corpse warily for signs of movement, and the bludgeon was still close at hand.

A chorus of wet pops gleefully answered his fears as the corpse sprung fourth, hurling the two halves of the door in separate ways as it plunged through the dusty air at Kira, arms and legs a storm of killing steel. But Kira’s reflexes, fast if unpolished, were enough to haphazardly stumble under and past it unharmed. Carried by tremendous momentum, it barreled through the office’s front window with a reverberating crash, righting itself in midair and popping its arms and legs into some semblance of a quadrapedal form, alighting on the sidewalk in front of the building before leaping back without a moment’s hesitation. By this point the feeling was returning to Kira’s limbs, faster than he’d imagined possible. Perhaps he was emboldened by finally attaining the ability to strike back, infusing him with comforting strength, but still he had no intention of taking a chance tangling with the acrobatic dead.


He raised the pillar. The Jiang Shi’s silent assault careened towards him and ricocheted off the unbreakable stone surface, but its scrambling legs raked him once or twice under the belt as it pounced on him, and Kira didn’t feel courageous enough to look down and see how bad the injury really was. It was all he could do to shake it off and fling it bodily with the aid of the stone pillar putting greater potency behind his desperate swings. Like a cat it never landed off its feet; the killing corpse righted itself once more, dancing on metal fingertips with unholy grace and musical cracking and popping of dislocated joints as it coiled itself for another bounding strike. Kira didn’t stop to wait before fleeing down the hallway, didn’t dare look back as he heard the metal scraping intensify. It loped after him like a delirious, starved jackal, and even then the unfitting sleeping face beneath its reanimating fu paper talisman did not stir in the slightest, though a trail of dark gore was smeared across its chin and the front of its ornate robes.
The sight of it embroiled his stomach in an intricate tumbling routine. Kira winced, averting his eyes.
“Don’t look back, don’t look back!”
Having put some space between himself and the creature, Kira bolted for the door of his apartment thoughtlessly. It seemed the only place with a lock he could put between himself and the monster. Even if he held his breath, it wouldn’t stop hunting him, but it might delay it long enough for Kira to think of a better escape plan. He dreaded the thought of trying to flee through the window, and was thankful for the first time he lived on the ground floor, where all sorts of pests made his summers a living hell and the sound of overweight footsteps from the room above kept him wide awake at night. Kira tucked the fragmented pillar under his arm, blissfully short enough to make it through the door opening if he held it vertical, and flushed his key from his pocket, nearly dropping it in his haste. The thump-scrape of the Jiang Shi’s leaping pursuit dogged him to the very last moment before he managed to jam the key into the lock and twist the knob. Before he knew it, the fiend was upon him. Kira ducked its wild blow as it sheared a lock of scraggly black hair from his head, narrowly missing his prized bead rosary where it held his ponytail in place. Barely managing to keep his footing, he simply yanked on the doorknob and flung himself bodily into his room, somehow managing to scramble back fast enough to shut the door, lock it and fasten the deadbolt. He even threw his back against it in the effort to keep it shut, before another perforating blade nestled neatly beneath his armpit made him rethink that strategy. He could hear the Jiang Shi scramble blindly against the door with murderous fervor; its wordless beatings carried an air of passionless desperation. The mindless scratching of its blades rippled up and down the wood next to his ear.


Taking a moment to steady himself as best he could, Kira glanced over the half-packed museum in front of him with a weighted sigh. His family’s dust shimmered in the tense atmosphere of the room. The wood of his door groaned and splintered under the dead’s assault, but with time the frantic blows diminished to silence.


“... Can't a guy move out in peace?” He muttered, short of breath.


One heart beat passed before Kira’s window belched a storm of tempered shards and Manchurian robes. With unnerving technique for a dead man, the Jiang Shi, leaping through his window with arms crossed and both hands folded inside billowing sleeves, spread them apart in a motion like a descending bird of prey. It must have been a stylistic affectation of its controller. The creature’s knuckles disgorged ringing steel from every angle and it pounced upon him bodily… at least that was what should have happened.


Kira however, through means he didn’t put thought to nor had any capability of understanding, mustered immense strength in that single heartbeat. It came to him between thoughts, in the space of time that it took for the slightest packet of information to cross into his mind’s eye. Swing. He felt his body move without even willing it to, pick up the pillar and carve a crescent through the dusty air of his room with a desperate power.


“It’s so strange.”


The body was a meat puppet, an instrument through which its mind manipulated the world. It should not have been able to take action on its own, to rebel against the fear and anxiousness that choked Kira’s mind. Yet its movements transmitted an eerie sense of calm through every one of his nerves. His senses heightened, his muscles grew firm, every inch of him moving in accordance with the dictates of his lizard brain. His pulse was deafening but to him it might as well have been a lullaby. Even through the cool surface of his stone pillar, Kira could feel it connect as If his own hand was delivering the strike. The arm barred his path, so he pulverized it as it folded prayer-like to the puppet’s chest, then folded again in a way it shouldn’t have. Ribs, intestine, stomach, spleen, all of those were in the way too, and he could feel his weapon crush them utterly, the soft resistance giving way in fluid succession. The feeling he would later reflect upon as like crushing a plastic bag full of chopped gizzards between his fingers. The Jiang Shi’s flaccid frame enveloped and embraced his pillar before letting go, accepting every last joule of energy from his blow and taking flight. It hurtled, leaking its useless bodily fluids in every direction in a death spiral, body a twisted pulp of shattered bone, metal and viscera. It painted the street outside in a wide crescent of brownish red before spinning to a stop twenty feet or so away from his window.


The feelings that his disconnected body, moving in a way it shouldn’t have, transmitted to his helpless brain were uncomfortably nostalgic. Even breathing as heavy as he was, Kira’s arms felt no strain holding the massive, awkward piece of stone. The panting wasn’t from exhaustion but he didn’t notice.


“Totally different than punching a man. It can’t roll away, or try to recoil in pain. It throws itself headlong into my strike, thinking that it’ll surely survive...”
He wiped his forehead, chest heaving.
“...Probably not thinking at all.”


As if sleepwalking, he ignored the broken glass of his window and pulled himself outside. His sneakers nearly lost their grip in the slurry the Jiang Shi left behind, and Kira pitched forward, briefly dragging his rough fingertips across the pavement. Even outside, the air was thick with the scent of blood. It now overpowered even the monster’s paralytic perfume, but its effect was opposite. It galvanized Kira, filled him with the overwhelming importance of that moment. Here it lay before him, his perfect artwork of sundered flesh and bone. Its body lay still, but twitching; the invisible strings the puppet master plucked still pulled the Jiang Shi to action. The answer to his question of whether a body could move without the mind’s commands had been right in front of him all along. If that was so, he needed only make it impossible for the stiff corpse to move. Bash its head in, crush all its limbs, disintegrate its spine, anything could make this hopping blasphemy incapable of functioning as a weapon ever again.


Kira felt the strangest burning in the back of his skull. It felt as though something was tugging on him, like a bad rug burn, but it came from inside, under his skin. Still without his thought at the helm, his hand crept upwards until it drew near the irritated spot, and his fingers briefly contacted the wood of his bead loop at the base of his ponytail. Like trying to scratch an itch he shouldn't, he couldn't stop himself from trying to touch the string of beads that fastened his ponytail. Even before skin met wood, Kira registered the dull throbbing in his fingers and instinctively recoiled after touching it. The pain washed through his head and with it feeling in his limbs returned. The cloudiness that had left him in a dreamlike state faded.


“Ow. Guess I got too excited.”

It usually didn't bother him, unless he was riled up over something, but he couldn't scratch the itch safely at the moment. That meant he needed to calm down as soon as possible.


In the swiftly fading sunlight over Akitaka, he swore he could see his breath, pure white steam, in the air before him. Though the season was still ripe for it, it wasn't nearly cold enough. His assailant twitched, jittering like an insect on a pin. He held his breath for a moment, and watched the tangled mess stop moving, then resume its futile struggle once he exhaled. Kira felt some shame for what he was about to do. Even if it had tried to kill him, the body still was someone's loved one. How old was it, how thoroughly preserved? The scent of its embalming fluid, like formaldehyde, still lingered in the air along with its poisonous cologne. Perhaps everyone who had known this man when he was alive was already dead or too old to remember him. That would be the easiest thing for Kira to accept, so he settled upon it before he got carried away and began to think about it more than was safe. His mind could barely handle the fact that he had just fought a dead man and won. Now all that remained was to kill him a second, final time. He wondered if he could do it as thoroughly as Takara did. From the shadows Kira watched her rip the first undead monster into literal shreds of flesh and fabric too small to keep count of.


His worn and calloused hands hefted the pillar into their grasp. As always, it was stone cold. Nothing could penetrate the pure chill of its smooth exterior, not even Kira's intense heat. He could feel the beads of sweat collect on his skin like pinpricks, considering how violently they contrasted with the fever in his body.


“Sorry. I'll get someone to read your last rites again.”


“Oh, if that's all you need, I'll obligingly take care of it.”
Something whistled by his right ear and left it ringing. A silver lancet darted in and out of the splattered corpse's chest, vibrating with the impact so much so he could barely discern its outline.
A sonorous voice, smooth and cheerful, from somewhere Kira couldn't discern. For a moment, his grip on the pillar relaxed out of sheer relief at hearing a voice. Speech meant a living person, not that he'd dreamed up something as fanciful as a dead world or zombie apocalypse in the span of time it took to walk into his apartment and tumble out through the window.


That relief turned to fear as the second, half-broken Jiang Shi pounded down his door, bounded out the window and bent itself into a bladed, aerial torpedo, bearing down on his neck. Kira desperately raised his pillar to avoid the blow, but he was certain it would merely drive the enemy's fist full of death straight downward into his gut.


However, as soon as it had taken flight, the monster shot downwards, gravity seizing it in a vice-like grip. Suddenly the impossible weight that pinned the corpse became all too clear; its limbs, each of them, were nailed to the ground by long, thin swords. The creature strained against its sharp bonds, which seemed possessed of a weight entirely different from their thin, almost toy like appearance; Kira had no doubt that he could have snapped the blade with one hand. When his breath caught in his throat more from fear than anything conscious, the twitching stopped.


“You're a troublesome one. Don't turn your back on an enemy. It's not nice to make me work so hard.”
The voice sighed with an exasperated, professorial air. It reminded him of his teacher's tone when he got a year wrong in world history. The memory felt so buried in the past, and hardly appropriate for the situation. His whole body ached and the relief of the moment had not yet set in. Were there only two? Kira could hardly tell. Someone was there to help, him, someone who was not Takara. His chest heaved and the fiend clawed at the pavement, before a darting glint of silver found its head, the wet crunch and sound of metal on asphalt piercing the air.


Kira turned to face his savior.

The woman was taller than most, though her height was hard to judge from her lofty perch. Atop the street lamp she sat, legs crossed with a long dress skirt and slender black shoes underneath. She wore a suit jacket and white blouse with a bow beneath her chin. Every facet of her character was relaxed and natural, cool, like she was out for an evening stroll, and yet every inch of her figure gave the impression of a taut bow. No movement was wasted, every bit of her was ready to spring into action in an instant, even in light of her impractical dress, awkward position and seated stance. Her hands were lined with blades that seemed to generate their own light; even in the darkness Kira could make out the gleam along each dagger... no, sword. They were far too long to be considered anything but short swords at the least. From the ones impaling the corpse below, Kira judged that each were the length of the woman's forearm or longer, and her fists nested four each, in an unsettling reflection of his departed enemy's mangled digits of steel.


“There's only two. You're quite lucky their master didn't find you worth more.”


A soft chuckle. Just like that, her fingers folded inward and the blades seemed to fade from view. The woman tucked something away and stood up, before gracefully leaping downwards. Kira restrained the instinct to rush forward and catch her; this woman knew what she was doing, and what she did defied his obsolete sense of rationality. She landed in a smooth, kneeling posture; the way she rose was not unlike a curtsey, and Kira took it to be her substitute for a greeting. The woman snapped her fingers, making him blink. In a flash the corpse she'd dispatched began to immolate itself, bluish-green flames licking across its archaic clothes. The scent of its embalming fluid choked Kira's lungs once more, but it did not persist. It only took seconds for it to disintegrate completely.


With her close by now, Kira could more accurately gauge her features. What immediately struck him was how attractive the woman was, her hair an odd dark shade and eyes cobalt blue. Outwardly, she was older than him by at least four or five years, but still possessed a youthful vivacity that burst from deep within. From her features he could immediately tell she was foreign; something in the lines of her finely crafted cheeks and nose betrayed her, but if anything made the stranger all the more fascinating to him. Her build was slight, but the wiry strength her mature figure possessed was impossible to hide. She wore spectacles, large enough that some might have considered them unflattering, but Kira was thankful for them, as they gave her an earthy, comforting look. Even her smile and direct gaze would have been withering had it not been for that disarmingly bookish appearance. The manner in which she dressed was reminiscent of the secretary, Shizuko, he and Takara had met before. However, the way her looks seized Kira was something else entirely. Something strangely familiar. The maturity with which she carried herself and the impeccable nature of her posture and formal clothes reminded him of someone. Not to mention that peculiar color of hair. It couldn't be his foster mother; she was a laid back, almost crass sort of lady, and her hair was much lighter.


Kira's lack of exposure to a woman like the one before him left him feeling sheepish and disarmed. He took a step back, stone pillar drifting from his fingers. The sound of its crashing upon the pavement made both of them start. A vile silence set in between the two.


“... So...” Kira muttered, rustling his own hair and looking everywhere but the woman who saved him. He spoke the first words that came to mind. “Toadface... is he okay?”


The lady blinked behind her spectacles, putting a finger to her chin in contemplation.


“My, Toadface. Could it be that elderly gentleman in the office?”


She questioned him in a perplexed way that made Kira feel all the more foolish. Was she amused, watching him squirm?


“Uh yeah! That's him all right. He's okay, nothing bad happened to him?”


The most important thing was to make sure the monsters hadn't hurt anyone else. He would have rushed away to check on the landlord at the first opportunity he had, but Kira was transfixed by the woman's stare. She looked at him too directly for such a refined individual, and the hollowness of her blue eyes seemed to draw him in. He felt his head aching and he struggled to look away, averting his gaze. That action seemed to surprise her. What was she doing to him?


“No one else was harmed. I made sure to check this place for other Dead before approaching you. After all, you seemed to be having a relaxing moment hiding behind that door. It wouldn't do to interrupt you.”


Kira breathed a sigh of relief, half expecting to hear the stirrings of a corpse again, were they not both burnt to ashes. Even the piles of black dust were blowing away in the evening breeze. The fact that the woman had observed his brush with death with amusement didn't do much to grasp his attention in comparison to the assurance of Toadface's safety.


“Thank you. For saving me, I guess, but also for being there to watch over Toadface. He's an old fart and an asshole, but even he doesn't deserve to go out like that.”

Kira exaggerated and downplayed different aspects of how he felt freely. He was overjoyed that Toadface hadn't died, as he still harbored some affection for the curmudgeonly landlord, and he had found the idea of being indirectly responsible for his death horrifying. He didn't want anyone else dying either, for that matter.


The lady waggled her index finger chidingly, her other hand balled up atop her hip. The gesture evoked the image of a disappointed instructor, and Kira once again felt like he was back in the school he abandoned.


“Manners. First things first. A gentleman should introduce himself.”


“Kaede, Kira. Pleased to meet you.”

Kira narrowed his eyes at her, smirking wryly.


“I'm not much of a gentleman, but isn't it also rude to ask someone's name before giving your own?”


The woman curled her arms before her and put a finger to her chin in the same thoughtful pose as before, smiling in mock surprise.


“That's true isn't it? It wouldn't do for me not to introduce myself.”


She extended her hand to Kira. This was the first time a stranger had offered her hand to him, rather than the other way around. Suddenly the familiar Western greeting put immense pressure upon him. He didn't want to touch her pale, delicate fingers with the worn surface of his stone-cradling palm. He shied away from the radiant smile she gave him, like the gentle light of the moon.


“My name is Elesia. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Killer.”

Kieran
February 19th, 2013, 08:18 AM
OK, this was cool - and the ending just makes me more eager for the next part. :D

Cascade
February 21st, 2013, 12:34 AM
OK, this was cool - and the ending just makes me more eager for the next part. :D

That's good to hear. This one was exhausting to write. Not really for the fight sequence so much as the insinuations, lol.

Kieran
February 21st, 2013, 09:32 AM
Well, I can assure you the effort was worth it. :)

Cascade
February 25th, 2013, 04:58 AM
I'd actually already worked on this in Dec/Jan, but I was feeling pretty sapped after November and my NaNo story. 50 thousand words later, I found myself unable to write anything but stuff regarding the novel idea. It totally consumed me, but now I'm back to normal I suppose.

I'll get to work on the next update asap though. It was difficult figuring out a circumstance under which a canon character could be introduced.

Kieran
February 25th, 2013, 07:48 AM
Understandable - November wasn't really my month, either. :)

And I'll look forward to it.

SVNB Backup
February 28th, 2013, 09:58 PM
I get the feeling Ciel won't react too badly to Takara living with Kira, but that boy should start praying if Shiki ever finds out.

Kieran
February 28th, 2013, 10:14 PM
Prim and proper Mother, as Takara knows her . . .? I'd think the opposite. :)