by K. Stonham
released 11th August, 2007
The room had been kept locked for the last two weeks. Before that there were reports of strange telekinetic activities, dishes and vases and flowers suddenly flinging themselves at the occupants and whatever nurses or visitors happened to be nearby. At first the hospital administration had put the incidents down to accidents or overactive imaginations. Since the event that had admitted two of their best long-term care nurses to the hospital's own emergency room, however, they'd changed their minds and called in a professional.
Sumeragi Subaru read over the faxed report with his mismatched eyes and stifled a vague feeling of dislike. He'd never really liked cases that happened in hospitals. Too many bad memories. But he was a pro by any benchmark--these days--and so flipped to the second page with a small sigh. The administrators of the Sumeragi estate in Kyoto tried to get as much information pertaining to each case as possible. This time, they'd included complete incident reports for each attack as well as a detailed history on the last patient in the room before the troubles began, a girl who had died of a long illness.
When he'd finished going through the entire stack of papers, Subaru set them down and attempted to discern what about the case was niggling at his mind. Finally, through deduction, he realized what it was and picked up the sheaf again, leafing through to the most recent, most violent attack.
"Black feathers...?" he murmured aloud.
Nakamichi Takashi nervously patted his pocket yet again, making sure the key was still there, as he paced beside the long-legged onmyouji whom the Sumeragi had sent over to take care of the hospital's little problem. He personally would have been happy to leave the room locked and unused, but the scared nurses had petitioned over his head and gotten the board to call in a witch-doctor. At an exorbitant price, he mentally added. Well, if the incidents didn't stop, they'd better not blame him if they couldn't get their money back. He'd been against this whole idea since the beginning.
The onmyouji looked at him with those weird mismatched eyes (white and green... who had white and green eyes? had to be contacts) and said quietly, "May I ask your opinion on the matter, Nakamichi-san?" Somehow his voice was older and deeper than one would've thought for someone so young and skinny.
Takashi snorted. "To be honest? I'm not convinced it's real."
"Those nurses injured themselves?"
"People do crazy things when they've been on the job sometimes." That was a fact. "Nursing is a stressful profession, and hospital shifts can be very long." They reached the correct hallway, lights slightly dimmer than they used to be due to new energy-saving measures. Takashi turned right, taking the corner fast to force the onmyouji into a few extra steps to keep up. "You think differently?"
The man gave a half-smile, inoffensive. "Most likely it's the spirit of the girl who died in that room," he explained, as though to a fool. "There are other possibilities, however."
"As long as you get rid of it," Takashi grumbled. "That's what we're paying you for, after all."
After the hospital administrator had unlocked the room for him and disappeared, the sweat on his brow belying his disbelief, Subaru cautiously pushed the door open. In the moonlight it looked like any other hospital room, empty and unremarkable. The weight of the ofuda in his coat pockets swung comfortingly against Subaru's legs as he stepped into the room and shut the door behind himself. He didn't bother to turn the lights on, letting his eyes adjust to the shadows. The white curtains wavered, ghostlike, in the breeze.
Subaru's eyes narrowed and he crossed the room to the window. The hospital wouldn't have left it open, especially not in the recent rains. He leaned out slightly, examining the multi-story drop to the ground. In the distance lightning flickered forked dragon's tongues in the clouds. The air was heavy and the wind blew steadily. Storm weather.
Deliberately, Subaru straightened and slid the window shut.
"You dare...." The voice was a woman's, low and rough with anger. It came from within the darkness of the room.
"Why are you doing this?" Subaru asked, right hand going automatically to his pocket. It was easiest, of course, when he could just talk the spirit into moving on, but with the angry ones that was almost always impossible.
"You closed the window. Why did you close the window?" There was a plaintive half-sob in the voice.
"It's going to rain," Subaru said reasonably, softly. "I didn't want the room to get wet."
"She always left the window open!" the voice screamed. The last word was accompanied with a blast of power and a storm of black feathers. One made a thin cut on Subaru's cheek. He ignored it and pulled out the first of the ofuda, holding it between his fingers as he murmured the ritual words to activate its latent power, the change in the universe made by ink and paper, breath and will, a mind concentrated on a result and the path to it. His power manifested amber and jade, a shield cutting off the attack.
A scream of fury emanated from beneath the bed and black wings unfolded, bearing aloft a small figure whose eyes blazed a strange shade of pink through the darkness.
"You can't replace her," the voice muttered almost to itself. "You can't replace her. No one can. I don't want a new medium!" The last word was screamed again, and accompanied by a new attack. It rolled off of Subaru's shield like so much water, but its force still pushed him back a few feet.
"She's gone," he said bluntly, eyes narrowed. "Why are you still here?"
"I want Meg!"
The name of the girl who'd died here. So, this wasn't her spirit after all, but something she'd befriended. A wandering ghost, or the spirit of a crow? That would fit the black wings and feathers. "She's gone," Subaru repeated. "Do you think she would want you hurting the other patients and nurses like this?"
"They let her die!" And there was a world of pain in that voice now, pain Subaru could understand only too well.
"I'm sorry," he said, and meant it even as he palmed another ofuda. "But you can't stay here any longer."
This time the shriek was wordless, with another flurrying attack. One of the feathers actually cracked Subaru's shield. But he was already activating the new ofuda, eyes closed as he murmured the spell's chant, hands adding to its power with the correct mudra positions. Serene, he remained untouched, detached from the world of flesh. Only the spirit mattered--and this opponent's was weak from grief.
As he opened his eyes, she came forward into the moonlight and he saw her clearly for the first time. A doll with a face as pale as the moon hovered in the air before him. Had the girl loved the doll enough to give her life? The ones left behind and unable to accept, to Subaru, were always the saddest.
The spell finished itself neatly, the last few syllables tying themselves together off his tongue, and attacked, cutting through the gale of razor-sharp feathers and blasting the doll up against the wall. She slid down it, stunned. She knelt on all fours, gasping for breath.
"You can't stay here," Subaru told her again. "The hospital needs this room for other patients. Is there anywhere else you could go?" Her breathing continued labored. "Isn't there anyone else you could love?" he asked more softly.
The doll looked up at him. "No," she denied softly, a single tear spilling down one cheek, and he understood, oh how did he understand, that her heart was broken. Then her expression hardened. "I will hate you," she vowed, standing. "I'll hate you all forever." She gathered herself for one last attack and Subaru automatically stepped aside. She hadn't been aiming for him at all, though, but for the window, and she crashed through it, disappearing into the darkness. Behind her, the first few drops began to fall.
Subaru automatically summoned a bird shikigami to follow the doll. He stood watching after her for a few moments before turning to complete his work. He knew he couldn't just let her go hurt someone again, but he'd nullified his chances of persuading her spirit to move on in a non-violent fashion. She wouldn't trust him, not after he'd attacked her and expelled her from this room. He sighed, and knelt on the floor to begin a spell of cleansing and protection for the room. Then a smile quirked up his mouth.
If she wouldn't trust him, he wondered, what about his doll-aligned apprentice?
Jun woke up in the middle of the night to a crash. By the time he fumbled his glasses on and realized that there was glass all over his bed again and thus it was one of those dolls, Shinku and Hinaichigo were already out of their cases and comforting the newcomer. He sat up, switching on his desk lamp, and realized the sobbing doll was Suigintou.
He froze, wondering what the hell kind of plot the evil doll was up to this time.
"Jun-kun!" Nori burst through his door, her lacrosse stick held in both hands. "I heard a crash--" She stopped as she saw the new doll. He tried to remember if she'd ever met Suigintou. "Oh. Who is this?"
"Suigintou." Jun watched the doll shake brokenly in Shinku's arms, sobbing the other doll's name over and over again. "She's...." He stopped, unable to explain his feelings about the doll.
Shinku looked up. "Nori," she said while Hinaichigo stroked Suigintou's hair, murmuring words of comfort, "I think we need some tea."
Subaru was shown into the television room where the Tachibana family was gathered watching a period drama. Kaoruko noticed him first and sprang immediately to her feet. "Subaru-san!" she said, coming over to him.
He met her halfway. "Kaoruko-san," he said, very aware of the gazes of her family on them.
"You said you had a job tonight." Her gaze fell to his cheek, to the cut there. "Oh." Her hand half-raised to it.
"I did," Subaru affirmed. "It's finished. Mostly."
"You got hurt." Her eyes were dark and worried.
He shook his head. "Only a scratch. The case is why I'm here, actually."
"Oh?" Kaoruko was a police detective, and no dummy. "You're here to see Sakon, then." She seemed to deflate a little.
"And you," Subaru ameliorated, not being stupid himself. "But Sakon as well."
Kaoruko sighed the melodramatic sigh of the defeated and led him back to the kotatsu, where everyone's legs were tucked under the blanket for warmth, though the heater was not on. Outside, the rain sizzled down on the rocks of the garden.
"Somethin' happen?" Ukon asked as everyone shifted to make room and Subaru sat down next to Kaoruko.
"You might say that." Subaru ordered his thoughts before addressing them to Sakon and his family. "The case was in the long-term care ward of a hospital. A particular room had become unusable due to 'things' happening in it. Telekinetic manipulation, an angry aura, violence to the patients and nurses... the usual," Subaru explained, knowing his definition of "usual" was far from that of the Tachibanas, who aside from Sakon lived very much in the world of physical reality only. "It turns out that there had been a young woman who died in that room shortly before the incidents began. The perpetrator appears to have been her doll."
That caught sharp interest from all five sets of eyes around the table. If the Tachibanas as a collective clan had a focal interest, it was dolls and puppetry.
"What was she like?" Sakon asked in his quiet way, but his eyes too were sharp.
"Very angry," Subaru replied. "And lost without her friend. Physically, she's about two feet tall, has long silver hair, magenta eyes, and dresses in dark blue clothing in a Western style. And she has black wings, which she seems to be able to subvert into feathered attacks." He resisted the urge to rub at the cut on his cheek. Feathers and cuts and bleeding reminded him keenly of Kamui.
"Wings?" Ukon demanded.
Subaru nearly smiled. "Functional wings," he emphasized, teasing just a little. Ukon's eyes widened, then narrowed and it didn't take a genius to know that he was coveting the other doll her wings.
"And this has what to do with Sakon?" Kaoruko inquired, head leaning on one fist, a bemused expression crossing her face.
Subaru resisted her baiting. Barely. "The doll fled," he replied. "I thought it was a case he might be interested in, given the physical nature of the spirit."
Sakon exchanged a glance with Ukon, then nodded. "Definitely," he replied, his interest shining in his eyes.
Jun wavered between staying as far away from Suigintou as possible, and placing himself between her and Nori and the other two dolls. In the end he settled for sitting on the other side of Shinku from Suigintou, on the theory that he could pull the blonde doll behind himself quickly if Suigintou started anything.
Curiously, though, the silver-haired Rozen Maiden didn't seem inclined to start any fights. She just sat at the table staring into her cup, looking miserable. She didn't touch the tea or the sweets Nori had brought out, though Hinaichigo was somberly eating between glances at Suigintou and even Shinku was sipping tea in her regal way.
In the end, it was Nori's kind heart that broke the silence. Setting down her teacup, she rounded the table and knelt down beside Suigintou's chair. Jun tensed as Nori raised a hand to stroke the doll's back and said comfortingly, "You're not hungry, are you? You don't have to eat if you're not." Suigintou raised a face to her, expression torn between disgust and tears. Tears won out, and she started crying again. Nori held the doll against her shoulder and stroked her back soothingly. "There, there. Cry it all out."
Jun watched as the doll's body shook with sobs again and asked quietly, "What's wrong?"
"Don't you see, Jun?" Shinku asked softly in reply. She nodded at his left hand, a sad expression on her face. "Her medium is gone."
Jun looked at the rose ring he wore on that hand. It would never come off--unless he or Shinku dissolved their contract. Or unless one of them....
"She's dead?" he asked stupidly. Of course the evil doll would have had a medium. She'd been so powerful they last time they'd met, even before she'd taken Soiseiseki's Rosa Mystica. But that her medium had died... that she had actually cared for that medium.... It seemed so at odds with what he knew about Suigintou.
Jun looked at the crying doll now wholly enveloped in his sister's arms. "I'm sorry," he said softly, and meant it.
Being in the historically unique position of being both the Sakurazukamori and simultaneously the head of the Sumeragi clan, Subaru was tightly bound to the wishes of two governments. The first, and more obvious, was the Japanese government. Both of his positions were bound, in their own ways, to maintaining peace and spiritual equilibrium in the land. It wasn't always easy, of course--the histories spoke of demon insurrections, onryou disturbing everyday life, and in his own lifetime there had only been the possible end of the world. But he managed as well, Subaru thought, as any of his predecessors had. The other, vaguely more important, government to which both Sumeragi and Sakurazukamori were indentured was that of the afterlife. Fortunately for his schedule, the afterlife had its own agents take care of problems, and on the rare occasions that they were drastic enough to call him in, the mortal government tended to recognize the threat as well and thus the clans got paid for their work.
Subaru was scrupulous about keeping the Sumeragi and Sakurazuka incomes separately banked, especially on those occasions when both positions were contracted for their services. It happened, he had discovered, with a disturbing amount of frequency. The Japanese government had somehow never figured out that when the Sakurazukamori position was passed on in 1999, it was to the Sumeragi head. The afterlife, of course, had known from the beginning.
What all this essentially meant was that for the good of both clans, when the Japanese government beckoned, Subaru jumped, and when the demands of Meifu beckoned, he jumped faster.
Over the course of his active career as an onmyouji, Subaru had worked with several divisions of the afterlife's bureaucracy, ranging from the spirit detectives to the shinigami to the other shinigami. Most frequently he found himself in the company of the first two, which was just as well--he found he had little use for the attitudes of the last, and they not much respect for anyone still living. The department he enjoyed working with the most was unquestionably the shinigami of Tooucho. And somehow, somewhere, someone (he suspected Tatsumi) had figured out that he, Tsuzuki, and Kurosaki worked together very well, which was why Subaru was seldom surprised to find the pair turning up on either of his doorsteps, a mission brief in hand. All the shinigami of their department worked to cover Tokyo, but they were the pair routinely assigned to any case in which he was also active.
He blinked after opening his front door, then invited them in, going through the civilized rituals of house slippers and offering tea and snacks before saying anything. By the time they were all seated around the table with steaming cups in front of them, though, he could no longer contain his curiosity. "Kurosaki-san, do I want to ask?"
And Kurosaki, who, despite the fact that shinigami did not age, was now significantly taller and older than he had been the last time Subaru had seen him, almost a match for his partner in physical age, in fact, frowned and glared at his tea. "No."
"Blame Watari," Tsuzuki advised, slurping at his tea. And having met the shinigami scientist in question, that was all the information Subaru needed. He could picture it, sort of: the blond slipping something into a drink or some kind of food, getting Kurosaki to ingest it unawares....
"My sympathies," Subaru replied. "Is it permanent?"
"Hopefully not," Tsuzuki cheerfully answered, helping himself to a bun. He quailed, though, beneath the force of his partner's glare.
"The mission," Kurosaki said, returning his attention to Subaru. He slid a file folder across the table to Subaru, who picked it up and opened it. "The... sorcerer... in question has long been involved in various activities forbidden by both the Japanese government and the afterlife. He's highly intelligent, absolutely psychotic, and very dangerous."
"A Hannibal Lechter?" Subaru inquired, having been forced to watch The Silence of the Lambs not too long before by Kaoruko.
"Other than a lack of cannibalistic tendencies," Kurosaki said, "yes."
"As far as we know," Tsuzuki muttered. His fingers picked his bun apart into pieces.
"Mmm." Subaru rapidly scanned the brief, then stopped, his eyes caught by one name.
He raised his eyes to Kurosaki's.
Kurosaki didn't look away. In his green eyes was a refusal to accept any pity that Subaru might direct at him.
Subaru paged through the rest of the file instead. "So why is he to be apprehended now?" he asked.
Tsuzuki smiled, but it was crooked and thin. "Because this is the first time we've managed to find him."
"We've always just tripped across him during other investigations before," Kurosaki explained. "Usually not to our advantage. And he has a talent for disappearing on us."
"Why am I being called in?" Subaru asked bluntly.
Kurosaki looked away, chin propped on one hand, fingers covering his mouth. Subaru respected that, how difficult this entire subject (person) must be for him. Tsuzuki took up the slack. "The last time we met up with him was in Kyoto," he said meditatively. "You heard about what happened at the university?"
"Yes." He'd been on business in Yokohama at the time, but the television stations had carried reports. There had also been a report from the Sumeragi estate which had contained a very different version of events from the news media's. For the Sakurazukamori there had been nothing. "You were involved."
"Four of us," Tsuzuki confirmed. "Two nearly died, and he got away again."
Subaru's eyes widened. He knew just how much power it would take to kill a shinigami. Someone that powerful, and not on the Japanese government's hit list? Either the Sakurazukamori had competition he didn't know about, or something else was going on. "How many died?"
"Eleven before we got there. Two more in front of us. Twenty-four in the fire," Kurosaki counted tonelessly.
"Who was with you?"
"Watari and Tatsumi-san."
Subaru nodded, understanding now why he'd been brought in. The shadow secretary was a formidable force, and Watari unquestionably brilliant (if eccentric), but neither of them had the battle expertise he did. Of course, neither did Kurosaki, but where any shinigami went, his partner followed. "I assume you'll be staying here, then?" he inquired.
"If it's not an inconvenience," Kurosaki deferred.
"Tatsumi's cut our budget again," Tsuzuki whimpered.
"Cut your sweets budget, you mean," Kurosaki argued.
Tsuzuki turned on the puppy eyes. "Hisoka, that's meeeeean!"
Subaru subverted a laugh into a cough, standing. "I'll get out the spare futons, then," he said, fleeing the bickering pair as best he could.
Sakon stood in front of an ordinary-looking residence, address paper in his hand. This was where the possessed doll had fled? But, sure enough, as he looked around he saw the white bird that was the Sumeragi's shikigami perched in a tree across the street, watching the house. It flew to him and landed on his open hand. It chirped a few notes that sounded suspiciously like Subaru's "Be careful. But you can handle this," from the previous night, echoing now in the back of Sakon's mind. The bird turned back into a slip of white paper with black markings and Sakon studied it for a moment, wondering absently if the Sumeragi intended him to learn about ofuda at some point.
"Well, nothin' for it," Ukon opined. "Shall we knock?"
"Yeah." Sakon tucked the ofuda into a pocket, and went to the door. Part of him was still doubting that something so as unusual as a cursed doll would flee to this very usual-looking house... maybe it was the home of the girl who had died? But part of him knew that the most ordinary exteriors could contain the most astounding interiors.
He rang the bell and waited, hoping someone was home. He couldn't quite see his way clear to breaking and entering to locate the doll, and he doubted the owner or police would either.
Fortunately, he didn't have to. A girl his own age, maybe a year younger, opened the door. Her brown hair was pulled into two ponytails, her eyes were a gentle brown behind large glasses, and she had a pleasant expression on her face. "Hello," she said, seeing the two of them. "Can I help you?"
"We're lookin' for a doll who flew here last night," Ukon answered immediately. "Maybe you've seen her?"
The girl's eyes widened immediately and she obviously knew exactly who they were talking about. Sakon had no doubt on that score whatsoever. "She was causing trouble at a hospital," he explained. "We just want to make sure she doesn't hurt anyone else."
The girl was starting to edge the door shut, retreating behind it. "Well, I'm sure--that is, I don't know what you--"
"Nori," another voice demanded impatiently from behind her, "who is at the door?"
"Ah, Shinku-chan, that is..." the girl floundered helplessly, looking behind herself. Her angle of view, though, was strange. Either she was talking to a child, and that hadn't been a child's voice, or.... Sakon stepped to the right and felt his eyes widen.
A second doll, very obviously not the one from Subaru's description but of the same height, stood in the hallway. She wore a red dress and bonnet, white stockings and black shoes even indoors. Her blonde hair was pulled up into two long ponytails, and her blue eyes shifted immediately to Sakon. The girl, Nori, glanced back and forth between them as he and Ukon sized the doll up, and she them. "Shinku-chan, this gentleman... gentlemen," she amended after a glance at Ukon, which immediately made Sakon up his estimation of either her intelligence or sensitivity, "were just asking about Suigintou-chan."
The doll's expression softened into a kind of sympathy. "Then they'd better come in," she said, and turned around, disappearing into another room.
The girl looked helplessly back at Sakon and opened the door wider again. "Won't you please come in?" she asked weakly.
There turned out not to be just the two dolls in the house, Sakon discovered, but six. Three (Red, Blue, and Green he mentally dubbed them until he knew their names other than Shinku's) sat on the sofa watching an episode of "Detective Kun-Kun." Two more (Pink and Yellow) lay on their stomachs on the floor, drawing with crayons that seemed oversized in comparison to their small hands. And the last, the object of his quest, (Indigo, named Suigintou) sat at a table, looking unhappy and playing listlessly with a cup of tea. There was a dark-haired boy at the table as well, unmistakably the girl's brother, younger than her by a year or two. Behind his glasses brown eyes were steady on Sakon and he was tense, ready to fight. Sakon looked at the gold and silver band on the ring finger of the boy's left hand and saw the threads that connected him to the red-clad doll. "You're bound to her, aren't you?" he asked quietly, nodding in the direction of the sofa.
The boy jumped at being addressed. "What--how do you know that?"
"Here, some tea." Nori set two fresh cups down, one in front of Sakon, one in front of Ukon. Sakon looked at the tea, his eyes narrowing as he realized the implications of the automatic action as well as the cup in front of Suigintou.
These dolls not only walked and talked freely without a handler, but apparently flew and also ate. At what point, he wondered, did they cease being classified as "dolls" and start being "humans"?
"Thanks," Ukon told the girl, pushing the cup away, "but I don't drink."
"Oh, my," she said, picking the cup back up. "I'm sorry. I thought--"
"Ukon is a different kind of doll, I think," Sakon told her with a small smile to set her at ease. He looked back at the boy. "I'm a medium," he explained. "I can see the power lines between you and her, and they focus through your ring."
Suigintou, he noticed, twitched at the word "medium."
Nori returned to the table and seated herself. "We should have introduced ourselves," she said apologetically. "I'm Sakurada Nori. This is my brother Jun, and those are Shinku, Soiseiseki, Suiseiseki, Hinaichigo, Kanaria, and Suigintou, of course." She gestured at Red, Blue, Green, Pink, Yellow, and Indigo in turn.
"I'm Ukon," Ukon introduced himself. "And this is my useless partner, Tachibana Sakon." He patted Sakon's cheek. Sakon let him. "We were asked to come here by the guy that's teachin' this guy magic."
Suigintou's eyes flew wide open. "That magician?" she spat.
Sakon nodded. "Sumeragi-sensei was concerned about you," he said, and wondered if Subaru had misinterpreted the doll's nature. Because Sakon didn't think she was a possessed doll at all, but something else. But even if his teacher had realized what Suigintou was, he hadn't misjudged Sakon's interest in the least.
"Why should he care?" the doll demanded. "He made me leave Meg's room!"
"That girl was your friend?" Ukon inquired, a little too casually, leaning back.
"She was her medium," Shinku said from beside Suigintou. She climbed up onto a chair. "Nori, some tea, please."
"Of course." Nori jumped up to fill the request. Shinku, Sakon noticed, had her own special teacup.
Her blue eyes studied Sakon and Ukon. "The two of you seem to have some knowledge of magical matters, but you don't seem to know what a medium is to us."
"Very sorry, babe, but we've never met dolls like you before," Ukon said cheekily.
"Ukon!" Sakon remonstrated, horrified.
The doll's eyes flashed. She didn't say anything, but when she resumed speaking, her remarks were very clearly addressed to Sakon alone. "We are called Rozen Maidens in honor of our father, Rozen. He was a great doll maker." Her porcelain skin blushed faintly in a clear case of father-hero-worship. "To each of us he gave a power to protect ourself, and the ability to form a bond with a human, called a 'medium,' to draw strength from in battle and to protect us in daily life." Nori set her cup back down before her and Shinku drew a delicate sip before continuing. "Our mediums, however, are more than merely protectors and power sources. They are our... friends." She looked softly at Jun and he smiled back. Then she looked at Sakon again and her expression hardened. "The loss of a medium is no small thing."
Sakon nodded in understanding. "I don't believe Sumeragi-sensei intended you any harm," he addressed Suigintou softly, "but you had hurt patients and nurses in the hospital and it couldn't be allowed to continue."
"What?" the green-clad doll, Suiseiseki, demanded of Suigintou. "How could you, Suigintou? That was very bad manners!" She turned her back on the other doll.
"Suiseiseki," her twin said admonishingly.
"Well, it is!" she declared unrepentant.
"They wouldn't leave me alone," Suigintou said brokenly. She looked up at Sakon and her eyes were wide and pleading. It tugged at his heartstrings, but memories of murderers with that same expression stayed his full sympathy. "I just wanted to be left alone in Meg's room."
"I understand," her said, and Ukon was uncharacteristically quiet, trusting Sakon to deal with the serious words this somehow fragile doll needed to hear. "But, Suigintou-san, that wasn't really Meg-san's room, was it? It belonged to the hospital."
"It was the only room I knew her in," the doll said quietly, and somehow that conveyed the pain of her situation more clearly than anything else had. She'd only known the girl after she'd already been admitted into the hospital to die?
"I'm sorry," Sakon said quietly.
"Humans die," Suigintou replied, looking away. "They all do. It's what they're made for."
"Suigintou!" It was Soiseiseki who remonstrated her now, anger flashing across the boy doll's face.
Ukon placed a gentle hand on Sakon's face. He looked at his partner, startled. Ukon regarded him steadily, and Sakon realized what his partner was thinking. He was human, and mortal, and Ukon was not. The child-puppet would continue on after Sakon was gone, and there was no guarantee that there would be another who could channel Ukon's spirit.
But at the same time, Sakon remembered when he had once believed Ukon destroyed in a fire. There was, in the end, no guarantee for either of them, which was perhaps the way it should be. Equal partners to the end. Sakon managed a smile for Ukon. "It's all right," he reassured his best friend.
Hisoka hated having his body change on him. He hated it even more, he thought, than the fact that he was otherwise supposed to be a teenager forever. He might even hate it more than being an empath.
...Not as much as he hated Muraki, though.
He tossed restlessly on his futon, thinking it was a good thing that Tatsumi and Chief Konoe had sprung this mission on them now. Otherwise he would have really hurt Watari and he didn't want to really hurt Watari. Especially not before Watari came up with an antidote.
His arms and legs were too long, making him trip and knock things over because his spacial judgment was off. His face was wrong in the mirror in the morning. His clothes didn't fit anymore. It felt like he was living in a stranger's body, and he didn't like it. Hisoka turned over again.
"Hisoka?" Tsuzuki's voice asked quietly through the darkness. "Can't you sleep?"
"No," he answered.
Tsuzuki sighed. "Come here," he invited, and there was the soft sound of his comforter being thrown back.
Wordlessly, Hisoka crawled across the darkness to his partner and tried to fit himself comfortably into Tsuzuki's arms. It was difficult. Like this, his body was the wrong shape. "I'm going to kill Watari," he vowed once he'd found a position that, while not ideal, at least didn't involve knees or elbows poking uncomfortably into one another's ribs or kidneys.
"Mmm." Tsuzuki stroked his hair. "You know what he's like."
"That's why I'm going to kill him."
Tsuzuki laughed, the sound a comforting rumble beneath Hisoka's ear. "It's not all bad," he said. "At least now you know what you would have looked like."
There was no point in glaring at his idiot partner in the dark, Hisoka decided. "I want to be back to normal," he said pointedly. Hisoka cherished normality, or at least his relative definition of it. "How the hell are we supposed to deal with Muraki when I can't even walk without tripping over my own feet?"
Tsuzuki was silent for a minute, then resumed stroking Hisoka's hair. "We'll manage," he said quietly, confidently. "We always do."
"A track record of dumb luck with him is the only reason we're not dead already!" Hisoka argued. "We need a better plan than that."
"But Hisoka," Tsuzuki pointed out, his voice so soft that Hisoka almost had to stop breathing to hear him, "we are alive."
"Relatively," Hisoka grumbled.
"He can't get to me," Tsuzuki continued. "Not this time. Not any more. I won't let him, and I won't let you him hurt you again either."
There was really no response to that, and Tsuzuki sounded serious. But if things went wrong this time, Hisoka knew, they wouldn't have Tatsumi around to pull them out of Touda's flames. While the Sumeragi was powerful as well, his skills lay along completely different lines. "Idiot," Hisoka said, and snuggled closer to his partner.
Subaru finished his meditation and cleansing and opened his eyes. The moon hung low in the sky and was actually quite exquisite viewed through the bare branches of the cherry tree. Leaning back against the trunk (was this the same branch Seishirou had sat on the first time they met? he suddenly wondered, but couldn't remember), he felt the resentment and anger pulsing through the tree's bark like a living, physical force.
The exorcism of the tree was a long process. He'd only been at it for a couple of years now, but with each spirit recovered and sent on he found that there were more still than he'd ever imagined. Hundreds of years worth of murders, each spirit bound to this tree to keep it from becoming an onryou and disturbing the land. Hundreds of years of blood forming the backbone of the Japanese government. Really, it was enough to make one doubt one's country.
No wonder Seishirou had always been so cynical.
His cell phone rang and Subaru pulled it out of his pocket, still tiredly contemplating the nigh-full moon now that the low pressure front had moved on and there were no more storms due until... oh, next week. Given the convenience of the call, Subaru knew before looking at the caller ID that it was likely to be a fellow practitioner. He'd been disturbed not a moment before he was ready.
It was Sakon. Subaru answered.
"How did it go?" he asked.
"Different than we'd expected," Ukon replied. "There were six of 'em."
Sakon took over the phone from his partner. "Apparently the doll--her name is Suigintou--isn't a possessed doll at all, but an enchanted one. She and five others were at the house, though we gathered she'd just arrived last night and that only two of the others actually live there. They're a set made in the mid-nineteenth century by a doll maker named Rozen."
Subaru blinked. "Rozen... I haven't heard of him." Some of the great Western magicians he knew, if only because his grandmother had felt that studying their works would broaden his educational base and better enable him to deal with foreign magics. But he couldn't remember studying about anyone by that name.
"Neither had I, Sensei," Sakon replied. "Grandfather had, though. He was primarily a doll maker, but apparently he had enough power to make living dolls."
"Unusual," Subaru commented. "Did everything resolve satisfactorily?"
"I think so. She didn't seem likely to continue hurting people." Sakon paused. "Actually, I felt sorry for her."
So had Subaru. "She lost someone very important to her."
"I know." Sakon paused again. "Would it be all right if Ukon and I went back and visited them again?"
Subaru blinked. Why wouldn't it? Or, more importantly, "I don't think you need my permission for that," he replied. "If you think they're harmless, you're free to associate with any magical beings you choose. Even Ukon."
"What? Hey!" the puppet protested in the background. Subaru heard Sakon stifle a laugh.
"Isn't the new play supposed to start next week?" Subaru asked. He'd always liked bunraku, but since meeting Sakon he'd become much more interested in it, making sure to see at least one performance of each play the Tachibana troupe presented.
"Yes. Do you need tickets?"
"I already have one." He wondered at what point one became a connoisseur of an art form. But it was only fair, he somehow felt, that if Sakon and Ukon were learning about magic from him that he should return the favor and learn about puppetry from him. Except somehow that premise didn't hold true for his other apprentice. Subaru added a mental note to his checklist (right after "figure out what percentage to pay Sakon and Ukon for completion of job"): "study flower arrangement." Because he was not going to reciprocate by learning about Aya's other skill that he'd turned into an art. If Seishirou hadn't been enough of an education in assassination, there was certainly nothing Aya could teach him.
"Early practice?" Subaru asked, looking somewhat guiltily at his watch.
"Not early, but long. I'm afraid I won't be available tomorrow, Sensei." Sakon's voice was apologetic. "Oh--I have your shikigami."
"I'm on another case with some colleagues for now anyway," Subaru reasoned. He wouldn't be able to keep their weekly tutoring session either. "I'll figure out when we can work on your next lesson. Keep the shikigami--I'll teach you about them."
"Okay. Please let me know."
Dropping from the tree, Subaru noticed his stomach's faint pangs and wondered if it was too late for ramen.
Suigintou curled up inside her case, sleepless. She hadn't really slept--dozed, perhaps--or eaten since Meg's death. Time blurred into a void, and there was no meaning without the space in her that was reserved for Meg.
She had thought she was different from the others. She had thought that she couldn't possibly love a human the way they did.
She'd been wrong.
She pushed open the lid of her case and looked at Shinku's medium, sleeping peacefully on his bed. Once she'd thought he was weak and thus Shinku, perfect Shinku, had chosen badly. If the bond between them hadn't been as strong, if Shinku hadn't saved him and he her, then Suigintou might have won the Alice Game and become Father's perfect girl. But somehow the boy--Jun--had been stronger than his flaws had led her to believe, and Shinku had once again chosen well. Chosen a medium who had the power to support not just her but also Suiseiseki when the need had been dire.
And Suigintou was alone.
Why was she in this house? She didn't belong with the other dolls. She'd always known that. Father had made them perfect, while she alone....
She could leave. Even if she didn't go back to the room, there was the chapel by the hospital. No one would bother her there, and she could stay there, hidden forever once they destroyed it, with her memories of Meg to keep her until she fell asleep again, maybe this time never to wake. There would be no Alice, but maybe for her there would be an ending to this endless life that had been only pain ever since she realized Father didn't love her as much as the others....
She didn't belong here. She had never belonged with the other dolls.
Jun fumbled for his alarm first and his glasses second. Sitting up, he blinked against the bright morning light. Hadn't he just fallen asleep two minutes ago? But, no, according to the clock it was half past six already. Sitting up, he paused, counted, then recounted.
"Shinku!" His voice brought the doll out of her case, a displeased expression already on her face. He ignored that. "Where's Suigintou?"
Her head whipped to the left, where the third doll's box had lay the night before when they'd all gone to bed. It was decidedly not there now. "Gone," Shinku said. She sounded stunned.
"What's going on?" Hinaichigo asked, emerging from her own case and sleepily rubbing her eyes.
"Where would she go?" Jun asked, ignoring the other doll for the moment.
Shinku looked at him, her blue eyes large. Worried. "I don't know."
Hinaichigo noticed the absence of Suigintou's case. "Suigintou-chan is gone? Why'd she leave?"
"I don't know," Shinku answered again, even more helplessly.
"Jun!" Nori called from downstairs, "time to get up for school!"
Hiding in the shadows of the condemned chapel, Suigintou found that her heart began to find something resembling peace. It was quiet here, and still. There were no other noisy dolls to disturb her. The smell of the dust floating in the air, the old wax used on the pew benches, even the industrial cleaners that drudges had once used on the floor... they were all familiar. The stained glass window bespelled the chapel. There were no humans. Here, she could almost hear Meg singing again. Here, she was safe.
Slowly she began to relax. She emerged from her corner and approached the altar. Once, a pajama-clad girl had approaching the same altar, looking for a miracle that would let her die faster and leave the pain behind. Instead she'd found a dark angel who could offer her nothing but the failed hope of healing.
Brokenly, Suigintou began to sing Meg's favorite song into the emptiness. "The orange blossoms are blooming," she whispered, and imagined she could hear Meg's voice with hers, "so white, so white. The flowers are blooming...."
Gradually, like a lullaby, the words soothed her. Lying on the second pew, she continued to sing softly until she fell asleep.
The dilapidated church saw no other visitors for the rest of the afternoon. It wasn't until late at night, in fact, that the door opened again to admit a man in a white doctor's coat. He, too, walked alone toward the altar, in no particular hurry. His shift was done and no one waited to tell him he was late coming home. That kind of life was not his.
He paused, though, as he passed the second pew, and stopped to look at the doll someone had left there. Kneeling down, he gently touched the taffeta of her skirts, its dark blue changed to folds of black and silver as the moonlight spilled through the windows.
As he saw Suigintou breathing softly in her sleep, he smiled.
Hisoka stumbled barefoot into the kitchen, wondering just when the Sumeragi had come home the night before. He remembered waking briefly and glancing at the clock around three in the morning, and the hallway light had still been on then. Not that the onmyouji's hours were his business, and he and Tsuzuki had been warned that Subaru kept odd hours by the man himself. But still, what kind of project kept a still-living human out until such a ridiculous hour?
Hisoka snatched a pan away from Tsuzuki. "You are not cooking," he warned his partner with a glare.
"But Hisokaaaaa," Tsuzuki pleaded.
"No. I am not putting up with your cooking on top of Watari's potions. I would like to be able to walk today." Tsuzuki pouted. Hisoka ignored him.
"Good morning." The Sumeragi appeared and headed toward a cabinet. His hair was still wet but overall he seemed more awake than Hisoka felt, which was absolutely unfair even if Hisoka did have low blood pressure. "Did you sleep well?"
"Fine, thanks," Tsuzuki replied as Sumeragi began rummaging. "You?"
"Enough," Subaru replied and that was his secret, that he was one of those insane scary people who could budget their sleep. "Did you know that Urameshi-san's stand is still open at half past two in the morning?"
"You're joking," Hisoka said flatly.
"No." Sumeragi refuted, straightening with a small bag of rice held in one hand. "Apparently the demon clientele like to eat later than most humans. I think there's some miso in the fridge."
Watching the Sumeragi head, arguably the most powerful magician in Japan, bustle about his kitchen preparing breakfast was a new level of surreality for Hisoka. Okay, Tsuzuki he was used to, despite Tsuzuki's also ridiculous level of power, but that was because Tsuzuki couldn't cook and also acted like an idiot most of the time so you never really thought about his power level. The Sumeragi lived and breathed magic, though. Hisoka had been briefed on him before the first time they'd worked together, and Subaru had lived up to every single expectation he'd had.
And the Sumeragi seemed to sense his thoughts because in the middle of rinsing rice he turned to Hisoka and said, "My sister used to say that there was nothing like a good Japanese breakfast to start the day." And he had a faint smile that seemed to mock his own domestic abilities.
Hisoka couldn't help smiling back. "All your power and you cook."
He shrugged one shoulder. "You can only live on takeout so long once you start wanting to live." Subaru's smile became more strained and he half-raised a hand to his cursed eye. "After Seishirou-san... after I became the Sakurazukamori, I found all these cookbooks in Seishirou-san's house." He laughed a little but it was sad. "I knew he was a gourmand--I never knew he cooked." He shook his head and his smile became truer again. "The person I'm seeing doesn't seem to mind reaping that benefit."
"For some reason," Tsuzuki commented, leaning back against a counter, "Hisoka seems to think I can't cook."
"That's because you can't," Hisoka shot back. He looked at Sumeragi. "Never eat anything he's cooked," he demanded. "It'd bring you straight over to our side of the business."
"Saya-chan and Yuma-chan think my cooking's delicious!" Tsuzuki protested.
"That's because you're all insane," Hisoka grumbled.
"So," Subaru interrupted, bringing them back to business, "after breakfast, what's our plan?"
Tsuzuki's smile vanished. So did Hisoka's. "We try to find the good doctor," Tsuzuki said. "Starting at the hospital, I guess." It was their sole lead, the name "Muraki Kazutaka" on the payroll of the Arisugawa University Hospital.
With their luck, Hisoka figured, it was probably a trap and Muraki was waiting for them.
Sakon struggled. Not with the puppet--two others helped to carry and manipulate it and he held and manipulated Ukon, who was not a light doll himself, daily. Nor was he having problems with the play, its material, or its themes. No, his problem was with Kunosuke, who for some reason had always taken offense that Grandfather had chosen Sakon to be the next head of the Tachibana family and bunraku style.
I know I'm only sixteen, he thought rebelliously, keeping his thoughts from his face. I know I'm inexperienced. And I know that every single member of this troupe has been publicly performing for at least five years longer than I have. He wished he could have Ukon with him. Even Kunosuke had never been able to stand up to Ukon's cutting remarks. But this was practice, and so Ukon slept in his box.
At least there was only one Kunosuke. If the others had rounded as strongly on Sakon as his cousin had, he'd have been forced to give up bunraku, despite his core-deep love for it, and study in earnest with the Sumeragi to see if he couldn't also somehow manage to make magic manipulation into a living.
Not that Kunosuke or anyone outside of Sakon's immediate family knew about the magic, of course.
Not that Kunosuke would have believed it even if he had. He still saw Ukon, after nine years, as some sort of prop, an indication of a flawed personality.
There are none so blind, Sakon thought, wondering when and how he should end Kunosuke's self-centric tirade. He had the right and (theoretically) he had the authority. Ukon had chided him for putting up with Kunosuke for this long, and even Saemon had mentioned that Kunosuke should have been put in his place by now. But what to say?
Then the answer came to him and Sakon tried not to smile, waiting instead for a suitable pause in Kunosuke's criticisms (it came in the form of a pause to breathe) before simply saying, "I'm sorry you feel that way," and turning and walking away.
A murmur of sound, possibly approval from the other troupe members, followed him as he made his way backstage, ignoring Kunosuke's attempts to flag his attention and restart his harangue.
Everyone was right. He really had been letting this go on too long. But, Sakon acknowledged to himself and with a sigh, he was only sixteen and authority was still new to him. And Ukon would yell at him for that thought, for his lack of self-confidence.
Ukon's yelling, though, Sakon didn't mind.
How the afterlife manufactured its fake IDs for its agents Subaru did not know. But the credentials always checked out, and Tsuzuki, at least, was good at charming people into believing he was whatever he was supposed to be. Kurosaki, of a much more guarded nature, tended to fade into the background while his partner worked. For his part, Subaru tried to stay out of sight--he'd just worked a job in this hospital and while it hadn't involved interaction with very many people, being recognized right now could be awkward.
"He's very good at this," he murmured to Kurosaki, watching "new doctor" Tsuzuki wrap two station nurses around his finger and ask, incidentally, about his old friend who was also working here. They hadn't seen one another in ages, and was there any chance they knew when Muraki-kun's next shift was? He'd like to surprise him.
"Yeah." Kurosaki shifted against the wall. Half-shadows from a potted palm fern striped his face. A moment later he added, "Sometimes I think he half believes those lies while telling them."
"I never thought Tsuzuki-san was a sociopath."
"Not that way," Kurosaki deferred. "It's... he wants to be normal so badly."
"We all do, sometimes," Subaru said ruefully, remembering a boy with wings. "Not that 'normal' people have it much easier."
Kurosaki looked at him with skepticism in his green eyes. "Normal people don't have to stop and think to figure out if what they're feeling are their own emotions or someone else's."
"Normal people don't tend to fall in love with the assassins who plan to kill them, either," Subaru argued. "That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt as much when their hearts are broken."
Kurosaki looked away again, back at his partner. "I suppose."
"Or mended," Subaru added, drawing Kurosaki's gaze again, but he carefully ignored that, waiting instead for Tsuzuki to finish up. He'd taken the liberty of requesting a more detailed report of the events in Kyoto not only from the Sumeragi administrators but also directly from Tatsumi. In the late-night reading certain things had become clear and Subaru was the last person to object.
People needed one another.
Finishing up his flirting (how did Kurosaki manage not to be jealous?), Tsuzuki bounded back over to them, information secured, and proposed lunch (and dessert, please, Hisoka?) at a nearby cafe.
Watching Kurosaki's half-resigned, half-accepting agreement, Subaru thought that yes, the partners suited one another very well. Which made him somehow happy.
"It's him," Tsuzuki said after the waitress had delivered their orders. For himself there was a strawberry parfait. Hisoka had ordered an espresso, and the Sumeragi had green tea and a roll that he scrupulously cut in half and shared with Hisoka. "There can only be so many 'handsome' Doctor Murakis out there with silver hair. He works a night shift, but today's his day off."
"Do we wait, or try to find out his home address?" Sumeragi asked.
Tsuzuki played with a strawberry. "Wait, I think." He looked at Hisoka for his partner's opinion.
The not-teen nodded. "There's no reason to give him the home advantage."
"But won't waiting give him a hospital full of potential hostages?" Sumeragi inquired. "Or, at the very least, potential collateral damage."
"I doubt it," Hisoka said, hands curled around his cup. "He prefers to work one-on-one with his victims." He looked at Tsuzuki. "You didn't happen to find out what ward he works in, did you?"
Tsuzuki swallowed but the berry felt like it went down sideways, and the cream turned to ashes. "Pediatrics," he murmured.
Hisoka's eyes flew wide.
"I take it he specializes in child victims, then?" Sumeragi asked quietly.
"Yes," Tsuzuki answered, working very hard not to look at Hisoka. "Though not exclusively."
"Why do they always choose children?" Sumeragi murmured to himself, making Tsuzuki look sharply at him and remember what he'd once been told--that Sumeragi had been only a child when he first caught the Sakurazukamori's attention.
"Purity," Hisoka answered, toying with his cup. "Something no one else has touched. Something unstained." His mouth twisted. "Ownership."
"I think," Tsuzuki said, "we should visit the children's ward and find out what he's been doing."
At lunch Jun pulled out his cell phone and dialed home. It rang a few times, then was answered. "Hello?" a childish voice inquired.
He smiled. "Hello, Hinaichigo."
"Wai! Shinku-chan, it's Jun!" she yelled into the background. She turned her attention back to him. "We're all being veeeery good," she enunciated. "Nori said if we were we could have cake later!"
"Hinaichigo, give me the phone," Shinku instructed.
"Right! Bye-bye, Jun!" And the smaller doll handed him over to Shinku.
"Jun," said Shinku into the phone, "aren't you in class?"
"No, I'm at lunch now," he answered. "Has Suigintou come back yet?"
"No." Somewhere behind her he could hear Suiseiseki arguing with Kanaria. "Holie hasn't been able to find her."
Jun sighed. "I'd hoped she'd come back."
Shinku was silent, then replied, "So had I."
He sighed again. Tomoe waved his wrapped lunch box to catch his attention, then wiggled her fingers. "Tomoe says hi. I'll be home later. Tell them not to destroy the house, okay?"
"Goodbye, Jun." Shinku hung up the phone.
"Is there any word?" Tomoe asked him.
He put away his phone and accepted the bento box she handed him. "None."
When Suigintou opened her eyes, she found that she lay on a doll's bed, just her own size, with an embroidered pillow beneath her head and a silken coverlet over her. The ceiling far above her was white and smooth, but green plants lurked around the edge of her vision, giving the room a lush feel. Sitting up, she discovered that someone had transformed a corner of a human-sized room into a boudoir for her, with brightly painted screens, a doll's wardrobe, and even a table and chairs just her size, the former covered with a lacy tablecloth, the latter set with velvet cushions.
She had no idea where she was.
She stood cautiously and looked around her at all the lovely things. They were beautiful and perfect, exquisitely chosen with the needs of a living doll in mind. Even the bed's mattress, she could feel beneath one hand, was of the highest quality, stuffed with fine eiderdown.
Why had anyone done this for her?
On the far side of the room, behind the screen of ferns, a door opened and then closed. Suigintou watched the approaching legs through the veiling greenery until at last they rounded the row of plants and the man came fully into her view. He was tall for a human, and dressed in pale colors that accentuated his almost albino coloration. His hair, like hers, was silver, but the one eye she could see, his other being hidden by a spill of hair, was palest gold. He was not old for a human, but not particularly young either. He smiled when he saw that she was awake. "Would you care for some tea?" he inquired, "or perhaps coffee?"
"Who are you?" she asked.
He knelt on the floor, carefully setting the tray down. "My name is Muraki Kazutaka. I'm a doctor."
She hated doctors. They hadn't been able to fix Meg.
"Please, have a seat," he invited, gesturing at the table. Slowly Suigintou crossed to it as he busied himself with the contents of his tray. "Tea or coffee?" he asked again.
"Coffee," she said, because the other dolls drank tea.
He poured coffee into a doll-sized china cup. It was Delft pattern of white and blue, with silver accents. It was perhaps finer than Shinku's. "Do you take cream or sugar?" he inquired.
"Sugar," she replied, because that was how Father had always taken his, "but no cream."
He added the sugar and stirred it in with a just-her-size silver spoon, then set the coffee before Suigintou. She stared down into it. It was dark and fragrant. Given everything else she'd seen so far, she was willing to wager it was of the highest quality. Setting the spoon aside on the saucer, she took a sip. It was.
He was watching her from behind his glasses as he sipped at his own cup. He seemed so casual, undisturbed by the existence of a doll like herself when most humans didn't even realize that magic existed. She took another swallow, looking around the small room he'd set up for her, and felt the empty place in her heart that was reserved for Meg.
This would be a good place to stay, wouldn't it, for just a little while?
"My name," she said finally, answering the question the man hadn't asked, "is Suigintou."
Touring the children's ward took several hours. The three of them, by mutual consent, split up early on to examine the children and rooms. While smaller children were entranced by his "magic tricks" (he doubted any of them realized it was true magic), Subaru cast his eyes on them and their environs, not merely the beds and walls, but deep down to the roots of the hospital and out to the grounds and the caging air, examining lines of power and the layered Shinto and Buddhist blessings upon the place. Aside from the vague warping that the pressure of the concentration of illness in a hospital always caused, however, everything Subaru saw looked untainted. As far as he could tell, Doctor Muraki hadn't cast any spells on either the hospital itself or any of the children Subaru visited. As an extra precaution, however, he murmured soft chants of health and protection on each room he visited, watching as those children able to chased a miniature kite, and those unable were chirped at, meowed at, or snuggled by shikigami animals.
The collective "awww"s as he left each room were more than worth the small amount of energy the distractions cost him.
Whatever Muraki was up to, he concluded, the children of the hospital weren't involved in it.
Ukon rang the doorbell, then Sakon handed him back the white box. They'd stopped at a nice bakery and picked up some sweets to make up for the inconvenience of their visit. Sakon hoped they were to the taste of Nori and the others. He also hoped they weren't being too disruptive, but he'd never met other doll-hearted people near his own age before and somehow the acquaintance was important.
Nori opened the door. "Oh, Tachibana-san! Ukon-san!" She smiled. "Please, won't you come in?"
"Thank you." Sakon stepped inside and slipped off his shoes.
Ukon offered the box to Nori. "Here. We brought cakes."
"Thank you," she said, accepting. "We were just about to have tea. Would you like to join us?"
"Sure!" Ukon enthused.
Okay, so the medium and his puppet were maybe a little stranger than everyone else Jun hung around with, but if so, he admitted, it wasn't by much. He looked around the table, at the four dolls (five if you counted the puppet but he didn't eat) sipping at their tea and nibbling the cakes Tachibana had brought. "Does Ukon go with you to school?" he asked curiously. Because he wouldn't take Shinku to school, but then Shinku was a different kind of magical doll.
"Used to," Ukon answered. "It was boooring!"
Tachibana smiled. "I don't go to school any longer," he explained.
"Oh, you work?" Nori asked. "What do you do?"
"I'm a bunraku performer." It was one of those things that so obviously fit that it made Jun feel stupid for not realizing it from the beginning.
"Our parents took us to a bunraku play once!" Nori enthused. "It was a few years ago. Do you remember, Jun-kun?"
He did, vaguely. Something about a sword?
"What's bunraku?" Suiseiseki asked.
"It's a puppet performance," Nori explained. "There's a man who chants the story while the puppeteers on stage manipulate the puppets to perform it."
"Not too different from what Sakon does with me," Ukon added, "except without the other dolls being haunted, of course."
"It's like Kun-kun!" Hinaichigo enthused, which wasn't quite right but probably as close as she could get.
Shinku set down her teacup. "Jun," she addressed him, "I should like to see some 'bunraku'."
"Um," Jun hedged, feeling all four of the Rozen dolls looking expectantly at him.
Tachibana and Ukon looked at one another. "Well?" Ukon asked.
"I could probably get tickets for you to our next play," Sakon offered.
"Could Grandma and Grandpa come too?" Suiseiseki asked.
"Suiseiseki," hissed her twin.
"What?" she asked Soiseiseki.
"That shouldn't be a problem," Tachibana answered. "Would Kanaria-san and Suigintou-san like to come as well?"
Around the table everyone else looked at one another, or away.
"Somethin' wrong?" Ukon asked.
Hinaichigo was the only one who spoke up. "Um," she said uneasily and unhappily, "Suigintou-chan's gone."
"She left last night," Soiseiseki expanded. "We don't know where she went."
The puppet and puppeteer looked at one another again. "You get to tell Sumeragi-sensee," Ukon declared.
"Is it going to cause problems?" Nori worried.
"Only if Suigintou-san does," Tachibana replied, his mouth set in a line, "I hope."
Hisoka knew intimately the feeling of Muraki's curses. That was why he did not hesitate in saying that he'd found no traces of them in the hospital. In one way it was a relief (all those children safe) but in another it was a disappointment (they still didn't know what the doctor was up to). Tsuzuki agreed with a "Me neither," while Sumeragi just shook his head in the negative.
They'd ended up in a Chinese restaurant earlier, discussing possibilities and plans over dinner, but now they walked through Ueno Park. Hisoka had never visited the famous grounds before, but he'd seen pictures of the cherry blossoms on television every spring of his life. He was just as glad it was autumn and the park nigh-deserted, a hint of chill withering flowers into their beds for winter.
The Sumeragi seemed to be thinking something over. "I don't know if it's relevant," he said finally, "but I worked a case in that hospital two days ago."
Hisoka exchanged a look with Tsuzuki. They both knew that as far as the universe was structured, coincidences were rare, especially for magicians. "What happened?" he asked.
"A girl had died of chronic heart failure and her room was being haunted. It turned out to be the work of an animate doll she'd befriended."
"Was Muraki taking care of her?" Tsuzuki asked.
"It's not impossible," Sumeragi replied. "I'll see if I can't find out." A few steps later he turned off the path they were following.
"Where are you going?" Hisoka inquired.
The Sumeragi paused, halfway into the shadows. "Work," he answered quietly.
"The tree?" Tsuzuki asked. Hisoka remembered reading about it--the Sakurazukamori's cursed tree of souls.
Sumeragi nodded, then paused again. "You can come with me, if you like," he said after a moment's deliberation. Tsuzuki followed. Hisoka stifled a sigh and walked after his partner.
The path to the tree seemed to be hidden in shadows. It was one of those ways concealed and guarded from normal people stumbling across it. He had the feeling that had they not been in the company of the Sakurazukamori themselves, even he and Tsuzuki would never have found it. But the man's step was easy and sure. This trail held no mysteries for him, no stumbling shade of unfamiliarity.
As though out of nothing and darkness, the tree appeared before them, glowing softly as it shed its unseasonal eternal cherry blossoms. The Sakurazukamori stopped at the edge of its clearing, hands tucked into his coat pockets. "None of that," he said softly. "They're not to be bound to you, and neither am I."
Even at the clearing's edge Hisoka could feel the tree's wrongness. It roiled and twisted at his gut, churning in sickness and bile. It was things that never should have been. It was an instrument used the wrong way. He could hear the cacophony of shrieks and screams inside his skull, and they called him, pulling.
"Hisoka!" Tsuzuki grabbed him as he walked toward the tree.
The Sakurazukamori half-turned toward them, his mismatched eyes concerned though the expression did not show on his face. "My apologies, Kurosaki-san. I forgot you were an empath."
"It's all right," Hisoka said, trying not to listen to the voices.
The Sakurazukamori looked at him for a moment longer, then pulled a card out of one pocket. It looked like an ofuda but was blank. He held it between two fingers and placed the first two of his other hand against his lips. His eyes concentrated on the card as he whispered. Around him the air grew still with anticipation. Power gathered silently, an inescapable weight like storm clouds rolling in. Potential hovered, listening to his instructions, his commands. As a sculptor molded clay, so did he shape the universe, pulling its strings and tying them together into a new shape, suiting reality to his own purpose and meaning.
This was the power of the onmyouji. Even in the right hands, it seemed terrifying.
One last whispered syllable, a command, finished the spell. The waiting power seemed to snap into a new shape, tied into the card the Sakurazukamori held. Slowly his fingers lowered from his mouth as he examined the card, no doubt seeing things in its power structure that Hisoka didn't yet have the experience to read. After a few seconds he seemed satisfied and looked at Hisoka, at Tsuzuki, who still had a hand on Hisoka's shoulder. "This should help," he offered.
Tsuzuki took it. "What is it?" He too examined the card. A low whistle escaped from his lips. "Nice." He handed it to Hisoka. "It's a shield," he explained.
The card seemed to burn and melt through Hisoka's flesh. He felt the blood curses carved into his body flare to the surface as he touched it. They writhed for a moment, red-hot alienness in his skin, then subsided. The heat of the card didn't dissipate, though, but spread its intensity through Hisoka's whole body. He looked back at the tree. He could still hear the whispering voices, but their call no longer compelled him. He could still feel how unnatural it stood, but it didn't writhe inside his head any more.
The Sakurazukamori stood looking oddly at him, giving Hisoka the impression he'd seen the curse marks even through his clothing. He probably had. He'd probably felt them.
"He is very good," the Sakurazukamori remarked obscurely, eyes narrowed. "He can't be allowed to get better, if that's an old example of his work." Then he turned, white coat catching the air with the movement, and walked toward the tree.
"Hisoka?" Tsuzuki asked.
"I'm all right." His eyes didn't leave the Sakurazukamori's back. "I think I'm glad he's on our side."
Half an hour into the exorcism Tsuzuki dropped to the ground to sit. Twenty minutes later Hisoka joined him, and together they watched the onmyouji undo the work of his predecessors.
It was a lengthy process. Using a series of complicated spells, some so esoteric Tsuzuki didn't know them or else they'd been invented by the Sumeragi for this purpose, layers of the tree's protections (and there were many, all equally thorny) were peeled back until the core matrix of the tree's sustaining spell was revealed. It was a work of art, Tsuzuki judged from its complexity. A magician must have spent a lifetime crafting it. It was such a pity it was used for such a bad purpose.... He studied its power lines, noting the absence of any stray threads or dangling intentions. Here, a substructure set up a self-maintaining power system into the spell. There, the entire Sakurazuka clan was bound eternally into the tree's embrace.
Seeing that, Tsuzuki suddenly wondered if the Sakurazukamori's infamous generational genocide wasn't in its way an act of kindness.
After reaching the core of the spell, Sumeragi used the finest knife of his power to tweak open one restriction that would allow him access to the bound souls. Looking at the point of the spell he attacked, Tsuzuki got the impression of repeated rewritings followed near-immediately by self-corrections. But as long as the Sumeragi got in quickly enough, he had a crack in the spell he could hold open and use.
Then it was the mere matter of finding a bond and freeing a soul from a possibly centuries-long interment. Were the older bonds the stronger, Tsuzuki wondered, or the fresh newer ones? Either way, it was no small matter to sever the bond. Then started the Sumeragi's real job: getting the spirit, either by conviction or coercion, to move on to its judgment by Enma Daiou.
Tsuzuki suddenly loved his job very much and was glad he didn't have the Sumeragi's.
When the waiting ferrygirl had finally helped her passenger on board her oar and taken off into the sky, waving cheerfully at the three of them as she did a barrel roll and her blue ponytail flew wildly, Sumeragi turned back to the tree one more time and yanked his power out. The matrix and its protections closed with a violent snap that almost sent the Sumeragi stumbling back. Instead he just stood there for a moment, then sighed, tiredness and relief visibly spilling through his wiry body. Turning, he walked back to Tsuzuki and Hisoka and sank down on the grass beside them.
Tsuzuki surreptitiously checked his watch. The entire process had taken over two hours to free one soul and the Sumeragi looked exhausted.
"Some days," he said softly, "I really hate Seishirou-san and his entire family."
Sakon knew that the Sumeragi had an ongoing project that tended to keep him busy until the wee hours of the morning. He could distantly sense the threads and mechanisms of his teacher's power working at such times, when everyone else had gone to bed for the night and he and Ukon sat alone in the quiet of his room. It was like watching distant pulleys and levers shifting the weights and balances of the universe. Sometimes it was just the flicker of an eyelid, a subtle gesture of a fan. But at times it was the full grand drama of a love suicide, making Sakon worry until the next twitch at the strings came, proving that the Sumeragi was all right.
The patterns of the project were slowly becoming familiar to Sakon as he listened to the voice within. There was always the impression of a flowering cherry tree, which would have made sense, set as the act was in Ueno Park, except that the blossoms had continued to bloom all through summer and into the fall. He'd decided to accept this strangeness as magical metaphor for now and ask his teacher about the symbol at some future point.
It also felt like a ghost story, which was unsurprising given the Sumeragi's profession. Sakon could almost sense the shape of the story: a haunted tree, the tragic/handsome protagonist exorcising it... but there should have been a love interest in the tale, and despite the fact that he was fairly certain his mentor was honestly affectionate toward Kaoruko, Sakon didn't think that it was his aunt. Which left other possibilities, but they felt too private to ask the Sumeragi about.
He sighed, seeing/feeling the distant threads of magic strain against their burden. Life wasn't a bunraku play (at least not always), and it was getting very late again. If Sakon was correct, the Sumeragi was only about halfway through his task. Would it be irresponsible of him to wait and call in the morning?
It probably would, he decided even as sleep weighed down on his eyelids.
Suigintou stood in the moonlight, looking into a mirror. She could step through, into her N-field, stay there and wither away into dreaming. But she couldn't seem to care enough to make that decision.
"You could stay here with me," Kazutaka invited quietly from behind her. She'd told him about the other Maidens and the Alice Game. He'd shown her around his apartment, shown her his collection of antique dolls. She wondered if he hoped for her to become the prize of his collection.
She wasn't that kind of doll.
"Why?" she asked.
He knelt down to look her in the eye. "Because you're a beautiful thing, and broken," he murmured. One thumb caressed her cheek and she automatically leaned into that touch. His hands were like Father's, she thought. Strong and deft. She could picture him carving a doll mold. An imitation of a human body, held together by wire and magic and love.
Never enough love.
"Stay with me," he asked. "Things which are broken are more beautiful, and rare."
"Why should I live?" she asked.
"Because your father created you to do so," he replied. His smile was strange, but it didn't frighten her.
Perhaps he could be her angel in the darkness, and help her sleep sooner, without pain.
Shinku snapped awake with a gasp. "Suigintou, don't," she cried, reaching out a hand, but the other doll wasn't there, couldn't hear her.
That man's smile... he was silver and white like an angel, but that smile had held no good in it. "Don't," Shinku repeated helplessly, knowing already that the cycle was beginning again. That the Alice Game, or something like it, was about to start.
Hadn't Father told them that there must be another way?
Hadn't Suigintou felt him stroking her hair as she slept?
Why did it have to be like this?
Shinku curled around her thoughts and felt tears began to leak from her eyes. She knew that she would not return to sleep. Blindly, in the darkness of her case, she reached for the Kun-kun doll Jun had bought for her, and held it close. Quietly, she wept for lost chances and lost sisters.
It was bright and early in the morning when Sakon called. Subaru raised an eyebrow. He'd been in the middle of a meditation exercise and Sakon was usually unusually sensitive to such things.
"I'm sorry for calling you at an inconvenient time, Sensei," the puppeteer began, "but you were unavailable last night and I thought this was something you might want to know as soon as possible."
"It's all right. What's happened?" It had better not be that anything had happened to Kaoruko, Subaru thought darkly. Of course, if something had, Sakon would have called him last night regardless of what he'd been doing. Or should have.
"You remember the doll, Suigintou?"
Subaru let out a breath, a long sigh. "Right. The other dolls don't know where she's gone?"
"No." Sakon's tone was apologetic.
It could be that this was unrelated to his current case, but Subaru had seen too much to make him other than cautious. "I'll see if I can't find her. Thank you for letting me know."
"You're welcome. Good luck, Sensei."
Subaru looked at the phone in his hand for a moment after Sakon hung up, then dialed the Kyoto estate. He should have asked for that report on the girl, and specifically on what doctors had seen her, hours ago.
He rolled his shoulders once, judging the level of his tension and balance, and decided that regardless of the time it took, he was going to finish his morning meditation. If the Meifu report had been anywhere near correct, and Tsuzuki and Kurosaki telling the truth, he was going to need every advantage he could take in helping to capture Doctor Muraki.
"You know," Kazutaka said eventually, while he was cooking a late breakfast for the two of them, "there was a man once who couldn't die. I'm convinced that his body holds the key to regeneration, longer lives if not indeed immortality... and perhaps even the resurrection of the dead." He flipped the crepe with practiced skill and smiled at Suigintou. "After all, if a doll such as yourself can live so long, there must be some way for a human to do so as well."
"What happened to the man who couldn't die?" Suigintou asked, watching as he cooked. He'd donned a blue apron that had a cartoon rabbit printed on the front. Somehow it didn't match him. She wondered if it had been a gift.
"He died." The crepe was slid onto a china plate in one smooth move, and Kazutaka ladled the batter for another into the round pan he held, swirling until it evenly coated the bottom.
"So much for human immortality," Suigintou scoffed.
Kazutaka adjusted his glasses with one finger. "He died after neither eating nor drinking for eight years," he clarified, "and after multiple suicide attempts that healed near-instantaneously."
"Magic?" she inquired.
"Of a sort. My theory is that he had demon blood," Kazutaka replied.
"So why don't you use his body for your research?" Suigintou asked.
"He died in 1926." Kazutaka flipped the crepe. "Even if I knew where his physical body was buried, it's rotted by now."
Suigintou watched his hands as he worked. He'd said more than he'd said. She sifted her way through his words until she realized the key--his one unnecessary word. "'Physical body'?" she inquired.
He turned to look at her, his eyes wide in surprise as he slid the second crepe onto a plate and folded it too neatly into quarters. "Surely you know of the human dichotomy?" he asked. Unsure if she was being toyed with or if he was serious, Suigintou narrowed her eyes. He sighed and hung up the apron, picked up the plates, and headed for the table. She flew after him. "Humans are born with two bodies," Kazutaka explained, drawing a chair out for her. Suigintou sat. "There is the obvious body, the one seen with physical eyes: the body of the flesh. However, there is a second body, visible only to those who have training or skill in such things: the body of the spirit, otherwise known as the soul. In living humans, they almost always occupy the same space. After one dies, however, the body of the spirit is separated from the body of the flesh and moves on to the afterlife. That's where that man's second body is now." He sighed. "If only I could study him, I could perhaps bring back my dear brother...."
Suigintou's fork was halfway to her mouth, frozen there as the implications overwhelmed her. If the doctor's science could bring back his brother, why not Meg? Whole and happy, in a healthy body?
"Is there a way," she heard herself ask, "to bring that man here?"
The doctor smiled.
It made Jun nervous when Shinku was quieter than usual. It tended to mean either extreme depression in the doll, or that something had happened that he didn't know about. Sometimes both.
He invited Tomoe over after the half-day of school was done, knowing that Nori and the dolls liked her company. She would be an excellent distraction, especially for Hinaichigo, and her calm presence might soothe Shinku. Or maybe he'd get a chance to speak privately with Shinku and find out what was bothering her.
He ignored his male classmates (his mind supplying several insults for them, beginning with "Neanderthals") who harassed him about spending time with a girl. He ignored them almost as resolutely as the fact that his sketchbook (locked safely in his desk drawer at home where not even Hinaichigo would be able to sneak peeks without his permission) was beginning to feature designs for a delicate figure with short dark hair. And he certainly was not going to let his (ignorant, ham-handed, thick-skulled) male classmates know that he lived with two animate Victorian dolls and had three more visit on a daily basis. He knew enough not to give his (brutish, lack-witted, barbaric) classmates any ammunition.
He wondered suddenly what school had been like for Tachibana. Somehow he didn't think it had gone well. At least Jun had Tomoe in his class.
They stopped at the Fujiya bakery on the way home and picked up some strawberry and green tea daifuku. And it was a measure of Shinku's influence in his life that Jun immediately began considering what tea would best complement the flavors.
The Sumeragi's blank ofuda had not lost potency overnight. It still spilled thick heat through Hisoka's body every time he picked it up, making the curse he bore flare briefly to the surface before sinking back to dormancy within. He wondered if the shield worked for more than empathy, and if it could be made to work both ways. Could it shield him from Muraki? Could it cut the connection of the curse?
He brought up the question to Sumeragi as they both washed dishes after breakfast. The onmyouji blinked, making Hisoka feel obscurely proud for having caught him off-guard.
Sumeragi shook his head, though, lifting a wet hand from the bubble-crowned sink. "From the time I was nine, I was marked with a blood curse by the Sakurazukamori," he explained. He blew a soft breath across the back of that hand and a pentacle glowed palest blue through his skin. "This is my blood curse," he explained. "It's the mark of the Sakurazukamori's prey. For seven years I wore gloves spelled especially to hide these from him. They didn't work. He always knew who I was and where I was. Blood curses can't be hidden from their maker." His hand disappeared back into the dishwater. "The curses will be there for the rest of your existence, even after the caster's death. The only difference is that they'll no longer have power once that happens. But they'll still be there."
Hisoka's fist tightened at the thought as he rinsed off a pot the Sumeragi gave him and handed it in turn to Tsuzuki to dry.
Tsuzuki's expression was vague and distant as he absently wielded the towel in his hands. "So does that mean you're your own prey now?" he speculated.
Sumeragi didn't quite laugh, but Hisoka could tell by the set of his shoulders and the resonating pulse of his emotions that it was a close thing.
You really couldn't tell, Ukon thought, resting in his carrier and listening to the near-drone of joruri recitation through its walls, that Sakon's reflexes could be as sharp and precise as a snake's strike. Not with the way he tripped over his own feet and stumbled over his words whenever Ukon wasn't around to bolster his faltering confidence in himself. Even the guy who trained Sakon in judo three times a week had finally had to give up on the group class idea and teach Sakon one-on-one without an audience. Because Sakon, born puppeteer that he was, was always aware of the audience and likely to doubt himself without a puppet partner to refocus the audience's attention elsewhere.
Ukon was usually happy to oblige for his surprisingly shy partner.
The judo lessons Sakon's grandfather had insisted on, though, had eventually reached the point of doing a lot of good for Sakon. He trusted his teacher enough to try going back into the group classes (though in Ukon's opinion they slowed Sakon down), where he'd finally begun making progress in dealing with other people. He was actually to the point now where he could make friends without a murder occurring to raise emotions and strip pretenses away. Sakon tended to stay friends with the people he'd met because of murder investigations (especially, Ukon sighed, Shiho), but Ukon still thought it was kind of cheating because Sakon knew, before extending his hand in friendship, what kind of people they really were.
It wasn't like the two of them had started out that way, knowing what each other was like. Well, okay, Ukon had had some kind of feeling that Sakon was okay and even familiar somehow, but that was probably only because he'd looked so damned much like Saemon had at the same age. So it didn't count!
But then, somehow, that first time, Sakon had tapped into whatever kind of power it was he had, and woken Ukon up from his quiet, peaceful, somewhat snarky existence inside a doll's shell, and let him move instead of being moved, let him borrow a voice to speak, let him... be.
People had called Ukon "unusually lifelike" before then. They had had no freakin' clue, he'd decided since.
And now that Sakon was finally getting proper training in this power of his, and taking Ukon with him through it, things were really starting to get good. Not that Ukon could or wanted to be independent of Sakon the way those dolls at the Sakurada house were independent. No, Ukon was a puppet and liked being a puppet, with a human partner to depend on and converse with and berate into taking better care of the both of them. Ukon hadn't been made like those other dolls had been made, and saw no reason to want to change the way his mother had created him.
However, learning more about the links between himself and his partner and just how they could be used certainly had some side benefits Ukon appreciated. He closed his eyes (the inside of the box was dark; nothing to see anyway) and let his consciousness sink away, falling free along a shining violet line of power, until he found Sakon and opened his eyes to see through his partner's.
The first time Ukon had done this, Sakon had been so startled that he'd tripped clean over his own feet and hit the floor, which had hurt. Ukon had been suddenly glad that his own body couldn't feel pain because he hadn't liked the sensation at all. He'd tried to withdraw quickly, embarrassed and ashamed of having hurt his partner, but Sakon had managed to grab hold of him and keep Ukon there, soothing things over with an "I was just surprised," and a wondering "I didn't know you could do this, Ukon."
Ukon hadn't either, but he didn't let on that he'd just been experimenting. Sakon, though, he suspected, had seen through that blustering front. He usually did.
It wasn't an ability Ukon was playing with too often. After all, most of the time he was right next to Sakon anyway, and as for the rest, well, Ukon didn't want to abuse the privilege. He had the sneaky suspicion that Sakon wouldn't like him looking out of his eyes all the time, and that there were going to eventually be parts of his life that Sakon wouldn't want him to see. Which was perfectly fine and natural and Sakon was a teenager even if he almost never acted like one.
But when Sakon was on stage, though... those kind of moments were the ones that filled Ukon with wonder. Because he could see through Sakon's eyes and more importantly sense the shape of his mind at that time. And sometimes what Ukon felt was incredible.
They'd done research on this whole "shaman" thing when Sumeragi had first begun training them, and while Ukon knew he was the "vessel" for channeling spirits, when Sakon was on stage, that was when Sakon became the vessel for something else entirely. The shape of his mind and heart transformed into a cup, filling up only with the role he portrayed, shaped only by the demands of the story.
There was Sakon-the-partner and Sakon-the-magician and Sakon-the-shy-clumsy-kid, but apparently there was also Sakon-the-performer, who was somehow tied in with all the rest and made Ukon sometimes rue the limitations of both his body and personality. Because even if he was human... he could never do what Sakon did. Any of it.
But Sakon never thought about it like that, and Sakon couldn't do half of the things he did without Ukon, so that was going to have to be enough. And when Ukon really thought about it, it was. Why would he want to be Sakon anyway? So he settled into the back corners of Sakon's mind, greeted with the gentlest of acknowledgments from his partner, who was concentrating on perfecting this role in spite of his stupid, egotistical cousin.
Like this... it would always be enough.
Sakon felt Ukon's presence settle with uncharacteristic silence into the back of his mind. He sent a gentle greeting and concentrated on his work, suppressing a smile. Ukon must really be bored if he was bothering to watch Sakon practice.
Subaru hadn't seemed surprised when the two of them had described this ability to him, but then there wasn't much that did upset the onmyouji's equilibrium. He'd simply asked them not to use the ability again until he had a chance to research it, and gotten back to them a week later with annotated incidental research and a green light.
The reports that Subaru had given him and Ukon to read had been concise without sacrificing detail, easy for even a near-layperson like Sakon to understand, though Ukon had pointed out the possibility that their teacher had only passed along the information suited to beginners in magic manipulation. Reading the reports had given Sakon a new appreciation for the kind of power Subaru had, to command such resources. The Tachibanas were also an old family, but they were entertainers and had risen to prominence only in recent generations. The Sumeragis, on the other hand, had been venerated for their powers for centuries.
It wasn't that what he and Ukon could do, and would learn to do someday, wasn't dangerous to others or themselves, Sakon was beginning to realize. It was that somehow the head of the Sumeragi had looked at both himself and his partner and decided to trust them, their instincts, and the skills that Saemon had spent Sakon's lifetime drilling into him. Magic had the potential to be far more dangerous and far more damaging than facing down a murderer ever had been. And Sakon's magic wasn't even the traditional onmyoujutsu the Sumeragi worked with, so his teacher had even more of a right to be cautious and keep him and Ukon on a tight leash.
But... he didn't.
For some reason that made Sakon feel more comfortable around Subaru than he did around most people. Whether it was the feeling that the Sumeragi understood what it was like to be different and "gifted" too young, to burn too brightly, to always hear the never-quite-hidden whispers that there was something wrong with him, that he'd burn out too fast... or whether it was the shared magic... or whether it was just Sakon's instincts saying he could trust Subaru, he didn't know. But he was grateful for the guidance and the implied safety net should he fall. It was comforting, when he realized that he was starting to hear the other dolls, the ones his family used for practice and plays, whispering to him and to one another, to know that he wasn't crazy, only gifted in magic and doll-inclined.
The other dolls, though, weren't like Ukon. They'd grown aware of themselves and their roles only with the weight of age and use, and had no view of the world outside of the theater and their roles onstage. The princesses were fragile and noble, the samurai haughty and righteous, the courtesans proud and graceful, and the merchants cowardly and longing for love beyond their means. They knew their roles better than Sakon ever would, and he learned from them. Even his grandfather had complimented him on how his performances had gotten better in recent months. Blushing and stammering, Sakon had tried to explain why, feeling like an idiot all the while. But his grandfather, rather than laughing at him or derisively scorning his flights of fancy, had merely gone "Hmm," and, stroking his chin, agreed that the older dolls had always seemed to know their roles better than the newer ones.
Sakon didn't know why he was this way, with the magic and the puppets, neither of which most people would ever understand, but the moments like that one, when his grandfather accepted, even if he could not completely understand, the way Sakon saw the world, or the moments like this, when he moved on a stage before a hall full of empty seats, the puppet in his hands telling him its feelings and how it should move, Ukon in the back of his mind, sharing his vision and presence... these were the golden moments he'd not trade for a lifetime of normality and easy acceptance.
Shinku sipped at her tea. Nori was gradually improving under her tutelage and she had faith that the girl would someday turn out to be quite a good tea brewer. Jun's tea, however, was bitter. He always over-steeped the leaves, no matter how carefully he thought he was timing them.
Shinku would never admit it, but despite its bitterness she liked the tea Jun made for her the best. If Nori's tea always had a gentle flavor to match her gentle nature, Jun's was infused with his strength and protectiveness.
Neither flavor, though, was helping her come to a conclusion regarding Suigintou. She couldn't just find the other doll, not in the real world. She could wait in Suigintou's N-field, but that had always been a precarious place at best, and with its mistress in such a distraught state of mind, now undoubtedly dangerous.
Soiseiseki stood motionless at her side, waiting for Shinku to notice her. She set her cup down and turned her head slightly in acknowledgment.
"You're thinking about finding her, aren't you?" Soiseiseki asked. The boy doll had always been perceptive and to the point. But she was also highly intelligent. Shinku nodded. "Her N-field must have exit points too," Soiseiseki continued calmly.
Soiseiseki wasn't just smart, Shinku conceded; the other doll was a genius.
"Thank you," was all she said, with a small smile.
The fax machine, one of the few hints of any kind of personality in the rather spartan apartment, hummed quietly as it spat forth paper. Unfortunately, no one was there to receive it. The occupying trio, an onmyouji and two shinigami, had already left to seek a confrontation.
The neatly lined black kana and kanji, however, spelled out an answer to a question that had been asked earlier.
It was, in essence, "yes."
Leaning back against a wall waiting for a target always made Subaru's fingers vaguely itch for a cigarette. He'd given up the habit out of sheer stubborn mutiny when he realized after the fact how much of a clone of Seishirou he'd made himself into. He had loved Seishirou beyond all possible reason, both blindly and with eyes wide open, had been shaped by the man in more ways than he could name, had fit his life around the pain and omnipresent heartache. He still loved Seishirou; that would never, ever change. But there had come a moment of realization not too long after the end of the world that Seishirou was dead and while his legacy continued, it didn't need to be the sole defining factor in Subaru's life.
So he'd stopped smoking.
It hadn't been easy and there were always moments when he craved the drug in the cigarettes, but he didn't need it and he knew he didn't need it and when he was mindful, Subaru could deny his body anything it thought it wanted. Onmyouji trained in austerities and purification, and he had been undergoing the training since he could walk.
He turned his mind from the desire, sweeping his mind clear, concentrating on patience. The doctor would come sooner or later for his shift.
A shikigami perched in the branches above Subaru's head. Another waited at a nurse's station within the hospital, rendered invisible to those who didn't have the training to see the spiritual construction, listening in case Muraki called in and avoided their three-pronged trap. Tsuzuki was tense, Subaru noted, and bad at hiding it. Kurosaki, however, seemed at ease, his eyes half closed against the brightness of the sun. To anyone else the three of them would seem acquaintances taking their time, conversing through the late afternoon at an outdoor cafe. But to Doctor Muraki....
Subaru suddenly wondered if Kurosaki's presence was a good idea. The doctor would be able to sense his curse marks. They'd alert him that something was up. Even if he didn't know about Subaru, he'd know at the least that Meifu had sent its agents after him. And that was compounded by the fact that they couldn't let civilians be involved in this case. Silently, he considered if Meifu might not have just been better off sending the Sakurazukamori alone against the man... but, no, they knew he didn't kill, the living were never assigned unsupervised missions by the shinigami divisions anyway, his two partners had prior case experience with the target, and in Kurosaki's case, the most definite right to be the one to reap the man's soul.
If surprise was all that was lost by the additional firepower, the three of them would likely still have enough of an edge to win.
Above his head, the dove shinigami let out a soft call.
Smiling at the nurse, Muraki made a series of subtle gestures with his right hand, hidden from view by the edge of the nurses' station and the folds of his coat. The shikigami behind her, an elegant creation of white feathers and blue crystals, gave a piercing shriek and exploded, unheard and unseen by anyone but Kazutaka himself. He felt the presence of his doll not too far away and wondered if the shikigami had been one of Tsuzuki's.
Really, he thought, accepting the clipboard the nurse handed him, it was all playing out too easily.
Subaru's eyes widened as the shikigami saw their target, a silver-haired man in a white coat with a genial smile. As the doctor looked the shikigami in the eye, Subaru felt power grow near it and hastily murmured the words of a ward, reflecting away from himself the attack he knew was coming.
Next to him, Kurosaki hissed softly under his breath and pushed a long sleeve back. The marks of his curse, wavering shapes like brush sweeps or tongues of flame, glowed bright red.
In an instant the shikigami exploded; Tsuzuki's face grew pale; power rushed back blindly at Subaru; Kurosaki muttered something he couldn't hear; the power caught on the ward; held; rebounded; power reflected; Subaru watched its path; in the hospital, a few feet from the doctor, a water cooler shattered, spraying plastic and water everywhere. Subaru's eyes narrowed.
He now had the bracket of his enemy.
Standing, Subaru pushed back his chair. "Shall we hunt, gentlemen?" he asked coolly, feeling the mental cloak of the Sakurazukamori sliding around him. He always needed to be mindful of his actions while in this frame of mind, he knew, but... somehow it was so easy, sometimes, to become the hunter.
Damn Seishirou and his mind games and his legacy anyway.
The dust cloth covering the mirror in the spare room billowed as it fell, landing in airy folds on the floor. Shinku stood before the mirror, as ready as she was going to get, pink beribboned doll cane in one hand, brown handbag slung across her body. Behind her Jun stood, unsure about this idea but resigned to entering the dolls' N-fields awake.
Setting her destination in mind (a dark cityscape, cold and broken), Shinku activated the mirror. It glowed softly. She looked once at Jun, then stepped through. He immediately followed.
They would enter Suigintou's N-field at a random spot. Shinku would employ Holie to find the exit point, beyond which would be Suigintou. It was not an enterprise without danger. It was also not an enterprise with failure at its end. Whatever happened, she would find Suigintou. At best, she would convince Suigintou to leave behind the white-haired man.
Shinku was not holding any faith in the best-case scenario.
But still, she had to do something. She couldn't just stand by while her sister entered once more into darkness. Couldn't let Father's dream be destroyed....
Even as Suigintou hated her, Shinku was constrained to act as their father would have wished. And as a father should, he had loved them all.
The world of the N-field formed before her, dark and gray and unrelenting. Broken dolls crunched underfoot, and storm clouds promising torrential rain hovered above. An icy wind blew down the empty street. Shinku shivered. Jun picked her up, held her in his arms. She leaned almost unconsciously into his warmth. "Holie," she spoke, summoning the sprite. "Find Suigintou's exit," she instructed, and the bit of animate magic raced off to fulfill her command.
"Do you think it's far?" Jun asked, shivering himself.
"I don't know," Shinku answered, surveying the desolate realm which was Suigintou's. So barren of life or promise... had her medium lived, Shinku wondered, might that have changed?
Suigintou waited in the church. It was, as always, peaceful here. She loved the stained glass. It was a pity that the building was soon to be destroyed. She wondered absently if there might be a way to save the glass, then let the thought go. She loved the church for Meg, and with Meg gone, the church was empty. It was only a building, a shell without a heart to warm it. A hand touched the rose at the center of her chest. She was only a doll, without a heart beating in her chest.
Rozen, too, was gone.
She thought of singing Meg's song one more time into Meg's church, but in the end didn't do that either. Kazutaka had spoken to her of the advantage of the element of surprise in capturing the undead man he sought, and she knew too well how such a thing could work in her favor.
Particularly against one who had powers, who wasn't a normal human.
The corners of her mouth turned down in a slight frown. Encounters with magicians seldom went well in her experience. They had their own agendas and powers, were tricky and lied to get their way. They drove her from safety, and she had no love for the human magic-wielders.
Mouth sour with memories, she concealed herself in the shadows of the altar, positioning herself to see the door.
The doctor knew he was being hunted. Hisoka could feel it, the shivering delight of malice and glee, the calm elation at Tsuzuki's presence, the bored amusement at his own. The doctor was waiting for them, sure he had the upper hand as always, standing on his home ground.
Not this time, Hisoka thought grimly as he and Tsuzuki walked into the hospital. Any other mission and he'd have been wary that the building or the people in it were a trap, but not this time. Not when they'd looked around already. If Muraki had a high ground, it wasn't the home field advantage.
The Sumeragi had split from them as soon as they'd left the cafe. He was taking the high route, springing from lamppost to building ledge to hospital roof with the greatest of ease and working his way down from the top. Distantly Hisoka could feel the darkness of the power he cloaked himself in, a shadow taste on the psychic palate that made up the onmyouji's complex sense of self.
If Muraki didn't know... if he and Tsuzuki could manage to hold and match whatever it was the doctor thought he had... if Sumeragi could get the drop on him....
It was a very faint sense of hope that shivered down Hisoka's spine. The chance to finally end the hell Muraki had put him through and send the man to his rightful judgment would be worth it all. Then maybe he could start with a clean slate. Then maybe he and Tsuzuki....
The doctor was a flight or two up. Even though the Sumeragi's shikigami had been blown to bits, Hisoka didn't need any such guidance to find the twisted mind with which he was so familiar. Up and around the stairs and up again and they came to a bustling floor where the nurses barely glanced at him and Tsuzuki as they passed. A right and a left and a right again led them to a quieter wing and closer to the doctor. But maliciously the man was on the move again, going downstairs now. Hisoka indicated this to his partner and as they entered the outer staircase he could hear a door closing several floors below them.
"Why do you think he's running?" Tsuzuki asked as they wound their way back down.
"He doesn't think he's running," Hisoka replied, keeping a steady bead on that person whose delight and sense of self-cunning was only increasing as he led them on this chase. Muraki knew that he had them on tenterhooks, that they would follow him. If he was leaving the hospital grounds, maybe the hospital wasn't his home area and he did have a nasty trap set for them elsewhere, but.... "He's stopped somewhere outside."
"Have a bad feeling about this?" Tsuzuki asked him with a grin, like he hadn't been the one twisting napkins into shreds earlier.
Hisoka glared at him. "Don't you?"
Tsuzuki stopped. Hisoka went down another step before stopping too. Tsuzuki's expression had turned abruptly serious. "I meant what I said," Tsuzuki said. His hand raised to hover just by Hisoka's cheek, almost but not quite touching. "I'll kill him before I let him hurt you again."
It somehow wasn't fair that even when Hisoka was in an adult body Tsuzuki remained that littlest bit taller than him. "Then you'd better make sure," Hisoka replied, "that he doesn't hurt you either."
Tsuzuki understood that for exactly what it meant and smiled one of those sad, sweet smiles that broke everyone's hearts. For a few instants Hisoka realized exactly why Tatsumi and the Count were so drawn to Tsuzuki, and why he was too.
He looked away first. "We'd better get going," Hisoka said gruffly. "If we're to catch him."
And he could feel Tsuzuki still looking at him that way, feel the same tenor of emotions in the man's heart like a catch of breath in wonder in his throat, until they faded somewhat, concealed behind a no less affectionate caring manner that somehow spoke more of business and less of the shining creature that Tsuzuki could become. Which was good, because Hisoka never knew quite how to react to Tsuzuki when he was like that.
"Yeah," Tsuzuki agreed quietly. "The doctor's waiting for us."
Subaru ghosted through the halls of the hospital, following the trail left for him. Whispers of innate magic trailed colored through his senses, half-obscured by the protective magics of the hospital itself, but still always there. The doctor had strode through his hallway recently, his sorcery ruffled by the attack on Subaru's shikigami. The fresh trail overlaid any old ones he might have left.
Pausing by a familiar room, Subaru realized the doctor had been inside that evening, and surreptitiously entered himself, closing the door and blanketing the brightness of the hallway.
It wasn't that the room was wholly dark, though. In the window a single candle burned. Moving forward, Subaru frowned as he brushed through his own spells. He'd cleansed this room of old influences a few days before, but even without their record or the confirmation from the Sumeragi estate, he knew the answer to a question he had asked and been asked.
Doctor Muraki had attended the girl in this room.
He had helped her to die.
He stood by the window and looked out at the hospital grounds.
A silver figure in a white coat walked unhurriedly toward a small building, a chapel unless Subaru missed his guess. Subaru turned to look at the empty bed. The girl, she would have seen the chapel from her window.
He didn't know just how yet, but it all tied together. He wanted the missing pieces, and he wanted them before he entered into battle.
The doctor disappeared into the building, door closing behind himself.
Subaru unlatched the window, sliding it open, and pushed up onto the sill.
The candle guttered and its flame died as he launched himself out into the air.
As he fell free through the sky, wind rushing past his face, Subaru thought for an instant of Kaoruko. Would it scare her, what he could do? What he was? Would she turn away in judgment or condemnation if he told her about Seishirou and about being the Sakurazukamori? She was a police detective and the aunt of Sakon, who believed in justice so purely that it was almost painful. But people were almost never as one-sided as they seemed.
If he asked her, knowing everything, what would she reply?
There would be few if any among the Sumeragi who would question Subaru's choice if he did ask Kaoruko to be his wife. They would look at the union as a way of binding to the Sumeragi the clan that had produced a powerful wild talent. The Tachibanas were respectable, even if they were performers. And thank Amaterasu, some would say, that the head of the clan was finally settling down to marry and pass along his knowledge and power to another generation.
But would it be fair to Kaoruko, Subaru wondered, to bring her into a family where rivalries and jealousies and danger from the shadows stretched back nearly a thousand years? Would it be right to bring her to into an entire clan of people who saw, spoke with, and acted upon forces that were entirely invisible to her? To make her live among things that she might never understand? Perhaps it would be better to end things gently and marry back into the clan instead, to take as a wife a distant Sumeragi cousin.
But... she was like Hokuto, brightness and life and wit. And Subaru, by power and position and all the things he'd been shaped to become, lived in black and white and among the infinite grays of death. He needed color to balance him and remind him that not everything was as the Sumeragi and Sakurazukamori would have it be. It was perhaps why Hokuto had been the way she had, his balance, the yin to his yang: onmyoudou twins.
If Subaru asked Kaoruko, it would only be once she had full knowledge of the person he was and the forces that acted upon him. And if she agreed... then perhaps someday there might be another set of twins, dark-haired with odd eyes, skilled in magic and puppetry, knowing the world's shadows but also its sources of light.
He could hope.
The old puppet turned its head to look Sakon in the eye. His own eyes widened as he realized that it was doing so independently of his control. "So, boy," the samurai commented, "you toil here whilst thy master ventures into peril." An accusing hand raised. "A poor prentice you are, and little thanks given to his effort."
By now, Sakon noticed with the part of his self that wasn't concentrating on the puppet, the second and third performer had backed away as the puppet moved without their control. Their eyes were wide and saying what they thought--Sakon might be a natural at puppetry, but it was physically impossible for him to be moving the puppet like this by himself. He wondered mildly why they never noticed that when it was Ukon he was channeling. "My master?" he asked to clarify, for he had several. His judo instructor he discarded; the puppet wasn't likely to be interested in him, and in any case he couldn't picture Tamura-sensei seeking trouble. And Sakon's grandfather he could see sitting in the second row, watching him. That left.... "Sumeragi-sensei?"
"A poor pupil," the puppet repeated, "to abandon a master into the hands of a murderer alone."
Sakon's breath caught for an instant before he reminded himself of Subaru's power and mastery. He shouldn't be worried, but as he sought at the back of his mind for that sense of the Sumeragi's power, he found it cloaked and barely a whisper even to his seeking mind.
Play the role, he reminded himself. The puppets only saw the world in such terms. He bowed. "Thank you for your warning and advice, noble sir," he replied. "I go now to my master's aid." He beckoned his second forward and hastily disengaged from the puppet, handing it to the man.
Akihara stared at him. "Sakon-san," he said.
"Later," Sakon said, already opening Ukon's box where it rested at the corner of the stage.
"What's wrong?" Saemon asked, standing.
"Somethin's wrong where Sumeragi-sensee is," Ukon replied for the both of them.
"If the puppets think we should be there...." Sakon said, suddenly hesitating, realizing what this was looking like to his fellow performers, who were, to a man, all staring at him.
"Go," Saemon instructed with a wave of his cane.
"Yessir!" Ukon replied, and then they were running to the nearest train station.
Behind them, Sakon could hear his grandfather clear his throat and start critiquing the practice thus far.
The door to the chapel sent echoes through the small building as it was slammed open. Hisoka winced at the lack of subtlety, but admitted there was no point to it. Muraki knew they were coming. "Muraki!" Tsuzuki yelled, stepping forward. "Come out and face us!"
A girlish giggle answered him, echoing through the darkening building as well. Hisoka looked wildly around--had Muraki taken a child after all, as a shield or a weapon? But then he remembered to center himself, to search for the source of the emotion-ripples, their center....
A doll stepped out from between two of the pews into the center aisle. "You're looking for Kazutaka-san?" she asked sweetly. Hisoka stared. A doll...?
She smiled. "Then one of you would be the one he wants." And Hisoka had just enough time to cognitize her intent and move, tackling Tsuzuki to the ground as a hail of razor-sharp black feathers sliced through where they'd both been standing.
They rolled almost automatically in separate directions, Hisoka taking cover behind the baptismal font and Tsuzuki behind a pew as another sheaf of feathers cut into the ground where they'd been, the doll hovering in mid-air, a look of dire concentration on her face. "Byakko!" Tsuzuki called, summoning his shikigami. Byakko appeared just in time, his thick fur blocking the next tirade of black feathers. The white tiger turned and glared at the doll as Tsuzuki's hand threaded through his fur.
"So you're the one," the doll said quietly. "And he is insignificant." Her gaze sharpened. "You won't find me easy to get past." She held up her left hand and there was a ring on her ring finger. She smiled as though it was significant. "You won't get past me at all," she said quietly.
Jun shivered and sneezed. The wind in this place wasn't a lot, but it was going right through him. He held Shinku a little closer and wished he had a jacket to wrap around them both. She was dressed in heavy velvet, but she was so small that she had to be even colder than he was. He rubbed at his nose and wished again for Holie to hurry back because he wanted out of here.
Shinku placed a hand on his cheek. "Are you all right, Jun?" she asked, her expression concerned.
"Fine. Just wondering why we're going after her if her heart's this cold," he replied.
Shinku's face turned sad and she looked down. "She's not cold," she responded. "Look around, Jun. More than anything else, this place is empty. Suigintou has never felt loved."
Jun looked around again, reassessing. Broken dolls, broken buildings, nothing green and growing. Suiseiseki and Soiseiseki would have been appalled. Hinaichigo would have been frightened, clinging to his leg.
If no one had ever loved Shinku, he suddenly realized, her inner landscape might have been just the same. She and Suigintou might have been reversed.
The thought made something in his chest hurt, stealing his breath away.
"Jun?" Shinku asked. She sounded concerned.
"It's nothing," he managed. "Look, it's Holie."
The sprite returned to its mistress' hands. She consulted wordlessly with it, then looked up. "She's found Suigintou's exit point," she said. "She'll lead us there." And then the sprite flew back out of her hands and led the way. Jun followed, picking a careful path as the broken dolls crunched underfoot.
Yuusuke loved the sunset, the way it caught Tokyo's sky on fire and the way it made for his busiest time of day, salarymen lined up three to five deep, eating a quick dinner before going out on rounds of drinking and karaoke or packing into trains like sardines in order to commute home. He kept up a cheerful smile and if his hands were just a bit faster than a normal ramen stall owner's would be, well, no one noticed or at least they didn't comment since they got their food that much faster. He kind of thought 'Baa-chan would be amused at what he was doing with what she'd taught him anyway. She'd liked a good bowl of ramen once in a while. Usually after pounding him into the ground in Street Fighter.
Tucked into the corner of his booth, having grabbed the last two seats before the crowd really hit, Kuwabara and Kenshin huddled over a map, the latter holding a carved jade pendant above it. "Dowsing?" Yuusuke asked between handing out piping hot bowls of noodles and broth.
Kenshin nodded, not looking up in concentration.
"Fireworks," Kuwabara explained instead. "Southwest of here, close as we can figure."
Fireworks? Well, it was nothing Koenma'd felt the need to call them in for, so Yuusuke wasn't too worried. The brat almost certainly had someone else on it. "Anyone we know?" he asked, ladling more noodles into another bowl, slicing mushrooms quickly to go in.
"Kurosaki-san and Tsuzuki-san," Kuwabara answered.
"And Sumeragi-san," Kenshin answered, still not looking up. "Ah. The hospital." He tucked the map and pendant away in his kimono sleeve and picked up his bowl again, slurping at the broth.
"Wait, that's it?" Kuwabara demanded.
Large purple eyes blinked at him. "There should be anything else?"
Kuwabara's fist pounded on the counter, startling the salarymen nearest him. "Hell, yes! Like who they're fighting!"
Kenshin looked wide-eyed and surprised at the salarymen now looking at the two of them. "Ano... it's a LARP?" he suggested.
The salarymen returned to their eating.
"So?" Yuusuke asked, handing out another bowl of yasai ramen with a murmured "Here you go."
"The white snake," Kenshin said calmly. "A poisonous doctor."
"Aw, fuckety," Yuusuke muttered, having an idea about the shinigamis' history with the man in question. Kurama'd "borrowed" some of Koenma's files after the two started frequenting Yuusuke's booth, and dropped some tidbits here and there in conversation. He spared a glance to the southwest. "Well, here's to hoping they can handle it."
"Fireworks," Kuwabara muttered again, shook his head, and reapplied himself to his ramen. Like it was a tournament, this wasn't their time in the ring. The shinigami and the onmyouji would handle it themselves. Koenma wouldn't have sent them in if he thought they couldn't.
"Yo, anybody need seconds?" Yuusuke called out instead, applying himself to his job. "Anyone want a beer?"
Suigintou laughed. The beast the undead man had summoned was reduced to defense. She felt Kazutaka's power flowing through her, sweet and rich, deep and strong. She wondered if this might not be the feeling of wine or brandy, intoxicating, invigorating. She wondered if she was drunk on the power and laughed again, casually sending another wave of feathers at the partner, keeping him pinned in the corner. She could feel his fury trying to eat away at her, but Kazutaka had warned her about the empath and listed his weaknesses. And somewhere behind her, she could feel Kazutaka's smile of approval, a fresh wave of power surging to her to use.
And then... a shimmer.
She whirled to look as two forms faded in before the sunset-lit stained glass window, gently floating down until the feet of the larger touched the ground.
Sakurada Jun, and in his arms, Shinku.
The blonde doll looked at Suigintou from within the hold of her medium and said quietly, "Suigintou. Stop this."
Suigintou's surprise turned easily to rage. She needed Meg back, and Shinku was not going to stand in the way. With a scream, she turned her attack onto her sister. Shinku responded with a shielding flurry of rose petals, and her medium hurriedly positioned the both of them behind the altar.
"She's not very good at protecting herself on all fronts, is she?" Subaru asked quietly from behind Tsuzuki, having come in the side door.
The shinigami didn't even twitch, though his shikigami, of a different type than Subaru's, did look the onmyouji up and down once before deciding they were on the same side. "No. Do you think she's covering for Muraki's escape?"
"Muraki's still here," Kurosaki said, walking over. He favored his right arm and Subaru could see where a black feather must have caught him in the shoulder. He'd pulled it out, though, and beneath the bloodstained shirt undead flesh knitted itself back together.
"He hasn't left," Subaru confirmed. "My wards haven't been set off." He'd spent a few minutes setting a perimeter, both to keep Muraki from leaving until the mission was settled, and to keep the damage to a minimum. He knew the doctor was good, but he'd had to be beyond good to get past Subaru's spell without alerting him. Even Seishirou probably couldn't have done it these days.
Subaru stifled the ache that thought briefly kindled in him. It was gone, it was past, let it go. Forgive, though never, ever forget.
"So where is he hiding?" the tiger rumbled.
"You find him," Subaru said, his eyes on the doll hovering in mid-air, and on the boy and the other doll cowering behind the altar. "I'll help them."
Tsuzuki looked at him for a minute, then nodded. "Right," he said. "Hisoka? Byakko?"
Subaru blinked. Tsuzuki's shinigami was one of the four...?
A smile caught the corner of his mouth. He supposed he shouldn't be surprised.
Stepping quietly, his power cloaked, Subaru walked up on the silver-haired doll from behind. He fanned a few ofuda in his right hand in case stealth failed him, and contemplated his options. The silver thread that led from Suigintou's ring stretched away into the far side of the church, where a murderer waited, feeding her power. It wasn't as though he couldn't understand her actions, either. He'd known that same pain of loss, that self-consuming black wave of hatred, the desire to lash out, to make someone else hurt instead....
But in himself it had ebbed into despair instead, love and guilt and betrayal pooling into a final suicidal wish: nothing more and nothing less than to be killed by his love, his sister's murderer, to be in whatever twisted way by that man's side forever.
Seishirou had taken that option away from him. And he would take that option away from this doll before it could be fully realized.
Quickly and quietly, he cast his ofuda on the air, five in the first ring, five in the second, two overlapping stars, a jade pentagram and an amber pentacle encircling Suigintou, cutting off her attack. Her feathers crumpled to soot in her fingers as she cast them forth, and she furiously grabbed for more power, only to find the result the same.
"You can't hurt them," Subaru said even as she shrieked wordlessly and turned to dive at him, fury writ large across her face. The encircling spells moved with her as he stepped aside, evading. They would not prevent a physical attack, only a magical one.
"I can still hurt you," she vowed, and a black sword burned into existence within her grasp. "You'll do almost as well."
"You can try," Subaru said evenly, unimpressed, "but as long as you let your pain rule you, you will fail."
"We'll see," she hissed, and dove at him.
"Who is he?" Shinku murmured, one hand on the altar as she watched her sister redirect her fury onto a new target.
"I think," Jun said from next to her, adjusting his glasses, "that he's Tachibana-san's teacher."
Asato followed, one hand in Byakko's thick fur, as Hisoka's steps led them surely into darkness. He could feel the tension in Byakko's muscles. The shikigami hated Muraki nearly as much as Hisoka did. It surprised Asato a bit when he wondered what he felt about Muraki. There should have been fear, or hate, or at the very least disdain, but there wasn't. There was very little other than a faint trace of sorrow and pity for a life so wasted, twisted into darkness and murder and regret.
He felt a little hollow without his usual emotions sustaining him. Or empty, like this church, like a great silent cathedral bathed in light, space waiting to be filled, a phoenix's egg waiting to hatch. He wondered what had changed.
"Tsuzuki," Byakko asked, "should you call Suzaku?"
"No," Asato replied softly, thinking of the warrior shinigami, of her grace and skill on the battlefield, and her girlish crush on him, "not yet. Not until we know there's need." A rumble of acquiescence passed beneath his fingers.
The chapel was far larger within than it seemed without, for he and Hisoka and Byakko passed now out of the darkness into an arena of light where Muraki waited, smiling, perched on the altar, the room bathed in dying blood. Behind and above him, the bloody sunset stained red the glass window depicting angels falling from Heaven. Asato wondered momentarily if Muraki meant himself to be Lucifer.
Byakko growled from where he stood between Asato and Hisoka, and barely restrained himself from leaping at the altar to tear out the doctor's throat. Asato's fingers twisted deeper into his fur.
Where was the pain, the anger...? Where had they gone?
"Welcome, Tsuzuki-san," Muraki said pleasantly, smiling.
Sakon's feet kept pounding on the pavement as he tried to find the inner sense of Subaru's magic and use it to track his teacher's location. It was a lot harder while running than it was during the quiet night. Ukon helped, a solid base of concern and comparison.
"Sakon!" His aunt waved at him from across the street. "Over here!"
His feet carried them across the way. "Kaoruko-neesan?"
"Akihara called and said you might need a ride," she explained. "Something about a possessed doll that wasn't Ukon and you running off?"
Sakon slid in the passenger seat. "One of the samurai puppets said Sumeragi-sensei needed us."
"Subaru?" Her mouth compressed into a line and her foot came down on the gas. "Right, where to?"
Sakon closed his eyes and sank into his power. The sense of Subaru stretched away "South," he said, opening his eyes. Kaoruko wove in and out of the traffic.
"An address would be nice," his aunt grated.
"Magic isn't like a GPS," Ukon told her.
"Well, it shouldn't be like a game of hot and cold either!" she retorted. "Why does he need you two specifically anyway?"
"I don't know," Sakon said quietly. He and Ukon looked at one another, both now considering the question. What could they possibly do that Subaru couldn't?
Subaru ducked and wove seamlessly, evading the angry attacks. She wouldn't trust him, and was ignoring the pleas of her sister doll to stop, to reconsider, to change her course of events, her mind, her self.
"You know he killed her," he said quietly. "Muraki Kazutaka, the last doctor to have attended that girl... he let her go into the night to ease her pain. He fulfilled his Hippocratic oath in that way."
"You lie," she spat, and her sword skimmed by his cheek.
"Ask him, then," Subaru said. "You're bonded, shouldn't you be able to tell if he lies?" She didn't answer. "Or do you just not want to know?"
"If he killed her, it was because she asked. He did what I couldn't," Suigintou spat, positioning herself for another attack. Her swordwork, Subaru mused, was actually quite good. His sensei would have approved.
"And if he took the energy of her pain and of her death and used it for his own purposes?" he questioned. "Does that still make his purpose so noble? Is he still so righteous?" His gaze bore into hers. "Is the power he's feeding you her pain?"
Suigintou faltered, as he'd thought she might.
"Suigintou, stop," her golden-haired sister pleaded again, standing on top of the altar. A stream of red rose petals flew from her open hand to surround Subaru's spell, another layer of entrapment. "He hasn't harmed you. You don't need to hurt him."
Suigintou's pale eyes didn't look away from Subaru's. "This power?" she whispered, questioning.
He nodded. "It's blood magic," he confirmed. It was a taste he knew well in the ebb and flow of power. "Hers, or someone else's."
The doll's expression crumpled. "No," she whispered in horror, sinking to the ground. She looked up at him again. "It can't be," she pleaded.
"I'm sorry," Subaru said.
"Suigintou," the other doll said quietly, dropping to the ground and walking over to her sister. She extended a hand. "Come home with us."
"Shinku," Suigintou said helplessly, tears in her eyes. "I...." She looked at the extended hand, then reached out her own to accept it.
And crumpled to the ground before touching, a scream of pain tearing free from her throat.
"Suigintou!" the doll and the boy who had accompanied her cried as one.
Muraki sat calmly cross-legged on the altar, his hand on the head of the dark-haired doll he held on his lap, stroking gently. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" he asked calmly, still smiling. Hisoka felt the curse marks flare through his skin, their heat thick and sluggish as they writhed. There was something wrong here. Muraki was acting like he had the upper hand when they were the ones who had him cornered. What did he know that they didn't?
"This time you lose," Tsuzuki said, taking a step forward. "It's time to go to your judgment, Muraki."
Muraki's smile widened. "Really?" he asked ingeniously, tilting his head to one side. "I think you underestimate me, Tsuzuki-san."
And the doll's eyes opened.
Hisoka felt comprehension drop cold and hard into the pit of his stomach. The doll's eyes....
"I think it's rather a good replica, don't you, Tsuzuki-san?" Muraki asked. "It wasn't easy to match your hair color, and the eyes... almost impossible to find the right shade of purple. But one does one's best."
Numbly, Hisoka looked down at the floor beneath their feet, feeling as much as seeing the flickering silver lines of the inscribed spell. On the other side of Byakko, Tsuzuki slumped to his knees. "Muraki, you..." he said weakly, like a man gasping for air.
Hisoka swallowed. And took charge. "Byakko, get him out of here!" he snapped. The shikigami tiger immediately ducked his neck under Tsuzuki's limp body, wrangling the shinigami onto his back, and leapt back the way they'd came.
Only to be stopped by a crackling net of white lightning. Hisoka smelled singed fur as Byakko recovered and stood, turned, snarled.
The doll looked more alive by the second.
"If I can't have Tsuzuki-san in one piece," Muraki said, looking fondly down at the porcelain doll he held, "I don't mind two. Of course, I suppose you'd be in such a bother about not being with him, wouldn't you, boy?"
"Muraki..." Hisoka grated.
"Be happy," the white doctor chided. "For once I'm thinking of both of you." He reached behind himself and pulled out another doll. Hisoka's breath died as he realized it had his same hair color. But its eyes were still closed.
"You won't get away with this," he warned.
"But I already have," Muraki confided. "You don't have your shadow master friend to save you this time, and the onmyouji in the other room is quite tied up at current. And Tsuzuki-san's shikigami is useless without him."
Anger burned through Hisoka, and he was quite sure it was his own. "You won't get away with this," he vowed, and took a step forward.
Muraki laughed and stroked the dark blond hair of the second doll.
A network of fine cracks spread across Suigintou's skin as Jun watched, horrified. She clung to Shinku, fear on her face and in her voice as she gasped the other Rozen Maiden's name over and over again. Shinku held her back, anguish on her face and in the lines of her body.
"What's happening to her?" Jun asked the onmyouji, helpless to do anything but watch.
The onmyouji knelt on Suigintou's other side. "He's stealing her life force," he said quietly. "The spell that makes her animate--he's siphoning it away to someplace else."
"Can't you stop it?" Shinku demanded.
The onmyouji shook his head, sadness in his mismatched eyes. "Not when she's willingly made a bond with him. In some things, intent is all that matters."
Suigintou was dying all over again. Jun watched as Shinku bowed her head, her fingers clenching in the sleeves of her sister's jacket. A crystalline tear ran down her cheek.
"What if she had another power source?" Jun asked quietly. He'd done it before, been medium for both Shinku and Suiseiseki for a time.
"He'd drain you through her," the onmyouji answered steadily. "Eventually you'd die too."
"But it would buy her more time, right?"
The onmyouji regarded him, then nodded once.
Shinku looked at Jun with wide eyes. "Jun...."
He smiled at her. "It'll be all right." And took Suigintou's delicate hand in his, age-darkening spreading through the cracks already like liver spots on a human being, and pressed his lips to her fingers. He willed with his heart that she live just another day--another hour--another minute....
And the bond was set.
Asato was split in two, part of him lying on the cold stone floor, being guarded by Byakko, watching helplessly as his partner stepped forward across the shifting, flaring lines of the spell carved into the marble, crying out voicelessly "Hisoka!" and wanting nothing more than to save his partner, but he had no voice, no connection to his useless body to move it.... And part of himself watched Hisoka come toward him from where he sat, similarly imprisoned in a body he could not move, a doll on Muraki's lap.
The tears of anger and frustration and fear could not come. He could only watch his partner move toward both of their dooms, no other options for either of them.
The doll and the boy and the other doll curled together against the altar in the room behind Subaru. If he and Tsuzuki and Kurosaki couldn't undo Muraki's magic, all three of them might die, just a few more deaths on Muraki's account, but three more that would weigh Subaru's soul down like stones in the darkness of the night and in the judgment hereafter. These deaths that I could not prevent....
Before him there was a barrier of magic, and on its other side a battlefield. Subaru paused, to study briefly what he saw, and fit it to the wasting death Suigintou was being put through.
The dolls on Muraki's lap tied it all together, and Subaru grew suddenly angry. Soul theft was unforgivable even for the darkest of magicians.
He brought his hands before him and closed his eyes, feeling in the darkness for the balance he needed. Alone, his hands began to fly from position to position, a whispered stream of enchantment spilling from his lips to bring down the barrier.
Hisoka moved forward, step after step bringing him though protective spells that flared around him, trying to strip flesh from bone, magic from soul, power from being. He ignored them and kept moving through heavy air, like a pearl falling through poisoned honey.
Muraki's eyes were wide. "I'm impressed, boy. You've gotten better."
The talisman in Hisoka's pocket was all that kept him from a true death at the hands of the spells Muraki had lain down, but he wasn't about to let the man know that. Since it had been crafted to shield him from the power of the Sakurazukamori's cursed tree, Hisoka hoped, then it would surely withstand the spells that Muraki had prepared.
He didn't know what he would do once he reached Muraki, though. He wished for the weight of a katana in his hand. Even a bokken would do. He didn't have the raw power Tsuzuki did, and never had. He was an empath, not a magician. But he had to do something. Byakko couldn't. Tsuzuki was out for the count. It was Hisoka alone.
He doubted he was a physical match for Muraki. Even if there hadn't been that part of him that was still a thirteen-year-old boy, pinned and raped in the moonlight, Muraki was whipcord muscle and knowledge of pressure points. Older body or not, Muraki still had the advantage of him.
"I would rather see Tsuzuki dead than in your hands," Hisoka growled, the glimmerings of an idea coming to him. If the doll was broken.... "I would rather be dead with him."
"That's where we differ," Muraki said calmly, less than five feet away and still showing no signs of moving. "I don't care to die with my lover."
"He is not my lover," Hisoka grated. No matter how much, sometimes, Hisoka wondered what it might be like, he and Tsuzuki weren't.
"Oh, really?" Muraki asked, still smiling. "A pity. I've had both of you, you know, and Tsuzuki-san really is incomparable."
He knew Muraki was baiting him. That didn't stop hatred from flaring through Hisoka as he struggled through the last spell. He wanted to kill Muraki, no matter how helpless he was to do so.
"Turn right," Sakon said, eyes closed as he followed the subtle flaring of the Sumeragi's magic.
"A church?" Ukon asked him.
"A chapel," Sakon corrected. "It's dilapidated...."
"What is there in this area that's like that?" Kaoruko demanded. "Are you sure you're getting the right place?"
"Yes. Stop," Sakon said, and opened his eyes.
They were in front of a hospital. His eyes scanned across the front of the building and away to the left, and there, around the side of the main building, half-hidden, was a small white church. "There it is."
"Stay here and out of trouble," Ukon advised as he and Sakon left the car.
"What?!" Kaoruko demanded as they ran across the lawn. Behind them, Sakon heard her grumble to herself about being treated like a dog as she moved the car to park.
"You really shouldn't tease her like that," he chided Ukon.
"But it's so easy," his partner replied.
Sakon sighed. "And you wonder why she hits you," he commented.
The barrier fell, not with a bang or a whimper, but with a whining hum like a high-powered electric fence shut off and left to cool, its wires protesting the sudden lack of current.
Subaru stepped through, past the whimpering remnants of the spell, and knelt briefly next to Byakko and Tsuzuki, checking on the condition of the latter. His flesh was cool and his pulse nearly gone. "He's almost completely transferred," Subaru murmured. He looked into intelligent spirit tiger eyes. "Taking him away from here won't do any good now. Will you guard him?"
The tiger nodded. "With my life and my honor," he replied. "Good hunting to you."
Leaving the shikigami to guard his master, Subaru stepped forward, weaving easily through the spells that had slowed Kurosaki. Once you knew the trick of it, it wasn't that difficult. The Sakurazukamori cloaked himself in spells, sent out illusions of misdirection, was as untouchable as the mist and as invisible as that which it disguised. It was a dance of adrenaline, a magical challenge, a lover's touch, a thrill to pursue, Catch me not but let me catch you....
But this wasn't a capture he would make unless there was no choice. No, for the weight of suffering they'd suffered at the man's hands, that right belonged to Tsuzuki and Kurosaki. They were the ones with the need for closure. Subaru respected that need.
Muraki didn't miss his approach the way many would have, which re-edged Subaru's awareness of how dangerous the man was. "You're not just an average onmyouji," the sorcerer declared. "Such good eyes you have, both you and the boy."
"Return Tsuzuki-san and face Enma-sama's judgment," Subaru requested mildly, not expecting an affirmative answer. But the request had to be made anyway, for the sake of civility.
Muraki seemed puzzled. "Why ever should I want to do that?"
"He's not yours," Kurosaki spat out. Subaru's hand on his shoulder restrained him, but only for the moment.
"At the moment, he's not yours either," Muraki pointed out, and vanished.
Or tried to.
Subaru smiled back at the astonished doctor. "If you won't come with us easily," he said, letting the hardness of his heart show in mismatched eyes, "I have no problem with delivering you to Enma Daiou's doorstep with my hand through your heart."
Muraki's eyes widened. "Sakurazukamori."
Muraki's eyes narrowed. He raised one hand, the Tsuzuki doll in it, and dashed the porcelain figure to the ground.
"No!" Hisoka screamed.
Asato hovered in mid-air, slowly spinning away from Muraki and Sumeragi and Hisoka, all of whom watched him until he came to rest in a gentle hand.
"That's no way to treat a doll," a reproving male voice said quietly. Asato got a glimpse of eyes as purple as his own that regarded him for a moment, then blinked in puzzlement. "You don't belong in there," the young man said curiously.
"Sakon," Sumeragi said from across the distance, a faint note of relief in his voice.
"Sensei." The young man bowed.
So this was one of Sumeragi's apprentices, then.
"Hey, Sakon, didja know you could do that?" a second voice muttered quietly.
"Not until now," Sakon replied equally quietly.
His partner safe in the arms of Sumeragi's apprentice, Hisoka turned back to Muraki, who for once looked completely pole-axed, and made a decision.
His hand formed into a fist, he hit Muraki as hard as he could, all the concentrated blankness of a kendo strike in the blow.
The man flew back and hit the stained glass window. The outside mesh held, barely, but all around Muraki the pieces of falling angels rained down, a chorus of glass at his feet.
"Bastard," Hisoka muttered, cradling his hand.
The sudden lack of drain was palpable to Jun, like a lead weight taken off his chest, like a cold clearing up, like all the freedom in the world was suddenly his again. He sat up.
"Jun?" Shinku asked.
"It's all right," he reassured her. "Suigintou?"
Her face was still aged. She'd been through a lot. "It's stopped," she whispered, her voice broken and hollow.
Standing, Jun steadied himself then gathered Suigintou in one arm and Shinku in the other. Each leaned against him, a negligible weight of porcelain and magic, as he walked slowly into the other room where the onmyouji had gone.
Tachibana was there, kneeling next to a body and a huge white tiger (Jun gulped, but the tiger didn't seem interested in him and there wasn't blood all over the body, so he didn't think the tiger had killed him), a blond twenty-something guy holding another doll standing next to him. And the onmyouji stood behind the altar in this room, talking with a blue-haired girl in a very pink kimono who held an oar in one hand and a set of handcuffs in the other. Beyond them another body slumped against the wall and a gaping hole hinted at where a stained glass window had been.
"Him," Suigintou whispered.
"Which him?" Jun asked. There were plenty to choose from.
"Against the wall," she croaked.
He obediently walked over to the altar.
"A moment," the onmyouji, seeing them, told the blue-haired girl. "I believe there's unfinished business here."
Jun set Suigintou down. She walked carefully, unevenly, over to the white-coated man. She stopped and looked at him. "I release you from our contract," she said finally, and kissed the rose ring on his finger. It dissolved. She stood looking at him for a minute longer, then kicked him with one dark blue boot, and turned, walking back to Jun. He gathered her up again, heart aching for the tears that streamed down her face.
"Let's go home, Jun," Shinku said as the blue-haired girl cheerfully knelt and placed the handcuffs on the man.
"Can you put him back in his body?" Hisoka asked the puppeteer, who had introduced himself properly as Tachibana Sakon and his puppet as Ukon while handing the Tsuzuki doll over to Hisoka.
"I don't know," Tachibana replied, studying Tsuzuki's body. "Perhaps Sumeragi-sensei..." he suggested as Byakko investigated Ukon. Tachibana didn't seem concerned; the puppet, on the other hand, shied back from the admittedly very large tiger.
"Try," Sumeragi suggested, coming up behind them. Hisoka spared a glance toward Muraki and saw Botan lifting off, Muraki dangling from her oar, handcuffs on either side of its shaft. "Unlock the spell first, then reverse it."
"Yes, sensei," Tachibana said obediently, and closed his eyes. He set Ukon down, the child puppet propped blankly by his side as he knelt, and held Tsuzuki's doll in his left hand instead. His right rested lightly on Tsuzuki's chest. "Puppetry is the same as humanity," he murmured softly. The way he said the words gave them weight and depth. Hisoka cocked an eyebrow. A spell? "Ventriloquism is the same as telepathy. Mimicry is not just the tone of voice, but the voice within."
The doll and Tzuzuki alike both began to glow a soft violet. Behind the puppeteer, almost, Hisoka could see an afterimage of his puppet partner, hands on Sakon's shoulders, eyes similarly closed.
The Sumeragi nodded, eyes sharp on his apprentice. "Good," he said quietly. "Once shown the path, Tsuzuki-san's spirit will return naturally to his body. It's like water flowing downhill, or gravity. Guide the path, and let him do the rest, Sakon, Ukon."
They gave no sign that they heard, but the violet haze surrounding the doll slowly arched up and across, rainbowing into Tsuzuki's body, the light flowing forth from the small figure until the last of it went up and over and was absorbed. Tachibana opened his eyes and his hand moved away from Tsuzuki, who stirred and moaned softly like he had a hangover. "Hisoka?" he mumbled, opening his eyes, then winced, shutting them quickly.
Profound relief at having his idiot partner back in one piece warred with Hisoka's reserve.
"You're all right?" he asked.
"Turn off the lights," Tsuzuki begged, hand groping along the ground until it encountered Hisoka's denim-clad thigh where he sat on Tsuzuki's other side. Some of the tension loosed from his form at the contact. "Glad you're okay," he mumbled incoherently. "Did we get him?"
"Yeah." Hisoka covered Tsuzuki's hand with his, willing his idiot partner's pain to lessen. "We did."
Tsuzuki breathed a sigh of relief and cuddled closer.
"Sakon!" Kaoruko demanded, stalking into the chapel. "What do you mean just leaving me in the car like that?"
"Kaoruko-neesan," Sakon said, blinking. But there was no way she was going to let him off the hook.
"And you!" she said, pointing a finger at Ukon. "What do you mean, I'm not supposed to get in trouble? You're the one out smashing windows."
"Actually, that was Kurosaki-san," Subaru rebutted, interrupting her just as she felt herself building up to a good tirade. "Hello, Kaoruko-san."
"Subaru-san," she replied, taking his offered hand.
"Hey, what's with the blushing?" Ukon demanded. She promptly whacked him a good one.
"What's with leaving me in the car?" she demanded again.
"They had cause," Subaru replied, probably thankfully overriding whatever the puppet was going to answer instead. "Crime scenes are one thing. Murderers who are also sorcerers are something else."
She blanched a little. "You're all right? All of you?"
"Most of us," Sakon answered, looking sadly at a boy who held a doll in either arm. One was exquisite, golden hair and red velvet dress. The other showed signs of age, her facade worn and cracked.
"Sakon," Ukon said, nudging him. Kaoruko's nephew blinked at his partner, then looked into empty space for a minute.
"Oh," he said. "Ukon, do you mind?"
Ukon shrugged. "Go 'head."
Sakon's expression stilled in concentration. "Puppetry is the same as humanity," he whispered, and Ukon's features took on a different cast. Kaoruko, slightly unnerved no matter how many times she'd seen her nephew and Ukon do this same thing before, took a step back into the circle of Subaru's arms.
Ukon's fiery hair seemed to darken, its spikes falling down into length. His features softened, and when he opened his eyes, they were gray-brown. "Suigintou?" he asked, only it was a girl's voice coming out of him, and he looked straight at one of the dolls the boy held.
The doll moved.
Kaoruko stiffened, stifling an "Eep!" and stepping back automatically further into Subaru's personal space. He laughed softly. "It's all right," he murmured to her. "They're a bit like Ukon."
Jun set her down and Suigintou shakily made her way over to the puppet who suddenly looked and sounded so much like her medium. "Meg?" she asked stupidly, voice breaking. It couldn't be... Meg was dead....
She wanted it to be Meg.
"My dark angel," the puppet said, and touched a hand to Suigintou's hair.
It was Meg.
Suigintou collapsed into her arms, holding her and crying.
"Shh," Meg soothed, holding her. "It's all right. It doesn't hurt any more. It's all right."
"You're gone," Suigintou sobbed, feeling all the wrongs in the world to be centered on that one thing. "You're gone."
"It doesn't mean you're not still my angel," Meg said. "I want you to be happy. How can I be happy if you're not?"
"I didn't keep my promise," Suigintou sniffed. "I didn't make the pain go away."
"I shouldn't have made you promise that," Meg said softly. "It wasn't fair. Because now I'm the source of your pain. Maybe it would have been better if we'd never met...."
"No!" Horrified, Suigintou pulled away.
"Then I want you to promise me to be happy," Meg said simply. "Otherwise, leaving you behind will be my greatest regret."
"How can I be happy?" Suigintou asked. "You're gone."
Meg shook her head, brown hair flying. "I'm not the only one who can make you happy. I was just the first."
"But Meg--" Suigintou tried again.
"I don't mean for you to forget, or never feel lonely or sad," Meg said. "I just want you to promise that you won't rule out happiness because of it."
"Promise me," Meg pressed.
"I promise," Suigintou whispered.
"Then I have no regrets," Meg whispered back, and held Suigintou close one more time. "Goodbye, my dark angel."
"Meg!" Suigintou cried, feeling the gentle presence fade away.
She collapsed back down onto the floor, sobbing, as the puppet's hair faded back to spiky redness.
Sakon looked at the crying doll and felt pity for her. He'd once thought her as heartless as a murderer might be, but those who killed always had their reasons, and so had she. Now, like so many others he'd seen, she had nothing left.
A thought struck him. "Kaoruko-neesan," he asked, looking up.
"Yes?" she asked.
Behind her, Subaru was faster to realize what Sakon was asking. His face showed surprise, then a considered approval of the idea.
"If it's not something either of you would object to, perhaps Suigintou-san might recover better at your home than at Sakurada-san's?" Sakon suggested, thinking of the crowding noise and bustle that the other dolls made and how it might bruise an already-wounded heart.
Kaoruko blinked. "I... If Suigintou-san doesn't mind, neither would I," she said, turning the idea over in her mind.
"I don't want a new medium," Suigintou whispered from where she huddled on the floor.
"It's not a matter of want," Shinku said primly as Jun let her down onto the floor. "She said she wanted you to be happy, Suigintou." Her gaze on her sister was not without mercy. "To take another medium doesn't mean forgetting her."
"I don't want to fight any more," Suigintou said helplessly.
"So don't," Jun said. The silver-haired doll looked at him for a long moment, then her sister, and finally stood, crossing to the boy. She reached for his hand and he gave it to her.
"Thank you," she said, and kissed his rose ring. Sakon watched the silver thread of power between them dissolve.
"What am I getting myself into?" Kaoruko asked Subaru.
"My world," he answered with a small smile. Then he sobered. "If she truly doesn't wish to fight any more, it should be no hardship on you."
"Hardship's not what I'm concerned about," she sniffed.
She turned to look at Suigintou, and knelt down before her. "My name is Tachibana Kaoruko," she said. She nodded at Sakon. "I'm his aunt, and Subaru-san's girlfriend."
"I'm called Suigintou," the doll replied. She looked at Shinku. "She's one of my sisters. I have six."
"I only have one sister, and she's much older than I am," Kaoruko replied steadily.
Suigintou only nodded.
"If I'm not acceptable," Kaoruko said delicately, "I'm sure someone else can be found."
Suigintou looked down, then back up. "I don't know how to be... nice," she said, the word strange in her mouth like it was a foreign word.
"I don't know anything about magic," Kaoruko replied. "We could learn things together," she suggested.
Suigintou looked away again. "...Yes," she murmured.
"What do I need to do?"
Wordlessly, Suigintou lifted her hand. Taking it gently, Kaoruko pressed her lips to the porcelain fingers.
Sakon watched the ring form on his aunt's hand, a silver thread stringing itself between her and Suigintou, and hoped that his thought had been a good one.
"Who better to care for a magical doll," Subaru murmured to him as Sakon stood, "than a Tachibana?"
Jun supposed they made quite a row, the nine of them. At the far end, in the seat next to the aisle, sat Sumeragi Subaru, Sakon's teacher and allegedly one of, if not the, most powerful magicians in Japan. Jun had to agree with Shinku; out of context the man certainly didn't look the part. On the other hand, he wasn't quite sure what he expected a powerful magician to look like, so maybe it was a moot point. Next to him sat his girlfriend, Suigintou's new medium. Suigintou sat on her lap, arms crossed, staring angrily into space. They'd obviously had an argument. Jun had to stifle a grin. He still didn't really like Suigintou, and thought she definitely needed to be taken down a peg or two. Her medium didn't seem discomfited by Suigintou's sulk at all, chatting animatedly with her father, who sat on her other side. Her hands described pictures in the air as she talked with him about one of her cases as a policewoman. One hand came to rest quite often by Suigintou's side, though, and it was very obvious that Suigintou was only pretending not to listen. The Sumeragi caught Jun's glance and shared with him a small, wry smile of appreciation.
Tachibana Saemon, apparently a Living National Treasure, had seemed quite enchanted by all six of the Rozen Maidens, exchanging introductions with them as well as the humans in their party. Well, Kaoruko did live with one now, Jun thought, and being Sakon's grandfather had to mean that the elderly gentleman was used to talking dolls... Jun bit back a yelp as Hinaichigo used him again as a footpath, moving from Tomoe's lap across his to Nori's. She tugged at Master Tachibana's sleeve and asked where Ukon was.
"If it's Ukon, he'll be backstage," the elderly man replied with a twinkle in his eye, a half-smile on his mouth. "He's taken to preferring to watch the performances from there recently."
"But he's not... animate without Tachibana-san," Jun protested.
The Sumeragi, at the end of the row, shook his head. "It doesn't seem to matter with the two of them," he said quietly. "They have a bond that makes such things inconsequential at times like this."
"Then we'll get to see him after the show?" Hinaichigo inquired.
"I think so," Master Tachibana replied with a nod.
"Yay!" the doll cheered. She sat back down in Nori's lap and looked up. "Can we have cake and tea after?"
Nori smiled and exchanged a glance with Tomoe. "I don't see why not."
On Tomoe's other side, Kusabue Mitsu, Kanaria's mistress, smiled. She'd introduced herself as a photographer for a fashion magazine, but it had quickly become obvious, as she'd squealed and cooed at each of the Rozen Maidens, that her passion was doll clothing design. Jun wondered what she would think if he showed her his sketchbook sometime. Maybe she might like the designs... "Tea and cake sounds lovely," "Micchan" said, turning to Shibasaki Matsu, who sat on her other side. "Don't you think so, ma'am?" Her hand rested on top of Kanaria's where the doll, dressed in a very formal-looking black and orange gown with a matching hat, sat on her lap.
"Oh, that does sound nice," the elderly woman, Soiseiseki's keeper, agreed. "It's been so long since we've been to the theatre like this, we might as well make a celebration of it."
"Strawberry cake," Suiseiseki said dreamily from her lap.
"Chocolate," her twin disagreed from where he sat next to her, held in Shibasaki Motoharu's arms. The elderly man chuckled, watching the twin dolls argue.
Jun hid a smile and looked at Shinku. "What kind of cake would you like?" he asked.
She took a moment to consider the question. "Lemon," she replied.
Jun smiled. "My favorite."
After the play was over, the stage darkened and theatre empty, two shadows stirred from where they'd been standing near the back wall, invisible to most human eyes.
"That was interesting, wasn't it, Hisoka?" the taller shadow asked, his dark hair falling into amethyst eyes. He absently brushed it away with a flick of his wrist.
"Yeah," his partner agreed, unfocused emerald eyes looking at the empty stage. "He's very good."
"You think they'll be okay?"
Hisoka's absent gaze focused on his partner. "I don't think we need to take that doll's soul on for judgment, if that's what you mean."
Asato nodded, and his hand found its way into his partner's sandy hair. "I like having you the right height again," he mused.
Hisoka glared up at him. "Shall we go already?" he asked pointedly.
Asato's face lit up. "I know this shop with wonderful desserts nearby--"
Asato used his puppy-dog eyes.
Hisoka resisted for a moment, then sighed. "All right," he acquiesced, "but one serving only."
He didn't quite dodge his partner's enthusiastic grab, and didn't quite manage to hide his half-smile either as he was dragged off to Asato's enthusiastic, if less than musical, sing-songing of the word "cake."
Tales From a Ramen Stall page Send comments to author
I admit to a certain bias. I do not like Muraki; I never have, I doubt I ever will, and I frankly don't understand why some people fangirl over him. He is irredeemable, a rapist and a murderer. That is not sexy. But then I have to consider that I like Seishirou. On the surface, are their actions so different? No. Even though Seishirou never raped Subaru, he broke him just as surely, and perhaps worse, as Muraki ever broke Hisoka. The difference between the two characters, however, doesn't lie so much in their actions as in their motivations. Seishirou does what he does for a reason. It's a job to him, nothing personal. He can, in a twisted way, even be called a highly stylish salaryman. Muraki, on the other hand, does it all solely for his own pleasure. This is why Seishirou comes out a more ambiguous figure in this universe, where Muraki... well, let us just say that it wasn't solely Hisoka taking a great deal of pleasure in punching his lights out.
I base the Rozen Maiden story in this as a sequel to the anime rather than the manga, though there are a few hints at the manga in there, namely Jun's sketchbook. Rozen Maiden, in fact, was the main reason this story got written... the concept of animate dolls tied it to Ayatsuri Sakon, while the concept of Victorian dolls tied it to Yami no Matsuei. Hisoka's sudden aging was based on a sketch on page 84 of the Yami-Ei Character Book, next to which Matsushita-sensei wrote "If Hisoka was an adult, he'd probably look like this." I took the idea and ran with it. The "other shinigami" to which Subaru refers are the shinigami of Bleach. And Kenshin's appearance in this story, about a century after he should've passed away, is based on a (unfinished) story written by my good friend Sionna Klassen which posited a reason for why Kenshin's appearance and Kurama's are so similar. Other than Watsuki-sensei and Togashi-sensei knowing one another and referencing one another, that is....